P:O.V. No.10 - Aspects of Dogma, On THE IDIOTS

Idiocy, Foolishness, and Spastic Jesting

Bodil Marie Thomsen

Youíre a whole lot dumber than you think.
A film by idiots, about idiots, for idiots.
Lars von Trier

In his existential writings on Christianity, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard, masked as Johannes Climacus, discusses among other things "the pathetic."[1] In conclusion to section two he writes: "We one-sidedly say that a fool always laughs, one-sidedly, because it is true that it is foolishness always to laugh; but it is one-sided to label only the misuse of laughter as foolishness, since foolishness is just as great and just as corruptive when it expresses itself by always being equally earnest-obtuse." (Hong I, 525). That a religious explanation for the relationship between an esthetic philosophy of life (based on the relation happiness-unhappiness) and a religious one (based on suffering) leads to praising the foolís laughter[2] is due to the fact that Climacus is described as a non-Christian humorist, who in the 19th century lacks religious pathos. Climacus dwells on humor when describing the existential conditions of the pathetic in its difference from esthetic pathos, since "The esthetic and the ethical have been mixed together in comfortable balderdash." (Hong I, 392). The difference between "the pathetic" and "the esthetic" concerns the subject or "inwardness," as Kierkegaard also calls it.

Ethically the highest pathos is the pathos of interestedness (which is expressed in this way, that I, acting, transform my whole existence in relation to the object of interest); esthetically the highest pathos is the pathos of disinterestedness. If an individual throws himself away in order to grasp something great, he is esthetically inspired; if he gives up everything in order to save himself, he is ethically inspired. (Hong I, 390).

Another possible distinction involves the possible as opposed to the actual: "In relation to possibility, words are the highest pathos; in relation to actuality, actions are the highest pathos" (Hong I, 389-90), which is why falling in love belongs to the field of esthetics and marriage to that of ethics.

With these few definitions it is easy to see that the pathos that flourishes in Lars von Trierís works Breaking the Waves (1996) and The Idiots (1998) is ethically rather than esthetically based. Bessís choice is ethical-religious, and her decisive act (the self-sacrifice) confirms her pact with (her internalized) God and her marriage pact. The sacrifice is a conscious act that radically leaves behind the Church congregationís esthetic ideal (and love of the word rather than of people). Bess abandons a relation to being and relates exclusively to becoming, to the difference her act can make. This is why the psychologist at the end of the film characterizes her as "good" (rather than "crazy"), in keeping with Climacus:

A person can be both good and evil, just as it is quite simply said that a human being has a disposition to both good and evil, but one cannot simultaneously become good and evil [...] Because we want the poet to depict human beings as they are, and every human being is both good and evil, and because the poetís medium is the medium of imagination, is being but not becoming, at most is becoming in a very foreshortened perspective. But take the individual out of this medium of imagination, out of this being, and place him in existence – then ethics immediately confronts him with its requirement, whether he now deigns to become, and then he becomes – either good or evil. (Kierkegaard's emphasis, Hong I, 420-21.)

Becoming does not only contain the act of sacrifice, in which the flesh is marked. The suffering lies just as much in everyday lifeís unfinished confrontation with the existential condition of incidental trivialities that shape us. The religiously responsible subject has lost "the relativity of immediacy, its diversion, its whiling away of time – precisely its whiling away of time" and suffers in an absolute relation to God, conscious that "[a] human being is capable of nothing at all; this he must always keep in mind." (Hong I, 486). Just what possibilities does the religious person have in life when esthetics and sense diversions are abandoned? He cannot go to a monastery, as this choice is merely an outer (misunderstood) display of the relationship with God. But can he then go to the amusement park? – This is Climacusí rhetorical counter-question. The answer is at first negative, but then he argues that mankind is after all different from God and shows his humility by being human, removing himself from the absolute requirement and seeking diversion:

Our religious person chooses the way to the amusement park [...] So he goes out there. "But he does not enjoy himself," someone may say. Yes, he does indeed. And why does he enjoy himself? Because the humblest expression for the relationship with God is to acknowledge oneís humanness, and it is human to enjoy oneself. (Hong I, 493).

The discussion of the status of the amusement park is lengthy in Climacus, since its function is to create an opening for humor in ethical and religious pathos. For according to Climacus, "[t]here are three existence-spheres: the esthetic, the ethical, the religious. To these there is a respectively corresponding confinium [border territory]: irony is the confinium between the esthetic and the ethical; humor is the confinium between the ethical and the religious." (Kierkegaard underlines, Hong I, 501-2). Humor marks the incongruence between the religious personís (hidden) relationship with God and what occurs in the world, that is, between a consciousness of the infiniteness of everything and the finiteness of everything. A divine as opposed to a human perspective.[3]Thus, Climacus concludes section two with the introductory passage that starts as follows: "Therefore, it is just as questionable, precisely just as questionable, to be pathos-filled and earnest in the wrong place as it is to laugh in the wrong place. (Hong I, 525) – and thus we have returned to the beginning of this article and can now turn to The Idiots.

The amusement park and the living room

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Climacus is of the opinion that a Christian in the 19th century can easily go to the amusement park. The difficult part is deciding to do so. The difficulty arises "[i]n the living room and on the coastal road to the amusement park [paa Strandveien til Dyrehaven]" (Hong I, 481). They also do this in The Idiots. But if one follows Climacusí argument, the strength of Karenís (Bodil Jørgensen) lack of a defense (in the living room) for her action – not going to her childís funeral – should be seen in the light of the scenes from the amusement park. The slap in the face at the end (and Susanneís [Louise Hassing's] tears) serves as the sensory shock that finally anchors the viewer in Karenís fate. A religious-pathetic dimension may emerge for the viewer in the juxtaposition of the scene in the living room and the apparently carefree visit to the amusement park Bakken. For Karen visits the amusement park because of her grief. She consciously goes to Bakken to amuse herself, and for her it is the only possibility of bearing the unbearable: having to bury her own child. The slap in the face comes as a consequence of the spastic jesting at the coffee table, where the cake and coffee flow slowly out of Karenís mouth instead of being swallowed. This abject suggestion of the childís way of eating demonstrates in an embarrassing way for everyone in the living room that Karen (like Bess) has resigned from the ascetic company of the Church (and her family), where feelings and women are just barely tolerated. Both Karen and Bess – and Dreyerís Jeanne before them – have a practically childish and inaccessible "relationship with God" that causes them to appear as pariahs, as headstrong idiots to everyone else. They do not obey an esthetic much less ethical interpretation of life and do not take care of themselves. They all provoke contradictory reactions from the viewers: the triumphant sympathy and distressing, idiosyncratic antipathy of laughter. In The Idiots it is not until the very end that one can discard the ironic interpretive strategy and fully surrender to the awkward character of Karen. If one does this, one is offered an interpretive basis for the entire film. However, if one does not accept this religious-pathetic perspective for the humor of the film, the two hours spent at the cinema are downright wasted.

Karen thus freely demonstrates that Andersí (Hans Henrik Clemensen's) opinion – that it was because she "was not too sad" that she refrained from going to the funeral – is farfetched. On the contrary, Karen was in a state of shock over the death of her child, and couldn't bear to share her grief with others. She is an idiot in this wordís etymological (Greek) definition: a private person. She is an idiot in the sympathetic definition: a retarded person whose emotional development corresponds to a four-year-oldís (according to Trierís notes on her character). In contrast to the other jokesters, who act out their inner idiot as an (esthetically and ethically confrontational) idea, Karen is a true idiot who is unable to pretend. Something else is at stake. The possibility of showing her inner state at the coffee table as idiocy on the level of a child gives Karen the possibility of expressing that she not only has scars on her soul, but also marks in her flesh.

Neither in The Idiots, nor in Trierís manuscript, nor in the accompanying journal, let alone in Jesper Jargilís De ydmygede, which depicts the working process of The Idiots in the form of a documentary, is there reason to believe that Lars von Trier should have read Johannes Climacusí reflections on the extent to which the religious person in the 19th century ought to choose the way to the monastery or the way to the amusement park. Nor does it matter. Just as it is inconsequential for us to know whether Kierkegaard ever set foot in the amusement park Dyrehaven.[4] It is probable that Kierkegaardís interest in this amusement park is due to the fact that it was a favorite romantic theme for describing popular entertainment, while in Trierís time the park practically marks the romantic theme as a cliché-filled framework for expensive entertainment. It is nonetheless noteworthy that the common interest in avoiding an esthetic judgement of an ethical manifesto[5] very effectively uses Dyrehaven as the background for describing "true pathos." For this must necessarily be sensed. In Kierkegaardís text, the opposition of Dyrehaven and the religious requirement seems like a slap in the face. In Trier, it must be added as a realistic shock that also stylistically breaks with the layout of the living room. The violence of the sudden movement depicted with the shaking of the hand-held camera comes to concern the viewer directly – as though it were her/him whose vision took a blow.


The camera follows Karenís head movements toward the left, then Andersí sudden hand movement in an arch to the right and back to the left, and in a prolonged movement (as though it were the camera that took the blow) by way of a cut to Susanneís open, sympathetic expression. All the idiot components of the film – the director/camera, actors, and viewer – are in play.

Moreover, if one recalls that Kierkegaardís volume 10 cited above provided the basic concepts for French existentialism after the war, the association becomes even more evident, leading to the idea that the dogma films, and perhaps The Idiots in particular, can in agreement with the dogma manifesto actually be regarded as a continuation of the confrontation with plot-structured descriptions of reality that were represented by the nouvelle vague (from the late 1950s).[6] It is true that today, regardless of great differences, directors like Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and Resnais, who took André Bazinís praise of the break with the tradition of mimesis as their starting point to experiment with the possibilities of the cinema (and developed the concept of the auteur), seem more romantic-individualistic than revolutionary – as it is put in the dogma manifesto. Still, it is easy to see that the directors who take into account the nouvelle vague and the dogma manifesto agree on wishing to describe something essential in the special cinematic coming into being of something "true" or something "real." To the sympathetic, confused viewer, The Idiots poses fundamental questions about what sets our esthetic criteria for evaluation – as do many of Godardís works. They share enthusiasm and stylistic courage. But The Idiots inquires perhaps outside an esthetic framework rather than inside, and it is in this sense that one can claim that Trier is more courageous or more revolutionary than Godard. It is also suggestive that Trier dons just as many masks as Kierkegaard in order to penetrate with a statement about life with a pathetic (ethical and religious) stamp.[7] For throughout the century, not just religious but also esthetic pathos has been surrounded with disdain in the name of high-modernism,[8] even though everyone no doubt can see today that it has been alive and well and visible and hearable to everyone, both within the ranks of modernism (in the cultivation of the genius and the avant-garde) and in popular culture (especially in the cinematic melodramaís and rock cultureís appeal to their audiences).

Perhaps it was (as regards the film medium) the 1980sí ironic blend of genres, erosion of values and labyrinthine strategy that cleared the way for a non-Cartesian understanding of the subject as an impassioned unity of body and mind. Trierís own works, Breaking the Waves, whose melodramatic framework faded away and was transformed into ethical or subliminal pathos,[9] and Kingdom II, which has given new meaning to the designation of "the grotesque," has consistently shifted the focus away from a re-presentation of the real. In the 1990s, Trier left behind the poetic pathos "the pathos of possibility, with actuality [virkeligheden] as an occasion", now more "maturely" posing himself (as does Climacus) the question of "oneīs own ethical actuality as infinitely more important than the interpretation of the whole world history (Hong I, 389)[10]. In Kingdom II it was the spiritual beings (without temporal or spatial mooring) and the Swedenborgian space that challenged the idea of a bodily and personal delimitation, while in The Idiots it is the Steinerian idea that people with Down's syndrome are like angels sent as a present to mankind. (Cp. Trierís description of the filmís conceptual starting point in De ydmygede).

It is far from my task here to advocate that Trier and others along with him should really be understood religiously, much less that Kierkegaard should be. It is far more important for me to point out that currently Danish (and international) artists are (with or without inspiration from Kierkegaardís concepts of pathos) actually confronting "actuality as an occasion" or "the pathos of possibility" with a radically different "ethical actuality" (op. cit.). This reality concerns the subjectís (i.e. the artistís) entire way of sensing and experiencing when confronting the world. The work becomes an expression of this confrontation and thus must also influence the viewer. Elements of horror and abject traces in an apparently realistic scenario have long been visible in art (cp. David Lynch, among others)[11]. Today the very idea of artistic re-presentation is being discussed. After the deconstructive and meta-fictional pointing out of esthetic-rhetorical patterns in each work, it is understandable that the interest is now directed toward that which conditions or lies outside esthetic representation[12]. This is why ethical questions become relevant in a digital world that otherwise makes each and every simulacrum possible. What a splendid liberation from the world, what unsuspected possibilities of esthetic manipulation, one might say! And yet at least one European tradition recedes. Like much current fine art photography, the dogma concept reflects what an artistic becoming or event might be without a referential base. And here humor and the "becoming mad" of esoteric language also plays a main role according to Gilles Deleuze:

The tragic and the ironic give way to a new value, that of humor. For if irony is the co-extensiveness of being with the individual, or of the I with representation, humor is the co-extensiveness of sense with nonsense. Humor is the art of surfaces and of the doubles, of nomad singularities and of the always displaced aleatory point; it is the art of the static genesis, the savoir-faire of the pure event, and the »forth person singular« – with every signification, denotation, and manifestation suspended, all height and depth abolished.[13]

In Trier, the idiot plays the role of the fourth person singular – and what is more: this role is also meant for the viewer, as is also evident from several reviews[14].

Ingeniously, one can (along with Climacus) very well regard Trier as being a "straying esthete" (Hong I, 454) in the field of ethics, one who does not experience pain or uncertainty, but who is more precisely an "esthetic coxcomb, a devil of a fellow who, figuratively speaking, wants to fraternize with God but, strictly speaking, does not relate himself to God at all" (Hong I, 455). But if one regards works of art as events rather than as representations, or as an interplay between fabula and sjuzet, the surface humor that takes the power away from meanings can actually (150 years after Climacus) give insight into "their eternal truth, that is, from the point of view of the substance which sub-tends them, independent of their spatio-temporal actualization in a state of affairs" (Deleuze, op. cit., 136). There are many examples of this strategy in The Idiots, and not everyone finds them equally funny. The confrontations between the self-appointed idiots and the sympathetic rockers call forth more laughter in me than the confrontations between the citizens and municipal officers of Søllerød County. Stoffer (Jens Albinus), who exposes the latter, depicts (intentionally on Trierís part) psychological instability rather than foolishness, and for this reason one never completely surrenders to his interpretations. In the scene with the home buyers, Jeppe (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) makes a marginal remark (outside the manuscript) that together with the excellent facial mimicry of all the fools makes the idiocy perspective clear. Jeppe says impulsively, almost wonderingly, to the elegant lady (Paprika Steen): "Where zayn? Where zayn?" She replies as though it were a question: "The Seine – The Seineīs in Paris. Nice meeting youÖ" and laughs self-consciously, nervously and shyly at the same time while leaving. It is impossible to tell whether Jeppeís remark is profound or meaningless[15]. The same suggestion of a possible meaning that becomes absurd in its singularity is also present in the imagery. Not so much in the outright vulgarities at the level of the jokes (mayonnaise instead of sun lotion or skiing in the summer), but rather in movements that only sporadically make sense (three naked men running after half-naked Susanne, filmed as though they were children).

The Idiots is a film that challenges moral and esthetic judgements and that in a display of all kinds of judgements in this field sets the stage for another agenda, the ethical-religious one. The battle lines are drawn up with a humor that is far from being as "earnest-obtuse" as the smart-alecky poster text on Axelís (Knud Romer Jørgensen) advertising agency: "He wants to make companies into religions." Trier does not want to make film into religion, nor plead for a religiousness in the film, but most likely he would like to get us to "laugh with the fool."

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1 Søren Kierkegaard: Samlede Værker, 9 & 10, written in 1846. The English translation of Kierkegaard is in general taken from Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong: Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments I-II, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1992. Concerning the conceptual meaning of pathos in Kierkegaard I have (together with the translator of my text, Stacey Marie Cozart) consulted Terminologisk Ordbog in Danish. We suggest besides "suffering," and "impassioned emotion" also "enthusiastic passion" and "the solemnly stirred or earnestly elevated in esthetics." Pathos is related to "the existing thinkerís suffering due to his renunciation of immediacy in favor of truth and the idea of finiteness." On the relationship between pathos and the comic Kierkegaard writes: "The pathos that is not safeguarded by the comic is an illusion; the comic that is not safeguarded by pathos is immaturity" (Hong I, 87). In greater detail he writes, "Existence itself, existing, is a striving and is just as pathos-filled as it is comic: pathos-filled because the striving is infinite, that is, directed toward the infinite, is a process of infinitizing, which is the highest pathos; comic because the striving is a self -contradiction" (Hong I, 92).

2 Kierkegaardís text relates to a topos that originates from Erasmus of Rotterdam, who published The Praise of Folly (dedicated to his friend Thomas More (author of Utopia), whose name means fool or idiot in Latin). Erasmus has the female Moria praise the natural and simple rather than the artificial and especially ascetic Christian ideal. Stupidity, joy, and beatitude are in Erasmusí Christian humanism. Prior to Kierkegaard, the many immediately contradictory textual layers coming from Moria are also found as a stylistic mask in, among others, Montaigne and Shakespeare. Cp. Villy Sørensenís introduction to the Danish translation of The Praise of Folly: Tåbelighedens lovprisning.

3 Cp. Lars Erslev Andersen. 1994. "Humor Ė kontingens og fællesskab". Jørn Erslev Andersen, ed. Passage, 17. Århus: 1994.

4 Dyrehaven was established for recreation and hunting by Frederik III in 1669 and opened to the public in 1756. Bakken emerged as a market in connection with Kirsten Pilís sacred spring (which according to tradition was discovered in 1583 and rediscovered in 1732). Oehlenslägerís Et Sct. Hans Aftens Spil (1802) depicts the life of fair performers, who around the year 1800 offered a Mester Jakel theatre, peep shows, marionette plays, mechanical theatre, and pantomime theatre. Tivoli, which was opened in 1843, was not mentioned by Kierkegaard. Source: Den Store danske Encyklopædi.

5 I see the dogma rules as an ethical manifesto that in referring to the directorís ethos attempts to place limitations on his or her possibilities to manipulate. It is clear from Peter Rundleís interview with Lars von Trier ("We are all sinners"; www.dogme95) that rather than the realistic or documentary (esthetic) effect it is the directorís creativity or lack of a safety net that is in demand.

6 Trier mentions with enthusiasm that Jean-Luc Godard praised The Idiots as "great" (Information, 17 July, 1998).

7 In this film, Trierís masks spread across the entire spectrum in the production process. He is the author of the manuscript, (uncredited) director, camera man, interviewer in the film of his actorsí characters outside and after the completion of the film, diarist, the person interviewed in the daily press, and (not least) the author of the dogma concept. Like Kierkegaard, what Trier achieves with his "pseudonymity or polynymity" (Hong I, 625), is that the viewers do not (only) understand his statements ironically. Each of them must be taken at face value. Everyone is thus free to interpret at discretion and according to oneís own conviction. The brilliant thing about it is that oneís "own conviction" will always be made plain in each interpretation.

8 The concept of "bathos" (Greek for depth) was introduced as early as 1727 by Alexander Pope as a rhetorical figure for "true modern poetry," which should consciously create an anti-climax in the pathetic striving toward the sublime.

9 Cp. my article "Spiritus Sanctus. Lidelse og Passion i Breaking the Waves," Æstetikstudier V: Patos?, ed. Niels Lehmann and Birgit Eriksson, 1998.

10 "This is going to sound pathetic, but somehow making film Ė yes, it was Dreyer who said that it was his only true passion Ė is a part of my existence." (Information, July 17, 1998).

11 Cp. among others Gothic Transmutations of Horror in Late Twentieth Century Art. Ed. Christoph Grünenberg (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997).

12 Dreyer already showed that this can be thematized with his film Vampyr. Cp. my reading of Roland Barthesís reading of this film in "Trompe líoeil og åndelige automater," Æstetikstudier VII. Aarhus, 2000.

13 The Logic of Sense (London: Columbia University Press, 1990).

14 Bo Green Jensen writes in Weekendavisen: "The Idiots provokes hearty laughter and occasionally causes the smile to stiffen in the viewerís reaction to his own reaction. It interweaves the embarrasing on more than the immediate levels. The film plays with each audience of interpreters crassly and with gusto, greatly emphasizing Trierís talents as a diabolical humorist."

15 In the documentary De ydmygede, Trier picks up the thread and uses the expression with just as much wonder in his voice as Jeppe.

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