Archive for June, 2013

Events: From Spitalfields to Green Lanes: mapping the refugee experience in London

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Sans papiers

A Nansen passport. Issued by the League of Nat...

A Nansen passport. Issued by the League of Nations. The legal successor to the League of Nations is the United Nations and official material published by the League of Nations is considered to be Public Domain. See also http://imlsdcc.grainger.uiuc.edu/collections/FullDisplay.asp?cid=2427 (bottom). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A passport can be synonymous with freedom.  It can open doors – to pass through the ‘porte’ of the city wall.   A safe conduct pass, For a refugee seeking asylum it can mean the end to months or years of uncertainty, of near-destitution, of fearing the knock on the door which could mean deportation.  Indefinite leave to remain – the right to work, to settle, to pursue your education, to have a family life.   And the right to leave as well, on holiday or to see family, without fearing that the door will close firmly behind you.

To be ‘sans papiers’ is to be a non-person, invisible to employers, health care services, landlords, police – but at the same time often to be a target, a scapegoat, the ‘usual suspect’.  ‘To not have a passport is to be less than fully human, a non-entity, since in a global world one must be under the aegis of a sovereign state’ (Colin Dickey, 2007).

But as Dickey goes on to say, ‘to have a passport, paradoxically, does not suddenly liberate you, it simply re-inscribes you into a control society of surveillance and  micro-power’.  At worst, having those necessary and dangerous ‘papers’, that secure your identity in relation to the state that you inhabit, can be a sentence of death…

Colin Dickey, ‘On Passports:  W G Sebald and the Menace of Travel’, Image & Narrative, 19 (November 2007)

 

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A refugee week poem: The journey

This article and poem, from Bristol Somali Media Group, were added as comments on my blog, but deserve a higher profile.

Bristol Somali Media Group

  Refugees are a fact of everyday life today. They come from all over the globe and mainly live in developing countries. Their story is one of hardship, misery and courage in the face of adversity. One cannot help, but be humbled by the stories of courage and immense patience as refugees flee their homes and spaces they love to start anew elsewhere far from their heart, culture and those they love. Many would have us believe that these people are only after exploiting the developed nations’ benefit systems and hide under the banner of refugee while seeking economic advantages. This is a misguided and false accusation that is intolerable. Refugees deserve better treatment and welcome especially in those nations that claim to champion Human Rights.

RefugeesRefugee week in the UK which is between 17th– 23rd June this year and UNHCRWorld Refugee Day which falls on…

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Einstein was a refugee…

… and so were an astonishing number of the other great physicists of the first half of the twentieth century.

These famous photographs are from the 1927 and 1933 Solvay Physics Conferences, and given the dates, it is interesting to ponder what became of those gathered there, not in terms of their scientific contribution (about which I am not qualified to speak)  but how they fared as Europe was engulfed in barbarism.

A. Piccard, E. Henriot, P. Ehrenfest, E. Herzen, Th. de Donder, E. Schrödinger, J.E. Verschaffelt, W. Pauli, W. Heisenberg, R.H. Fowler, L. Brillouin;

P. Debye, M. Knudsen, W.L. Bragg, H.A. Kramers, P.A.M. Dirac, A.H. Compton, L. de Broglie, M. Born, N. Bohr;
I. Langmuir, M. Planck, M. Skłodowska-Curie, H.A. Lorentz, A. Einstein, P. Langevin, Ch.-E. Guye, C.T.R. Wilson, O.W. Richardson

Erwin Schrodinger left Germany in 1933 to work,  in the UK, but took up a post in Austria.  In 1939, after the Anschluss, Schrödinger was dismissed from the University and  fled to Italy.  Wolfgang Pauli  fled to the United States in 1940.  Leon Brillouin resigned from his post in France after the Occupation, and went to the United States.  Peter Debye left Germany in early 1940, and became a professor at Cornell.  Max Born was suspended from his post in 1933 – he emigrated to Britain, where he took a job at St John’s College, Cambridge.

Niels Bohr gave refugees from Nazism temporary jobs at the Institute, provided them with financial support, arranged for them to be awarded fellowships or found them places at various institutions around the world. Denmark was occupied by the Germans, and in 1943, fearing arrest, he fled to Sweden, where he persuaded the King  to make public Sweden’s willingness to provide asylum, helping to effect the rescue of many Danish Jews.

Albert Einstein was visiting the US when Hitler came to power in 1933 and did not go back to Germany.  He spoke at the inaugural public meeting of the Academic Assistance Committee (later CARA).

File:Solvay1933Large.jpg

The seventh Conference, in 1933: Seated (left to right): Erwin Schrödinger, Irène Joliot, Niels Henrik David Bohr, Abram Ioffe, Marie Curie, Paul Langevin, Owen Willans Richardson, Lord Ernest Rutherford, Théophile de Donder, Maurice de Broglie, Louis de Broglie, Lise Meitner, James Chadwick. Standing (left to right): Émile Henriot, Francis Perrin, Frédéric Joliot, Werner Heisenberg, Hendrik Anthony Kramers, E. Stahel, Enrico Fermi, Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton, Paul Dirac, Peter Joseph William Debye, Nevill Francis Mott, Blas Cabrera, George Gamow, Walther Bothe, Patrick Blackett, M.S. Rosenblum, Jacques Errera, Ed. Bauer, Wolfgang Pauli, Jules-Émile Verschaffelt, M. Cosyns, E. Herzen, John Douglas Cockcroft, Charles Drummond Ellis, Rudolf Peierls, Auguste Piccard, Ernest O. Lawrence, Léon Rosenfeld.

Niels Bohr. In 1922 the Nobel Prize in Physics...

Niels Bohr

Max Cosyns, from Belgium, joined the Resistance and was imprisoned in Dachau.   Enrico Fermi left Italy in 1938 to escape Mussolini’s racial laws that affected his Jewish wife, and emigrated to the United States.  Rudolf Peierls
was studying on a Rockefeller Scholarship at Cambridge when Hitler came
to power – he was granted leave to remain in Britain, and worked in Manchester
under a fund set up for refugees.

Lise Meitner, an Austrian Jew, escaped to the Netherlands, with help from Dutch physicists Dirk Coster and Adriaan Fokker. She was forced to travel under cover to the Dutch border, where Coster persuaded German immigration officers that she had permission to travel to the Netherlands. She later said that she left Germany forever with 10 marks in her purse.  From the Netherlands she went on to Stockholm, and worked with Niels Bohr.

George Gamow worked at a number of Soviet establishments before deciding to flee Russia because of increased oppression. In 1933 he was suddenly granted permission to attend the Solvay Conference. He attended, with his wife, and arranged to extend their stay. Over the next year, Gamow obtained temporary work at the Curie Institute, University of London and University of Michigan.

In addition –

Ugo Fano left Italy for the US in 1939 because of anti-Semitism.  Liviu Librescu was born in 1930 to a Romanian Jewish family, and was deported first to a labour camp and then a ghetto in Focsani.   Walter Kohn came to England with the Kindertransport after the annexation of Austria.  Both of his parents were killed in the Holocaust.  Svein Rosseland fled Norway after the German occupation and went to the US.  Otto Stern resigned his post at the University of Hamburg in 1933 and became Professor of Physics at the Carnegie Institute.  Guido Beck  studied physics in Vienna.  Jewish born, he travelled in the 1930s to avoid persecution in Germany, but was imprisoned in France in 1937 at the start of the war – in 1941 he fled to Portugal and then in 1943 to Argentina. Felix Bloch  left Germany immediately after Hitler came to power, and emigrated to work at Stanford University.  James Franck left his post in Germany and continued his research in the United States. Otto Robert Frisch left Vienna for London to work at Birkbeck College.  Hilde Levi fled Denmark when the round-ups of Jews began, moving to Sweden, where she worked at the Wenner-Gren Institute for Experimental Biology in Stockholm.  Edward Teller  left Göttingen in 1933 through the aid of the International Rescue Committee, worked in the UK and then in Copenhagen with Niels Bohr, before being invited to the United States in 1935.  Arthur von Hippel left Germany in 1933, mainly because his wife was Jewish, but due also to his political stance against the new regime – he was able to secure a position in Turkey, then spent a year in Denmark before moving to the US to work at MIT.  Viki Weisskopf was born in Vienna, and worked with Bohr at his institute in Copenhagen – Bohr then helped him find a position in the US.

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From contribution to collaboration: Refugee Week and the value of seeing like a city

A fascinating and challenging contribution to Refugee Week – from cities@manchester

cities@manchester

by Jonathan Darling, Geography, University of Manchester

Today sees the start of Refugee Week 2013, an annual celebration of the contribution of refugees to the UK that seeks to promote better understanding of why people seek sanctuary. Refugee Week has been held annually since 1998 as a response to negative perceptions of refugees and asylum seekers and hostile media coverage of asylum in particular (Refugee Week 2013). Refugee Week promotes a series of events across the UK, from football tournaments and theatre productions to exhibitions and film screenings, all designed to promote understanding between different communities.

Whilst Refugee Week is a national event it finds expression in local activities organised in a range of cities. In part, this is in response to the dispersal of asylum seekers across the UK, meaning that refugees and asylum seekers have been increasing visible in a range of towns and cities over the…

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Shelter from the Storm

For the last eighty years, academics in various parts of the world whose freedom and whose lives have been threatened in their home countries, have been helped to build new lives in the UK by CARA.  That’s the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, as it is known today.   In 1933, when it started its work, it was called the Academic Assistance Council, and the impetus for its creation was the dismissal from German Universities of Jewish academics.  The Council had three related goals: to promote acceptance of the value of employing refugees by British universities, colleges, and industry; to raise funds to support them; and to ensure that the Government allowed refugees to enter Britain (Zimmerman, p. 33).  The name changed in 1936 to the Society for Protection of Science and Learning, as the darkening climate in Europe showed that the threat was not just to individuals but to academic freedom.   By the outbreak of the Second World War, they had helped over 900 scholars.

http://www.academic-refugees.org

It was not a foregone conclusion that the academic establishment would respond in this way.  Many took their time to conclude that maintaining an ‘aloof and detached’ stance outside of politics was unsustainable in light of what was happening in Europe.   My own University’s initial response to a request for support and funds makes uncomfortable reading:

‘The funds at our disposal are very small indeed and that there is a very strong feeling that our own students – many of whose parents are unemployed – have the first claim upon them. The opinion has also been strongly expressed that, as there are many rich men of the Jewish religion whose individual incomes are larger than the whole income of the University, it would be appropriate that they be asked to support the teachers in the first instance. At the same time we are very far from being unsympathetic towards the condition of these unfortunate persons, and it is only our poverty and not our will which suggests difficulties.’
Now, Sheffield was very aware of its own origins, founded by donations from working people in the city, many of whom in the 1930s were suffering severely from the economic downturn.  But the immediate recourse to the stereotype of the rich Jew – with the implication that those individuals were not doing what they could, and that the University and the working people of Sheffield were being asked to make up that lack – is dispiriting, though very much of its time.
However, whilst anti-Semitism played a part in our response in the UK to the call for help, the House of Commons also heard in April 1933 from the rather marvellous Colonel Josiah Wedgwood:
‘ I would like to see the strengthening of this country and of the British race by the admission freely into this country of those elements which are now suffering from persecution. The hon. and gallant Member for Chippenham (Captain Cazalet) who has just spoken is a Huguenot of distinguished Huguenot ancestry. Does not everybody to-day realise the enormous strengthening of the Anglo-Saxon race that has come from the admission of those Huguenot migrants into this country? They were flying from a persecution that was, I suppose, as bad as that which reigns in Germany to-day. The dragonnades of Louis XIV sent to this country an element of religion and of independence, and a commercial and intellectual element which has been of inestimable service to this country in war and in peace. I would beg the Government not to miss this opportunity of so benefiting England to-day and in the future. There we have, driven out of Germany, flying, when they can fly, to all the neighbouring countries, the thinkers, the intellectually-independent people, scientists, doctors, civil servants, artists and musicians. …  To-day those people are being turned back at Harwich, while nations like France, Belgium, Spain—rejuvenated Spain—are welcoming this new intellectual element. Those scientists would be our business men of the future, just as the Huguenots brought us the silk trade, made Norwich and made Leek in my own county of Staffordshire. The Huguenot element built up a great export trade for this country. We are now anxious to import foreign capital into this country; how much better is it to import foreign brains and amalgamate them. I do not speak from the obvious humanitarian point of view, but from the point of view of the material advantage of this country. Get those people in. …  Let English people see whether they, too, cannot receive these people into their family to make a home here, and to show that whatever the Prussian Aryan may feel about the Jews, or the peace-mongers or even the Socialists, we in this country realise the value of brains and the duty of hospitality to the oppressed.  … I wish that one result of this Debate to-day might be the opening of those doors, and the welcoming here not merely of the scientists who make the trade of the future, not merely of the doctors whom in the past all the world has gone to seek in Germany, but of those political exiles about whose fate we hear less, and who are now under preventive arrest in a dozen concentration camps throughout Germany. I wish that we might welcome those men, the free spirits of a free people, who decline to live in a land where liberty is no longer allowed, and get them here to strengthen our home and our love of liberty.

By mid-1936, however, the tenor of the debates had shifted.   There were concerns being raised about refugees taking work from British people, and the word ‘alien’ rather than refugee started to be used.   The marvellously named Lt-Colonel Gilbert Acland-Troyte raised the familiar question: ‘Why should we give away public money on these refugees from other countries?’  Another marvellously monikered military chap, Tufton Percy Hamilton Beamish, came up with yet another reason to be cautious – apparently ‘every refugee received into this country is only an incitement to foreign rulers to get rid of people who, in their opinion, are either racially or politically undesirable’.  And MP Will Thorne, in 1938, in a debate about permitting refugee doctors to practice in the UK, asked the question: ‘Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that if an application were made to the German Government, they would allow these doctors to stop in their own country?’.   Hansard does not record the right hon. Gentleman’s response.

The Chair of SPSL, Professor Archibald Hill of Cambridge University (Nobel laureate in Physiology & Medicine, 1922) spoke in 1943 in response to comments about the danger of anti-Semitism here, in response to the influx of refugees.  It is pertinent to quote him at some length, since these and similar arguments are to be found every day on the pages of the Daily Mail, and in less literate form in the comments below the line on every newspaper article concerning refugees.

It has been urged on the Home Secretary that a danger of anti-Semitism will exist, if more Jews are introduced here. This, again, is the argument of the last straw. Are the Jews so powerful and baneful an influence that one extra Jew among 5,000 Englishmen will make the whole mixture unstable? That is the proposition. To those who prefer arithmetic to magic, the whole thing is pure moonshine, but Hitler has managed to put his own pet obsession across among an otherwise sensible people. We hear wonderful stories about the number of Jews in Great Britain who have arrived here in the last ten years. An hon. Member asked me recently what on earth we were to do with the 40,000 Jewish doctors who were now in this country. As a matter of fact he had got the number 50 times too large. The Jews are said to be living in luxury while others fight; but the records of the last war and of this one show that this insult is completely unwarranted, either as to the number of those serving, or the number of distinctions for gallantry. The country is said to be flooded with Jewish refugees; in fact 60,000 or 70,000 have come in since 1933, and of that number between 10,000 and 20,000 came in as children, of whom many are still children. That is one to 700 of our population, which seems to make a funny sort of flood, not comparable with the one which has just been made by the R.A.F.

It is said that the danger to our national traditions from having so many Jews here must be regarded; but our national traditions must be pretty weak things if people who make up rather less than one per cent. of the whole can produce so great an effect. One is forced to regard anti-Semitism as a sort of contagious mental disease upon the victims of which facts and arguments are completely without effect. Ridicule, not reason, is the only form of treatment. To suggest, as responsible people sometimes do, that there is serious danger of anti-Semitism here if an extra 10,000 Jews are introduced from Europe, one in 5,000 of our people, is a gross insult to the intelligence, good nature and common sense of the normal citizen and is to confess oneself the foolish dupe of Nazi propaganda. The success of that propaganda shows that there is little chance for the human race being able to settle its affairs sensibly if it does not learn to examine critically and quantitatively what it is told.

With the benefit of our knowledge of what lay ahead for Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, we might find it difficult to echo Sir Samuel Hoare’s belief that the most tragic aspect was that many of those driven out ‘have been men of intellectual eminence who felt that their life’s training had been wasted, and that there was no future for them to carry out the professional work in which they held so eminent a place.’   But this was one aspect of the tragedy and the roll-call of ‘men of intellectual eminence’ who left in time, with the help of AAC/SPSL/CARA is extraordinary.  The loss to science, music, literature, medicine, philosophy – to all academic disciplines – had this and other organisations not reached out, would have been vast.  The loss of those who did not make it, who might have been as great or greater, is impossible to grasp.  This is not to say that the murder of a brilliant scientist or composer is worse than that of a clerk or a factory worker.  But it surely is the role of the academy to rally to the defence of academic freedom – and the freedom of individual academics – wherever it is under threat, and to the support of those who have risked so much for its sake.

With CARA’s 80th birthday and the start of Refugee Week in mind then, here are just a few of those who they helped in those first few years:

Sir Walter Bodmer, a prominent human geneticist who is also credited with expanding public understanding of the sciences – his family escaped in 1938, when he was two years old.
Sir Hermann Bondi, a mathematician who helped develop radar and influenced relativity theory, served as Chief Scientist to two UK government departments and as Master of Churchill College, Cambridge.
Max Born became the Tait Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and won the Nobel Prize in 1954 for his pioneering work in quantum mechanics.
Sir Ernst Chain won the Nobel Prize in 1945 for his shared work on penicillin.
Sir Geoffrey Elton, a historian and philosopher of history, helped to advance understanding of the Tudor government.  Born Gottfried Ehrenburg, his father Victor was also a historian, and came to England in 1939, from Czechoslovakia.
Sir Ernst Gombrich brought fundamental questions of aesthetics in art to scholarly and public attention.  He came to Britain in 1936, along with colleagues from the Warburg Institute, which had itself relocated to London from the University of Hamburg.
Sir Ludwig Guttmann, founder of spinal cord injury treatment, the Paralympic Games and the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital.
Sir Otto Kahn-Freund was a leading theorist and practitioner of labour law.
Sir Bernard Katz won the Nobel Prize in 1950 for shared research on mechanisms of neuro-muscular transmission.
Sir Hans Krebs won the Nobel Prize in 1953 for his shared research into the complex sequence of metabolic chemical reactions known as the Krebs Cycle.
Sir Rudolf Peierls taught theoretical physics at Birmingham and Oxford and was involved in both the development of atomic weaponry and the Pugwash anti-nuclear movement. He was studying on a Rockefeller Scholarship at Cambridge when Hitler came to power. Granted leave to remain in Britain, he worked in Manchester under a fund set up for refugees
Sir Nikolaus Pevsner brought new perspectives on the UK’s architectural heritage to scholars and the wider public.  The AAC helped to fund a research fellowship at Birmingham University when he left Germany in 1933
Sir Francis Simon pioneered research in thermodynamics and low-temperature physics at Oxford’s Clarendon Laboratory.

A guest editorial in International Psychiatry on the occasion of CARA’s 75th anniversary said that:
‘It is perhaps unsurprising that academics (about one-third of whom in CARA’s experience are in medicine or other related disciplines relevant to psychiatry) are overrepresented among refugees from the professions. When regimes are, or become, dictatorial, or where civil strife intensifies, those who ‘speak truth unto power’ through criticism, through pointing out alternative possibilities, or through upholding ethical standards – key academic duties – are all too likely to suffer job loss, imprisonment, torture or expulsion. Furthermore, the loss of the academic members of a society will, unless they can maintain skills in exile and later return, permanently affect that society’s future. Germany was a world leader in scholarship before Hitler but never fully recovered its academic position (Medawar & Pyke, 2000); the USA, Australia, Canada and the UK all gained immeasurably, as to a lesser extent did others. The number seeking CARA’s help has quadrupled in the past 3 years and continues to grow. There has been a very significant increase in the number of medical and other healthcare professionals seeking refugee status in the UK and in other countries according to our own figures. This is partly because of the situation in Iraq, where healthcare professionals are still being targeted by extreme elements,despite media reports that the situation is improving. Several hundreds have been assassinated there since 2003, mostly because they have sought to continue their work in their specialty. Also, in Zimbabwe extremely harsh conditions apply and many have gone to South Africa and neighbouring countries after finding it impossible to practise.’  (Boyd et al, 2009)
The article ends with a call to the psychiatric profession, which could go out to all academic disciplines, to ‘ assist this constituency of academic colleagues by speaking up against the stigmatisation of such refugees, supporting the correct view that they are and may increasingly become key local and global assets for a better future and, importantly, helping them to become re-established in their careers.’

http://www.academic-refugees.org/virtual-exhibition-online.asp

http://www.academic-refugees.org/downloads/

http://www.facebook.com/CARA1933

http://www.twitter.com/CARA1933

Syrian academics ‘must be helped just like those who fled the Nazis’ (standard.co.uk)
‘Eighty years of solace for exiles fleeing the storm’, THE, 13-19 June 2013, p.p. 18-19
http://hansard.millbanksystems.com

Robert Boyd, John Akker, Laura Wintour, ‘Academic Refugees’, International Psychiatry, 6, 3 (July 2009), pp. 53-4
Renee Farrar, Ludwig Guttman and the Paralympics, The Lancet, 380, 9845 (8 September 2012), p. 877.http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2812%2961491-3/fulltext
Lucy Mayblin, ‘Beyond the Hostile State: Imagining Universities of Sanctuary’, Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration,1, 1 (2011), 31-34. Online access at http://www.oxmofm.com
Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit, Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad (Penguin,2010)

Jeremy Seabrook, The Refuge and the Fortress (Palgrave Macmillan, 2nd edition, 2013)
David Zimmerman,’The Society for the Protection of Science & Learning and the Politicisation of British Science in the 1930s’, Minerva (2006), 44: 25–45

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# CINEMA /// The Borgesian Labyrinth of Alain Resnais and Henri Labrouste

A great follow-up to my Marienbad post – Resnais and labyrinths.

 

The Funambulist

In 1956, Alain Resnais created a 20-minute long film entitled Toute la Mémoire du Monde (All the World’s Memory) that beautifully mixes documentary information with a fictitious style of filming and editing. What I just wrote is however symptomatic of a prejudice according to which documentary should tend towards objectivity in an attempt to capture the “truth” of what they are filming. We know that choosing such an ambition for a film is doomed to failure. On the contrary, when one voluntarily embraces the subjectivity of the documentarian, the chances are that the resulting movie would be much more powerful in communicating the piece of reality it is describing (we will see that soon in Peter Watkins’ movies). Toute la Mémoire du Monde is part of these movies. Through the dramatic journey of a book traveling through the registration and archival process of the Bibliothèque nationale de France

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Last night I dreamed I went to Marienbad again…

Still from L'année dernière à Marienbad; in th...

Still from L’année dernière à Marienbad; in this surreal image, the couples cast long shadows but the trees do not (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Last Year at Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Intensely fascinating or tedious twaddle.  Given my propensity for enigmatic French nouveaux romans and their cinematic equivalents you can  guess which side I come down on.

 

Visually it is stunning, in a chilly way.  The ornate mirrors and labyrinthine corridors, that extraordinary garden, the statues, Delphine Seyrig herself.   The music is intense and overpowering, the acting stylised and static.  The setting is a hotel, or a spa, possibly, but not certainly, in Marienbad.  They – X and A –  met here last year, or have never met before.

 

Alain Robbe Grillet, who wrote the screen play, describes the film thus:

 

The whole film … is the story of a persuading: it deals with a reality which the hero creates out of his own vision, out of his own words. And if his persistence, his secret conviction, finally prevail, they do so among a perfect labyrinth of false trains, variants, failures and repetitions. … In this sealed, stifling world, men and things alike seem victims of some spell, as in the kind of dreams where one feels guided by some fatal inevitability, where it would be as futile to try to change the slightest detail as to run away.  (Introduction to the screenplay, p. 9)

 

This is very much in keeping with the Robbe-Grillet manifesto.  For him the text is the world, not a description of the world.  The notion of a novel or a film having ‘something to say’ is profoundly boring:

 

When a novelist has ‘something to say’ they mean a message.  It has political connotations, or a religious message, or a moral prescription. … They are saying that the writer has a world view, a sort of truth that he wishes to communicate, and that his writing has an ulterior significance.  I am against this’.  (Paris Review, spring 86, no. 99, interview with Shusha Guppy)

 

However, the director of the film is Alain Resnais, whose films have plenty to say.   In Night and Fog he worked with the poet Jean Cayrol, whose powerful closing words, a call to awareness,  would seem to be the antithesis of Robbe-Grillet’s approach.  He fuses memory and imagination, and in the labyrinth of barbed wire, searches for and confronts the Minotaur, the monster, hiding in its heart.   Hiroshima mon amour deals with the viewer’s reaction – ‘some of us see nothing in Hiroshima.  Nothing.  Others see everythingEverything.  That is the point’.  A whole sequence of films deal with trauma and memory and whilst others may seem more directly to address political or ethical concerns, Last Year at Marienbad does see ‘some of the concerns and tropes of Resnais’ earlier engagements with trauma, pain and death return … in various transposed forms.’ (Emma Wilson, Alain Resnais, p. 85).

 

Perhaps the tension between the two Alains is at the heart of Marienbad’s enigmatic power.    The viewer is invited by Robbe-Grillet to let themselves be carried along by the extraordinary images, the voices of the actors, the soundtrack, the music, the rhythm of the cutting, the passion of the characters, and describes it as a film ‘addressed exclusively to his sensibility’ rather than turning to ‘clumsy systems of interpretation which machine-made fiction or films grind out for him ad nauseam’ (Robbe-Grillet, p. 13).   However, whilst it is certainly possible to be swept along by the the film in the way he recommends, it is almost impossible not to start trying to solve the puzzle.  After all, a repeated motif in the film is that of games, and the winning of games, and the game of interpretation is too tempting to resist.  And Resnais himself summarises the film with a question – ‘qui a raison?’.  For Resnais, the protagonists in his films are real beings.  They have their own lives, ‘latent, mysterious’ (Kline, p. 86).  But realism doesn’t exclude ambiguity – what Deleuze calls a cinema of undecidability.

 

It’s difficult, knowing how far apart the writer and director were in their conception of the film (despite some of Robbe-Grillet’s statements on the subject), not to read the film in the light of this.   When the images on screen often contradict the usually authoritative sounding voice-over, perhaps what we are seeing is Resnais asserting his vision of the film against the screenplay, which was so minutely detailed as to seemingly leave Resnais little room  to manoeuvre, intruding on his territory with instructions on camera movement, lighting, etc.    Robbe-Grillet describes the film as ‘in fact the story of a communication between two people … one making a suggestion, the other resisting, and the two finally united , as if that was how it had always been.’  However, Resnais has introduced into that narrative ambiguity that would seem to undermine that clear resolution.   We do not see X and A leave the hotel at all, let alone together.  They seem to meet, at the appointed hour, without speaking to each other, barely looking at each other, and walk very slowly and stiffly away from the lobby and out of view.  Neither has any luggage though the voice-over has told us previously that she ‘packed a few things’.   And if they do leave the hotel, it is only to get lost, forever, in the garden, alone or together.

 

The two Alains did not work, strictly speaking, together (ARG wrote the screenplay with minimal intervention from AR, and AR did the filming without intervention from ARG), and do not see the film in the same way.  One intriguing sidelight on this is that AR used a recording of ARG reading his screenplay to guide the male actors.   But not Delphine Seyrig.  ARG himself has said that Resnais is A (Seyrig’s character).  Certainly, there would seem to be a link between A and Elle (the woman in Hiroshima mon amour), both appearing to be traumatised, repressing memories.

 

X speaks in imperatives – Come here.  Come closer.  Follow me.  Listen to me.  Remember.  I’ve come to take you away.  You know …. that we are going to leave.  A pleads, denies  – No,  it’s impossible.  No, I don’t want to.  No, I don’t know what happened then.  No!  You’re making it up.  I don’t know you.  No, it’s too far…  Please.  Let me alone… please…  For pity’s sake!   He is insistent – possibly to the point of rape.  She seems traumatised, fearful.  Her pose is characteristically with one arm across her body, her hand on her shoulder – a defensive posture, which at moments is almost cowering.

He asserts his memories, but increasingly doubts them, questions his own recollection – ‘no, that can’t be right’.

 

Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay calls for a scene where A is raped by X.  Resnais refused to film this.   The rape is suggested in X’s voice over – ‘I took you, half by force’, and then denied – ‘Probably it wasn’t by force’, but without complete conviction.   He is trying to persuade himself as much as her here, that he did not use force.   The question hangs in the air.    Certainly he is forceful and she is afraid.  She keeps her distance, ‘as if on the threshold, as if at the entrance to a place that was too dark, or too strange …’  She seems to show the classic symptoms of trauma, the continual reliving of the wounding experience.

 

So, how do we interpret this strange film?  Are they all in fact dead, and the hotel is a sort of ante-room to the afterlife?  Is the hotel peopled by automata, and X alone has autonomy, memory, and perspective?  Does he have to seize the moment when the automata are able to move, to betwitch A into life, identifying/creating a past for her?  Or is X aware of his status as a character in a film, imprisoned in the screenplay?  Thus he starts to direct A, rather than merely describing things to her.  He rejects one scenario (where she is shot) as ‘not the right ending’.  Paradoxically, as Luc Lagier says in his documentary, we have a film that is closed in upon itself, but open to a seemingly infinite number of interpretations.

 

My own particular interests focus on trauma and memory, on the labyrinth which is such a powerful motif in the films and novels of the postwar period (Resnais’s labyrinths of barbed wire in Night & Fog, or the corridors of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Toute la memoire du monde; Robbe-Grillet’s In the Labyrinth amongst other works, and of course Michel Butor’s L’Emploi du temps…), and on W G Sebald’s engagement with the film, and the place, in Austerlitz, and in his poetry.   In ‘The Year Before Last’ he writes:

The match game

was meant to decide everything.

The gleaming parquet floor

stretched before us.  All round us

were mirrors, guests, motionless –

and in the middle you

in your feather boa.  Hadn’t

we met once before?

In a taxus maze?

On a stage? The perspectival

prospect, pruned hedges,

little round trees and balustrades,

the palace in the background?

So, having been tinkering with this blog post for months already, I am pretty certain I’m not yet in a position to leave Marienbad.  Bleston, all over again.

 

 

 

Tess Jaray, A ‘Mystery and a Confession’, Irish Pages, 1,  2  (Autumn/Winter, 2002/3), 137-9

T Jefferson Kline, Screening the Text (Johns Hopkins UP, 1992)

Luc Lagier, ‘Dans le labyrinthe de Marienbad’ (documentary featured on Marienbad DVD)

Alain Robbe-Grillet, interviewed by Shusha Guppy, Paris Review, 99 (spring 1986)

Alain Robbe-Grillet, trans. Richard Howard,  Last Year at Marienbad: a cine novel (London: John Calder, 1962)

W. G. Sebald and Michael Hamburger, ‘A Final Poem: Marienbad Elegy’, Irish Pages, 1, 2 (Autumn-Winter, 2002/3), 125-32

Freddy Sweet, The Film Narratives of Alain Resnais (UMI Research Press, 1981)

Emma Williams, Alain Resnais (Manchester UP, 2006)

http://conversationalreading.com/sebald-at-marienbad/

http://sebald.wordpress.com/2010/11/07/undiscoverd-country-3/

http://bibliomanic.com/tag/last-year-at-marienbad/

 

 

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