Pensive Prowler #14 by Dmetri Kakmi
Nobody from Nowhere
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you Nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be Somebody!
How public, like a Frog
To tell one’s name the livelong June
To an admiring Bog!
I’ve been intrigued and amused by Emily Dickinson’s poem since I was a fourteen-year-old high-school student. It’s funny and profound at the same time. Harold Bloom thinks it’s about the outsider in conflict with authority. For me it’s a lot more intimate and internalised.
Balancing bleak satire and lyricism, it’s about the nullity of self, and the separation between public and private selves. When I read the poem, I picture schism and visibility crying out for invisibility. And perhaps the reversal of these ideas, too. That’s the poem’s genius. It works on many levels to create a loop which leads to an end that is also a beginning.
The poem forms an intimate three-way dialogue with two French films, La Moustache (Emmanuel Carrere, 2005) and Nobody from Nowhere (Matthieu Delaporte, 2014). You can find the former on You Tube; the latter streams on Stan.
Carrere’s existentialist drama is about Marc Thiriez, a man who is hurled into an identity crisis when he shaves his moustache and nobody, including his wife, notices. They claim he never had a moustache. Is it a plot or is Marc delusional? If he has lost his mind, how come he sports a moustache in the Bali holiday snaps taken five years earlier with his wife? Distressed, Marc flees to Hong Kong and then to Bali. From there the narrative take an oneiric turn, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy in which Marc turns into the louche moustachioed man in the photographs. His wife mysteriously reappears with no foreknowledge of another life and together they plan to return to Paris to perhaps take up the life Marc recently abandoned, thus reactivating the cycle.
In Nobody from Nowhere, Delaporte digs into the foundations of what constitutes mind and body. His tale is about realtor Sebastien Nicola. Sebastien is a cypher who gives out no visible signs of personality and who has no real life of his own. Instead, he takes on the personalities of men he encounters during his everyday dealings. Until he crosses paths with famed violinist Henri de Montalte, and life veers in unexpected directions for both. By the end, Sebastien Nicola becomes Henri de Montalte, and in the process he is more alive inside another man’s shoes, even as he extends and humanises the troubled host’s life.
I am as captivated by the films as I am by Dickinson’s poem. I’d even venture to say I’m a little bit obsessed with the three-way conversation they open up, partly because they deal with universal themes (Who hasn’t dreamed of being someone else or escaping one life and begin another?), and partly because I lived a portion of my life not knowing who I was*.
I distinctly recall an acquaintance in my mid-twenties saying I had no personality. That I was a blank he could not read no matter which way he looked at me. Although the remark hurt, I can see now that he was remarkably perceptive for a gym bunny. This of course mirrors what various characters say about Sebastien Nicola in Nobody from Nowhere. He has no personality. He is a blank. Mirroring Sebastien’s journey, I also tried on many personalities before settling on the one I wear now. And like Marc Thiriez in La Moustache, I also crossed water to become someone else in another country.
In the world of these films, to question is the only possible answer. The questions act as an oracle, spouting cryptic pronouncements that leave the viewer to find the answers for himself.
In La Moustache, Marc’s transformation questions the nature of truth and reality. Which of Marc’s two lives is real? Paris or Bali? Which Marc is the real Marc? The one with the moustache or the one without the moustache? Which life came first, moustache or sans moustache? Did one Marc dream the other Marc? If so, which Marc is the dreamer and which Marc is the dream? Finally, must he choose? Can both lives exist simultaneously?
The lack of clear resolution leaves the viewer with a profound sense of disquiet, which is elaborated by Sebastien Nicola, who could be Marc’s spiritual brother in existential crisis. Better yet, maybe Sebastien is The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982) in a new guise, a nullity that absorbs one personality after another for survival sake? It’s only when he becomes Henri de Montalte and supplements the older man’s deficiencies with his own rich inner life and reserves of compassion that he flowers and becomes truly himself.
Transformation lies in terror and abjection. Extreme circumstances force Marc and Nicola to transcend themselves and become more than what they are. Like Dickinson in her poem, the two men shape malleable flesh to their own unique specifications and project a self-realised inner being onto the canvas we call a body. In the process, they obscure and reveal themselves to an admiring bog (the quagmire of personality?) and open themselves to life’s possibilities. That’s why Sebastien Nicola’s final pronouncement speaks for all of us:
“The body is illusory. We are not what we are. Reality is not truth… I’ve become someone else. I’ve become myself…”
*See my essay ‘A History of Violence’ in The Body Horror Book, edited by Claire Fitzpatrick.
Dmetri Kakmi (Episode 158) is a writer and editor based in Melbourne, Australia. The memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. His essays and short stories appear in anthologies and journals. You can find out more about him here.