Deserves Got Nothing to Do with It: The Enlightened Morality of Wonder Woman

Note: the following essay contains spoilers.

Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, tells the story of Diana. Her story begins on the island of Themyscira, where her mother, Queen Hippolyta, rules over the Amazons. Queen Hippolyta has become cynical about the outside world, stating: “I used to want to save the world, this beautiful place. But the closer you get, the more you see the great darkness within.” Thus, she has enacted an isolationist policy to protect Themyscira. It is hard to fault her for this, especially with the First World War raging beyond the mystical shield that keeps Themyscira hidden. But nothing stays hidden forever. Steve Trevor, a spy trying to escape back to London in a stolen plane, ends up crashing in the waters off of the coast of the island. He essentially finds himself a refugee, washed up on the shore and in need of help. But Hippolyta does not wish to give it to him because of the danger that will undoubtedly follow him. And danger does indeed follow him, as a German fleet soon discovers Themyscira and attacks.

Diana, unlike her mother, and unlike many nations today, welcomes Steve Trevor. She rescues Steve before she even knows whether or not he is a danger, and in spite of whatever might be following him. She does this because she believes it is the right thing to do. Her personal morality is informed by a broader view of humanity — she values life above all else, as well as love and peace between people, regardless of country of origin or any other areas of difference. She sees the larger world beyond Themyscira and sees that she is a part of it. She cannot keep herself isolated on her mother’s island when she knows there is good and important work to be done abroad. So she decides to leave with Steve in order put an end to the war.

In the film, Diana’s morality is juxtaposed against the ideologies that govern men and their institutions. These ideologies take physical form in the person of Ares. Diana originally believes that Ares is corrupting the souls of men, whom she believes are inherently good. She is wrong about this, as she comes to see (and as Ares informs her while held by her lasso of truth). However, like any ideology that finds its way to vulnerable people in search of meaning, Ares is still a corrupting influence. He represents every ideology that keeps groups of people alienated from each other, distrustful of each other, and at war with each other. These ideologies are essentially religious in nature, which is why it makes sense to embody them in a god, and why the title of “Godkiller” should fall to Diana, whose most durable weapon is her aforementioned lasso of truth.

But the revelation about human nature leaves Diana in a difficult position. Should she continue to fight for humanity? We are not inherently good by most traditional moral standards. The concept of the “noble savage” is a blatant falsehood. We cannot escape our brutish natures, and yes, this might destine us to destroy each other. So perhaps we do not deserve Diana’s help, as her mother tells her before she departs Themyscira. Perhaps we do not deserve to be saved. But, as Diana learns from Steve Trevor, the “deserve” part does not really matter. When she witnesses Steve’s sacrifice, in which he gives up his own life to save others and end the war, she understands this. Thus, Diana does not abandon her morality; she simply strengthens it into one that is arguably more enlightened than archaic retributivism. She still sees the value in human life, and she decides to save as many lives as she can. Whether or not the people living these lives deserve her help, whether they are good or bad, is immaterial; she will fight for them regardless.

When Diana finally vanquishes Ares, it is a powerful, awe-inspiring moment. But it is also symbolic. She does not end the war, but she symbolically destroys the ideologies that fed the war. With Ares defeated, the men who were fighting against each other embrace, as if finally recognizing their shared humanity. It is a moment of relief. Their ideology might have given their lives meaning and given them a sense of purpose, but it was illusory – something that can be destroyed, as they witnessed. But love, peace, and understanding between people – these things are real (or at least Diana makes us believe that they are).

Throughout the course of the film, Diana fights against all manner of ideology. She challenges the isolationism of her own people, the Amazons, as well as the toxic nationalism prominently poisoning the world around her. And she has no patience for the deeply ingrained systems of oppression that hurt, limit, and ruin people, like the sexism that prevents women like her from having a say in Britain’s government, or the racism that negatively affected the lives of her companions, Sameer and Napi. She is not interested in any ideology that divides people and makes them see the world through a myopic “us and them” worldview.

Some have criticized Wonder Woman for not being patriotic enough, but that criticism misses the mark completely. Diana is not an American hero; she is an international hero. It is no accident that she knows all human languages, for language is one of the oldest barriers that can exist between two groups of people. Diana is here to destroy those barriers.

In this age of Trump and Brexit, of splintered coalitions and communities, Wonder Woman gives us a hero who offers a better way forward. Her message of love might strike some as too idealistic, but without it, we will forever be at each other’s throats.


A. O. Scott and the Role of Free Will in Criticism

The following piece was completed on May 23, 2016. I do not recall why I chose not to post it at that time, but I am posting it now in its original state (aside from minor edits, like changing “last week” to “last year,” due to the delay in publication):

On March 11, 2016, I had the pleasure of seeing New York Times film critic A. O. Scott talk about his new book, Better Living Through Criticism, at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge (an event organized through the Harvard Book Store). During the Q&A portion of this event, Scott fielded not one, but two questions about the role of free will in film criticism. On hearing the second question, Scott even quipped about whether or not there was a Calvinist convention in town. What sticks with me, however, is not the answer Scott gave on this particular night at the Brattle (in which he responded that free will may, perhaps, have a role to play), but the answers that Scott gives in his book, a book in which Scott claims quite early that criticism—the act of passing judgment—is something that humans do out of necessity. As Scott writes: “We can’t help it.”

The free will debate, long relegated to the halls of academia, has been gaining much mainstream attention as of late. Sam Harris published a slim volume on the subject in 2011. More recently, James B. Miles published his thorough and carefully researched The Free Will Delusion. And just last year, in The Atlantic, we saw a piece entitled “There Is No Such Thing as Free Will.” So it’s not surprising, then, that people would be curious about whether free will can exist within the creative arts, despite the mounting scientific evidence to the contrary. And it’s not surprising that A. O. Scott would actively wrestle with the question in his work.

Early into his book, Scott discusses the job of art, which he sees as being “to free our minds.” The job of criticism, then, is “to figure out what to do with that freedom.” Scott even states that “we are each of us capable of thinking against our own prejudices.”

Can art truly free our minds and unshackle us from our prejudices, remove us from the chain of cause and effect to which we all belong? The answer is yes, maybe, if we are already predisposed and open to the possibility of art changing us. But art itself then simply enters the chain of cause and effect, becoming, in the process, something else to which our present state is beholden. A better wording might be that art does not free us so much as change us. And criticism is our attempt to account for the change (which occurs unconsciously) in rational, communicable terms.

The capacity for change, as well as the change itself (whatever it might be), is also predetermined by one’s taste—the acquisition of which we are also helpless to control. Of taste, Scott writes:

Taste, we assume, is innate, reflexive, immediate, involuntary, but we also speak of it as something to be acquired. It is a private, subjective matter, a badge of individual sovereignty, but at the same time a collectively held property, bundling us into clubs, cults, communities, and sociological stereotypes.

All of this, to my mind, is true. Taste is acquired but involuntary; it is subjective but collective. More specifically, it is predetermined. The circumstances of a person’s life (the previous art to which he or she has been exposed, the society in which he or she was raised, the education which he or she has been fortunate enough to receive, etc.) will determine the person’s taste.

But Scott seems to deny this. If taste were predetermined, he writes, it would be “a matter of prejudice and conditioning and therefore not really taste at all.” Scott fails to make clear, unfortunately, why taste would be devalued as taste if it were predetermined (which it is). But he does try to account for his own taste. He writes:

It would be foolish for me to deny the determining facts of my generation, class, education, and background. I don’t make the mistake of supposing that my feelings and perceptions are either uniquely mine or somehow untethered from influence and circumstance. Nobody floats above the common run of tastes, plucking only the most exquisite posies on the basis of pure intuition. It’s always contingent, always relative, always a matter of who and where you happen to be.

Thus, Scott does recognize the extent to which his tastes have been predetermined. However, he continues:

Of course, we’re all determined beings, made by circumstance beyond our control. But we’re also changeable creatures, highly susceptible to the influence of accident, free agents with the power to invent ourselves.

How can determined beings also be free agents? Here, Scott attempts to adapt a compatibilist view of free will, though it remains unconvincing. We can see this again as he continues:

Sometimes we react the way we do because of birth or conditioning, sometimes because of a more mysterious force, sometimes by the operation of our will.

I appreciate that Scott is trying to address the question of free will in his book, but I find it hard to look past the obfuscations (mysterious force?) and contradictions. For example, even though he brings up the “operation of our will” in the above passage, Scott once again, not many pages later, seems to find himself adopting the determinist position:

We can’t, after all, escape from the facts of language, geography, class, gender, and belief that condition what we see, any more than we can will ourselves into another time.

Because of statements like this, I cannot help but view Scott’s position as anything other than softly determinist, despite his compatibilist leanings. With that in mind, I think we can see that there is no actual role for free will in criticism.

To highlight an example, I will turn to Ratatouille, as Scott himself does at the end of his book. At the end of the film, when the food critic Anton Ego eats Remy’s titular dish, something happens to him. He is transported back to his childhood, where he would eat the same dish in his mother’s rustic kitchen. This singular moment from his childhood determines Ego’s reaction to Remy’s dish. Ego’s immediate judgment, therefore, is involuntary, subjective, and predetermined by his past. Free will plays no role in Ego’s judgment.

But what of his criticism—the measured, rational response that he writes much later, after his meal has already been digested? Can Ego distance himself enough from his immediate experience to offer up an impersonal and objective assessment of Remy’s ratatouille?

It is worth noting that Ego does not mention his involuntary transport back to his mother’s kitchen in his review of the dish and the restaurant. Why? Because criticism remains a post hoc attempt to account for something to which we have no control, to rationalize a response hitherto devoid of reason. Can free will play a role in these rationalizations?

Again, the answer is no. Because even our ability to craft criticism, our authorial voice, our skill with words, and our personal and creative motivations—these, too, have all been predetermined, bound to us by a past to which we remain forever, inescapably, and sometimes unfortunately, tethered.

Further reading:

Sublimation and Repression: Inside Out, Star Trek, The Incredible Hulk, and The Babadook

Inside Out

Note: the following essay includes spoilers for each of the works under discussion.

In his essay “Freud and Nietzsche on Sublimation” (The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, Issue 38, Autumn 2009, pp. 38-59), the philosopher Ken Gemes discusses the difference between the psychological concepts sublimation and repression. “Sublimations,” he writes, “involve integration and unification, while pathological symptoms [i.e., from repression] involve splitting off or disintegration.” Pete Docter’s Inside Out is an excellent illustration of these concepts as defined by Gemes. In the film, we see not only the dangers that repression (or the splitting off) of a specific emotion can present within an individual but also what happens when the goal of sublimation is reached: when all of a person’s emotions are integrated into a unified self and are working together toward the same goals. Though perhaps one of the best films yet to tackle these ideas within a narrative framework, Inside Out is not the first piece of art to do so. The Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within,” for example, examines quite literally what happens when the self is psychically split into two parts. And two works that take these ideas a step further by exploring what happens when repressed traumas cause the self to splinter and disintegrate are issue 377 of Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk and the Australian horror film The Babadook. Let us examine each of these works in turn.

Joy and Sadness

As hinted above, Inside Out is a narrative film which also happens to present a philosophy of mind that is both cogent and coherent. It envisions people as each governed by a group of five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. These emotions take turns driving a person and coloring the person’s memories, which are then stored away to be recalled when needed (or eventually relegated to the subconscious). Some of these memories become the core memories, which power a person’s islands of personality. With this basic structure of the mind on display, the film offers a philosophically mature look at the self as a multifaceted and mutable concept. For the core memories and islands of personality are not permanent fixtures; they can be altered by other emotions or replaced as a person’s life experiences and interests change. And that is exactly what happens throughout the course of the film.

Our focus is on an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. In Riley’s mind, Joy is the dominant emotion. She gets nervous when the other emotions are in control of Riley for too long, and she thinks that the majority of Riley’s memories should be colored by her. Joy is particularly uncomfortable around Sadness. In one scene, Joy even tries to remove the influence of Sadness by drawing a chalk circle around her and telling her she must remain within it. She wants to deny that sadness is a part of Riley, a part of life. This is a typical model of repression. Gemes writes in his essay:

Repression is what happens when a drive is denied its immediate aim and is then split off from other drives in the sense that its aims are not integrated with the aims of other drives and it must battle, often unsuccessfully, for any opportunity to achieve expression.

This is the position that Sadness finds herself in at the start of the film; Joy rarely allows her an opportunity for expression.

Later in the film, after Riley’s life is turned upside down by a move from Minnesota to San Francisco, Joy and Sadness are both accidentally transported from the headquarters of Riley’s mind and must work together to find their way back. It is on this journey that Joy begins to see how Sadness can be valuable. For example, while comforting Riley’s long forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong, Sadness demonstrates how she can connect with the pain of others through empathy. Also, she is the only one who can help Riley express the feelings of hopelessness and despair that are bound to crop up on occasion. At the end of the film, when Riley is literally running away from the things that are challenging her, Sadness is the emotion that helps her turn around to confront her parents with all that she is feeling.

This demonstration of the psychological importance of expressing sadness is consistent with the way in which we see the other emotions not as negative aspects of Riley’s personality, but as equally vital to her sense of self. Fear, for instance, keeps Riley safe. Anger helps her be an aggressive hockey player. And Disgust helps her with aesthetic choices and with navigating nuanced appearance-based social circles. Riley lives with parents who want her to be happy all the time. We, too, live in a culture that paints emotions such as sadness, fear, and anger in a negative light. Inside Out proves that all emotions, even joy, can have their downsides, but that does not make them negative, bad, or shameful things to be excised or repressed. They can be harnessed, sublimated, and used toward positive ends. Ideally, these emotions/drives will work together, creating (as they do at the end of the film) memories colored by input from each of them.

The Enemy Within

In the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within” (Richard Matheson’s sole writing credit on the show), Captain Kirk finds himself in a situation that addresses the same issue of sublimation as Inside Out. At the beginning of the episode, after a planetary expedition, Captain Kirk beams aboard the Enterprise. However, there is a transporter malfunction. The Captain is seemingly OK, just a little lightheaded. But then, when the transporter room is unattended, another Captain Kirk beams aboard the ship. This version of the Captain appears maniacal and unhinged. While the first version of the Captain feels weak and returns to his quarters to rest, the second version immediately seeks brandy from sick bay and attempts to sexually assault Yeoman Rand. There is an obvious temptation to view the first version of Kirk as good and the second version as evil, but as the episode progresses, we see that it is not that simple. The following exchange between Spock and Dr. McCoy explains why:

SPOCK: We have here an unusual opportunity to appraise the human mind, or to examine, in Earth terms, the roles of good and evil in a man. His negative side, which you call hostility, lust, violence, and his positive side, which Earth people express as compassion, love, tenderness.

MCCOY: It’s the Captain’s guts you’re analyzing. Are you aware of that, Spock?

SPOCK: Yes, and what is it that makes one man an exceptional leader? We see indications that it’s his negative side which makes him strong, that his evil side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength. Your negative side removed from you, the power of command begins to elude you.

Indeed, the first version of Kirk is weak, tired, unmotivated, and ineffectual as a leader. At his own admission, decisions are becoming more and more difficult to make. The second version of Kirk, while certainly impulsive, lustful, and aggressive, is also quite fearful and pathetic. In other words, neither version of Kirk is ideal on its own. As the first version of Kirk says when he first confronts his double: “Don’t you understand? I’m part of you. You need me. I need you.” Just as Joy realizes that Riley needs Sadness in Inside Out, we begin to see that Captain Kirk needs both sides of himself, even the part that seems on the surface solely negative and evil.  The lesson of both the Pixar film and the Star Trek episode is the opposite of the famous Christian idea of removing those parts of us that cause us to sin (“So if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away”). We cannot simply cut away those parts of us that we find unsavory, negative, or evil. Rather, as Spock says, and as Joy learns in regard to sharing Riley with Sadness and the other emotions, our dark sides and personal demons, “properly controlled and disciplined,” are essential to creating a whole and healthy psyche.

This exchange between Kirk and McCoy captures this message perfectly:

KIRK: I have to take him back inside myself. I can’t survive without him. I don’t want him back. He’s like an animal, a thoughtless, brutal animal, and yet it’s me. Me.

MCCOY: Jim, you’re no different than anyone else. We all have our darker side. We need it! It’s half of what we are. It’s not really ugly, it’s human.

At the end of the episode, with the transporter fixed, Kirk is able to integrate both sides of himself into a single entity again.

The Incredible Hulk 377

In issue 377 of Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk (written by Peter David and penciled by Dale Keown), Bruce Banner is psychically divided in a similar manner to that of Captain Kirk in “The Enemy Within.” As the issue begins, we see Banner’s therapist, the gamma-powered Doc Samson, sitting with Banner and two separate Hulks: the so-called grey Hulk and the green, savage Hulk (who amusingly refers to the grey hulk as “Fake Hulk”). Using post-hypnotic suggestion, Samson has gathered these three parts of Banner together in Banner’s mind for one purpose. Samson tells the two Hulks: “You’re going to have to come to terms with each other because you’re all tearing this man apart.” It seems, just as Kirk could not exist as only one side of himself, and just as Riley could not exist without all of her emotions working together, Banner is also going to be unable to exist as a whole, healthy person if he remains splintered in three parts, each trying to gain control by destroying the other two. But what is keeping these three parts separated?

As the issue progresses, we learn that there is a monster lurking in Banner’s subconscious, one that even the two Hulks cannot defeat on their own. This monster, we find out, is Banner’s abusive father, Brian. We see the monster attack and kill Banner’s mother, with Banner watching as a child, unable to save her. And then, in a scene that will feel particularly resonant in relation to Inside Out, we see Banner realize that his younger self never really came to terms with what happened on an emotional level—because he was taught that emotions were bad:

BANNER: Cry, show some emotion.

YOUNG BANNER: Emotion’s bad. It hurts people.

BANNER: Not all emotion. Cry, blast it. Cry big racking sobs.

After Banner finishes pleading with his younger self, the green Hulk is released. We see now what the Hulks represent to Banner: the unleashed emotional and passionate parts of himself that he has always denied proper expression. It took a gamma bomb to unleash them, and even then, Banner tried for years to “cure” himself of them, to cut them out of himself. The reason his psyche is so splintered is because he had repressed his sadness at the time of his mother’s death. Samson’s goal in this particular therapy session is to get the pieces working together, not against each other any longer. He tells Betty Ross: “If we integrate the personalities, as I hope to, what we will get is a whole Bruce Banner, for the first time in years.”

Later, in another scene in Banner’s subconscious, we see that he carried his denial of emotional expression through even his college years. Here, we see Banner with a young woman who wants nothing more than to make love to him, but Banner responds: “I just have work to do, that’s all. This is college, not a playpen.” In this instance, it was the grey Hulk whom Banner was repressing. To return to the Gemes essay once again, he writes:

Aggressive drives, which are not viewed as acceptable, typically because acting on them would exact a painful retribution, are repressed to the point that one does not even acknowledge that one has such drives.

Due to his traumatic past and the strong repression of all of his emotions and passions, this is the situation in which Banner has found himself and which ultimately proved fertile ground from which to birth his Hulk personae.

Finally, toward the end of the issue, Banner confronts the monster in his subconscious: “You got so mad and I saw what emotions did and I…I was so…af…afraid…of buh-being like you.” With this admission, the monster begins to shrink and take the shape of a man—Brian Banner—before finally disintegrating. Now, Banner’s mother appears in his place and tells the two Hulks: “He needs you now. No more fighting.” They are hesitant, just as the dark half of Kirk was hesitant to be put back together again. But in the end, they concede. When Banner comes out of his post-hypnotic state, he is unlike he ever was before: finally, with all parts integrated into one, with Banner no longer repressing his emotions and passions, Banner has become a new merged Hulk—a super being with the strengths of all three parts, including Banner’s intellect, working together.

The Babadook

In the film The Babadook (written and directed by Jennifer Kent), we are faced with a protagonist, much like Bruce Banner, who has repressed a past trauma to the point that it is tearing her apart. Amelia (Essie Davis) is the widowed mother of a six-year-old boy, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). We eventually learn that Amelia’s husband, Oskar, was killed in a car accident while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. And we soon discover that Amelia has never truly come to terms with this trauma and has repressed it (indeed, she even keeps all of Oskar’s possessions locked in her basement). Samuel sees that there is something going on with his mother, something changing within her, which is why he spends time developing weapons to use against the “monster” that he keeps thinking is going to get them.

This tense home life is complicated by the fact that Samuel’s birthday is coming up, a day that Amelia looks at more as the day her husband died than the day her son was born. Samuel has never even been allowed to celebrate his birthday on the actual day. Amelia does not do well around this time of the year, as a neighbor points out. And as her sister reminds her: “As soon as anyone mentions Oskar, you can’t cope.” But Amelia tries to hide it. When a co-worker asks her how she is doing, she says she is fine. He replies: “You don’t have to be fine, you know.”

We have already looked at the importance of allowing yourself to grieve in both Inside Out and The Incredible Hulk, but Amelia’s repression seems to be too deep. And just as Banner’s repressed feelings eventually forced themselves out as the two Hulks, Amelia’s repressed grief finds its own outlet for expression: a children’s book called The Babadook that Samuel asks her to read to him.

In the book, the titular Babadook is a dark figure with long fingers, a long coat, and a creepy hat who knocks on the door to a house demanding to be let in. Samuel is rightfully frightened by the chilling imagery, which seems to hit too close to home for him. Amelia is also disturbed and tries to get rid of the book, first by hiding it, then by ripping it apart, then by burning it—but it keeps coming back.

Finally, while looking at it again, she reads the line: “You start to change when I get in, the Babadook growing right under your skin.” And the Babadook does get in and change her. She starts lashing out at Samuel and threatening him. When Samuel tries calling their neighbor for help, Amelia cuts the phone line. She even snaps their dog’s neck. At this point, the Babadook is in complete control. But Samuel is prepared: he fights the Babadook with the weapons and traps he has prepared and helps his mother expunge the monster. But when it finally seems to be gone, Samuel recalls another line from the book: “You can’t get rid of the Babadook.”

Amelia has a final showdown with the monster in which she faces it in the same way in which Banner faced his monster in his subconscious: recognizing it for what it is. Ultimately, she makes peace with it, allowing it to remain alive in her basement where she can visit it and feed it. Of this ending, Jennifer Kent has stated in an interview:

We had many people fight the ending. I had to really defend that ending. To be perfectly honest, if I had to have killed that thing I wouldn’t have made the film. You can’t kill the monster, you can only integrate it. Even with Amelia, she can’t ever forget that her husband was killed in a car crash, that will never go away. So yeah, it’s the most crucial thing, to keep that thing alive on some level.

Like the other works we have discussed, the goal for Amelia in the film has been to face her repressed trauma and grief and sublimate it, to make it an integral part of herself. She can actually learn a thing or two about this from Samuel. At one point in the film, he learns about his neighbor’s Parkinson’s disease when he inquires why her hands shake. His mother is upset that he would have pried about this, but the neighbor says, “He wanted to know, so we talked about it.” And at the end of the film, when Amelia is meeting with government employees about Samuel’s schooling, and Samuel tells them about his birthday being the same day his dad died, she says: “Sam’s just like his dad, always speaks his mind.” The lesson for Amelia, then, is to talk about things and speak what’s on her mind, not to repress her feelings and pretend that everything is fine when it is not.

In her essay “Hannibal: Bedelia’s Dream and the True Face of Lecter,” Priscilla Page uses a quote from Joseph Campbell that is equally relevant to our discussion of sublimation and repression:

In the Greek, the demon is that unconscious impulse that is the dynamic of your life and which comes to you in vision and in dream, but in the Christian interpretation, it is a devil—all that a devil is is a repressed demon: one who has not been recognized, one that has not been given its dues, who has not been allowed to play into your life and so becomes a violent threat.

We have seen in The Incredible Hulk and in The Babadook how repressed demons can indeed become violent threats if not recognized and integrated via sublimation, and we have seen in Inside Out and “The Enemy Within” how seemingly dark, negative aspects of a person’s mind, if successfully sublimated, become positive and essential. But more importantly, I think these works can teach us to recognize these sorts of things going on in our minds and the minds of others. With any luck, they will help us sublimate our own monsters and demons into energies that we can harness and put toward positive and healthy ends. Because, as we have seen, we can’t kill the monsters; in fact, we may actually need them.

Further reading:

“That Enormous Distrust of the Titanic Forces of Nature”: Understanding Climate Change Denial through the Lens of Nietzsche

The Phantom of the Opera

In a recent editorial at Salon, Andrew O’Hehir discusses the new documentary Merchants of Doubt in the context of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concepts of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Ultimately, he hopes to answer the question of “why the right-wing counterattack against a previously uncontroversial scientific consensus [regarding climate change] has been so effective with the general public.” His argument is that climate change denial is fueled by a Dionysian embrace of death among the American populace, and that science fails to counter this denial because it relies too heavily on cool, rational, fact-based Apollonian argument. On the surface, this makes sense, as these are not necessarily misuses of these Nietzschean terms. However, through a closer examination, we will see that that the reverse is true: that it is actually a victory of Apollonian illusion that is keeping a large number of Americans from embracing (or confronting) the unadorned and unpalatable Dionysian truths of science and climate change.

Near the beginning of his essay, O’Hehir writes:

It may seem like a ridiculous leap to connect a scholarly work about ancient Greek culture published in 1872 with the contemporary rise of climate denialism and other forms of pimped-out skepticism, in which every aspect of science is treated by the media and the public as a matter of ideological debate and subjective interpretation.

Today’s Nietzsche scholars would certainly not find it ridiculous to turn to Nietzsche’s philosophical insights in order to shed light on contemporary issues, but they would definitely call into question the use of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s earliest published work, as the crux of O’Hehir’s argument. The concepts of the Apollonian and the Dionysian that are introduced in The Birth of Tragedy still resonate in our culture, to be sure. (And yes, I utilized these concepts myself in an analysis of The Lego Movie last year.) But Nietzsche’s views on science are clearer and much more evolved in his later works than they are in The Birth of Tragedy, and O’Hehir’s insistence that Nietzsche paved the way for science being treated as “a matter of ideological debate and subjective interpretation” is based, most likely, on a popular postmodern misreading of Nietzsche.

In his Nietzsche on Morality, in a chapter discussing the third essay of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality, philosopher Brian Leiter addresses Nietzsche’s opinions on scientific truths:

There is no skepticism leveled here [the third essay] against the epistemic standing of scientific truths and thus nothing of the postmodern skepticism that recent, anachronistic readings have claimed to find in Nietzsche.

As Leiter strives to make clear, Nietzsche is “neither ‘against’ science, nor against ‘truth.’” This is an important point, as it is impossible to make sense of Nietzsche’s opinions on science without understanding what he actually thinks of it and what his true target is when he appears to criticize it. This target, according to Leiter’s analysis, is “the excessive valuation of truth characteristic of the scientific outlook.”

For Nietzsche, truth is not necessarily compatible with psychological well-being. Indeed, the excessive valuation of truth above all else can easily lead to what Nietzsche refers to rather bluntly as “suicidal nihilism.”

In an essay titled “Honest Illusion: Valuing for Nietzsche’s Free Spirits,” Nadeem J. Z. Hussain writes:

In his notes from the period right after The Birth of Tragedy, we see [Nietzsche] returning again and again to the thought that art might be an antidote or a response to the threat of practical nihilism generated by the natural sciences and their depiction of the world as lacking value in itself.

I wrote about this topic previously in my essay “Beautifying the Ugly Truth: Art, Religion, and Nietzschean Aesthetics” (which is also an analysis of Aaron Ridley’s essay, “Perishing of the Truth: Nietzsche’s Aesthetic Prophylactics”). The point I want to make here, though, and which Hussain’s essay highlights, is that after writing The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche began to clarify his views on the relationship between science and art that he introduced in that book. Essentially, he believes that art (which provides meaning and value) can be used either to mask scientific truths (e.g., that life is inherently without meaning and value) or to make them more palatable. As he famously wrote in his notebooks, “Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.” With this in mind, we can return to The Birth of Tragedy, and it will become clear through this new context that Nietzsche wants to associate science and truth with the Dionysian, and art, image, illusion, form-giving, and value-creating with the Apollonian (the reverse of O’Hehir’s postulation).

O’Hehir writes in his piece:

Beneath the political, economic and tribal conflict over climate science lies a profound sense that what Nietzsche described as the “Apollonian” forces of social order, in this case being the book-learning of the professoriate and the rules and regulations of government, cannot contain or comprehend the chaotic and mysterious nature of reality.

Is it really true that these Apollonian forces “cannot comprehend the chaotic and mysterious nature of reality”? Or, instead, is the problem that, through science, we can comprehend the Dionysian nature of reality? Indeed, as O’Hehir writes: “There is certainly a heated cultural and political conflict over the issue of climate change, but there is no ‘scientific debate,’ no matter how many times Fox News hosts repeat that phrase.” The problem, as I see it, is that the science of climate change seems to tell only one story, one that people do not want to hear: we are doomed. There may be an Apollonian aspect to science (e.g., its reliance on reason and logic), but its failure is not an inability to make sense of the chaos of reality; its failure is that it does not know how to translate its more pessimistic Dionysian findings into a palatable message that can spur people toward optimism and change.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche recounts a parable about King Midas learning the Dionysian wisdom of Silenus:

An ancient legend recounts how King Midas hunted long in the forest for the wise Silenus, companion of Dionysos, but failed to catch him. When Silenus has finally fallen into his hands, the King asks what is the best and most excellent thing for human beings. Stiff and unmoving, the daemon remains silent until, forced by the King to speak, he finally breaks out in shrill laughter and says: ‘Wretched, ephemeral race, children of chance and tribulation, why do you force me to tell you the very thing which it would be most profitable for you not to hear? The very best thing is utterly beyond your reach not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. However, the second best thing for you is: to die soon.’

Is this pessimistic and unwelcome message not similar to the doomsday scenarios of the climate change scientists? If we accept Nietzsche’s opinion that truth is not always conducive to life, would not the American populace, many of whom already cling to religious dogma as protection from this Dionysian truth, be better off (psychologically speaking) not hearing this?

Later in his essay, O’Hehir describes what he sees as the Dionysian impulse run amok in American society:

Guns and fast cars and pornography and a history of careless and rapacious wastefulness are all expressions of the Dionysian impulse rendered into commodities and commercial enterprises, as are Hollywood movies and the oil industry and the McMansion.

Conversely, I think that these things have little to do with the Dionysian aside from the fact that they serve to hide it from people, to bury it along with the dark scientific truths it brings with it. Indeed, these are simple distractions, Apollonian comforts. This is the orgiastic masquerade ball at the center of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.”

To be sure, here is Nietzsche describing the society of Ancient Greece as one shielded with Apollonian pleasures from the harsh Dionysian truths of Silenus:

Nothing here reminds us of asceticism (Askese), of spirituality and duty; everything here speaks only of over-brimming, indeed triumphant existence, where everything that exists has been deified, regardless of whether it is good or evil. Thus the spectator may stand in some perplexity before this fantastic superabundance of life, asking himself what magic potion these people can have drunk which makes them see Helen, ‘hovering in sweet sensuality’, smiling at them wherever they look, the ideal image of their own existence.

This sounds to me very similar to the American society described by O’Hehir. But O’Hehir believes that this is Dionysian, not Apollonian, and that “Americans ‘reframe or ignore’ the bad news about global warming or guns or cigarettes or fast food not because they’re terrified to face death but because they embrace it […]” But this clearly runs counter to Nietzsche’s conceptions as we can see from these passages from The Birth of Tragedy.

I believe that my analogy to Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” above can shed light on why the Apollonian and the Dionysian are such slippery concepts (ones that Nietzsche later abandoned as inadequate to his needs). An orgiastic ball certainly seems Dionysian on its surface (just as guns, cars, and pornography do), with its apparent emphasis on pleasure, intoxication, and reckless abandon. But the idea of a masquerade is essentially, and without a doubt, Apollonian, especially if it is ultimately being used to “mask” the Dionysian truth of the closeness of death from the happily ignorant revelers.

Here, again, Nietzsche describes quite succinctly how Greek Apollonian culture overcame the grim Dionysian outlook of Silenus:

[…] it first had to overthrow the realm of the Titans and slay monsters, and, by employing powerful delusions and intensely pleasurable illusions, gain victory over a terrifyingly profound view of the world and the most acute sensitivity to suffering.

This is exactly what is happening with the victory of climate change denial over the grim outlook of the climate change scientists. It is a victory of the Apollonian over the Dionysian, not vice versa. Indeed, the modus operandi of the merchants of doubt is that they employ “powerful delusions and intensely pleasurable illusions” to convince legislators and the general public that climate change is not real and that we are not on the road to extinction.

O’Hehir writes about how his views on this matter differ from Australian economist Clive Hamilton:

Clive Hamilton has written that the doubt-merchants find a ready audience because it’s “just too hard” for many people to face the truth about climate change: “When the facts are distressing it is easier to reframe or ignore them,” just as few of us confront our own mortality until we are close to death. OK, maybe – but there’s a note of condescension in that psychological truism that rubs me the wrong way, and I would suggest that his explanation goes nowhere near far enough. To return to Nietzsche’s terminology, Hamilton is framing the problem in terms of cool, Apollonian logic, and declining to notice the darker, Dionysian factors of the equation.

I would say that Hamilton’s assessment is actually closer to what Nietzsche would make of the situation. The truth can be quite terrible, and some people will happily cling to a well-reasoned but false narrative in order to protect themselves from it. I also think O’Hehir is wrong when he states that Hamilton is “declining to notice the darker, Dionysian factors of the equation.” On the contrary, I think that O’Hehir is declining to appreciate the Apollonian comfort of the lies that mute the darker, Dionysian truths of science. If Hamilton’s interpretation is condescending, that does not mean that it is also, therefore, an incorrect one.

In the Aaron Ridley essay that I reference above, he discusses the Apollonian art of priests, which I think very much resembles the art of the merchants of doubt under discussion:

[…] it is, [Nietzsche] claims, part of the priest’s ‘distinctive art’–his ‘essential art’–to present to his flock a vision of the world so compelling that certain ugly truths (for instance, that death is the end, that fortune is capricious, that morality is ours) become al­together invisible.

To rephrase the primary question O’Hehir is seeking to answer, how can scientists effectively counter this deceptive priestly art? How can they combat the merchants of doubt, whose comforting Apollonian delusions many Americans are so eager to embrace? How can Americans be made to value the Dionysian truth of climate change science to the extent that it does not stifle them with “suicidal nihilism” but emboldens them to enact meaningful changes to their policies and practices?

O’Hehir and I will at least agree that our scientists perhaps need a different approach. Perhaps they require a touch of the Apollonian themselves but for a more honest type of art, one that balances and merges the Apollonian and the Dionysian as the young Nietzsche observed in ancient Greek tragedy, an art that, according to Ridley, “somehow facilitates awareness of (putatively ugly) truths while actually abolishing their ugliness.” As Nietzsche writes in Daybreak, “It is not enough to prove something, one also has to seduce or elevate people to it. That is why the man of knowledge should learn how to speak his wisdom: and often in such a way that it sounds like folly!” With any luck, well-loved superstar scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye (as opposed to abrasive and tone-deaf figures like Richard Dawkins) might just have what it takes to make science sexy enough for people to accept climate change and begin combatting it. If not, we know how the story ends: “And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay.  And the flames of the tripods expired.”

Further reading:

Beautifying the Ugly Truth: Art, Religion, and Nietzschean Aesthetics