What I Was Watching in 1983
I had dropped out of college in 1981, feeling that if I was not going to get a well-rounded education in college that I would pursue it outside. Two years later, I was still confident that my future would yield answers to questions that had been raised for me by books. Later on in my life I would come to see things differently, but for now I was still pursuing the old ideals. I had just picked up Joseph Campbell, and I would spend the next year and a half working diligently through the process of outlining his work.
However, the world was quickly moving past the Love Story-Hair-Zelig experience of exchanging middle-class innocence for a broader and deeper idealism to a darker view of human nature. One of my first introductions to this new and profoundly skeptical position was when I sat down and watched Louis Male’s My Dinner with André.
Wally goes to meet André, an old friend who had been a famous theater director but who had disappeared several years before. Wally tells us that he had been avoiding meeting André for sometime, but that now he was forced to have dinner with the elusive and mysterious André who had been traveling to places like Tibet, while Wally stayed in his comfortable middle-class apartment in New York.
André explained to Wally that he’d just been watching the Ingmar Bergman movie Autumn Sonata about twenty-five blocks away, and he’d been seized by a fit of ungovernable crying when the character played by Ingrid Bergman had said, “I could always live in my art, but never in my life.”
Apparently, André has been attempting to bring his art to life. This sets the stage for a meeting between André, a world traveler, and the stay-at-home lump, Wally, who, as the film opens, is thirty-six, “and all I think about is money!”
Despite the fact that he has been forced into a meeting with his former mentor, Wally listens intently as André rambles on about the places he has been in the world and the things that he has seen. I think we’re supposed to take away from this movie that André has valiantly fighting the good fight in a world rapidly being overtaken by darkness. Wally has his horizons expanded beyond his original concern with the money to confront the wider problems in the world, as well as being invited to join the revolution of “true thinkers.”
Here’s an excerpt from a much longer conversation with my commentary indented. Wally is the quiet one. André talks constantly.
WALLY: [Quieter:] Well, why…why do you think that is? I mean, why is that? I mean, is it just because people are lazy today? Or they’re bored? I mean, are we just like bored, spoiled children who’ve just been lying in the bathtub all day just playing with their plastic duck and now they’re just thinking: “Well! what can I do?” (0:14)
ANDRE: Okay! Yes! We’re bored! We’re all bored now! But has it ever occurred to you, Wally, that the process that creates this boredom that we see in the world now may very well be a self-perpetuating, unconscious form of brain-washing, created by a world totalitarian government based on money?
Okay, I admit it. I thought this was an absurd suggestion. I had been outside of academic circles, living my life as Wally was living it, concerned, but not overly concerned, with money. When I had first gone to school I had been put off by the artificiality of the constructs by which academics posed questions, and I had been revolted by the answers that they gave.
But, moreover, in 1983 we were a long way away from “a world totalitarian government based on money.” I was learning to appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit, having gotten a job in a bank. The sense that entrepreneurship is the road to freedom has never left me. Sure, Ronald Reagan was president, but that didn’t mean that we were heading for a world totalitarian government. Reagan was intent on making sure that America stood in the world as the lone superpower.
It seemed to me that the difference between reality and the rhetoric of Apocalypse was getting stretched in My Dinner with André.
And that all of this is much more dangerous than one thinks.
This bit of paranoia reflected the interest of the general direction of the cultural response. And since it did not reflect my experience as one who had fled academia for the larger world of commerce, I was not amenable to what I’ve come to call “the paranoid response.” My general revulsion from “the paranoid response” ultimately drove me out of academia again after I had gone back and finished my dissertation.
And it’s not just a question of individual survival, Wally, but that somebody who’s bored is asleep, and somebody who’s asleep will not say “no”?
“The paranoid response” arose, I think, due to the failures of idealism to fulfill its promises. Having attempted to step away from the middle-class existence, which is concerned with money, the idealists had attempted to step into a higher plane” of existence (See my comment on Sheila in Hare Krishna).
Having eschewed the individual level of existence for the larger collective level, things are not making as much sense on the collective level as they should have. The individual has been weakened by the collective motion, and the collective motion is not holding up well. Rather than going back to the drawing board and refiguring the problem, André looks for a scapegoat.
See, I keep meeting these people, I mean, uh, just a few days ago I met this man whom I greatly admire, he’s a Swedish physicist, Gustav Björnstrand? And he told me that he no longer watches television, he doesn’t read newspapers and he doesn’t read magazines. He’s completely cut them out of his life, because he really does feel that we’re living in some kind of Orwellian nightmare now, and that everything that you hear now contributes to turning you into a robot!
More paranoia. It’s as if the new media (McLuhan) had turned from the Romantic miracle, breaking down walls of individual consciousness to form a more perfect global consciousness, to a consciousness which had lost much of its individuality. As a result, André has met someone who wants to maintain and protect his individuality from outside forces, which are closing in rapidly around him.
And when I was at Findhorn, I met this extraordinary English tree expert, who had devoted his life to saving trees. He just got back from Washington, lobbying to save the redwoods? He’s eighty-four years old and he always travels with a back-pack ’cause he never knows where he’s gonna be tomorrow!
Here we get hints of the coming globalization, which would overtake the world 20 years later, after Reagan had destroyed the Soviet Union and even the Chinese had became capitalists. The airlines are taught us to love travel. Now, our ability to travel the world round in a day had caused us pangs of regret. We had turned our back on our Romantic roots.
It was not that they these Romantic roots failed us. It was that we had been stretched too far by the conveniences of modern technology, and we need to get back to our “human” center. But the problems were becoming intractable. It was not simply a matter of going backwards in time. We needed to go forward with a new idea.
And when I met him at Findhorn he said to me: “Where are you from?” And I said: “New York.” He said: “Ah, New York! Yes, that’s a very interesting place. Do you know a lot of New Yorkers who keep talking about the fact that they want to leave but never do?” And I said: “Oh, yes!” And he said: “Why do you think they don’t leave?” I gave him different banal theories. He said: “Oh, I don’t think it’s that way at all.” He said: “I think that New York is the new model for the new concentration camp, where the camp has been built by the inmates themselves, and the inmates are the guards, and they have this pride in this thing they’ve built, they’ve built their own prison.
American cities as concentration camps were a big theme in 1981, the year that My Dinner with André came out. It was featured in Escape From New York, where the president is taken hostage in New York City and Kurt Russell has to go in to the walled-off enclosure and rescue him.
I wasn’t buying it. I was working in a bank, like T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. I never believed that banking held out the possibilities for long-term career. I just wasn’t interested in pursuing money as the end-point of my life. Although I was not obsessed with money, I was learning to appreciate that the pursuit of money was not worth pursuing as the end of life, but was nevertheless not all bad.
And so they exist in a state of schizophrenia, where they are both guards and prisoners. And as a result they no longer have, having been lobotomized, the capacity to leave the prison they’ve made, or to even see it as a prison.
They have lost the capacity to know. It’s always others who are losing the capacity to see. Not us.
This, it seems to me, is one of those rhetorical moves that separates things into distinct realms. Years later, when I read Jacques Derrida, I would learn to recognize such rhetorical realms as constructed, rather than natural. Derrida had said–and I’m not sure I entirely believe him here–that the mission of art was to undo the constructed hierarchies, unbuilding them, as it were, in order to get back to the natural order, which civilization had heaped upon we lowly humans. (See my discussion of Marshall McLuhan’s debt to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Ovid). Only after we had deconstructed the walls and barriers put up by an artificial civilization, could we attain our true position in the universe. Until that point, we must simply unbuild what others have built.
And then he went into his pocket and he took out a seed for a tree, and he said: “This is a pine tree.” He put it in my hand and he said: “Escape, before it’s too late.”
This bit of dialogue has come to remind me of Aristotle’s discussion of action and potentiality in trees. Aristotle talks about a tree having potential in its seed, but it is only when the seed blooms that it become a tree in action. In Aristotle, all that matters is the final stage in action. However, any human being, this active stage is caused by human cultivation and habit-forming, not by natural forces. Thus, unlike what we find in Plato, the active stage is an a posteriori stage.
In telling him to plant a seed, Gustav Björnstrand is telling André to escape the world, to go back to his true potential, just as Sheila gave up her middle-class twit existence to rise to her full potential as a goddess.
You see, actually, for two or three years now Chiquita and I have had this very unpleasant feeling that we really should get out. No, we really should feel like Jews in Germany in the late thirties? Get out of here! Of course, the problem is where to go, ’cause it seems quite obvious that the whole world is going in the same direction.
André continues on in this paranoid direction, bring his exotically named (girlfriend? wife?) Chiquita into the picture. The problem is where to go in the world (says the world traveler). They end up going into space (see below), because “the whole world is going in the same direction.”
It seems to me that this dialogue is based in Herbert Marcuse’s One-dimensional Man. In that book, Marcuse argues that technological man has become a prisoner of his one-dimensional view. There is another point of view out there, but the middle-class twits among us are too blind to see it. As an antidote to one-dimensional thinking, Marcuse proposes that we learn to think of both sides of every question.
And yet, by 1981, the idealist project of Marcuse was failing. And, once again, rather than re-think the entire idealist project from the ground up, the idealist had retrenched into their increasingly narrow community of like-minded people. How can we stop the madness? André asks. Who among us is brave enough to stop the world and get off?
You see, I think it’s quite possible that the nineteen-sixties represented the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished.
The self-centered sixties had a lot going for them. They thought they were closer than anyone in history had ever been before to finally resting content with their idealistic picture of the universe. And in a sense they were. But that last burst in the 1960s was like an asymptote on a physics graph. We could get close to the ideal, but we could never as human beings close the gap to truth. Therefore, just as Modernism was reaching its pinnacle, it was showing its cracks in its otherwise perfect façade.
And that this is the beginning of the rest of the future now, and that from now on there’ll simply be all these robots walking around, feeling nothing, thinking nothing. And there’ll be nobody left almost to remind them that there once was a species called a human being, with feelings and thoughts.
Really? That’s just crazy, Liz Lemon!
And that history and memory are right now being erased, and soon nobody will really remember that life existed on the planet!
James Joyce had said that history is a nightmare from which I am struggling to awake, or some such thing. This philosophical position has a lot of weight in the Modern period. See D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, where someone is talking about how the world would be so much better if only there weren’t all these people on it.
Now, of course, Björnstrand feels that there’s really almost no hope. And that we’re probably going back to a very savage, lawless, terrifying period.
Björnstrand is the figure of despair, offering no hope for humanity in general, and only a scarce chance that humanity could be saved by a determined few. Vico rears his ugly head, as civilization slips away from it once noble goals back to a “a very savage, lawless, terrifying period.”
That’s a lot for me to process, and it only makes sense if, in fact, Vico was right about world history and the development of culture. And I don’t think that Vico was right. This set me apart from my academic colleagues, who bought into the Vico-Herder mythology of language, culture, and world history, if not as true itself then true through metaphor.
Findhorn people see it a little differently. They’re feeling that there’ll be these “pockets of light” springing up in different parts of the world, and that these will be in a way invisible planets on this planet, and that as we, or the world, grow colder, we can take invisible space journeys to these different planets, refuel for what it is we need to do on the planet itself, and come back.
This is like what happens in “Walking in Space.” He endures pain, but he retreats to his mind. Mind comes to the rescue of the tired body! The ignorant pigs would’ve stayed home will have to be led by the intellectuals who have managed to take their journey forth to the outer (and “invisible”) planets and then come back with new invisible information.
Once again, this only makes sense if André is right about his position in the universe. Maybe it was because I work in a bank, admiring the life of entrepreneurs, but I have never divided my senses from my mind. This certainly condemned me in graduate school to be a character who could be mocked with impunity, since the first move in becoming an intellectual was to trade away your middle-class existence for a middle-class existence for an existence on the “higher” plane.
I took Derrida to mean that every false division that was piled upon human nature was artificial and that all artificial divisions could be rolled back. This included the division of mind and sense that is so trenchant among idealist philosophers. But, as I said in a previous post, Derrida is used to roll back most, but not all, of the artificial distinctions which we create. Those artificial creations which maintain the academic at the pinnacle of existence are allowed to stand, not because they are artificial creations, but because those divisions are secure divisions.
And this is exactly what Derrida was warning us about: cultures need to support their distinctions as if they were natural, despite the fact that they are as unnatural as can be. By such a movement, academics have managed to convince themselves that they have a natural right to lead the rest of us lowly pigs who do not even know what we don’t know. They have no natural rights at all in such a constructed universe. André, Gustav Björnstrand, and any academic who believes this claptrap are only fooling themselves.
And it’s their feeling that there have to be centers, now, where people can come and reconstruct a new future for the world.
Jane, you ignorant slut! In the Republic, Plato offers us offers us an intellectual class who leads the rest of the world. However, Socrates is wise enough to realize that his ideal world could only be perfect within the confines of his mind. Nevertheless, the situation of the world as it is is anathema good platonic idealists who are always hoping to realize their dreams of world domination in reality, rather than realizing that they are imagining a perfect world that is beyond them.
At the time, I was learning to appreciate the bottom up organizational structure put forward by Adam Smith.
And when I was talking to Gustav Björnstrand, he was saying that actually, these centers are growing up everywhere now! And that what they’re trying to do, which is what Findhorn was trying to do, and in a way what I was trying to do…I mean, these things can’t be given names, but in a way, these are all attempts at creating a new kind of school, or a new kind of monastery.
These things can’t be given names. This sounds a lot to me like the doctrine put forward in the 12th century by Abelard, to good effect and carried forth until the nominalists foundered upon the shoals of their own arguments. Look what happened to those nominalists if you want to see the future of present-day idealism.
What did happen to the nominalists was that they found an idea that initially led them to believe that they had found a natural road back to God. But in the end, they found that, despite the fact that they could develop an extraordinarily elaborate system of thought, that system of thought had begun to spring leaks, and rather than starting over from the bottom of the system, as Bacon and Descartes were to do by shifting away from a top-down idealist point of view to a bottoms-up practical and scientific point of view, they began patching leaks in their old idealist system.
And Björnstrand talks about the concept of reserves, islands of safety, where history can be remembered, and the human being can continue to function in order to maintain the species through a dark age.
And there it is: we are heading back into the Dark Ages (which ended with Abelard, incidentally.)
In other words we’re talking about an underground, which did exist in a different way during the Dark Ages among the mystical orders of the Church. And the purpose of this underground is to find out how to preserve the light, life, the culture. How to keep things living.
My training in the scholasticism of the Middle Ages convinces me that the learning preserved in the Middle Ages was pagan, but at the time I had not been in college. This meant that I was reading other books. The book I would read a year later, Christianity and Classical Culture by Charles Norris Cochrane, was when the most important works, if not the most important work, I ever read in my life.
I’ll review it later on more fully, but it was not based in the idealistic tradition that was current in the culture in 1981. Thus, when I got to working on my doctorate, and I told one of my advisors how heavily I was relying on Cochrane to make my point, he replied that he knew of the book, but that he rented only quickly for his doctoral exams.
“How to keep things living,” struck me then, as it strikes me now, as a ridiculous thing to say. Things will keep living, won’t they? This convinces me—whatever Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Derrida believe—that there’s nothing particularly “natural” about human society. Humans will survive “naturally.” If we have to have something more than mere survival for us to consider ourselves as surviving, then this is a matter of learned behavior.
You see, I keep thinking that what we need is a new language, a language of the heart, languages in the Polish forest where language wasn’t needed.
I see. We need a new language. Now this is a very romantic notion. It relies on the same basis as Derrida’s work. Derrida had said that we need to tear our complete “historico-metaphysical” framework down and start all over. Once again, this only makes sense if, in fact, Derrida is right and we can tear down the walls and start all over.
But if Derrida is right, then why does he not start this project himself. Instead, he defers his project to other men. He can only point the way to the final solution. But the final solution itself is (supposedly) stable, as indicated by the great works of literature, from the end of Dante’s Paradiso, to Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium, to the final “yes” in Joyce’s Ulysses.
But despite all this cultural baggage pushing us towards our idealistic solution, we could not yet rest content. There was still something missing.
Some kind of language between people that is a new kind of poetry, that’s the poetry of the dancing bee that tells us where the honey is.
Vico reappears, again. We have traded away our reason—an operation that requires sorting out
various relativistic points of view—for an operation that relies on pure (and natural) instinct. In my mind, this is a flaw in the idealistic system, not an asset.
And I think that in order to create that language, you’re going to have to learn how you can go through a looking glass into another kind of perception, where you have that sense of being united to all things. And suddenly, you understand everything.
The Doors of Perception—a book by Aldous Huxley—had been restored to their rightful place in the canon. The Romantic connection between the daily life of man and the far broader and more complete realm of symbol has been restored to its proper place in the universe. So nothing more was needed, just a more forceful reassertion of what (I thought I still think) was a failing (not a rising) ideal.
But for Louis Male, the problem was not the idea of idealism itself. The problem was with those piggish men who ground way in the trenches, attempting to make more money out of their interior blindness. Once again, it was someone else’s fault. Not a failing of the idealist André. And not a failing of humanity itself, which had grasped after something higher than itself/ourselves.
As I would come to learn in charting the failure of the Middle Ages to achieve its metaphysical goals, metaphysics is always incomplete. This is the point of St. Augustine’s Confessions: that we rely on faith in God, rather than reasoning towards God, to secure our place in the universe. To me, My Dinner with André seems to have engaged in a bit too much scapegoating and too little introspection about its own goals.
The problem was the interference of imagination with the true ideal. It was that imagination that had interposed itself between the “lower” individual (André) and the “higher” universal form, into which Sheila passes when she becomes a goddess. André has wept because, he says, “I could always live in my art, but never in my life.” And rather than turning to himself back to his individual life for answers, he points at others to explain why his individual life has not got the force and power that he can imagine it to have when it is elevated to the higher plane.
This is not the same as Zelig’s naïve innocence that spreads itself outward from his individuality, so that he loses his individuality but becomes an “everyman.” Male’s movie represents the rising of a more cynical take on the failings of idealism.
[Pause. Floor and street sounds.]
For me personally, who was confronting the passing of Modernism on my own, without the help of academics tell me where to turn, I thought that My Dinner with André was far too cynical. I was still preparing to find some answers to the great questions by looking into the books of Joseph Campbell. The experiment would end in failure, but not without transforming me from a boy could not even read a single article in Time magazine without a dictionary to a man who had confronted not only the highest ideals of Modernism, but one of the most pressing questions: how could I know that Joseph Campbell wasn’t making it all up, since he couldn’t guarantee access the human center?
WAITER: Are you ready for some desert?
But for Louis Mall, this is was enough. Wally had come to meet André, and had been presented with an hour and a half of arguments and adventures which broadened his horizons considerably beyond his initial concern with money. The meal had been presented, and after this presentation, it was simply time for dessert.
For me, who had dropped out of college looking for answers to questions that were not forthcoming in college, I was more concerned with raising up (Derrida-like) what had been suppressed, not in society in general, but in the academic community. I was looking for a complete system, not one in which only one dimension had been represented. I was more concerned with asking about Wally’s unspoken existence than I was in asking about André’s fully-disclosed existence.