COSMOS RELOADED: Carl Sagan’s cosmictrip is reborn with Neil deGrasse Tyson… [FULL 1st EPISODE AT THE END OF POST]

Cosmos 2

COSMOS RELOADED

Eduardo Carli de Moraes

“L’infinie variété des formes sous lesquelles la matière nous apparaît, elle ne les emprunte pas à un autre être, elle ne les reçoit pas du dehors, mais elle les tire d’elle-même, elle les fait sortir de son propre sein. La matière est en realité toute la nature et la mère des vivants.” — GIORDANO BRUNO (1548-1600), quoted in Histoire du Materialisme, by F.A. Lange, pg. 213.

Back on the air, all dressed-up with fancy hi-tech special effects, and with Neil deGrasse Tyson as the spaceship’s pilot, the Cosmos TV-trip has descended once more among us.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s, Carl Sagan’s original series – Cosmos: A Personal Voyage – offered quite a mind-boggling journey through the universe in 13 episodes that did an excellent job in taking science to the masses and instigating mystical awe about such a grandiose spectacle as Nature-As-A-Whole. It remains to be seen if the new Cosmos will live up to Sagan’s, but the first episode of the brand-new Fox-produced Space-Time Odyssey has made in myself a good impression. It’s quite a ride.

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Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), Italian philosopher and astronomer, burned at the stake by the Holy Inquisition in 1600, in his recent depiction in Cosmos by animator Seth McFarlane

The least that can be said is that Tyson doesn’t shy away from confrontation with worldviews that are hostile to the scientific endeavour. To depict Giordano Bruno’s murder by the hands of the Holy Inquisition is certainly quite a controversial point of departure. But it proves that Cosmos starts this new phase with no fear of revealing those episodes in the history of Science in which religious zealots serves as obstacles in the way of those who quest for the truth. Bruno engulfed by the pious flames tells us a quite realistic picture of what Science went through in very Un-enlightned times, where religious leaders – and the masses manipulated by them – would rather reduce a scientist to silence by burning them alive at the stake, for public edification, than let truth out of its cave and into the open air…

To denounce the horrors commited by the clergy in an epoch where their authorities were backed-up by a teocratic State is still a relevant action in our own times, methinks – and let’s hope Cosmos can spread a wave of benign scepticism in the United States, where the hysteria against the right to interrupt pregnancy or the research with stem cells is surround by fundamentalism, dogmatism, fanaticism. Its quite shocking that a country that considers itself developed and advanced there are so many millions of people that still cling to the idea that the Bible’s Genesis is literally true and thus the world is only 6.000 years old and mankind was born-out ready-made from the hands of Jehovah with no need for a single minute of protoplasmical evolution…

The new Cosmos is apt to thrown some more wood into the flame of a discussion that stills opposes bitterly antagonistic world-views: Creationism and Evolutionism will once again clash. And there’s little doubt in my mind about which side of the fence Cosmos will barricade itself in, together with its armies of empirical facts and astronomical observations (exposed with cinematic techniques that’ll take our breaths away…).

The curious thing to witness, as a sociological phenomenon, is how in the 21st century there are still legions of humans who refuse to open their minds to an explanation of the world that doesn’t rely on talking serpents, forbidden fruits, and wrathfuls god. To suggest that Christian cosmology has been proved false by centuries of scientific discoveries, made by generations of colaborating thinkers, is still felt by many as an offense. Some believers will surely refuse to see Cosmos, or will see it and then bully it, or will cry out for censorship against such an heretic TV-show…

It’s no use: the Cosmos powertrip will roll on, and let’s hope it has the courage to inform a wider audience about how Science works, and the discoveries it has made, without sacrificing truth in the altar of superstition or prejudice. Carl Sagan himself had quite a powerful voice in favour of secularization of thought and freedom of expression, and Tyson, it seems to be, truly gets the mood and the attitude that made Sagan’s ouevre so compelling. Science is not easy – it often gets attacked by those who believe they are already in possession of absolute and divine truth, and thus feel they have the right to send the infidels and heretics straight to hell. Baptised with fire right here and right now for daring to explain the world in such a way that contradicts what priests and popes preach.

After millenia believing the Earth was the center of the Universe, and the Sun and all other stars flew around us, this narcisistic delusion crumbled apart, especially after Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo and Kepler, among others. I’ll not venture here to remember this saga – you might consult Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers for an excellent survey on mankind’s changing cosmologies throughout history. The thing is: Cosmos has got its audience reflecting once again upon what Sigmund Freud described as the first “wound” to our narcisism (that was to be followed by other blows by Darwin and by Psychoanalysis). Since Science has shown the Earth as a speck of dust in the infinite ocean of matter, and the star we call Sun was revealed to be just one inflamed star among billions of others stars (with trillions of orbiting worlds), biblical delusions of grandeur tend to get démodé.

Agora Movie French Poster

What’s intriguing and exciting about Science is its crooked ways, its winding path – it doesn’t follow a straight line, and it doesn’t necessarily evolve. The Middle Ages prevailing cosmology – in tune with theocracy and a powerful clergy – was a thousand-year denial of our true position in the cosmos. When we look back to the past, we discover that since ancient times there were astronomers and physicists who already suspected that theocratic-geocentrism was a delusion of egotistical creatures who were blinded by their self-interested perspectives.

But the long-term survival of Ptolomaic cosmology shows us how stubborn an illusion can be – especially when it satisfies the inner Narcissus we all carry around with us within our breasts. Sometimes a delusional cosmology sticks with mankind for centuries, transmited for generations, until finally truth breaks through and a leap of consciousness is achieved. By crooked ways, mankind leaps forward into a more authentic awareness of cosmic reality, shedding its religious skin for another cosmology that does more justice to the Universe’s complexity.

In Alejandro Amenábar’s excellent epic Agora, for example, we get acquainted with Hypathia (embodied by Rachel Weisz in one of her greatest performances as actress). The film portrays her life (estimated between 350 and 415 AD) as a philosophy teacher and astronomical researcher in Alexandria at times where religious war was raging. Christians against Pagans, and later Jews against Christian, killed each other savagely and burnt each other’s cultures in bloody rivalry, while Hypatia devoted her mind to deciphering the mystery of stary skies and planetary motions.

Inspired by the ideas of the Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos (310 – 230 B.C.), this Egyptian woman end-up concluding, a thousand years before Copernicus, that the Sun was at the center of our planetary system and the Earth was but one planet locked in an elliptical orbit around it. But Hypatia lived in troubled times and soon her work in Alexandria would be deranged by the outbreak of war all around her. Centuries of philosophical, astronomical and scientifical endeavours were reduced to ashes and dust by the flames that the Christians set to Alexandria’s Lybrary, where fragile treasures of the ancient world were kept alive.

Hopefully, the Cosmos come-back will be a mind-opening, consciousness-expanding, awe-inspiring trip. The time has come for us to do justice to figures of our past – such as Hypathia or Giordano Bruno, among many others – who ended-up persecuted or murdered for their discoveries and their teachings.  We no longer live in times where witch-hunts and genocide of infidels are day-to-day occurences, and let’s hope that Cosmos new encarnation can help us out on our journey to a world with less dogmas and zealotry, and much more awe and dialogue.

Every single atom in our bodies was cooked in the burning belly of a star: we’re all made of star stuff, drifting in orbit around one of billions of suns, a planet bursting with life and newness and locked in a gravitational embrace while we journey through space-and-time at frantic speeds. Amidst this spectacle that defies expression in words, consciousness arises and emerges as a feature of life in this spec of dust, and the whys and hows of consciousness and its way through the evolution of lide are still our task to understand. For Sagan, we are the cosmos finally awaking to itself, witnessing itself, mirroring in on itself – conscious matter awakened to the cosmic soup that whirlwinds its way towards eternity with no beggining nor end.

Well, I confess that I can’t find anything in the Bible as awesome as that.


cosmos_a_spacetime_odyssey-1920x1200 (1)DOWNLOAD FIRST EPISODE

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Neil deGrasse Tyson interviewed by Bill Moyers

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GIORDANO BRUNO (1973) – FULL MOVIE – Subtitled

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Other articles: WIRED / SALON.

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Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (13 episodes) – DOWNLOAD (8 GB / TORRENT)

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Alan Watts (1915-1973): essay on Mystical Experience, Psychedelics & the Psychology of Religion… full lenght article!

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Psychedelics and Religious Experience

by Alan Watts

The experiences resulting from the use of psychedelic drugs are often described in religious terms. They are therefore of interest to those like myself who, in the tradition of William James, are concerned with the psychology of religion. For more than thirty years I have been studying the causes, the consequences, and the conditions of those peculiar states of consciousness in which the individual discovers himself to be one continuous process with God, with the Universe, with the Ground of Being, or whatever name he may use by cultural conditioning or personal preference for the ultimate and eternal reality. We have no satisfactory and definitive name for experiences of this kind. The terms “religious experience,” “mystical experience,” and “cosmic consciousness” are all too vague and comprehensive to denote that specific mode of consciousness which, to those who have known it, is as real and overwhelming as falling in love. This article describes such states of consciousness induced by psychedelic drugs, although they are virtually indistinguishable from genuine mystical experience. The article then discusses objections to the use of psychedelic drugs that arise mainly from the opposition between mystical values and the traditional religious and secular values of Western society.

The Psychedelic Experience

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe idea of mystical experiences resulting from drug use is not readily accepted in Western societies. Western culture has, historically, a particular fascination with the value and virtue of man as an individual, self-determining, responsible ego, controlling himself and his world by the power of conscious effort and will. Nothing, then, could be more repugnant to this cultural tradition than the notion of spiritual or psychological growth through the use of drugs. A “drugged” person is by definition dimmed in consciousness, fogged in judgment, and deprived of will. But not all psychotropic (consciousness-changing) chemicals are narcotic and soporific, as are alcohol, opiates, and barbiturates. The effects of what are now called psychedelic (mind-manifesting) chemicals differ from those of alcohol as laughter differs from rage, or delight from depression. There is really no analogy between being “high” on LSD and “drunk” on bourbon. True, no one in either state should drive a car, but neither should one drive while reading a book, playing a violin, or making love. Certain creative activities and states of mind demand a concentration and devotion that are simply incompatible with piloting a death-dealing engine along a highway.

I myself have experimented with five of the principal psychedelics: LSD-25, mescaline, psilocybin, dimethyl-tryptamine (DMT), and cannabis. I have done so, as William James tried nitrous oxide, to see if they could help me in identifying what might be called the “essential” or “active” ingredients of the mystical experience. For almost all the classical literature on mysticism is vague, not only in describing the experience, but also in showing rational connections between the experience itself and the various traditional methods recommended to induce it: fasting, concentration, breathing exercises, prayers, incantations, and dances. A traditional master of Zen or Yoga, when asked why such-and-such practices lead or predispose one to the mystical experience, always responds, “This is the way my teacher gave it to me. This is the way I found out. If you’re seriously interested, try it for yourself.” This answer hardly satisfies an impertinent, scientifically minded, and intellectually curious Westerner. It reminds him of archaic medical prescriptions compounding five salamanders, powdered gallows rope, three boiled bats, a scruple of phosphorus, three pinches of henbane, and a dollop of dragon dung dropped when the moon was in Pisces. Maybe it worked, but what was the essential ingredient?

It struck me, therefore, that if any of the psychedelic chemicals would in fact predispose my consciousness to the mystical experience, I could use them as instruments for studying and describing that experience as one uses a microscope for bacteriology, even though the microscope is an “artificial” and “unnatural” contrivance which might be said to “distort” the vision of the naked eye. However, when I was first invited to test the mystical qualities of LSD-25 by Dr. Keith Ditman of the Neuropsychiatric Clinic at UCLA Medical School, I was unwilling to believe that any mere chemical could induce a genuine mystical experience. At most, it might bring about a state of spiritual insight analogous to swimming with water wings. Indeed, my first experiment with LSD-25 was not mystical. It was an intensely interesting aesthetic and intellectual experience that challenged my powers of analysis and careful description to the utmost.

Some months later, in 1959, I tried LSD-25 again with Drs. Sterling Bunnell and Michael Agron, who were then associated with the Langley-Porter Clinic, in San Francisco. In the course of two experiments I was amazed and somewhat embarrassed to find myself going through states of consciousness that corresponded precisely with every description of major mystical experiences that I had ever read.2 Furthermore, they exceeded both in depth and in a peculiar quality of unexpectedness the three “natural and spontaneous” experiences of this kind that had happened to me in previous years.

Through subsequent experimentation with LSD-25 and the other chemicals named above (with the exception of DMT, which I find amusing but relatively uninteresting), I found I could move with ease into the state of “cosmic consciousness,” and in due course became less and less dependent on the chemicals themselves for “tuning in” to this particular wave length of experience. Of the five psychedelics tried, I found that LSD-25 and cannabis suited my purposes best. Of these two, the latter—cannabis—which I had to use abroad in countries where it is not outlawed, proved to be the better. It does not induce bizarre alterations of sensory perception, and medical studies indicate that it may not, save in great excess, have the dangerous side effects of LSD.

For the purposes of this study, in describing my experiences with psychedelic drugs I avoid the occasional and incidental bizarre alterations of sense perception that psychedelic chemicals may induce. I am concerned, rather, with the fundamental alterations of the normal, socially induced consciousness of one’s own existence and relation to the external world. I am trying to delineate the basic principles of psychedelic awareness. But I must add that I can speak only for myself. The quality of these experiences depends considerably upon one’s prior orientation and attitude to life, although the now voluminous descriptive literature of these experiences accords quite remarkably with my own.

Almost invariably, my experiments with psychedelics have had four dominant characteristics. I shall try to explain them-in the expectation that the reader will say, at least of the second and third, “Why, that’s obvious! No one needs a drug to see that.” Quite so, but every insight has degrees of intensity. There can be obvious-1 and obvious-2, and the latter comes on with shattering clarity, manifesting its implications in every sphere and dimension of our existence.

The first characteristic is a slowing down of time, a concentration in the present. One’s normally compulsive concern for the future decreases, and one becomes aware of the enormous importance and interest of what is happening at the moment. Other people, going about their business on the streets, seem to be slightly crazy, failing to realize that the whole point of life is to be fully aware of it as it happens. One therefore relaxes, almost luxuriously, into studying the colors in a glass of water, or in listening to the now highly articulate vibration of every note played on an oboe or sung by a voice.

From the pragmatic standpoint of our culture, such an attitude is very bad for business. It might lead to improvidence, lack of foresight, diminished sales of insurance policies, and abandoned savings accounts. Yet this is just the corrective that our culture needs. No one is more fatuously impractical than the “successful” executive who spends his whole life absorbed in frantic paper work with the objective of retiring in comfort at sixty-five, when it will all be too late. Only those who have cultivated the art of living completely in the present have any use for making plans for the future, for when the plans mature they will be able to enjoy the results. “Tomorrow never comes.” I have never yet heard a preacher urging his congregation to practice that section of the Sermon on the Mount which begins, “Be not anxious for the morrow….” The truth is that people who live for the future are, as we say of the insane, “not quite all there”—or here: by over-eagerness they are perpetually missing the point. Foresight is bought at the price of anxiety, and when overused it destroys all its own advantages.

The second characteristic I will call awareness of polarity. This is the vivid realization that states, things, and events that we ordinarily call opposite are interdependent, like back and front, or the poles of a magnet. By polar awareness one sees that things which are explicitly different are implicitly one: self and other, subject and object, left and right, male and female-and then, a little more surprisingly, solid and space, figure and background, pulse and interval, saints and sinners, police and criminals, in-groups and out-groups. Each is definable only in terms of the other, and they go together transactionally, like buying and selling, for there is no sale without a purchase, and no purchase without a sale. As this awareness becomes increasingly intense, you feel that you yourself are polarized with the external universe in such a way that you imply each other. Your push is its pull, and its push is your pull—as when you move the steering wheel of a car. Are you pushing it or pulling it?

At first, this is a very odd sensation, not unlike hearing your own voice played back to you on an electronic system immediately after you have spoken. You become confused, and wait for it to go on! Similarly, you feel that you are something being done by the universe, yet that the universe is equally something being done by you-which is true, at least in the neurological sense that the peculiar structure of our brains translates the sun into light, and air vibrations into sound. Our normal sensation of relationship to the outside world is that sometimes I push it, and sometimes it pushes me. But if the two are actually one, where does action begin and responsibility rest? If the universe is doing me, how can I be sure that, two seconds hence, I will still remember the English language? If I am doing it, how can I be sure that, two seconds hence, my brain will know how to turn the sun into light? From such unfamiliar sensations as these, the psychedelic experience can generate confusion, paranoia, and terror-even though the individual is feeling his relationship to the world exactly as it would be described by a biologist, ecologist, or physicist, for he is feeling himself as the unified field of organism and environment.

The third characteristic, arising from the second, is awareness of relativity. I see that I am a link in an infinite hierarchy of processes and beings, ranging from molecules through bacteria and insects to human beings, and, maybe, to angels and gods-a hierarchy in which every level is in effect the same situation. For example, the poor man worries about money while the rich man worries about his health: the worry is the same, but the difference is in its substance or dimension. I realize that fruit flies must think of themselves as people, because, like ourselves, they find themselves in the middle of their own world-with immeasurably greater things above and smaller things below. To us, they all look alike and seem to have no personality-as do the Chinese when we have not lived among them. Yet fruit flies must see just as many subtle distinctions among themselves as we among ourselves.

Alan Watts Rorschach

From this it is but a short step to the realization that all forms of life and being are simply variations on a single theme: we are all in fact one being doing the same thing in as many different ways as possible. As the French proverb goes, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose (the more it varies, the more it is one). I see, further, that feeling threatened by the inevitability of death is really the same experience as feeling alive, and that as all beings are feeling this everywhere, they are all just as much “I” as myself. Yet the “I” feeling, to be felt at all, must always be a sensation relative to the “other”-to something beyond its control and experience. To be at all, it must begin and end. But the intellectual jump that mystical and psychedelic experiences make here is in enabling you to see that all these myriad I-centers are yourself—not, indeed, your personal and superficially conscious ego, but what Hindus call the paramatman, the Self of all selves.3 As the retina enables us to see countless pulses of energy as a single light, so the mystical experience shows us innumerable individuals as a single Self.

A kind of waking trance I have frequently had, quite up from boyhood, when I have been all alone. This has generally come upon me thro’ repeating my own name two or three times to myself silently, till all at once, as it were out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being, and this not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, the weirdest of the weirdest, utterly beyond words, where death was an almost laughable impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction but the only true life.

The fourth characteristic is awareness of eternal energy, often in the form of intense white light, which seems to be both the current in your nerves and that mysterious e which equals mc2. This may sound like megalomania or delusion of grandeur-but one sees quite clearly that all existence is a single energy, and that this energy is one’s own being. Of course there is death as well as life, because energy is a pulsation, and just as waves must have both crests and troughs, the experience of existing must go on and off. Basically, therefore, there is simply nothing to worry about, because you yourself are the eternal energy of the universe playing hide-and-seek (off-and-on) with itself. At root, you are the Godhead, for God is all that there is. Quoting Isaiah just a little out of context: “I am the Lord, and there is none else. I form the light and create the darkness: I make peace, and create evil. I, the Lord, do all these things.”4 This is the sense of the fundamental tenet of Hinduism, Tat tram asi—”THAT (i.e., “that subtle Being of which this whole universe is composed”) art thou.”5 A classical case of this experience, from the West, is in Tennyson’s Memoirs:

Obviously, these characteristics of the psychedelic experience, as I have known it, are aspects of a single state of consciousness—for I have been describing the same thing from different angles. The descriptions attempt to convey the reality of the experience, but in doing so they also suggest some of the inconsistencies between such experience and the current values of society.

alan watts get the message
Opposition to Psychedelic Drugs

Resistance to allowing use of psychedelic drugs originates in both religious and secular values. The difficulty in describing psychedelic experiences in traditional religious terms suggests one ground of opposition. The Westerner must borrow such words as samadhi or moksha from the Hindus, or satori or kensho from the Japanese, to describe the experience of oneness with the universe. We have no appropriate word because our own Jewish and Christian theologies will not accept the idea that man’s inmost self can be identical with the Godhead, even though Christians may insist that this was true in the unique instance of Jesus Christ. Jews and Christians think of God in political and monarchical terms, as the supreme governor of the universe, the ultimate boss. Obviously, it is both socially unacceptable and logically preposterous for a particular individual to claim that he, in person, is the omnipotent and omniscient ruler of the world-to be accorded suitable recognition and honor.

Such an imperial and kingly concept of the ultimate reality, however, is neither necessary nor universal. The Hindus and the Chinese have no difficulty in conceiving of an identity of the self and the Godhead. For most Asians, other than Muslims, the Godhead moves and manifests the world in much the same way that a centipede manipulates a hundred legs-spontaneously, without deliberation or calculation. In other words, they conceive the universe by analogy with an organism as distinct from a mechanism. They do not see it as an artifact or construct under the conscious direction of some supreme technician, engineer, or architect.

If, however, in the context of Christian or Jewish tradition, an individual declares himself to be one with God, he must be dubbed blasphemous (subversive) or insane. Such a mystical experience is a clear threat to traditional religious concepts. The Judaeo-Christian tradition has a monarchical image of God, and monarchs, who rule by force, fear nothing more than insubordination. The Church has therefore always been highly suspicious of mystics, because they seem to be insubordinate and to claim equality or, worse, identity with God. For this reason, John Scotus Erigena and Meister Eckhart were condemned as heretics. This was also why the Quakers faced opposition for their doctrine of the Inward Light, and for their refusal to remove hats in church and in court. A few occasional mystics may be all right so long as they watch their language, like St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, who maintained, shall we say, a metaphysical distance of respect between themselves and their heavenly King. Nothing, however, could be more alarming to the ecclesiastical hierarchy than a popular outbreak of mysticism, for this might well amount to setting up a democracy in the kingdom of heaven-and such alarm would be shared equally by Catholics, Jews, and fundamentalist Protestants.

The monarchical image of God, with its implicit distaste for religious insubordination, has a more pervasive impact than many Christians might admit. The thrones of kings have walls immediately behind them, and all who present themselves at court must prostrate themselves or kneel, because this is an awkward position from which to make a sudden attack. It has perhaps never occurred to Christians that when they design a church on the model of a royal court (basilica) and prescribe church ritual, they are implying that God, like a human monarch, is afraid. This is also implied by flattery in prayers:

O Lord our heavenly Father, high and mighty, King of kings, Lord of lords, the only Ruler of princes, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth: most heartily we beseech thee with thy favor to behold….

The Western man who claims consciousness of oneness with God or the universe thus clashes with his society’s concept of religion. In most Asian cultures, however, such a man will be congratulated as having penetrated the true secret of life. He has arrived, by chance or by some such discipline as Yoga or Zen meditation, at a state of consciousness in which he experiences directly and vividly what our own scientists know to be true in theory. For the ecologist, the biologist, and the physicist know (but seldom feel) that every organism constitutes a single field of behavior, or process, with its environment. There is no way of separating what any given organism is doing from what its environment is doing, for which reason ecologists speak not of organisms in environments but of organism-environments. Thus the words “I” and “self” should properly mean what the whole universe is doing at this particular “here-and-now” called John Doe.

The kingly concept of God makes identity of self and God, or self and universe, inconceivable in Western religious terms. The difference between Eastern and Western concepts of man and his universe, however, extends beyond strictly religious concepts. The Western scientist may rationally perceive the idea of organism-environment, but he does not ordinarily feel this to be true. By cultural and social conditioning, he has been hypnotized into experiencing himself as an ego-as an isolated center of consciousness and will inside a bag of skin, confronting an external and alien world. We say, “I came into this world.” But we did nothing of the kind. We came out of it in just the same way that fruit comes out of trees. Our galaxy, our cosmos, “peoples” in the same way that an apple tree “apples.”

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Such a vision of the universe clashes with the idea of a monarchical God, with the concept of the separate ego, and even with the secular, atheist/agnostic mentality, which derives its common sense from the mythology of nineteenth-century scientist. According to this view, the universe is a mindless mechanism and man a sort of accidental microorganism infesting a minute globular rock that revolves about an unimportant star on the outer fringe of one of the minor galaxies. This “put-down” theory of man is extremely common among such quasi scientists as sociologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists, most of whom are still thinking of the world in terms of Newtonian mechanics, and have never really caught up with the ideas of Einstein and Bohr, Oppenheimer and Schrodinger. Thus to the ordinary institutional-type psychiatrist, any patient who gives the least hint of mystical or religious experience is automatically diagnosed as deranged. From the standpoint of the mechanistic religion, he is a heretic and is given electroshock therapy as an up-to-date form of thumbscrew and rack. And, incidentally, it is just this kind of quasi scientist who, as consultant to government and law-enforcement agencies, dictates official policies on the use of psychedelic chemicals.

Inability to accept the mystic experience is more than an intellectual handicap. Lack of awareness of the basic unity of organism and environment is a serious and dangerous hallucination. For in a civilization equipped with immense technological power, the sense of alienation between man and nature leads to the use of technology in a hostile spirit—to the “conquest” of nature instead of intelligent co-operation with nature. The result is that we are eroding and destroying our environment, spreading Los Angelization instead of civilization. This is the major threat overhanging Western, technological culture, and no amount of reasoning or doom-preaching seems to help. We simply do not respond to the prophetic and moralizing techniques of conversion upon which Jews and Christians have always relied. But people have an obscure sense of what is good for them-call it “unconscious self-healing,” “survival instinct,” “positive growth potential,” or what you will. Among the educated young there is therefore a startling and unprecedented interest in the transformation of human consciousness. All over the Western world publishers are selling millions of books dealing with Yoga, Vedanta, Zen Buddhism, and the chemical mysticism of psychedelic drugs, and I have come to believe that the whole “hip” subculture, however misguided in some of its manifestations, is the earnest and responsible effort of young people to correct the self-destroying course of industrial civilization.

The content of the mystical experience is thus inconsistent with both the religious and secular concepts of traditional Western thought. Moreover, mystical experiences often result in attitudes that threaten the authority not only of established churches, but also of secular society. Unafraid of death and deficient in worldly ambition, those who have undergone mystical experiences are impervious to threats and promises. Moreover, their sense of the relativity of good and evil arouses the suspicion that they lack both conscience and respect for law. Use of psychedelics in the United States by a literate bourgeoisie means that an important segment of the population is indifferent to society’s traditional rewards and sanctions.

In theory, the existence within our secular society of a group that does not accept conventional values is consistent with our political vision. But one of the great problems of the United States, legally and politically, is that we have never quite had the courage of our convictions. The Republic is founded on the marvelously sane principle that a human community can exist and prosper only on a basis of mutual trust. Metaphysically, the American Revolution was a rejection of the dogma of Original Sin, which is the notion that because you cannot trust yourself or other people, there must be some Superior Authority to keep us all in order. The dogma was rejected because, if it is true that we cannot trust ourselves and others, it follows that we cannot trust the Superior Authority which we ourselves conceive and obey, and that the very idea of our own untrustworthiness is unreliable!

Citizens of the United States believe, or are supposed to believe, that a republic is the best form of government. Yet vast confusion arises from trying to be republican in politics and monarchist in religion. How can a republic be the best form of government if the universe, heaven, and hell are a monarchy? Thus, despite the theory of government by consent, based upon mutual trust, the peoples of the United States retain, from the authoritarian backgrounds of their religions or national origins, an utterly naive faith in law as some sort of supernatural and paternalistic power. “There ought to be a law against it!” Our law-enforcement officers are therefore confused, hindered, and bewildered—not to mention corrupted—by being asked to enforce sumptuary laws, often of ecclesiastical origin, that vast numbers of people have no intention of obeying and that, in any case, are immensely difficult or simply impossible to enforce—for example, the barring of anything so undetectable as LSD-25 from international and interstate commerce.

Finally, there are two specific objections to use of psychedelic drugs. First, use of these drugs may be dangerous. However, every worth-while exploration is dangerous—climbing mountains, testing aircraft, rocketing into outer space, skin diving, or collecting botanical specimens in jungles. But if you value knowledge and the actual delight of exploration more than mere duration of uneventful life, you are willing to take the risks. It is not really healthy for monks to practice fasting, and it was hardly hygienic for Jesus to get himself crucified, but these are risks taken in the course of spiritual adventures. Today the adventurous young are taking risks in exploring the psyche, testing their mettle at the task just as, in times past, they have tested it—more violently—in hunting, dueling, hot-rod racing, and playing football. What they need is not prohibitions and policemen, but the most intelligent encouragement and advice that can be found.

Second, drug use may be criticized as an escape from reality. However, this criticism assumes unjustly that the mystical experiences themselves are escapist or unreal. LSD, in particular, is by no means a soft and cushy escape from reality. It can very easily be an experience in which you have to test your soul against all the devils in hell. For me, it has been at times an experience in which I was at once completely lost in the corridors of the mind and yet relating that very lostness to the exact order of logic and language, simultaneously very mad and very sane. But beyond these occasional lost and insane episodes, there are the experiences of the world as a system of total harmony and glory, and the discipline of relating these to the order of logic and language must somehow explain how what William Blake called that “energy which is eternal delight” can consist with the misery and suffering of everyday life.

The undoubted mystical and religious intent of most users of the psychedelics, even if some of these substances should be proved injurious to physical health, requires that their free and responsible use be exempt from legal restraint in any republic that maintains a constitutional separation of church and state. To the extent that mystical experience conforms with the tradition of genuine religious involvement, and to the extent that psychedelics induce that experience, users are entitled to some constitutional protection. Also, to the extent that research in the psychology of religion can utilize such drugs, students of the human mind must be free to use them. Under present laws, I, as an experienced student of the psychology of religion, can no longer pursue research in the field. This is a barbarous restriction of spiritual and intellectual freedom, suggesting that the legal system of the United States is, after all, in tacit alliance with the monarchical theory of the universe, and will, therefore, prohibit and persecute religious ideas and practices based on an organic and unitary vision of the universe.

ALAN WATTS
This essay is published in his book:
“Does Is Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality”
New World Library, California, 2007.
Available at Toronto’s Public Library.

Alan Watts (1915-1973) talks about Ecology and the “Continuous Stream of Life”

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“Man as an organism is to the world outside like a whirlpool is to a river: man and world are a single natural process, but we are behaving as if we were invaders and plunderers in a foreign territory. For when the individual is defined and felt as the separate personality or ego, he remains unaware that his actual body is a dancing pattern of energy that simply does not happen by itself. It happens only in concert with myriads of other patterns – called animals, plants, insects, bacteria, minerals, liquids, and gases. The definition of a person and the normal feeling of ‘I’ do not effectively include these relationships. You say, ‘I came into this world.’ You didn’t; you came out of it, as a branch from a tree.” (pg. 20)

“The special branch of science which studies the relation of living beings to their environments – ecology – shows beyond doubt that the individual organism and its environment are a continuous stream, or field, of energy. To draw a new moral from the bees and the flowers: the two organisms are very different, for one is rooted in the ground and broadcasts perfume, while the other moves freely in the air and buzzes. But because they cannot exist without each other, it makes real sense to say that they are in fact two aspects of a single organism. Our heads are very different in appearance from our feet, but we recognize them as belonging to one individual because they are obviously connected by skin and bones. But less obvious connections are no less real…

Civilized human beings are alarmingly ignorant of the fact that they are continuous with their natural surroundings. It is as necessary to have air, water, plants, insects, birds, fish, and mammals as it is to have brains, hearts, lungs, and stomachs. The former are our external organs in the same way that the latter are our internal organs. (…) The sun, the earth, and the forests are just as much features of your own body as your brain. Erosion of the soil is as much a personal disease as leprosy, and many ‘growing communities’ are as disastrous as cancer. That we do not feel this to be obvious is the result of centuries of habituation to the idea that oneself is only the envelope of skin and its contents, the inside but not the outside. The extreme folly of this notion becomes clear as soon as you try to imagine an inside with no outside, or an outside with no inside.” (pg. 36-37)

“Civilization, as we have worked it out, is a system of screens which conceal the connections between events. (…) Bacon, as found packaged in the supermarket, gives no intimation of pig, and steaks appear as if they were entities like apples, having no relation to the slicing of dead cattle. To remove such screens is held to be as offensive and vulgar as to relieve one’s bowels in the gutter of a public street.” (pg. 40)

ALAN WATTS.
“Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality.”
New World Library, California, 2007.
Available at the Toronto Public Library.

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“Hearts & Minds” (Oscar-winning documentary about the Vietnam War – by Peter Davis, 1974, 112 min)

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“A courageous and startling film, Peter Davis’s landmark documentary “Hearts and Minds” unflinchingly confronts the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. Using a wealth of sources—from interviews to newsreels to documentary footage of the conflict at home and abroad—Davis constructs a powerfully affecting portrait of the disastrous effects of war. Explosive, persuasive, and shocking, “Hearts and Minds” is an overwhelming emotional experience and the controversial winner of the 1974 Academy Award for Best Documentary.” – Criterion Collection

Read some articles about the film by Judith Crist; Robert K. Brigham; George Herring; and Ngo Vihn Long.

Download.

BBC’s series “Ways of Seeing” (by John Berger, 1972, 4 episodes)

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WAYS OF SEEING

By John Berger (1972)

A BAFTA award-winning series with John Berger, which rapidly became regarded as one of the most influential art programmes ever made. With the invention of oil paint around 1400, painters were able to portray people and objects with an unprecedented degree of realism, and painting became the ideal way to celebrate private possessions. In this programme, John Berger questions the value we place on that tradition.

Ways of Seeing is a 1972 BBC four-part television series of 30-minute films created chiefly by writer John Berger and producer Mike Dibb. Berger’s scripts were adapted into a book of the same name. The series and book criticize traditional Western cultural aesthetics by raising questions about hidden ideologies in visual images. The series is partially a response to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series, which represents a more traditionalist view of the Western artistic and cultural canon.

Watch the full series:

 

CRONENBERG’S MUTATIONS: A tribute to one of cinema’s greatest artists and profoundest thinkers

David and the Fly

The Creator and its Creature: Cronenberg together with Mr. Bundlefly

CRONENBERG’S MUTATIONS
Article by Eduardo Carli de Moraes

PROLOGUE

I have recently spent a whole afternoon wandering around at the Evolution exhibition, wonderfully produced by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It was such an amazing tribute to one of Canada’s greatest artists alive, David Cronenberg. I was already an admirer of his oeuvre – I’ve watched every film that Cronenberg has ever delivered, and some of them several times – but TIFF’s homage to this great creative mind took me on a thrilling “trip down memory lane” (to quote a memorable line by Ed Harris’ character in A History of Violence).

Since the late 1960s, Cronenberg has been producing some of the most tought-provoking and original films I’ve ever seen, and in this article I intend to argue that his body of work deserves our high praises for its artistic accomplishments. I don’t see why he should be confined within the limits of genres such as science fiction and horror: Cronenberg has gone way beyond the boundaries of “specialized filmmaking” and has built a cinematic legacy that bears the mark of far-sighted vision and unique imagination.

naked lunchHere is an artist that never shies away from challenging themes: he has adapted to the big screen some works of literature deemed “unfilmable” (such as William Burrough’s Naked Lunch or Don De Lillo’s Cosmopolis); he has depicted sexual perversions and car-fetishism in impacful ways (in his film on J. G. Ballard’s Crash); he has engaged in a debate with Marshall McLuhan’s theories about media and its social effects (in Videodrome); he has explored the mysteries of schizophrenia, paranoia, depression, identity crisis, among other dark corners of the mind (in films such as Dead Ringers, The Brood, Spider…). Cronenberg, to sum things up, may be understood as a philosopher of cinema, who uses his art in order to understand the world around him, to share his fears and doubts about the paths treaded by Western civilization, and to awaken us from the slumbers of conformity by sounding the alarms on some doubtful process through which the human mind and body is being transformed and mutated.

Some oversensitive people may certainly turn away from his work in disgust and horror, claiming that the guy is obsessed with disgusting creatures, nasty and monstruous mutants, scary uncontrolable viruses, and lots of bloodshed and carnage. There’s definetely a B-movie flavour to some of Cronenberg’s work, but this doesn’t mean his investigations are narrow and shallow. If some of his movies are far from being eye-candy, and if his esthetic choices have a strong tendency against kitsch, it leads us to ask: is the role of the artist to caress us and entertain us rather than to provoke us, shock us and kick us out of our comfort zones?

In the following explorations of Cronenberg’s films, I’ll attempt to throw the spotlight on the great contribution his art embodies as a reflection upon human psychology and the mysteries that underlie the mutations of our identities in the midst of our society’s ever faster techno-scientific transformations.

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I. THE NEW FLESH

videodromeAt TIFF’s Evolution exhibition, it was stated that “Cronenberg demonstrates a keen interest in doctors and scientists who initiate experiments with unforeseen, often disastrous, consequences”. Very well remarked: in Cronenberg’s realm, science and technology often produces “disasters” and “monsters”. Things never seem to turn out the way they had been planned to. There’s an abyss between good intentions and the actual outcomes of the experiments – and this abyss is one that Cronenberg’s loves to explore. In many cases, it’s as if Science is being seen from the lenses of its victims, from the perspective of the abused or the deranged by it.

“History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake”, goes the famous saying by James Joyce in Ulysses. Watching David Cronenberg’s films I frequently get a feeling of entering a nightmarish world, where epidemics and plagues rage, and human heads suddenly explode, and brains get messed-up by medical interventions, consumption of pharmaceutical drugs, or misguided scientific manipulations.

It seems Science is a nightmare from which Cronenberg is trying to awake. And that by filming his dystopic visions he suceeds in sharing his nightmares with his perplexed audience. William Burroughs once said, later to be quoted by Kurt Cobain in a punkish Nirvana song: “just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not after you.” Likewise, it could be said of Cronenberg’s filmed nightmares: just because they’re pessimistic and terrifying, it doesn’t mean they can’t turn out to become reality. Just remember Chernobyl, in the past; just take a look at Fukushima, in the present; with these catastrophes in mind, Cronenberg’s phantasies will appear to our eyes as explorations of possibilities that we might unfortunely realize.

The originality of David Cronenberg cinema lies in, among other elements, the way he questions the consequences of technological “advancements” and scientific experiments: it can be a new brand of psychotherapy that relies on the un-repressed expression of rage (The Brood); it can be the evolution in video-games and artificial/digital environments (eXistenZ); it can be a new drug supposedly destined to turn life on Earth into a chemically induced Paradise (ephemerol in Shivers); it can be innovations in the fields of surgery, genetics or robotism…

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Cronenberg’s cinema is surely dystopic, dismal, pessimistic, and one gets a “mood”, from his films, of anxiety and preocupation arising from the possible outcomes of our self-remaking, of mankind’s efforts to transform itself and to transcend its present limitations. Everyone who’s seen some of his films knows that scientific experiments – including the ones inside the field of Psychology, which interests Cronenberg very lively! – can end up going terribly wrong. And one of the thrills of watching his movies derives from the fact that we know this artist is not going to spare us, that he’s gonna make us confront some bloody and disruptive occurences.

Since the beggining of his carreer, with Stereo (1969) or Crimes of The Future (1970), Cronenberg was into description of “laboratorial environments”, but within them there were no rat labs: in his films, the rat labs are always human beings. In one interview, the director states that he never makes “monsters movies”, but rather describes the ways through which the human body is transformed into a monstruous and uncontrolable post-human organism. In Cronenberg, the illusion of safety and control almost always ends up terribly shattered to pieces with the eruption of chaos and unpredicted consequences.

TIFF’s exhibittion EVOLUTION claimed that Cronenberg must be understood as one of the greatest thinkers in the whole of Canadian culture – and I agree entirely: he’s a philosopher of the big-screen with as much to say to us as Jean Baudrillard, Pierre Lévy, Manuel Castells, or other of the thinkers of our present-day Technological Age. Cronenberg’s contribution to an interdiscilinary debate concerning genetics and eugenics, obsessions and fetishism, biotechnology and scientificism, is outstanding.

The “mood” in most of his films makes it clear that Cronenberg isn’t buying naively the ideology that says technological and scientifical progress will lead us to Paradise on Earth. It’s quite frequent, in Cronenberg’s films, that the attempt made by human scientists to reshape our bodies ends up messing things up badly. The transformations that the human body undergoes with its constant interactions with technology, the way our bodies and minds end up emboding technology, is one of Croneberg’s obssessions. The bio-ports in ExistenZ are the best example: holes in our bodys, similar to a computer’s entrance door, through which we can be plugged in to an artificial realm that cuts us off from day-to-day “natural” reality. But decades prior to that, he had already painted a gory portrait of the possible evolutions of television in his unforgetable Videodrome. There he explores the possible transformations of media, tripping on McLuhan’s ideas to end up creating a nightmarish dystopia, filled with hallucinationaty head-helmets and very weird mutations that give birth to a “new flesh”.

The effect of going through several roller-coaster rides in Cronenberg’s sci-fi park is, among other, this: skepticism about the marvels brought to us by advancements in technology and science. Cronenberg’s imagination may seem a little bit “paranoid”, in the sense that his fantasy springs from the fear that things can go horribly ashtray in human civilization while we venture into ever increasing degrees of artificiality. But there’s not a single drop of idealization of the past, or of Rousseau’s Natural Man, in Cronenberg’s work: he doesn’t seem to see any way backwards that will leads us to the way things used to be. It can be said that this cinema deeply anguised by time’s irreversibility and portraying the dangers of artificiality. It would also be unjust to say he’s condemning techno-cientific advancements; it seems to me Cronenberg’s tries to underline the ambiguity of this processes we have developed. They can have largely beneficial results for medicine and health, for example, but the other side of the coin – the nightmarish side – also deserves to be taken into account. An example: of course it would be silly to deny the importance of X-rays, for example, for the diagnosis of disease, but it would also be silly (and dangerous!) to ignore that a body that gets exposed to an excess of radiation can suffer terrible consequences.

Nothing guarantees us that the New Flesh is an evolution on the previous one – it may be a backward step. It may be the unleashing of forces we’ll be unable to control. It may be nightmares coming true.

But it would be unfair to dismiss and undervalue Cronenberg’s artistic insight if we were to treat him as a pessimist always obsessed with disasters. Of course there’s lots of bloodshed in his films – just remember the ending of A History of Violence, that rivals with the most gruesome of scenes in Tarantino’s or Sergio Leone’s oeuvre. But a debate about violence in cinema can’t leave Cronenberg out of the picture: something quite original and unique is involved in this peculiar brand of cinematic ultra-violence. I would argue that the profoundness we can find in his films, if only we delve deep enough in their secrete layers, arises from an anxious questioning of the real ways of our world.

Cronenberg is deeply concerned by what’s going on with our world, even tough sometimes he seems to be filming some future or alternative society. Cronenberg’s vision has been labeled by many as “dystopic”, and I feel that’s quite accurate: this guy ain’t filming utopias where perfection and harmony have been realized. He’s much more into letting his worst nightmares get an objetified existence as film – so many others can dream Cronenberg’s nightmares. To sum things up, I would say that he engages in an anxiety-ridden cinema, with a dystopic flavour to it, with several irruptions of ultra-violence, throught which Cronenberg acts as a critic of Western commercial-industrial society. For this reason, among many other, he deserves recognition as an artist of many merits, among them the fact that he sounds the alarms on the possible consequences of mankind’s attempt to deeply re-shape Nature – including our own.

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David Cronenberg

II. THE RE-SHAPING OF NATURE AND HUMAN ATTEMPTS AT SELF-TRANSCENDENCE

If there’s anything in our era that seems to be a shared truth, a point of conccord and no controversy, is that mankind’s been re-shaping Nature in massive scale and in various ways through technological interventions, medical innovations, advancements in genetic manipulation etc. If the artistic genre of “Science Fiction” is to survive as a culture force, relevant to the general audience, it needs to adress the dangers and anxieties that befall us all in such a world. That’s what Cronenberg’s cinema does so well. In the second part of this article, I’ll focus on the some of his films in which mutations are a central theme.

the-fly-movie-poster-1986There are lots of Gregor Samsas in Cronenberg’s films: the process by which Kafka’s character gets transformed into a giant bug is not merely repeated in cinematic form, but serves as a theme upon which Cronenberg builds several variations. Seth Bundle (Jeff Goldblum), in The Fly, is the most obvious example: the scientist who gets things messed up in his laboratory and ends up getting his genes mixed with that of an insect.

In Kafka’s masterpiece, the “mood” is of a horrific family drama that may remind the reader of Strindberg or Kleist. In Cronenberg’s case, we’re taken to a futuristic sci-fi scenario in which Bundle attempts to create a means of tele-transportation, which he deems likely to cause a whole revolution in the common limits of mankind. If he suceeds, history will rain down un-ending glory on him, and we’ll be honoured as one of the greatest scientists and innovators of all time – a new Galileo, a new Kepler, a new Einstein! But high hopes seldom live up to their promise in Cronenberg’s art.

There’s not a drop of cheap optimism in The Fly: it’s an enormously enjoyable film, well-crafted in all technical aspects, a masterpiece of narrative in cinema, but it’s message is far from being ear-candy. The Fly is actually a tragedy. For those of you who haven’t watched it, please jump to next paragraph so you won’t have your fun spoiled by my revealing of its ending. The Fly can be seen as a tragedy because it shows how a scientist goes through a terrible misfortune, having his organism monstruously transformed by the technological process he was aiming to master, and ends up having to ask the woman he loves (embodied by the gorgeous Geena Davis) to aid him in suicide. Life-conditions, for him, have been so screwed up by his experiment, that his only choice ends up to demand someone to put him off his misery. Josef K, in Kafka’s The Trial, feels he’s being killed “like a dog”; similarly, Seth Bundle’s demise is a terrible, gory and grotesque event – in which he’s murdered like a nasty fly. Things have turned out so horribly that the world needs to be rid of the monstruous human-insect he tragically became.

M. Butterfly (1993)But it would be demeaning to say that Cronenberg is a mind that can only imagine transformations in the human body there are due to techno-cientifical intervention and manipulation. In M Butterfly, for example, the transformations that René Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) goes through have nothing to do with his genetic structure, or with surgery, eugenics or laboratorial side-effects. Gallimard, a french diplomat working in China at Beijing’s embassy, starts off his metamorphosis when he watches a performance of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. Cronenberg leads us, with his known talents as a compelling story-teller, in a downward spiral that shows how deeply Gallimard will have his identity changed and deranged in the life-process the film encapsulates.

At first, Gallimard is shown as an arrogant person, very ethnocentric, certain that he’s the living embodiment of civilization and finesse: he believes that Western presence in China and Indochina is cherished by the majority of the population, and he’s certain that the United States is going to suceed in the war efforts in Vietnam and Camboja. He’s a married man, and his wife (Barbara Sukowa, who recently embodied Hannah Arendt in Margareth Von Trotta’s film) would never suspect Monsieur Gallimard of being anything but a loving, faithful husband – and definetely heterossexual.

M Butterfly, among Cronenberg’s films, is one of the richest in terms of the possibility of discussion of gender matters. Sexual identity is shown as something that’s far from solid and immutable – it also undergoes changings and mutations. Gallimard thinks he’s straight, a “normal” heterossexual guy, but his experience in Beijing’s opera will call that into question when he falls in love with an opera diva (a man dressed as a woman). Gallimard ignorance of Chinese cultural reality is made obvious by the fact that he seems to be completely unaware that female characters, in China’s operatic spectacles, are played by men – a custom that has existed also in the past of West (for example in England, during Shakespeare’s epoch, something described, for example, by Richard Eyre’s brilliant film Stage Beauty).

M Butterfly is filled with Gallimard’s delusions: his beliefs doesn’t correspond to the facts. He, for example, believes he has fallen in love with a chinese woman, an opera diva, when in fact he’s been used by a Communist Party spy who’s gathering information about Western military actions in Indochina. Gallimard believes he has found true love outside the bonds of marriage, and abandons himself to the calculated seduction of the transvestite-spy. When he wakes up to what’s really going on, the whole structure of his personality will be shattered.

In Puccini’s opera, the Jananese girl kills herself after being abandoned by the american foreign; in Cronenberg’s film, the positions shift: now the Western guy is the one who’s going to kill himself because of the abandonenment he suffered. When the dream cracks and dies, when Gallimard finds out all the truth and realizes he has been used, then love’s past utopia metamorphosis into suicidal frustration and self-destruction.

The Fly, I claimed such paragraphs ago, could be seen as a tragedy; well, M. Butterfly is another. Its tragic core lies in the crack in identity’s continuity. Gallimard’s psyche gets cracked by the sudden death of his illusion. He was severely mistaken about China – and never really knew the “woman” he claimed to love. In the end of the process that the film narrates, he’s utterly confused about his own sexuality, uncertain and shaken: he lost all the prior confidence in his “straitght-ness”, his “masculine normality”. In his death trip, in the ritual in which he sacrifices himself, very Orientaly, as if attempting a hara-kiri, Gallimard has become himself the Oriental and the Transvestite.

The well-defined limits of his previous personality gets crushed by new experiences. He’s boundless and insane. He cuts his own throath in front of the audience of prisoners, as thus becomes an embodiment of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The brilliance of this masterpice in filmmaking, which I consider one of the most under-valued classics of the 1990s, lies in authentic description of the mutations that can occur to the human body and mind.

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Gallimard, in M Butterfly, lived through a severe “personality crisis”. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), in A History of Violence, will struggle with something similar. In this film, Cronenberg focuses in his attention on an attempt at vountary change of identity. The man we get acquainted with at the beggining of the film, Tom Stall, we’ll soon discover to be a fabrication of Joey Cusack, who wanted to shed his skin like a serpent and abandon his own past behind.

Tom Stall is an idealization of the real flesh-and-bones man, Joey Cusack, who, after too much bloodshed in gangster environment during his life in his native Philadelphia, decides he’s gonna leave a life of crime behind and become a model citizen and family-man. When Cronenberg’s film starts, it seems he has suceeded: he has a beautiful wife, and they engage in very sexy affective playfulness; their two kids seem to be doing quite allright, despite the bullies at scholl and some baseball fights. But when something is going allright in a Cronenberg film, prepare yourself: it’s a clear sign that we’re headed for disaster.

Joey Cusack tried to transform his identity, tried to impersonate his fabrication of an ideal personality, but forgot something: everyone who knew in his past would lot easily permit his sliping away unto other identities. There’s a phrase in P. T. Anderson’s Magnolia that seems to be a description of his situation that fits like a hand in a glove: “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”

Ed Harris’ character, in the film, seems like a scary monster that sticks his head out of the abyss of the Past. Joey Cusack may have felt he had enough of his past, but well… his past hadn’t had enough of him. He’s bound to experience a dark re-awakening of the past who he mistakingly supposed he had buried. A History of Violence, despite being a very exciting thriller to watch, reveals a lot about the human condition. A man wants to throw away who he was and re-shape himself, becoming someone else: who among us haven’t felt a similar desire at some point in our lives? But the past is embodied in ourselves in such ways that we’ll never be able to discard it like a serpent does with its skin.

To sum things up, I would argue that Cronenberg’s artistic merit lies in his ability to portray and discuss humanity as a dynamic entity, changing through time, and not merely an instrument of outside forces (like a leaf in a river stream), but also in attempts at self-reshaping and self-transcendence. Throughout the history of Western philosophy in the last three millenia, some great thinkers have stressed the mutability of Nature: Heraclitus, for example, said that “everything flows” and that it’s impossible to bathe two times in the same river; his 19th century disciple, Friedrich Nietzsche, would also suggest in his visionary philosophical poem Zarathustra, the changeability of Man, depicted as a tight-rope walker that traverses the abyss whose margins are the beasts (behind us) and the Übbermensch (ahead us).

The impression I get after having travelled along with Cronenberg’s creations is that he deserves to be seem as a philosopher of cinema who’s deeply concerned in understanding mutations. Humans, for Cronenberg, never were and never will be fixed creatures: we’ll wander through Earth sheding our skin like serpents and trying to transcend out present through re-shapings both of our natural environments and our bodies and minds. In Cronenberg’s oeuvre, we get acquainted with the idea of Humanity as a mutant entity whose future glory is far from guaranteed: it may happen, his films seem to say, that History turns out to be a nightmare from which we won’t be able to awake. And simply because of this: the nightmare is real, and we ourselves are monsters of our own creation.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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 Here’s a selection of Cronenberg’s greatest works:

Carl Sagan’s The Pale Blue Dot drawn by Zen Pencils

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Some of Carl Sagan’s most well-known and inspiring ideas, concerning the minuteness of our tiny planet when compared to the vastness of the cosmos, have been beatifully drawn by Zen Pencils. Click here to access this great visual representation of Sagan’s insightful and poetic words! Below, this Awestruck Wanderer shares the whole transcript of the “Pale Blue Dot” famous reflection, as well as a video with Sagan declaiming it himself. Enjoy! It’s my hope this will bring at least a minuscule spark of laughter to the pilgrims passing through this infinitesimal point in the blogosphere… Cheers, fellow earthlings!!!

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” – CARL SAGAN (1934-1996)

See also: