The Fever
Carlo Gabriel Nero, director
HBO Home Video, 2007
DVD; $26.98

IN A FAMOUS pub scene in D. A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary film Dont Look Back, the young Bob Dylan tells a Time reporter what his magazine would look like if it were really interested in the truth: “a plain picture of a tramp vomiting into the sewer . . . and next door, Mr. Rockefeller.”

Like many of us, consciously or unconsciously, Mr. Rockefeller and Time wanted to obscure a situation that Dylan and, more recently, Wallace Shawn have sought to illuminate. The thesis of The Fever—a 2004 film now available on DVD, adapted by Shawn and director Carlo Gabriel Nero from Shawn’s stage play—is that a person is more truly defined by politico-economic class than by inner experience. Scratching and screaming, but driven to the discovery by her own curiosity and conscience, the protagonist realizes at last that the interiority she has always so deeply prized is . . . a dodge. Her views are no better than bourgeois apologies of her friends, which, she comes to realize, are completely interchangeable; our beliefs reflect our station in society. More fundamental than her love of Beethoven and Matisse is the fact that she is a well-to-do Englishwoman desperately dependent on the disenfranchisement of hordes of the poor, both at present and in the past—on their oppression, abuse, rape, torture, and slaughter.

There is a paradox at the center of this view, in that the film itself represents an inner journey, a devastating introspection. Shawn, at one point, revived his play as a monologue, the reflections of someone “stuck in a third-world hotel room,” and the movie retains this feel. A lot of footage is devoted to close-ups of Vanessa Redgrave against a blank mauve screen. Occasional sequences of animated line drawings in warm pastels, rapid jump cuts, as in a flip picture book, and melodramatic comic-strip staging reinforce the sense of interiority, twilight tones of subjectivity over everything. Indeed, the whole film unfolds as a flashback, events remembered and considered by the protagonist as she vomits and writhes on the bathroom floor.

How did she get here? A series of coincidences shakes her, a stylish older woman, from the comfort of her plush office job, fancy apartment, and high-cultural pastimes. First, she becomes aware of ubiquitous offhand remarks, both by friends and by strangers, involving blanket condemnations of the rich as social pariahs. “I don’t give a fuck if they’re nice or not,” says a tippler at an art show, because the actual function of the rich in society is cruel and destructive. Someone anonymously leaves a copy of Karl Marx’s Capital at the woman’s doorstep, and she reads all about “the fetishism of commodities,” a concept that she rightly experiences as a challenge to her own way of life.

We see the pleasure she takes in buying fancy stockings and in surrounding herself with nice things, things she deserves to have, she believes, because she can afford them. We see her panic when deprived of a small but expected item—her morning coffee. In dreams and in remembrance, Christmas presents become a symbol of the false consciousness that separates the products of labor from the circumstances of their production. As Marx showed, it is as if a social relation existed between money and commodities instead of between human beings; money, rather than human need, determines what will be produced by whom—and at what human cost. When, in a dream, the protagonist sees through the curtain of capitalist ideology to the suffering on the other side of the dolls in pretty paper, she shrieks to her astonished dream family that although she loves them, she can no longer bear to give them presents.

A stranger at a bus stop gives the woman a medallion earring from an unnamed Eastern European nation where a socialist revolution has recently taken place. The medallion is inscribed: “The people united cannot be defeated.” By chance, she then shares a cab with an expatriate of that nation (who can now return). He exhorts her to visit, and she does so. (The stranger at the bus stop is played by Redgrave’s daughter, Joely Richardson, and Nero, the film’s director, is Redgrave’s son.)

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Vanessa Redgrave in The Fever

The socialist paradise we are then shown strongly reminded me of revolutionary Cuba as it was portrayed by sympathetic visitors I met in the late 1960s. (Happy Cubans in harmonious living arrangements were working hard against great odds, but with universal literacy, health care, and so forth.) Here, over ice cream sundaes, a socially conscious reporter, played by Michael Moore, persuades the protagonist to visit, for contrast, one of the neighboring fascist states. There she sees miserable poverty, destitution, oppression, death squads, and brutal police, alongside protected areas of luxury and wealth. (Only here, and in a sequence near the end in which she debates her serene, beatific, better self, is this otherwise absorbing film tainted with a didactic banality that even superior acting cannot redeem.)

While staying at a high-class hotel in the fascist country, the woman becomes feverish. Now she experiences a dark night of the soul, during which she must defend the sanctity of her inner life against her demons, who want to define her by her (politico-economic) history.

The woman’s vision of the world according to Marx—the real world where, to use Allen Ginsberg’s phrase, you see what’s “at the end of everybody’s fork”—terrifies her, but isn’t it the same as Siddhartha’s legendary rose-apple tree vision? As a child, sitting under a rose-apple tree, so the story goes, he became aware of all the creatures being “smashed up” (to use a favorite Noam Chomsky phrase) under the hooves of his father’s parading animals—the interdependence of joys and sorrows. It could just as well have been the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Why did the same vision have one effect on Siddhartha (transcendent bliss), another on Karl Marx (revolutionary ardor), and on our protagonist, quite another (crushing guilt)?

Simple, say the demons: because of their class outlook. Siddhartha was a patrician, Marx identified with the working class, and our protagonist is a bourgeoise (albeit a bourgeoise in crisis).

IN AN ARTICLE for Turning Wheel (Summer 1993: “Why Buddhists Should Read Marx”),Tricycle editor-at-large Andrew Cooper pointed out that the Zen meal chant is fundamentally in harmony with Marx’s account of the secret of commodities in capitalist societies. We are enjoined to remember the work—read, misery—that feeds us. Cooper writes: “Misery inheres in the [capitalist] production system, and all the best intentions in the world cannot change that.”

The conflict of inner and outer realities is, of course, quite a live issue for Buddhist practitioners. The conscience that drives us inward also pricks us for abandoning everything outside. Sometimes it comes up as an obstruction to meditation, distracting thoughts about duties and responsibilities outside the meditation hall, when not to respond to the call appears to be a virtuous act! On the storied night under the Bo tree, at the end of which the Buddha enters enlightenment, one of the tempter Mara’s challenges to the Buddha-to-be is “What right do you have to become enlightened?” In his famous response, Siddhartha calls upon the earth as witness, by touching it. It is everywhere soaked with his blood: his suffering is one with the world’s.

Many of our parents or children or friends, not to mention enemies—our Maras—have accused us of self-indulgence or irresponsibility for our navel-gazing. That we are concerned about the accusation is proved by the existence of so many aphorisms and anecdotes that seem designed to neutralize it. While I was at the Rochester Zen Center, people would routinely insist that a Rohatsu sesshin, for example—a sleepless, leg-torching, shoulder-bruising (the Zen stick), mind-wracking (koan practice), heart-wrenching week of sitting—was the hardest thing a human being could endure, bar nothing: boot camp, gulag, trench war, shipwreck, grinding poverty, torture table, whatever. A ridiculous claim, but such was our zealotry. Often, the teacher, Philip Kapleau Roshi, would cite the example of the solitary monk in a mountain cave, who, Roshi said, was vitally helping the world just by the power of his meditation.

Then there’s the Christian excuse, the one that is put in Jesus’s mouth in Matthew 26:11—“For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.” Bourgeois excuses, all of them. After seeing The Fever, I am inclined to confess that we Zennies were an economically privileged group, and whatever emptiness we aspired to in the mind was nullified by the plenty in our pockets.

It’s interesting to contrast the perspective of The Fever with that of My Dinner with André,an earlier Shawn composition (with André Gregory). There, the challenge is not the material, politico-economic reality but a neglected spiritual reality. To André Gregory’s urgent Grotowskian call to transcendence, Shawn’s character (he pretty much plays himself inDinner) responds with a celebration of the everyday, of simple comforts and quotidian acts—and, in a way, he wins the argument. Dinner ends with Wally (Shawn) going home to his Debbie, eager to tell her all about the fun he had talking with André. By contrast, the protagonist of The Fever decisively loses the argument. She—and we—are pronounced guilty of complicity in the suffering of the world’s poor, and there will be no deferral, no suspended sentence, no mercy, no excuse. And so far as we know, no remedy, either. It is the nightmare of our condition. There is, however, struggle, in countless forms, and with that comes some measure of hope, no longer for the remedy of a great revolution but for small victories: hope tempered by anguish.

Of course, there is a Christian’s remedy, the secret of passing through the eye of the needle, to “go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21), but what are we to make of the postscript: “and come and follow me”? From the perspective of The Fever, that is another evasion—an “opium,” Marx called it. In an ambiguous scene, whether intentionally so or not, the protagonist attends a church service in the evil country and hears a preacher whom she thinks must be describing horrible atrocities—but a worshipper (played by Angelina Jolie) translates for her: The sermon is an exhortation to forgiveness. That worshipper, later the woman’s confidante, turns out to be a gun-toting revolutionary.

We teeter on a ridgepole. Cross your legs and lower your eyes: The truth is certainly within. Then stand up and open them: You are what you see, your money and its history. Deny one side of this dilemma and you are an enemy of the people; ignore the other, and you are your own enemy.

Defending the Beatniks from accusations of navel-gazing social irresponsibility, Jack Kerouac protested, “Who wouldn’t help a dying man on an empty road?” That may sound childish, but I believe that no one could have given a deeper or more decisive answer. That is, our essential humanity must save us—and nothing else can. There are, however, two crucial provisos: (1) we have to clear the channel to our own humanity; and (2) we have to see those dying people on that empty road.

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