Nietzsche: modern people hate pain more than their ancestors did

From before there was penicillin.

The many centuries before there was penicillin.

One of the defining achievements of the modern age has been a vast improvement in the physical well-being of the members of modern societies. People are far less at risk to disease and illness than those of premodern generations, and life expectancies have risen while infant mortality has fallen. While the accomplishments of modern medicine are unparalleled in human history, no less remarkable has been the softening of manners and the condemnation of various social practices for their harshness and cruelty. But such achievements do not appear to foster a greater feeling of spiritual well-being or stimulate great artistic breakthroughs. What gratitude we might feel in having been released from the agonies and afflictions of the past is overshadowed by an ever increasing sensitivity to the pains we encounter in our daily lives, pains which would hardly have bothered those of past generations. Moreover, we discover ceaselessly new areas of vulnerability and new occasions for distress. Even the cessation of pleasures becomes a source of intolerable anguish. Pessimism becomes widespread not only among intellectuals but also in the general public, so that health and the love of life come to take on the appearance of loot acquired by theft or some other underhanded means.

In paragraph 48 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche reflects on how the spread of well-being and comfort goes hand in hand with the rising popularity of pessimistic philosophies:

“Knowledge of distress. – Perhaps nothing separates human beings or ages from each other more than the different degrees of their knowledge of distress – distress of the soul as well as of the body. Regarding the latter we moderns may well, in spite of our frailties and fragilities, be bunglers and dreamers owing to lack of ample first-hand experience, compared with an age of fear, the longest of all ages, when individuals had to protect themselves against violence and to that end had themselves to become men of violence. In those days, a man received ample training in bodily torments and deprivations and understood that even a certain cruelty towards himself, as a voluntary exercise in pain, was a necessary means of his preservation; in those days, one trained one’s surroundings to endure pain; in those days, one gladly inflicted pain and saw the most terrible things of this kind happen to others without any other feeling than that of one’s own safety. As regards the distress of the soul, however, I look at each person today to see whether he knows it through experience or description; whether he still considers it necessary to fake this knowledge, say, as a sign of refined cultivation, or whether at the bottom of his soul he no longer believes in great pains of the soul and reacts to its mention in much the same way as to the mention of great bodily sufferings, which make him think of his toothaches and stomachaches. But that is how most people seem to me to be these days. The general inexperience with both sorts of pain and the relative rarity of the sight of suffering individuals have an important consequence: pain is hated much more now than formerly; one speaks much worse of it; indeed, one can hardly endure the presence of pain as a thought and makes it a matter of conscience and a reproach against the whole of existence. The emergence of pessimistic philosophers is in no way the sign of great, terrible states of distress; rather, these question marks about the value of all life are made in times when the refinement and ease of existence make even the inevitable mosquito bites of the soul and the body seem much too bloody and malicious, and the poverty of real experiences of pain makes one tend to consider painful general ideas as already suffering of the highest rank. There is a recipe against pessimistic philosophies and excessive sensitivity, things which seem to me to be the real ‘distress of the present’ – but this recipe may sound too cruel and would itself be counted among the signs that lead people to judge, ‘existence is something evil.’ Well, the recipe against this ‘distress’ is: distress.”

While acts of physical violence were more common in past ages and individuals were more prepared to bear them, it is clear that Nietzsche is more interested in the suffering of the soul, which, he implies, is doubly endangered in an age where people have become more sensitive to the pains of the flesh. Such people who associate pain with a physical discomfort (“toothaches and stomachaches”) would be incapable of even conceiving of the spiritual anguish necessary for thought. Indeed, to believe that all pains are ultimately physical calls out for merely physical remedies, whether in the form of political institutions or technological advances. Our age is an aberration not only in its conquest of pain but also in its hypersensitivity, which could the very path by which the pendulum swings back into history and back toward life. Or in the case that the pendulum has broken down, then we may have to contend with euthanasiasts who nevertheless cling stubbornly to an eccentric interpretation of the golden rule.

Work cited:

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Paradox as an Aid to the Discovery of Reality: Lefort on Tocqueville

Claude Lefort credits Tocqueville with an “astonishingly free speech,” which arises from his readiness to move behind the “circle of his theses” (35). Tocqueville is not afraid to “overturn his own affirmations,” and “gladly heads down paths that make him lose sight of the guideposts he had set in place.” His style is lucid and direct, yet it is very the clarity of his writing that lends itself to rendering a portrait of social reality as complex and dynamic. But as Lefort points out, the movement of Tocqueville’s thought verges precariously on self-contradiction. The well-known section in Democracy in America decrying the dangers posed by the tyranny of the majority in the United States is followed by a chapter dedicated to the legal profession, where the reader comes across the beliefs and habits that constrain and combat the drift toward the despotism of mass opinion. The profession of the law in the United States fosters admiration for competence and expertise and instills a “sense of permanency” that was formerly provided by the aristocratic hierarchy. The practice of trial by a jury of one’s peers diffuses and reinforces the belief in the rule of law, even among the “lowest classes,” so that the entire population becomes accustomed to thinking and deliberating on matters like a “judicial magistrate” (41). Thus, in contrast to the fear of the power of democracy to bring the citizen down to a lower level of thought and feeling, Tocqueville gives striking account of how American citizens raise themselves to a higher level of thinking by their judicial institutions.

A more striking example of how Tocqueville qualifies, complicates, and then reconciles with a previous assertion is found in The Ancien Regime and the Revolution, where he at first describes the selfishness, short-sighted ambition, and venality of the nobility, the clergy, and the bourgeoisie on the eve of the French Revolution, but then in a characteristic reversal, praises them for the virtues that they were able to demonstrate, and not in an insubstantial measure either. “The nobles, we learn, ‘retained even in the loss of their old power [to the monarchy], something of their ancestors’ pride, as opposed to servitude as to law.’” The clergy “has shone so brilliantly by its courage and its independence,” that Tocqueville asks if “there has ever been a clergy… more enlightened, more national, less confined purely to the private virtues, better provided with public virtues, and at the same time, more faith.” To the rising middle class Tocqueville ascribes a “spirit of independence,” and although the bourgeois was driven by vanity and eager to protect his newfound privileges, the “pseudo-aristocracy” he formed with his compatriots was able to produce some of the virtues of a “real aristocracy” (62).

Tocqueville’s method can be called realist, in that he is not concerned with championing any particular political or ideological outlook, but is instead devoted to doing justice to depicting the main features of an age that has arisen in the wake of unprecedented social and political upheavals and that is still caught up in the process of transformation. One could also call his approach “charitable,” in the sense that he strives to find something positive and admirable in developments which fill him with dismay and dread. It enacts perhaps the very sort of intellectual freedom that Tocqueville views as vitally necessary to check the power of mass opinion in a democratic age. One may have no choice but to accept democratic equality, but without intellectual freedom, democracy becomes deprived of its self-correcting mechanisms. Tocqueville’s method, with its attentiveness to paradox, moreover gives his work a novelistic quality, in which the idea of democracy, or aristocracy, emerges with the degree of concreteness and ambiguity that we would associate with a character in a nineteenth-century realist novel. But this ambiguity of course does not hinder knowledge, as it emerges from the nuanced analysis which he devotes to his themes. Democracy in America and Ancien Regime, which rely on the outlook and values of the vanquished aristocracy to give flesh to the democratic age, anticipate in striking ways the essayism of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, his great unfinished novel about the collapse of the Habsburg Austria.

Text cited:

Claude Lefort, “Tocqueville: Democracy and the Art of Writing,” Writing: The Political Text, trans. David Ames Curtis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Human Sacrifice for Atheists

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“When there is a choice in the matter, a great sacrifice will be preferred to a small one: because in the case of the former we can indemnify ourselves through the self-admiration we feel, which we cannot do in the case of the latter” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil).

What if human sacrifice as practiced by Carthage and elsewhere were performed not in the spirit of belief but rather that of disenchantment? In the manner of young people who cut themselves in order to feel their reality or those who have suffered abuse as children who become driven to abuse themselves, what if the Carthaginians sacrificed their children not out of fear at the presence or proximity of cruel and dangerous gods, but out of resentment over their disappearance, out of indignation that these gods had abandoned them? “Look at how I am hurting himself, I dare you to appear in the presence of my pain, you miserable devious bastard!”

This would be a variation on the social game that psychologist Eric Berne calls “Now I’ve Got You You Son of a Bitch.”

An absent parent is able to exert a fascination over the child that a present one, who is compelled by daily life to reveal his faults and defects, cannot — why should the same not hold for deities? But such a fascination is entwined with one’s feelings of helplessness, of feeling oneself tyrannized by forces that because they are absent, one cannot pin down, and because their first move is one of abandonment, one finds oneself at pains to come up with any possible counter-measure to nullify the symbolic deficit they create.

This is not to deny that the practice of human sacrifice would have had its practical uses in terrorizing the poor and humiliating the ambitious, and providing group solidarity. And perhaps the love of money is a critical factor as well (the Carthaginians would rather lose a war than their wealth and once got out of paying the mercenaries in their employ by massacring them). The enjoyment of luxury, like all enjoyment, is sweetened by cruelty.

A Note on Ex Machina (2015)

Cramming for the Bechdel test.After passing the Turing Test, it’s time to cram for the Bechdel Test.

I was utterly mesmerized the first time I saw Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. The remote and secluded setting, the erratic tech billionaire, his haplessly earnest employee and test subject, and then finally the female android, whose strange, transparent body, which showed her wiring and components, conveyed delicacy and vulnerability rather than coldness and alienation. Alicia Vikander’s performance as the robot Ava is absorbing – she shifts convincingly from expressing curiosity about herself and human beings to confiding in the programmer assigned to interacting with her that her creator has dark designs.

The programmer Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleason, is charged by his boss, the tech mogul Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to ascertain whether the android is capable of independent thought. As one might expect from past examples of erotic encounters staged between humans and robots, the experiment works so well that it ends in catastrophe. Caleb succumbs to Ava’s charms, an outcome which is revealed to be premeditated when Nathan confides to Caleb that he designed Ava’s features in accordance with his employee’s romantic preferences, as indicated by his downloads and surfing habits. Much of the controversy around the film has revolved around the eroticism associated with the female android – security footage reveals the brutal fates of the earlier models, which Nathan had apparently created for the sake of fulfilling his sexually sadistic desires.

But what makes Ava different from the other fem-bots, who destroyed themselves, or were driven to destroy themselves, from the abuse that Nathan inflicted on them? For one thing, she is a brunette, and she is white. The previous models were either blonde or East Asian. In other words, Ava might be an object of fantasy for Caleb, but she is not desired by Nathan. What kind of relationship does Nathan have with Ava? The nature of their relationship is revealed when Ava is about to set herself free from the compound. Nathan, alarmed by Ava’s attempt to grasp her freedom, tells her, almost in a sitcom tone of voice, “go back to your room!” Nathan, in creating Ava to physical specifications other than those which turn him on, becomes capable of relating to her as a parent, rather than as a lover. Nathan behaves like a jerky father to be sure, ripping up the drawing that Ava makes while Caleb is conveniently away from her room, but the film makes a point about freedom which I think has eluded reviewers like Daniel Mendelsohn, for whom sexual desire is enough to account for the motives of the tech genius – “Why does the creator create? Because he’s horny.”

It is the dream of Nathan to create an android that is fully autonomous, independent, and free. But the film recognizes that it is very difficult for us to feel such a desire toward those with whom we have sexual relations, whereas this same desire is something we feel naturally toward our children. In order to create a robot who is capable of being free, and whose freedom he can actively desire, the inventor realizes that he must regard her as a child, and not a lover. Perhaps this disordering effect of sexual desire, and the fact that possession constitutes a limit on the freedom of the other, is a lesson which has become more elusive in contemporary society, and which a great film or work of art like Ex Machina can help us in relearning.

The Lesson of Nicias, Prisoner of His Virtues

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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)

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“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

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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)

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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.