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Eisenstein - Joyce- Marx; Cosmic, Comic

Esther Leslie

Exchange: Eisenstein/Joyce

In 1927, Sergei Eisenstein started to plan a film of Marx’s Capital. Eisenstein wanted

to make of Capital a ‘discursive film’, ranging across topics in no particular order. It would reveal the workings of the economic system, rendering the secrets of the commodity’s machinations. At the same time, it would ‘teach the worker to think dialectically’.1 The film was to continue Eisenstein’s quest to refine the techniques of montage, as commenced in his theatrical work in 1922. Montage in Eisenstein’s hands, was an objective and subjective monitor: it modelled processes of external historical movement and it mapped the internal processes of consciousness or thought.

In his film October Eisenstein had developed an ‘intellectual montage’ style, in which complex ideas such as the existence of many gods all claiming to be the one God found expression through the sequencing of images. Film’s meanings emerge from chains of association, and cutting contributes to an undercutting of the screen image.

One episode in October shows the raising of a bridge across the river, a key moment in which the authorities attempt to split the city, dividing it along class lines. In the film the bridge-raising is shown from multiple angles, as time is stretched and the significance of the moment is underlined and subjected to concentrated analysis.

Seeing is re-invented, infused with reflection and analysis, as a result of the technological capabilities of cinema. Building on this, in his notes for a film of Capital, Eisenstein claims that it is the ‘montage fragment’ itself that assists in the formation of thoughts.2 Eisenstein cited Pudovkin’s favourable analysis of October, which noted its ‘restructuring of ordinary perception’.3 Through film, thought is rethought, locally, in relation to what is seen on screen, and more generally, in the sense that the method of montage demonstrates how motile thinking – or Sergei Eisenstein, ‘Notes for a Film of Capital’, translated by Maciej Sliwowski, Jay Leyda and Annette Michelson, October, no. 2, Summer 1976 p. 10.

Eisenstein, ‘Notes for a Film of Capital’, p. 12.

Eisenstein, ‘Notes for a Film of Capital’, p. 6.

consciousness - might be or become.

In Eisenstein’s hands, film can emulate the sublime flights of thinking itself, modelling abstraction and process. But sublimity is not enough for him. For the filming of Capital, Eisenstein’s use of montage aimed to combine a serious social end with the seeding of his film of Capital with ‘salvos of laughs’. Heady thought had to be dragged down to earth in a belly laugh. The film of Capital, he insisted, would be satirical and use elements of the grotesque and farce. Its irony would be ‘bloody’ and pathos would be expunged.

Eschewing a story-line, the film was to be composed of vignettes, or what Eisenstein termed ‘historiettes’, or ‘petty events’. Eisenstein noted, for example, that the Stock Exchange would be rendered as ‘thousands of tiny details, like a genre painting’.4 Other subjects in the film would include a day in the life of an average man, a sequence of events ranging from an analysis of one centimetre of silk stocking to the appearance of a bowl of soup to the sinking of a British ship. One day in a man’s life, followed in minute detail, could be one organising theme. From such a fragment, torn out of everyday existence, chains of connection could be unfurled, much as Marx’s cell-like commodity form was a tiny starting point that proved to reveal chains of connection and a weave of relations. In the film scenario, these chains linked the system of exploitation, commerce, competition, and even questions of morality in relation to the length of skirts, exposing thereby contradictions between the desires of clothing manufacturers, textile manufacturers and religious authorities.5 Eisenstein’s notes sketched out other patterns of connection from the production of one little button to systemic overproduction, or, from a little plate of food to ferocious global conflict, from the trivial to the world system in all its irrational super-productiveness

and destructiveness. A note for the film project lists a sequence of connections:

Pepper. Cayenne. Devil’s island. Dreyfus. French chauvinism. Figaro in Krupp’s hands. War. Ships sunk in the port.6 Eisenstein, ‘Notes for a Film of Capital’, p. 7.

Eisenstein, ‘Notes for a Film of Capital’, p. 10.

Eisenstein, ‘Notes for a Film of Capital’, p. 17.

This methodology enabled a coherent view of the world made out of what might seem

to be random fragments. It had implications for filmic form:

The ‘ancient’ cinema was shooting one event from many points of view The new one assembles one point of view from many events.7 The crucial aspect of the film of Marx’s work was its presentation of a perspective, or rather the perspective of workers’ struggle and proletarian consciousness. In an ironic flourish, Eisenstein dedicated the film to the nineteenth-century Marxists who came after Marx and had formed the Second International. He noted that Capital was the refutation of all they thought, for these were the so-called international socialists who had voted for war credits, that is to say, for destruction of one nation’s working class by another in the interests of capital. The note also cited, however, a very different source for the film’s technique.

Capital will be dedicated officially to the Second International!

They’re sure to be ‘overjoyed’! For it is hard to conceive of any more devastating attack against social democracy in all its aspects than Capital.

The formal side is dedicated to Joyce.8 1928 was the year of the film’s conception. It was the same year in which Eisenstein had read Joyce’s Ulysses, with the help of an English-speaking friend. Eisenstein appreciated Joyce’s deployment of language and genre.9 Ulysses offered Eisenstein a model for what he called his ‘de-anecdotalization principle’10, a film without a story, a film that worked rather with historiettes and scenes snatched from everyday life.

Through these fragments, ‘the very principle of logical reductum ad limitum of one Eisenstein, ‘Notes for a Film of Capital’, p. 18.

Eisenstein, ‘Notes for a Film of Capital’, p. 21.

See James Goodwin, Eisenstein, Cinema, and History, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1993, p. 102.

Eisenstein, ‘Notes for a Film of Capital’, p. 5.

fundamental detail’, the basic structure of the social world is established.11 Eisenstein’s notes observed

–  –  –

Later in his notes Eisenstein indicates how the relay between abstractness and concreteness intensifies the impact of the former.

The maximum abstractness of an expanding idea appears particularly bold when presented as an offshoot from extreme concreteness the banality of life. Something suggested in Ulysses provides additional support for the same formulation. ‘Nicht genug! Ein anderen Kapitel ist im Stil der Bücher für junge Mädchen geschrieben, ein anderes besteht nach dem Vorbild der scholastischen Traktate, nur aus Frage und Antwort: Die Fragen beziehen sich auf die Art, wie man einen Teekessel zum kochen bringt und die Antworten schwifen ins grossen kosmische und philosophische ab …’ (Ivan Goll, ‘Literarische Welt’, prospectus for Ulysses)13 Joyce may be helpful for my purpose: from a bowl of soup to the British vessels sunk by England.14 The question and answer chapter, known as ‘Ithaca’, is a catechism of 309 questions Eisenstein, ‘Notes for a Film of Capital’, p. 5.

Eisenstein, ‘Notes for a Film of Capital’, p. 7. ‘Bunsen burner’ would appear to be a poor translation of tea kettle.

It translates as ‘Not enough! Another chapter is written in the style of books for young girls, another one takes as template scholastic tractates, composed of question and answer. The questions relate to the way in which one brings a tea kettle to the boil and the answers veer off into the cosmic and philosophical …’ Eisenstein, ‘Notes for a Film of Capital’, p. 15.

and 308 answers. It was Joyce’s favourite in Ulysses, and he called it ‘the ugly duckling of the book’.15 Although its method came from a religious question and answer practice, its style is rather the polysyllabic impersonal language of science and technology. Most of the questions posed are answered in extraordinarily drawn-out detail. Through these questions and answers a work of re-threading is set in motion.

All the parts of the world and the cosmos, the banal and the cosmic, are reconnected.

Water supplies are traced back to source16, the day’s budget is outlined17, a toenail shard is sniffed, insurance polices are described.18 Everything from the biggest to the

smallest is outlined, described, analysed. Joyce described it thus:

I am writing ‘Ithaca’ in the form of a mathematical catechism. All events are resolved into their cosmic physical, psychical etc. equivalents, e.g.

Bloom jumping down the area, drawing water from the tap, the micturition in the garden, the cone of incense, lighted candle and statue so that not only will the reader know everything and know it in the baldest coldest way, but Bloom and Stephen thereby become heavenly bodies, wanderers like the stars at which they gaze.19 The two main characters, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, exist both in the domesticity of the kitchen and plotted on the celestial map. In ‘Ithaca’ the entire world is strung together, from the most banal human event to its cosmic-physical analogue.

Through such objectivity, myth enters, as Bloom and Stephen become the very stars they observe. But this is not astrology it is scientific in the most fantastical way, for it proposes an inkling of something that is about to become known. Just a couple of years after Joyce wrote Ulysses, Harlow Shapley, in January 1925, broadcast the discovery that we ‘are made out of the same materials that constitute the stars’. 20 And Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of ‘Ulysses’, Grayson & Grayson, London 1934 p. 264.

James Joyce, Ulysses, The Bodley Head, London 1960 p. 782.

Joyce, Ulysses, p. 836.

Joyce, Ulysses, p. 852.

See a letter from Joyce to Budgen, 1921, quoted in Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of ‘Ulysses’, p. 263.

Quoted in Holly Henry, Virginia Woolf and the Discourse of Science: The Aesthetics of again, in a New York Times magazine article under the headline ‘The Star Stuff that is Man’, Shapley reveals ‘We are made of the same stuff as the stars, so when we study astronomy we are in a way only investigating our remote ancestry and our place in the universe of star stuff. Our very bodies consist of the same chemical elements found in the most distant nebulae’.21 There is a connection between us and the universe that contains us. Our bodily, material banality is of utterly cosmic significance. Ulysses is bursting with bathos, or what could be conceived as a rapid passage between the cosmic and the comic, the mythical and mirthful. Some moments include the ‘three smoking globes of turds’ plopping from the horse drawing a ‘scythed car’ in ‘Eumaeus’, the lists and catalogues in ‘Cyclops’, the headlines in ‘Aeolus’ or the back slang at the close of ‘Oxen of the Sun’.

The ‘Ithaca’ chapter takes its place next to Molly’s hyper-subjective stream of consciousness in the final chapter, which is one long unpunctuated monologue of desire. Objectivity turns on itself to produce its opposite, an absolutely subjective, streaming, unpunctuated monologue of Penelope. Sinking into the depths of the unconscious, Molly gets embroiled in a primal language of the body. Her bodily ejaculations present another perspective on high-flown language and rude ditties, Man and stars, tea kettles, sewers and oceans, rhymes and reasons. Joyce was keenly aware

of the juxtaposition:

Struggling with the aridities of ‘Ithaca’ a mathematico-astronomicophysico-mechanico – geometrico-chemico sublimation of Bloom and Stephen (devil take ‘em both) to prepare for the final amplitudinously curvilinear episode Penelope.22 In ‘Ithaca’, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom sit in Bloom’s kitchen and drink Epps cocoa, after a visit to the brothel. They talk about the Irish and Hebrew Astronomy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2003, p. 43.

Quoted in Henry, Virginia Woolf and the Discourse of Science, p.43. It stems from the New York Times Magazine, 11 August 1929.

See a letter from Joyce to Claud W. Sykes, spring 1921, Stuart Gilbert, (ed): Letters of James Joyce, vol. 1, Faber & Faber, London 1957 p. 164.

languages, ritual murder, previous encounters, mutual acquaintances. They look at the stars. They urinate. Bloom wants Stephen to be his lodger, and while living there it is proposed that he might coach Bloom’s wife Molly in Italian to aid her operatic singing. Stephen has no such intention. He leaves, and Bloom potters around before

going to bed. In bed, he kisses Molly’s buttocks, and his sexual arousal is described:

The visible signs of antesatisfaction?

An approximate erection: a solicitous adversion: a gradual elevation: a tentative revelation; a silent contemplation.


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