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Babak Amou’oghli relates a tale of hospitality and hostility.
In his late sixties, and after a thirty-seven-year film-making career, Michael Haneke is now receiving more attention than ever. The number of books published recently about this controversial reflector of the failure of modern society indicates that the number of people who want to know about his work is growing rapidly. Yet it’s safe to say that though each of the ten theatrically-released films he has made is a distinctive work of art which captured the attention of film festivals around the world, it was only after his French film Caché (2005) that a wider audience came to know him. Here I’ll try to bring one of Caché’s themes to light. This hidden, and possibly unintended, theme is Jacques Derrida’s notion of hospitality. To do so, I need to speak briefly about one concept and one event.
The concept is aporia. This is a Greek word whose literal meaning is ‘a state of being at a loss’. However, it also means puzzle, impasse or even paradox. In his later works, Derrida was especially interested in aporias. He speaks about paradoxes within notions such as giving, mourning, forgiving, and hospitality, claiming that the condition of their possibility is at the same time the condition of their impossibility.
We’ll look at the paradox of hospitality. The words ‘hospitality’ and ‘hostility’, although opposite in meaning, share the same origin. ‘Hospitality’ is derived from the Latin word hospes (host) which in turn is formed from two words: hostis (which originally meant foreigner, and later came to mean hostile foreigner or enemy) and pets (meaning to have power). So the literal meaning of hospes is lord of strangers. Being a host means having power over guests.
Derrida argues in Of Hospitality (2000) that hospitality is an aporia, an ‘possible impossibility’. He makes a distinction between two forms of hospitality: conditional and unconditional. For a country to be hospitable towards immigrants, for example, we need guidelines, an immigration process, rights and duties, etc. For that, we need means of identification, such as a birth certificate or other papers. These conditions are synonymous with having the power to control guests. However, as we move further in the direction of conditions, we get further from hospitality. Too much regulation leads to no hospitality: consider detention centres for immigrants.
In the case of conditional hospitality, the imposed conditions can be so severe that the guest virtually becomes a hostage. But on the other hand, no conditions at all also leads to losing all that’s necessary for the relationship of hospitality to continue. It is hospitable to welcome a guest into our home without setting conditions; but if this is allowed to an absolute degree, giving the guest everything we own, or if the guest takes over the house by any means, the house and everything else which enabled us to offer hospitality now belong to the guest. We are not ‘at home’ anymore – we are in a house that does not belong to us, and so cannot offer hospitality in it.
To Derrida, this puzzle of hospitality, like all the other aporias, cannot be solved. It is a necessary tension. As modern humans obsessed with scientific fact, we do not like uncertainty; but Derrida shows us that we have to realize that we cannot have certain, scientific, unambiguous answers to every question.
The event is the Paris massacre of 17th October, 1961. Maurice Papon, head of the Parisian police, ordered an attack on more than 30,000 pro-FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) Algerians participating in a peaceful but unauthorised demonstration. With Papon’s promise of protection from prosecution, the police beat many demonstrators unconscious and threw them in the river. Some of the demonstrators were killed within the courtyard of police headquarters (see La Bataille de Paris, Jean-Luc Einaudi, 2007). After almost four decades of denial, in 1998 the French government acknowledged only 40 deaths, while historians say at least 200 were killed. The subject remains taboo in France.
Guilt and the Denial of Guilt
In an interview, Haneke said, “Caché may be about the French occupation of Algeria on a broad level, but more personally, it is a story of guilt and the denial of guilt that faces every one of us.”
George (Daniel Auteuil), the host of a literary TV show, and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), a literary editor, live with their son Pierrot in a rich neighbourhood of Paris. The film begins with a long shot of their house. After several minutes, the viewer realizes that this is a video tape which has been sent to the protagonists. The surveillance-like tape is soon followed by child-like drawings, and phone calls. The video tapes, drawings, and phone calls, although unsettling, are more puzzling than threatening. However, they seem to disturb George a great deal. George suspects Majid (Maurice B énichou), an Algerian whose parents used to work for George’s parents. George sees Majid as a hostile enemy whose only intention is harming George and his family. When George confronts Majid, we see a long-suffering, calm mannered, small man, who seems unthreatening by any definition. Majid’s denial of any connection to the video tapes, although not necessarily true, is very believable. He even points out that George is bigger and stronger than him. This is not only true on a physical level, but also on a social level. George is a rich, respected and famous Frenchman, while Majid is a poor, unknown and unimportant foreigner. As a matter of fact, if anyone is to be considered threatening, it is George himself. But nothing can change George’s mind about the danger of this ‘hostile foreigner’. It is because of his persistent accusations, his refusal to consider any other possible scenarios, and his absolute certainty that Majid wishes him ill (even though they have not seen each other for over forty years) that the audience begin to think that maybe George is guilty of doing something horrible to Majid.
As the story unfolds, George shares parts of his history. George’s parents adopted Majid and brought him home after Majid’s parents disappeared and were assumed killed in the Paris massacre. This does not sit well with little George. After a few unsuccessful attempts to change his parents’ mind about the adoption, he makes up a story that Majid has tried to harm him. This results in Majid being sent to an orphanage where he will endure a difficult childhood which affects his, as well as his son’s, future.
What is George guilty of that he is trying so hard to deny? The lies he told about Majid? Perhaps, but we can take these questions one step further. Why did he lie? As George admits, he lied to get rid of Majid: “I was six years old. I didn’t want to share my room with him.” He did not want to share his room, his house, or his mastery of either with Majid. George was not hospitable towards Majid; he was hostile towards him.
Hostility, and Violation of the ‘Home’
Derrida says that hostility is one of the many ways to regulate an undesirable foreigner. According to Derrida, “anyone who encroaches on my home, on my ipseity [selfhood], on my power of hospitality, on my sovereignty as host, I start to regard as an undesirable foreigner, and virtually as an enemy.” (Of Hospitality, p.53.)
With this in mind, let us go back to the events of October 17, 1961. Parisians were shocked to see thousands of Algerians marching through the streets. France had been engaged in a long and brutal colonial war in Algeria. The French had been trying to crush any attempts for Algerian independence, and here was the ‘enemy’ marching down the streets of their ‘home’ town. Throughout the war, the Parisian authorities had done a good job of isolating Algerian immigrants in the more secluded parts of Paris. The Parisian police were never shy to use violence to uphold this policy of segregation and repression (see Jim House and Neil MacMaster, Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and Memory, 2009). The demonstration by the Algerians was more than just showing support for the FLN (already a challenging move); it was questioning the authority and power of the host nation over the guests. France the host was exercising its power to the maximum, putting forward many conditions, and therefore limiting the hospitality received by the Algerians.
Derrida explains the difference between the laws (plural) of hospitality and the law of unlimited hospitality thus: The laws of hospitality: “Those rights and duties that are always conditioned and conditional, defined by Greco-Roman tradition and even the Judeo-Christian one, by all of law and all philosophy of law up to Kant and Hegel in particular, across the family, civil society and the state.” The law of unlimited hospitality: “To give the new arrival all of one’s home and oneself, to give him or her one’s own, our own, without asking a name or compensation, or fulfillment of even the smallest condition.” (Of Hospitality, p.77, 2000.)
After the demonstration, in the eyes of France, Algerian immigrants changed from being conditioned guests to being undesirable foreigners, because they put in question the authority and power of their host. This was viewed as a ‘violation of the home’; and whenever such violation is felt there will be an increase in ethnocentric, nationalist and therefore xenophobic emotions, which in turn lead to a further decrease in hospitality. The irony is that this hostility towards the undesirable foreigner was triggered by the desire to protect what gives one the possibility to host. At his Cannes press conference in 2009, Haneke said that all of his films are about violence. Perhaps in Caché this recurring theme takes the form of the violence of the host to remain a host.
What Wouldn’t We Do To Be Master?
George may be a coward with a weak personality, but he’s not a racist. His hostility towards Majid is not because Majid is a foreigner by birth. He even shows compassion towards Algerians when talking about the Paris massacre. His hostility towards Majid is rooted in a more fundamental and basic problem: he is protecting his domain, his home, which he needs for him to possess the power of hospitality. He is not a bad host to his expected and invited guests. But in George’s eyes, after his parents adopted Majid and brought him home, Majid quickly changed from a welcomed guest to an undesirable foreigner who threatened George’s mastery. In an interview Haneke agreed that “George wants to be the master at home.” Derrida also talks of this desire: “I want to be master at home, head of house, to be able to receive whomever I like there” ( OH, p.53). Derrida further explains that we will regard as a hostile subject anyone who invades and threatens our mastery at home, and we risk becoming their hostage.
This happens to George. Majid commits suicide in front of George, and thus takes George hostage psychologically. Majid’s suicide is the only certain act of aggression we see from him (his supposed beheading of a rooster might be just one of George’s many lies). Near the end we see George taking a couple of sleeping pills and going to bed, hoping to escape from it al but instead he dreams of the moment Majid was sent to the orphanage. Now Majid is in George’s mind, taking over his most intimate home.
Hôte in Caché
The French word hôte means both host and guest. In Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas (1999), Derrida tells us that the implacable law of hospitality says that the welcoming hôte (host) who receives the hôte (guest), is first, a hôte being received in his own home. There are three sets of hôte (host/guest) in Caché. The first set includes French people and Algerian immigrants; the second set George’s parents and Majid; the third set, those who receive and are received, meaning Haneke himself and his audience. We have looked at the first two; now let’s look at the third set.
It is almost impossible to watch a Haneke film and not be constantly aware that we are in his domain. The spectators of his films are always under his control. He shocks us, shames us, manipulates us, and conditions us. In his own words, he wants to “rape the spectators into autonomy and awareness.” Haneke is truly a master in his home, his films. However, while brutally maintaining his authority over a film, Haneke also believes that cinema as an art-form should “call on the imagination of the spectator, to draw them into the project, to have them finish your film for you” (Interview with Damon Smith in Reverse Shot, Issue 27, 2009). After a Haneke film finishes on the screen, it continues in the cognition of the audience. This is where Haneke becomes a received hôte, and the viewer becomes the receiving hôte. The film enters their minds, and now the spectator is the host and has power over it. They can interpret the film based on their own beliefs and understanding.
A Tale of Hospitality
In Of Hospitality Derrida argues that Immanuel Kant puts the duty of absolute honesty above the duty of hospitality. For Kant, the imperative for honesty is unconditional: we must speak the truth regardless of the situation. In Kant’s view, it is better to break from the duty of hospitality rather than break the absolute duty of honesty. Derrida argues that whatever the reason or situation may be, by refusing any rights to lie (any rights to keep something to oneself), Kant disallows any rights to the heart and the home, introducing ‘police’ everywhere, including in the relationship we have with ourselves (OH, pp.65-73).
In his struggle to hide the truth, George denies his guilt while at the same time protecting his heart. What started at age six as defending his external property (his room in his parent’s house), forty years later turns into a struggle against losing his internal property, his ipseity (selfhood), his sense of mental integrity. He is under pressure to tell the truth, to not keep something to himself, not only from the unknown sender of the video tapes, but also from his wife and Majid’s son. His friends want to know what is going on; after receiving a video tape his boss wants to know what the story is; and his mom wants to know why he’s bringing the subject up after forty years. Suddenly George is under intense pressure to reveal his innermost secrets as he desperately tries to protect his home.
Let’s look at a scene between George and his wife, where George makes the mistake of telling Anne that he has a hunch about who is stalking them, but refuses to reveal anything more. This triggers a heated argument between them:
George: Please, if I’d known…
Anne: What would you have done? Kept your mouth shut?
Anne: Do you realize the bullshit you talk? You’ve never heard of trust?
George: You realize you’re doing exactly what he wants? You’re reacting exactly as he wants. Can’t you just trust me?
Anne: I have to trust you? Why not the other way round for once? How about you trust me? Who refused to give trust here? Imagine that the shoe’s on the other foot. Imagine I say I may know who’s terrorizing us but I can’t tell you. Great! That’s your idea of a sound relationship based on mutual trust?
In this scene we can hear echoes of both Derrida and Kant. George accuses Anne of doing exactly what the stranger wants to do, which is, trespassing on George. But the intruder is already in George’s home, not only through videotapes, letters and phone calls, but also, and worst of all, through Anne, pressuring George to let her into his internal property. On the other hand, we can hear Kant when Anne asks for truth, which is a legitimate request, and necessary for founding a social bond, especially in a marriage. However, their bond of absolute honesty was broken a long time beforehand – and who can say that Anne is not keeping a few things to herself as well? Her relationship to her boss, which is questioned by her son, is never clear to us.
Derrida and Haneke think very much alike: neither believe in simple, unambiguous answers. Thus Haneke’s films are analogous to Derrida’s aporias – containing a necessary tension not to be solved, but to ponder. A good example of this is the ending of Caché. You either saw the two sons having a conversation in the last shot of the film or did not (I did not), but either way, you have to draw your own conclusions.
Five of us watched the film together and we all had our own interpretations. Mine was, to use Derrida’s phrase, that the two sons had put forward the patricide question – they question the logos of their fathers, that is, their fathers’ reasoning powers. Perhaps I am trying to rid myself of the uneasiness of the film by finding closure through simple answers. But, what cannot be missed is that the fathers’ guilt will be passed on to the future, and no one will ever escape it. Haneke says, “Caché is a tale of morality.” I see Caché as a tale of hospitality, for, to paraphrase Levinas, hospitality is not simply some region of ethics, or the name of a problem in law or politics: it is morality itself, the whole and the principle of ethics.
© Babak Amou’oghli 2011
Babak Amou’oghli was born and raised in Tehran, where he studied and later taught cinema. He has translated Sartre, Heidegger, Derrida, Camus, De Beauvoir, Pascal and Bourdieu, among others. He is now working on a paper with John Caruana on moral cinema, and trying to start the production of his next film.