By Cynthia Cruz
July 26, 2019
We were scum, trash, refuse that didn’t fit into the system.
Willow, do you crouch among the rooftops?
Willow, listening to the city wheezing?
And your dreams, they stretch beyond the clouds
And past the moon, into the stars
Do you feel the rushing forward
Though you’re standing still?
—“Willow,” by the Tindersticks, from the soundtrack for High Life
Those who are unable or unwilling to conform to their culture and its ideologies find themselves cast off, living in the margins: institutionalized, living in poverty, and/or labeled “insane.” To be “marginalized” means, literally, to be “forced into a position of powerlessness,” which is to say being forced into a position where one has inferior space, both internal (mental space) and external (living within an institution, housing project or other substandard housing where those living in poverty or the working class are often forced to reside). To have leisure time, either in the mind, (daydreaming), or moving through space (traveling outside the town one lives in, for example, or, in some cases, simply outside one’s neighborhood) is the exclusive privilege of those with access to financial capital. Those who are marginalized are excluded from these privileges. With no home, without agency, where then, do the marginalized go?
Faced with the realization that they have no “space,” an option for the marginalized is to create another, alternative space within which to live. One way of doing so is through the use of alcohol and drugs, which can, depending on the type, offer either a psychic expansion or a dimming down of the mind. In either case, chemical substances can produce an interior space where the marginalized may think, daydream, or otherwise escape the incessant desires of the outside world. Another way someone might construct an alternative space is through nomadism: moving from place to place with no fixed determination in mind. For example, traveling illegally by freight train. Or if a person is fortunate to have access to a vehicle, she might drive for hours in an attempt to simulate a sense of agency through this forward momentum. The movement forward I refer to does not usually result in a quantifiable record of progress. The body moves through space but it usually returns back to the same place it began. This self-propulsion might instead be called stagnant propulsion. Each of these examples provides a means by which she who finds herself marginalized might be afforded a type of agency.
Joan Didion’s novel, Play It As It Lays, is a text about driving, which is to say it is a phenomenological text, a book about moving the body through space. It’s the story of Maria Wyeth, a former actress living inside a culture from which she feels alienated, due to its superficiality. Living in late-1960s Los Angeles, she is surrounded by Hollywood film directors whose main criteria for their lead actresses is physical attractiveness, and a community in which money and material objects are the main—if not only—aim in life. Maria can neither understand the rules of her culture nor can she assimilate into it, and is consumed with despair as a result. Despair means “hopelessness, total loss of hope,” and implies having reached a dead end with no foreseeable means out. Play It As It Lays, then, is a meditation on despair and on the few means of agency available for those who find themselves marginalized.
In Play It As It Lays Maria is overwhelmed by the lack of meaning in the world, and is able to survive her despair only by propelling herself through space, primarily by driving on the freeway:
Maria drove the freeway. She dressed every morning with a greater sense of purpose than she had felt in some time, a cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted to the touch of the accelerator, and she dressed very fast, running a brush through her hair once or twice and tying it back with a ribbon, for it was essential (to pause was to throw herself into unspeakable peril) that she be on the freeway by ten o’clock.
When she eventually quits these long, aimless drives, she finds herself confined to a psychiatric facility. Explaining her presence in the institution, she states:
I try not to think of dead things and plumbing. I try not to hear the air conditioning in that bedroom in Encino. I try not to live in Silver Wells or in New York or with Carter. I try to live in the now and keep my eye on the hummingbird. I see no one I used to know, but then I’m not just crazy about a lot of people. I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?
Maria also utilizes alcohol and self-medication as another means to propel through space. Others view her behaviors—isolating, drinking, and taking pills—as the causes of her despondency rather than as her attempts at living with it. She becomes a pariah to those around her who, submerged in the vapid world she cannot accept or fit herself to, believe her despair to be of her own making. She and her behaviors become taboo, to be avoided at all costs.
Maria cannot survive in the world she finds herself living in and as a result attempts to make a phenomenological space through driving, drinking and self-medication. But these very survival tactics only ensure her ostracization. Didion has always been acutely aware of the meaninglessness of her culture, writing, more often than not, from the point of view of the marginal, the outcasts and misfits. In her essay, “In The Islands,” for example, she writes:
I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting: you are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people. You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the ameliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor. Quite often during the past several years I have felt myself a sleepwalker, moving through the world unconscious of the moment’s high issues, oblivious to its data, alert only to the stuff of bad dreams (…)
Play It As It Lays can be read as a manifesto on the meaninglessness of contemporary culture, the alienation one experiences when one recognizes this, and the necessity of creating an alternative space within which to survive. The word “meaningless” suggests a vacuity. The word “nothing” occurs 56 times within Didion’s mere 214-page novel. Maria is indeed surrounded by “nothing,” a culture constructed of empty transactional relationships in which the ultimate aim is the accumulation of capital through any means.
For Maria, the movement forward through space vis a vis driving for hours on the freeway or by ingesting alcohol or pills is a means of escaping into a self-created third space. This is true even though, in the end, she drives back to her life at home where no change has seemingly occurred. And yet, a transformation has occurred within her through this stagnant propulsion, a kind of ferrying of her mind and spirit from aspiration and assimilation to a sense of contentment with being unable to do so. Painful as it is, her movement allows the marginalized Maria to create a home within her own homelessness. She can finally give up. And giving up allows her a sense of freedom.
Claire Denis’ film High Life is a film about mass incarceration, the prison industrial complex, forced sterilization and fertility and, in a different way from Didion’s novel, the cruelty inflicted upon those who are marginalized. It is also about the virus of violence (which originates in a culture where power uses brutality over those without agency), and how it haunts us, following us wherever we go. But more than anything, High Life is about what a culture does with those who do not or cannot conform to its ideologies. Monte, the film’s main character, who is incarcerated in prison, describes himself and the other inmates by stating, “We were scum, trash, refuse that didn’t fit into the system.” Like Didion’s Maria, these men and women, unable or unwilling to commodify themselves to a system that they do not believe in, find themselves removed from society.
In one early scene the two central male characters, Monte, and another who remains unnamed appear on the roof of a moving train, their bodies sprawled leisurely, touching. We understand that they are on the move—escaping from one place in pursuit of another. Because we see them traveling nomadically we realize they have no home. Or, if they did, they have left it and thus, have none now. There is no Point A or Point B. The boys are simply moving their bodies through space in an attempt to outrace their despair. We never learn the background of the unnamed boy, but we do learn Monte’s when he explains, “I was raised by my dog.” He was an orphan, either literally or metaphorically. We learn, too, through his narration in the film, that he spent his boyhood in juvenile hall and was then sent on to prison. This brief scene illustrates the possibility of a third space: the boys are not in any place—they are traveling illicitly on a train—moving, escaping the rules and ideologies of society, and at the same time, preserving themselves. The forward momentum from their movement through space offers a sense of agency. In other words: marginalized, orphaned, without a home, the characters use drugs and travel nomadically in an attempt to escape their despair, their culture, and what they know will be their inevitable “home” (jails, prisons, institutions, poverty).
Aside from this opening scene aboard the train, most of High Life takes place inside a shipping container-like spacecraft. Everyone on board, (aside from the captain, Chandra, and the doctor, Dr. Dibs) are former inmates on death row. Offered a choice between remaining on death row and traveling in space for a number of years on a mission to extract energy from a black hole, they have chosen the latter. The ship is a floating prison: the inmates are subdued and controlled by substances pumped into the air, are strapped down in their beds at night, and are subject to mandatory fertility experiments. Unfortunately for the inmates, though it is conceivable it could have been otherwise, the virus of violence has been brought on board with them and so there will be no reprieve. As Monte says, “These images of earth follow us like viruses, like parasites.” We understand this statement to be both literal (images from earth are broadcast to screens onboard the ship), and also metaphoric (though they have left earth with its injustices, hierarchies and barbarity, the ship is also contaminated with these maladies). Though we learn in a scene where she is confronted by one of the female inmates that Dr. Dibs has killed her two children and husband, she is, nonetheless, in charge of the ship, looking down on those who are deemed by society to be the real criminals, at one point telling them, “You’re a bunch of criminals and petty thieves.” Denis’s point here being that those in power engage in unconscionable acts that are simply part of wielding control over the powerless while those deemed “criminals” engage in acts of crime in order to rebel or survive. Of course, the inmates are well aware of this, which is why they eventually attempt an escape. But there is no true escape for those who are marginalized.
The term “taboo” is introduced early on in the film during a scene in which Monte talks to his baby daughter Willow, explaining what the word means. The film ends with Willow (now a teenager) and Monte facing a taboo: the two finding themselves inside the spaceship alone after all the other inmates have died. In one scene, Monte wakes to the teenage Willow, who has grown up on the spaceship, in his arms. She has been sleeping with him since she was a baby and doesn’t know continuing to do so as an older child is now considered a taboo. The film is framed by the word—introduced at the start of the film, it does not reemerge until the end. And though in both cases the word refers directly to the taboo relationships between Monte and Willow, its significance does not end there. As Alenka Zupancic writes in What is Sex: “In any social conflict, the “neutral” position is always and necessarily the position of the ruling class: it seems “neutral” because it has achieved the status of dominant ideology, which always strikes as self-evident.” A “taboo,” then, is any action that falls counter to the “neutral” social position. In the case of High Life, examples might include taking drugs, stealing for survival, and living a nomadic life. The very lives of Monte, Willow, and the other inmates are, by definition, “taboo.” Their very existence is prohibited. There is no space for them in society.
In the final scene, Monte and Willow venture into a black hole, what can only be described as a suicide mission. The two appear to pursue this self-annihilating quest without much consideration. They sit alongside each other inside the tiny shuttle shooting through black space into the firewall that will annihilate them both. This scene is the perfect performance of phenomenological space. It provides a sense of agency, a space within which to survive, even if only temporarily. In this case, Monte and Willow know there is nowhere for them to go—no escape. Like Didion’s Maria and the ship’s other inmates, the only means through which to find an escape from despair is to create a sense of movement and phenomenological space. Monte and Willow must travel through space on what they know will end in a suicide mission. Like the use of drugs or alcohol, and like driving for hours (or traveling illegally by freight train) this act of creating a phenomenological space, is also only, in the end, self-destructive, providing only self-annihilation.
Cynthia Cruz is the author of five collections of poems. Her sixth collection of poems, Guidebooks For The Dead, is forthcoming in 2020. Her first collection of essays, Disquieting: Essays on Silence, was published April of 2019. Cruz teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University.