Even geniuses make mistakes. That’s how I thought I’d begin. And then…viewing again. It is like “Heroin” by The Velvet Underground. Was Lou Reed, the songwriter, promoting the use of this drug in the song of the same name? Not necessarily. It boils down (no pun intended) to something I learned in economics: positive vs. normative.
And so, we have a film by Jean-Luc Godard which is very difficult to sum up. On the surface it is easy. The Situationists called Godard a Swiss Maoist (a sort of double insult). Even in that, they were only part right. Yes, Godard today lives in Rolle…in the canton of Vaud: Switzerland. But he was born in Paris. He didn’t move to Switzerland until he was four years old. Of course, he would return to Paris for university (and eventually to make a name for himself as critic and director). Actually, it was a back and forth: la France, la Suisse, la France, la Suisse…like a tennis match.
Back to my point: this film does not necessarily “prove” that Godard was a Maoist. But was he? And what would that mean? Let’s investigate.
First, I should mention that I have read four books about Godard, one more which is a book-length interview, an additional collection of his writings, and finally an actual book by Godard which was published by Gallimard. Of the first category, two were biographies (by Richard Brody and Colin MacCabe respectively).
In my opinion, a short review of Jean-Pierre Gorin and the Dziga Vertov Group are needed.
First Gorin. Wikipedia (in English) is typically terse when it comes to Jean-Pierre. For our purposes, it is enough to say that Gorin is nowhere called a Maoist in this short entry.
Next…Dziga Vertov Group. Again, no one is called a Maoist in this similarly curt Wiki reflection. The closest thing is a non-hypertext mention of the film(s) British Sounds/See You at Mao.
This may seem like laziness on my part (and it is), but it is important to note that the “Dziga Vertov” period of Godard’s oeuvre is the most unknown (and, one might say, mysterious). This would be roughly 1968-1972.
And so we are brought to the man at issue himself: Mao.
What ideas are pertinent? Anti-imperialism. The Long March. The People’s Republic of China. The Great Leap Forward. 45 million dead? The Cultural Revolution.
One must wonder whether it is a coincidence that the Dziga Vertov Group disbanded the same year Nixon visited China: 1972. Was this seen as weakness by Maoists?
Let’s recalculate: 40 million dead? 70 million?
Just as in the Holocaust, how much about China’s “dark side” was known outside of the country during Mao’s tenure? For young idealists, the concept of radical revolution might have an appealing luster, but when deaths are counted in millions and tens-of-millions the appeal should (must!) become appalling.
What were the nature of these deaths? Mao bragged about burying alive 46,000 scholars. One thing is certain: there is a persisting battle between those who seek to rehabilitate the tarnished image of Mao and those who perhaps feel that the extent of atrocities for which he was responsible has not yet fully been made evident to the world at large.
Mao is a strange figure…to whom just about every superlative and, equally, insult has been applied. Just as in a criminal investigation, we must scrutinize the sources and their authors with cui bono: what do they stand to gain by promulgating such theories?
Were 3 million tortured to death during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962)? If even one was tortured to death, isn’t that too many?
Yes. We do not hold torturers and terrorists to be our heroes. They forfeit our respect at that point…no matter how great their theories are. It is solemnly inexcusable.
No, rather we uphold the nonviolent masters: Gandhi and King. Obama is no King (nor king). The end does not justify the means. We who torture lose our humanity. We are only torturing ourselves.
And so even Nixon himself was a Maoist in a cynical, Machiavellian way. Anything to counter what Reagan would later normatively call “the evil empire.” Yes Mao, it is still the imperialists who are the true axis of evil in this young century. But China is learning how to project its influence. It would be wrong to call the China of today anti-imperialist.
Enough about Mao. That is the freedom we have…at this late moment…to still express such a thought.
Godard’s dalliance with Maoism didn’t last long (in terms of his career as a whole).
Perhaps it was Dostoyevsky. No doubt Paul Nizan. Most importantly it was the ravishing Anne Wiazemsky. Godard was doubtless smitten…you can tell by the camera’s loving gaze. He would have gone to the end of the earth for her. A revolutionary goddess!
Veronique Verkhovensky. Her eyes are wild in their tranquility. She is no paper tiger. Juliet Berto is the brunette…Wiazemsky the redhead. Such a beautiful revolutionary group!
Henri Shatov. He endures the brunt of human stupidity here. No, he cannot entice Juliet to abandon the radical cell as they dive headlong into terrorism.
Kirilov adds a dash of Peter Max color before his inevitable demise.
Will the Maoists in power continue to struggle on two fronts (ISIS and Ukraine) while fronting like sucker MCs? Yeah, oops: Nemtsov and Nisman worked for you…32 was 23 (if 6 was 9).
Francis Verkhovensky. Like Jimmy Stewart in Rope. Should we contact Arthur Lee or Althusser in regards to all those little red books of Aden Arabie? I’m inclined to believe that Love is all you need.