Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of the other place.Susan Sontag
Perhaps the most alarming thing is this: that there is a narrative plausibility even to Christoph Schlingensief’s cancer – as if plausibility had anything to do with life and death. We narrate our lives backwards; in retrospect, decisions seem inevitable, coincidence feasible, and the hand of fate consequential. Just as the Romantics believed that illness and early death were the result of a poetic sensibility. Just as we see an inner logic, a dramaturgy in the lives of famous people and are disinclined to read them as mere products of circumstance.
The neo-romantic Schlingensief has, in his work and interviews, always narrated his life in this way: as an ultimately coherent – albeit circuitous – development. He has expanded upon this narrative onstage and enlarged it via his incursions into public spaces, which in turn were taken up by the media so that they, too, have chronicled his life as it were a novel. And because Schlingensief and the world around him tend to notch things up more than just a little, he has considerably overextended the arc between life and art, as was demonstrated (if not before) in his 2004 production of Parsifal in Bayreuth. If an artist and his interpreters equate the two ends of this arc so strongly, couldn’t it be that the work actually writes the life? That life adheres to a desirable (because plausible, because aesthetically beautiful) logic? And, at some point, it seemed as if this life were no longer being narrated backwards, but forwards. Like a serialised novel or a film or, to cite Schlingensief’s 2008 production A Church of Fear for the Stranger in Me:
Are we perhaps a lie? Are we a film, a film lasting barely a moment? Are we the thoughts of a madman? Are we a printing error? Are we a premonition? The picture that forms in one’s imagination much earlier than the events via which we participate in life occur? […] Are we a future fact that has not yet come about?
Parsifal is Wagner’s final opera, an artistic and ideological legacy replete with religious motifs – from the revelation of the monstrance to the Eucharist. Following Schlingensief’s surprising appointment as the director of a new production of this opera, time and again comparisons were made between him and its title figure : Parsifal the ‘pure fool’ who, as a Germanised figure of salvation, redeems the world through compassion, and Schlingensief – for whom compassion and redemption, albeit often misunderstood as irony, were always central motifs in his work – who tilts in apparent naivety at windmills. Or at Klingsor.
The wider resonance of the Parsifal story was also soon to be extended by the concrete situation of the artist himself. Even with someone like Schlingensief, who has effected so many surprising yet convincing artistic turnarounds, it was difficult to imagine what might follow the supposed highpoint of a production at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. The enfant terrible, trash filmmaker, scandalous performer, and TV provocateur had entered the heart of bourgeois culture. It would be difficult for an artistic career to reach a more established or esteemed position than this. The life story appeared complete – catharsis had to follow. Schlingensief, too, did not resist the temptation of ennobling his life and art with the possibility of its early end. In fact he repeatedly mentioned that death could, indeed, follow his production of Parsifal.
Theatre as illness, illness as theatre
Schlingensief’s fascination with illness and death did, however, not begin with Parsifal. Rather, it is a fascination that is also apparent in his early films. Blood is vomited in Mother’s Mask (1988) and Menu Total (1986) contains the eerie white-coats-and-doctors scene that would later be incorporated into the video segment of Mea Culpa: A ReadyMade Opera (2009). For Schlingensief, the motif of illness has various functions and meanings. It becomes a symptom of what society has suppressed, of something (the National Socialist past, incest, rape) that breaks out because it can no longer be restrained. But, in contrast to Antonin Artaud (who likened the theatre to the plague with its grotesquely transformative power), the outbreak of illness in these cases does not mark a turning point, a new social beginning, or a resurrection from the smoking ruins. It does not have a cathartic effect; it merely brings the truth to light, without leading to insight. The truth serum of illness does not heal – even though redemption is another central motif in Schlingensief’s work – perhaps for the very reason that it cannot be attained.
The fact that Schlingensief likes to bring up the subject of societal illness has less to do with the desire to provoke than with compassion, indeed with a vicarious suffering that sometimes lends him a touch of the messianic. The supposition of irony or even cynicism is usually incorrect here – techniques of the inauthentic or of distancing are largely foreign to Schlingensief. Rather, it is primarily the techniques of non-integration and non-resolution that are essential to his work.