Newton’s first law of motion: an object is either at rest or moves at a constant velocity, unless acted on by an external force.
There is no escaping this law. It is true on earth, and it is true in space. George Clooney, in the movie Gravity, knows this, as he unhooks his tether with Sandra Bullock, to give her a chance to survive. With no hope for himself, he drifts off, above the beautiful, blue-green earth. He implores her to survive, and we last hear him calling out, in astonished awe, at his view of the sunrise on the Ganges River. He is the first man to go to heaven. . . still alive.
In the magical beauty of the earth’s orbit, in the great, pervasive mystery of space, Sandra Bulloch is alone, in terror. Death could come so quickly, so indifferently, as it has for her companions. Her anxiety is a storm. Life and rescue are still possible, her destiny is all up to her. She will have to save herself. She grabs onto any hold she can.
All the while, the earth is just there, in all its splendor, the place where everything has happened, and where everyone has lived and died. There are no signs, up there, of all the human trouble and misery, down there, just an aura of innocence and peace, as if humans never were.
This silent majesty is strangely comforting. The earth and the stars are right there, and they have the answers. A great. . . truth. . . is out there. Lifeless space, the living earth, the mystery of time. One senses that there is a knowing presence, filling the emptiness. It is so close, and yet out of reach. What, really, is this earth doing here? What, really, is gravity?
This story has biology, too, a man, a woman, and a child. The man sacrifices himself for her, men do that, and she grieves, terribly, for her child, who has died down on earth, sometime ago. Does she blame herself? A mother would. She has suffered love, a force we can’t see, a force that makes humans care more about others than they do about themselves. It is an attractive force, but it’s not like gravity, it is not inversely proportional to distance. Loved ones feel part of each other, across space and time.
In this unending, eternal present, why do humans suffer? The past and the future concern them, and bother them. It is life that feels and suffers the hopes of time.
Like the first sea creature that was able to get on to land, eons ago, she gets back on to earth, to solid ground, back from death and heaven.
Existentialism: “the unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad, a free agent in a deterministic, disorienting, and seemingly meaningless universe.”
In the movie Drive, the central character has a special talent. Driving, yes, but more compelling, he can stay calm and focused during intense moments, like driving fast and escaping the police, or like when someone is trying to kill him. It is a gift, his ability to stay cool, it helps him get by. But it may have helped him get involved with the wrong people.
Behind the wheel, his eyes centered on the road, he is ever wary, a taut spring. His smile is soft, his eyes rarely blink. He says pretty much only what is necessary to say. He seems satisfied staying in the background. Somehow he has ended up half way between good people and bad.
He meets a girl from down the hall, an innocent, vulnerable mother to a young son. He helps her out. Watching television, the boy says you can always tell who the bad guys are. Driver asks: ‘How do you know?’
The girl’s husband has been away, in prison, for what we don’t know. He eventually comes home, and has problems he can’t handle. He is roughed up to pay escalating demands for protection payments he may or may not have ‘purchased’ while in prison. This threatens the mother and boy. Driver decides to help get the money, in a robbery he has been asked to drive for, but things go awry.
Bad guys show up for the same money. They kill the husband. In a sinister luxury SUV, they give chase. Driver races away. He manages to get bumper to bumper – in front of them – going very fast, backward, in control. They think they have him, but just near the end of the road, an end they don’t see because they are looking at him, he spins around to the side, and they go on to crash.
But he gets found, and almost killed. He acts fast, and survives.
Somehow, he knows how to deal with creeps, how you have to speak to them, how you cannot trust them, how they only respond to threat and force, how you sometimes have to kill them.
But they keep coming, like insects. He has to stomp one to death, in front of her, in an elevator, to protect her. He has no choice. She watches. Maybe she thinks he is one of them. She leaves. What can he say?
They kill his friend.
He must have thought he was one of them, at one time, but with her he seems to realize he isn’t. He is not going to go back.
He phones her: “I just want you to know that you and the boy are the best thing that has ever happened to me”.
Then he goes to settle things, to ensure her safety. He gives the ring leader a chance to honor an honest deal. The guy doesn’t, of course, and Driver, nearly killed, has to do what he has to do.
He leaves the money with the body.
It may be significant that a young Swedish author’s books are about evil, revenge, and justice. The Sweden we all know is egalitarian, humane, rational, and kind. The people are understanding and generous, and they abhor violence. They were neutral in World War II. Life in Sweden is neat, careful, sensible, and compassionate. Emotions are peculiarities, sex is hygienic, punishment is rehabilitation. The only problems are boredom and suicide.
Not so in the Stieg Larrson books. Here, Swedish men are sadistic murderers, molesters, and neo-nazi rapists. Our heroine is a victim who won’t accept victimhood, and she uses her digital talents to endure and survive. She rescues the Swedish journalist – a quintessential good guy who seeks to uncover ‘corruption’ in Swedish society – from near murder. This guy thinks the man who nearly murdered him ‘must be very sick’, but she will have none of that. She watches the would-be murderer (who has committed other serial murders) burn alive, when she could have saved him, and this bothers her not at all. She finds herself having to explain the obvious: “He knowingly tortured and murdered innocent people, and he enjoyed it”. Hello.
To those who have always been safe and comfortable, justice comes to be seen as an immature emotional need, like revenge, a juvenile anger. Compassion is always proper, the way to break the ‘cycle of violence’. War is never the answer, punishment ‘doesn’t work’.
Perhaps in homogeneous societies, like Sweden up until recently, consensus is easy, trust is high, others are understandable, empathy is natural, good will is a default. Such a society, however, eventually provides rich opportunity for exploitation by the cunning, the selfish, the deceptive, and the mean. Such a society can become, like Larsson’s Swedish journalist, naive.
Our heroine’s abusive father is an evil Russian. She is only half Swedish.
Compassion over justice may need a reset, unfortunately. In a tolerant and cosmopolitan world, justice may be more necessary. These novels may be trying to say so.
John F. Kennedy famously said: “Don’t hate your enemies but never forget their names”.
It is the weak who suffer the most from the emphasis on compassion over justice, and it is the powerful who suffer less from the failure of justice. Yet, ironically, it is the powerful who are most readily advocating compassion.
Serving Justice, it gets forgotten, isn’t so much about punishing the guilty as it is about preventing future injustice.
Our heroine seems to know that trying to understand evil may feel comfortable, but it doesn’t do much for the next victims.
Sweden may be trying to tell us something.
J. R. R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey, Houghton Mifflin Company 2000.
“The oldest and deepest desire satisfied by fairy tales is to tell tales of the great escape: the escape from Death.”
There is a sublime sadness in the eyes of the hero, Aragorn, within the triumph of resilience that is the story of The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien suffered loss of his father to rheumatic fever, when he was four, and loss of his mother to diabetes when he was twelve. He was raised by Catholic priests. He was gravely sickened with trench fever in World War I.
“By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.”
He eventually married – a long and good marriage – and became an Oxford professor of old english, the literature before Shakespeare. He taught in the years when Britain lost its confidence, Orwell wrote of the corruption of language, society abandoned religion, and Hitler rose to power.
For Tolkien, the great legends, such as Beowulf, speak eternal truths, the truths known before writing, known before civilization, truths that even the authors themselves do not realize they are telling, truths from God.
For Tolkien, God tells a legend story that He makes to actually happen: the story of Jesus Christ.
Modern times chose to turn away from the old stories and their truths. For them, the past was not wisdom, it was superstition, Mythology doesn’t teach, it is artifact.
And for Tolkien, the price paid was ghastly wars.
The Lord of the Rings is a re-telling, for the modern ears that will hear, the old knowledge. Tolkien re-tells the ancient lore for the modern reader, he re-presents the immemorial truths.
The Lord of the Rings is a story of common people and the power of common loyalty, of the universal temptation of power and the sure corruption by power, of the dangers of disbelief and the meaning in mortality, of the journey of living and courage in the face of despair, of the necessity of resisting evil and of staring annihilation in the face, of looking to one’s own sin and resisting the of sin of others, of facing insurmountable odds and of holding fast, of the power of simple friendship and the king restored to his throne.
“Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect “history” to be anything but a “long defeat” – although it contains glimpses of final victory.”
History is not progressive, it is the perennial story, the recurring struggle with sin and death.
There is deliverance. There is the Evangelium – joy beyond the veil of the world, the truth of the living God.
Oh posterity, you will never know how much it cost us to preserve your freedom. I hope that you will make a good use of it. It you do not, I will repent in heaven that I took half the pains to preserve it.
So speaks John Adams in the last line of the HBO mini-series inspired by David McCullough’s biography. Adams knew that our American revolution was precarious, and that its principles were vulnerable to misinterpretation.
The mini-series juxtaposes Adams and Jefferson. We see Adams as a prudent, calculating revolutionary. For the cause of independence, he leads the Continental Congress with the temperament of a radical. His revolutionary convictions were shrewd, and genuine. But as a President he was conservative. Once the revolution was achieved, he was solely determined to preserve the government. Meanwhile, Jefferson envisioned a perennial revolution, with each generation overthrowing the institutions of the last.
McCullough shows that Adams was uniquely aware of the fragility of the new government and the principles it affirmed. As he transformed from a revolutionary to a conservative, his reputation faltered. His efforts in office to protect the delicate union, his preoccupation with its infant weaknesses, lead many in his time to question his true commitment to the revolution—as though revolution, itself, was always virtuous. He lost the legacy battle to Jefferson, and witnessed firsthand the cold unfairness of history.
Though mocked and unpopular, Adams commented before vacating the Presidency, “Mr. Jefferson is fortunate that I have left him a county at all over which to preside.”
It is probably true that part of Adams’ pessimism was partly due to offended disgruntlement. He clearly resented Jefferson’s popularity. But there was also something worrying to Adams about the way history embraced Jefferson. Adams believed completely in the principles of the revolution, and the institutions of the new government, and he knew of their profound importance to the world. To him, the revolution was real, necessary, and genuine. To Jefferson, and to many Americans of the time, it was abstract and romantic. Adams seemed to know that there would be something lost if the realness of the American principles was not appreciated.
In a later scene, the mini-series shows an old, ornery Adams surveying John Trumbull’s painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Adams tells Trumbull:
Do not let our posterity be diluted with fictions under the guise of poetical or graphical licenses…It is a very common observation in Europe that nothing is so false as modern history. Well I would hasten to add that nothing is so false as modern European history, except modern American history. In plain English, I consider the true history of the American Revolution to be lost…forever.
In the charming movie, Vitus, a young boy is a piano prodigy. This becomes very important to his parents, so much so that they seem to forget that he is still a young boy. Too young to understand his gift, he wants to be a young boy. His parents’ obsession becomes annoying, so he fakes a head injury to seem to lose his talent and free him to do fun things, like learn to fly airplanes with his grandfather. Eventually he takes flight in a real airplane, and flies to the villa of a famous piano virtuoso, whom he has met before. She has told him: “don’t play for them, don’t play for yourself, play for the music“. He is ready, and he does.
Golf is a ritualized hunt. The players rendevous with their weapons, then advance, spread out, approach the target, make the kill, and then re-group. And because success in hunting has been so vital and necessary in our history, hunting skill is highly valued and cultivated. Skill is doing something with precision, practiced technique, and intelligent efficiency. Doing more with less. And so it is also in golf. The best swing is the most graceful, the most rhythmic, the most simple. The best score is the least number of shots.
We talk about inclusion and equality, but we love competition. We are driven to seek, promote, and celebrate the best among us. We create competition to know who is best. We love sorting out winners and losers, as cruel as it can be for the losers, we are more than willing to tolerate the agony of loss for the losers. We gravitate to excellence, we give it special status, we dislike losers. We invite winners to feel superior, we encourage them to feel proud, we help them feel entitled.
And then, we call them on it. They walk the plank.
There is the Drama of the Gifted Child, (Alice Miller 1979). Over time the gifted are more and more loved for their gift, less and less for themselves as persons. Paradoxically, success becomes more and more diminishing. The Gift usurps the Self.
Tiger Woods is a prodigy, and a winner. He has great skill, developed with hard, diligent effort. Initially, he probably played for his parents, then he played for his fans, and then he played for himself. Whomever he may have betrayed, he did not betray excellence. That is a gift for us, and for that he deserves our admiration.
Play for the music.
Jeff Bridges gives a great portrayal, not just of a failing country music artist, but of an alcoholic.
Alcohol chiefly blocks emotional intelligence, not intellectual intelligence. The alcoholic over time doesn’t know what makes him sad, what makes him happy, what makes him anxious. We have these emotions for a reason, they teach us what matters to us, what frightens us, what brings satisfaction. The neurologist, Antonio Damasio, in his book Descartes’ Error, descirbes how loss of emotional processing leads to profound dysfunction. The alcoholic, without reliable emotional processing, becomes a baffling mixture of preserved intellectual intelligence but increasing emotional stupidity. This is Bad Blake, a man of talent and creativity who abandons a son and a wife, can’t write music anymore, and doesn’t know why.
We can explain alcoholism as a charming by-product of creative genius. We think of it as enhancing creative powers. We can be fooled into seeing it as a movingly tragic antidote for gifted peoples’ special pain. This movie, though, gives us none of that. Bad Blake was bad because he was a alcoholic, and he became sensible, and talented, when he stopped drinking. His new woman interest didn’t waver when she saw it clearly. Somehow, she had learned, perhaps the hard way, and she wasn’t going to risk the welfare of her son.
In American Prometheus, The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, we find the clearly portrayed – but little acknowledged – martini alcoholism of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the creator of the atom bomb. We see that his wife was an alcoholic also, her’s more severe, he an enabler. Oppenheimer became a frustrating, puzzling mix of mental genius and emotional failure. The man who built the atom bomb eventually lost his security clearance, and his family. His son went off to live in seclusion in the mountains of New Mexico, working as contractor and carpenter, twice married and divorced.
When his daughter Toni was born, her mother suffered postpartum depression, and was drinking, “a lot”, so she left Toni with a nanny friend, and went away for a number of months. Robert Oppenheimer would periodically visit the child.
“It was all very strange. He would come and sit and chat with me, but he wouldn’t ask to see the baby. She might as well have been God knows where, but he never asked to see her.”
“Would you like to adopt her?”
No, she reassured him . . . over time he would become “attached” to the baby.
“No, I’m not an attached kind of person”.
After failed marriages, no children, and recurrent unhappiness, Toni hanged herself in the family beach house of Hawksnest Bay, in the Virgin Islands, overlooking where her father’s ashes and urn are submerged.
In the movie “I’m not there“, creative Hollywood artists who know Bob Dylan, and know of his singular importance in our time, want to give tribute to him. There has been no sign of his acknowledgment, of course.
It is curious, and very to the point, that the chosen title song for this movie may be the most personally significant song Mr. Dylan has ever written, and also the very one song of all of his repertoire that has not been placed on any of his albums, or posted on any of his lyric anthologies. Indeed, people cannot agree on what the lyrics actually say. The recorded version of the song very likely is an unfinished song, with filler words and phrases, to be refined later, which seems never to have happened.
Yet, it is an truly compelling and emblematic song. Written in the basement tapes sessions during his life in Woodstock, as his attempt to be a normal person, a normal husband, a normal father is slipping. He seems to be fighting and grasping with the cost of his incessant, unshakeable artistic being. The song just may be too raw, too painfully emotional for him to finish, or acknowledge, or publish.
“I’m not there” is dirge-like, with anger, blaming of others, and blaming himself. It does not resolve. There is a grinding, plodding anguish. He has five young children and a lovely wife, but he knows he can’t maintain it, knows he is going to bow out, not at all sure it will be wonderful, sensing that it will be painful, sure that others will be disappointed, and, worse, that it will be selfish. . . but he can’t help it.
Now I’ll cry tonight like I cried the night before
And I’ll feast on her eyes
But I’ll dream about the door.
I was born to love her
But she knows that the kingdom waits so high above her
I wish I were there to help her
But I’m not there I’m gone.