Nom De Plume

They say you can judge a person’s personality by their handwriting.

Does that mean you can communicate
only what you want
in order to prove
your existence is worthy –

I can make myself write in any sort of fashion,
I can make myself bright with any sort of style.

Narrate your time,
make thrive your sculpted seconds.

By lengua
I linger
into a story –

A story
that proves
I’m alive.

Change & Flow

The Daoist idea of wu wei is such that when people try to control situations in ways that disrupt the harmony of the world, unnecessary problems arise. They think that if we understand the nature of things and not try to apply restraints to them then we will lessen our worries and flow easier in the natural world.

Change, for the Daoists, is in accord with nature. When we act contrary to nature with intentions of controlling it, we disrupt the accordance of nature. This is no means of problem-solving from the Daoist perspective. In The Zhuangzi it is stated, “Death, life, survival, loss, failure, success, poverty, wealth, worth, depravity, slander, praise, hunger, thirst, winter, summer – their change is the process of destiny” (233). Change is something that is necessary and to try to control it is to try to control the process of destiny; it is utterly uncontrollable and can be attempted to be controlled but strenuous results will follow. Zhuangzi also related change to that of the natural process of changing seasons. “Day and night, without a break, make a springtime with things. As you greet each new circumstance, generate the season in your mind” (234). This is saying that the nature will continue to keep moving through its process of transformation. Likewise, we should continue moving with it and when we approach new circumstances we should not try to control them, but rather stay aware of the natural process of change and flow with this change and not against it. Just as winter ends and springtime begins, nature does not try to prolong winter in hopes of avoiding spring; it flows right into spring gloriously.

Daoists are also concerned with the limited amount of knowledge we can know. I believe this relates to our understanding that we should not try to control that which is utterly uncontrollable. “One who dreams of drinking wine may weep in the morning. One who dreams of weeping may go for a a hunt the next day. In the dream, you don’t know it’s a dream. In the middle of a dream, you may interpret a dream within it. Only after waking do you know it was a dream. Still, there may be an even greater awakening after which you know that this, too, was just a greater dream” (Zhunagzi, p. 233). I believe this closely relates to Socrates saying that the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. Like Daoism, this is saying that there is only a limited amount of knowledge attainable by us. The limitations of human categories is such that we should allow the spontaneity of wu wei to become a part of our actions. When we become more self-conscious about something, according to Daoists, we do worse. In that case, meddling too far into knowledge of things when knowledge is something that is limited would go against wu wei in that it would complicate matters and leave no room for the spontaneity of change, because it causes our minds to be ‘one-tracked’ and worrisome about things that are in a state of constant flux. Daoists think that we should accept the impermanence of things and their ability to change at any time, and not get too caught up in the change-itself, nor in the situations at hand.

Zhuangzi and the Daoists continuously speak of getting back to the natural way. They think that hen we act in a wu wei manner, we are acting naturally in the world. One concern that this belief arises for the Daoists is the problem of socialization, which they say moves us away from our natural state. Essentially we are natural and good, like unhewn wood, we are uncarved. “The Way is forever nameless…When unhewn wood is carved up, then there are names. Now that there are names, know enough to stop!” (The Daodejing, p. 178). When we try to control our natural selves, our control becomes the knife that whittles the natural wood of our lives. As a result, when we, as a society, work towards controlling the flow and flexibility of natural changes, the wood shavings of worry from whittling away at what is natural and good blocks the flow of wu wei in the rivers of our lives. Instead, we should find our way back to our natural unhewn state and flow with the river. Only then, in the Daoist view, will we free ourselves from control and live musically in harmony with one another.

The Daoists’ beliefs have shown to be true for me in life. When I moved to Oregon after spending the first eighteen-years of my life in Texas, I adopted a method of readjusting that was similar to the Daoists’ easy-going approach to change. Although I moved to Oregon because I am generally spontaneous and open to change, I was in for a big surprise and, in turn, a lesson to be learned: even invited change can give birth to many unexpected change ‘babies’ born through causal relations. Basically, I went to Oregon with the naïve thought that the act of moving to a new state was the only real change I would have to endure and everything else would fall into place somehow. My high expectations resulted in despair when I learned of all the changes I would be going through: being away from my family, friends, boyfriend, home and birthplace, all of the familiarity that once was my life as I knew it, making new friends, starting college, well,  the constant rain of the Pacific Northwest versus the sun of Texas. At first, upon realizing everything in front of me, I had a hard time digesting it all. I then opted to try to control my portion intake, so to speak. After growing weary from trying to manage certain things, I would then opt to work on controlling other things, which resulted in me growing tired and discontent with my life through trying to control what I fundamentally could not. Then, in a way, I stopped and let wu wei flow through me; I became compliant and flexible with things. This adoption of having no worries and releasing my firm grip on life resulted in a much more easy-going mood and situations, thus, became simpler. Even though Oregon’s considerably different weather insisted on testing my inner wu wei, I am aware that accepting what nature decides to send my way is essentially up to me.

The Daoists believe that in accepting the changes of things with utter calmness and imperturbability, we detach our minds from an enslaved state of dependent and worrisome feelings that tend always to make matters worse the more our minds restrictively obsess over them. I feel that in recognizing and allowing our minds to become aware of the necessity of perennial transformation that takes place in our lives, we will better learn to more easily flow with this continuous pattern of events harmoniously.

The Examined Life as ‘Good’

The nature of the “good” for both Socrates and Epictetus lies in the examination of one’s own life. Although the good may be something that is unobtainable, they both propose that the process towards a life of virtue, a good life, constitutes a worthy life.

Socrates seeks to know the criteria of the “good” that Euthyphro is basing his accusations off of. For Euthyphro, the good is piety (that which pleases the gods) and the bad is impiety (that which displeases the gods). However, Socrates finds ambiguity in Euthyphro’s account of the good and the bad, and asks Euthyphro to clarify what the pious is and what the
impious is. Socrates reveals Euthyphro’s explanation of the good and the bad as being frivolous and unsound since the gods are always in conflict with each other and a universal “good” cannot, thus, be claimed. “…the gods are in a state of discord that they are at odds with each other, Euthyphro, and that they are at enmity with each other” (Euthyphro, 8). What I gathered from this is that piety cannot possibly be, according to Socrates, a reasonable account of the good, not only because there cannot be (as Euthyphro showed through his unsound arguments) any universal “good” amongst gods who are in a state of constant conflict with each other, but also because to leave the matter of the “good” up to terms of piety would be to take one’s own opinions on morality out of the question and to blindly go along with someone (or something) else’s opinions or claims. For Socrates, I believe, this would not be the way to go about an account of the good. Socrates thinks that we should, instead of submitting our thoughts over to be decided by some gods (or people in general), examine our own lives for virtue. Although he does not know what “good” is, he believes that the process of examining our lives and seeking out the good (or virtue) is what really matters. Similarly, he thinks that some things we cannot find the answers to and that it is in the pursuit of that which is unattainable which makes life worth living for him.

Likewise, in Plato’s Apology, Socrates elaborates more on his beliefs that the examination of one’s life, not necessarily the finding of answers, makes it worthwhile. He shows this by speaking with the people of Athens who were regarded by the Athenians as wise and knowledgeable. They all claimed to have known more about matters than they actually did. Socrates states after talking to one of the ‘wise’ men of Athens, “I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do now know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know” (Apology, 26). This same statement is found in Socrate’s discussion with Euthyphro on the nature of the good. Euthyphro claims to know what he does not, without finding useful the essence of the process of questioning the ‘good’.

“Some things are up to us, other are not” (Discourses, Epictetus, 287). For Epictetus, what is “up to us,” or what we can control, is worthy for a Stoic life. The things like our “opinions, impulses, desires, aversion” (Discourses, 287) constitute our Self and give us divine, God-like attributes. These things can be found internally, namely in our minds. Like Socrates’ claim, Epictetus believes that our ability to form opinions, experience emotions and ultimately examine our lives make life worthwhile. Contrary to this, the life of an animal is the life that is not worthy, according to Epictetus. This also includes some of the things he states as being “not up to us,” or the things we cannot control. External things such as one’s “body, property, reputation, office” (Discourses, 287) are more ‘mortal’ and subject to corruption. As opposed to the things that are “up to us.” these things are only apparently real, impermanent even. Epictetus feels like we should control those things that are “not up to us” and then, by doing so, we will not be subject to hindrance. By attaining a serene state of mind and allowing ourselves to remain unaffected by the things that are “not up to us” (the external objects) then our minds will no longer be enslaved by them. In Epictetus’ Encheiridion he states, “It is not the things themselves that disturb people but their judgments about these things” (The Handbook of Epictetus, p. 289, #5). I believe Epictetus is saying that things themselves, the things that are uncontrollably “not up to us,” should be of no negative effect to us, we should just allow them to be so through our judgments, through our minds which are controllable. He continues by giving an example of this using death, “…the terror lies in our own judgment about death, that death is terrible” (The Handbook of Epictetus, p. 289, #5). Death itself, for example, is only but part of what is “not up to us.” If we allow ourselves to be enslaved by the things that are out of our control then, for Epictetus, we will never find freedom (the realm of choice) or happiness.

One similarity I noticed between Epictetus and Socrates is their beliefs that the pursuit of the good, or virtue, is an important and worthwhile process. In Epictetus Discourses he says, “3. Now if virtue promises happiness, an untroubled mind and serenity, then progress toward virtue is certainly progress towards each of these. 4. For whatever is the definitive end
to which the perfection of a thing leads, progress is always an approach towards it” (Discourses, Epictetus, Ch. 4 “On Progress”, p. 12). Epictetus believes that failing to live up to our moral, mental capacity is “shameful.” He says, “20. It is therefore shameful that man should begin and end where irrational creatures do. He ought rather to begin there, but to end
where nature itself has fixed our end; 21. and that is in contemplation and understanding a way of life in harmony with nature. 22. Take care, then, not to die without ever being spectators of these things” (Discourses, Ch. 6, “On Providence”, p. 17). Since we are capable of thought and controlling it, for Epictetus, we are more divine than that of the nature of animals. As a result of our capability to control our minds, we should choose to examine and seek to understand our lives. Just as Socrates thinks that leaving our lives unexamined does not make them worth living. Epictetus shows that the nature of animals differs from the nature of humans in that the former is not worthy and the latter is worthy. The nature of humans is worthy, for him, because we are capable of choice, of mental thought. He thinks that there is a good and we should choose it.

Overall, the inquisition and investigation into our own lives establishes, for both Socrates and Epictetus, a good, virtuous and worthy life. Socrates shows through his inquiries with Euthyphro that the “good” is not something that can be found through any means of piety, instead we need to question and examine our own lives. Although, for Socrates, we will never attain the “good,” the process of inquiry and examination is, alone, what makes life worthy. Similarly, Socrates shows that (through questioning the “wise” men of Athens) acting like we know something when we do not, does not make us good or worthwhile. He says that it is better to know nothing and realize this than to pretend you know more than you actually
do or pretend to know when you do not. Epictetus parallels Socrates’ arguments by stating that a worthy Stoic life constitutes our ability to choose the things that are “up to us” and to control our reactions towards the things that are “not up to us” by taking them with a grain of salt, so to speak. His notion of choice is one that leads us to examine our own lives instead of simply letting the external, uncontrollable things in our lives enslave us. In both accounts of Socrates and Epictetus, the good (whether reached or not) is a life of examination and our choosing to examine.

Collective Good & Intellectual Inquiry

According to John Dewey in his book The Public And Its Problems, recognizing the consequences of social action and creating the means to control those consequences so as to bring about better ones and avoid bad ones is an important obligation of what he sees a public’s goal to be.

He defines a public to be, “[…] all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions such to an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for” (15-16). In this way, a public determines whether consequences are desirable or not, and organizes to develop means for producing more desirable consequences. Dewey argues that this effort to recognize serious indirect consequences and to create means for controlling them is important for political function so that officials can organize effective agencies to produce more positive, pacifying results. Thus, Dewey believed political action, or political function, to be based on intelligent social action. Individuals coming into association with one another help develop the means for intelligently recognizing consequences that should be controlled to affect the future outcomes, just as officials should help control ends through purely intelligible means. Since individuals may not be directly engaged in producing negative consequences, Dewey suggests, “[…] special agencies and measures must be formed if they are to be attended to; or else some existing group must take on new functions” (27). Dewey calls for officials to be the organizers of a public or a state. When individuals come together as a public and intelligently recognize any negative consequences, officials come together to organize means to act on behalf of the public’s interests to produce more desirable consequences. The state is, then, for Dewey, “[…] the organization of the public effected through officials for the protection of the interests shared by its members” (33). Citizens, however, should not assume the state to be inherently good and useful. They should, as Dewey expresses, constantly watch and criticize the public officials to maintain a state’s integrity and usefulness (69). Getting the public involved to identify consequences and not merely relying on officials to do so will develop the means to change ends.

Communication is a key factor in change because only in it will a public collectively find itself. Thus communication is important in forming what Dewey calls a “Great Community”. He says, “We have the physical tools of communication as never before. The thoughts and aspirations congruous with them are not communicated, and hence are not common. Without such communication the public will remain shadowy and formless […] Till the Great Society is converted into a Great Community, the Public will remain in eclipse. Communication can alone create a great community” (142).

A great community, for Dewey, is an end goal for a public. A public should, once again, have an awareness of what consequences are, tie them to their source and be able to determine means by which they attempt to control them. As a whole, a public should realize that consequences are our problems, suffered by us. Dewey says that citizens in this great
community will tend toward participation and shared results. A public should be dependent on each other through collective action, and see collective action as ours and become conscious of consequences; a public realizes individual good through collective good. In this way, Dewey states, “The clear consciousness of a communal life, in all its implications, constitutes the idea of democracy” (149).

Democracy, in one way, means for Dewey that citizens vote to express interests, as opposed to an dictator (or “expert”) who imposes interests upon a public.   In a democracy, conflicts that are treated with inquiry lead to liberation of individuals. Inquiry produces means to better consequences. He proposes that we use intelligence and inquiry to develop better means to inquire into collective behavior of what a common interest is; democracy is an effort for us to do this communally. Dewey’s problem is that we need to find a way of intelligently directing our behavior to produce these better consequences.

However, Americans today seem more interested in the individual instead of the collective good. There is no real collective public; there is no real inquiry into, for example, the War in Iraq or the fact that we continue to screw up the environment. Like Dewey suggests, we have a tendency to just want to keep doing what we are doing out of our purely habituated interests. An example of this in today’s society I see is in consumerism. We have grown so accustomed to consuming ungodly amounts of goods that we do not think twice about the labor and the resources that go into producing those goods. Although Dewey argues that habits are positive because, “They relieve the mind from thought of means, thus freeing thought to deal with new conditions and purposes” (61), I feel that habits are not totally good but instead they dumb down our awareness of negative consequences, thus making it difficult to recognize when inquiry is necessary.

I believe that our current situation is such that we could benefit from Dewey’s proposals. However, our problem is one of a lack of awareness in regard to political matters. Individuals’ consciousness should be gained collectively as a public in order to intelligently recognize the negative externalities that are affecting them. Dewey identified technology to be the main culprit affecting society in the late 1920s when he was writing. He also showed technology to be a means to improve communication within a society. As a problem, according to Dewey, technology distracts people from political issues and directs their interests toward more superfluous endeavors, such as watching movies. He feels that if we use technology to improve communication (rather than to satisfy our superficial desires), then there will be a public interest in political matters.

The interests of our modern society along with massive amounts of technology today forms habits among individuals that further distracts us from political and social inquiry. We seek our ends not in pre-recognized and controlled consequences, but in the fastest, easiest ways of enhancing individual good. Just as Dewey was concerned about during his day, I feel
that our modern society as well as technology today is driving people away from any recognition of striving toward a collective good, or a great community, and inquiry into such to produce better consequences for all. People today—especially the youth that are so caught up in the glitz and glamour of all technology has to offer—seem more interested in the
newest movies coming out and the latest celebrity gossip than they are in any political issues or societal problems. Yet we have come to feel subjected to technology and do not see ourselves as collectively experiencing these consequences.

Dewey does not necessarily see technology as being an enemy. He says, “But without passage through a machine age, mankind’s hold upon what is needful as the preconditions of a free, flexible and many-colored life is so precarious and inequitable that competitive scramble for acquisition and frenzied use of the results of acquisition for purposes of excitation and display will be perpetuated” (217). I agree with him in that we can use technology to relieve us of doing certain things ourselves by rendering it as a means toward ends instead of merely ends in-itself (such as wanting that big TV to watch sports games or movies for pure, mindless entertainment). According to Dewey, in a fully developed technological age we will create the means to control and develop ends, not by simply doing more research for technology, but making use of the abundant amounts of technology we have available now. I agree fully with Dewey in that this could be a means to human liberation if we stop using technology to just get more of things. We are working harder despite the technological means we have available to work less. As Karl Marx says, “Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity and does so in the proportion in which it produces commodities generally” (Reader in Marxist Philosophy, Ch. 5 “Alienation”).

Overall, I agree with Dewey in that inquiry should be used in order to identify consequences. In this way, I feel that inquiry will pull people out of their hypnotic attachments to technological ends in-themselves and get the public involved in social and political actions, thus developing an interest in the collective good and a striving toward a “Great Community”. The realization of individual good, as Dewey suggests, will then be found through collective good.

Complementing Perceptions Between Nature & Humans

Changing our disposition toward nature from viewing it as a determinate object to acknowledging its intelligent and miraculous aspects may very well change how we, human beings, perceive and treat nature and nonhuman (as well as human) animals. Most of us in the Western world grow through a system of thinking and perceiving that is anthropocentric—that is, centered around values that favor human growth, development, well-being, etc. In a society where our vital needs and non-vital needs (or wants, rather) are met all too easily, and comfort is readily handed out and admired, we live through a notion of superiority: Anything nonhuman (whether animals or the natural environment) becomes a means to our own ends, regardless of the resulting ends faced by the ‘other’ nonhuman things. The comfort we experience is made more abundant if we use these ‘others’. The vast world of nonhuman things become manicured and fabricated for our own usage; ignorance becomes a means for maintaining the numb comfort we strive for relentlessly.

Since we do not know the desires or inclinations of nonhuman animals and nature, we assume that they are objective and determined inasmuch as we are capable of perceiving them. However, since we do know our own human desires and inclinations, and we are able to apply logical, mathematic systems and laws to these ‘others’, we build human life higher and higher and higher on the powerful (yet clumsy) throne in which we rest ourselves shamelessly. We use science increasingly as the tool that digs the graves deeper for nature. Obsessed with human progress, we insist on our reliances on science to make us a softer cushion and a stronger anesthetic to numb any awareness of our actual, more-than-objective experiences; that is, the experiences that bring us down off of our human-created throne and onto the same level of subjectivity as nonhuman animals and nature. It is obvious that science can be a useful tool for predicting natural disasters, curing diseases, etc., but the problem arises when we allow our minds to sink further into an ignorant comfort when we rape nature through science to fulfill our egocentric, excessive desires.

Another problem and cause of this drowning ecological mess we stirred up, is that we increasingly become preoccupied with not only our anthropocentric views as a whole, but our awareness of a sort of ‘individuality’ among ‘other’ human beings. As if it is not enough to have several whole societies with an anthropocentric world view, there is then each of those societies consisting of thousands of millions of people with a high sense of ‘individuality’—separate people with a sense of their own, single, individual desires and inclinations that become the center of their consciousness, action, and world. The society in which they live (more so if it is a Western society) does not discourage this selfish disposition either. Things like consumerism meshes dangerously with technological advances and speedy, massive production to form a giant blanket of overindulgence that ultimately suffocates human, nonhuman, and natural life. Not to mention, there are many more things to be said for the laborious means that become a necessity in the Western mind in order to achieve those coarsely comfortable ends which, notably, repeat tenfold when met. We can associate this with the resources needed to ‘feed’ our obese bellies with the greedy excesses we hunger for mindlessly, and come to the same problems we face today.

In David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, he proposes a sort of reciprocal awareness between humans and nature that may shift our thinking and actions toward a more ecocentric disposition—ecocentrism stands for values that are more centered around nature; this differs from anthropocentrism, which has more human-centered values. Abram explains that humans and all ‘other’ nature should not be seen as separate from one another, but rather as one in the same thing. Instead of focusing on notions of the self (or individual) and labeling all else as “other” to it, he suggests that there is a reciprocity that ties everything together. Everything in the world is then perceived as having a shared “flesh” that is seen as all-encompassing and a shared essence among all things. In this way, there is ideally no hierarchical dominance and, therefore, no anthropocentric values—our “flesh” becomes the “flesh” of the world and perception is, likewise, reciprocated. This differs from the typical Western view because it acknowledges nature as sharing a consciousness similar to our own and a need for respect that is too often associated with only human cognition. Abram suggests that we take the awareness we feel for humans and project it toward (and with) nature: He says, “[…] this stranger who stands here before me and is an object for my gaze suddenly opens his mouth and speaks to me, forcing me to acknowledge that he is a sentient subject like myself, and that I, too, am an object for his gaze. Each of us, in relation to the other, is both subject and object, sensible and sentient. Why, then, might this not also be the case in relation to another, nonhuman entity […] ?” (67, Abram). A result of this is a fundamental uncovering of all things hidden to come out from underneath the suffocating blanket thrown on them by anthropocentric minds.

It is essential to guide our minds toward an awareness of nonhuman animals and nature that we caged underneath this blanket so that an ecocentric disposition can be reached more tangibly. However, not only do we trap nature for our own selfish usages, but we also trap ourselves and one another. The comfort we strive for individually leads us down an even narrower path congested with excesses—we do not just turn nature into an objective means for our own ends, but we also turn our fellow human beings into step-stools to reach the highest throne attainable. In this way, we are faced with two wars: Humans versus Nature, and Humans versus Humans. The former of these ends up being ‘rape’, while the latter becomes an anthropocentric bloodbath, pulling nature into the game to achieve even higher human ends.

By bringing the lens of our awareness into focus with the rest of the natural world, I believe we can perceive things in an ecocentric light that will allow for the significant change we need. Instead of seeing only human needs as valuable—our health, well-being, desires, development, etc.—we will see intrinsic value in the environment as a whole. This perceiving will, invariably, affect humans’ overall behavior if it is internalized and practiced accordingly. Like any excesses though, I think it is important to not fall too deeply into the excess of idealism. While I agree with majority of Abram’s disposition and ecocentric proposal, I feel that it may not be the best method to make a, more or less, universal change (if such a thing is even possible). Similar to determinism, idealism is capable of stalling change by not always implementing practical means. While it is nearly—if not totally—impossible to persuade the consciousness of all human beings toward an ecocentric disposition, I believe there is something worthy to hang onto regarding a conscious change in perception in favor of the environment that houses all “flesh”. However, I do not think that the whole of science should be dismissed. Perhaps nature (including our human selves) can benefit from some of the advances science has made—just so long as the vulnerable human mind sustains an ecocentric awareness, so as to not fall into the dizzying whirlpool we find ourselves in today.

Social Ecology: Social & Ecological Change

Social ecology (as explained by Murray Bookchin in his essay What is Social Ecology?) asserts that almost all of the vast, disastrous ecological problems are directly related to—and originate from—problems within human societies. Furthermore, attempts to solve these problems cannot begin to be made without first taking sufficient time to understand them with a careful awareness. To do so, we must focus on deep-rooted causes in society instead of only digging at the surface. Similarly, Bookchin also calls for a serious transformation of our spiritual values and dominance-oriented mentalities into what he calls “complementarity”. He explains complementarity as, “[…] we would see our role in the natural world as creative, supportive, and deeply appreciative of the needs of nonhuman life” (463). An ethics of complementarity advocates human support instead of dominance. In this way, we would foster a respect for nonhuman life which, I believe, can only arise from a human respect for humanity since cultures and societies have evolved from the natural environment and, thus, directly affect it.

In addressing social problems, Bookchin highlights “economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts” (462) as being among the most serious contributors to ecological disconnection. It is important to note that there are numerous other factors that have piled onto this ecological mess we find ourselves struggling in, all of which we should embark upon with communal understanding and action.

Bookchin expresses that nature is ever-changing and evolving. As creatures in nature, humans are also following along this same path which led us to be “highly intelligent” animals. All of our technological, scientific, and, ultimately, social creations have risen as a result of our evolutionary processes within the natural world of humans and non-humans alike. Equipped with a lot of the same functions as nonhuman animals, humans perform with a more intense perception and a more extreme mentality. Therefore, the separation of humans from non-humans is false because they are really just different parts of the same whole. However, although humans are a part of nature, we have used our evolved intellects to create what Bookchin labels a “second nature” within the constructs of what we call our societies. He elaborates on this concept, saying, “Human beings always remain rooted in their biological evolutionary history, which we may call ‘first nature,’ but they produce a characteristically human social nature of their own, which we may call ‘second nature.’ And far from being ‘unnatural,’ human second nature is eminently a creation of organic evolution’s first nature” (466). The distinction between “first nature” and “second nature” (along with the emphasis on human “second nature” as a dominating force) reduces the creative, multi-faceted dimensions of natural evolution into an idle, one-sided wall for humans to climb in order to falsely claim some sort of hierarchical worth. It is crucial for us to be aware of the damaging effects that this ignorant view has on the entirety of humans and non-humans—on the entirety of nature. Equally damaging is the opposite excessive act of reducing humans’ unique place in nature by putting it on the same plane as all animals, ignoring particularities in an effort to evade the social/organic dichotomy and the problems associated with it. This negligent effort does not resolve the ecological problems that we have created, nor does it eliminate the social problems that loom heavily underneath it all.

Broadly speaking, the focus on second nature (as distinct from first nature) accounts for the emergence of human hierarchies and domination. What started for humans as group survival skills, morphed into social dominance tactics when humans drank too heavily from the mind’s intoxicating intellect. An alternate way of thought, as brought on by social ecology, would mend the holes in these ‘other’ ways of thinking by weaving biological nature (or “first nature”) with human nature (or “second nature”) to form one nature.

Although technology, science, rationality, and other human achievements hold the capacity to inflict drastic ecological damage, it is important to realize that we do not have to renounce all of these things in order to make significant changes. Social ecology acknowledges the potential of these human accomplishments while maintaining an ecological awareness of the effects they have on the whole of nature. Bookchin says, “We must go beyond both the natural and the social toward a new synthesis that contains the best of both. Such a synthesis will transcend them in the form of a creative, self-conscious, and therefore ‘free nature,’ in which human beings intervene in natural evolution with their best capacities […]” (476). Social ecology chooses mindfully from the natural and the social, establishing a more stable middle ground and, therefore, neither choking from over-consumption, nor starving from deprivation.

Also important is the idea that we cannot let ourselves get caught in a stagnant web of ideals. Although things like rhetoric and slogans seem to serve more as cheerleaders on the sidelines than as active players on the field, I believe that they can at least spark an awareness of the ecological problems we face today; however, I do not think that they should be solely relied on as means of change. In my opinion, they hardly even play a role in the overall transformation that needs to take place through social ecology, but I do not find it necessary to dismiss them unless they tranquilize people with idealistic visions that, essentially, evade the social problems that must be addressed. It is not enough to only cultivate individual’s spiritual transformation—these spiritual changes must be mixed collectively with other like-minded people in order to inform larger social and, thus, ecological transformations. In this way, I believe that deep ecology and social ecology could work together toward change—enlightening and educating one another with respect for nature. In order to begin this transformation, it is crucial for individuals to change their outlooks of nature toward a more ecologically-centered view, without neglecting the best of what can be utilized of human accomplishments (respectful of nature).

Furthermore, the domination and the creation of social hierarchies between humans and nature (and of humans by humans) is invariably an issue of which we must make ourselves aware before we can make change. However, more than just being aware of these issues, we should embody a new environmental ethic. I do not think that our ethic should be one that leans too far toward an eco-centric ethic (as proposed by deep ecologists), nor do I think that it should lean too far on the other end toward an anthropocentric ethic. Both of these ethics fall into the cold waters of domination and hierarchy by imposing control over one another, claiming that one is ‘more right’ than the other. In my opinion, these extreme ethical viewpoints are contributing factors to the overall mess of social and ecological problems we face today. An eco-centric ethic may contribute to the problems by evading them in favor of more idealistic visions that ultimately do not leave the confines of the mind’s imaginative fortress, and do not endeavor to pursue tangible active change. Similarly, an anthropocentric ethic may contribute to the problems by ignoring them altogether and focusing only on one part of the natural whole; that is, focusing only on “second nature” (or human nature), while “first nature” (or biological nature) festers into an even bigger blister on human heels, until excess causes it to burst painfully.

Bookchin draws upon a natural and social dichotomy, saying, “In this ‘either/or’ propositional thinking, the social is either separated from the organic, or flippantly reduced to the organic, resulting in an inexplicable dualism at one extreme or a naïve reductionism at the other” (466).

In Mary Mellor’s Ecofeminism and Environmental Ethics: A Materialist Perspective, she addresses this false dichotomy between eco-centrism and anthropocentrism more directly. I agree with her assertion that we should not try to choose one over the other, and to do so would be to separate humans from nature when really humanity is embedded within nature, along with non-human organisms and creatures. Developing an ethic like this and like that of Bookchin’s complementarity, I believe that social problems can be understood and approached more effectively.

If humans embodied an ethic that respected nature and humanity together, an ethic that discontinued oppressive, violent hierarchies and various forms of dominance, an ethic that embraced the best of reason and of ideals, then I believe we could resolve ecological problems by transforming ourselves spiritually and socially.

One-Dimensionality & False Autonomy

The one-dimensional person’s needs are created and circulated within an advanced industrial society that renders these needs as satisfactory only within itself. This false satisfaction blinds people from questioning further the situation of society in their lives. This advanced society dominates the individuals by satisfying their ‘needs’ using itself as the means to satisfaction. This has brought about our society of production and consumption. Individuals have become tools for the growth and productivity of the political and economic systems which grow stronger at the expense of objectifying and, thus, dehumanizing individuals.

German philosopher Herbert Marcuse says, “Independence of thought, autonomy, and the right to political opposition are being deprived of their basic critical function in a society which seems increasingly capable of satisfying the needs of the individuals through the way in which it is organized” (One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse, p.1). These needs that are satisfied within the systems are false in that they are preconditioned and “superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery and injustice” (5). The false needs that the one-dimensional society imposes on us are in contrast to our true, vital needs such as food, clothing and shelter. The satisfaction of false needs might make the individual happy, but this euphoria they experience is really a “euphoria in unhappiness” (5) since the needs are predetermined and controlled by external forces; thus it is a predetermined happiness that is not chosen by the individual but rather imposed upon him/her as satisfactory. Further explaining these false needs, Marcuse says, “No matter how much such needs may have become the individual’s own, reproduced and fortified by the conditions of his existence; no matter how much he identifies himself with them and finds himself in their satisfaction, they continue to be what they were from the beginning—products of a society whose dominant interest demands repression” (5). Our “needs” are integrated into the system, making us have a hard time opposing the system, as it would be an opposition to what we believe are ourselves and our needs, thus entrapping us in a system of, what Marcuse calls, “unfreedom.”

The repression of our individuality and our liberty by the false needs society fixes upon us, puts us in a state of servitude. We do not realize that society is repressing our true needs and we, rather, buy into the system. Having our needs preconditioned for us and buying into the already established system, we become rational characters among a civilization of irrationality which we rely on for our own development and satisfaction. Marcuse explains, saying, “…the extent to which his civilization transforms the object world into an extension of man’s mind and body makes the very notion of alienation questionable. The people recognize society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced” (9). This existence is one-dimensional as it is integrated within the realm of this society. Marcuse says further, “…the ‘false consciousness’ of their rationality becomes the true consciousness” (11).

The liberty we are granted within our society offers us vast choices but it does not allow us to decide “what can be chosen and what is chosen” (7). Marcuse asserts how choices open to us do not decide the level of our freedom, but rather further alienate us, saying, “Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear—that is, if they sustain alienation” (7-8). Free choice administered to us within the system does not render us autonomous individuals, instead it prolongs the controlled “unfreedom” that deceives us into believing we are liberated individuals. Things like mass media, advertising, industrial management and our very culture shape a one-dimensional universe which cripples our ability to think and behave in a truly rational and individual manner, and keeps us from attaining a true autonomy. Freedom, for Marcuse, would be a freedom from the economic and political systems, as well as a freedom from the indoctrination of ‘public opinion’ altogether. Freedom from these systems would entail that we would be able to decide what our true needs are, instead of being conditioned to believe that our “false” needs are, in fact, our true ones.

Furthermore, Marcuse critiques what he calls “technological rationality” because of the manner it reduces individuals to just basic functions for consumption and productivity; it does not challenge ends but rather the means to get things in the most efficient, quickest and fastest manner possible. Just as in Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil”, the main character, Sam, has an apartment full of technological gadgets that, in the end, are flimsy and unreliable, but are used to perform those tasks that are not essential to Sam’s day-to-day life since he is perfectly capable of making coffee and toast, for example, on his own. In this way, technology is rigged toward creating more needs for society which are not necessarily true needs. Instead, Marcuse believes that technology should be aimed at achieving ends that are more productive (instead of obstructive) to experience an autonomy through assisting true human needs.

Marcuse offers a potentiality for liberation through consciousness. He asserts, “All liberation depends on the consciousness of servitude, and the emergence of this consciousness is always hampered by the predominance of needs and satisfactions which, to a great extent, have become the individual’s own. The process always replaces one system of preconditioning by another; the optimal goal is the replacement of false needs by true ones, the abandonment of repressive satisfaction” (7). Marcuse sees alienation as a potentiality for a collective self-overcoming through awareness. He is concerned that if we lose sight of being alienated then our social progress would be hindered too, because we would no longer be in conflict with the fact of our alienation. Maintaining opposition of will is important, for Marcuse, and necessary to have progress. We needs to be at odds with ourselves in order to step outside of ourselves and have progress; to be autonomous. In this way, our consciousness and realization of our situation in society would allow us to break through society’s materialistic and idealistic one-dimensional prison, into the liberation of free thought and satisfaction of true needs.

In my opinion, Marcuse gives a very thorough and precise analysis of advanced industrial societies. I heavily agree with his conceptions of true versus false needs within a one-dimensional universe, and that our self-determinations get determined outside of us. Like Marcuse, I believe that our materialistic and idealistic “needs” (or false needs) that are imposed upon us by a one-dimensional society hinder us from being autonomous beings through blinding us from our realization of what true needs are. This gives me an unsettling sense of submission to a society that constantly dominates individuals into thinking they are free insofar as they are consuming and producing endless false needs to prolong the dehumanizing process. I also agree that if individuals were conscious of this process that they would cease to participate in this oppressive system. For example, in the film “Brazil”, Sam attempts to break free from social structures once he becomes aware of how destructive and blinding they really are, and he attempts to find individual happiness in a true autonomy outside of the system. The antagonists in the film were the people who were merely doing their jobs, showing the harm really being done through unawareness, and even ignorance, of alienation. However, Marcuse did not provide realistic solutions to overcome the dilemmas he analyzed. Although I agree that consciousness is a necessary step toward collective autonomy, I would have liked to see more possible solutions.

The creation of false needs that are projected through mass media and advertisements, tie individuals to a system that hinders their thoughts toward a preconditioned one-dimensionality. Our supposed ‘freedom of choice’ is not a freedom at all, but rather a mechanism to bind individuals to a system that ultimately dominates and controls their autonomy by creating materialistic needs that provide the individuals with a so-called “freedom” to choose among material goods, thus giving them a sense of ‘self’ through their possessions; a false sense of ‘self.’ Consciousness of this domination and awareness of what our true needs are provides us with the possibility of liberation that is, otherwise, unattainable in the one-dimensional universe.

“The Seventh Seal” — A Truthful Darkness in the Face of Hope

An Analysis of Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal

Opening Note Ingmar BergmansThe Seventh Sealhas innumerable meanings to infer, but I have chosen to focus on only a few to represent what I believe to be one of the films overall themes. While I choose to include only some scenes and a few characters, I am not denying the rest that remains unmentioned to have significant meaning in the film, as I believe the entirety of the elements and characters in Bergmans film to be more than adequate for interpretations and flowing with meanings.

______________________________

The film opens up with a shot of a clouded sky with rays of sun piercing through, paralleling a mind full of existential doubt and hopeful light struggling to break through. From there, the scene fades into a shot of a black bird flying solo in the wind, silhouetted against the dimly lit, clouded skies; a search for Truth in the vast, conflicting skies. With the introduction of the quote from the Bible’s “Revelation”, Bergman shows us a visual diagonal opposition between a strong, dark mountain and the vulnerable, light sea.

And when the lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was a silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” Cutting from there to a shot of the shore and the sea in another dark-light opposition, the quote continues: “And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.” Bergman’s presentation of dark and light elements in visual opposition to each other forms the perfect canvas for the existential struggle between dark and light (doubt and hope) that forms throughout the film. Using a natural setting gives a more powerful impact of not being able to control certain natural, non-created elements in our minds.

Lying on a bed of rocks next to a chess board (which I believe symbolizes our thinking mind), we are introduced to Antonius Block (none other than the extraordinary Max von Sydow), a medieval knight who had just arrived to his home of Sweden from ten years fighting in the religious battle of the Crusades. I believe this to represent a battle of internal and external forces and oppositions that leaves one with a deteriorating hope in any “God”. How could a God allow so much oppression, torture, and suffering (as seen in the symbol of the Crusades and the Black Plague in the film)? Lying in a coarse comfort atop a shore of rocks, Block’s mind is exposed as a light and dark checkered chess board of jumbled hope and despair. Bergman then cuts to a scene of the knight and his squire’s black horses in the water. Revelation 6:5 says, “And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand” (King James Bible). Perhaps the black horses in the film are used to represent dark times of famine and to symbolize a time of compromise and the struggle to balance change.

Block steps into the water, washing his face only to step right back out and fall to his knees, submitting into hopeful prayer. After his years of struggling with the religious forces within and around him, this collapsing moment portrays a sense of despair that one only hopes a God could mend. Rather than present the scene in a visually new lightness after his prayer, the corners of the scene darken, as to close in and create a mood of emptiness outside of the scene. In Revelation 8:9 it says, “And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood […]” (King James Bible). Bergman shows the chess board overlapping on the sea, perhaps to foreshadow the death and doubt of physical and existential plague throughout the film.

Immediately after this, the vision of a black-robed, white-faced Death appears before Block. Though the figure of Death is presented just as real as the reality that Bergman creates around the characters, I believe that Death’s appearance is the emergence of existential and religious doubt and despair in Block’s mind—creating an opposition of light and dark that becomes very real for those who endeavor to contemplate existential matters. Already, two and a half minutes into the film, Bergman has succeeded at creating a mood of opposition between two forces of doubt and hope.

Death’s arrival in the film also portrays the silence of God in Block’s mind. “And when the lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was a silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” Block’s moment of prayer on the sea’s shore shows a desperation and willful force for God to speak to him. In hopes of defeating Death (his doubts), Block proposes a game of chess—a battle between light and dark pieces, in which Death’s character ends up with the dark pieces (symbols of doubt and emptiness) while Block ends up with the light ones (symbols of hope and meaning). The medium of the board in which the game persists is Block’s willful search for knowledge, for answers, for God to speak to him and provide a sense of meaning and purpose to life. Sitting down to begin their game of chess, Block says to the vision of Death, “As long as I resist you, I live. If I win, you set me free. Equipped with his white pieces of hope, Block opts to win the battles of doubt through a search for meaning through knowledge.

Turning to the scene of Block attempting to find meaning in the church by going to confession, he neglects confessing any sins, but instead asks a series of existential questions. One of them showing his desperation for meaning through knowledge of God’s existence: “I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge.” Furthering the overall theme of opposing forces of light and dark, and the silence that comes with the latter, Block continues saying in the confession booth, “I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me. But He remains silent. I call out to Him in the darkness.” Again, the unbearable weight of nothingness plagues Block’s hopeful mind; he says, “No one man can live faced with Death, knowing everythings nothingness.” This scene of confession, which later shows to be a confession of Block’s hopes to his relentless doubts (Death), reveals the latter’s undeniable impact on the former. Exposing a reality, Block says, “We must make an idol of our fearand that idol we shall call God.” I draw now a quote from Albert Camus that fits all too perfectly to this absurd reality: “Man simply invented God in order not to kill himself” (The Myth of Sisyphus, p. 105). Faced with this absurdity, Block says that he wants to perform one meaningful act. I believe that by striving for such a thing, he unknowingly affirms a life of existential nothingness (Death’s win over his life) and opts to create meaning in the only way he knows how: by imposing meaning on life himself—that is, by helping others. However, it is not until he becomes aware of this inner knowledge that he is freed from doubt.

After this point in the confession, Block evades his unconscious awareness by bringing existential hope into the picture again: He proposes to win the chess game with “a combination of bishop and knight”, feeling a strong hope that he (a knight in the battle of life) will conquer his doubt and the emptiness that lies beneath it by finding a meaning to life through religion (the bishop, in the game). Immediately after Block’s hopeful words, a piercing realization of emptiness protrudes as the character of Death exposes himself to having been in disguise as a priest. Despite Block’s assertive hope that his move will win him the game, doubt emerges from an assumed religious figure as Death shows his white face. Bergman created a powerful scene here for many reasons: one of which is the blackness that drowns the confession area, while the fencing that separates Block and Death casts dark and light checkered shadows against their opposing faces. The brightest moment in the scene is when Death reveals his bitter white face against Block’s hopeful words, proving the entire conversation to be a confession of his own hopes cast deep into the emptiness of his doubts.

Another scene I want to specifically draw into this is the one with Joseph, Mary, and their baby (in another version of the film I saw their names were Mia and Jof, though it seems clear they are to represent a sort of “Holy Family” like that in the Bible) when Block joins them for a simple meal of wild strawberries and fresh milk. The scene begins with Block lying in a field with the chess board next to him—of course, his existential doubt lingering in his mind. He walks away from the game board to join the family in conversation. Sitting in the airy natural landscape that Bergman nicely chose for the scene, Mary offers Block wild strawberries; an offering of natural simplicity. Declining the offer, Block sinks back into his mind’s thoughts, saying, “To believe is to suffer. It is like loving someone in the dark who never answers.” Offering a second time, Block accepts the strawberries from Mary and a genuine smile forms on his face—the first real moment of content seen in Block, as he says, “I shall remember this moment of peace.” For me, this scene showed Block’s realization of a meaning to life in other people. Though the chess board (his mind’s scramble of doubt and hope) was not totally destroyed or defeated, he chose to dismiss it to engage in a generous, simple coexistence. He seemed to find a kind of God in other people; whereas before he admitted an indifference to men.

Continuing the chess game after this scene, Block guards his realization of content in others that he felt in the presence of Joseph, Mary, and their baby, and allows Death to take his knight; to take the white piece that he earlier confessed his hopes on. However, Block faces this reality with a smile and an affirmation, while not submitting to the fear that doubt creates. Death has something else up his sleeve though, foreshadowing his later intentions by asking the whereabouts of Joseph and Mary before smirking mischievously.

Later in the film, Block escorts the family through the forest in the dark of the night. The moon eerily pierces down, casting light for them to see. What they see though is a cart, almost surreal-looking, taking a “witch” to be burned. (Earlier in the film, it is shown that the witch, a young girl, is blamed by religious people for the cause of the Black Plague. In this way, showing the irrationality and cowardly nature of the religious people who are constantly searching for objects to point blame on for life’s unanswerable questions.) Stopping to explore the situation further, Block confronts the “witch” with one of his last pieces of religious hope, asking her if it is true she has seen and been in the company of the Devil, for if she surely has then he would know of a God. She says to look into her eyes for the answer, in which Block sees emptiness and fear. Religious questions are, thus, not something that can be answered by any objective means; one must simply believe if one is to allow hope to conquer their doubts.

Given a moment of respite before their chess game is finished, Death allows Block to pursue a last act before taking him away, in which he opts to visit his wife. To me, this was Block contemplating one last hope to save him from his existential torture; he chose love. At the large, empty castle where his wife was waiting, he does not express an apparent joy at being reunited with her; he is mostly silent. As they all are eating dinner, his wife, Karin, is sitting at the head of the table and reads from the book of Revelation. The sounds in this scene echo the words she reads from the Bible. Realizing that love cannot save him, Block desperately prays one last time, asking for God to speak from the tortuous silence that plagues his life. One of the characters in the scene, a girl who was mute, speaks words from the book of Revelation: “It is finished.

In the final scenes, Death and Block are to finish their chess game. Death has obvious intentions of taking Joseph, Mary, and the baby along with Block. Joseph awakens and shares in the reality of Death and Block’s chess game. Block, seeing that Joseph experiences this reality as well, knocks over the chess board to distract Death so that the family can escape. This is Block’s one meaningful act that he aspired to perform before submitting to Death. The family can continue life, while Block and a number of other characters are taken away by Death (all characters presenting their own existential dilemmas of emptiness and doubt).

This part of the film can be interpreted in a number of ways. For the sake of concluding my metaphor, I would suggest that Block’s leave with Death implies a sort of religious “suicide” and a realization that it is painful and almost impossible to live a life entirely in one’s thinking and questioning mind; always struggling between forces of light and dark, hope and doubt. By allowing Death to win the chess game, he affirms his doubt and no longer tortures himself with an empty hope for a silent God to speak to him. His physical knocking over of the chess game could symbolize a break from one’s questioning mind in order to help others in a meaningful way (as Block helps the couple and their baby to escape Death, in the film).

A kind of liberating occasion, the film ends with the characters (all remaining aside from the family) led by Death in an infamous Danse Macabre (Dance of Death), silhouetted against a dimly grey horizon. The grey overtones that Bergman used created a sense of unification of light and dark forces together – An acceptance of death and the ambiguity of life as a uniting force over all uncertainties.

It can be seen in a counter-perspective that Bergman did not mean to offer a, more or less, conclusive view such as the one I presented. The film, indeed, raises heavy existential questions. Perhaps the purpose of the film was to expose viewers to these questions so that they may find the answers in themselves. It is easy to see that belief and faith become realities for many religious people, and no one of us is in a position to condemn others for their values (though I, personally, would dispute some of them). Other people may see the film as praising religion and punishing the non-believers (both those who choose not to believe and those who cannot find a means for belief). In this way, Joseph, Mary, and their baby would really symbolize the Holy Family as those who prosper in the peace of their faith while the others are taken away by Death. Even then, it is not the Devil who takes them away, but it is Death. Death admits to know neither of a God nor of a Devil. Similarly, the Devil does not make any appearance except for the religious people’s creation of such through their looking to place blame (as seen by the “witch” who was seen to be the start of the Black Plague and the Devil’s silent advocate for the loss of so many to the Plague). In my opinion, the film (like many great works of art) can be shaped according to each individual viewer’s perspectives on life; likewise, it can help shape viewers’ perspectives by offering existential questions that, when applied to each individual’s experiences, can give birth to unique meaning for him or her.

“Notorious” — Obscure Identities

Analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Notorious

A recurring theme in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Notorious that I noticed is that of the masking of identities. I found it extremely difficult to understand the true identity of Alicia’s character except through the manner in which she chooses to conceal herself from others.

From the beginning of the film, Alicia Huberman (played ever-so-perfectly by Ingrid Bergman) is shown drunkening her state of being at a party immediately following her German father’s conviction of treason against America. She turns to alcohol, seemingly to evade having to face her reality, in which case she assumes very child-like and childish behaviors. After her father’s trial and conviction, the camera shows us a road symmetrically lined with palm trees, cutting to Alicia’s party—a kind of immature, created paradise, or drunken ‘bliss’. She proclaims to want “good times […] and laughs with people who’ll treat [her] right and like [her] and understand [her]”, such as that which every child desires who is unstable with confronting their own identities—in this way, other people’s approval is used to shape their identities.

Like a child instantly rejecting anyone who tells them what to do, one of our first encounters with Alicia is her vocalizing her utter discontent and despise for policeman and authoritative figures. This is visited again in the car with Devlin (another amazing performance by Cary Grant) when a policeman pulls her over for speeding and driving drunk; when Devlin gets them out of a ticket by showing his ID to the policeman, Alicia realizes he’s an authority figure and starts whining and throwing a temper tantrum for him to get out of the car, swatting and pushing him away with a childish attitude. Alicia, the morning after this incident, awakes with a bold, assertive Devlin standing at her doorway, then handing her a glass of liquid to drink for her obvious hangover. By doing so, Devlin assumes a sort of paternal character for the frivolous Alicia to lean on. After losing her father to prison and then later in the film to his inflicted suicide, Alicia seems to surrender her identity to Devlin in exchange for his attention and love. She leaps into this sort of ‘love’ with Devlin before she even gets to know his identity. Like many people who are forced to experience things that disrupt the ‘comfortable’ patterns of things, she seemed to prefer a dependence on someone to ease any transitions in life—usually someone to offer love—rather than to sit with the changes and the identity that is ever-molded through these experiences (however unpleasant they may be). When speaking of her father’s death, Alicia says, “It’s a very curious feeling, as if something has happened to me and not to him. You see, I don’t have to hate him anymore. Or myself.” This statement appears to reveal a part of her identity that was attached to her father and essentially thrown out upon his death. Whatever void this left in her life, she submitted it fully to Devlin in order to fill it for her.

Hitchcock, once again, gives us a peak into Alicia’s identity through an opposition of what she is not when she admits, “I am pretending I’m a nice, unspoiled child, whose heart is full of daisies and buttercups.” We can assume, therefore, that she intends the opposite to be true for her: Perhaps that she is a spoiled child, whose heart is empty and thirsting for easier, more child-like remedies.

Asking Devlin for his opinion on her taking the job to spy on her father’s Nazi comrades, Alicia glares with a wide-eyed ambivalence at Devlin for him to mold her uncertain feelings for her. She ultimately accepts the job, saying later that she only did it because she thought Devlin wanted her to and because he did not try to stop her—as if she was expecting a dramatic scene laced with love’s intrusion to keep her from taking the job. Alicia dishes out more of her identity to her work spying on the Nazis, and sacrifices most of her remaining Self to her decision to marry Sebastian (Claude Rain, fittingly); marrying him as a way to prove to him her dislike for Devlin, though really just burying her Self deeper. This plastic identity is shown during her and Sebastian’s first dinner in the film: Alicia is embellished in sparkling, sequined apparel, expelling superfluous words with empty meanings in order to manipulate Sebastian with her created identity.

On the other hand, Devlin dodges the blinding rays of love by not letting amorous words decide for Alicia which path to take when it came to taking or not taking the job to spy. He admits to Alicia (at the horse races when she tells him that she is going to marry Sebastian) that he never told her to take the job as a spy because the answer had to come from her, not from him. This showed his intentions for a sort of test of love, in which Alicia mindlessly lost because of her infantile dependency on trying to fit an identity by making a decision that may appeal to Devlin—a naïve call for approval on her part. Alicia’s duties to her work eventually consume much of her masked identity, which is realized by the more reserved, collected Devlin. However, if Devlin had verbally articulated his feelings for Alicia when she had asked him to essentially make the decision for her, then the entire story as we know it would cease to be, including Alicia’s eventual poisoning. Perhaps Devlin’s realization of this coupled with Alicia’s poisoined and debilitated state of being in the final scenes leads him reveal and affirm his love for her. In the final scenes, I saw both Alicia and Devlin’s identities to be the most authentic: Devlin reveals and confronts his feelings of fear and pain when confessing his love to Alicia, and Alicia calmly replies the same without getting sucked in by excessive feelings (perhaps also because of her languid state).

It is also worthy to point out that in many cases Sebastian acquired an identity to hide many revealing aspects of his character. The most profound recognition of this is in the last scene when he clings to Alicia with a phony care and a desperate urgency to keep hidden Alicia’s position as a U.S. Agent. He not only cowardly flees this particular situation, but he imprudently tries to preserve his flimsy reputation with his fellow comrades. Obviously lacking the assertion behind an affirmed, authentic identity, Sebastian uses the very person he poisoned (Alicia) to further escape his Self. There is also undeniably a reliance on his mother, which is similar to that of Cody (James Cagney) in White Heat. Like Cody, he lacked the emphatic will to act diligently when put under pressure. He could not even decide, much less carry through, what to do when Alicia’s job is revealed. His mother was the one who thought up the ‘remedy’ to poison Alicia, and she planned and executed it as well. Sebastian, like an ill-curious child, just cowardly watched his malignant mother do the dirty work. Even at the end, walking down the stairs with his mother, Devlin, and Alicia, Sebastian mindlessly stutters lies to his Nazi comrades before clinging to his only hope for safety: a poisoned Alicia. As Devlin and Alicia climb in the car to the hospital, Sebastian presses himself against the car, begging to go with them—not because he cared, but because his ‘reputable’ identity relied on convincing his comrades of Alicia’s ‘innocence’, as well as his own.

The recurrence of alcohol (namely, wine) is something I see to be symbolic in the film as a means for concealing and even revealing identities. From the beginning when Alicia is drinking herself into juvenile behaviors (a desperation for identity lost), to the dinner party at Sebastian’s; the latter of which shows a mansion full of guests sipping on champagne and drowning themselves in regurgitated verbiage to fit this or that cloned identity. The wine cellar can be seen as a prison cell hiding the identities of the people involved with the uranium ore that is, also symbolically, stowed away inside of an empty wine bottle; yet it is revealing when Devlin and Alicia discover the uranium and the secrets attached. The moments leading up to the party’s running out of champagne guide Sebastian down to the wine cellar, in which case Devlin and Alicia’s more-than-friendly relations are revealed (though instantly re-concealed with a lying mask when conversation between the 3 comes into play). Moving back to the beginning of the film again when Devlin first finds out about Alicia’s proposed mission to spy on her father’s Nazi friends, the camera zooms in on the champagne bottle he accidentally forgets in his boss’ office after leaving for Alicia’s. He arrives at Alicia’s apartment, empty-handed having forgotten the wine, and their feelings for one another are then revealed. Hitchcock reveals their love in an on-again-off-again kiss that lasts for several minutes, never leaving their tight embrace. The camera launches the audience into their moment, as we move closely with them across the floor, enjoying their kisses. As a symbol, the wine’s absence perhaps allowed for this intense moment of their revealed feelings for one another. Similarly in a symbolic way, the camera showed us that Devlin had left the bottle of wine at the office where his boss and the other agents were—this perhaps highlights alcohol’s physical and emotional place in the concealing of identities in the film; leaving the wine in the place where Alicia’s mission to conceal her own identity (a.k.a. to spy) was discussed among the business men.

The symbolism can even be taken further, and it might be said that drinks in general played symbolic roles in the film, representing various faces and stages of identity. For example, the coffee in which Sebastian’s mother laced with poison for Alicia was not only for the further concealment of Alicia’s identity, but also for the defense and protection of her and Sebastian’s own identities from their fellow Nazis.

Insofar as elements of film go, Hitchcock mastered the art of purposeful camera focus, movements, and placement most especially in Notorious. He brings the audience into the film by altering between objective and subjective points-of-view. At the beginning of the film during Alicia’s party, the camera is placed directly behind an opaque figure whose identity is a cryptic shadow and who sits mutely in observance of the party. Here we are put in both an objective and a subjective point-of-view; both objectively seeing the ambiguous, dark figure and subjectively observing Alicia and her party from his perspective. Also, when Alicia was in the midst of her post-party hangover, Hitchcock allowed us to objectively see Alicia in her bed, then subjectively we become a dizzy, scrambled Alicia waking up and seeing Devlin standing patiently at her doorway. We further become her vision as the camera curiously moves in the moment with Devlin’s movements and her vision blurs in and out of focus; an effective representation of the physical, objective state we see her in. Another example is toward the end of the film when Alicia realizes she has been poisoned: the camera moves closely to her face and we see her panicked expressions, while sweat drowns her pores, and the camera circles around her head vertiginously. Then we are placed subjectively in her position and we experience her perspective as the colors invert, voices echo, faces become shadows, and the room distorts. As a viewer, I can say that Hitchcock’s techniques invariably created a convincing experience, because I found myself looking away from the screen with a sick feeling in my stomach and a queasiness in my head during this scene.

Hitchcock has a way of revealing only what is necessary, and amplifying things in the most compelling of ways in his films. Throughout Notorious, he does not use overly obvious means of expressing his intent through excessive violence, language, or sexuality, but instead he lets the camera do the ‘talking’. There is no doubt that the script is well-written, but he goes beyond mere linguistic explanation and he shows his audience with the eloquence of his camera. In my opinion, this is a perfect match for the engaging plot and themes which contribute to my overall appreciation for the film. 

 

“D.O.A.” — A Toxic Reality

An Analysis of Rudolph Maté’s film D.O.A.

Frank Bigelow’s consumption of a fatal toxin presents an encounter with the realization that he is basically a living dead man (as we all are, in a way). Facing the certain fate that Time carries with it, Frank’s character serves as an exaggeration of our state in life—living with the absurdity of an approaching death.

As he stows away alone to San Francisco and leaves his lovestruck secretary behind, he sets out for a sort of selfish freedom through aesthetic, hedonistic means. Intoxicated by women and drinks, he becomes so consumed in his sense of self that the only thing to sober his mind is his face-to-face confrontation with impending death. Going in search of the person who poisoned him and to find out why, Frank becomes flooded with existential uncertainty. Toward the end of the film, he pauses his quest for Truth and spills feelings of love onto Paula, his secretary, saying that something happens to make people realize how much they love someone. To me, Frank’s sudden love-drunken behavior shows a person’s desperation to find meaning in a life of ambiguity when confronted with the certainty of death; Frank’s last resort for meaning seems to be through love.

The director, Rudolph Maté, uses classic film-noir elements to add to the hysterical, anxious nature of the film. The hospital in which Frank frantically goes to in order to further investigate his toxic consumption is massively surreal with what seems like endless steps to the top. The vile in the hospital that revealed toxins in Frank’s body was illuminating brightly; the light of a deadly Truth. Slanted blinds cast chopped black and white lines across Frank’s face while he’s in the office inquiring about Eugene Phillips; a parallel of light and dark forces in the film. Oddly enough, in the home of Mrs. Phillips and the office of Eugene Phillips’ receptionist (as well as her home), flower decorations are laced in pictures, curtains, and fake bouquets. To me, the flowers in these situations could only symbolize death, as flowers can be associated with funerals and mourning. The mob boss, Majack, wears a white suit, radiating in the darkness of the dungeon-like house he resides in. When we are first shown Majack, his facial features and incongruous and his eyes look uneven on his face. Furthermore, Paula, so immersed in love, is shown throughout the entire film in a drunken glow. Though she easily dismisses death when she tells Frank of Eugene Phillips’ death, saying not to worry about him calling and that Frank can “go ahead and have fun”; she seems to use love as an escape from the existential toxicity of a life empty of meaning.

One scene that I found especially intriguing is when Frank first confronts the certain death that the toxin presents him with. He stops by a newspaper and magazine stand: To the left of him are headlines on magazines pertaining to society, while to the right of him is a ladder of numerous copies of a magazine called “Life”. He looks distraught as he is standing in this “life” while surreal-looking events occur before him: A young, care-free girl bounces a ball in front of him; A man and a woman approach one another and smile during a loving embrace. Frank does not look comforted by this “life” around him though—he searches for Truth behind his certain death.