August 8, 2012 by bluberie
Ayush Prasad reflects on the philosophical contours of Roy Anderson’s Songs from the Second Floor.
“It’s not easy being human,” laments a poet’s father after having set fire to his own business as operatic voices stream through and overwhelm every man and every woman in the seemingly deranged metropolis in Roy Anderson’s Songs from the Second Floor.
Commuters in a local train, waiters and waitresses in a bar, and a woman conversing on the telephone with her suspecting lover become sopranos and contralto singers, knitting together an operatic elegy to the complex misery of being human.
This is but a mere artistic response to the madness that is humanity, a mere second floor above both a ground floor of cut‐throat urban reasoning that treats the other as dispensable and a first floor of the necessity of surviving as one lies embedded in a reality formed along the dictum of coerced or persuaded sacrifice of another for one’s personal comfort.
Anderson’s poetic, philosophical and theoretical emphasis in Songs seems to be that every bit of our life is coded with this logic. Each of the satchel-and-whip-wielding-office‐goer in Songs then necessarily has to whip the other before him in order to move forward in a uniform file of unjust, exploitative and sadist capitalist ambition.
The traffic of vehicles and people in Songs doesn’t ever seize either. People become anxious and blabber, and taxi‐drivers become kind Christs to soak in the malaise of their souls; Christs, who rent by torture, desire escape, but are eventually unable to give up on their crucial sustaining trade of helping others carry on at the cost of their own interests and lives, only to be finally thrown and dumped in a heap of things (and Christs) unprofitable.
The governing ideology in Anderson’s metropolis seems to be profit. Care is not profit, and profit, not care, seems to be the ruling injunction here. “Everybody” here seems to be going in this “same direction,” clogging not just roads, but even alleyways so that the suffocating traffic of men and women is able to move at best only “a few yards” in the “many hours” that it lives and dies.
And there is no respite from this, but in invented moments of sex and music, moments that can deform and slip by as quickly as they can be formed and had because they are always penetrated and rent by the grey light streaming from the two lower floors.
All this unfolds in the face of a perfect knowledge that men and women are mortal and are alive for only a while. Anderson crucial question in Songs, therefore, seems to be whether it is this awareness of their mortality that causes these men and women to be the way they are. After all, a “man,” as also a woman, can do “only as much.” He has his “interests” to keep, his “pleasures” to have, even if they be, as they usually are, at the cost of the pleasures and interests of others. Is it the very presence of the others that occasions this response then? Is it that men and women cannot work towards their own happiness, but through the misery of others? Is it that they need to be careless and prop and chop the other up unapologetically? Is it that such occasions can lead only to humour or silence among those who are their audience? Is it that sadist tendencies and silences and their products are the normal routes and channels and fruits of living and giving meaning to every everyday act of ours?
Anderson’s example of the perfect capitalist, Lennart, an old man aware of his impending mortality, but hell‐bent nonetheless on his appalling risky venture that could put thousands into misery long after he’s gone, then, is not a specific aberrant case, but a norm, a functioning type of man that’s found in abundance amongst us.
Lennart’s assistant Penne, made in the likeliness of today’s human resource managers, is another such type who institutionally and systemically sides with the oppressor principally to be in a position to make his job that of throwing others out, so that he could save his own. Undoubtedly and expectedly, Penne kicks the worker Lasse and throws him out of his job even as Lasse keeps begging repeatedly not to be done away with, crying “I’ve been here for thirty years.”
As Penne walks away cruelly, Lasse grovels on the floor. Lasse’s co‐workers, peeping from the slits of serially arranged doors on both sides of the dreary lobby shut their doors in an almost simultaneous click. This almost simultaneous clicking suggests their silent and systemic collusion with the sentence served on Lasse. Since the clicks are only almost and not completely uniform, it also seems that Anderson wants to suggest that each one of them can, if he wants, hesitate, disobey the norm and not click his door shut upon a suffering Lasse, becoming the one the film desperately hopes would arrive, the one who it tries to summons into being with the statement, “Beloved be the one who sits down” ‘by a sufferer.’
Steeped in intense personal symbolism and an exaggerated minimalism, Songs exceeds Bergman’s sparseness of imagery. Its buildings, cafes, restaurants, asylums and streets have only as much as could possibly be there to evoke a sombre experience of the barren in human existence and experience, a mood that is broken only in special moments of relief with the intrepidity and absurd black humour of its dialogues and scenes.
A beggar scavenges from a dustbin on an empty and lonely road and invites a lost and drunk youth to a treat of stale leftover bread with some leftover cheese; “This bread tastes really good, especially with the cheese,” the beggar says. He then beats the dustbin, calling out mockingly to this youth’s estranged lover who is busy having sex with another man in a nearby shanty, asking her not to be cruel to him. In answer, he only finds rats scurrying away. Finding it amusing, he continues beating the dustbin till the last of the rats rush out squeaking, filling the air with a shrill, animal and uncomfortable stench.
The strong black humour of Songs wafts up once again as an old man is ushered onto a stage against his wishes and almost chopped into half in a mismanaged magic trick and brought to the hospital howling “Ai! Ai! Ai!,” “Ai! Ai! Ai!,” the upper half of his body floating on its lower half. Then, while he is sleeping at night, freshly stitched, his wife tosses and turns, making his just‐joint body wobble, forcing him to once again cry out in exactly the same fashion. “Ai! Ai! Ai!,” “Ai! Ai! Ai!.”
The darkness of Songs’s humour starts bordering on the intolerable and the absolutely scathing when a young woman tells a girl in the presence of (and with the aid of) other members of a town council that she has to obey the orders of the council and accept her death voluntarily and without any resistance, that she should agree to be thrown off a suspended board onto rocks, that her agreement should come because she has not read enough and is not old enough to understand what is necessary and right. The girl super absurdly responds with obeisance and an agreement, and is pushed to her death by another woman who has a rope tied to her waist and who suggests a hungry dog on a leash. Immediately after the girl falls, the town’s entire crowd of aged men and women start assembling and mourning customarily. Obviously, no one in this melee of a madly running humanity can see what is intuitively sensitive and reasonable, what is painful and what is not, what is right and what is wrong, lost in crude and wayward abstractions as they all are.
The entire film wears a bluish grey pall, reminding one of Bergman’s dreary lighting. With the music of the organ and the violin, the film seems to be producing an environment that calls out for a spiritual and practical debunking of the obvious, the usual and the dominant ways of being human. The message seems to be that one needs to move beyond the world of insurance executives and chip‐n‐dale suites with businesses, books and money into the world of the poet.
It is the poet that Songs from the Second Floor depicts as interned in an asylum with people from the outside world visiting him, some giving him hope, some providing consolation, some rebuking him for having gone “mad” with his ‘affliction’ of poetry that professes not just to be an art of words on paper, but an alternative process of perception capable of providing visions to allay fears from the past and find a way out of a present that’s landlocked by and clogged with the unidirectional traffic of humanity whipping each other dead. It is only when the poet and his ethos of beautiful sensitive appraisal rise, Anderson tells us, that the absurdity of people obsessed with tugging at their possessions in their respective transit terminals of life could be overcome.