Tuesday 23 April 2002

Truth through error

In Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie, Anna Karina plays Nana, a young woman who has drifted into prostitution. In a bar, Nana sits beside an elderly man (the philosopher, Brice Parain, playing himself) and asks him to buy her a drink. They start to talk. Nana tells Parain that suddenly she doesn’t know what to say. “It happens to me a lot,” she says. “I know what I mean to say. I think about it carefully before I say anything. But when it’s time to speak I can’t say it.”

Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie: Nana

He tells her a story about Porthos, one of the Three Musketeers, a simple man who has never thought about his life. One day he has to blow up a tunnel. He places the bomb and, as he is running away, he starts to think about how it is possible to keep going forward. He stops running. The bomb goes off. So, says Parain, thinking killed him. “Why tell me a story like that?” she asks him. “No reason, just to talk,” he replies.

Nana: Why must we express ourselves? To understand each other?

Parain: We have to think. To think we need to speak. There’s no other way. And to communicate, humans must speak.

Nana: But at the same time it’s very difficult… whereas I think life should be simple. Your Three Musketeers story is very beautiful but it’s frightening.

Parain: It’s frightening but it gives a clue. We’re only able to speak well after we renounce living for a while. It’s the price we pay.

Nana: Is speaking fatal?

Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie: Brice Parain

Parain: Speaking is a sort of resurrection and life with speech is different from life without it. So, to live with words you must go through the death of life without them. I don’t know if I’m explaining myself… there’s an asceticism which means that you can only speak well when you look at life with detachment.

Nana: But you can’t live everyday life with, I don’t know, with…

Parain: With detachment? That’s why we swing between silence and speech. We swing between the two because life is such that we go from everyday life into another life which is much higher because it’s a thinking life. But this thinking life involves the killing of life that is too mundane.

Nana: But is thinking and speaking the same thing?

Parain: I think so. Plato said it was. It’s an old idea. In thought I don’t think we can separate thinking from the words we use to express it. If you analyze consciousness you can only grasp a moment of thought with words.

Nana: So to speak is to risk lying?

Parain: Yes, because lying is a way of seeking. There’s little difference between an error and a lie. I’m not talking about ordinary lying… But as for subtle lying, it’s often very close to a mistake. You just can’t find the exact word. You said you often didn’t know what to say. That’s because you fear not finding the right word.

Nana: How do you know what the right word is?

Parain: You have to work at it. It takes effort. Say what must be said in a way that’s appropriate, that isn’t hurtful, that says what must be said, that does what it’s meant to do without hurting or wounding.

Nana: Yes, you have to try to be sincere. Someone said to me, truth is in everything, even in error.

Parain: It’s true. They didn’t realize it in France in the seventeenth century when they thought you could avoid error. Not only lies but error. And live in truth. I don’t think it’s possible. That’s why Kant and Hegel and German philosophy brought us back to living and the fact that we must reach truth through error.

Nana: What do you think of love?

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"Words about words." (Richard Feynmann) This is the fertile soil of atrocity, this barren navel-gazing. Immunize yourself through action-in-life.

Posted by don on 23 April 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Don, it seems to me that this is exactly the conclusion Parain draws: reaching the "truth through error" is only possible by engaging in living ("action-in-life") and accepting the possibility of making mistakes.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 23 April 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I've never seen a Godard film. Interesting to hear a European film maker have a character say that thoughts must be words. Very sexy dialogue, I'll look this up. (In passing, an apt Feynman quote for navel gazing: "I wonder why. I wonder why I wonder why. I wonder why I wonder why I wonder why." )

Posted by David Golding on 1 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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