Who will deliver us from the unexpected restoration of the reign of beauty and its disreputable ideology, aesthetic philosophy?footnote1 In a society in which the near-total commodification of the world, linked with the already looming world market, can be glimpsed, beauty is no longer a momentary relief from ‘interest’ (Kant’s word for business and its rationale) but rather the law of the land. For the existential support of universal commodification, even when we try, as so many have done, to grasp it psychologically, was aestheticization always. One may see it as an addiction, halfway between drugs or pornography and the mania of the pathological collector; but then the only, rather pitiful treatment turns out to be that ‘diet cure of images’ called for by Baudrillard—or in Susan Sontag’s formulation, an ‘ecology’ of images.footnote2 An outright ban on advertising might be more effective, acknowledging the role that images and the visual as such play in the epidemic (witness Debord’s attack on the unreality propagated by the ‘spectacle’, which he seems to have conflated with narrative itself).

However, to isolate that particular symptom which is the image is to miss the fundamental toxin of beauty as such. ‘Beauty is evil, Yeats’, Pound quotes a fin de siècle contemporary as warning; and it is certain that it presents a trap which is in fact a double-bind. Maurice Blanchot, a specialist in the paradoxes which those of us in Hegelo-Marxian circles call contradictions, once observed that the problem with Pascal’s anguish was that it was expressed too eloquently; the beauty of its language neutralized all suffering and pain and turned them into aesthetic content.footnote3 Much of modern art and literature, seeking catharsis in its production, found itself wrestling with this intractable dilemma. Meanwhile, on the level of present-day consumerism, it is perception itself that is infected to the core: to appreciate the sheer appearance of the commodity is already to have been caught up in its circuits. This is not an aesthetic problem; it is that of the existence of aesthetics as such; and if the problem needs to be situated, it would surely be better to identify it as a political one, for the commitment to commodity society is necessarily the abandonment of the project to replace it with something else. Lenin’s well-known attitude towards Beethoven (‘he makes you caress the enemy rather than . . . bite him!’) is paradigmatic of the way in which, traditionally, politics interrupted the aesthetic and antagonized the aesthetes (without for all that discovering any satisfactory formula for political art, surely in this context a contradiction in terms).footnote4

This is not to deny that in a few modern situations—that of the fin de siècle, for example—beauty has been able to function as a negative and critical force. That is the sense in which Godard’s deployment of extraordinarily glossy images was always an ingenious modification of this form-problem, offering the loathsome in a sensually seductive and mesmerizing appearance that blew all the circuits. But as long ago as 1827, in the ‘Preface to Cromwell’, Victor Hugo’s subversive attack on beauty could only be theorized in terms of yet another aesthetic—the grotesque, as Quasimodo so alluringly incarnated it, thereby leaving us with yet another version of Blanchot’s paradox.

Yet postmodernity—the very name for the hegemony of the commodity as it perpetuates itself in the form of a thoroughgoing and inescapable aestheticization of daily life—has known the presence of a few inexplicable meteorites, whether the last convulsions of a virtually extinct modernism or shudders reaching us from some inconceivable future; and these objects seem to resist the laws of our present-day consumerist world. We walk around them cautiously, inspecting their unintelligibility, regretting their damage to the landscape or attempting to read them as omens or warnings, punishments or glimpses of the unknown. These objects are not sublime, for however forbidding and monstrous they are, we fail to assimilate them aesthetically. Indeed, they are not aesthetically accessible at all, and this only heightens their interest, and our own malaise.

Such are Aleksei Gherman’s last two films, Khrustalyov, My Car! (Khrustalyov, mashinu!, 1998) and Hard to Be a God (Trudno byt bogom, 2013). Perhaps the philosopher Oleg Aronson has best articulated the scandal of the former work, which resists all aesthetic categories and reaches the limits of the tolerable.footnote5 Neither good nor bad, these films simply exist, defying our assimilation, let alone our appreciation. Nor do they fascinate in their repulsion: our reception is paralysed by them, as if by those contraptions that held Lincoln’s head immobile for ten minutes while Matthew Brady’s camera internalized his face; or that deadly television sequence by which David Foster Wallace’s characters in Infinite Jest are transfixed and then extinguished. But Gherman’s films are not dystopias either, however much we might be tempted by that popular classification. Today, indeed, as a fundamental genre of the postmodern, dystopia, far from warning of apocalypse, has aestheticized it and transformed it into an object of consumption and satisfaction.

Khrustalyov, My Car! has its external, historical referent in the infamous Doctors’ Plot of 1952–53, through which the aged Stalin promised himself some properly Soviet ‘final solution’ to the Jewish question; the meaning of the title, indeed, only becomes clear when we discover that the film also portrays Stalin’s death, and Beria’s speechlessness—his only words, on viewing the remains, consisting in the call for his limousine. Can we not then simply consign this work, along with its no less repulsive sequel, to some belated paroxysm of anti-Stalinism (thereby translating it back into a known quantity)? My sense is that expressions of this intensity, like particular types of hatred, are life choices that, as in certain evocations of the Holocaust, go well beyond the estimable task of perpetuating a memory; they will themselves into a delirium of obsession that poisons existence itself, like that Bergman character in Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1963), brooding inexplicably on ‘the yellow peril’ in his peaceful Arctic village. Such obsessions are, to be sure, immediately available for appropriation and use by state power; but their intensity is also existentially frightening: ‘sad passions’ that threaten other people and the world itself, however justifiable they may be by the ‘facts’ as such.

Perhaps, indeed, they represent a rage at the termination of the provincial respite of My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Moy drug Ivan Lapshin, 1984), Gherman’s genuinely aesthetic masterpiece, which tells a sad story about the eponymous hero, a policeman in the lull between the end of the collectivization drive of 1928–33 and the onset of the purge trials a few years later, in 1936. But it is as though Khrustalyov were played out in an altogether different medium from the earlier film. Nor can one even tell its story in any comparable way. We know this because the more ambitious reviews have tried to do so, focusing on the ‘hero’, a wealthy and powerful Jewish doctor arrested by the secret police and humiliated, beaten and even sexually violated, up to the moment they suddenly receive a call to return to Moscow, where he is already implicitly rehabilitated by an unsuccessful mission to revive the dying Stalin. But no one sitting through this three-hour film is likely to remember these events in that form—or perhaps in any other.