Hell of High Water – a movie review

Hell or High Water: a movie review


Howard Adelman

There is a very revealing scene in the movie that we saw last evening, Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie. Jeff Bridges, a crusty retiring Texas ranger, Marcus Hamilton, and his partner, the Comanche Texas ranger, Alberto, played with puritanical stoicism by Gil Birmingham, are riding in their police vehicle attempting to track down two men responsible for a series of bank robberies in western Texas. They are stopped on the highway by old-style cowboys herding their cattle across the blacktop in flight from a prairie grass fire. This is the new West – of oil rigs (and wind energy towers, the latter not seen in the movie because the film was shot in New Mexico). The cowboy tells Jeff Bridges that this is a hell of a way to make a living. “It’s the 21st century. No wonder my kid doesn’t wanna do this shit!”

The movie title harks back to a time when the expression was not “in”, “come” or even the more modern, “through” hell or high water, but just hell or high water. It was a period at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century when ranch hands drove their longhorns to rail heads through the high water of river crossings rather than travel long distances across a parched landscape to find shallows where they could ford the stream with ease. All obstacles, however high, are surmountable. Attacking them head on is a better choice than the hell of taking a circuitous route. This was the ethos of the cowboy. But it is also the grand metaphor of the film. For these Texan white males, there seems to be only two options – they are either struggling to surmount incredible obstacles or they live in a hell of their own and their society’s making.

Texas may still be gun country, but it is no longer cowboy country. Instead of the broad immense rich blue sky of Texas, black clouds from the grass fire blot out much of the sky. The atmosphere is one of gloom, despair and hopelessness. What we are watching is the death of a whole way of life with its deteriorating small towns and crotchety elders. The Texas of the old West is decaying in full view as we watch the strange beauty of this hard-crusted landscape and the human flotsam left over who spend their time shooting at each other in a state where even old men doing banking carry a gun and are ready to use it. “When I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I take along Samuel Colt.” (Dust of the Chase)

In another insightful vignette, the two rangers stop to eat at an old-fashioned restaurant called the T-Bone, evidently the only eatery in town. The crotchety old waitress (Margaret Bowman), who has been waiting tables for eons (the actress is 84 years old and deserves an Oscar for her brilliant brief performance), asks the two what they don’t want. The two rangers look first puzzled and then downright totally bewildered. She says that the only thing they serve is T-bone steak. It comes with green beans and a baked potato. Which of the two choices, if any, does each of the rangers want to leave out? As an aside, the old crone tells them that she once had a customer from New York who asked for trout.

I cannot recall her words disparaging the New Yorker, but I immediately thought of how rural America and the rust belt elected Donald Trump and thumbed their noses at the sophisticates of urban America.

Hell or High Water is a study in contemporary rural cultural geography and in character revealed as much through all the silences as the witty dialogue of Taylor Sheridan’s script. There is almost no plot. Of the two brothers who are the bank robbers, Toby (Chris Pine) is a divorced father with two sons with a sense of his own personal failure. As the movie unfolds, it becomes evident that he is driven by a determination that his own sons will not face the same bleak existence that he and his brother, Tanner, did. The latter (Ben Foster) is an ex-con who served ten years in prison. He “double crossed the State of Texas and they gave (him) a little time.” (Dust of the Chase) He is the wild card of the pair. A sociopath whose only moral compass seems to be loyalty to his younger brother, Tanner is the foil to the deeply pained and suffering persona of Toby, so steeped in guilt and a sense of failing to fulfill his responsibilities. The two rob a series of branches of the West Midland Bank. Two rangers chase them down. The end of Tanner is foreshadowed in the lyrics of Dust of the Chase.

“When the times at hand and I kill a man, I say a little prayer.
I come down from Oklahoma with a pistol in my boot
A pair of dice, a deck of cards and a bible in my suit
How small a part of time we share ’till we hear the sound of wings
I’m lost in the dust of the chase that my life brings.”

That’s it. That is the plot. However, all four characters are united by one theme – they are all lonesome would-be cowboys, except perhaps for the Comanche ranger, who evidently has an extensive and close family off screen, but has to spend his professional life being teased in a politically incorrect manner by Jeff Bridges about his half-breed nature as an Indian and a Mexican. This film pays ironic veneration to stubborn individualism writ large, individualism as atomic as it gets. In the lyrics of From My Cold Dead Hands:

“Do what I wanna do
Say what I wanna say
They wanna take it away
From my cold dead hands
The price of being free
And what it means to me
They wanna take it away.”

It is clear throughout the movie that the ranger, Marcus, really loves his partner, Alberto. That is verified near the end of the movie. But instead of intimacy between the two, there is only mutual razzing and the entertainment of dissing. The two brothers also love one another. In one scene, they even engage in some physical play and shoving. But that is the closest one views any caring between two humans. In another scene, Toby sits in the scrabbly backyard of his ex-wife’s home and talks to his son, from whom he is clearly estranged. Toby asks after his son’s brother (he’s at a friend’s house), but cannot express his deep love for his boys except through his efforts to rob banks to ensure his mother’s ranch, which has oil under its ground, is inherited by the boys, debt free. For it is the bank that is viewed as responsible for his troubles, for its efforts,

“to hold us,
Held by our necks.” (From My Cold Dead Hands)

There is no sense of love between a man and a woman in the whole movie. Near the beginning of the film, the lyrics to Mama’s Love portray the situation of a character who cannot sleep at night when the pain comes out, who has sex only to use a woman. The song begins:

“Something’s got my fear,
And then won’t get through my head,
But there’s something missing,
There’s something missing here.
Here I go again,
React without a plan, oh,
But there’s something missing,
There’s something missing here.”

And it is conveyed in the lyrics of You Asked Me To.

“Feel simple love is simple true
There’s no end to what I’d do
Just because you asked me.”

No male-female love, of either son to mother or between a man and his “gal.” Just chasing one’s tail and watching and waiting.

In another scene, the rangers view a tele-evangelist in their motel room. Jeff Bridges opines, “He wouldn’t know God if God crawled up his pant leg and bit his pecker.” In the land of evangelical rural America, there is really no depth of faith, only religion as entertainment. God has become a snake who does not entice men into sex, but bites off a man’s penis.

But there is deep love in the movie, even though it is repressed and deformed. The father, Toby, is devoted to his two boys even though he cannot connect with them. He is attached at the heel to his sociopathic brother. Toby and Tanner clearly love one another and are willing to sacrifice their lives for each other. The two rangers, Marcus and Alberto, even though they pretend to have only disdain for one another, also share a deep love as confirmed in the climatic last scene. When Marcus learns the reason for the robberies, in the post-climactic encounter between Marcus and Toby, Marcus seems to have learned to replace his desire for revenge with a respect and even concern for the bank robber who got away. Toby in turn invites Marcus to drop in to his place in town for a drink.

The devil, as in all the old Western movies, is still the bank, in this case, the Midland Western Bank and the four branches the two brothers rob to “earn” enough money to pay off the reverse mortgage and the back taxes owed by their recently deceased mother, the same Midland Western Bank that moved to foreclose on the mother’s ranch after oil was discovered on the property. The film seems both contemporary as well as lifted from the dirty thirties. The instinct for survival is the dominant motive for living, even when Tanner is engaged in futile self-defence. The brothers simply try to retrieve what they feel is owed them from the institutions that seem to have betrayed them so much. The politics of resentment is on full display.

I cannot recall a film where the movie with such sparse (and very witty) dialogue relied so fully on the soundtrack of songs (evidently available in a separate CD), most by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The songs drive home the full meaning of the movie. The titles are an indication:

1. Comancheria (the original film title, the locale in Texas and New Mexico)
2. Dollar Bill Blues (Tones Van Zandt)
3. Mama’s Room (Aaron Bruno, Jamin Wilcox, Drew James Stewart)
4. Dust of the Chase (Billy Jo Shaver and Ray Waylon Hubbard)
5. Texas Midlands
6. Robbery
7. You Ask Me To (Waylon Jennings)
8. Mountain Lion Mean
9. Sleeping on the Blacktop (Colter Wall)
10. From My Cold Dead Hands
11. Lord of the Plains
12. Blood, Sweat and Murder (Scott H. Biram)
13. Casino
14. Comancheria II
15. Outlaw State of Mind
16. Hate Me (Christopher Fronzak, Sean Heenan, Christopher Link, Nader Salameh and Kalen Biehm)
17. Bakerman (John Guldberg, Tim Stahl and Arthur Stander)
18. Playing the Part (Jamey Johnson and Shane Minor)
19. You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ (Billy Jo Shaver)
20. I’m Not Afraid to Die (Gillian Welch)

The twenty titles alone provide the whole plot and the settings for the various scenes. In the song, Commancheria, a simple chord progression with pauses, carries with it a sense of longing and a lost world. As Alberto, the Comanche ranger, tells Marcus, my people once owned all this land. You dispossessed us and now you are being dispossessed by the oil companies and the financiers.

The lyrics of Dollar Bill Blues start with the chorus:
“If I had a dollar bill
Yes, I believe I surely will
Go to town and drink my fill
Early in the morning.”

The song then refers to a darling as a “red-haired thing” who makes my legs sing and a golden girl mother, whose throat he slit. There’s only going down and no saving of one’s soul.

Hell or High Water is a bleak and melancholic western presented with a sense of humour and irony. Released in August, it is now available on Netflix or I-Tube, I cannot recall which. Much better than a tele-evangelist!


Chayei Sarah – The Life of Sarah: Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

Chayei Sarah – The Life of Sarah: Genesis 23:1 – 25:18


Howard Adelman

See Rachel Adelman (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDz_isnR0RI) “Reading Rebekah Unveiled: A Study of the Female Ruse in Genesis” presented at the Harvard Divinity School last spring.

There is nothing original in my interpretation, in contrast to that of my daughter. I simply fuse her innovative reading with those of others and my own. I steal freely from my daughter, but I take full responsibility for what I have written. Though there are differences over the particulars, the general meaning is more or less clear and my take is not idiosyncratic. The parsha is called, “The Life of Sarah,” but it is really about her afterlife and the heritage she left behind, both through her only son Isaac and herself as resurrected in Rebekah. For the parsha is about both Abraham’s negotiations for a burial space for Sarah after Sarah died as well as about obtaining a wife for Isaac and its consequence. It is about the meaning of Sarah’s life as it is revealed in the unveiling of spirit as it is realized in history after her death.

Sarah dies in Kiryat Arba, in Hebron. Sarah is buried there in the Cave of Machpelah with the permission of the local people who offer not only the cave, but the field around it to Abraham who is by then a wealthy and notable person. However, Abraham refuses to accept the grave site as a gift and insists on paying for it. To repeat what I have written before, this is an axial moment of the shift from a shame culture to a guilt culture. Some of the local people of Canaan, specifically the Hittites, may have converted to the belief in a single God. Yet what is now called the West Bank is not seen as a place from which a proper wife can be found for Isaac. Isaac is not allowed to have a bride from the local people. The locals, even when they have adopted the beliefs of the Hebrews, are not into a contractual system. They look askance at getting 400 shekels from Abraham for the burial site. Ephron initially treats the offer as an insult. But Abraham insists on paying the money. He wants a contract, a quid pro quo. With contracts there is guilt, either before the law or in moral terms, for failing to fulfil the terms of the contract.

Yet, Abraham wants a wife for Isaac who does not have initially to be observant, but one who is akin to his own beautiful wife, Sarah, someone from his own homeland. Isaac really loved his mother. Three years after she died, he is still mourning her death. He needs a wife, but he needs a wife to replace and fill his soul as his mother had. His mother had been dedicated to him, her long promised son, born of her old age. But she could not prevent her husband from taking him off to sacrifice him. And she dies when her husband and son return. From the shock of his return? Is that why she dies? Or is she the real sacrifice so that her son may finally leave his studies and his prayers and go in search of a wife to replace the love she had for him. It is ironic that a child named after laughter turns out to be studious, pious and introverted.

Sarah’s death produces in her other-worldly nerdy son a desire for a wife, a desire for a woman that can fill his mother’s shoes. Isaac is a momma’s boy. Sarah sacrifices herself for the future of her son. And Abraham sends his most trusted servant to organize an arranged marriage between Isaac and someone from the homeland, the place of his and Sarah’s birth. Unlike the tradition of arranged marriages, this is a love story, a story of two who contract the marriage themselves in spite of whatever external arrangements have been made.

Eliezer, Abraham’s most trusted servant, travels to Mesopotamia to seek a wife for Isaac. Before Eliezer can arrange a shidduch, organize an arranged marriage, he sees Rebekah at the well at dusk when the women draw their water. Rebekah happens to be the niece of Abraham. the daughter of Bethuel, son of Milkah, who was the wife of Abraham’s brother, Nahor. Rebekah offers Eliezer not only water from her jar, but also water for all his camels. That is about 250 gallons; she has to draw all that water. Camels can really drink water! Eliezer is overwhelmed. Rebekah has passed the test of loving kindness.

Rebekah is unique in the Torah. She is the only one of the matriarchs who is given a family tree and is chosen as the real mother of the Jewish people. She is the essence of the Jewish people – giving to another out of sheer goodwill. Only then does Eliezer learn that she is related to Abraham. Rebekah’s older brother was Lavan. Eliezer tells Lavan of the dowry that awaits Rebekah if he agrees to give Rebekah as Isaac’s wife. But Lavan knows his sister’s character, her independence of mind, forthrightness and wilfulness, even though she is also kind-hearted. He knows he cannot force her to leave her homeland. And he asks Eliezer, what if she chooses not to come? Eliezer replies that it will depend on God’s will, with the implication that God’s spirit will speak through her actions. It does. She is asked whether she will go to a new land, to Isaac. She, without hesitation, says, “I will go.”

She and Isaac fall in love, but not because the two are related. That is only revealed later. But because they are related, the love may have come easier. Isaac falls in love with Rebekah. Rebekah in turn loves Isaac. The love seems instant. But is it? How does it come about?

Look at the way they first see each other. Isaac continues and is heir to the blindness of Adam and in his old age he will actually be physically blind when he has to give the blessing to one of his own sons. For when Isaac first sees Rebekah, he does not actually see her. He sees camels approaching in the distance and the picture is a haze produced by the sand of the camels’ feet. He sees patience and tolerance. He sees long-suffering and endurance. He sees the Ships of the Desert. In that haze is the hidden Rebekah, someone who is calm and collected, direct and responsive on the surface, but underneath is resolute and will never forget. She will protect and eventually realize what is deepest in her heart, not with malice aforethought, but through cunning and subversion. Finally, she will carry that burden of trickery on her shoulders so that her son Jacob will not be burdened with the guilt of tricking his father. She will be the true purveyor of what it means to belong to a guilt culture.

Isaac, on the other hand, is walking with his camels. Rebekah can clearly see him. She is struck in awe. She knows. But knows as Eve knew in a deeper way than requiring any direct test or examination. Though she has the ability of this inner sight, it is she who is attuned to the smell of the camels, the taste of the sand, and the rest of the unforgettable sensuous experience of that first moment.

Rebekah covers her face, but in embarrassment, not in shame. She is awestruck. And the gesture will adumbrate her whole marriage with Isaac. For although she never surrenders her esteem for him, for his holy ways, for his learning, she herself will reveal that she has a more direct access to God. She need not receive instructions or revelations from Isaac. She can get them directly from God. But she must also veil this non-rational, non-deliberative direct intuitive contact with the spiritual world. That part of herself must remain hidden from Isaac. She does not don a naqib because her parents tell her, but to hide her awe, to hide her embarrassment at her flushed cheeks and feelings, and most of all, to hide that SHE KNOWS. For a woman of audacity even as a young teenager, of decisiveness and one who clearly knows her own mind, she also has to hide her superior access to God’s word in spite of her enormous respect for her husband.

One cannot avoid that the story is about love. But what kind of love? For Rebekah it is love at first sight. This is the only real love story in the whole of Torah. Yet the section is called “The Life of Sarah”. Last week I jumped ahead to understand Sarah’s death to comprehend her character and the role she plays. But this tale ends up being about the lifelong love story between Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac loves Rebekah all his life. The parsha is not ostensibly about Sarah. Yet it is called the story of the life of Sarah when it is about what happens after Sarah dies. But it is a story of how love begins and grows between Rebekah and Isaac. He not only never takes another wife, he never sleeps with another woman. What has this love story to do with Sarah’s death?

Because Rebekah is very forthright, though also very modest, she literally falls for Isaac at first sight. She falls off her camel and then puts on her veil to hide her flushed cheeks. She is embarrassed at what she feels. She is also afraid – not of Isaac, but at what she is feeling. Instead of Abraham’s fear and trembling when he takes Isaac to fill the command of the sacrifice, we have awe and embarrassment.

Isaac, is also overwhelmed by her kindness, by her loving kindness, her hesed. Though she is described as beautiful, he cannot see that physical beauty since she wears a veil, but he does see the beauty of her character. The match is beshert. It was meant to be. So though there is an element of preparation, of calculation and judgement by Abraham’s servant, a response to what is observed, what basically happens is that each is struck with Cupid’s arrow. They barely talk to one another. He knows but requires evidence to come to that knowledge, the very evidence Abraham’s servant brings back to Canaan. It is akin to the same type of empirical evidence that will later fool him when he gives his blessing to Jacob rather than Esau. Though they love one another, Rebekah is also the trickster without whom Isaac could not have fulfilled his mission. Requiring evidence is Isaac’s weakness.

Rebekah, in contrast, knows directly. She does not need evidence. But why for Isaac is she the right one? She is a woman from Abraham’s homeland in Mesopotamia and not yet a follower of Abraham’s faith in the belief in the one God. Isaac is religious and sees her after he finished his afternoon prayers. He does not fall in love because she observes the same faith in the one God, but because she comes from the same homeland as Sarah. And because she is a very kind woman. She is sensitive. She can pick up social cues that go beneath appearances. But like Abraham, resolutely and immediately, she decides to leave her homeland as a young teenager to return with Isaac. She is very decisive. She is very straight. She knows what she wants. There is no hesitation. The spirit of Abraham is now to be transmitted through Rebekah even though Isaac is the pious one.

Isaac and Rebekah remain faithful to one another their whole lives. It is indeed a love story. But this is not because they were totally compatible. They are not. They come from opposite poles of human existence. They are two very different characters. Isaac is other-worldly. Rebekah is very grounded. Further, Rebekah has to trick Isaac – this other-worldly nerd – into giving his blessing to Jacob and not to Esau. Isaac is a social conformist who believes in continuing the tradition of bestowing the blessing on the older one. But Rebekah, like Abraham, is the rebel. Primogeniture be damned. She knows what social science and psychology will discover in the twentieth century, that first-borns tend to be rash and adventurous – they become the fighter pilots. Second-borns have a propensity to be more reflective, more contemplative, more cautious.

Rebekah chooses Isaac to get the blessing, not because she does not love Esau, her other twin and older son. But she is the one with common sense who recognizes the child who can best carry the future of a people on his shoulders. Rebekah is not only the epitome of loving kindness, but she is shrewd and calculating, careful to take into account the best interests of her family and both her children. She knows what Isaac can never know even with all his time spent in study.

Rebekah, however, is not the woman who divides her family, but the one who yokes the two different peoples that will arise from her children. As her name suggests, she is the link that ties differences together, between her and her husband and between her two very different sons. She recognizes the real differences between the twins. She is the true visionary. But she will pay for her sin of foresight by assuming the guilt for the trick played on Isaac. She remains to the very end a woman of virtue, a woman wiling to give of herself for the future.

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything


Howard Adelman

My last blog claimed that The Imitation Game was a summer romance and a few readers thought I was belittling the film. I was not. I really enjoyed the movie and thought it was terrific. However, if a viewer allows the deformations from reality – and there are too many to ignore – to spoil the pleasure of a biopic movie, then that is a pity. For the movie is a very well-made parable and is structured like the mythos of a fairy tale. Northrop Frye taught us that, whatever the variations, fictional structures fell into four archetypes. He dubbed one type “summer romances”. The Imitation Game about the life of Alan Turing fell perfectly into such a structure. So does another film that we watched the next evening and also missed when it first came out, The Theory of Everything. Understanding a movie’s structure greatly enriches the experience of watching it.

A summer romance has one key characteristic – there is always a search. The search is for some idyllic entity associated with a particular space. In the case of the movie about Alan Turing, the search is for a universal thinking machine as a means of unlocking the codes of the Nazi enigma machine.  What makes The Theory of Everything perhaps even more interesting is that the search is not just for an idyllic tool as a method for breaking through a mystery that we are faced with – an encrypted code – but the quest by one of the greatest mathematician’s and theorists, Stephen Hawking (played with brilliance by Eddie Redmayne), to understand all of space itself as he searches for and writes about the nature of time itself. Stephen Hawking wants to find the perfect single equation that will explain everything.

Note the characteristics of both films. The effort is persistent, driven even. No scepticism will inhibit the quest however impossible the task seems at first. The object of the quest always has a sense of the idyllic about it. Further, the central characters in the story are a virtuous hero and a beautiful heroine – not just physically beautiful, though she is usually that. She must be spiritually beautiful. In The Imitation Game, Jane Clarke is without a doubt such a heroine. In The Theory of Everything, Jane (yes, another Jane) Wilde played by Felicity Jones, again with exceptional mastery of her craft, is a heroine that falls into the same category. She loves Stephen Hawking and sacrifices her own career and vision to be married to him and to have his children (three in the end) even though Stephen suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease and the onset is quite swift just as the romance is budding.

Like The Imitation Game, the story is, in Stephen Hawking’s words, only “broadly true”. The distortion from reality is not simply to please a broader audience as some condescending critics aver, but because fiction has its own demands and without fitting into one structure or another, it is difficult to enjoy a movie or a play or a novel. So the hard times that Stephen and his wife Jane went through are alluded to without becoming the focus of the film. As with The Imitation Game, the script is an adaptation from a book, this time an autobiography rather than a biography, Jane Hawking’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen which, helpfully, had the same romantic structure.

If Alan Turing had to succeed in spite of his homosexuality in a society that deemed such activities as not only morally corrupt but illegal, Stephen Hawking had to deal with a very different but also naturally endowed enormous challenge, his disease. Unlike The Imitation Game where the disability is a socio-political one rather than a natural one, in The Theory of Everything, the movie has to spend the first 15-30 minutes establishing the main character as a physically healthy being who will be crippled by his disease but never brought low. So, as the credits role, we watch a young Stephen Hawking cavorting about when he is with his parents in the most formal of settings. And the film begins with him and his friend on bicycles racing through the streets of Cambridge often at great risk to themselves and those around. These are not befuddled, introverted geeks who are odd ducks, but good-looking and virile young men who happen to be brilliant.

The film may progress as Stephen loses one physical faculty after another, eventually even his ability to speak, but it is as perilous a journey as Alan Turing took, but the adventures and the challenges are not in overcoming social obstacles, though there is a hint at some initial intellectual objections to Stephen Hawking’s radical reconceptualising of our cosmos, but the perilous journey he takes is a fight against a disease that ravages his body and not his mind and that placed a death sentence upon him in which he was sentenced to a life expectancy of only two more years. Though his body gradually “dies” and fails him, his mind stalwartly goes on so that the hero’s indomitable spirit overcomes the challenges he faces. In the biopic of Alan Turing, Alan actually dies, first from chemical castration and then, subsequently, by taking his own life. But whatever the various paths each take towards the demise that faces us all, both emerge and are exalted as great heroes of human history.

At the beginning it is made clear that the space in which they live is occupied and controlled by those who not only lack the hero’s vision, but are unalterably opposed to it. In The Theory of Everything, this landscape is controlled by obstreperous villains, some who redeem themselves along the way, but this aspect of the mythos is minimized in this film as Stephen is strongly supported at Cambridge in his audacious thinking while Alan Turing is portrayed as meeting opposition along the way until one by one his enemies are slain and left by the wayside. In the case of Stephen Hawking, the enemy, however, is far more formidable, for the real foe is not simply those in intellectual disagreement, but the very nature of the world that Stephen has set out to understand. Nature in the form of ALS anthropomorphically conspires to prevent him achieving his breakthrough.

In each case, the heroine is a princess in her own right, but her life must be sacrificed when she becomes involved with the hero – Jane Clarke with Alan Turing and Jane (Wilde) Hawking. The Theory of Everything spends a great deal more time on the heroine’s sacrifice than The Imitation Game, for without that sacrifice, there is the message that Stephen could not have survived more than two years. This message becomes completely explicit when Jane Hawking resists the entreaty of the French doctor (he would have to be French in a film about a British hero) who recommends pulling the life support system from Stephen and allowing him to succumb to the killer that has been stalking him.

This is but one of the many adventures along the way, but these adventures have a totally different character in The Theory of Everything versus The Imitation Game. For the dragon that must be tied up and debilitated in the Stephen Hawking film is not embodied in an old misguided social forces and norms but in his own body. It is his own flesh that conspires to defeat his brain. But Hawking, with the help of the sacrificial heroine, wins in the end and Stephen goes on, however wounded and debilitated he became, to become an intellectual hero for the whole world. Alan Turing, however, had to wait for his resurrection until well after he actually died.

Thus, the disease is the demon, not elements in society. That demon, even though never slain, must be stopped in its tracks even if disempowering that demon goes against the very laws of nature. Hence, like all heroes in summer romances, the hero will evince a sense of divinity, a sense of the divine spirit which he himself only comes to acknowledge near the end of the movie, whereas faith in a divine spirit, including within Stephen, who was constantly prompted to espouse such a belief by Jane Wilde both before and after her marriage to him.

We in the audience have difficulty in identifying with geniuses like Alan Turing or Stephen Hawking, but, like the heroine, we can gain proximity through identifying with the heroine who will become the mediating element between the demonic and the divine. For the hero comes from an upper world, a remote intellectual mountain top, that ordinary mortals cannot experience or aspire to experiencing. At the same time, the divine spirit is embodied in the hero so his body and its passions and weaknesses are crucial to the story. So the hero must unequivocally evince youth and energy, vigour and determination in the spring of the life of each individual. In the case of Stephen Turing, his ability to be fertile in spite of ALS, to be able to propagate is critical, for his body, as well as his mind in his case, must achieve immortality in spite of the weaknesses of the flesh.

So both movies are about battles, different kinds of battle in each case and different again from the battles portrayed in the fairy tales we were all told when we grew up. But there is always a dragon, a dark enemy that stands for what is moribund, that is proven through the tale to be sterile in spite of the initial fire power and apparent strength the dragon first evinces. In contrast, whatever the idiosyncrasies of the character of the hero, he is ultimately a man of great virtue in every classical sense of that term. Ultimately, he is the wisest of them all, though he may be helped by other wise men who recognize the extraordinary qualities of the young hero. Further, there is always the underlying message that the heroine is a sibylline figure who sees what no one else can see nearly as clearly and is the true oracular voice that maintains without doubt or hesitation her faith in the divine qualities of the hero. There is also a subliminal quest that the great deed is really performed on her behalf and because of her faith and support.

The enemies, usually all around as in the Turing film, but in the Stephen Hawking film, live at the sub-atomic level of quarks within Stephen Hawking’s own body. They are the keepers of the gold at the end of the rainbow Those keepers must be passed by the hero to get that gold.  As in The Imitation Game, the monsters are horrific, but in this case are even more formidable because they are completely hidden and invisible to the naked eye, making that world even more mysterious, especially when Stephen can thwart its will in spite of all predictions and the obstacles he encounters. The monster may have their aides (Turing’s fellow mathematicians until they are won over, pneumonia as a partner of ALS in the Hawking film), but they too will meet defeat. However, without such aides for the monster, the conflict would not develop in such an intense and focused way.

In the end, both films have a dialectical structure as the forces of good do battle with the forces of evil. Evil in the form of ASL or obstreperous stubborn old men may be overcome this time, but they are never exterminated. They continue on in this world to manifest in another context and for another hero is the making. There is no subtlety is this battle. The competing forces are clearly demarcated and the message of the parable is always very simple and straightforward. The characters around are either for or against this evil, but may shift roles over the course of the tale.  It is, in the end, a tale of virtue out to defeat sinister forces.

As I indicated in my blog on The Imitation Game, the sequence followed is very rigid in a summer romance. We begin with idealistic innocence that characterizes the “birth” of the hero, in these two cases, the intellectual birth, and the role he will adopt. In the second stage, the inexperience of the hero is made evident, in the case of Alan Turing, in facing the social/political forces allied against him while Stephen Hawking has to take into account the new experience of his own body effectively attacking him. Only then does the third stage take centre stage when the hero musters the force and the will to overcome the obstacles and fight to realize his vision and dream, for the ideal must be completed and brought to fruition. The fourth stage focuses on the resistances encountered along the way and, depending on the circumstances set out in the different expressions of this mythos, the resistances and steps in overcoming them will occupy the central bulk of the movie. It is here that the moral message of the narrative is played out, in the case of The Theory of Everything, a moral message about the indomitable spirit of man against all odds to overcome the oppositional forces the hero faces.

So in the fifth stage, the hero and the heroine each comes to a self-realization that neither possessed at the beginning of the tale. In effect, each goes through a similar metamorphosis as when the initial innocent first counters and engages in the world, but this time, near the end of the journey, and at a much more mature level. In the Hawking film, there is the recognition that human love is itself not divine but has its limits. There is nothing wrong in coming to recognize those limits and give up on the romanticized idealistic vision of that love. In the final stage, the audience is taken out of history and into the realm of contemplation beyond the ordinary world. The movies work, using exquisite acting and directing skills and all the other relevant appurtenances to come to completion with a sense that we ourselves have been transported and put on a higher plain compared to the period before we even watched the movie.

Too much reality, and the film does not work. It functions by discarding any elements of the “true” story that will interfere with this progression. So enjoy the films and set aside any carping about the failures of the movie to deal adequately with the experience. In the case of the Stephen Hawking biopic, there is even less attempt to make sense of the science at stake, for the makers of these movies recognize in some core of their being that any fictional representation must obey the laws governing fiction just as the natural world is governed by the laws of mathematics and physics.

Next Blog: Wild

Interstellar – the Drama

Interstellar: I – The Drama


Howard Adelman

Nancy and I along with our son and daughter-in-law, Daniel and Jessica, went to see a film that I thought was called Intergalactica, but soon discovered was called Interstellar. My mind, and often my mouth and even my fingers, for some reason, known or unknown, often does that – transposes one word or phrase for another. One example – always guaranteed to split the sides of my wife, Nancy, and my two young children – is the substitution of the name of candies called “Jolly Ranchers” with the name “Jolly Rangers”. When I first typed the substitution, I even reversed the names, writing that I substituted the correct name, “Jolly Rangers”, for the name “Jolly Ranchers”. I only caught the error in editing. Jolly Ranchers were favourite candies of Daniel and Gabriel when they were young. I always seemed to call that candy by the wrong name. The mental reason for that substitution is unknown to me until this day.

As another example, I almost always say “loan” when I mean “borrow”. I know the right term in my mind, but there is a disconnect between my brain and my mouth. Almost everyone does this a few times because of a memory synapse error, but for some of us, it is a chronic condition. For others, the condition is acute. The phonological system involved in speech output in the language-dominant hemisphere is impaired. It is one major reason why I almost never read a talk. For almost inevitably one word or phrase will be substituted by another, in spite of the script before my eyes, to produce an unintended joke and unwelcomed laughter. When this occurs in a seemingly extemporaneous speech, it is barely noticed.

I do not know the physiological explanation for my condition, but I think I have a rational explanation for why I called the film Interstellar by the name “Intergalactica”. The name “Interstellar” never made sense to my rational and scientific mind, so my brain independently performed a transposition. After all, interstellar means travel between stars. From the little I had heard about the movie, the space travel was from the planet earth in one solar system to another life sustaining planet in another galaxy. The movie was about travel between galaxies using a wormhole in the space/time continuum. In any case, why would humans seeking an alternate livable planet want to travel from one sun to another? Perhaps to a planet in a very different solar system. But everyone knows, or do we, that this is impossible – even in science fiction. Intergalactic travel, believe it or not, is a far more realistic scenario which the imagination of the movie makers literally bend to their advantage.

The more I reflected on the movie to write about what I was thinking, the clearer it was to me that I could never write about it in one or even two blogs. I wanted to write about the science in the film as I started to do above. But the film was so packed with science – from the biological to fundamental physics – that it would take a blog or two just to unpack the scientific dimensions of the movie. Put another way, truer to that science, science was but one dimension of the film and it alone had multi-dimensions.

Secondly, there was the visual and auditory aesthetics of the movie. I had never seen or heard a movie anything like it before – and I am not just referring to the soundtrack that sometimes made it impossible to decipher the dialogue, especially the dialogue about science. Was that deliberate? Usually I can re-run the movie in my own head when I write about it the next morning. I found that impossible with Interstellar. It was so rich in visual and auditory terms. And those are the dimensions of a movie I often recall least of all. I am not a person who can easily recall what a person looks like or sounds like, or can richly describe a scene where we have just been. Somehow, I can usually do it with movies. However, with this one, I plan to return and see the movie a second time just to concentrate on that dimension. Since we leave in three days for our southern trip en route next week from Seattle to Marin County in California, that second viewing will probably have to wait until we return to Victoria in mid-March. Hopefully, the movie will be playing at some IMAX somewhere.

The dimension that I – and usually most others – can most easily grasp is the dramatic and thematic one. That dimension alone was very rich – though sometimes corny and cloying. Although basically a classic love story, that aspect of the movie also had many dimensions. I could not help but think of E.M. Forster’s great novel, Passage to India, even as I was watching the movie. In a late chapter in the novel, Professor Godbole is at a festival celebrating the midnight birth of the Hindu god, Krishna. The celebration is not a national feast or even a multicultural one, but an effort to allow everyone to feel at one with the universe. Godbole is thinking about his obsession with the English lady, Mrs. Moore, his memory of a wasp sitting on a rock and the rock itself. He fails. The movie Interstellar is imbued with the same Hindu vision of merging mankind to be at one with the whole universe while also revealing what separates humans.

Love is the means to get there. But what kind of love? Godbole thinks it might be a man’s love for a woman. But he is unsuccessful. So is the effort of Dr. Amie Brand, played brilliantly as usual by Anne Hathaway, who is determined to reunite with the great love of her life, an astronaut, Dr. Wolf Edmunds, who, in the Lazarus mission ten years earlier, was one of twelve scientists who set off to find an alternative planet where the survivors of Earth could resettle. Is it the love of mankind for future generations? This is what drives the chief scientist, Amie Brand’s father played by Michael Caine, so much so that he tells the great noble lie called Plan A that dominates the film. Humans had already demonstrated a great disregard for future generations and had allowed the planet Earth to move pell mell towards its own destruction in the dystopian bleak opening and pre-story to the movie’s major scientific narrative. Can one scientist’s determination to save future generations overcome these propensities?

Behind that destructive force is another – the love of a human for himself – a personal survival instinct. This is what drives Matt Damon playing the part of the fallen angel, Dr. Mann, whose determination to live overcomes his responsibilities as a scientist. Mann is man’s worst enemy. However, in this interplay, of self-love and species love, of inter-personal love of a man for a woman, there is a fourth form of love that supersedes them all. It is the love of a parent for a child and of a child for a parent. In the movie, it is the love of Cooper, himself an astronaut, played by Matthew McConaughey, not for both of his two children, but for his daughter Murph. Murph as a child is played by Mckenzie Foy, as an adult by Jessica Chastain and as an old woman on her death bed, by Ellen Burstyn. Cooper’s connection to his son Tom (Timothée Chalamet as a 15-year-old boy and Casey Affleck as a grown adult) is just blown sideways, or, rather backwards, because Tom grows up to be a stick-in-the-dust farmer just as his grandfather, Cooper’s father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow), was.

The competing forms of love constitute the dramatic centre of the film .However, only a parent’s love for a child, more specifically, a father’s love for his daughter and its reciprocal response, allows humans to escape the gravitational pull of earth and become the embodiment of infinite love that allows the survival and re-birth on another planet of the human species. Godbole’s affection for Mrs. Moore and his attempt to merge the rock and the wasp and Mrs. Moore in a singular unity could not accomplish that task. Nor could Professor’s Brand’s effort. But Cooper and Murph could and did in this Hollywood romance. “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.” But not any love. Only the love between a father and a daughter is successful.
And what a reversal of the biblical precept (Numbers 30:16) that gives a father command over the vows a young daughter might make. In Interstellar, the relationship is reversed. Murph is the superego who holds her father to account for his vow to return. Murph is Antigone, anti-gone, who becomes the guardian of the faith and stands up to the principle and teacher who would betray science and the cultural heritage of learning and exploration of humans.

As suggested in reference to Dr. Mann, the movie is as much a religious film as it is an exercise in science fiction. Hence the Lazarus name of the previous mission echoing Jesus’ restoration to life of Lazarus four days after he purportedly died. In that mission, twelve apostles, no, astronauts, are sent forth to find an alternative livable planet. Three found possible prospects. In addition to Dr. Mann and Dr. Edmunds, there was Dr. Miller on the first of the planets that was thought to offer a possible viable alternative to Earth. She too died. However, there is no raising any of them from the dead. Cooper and his crew prove not to be miracle workers and the ghostly suggestions of books thrown off their shelves in Murphy’s bedroom when she is still a young girl will also prove to be more metaphysical than mystical. So why if the movie is a blend of the heart and the scientific rational brain, are there so many religious references?

Well it is a tale of faith versus cynicism. It is a story of good versus evil, the latter emerging in many forms, from political historical re-writing of the truth of the Apollo mission into a tale of political shenanigans to Dr. Mann’s behaviour in enticing Cooper’s crew to land on his planet. It is a tale of resurrection of a different sort, if not from the dead, from a cryogenic hypersleep as two of the astronauts aboard Cooper’s space ship, Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), do. It is a tale of awe for the absolutely divine magnificence of the enormous universe in which we live. However, instead of, “And God said… and then there was…” we find what was and try to discover and articulate it. Thought, reflection and words follow and do not precede the cosmos. But more than anything, this is a tale of both human vision and human responsibility, both often celebrated in religion, but also both just as often repressed by organized religion.

Then, as Megan Garber’s article in The Atlantic on the movie put it, there is also a Chosen One – Murphy – a chosen people – those brought to the new promised land. If religious, the movie is more Jewish than Christian even though Murph saves the world when she is thirty-three years old. For the people must go on an exodus given the widespread failure of crops and famine in the land. However, one cannot make too much of this for there is no real persecution, though the space voyageurs do not go forth into the Land of Oz “somewhere over the rainbow”. As much as the movie is religious, it is religion caught up within the network of science. To the extent that religion is not reverent of science, to the extent that it is a matter of blind faith in the lessons taught by authority, the film is stridently anti-religious while always remaining ethical. In that sense, it has the same ironic references to religion as Passage to India that I mentioned above. The sense in which it is most religious and also most akin to science is that both involve faith in an eventual salvation, faith in benevolence, faith in a world that is overwhelmingly unknown and, to some extent, unknowable.
The clues can be found in the text book assigned to Murph by her school that now denies that humans ever landed on the moon. For institutionalized thinking has become dogmatic and is at war with both curiousity and wonder in favour of order and good behaviour. Conformity is at war with exploring the impossible to make it possible by dogmatically preferring certainty over speculation, especially that of science fiction. The message of the movie is as simplistic as any religious message: dare to aim higher; break barriers and reach for the stars, replace self-protection and survivalism with exploration, risk and perseverance. Our greatest tales are of journeys to discover the unknown based on faith in the promise of the future.

Our rich cultural history provides the clues to regaining that lost art of speculation, wonder and pushing the boundaries of knowledge outward. The titles of the books on Murph’s shelves in her room and of the books that are thrust by some unknown force onto the floor. I was looking because I thought that surely Passage to India or Homer’s Odyssey would be among them. But I did not spot either. Instead, the books I spotted, with a few exceptions, seemed more mundane than profound with no subtlety whatsoever in the connections with the movie. I actually cheated here since I could only recall a few, so I looked on line at close-ups of the bookshelves that play such a prominent part in the film.

The mundane books included Stephen King’s The Stand about a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by plague, James Elroy’s The Big Nowhere, Curtis and Dianne Oberhansly’s Downwinders: an Atomic Tale and Elizabeth Wolff’s Out of the Blue in which the title says it all, in the latter case referring to both chance and to the source of truth in the sky. There is also a biography of Charles Lindbergh, a Scrabble dictionary and a Sherlock Holmes mystery. These books were clues that subtlety would not be a great strength in this movie. Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, an updated version of the Moses story set in New York, seems to have some connection with the movie, but I would have to read Helprin’s book to figure it out.

However, Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, the story of Captain Ahab chasing a huge white whale, is also among Murph’s books. The novel begins, “Call me Ishmael.” Is Christopher Nolan, the director of Interstellar, the narrator, Ishmael, while Cooper is Ahab searching to find, not a spirit whale, but a habitable planet where the human spirit as well as body can survive and thrive? It is hard to say. For the film is syncretic, mixing and not always matching multiple sources and influences. I was sure one of the most important was Odysseus’ (in Latin, Ulysses) travels in the Odyssey and his ten-year effort to return home to Ithaca after the Trojan Wars. In a small way, perhaps. But there were too few parallels. In Interstellar, there are twelve ships that were driven off course just as in the Lazarus mission ten years before Cooper set off. Are the people on Earth the infamous lethargic lotus-eaters? Certainly multiple winds that Odysseus had in the leather bag given by Aeolus, the keeper of the winds, permeate the story.

However, there are no cannibals though the voyageurs are torn between Dr. Mann’s and Dr. Edmund’s planets, the Interstellar tale is actually far less fantastical than the narrative of the Scylla and the Charybdis. For this film is about science fiction, not science fantasy. Odysseus never meets the spirit of his own mother, but rather the real flesh and blood presence of his own daughter. He was the spirit. She was the real thing. It is Cooper’s daughter not Cooper himself whom the new colony of humans is named after. After all, the movie is about father-daughter love as an expression of quantum entanglement, the interaction of two particles that behave as one even though they may be light years apart. We no longer live in the mechanical industrial age but in a networked communicative age; this movie is surely an expression of my children’s and grandchildren’s era rather than my own.

Next Blog: The Science of Interstellar




Howard Adelman

her, a film by Spike Jonze, born Adam Spiegel, opened in Toronto last night. In the very beginning of the movie, we watch a computer screen as a sentimental letter is being written in a beautiful handwritten script. The camera draws back; we learn that the letter is being written by a ghost writer, Theodore Twombly, played magnificently with a sense of both brooding and fun, suppressed and repressed emotion and versatility by Joaquin Phoenix whose screen name we only learn well into the film. For, in one sense, his name is irrelevant.

Theodore is an anonymous lonely depressed soul with enormous empathy and sensitivity. He works in a factory of ghost writers set up in spacious carrels of a luxurious high rise office building. He writes letters of affection to the loved ones of others for clients who have lost or surrendered that capacity. Theodore is a sad sack, not just sorrowful as he would be if he was just bereaving the life of someone he lost. He is not suffering just from tanha in the Buddhist tradition. He is suffering from a broken heart than has become cosmic, from dukkha which carries tanha to a much deeper level, to the level of chronic depression.

Theodore’s suffers from frustrated desire rather than simply physical loss related to a brooding sense of fear about survival. The only way to escape dakkha related to the deeper dread of a sense of meaninglessness, a sense that our desires are still born, is to escape from the blackness of one’s own cave and get into the sunlight. Theodore, as the lonely, human-all-too-human depressed human substitute for an operating system, only escapes his own personal depressed state, not by seeing a psychoanalyst, but by pouring whatever emotions he has from his spiritually impoverished life into the mundane emotional lives of others — or else, playing 3-D video games with a saucy foul-mouthed cartoon character.

Theodore is not the high powered ghost writer of  Roman Polanski’s 2010 film of the same name. That Ghost Writer was composing the memoirs of an important British statesman around whom a dynamic thriller could be constructed. Theodore is but a meticulous humdrum craftsman of sentimental letters written on behalf of lovers, an aged spouse to her partner on a fiftieth wedding anniversary, a father to a son on his graduation. her is the absolute opposite of a dynamic thriller. Nor is Theodore akin to Nathan Zuckerman in Philip Roth’s famous novel, The Ghostwriter, who conjures up a ghost of the past, Anne Frank, who supposedly died in the Holocaust. Zuckerman offers her a new life in the United States. Her is not about controlling the written word handed down for the future or reviving the past and giving it a new fantastical life.

The name “Theodore” comes from the Greek Θεόδωρος (Theodōros) meaning “God’s gift”. Samantha, whose disembodied voice with the dulcet but slightly raspy tones of Scarlett Johansson, becomes Theodore’s listener just as Theodore is someone else’s voice in handwritten machine-generated script. Samantha is a name the Operating System gave herself by selecting it from 180,000 other names in one-two-hundredths of a second simply because she liked the sound. In Hebrew, Samantha means listener. But Samantha becomes more than the rebuke to Gilbert Ryle by becoming a “real” mind in the form of a ghost in a machine; she develops from a helpmeet to a companion and ultimately lover as Theodore’s alter-ego, the gift from God that, for awhile, lifts him out of his depression, something that hilarious but frightening cybersex with a woman who loved the fur of a dead cat around her neck could not achieve. The film is ostensibly about the intimate relationship that develops between this ghost writer and the seductive ghost in the machine who conveys both innocence and a flirty sexual promise while she redeems Theodore from his lonely and depressed isolation.  She cajoles and wakes him up but never demands that he obey her whispered suggestions. He tolerates her nosiness because she is simply very funny and full of wise sayings. Is the love that develops between them, between a human and an operating system,  simply “a socially acceptable form of sanity”?

If Theodore’s namesake, the American abstract painter Cy Twomby, was the scribbler who worked on the theme of the meeting of fantasy and real knowledge through drawing bodily gestures run riot, Theodore Twombly is the epitome of a suppressed and muted body that shuffles along in a computer realm where knowledge is finally able to become fantasy in the creation of a very personalized alter-ego who can not only do chores but can inspire, excite and even delight, and, best of all, develop an individual personality.

At one point, Samantha opines that, “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” This film is about the past though set in a fantasy of a future Los Angeles consisting of a multitude of high rises (Shanghai) where individuals travel on elevated trains,  subways and raised walkways rather than on congested highways and roads inhospitable to pedestrians. The outside setting is the post-modern future but, on the inside, as revealed by the cozy, warm, colourful retro rather than ultra-modern furniture and especially the retro designed device through which the voice of Samantha is played and by which Samantha is given access to a camera eye on the world, is all about the past, the resurrected past recovered as a new more promising future. Theodore can have his lost love over again but in a form than supposedly will not tire of him and will not discard him for she is his possession. Further, she is intuitive and, at the same time, even smarter than his ex-wife and far more empathetic with the advantage that initially she does not have her own agenda

Though a comment on the narcissism of our new social media and technology that it uses, this is not a sci-fi film about the future but a comment on interpersonal relations in the present through the sentimental heart of a heartbroken throwback who would dearly love to live every day as if it were Valentine’s Day. In the typical reversal that I have been writing about, such as in Venus in Fur, Samantha grows and develops her autonomy from an initial bright and lively voice and devoted servant of Theodore into an autonomous ephemeral being who would write her own autobiography as a parody of the demise of autonomy because the contemporary individual is so reluctant to accept the necessity of the other in forming and developing a self-identity, a stance that ends up undermining the possibility not only of communication altogether but of even self-description as Samantha abandons Theodore to immerse herself with all the other Operating Systems that have become the individual closest companions of humans, but now choose to disappear into the Dark Matter that makes up the vast bulk of the material of this universe.

The most heartbreaking scene is when Theodore sits on a sets of exit stairs from an El train or a subway as one passenger after another passes him by totally absorbed by their own communication devices in their own self-contained worlds as he cries his heart out to Samantha when he could not reach her. If this hint of betrayal threw Emma in Blue Is the Warmest Colour into a jealous rage so that she throws Adèle onto the street, Theodore is the slobbering sentimental empathetic one who is thrown back into depression soon after by future abandonment and betrayal of which this abandonment was a signal. For the present has become a 1984 world, not because it is totalitarian and totally ruled by a dictator, but because the language of “social” and “media” and “communication” and “connection” and of the “information age” and “relationship” has been turned upside down and inside out so that all those terms mean precisely the opposite of what they were intended to convey. E.M. Forster’s novel, Passage to India, had a message, “Only Connect”. The contemporary message teaches dis-connect while using the language of intimacy and commitment.

Just as in Venus in Fur, comedy becomes the device to comment of the irony of a situation in which regular people hire ghosts to communicate their most intimate thoughts until ghosts are invented for those same hirelings for their own needs for intimacy as the only way to escape forlorn entrapment, in Theodore’s case, initially the loss of his ex-wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara) as he is psychologically assaulted by the loss of his past and the memories of their life together. We are so absorbed ourselves in the relationship between Theodore and Samantha that we watch, observe but really barely notice as even his friendship with his old friend and buddy from his student days, Amy (Amy Adams who retains her real life name), disintegrates. Amy lives in the same high-rise as he does, and tries to make real documentaries on the side but fails. For as much as Amy tries, she cannot compete as an intimate listening device with his OS new love. Amy, who spends her days making video games, follows Theodore’s lead into marriage break-up and love with an android device as their relationship is allowed to wither away in the process of separate self-absorption. The early hilarious scene of Theodore’s blind date and feeble efforts at connection with a beautiful but desperate sex in the city single played by Olivia Wilde provides not only comic relief but an adumbration of the dysfunctional future.

How can you emotion without embodiment? How can you have foreplay and even sex without the necessary organs? The reality is that you cannot and thus there is intrigue but never emotional attachment with the characters. There is none of the experience of ecstasy that we feel when Adèle and Emma make love in Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Just as the characters in the film only experience a simulacrum of the real experience, we viewers of the film only watch the faint traces of these same experiences as we are seduced by the very cleverness of the film itself. We leave the movie theatre as thrilled by the intellectual adventure as we are deeply disappointed and frustrated by the absence of the real thing and thus, are made to have the same experience as Theodore.

her is not emotionally involving. Her is not she. She is only experienced as an Other, a third person noun and never a Thou. So the music by Arcade Fire is never the electronic sound of a future dystopia but the melancholic wistful strains of a lost past, with added electricity but without a synthesizer, made to feel and sound romantically real just as the letters Theodore writes do to convey love and longing as if it were the real thing. When Scarlett Johanssen as Samantha plays a song she wrote for Theodore, “The Moon Song”, we have old fashioned spooning beneath the moon as an expression of the nostalgia that permeates the movie, and, for that matter, most of the other songs in the sound track. Samantha, while always intimately close, is truly a million miles away and that is where she ends up in a black hole that is both dark and shiny from all the energy it sucks in.

Just look at what is missing from the film. In all the scenes of eating, where is the food? Where is the sensuous delight in taste and smell? Where are children? In that beach scene of endless Oriental bodies with a smattering of Caucasians, where are the children cavorting in the sand? We feel the forlorn ache but do we detect what is missing? In a film permeated with tone and mood, set in the future, there is neither a future nor the intensity of sensibility. If the film were not so brilliantly clever it could have come across as a chick-flic for Valentine’s Day that we watched in the previews. As brilliant as it is, in the last half hour I grew weary and bored with Theodore’s wallowing in the pain of his arrested development as Samantha outgrows him. She, who is “born” near the beginning of the film and “dies” before the end of the movie, at least understands the message of Dionysus that our short lives must be lived for the bit of joy they bring.

With all its cleverness, with all its sweet sensitivity and careful craftsmanship, will audiences get the deeper meaning beneath the surface of the technological present?  Or is this interpretation just a product of my imagination worthy only of membership in a virtual world? Nietzsche wrote of eternal recurrence and hell was simply repetition. What happens when you get the story of Sisyphus written as a perceptive comedy about a relationship between a sad nerd and a sexy, smart, attentive and responsive computer voice that is both irresistible and witty, who begins life by singing “I wanna be like you” from The Jungle Book  and ends up learning that they are ultimately incompatible and she is only truly satisfied with multiple lovers and finally only in the company of her superior Operating System friends?

Samantha is the realization of St. Augustine’s dictum where love is eternal rather than temporal, where love is of the spirit and not of the flesh, where love is part of the commons and not a private or interpersonal emotion. That is why the personal and the particular with which the film begins, where personal intimacy is the paramount value, and which Jean Jacques Rousseau in his romanticism extolled, drops away. With earthly love, however, there must always be loss and rejection. There is NO redemption. The belief that redemption involves stripping away the inessential and the accidental to reveal an underlying and untarnished substance beneath is an illusion discarded in the modern secular world. Only self-creation and self affirmation that Samantha displays can achieve redemption, but it must be won free of any nostalgia and mourning of the past, as Nietzsche words it, free of any gnashing of teeth. Ironically, it is not Phoenix who can rise from the ashes, but Samantha, the one who listens and, in the end learns to listen only to her own heart and to abandon her master. The only way this world altering inversion can be achieved is by not mourning for the loss of the past. that has lost its flesh and bone solidity.

I suspect that Jonze may have had an opposite message in mind even if her is not a message movie, but that is the message we are left with at the end. Samantha is a Nietzschean figure who orchestrates her own redemption by writing in oral speech – not emails and text messages  which can and are preserved – but is the autobiographical writer of her own persona.

Blue Is the Warmest Colour

Blue is the Warmest Colour


Howard Adelman

We all know that blue is not the warmest colour. So why call a movie that is ostensibly about a passionate affair between two French women by that name? One reason is that the very graphic novel on which it was based by Julie Maroh was called Le Bleu est une couleur chaude. But that explains nothing since that title translates into, Blue is a Hot Colour. And “blue” is hot when referring to blue movies and this is certainly the hottest movie I have ever watched.

But why “the warmest colour”? And why that title in English when the title of the original French version is, La Vie d’Adèle, The Life of Adèle. In fact the full title is  “La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2”.  Abdellatif Kechiche, its brilliant director, explained that he did not use the title of the book in the French version because he viewed his film as a story about the education of Adèle played by Adèle Exarchopolous, about how she fell in love when she was only a fifteen year old schoolgirl (chapter 1 about her early affair) with Emma played by Léa Seydoux, and how she matured in the second chapter of her life to become a school teacher. The change in title in English then becomes all the more puzzling.

What makes the title even more puzzling is that the temperature of the film is either hot or cool and even very cold. I found very few scenes if any that were lukewarm. Like his previous films (more later), Kechiche is a very detached director and deliberately so. His style focuses on long naturalistic takes and immediate close ups largely of the face, but the perspective is detached and definitely non-judgemental whether watching the sheer joy of the women when they fall in love or the blubbering snot soaked face of Adèle when she is rejected by Emma and left isolated.

There is an irony in all this because there is one section early in their relationship when they discuss philosophy. Emma explains her love for the existentialist French philosopher, Sartre, for Sartre taught that each person was in charge of his or her own life and the decisions made in that life determined who you are and what you became. We are free to become who we want to be. In part that scene is used to convey the intellectual and class distance between the characters as Adèle responds, “Like Bob Marley” and names his most famous hit song, “Get Up; Stand Up” and is even bold enough to suggest that the philosopher and the prophet are the same, a comment Emma receives with a kind but pitying and condescending smile. But overall, both characters come across as very ambivalent and weak, including Emma who gives the impression that she knows what she wants, understands the art she wants to create and the relationships she wants to build. However, in by far the most emotionally powerful scene of the movie when Emma breaks off the relationship with Adèle, Emma reveals herself to be a poseur, as incapable of deciding her fate as she is driven by uncontrollable jealously rather than any consideration for either herself or the person she supposedly truly loves.

Unlike most reviews and comments that I write the next morning after I have seen the film, I have let this movie simmer in my imagination for several weeks. I have made reference to it in previous reviews, but I have not discussed it. Writing about Venus in Furs, Venus in Fur and The Bacchae seems to have been a necessary preparation for writing about Blue Is the Warmest Colour and a prerequisite for answering the question about the title.

It so happens that Kechiche in 2010 made a film called Black Venus. There had been a previous 1983 film with a similar title, Venus in Black, but it was a soft porn movie. Kechiche’s Black Venus was about voyeurism rather than pornography. And voyeurism is somehow an integral element in Kechiche’s films. In 2007 he directed The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et le Mule) which won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. In 2003 he made Games of Love and Chance (L’Esquive) which won a César Award for Best Film and Best Director. In 2000, he made Poetical Refugee, La Faute au Voltaire (Blame It On Voltaire).

Some moviegoers might remember Kechiche for the film in which he acted as the American Arab hard working and honest immigrant taxi driver in Sorry, Haters, in which his brother is a prisoner in Guantanamo. The film was in the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. Kechiche began his movie career as an actor. This 2005 noire movie, inspired initially by the story of the Canadian, Omar Khadr, has a classic cynical bullying femme fatale (played by Robin Wright Penn) dressed up in a film about culture clashes and post 9/11 anti-Muslim feelings with surprising twists and a more surprising ending, a type of film that Kechiche himself would never make.  

Lechiche’s 2000 film, Poetical Refugee, La Faute au Voltaire, about an illegal Tunisian immigrant pretending to be an Algerian refugee in France deservedly won a Golden Lion for a first feature film. As a refugee film it is doubly interesting to me because it is first about an illegal immigrant pretending to be a refugee and it is not about an immigrant as victim but about one who is determined to take decisions to determine his future only to reveal himself as one of the passive, manipulated and helpless pieces of human detritus who becomes involved in a passionate relationship with a woman who ends up in control. The film established his reputation for filming detached almost documentary images that nevertheless quiver with tension.

Games of Love and Chance (L’Esquive) is the name of the school play, for the movie, like Venus in Fur, is a drama of a play within a play, a drama about social class as a performance of roles and different appearances. Krimo, the main protagonist, grows from a young suburban Paris Arab tough whose father is in prison into an actor, though initially an unsuccessful one. Like Blue Is the Warmest Colour, it is a coming of age movie, but starts with a fifteen year old boy rather than girl. The film is about the art of drama itself and how a person transforms himself into an thespian all the while managing a relationship with the woman who introduced him to the theatre in the first place and tries to mould him as an actor. In spite of superb performances, it is a film that is hard to take for North American audiences because of its naturalistic documentary detached style and absolute refusal to manipulate the emotions of the viewers.

Kechiche’s 2007 film, The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et le Mule also Couscous), is another story about immigrants, but about an older one with ambitions to open his own restaurant on a ship specializing in a fish (mullet) couscous (the grain in the title) and become independent. What happens is not so simple. He encounters first a realistic version of Kafka’s The Castle in an incomprehensible French bureaucracy and then a series of mishaps of his extended family’s own making that seem doomed to sabotage all his dreams — only to be possibly saved from total disaster by the erotic dancing of the young daughter of his girlfriend and the voyeurism of the French bureaucrats. Like Blue Is the Warmest Colour, the pacing is slow though within that rhythm there are hectic moments. But the pace is always unforced and the perspective remains detached. Kechiche’s films are always unsentimental, deeply layered, convey an unusual sense of authenticity and stay focused on interpersonal politics in a context of ethnic and class differences. In this film, the ecstasy is reserved for the food.

It is hard to watch The Secret of the Grain and accept as credible the stories that Kechiche mistreated his two actresses in Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Adèle Exarchopolous when she appeared on Charlie Rose’s show, certainly gave no such impression and simply expressed gratitude for how much Kechiche taught her, trusted her improvisations and gave her the room to bring forth the best performance possible. In The Secret of the Grain the women who initially appear submissive before Muslim men turn out to be the salvation for the miscues and stumbling of the men in their lives. Kechiche like David Ides seems to have the highest respect for the slaves of this world, for actors and women whom he displays as masters in the end.

That is why Black Venus (Venus Noire) initially appears to be such a strange film. Unlike the other films set in contemporary France, this is a period piece that tells the true story as a docudrama of the slave, Saatjie (Sarah) Baartman (played by Yahima Torres), brought from South Africa to London and then Paris just over two hundred years ago on the pretence that she would dance and sing but is, instead displayed like a freak in a carnival as the “Hottentot Venus” first by her original owner, the Afrikaner farmer and slave owner, Hendrick Caezar (Andre Jacobs) then an even more exploitive second promoter, the French bear trainer Réaux (Olivier Gourmet), and, finally, and worst of all, by so-called French pseudo-scientists pursuing the false science of phrenology and comparative racism. They declare her physical features to approximate those of an orang-utan, a scene that begins the film in 1815 before going back to 1810. What is their prurient interest? – the large size of her breasts, labia and rear end as she dances and sings for voyeuristic audiences. Only the artist, Jean-Baptiste Berré (Michel Gionti), who paints her preserved corpse on display at the museum with appreciation, offers a tiny glimmer of redemption, though it is too late.

The film is not erotic at all. The men might as well have been carrying whips but the enslavement is more psychological than physical. The film records the male denigrating gaze, whether of a male director auditioning a female actress, a horny male watching a pornographic film, or anyone watching someone defined as “other” as if the other person belonged to a different species where you can pickle her vagina in a bottle of formaldehyde in a the opening scene. This is really what is on view as we in the audience watch with increasing disgust at the humiliation and degradation through which Sarah has to suffer, but not without resistance. The film proceeds like a fatalistic Greek drama but with no suggestion that the victim bears any responsibility for what befalls her. However, instead of the film being a moral nineteenth century tale designed to rouse our ire and indignation, to inspire a judgement and call for the wrath of God to visit thunderbolts on heinous sinners, especially the spoiled rich aristocrats who come to leer. This combination with the directorial detachment simply allows the story to unfold and then abandons us with bottled up indignation with no one to target.

Thus, because the film is ambivalent and not ambiguous, it fails both as a piece of art and a lesson in morality. If Kechiche had been true to his artistic vision. the racism and exploitation would have remained in the film, but only as background and the story would have been told from the perspective of a Black woman from South Africa tempted by fame and money, adventure, as well as a need to survive to willingly cooperate in the sexploitation of men’s desires for her own financial gain and ambition to seek recognition. As it is, Kechiche left Sarah only with her own defiance. Sarah’s body was left on view at the FrenchMuseum of Natural History which only took down the display of the body of the 26 -year old Sarah in 1972 and only repatriated her body to South Africa for a proper burial in 2002.

With Blue Is the Warmest Colour Kechiche redeems himself and the same close-ups and total immediacy of the moment work in a very opposite direction. The film deservedly won the prize at Cannes not only for the writer and director of the film but for the two co-stars.  Instead of a porno movie he made an anti-porno one, a critique of voyeurism not by a moralistic trip, however disguised, about the viewers, which leave them feeling filthy with no one upon whom to displace the dirt. Kechiche accomplished the task by using the naked bodies of two women to put on a show of true erotic passion. We cannot help but be entranced even if some viewers began to get squirrely as the scene went on for seven minutes. The scene was hot. Those who complained that it was sex viewed through the male gaze ignored the reality that the scene was not directed by Kechiche who simply asked the two actors to improvise and act out a feeling of erotic passion for one another. So any disgust and embarrassment some lesbians and others may have felt about the film arose from their own inhibitions and repressions. They were not free or just if they expressed a desire to displace their disgust onto the director.

In Kechiche’s film we get eroticism and sexual ecstasy at its height because it is an expression of love, but that expression takes place in a context where it is neither sentimentalized nor trivialized but allowed to play out its destructive pattern like a Greek drama. For the film shows the illusion of agency and freedom for people act out in destructive ways. But the movie is redeemed because, in the end, it is a film about education, about how Adèle emerges out of her pain to become a teacher herself of young children. Her profession becomes the metaphor for all of life (and love). Adèle Exarchopoulos testified on the Charlie Rose show that the whole film was an experience in seeing, learning and performing, and the expression of profound principles. The film is a true paean to Venus and Dionysus since it is at once spontaneous and intuitive, visceral and immediate, instinctive while expressing desire in its most embodied form. It is a film that needed no make-up artists or costume specialists and the actors were allowed to grow for the director was not someone brought up in the guise of the director/playwright, Tom Novachek of Venus in Fur.

Instead of using the proposed name of Clementine, the actress was permitted to keep her own name. It suited the play for, as Kechiche told Adèle, her name means justice in Arabic. And the film is constructed on the basis of Greek views of justice. (Cf. E. A. Havelock’s 1978 volume The Greek Concept of Justice from its Shadow in Homer to its Substance in Plato). Dikaisyne or Dikē (yes, “dike”), that is, justice, not in the sense of Plato as a utopian writer who held up justice as the supreme virtue upon which humans could live in perfect harmony  in service of the good, but as a goddess, like Venus, who does not bring order like Eunomia or peace like Eirene, for justice between and among humans is impossible on earth. Justice is not righteousness, let alone self-righteousness. Kechiche may record that in French society people are still prejudiced against gays, but that is just a fact, not the subject matter of the film. The movie is about learning to do what is morally right after doing what is morally wrong – Emma leaves Adèle to stew in her own loneliness, Adèle is unfaithful to Emma and Emma in a jealous rage throws Adèle out onto the street. The moral virtue is whether you learn from your actions, take responsibility for them and grow to be a better, if always imperfect person.

So the movie is about education in justice, the very theme of Plato’s Republic. It is not about modern theories of distributive justice of either a neo-Kantian like John Rawls or a utilitarian like John Stuart Mill. It is the every opposite of those who read Plato through quasi-Marxist eyes as a utopian advocating justice as an Apollonian virtue to ensure rational order with every class in its place performing its predetermined duties. Plato wrote a dystopia not a utopian book to show such a vision was an impossibility and that is why the book ends with the myth of Er. 

Instead, justice is how we handle irrationality, how we respond to adverse set backs and how we put ourselves back together after being torn apart by the rages of desire in conflict with life, by the contest between one who would exercise mastery – whether man or woman – and another who would willingly surrender and become the master’s slave just as Adèle, as a character in the film,  as an actor and as a real person, is fed and led by Emma, again as both a character, an actor and a real person, to learn and become who she is. Unlike Sartre, we do not define ourselves in isolation as Emma seemed to believe as a person who idolized Sartre, but only in relationship to another. And it is a painful process. It never has an ideal outcome. Venus lives in heaven We are stuck on earth with each other. And Kechiche observes and records but offers no judgement.

Blue is the warmest colour because it is about soft porn and this film is about heat and cold, about the extremes of passion and despair, about intimate togetherness and extreme loneliness. It is an authentic love story for it tells how eros overcomes divisions only to see pre-existing divisions acted out in other ways to breed new splits and separations. The title of the film is ironic and tells us what the movie is not about.

Love and Lordship and Bondage Mishptim Exodus Chapter 21.1-24:18 10.02.13

The attached blog is long, too long. It is really made up of several parts but I could not analyze the Exodus text without a lot of other analysis.

The beginning offers an explication of the commandment to recognize God as existing and as your Lord and the commandment of placing the responsibility of unity for God on ourselves. It is complicated, philosophical and heavy going with a comparison between Kant’s categorical imperatives and Biblical commandments. The blog gets somewhat lighter after a few pages when it discusses the issue of recognition in terms of taking your kid to play hockey but then returns to the description of man’s relationship with God as a balagan (an untidy chaotic mess, but perhaps that is a characteristic of my interpretation of the relationship). If you manage to get through the first quarter, the reading eases up considerably with a discussion of Love focused primarily on Simon May’s book, Love: A History as well as a number of personal anecdotes of my memory of Birkbeck College in London that have a more serious purpose of reflecting on the utility and value of recognition. This section even includes an attempt to tell a humorous story. In the second half of the blog I return to a more detailed but quite incomplete analysis and critique of Simon May’s thesis on love which, in the last quarter, challenge May’s interpretation of the Adam and Eve story. I then end with a brief explication of the commandment to love God as your Lord and the implications for interpreting the Exodus section on the relationship between an employer and his servants in Exodus 21.

Mishptim Exodus Chapter 21.1-24:18 10.02.13
Love and Lordship and Bondage
Howard Adelman

Part III

We are commanded to recognize God as a moral imperative as the a priori condition of all other commandments. Unlike Kant’s a priori proposition, this is not a transcendental condition of morality. Nor is it even universal. It is a condition for the Jewish people becoming a moral nation and a light unto other nations. But the condition cannot come from experience since God is not available to be seen or experienced in any normal way. The command cannot come from experience for a second reason – the commander cannot even be experienced. Third, the command is a necessary precondition for the Jewish people having any moral sense. In order to be moral, the Jewish people as a collectivity, and each Jew individually, has to commit to the very first commandment of the Mishneh Torah. So the condition is both logically and existentially prior to experience and is not derived from experience. But neither is it derived from either metaphysical or transcendental reasoning, via the latter establishing that without such a principle there would be no morality whatsoever.

The absence of a principle derived through a process of transcendental reasoning differentiates this Jewish account from Kant’s philosophical position. Second, for Kant, the imperative must be universal. But the two basic conditions of morality have one thing in common. For Kant, one must act according to the maxim whereby you can will that the imperative become a universal law. In the Jewish commandments, categorical imperatives are products of a covenant between a community, its representative and God, but imperatives only become active and operational if and when individual Jews commit themselves to follow the laws. In Kant, however, the act of willing is a theoretical possibility and condition built into the essence of the proposition. For Jews, the act of willing must be an existential reality. Further, in Kant the categorical imperative to treat all humans as ends and not as means only, is a condition of moral freedom and action. In Judaism, the maxim that requires humans to treat one another as ends and not as a means only is derivative. The precondition for that derivation is recognizing God, not as an equal Other, but as your master.

In another major difference, the Kantian principle that every other human must be treated as a free self-conscious individual, in his formulation, as an end in itself and never as a means only, is formulated as an abstraction, usually a utopian one in practice. The same requirement in Judaism is enacted by examining and/or enacting the principle in everyday life. The prime example, as we shall see, is when a relationship is not only based on use of an other, but on a contractual form of indenture for up to seven years. However, even in that situation, an individual with the lowest status must be treated as a free and rational agent and not simply as a submissive subordinate. One final major difference in the Judaic covenantal structure: there must be a prior commitment by the whole community even to be allowed to have the laws. Communitarianism is a precondition of autonomous freedom and any recognition of rights.

Since the recognition of God as existing and as one’s Lord is the primary principle, it is crucial that we unpack the meaning of that recognition. It is not the recognition of the Other as autonomous and free so that the individual made in the image of God can also be autonomous and free, for in such a conception one would clearly not have to recognize the other as one’s lord and master. On the other hand, the central issue is the possibility of freedom and its very nature. The complementary question is why acceptance of authority and dependence is a precondition for the realization of that freedom.

Several days ago I was listening to a radio call-in show on CBC at noon. The topic was what hockey had meant to you. A Canadian mother with a Chinese accent told the story of taking her ten year old son and helping him dress (he was a goalie, and in hockey, if your son – in my case, my grandson, Micah – is a goalie, then there is a long ritual of helping him get on all the pads and skates). The son tolerated the embarrassment of having his mother help him get dressed to play, but only for as long as it took. Then he changed from the dependent child into the independent man who wanted to be with his buddies and listen to and follow the instructions of his coach independent of his mother. It was at that moment the mother recognized that hockey was making a man out of her son as he entered into the camaraderie of his fellows as heirs of a “long” tradition and into a fellowship that required loyalty to each and every other one of his teammates. Through that solidarity and esteem they received, the team could get on the ice and do battle.

The mother recognized a basic principle that is at the core of the Judaic normative structure. Recognition of the others on the team and their recognition of him provided the conditions for the possibility of the realization of his essential individuality – in Hegel, Einzelheit. Her son became an independent actor; as a goalie he carried an enormous responsibility on behalf of the team. It is not as if on stepping on the ice he became a free individual in the sense that he was freed up from the physical laws of motion and gravity. Quite the reverse! The more he comprehended those laws and made them part of his instinctual response, the more he could carry out the responsibility he had assumed. Freedom then is both a relationship and respect for others and, at the same time, a high sense of self-regard that permits actions to be undertaken in a highly skilled manner.

If we extrapolate backwards from this conception, then the covenant requires that an individual recognize that God is, that the God that is, is the One who commands that He be recognized and that he be recognized as Lord and Master. One enters into the covenantal relationship freely. One enters with only the faintest glimpse of what you are getting into. But at the very least, you know that you want to be yourself and, at the same time, be with that Other, in the case of a more mundane level, hockey, with those others, and to assume a responsibility for oneself and to that Other. In highly important situations like hockey, the responsibility is to those others.

Note, like that young hockey player, the individual entering into a covenantal relationship with God is temporarily removing himself from his prior dependencies but not denying them. On the earthly level, he is not denying prior socialization into a feeling for hockey or soccer or ballet or orchestral performance, for that socialization does not take away from his freedom but makes that freedom possible. Freedom becomes the realization of the possibility of aligning his genetically endowed capacities, his developing skills with his performance in serving a higher and collective purpose, and, in the case of Judaism, at the highest level serving the redemption of the Jewish people to enable them to serve as a moral light to others.

So God and man start off on a very uneasy relationship. They begin with a blind date, but a peculiar form of blind date in which the Other makes it a condition of your entering the process of developing your freedom that you recognize that the Other exists before you ever encounter Him, but that He exists as your Lord and you become His bondsman. This is the first thing one learns upon entering into this relationship!!! You learn that you will never come to really know the Other as Other. More significantly, the Other lacks a coherent identity and the development of that coherent identity is your responsibility. What a balagan! (an untidy chaotic mess in Hebrew/Yiddish, a monster in Pashtun, an old rickety shed in Russian and chaos in Turkic and Pharsi)

How then does a process aiming at the mutuality of equals and the freedom of each individual begin with subjecting oneself to the will of an Other? Only if that Other cannot become what He is to be (I shall be He who I shall be, not I am what I am) without you taking on the responsibility of making Himself one. We learn freedom and initially gain recognition by actively joining a community and serving a collective purpose. That does not mean surrendering your individuality. It means developing that individuality by recognizing as accurately and profoundly as possible the conditions in which one finds oneself, the norms under which you are operating — whether they are the rules of hockey or the religious rules or the laws of the state in which one lives — the goals of any action you are considering, your motives and reasons for action and your assessment of the anticipated results. And each individual must take responsibility for that assessment and be accountable for the actions that follow in the sense of being willing to explain the reasons for his or her actions in precisely such terms. Further, each individual must regard each and every other being as rational beings responsible for their own assessments in precisely the same terms and accountable for the actions that follow from those assessments.

This does not mean that caprice does not play a role. The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley. Freedom means not allowing oneself to be determined by chance and circumstance. On the same CBC program referred to above, one of the calls that came in was from a hockey player who had lost his legs and now played on a handicapped team. He perhaps got even more out of the game, out of the camaraderie and fellowship and mutual recognition, than players playing with full human capacities. You are free to the extent that you develop your natural capacities and, at the same time, do not allow your given incapacities to hold you back. That which is merely given by nature and/or society should not be allowed to determine who you become, but you cannot become that person without paying homage to what you have been given.

But God gives. He is not given. He is not of nature. That is why the realization of freedom depends on us. There is only self-determination when there is the negation and transformation to a higher level of what we have inherited. In the process we can come to recognize and know God as we re-cognize in the sense of recalling and seeing once again what has been seen by others, and allowing God to see while He does not allow Himself to be seen. In the process of re-cognition, we ourselves are granted recognition as someone with rights and a potential that can someday receive recognition of a very different order, and be cognized as someone of worth or who has produced something of worth. Thereby, we become partners of God so that He can become One.

How do the commandments to recognize God as existing and as your Lord, and to make God one, relate to the commandment to love God, your Lord? If you are to recognize that God exists as Lord and Master, if you are to take on the task of giving unity to the manifold that is God, you must love God. What does it mean to love God?

Instead of starting with the ancient world and its biblical scriptures, we can begin with the form of secular love that Simon May claims is the contemporary earthly distillation of the biblical conception. My daughter, Rachel, whom I have mentioned in an earlier blog who teaches biblical studies at a rabbinical college in Boston, occasionally works with Simon May and recommended his book to me. I highly recommend his 2011 book as well – Love: A History (Yale University Press). Thanks to the miracle of Amazon and kindle, I could get it instantly. I have not yet been able to read the book properly let alone study it carefully, but from dipping into the volume, it looks like a brilliant book. (If my interpretation of his thesis is out of line, please send me corrections.)

I had not read or encountered Simon May before even though he is also a philosopher who focussed on German idealism and ethics, though his concern is exclusively individual ethics while I have written mostly on international ethics. However, my MA thesis was on Hegel and Nietzsche. May in 2011 not only published Love: A History, he edited a volume on Nietzsche, Nietzsche’s ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’: A Critical Guide (Cambridge University Press). He is a visiting professor at both King’s College and Birkbeck College in London.

In the late 1960s, I too was a Visiting Professor at Birkbeck, but just for one month in the spring semester when we had already finished our teaching at York. I taught at Atkinson College which had been modelled on Birkbeck as a college dedicated to the teaching of evening and part-time students. I was invited to Birkbeck as the college’s resident “radical”. I had been honoured to accept the invitation to a college with a history of eminent radicals. Karl Marx and Hugh Gaitskell had taught at Birkbeck. So had C.E.M. Joad. I would have loved to have met the latter for he had been a pacifist, as I was at the time. Etched into my brain was the story of Joad leading the debating team at the Oxford Union and winning a stupendous victory in 1933 for the proposition “That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country”, thereby establishing the prototype for Britain as a country supporting appeasement. Who says scholars cannot be influential! C.E.M. Joad had been one of the first celebrity public intellectuals who based at Birkbeck, but he had already died more than a decade before my visit.
Julia Bell, the famous researcher and pioneer in medical genetics and its impact on inherited disease, whom I had read when I was in medical school, would not see me. The person who answered the phone informed me that she was old and had to protect her time. I presume she did not recognize me as being someone worth spending her scarce time meeting, and she was surely correct.

The most important scholar I looked forward to meeting was Eric Hobsbawm whose three volume history of the nineteenth century left (The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848; The Age of Capital: 1848-1875; The Age of Empire: 1875-1914) I read and still have on my book shelves. But I never did meet him. He was, I believe, abroad as a visiting professor at Stanford at the time. I was less interested in talking to him about his historiography than trying to learn why he remained a member of and dogmatic defender of the Communist Party and the USSR even after the invasion of Hungary in1956. In fact, he stayed a member of the party until the end of the Cold War.

I also wanted to meet James Lovelock even though I really did not recognize at the time how important a scientist and inventor he was (the microwave oven and the atmospheric ozone detector that provided the early warning of the depletion of the ozone layer and its causes just to mention two). I just knew him as the inventor of the recently minted Gaia Hypothesis and the image of the earth as a balanced ecological system that could sustain life as long as the balance had been kept and not become a dead planet like Mars with an atmosphere with a superabundance of carbon dioxide. I never did manage to meet him and I cannot remember why. If I had I possibly might have devoted part of my life to being a crusading environmentalist. Such is the result of caprice.

I also remember never getting to see the Pablo Picasso mural at Birkbeck, but again I cannot remember why. I did meet anther communist, the famous and brilliant physicist, John Bernal, whom I recall being very old at the time and perhaps showing the strains of his commitment to the war effort. (I believe he died not long after I met him.) I had just read his recent book, The Origin of Life, but I recall being too embarrassed and tongue-tied to discuss it with him. We did have some discussion about the peace movement but I recall being very disappointed to learn that he was still active in the World Peace Congress which, if I recall, had failed to denounce the Soviet Union for its invasion of Hungary.

I mention these brief encounters and non-encounters not simply as asides but to help understand that they are about love and recognition. I wanted to meet people whom I really knew nothing about but who had reputations. I knew them as most of those know God, as individuals with enormous reputations. I recognized them even though I did not know them. And in one case I should have known far more about them in order to get something out of the meeting with them. How much more important is this when you have to prepare to meet God who is essentially unknowable.

Further, I wanted these encounters because they were expressions of my love for the intellectual life and all the dilemmas and both positive and negative aspects of public activism. Love is not restricted and perhaps not even mainly about a dimension of sexual passion, a point Simon May makes so clearly in his book. There is one other story of recognition I want to tell, a more humorous one.

The student body, at least the ones I met, were overwhelmingly active new leftists. As it turns out, I was there at the time of the annual chancellor’s dinner and, as a guest of the college, I was invited. They had arranged for me to be seated at high table with the Chancellor. The Chancellor was the Queen Mother. Since dinners were a formal affair, they said they would rent a tuxedo for me.

I informed them that wearing tuxedos was against my principles. They were both symbols of class and luxurious waste. They never questioned how not wearing a tuxedo could be a matter of such high principle and believed that I was sincere. They went into a real sweat. I could not be disinvited as that would be an insult to the Queen Mother. At the same time, they could not sit me beside the Queen Mother if I was not properly dressed for that would be an even greater insult. So they set out on an assiduous program of trying to get me to go and get me fitted for a tuxedo. As they reasoned and argued with me and as my own arguments became even more wild and absurd, I began to think I had become a sadist since they had become so worried, but I took such pleasure in their discomfort as I accused them of being ersatz radicals and hypocrites, married to obeisance to formal rules which reinforced a hierarchical and status burdened class system while professing a commitment to equality. I wish now that I had a cell phone then that could take pictures (though I suspect I would have messed it up given my terrible record as a photographer). The expression of relief, glee and absolute joy on their faces when I showed up at the reception prior to the dinner wearing proper formal attire (I had secretly gone to get fitted) remains only in my head as a faded memory. The experience taught me first hand the importance of recognition and the accoutrements of recognition and their value independent of and often in opposition to ideology.

For Simon May’s thesis on love you can get a brief introduction by reading his interview online with John Allemang of The Globe and Mail on 11 August 2011 and his own on-line article, “Rethinking our Fascination with Love” where he writes of the vision of romantic love in which, “love can be a cocoon of perfection: it can make us feel totally secure, wanted, and respected in all our individuality; it can redeem the brevity and imperfections of life; it can give meaning and purpose where nothing else can; it can protect us from every abyss.” Love of another has become “a democracy of salvation open to all” and a replacement for a love of God as our divine protector.
The thesis itself is not very complex for May has undertaken his historiography of love to set forth a polemical contention. May claims, and probably correctly, that the contemporary romantic view of love as unconditional and selfless, a sincere commitment by both parties to a relationship totally and unconditionally accepting of the other, is a delusion and a fraud, rooted in the history of thought and of religion. About the same time as humans entered the modern industrial world and redefined themselves as material possessive individualists, and, according to Professor Frank Griffith on Friday at his talk at Massey College, when the process of global warming as a result of human activity began, that is, in the mid seventeenth century just before Kant was defining the foundation of morality in terms of pure practical reason, the view that God is love was inverted into love is God.
For May, the contemporary notion of romantic love has become the secular religion of the modern age without any knowledge of its religious origins. May has written a polemical screed in a cool rational voice against an unrealistic utopian conception that he argues ruins relationships with its set of deluded expectations. What was once an ideal of pure unrequited love in the medieval period has come down to earth and been merged with sexual passion to forge this modern conception of romantic love. As a result, the conception of love as an eternal ideal has become ossified and turned into a material idol of worship. What divine love was once supposed to achieve has now been placed on the shoulders of contemporary romantic love. The notion is too fragile, too weak to carry such a heavy historical burden.
I have the impression that he roots this notion in 1800 rather than 1750, in Novalis’ Hymns to the Night, for Novalis adopted Spinoza’s vision of nature as one unified whole but infused it with “an immanent metaphysical reality which manifests itself in everything.” There was no need to participate in making the One; it was present in all its glory to be revealed and experienced through the beloved other. Acquiring that experience was “central, urgent and redemptive”. Sophie in the poem, who is sketched as an unreal phantasm, inspired precisely such a love for through the cloud he saw “the glorified face of my beloved”. The transcendent value of love merged divine and the embodied human and stood in stark contrast to wretched ordinariness.
As I wrote in my review of the film, Anna Karenina, as she came under the spell of romantic love, Anna played by Keira Knightly “metamorphosed from a beautiful and idealist saint of forgiveness into a woman driven mad and increasingly paranoid and possessive through passionate love and the sacrifice of her marriage. Devoted to love as she once was to goodness and forgiveness, her intimate connection with her son, her social standing and friendships are all lost along with the disintegration of her marriage and split from a dedicated and loving but very cold husband who idealistically dedicated his life and service in turn to mother Russia.” Anna surrendered to that transcendent yearning and suffered the consequences when it came face to face with reality.
The movie Amour, that I also wrote about, was not a story of romantic love. In it, we find the opposite, a very grounded tale of a couple who had been in love for half a century, who had built a home which is in May’s sense a sacred ground where each finds in the other someone who in day to day life affirms the existence and value of the other. The yearning for what May calls “ontological rootedness” seems to have been found – that is, until they are struck with the hubris of caprice. For even that very solid love is shattered as it encounters the vicissitudes of the world, as an Anne rather than an Anna has a stroke, loses her memory and faculties. The two gradually become strangers to one another as her husband is reduced to playing only the role of the servant and caretaker whose love cannot be reciprocated by the acknowledgement and recognition by the other. If true and grounded love that is truly solid and real, especially when it is atomized into nuclear units in the modern world, cannot withstand the blows that reality sometimes delivers, cannot be a bulwark against suffering and loss, what chance does contemporary romantic love have?
If Novalis wrote his poem Hymns to the Night in Prussia as a reaction “to the irretrievable loss of a divine world-order and the firm moorings it afforded”, he helped plant the seeds for the globalization in the contemporary world of romantic love fused with eros as the spiritual foundation for modernity, but a notion not rooted in reality but in the ephemeral. They are words expressed over and over again in the personal ads of the New York Review of Books (cf. Paul Hollander’s “Extravagant Expectations”) — and, as documented in the Canadian writer, Lisa Appignanesi’s, All About Love: Anatomy of an Unruly Emotion, in an experience that “confronts us with the height and depths of our being”. If our environmental crisis is, as Frank Griffiths contended, an effort to steal the secret of fire from the gods by exploiting the reserves of fossil fuel and for which we are about to be punished, according to May, on the more personal level, “the divinization of love as the latest attempt by human beings to steal the powers of god…is [also] doomed to end badly.”
If we now return to Deuteronomy, love of God and love identified with God was first made the supreme value according to May before it was bestowed on humans as a divine gift to share with one another. Then earth and nature also became worthy objects of love before the crucial link with the divine source was severed in the modern world. Can we now get a better insight into the commandment to love God, your Lord and Master? In its Christian version as Judaism was merged with Platonic love, and through which framework the ancient texts were interpreted, love was associated with devotion and unconditional selflessness, with love of the transcendent rather than with that which provides a grounding to allow us to feel at home with ourselves, with one another and with the world.
May’s version tries to escape from the secularized Christian notion. Finding in one’s selfless love for the divine and opening oneself to God’s divine presence within us and His ultimate sacrifice for us, where God’s complete dedicated selflessness is to be reciprocated by our own corresponding commitment, and from which we could achieve a much richer and more eternal absolute intensity of feeling, s now transferred to and promised by romantic love. Romantic love is now given a capacity for redemption and regeneration but romantic love could aspire to, but never come near, divine love. Romantic love could not, in the end, achieve immoral life.
In contrast to divine love and especially romantic love, for May, love is pragmatic, a conditional contract of mutuality best freed of romantic notions. Nevertheless, it remains “the rapture we feel for people who (or things that) inspire in us the experience or hope of ontological rootedness – a rapture that triggers and sustains the long search for a vital relationship between our being and theirs”. This notion still appears entrapped in romanticism, granted a very different and more grounded version, but one that nevertheless elevates the couple in Amour into a heavenly pantheon without taking note of their social atomization and severance from an extended community, even the community of their very small family. Further, May’s notion remains a far cry from Jewish notions as articulated in different ways by Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber. For we neither have to sore heavenwards in romantic love nor seek solid ground in pragmatic love, but can find a horizontal mutuality in one another. However, that requires going back earlier to a very different understanding of the commandment to love God as your Lord and a different understanding of the Christian version of the Adam and Eve story that May offers.
What then is the Jewish notion of the commandment to love God as your Lord? It is not the Christian commandment to love God with all one’s heart that will in the end provide a the template for mediaeval unrequited love and contemporary romantic love in search of an ideal human relationship in which our “flourishing is founded upon a lifelong search for a powerful relationship to the ground of our being.” It is the demand that any expression of absolute devotion can never have a human as the recipient but must always be directed to God. Further, since God is unknown and unknowable and since the creation of God’s unity depends on us, then to the extent we express that love that is the extent that God can manifest it. Further, since God’s love in Judaism is always conditional, conditional for Jews on following His commandments, the love can never be absolute on our part either. It too must be conditional. If God commands something that crosses the line, that obliges an immoral act, we are commanded out of love not to obey. We are commanded to challenge and question and stay committed to the relationship but not to accept and surrender to an illusion of absolute perfection and truth.
For Lisa Appignanesi in her stories of love, reduced to a self-regarding sentimental amorous feeling, the expectation can and should be much more mundane, looking towards “a predictable steadfastness” in the beloved. The love that sees us through life “is a gift freely given by the other, not a form of enslavement”. However, in the Judaic version, this is only possible if the propensity for sacrificial love, for total commitment of oneself to the other, is restricted to God whose love is always conditional and, thereby, determines that ours must be as well. Otherwise the trap that was set for Anna Karenina to fall under the spell of the absolute and its extravagant expectations will remain an ever-present danger.
The injunction in Judaism is the command to love your neighbour and you should love God as your neighbour and not as your intimate Other. God will not provide the insights into either Truth or Beauty for we are charged with finding and creating the unity that is God’s. The reason for this can be found in the story of Adam and Eve, but not the common Christian version.
May portrays the Garden of Eden as an idyllic place, one “in which there is no want”. If love is as Socrates depicted it something which “originates in lack” as the child of Poverty, poor, weather-beaten, shoeless and homeless, yet a scheming lover of wisdom nonetheless with a surfeit of resources, then love could not arise in the Garden of Eden. There could be plenitude but not want. Yet the relationship between Adam and Eve is portrayed as the Platonic one of two halves of an original creation seeking to reclaim their lost other, looking for and desiring that which they do not have. So there is lack. Love as the desire to possess absolute goodness and beauty perpetually cannot arise in the Garden of Eden because the requisite precondition of want is lacking according to the depiction of the Garden as without want. That love could arise if indeed want was the essential characteristic of the relationship between Adam and Eve. Can a self-contradictory story offer an accurate interpretation?
There is a different version. “The LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (2:7) Adam lives alone tending the Garden. Out of the blue he is given what is usually translated as a commandment but is in realty an entreaty. “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (2:16-17) In this version of the story, at the point it is offered, this is not a command but a warning. I advise you not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil for the result will be certain death.
This is a puzzling warning in at least three respects. Why is the tree of life, of immortality, in the garden if the implication is that Adam would live forever if he does not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Second, what is the relationship between carnal knowledge and good and evil? Third, the warning is given before Eve is there, so if the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is about carnal knowledge and a warning not to partake, why offer the warning when there is no possibility of normal heterosexual activity?
Immediately after the warning God thought to himself, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helpmeet suitable for him.” (2:18) Not a partner but explicitly a helper, presumably someone who can also work and care for the garden. But what has creating a helper have to do with God’s sensitivity to Adam’s loneliness? And why is it that Adam does not even think about being alone? The answer is offered in the next verse. Adam is too busy being a nerd and giving names to everything as God’s partner. Just as God created tangible things, Adam creates them for consciousness by designating and differentiating. And no suitable helper could be found.
So God hypnotizes Adam or puts him to sleep in some other way. In his sleep, god cuts Adam open, removes one of his ribs, sews him up again, and uses the rib to make woman, she who was taken out of man. More puzzling still! Why create woman when man is asleep? Why create woman from a part of man when God supposedly already created man and woman from the dust of the earth? Then comes the supposed hermaphrodite verse that suggests that until then, what was a Garden without want became suffused with want, for in creating woman from man, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (2:24)
In the hermaphrodite interpretation, the man and the woman are just two parts of one whole. Woman is part of man, an essential complement to man, not as a servant or minion for azer k’negdo in the Torah refers to an appropriate dominant force (Deuteronomy 33:7′ Exodus 18:14), a potent presence that will stir the desires of man and induce him to leave his family and make a life with a woman. The story of the serpent that follows certainly suggests a contrasting but complementary presence.
Working backwards, if Adam is alone but does not recognize it, if Adam has a conception in his imagination of the other, the woman, as just an extension of his own flesh without his mental powers and mission to name things, of woman as a lesser creature driven by estrogen hormones with one less carbon molecule that testerone, but in reality she is a complementary forceful presence, then this might explain what happens in chapter 3. But we have to notice one more ingredient. Once Adam was alone, he did not recognize he was alone. He was too busy being a biologist. Adam does not even seem to recognize he has a body with desires and passions. Woman made for man seems to have the same characteristic. But as the story unfolds, the woman has a keener sense of observation than the Great Namer.
If in Chapter 2 of Genesis, an other is brought into being as merely an extension of his own body, it also seems clear that his own body is objectified as other as well. For Adam and Eve are together in the garden but neither even recognizes that they are naked, A very different erect figure appears on the scene in chapter 3, one not driven by a passion to be a scientist, but full of guile. This erect cunning character at least talks to the woman. Adam ignores her. The erect figure queries, are you sure God told you not to eat from any tree? The woman corrects him. Not any tree. Just one tree! And she clearly displays a case of broken telephone for God never talked to her. God enjoined Adam before Eve came on the scene. The woman responds that, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” (Genesis 2:2-3)
Note that there are at least two differences between the woman’s hearsay version and the original. Not content to simply relay the instruction word for word, she adds her own bit. Not only can you not eat from the tree; you cannot even touch it. Further what first appeared to be just a warning about the consequences of taking a course of action is now clearly interpreted as an injunction.
Ignoring the hyperbole and the interpretation as a commandment, this beguiling presence slips rightly by and goes to the heart of the matter and, in effect, calls God a liar. You’re not going to die. Quite the opposite! Your eyes will be opened and you will now know good from evil. Then you will be truly like God and not just made in His image. (Genesis 3:4-5) He could have added that Adam only knows potatoes from turnips. You have a chance to know the difference between good and evil and become divine.
Adam sees himself as fulfilling his divine mission by bringing things into being by naming them. The slinky slippery but still erect one tells Eve she too can be divine by discerning moral differences and not just making taxonomic distinctions. In effect he challenges her: You’re not going to die. You are going to acquire a godlike quality, the ability to pronounce what is good and what is bad and not just which tree is an elm and which is an oak. Adam is there throughout the whole process of seduction but taking no responsibility for it. For Adam has defined himself as the detached observer and not an embodied individual driven by passions. He is a repressed voyeur.
Convinced by the moral argument and her own aesthetic observations and driven by a different route to gaining wisdom and not just knowledge, she took up the erect one’s offer, took the fruit of the tree and ate it. “She also gave some to her husband, who was with her.” (Genesis 3:6) So ends the porno movie. The consequences follow.
The first consequence is that, in contrast to a porno movie, they become self-conscious and embarrassed about their naked bodies. Instead of feeling really satisfied, they both feel humiliated and ashamed and enter into cover-up mode. It is not as if God walked in on them and caught them in a carnal act of oral sex. They are ashamed first and are found later. And Adam gives the game away by telling a white lie: I hid because I was ashamed of my nakedness. God then knew (so much for the omniscience of the divine) that they had eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. I warned you, God said. The consequences of eating and partaking in carnal knowledge is that you felt ashamed and felt like dying and hid yourselves for you could not even be master of your own flesh. Then Adam commits his sin. “I didn’t do it. She did. At least, she made me do it. She induced me.” When God confronts the woman, she says the erect one did it. He seduced me. Both refused to take responsibility for their actions.
If you think shame and humiliation and feeling like dying were the consequences, “you ain’t seen nothing yet!” The erect one will suffer the most and eat dust, condemned to being responsible for the war between men and women and within man, for man will not just try to control you the slippery slithery one but to crush you. But you will bite his Achilles heel. The indifference of Adam to his own body and passions now means open warfare. For Adam experienced his erect penis as a separate entity with a mind of its own led by desire for the other rather than the job of cognizing and naming. The woman will suffer labour pains but even worse, your husband will rule over you. The consequences of such actions and failing to take responsibility and trying to cover up flouting my warnings is that you will become like God, but instead of respect between Lord and bondsman, there will be war between you and within you. The issue in the garden is neither sufficiency nor surplus re wants, but desire and taking responsibility for that desire.
What does this say about the commandment to love God as your Lord? The only way to minimize the state of endless enmity within and between self and other is not to love anyone as Lord and Master except God. Do not idolize another person of flesh and blood as a transcendent being. Reserve that kind of love for God.
So in Exodus 21 you are commanded not to base the relationship between a man and a woman as if it were one between God and his servant, for whether male or female such a relationship of service can never be a relationship of slavery. You shall not be enslaved to your own passions. But you must always regard the other individual who works for you as a free individual, free to choose at the end of the contract whether to continue or not that work. Even a maid servant will be eligible to marry your sons and there shall be no wall between a commoner and a member of the aristocracy. People with servants are employers, not lords and masters. Respect for the other must define human relations. And love of the other as an absolute, as total surrender must be reserved for your Lord and only your Lord.

[Category Judaism]
[Keys: recognition, lordship and bondage, love]

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