In Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets, there is a scene in which Robert De Niro walks into a mafia bar in Little Italy in boxer shorts, with a girl on each arm. There is some joking at the coat check, where he puts on his trousers, and then Scorcese shifts into slow-motion mode and has De Niro float towards the end of the bar where Harvey Keitel is waiting. One imagines that it is this kind of scene—a scene that projects the illusion of a De Niro who is totally “in it” (as it is said) and who becomes one with his environment, leaving all conscious thought behind in order to “just be”–that attracts the anonymous narrator of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. When he goes to see Scorcese’s film at the Ritzy in Brixton, he is fascinated by De Niro’s capacity to “just be”. Paradoxically, it is the actor De Niro who for McCarthy’s narrator becomes a figure of an authenticity that remains out of his reach.
Although the lack of authenticity might go even further back, the narrator blames his feeling second-hand on an accident in which he was involved—bits and pieces of technology falling from the sky—and about which he is not allowed to speak (otherwise he will lose the financial compensation he has received for it). Not that he could speak about it if he wanted to: it appears to have escaped his memory altogether. After the accident, he had to relearn how to speak and walk. For this purpose, doctors broke down his movements into what sounds like an Eadweard Muybridge series of photographs; it’s by breaking down his movements into their smallest components—mov-emes, as structuralists might say—and understanding how these components relate to each other, that the narrator relearns how to walk. But he remains haunted by the feeling that his walk is inauthentic, that each and everyone one of his “natural” movements is now so shot through with thought that it is no longer his.
One night, however, the narrator has what appears to be an experience of authenticity when he observes a crack in the bathroom wall of a friend’s apartment. He decides to use the money he has received in compensation for his accident to rebuild not only the bathroom that this crack reminds him of, but also the building in which it is located, and the part of the world around this building. It’s a project that generates a lot of stuff, but this should not confuse us: what we are witnessing is ultimately the execution of an idea, a philosophical form that can never be real. It is ultimately only in the collapse of this artificial, metaphysical construction that an experience of the real will be conveyed. The narrator’s attempt to experience life will paradoxically only come about in death, when life erupts onto the scene of his constructions in the only way that it can ever become part of the work of art: as what it is not, as death. Ultimately, there is no such thing as a living work of art. Life can only exist in a negative relation to art.
References: Scorcese, Martin. Mean Streets (Taplin-Perry-Scorcese Productions, 1973); McCarthy, Tom. Remainder. New York: Vintage, 2005. Image: Monica Rodriguez, MegaHelmet, 2009.