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A White Darkness: Maya Deren in Haiti – Bright Lights Film Journal

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Experimental & Underground · Religion & Spirituality · Women in Film
The volition of these dancers is as clear as the sense that it is not their own. Deren mirrors this depersonalization masterfully; her camera splits a man between his reflections, shadows, limbs, and gestures. It reveals the body in its setting. The film itself has a ritualistic quality to the repetition and duration of forms, the animistic play of inert things. The rhythm of gods magnifies in still, slow, delayed, repeated, and reversed motion.
 * * *
In 1946, Maya Deren received the first Guggenheim filmmaking fellowship; her application proposed a study of Haitian voodoo ritual. She divorced her husband and lived nine months in Haiti, returning three times through 1954. She documented the experience in a film titled Divine Horsemen, and in a book by the same name. Her material spanned 20,000 feet of film, 50 hours of sound, 1,000 stills, and nearly no retakes. She held no commercial or educational standing; all documentary negotiations with production companies and universities failed.
Voudoun is an African word denoting “spirit,” what compels men unseen. It denotes a set of ritual practices that harmonize life with its world. Haitians never ask “Do you believe in Voudoun?” but “Do you do it?” A ritual is a choreographed interaction among priests, gods, and worshippers during which music is played, animals are sacrificed, libations poured, and dancers possessed. Possession is the vanishing point toward which all forms of Voudoun converge. It is said that one is mounted by the god (loa), as a horse by its rider. The possession dance does not symbolize any principle but demonstrates it, projecting from physique to psyche. The world is round; it must claim a heaven below if it claims a heaven above. The difference is a matter of time in the world’s turning. Thus, loa dwell in the skies and depths.
Divine Horsemen
The world is a mirror in Voudoun. We dwell merely on the mortal side, with the immortal reflections of all who have ever dwelt with us. Every god was once human, and every human the archetype of a god. The hierarchy is as rigid as it is reversible: possessed, man is reflected in the eyes of gods. To each corresponds a drumbeat, character, and symbol: Ghede masters the abyss, the king and the clown, the corpse and the phallus; he is embarrassingly and terrifyingly insensate. Agwe rules the sea. Erzulie commands all luxuries inessential to propagation, namely love. Erzulie inspires the arts and everything which man can live without, though not as man. She commands all luxuries inessential to propagation, namely love. She “protests that she is not loved enough.”1
Deren applied for the grant after seeing the raw footage of Trance and Dance in Bali (1952), a possession ritual shot by Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead. In the film, a group of girls become witches and a group of men and women nearly and repeatedly stab themselves with knives. It was funded by the Committee for Research in Dementia Praecox as a study of the influence of child-rearing on schizophrenia. Bateson and Mead presented dance, in its externalization of unconscious tensions, as a mitigation of schizophrenia. Deren described her viewing as a “copulation.”2 She determined to avoid the staticisim of Bateson’s camerawork and the didacticism of Mead’s voice-over. She wanted not merely to record possession but to communicate its principle purely through the representation of its movement.

Upon Deren’s arrival she immediately established “unusually sympathetic relations” with the people; a priest let her attend a ceremony for the loa of a temple near Port-au-Prince.3 The rituals are similar: one man chalks symbols with a wooden bowl of cornmeal, another slays a chicken. The camera pans to drumming, singing, and prayer. All dance with the physical commitment of an act at once religious and sexual, “linked on the thread of a single pulse”4 with slow and abrupt homogeneity. They are now undulating and now stiffly flexing, now imperious and now serpentine. The drummers move 50 bodies as one. There are at least a dozen polyrhythmic beats involving three drums pitched at relative intervals. A piece of iron is beaten. If, out of exhaustion, distraction, or possession, the pulse does not hold for a second, the whole breaks.
There are benevolent Rada rites from West Africa and Petro rites of rage from the New World. Voudoun derives from an African congerie displaced to generations of slavery in “the Caribbean hell of Hispaniola,”5 where Spain had all but exterminated native Indians. Deren was the first to recognize that the ceremony that began the Haitian Revolution one July evening in 1791 was a Petro rite. The priest may restrain a god, as the effects of possession on the body are dire. A crippled woman taken by Erzulie moves arthritic knees lithely as a girl. The god leaves, the body collapses, and she is in critical condition for days. Although the pain is usually limited to absolute fatigue, these faces never show such agony and fright as when the god comes. The possessed gains least from his possession.
Divine Horsemen
The volition of these dancers is as clear as the sense that it is not their own. Deren mirrors this depersonalization masterfully; her camera splits a man between his reflections, shadows, limbs, and gestures. It reveals the body in its setting. The film itself has a ritualistic quality to the repetition and duration of forms, the animistic play of inert things. The rhythm of gods magnifies in still, slow, delayed, repeated, and reversed motion. The space of men minimizes in linear and close-up shots. All waxes and wanes in its force: the priest commanding and resisting possession, sacrificial chickens cackling, assistants disputing, gods roaring, laughter. A wind douses the peristyle lantern. It’s relit. Some come late; seats shift. A girl scans for a misplaced handkerchief, a boy sprints off to buy candles or rum. The chaos is eaten and held by the drums, at once vital and solid.
The drumming – somehow without change in beat or volume – grows more and less intense, warding a loa from one man and beating her into another. In such cases, a break in rhythm does not ease but shock the tension. A body staggers, clutches, hurtles. The violence bays, the head lifts, and the eyes are abstracted from their view “as if into or from another world.”6 Sometimes, the beat leaves off both man and god. The priest shakes a rattle with obstinate projection. He speaks, sweats, and screams to bring the body to some identity, mortal or divine. There is, despite and because of all, a general counterclockwise movement around a center-post.
The drummer alone is not an initiate; he alone may wander during prayers, play the ceremonies of another société, or neglect to salute the altar. The drums, on the other hand, are the only objects dressed for baptism, guarded, fed, and put to bed. They are saluted first (after the center-post), and one may win leave from possession by saluting them. This is no inconsistency: drumming is a skill accessible to all able people. If a drummer were to confer the authority of his drum, collective moral organization would depend on one “who happened to be endowed with . . . muscular talent.”7 The rhythm is the sacred form, the man merely its mechanism.
Divine Horsemen
By “sacred” I mean only that some things deserve respect in their own right, not for the purpose of another. Tell a Haitian that his god is idealism, imagination, social conditioning; he will shrug and say: “All that, we call “to have loa.’”8 He would be the first to admit that the gods of men are their archetypes. People live by ritual and unseen tension whether they like it or not. We may only choose which bring us closer to or further from ourselves. After all, it is not the nearness of a man to his god but their distance that comforts him. The man must die if the god is to enter.
Deren shot to cut, planned by eye, and edited little. The temple considered her filming of the ritual a part of the ritual. She recalled countless “nights . . . pushing together shots which would not marry”;9 to isolate any act from its context betrayed the logic of the dance. The frames cohered according to the logic of the movement within the frames. Deren noted that among the dancers there were no individual artists but the loa themselves. Religion cannot depend on the vagaries of its “generally uncreative, often distracted”10 devotees, but levels them against their weaknesses. Genius belongs to the collective alone; its grace is not theirs, but confers it on them. The highest form of this is possession, the extinction of the individual.
Everywhere in Divine Horsemen is an accumulated grace, a centerless balance. Market-bound women trail a supple and steady path along a file of donkeys. They bloom eggplant, carrot, green over green. The percussion of hooves and cadences of Creole spend themselves in the brim of their straw hats. One image is always-already becoming another. It is not force but a fluidity that “the body carries even into its sleep”;11 within even the most squalid hut and beneath the most tattered shirt a pulse and posture. It is, after all, form and not matter that sets the Madonna apart from a peasant with a shawl. It is a matter of distancing man from the accidents of space and time, even if this distance is yet subject.
Divine Horsemen
In every frame, short cutting and long panning blends the individual into collective motion. Deren never finished filming; she fled a pro-Western military coup. Joseph Campbell asked her to write a monograph for Myth and Man. It has seven chapters: mythology, the New World, gods, priests and worshippers, rites, drumming, and dancing. It ends with a narrative of Deren’s own possession, titled “The White Darkness.”
She came late that evening. The drums had snared and the singing had warmed. She saluted the drums and kissed a saber. The music grew and sharpened. The pauses were nearly worse; silence magnified the heat. The rhythm was demanding, then rounding, then rolling, until the earth beneath one’s feet pounded as a drum. There was a tower of sound above and below the ear’s power. The bodies suggested water; she knew not what grace absolved them of the “fatigue, failure, and fall”12 she feared. Then a foul lightness, a strange, and subtle thinning of consciousness as of fog under a breeze. She knew herself vulnerable and repeated: “Hold together, hold, hold.”13 Demand, insist, and tighten.
The drum breaks. Some keel as if stunned by a blow. Others catch the dead weight. Gods seize the bodies. Tremors. Centerless and splintered stasis. With the priest mounted, no one remains to arbitrate. Her neighbor freezes on his leg. She does not wish to watch this. It is not enough to invoke God in the body, she thinks; one must restore it to the earth. She could push through this gone mass, cross the smooth and trampled court, walk the cool and rutted length to her hut. She could rest, hearing no drums at all but when the faint and fitful wind would turn.
But to resist is one thing; it is not fair to come for an ecstasy and leave for an ache. One must move, “victor or victim . . . in the terms one has accepted.”14 The drums and song, unbearable. How little the bodies relate, though moving as one. The whole is no sum of its parts: each is in-turned, the sound heard by each singly. The god holds only by such mirrors. The breaks are sparse and the air heavy and wet. One digging contraction of muscle, one labored pounding of pulse.
Suddenly or not suddenly, nothing was difficult. The awareness was a sudden thing. A wind caught in the full of her skirt. A smile spread. She studied the others and saw to where they were removed, and then there was only terror, and shafts of terror struck. A strange and rooted numbness in the leg. She’d wrench it loose and her sense of self would double and split and the dead space between the fright would widen. A white darkness drove it “like the point of a stake, into the ground.”15 Could not sustain, could not contain. Too light to see, this is its darkness. The effort to free it threw her into a holding mesh of arms.
Divine Horsemen
Suddenly or not suddenly, the wall of sound was a well. She gave, earthward and skyward at once. Erzulie mounted her. Air and surface. She rose – not by her motion, but like some unborn, undead thing from the bottom of the sea. How clear seemed the world in that “first total light,” form without “the shadow of meaning.”16 Everything looked equally lucid and undelayed, before the imposed emphasis of eyes. Yet, even as she looked, the forms gave to their meanings – the night, the white linen, the people, life “still quivering from its labor.”17 No order, only a pattern of ache with no order.
Deren once aided a priestess in taking out to sea a ceremonial boat for Agwe. As the boat and devotees left land, Maya left sight. They prayed, scanned, and rattled; no sign. They chanted, and saw her far, far out in the sea. She spread her arms and waved herself over the tides. She and the priestess sung in unison, asking the gods to protect their children. Maya moved closer, dancing; before the boat, arms outstretched, within. She ultimately became a kanzo (initiate by fire). After that, said her interpreter, “she became very strong . . . and when she was filming it was always good.”18
Voudoun cosmology recognizes a time delay in the mirror between mortals and their immortal reflections. When a woman, she is not immediately revealed as a god because of the difficulty people have in forgetting. Only when her death is forgotten is she an ancestor, and only when her humanity is forgotten is she an archetype. Possession is a matter of synchronizing the time of gods with human time, a backward and forward balance of source and surface. Deren insisted on restoring to possession its temporal logic, and so filmed much in slow motion. Rapid, fluid dances are structured of “pulsations and agonies, indecisions and repetitions,”19 beauty structured of brutality.
Divine Horsemen
Deren returned from Haiti, met a dancer named Chao-Li Chi at a Greenwich Village party, and made with him what Stan Brakhage deemed her most personal film: Meditation on Violence (1948). She doesn’t appear in it. The camerawork attests to her presence, moving as she breathes, in total relation to the dancer. The film bears no quality that is not felt as part of the frame; even the shadows and shadowlessness of the dancer are choreographed.
Chi was trained in Wu-Tang, denoting “interior boxing.” It is a school of Tai Chi based in the principle that life is a constant negative and positive exchange. It embodies this physically, as motion in accordance with breath. They worked in her apartment, pushed the furniture to the kitchen, and hung white photographer’s paper along the walls. The collaboration began with argument: the Chinese ideal seemed opposite to the Haitian. “Tai Chi” denotes “ultimate form.” It controls nature, which amounts to not allowing it to possess one.
But the ultimate form is not the perfect but the formless, which is the changing. Change means not that one thing dies, but that there is no beginning or end. Likewise: “Possession is the becoming of an identity, it is not the freeing of one’s identity.”20 That which moves may take every possible form; one sets oneself apart from death only ever in motion. Movement is itself the meditation.
Meditation on Violence describes this idea temporally. Deren asked Chi only to move as he knew. She filmed, cut, re-edited, doubled, reversed to form a continuous exchange between her presence and raw movement, the yielding and unyielding. There is a lone flute. She intended “an emergence from softness into harshness.”21 The beauty holds its balance, however brutal, and backwards as much as forwards. The camera is partner to the dancer, tracing his force.
Closed space is inappropriate to force, expressed or documented. With a jump, the Wu-Tang meditation cuts to a Shaolin sword dance; the scene shifts to open air and sky. Haitian drums follow the flute. The dancer confronts the camera, and the camera the dancer. He moves as in a dream, when one forgets oneself and sees everything clear and slow, by a logic that does not start nor end with the eye. Deren: “The ultimate of an extreme becomes its opposite. Here the ultimate violence is paralysis.”22
Divine Horsemen
But to know one’s force, however brutal, is, at least, to know; to know another’s is to doubt. The climax is stasis. With hard and whirling cuts from long to close-up shots, the dancer leaps; in midair, the frame tips to a point of silence and paralysis. Deren: “we begin to hear and see an action which continues – from before our vision and after our vision ceases.”23 The dance reverses to the meditation with which the film began.
As we live we accumulate a force, in brutality and grace, that we seek to justify; what force possesses us in others mirrors our own. In Deren’s every film she moves faster than a reflection she cannot hold or escape. In Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), she holds a knife and strides toward herself, crossing a different landscape in every shot as though toward a future before her time. In Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), she dances with a man and sees him posed on a pedestal. When he moves toward her approach, she runs into the sea as he follows. But to talk of holding and escaping one’s reflection begs the question. Along a line of beauty and brutality we trace our image. If one could only quit, and hold the life alone.
Her final work, The Very Eye of Night (1958), frees life from its mirror: “the film is in the negative . . . released from the leveling pressure of this plane, the movements both of the dancers and the camera become as four-dimensional and directional as those of birds in air or fish in water.”24 Sequins shake raggedly along a black scrim like stars in a child’s dream. Dancers glide, related by no external act but gravity alone. The frame’s balance is always perfect, because the balance between the bodies framed is nearly pure. It is said in Voudoun that people are the shadow of God, which is light – that which is made and makes visible. Here, possession in its barest form: the embodiment in time of the unseen, which are ideas.
Divine Horsemen
But what is visible is mortal. Like they say of one’s father, of sacredness there is only too much or too little. At some time in everyone there is a vague and hellish exhaustion of possible relation to life until nothing holds but seems a way out of it. Life does not end here, but yields no further value. It is said that a dancer mounted by the loa “creates a plane of earth where his foot has been,”25 kept from the void by a pulse. How to live both with and beyond uncertainty?
There is a scene in Divine Horsemen that I will never forget. A man paints curling and crosshatched symbols on hard dirt. The camera pans to a Rada rite. Two men shuffle, jerk, and sway within a circle of seated drummers. They do not see each other, but are possessed of the same moment. When they become gods they do not sing, smile, or speak. They drop to their knees and kiss the earth beneath the feet of those who surround them. Possession is not a matter of the body, but of what the body can bear.
Works Cited
Deren, Maya. “Chamber Films.” In Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film, 250-254. Edited by Bruce R. McPherson. Kingston: McPherson and Company, 2005.
Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Edited by Joseph Campbell. London:Thames and Hudson, 1953.
Kudlácek, Martina, dir. In the Mirror of Maya Deren. 2002; New York: Zeitgeist Films, 2002. DVD.
Mollona, Massimiliano. “Seeing the Invisible: Maya Deren’s Experiments in Cinematic Trance.”October 149, no. 1 (2014): 159-180.
Sullivan, Moira. “Maya Deren’s Ethnographic Representation of Myth and Ritual in Haiti.” In Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, 207-234. Edited by Bill Nichols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
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Selen Ozturk
Selen Ozturk was born in Istanbul and raised in the Bay Area. She was educated in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design and in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. Her recent publications include Monday Journal, Spring Journal, and the Penn Review of Philosophy. She lives in San Francisco.
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