Thursday, March 24, 2016

Je Suis Beirut

There is a running gag in Luis Bunuel's wonderful last film, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) that has become, over the years since the film was made, uncannily portentous. At several moments throughout the film, armed men appear suddenly or explosions take place, there is a momentary pandemonium as people scatter and scream, and, just as suddenly, the armed men exit the scene and, strangely (hilariously), everything returns to normal as if the guns and explosions were never there. It was Bunuel's last - sadly - surrealist attack on everyday European life, what he might have called bourgeois normalcy. What is funny about these scenes is how little the terrorist attacks interrupt the story of the film and the lives of its characters.

There were terrorist attacks in Spain, in which Obscure Object was made, carried out by separatist groups like the Basque ETA, after the death of Franco. Some of them were large-scale attacks, in which there was substantial loss of life and property damage. Bunuel, who always hated middle class European society, lampooned it in his last films, like The Phantom of Liberty and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. He was always waiting for cracks to appear in the carefully-crafted edifice of modern society because he knew that it was nothing but that - an edifice. Underneath it were all of the old passions and hatreds that had always threatened to tear society apart. Surrealism was a kind of artististic terrorism, attempting to tear holes in the thin veneer of civilized life. Bunuel was clearly in favor of society's destruction, and probably saw the terrorists as catalysts, blowing it apart - literally and symbolically. (1)

When the Paris bombings took place last summer, and the outpouring of sorrow and sympathy followed in their wake, I remember someone asking why there was no such outpouring of feeling after similar bombings had taken place in Beirut a week before. The immediate response to the question, which no one dared utter, was that it was Paris that had been bombed, not Beirut; that no one is geniuinely surprised when they see reports of bombings in a place like Beirut.

Last month I watched a report from Beirut in which someone said that when a bomb goes off in Beirut, people's lives aren't interrupted. Life goes on as if the bombings were just another part of everyday life in the city - whereas when bombs go off in Paris, "the whole country goes into a coma for three months."

Now the focus of international sympathy is on Brussells. Flowers are being laid in the city squares, messages are being scrawled in chalk on the pavement. "Je suis Bruxelles" has replaced "Je suis Paris," which was itself a replacement for "Je suis Charlie Hebdo." Despite such shows of solidarity in the face of terrorist acts - whose aim, besides death and destruction, is to inspire nationalism, to disunite people, to close borders and for Europeans to reconsider the EU - fractures are already appearing in Europe. Right-wing, ultra-nationalist political parties are scoring victories in elections. Concerns about terrorism and about the stanchless flow of Muslim refugees into Europe, like blood from a bullet wound, are inspiring countries formerly known for their openness toward immigrants, like Denmark, to pass laws limiting future immigration to their countries.

Terrorist acts are always the same. They vary only in scale and ferocity. They are considered atrocities and not acts of war because they aren't directed from any specific country, even if the country "sponsors" terrrorists and belongs to George W. Bush's comic book "Axis OF Evil." Military responses are invariably counter-productive, since all they manage to do is arouse more hatred and resentment and result in the multiplication of potential enemies. Will our major cities eventually become Beiruts? Will we be living in the world Bunuel foresaw so clearly in his last film? Somewhere Luis is heaving another sigh.(2)

(1) I am not suggesting that Bunuel was in sympathy with terrorists. He saw them for what they are - dangerously deluded characters in a melodrama written by someone they never met, in a war among shadows.
(2) Bunuel's gave his memoir the title "My Last Sigh" (Mon dernier soupir).

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