“Casablanca” - Michael Curtiz (1942)

When one has the chance to take another look at Casablanca (1942), it brings to mind a sense of anticipation beyond the usual one of reviewing a film classic. It is that of looking straight into the face of an American myth. It is perhaps the contemporary nature of this particular myth that makes the film – a “Hollywood” melodrama – one of the real enigmas of American pop culture.

Even today there is considerable lack of unanimity from critics as to the film’s ultimate importance. It’s overall popularity with its audiences is undeniable, however. Made in 1942 and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains, Casablanca has been one of the most popular and widely seen films ever made – achieving almost cult-like proportions with college students. Besides making Ingrid Bergman an American star and winning three US Academy Awards, including Best Picture, the film provided the ultimate vehicle for the Bogart legend. Indeed, one measure of the film’s success is that some of its lines, like “Here’s looking at you, kid” and “Play it, Sam” are still part of the American scene.

The behaviour of the critics then is interesting. Although most of them admit liking the film, they seldom pin-point the reason, (e.g. Richard Shickel, of Time, called it “delicious”). For one thing, Casablanca stubbornly resists analysis on the basis of film aesthetics’ meager categories, in particular, the auteur theory. The auteur theory asserts, to put it loosely, that a work of cinematic art is achieved as a result of a personal statement by the film’s creator – the director. Casablanca’s director, Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz, was more famous for his mauling of the English language than for his acts of creativity (e.g. “This scene will make your blood curl”). Curtiz, once a circus strong man, directed three films in 1942, and usually turned out gross blockbusters rather than personal statements. Curtiz did, however, have an excellent sense of camera rhythm and lighting, both essential ingredients to the film’s success.

However, the nature of the film’s greatness is more closely identified with the portrayal of Humphrey Bogart, as Rick, the classic movie example of the alienated antihero redeemed by love. Romanticism in the American film frequently takes its form in the cynical tough guy’s independence. Sentimentality lies traditionally in the finish, when the antihero turns hero. Casablanca is no exception. Rather, it is a near perfect representation of this genre.

Since sentimentality exists more in the imagination than in the real world, an expressionistic, subjective environment is crucial to the theme. Hence Casablanca itself, a city of intrigue and mystery, where chaos rules and only the toughest survive, plays a role. The atmospheric settings and the super-real performances of Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, and Sidney Greenstreet are thus crucial to the effect; more “realistic” acting would fail to achieve the emotional power. Furthermore, Bogart’s acting style is perfectly geared to the role. His restraint and cool always suggest an inner turmoil that internalizes the action for the audience.

The viewer always understands that Rick knows the score and that his mind is always churning, despite the forcedly calm exterior. (Imagine the film with Rick played by Ronald Reagan, the man Bogart beat out for the role!)

All of these expressionistic effects (some of which may have been partly indigenous to films of the forties) combine for an emotional impact which is still as powerful today as it was seven decades ago and which, except for scattered exceptions such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or occasional works by the Coen brothers, were not the usual fare of modern American cinema. The outrageously melodramatic plot, lack of special effects, and standard studio shooting notwithstanding, Casablanca is still a brilliant example of how stirring good movies can be.

“Inception” - Christopher Nolan (2010)

Inception (2010) currently has a user rating of 8.9 on the IMDB Web site, making it one of the highest-rated films in their comprehensive world database. By that reckoning one could argue that Inception is one of the best (or at least most popular) films of all time. Writer-director Christopher Nolan was already known for his reality-warping screen thrillers Memento (2000), The Prestige (2006), and The Dark Knight (2008), but Inception was hailed by his fans as his greatest achievement.

The sci-fi story of the film involves a high-tech “intellectual property” burglar, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is skilled at stealing highly profitable ideas from people by invading their minds while they sleep. Early on we are shown situations where he can invade the dreams of other people and manipulate the dream so that he can grab what he wants; he can also go into a dream within a dream. This dream-within-a-dream scenario becomes the fundamental metaphor of the film.

After a failed intellectual heist, though, Cobb is offered a job by his most recent intended corporate victim to do something different: not to steal an idea, but to implant an idea into a rival’s brain which will lead to big financial returns for the sponsor of that intellectual “inception”. This idea-insertion operation is thought to be impossible, according to the conventional wisdom of dream burglars, but Cobb thinks he can do it and agrees to the contract. He then goes about assembling a high-tech team to carry out the intended implantation maneuver. In order to accomplish the desired operation, he claims, they will need to go down three levels – to a dream within a dream within a dream.

This may seem to be mentally mind-boggling, but actually the task of following the various dream penetrations in the rest of the film is relatively straightforward. The machinations of the dreamworks, however, are not straightforward, at all, although Nolan’s script blithely (and mindlessly) employs basically magical explanations whenever the script demands it. The vehicle for delivering these explanations to the viewer is for Cobb to recruit a young, innocent college girl, Ariadne, to serve as the dream “architect” for the team and for Cobb to explain things to her. She is told that since people can invade each other’s dreams, it means that dreams are essentially shared vehicles with multiple drivers. Whenever Ariadne sees something totally weird going on with the world, she is told, oh, that must be so-and-so’s dream “projection”. Each level of dreaming that one “descends” to (i.e. further descent into the dream-within-a-dream scenario) involves relative time distention by at least an order of magnitude – that is, what seems to take hours in the lower level only occupies minutes in the dream level immediately above it. Then we are told that the entire high-tech idea-implantation team assembled by Cobb and wandering around in the lower depths of dreamdom can magically ascend back to reality by synchronizing on some music that is collectively heard. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Things get more complicated, though, because of Cobb’s own hangups – he is haunted by his own nightmares of his deceased wife, Mal, who occasionally enters into the shared dreamscape and wreaks havoc. This is apparently due to Cobb’s personal feelings of guilt concerning her death and not due to any inherent malevolence on Mal’s part, since Mal is generally presented as a sympathetic character. Anyway, because of various unforseen events, Cobb and some members of his team must descend further into even lower dream levels than originally planned (ultimately to the fifth level), and, of course, that means that they are plunging into unknown and even more dangerous territory. At the end of the film, in fact, there is a suggestion that the entire film, including the final shots, may still have been taking place at some unspecified dream level. That is, perhaps Cobb’s world of professional idea thievery is just another dream, and there are actually (at least) six dream levels covered in the film.

While I recognize that suspension of disbelief is crucial to science fiction films (a number of which I do enjoy), the ad hoc and superficial, essentially magical, explanations in Inception don’t hold up. Claims that this film appeals to the imaginative intellect need to be buttressed by more than repeated references to ‘catharsis’ and having a character named “Ariadne”. I have remarked elsewhere about the folly of believing in "intellectual property" – that ideas are objective, material objects that can be stolen [1,2]. But I would be willing to set that objection aside for a fantasy film like this if there were something else in the story that tantalized the imagination.

One potential topic that could have been taken up with some payoff is the issue of Mal’s (Cobb’s wife’s) autonomy. Is she an autonomous spiritual being who has returned from some external spiritual domain to enter into Cobb’s own dreams? Or is she just a figment of Cobb’s guilt-ridden imagination? It would have been interesting to highlight the contrast between (a) a materialistic interpretation of Mal’s presence (which could be held by Cobb, the professional and mechanical idea thief) as a figment of Cobb’s imagination and (b) the alternate idea that Mal’s presence actually does represent an encounter with the still-living spirit of the deceased Mal. But this potentially interesting issue, one that does come into play in Solaris (1972, 2002), was not pursued or examined here. Inception has many of the external earmarks of an Expressionist film, but I wouldn't classify it as such, because it doesn't convey the expressionistic aesthetic impression.

There are other problems with Inception as well.
  • Throughout the film there are repeated violent encounters involving chase scenes with armed gunmen. These are all going on concurrently at several dream levels, with many people getting shot and killed, but there is little motivation for these scenes. Nolan is unable to build up any narrative motivation for these events, so they just seem to be pointless violence. It’s not even like playing an endless first-person shooter game (FPSG); instead, it’s like watching somebody else play an endless FPSG – the viewer feels little involvement in the action. The relentlessly pounding and one-dimensional background music by Hans Zimmer only makes things worse.
  • The presentation and acting is confused by a mixture of dramatic genres. It is as if the actors and actresses are not on the same page as to what kind of movie they are in. The relationship between Mal and Cobb is presented as a serious and emotional dramatic encounter. But this theme, as I suggested above, is only left hanging. On the other hand, Cobb’s “mission impossible” team of dream-manipulation technicians plays it very tongue-in-cheek. – it all seems like a joke. And then Ariadne, Cobb’s dream landscape architect, is very much the innocent young college girl.
So we have a confused dramatic mishmash of shootem-up violence, a dramatic love relationship, a cheeky heist movie, and a teenage coming-of-age story – and all going on at the same time. No wonder the actors seem confused (although DiCaprio, as Cobb, and Marion Cotillard, as Mal, do pretty well under the circumstances).

Admittedly there are some dazzling graphical effects, such as a downtown city environment rolling up over itself like a carpet, entire cities gradually crumbling to pieces, locomotives roaring down the middle of city streets, and fistfights in zero-gravity (or sometimes gravity is present, but the gravitational axis is shifting). But these effects need an effective story to make them interesting. As it is, the effects (apart from the gravity-shifting environment) seem to be “out there” – just part of some weird landscape and not part of the immediate, interactive environment. The viewer’s attention is distracted (and by means of that distraction perhaps somewhat engaged) throughout the film by the task of having to keep track of exactly which dream level the film is operating on at the moment; and so one keeps on watching intently for the almost three hours of action. But that distraction is not enough to make it all worthwhile (even if video game addicts seem to find that kind of distraction sufficient for their needs). Although Inception is promoted as a mind-bending intellectual feast for the college crowd, it seems to be only sophomoric.

  1. See: "'RiP: A Remix Manifesto' - Bret Gaylor (2009)", The Film Sufi, http://www.filmsufi.com/2009/08/rip-remix-manifesto-brett-gaylor-2009.html. 
  2. See: "'SiCKO' - Michael Moore (2007)", The Film Sufi, http://www.filmsufi.com/2010/02/sicko-michael-moore-2007.html.

Roberto Rossellini

About Roberto Rossellini:

Films of Roberto Rossellini:

Bogart and Brando (“The Maltese Falcon” & “The Wild Ones”)

The Maltese Falcon (directed by John Huston in 1941) and The Wild Ones (directed by Laslo Benedek in 1954) offer an interesting cinematic and social comparison. Although made only thirteen years apart, the two films seem to be indicative of distinctive generations. The comparison comes down ultimately to the contrast between Humphrey Bogart, the charismatic star of the forties, and Marlon Brando, the corresponding figure of the fifties. Each one displays the characteristically brutal personality that won them such large followings.

The Maltese Falcon was a break for Humphrey Bogart. The role of Sam Spade, the detective, was first offered to George Raft, who declined it because he wouldn’t take a chance on rookie director John Huston. Huston, in his first feature, went on to fashion the Dashiell Hammett thriller into a film so good, it gave a new dimension to the film noir genre.

Hammett knew the score with detectives (he was once one, himself) – they were basically antisocial cops, but smarter, more mercenary and sinister. Huston did nothing to soften Sam Spade’s character, and the supporting cast (Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Mary Astor) was near perfection. The only alteration from the original story was the omission of Hammett’s final scene, when Effie realizes what a bastard Spade is. Whether Huston is responsible for this cut or not, it actually improves the story by omitting petty moralizing as well as leaving Spade to the viewer’s ultimate judgement. Bogart’s portrayal is one of his best. His voice and demeanor are perfectly suited for the delivery of such lines as, “Sorry, angel, I have a pressing date with a fat man.”

The Wild One’s, starring Brando and Lee Marvin, was Laslo Benedek’s only decent film. Like many films of its day, it tried to understand the phenomenon of juvenile delinquency in terms of cheesy psychology. Hollywood’s explanation of the alienated antihero of the 30's is poverty. In turn, the antihero of the 40's was supposed to be that way as a result of corruption and war. The preposterous explanation of the 50's was that boys went bade because they weren’t loved enough. These concluding explanations, however, didn’t snow the youth of the time, who perfectly understood the characters of Brando and James Dean and then jeered at the cop-out answer to the problem. Brando’s performances were so good during this time that they carried the entire movies along with them.

I’m sure Benedek didn’t even understand what Brando was doing, but young people all over the country were almost fanatical in their appreciation and empathy. Brando’s inarticulate frustration was a rejection of the entire society – but an individual, not a socially oriented rejection. The war was over, and the plastic American dream was here. Brando’s nihilism was emblematic of the “no” that came from the guts, ignorant of the relatively well-developed and sophisticated youth culture that made antiestablishmentarianism so fashionable later on.

The Bogart and Brando characters are not essentially tied to their decades, however. Brando is raw – the total drop out. Bogart, on the other hand, has not gone so far – or maybe he’s come back part way. He’s out to use everyone and everything for his own cynical purposes. Richard Shickel, commenting on the Bogart character, said of him,
"His special knowledge was of the jungle of the city at night – which clubs the syndicate ran, which one-arm restaurants served good coffee, which hotels a whore could use, which streets were safe to walk upon after midnight.

It was this detailed knowledge that set Bogart apart from the ordinary lonely male; it was the rightness of the setting, mood, and dialogue that established empathy with him.”
Richard Brooks, the gifted writer-director, had particularly revealing comments to make –
“Somehow you identify with this fellow. I think that’s what kids today see in him. He’s a man and not a raw kid, and willing to put his life on the line. He’s not, interestingly enough, like James Dean and other characters they identify with. He is not a lost soul in any of his films.

He knew what he stood for and is masculine and, of course, he could say so much in so few words. . . . For one thing, he was not a sentimentalist. That is important to people today. It’s not a sentimental world we’re living in as far as the youth is concerned today.”

Federico Fellini

Films of Federico Fellini:

“La Strada” (1) - Federico Fellini (1954)

Fellini. If a poll were taken to name the greatest filmmaker ever, the ultimate iconic auteur, his name would probably be at the top. The name is known to people who haven’t even seen any of his films. Despite the fame, Fellini’s determinedly independent course of filmmaking enabled him to evade facile categorization from critics, aside from their frequent use of the phrase, “The P. T. Barnum of the Cinema.” Thus no one ever knew quite what to expect from a new Fellini film, other than greatness. The director of such highly praised films as La Dolce Vita (1960), (1963), and Fellini Satyricon (1969), Fellini first achieved world-wide fame with the appearance of his third film, La Strada (1954), which in my opinion is his finest work and one of the greatest films ever made.

Fellini was initially associated with the Italian neorealist movement in the cinema just after World War Two. He was a script writer and assistant director for two of Roberto Rosellini’s important films of this time, Open City (Roma, Città Aperta, 1945), and Paisa (1946) [1]. The neorealist movement, a semi-documentary form which tried to depict the most common activities of a society, had its own aesthetic limitations, and Fellini was one of the first Italian directors to move in a new direction. After his only mildly successful first film, The White Sheik (Lo Sceicco Bianco, 1952), Fellini first began to receive attention for his I Vitelloni , a sensitive study of small town aimless youths, the Italian analogues at that time of the Beat Generation. Only after this success was he able to convince skeptical producers to finance the making of his old project, La Strada.

Producers were dubious of his desire to use his wife, Giulietta Masina, as the star. As soon as shooting started, she fell and dislocated her ankle, and the film had to be held up for three months. Anthony Quinn, committed to making another film at the time, Atilla (1954), was frequently absent from the set, and often shooting had to begin at daybreak so that Quinn could rush off to the other set. This proved to be a fortunate circumstance, providing the film with its eerily grayish light and making the actors even more desolate and isolated.

The initial reviews in the Italian press were mixed – primarily a result of the demands of Catholic and Communist dogma, which unnecessarily complicated Italian criticism. But in France, England, and the United States, truly fanatical praise was showered on the film, which was to win over fifty awards in nine countries, including a US Oscar as best foreign film. The film played in New York for over three years, Giulietta Masina was placed alongside the greatest actresses of all time, and the theme, “Giulietta’s Song”, by Nino Rota (who later did the music for Zefferelli’s 1968 film, Romeo and Juliet) became an international hit and sold over two million copies in France alone. So much interpretive material has been written about the film that it would be impossible for me even to mention all of the themes (although I will return to this film later with another, longer article). It is the story of an itinerant Italian strongman who wanders about the Italian countryside performing in small towns with his servant. The episodic plot is wound up and given meaning by one of the most intensely beautiful cinematic endings. Critics often hail the film as a brilliant example of neorealism; other insist it is a symbolic spiritual fable.

Both positions are supportable, but neither seems satisfactory. The poetic quality, which makes the film so unforgettable, seems unapproachable by the intellect. And, like much great poetry, the film speaks of man’s existential loneliness in a language all its own.

  1. see my "Aesthetics of Two Neorealist Films: Open City and Paisan" for further discussion.

"The Hurt Locker" - Kathryn Bigelow (2008)

The Hurt Locker (2008) is a feature film about the experiences of a US Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team stationed in Iraq after the US invasion there. Based on the experiences of scriptwriter, Mark Boal, who was an embedded journalist with the US military forces in Iraq in 2004, the film has been widely praised as a gritty, no-holds-barred war film and won six US Academy Award in 2009, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay (for Boal), and Best Director.

The film begins in Baghdad, where the Bravo Company is in the final weeks of their tour of duty (“rotation”). We are immediately introduced to the three-man EOD team of young soldiers that must undertake the extremely dangerous tasks of disarming and removing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have been set up by insurgents. The team comprises an expert IED deactivator, who must wear a heavy, cumbersome bombsuit that provides partial protection, plus two backup soldiers who guard the back of the explosives expert. Almost immediately the leader of the team is killed by a radio-controlled IED, and he is replaced by another expert who continues to work with the other two men. The rest of the film follows events in the remaining, harrowing six weeks of this group’s rotation. I have mixed feelings about the The Hurt Locker, because it has significant strengths and weaknesses, and depending on your tastes, your enjoyment of the film may vary.

First consider the film’s strengths, which are the basis of the film’s great popularity. By the way, the film does not take a position about the justification for the Iraq War, the American involvement in the Middle East, terrorism, or other issues that are constantly discussed in this connection. The film is solely about the American soldiers, and everything is seen from their point of view. In fact when it comes down to it in my view, The Hurt Locker is not a war film at all, but is a horror film. It doesn’t really show ordinary military combat, and there don’t seem to be military objectives to be gained or lost. Instead, the EOD team seems to be entirely isolated from a battle front and placed in some kind of special hell. Despite the expanse of the city, there is a feeling of confinement, even one of claustrophobia throughout the film. Truly this EOD team is, psychologically at least, perpetually locked in the “hurt locker”. Cinematically, the film is reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s classic horror film, Alien (1979), where the protagonists are threatened by an amorphous enemy force of unknown powers that is always just out of sight and is difficult even to identify. The powers possessed by the EOD team seem incredibly flimsy in comparison with the powers of the threats they face.
  • Their flaky little robot vehicle loses a wheel and becomes dysfunctional when it merely runs over a small rock in the streets. How pathetic their supposedly advanced technology appears to be in this threatening theater of action!
  • Their heavy, cumbersome bombsuits makes the bomb deactivators swelter in the heat, prevents them from moving well, and, as we see in the opening sequence when the first bomb expert is killed, doesn’t even seem to provide much protection.
  • The other two backup solders in the unit seem to be isolated from any other support and so are overwhelmingly outnumbered by the crowd of onlookers which could harbor any number of potentially lethally equipped enemies.
The cinematography and editing are geared to accentuate this incessant feeling of paranoia. Handheld, point-of-view camera shots constantly give one the feeling that one is part of the OED team, peering around corners and looking through window openings to catch sight of the next danger. Director Kathryn Bigelow often used four simultaneous camera setups to shoot a scene and wound up giving her editing team (who did a great job with both the visuals and the sound) 200 hours of footage to work with in order to achieve this sustained nightmare of anxiety.

Further contributing to the feeling of impending doom is the abrupt manner in which some sympathetic characters are annihilated. On two occasions we are introduced to characters in the story that are performed by well-known actors who are customarily placed in protagonist roles (Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes). We naturally and unconsciously expect these characters to provide some heroic leadership for our benighted EDO team, since a film production wouldn’t normally be expected to waste such a performer on a minor role. Yet our hopes are quashed; both characters are easily obliterated in short order by the unseen evil. This, again, brings to mind certain events in Alien.

There were other past films that came to mind as I watched The Hurt Locker, and perhaps Bigelow, an MFA graduate in film criticism from Columbia University, had them in mind, too. The incessant, chaotic “fog of war” in the film reminded me of the classic The Red and the White (1968) by Miklos Jancso. The depressing return at the end of the film to the very hell from which the main character had managed to escape was reminiscent of the final scene of Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal (1957). And Bigelow won accolades for her efforts that put her in the rank of those directors: the US Academy Award for Best Director, the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing, the BAFTA Award for Best Direction, and the Critics' Choice Award for Best Director.

But despite the admitted strengths of the atmospheric cinematography, there are some significant weakness that prevent it from being an outstanding film.
  • The film narrative is episodic and fails to progress towards any kind of goal. This is where it dims in comparison to Scott’s Alien [1], which had a relentless progression of enclosure – the continual closing off of avenues of escape and the successive elimination of hoped-for support for the endangered protagonist, Ripley.
  • The handheld camera shots do offer subjectivity, but often the camera is much too shaky. This is a common mistake of inexperienced cinematographers, who apparently want to suggest agitation and also provide a “newsreel” sense of reality. In fact, this only calls attention to the camera work as camera work and tends to distance the viewer from the action depicted, thereby subverting the very sense of immediacy that was desired.
  • The character development in the film is weak. Although the acting is good, the characters have strange, unmotivated swings in fortitude and attitude. In particular, Sergeant William James, who emerges as the principal character, seems to be utterly fearless, but he remains opaque throughout. What really motivates him? As a consequence, it is difficult to empathize with his situation. For example, at one point in the film when the EOD team comes across a bomb factory, James is highly disturbed to discover the dead body of an Arab boy, who earlier used to hawk DVDs on the street and was known to all the soldiers as “Beckham”. We are led to believe that James had some sort of personal relationship with Bechkam and some feeling for the brutal sacrifice of this boy. But later on, James encounters Beckham on the street (evidently his earlier identification of the dead boy as Beckham was erroneous) and shows no reaction. Why? You would at least expect that James would have been surprised by the site of the living boy whose presumed death had so agitated him earlier.
  • The film opens with a quotation from Chris Hedges’s book, War is a Force that Gives Meaning: "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug”, with an emphasis on the idea that war is a drug. At the end of the film, James returns to the United States to rejoin his wife and child, but is evidently bored. So he returns to Iraq to serve another tour of duty to satisfy his apparent craving for another rush. This is a very weak conclusion, and it undermines, enervates, and trivializes everything that has come before. (This also has a quite different meaning from the fatalistic return to the underground “hell” in Kanal.) The idea in The Hurt Locker that the civilian “real world” is just too complicated for some soldiers, who prefer simple, black-and-white tasks that have clear outcomes has been asserted many times before, but it is a weak assertion and it doesn’t apply well to the murky, paranoid conditions of this EOD unit. Anyway, the proper metaphor in this respect is not so much drugs as it is sports. Sports and games are what offer the rush that comes from a dramatic victory in connection with a contest with a straightforward goal. So after all that horror, are we to emerge from the cinema with the conclusion that the whole thing we have watched is, for many soldiers, just a game, just a thrill, just a drug rush? I don’t know, but I doubt many soldiers feel that way.
So what we have is a film with a brilliant atmosphere but with a seriously flawed narrative. The Hurt Locker is at times gripping, but it does not carry through with a compelling narrative and so is not what it could have been.

  1. This is just one reason why Scott's Alien is vastly superior to its sequel, Aliens (1986), directed by Bigelow's ex-husband, James Cameron.

The Treatment of Love in Soren Kierkegaard’s "Either/Or"

In S. Kierkegaard’s Either/Or [1] the reader is presented with two presumably mutually exclusive alternatives for conducting one’s life. In particular, the judge, B, who presents the ethical position, attempts to resolve the aesthete’s (A’s) misgivings about marriage by presenting its aesthetic validity. This argument of B’s, I submit, offers no real advancement from the aesthete’s quandary.

B sees the life of A as inadequate for attaining satisfaction, and B goes on to insist that there is a better method available for conducting one’s affairs. But A, of course, is a complex individual, and it is important for us to see B’s view of A’s life and what assumptions he has made about it. First of all, B senses that A is not satisfied. Here we like to say of satisfaction that it means one’s being at one with oneself. But this doesn’t tell us much; what do we mean by “being at one with oneself”? So for the moment, anyway, let us assume that there is a common understanding of the existence of the state of satisfaction (albeit intuitive), although we don’t have a full understanding of the term, because we don’t understand how this state comes to be. This is just the subject of the present inquiry. Thus we’ll have to settle for the idea that one knows when he himself is satisfied, but knows little of the nature of this satisfaction qua satisfaction. Thus we might say that A is not satisfied and spends a great deal of his time in quest of this satisfaction.

We are also given the information that A finds some things interesting but most things boring. In fact A speculates that boredom is the root of all evil. But what is the nature of the interesting or the lack thereof (boringness)? This again is not defined for us, but it seems somewhat linked to A’s satisfaction – when A is bored, he isn’t satisfied. These intuitively-based polarities are significant. It is not that S. K. has done an inadequate job of clarifying the concepts he uses, but that he begins with certain concepts that cannot be explained in terms of other concepts, but which instead relate directly to experience.

Thus B recognizes that A is bored and wants to be interested in something. A sees his own search for satisfaction in terms of the interesting. If he is ever caught up on some situation in its immediacy, then for the moment A loses sight of his dissatisfaction with existence. However, upon repetition of such events, boredom sets in. Although A is an interested student of the interesting, he seems to have little knowledge of it other than in rather concrete situations. It appears that A has not solved the problem of attaining the interesting in his life (and thus, for him, satisfaction), and because no thing or activity can remain interesting for long (upon repeated encounters, it becomes boring), there is nothing of positive value – everything is ultimately meaningless. Because A is interested in learning the art of acquiring the interesting, B sees it as an attempt to endow his life with meaning. But here B sees a contradiction:
“You told me that this prompted you to reflect whether the entirely fortuitous fulfilment of a wish fortuitously expressed might not bring a person actually to desperation, because thereby the reality of life was negated in its deepest root. So what you wanted was to play the part of fate.” [2]
Now for a man to be his own fate is clearly a contradiction in terms. For a man to determine his own fate, he must reflect on the manifold of his potential activity. When he so reflects, he becomes somehow disengaged from the manifold – he no longer experiences it in its immediacy. This disengagement destroys the interesting nature of it and all emotional attachment; meaningfulness is lost. A is aware that some elements in the manifold are destined to be interesting to him, but he does not know which ones. Nor can he determine this by direct reflection, since the accompanying disengagement prevents him from feeling any meaning. B seems to indicate that A is unaware of this contradiction and of the impossibility of his task.

The judge wants to present the ethical as highly aesthetic to A – in particular, marriage is to be justified aesthetically. B’s plan is for a human being to choose himself, that is, will that which has already been assigned to him. The necessity of choosing among many equally meaningless elements of a manifold is now obviated. The choice has already been made for the subject as to who he is, and one must only affirm this determination. The important thing for B is that one must will himself, and by so doing, one actively engages himself with the manifold again. By this exercise of the self, life again takes on meaning for the ethical man, since he has chosen something from the manifold of possibility (himself) and has restricted himself from participating in the other possible choices (those which are not himself). Thus the ethical man takes on a commitment and a sense of meaning.

How is this program applied to love? B says that here again the choice has already been made; one need only affirm it. One must, in this case, choose his first love, i.e. he must commit himself to his first love. B willingly admits that the term first love is difficult to pin down, but he apparently has a sufficient understanding of the term to apply it to himself – “although I have been for several years a married man, I still have the honor of fighting under the victorious banner of first love.” [3] Here by committing oneself to one’s love, one establishes a dialectical subject-subject relationship that has dynamical characteristics. For such lovers, “‘the first’ is simply the present, but the present is for them the constantly unfolding and rejuvenating ‘first’” [4]. In other words, one must live every moment in its total uniqueness and thereby obtain the eternal in the temporal (implying, among other things, satisfaction).

B says of A, “your life is wholly given over to preliminary runs” [5]. Thus B insists that A is presented with occasions, some of which he finds interesting. The repetition of the situation is often boring to A, so he is constantly looking for new areas of stimulation. His life becomes a series of discontinuous moments over which he tries to assert control but cannot. B himself, on the other hand, by actively willing the first love, feels that he continually lives in the moment of first love. We could say then that the judge present to us a method for aesthetic fulfilment, which in this discussion, of course, stands or falls solely on its aesthetic merit. Now to what extent are the assumptions of B superior to those of A?

B states at the end of his letter that he has “shown . . . that conjugal love has it conflict in time, its victory in time, its blessing in time.” [5] The dialectical, inner historicity of conjugal love allegedly provides a continuity across time, an eternal present, that is lacking in A’s life. The lack of continuity of A is that to which B is most sensitive, but this is more of an outward manifestation of A’s problem rather than the cause of it.

A and B recognize a number of the same things. They both realize that occasions present themselves to their experience, some of which are significant, e.g. they both would agree that the moment of “first love” is significant). They both intuitively feel that man has the freedom to so structure his life that he can find some aesthetic satisfaction. By aesthetic satisfaction I mean activity that has its own justification. The two advocates both agree that there is a substantial element provided, in this particular case, love, from the outside; they have no control over it. The judge attempts to fashion marriage from this raw material, while the aesthete shrinks from the idea. A, however, is now without a program. He is sensitively aware that he has no control over the occasion which supplies content to his life. He can, nevertheless, increase the probability that an occasion will present itself, and his genius lies in this direction. For one thing he is aware that somewhere in his manifold of experience an interesting occasion might lie. When part of this potential is kept from him, the aesthete is painfully aware that he might be foregoing the opportunity for an interesting moment. Thus A avoids the possibility of an interesting moment being eliminated due to a restriction of his manifold.
"You understand how to keep your soul as still and apathetic as a bird of prey is still before it plunges down; you know that the instant is not in any man’s power and that, nevertheless, the most beautiful experience is comprised in the instant." [6]
By refusing to restrict his manifold, A refuses to commit himself and remains detached from all things. Since his moments are always infinitesimal durations of time, A is almost always dissatisfied and bored. Thus marriage would be a drastic restriction of A’s opportunity for love and would violate his freedom. A has other means of increasing the probability of his being interested, though. He devises the “rotation method”, by means of which A varies his moods so as to be in the most receptive condition for an interesting occasion. As was stated above, A’s disengagement from the world prevents him from experiencing any meaning or significance, i.e. his very concern that he keep open all possibilities for the interesting prevent him from apprehending the interesting. Thus A has conceived of the idea of the art of remembering – when an interesting occasion presents itself, A attempts to reflect upon it right at the moment of its occurrence. Then later on, he can remember this reflection and thus approach as closely as possible the moment of the interesting (since reflection cannot apprehend the interesting itself). This indicates that A is quite aware of his own inability to reflect on the immediate, he can only evoke indirectly, perhaps, the mood he felt at the prior moment. The one problem with this is that the repeated reflection on the same thing become boring. This points us to a fundamental difficulty with A’s method – his reflections lack the substantial quality that experience has. To fend off the boring, A has the freedom to make his reflection appear before him in different perspectives each time. But this very freedom to manipulate his reflections is in the end self-defeating, because both reflections of the existent (memories) and of the unreal (fantasies) lack the substantial character of immediate experience. Ultimately, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the two reflective modes (i.e. memories and fantasies).

B’s point of view is similarly lacking a mechanism to account for the substantial quality of experience. For example he is totally unable to explain the emergence of first love, yet he is quite willing to build his life on this unexplained phenomenon. To do this he must assume that first love is the only true love.
"On the other hand, the more significant that thing is which for the first time announces itself, the less is the probability of its being repeated. If there is something so important as to be even eternal, all probability that it may be repeated vanishes. Hence when one has talked with a certain sad seriousness of the first love as something which could never be repeated, this is no disparagement of love but a lofty eulogy of it as the eternal power." [7]
He take this position on little more than an act of faith. From this he goes on to inform us that we are able only to sustain a single instance of what he might call a “I-Thou” relationship (in its purest form) and this relationship contains an historical element, its own law of motion. He notes that,
"Conjugal love shows itself to be historical by the fact that it represents a process of assimilation which deals with the experience and refers back the experience to itself. Thus, it is not a disinterested witness of what occurs but is essentially a sympathetic participant, in short, it experiences its own development." [8]
B is aware of freedom in the sense that one is free to choose that which has been present to him (first love). By this B means that one must commit oneself to one’s love, but at the same time be free from the need of one’s love (free from encountering the loved one categorically as an object that can be manipulated). Thus B not only chooses one element (the beloved) out of the manifold, but does so in a different manner (subject-subject encounter, rather than subject-object). He then asserts that a dialectical inner history will result that perpetually maintains the first love. This implies that B knows something about the occasion, yet we know he doesn’t. His assertion that first love (which comes from outside him) is maintained perpetually by conjugal love must be pure guess, since he knows nothing of the nature of the emergence of first love. This naiveté was even articulated when B admitted that first love must precede conjugal love.

What is really behind the judge’s arguments concerning the nature of love? The occasion presents love to a person from outside himself. Hence his failure to understand the reason for his love. The judge says that a man is free to commit himself to his love or not to commit himself. But this act of will implies a subject that is alienated from the task. To will something is to see oneself up against an obstacle which must be overcome – a task is set before one. Thus when one wills, one is alone; he is in a state of alienation (a subject-object situation) from that on which he operates. But this is not the nature of love. It would destroy love’s immediacy. One does not operate on one’s love, but instead receives the love. The establishment of a love relationship is not willed, but rather the subject opens oneself to the possibility of this being established from without. Indeed, freedom is incompatible with love, for love provides the subject with meaning. Love endows a man’s life with meaning; he cannot endow his own life with meaning. That is not to say that one has no freedom in dealing with one’s love, but that one cannot affect the nature of love by any willed activity.

Thus the failure of both A and B is due to their inability to posit a mechanism for the establishment of content. If they do not understand the nature of love (how it comes to be), then their methods of dealing with it in experience are arbitrary and without meaning. Thus in some sense A’s position is more viable than B’s, because it recognizes its own inadequacy. His position recognizes its ignorance of the nature of the occasion and thus wants to provide itself with maximum flexibility to experiment. B, on the other hand, provides no treatment of the possibility of departure of the love content from marriage. Since love’s coming to be is unexplained, its departure is also unapproached. He might try to get around it by saying the “first love” lasts forever, but then he is only providing his own definition of the term “first love”, which may have no real significance beyond this.

A demands freedom from the boring (lack of content), and marriage is very boring without love. Since noone understands how love comes to be or passes away, A refuses to bind himself to some situation which is based on the naive belief that the content will always remain in it, that first love lasts eternally. Thus B’s claim that A, by reflecting on experience is unable to relate himself to the content of experience, misses the point, since both A and B are equally alienated from love – B being equally alienated because by committing himself to his love, he thereby objectifies her.

Finally, B’s claim that he has solved the problem of temporality is untrue. The dialectical process does not extend the quality of the moment across time. An analogy can be made to the field of music, where B’s program is analogous to rhythm. Although rhythm does extend itself across time and is a function of time, it is only a structure for the music. Rhythm cannot create music or ensure that music will continue. It is nothing without the music, and therefore A would rather go where the music is, rather than attempt to stay in one place and structure it rhythmically, when it might at any moment depart.

The fact that A and B are unable to provide a mechanism for the coming to be and passing away of love may point to a fundamental impossibility for human understanding of the essential immediacy of love. It seems that the real difficulty is man’s freedom. A and B presuppose that some kind of freedom exists for man. This very freedom seemingly enables man to endow his existence with content, but this is deceiving, because at the same time it removes the essential meaning or value from a choice. A choice implies that other acts could also have been willed and thus a certain arbitrariness enters. The meaning and power of love precludes a choice with regard to its meaning qua love; one can only choose to do things that are at best indirectly related to love. Thus it may be impossible for a human being, existing in a state of freedom, ever to understand love and how it comes to be. If this is the case, then B’s program represents a retrogression from that of A.

  1. Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or; a Fragment of Life, translated by D. F. Swenson and L. M. Swenson.
  2. Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or; a Fragment of Life, translated by D. F. Swenson and L. M. Swenson, vol. II, p. 13.
  3. Ibid., p. 38.
  4. Ibid., p. 40.
  5. Ibid., p. 144.
  6. Ibid., p. 103.
  7. Ibid,, p. 40, 41.
  8. Ibid., p. 99.

Dr. Strangelove - Stanley Kubrick (1964)

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) still has to be identified as America’s finest anti-cold-war film, clearly exposing as it does the madness of Mutual-Assured Destruction. Far from being the typical anti-war film that bombards us with senseless human brutality and naive pacifistic propaganda, Dr. Strangelove, in its representation of the ultimate depravity and hopelessness of man and his systems, is not so much anti-war as it is anti human being.

That such a film could, at the same time, be a tense melodrama and a ridiculous comedy is a tribute to the directorial execution of Stanley Kubrick (Lolita, 1962, 2001; A Space Odyssey, 1968). Kubrick’s bold use of a wide range of camera and editing techniques is aided by a tight scenario involving three simultaneous theaters of action – a US Air Force Base, the Pentagon War Room, and a bomber on a mission threatening to destroy the world. Continuous interplay between dramatic tension and comic release heightens the effect of both and makes the resulting fever pitch almost unbearable.

The most important element is, however, the self-conscious nature of the acting performances which provides immediate commentary on the roles and sends the entire film careening back and both between absurd tomfoolery and frightening reality. The characters, equipped with campus sex humor names like Merkin Muffly and Buck Turgidson would appear too absurd were it not for our own national leaders (I refer you to the Pentagon Papers, the Bush-Cheney era, etc.). In doing what he thinks is right, each player behaves heroically, yet in a fashion so parochially self-righteous that one realizes the screen writers have condemned the entire species to self-extinction.

Indeed couldn’t it be said that it is rather sick to produce a nihilistic farce about our grave world situation? The poet and critic Lewis Mumford commented on such a question in the New York Times [1]
“What the wacky characters in Dr. Strangelove are saying is precisely what needs to be said: this nightmare eventuality that we have concocted for our children is nothing but a crazy fantasy, by nature as horribly crippled and dehumanized as Dr. Strangelove himself. It is not this film that is sick: what is sick is our supposedly moral democratic country which allowed this policy to be formulated and implemented without even the pretense of open public debate.”
What is needed to cure this sickness is a common commitment to the propositions that all people are our brothers and sisters and that adversary annihilation (no matter how "evil" an adversary may seem) is always insupportable.

  1. Lewis Mumford, (letter to the editor), New York Times, March 1, 1964.

"Bab’Aziz" - Nacer Khemir (2005)

In Nacer Khemir’s Bab’Aziz (2005), the red-headed and seemingly half-mad dervish observes:
“The people of this world are like the three butterflies in front of a candle’s flame.

The first one went closer and said, ‘I know about love’.

The second one touched the flame lightly with his wings and said, ‘I know how love’s fire can burn.’

The third one threw himself into the heart of the flame and was consumed.”
This is the kind of Sufi wisdom that Khemir tries to convey in his tale of an aged and blind Sufi dervish (different from the red-headed one), who travels across the desert sands with his young granddaughter in search of an epic gathering of Sufi practitioners said to take place once every thirty years. One might assume that such a journey through a picturesque landscape would provide a compelling narrative backbone of the tale we are watching. But this is not the case, and it points to the narrative shortcomings of the film. In fact that blind man’s journey is only a vehicle to relate four other stories that are told piecemeal and concurrently by various participants in the pilgrimage. Each of these stories is apparently supposed to reveal another side of the inscrutable Sufi way.

Khemir, a Tunisian-born artist, writer, and filmmaker residing in Paris, fashioned this film (the full title of which is Bab’Aziz - The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul) in an attempt to present to world audiences the mystical Sufi side of Islam – something markedly distinct from the image of fanatic dogmatism often appearing in the popular media. In Khemir’s words [1]:
“Sufism stands against all forms of fanaticism. Sufism is the Islam of the mystics; it is the tenderness of Islam. But in order to give a better definition, let me use this Sufi saying: ‘There are as many ways to God as the number of human beings on earth.’ This quote alone is a representation of the vision of Sufism. One could also say that Sufism is the pulsating heart of Islam.”
In pursuit of his expressed goal of presenting the mystery of Sufism, Khemir injected into the film’s dialogue poems and phrases drawn from ancient Sufi masters Rumi, Attar, Ibn Arabi, and Ibn Farid. Khemir also seems to have recruited a remarkably broad international team of Middle Eastern and European production and post-production collaborators, including contributions from Michelangelo Antonioni’s longtime screenplay collaborator, Tonino Guerra (L'Avventura, La Notte, L'Eclisse, Red Desert, Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point).

The story begins with the aged dervish, Bab’Aziz, and his 10-year-old granddaughter, Ishtar, managing to survive a fierce desert sandstorm and then resuming their trek across a vast, horizon-to-horizon desert of sand – the kind of desert image from your childhood dreams or from illustrations of the tales of the “Arabian Nights”. Such an evocative landscape signals to us that we are in for a tale of mystery and magic, parables and fables. In fact the setting seems so primitive and eternal that we feel that events must be taking place somewhere back in medieval times, although later on in the film there are occasional appearances of motorcycles, buses, and jet planes to remind us that the film’s actual setting is the present day.

As Bab’Aziz and Ishtar continue their trek, Ishtar asks her grandfather to continue to relate his apparently interrupted tale about a handsome young prince. But not long after Bab’Aziz resumes telling this tale and before he can finish it, the twosome encounter other travellers in the desert, and they have their stories to tell, too. As a consequence, most of the film is devoted to the telling of the four stories, which are:
  1. Bab’Aziz’s tale: “The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul”.
  2. Osman’s tale about his visions when he fell into a well.
  3. Zaid’s tale about the psalmody contest.
  4. Hassan’s tale about his twin brother.
Although each tale is beautifully photographed, and the viewer is enticed to follow along and piece the story fragments together, none of them really lives up to its promise as the visually poetic allegory that seems to have been suggested and that one hopes for.
Bab’Aziz’s tale.
The story that Bab’Aziz tells to Ishtar occupies a fair amount of screen time to tell, but there is not really much to the story. The handsome young prince is distracted from watching a performance of a dancing girl at his desert camp by the sight of a gazelle in the distance. Fascinated, the prince wanders out in search of the gazelle and does not return. After a lengthy search the prince is discovered sitting by a small pool and gazing as if in a trance at his reflection in the water. We are told that he is not admiring his image, but is in a meditative state, contemplating his own soul. At the end of this tale, the prince eventually wakes up from his revery and decides to abandon his royal estate and become a wandering dervish (leading some to speculate that this tale is really about Bab’Aziz’s own past).

Osman’s tale.
Osman, who is said to work as a “sand carrier”, is first encountered when he is rescued from having fallen into a public well. Afterwards, he tells how he came to fall into the well (he was fleeing a jealous husband) and what he saw at the bottom of the well (a palace full of beautiful women, including his beloved). His story if the oft-told tale of the man cannot regain his lost paradise.

Zaid’s tale.
Zaid is an educated young man wearing a baseball cap whom Bab’Aziz and Ishtar encounter along the way, too. He tells his story about his participation in a master psalmody, or poetry-singing, competition. Zaid and the other contestants take turns singing out beautiful poetic phrases, and they are judged by a mysterious young woman, Nour (played by the mesmerisingly beautiful Golshifteh Farahani, who has also appeared in Bab'Aziz (2003), Half Moon (Niwemang, 2006), and Ali Santouri (Santoori, 2007). Zaid’s poetic rendering wins both the competition and the heart of Nour. But after a passionate encounter, she ultimately steals his clothing and disappears so she can go out in disguise and search for her lost father. This story seems like Osman’s tale of loss, but it has a happier conclusion.

Hassan’s tale.
Hassan’s story is the most mysterious and is even more fragmented than the others. He is first seen searching for a red dervish who, he says, murdered his twin brother, Hussein. Hassan is also seen briefly in Osman’s tale, where he is revealed to be a drunken libertine, the very opposite of his authentic and serious-minded brother. After some misadventures, Hassan eventually does happen onto the red dervish, and we even get a brief glimpse of the red dervish’s role in Hussein’s mysterious entry into the nether world of death. There is much (actually too much) left unsaid here, and Hassan’s own conversion into the dervish way of life is equally unmotivated.
Overall, I might say that Bab’Aziz - The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul is a film marked by pronounced strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side, one must acknowledge that the cinematography and some of the production values of the film are extraordinarily good. Veteran cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari, who has worked with many top Iranian filmmakers, presents a string of fantastic (and phantasmagoric) images of a dreamlike desert setting. It is my understanding that the filming in the desert was extremely difficult and that most of those desert camera setups could only be used once because of the unerasable tracks made by the actors in the pristine desert sand [1]. (This difficulty probably accounts for some of the awkward editing sequences, where visual continuity and orientation are sometimes not maintained.) Another visual treat, near the of the film, is the view of the appointed place for the Sufi gathering, which was shot in the historic Iranian city of Bam. Bam has a 2,000-year-old history dating back to the Parthian Empire, but many of its historic monuments were damaged by an earthquake in 2003, which occurred shortly after the Bab’Aziz filming was undertaken there.

Unfortunately, the virtues of the cinematography cannot make up for the serious narrative deficiencies in Bab’Aziz. None of the four told tales has a narrative aim or motivation. One could, I suppose, make the counterargument that these stories are supposed to be somewhat mysterious, but the fundamental problem is they are not sufficiently engaging. As a consequence, the viewer’s mind might wander, even in the midst of all that visual splendour.

There is one further positive aspect, though, that it worth mentioning. Although the film is mostly of men and about men, the women who appear in the film (very modestly attired) are memorably graceful and sonorous (yes, there is some singing). Of particular note are the enchanting Golshifteh Farahani, as Nour, and the namaki Maryam Hamid, as Ishtar.

  1. Chale Nafus, “Bab’aziz – the Prince Who Contemplated His Soul”, Austin Film Society, Austin, TX, USA, 2009, http://www.austinfilm.org/Page.aspx?pid=929.

The Method of History in the Present Age

Karl Löwith’s introduction to From Hegel to Nietzsche reads, “a study of the age from Hegel to Nietzsche ultimately will have to yield the question: is the essence and “meaning” of history determined absolutely from within history itself; and, if not, then how?” [1] Mr. Löwith sets the tone of the present age by stating that a study of the age yields the question – that is, he doesn’t venture to say whether we might come up with some answers from a study of the age.  Well, now that the question has been raised, we might attempt to examine the thought of the two most prominent thinkers on history of the nineteenth century, Hegel and Marx.  For these two infused a new life and importance into the study of history and in fact changed the nature of historical study – “ever since Hegel, world history, in contrast to historia [the etymological root of history], seems to be precisely what one has not seen and experienced, inquired after, and investigated for himself.” [2]

One might first ask the question what does Löwith mean when he says, “essence and ‘meaning’ of history”?  This is a crucial question, but let us, for the time being, say that it amounts to asking whether in Hegel’s or Marx’s philosophies history is self-contained and self-caused.  We then can proceed, rather uncritically, to Hegel.

Hegel sees history as the advancing self-manifestation of the Absolute Idea in time.  It is not the collective unity of all the ideas or consciousnesses of men in the progress of history, but rather the manifestation of the Idea as history itself – in the historical model.  The self-manifestation proceeds in distinct historical states.  The Absolute Idea as treated by Hegel in his Phenomenology [3] is also seen to advance by means of the Hegelian dialectic to a self-comprehending complete unity.  As it progresses from subjective spirit (whose content is the human mind viewed subjectively as the mind of the individual subject) through objective spirit (whose content is objective spiritual institutions) to absolute spirit (the Absolute Idea as spirit in and for itself), the spirit progresses towards its ultimate freedom and self-expression and liberates itself from subjection to nature.  Here it is the spirit that is the determining factor, the cause of change.  History itself as manifested in historical facts and concrete details is a mere reflection of history qua Hegel’s concept of history – the abstract progress of the spirit.  Thus everyday life is not truly significant (historically) to Hegel unless some minor everyday event can rise to the level of a truly historical event.  No individual person is important to history unless he rises to become the expression of some abstract historical concept.  Marx’s critique of Hegel is that he has presented an abstracted movement of mind – not true history (as Marx sees it).  Thus he says, “the whole history of the alienation process and the whole process of the retraction of the alienation is therefore nothing but the history of the production of abstract (i.e. absolute) thought – of logical, speculative thought.” [4] Thus the principle of movement in Hegelian history applies to abstract thought entities which are in turn manifested in everyday experience.  (This criticism of Hegel is directed at the Phenomenology as an historical presentation, nevertheless the criticism here referred to applies to Hegel’s position on history).

For Hegel, the Spirit (the Spirit of the Age) exists not over and above time, not objectively outside of time manipulating historical events, but in time, that is, in the eternal present.  The Spirit has within itself all of past time (it is the historical consequence of such) and the prospects of the future.  It doesn’t externally create history, its progress in the historical mode is history.  It is important, however, to distinguish between the Idea as the process of the Absolute Spirit (that which is the subject of Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit) and the Spirit as world history.  Thus returning to the original question taken from Karl Löwith, we can see that the spirit within  history is not the true essence and meaning of history, for the Idea as expressed in the Phenomenology as it attains its dialectical development is not in history as such; history is only its expression in the historical model.  Thus the Phenomenology of the Spirit is the essence and meaning of history (to Hegel) but it is not itself within history.

It is on this count that Marx attempt to break off from the Hegelian dialectic in favor of what he calls “naturalism”.
"Whenever real, corporeal man, man with his feet firmly on the solid ground, man exhaling and inhaling all the forces of nature, establishes his real, objective essential powers as alien objects by his externalization, it is not the act of positing which is the subject in his process: it is the subjectivity of objective essential powers, whose action, therefore, must also be something objective.  An objective being acts objectively, and he would not act objectively if the objective did not reside in the very nature of his being.  He creates or establishes only objects, because he is established by objects – because at bottom he is nature.  In the act of establishing, therefore, this objective being does not fall from his state of “pure activity” into a creating of the object; on the contrary, his objective product only confirms his objective activity, establishing his activity as the activity of an objective, natural being.’" [5]
By taking this position Marx sacrifices some of the beautiful completeness in Hegelian doctrine for his humanistic naturalism.  Marx defines history as the true natural history of man.  His theory of history is somewhere in between the materialism of Feuerbach and the idealism of Hegel.  Marx sees true history as the history of living, concrete, suffering man, but he does retain some level of abstraction in his dealing with sociological and economic forces as abstract historical concept.

Thus we have the positions of the two philosophers of history with regard to what history is.  To  understand, however, the essence and meaning of Hegel’s and Marx’s conceptions of history, we would do well to consider how they treat history as a dynamic process.

Hegel is relatively obscure on this point (more than his usually obscure self), because he presents his Phenomenology of the Mind in an historical context.  This seems to be inherent in his method of presentation – the Spirit proceeds from subjective spirit to objective spirit out of a dialectical necessity; the time lapse involved is only incidental to the real relationship.  That is, we tend to personify Hegel’s abstract notions and picture them in an historical setting, but, in truth, the Phenomenology is not a direct explanation of history.  The dynamics of Hegel’s historical theory involve the dialectic of negativity.  Spirit, as it attains the expression of the unity of the Idea in itself (as expressed in the Logic) and nature (as expressed in the philosophy of Nature) proceeds through other stages, always positing its opposite, and then, by comprehending the two conflicting concepts, transcending the opposition to achieve a higher unity.  Marx criticizes Hegel for often using this method to abstractly move back to the originally posited concept.  Thus he views Hegel’s process as a negation of negation and instead of a true transcendence, is one-sidedly resolving the opposition in favor of one particular side.  Marx cites Hegel’s return to religion as an example.  The criticism touches on an important aspect of Hegel’s system – the realization of Hegel’s principles in the real world (the manifestation of the Idea in art, history, etc.) is often extremely difficult to accomplish.  Just what constitutes the Spirit of the Age is more than just a procedural question; it points to a fundamental weakness in Hegel’s method – namely that of establishing the Spirt after the fact.  When one looks back in history, one can always cite events that are turning points and see many events, viewed collectively, as a logical pattern.  But there may have been other logical patterns in the making which didn’t quite achieve culmination and are thus overlooked by historians.  This results in an arbitrary selection of pattern-forming events (those which actually reached their logical fruition) as historically significant (when looking back into history).  When the historian examines the threads leading up through his present existence and attempts to predict the future, he no longer has the great advantage of knowing the result.  Thus two historians using the dialectical method may attempt to classify historical events on the basis of some abstract formalism, and, because they don’t have the outcome of history in front of them, these two historians may reach opposite conclusions.  This indicates that the selection of historical events as significant (and hence as representing the Spirit of the Age) may be arbitrary classifications which predict, as it were, the pasts, and – lo and behold – they are correct!

Marx indicates an understanding of this fundamental weakness, but refuses to reject the method; he only modifies it.  Marx brings history in close contact with real events. He criticizes Hegel as dealing only in abstractions, yet he himself deals in only relatively less abstract abstractions.  Rather than Hegel’s extremely abstract notion of man bing self-consciousness, Marx views man as natural, yet he is still speaking of man as laborer, man qua capitalist, i.e. a lower level of abstraction.  For Marx’s period this was the most particular and individuated body of knowledge with regard to man – economic, but it was not any ultimate reduction to natural man.

Thus for these two men and for subsequent historians, the study of history entailed dealing with abstractions.  In attempting to organize historical data and explain history, a systematic approach was necessary.  Some historical facts are thereby rendered significant and fundamental to the march of history, while others are merely incidental effects of these first, as all data are placed somewhere in the systematic framework.  To speak of a world-spirit that is the manifestation in the historical mode of the Absolute Idea is one way of systematic explanation.  Because its dynamical principle, its reason for change, is not within history itself, Hegel’s system would seemingly have great significance compared to more descriptive bodies of thought.  A purely descriptive body of thought attempts to explain phenomena on the basis of cause and effect.  That is, if condition A is present, then B will follow.  The concept of B is not in A (since B is different from A, otherwise we would just have A followed by A).  We merely form a systematic body of thought based on this causal situation.  There may be intermediate stages between A and B (found by a more thoroughgoing analysis) which are causally related, but not one of these causal relationships ever provides us with a reason as to why condition A is suddenly followed by different condition B.  This is not what descriptive science is concerned with.  Therefore descriptive knowledge tells us nothing with regard to the ultimate cause.  Since, as above, cause-and-effect is not ultimately explanation, but merely description (elaborate though it may be), it is useless to attempt to explain (find the reason behind) natural phenomena by retreating to the ultimate cause.  There is either an infinite regression of causes back into infinity, or there is a first cause – neither of these leads to anything but mystery with regard to ultimate meaning.  By the use of the principle of causation, descriptive sciences set up fundamental laws that enable one to predict the future.  From the present condition A we can prediction condition B with our causal principle.  The ultimate test for a scientific law is whether it is successful at prediction; if it isn’t, then a new relationship must be found.

A descriptive science can exist for any level of abstraction, as long as it successfully organizes its abstract conditions into causal relationships for valid prediction.  Thus it is possible to treat historical phenomena as bases of a descriptive science by obtaining causal relationships among historical entities.  Economics is another example of a descriptive science on another level of abstraction.  When economic theory (i.e. Say’s Law) failed to successfully predict economic behaviour during the 1930s, a new body of descriptive thought was necessary (Keynesian analysis).   Neither of these two methods of describing economic behaviour was any more fundamental, true, or reasonable, in any absolute sense; it just happened that one method correctly established causal relationships, and the other didn’t.

Thus if one looks for the “ultimate meaning and essence” of a descriptive science, one must find it within that science. That is, for economics, it was found that Say’s Law was no longer a valid causal organization of economic abstractions from real life.  Economics has no inherent comment on why Say’s Law failed.  (It may have actually been due to a fundamental psychological, that is, non-economic, change in consumer attitudes.  In other words, it may have been a result of a change outside of economics.  But for economics as a body of thought, it is purely descriptive and not concerned with any reasons outside of predicting observable phenomena.)  Thus also in physics, there is no ultimate essence or meaning outside of it as a descriptive body of thought.  Physics from 1890 to 1930 underwent a complete overhauling in order to yield successful prediction.  It was found (in 1890) that under the system of causal relationships then regarded as accurate, new physical phenomena could not be successfully predicted; causality was denied.  Even though “classical” physics successfully described a great realm of observation, it was completely overhauled and new definitions of physical states (the conditions A & B of physics) were found that restored the principle of causality to the physical states.  (Although it yielded a fundamental uncertainty for individual events, these single events were no longer states, no longer in the causal framework.  Causality in physics today is related to the new definition of state which relates to statistical averages of events.)  Thus physics resolved its conflict in favor of increased causality – it had to in order to advance as a descriptive science.

Thus a descriptive method of thought can apply to any sphere of knowledge, in particular, history.  And its essence is determined within its nature (its moving principle).  But a descriptive science carries with it no real meaning, no reason behind its network of causal relationships.  If, rather than describe a field by presenting a first cause, of which the world is an effect, one presented a first reason of which the world is the consequence, then would there be meaning.  Reason exists outside of a descriptive body of phenomena.  That 1 + 1 = 2 is a fundamental product of reason can be seen as well as the fact that it is not dependent on any real observable data for verification.  Thus in the realm of reason we have logical necessity which is not verified.  If we could see condition B as a logical necessity to condition A, if we could see the reason for it; then we could reach an understanding of the meaning of the relationship.

Now we can see what Hegel’s position was in light of the above.  For Hegel, reason, in the abstract, was the first principle.  Reason as a universal is the meaning (the Idea), and the world it its logical consequent.  By taking all of reason (reason in and for itself) as his ultimate principle, Hegel did not have to go beyond the Idea for a reason of this reason (no infinite progression).  Hence the Absolute Idea is its own logical consequent, unlike a first cause.  Hegel, as mentioned above, presented history as the manifestation of the Absolute Idea in the historical mode.  This relationship seems rather obscure (it have seems so to Marx) with regard to the real phenomena of history.  Certainly the connection as “manifestation” seems indefinite.  We can see Marx then as attempting to relate history more closely with real events (though still on a rather high level of abstraction) by attempting to treat it as a descriptive science.  He takes the historical entities of the day (abstractions of the more everyday, less significant events) and attempts to apply the principles of a descriptive science to history.  Regarding Marx from this point of view, we may simplistically view Hegel as the true speculative philosopher, while Marx was really a would-be scientist.

Marx viewed philosophy of his day as lacking content, that is, lacking relation to direct phenomena.  Thus he observes,
“The Abstract idea, which without mediation becomes intuiting, is indeed nothing else but abstract thinking that gives itself up and resolves on intuition. . . The mystical feeling which drives the philosopher forward from abstract thinking to intuiting is boredom – the longing for contents.” [6] 
He speaks of communism and atheism as “no loss of the objective world created by man – of man’s essential powers born to the realm of objectivity, . . . on the contrary, they are but the first real emergence, the actual realization for man of man’s essence and of his essence [7].  Thus Marx is speaking of abstractions in the historical framework of the world.  Marx’s attempts to provide a descriptive basis for history rely on economics, which was actually a scientifically-based economic history.  Marx is rather vague with regard to the relation of economics and history.  Wherever economics seems to lose control of a situation, wherever causal relationships seem to lie just outside the realm of economics, Marx calls it history.  This is not particularly sound, because the assumptions of economics (the definitions of its abstractions) are not the same as those of that which he speaks when he mentions history.   Thus in Marx’s Pre-capitalist Economic Formations [8] he attempts to give us a systematic, descriptive idea of the boundary between history and economics, appealing now to history then to economics –
“all the forms in which the community imputes to the subjects a specific objective unity with the condition of their production . . . necessarily correspond only to a development of the forces of production [economic basis] . . . (these forms are of course more or less naturally evolved, but at the same time also the results of a historic process)” [9]. 
Thus Marx’s naturalism attempts to deal with history within history as a descriptive science. 

In view of Marx’s criticism of Hegel, let us return to Hegel and see how he related his abstractions to the realm of historical thought.  Hegel saw the Idea as not only a universal in and for itself (its own reason for existence), but also reason was fundamentally related to epistemological categories of knowledge.  That is, after Kant, Hegel conceived of perception of the real world as inherently categorical (and hence inherently related to reason).  Logic and nature were manifestations of the Absolute Idea in their particular modes of existence, and so were the categories of human knowledge a manifestation of the Idea.  Thus the Hegelian process of history has an a priori connected rationality – it is not arbitrary abstraction from the real world, but an inherent abstraction.  Was this justified?  Marx’s move away from this idealism is explained when he observes,
“In Hegel, therefore, the negation of the negation is not the confirmation of the true essence, effected precisely through negation of the pseudo-essence.  With him the negation of the negation is the confirmation of the pseudo-essence, or of the self-estranged essence in its denial; or it is the denial of this pseudo-essence as an objective being dwelling outside man and independent of him, and its transformation into the subject.” [10]
Thus Marx tells us that Hegel can’t really transcend his own consciousness.  How, unless Hegel himself is a divine being, can Hegel be certain of his own philosophy.  That is, how can he be certain unless he has actually comprehended the Absolute Idea.  What he has actually done is secularize Christian doctrine.  To accept Hegel’s reason-in-history position (that is, to have anything in history beyond a descriptive science) one must have an implicit faith.  One can’t really know this as truth.  That is to say, Hegel’s position may indeed be correct, but it rests on condition of faith in reason, and the meaning of history.  As Löwith comments,
“Historicism is the religion of the ‘educated’, whose skepticism is not vigorous enough to live entirely without faith; it is the cheapest sort of substitute.  For what is cheaper than the faith that over the long course of history everything that has ever happened, with all its consequences, must have a meaning and a purpose!” [11]
It is this faith that all history has a purpose that has induced many historians to rationalize past history according to their own prejudices.  They arbitrarily select data to be significant that fit their own personal opinions concerning reason in history.  These historians reject the idea of history as a descriptive science.

Considering history as a descriptive science is very difficult due to the lack of uniformity with regard to historical entities and concepts.  Historical study which is along the lines of descriptive science corresponds to fields like political science, sociology, economics, etc.  The difficulties, which we won’t bother to discuss here, that these fields of study run into lead many historians, perhaps justifiably, to reject these fields as valid alternatives for prediction.  Hence history has come to stand for the side of history that attempts to find reason in history (social sciences becoming the attempt to achieve a descriptive body of knowledge).

Historians, nonetheless, are very often unfaithful to the original Hegelian principles.  Hegel conceived of history as the manifestation of the Spirit in time.  Reason, itself, achieved its own self-comprehending unity not in the historical mode; thus, as above, the essence and meaning of history are not in history itself (only a manifestation of the Spirit). Historians, on the other hand, often fail to achieve this level of abstraction and attempt to see reason in history.  Either that or they even less responsibly attempt to apply their own preconceived notions to the study and organizing of history.

Such an historian was Marx, himself.  Although he had scientific notions, he never completely attained a descriptive method.  Instead, his naturalism was only a decline in the level of abstraction to an attempt to impute reason in history.  Marx would probably assert that the meaning and essence of history is within history.  (Had he been a purely descriptive scientist, he would say that history is self-contained but that it has no real meaning.)   Marx, however, had his own prejudices which he put into history, and thus, rather than achieve an improvement of Hegel (his analysis of Hegel’s weaknesses above appear to be profound), he represents a retrogression from the completeness of Hegelian thought.

Mr. Löwith, who recognized Hegel’s philosophy as requiring a faith in reason and purpose, is, unfortunately, also a historian of this latter class – influenced by Hegel in his efforts to obtain order in historical phenomena, but not sufficiently abstract to see the arbitrarinesses that this can lead to if one doesn’t fully accept Hegel’s position.  Thus Professor Lawrence Stepelevich comments on Löwith’s book:
“A thin line divides the historian of philosophy from the philosopher of history – a line that is too easily crossed when the historian approaches under the guidance of a philosopher.  Hegel’s hand rests too heavily upon Löwith, and other philosophers lose their original substance and are absorbed by Hegel.” [12}
To return to Mr. Löwith’s original question, it now becomes a matter of seeing the essence and meaning as ultimately outside of history.  History in our age is a partial appropriation of the Hegelian method without the acceptance of the rest of Hegel’s philosophy which validates it.       

  1. Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche, the Revolution in Nineteenth-century Thought, Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1964, p. vi.
  2. Ibid., p. 212, 213.
  3. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of Hegel, ed., by Carl J. Friedrich, Random House, 1954.
  4. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Wilder Publications, 2011, p. 175.
  5. Ibid., p. 181.
  6. Ibid., p. 190.
  7. Ibid.,. p. 187.
  8. Karl Marx, Pre-capitalist Economic Formations, International Publishers, 1965.
  9. Ibid., p. 96-97.
  10. Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Wilder Publications, 2011, p. 185.
  11. Löwith, op. cit., p. 217.
  12. Lawrence S. Stepelevich, “Reflections on Hegel”, The Intercollegiate Review, 2:3, November-December, 1965, p. 214.