Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 5)

Near the end of Blue the spoken soundtrack narrates a brief passage that also appears in a number of Jarman’s earlier writings, including the journals he kept in 1989 and 1990 and subsequently published under the title Modern Nature.  The unmarked quotation is yet another instance of the author’s citing himself, resurrecting his recorded past, as he does so frequently in his written work as well as his films.  Indeed, the text of Blue (reproduced in a volume published in 1994) cites copiously from “Into the Blue,” the chapter Jarman devotes to the colour in Chroma, and from the journals he kept prior to completing the film in 1993.  In the quotidian terms that characterize his diary entries, the passage in question figures the time remaining to Jarman, the proscribed life expectancy of one whose every day could be his last:  “I caught myself looking at shoes in a shop window.  I thought of going in and buying a pair, but stopped myself.  The shoes I am wearing at the moment should be sufficient to walk me out of life” (Blue, 28).  The poignancy here is in part an effect of Jarman’s configuration of the life span of the well-worn shoes he is presently wearing with his own future, foreclosed at it is by the virus.

There are multiple allusions in Blue to the limit set on life expectancy:  Some, like the passage just cited, are specifically autobiographical; others are more inclusive, even abstract, in keeping with the visual content of a film that “embrace[s] the intellectual imperative of abstraction.”  In the first category would number Jarman’s calculation that “If I had to live forty years blind, I might think twice” about participating in a risky clinical trial for oral DHPG (Blue, 24).  The second category would include the epigrammatic formulations “Love is life that lasts forever” (Blue, 5) and “Blue transcends the solemn geography of human limits” (Blue, 7), as well as a passage that once again borrows from Modern Nature:

Ages and Aeons quit the room

Exploding into timelessness

No entrances or exits now

No need for obituaries or final judgments

We knew that time would end

After tomorrow at sunrise

We scrubbed the floors

And did the washing up

It would not catch us unawares  (Blue, 26)

But the language in which Jarman casts what is left of his lifetime – “The shoes I am wearing at the moment should be sufficient to walk me out of life” – provides a pivotal link to other telling passages in Blue and elsewhere in the corpus.  Its figuration of life as a perambulation whose final step would traverse a threshold to death is of course rooted in an ancient rhetorical tradition shared by countless cultures.  But Jarman’s unsettling reinscription of the topos never fails to emphasize that the journey is one without direction.  In Kicking the Pricks, a volume contemporaneous with The Last of England (1987), he observes that the film’s allegorical structure “suggests a journey:  pages turn in a book bringing with them new turnings in direction, building up an atmosphere without entering into traditional narrative” (188).  In another instance, a draft proposal for Blue that found its way into the opening voiceover from his film The Garden (1990) reads:

I want to share this emptiness with you

Not fill the silence with false notes

Or put tracks through the void

I want to share the wilderness

Without fences

The others have built you a highway

Fast lanes in both directions

I offer you a journey without direction

Where our paths cross for a moment

Like the swallow that flies through

Our ancestors’ mead hall

Arm yourself like a Beowulf

For a journey into the unknown

I offer you uncertainty

No sweet conclusions

When the lights give out

There are many paths and many directions

I went in search of myself

The narration in Blue has further recourse to the same figuration:  “The Gautama Buddha instructs me to walk away from illness.  But he wasn’t attached to a drip” (Blue, 9).  (The soundtrack here also features a chorus of women’s voices intoning “walk away from this.”)  Subsequently, the voiceover poses the plaintive and pressing question:  “How can I walk away with a drip attached to me?  How am I going to walk away from this?” (Blue, 10).

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Filed under Books, Death, History and historiography, Media, Reading and writing

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