Bright Lights Film Journal

The Annihilative Evils of the Polka Tremblante: Fragments on Rhetoric, Naiveté, and Inevitable Helixes

“Leontev’s rhetoric, though overblown, might strike a chord in those who lament the replacement of honest, inspired amateurism with the interchangeable bodies of the trousered professional class. But wait . . . the polka tremblante?”

In the annals of self-possessed rhetoric, the Byzantine ascetic philosopher Constantine Nikolayevich Leontev (1831-1891) may have achieved fervid, unrivaled heights in his unfinished treatise The Average European as an Instrument and Ideal of Universal Destruction. The title alone is a precious monument, proclaiming with neither shame nor poetry the middling petit bourgeoisie as the seedling of our total doom, in both praxis (the “instrument” of destruction) and immane principle. Unsuprisingly, the Byzantine’s potent mix of xenophobia and splendor was not purchased cheaply. As Edie, Scanlan, and Kline suggest, Leontev’s “talents as a destructive critic were unparalleled, but the extremes to which he went to gain a point or to show up an adversary cost him many friends . . . he lived a lonely life.”1 Pile onto this self-imposed exile “a philosophical hatred of contemporary culture,” a severe Christianity opposed to Dostoyevsky’s “rose colored” view,2 and an anti-democratic frenzy eager to reinstate old Russian autocracy, and one sees the image of a false Übermensch, one borne not of Nietzschean evolution but of curmudgeonly reactivity. Though the history of philosophy will count him as only another ascetic revolting against Hegelian progress, his anachronistic and febrile “hatred of contemporary culture” retains the power to galvanize whenever progress — or even individualism — becomes indistinguishable from bourgeois pandering and its multiplying apologists. Still, we must go ever forward, despite our cynicism — only the dead have the luxury of nostalgia.

Leontev’s antidemocratic political ideas, which championed the “purity” of Russian monarchy and vilified the West, might be summarized in this tidbit: “Give us a constitution — and straight off, the capitalists will destroy the village commune; destroy the commune — and the rapid disintegration will lead us into the ultimate liberal idiocy, a house of representatives . . . [and] the rule of the bankers, lawyers, and landowners . . .”3

Leontev, who saw encroaching individualism as a threat to state unity and communitarianism, was terribly nationalistic and terribly Russian, his rhetoric evincing an objectivist squareness and plainspoken elitism. His Russian critique of “liberal idiocy” seems temperamentally contrary to the fascist one. For the communist, the house of representatives is a corruption to be razed; for the fascist, democracy is a bumbling weakness, a destructor of futuristic spirits that advocates a limp and static “discourse.” Had Leontev lived a few more decades, he would have seen Hegelian futurity echoed finally — and farcically — not in bourgeois individualism but in Mussolini’s Doctrine of Fascism: “The Fascist State is an inwardly accepted standard and rule of conduct, a discipline of the whole person; it permeates the will no less than the intellect. It stands for a principle which becomes the central motive of man as a member of civilized society, sinking deep down into his personality; it dwells in the heart of the man of action and of the thinker, of the artist and of the man of science: soul of the soul.”4

Mussolini’s doublespeak — rife with holistic strivings, manful feats of mountainous will, and other Hegelian bugbears — may seem, in its own way, as unbending and caricatured as Leontev’s crypto-feudalistic rhetoric. But Leontev has a far rarer quality: melancholic wit. Faithful in the consummation of the state, fascists dispense with humor, for the holes in their existentialism are filled with a faith in perfectibility that portends no flaws and therefore no irony. Doctrinaire Marxists are famously humorless,5 of course, but less strict critiques inspired by Marx — especially the more anarchic ones — can transmute run- of-the-mill condemnations into jewels of satire. Consider how Leontev links the increasing debasement of art to the debasement of kings and ancient elites:

If there is so little inspiration in that which belongs exclusively or primarily to the nineteenth century (machines, teachers, professors and lawyers, the chemical laboratories, bourgeois luxury and bourgeois depravity, bourgeois moderation and bourgeois morality, the polka tremblante, the frock coat, top hat, and trousers), then the same must be expected of art in an era . . . which would see neither kings, nor priests, nor generals, nor great statesmen. Then, of course, there would be no artists either.6

The idea is simple enough — nineteenth-century bourgeois industrialism has rejected “inspiration,” replacing human nobility with mass-manufactured chemicals, wanton depravity, and top hats. Leontev’s rhetoric, though overblown, might strike a chord in those who lament the replacement of honest, inspired amateurism with the interchangeable bodies of the trousered professional class. But wait . . . the polka tremblante? What can this mean? The inclusion of the polka tremblante — a nineteenth-century dance of Bohemian origins and French reputation7 — within a catalogue of grave intellectual offenses could well be one of literature’s greatest bits of straight-faced comedy (even if its datedness damns the argument to curiosity). We imagine a recoiling ascetic affronted by salacious or tremulant polkas, just as we imagine a less mediated age in which common bodily rituals — such as vibratory dancing — were as much social indices of class-driven behavior as they were commercially orchestrated fads. If the “democratizing” tendencies of the late nineteenth century frightened the reactionary Leontev, we can only imagine that primitive radio telegraphy would have driven him to depression, the papier-mâché of A Trip to the Moon (1902) to madness, and the quotidian heroics of Life of An American Fireman (1903) to quick suicide. (Perhaps parallel editing would have propelled him to terrorism.) Yet Leontev is not totally wrong; while we harbor no orthodoxies threatened by fleshly tremor, we understand that indices of behavior stem from specific material realities, not merely fascist reifications. Today we could retain most of Leontev’s sentence and simply replace “polka tremblante” with Michael Bay, for one evanescent narcosis has the same function as the next. Leontev’s apparent turmoil, therefore, produces a distinct clarity, while the real comedy, as Ionesco knew, lies in the absurdity of reality, not in its representation.

Today, when the Germanic rhetoric of will and anti-capitalist frenzy are equally delegitimized, few dare make grand pronouncements, let alone those spiced with secret comedy. Perhaps secret comedy is as dead as communism — even avowed comedy within otherwise “serious” criticism is a rare find, as few (if any) today take as their model Meredith, Shaw, or other English wits. What remains for American critics is an odd tincture of supposed straight-shooting spiked with postmodern technospeak, social science jargon, and/or bits of wayward French impressionism. Don’t misunderstand — the circuitous perfumery of French rhetoric, coming down to us from the court of Louis XIV though Pascal, Rousseau, and Diderot, eventually thirsted for dilution; left full-strength, French rhetoric, in due course, drowns us in the existentialists’ melodrama of negation, where everything begins or ends with a wanton defilement, a sickening abasement, a blasé annihilation, a savage treason, or an ecstatic wretchedness. Unchecked, the rhetorical cassoulet bubbles again into absolute pronouncements, yet witlessly; consider Michel Serres on “Panoptic Theory”: “Our sight leaves us free, our hearing encloses us. The same person who can escape a scene by lowering his eyelids or covering his eyes with his fists, or by turning his back and running away, cannot escape a clamor. No wall, no ball of wax is enough to stop it. All matter vibrates and conducts sound, especially flesh . . .”8

Stripped of its rhetoric, the basic premise seems true — narrow sight can be blocked more easily than omnidirectional sound. Yet no ball of wax can foil sound? The flesh, above all else, vibrates, and doubtlessly with peril? The French classical style, in love with absolutes and decreeing what we Americans dare not, has a knack for turning confident nonsense into lovely mock-truth. Perhaps Leontev suffered from the same disease of overconfidence, certain that human dignity was helpless against vibratory polkas, much as sphered wax, according to the French conjurer, is no match for the deafening echo.

Americans, though clinging to their straight-shooting posture, suffer from a contrary disease — they’re underconfident, still entrapped by academic timidity. Torrents of essays are crippled by bureaucratic catchphrases; my brain aches whenever an academic begins with “In recent years . . . ,” speculates that scholars “tend to overlook” some “X” (at which point the author jabbers about X), or slogs through endless literature reviews only to climax coyly with “a call for greater emphasis” on something. More ambitious essays, meanwhile, will inexorably curl into knowing spirals, for every subject must become its own critique, and every gesture is simulatenously a subversion and a recapitulation, a liberation and a stealthy reproduction, a given thing and its unrepressed alter ego. The more we believe, the more we are wrong; the more we feel alive, the more we must be truly dead. Indeed, the aftermath of the Sokal Affair has not entirely unfurled our omphaloskeptic fixations. One cannot argue straightly; one may only spiral like a little Nietzsche or a big post-postmodernist. At best, one mounts “an intervention,” which is merely a scenic detour along the helix. The academic’s addiction to parenthetical deconstructions — “(sur)render,” “(dis)orient,” and so on — continues perfunctorily, and announcing an academic call for papers with a desultory quote from Deleuze or Žižek has become the equivalent of opening with a joke at a Toastmasters luncheon. Even the most acerbic contemporary theorist (Bourdieu, let’s say), when finished ransacking the world and skinning his rivals, ultimately says, “Let’s get our history straight!” or “We have to get back to basics!” At this point, our only rejoinder is the Zen koan at its most brutally pre-lingual:

The student asked, “Whenever there is any question, one’s mind is confused . . . What’s wrong?”
The unflappable master’s answer — “Kill! Kill!”9

What’s gone missing in criticism is morality, which has been replaced by a perverse love — especially in cinema, whose evangelists offer the curious term “cinephilia.” We could blame the Greeks for philosophia; rather than positing a “quest” for wisdom, they had to drag love into everything. The love in cinephilia is not really love — it is more akin to an obsession, the manic-depressive pursuit of the collector, or the sort of sentimental longing children have for dogs. But the likes of Dr. Johnson, the ascetic Tolstoi, and the moralizing psychologist Orval Hobart Mowrer surely gave ethics in criticism a bad name; who, then, can blame us for being prejudiced, for fleeing into a hedonistic calculus that fulfills the phil‘s presupposition of pleasure?

The aura of the cinephilic supposedly recalls some nostalgic era of purity, just as the vague adjectival declension “cinematic” suggests something mystical — perhaps the giddy possibilities of montage — lacking in the materialistic noun “cinema.” Yet there was, in fact, a lost era, unsullied by dogma or jargon, in which the litterateur, facing a novel medium, spoke purely and simply. Consider Gorky’s comments on the 1896 Lumière tour at the Nizhni-Novgorod Fair: “Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows . . . if you only knew how strange it was to be there. Everything there [. . .] is dipped in monotonous grey. It is not life but its shadow, it is not motion but its soundless specter.”10 In 1896, Gorky, witnessing the infancy of the cinema, could indulge childlike wonderment to which we’ve grown callous. The noiselessly evil spell that entranced Gorky was later tamed by the salesmanship of Carl Sandburg, whose comments on Caligari indulged the worst of journalistic zeal: “[The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is] the craziest, wildest shivery movie that has come wriggling across the silver sheet of a cinema house [ . . .] This . . . is so bold a work of independent artists going footloose that one can well understand it might affect audiences just as a sea voyage affects a ship-load of passengers. Some have to leave the top decks, unable to stand sight or smell of the sea. Others take the air and the spray, the salt and the chill, and call the trip an exhilaration.”11

I’m reminded of why I never liked the straight-shooting Sandburg — and of how an author more skilled than I can stoop to what Leontev, in more ideological terms, demonized as liberal idiocy. Ideology aside, it is disconcerting to see a poet happily playing the shill.

In his short 1933 essay “On the Film,” Thomas Mann gushes with a little more guilt; he understands his pleasures are childlike, but also rationalizes the “crude falsity” of cheap melodramas by positing an inner tension between inevitably poor actors and an ultimately victorious human drama that subsumes them:

I do not tire of joy and spectacle spiced with music . . . whether it be travel pictures, scenes from the wild, the weekly news of the world, a devoted piece of tomfoolery, a ‘thriller’ or a ‘shocker’ or a touching tale of love. The actors must be good to look at, with a gift of expression, vain if you like but never unnatural; the “story” itself may be vastly silly — provided, as is nearly always the case to-day — the silliness or sentimentality is set in a frame of scenic and mimic detail which is true to life and reality, so that the human triumphs over the crude falsity of the performance as a whole.12

For the epic Mann, mise en scène — what Sandburg called the sea-voyage — redeems the flawed individual in an era still groping its way from naturalism to neorealism. Oddly enough, if Sandburg’s bell-ringing legitimized the meretricious standards of film reviewing, Mann’s guilty pleasures paved the way for our present insistence on mimetic realism, every adolescent’s first measure of value.

More satisfying, perhaps, are early excoriations of films later canonized. Andre Gide found Nosferatu not a flawed masterpiece but entirely flat and only negatively inspirational: “a rather nondescript German film, but of a rather nondescript quality that forces one to reflect and imagine something better.”13 For Gide, Murnau is too self-consciously about horror to excite any horror; how much better it would be, he says, to create dramatic irony through charm, suggestion, and reassurance, and to provide for the supernatural goings-on an objective standpoint. “In a well-constructed fantastic tale,” says Gide, “the mind must be able to be satisfied with a rational explanation” that, because it almost suffices, incites skepticism in the hero and reveals the “positivistic” mind as “naïve.”14 An ironic tension is thus created between the materialistic evidence of the supernatural (which we reject) and a skepticism of the natural (which becomes frightening precisely because we know that, in film scenarios, the natural and rational are improbable). Mann saw the redemption of small improbabilities in a greater realism; Gide, in his French way, saw the redemption of minute realisms in the suggestion of greater improbabilities.

I reserve for the finale of our anti-cinephilic tour H. G. Wells’s review “The Silliest Film: Will Machinery Make Robots of Men?”, a wonderful lambasting of Metropolis whose straight-shootingness deserves extensive quotation:

It gives in one eddying concentration almost every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general served up with a sauce of sentimentality that is all its own. [. . .] Possibly I dislike this soupy whirlwind. . . . because I find decaying fragments of my own juvenile work of thirty years ago, The Sleeper Awakens, floating about in it. Čapek’s Robots have been lifted without apology, and that soulless mechanical monster of Mary Shelley’s, who has fathered so many German inventions, breeds once more in this confusion. Originality there is none. Independent thought, none.”15

Such frankness, such hatred of contemporary culture may be impossible today16 — less possible, at least, than the inverse pretense of philistinism by those who should know better.17 One wishes every artist would preempt our hatreds and follow the example of Max Ernst, who once attached to a wooden sculpture a hatchet and a note inviting visitors to destroy his art.

How beautifully an invitation negates our hostility and breaks the spine of the comforting helix! If you are gifted a hatchet, suddenly you have the decency not to use it; wielding a now-useless weapon, denuded of offense and defense, you see the polka as just a polka, whose lack of originality and independent thought can finally be forgiven.

  1. Russian Philosophy Volume II: The Nihilists, The Populists, Critics of Culture and Religion. Eds. James M Edie, James P. Scanlan, and Mary-Barbara Zeldin. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 4th Printing, 1994, 268-269. In harmony with his Christian asceticism, Leontev “also served for a time as an official censor of literature in Moscow.” []
  2. Ibid, 269. []
  3. Ibid, 276. []
  4. Mussolini, Benito. The Doctrine of Fascism, 1932. See http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/reading/germany/mussolini.htm#bookmark22. []
  5. Unintentional humor is another matter; communistic critical discourse very quickly became self-parody with epithets such as “deviant Menshevik opportunism” and the like. []
  6. Russian Philosophy, Volume II: The Nihilists, The Populists, Critics of Religion and Culture. Eds. James Edie, James P. Scanlan, and Mary-Barbara Zeldin. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976, 271. []
  7. Cursory research provides precious little information on the polka tremblante. Volume Three of Chambers’ Encyclopaedia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge (J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1889) offers the following brief (if priceless) mention: “Among dances that successively were paramount in [nineteenth-century] society in France were the graceful minuet, the quadrille or contra-danse, often connected erroneously with the English country-dance, the Eccosaise, first introduced in 1760, the galop, a death blow to the ‘poetry of motion,’ the cotillion, first danced under Charles X, the polka, first danced at the Odéon in 1840 by a dancing-master from Prague, the polka tremblante, or schottisch, also of Bohemian origin, first brought out in Paris in 1844, and the waltz, originally Bavarian . . . which . . . promises to maintain its supremacy.” []
  8. Serres, Michel. “Panoptic Theory.” The Limits of Theory, ed. Thomas M. Kavanagh. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989, 40. []
  9. Chan, Wing-tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963, 429. []
  10. Authors on Film. Ed. Harry M. Geduld. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972, 3. []
  11. Geduld, ibid., 47-48. []
  12. Ibid., 129. []
  13. Ibid., 50. []
  14. Ibid., 51. []
  15. Ibid., 59-60. []
  16. There is, however, a certain difference between frankness and paranoia; H. L. Mencken, never one for moderation, took his cultural hatreds too far when he attacked montage itself as an impossible confusion of time and space that assaulted the rational mind. []
  17. I am thinking of Robert Altman’s admission that he never read Freud and Jung after it was discovered that a set of “psychoanalytic” director’s notes for Three Women was actually written by a ghostwriter, or of Orson Welles’s claim to Bogdanovich that he had never heard of Mizoguchi — as if we ever wished to see Welles play the ugly American. []