Mesocosm

"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

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2001, Strauss, and Nietzsche

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2001

Note: spoilers ahead, if you haven’t seen 2001 – but if you haven’t, for heaven’s sake, go see it at once.

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If I ask you to think about Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Chances are very good that the answer is Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, and for good reason. Kubrick’s use of the piece is dramatically and conceptually impeccable, and points us toward Nietzsche’s work as the key to understanding much of the film’s enigmatic richness.

When you recollect the tone poem, you most likely hear it’s unforgettable fanfare-like opening statement. These opening notes encode Strauss’s musical conception of the revelation brought down from the mountain to ordinary men by Nietzsche’s philosopher-hero, Zarathustra, who teaches of a creative life that pours forth from our own souls, and does not come to us from outside, or from the heavens.

Strauss’s theme consists a procession starting at C major and then ascending by the most consonant intervals in Western harmony, rising first by a perfect fifth, then a perfect fourth, then a major third followed quickly by a minor third. The whole psycho-acoustical mystery of Western harmony which has dazzled great minds with its implications of an intrinsic natural order since the time of Pythagoras is stated musically in those notes.

I suggest that Kubrick intended that structure to serve as a musical counterpart to the monolith of his film. Remember that the monolith is described as extending perfectly in proportion of 1 : 4 : 9.

Strauss’s music is paired most effectively with the appearance of monolith in the film. So what connects the central mysteries of Kubrick’s film with Nietzsche’s great work?

I suggest the primary answer is to be found in the section titled “Of the Three Transformations of the Spirit.” In this short chapter, Zarathustra tells his companions a parable of the three transformations of the spirit, by which individuals become capable of truly creative acts. First the spirit becomes a camel, then the camel becomes a lion, and then the lion becomes a child.

In the first transformation, the spirit kneels down like a camel asking to be laden down with a heavy burden, so that it can exult in its own strength. It takes upon itself all of the tasks that it deems most difficult and speeds off into the solitary desert.

In the desert the camel becomes a lion, whose task is to “utter a holy No” when it encounters the great monster opposing creative work: a golden dragon with the words “Thou Shalt” written on every scale. The dragon embodies a thousand years of social and moral law.

“All values have already been created, and all created values am I,” says the dragon. “Truly, there is no more ‘I will,’ to be spoken!”

The lion is up to the task. “Keep your laws,” it says (to paraphrase Nietzsche), “I have my own vision of life and of value, and if you don’t like it, you can stuff yourself.”

When the dragon lies dead at the lion’s feet, then comes the third transformation, whereby the lion becomes a child, capable of its own creation. What is this child?

starchild

“Innocence is the child, and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a wheel rolling out of itself, a first movement, a holy Yes-saying.

“Indeed, to play the game of creation, my brothers, requires a holy Yes.”

This is great stuff. I especially love this phrase aus sich rollendes Rad, a wheel turning out of its own center.

With respect to Kubrick’s film, I submit that it is divided into a prolog, followed by three primary movements. The prolog consists of pre-human anthropods doing their monkey business, until they stumble upon the monolith, that mysterious payload of transcendence, which either elicits or reflects their discovery of their human capacity to imagine and create.

Now human, they turn to their first creative task, building tools and weapons. This is the work of the camel, loosely associated with a lower order of creativity, and it lasts from the dawn of human history until our next encounter with the monolith, near Tycho Station on the moon.

Now we enter into the second phase of the film, aboard the big space camel speeding out into the solitary desert of outer space, driven by HAL 9000, the very embodiment of the law. A brilliant satirical statement by Kubrick, to depict the murderous inhumanity of human society as a computer. Joseph Campbell once observed that the god of computers is a lot like the god of the Old Testament – a lot of rules, and no mercy.

Our human explorers are in the hands of HAL, who is of two natures: paternal and mechanically-life-sustaining, but murderous when crossed. This is Kubrick’s conception of “Thou shalts,” and a similar concept of society may be seen in his other films such as A Clockwork Orange or Paths of Glory.

Incidentally, if you haven’t seen his lesser-known Paths of Glory, I emphatically recommend it – it’s truly one of my favorite films.

But I digress. David’s task in this second phase of the human journey is to slay the dragon, as it were, which he does (“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do….”), and then pilots the ship on to its destination by his own initiative and resources.

So begins the third and final stage of the film, corresponding to the third transformation of the spirit. The Star Child that ends the film doesn’t seem quite so enigmatic now, does it?

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Written by Mesocosm

April 12, 2014 at 3:09 pm

Posted in Film

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The Orphan Hero

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In contemporary popular society, most of the big heroes are orphans.

That may sound like a bold claim, but consider a few of the countless examples: Luke Skywalker, James Bond, Harry Potter, Superman, Batman, and Spider-man. How many blockbuster films do these six characters represent? I haven’t counted, but it’s around fifty, grossing many billions of dollars. That’s to say nothing of the books, comic books, toys, accessories and video games.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy features not one, but two orphaned principle protagonists: Frodo Baggins and Aragorn. Tolkien was himself an orphan.

The ten highest-grossing films of all time, adjusted for inflation, are:

Gone with the Wind
Avatar
Star Wars
Titanic
The Sound of Music
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
The Ten Commandments
Doctor Zhivago
Jaws
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

Both of young Scarlett O’hara’s parents die in Gone with the Wind. Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia are both orphans. Jack Dawson, played by Leonardo di Caprio in Titanic, was orphaned at a young age.

Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music was an orphan, and the film is largely about the missing mother figure in the Trapp family.

Divorce and abandonment by the father feature prominently in E.T. The Wikipedia article on the film, with citation to the biography of Stephen Spielberg by Joseph McBride, states that the alien was based on an imaginary friend Spielberg invented after his parents’ divorce in 1960. “Spielberg said that E.T. was ‘a friend who could be the brother I never had and a father that I didn’t feel I had anymore.'”

Moses? Found in a river, raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. Yuri Zhivago? Orphan, taken in by his mother’s friends after she died. Snow White lived with her wicked stepmother.

That leaves only Jaws and Avatar. Jaws, I grant you, has no obvious connection to orphans. Avatar doesn’t deal explicitly with orphans, but the primary theme is about its hero finding his real family and true identity.

So, out of the ten top-grossing films of all time, seven of them are about orphans, and two of the remaining three (E. T. and Avatar) have core themes of child abandonment.

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Clearly there is something about the orphan motif that works for people – so much so that it has become the acme of the hero category.

No single factor can account for this fact. However, several possibilities represented by the orphan character, both on the story level and symbolically, tend to work very well. I believe the combination of story opportunities that the orphan situation provides can account for the popularity of the type.

At the most basic level, the orphan arouses our natural sense of sympathy. Orphans are, after all, children who have suffered a great loss that anyone can understand.

In fiction, orphan characters often grow up feeling isolated and vulnerable. They may achieve wisdom and maturity beyond their years because of the hardship and loss they have had to bear at an early age.

The loss of the parent may give the orphan hero an idealistic commitment, as in the case of Spider-man. Peter Parker was orphaned a second time by the death of his kindly Uncle Ben – a death for which he bore some sense of responsibility. It is easy to accept that an experience like that could form a passionate commitment to justice that would change the course of his life, having learned from his uncle that “with great power comes great responsibility.”

We see similar developments at work in the comic book heroes Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Bruce Wayne (Batman).

As described in the Ian Flemming novel You Only Live Twice, James Bond lost his parents at an early age, leaving him a maladjusted youth who found a surrogate parent of sorts in his service to Queen and Country.

The longing for lost parents or the quest for a substitute reflects a universal longing for security and home. This mood is developed vividly in Dr. Zhivago, in which Yuri’s peregrinations reach an apex of poignancy when he returns to the childhood home where his mother passed away.

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For those of us who are not orphans, the character may reflect the intuition that we live in a world filled with problems that our parents did not prepare us to confront. The new face of warfare, climate change, economic challenges and disasters – every generation finds itself in a brave new world, and anyone can be disillusioned by the world they inherit.

A world without parents is a world in which we are left to our own devices, and must understand and confront whatever dangers await us. This sense of peril and self-reliance is a central heroic theme. We see it developed, for example, in the Harry Potter series, in which Harry’s development is followed from his youth, during which he lives under the magical protections his parents and guardians bequeathed to him, to his maturity, in which he is increasingly exposed to danger, and must set things right through his own initiative and achievement.

This transition is dramatized by Harry’s confrontation with the newly-returned Voldemort at the midpoint of the saga, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Through a magical effect that Rowling calls priori incantatem, which is apparently Latin for “transparent plot device,” the ghosts (sort of) of Harry’s parents come to his aid at the moment of crisis. But when they depart, their protection is withdrawn. In the fifth and sixth novels, he loses his godfather and his mentor, and by the final novel, he is solely responsible for confronting the evil he finds in the world.

This theme finds an interesting parallel in the novels of James Joyce, which, it goes without saying, are creative works of an entirely different order. Nevertheless, the primary creative agent in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses is Stephen Dedalus. Although he has a father, and could even find a second in Leopold Bloom, should he wish to, he rejects both, preferring to create for himself a space without fathers; that is, without precedent or constraint, in which he can create.

In the symbolic language of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the rejection of the father is the slaying of the dragon, a beast who says “Thou shalt,” with its very being. This heroic deed is the necessary prelude to the creative life.

So, in many cases, the orphan embodies the self-reliant, creative adult. It is tempting to posit this as a particularly American idiom, one which reflects the country’s mythology of self-reliance, and its status as a land without history. This may be at work in some cases, such as Superman, who is arguably the quintessential hero of the 20th century. However, we also have the cases of the Irish James Joyce and the English Rowling, Flemming, and Tolkien.

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On the mythological plane, the orphan is frequently a character of great and hidden ancestry or lineage, and it is often the discovery of the unknown lineage that sets the hero on their adventures.

We find this in Luke Skywalker, of course, who wants to learn the ways of the Force, like his father.

Harry Potter learns to his delight that he’s no mere Dickensian orphan, but a magician of proud parentage. Superman learns about his family on the planet Krypton when he comes to maturity, and this discovery sets him on his quest for truth, justice, and the American way.

The secret lineage motif represents the duality of our public and private identities. Our public face – or “secret identity,” in comic book language – is a socially-constructed, socially-approved fiction, in which we work menial jobs for the Daily Bugle or Planet, and have a hard time getting a date.

But in our actual, inner lives, and with respect to our true inheritance, we are luminous beings, the children of kings and gods, which are themselves merely mythological projections of idealized human values.

We could easily excavate countless exemplars of this motif, such as the Grail hero Parzifal of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic. Raised in the forest by his mother Herzeloyde, Parzifal knew nothing of his own heroic father Gahmuret, who was a famous knight. He did not even know of the existence of knights, until one day he stumbled upon one traveling through his forest.

Slayer of Monsters (Navajo)
Edward S. Curtis

Parzifal, the young rube, beheld the splendid knight in bright armor, and thought that he had met a god. And so he had, for here in outward form was the living reflection of his own inmost potential.

This motif is not confined to the traditions of Europe. In the mythology of the Apache and the Navajo, for example, the two great culture heroes are twins named Slayer-of-Monsters and Child-of-the-Waters. Accounts of their childhood differ, but in all cases they learn, upon reaching a certain age, that their absent father, whom they have never known, is the Sun, who dwells in his mansion far to the east.

So they begin their extraordinary journey to meet with their father. They overcome many obstacles on the way, and, when they reach that far-off mansion, they are tested by their father, who accepts them and teaches them the bow and arrow, and the names of the plants and animals, and how to behave like human beings.

I cannot help but be reminded of the Gospel of Thomas, in which it is written “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father.”

Written by Mesocosm

December 1, 2012 at 1:41 pm

Pauline Kael on Violence in Film

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“It’s the emotionlessness of so many violent movies that I’m becoming anxious about, not the rare violent movies (Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, Mean Streets) that make us care about the characters and what happens to them. A violent movie that intensifies our experience of violence is very different from a movie in which acts of violence are perfunctory. I’m only guessing, and maybe this emotionlessness means little, but, if I can trust my instincts at all, there’s something deeply wrong about anyone’s taking for granted the dissociation that this carnage without emotion represents. Sitting in the theater, you feel you’re being drawn into a spreading nervous breakdown. It’s as if pain and pleasure, belief and disbelief had got all smudged together, and the movies had become some schizzy form of put-on.” – from “Killing Time,” a review of Clint Eastwood’s Magnum Force; The New Yorker, January 14, 1974

For years I struggled to understand what anyone saw in Pauline Kael, who alienated me early on with withering reviews of Stanley Kubrick. But the more I read of her, the more her reviews make me want to read, and to write, and to think.

Written by Mesocosm

August 9, 2012 at 10:40 am

Posted in Ephemera, Film

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The Mythology of Star Wars

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Part of the greatness of the first Star Wars film lies in its sense of scope. Through a variety of storytelling devices, the film creates the constant sense that you’re seeing only one story in a galaxy of lives and adventures.

Like the Iliad, the movie dives into the story in medias res, in the middle of the action. The very first lines of the crawl text announce that the Rebels have just “won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire,” telling us in a single line who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and that the fight is already underway. It’s geniusy.

The shadow of the past looms over the action. When her ship is seized in the first scenes, Princess Leia offhandedly tells Darth Vader that the Imperial Senate will never stand for this assault, suggesting that the audience already knows about the governance of the galaxy. And, she tells us in sideways fashion, of course we already know the notorious Lord Vader – only he could be so bold.

Most of the history that we need to know is conveyed through indirect exposition of this kind. We learn along with Luke Skywalker about his father’s heroic career, and his tragic death at the hands of Lord Vader. The legendary sense of lineage informs Luke’s destiny, even as it implies the dangers that lie on the heroic path.

In The Empire Strikes Back, we learn the truth about Luke’s father, and that whole sense of past is upended. Luke has modeled his life on what he knows of his father. When he learns the truth, he also learns that greatest danger he faces is not physical death, but death of the soul – that he, like his father, will be swallowed by the machine.

This revelation carries all the more emotional power because over the last hour, we have watched him struggle with his training, tested by impatience and anger, failing one test after another in the swamps of Dagobah.

The original Star Wars trilogy – especially the first two truly great films – created a rich sense of world by holding back enough of the details to suggest that a lot more was happening just past the edge of the screen. What we don’t see invites the audience to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations, and we actively participate in the storytelling.

I saw the first Star Wars when I was only five or six, but even at that age I formed a clear image in my mind of what Luke’s father was like, back when he was the best pilot in the galaxy, and how it went down with Darth Vader. Those impressions are as vivid for me now as my recollection of the films themselves. And, I daresay, considerably more impactful than the way that past was depicted in the prequel trilogy.

The tension that drives the story of the original Star Wars trilogy is that mixture of what we know and what we don’t know. Like a yin yang, the light is complemented by the dark, and the pervasive mystery enriches the story with the sense that hidden dimensions are at work. This tension comes to climax in the first film when Obi Wan Kenobi’s voice comes to Luke at a crucial moment, telling him to trust himself to the unknown, and turn off his targeting computer.

When I was a boy watching this film for the first time, my heart surged with ecstasy at that moment. I didn’t understand it, but somehow I knew old Ben was right – that was exactly what he should do. Then we get the big fireworks kerblooey, and the menacing death machine explodes, like the tight little circle of the ego erupting in a shower of light, and that terrifying threat evaporates.

One aspect of the story that fuels the imagination is the Jedi and the Force that they serve. We learn very little about the Jedi in the first trilogy, except that they are the guardians of justice and goodness. They utilize the Force, a mystical energy field that is somehow related to life itself, and they fight against the forces of destruction and domination in the universe.

The Jedi mythology Lucas suggests is conveyed through a handful of lines reflecting influences ranging from the Tao Te Ching to the Bhagavad Gita to Arthurian legend. Lucas was famously influenced by Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and it’s worth noting that Campbell was not interested in theology, but mythology – that is, the stories that reflect and activate the spirit.

We learn nothing but fragments of the Force as a philosophy. It comes to life because it operates in a story that we recognize, the struggle of idealistic young underdogs against what Hunter Thompson called “the forces of Old and Evil.” It’s a story we can get excited about.

We know that the struggle between the Rebel forces and the Empire, for example, is a struggle between two visions of the world. We can either honor life and its mysteries, or we can try to control life with technology.

The battle of Star Wars is a choice between these visions. Although it’s set in the realm of the stars, it’s a battle of the soul, and it is ultimately decided in the field of the soul. The great victory of Return of the Jedi is not a military victory, but Luke’s decision not to fight, and what that decision means to his father, who had given up on himself long ago.

The Force, like the history of the galaxy, is given in fragments, and we’re invited to fill in the blanks with our own beliefs and commitments. It should therefore come as no surprise that some people have taken up the invitation, and attempted to formulate an active spiritual tradition based on the Star Wars mythology.

In the 2001 census, 0.8% of respondents of England and Wales reported their religious affiliation to be Jedi – more than Sikhism, Judaism, or Buddhism. While many of these reports were doubtlessly intended to be tongue-in-cheek, there are clearly some people who take “Jediism” very seriously.

Take, for example, the Church of Jediism, co-founded by Daniel Morgan Jones, a Welsh Star Wars fan born in 1986, after Return of the Jedi left the theaters. He has helped put together what appears to be a serious attempt to formulate a spiritual discipline based on the Star Wars model.

Browsing through Jones’s website, one comes upon the training manual for Jedi. For the most part, it comes across like a hybrid between personal spiritual musings and fan fiction. Its stylistic debt to role playing game manuals is reflected in suggestions like “For a person to operate coherently, an equal balance of the three should be 20% Good Energy (MC), 20% Bad Energy, and 60% Neutral Energy.”

I admit to a certain cynicism that keeps me at arm’s-length from the manual. My opinion is that the Star Wars films, powerful as they are, lack a coherent vision of the Jedi and their ways.

Beyond the general insights that the world is interconnected and alive, Lucas struggled to formulate a coherent vision for his Jedi. His failure to do so became distressingly evident in the prequel trilogy. In addition to its severe deficits on the story level, the morality tale depicting the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker becomes increasingly incoherent and bizarre. Anakin’s terrible transgression was that he fell in love? His desire to save his wife drove him to murder very young children at the drop of a hat? The Force is caused by microscopic organisms?

The incoherence of Lucas’s vision suggests that the Force works best as a vaguely-defined device in a well-told story. There is not enough there to support a philosophy of any depth on its own. And what could Jedi training mean, assuming that we discount the possibility of telekinesis, levitation, or light saber training?

To answer that question I read further in Jones’s manual, and I was pleased to discover that the initial stages of Jedi training, at least, have a disarming good-heartedness. Whatever may or may not be found in the Force and its mythology, who can argue with practices such as these?

Day 1 – Make it your goal to learn something new today.
Day 3 – Today try a New food.
Day 4 – Make it your goal to shake some ones hand today.
Day 14 – Make it your goal not to have any conflict today think of something that makes you smile and keep out of any conflict or argument.
Day 16 – Do something that makes you laugh and do it more than once.
Day 21 – Make it your goal to help some one today.

Written by Mesocosm

May 4, 2012 at 10:54 am