Truthfulness and Realism: Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”

I’ve been teaching a course on philosophy and film. As it nears the end, I’m thinking about films that didn’t make it into the course but that could have and perhaps should have. This version of the course (I’ve taught it a few times) focused on the problem of identity and moral personhood: numerical identity in Inception and Solaris, for example, and differences between persons and what Harry Frankfurt calls “wantons” in A Clockwork OrangeThe Servant, and Vertigo, among others. We tended to focus more on content than form, but we were never very far from issues of truth, reality, and the art of film.  

Which made me want to identify films that bring these epistemological and ontological themes in both life and art together with personhood. In the films of Stanley Kubrick, there’s something of a dialectic between truthfulness and realism. Realism can reveal truth but also obscure it, and be obscured by it. And “realistic” isn’t the right word for the film I have in mind; “truthful” is closer to the mark. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) portrays intimate personal relationships truthfully. What does that mean?

The film is about a couple, Alice and Bill, who, although they’ve been married at least seven years, still seem to be adjusting to the transition from passionate love to a companionate marriage. When we first see them, as they are preparing to leave for a Christmas party, they are very much in the companionate mode: intimate and trusting, but something less than passionate. Continue reading

Remembering George Spencer-Brown

George Spencer-Brown’s The Laws of Form (1969) made a big impression of me when I encountered it a half-century ago.

What I got from the book on a first reading was the idea that the most elementary form of thought consists in drawing a distinction.

[A] distinction is drawn by arranging a boundary with separate sides so that a point on one side cannot reach the other side without crossing the boundary. For example, in a plane space a circle draws a distinction.

In drawing a distinction, one also does several other things: one indicates the spaces, states, or contents on either side of the boundary, attributes different values to what is indicated, establishes the possibility of indicating the values by naming them, and establishes the possibility of crossing from one side of the boundary to the other.

Now, it is possible to draw a “first distinction” only because something is distinguishable. For example, the plane surface on which one draws a circle is itself already distinguished from other surfaces. Were it not, it would not be possible to isolate the surface on which one arranges a boundary, or to establish its value.

In other words, a distinction has always already been drawn.

At least, for we mortals. The very first distinction must have been drawn by God. And that is indeed what the Bible seems to indicate: “And God separated the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening, and there was morning: a first day.” A distinction is drawn (“God separates”), values are attributed (“light” and “darkness”), values are named (“Day” and “Night”), and boundaries are crossed (“there was evening, and there was morning”). God creates by drawing distinctions. And as we were made in His image, so do we. Continue reading

Art, Adorno, and Communism

In Negative Dialectics, Theodor W. Adorno famously wrote that “[p]hilosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” He’s alluding to Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” (I like Baudrillard’s riposte: “activists have only changed the world in various ways; the point is to re-interpret it.”)

The realization of philosophy was the reconciliation of theory and practice, i.e. concrete, real-world freedom for all, a “polis without slaves.” The missed opportunity – the point at which freedom for all could have been achieved – was presumably the Bolshevik Revolution, which led to totalitarianism.

Personally, I’m skeptical of the idea that the Bolshevik Revolution would have resulted in a worker’s paradise but for the perfidy of the West, which Adorno seems to have believed at least as of his discussions with Max Horkheimer in 1956 (see Horkheimer and Adorno’s Towards a New Manifesto, 2011). But that’s another matter.

Adorno appears to have settled down in the view that although capitalism was bad, “actually existing communism” was worse, and the best we can hope for is the life provided by the liberal democratic welfare state – what Herbert Marcuse called the “smooth, comfortable unfreedom” of “one-dimensional society.” We can forget about the reconciliation of theory and practice. Instead, we should devote ourselves to alerting the victims of one-dimensionality to their oppression, from which they are distracted by the culture industry. There’s no viable path to communism, and attempts to act on the delusion that there is will provoke the “system” to turn from the soft power of consumerism to the coercive instruments of the police state – as Adorno thought the student movement of the 1960s was causing it to do.

Communism, then, was a failed dream, and political utopianism of any kind was downright dangerous. Are Adorno’s views on art analogous? Continue reading

Finding a Way

Late in 1971, when I was 16, during a visit to the Santa Ana Public Library (in Southern California), I had a dramatic aesthetic experience.

At this point I had read fairly widely. I knew Hawthorne, Twain, Thoreau, Whitman, and Melville, Kafka and Sartre, Huxley and Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London as well as Animal Farm). I’d read (or read at) Russell and Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, and people like B.F. Skinner, Buckminster Fuller, Arthur Koestler, Lewis Mumford, Marshall McLuhan, Tom Wolfe, and Joan Didion. I’d seen paintings by Picasso and heard Stravinsky, Wagner, and Morton Subotnick.

I was always on the lookout for more, though I didn’t always have a clear idea of what I was looking for.

That afternoon in 1971, however, I did know. I had come for a copy of Molloy, which I wanted to read after having seen a PBS broadcast called Beginning to End in which the Irish actor Jack MacGowran, dressed in a thick black cloak, stands in the Mojave Desert and recites passages from the works of Samuel Beckett.

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Men Without Art

What would life be like without art?

One answer to the question is that it would be like the life of an animal.

The human mind is distinctive in that we have “meta-beliefs”: beliefs about our beliefs, such as that a belief is true or false. We also have meta-desires: we desire our desires to be appropriate, and we are sometimes concerned that our emotional reactions are inappropriate. We are not merely conscious, we are self-conscious. We not only know things, we know that we know them.

It’s impossible to be certain, but so far as I can tell my cat isn’t conscious in this way. When she forms the belief that a mouse is within striking distance, she doesn’t ask herself how she knows that her belief is true. She just knows that a mouse is near. And she certainly doesn’t ask herself whether she has a right to attack the mouse. She simply pounces when the opportunity arises, without any moral deliberation at all. Continue reading

Kubrick’s Style: Neoclassical Modernism

Stanley Kubrick’s visual style can be characterized by thinking about how Ezra Pound described Imagism. “An image,” he said, “is an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Among Pound’s instructions to poets are the imperatives “to employ always the exact word” and “to produce a poetry that is hard and clear.” F.S. Flint added the admonishment “to use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation.” Pound likened the ideal poetic line to the musical phrase, and held that “concentration is of the very essence of poetry.”

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