THE BELIEVER, Henry Bean, 2001

I wish to argue that The Believer asks us to consider our ideas, inclinations, prejudices and thoughts in the light of historicity and multiplicity. Danny Balint (played by the masterly Ryan Gosling) begins his life as a promising Jewish yeshiva student who challenges teachers with his heterodox thoughts on sacred texts. The first scene of the film depicts a 20 year old Danny in his bedroom lifting weights sporting a triskele (or three sevens) tattoo. Over the scene plays an audible clip from Danny’s past where he challenges his teacher on the meaning of the Binding of Isaac story. Danny claims that the point of the scene at Mount Moriah was to show God’s power over Isaac and that God is conclusively a bully.

These initial pangs of theological curiosity that Danny exhibits in school ferment over time into a poisonous hatred of the faith he was raised in. His rage is manifested early in the film when Danny is shown intimidating and assaulting a young yeshiva student at a train station. In just under a decade the promising young pupil transforms into the very bully he himself decried as a youth.

The film’s opening wants us to hate Danny. It presents him unforgivingly as a rancorous monster that we should reflexively despise. We initially treat Danny not as an individual as we perhaps should, but rather, as a symbol loaded with all the connotations and meanings that the triskele on his arm possesses. We allow him the all the patience and understanding that a symbol can expect, namely, a sudden, knee-jerk moment of judgement. But as the film goes on to explore Danny’s inner conflicts and contradictions we are faced with a character that frustrates our own views, both of Danny and of our ideas of belief and identity.

What separates The Believer from other neo-Nazi films is that the main character’s hatred is directed inwards at his own Jewish roots. (1) Danny despises what he sees as the essence of the Jew: weakness. One poignant scene places Danny and his skinhead friends with a group of holocaust survivors. One man in particular tells of watching his own son die at the hands of a Nazi officer. Danny charges the man with cowardice and bolsters his own convictions on the weakness and cowardice of the Jew. However, throughout the film Danny dwells on this story and visualises himself as both the Nazi and the Jewish father in recurring visions.

There are two scenes in the film which best illustrate this inner conflict: the desecration of the Synagogue and Danny’s prayer scene. The former sees a group of neo-Nazis vandalising a Jewish temple: holy texts fly through the air, anti-Semitic graffiti is sprayed on the walls and one member is seen urinating off of mechitza or balcony. Amidst the chaos, Danny walks solemnly down an aisle, seemingly oblivious to everything but the temple, a place he undoubtedly associates with his childhood. Danny’s racism is challenged for the first time in the film and the scene comes to a tense conclusion at the altar with the skinheads inspecting the Torah. When Danny explains to them that the calligraphy is what is called the ‘Flame Alphabet’ he is asked by a fellow Nazi, ‘How come you know all this shit?’ to which he responds, ‘how come you don’t? How can you say you hate Jews if you don’t know anything about them?’ He goes on to utter a string of Aramaic terms and then cites Adolf Eichmann’s own study of Jewish texts as a defence for his knowledge.

This charged event at the altar is an almost external play of Danny’s internal conflict, of his faith and his racism. To read the scene superficially as Danny simply reverting back to his faith would misunderstand the extent of his confusion; after all, Danny may have defended the Torah from being completely destroyed, but he seems comfortable with planting a bomb intended to wipe out a sermon of over a hundred attendees. His referencing Eichmann as inspiration also confirms his allegiance to the cause.

I will go on to analyse the existence of two contradictory stances later but for now I wish to investigate further the eruption of faith or belief experienced in the synagogue. One explanation for this resurgence can perhaps be found in Nietzsche. ‘Thoughts’ says Nietzsche, ‘are the shadows of our sensations – always darker, emptier, simpler than these.’ (2)  Danny’s racist beliefs are a part of his thought – his cognitive faculties. They are beliefs arrived at through logic (3) (no matter how skewed), through reading and analysis of the Jewish texts. Like Nietzsche observes, Danny’s racism is simple and easy to understand. The fact that he is able to articulate his political ideas furthers this notion. Danny’s racism is fairly uninteresting, even if it is supported on an intellectual level rarely manifested in other famous cinema skinheads. The film’s richness lies in that eruption of faith seen in the Synagogue. Danny’s faith is contrasted against his racism on all levels. Danny cannot articulate his feelings of faith nor does he ever fully reconcile with his religious past. His faith is manifest through action. This can be subtle like when he rolls up the violated and abandoned Torah or explicit when he dons a tallit (a shawl worn over the head and shoulders by Jewish males) and acts out a Jewish prayer (more on this later). In this, his faith is not thought but felt. It is a sensation.

The fact that this feeling is one of faith is incidental to my main argument (there is perhaps something relevant about the power of liturgy and ritual that I will come to later) and I don’t wish to make a grand statement about the nature of religious belief. My point is more about parentage and heredity. Nietzsche argues that a child uses up ‘the best of his energy and time in the imitation of [the] feelings’ of those ‘relatives and acquaintances among whom he grew up’. (4) In other words, it isn’t explicit thoughts that are passed down from parents to children (for otherwise heredity would be wholly deterministic) but feelings. This isn’t just to say that certain emotional traits are inherited, but the subtle habits. The reason faith is such a fine example in this case is because habit is manifest in faith as ritual. For Danny, there are significant items that cause his unified racist shell to rupture such as the Torah, or more specifically, the words and the calligraphy in which they are written. It’s also Danny’s upbringing within a Jewish family and community that would have made sensation a large part of his childhood; it’s not just the Yeshiva teaching (which is what Danny rebels against most explicitly) but the atmosphere: the colours, the dress, the food, the songs, and all the bright intensities of a strong religious life.

Danny clearly abandons the Jewish thinking of his community and adopts a belief system that isn’t merely anti-Semitic or racist but is loaded with historical significance – a system of action as well as belief. The Third Reich represents a terrible episode in the history of Judaism, one that makes Danny’s allegiance all the more potent. This allegiance is a reactive decision, that is, a decision made in direct response to Danny’s history as opposed to one made independently. Following his previous argument, Nietzsche states that ‘under the pressure of this experience towards which he feels powerless, [the child] admires neutrality of sentiment, or ‘objectivity’… and refuses to believe that this too is only the child of habit and discipline.’ (5) Danny’s reaction against his Jewish upbringing leads him into a view which he believes is objective; an ontology based on a conception of identity that is fixed or essential. Danny goes beyond this essence of weakness by dominating it (usually by dominating that ‘weakness’ in other Jews) through power.

On a Kantian conception of a unified self, such internal conflict and contradiction would be in danger of being pathologised. A richer view can be found in an account of identity that is fragmented. There isn’t a singularly contained identity, but rather, shifting multiplicities that constitute a self that is always ‘becoming’. In §19 of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche states that the self is composed of a number of hierarchical forces competing for dominance. These forces exist as a complicated and shifting network of commanding and obeying drives. Nietzsche argues that philosophers and metaphysicians have ignored these divisions by appealing to the synthetic concept ‘I’. (6) This grammatical invention has its roots in primitive psychology but our habitual usage of the concept has worn away its origins giving the ’I’ an impression of being a given or default concept. (7) Such a fixed and stunted notion of identity complicates and does little to explain a self which exhibits numerous appearances and identities in different situations. (8) Nor does it allow for the conflictions and disharmony felt between certain feelings, thoughts, sensations and beliefs.

Danny is a character where this conflict is most clearly fought. The rage felt toward his heritage can perhaps be attributed to this conflict. In his essay On Moods, Nietzsche claims that a mood arises either from ‘inner conflicts’ (which we have already covered) ‘or else from external pressure on the inner world.’ (9) These thoughts and feelings are ‘wild factions’ inhabiting ‘two enemy camps’. (10) In other words, they are fighting for power and control. This doesn’t happen dualistically, with the mind having conflicting thoughts and the winning thought becoming acted out; this conflict is an embodied one, both felt and thought (thinking, dare I say, being merely an appendage to habit anyway). This embodiment of warring beliefs is manifested in the second key scene of the film in which Daniel is seen wearing a tallit and performing a combination of the Nazi salute and Jewish prayer – shown by extending his little finger which is traditionally done upon having read the Torah. Conflict, for Nietzsche, isn’t necessarily awful: ‘The soul destroys and thereby gives birth to new things, it fights energetically and yet gently draws the opponent over to its own side for an intimate union.’ (11) When Danny’s conflict is finally exposed in the physical act of prayer, something peculiar does indeed emerge from within him. Like I mentioned earlier, the two beliefs are never destroyed or reconciled fully, but they do eventually meet in a most perverse, yet intimate fashion.

As a point of closure, I wonder how much control we have over our thoughts, beliefs and feelings and whether we have created an illusion of proprietorship over such things. I’m not talking about indoctrination or external psychological coercion, but rather, something elusive from within. Humans are full of vague and peculiar inclinations that we explain by imposing a causal picture or narrative on our lives (‘I like x because of such and such an event that occurred in my life’). Gilles Deleuze argues that our ‘concepts are exactly like sounds, colours or images, they are intensities which suit you or not, which are acceptable or aren’t acceptable.’ (12) In the same inarticulate way that we cannot adequately explain our predisposition for attraction to certain people, our concepts and beliefs may be grounded in the same abstract and intangible forces circulating within.

Simon Booth

References:

[1] Danny is actually loosely based on Danny Burros, a Jewish American who was an active member of the American Nazi Party and a Kleagle [recruiter] for the United Klans of America.

[2] Thoughts, Gay Science

[3] A number of critics commented on the worry that the film is in danger of glorifying racism by having Danny act as a respectable, intelligent ambassador for the cause. Though as Roger Ebert rightly asserts: ‘And if the wrong people get the wrong message – well, there has never been a shortage of wrong messages. Or wrong people.

[4] Parentage, Daybreak

[5] Parentage pt. II, Daybreak

[6] §19 BGE

[7] Nietzsche Reader, p. xxxi

[8]The company of parents causes us to act in a different manner than we would around friends, yet we are hesitant to say that we are not being ourselves.

[9] On Moods

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Deleuze, dialogues.

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BLACK SWAN, Darren Aronofsky, 2010


Dionysus’s dance with Apollo.

“One must have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I, v.

Upon seeing Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and having particularly enjoyed the Nietzschean interpretations of There Will be Blood (Issue 74) and The Departed (Issue 65) in Philosophy Now film columns, I felt compelled to produce a Nietzsche-inspired piece myself.

Aronofsky’s haunting creation captivated me not only because of its spectacle as an aesthetically-powerful movie, but also for the resonance that it had with my own area of study – Nietzsche’s belief that language fails to render the cosmic symbolism of music. That said, I’m not so much interested here in Tchaikovsky’s powerful composition for the ballet Swan Lake (around which the story of Black Swan revolves), as in what I consider to be the clashing of two world-views. These are what Nietzsche coined the Dionysian and the Apollonian. ‘Dionysian’ is from Dionysus, the Ancient Greek god representative of intoxication and frenzy (known as ‘Bacchus’ to the Romans), while ‘Apollonian’ is from Apollo, the Greek god of a variety of things, including light, the sun, and medicine; but for the purpose of Nietzsche’s argument, he is mainly representative of reason. To Nietzsche, these two divine aspects form the distinct sides of artistic expression: the ‘Dionysian’ being the passionate, emotional element, and the ‘Apollonian’ being the visionary, intellectual element (see for example, his The Birth of Tragedy, 1872).

Nina: The Consummate ‘Apollonian’

Black Swan depicts the protagonist, Nina – played by Natalie Portman – on a frenzied journey in pursuit of the perfect performance in the lead double role in the ballet Swan Lake as both Odette, the White Swan, and Odile, the Black Swan. Overseen by her neurotic mother, Nina has become the consummate performer, and as the hottest prospect in her ballet company, is awarded the mantle of the lead role for the coming season’s shows. Through fastidious practice, complimented with intense discipline, she embodies the precise nature of the Apollonian White Swan. However, in the eyes of her domineering director Thomas – played by the excellent Vincent Cassel – she fails to capture the primordial essence of the Dionysian Black Swan for which he yearns. The visceral portrayal of Nina’s tumultuous journey in pursuit of embodying the Black Swan in order to deliver the perfect performance is provided not through a particularly complex script or dialogue, but predominantly through Aronofsky’s uniquely dark direction, which in turn is wonderfully accompanied by the cinematography of Matthew Libatique and the enthralling score by Clint Mansell (inspired in no small part of course by the work of Tchaikovsky). Through its highly stylised approach, the film builds relentlessly to an overture of epic proportions in its rendering of what embodying the Dionysian spirit of art entails.

The film culminates with Nina delivering a mesmerizing performance as the Black Swan. In the preceding hour and a half, viewers have witnessed her practice indefatigably in pursuit of perfection. However, we have also seen her go down a path of self-destruction due to her obsession: she has habitually scratched herself feverishly, to the point of bleeding; suffered torrid hallucinations; and, as a bulimic, also frequently induced herself to vomit. A final hallucination depicts her stabbing and killing a fellow dancer whom she perceives as a competitive threat. What is revealed, after she has delivered the performance of her life as the Black Swan, is that in the course of this hallucination she has actually stabbed herself. As the film nears its end, we see Nina bleeding, in all probability, to her death. Lying with tears in her eyes and an ever-so-slight smile, she appears a shattered figure, but at the same time enormously satisfied. She proceeds to utter a bittersweet reflection on all that she has suffered: “I felt it. Perfect. It was perfect.” The film then fades to white as the roar of the crowd chanting her name echoes on.

The fellow dancer whom she perceives as a threat is her hedonistic, sensual understudy Lily, played by the aptly cast Mila Kunis. On the face of it, Lily is the Black Swan incarnate. She even has a large tattoo of the wings of a black swan adorning her back – alluring, but also menacing. However, while Lily can deliver a more than capable performance as the Black Swan, Nina is an outstanding White Swan, and would attain perfection if only she could display an unbridled frenzy and passion in the role of the Black Swan to the same degree that her steely dedication masters her portrayal of the White. This perfection is something Lily cannot attain, for she is not as exceptional as the Black as Nina is as the White. As we’ll see, for Nietzsche, it would not be possible for anybody to excel as the Black Swan without crushing the White Swan part of themselves.

Welcome to The Well of Dionysus

For Nietzsche, the Dionysian spirit is more than just a way of thinking. Rather, it is a state of ecstasy and a ‘frenzy of becoming’, through which the Apollonian ‘veil of reason’ is torn asunder. In Daybreak (1881), Nietzsche exclaims that “what are wanted are blindness and intoxication, and an eternal song over the waves in which reason has drowned.” This dramatic proclamation summarises the purpose of his life’s work – and in particular, his endeavour to propagate the Dionysian way of thinking over that of the Apollonian. The outcome of this Dionysian outlook is displayed in all its intensity in Black Swan – that is to say, in the primal transformation of Nina into the Black Swan as she reaches her breaking point, having just, to her mind, stabbed and killed her understudy. She then enters the stage for the viewer to see her literally sprouting magnificent black wings, as we see her give herself over to the Dionysian frenzy which results in the primal, perfect performance of a lifetime: she has embodied Nietzsche’s cry for Dionysian passion.

The perfection for which Nina strives is analogous to what Nietzsche ascertains to be the supreme goal of art. This for Nietzsche can only be reached through immersing oneself in the unadulterated primordial passion of Dionysus. Accordingly, this passion is then able to unshackle one from the confines of the Apollonian realm of reason. But this paradigmatic shift in being, much like its messenger Nietzsche, is not for everyone. Nietzsche believes that the Dionysian is only for those strong enough, who have reached the limits of reason enmeshed in the Apollonian spirit. Hence, the Dionysian is only accessible by way of the Apollonian – the two are inextricably linked. Nina’s journey of suffering, and the manner in which she pushes Apollonian art to its limits, is a necessary pre-requisite for her to be able to enter Dionysus’s awe-inspiring well of the primordial. Furthermore, the Dionysian mentality is not something superficial, or something which can be dipped into on a whim. Rather, it requires unmediated passion – something of which Nina is actually capable, but Lily is not.

Not unlike the notion of Plato’s ‘Allegory of The Cave’, in which (crudely put) one falsely believes a shadow of an object to be the actual thing itself, Nietzsche argues that those who believe that the Apollonian is the truth of human perfection invariably perpetuate the relegation of the truly liberating Dionysian spirit, exclusively favouring works of reason as the ultimate expression of artistic freedom. As a result, unlike many reviewers, I do not consider Nina’s suffering in the film to be about mental illness per se, nor about the supernatural. Rather, I read Nina’s experience as the pain associated with transcending the confines of Apollonian reason, i.e., the pain of reaching for the Dionysian light outside the Apollonian cave.

Perfection Beyond Reason

Black Swan vividly depicts the struggle to transcend the limits that one has established and reach perfection. This is a painful process, and it may crush one to death. But as the pioneering martial artist Bruce Lee once said: “There are no limits. There are plateaux; but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.” Aronofsky increases the intensity continuously from the very first scene. This enables the viewers to immerse themselves in Nina’s surging to overcome her limits, and to feel the process of her embodiment of Dionysian frenzy. In a similar vein, Nietzsche’s provocative discourse in his books is emblematic of his Dionysian artistic purpose as a gadfly to provoke what he saw as a stagnated fin-de-siècle European society into striving onwards and upwards to greatness.

Nina’s striving towards, and ultimate attainment of, a form of perfection, illustrates the terrifying power of the Dionysian spirit in liberating its practitioners from the constraints of Apollonian ‘reasonableness’. In Black Swan, Aronofsky remarkably captures the clashing of two Nietzschean worldviews, and what results is an intense, dark and memorable audio-visual experience.

Dharmender Dhillon