On Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse

From Richard Marshall (3:AM Magazine)
Béla Tarr, The Turin Horse (2011)
Béla Tarr, The Turin Horse (2011)

“In Turin on 3rd January, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the doorway of number six, Via Carlo Alberto. Not far from him, the driver of a hansom cab is having trouble with a stubborn horse. Despite all his urging, the horse refuses to move, whereupon the driver loses his patience and takes his whip to it. Nietzsche comes up to the throng and puts an end to the brutal scene, throwing his arms around the horse’s neck, sobbing. His landlord takes him home, he lies motionless and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words, and lives for another ten years, silent and demented, cared for by his mother and sisters. We do not know what happened to the horse.”

Some catastrophes are unknown. Some are unknowable.

Knowledge of catastrophe is limited by our imagination which is not limitless. For Nietzsche we think only in the form of language and are trapped by prejudices inherited from this to believe that distinctions of subject/predicate, cause/effect, noun/verb and so on are ontologically grounded, that they are in some tight isomorphic relationship with reality. Not only do these prejudices isolate us from knowing the world, we are isolated from ourselves too. The practices and conventions that give us practical guidance to make sense of our own linguistic meaning, sans Wittgenstein’s over-optimistic assumption that such meanings must be shared, all those personal idiolects, adjusted vocabularies and syntax that detach us from any default convention in order to respond to local circumstance leave us with fragile, lonely and private worlds.

A still from Béla Tarr's The Turin Horse (2011)
A still from Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011)

Tarr’s film dwells for as long as it can with two characters whose isolation is stripped down to an abject extreme. The regularities of their trapped behaviours – feeding the horse, being dressed and dressing, eating squalid potatoes, drawing water from the well, these are repetitive sequences of primitive solutions to the universal problem of how to coordinate and communicate beliefs and actions. And the catastrophe that unfolds, the storm blowing like the ash of a burning universe, is a dark matter that dissolves each grim uniformity, every regularity, and in so doing wrecks any scantily dressed default understanding of reality, self and communication. Tarr portrays this as an event that occurs across an extreme boundary. It is a catastrophe that remains beyond them. It dissolves the world into pitch.

A still from Béla Tarr's The Turin Horse (2011)
A still from Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011)

History goes on only to the limit of our comprehension because it is about us. A history that wasn’t our history would be incomprehensible. The world that isn’t our world too. Physics is included in this, for physics is guided by the overweening belief in truth as its ultimate value. And all values come from us. If not, where else? This philosophical position is historicist, archeological, anthropological and genealogical. It is the soul of Nietzsche’s nihilism. Husserl similarly was a nihilist when he declares geometry a human device linked to our practical needs and activities. So too was Marx a nihilist when he said that to understand science we had to understand its social genesis. Nihilism isn’t a belief but is rather the default process of modernity.

A still from Béla Tarr's The Turin Horse (2011)
A still from Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011)

Our measurement of value is the life. Where catastrophe strikes the values we live by become disorientated, blind, and stupid. Nothing survives the transvaluation of values because the catastrophe strikes at the very heart of the life that is identical with its values. Here is an example of Nietzsche’s thought that we are trapped by linguistic form. Language makes it seem that there is a life and attached some values. But this is wrong, according to Nietzsche. Life and values are one and the same thing. In a boring sense, the relationship is analytic.

Tarr produces the sense of dread that accompanies the catastrophe. It covers the land – which is always the land as you know it, the land as it used to be, the land in which there was hope of its future spreading out. The momentous opening of the film, the extended shot of the horse as will, powering along through the landscape, dominating the world in a freedom of movement that asserts the ‘this is this’ identity of noun and verb, this is the affirmation of life asserting its own continuation and on its own terms no matter how disorganized, incoherent and crazy. Here is a life and its world and in its furious energy and movement everything is going one way – this way, not that way. And if that includes waste, degeneration, decay and death, well, in the vast momentum of the film’s opening there’s no hint of fear that we are not free to remain young, that no institution can abolish age, nor vice nor disease nor any sense that to do so would be to abolish us. Every value is there in that impressive object, its gigantic shape and process so aligned to establish what infernal will has imposed and made. [Read More]

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