Jack Has Left the Building: A Commentary on Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built

By John Panteleimon Manoussakis

Whose house? Which Jack?

From the beginning it was a matter of material. After all, all creation, production, and construction must begin with matter. The material Jack uses as the instrument for his first in a series of murders was a car jack. This car jack is the foundation upon which Jack’s house is to be built as much as the means by which he builds it. The car jack determines what sort of a building Jack’s house will be. In the brief diatribe on the architecture of Gothic cathedrals that Jack gives at the beginning of the film, he concludes with the following statement: “I often say that the material does the work. In other words it has a kind of will of its own and by following it, the result will be the most exquisite.” It is the jack, and not Jack, that builds Jack’s house—the house that Jack is.

Jack is an engineer and an aspiring architect. The architect is the first among the builders but also, he is the builder of what comes first, of the archē, of the beginning. Aristotle calls metaphysics an architectonic science. Verge’s scornful characterization of Jack as a “theoretician” does not miss the point. After all, Jack himself signs his murder by the artistic pseudonym “Mr. Sophistication.” That sophia – in “sophistication” is the same as our familiar sophia of the philosopher and the Sophist—two roles that Mr. Sophistication delights to play on occasion.

If, however, the tool of the Sophist’s art is language and for the philosopher “language is at once the house of being,”[1] Mr. Sophistication “loath(s) a diagnosis you can just write in letters.” Perhaps Jack would prefer a diagnosis incised, as Paul writes in his Letters(and in letters) “not with ink,” “not on tablets,” but “on the flesh of the human heart” (2 Cor. 3:3). The house that Jack built is not the house of language, signification, representation (that, as we shall see, is the house that Verge/Virgil built), but the fleshly house made by the human bodies kept in his freezer.

Isn’t it the body, our body, that body we inhabit, our habitation, our house? Jack’s house organizes the various bodies of his victims by replicating and reproducing, only in a “higher” level, the body’s organization of its various members and, like the body, Jack’s anthropomorphic house is an organism of its own, even more so since it is entirely constructed by organic material. The body that becomes a part or a member of the Jack’s house is a body that is itself a house. Like each of our bodies, borrowing again from Paul, is a member of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27), namely, of the Church, so each of our bodies is itself a church, a temple in which God dwells (1 Cor. 6:19). It would not be too risky, therefore, to venture the suggestion that the house that Jack builds is not anyhouse but rather a temple(hence his opening remarks on the architecture of cathedrals) dedicated to the gods—even if these are gods who are more pleased by aesthetics than ethics. The body-temple and the temple-of-bodies as an image (eidolon) of the body is precisely what the Greek world knew under the name of agalma.

No temple, however, is consecrated without a sacrifice (literary, “to make sacred” from sacer and facere), that is, without the shedding of blood. So Jack offers his sacrificial victims at the altar of to kalon. If the Great Rain that washes away the traces of Jack’s murders—an echo from Elijah’s story in respect to both, the rain but also the slaughtering of Baal’s priests—is an omen, then it is omen confirming that the gods have looked favorably upon his “sacrifices.”

Yet, Jack does not see himself as a priest but as an artist. If for Foucault and Hadot philosophy is an art of living—to use the title of one of Hadot’s book—Jack’s art is more faithful to the Socratic definition of philosophy as “the art of dying.”[2] Jack provides an explanation that is appropriately teleological and surprisingly eschatological. “The ultimate goal for the human being is not prior to death, but after.” He goes on to explain that it is only the breakdown, the decomposition of the grape that elevates it into art—and one could add that it is only when “a corn of wheat falls into the ground and dies that brings forth much fruit” (John 12:24). The artwork that a human being is reaches perfection only at the end—its telos (goal) is the telos (end), when it finally becomes an exquisite corpse (le cadavre exquis).

There is no other material, therefore, suitable for the art that one might call anthropotectonic except the human body itself. If Jack fails time and again to build his house out of brick and mortar that’s because the material he needs is that which he calls “divine material,” a material with its own (free) will.

Frankenstein Redux

It is more than a coincidence that The House That Jack Built is released exactly on the bicentennial anniversary since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818-2018). Both, Lars von Trier’s film and Mary Shelley’s novel, offer a meditation on the meaning of technē, understood as either scientific technology or artistic creation (that Jack styles himself as an architect creates a direct relation between the tekton of the architect and technē). Both, Dr. Frankenstein and Jack, are motivated by the same desire to create—whether a living person out of a corpse or a corpse out of a living person. Even if their respective projects seem to serve opposite ends, they both share the same material. Creation, be it artistic or technological, is never free but always purchased at the cost of destruction, inasmuch as human creation, unlike God’s creative act, is never ex nihilo, but conditioned by the givenness of a world already created which, precisely as given, human creation cannot but alter, refigure, and thus, in some sense, destroy. Both, Dr. Frankenstein and Mr. Sophistication, are not content with inert, created matter. They require a different kind of material, “divine material,” that is, material proper only to divine creation. In his ambitions to architecture, Jack refers to “the Great Architect behind it all.” Mary Shelley calls attention to Dr. Frankenstein’s hubris by naming him “Victor,” after God’s name “the potent Victor” in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Furthermore, the suggestive subtitle of Frankenstein “The Modern Prometheus” echoes Kant’s hailing a hero of technological innovation, Benjamin Franklin, as “the Prometheus of modern times.”[3]

Moreover, that the suggestion to build a house-of-bodies comes from Verge/Virgil is not accidental. Whereas the poet, such as Virgil, creates his corpus by stitching together—as the original meaning of rhapsody suggests—disparate limbs of various textual bodies, Jack scorns the metaphorical corpse. If he is to be an artist, he will be an artist literally (although, as we have seen, not in litteras). And whereas the artist commits his crimes symbolically—for the letter kills (2 Cor. 3:6), as says the old accusation that Plato brings, long before Paul, against writing[4]—Jack  scorns the sublimation into art of those desires which, were they to remain in the soil from which they sprang, they would have made out of each of us a Jack (or even a Jack the Ripper). Contra Freud, Jack the artist rejects the deceit of an art that has formed an unholy alliance with the oppressive powers of civilization, an art that the politics of the polis instrumentalizes in order to achieve and maintain its self-preservation. “Some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires which we cannot commit in our controlled civilization. I don’t agree.” Jack’s antropotectonic art demands that our aesthetic admiration be directed not to the sublimated (neutered) evil, but to evil itself. Is the sublimated atrocity any less evil than the “raw” evil of the criminal’s act simply because the former is represented through the neutralizing lens of art that afford a detached (“disinterested” according to Kant’s aesthetics) and thus safe place for both us, the viewers, and the artist who “commits” the atrocity with impunity? Or is the evil portrayed through art worse precisely because sublimated? Jack’s art, on the other hand, is an art that discards the artificial; a fiction without the comfort of the fictitious; a signified naked of its signification; a presentation without representation. Such an art without mediation cannot but be an art of radical evil.[5]

The Art of the Immaterial

Even though The House that Jack Built seems to focus predominantly on the visual arts, as in the two-dimensional photography and the three-dimensional architecture, since these are the two fields of Jack’s artistic expression, the real protagonist, however, is the non-dimensional music. Not only is the film punctuated with short videos of Glenn Gould practicing on the piano (“he represents art,” as Jack explains to Verge).  The juxtaposition of the artist to the criminal may suggest that Jack as a serial killer is as much of an artistic genius as Glenn Gould or, even more interestingly, that the artistic genius is as dangerous as the serial killer. The priority of music in Lars von Trier’s film might become less puzzling if we were to consider that music is the immaterial art.[6] It is suggestive that the same preference to music, and I suspect for the same reason, is given in Plato’s Phaedo, where the art of dying (philosophy) is taken to be identical to the dying art (music).[7]

From all the arts, music alone retains the force and violence of its origins in murder, whether the murder of the animal (hunting), or the murder of the human (war).[8] In the story of the “Third Incident,” Jack blurs the distinction between the two, thereby “hunting” a woman and her two sons. Jack’s discussion of the Stuka underscores the function of the plane’s sirens whose deafening sound was planned as a psychological act of war. The music of such killing machines like the Stuka (one of the many, as Jack observes, by reminding us of the trumpet of the Biblical Jericho) arrests its victims well before the plane has hit its target. One may survive the bomb, but no one could escape the sound. In exposing the endemic violence of music, Jack has the support of Aeschylus who preserves for us one of the earliest meanings of rhythm: it is by nothing else but rhythm that Zeus restrains Prometheus on his rock.[9] From all the arts, music alone has a place in Hell. In the film’s epilogue, for which Lars von Trier’s chooses the term katabasis, (which, among the many other occurrences, happens to be the very first word of Plato’s Republic in which another famous descent is described, that of Socrates to Piraeus), Verge/Virgil explains to Jack that the buzzing sound that he hears is the sound that Hell generates. “One shouldn’t focus on extracting screams and wailing, because the cries of pain of so many millions of individuals together becomes what you have just heard. A buzzing sound whose intensity will increase as we get ever closer to the presence of suffering.” In saying this Verge/Virgil quotes himself and, more specifically, Book VI of the Aeneid:

“Around [the river Lethe] hovered numberless races, nations of souls, like bees in a meadowlands on a cloudless summer day.”[10]

Virgil here paraphrases Sophocles—a good example of a corpus made up by textual corpses—who, in fragment from a now lost work, writes: “And the swarm of the dead buzzes as it rises up.”[11] Such is the terrifying music of death.

Building Dwelling Killing

The challenge that Lars von Trier’s poses for the viewer of The House That Jack Built is the problematic relationship of ethics to aesthetics and of aesthetics to ethics. The Greek amalgamation of the Good (Agathon) with the Beautiful (kalon), according to which classical ethics were determined by aesthetics, has not been criticized enough. For the Greek culture, the ugly, the disable, and the impaired were expendable. The case of the pharmakoi in Athens and the Spartan apothetai are sufficient examples. One could think of similar paradigms, closer to our times, when making personal, cultural, or natural taste the criterion of ethics have had catastrophic results.  If, however, we have every good reason to liberate ethics from aesthetics, should we not, argues Lars von Trier, prevent ethical considerations for deciding the aesthetical value of a work or of an act—even if it is a crime or a house composed by decomposing corpses? Shouldn’t the visitor of the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau take a moment to admire the “perfection” by which an extermination of such massive scale was carried out systematically and efficiently? Isn’t it the unjust suffering of the tragic hero that makes tragedy so sublime?What else is art, after all, than the process of mummifying life?[12] Art displays what is dead, or rather, art must kill that which it seeks to portray. All art is monumental, funerary, and Jack’s “corporeal” house should be recognized as a true masterpiece of that function of art.

Could there be any kind of ethics for a serial killer who, following Nietzsche, declares that “only as an aesthetic phenomenon is existence and the world eternally justified”?[13] Asking about the highly improbable, on any account, possibility of the ethics of a serial killer presents us with an answer to a different question–one that we might had never consider: Why the house that Jack built is precisely a house? Surely, among the numerous objects and structures of the world Jack could have chosen any other. To give only one example, when Apollo kills  the satyr Marsyas he builds out of satyr’s corpse a lyre or, according to other accounts, he makes a wineskin out of skin (as Jack makes a wallet out of Simple’s breast).

A house is not any building. A house is building where man dwells. According to Heidegger, “[w]e do not dwell because we have built, but we build and have built because we dwell, that is, because we are dwellers.”[14] Indeed, “[t]o be a human being means…to dwell.”[15] Is, therefore, the house that Jack built a profound expression, no matter how disturbing,  of the human longing to make a place for oneself out of a space undifferentiated? Is Jack building a dwelling place that would rescue him from the fate of homelessness? Does the house that Jack built, insofar he builds it as an artist and not as a builder, recovers the concealment of technē “in the tectonics of architecture”?[16] Heidegger promises us that “[e]nough will have been gained if dwelling and building have become worthy of questioning and thus have remained worthy of thought.”[17] Indeed, accepting Heidegger’s invitation opens up unpredictable levels of reading Lars von Trier’s film. To restrict this endeavor only to our question regarding the problematic relationship of aesthetics to ethics: the Greeks call a house, man’s dwelling place: ἦθος(ethos).[18] We recognize the word ethos as the root from which we derived our term “ethics.” Similarly, the Latin verb habitare means to dwell, to live in a place, to stay. Thus, we speak in English of inhabiting a place, a habitat. The same verb, however, gives us the term “habit” which, like the Greek ethos, comes to mean a characteristic trait and, therefore, one’s character. It would seem that to build a house signifies nothing less than “to build” a character—to become oneself. If Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics describes virtue as habit. It is telling that in explaining the habituation of virtue Aristotle uses precisely the two examples we have seen in The House That Jack Built, namely, practicing music (Glenn Gould) and building (Jack):

For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. This is confirmed by what happens in states; for legislators make the citizens good by forming habits in them, and this is the wish of every legislator, and those who do not effect it miss their mark, and it is in this that a good constitution differs from a bad one. Again, it is from the same causes and by the same means that every virtue is both produced and destroyed, and similarly every art; for it is from playing the lyre that both good and bad lyre-players are produced. And the corresponding statement is true of builders and of all the rest; men will be good or bad builders as a result of building well or badly.[19]

By practice a musician becomes a virtuoso—that is, in the literal sense of the term, virtuous. Jack’s series of murders is the practice of his skill. It is this “habit” that allows him to emerge at the end of the film as a true virtuoso of crime. With murder being his virtue, Jack’s ethics—the true “house” that Jack built, that is, his character—could not have been anything else than an ethics of death.

Endnotes

[1]Martin Heidegger, “Letter on ‘Humanism’” in Pathmarks, edited by William McNeill. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 274.

[2]Plato, Phaedo, 67d.

[3]Immanuel Kant, On the Causes of Earthquakes(1:472).

[4]Plato, Phaedrus, 274c-277.

[5]On this topic see, Manoussakis, “The Revelation according to Jacques Derrida” in Other Testaments: Derrida & Religion, edited by Kevin Hart and Yvonne Sherwood. (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 315.

[6]On the differences between music and the rests of the arts see, Manoussakis, God After Metaphysics. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), pp. 109-116.

[7]Plato, Phaedo, 61a.

[8]See, Pascal Quignard, The Hatred of Music, translated by Matthew Amos and Fredrik Rönnbäck. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016). The ambiguous force of music was already discussed in Plato’s Republic(see, for example, RepublicIII, 401d).

[9]Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, v. 242 (ὧδ᾽ἐρρύθμισμαι, Ζηνὶδυσκλεὴςθέα).

[10]Virgil, TheAeneid, VI, 705-6, translated by Robert Fagles. (New York: Viking, 2006), p. 820.

[11]Sophocles, Fragment 879(βομβεῖδὲνεκρῶνσμῆνοςἔρχεταιτ᾽ἄνω).

[12]Nietzsche made the same argument with regards to philosophy: “All that philosophers have handled for thousands of years have been concept mummies; nothing real escaped their grasp alive. When these honorable idolaters of concepts worship something, they kill it and stuff it; they threaten the life of everything they worship.” Twilight of the Idols(“’Reason’ in Philosophy, 1), in The Portable Nietzsche, edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann. (Penguin Books, 1982), p. 479.

[13]Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, translated by Ronald Speirs. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 33 (emphasis in the original).

[14]Martin Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking,” in Poetry, Language, Thought, translated by Albert Hofstadter. (New York: Perennial Classics, 2001), p. 146.

[15]Ibid., p. 145.

[16]Ibid., p. 157.

[17]Ibid., p. 158 (emphasis in the original).

[18]See also, Martin Heidegger, “Letter on ‘Humanism,’”(“ἦθοςmeans abode, dwelling place”),p. 269.

[19]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, II, 1103a-b, translation by W.D. Ross.

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