Monday, March 30, 2015

The Decline of the West

Upon reading Spengler's magnum opus The Decline of the West for the third time (in three days this time, because I have no life), and feeling as though this was the first time I more or less completely understood it, it behooves us to draft a brief tribute to the text, which truly is one of the most important narratives of the 20th Century.



Perhaps Spengler's greatest quality consists in his scathing polemic against the myopic, atomized, causal, linear perspective of modernist history that ruled with particular dominance in the rationalistic 17th and 18th centuries. He had determined that this was a superficial reading of history that accounted merely for circumstantial, incidental happenings, and failed to take stock of what was really going on: 'there can be no question of taking spiritual-political events, such as they become visible day by day on the surface, at their face value, and arranging them in a series of "causes" or "effects" and following them up in the obvious and intellectually easy directions. Such a "pragmatic" handling of history would be nothing but a piece of "natural science" in disguise... (The Decline of the West, p. 6).'

As a counter-attack to this elementary outlook, Spengler proceeds with an intuition into Destiny and Time, into history conceived not merely as a chain of events related only by their causal connections, but as ideas and events that are expressive of greater, deeper cosmic motions that subsist beneath human social activity. Spengler suggests that Cultures are not the arbitrary results of disparate communities, but their own organisms, their own individuals with a certain constitution not fundamentally unlike any other living thing; he peers into the cyclic nature of reality wherein organisms are born, thrive into manhood, linger into old age, and finally die. Spengler argues that Cultures/Civilizations are not specially fixed to progress indefinitely, immune to the biological decay every life form faces, but are uniquely shaped by their own inner identities and therefore subject to their own higher telos:

'I see, in place of that empty figment of one linear history which can be kept up only by shutting one's eyes to the overwhelming multitude of the facts, the drama of a number of mighty Cultures, each springing with primitive strength from the soil of a mother-region to which it remains firmly bound throughout its whole life-cycle; each stamping its material, its mankind, in its own image; each having its own idea, its own passions, its own life, will and feeling; its own death.... Here the Cultures, peoples, languages, truths, gods, landscapes bloom and age as the oaks and pines, the blossoms, twigs and leaves - but there is no aging "Mankind". Each Culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay and never return.... These Cultures, sublimated life-essences, grow with the same superb aimlessness as the flowers of the field. They belong, like the plants and the animals, to the living nature of Goethe, and not to the dead Nature of Newton. I see world-history as a picture of endless formations and transformations, of the marvelous waxing and waning of organic forms. The professional historian, on the contrary, sees it as a sort of tapeworm industriously adding onto itself one epoch after another.' (Decline, pp. 17-8)

The Decline of the West comprehensively answers all of the major questions of the Faustian soul, and unveils who we are as Westerners, as a distinct Culture (or presently a Civilization, as all Cultures must become as they are petrified into something increasingly lifeless). To provide one of many possible examples, whereas the Classical man is preoccupied with the community, with how man relates to the world at large (hence their conception of the persona, the mask we present ourselves in to face our fellows), Faustian man is singularly concerned with himself,  with how he relates to the cosmos beyond, to Infinity and the impossible loneliness therein: 'here infinite solitude is felt as the home of the Faustian soul. Siegfried, Parzifal, Tristan, Hamlet, Faust, are the loneliest heroes in all the Cultures. Read the wondrous awakening of the inner life in Wolfram's Parzifal. The love of wild nature, the mysterious compassion, the ineffable sense of forsakenness - it is all Faustian and only Faustian' (Decline, p. 99).

Spengler is equally keen in his insights into who we will become, even from the unsettled vantage of a century ago. While emerging sooner than he anticipated, Spengler's idea of 'Caesarism' became manifest even in his lifetime with the ascent of Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, Franco's Spain, etc. The masses were congealed beneath a great personality, a masterful dictator who mustered all the historical energy peculiar to his time and threw it upon Civilization as was his destiny. Spengler is able to envision this because he is not limited to a narrow mindset which sees history purely as sequences of cause and effect, but as a manifestation of something much deeper, the very soul of a Culture, the inner fountainhead of what that Culture brings forth. By studying and juxtaposing one Culture upon another, patterns become present, patterns which can even be used to forecast the future insofar as the future will necessarily correspond in some analogical way to a different Culture, to the model of how Cultures develop and recede. This is precisely what linear, modernistic historical thought fails to do because it is concerned not with the essential, but with the accidental, and treats a Culture not as an organism unto itself, but rather as another step in an arbitrary ladder reaching up into nowhere:

'We know it to be true of every organism that the rhythm, form and duration of its life, and all the expression-details of that life as well, are determined by the properties of its species. No one, looking at the oak, with its millennial life, daresay that at this moment, now, is about to start on its true and proper course.... In the case of higher human history, however, we [i.e., the Gibbon-type historians] take our ideas as to the course of the future with an unbridled optimism that sets at naught all historical, i.e. organic experience, and everyone therefore sets himself to discover in the accidental present terms that he can expand into some striking progression-series, the existence of which rests not on scientific proof but on predilection.' (Decline, pp.16-7)


By peering into the 'platonic idea' of what a Culture is essentially, Spengler can analogically relate one Culture to another, and thereby determine what is particular to that particular Culture, and what is universal to all Culture, i.e., the inherent nature of what a human Culture is as a genus. Just as there are different trees with their own unique qualities, so too are there self-contained Cultures possessing their own unique qualities; but insofar as both are organisms, both are destined to live and die accordingly. By realizing the nature of the species, in other words, Spengler can reveal the nature of the individual organism in an acutely visionary manner that is impossible to attain otherwise.

Spengler is moreover deeply conscious of the falling quality of our Civilization, hence the title of this book. With the fading of Culture, which is itself caused by the fulfilment of more and more of its possibilities and therefore by the exhaustion of its inner energy, first religion, the realm of spirit is distorted into new, hostile forms; Protestantism and puritanism, driven by a specially Faustian rationalism, disturb the old order, and limit the creative impetus and unity of the spiritual dimension. Then art, once subordinated to socio-religious organization, emancipates itself in a new fury of polyphony and counterpoint, of Sturm und Drang, until it too exhausts itself; the life of an artistic tradition, such as that experienced by Beethoven and Weber and Schubert, provides a superfluity of inspired production to artists in this period, but by the time of Wagner it dries up, forcing the artist in his period to work especially hard to achieve anything. In the political realm, grand politics and the organic State soon submit to abstract ideals such as 'human rights', 'world peace', and finally something exclusively economic wherein all that matters is the material: 'Politics sacrifice men for an idea, they fall for an idea; but economy merely wastes them away. In war life is elevated by death, often to that point of irresistible force whose mere existence guarantees victory, but in the economic life hunger awakens the ugly, vulgar and wholly unmetaphysical sort of fearfulness for one's life under which the higher form-world of a Culture miserably collapses and the naked struggle for existence of the human beasts begins' (Decline, p. 400). In all things, where one cultural facet flares up and succeeds gloriously, where all the historical power of a Culture in that instant is concentrated, it is expressive of the Culture's interior character; but these things all must perish, too, and in their decline they open up further possibilities through which the dying Culture gradually reveals itself.

As a Culture goes through its motions. spending its last imaginative impulses before nestling into bleak, urbanized, bloated, mercantile, and mechanical Civilization, it comes closer and closer to its Destiny, to what its purpose was in the cosmos. As it proceeds thus, the Culture is defined less by those specific qualities that once differentiated it from other Cultures and more by those qualities that define every Civilization in steep decline: an orientation around the practical, a 'moral' coldness toward 'the good life', a lapse in true hierarchy, and especially a sovereign interest in business, in manipulating the material world for selfish ends. Spengler claims that all Civilizations in their Winter seasons are characterized by these symptoms, and especially when they are removed from their homeland, citing such examples of the Chinese in California in the 19th Century, the Indian trader in East Africa, and of course the Wandering Jew. This is because these are all ahistorical peoples, ahistorical because they have already accomplished their work in this world - they are essentially dead, having no remaining vital role to play, and doomed to simply subsist amongst other Cultures until they might inseminate the earth with the seed of the next Culture. This is exactly what is happening to the West: we are dying, we approach the fulfilment of our Destiny, and as we die we become closer in spirit (or rather by our mutual lack of spirit) to the Jew to the point where neither of us will be recognizable, because we are both historically extinguished:

'Today this Magian nation, with its ghetto and its religion, itself is in danger of disappearing - not because the metaphysics of the two Cultures come closer to one another, but because the intellectualized upper stratum of each side is ceasing to be metaphysical at all. It has lost every kind of inward cohesion, and what remains is simply a cohesion for practical questions. The lead that this [Jewish / Magian] nation has enjoyed from its long habituation to thinking in business terms becomes ever less and less (vis-a-vis the American, it has almost already gone), and with the loss of it will go the last potent means of keeping up a Consensus that has fallen regionally into parts. In the moment when the civilized methods of the European-American world-cities shall have arrived at full maturity, the destiny of Jewry... will be accomplished.' (Decline, p. 353)

With these tremendously valuable contributions that Spengler has produced being mentioned, we are obliged to bring up our complaints with his opus, of which there are two main ones. The first is that which we share with Julius Evola, who lamented the fact that Spengler had no clear comprehension of the 'transcendent' portion of a Culture's identity: 'A sense of the metaphysical dimension or of transcendence, which represents the essence of all true Kultur, was completely lacking in [Spengler]' (Julius Evola, The Path of Cinnabar, p. 179). This is true in that Spengler, for all his concern with the philosophical and intellectual and even spiritual qualities of the man of any which Culture, approaches these questions from a typically modern immanent position; much like C.G. Jung confuses the mythical creations and rituals of primitive man for existing purely in the psyche, Spengler does the same, only he places these higher elements in the psyche of the Culture.

There is no truly transcendent character in Spengler's cultural world-soul, because everything is subordinated to the organic process, to the organism's cyclic existence, to its strictly this-world nature. While Spengler undoubtedly critiques Civilization, he does this in the same way as a doctor would critique a man in old age, that is to say, from a purely relative, immanent perspective. This absence of a true metaphysic leaves Spengler with no other objective criterion with which to judge a Culture, whereas Evola and the other traditionalists offer something more substantial in their suggestion of a 'world of Tradition', which is rigidly organized around a Culture's metaphysical principles (they also suggest its antithesis, the 'modern world', which is not organized at all in the proper sense, and is responsible for the downward, telluric tendencies of a Culture).

The second major complaint consists in our reaction to Spengler's claim that these Cultures are wholly self-contained, that they are perfectly isolated from either previous or succeeding Cultures, and from neighboring Cultures. While still rejecting the idea of a linear historical narrative, it is nevertheless true that prior Cultures play a decisive role in the Becoming of the following Culture. What would Western Culture be, for example, without the twin genii of Plato and Aristotle? the wisdom of the Old Testament? the Hellenic-Hebraic synthesis of the New Testament, the Incarnation of Christ? the materially fading but symbolically supernatural power of the Late Roman Empire? the technical and philosophical gifts of the Arabian? While doubtless these were all uniquely understood in the fashion of Faustian man, these were powerful, virile seeds that were planted by 'Classical' and 'Magian' man even at their waning in the world, and at the very least serve as crucial links between these superior world-souls.

Oswald Spengler possessed a perilous, incendiary insight which mastered the world's attention. He corrected some deeply erroneous methods of the modern historian by supplanting them with a radical new perspective of his own (though we could have done without him mentioning the novelty of his work every so often). His awareness of the morphological structure of history, and especially of the underlying forces that motivate the Cultures that constitute history, breathes new life into modern historical consciousness which has grown stale and placid. His is a relentless polemic that mercilessly scythes down many of our most beloved and most facile notions (his precise, destructive summary of democracy and freedom of the press is unsurpassed), and suggesting instead of an inexorable progress an inevitable death. 'Optimism is cowardice', Spengler famously writes, urging us instead to look at the facts in themselves, even if they incline us to a miserable pessimism. But then, Spengler surprises us once more toward the end of Decline: while the 'powers that be' will fight their wars over the ore and fuel and gold of the mundane, and the Culture at large will present no real value to the discriminating individual, there is nevertheless hope for him, a kind of transcendent peace that was not possible to any of his forefathers, living as they were in a Culture in the throes of Becoming. For this is the peace of Destiny, available to the man who realizes the fulfilment thereof, to the man who sits and contemplates not the misery of the world around him, but the fact that he sits at the peak of an entire historical organism. He dwells at the end of the line, and possesses the special consciousness of having realized the whole of history, of Becoming finally Become:

'With the formed state having finished its course, high history also lays down weary to sleep. Man becomes a plant again, adhering to the soil, dumb and enduring.... And while in high places there is eternal alternance of victory and defeat, those in the depths pray, pray with that mighty piety of the Second Religiousness that has overcome all doubts forever. There, in the souls, world-peace, the peace of God, the bliss of grey-haired monks and hermits, is become actual - and there alone. It has awakened that depth in the endurance of suffering which the historical man in the thousand years of his development has never known. Only with the end of a grand History does holy, still Being reappear.' (Decline, p.381)
















Saturday, March 7, 2015

Woman, Weininger, and Lars von Trier: A Review of Nymphomaniac

As Lars von Trier is one of my favourite directors, and as he covers themes closest to my heart and to my sphere of knowledge, it surprises me that it took this long to write a full review of one of his films. While I cannot promise anything, it would be really interesting to write another one at some later stage of the 'Golden Hearts' trilogy, with Dancer in the Dark forming the focus of it as Nymphomaniac is the focus of this review. (I have structured this review so that only minor spoilers are revealed for the bulk of it, with all major ones being used in the final portion in the effort to allow those who have not yet seen this film the glorious opportunity to read what is surely a masterwork of cinematic criticism.)



As one final foreword before entering the review, the medium of this film, which is essentially a pornographic film with an actual narrative built into it, automatically inspires apprehension on the part of viewers with a stronger moral sense than myself. Without defending this style of presentation, I will only say that the aesthetics of the Middle Ages, while superior in the most meaningful ways, with its sense of beauty built directly into a piece's moral and intellectual worth, is not the aesthetics of the Modern Ages; we must in certain respects live according to the times, and this may mean, at least to the ironical, undisciplined, unserious aesthete, surrendering some of our ethical condemnations of things which speak of more important things than even morality. It is a given, then, that, in order to properly enjoy this film (in a way other than one would enjoy a more purposefully pornographic film, that is), it is necessary to silence all moral sensibilities, and to view this film in as detached and desensitized way as possible. 

So, while a 'purification of the means' may have indeed been preferable (the penis montage in V.I and the miscegenation in V.II were especially unsavoury), I am not going to utilize a moralistic judgment of this film when I knew all about it going into the film. Moreover, I actually sensed a strong familiarity between the film's pornography and the explicit imagery that any quality horror movie uses in achieving its own end goals; both of which ultimately aim at repulsing the viewer (even if this sometimes manages the opposite effect), because what they are showing is supposed to be repulsive. Infact I think that showing the realistic murder such as you see in any high-budget war film is just as 'pornographic' in a sense as anything you see in Nymphomaniac: somehow the sexual attains an added portion of scandal when it is shown. At any rate, the purpose of such 'shocking' scenery is not to simply shock the viewer, but to demonstrate something shocking about it, to show why it is shocking. With that in mind, I hope that I myself have demonstrated what makes Nymphomaniac worth viewing in respect to the human, and specifically the female condition.... adieu. 


Introduction to Weininger and Lars von Trier


Perhaps the only difference between me and the other people, is that I have always demanded more from the sunset....



In the now hugely accomplished filmography of the Danish director Lars von Trier, there are a multitude of themes that are continuously explored; the baseless, meddling idealism, for example, that characterizes the protagonists of Europa and Manderlay, or the almost invariable resolution of any which story into something satisfyingly tragic, or the tremendous individualism that pits a person alone against the world in order to show at once his or her humanity, in a depraved sense or otherwise. There are a myriad of such ways in which LvT conveys his distinctly German grasp of romanticism, but there is perhaps no stronger one than his persistent investigations of the female character, chiefly in the manner in which these investigations are performed. This is true principally in the burning duality that presents itself over the course of LvT's work: woman is at one point elevated to Byronic heights while at another she comes crashing down to depths more familiar to the scribbling of Schopenhauer. LvT is not interested in sentimental generalizations or abstract scientific theorems; he is interested in the actual reality of womanhood, of how woman is in the essential, and of how Woman is defined as a type (W), segregated from that of Man (M).

There is one philosopher more than any other of whom we are reminded in this connection: Otto Weininger. Ostensibly more of a psychologist than a philosopher, out of respect for the man it would be wiser to name him by the latter vocation (as we would C.G. Jung), especially considering his contributions were of far greater worth in the more universal fields of philosophy than in any technical, scientific one. Otto Weininger was the man of whom August Strindberg had said 'solved the hardest of all life's problems', and in a letter to Weininger himself he expressed gratitude for solving the 'Woman Problem'. Weininger's opus Sex and Character has been widely interpreted as a radical episode in misogyny and misunderstanding, and not without reason: at one point Weininger supposes women to be ontologically inferior to animal and even plant life, while at another he claims that it is impossible to conceive of a female counterpart to the criminal, since woman is not even on the moral spectrum - she is capable of being neither moral nor immoral, for she is entirely non-moral. Notwithstanding such hyperbole or nonsense, Weininger's primary endeavour, simply that of understanding W (Woman) as she is, removed of all bias and prejudice, goes a long distance in this regard, and helps shed light on other phenomena as well. That he does exaggerate sometimes should not distract the discerning reader so much as to help delineate the diametrically opposed definitions of W and M in themselves, despite how commingled they appear in our immediate reality, in particular men and women.
'[There is] an ideal Man M and an ideal Woman W, neither of whom exist, as sexual types.... The type, the platonic idea, is not only the object of art but also that of science.... [There] are any number of intermediate stages, between the complete Man and the complete Woman, which may both be approximated but which are never experienced as such in reality.'(Otto Weininger, Sex and Character, p.13)
LvT shares much of this ambiguity (at least on the surface), and this comes from his methodology: rather than studying W as a whole in any individual film, or conversely studying women as removed from any understanding of W, LvT studies the various facets of W through many of her different representations. Katherina, the powerful, oddly rational 'heroine' of Europa, for instance, has as little to do with the sweet naivety of Dogville's Grace as the loving Bess of Breaking the Waves has to do with the initial bourgeois rigour of Melancholia's Claire. These are hardly contradictions of LvT's comprehension of W; they are the different avenues through which W is manifested, the different forms that she shapes herself in. Together they create a unified vision into the deepest parts of W by examining her at her most extreme, by isolating certain of her subtypes (idealist, governess, maiden, femme fatale, mother, gorgon, etc) to expose who she is essentially. It is quite likely impossible to unravel the unfathomable vastness of W at all, nevermind all at once; but in searching through the various ways she makes herself known we can identify patterns and underlying commonalities that at least hint at their source.

Weininger understood more than most the typological classifications of humanity, and exemplifies this understanding in his decisive split of the two F archetypes: Mother and Prostitute. Like M and W, the Mother and the Prostitute are platonic ideas, and therefore impossible to encounter in themselves in ordinary reality; but, like M and W, they are organic defaults imprinted on this woman or that woman, and so also impossible to be neither one nor the other: 'a being is a man or a woman in a physical way only because a being is either masculine or feminine in a transcendental way; sexual differentiation, far from being an irrelevant factor in relation to the spirit, is the sign that points to a particular vocation and to a distinctive dharma' (Julius Evola, Revolt Against the Modern World, p. 158). Just as, excepting extraordinary circumstances, one is born either as a man or a woman, so too is a woman born as either a Mother or a Prostitute, though always containing a complementary portion of whichever she is not. Briefly summarized, the Mother in Weininger's eyes was the optimistic preserver of the race whose primary instincts consisted of serving the child first and foremost; she also has the tendency to treat her man as another child, which lends her a matronly disposition in whatever relationship she finds herself in. The Mother is commonly held as more estimable, but Weininger deems that her love for her family and especially her children is conditional on their being hers; she is, in other words, a slave to her maternal instincts, and thus deserves no ethical credit in the way that a man might in showing courage on the battlefield: 'Maternal love is non-moral because it has no relation to the individuality of the being on which it is bestowed, and there can be an ethical relation only between two individualities. The relation between mother and child is always a kind of physical reflex' (Weininger, p.225). The Prostitute, on the other hand, is equally selfish, but whose instincts are to please the man instead of the child. She is of a greater intellectual calibre, and she is someone who tends toward cowardice and fear rather than the maternal hope; she is moreover prone to electing socially unfavourable or dissipated men as opposed to the more political, opportunistic Mother type who chooses men based on how far they can advance her family in the world. While both, being W, are wholly sexual in their nature (more on that immediately), it is naturally the Prostitute who is more intimately associated with sexual energy, as her raison d'être is to please herself in pleasing men rather than being motivated by the procreative necessity as is that of the Mother.

Nymphomaniac is quite naturally, then, a film about the Prostitute type, and of a highly advanced instance of it. According to Weininger, W is, unlike M who is driven by ethical, artistic, and religious motivations, possessed purely by sexual inclinations, which define her entire existence: 'For Woman the state of sexual arousal only means the greatest intensification of her whole existence, which is always and absolutely sexual. W's existence revolves entirely around her sexual life, the sphere of copulation and reproduction, i.e., in her relationship with a man and her children, and her existence is totally absorbed by these things, while M is not only sexual' (Ibid., p.79). While M is individuated and capable of self-consciousness, W is ruled firmly by the cosmic organization that demands the persistence of our species; she is at once tied to the infallible order of nature and the chaotic acts of spontaneity that often define the realm of nature. W is incapable of real order, for that means transcending the purely natural in an act only the personal, masculine spirit can achieve, so she is by turns taken by an organic rhythm and by the chaos affiliated with nature and therefore with her sex.


Body (only minor spoilers henceforth)


The secret ingredient to sex, is love....

Nymphomaniac is the third film in LvT's 'Depression' trilogy; it is its triumphant conclusion, incorporating themes from the first two but striking more resolutely, more comprehensively into the inner workings of the female psyche. We will not say that it is better than or even the equal of the two prior parts, but we will say that it offers the more complete angle for looking into W. There is also, rather than the limited, compact social dynamics of the previous two, the additional advantage of covering a greater range of characters, allowing them a hitherto unenjoyed freedom of expression which opens up many different aspects. More to the point, Nymphomaniac is concerned above all else with the erotic impulses of W, her most pressing demands, rather than the other two which prioritized more incidental factors.



The first film in the trilogy, Antichrist, gained notoriety for its unashamed discovery of W's connection to nature, specifically the sinister side of nature: frequent invocations of witchcraft and devilry emerge as the wife (superbly played by the inimitable Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays a central role in each of these three films) submits to the same 'misogyny' she was supposed to refute. Overcome by the death of her son, the wife falls apart; whatever rational fibres she had developed over the years implode on her, twisting into a new destructive current that bring her nearer and nearer to the beastly barbarism of the natural world: that surreal, unforgettable moment when the fox says into the screen, Chaos reigns, epitomizes in no uncertain terms the truth of what was happening. Subsequently, the symbol of masculinity par excellence is literally smashed in a telluric, earthly revolt against the intellectual and spiritual organization that would 'shackle' the natural world, that would make order from chaos. Antichrist is basically the articulation of the overwhelming emotional trauma that occurs when nature's logical patterns (that of a mother raising the next generation) are suddenly undermined; upon this occurrence nature's spontaneity overturns whatever rational shields woman has built, and so chaos reigns.

The second film, Melancholia, inspects an inner apocalypse in the face of an outer apocalypse. The different responses to the world's impending death represent the different psychic states on the part of the two women, Justine and Claire. The former is the more obviously disorderly, unable to maintain any kind of reasonable social discourse, mocking the nuptial rituals, even scorning her newly married husband for a lay with a coworker who means practically nothing to her - not in any bed, either, but directly on the grass. Severely depressed from the beginning, she is unable to enjoy her favourite food: 'It tastes like ashes'. At one point she goes down to the river in the night, completely naked, and in that moment she becomes identified with the raw beauty of nature, becoming one with her as though she were the silver moon shining brilliantly on an open, cloudless, Summer night; this is a reflection of her immersion into a conscious longing for unconsciousness, the desperate desire to cease sentience. Claire, on the other hand, at first displays a normalcy becoming to any bourgeois lady of the house, but this gives way to a nervous frailty that quivers in the face of impending global destruction; associated with the outer world, she falls apart as the world falls apart. Justine, meanwhile, handles this much more readily, suggesting not merely her delight in the prospect of her own death, but of the death of the whole exterior realm with which she can no longer relate at all. Melancholia is basically an interview between the internal and external positions of self, a glimpse into the psychological tremors felt throughout one's being upon the collapse of either/or. Justine could not find any field in which to plant her teeming inner energy, while Claire in the absence of any seed possessed only the field. The destruction of the world releases both of them from their isolation, and combines them together: '[The two sisters] melt together', LvT says, 'they have been two, and they become one'.





So while Antichrist is concerned with the emotional and matronly values of W corrupted into a defiant organic impulse, and Melancholia with the more mental difficulties that emerge from a failure to synthesize W's inner and outer lives (note: Weininger would likely recognize in Justine more qualities of M rather than of W), Nymphomaniac completes the circle by its concentration on the locus of femininity, the plot of psychic space wherein all of W's motivations are said to derive: the erotic centre. This is not to say that the other elements are not present (as we will see), but that the focus is now absolutely on the sexual quotient; W is now approached where she is at her most honest, her most typical state, because she is now the closest as any individual in ordinary reality can get to the 'platonic idea' of W. This, as much as anything else, is why Nymphomaniac should be the final part, because it contains all other parts in its witnessing to the actual identity of W, for everything in her is produced from her sexual aspect, which is to say her entire self.

Joe the nymphomaniac is indubitably of the Prostitute type; so far as our knowledge goes, there is no clearer instance of this type in all of film. She fulfills not only the obvious physical necessities, such as the chronic masturbation as a youth and the early discovery of ways to please herself (such as 'playing frogs' in the bathroom), but virtually every other as well. The scene on the train, for example,  after the decidedly anti-romantic loss of her virginity at age 15, displays Joe's completely promiscuous nature, her complete disavowal of all social standards in her pursuit of pleasure ('she is not ashamed of her shamelessness' (Ibid., p.228)). The competition between her and her friend 'B' is to copulate with as many men as possible until the train reached its destination, and the winner receives the rather meaningless prize of a bag of candy, which is meaningless because the sex is the end in itself: 'The [Prostitute] is ready to yield herself to any man who stimulates her erotic desires; that is her only object'. (Ibid., p.220) Joe manifests her deceitful nature most openly and cleverly through her manipulation of her sexual lovers, just as a Mother type would manipulate a more accomplished man into marriage purely for the benefit of her children; Joe continually fakes having 'first orgasms', pretends to love men, and even decides on how to respond to her various lovers based on the throwing of dice ('Cunning, calculation, "cleverness", are much more usual and constant in the woman than in the man, if there is a personal, selfish end in view.... One of the deepest problems of woman is her absolute duplicity' (Ibid., p. 253, 260)). There is no individuality, no personal relations in her affairs; everything is conditioned by her insatiable appetite, which prevents her from attaining real personhood.

When in college, Joe and B form a club called 'The Little Flock'. This was the first sign of the underlying satanic nature of Joe's doings, as the club ritualistically inverted the Catholic mass; instead of Christ's body they celebrated their own (mea vulva, mea maxima vulva), and instead of sharing in the spirit they shared in the flesh, masturbating amongst one another. The use of the tri-tone, historically associated with the demonic (it was called the 'devil's note', as any Black Sabbath fan knows), completes the 'black mass'. The purpose of the group beyond this was a rebellion against love: 'we were committed to combat the love-fixated society'. No member was allowed to sleep with a man more than once, which eventuates in B's falling out with Joe, but not before telling her that 'the secret ingredient to sex, is love'. The club disintegrates as all but the strongest fall away into normal society; Joe remains individually dedicated to the principles of The Little Flock, for she is nearest to the absolute W. She singly represents the symbolic import of the club's founding ethos and its praxis, which is the anti-hierarchical domination of the spiritual by the natural, of form being moulded by matter: '[The] relationship between male and female is by nature such that the male is higher, the female lower, that the male rules and the female is ruled' (Aristotle, Politics, 1254b). That this is inverted by Joe's relations with men, whereupon she assumes the higher role, displays the extent of her psychic disorder:
'[The results of woman's emancipation] have been the degeneration of the feminine type even in her somatic characteristics, the atrophy of her natural possibilities, the suppression of her unique inner life. Hence the types of the woman-garconne and the shallow and vain woman, incapable of any elan beyond herself, utterly inadequate so far as sensuality and sinfulness are concerned because to the modern woman the possibilities of physical love are not as interesting to the narcissistic cult of her body.... Now when a woman, before consecrating herself to a man, pretends that he belongs to her body and soul, not only has she already "humanized" and impoverished her offering, but worse yet, she has begun to betray the pure essence of femininity in order to borrow characteristics of the male nature - and possibly the lowest of these: the yearning to possess and lay claims over another person, and the pride of the ego... Eventually, because of woman's increased egocentrism, men will no longer be of interest to her; she will only care about what they will be able to offer to satisfy her pleasure or her vanity.' (Evola, p. 164-5)
Joe therefore also typifies the 'modern, emancipated woman', which we will have to discuss in some other article, as what LvT might be saying about modern society as a whole rather than one particular human being is too vague at this point. What Evola remarks on comes true for Joe, as her incessant sexual adventures have rendered her joyless and loveless. Leaving college, Joe happens to work for the man to whom she lost her virginity some years ago, Jerôme. After an initial, surprising, and highly meaningful rejection, Joe comes to feel something for Jerôme, and it is essential to recall exactly what she says of him: 'I could suddenly see a kind of order in the mess.... I wanted to be one of Jerôme's things. I wanted to be picked up, and put down, again and again. I wanted to be treated by his hands according to some sophisticated principle that I could not understand'. This is one of those rare moments in the film where Joe shows her positive femininity, that is femininity undisturbed by its own cthonic nature, femininity ameliorated by its relation with masculinity. Joe finally succumbs to something higher; she, as matter is defined by form, succumbs to Jerôme who, most likely due to the fact that he was the one who took her virginity and therefore 'owned her' in a certain primal sense, enacts the male principle of order, 'some sophisticated principle that [woman] could not understand'.

By the wildest coincidence (LvT frequently foregoes realism to present a more pressing point, such as Uma Thurman's cameo role as a hyperbolic mother character whose family has been destroyed by Joe's manipulations: 'Would it be alright if I showed the children the whoring bed?'), Joe comes across Jerôme again some time later, and they instantly become intimate. The sex scene is the most intensely romantic of the film so far; there is passionate kissing, and a frenetic energy that suggests a will to union beyond the physical. The problem, however, is that Joe soon realizes that she 'doesn't feel anything'. Her constant infidelity and unremitting pursuit of satisfying her desire has entirely desensitized her to the act, and precisely when it is most important: B's final words, the secret ingredient, become impractical because sex has become utterly compromised by its physical aspect. There can be no synthesis of love and lust upon the isolation of one from the other: 'The external union, earthly and in particular physical, does not possess any specific relation to love.... It is necessary for love, not as its indispensable condition and independent end, but only as its final realization. If this realization is set as the end in itself, ahead of the ideal concern of love, it ruins the love' (Vladimir Solovyov, The Meaning of Love, p. 64). In Joe's case, she cannot obey both masters, because she is already enslaved to the one by her youthful consecrations to purely somatic delights. When she finally does experience something resembling love, she cannot fully enjoy it because of her disconnect between the two masters; the 'secret ingredient' means nothing to her, because she has already severed the link between love and sex, and therefore precluded the potentiality of their ever being truly entwined. This is perfectly epitomized in the scene after she tries to make love with Jerôme in which Joe tries to masturbate and, still feeling nothing, proceeds to hit her vagina as though it were a physical problem and not a psycho-spiritual one.

'The [Prostitute], for whom the act is everything, the compression and end of all life, is never satisfied, never to be satisfied, were she visited by all the men in the world'. (Weininger, p. 232)

This was the turning point of Joe's story at which she finally has some elementary level of introspection; 'fill all my holes', she says to Jerôme during sex, craving not only physical fulfillment, of course, but complete existential fulfillment as she realizes her emptiness more and more. Unable to keep up with her, Jerôme actually comes up with the idea of getting him 'some help with the feeding'. Joe soon returns to her polyamorous lifestyle, even as she births Jerôme's son, Marcel. Then, still unsatisfied, she searches for more extreme alternatives to restore her earlier sensations, like the drug addict who takes stronger and stronger doses in the futile effort to recreate his original high. This leads eventually to masochism, which is the nadir of W's sexual devolution insofar as she can no longer acquire pleasure through pleasure, but through indirect, demented means, namely pleasure through pain. Joe lubricates before even getting struck, which, as the film clearly explains, is meaningful in that her body thinks that it will be having intercourse when she knows in her mind that she will not be. Any pretense of love, even the vaguest pretense which the simple act of man copulating with women provides, is now dispensed with in her descent into perversion, which is the complete denial of the other: 'At the root of all forms of perversion is self-love, the utilization of another, who... is seen as no more than an instrument for one's pleasure (or pain)' (Vladimir Moss, The Theology of Eros, p. 123). The perception of Joe as Prostitute is also at its most transparent at this time. As she must go out at night, staying at the sadist's place between 2 and 6 A.M., Joe is sometimes forced to abandon her son. One night, Jerôme comes home to find Marcel exposed on the apartment balcony and then confronts Joe when she returns; reminiscent of Antichrist, the mother is again distracted by sex as her child is at risk. Faced with Jerôme's ultimatum of choosing her family or her sexual longings, Joe has no choice at all, and rips herself from her son in a wash of tears. In the choice between stimulating her own wants and those of her blood, there is zero confusion on the part of the Prostitute:
'The absolute mother, who thinks only about the child, would become a mother by any man.... The absolute prostitute, on the other hand, even when she is still a child, dislikes children; later on, she may pretend to care for them as a means to attract men through the idea of mother and child. She is the woman whose desire is to please all men....' (Weininger, p. 221)
Now constantly bleeding from her orifices due to the constant beatings and other abuse she subjected herself to over the years, Joe eventually puts her sexual experience and knowledge to use as a debt collector. This is where she perfects her sadistic side, though it is doubtful that she enjoys it like she did any of her earlier exploits; this new, more direct power over men is not unwelcome, but it fails to excite her in the same way that subtly ruling men excited her by means of more feminine devices. This is as far as we can go in the plot for the present, and the main ways in which Joe exemplifies the Woman and Prostitute types are, at any rate, now exhausted.

So far all that we have told does not occur in the present, but in the form of a series of flashbacks that the present Joe is telling as her life story. The film actually opens with an atheistic Jew by the name of Seligman finding Joe, who is unconscious and lying in the street. Though covered in cuts and bruises, she denies Seligman's offer to call an ambulance, though not his invitation to come to his place for tea. So, while Joe is telling the story we just highlighted to Seligman (who happens to be a virgin), the film continually cuts back to the present to reveal how both of them think of what is happening. LvT normally makes his male characters auxiliary pieces in the drama, and that is no different here, as Seligman's role is simply to offer learned digressions that sometimes help us understand Joe's narrative in a mythical and symbolic light, or are simply that, useless digressions that mean nothing, that are simply the virginal Seligman's attempts to contextualize in a way that he understands things in which he has zero experience. So, digressions like making apt but apparently meaningless fishing allegories out of Joe's train ride seductions, or relating the knots which the sadist K used to tie Joe up to a random invention where a mountaineer creates a knot that saves his life ('that was your weakest digression yet', Joe says), add nothing to our understanding of Joe, but they do add something to our understanding of Seligman, whose life seemingly consists of nothing but learning and loneliness.

At other times, however, Seligman's learning offers a tremendous help, especially if the viewer is ignorant of mythical data and how to extract it from the film's narrative and imagery. LvT is unique in that he actually takes pains to explain a lot of these more obscure elements in his films, and yet leaves plenty of room in which we can look for ourselves as to how these symbols are connected and what they reveal about the idea of the film. It is Seligman who brings to our attention that what the 'Vacuum Cleaner', the pianist in The Little Flock's black mass liturgies, is playing is actually the tritone, the 'devil's note'. In relating her memory or waking dream of levitating off the field, and having two women on either side of her, it is Seligman who notes who they are: Messalina, the notoriously promiscuous wife of Emperor Claudius, and the Whore of Babylon. Her ascent off the grass is a flagrant mockery of Christ's transfiguration. In the birth of Marcel, too, Joe, who feels like the child is not even her own (this is telling both of the Prostitute type and of satanic lore), tells Seligman that she felt as though the child was laughing when she first sees him. Seligman informs her that this was a sign of Antichrist. All of this reinforces the implicit intimacy that exists between Joe's nature and behaviour, and the activity of Satan; old texts of Church Fathers are recalled in which woman is identified as a conduit for evil, a medium through which Satan acts:
'You are the devil's gateway; you are she who violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die.... Woman, you are the gate to hell.' (Tertullian, *On the Apparel of Women*)
This connection is hardly unintended. Through all of the implications and references made thus far, LvT clearly designed that we should conceive of woman's diabolical potential. In Weininger's dualistic system, though he explicitly denies that women have any spiritual agency ('the prostitute is no diabolic destroyer of the idea, but only a corrupter of empirical phenomena' (Weininger, p. 234), that woman is related with object and matter is to equate her with the 'demiurgic' reality, that is to say the temporal realm that has no actuality except inasmuch as it receives actuality from the eternal realm, the 'world of ideas'. This is symbolically construed in satanic terms, for Satan represents the rebellion of non-being against being, of nothingness against somethingness; W's negative nature, her intrinsically material nature, precludes her from the life of the spirit and associates her with the anti-life of the adversary. Joe continually reflects these imaginations as she refuses to desist in the wild embrace of her lowest impulses, despite the obvious harm that she is causing amongst those around her and eventually even herself.

Simply because they are peripheral, however, does not mean that LvT's male characters are not essential. Joe's father, for instance, provides an important part of the drama in that he is virtually the only thing about her that is untainted by her sexual feelings. When he is teaching her about the trees in the forest, about how the ash trees are the most beautiful of all the trees, there is a fragment of
innocence that survives throughout the film as a single preserved memory of a non-sexual state. That Joe has not found her 'soul tree' as her father did is crucial in her character development; she has not matured enough to the point where she is able to discern what her soul looks like, because it is not quite yet winter for her. Her father explains: 'It's actually the souls of the trees that we see in the winter.... They do look like human souls. Twisted souls, regular souls, crazy souls; all depending on the kind of lives human beings lead'. This is the closest that the film comes to enunciating a specifically Christian or at least Socratic perspective, describing that our inner life is shaped by our outer life (and vice versa).

Seligman, too, offers something besides both his useful and his useless learning. As Joe unleashes her existential burdens upon him, unafraid now to admit guilt and responsibility for all the hurt that she has inflicted, Seligman offers a sounding board for Joe's confessions; he does more than listen and bolster what she says with intellectual insights, he tries to soften her shame (for it is shame at the present, shame at her lifetime of shamelessness) with the sentimentality of the modern ethos which ultimately deems no one morally culpable. Whenever Joe explains how much evil she has done, how much others have suffered on her account, Seligman tries to counter with an unconvincing apology for her. In an early scene, for instance, after a passenger on the train (who bails the two girls out from paying for their train tickets) denies their initial seductions, Joe presses him further, learns that the man is saving his semen for this particular night, when the doctor says it is likeliest for his wife to be able to conceive. Joe presses him further, oblivious to the man's greater arc, and he is unable to resist as she gives him head, thereby stealing that precious energy which he was preserving for this very night. Seligman supplies the half-witted argument that the semen dies if it stays within for too long, and so the couple might very well have a thriving child of their own after all. This is typical of his persistent attempts to wean away her guilt, and it is typical of our modern irresponsibility, of our utter failure to assume accountability, regardless of what the other circumstances might involve.



Finale (major spoilers henceforth)



At this moment, my addiction is very clear to me....


The first chapter of Nymphomaniac's second volume is called The Western and the Eastern Church, an idea that opens up an endless number of possible interpretations, but which most importantly introduces the religious reality, which will be essential for our understanding of the film's foremost conceptions. Seligman explains to Joe that going East from Rome is like leaving a world of 'guilt and pain towards joy and light'. Joe inquires: 'But you said you didn't believe in God'. Seligman answers: 'Ah but the concept of religion is interesting, like the concept of sex. But you won't find me on my knees with regard to either'. This as much as anything else displays the fundamental divide between the two characters, a divide deeper even than their respective sexual proclivities. Seligman and Joe are opposites in the realm of innocence and experience, of abstract opinions and lived realities; Seligman knows what he knows from reading about something, Joe from living through something. Seligman cannot believe in something so real as God or act in something so real as sex, because his flaw is a cowardly indifference to the world, the very opposite sin of Joe's, which is well and truly articulated by now.

LvT does not make obscure his own conviction as to which is superior, to try and fail or to not try at all, and he publishes it in two dramatic ways. The first consists of Joe's first attempts to cure her addiction, which, according to the addicts anonymous club she is forced to attend, do not make her different from them; they are all the same insofar as they are all addicts, that they are all alike. She is told by the leader to rid herself of anything which reminds her of sex, which of course includes just about everything; we see her tape all of the door knobs, the tub handles, plaster the windows with newspapers, paint over the mirror, wearing heavy mittens. She turns to her book of leaves to distract herself from anything sexual, to remind of her only innocent memories, but she fails when she licks her fingers to turn the pages. When she returns to one of the meetings, prepared to tell of how she is a sex addict and how she has achieved abstinence for a few weeks, she suddenly sees herself as a child in the mirror, and is reminded of her real nature. She tears up her notes, and furiously erupts as her real self comes to the foreground: 'I am definitely not like you', she says to the leader, 'That empathy you claim is a lie. Because all you are is society's morality police, whose duty is to erase my obscenity from the surface of the earth so that the bourgeoisie won't feel sick. I am not like you. I am a nymphomaniac, and I love myself for being one.' Beyond this added validation of her shamelessness in the manner of the Prostitute, she identifies strongly with her nature at the expense of conforming to social standards; the false morality projected by an AA authority scratches merely the surface of the problem, when what is needed is a sincerely interior transformation. The AA leader is a believer in abstractions like Seligman, while Joe, the human subject, has to live on the front lines.

The second way that LvT shows this happens when Joe is doing her debt collecting work. There is this one man who will not pay, no matter how much he is threatened or how much of his property is destroyed. So Joe tries to infiltrate his sexual life, tries to detect some kind of vulnerability. She removes his pants and launches a series of particularly perverted sexual stories, seeing which might arouse him and therefore expose his weakness. It is only on the last effort, however, as Joe tells of a little boy who wants to go home with the man, that his member starts to ascend. Joe moves in for the kill, and finally forces him to concede, saying that he will pay if she simply stops talking about it. Then Joe astonishingly performs fellatio on the man, at which point Seligman interjects, utterly bemused: 'You did what?' (This is one of the rare occasions where he comes close to judging her.) 'I took pity on him', she responds. 'This is a man who succeeded in repressing his own desire.... He had lived a life full of denial, and had never hurt a soul.' Seligman refuses to comprehend this, while Joe, with her own experiences, is perfectly capable of empathising with a man who was able to do what she could not: control his sexual desire. She shows him genuine empathy, while the AA 'morality police' leader and the bookish Seligman cannot because they only know what they are taught in abstractions, removed from human existence.

As he says himself at one point, Seligman's name means 'happiness', something which is obviously not irrelevant; that there is also a behavioural psychologist by the same name who teaches a kind of therapeutic happiness is possibly also of importance. The irony is that, despite his saying otherwise, Seligman is not happy; he cannot be happy because he cannot broach the outside world. Having retreated inside his own personal space, lacking family and friends, he has not even really explored his inner life either. He is not happy, but he is not exactly unhappy either: he does not know happiness as either an affirmation or a negation because his fear of uncharted territory prevents him from learning about it. So he learns about life from the safety of a library. So he forms the opposite end of the dialectic with Joe, whose intense unhappiness is the result of demanding more from life, from demanding 'more from the sunset'.

Joe says that her path does not, as Seligman said of the one leaving Rome, grow in joy and light, but the opposite, toward the suffering of the Western Church, and so it does. In her position as a debt collector, Joe is compelled to take on a successor, 'P',  a young, lonely girl with a deformed ear who she must love as a daughter in order to maximize her protege's love for her. They end up sharing a homosexual relationship in a perverted mockery of a real mother-daughter connection, or of real friendship. To accelerate the plot, on one bit of business, another one of LvT's unbelievable coincidences materializes: the debtor whom they must collect from is none other than Jerôme. Taken by surprise, both at the fact that it was Jerôme and the bubbling forth of some feeling for him, she insists that P do her first job, and that she doesn't 'want anybody hurt'. Moving along, Joe discovers Jerôme and P have arranged their own sexual partnership, and she removes herself from the city, travelling through nature alone. It is winter now, both seasonally and existentially: Joe finds her soul-tree. It is crooked, narrow, and slanted with minimal limbs - and it is alone. Atop the mountain, her soul tree stands aloof from everything else, precisely as she has been her entire life. We recall when Joe tells of a childhood operation: 'It was as if I had to pass through an impenetrable gate all by myself. It was as if I was completely alone in the universe, as if my whole body was filled with loneliness and tears.' Now that her old lover and her pseudo-daughter were involved together, Joe feels more alone than ever, and she enters her winter, when the soul becomes visible - in all of its defects.



Returning to the city, Joe plans to kill Jerôme, and possibly P as well; having found her soul tree and come face to face with her inmost self, she decides that she has no option now but to follow through on her newest desire, which is the destruction of a human being. In failing to rack her gun, however, which Seligman supposes was indicative of her subconscious desire to not murder her former love, Jerôme beats Joe in the street, then humiliates her by making love to P in the exact same way as he took her virginity: thrusting three times in the front, five times from the rear (both numbers in the Fibonacci sequence, Seligman uselessly points out). P then completes the embarrassment by urinating on Joe, who lies there until Seligman finds her. Whether Seligman is right in that Joe never truly meant to kill Jerôme or that it was simply chance, in either event she is unable to achieve what she thought she desired; for once she has come up empty, and it means everything.

The problem with Weininger, for all of the genius shown here and elsewhere, is that his is not the full vision of the Christian Church, but something closer to the dualistic worldview of the Manichean; he cannot view matter as something inherently good as the orthodox Christian does, so in his equation of W with matter she is also equated with something inherently negative. Nikolai Berdyaev, though full of praise for Weininger, also corrects him: 'If Weininger were to have come to the Christian consciousness through modern philosophy, he would then have surmounted this dualism, and his spiritualism would become monistic, not denying the flesh, but spiritising rather the flesh'. The truth is that M and W are opposed as principles, but not as mortal enemies; W has a reality of her own, separate from that of M, even if she can never have the same subjective and intellectual strength and his level of individuation. Woman is still matter, but matter that has the potential for growth and redemption, matter that is good; she is not necessarily the 'gateway to hell', as Tertullian would have it, but often one's help to heaven; W is not only Medusa or Calypso, but Penelope and Beatrice as well. Weininger says: 'No men who really think deeply about women retain a high opinion of them' (Weininger, p.236). It is clear that LvT has thought a lot about woman, and while he certainly shares a a good deal of Weininger's pessimism about the sex, he also posits her as possessing a resolute independence, certainly different from that of man, but also having her own qualities that are not purely negative. Actually, so far as Nymphomaniac is concerned, Weininger's maxim is reversed: we are initially repulsed by the actions of Joe as we would be repulsed by those of the lowest, most deceitful and blasphemous whore, but as the story progresses, and as we learn more of her inner character, we finally come to sympathize or possibly empathize with her in a way which would never have thought possible. We have seen woman, and we rejoice with her as fellow tragic pilgrims in the human experiment.

Joe moves toward Rome from her once lofty illusions about the rebellion of lust against love; she realizes more and more her own shame and thereby sublimates more of the Prostitute into what we might call a third, 'inorganic' type, one which we mature to rather than are born with, a type we might as well call the 'Forgiven'. Where Seligman would have her move toward the Church of 'joy and light', and therefore celebrate who she is no matter what she is, Joe is more honest, and metaphorically crawls toward the Church of suffering and pain, the Church which emphasizes the crucifixion in its icons. By finding her soul-tree, by being utterly vanquished in the street, beaten and humiliated like the Christ, and by sharing her confessions to Seligman as she would to a priest, Joe experiences a kind of sacramental relief in which her burdens are lifted; all those symbolic associations with the Whore of Babylon and with the mother of Antichrist are long forgotten as Joe fights off her last demons. Seligman's final argument, a pathetic string of feministic cliches about how her struggles have been the result of male oppression, are shrugged off by Joe, who, though 'predisposed to knock holes in [his] arguments', is simply too tired (thus representing a superiority of knowledge, a peaceful transcending of Seligman's faulty dialectic). Before falling asleep, however, she says with the utmost clarity:
'At this moment, my addiction is very clear to me, and I have come to a decision: even though only one in a million, as my dubious therapist said, succeed in mentally, bodily, and in her heart ridding herself of her sexuality, this is now my goal.... It's the only way I can live [my life]. I will struggle against all odds, just like a deformed tree on a hill.'
This is the ultimate confession of the Prostitute turned into the Forgiven, or more simply the Sinner turned into the Redeemed. That she really means this is obvious, for, immediately after expressing her burning gratitude for not being a murderer, she kills Seligman for trying to steal what thousands had already tasted. She would rather be a murderer than surrender what is now her only reason to live. Seligman, for once in his life, strayed outside of his comfort zone, and was abruptly punished for it: he cannot have what he has not been allowed to have. While his story ends in the swift flash of a gunshot, Joe's story, in which her newfound sanctification and precious sense of self-worth have given her a reason to live, is just beginning. For the human life, even the woman's life, starts not with a corrupted nature and ends in it; we live in sin, but we are redeemed by grace. This is what makes Nymphomaniac a more hopeful film, and this is what makes it a more than satisfying conclusion to the 'Depression' trilogy. LvT leaves us not with something unbearably distressing; he leaves us with the surprising prospects of recovery and redemption; he leaves us with the possibility that even those who demand more from the sunset might actually receive it, even if it comes in surprising new forms.



Monday, February 9, 2015

Across the River (working title for my dumb stupid gay novel)

PROLOGUE




The hard, malevolent rain slammed into the river like so many stones freed from their mountainous moorings. Illuminated only by the distant light of a sun struggling beyond a carpet of clouds, the black water swelled beneath this late Summer tempest. Far from being discouraged by the storm, the river rejoiced in its newfound source, crying out with an inexhaustible energy after being oppressed for months by a demagogic sun. The shackles of the season were being loosed, and the bold currents sought to be the first to escape. No longer could the town's children free from school dive off of her cliffs into mild, temperate pools; no longer could picnicking families row their boats to the other side in search of Sunday idleness. The river embraced the approaching change, and smiled furiously as she rushed to nowhere in particular.

Michael Leitner, however, was not smiling, nor was he furious. What characterized his expression as he watched the river drive endlessly on was closer to a despairing grimace -a pained, empty, lost grimace that denoted slow, passive suffering rather than open agony or torment. It was the face of nothingness, a lively soul given over to a nervous disquiet and a waste of unfeeling. It was not a mask, but a direct image of what really was within him. It was moreover demarcated by that unmistakable mark of heartless derision, that cool perception of his surroundings with blank yet keenly observant eyes. For though he could not claim to receive power from an abundance of life, he could very well receive it from an absence of life - a greater, more malignant power, seemingly, for life is vulnerable where death is invincible.

This is not to say that Michael despised life, that he stood there with hate in his eyes and his lips creased by scorn; he was not predisposed to hatred, for he was not predisposed to feeling at all. Life had given him nothing, so he felt obliged to give nothing in return. The world before him was a blank space, a wilderness of meaning, a collision of colours and shapes and ideas, but it was still just a place, some strange place little identity and less order. If there were some architect on high, his design must be inspired by indifference, or created through malice; there could be no other reason for this reality if not a fundamental boredom or wicked sadism on the part of its maker. For why else manufacture a universe where the only constant is change, where sentience is its own torture, where violence is rewarded while peace is so terribly finite? The only good, it often occurred to Michael Leitner, is that life itself is finite, that we are mercifully relieved of our duty here in time - if we can bear the time.

The rain and the thick, ghostly fog rising from the water conspired to obscure the one shore from the other, but it was not a very wide river and the outline of a troop of trees could be vaguely made out on the other side. They towered imperiously over the landscape, great, stern evergreens looking sagely across the river. Between their trunks dwelled softer undergrowth, lowly leafy minions, all manner of subordinates to the forest; upon their strong, extended limbs several legions of underlings made their homes, raising their children and storing food for the future. To what end?

Michael's unkempt chestnut hair was now thoroughly blackened, sticking to his scalp; torrents of water streamed down his cheeks. He quietly reveled in this, inwardly welcoming the assault as he was smothered by the rain. This is where he came to be alone, to retreat from the perpetual barrage of questions, complaints, exhortations, and well-wishes of whoever it was that claimed to know him. He usually walked here in the middle of the night, stumbling along beneath the moonlight, but this storm served him just as well; nobody would be here in this weather; he was alone. He experienced a kind of dark euphoria, an ecstatic release from previous pains and responsibilities that weighed on him.

He had already been enrolled in post-secondary education for four years, but Michael had completed not even a half of his program in all that time - a program that is supposed to be completed within four years, or at least five. Between dropping classes, failing classes, and simply not going to classes, his student life suffered accordingly, and he barely managed to sustain a sufficient GPA to to remain in school. His few scholarships having dried up long ago, Michael's schooling was provided for by his affluent family, who fortunately knew little of the extent of his mediocre academic efforts. By this point, however, Michael no longer cared much about the success or lack thereof of his education; he was resolutely and irredeemably bored, and thought next to nothing of what happened to him next.

Michael's work experience looked equally bleak. Unable to persevere for more than a few months at any which job, his resume was littered with numerous employments, none of which had paid him much more than minimum wage, and none of which proved satisfying on any level other than procuring a bit of pocket money. They consisted either of retail positions, which he could not abide for their orientation around dealing with irate, fastidious, and generally unsavoury customers, or menial labour, which invariably dulled him to the point of walking out of a job in the middle of a shift. Michael often pondered entering a life of criminal activity; it seemed to offer at least a glimpse of something exciting, though he had no idea how to get into it given that what few friends he had were nowhere near those circles prone to acting outside the law. This was probably for the best, too, as Michael doubted he possessed the necessarily qualities for such a life. The same applied to applying to the military, whenever he considered doing so at any length.

There was a wooden rowboat docked on a small pier below where Michael stood. It was used to bear families to the other side of the river on clear Summer days. There had been several occasions, however, when it was taken by inebriated or otherwise impetuous teens and returned in a state of dramatic disrepair, if it was returned at all. Nevertheless, this neighborhood was under the stewardship of perhaps a dozen men who belonged to a fading genteel class, and they obstinately ensured by their own hands that there was always a boat available in the Spring and Summer months. They were working men, that was clear, and yet they exuded a sense of nobility that belied their blue-collar mannerisms and dress.

Michael admired that. Michael admired that because he envied them. He had grown up here, in this rural community; he had served as a farm hand, had made his best friends playing street hockey, had nursed a crush on the pastor's daughter that lasted almost throughout grade school. He knew everyone here, and everyone knew him, but when he looked at the men of his father's generation he felt that he did not know them at all. They possessed something that he did not, something that divided him from them. While Michael did not know exactly what that was, he knew that he suffered from its absence, and yearned for it to be fulfilled.

Nobody inspired Michael's admiration and envy more than his own father, Richard Leitner. While he was certainly one of the wealthier people in their town, nobody questioned that Richard had earned his position; he had been a plumber his whole life and now owned the most successful company in that field outside of the city. He had worked for his wealth; he was an honest man, a respected man who had no want for friends either at home or abroad. In a word, Richard epitomized the American ideal of the self-made man: strong, charitable, financially independent, and the owner of a hardy work ethic. He seemed to step right out of a family film made in the 50's, except that his qualities of self-assurance and communal fealty were not the products of a parochial cinematic idealization demanded by popular opinion; they were real.

There was one memory that was indelibly imprinted upon his consciousness. It was from when he was ten or eleven years old, and his father was picking him up from school On the way home, however, they passed a friend who was putting up a fence around his property in an effort to protect a new garden he was planting. Richard knew the man, of course, but they were not particularly close; it would infact be nearer to the truth to say that they were acquaintances rather than friends. This did not stop him from pulling over and insisting on helping to finish the job, despite Michael's open agitations to go home. Instead, Richard gave Michael the option of helping as well, or taking some money to go get a pop from down the road. Michael took the bill, and hated himself for it ever since.

So far as he could tell, then, this division between himself and those whom he most admired consisted in his more acute sense of self, or possibly his more avaricious sense of self. Whereas a man like Richard Leitner can find it in him to go out of his way to perform an act of service on some selfless whim, his son, who at heart wants nothing more than to follow suit, is at a loss to so much as embrace a fellow human being. Michael felt so immersed in his own psyche that he sometimes figured that there was nothing outside of it; his understanding of the world beyond was filtered through a twisted lens which distorted the image into something that no longer had autonomy of its own because its entire meaning consisted in how it related to himself alone.

Reality seemed to be one magnificent dream, alive with a splendour of symbols and images that transmitted messages to him, but which he could never relay in return, which he could never respond to. He wondered what it was like to step beyond himself, to extend a hand and help someone to his feet. A sharp wave of terror passed over Michael; he shivered beneath the warm Summer rain. He thought abstractly of the sun high above, of its failure to pierce through the canopy of clouds that hid him from its great heat. He thought of the sunless sky as one limitless expanse, a field at war with itself in its twisted overgrowth; he thought of the sun's death.

Michael blundered his way in the horrifying half-light down to the rowboat. The seats were soaked, naturally, but so was he; his clothes clung to him heavily, weighing him down. He worried at the knots, his grip almost futile against the slimy cords which adhered to one another in a dark, damp conspiracy to hold tight. Michael eventually managed to loosen them, cursing out loud all the while; his mood was steadily declining after his earlier euphoria in the deluge. His grimace grew deeper, his eyes seeming to sink further inside their sockets, burrowing away from the world beyond.

The boat was soon free of the knots, however, and Michael pushed off from the pier. At first he did not bother rowing; he simply sat there, absent-mindedly holding the roars aloft, allowing the river to take him wherever it would. Michael listened to the thunder roaring distantly, ferociously, as though threatening to devour the earth. He submitted idly to its power, closing his eyes as he visualized the sound as some pagan god's ravenous growling. He sat there listening, supposing that if he were too weak to pray, to talk to God, perhaps God would talk to him.

Michael finally pushed the oars into the water and started to row back upstream. Thinking of God always troubled him. The idea of an omnipotent, benevolent being seemed at once tremendously ridiculous and the most logical idea of all. All matter, all human and animal behaviour, all apparent reality pointed at both God's truth and his farce; surely a being that massive, that important would communicate more intelligibly and more directly the fact of his existence than this treasure hunt he's left our meagre humanity. But then, what else could reside at the depths of this beautiful, bountiful, broken cosmos than a divine fount? What else could sustain these sights, these sounds, these thoughts if not an almighty God? Should our image be of ourselves rather than of God, what else would we be if not isolated, wandering deserters floating vaguely upon some random rock?

The cold seared through Michael, who shivered mercilessly. Somehow the idea of God's existence frightened him more than the supposition that he was a complete counterfeit. For if God were infact a fact, that would only confirm Michael's utter separation from him; he would be singularly estranged from something which ought to be the thing to which he is nearest. Moreover, if God did not exist, at least Michael could find consolation that he was no further away from God than anyone else; he could find comfort in solidarity with his fellow tragic brothers, with a godless mankind that really has no fundamental right to be here. Michael considered the possibility of an absolute good to be of infinitely greater horror than of no good at all, for good is necessarily accompanied by evil, and to be evil frightened Michael more than anything else he could ever imagine.

The current was stronger than it was normally at this time of year, but Michael managed to row his way back with some effort. By the time he returned to the point where he was once again in line with the pier, however, he was as drenched as could be and exhausted besides; he debated with himself whether to approach the other side or admit defeat and go home. Furiously, Michael decided the latter, and reclined into a renewed despair of bitter self-contempt. Nothing scarred him more than failing to accomplish what he had set out to accomplish - he was concealed beneath more of these scars than he could count, hiding his humanity like the tattoos of a muscle-bound prison fiend. He pitied himself, which only bolstered his contempt.

This world will be engulfed by the sea, and I will be the first to drown.

Michael pulled up alongside the dock and hauled himself ashore. He started to tie the cords again, fidgeting angrily with them, but it was no use; his best knot would hold the boat there for no more than a couple hours. Michael kicked at his wooden vessel, allowing it to slip away down the river. He looked after it longingly, watching it fall away in the miserable mist as though it were his own soul abandoning him. Anguish, hate, hopelessness, envy and malice vied competitively with one another for domination: whichever won out, Michael was the loser. Where he had earlier been stranded by a total lack of feeling, presently Michael was overwhelmed by the entire arsenal of feeling that his beleaguered, tortured psyche had unleashed upon him.

Michael crawled his way up the slope, slipping wildly in the fresh mud. The rain continued to pour down; the thunder continued to shout. He wondered cynically where the lightning was: would it be too much to have any light at all, even for an instant? The evening sky only proceeded to darken, compelled by the fleeing sun, the dying sun. Michael gained solid ground above the river bank, and headed home. Feeling more pathetic and wretched than he had ever remembered, Michael made the following resolution to himself:

If by the end of this school year, by the end of April, I have not made something of myself, if I have only entrenched my despair rather than alleviating it, if I have not found a home in this world, if I have not determined who I am, and finally if I have not created a meaning to live by I will have found one to die by. If I fail I will kill myself. 




















Sunday, December 28, 2014

Freedom from Fate Pt. II: The Redeemed Hero

Where the Hellenic weltanschauung found its greatness and its vitality in the dynamic of man vs. gods, the finality of fate, and the triumph of tragedy, the Christian one finds its own in man's moksha, his overcoming of an ouroboric cosmos, and the reversal of death into eternal life; where the Christian dies to himself and the world in order to be re-integrated into redeemed man, the pagan dies only to be re-inserted into the world of becoming and the 'Spindle of Necessity'.


This difference partly derives from a fundamental disagreement over the nature of man, namely in regard to the doctrine of Original Sin. Because we have all inherited Adam's crime we are by default members of a fallen species, of a being less than what it was; but because of Christ's crucifixion we are also members of a redeemed species, which means we can be more than anything we ever were before: felix culpa, happy fault. For the pagan the tragedy was the fact of man's inevitable death, his incessant re-entry into a cosmos he cannot perfectly understand. Thus it was possible for Nietzsche, expressing the sad wisdom of the Greeks, to say to man: 'What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is - to die soon' (The Birth of Tragedy).

For the Christian, however, the tragedy already happened; Adam partook of the forbidden knowledge, allowed sin to corrupt him, and therefore entered the world of death. We are living in the reality of that tragedy every day, but, because of Christ, we do not die in it. The victory of the Messiah consists in his triumph over death, his descent into hell, his destruction of sin's permanence in our soul, and therefore his redemption of man. His life is defined no longer by a bitter, heroic, futile defiance of fate but by an obedience to God and the pursuit of joy; the end for man is no longer death but life.

The Holy Sinner is not one of Thomas Mann's greatest books. It lacks the philosophic existentialism of The Magic Mountain, the bold familial honesty of Buddenbrooks, and the mythic grandeur of Joseph and His Brothers; but is also lacks their ambition, and does not deserve to be critiqued on the same metric as those books are. There is certainly a more amiable, lighthearted impression with this one, something that is generated by the proxy narrator, a Benedictine monk by the name of Clemens whose function in the story is to convey a sense of medieval historicity, which Mann good-naturedly satirizes. Poor pious Clemens, for example, is clearly uneasy when describing sexual events, which through Mann's playful prose come across as endearing rather than contemptuous, as it might otherwise if it were another, more draconian monastic brother.

There is little that is objectively historical about The Holy Sinner, of course, with its narrative ostensibly belonging to the Dark Ages but is nevertheless infused with chivalric elements of the medieval era (the original story belongs to the German poet Hartmann von Aue). This is consciously, ironically done, and is of no significance in relation to the broader point, which is to propose a suprahistorical myth that expresses a relevant truth to the contemporary reader. Mann's objective is to present modern questions through a medieval perspective, showing a human need for grace and forgiveness; this is so particularly from a German point of view in the aftermath of World War II, when the entire nation felt burdened from the calamity of the war, from bearing responsibility for it. Without bothering with some of Mann's anti-clerical points, which are typical of the modern novelist, we will extract from this text what is germane to our own subjects of fate and original sin and show that, while Mann is foolhardy in attacking the Christian institution, he is adept in articulating the Christian spirit.

The Holy Sinner bears in certain obvious respects a resemblance to The Oedipus Cycle. The hero, like Oedipus, is born of incest and is prophetically destined to perform the same perversity which created him. Like Jocasta, Mann's mother character Sibylla fails to subdue her love and compassion in sending her cursed son into exile rather than killing him, attaching a tablet detailing the wretched circumstances of how he had come to be to the raft that carried him to sea. So he is raised in the home of a fisherman and under the tutelage of a monastery, the Abbott of which recognizes in him a trace of latent greatness or some ordained mission. When Gregorious (the name given to the castaway by the monk who found him) leaves the monastery, however, it is not as a monastic himself as the Abbott had hoped, but as a young adventurer hoping to be knighted. He learns who he really is when the Abbott lets him read the tablet, but instead of seeking refuge in the cloister as he had hoped, Gregorious seeks all the more to venture into the world:

'I must seek [my parents] through all the world, until I find them and tell them that I will forgive them. Then will God forgive them, probably He is only waiting for that. But I, according to all that I know of divinity, I who am only a poor monster will through pardon win humanity.'

The result of this departure, however, turns out to be devastatingly different. Using more trickery than a warrior's prowess, Gregorious is able to defeat a Duke who is besieging the city of Bruges in single combat, and relieves the kingdom thereby. He falls in love with the ruling Queen and marries her - the Queen who is none other than his own mother. Now, a key difference between Sophocles' story and Mann's rendition becomes plain. While Oedipus had no idea that the woman he had wived was also the woman who birthed him, Gregorious is keenly aware of that dual relationship as he daily reads his tablet, miserably weeping each time, confessing his sins privately but unable to cease doing them.

As a microcosm of humanity, an archetypal representation of fallen man, Mann's hero becomes something altogether more depraved and far less heroic than that of Sophocles; Gregorious takes a
long leap away from the Aristotelian ideal by admitting a serious flaw. This shows us how man is not merely a passive participant in original sin, a stigma or misfortune indelibly stamped on him through no fault of his own, but an actor in his own right; the fault comes by his own volition. This reinforces our comprehension of how man is more responsible in Christian cosmology; he is an active player, the principle determinant in what happens to him rather than exterior entities such as fortune or fate. Yes, man unwittingly bears original sin as he is born, but it is through his own actions that he is really burdened; the cross he bears is the accumulation of his failure rather than his inheritance.

In time, after the birth of two daughters, Sibylla comes to learn of her husband's real identity, and recognizes him as the 'dragon' in the dream she had after giving birth to Gregorious: the dragon which tore out of her womb only to return later and cause even greater pain. When her misery becomes too much for Gregorious to bear, the truth of it all comes out, and Gregorious finally confronts himself as 'a man sinful not only as all the world is but whose flesh and bones consist entirely in sin', and embarks to do penance worthy of his state. Through the assistance of a cynical fisherman who is distrusting of his humility, Gregorious imprisons himself on an island, where he lives for seventeen years, sustained only by a strange, mythical nourishment that comes out of the rock. He has thrown aside his own way in the world, of being monk or knight, and decided that his will shall be one with that of God - but is that not itself an act of will, to freely align human will with that of the Divine? God preserves Gregorious through a miraculous sustenance much like he preserved the Hebrews after they escaped Egypt with the manna that fell from Heaven.

Gregorious is eventually discovered by two Roman clergymen who have been shown prophetic visions of the future Pope, the saviour of Rome, but he has wasted away to the size of a 'hedgehog', and slipped off of the shackles which bound him. His humanity has fallen away, but with it has his sin as well, both that which was with him at birth and that which he confessed to God. Upon eating of the bread and wine, however, his first real meal in seventeen years, Gregorious partakes in the Eucharist, and therefore resumes the full form of humanity, his strength and size restored to health. Upon leaving Sibylla at the start of his penitence, Gregorious says: 'Not for naught have I studied Divinitatem in the cloister of God's Passion. I learned that He takes true contrition as atonement for all sins'.

To his mother he also advises: 'Then descend from your seat and practise humility.... [Have] an asylum built built from your jointure, on the high road, for the homeless, the old, the sickly, the halt and crippled. There shall you preside, in the grey robe, lave the sick, wash their wounds, bathe and cover them, and give to wandering beggars, washing their feet. I have naught against it if you take in beggars'. So Gregorious practises penance, performing the fullest form of faith that accords entirely with the will of God, allowing his life to be entirely in God's hands, whereas Sibylla practises humility, expressing her own penance through the performance of good works and seeking to salve her soul thereby.

That Gregorious becomes Pope, and a saintly Pope at that (we are ignoring some of Mann's liberties in poking fun at dogmatic Catholicism for our own purposes), expresses the converse of our agency in the world, the power and the freedom of our will: by choosing to ignore reality, to refuse facing the consequences of our actions, we are only pushing ourselves deeper into delusion and therefore strengthening sin. Doing something we know is wrong only worsens our situation, even if it seems to be the easier option. By acknowledging the debts that we owe, however, we approach the part that we play, our role in reality, and can therefore begin to influence it in a more constructive way. Genuine progress in the future can only occur by our understanding of, and atoning for, the past. Gregorious was dealt a poor hand, to be sure, but he made it worse by following through on the sin of incest out of a misplaced love; in fully recognizing that, and making up for it in his extreme contrition, he was introduced to a supreme joy and the life of a holy man, the life wholly ordered by God.

Again, we can juxtapose this with Sophocles. The character of Oedipus was one which was adversely affected by fate, by fortune, by things mostly beyond his control; he was born of incest, he killed his father whom he did not recognize, he married his mother whom he did not recognize. The gods, the world acted on him, and the only thing which he could do in response was to kill himself, to quit playing altogether. The weight of his tragedy was simply too much to bear so long as he continued to draw breath, so he shrugged it off via suicide, in accordance with what the gods wanted. The arguments of his companions were only words, small comforts through which he could not truly escape; there could only be one thing to do in his position, the only logical thing to do in pre-Christian civilization, and that was to die.

The character of Gregorious, on the other hand, was one which was equally affected by the cruelty of chance or the hardness of fate, but also by the grievous errors of his own choices; yes, he was born of incest, yes he incredibly met and fell in love with his mother, but what made his state truly wretched was that he pursued and wedded her anyway, despite the fact that Gregorious 'very well knew that it was his mother whom he loved'. Fate had acted on him, and he responded according to the fallen nature of man, and doomed himself - or would do, if it were pagan Greece and not Christian Europe. For unlike the typical protagonist of noble, sad, tragic Hellas, Gregorious had alternatives to suicide, simply because the weight that had so oppressed Oedipus was already carried by Christ, who shrugged it off on the Cross.

By imitating Christ, the ultimate 'tragic hero', Gregorious could not only relieve himself of the sin through suffering, he could even convert it into something else; the Abbott, for example, muses wisely: 'Very well can love come out of evil, and out of disorder something ordered for the best'. The sinner is sublimated into saint by his active involvement in reality, by becoming like the God-man who forever altered the way in which we interact with reality, by submitting to the Divine will in a way the Greeks never could. The holy sinner is made so not by submitting to the laws of men, but to the laws of God, which command that we die to this world that we might live again in his world.

In one of the most profound moments of all Classical art, sweet, beautiful, virtuous, blameless
Antigone died for the sins of her family. The curse of her grandfather ended with her, because she chose to obey the divine will rather than that of men, who executed her: 'Your edict, King, was strong. But all your strength is weakness itself against the immortal unrecorded laws of God'. Only the most prejudiced of readers could not perceive this as a presentiment of Christ's story. The only real difference, the one that makes the whole thing so crucial, is that Christ did not just die for his family, but for God's family, that is, all the children of Man. Just as Antigone died for the sins of Laius, Christ died for the sins of Adam. The wisdom of the Greeks interlaced with the traditions of the Judaens to host God's Incarnation, the apotheosis and salvation of man.

The Gospels, upon their exegesis by the developing Christian tradition, also solved the problem of fate and chance as outlined in Part I. Where the pagan was increasingly frustrated by life's apparent randomness, or anguished by the seemingly malevolent nature of fate which too frequently rewarded bad men while punishing good men, the Christian reconciled the problem by establishing a doctrine of providence. The fact of the matter is that we do not, we cannot understand God's will, at least not at once; sometimes it becomes evident with time, sometimes it is never evident, but we know that there is indeed a reason for everything. This world is not perfectly ordered; it leaves room for pain, blood, rape, disease, war, natural disasters. Why should not the bad man delight in his chances in this world, even as the good one suffers? His affairs are those of this world, while the Christian's lie in another, which is perfectly ordered.

The Christian's suffering, so long as he can endure it, makes him stronger, and, in opening himself to God, gives him real hope: 'we glory also in tribulations, knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience trial; and trial hope; And hope confoundeth not: because the charity of God is poured forth in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost, who is given to us' (Romans 3:3-5). The Christian's suffering not only leads to strength in this world, but gives him also the promise of reward in the next: 'For I reckon that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, that shall be revealed in us' (Romans 8:18). Like Job, Aeneas, and Oedipus, the Christian subscribes to the will of God, and accepts his sufferings as temporal, as something to be endured as a conduit to a greater glory. Fate therefore seems to be less of a malicious ploy meant to plague man on the part of the gods, but more of a tribulation that man must struggle through in order for him to grow, to show himself worthy of being man.

The Roman philosopher Boethius formulated something of a template for the Christian doctrine of providence even while never explicitly making use of the Christian religion; The Consolation of Philosophy became a cornerstone of Christian theology in the Middle Ages despite its occasional pagan tendencies. He says, for example:

'In the high citadel of its oneness, the mind of God has set up a plan for the multitude of events. When this plan is thought of as in the purity of God's understanding, it is called Providence, and when it is thought of with reference to all things,whose motion and order it controls, it is called by the same name the ancients gave it, Fate.... Providence is the divine reason itself. It is set at the head of all things and disposes all things. Fate, on the other hand, is the planned order inherent in things subject to change through the medium of which Providence binds everything in its own allotted place. Providence includes all things at the same time, however diverse or infinite, while Fate controls the motion of different individual things in different places and in different times. So this unfolding of the plan in time when brought together as a unified whole in the foresight of God's mind is Providence; and the same unified whole when dissolved and unfolded in the course of time is Fate' (The Consolation of Philosophy, 4:6).

Boethius goes on to explain how God is the divine architect, the mind which creates the craft, and how the blueprint is providence; fate, on the other hand, is the instrument, the means by which the plan is carried out in time and space. So it is as we said: we cannot know providence, the divine reason, except through fate, which only conveys the part of truth we can know through experience. There is a vast divide between the being of God and the beings which comprise our cosmos. We are on two different scales, therefore we can only know God in an 'analogical' sense, where he can be compared to perfect goodness and perfect truth but is nevertheless impossible to comprehend due to our incapability, limited beings as we are, to comprehend real perfection. This explains the necessity of fate, since God can hardly interact with us on his level; he needs to act within the temporal realm, and to do this he needs to use limited measures, hence fate, the machinations of time and space to serve greater ends. If he were to really enter our world, aside from isolated miracles and specific acts of providence, it would cease to be defined by space and time because it would be incorporated into the eternal. That will happen at the end of time, but only after man has played himself out.

To live inside fate and only catching glimpses of the divine providence behind it is rather like being in the middle of a novel: the hero is increasingly trialed and troubled by various events, and you can sometimes guess at the way the story is going to go, but you can very rarely be sure of it. If the novel is any good at all, however, there are reasons behind the struggles the hero goes through, even if neither he nor the reader know them yet. Everything happens for a reason, whether it be an incidental or an essential one. To fixate upon the misery of something happening means a failure to recognize the greater picture, to neglect the concourse of the story where events and thoughts and hopes meet to form the whole; it means a failure to 'see the forest for the trees', as it were. This is exactly what Mann's monastic narrator says as he tells the deeply providential story of Gregorious: 'But human reckoning does not go far, except in the narrator's case, who knows the whole story up to its wondrous ending and as it were shares in the divine providence - a unique privilege and one actually not proper to the human being.' Only God knows the full content of any man's life because only he can see his beginning and end as one wholly congruous entity; because only God can read his story from front to back instantaneously.

This relates also to the problem of free will, obviously, for if God knows everything that has happened right up to the end, how can we possibly dictate anything on our own? We return to Boethius for the answer:

'Since, therefore, all judgement comprehends those things that are subject to it according to its own nature, and since the state of God is ever that of an eternal presence, His knowledge, too, transcends all temporal change and abides in the immediacy of His presence. It embraces all the infinite recesses of past and future and views them in the immediacy of its knowing as though they are happening in the present. If you wish to consider, then, then the foreknowledge or prevision by which He discovers all things, it will be more correct to think of it not as a kind of foreknowledge of the future, but as the knowledge of a never ending presence. So that it is better called providence or "looking forth" than prevision or "seeing beforehand". For it is far removed from matters below and looks forth at all things as though from a lofty peak above them. Why, then, do you insist that all that is scanned by the sight of God becomes necessary? Men see things but this certainly doesn't make them necessary. And your seeing them doesn't impose any necessity on the things you see present.... And if human and divine present may be compared, just as you see certain things in this your present time so God sees all things in His eternal present. So that this divine foreknowledge does not change the nature and property of things; it simply sees things present to it exactly as they will happen at some time as future events' (The Consolation of Philosophy, 5:6).

The nature of things in the temporal realm precludes them from understanding how things operate in the eternal realm, just as the nature of beasts preclude them from understanding how humans operate. The present for a being in time is categorically different from the present of a being in eternity, who sees things as they happen in time all at once. Thus the agency of the human will is kept free, for man is still a cause unto himself, able to decide upon one option and not another, for God in his omniscience sees the action which man chooses; he saw it all along, but from the lens of eternity, which means that he only saw it because man chose it 'first' (obviously the notion of 'happening first' does not exist in eternity, the nunc stans, the eternal present). This is mysterious to us, but only because time can never comprehend the eternal; he can dream of it, see glimpses of it, rationalize about it, but it will never be wholly understood so long as his present belongs in time and therefore below eternity, for the lower can never understand the higher. So God established this world of causal determinism, of things which all happen for precise, defined reasons, but he places us in it as the sole free actors to play in it. We are dreadfully influenced by a great many things, but there is always the opportunity for our choice, there is always our own sanctified volition, without which the whole endeavour would be fruitless, for both ourselves and for God, who wants not automatons predestined to hell or heaven, but autonomous beings capable of choosing either-or. We are indeed characters in a story set by someone else, but we are characters created semi-independently of the writer; we choose what to do in this drama, but real freedom consists in doing what the writer advises, for only he knows the designs of providence.

This is what Aeneas does upon leaving Carthage, saying to his beloved Dido as he leaves her: 'I set sail for Italy - all against my will'. His duty to the high god Jove is more important than even his love for the Queen of Carthage, and he ends up fathering a son not to her, but to Italy, a son that would conquer the known world. Real freedom consists in aligning our will with God's will. Oedipus was inextricably tied to a fate which he could not possibly avoid, not for all his trying and willing. After denying his culpability in what had happened early on in Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus finally admits who he is and his guilt upon realizing that the grove he has wandered into, that his daughter Antigone has led him into, is that sacred grove which the oracle had foretold would be the place of his death. His death is now a divine blessing to any city which hosts his corpse, but he dies in that grove instead; that it is not a painful, miserable death, but something easy, graceful, even miraculous by another character's account, is indicative that his life is redeemed. God granted him gentle passage and a boon to posterity because he had succumbed to his will, that he had proclaimed his guilt and then died in the place chosen by fate.

Poor Gregorious was fated to be born of incestuous parents, and then fated to meet and wed his mother. He did not try to avoid his fate, like Oedipus did, but plunged into the world to try to absolve his fate, to forgive the sin of his family, a noble, godly aim. He was hardly strong enough, however, and upon meeting his mother he fell hopelessly in love with her; his will was separated from that of God's, and he suffered for it. His penance on the island, however, represented a total submission to God, who then rewarded him not only with the mysterious sustenance that preserved his lowly life, but raised him up into the highest position of ecclesial power. Again, we can only see how fate works out in retrospect, upon seeing something as a whole; only by seeing life from above can we see it providentially, how fate works to perform the designs of God. It may be wondered if Christ himself knew the full import of his work as he wept to his Father in Gethsemane, but he said anyway: 'My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice fall from me. Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt' (Matthew 26:39). Providence was accomplished by Christ's submission to God's will.

In Part I we described how the ancient world was conflicted about the role of fate and man's relationship with the gods; they were capricious, claimed the pagans, rewarding bad men while punishing the good. Sophocles, Aeschylus, Plato, Virgil, Cicero, Epictetus all had greater or lesser inklings of the resolution, but it was only finally formulated in the Gospels, that tremendous statement on man and how he became one with God. The answer consists not in following fate blindly, losing one's will in a slavish servility to a capriciously organized cosmos, but in confessing one's frailty, his guilt, his crimes, his dependence on someone besides himself; the escape from our travails does not reside in our world or our will but in God's. Man is fallen, and is therefore in need of saving; that accounts for the 'randomness' of this life, for the fact that bad things do happen to good men. The pagans looked for a sinless man to whom bad things happened for the essence of tragedy - they looked for it in Oedipus and Antigone, but it was only found in Christ.


This was the sudden change in direction, in perspective: man was no longer someone who feared the gods, who feared and could not explain fate; man was someone who loved God, who submitted to him in the hope of redemption, who could explain fate as the simple fact that this world is not wholly comprehensible except through the eyes of providence, the eyes of God, the eyes of someone who has read the whole story. Oedipus had to literally die because the pagan had no other way to really redeem someone; Gregorious had only to die to this world, because the Christian understands that the soul is already redeemed by Christ's action, and we need only act on it. Christ died literally so we could all die spiritually; we are each of us a tragic hero, with all of our own sins, our own 'incests', and to find the peace of Oedipus in the sacred grove or the wisdom of Gregorious on the chair of St. Peter we need only do as they did, to submit our will to the will of God. To surrender one's will to the highest will is the truest freedom of all, for in so doing we no longer serve the slave of our self but the master of all - and thereby become masters ourselves: 'God became man that we might become a god' (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation).

The freedom from fate means to understand that nothing that ever happens is a meaningless event or a random dead-end that signifies a disorderly cosmos, but a piece of a puzzle that has not been figured out yet, a part of the story that has not been fully told yet; the freedom from fate means to surrender our understanding to God's understanding, meekly knowing that our reckoning cannot compare with the one who made not only ourselves, but everyone and everything around us in this beautifully, blissfully created universe. The freedom from fate ultimately means the freedom from this world, for with Christ we transcend death and the ouroboric cycle of rebirth; with Christ we live as eternal beings no longer subject to the mysteries of fate but to the shining truths of providence.

'For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.' (Galatians 5:1)