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 Lucy Audubon c. 1870 (Wikipedia image)


Watching a film on The Criterion Channel some months ago, it occurred to me that there may be something lurking, some connection between the reading I'd been doing, which I might explicate through the lens of the film. The film in question is from an Iranian director. Here's the basic description, lifted from The Criterion Channel website:


Close-up Directed by Abbas Kiarostami • 1990 • Iran. 
Starring Hossein Sabzian, Abolfazi Ahankhah, Mahrokh Ahankhah. Internationally revered Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has created some of the most inventive and transcendent cinema of the past thirty years, and CLOSE-UP is his most radical, brilliant work. This fiction-documentary hybrid uses a sensational real-life event—the arrest of a young man on charges that he fraudulently impersonated the well-known filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf—as the basis for a stunning, multilayered investigation into movies, identity, artistic creation, and existence, in which the real people from the case play themselves. With its universal themes and fascinating narrative knots, CLOSE-UP has resonated with viewers around the world.


I'll describe my impressions of this film in more detail at another time; at the moment, however, it offers a potentially useful jumping-off point. But first, some readings that I feel may connect with this film in an interesting way, and perhaps also touch on my series of Eupalinos posts, ongoing.


In their June 2, 2022 issue, The New York Review of Books published a review of a book by Axel Honneth, longtime member of the Frankfurt School, former student, and later, close associate of Jürgen Habermas. My understanding is that the two frequently co-taught seminars in philosophy at Frankfurt or Hamburg. With that, I have in mind Habermas's writing on the development of the public sphere, his Theory of Communicative Action in particular, which corresponds, if obliquely -- somewhat at an angle perhaps -- with Honneth's version of same. As Habermas's biographer Stefan Müller-Doohm notes,


Axel Honneth criticizes the concept of communicative reason from a different angle, pointing out that inclusion, in the sense of belonging to a society, does not result primarily from the experience of processes of opinion- and will-formation. Rather, according to Honneth, the precondition of communicative action is the experience of social recognition.


That book, by the way, is Recognitions, based on the Seeley Lectures given by Honneth at Oxford in May 2017; which calls to mind, across the span of many years, the work of Martin Buber and other thinkers who have outlined a theory of social identity based on the multifaceted relations between self and other. But here I'll pause to ask, Would the movie I've alluded to, Close-up, be more strongly related to the Pierre Janet-themed blog post I published recently, rather than to Honneth and his work?


I've gotten hold of a copy of the Honneth book and have begun reading through it. I've also been reading a book of interconnected poems called Audubon's Sparrow by Juditha Dowd. The book is subtitled A Biography — in Poems and is written in the voice mainly of Audubon's wife, Lucy, detailing her struggles with life, and with that relationship — her husband opting to follow his star, often leaving her behind as he rambled through various countrysides, observing, capturing, and painting birds, and later traveling to London to promote publication of his book with a London printer. The poetic sequence eventuates in their reuniting, setting up together again in a big house on the Hudson River, with Audubon succumbing to a stroke sometime later and Lucy carrying on alone once again, eking out a living as a music instructor.


Therein lies the crux of the story; as located in the ambiguities associated with togetherness and separation, characterized by Dowd in terms of Audubon's personal struggle with his identity — Storekeeper? Artist? It's not clear whether Audubon's more mundane agon correlates in some way with Honneth's argument, though I believe the latter is fundamentally and profoundly significant. I'll get to that in a moment (possibly a long moment from this writing); but Dowd explores a version of this, whether the high or the low version, in her book. The Audubon couple eventually decided to establish a store at Henderson, Kentucky, seeking to secure a more stable livelihood and wherewithal. But there may be some foreshadowing with Dowd setting the closing line of the following stanza in italics:


This sturdy cabin is our first real home  

My husband writes in his journal  

As better could not be had we were pleased


"As better could not be had"... This is Lucy quoting her husband (his words set in italics); which convey a subtle emphasis, offering a window into Audubon's mind, a window that will open wider later in the book. Meanwhile, her husband sets up as shopkeeper, and entertains or rather explores the idea of establishing a sawmill. But the picture is clouded. A poem titled "Audubon, at the Window":


I do not dissemble when I say that I'm a happy man  

though something weak within me says I'm not.


In closing the poem, Dowd has Audubon reflect more pointedly,


I'm a provisioner of farmers, of travelers and families,  

while something in me sighs that I am not.


There's more -- embedded in the coursing verses of the extended poem -- too much poetry to quote here. But the question is pressing — is this Honneth's (and Valéry's Socrates) concern? Or is Audubon, as portrayed by Dowd, grappling with a more routine conundrum, rather than the deeply situated psychic struggle to establish (and project) a personal identity? Honneth's discussion probes more deeply, but I've gone far enough into this question for the moment.

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