Fabian’s self-destructive peregrination, the ordeal he has imposed on himself through others – from the double murder, to the rape of his sister, to the slaying of his once beloved pet dog – is an enactment of the violence of his disappearing. For there is a moment of recognition, in which you become a fading ghost hovering somewhere in the vicinity of your body, and there is the ferocious struggle to accept this state, to no longer seek a return, but instead to accelerate the distance, to disembody your person, allow it to atrophy to nothing, and leave the body to its own devices
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In Lav Diaz’s 2013 feature film Norte, The End of History, we watch a man, Fabian, first struggling to disappear into some state of idealised self-indifference, and then, having got partway, struggling against his own reappearance. This inverted conjuring act is contrasted with a mother and father, Joaquin and Eliza, whose lives though societally translucent are marked by a desperately futile attempt to establish presence. Each of these two approaches seeks to overturn its own version of a history (Fabian’s in absence, the couple’s in presence) that is itself illusory, and an end to a particular history that can have no end, having already ended, having never begun.
Demoralised ex-student of law, Fabian, sits in a café holding a Xeroxed copy of Reasons and Persons. One of his friends asks him, “Why would you read Derek Parfit?” To which he replies: “Nothing, I’ll just read him.” He will have its intellectual rigour – its portrayal of ethics as objectively true, as impersonal, as explicable through reasoned argument alone – pass through him like a bad meal. But we can imagine Parfit’s revolutionary and reductionist account of the self holding greater charm – the idea that personhood is not some extra fact about us, that we can be fully accounted for in terms of psychological continuity and connectedness, and that identity need not be coextensive with what matters – as something Fabian might recognise as additional justification for the act he is planning. His instinct is, like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, loosely fortified, we might imagine, by a simplistic act-utilitarianism, and as with his earlier incarnation we see “a soured dreamer – a perverted idealist”1 imposing his will on the world for the edification and betterment of all, including himself – especially himself. Both Godless, both anarchic, both looking for the possibility to act, to realise an event, to enact some primal truth of justice, to obliterate an obstacle (an obfuscation) beyond which they cannot see.
Raskolnikov and Fabian both kill a moneylender, Alyona and Magda respectively, and both too are forced into a further murder in order to save themselves, Alyona’s sister (Elizaveta) and Magda’s young daughter. The killing of the monster in each case necessitates the killing of innocence. It is as if act-utilitarianism is given an immediate riposte, a lesson in the validity of moral thresholds regardless of consequence, indeed of utlitarianism’s more cautious, rule-based version, of the need for fetters on the escalation of desirable outcomes. And that Fabian’s double murder is (for the viewer, and we imagine for himself) a re-enactment, a second instantiation, of Raskolnikov’s original crime, weights it with further implications: “what happens a second time becomes fatal.”2 And so we do not need to wait for the murders to happen in order to establish Fabian’s supposed superiority and independence as empty hubris and isolation, and neither does he. He is already looking back on what he will do, what he will become, what he will unbecome.
Keeping to the numerous correlations, both Raskolnikov and Fabian steal from the moneylenders they kill and bury the spoils, but deviating from his Russian predecessor, Fabian retrieves his stash and attempts to do good with it, to undo part of the unforeseen (yet necessary) consequences of his act. (Unforeseen consequences would mean that his plan had been a theoretical failure if it hadn’t already happened before, if that removal of innocence weren’t the whole point of the exercise.) However, unlike Raskolnikov, Fabian never confesses, even though in this retelling his confession would mean the release of a man (Joaquin) wrongly accused of the crime he had committed. But then his motivations were never merely consequentialist in this way, and nor were they unequivocally tied up with establishing some imagined personal superiority either,3 for we know from its first occurrence that human weakness itself must become the real target, that emotion and the extraneous edifice of personality is what will threaten to undermine his goal. Raskolnikov ruminates:4 “Was it the old crone I killed? I killed myself, not the old crone!”5 but yet his self-murder is not complete – he gives himself up, allows suffering to redeem him – as there’s enough of him left to become the recipient of external justice. In order for Fabian’s version to become truly “fatal” he must disappear. This and this alone is his quest: the eradication of self, the eradication of history.
Both too are fundamentally divided (the name “Raskolnikov” directly evokes this splitting, this core division, being derived from the Russian “raskolot” – to split”6): in Raskolnikov’s case it is the man divided from his ideals, while in Fabian’s case it is the man divided from his own disappearance, the felt absence of himself, the presence mourning its own absence.7 But what Fabian knows that Raskolnikov didn’t is that the murders are only the beginning, and that he needs to deepen his depersonalisation, to evade entirely the conceptual apparatus of being someone, to rid himself of the history of his own identity (his sister, his beloved pet), and not now in the service of ethics or some other grand ideal – although the moral crusade could still be thought of as intact, though more sophisticated: a staying true to his belief in the need to bring about “the destruction of anything inimical to morality,” starting with his own personhood – but instead what appears to be a peculiarly selfish negation of self. Heeding Baudrillard’s warning, the farce cannot be allowed to repeat itself and so again become history. He must disappear, and that disappearance must prove tragic, just as Joaquin and Eliza’s appearance can arrive completely only at their end (with her death and the consequent dissolution of their union), by a fatal seduction, their annihilation being the means by which they each appear:8 “Our fundamental destiny is not to exist and survive, as we think: it is to appear and disappear. […] Nothing is less capable than chance of making something appear: for something really to appear, surging up to the reign of appearances, there must be seduction. For something to really disappear, to resolve into its appearance, there must be a ceremony of metamorphosis.”9 Norte is both this seduction and this ceremony, showing us how, despite their incompatibilities and variant objectives, they are destined to merge in the mutually liquefying state of liberation.
Fabian’s self-destructive peregrination, the ordeal he has imposed on himself through others – from the double murder, to the rape of his sister, to the slaying of his once beloved pet dog – is an enactment of the violence of his disappearing. For there is a moment of recognition, in which you become a fading ghost hovering somewhere in the vicinity of your body, and there is the ferocious struggle to accept this state, to no longer seek a return, but instead to accelerate the distance, to disembody your person, allow it to atrophy to nothing, and leave the body to its own devices. This fevered resistance is akin to the affected imperfections in the story, recounted by Baudrillard, of “the eighteenth-century magician who had invented an automaton that could imitate human actions so perfectly that he was obliged on stage to ‘automatize’ himself, to imitate mechanical imperfection precisely in order to save the game, to preserve the infinitesimal difference that made the form of illusion possible.”10 The fight to preserve the seduction of being someone happens even at the expense of that presence equalling nothing but anguish, even because of that fact, for how could it be otherwise when the two are indistinguishable: seen this way, depersonalisation disorder can be characterised by the destructive desire to retrieve something you never had – to return to some imaginary, idealised state to which there is no credible route, let alone a return – or else the desire to once again become delusional, or rather to not simply feel the wool over your eyes but to actually become that wool, the embodiment of your own false impression. It is after all only the ordeal that keeps you personalised, that prevents you from disappearing, for you were gone already and it was only this fact becoming sensate that hurt, that incited such extreme fear and dislocation, the solution to which is to cease this emotional acknowledgment and disappear again, disappear for good, disappear like your life depended on it, because to pay service to your loss – which was in fact an addition – it does. Part of the emotional strain is the potential endlessness of this state, a state we will not be there to finalise, reality without us and beyond us continuing forever, but the price of this infinitude is indifference, complete emotional mortification, for “[w]hat is endless is also desireless, tension-less, passionless, it is bereft of events,”11 it is death-like and life-like, and too much like both to hold appeal for anyone who is not aware of the stark necessity of the former and the unfiltered horror of the latter.
Fabian’s acts, though clearly decreasing in legal severity (from murder, to rape, to animal extermination), actually, with regard to obscenity, appear if anything to escalate. And that these acts are obscene is made conspicuous through concealment, for while we see enough to know what Fabian is doing we do not see the acts (the insertions) themselves. We are removed from the scene by walls and by foliage, so that they happen for us as obscene acts, as hidden, as abominations unfit for the eye, as taboo, and therefore as something else other than what they are: the eradication of a self and a history that have already gone, that was never there, an imagined something whose absence must be punished on its own terms, by a nothing – a nothing on a nothing. And after all, can he really “know whether anything has taken place or not”?12 Is he looking back at the end, or has he simply imagined the end as a perspective from which to view his own disappearance? In everything Fabian does following the initiation of this obscene sequence “we see a paradoxical logic: the idea […] destroyed by its own realization, by its own excess. And in this way history itself comes to an end, finds itself obliterated by the instantaneity and omnipresence of the event.”13 Fabian becomes subsumed by this sequence, as the nonperson that, having witnessed itself existing and having been revolted by what it saw, is absorbed by events to which it can no longer exist as an extension, as an agent of, as a separate entity to, but instead becomes itself hidden, lost, extinguished: the self then an obscenity to be shrouded just like the acts themselves.
We should not, though, suppose that Norte presents depersonalisation (as a felt disorder) as anything other than an aberration, for while Fabian obviously resents the absence of his parents throughout his childhood, and unwittingly sets in motion the absence of Joaquin and Eliza, parents who otherwise would have been present for their children, and by the removal of this formative presence replicates his own sense of familial removal in them, a remoteness that in his case eventually turns inward to remove what he has come to see was never there, the fact that Ading, the aunt, at the close of the film has taken Eliza’s place (now dead as the result of a traffic accident), walking between the two children as the mother had done, signifies that appearances and simulacra are still the abiding order and that disappearing, for all its footing in reality is less real, and so remains an anomaly.
“Obesity is another of the figures of obscenity. As proliferation, as the saturation of a limitless space, obesity may stand as a general metaphor for our systems of information, communication, production, and memory.”14 Fabian’s weight gain is such that it receives comment from his friends, his distension the physical realisation of a theoretical amassment whose function has become defunct (something Fabian acknowledges), relegated to flab, his former loquacity no longer even an expenditure – all this fat and nowhere to burn it. We have witnessed then, in Fabian, the epitome of flabby theory: growing exponentially, uselessly, the end of history becoming its own history: liberation! And “[t]hus freedom has been obliterated, liquidated by liberation; truth has been supplanted by verification; the community has been liquidated and absorbed by communication; form gives way to information and performance.”15 But this is also the juncture at which appearance (via incarceration) and disappearance (via freedom) meet: Joaquin finds himself liberated by his lack of freedom, finding strength and compassion and control, liberated from his failure to realise the potentials with which freedom had burdened him; and Fabian, attempting to outgrow all notion of freedom and the incarceration implied by it, by attempting to not exist at all, to disappear, to relinquish himself to what is and what does, is thereby liberated from the lie of himself, liberated from the burden of being anything. The last we see of Fabian he is sitting in a small boat in shallow water going nowhere, while the world busies itself around him. He has gone, he is nothing, and yet he still exists, he still lives, and there is no contradiction in this merciful conflation, in this essential paradox, for “[i]t is not true that in order to live one has to believe in one’s own existence. There is no necessity to that.”16
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Note: All images are screenshots from the film.
- Richard Peace, Dostoyevsky: An Examination of the Major Novels (Cambridge University Press, 1971), 19. [↩]
- Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies (Semiotext(e), 2008) 226. [↩]
- He informs us rather bluntly that any such well-trodden theoretical justifications (be they Utilitarian or broadly Nietzschean) will necessarily be unable to encapsulate his motivations: “Let’s not rely on what those stupid philosophers said.” [↩]
- Not unlike British serial killer Dennis Nilsen: “I was always killing myself, but it was always the bystander who died.” Joaquin’s fellow inmate, a man who has committed numerous murders, also confesses to no longer being human. [↩]
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (Vintage, 1993), 420. [↩]
- Ibid. 34. [↩]
- Known clinically as “depersonalisation disorder.” [↩]
- Although Eliza does make an appearance before her death when Diaz has her looking like the potential murderer of her own children, as she moves behind them at the edge of a steep incline only to embrace them protectively instead. Her seduction (matched by our own at this point) has her appear to herself and to us.s [↩]
- Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies (Semiotext(e), 2008), 213. [↩]
- Ibid, 211. [↩]
- Jean Baudrillard, The Vital Illusion (Columbia University Press, 2000), 43. [↩]
- Ibid, 44. [↩]
- Ibid, 46-7. [↩]
- Ibid, 45. [↩]
- Ibid, 47. [↩]
- Jean Baudrillard, “Radical Thought,” http://www.egs.edu/faculty/jean-baudrillard/articles/radical-thought/ [↩]