From Even That Wildest Hope
What responsibility does an artist have to the world at large, independent of a responsibility to the work? Does there exist a moral imperative in the creation of art? Is there justification in trying to separate the artist from the art? Is such a separation even possible? And how much more fraught are these questions when a work of art that has measurable qualities is also demonstrably responsible for human suffering and misery?
These are the questions at the heart of Seyward Goodhand’s provocative and risky story “The Parachute,” an alternate history that imagines a 1941 meeting between Jewish mystic and philosopher Simone Weil and Nazi propagandist filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.
Goodhand signals her thematic concerns with an epigraph from William Faulkner: “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” In one respect, it is salutary to believe that Faulkner was correct: the enduring works of art that are the result of bad behaviour or an unconcern for the feelings of (or repercussions on) others is long, including the work of Pablo Picasso and Norman Mailer, Céline and Susan Sontag.
Riefenstahl is somewhat more difficult even than these troublesome artists in that her most accomplished work – especially the 1935 documentary Triumph of the Will – was created explicitly to promote the Nazi regime and to propagandize in favour of Hitler, who was one of her most important patrons. In his 2019 book Gorgeous War: The Branding War Between the Third Reich and the United States, Tim Blackmore tackles the moral quandaries involved in an aesthetic appreciation of Riefenstahl’s oeuvre:
Assessing Hitler as artist and orchestrator of spectacle, art critic Peter Schjeldahl notes that while ‘we must remain vigilant,’ still, ‘we should regard beauty as the fundamentally amoral phenomenon that it is.’ Such a statement continues an ongoing conversation about the nature of human perception and artistic complicity. [Designer and author Steven] Heller engages in the same contortions as do some film critics and scholars forced to admit that Leni Riefenstahl was a filmmaker of astonishing – and poisonous – films. Riefenstahl’s history requires that her odious behaviour (most recently her denial of any involvement with the fate of the Roma and Sinti she drafted from and returned to death camps in the making of Tiefland ) be rehearsed, causing important, painful, and familiar discussions about art and politics. Riefenstahl’s case is made worse by her perpetual ferocious unwillingness to accept a crumb of responsibility for wholeheartedly signing on to Nazism in all its practices.
Sontag takes up these subjects in her 1975 essay “Fascinating Fascism”:
Riefenstahl’s current de-Nazification and vindication as indomitable priestess of the beautiful – as a filmmaker and, now, as a photographer – do not augur well for the keenness of current abilities to detect the fascist longings in our midst. Riefenstahl is hardly the usual sort of aesthete or anthropological romantic. The force of her work being precisely in the continuity of its political and aesthetic ideas, what is interesting is that this was once seen so much more clearly than it seems to be now, when people claim to be drawn to Riefenstahl’s images for their beauty of composition. Without a historical perspective, such connoisseurship prepares the way for a curiously absentminded acceptance of propaganda for all sorts of destructive feelings – feelings whose implications people are refusing to take seriously. Somewhere, of course, everyone knows that more than beauty is at stake in art like Riefenstahl’s.
The version of Riefenstahl that Goodhand creates is a narcissist and aesthete who disclaims any responsibility for the negative effects of her work on ordinary people: “All I’ve ever wanted to do is create a reality that is more beautiful,” she tells Weil. Riefenstahl is repeatedly likened to a infant; Goodhand writes, “Despite her forty years, Riefenstahl had the air of a child, unhearing but wide open.” The filmmaker herself describes her cinematic approach in terms of a youngster who is congenitally naive of extraneous concerns and single-minded in a focus on the immediate beauty of the filmed image: “People who aren’t poets often misunderstand how it works. Take my process, for example. I am an infant of the world! Images come constantly at me in a flood, like a gulf on the horizon, opening and spewing a tidal wave toward the sun. They come, but I don’t understand what they mean. I am an aperture in the fold of reality!”
Weil responds to this morally convenient and exculpatory argument by telling Riefenstahl, “Many victims of war are children.”
Goodhand’s Riefenstahl desires to play the part of Penthesilea, an Amazon warrior of Greek myth who fought for Troy during the Trojan War and was killed by Achilles. “But in my version,” Riefenstahl tells her doting art director, Isabella, “Penthesilea is a woman who loves a man, Achilles, and kills him. She tears him apart with her teeth! She is a beautiful brute, pure desire and instinct.” It is not difficult, in this alternate conception, to see what inspires the filmmaker in this story.
This is how Riefenstahl first discovers Weil: laid up in bed with a bladder infection, she has Isabella read her the 1940 essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” written under the anagrammatic nom de plume Emile Novis. Riefenstahl is particularly taken with Weil’s conception of Nemesis as a driving force in Homer’s epic. The filmmaker asks Isabella to interpret the French text for her; Isabella isolates an even-handedness in Weil’s approach and an unwillingness to assign guilt to either side in the Trojan War.
Though Isabella interprets this as an abdication of moral responsibility, Weil demurs in the company of Riefenstahl: “I did not say the narrator of the Iliad is impartial. He is against the shedding of blood, and the fruitless waste of lives for a king’s ego.” As if to underline this reading, Goodhand quotes Weil’s essay in her collection’s epigraph: “Thus violence obliterates anybody who feels its touch. It comes to seem just as external to its employer as to its victim. And from this springs the idea of a destiny before which executioner and victim stand equally innocent, before which conquered and conqueror are brothers in the same distress.”
The philosophical questions in “The Parachute” are freighted and germane to our current historical moment and they form the intellectual core of Goodhand’s story. But Goodhand is working in a fabulist mode and, as such, she incorporates these ideas in the context of a story that imagines Weil cadging a flight on a plane piloted by Riefenstahl, who has agreed to drop the Jewish writer over the Compiègne Forest so that Weil can join the French resistance. What Weil doesn’t know is that Isabella has sabotaged her parachute in a patriotic assassination attempt.
Clearly, Goodhand is ambitious in her approach and willing to trust her readers to accept an alternate history that involves a meeting that never happened and plenty of liberties with the biographies of her two subjects. Not all of this works: even assuming a reader accepts the premise that the filmmaker would agree to transport her Jewish passenger across enemy lines, the notion that Weil would trust the parachute not to have been tampered with is a stretch. As is the mourning dove that flies into one of the plane’s engines – a symbolic moment that is a bit too heavy-handed to countenance. And the presence of Isabella as the instigator of the assassination plot is a bit of a cop out, though the symbolism in repeated references to her colostomy bag (she suffers from Crohn’s disease) is well-handled, if unpalatable.
These aspects mar the narrative but do not detract from the authentically fascinating ideas that are given play over the course of the story. Weil’s enigmatic final line – “Give me real hell instead of imaginary paradise” – is a fitting capstone on a tale that offers few answers to the questions it raises. The interest in the story is not, finally, in the answers, but in the willingness to raise the questions in the first place.