Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Cassavetes and The Blue Angel

Josef von Sternberg’s film The Blue Angel (1930), with Marlene Dietrich, is an extraordinary depiction of loneliness and humiliation, hubris and tragedy. (See the English-language version of the film in its entirety above).

Writing in Cassavetes on Cassavetes, Ray Carney reveals the influence of The Blue Angel on John Cassavetes.

Carney says of Gena Rowlands (John Cassavetes’ wife and star in many of his films):

‘It’s indicative… of many of her enduring attitudes that, after she saw The Blue Angel, Marlene Dietrich became her idol as an actress. Rowlands was fascinated with Dietrich’s blend of feminine sexual allure and almost masculine toughness and swagger. She watched the film over and over again… and even adopted a few of Dietrich’s gestures and mannerisms (sitting backward on a chair and such).’

Carney also tells us how The Blue Angel inspired Cassavetes in relation to his The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1975):

‘Cassavetes and Rowlands were both fans of Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. Rowlands loved the toughness and unsentimentalilty of Dietrich’s performance. Cassavetes liked the film for a different reason – because it was about an artist-surrogate who creates an artificial, artful world in which to live. (The filmmaker once asked me to give him a rare photograph I had from it, as well as a photograph showing the set of Yen’s palace in [Frank Capra’s] The Bitter Tea of General Yen, another film with the same subject). It’s not accidental that there is a photograph of Dietrich visible on the mirror of the strippers’ dressing room in the first version of [The Killing of a Chinese Bookie]. Although none of Cassavetes’ interviewers picked up on the allusion, in several post-release statements, Cassavetes wryly implied that he had modelled the character of Mr Sophistication [picture above] on Professor Rath.

‘Another reason Cassavetes was fascinated by The Blue Angel was that the film focused on the situation of a scorned, humiliated stage performer, an emotional event that spoke to Cassavetes for personal reasons. Notwithstanding the macho-man image he so diligently cultivated (or perhaps because of it), he often thought of his own life as a series of public humiliations – from his grade-school, high-school, college and drama-school days; to his years of unemployment and unsuccessful audition experiences – like the time he was jeered off stage as an MC at a burlesque house (an event dramatized in Shadows in Hugh’s nightclub debacle); to the various and sundry fiascos associated with his appearances at screenings and on television shows; to his run-ins with directors when he was acting (some of which are dramatized with the character of Myrtle in Opening Night).’

Monday, 15 June 2020

The revenge of the slave class

‘And now we should not conceal from ourselves what lies hidden in the womb of this Socratic culture! An optimism that thinks itself all powerful! Well, people should not be surprised when the fruits of this optimism ripen, when a society that has been thoroughly leavened with this kind of culture, right down to the lowest levels, gradually trembles with an extravagant turmoil of desires, when the belief in earthly happiness for everyone and in the possibility of such a universal knowledge culture, gradually changes into the threatening demand for such an Alexandrian utopia and into the plea for a Euripidean deus ex machina!

‘People should take note: Alexandrian culture requires a slave class in order to be able to exist over time, but with its optimistic view of existence, it denies the necessity for such a class and thus, when the effect of its beautiful words of seduction and reassurance about the “dignity of human beings” and the “dignity of work” has worn off, it gradually moves towards a horrific destruction. There is nothing more frightening than a barbarian slave class which has learned to think of its existence as an injustice and is preparing to take revenge, not only for itself, but for all generations.’

Friday, 29 May 2020

Theophilos Paleologos

This is the last year, this the last
of the Greek emperors. And, alas,
how sadly those around him talk.
Kyr Theophilos Paleologos
in his grief, in his despair, says:
“I would rather die than live.”

Ah, Kyr Theophilos Paleologos,
how much of the pathos, the yearning of our race,
how much weariness
(such exhaustion from injustice and persecution)
your six tragic words contained.

(Constantine Cavafy)

* Theophilos Paleologos, a kinsman of the emperor, shouted out “I would rather die than live” as the Turks penetrated the City's walls and he charged into them, sword in hand.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Why I like Castoriadis: politics and philosophy from ancient Greece to our age of ‘insignificance’

Postscript on Insignificance is a useful addition to the Cornelius Castoriadis oeuvre available in English, consisting of a series of interviews in which the Greek philosopher introduces us to some of his main intellectual preoccupations  – in ontology, political theory, art, psychoanalysis, mathematics, the philosophy of science, the state of modern society, and so on.

Here are some of the ideas that you will find in the book and are most attractive to me:

Castoriadis’ assertion that ‘being is creation’ amounts to a fundamental
rejection of any kind of determinism (religious, historical, scientific) and places politics – collective activity aimed at establishing the rules of society – at the heart of human endeavour and, indeed, of human existence, which is always social. ‘Being is creation’ provides flesh to the bones of Protagoras’ ‘man is the measure of all things’ and Aristotle’s ‘man is a political animal’, as well as his, ‘he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god’.

Even if we accept that societies always create themselves, this does not necessarily tell us anything about the form this creation will take; if, indeed, a society will overcome the pretense that extrinsic forces (gods, tradition, physis, etc) are responsible for shaping its laws and precepts. In fact, most human societies are what Castoriadis calls ‘heteronomous’, enthral and reliant on extrasocial explanations and sources for their laws and rules. Very few societies in human history have made the breakthrough that allows them to recognise that their laws and rules can be made and re-made by themselves.

The first societies that consciously took over from the gods, physis and so on, the role of instituting  laws and social precepts, were in classical Greece, and it is no coincidence that this is where philosophy and politics emerge.

Politics and philosophy go hand in hand. If philosophy is about questioning the existing representation of the world; then politics is about questioning and altering the existing representation of society. When philosophy challenges religious and other heteronomous explanations of the cosmos, when it removes the artificial limits on what is thinkable, it reveals a vacuum that, in terms of the ordering of society, politics steps in to try and fill.

If religion and the supernatural cannot explain the cosmos, then they cannot explain society or purport to be the foundation for its laws either. In this scenario, laws are not immutable, the impeccable will of the gods or of a God, to apply for all time and in all circumstances, never to be challenged or changed; but the responsibility of humans, who now must judge and choose for themselves the laws by which to govern their relations in society.

The more a society understands that it and it alone can affect its laws and rules, deciding what is a good and bad law; the more a society interrogates itself and overcomes heteronomous restrictions on what it can and cannot say and do about itself; the more implicated citizens are in shaping their society’s laws; the more citizens feel ownership of their society’s laws; then the more Castoriadis is inclined to identify such a society as ‘autonomous’. The creation of autonomous society is the project that Castoriadis, the radical social and political theorist, seeks to explain and is committed to.

However, this project of autonomy begun 2,500 years ago in Greece (revived in the ‘first Renaissance’ in 11th century Europe and, again, in 17th century England, followed by the American and French revolutions, the Enlightenment, the workers’ movement and by Modernism and the avant-garde, which prevailed in Europe from the 1870s to the 1950s) is now in crisis. And this is not because contemporary society is threatened by a return to a belief in gods and tradition, or the veneration of nature (although there has been a growth in religious fundamentalism, regressive forms of nationalism and anti-modern, back-to-nature ideologies – as in aspects of the Green movement); but, more profoundly, the project of autonomy is under threat from trends that want to transform citizens into consumers; that induce apathy and conformism; and reduce politics from a democratic endeavour of the many to a preserve and activity of the few, a liberal elite, comprised of professional politicians and pseudo political experts.

For Castoriadis, the term that captures this nihilistic spirit in contemporary politics, art and philosophy is ‘insignificance’; and, indeed, even if Castoriadis was describing the world as he saw it in the 1980s and 1990s (Castoriadis died in 1997), the lacklustre, ineffectual response to the post-2008 crisis from radical politics – we’re thinking of the feeble occupy and indignant movements – shows there is nothing to suggest that such a pessimistic characterisation would not be applicable to today’s politics and society.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Cornelius Castoriadis: Why Pericles Matters

I mentioned in my previous post on Robin Lane Fox’s defence of Pericles and his funeral oration that the Athenian statesman’s address is also regarded by the Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis as ‘the most important political monument of political thought I have ever read’.

And, indeed, it’s worth dwelling on why Castoriadis believes this because in so doing we can make an important amendment to Lane Fox’s interpretation of Pericles’ funeral oration, particularly that part of it where he refers to Athenian culture and education inculcating among Athenians a ‘love of beauty’ and ‘love of wisdom’ as part of a process of creating better and fuller citizens.

Essentially, Castoriadis argues that the traditional translation (which Lane Fox ascribes to) of Pericles’ Philokaloumen gar met’euteleias kai philsophoumen aneu malakias – we love beauty without ostentation and we love wisdom without being soft – is too literal and limits our understanding of what Pericles is saying and of the nature of Athenian democracy.

Rather, Castoriadis says:

‘Pericles’ sentence is impossible to translate into a modern language. The two verbs of the phrase can be rendered literally by “we love beauty… and we love wisdom”, but the essential would be lost. The verbs do not allow this separation of the “we” and the “object” – beauty or wisdom – external to this “we”. The verbs are not “transitive,” and they are not even simply “active”: they are at the same time “verbs of state.” Like the verb to live, they point to an “activity” which is at the same time a way of being or rather the way by means of which the subject of the verb is

‘Pericles does not say we love beautiful things (and put them in museums), we love wisdom (and pay professors or buy books). He says we are in and by the love of beauty and wisdom and the activity this love brings forth, we live by and with and through them – but far from extravagance, and far from flabbiness.

‘The object of the institution of the polis is for [Pericles] the creation of a  human being, the Athenian citizen, who exists and lives in and through the unity of these three: the love and “practice” of beauty, the love and “practice” of wisdom, the care and responsibility for the common good, the collectivity, the polis.

‘Among the three there can be no separation; beauty and wisdom such as the Athenians loved them and lived them could only exist in Athens. The Athenian citizen is not a “private philosopher,” or a “private artist,” he is a citizen for whom philosophy and art have become ways of life.’

The Greeks, Castoriadis says, never stopped asking: what is it that the institution of society ought to achieve? It is a question to which the Athenians answered, he says, in this way: the creation of  human beings living with beauty, living with wisdom, and loving the common good.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Culture and war: JE Lendon’s Soldiers and Ghosts

‘The army of Alexander the Great was the most successful army the Greek world ever knew. Its soldiers were brave because their parents raised them brave, because out-of-the-way Macedon had preserved the warrior values of an older Greece – the Greece that Thucydides remembered with a shudder – when men still wore swords. Macedon was a society of noble companions and riotous banqueting, a society of untamed emotion, of boasting, of drunken murder, a society that recalled that of epic. Philip and Alexander harnessed this traditional ethos by bringing the world of Homer back to life and so turned the ramshackle levy of old Macedonia into an army of world conquest.’ (JE Lendon: Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity).

Above is an interview with JE Lendon regarding his Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. The interview was conducted in 2005 by Bill Buschel for Hellenic Public Radio in New York. Lendon’s book argues for the role of culture and ideology in shaping the way Greeks and Romans carried out their wars. In particular, Lendon says, Greek warriors drew inspiration and sought to emulate the ethics and even the tactics they believe they inherited from the epic past as depicted in Homer; while the Romans too looked to history and myth for information as to how to fight their wars. In fact, Lendon goes on, when Greek culture in all its facets began to pervade Rome, Roman military leaders increasingly turned to the codes and feats of the Greek warrior, particularly Alexander the Great, to guide their behaviour in combat. In late Roman/early Byzantine military history, this translated, for example, in the Emperor Julian (the Apostate) choosing to fight a (disastrous) war with the Persians not out of military necessity but, according to Lendon, because Julian aspired to imitate the heroics of Alexander the Great.

* For Buschel’s interview with Lendon on Lendon’s book Song of Wrath: the Peloponnesian War Begins, go here.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Werner Herzog and Dieter Dengler

Human folly, madness, barbaric dreams, the thin veneer of civilisation, the overwhelming evil of the universe, faith and superstition, human cruelty and violence, the hubristic desire to conquer nature. These are some of the themes present in Greek tragedy, and the films of German filmmaker Werner Herzog.

Currently, Herzog is promoting his feature film Rescue Dawn, a (controversial) version of his earlier documentary film, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which concerns the life of German-American aviator and Vietnam POW Dieter Dengler.

Dengler emigrated to America from post-war Germany aged 18 to pursue his dream of flying planes – Germany had no airforce or airlines at the time – and ended up becoming a US Navy pilot. Three weeks after gaining his wings, in January 1966, Dengler – whose aim in life was to fly, not go to war – was sent to Vietnam, where he was shot down over Laos forty minutes into his first mission, captured, imprisoned and routinely tortured by the enemy.

Fearing imminent execution, Dengler took part in a daring escape, after which he survived even more ordeals in the jungle, before, finally, emaciated, on the point of starvation, hallucinating, ‘with one day to live’, being rescued – making Dengler the only American POW to have successfully escaped captivity in Laos.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly is a tribute to America – its ‘qualities of self-reliance, courage [and] frontier spirit’, its inclusiveness, its preparedness to judge a person by personal character and not collective background – and an effort to give legitimacy to the stories of post-war Germany and post-war Germans.

But Dieter Dengler’s story, for Herzog, also possesses ‘the quality and structure of an ancient Greek tragedy, [which] is that of a man and his dreams, his punishment and redemption.’

Now, redemption is a strange word to use in relation to Greek tragedy. Redemption is not only normally associated with Christianity – with its just God, afterlife and soteriology – but is also often regarded, see George Steiner’s The Death of Tragedy, as being the Christian concept most inimical to the Greek tragic worldview and most responsible for its demise in Western culture.

So perhaps Herzog doesn’t mean redemption in Dieter Dengler’s case in a Christian sense, but in a way consistent with Greek tragedy and Greek radical pessimism.

Perhaps he means that Dengler, having endured severe mental and physical suffering, ‘having seen what death looks like and escaped it’, took his dark experience and turned it into an affirmation of life.

Indeed, this is what Little Dieter Needs to Fly – see clip above – and Herzog’s own personal testimony indicate.

‘The man,’ Herzog says of Dengler, ‘had such an intense enjoyment of life… There was a real innocence about [him]. He had such a healthy and impressive and jubilant attitude to life, [and] never made a fuss about his captivity.

‘He never had to struggle for his sanity and certainly was not possessed by those things that you see so often among Vietnam veterans who returned home destroyed inside.’

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Isaac Asimov on the Spartans

Sparta was the dominant land power in Greece for two centuries, not that Isaac Asimov, in The Greeks: A Great Adventure, thought much of the Lacedaemonians: 

‘Sparta was never really suited to the task of leading Greece. The Greeks were at home on the sea and Sparta was not. The Greeks had interests from end to end of the Mediterranean and Sparta was interested, in her heart, only in the Peloponnese. The Greeks were quick, artistic and free and Spartans were slow-moving, dull and enslaved either to each other or to the military way of life. 

‘In later years, the Greeks of other city-states sometimes admired the Spartan way of life because it seemed so virtuous and seemed to lead Sparta to such military glory. However, they were wrong to do so. In art, literature, music, love of life, all that makes it worthwhile to be on the earth, Sparta contributed nothing. She had only a cruel, inhuman way of life to offer, dependent on a brutal slavery of most of her population, with only a kind of blind animal courage as a virtue and her way of life soon became more show than substance. It was her reputation that saved her for a while when her core was rotten. She seemed strong as long as she won victories but whereas other states could withstand defeats and rise again, Sparta lost her domination of Greece after a single defeat. The loss of one major battle [at Leuctra, 371 BC] was to expose her and dispose of her.’