Even if you missed Joaquin Phoenix’s staggeringly weird appearance on Letterman in mid-February, you probably caught some of the Internet aftershock. The clip was an instant YouTube classic and blog speculation spiralled from there: did Phoenix have a drug problem? Was it all some kind of hoax? Did it connect with his much-hyped retirement from acting or his putative foray onto the rap scene?
Then on March 12, Phoenix hurled himself off a stage in Miami Beach to attack a heckler in his audience. It was the highlight of an otherwise vapid hip-hop performance; Phoenix showed up four hours late at LIV nightclub to nod and mumble into his microphone. The confrontation was just what the crowd had been waiting for, another link in this bizarre chain of events and the supplier of some welcome entertainment: Phoenix bragged about his bank account and was dragged off the heckler by security. The fact that Casey Affleck caught the whole thing quietly on camera – Affleck announced in January that he was making a documentary on his brother-in-law’s new career – was enough to secure great headlines. “Heckler Brawl downgraded to Staged Hug,” wrote New York Magazine. “The Rap, The Fight…The Hoax?” from Reuters.
The best part of this increasingly ridiculous debacle is that Phoenix, growing ever hairier, maintains that his rap career is not in jest. But with each new development, media pundits seem that much keener on exposing the hole in the charade. What are they really trying to prove? A post-heckler AP article stated that it was still inconclusive whether Phoenix’s vow to quit showbiz and start rapping was “real or put-on.” The assumption is that somewhere down the line, Phoenix’s intentions will make themselves manifest. But maybe Joaquin has stumbled upon the one domain of performance that will forever elude the public mind. Literary theorists will remind you that authorial intention died a cruel death in the sixties at the hand of deconstructionist Roland Barthes. We can never really know the extent Phoenix’s sincerity; he might very well not know it himself. So what’s the actual anxiety at stake here?
Russophiles may have noticed an interesting dimension to the Letterman appearance. Phoenix, barely intelligible at times and sporting a bushy Kulak beard was there, allegedly, to promote his new film, Two Lovers. The movie won’t even receive a Canadian release and has been all but forgotten beneath the shenanigans of its two main stars. Gwyneth Paltrow can’t out-weird Joaquin but she certainly put up a good fight via the promotion of her website GOOP and its pledge to “nourish the inner aspect.” Still, the upstaged film is curiously relevant. It’s based loosely on Dostoevsky’s story White Nights, and Phoenix, sitting back in his Late-Night armchair, edgy and withdrawn, looked more than a little like the Russian auteur himself. That is, minus the Ray-bans. Moreover the question – was it real, was it fake – is an essential Dostoevsky conundrum. Illusion submerging reality is a reoccurring theme across the canon of Dostoevsky’s work and plays out atypically in this lesser-known story.
Dostoevsky wrote White Nights in 1848, a year before his defining ordeal in front of the Tsar’s firing squad. Sentenced to death with a group of fellow intellectuals, the twenty-nine year old writer stood out in the cold and waited to be shot. While critics often cite this mock-execution and his subsequent exile in Siberia as the root of trademark Dostoevskian existentialism, White Nights suggests that the author’s philosophical inclination predates his ordeal.
The story is narrated by a lonely, reclusive man who walks the streets of St Petersburg by night, consumed by a vivid internal world of shadow and delusion. A self-professed dreamer, the protagonist describes himself as “not a human being, but a creature of an intermediate sort. For the most part (I) settle in some inaccessible corner, as though hiding from the light of day.” If this conjures an image of Phoenix, mumbly and paranoiac, swearing at Paul Shaffer and sticking his chewed gum under Letterman’s desk, the parallel ends there. In fact Phoenix, as he demonstrated in Miami, is much more like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, beset by the “cruelty of society,” unable to look his colleagues in the eye and finding solace only in their humiliation. One of the most ironic sound-bytes from the Letterman incident was Phoenix, irked by audience laughter, turning towards his host and asking: “What do you have them on? What do you gas them up with?”
What is most significant about the Phoenix-White Nightscontinuum is the question of authenticity at the heart of both. When the latter’s narrator collides with the outside world via a chance encounter with a woman on the street, he holds that his imagined history is no less meaningful than her actual one. They swap stories of respective heartbreak, hers real, his illusory, and as their relationship develops the anxiety over realism expands again. What is taking place between them?
For the man, it is an exhilarating romance, the most vivifying experience of his life, as though his surroundings had instantly been redrawn in hyper-colour. For the woman, the relationship is comforting but platonic. Their perceptions of what’s transpiring are so at odds that, if presented with the other’s point of view, both would surely call it ludicrous, a mockery, a hoax. Then, for a few brief pages, their worlds seem to converge. But this interlude of would-be authenticity, a reality legitimized through mutual endorsement, turns out to be the most ephemeral of all. The story’s denouement comes via a fulminating twist of fate that whisks the woman elsewhere and blasts the narrator back to his original isolation. Is the narrator shattered by this abandonment? Not really. He relives the romance perpetually in the camera obscura of his internal world.
The Dostoevskian thesis at play that can resonate with the YouTube crowd is that authenticity may have little to do with mutual endorsement at all. Like beauty, it might exist only in the eye of the beholder. On March 12, the Rolling Stone online wrote that Phoenix could prove his rap career wasn’t a stunt by “actually releasing a song.” How would this prove anything? Chances are that if Phoenix did release a song or, god forbid, sign a record deal, it would top charts and sell copiously thanks to this onslaught of pre-promotion. And when Casey Affleck’s “documentary” hits theatres down road, there’s little doubt of a busy box office.
But will this go anywhere insofar as confirming that the exercise was not “put-on?” Of course not. All it can possibly suggest is that if “put-on,” it’s been put-on masterfully. In this post-postmodern era that’s ditched reality TV in favour of quasi-reality MTV, Phoenix has brilliantly located the last vestige of exclusivity: intentionality. There’ll be no network contract in Joaquin’s sock drawer to reveal plot-manipulation in the fine print and the public isn’t sure how to handle this. Phoenix hasn’t chosen dramatized reality as his medium; he’s chosen reality proper. And despite the proliferation of all-things CCTV, our private intentions are still our own. That is, if we can find the psychoanalytical insight to understand them, or can pay someone enough to find it for us.
There’s a giant philosophical tradition called to mind here—Plato’s cave, Husserl’s phenomenology. It’s the idea that, as meaning is unknowable, it’s wiser to stick to how things seem. Like Dostoevsky’s nocturnal wanderer, Joaquin’s faith in his own construction is a matter between him and himself. If you care to watch its evolution through the window of your YouTube screen, well, sit back and enjoy the spectacle. But don’t expect an enlightening finale.
[Martha Schabas holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She is currently completing her first novel.]