into the void: nicholas rombes and mark de silva, in dialogue
Nicholas Rombes and I share a publisher. Our first novels were both recently published by Two Dollar Radio. Now he’s one up on me: this month, Two Dollar Radio releases his debut as a director and screenwriter, the feature film The Removals, a lo-fi, sci-fi political thriller. Nick and I recently corresponded about the film, the books, and our joint preoccupation with revolution.
—Mark de Silva
Mark de Silva: On the cusp of the release of your debut film, The Removals, I would like to start, actually, by asking you about your novel, The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, since the two works seem to me closely related. The book’s narrator speaks of rumors that Laing, the renegade film librarian at the center of the story, may have helped the CIA to “weaponize cinema.” Do you think of art as a weapon? At its best, or its worst?
Nicholas Rombes: I want to turn this question back on you, but first: Yes, I do think of art as a weapon that can be used for either good or bad. I’m of the old vulgar Marxist school that sees art—literature and cinema, especially—as agents of ideology. The “values” they espouse, historically, have been in the service of those who create them, and those who create them have had access to literacy, technology, capital, and in general the means of material production. So art is never neutral; it’s a narrative embedded with values that are re-enforced (for instance, the promotion of suffering as a virtue in so many Charles Dickens novels) or attacked.
Cinema is a weapon to control the civic mind, but also, at its best, a tool to trace and give shape to the outlines of our confinement—and in that, the possibilities of resistance. The problem though is that even “radical” art, today, depends on and is enabled by the very technologies and social media networks that it critiques.
Now, I want to ask you: Is Square Wave a political novel? It, too, has something that is “weaponized”: weather itself, the environment.
MD: I suppose it’s a truism that novels let us inhabit and “test-drive” other minds, other selves. But surely novels can enlarge more than our sense of the psychological possibilities. By letting us dwell within other social frameworks, they feed the political imagination too. In that sense, I think, Square Wave must be rated a political novel, since the book depicts two orders that are at variance (though probably not as much variance as we would like) with the one we know today in America.
Inasmuch as it doesn’t have a univocal social “message,” though, I doubt it is a political novel in the sense that, say, The Bonfire of the Vanities is. That’s not to say it isn’t a weapon. I believe Square Wave has wounded at least some readers, and this pleases me, since what fails to wound us tends not to really reach us at all.
A similar potential to wound seems to be possessed by all of the fictitious films you describe in Absolution, films which are, it is no coincidence, said to be lost works by path-breaking directors: Lynch, Antonioni, Deren, Jodorowski, and so on. I had the strange feeling that these non-existent films put a new complexion on the actual oeuvres of these directors. Do you think the description of fictional works of art can cast light on real artworks and artists, that it can function as a kind of criticism?
NR: I love movies better when I am remembering them than actually experiencing them. Watching them is exciting, but remembering them is where the real pleasure starts. At the risk of sounding like a nostalgist, the curse of our digital era is that it’s harder to misremember things. As a child of the 1970s (I was born in 1965) my experiences of re-watching films was limited. My wife-to-be and I saw The Shining on one of our first dates in a crummy theater in 1980, but it wasn’t released on VHS until a good decade later, so my memories of it—faulty, decaying, imperfect—were based on that single viewing at the Maumee Indoor in Ohio.
The art we love, we make our own. In re-writing films that my favorite directors might have made, I think I’m re-making them in the idealized way that I remember them, as opposed to how they really were. This is more a form of power than criticism.
MD: As in artistic power? The narrator suggests, in your book, that words cannot really do justice to these films. But do you think his vivid descriptions of these films might themselves form autonomous works of art—literary rather than filmic ones? That’s what I felt in reading them. The fact that they do not exist as films hardly matters.
NR: I would say that’s true of Square Wave, too. Or at least it’s implied. In chapter 14 of Square Wave, there is—to my ears at least—a technical and beautiful description of a certain sort of music. Larent is working his instrument, and then, a glitch: “This wasn’t his mistake. The glitch was in the mathematics itself. You couldn’t return to the root pitch through pure fifths. The circle wouldn’t close. Instead it spiraled upward, a comma for every twelve fifths.”
To me, that description is more potent than the music itself. But more than that, writing about music or film or art reanimates it and keeps it alive, but alive in a different, monstrous sort of way. That difference—the gap between the thing described and the description itself—is where the bottom falls out.
MD: Of the films in Absolution, you say there is a “void at the heart” of them. This absence of meaning or sense is said to be seductive, and hence powerful. What is it that makes it so? And does your own film, The Removals, partake of it?
NR: I think you know, Mark, what it means to speak or write of “a void.” I’ve never met you in person, so I can’t be sure. But my instincts tell me that you know. I think we all know, on some level. Not to wax philosophical, but isn’t so much of what we do—in our families, our politics, our art—an attempt to mask or cover-over the void? I do think that art—and by that I mean anything that speaks to us, whether tagged “art” or not—is the closest we can get to that void, without getting sucked into it. I have known people sucked into the void, in real life. Not through art, but through addiction, or untreated mental illness, and it is a terrible thing.
The absence of meaning is a great comfort to me. And yet I say this as someone who believes in the power of an old love, a boundary-breaking love. As a writer, let me turn that phrase—“the absence of meaning”—back on you. You are creator. Does what you create have meaning?
MD: Well, as far as Square Wave goes, I do think it probably resists definitive interpretation. Perhaps all books do, but many at least give the illusion of being more or less interpretable. Whereas Square Wave is a manifestly unruly work. And yes, I suppose this unruliness does open up a kind of unfillable semantic void, a place where meaning refuses to settle, where instead a multiplicity of meanings jostle and crowd each other out. This, I think, is not dissimilar to what lived experience is like—no book, I assume, can hope to keep up with the world’s own unruliness.
The void, in Absolution, is also described as an “undiluted truth” that in some sense “we cannot survive.” And many of the films do seem to end in enigmatic barbarism, terror, or chaos. This same void, though, is said by Laing to represent “a new way of being”—and that, he thinks, is precisely why the films must be destroyed. Life as we know it is what cannot survive, it seems, but there may be a new though unfathomable way of being on the horizon.
NR: I’ve only been in one fight in my life, and it was a knife fight. I was cut badly, but the real pain came later, in the form of shame and regret. Your phrase “life as we know it” is beautiful and captures perfectly the rectifying balance that violence and death can offer.
As a Christian, the Corinthians verse “now through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face” has always been an inspiration, and so much of what’s called “weird” fiction and philosophy—ranging from Lovecraft to Ligotti to Eugene Thatcher—seems not to break with the old Christian principles but to extend them. Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” comes to mind, as do some of the most potent scenes in the recent film by Robert Eggers, The Witch. No doubt Lovecraftians would dispute this, but nonetheless the connections are there.
MD: This is fascinating. One can be tempted to read Absolution in a nihilistic way, but your response suggests that that might be off the mark. The nothingness or void here need not be seen as a repudiation of life but as the discovery of it, a truer, undiluted form of it, as terrifyingly opaque as it may seem to us from where we stand.
It’s also interesting to me that the films in Absolution are said to have a way of refusing easy narratives, and that Laing thinks it is in this that their beauty and terror are located—that ultimate blankness, that resistance to our story-telling instincts. I’m curious: Do you think that is part of what a real revolution might involve: something unintelligible to us, at least from our current point of view?
NR: I was at a resale shop a while ago and came across an old pamphlet by Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, essentially a book-length, sarcastic, jabbing, threatening rebuttal to the more moderate Karl Kautsky, whom I had never heard about. It was published in 1918 and the edition I picked up was from 1934, and it has this beautiful tattered, faded red cover. For some reason I just got sucked into it and it struck me again just how much theorizing there was around the Russian Revolution, and maybe all revolutions. Revolutions create chaos and disorder to clear the way for new order, and yet they feed off narratives, whether from the world of politics or culture.
MD: So do you regard Laing as a kind of hero, defending life as we know it against a future we cannot quite grasp, that stands across what you call the “abyss of unknowing”? And that this would be precisely because what lies beyond the border of what we can know may be where the truth of life actually begins? This reading would make Laing a this-worldly reactionary, with transcendence lying on the other side of the abyss, whether we can fathom it or not.
NR: I think Laing would probably be one of those people who wish that revolution could last forever and that the inevitable, conservative, reactionary aftermath of revolution was never achieved.
But perhaps I can better speak to this with one of the lines from your book, from Chapter 29. Stagg is about to speak at the Institute, and there’s a phrase about “reinforcing the very political order being worried, from all angles, by the Institute.” This contradiction hits on a hard truth about progressive politics and change and the way that critique can sometimes strengthen the very mechanisms of power and control being resisted.
To me, the closest Laing’s actions get to social politics are in his caretaking and eventual destruction of these peculiar films. Which is to say, he’s attempting to put his hands on the levers of cultural memory. But that’s tangential to his more selfish and personal reasons.
Your novel comes closer, I think, to identifying and giving shape to the invisible structures of power that lie behind everyday events. Do you think that Stagg’s investigations have the potential power to create at least a space for critique?
MD: I think Stagg, not unlike Laing, is subject to mercenary tendencies. But looking over their shoulders, as it were, we as readers can begin to glimpse the structures that they are caught within, or at least halfway within, as we watch them try to wrestle themselves free. That wrestling turns out to be productive for us, even if they never quite succeed in freeing themselves. I think, then, our investigations of Stagg’s investigations may help us see certain reigning agendas and ideas—reigning energies, shall we say—for what they really are: spent forces. And perhaps the book in some way indicates which doors might open if only someone bothered to try the knobs.
NR: Your phrase “looking over their shoulders” is telling, as Square Wave is narrated in the third person. Did you ever consider Stagg as narrator?
MD: I think I did, at the very beginning. Though the book was always cast in the third person, I was originally going to write with relatively little psychological distance from Stagg—it was to going to be a “close” third-person, as they say. But as I wrote, those confines were very naturally breached, and I allowed the distance to vary. Once I did that, it became clear to me the book would need to take up the perspectives of other characters, too, and in fact that it was going to organize an ensemble cast rather than track a single consciousness.
One thing linking the characters, though, is that they are all trying quite consciously to bring about revolutions. Sometimes these are personal, sometimes they are social, and sometimes they are intellectual or artistic. Your work too seems to be preoccupied with revolution. And in fact I think there is something binding your revolutionaries together, too. They seem to be trying, in The Removals, to achieve certain things that the films in Absolution are said to achieve: to drain the world of meaning and to undo the powers of language itself.
The narrator of Absolution suggests that within the absence of meaning, a primitive, indestructible love may reside. Beauty lives in this unknowing, this absence of linguistic meaning, and perhaps that’s just because it cannot be known, and therefore cannot be tamed or controlled. Is there a kind of meaning that may survive the destruction of linguistic meaning?
NR: I’m in metaphysical quicksand now, so I’ll answer this through the lens of Laing, for whom there is no meaning apart from language and images. He’s so bent on destroying those films, in part, because he really does believe that once they are gone any meaning attached to them is gone, too, forever. In a way, he’s a romantic, and romantics are dangerous in their desire to shape the world to fit their lofty, idealized version of reality. Laing’s happiest when he’s remembering these movies; this seems to trigger the best, the most creative elements in him.
I’m reminded of a beautifully expressed moment in Square Wave, when Jen reflects on the grace she finds in drinking: “In the hour-long window before she’d had too much [alcohol], she felt as if her inner life perfectly aligned with the one outside. Nothing was left out of place: she became herself, the best version of her.” Might not that be a definition of happiness, of peace? A sort of peace without the baggage of meaning?
MD: That’s a startling thought. It makes me think of Wittgenstein, actually, the way he saw philosophy’s being about the untangling of the conceptual or semantic knots we, in our furious efforts to sort things out systematically, end up tying ourselves in. A state of unknottedness—a smooth meshing between the inner (the conceptual) and the outer (the world)—becomes the aim of this “therapeutic,” quietistic kind of philosophy. In such a context, the inner and outer seem to interact seamlessly. Which indeed, I agree, is a little like (maybe a lot like) what it is to be moderately intoxicated.
The emptying of linguistic or symbolic meaning, in The Removals, is achieved (or attempted) by “overwriting” past events through reenacting them and “removing” the original actors. As one character describes it, this is “to meet the past, but not in the past, but in the present.” Even after a few viewings, it’s still not clear to me that this revolutionary movement is unambiguously evil. How do you see it?
NR: I actually have a lot of sympathy and kindred feeling for the organization that plans and executes “the removals” in the film, which is one of the reasons why Kathryn—one of its main agents—is given the voiceover and narrative control of the story. She has absorbed all of the good, utopian values of the group, which makes it difficult for her to pull away and align herself with the defector, Mason. Do “bad” organizations see themselves as bad? Your everyday Stasi agent in East Germany in the 1960s, she perhaps thought she was doing the right thing. Doing bad things for the right reasons.
The trick—and the hard part—of the movie was indicating the “dark” side of the removers, and I give huge credit to Eric Obenauf (Two Dollar Radio’s publisher and the film’s producer) for creating the impressionistic “torture” scene in the film, which gets as close as we could to depicting the violence that lies at the heart of this organization.
MD: A common theme to both the book and the film seems to be that social revolution, liberation, ultimately requires eliminating the revolutionaries, purging the purgers, removing the removers: “the revolution eats its own children,” as a character in The Removals says. Is there something possibly self-defeating in active revolt? Is real change blind, something that happens when the world is primed for it, and not something people make happen? Put differently, is it the most that one can do to push a form of life to the breaking point, without being able to choose how exactly the world will be remade?
NR: I’m also going to address this one through your novel. At one point, near the end, Penerin, after he learns that Stagg is going to be speaking at the Wintry, tells him: “You must consider that your real life, the one you’d rather be living all the time instead of sitting here with me. But see, this is history too. This is politics, what we’re doing. So actually, this is just as much your real life as anything.”
To this reader at least, that’s the crux of the novel, that tension between thinking politics and living politics, and the dawning awareness that these two strands inform each other deeply. I think what I’m getting at here is a question about certain ways of thinking, about philosophy.
I know you have a deep background in philosophy. Are there any thinkers in particular who haunt Square Wave?
MD: I would say the essential thinkers haunting the book are Plato and Hobbes. Both of them emphasize the trouble with democracy—standard forms of it, anyway. In this way, they vex the modern world as much as they do the world of the book. And they refuse to stay buried, historically, it seems. Perhaps, though, we should see their regular re-appearances more neutrally as visitations rather than hauntings. Their solutions to questions of social coordination obviously won’t do. But even their missteps draw attention to neglected and potentially fruitful (if unnerving) avenues of thought and action. Certainly their transgressions against our pieties enlarge our political imagination, again, both in the book and in the world. The resurgence of scholarly interest in Carl Schmitt, an heir to Hobbes and until recently a radioactive thinker for his association with the Third Reich, is auspicious.
Speaking of productive transgression, the films described in Absolution are said to be surreptitiously transgressive, and it’s suggested that this may have a greater impact on viewers than more overtly experimental work. What sort of film is The Removals, then?
NR: It’s a slumgullion stew of all the things I love in movies: detectives, agents, open spaces, the wind gusting through trees, totems (in this case, Kathryn’s red suitcase), repeated lines, the sound of helicopters, and, most importantly, romance. This was a very low-budget film, so we had to rely on our wits and the generosity of so many people in Columbus, Ohio, where we filmed, to achieve the goals and effects. As a writer, you know that the only limit you have is your imagination. I think had appreciated, abstractly, how in making a film every choice during production entails a lot of strategizing, organization, and luck (for instance, with the weather), but it wasn’t until I was on the ground, actually doing it, that I understood how completely different this form of storytelling is from novel writing.
In that sense, I think of The Removals more as a documentary than a narrative film, because I’m so hyper-aware of all the work, decisions, and coordination that went into each shot, and I see them reflected there on the screen, whether the audience does or not.
MD: We know that Laing has theories about what immediately followed a particular film fragment he acquired, one that he has since destroyed. The depth of his theorizing, though, seems only to reveal the futility of the man. The films never really mattered, you say in the book, as meaning can never actually be discovered in them. The void cannot be filled by talking about it. So, I wonder, have we managed to fill any voids in discussing The Removals? Or might we be as hopeless as Laing?
NR: I think talking and trading ideas is a form of creation, and it can even yield creative inspiration. In the face of the torrent of hateful, mean-spirited discourse that the Internet promotes, talking about movies and books and philosophy makes my blood flow in a happier way. So yes, we’re as hopeless as Laing, which is a good thing, because there’s an immeasurable pleasure to be had in being hopeless, in acknowledging that our memories not just of important people in our lives, but of films, movies, art, can give us just enough pleasure, just enough happiness, to make it through another day.
ABOUT THE INTERLOCUTORS
Nicholas Rombes is author of the novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio) and the 33 1/3 book Ramones (Bloomsbury), as well as the director of the feature film The Removals (Two Dollar Radio). His work has appeared in The Believer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Filmmaker Magazine, where he is a contributing editor. He is a professor of English at the University of Detroit Mercy, at the corner of Six Mile and Livernois, in Detroit, Michigan.
Mark de Silva is the author of the debut novel Square Wave, which was released by Two Dollar Radio in February of 2016. He holds degrees in philosophy from Brown (AB) and Cambridge (PhD). After several years on the editorial staff of the New York Times’s opinion pages, he now freelances for the paper’s Sunday magazine. He is also a contributing editor at 3:AM Magazine.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 9th, 2016.