Part of the Series
The Public Intellectual
Zygmunt Bauman’s upcoming book, “44 Letters From the Liquid Modern World” (forthcoming: Polity), furthers his project of describing a new form of modernity that is challenging individuals and society. He describes a “liquid” modernity: a state of constantly changing circumstances and shifting priorities that make it difficult for individuals to have the time or frames of reference to organize their lives under conditions of extreme ambiguity. Today, Truthout presents the second in a series of excerpts from Bauman’s forthcoming book with letter #38 from the volume, “The Voice of Lorna’s Silence.” vh
In one of the first scenes of the film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, Le silence de Lorna, the eponymous heroine, exquisitely played by Artya Dobroshi, opens her mailbox, only to be frustrated; once again she finds it empty of the long-awaited letter. As the plot unravelled, it dawned on me that what I was watching, with bated breath, was itself a letter: a letter from the liquid modern world and one I would dearly have wished to write myself but would have failed, lacking the cinematographic vision and story-telling talents of the two directors and the writers of the screenplay. That wish of mine being, alas, bound to stay forever unfulfilled, the only thing I can do is to explain why I believe the oeuvre of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes to be one of the best letters from the liquid modern world ever written . . . At least one of the best I’ve had a chance to read or managed to imagine.
The film does not start immediately with the search for the letter: it starts (and ends as well) like most plays staged in our liquid modern times (tragedies and comedies alike): with a sum of money changing hands. The film starts with Lorna, an immigrant with a temporary residence permit but applying for Belgian citizenship, paying some money into her bank account. The film ends with Lorna emptying and closing her account and being stripped of her Belgian identity card and mobile telephone (read: her network of connections, of people she might call, her sole anchorage amidst raving tides), and facing a choice between physical death and social death. The final credits splash on to the screen a few moments later, with Lorna, having been abandoned by friends and having escaped her persecutors, lying down for the night, stripped of all her tokens of identity or belonging, on a table in an abandoned wooden shack, deep in the woods in the middle of nowhere.
Lorna was married to Claudy, a junkie, who agreed to offer himself to Lorna as a path to Belgian citizenship — in exchange for a round sum of euros to finance his drug addiction. We learn that Fabio, the head of a mafia-like trade in passports, hearing the purpose of the frankly fictitious marriage, saw Claudy’s drug addiction as a major virtue: junkies die fast, he stated, and if they don’t die fast enough, then an overdose (whether by their own mistake or helped by others’ cleverness and malice aforethought) as a way of speeding up their departure was always a credible, since highly probable, eventuality. Then the young widow, having become a fully fledged Belgian citizen, would be able to offer her hand in marriage to another citizenship-seeker, for another round sum of euros . . . Lorna and her lover, Sokol (also an immigrant of, so to speak, eminently ‘fluid’ status), plan to use the money, eventually topped up with a hefty bank loan, to open a snack bar and start selling sandwiches for a change instead of their own bodies and identities.
In a society of consumers — that is, of people who, in order to consume, first need to offer themselves on the consumer market as sellable commodities — all that must have seemed a flawlessly calculated business proposition. It was perfectly attuned to the logic and spirit of the society which Lorna and Sokol were struggling to enter, much like the prospective buyers of their services, including their legally defined identities — the society in which they dreamed of becoming settled and secure. The scheme soon started falling apart, though, ripped asunder by factors the business proposition had neglected for the simple reason that they lacked a market price: factors such as compassion, pity, an impulse to care, or distaste for the infliction of pain and aversion to the sight of human suffering did not figure in the ‘marital’ contract.
These factors could be left out of the contract but, as became clearer by the day, they could not be kept out of human cohabitation and interaction for long. Faced with Lorna, a decent, hard-working, honest person, Claudy is inspired to lift himself out of his human degradation, by his bootstraps if necessary — and quit the destructive habit. Claudy’s appeals for help, and still more the sorry sight of Claudy struggling to defeat his degrading affliction yet tormented by cruel withdrawal symptoms, interfere brutally, and in the end successfully, with both the large and the small print of the business proposition. Lorna is human, Lorna cares, Lorna is urged to help — by what? Not, by her contractual obligations, for sure. Perhaps, then, by her humanity? By the distress and agony she sees on the face of another human being?
When the long-awaited letter with the decree finally arrives and Claudy faces the prospect of losing Lorna, Claudy again turns to the drug pusher for the sole medicine against despair he knows and has tested . . . Lorna kicks the pusher out, however, locks the door and throws the key out of the window to make sure that the morbid temptation won’t return. She then undresses and offers her body to Claudy as an alternative medicine. The medicine seems to be working . . . But so are the divorce procedures. What we learn next is that Claudy dies of an overdose. Suicide? A mistake? Murder? We are not told; and neither can Lorna be sure. She might have been left in the dark, but her conscience was not, and could not be double-crossed. Lorna used to treat Claudy as a commodity, so her conscience whispers; she bought him as a potentially, profitable commodity, an investment stock, a step on the ladder she hoped to use to lift herself into a higher price category. But it is too late now to compensate Claudy for the pain he suffered as a result, to repent and make amends for the harm she has done . . . Too late, indeed? Not for those ready and willing to pay the price of regaining a clear conscience. The costs are huge — few would agree to pay them. Lorna accepts the price — she opts out of the market. She declares that she has been made pregnant by Claudy, and refuses the abortion which both Fabio and Sokol unconditionally demand; pregnant, Lorna loses her value on the immigration market and her prospective ‘husband’ demands his money back. Her downpayment on the dreamed-of snack bar is lost. Fabio writes Lorna off on the debit side and earmarks her for speedy and discreet disposal. Sokol, while deeply disappointed and robbed of his dreams, washes his hands of the whole affair and heads for greener (or, rather, not yet scorched) pastures. Lorna is no longer a player. She is not even a stake in other people’s games, no longer a prospective hunting trophy. Purely and simply, she is useless. Another item on the long list of wasted humans.
Lorna runs away from it all to the abandoned shack, a piece of waste like herself, abandoned like herself in a desolate, featureless nowhere-land reminiscent of those other-worldly, Elysian fields — leaving behind all her belongings (read: all traces and deposits of her past life). She will now dedicate her remaining life to the care and protection of another: the imagined child of Claudy whom, in the absence of other humans, she has convinced herself she is carrying in her womb— contrary to learned medical opinion, seasoned as it is in spotting and treating bodily ailments, but considerably less apt at doing the same with diseases of the spirit . . .
I’ve related the film of the Dardennes as a powerful dramatic metaphor for the choices we face and the prices that need to be paid for choices we make. I wonder whether you agree with me, and if you do, whether you’ve arrived at that agreement following a similar route to mine . . .