Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Estimating the Beast - on Stage and Screen

I return again to the British philosopher John Gray’s contention that we humans have very much overestimated our own importance. I believe he is correct in his view that we should call ourselves “human animals” rather than “human beings” because the latter term is an overloaded one which carries many of our presuppositions and indeed prejudices about our so-called superior abilities. We are “social animals” as Aristotle put it. Once again, with other philosophers, we could say that we are “thinking animals” also to demarcate us further from our animal brothers and sisters. We certainly may be “sapiens” or “clever” but we still belong very much to the animal kingdom, sharing with them all our earthly and earthy bodily functions and desires. That, of course, is not to say that we are solely animal, but that we are such with some higher aspirations - mainly cultural where, for these purposes here, I take the religious and spiritual urges to be very much cultural phenomena.

Christianity, aided and abetted by ancient Greek philosophy, proceeded to elaborate the dualism of Body and Soul early in its development as a new religion. Such a dualism, spearheaded by such luminaries as St Paul and St Augustine, began to stress the evilness of the Body versus the purity of the Soul. Indeed, the Soul became a unique entity inhabiting the latter. Not only that, but the Soul could be contaminated by the evil desires of the Body. The Cartesian dualism of the seventeenth century continued with this divorce between Body and Soul under the guise of Body and Mind. Essentially, then in the West the human entity was seen as a sort of split or schizophrenic entity comprising a Soul or Mind or Personality inhabiting the shell of the Body. Please note that I have made no attempt to distinguish between Soul, Mind and Personality for this post, though I fully realise that there are many subtle differences in their nuanced meanings. However, such an elaboration is beyond my scope here and adds little or nothing to my basic contention: that we split the human reality into two separate and distinct entities and that such a splitting was and still is too casually embraced.

Now I must allude to the significance of my title. I refer therein to a play and a video both of which I viewed over a two day period - hence, the allusion to stage and screen. Last Thursday I accompanied some friends to see Daphne Du Maurier’s enthralling short gothic tale of mystery and suspense, The Birds, dramatised by our own brilliant Irish playwright Conor McPherson for production on the stage of The Gate theatre. The publicity for this play informs us that The Birds is an unrelenting and spellbinding portrait of terror and alienation and that it is one of the highlights of the theatrical year.

I’ve got to admit that I would not quite see it as one of the highlights of the theatrical year, but readily agree that it is is an unrelenting and spellbinding portrait of terror and alienation. The Birds was originally a short story by Daphne du Maurier that Hitchcock made into a masterpiece of film. Like Hitchcock, McPherson picks up where the original story left off. Three characters become marooned in a house under siege by a flock of wild angry birds. Every day the birds move out to the sea and sit menacingly on the surf. At night, enraged, they attack anything and everything. However, we soon realise that our three characters plus the farmer who makes an all too brief appearance are possibly the last survivors in the country, if not the world.

What made this play brilliant I feel is the strong cast of actors who dramatised a moderately good script superbly. Diane (who is played masterfully by Sinéad Cusack) is anxiously waiting for Nat to come in (Ciarán Hinds, who also puts in a splendid performance). Then we meet Julia (Denise Gough), who has just escaped from an attempted sexual assault. A little later we meet the elusive and shotgun-carrying farmer who wears a basket-like mask over his face. He is played wonderfully by While I don’t agree with much of John McAuley’s sentiments and his irreverent and biting negativity about the play, I do concur with his views that McPherson, as a philosopher - he has an M.A in this subject - brings in philosophical and theological musings on the nature of human life and that of the universe all too peremptorily in this play. Here is what McAuley says:

McPherson’s script turned to God and mortality, which I expected, but these themes seemed like forced provocation. In reality the connection was too tenuous.

However, as an erstwhile theologian and amateur philosopher, I readily take to any such theologising and philosophising - I’m a hopeless addict in these matters. At one stage in the play, Diane, the famous writer muses in her diary how morality - all morality, and not just the morality of whether it was the farmer or Nat who made Julia pregnant - just does not matter now in a world which is fast approaching its end. This is a world that is bereft of hope as it seems the human species is about to die out. Meaninglessness reigns against the indifference of nature which is now remorselessly attacking and eating the last humans on the planet.

The bird sounds are done wonderfully in this play, but unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, the audience soon forgets about them and their terrorising of the last few humans left. The play swiftly becomes one about human identity and meaning, about what it really means to be human as it analyses in action, interaction and monologue (Diane's diary entries, which are perhaps a little contrived, and are a vehicle for Mc Pherson's philosophical musings) the final moments of the human race. Quite clearly morality and ethics are social constructs, ones that occur in civilised societies, but when such societies break down these become irrelevant and so meaningless.

Now, in this rather meandering post, I move on to treat of my second media piece - the film The Reader which I viewed in DVD. This is a wonderful film based on the novel The Reader (Der Vorleser) by German law professor and judge Bernhard Schlink. It was published in Germany in 1995 and in the United States (translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway) in 1997. It deals with the difficulties which subsequent generations have in comprehending the Holocaust; specifically, whether a sense of its origins and magnitude can be adequately conveyed solely through written and oral media. This question is increasingly at the center of Holocaust literature in the late 20th and early 21st century, as the victims and witnesses of the Holocaust die and its living memory begins to fade. Without a doubt we need to revisit the moral and ethical questions associated with this period of history. We study history in an effort not to repeat it, though, alas and alack, we seem to be good at repeating crimes against humanity. Since the Second World War a catalogue of horrors, committed by humanity against itself, has occurred. We seem doomed as a species not to learn from our mistakes. That's why such books as Schlink's and its film version are necessary to provoke our consciences into considering the motivations to evil that lie at the heart of being human. In that way, we may begin to act in a more wholesome and ethical manner towards our brothers and sisters in the human race.

The film version, directed by Stephen Daldry, was released in December 2008. Kate Winslet played Hanna,with David Kross as the young Michael and Ralph Fiennes as the older man. Bruno Ganz and Lena Olin played supporting roles. It was nominated for 5 AcademyAwards including Best Picture. Winslet won the Oscar for leading actress. A brief synopsis of both book and film would run as follows. A middle aged German barrister, called Michael Berg, recollects and muses on his adolescent and passionate affair with Hanna Schmitz, a relationship he has never disclosed to anyone close to him. Michael first met Hanna in 1958, when he was fifteen and she thirty-six. The two had a turbulent and passionate love affair for that summer. Their encounters would begin with his reading to her followed by lovemaking. All this time Hanna loved to have her young lover read the best of classic and German literature to her. Hence the title. Michael next encountered Hanna in 1966, when he, now a law student, attended the Nazi war crimes trial of six female former S.S. concentration camp guards, one of whom is Hanna. Needless to say, he is bowled over to find his former lover on trial for war crimes. His conscience is further troubled by the fact that he had fallen madly in love with a perpetrator of heinous crimes. Also, through listening to the testimony, Michael comes to the realization that he is in possession of information which could save Hanna from a life in prison, information which she herself is unwilling to disclose. In deciding what to do, Michael is torn between his differing views of justice. He decides to remain silent and not to reveal this piece of information - namely that Hannah was, in fact, illiterate. During her trial, she had an opportunity to save herself from a life-long sentence by admitting that she could not have written the report on the burning of several hundred Jews in a church, given that she could neither read or write. She found it far too embarrassing to reveal this long-hidden secret to the court, and elected instead not to opt for a sample of her writing to be taken, but rather to state falsely that she had indeed authored the report. That being illiterate was a more heinous fault than that of being responsible for the death of hundreds of human beings certainly is inconceivable and astounding to this writer at least, and is perhaps a glaring psychologic weakness in both book and film.

However, both play and film raise those big ethical and moral questions about the provenane of evil, whether they can really be explained away by neat theological arguments about a good God allowing humankind the freedom to commit evil deeds. Moreover, they both pose the hard questions which we need to ask of ourselves again and again. Let's not take refuge in neat theological or religious answers, or even philosophical ones on an abstract level. What we need to ask are the harder existential questions like:Have we really overestimated both the abilities and indeed the moral capacities of human beings? Do we expect too much from human beings? Are we in truth a complex mixture of good and evil, which are themselves merely human categories after all? Maybe there is no such thing as a disembodied abbstraction like good or like evil? Maybe we have overestimated our significance as human animals after all? What, after all, is so special about the human animal above and beyond other animals? Maybe we are only swallowing our own lies about our very nature, done up to meet the eye in either theological or religious or philosophical or scientific garb? Maybe in estimating the beast that each of us is at base we have overestimated our moral and ethical capacity as well as our intellectual one? Maybe, just maybe, we believe our own lies about ourselves far too readily indeed? As a wise person once said: "Be slow to point the finger as three point back at yourself."

That's why we need good plays, good films, good novels and poems, and indeed art in general - to shake us out of our complacency, to force us to ask the difficult questions and not be content with the easy answers of either our inherited presuppositions or engrained prejudices.