Becoming Cat, Becoming Irena.

Jim Roberts

Enculturation, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1997

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Near the end of the 1942 version of Cat People Dr. Judd, a pastiche of Freudian jargon and metapsychology, attempts to relieve Irena of her "delusions" that she is becoming (or already is) a cat. Seeing much philosophical and mythological foundations as projections of unconscious properties onto external reality, Judd, and the psychoanalysis he presents, situates Irena's problems squarely in the middle of an opposition(s): reality/imagination, is/like, cat/people, and sane/insane. Psychoanalysis "translates everything into phantasies, it converts everything into phantasy, it retains the phantasy. It royally botches the real, "which is Irena's becoming (A Thousand Plateaus 151). Irena is thoroughly convinced that her family's genealogy controls her future, the fulfillment of which will be her transformation into a cat when she first kisses another. Oliver, her husband, is more than a bit restless with what he sees as Irena's delusions about her familial heritage. For Judd, the way for Irena to overcome her inability to have sex with her husband, or any other for that matter, is for her to confront the unseen forces that compel her to virginity and delusions, thus creating a fight and eventual triumph of the totalizing and dominant power/force. His firm belief in the ability of Irena to overthrow the negative forces at work in (and on) her (body) make for the climatic scene of the film, in which Judd confronts Irena's sexuality, (forcefully) kisses her, and is thus (apparently) mauled by a cat, which we view only as shadows. Whenever a becoming is thwarted, "betrayed, cursed, uprooted from its field of immanence, there is a priest behind it. . . . The most recent figure of the priest is the psychoanalysis, with his or her principles" (A Thousand Plateaus 154). Judd, indeed, thwarts Irena's becoming-cat by disallowing her own action and forcing it on her.

There is no psychologist/psychoanalyst in the 1982 version of Cat People. In fact, there is a more appreciative sense of the delicate and different nature Irena emits. As the earlier version of the film concerns, in some part, the other characters' desires for a mediated center for Irena, the 1982 version concerns the relationship between Irena and other characters without direct mention of cats. Both films, however, deal with a few similar narrative strains: becoming-animal (to use Deleuze/Guattari phraseology) and reception of difference. One of the aims of this essay is to show how similar conceptions (of the animal, of the body, and of otherness and desire) are accounted for in the two versions of Cat People, two films with varied glances at difference and how it is (or is not) articulated. This reading might begin to resemble at some point a discussion of the conflict in attitude between the modernist and the postmodernist conceptions of difference, desire, and body. Indeed, this appearance will (hopefully) prove promising, as a discussion of how these texts handle the process of becoming differently illuminates modernist and postmodernist tendencies.

However, this essay is also a probe into the writing-on-the-body discourse the films take up. That is, the films work in the same dialogue of the written body, yet each produces very different inscriptions. Both versions begin at the same premise: a woman (Irena) has in her biological tree an ancestry of cat-people. Both Irenas initially fear their history and the (problematic) effects it could have on their present lives. However, the earlier version seems to rhetorically condemn her becoming, whereas the 1982 version allows Irena to choose actively her becoming.

First, however, we should note briefly how it is that Deleuze and Guattari look at film theory and philosophy. James Morrison writes that, for Deleuze, "philosophy is a practice, film is a practice, and both are objects" (271). Deleuze treats films in Cinema I and Cinema II as theory in practice. And he views theories of film that are totalizing, like those of Christian Metz, or those of Dr. Judd, as fruitless. Perhaps it is here that the earlier mention of modernism/postmodernism arises: Dr. Judd's totalizing systems represent in many ways the efforts of theory of the 1940s to claim control, complete understanding, and 'explainability' of the theoretical and filmic process. Also, it is the (un)acceptance and (in)articulation of difference in these two films that is most interesting, the ways in which they imply and deal with a discourse of difference. Irena, in both films, is an epitome of difference, of a body of multiplicities.

Deleuze and Guattari attempt to write in a phase of philosophy that is "rhisomatic"; that is, one that operates by difference. Their philosophy pictures its objects as a set of intersections of different and irreducible principles or practices with no guiding rule ("Introduction"). For them, structuralism is aboral, poststructuralism rhisomatic: "Is it by chance that structuralism so strongly denounced the prestige accorded the imagination . . . ?" (236). In the imagination is, among other things, the ability of becoming: "Groups and individuals contain microfascisms just waiting to crystallize" (10-11). They give a sense of ability and regard to individuals and groups who are self-contained "desiring machines." In this discourse, Deleuze and Guattari write a philosophy that deals with representations of power, the body, desire, becoming, and the Other. Here is where our current interests lie: in discovering the ways in which Deleuze and Guattari present a new language of dealing with difference and how these terms are presented in (some contemporary) texts. These issues of immediate interest revolve in one way or another around the representation and articulation of difference. By understanding better how difference in these areas is articulated, we will gain insight into how structuralism and poststructuralism deal with difference in its many articulations.

A conversation takes place between a zookeeper and Irena near the beginning of the 1942 version of Cat People over the black leopard whose cage Irena frequents. In this conversation, Irena refers to the cat as beautiful and graceful, but the zookeeper does not agree and refers to the cat as "an evil critter." He recalls a passage from Revelations that refers to the Great Beast "like unto a leopard." "That's right," says the zookeeper, "Not a leopard, but like a leopard." Surprisingly, the zookeeper is more correct than he realizes, though not about the leopard in the cage. Irena frequents the cage regularly, examining the cat, almost in a daze when transfixed on its coat, movements, and mannerisms. She feels drawn to the cat, and several times recounts how she had to go to the cage to see the cat, sometimes in the middle of the night. Indeed, rhizomatic philosophy does not state that we are like the animal, but that we enter into a relationship with the (our) becoming-animal. This scene with the zookeeper appears relatively early in the film, when we are not fully convinced of Irena's situation, the situation that drives the entire narrative of the film: she fears that she is becoming-animal, becoming-cat specifically. It is no error that the zoo keeper cites from the New Testament, in that he cites exactly the desire for the world (and its inhabitants) to have an immediate presence: the myth of theologocentrism Derrida analyzes in Of Grammatology. The zookeeper and other characters in the film desire a center (for Irena and all else) because they believe that this center would guarantee being as presence.

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari describe that "the becoming-animal of the human being is real, even if the animal the human being becomes is not" (238). This statement encapsulates the narrative plot of Cat People (1942). For Irena, the becoming-animal does not represent a progress, a move toward a utopian of being; it is a terror, one that she continually and openly fights for control over. She is not in this fight alone. Oliver knows for some time that Irena has fears of the cat-ness that inhabited her village in her home country of Romania in the fourteenth century. He tries to help his wife "get a grip on" her delusions, as he sees them, by sending her to Dr. Judd. Oliver has an investment in her loosing her inhibitions: they have not even kissed one another for her fear of turning into a cat when they initially embrace, as the curse says that once embraced by another, she will become cat, forcing her to kill the one who kisses her.

However, Oliver does not believe in Irena's "fantasies," and he chalks them up to superstition, staying with her because he is "strangely drawn to her," attracted yet also frightened. Deleuze and Guattari state that "becoming does not occur in the imagination. . . . Becomings-animal are neither dreams nor phantasy. They are perfectly real" (238). At issue for Irena and Oliver is the question of which reality are they involved in? Irena's, in which the becomings are very real, or Oliver's, which denies the possibility of becoming-animal? At one level, the film seems to side with Irena, in that it allows for the possibility of becoming-animal; though, even in the end, the audience may have a difficult time earnestly deciding on her becoming-end. However, the discourse of the film promotes choosing Oliver's side, opting for Irena to rid herself of the becoming-animal by seeking professional help in Dr. Judd. She wants to rid herself of the possibility of difference, the possibility of becoming anything other than she already is. It is only Irena who believes in animal becomings, and she confronts her becoming not by choice but by force when Judd subjects himself on her. Irena wants the stability she sees in Oliver's life. She wants the assurance of a life not of becomings but of stasis.

By 1982, much changes. Supermarkets have taken over mom-and-pop stores, Wal-mart starts up, and people are beginning to realize the shortcomings of Hegelian dialectics. Overstated? Probably, but in practice people really seem to understand better the unmediated space unaccounted for in Hegel's discourse. Cat People, too, undergoes a sea-change. Just as in the earlier version, Irena is aware that there is cat in her family tree; only now the cat is seen in the form of her brother, Paul, an active cat. At first, her brother's advances, advances to get her to confront her cat-ness, scare Irena; the forces do not agree with her. Thus, the film takes up her becoming-animal, her encounter with forces that agree with her, and "her power of acting is increased and enhanced" as she chooses "to become- animal" (Deleuze, Spinoza 27-8). Thus, for Irena, her choice near the end of the film to actuate her becoming-cat "is the affirmation of the positivity of difference, meant as a multiple and constant process of transformation" (Braidotti 44). Irena realizes that denying her becoming would be to deny her-self, to deny her ability to become-cat.

In 1942, the becoming is a feared process, one that is to be either corrected, imprisoned, erased, avoided, or explained away; by contrast, the remake allows for Irena to become-animal, seemingly encouraging it in some manner, ending with Irena choosing animal even though her choice requires her to be caged in the zoo. This multiplicity does not reproduce a single model, a model of her brother or her clan; rather, Irena's becoming-multiple creates and multiplies difference. In the original film, Irena's becoming-multiple/becoming-animal ends with her death and the death of the cat she visits in the zoo. Her death is the inability of the characters in the film to articulate, comprehend, or confront becoming, multiplicity, difference; indeed, her own inability to identify with her becoming articulates a lack of appreciation for her multiplicity. Within this structuralist framework, the becoming cannot proceed: "Structuralism clearly does not account for these becomings, since it is designed precisely to deny or at least denigrate their existence" (237). Dr. Judd's psychoanalysis attempts to explain away the fantastic of Irena's becoming. Indeed, Irena also attempts to deny her becoming. On their wedding night, Irena decides that she and Oliver should sleep in separate rooms for fear of the curse, the curse of becoming, which she denies yet fears in the same act. As she closes the door on her husband, Irena falls to the floor, behind the closed door, clawing cat-like at the door, panting for desire. That she shuts the door shows her trying to shut the door on her becoming. Yet, her becoming is real, and "human tenderness is as foreign to [her becoming] as human classification," the type Judd attempts to prescribe (244-5). The more recent version has Irena in fear of becoming the animal that her brother is, yet she is also attracted to the animality and mysteries that the becoming holds. This Irena chooses to accept her multiplicity, her becoming as a process of self. These discussions of multiplicities, of becoming-multiple introduce the concept of the body, how Deleuze and Guattari relate it, and how the film creates it. Yet, as we are at an end point of sorts, we must note that for Deleuze and Guattari, it is not the end point but the process that is valorized.

Dr. Judd and Oliver view Irena's body and her soul as a place of conflict in need of repair. Her body, to them, is defected for a desire to become, a desire they try to invalidate. They view Irena's body, the epitome of the flux of active becoming, as a disease awaiting cure. They want to write her body into a correction. Yet her body is in the midst of a becoming. Deleuze takes "the body as the complex interplay of highly constructed social and symbolic forces" (Braidotti 44). It is a matrix of forces, always in flux, always in the act of becoming. Deleuze and Guattari applaud the body that is unorthodox and inherently anti-social (Mullarkey 342). Irena, to her husband, his co-workers, and Judd, certainly fits these strata.

Irena's foreign-ness, her accent, and her strange beliefs in medieval myths classify her as unorthodox. These traits are in contrast with those presented by Oliver and Alice, his co-worker: Oliver is a self-proclaimed "good plain Americano," with simple pleasures and a simple job. In an attempt to relax Irena in her fears of her animal possibilities, Oliver tells her that she does not need to be afraid because he is as "plain as can be." He finds comfort and security in the complete averageness of his existence: he later tells Alice that he has "never known what it meant to be unhappy. I guess I've never been unhappy." His satisfied outlook contrasts with Irena's dread of her future. His comment clashes with her unease. Moreover, Irena admits to Oliver that she has always lived and worked alone, preferring the dark and quite of solitude. She is a solitary figure in a community that enjoys itself. He, in contrast, likes people and the community of others who are like him: average.

J. P. Telott, writing about Cat People, talks of the capture of the body: The general attitude is that cats are only animals, to be kept in boxes at the pet store or cages in the local zoo, to be used as pets, mousers, or visual attractions, and they have no business running free. . . . Modern society, rational and ordered as it is, free from anxieties about the unknown and superstitions about folklore, clearly allots no place for shadows in its makeup (37). Oliver brings a kitten he has purchased for Irena to one of their first dates. When he releases the kitten from the small box (smaller than a shoe box) the cat hisses at Irena. This box confines the animal's movement, restricts it almost completely. Similarly, Oliver wants to contain Irena, to restrict her own possibility of her perceived becoming. The other characters are trying to contain and to inscribe Irena's body: Judd suggests committing her to an institution, and Oliver and Alice help him devise a plan to get her "the help she needs." But, for Deleuze and Guattari, the body is a celebrated flux: "The body for these thinkers is a form of desire, or as they put it, 'desiring production'" (Mullarkey 341). The attempts to contain Irena's body, as suppression of her (believed) becoming, can only forestall, briefly, her becoming-animal; and, according to Mullarkey, the body "can be anything, its number of possible incarnations limited solely by the range of societal demands it might need to fulfill" (339). Irena, as has already been established, is not maintained by societal demands; she negotiates her own space and community.

She has her own smell, too. When Oliver first enters Irena's brownstone apartment, in the earlier version of the film, he comments that the flat has a "warm, living" scent. He recognizes, perhaps accidentally, that everything about her involves the process of becoming-animal. He does not, however, put together these artistic representations of animals with Irena's own becoming. She surrounds herself with the artifacts to comfort her own animality. Even the bow in her hair is tied atop her head, hanging to the side like floppy ears.

Yet, the becoming-animal and the multiplicities involved always involve a pack for Deleuze and Guattari. In the earlier version of the film, Irena seems alone in her becoming-cat, except for the woman in the Belgrade Cafe, "Moya Sestra," my sister. At this point Irena is fearful of her becoming, and she fears the woman, the only character in the film to recognize her process of becoming: "we do not become animal without a fascination for the pack" (239-40). Irena fears the becoming because she knows the becoming is real; otherwise, she wouldn't delay consummating her marriage with Oliver for so long. On their wedding night, Irena tells Oliver that it "would be best if they slept in different rooms." Reluctant and anxious, Oliver assents. As she closes the door, Irena falls to the floor and claws at the door in her own anxiety over her situation. The door separates Irena and Oliver through several cuts just as Irena's becoming separates them symbolically throughout their relationship. Here, though, we will deal with otherness and desire, in other forms than sexual desire; for, the body desires assemblage, multiplicities, just as it desires a pack.

In discussing the concept of nomadology in A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari state that "assemblages are passional, they are compositions of desire" (399). Irena desires from the beginning of the film to understand her becoming, though she initially desires its disappearance. She desires an objective understanding of the becoming; desire and its object are the same thing to Deleuze and Guattari. She desires an understanding of the curse so that she can rid herself of the possibility of difference; she is afraid of this possibility. In the 1982 version the difference becomes the desire, a celebration of difference, as Irena chooses to become-cat, as opposed to the earlier version in which Irena is forced by Judd to continue her becoming. In Deleuzian terms, both figures of Irena are desiring machines, driven by desire. Moreover, they both ingest their becoming directly rather than becoming enmeshed in forms of ideology and representation. Desire's affirmative and relational character attests to its origin in Nietzsche's will to power. This desire flows from a 'machinic' unconscious, which is productive like a factory, rather than from a linguistic unconscious like Freud's and Lacan's, which is representational like a theater. Judd's psychoanalysis codes and reduces the multiplicity of desiring-machines into a subject that is based upon socially exploitable genital sexuality.

What is at the end of the desire for Irena is otherness, an otherness of the becoming-cat and otherness that disrupts the (structuralist) oppressive system they inhabit. Differ^nce for Derrida, transgression for Foucault, and simulation for Baudrillard--however we term it, otherness is the political resistance to the system of modernity that controls and confines Irena. However, for Deleuze and Guattari the desire of otherness is not a negative representation; it is a productive existence that reaches for obtainment of the becoming-other. Dr. Judd sees Irena's desire of otherness as a desire centered around lack. For this psychoanalyst, Irena lacks a stable center; like Freud and Lacan, Judd thinks that Irena longs for the recollected or imagined feelings of unity and harmony, as well as stable unchanging meaning. Judd believes it is primarily narcissistic for Irena to remain willfully in the realm of an idealized Imaginary and to avoid adaptation of the ("Americano") cultural {logic}when faced with a knowledge of the Symbolic. On the other hand, Deleuze and Guattari view this desire of the other as a creative, productive process, one of necessity. Judd's view of Irena's split subject, driven by desire, constituted upon lack, and characterized by transference, is used to reduce, explain, and totalize Irena's desire. Deleuze and Guattari propose a new phase of the Oedipal myth that reveals the cultural construction of this process as opposed to psychoanalytic beliefs in the naturalness of "Oedipalization."

Todd May describes Deleuze and Guattari's discussion of otherness and desire quite well when he writes that desire, under psychoanalysis, "turns desire into lack, turns desire against itself and its own productive nature" (4). May goes on to say that Deleuze and Guattari's analysis, as rhisomatic, of otherness and desire concentrates on "becoming rather than being", and that desire of an(other) indicates "an event rather than a structure, a process rather than a product" (5).

These words fit neatly into our glance at the 1982 Irena. Her desire is created around the other, and her becoming is the active reach toward her desire of the other, the cat she has formerly denied. As psychoanalysis denies the becomings of Irena (and of us all), the end of the century rhisomatic philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari encourage realization and attainment of becoming such as that Irena experiences.

The modern body was a field of conflict (and still is) that witnessed its control and liminality. The body in 1982 is a transforming site of conflict, where culture and society write the past, present, and future (as it always already exists). The post-psychological self created in the 1982 version of Cat People recognizes the activity and ability of an active becoming that is not suppressed or ignored but admitted and studied. A Thousand Plateaus takes as the completion of the task of deterritorialization and proceeds to create a world free of hierarchy and dialectical opposition. Like the writing of Lyotard, that of Deleuze and Guattari seeks an ethics for a postmodern, deconstructed society.

Irena achieves her becoming in 1982, the trail she was on when we first met her in 1942. Her ability to achieve her becoming-cat reflects a society that permits, recognizes, and applauds the differönce apparent in becomings that the 1942 society--at least that of Judd, Oliver, and Alice--tries to suppress. Deleuze and Guattari's writing (especially in A Thousand Plateaus) helps to disarm the fundamental binary opposition with which the cat people myth (in psychoanalysis) is concerned: Irena/Oliver, artistic concerns/scientific concerns, mysticism/psychoanalysis, animate world/inanimate world, and so on. The film also sets up a dichotomy between a platonic/nonsexual relationship (what Oliver has with Alice) and a romantic/sexual relationship (what Oliver seeks with Irena). Yet, this dichotomy is problematized when Irena proves unable to have sex with Oliver--the conflict then becomes one between two nonsexual relationships. And, it is the nonsexual relationship in which sexual desire is ultimately rendered taboo, the nonsexual relationship in which there is apparently no such desire that survives the end of the film.

Deleuze and Guattari's writing continues to grow in popularity among philosophical and theoretical communities. This essay has attempted to document a few means as to the obvious relationship between their rhisomatic discourse and Cat People as a representative text that works within a theoretical framework easily identified through Deleuze and Guattari's philosophy. Finally, we see that as the authors of A Thousand Plateaus lay bare (some of the) shortcomings of the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Lacan, they reconstruct a dialogue that enables an active conception of the body, its becomings, and desire as a positive and productive flow. The two films under consideration also reconstruct an understanding of theoretical implications of late postmodernism.

Works Cited

Brandiotti, Rosi. "Discontinued Becomings: Deleuze on the Becoming-Woman of Philosophy." Journal of the British Society for Phenomonology 24.1 (January 1993): 44-55.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guatarri. A Thousand Plateaus. Brian Massumi, trans. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1987.

Deleuze, Gilles. Spinoza. Robert Hurley, trans. San Fransisco: City Lights, 1988.

"Lowel Rejects Bid to Move Jack Kerouac's Body." San Jose Mercury News (14 Mar 1996): C3.

May, Todd G. "The Systems and its Fractures: Gilles Deleuze on Otherness." Journal of the British Society for Phenomonology 24.1 (January 1993): 3-14.

Morrison, James. "Deleuze and Film Semiotics." Semiotica 88.3/4 (1992): 269-290.

Mullarkey, John C. "Duplicity in the Flesh." Philosophy Today 38.4 (Winter 1994): 339-355.

Telott, J.P. "Structures of Absence: Cat People." Dreams of Darkness. Chicago: Ilinois UP, 1985.

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