Slavoj Zizek’s review of Andrew Wilson’s biography of Patricia Highsmith (Beautiful Shadow) appears in the currrent issue of the London Review of Books. (Subscription required.) In one of his typically brilliant asides, Zizek sheds light on modern art’s capacity to give rise to a kind of existential reflection on the “facticity” and utter otherness of the objective world. Here’s the relevant excerpt:
“Highsmith recognised that true art lies not simply in the telling of stories, but in the telling of how stories go wrong, in rendering palpable the interstices in which ‘nothing happens’. In art, the spiritual and material spheres are intertwined: the spiritual emerges when we become aware of the material inertia, the dysfunctional bare presence, of the objects around us. . .
“This feeling for the inert has a special significance in our age, in which the obverse of the capitalist drive to produce ever more new objects is a growing mountain of useless waste, used cars, out-of-date computers etc, like the famous resting place for old aircraft in the Mojave desert. In these piles of stuff, one can perceive the capitalist drive at rest. That’s where the interest of Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Stalker lies, with its post-industrial wasteland in which wild vegetation takes over abandoned factories, concrete tunnels and railroads full of stale water, and stray cats and dogs wander the overgrowth. Nature and industrial civilisation overlap, but in a common decay: a civilisation in decay is being reclaimed, not by an idealised, harmonious Nature but by nature which is itself in a state of decomposition. The irony is that it should be an author from the Communist East who displayed such great sensitivity towards this obverse of the drive to produce and consume. But perhaps the irony displays a deeper necessity, hinging on what Heiner Mueller called the ‘waiting-room mentality’ of Communist Eastern Europe:
There would be an announcement: ‘The train will arrive at 18.15 and depart at 18.20,’ and it never did arrive at 18.15. Then came the next announcement: ‘The train will arrive at 20.10.’ And so on. You went on sitting there in the waiting-room, thinking, it’s bound to come at 20.15. That was the situation: basically, a state of Messianic anticipation. There are constant announcements of the Messiah’s impending arrival, and you know perfectly well that he won’t be coming. And yet somehow, it’s good to hear him announced all over again.
“The effect of this Messianic attitude was not that people continued to hope, but that, when the Messiah never arrived, they started to look around and take note of the inert materiality of their surroundings; in contrast to the West, where people are always frantic and never properly notice what goes on around them. In the East, people were more closely acquainted with the waiting-room and, caught up in the delay, experienced to the full the idiosyncrasies of their world, in all its topographical and historical detail.”