From a Sanctuary of Truth to a Sanctuary of Method

The film Inception that took one on a wild ride through the architecture of the mind grossed over $820 million worldwide and continues to earn money on the secondary circuit of TV and Cable. The movie was nominated for eight Oscars and won four – for Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects, that is, for its tremendously brilliant pyrotechnics rather than its script, direction or acting. The visual dazzle and thematic ambition marked an almost equally successful follow-up of nomadic exploration, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. That film really took us on a very different nomadic journey into the desert of space and a pristine environment. This is relevant because a university is created as a sanctuary, as an anti-nomadic movement, as a place where individuals from all over can come together in one place and study.

One mission of that university is to teach us how to distinguish a real oasis from a mirage, objectivity from subjectivity. But that initially took second position to the development of character. To leap forward, how did the Sanctuary of Truth dedicated to instilling values and character and creating a culture that would not succumb to the attractions of the Golden Calf, and its modern successor, the Sanctuary of Method committed to rules and professionalism, become transformed into a core institution that defines objectivity in terms of subjectivity? Does the explanation reside in the incompatibility of the two very different types of sanctuary that necessitated the emergence of a third idea of the university and then a fourth?

The university as a Sanctuary of Method was dedicated to unpacking authentic memories rather than the heroic ones that characterized the Sanctuary of Truth.  The university as a Sanctuary of Method was created as a vehicle for escaping the myth of an absolute and binding moral code into a realm of rules to ensure discovery on the intellectual frontiers of knowledge. Truth was no longer an inherited given. Just as the university in Canada entered fully into that maturity of a Sanctuary of Method a century later from its roots in Berlin in 1810, the existence of a spacetime continuum was proclaimed as a four-dimensional frame of reference rather than a three-dimensional one of space only. In Einstein’s turn of the century (1905) theory of relativity, distances and times varied depending on the initial reference frame.

Both time and space were relativized with respect to one another. Further, instead of fostering character and virtues, the university turned into a place to explore one’s identity for there was no boundary to any pursuit, including the pursuit of the inner self. In other words, the university as a Sanctuary of Method undermined the core ideas and ideals of a Sanctuary of Truth, but in the process made discoveries that undermined its own essential idea of providing at least an absolute methodological frame.

Is there a cognitive dissonance when the university is in fact a place of intellectual and epistemological thrills in the search for certainty only to discover the uncertainty principle and that certainty itself is a chimera? Is this a world akin to Nolan’s labyrinths where the only end is the revelation of an illusion and Truth remains forever out of reach? For if we believe in the foundation of the Sanctuary of Method, then we have escaped the world of divine revelation and faith into a belief system in which all explanations are constructed solely in reference to physical processes. However, if the physical processes themselves have no constancy, not even the constancy of a reference in space, the framework for the university as a steady state providing a solid reference for society dissolves.

Hence the entry of corruption and the paranoia about conspiracies that creep into this Sanctuary. However, we need not go abroad to reveal the tensions. A close study of Canadian intellectual giants like Harold Innis more often than not revealed this contradiction. Innis, though he became an agnostic, never lost the strict set of values and missionary zeal instilled in him by his Baptist upbringing. However, when studying for his PhD at the University of Chicago, he fell under the sway of George Herbert Mead and absorbed the idea that communications did not just entail the transfer of information but were both broader (including railways, the subject of his thesis) and deeper since the form of communications was critical in shaping the frame by which you understood the world.

Einstein’s theories were offered a complementary economic and political frame. Innis would spend his career warring against “static economics.” At the same time, he put forth the thesis that technology itself framed the Canadian mind as the railway became a mode of spreading European civilization westward. Further, the content on which that technology focused, the “staples,” fur, fish, lumber, wheat, mining metals, potash, and extracting fossil fuels, shaped the political and economic history and culture of Canada.

If communications are, as Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan argued, that through which a culture is brought into existence, sustained over time and concretized through institutions, then Canada in its development had a unique culture, one antithetical to that of its southern imperial neighbour. Until the emergence of the Sanctuary of Method, history, that had been a tale of heroic adventurers as told by “scholars” in the Sanctuary of Truth, became an interplay of geography, technology and economics in consolidating a culture. Innis was a pioneer of Canadian intellectual nationalism. But then how do you reconcile this fixity with the propulsion towards alteration driven by technology and new forms of communication, ideas now accepted as standard in explicating change? For Harold Innis himself was central to consolidating the Sanctuary of Method as the ideal model for a university as a substitute for the Sanctuary of Truth, but emerged later in his career as an advocate of the university as a Social Service Station.

How were those cultural roots set down? Through the cultural routes used by Canadian nomads as they traversed the continent. However, the intersection of cultures, of European users of beaver pelts for hats, of Canadian traders and of First Nations trappers, itself wreaked havoc on the traditions and patterns of native peoples and eventually undermined the very institutions and values so basic to their cultures. What Innis did not see is that the same process was at work in undermining the character of the university which had become his intellectual domicile. His own pioneering studies of the cultural industry and the mode by which knowledge is developed and spread and which gave some groups the authority and the power they had, was itself being undermined in the changes wrought over the two decades of the forties and the fifties.

The crisis came in the sixties and out of that maelstrom emerged a new type of university for Canada, a Social Service Station, one pioneered in America about a century earlier. The university itself was not a sanctuary ensuring stability but was itself subject to the forces of change, by the technology by which knowledge was revealed and communicated. Harold Innis had been correct. There was an interplay between power and knowledge, between economic and cultural values and, more fundamentally, between primarily time-oriented cultures and ones that leaned more heavily on space in the spacetime continuum.

Let me illustrate with a story. In first year premedical studies, I took Ed Carpenter’s anthropology class. Carpenter was a close collaborator of Marshal McLuhan. In that course, he introduced me to the ideas of Clyde Kluckhohn and his studies of the different conceptions of time in each of the five cultures that constituted the mosaic of a part of Texas. I was inspired when I attended his lecture in Convocation Hall and his analysis of the different cultures of adjacent communities of Southwest Zuni, Navajo, Mormons, Mexican-Americans and Texas homesteaders, each with its own conception of time.

Based on my experience as a carnie in the summer, I submitted an essay comparing the understanding of time and space by the nomads who lived and thrived in a carnival. When they told stories, they interlaced tales of the riots in Windsor with those of a fight with gangs when playing Scarborough. In their oral tradition of narrative, disparate events were melded into a single story with no differentiation along a time line to distinguish various incidents. The unity was not provided by reference to time and place, but by the subjective experiences common to different incidents. Any effort to correct those tales by pointing out geographical and calendar reference points that differed, fell on deaf ears.

Carpenter gave me my first A++ for that essay. It had deeper roots than I understood at the time. I had been brought up in a strong time-binding culture, a culture of clay tablets and the dedication to preservation instantiated by that culture. That was why Moses’ shattering of the two tablets when he confronted his fellow tribesmen worshipping the Golden Calf was so traumatic. Even as I threw off the heritage of a Jewish orthodox upbringing, the quest for a durable foundation remained inherited from a nomadic culture in search of and involved in creating a sanctuary dedicated to Torah, dedicated to study. However, my nomadic carnies lived in what was primarily a space-oriented culture, a culture in which events are fleeting and ephemeral, a space more in tune with media which constantly stresses “breaking news” while telling the same old stories but with new twists.

It did not matter whether the communications media were radio, mass circulations newspapers, television or the internet, as they morphed into one another, they made irrelevant the possibility of a sanctuary as a source of stability altogether.  For Innis, entrenched mass communication monopolies undermined the “elements of permanence essential to cultural activity” that today might account for the widespread rise of populism and troglodyte philistines into positions of power. At the saMe time, Innis was a progenitor of that development as he proposed a shift in the university mission from a Sanctuary of Method to a Social Service Station dedicated to research on public problems.

The university as a Sanctuary of Method could not survive such an onslaught and it was itself formally transformed in Toronto in the seventies into a Social Service Station in which the problems and norms of society shaped the university rather than the norms and rules of a university shaping society. In the ancient world, in Greece and in Jerusalem, writing had displaced the oral traditions and reified them in a script. Rome had married that mode of inscription with power to forge an empire. The innovation of the printing press in Europe created another volcanic eruption that buried the mediaeval university in quaint practices, obsolete modes and social irrelevance except as a playground for the aristocratic class. Was this an adumbration of the destiny of the modern university? Is that what is happening to the university as a Social Service Station as it mutates once again from a Social Service Station to an intellectual supermarket for consumers rather than producers of knowledge?

It is the imaginative world that Nolan spent his whole career constructing. Instead of a set and established field, we find the material to be in flux and ever-changing. Instead of one standard set of tools guided by common principles, we find a realm of clashing ideologies so that the university undermines its own self-defined role as a guiding star for society.

In Nolan’s Inception, the characters do not escape time, but are entrapped in it, in a world of technical virtuosity. Without eternal verities, they are thrust into a search for the delusion of eternity, that time is not passing and content themselves with a multiplicity of simultaneous offerings rather than living within a singular and wholesome whole. It should not be a surprise that the university as a Sanctuary of Method will in turn be experienced as ether. The institution had been thrust into a conviction that its direction must be defined externally, thereby undermining the very notion of the autonomy of the university.

Thus, universities in escaping the repressive environment of religiously imposed rules for the world, one governed, not by an omnipotent spirit or a totemic animal, but a world in which thought and intention, became omnipotent and altered the world. But the universities existed in that world and they themselves were changed. The Sanctuary of Method was transformed into a Social Service Station.

 

To be continued: The Social Service Station

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Totem and Taboo: A Movie Review

 

Christopher Nolan (2010) Inception

Warren Beatty (2016) Rules Don’t Apply

What do these two films have to do with the series of blogs on the nature of the university? More particularly, what do they have to do with the transformation of the university from a Sanctuary of Truth to a Sanctuary of Method? The overall theme of the essays on the university focuses on power, influence and authority. In my last blog, I used the material from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to explicate his thesis of power, influence and authority when offering a structural analysis of the Book of Exodus.

In his account, Sacks made reference to Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo to insist that in the chiasmic pattern linking the design of the sanctuary with the construction of the sanctuary in Exodus, the story of the Golden Calf was the pivot point. Most importantly, the story of the Golden Calf was not about idolatry, but about the longing for an absent father and, out of this longing, giving one’s allegiance to a tyrant as a substitute. As the reader will see, on this subject, I take a traditionalist stance and argue that the story of the Golden Calf is indeed about idolatry, is about taking a material valuable entity as a substitute for a spiritual entity.

Are the two interpretations mutually exclusive? I will return to answer that question, but I first want to show the link to the two films. I did not choose to watch these films specifically on Saturday night. Inception was just what was on TV when I entered the den. Rules Don’t Apply followed, so I stayed to watch that film as well. As it happens, a dominant plot element in each was about an absent father. A key prop in Inception was explicitly a totem. It is a wonder how serendipity can play a part in the understanding and explication of a position.

In Freud, a totem is a primeval prohibition as well as a protection. In contrast to Inception, a totem for Freud is not self-generated, but is chosen by another or adopted by a whole tribe. The source is characterized as an authentic authority. The totem protects the individual from his or her most powerful longings, but the desire to violate persists in the subconscious. Thus, the totem is both a prohibition against surrendering to temptation and committing a transgression, and a protector that provides boundary conditions.

In both films, at the centre of the plot is a key character who suffers considerably from his relationship with his father. In Inception, he is the son of a very rich man who recently died; the young man is in the process of inheriting the old man’s extensive corporate holdings. This is a psychological heist movie in which a usual heist team, each member with complementary skills, gets together, this time not to rob a physical safe, but a psychological one. The team plans to invade the subconscious of the young heir and influence him to believe that, on his own, he must dismantle his father’s holdings. That will serve the interests of a rival tycoon who hired the heist team because they have developed the techniques for getting inside the safe of memories of an individual in order to manipulate those memories and, thereby, control his mind.

In Rules Don’t Apply, Warren Beatty plays Howard Hughes who is obsessed, not with rosebud (Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, 1941), but with his father, with ensuring the Hughes name is preserved on his father’s company which he inherited, just as bankers and shareholders of TCA close in on him as an eccentric incapable of managing a huge company. A subsequent psychological post-mortem argued that he was not so much driven to his madness by that obsession, but that his anxiety and retreat into isolation were yhe result of a very over-protective mother obsessed with the cleanliness of her child and protecting him from polio. The father is gone. Inception picks up the same theme. Powerful fathers who are absent from the films nevertheless play dominating roles.

Neither plot worked to support Jonathan Sack’s thesis about choosing tyrants to rule over you as a substitute for the longed-for father. In Inception, the son remains under the thumb of his father. The whole effort to “capture his mind” was to plant an idea that will hopefully dominate his conscious life that he needs to free himself from his father at the same time as he remains true to his father. This is to be accomplished by implanting the idea that the father was not disappointed in his son for failing to emerge as a strong leader in the mold of his father, but for failing to emerge as an independent thinker and doer who would not be under the thumb of anyone. With such a new mindset, instead of clinging to the assets he inherited as a way to cling to his father who showed him no affection as a child, he would dissolve the corporate assets to free himself and become an independent man.

Cutting across this theme is another father-child story, that of the role of the leader of the heist team, Cobb, who has mastered the art of penetrating a third level of depth to the unconscious. However, Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is the absent father. He has been cut off from contact with his children as part of his mind remains stuck in the underworld of the unconscious attached and obsessed with his wife and mother of his children whom he used as an experiment to explore the very great depth of the subconscious, but in the experiment was unable to return to earth. Guilt submerges him. The only route back to his children is by going back, both to regain access to the United States, the government of which suspects that he killed his wife, and his children.

According to that narrative, guilt can operate in multiple dimensions and in different directions just as time and experience can. The key always to preserving one’s sanity is by possession of a totem, in this case, a dreidl, a spinning top, that can be grasped and used to prevent being sucked totally into the vortex of the subconscious and to test whether you are in the real world or a world of dreams. In “primitive” societies, a totem defines the perimeter of the tribe and identification with it ensures the protection of the member. In Nolan’s film, the threat is not simply another tribe, but an extinguishing of any spatial and temporal reference points altogether. The totem becomes the the protective marker of a boundary which guards the spirit of the tribe, this time, of the whole human species.

In Beatty’s film, the totem is not explicit, but it is Howard Hughes who serves as the substitute father figure for both Maria Mabrey, a devour Baptist aspiring starlet played by Lily Collins, and her unconsummated knight, Frank Forbes played by Alden Ehrenreich, another repressed Protestant type. Both are in thrall to Harold Hughes. He dictates that there is to be no sexual involvement of his employees. Both are tied to Hughes as the god who will deliver them into stardom or magnificent wealth as an entrepreneur. They reveal themselves to be both consecrated by Hughes but also dangerously passionate about one another. Hughes in the end is right. He does not simply have an obsession with cleanliness and a fear of being defiled. Pollution lurks everywhere.

Both films are about power and the use of wealth, of material influence, to affect the behaviour of others. Power as creative energy, as enterprise and innovation, is expressed through the heist team and particularly the DiCaprio character, who in scene after scene must fight off the apparitions of Cobb’s subconscious who are determined to kill the members of the heist team. Coercive power is used as a defence, but the core tool of the offence is influence, to gain control over the mind, not through drugs, but by entering the subconscious of the other. This is not influence via information, analysis and education. But neither is it simply about tyrannical coercive power, though that is a necessary ingredient in the mix.

The Golden Calf as both a real phenomenon and an idol that dominates the imagination and character identity to promise freedom to and deliver someone from bondage and slavery to a subconscious tyrant, in this case, a father, who controls behaviour even from the grave and reduces the heir to a puppet rather than an independent autonomous being. Warren Beatty’s Citizen Kane as Howard Hughes never achieves that freedom, even though his life appeared to be that of a star lighting up the heavens as it crossed the sky and burnt itself up in the quest for free expression.

The casting couch is not portrayed in Rules Don’t Apply as a fly trap but as a prison of the woman’s own imagination – in this case, a star-struck deeply Christian young lady – driven subconsciously by her own desires to be a star in the firmament.  And for her forlorn lover and satrap of Howard Hughes, it is much more clearly a dream of becoming the author of his own initiatives in wealth accumulation. Tyranny in the case of both films is more a problem of self-identity than one of external coercion, but the desire, the longing, is not narrowly cast as a pursuit simply for a substitute father. The problem in Inception is about cognitive dissonance, is about what is real and what is a product of one’s own imagination, is about what others should be held accountable for and what is your own responsibility. As in Exodus, freedom is only attained when you actually break free and construct your own sanctuary.

In both films, God is a visible absence. There is no source of divine authority, no source of authentic being, except, and in both films, the love of a parent for a child. That is the ultimate source of authenticity. This is the repeated pattern of the tale told in Genesis about the family rather than the making of nation in Exodus. The error in Inception is that DiCaprio left his children behind, not to climb to the peak of a mountain, but to get to the valley of the third level of the subconscious on the ocean floor. The route to freedom in this film is about self-making and freeing oneself from irrational ties – father, mother, wife – in order to bond with a child. It is a Rousseau fantasy. The issue is not so much freeing oneself from a father-figure who protects, guides and supports, as becoming a father figure who protects, guides and supports.

Becoming a settled nation with boundaries, with recognized authorities and rules, requires leaving behind the nomadic life, whether that roaming takes place in the heavens above, as in the case of Howard Hughes as a pilot, or in the subconsciousness of other lives. And that means accepting responsibility for accumulating wealth without succumbing to the worship of it. In the pastoral world, yearning and desire offer fatal attractions that lead to war and violence. The object is to construct an alternative settled world in which roaming will take place in the imagination and in intellectual inquiry rather than in a quest for riches.

The job of the university is to help facilitate that process. So why must it change all the time, change the idea behind it so that the idea itself creeps in to control the mind and prevent precisely what its purpose was intended to fulfil? Why must humans return to converting a rich and flowering institution into the fatal attraction of the nomad for the consolation of a desert? What lies behind the compulsion for self-destruction and all in the name of re-creation and renewal? How and why do the horizon-struck dreamers, whether in the arts or Hollywood, whether into the unconscious or nature, end up turning the rich life of a jungle into an arid place for both the mind and body?  Where and how does the parting of the waters lead to the construction of a Golden Calf, a treasured inert object without an ounce of spiritual creativity?

In the Torah, how do the Israelites overcome the heroic world of pastoral nomads to seek an oasis in a city of stone like Jerusalem (or Amman)? How did the Israelites, transformed by forty years of desert life from slaves into alert warriors with the endurance of camels, with wells of courage, loyalty, and openness both to strangers and to new ideas at the same time, become a nation that builds walls of stone within which they find a sanctuary? What role did the portable sanctuary of the desert play in that transition?

That is the key question. The university reinvents itself as a sanctuary, transforms itself from one type of sanctuary into another, only to eventually destroy its own walls. Why? And how? Why was it necessary for the university to leave faith behind so that both faculty and students are left bereft, feel it, but largely do not recognize what they feel? Is civilization necessarily intertwined with discontent and can salvation only come from an escape from hidebound institutions and well-defined roles to return to the clean air of the desert with waters lapping on an unseen shore?

Certainly, many of the prophets believed that corruption came with civilization and all effort must be made to engage in intellectual and imaginative nomadism where rules do not apply and the power of fire guides one towards the promised land which, when reached, has already revealed itself as a betrayal of its vision of clean air and an austere landscape guided on its path by a pillar of fire to an austere desert. Has the university waxed fat and gone a whoring as Hosea declared?

Settlers are governed by rules and laws as are universities that prepare people to live in a civilized culture. But the latest rebellion is all around. The people want to worship at the feet of a Golden Calf, even those strongly rooted in a religious tradition and, perhaps even more so, for they want to return to a world of faith rather than one grounded in scepticism, forgetting that the desert world is a place of discord and feuds rather than an imaginary place of magnificent calm at one with the peace of God.

 

To be continued: From the Sanctuary of Truth to a Sanctuary of Method

Interstellar – the Drama

Interstellar: I – The Drama

by

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