A man drives through the sandy Iranian landscape surrounding Tehran. He drives past day workers seeking employment but waves them off. He moves out of the city, into the dusty outskirts. He espies a man on a public telephone and he waits. The man asks if he wanted to use the phone. He says no and drives in a circle, returning to the man as he walks away from the phone, offering him a lift. The young man on the phone is clearly suspicious. Is this a pick-up? The driver offers to take care of the young man’s financial troubles. Anger develops out of the young man’s trepidation and he threatens the driver. The search continues.
The driver, we eventually learn, is Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi). Throughout the running time of Abbas Kiarostami‘s Taste of Cherry (Ta’m e guilass) (1997), we never leave Mr. Badii’s side. He is the abiding presence of the film and that creates a strange familiarity belied by the fact that we learn precious little about him, about his life, his undefined pain, his anguish. We witness that anguish but we never learn its cause. The film consists of four extended conversations between Mr. Badii and various men he solicits to do a job for him. The job seems simple enough in the abstract and he is willing to pay handsomely.
Whoever accepts the task is to appear at a hole in a hillside outside Tehran that Mr. Badii has already dug. The person is to arrive at 6AM and call out Mr. Badii’s name twice. If he answers, they are to take his hand and assist him out of the hole. If he doesn’t respond, they are to shovel 20 spadefuls of dirt over his corpse. Mr. Badii intends to commit suicide. He plans to take all of the sleeping pills in his possession and lie down in that hole and wait for the darkness to close over him. But he doesn’t want to leave his body exposed.
Of course, this is no simple task, really. Islam expressly forbids suicide and each of the three people that Mr. Badii approaches directly with his request cite a moral compunction against promoting another man’s demise, even if it is only by assisting in the aftermath. Their impulse is to either become afraid or to try to help alleviate Mr. Badii’s suffering, to reassure him that life is not only worth living but that it is a great gift, not to be taken for granted, and not to be disposed of lightly.
Mr. Badii refuses consolation; he will not reveal the cause of his suffering, not because he doesn’t think his interlocutors will fail to understand, but rather precisely because he fears they will all too readily understand. He doesn’t want to be understood, he doesn’t want sympathy. Mr. Badii seems to draw a fairly strict line between feeling pain and understanding it. All human beings, he suggests, can understand pain and can sympathize with those in pain. Pain in that sense is intersubjective; it is a public commodity. But the kind of pain that would drive you to suicide doesn’t desire sympathy or understanding. You can never feel that pain on behalf of another no matter what your capacity for sympathy. To communicate that pain would be intolerable for Mr. Badii.
Now, this is the aspect of the film that rankled Roger Ebert, who counted Taste of Cherry among his most hated films. Ebert felt that we couldn’t manifest a reasonable amount of sympathy for Mr. Badii because he remains so obscure to us, because we never come to know him or the source of the pain that has goaded him toward this extreme measure. But to believe this is to miss the point of the film. Mr. Badii recognizes that it is one thing to intellectually understand suffering and another to actually suffer. We each suffer—from many things and to many different degrees. That suffering allows us to understand and sympathize with the suffering of others. What it does not do, and cannot do, is give us an insight into the nature of the pain that the other suffers. Our suffering is so specific to us that it is beyond our ability to communicate it, beyond our ability to describe.
But herein lies the crux of the matter. When we want to help someone, we can’t imagine that there is a suffering we would fail to understand—because we have suffered. Suffering here has two irreconcilable natures. There is the intersubjective, social side of suffering. We have all suffered. Suffering is something all humans, indeed all animals, understand very well because we have all experienced it. But the suffering that I suffer—this suffering—can’t be described, is not intersubjective. It is exclusive to me. It’s like the old saying: you are unique, just like everyone else. You are like everyone else in that you differ from everyone else. Everyone suffers alone and we share that loneliness with all those who suffer, which is to say, with everyone else.
This disappointed Ebert. In his laudable humanism, Ebert, like so many of us, believed cinema was designed to facilitate the intersubjective. The entire point of a film is to bring us closer to human experience, to provide insight into the joys and pains of others so that we can learn to identify with those joys and pains despite our putative distance from the subjects of the film. Many, perhaps most, celebrated films operate in this manner and in doing so we are moved, we are moved toward the subject, brought into closer proximity. We learn to identity.
Taste of Cherry operates otherwise. We are not brought close. We are shown that proximity, feeling this pain, is impossible. We are held at arm’s length. We learn to connect with Mr. Badii through disidentification. Our inability to approach him is precisely what makes him more human to us. But there is a pain in our inability to approach his pain and his three main interlocutors are surrogates for that frustration. The first, a soldier (Safar Ali Moradi), becomes afraid and flees the scene. The other two, a seminarist (Mir Hossein Noori) and a taxidermist (Abdol Hossein Bagheri), endeavor to bridge the existential gap that lies between their intersubjective understanding of pain as such and this pain that this man feels at this moment, which cannot be spoken, which cannot be rendered comprehensible.
They continually try to lure him into speech, into talking about his feelings. Like amateur psychoanalysts, they believe the cure resides in talking, in making the personal intersubjective, in rendering the private public. This is where our identification as viewers finds purchase. It is far easier to identify, to sympathize with the plight of the interlocutors than it is to identify with Mr. Badii. Mr. Badii wants to substitute the flow of speech with the flow of money; he wants to make this favor purely transactional. They do this relatively simple task and they get a sizable amount of money.
Mr. Badii employs objective, monetary exchange as a means to obviate intersubjective emotional exchange grounded in language. Language traps one into making sense; it demands that we are heard and understood. And if our interlocutor claims to have heard us and to have understood, we are expected not to hope for anything further. What more could we expect, after all? That is the contract of speech. Mr. Badii, in order to avoid that social contract, engages in a financial contract. He attempts to substitute the debt of explanation with a straightforward payment.
The problem, of course, is that this transaction makes the other person complicit in Mr. Badii’s isolation. To accept payment without understanding is here construed as a form of unfreedom. And this mode of unfreedom, this facing up to the incomprehensibility of a situation, its utter lack of an understandable causality, is consonant with the unfreedom we all face with respect to death. This, it seems to me, is what makes the suicide such a vexing dilemma. It is not really a question, as Albert Camus claims it is in The Myth of Sisyphus, of the motivation to live in an absurd world. The question is not: why should I go on living? The question is: how do I face up to death—whether my own or the death of another?
The suicide, by choosing death, by choosing the thing we have no choice but to accept eventually, creates a strange and unsatisfying freedom within the context of unfreedom. Now, this is not what Camus would have us believe but it follows from some of his logic—or it follows despite what he takes to be the trajectory of his logic. Camus posits that the human being is caught between two aspects of world-belonging.
In one sense, like all other beings, we belong to the world, we are immersed in it, part of it, indistinguishable from it as part is indistinguishable ultimately from the whole. In another sense, however, consciousness insists on our separation from the world. In this way, the world belongs to us as the object of our observations and contemplation. In belonging to the world, I can’t understand it; in attempting to understand it, I don’t belong to it; it belongs to me—and yet, still, I can never fully grasp it. It never belongs to me entirely. So, I both belong and fail to belong to the world.
Consciousness, according to Camus, demands unity. It demands that we make sense of the world as a whole and that sense-making will provide or discern meaning. But we can’t do it. So, consciousness revolts against the absurdity of it all. It doesn’t matter if we can construe some kind of rationally philosophical or scientific mapping of the world wherein everything coheres. We have to feel this coherence. We have to live the coherence to make it meaningful. And that we cannot do. Camus suggests that this leads to revolt. In revolt, we realize that life “will be lived all the better if it has no meaning” [translation by Justin O’Brien (NY: Vintage Books, 1991), 53].
Suicide for Camus is acquiescence, not revolt. It is giving in to the absurdity of life as opposed to Camus’ heroic railing against that absurdity. A strikingly similar claim was made by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who did advocate a kind of acquiescence, better termed abnegation. His notion of abnegation involved denying the negative force of the underlying truth of the world (what he terms the Will, this self-consuming violent impulse that informs everything). Suicide, for Schopenhauer, wasn’t that. Suicide was not insisting that the truth of the world was negative and ought to be denied; suicide was endorsing the strivings of the Will and claiming that your life wasn’t fulfilling those strivings. So, for both Camus and Schopenhauer, suicide fails because it gives in to the impossible demands life places upon us instead of resisting them (whether through revolt in Camus or serene abnegation in Schopenhauer).
Camus, as is obvious from the title of his essay, sees Sisyphus as the emblem of the possibility of human happiness within absurdity and the lack of meaning. Sisyphus, you might recall, was condemned to eternal punishment in Hades. His task was to push a large rock up a steep incline, employing excruciating effort and arduous labor. When he arrives at the top of the mountain, the rock slips his grasp and descends into the valley. He must repeat the task—endlessly and eternally. The task is without point, without meaning. It is frankly absurd.
Camus posits that in his descent, in his return to the lowlands in pursuit of the rock, in his preparation to renew his effort, Sisyphus finds happiness. He finds he is “superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock” (121). His superiority resides in his ability to see it all, to contemplate the absurdity. And this idea of pure contemplation, just as is the case in Schopenhauer, allows for a detachment that allows for abnegation. Camus writes: “At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death (123).
But there’s a contradiction here, is there not? In fact, there are at least two. First, we didn’t “create” our fate as beings who die and who are aware of our imminent death. That is the condition of our ability to create, perhaps, but it is not the result of our creation. We don’t choose to die; at best we can only choose the manner in which we face death. Our fate is not created, it is confronted. We choose the manner in which we face death in the way we live (with an awareness of the fragility of it all) and in the way we die. This is what we mean when we say that someone has died bravely or well. And usually what we mean when we say that is that the person accepted death without giving in to death. But there are various ways one might accept death and there are various ways one might give in to it.
The second contradiction lies in what I take to be an integral aspect of Camus’ analysis: as humans we can’t simply accept an abstract explanation of meaning that does not conform in some manner to our lived experience, our feeling for the rightness of it. To my mind, this is one of Camus’ most powerful arguments in the run-up to his conclusions but it seems to fall by the wayside in his efforts to dismiss suicide from the absurd life (just as Schopenhauer felt it necessary to dismiss suicide from the proper approach to abnegation). That peaceful, contemplative happiness Sisyphus experiences on his descent is the result of his removal from the world (this correlates to Schopenhauer’s understanding of the experience of art as a moment of contemplation wherein we become a “pure subject” unaffected momentarily by the despair the world causes). Sisyphus finds no peace in the world; he finds it only by temporarily stepping outside of it.
This then becomes the same kind of leap that Camus derides elsewhere in the essay. And just as he finds it unsatisfying in Kierkegaard and religious thinking, so ought we to find it unsatisfying here and in Schopenhauer. You can think that way about death, but can you really live death in that manner? Mr. Badii doesn’t seem to think so. And neither, to their credit, do his various interlocutors.
Notice how the third man, the taxidermist, probably the most effective advocate in the film for continuing to live, addresses Mr. Badii. He tells him of a moment when he despaired. He too wanted to commit suicide. But then he tasted mulberries. This isn’t some rationalization based on a removal of the self from the world; this is immersion in the world as a sensual experience that has meaning in that moment even amidst all its absurdity. It is absurd that the taxidermist should choose life over death owing to the taste of mulberries. There is nothing in the notions of mulberries or taste or pleasure that vouchsafe a meaning that should make one opt for life instead of death. But in this case, in this moment, in this immersion within the world, the taste of the mulberries mattered.
This man doesn’t justify life by stepping outside of it in the manner of Camus and Schopenhauer. That justification feels flat because it is. After all, what is suicide if not a radical stepping outside of life? You might say that we are talking about two different ways of stepping out, and indeed we are, but that is begging the question. The problem is how they differ. Or rather the problem ought to be to find a way of justifying life that doesn’t involve stepping outside of it.
That is what the taxidermist attempts here. He doesn’t offer rationalization; he even avoids platitudes such as “life is good” or “life is a gift”. Mr. Badii accepts that life is a gift. He claims to have appreciated his life but he also feels he is the one to decide if he is better off setting that gift aside. To trivialize matters to make a point: just because I no longer use an item you bought me as a present years ago doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the gift. Things have their time and their time passes. That applies to our lives as well. Those of whom we say “they died well” may not have chosen the moment but they accepted the passing. Why is it inherently worse that Mr. Badii wants to choose his moment?
I believe, or want to believe, that the taxidermist has hit upon a solution to what I perceive as the contradiction in Camus and Schopenhauer. The point (following Camus) can’t be to step outside of life. After all, Camus spends a good amount of time talking about the richness of meaningless existence; he is no stranger to the worth of passion and feeling. It is our passion to rail against the absurdity that leads to deep experience for Camus. But in his solution to the problem of suicide, he backs away from that. The taxidermist doesn’t. He doesn’t offer some overarching scheme that justifies his choosing life over death. He offers a description of an experience.
That simple experience of tasting mulberries justified nothing but itself. And yet, in that moment, in the moment of any real experience, I am immersed in the world; I belong to the world. At the same time, being the object of experience, the world belongs to me. I belong to the world and the world belongs to me—not as separate moments or possibilities but all at once. But I have to choose the experience; without that choice it means nothing. My choosing to continue doesn’t invalidate Mr. Badii’s choice not to do so. If that is what he chooses.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because his choice can never be ours. He was right about that. Knowing his reasons won’t make a difference because they have no real meaning. Meaning is produced in a moment and then is gone; it is inherently ephemeral. We choose to experience. Or we don’t.
Criterion Collection has released a Blu-ray edition of Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry. It entails a discomfiting subject and pursues that subject in a discomfiting way. We want answers we will not and cannot receive. The edition comes with several extras including a 1997 interview with the director and an interview with scholar Hamid Naficy. The most fascinating extra, though, is the 39-minute test film Kiarostami recorded with his son Bahman as a “sketch” for the final film.