ANTICHRIST, Lars von Trier, 2009

7.-opening
Grief, Pain, Despair – Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and the Nature of Evil

It’s somewhat hard to watch, show, and certainly write about a film named by various reviewers as “the best movie I can never recommend”, an “art-film fart” and “the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world”.

Lars von Trier, a Danish director who also boasts responsibility for the first hardcore porn movie made by a mainstream production company, directed this film as a form of therapy, and this is somewhat how it should be viewed. The film is, however many critics respond to it, a work of art; a claim that had to be justified by Culliton in her work, Ethics, Aesthetics and Lars von Trier’s ‘Antichrist’ as Art. One of the items the film raises, no doubt on purpose, is the line between art and revulsion. The most natural, or perhaps the “easiest” and “accepted” response to the movie, as Culliton writes, is one of revulsion and the declaration that it is not art. This view is generally however one sparked from abhorrence, morally, about what is contained in the film. I should not want to be swayed into taking the easiest route by popular opinion however, and neither does Culliton. She uses the work of José Ortega y Gasset to support her view that one must work through the abhorrence to find the art:

The new art obviously addresses itself not to everybody…but to a specially gifted minority. Hence  the indignation it arouses in the masses. When a man dislikes a work of art, but understands it, he feels superior to it…But when his dislike is due to his failure to understand, he feels vaguely humiliated…Through its mere presence, the art of the young compels the average citizen to realize that he is just this–the average citizen… Accustomed to ruling supreme, the masses feel that the new art, which is the art of a privileged aristocracy of finer senses, endangers their rights as men. Whenever the new Muses present themselves, the masses bristle. (1)

So the chances are that you are likely to find this film morally abhorrent. This is a given. However the film acts as a challenge to us. We must overcome our ethics in order to realise the film as a work of art. If we disagree with the film being a work of art, we must ask ourselves the question of whether we believe the aesthetic and the moral to be inseparable. If you are not utterly convinced that they are, then press ahead. If you do, you are not going to appreciate this film, so you may as well not proceed with viewing it.

The title alone has a lot to do with the message conveyed by the film (a message often deemed a necessary component of a work of art). The term “antichrist” is often taken to mean a simple (or not so simple) spawn of Satan, mainly due to popular culture, however this is not what von Trier is getting at. Lars claims to have had a book of Nietzsche’s by his bedside since age 12, and if this is true, it certainly helps us understand the title better. Thomsen, in an essay on the event of violence and the use by von Trier of haptic imagery (a concept I shall explain later), writes how in the title imagery of Antichrist, the last t is replaced by the sign for Female. (2) This is a clue as to the film’s message. It also relates to the Nietzschean term “Anti-christ” in the book of the same name, meaning rather anti-Christian. Hence, one might propose that the film is both anti-Christian, and anti-nature, or rather in the Nietzschean sense a reversal of what is considered natural (but is in fact something completely natural), and in this sense anti-Satan (for one line in the film characterises Nature as “Satan’s church”). If woman too is nature, then she is Satan’s church. However,  Thomsen writes, Nietzsche’s antichrist is conferred with all the properties of Dionysus, and is thus opposed to order embodied in the Apollonian. For Nietzsche, Dionysus is the embodiment of the antichrist and is characterised as female, and so the theme continues.

In a discussion on the philosophy of the film in film quarterly, Nina Power, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Roehampton University, discusses what von Trier’s film has to say about women. (3) The film grapples with ideas of the tension between woman and man, and of the wild, Dionysian nature behind woman. “She”, the female character in the film, is in the process of writing a dissertation on the evil committed against women. Von Trier alerts us to the Nietzschean quote, “When a woman has scholarly inclinations, then something is usually wrong with her sexuality”. Midway through, she states that women do not have control over their bodies, and that in fact nature does. She is seen to be internalising her research in the film, and this can be seen as Lars von Trier commenting on the state of society today and the internalisation and acceptance of the suffering of women. To reinforce this idea the film challenges our general conceptions of nature and the natural. Nature is turned on its head, and yet remains true, in a Nietzschean, Dionysian sense, to itself. We are presented with an image of an eagle eating its young, reflecting actions of “She” in the film, and it revolts us, and yet is at the same time natural. Von Trier’s use of Haptic imagery in this sense is entirely appropriate. Haptic imagery relates to the use of the graphic to convey sensory illusions and is used by von Trier, with an interesting employment of rotoscoping, to instil in us an uneasiness about nature. Haptic imagery is in a sense an embodiment of the Dionysian, and possibly of evil. It takes advantage of us and assaults our senses. Thomsen writes on how the texture of the imagery sits on the borderline of the psychic and demonic and relates its use with the Deleuzian concept of the “power of the false”. Von Trier misuses the camera and the medium of cinema – instead of his art revealing truth, to borrow and probably misuse a Heideggerian phrase, von Trier uses cinema to confuse, revile and bamboozle us by turning our preconceived ideas about nature and “what feels right” against us.

In this sense the film is a very interesting piece of art. As Culliton writes, von Trier’s thesis is that women are the source of chaos and wild nature, and to us this is wrong, but it does not matter that it is wrong. The film both reminds us that it is wrong and also helps us understand why it is wrong, and in that way it may be seen as a work of art.

Matt Beckett


References:

(1) Betsy Walker Culliton, ‘Ethics, Aesthetics and Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” as Art’ <URL: https://www.academia.edu/284966/Ethics_Aesthetics_and_Lars_von_Triers_Antichrist_as_Art&gt; [Accessed on 11/09/14]

(2) Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen, ‘Antichrist—Chaos Reigns: the Event of Violence and the Haptic Image in Lars von Trier’s Film’, in Journal of Aesthetic and Culture, (2009): 1-10, 3.

(3) Nina Power and Rob Wright in ‘“Antichrist”: A Discussion’, in Film Quarterly (Dec., 2012)

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DRIVE, Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011

No Good Sharks: Humanity and(/or) Heroism in Drive

Drive is really a film about the Driver, a character who appears in one shot as a male ingénue and in another as a merciless killer, driving from one murder to the next like a Wild West gunman. It is a paradox of the film that we understand exactly what he does and precisely why he does it, yet he remains profoundly mysterious. The Driver, and the film itself, represents in a sense a set of competing identities, bound together by a tenuous denial of their contradiction, an unlikely balance that works itself out in the narrative of a fairy-tale. Within the logic of the film, the Driver is, by definition, a hero. What, then, does it mean to be a hero? What, then does it mean to be a man?

We are given very little concrete information about the Driver: he has lived in Los Angeles for some time, he has recently moved to his current apartment, he works as a mechanic but moonlights as a stuntman and, previously, as a getaway driver. He has preternatural talents: we are never given reason to doubt his total mastery of driving or, eventually, of violence. He is pervasive and archaically noble; he is modest, kind, loyal, respectful, and self-sacrificing. He is, in short, the chivalric ideal of the romantic knight, the scion of a tradition of relatively chaste “courtly love” that has been largely eroded, for better or for worse, by the passing centuries.

Of course, the archetypal cavalier is not prone to beating people to death in an elevator. The tension the film introduces – between the apparent nobility of the Driver’s motives and the brutality of his actions – is at the core of his character, and it is also emblematic of a more fundamental disjunction in the film; the dyadic relationship that confounds the expectations of the viewer and that makes problematic the character and his environment. The dichotomy can be phrased in different ways – as nobility versus brutality, passivity versus activity, action versus reaction – or, as I will argue, modern masculinity (in the sense of the 1980s action hero, as phrased by Susan Faludi) versus, for lack of a better word, romance. The exact features of the first half of the film are best understood negatively, being thrown in sharp relief by the second.

Consider the opening chase scene, which is, in a sense, expected; the film is, after all, called Drive. This teaches us two things about Gosling’s character – that he is calm and that he is very good at driving. The characters, despite some difficulty, succeed in their heist and escape without problem. The corresponding scene from the second half of the movie is sparked by a total, shocking failure of the professionalism that corresponded to the first, and directly leads to the death of, at fewest, four people. The logic of the situation has changed – the impersonal, unnamed characters from the first are replaced by characters whom we have come to know (if briefly), and the staging has changed from an enclosed, urban area at night to an open, sparse desert illuminated by sunlight. Furthermore, the police, the symbols of authority and order who chase the Driver in the first scene, disappear from the film completely, replaced by their underworld equivalent.

The disjunction is not, diachronically, a completely clean one. The cool perfection of the opening scene is later compromised by the revelation that one of the Driver’s previous accomplices was jailed, and the man’s brother killed: the Driver’s professionalism and unflappability is challenged by his uncharacteristically terse and confrontational response. Of course, the Driver’s rejection of his criminal past is part of the narrative of the film, or appears to be. Like Standard, he wants a second chance, and like Bernie he wants to become “legitimate.” Ultimately, though his desires for this sort of thing are incidental, serving only as tools to his relationship with Irene; he is willing without deliberation or hesitation to abandon these aspirations when her life appears to be in danger. This decision could have warranted a film in itself, yet here it is almost non-existent, a red herring; the convention of the hero with the chequered past is for the past to catch up to him, but it is not the Driver’s past that catches up to him, but Standard’s. There was never any question that the film would involve conflict, of course, but the conflict that the viewer is drawn toward by the film is of a different kind than the one that ultimately consumes it.

Because of the “false omens” of the film, particularly the antagonism of Standard, the actual turn – which occurs in the vicinity of Standard’s and particularly Blanche’s deaths – is subversive without being arbitrary. What was tense in the film is not stretched further but is snapped completely, and in the remains of this rupture a new character emerges, or, at least, a new role is assumed. The Driver transitions from a wheel-man – the accomplice – into a killer. What exactly this transformation constitutes, and the degree to which it is a change or an unmasking, is the central question of the film. There is a song heard twice in the film, once on either side of the diachronic gulf. The memorable refrain identifies the song’s object as “A real human being/and a real hero.” Is that what the Driver represents and, if so, what constitutes the concepts?

With regards to heroism, or more precisely the role that the concept of the “hero” plays in cinema (and elsewhere in art), it is hard to avoid Joseph Campbell’s idea of the “monomyth.” Campbell posits an archetypal journey through a variety of stages, beginning with a call to “adventure” (defined somewhat loosely) and ending with the attainment of a degree of self-knowledge. If we suppose that the Driver is, in this sense a Campbellian hero, the journey would have to end with the achievement of this goal; the climax and sacrifice of the Driver would have to represent a change in his personality. But does the Driver attain self-knowledge? The transparency of his motives, which appear fixed and untarnished, belies the opacity of his thoughts. That is, it is clear what the Driver wants; he is driven completely by a desire to protect Irene and Benicio. What is not clear is, for example, why he wants it, or how he feels about the actions he takes or the circumstances that force him to take them. There certainly seems to be a sense in which the Driver is a mythic character who transcends development, who remains essentially unchanged throughout his ordeal. What does it mean, then, to call him a hero?

The sort of hero who forces men to swallow bullets or impales them with curtain rods is one that is conventionally bound up with the masculine. That is, it is bound up with a sense of masculinity infused with the cultural mores of particular periods and particular times, namely with the 1980s cinema from which Drive draws so much inspiration. Faludi’s book Stiffed provides a particularly fertile ground for this sort of analysis. It offers (among other things) a conception of 1980s masculine film that maps closely to the narrative of Drive by way of the 1982 film First BloodFirst Blood concerns John Rambo, a world-weary Vietnam veteran who is forced to re-enact his struggles in competition against a bloodthirsty World War II veteran sheriff, ultimately leading a one-man war against the police department before surrendering to a sympathetic army captain.

The identically named novel on which First Blood was based, however, does not have Rambo “forced” to stage this war; in fact it is his fractured psyche that causes the tragedy to be enacted. As Faludi details, the transition from novel to film, which included no fewer than four different re-writers, deprecates this change – Rambo becomes a passive recipient of society’s ill-feeling, a lone victim who seeks solace in the “good father,” who will validate his feelings and who seeks to defeat the “bad father” who forces him into conflict. Throughout Stiffed, notions of the paternal play a central role in Faludi’s analysis, for it is (conventionally) from fathers that the image of masculinity is constructed and elucidated. Thus the validation of Rambo by his “good father” is seen as the apotheosis of the masculine role. Rambo’s survival – the fiction that reinforces the mythology of the “series” – happened only because the audience despised his death, which was present in every script before the last one. Yet it also opened the gate for First Blood’s much more popular sequels, which abandoned the Freudian ambivalence, the “crisis of paternity” for an unambiguous and unapologetic celebration of the killing of human beings. If the production of First Blood was the crucible on which the masculine paradigm – which is a working out of a mythology at least as old as pro-World War II propaganda films – was forged, Rambo: First Blood Part II is the product, at once blood-drenched and morally pristine. The Rambo series, says Faludi, “reclaimed the virtue of the solitary American male.” (364)

Is this how the Driver sees himself? When Al Pacino was attached to First Blood during development, he asked David Rabe to write the screenplay. Rabe writes, “Pacino described to me that the guy should be like the shark – a mindless, driven, single-minded thing that is not available to any plea once it got loose.” (Faludi, 385) This recalls a memorable scene from Drive where the Driver and Benicio are watching a children’s program. Benicio identifies the shark as a “bad guy,” to which the Driver responds, “There’s no good sharks?” Of course, Benicio’s conception of morality is different from that of the action film, in which the shark is the very ideal of a hero, and of course the Driver wishes to reconcile the two domains.

Is such a reconciliation possible? Within the purview of the post-war masculine heroics that Faludi identifies, certainly – so the story goes. After all, what Faludi explicitly describes as the “cartoon mythology” of the latter Rambo films vindicates the “virtual sainthood” of the “supervictimized hero” against his “supervicious enemy” (365-367.)” This appears to be the fiction that the Driver entertains; we see the Driver not a as a character who is haunted by his past or his capacity for violence and brutality but as one who simply does not acknowledge them, or who segregates them from his personality. When asked about his “dangerous” work, he replies simply that “It’s just part time.” This partitioning of his life, this wearing of the mask is precisely the mythology of American masculinity that fails, in actuality, to be borne out. The Rambo of the novel First Blood – the one who eventually transmuted into the film’s “superhero – is a brutal, violent sociopath, a Frankenstein’s monster who was wronged but who reacts to his plight by lashing out against the innocent as well as the culpable.

And yet for all of his mastery of violence, the Driver is not incapable of emotion and certainly not incapable of virtue. He is without mercy perhaps but does show emotion upon, for example, the death of Shannon. Audie Murphy, decorated World War II veteran-cum-action star whose service served as a template for the contemporary notion of masculinity but whose life was essentially a psychotic wreck, wrote that he “feels no qualms; no pride; no remorse. There is only a weary indifference.” (Faludi, 376) It is with this indifference that the Driver approached his war. His motivations, however, are purer in a sense and more authentic. His dissonant serenity is the result of a childlike innocence that allows him to maintain the gap between an authentic romantic motivation and a culturally imparted and validated violent impulse that he picks up and wields; the latter is a tool, and like a tool it is not considered or meditated upon, it is simply used and (to employ Heideggerian terminology) ready-to-hand. There is, as Faludi says, “no need for a reckoning; there was no crisis.” (367) It is with a childlike naivety that the Driver moves forward, expecting no reckoning, feeling no remorse.

This quality which belies a general emotional immaturity in the Driver – evidenced particularly through his sometimes bizarre dialogue, empathy with Benicio, and his relationship with Shannon – reflects another premise of the general ideology of the action film, not only as a reflection of American ideals of masculinity but as a source of them. Speaking of the former president and actor, who lived vicariously through war films, Faludi writes, “Reagan had found the missing half of his manhood in celluloid images he conjured in the mirror. But what would other men find there?” (362) It is from the set of the stunt shot early in the film that the driver finds the mask he dons before he executes Nino; it is from the film itself, and its ilk, that he summons the narrative for the destruction of his enemies. Drive is set in Los Angeles, a city notorious for its violence but more notorious for Hollywood. In an earlier script, Irene tells the Driver that he should inform Benicio that he (the Driver) is a stunt man for the movies. He responds, “He’s interested in that stuff?” She says, “Aren’t all little boys?” (IMSDB) The Driver offering Benicio a “toothpick” also seems idiosyncratic until one considers the trope to which this appeals, of the macho westerner or the “tough guy;” these archetypes appeal to Benicio and also to the Driver. By contrast, the “arch-villain” of the film (although he is not really one of Faludi’s “supervillains,” he is seen as such by the Driver) deprecates his earlier film efforts, saying, “I used to produce movies. In the 80s. Kind of like action films. Sexy stuff. One critic called them European. I thought they were shit.” Bernie’s repudiation of the logic of such films – and consequently of the logic of the Driver and perhaps Drive itself, underscores his aloofness and establishes himself as an enemy of the foundation on which the Driver has built at least part of his psyche.

Drive itself is a film, of course, and its structure and plot, which resemble a fairy-tale in construction, abet the Driver’s actions, although not uncritically. He is not hounded by the police, after the first scene; reality does not intrude on the fable that he crafts for himself. He does not “get the girl,” so to speak, and the chastity of his relationship with Irene undercuts an assumption about hyper-masculine virility that is otherwise pervasive in works dealing with masculinity. Thus the archetype that the movies, in a sense, plays into, is not portrayed as glamorous, nor indeed desirable. The Driver explicitly says that his relationship with Irene was the best part of his life; it is this relationship that underpins and, in a sense, causes the film. If the Driver is noble he is so because of what he fights for, not that he fights nor how he fights. So does the fact that Drive permits the disjunction to exist undisturbed, in a sense, enforce it? Is Drive a paean to the 80s action archetype, suggesting only that it needs to be buttressed by a fairytale morality, or is the implication that it is only with the logic of a fairytale that the archetype can have reason? These questions are posed by the film, I think, but not answered by it. The answers depend on the extent to which the audience understands the Driver, and indeed the sense in which he can really be understood.

The best encapsulation of the character of the Driver in this sense I can give is in one of the most memorable scenes in the film, in which the Driver shares a long kiss with Irene before beating the man standing next to him, an assassin sent by Nino, to death. In this scene all of the themes of the film are incorporated; the Driver’s kiss, which is at once the apex and the closing to his relationship with Irene and, correspondingly, his “chivalric life” is contrasted with the true beginning of his active violence. He makes the move easily, without hesitation or regard for Irene’ presence. He is not embarrassed by the leap; perhaps he is not even cognizant of it. His escape from the film, in the final scene, marks his egress from both worlds – he leaves Los Angeles, the city of film and narrative, which no longer holds any enemies for him to conquer, and he leaves Irene, which leaves him nothing left to fight for in any case. This sacrifice is decidedly romantic, but it strikes one at the same time as profoundly masculine. This is who the Driver is, and aspires to be, both “a real human being” and “a real hero.”

Michael Bruner

Bibliography

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New World Library, 2008.

Faludi, Susan. Stiffed:The Betrayal of Modern Man. Vintage, 2000.

First Blood. Dir. Ted Kotcheff. Perf. Sylvester Stallone. Orion Pictures, 1982. Film.

DR. STRANGELOVE or: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB, Stanley Kubrick, 1963


Hans Jonas’ Ethics of Technology and Stanley Kubrick’s, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Dr. Strangelove is quite possibly the blackest of black comedies. After all, what could possibly provide a less comic situation than the threat of nuclear war and the destruction of the planet? But somehow, Stanley Kubrick manages to wring hilarity from the absurdity of almost every scene in the film. This makes providing a philosophical commentary for such a comedy somewhat questionable, as nothing is more likely to kill laughter than a serious discussion of ethics. But then again, Kubrick’s film trades on the aforementioned absurd flippancy with which nuclear arms are treated – and it seems to me as though this black setting for the comedy in fact brings some interesting philosophical themes to the fore.

The philosopher who I wish to discuss in this regard is Hans Jonas, a hugely under-read German-Jewish thinker. Jonas lived an extraordinary life in extraordinary times – born in 1903 in Mönchengladbach, North-West Germany, Jonas studied at Marburg University under Martin Heidegger in the 1920s. However, Jonas soon found himself faced with a life of persecution, and worse, under Nazism following Hitler’s rise to the Chancellery in 1933. Sensibly Jonas fled Germany for Israel, reportedly vowing to himself ‘never to return except as a soldier in a conquering army’. (1) The chance to fulfil this pledge came when the Allies went to war against Nazi Germany. Jonas consequently left Israel for England in 1940, joining the Jewish Infantry Brigade – a division of the British Army set up specifically for Jewish soldiers – a real-life Inglorious Basterds. As a well-educated man he was offered a role in military intelligence, which he refused, preferring to play his part on the front line when the Nazi regime fell. By the end of the war Jonas had seen combat in Italy and Germany, and he subsequently attempted to get back in contact with his mother, only to tragically discover that she had been murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz. Jonas felt that he could not forgive Germany, and emigrated for good. He spent the rest of his long life firstly as a Zionist, fighting in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and then in New York, where he became a professor at the New School for Social Research and died in 1993, aged 89. (2)

Jonas’ work was deeply influenced by his dramatic biography – his philosophy owes equal debt to Heidegger (whom he publically denounced for Nazi complicity) and Jewish theology, but also to the warring ideologies of capitalism and Soviet-communism which had after the war torn Germany in two. The influence of the Cold War – the war of economic and technological competition depicted in Dr. Strangelove – is felt in Jonas’ great book The Imperative of Responsibility. In this work Jonas puts forth the hypothesis that no previous Western morality, secular or religious, could now provide a comprehensive guide for ethical action in the age of nuclear warfare and environmental crises. He says: ‘my contention [is] that with certain developments of our powers the nature of human action has changed, and, since ethics is concerned with action, it should follow that the changed nature of human action calls for a change in ethics as well’. (3) We can see here the combined influences of Germanic philosophical scope with analytic clarity which marks Jonas’ philosophy as distinctive. Certainly, the aim of his work is not a modest one, so the focus here will be on one or two points which may illuminate some of the situations and events portrayed in Dr. Strangelove.

Firstly is the issue of what Jonas means by the ‘changed nature of human action’. The new capacities which Jonas has in mind are, of course, technological. Modern humanity has a degree of unprecedented power which our forebears, even of one hundred years ago, could never have imagined. Following from this, Jonas argues that all previous ethical systems were based primarily on a more modest picture of relations between humans – the world-as-a-whole was something which figured into ethical considerations only as an afterthought, simply because it was so vast that humanity could scarcely affect it. However, the Second World War signified a fundamental shift – whereas World War I was still fought traditionally by men against men, World War II concluded with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The ethical relation between humanity and the earth had by then essentially altered, as we acquired the power – and demonstrated the will – to destroy both it and ourselves en masse. In light of this, Jonas argues that the common basis of traditional ethical systems is too limited in scope, too anthropocentric, to deal with this new power, and the net of ethical consideration must therefore be cast far wider to cover this moral gap left by weapons of mass destruction. Jonas calls for the imperative of ethical responsibility – not just to humanity, but to all life on earth – which he delivers most powerfully in ‘The Outcry of Mute Things’. He says: ‘[i]t was once religion which threatened us with a last judgement at the end of days. It is now our tortured planet which predicts the arrival of such a day […]. The latest revelation […] is the outcry of mute things themselves that we must heed by curbing our powers over creation, lest we perish together on a wasteland of what was creation’. (4)

The obvious moral force of this imperative for the technological age is precisely what the characters in Dr. Strangelove flagrantly disregard. In fact, Kubrick’s film highlights Jonas’ central point in comic style – humans are portrayed as simply too irresponsible to be allowed to wield such enormous power, and the technology supporting the chain of command as too unreliable to deliver such catastrophic orders. The only characters who seem to fully grasp the gravity of the situation are the repressed ex-Nazi and Presidential adviser Dr. Strangelove, née Merkwürdigliebe (played with relish by Peter Sellers), and the hapless Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Sellers, again). By contrast, those who wield actual power are shown to be either gung-ho imbeciles like General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), paranoiacs such as Brigadier General Jack. D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), or simply the bickering married-couple of U.S. President Merkin Muffley (Sellers, once more) and Soviet Premier Dmitri Kisov. Perhaps the best example of the film’s nightmarish situation heightened by black humour is the iconic climactic scene in which Major Kong jumps on the nuclear bomb to facilitate its drop from the plane – falling with it down to earth, Kong rides the shell rodeo-style to the earth’s imminent destruction. Little did Kubrick know, in forty years the scene would perfectly capture the worrying predicament of real-life cowboy George W. Bush sat in the White House with the nuclear codes in one hand, and in the other a foreign policy not entirely unlike that of Kubrick’s military buffoons.

Dr. Strangelove presents us with another a situation which flies in the face of one more of Jonas’ maxims: ‘[a]ct so that the effects of your action are not destructive of the future possibility of genuine human life’. (5) In the film, once it becomes apparent that the nuclear holocaust is nigh – thanks to the real-life M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction) deterrent – Strangelove, Muffley, and Turgidson gather in the War Room to discuss the possibility of the preservation of life. Strangelove muses that several hundred thousand Americans might be able to survive in an underground colony, subsisting quite happily on nuclear power. The great irony, of course, is that the nuclear power which would sustain this hypothetical quasi-civilisation would be the very same which had necessitated its creation. This is precisely the kind of human life which Jonas might have envisaged as the worst possible outcome of our current predicament – cut off from the natural world, cut off even from the surface of the earth, living a sub-human existence. However, the subterranean civilisation which presents the only chance for survival at the end of Dr. Strangelove is the simply the Cold War threat taken to its logical extreme. From nature we have created wonderful technologies able to give us an easier life, but we have also cultivated the potential to destroy both that nature and that life, hence Jonas’ call for a new ethic based on deliberation and consideration. The alternative, as depicted in Dr. Strangelove, is a degradation of what Jonas regarded as ‘genuine’ human life – people allotted food, water, and procreation according to quotas which would increase the possibility of humanity re-emerging from the underground bunkers when the nuclear radiation had diminished to safe levels. In short, a humanity degrading itself in the quantified-mechanistic manner in which we are – wrongly – used to regarding animals and nature.

Both Dr. Strangelove and Jonas’ thinking appear ever more prescient in light of the current ecological crisis – but how, for Jonas, do we avoid a fate similar to that which Kubrick’s film depicts? To begin with, we have to look again at natural things like forests or fish and learn to see them not simply as resources waiting for our consumption, or at best, as objects of aesthetic value. We have to fundamentally alter our understanding of the ethical remit to regard these entities as having an inherent moral value which is not simply relative to human needs – for Jonas, in striving to be at all, the natural world has a kind of primitive ethical existence which humanity ultimately makes explicit and must take responsibility for. In his other masterpiece, The Phenomenon of Life, Jonas writes: ‘through the continuity of mind with organism and of organism with nature, ethics becomes part of the philosophy of nature’. (6) The view Jonas advocates is that nature – the sum total of what-is – is not only in the sense of physically existing, but also inextricably is in an ethical form, as the ontological source of value. Again, he says: ‘ethics must be based on ontology, which is to say that the law of human behaviour must be derived from the nature of the whole’. (7) In this way, Jonas’ thought can be understood as taking up the ethical question which Heidegger was so temperamentally unsuited to tackle – as mentioned in my biographical introduction to Jonas, the two philosophers’ reactions to Nazism could not be more different. Thus what motivated Jonas’ philosophy was rising to the challenge of the relation between ‘Being and the ought’ which Heidegger notoriously failed to address. (8)

Jonas’ insightful philosophy raises several problems, however. Firstly is the issue that even if we accept his bold hypothesis – that both Western and Abrahamic ethics require a fundamental expansion in light of our current global predicaments – how do we put this new ethic into practice? In The Imperative of Responsibility Jonas considers the pros and cons of the two opposing systems depicted in Dr. Strangelove: capitalism and Soviet-communism. (9) In the film, Kubrick shows us that neither capitalism nor Soviet-communism is at all able to rise to the challenge of global responsibility – the conversations between President Muffley and his Russian counterpart show both sides to be petty, vain, and partisan. Again, the parallels between our own governments’ failure to deal with the present ecological crisis are only too obvious. Jonas likewise regards both capitalism and Soviet-communism as following from traditional Western ethics and thus incapable of dealing with the threat of nuclear warfare. He rejects capitalism out of hand as inherently incapable of realising our suppressed ethical relation to the earth, and the reasons for his doing so are only too obvious. Jonas then criticises Soviet-communism for similar reasons – that it is fundamentally anthropocentric and motivated by industrial and technological domination – but he notes that in aiming to improve the conditions of humanity at least Marxism actually has an ethical basis, unlike free-market capitalism. In the end, however, for Jonas neither mode of production is able to rise to contemporary ethical challenges without changing beyond recognition, and it seems that in this sense he might have appreciated Kubrick’s satirical take on the arms race.

The second major problem with Jonas’ project, following on from the first, is that it is so utterly pessimistic. Jonas’ constant doom-laden refrains about the impending destruction of the earth make Adorno and Heidegger look positively upbeat regarding the modern condition. For example, in response to Ernst Bloch’s unashamed advocacy of utopian Marxism in The Principle of Hope, Jonas cultivated his own typically uplifting alternative: ‘The Heuristics of Fear’. (10) The reason for this, I believe, harks back to Jonas’ own biography and the troubled times he lived in – after all, as a German-Jew born at the turn of the century he witnessed the First World War, the Great Depression, the rise of European fascism, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the threat of nuclear war, and finally the mounting ecological crisis. Given these experiences it is understandable that his thinking took on the fears of the age, but there is also the serious threat of a reactionary philosophical response. For example, in his theological work in Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good After Auschwitz, Jonas claims that in contrast to all previous anti-Semitic persecution which is justified as a part of God’s testing his chosen people, the Holocaust was so utterly incomprehensible that one can no longer seriously entertain the belief in an omnipotent deity. (11) While this seems reasonable, from the point of view of a previously practicing Jew it is a major decision to make, and such an absolutist response to events is characteristic of Jonas. As we have seen, the drastic nature of Jonas’ philosophy bears a similar hopelessness, and one cannot help but feel that when Jonas lost his faith in God he also abandoned faith in humanity. It seems to me that Jonas does not give humanity its due when, for example, he entertains the possibility of drastic measures to limit global population growth if all democratic incentives fail and the risk to the earth is too great to do nothing. (12) One still feels that to envisage such an extreme situation is premature, as the necessary work to halt population growth has hardly even begun.

We have seen that what motivated and troubled Jonas above all was the safeguarding of the possibility of a future for life and humankind – do we even have one, and if so, what does it look like? One certainly hopes that Dr. Strangelove – which offers similar warning, if in a different guise – will remain a great black comedy, rather than resemble that future. But what Jonas and Kubrick’s film both ultimately lack is precisely that: hope – not of the immature, delusional kind, but of the robust and principled. If Jonas is right about the serious predicament of the modern world – as I believe he is – then something more must be offered; we must prevent a firm diagnosis from becoming a cold prognosis. Perhaps then, there is as much to be said about Bloch’s principle of hope as there is about Jonas’ heuristic of fear.

Lewis Coyne

References:

(1) Hans Jonas, Erkenntnis und Verantwortung, quoted in: Vittorio Hösle, ‘Hans Jonas’ Position in the History of German Philosophy’, in The Legacy of Hans Jonas: Judaism and the Phenomenon of Life, ed. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Christian Wiese (Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2008), pp.19-37 (p.23).

(2) Further biographical information found in: Hans Jonas, Memoirs, trans. Krishna Winston, ed. Christian Weise (Lebanon, New Hampshire: Brandeis University Press, 2008).

(3) Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, trans. David Herr and Hans Jonas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p.1.

(4) Hans Jonas, ‘The Outcry of Mute Things’, in Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good After Auschwitz (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1996), pp.198-202 (p.201-202).

(5) Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility, p.11.

(6)] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001), p.282.

(7) Jonas quoted in: Albrecht Wellmer, ‘The Myth of the God Who Suffers and Becomes: Questions Addressed to Hans Jonas’, in Endgames: The Irreconcilable Nature of Modernity (Massachusetts.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1998), pp.263-268 (p.265).

(8) Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p.98.

(9) See pp.142-157. In the text Jonas fails to properly distinguish between ‘real-world’ Marxist-Leninism – the real target of his criticisms – and original philosophical Marxism, and thus does not do justice to the latter.

(10) In: Ethics in an Age of Pervasive Technology, ed. Melvin Kranzberg (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1980), pp.213-221

(11) See: ‘The Concept of God After Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice’, in Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good After Auschwitz (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1996), pp.131-143.

(12) Harvey Scodel, ‘An Interview with Professor Hans Jonas’, Social Research, 70:2 (Summer 2003), 339-368.

 

GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI, Jim Jarmusch, 1999


Around four or so years ago, I was standing in my kitchen holding a copy of Hagakure, having a chat with my Mum. Having recently just bought the book from the wonderful, but now deceased book store Borders, I was stood by the fridge eagerly reading from a foreign, exciting and magical text. I’ve always been interested in Japan since I was a bambino, my fascination germinating from my interest in video games and then flourishing in my teens where I became a true Otaku. My interest was initially superficial, obsessed with Japanese comics (Manga), Anime and Japan’s answer to Disney, Studio Ghibli. However I soon became more interested in Japanese Culture and its history and I soaked up any insight into what was until very recently an isolated country.

So anyway, that’s why I was reading Hagakure, or The Book of the Samurai, a 17th Century text written by Yamamoto Tsunemoto. It’s presumed that Tsunemoto wrote (or rather, dictated) the text following the death of his Master. He was refused the privilege of Junshi, (a ritual suicide performed by a Samurai following his master’s death) partly due to the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate that forbade such rituals and also because Tsunemoto’s master didn’t want him to take his own life. Tsunemoto was writing in a period of relative peace and the text comes across as almost nostalgic for the days of war and battle. Tsunemoto relieves his eagerness to perform seppuku by writing about death..a lot. This book is about death.

So anyway, back to the story, I was in my kitchen, reading out the passage that’s probably most well-known, “The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance.” It then goes on to say, “To die without gaining one’s aim is a dog’s death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way.” My Mum didn’t seem best pleased by this and quickly declared such thinking as morbid, “one should focus on life”, she responded.

I’d like to argue that such meditation and contemplation on one’s inevitable demise, doom, and destruction grants one an intense awareness of one’s current existence. Not to say that this is always a comfortable thing. Constant thought on death has, at times, caused anxiety and sadness when faced with the intensity of my existence and its inevitable end. But this intense awareness allows a perspective in which we can hold a deep appreciation for existence and for living things. The character of Ghost Dog, played by Forest Whitaker, is my prime candidate for such an upbeat view. The irony in Jim Jarmusch’s film is that Ghost Dog is an assassin, a killer who has the highest and deepest respect for life. In Ghost Dog, we see an individual who has fashioned himself into something that destroys and ends life, yet to call him a murderer or even a killer feels intuitively wrong. Ghost Dog presents something we can aspire to. His valuing of life is exhibited throughout the film like at the beginning where he makes a thoughtful and respectful gesture to a cemetery and in the scene with the bear hunters (my favourite scene in the entire film). (1)

Ghost Dog’s respect for the living is juxtaposed with his enemy, the mafia. New Jersey’s local mob brings to mind the comical and domestic representation of the mafia as seen in The Sopranos. In one sense, the mob kills, just like Ghost Dog does, but with an attitude that has no respect for life – the term ‘waste management’ comes to mind. Indeed, the film seems to be making a broader point regarding the Caucasian’s role in history, that of a destroyer of life. One of the mobsters is called a ‘stupid white man’ by a Native American following the brutal shooting of a carrier pigeon. The kind of respect for life shown by the Native American and Ghost Dog has a broader significance in that it seems to be drawing attention to a history of colonization and violence carried out predominantly by imperial white men. (It’s worth noting that a respect for life, as Ghost Dog shows, does not necessitate passivity or refusal to kill living creatures. There is simply a level of respect and compassion for the life that’s come to an end).

So why would constant focus on death create such a respect for life? One of Heidegger’s claims is that we are beings-toward-death.  Although we cannot experience our own deaths or the deaths of others, we are nevertheless going to die and we are constantly faced by the possibility of our own death. The intense and constant awareness that all of our relations with the world disappear upon dying is an uncomfortable thought, but it is one of the defining characteristics of Dasein. The opposite of Dasein (which can be translated as ‘being there’) is not being there anymore. Reflection on one’s own ‘not-Being’ brings one’s own ‘being-able-to-Be’ into view and ‘there is a sense in which the possibility of my not existing encompasses the whole of my existence (Hinman 1978, 201), and my awareness of that possibility illuminates me, qua Dasein, in my totality.’ (2)

Ghost Dog’s existence is consciously structured by such an awareness and it’s the affirmation of his not-Being that allows him to actively forge an intense mindfulness of life. Ghost Dog is a typical Übermensch in that he creates his own code. Even though he frequently looks to the Hagakure for guidance, the text stands outside of the conventional American oeuvre of self-help literature. The Hagakure is, in part, an existential text that offers guidance on how to deal with suffering and the burdens that accompany existence. Ghost Dog’s code or Way is his own. The Hagakure itself talks much about the Way and Ghost Dog lives in accordance with the Daoist conception of the Way-farer who is ‘always unseen’ and abstruse, leaving no trace of their passing. Ghost Dog is untouched by his modern day surroundings and in this sense is like ‘a wooden lump’ or ‘muddy pool’, obscure and mysterious to those around him. (3)

The most comforting thing about Ghost Dog is his attitude to death. It’s not a passive acceptance but an active affirmation, and it is perhaps due to this affirmation that he makes such a good assassin. One commentator puts it that ‘”By considering himself already dead” [Ghost Dog]… maintains his composure.’ (4) This can be seen in a number of scenes where Ghost Dog shows no fear or hesitation when under fire or in danger.

The Hagakure, too, presents us with a view that positively affirms death and the failure to achieve one’s goals; a view far removed from Western liberal society. Today, we are encouraged to generate goals, to acquire things and, perhaps more philosophically, to create a neat and complete narrative in which we see the generic unfolding of some kind of ‘good life’. When we mourn, we mourn what could have been achieved and realised by that person. The loss of life in itself is not the problem, it is the loss of our relations and future potential. The Hagakure criticises such a desire for achievement: ‘The way of revenge lies in simply forcing one’s way into a place and being cut down. There is no shame in this. By thinking that you must complete the job you will run out of time.’ Applying this melodramatic maxim to ordinary western life helps draw attention to our zealous praise of success, victory and achievement. It may be obvious but people can die before achieving their goals. Even less drastically people sometimes don’t get what they desire because they’re not particularly competent, or because they are just plain unlucky. A climate that sells success stories of meteoric rises to fame and then bullshits us into believing that anyone can achieve this, leads to disappointment when our desires aren’t realised. Conversely, the Hagakure says, when facing an army of thousands, it’s enough just to be determined to cut them down, even though loss is inevitable. It never says you’ll win. Nietzsche says that ‘Buddhism makes no promises but keeps them, Christianity” or in this case Western ideas like the American dream ‘makes a thousand promises but keeps none.(5) In this sense Ghost Dog and the Hagakure offers a view that I personally find comforting.

The film, coupled with the text encourages us to disperse with any kind of ultimate, metaphysical meaning in our existence. The general Eastern view offered in the film embraces Daoist and Buddhist thinking whereby existence is fashioned through a discipline and commanding of the drives and passions. The intense awareness of one’s own life and the lives of others, including non-human animals, is improved by contemplation of death and one’s own eventual non-being.

I’d like to end with a quote from the Hagakure that I hope stays with you, ‘A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly toward an irrational death.’

Simon Booth

References:

1) This second scene could however be seen as a flagrant disregard for life. One commentator sees Ghost Dog’s actions as barbaric and ruthless yet I cannot help but feel Ghost Dog’s intense feeling and thought for life.

2) Wheeler, Michael, “Martin Heidegger”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

3) Daodejing, 15

4) http://facultyfiles.frostburg.edu/phil/forum/GhostDog.htm

5) The Anti-Christ, Friedrich Nietzsche (trans. H.L.Mencken, p.42)

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, Charlie Kaufman, 2008


In Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, we follow theatre director Caden Cotard as he struggles his way through an existential crisis. As his relationships fail and his health begins to deteriorate, Caden becomes increasingly anxious about capturing the “brutal truth” of existence before his time is up. Death – or rather, the way the personal significance we attach to our own deaths, affects how we experience life – is therefore a central theme of the film, and it is this I want to explore. I want to consider two questions: Can philosophical analysis provide us with a meaningful interpretation of death? And is there, perhaps, a way of understanding death which can help us better relate to the basic nature of our mortality – to accept that to be is ultimately to die?

Such questions are prevalent throughout the whole of Western philosophy. Epicurus, for example, argued that to fear death is ultimately irrational, because whilst we are alive we cannot be dead, and then when we do die, we won’t exist to be bothered about it (1). After all, we are not bothered about the fact that we did not exist prior to our conception. Yet although this argument is undeniably persuasive in its logic, I think that Epicurus’s conclusion that death “is nothing to us” is somewhat hasty. His position is important in emphasising that for us to experience and understand our own deaths in the same way that we experience and understand any other sort of event is impossible. But even if we do not experience death as such, it is a fundamental and unavoidable fact of our mortal existence. It is hard to imagine Caden Cotard, for instance, finding consolation or satisfaction in these Epicurean insights. Perhaps it is the case that the significance of death can only be interpreted if subjected to a different form of analysis.

Unlike Epicurus, Martin Heidegger argues that an appropriate understanding and attitude towards death is fundamental to our own self-understanding, and essential if we are to work out the meaning of Being itself.  Heidegger’s project in Being and Time is to work out the meaning of Being through a study of that sort of being for whom Being is an issue for it; in other words, he presents us with a concrete phenomenological analysis of our form of existence, which Heidegger terms Dasein (literally meaning ‘being-there’). To sum this up somewhat crudely, we could call this an attempt to analyse what the ‘being’ in being human consists of.  Essential to this analysis is the awareness that the possibilities of existence for Dasein are delineated by temporal boundaries: our Being begins in a state of “thrown-ness” at birth, and from then on we exist not only as a (thrown) Being-in-the-world, but also as a Being-towards-the-end. Crucially for Heidegger, death is constantly constitutive of our Being – it permeates our everyday existence as the possibility – the “not-yet” – which any Dasein will one day have to be, whether we acknowledge it or not.

If we are to live “authentically”, according to Heidegger, we must continually project our existence towards the horizon of our death. We need to acknowledge that we are essentially finite; that our death, as the complete loss of Being-in-the-world, is something we must face totally alone because it can never grasped by a Being-still-there. Even when we experience the deaths of others, we are brought no closer to an understanding of what death means for us. To be authentically we must recognise that death is our own unavoidable potentiality (2). We must confront the fact that we are always thrown towards possibilities which are ultimately our own because only we can be responsible for facing up to death and making sense of our existence as a Being-towards-death.  Heidegger argues that this entails cultivating a mood of “anxiety” – a mode of living founded upon an anticipation of death which fully recognises one’s finitude and individuality, and refuses to conform to the common attitudes – the idle talk of “the they” or the consolations of religion – which tranquilize us about these facts.

Whilst some aspects of Heidegger’s position may not be entirely convincing – his rejection of the significance the death of others may have for our own self-understanding, for example – the idea that an acknowledgement of our finitude can profoundly affect our self-interpretation strongly resonates. In Synecdoche, New York, the character of Caden is painfully aware of his own mortality. His body seems to be turning against him and talk of or references to death abound in his world. This raises an important point – although the Epicurean imploration not to fear death is most probably sound advice, to cast death from our minds as “nothing to us” seems an even more difficult feat for the ill person who is acutely aware that the end may come sooner than hoped. Caden quite readily acknowledges that he is a Being-towards-death. However, this does not mean that he is leading what Heidegger would call an authentic existence. It seems that rather than cultivating a mood of “anxiety” and anticipating death in a way that leads him to an appreciation of life as transient, towards recognition of the temporality of Being, he desperately clings to the ‘reality’ of the everyday by representing and recreating it again and again as a piece of theatre. Caden even hires an actor, Sammy, to play himself in his life-drama, deferring the responsibility of honestly confronting death onto another person.

“We’re all hurtling towards death,” Caden says, “yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t.” It seems that although Caden is able to accept that death is the horizon towards which we all are thrown, he fails to appreciate that all our living moments are unique, irreversible and leading us closer to the end. In the film, months and years seem to pass Caden by without him noticing that life has moved on. In his attempt to capture a moment of absolute truth in art before it is too late, he neglects to project himself into a future which cannot be held back. The result is that as he nears his death, he is radically alienated from his mode of existence. He realises that in life, unlike in theatre, there are no rehearsals, there are no second chances, and there is no director or audience there to validate your performance.

Synecdoche, New Yorkhas quite a reputation for being divisive in the responses it provokes. Some find it depressingly bleak.  One film professor, Daniel Shaw (3) argues that as a film it is ‘profoundly deadening’. For Shaw, the character of Caden – desperate for meaning yet embittered by the world – represents the passive nihilism which Nietzsche so derided. Professor of philosophy and religion David Smith disagrees (4). He sees Kaufman’s mix of tragic insight and comic farce as a platform to inspire reflection upon strategies for a sort of ‘naturalistic transcendence’ in our ways of relating to the basic limits of human existence; namely, death and the impossibility of adequately representing our world linguistically. Personally, I would say that to experience the film as ‘profoundly deadening’ suggests that one has missed out on its invitation for us to think about our lives differently. Although Caden may fail to form what Heidegger would term an authentic existence, this need not be the fate of everyone. If we follow Heidegger on this point, death is something we must confront. But the way we interpret our existence as Being-towards-death is ultimately down to us.

Natasha Wynne

(1). Epicurus: ‘Death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist. Therefore, it is relevant neither to the living nor the dead, since it does not affect the former, and the latter do not exist.’ (Quoted in Havi Carel, Illness, p.90)

(2). Heidegger: ‘Death is a possibility-of-Being which Dasein itself has to take over in every case. With death, Dasein stands before itself in its ownmost potentiality-for-Being. This is a possibility in which the issue is nothing less than Dasein’s Being-in-the-world. Its death is the possibility of no-longer-being-able-to-be-there. If Dasein stands before itself as this possibility, it has been fully assigned to its ownmost potentiality-for-Being. When it stands before itself in this way, all its relations to any other Dasein have been undone. This ownmost non-relational possibility is at the same time the uttermost one.’ (Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie and Robinson, p. 294)

(3). Daniel Shaw: ‘The impact of this film is like what Nietzsche condemns in artistic expressions of romantic pessimism: rather than invigorating us to act in the face of the deplorable superficiality of the world, Synecdoche, New York is profoundly deadening. Characters such as Cotard embody the deer-caught-in-headlights powerlessness that is symptomatic of what Nietzsche calls passive nihilism […].’ (‘Nietzschean Themes in the Films of Charlie Kaufman’ in The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman, ed. Mark Conrad, p. 265)

(4). David L. Smith: ‘The film is a study in self-defeat; it envisions no way out of this bind [i.e. the sense of falling short created by our reliance on language as expression] short of death, and death is hardly a solution […] There is no other world from which help can be expected, and ever “elsewhere” we build for ourselves out of words turns out to be fatally flawed – a fool’s paradise. Nevertheless, there is a way of seeing our current circumstances that may deserve the name transcendence, if only because this view allows us to live on terms surprisingly adequate to our desire […] Synecdoche, New York evokes transcendence by oblique means and inspires reflection on strategies by which transcendence is pursued.’ (‘Synecdoche, in Part’ in The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman, ed. Mark Conrad, p. 244-245)

‘The ordinary confusion of life itself becomes a scene of transcendence, as when fate is transformed through amor fati. Nothing changes, and yet everything changes its aspect, as when tragedy modulates into farce. Some significant mystery is revealed, and one is left with the sense, if not that all manner of things shall be well, then at least that life deserves our grudging but genuine fondness.’ (Ibid., p. 249)

And some quotes from the film…

Caden:
‘Try to keep in mind that a young person playing Willie Loman thinks he’s only pretending to be at the end of a life full of despair. But the tragedy is that we know that you, the young actor will end up in this very place of desolation.’

Caden:
‘I will be dying and so will you, and so will everyone here. That’s what I want to explore. We’re all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t.’

Caden:
‘I won’t settle for anything less than the brutal truth. Brutal. Brutal. Each day I’ll hand you a paper, it’ll tell you what happened to you that day. You felt a lump in your breast. You looked at your wife and saw a stranger, et cetera. […] I’m not excusing myself from this either. I will have someone play me, to delve into the murky, cowardly depths of my lonely, fucked-up being. And he’ll get notes too, and those notes will correspond to the notes I truly receive every day from my god!

Sammy:
‘I’ve watched you forever, Caden, but you’ve never really looked at anyone other than yourself. So watch me. Watch my heart break. Watch me jump. Watch me learn that after death there’s nothing. There’s no more watching. There’s no more following. No love. Say goodbye to Hazel for me. And say it to yourself, too. None of us has much time.’

Minister:
‘Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you may never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it’s what you create. And even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are only here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but it doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope that something good will come along. Something to make you feel connected, something to make you feel whole, something to make you feel loved. And the truth is I feel so angry, and the truth is I feel so fucking sad, and the truth is I’ve felt so fucking hurt for so fucking long and for just as long I’ve been pretending I’m OK, just to get along, just for, I don’t know why, maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own. Well, fuck everybody. Amen.’

Millicent:
‘What was once before you – an exciting, mysterious future – is now behind you. Lived; understood; disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone’s everyone. So you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive. You are Ellen. All her meager sadnesses are yours; all her loneliness; the gray, straw-like hair; her red raw hands. It’s yours. It is time for you to understand this. As the people who adore you stop adoring you; as they die; as they move on; as you shed them; as you shed your beauty; your youth; as the world forgets you; as you recognize your transience; as you begin to lose your characteristics one by one; as you learn there is no-one watching you, and there never was, you think only about driving – not coming from any place; not arriving any place. Just driving, counting off time. Now you are here, at 7:43. Now you are here, at 7:44. Now you are…Gone.’