"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Is Modern Civilization Immune from Autocratic Rule or Susceptible to It?

Die Welle (The Wave), a German film released in 2008, centers around a week-long mini-course on autocracy. The following question put to the high-school students as well as the film’s viewers: Is a totalitarian regime like the National Socialists in the second quarter of the twentieth century still possible? Undergirding this question is the more basic question pertaining to human nature. Namely, does human nature crave the intensity of collective meaning through uniformity that a dictator can provide?

In his discourse on inequality, Rousseau argues that additional, distinctly artificial, economic (and political) inequalities are all but certain in the unnaturally large social arrangements requiring more social interaction with strangers than was the case when members of the homo sapiens species lived as hunter-gatherers in small groups, or bands.[1] Living in small groups fit well with the human tolerance for interacting with less than 150 people—enough to trust without undue anxiety. Inequalities going along with this congruence were, Rousseau asserts, quite natural—not as large as, say, those between a king or emperor and “the masses.” 

The Wave explores why we mere mortals put up with such inequalities of power, and thus whether autocracy is still possible in Germany, und der Welt. Are we immune, buttressed by the artificial safeguards seemingly built into our modern societies, or do we crave a larger meaning that is ostensibly possible only by subsuming a sense of individuality to blend into a larger whole led and enforced by autocratic artifice?  Are we that hungry to fill the emptiness that ensues from the onslaught of post-modern deconstructivism within the shell of modernity’s fractured communities and families?

1.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Harvard Classics, Charles W. Eliot, ed., Vol. 34 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,1910).

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Inglorious Basterds: A Feat beyond Human Dignity

Thirteen pages into Tarantino’s screenplay for the film, Inglourious Basterds, Col. Landa delivers the film’s thesis statement, essentially encapsulating the entire narrative in one line. “I’m aware,” the SS officer tells the French Jew-hider in his country house, “what tremendous feats human beings are capable of once they abandon dignity.”[1] Landa is referring to the lengths to which Jews in hiding will go to evade being captured. He likens them to rats, yet interestingly refers to their evasive means as feats. Perhaps the SS officer admires his prey in this respect. Perhaps he admires the human instincts that spring into action once dignity has been discarded.

In fact, the Landa character can be characterized by the odd combination of polished politeness and brutal aggression, two seemingly disparate poles, being situated as two natures proximate in one person, one essence.[2] This character is on full display when Landa is in the cinema’s office with the famous German movie star, Bridget Von Hammersmark, whom the SS officer suspects is a spy. At one moment, Landa “very delicately unfastens the thin straps that hold the fräulein’s shoes on her [feet].”[3] As if Landa had turned on a light switch, he suddenly jumped the woman to strangle her “lily-white, delicate neck . . . with all the violence of a lion in mid-pounce.”[4] The janus-face flashed inside Landa manifests now in the exchange between the two characters. 

It is no accident, I suspect, that Tarantino explicitly notes that strangling “the very life out of somebody with your bare hands is the most violent act a human being can commit.”[5] The image of the most violent act possible literally in the same shot with a delicate neck of a cultural aristocrat captures Tarantino’s main point: The giving up of human dignity impacts human instinct, not to mention emotion and behavior, tremendously. Whether the person is a Jew in hiding or an SS officer, the animalistic, predator-prey instincts can kick in with remarkable speed and force, as though a severe thunderstorm rolling in on the plains.

Whether the predatory and primitive survival behaviors are indeed feats is itself an interesting question. As discussed above, the Jew Hunter refers to the survival strategies of the Jews as feats. He obviously does not admire the “rats” themselves. Rather, he admires the extreme measures—more, precisely, that human beings are capable of going so far acting on the instinct of self-preservation once they have decided to abandon their dignity. Likewise, he doubtless identifies with the violent lengths to which human predators can go once they have gently and carefully removed the lady’s shoe. 

Through Landa, Tarantino evinces a fascination with the extremes on both sides of human dignity. Enjoying a dessert in a nice restaurant, Landa clearly relishes his impeccable politeness as something much more than a subterfuge as he interrogates Shosanna, the Jew whose family he had murdered and whose cinema would host the Nazi high command and other Nazi elite for the premiere of Göbbels’ National Pride. This penchant for precise politeness does not detract from Landa leaping to the most violent man-on-man (or movie star) civilian combat possible once he has turned off dignity’s internal switch. Most importantly, the two extremes can coexist without blending in the least. Human nature in its rich, complex (rather than moderate, or “every day”), and stretched condition is itself the feat that Tarantino demonstrates and explores by means of the film.

1. Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds (New York: Weinstein Books, 2008), p. 13.
2.  I have in mind the “fully human and fully divine” natures that are in Jesus Christ without blending together within him.
3.  Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds, p. 136.
4. Ibid., p. 137.
5.  Ibid.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street: Greed in Storytelling

Greed is indeed a major player on Wall Street. Perhaps this is why films on the financial world embellish the behavior; filmgoers might otherwise fall asleep. It is much more difficult to see greed fueling the embellishment highs in the process of filmmaking. Perhaps both Wall Street and Hollywood are glitz on the outside, but supercharging the inside hardly does justice to either venture. In this essay, I discuss Jordan Belfort, an actual financier on Wall Street and the main character in the (fictionalized?) Wolf of Wall Street (2013) so as to flesh out the different ways in which sordid greed manifests in modern society.

The full essay is at the main website: The Worden Report.