Essays – Criticism

PDF download available here: Ache of the Real*

Mariette Papic is a writer and photographer based in New York City. As a writer on the topic of graffiti, she has interviewed Swoon, Elph, Leon Reid IV and photographed many others. She is the author of Electric Bathtub Psalms and an upcoming collection of poetry-prose, Letters for Flying. She is an avid dreamer and observer of the developing technologically enabled thought-body.

Mariette Papic (Photo credit: Andy Lin, Self-Portrait Project)

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*This essay was first published in PANTHEON: A history of art from the streets of NYC. If you would like to learn more about the book and see more articles from it, please visit The first limited edition is sold out, but it will be published on a large scale soon. You may also get information about purchasing the companion poster “The Feral Diagram: Graffiti and Street Art” at

James Nikopoulos

The first time I read Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days I was bothered to no end by a seemingly minor detail in the stage directions, the first instance of which comes just after the play’s heroine has brushed her teeth and spit out the results behind the mound that has her swallowed up to the waist:

She spits out. She cranes a little further back and down. Loud.] Hoo-oo! [Pause.  Louder.] Hoo-oo! [Pause. Tender smile as she turns back front, lays down brush.]  Poor Willie- [examines tube, smile off]

She will do this – smile that is, not brush her teeth – another thirty-seven times, a remarkable amount considering that she is buried up to the waist within a mound of scorched earth. This is Winnie, a woman of about fifty who whiles away the time in an almost uninterrupted monologue as her partner Willie, a man of about sixty and the play’s only other character, squirms around and behind this mound, uttering only a small handful of words during the entire piece. Not much else happens. Happy Days can boast of no real plot and of very little action. At most, Winnie will rummage through the shopping bag by her side, pulling out various mundane objects, such as a tube of toothpaste, and she will insist on speaking to the senile man nearby, who only rarely responds. The most startling development the play has to offer occurs at the start of the second act when, with no explanation why, we find that Winnie is no longer buried up to the waist. Now she is buried up to the neck, which means that all that’s left to her is her words, no more shopping bag to keep her occupied, nothing but her words and the same old partner she can only hope to catch a glimpse of as she darts her eyes around the room.  It is bleak indeed, this allegory of the human condition that Beckett gives us. As if to say the world will swallow us up in the end just as it has swallowed up Winnie, and there’s not much we can do about it. And yet despite the dismal tableau the play depicts, the heroine at its center continues to shoot off one grin after another. And each one confounds me.

It is not the fact that she is smiling that offends some sensibility of mine but how this smiling is described. The logical objection to make here is that this is a play, not a novel, so I’m supposed to be seeing Happy Days, not reading it, thereby leaving me ignorant of the stage directions. But it is too late, because I read the play first, as most people read the great plays before they see them, if they ever see them performed at all. Plus, Beckett must have known that people would be reading his plays and therefore be subjected to such a flagrantly un-literary means of describing the comings and goings of moments of happiness. For though they are not always described as “tender,” these smiles always appear in the same matter-of-fact manner and then disappear with only the sparsest of attention: “smile off.” They arrive seemingly out-of-nowhere, instantaneously, with little indication in the preceding moments that Winnie’s mood is tending towards the jolly, only to vanish as quickly and mysteriously as they appeared. They are like the light that is emitted from sheer darkness at the mere flip of a switch, leaving one less with the image of an actress allowing an upturn to emerge and fade from her lips than of one of those forced, awkward smiles that plague so many childhood yearbook photos.

My point in bringing all this up is that these smiles, more than fifty years after they were put to paper – Happy Days was written in 1960 and first performed at New York’s Cherry Lane Theater in September of 1961 – are capable of saying much about how we respond to happiness and joy, and how we perceive them in others. A smile, after all, is one of the most elemental ways we communicate non-verbally. For those of you who are parents, just think back to that first smile you spied on your adorable one’s little face. Is there any other movement so slight, so seemingly inconsequential, which can produce such joy in another? Even that flirtatious smile of a stranger’s. What could be more natural? Which is what irks me so much about Winnie’s not-so-sly grins – they seem to defy all that is natural without coming across as intentionally deceptive: Smile on, smile off, Beckett writes, and leaves it at that. But can a smile really come and go so mechanically? The answer is yes, but what kind of smile you’re talking about needs to be qualified.

If you go to the Science and Nature section of the BBC’s website, you will find twenty brief video clips of faces that quickly smile and then return to their previous expressions. The point is to test your ability to delineate between “fake” and “genuine” smiles. That the two are distinguishable at all derives from the fact that a “fake” smile is a conscientious movement by the brain that lifts the corners of the mouth outwards. By contrast, a “genuine” smile is unconscious and automatic. “When people feel pleasure, signals pass through the part of the brain that processes emotion. As well as making the mouth muscles move, the muscles that raise the cheeks… also contract, making the eyes crease up, and the eyebrows dip slightly.” Scientists distinguish between the two through the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), developed by Professor Paul Ekman and Dr. Wallace V. Friesen.

So yes, it is plausible that a middle-aged woman’s smile would appear and disappear quickly. But can the truly felicitous inspire such a phenomenon? Are Winnie’s smiles supposed to be sincere representations of her happiness? For a “genuine” smile is one of the ways we physically represent our happiness and our joy, and by definition it appears unconsciously, thus when “genuine” it is automatically something heartfelt.

So what to make of a woman whose companion is barely capable of interacting with her, who is physically incapacitated? What does she have to smile about? To some extent all her smiles are “fake,” for Winnie is a fictional character and the actress wielding them allows them to appear on her face because of the exigencies of each moment in the scene. Our suspension of belief, though, makes this a moot point. What matters is whether or not they are genuine to Winnie and whether or not an audience reads them as such.

The problem with attempting to interpret a grin of course is that it is so ambiguous. This is not laughter we are dealing with, nor the stern finality of a scowl.  A “fake” smile can be interpreted as insincere or polite at best, and duplicitous at worst. The anatomical differences between the smile of a Falstaff and that of a Iago are small and not always easily detected (I guessed the correct authenticity of the smiles in the above-mentioned test twelve out of twenty times). I do not mean to imply that Winnie is trying to deceive her audiences, but I am saying that her smiles are not as tidy as a “genuine” smile. And since “genuine” smiles are not always read as such, even they represent a potentially difficult form of human communication to assess. This is especially so when we look at smiles in any form of art. As an obvious example, consider how much has been said about the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic grin. With Winnie at least, we have some other evidence – her words and accompanying gestures – from which to wring an interpretation.

Winnie’s third smile appears after she has removed a bottle of red medicine from her bag. She puts her spectacles on and begins to read the label:

Loss of spirits…lack of keenness…want of appetite…infants…children …adults…six level…tablespoonfuls daily – [head up, smile] – the old style! – [smile off, head down, reads] –

Here her smile feels like the aftereffect of a eureka moment. Part of this has to do with the way she looks up from her reading before she smiles, and part involves the statement that links the moments in which the smile appears and then disappears: “the old style!” This will be something that she repeats over and again throughout the play, and always accompanied by her smile. Beckett elaborates on this statement, but he never diverges too far from the simplicity of its initial wording. For example, several pages further into the script, Winnie contemplates the possibility of Willie’s death – “Whereas if you were to die – [smile] – to speak in the old style – [smile off]” – and then a page after that, when she is discussing how she puts all her possessions back in her bag at the end of the day, she interrupts her train of thought with her usual interjection: “[Smile.] To speak in the old style. [Pause.] The sweet old style. [Smile off.]”

Alan Schneider, who directed the first production, wrote to Beckett that he assumed Winnie’s smile on “old style” was indicative of some fond memory of the past. Ah, but things aren’t so simple. This was Beckett’s response: “‘Old style’ and smile always provoked by word ‘day’ and derivatives or similar. There is no more day in the old sense because there is no more night, i.e. nothing but day. It is in a way an apologetic smile for speaking in a style no longer valid. ‘Old style’ suggests also of course old calendar before revision. ‘Sweet old style’ joke with reference to Dante’s ‘dolce stile nuovo.”

Whatever one wants to make of this explanation – I can’t make much of it myself – at the very least it allows us to see the complexity Beckett was going for in his use of this stage direction. This particular smile seems to be multivalent – regretful, apologetic, perhaps nostalgic. But purely joyful, an unconscious reaction to pleasure? Or perhaps her smile is simply lying to us.

In the end, though, a smile’s most traditional and still most dominant association is with happiness. The motivations that produce the smile may be various and completely at odds with the idea of “happiness,” but the initial message of a smile is always one of happiness/friendship. The fact that a smile may be used as a means towards deception does not alter the initial message conveyed. As anthropologist Fabio Ceccarelli points out: “The capacity to lie has nothing to do with the message that the smile communicates. Only because it has an invariable signification can I use it in order to lie.”

Beckett utilizes this association of happiness directly when he associates a smile with laughter. Shortly after the moment cited above in which Winnie contemplates Willie’s death, another smile appears, one that threatens to expand into laughter. She asks herself what she would do all day if Willie were to leave her, “Simply gaze before me with compressed lips… Not another word as long as I drew breath, nothing to break the silence of this place…” There would be nothing but this silence, she says, save for

a sigh into my looking-glass. [Pause.] Or a brief…gale of laughter, should I happen to see the old joke again. [Pause. Smile appears, broadens and seems about to culminate in laugh when suddenly replaced by expression of anxiety.]

Here we recognize the smile among one of its familiar associations, as the prelude to laughter. Beckett utilizes this association in order to build up the tension of possibility, in order to make the arc of the fall down into “expression of anxiety” that much more steep. This threatened laughter initiates a gradual escalation of anxiety, as Winnie begins to worry about her hair, interspersing fractured comments concerning the presence of her comb and brush with the lines “Human weakness” and “Natural weakness.” The build-up reaches its apex once she has begun to question Willie: “What would you say Willie? … The hair on your head, Willie, what would you say speaking of the hair on your head, them or it?” Willie, as he is wont to do, provides Winnie’s long speeches with a fleeting instance of relief in the form of the barest of responses: “It,” he says.

Winnie’s reply to his welcomed communication is telling:

[turning back front, joyful] Oh you are going to talk to me today, this is going to be a happy day! [Pause. Joy off.] Another happy day. [Pause.] Ah well, where was I, my hair, yes…

She turns to him, “joyful,” and just like the smiles from earlier, the expression of this sentiment on our heroine’s face vanishes as quickly as it appeared. I am left wondering. Should we construe that first sentence to be a hopeful one? My initial response is yes. Her next comment, though -“Another happy day” – feels anything but, for it is delivered with “Joy off.” Is she being sarcastic now, or has her previous “joy” merely been dampened? If this is sarcasm, I wonder how strong that initial joy could have been if it is so quickly replaced by such irony. A statement Beckett made to the actress Billie Whitelaw supports reading her “joy” as sincere: “I don’t think [Winnie] knows herself what kind of woman she is. She’s a mess. An organized mess. Her strength is through her unawareness.”[i] If it is merely a lessening of joy we are dealing with then, I cannot help but see Winnie’s situation as sadly pathetic, for can she truly believe that it will be a happy day now that Willie has uttered one more of his minimally syllabic phrases? Can that be enough?

All of these issues are dramatized by the language of the play’s protagonist in conjunction with these very odd stage directions, which seem to be conveying more of the emotional pathos of the moment than the words. Notice how the direction “joyful” appears and clicks “off” the same way that Winnie’s smiles do. A similar thing happens with Winnie’s “happy expressions,” which are almost as numerous as her smiles. Just earlier we see Winnie look out towards us in the audience and make her familiar remark: “[She turns back front, gazes before her. Happy expression.] Oh this is going to be another happy day! [Pause. Happy expression off.]”

That an actress could convey these abrupt shifts in emotion so quickly is more than plausible, but I wonder what constitutes a “joyful” and a “happy” expression according to Beckett considering that he delineates them from smiles and laughter, and I wonder how the “joyful” and the “happy” themselves differ. It seems that all must be, at least partly, made up of a smile. The difference then must lie in the degree. Maybe it is just a bigger smile that is needed for moments of “happiness” and perhaps an even bigger one for that lone moment of joy. If so, then the drop from expression of joy to “joy off” is far steeper than the “smile off” of earlier.

It is precisely the steepness of this drop, the speed with which Winnie goes from happy to not, that makes her joy suspect. But this suspicion has less to do with an inability to believe that Winnie is, in fact, not faking her joy and more to do with our inability to reconcile Winnie’s version of joy with our own idea of it. Because Happy Days is doing something to the idea of joy. It is making it less familiar to us by disallowing it the possibility of duration. Gone is the possibility of a happiness that persists. Yet the idea that joy and happiness can last is what separates them from the idea of mere pleasure, be it physical pleasure – as in the enjoyment of a sugary sweet or the sensual delight of lovemaking – or emotional pleasure – as in our laughter at a joke. Pleasure may create a feeling of happiness, but it is not in and of itself happiness. Pleasure is about the momentary. Joy and happiness too may come and go, but the idea of joy and happiness is an idea associated with what gives our lives meaning. To see what I mean, we need only add a rather sentimental qualifier to one of our terms. What is “true” happiness?  It cannot be just pleasure. It is not usually associated with a good laugh or a good lay. “True” happiness is much different. For some it may involve family, for others career, and still for others something different. It is a type of philosophical pleasure that we form in light of our outlooks on the world, one that is defined in part by its relevance to the entirety of our lives.

In Happy Days, though, joy comes and goes, hauntingly, and in the process conveys the idea that Winnie’s momentary “joy” cannot be anything more than wishful thinking or hollow posing. If one were optimistically inclined, then perhaps these moments could be read as moments of true joy, though this might be the most pessimistic of readings in the end, for what does it say that they come and go so quickly, and that this affective transition is rendered so unemotionally?

This is part of what makes Happy Days so powerfully ambiguous. This is why, despite the fact that Beckett himself calls Winnie a “hardened sorrower,” she is so often referred to as “optimistic.” A Google search for “Happy Days Beckett” will reveal Sparknotes interpreting her statements that today will be a “happy day” as almost “constant[ly] optimistic.” Likewise, the description of Winnie for a 2009 production by the Philadelphia-based Lantern Theater calls her “the optimist against all odds.”

In the end, what these moments of happy expressions do, being that they come and go so mechanically, being that they form on the face of a woman mired in a miserable situation, is play with an audience’s natural expectations of what the human expression of joy entails. Is it that Winnie is manipulating us? Perhaps she is merely too proud to admit her frailty or unwilling to show true sadness in front of her companion. There is also the simple explanation that she really is an “optimist against all odds,” and that no matter what she has encountered and continues to encounter, she refuses to be bogged down by the weight of fatalism. If this is the case, then one could interpret her as heroic or foolish, a conscientious protestor against the tyranny of life’s misery, or a clueless half-wit.

Happy Days is a kind of examination, a woman examining the reality of her life: past, present, and future. What emerges is a play that asks us to reexamine the validity of our emotional responses to our lives. In consistently calling into question the type of smiles and happy expressions we are witnessing on the face of this woman, the play is asking us to examine why it is that the act of expressing joy and happiness both to others and to ourselves is such a fundamentally important aspect of human existence. Because the showing forth of joy cannot just be a construct. Fake smiles are physically detectable, and the “genuine” ones, even if they blink on and off, still must come from somewhere, whether it be a place of long-untapped hope or unavoidable rancor. It’s like singing. As Winnie says: “One cannot sing…just like that, no. [Pause.] It bubbles up, for some unknown reason, the time is ill chosen, one chokes it back. [Pause.] One says, Now is the time, it is now or never, and one cannot. [Pause.] Simply cannot sing. [Pause.] Not a note.”

But what if one can sing, and one does, before anyone and everyone to behold, even despite a miasma of misfortune others might perceive as inescapable? Would such a person come across as brave or ludicrous, full of child-like hope or jaded irony? Roland Barthes once said that joy is never undeserved. Happy Days asks if it is ever unjustified. “Ah well what a joy in any case to hear you laugh again,” Winnie tells Willie after they share in a chuckle. “I suppose some people might think us a trifle irreverent, but I doubt it. [Pause.]”

There is, of course, another interpretation to all this, one that refuses to harp on the pessimism of Winnie’s situation. It notices less the rapidity with which Winnie’s smiles disappear and more the speed with which they form along her lips. Could Happy Days not be an exercise in true joy, in the joy that can be culled from the dullest of bright spots, from the smallest of gestures? Consider how the play ends.

As Winnie nears the finish of her second act monologue, she is greeted with a surprise of sorts. Willie emerges from behind the mound, for the first time dressed as a proper gentleman, or as the play describes him, “on all fours, dressed to kill – top hat, morning coat, striped trousers, etc.” Winnie’s enjoyment of this unexpected pleasure increases when her companion begins to crawl up the mound towards her. He is described as “Gleeful” and Winnie responds with enthusiasm, encouraging the ascent that will culminate in Willie’s slithering back down to the foot of the mound. But this over-the-top assay, which is so visually dramatic, does not represent the climax of Willie’s attempt to connect with Winnie. That comes moments later. After having slid down to the foot of the mound, he lifts his face from off the ground and rises to his hands and knees, and he responds to his excited companion: “[just audible] Win.”

Another ambiguous statement. What it means exactly…? There is something recognizable in it though, its possibility as a verb, its resemblance to the name of the play’s heroine, who responds:

[Pause. Winnie’s eyes front. Happy expression appears, grows.]

Win! [Pause.] Oh this is a happy day, this will have been another happy day!

Beckett wrote to Alan Schneider that “Winnie [is] happy [at this point] because Willie has answered. Doesn’t matter to her what he says, as long as he speaks to her.” Yet like all of Beckett’s directions denoting delight, the “happy expression” soon clicks off. We hear Winnie sing the words, “It’s true, it’s true / You love me so!” only to have them punctuated with the familiar interruption: “[Pause. Happy expression off.]” That something has happened, that something has changed now within Winnie’s mind, cannot be denied.

The play ends with the staccato disruption of Winnie’s most protracted showing forth of glee, which then morphs into nothing other than a smile. This concluding smile is perhaps the most ambiguous of them all. After Winnie’s “happy expression” clicks off, she closes her eyes:

Bell rings loudly. She opens her eyes. She smiles, gazing front. She turns her eyes, smiling, to Willie, still on his hands and knees looking up at her. Smile off. They look at each other. Long pause.

Here it is. The smile, protracted now. Her eyes meet ours, then her companion’s, then…a pause.

It is an ending fitting with everything that has come before, one that asks us to determine for ourselves whether or not such a smile, no matter how slight its reason for appearing, could be anything but genuine, as though asking if our joy could be so fragile.

[i] This is reported in Gontarski, S.E. The Intent of Undoing in Samuel Beckett’s Dramatic Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. All other correspondences with Beckett are cited from Harmon, Maurice, ed. No Author Better Served, The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

James Nikopoulos writes on modern literature and film. He lives in New York City.

Kandinsky's "Composition 8"

By Angelina Muñiz-Huberman

Translated from Spanish by Andrea Labinger

One way of reviving the arts and humanities in general, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has been to update ancient myths. Orpheus will always be a central figure: a touchstone. The ambiguity of his legend, its philosophical meaning, its poetic symbolism, its interconnection with various art forms, the underlying life-love-death metaphor, and the voyage to the infernal and occult are just a few elements of its interpretive possibilities.

Orpheus is present in the world of creative spirituality. He is a recurrent motif in painting, sculpture, music, opera, dance, poetry, the novel, film, and theater.

With the advent of Romanticism and the avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century, the theme is revived as a source of infinite variation. It is related to innovative esthetics, as in the poetry of Rilke, the painting of Kandinsky and Paul Klee, the music of Debussy, Schönberg, and Alban Berg; and Laban’s theory of dance. In literature it remains a constant motif: to offer just one contemporary example, it is the guiding principle in the work of Canadian writer Robertson Davies. In dance, there is Lina Bausch’s outstanding choreography Orpheus and Euyidice by Glück.

Orpheus’s Sentence

As long as Orpheus’s legacy exists in the arts, there will be a contradiction. His descent to the underworld meant nothing because there was no rebuilding. Orpheus did not rescue Eurydice, and his sentence was to create the song of despair. As his act was essentially useless, he had no choice but to dedicate himself to the consecration of art in all its fragility

The legend of Orpheus alludes to an instant when time stands still, a time when error and loss might still be reversed. It is, furthermore, the moment of decision, the moment when the canticle that must not be desecrated emerges. It relates to the theme of deliberate sacrifice. Even beforehand, Orpheus senses that he will not recover Eurydice: his soul’s voyage will be in vain. The price of his impatience is solitude for the rest of his life. He will practice his art at the edge of silence, while his followers multiply. If it was sight that caused him to lose the realm of love, it will be through hearing that he acquires the realm of order. Creating order from music will allow him to imagine Eurydice’s presence before him.  He receives the sign of the revelation and abandons an anticipated behavior.  Then he leaves logic behind.  The lines of drawing, melody, and poetry intersect, setting each other free.

Orpheus advances from darkness into light. His penetration into the shadows is a sign that hope awaits. It is the sign of birth. The delicate resonance of a melody is heard after his first dream, before sunrise. And it is heard when the realm of death already lies behind him and dawn is about to break. His pact with the gods has been shattered, and all that remains are the creative forces themselves: the poet, the musician will understand that revelation comes from within and its sign is luminosity unveiled.

Those who follow the Orphic path will be marked by a mystical sort of art, the kind that passes tests and is presented naked, deliberate, and liberated. It aspires to deep stylistic concentration: to a selection of governing principles carried out in Esthetics. But the first rule is an intimate, ethical commitment to artistic sincerity. One might say that it is an art of the arts. An art of arts followed only by those creators who are tested by rejection, by perseverance in their convictions and the acceptance of the halo that marks them.

Orphism is related to other philosophical theories, like those of Pythagoras, in which the union of music and numbers reflects a metaphysical abstraction. Time and space are images of the number. Art is desire and will as expressed in time and space, and its primordial feature is rhythm.  Dance, music, and poetry drift through time: they struggle to capture an eternal moment, an eternal place. Their ephemerality is proof of their nostalgia.

Orpheus and the Word

The word on Orpheus’s lips acquires dimensions of the unpredictable, the arbitrary, the unexpected. It distorts logic and thus makes us feel uneasy. It meets with Aristotle’s rejection and Plato’s indecision. But it is Plato who sentences the poet and assigns him his distinguishing mark, a mark that will become an onus over the centuries. The moment of liberation arrived with the acceptance of the desacralization theory, the notion that in art all transgressions are admissible.  Canons were dismantled, and now Orpheus returns rebellious and ready to unleash the Furies . Laws were broken, and the result was the discovery of new fields of limitless creativity.

The twentieth century artist was annoyed by law and order, mental prisons, tiresome repetitions, stagnant concepts. He returned to the Orphic myth, lost in time and mystery, for inspiration. From that moment on, the representation of reality ceased to be imperative and other perspectives, new sounds and colors, other rhythms and sensations, took precedence.  Only those arts that were anchored in totalitarian ideologies, like communism and fascism, which tend to be conservative and fearful of innovation, opposed these winds of change. But the new winds would shake and refresh all trees that were ready to bear fruit. Nothing could stop them, and the paths leading to forbidden worlds, far from sinking into obscurity, began to emit light.

From time immemorial, the word has been given to those who risked descent in search of an inferno that was no longer fearsome, but loved. Marcel Proust pledged his work to a quest for lost love. Virginia Woolf became enmeshed in the ambiguity of her passions and the proximity to madness. James Joyce employed the inferno of the word, to untangle it and convert and contort it into what would become modernity. Because in the word and its musicality resides the key to Orpheus’s lyre.

Music and Other Art Forms

The return to unity lies dormant in nineteenth century art theory. It was believed that the various disciplines could be explained universally. Abbé Lacuria (1808-1890), in his book Les harmonies de l’être, exprimées par les nombres (The Harmonies of Being, As Explained by Numbers), presents the synthesis of the arts from a Pythagorean perspective. The concepts of being and nothingness use the numerical series to define creation. God himself, in order to establish distance between his being and nothingness, resorts to a mathematical comparison. The principle of duality sets the basic rule. Each concept and its opposite aspires to its own harmony. In a later work, Lacuria, the first theoretical interpreter of Beethoven’s symphonies, uses hermeneutics to explain his ideas. The nine symphonies represent the composer’s process of spiritual ascent. They may be compared to the nine rungs of a ladder. The first rung is empty because Beethoven’s Symphony No.1 is a continuation of the style of Mozart and Haydn. The second rung announces the birth of the Sun. The third, under the sign of Mars, is draped in a mantle of tears. In the fourth, the Sun shines brightly. The fifth is shadowed by a cloud, while the Moon emerges, framed by six stars. The sixth rung, corresponding to the Pastoral Symphony, is surrounded by a rose bush and crowned by a Sun. The seventh and eighth rungs are compared to lightning bolts among the clouds; while in the ninth, the lightning denotes glory and reveals the celestial vision achieved (Godwin 129ff).

To his Pythagorean knowledge, Abbé Lacuria adds another common element of his era:  a fascination with Egyptology. He compares Beethoven to a sphinx in the desert, one whose mysteries we will never be able to decipher.

These mystical currents have very ancient roots in Western thought. The so-called Orphic Hymns belong to this tradition, with the advent of Neo-Platonism they acquire force.  In The Republic, Plato sanctifies the study of harmony. During the Middle Ages, musica speculativa was considered part of the study of philosophy. This term included music theory and its principles, while praxis was omitted. It was based on an esoteric approach together with ideas taken from theosophy, hermeticism, alchemy, and Cabala, along with the Orphic-Pythagorean tradition. Topics of investigation included the harmony of the angelic orders, the music of the spheres or planets, the zodiac, the elements, body and soul, hidden connections in nature, the secrets of numbers, the power of sound, and the moral responsibility such power confers.

According to Abbé Lacuria’s theory, the School of Chartres (twelfth century) is an example of interest in such studies. Three centuries later Marsilius Ficinus, Cabalistic scholar and translator of Plato and of the Corpus Hermeticum, revives the Orphic tradition and attributes music with magical and sacred character.

In Elizabethan England, Robert Fludd applies these principles in his works, affirming that planetary movements are related to certain musical tones, in accordance with Hellenistic tradition. If Descartes tends to deny hermeticism, Leibniz might be said to employ it in a figurative sense, and his mention of the harmony of the universe may be a metaphor. His notion of the clave universalis established a way of knowing that transcends the apparent reality of things in search of a hidden reality that might be its true essence (Rossi 15-20).

In contrast, the case of Isaac Newton is the most explicit insofar as the theory of arts and the doctrine of correspondences are concerned. He attempted to pair colors with musical sounds.  Although his initial framework consisted of five colors (red, yellow, green, blue, and violet), he added two more (orange and indigo) in order to “divide the image of the spectrum into parts more elegantly proportioned to one another” (Godwin 10). In this way he established a parallel with the seven musical notes, in which the “proportions” of the colors are the equivalent of the intervals in the key of D. Thus, Newton linked the Pythagorean concept of the harmony of the spheres to music and color as a universal whole.

Subsequently, the Symbolist poets went a step farther in experimenting with the idea that the vowels have certain characteristic colors associated with them, as Rimbaud suggested (A=black, E=white, I=red, O=blue, U=green). Equally well known is Rubén Darío’s poem, “Sinfonía en gris mayor” (Symphony in Gray Major, in Prosas profanas).

From the rise of Romanticism in the  nineteenth century until the beginning of the twentieth there is a resurgence of the theory that music has an essential role as a path to knowledge, independent of its artistic, expressive, and communicative character.

It is in France where the ancient philosophers are once again studied in relationship to Orphism, Pythagorism, and Neo-Platonism. The phenomenon appears not only in music, but also, notably, in literature. Authors like Gérard de Nerval, Georges Sand, Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, and poets such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé are drawn to sources from the so-called occult sciences: alchemy, Cabala, spiritualism, and mystical experiences, together with the mythical figure of Orpheus. In some cases, drugs play a part in the process of creative transcendence.

These tendencies influenced not only Romanticism, but also later movements like Symbolism, Surrealism, and the avant-garde in general. In cinema, the influence is striking in German Expressionist films like Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen’s The Golem, the first version of which dates from 1914, and a second, more widely recognized version in 1920. Years later, in 1950, Jean Cocteau directs Orpheus, with extraordinary performances by María Casares and Jean Marais. In 1958 the Brazilian film Black Orpheus, directed by Marcel Camus, recreates the Neo-Platonic theme under apparently very different, but still impactful, circumstances.

Similarly, the legacy can be detected in operas like Glück’s Orpheus and Eurydice, which remains in the repertoire. Other Orpheus-obsessed musicians include Telemann, Monteverdi, Serafino dall’Aquilano, Marco Cara, Bartolomeo Tromboncino, Filippo de Lurano, Michele Pesenti, Angelo Poliziano, and in the nineteenth century, Franz Liszt , all under the aegis of Orpheus.

In The Lyre of Orpheus, the final novel of his series The Cornish Trilogy, Canadian writer Robertson Davies recreates the myth yet again. Beginning with E.T.A. Hoffman’s epigraph about the Orphic lyre that “opens the door to the underworld” (Davies 739), we are made aware of the powerful magic of music as an element of pure abstraction. “Surely it is in the mind that we humans truly live . . . the mind, which is not the creature of the clock but of those moving planets and that vast universe whose mysteries are still, in the main, unknown to us  . . .” (Davies 991). Once more, the theory of correspondences makes its appearance. We continue to listen to the music of the Orphic-Pythagorean spheres.

In the academic world there is also a descent to the infernos when scholars such as Frances Antonia Yates or Gershom Scholem take on the investigation of the occult sciences, hermeticism, alchemy, and Cabala as sources of knowledge.

Satie and Debussy

In the new world of perception that is revived by ancient traditions, two musicians, Erik Satie (1866-1925) and Claude Debussy (1862-1918) expound their esthetic theories based on knowledge of forgotten sources. The former, affiliated with the Rosicrucians and considered to be the order’s official composer, combined legendary themes with innovative musical concepts that departed from Impressionism in favor of a simpler melodic line. In so doing he attempted to reveal the occult world of symbolic meanings through a musical language stripped of all excess and directed toward the expression of the essential.  The latter, also associated with occultist ideas and the figure of Orpheus, served as his guide. Fauns, tritons, sylphs, and water nymphs inhabit Debussy’s music, giving rise to a harmonic blend of the known and the unknown in which tradition comes face to face with the new, emerging tonality. His music emphasizes the use of short phrases, unusual chords, and emphasis on the timbre of the instruments as opposed to their orchestral function. Further, his friendship with poets like Verlaine and Baudelaire sustains him in his quest for tone and structure. And finally, the influence of Impressionist painting leads him to consider his music as part of the same current.  One must not forget that the Impressionist painter M. Baschet made an extraordinary portrait of the musician.

Speculative Music and Modernity

The Orphic-Pythagorean influence reached unprecedented extremes with certain early twentieth-century French theorists. Wagner was enthroned as “officiating for God before the mystery and symbols” (Emile Bernard, qtd. Godwin 199), only to be deposed after the outbreak of World War I. Other approaches related music to Egyptology and Cabalistic interpretations.  A system of correspondences with other arts was established, and musical notes became tinged with color. Despite his arbitrariness, Paul Gauguin, a friend of speculative art advocate Emile Bernard, was familiar with the latter’s theories and, under his influence, devised harmonic equivalents for the colors of the spectrum. However, these speculative theories remained practically unknown. Their most notorious aspect, perhaps, might be the idea that the universe is a mirror that reflects the meditative efforts of the human mind and, as such, joins the various art forms in a unifying totality. The ancient ideal of reuniting the arts once more in an indissoluble whole is inherent to these theories. Thus Orpheus’s yearning for music as the great master of both divine wisdom and human understanding are brought together: a meeting point between numbers and emotion. In another field, modern physics, I will mention only that its questions also pursue an interpretation of the paradoxes of our universe. 

Theodor W. Adorno and Alban Berg

It is interesting to note that Theodor W. Adorno, one of the great twentieth century thinkers, was a highly knowledgeable conisseur and music critic, a pianist and composer who belonged to Schönberg’s circle and who studied under Alban Berg.

The influence of music on Adorno’s literary style and philosophical concepts was fundamental. He chose Alban Berg as his model, analyzing his entire oeuvre. He himself confesses that there is an intersection between his intellectual development and Alban Berg’s approach to composition. He admits that his deepest desire is to develop a prose similar to the way in which Berg elaborated his String Quartet Opus 3. He considers the work of his master and friend as “coming from another planet” while at the same time including the nostalgic power of memory. Berg’s Violin Concerto impresses him as being the appropriate way to esthetically resolve the integration of a Carinthian folk song with dodecaphonism. For another philosopher, María Zambrano, the concerto “originates from the set of notes within the range of the instrument for which it is written. Orpheus’s lament must have resounded in the fundamental notes of the human voice in the purest, simplest mathematical form: the sacred first number of the canticle” (Zambrano 110).  In his analysis of Alban Berg’s work, Adorno was also guided by his auditory skills, thus enabling him to perpetuate the teachings of Orpheus.

Paul Klee and Vassily Kandinsky

Orphic-Pythagorean principles can be applied to painting, as well. We might say that Paul Klee’s painting adopts a rhythmic foundation among its postulates. The concept of balance is reflected in the elements he chooses:  horizon, scale, tower, and arrow are all outlined in a world structured according to chromatic harmony.  Thus, the capacity for choice in artistic matters merges opposites. In the artist’s words: “Thought is the father of the arrow: how can I increase my range over this river, this lake, that mountain? The ideological capacity of man to penetrate earthly and supernatural spaces at random – in contrast to his physical prostration – is the origin of human tragedy. This combat between power and prostration implies the whole discord of human existence. Half winged, half imprisoned – that is man” (n.pag.).

The same lament as that of Orpheus, who cannot reconcile desire with reality and thus loses any territory gained.

For Vassily Kandinsky, art is the quest for spiritual perfection. The various elements must combine into a harmonious whole, despite being antithetical:

“Perhaps with envy and with a mournful sympathy we listen to the music of Mozart. It acts as a welcome pause in the turmoil of our inner life, as a consolation and as a hope, but we hear it as the echo of something from another age long past and fundamentally strange. The strife of colors, the sense of the balance we have lost, tottering principles, unexpected assaults, great questions, apparently useless striving, storm and tempest, broken chains, antitheses and contradictions – these make up our harmony. The composition arising from this harmony is a mingling of color and drawing, each with its separate existence, but each blended into a common life, which is called a picture by the force of internal necessity” (Kandinsky 65-66).

Once more, the arts intertwine and absorb one another’s vocabulary in their desire for mystical union.

Rudolf Laban and Choreosophy

Steeped in Neo-Platonic theory and hermetic art, Rudolf Laban, an innovator in the field of dance, introduces an original concept at the beginning of the twentieth century: choreosophy. He is concerned above all with emphasizing the wisdom derived from dance, a return to nature, spiritual values, the reconciliation of opposites, integration of different human abilities, and the recognition of dance as a cultural, ethical, and educational value.

In creating choresophy, Laban takes into account the correspondences and analogies between the various art forms, such as movement and the emotions, music and dance. He is especially interested in creating works of total art, for which reason he may be considered as another example of a drive toward “universal art.” As Miriam Huberman has indicated, choreosophy combines musical, philosophical, esthetic, mythological, and occultist concepts in dance form. It proposes a means of initiation that seeks to return to the original sources.

Thus, contemporary art could not be explained without the Orphic legacy, perhaps because it is an art that attempts to disentangle itself from bindings and narrowness, an art that not only denies, but also rejects Aristotelian patterns and aspires to a complete liberation of the imprisoned spirit.

Works Cited

Davies, Robertson. “The Lyre of Orpheus.” The Cornish Trilogy.New York: Penguin, 1992.

Godwin, Jocelyn. Music and the Occult. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1995.

Huberman, Miriam. “Rudolf Laban and the Concept of Choreosophy.”  MA Thesis. Laban Center for Movement and Dance, London 1990.

Kandinsky, Vassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art and Painting in Particular.The Documents of Modern Art. Vol. 5. Trans. Francis Golffing, Michael Harrison, and Ferdinand Ostertag. New York: George Wittenborn, 1970.

Klee, Paul.  Pedagogical Sketchbook, trans. Sibyl Peech. New York: Nierendorf Gallery, 1944.

Rossi, Paolo. Clavis universalis: El arte de la memoria y la lógica combinatoria de Lulio a Leibniz. México DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica:, 1989.

Zambrano. María. El hombre y lo divino.  México DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1986.


Angelina Muñiz-Huberman (Hyères, France, 1936) has lived in Mexico since 1942. She teaches at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and is a guest lecturer at international universities. She is the author of 40 books of fiction, poetry and essays. Some of her literary themes are Jewish mysticism and Cryptojudaism.  Her work has been awarded with major prizes and translated into various languages. Some of her titles published in English are:Enclosed GardenThe Confidantes, and A Mystical Journey.  She is included in The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories;With Signs & Wonders; The Scroll and The Cross; The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature; Miriam´s Daughter, Jewish Latin American Poets, among other anthologies. At present Angelina Muñiz-Huberman holds a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Culture and the Arts (Mexico).

Andrea G. Labinger  specializes in translating Latin American prose fiction.  Among the many authors she has translated are Sabina Berman, Carlos Cerda, Mempo Giardinelli, Ana María Shua, Alicia Steimberg, and Luisa Valenzuela.  Call Me Magdalena, Labinger’s translation of Steimberg’s Cuando digo Magdalena (University of Nebraska Press, 2001) received Honorable Mention in the PEN International-California competition. The Rainforest, her translation of Steimberg’s La selva, and Casablanca and Other Stories, an anthology of Edgar Brau’s short stories, translated in collaboration with Donald and Joanne Yates, were both finalists in the PEN-USA competition for 2007.The Island of Eternal Love, her translation of Cuban novelist Daína Chaviano’s La isla de los amores infinitos, was published by Riverhead/Penguin in 2008.  More recently Labinger has published The Confidantes, a translation of Angelina Muñiz-Huberman’s Las confidentes (Gaon Books, 2009) and Death as a Side Effect, a translation of Ana María Shua’s La muerte como efecto secundario (University of Nebraska Press, 2010), Forthcoming titles include Shua’s The Weight of Temptation (University of Nebraska Press) and Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story (Biblioasis). Please visit Andrea’s website at:

Michele Nascimento Kettner

Mikhail Bakhtin indicated the images of Carnival as an ambivalent environment where the reversals of moral and logical expectations occurred through the presentation of the grotesque. The process of carnivalization was developed by Bakhtin with an intrinsic transformational character, as he defined it as: “a feast of becoming, change and renewal” (10). During Carnival, the poor become kings and queens, rogues become princes and, therefore, the hierarchical structure of society is altered through laughter and mockery. One can wonder: what would be the consequences of bringing carnivalization to a period outside of Carnival? In other words: what if Carnival’s hierarchical subversion represented by its folkloric manifestations was brought to society’s everyday life? This phenomenon occurred in the Brazilian musical scene in the ’90s and sparked the extension of the carnivalization process culminating into a permanent change in the social and cultural scenario of Pernambuco, Brazil. This process was majorly propelled by the hybrid and globalized approach to culture of the Mangue Beat movement.

Chico Science Graffiti


Mangue Beat (or Mangue Bit) was a cultural movement that arose in the beginning of the ’90s in Recife, Pernambuco. The movement was created by Chico Science of Nação Zumbi, Fred Zero Quatro (Fred 04) of Mundo Livre S/A, and DJ-journalist Renato L. The anthropophagic notion of culture defended by Oswald de Andrade at the beginning of the twentieth century was put into practice by Mangue Beat on a regional level. Andrade defended the construction of Brazilian culture through a cannibalistic perspective, where the cultural agents assimilate and “eat” the elements of a foreign culture digesting it into their unique national art. The digestion of foreign culture into a national product in this case was only possible through the acceptance that the local culture, music, and folkloric manifestations were not consumed by the local market beyond the Carnival period. At this time and predominantly throughout the ’80s the music scene of Pernambuco was dominated mostly by foreign artists.  Mangue Beat’s hybrid characteristic brought the music that was only consumed during Carnival and was majorly restricted to the marginalized Afro-descendant part of society to the perennial musical scene of Pernambuco. This movement would bring a new way of understanding the foreign product by presenting “the other,” mostly regarded as the model to be copied, as an equal to the regional cultural products.

In Mangue Beat, the hybridism between local and global influences promoted fusions of traditional local rhythms such as maracatu, embolada, ciranda, and coco with worldly-known rhythms (rock, punk, rap, psychedelic rock, heavy metal, soul, ragamuffin, etc.). García Caclini explains how the constitutive process of modernity is usually based on a Manichaean juxtaposition where the modern is identified as cultured and hegemonic and the traditional with the popular and subaltern. In one of the lyrics of the Mangue Beat movement, they declare that they had “Pernambuco below their feet, but their minds in the immensity of the world.” Mangue Beat musicians promoted the encounter of cultures regarded with such different statuses (foreign/modern and local/subaltern), leading to profound changes in the cultural scene of the state of Pernambuco and, consequently, to a more complex idea of traditional and popular music.

Interestingly, the path that led to the encounter of these two cultures apparently followed a very unusual direction: from global to local. Although Mangue Beat was a movement originated from a collective elaboration, most of the attention was centered on the name of Chico Science, the leader of Nação Zumbi. Chico Science was born Francisco de Assis França to be later baptized as “Science” by Renato L. In the mid ’80s Chico was part of Legião Hip Hop (Hip Hop Legion), a break dance group very much influenced by North American black music. Later on he started his first band called Orla Orbe that mixed elements of American funk and soul. Black music from the United States was also fundamental in the concept of his following band Loustal, named after Jacques de Loustal, a French comics artist whom Chico admired. While working as a civil servant, Chico met Bola Oito who introduced him to the percussion group Lamento Negro and, consequently, Daruê Malungo, a group/school led by Mestre Meia-Noite that worked with regional folkloric styles. At Daruê Malungo Chico had the opportunity to establish an in-depth relationship with the folkloric sounds of Recife that he had grown up with, but were never played by the radio stations.

Maureliano Ribeiro da Silva worked at Daruê Malungo and was one of the most important bridges between Chico’s rock sound and his experiments with local music. In one interview with Maureliano Silva, who nowadays makes his living primarily as a drum maker, he gave us a nonchalant explanation on how he was fundamentally responsible for the sounds that Chico Science made famous by conceptualizing the adaptation of horn sounds from James Brown’s band to the drums of Maracatu (Afro-Brazilian folkloric local rhythm from Pernambuco). Under the cloak of modern/global, the popular and folkloric music started to be consumed by middle-class people in Pernambuco.

Thus, the modern component of Mangue Beat was vital to the inclusion of local culture within the musical market. In the manifesto written by musician Fred Zero Quatro and journalist Renato L. and distributed to the Brazilian Press in 1991, the movement declared that their symbolic images were a parabolic antenna placed in the mud and a crab remixing ÁNTHENA by Kraftwerk (a Euro-tech group) on the computer. In the “Manifesto Mangue,” titled Caranguejos Com Cérebro (Crabs with Brains), global and modern elements are connected to the local culture (metaphorically represented by the mangroves). The manifesto explores the geographical biodiversity of Recife- a city constructed on the fertile/diverse ecosystem of mangroves- as a symbol for culture diversity as well as a reference to the serious social economical problems of this city, which had been considered by an American institution as one of the worst places to live in the world. Fred Zero Quatro was inspired by the concepts of Josué de Castro who wrote about his own experience growing up in the palafittes of Recife and compared the poor men that live near the mangroves of Recife to crabs in order to discuss underdevelopment, hunger, demographic growth and environmental problems. Much influenced by Josué de Castro’s ideas, Fred Zero Quatro intertwined musical concepts with geographical and sociological considerations; however in Fred’s opinion, technology and global influence could affect social behaviors positively and needed to be used to people’s advantage. The Manifesto urges the participants of the movement (“mangueboys” and “manguegirls”) to inject energy into the mud to stimulate the remaining fertility of Recife and prevent its death by connecting it to the “world network.” In the liner notes of the groundbreaking CD Da Lama ao Caos (From Mud to Chaos) released in 1994 by Chico Science and Nação Zumbi you can find the rest of the manifesto reiterating the different sources, concerns, and interest of the Mangue Beat leaders:

“Mangueboys and Manguegirls are individuals interested in charts, interactive TV, anti-psychiatry, Bezerra da Silva, Hip Hop, midiotia [a neologism that plays on the words “media” and “idiocy”], artism, street, music, John Coltrane, chance, non-virtual sex, ethnic conflicts, and all the advances of the chemical applied in the terrain of the alteration/expansion of consciousness.”

The manifesto shows how the “mangueboys” were in tune with all of the diverse expressions of art as well as social and political issues from the different parts of the globe. This globalized perspective present in the conception of the movement coincided with a different panorama in terms of musical distribution at that time. Appadurai defines globalization as “…inextricably linked to the current workings of capital on a global basis…and as a definite marker of a new crisis to the sovereignty of nation-states even if there is no consensus on the core of this crisis or its generality and finality”(4).

Taking into account music as a product in a globalized world, it is reasonable to say that Mangue Beat presented an attractive and commercial product to the national and international music market. Mangue Beat presented a unique product that was “Brazilian” enough to be exported and familiar enough not to be label as merely ‘exotic.’ Journalist José Telles in his book Do Frevo ao Mangue Beat makes a fundamental assertion about the distinction between the Mangue Beat movement and other musical Brazilian movements that dealt with the blending of influences such the Tropicalism in the ’70s. Telles asserts that while Tropicalism was a superposition of types of music, Mangue Beat created a type of music on its own, a genre.

Indeed the Mangue Beat fomented the arousal of different groups around the world that were inspired by their fusions. The inclusion of the new genre brought regional music to a different and more globalized status. In 1993, in the first edition of Abril Pro Rock (an important rock festival in Recife), for the first time in Recife it was possible to see a group playing folkloric music at a rock festival. The name of the group was Maracatu Nação Pernambuco but they were not quite a traditional Maracatu folkloric group. Differently from the traditional Maracatu Nação groups, the tie to the Afro-Brazilian candomblé religion was not a prerogative to their existence. Although they are often seen as a misleading representation of a traditional maracatu group, Nação Pernambuco along with the Mangue Beat movement were partially responsible for the inclusion of folkloric musicians within the non-carnivalesque music business. Maracatu (the flagship for the rhythms used in Chico’s fusion) was marginalized to the poor communities of the city predominantly inhabited by Afro-Brazilians. The Maracatu Nations had (and still do) a deep connection with the candomblé religion and suffered governmental and social persecution for centuries.

When Mangue Beat came onto the music scene, the Maracatu folkloric groups only paraded during Carnival time, a period in which subversion allows for the acceptance of more marginalized identities.  In 2002 the once-marginalized Maracatu folkloric groups started to become the protagonists of the Opening Ceremony of Carnival in Recife and gradually were invited to play at various events throughout the year. Some Maracatu Nação groups have already recorded CDs and also have been able to perform and give workshops all over Brazil and Europe. Nowadays, new percussion groups based on Maracatu rhythms have arisen throughout Brazil, Europe and the United States, and Maracatu has been consolidated as a symbolic figure of Pernambuco’s diversity (characteristic of Pernambuco’s cultural scene and much exploited as a slogan to foment tourism in the state). Therefore, Maracatu folkloric groups have been able to reach out to people beyond regional and national boundaries due mostly to the process of transnationalization of the symbolic cultural market initiated by the Mangue Beat movement. The combination of the computer and the mangrove engendered ‘world nets’ capable of promoting “global cultural flows” (Appadurai) and reconfiguring the way people from Recife perceive global and regional elements. Philip Galinsky defined Mangue Beat as a post-modern expression where the past and present, rap and embolada, raggamuffin and maracatu are not fixed structures and we can choose our own relation to each element. Galinsky uses the lyrics of “Monólogo Ao Pé do Ouvido” as an example to illustrate this new perspective on the relationship between the past and present. Chico Science recited this text in the opening track of Da Lama Ao Chaos over the sound of traditional drums from maracatu and an electronic sound that simulated a berimbau (an instrument used in the Afro-Brazilian martial art, capoeira). Chico Science proclaimed in the lyrics: “Modernizing the past is a musical evolution…the Collective man feels the necessity to fight…Viva Zapata! Viva Sandino! Viva Zumbi! Antônio Conselheiro! All the Black Panthers…”

The musical evolution and its relationship with the past are deeply connected with the transformations of social agents. Invoking the names of national and international revolutionary figures is not only a statement on the similarities that unify different people from all over the world, but also a clamor for a change in perspective by its contemporary human beings. This clamor for change was not a peripheral aspect in the ideology of the group considering that Chico Science named his own band after Zumbi dos Palmares, an important black leader that founded a community of “fugitive” slaves in the northeast of Brazil.

Although since the beginning of the 2oth century Pernambucan anthropologist Gilberto Freyre has strongly posed the relevance of African legacy to Brazilian culture, the proclaimed existence of “racial harmony” in Brazil was far from being part of reality. Indeed, the perception of Pernambucan society about its own rhythms and racial/cultural constitution has changed. It doesn’t mean that the racism against the Afro-Brazilian poor communities no longer exists; however the music of these communities penetrated a musical market and social spheres that it had need been able to enter before.

The movement’s ideology acquired such a wide spectrum of influence in society mostly because it was not restricted to the lyrics and sounds of their songs. Mangue Beat’s musical hybridism, represented on stage by the coexistence of maracatu drums and electric guitars, was extended to Chico Science’s performative style, language, and clothing. Chico was responsible for making the combination of perfectly common straw hats (usually worn by fishermen in Recife) with hip sunglasses, lyrics with regional expressions and modern neologisms, as well as the use of hip hop mannerisms while executing regional folkloric dance steps. Hence, Chico promoted not only a new language in music but also showed people from his state how it was entirely possible to be regional and modern at the same time.

Since Chico Science’s premature death in a car accident in 1997, the leader of Mangue Beat has almost acquired the status of a myth that has helped to positively boost Pernambuco’s music scene at a time when the music business was dominated mostly by foreign artists. His name was adopted for a tunnel in Recife, a swamp in Olinda, and he was one of the few non-carnivalesque musicians to be paid homage during Recife’s Carnival. Chico Science made natural the presence of folkloric art in local rock festivals in Recife; moreover, the Mangue Beat movement put Pernambuco on the world music map. Chico Science and Nação Zumbi performed at the Summer Stage New York in Central Park in 1995 opening a show for Gilberto Gil, toured Europe, and amassed followers in different continents. The existence of groups such as Tejo Beat of Portugal, Bloco Vomit in Scotland or Nation Beat in the US prove to us that Chico’s legacy has reached beyond the mangroves’ frontiers to reconfigure society and its perception about culture and regional identity. The extension of the carnivalization process beyond Carnival time was one of the most pungent and fortunate consequences of the Mangue Beat movement. Using a hybrid and globalized approach to culture, Mangue Beat fostered the development of the “new musical scene” (nova cena musical) of Recife, where many different local bands flourished and the folkloric Afro-Brazilian groups were not perceived as the remains of an extinguished social structure (García Canclini, 149) but instead as cultural agents in the present.

Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun.  Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His Worlds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1968.

Castro, Josué de. Geography of Hunger. Rio de Janeiro: O Cruzeiro, 1946.

Freyre, Gilberto. Casa Grande e Senzala. Rio de Janeiro/São Paulo: Record, 2002.

Galinsky, Philip. Maracatu Atômico. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

Garcia Canclini, Néstor. Hybrid Cultures. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

Matta, Roberto. Carnavais, Malandros e Heróis. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1980.

Telles, José. Do Frevo ao MangueBeat. São Paulo. Editora 34, 2000.


Michele Nascimento-Kettner is a Ph.D. candidate (ABD) writing her dissertation on Transnational Regionalism in Latin America. She is a researcher of the literature and culture of Latin America and, first and foremost, a literary scholar who believes in interdisciplinary dialogues.  Nascimento-Kettner is originally from Pernambuco, Brazil, and has been working on the co-authorship of the book Maracatu for Drumset and Percussion which will be published in 2012.

Virginia Agostinelli 

The spaces of Italy provide a unique vantage point for an investigation of postmodern geographies, insofar as Italian space is subject simultaneously to the deformations of the new “global space” and to the “inertia” of an urban space overloaded with traces of the past.[i]

Contemporary critical studies have recently emphasized and redefined the role of space and more specifically, the spatiality of human life as a fundamental existential dimension which interweaves with the traditional historical-social modes of epistemological interpretation. Focusing on the city of Los Angeles as a case study, the political geographer Edward Soja (1940- ) draws upon the simplistic traditional dualism of historicality and sociality and elaborates a new radical postmodern way of thinking about real-and-imagined places. With the introduction to the notion of “thirdspace,” a term that is purposely provisional, Soja challenges the modernist either/or logic (Soja, 1996: 5)[ii] and contemplates instead (the possibility of) the existence of a new place of critical exchange. This innovative “strategic location,” as Soja puts it, combines and transcends the dialectics of conceived/lived and center/periphery, ultimately allowing for “a radically different way of looking at, interpreting, and acting to change the embracing spatiality of human life” (Soja, 1996: 29). Henri Lefebvre, whose conception of representational space has had a diverse interpretation by different scholars, had already started to question the rigidity and effectiveness of a categorical conceptual dualism. In this regard, while “travel[ling] through Lefebvre’s biography as a geographical expedition” (Soja, 1996: 29), Soja notices:

…the construction of compelling binary oppositions…[is] categorically closed to new, unanticipated possibilities. Two terms are never enough, [Lefebvre] would repeatedly write. Il y a toujours l’Autre. There is always the Other, a third term that disrupts, disorders, and begins to reconstitute the conventional binary opposition into an-Other that comprehends but is more than just the sum of two parts. (Soja, 1996: 30-1)

Accordingly, Soja’s concept of thirdspace combines spatiality, historicality and sociality. It is “an-Other” way of (politically) understanding and possibly modifying the spatiality of human life through the critical awareness generated by a re-balanced/restructured “‘cumulative’ trialectics that is radically open to additional otherness, and to a continuing expansion of spatial knowledge” (Soja, 1996: 61). Soja’s innovative perspective of “thirding-as-othering” opens up a new real-and-imaginary critical space where issues of race, class and gender can be addressed concurrently.

Following the neorealist tradition, Italian cinema has always bestowed a particularly attentive gaze on urban and non urban landscapes, in an attempt to explore ethnographic and anthropological questions as well as the theme of national identity.[iii]

In his films, Italian director Carlo Mazzacurati (1956- ), a native of Padua in the Veneto region, draws attention to the profound socio-economic, architectural and cultural transformations in contemporary Italy (Vesna va veloce [1996]; La Lingua del Santo, [2000]). This essay focuses on Mazzacurati’s La Giusta Distanza (2008). Therein, the director urges critics and spectators alike to revision space and social spatiality while redefining a mode of practical and theoretical understanding of the outsider. Ultimately, Mazzacurati articulates a meta-theoretical discourse which also incorporates, but is not limited to, a socio-historical analysis of the retrograde condition in the Italian province, where prejudices and bigotry based on race, class and gender are everyday occurrences. The concept of the right distance, in fact, recalls that of the good distance (la bonne distance) epitomized by the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss according to which one ought to have the right detachment from a phenomenon in order to conduct an objective, scientific examination. Through the character of Giovanni, a teenage cub reporter who used to work incognito for a local newspaper at the time of the events and who is narrating the story in retrospective, Mazzacurati explores the role of the director himself, proving the relativity of an objectively proper distance between the original intuition and its reproduction by the artist.

"Tamara," oil on canvas by Colleen Corradi Brannigan

The movie is set in a small town in the north-east region of the Veneto, where time stands still. In the main street in front of the only coffee shop in town, old men sit outside, chatting and playing cards; women stand behind the windows waiting for their husbands and their children to come back for lunch. Hassan and Mara are the only two outsiders at whom the attention of the village is directed. The former is a Tunisian immigrant who speaks Italian quite fluently; he is handsome, honest, wise and well-educated. Hassan works as a garage mechanic on the outskirts of the village and is initially very well-respected by the locals. Mara, on the other hand, is the new primary school teacher, a young and independent woman who hopes to leave for a humanitarian mission in Brazil as soon as the school year is over.

The protagonist of the story is Giovanni who will be able to solve the mysterious murder of Mara and ultimately prove Hassan’s innocence precisely because he refuses to keep the right distance which, he has been told, is the fundamental rule of journalism. “If you really want to do this job,” Giovanni’s editor warns “there is one thing you need to know and that is the rule of the right distance: the detachment that you must have between you as a writer and those involved in the events. Not too distant otherwise there is no pathos; but not too close, because if the journalist becomes emotional he is done!”[iv] Giovanni has an obvious crush on Mara even though he is cognizant of the fact that his attraction is unilateral and can only be platonic. After all, he is still a teenager who needs to ask for permission before he can have his motorcycle repaired (at Hassan’s garage) and who still squabbles with his younger brother over using the computer. But nothing prevents Giovanni from being jealous, and that is why he will initially refuse to write about Mara’s murder as per the rule of the right distance.

When Mara’s corpse is found floating in the river, Giovanni will doubt Hassan’s honesty and he will feel tormented by the fact that he had seen Hassan spying on Mara. Giovanni recalls: “I couldn’t forgive myself for not having intervened, not having told anyone…I didn’t follow the trial, I didn’t even read the articles published in my newspaper. I erased Hassan from my life, as he had erased Mara’s.”  Hassan is automatically labeled as a killer by the whole community that finds it absurd to accept the idea that such a gruesome event was generated by one of its own members. Only an outsider, more specifically an immigrant, could have/must have committed the crime.

Despite his efforts to integrate, Hassan can only deceive himself into thinking that he is one of the citizens of Concadalbero. He is promptly outcast on mere hypothetical accusations and is convicted with hardly any evidence and for sticking to his ridiculous, but true, version of the matter. Giovanni, who not only had spied on Mara (just like Hassan), but had also hacked into her laptop and read her emails for the sake of mere curiosity, refuses to deal with the episode; instead, he prefers to write about brawls at the dance club and love affairs of the local politicians. Giovanni is starting to understand that the readers/consumers would rather read about giant tuna being caught in the area than about the insightful analysis of a social crisis. In this regard, talking about his editor and mentor, Giovanni states: “He really liked the piece…I could already picture the first page with my article: ‘Clandestine lab with enslaved Asians workers discovered’ …Instead, only a few lines came out and not even a picture. But success came unexpectedly thanks to Amos, the tobacconist. The article that I wrote about the giant yellow fin tuna was in every local paper. The picture that I took was published everywhere: a scoop!” Mara’s story is the kind of news that lasts only a few days; there is a priori no question about who the killer must have been: the outsider, the foreigner, the immigrant Hassan; his final incarceration has brought about an automatic restoration of law and order. Given Giovanni’s interest in the victim and his consequent inability to keep the right distance, he opts for a total detachment from the event up until the moment Hassan commits suicide and leaves a note in which he proclaims his innocence. At this point, Giovanni feels compelled to investigate further and eventually exculpate Hassan, who, he is now convinced, has been a victim in his own right.

Hassan’s lawyer is convinced that what condemned the Tunisian was his very own stubbornness: “He killed the woman!” he confirms to Giovanni “Had he done as I told him, he would be out right now…five, six years at most and he would be out. But he wanted to do it his own way” (i.e. sticking to the truth) “as all Arabs do. Albanians are slyer. Do you see that guy? He is a client of mine. You can’t even imagine what he has done and he is already free!” The justice system is unveiled in all of its intrinsic corruption. Ultimately, the truth is a relative notion; it can be to the advantage or disadvantage of an individual, according to temporal, logistic and sociological variables. The lawyer’s reaction ultimately functions as a further incentive for Giovanni to find the real killer, exculpate Hassan and, consequently, denounce the entire village. Concadalbero is thus revealed as a microcosm of a larger, distorted space. “So, you judge people based on their ethnicity? …Do you know what the truth is?” utters Giovanni. “And what is ‘the truth’?” replies the lawyer, emphasizing the last term with a sarcastic tone. “The truth is that you, all of you, had already decided that Hassan was guilty; even you, his lawyer.” Looking down on Giovanni, as if amused by his innocent idealistic beliefs, the lawyer states: “Lucky you, you don’t have shit else to do!”

Giovanni’s investigation disrupts the social equilibrium which had been promptly reestablished when the immigrant was arrested. The events did take place as the prosecution hypothesized. However, the audience will learn that the murderer is Guido, the bus driver, a shy-looking local boy. This revelation is unsettling to the villagers because they had already been pacified by the narrative that the immigrant had killed the school teacher.

Giovanni’s discovery of the real assassin is his big break as a journalist: four of his articles are published in a national edition and by the end of the movie he is moving to Milan to work for a major newspaper. Everyone has congratulated him, with the exception of the locals for they claim that Giovanni “did it for his career.” But what is it that he did exactly? He infringed on the rule of the right distance and dared to question the official truth dictated and assimilated as irrefutable realty. Giovanni may or may not have done “it” for his career, but in either case there is no reason he should be blamed for having reconstructed the facts and then having written about them.

Concadalbero, Mara writes to her girlfriend back in Tuscany, is characterized by a strong sense of solitude and whereas it is true that she does not dislike living in such a quiet place (she is renting a converted farm building outside the village), it is also true that she is dealing with a temporary stay, which will allow her to save money for her trip to Brazil. To Hassan and his sister’s family, instead, Concadalbero is their new home for all effects and purposes, since they have no intention of returning to Tunisia. Integration has been a difficult process and they are still subject to racial discrimination, as we learn from Mohammed, Hassan’s brother-in-law. As Mohammed was closing up the restaurant which he owns, an Italian came in and asked for a beer, claiming that he did not care whether the shop was closed or not: in Italy one must do what Italians tell you to do. When Hassan learns about this episode that Mohammed embarrassingly narrates, he is not surprised but rather deeply saddened as he wonders whether his nephews, even if born in Italy (which doesn’t necessarily provide citizenship or equal status), will also be subject to discriminations of this kind.

On her first date with Hassan, Mara visits Mohammed’s restaurant and she will point out that they have the most delicious flat bread she has ever eaten, and therefore she concludes they must be from Romagna. Mara’s observation is poignant for two reasons: firstly, her assumption follows an obtuse logic according to which a particularly good product is most likely made by a native Italian (which can certainly be true, but is not an absolute statement as she seems to imply); secondly, it demonstrates that even in “modern” Tuscany, where life unwinds among trendy wine bars, Ralph Lauren shops and wine tasting, one is still “deeply impressed” (Mara’s terms) when one finds out that a Moroccan can make flat bread just as well as if he were Italian. But let us return to Concadalbero which exemplifies the stereotypical Italian rural village: it is a town that has never really changed, both in terms of urban architecture and in terms of cultural development, and it is Giovanni himself who points that out in the initial sequence: “Can you believe it that at one point there was nothing but countryside here!” argues the telephone technician; “well, it’s still just countryside” Giovanni replies. “Ah, you also noticed it, didn’t you?” At most, if one can afford it (as is the case for the richest man in town, the tobacconist), one can now choose a wife through a very exclusive and discrete online catalogue or make an honorable living by managing a phone sex service. Hassan has attempted to integrate himself completely in this rural universe by even forgetting the most traditional recipe from his birth country: “What about couscous?” Asks Mara, clearly bewildered. “No” says Hassan. “Come on! It’s as if I had forgotten the recipe for spaghetti marinara! ” At this point, Hassan’s brother-in-law interrupts the conversation with a line that purposely recalls Renato Carosone’s lyrics. He claims: “But he [Hassan] wants to play the part of an Italian and he has forgotten everything.” Interestingly enough, just as he criticizes Hassan for his exaggerated effort to mingle with the local culture and traditions, Mohammed utters a sentence with a very thick accent from Vicenza in which he uses the lexeme “sghei,” a dialectal term for “money.” For Hassan, one ought to act like an Italian and remove, temporarily or not, those traditions that seem irreconcilable with the tradition to be modeled. To Mara, this is an unacceptable concept. Her trip abroad is a humanitarian project of cooperation which she will be living with the perspective of a young Western European woman, who sees an adventure in a developing country as a momentary parenthesis in her life, of personal and professional growth, while at the same time contributing (or hoping to contribute) to enhancing the living conditions of the local population. When Mara draws a parallel between her having to leave the country and Hassan’s similar (as she sees it) situation, she sets off a harsh reaction from Hassan, who points out, and righteously so, that it is not quite the same situation since he was forced to leave Tunisia at the age of eleven, when his father died and his four brothers needed to eat. “E-A-T,” he articulates more clearly “Do you understand this word?” No, Mara cannot understand and what is more she refuses to understand by blaming it on Hassan who, she claims, is uttering those words with the mere purpose of hurting her. Shortly after this quarrel Mara will be killed and Hassan sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

In his notes, Mazzacurati states that in this movie “he attempted to take a picture, or better an X-ray of the nervous system of a town in today’s difficult moments.”[v] By encapsulating this prototypical village into an innovative dimension with the initial and final aerial tracking shots that guide us in and out of Concadalbero on the Southern blues note by Tin Hat, the director encourages us to think differently about the meanings and significance of space and about the spatiality of human life (Soja 1). He suggests that by opening up a critical spatial imagination, one will subsequently induce an innovative and necessary socio-historical and political consciousness. I would like to conclude with a quote from Soja’s text, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real and Imagined Places (1996), from which my analysis arose:

I am not suggesting that you discard your old and familiar ways of thinking about space and spatiality but rather that you question them in new ways that are aimed at…expanding the critical sensibility of your already established spatial and geographical imagination…Perhaps more than ever before, a strategic awareness of this collectively created spatiality and its social consequences, has become a vital part of making both theoretical and practical sense of our contemporary life-worlds at all scales, from the most intimate to the most global….I only ask that the radical challenge to think differently…is retained and not recast to pour old wine into new barrels, no matter how tasty the vintage has been in the past. (Soja, 1996: 2).

[i] Restivo, Angelo. The Cinema of Economic Miracles.Durham,London: Duke University Press, 2002, p. 5.

[ii] Soja, Edward W. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Cambridge,Mass.: Blackwell, 1996.

[iii] On the role of the landscape in Italian cinema and the question of identity see Sandro Bernardi, Il paesaggio nel cinema italiano. (Venice: Marsilio, 2002); Wendy Everett, ‘A Sense of Place. European Cinema and the Shifting Geographies of Identity’ in Schermi della dispersione: Cinema, storia e identità nazionale, ed. by G. Elisa Bussi and Patrick Leech (Turin: Lindau, 2003), pp. 27-45; and Ernesto Galli Della Loggia, L’identità italiana (Milano: Il Mulino, 1998).

[iv] All translations from the film are my own.



Virginia Agostinelli is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. Her research interests include modern and contemporary Italian literature and cinema, modernism and postmodernism, film and media studies. This article is based on a paper given at the Symposium on Modern and Contemporary Italian Cinema at Indiana University, Bloomington, in April 2010.

David Sharp

In recent decades, Italy has experienced a massive and radical shift in its migration pattern; whereas historically a massive emigration movement sent millions upon millions of Italians to all corners of the world, there is currently a major influx of foreigners pouring into the nation in hopes of increased opportunities and better lives.  Currently, an estimated four to five million immigrants live in Italy, or approximately seven percent of the entire population.[1] This change has occurred swiftly, and, not surprisingly, opposition has surfaced through xenophobic reactions and attitudes.  Immigration is rapidly changing the fabric of a largely Catholic and traditional society, and this has not necessarily been embraced by the Italian populace as an evolution in the nation’s history or as the inevitable consequence of an increasingly diasporic and globalized world.

Indeed, there have been ongoing and extreme measures to limit the rights of immigrants which seem astonishingly xenophobic and intolerant.  Some notable efforts to thwart multiculturalism include attempts to illegalize the wearing of face-covering veils by Muslim women,[2] the deliberate profanation of a future mosque site in Bologna by parading pigs on the land,[3] and a drive to identify and expel as many non-Europeans as possible from Italian towns during the Christmas season.[4] Some initiatives have attempted to make illegal immigration punishable by up to four years imprisonment, requiring doctors to denounce patients who are in Italy illegally to the police, and establishing separate classrooms for Italian and immigrant children.[5] These proposals apparently have the support of many Italian citizens.  Still, they are even more alarming because they are movements officially sanctioned by different municipal governments and political parties, including those that influence and decide on national policies for the entire country as part of Italy’s current center-right government.  As a case in point, the current government’s Minister for Institutional Reforms, Umberto Bossi, is also the long-time secretary of the prominent and notoriously anti-immigration political party, the Northern League, which has spearheaded many of these particular efforts and more.  Moreover, several other prominent positions of power in the nation are held by party members, including the Italian Minister of the Interior, Roberto Maroni, and the presidents of two Italian provinces.

"Guess Who's Last?" A Northern League poster that uses racist imagery to promote its agenda.

The Northern League draws its support, and certainly due criticism as well, for its unyielding stance towards immigration. Yet its intolerant stance towards immigration and immigrants is undergirded and supported by a fundamentally alarmist fear of immigrants as a threat to the nation’s stability and security.[6] Certainly the Italian word used to refer to foreigners, extracomunitario,[7] itself conjures the idea of something alien, almost extraterrestrial, while denoting a sense of both political and social exclusion.  It is a word commonly used throughout Italy to denote those who are within the European community and those who are without, or more bluntly, those who belong there and those who do not.  The country has one of the most restrictive citizenship laws in the West[8], and with such prevalent attitudes and restrictive legislation, it is impossible to predict whether initiatives against immigrants will ultimately abate or continue in the future.  It is clear that Italy is currently not an overly hospitable society to its immigrant population.

The 2002 novel Involuntary Witness by Italian judge and author Gianrico Carofiglio takes this society as its basis in a legal thriller exploring the reaches of such pervasive bigotry and anti-immigrant hostility.  Carofiglio’s novel keenly dissects the racist attitudes of a predominantly monocultural society to detail how these hostile anti-immigrant attitudes infiltrate the nation’s official institutions, or more specifically, its legal system.  Involuntary Witness depicts the plight of a rather helpless immigrant, Abdou Thiam, a 31 year-old Senegalese peddler living in the southern Italian city of Bari.  He is accused of barbarically murdering a boy and then throwing his body down a well.  While he is entitled to a trial and representation by an attorney, an antagonistic society appears disposed to condemn him to a life in prison well before the case is even brought to court.  The carabinieri and public prosecutor’s office have asserted that he is the definitive culprit, and his first state-appointed attorney demonstrates utter disinterest and detachment from the case from the onset.  Thiam’s girlfriend, an Egyptian, thus appeals to the attorney Guido Guerrieri in desperation.


Avvocato Guerrieri has a reputation for representing an array of objectionable clients, including known drug dealers and crime bosses in Bari and the surrounding provinces.  As the narrator of the entire story, Guerrieri initially appears indifferent about the innocence or guilt of his clients; he approaches his career with disinterest, a mere job to be completed, but never as a vocation or a mission. With Thiam, however, Guerrieri immediately takes a special interest in both the client and in the suit.  Guerrieri’s interest in the case is inexplicable even to himself, as he sees it as a lost cause ab initio, and it is in no way financially lucrative.  Girded only by intuition – a mere impression – Guerrieri nonetheless has a genuine perception that his client is innocent.  While he never articulates any such notion overtly, Guerrieri seems to empathize with Thiam’s desperation and dejection.  The attorney has recently endured a debilitating nervous breakdown following an unsolicited separation from his wife, and his own life has been tumultuous for months.  Thiam’s case comes to Guerrieri at the brink of intense personal uncertainty and during a moment of continual introspection and possible transformation, and the trial may represent an opportunity to fill a personal void, to emerge from an emotional abyss, and to compensate for crippling insecurities.  Guerrieri is compelled to defend Abdou Thiam, and he determines to represent the defendant against all reasonable expectations.

Indeed, Guerrieri is piercingly aware of the weight of impressions in his society.  He begins by confronting his own prejudices as he approaches the case and meets his client.  Consequently, he describes his preliminary impressions and then scrutinizes their soundness.  Initially Guerrieri is surprised by the poise and beauty of the woman, Abajaje, who appeals to him on behalf of the accused.  He considers her with wonder as she addresses him, observing “[t]hat face of a Nubian princess contracted with the effort of fighting back tears.”[9] He concedes that she is beautiful, aristocratic, austere and imposing and moreover disarming because she breaks his stereotypical perception of an African.  He notes his own wonder and surprise as she conforms to and counters his expectations:

With foreign clients I was always in doubt as to whether to use tu or lei. From the way this woman said “Thank you, Avvocato” I knew I could address her as lei without any fear of not being understood.  When I asked her what the problem was she handed me some stapled sheets…Drugs, was my immediate thought.  Her man was a pusher… We all of us go by stereotypes.  Anyone who denies it is a liar.  The first stereotype had suggested the following sequence: African, precautionary detention, drugs.  It is usually for this reason that Africans get arrested.  But straight away the second stereotype came into play.  The woman had an aristocratic look and didn’t seem like a drug-pusher’s moll. [10]

As Guerrieri acknowledges, stereotypes and racist impressions have preconfigured his meeting with Abajaje, and he believes that these same prejudices exist universally.  When he actually encounters Abdou Thiam, he is also confronted with a mélange of expected stereotypes and surprising contrasts to his own perceptions.  Indeed, Guerrieri is struck by the fact that, like Abajaje, Thiam is attractive.  He remarks that Thiam is “a strikingly handsome man, with the face of a film star and liquid eyes.”[11] It is a frank description that the Italian narrator admits without reticence.  Yet more interestingly, it suggests that Guerrieri views Thiam through a lens that renders him as distant; like a movie star, there is something that makes him flat or perhaps inert, and ultimately unapproachable.

While Thiam’s appearance surprises Guerrieri, the attorney is likewise struck by Thiam’s fluid command of Italian; while he remarks that it does not equal Abajaje’s, it is still indicative of his intelligence and an ability to adapt to his environment.  Moreover, as Guerrieri prepares Thiam for his trial, he notes Thiam’s keen comprehension and ability to follow his explicit instructions, and even marvels that he “didn’t need things said twice.”[12] Like the reader, Guerrieri is repeatedly surprised by Thiam’s multidimensionality.  He was a school teacher in Senegal, although in Italy he is reduced to hawking illegal, counterfeit items to tourists on the beach.  During the defense hearing it emerges that Thiam and his African friends purchase and consume hashish acquired in mass in Naples; yet they never distribute it to others.  Most surprisingly, it is revealed that Thiam has a residency permit in his possession.  Though he lives on the margins of this society, he is not an illegal alien living clandestinely within the country. Thiam thus comes across as a multifaceted individual and not a mere stereotype; crossing between the boundaries of legality and illegality, he embodies contradictions as do real individuals, and accordingly conforms to and simultaneously shatters the narrator’s assumptions about an immigrant.

Guerrieri’s own impressions and expectations when meeting these clients reveals that even a sympathetic individual has racist principles underlying his perception of African immigrants.  In addition, the highly-educated Guerrieri never acknowledges that his own ideas distill an entire continent into a single embodiment, that of dark-skinned individuals, and effectively raze considerable differences in the various countries’ histories, cultures and languages, not to neglect religions.  Indeed, in a nation where Islam is often viewed as suspect, it is astonishing, and perhaps providential, that Thiam’s probable religious beliefs or background never enters the discussion whatsoever for Guerrieri or during the trial.[13] If Guerrieri has a reductively generic idea of Africa, then less educated citizens certainly can be expected to hold similar views.  Not surprisingly, there is literally no mention whatsoever by the narrator, and evidently in society’s purview, that Italy endeavored to profit from and colonize different African nations within the lifetime of many of those still alive today.  Thus Italy’s own recent political history and the consequences this could have yielded on its current demographic are completely elided in the text.


Avvocato Guerrieri at least demonstrates a willingness to confront his perceptions and beliefs, yet he describes a society where the operative perception of immigrants, and particularly Africans, is one of scorn, dismissal and hatred.  When initially discussing the case with Cervellati, the public prosecutor, Guerrieri attempts to introduce his client using the honorific “Signor.” He states, “Mr. Prosecutor, I have been appointed by Signor Thiam, whom you will certainly remember …” Yet the powerful and educated public prosecutor abruptly interrupts him with “You mean the nigger who killed the boy in Monopoli.”[14] Cervellati reduces Thiam to a position he sees as inferior to them both with his vitriolic use of language.  Throughout his narrative Guerrieri notes that both the most educated and the most vulgar strata of society rampantly use this epithet when referring to Africans.  Yet the use of such derogatory language is symptomatic of profound and operative racism that permeates the perception and treatment of immigrants; Guerrieri immediately recognizes this racism tinges all the evidence assembled against his client by the prosecution.  As Guerrieri undertakes to defend Thiam, he quickly concludes that the Cervellati has no directly incriminating evidence against Thiam, but instead considerable decontextualized circumstantial evidence and conjectures which are being exhibited as incontrovertible facts.  Nonetheless the public prosecutor has mounted a solid case against Thiam implicating him as the only suspect based on these distorted facts and testimonies.

Guerrieri relies on this premise in preparing his defense for Thiam, for he has literally no tangible evidence to assemble otherwise; due to the itinerant lives of other Africans, nobody can attest to Thiam’s whereabouts on the day of the murder a year after it has occurred, and there is ostensibly no witness to bring to Thiam’s defense.  Even his girlfriend, Abajaje, has left him behind and returned home hurriedly since employing Guerrieri.  The only prospect for acquittal is to assault the prosecution’s case for its flaws and to change the mindset of those who will judge the case.  Yet the public prosecutor unequivocally discourages Guerrieri from attempting to exonerate Thiam Guerrieri.  He even urges Guerrieri to opt for a shortened trial that will not qualify for an acquittal but instead bargain for a shortened sentence. When Guerrieri unexpectedly does request a full trial, he is instantly met with undisguised irritation and aggression by the prosecutor and other members of the judiciary who will attack him repeatedly throughout the trial.  Guerrieri’s decision to defend Thiam is thus seen as divisive, and makes him a pariah among his colleagues and superiors.  Guerrieri knows that both he and his client will meet with redoubled antagonism and derision as he attempts to demonstrate that that there is reasonable doubt about the accuracy and objectivity of the evidence, and Thiam’s freedom hinges on his ability to expose the evidence as skewed, and to dispel the fable of objectivity.  This involves keenly examining the evidence from different angles and approaching the opposing witnesses in ways that will evince their bias.  More challenging for Guerrieri will be influencing the jury to reconsider their notions, which likely maintains similar or identical beliefs and opinions about the immigrant defendant.

The most significant element of evidence in the case is the eyewitness testimony from the owner of a bar located on the beach where the child had last been seen playing.  This onlooker, Antonio Renna, is utterly loathsome to Guerrieri from the start as he intuits that Renna views all immigrants indistinctly and with resentment.  Guerrieri describes him with thinly-veiled disgust, applying yet another pre-existing filter in his assessment, that of a sordid and corrupt boor, stating: “[Renna] crossed the courtroom looking at [Guerrieri] with a cocksure air.  He had the look of a peasant.  A stumpy figure, checkered shirt with a 70s-style collar, swarthy complexion and crafty eyes.  Not at all an engaging craftiness either, rather suggesting first chance I get, I’ll cheat you.”[15] Guerrieri detests Renna’s inflated confidence and contempt for him as a lawyer, but must expose his unreliability as a witness as impersonally as possible.  When Guerrieri examines him, he wisely masks any personal antipathy in his questioning.  He knows that assaulting his character or branding him as a racist will not sway the judges or the jury in considering the validity of his testimony.  Moreover, Renna does not even consider censoring his bigotry as something to disguise; when first asked to name the nationalities of his bar patrons he states, “I don’t know.  They’re all niggers.”[16] Guerrieri recognizes that he must demonstrate that this innate racist perspective has rendered Renna an unreliable witness.

Consequently, Guerrieri resorts to a rather unexpected tactic based on a somewhat providential intuition that enables him to demonstrate that Renna is an unintentionally, not deliberately, disreputable witness in the case.  He consequently presents Renna with a series of ten photographs with images of black immigrants and simply asks him: “Do you recognize anyone in these photographs?”  Renna is certain not to know anybody, and notes “I don’t think I do.  There are so many of them who come by my bar.” Guerrieri continues, stating “…you remembered Signor Thiam perfectly well, did you not? …If you saw him, in person or in a photograph, you would recognize him, wouldn’t you?”  Renna never vacillates and instead answers affirmatively.  It is at this moment that Guerrieri unveils the piece de resistance in his own arsenal, stating: “You know, Signor Renna, I put that last question to you because, of the ten photographs you looked at, two show the face of Signor Thiam, the defendant.”  Renna never reconsiders, but instead provides Guerrieri with more armament in his case, becoming more virulent and stating: “Why they’re all the same, these niggers.  How can I tell, after a year…?”[17]

"Immigrants, please don't leave us alone with the Italians"

During this incident, Guerrieri demonstrates incontrovertibly that the key witness Renna begrudges the immigrants who frequent his bar, and that he uniformly considers them a nuisance.  Thiam is merely one of many he resents.  His tirade waxes in the face of the attorney’s ploy, and he rages: “They [immigrants] interfere, they interfere, and how! I call [the municipal police], but d’you think they come?”[18] Renna can no longer maintain the semblance of composure during the questioning; as he vents his annoyance and misgivings about the police in general, he does more to destabilize his own solidity as a witness than Guerrieri ever could have done by attacking his character.  Renna’s inability to correctly identify the suspect in two photos while in his very presence weakens the credence of his testimony considerably.  In addition, it erodes the prosecution’s very foundation since his statement was the primary and most damning evidence against Thiam.  Guerrieri, reviled for his defense of Thiam by the entire judiciary, is suddenly extolled in the newspapers for his acuity, and his confidence and surety too increases.

With this success, Guerrieri proceeds with his defense.  He summarizes the significance of this event and concludes his argument by attempting to convince the jury and judges that, like Albert Einstein suggested, “It is the theory that determines what we observe.”[19] He also resorts to a Chinese adage to make his point asserting, “Two-thirds of what we see is behind our eyes.”[20] Guerrieri compellingly argues that a schema is necessary for stringing together and interpreting evidence; it is also an ironic reversal that Guido introduces both a Chinese proverb and a theory by a prominent Jew – both non-Italian sources – to sway the court and impugn the prosecution’s evidence as completely circumstantial.[21] Guerrieri adroitly explains that the prosecution, the witnesses, the family of the victims, – essentially everybody – in the courtroom wanted to find the perpetrator quickly and definitively.  He describes how this “unintentionally” created a schema which enabled Abdou Thiam to be inserted as the likely culprit.  Guerrieri thereby uncovers gaps in the evidence, including the omission of relevant or mitigating information, inconsistencies in the reports taken by investigators (including extremely stilted  and artificial official language in statements purportedly provided to the letter by  coarse witnesses or suspects), and ultimately reveals various ways that facts were skewed in favor of a particular outcome or theory.  Guerrieri concludes by presenting a persuasive theory of an “involuntary, false witness,” or quite simply one who did not intentionally lie, but nonetheless failed to tell the truth.  Guerrieri instead introduces a “… possibility which the public prosecutor did not take into consideration, but which you [the jury] must take into very close consideration.  That of a witness who gives a certain version of the facts in the erroneous conviction that it is true.”[22] As such, Renna’s once influential account suddenly loses its authority and the case against Thiam becomes more assailable.

Assuredly, Guerrieri is persuasive and he continually chips away at the solidity of the prosecution’s case, the opposing council’s nerves, and likewise at the prejudices of those who are judging his client.  Nevertheless, the pending outcome of the trial remains uncertain and suspenseful.  From the onset, the attorney reiterates the virtual impossibility of acquittal as the unlikely odds are continually mentioned.  At one point they are even quantified numerically as a “5 or 10 percent chance at best”[23] and knowing the disposition of those judging the case, Thiam’s guilt appears as a fait accompli.  Tension builds continually as Guerrieri observes and frets about minute details within the courtroom; he constantly reads the judges’ and jury’s body language, observes their faces, imagines the content of their murmurs and surmises a priori what this portends for Thiam.  Moreover, Guerrieri invariably presents his own efforts as somewhat underprepared and unreflective.  While his arguments are analytical and rational, Guerrieri often seems to be guided by faith in the righteousness of his position.  His own position that Thiam is innocent is merely an intuition, and dismantling the prosecution’s case is only intended to posit reasonable doubt about guilt, not to provide hard evidence of innocence.  Consequently, the reader also teeters between optimism and pessimism, hoping that Thiam will be exonerated but expecting this fantasy to be shattered.  Indeed, to believe that Guerrieri’s argument is sufficient to overcome adversity, annihilate the sway of racism and save Thiam from a perpetual jail sentence seems impossibly naïve.  Yet the indisputability and logic of Guerrieri’s argument provides more than a glimmer of hope and promise.

Accordingly, when a verdict of innocence is ultimately pronounced, it is astonishing.  Guerrieri and Thiam rejoice together, “face to face, very close, the bars between us.”  Guerrieri describes Thiam’s reaction, stating:  “His eyes were moist, his jaw set, the corners of his mouth trembling.  My own face was not very different, I think.”[24] Guerrieri’s words here are both literal and symbolic.  Indeed, it is the second reference to their similarity, as he shortly before admits to a friend that he “recognizes something of [himself]”[25] in Thiam, and thus admits an affinity for him.  With vastly different consequences on their lives, both had recently been abandoned by their companions, became alienated from their peers and society and became desperate and suicidal; Guerrieri does not state so, but he likely recognizes the very humanness of Thiam through familiarity.  During the trial, they have separately and individually endured the most hopeless and darkest hours of their lives; yet each has needed the other to embrace unlikely hope and promise future for the future.  Guido’s investment in Abdou Thiam has brought him some relief from his own situation, and enabled him to reassess his own worth and values.  Consequently, for Guerrieri the victory is a culmination in the process of reassembling a fragmented identity and becoming holistic again.  The trial has enabled him to find strength and to redress errors from his past, including reconciling with his ex-wife.  Meanwhile Thiam stands at the threshold of an uncertain future that, at least for the moment, guarantees his liberty.

With this conclusion, the lingering question remains concerning Thiam’s actual innocence or guilt. Whether or not Thiam represents a threat to the nation’s security is a matter that quickly becomes less prominent or even relevant in Involuntary Witness. While it is reassuring that his trial presents hope that a national mindset is evolving, Carofiglio instead emphasizes an important point from his standpoint as a judge.  In guaranteeing the accused a right to a fair trial, that is, by allowing the judiciary process to unfold as it is legally designed to, justice has indeed been served.  Carofiglio suggests that as Italy’s population changes, entrenched prejudices must be subverted and cast aside in order to ensure the fairness and objectivity of its most important institutions.  It still remains to be seen if the Italy outside the pages of the novel will rise to the challenge.

[1] See “Immigrants Forced to Margins of Italian Society” available at

[3] See “Italian Far-Right Uses Pig to ‘Desecrate’ Future Mosque Site”  available at

[4] See “Italy’s Northern League in ‘White Christmas’ Immigrant Purge”  available at

[5] See “Immigrants Forced to Margins of Italian Society” available at

[6] As noted in a recent NPR news series, Jean-Leonard Touadi, a native of the Republic of the Congo and the first black member of the Italian parliament, has asserted that “insensitive language” has incremented Italians’ fear of immigrants.  He asserts that migrants in Italy are perceived as criminals or as potential criminals and are central to an overwhelming sense of Italians’ insecurity in Italy.  See “Immigrants Forced to Margins of Italian Society” available at for entire story.

[7] On the RAI Italica website, Francesco Bruni explains that the recently coined adjective “extracomunitario” literally denotes things and people that belong or come from outside of the EEC.  In common parlance, it frequently is applied to those coming from outside of the Western European nations or even outside of Italy itself.  See

[8] See “Immigrants Forced to Margins of Italian Society” available at

[9] Carofiglio, Gianrico. Involuntary Witness. Translated by Patrick Creagh. London, Bitter Lemon Press, 2005. 37.  It is worth nothing that the attorney’s impressions of an African woman are exoticized and seen through a filter that V.Y. Mudimbe describes as “alterity” or otherness in his The Invention of Africa.  Abajaje is seen not as a real person, but instead as a figure or image, with the possible models being high royalty, a Nubian queen of yore, or pure vulgarity, a prostitute clinging to a drug dealer.  This binary perception guides Guerrieri when he meets the defendant, Abdou Thiam, as well.

[10] Involuntary Witness 32-33.

[11] Involuntary Witness 40.

[12] Involuntary Witness 201.

[13] Figures from the U.S. State Department website state 95% of Senegalese citizens are Muslim.  It is indeed interesting in view of the general distrust towards Islam in Italy, no mention is ever made in the novel about the religion of the immigrants, but instead only to their skin color and their provenance.   See figures at

[14] Involuntary Witness 50.

[15] Involuntary Witness 180.

[16] Ibid 181.

[17] Ibid 180-184.

[18] Ibid 182.

[19] Ibid 249.

[20] Ibid 249.

[21] This is also an unexpected reversal for Guerrieri, who employs Chinese proverbs as reinforcement for his own arguments.  Earlier in the novel Guerrieri instead makes a facile observation about stereotypical Chinese pronunciation of the letter “r” in the telephone greeting “pronto [hello]”, that someone Chinese might utter as “plonto.”  He acknowledges, “It wasn’t a very brilliant thought, but it was precisely what passed through my mind at that moment” (165).

[22] Ibid 247.

[23] Ibid 74.

[24] Ibid 266.

[25] Ibid 156.

Leah Anderst

The trailer for Robert Montgomery’s 1947 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake tells its viewers that the film stars Montgomery and, “mysteriously,” them.

A few minutes into the film, Montgomery himself, playing private detective Philip Marlowe, echoes this: “You’ll see it just as I saw it. You’ll meet the people. You’ll find the clues. And maybe you’ll solve it quick and maybe you won’t. You think you will, eh? Ok. You’re smart. But let me give you a tip. You’ve got to watch ‘em. You’ve got to watch ‘em all the time because things happen when you least expect them.”

“You’ll see it just as I saw it.”

The film opens with Marlowe seated at a desk in his office facing the camera as it slowly approaches him while he speaks. He tells us of the case we are about to “see just as [he] saw it,” introducing us to its main players. This opening scene is one of only three or four very short moments in the film in which the viewer looks upon the protagonist “objectively,” that is to say with the camera facing him so that the viewer sees him from an external position. Lady in the Lake “mysteriously” stars the viewer as well because the film is shot with a “subjective” camera.

The film begins with an account of Philip Marlowe’s attempt at authorship. A seasoned but frustrated private detective, Marlowe writes a short, autobiographical story and submits it to a local magazine publisher, Derrace Kingsby. When he arrives at Kingsby’s offices on Christmas Eve to discuss the story, Marlowe is engaged by an assistant, Adrienne Fromsett, to locate Kingsby’s missing wife. Chrystal Kingsby has been missing for some time, and Kingsby recently received a Western Union wire from Chrystal telling him that she was on her way to Mexico to get a quick divorce and to marry Chris Lavery. Adrienne bumps into Lavery in Los Angeles shortly thereafter, and he claims to know nothing of Chrystal’s whereabouts or the wire she apparently sent from Texas. It is at this point that Marlowe enters the narrative.

Adrienne wishes to keep this search a secret from her boss and so insists on secrecy from the detective. Without telling Kingsby, Marlowe questions Chris Lavery, travels to Kingsby’s lake cabin where Chrystal was last seen, and gets mixed up with a corrupt police officer, Lieutenant DeGarmot, who, with his former mistress, plays an important role in the narrative. The mystery turns on the identity of a lady found drowned in Kingsby’s lake while Marlowe visits looking for clues pertaining to Chrystal’s disappearance. This lady is found wearing clothing belonging to Muriel Chess, the wife of Kingsby’s lake caretaker, and the missing Chrystal Kingsby becomes the primary murder suspect. Things are not as clear as they seem, though. Muriel goes by another name, Mildred Haviland, and before meeting her husband, she was DeGarmot’s mistress as well as the chief suspect in another murder case. By the film’s end, Marlowe single-handedly solves the mystery of the lady in the lake, forcing the true criminals to reveal themselves. In the film’s opening credits the “actress” listed as playing the role of Chrystal Kingsby is “Ellay Mort,” a name that, when pronounced, sounds like “Elle est morte,” French for “she is dead.” The lady in the lake is Chrystal Kingsby.

Montgomery’s film is chiefly remembered as an experiment in the continuous usage of the “point of view” shot. The camera stands in for Marlowe for much of the film’s duration. It moves about the film’s spaces in Marlowe’s place, his voice emerges from somewhere behind it when he speaks, smoke issues from just below the screen when he smokes, we glimpse his hands when they momentarily enter his frame of view on the peripheries of the image, and the film’s other characters look directly into the camera when they speak to him. Point of view shots and other “subjective” cinematic techniques typically draw the viewer into proximity, sympathy, and identification with a film’s principal character. The more a viewer is exposed to a character’s motivations, fears, and desires, the more she tends to identify with him whether a villain or a good guy. Lady in the Lake, however, famously resists just this viewer identification.

Adrienne Fromsett offers a drink.

Upon the film’s release, many reviewers bemoaned the heavy-handedness of the technique and focused on the failure of the film to produce a real sense of involvedness in its viewers. We don’t actually feel as though we are “in” the film as its trailer promises. A reviewer for the New York Times complained, “the principal character has to talk too much in this film. Indeed, he does most of the talking which is wrong in this technique. To be entirely ‘subjective,’ the camera character should not talk at all because that destroys the illusion of complete participation by the audience. What is said by this character – this un-seen, off-stage voice – may not be at all what the people in the audience are thinking or what they would say. As a consequence it takes on a sort of third-personality; it comes from another observer who is apparently standing right alongside of you.” [i] Later, film critics and theorists express similar concerns with the disconnect between the film’s apparent goals and its achievement. Jean Mitry writes, “the camera is leading me, guiding me; it conveys impressions not generated by me. Moreover, the feet climbing the stairs I can see in the frame of the image are not mine; the hand holding the banister is not mine. At no point am I able to recognize the image of my own body.” [ii] Lady in the Lake certainly fails to draw the viewer so completely into the drama as to produce the vertiginous virtual reality that this goal would seem to imply. Putting this impossibility aside, though, the film still fails to achieve what so many other narrative films do with ease: viewer identification with the protagonist.

Confronting Adrienne with a clue.

Marlowe rings a doorbell.

A detective thriller, this exemplar of post-WWII Hollywood film noir resists certain important features of the genre. Noir tends to convey a “mood of cynicism, darkness, and despair,” and “the protagonists are frequently unsympathetic antiheroes who pursue their base designs or simply drift aimlessly through sinister night worlds of the urban American jungle.” [iii] Cynicism is strong in Lady in the Lake. Besides our protagonist-detective, nearly every character with more than a few speaking lines nurses dark hidden motives. Mirroring this darkness, most of the film’s scenes take place at night in Los Angeles and its small fictional neighbor, Bay City. Marlowe indeed pursues his charge in “the urban American jungle.” In strong distinction from the film’s other characters, though, Marlowe himself is, remarkably, a good guy.  No “antihero,” Marlowe is one of only a few fictional private detectives who do not cheat their clients and who care for the truth for its own sake. That he is a writer in addition to being a private detective also creates sympathy for him. Marlowe is “hardboiled,” but he is also creative, sensitive, and morally upright.

Unlike Sam Spade, Marlowe’s counterpart in a few of Dashiell Hammett’s novels that include The Maltese Falcon, Marlowe’s goodness runs through the series of stories and novels that Chandler penned about him. Montgomery altered Chandler’s novel quite a bit, giving Adrienne a starring role whereas Chandler’s Kingsby hires Marlowe without any help from an assistant, but Montgomery retains the basic positive characteristics of Chandler’s character. Montgomery’s Marlowe even manages to reform the film’s “femme fatale.” Adrienne’s plan in hiring Marlowe to locate her boss’s missing wife is to marry the boss (and his wealth) after she forces his divorce. By the film’s end, Adrienne has fallen hopelessly in love with Marlowe and cares nothing for wealth if she can only be with her man. A cold and calculating working girl at the film’s beginning, by the end she is a warm, feminine homebody. Marlowe’s characteristics, his honesty and loyalty in particular, would seem to recommend him as a sympathetic character, a character with whom the viewer would readily identify. The film’s experiment in point of view, however, ends by confusing the viewer’s sympathy and identification. Why should this be? Where does the film err?

Murray Smith’s Engaging Characters presents a handy mechanism for the analysis of viewer identification with cinematic characters. Smith’s three-part “structure of sympathy” allows us to pinpoint where this film elicits and repels viewer identification.  Smith’s aim is to explore what we mean when we say that we “identify” with a film’s character(s). What exactly is happening when we use this imprecise term. In the introduction to his book he writes, “what are the various senses of the term ‘identification’, and how can they be developed into a systematic explanation of emotional response to fictional characters? I argue that we need to break the notion down into a number of more precisely defined concepts: recognition, alignment, and allegiance … together constituting what I term the structure of sympathy.” [iv] With Smith’s three concepts in mind, we can attempt to locate where Lady in the Lake goes afoul in its efforts to draw the viewer into identification with its protagonist detective.

“Recognition describes the spectator’s construction of character: the perception of a set of textual elements, in film typically cohering around the image of a body, as an individuated and continuous human agent.” [v] Though he is “off screen” physically, viewer “recognition” of Marlowe is certain. The film provides many “textual” clues of this character: his shadow, his hands, his cigarette smoke, and, of course, his voice. However, from these textual clues, can his physical presence be one of a “continuous human agent”? Throughout much of the film, Marlowe’s person is presented piecemeal. We see his hands, but not his arms or his shoulders. We see smoke, but not his mouth puffing on a cigarette. We hear his words, but we don’t see his face as he speaks. The film only allows us very few and very short views of Marlowe’s complete person. “As a living, active human being,” Mitry writes, “he does not exist for us. We are therefore incapable of objectifying the sensations we feel and know we feel entirely through an intermediary. What we are supposed to accept as a ‘subjective experience’ thereby dissolves into a vague and indistinct ‘nonself.’” [vi] Like the mystery he will eventually solve, Marlowe’s person is, for much of the film, a small collection of “clues,” pieces that do not create a satisfying whole.

“Recognition”: Marlowe’s shadow at left.

“Recognition”: Marlowe’s hands.

Related to Smith’s “recognition” is Laura Mulvey’s much cited essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey describes “…two contradictory aspects of the pleasurable structures of looking in the conventional cinematic situation. The first, scopophilic, arises from pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. The second, developed through narcissism and the constitution of the ego, comes from identification with the image seen. Thus, in film terms, one implies a separation of the erotic identity of the subject from the object on the screen (active scopophilia), the other demands identification of the ego with the object on the screen through the spectator’s fascination with and recognition of his like.” [vii] Smith’s “recognition” bears similarities to Mulvey’s “fascination with and recognition of his like.” Both depend upon the viewer’s frequent and generally complete apprehension of a film’s character. Montgomery’s film provides us with ample opportunity to gaze upon Adrienne, the film’s object of “scopophilic” pleasure, but it provides very limited occasion for the viewer’s “identification … [with] his like,” with the person of Philip Marlowe. Indeed, this viewer “recognized” the persons of Adrienne and DeGarmot, the film’s corrupt cop, to a much greater extent than the protagonist, even to the point of “identifying” with them.

Although rare, there are a few key scenes in this film that show Marlowe’s full person, scenes where we “recognize” him and watch him interact with Adrienne. These scenes rely on mirrors positioned prominently in the film’s mise-en-scene, and they allow the viewer to catch glimpses of Marlowe’s physiognomy. Something of a visual novelty, Marlowe’s face and body immediately draw our attention in these scenes. The film’s formal peculiarity, however, causes our gaze to alternate confusedly between Marlowe and Adrienne.

Marlowe meets Adrienne for the first time when he comes to Kingsby’s offices in response to her letter. She wishes to speak with him about the story he submitted for publication. During their conversation, Marlowe quickly realizes that she hopes to employ his detective skills while leaving his writing as an afterthought, and he begins to take her down from the position of power she occupies. Late in their verbal altercation, he says, “Your lipstick’s on crooked,” and, with a look of dismayed humiliation, she walks to the mirror on the wall of her office. We suddenly see Marlowe who looks at Adrienne while she looks at him. Her lipstick is perfect.

Marlowe’s person, in a mirror.

Followed by a return to looking at Adrienne.

We are meant to understand that over the eight seconds or so of this shot (above left), these two characters look at each other. Because she looks into the camera, however, it appears that only he looks at her as he says, “Vain female, aren’t you.” With their two visions “pointing” in different directions, the viewer is at a loss here, and, strangely, Marlowe’s (and the camera’s) turn away from the mirror back to Adrienne (above right) is a comforting return to the film’s unusual normalcy. Through mirrors we will look upon Marlowe’s person a few more times over the course of the film, and the effect remains quite similar. Rather than hardening viewer “recognition” of the film’s protagonist, these scenes tend to upset the gaze. Of Smith’s “structure of sympathy,” then, “recognition” is partially unfulfilled in Montgomery’s film.

“Alignment describes the process by which spectators are placed in relation to characters in terms of access to their actions, and to what they know and feel. The concept is akin to the literary notion of ‘focalization’, Gerard Genette’s term for the way in which narratives may feed story information to the reader through the ‘lens’ of a particular character, though ‘identification’ is more commonly appealed to (…) I propose two interlocking functions, spatio-temporal attachment and subjective access, cognate with the concepts of narrational range and depth…” [viii] We find an important hitch in viewer identification with Marlowe within Smith’s “alignment.” The viewer’s “spatio-temporal alignment” with Marlowe is constant and extreme. On the other hand, the viewer’s “subjective access” to Marlowe’s psyche, the second, and arguably the more important, aspect of “alignment,” is curiously missing in this film. Though we hear all of Marlowe’s words, and though many of his words are indicative of his thinking, we do not know Marlowe’s mind. We do not have access to his unvoiced judgments, desires, suspicions, or regrets. It is just this information that would allow us to form an emotional bond with this character. For this viewer at least, Marlowe’s affection for Adrienne Fromsett came as a surprise. His words and his behavior toward her gave little sense of his predilection. Even his cryptic response to her very early statement, “you would be a fool to fall in love with me, Marlowe,” didn’t clue me in. [ix] Marlowe’s nascent sense of the mystery’s end also eludes the first-time viewer. We see the film’s events and scenes through his eyes, but unlike him, we are unable to fit the clues together into the whole that they will become in the film’s final few minutes.

“AF” at the crime scene.

Falling in love with Adrienne.

“Allegiance pertains to the moral evaluation of characters by the spectator. Here we are perhaps closest to what is meant by ‘identification’ in everyday usage.” [x] Trickier to pinpoint than “recognition” and “alignment,” we can nonetheless see where this film attempts to bring the viewer into “moral” sympathy with Marlowe. Just two examples: Marlowe writes a story about his experience, and Adrienne describes this story as “emotional” and “full of heart.” This aspect of Marlowe’s character – an aspect added to Chandler’s novel by Montgomery – reveals a level of introspection that conflicts with the typical noir detective. Marlowe’s suspicion of Adrienne’s motives also draws the viewer into “allegiance” with him. When he suspects her of double-dealing and of being cold and calculating, he bases his suspicions on evidence that we see through his eyes, so that she appears as such to the viewer also. Perhaps even more compelling than these two examples is the contrast Marlowe presents with DeGarmot, the thuggish, corrupt cop whom he strives to capture in the act. The film asks for the viewer’s “allegiance” to Marlowe very early on. In the opening scene, he explains his motivations for writing his short story, and he draws on his experiences with unseemly characters of whom he disapproves. After this scene, we watch the film, and we feel that Marlowe, out of all of these sneaky characters, is right. He is the good guy, the one to emulate. However, saying this does not capture the experience of watching this film.  This does not guarantee “identification” with Marlowe.

In terms of “allegiance,” many noir narratives resist viewer identification with characters. If, in addition to the main actors in a mystery, a film’s detective is also a bad guy, an “anti-hero,” a double-crossing private dick who seeks to exploit the trouble in which his underworld clients find themselves, there will likely be few with whom to “identify.”

Lady in the Lake, however, gives its viewer Philip Marlowe, the likeable if sometimes rough-around-the-edges detective who would rather be a writer. He convinces Adrienne to value love and truth over money and power, and he is more trustworthy than the police. The film places the viewer in the situation of seeing the story world as the protagonist sees it, but this stylistic experiment in point of view systematically excludes Marlowe’s person from the screen and his thoughts from the soundtrack. We may see the story world through his eyes, but we do not perceive it with Marlowe’s judgments or intuitions. With only very rare glimpses of his person and without “subjective access” to his mind, Philip Marlowe, though largely a sympathetic “nice guy,” remains an opaque character who resists our identification.


Leah Anderst is a Visiting Instructor of Writing at Marymount Manhattan College. She received a PhD in Comparative Literature from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2010, and she is currently a fellow at the Graduate Center’s Writers’ Institute.


[i] Bosley Crowther – New York Times, Feb, 9, 1947.

[ii] Mitry, Jean. The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema. Translated by Christopher King. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. (p. 210)

[iii] Cook, David. A History of Narrative Cinema. 3rd Ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. (pp. 449-450).

[iv] Smith, Murray. Engaging Characters: Fiction Emotion and the Cinema (1995) quotations and page numbers are taken from The Philosophy of Film, Wartenberg and Curran, eds. (p. 160)

[v] Ibid. 161.

[vi]Mitry, 210-211.

[vii] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Film Theory and Criticism, 7th ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, Editors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. (p. 712)

[viii] Ibid. p. 162.

[ix] Marlowe’s response to Adrienne: “Let me get this straight, I’m not to visit Chris Lavery, and I’m not to fall in love with you.”

[x] Smith, p. 162.