Sarah Kofman and Film Theory


Towards the end of Rue Ordener, Rue Labat (1994), the terse and elegant autobiographical fiction she wrote just before terminating her life, Sarah Kofman (1934-94) inserts a brief episode relating her admiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938). How or why Hitchcock’s film appears in the fiction is uncanny. Rue Ordener, Rue Labat was the last book (of about twenty-five) the author had written prior to her suicide. The following year (1995) there appeared the posthumous L’Imposture de la beaute, a book of essays that the author had been crafting from six earlier articles or book chapters dating to 1990. On the verso of the title page, above the copyright line, is noted: “[t]his is Sarah Kofmans last book. She was at the point of completing it. Today we have done just that, in fidelity and in memory of an editorial friendship of more than twenty years.”1 The insertion implies that L’Imposture de la beaute marked the author’s effort to put the remainders of her life together before taking leave of the world and to affirm that Rue Ordener, Rue Labat was in most likelihood her final work of integral and finished reflection. In all events, soon after the publication of the book of childhood memories under the Occupation, the lady vanishes.

The film appears in the autobiography as a memory-flash having little to do with the narrative. It is not an episode the author locates in her childhood (although the film is roughly synchronous with her birth in the late pre-war years). Her recall of The Lady Vanishes becomes an anticipation or projection, even a telltale sign or hieroglyph alerting informed readers that she is turning a troubled – inspired and inspiring, but also traumatized and traumatizing – life into a work of art. With The Lady Vanishes she tells the world that she too will disappear. With her first overtly creative work and with Hitchcock she becomes an auteur in the strong cinematic sense of the word.2

The irruption of the film into an oeuvre in which film played little part affirms, paradoxically, how vital it is to life-writing in the mould of aesthetic philosophy. This becomes clear when the speculations of L’Imposture de la beaute (hereafter LUmposture) are superimposed on Rue Ordener, Rue Labat: the former comprises six studies of works of art, philosophy and cinema. Its first and titular chapter, on Oscar Wilde‘s Portrait of Dorian Gray, makes no mention of the eponymous film of 1945 (dir. Albert Lewin), but in an unsolicited fashion this essay corresponds with the last essay, titled “Anguish and Catharsis”, which takes up The Lady Vanishes, In the endnotes a list of sources for each of the essays reveals that the piece on Hitchcock “had been written for a special number of Cahiers du cinema under the direction of Antoine de Baecque. This number was never published” (1995: 147). Thus the only really new or arresting piece in L’Imposture would have been this essay. Kofman might have left it to be published so as to allow readers – like those of this volume on philosophers and their movies – to contemplate where and how film works with (and not entirely through) philosophy and psychoanalysis. It allows the reader to see better how Rue Ordener, Rue Labat is crafted as a piece of cinematic writing, cine-ecriture, that its twenty-three paratactic “takes”, each bearing a distinctly visual texture in its printed shape, can be appreciated as a future scenario for a film. Further still, given the compositional strategies of autobiography, they can be projected onto L’Imposture for the purpose of discerning how film riddles her other writings, whether on Freud’s Michelangelo, Wilde, Kant or Nietzsche on Wagner and music in general.

It suffices to see how before why. Rue Ordener, Rue Labat departs from the style and tenor of much of Kofman’s previous writing. It no longer follows, a la Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida, a mode of free indirect philosophical discourse for which their schools were known. It is not that of a commentator who transposes the gist of the reasoning of authors under study into his or her own words for the purpose of modulating them or aiming them along new itineraries. It is not a montage that immediately yields, in the idiolect of her master-philosopher, the sights and sounds of differance. Unlike her other books, it never seeks to free the force of a concept or unveil an unconscious structure from other authors. In the earlier work Kofman often referred to the “hieroglyphics” of her philosophers – Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud – who, like Pauline children, forever saw and wrote through “a glass darkly”. She alternated between a free indirect style that Derrida had championed in his studies of Freud, in which, in order to depart from the founder of psychoanalysis he virtually “became” his master, and one that, in his work on cinema, Deleuze embodied through affiliation with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “free indirect” style of film and of writing (Deleuze 1983: 110-13), which went hand in hand with clarification and summary. A great comic philosopher, she was, like Francois Rabelais’ alter ego, Alcofribas Nasier, an abstractor ojquintessence-, a scholar and a magus, a comedian and a commentator who abstracts truth from base material in the laboratory 191 TOM CONLEY of her wit; and who no sooner renders it abstract or enigmatic better to appreciate its unnameable quintessence.

In Rue Ordener, Rue Labat other issues are at stake. The prose is of arresting simplicity, of a simple confessional tenor. It refuses to analyse that of which it writes or even its own writing. In the fashion of Paul Valery it can be taken as an exercice de style, an essay that undertakes risks by bringing forward to the reader, as if he or she were an analyst refusing to impose any moral judgement on the words, traumatic childhood memories. From the very first sentence the simplicity of the account beguiles:

Of him for me there remains only the pen. I took it one day from my mother’s purse where she was keeping it with others of my father’s souvenirs. A pen the way they are no longer made, that had to be filled with ink. I used it throughout my entire education. He “let me go” before I could decide to abandon him. I still own it, now pieced together with Scotch tape; it’s before my eyes on my work desk, and it forces me to write, to write.(1994: 9)

The first object in the fiction is the pen, and the first person who appears is the mother. She keeps memories of her husband (the child’s father) in a handbag. The child pilfers a pen that later becomes a fetish. Kofman’s habitual reader immediately remarks the presence of a style so limned and carefully wrought that the words and their spacings resemble hieroglyphs. The narratrix seems to commit – but the texture does not allow us to be sure – an original sin by stealing from her mother a vital and seminal object that had belonged to her father. As in a film, the deixis or delineation of subject-positions is indistinct in the midst of an almost blinding clarity. Her father let her go, but in the context he also “gave her over” before she could take it upon herself, in her coming of age, to detach herself from him, to let him go: but not entirely, because the pen as fetish-object, like the figurines on Freud’s own writing desk in Vienna, remains eminently visible on hers. She does not write with it but, rather, uses its presence or visible evidence to inspire her writing. The syntax suggests that she possesses “him” (the father) through “it” (the pen). It is glued together with a product of the Minnesota Mining Company (“Scotch” being an echo, escot and an escutcheon, an emblem, but also a name that an inebriate reader would discern as a kind of whisky). Given the disposition of the whole chapter that stands as a picture on the page, both he and it lay before her eyes on her workbench that is the page itself, such that he and it oblige or dictate to her to write … to write. The double iteration makes clear that the fetish imposes, like a memory of Moses, an injunction and a law that reassures (“I must write, it is my duty”) but that disinters a deeply embedded fear (“Can I write, and if I can, how do I put pen to paper?”). The pen invokes a menacing presence eliciting a promise of pleasure. It is a complex scenario, not far from what Kofman elucidates in LEnfance de Vart (her first book) and rehearses again in a chapter on Freud’s reading of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses (in L’Imposture, in which the analyst’s first impression of the great statue inspires “crushing guilt”), when the figure seems ready to hurl the tables on the “atheist Jew” who beholds him (1995: 53). Which gives way to a second impression: as a statue Moses seems caught in his action, “forever seated and irritated” about his immobility.

Rather than elucidating what was the intolerable ambivalence felt in both the scene and its writing, Kofman prefers to hold (or, in the vocabulary of the psychoanalyst Nicholas Abraham [1987], “introject”) the feeling of disquiet in the spaces marked between inverted commas. He “turned me over” or “gave me away”. The flashback that follows in chapter two indicates that the past participle of lacher redounds echoes of the father’s canine obedience and unwarranted cowardice that went with his selfless and selfish act of turning himself over to the Nazis at the moment the police began to round up Jews in Paris (on 16 July 1942) under the directives of the Final Solution. The police arrive and the mother tries to convince the officer (“with a troubled smile”) that her husband is at the synagogue before, suddenly, he emerges from an adjacent room and hands himself over. The child deduces that her mother committed a sin, a white lie that was to no avail, even when the agent did not want to shoulder the responsibility of reporting the man to the authorities. Today, writes Kofman, recalling the lamentations of Greek tragedy, she cannot fail to flash back to (penser a) “this scene of my childhood when six children, abandoned by their father (abandonnes de leur pere) could only cry in suffocating, and with the certainty that she and the other siblings would never see him again: b papa, papa, papa'” (1994:14). The father vanishes.

In the drift of the words cast between quotation marks on the first page the father “let [her] go” – to whom or to what? – before she could, it is implied, understand what it would mean to grieve. Without remaining in the grip of an incurable melancholy (which elsewhere Kofman sees afflicting Dorian Gray), the writer mystically “possesses” his ghost in the shape of the old pen, an element of style held together with Scotch tape. The scene sets the narration in motion at the same time as it embodies greater tensions in the shape of the writing. The scene is in the present. The pen incites memories that come “out of the past”. The beginning anticipates the later flashback to The Lady Vanishes. The reader soon discovers that the latter arches back on the former so as to draw attention to the cinematic memory, much resembling what Freud in his work on dreams called Bilderschriften, moving hieroglyphs or pictured writings, which also run through The Lady Vanishes. As soon as Hitchcock’s film figures in the text (in chapter nineteen), it goes without saying that each of the segments of the book resembles a plan-sequence? Many of its unacknowledged effects inform the cine-ecriture with which Kofman constructs her memoir.

As in classical cinema, The Lady Vanishes owes much to Aristotelian poetics, which require a trophy or turning point to shift the tensions of the scenario at a median point of its development. It comes when Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), until then the nemesis of Iris (Margaret Lockwood), is won over to her cause in the pursuit of Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), the good lady who has disappeared in a train, implied to be the Orient Express, on its return to London. Once their destiny of attraction is sealed, the two dashing characters solve the enigma and, wonder of wonders, share a love that dispels the “unhappy end” of the preordained marriage awaiting Iris on return to England. Rue Ordener, Rue Labat builds on the same structure through a graphic pattern indicating the presence of an “absent centre” or even a vanishing point in the textual design.4 Composed of twenty-three chapters, it leaves at its axis, in the twelfth segment, set squarely between a “before” (chs 1-11) and an “after” (chs 13-23) a trophy-chapter titled “Metamorphose”.5 With oblique allusion to Kafka, it recounts how the author had to abandon her mother and take refuge with a Christian woman who eventually, as the final sentence of the book later underlines, “saved the life of a little Jewish girl during the war” (1994: 99). Spelled meme in the text (unless at the head of a sentence), her name is in lower case, implying that she is a sort of objetpetit-m, a lost m-object, a likely variant on Lacans objet petit-a, the forlorn object that drives oral desire (or appetite, the objet petit-a in it is read backwards). In the guise of an ersatz mother, meme wins the child’s affection. She directs the little Jewish girl from what she calls (in Kofmans words) a “childhood pernicious to good health” (ibid.: 48) to a better state of being. Meme gets her outdoors, introduces her to her saintly friend Paul (whose Christian name tells much about the ideology of faith, hope and charity), and habitually sets an elegant table at mealtimes. She embraces the child and ultimately awakens her to her senses.

Peu a peu meme opera en moi une veritable transformation (Little by little, meme brought about in me a real transformation) (ibid.: 49, emphasis added). In its rapport with the chapter, the title indicates how a “bad” (Christian) surrogate mother is indeed a “good” counterpart to the “good” (Jewish) although “bad” biological mother who had been intolerably demanding of her daughter. Meme brings the author to her life when, in the preterit, she opera [operated] a (musical) transformation and also, in the distinctly Freudian gist of the text, becomes an unconscious substitute for the father, pere, who had recently left her. One day in the hospital room, her tonsils removed, the author awakens to behold the two mothers at her bedside. One complains and makes a fracas in Yiddish to tyrannize a doctor. The other, calm and smiling, assures the child that ice cream is on the way. The last sentence of the axial chapter, the trophy itself, wins the day: “Je ressens vaguement ce jour-la que je me detache de ma mere et mattache de plus en plus a lautre femme” (“On that day I vaguely sense that I am detaching myself from my mother and attaching myself more and more to the other woman”) (ibid.: 53).

At this juncture the title of the book is written into the text much as a “figure in a carpet” or a hieroglyph. Kofman had noted that the metro stop Rue Ordener was separated from the Rue Labat by one station. Adepts of the Parisian metro know well that the metro map is “a reminder, a pocket mirror on which are reflected – and lost in a flash – the skylarks of the past”, and that certain stations and their names inform us of an “inner geology and subterranean geography of the city … where dazzling discoveries of correspondences promote recall of tiny and intimate tremors in the sedimentary layers of our memory” (Auge 2002:4). For Kofman the names of the stations are points of a psychomachia in which a child is at odds between two mothers. The force of the autobiographical novel wells up in the toponyms and their proximity in the syntax. Kofman recalls with delight and disgust the shift from one regime to another. Under memes new management:

I had to get accustomed to a new alimentary regime. Raw meat had always been forbidden. Rue Ordener: in the kitchen my mother let pieces of corned beef drip for hours on end that she then put to boil. Rue Labat: I had to “return to health” by eating raw horsemeat in bouillon. I was told to eat pork and “get used to” cooking with lard.(1994: 51)

The conversion to lard becomes an ultimate transgression, but it is also sign of the presence of the “good breast” (sein doux) of the new mother. Ordener, what in her life had been ordered and ordinary, seems orde or vile. Labat, what is “over there” (la bas), despite the sweet savour of the name for lard, also rings of the slaughterhouse, I’abattoir, a site of intolerable violence whence the horsemeat comes (as shown in Georges Franju’s traumatizing Sang des betes [Blood of beasts; 1949] or in the writings of Georges Bataille, one of Kofmans formative authors). At no other point in the novel are the two names so visibly and immediately complementary in their opposition.

Much of what follows builds on the detachment and the residual guilt felt in the turn of events that concealed the girl from the fate of so many of her faith and kin. The narratrix works – or writes – with the founding ambivalence and separation through two memories. One (chapter eighteen) recalls the image on the cover of Kofmans first book, VEnfance de Vart (1970) where she “chose to put a Leonardo, the famous ‘London cartoon” (ibid.: 73) of the Virgin and St Anne, shown almost arm-in-arm, who look over the infant Jesus who is playing with St John the Baptist. Implicitly alluding to Freud’s 1907 “Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood” as if to suggest via the father of psychoanalysis that any writing of an early memory is a revision and reinvention bearing on tensions in the present. She quotes the essay in order, it seems, to put herself in the third person to show how this je of the autobiography is an other thanks to a distant memory that is both his (Freud s) and hers (Kofmans). She quotes Freud:

Leonardos childhood was as unique as this painting. He had two mothers, first his true mother, Caterina, from whom he was torn away between three and five years of age, and then a young and tender step-mother, the wife of his father, Donna Alibicia. … When Leonardo, under the age of five, was received in the paternal grandparents’ household, his young mother-in-law Albicia in most likelihood in his heart replaced mother. (Ibid.: 73-4, quoting Freud)

Kofman presents a tableau vivant of a relation with Leonardo and Freud that had been left latent in her critical studies. A veil is lifted, to be sure, but that veil gives way to another, the next chapter, that flashes back to a memory-image from The Lady Vanishes.

In a first conclusion, Kofman remarks that The Lady Vanishes can be read as “the incarnation of the heroine’s phantasms under the effect of her paranoid anguish and her unconscious guilt” (ibid.: 144). The film is a nightmare palliating the intolerable machinations it simultaneously brings forward. It seems that through the film Kofman “repairs” her relation with a maternal figure, but that she bumps against a white wall, a limit, where nothing more can be said: except to invent a contrary argument asserting that the mise en abyme of the title of the film within the film, seen in the name on a poster belonging to the paraphernalia of the Italian illusionist (“The Vanishing Lady”), would be an ultimate illusion of a cinematic illusionist.10 Kofman deploys the second hypothetical conclusion to deconstruct her own “reductive, psychoanalytical”‘ (ibid.: 145) reading that would take itself too seriously. To this point the author notes how she reads the film and no sooner remarks that since she sees it over and again her identification with the heroine awakens in her “the most archaic anguish” and, she adds, borrowing a formula from Freud’s “The Uncanny”, “that has for a long time been surmounted” (ibid). The illusionist’s task, however, is to explode the anguish it engenders in a healthy burst of laughter or a resonant chord of music.11

Hitchcock taps into a deeply ambivalent maternal relation that seems to be part and parcel of Kofman’s life (perhaps in ours as well), attesting to the intolerable difficulties that make life what it is. In the way it falls into the autobiography – next to Freud and Leonardo – and is treated in the posthumous essay at the end of L’Irnposture, the film becomes more than a philosophical object. It obsesses. It reveals, dissimulates, clarifies and adjudicates. The webbing of relations it unveils, along with their traumatic underpinnings, is evident elsewhere in Kofman’s writing. In the essay on Freud‘s Moses and Monotheism in L’Irnposture Kofman writes of the intolerable incommensurability of a law with respect to a figure, like Michelangelo’s statue, that would represent it. Kofman locates it in a maternal relation: “The figure of the law”, she asserts,”can never be reduced to the figure of the mother, unless the latter figures what cannot be figured, in other words, sublimely” (1995: 68). The Lady Vanishes sustains that sublimity and indeed becomes the very enigma of art that, in Nietzsche’s sense, is art because a maternal force engenders it. His artist, she adds, is he or she who is a “creator of affirmation of life, that is, the person who wants life with all its joy but also with everything that qualifies it to be terrible and intolerable” (ibid.: 112).

Why, now, after how: what enigma remains about The Lady Vanishes and Kofman’s own vanishing? If Kofman took her life to be the matter of art and aesthetic philosophy, does the return of the film prompt a suicide enacted as a creative affirmation (much like that, a year later, of Deleuze), in which a life is taken to the letter of the film? Would Kofman’s vanishing be catharsis after anguish? The proximity of the film to her last days and final ruminations would cast a response in the affirmative. It shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Kofman affiliates cinema with the incommensurable measure of great art, art of a gauge that begs philosophical enquiry, and that no less engages the very lives of those who enquire of it.


2. The amateur of cinema recalls Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle (1960), when director Jean- Pierre Melville, posing as the author of a controversial novel titled Candida, responds to a question posed by Jean Seberg (who plays at being a journalist): “Quel est votre plus grand desir dans la vie?” (“what is your greatest desire in life?”). The answer: “Devenir immortel et puis mourir” (“to become immortal and then die”). Kofman had not become immortal before she died. The suicide came, she had claimed to her close friends, at a moment when she avowed that she had nothing more to write. See “‘My Life’ and Psychoanalysis”, in Sarah Kofman: Selected Writings, T. Albrecht (ed.) with G. Albert & E. Rottenberg (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), 250-51, in which, long before, she projects death at a point when she will no longer have “anything to say”. Here and elsewhere all translations from the French are mine.

3. In Casablanca, a memoir that merits comparison with Rue Ordener, Rue Lab at, Marc Auge becomes so Freudian that his own memories of the Occupation are shown inextricably woven into those of Michael Curtiz’s film (1942), which appeared in France in 1946. It might be shown that the implicit cinema of Freud’s writing haunts Kofman where Auge holds film as a memory-mirror to retrieve productive distortions of childhood memories. Auge writes, apropos his own relation with the Occupation, “film images swim through our heads like personal memories, as if they were part of our very lives, and moreover with this same degree of incertitude that often affects these memories and is sometimes revealed when we return to the places of our past or from a confrontation with the memories of another” {Casablanca [Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2007], 25).

4. In my Film Hieroglyphs: Ruptures in Classical Cinema (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), the vanishing point is associated with analyst Guy Rosolatos notion of an objet de perspective: what clinical work draws from the experience of patients who “visualize or indicate through the bias of speech [certain] nodal points in their descriptive reltion to the world they see and live…. it figures a concentrated point of attention that captures what a subject chooses to see, simply because in it resides what cannot, because of its paradoxical evidence and accessibility, be seen” (ibid., xxvii-xxxviii). In The Self-Made Map: Cartographic Writing in Early Modern France (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press 1996), 292-7, the concept is applied to the pictural and tabular design of Descartes’ Discours de la methode.

5. It is noteworthy that only roman numerals are set above the chapters. Named only in the list of contents, each chapter is set forward as an enigma.

6. Jean-Luc Nancy, “Foreword: Run, Sarah!”, in Enigmas: Essays on Sarah Kofman, P. Deutscher & K. Oliver (eds), viii-xvi (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999) plays on Kofman who runs (court) 199 TOM CONLEY and who writes from the pleasure of her courses {cours). The hours she spends with books (a leitmotif in cinema of the New Wave) are the most engrossing and calming of her formative years.

7. “Iris” figures twice in Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, in the name of the flower (62, 65). The flower is associated with meme and her world.

8. The French is cited because the adjectival substantive, intolerable, runs obsessively through Kofman’s writing. ^intolerable, a word that the cinephile links with the hieroglyphics of Griffiths Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916), translates the child’s ever-renewed encounter with the menace of castration and death. It is also what cannot be thought, because the child is not at a stage where it can make use of its mediating virtues. Wherever Kofman writes of things intolerable, she signals a limit-situation, perhaps also Nietzsche’s notion of a Grenzsituation, which she exhumes in her autobiography.

9. During the Occupation meme taught the narratrix how to sift lafarine au son (bran flour) through un vieux bas de sole (an old silk stocking) so that in the time of privation they could eat their daily “white brioche bread” (Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, 51). The act of sifting is the equal of creating and of measuring. Farine au son becomes a “good” bread because it is a flour endowed with sound, but then again the sound is sifted away. The motif of good and bad food, of digestion and indigestion, parallel in many respect to Kofman’s relation with Hitchcock, is studied carefully in Kelly Oliver, “Sarah Kofman’s Queasy Stomach and the Riddle of Paternal Law”, in Deutscher & Oliver (eds), Enigmas, 184-7.

10. The reiteration of the title within a discourse can uncover the unconscious relation that the discourse holds to its title. It can range from guilt or indebtedness to disavowal. The reiteration is the topic of Jacques Derrida’s “Le Titrier” in his Parages, rev. edn (Paris: Galilee, 2003). The concept returns in his untitled homage to Kofman in Sarah Kofman: Selected Writings, T. Albrecht (ed.) with G. Albert & E. Rottenberg, 1-34 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), esp. 1-2, where he confesses that he cannot put a name or title to what would be a posthumous gift to the now-absent student, friend and colleague.

11. Yet in Kofman’s other study of cinema, in an essay on Victor Sjostrom’s He Who Gets Slapped (1924), healthy laughter has its abject counterpart. The happy end of L’Imposture de la beaute is not so happy after all.

Source: Aitken, Ian. European Film Theory And Cinema A Critical Introduction. edinburgh university press, 2001. Print.

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2 replies

  1. Hey Sarah. Thanks and am really sorry for making you so furious okay. hope we’re still good

    On 8/6/18, Literary Theory and Criticism Notes


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