Memory Lapse

In his Sidecar essay ‘Eros After Covid’, Alex Colston asks what psychoanalysis can teach us about living in the wake of a plague year, drawing on Beyond the Pleasure Principle to suggest how we might restimulate our desire after a period in which time itself has seemingly stopped. ‘Freud’s schema for mourning such an experience is counterintuitive’, writes Colston, ‘if not outright scandalous, because it depends on what we might consider a social vice: narcissism.’ It is only through recovering our ‘narcissistic satisfactions’ that we can overcome the loss of time, plus the friends and relatives that may have passed with it. After a prolonged stasis in which various malformations of the psyche have been left to fester, narcissism is the only route back to Eros – ‘that troublemaker that sends us into the world to bind new associations’.

Yet if the basic satisfactions of existing are the cure for melancholia, self-love can also carry side-effects. Colston notes that when Freud ‘invokes the timeless imperative to “love thy neighbour as thyself”, he invites an obvious Freudian rejoinder: ‘that we hardly know ourselves, and that to reduce another person to the poorly taken measure of your own self is likely to miss the other person entirely.’ Narcissism can only be the precondition for binding new associations once it accepts a certain level of ignorance about its object. You can only know – let alone love – your neighbour when you admit that you don’t know yourself. Fortunately, given the psychic uncertainty engendered by the long 2020, this is an admission that more people are now willing to make.

Colston’s paradox – in which disconnection from oneself facilitates connection with others – is likely to be a prominent feature of post-lockdown life. It is also the premise of a recent film about pandemics, mourning and time lapses by the Greek director Christos Nikou. Born in 1984, Nikou studied cinema in Athens before landing a job as an assistant to Yorgos Lanthimos, collaborating with him on his breakthrough drama Dogtooth (2009). His directorial debut, Km (2012), was a ten-minute Greek New Wave experiment, capturing a slow, strained conversation between a couple who sit in the front of a stationary car while blood inexplicably appears on their bodies. The short film’s most unsettling feature was its scrambled chronology (the halting dialogue is followed by a still image of a car crash, then a shot of the couple driving down a country road); so it seems appropriate that Nikou’s first full-length work, Apples, should be strangely premonitory. Though it was released on the festival circuit in autumn 2020, and screened in UK cinemas last month, Apples was shot at the beginning of 2019, and can therefore be added to the list of cultural artefacts that unwittingly anticipated Covid (Soderbergh’s Contagion, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Sweeney-Baird’s The End of Men, among many others).

Apples is set in Athens during the early days of a pandemic in which the infected find that their memory has been suddenly and permanently erased. Unable to recall their own names, they experience an extreme version of the self-dislocation Colston describes – losing not just a lockdown year but an entire lifetime. Some of them are re-adopted by their families, but others are forced to enrol in a state-run ‘New Identity Programme’. They are given an apartment, a cash allowance, and a cassette player on which to listen to the instructions of their supervisors – a team of doctors who monitor the amnesiacs’ progress with sinister intensity. The chief physician tells them, first, how to revive their narcissistic satisfactions. A number of solitary activities must be performed to reaffirm the value of living: riding a bike, hiking in the countryside, going to the cinema. Then, once those experiences have congealed into something like an ego, the patients are enjoined to interact with others: attending parties, visiting strip clubs and finding candidates for one-night-stands. They are loaned a polaroid camera with which to capture each of these tasks, the photos slotted into an album that is regularly inspected by the New Identity officials.

At times the patients’ participation in the programme appears no more than dutiful: one scene shows a string of people filing out of a horror film and photographing themselves standing vacantly beside the movie poster. This drudgery is reflected in Apples’ washed-out palette, which moves between the dust-grey streets of the Greek capital and the drab interiors of the New Identity apartments, avoiding the typical shots of classical ruins – as if to imply that the city itself has lost its memory. But there is also something compulsive about the patients’ need to fulfil the next challenge, complete the next mission: as if they are moving up the levels of a video game. With the slate wiped clean by the pandemic, the impulse to accumulate new experiences – layering one on top of the other until they produce a subjectivity – acquires an irresistible appeal. Eros, ‘the troublemaker’, responds to the loss of self-knowledge by seeking out novel intensities, cathecting any object it sets eyes on. Aris, the film’s protagonist, played by a severe and remote Aris Servetalis (best-known for his prizewinning performance in Babis Makridis’s 2012 comedy L), is drawn to this process of self-reinvention following the death of his wife. Although he escaped the virus, his grief leads him to envy those who have forgotten the past and rebuilt an identity ex nihilo. So one evening he boards a public bus, pretends to fall asleep and, upon reaching the final stop, tells the driver that he doesn’t know where he lives. He is taken to the hospital, where he deliberately fails a series of memory tests and gains a spot on the programme.

Yet, having outsourced his mourning to the medical agency, the widower gradually learns that their directives are not enough to recompose a selfhood. As he fills his photo album, the object comes to symbolize the disjointed model of ‘experience’ that the New Identity doctors promote: each moment is frozen in time, isolated on a different page, with nothing to thread them together. Once Aris has progressed to an advanced stage of the course, he is told by his physician that the tasks will now ‘get more complicated’. He is instructed to find a terminal patient in a hospital, visit them daily, attend their funeral, and temporarily move in with the bereaved family. He must also cause a car accident and photograph himself beside the wreckage. Emotional complexity becomes a stand-in for narrative cohesion. The affects he is prescribed grow increasingly potent and surreal – as Eros searches for fresh attachments to meet its infinite demands – but they do not form any kind of unity. Nor do they allow him to develop meaningful relationships, as the simple injunction to absorb experience leaves little room for empathy or reciprocity. (Aris’s brief romance with the female lead, Anna, played by Sofia Georgovassili, is jeopardized for this reason.) The two words of the programme’s title thus begin to tug against each other, as the ceaseless drive for novelty undermines the formation of identity. Sensing this limitation, the protagonist asks his doctors when they will release him. They reply that it will take ‘as long as it takes’. Without a narrative arc, the story of the libido becomes formless – and endless.

What Apples shows us, then, is a variant of the pandemic recovery sequence articulated by Colston: from lack of self-knowledge, to benign narcissism, to Erotic reattachment to the world. Yet the film also demonstrates that this may not be enough to establish what Alasdair McIntyre would call a narrative conception of the self – one which can complete the work of mourning by weaving the traumas of the past into the fabric of the present. When Aris is struggling to process the loss of his wife, this alienated condition does not prompt him to reflect upon his past (as psychoanalysis would advocate). Instead, he eradicates it entirely – going so far as to give up eating apples because he is told that they are ‘good for your memory’.

The upshot of this wilful forgetting is both a fragmentation of experience and a loss of agency. Whereas Colston asserts that narcissism must ultimately give way to an ‘ethics of care’ and ‘the growth of affective ties between people’, by the end of Apples, Aris’s main point of contact is with the doctors who direct his activities. In this alternate reality, a paternalist Greek state freed from Troika fiscal bondage gives generous housing entitlements and welfare payments to the amnesia victims. But such vertical ties between patients and their patrons are a weak substitute for the lateral ties which Colston envisions. Apples depicts a post-pandemic social settlement that is all too probable, in which a top-down ‘ethic of care’ supplants the different forms of community solidarity that emerged in the midst of the crisis.

Though it is politically resonant, at times this portrait of an affect-free society creates aesthetic problems for Nikou, who tries to offset the expressionless acting with a saccharine soundtrack from which his mentor Lanthimos would undoubtedly recoil. The camerawork, too, strives to break down Aris’s icy demeanour through constant closeups with a shallow depth of field, tempting us to search his features for a sign of what he’s feeling. Such formal tricks do not come off. And yet, despite Apples’ dystopian forecast, there are two glistening moments when Aris rejects both the foreclosure of the past and the flattening of interpersonal relations. The first is when he visits a bar with Anna and hears Chubby Checker’s ‘Let’s Twist Again’ playing over the sound system. We watch him edge towards the centre of the room and sway tentatively to the music. Then, within the space of a minute, he is dancing as fluently as Checker himself, his rigid and impassive manner radically transformed. This is not just a throwback to a late-fifties cultural meme; it is also a recurrence of something from Aris’s earlier life that he had tried to bury – a capacity that is reactivated by an affective experience which (unlike those imposed by the doctors) was not obligatory or pre-planned. When Aris steps outside the confines of the photo album, he creates this powerful interchange between past and present. He also makes an instant connection with his fellow dancers, as if there is a direct line between recovering his former self and learning to identify with others.

The second moment in which Aris shatters the logic of the New Identity Programme comes at the end of the film, when – on his doctor’s orders – he is feeding soup to a dying man in a hospital bed. The man asks whether Aris is married, and the latter admits, for the first time, that his wife has recently died. The confession seems totally involuntary, and the protagonist is so struck by it that he falls silent. He then returns home to the flat which he had previously abandoned, leaving his cassette player behind. The closing scene fades out while he refamiliarizes himself with this emblem of his past. If the bar episode showed the return of a repressed instinct which precipitated (as Colston would put it) ‘the growth of affective ties between people’, here the causality is reversed: Aris’s empathy with the old man triggers the sudden re-emergence of something bygone. An affective bond brings back what’s been forgotten. In both cases, temporal fragmentation and social atomization are surmounted in the same stroke. It is, Nikou suggests, somehow impossible to sustain a presentist existence while forging strong intersubjective attachments. The ‘community of feeling’, which Freud proposed as an antidote to the collective trauma of world wars and Spanish flu, is co-dependent on narratives which link now to then. After Covid we will bind new associations. But these will be fleeting, shallow, compulsive, if Eros is amnesiac.

Read on: Emma Fajgenbaum, ‘Cinema as Disquiet’, NLR 116/117.