occultural studies column

Occultural Studies 2.0: Passionate Divas

By Eugene Thacker, 12 January 2011
Image: Still from Nino Oxilia's Rapsodia Satanica (1917)

Doomed divas, the stars of Italian silent cinema, bring the sacrificial passions of the mystic down to earth, producing new and radical effects - writes Eugene Thacker

I begin with the closing scene from the 1917 film Rapsodia Satanica (Satanic Rhapsody), directed by Nino Oxilia. In it, a demon appears to the aged Countess Alba D'Oltravita, played by silent film diva Lyda Borelli. The demon makes her an offer: you will have eternal youth and beauty, but in return you will forever be unable to love. The Countess accepts this Faustian bargain - beauty for love - and what ensues in the film is a series of wonderfully torrid, impassioned, and ultimately tragic love affairs, as the young Countess, now the impresario of the Castle of Illusion, struggles to confront her life as a horror vacui. In the final scenes of the film, the Countess (as if having come to the realisation that love is indeed colder than death), finds herself inside a room littered with roses. From there she enters a room of mirrors, where she finds herself lost amid shrouds and dim lights. From this play of images she slowly wanders outside into a courtyard, with the night breeze blowing her shroud over her face. She continues to wander beyond the courtyard and into the dark forest ahead. With only her silhouette visible, we see her gradually disappear into the embrace of an enigmatic and shadowy figure.

The dense symbolism of films like Satanic Rhapsody is at once classical and modern. The play of rose and mirror is juxtaposed with the modernist dilemma of nature (outdoor gardens, forests, and lakes) versus artifice (Art Nouveau interiors and ornamented design). And these, of course, turn back on the dilemma of gender, passion and subjectivity in the era of industrial factories, war and Futurism. During this period, the Italian silent film brought together elements of culture that not only helped to shape modern film genres, but more importantly prompted reflection about the spiritual and the material. Films such as L'Inferno (1911; an adaptation of Dante) and Maciste all'inferno (1924) outlined the contours of the horror film, with their struggles between good and evil, and fantastic voyages to the underworld. Other films, such as Assunta Spina (1915), Malombra (1917), and Ma l'Amor Mio non Muore (1913; Everlasting Love) did the same for melodrama and romance, placing strong, often defiant, female characters within the turbulent confines of European modernity.

Angela Dalle Vacche's book Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema is a wonderful account of this period and these dilemmas. But my reason for writing about it here has less to do with film studies, gender politics or modernism than with the astounding performances in these films.i We know the basic plots of many of them - complex, conflicted characters drawn into sordid love affairs that obviously are not going to work out, resulting in unrequited love, melancholy, madness or death. This is the birth of melodrama in film. And with these films comes a host of issues particular to the time and place of their production - the modern woman, the city and the factory, new forms of class struggle and so on. But what still amazes me today are the scenes in nearly every diva film, in which the main female character - played by divas such as Francesca Bertini, Pina Menichelli, and Lyda Borelli - has a cataclysmic revelation about the essentially tragic nature of her love, and possibly all love, insofar as it is intimately related to loss and death. These revelations far surpass the revelation of the first flowerings of love. They are affective realisations, and their main manifestation is in and through the flesh. The whole body is wracked with convulsions of emotional terror, the eyes bug out transfixed on a point far away in space, people around one don't know how to react, one's hair comes undone, and one's clothes are formless and dishevelled (make-up is still intact but that's only because it heightens the emotional effect).

Image: Still from Nino Oxilia's Rapsodia Satanica (1917)

These sorts of scenes are so bizarre that to reduce them to psychoanalysis (e.g. hysterical fits) seems too tame; really they evoke pre-modern accounts of demonic possession or its exact inverse, mystical ecstasy. What is interesting about the diva films is their undercurrent of terror and tragedy - a Gothic love that exclaims, as the heroine of a certain film does, ‘only in death can we truly belong to one another.' Or, as the characters in another diva film state, ‘in the graveyard of the soul, love will bloom.' I would even say that these films are exemplary of a modernist secular discourse surrounding mysticism and the forms of its mediation. But there's a difference from the traditional accounts of the mystical itinerary - the primary way in which the diva film interrogates mystical experience is not via prayer, but via passion.

Passion is strange. On the one hand, we are accustomed to the romantic notion of passion as tied up with a range of emotional and psychological states that are, for better or worse, peculiarly human states. One may have a passion for music or film, one may have feelings of passion for another person, and there are of course crimes of passion. But philosophers tell us again and again that passions are neither within our control, nor are they about us as human beings living out our human natures. Descartes, for example, wrote a treatise known as The Passions of the Soul (Les passions de l'âme, c. 1649), in which he emphasised the connection between passions in the baser, more mechanistic sense (as with the instinctual drives of animals), and passions as they touch the human spirit, making the subject not only aware of his or her passions, but moving them to action based on them. The discourse on passions during the Enlightenment would take this further, as shown in the works of Kant, Burke and Adam Smith on the passions. There is an economy of passions intimately tied to moral and ethical discourse, an economy that ranges from empathy to antipathy.

Image: One of Lyda Borelli's moments of cataclysmic revelation

But it is Spinoza who gives us what is perhaps the strangest and, in a way, most uncompromisingly materialist view of passion. Passion is at once the most extreme form of human expression, and yet the most unhuman, anonymous and alien thing. In Spinoza's metaphysics, passions are a material and energetic property of the world, and while we human beings may have an acute awareness of passions acting in and through us, there is no reason to think that passions begin or end with the human subject. The key to understanding passions, for Spinoza, lies in their ‘passive' quality. Passions have a strange anonymity to them; they appear to come from without, invading and possessing the self until we mistake the effect for the cause. Anterior to what we feel, to the feelings that we possess and that are our feelings, there is the background flux of affecting and being affected (the ‘modes'), and ultimately of a single continuum coursing through the world (‘substance'). In Spinoza's world, we seem to be effects of a cause that we as human beings can neither intuit nor comprehend.

This idea of ‘unhuman passion' is at the centre of early cinema, particularly those films that deal with passion in the genres of horror and melodrama. Dalle Vacche's book provides a case study for the latter genre. She focuses on the figure of the diva in early Italian film - actresses who portray female characters who at once refuse the normative roles placed before them (both cinematic and social), while also choosing to embrace the passions that possess them. The diva is, without a doubt, a highly romanticised figure in the history of film, often represented as a strong female character who loves defiantly and uncompromisingly. Because of this, the roles played by silent film divas such as Lyda Borelli are often tragic roles - in many instances, love unavoidably overlaps with death.

However, the point is not simply about unrequited love, illicit affairs or the allures of the femme fatale. Instead, Dalle Vacche points to links between the terms diva and divine, suggesting that the diva in early melodrama is really a modernist incarnation of the mater dolorosa - the sorrowful mother, an archetype in Renaissance art (most famously portrayed in Michelangelo's Pietà). The diva is thus placed ambivalently ‘within an oscillation between mystical-visionary and hysteric-melancholic postures.' Indeed, many scenes from diva films feature long takes that function as a sort of tableau vivant of the mater dolorosa, the diva frozen in a cataclysm of melancholy, depression or mourning.

Image: Michelangelo's Pietà housed in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City

But while the Renaissance mater dolorosa was governed by the motifs of maternal sacrifice, the silent film diva represents a challenge to this classical link between passion and mysticism. The Renaissance mater dolorosa is self-sacrificing and self-effacing before a paternalistic God and a sacrificial son. Divine law governs the passion and suffering of this figure. The silent film divas do not simply reverse this by resorting to the '80s power-suit version of gender politics. Instead, in many films the diva undergoes a self-effacing process, one that both challenges social norms, while making the diva's relation to gender ambivalent. Either the diva is forced to normalise - and we feel a different kind of tragedy take place - or the diva opts for the only avenue left open, her own death. Despite the themes of illicit romance and lost love, in Dalle Vacche's hands the diva film is really about the horizon of gender, and the horizon of the human itself. In fact, one could argue that in some diva films it is the human itself that is effaced. As Dalle Vacche notes, ‘the society in which the diva lives accepts a woman only if she fits within a self-effacing role of some kind [...] her general way of suffering stems from either the painful choice to remain in the past or the lonely decision to break the rules.'ii If the Renaissance mater dolorosa represents a sacrifice of the divine for the human (Christ as the sacrificed god-man), then the diva film represents the sacrifice of the human for the divine - but ‘divine' understood here more in terms of passion and the unhuman. Clearly, there is no happy ending to the diva film. But it is equally clear that, in challenging gender as a whole, the diva's defiance is also directed towards the human per se. And it is passion that becomes the means, or the medium, through which the diva effaces the human.

It is in this sense that the diva's melo-dramatic itinerary bears more similarity to the mystical itinerary than to the banal and interminable therapeutics of the modern, psychoanalytic subject. I think this is the underlying critical point of Dalle Vacche's study, and indeed of early melodrama film in general. In her book, Dalle Vacche shows how an intersection of influences informed the diva film: early 20th century theosophy and occultism, Bergsonian vitalism, Gramscian Marxism, the Decadentism of D'Annunzio, the Ballet Russes, Art Nouveau fashion and the motif of the circus. But the thread that runs through all these influences is that of the diva as the mystic of modernity. In the diva film, passion is always embodied - wracked with suffering, the diva's body contorts and twists, is suddenly stiff with grief, then slumps into an inert mass on the bed or the floor. Passion is always material - the diva's clothes become shapeless, formless shrouds around her body, contrasted by the stark, minimalist set design that surrounds her. The diva is spiritual precisely in this material sense.

The diva brings together a densely embodied sense of passion with a spiritual affectivity that can only be described as demonic or ecstatic. While many diva films inevitably lead to the diva's death, the diva film rarely dwells on her corpse. Neither is there any vision of beatific light. Instead, as in the closing scenes of Satanic Rhapsody, the diva simply abandons the entire theatre of human drama; she wanders off into the night forest, having already disappeared behind veils of clothing, curtains and partitions. This type of mysticism, in which it is the human itself that is sacrificed, brings together the erotic and the mystical, leading to what Georges Bataille described as ‘the gulfs of terrifying darkness that belong equally to them both.'iii In this moment, exemplary of the ‘dying to oneself' found in so many mystical texts, the diva embodies this ambivalent combination of the height of passion with the depths of sorrow. ‘At the very moment when it is poured out in extravagant profusion life has an aim that seems to contradict the losses it so feverishly makes sure of.'iv


Eugene Thacker <thackere@newschool.edu> is a New York based writer and the author of Horror of Philosophy (forthcoming from Zero Books). He teaches at The New School and is a scholar-in-residence at the Miskatonic University Colloquy for Inexistent Cryptobiology


Angela Dalle Vacche, Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema, University of Texas Press, 2008


i Clips of the diva films are available on the book's accompanying DVD, Diva Dolorosa.

ii Angela Della Vache, Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema, p.7.

iii Georges Bataille, Eroticism: Death and Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights, 1986), p.222.

iv Ibid., p.231.