Category Archives: Creative Personalities in the Humanities

The American Mind Opens to Psy

In 1987 Professor Allan Bloom, previously of Cornell University, published The Closing of the American Mind, protesting what he called the 2 uncritical beliefs of contemporary American undergraduates: their belief that truth is relative and their moral commitment to equality. What proceeded was a sweeping account of a philosophical error which Bloom thought to have overtaken Western philosophy in the time of the Renaissance–namely the premise that man’s passions can be disciplined and directed towards productive pursuits, that the human lot overall could be improved through the widespread correction of prejudice and cruelty with the rational faculty and the satisfaction of material needs. This focus of Liberalism on utility, he argued, had weakened the moral integrity of the west until it fell prey to the opportunistic contagion of Fascism and Communism–and in his own time, multiculturalism.

Well, we have now witnessed the consummation of whatever process Bloom was so afraid of. On September 14th, while you were probably at unawares, Korean rapper Psy literally remade Cornell University in his own image–and he did so not through conscious effort but by way of the willing aspirations of a fleet-footed avatar. No-doubt the shade of Professor Bloom solemnly intoned that the West finally fell just 11 days ago, on Ho Plaza, Gangnam-style:

In any case, props to Psy: He did something truly different, and now a lot of people want to do it just like him, too.

Korean Rapper Psy, whose odd appearance and offbeat dance moves have interacted with his Korean pop credentials and lively sense of humor to make him pretty much hands-down the most-famous Korean pop artist ever, owing to the near-instant worldwide fascination with his recent single, “Gangnam Style.” Maybe it’s time I reviewed Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s primer on the constant potential for the unanticipated big event, The Black Swan.

Clearly, Peggy Noonan Hasn’t Seen The Wild Bunch

“Did ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ cause the Aurora shootings? No, of course not. One movie doesn’t have that kind of power…” Don’t worry, Noonan will soon drop this relative calm and start making lots of illogical assertions about how Hollywood–after all these years and its welcome tendency of recent years to take violence a lot more-seriously–is destroying America. Copyright 2012 Warner Bros. Pictures.

Peggy Noonan still blames violence in entertainment for the Violence in Our Society.  (Note: All consternation caps are ironic.)  Actually, she makes 2 arguments:
1.) Violence in entertainment encourages children to act more-aggressively, and
2.) Violence in entertainment unhinges the insane, who are more-impressionable.

I wasn’t aware that the deeply-disturbed were up-to-date in their consumption popular culture; they may well be more-impressionable, but Noonan elides impressionability in a personal context with the explicit and unreflective ingestion of popular culture images; the latter should be more-recognizable from the cases of mass murder we’ve seen if it’s the principal catalyst.  And when madmen carried out their killing sprees in that golden age of the early 1960s (news flash: it happened), who were they modeling themselves after back then, Lawrence of Arabia?  If study after study shows that children who watch violent entertainment become more-aggressive in their behavior, that’s not surprising at all; children imitate others, particularly adults, constantly.  They are trying to learn, and mostly just have what is directly in front of them to work with.  But this bad behavior is mostly a form of play–a problem, granted, and one that must be addressed with proper disciplining–but Noonan’s thesis is wrong if depictions of violence in one’s popular culture don’t correlate with higher levels of violent crime, or at least a higher concentration of sociopaths in a society.  The former is known to be incorrect; the latter argument I have not heard advanced by an academic.

Anyway, crime–including violent crime–is actually at an all-time low nationwide.  This has been linked to the increased sophistication of police protection, which suggests that crime rates are influenced more by strategic considerations than Noonan’s condescending insistence that we are all sponges that can only release what we soak up (and that we soak everything we see up).  I don’t see much evidence that the younger generation of kids are more-violent than past generations; even the plague of cyber-bullying (and I do accept that as a plague) suggests that cruel children are content to shift from aggressive to passive-aggressive forms of cruelty.  This clashes with any strong form of the “desensitization” thesis.

…Now, *this* guy *did* make us more-violent, Noonan avers, bringing all her sociological insight to bear on the problem. Copyright 2008 Warner Bros. Pictures.

Look, everyone–A Conservative is decrying the moral decadence promoted by Hollywood!  Noonan has the theory she likes and seems impervious to more easily-supported explanations of rampages: Our overall murder rate is several times as high as Britain’s (as is our rate of murder with guns, not coincidentally), but she has nothing to say about how easy it is to buy guns in this country and the 1-sided role this fact plays in extreme but cowardly acts of violence.  (States with fewer regulations on gun sales do in fact have higher rates of homicide with guns, and for the most part of homicide overall.)  She even makes the perfunctory nod to nostalgia, telling us that it was all so very different, oh, 23 years ago. Apparently Jack Nicholson’s 1989 Joker was non-threatening and unreal.  “He was meant to amuse,” she says–which either makes me wonder how recently she’s seen Tim Burton’s Batman or suggests that movies actually take violence much more-seriously now than they did then.  She notes that 2008’s The Dark Knight was a very dark film–though it involved less indiscriminate killing than Burton’s 1989 Batman and made Batman’s philosophical refusal to kill (which Burton rather crassly discarded back in those halcyon days of the late-1980s) a central theme of its narrative.  She reacts to the cerebral darkness of that movie as a sign that we have lost our way!  Staring a positive cultural development in the face, she sees only a predictable step in our now-unstoppable descent into madness.

Speaking of the descent into madness: Noonan found Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker “amusing” rather than violent or morbid (as I did). If I’m following her correctly, portrayals of violence as funny and ironic are innocent; it’s the portrayals of violence as serious stuff which desensitizes us. Copyright 1989 Warner Bros. Pictures.

Most-unfortunately, Noonan has nothing to say about the media’s relentless and weirdly un-self-conscious role in glorifying the homicidally-insane.  No, it’s the movies that are doing it.

It would be nice to see us emerge from our political stupor about the pervasiveness of gun violence, which we can certainly do more to prevent than we have without violating the 2nd Amendment.  It would be nice for the media to get a clue about their role in inspiring copycat murderers.  It would be nice for people who decry the violence in our culture to actually have a grasp on the decline of crime (and, arguably, of violent sentiments in people’s minds).

Finally, it would be nice if those indulging the unrecognized weakness of inveterate contempt for the present could see that they have a problem–which, while subtle, pervades their thoughts and feelings (particularly in the case of their hazy recollections about the past).  If they recognized this conceit of judgment, maybe then they wouldn’t point to an act of violence by an insane person (those who by definition keep their own counsel) and then point to a representation of violence (which can be made edifying or exploitative), and then say (with a lack of irony that Noonan attributes to the insane without irony), “You see? People can’t tell what is real!”

Please return to your regularly-scheduled programming.

Prometheus

“Great things have small beginnings.” David (Michael Fassbender) has no idea what he has at the tip of his finger, but he does know how to find out. As he learned from his favorite movie, “The trick…is not minding it hurts.”  The only confusion is about who is supposed to suffer.

I’ve previously written that my favorite film directors often simply want to make the same movie over and over again.  To really love their work is to be game for this perfectionist endeavor, to appreciate the refinement and expansion of an old theme, and not to be overly-concerned with eclecticism and novelty in the movie-going experience.

Prometheus–I will try to downplay spoilers–is director Ridley Scott‘s most-developed homage to his own past work.  His filmography includes 2 films that re-defined the science fiction genre just 3 years apart (Alien, Blade Runner), a gripping but grueling war film (Black Hawk Down), interesting portrayals of corruption and dysfunction in American law enforcement and intelligence (American Gangster, Body of Lies), and alternately took liberties or speculated about history in order to create mythology relevant to the present (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven).  And though few directors have had as many visionary triumphs as he has, from time to time his movies have simply been awful (Hannibal).

And one of the things about Prometheus  that have intrigued me the most, as its opening weekend draws to a close, is the polarizing effect it has had upon audiences.  Though reviews have tended to be positive, and the film was very well-received by critics, there is a deep divergence of opinion between those who loved Prometheus and those who hated it.

Exploration begins…

I was among those who loved it.  I’ll say no more about the basic course of the plot than can be gleaned from the film’s many trailers: Archaeological evidence from many primitive yet comparatively-advanced cultures across the Earth consistently reveals a map of a star cluster in a distant part of the Galaxy–so distant, in fact, that were it not for the almost-impossible coincidence of its depiction in these early societies so temporally and geographically distant from one another, there is still no way they could have observed it with the unaided eye.  So, with an optimistic investment of $1 trillion by the Weyland Corporation (still a lot of money, I take it, in 2089), the leaders of that project and a crew of 15 others set-out for the only terrestrial body in that star cluster found to be capable of supporting life.  This turns out to be a large moon of a gas giant planet with disappointingly-toxic levels of carbon dioxide and dangerously-abrasive sandstorms on its surface.  But the expedition hasn’t traveled that far into space to look for traces of naturally-occurring alien life; they have gone, quite literally, to meet their makers.

The Prometheus in orbit around a gas giant planet. Its voyage ends on a large moon.

Another major plot point can be gathered directly from the trailers: The power to create life from scratch and the power to destroy it seem to be inherently-linked–or at least the Engineers, as they are called, didn’t distinguish between them.  “We were so wrong!” 1 of our protagonists laments in a trailer.  Indeed, our protagonist has an almost-foolish confidence about her in the providential nature of what she will find.  There is an explicit suggestion that her religious faith led her to reach-out trustingly towards what she hypothesized are her creators; in fairness, other characters prove to be prone to blasphemy or even sacrilege, and they exhibit the same self-assurance, bordering on sleepwalking.

Don’t worry, she’ll figure it out…

The characters of Prometheus (mostly) have an earnestness to them, but should feel familiar to those familiar with Ridley Scott’s filmography, or with the Alien series.  There’s a robot with a murky agenda, a corporate minder, a salty captain, a corporate executive with a deep-seated need to achieve grandiose ambitions, and a complete crew of the sort of gruff oddball specialists you could entice to voyage into deep space with a secret destination and purpose.  Then there’s the heroine, somehow less-mysterious than Warrant Officer Ripley in Alien but nonetheless resourceful and resilient–able to act when alone.  (This doesn’t change the fact that she is almost stupidly-naive when we meet her, but oh my will she learn.)  These characters aren’t just of a familiar type from the Alien series but in some cases from Blade Runner.  There are themes that are as familiar (or more-familiar) from some of Scott’s other films: The total immorality of corporate power (Blade Runner), the dangers of self-assurance and the presumption of the routine (Black Hawk Down, American Gangster, Body of Lies), and even stranger common threads such as the erstwhile-living begging for a fiery death (virtually obligatory in the Alien series), a misanthropic verbal reference to parricide (Blade Runner, Gladiator), and the sense of danger and inevitable disappointment in confronting one’s maker (Blade Runner).  The richness of self-allegory in Prometheus affords Scott–like other directors including Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, Terry Gilliam, David Fincher, and Darren Aronofsky–to tell us his favorite story again, but with a different, more-unitary significance from the other times.

A Mystery Box opens. They don’t belong here. No one does.

Prometheus was written in part by Damon Lindelof, 1/2 of the team of writers that led the groundbreaking TV series LOST through 6 seasons of ambiguities both of context and character to what for many was a frustrating conclusion.  I was game for it then, and I’m game for it now.  Much like my beloved TV series LOST or the J.J. Abrams-Matt Reeves monster feature Cloverfield, some of Prometheus’ questions are settled by outside material–in this case, a viral video.  Peter Weyland, the corporate executive whose goals almost re-define hubris, appears in a 2023 TED talk to ruminate on the wildly-accelerating nature of technological change.  Reflection on telescoping technological change dates back at least to the 1600s.  But consider the manipulation of nature possible now, then consider what past generations of futurists described as “godlike” power.  What we can do now already renders the “past future” as far inferior.  It provokes a reaction like vertigo.

“We are just 3 months into year of our lord, 2023,” Weyland goes on, “At this moment in our civilization, we can create cybernetic individuals–who, in just a few short years, will be completely indistinguishable from us.”  This means the robot David (portrayed by Michael Fassbender in a performance that may even exceed the iconic pitch he achieved as the emerging villain Magneto in X-Men First Class) hasn’t been created at this time.  We can further infer from this that David loves Lawrence of Arabia because he was made that way.

“It must have been horrible to lose Dr. Holloway like that after losing your father under such similar circumstances. What was it, then–ebola?”
“…How do you know that?”
“I watched your dreams.”

Weyland continues: “…Which leads to an obvious conclusion: We are the gods now…”  He says it with certainty but a measure a trepidation, and there is grumbling from the audience.  However, he goes on to finish his self-introduction to great applause.  Weyland masterfully escalates his presentation to this rousing conclusion–and it’s the wrong conclusion.  It’s woefully wrong.  The central tragedy in Prometheus is essentially the same as that of the corporate executive in Blade Runner: We amass godlike powers to reconstitute nature’s substance yet always remain entirely-human, bound by the limitations and vulnerabilities of that substance itself.  Our own rapidly-advancing technology has done nothing to change this fact, so we must face our mortality at the end of a life so much more-brilliant and empowering than what was possible in past centuries.  By the climax, we see how plainly this cruel irony of our enduring mortality has consumed Weyland.

He invokes Lawrence of Arabia–as the android crewman will many times–in particular, the early scene in which Lawrence, then wasting-away in Cairo, extinguishes a match flame between his fingers for the entertainment of his military fellows.  The movie opens with the same.  “You’ll do that 1 time too many.  You’re only flesh-and-blood!” 1 man exclaims.

Lawrence brushes this warning off with mirth.  But that warning is even more the story of Peter Weyland than it is of Colonel Lawrence.  It’s equally the story of the Engineers who our protagonist went to space to find.  They are able to manufacture life of astonishing complexity from its base components in mere hours of percolation.  The explorers of this windswept moon discover in short order that this race of creators finally created life so prolific, dynamic, and aggressive that they couldn’t make use of what they created.  Of course, by then the explorers do make contact–but not at all with what they expected.

Yes, the light is dazzling. But it will go out. And then there will only be what the Enginneers left in that place when they abandoned it or died, thousands of years ago.

I would be remiss as a Liberal Ironist if I passed up a good opportunity to remind people that cruelty is the worst thing we do.  There is a lot of cruelty on display in this film, some of it petty and surplus, some of it monstrous and purposive.  In a filmed correspondence to the crew of the Prometheus, Weyland calls David “the closest thing I will ever have to a son,” but says David, being an android, doesn’t have “a soul.”  (At that moment the look on David’s face says to me that he’s lost–a very-soulful state.)  David has to deal with quite a lot of disavowal of his humanity, merely because he is a synthetic person.  Most of this torment comes from 1 of the researchers, who almost experiences despair when his hopes of meeting an Engineer are dashed, but when asked by David why humans created him, says tauntingly “Because we could.”  Out of all of them, only David is unfazed by the possibility that the Engineers have no compassion for humanity, that they may have created us “because they could,” that they may see in us only lab rats expropriating prime real estate.  There is a suggestion here that the capacity to create and shape life is followed close by the temptation to see life–even sapient life–as a malleable object rather than having an inherent worth and dignity.  The Engineers’ talents–as far as we are allowed to see–emphasize conversion of previously-meek organisms into extremely-resilient predators.  (Director Scott personally offered the theory that this technology was intended for military purposes.)  In the end they produced something volatile beyond their own reckoning and means of control.  As Christopher Nolan put into the mouth of Nikola Tesla in The Prestige, “You are familiar with the saying, ‘Man’s reach exceeds his grasp?’  This is wrong.  Man’s grasp exceeds his knowledge.”  As our powers become more-godlike, so do the moral and practical hazards become more-fraught, of confusing ourselves with gods.  We see not the cruelty we do, and we cannot foresee the injury we bring to ourselves.  We remain very human.

“We are the gods now”? Peter Weyland: Hear him out, but don’t let him confuse you.

Christopher Hitchens: Just the Man

A friend of mine observed upon news of the sudden death of North Korean despot Kim Jong-Il how unfortunate it was that Christopher Hitchens did not at least live long-enough to witness his demise an ironic 2 days after his own.  I both agreed and felt it wasn’t so inherently-tragic: While Hitchens’ own tireless passion for the liberation of peoples suggests he is among those who believe that nothing is providential or inevitable about the struggle against despotism, both his prose and his public speech suggest the quality of a champion of enlightenment and liberation who suspects he will not have to contend with his adversaries for long–at least not in historical terms.

In an age of vulgar peddlers of fruitless confrontation and eloquent pleaders for civil accommodation, Christopher Hitchens was neither.  His was an eloquent plea for vitalizing confrontation.  He was a fine Nietzschean agonist, allowing that a mostly-conventional Democratic Socialist can be a Nietzschean agonist.  He was a mid-20th century leftist-populist all his life, inspired by George Orwell both in his embrace of the traditional movement for Social Democracy and in always volunteering his prose for the offensive against those who seek to close down debate through assertions of authority.  His particular revulsion towards religion led him to the enthusiastic (though not unqualified) embrace of President George W. Bush’s War on Terrorism and Iraq War, making the otherwise-unreconstructed Social Democrat into a Neoconservative for the rest of his life.  In 1 of his last publications before his death, Hitchens defended—with visible trepidation—our government’s intentional killing of a US citizen working with al-Qaeda in Yemen earlier this year.

Given this strange combination of influences and motions, each of which simultaneously made Hitchens “cool” and “not cool” to the more-dogmatic partisans of the left and the right, eulogies for the British reporter, author and polemicist have focused on his integrity.  This is considerable, for while many of Hitchens’ views were in substance more-moderate than those of the associations he made by them, his brilliance in expressing condemnation, contempt and counter-intuitive provocation meant that he would often sound like a committed partisan when he was in fact a studies recruit—and to stretch the military metaphor, an officer at that.  His reasons were at times thoughtful, at times less-so, but always clear.  While his passions were always substantively-political, he might still be best-understood as a writer.  No one can express himself so well without that very fact affecting everything he does.

Somehow I’m still skirting the subject of Christopher Hitchens the polemicist.  This would be the time to note that Hitchens’ success as a public intellectual is about the presence of a particular vice among his obligatorily-recited virtues: Hitchens could be as expressively-shrill as he was substantively-rational.  In short, he developed his talent for drawing blood with prose because he was a hothead.

If you have any doubt of this, consider that Hitchens was beaten and almost kidnapped by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party—a Lebanese Facist faction—after he defaced one of their publicly-displayed swastikas with the Mother of All Curse Words.  Was he in the right?  Of course.  Was he doing something impulsive at great personal risk, with naught but a personal sense of satisfaction to be gained?  Of course.

What are we to say in response when, at the outset of the War on Terror, Hitchens’ opening remark is simply “You want to be a martyr? I’m game.”?  William F. Buckley Jr., that part-Paleoconservative, pre-New Right founder of the National Review, expressed himself similarly though more-mutedly, in “So You Want a Holy War?”  Hitchens’ enthusiasm for a war against zealots, I suspect, was motivated not by the exact character or identity of those on whom we would make war, or by their intention or capability to do us harm.  Hitchens seemed as eager as anything simply to rinse the World of religious fundamentalism, as if this conflict really were of the same nature as 1 immense war against Fascism, or perhaps like many large wars against Communism fought across 2 generations.  Now, as domestic protest movements topple long-ruling dictatorships and amidst the transitions we frantically try to sort-out the “good Islamists” from the “bad Islamists”—there is a difference and we had better develop an eye for it—everything begins to look more-complex than it did in Hitchens’ Enlightenment typology.

Still, if “we” (I leave it to the reader to imagine the faction) could laud all of Hitchens’ judgments in matters political, would he have had his integrity?  He threw in like a partisan but thought for himself–and thus across party lines–and he would write prose as beautiful or as ugly as the point he wanted to make required.  As much as a journalist can be, he was an exemplary public intellectual, unconcerned with silly conceits like “objectivity” or standing “above the fray.”  He never crowed loudly, and he would stay with a cause, like the Iraq War, after it had become unpopular if he still judged that it was right.  He presented himself as a man possessed of few delusions, and as he was when he ridiculed the propaganda of dictators or the public censure of makers of respectable opinion, he was telling us the truth.

Nabokov’s Despair: Monsters Do Exist

“If only (literary immortality) is at stake, then, indeed, Plato was wrong and Nabokov, Heidegger, and Derrida are right.  If you want to be remembered by future generations, go in for poetry rather than mathematics.  If you want your books to be read rather than respectfully shrouded in tooled leather, you should try to produce tingles rather than truth.  What we call common sense–the body of widely accepted truths–is, just as Heidegger and Nabokov thought, a collection of dead metaphors.  Truths are the skeletons which remain after the capacity to arouse the senses–to cause tingles–has been rubbed off by familiarity and long usage…So if, like Euclid’s or Newton’s or J. S. Mill’s, your metaphors are socially useful and become literalized, you will be honored in the abstract and forgotten in the particular.  You will have become a name and ceased to be a person.  But if, like Catullus, Baudelaire, Derrida, and Nabokov, your works (only, or also) produce tingles, you have a chance of surviving as more than a name.  You might be, like Landor and Donne, one of the people whom some future Yeats will hope to dine with, at journey’s end.”

–Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Chapter 7, “Nabokov on Cruelty”

The Liberal Ironist recently finished reading Despair, a gripping novel by Vladimir Nabokov.  A protagonist as utterly lacking in empathy or a capacity for self-assessment as Despair‘s Hermann is instructive by his very existence.  Reading a narration in Hermann’s voice, I was often reminded of the old saying “All things look yellow to a jaundiced eye.”  Hermann expresses almost no emotions besides an enervated sense that his surroundings yield some purpose for him that no one else can see, and simple contempt for others; his inability to see redeeming qualities in others and his lack of capacity for self-scrutiny are disturbing.

In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, the book in which Richard Rorty gave this blog its namesake, he writes perceptively of Vladimir Nabokov–a writer of brilliant style and justified arrogance–that his greatest fear was that his own experience of aesthetic ecstasy could deafen him to the needs of others, leaving him callous or even cruel even while he experienced childlike wonder:

“…Nabokov would desperately like artistic gifts to be sufficient for moral virtue, but he knows that there is no connection between the contingent and selective curiosity of the autonomous artist and his father’s philosophical project–the creation of a world in which tenderness and kindness are the human norm.  So he creates characters who are both ecstatic and cruel, noticing and heartless, poets who are only selectively curious, obsessives who are as sensitive as they are callous.  What he fears most is that one cannot have it both ways–that there is no synthesis of ecstasy and kindness.” (p-160)

Nabokov presents Despair not as a novel of his own writing but as Hermann’s memoir of the commission of a great crime.  (Hermann even depreciates Nabokov’s talents as a writer and expresses a lack of trust that the latter will allow him to take credit for his work.)  Either way, the book opens with the phrase “If I were not perfectly sure of my power to write and of my marvelous ability to express ideas with the utmost grace and vividness…”  Nothing in the pages that follow prompts us to doubt that this is true.  Nabokov (or Hermann) has a marvelous capacity to capture the incidental beauty of poetry while always writing in prose.  He crafts little images, anecdotes, asides, which give us strong impressions of people, of places, of fears…most of all, of our antihero Hermann himself.  The anecdotes or recollections he gives us always seem incomplete, yet somehow they convey something concrete.  As he continues in this meandering yet purposive way an “intelligent reader,” as Hermann himself calls him or her, may feel he has quite a clear picture of his guide in spite of the sometimes-fragmentary quality of this prose.  Poetry.

I can recall the 1st time I didn’t like something Hermann had said.  It was in Chapter One, as Hermann is startled to discover a vagabond who resembles him almost precisely–lying motionless in the grass during a long walk in the woods.  At first Hermann suspects the man is dead and stares at him with morbid fascination; he is then disappointed to see him quicken and inhale, for

“we had identical features, and that, in a state of perfect repose, this resemblance was strikingly evident, and what is death, if not a face at peace–its artistic perfection?  Life only marred my double; thus a breeze dims the bliss of Narcissus; thus, in the painter’s absence, there comes his pupil and by the superfluous flush of unbidden tints disfigures the portrait painted by the master.”

The principal question here, I think, is Who is this blissful Narcissus?  It is Hermann, who in spite of being an otherwise reflexively worldly man, is so fascinated by the idea of another man closely-resembling himself that he professes to believe (owing to some unutterable sentiment) that the vagabond must have been put into the World for a reason.  Immediately after this encounter Hermann insists to us on his powers of observation.

Hermann seeks to demonstrate these powers of observation with an audible contempt for the people whom are a part of his life, or at least should be: His wife is part-stooge and part-idiot, in his words about as efficient at mailing a letter as the nearest river.  While she loves and trusts him truly, he is her partner only in the crassest sense.  “…But probably the truth,” he admits without shame, “was that I loved her because she loved me.  To her I was the ideal man: brains, pluck.  And there was none dressed better…”  His wife’s beloved cousin, an unsuccessful artist, is in his book a freeloader, an alcoholic, a hypocrite and a dreadful painter–nothing more.  The family friend, Dr. Orlovius, is intelligent and friendly but unimaginative and inert.  The vagabond (whom Hermann almost mystically takes for his doppelgänger) is, in our narrator’s eyes, an uncomplicated bum who isn’t even alert except at the prospect of a handout.

Shall we take our narrator’s word for all this?  He is, after all, an unreliable narrator.  I don’t say this because (being a gifted but pompous prose writer) he is sometimes ambivalent as to how to tell us his story.  I don’t say it because he occasionally tells us things that aren’t true and then with a playful malevolence admits he has just fabricated something with equally-authoritative prose.  I don’t even call him an unreliable narrator because, at his most-human, he frankly admits that the faculty of memory is always partial in what it remembers; he is after all doing his best because what happened is important to him.

Hermann is an unreliable narrator because other characters or authorities reject his account of events: He always remembers his own part as brilliantly-perceptive and sure-footed, while the understandings and actions of others are generally stupid or corrupt.  The recollections and words of others–of which we have little the way Hermann either recalls or relates his story–are more-complicated than that.

As Rorty notes about Nabokov’s most-famous villains or antagonists, Hermann is marvelously, even beautifully observant–but only about idiosyncratic concerns or impressions.  There is something tragic about a man who is both sensitive-enough to swear to an eerie sense that he recognized a sign in a stretch of woods he had ostensibly never traveled to before in his life, yet so insensitive that he is accustomed to sorting the people he knows into those aiming to take advantage of him and those too stupid ever to do so.

I have already leveled the charge of narcissism against Hermann, but on this account he is probably also a solipsist.  He lets his own eerie perceptions dominate his grasp on reality.  A sleeping vagabond presents to him, corpse-like, his own face; a trip to the woods with his wife and cousin leads to an encounter with mundane objects that seem transported; a meeting with his doppelgänger in a small town is interrupted by introspection as he begins to suspect that the town itself is composed of various structures he knew from his life in pre-Bolshevik St. Petersburg.  And all the while Hermann remains assured of 3 talents which he seems to think make him autonomous from exigencies of circumstance and from the needs of other human beings–his powers of observation, his resources of literary expression, and his stroke of criminal genius.

In his chapter on Nabokov’s novels, Rorty concluded that “you cannot create a memorable character without thereby making a suggestion about how your reader should act.” (p-167)  Nabokov insists on the amorality of his novels, arguing they should be read as ambitious works of literary expression rather than as moral fables.  Rorty argues (and both on the strength of the evidence and my own inclination to this approach, I am inclined to agree) that Nabokov can’t really believe this however-consistently he protested it.  Why are his most-famous narrators so often not merely despicable, but despicable in the eyes of the author?  In his own foreword to the 2nd English translation, Nabokov says that “there is a green lane in Paradise where (Lolita narrator) Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year; but Hell shall never parole Hermann.”  In saying this Nabokov of course presents us grades of evil, which tells us a few things about his moral philosophy; he is not indifferent to how many harsh judgments in thought or cruelties in deed we recognize in Hermann or how we would wrestle with the difficulty of consenting to narration by a protagonist who was such a refined moral abomination.

Is Hermann insane?  I would ask this question in earnestness to any other reader of Despair.  His confidence in his own talents, his inability to see good in others, the strange familiarity of objects and settings around him, as though he were surrounded not by likenesses but transcendentals…All of this suggests (though such is merely suggested) that Hermann’s peculiar narrow-minded evil is in fact a product of delusion.  Nabokov clearly feels some anxiety, as I quote Rorty observing above, that the blessings he loves the most–the power to make monumental-yet-private observations, and to express them, and to feel ecstasy when he expresses them–are available to evil people.  Indeed, the way he writes his abnormal narrators suggests that he grappled with a fear that his own literary art was antisocial.  But Nabokov’s angst at this recognition was a great source of creative inspiration for him; the expression of this ambivalence in granting his talents to cruel or evil characters may be both his story and his legacy.  Those opportunities for kindness or teaching moments which his characters overlook, the totally selfish nature of their private goals, and the potential (as with Hermann) for their schemes to spiral out of control even when so painstakingly-laid, should give any thoughtful reader pause.  I think it would be cowardly to discuss a book like Despair without addressing the existence of evil.  Evil is as real as anything.  You don’t have to believe in the supernatural to believe this: On my definition we are evil to the extent that we value the ideas in our head, whether philosophical or personal, more than human life.  As a good ironist, I will say that moral philosophy owes a greater debt to writers like Nabokov for setting small incidents of evil alongside great ones in his narratives than it does to a political theorist like John Rawls for writing A Theory of Justice.  We know that cold-blooded murder is evil, but what about seeing your unsuccessful-artist cousin as nothing more than a beggar?  What about not taking your wife seriously?  If the preceding poses no challenge to our values: What about never trusting anyone’s perspective other than your own?  What is at stake in those times when we perceive that our friends want our confidence, and we deny them?

Evil exists.  We risk it by both commission and omission–right there in the small stuff.

A Serious Man: The Coen Brothers and Incommensurability of the Religious with the Absurd

“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”  The Coen Brothers choose to open this movie, which is downbeat even by their standards, with words written by Elie Wiesel.  A friend once suggested that this was the moral thread running through the Coen Brothers’ long catalogue of Absurdist fables, and A Serious Man seems as idiomatic of their work as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men–even if it isn’t a caper.

The scene that immediately follows the opening words is like something out of a horror movie: A Jewish peasant living somewhere in the Russian Empire in the 1800s walks home in wintertime, marveling at…something.  Either the beauty of the night, or a random encounter on the road with a helpful old man his wife knows, has the man in a reflective trance.  The man returns home–long-after he was expected, and breathlessly gives his wife the news: Traitle Groshkover, an accomplished scholar of Jewish ethics, helped him out when his cart broke down in the snow.  His wife is in shock.  She tells her husband Traitle Groshkover has been dead 3 years, that a friend of hers has long-since sat shiva for him, concluding the mourning period.  What helped her husband on the road, she insists, was a dybbuk, a demon of possession.

Then, there’s a knock on the door.

Who have you invited over?

Having promptly laughed-off his wife’s insistence that Groshkover was 3 years dead, he now haltingly informs his wife that he invited the old man over for dinner as repayment for his mitzvah.  Then they both stare dully at the door.  Everything looks a little different when you must subject what you believe to an empirical test–and what a test!  As he haltingly opens the door, he sees a man; she sees a dybbuk.

The rest of the scene, whatever you may believe, is horrifying.  At this point my roommate (Oh, right: I saw A Serious Man for the 1st time with my roommate.) suggested that, much as I’d said that the opening scene of Black Swan contained within it the essence of the story that was to unfold, so this opening scene, disjointed as it is from the rest of the film in time and space, must serve the same purpose in this film.  In any case, it does pose exactly the same challenge.  A rational man and his superstitious wife confront a situation that is terrifying for both, and in neither case does it strike at the heart of what they believe.

Each development of this scene makes judgment of what you're looking at more-difficult, and more urgent.

As is typical of the Coen Brothers’ work, A Serious Man isn’t a film for the faint-of-heart: We see a sequence of events that seem to have little narrative order to them aside from their accomplishment of the psychological demolition of an imperfect but undeserving human being.  Larry Gopnik is a physics professor, but he is also a devout Jew: His son David is enrolled in Hebrew school and will read from the Torah at his Bar-Mitzvah.  When the World weighs on him too heavily, he seeks-out 3 rabbis in succession to see what they can tell him about God’s mysterious purposes.  Their interpretations take him (or don’t take him) through progressively-complex levels of anxiety about the rationality and basic beneficence of the World; none of this can prevent the moment at which he tires of bearing the burden of his integrity.  He has been looking for a satisfactory explanation from learned men, some whom he knows personally, who can explain why God would cause a succession of bleak, alienating and just plain creepy things to happen around him: His wife wants to leave him, his children are selfish, his tenure review case at the university looks shaky, he and an acquaintance meet with great misfortune at the very same moment.  His next-door neighbor disregards the zoning code–and he is afraid to press the matter because his neighbor is well-armed and uncomplicated.

Professor Gopnik calmly explains to Mr. Park that he doesn't interpret his son's failed attempt to bribe him for a better grade as a "culture clash."

If this account of a man who meets with a long succession of unfortunate events sounds familiar, you are right: The Coen Brothers have adapted the Book of Job, and for the purpose they’ve set out for themselves, they have done so brilliantly.  In the Book of Job, God permits Satan to subject “my servant Job” to a cruel test of the limits of his faith, in successive events killing most of his immediate family and destroying most of his property, leaving him poor.  Through this Job is able to maintain his reverence for God.  Finally, God permits Satan to make Job himself sick, and at this point, in the presence of 3 supportive friends, he curses God and declares the World an absurd place rather than the stage for moral drama, suggesting he has been betrayed by God for the lack of a simple explanation for any of this.  In response to all this, Job’s 3 friends offer progressive responses designed to assuage his anger at God and lead him to accept his fate.  Bildad reasons that Job’s children must have sinned for God to allow Satan to kill them, for God is just; Job must repent his own sins, and his life will be made right.  Zophar insists that Job must have sinned himself to have suffered so, and that even if Job were absolutely upright he still couldn’t hope to understand the beneficence of God’s design of the Universe.  Eliphaz scolds Job for thinking his own perspective wide-enough and his own wisdom exhaustive-enough that he can demand of God an explanation for his suffering; he also rather eloquently tells him that he can hear only sin talking in Job’s bitter recriminations, warning him that “All his days the wicked man suffers torment…” (Job 15:20)  (His wife’s suggestion, tellingly, is simply “Curse God and die!”)  His friends’ dogged combination of commiseration, reassurance, rebuke and confrontation fails to shake Job from his anger at God’s silence–until God appears before Job in the form of a tornado.  God is angry, and explains nothing more about himself than that his vastness, of which the vastness of his creations is but an expression, means simply that God will provide or not provide for his servants at his pleasure.  The only rational course is to abide.

This is the story the Coen Brothers wanted to remake in their own way.

"The Uncertainty Principle: It proves we can't ever really know what's going on." (bell rings) "...But even though you can't figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the midterm!"

I’ll not discuss Gopnik’s encounters with the Rabbis, which for his purposes are even more-obtuse.  When confronted with those moments of life that seem to undermine us, the proof is in the fable: If you are looking for a positive explanation wherein all of your misfortune has a genesis that is either rational or providential, you will get lost.  The tragedy surrounding Gopnik is very Greek, because his own words suggest he should understand this already.  Consider the exchange he holds with a Korean student he suspects of offering him a bribe for a raised grade:

GOPNIK: (holding an envelope in his hand) “This is not nothing.  This is something.”

CLIVE: “It is something.” (a blank stare)  “…What is it?”

GOPNIK: “You know what it is, I believe.  And you know I can’t keep it, Clive.”

CLIVE: “Yessir.”

GOPNIK: “I’ll have to pass it on to Professor Finkel, along with my suspicions about where it came from.  Actions have consequences.”

CLIVE: “Yessir, often.”

GOPNIK: “No, always!  Actions always have consequences!  In this office, actions have consequences.”

CLIVE: “Yessir.”

GOPNIK: “Not just physics–morally.”

CLIVE: “Yes.”

GOPNIK: “And we both know about your actions.”

CLIVE: “No, sir, I know about my actions.”

GOPNIK: “I can interpret, Clive.  I know what you meant me to understand!”

…And so it goes.  A few things are worth pointing out here.  1st, the test the student, Clive, has failed wasn’t just on any physics but included a mathematical proof of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  The Uncertainty Principle addresses a narrow but very-important range of subatomic phenomena where underlying processes can never be known for certain because the very act of observing such a small object irrevocably acts upon it, violently interrupting its old stasis.  2nd, in their previous meeting the student insisted–as the Liberal Ironist no-doubt would have in his situation (though without subsequent resort to bribery) that he understands the principle well-enough to understand the metaphors and stories told to demonstrate it, and thus he doesn’t need to have all that math down.  Professor Gopnik, our protagonist, insisted that the story is just like a “fable” that exists for illustrative purposes only, that the mathematical proof is the description of how it all really works.  Physics is the math behind it, Gopnik says.  3rd, as I’ve said already, Professor Gopnik is a devout Jew.  He has now said “In this office, actions have consequences” and “I can interpret…I know what you meant me to understand!”  If you are a believer, this may be the most-important exchange in the film.

"In this office, actions have consequences...Not just physics--morally."

What I gather from my roommate’s suggestion to interpret A Serious Man in light of its Janus-faced but invariably disturbing opening scene is that the Coen Brothers invite the viewer to interpret Gopnik’s misfortunes in either religious terms (as God’s way of testing one man’s faith) or in atheistic terms, as an Absurdist statement asking if we can live meaningful lives in a World that is dead to our ideals.  For the Coen Brothers to have made a film that could be seen through the prism of a believer or an atheist isn’t wishy-washy; rather, their admonition to “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you” is their 1 uncompromising demand.  In this sense the Coen Brothers’ morality is as severe as any the Liberal Ironist has encountered; this tension as to why its merits are reflected in Larry Gopnik’s story can only be resolved by the viewer.  It’s interesting to reflect on this in particular: As humiliating as the patronizing conversations are, as unutterably painful as the estrangement from his children must be, as psychologically demolishing as the surplus pressures of the pushy people in his life can be, there is meaning in Larry Gopnik’s story.  He can’t see it while it unfolds, but the viewer can just see a warning coming into view: A picture of your life will emerge on its own if you focus on what is within your control rather than on what you believe is at stake.  The atheist’s perspective on the picture highlights a message that anyone should consider: The only thing Larry Gopnik can truly control–and the only power that is his to relinquish–is that he is an honest man.  Does that make him sound too pathetic?  Not at all; actually he has something precious at stake in this drama.  The only thing we have to surrender is our integrity.

The Coens can deliver that message as many times as they want.

I am what I am.

The Trouble With Harry: What IS Harry’s Problem, Anyway?

The Liberal Ironist recently watched Alfred Hitchcock’s off-beat black comedy The Trouble With Harry during the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center’s Alfred Hitchcock retrospective.  It’s been years since I saw this unrecognized gem by the Master of Suspense.  The vibrant depictions of quaint Americana, the dark opening, the various characters’ touching simplicity and often disturbing level of self-absorption, the fixation on obscurity and failure, that meditative dry humor…I hadn’t recognized it as such in my original viewing, but I think The Trouble With Harry is the template for every Coen Brothers film.  I’d like to illustrate this, and its significance in depicting Hitchcock’s “ideology,” by recounting its 1st and 3rd scenes.  There isn’t much here that counts for spoilers; this is a beautiful but off-beat movie that just has to be experienced.

The action (though that is really the wrong thing to call it) opens in a small, remote New England village on a beautiful autumn morning.  (It must be early in that morning, because an awful lot happens on this day…)  A rosy-cheeked former ship’s captain is out hunting, and happens to see his first mark: A “Posted: No Hunting” sign.  He then stumbles upon a can he has rather expertly (though of course inadvertently) shot.  (As he picks the can up and looks it over with a witticism, he overlooks the drop of blood on it–pure Hitchcock.)  Shortly thereafter, Captain Wiles (that’s right, Captain Wiles) notices a corpse–heretofore represented almost entirely by its feet, which are always pointed straight up.  The Captain immediately reaches the conclusion that he clumsily shot the man while hunting; he appears more-exasperated than frightened by this development.  His reaction actually prompted me to the Coen Brothers comparison: “What are you doing there?!” he asks the dead man in a state of perplexity.  (George Clooney’s character in Burn After Reading, after a startling development in which he shoots a man, immediately afterwards asks the same question, albeit in a more-vulgar fashion.)  He quickly resolves to bury the body, only to run off behind a tree after hearing someone coming.  It turns out to be a mother and her young son; she promptly identifies the dead man as Harry–and celebrates his demise!  With the young boy asking the usual series of precocious questions, they walk off.  The Captain proceeds out from his hiding place, still intending to finish his work as he is convinced that the woman who has seen the body has no intention of reporting it.

At this point Captain Wiles begins pulling the body towards the tree line; he stops however, when an older woman asks with what can only be called excessive politeness whether anything is wrong.  This is Mrs. Graves–and no, the dead man is not Mr. Boddy.  The irony of the whole scene that follows is once again vintage Hitchcock.  Mrs. Graves expresses surprise but a decided lack of shock at the sight of a neighbor with a rifle dragging a dead man towards the tree line, and in a short conversation invites the suspected manslaughterer over her house for tea.  This invitation Captain Wiles eagerly accepts, and Mrs. Graves steps over Harry’s body and goes cheerfully on her way.  Wiles promptly resumes his work of hiding his apparent victim’s remains.

Once again, however, he is forced to hide as the local physician, who is reading a book while walking, walks over the hilltop and actually trips over the body, simply getting to his feet, then walking off again.  Next a tramp hikes up the hill, sees the body, tries to wake the man up.  Then, upon realizing he is dead the tramp contentedly takes the man’s shoes.

This isn’t the last or even quite the most-poignant such scene.  Shortly afterward a local avant-garde painter happens upon the corpse, and after an anxious glance about his surroundings, he begins intently painting the dead man’s face.  (In fact, this is by far the most-precise painting by Sam Rockwell’s character that we see.)  The depth of absorption these characters have in their own problems, pursuits and desires feels bizarre–but it does not feel inhuman.  Hitchcock, as the Liberal Ironist mentioned in a review of Vertigo, is fascinated by the asocial and often violent unconscious drives in human beings; here the asocial side of human beings is on display even as they share simple and intimate moments with each other.

This strange yet somehow-acceptable combination of quaint Americana with intensely private, vaguely-criminal “ordinary people” forms that unique combination of elements of setting, characterization, theme and tone that has me convinced that The Trouble With Harry somehow inspired the Coen Brothers’ brand of film making.  If you take a Barton Fink, a Fargo, a Big Lebowski, an O Brother Where Art Thou? a No Country for Old Men, or a Burn After Reading, a set of distinct but mutually-resonant elements return to the foreground: A deep affection for America with populist undertones or overtones, but also a sobering picture of the idiosyncrasy and darkness in people’s motives and concerns, and a seemingly un-American pessimism about what individuals are capable of and a fatalism about whether we can stand the storm to come.  (Captain Wiles repeatedly, almost eagerly tells the painter that he doesn’t have a conscience, and he casually volunteers his atheism.  The home country of the Transcendentalists has undergone an interesting evolution.)  Many of those elements may seem most-obvious in their beautiful but bleak adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men, but it seems omnipresent in their work.  A friend of mine who loves movies once said that he suspects the moral of the story in the Coen Brothers’ movies is that only folkish simplicity can save you.  (From some of the grim developments in, say, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, and Burn After Reading among others, I don’t know if I’d say anything can protect us from a bad end, but the point remains that those with simple dreams may seem absurd, but they never look as ridiculous as those with elaborate plans–and if both should fall in the end, the simple man or woman doesn’t have so far to go and tends to meet that end with greater dignity.)

That reminds me: Harry had some pretty complicated ideas about his duty to his family.  Of course, The Trouble With Harry takes place in a different World–though I remember the irony of saying “times have changed” that are elemental to Hitchcock movies like Rear Window or Vertigo–but Harry married his brother’s widow out of his belief in his duty–and declined to consummate the marriage on his honeymoon night because he read his horoscope–He was a Taurus, we are informed–and was warned against starting any new projects that night because they couldn’t be finished.  This may be a comment about his lack of passion or simply a crack at his impotence, but either way you know he will not be a force in a Hitchcock movie.  It’s no wonder, really, that he is introduced dead.

Though there are a few steps along the road to his untimely demise, Harry ultimately died because he didn’t know how to want something.  That may sound somewhat vague and postmodern, but I suspect it’s true.  The plots of Hitchcock movies frequently turn around the revelation of a desire, whether of protagonist or antagonist, or to the audience or to the protagonist him- or herself.  Harry is a perverse human being even in the twisted World according to Alfred Hitchcock.  He tries to conform to an ideal when what he most needs is to be moved by a sentiment (or even an unadorned desire), and whether by stumbling about where he doesn’t belong or doomed by a weak constitution, he dies.