I warn you in advance, this post is full of heavy, depressing, and potentially disturbing shit.
It has been several days since I last saw a cheerful movie. Last night I watched the Czech filmmaker Evald Schorm’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, about a man trying and largely failing to recover from a suicide attempt. I didn’t know what I would have to say about that, so I didn’t say anything about it. Tonight I watched Hu Jie’s 2006, mostly black-and-white documentary, Though I am Gone, about the efforts of Wang Jingyao, a Chinese professor of history, to preserve the memory of his wife, Biang Zhongyun, a secondary school teacher who was tortured and murdered by her students during the Cultural Revolution.
Oh God, where to start with the Cultural Revolution? Such a strange and almost unique event in history, in which the establishment incites a revolt against the establishment. But of course, that’s a gross simplification. More accurately, Mao Zedong used the Cultural Revolution to secure his position within the party and to secure the position of his ideology within the communist “culture” of the China of the time. So Mao encouraged people to revolt against reactionaries and “capitalist roaders” wherever they could be found. Students were encouraged to form “Red Guard” units and attack their teachers should they suspect the teachers of being reactionaries, counter-revolutionaries, capitalist roaders, or of harboring “bourgeois thoughts,” as one of their victims described it. And so they did attack their teachers. And they’d subject them to so-called “struggle sessions,” in which the victim would be dragged out in front of a seething mob, forced to denounce him or herself, and then insulted and beaten and humiliated and, if the vengeful spirit of the crowd deemed it necessary, tortured and killed.
That’s what happened to Wang Jingyao’s wife. She was accused by a fellow teacher sympathetic to the Red Guards of being a reactionary. She was harassed and beaten and then one day they beat her to death. And she knew it was coming. She took a shower before going out to the struggle session, stating that if they were going to kill her, she wanted her body to be clean first. On the day his wife was killed, Wang was called and told that she had been badly beaten and was in the hospital. He gathered his four children and they went to see her there, only to find that she was already dead. Her face was swollen and, as her daughter describes it in the documentary, she had a bloody hole in her head and another hole in her arm. She had been beaten to death with spiked clubs. At some point during the process, she had voided her bowels and bladder. Forty years later, Wang still keeps the clothes that his wife was wearing when she died, and he shows us a feces-stained garment. At this point in the movie, I remember thinking, “Ah, maybe this is why it’s in black-and-white, so we can’t see the blood and the feces.” And then the movie switched to color. And we could see the feces, faded over forty years, but still there. Jesus Christ. What is there to say to this? Well something, of course. I always hate it when somebody says of the Holocaust (for example), “It defies explanation. We can only face it with silence.” I beg to differ. It was Theodor Adorno who famously and sententiously said, “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz” and it was Paul Celan who said, “Fuck you, Adorno,” or at least conveyed that message by surviving the Holocaust and writing really good, really important poetry, if people still believe that poetry is important. We can always say something, even if it’s something along the predictable lines of, “That’s horrible!” or, what I said just now, “Jesus Christ.”
And speaking of Jesus Christ, we find that Wang, despite being a confirmed atheist (he goes to pains to make this very clear), is nonetheless captivated by Christian art and iconography. We see a Russian-style picture of the Virgin and Child and he says of it (and I’m paraphrasing slightly): “It’s the eyes, so full of love for humanity.” And on his wall he has a reproduction of Leonardo’s Last Supper, and he says something to the effect of, “And there’s Jesus, about to be betrayed” (this apropos of his wife being betrayed by her colleagues and students). And he opens an art book and shows us a picture of Michelangelo’s Pietà and then he discusses the crucifixion, and the bearing of crosses, and says that his wife’s death is the cross he has had to bear for forty years. Because he wants to remember it and because he documented it. When she died, he took pictures. He took pictures of her mutilated body, which are hard to look at. He took pictures of his children in morning. And, as I’ve mentioned, he preserved the clothing she was wearing at the time. He says he wants these things to be displayed in a Cultural Revolution Museum, should one ever be created.
I don’t want to talk about this anymore, I’m not in the right mindset for it. There’s the horror of the feces (if we want to throw in a little Barthes—and we probably don’t—the feces is horrible because it is the sign of Bian’s abject humiliation and degradation), and there’s the horror that comes from knowing she was killed by her owns students, and that they were given free license to do so. In a future blog post, I’d like to talk about the religious structures that can be found in the most fanatical communisms. Specifically in the notion of a “struggle session,” in the killing of heretics and heathens, in the brutal self-critiques and self-flagellations that often accompanied them. All of this is displayed with great, penetrating insight and understanding in Koji Wakamatsu’s 2008 docudrama, United Red Army, especially the psychotic extent to which “self-critique” and the almost religious notion of cultivating a “revolutionary mindset” can be taken. I would also like to investigate why the hell people outside of China who really should have known better could have been taken in by the Cultural Revolution and by Maoism in general (looking at you, Jean-Luc Godard). Wakamatsu was himself a supporter of the Japanese Red Army when they first came into being, but United Red Army shows that he was clearly disillusioned with them, and in his depictions of their viciousness, he spares no one, least of all, I suspect, his younger self. But, once again, I digress. I’ll save United Red Army for another post. For my next post, I should write something happy, like “a post-colonial exegesis of Kittens on a Slide (or whatever they wanted me to do in college). Speaking of Kittens on a Slide, here’s a link to Kittens on a Slide: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gppbrYIcR80
This should brighten your spirits.