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

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Lincoln

In addition to providing an excellent glimpse of a man much studied yet nevertheless lost to history, Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg, affords us an opportunity to grasp a particular virtue that applies rather surprisingly to politics. Simply in there being such a virtue applicable to a profession much maligned and relegated to swamps, an insight into the value of politics is here for the taking.


On the negative side of the ledger, the art of politics suffers from the vice of self-aggrandizing compromise—selling out the voters, for example, for a private perk. Additionally, fabrication is often associated with politics. In the film, Thaddeus Stevens admits to a bevy of his colleagues that Lincoln is indeed not to be trusted. Noting the men’s flabbergasted expressions, Stevens remarks, “Gentlemen, you seem to have forgotten that our chosen career is politics.” The implication is that mendacity is interwoven into the very fabric of politics, and should therefore be expected rather than held as blameworthy.

Yet surely the purpose of the compromise or lie matters. In refusing to take the bait, Stevens tells his adversaries in the House that equality before the law, rather than in all things (such as in slaves being given the right to vote), is the sole purpose of the proposed 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In the gallery, Mary Lincoln says out loud, “Who would have guessed that man capable of such control; he might make a politician someday.” Off the House floor, Stevens explains to one of his allies, “I want the amendment to pass.” That is why he held back, in great self-control, from divulging his true North—freed Blacks able to vote and even getting some land from the government. Had he stated his version of radical reconstruction, the anti-slavery conservatives in the House would have bolted rather than support the Amendment.

Mary Lincoln’s observation is the hinge on which the insight for us pivots. To be sure, Stevens lied, and compromised, but—and this is crucial—he did so with great self-discipline. The exigency of self-restraint points to the priority of a public good over private gain, for who needs to draw on discipline to pursue the latter?  So here we have a virtue applicable to the profession of politics. By this reckoning, pushing through one’s own ideological true-North, whether by lying or expedient compromise, or by playing it straight, does not evoke the virtue. Rather, it is demonstrated by a politician holding back on the allure of an unabashed pursuit of one’s vision out of a mature recognition of being one mere mortal among others.

Even though similar virtues applicable to politics exist along the tether of self-discipline, such as having the political courage to act in the public good in the face of constituent discontent (even though the action is in their own best interest), Lincoln illustrates a particular virtue, or version of it, that I suspect is not well-known among the citizenry. In short, compromise and even lying in the service of politics are not necessarily indications of a sordid character. Rather,  a stubborn, or otherwise unrelenting pursuit of an ideology may point to an underlying vice. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Maltese Falcon

To Aquinas, greed is the worst of the major sins. Augustine had privileged pride with the dubious distinction of being the worst of the worst. In films, avarice is typically clothed with riches. The Maltese Falcon (1941) and (1931), as well as Satan Met a Lady (1936), which is based on the same novel, all depict greed as an obsession. Even though the object sought is thought to be very valuable, no one in the “hunt” is wealthy. Greed is presented in this story primarily as an interior motive that relentlessly and obsessively grips the whole person. That is to say, greed is reductionist, and in so being, distortive of any sense of natural perception and proper proportionality. This is depicted best in the most famous of the films. In this respect, the prior two films can be seen as building up to, or evolving into, a depiction of greed full-blown in a distinctly pathological sense.


In the 1941 film, in which Humphrey Bogart plays Sam Spade, the sickness of greed is illustrated in the character of Kasper Gutman (the last name could be a word-play on gut, which means “good” in German; or a descriptor of the character being fat), played by Sydney Greenstreet. The irony of Gutman being a good man is all the more striking once we recall Michael Douglas’s famous line in Wall Street. “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” Moral scruples fall by the wayside if the vice is defined as a virtue. Pretty crafty! More generally, greed bristles with discomfort in the face of any obstacle, for the lack of limitation goes with the vice on account of the nature of desire (and, I submit, the pathology particular to greed).

Gutman illustrates the pathologically obsessive nature of greed by how he sells out his hired thug to get the Falcon from Spade. When the detective suggests to the fat man that Wilmer be the fall guy, Gutman replies, “I feel toward Wilmer here just exactly as if he were my own son.” The fat man adds that Wilmer could inform the police about the falcon, so we don’t really know whether Gutman does indeed have such feelings for his henchman. “The fall guy’s part of the price,” Spade replies. As a direct result, Gutman sells out his presumably only son, saying in a deflated tone without much discernable discomfort, “You can have him.” Contravening Kant’s kingdom of ends, other people can only be means, rather than ends in themselves, to a person gripped with greed. Looking straight at Wilmer, Gutman tries to explain his priorities. “I’m sorry indeed to lose you. I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son. Well, you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon.” Greed does not admit of obstacles, even those of the sentimental kind.

The deal made, the path is set for Gutman to get his falcon. Once Sam’s secretary delivers it to the apartment, Gutman puts his “sausage hands”—or one could use Nietzsche’s “ruddy fat hands” just as well—all over the black bird as he sweats profusely. Greed is literally gripping the whole man. Most interestingly of all, once he realizes that the bird is a fake, he goes into a brief epileptic-like fit, with his head tilted in a strange way. Greed so gripping is pathological. Yet not even its own nature is to be admitted as an obstacle, and Gutman quickly composes himself to organize the next stage in the treasure hunt.

More than the 1931 and 1936 versions—the latter titled Satan Met a Lady (starring Betty Davis)—the 1941 version captures just how pathological greed can become if the occupant does not endeavor to check its gradual, and thus subtle, cancer-like spread.

In the 1931 version of the story, Spade advises Gutman that he can always get another son, but there is only one falcon. Gutman agrees and gives up his thug. Spade is not greedy, so the line only implies that Gutman is greedy if he agrees to give up Wilmer. In the 1936 version, the detective delivers the line, but “auntie” (the Gutman character is a grandma figure here) does not agree to give up her enforcer, so the implication is that she is not greedy, which of course is not true. Additionally, in neither of these previous versions does the unwrapping of the bird and horn, respectively, show any obvious pathological respects. 

In short, as the story evolves through the successive films, the element of greed is darkened in how it is depicted in the antagonist. The message is clear: At its extreme, greed is an obsession—a disorder—rather than merely something immoral or sinful. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Agora

Film has the potential to be so engrossing perceptually for the viewer-auditors that the medium can engage the human condition at a deep, unconscious level. At that level, the subconscious protects us in the games we so seriously play.  If done well, film-making crafts a coherent and complete story-world into which the voyageur can be temporarily lodged before returning to the ordinary world that now looks somehow different. The subtle perceptual change can result from part of the viewer’s subconscious having been made transparent, or realized, while in the film’s story-world. As concerns the religious domain, I contend that the medium has only touched the surface in holding a mirror up to ourselves. This is not to say that more anti-religion movies, such as Last Temptation of Christ, are the answer; neither are more palliative, apologist films, like The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told, the way to greater self-awareness for homo religiosis.  On account of their un-questioning, one-dimensionality (even when viewed with 3D glasses!), these films are more alike than their respective leitmotifs would suggest. Most importantly, none of these films raises penetrating questions that assume the validity of “the other side.” Agora does. The film evades easy categorization as anti-Christian or even anti-religion, and is thus able to effectively touch on the human condition beneath its denial and hypocrisies. My question here is how Agora transcends the predictable patina of reactionary films enough to widen our collective consciousness at the expense of hypocrisy and denial at the expense of the true spirit of religion. The key revolves around both subjecting religion (and particular religions) to critique and drawing on religion to supply an anchor. That is to say, religion is both truth and its antithesis.


Nietzsche advocates approaching truth itself as a problem rather than as something whose validity is held to be beyond question (i.e., sacred). Gandhi famously remarked that he used to think that truth (i.e., revelation, as in the Vedas) is God but came to realize that God is truth. To Gandhi, this meant that revelation contrary to non-violence is not of God. A film can subject truth itself as a problem (rather than as a conveniently partisan given) and enhance, thereby, human awareness of just what we are up to when we take ourselves as religious, whether in self (or group) identification or conduct. Once a film gets a grip on a truth and makes it a problem rather than a pallid backdrop, you can bet the river Styx in the human unconscious will be stirred, lapping over its banks as it tries to order its new-found energy gained from the antiseptic of unabashed sunlight.

Agora is based on historical events.[1] The director’s attention to visual accuracy, based in part on the ruins at Pompey, heightens the illusion of realism and the coherence of the story-world—both of which add to the credibility that is necessary to subject truth as a problem. Most importantly, the film holds off in taking sides in the religious disputes and related power-struggles, and thus avoids the pitfalls that go with an overwhelming partisan agenda. Moreover, the film tempers itself from becoming an outright anti-religious flick by highlighting hypocrisies from the vantage-point of “the other side” (i.e., religion) rather than the absence of religion in the human condition.

To be sure, the film will settle on the Christian patriarch Cyril as the antagonist—bent as he is on gaining power in cruel—and thus hypocritical—means. For once a person assumes the mantel of “the end justifies the means” to legitimate one’s dubious acts, the declining slope can be quite slippery indeed, and in a subtle way that can easily evade the person’s notice. Moreover, a bubble of pride can surround the denial rendering the hypocrisy all the more damning.

Lest it be concluded that the film finally reveals itself as an anti-Christian polemic, however, the film’s indictment is hardly straightforward.  Commenting on the film, Alejandro Amenabar, the director, distances his film from easy categorization by partisans as anti-Christian or anti-pagan by pointing out that the pagans were the first historically (as well as in the film) to lash out in violence.  “I really tried not to take anyone’s side,” Amenabar explains. “For most of the movie, you don’t know who is good and who is bad. This is because there are good people and bad people everywhere, among Christians, pagans, Jews.”[2] Agora is thus not as anti-Christian as it might seem in retrospect, and elements in that direction do not define what the film is ultimately about. The distance from overt religious partisanship gives the film the credibility necessary to take on, and thus make transparent, some of the important aspects of homo religiosis that are typically hidden (i.e., in society’s blind-spot).

 At the cusp of the ravaging conflict, Olympius, the pagan high-priest is incensed. Christians—including most notably their patriarch, Theophilus—are just outside the temple/library complex mocking statues of the gods, including most prominently the locally popular god, Serapis. Utterly unbecoming of the maturity typically expected in an elder official, Theon, a mathematician-philosopher and director of the library, backs up Olympius in answering that the insult must be answered (with violence).

Edward Gibbon describes Theophilus historically as “the perpetual enemy of peace and virtue, a bold, bad man, whose hands were alternately polluted with gold and with blood.”[3] In the film, the bishop stands before a crowd, making fun of a stone statue because it cannot move and talk (as if statues of Jesus could). That Theophilus and his successor, Cyril, presume to know the mind of their god is all the more astonishing, considering how childishly they behave as religious leaders. Later in the film (and historically), Cyril incites his protector monks into an anti-Jewish, anti-woman (via Paul’s letters), and anti-pagan frenzy, resulting in the clerics’ murder of Hypatia, an astronomer/mathematician who has the ear of Orestes, the Roman prefect. Historically, the monks skinned her alive. Fortunately, the director went with a sympathetic suffocation followed by the monks stoning her dead body. Love thy enemy is nowhere to be seen in the film, except perhaps when Hypatia frees Medorus, her Christian slave who had just almost raped her before stopping himself.

With their perspective lost or severely undermined even by high principles, the religious leaders on both sides illustrate what can happen when people take their respective religions too seriously. . Generally speaking, the warring religious parties presume they could not possibly be wrong in their chosen routes and how grave the insults are. It is as if any otherwise viable check or “escape value” is somehow circumvented in the human brain from acting a self-correction on the mind itself of a homo religiosis. Hence, religion in the hands of a human can be quite dangerous in that things once lit can easily get out of control without the parties involved having a clue.

Accordingly, the film approaches truth as understood by human beings as a problem rather than as sacred (i.e., beyond the reach of questioning). That is to say, the presumed infallibility and the related loss of perspective are to be made transparent by the film. Perspective and the related attitude of humility is the film’s anchor.
For example, after the first round of violence over the insults to the gods, the pagans are burrowed inside the massive temple-library complex and the Christians are outside, desperately wanting in to retaliate against the pagans and burn the library’s thousands of “pagan” texts. Mortally injured by one of his Christian slaves, Theon admits to his daughter, Hypatia that the insults against the gods did not have to be answered with violence after all. Looking at his injured co-religionists lying around him, he wonders aloud, “How could I have been so wrong?” Before the fight, he had been so certain that the insults must be answered, only to be left astonished at how utterly mistaken he had been. It seems as though religion in human hands is particularly susceptible to this sort of blindness, and rarely open to regaining perspective in a way that shows the person as Creature rather than Creator—as so very partial rather than whole. Put another way, Theon’s self-deprecating acknowledgement of having been so very foolish stands out in the film as a rarely invoked remedy for religious arrogance and presumptive knowledge. No such bar is presented in the domain of philosophy, with Hypatia continuously questioning her own thinking on the shape of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, and Orestes admitting when still one of her students, “Perhaps I’m just simple-minded.” Why is it that questioning and self-effacing recognition are so rarely pursued in religious matters?

The sheer rationalizing of bad behavior under Christian illustrates just how toxic homo religiosis can become. “I was forgiven, but now I can’t forgive,” Medorus admits to Ammonius, one of the fighting Nitrain monks, after Jews had attacked and killed a group of the monks. Answering him, Ammonius tries to assuage the younger man’s internal angst as if a recalibrating internal struggle were something to evade at all costs. “Jesus was a god, and only he can show such clemency.” That Jesus preaches forgive seven times seven and love your enemy to his followers rather than just for himself has somehow eluded the monk. Yet he is nonetheless confident enough in his own theological interpretation to assure the former slave, “God wants us here doing what we’re doing.” With such insight into the mind of God radiating out of mere mortals, truth itself scarcely has any room, and is barely even noticed, but in a lowly former slave and two pagan philosophers.

Religion itself is on trial in this film. That the standpoint assumed is religious rather than secular makes the indictment all the more credible and severe.  For example, Medorus’s recognition of his own lack of forgiveness and Theophilus’s reading of part of the Sermon of the Mount—blessed are those who thirst after righteousness—serve as anchors in the film from the Christian standpoint. The excesses in the name of the religion are thus to be measured not from outside in, but, rather, from what the religion could be were its adherents willing to pause, submit their chosen religious ideals and conduct to the rigors of self-questioning, and be willing to be wrong about what they presume they cannot be wrong about. In short, by subjecting themselves to the problem of truth (and themselves as virtual fonts thereof), the stringent hold of denial can, at least theoretically, be broken. However, the religious consciousness must be open to the realization of having gone awry under the cover of masked hypocrisy. Were the film to assume a wholly anti-religious attitude, the defenses of denial would easily gain the upper hand out of sheer defensiveness over impending doom (for the religion). So the religious basis of the film—established for example in Theon’s wonderment at his own stupidity concerning what the gods want as well as in Medorus’s admission of his refusal to forgive—is critical to religious truth being subjected to critique through the medium of the film.

Perhaps the film’s best contribution to expanding human consciousness of religiosity comes in exposing hypocrisies, lapsed judgment, and warped thinking.  For example, whether from a category mistake—treating knowledge as a substitute for (and thus threat to) divine revelation—or the faulty assumption that the presence of statues of deities in the library mean the scholarship must laud the gods and excoriate Christianity—the overzealous Christians ransack the library’s ancient scholarship.

Apparently, Theophilus had not gotten the memo. Many early Christian theologians interpreted the Biblical account of creation aided by Plato’s cosmology in the Timaeus.[4] More than two hundred years before Theophilus, Clement of Alexandria based his belief in the immortality of the soul on the Book of Psalms and Plato’s Republic on the final judgment.[5]  In fact, the second-century bishop of Alexandria argues, “Plato all but predicts the history of salvation.”[6] Justin Martyr comes even closer in linking Plato’s work to Christianity by seeing Socrates as a Christ-type and forerunner in being unjustly put to death in defense of Logos, or reason (Jesus being the preexistent Logos incarnate).[7] Similarly, Clement considered Homer’s Odysseus tied to the mast of a boat while passing the alluring Sirens as a foreshadowing of Jesus.[8] Clement read widely in classical Greek literature even as he considered himself as a faithful pupil of Jesus.[9] For all this drawing on “pagan” sources, Theophilus still felt the need to destroy the library in Alexandria, even if that meant acting contrary to what earlier Church fathers would have wanted.

In the film, the needed lens of perspective comes into play as the camera-shot pulls back from above to show the Christian monks clad in black robes scampering about like tiny ants running ancient scrolls to hastily-built fires. The true smallness of the species truly registers, however, only if the viewer recalls that each ant-like creature is presuming infallibly to know the mind of God.

Hypatia’s fixation on the stars also furnishes a benchmark for such, much needed, perspective. She allows herself to consider the possibility that the Earth is just one “wanderer” among others that revolve around the Sun. The panoramic camera-shots of Earth, moving slowly in, down to Alexandria and closer still to the library, show visually just how very small (and unimportant) our playpens truly are. We scamper around like ants in our daily lives, yet we presume nonetheless to act on behalf of our deities.

As “the instigators” were ensconced in the temple/library complex as the Christians waited pensively outside, an old man befitting Jung’s wisdom archetype pierces the grim veil of smoke and mirrors to see into the profound universe that surrounds us. Befitting the simplicity in the stars, the old man high up on a wall speaks of Aristarchus (c. 310-230 BCE), whose heliocentric model places the Earth and the other “wanderers,” or planets, as bodies orbiting the sun. Yet for all the beauty and easy of such heavenly simplicity, even Hypatia has trouble holding onto it, moving on to analyze elaborate alternative explanations that are—as Aristotle wrote of Plato’s system—“beautiful but false.”

Similar to Hume’s thesis in his Natural History of Religion that the human mind has trouble holding onto naked notions of divine simplicity, elaborations and divine contortions pervade through all the partisan warfare in the film as if inevitably, resulting in Christian monks stoning the dead body of innocent Hypatia. Even the sheer tolerance for such hypocrisy attests to just how presumptuous and self-serving we human beings can be in religious affairs even as we convince ourselves that we are acting on lofty principles.

During the fighting that ensues to “answer the insult” to the gods, one of Theon’s Christian slaves shouts over to the old man, “I’m a Christian!” Without any recognition whatsoever of the blatant contradiction, the slave attacks Theon by smashing his head with the butt of a sword. The sad implication is that Jesus had somehow failed, at least with respect to his preached message of turning the other cheek and loving enemies. It is as if the Christians would gladly nail even Jesus to the cross if he crossed them.

Indeed, in his audio commentary on the film, Amenabar says he views Hypatia as a Christ figure. The director says he has “a feeling that Hypatia, somehow, shared characteristics with Jesus. She had disciples, she would evoke feelings of brotherhood, she would preach tolerance, and eventually, and unjustly, due to political reasons, she was martyred and murdered.”[10] Actually, as in the case of Jesus, religious reasons were also in the mix.

In the film and historically, the Nitrian monks are supporters and enforcers, of Cycil’s anti-pagan message (e.g., that Hypatia is a witch). In the film, Hypatia puts herself out there by walking in public to her house. A small group of the monks corner her, and, quite ironically, take her to the bishop’s church in the library complex. Out of love for his pagan former master, Medorus, who earlier admits he does not know how to forgive, suffocates her while the other monks are out scrounging for stones. When they return, they stone Hypatia (presuming her to still be alive). The role of Hypatia as a Christ figure becomes very important to understanding the significance of the murder—and through it, the state of Christianity itself—both in the film and historically (she was actually skinned alive). In killing a Jesus figure, the blind monks effectively discredit their own faith without having a clue of having done so. Like light making its way to Earth from a distant star, the news of the fallen stars had not reached those stars themselves.

In conclusion, Amenabar effectively evaded a polemical film by keeping the viewers from being able to identify the antagonist early on.  Presumptuousness under the subterfuge of religion is the true culprit—the real antagonist. We are human, all too human, scampering around like ants in our “agendas,” and yet in spite of our smallness, and because of it, we presume to know the mind of God. We easily substitute “I know” for what is actually belief, and yet we presume that we cannot be wrong about what we think we know. Put another way, our religions may speak volumes more about us than anything transcending the limits of human cognition and perception and thus inherently ineffable. Interestingly, Hypatia was a neoplatonist in line with Plotinus, who had taught that ultimate reality is beyond the reach of the human mind. His writing anticipates Kant’s distinction between the noumenal (i.e., things in themselves) and phenomenal (i.e., appearance). We mere mortals seem to have an intractable difficulty staying put in the sand box of appearances instead of wandering around informing others of the truth, saying “I have the truth; you just have your opinion.” That truth eludes all of us somehow escapes our landscape of possibilities; we don’t even recognize the stench of our own hypocrisy, and yet we take it for granted that we know even the mind of God. Agora completes the circle, or ellipse, by showing us just how dangerous arrogance perched on stilts can be during a flood. By all rights, our innate sense of omniscience should be underwater, and yet it presumes virtual infallibility. Agora provides cognitive and visual perspective that can cut the stilts down to size and thus enable a more authentic homo religiosis to finally emerge from the dark miasma of empty pride.





[1] According to the director, this “movie is very much based on true stories.” Alejandro Amenabar, Commentary on Agora.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: The Modern Library, n.d.), Vol. 2, p. 57.
[4] Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (Yale University Press: New Haven, CT, 1985), p. 61.
[5] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 5.14.
[6] Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries, p. 44.
[7] Ibid. See Justin Martyr, I Apology 5, 46; II Apology 10.
[8] Ibid., p. 42.
[9] Ibid., p. 38.
[10] Amenabar, Commentary.