Interesting article: I watch therefore I am: seven movies that teach us key philosophy lessons
Still here, I think. I wrote a summary of Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume on Iron Chariots, a counter-apologetics wiki.
If you make a revolution, make it for fun,
don’t make it in ghastly seriousness,
don’t do it in deadly earnest,
do it for fun.
Don’t do it because you hate people,
do it just to spit in their eye.
Don’t do it for the money,
do it and be damned to the money.
Don’t do it for equality,
do it because we’ve got too much equality
and it would be fun to upset the apple-cart
and see which way the apples would go a-rolling.
Don’t do it for the working classes.
Do it so that we can all of us be little aristocracies on our own
and kick our heels like jolly escaped asses.
Don’t do it, anyhow, for international Labour.
Labour is the one thing a man has had too much of.
Let’s abolish labour, let’s have done with labouring!
Work can be fun, and men can enjoy it; then it’s not labour.
Let’s have it so! Let’s make a revolution for fun!
D H Lawrence
I just finished editing a reading of Manfred by Lord Byron. It was fun and the plot raises some interesting points on morality, responsibility and punishment. It is also featured on a (non-philosophical) website, tvtropes. It is interesting to see how the story relates to other works of fiction and how it contrasts with Faust.
Near the end, a demon comes to take Manfred to hell in a similar manner to Faust, but things take a rather different course:
SPIRIT. But thy many crimes
Have made thee–
MANFRED. What are they to such as thee?
Must crimes be punish’d but by other crimes,
And greater criminals?– Back to thy hell!
Anti Citizen One
The BRAHMINS assert, that the world arose from an infinite spider, who spun this whole complicated mass from his bowels, and annihilates afterwards the whole or any part of it, by absorbing it again, and resolving it into his own essence. Here is a species of cosmogony, which appears to us ridiculous; because a spider is a little contemptible animal, whose operations we are never likely to take for a model of the whole universe. But still here is a new species of analogy, even in our globe. And were there a planet wholly inhabited by spiders, (which is very possible,) this inference would there appear as natural and irrefragable as that which in our planet ascribes the origin of all things to design and intelligence, as explained by CLEANTHES. Why an orderly system may not be spun from the belly as well as from the brain, it will be difficult for him to give a satisfactory reason. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, David Hume
Disclaimer: plot spoilers below and I don’t know anything about the original swan lake. I am talking about Aronofsky’s interpretation of swan lake when I discuss the characters.
I watched Black Swan, and while it’s not the best of Aronofsky’s movies, it is certainly thought provoking. A technically accompished but meek ballet dancer, Nina, is cast as the Swan Queen. This requires the ability to dance two roles: the white swan and the black swan. While she can perform the white swan brilliantly, she has difficulty “losing control” to portray the sultry black swan. The film is primarily about her preparation and opening night to dance as the Swan Queen. The style of the movie is psychological/thriller/horror as she battles with her over protective mother, her paranoia about potential rivals for the role and anxiety about her body.
The roles of the white and black swans are mirrored by the concept of Apollonian and Dionysian aesthetics. The Apollonian artistic impulse is for plastic (visual) beauty, perfection, rationality, goodness. The Dionysian impulse is for instinct, earthly experiences, chaos, intoxication, the orgiastic. Usually, artistic works contain elements of both, since these are two aesthetic extremes and are not mutually exclusive. Nietzsche explored these two standards in The Birth of Tragedy, 1872 and argued that Greek tragedy formerly contained a synthesis for these traits, but this gave way to Apollonian impulse dominating. This change reflected a shift in Greek culture, which also gave rise to Socratic and Platonic philosophy, and move away from the earlier Greek philosophers such as Heraclitus.
My problem with Black Swan is, while Nina attempts to connect with the Dionysian, it is both pretty tame and also filled with either regret or fear. The tameness is partly her actions are almost always socially acceptable and common place – drinking, arguing with her mother, taking drugs once, staying up late, arguing with rivals, masturbating and incinerating her soft toys. Her more extreme actions of sex and murder are revealed to be dreams or hallucination and are basically nightmarish. Critically, she never is seen really throwing herself into these activities without regard for consequences. She is always worrying about how it will compromise herself or make herself imperfect. But this is central to the Dionysian – it is done with a good conscience. If you can imagine combining sexuality with innocence and joy: that is a step towards the Dionysian. The point of the Black Swan character is she seduces the prince in order to destroy the white swan – and enjoys doing it! At no point does the Black Swan regret her actions and neither should Nina, if she actually had an experience that informed her about that character.
Another problem with her coming to understand the Black Swan character is her increasing mental health problems. At no point is insanity linked with the traits of the Black Swan. In the movie, all instincts are self-destructive (although artistically useful). When the previous star walks into traffic, it is a “dark” impulse. The Dionysian is not madness and self annihilation, but rather raw instinct of both darkness and light. However, her mental problems are linked with her metamorphosis into the character (by her sensation of sprouting wings) but are actually contrary to what the Black Swan character needs… unless we subscribe to the view that evil is only a form of insanity.
A final objection: the movie is very predictable. I didn’t have any serious doubt that she would perform the role at the finale of the movie. However, the film was well executed and watchable. As a “walk on the wild side”, it fell flat. Some other movie examples in which a character explores the Dionysian:
Apocalypse Now – of course! The characters are struggling with “good” and “evil”, rationality and instinct, but the battle occurs within a person. Captain Willard is shown to have serious issues in the first scene but he can keep these thoughts to himself and can still function as a soldier. He is sent on a mission to “terminate the command” of Kurtz, who is said to be operating with “unsound methods”. Kurtz, or the jungle itself, represents the Dionysian in letting its instincts totally overcome social norms and rationality. And when Willard and Kurtz finally meet, Willard finds himself on the same path as Kurtz.
Willard: [voice-over] “Never get out of the boat.” Absolutely goddamn right! Unless you were goin’ all the way… Kurtz got off the boat. He split from the whole fuckin’ program.
Fight Club A perfectionist, consumerist office drone rebels against the system with the help of a new friend, Tyler Durden. Although Tyler is in many ways Dionysian, he is also committed to self destruction. This is more of an act of rebellion and in that way he is not Dionysian but more anti-Apollonian.
Tyler Durden: Fuck off with your sofa units and strine green stripe patterns, I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let… lets evolve, let the chips fall where they may.
Collateral, A perfectionist taxi driver, Max, is forced to drive a hit man, Vincent, around Los Angeles. Vincent explains his views on personal development by adaptation. Max has to become more like Vincent in order to survive…
Vincent: Now we gotta make the best of it, improvise, adapt to the environment, Darwin, shit happens, I Ching, whatever man, we gotta roll with it.
Max: I Ching? What are you talking about, man? You threw a man out of a window.
American Beauty – the Burnham family has the public appearance of perfection but they are privately miserable. Each family member begins to rebel against conformity and perfection and act more on emotional and instinctive drives.
Carolyn Burnham: Uh, whose car is that out front?
Lester Burnham: Mine. 1970 Pontiac Firebird. The car I’ve always wanted and now I have it. I rule!
And other films and TV touch on related themes: A Clockwork Orange (Alex is brain washed to stop being Dionysian), Requiem for a Dream (Aronofsky), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Brave One, Withnail and I, Lord Flashheart in Blackadder (“And always remember – if you want something, take it!”).
Anti Citizen One
Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustible vitality even as it witnesses the destruction of its greatest heros — that is what I called Dionysian […] Twilight of the Idols.
If people were paying attention, they would already know things have gotten pretty crazy in the world regarding civil liberties. This is just a really blatant example… how clear does it have to get before people notice? (Presumably, when they are shipped to a secret prison…)
There seems to be a steady erosion of civil and personal rights: surveillance without warrants, erosion of free expression, removal of habeas corpus, extra-judicial killings, police brutality, privatization of intellectual, and cultural material and so on. There is also a stagnation or worsening of living standards and social mobility. When I debate these issues, people often mention that we cannot afford civil rights, given the turbulent economic situation. The time for civil rights is apparently when “the economy has recovered”. However, when we return to a stable (or bubble) economic conditions, people don’t have as much need of civil rights, since everything seems peachy, and they are moved off the political agenda. So when is the time for civil rights?
We are presented with a false dichotomy: go along with pro-monopoly, pro-totalitarian laws (under the guise of being pro-business) or face economic ruin. In other words, surrender your civil rights or starve. Given the prevalence of consumerism, people choose “bread and circuses” over seemingly abstract speech and political rights. However, much that we agree is worth protecting is based on those very principles of the rule of law, checks and balances, habeas corpus, free exchange of ideas, and various other enlightenment ideas (although many of the ideas originated well before then). Once you kick out the foundation and hand power over to a police, theocratic or fascist state, there is nothing stopping some authority figure taking whatever you wanted to protect in the first place and you won’t have any recourse.
Arguably, we already have lost our connection to these foundations and handed over political power to banking technocrats. Oh well. I take comfort in the sentiments expressed in the US declaration of independence.
Anti Citizen One
PS Looking back at this, I notice a certain similarity with Klein’s The Shock Docrine.
PPS Despotism Circa 1945
Imagine I had a length of string that was infinitely long. What evidence or argument could I present that would convince you that it was infinitely long? Of course, I could show you vast warehouses in which some of it was stored, but we cannot inspect an infinite length in a finite time. On the other hand, if it were of finite length, it is usually easy to demonstrate that.
An easier demonstration of infinite properties might be an object traveling at infinite speed. However we might only interpret this as something being in two spatially separated locations at the same time. We still have the difficulty, given the imprecision of measurements, to be able to distinguish between a very fast particle and an infinitely fast object. If the object has finite speed, it is certainly feasible to determine its speed as finite.
Properties that may be infinite cannot be practically distinguished from similar, very large but finite possibilities. I came to this conclusion when I was asked what evidence it would take for me personally to believe in God. The traditional conception of God includes various infinite qualities. I think it is conceivable that I could be persuaded that were was a powerful, creating entity. But can we distinguish between a powerful finite God and an infinitely powerful God? By analogy, we can argue that God is not infinitely powerful, since in our experience of reality there are only finite things (finite size, finite knowledge, finite precision, finite mass, finite duration). The only other defensible position seems to be a skeptical one, in which we claim God may be finite or infinite but we could not come to a determination either way.
Anti Citizen One
(PS Of course, I don’t fully accept the last paragraph because it has the same limitations as the design argument.)