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i.

Grace: All I see is a beautiful little town in the midst of magnificent mountains. A place where people have hopes and dreams even under the hardest conditions.

[In a later scene… Vera starts to tear up]
Vera: Please don't say such nice things about the kids. I cry too easily. Both in sorrow and in joy.

I had been mulling over Otto Weininger’s recently translated essay on Ibsen’s verse play, Peer Gynt.1 Weininger was impressed to no end by Ibsen’s deft evocation of a universal moral theme—the problem of redemption—just as he had earlier been by Wagner’s similar accomplishment in Parsifal. Whether Weininger’s take on the play is a superimposition on or excavation of—it matters little which—the true import of the artist’s work, it is, as either, a tour de force. Straightaway, I went to reading Peer Gynt to see for myself... In the meantime, I saw Lars von Trier’s film. No real connection between the two.2 Except that Weininger looms large in the interpretation I am going to give of Dogville.

Without being able to articulate at once all of the allusions radiating from von Trier’s movie, one vision of what it was all about strikes me with considerable force. That a work is able to do this is why it lodges in my memory for some time and why I am inclined to call it great (an epithet I generally reserve only for the works of people long dead). Every frame is crowded with ideas and imputations3 not all of which have yet come clear to me. But one that is plain now is this:

Maybe because of the recent commotion surrounding Gibson’s immensely popular film, The Passion of Christ, and with Weininger always in mind causing me to think in terms of “his” and “her” and the tragedies of sex, I got to thinking: what if God had sent his only begotten daughter to minister to and attempt to save humankind, what would she be like? And what would happen to her? What would her passion (suffering) story be? I think Dogville comes very close to answering these questions for me.

First, I don’t think she would be sent. She would insist. God’s daughter would set about her mission in a very different way from a son.4 She would be tirelessly compassionate, forgiving, giving of herself, ask for little (though, also being arguably human, she must ask for something, for a little—for seven Hummel figurines, no more), she would excel in service, be more humble and probably preach less than any son, and, being God’s daughter, she would be beautiful—for surfaces must always be tell-tale indications of inner beauty.5 In the same way Christ is never portrayed as a repulsive man—even as quintessential male beauty is supposed to follow from effort, from masculine doings. In theory, it should not have mattered if Christ had been physically repulsive (as the story goes, Socrates was, for example), since we are encouraged to judge him by his acts. She, in contrast, would have to figure as a cross between a Mother Teresa and Nicole Kidman, with the heart of one and the body of the other (mother and prostitute, Weininger might have put it6), as such she would appear as a mysterious gift from on high. Her acts cannot but fail to flow from her beauty. Her luminance would emanate from her appearance and from her servitude.7 And the moral would play out in this story of how such gifts are received. The physical beauty would be necessary to seal her fate in the company of mortals just as Christ’s subversive preaching was necessary to seal his.

How would the run of humanity accept her? No doubt with suspicion at first, but after a short time they would come to appreciate her, find ways to use, and finally, in the normal course of things, to find excuse to abuse her. Vulnerable and not predisposed to say no, pinned between the bestial criminality of men and the cosmic pettiness of women, she would crystallize as an object of universal temptation: Men would rape her, women would abuse her, children would taunt her as all good children do who ape their parents.

She would not be crucified. That is something reserved for a male savior. The daughter of God would instead be treated to a collar and chain, turned into a sex-slave by men or merely a slave by jealous women. For a woman, this would be the correspondingly apposite torture and degradation. Instead of the cross that ornaments church altars and steeples, it might have been a stylized figure of a woman chained to a bed post,…again, if God had deigned to send us his only begotten daughter8

von Trier even gives her the name “Grace” and she rains down upon the mountain town like wisps of Cottonwood.

Behind Tom and Grace in one scene, sliding in and out of view—as he, “the philosopher,” her Judas, explained his assessment of the morally diminished state of Dogville and what could be done about it that involved her—is the lintel above the opening of the mineshaft where she has occasion to hide. On it are carved the words DICTUS AC FACTUS, “word and deed.”9

[Tom offers a piece of bread to Grace]
Tom: You want to eat? You must be hungry.

Grace: I can’t. I don't deserve that bread. I stole that bone. I’ve never stolen anything before. So now, now I have to punish myself. I was raised to be arrogant. So, I... I had to teach myself these things.

When God, the Boss, near the end, comes to reclaim his daughter, he scolds her for the adamantine supposition that humanity could be saved her way—through nothing but service and compassion. With only these caprices, she expects to mend and heal. She had strayed from the proprietary male arrogance of principle and responsibility represented in her father. It appears she would have preferred to remain in her state of degradation than give in to him. She is that committed. It is clear she does want to improve the world, not just end her abasement; otherwise she would not have entreated Tom not to call the number on the card, thus summoning her father to the scene. And when her father comes, fully deus ex machina,10 ready to lay down the law (we don’t say moral law since that begs the question really at issue here: he is appropriately cast as a gangster, as morally problematic) and declare what must follow upon transgression and how lessons need teaching. But this time he relents, moved by a new arrogance he sees taking shape in her—for she does not quite beg, true daughter that she is. God offers to abdicate and to bestow upon his daughter the power and the opportunity to make the world a little better by ridding it of these people. If, of course, she should find it in her heart to do so.

She goes out for a walk. There is a brief moment when you can hear the moral balance creak…she almost doesn’t find it in her heart. But then…

Jesus, falling on his principle like a sword, his side pierced, hanging from a cross, adjures his father to forgive his tormentors and murderers.11 Our Lord in Heaven, not always a great fan of mercy, as earlier stories from scripture attest—recall Sodom and Gomorrah and the “Cities of the Plain”—indulges his son just this one time, his momentous occasion. Even so, the Bible is not clear that this paragon of mercy was not already in fact defeated in his compassion by the one thing that, even with superhuman will, he could not forgive, namely: human—and we are going to say, specifically male—hypocrisy.12 Dictus ac factus. Even Christ was not above consigning those afflicted to hell but good. (Matt 23:33b)

But she, different, the daughter of God, laboring under no such fettering principle, nevertheless wavers… forgiveness born of compassion is only as sure and unwavering as the feeling of compassion itself…a feeling that can wane at the passing of a cloud or a change of light (as our pompous narrator intimates), or…as, at hand, the measured intonations of a philosopher-hypocrite.

…as we were saying, but then Grace pushes Tom away, disgusted at his sententiousness. Tom pathetically flails in his puddle of morality, deep as it is. She finally sees him for what he is, drippy with self-delusion.

von Trier speaks of his own struggle between the feminine inside him and the very male need for order and rules. He is caught between the two great moral visions that so entranced Weininger, the masculine and the feminine, between the need for rule, responsibility, judgment, and punishment (recall the boy Jason, looking so much like von Trier himself, wanting Grace—badgering her, inciting her—to spank him13) and the more fluid, forgiving, but essentially flaky vision of forgiveness and compassion that moves the heart of woman. The quarrel goes back at least to that between Hume and Kant. On the one hand, the idea that justice can be sown by harnessing human nature to reason and its schedule of rules and consequences is steeped in hypocrisy and self-blindness. On the other, that we will respond to compassion and with compassion in the face of depravity is a pipe-dream to launch lead missiles. Grace is no angel of mercy. She is gloriously and pathetically human.

Grace finds that the only living thing in Dogville that had not conspired to abuse her was the dog, whose bone she had stolen, and who had worn the collar that had been transferred to her. And only the dog got compassion.

But did her compassion really fail in the end or are we only imagining that it did? Were these people really suffering beyond any remedy that she could tender? Was her act indeed merciful? Was their tortured depravity the product of a world dominated by gangsterous rules set down by her father in the first place? And weren’t they really better off dead as a consequence?

The suggestion is that they very well might have been…and Grace’s compassion, certainly not based on moral principle but real feeling, did not after all fail her in the end, in spite of herself. Not for the reasons her father might have killed them, certainly. And assuredly not because her compassion had triumphed, all genuineness of feeling aside. She ends up killing them for the right reason or, more accurately, for cause: Because mercy is finite and human depravity is less modest in its ambitions. We outstrip all but divine mercy. But divine mercy is incomprehensible. Being at least human in spirit, she could have done worse.14

If God were the sort to take advice, for the Second Coming I would suggest we be treated with a visit from his daughter in the interest of both justice and the alleviation of boredom. Grace might then serve as prefigurine, Dogville as prophecy.

ii.

In the essay on Ibsen, only months before his suicide, Weininger writes:

For God has no daughters, and only to that extent does the notion of being a child of God require correction. The Son can only resurrect his freedom by ascending to the Father, ceasing to be merely a son, and becoming one with the father again.15

Why would God have no daughter? Because being female she would never be his. Hers would never match his conception of the world, because if he had a daughter she would not need him as his son would. The daughter would be fully of the world, her divinity of a different order, and she would not need redemption from the world or even vindication for her being here.

In a world without men, with only women, there would be no religion as we know it. No Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. There might be earth-based popular mysticisms, such as Wicca, or more resplendent decreationisms such as those described by Simone Weil or Clarice Lispector. Compassion might be spoken of less but much more widely practiced than it is now, surely. But it would be of a sort. It would not be pretended, not even for a moment, that compassion was limitless or that it could not be defeated, or indeed that there would not be times when it simply ceased to be relevant. The notion of infinite or absolute anything would not occur. There might be times when the survival of a cockroach would be more meaningful than that of a person, and properly so—when, as Hume, a darling of some feminist philosophers, famously put it, at the end of patience and compassion, “’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”16

iii.

But there were a few less deserving than others—weren’t there six children and a cripple in Dogville, too? When God dribbled justice in the form of hot sulfur upon the depravity of Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities surrounding, there were many innocents killed, “collateral damage,” we say today. What did God think about this? And didn’t a bolt of lightning shriek out of the sky upon Lot’s hapless wife17 as she dared to look back in plain defiance, as is often suggested, of his command? Or was it that she had sisters still in the city, not as guilty as their husbands? Whose only sin was to back the wrong patriarch, staking their children on this fateful but far from autonomous choice? Was she that different from them in being the wife of Lot? Did she not look back in compassion? And for this flaw in her character turned into a pillar of salt? Couldn’t God have been a little more discriminating? But that would be to quibble with a gangster… Still, a few, perhaps many, in those cities must have been less evil than most.

Indeed, we are told the Sodomites were rude to strangers, poetically so. Cutting off their feet to suit the size of bed offered them—or stretching them as needed in the service of rhyme. When a woman shared her bread with a hungry poor man, she was bathed in honey and fastened to a parapet for the bees to consume…18 This is not in Scripture but would clearly have been in line with the dicta of the Sodomite judge: If a woman is raped, she no doubt asked for it; moreover, the kindest thing you can do for a woman who is raped is to rape her again… Which brings us back to the people of Dogville, also no great recognizers of angels, but who, to their credit, unlike the people of Sodom, to the end were unfailingly polite. Grace’s rapists almost apologize.

What happened to Grace in Dogville is almost like what happened in the end to the unnamed concubine in the story of the Levite in Gibeah.19 A certain Levite accuses his concubine of sleeping around. She leaves for her father’s house in a huff. On his trip back home after retrieving her from the house of the somewhat over-obliging father-in-law, the Levite passes through the inhospitable town of Gibeah. Just when he was resigned to camping, he is offered lodgings at the house of an old man, which he accepts. Not long after, the drunken sons of Belial knock on the old man’s door demanding to see the guest. The old man, suspecting nothing good, offers them instead his daughter, but they want the Levite, so the Levite offers them his concubine to do with what they wished…

25 … and they knew her, and abused her all the night until the morning: and when the day began to spring, they let her go.
26 Then came the woman in the dawning of the day, and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her lord was, till it was light.
27 ¶ And her lord rose up in the morning, and opened the doors of the house, and went out to go his way: and, behold, the woman his concubine was fallen down at the door of the house, and her hands were upon the threshold.
28 And he said unto her, Up, and let us be going. But none answered.…

He took her ravaged body home, cut it up into twelve pieces, bones and all, and sent them off to all the coasts of Israel.

It was to be different in Dogville than in Gibeah. Grace would be no ordinary concubine. Having gotten their fill of her, the people of Dogville turned her over to the mercy of the “dogs”, who had posted they wanted her. Little did they know… But at the time of Gibeah, God, the gangster, must have been preoccupied elsewhere or the poor concubine lacked as effective a father-figure (not to mention lord),20 for neither compassion nor principle that day stood up to rescue or avenge.

Grace’s story recalls that in Gibeah, but ends like that of Sodom. In Dogville, for once, God was on the ball.

There is from the beginning in the film a suppressed yet palpable anger. (At walls, for instance, who needs them? When have they ever been used for anything but things to hide behind?21) The ending may have been a little heavy handed. But anger truly knows only one subtlety: suppression.22 So when finally the dam breaks we can defend ourselves from the awe it inspires only by turning away with the excuse that we didn’t see it coming or that there could have been another way. Art and anger are not easy company. Art, remember, is first all about lies, about other ways. And anger is beside itself with truth. Walking out of the theatre more than a few said von Trier’s effort didn’t work. The moral dissonance was too much for them. No great lover of polemicized art, I would be the first to defend this reaction—I prefer Beckett over Brecht any day—but here I am uncertain whether squeamishness at in-your-faceness isn’t the most convenient mask for cowardice, which is known to bleed through thin coats of morality with aesthetic consequence, like a cheap paint’s attempt to obscure mildew. No doubt I was mesmerized by the “Pirate Jenny”23 anger… but at what?

Anger at…no, this question doesn’t deserve an answer.24

I offer a story, instead… Once there was a donkey, whose fate it was to be used and exploited by a long string of owners and in the end to die in a mountain meadow surrounded by sheep, its side pierced with a bullet that was meant for its last criminal abuser.25 Saints are created when God is nowhere to be seen.

There were no saints in Dogville because God meddled.

Moses, the dog, though, comes out okay.26 We can just imagine sometimes God getting it right.

iv.

Like Vera, I cry too easily.27 This causes my vision to be blurred and I lose sight of the really sharp outlines of things. I even see things that aren’t there. So I will end with a warning for me from Weininger,

The symbols of the true artist are not allegories, to be translated back into personifications of sharply defined, unambiguous philosophical concepts bearing proper names, and in the language of a particular philosophical system, just as soon as the key to the code is discovered. What the poet immediately saw and felt in his symbols, the philosopher is only able to discover slowly and with much forethought.28

notes

1 Otto Weininger, A Translation of Weininger’s Über die letzten Dinge (1904/1907)/On Last Things, translated by Steven Burns, (Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001).

2 Some will say this syndrome afflicts many of those connections I allege in this essay. I hide behind this remark of Bianco Luno: “My paragraphs, even sentences, are like the stepping stones of a path into a dark forest. The spacing between them grows to the point that the path becomes indiscernible. You will have to have faith, not so much that there really is a path, but that I have a reason for tempting fate with the thought of losing you.” (All references to Luno’s work in this essay, unless otherwise specified, are to, as yet, unpublished writings and are used with his permission.)

3 It veritably “drips with meaning,” as Kevin Mulligan describes Weininger’s last writings in “Philosophy, Animality and Justice: Kliest, Kafka, Weininger and Wittgenstein” in Structure and Gestalt: Philosophy and Literature in Austria-Hungary and her Successor States, ed. Barry Smith, (Amsterdam: John Benjamins B.V., 1981), 300.

4 First, God would take a dim view, no doubt, of any such dangerous whim on the part of his daughter. Fathers have been known to show pride at their sons’ dying for good causes, but none, I think, at the rape of their daughters, no matter the cause.

5 Comely surfaces, we are tirelessly reminded, are not always symbols of inner goodness. Notice, though, we do have to be tirelessly reminded. We so much want it to be otherwise.

6 Teresa as mother figure requires little explanation. But the actress archetype serves as the less savory, but essential symbol of a conjunction never found together at once, viz., unpossessable beauty and consolation for the fact of this disappointment—for this is the metaphysical significance of Weininger’s notion of the prostitute. She is mother to the man who has outgrown his own mother. When she, the prostitute, takes the form of a wife she insures he remains always a child. When she, the wife, takes the form of a prostitute she flatters him with having matured.

7 Exactly the things no ordinary feminist would be caught dead avowing.

8 Or rather, if he had let her come, for as strong-willed as she well may have been, leniency would feel unpaternal to him and a dereliction of duty.

9 Also, less figuratively translated as, “saying and fact,” or “speech and act.”

10 Or deus cum machina? Guns, that is.

11 We and God are entreated to believe they knew not what they did. It’s true they didn’t. When have they ever? There is a real need for mercy to be infinite. Because we will always be sinning and always availing ourselves of this dispensation.

12 Why specifically male? Because hypocrisy is a special liability, one might say “privilege,” of those in authority—and when have these not been men? We are not just moralizing here, we are referring to a metaphysical state: the male condition is one of misplacement (“Every boy a bastard,” as Luno puts it) and the, at best, tormented consciousness of it. At worst?—just look around.

13 Peter Watts, in the introduction to his translation of Peer Gynt, advised, “If any stage producer feels tempted to use children to play his trolls, he should be careful to use only very ugly children.” (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd, 1966), 14.

14 I think of a film I saw many years ago, Le Vieux fusil (1975). The film is about a pacifist doctor working in a hospital during the Nazi occupation of France, his pacifism hardened into steelier and steelier principle in the face of the mutilated bodies, both dead and still moaning, carted in for his attention day after day. Then a brutal outrage, not to himself, but to his wife and daughter, however, turns him into a portrait of sublime vengeance. The film is complicated with flashbacks of an ambiguously idyllic past, enough to make his bittersweet vengeance, disturbingly more bitter than sweet for the viewer. (The film stars Philippe Noiret and Romy Schneider, and was directed by Robert Enrico (1931-2001), who is perhaps most famous to American viewers for his award-winning 1962 short “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” based on the Ambrose Bierce story.)

Grace might have done worse because there is no suggestion in Dogville at the end of the film that she has any illusions remaining about herself or other people. In Le Vieux fusil, we are left with the uneasy feeling that our male hero still labors—and, perhaps, aware of it—under the sickly glow of unproblematic retribution. No less than its opposite—pacifism, blinkered retributive justice, elevated to principle, teeters as on a moral knife edge.

15 Weininger, op. cit., 25.

16 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, [Bk II, Part III, Sec. III] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 416. Hume’s, of course, was “reason” with a small “r”—instrumental reason, reason in the service, ironically, of life. Not the abstract, skyscraping, heterocosmic thing it became for Kant—which, again ironically, pursued to its bitter end, as Weininger did, would end up leaving life alone—quite unharmed but unaided. Never would a Kantian show such sympathy for the scratching of a finger, let alone malice toward a whole world. Even if that world should cross Reason, he would sooner curtail his material participation in it, were suicide not criminal on other grounds—and sometimes in spite of that, as in Weininger’s case… By the way, Hume goes on to follow the remark quoted above with: “It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me.” Reason, Hume means, again all by itself, lets things alone, yielding a conclusion just like Kant’s taken to the nth degree (that is to say, Weininger’s) but attained by a vastly different path.

17 As in John Martin’s painting, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852), Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne.

18 For the record, the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah had less to do with homosexuality per se than with all around inconsideration and stinginess born of too much to eat and not enough natural predators: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters [the “Cities of the Plain”] had pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.” Ezekiel 16:46-50. God, normally loathe to intervene in cases like this, preferring instead to let natural selection run its course, apparently felt he had to put his foot down in this instance.

It is not that homosexuality itself so offended him as that it was the mark of a general lack of discipline in men. In heterosexual intercourse, there is—or was—the natural dampening consequence of children. In a society such as ours where contraception is encouraged, other mechanisms for the management of sexual velleity must be found, else heterosexual conduct inherits the moral opprobrium, multiplied many times, once reserved for sodomites. Thus the dissipation of male creative energy in unproductive, inconsequential sex, Weininger sensed, had already begun in earnest a hundred years ago in his Vienna… So today it would not be the homosexual that would incur God’s wrath. Rather, depravity, in its newest guise, has taken on a more common sexual practice…though the depravity itself is tediously the same: the combination of pride and stupidity called arrogance. And if God were to put his foot down today, it would be those in “Western democracies” that would bear the weight, for arrogance thrives, above all, on too much to eat. As Luno intones, “Eating is the ultimate symbol of power.”

19 Judges 19.

20 Weininger associates Jews and pimpery in the chapter on Judaism in Sex & Character, where he notes in passages like these from ancient Hebrew sources that fathers ritually proffered their daughters as sex-slaves. (Cf. also Genesis. 19:8, where Lot offers his virgin daughters; preserving male dignity from homosexual assault superseded any sensitivity to female integrity.) There was, in fact, an immensely lucrative international traffic in white slavery (i.e., prostitution) in the latter part of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th largely dominated by Jews. This association no doubt helped to feed the brewing anti-Semitism of the time. Hitler, for one, noticed in Mein Kampf. But not a few Jews themselves were outraged. See Edward Bristow, Prostitution and Prejudice: The Jewish Fight Against White Slavery, 1875-1939 (Clarendon Press, 1982). Weininger must surely have been aware of this as he was writing his infamous book at the time in one of the “hot beds” of that activity, Vienna.

It must be said that the self-castigation of so many Jewish cultural figures, including Karl Kraus, Wittgenstein, Schönberg, Kafka, Gertrude Stein, Simone Weil, Stanley Kubrick,… and, of course, Weininger, too often is seen as morbid self-hatred and not as the cry of moral self-disgust—a disgust not necessarily with themselves as individuals (though any effective criticism must draw its power from a personal stake) but from the capacity of genius, that Weininger wrote of, to take on itself the sins of others, something other ethnic, cultural, and national groups might do well to emulate. Luno writes in his Notebooks, with uncharacteristic optimism, that one day we will all attain the privilege of being Jews.

21 In another film, Idiots (1998), von Trier suffers the same reaction to clothes.

22 In Weininger’s essay on Ibsen, the miniature discussion on sadism and masochism, sharper than any in the psychoanalytic literature, is relevant here.

23 In an interview offered as part of the production notes, von Trier acknowledges his debt to the Weil/Brecht song from Threepenny Opera (1928), in which Jenny sings as she scrubs the floor, “This whole frickin’ place will be down to the ground.” Why this tune could have been hummed by an undocumented Mexican janitor rinsing a urinal in the basement of the World Trade Center…

24 The political overtones some people saw in this film, I confess, are a little beyond me. Unless the suggestion is that, today, the United States of America stands in for the “Cities of the Plain” (as Dogville to Sodom) and is overdue for catastrophic comeuppance… But I think God has a slower denouement in store. Viewed from any perspective but that of the fullness of time, I fear the pace of justice will be boring. I think Bianco Luno somewhere says, “All talk of justice has become poetic, if it wasn’t always.” And so it may go like this:

Vera: I believe smashing them [the Hummel figurines] is less a crime than making them. I am going to break two of your figurines first, and if you can demonstrate your knowledge of the Doctrine of Stoicism by holding back your tears, I’ll stop.

[Later, recalling the episode above, instructing her father’s machine gun-toting minions.]
Grace: There’s a family with kids. Do the kids and make the mother watch. Tell her you’ll stop if she can hold back her tears. I owe her that.

…but I don’t think this is how it will go with America. Justice, unlike compassion, recedes into the fullness of time.

25 The plot of the film Au hasard, Balthasar (1966) by Robert Bresson.

26 Anyhow, invisible dogs are hard targets.

27 “I, of whom I know nothing, I know my eyes are open because of the tears that pour from them unceasingly.” Unnameable, Samuel Beckett. Luno, who was very fond of this quote, offered the gloss, “Most truth is rock-like. But it does occur in liquid form.” Vera gets a taste of both. (Or perhaps is both.)

28 Weininger, op. cit., 30.

Lesson no. 9

“The Christ Figurine of Dogville” — Jürgen Pessoa

Copyright © 2004 Jürgen Pessoa and Victor Muñoz. The original work on this site falls under a Creative Commons License.

Acknowledgements >>