The Lesson of Nicias, Prisoner of His Virtues


Recently, it has been revealed that the Obama administration consistently and deliberately underestimated the strength of ISIS and its program of aiding Syrian rebels has been a colossal waste of money. Obama’s policies in the Middle East policy, far from stabilizing the region, have set in motion a massive crisis that has now spread to Europe. Obama won the presidency in large part because he promised a change from the reckless aggression of George W. Bush, yet his determination to break with Bush’s policies has not prevented conditions from getting worse. The worsening situation in the Middle East calls to mind the career of the Athenian general and statesman Nicias.

Nicias, a leader of the oligarchic faction in Athens, was known for being cautious, generous, and virtuous. He spoke out against the plan proposed by Alcibiades to send an expedition to Sicily to conquer Syracuse, the wealthiest and most powerful city on the island. Nicias had negotiated a peace treaty with Sparta, and argued that Athens should take advantage of the suspension of hostilities to recover from a decade of constant warfare. But Alcibiades, who painted the Syracusans as a weak and fickle people, given to making frequent changes in their form of government, insisted that they would be easy pickings for the battle-hardened Athenians.

While the Athenians were eager to plunder the wealth of Syracuse and to expand westward their sphere of influence, they took seriously the warnings of Nicias about the riskiness of the venture. So they heeded Nicias’ advice to send a larger number of troops than requested by Alcibiades (Nicias had tried to dissuade the Athenians from undertaking the invasion by exaggerating the number of troops he considered necessary for its successful completion). And they voted to make Nicias into one of the three commanders of the expedition, along with Alcibiades. Shortly before the fleet was to set sail, Alcibiades was accused of sacrilege, and instead of returning to face charges, he defected to Sparta. The Athenians defeated the Syracusans in their first battle, but the third commander, Lamachus, was killed in a skirmish. Nicias was then left in sole charge of a massive campaign: the moderate politician suddenly found himself having to execute an immoderate policy that he had opposed from the very beginning as hubristic overstretch. 

Nicias could have called off the invasion and returned to Athens, which might have spelled the end of his political career (the Athenians, unlike the Romans, were not forgiving of failure), or he could have pursued aggressively as possible the objective he had earlier defined as imprudent and reckless. Instead, he decided against doing anything risky, which gave the Syracusans time to construct a series of protective walls around their city. His dithering squandered the advantages secured by the Athenians in their early victories against the Syracusan forces. Moreover, when a small group of ships appeared on the horizon, Nicias did nothing to prevent them from entering the harbor of Syracuse, thinking that such a small fleet could make little difference to the outcome of the conflict. Unfortunately for the Athenians, on board one of the ships was the Spartan general Gylippus, whose strategy and tactics would spell doom for the Athenian expedition. 

Finally, suffering from illness and at wits’ end, Nicias wrote a letter to Athens giving a bleak picture of the army’s situation, as many of the soldiers had fallen sick. The city responded by sending a second army, similar in size to the first, but by then the advantage had swung over definitively to Syracuse and its allies. The Athenian forces mounted one final assault, a desperate attack at night, which failed to break through the lines of Boeotian infantry. The surviving Athenians then made preparations to retreat, but delayed their withdrawal because of an appearance of a lunar eclipse – the soothsayers proclaimed that they needed to wait 27 days before departing. The Syracusans thereupon surrounded the Athenians and massacred them. The survivors were taken as slaves and many died of exposure in the quarries of Syracuse. 

History may not repeat itself, but the study of human error reveals distinctive patterns. What happens when someone who is against a certain policy is then placed in charge of dealing with its consequences? Nicias did not wish to be blamed for a bad decision for which he was not responsible. But his own sense of rectitude undermined his capacity to extricate the Athenians from a dangerous predicament or to lead them to victory over the Syracusans. The only way he could have managed the consequences of the reckless endeavor of Alcibiades was to have assumed Alcibiades’ wrong decision fully as his own. Instead, the steadfastness of Nicias’ character, his prudence and moderation, ensured that the Athenians would suffer the greatest military disaster in the history of the Greeks. Perhaps the lesson of Nicias and his command of the Sicilian expedition is that it is possible to be excessively attached to our own best qualities. There is no question that Nicias was a better human being than the scheming and conniving Alcibiades, who betrayed the Spartans and returned to the Athenian side. He promised the Athenians military and financial aid from the Persian Empire if they would overthrow their democracy and install an oligarchy, exacerbating the political divisions in the city that would culminate in a series of oligarchic coups. But the attachment of Nicias to his own integrity ultimately proved more calamitous to Athens than the arrogance and duplicity of Alcibiades himself.

The Desire to Live and the Desire to Die: Melville’s Army of Shadows

Forced to run to his death.

Forced to run to his death.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows unfolds between two opposing orientations of the will – the desire to live and the readiness to die.  For a member of the French Resistance, the desire to live is something to be feared, as it can lead one to betray one’s comrades under harsh interrogation by the Gestapo. To avoid being placed in this situation, the résistant must be prepared either to withstand torture or to take his own life, if he has the opportunity. The traitor, Paul Dounat, who is executed in an early scene in the film, is someone who lacked the nerve to take his own life and turned against the Resistance not out of malice but out of the weakness of his character. The fact that he agrees to the fateful rendez-vous with his comrades that will end with his death implies that he still does not understand what he should have done. It seems not to have occurred to him that he should have tried to end his life when captured, nor does he appear to have grasped that he will pay for his betrayal with his death. This thoughtlessness surfaces when he weeps when he learns that, instead of being put on trial, he is to be killed.

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

The execution of Dounat shocks us by zeroing in on the reluctance of his captors to kill him – unable to do away with him by gunshot, they are forced to use their bare hands. The trio in the house – Félix, the Mask, and Gerbier – are not hardened killers, and are understandably unsettled by the task before them. The viewer cannot quite believe, along with the Mask, the most troubled of the group, that they will actually go through with strangling the young Dounat. But the mid-point of the film contains a surprise of a wholly different order. Félix has been arrested and is being tortured in a Gestapo prison. While Mathilde, the most inspired and capable member of the group, works out a plan to spring him from his prison cell, Jean-François, who was recruited by Félix to join them, decides to send the Gestapo an anonymous letter denouncing him of being involved in the Resistance. It is hard for us to believe that he is actually putting himself up for arrest, especially after a close-up of the bloodied face of Félix as he sits slumped against the back of a chair in front of the SS commandant’s desk. But Jean-François, though he has to endure the same vicious beatings, succeeds in his plan to be placed in the same room as Félix, so that he may help his friend out of the room when the rescuers arrive. Mathilde, dressed as a German nurse, succeeds in getting her group, sitting in a German truck, past the checkpoint, as the SS guards accept her paperwork requesting the transfer of Félix to Paris as legitimate. The plan however is thwarted when a doctor for the Gestapo discovers that Félix is too badly injured to be moved. As the truck pulls out of the building housing the prisoners, Jean-François removes his cyanide capsule and places it into Félix’s mouth, telling him the lie that he has brought several capsules with him. The film shows no more of Jean-François, who elects not only to give his life for the sake of his friend, but also to suffer an agonizing death at the hands of the SS. Such courage is almost terrifying, and we almost wish that he hadn’t gone to such arduous lengths to help his friend. But what else, if not such fearless sacrifice, deserves to be remembered and honored?

If Dounat appears to have been oblivious to the disposition demanded by his participation in the Resistance, in the case of Mathilde, the most heroic figure in the film, the desire to live exerts a kind of involuntary pull. Mathilde is the one member of the group who is capable of pulling off miracles. She saves Gerbier from the SS prison with smoke grenades that are dropped with perfect timing into the execution room where Gerbier and several other prisoners are forced to run to the opposite wall while the SS fire at them with their machine guns. Several weeks after Gerbier is safely dropped off at a lonely and desolate farmhouse, the chief of the Resistance, Luc Jardie, shows up with the news that Mathilde has been apprehended by the Gestapo. Finding a photograph of her daughter on her person, the SS threaten to send her daughter to a brothel on the Eastern Front unless Mathilde hands over her friends. When two agents, Mask and the killer named Bison, appear, Gerbier decodes their message announcing Mathilde’s capture and then orders the two to kill Mathilde. Bison resists, protesting that they have no right to kill Mathilde after all that she has done for them. “Let her turn us all in,” Bison declares. They are about to come to blows when Jardie surprises them by entering the room. He tells Bison that Mathilde wants them to kill her – she has probably bought time by insisting that she needs to meet up with her associates in order to give the Gestapo correct and up-to-date information. Denied the option of suicide, she is waiting for them to contact her so that they might kill her. Bison is persuaded and he departs with Mask. When Gerbier asks Jardie if he is certain about the truth of his explanation, Jardie replies, “It is possible that my hypothesis is true. But it’s also possible that Mathilde wanted to see her daughter, making it more difficult for her to die – that is what I would like to find out.” Jardie accompanies the group to the rendez-vous point, showing his face to her in a gesture of gratitude for her service and commitment, before Bison guns her down.

The title cards reveal the fates of the four passengers – none of them will survive the war. It is as though in killing Mathilde, they have renounced their own desires to live. The description of Gerbier’s death is particularly haunting, as it is revealed that, placed once again on the execution ground, he chose not to run, realizing that Mathilde is no longer around to bring about a miraculous rescue. Jardie persuades Bison to shoot the person they respect and admire most, but in the end, the obligation to Mathilde that the foot soldier, whose real name is Guillaume Vermersch, insists that they honor is fulfilled another way. Mathilde is the only one who has the ability and talent to save any one of them were he captured, but the men lack her genius, and their tribute takes the form of giving up their own lives as a testament to her memory.

Moment of farewell.

Moment of farewell.

Army of Shadows (1969)


“Philippe Gerbier, age 41, distinguished civil engineer. Quick-witted, independent in character, a detached and ironic attitude.”

This film about the French Resistance spans the period from October 1942 to February 1943. It has been more than two years since the France fell to the military might of Nazi Germany, and much of the country has become resigned to its fate as a conquered country. Only roughly six hundred individuals carry on the fight against Nazi occupation. Army of Shadows, in focusing on a group of resistance fighters during the darkest months of the Occupation, is divided into ten episodes. In this post I discuss the first three.

Legrain, the young communist.

Legrain, the young communist.

1. The Prison Camp
A civil engineer named Philippe Gerbier is being transported by a pair of gendarmes to a prison camp, which had originally been built by the French to house German officers. Gerbier is suspected of being involved in resistance activities. The Commandant of the camp eyes him warily, sensing that Gerbier is an intelligent and capable person with important social connections. He assigns him to a cabin in which a pompous retired colonel, a clueless salesman, and a pedantic pharmacist are being held, along with an earnest young communist, barely out of his teens, and a Catholic teacher who lies ailing on his cot. In voiceover, Gerbier praises the canniness of the Commandant for “sandwiching” him between “three imbeciles and two lost children.” The communist, Legrain, is allowed to work on the electrical switchboards, and, sensing that Gerbier is an important figure in the resistance, he approaches Gerbier with a plan for escape by causing a blackout to give him the opportunity to slip past the guards. But the very next scene has the Commandant and his men show up at the door of the cabin to hand Gerbier over to the Gestapo. The film does not reveal how they got the information, but the audience is led to believe that the prison guards tortured it out of Legrain. Gerbier never sees Legrain again, and the audience is left wondering what happened to the young electrician. But the sudden disappearance of lives, without explanation and without apparent cause, becomes a pattern in the film. What is also noteworthy about this episode is the steady gaze with which the Commandant studies Gerbier when he is first brought into the prison camp. The audience is given access to his thoughts as he weighs whether to treat him leniently or harshly. The Commandant is not seen again after he delivers Gerbier to the Nazis. The intelligence and discernment of the collaborator leaves an unnerving impression, as it reveals that the Nazis are enjoying the benefits of his formidable talents and impressive professionalism.

Waiting for death, or worse.

Waiting for death, or worse.

2. In the Hands of the Gestapo
Gerbier is taken the hotel where the Gestapo have their headquarters. He is brought into a room and seated next to another Frenchman who has been arrested. The two exchange long silent looks, with what looks like anger appearing on the face of the other prisoner. An interminable period, several hours, passes during which the only sounds are that of the switchboard operator routing calls in German. Working late into the night, the operator yawns and stretches his arms. During a brief moment when the guard watching over them speaks to a superior, Gerbier tells his companion that time is running out for them and that he will create a distraction so as to enable the latter to run out of the hotel. In a scene that shocks the viewer with its sudden violence, Gerbier asks the guard for a cigarette, but when the guard makes a gesture to him to sit back down, Gerbier takes out the guard’s knife and stabs him in the throat. The camera lingers over the image of the two in a fatal embrace, as Gerbier seems to be propping up the dying guard’s body when in fact he is thrusting the knife more deeply into his neck. The other prisoner races out of the hotel past two guards with machine guns, who fire in his direction. Gerbier runs in the direction opposite of the guards and, after sprinting down several blocks, enters a barber shop, panting and out of breath. He requests a shave from the surprised barber, and while the razor passes over his face, Gerbier notices with dismay and fear a poster in support of the collaborationist Vichy government on the barber’s wall. The film heightens the tension by cutting between close-ups of Gerbier sitting in the barber’s chair, with his eyes fixed firmly on the barber, and the barber, with a nonchalant expression, lathering and then shaving his face multiple times. Whereas the barber initially greeted Gerbier with a surprised and suspicious look, he now appears wholly absorbed in his task. As the mood turns from suspense to relief, Gerbier rises to pay the man and retrieve his coat. The barber insists on giving him his change, and returns with his own overcoat, which is of a different color from that of Gerbier. The resistance fighter gladly accepts the man’s coat, and walks back out into the darkness.

"We have to strangle him."

“We have to strangle him.”

3. The Execution of the Traitor
The scene following Gerbier’s dramatic escape from Gestapo headquarters begins on a confusing note. In the only instance where the voiceover narration does not belong to any of the characters in the film, the audience is told a certain “Paul Dounat,” who also goes by the name of “Vincent Henry,” has arrived at a courthouse in Marseilles to meet with a fellow member of the resistance organization to which he belongs. He is met by his contact, a middle-aged man named Félix Cachat, who escorts him to a car, in which Philippe Gerbier sits waiting. Dounat, as it turns out, was the one who betrayed Gerbier and several others to the authorities. Gerbier tells Dounat that it is futile for him to protest his innocence as they take him to a rented house in a remote neighborhood. Gerbier, Félix, and Dounat are met by a resistance fighter who goes by the name of the Mask. The Mask prevents Gerbier from executing Dounat with a pistol by revealing that the house next door has become occupied by a family, who are certain to hear the noise of the gunshot. Rather than postpone the execution, Gerbier presses ahead with it, reminding the other two of all the other work they must do for the Resistance. But Félix and the Mask are shocked when Gerbier decides to have Dounat strangled.

This scene is one of the most powerful in the film, and perhaps unique in world cinema, for it reveals that almost every other film about killing is pornographic. None of the three men want to go through with the killing. When the Mask, reeling from the shock, tells Gerbier that he has never done anything like this before, Gerbier forcefully tells him that such an action is new for him and Félix as well. Félix, who had maintained a Stoic facade about the “dirty job” they have to do, throws a look of shock at Gerbier when the latter gives the order to kill Dounat with their bare hands. Grabbing the sobbing Dounat by the limbs, Gerbier looks directly into the eyes of the young traitor, while the Mask faces downward in anguish. A sickened look passes over the face of Félix while he uses a cloth to strangle Dounat. Tears stream from the young man’s face as he dies, as it becomes clear that he betrayed his comrades not out of malice but out of fear and weakness. What Dounat had been too weak to do was to commit suicide when he was captured by the Gestapo.

On Housebound

Housebound Poster

It’s rare to come across a horror film that can be called life-affirming, and such a film would be all the more outstanding given the glumness and nihilism of so much contemporary popular culture. The return of everyday life, and of everyday frustrations and annoyances, can appear after all as a kind of miraculous deliverance if what one has to contend with are demonic forces and murderous and possibly possessed social authorities. Kylie, the heroine of Housebound is an incorrigible petty criminal who is sentenced to house arrest (the film is set in the lenient social democracy that is New Zealand) in the strange house where she grew up, which her mother believes is haunted. It turns out that their residence used to be a halfway house run by a church where a teenaged girl was murdered.

Sure enough, Kylie begins to hear weird noises and experience strange events, which lead her to a box hidden in the floorboards that contain some valuables stolen by the murdered girl. The cop responsible for monitoring Kylie’s ankle bracelet turns out to have a hobby examining paranormal phenomena, and there is a nice scene where he lectures Kylie that the teen’s ghost has chosen to communicate with her because Kylie is just as self-absorbed, entitled, and narcissistic as the murder victim was. But the fact that the film has a heroine with a rap sheet is one of its charms, as the audience can always depend on Kylie to take heart-stopping risks and fight back fearlessly when attacked, as well as to break into houses and hot-wire cars as needed.

Finally, the film is actually grounded in some serious social issues, and expresses a perspective that could be considered critical of the nanny state, even as it takes a deeply affectionate view of working-class and lower middle class life. For Kylie’s mother Miriam, the house represented a path to upward mobility and remains for her an investment in spite of the strange events taking place within it. The most deadly violence, however, emanates from the frustrations of maintaining a legal system that is afraid to slap the wrists of repeat offenders who go on repeating their offenses. “All I wanted to do was to help people,” says the cannibal / ghost / vampire / killer gnome (pick one).

Plato and Thucydides on changes in the meanings of words


He wrote of ungovernable passions.

In Book VIII of the Republic, Socrates decries what he regards as the corruption of speech in democracy. The democratic individual has no compunctions about altering the meaning of basic human qualities. He dismisses “reverence” as “foolishness,” despises “moderation” as “cowardice,” and calls “insolence” “good breeding.” (560c-e). He exalts “anarchy” as “freedom,” “extravagance” as “magnificence,” and “shamelessness” as “courage.” Is this a case of the individual wishing to cast his vices as virtues, or is it a reflection of the slippery nature of linguistic signs, according to the doctrine whereby meaning is socially constructed, and for that reason elusive and unstable?

This passage brings to mind the famous lines from the History of Thucydides, where he describes how the contagion of civil strife debased and corrupted the civic life of the polis:

“So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late the knowledge of what had happened in previously in other places caused still new extravagances of revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration on the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of atrocities in revenge. To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefit of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime” (242-243).

Acts of brutal violence, including those that claimed innocent lives, became regarded as expressions of courage, while anyone who counseled restraint was denounced as a coward. The passage is preceded by a hair-raising account of a massacre on the island of Corcyra, in which the democratic faction, emboldened by the imminent arrival of their allies from Athens, turned on the members of the oligarchic faction, who had sought sanctuary in the temple of Hera. Cut off from any possibility of escape, many of the suppliants committed suicide or killed each other to be avoided being slaughtered by their fellow citizens. Some were dragged out of the temples and butchered over the altars, their killers possessed by a cruelty and brutality that violated the most sacred of bonds and shattered elementary human restraints, as even fathers turned against their own sons and slew them. But Thucydides notes that not everyone who took part in the bloodbath was driven by political motives: debtors liquidated their debts by assassinating their creditors and those with vendettas took advantage of the lawlessness to kill the objects of their personal hatred.

Thucydides concludes that there was as “general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world,” as the “simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist” (244). One could regard the readiness to think and expect the worst of others, and even to take pre-emptive action against them, as the logical consequence of civil war breaking out within the city-state. “Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion.” Yet, for Plato, the shift in the meanings of qualities and attributes indicates that there is a psychic dimension behind this corruption. The decline of what Thucydides calls the “ancient simplicity,” in which human beings are capable of calling virtue virtue, instead of trying to pass off a negative quality as a positive one, is from this standpoint the result of a shift in values and outlook as much as it is the response of individuals to external events taking place in the polis.

The democratic soul in the Republic is defined by the refusal to draw any distinction between necessary and unnecessary desires. In a sort of anticipation of modern relativism, Socrates claims that democratic man is open to all experiences and desires, but is dogmatic on one score, which is that all yearnings and aspirations are to be considered equal to each other in value, and thus that none can be valued above another. The belief that one should honor all desires on an equal basis follows from the denial that there is any kind of hierarchy of values toward which one should orient one’s life or according to which a people should organize the terms of their communal existence. We thus encounter an aporia in which all values are equally correct, except for the belief that one value is superior to another.

The belief in the equality of all desires does not emerge in the dialogue as a concession to human fallibility, nor is it an expression of humility, epistemological or otherwise, as borne out by the inescapably hostile and antagonistic attitude of democratic man toward the idea that some desires are superior to others. Relativism then and now masquerades as a kind of truthful individualism, a sober recognition of the limits of human capacities and a hard-headed skepticism toward the delusions into which so many fall. But the sliding of moderation into cowardice, courage into shamelessness, and other terms into their opposites reveals that the belief that all desires should be honored equally is a mechanism for trying to place oneself beyond the judgment of others. What the equality of all desires, coupled with the readiness to manipulate language so that vice becomes virtue and defect becomes merit, aims at is to make the individual immune to criticism and reproach. It appears that one cannot make all desires equal without converting vanity into an entitlement.

The corruption of language returns us to a definition of justice enunciated at the opening of the dialogue by Polemarchus, who calls justice “doing good to one’s friends and doing harm to one’s enemies” (332d). The perversion of words into their opposites not only flatters the democratic individual by placing him beyond criticism, but they also enable him to define social reality in self-serving and instrumental ways. Thus, when one’s friends act impulsively, it is “courage,” but when your enemies do the exact same thing, it is “shamelessness.” But the violence that is done to language is a shadow of the actual violence being committed by factions against each other. The willingness to use language in a self-serving way amounts to a declaration of war, but one could also say that it impairs the ability to wage war, because by means of it the individual gives himself permission to see the world as he wants to see it, not as it actually is. Indeed, to persist in calling a courageous enemy “cowardly” is to underestimate him and thus to invite disaster. Tragic realism would compel us to be as honest as possible in how we regard our enemies, and make us realize that it is necessary to acknowledge the virtues of the enemy if one is to improve one’s chances of victory or achieving a satisfactory peace.

The disintegration of the Greek world took place in large measure because men were “swept away into an internecine struggle by their ungovernable passions” (245). The “ungovernable passions” are the straightest path toward the war of all against all.

Works cited:

Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Sunny (2011)


The deceased has requested dancing at her funeral.

Films about friends during their teen-aged years who reunite later in life follow a familiar set of conventions. The heroine must find her present situation in life stifling and frustrating. One of the friends is suffering from a fatal illness, or has died. The members of the group have for the most part fallen short of their aspirations, and live with the ache of disappointed hopes. At least 1/3 of the clique should have acquired a financial status that is completely at odds with the expectations others had of them when they were young. There is the cool and assertive leader, the wiseacre, the studious girl, the tragically doomed girl, the sensitive artist, and the brash tomboy. The film will use flashbacks to recreate a bygone era in meticulous detail, using the pop music of the time to evoke nostalgic responses from the audience. Sunny, directed by Kang Hyung-chul (or Hyeong-cheol), sticks for the most part to these formulas, but there is enough that is off-kilter about the film that makes it completely absorbing. The second-highest grossing movie of 2011 in South Korea, selling over 7.5 million tickets, it is an example of commercial filmmaking at its most engaging.

The protagonist of the film, Im Na-mi, is a housewife who lives in a luxurious apartment with her successful but extremely busy husband and a standoffish teen-aged daughter. She has the enviable life of the affluent upper-class in Seoul, but of course she feels that there is a void in her day-to-day existence. One day, while visiting the hospital, her attention is caught by the groans of a woman in severe pain. Looking at the name on the door of the patient’s room, she discovers that it belongs to a friend from her high school days, Ha Chun-hwa. Chun-hwa had been the leader of their circle of friends, which they named “Sunny” after the song by Boney M. The film flashes back to Na-mi’s first day at a prestigious girls’ school in Seoul during the mid-1980s, where her family has moved after her father has received a new job. Na-mi appears to be a stereotypically shy transfer student, but the film quickly establishes that there are social and economic divisions at play. Na-mi’s family is not wealthy – it is through her father’s employers that their family is able to send her to the school. Moreover, she hails from Jeolla, a region located in south-west Korea which was largely bypassed by the military government of Park Chung-hee for economic development. The region was also the hotbed of pro-democracy protests, which led to a brutal massacre in May 1980 in the city of Gwangju after a new military leader had taken power in a coup. Thus, when a pair of bullies picks on Na-mi, they insult her with demeaning stereotypes of the Jeolla region. Na-mi is also mortified when one of her new classmates draws attention to her shoes, which are the brand of sneakers derided by girls in the more upscale city.

In spite of these differences, Na-mi is quickly welcomed into a circle of girls led by assertive and confident Chun-hwa. Na-mi struggles not so much to fit in with her friends, but rather to become adapted to a surprising environment. She, and the audience, is taken aback by the rambunctiousness of the classroom – one of Na-mi’s new friends spends most of the class period hunched over a mirror while working on giving herself double eyelids by means of tape, behavior which goes unpunished by the teacher. The other students act out in spontaneous and undisciplined ways, which provides for many comical moments in the film. Indeed, after school, Na-mi is told that the friends are going off to confront a rival group of girls from a vocational school in a standoff over turf. “Don’t worry,” a member of her group reassures her, “we often don’t actually fight because they are afraid of us.” The climactic confrontation with the rival gang of girls takes place in the middle of an all-out street battle between pro-democracy protesters and riot police, in which the girls pick up the shields and truncheons dropped to the ground against each other. The scene is played as comedy, as Na-mi’s gesture of throwing a shield at one of her rivals deflects tear-gas canisters thrown by the police away from the protesters and back onto them.

But if the film depicts the pro-democracy protests, which led to violent clashes with the police, in a light-hearted manner, it cannot ultimately do the same for the Asian financial crisis. There is a humorous moment where Na-mi decides to hire a detective to find the other members of Sunny to fulfill Chun-hwa’s dying wish to reunite the group. Her friend, Jang-mi, who is an insurance salesperson, recommends the investigator who succeeded in hunting her down when she and her husband were hiding from their debts. Why not go with a detective who has proven his worth, Jang-mi asks. But the film shows that other members of the group have fallen on hard times, with one suffering a particularly harsh series of reversals after losing her business. Jang-mi herself is on the verge of being cut from her firm, and tries to sell a policy to the police who have arrested her and her friends after they have assaulted a group of school-girls who are bullying Na-mi’s daughter. The shadow of economic hardship, cast by the near-collapse of the South Korean economy in 1997, still hangs heavy over the country.

The film is deft enough to move fluidly from nostalgic teen comedy to scenes with have a social realist overtones, and it is no less convincing when at the end, it evokes elements of the fairy-tale. Chun-hwa’s fatal illness turns out not to be the central tragic event of the film. Rather, an attack on Na-mi and the violent response it provokes leads to the dissolution of the group. Many years later, the women find themselves hoping against hope that the one friend who was truly lost may at last rejoin the group. The way the film handles this mystery might be a bit abrupt for some, but the remarkable credit sequence evokes the next chapter of their lives, graced by the bonds of their renewed friendship.

The way it used to be.

The way they used to be.

On Frozen (2013) and Maleficent (2014)

“Innocence is most fortunate if it finds the same protection as crime.” – La Rochefoucauld

Both of these revisionist fairy tales take familiar female villains, the Snow Queen and the wicked fairy from Sleeping Beauty, and depict them as sympathetic, if not mostly positive, characters. The motive behind such depictions is to update stories that have misogynistic overtones for contemporary society by reworking them in such a way as to affirm the value of equality between the sexes. But both films suffer from some major flaws, which have to do in part with the need to portray their respective protagonists in a positive light. In Frozen, Elsa and her younger sister Anna are not as fully realized as they ought to be – we get little sense of the characters beyond the difference that Elsa is the cautious older sibling and Anna is the more freewheeling and spontaneous type. Indeed, Elsa’s power over ice and snow comes across as oddly self-contained – there is no attempt to link her gifts to other aspirations and anxieties that she might have. When she belts out her anthem, there’s no indication that she’s letting anything else go besides her powers. If Elsa at last becomes her authentic self while isolated in her ice castle, what is it about her solitude that she finds fulfilling? We’re not given any clue whether “let it go” is supposed to mean “lean in” or “drop out.” I suppose the important thing is that regardless of whether one lets it all hang out or stuffs it all back in, it’s all fine as long as it’s the result of one’s personal choice. But then the affirmation of choice as pure possibility is contradicted by the ending of the film, which is actually quite successful in capturing the spirit of the fairy tales by depicting one sister’s courageous sacrifice to save the life of her sibling.

The archetypal power of fairy tales arises in large measure from their plainly implausible yet stubbornly hopeful endings, which they present with irrefutable conviction as the iron laws of existence itself. The story must end with a resurrection or with a miraculous transformation, and as such is the well of hope and wishful thinking alike for most individuals since the time of childhood. Maleficent is at its most absorbing when it focuses on the experience of this miraculous change, and to its credit the film locates it in the heart of its protagonist, the fairy who causes Sleeping Beauty (called Princess Aurora in the film) to fall into a deep slumber the day after her sixteenth birthday. The film does not start off on the most promising note – Maleficent is a fairy living contentedly in an anarchistic woodland paradise where all the living beings live in harmony and presumably receive their life energy from a giant tree. The narrator moreover tells us that the humans living near the woods were “greedy” and “jealous,” setting up the conflict in which Maleficent will be betrayed by her only human friend, Stefan, out of his ambition to win the hand of the princess and the king’s only child.

On the day of Aurora’s christening, Maleficent arrives to lay a curse on the infant, which the film shows us is an entirely understandable response, if not a morally justifiable one, to her shabby treatment at the hands of the scheming upstart. But the film then takes an unexpected detour in which Maleficent ends up watching over the life of the girl as she grows into her teen years. The first time she appears to Aurora after she has grown, the girl recognizes her as her fairy godmother, and thanks her for keeping her safe during her girlhood. Angelina Jolie, her already strong cheekbones honed to razor sharpness, relates convincingly the emotional turmoil Maleficent undergoes, as she finds her maternal instincts to be far stronger than the grievance and resentment she feels toward her mortal enemy, the girl’s biological father. Jolie does an excellent job evoking the wounded passion and deep affection roiling beneath the surface of a wicked witch’s icy hauteur.

But Maleficent, like Frozen, presents a princess character who is left sadly under-developed. Elle Fanning is given far too little to do in her role as ingénue, though her performance suggests that her character could be as interesting as Maleficent herself. Aurora is a girl who moves between two worlds, a condition which should make for interesting conflicts as it would for an engaging, well-earned resolution. I think both Maleficent and Frozen share a missing element, which is that of education. One of the odd moments in Frozen is when Elsa, for the sake of keeping her sister Anna safe, is exiled to her room. But what does she do all those years she is absent from the life of the court? It would have made more sense for the narrative had her parents engaged some kind of tutor, perhaps a magician of some sort, to teach Elsa how to control her powers. Alternatively, it might have been interesting if she was shown spending those years in study, preparing herself for the responsibility that would come after her ascent to the throne. Similarly, in Maleficent, Aurora is not shown readying herself for her destined future as the queen of two realms. It would have much improved the film had Maleficent taught her magic, or given her some insights into the mysteries of the human character.

But why do both films avoid such scenes of instruction which are par for the course in fantasy narratives about the male hero coming of age? Why couldn’t the film have made Maleficent a little more like Obi-wan-kenobi – it certainly would have strengthened the ties between her and the girl and made it more plausible that the latter would become the ruler of both the enchanted forest and the human kingdom. There is also a missed opportunity in Frozen to show how Elsa’s talent, and her control over that talent, could be a source of both fulfillment and pain. Could the therapeutic nature of our culture be the culprit, in which these young women, because they are already princesses, need to be depicted as not lacking in anything? They are already wonderful, so is there no need to them to change or learn something painful on the way to becoming an adult? What kind of social fantasy does the image of such stasis underpin? A high self-esteem may correlate to social immobility, after all.

On a final note, the true villain of Maleficent, Aurora’s upstart father, is shown to be wicked because he is ambitious. But the film doesn’t reveal what makes him ambitious, nor does it give us any insight into what made him go from kind and decent to treacherous and megalomaniacal. It’s as though the mere fact of being ambitious were enough to make one evil. In a world where wealth is being increasingly concentrated in the top 1%, isn’t it a good idea to work out a more profound understanding of what it is that drives ambitious people?



My other blog

I have started another blog, “The Worldly Ascetic,” on which I will post my thoughts and reflections about the experience of South Korean modernity. The first post focuses on a lecture given by Emanuel Pastreich at the Seoul Museum of History on Neo-Confucianism and the work of the philosopher and fiction writer, Park Jiwon.

Apocalypse of the Therapeutic: The Cabin in the Woods and the Death of Mimetic Desire

More fatal than the other six.

Deadlier than the other six.

Note: This is a draft of an article submitted to an essay collection focusing on the work of René Girard.

Readers of René Girard are familiar with his thesis that the primary source of conflict in the modern, secular world is rivalry, which is no longer constrained by the sacred hierarchies and sacrificial practices that defined the archaic community. For Girard, the danger posed by the escalation of rivalry and competition in modernity is the necessary and unavoidable consequence of the demystification of sacrificial violence. Although the Bible has succeeded in dispelling the essential illusion on which the efficacy of sacrifice depends, this moral breakthrough has at the same time deprived human beings of the beliefs and mechanisms that enabled them to control violence in times of crisis. The Judeo-Christian revelation has the effect of leaving the world more at the mercy of rivalry and antagonism than ever before. Whereas the hierarchy of class and networks of interlocking duties formerly restrained and moderated competition, whether by curtailing the material aspirations of the common people or by channeling ambition into otherworldly directions, modern society, by removing these social barriers, exacerbates feelings of envy and resentment as equality becomes the defining value.[1] Modernity, in drowning the ambitions of the nobility and the devotions of the religious in the icy water of equality and egotism, brings men to face the real conditions of their life and relations with each other, which for Girard means unconstrained antagonism.

The disappearance of sacrifice leaves only “mimetic rivalry,” which is prone to “escalate to extremes.”[2] According to Girard, the breakdown of the sacrificial illusion leaves modern societies hovering on the brink of apocalyptic calamity, in which the outbreak of mimetic conflict can easily escalate into the effort to annihilate entire peoples. Human beings are thus left with a stark dilemma, in which they must choose between becoming “reconciled without the aid of sacrificial intermediaries” and resigning “themselves to the imminent extinction of humanity.”[3] Although he framed this either-or during the penultimate decade of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over the globe, Girard has continued to insist on the relevance of this formula for the crises of the present – the war on terror, ecological destruction, and economic meltdown – on the basis that they remain subject to the possibility of apocalyptic escalation. Yet in his recent books, Girard’s remarks imply that a different interplay of forces might be at work in contemporary consumer society and that his model of mimetic conflict may require some rethinking in light of present-day realities. In one dialogue, he admits that it might be the case that “contemporary individuals aren’t strong enough to have mimetic desire,” a development which he had earlier regarded as unthinkable: “Consumption society, which was ‘invented’ partially to cope with mimetic aggressive behaviour, has eventually created these socially indifferent human beings.”[4] Similarly, in his discussion of anorexia, Girard observes that “our entire culture looks more and more like a permanent conspiracy to prevent us from reaching the goals it perversely assigns to us.” It is thus “no wonder” that “many people want to drop out, as a result of sheer exhaustion, and also, perhaps of a peculiar type of boredom.”[5]

What happens when one loses the willingness or the capacity to copy the desire of the other? The only alternative to mimetic desire that Girard offers in any detail is its overcoming: the spiritual liberation in which one renounces rivalry and gives up the fantasy of one’s exceptional status in a manner that evokes and encompasses the Christian experience of conversion. Can the loss of desire, and the impulse to drop out of an increasingly ferocious competition for status be grasped within Girard’s paradigm of mimetic rivalry, or does it call for fundamental revisions to his theory of imitative desire? Indeed, other theorists such as John Gray and Jean Baudrillard take as their point of departure the dilution and enervation of desire in a society characterized by unprecedented affluence and the dissolution of taboos and prohibitions. In taking up the question of what causes these mechanisms of mimetic desire to unravel in the absence of a spiritual revelation, and how a narrative portraying such a collapse might lead us to reconsider or revise Girard’s theory of violence, I will examine a recent metafictional work of horror cinema, The Cabin in the Woods, as well as the work of Gray, Baudrillard, Pierre Manent, and Philip Rieff. These thinkers focus on the kind of nihilism which Girard, I will argue, underestimates.

The dissolution of mimetic desire that takes place without reference to a spiritual conversion is likely to be a tale of horror, as it points to a psychic condition where there is neither hope nor anything one desires. Yet one of the chief emotions evoked by horror cinema has been the intense desire to live. Carol Clover observes that the “final girl,” the courageous and intelligent female who alone among her friends escapes death at the hands of the serial killer or monster, demonstrates an “astonishing will to survive” in withstanding brutal tortures, repeated reversals of fortune, and severe injuries to escape her assailant and even to defeat him.[6] But recent horror narratives feature endings where no one is spared a violent death, including children and infants, or depict evils that are so overwhelming as to drive characters to suicide. In The Mist (2007), which deliberately evokes monster movies from the more optimistic decades of the American century, a father shoots his own young son to prevent him from being killed by the grotesque creatures that have entered the earth from another dimension. In the comic The Walking Dead (2003-present), the climax to one of its major story arcs breaks a taboo of mainstream entertainment by depicting, in a panel that takes up the entire page, the killing of the hero’s wife and infant daughter. It is an ending that Gerry Canavan describes as the “moment” when “the circuit of reproductive futurity is cut” and “all hope is lost” in the series.[7] Such depictions of suicidal despair are not limited to comics and popular films, nor is the despair merely suicidal – in the art film Melancholia (2011), written and directed by Lars von Trier, the depressive heroine curses all life as “evil” and welcomes the impending destruction of the earth in a collision with another planet.

We could account for the fascination with such unrelievedly bleak narratives in terms of the demand for novelty, since nothing ages more rapidly in modern mass culture than spectacles of violence and transgression, and so even more shocking images must be contrived in order to arouse the interest of the viewer. But these representations of crushing hopelessness and despair evoke the finality of extinction itself, a turn which also indicates the exhaustion of novelty itself. But is it possible to grasp this fixation with extinction and annihilation, an event which is impossible to integrate into any psychic framework or symbolic system, as yet another instance of the escalation of mimetic desire that for Girard defines the modern, post-sacrificial age? Can the “traumatic reality of extinction,” which in Ray Brassier’s view not only erases the future but also voids the past of any meaning, become a proper object of mimetic rivalry?[8] Or could it be that sacrificial murder does not constitute the most foundational form of violence after all, and that there is a violence that is more anterior and thus more foundational still, one which would generate the desire for annihilation itself?

Maybe it gets worse when man finally becomes man to man.

Maybe it gets worse when man is no longer wolf to man.

One of the most promising narratives with which to unravel these questions is the recent horror film, The Cabin in the Woods, directed by Drew Goddard and co-written by him and Joss Whedon (2012). As a work of metafiction, the film operates as a playful, self-reflexive satire when it is not offering up scenes of carnage, but its resolution has special relevance for Girard’s theory. For The Cabin in the Woods culminates in the failure, with apocalyptic consequences, of a sacrificial ritual. Moreover, this apocalypse, which results in the destruction of humankind, results from a decision that, within the moral universe of the film, appears wholly justified and legitimate. The film opens with the clichéd premise of five undergraduates traveling to a remote and isolated house in the country for a weekend of partying. Each of the students evokes a distinct social type, corresponding in turn to the archetypes from whom the sacrificial victims must be drawn: the athlete, the prostitute, the fool, the scholar, and the virgin. The five friends inadvertently summon demonic creatures that attack them in the order one expects in a horror film. But the film also reveals that these creatures are being controlled by a group of technicians working in an underground bunker beneath the cabin of the title. The technicians belong to the American branch of an organization charged with arranging the slaughter of the young as part of an ancient ritual to appease the dark gods that slumber deep beneath the earth. If these “ancient ones” are not satisfied by the bloodshed, they will rise up and destroy all human life on the planet.

The Cabin in the Woods alternates between two storylines. In the cabin and the surrounding environs unfolds a familiar horror scenario, in which the students, in the course of drinking and playing truth-or-dare, come to explore a hidden basement. Descending into the dark and sinister cellar, they come across strange artifacts, which exert an irresistible fascination on the group. By handling these items, the friends cause undead ghouls to emerge from the depths to murder them. In the underground complex, on the other hand, the managers and scientists meticulously orchestrate the events above-ground. They monitor the vital signs of their victims, use chemicals to tamper with their hormonal levels, alter the temperature in different sections of the forest, and prevent escape by blowing up a tunnel. The entire operation takes place in a high tech bunker that calls to mind NASA or perhaps more properly NORAD, given that the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Yet the banter between the two chief administrators is made up mostly of ribald jokes and risqué observations about their co-workers as well as the five doomed youth. They run a betting pool in which the various departments (engineering, maintenance, accounting, R&D, bio med, digital analysis, security, electrical, psychology, etc.) make wagers over which murderous creature will be chosen by the five victims as their executioner.

Both storylines are defined primarily by their comic elements. In the case of the five friends who are to be offered up to the dark gods, the humor arises mostly from the disparity between them and the roles they are forced to play as part of the sacrificial ritual. Jules, the woman who is given the role of the whore in the rite, is in fact a studious pre-med major, and so the organization resorts to adulterating her hair dye to reduce her intelligence and weaken her inhibitions. She shocks her friends with her wantonness when, during a game of truth-or-dare, she plays at kissing the head of a wolf mounted on the wall. She becomes so swept up by her role that her tongue makes contact with that of the decapitated trophy. Later, when she sways erotically to a song with sexually wanton lyrics, the camera cuts to a reaction shot of the virgin, Dana, and the scholar, Holden, gaping in shock and embarrassment. The athlete Curt makes crude remarks about Jules’ sexual desirability and then rubs into Marty’s face the fact that he and not the latter will be having sex with her. Marty, who as the fool is the only male in the group without a female counterpart, is not insulted but puzzled by Curt’s bluster, which he finds uncharacteristic of him. When Dana expresses skepticism toward Marty regarding his suspicions that they are being observed and influenced by shadowy forces, he reminds her that Curt is a serious student who is receiving a full academic scholarship. While Dana and Holden for the most part do not conflict with the roles assigned to them, Marty perhaps fits too well the role of jester for the purposes of the ceremony. Although his head is in a cloud of marijuana smoke for the first half of the film, he is the only one of the five to suspect that something is gravely awry. Indeed, Marty’s behavior proves disruptive and unpredictable to those in the control room, and his words and actions on several occasions threaten to ruin the ritual altogether.

"Your human needs disgust me."

“Your human needs disgust me.”

While the scenes focusing on the young victims usually involve an irony that is not always humorous, the scenes in the control room play out as a black comedy in which the lewd and coarse repartee of an upstart tech firm or too-big-to-fail investment bank is transposed into an institution charged with performing human sacrifice. Making bets on how the victims will be butchered and eager to watch the woman assigned the role of the whore engage in sexual foreplay, the personnel working for the organization in Cabin in the Woods fail for the most part to display the solemnity and reverence one would expect from murderous cults that commit atrocities to placate dark gods. Instead, we are presented with a series of humorous episodes in which the chief administrators, Sitterson and Hadley, make crude remarks laced with sexual innuendo, gyrate their hips to the music played by their victims, and otherwise display an arrogance that would be insufferable if the nature of their work were not straightforwardly horrifying. Only two employees demonstrate a degree of seriousness about the operation. Mordecai, the grim and repulsive old man whose job is to give the young victims fair warning about the sinister history of the cabin – is turned into the butt of a joke when he calls the control room to confide to Hadley his worries that the ritual could turn out badly. Daniel Truman, who is the new head of security, is secretly horrified by the proceedings and keeps to himself, refusing to take part in the betting pool or to celebrate with the others when it appears that the sacrifices have been succeeded in propitiating the evil gods.

At the premature celebration of their success, the lower-rung employees complain about not receiving overtime and make pathetic romantic overtures to each other, while the video screen above them shows Dana being thrashed by a ghoul. It is thus with elation and delight that the viewer takes in the destruction of the complex and the slaughter of its personnel, after Dana and Marty, who also survives the attack of the undead, release all the monsters from the menagerie. What follows is a spectacular encyclopedic montage of post-1970s horror film, as demonic creatures and fantastic beasts set about massacring the employees. Swarming into the complex, the monsters voraciously dismember, devour, impale, stab, strangle, and set fire to panic-stricken scientists in lab coats and managers in button-down shirts. A wraith pulls a guard’s soul from his body, while goblins tear apart their victim and throw half of the bisected corpse against the camera. Zombies feast on mutilated scraps, while a ballerina whose face is made up of fangs pirouettes through the carnage. The sadomasochistic demon from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser tortures an employee hanging upside down from the ceiling, and the face-hugger from Alien leaps onto the shoulders of its prey to implant its lethal egg. The film cuts between direct shots of the carnage and images of the massacre shown on multiple video screens used by the security system, lending a documentary immediacy to the massacre of the organization’s personnel.

In unleashing the monsters on the organization charged with sacrificing them and their friends, Dana and Marty cause the ancient gods to reawaken. An encounter with the director of the organization, played in a cameo by Sigourney Weaver, almost convinces Dana to kill her friend Marty for the sake of saving humankind. In a nod to Carol Clover’s ground-breaking study of horror films, the ritual stipulates that all the designated victims must perish except the virgin, who herself need not die but only suffer. The timely intervention of a werewolf prevents Dana from firing the gun she has aimed at her friend. In the final moments of the film, the two friends, bruised and soaked in blood, reconcile and huddle together to share a joint while the complex collapses around them. The final image of the film is of a giant hand rising from the depths to smash the cabin.

The two groups portrayed in the film – the attractive victims slaughtered above and the leering workers below – are not enmeshed in mimetic rivalry with each other, but it is nevertheless the case that there is an unbridgeable gap between them. It is properly inconceivable for the members of the organization to place themselves in the role of the sacrificial victim, just as Dana and Marty are stunned by their discovery of the organization seeking to offer them up to vicious gods. Although Dana aims her pistol at Marty when informed that the salvation of the world depends on his death, she hesitates because she cannot quite assume the subjective position of the director who urges her to murder her friend. The film accordingly does not stage the “destruction of differences” or allude to the threat of reciprocal violence, both of which for Girard serve as key conditions for the recourse by the strife-wracked community to sacrificial violence.[9] Instead, the characters are too weighed down by their own perspectives to be swept up into the orbit of envy, imitation, and disavowal that enables one first to identify with the object of sacrifice, then dismiss the doomed other to his fate, and finally reap the fruits of sacrifice. The inability to respond imaginatively to the other, even if the ultimate purpose is to ensure his or her murder, appears to sap the qualities needed to bring the brutal and pitiless ceremony to a successful conclusion. Indeed, the brief moment when Hadley expresses his awe and admiration for the pluck and resolve shown by Dana to keep fighting even in the face of impossible odds comes to an abrupt end when he is distracted by the arrival of his subordinates bearing liquor to celebrate the completion of the ritual. Similarly, the one occasion on which Sitterson behaves with solemnity is when he mutters an anxious and fearful prayer of supplication to the ancient ones just after the zombie family has butchered the unfortunate Jules, their first victim.

These latter scenes reveal that the ceremony of sacrifice has degenerated into a sterile, utilitarian exercise. It has become, in the absence of reciprocity, a vacuous, contractual operation which is destined sooner rather than later to run off the rails. The element of reciprocity for Girard both exacerbates rivalry and hastens the recourse of the community to finding a scapegoat in order to prevent conflicts from escalating  into the war of all against all, the ultimate expression of reciprocal violence. The absence of reciprocity in the film, by contrast, has the effect of depriving the organization of perhaps the only effective countermeasure to the possible uncovering by the young victims of the apparatus behind their suffering and death. If a member of the organization were selected to be slain as part of the ritual, perhaps by fulfilling the archetypal role of the adult who makes a courageous but futile effort to save the young victims, then perhaps the director might have succeeded in persuading Dana to save humankind by appealing to her sense of guilt. On the other hand, the neglect of the organization of the advantage of participating in the sacrificial ritual as victims alongside the doomed youth conceals a form of violence that, though notably lacking in mimetic character, sets in motion an outcome perhaps no less destructive than unchecked mimetic rivalry.

The new head of security is in no mood to party.

Only the new head of security is in no mood to party.

For the belief of the technicians in efficiency is far stronger than their awe of the sacred or their fear of annihilation. They are willing to have others die for their sake, but they are unwilling to do everything in their power to prevent the worst of all evils. Indeed, it never occurs to them that there might come a time for them to do everything in their power, because to this point at least one of the rituals, which play out in multiple locations across the globe, including Stockholm, Rangoon, Madrid, Buenos Aires, and Berlin, has always managed to succeed. The ugly reaction of the administrators to the shock of learning that the Japanese team, which had hitherto a perfect record of success, is so unabashed as to be comical: Sitterson leans over the video monitor, screaming out obscenities at a group of intrepid elementary school-age girls holding hands in celebration after having defeated a demonic spirit: “The Japan group should have had this in the bag! They fucked us! How hard is it to kill nine year-olds?” The technicians in The Cabin in the Woods thus exemplify the subjective position in which one is willing to have others suffer and die for the sake of one’s own comfort and well-being but is unwilling to put at risk one’s own life and well-being, even for the sake of defending one’s self. They only come around to fighting for their lives when it is too late and the instruments by which they secure their safety and well-being – or the entities they have instrumentalized for this purpose, turn against them. Such a disposition is not the consequence of mimetic desire running rampant or of its magnification in the competitive capitalist market, but rather of the death of desire, in which the will and attention required for purposeful action are dissipated in advance by the constant need to keep one’s eyes from glancing at an obscure verdict against oneself.

According to John Gray, what endangers desire is the immense affluence achieved by the industrialized world. The high-tech, hyper-capitalist economy that has spread across the globe since the late 1990s is distinguished by the fact that it depends not on “stimulating demand,” but instead on “inventing new vices.”[10] The most characteristic products of an economy “driven by an imperative of perpetual novelty,” which requires the “manufacture” of ever more “exotic needs,” are S&M clubs and drugs like Viagra and Ecstasy. But we would be wrong, argues Gray, to understand the ceaseless production of transgression as the consequence of the cheerful and insouciant pursuit of hedonism. Rather, “designer drugs and designer sex” are not “just aids to pleasure” but more importantly function as “prophylactics against the loss of desire.” Provocation and transgression, and their constant escalation, have become economic necessities in a race to forestall the satiety that would cause the economy to unravel. Yet the constant exposure to formerly forbidden spectacles and experiences cannot stave off the uneasy thought that such a way of life cannot have a healthy and peaceful future ahead of it: “The function of this new economy, legal and illegal, is to entertain and distract a population which – though it is busier than ever before – secretly suspects that it is useless.”[11]

This secret suspicion, and the directionless anxiety it arouses, is what supplies most of the humor in the sequences set in the underground facility, as we come to realize, with a touch of uneasy identification, that Sitterson and Hadley have been unknowingly laughing at their own violent deaths. But the virulent effects of this festering doubt do not spare their intended victims either. Marty, in one of his marijuana-induced soliloquies, gives voice, on the level of everyday wise-cracking, to the sentiment that the social and economic order is undeserving of continued existence: “Society needs to crumble, [but] we’re all just too chicken-shit to let it.” Indeed, it is the decision of Dana and Marty to doom the world that make evident the peculiar psychic deadlock created by this verdict. For although their treatment at the hands of the organization is clearly outrageous and unjust, the two friends do make a choice that goes against the good of all. Yet, the film depicts their refusal to sacrifice themselves as the logical and natural response to a social order that needs to commit inhuman violence for it to continue. Martyrdom and self-sacrifice have become accordingly inconceivable where the only choices are to betray one’s friends or die as a dupe for gloating jackasses. On the other hand, even if one accepts that the decision they reach is an unavoidable one, it is hard to suppress the thought that the two friends arrive at it with inordinate haste. Dana and Marty, in subjecting the world to a cruel demise, are not constrained by the hope that there might be some uncorrupted quarters of human life – for example, the principle that children are innocent of adult vices and should not be punished for the wrongdoings of their elders does not factor at all in their deliberations.

In The Cabin in the Woods, it appears that humankind is annihilated in a fit of thoughtlessness, which evaporates all doubts as well as their not inconsiderable benefits, by protagonists who have come to the realization that there is nothing enviable about their own existence. The ending of the narrative thus poses a fundamental challenge to Girard and his theory of violence. For Girard, what is to be feared most in the demystified, modern age are manifestations of what Nietzsche called active nihilism, exemplified by mass ideological movements that embark on cataclysmic, self-defeating attempts to restore the practice of sacrifice. The collapse of Soviet communism has not caused the threat of planetary conflict to diminish by any appreciable degree. Rather, Girard characterizes the era of globalization as one in which “mimetism has gained ground since 1945 and is taking over the world,” with radical Islam as the most conspicuous form of “violent imitation” that has become the “rule today.”[12] The denial of sacrifice in The Cabin in the Woods, by contrast, implies that the dangers of passive nihilism, having to do with the weariness and decline of the powers of the spirit, should not be underestimated. Indeed, passive nihilism, the hallmarks of which are resignation, self-disgust, morbidity and the readiness to resort to opiates and euthanasia as an escape from these feelings, has become more widespread than the more vigorous and energetic varieties of nihilism in those parts of the world pacified by globalization.

In contrast to the heated and passionate violence borne of rivalry, Baudrillard argues that the violence endemic to the global system of interconnected markets and interdependent economies derives from the impulse to prohibit violence. The global system, spearheaded by the West, seeks to impose a society “in which conflict is virtually banned and death forbidden.”[13] It aims at establishing a monopoly that would subject all cultures to an “unforgiving law of equivalence.” But such an undertaking to proscribe violence is self-defeating and doomed to end in catastrophe, not so much because it stokes mimetic passions and harnesses them to a project of domination, but rather because the global system seeks to universalize itself at the very historical moment when the ideas and values that constitute and legitimate this universality – “human rights, democracy, and freedom” – have become drained of substance.[14] The neglect of “symbolic equilibrium” means that, like the hapless individuals running the sacrificial organization in Cabin, we can no longer properly conceive of being placed in a situation of “having to do everything in our power,” even if it looms right before our eyes. Far from being a sign of our freedom or a proof of our moral progress, Baudrillard likens our exemption from sacrifice to the condition of slavery, in which we have been stripped of the right to give a part of ourselves back to the “technical system of generalized exchange and general gratification.”[15] The deeper source of violence in the global system lies in the fact that globalization is a project advanced by a “culture that has lost its values” and “can only take its revenge on the values of others.”[16] Operating under the horizon of consensus, the global system cannot conceive of the other as anything other than a criminal, and its understanding of itself as “obvious Good” means that, unlike traditional empires, it cannot even conceive of the long-term advantages or strategic prudence of allowing the enemy a right to his otherness.[17] The other, has become an entity whose difference is a temporary aberration and who is fated to share the same pleasures and to submit to the same appetites as oneself.

The destruction of values does not require the exercise of deadly force to proceed, and it can also be carried out by people who have no idea of what they are doing and who possess no awareness of the impact of their actions. Baudrillard’s account of global violence goes a long way toward explaining why Marty and Dana, though lacking malevolent or vengeful intentions, nevertheless act with a hubris that is invisible to them. For the judgment whereby they condemn the world rests on the certainty that the emptiness of their lives, as well as those of their persecutors, is the ultimate destination of modernity. Although they are quick to recognize the global system as destructive and sterile, they nevertheless cannot help giving their assent to its values in their conviction that the deprived will become just as depraved and as undeserving of life as the wealthy should they themselves ever attain wealth and status. They are, in effect, the products of a culture that, in the words of Meic Pearse, has “excommunicated all cultures” but their own, as well as their own “past.”[18] Dana and Marty might chafe at having to be attired in the mantle of the virgin and the motley of the fool for the purposes of the ceremony, but they fail to realize that these costumes are draped over the nakedness of a still more radical commission, that of the mediator, which confers on them the imperial prerogative not to envy or copy the beliefs and dispositions of the other. Accordingly, they find it natural to suppose, or to cling to the conviction, that they have circumnavigated all human desires and found them empty. This belief, to be sure, has nothing to do with arrogance in any conventional sense, because it presumes that human beings are incapable of resisting or rising above their appetites. In other words, it considers its foundations base enough and lowly enough to nullify any accusations of elitism or oppression.

Such an attitude is in essence totalitarian, as it issues from an act of closure toward vital and enduring human realities. It denies that human beings are capable of dedicating themselves to ends and objectives that transcend self-interest. For although Dana and Marty make uneasy references to the need for “a change” and to give “someone else a chance,” the film makes clear that the other for them can be nothing other than demonic. Unlike the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century, the totalitarianism of the present, which, in accordance with what Philip Rieff calls the therapeutic, is based on the eradication of all “renunciatory modes” and “creedal constraints.”[19] It does not impose moral demands on the people for the sake of creating a new society or incite them to persecute targeted minority groups or mobilize them for war. Instead, it is a totalitarianism of the individual, centered on his desires as well as his feelings of powerlessness, which operates through a volatile and contradictory pair of injunctions. On the one hand, the individual is told that it is hopeless to struggle against his weaknesses and appetites. To be human is to submit to nature. No one can sincerely believe that one can have too much money, or that anyone would forgo the sexual opportunities that come with an improved social status. On the other hand, he is also told that, in addition to being equal to others in his submission to nature, the only thing that stands in the way of his efforts to raise his status is an unjust status quo. To be an individual is to be free of the bounds of nature, since nature is merely a social construction that can be reshaped and re-engineered to alleviate one’s resentments and grievances.

These contradictory injunctions comprise the divided and ambivalent heart of a totalitarianism that operates by means of inflated pride and low moral expectations, yet this very deadlock serves as the fuel for a staggeringly prosperous economy. But as Stephen L. Gardner points out, such an economy requires a “vast amplification” of personal and public debt to keep the resentments and grievances of individuals from boiling over and destroying society.[20] The capitalist market succeeds in transforming “envy, jealousy, resentment, rage,” and the other forces that endanger human societies into sources of profit, but it cannot escape periodic crises created by imbalances of appetite and the flagging of desire, or, more disastrously, by the onset of self-hatred when the population becomes poisoned with disgust at the spectacle into which it has made itself. [21] The strategy that capitalism adopts toward the debts it accumulates and the social crises it sets in motion can only be one of postponement, but the longer it puts off the day of reckoning, the more devastating this reckoning will be when it finally arrives.[22]

In The Cabin in the Woods, this strategy of postponement is shown arriving at its inglorious demise. Desire can no longer be sustained, in spite of the brutal fates to which the adults are willing to abandon their children. Like other varieties of the katechon, institutions which employ measured doses of force and fraud to stem the tide of chaos that would otherwise sweep away the possibility of commodious living, the capitalist market serves to distract human beings from the dark truths regarding their conditions of life, postponing in effect their confrontation with the violent foundations of social existence. Girard frames the exposure of this elemental violence as an apocalyptic encounter: the individual, upon being confronted with the violence that founds the community – and continues to contribute to its well-being – may shrink from the implications of this disclosure and double down on his or her defense of sacrificial practices, a path which Girard on numerous occasions emphasizes will lead to global destruction.[23] The other choice at this moment of cataclysmic danger is to renounce violence in manner that Girard associates with the Gospels. The endings of such films as The Cabin in the Woods and Melancholia imply that Girard’s theory must make room for a third possible response to the revelation of foundational violence alongside the reactive defense of sacrifice and the renunciation of violence: impotent self-hatred.

It is difficult to imagine that this third response would not be far more common than the other two, as it belongs to those who have become convinced of the pointlessness of all communal purposes and who lack the will and inclination to commit themselves to a spiritual discipline.[24] In other words, it is the response proper to passive nihilism. After being deprived of the distractions afforded by an expanding capitalist market, such individuals are henceforth delivered over insignificant and helpless to an evil that strikes them as pervasive and omnipotent. They cannot find a way to integrate this knowledge into a historical narrative, whether Hegelian or realist, or a spiritual framework, such as the Augustinian doctrine of the fallenness of humanity. They are thus plunged into guilt at having been the beneficiary of cruelties and injustices while being unable to take consolation from the virtues and struggles of the past. Thus, far from imagining that they can take meaningful action on behalf of victims undergoing persecution and oppression, they appease at most their guilt by consenting to piecemeal measures that are likely to worsen strife and escalate conflicts but do not at the outset appear to erode their standard of living. The revelation, moreover, that domination is the way of humankind leads them not to renounce domination altogether but to maximize the petty dominations, sexual or economic, that they believe will never rise to the level of a communal or political purpose. Such individuals end up doing what the founding myths sought to prevent men and women from doing, which, in the words of Manent, is to “stumble interminably over the scandal of their origin.”[25]

This “stumbling” may take men and women back to the cruelty of their origins, but for all the turmoil and despair it stirs up in them, it does not serve to deepen their sense of historical identity. They are not led for the most part to wonder about how previous generations might have dealt with such knowledge, and why it would not have triggered in them the same response of overpowering horror. The monsters of the contemporary imagination cause them to revert directly to cannibalism without experiencing an interval of mere barbarism. The horror they evoke reflects our collective decision to feed on ourselves. For the immobilization of perspective is a consequence of the pact that the totalitarian individualist has made with himself or herself to salvage his or her pride from humiliation, which Gardner calls the “definingly democratic passion,” the “sense of nothingness experienced in self-comparison to others.”[26] It is to defend his or her pride as the final redoubt of a brittle and precarious identity, rather than to embrace a spiritual discipline based on compassion for the other, that the therapeutic individual heeds the Girardian commandment not to copy the desires of the other.

[1] René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 137.

[2] René Girard, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre, trans. Mary Baker (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010), p. 198.

[3] René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), p. 136.

[4] René Girard, Pierpaolo Antonello and João Cezar de Castro Rocha, Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture (London: Continuum, 2007), p. 251.

[5] René Girard, Anorexia and Mimetic Desire, trans. Mark Anspach (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), p. 36.

[6] Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 36.

[7] Gerry Canavan, “’We Are the Walking Dead’: Race, Time, and Survival in Zombie Narrative,” Extrapolation 51.3 (Fall 2010): 444.

[8] Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 239.

[9] René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), p. 127.

[10] John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Animals (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), p. 163.

[11] Ibid., p. 160.

[12] René Girard, Battling to the End, pp. 42, 13.

[13] Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, trans. Chris Turner (Verso: London, 2003), p. 98.

[14] Ibid., pp. 88-89.

[15] Ibid., pp. 102-103.

[16] Ibid., pp. 97-98.

[17] Ibid., p. 100.

[18] Meic Pearse, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 51.

[19] Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006), p. 15.

[20] Stephen L. Gardner, “Democracy’s Debt: Capitalism and Cultural Revolution,” in Debt: Ethics, the Environment, and the Economy, ed. Peter Y. Paik and Merry Wiesner-Hanks (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), p. 95.

[21] Ibid., p. 109.

[22] Ibid., p. 95.

[23] See for example Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, pp. 180 and 251, Battling to the End, p. 103, Evolution and Conversion, p. 237.

[24] Stephen L. Gardner, “The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man,” in Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006), pp. 232-233.

[25] Pierre Manent, “La leçon de Ténèbres de René Girard,” Commentaire 5.19 (Autumn 1982): 462. Translation mine.

[26] Stephen L. Gardner, “Democracy’s Debt,” p. 96.

Your Dreams May Vary from Those of the Employees of the Globex Corporation and Its Shareholders and Subsidiaries

The strongest traces of historical memory, as well as the manner in which these embers of the past are extinguished, can be found when one compares the dreams of successive generations.  What one aspires to after all is shaped by the beliefs and expectations of those who came before us, and the reality of how one lives up to or fails to live up to those aspirations is what one bequeaths to the next generation.  This question is particularly interesting to consider when one explores discusses generations that are divided by some kind of cataclysmic break, such as war or revolution, as borne out by a passage from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:

“… one must remember well that people who destroy an aristocracy have lived under its laws; they have seen its splendors and they have allowed themselves, without knowing it, to be pervaded with the sentiments and ideas that it had conceived.  Therefore, at the moment when an aristocracy is dissolved, its spirit still drifts over the mass, and its instincts are preserved long after it has been defeated.”

An earlier passage backs up this point when Tocqueville refers to how the French, even with all the turbulence and disruption caused by the revolution, found the courage and fortitude to fight off the united militaries of the European monarchies during the War of the First Coalition. But how long is it before the aristocratic spirit – and the pursuit of glory it inspires – dissipates and dreams of battlefield renown become viewed as a primitive and atavistic yearning, or the desire to create a work of art for the ages appears as quixotic as tilting at a windmill?  The novels of Stendhal and Flaubert provide an interesting point of comparison for how drastically dreams and ambitions can contract from one generation to the next.

The Red and the Black is set during the Bourbon Restoration (1814-1830), which brought the Bourbon dynasty back on the throne after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and his exile to St. Helena.  Its protagonist, Julien Sorel, is the son of a carpenter in the provinces.  But he is obsessed with visions of Napoleonic glory and dreams of achieving fame in battle.  His favorite reading is The Bulletins of the Grand Army, which reported on the actions of Napoleon’s forces and their enemies. Although he never fights in a single battle, Julien continually turns to military metaphors (conquest, siege, feint) when reflecting on his ambitions and the obstacles he encounters in fulfilling them.  Although Julien wins a prized commission in the army from his future father-in-law, the shrewd and perspicacious Marquis de la Mole, as Allan Bloom notes, the novel portrays Julien as a bedroom warrior, defying injury and death to sneak around the houses of his lovers, rather than braving enemy fire as an officer of the hussars.

Sentimental Education takes place in the years leading up to and following the revolution of 1848.  The protagonist, Frédéric Moreau, is young enough to be the son of Julien Sorel.  But the differences between the two young men are dramatic.  Where Julien is passionate, ambitious, and driven, never taking his eyes off his visions of glory or acting (or even thinking) in a manner contrary to his passions, Moreau is something of a schemer and dilettante.  In the event that his passions run up against obstacles, he makes back-up plans, which also come to grief because of his inability to commit himself.  When he finds himself rebuffed by Mme. Arnoux, the object of his passion, he initiates a relationship with the prostitute Rosannette.  But the life he has with her provides no outlet for his ambition, so he becomes the lover of the cold and unscrupulous Mme. Dambreuse, who has a wealthy husband and whose support he hopes will catapult him to a position of fame and prestige.  His ventures in politics prove just as fruitless and abortive.  Attempting to gauge public opinion during a period of erratic political shifts, he gives speeches in which he attacks the rich and terrifies his wealthy sponsor.  When Moreau presents himself as an earnest republican, voicing his support for a speech that calls for the state to seize the banks, abolish legacies, and create a fund for workers, the person giving the speech blasts him for having refused to fund a democratic newspaper in the past.  The distracted and desultory nature of his personality, moreover, makes its impact felt on the level of narrative construction, which appears increasingly fractured, incomplete, and unresolved.

One of key differences between the two novels is that Moreau does not ever compare himself to historical models, whereas Julien is highly conscious of how the heroes he admires would look upon his actions.  It is not only the image of Bonaparte that has evaporated by the time Moreau arrives in Paris from the provinces, but also that historical consciousness as such, which would have served as a vessel for the feelings, values, and thoughts of the old aristocracy, has largely dissipated.  As René Girard puts it,

“Julien Sorel is followed by a whole crowd of young men who come, like him, to ‘conquer’ the capital.  They are less talented but more greedy.  Chances of success are not wanting but everybody wants the most ‘conspicuous’ position, and the front row can never be stretched far since it owes its position purely to the inevitably limited attention of the crowd.  The number of those who are called increases constantly but the number of the elect does not.  Flaubert’s ambitious man never attains the object of his desires.  He knows neither the real misery nor the real despair caused by possession and disillusionment.  He is doomed to bitterness, malice, and petty rivalries.  Flaubert’s novel confirms Stendhal’s dire predictions on the future of the bourgeois” (Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, 136).

As it stands, what Julien achieves in his short life far outweighs what Moreau accomplishes in his much longer one.  Julien, after many hardships, wins the hand of the proud Mathilde de la Mole and a landed title, which he then hurls away to return to his hometown to shoot his former lover, Mme. de Rênal.  In prison, Julien rediscovers his love for Mme. de Rênal and, as Girard has argued, arrives at a full understanding of his life and the lives of others.  Even execution does not appear to be a terrible fate: “Death did not seem to him, in and of itself, horrible.  His whole life had been nothing but a long preparation for misfortunes, and he had made sure never to neglect that which passes for the greatest of them all” (475).  At the end of Sentimental Education, by contrast, Moreau also reunites with his true love, but then sends her on her way.  Experience has worn out his ambitions and drained his hopes, rendering him apathetic.  When he sees Mme. Arnoux, the problem of having to get rid of her later on, after sleeping with her, extinguishes the feeble remnants of his passion.

One of the key causes of the discrepancy between their levels of passion, vitality, and freedom, I think lies in their dreams.  Julien has Napoleon and his Marshals towering over him.  While he does not match their feats on the battlefield, their unparalleled example serves as a source of strength for his meteoric rise from the provinces to the exclusive circle of the Marquis de la Mole.  Moreau has no such figures to spur him on, and while it is common in our age to explain his failures according to a lack of role models rather than to a deficiency of character, it is clear that the Moreau has grown up in a very different age.  Whereas Sorel and his kin were social climbers dreaming of military glory, Moreau and his generation have as their “ideals” the social climbers themselves.  They do not mistake dreams for reality, rather they fail to understand that the reality rests on a dream, and is nourished by the dream.

Thinking about the rapid rise of South Korea from dire poverty of the postwar years to the wealth and affluence of the present brings me back to the works of these French novelists.  I wonder whether we will see a similar dynamic playing out in the coming years.  The generation that built the South Korean economy and won its freedom from military dictatorship has been called Korea’s “greatest generation.”  But what does the future hold for their children?  Will they become the Frédéric Moreaus to the elder generation’s Julien Sorels?  I think in times of hardship and poverty, many Korean people found in themselves the determination and strength of purpose to overcome their circumstances and build a modern industrial economy.  Of course, some failed, but many more reached deep within themselves to accomplish a goal that must have appeared impossibly remote a few decades ago.  But when people have choices, and grow up in conditions of comfort, a large number of them, larger than those who did not survive the transition, fail or fall short in the occupations they’ve chosen.  Necessity strengthens the will and fixes the mind, while choice weakens the will and distracts the mind, because failure becomes an option.  This shift is perhaps no more than the movement of a historical cycle, and perhaps it is too risky to act pre-emptively to forestall changes that are probably inevitable.  But one does have the obligation to speak before the thought itself is swept up into oblivion, when something otherwise can exist at least in the mind. 


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