“Our possible truth must be invention.” -- Julio Cortázar (Cortázar 1966, 384)
“I’m not speaking of fleeing into dreams or the irrational. The images of lightness that I seek should not fade away like dreams dissolved by the present or of the future….” – Italo Calvino (Calvino 1993, 7)
It is dawn in Patagonia. Pinks and light blues begin to rise in the sky. The line of the horizon is barely discernable. Nearly black landscape blends with dark sky. Far in the distance, the tiny silhouette of a solitary road sign pokes out of the ground. But there is no path, no road, no apparent direction. Within this dark, quiet and empty space, a lone human figure shuffles toward the horizon. Don Justo is an old man who carries a cane. He wears a wool hat, a heavy scarf, and an overcoat. Over his shoulder he has slung his leather matera. And on his feet: a pair of incongruously new hiking boots. Don Justo is sneaking out of the house that he shares with his son and daughter-in-law. He has stolen petty cash from a music box in a cabinet behind the counter of the small general store they own. A neighbor told him that he had seen Don Justo’s dog, Malacara, in the town of San Julian, some 300 kilometers away. At this moment, at dawn, Don Justo sets out on his long, long walk to San Julian to retrieve Malacara, missing for several years (see Fig. 1). His village of Fitzroy seems completely isolated. Though a highway runs past the general store, cars and trucks pass by only very sporadically. In fact, it not only seems like a long walk, but given his age and his infirm gait, like an impossible walk.
Don Justo shares the house that he is sneaking out of with his son and daughter in law. And he is sneaking out because they have already dismissed his desire to go to San Julian: another apparent impossibility, added to the sheer physical challenge. When Don Justo first raises the possibility of his trip, his son stands on the roof of the house trying to install a satellite dish (see Fig. 2). Don Justo stands on the ground in front of the house and tells his son that he needs to go. Everything about this scene suggests to us that the son and his discourse have the power to control Don Justo. First of all, the son’s position on the roof forces Don Justo to adopt the physical posture of a child or an acolyte listening to his father or his master instruct him in the reality of the world. This dynamic of power will be further reinforced in a scene, moments later, when Don Justo’s daughter in law insists on cutting his meat for him, despite his protests that he “can do it himself.” Secondly, the physically higher space, occupied by the son, is conventionally associated, by its proximity to the sky, to the flight of birds, to the stars, etc., to a romanticized and idealized notion of freedom as transcendence of ground and materiality. Third, the son has practical knowledge and technical competence (since he is installing the satellite dish) and, what is more, his competence in this particular case enables him to do exactly what Don Justo wants to do by more primitive means: communicate across great distances. The language that Don Justo’s son wants to receive via satellite and that he employs to dismiss Don Justo’s plans – “how are you going to go to San Julián, if you can’t even pee by yourself” -- is a received, common, apparently sensible language. In short, the son possesses all the trappings of power and Don Justo is literally framed by it.
It is the gray middle of a foggy night. A man walks slowly holding the tiny, sleepy body of a child to his chest. The child’s head rests looking over his right shoulder. As the man walks, he speaks to the child (see Fig. 3). He walks past us and disappears into the fog. Moments later, he reappears in front of us and looks directly at us. Suddenly, his eyes widen, and his mouth opens (see Fig. 4). But now no words come forth. He is silent. The music that has accompanied him on his walk through the fog with his child stops, replaced by the haunting whistle of the night wind. We see what he sees. Looming in front of him, and us: a giant mound of human remains. Naked corpses and skeletons, tangled together, contorted, barely distinguishable one from the other in the mist and darkness. The man backs away and we see him to our right, dwarfed and barely visible in the fog, overwhelmed by the mountain of human bodies that fills our field of vision (see Fig. 5).
The man and his child are Jewish Italian prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp. The mound of remains: the bodies of victims already exterminated. Guido is Giosuè’s father. From the moment that the two were taken prisoner, Guido has been telling his son that everything that is happening to them is part of a game. Faced with the stark impossibility of physically surviving, let alone realistically or meaningfully describing their situation, Guido convinces his son that every aspect of their existence in the camp is part of a contest in which the players compete to win 1000 points by following the rules of the camp (for example, no crying, no asking for mom, hiding, and no asking for extra food). The grand prize will be a real tank. However, as he wanders through the darkness and fog, even Guido wonders whether he “may have taken the wrong way.” Indeed, in the scene we just described, he tells his sleeping child that in the morning he will awake to find his mother and a warm breakfast and encourages him to “dream sweet dreams.” As if anticipating his confrontation with the impossibility of his endeavor, Guido here invites his son to participate with him in a complete fantasy, no longer transforming, but rather disconnecting entirely from the facts of their daily life. And, in fact, stumbling across the brute physical manifestation of the unimaginable horror of the death camp, Guido, who has yet to meet a situation that he cannot incorporate, through his verbal gifts and powers of improvisation, into the contest, falls completely silent. He appears to have met, at last, his match: a reality that he cannot transform.
We have described two individuals faced with apparently impossible challenges. Yet they will both come to fulfill their tasks. We are interested in understanding how. Don Justo, just before he heads out to the road, straps on a pair of high-tech hiking boots given to him as a gift by a pair of Dutch travelers. To the viewers, the boots seem comical (in a touching way) because of the obvious disparity between the magnitude of the task he has set for himself (to traverse the 300 kilometers to San Julián) and the modest qualities of even the best pair of hiking boots. Likewise, we might be amused by the disparity between the magnitude of the task Guido has set for himself – i.e. to save his son both physically and psychologically from the Nazi’s – and the modest qualities of the simple make-believe game he invents to play with his son. So that for the viewers, neither character appears to be adequately equipped to succeed. But what if Don Justo’s boots are magical boots? And what if Guido’s story is a magical story?
What do we mean by “magical”? We do not mean that Don Justo’s boots give him the power to transcend age and distance and transport him easily to his destination. And we do not mean that Guido’s make-believe game with his son erases the reality of Nazi orders, weapons and barbed wire. By magic, we do not mean, in other words, a power to transcend or to render oneself and one’s space impermeable to and uncontaminated by the contingencies of history and materiality. Magic is not an idealized space or condition projected outside of or beyond the here and now. What we do mean by magic is the capacity inventively to rearrange the given (contingencies of history and materiality) so as to make possible an experience one wants to have, even as one remains open to changes in the shape of that desired experience. Let’s look again, more closely, at Don Justo’s boots and at Guido’s make-believe game.
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Upon first impression, these two stories appear to be so different as to make comparison impossible, or meaningless. Don Justo’s story appears to be a very private affair unfolding in a setting in which social and historical factors seem to be relegated to an inconsequential distance. After all, Don Justo believes that Malacara, his dog, left him because he was involved in a hit and run car accident with a pedestrian several years ago. And he now hopes that retrieving his dog will bring him a measure of redemption. The only obstacles to his accomplishing this task are the distance between his hometown and San Julián – where a neighbor told him he’d recently seen the dog -- and his age and infirmity. In the usual sense of the terms, social structures and political and historical conditions seem to play no role in his undertaking. Indeed, society, as we might typically conceive it, appears absent from the story. The landscapes of Patagonia are empty but for the few – also solitary – travelers that Don Justo encounters on his journey. There are no roadblocks – whether legal or physical – that could impede his quest. And there is nobody to stop him from putting on his boots and beginning his walk. By contrast, though Guido and Giosuè’s story is in part the private story of a father and son, it unfolds within the most explicitly social and historical setting of the 20th century: the Nazi holocaust. Guido has assigned himself the task of enabling his son’s physical and psychological well being in the face of the overwhelming historical fact of incarceration in a concentration camp. In Guido’s case history and society are present and in a powerfully confining way that dictate the clothes he will wear, the food he will eat, where he will sleep and, in fact, every movement he will make twenty-four hours a day. Given these differences, one might understandably feel that if it is legitimate to speak in praise of magic in relation to the “small story” (historia minima) of Don Justo, it verges on an insult to attempt the same with respect to the social and historical magnitude of a story about the holocaust. However, we wish to approach these two stories in a way that blurs the series of presupposed oppositions – private vs. public, mythical vs. historical, individual vs. collective, confinement vs. freedom, poetic vs. political -- that would make the incommensurability of the two stories appear legitimate. Indeed, we would go so far as to say that the very category of “magic” refuses all of these oppositions.
Let us look, for example, at Don Justo’s boots. They are, he tells an admiring neighbor, “climbing boots” given to him by “two Dutch tourists”. Don Justo’s boots are out of place in several ways (see Fig. 6). To begin with they have arrived from abroad as a gift. Nothing that we see of Don Justo’s life would lead us to believe that he could acquire these boots in any way other than as a gift. They are, moreover, shiny, new, and high-tech in comparison with the dusty, old, and impoverished surrounds in the town of Fitzroy. Finally, they are boots that are made for adventurous, physical movement in a hilly or mountainous landscape. As the neighbor asks Don Justo, ironically and perhaps also patronizingly, “are you planning to climb a hill?” We laugh, knowing that there are no hills for hundreds of miles and that, even if there were, Don Justo – sitting on a bench with his mate and his age – would not be the one climbing them. In short, we laugh the boots off as comically impractical and therefore irrelevant to Don Justo and his environment.
However, this pair of boots, as an object, a thing, is not only defined by the space within which it is located or by the physical capabilities of the person wearing it. In other words, there is more to the value of a pair of boots than their conventionally defined, or commercially imagined uses. In this particular case, Don Justo will transform the value of the pair of boots by the use he makes of it. In fact, we would say that Don Justo transubstantiates the boots. The boots, in ordinary life, exist for the purpose of facilitating a certain kind of movement within a certain kind of space: namely, again, to allow physically fit individuals to hike in mountainous terrain. Don Justo, without physically altering the boots, appropriates them, reorients them to a different purpose, and in this way transforms not only their nature, but also himself – an old, passive man -- and the space – flat, empty, impoverished Patagonia -- within which he uses them. It is not that Don Justo exchanges an “ordinary” pair of boots for a “magical” pair of boots. Rather it is that the one and very same pair of boots acquire new dimensions and capacities that in turn, reciprocally, permit both Don Justo (still old and infirm) and Patagonia (still empty and poor) to acquire new dimensions and capacities as well. In this way, our conception of magic erases a mutually exclusive opposition between the magical and the non-magical.
Don Justo lies in his moonlit bedroom at night, after the dinner in which his son and daughter-in-law reminded him that the trip to San Julián in search of Malacara was impossible and absurd. They appear to have convinced Don Justo, who smiles as he admits that the was “crazy” and that he must be “getting old.” As he stares at the ceiling of his bedroom, looking at the shadows of the window bars cast there, he sits up on the edge of his bed and looks over to the hiking boots (see Fig. 7). The pair of boots is bathed in moonlight, as if that light were imbuing them with an extraordinary power and thus issue an invitation; perhaps to the beginning of a different story, a fable in which these boots could become a kind of magical object, a talisman to empower the hero on a dangerous quest. But this is not the kind of magic we are talking about here. The moonlight is not magical. It simply makes visible the pair of boots in the darkness of the bedroom. The magic will begin only when Don Justo takes hold of the boots (and in so doing, ironically, blocks out the moonlight), puts them on, and begins his physical movement through the house and, eventually, out the door to San Julián.
On his way out of the house, Don Justo passes through three doorways. As he does so, we dwell slowly and at length on the detail of his interaction with the doors and thresholds. First, he turns the knob of his bedroom door with a very slow creak, then, he slowly separates the rattling beaded metal curtain dividing the family’s bedrooms from the store, and finally he gently closes the front door of the house, of which we see only the bottom, together with his boots as he turns from the house toward the road that leads to San Julián (see Fig. 8). The emphasis put on the doorways and thresholds may seem to highlight this particular set of movements as decisive, and to stress the direction of those movements from a confining interior to a liberated exterior space. However, we see here instead an emphasis on pure movement, in itself, independent of its aim. The doorways themselves are not simply static backdrops through which a fully intentional subject passes. But rather, they are themselves in motion, as if Don Justo had, in putting his feet into those boots, plugged himself into a machine and set it to running. Thus, it is not Don Justo moving through still doorways, but a strange new complex -- Don Justo plus thresholds – that is all in motion. Pure motion. We do not know, and it is not important for us to know, how or where Don Justo’s movement is going to end. We simply know that he is moving. And in fact, we could say that Don Justo began his movement the moment in which he heard that Malacara had been seen in San Julián. For that matter, in some ways the boots were magical already the first time we see them in virtue of the fact that by just wearing them to sit on a bench doing nothing, Don Justo transgresses all the categories – old vs. young; passive vs. active, stationary vs. moving, innocent vs. experienced -- with which we might fix him and the boots
Don Justo complements the magical transubstantiation of the hiking boots with a similar transubstantiation of language in the dinner conversation that he has with his son Carlos and daughter-in-law just prior to leaving. In this conversation, the son and daughter-in-law consistently infantilize Don Justo in order to dismiss his desire to retrieve Malacara in San Julián and Don Justo appears to acquiesce to this treatment. As the daughter-in-law serves him the meat, she says, using a diminutive, “it’s done just the way you like it” and then insists upon cutting it for him. As they eat for a few moments in silence, we hear this exchange:
Daughter-in-law: “What’s wrong with you Don Justo?”
Don Justo: “Nothing.”
Daughter-in-law: “This afternoon you looked weird.”
Don Justo: “Me? Weird?”
Daughter-in-law: “Yes you.”
Don Justo: “No. I wasn’t weird.”
Daughter-in-law: “Come on, I know you, don’t lie to me. What’s wrong?”
[Don Justo looks quietly at her]
Don Justo: “González stopped by and he told me he saw Malacara in San Julián.”
Carlos: “Dad, I’m sure the dog is not Malacara.”
Don Justo: “Yes. And if it were, it wouldn’t make any difference. He’s not worth such a long trip. [to the daughter-in-law, with a slight smile] I told Carlos I’d go get him. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Carlos: “Dad, I told you San Julián is too far away.”
Don Justo: “I must be getting old.”
Carlos and his wife here confront Don Justo with a patronizing language of authority -- it’s not the dog, San Julián is too far, you are being weird – intended to restrict Don Justo’s freedom and to distract him from his own desire by rendering it unreal and irrelevant. What we want to emphasize here is Don Justo’s response to this authoritative gesture. He does not confront their discourse directly through any contradiction or negation. In other words, he creates no oppositional language upon which he could restake the legitimacy of his desire and intention. Instead, he appears to accept and even to encourage their smug sense that he has “come around” by supplementing their dismissive words with his own: “he’s not worth such a long trip,” “I don’t know what I was thinking” and “I must be getting old” (see Fig. 9). In fact, he is encouraging this sense. He makes use of the language of authority in the same way that has made use of the hiking boots. He does so in order to get his family off his back and thereby create the minimal space he requires to resume his movement. It as though in this meal, Don Justo’s motion was temporarily arrested by the resistance of his family – as though he were caught in a traffic jam – and by eluding a direct confrontation and instead offering his subtle, misdirecting responses the traffic clears and he is on his way once more. Once again, it is not that his way is important in the sense that it involves a fixed destination, but rather that his way is simply the way of pure motion.
But if Don Justo here employs language as a supplement to his magical boots, a very similar relation to language will play a much more central role for Guido; indeed, we would argue that language itself is for Guido the counterpart to Don Justo’s magical boots. We would like to focus on one of the many instances throughout La vita è bella where Guido navigates the language of authority and turns it to his own purposes. Guido and his son have just arrived at the concentration camp. As they file out of the train cars in long, somber lines of men, women, and the elderly each heading toward their own final destinations within the camp, Giosuè begins to complain. Guido nervously tries to explain to his son that this is a marvelous place, as evidenced by the long lines of people trying to get in. At this point, Guido has not yet invented “the game”, with its rules and prizes. He seems, rather, simply to be trying to distract his son from his small complaints. He doesn’t know where he is going. Then Giosuè himself asks “but what kind of game is this?” Guido’s face lights up and he exclaims, “That’s it! It’s that game…that game where…we’re all players.” But he is still clearly making things up as he goes along, vaguely describing the simple facts of the situation to Giosuè as though these facts were part of a game: “It’s all organized. The game is the men are over here, and the women are over there. Then there’s the soldier’s. They give us our schedule. It’s hard, you know. It’s not easy. If somebody makes a mistake, they get sent straight home. That means you have to be very careful. But if you win, you get first prize.” Giosuè asks “what prize?” Guido, nervously buying time, repeats “The first prize!” At this point, Guido’s elderly uncle, Eliseo, steps in, leaning down to Giosuè to tell him “it’s a tank!” Giosuè replies that he already has one and Guido raises the stakes by saying that “This one’s a real tank! Brand new.” Here Giosuè exclaims in amazement, “No?! A real one?” And with this, the central invention of Guido and Giosuè’s story is born: Guido will treat their experience in the camp as though it were all part of a game.
We want to emphasize that Guido does not enter the experience with a well-defined plan or strategy. He responds rather to the demands of each unfolding moment, drawing resources from whatever is available in each particular situation. Thus, the idea that the experience could be seen as a game does not even occur to Guido until Giosuè himself unwittingly supplies it with his innocent question: “what kind of game is this?” Like Don Justo, Guido may not know exactly where he is going or how is going to get there, but he displays an ability to improvise and so keep himself moving. Moreover, as will also be the case with Don Justo (who accepts rides and help from strangers during his journey to San Julián), Guido here accepts the assistance of his Uncle, who without being prompted, intervenes to furnish the “first prize” – precisely at the moment when Guido is nervously stuttering and appears to be at a loss. In other words, the magic of Guido’s invention is, we wish to stress, improvised, fluid, open-ended and receptive to collaboration as the situation and resources may dictate.
Now the question may arise: is this sort of invention actually viable or sustainable given the “objective” and “historical” conditions of a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp? We wish to explore this question by examining Guido’s first engagement with the concrete embodiment of the camp in the form of the German guard who enters Guido and Giosuè’s barrack moments after their arrival to inform the prisoners of the camp rules. When Guido first enters the barracks, we see his jaw drop (much as it will later, in the moment we already described, when he stumbles across the mountain of corpses) at the overcrowded, miserable conditions within the barrack. However, he recovers his balance and continues to chatter nervously about the game. The very fact that he must recover his balance exposes the reality that Guido is very aware of the horrifying and daunting conditions in which he and his son have found themselves. He is not oblivious to their surroundings, nor is he idealistically underestimating or insensitive to the situation. As he continues to attempt to placate Giosuè, we hear the barrack door storm open and an authoritative bark out the command, in German, “Achtung!” The guard demands to know if anyone among the prisoners can translate from German into Italian. Before anyone else can reply, Guido raises his hand and begins to walk toward the guard. In fact, he does not know German, as he tells Bartolomeo, an inquiring fellow prisoner.
Guido stands nervously next to the impassive German guard, both facing the other prisoners, who flank Giosuè, standing on a bench at the opposite of the end of the room. As the guard begins to shout out the first set of commands, Guido watches him, appearing to listen (though we already know that he speaks no German). When the guard pauses, Guido, without hesitating, begins to “translate”: “The game starts now! Whoever is here, is here. Whoever is not is not.” The German continues. Then Guido, standing rigidly at attention next to him, proceeds “The first one to get a thousand points wins. The prize is a tank!” We see this scene via a regular, almost rhythmic, alteration of perspectives: from Guido standing alongside the German guard framed by a partially open doorway to Giosuè (see Fig. 10), flanked by the other inmates; to one or the other group of inmates standing to either side of Giosuè, looking confused (see Fig. 11). As Guido falsely “translates” every sound the guard makes, complete with gestures, we see Giosuè’s wide-eyed excitement about the game and the other prisoners’ restless confusion.
What we want to explore in this moment is the tension that arises in the kind of communication occurring between Guido and Giosuè, on the one hand, and between Guido and his fellow prisoners, on the other. Visually (since Giosuè is framed at the center of Guido’s vision) and verbally, that Guido is “translating” principally for his son and in this way communicating only with Giosuè. More specifically here, several different dimensions comprise Guido’s “translation” (see Figs. 12 and 13). First, Guido inhabits the structure, vocalization, and gesture of the authoritative discourse of the German guard. Imitating precisely the stereotypically guttural vocalization and the stern, staccato gestures of the guard, it is as though Guido were “riding” – deploying, the way a surfer might deploy the force of a wave – the discourse of authority, rather than starkly or defiantly opposing it (an obviously futile stance), to achieve his own purposes. Now, in so deploying the German guard’s discourse in order to introduce the rules of his (Guido’s) invented game, he highlights the arbitrary game-like nature of the rules of the camp (no less game-like for their atrocity). In doing so, Guido is not trivializing the enormous takes of the German game, but rather, by bringing the two discourses onto the same plane, he creates the possibility of a choice, which entails a challenging invitation – not only to Giosuè, not only to his fellow inmates, but also the viewer of the film – to choose which set of rules to affirm. Are you willing to engage Guido’s childlike zone of invention, not because you cease to be an adult, or forget that the German guard has powers of life and death over your body, but precisely because of the extremity of the situation in which you find yourself? Guido’s transubstantiating invention of the rules, though obviously directed principally and explicitly at his son, also creates a space of autonomy – a temporary clearing where choice becomes possible precisely when it appears to be foreclosed entirely – for his fellow inmates and for the viewers.
One could argue that Guido is excluding the other prisoners (who one imagines would want to know the rules for their own survival) and therefore harming them carelessly in order to preserve his little game with Giosuè. But this argument would rest upon the questionable assumption that the rules barked out by the German guard actually represent the reality of the prison camp and so could be helpful to them in ensuring their survival; as though there were actually a rational order to existence in the prison camp, an order that could be captured by rules. But if those rules are themselves absurd and arbitrary and, in fact, could be broken at any moment or suspended by the guards themselves, then one could just as easily argue that Guido’s translated version of the rules are precisely as meaningful as the German original and, moreover, could perhaps be more valuable to the other prisoners just exactly as they are more valuable to Giosuè, since Guido’s rules create that temporary autonomous condition. It is true that as Guido returns to his son after concluding his translation, the other prisoners question him, gesturing as though to say “what were you thinking?” – perhaps giving voice to the viewer’s own objections concerning the viability and even the ethical aspect of the “translation” (see Fig. 14). However, it is also true that at no point do these prisoners betray Guido or in any way impede his attempts to preserve the magical space he has generated within the camp. On the contrary, they aid him in hiding Giosuè, and also by occasionally adding their voices to his performances.
Yet it may be less obvious that Guido’s transubstantiation is an instance of a larger game, that he is playing, at constant risk, with everything around him in the camp and that involves him in mortally perilous relationships not only with the German guards; and that this larger game coincides exactly with the “game” that is called La vita è bella, which we, as viewers, bearing authorized, mature conceptions of the Holocaust, are called upon to play. We mean that what is “translated” here is not only the particular set of rules dictated by the German guards, but the Holocaust itself. That is, through Guido’s story we simultaneously experience the unspeakable catastrophe of the Holocaust and the possibility that this catastrophe, precisely because of its absurd extremity, could be reoriented to create small, transient spaces of creative potential. Recall that Guido’s story is actually introduced to us by an adult Giosuè, narrating over the image of his father carrying him through the mist towards the mountain of corpses in the camp, and saying that in this story, “like a fable, there is sorrow, and like a fable, it is full of wonder and happiness like all fables contains sorrow, joy and wonder.” It is in this sense that we are invited to participate in the translation of history into fable, which is to say, once again, into magic, but a field of magic that incorporates and deploys – rather than excludes – the force of history.
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Considering now both tales – Don Justo’s and Guido’s – within this framework of magic, there are two elements shared by both that we wish to examine more specifically: the contingent formation of collectivities and the function of specific “objects” (both in the sense of thing and of aim or goal). By collectivity we do not mean a group of subjects, rigidly defined, and homogeneously oriented toward a shared, predetermined finality. Of course, few would profess to subscribe to such an orthodox notion of community. Yet, in actual practice, the formation of communities in such fraught political contexts has tended to prioritize subscription to an antagonistic, resistant, uniform discourse that defines itself, and its members, by the degree to which it (and they) remain uncontaminated by the structures of power it would transform. Guido himself, operating within the context of an overwhelming social and political setting, would seem to require support in the form of just such a homogeneous, resistant community. Even Don Justo, to achieve his seemingly much more modest aim of reaching San Julián, would appear to serve himself better by aligning his economic and social resources in a more structured way in advance of his endeavor. Nevertheless, when we are speaking of the contingent formation of community or collectivity in these stories, we are referring to a different kind of community. In both stories, the communities formed by Guido and Don Justo arise spontaneously as an effect of each individual’s own immanent movement and last only so long as necessary to fulfill a specific, transient purpose.
Now Guido, upon at the camp, does not go around to all the other prisoners, ensuring their participation in either some form of antagonistic, organized resistance, nor even simply their commitment to complicity with his invented game. On the contrary, when he and Giosuè first arrive in the barrack, and Giosuè asks for a snack, he says, “We’ll just ask, we’re all friends here” and turns to another prisoner, whom he does not yet know. Searching for his name as though he did already know him, he asks, “Bartolomeo! Let me ask you something. Did the guy who hands out the bread and jam already come by?” By doing so, he invites this total stranger to participate in his game, not as a deliberate, fully intentional subject committing to a project in some permanent way, but rather as a temporary ally who can help Guido to solve a problem in the present (namely: assuring Giosuè that the game Guido has been describing is in fact real). This community, in some sense, like Giorgio Agamben’s “coming community” (Agamben 1993), is a community always in motion, always becoming, but never fully being; a community whose members are not bound beyond the exigencies of the given moment. Bartolomeo nods with a shrug and a sympathetic half-smile. Throughout Guido and Giosué’s internment, Guido never once solicits explicitly a commitment from any of the other prisoners, though he continually relies on their spontaneously given aid. At one moment, for example, when Guido is serving a meal to a group of Nazi’s and their families, Giosuè sits with the other children, having been mistaken for one of them. In the midst of the meal, as dessert is served, Giosuè exclaims “Grazie!” in Italian, thus giving away his identity. Guido, overhearing, immediately assumes the role of Italian instructor (as he did in the earlier scene with the German guard) and directs all the children to repeat after him, “Grazie!” At the moment that all the children repeat the word after him they lose their particular identities as German and Italian, as enemy or friend, and spontaneously form a very temporary community – without any of them even knowing they are doing so or intending to – that allows Guido’s game to continue.
When Don Justo sets out on his walk, he is by himself and has no plan whatsoever other than to walk the distance between his home and San Julián. However, several helpers along the way who serve almost as waves buoying Don Justo along on their current and thereby facilitating the journey will enhance this movement. Once again, as with Guido’s “coming communities,” none of these helpers are predetermined or selected by Don Justo according to their adherence to his goals. In fact, each of them is in the midst of their own journey that only fortunately happens to coincide with Don Justo’s. Indeed, there are no promises or commitments that they will see Don Justo to his final destination and, in fact, none of them do. His first helper, a single female driving the highway, picks Don Justo up and insists – despite his protests that he could get a ride at any time from one of his many trucker friends – that he come along with her. Furthermore, when he suffers a bout of low blood pressure, she takes him to a nearby clinic for treatment. However, she leaves him there to continue his journey or not. At this point, he coincidentally runs into a neighbor from Fitzroy, Roberto, who takes him further down the road, ultimately leaving him at a roadside construction shed just outside of San Julián, where another traveler mentioned that he had seen a dog. Finally, among the workers living in this shed, Don Justo finds, not his dog, but a meal, music, and bed to rest in. He also finds his last sympathetic supporter, a worker who, hearing Don Justo’s story, agrees to take him to a man who has a dog that may or may not be Malacara. The next morning, this same worker assists Don Justo in negotiating and paying for the dog. In all these instances, we witness – as in La vita è bella –the contingent, temporary formation of successive communities. We would not even claim that these communities last only so long as their purpose fulfilled because in some cases they end for other reasons. In fact, that is part of the point: these communities function more like provisional, fortuitous coincidences of purpose, or better yet, like the convergence of two drifts – in the Situationist sense of derive (Debord 1958) -- that accompany each other for a time, really for very little other purpose than to share movement.
One of the dimensions of these collectives that we wish to stress is that nobody who helps Guido or Don Justo shares an investment in achieving the objects of their journeys. There is no shared collective destination that overrides the particular aims of each individual involved. These individuals are not defined or identified by their adherence or subscription to a single communal. Roberto, the young man who drives Don Justo to the outskirts of San Julián, in fact shows no interest in the purpose of Don Justo’s journey and spends most of the trip talking obsessively about his reasons for going to San Julián, but nonetheless participates effectively in this collective action. The collective happens and, it turns out, is indispensable for both characters, but it is never formed or sustained by any logic outside of itself.
If the objects of Guido and Don Justo’s journeys – Malacara and the tank that serves as first prize – are irrelevant to the formation of community, we wish also to point that the importance of these objects to each protagonist does not depend on either the object’s intrinsic value or on the certainty of possession as the concluding point of the story. They serve rather, in our view, as gusts of wind that spur the movement and carry the protagonists along their way. Malacara, as a dog, is of no great importance to Don Justo. However, Malacara ran away just at the time, several years ago, that Don Justo killed a man in a hit and run driving accident. He wonders whether Malacara left because he knew that Don Justo had done wrong, and seems to hope that retrieving Malacara will somehow redeem him. However, when he arrives with his friend at the home in San Julián where he believes Malacara has gone, he does in fact find a dog and he calls that dog Malacara. However, the man who now owns the dog insists that he has had this dog for a long time, that it is not Malacara. Don Justo behaves as though the dog is Malacara but in fact we are never certain that this is the case and perhaps come to realize that the possession of the particular dog Malacara was not the point (see Fig. 15). This seems peculiar since the entire tale seems, on its surface, to be structured around the search for and retrieval of that particular dog. However, the fact that the story concludes ambiguously in this regard serves to highlight once again the importance of journey over destination. Pure motion over point of arrival. Process over product.
Likewise, at the end of Guido and Giosuè’s story, we see Giosuè riding out of the concentration camp to freedom atop an American tank (see Fig. 16). Just as with Don Justo’s first encounter with “Malacara” – the object of his search – Giosuè greets the tank with the joy of victory and possession. After all, the tank is there and he appears to have won the prize. Guido’s game becomes reality. However, not long after, as the tank passes a line of refugees, Giosuè spots his mother and abandons the tank. We realize, of course, that he has not won a real tank and that, in that sense of the word “real”, Guido’s game was not real. The object of his search, like Malacara, diminishes in importance in comparison with the process of that search. The importance of Guido’s invention was never that it represented reality, but rather that it permitted movement and effective practice within reality. This has been achieved, regardless of whether or not Giosuè wins a real tank. Because for Guido, the object of the journey was not a real tank, but rather the physical and psychological well being of his child. Guido for himself does not live to see that happen, but living to see it happen was never a precondition for undertaking the game.
Given the ambiguous status of these desired objects, both protagonists may allow themselves fully to be carried along by the forces of currents whose direction they cannot always know or control. If either tale had concluded unambiguously, with the definitive achievement of or failure to attain the desired aim, we would be left stressing the conclusion of a narrative and a journey over the making and the movement. Like the protagonists, deprived of a cleanly resolved finale, we are left instead as participants in an ongoing movement, whose continuation (or not) is left to us. This movement is what we are calling magic. This magic consists, not in the magical – in the conventional of the sense of term, which connotes fantasy or illusion separated from reality and history – transcendence of conditions in the fulfillment of a final goal, but rather in the ongoing, transubstantiation of conditions through constant movement. In this continuous motion, all fixed categories and oppositions as well as their dialectical resolution – here vs. there, reality vs. fantasy, myth vs. history – are eluded: played with inventively and thus submitted to an endless process of constant reconfiguration.
This magic process of invention only works to the degree that one gives up the need for certainty and instead actively embraces risk. We are not speaking only of the particular, specific risks involved in certain given moments of each story, for example, the risk Guido assumes when he accepts Giosuè challenge to leave the camp and go home. We are speaking rather of the risk involved in embarking upon a journey that has no pre-fixed trajectory and no end. It is, in other words, a journey strongly subject to chance, to constant and multiple bifurcations or detours, and the radical open-endedness of time. For both characters, undertaking their quests will expose them to experiences of space and time in which these two cease to be mappable and calculable backdrops for human planning and instead are revealed to be fully dynamic, evolving and interactive components of any situation. In this sense, both characters are free in a double sense of the word: on the one hand, they are free of the burden of planning and guaranteeing results within a static, empty space-time framework; but on the other hand, they are also free of the illusion of certainty that human beings tend to require in order to undertake any new venture. This is not, we wish to reemphasize, the freedom of some kind of escape from space or time, but rather the double-edged freedom that comes with firmly committing oneself to and participating in the space and time in which one finds oneself and which one assumes a responsibility to engage and transform.
In this context, Don Justo exposes himself with every step that he takes to the risk of failure. He may never make it past his front drive. But even if he does (and he does), his journey is at every moment subject to temporary or permanent interruptions. For that matter, even once he makes it to San Julián and retrieves “Malacara” (if it is indeed Malacara), his story ends simply with another beginning: the beginning of his equally uncertain return trip to Fitzroy (we see only the road he is traveling through the rear window of a pick-up truck in which he’s receiving a ride), if that is in fact where he plans to go, for we do not know for certain that he intends to return home (see Fig. 17). For Guido, the risk likewise consists in the constant threat that his fragile game will be interrupted, or more specifically, squeezed to death by the enormous and uncontrollable authoritative presence of historical forces. In fact, Guido himself will not live to see how the game ends. Giosuè enjoys his brief ride in the tank, his reunion with his mother, and his affirmation of victory. This “victory,” however, is ironized. First, because his “victory” in the game is not a “real” victory (he does not get to keep the tank. But second, because the victory over the Nazis entails the opening to a new and equally complex and problematic journey in Italian history (reconstructing a demolished country physically, politically, and culturally). In fact, Giosuè now also faces another beginning and a new set of uncertain endeavors. A fact further emphasized by the continuity of narrative provided by the voice-over that both ends and does not end the story since it consists of a grateful acknowledgement of “the gift” his father gave him: the gift, that is, of invention as an open-ended, uncertain, transformative engagement with the material realities of time and space. In both cases, we are refused the satisfaction of having arrived at a destination that we, within a conventional linear timeline, have associated with the future. The usual progression culminating in such a future is short-circuited by the ambiguity of Don Justo’s continuing in pure movement at the “endpoint” of his journey, and with Giosuè’s adult voice-over, which encloses the linear narrative of his story within the framework of a constant present. Thus, both stories end with a beginning and thus preserve risk as a constitutive component of magic.
This experience of risk can certainly give rise to the temptation to calculate, to forego any journey that does not have a clearly delimited trajectory in space, a clearly delimited duration in time, and a visible, guaranteed conclusion. Nietzsche used the metaphor of a dice-throw to ironically mock the insecurity we may feel in the face of risk: “But of that you, you dice-throwers! You have not learned to play and mock as a man ought to play and mock! Are you not always seated at a great table for play and mockery?” Nietzsche here, as elsewhere in his writing, criticizes those dice-throwers who would attempt to guarantee the results of their gamble through repeated throws of the dice, as though they could thereby elude chance and contingency, and therefore the risk of failure. Clearly, if Don Justo and Guido had rationally calculated the risk of failure in their respective journeys, they would never have undertaken them and there would be, literally, no story. And not just no story about them specifically, but no narrative in the larger sense, no unfolding possibility, no history.
Failure is indeed a possibility when Don Justo and Guido roll the dice in their respective journeys. However, failure is not only failure. It is failure of course (in relation to a pre-defined destination or goal). In such a reading of failure, there has been an ending and an outcome and we have lost. “End of story.” But magic may embrace not only risk, but failure itself, because magic fully engages the open-endedness of all process in space and time so that failure is not only loss and disappointment – or sorrow, as Giosuè puts it – but also the opening to an opportunity for magically engaging a new present. Nietzsche himself confronted the full magnitude of failure, inviting his reader to stare down the risk of failure and to continue – not because the risk of failure has been or could ever be eliminated, but rather precisely with a full awareness of the constant, creative presence of this risk: “And if great things you have attempted have turned out failures, does that mean you yourselves are – failures? And if you yourselves have turned out failures, does that mean – man is a failure? If man has turned out a failure, however: very well! Come on! (Nietzsche 1969, 303)
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Over the course of this essay we will emphasize that the sort of magic here defined permits autonomy on the part of the protagonists. Though loosely informed by conceptions of autonomia in Italian political thought and action, we use the term in the broader sense of self-direction. Readers interested in pursuing the possible connections with the Italian concept and practice may wish to consult, for representative documents, Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt, eds. Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996) and the special issue of the journal Semiotext(e) devoted to the autonomia movement and recently reissued as the book Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi, eds., Autonomia: Post-Political Politics (New York: Semiotext(e), 2007).