(ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 4 No. 11, April 2000



Haim Callev

The Stream of Consciousness: A Reply to Debaise






Didier Debaise

The Mechanisms of Thought: A Jamesian Point of View on Resnais

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 10, April 2000


I am grateful to Didier Debaise for his insightful review. His grasp of my ideas in _The Stream of Consciousness in the Films of Alain Resnais_ is perfect. I appreciate his emphasis of the Jamesian vision of the mechanisms of thought. Culture owes to James the term 'Stream of Consciousness'. He first coined it in 1890 in his book _The Principles of Psychology_. [1] However, one must remember that James was a psychologist; he was trying to describe what he considered to be as a factual phenomenon in the operation of the human mind. The adaptation of the term to the arts, on the other hand, is metaphorical. As Robert Humphrey justly points out, it refers first of all to a literary technique in the novels of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner and others. [2] My adaptation of the term to cinema is as metaphorical as it is to the novel. It refers to cinematic techniques designed to simulate, by aesthetic means, the illusion of witnessing the operation of the minds of fictional characters. It has no pretension to describe psychological facts, just to produce an illusion of thought mechanisms, by using inherent powers of cinematic expression.


Debaise understands that my book avoids 'psychologism'. His articulation of some essential concepts of the book is often illuminating. I chose one example of such clarity as an opportunity to elaborate on the book's major theoretical goal. In his articulation of a pivotal idea of the book, Debaise writes:


'At the level of images, fluxes of consciousness are invisible, absent to the picture; and at the level of sounds it is impossible to make a narration of these states of consciousness. The whole question is, therefore, to know how this apprehension is possible; which kind of organization of pictures and sounds is necessary to make us feel the experience of a stream of consciousness, being clear that a direct and immediate apprehension by the image or by the sound is impossible.'


This is a concise and precise description of the problem that the film medium faces when trying to penetrate beyond the characters' surface behavior, and reach inner dimensions of their existence; it is an epitome of the paradox concerning a cinematic simulation of characters' thoughts (fantasies, memories, logical syllogisms, speculations, imagination, dreams) as they flash through their minds. Cinematic representation of thought goes 'against the grain' of the concrete raw material of the medium and against its temporal fleeting nature. Yet, such representation is imperative for film in order to reach the invisible drama that takes place within the individual consciousness, to be as effective in fleshing it out on the screen as it is in external action genres, developed up to perfection by the first centenary of its existence.


Not that the intention to represent characters' thoughts was not there all the time. Most telling perhaps is Eisenstein's enthusiastic belief in the potentialities of film to show, what he calls, the 'race of thoughts'. In his meeting with the *prophet* of 'Stream of Consciousness', James Joyce, he discussed with him the possibility of creating in film 'an inner film monologue with a far broader scope than is afforded by literature'. [3] Writing about his proposal to Paramount for the filming of Dreiser's _An American Tragedy_, Eisenstein says:


'The camera had to penetrate *inside* Clyde . . . Aurally and visually must be set down the feverish 'race of thoughts', intermittently with the outer actuality . . . reconstructing all the phases and specifics of the course of thought . . . with zigzags of aimless shapes, whirling along with these in synchronization. Then racing visual images over complete silence. Then linked with polyphonic sounds. Then polyphonic images. Then both at once.' [4]


Eisenstein's proposal was rejected, and thus a golden opportunity to explore the potentialities and limits of a cinematic representation of stream of consciousness was missed.


The cinematic medium presents inherent potentialities for the representation of mental processes. The non-verbal pre-speech level of thought can find its equivalent in the primary non-cognitive nature of cinematic images and sounds. Instantaneous transitions between shots can follow the most whimsical connections between images and entire spatial audio-visual configurations, thus simulating free association. Varying rhythms of exchange between images can be intermittently used to represent mental processes and the external world. Some of the best achievements of Bergman, Bunuel, Fellini, Polanski, Resnais -- to mention just a few leading filmmakers -- are in films in which an illusion of watching the characters' mental functioning as it occurs in the fictional 'here and now' on the screen, is created.


However, all these are just beginnings. The film medium is still not at its best in simulating characters' thoughts. There is a notable deficiency in effective, well established, and *accessible to the audience*, expressive tools to facilitate an adequate representation of the characters' mental functioning. This awareness, coupled with an awareness of the paramount need for the medium to transcend its entrapment in exterior action by fleshing out the characters' interior life, led me to a close examination of the most committed practitioner of stream of consciousness in the cinema, Alain Resnais. I found three distinctive strategies applied in his films: 1, The Flash of Thought; 2, Mental Structuring; and 3, Mental Fluidity. In all three strategies the illusion of witnessing the actual occurrence of mental processes is generated purely through narrative and cinematic structures. Not only the content of the thoughts, but also the process of their evocation by the mind, their triggering by the exterior world, and their integration in an 'anchoring reality', is depicted. Witnessing the process of a character's mental functioning leads to an intimacy with his enigmatic idiosyncrasies. This privileged acquaintance between character and spectator (which other characters in the film do not share) carries added values of dramatic irony, empathy and a deeper penetration into the character's inner life.


Resnais's achievements in representing mental processes can be looked into as an indication of the expressive potentialities of the film medium to cope with such representation. However, one must keep in mind Resnais's own enlightening awareness that his achievements are only rudimentary: 'an attempt, still very rough and very primitive, to approach the complexity of thought and its mechanism . . . this is merely a small step forward with reference to what one should be able to accomplish some day'. [5] And indeed, in view of the inherent potentiality of film as a medium in simulating mental processes, I believe that further steps in the cinematic representation of 'Stream of Consciousness' are on their way.


Tel-Aviv University, Israel





1. William James, _The Principles of Psychology_, Volume 1 (New York: Henry Holt, 1890), p. 239.


2. Robert Humphrey, _Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel_ (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1955), p. 5.


3. Goats Warner, 'James Joyce and Sergei Eisenstein', trans. Erik Gunnemark, _James Joyce Quarterly_, vol. 27, Spring 1990, pp. 491-507.


4. Sergei Eisenstein, _Film Form_ (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1949), pp. 103-105.


5. Resnais's words in an interview with Andre S. Labarthe and Jacques Rivette, _Cahiers du Cinema _, vol. 21 no. 123, September 1961, p. 6.




Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000


Haim Callev, 'The Stream of Consciousness: A Reply to Debaise', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 11, April 2000 <>.




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