Thursday, April 21, 2022

Tucker Carlson and Susan Sontag


A physically idealized man stands, arms stretched out, head thrown back to the heavens, his genitals obscured by a mysterious primordial glow while "Also sprach Zarathustra" pounds in the background. What does this suggest?

Well, sure. I wouldn't phrase it that way, but I wouldn't disagree with the underlying sentiment, nor would most of the commenters on Twitter. Beyond that though, there's something familiar about this montage of idealized Nordic men working and wrestling in a bucolic setting, juxtaposed with portentous mystical imagery, Nietzsche references, and a voiceover talking about chaos and social collapse leading to the rise of superior men who bring a new order. 

On a completely unrelated note, I've been thinking about the essay "Fascinating Fascism" by Susan Sontag.

Here are some excerpts:

Admittedly, if The Last of the Nuba were not signed by Leni Riefenstahl one would not necessarily suspect that these photographs had been taken by the most interesting, talented, and effective artist of the Nazi regime. Most people who leaf through The Last of the Nuba will probably look at the pictures as one more lament for vanishing primitives, of which the greatest example is Lévi-Strauss on the Bororo Indians in Brazil in Tristes Tropiques. But if the photographs are examined carefully, in conjunction with the lengthy text written by Riefenstahl, it becomes clear that they are continuous with her Nazi work.

Riefenstahl’s choice of photographic subject—this tribe and not another—expresses a very particular slant. She interprets the Nuba as a mystical people with an extraordinarily developed artistic sense (one of the few possessions which everyone owns is a lyre). They are all beautiful (Nuba men, Riefenstahl notes, “have an athletic build rare in any other African tribe”); although they have to work hard to survive in the unhospitable desert (they are cattle herders and hunters), she insists that their principal activity is ceremonial. The Last of the Nuba is about a primitivist ideal: a portrait of a people subsisting untouched by “civilization,” in a pure harmony with their environment.

All four of Riefenstahl’s commissioned Nazi films—whether about Party congresses, the Wehrmacht, or athletes—celebrate the rebirth of the body and of community, mediated through the worship of an irresistible leader. They follow directly from the films of Fanck in which she acted and from her own The Blue Light. The fictional mountain films are tales of longing for high places, of the challenge and ordeal of the elemental, the primitive; the Nazi films are epics of achieved community, in which triumph over everyday reality is achieved by ecstatic self-control and submission. The Last of the Nuba, an elegy for the soon-to-be-extinguished beauty and mystic powers of primitives, can be seen as the third in Riefenstahl’s triptych of fascist visuals.

In the first panel, the mountain films, heavily dressed people strain upward to prove themselves in the purity of the cold; vitality is identified with physical ordeal. Middle panel, the films made for the Nazi government: Triumph of the Will uses overpopulated wide shots of massed figures alternating with close-ups that isolate a single passion, a single perfect submission; clean-cut people in uniforms group and regroup, as if seeking the right choreography to express their ecstatic fealty. In Olympiad, the richest visually of all her films, one straining scantily clad figure after another seeks the ecstasy of victory, cheered on by ranks of compatriots in the stands, all under the still gaze of the benign Super-Spectator, Hitler, whose presence in the stadium consecrates this effort. (Olympiad, which could as well have been entitled Triumph of the Will, emphasizes that there are no easy victories.) In the third panel, The Last of the Nuba, the stripped-down primitives, awaiting the final ordeal of their proud heroic community, their imminent extinction, frolic and pose in the hot clean desert.

It is Gotterdämmerung time. The important events in Nuba society are wrestling matches and funerals: vivid encounters of beautiful male bodies and death. The Nuba, as Riefenstahl interprets them, are a tribe of aesthetes. Like the henna-daubed Masai and the so-called Mudmen of New Guinea, the Nuba paint themselves for all important social and religious occasions, smearing on their bodies a white-gray ash which unmistakably suggests death. Riefenstahl claims to have arrived “just in time,” for in the few years since these photographs were taken the glorious Nuba have already started being corrupted by money, jobs, clothes. And, probably, by war—which Riefenstahl never mentions since she cares only about myth, not history. The civil war that has been tearing up that part of Sudan for a dozen years must have brought with it new technology and a lot of detritus.

Although the Nuba are black, not Aryan, Riefenstahl’s portrait of them is consistent with some of the larger themes of Nazi ideology: the contrast between the clean and the impure, the incorruptible and the defiled, the physical and the mental, the joyful and the critical. A principal accusation against the Jews within Nazi Germany was that they were urban, intellectual, bearers of a destructive, corrupting “critical spirit.” (The book bonfire of May, 1933, was launched with Goebbels’s cry: “The age of extreme Jewish intellectualism has now ended, and the success of the German revolution has again given the right of way to the German spirit.” And when Goebbels officially forbade art criticism in November, 1936, it was for having “typically Jewish traits of character”: putting the head over the heart, the individual over the community, intellect over feeling.) Now it is “civilization” itself that is the defiler.

What is distinctive about the fascist version of the old idea of the Noble Savage is its contempt for all that is reflective, critical, and pluralistic. In Riefenstahl’s casebook of primitive virtue, it is hardly the intricacy and subtlety of primitive myth, social organization, or thinking that are being extolled. She is especially enthusiastic about the ways the Nuba are exalted and unified by the physical ordeals of their wrestling matches, in which the “heaving and straining” Nuba men, “huge muscles bulging,” throw one another to the ground—fighting not for material prizes but “for the renewal of sacred vitality of the tribe.”


But fascist art has characteristics which show it to be, in part, a special variant of totalitarian art. The official art of countries like the Soviet Union and China is based on a utopian morality. Fascist art displays a utopian aesthetics—that of physical perfection. Painters and sculptors under the Nazis often depicted the nude, but they were forbidden to show any bodily imperfections. Their nudes look like pictures in male health magazines: pinups which are both sanctimoniously asexual and (in a technical sense) pornographic, for they have the perfection of a fantasy.

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