NIETZSCHE AND THE SHADOWS OF GOD – By Y. Yovel in “Dark Riddle: Hegel, Nietzsche and the Jews” (1998)

Shadow-of-God
NIETZSCHE AND THE SHADOWS OF GOD

“Metaphysical fictions are involved in the central concepts and values of Western culture, which dominate and distort every individual’s life. (…) The whole network of epistemological and moral concepts in which we live expresses, in this respect, a psychology of escape and repression. In Nietzsche’s terms it is a fear of facing the truth, the cowardice of the person retreating before the abyss. Further, the system of rational fictions we project on the world enables us, the weak, to dominate the world in an imaginary way and thus express our will to power in a rather devious manner. In subjecting, as it were, the world to a network of rules and laws of our own invention, we establish our alleged superiority over it and subject the universe itself to our metaphysical illusions.

The Christian religion, even more than rationalistic science and morality, produces and offers a veil of mystification which serves human weakness, meekness, and the negation of life. Images of a transcendent god and a next world make real earthly life appear null and worthless; and by means of moral images of punishment and reward, divine Providence, a moral world order, conscience, repentance, and guilt feelings, men and women interiorize their hatred of life and become self-oppressed.

Though Nietzsche was called a nihilist, he himself regarded nihilism as his number one enemy. Genuine nihilism, he claims, resides in Christianity, whose essence is to deny life’s value, to opress life, and to fight against it. The ascetic ideal – the summit of spirituality in Christian eyes (and also in the eyes of the atheist Schopenhauer) – is to Nietzsche the greatest distortion of the spirit which Christianity propagates.” (pg. 108)

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the_gay_science_by_nietzsche_book_cover_v2_by_ruckenfigur-d5kx81y“This attempt at a radical critique, both in its roots and in its scope, is dramatically expressed in Nietzsche’s dictum about the death of God, and even more in his less well-known but more accurate exclamation in The Gay Science: ‘When will all these shadows of God cease to darken our minds? When will we complete our de-deification (*) of nature?’ (GS, 125)

(*) entogöttilicht, literally “freed of God”

Even after God’s death, his shadows still dominate the world. Hence the true role of philosophical criticism is to purge the world of the shadows of the dead God (GS, 108). These shadows are the vestiges of belief in a rational world, a cosmos ruled by a logos, the validity of the natural sciences, of the ‘pure’ laws of logic, the dominion of causality, and the cogency of the concepts of substance and identity. Modern natural science pretended to have banned God from the picture of nature, but has reinstated God’s shadows through the back door.

Philosophical rationalism and the belief in science are disguised versions of the old religious notion of a moral world order, and are likewise based on anthropomorphism – the projection of man’s wishes, needs, customs, and aspirations on the structure of the universe. (…) In contrast to Spinoza, for whom the world was saturated (because identical) with God, for Nietzsche the demand to grasp nature as ‘clear of God’ is the precondition for man to ‘become nature again’: that is, to be cured of decadence.” (pg. 112)

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“Life’s meaning is not something ready-made, by its mere existence, but is shaped through a process of self-overcoming. A precondition for this is the recognition that there are no objective meanings and values out there in the world, that the world is disrobed of God and his shadows. Therefore the test of the noble person – the “overman” which Nietzsche pretends to announce – lies in the question: ‘How much truth can be bear?’

Child Dionysus riding a tigress (Museum El Djem)

Child Dionysus riding a tigress (Museum El Djem)

Tearing away as many of his protective masks as he or she can, the Dionysian person is supposed to face a universe stripped of rational meaning and of all support by permanent values, and to be capable of converting this terrifying recognition into a new source of life’s power and even a new kind of joy. (‘Joyous knowing’ is, I think, a better rendering of Nietzsche’s famous ‘La Gaya Scienza’).

But what kind of knowing is this? It is certainly not merely a cognitive disposition; it is equally a self-commitment, a passion, a form of willing. It is a mode of recognition and realization, two words which imply taking a stand, performing an act, placing oneself in some firm position. The Dionysian person’s knowing is not the affirmation of a statement, nor even a simple disillusionment, but an act of the whole person which affirms a whole existentical ‘fate’ and accepts a certain way of living, which others would consider miserable, as a basis for joy and creativity.

The psychology of ordinary people is different. When facing hard truths, such people are liable to react by negating life, plunging into despair and nihilism, or running back to the consoling lap of illusion. Weak persons opt for optimism because they cannot overcome pessimism, whereas for the kind of person Nietzsche foresees, a “pessimist” view of existence is merely the starting point to be overcome, an introduction to the affirmation of life and the acceptance of difficulty and suffering, by which to gain new sources of power and joy.

This dialectical overcoming of the temptation of nihilism (and also of superficial optimism) is Nietzsche’s main message; it is the crux of his Dionysian stance, the essence of tragedy and the tragic way of life. The Dionysian person neither shuns suffering (mental and physical) and the recognition of chaos, nor lets them drag him into the abyss of despair. Rather, by saying ‘YES’ to life with all its contingent, absurd, and horrible aspects, he converts this recognition into a source of existential power.”

YIRMIYAHU YOVEL
Dark Riddle: Hegel, Nietzsche and the Jews
(1998, Pennsylvania State University, Pgs. 107 -114)
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Yovel is Professor of Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
and Hans Jonas Professor at the New School for Social Research in New York.
He also wrote Spinoza and Other Heretics and Kant and the Philosophy of History,

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“Life Far From Hot Baths” – Simone Weil’s philosophy in connection with Zen Buddhist ethics

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“The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away.

To define force – it is that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was there, and the next minute there is nobody here at all; this is a spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us.

 Nearly all the Iliad takes place far from hot baths. Nearly all of human life, then and now, takes place far from hot baths…

Such is the empire of force, as extensive as the empire of nature.”

SIMONE WEIL  (1909-1943),
Iliad: Poem of Force, pgs. 3-4-10.

 

6Simone Weil reads the Iliad as if she is witnessing before her compassionate eyes those occurrences evoked by the poet’s verses: she doesn’t turn her face away, refusing to see, when the horrors of war are depicted in Homer’s blood-soaked pages. The war between Trojans and Greeks offers infinite occasions for us to reflect upon Force – especially in its deathly effects. What results from the battles is always men laying lifeless on the ground, “dearer to the vultures than to their wives”, and Simone Weil stresses that even the greatest heroes – Hector or Achilles – are frequently reduced to things by the enemy’s force. “The bitterness of such a spectacle is offered us absolutely undiluted. No comforting fiction intervenes; no consoling prospect of immortality; and on the hero’s head no washed-out halo of patriotism descends.” (WEIL: p. 4)

If there’s a lot of tragedy in the Iliad – and it surely has, even tough it was written centuries before the Greek tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides) were born – it’s because force often is employed with tragic effects. It’s clear to me that Simone Weil uses the concept of “force” to denote something she morally condemns, and in such a manner that one might fell she has affinities with Eastern wisdom, especially Buddhist ethics. For example, D. T. Suzuki’s Zen Buddhist philosopy, in which he opposes Power and Love and describes them as hostile to one another. Force/power is imposed upon a subject in order to reduce him to a thing, either by killing him (and thus forcingly throwing him back into the inanimate world), either by violating, humiliating, opressing or harming him in such a way that the person is still alive and breathing, but is no longer an autonomous subject. “A man stands disarmed and naked with a weapon pointing at him; this person becomes a corpse before anybody or anything touches him… still breathing, he is simply matter.” (WEIL: pg. 5)

A difference or imbalance between the forces of two individuals are excellent evidence of the onthological presence of Simone Weil’s force or Suzuki’s power among all that’s human. Trivial examples abound. Someone with a bazooka overpowers someone with a knife. A knifed man forces an unarmed woman into carnal processes she wouldn’t unforcibly agree to. And there are hundreds of movie scenes, especially in westerns and action blockbusters, that tell stories about this battle of forces and powers. But for millenia before cinema was invented human history cointained in its bosom duels, rivalry, competion – and one of the most ancient of literary monuments of the world, Homer, has blood of battle soaked all over his pages. To speak like a Greek, human history is filled with ágon and húbris.

Weil writes about the Iliad being a French woman in the industrial-commercial age, and surely her experience in Renault’s factory, where she went to work in order to experience in the flesh the fate of the proletariat, informs her reading of History as a whole. The factory’s of the 20nd century are a force that dehumanizes and turns subjects into things, Weil dennounced on her writings La Condition Ouvrière, and she can sense a similar process mirrored in  The Iliad.

Iliad

“There are unfortunate creatures who have become things for the rest of their lives. Their days hold no pastimes, no free spaces, no room in them for any impulse of their own. It is not that their life is harder than other men’s nor that they occupy a lower place in the social hierarchy; no, they are another human species, a compromise between a man and a corpse. The idea of a person’s being a thing is a logical contradiction. Yet what is impossible in logic becomes true in life, and the contradiction lodged in the soul tears it to shreds. This thing is constantly aspiring to be a man or a woman, and never achieving it – here, surely, is death but death strung out over a whole lifetime; here, surely is life, but life that death congeals before abolishing.” (WEIL: p. 8)

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In the epoch of the Trojan War, it was destiny of a conquered enemy to become a slave, that is, to be turned into a thing, deprived of autonomy, and Homer describes in some occasions how people are forced into ships, taken away “to a land where they will work wretched tasks, laboring for a pitiless master” (HOMER. Iliad. Apud WEIL: p. 9).

A person enslaved is being treated like a beast, like a horse on reins. 12 Years A Slave, Scott McQueen’s film, is a fresh reminder of these horrors. Simone Weil denounces the inhumanity in human affairs wherever she sees it: be it on a Greek epic-poem or in the factories of the car industry. In this we can see how Simone Weil joins hands once again with Buddhist ethics: she denounces the ways in which misused force, or tyranny, disrespects sentient beings by treating them as if they were inert matter.

What Weil and Suzuki denounce in the workings of Force and Power is that lack of compassion which Buddhist ethics, by dissolving the ego, aims to cure ourselves of. Enlightnement or Nirvana, in Buddhism, can’t be achieved without compassion. It may also be argued that French philosophy in the 20nd century has few voices more compassionate than Simone Weil’s.

“Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it. In the Iliad there is not a single man who does not at one time or another have to bow his neck to force.” (WEIL: p. 11)

There’s no simplistic dualistic division between the forceful and the forceless in Weil’s philosophy – of course one can be a slave for a whole lifetime, and one can be a master and tyrant from birth to the grave, but force isn’t something a human being can only exert upon others. Nature itself overpowers tremendously each and every one of the sentient and living creatures in its bosom, in such a way that even the most powerful among humans is still a frail thing – and always mortal, transient.

Let’s remember that the Iliad begins when a heated controversy is dividing two very powerful Greeks, Agamemnon and Achilles. This fight for supremacy is all around Homer’s poem, everyone wants to increase his power, and this can’t be done by any other way than at the expense of others. The result of this mad rivalry is huge bloodshed. “He that takes the sword, will perish by the sword. The Iliad formulated the principle long before the Gospels did, and in almost the same terms: Ares is just, and kills those who kill.” (p. 14)

1Certainly inspired and influenced by the philosophy of one of her dearest teachers, Alain  (Émile-Auguste Chartier, 1858-1961, author of Mars ou La Guerre Jugée), Simone Weil is a passionate apologist for philosophy’s powers against inhumanity – because “where there is no room for reflection, there is none either for justice or prudence.” (p. 14) And, she argues, the horrors and tragedies that Homer depicts can also be understood as results of lack-of-reflection, of hastiness to act, of an incapacity to refrain from agression. “Hence we see men in arms behaving harshly and madly. We see their sword bury itself in the breast of a disarmed enemy who is in the very act of pleading at their knees. We see them triumph over a dying man by describing to him the outrages his corpse will endure. We see Achilles cut the throats of twelve Trojan boys on the funeral pyre of Patroclus as naturally as we cut flowers for a grave. These men, wielding power, have no suspicion of the fact that the consequences of their deeds will at lenght come home to them – they too will bow the neck in their turn.” (WEIL: p. 14)

What’s astonishing about these last words is how closely Weil gets to the Buddhist idea of karma. And what’s also touching is how compassionate Simone Weil truly is when she describes those numerous occasions when we fail to treat ourselves as “brothers in humanity” (WEIL: p. 15). But Weil is no Buddhist, and in the text we are following she’s interested mainly in the Greeks and how they also had a concept similar to karma, some sort of “retribution which operates automatically to penalize the abuse of force”. She claims this is the “the main subject of Greek thought”:

Nemesis

Greek godess Nemesis

“It is the soul of the epic. Under the name of Nemesis, it functions as the mainspring of Aeschylus’s tragedies. (…) Wherever Hellenism has penetrated, we find the idea of it familiar. In Oriental countries which are steeped in Buddhism, it is perhaps this Greek idea that has lived on under the name of Karma. The Occident, however, has lost it, and no longer even has a word to express it in any of its languages: conceptions of limit, measure, equilibrium, which ought to determine the conduct of life are, in the West, restricted to a servile function in the vocabulary of technics.” (WEIL: p. 16)

In André Comte-Sponville’s philosophy, especially in his Short Treatise Of Great Virtues, Simone Weil’s ethical legacy lives on, and it’s enough to read his wise chapters on “temperance”, “prudence” or “love” to get convinced that France is keeping alive the flame of these virtues, or at least hoping to spread them by inviting more humans to practise them. “A moderate use of force, which alone would enable man to escape being enmeshed in its machinery, would require superhuman virtue, which is as rare as dignity in weakness.” (WEIL: p. 20)

In Simone Weil’s ethics, moderation of force, care for the feelings of others, awareness of alterity, are virtues to be practised by those who see themselves as brothers and sisters in humanity. But when we look back at History we have few reasons to be optimistic. And besides, as Simone Weil points out with irony, we still live in times where “there is always a god handy to advise someone to be unreasonable.” (21)

Simone Weil’s writings frequently denounces inhumanities commited by humans. She spreads awareness of our common humanity by showing how frequently we treated ourselves in a subhuman fashion. And it’s not true that only the slaves are turned into subhumans when they are forced into slavery: the master also loses his humanity when he enslaves. And war and slavery are dehumanizing forces because they work towards destruction and death, “yet the idea of man’s having death for a future is abhorrent to nature. Once the experience of war makes visible the possibility of death that lies locked up in each moment, our thoughts cannot travel from one day to the next without meeting death’s face.” (WEIL: p. 22)

Is Weil, then, simply a pacifist, a Gandhian? Or did she approve armed uprisings against the Nazi occupation of Paris, for example? Her condemnation of war, and not only on “moral” grounds, but in a much broader sense, in an existential level, would necessarily lead her to a practice of non-resistance? The answer is hard to give, considering that Simone Weil, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), enlisted to fight against the fascists, and can be seen in a famous photograph with a shotgun in her hand, quite willing to add a little bit of force to the Anti-Franco militias. But Simone Weil was no brute – on the contrary, she was gentleness incarnate, and her personal favorite in the Iliad is “Patroclus, who knew how to be sweet to everybody, and who throughout the Iliad commits no cruel or brutal act.” (WEIL: p. 26)

The possession of a fire arm does not imply the right to brutality or cruelty. Being armed isn’t a license to act with mad húbris. When I think of Simone Weil armed with a shotgun in Spain, willing to fight against Fascism when she saw it dangerously spreading through Europe, I can’t be simplistic about pacifism, as if it was some kind of ethical absolute. I don’t believe it is – and neither did Simone Weil back in the 1930s or the Zapatistas under the guidance of Marcos in Chiapas, Mexico, nowadays.

Encounter-with-Simone_Weil-Filmstill-06.

War turns us into subhumans beasts killing themselves in mad rivalry, but how on Earth are we to build a planetary community in which war has been banned, and ample dialogue and mutual enlightnement between cultures reigns? For thousands of years, war seems to follow humanity, always on its trail. That ideal sung by John Lennon in “Imagine”, the Brotherhood of Man, remains to be futurely made flesh. In Homer’s Iliad Simone Weil sees nothing to be optismistic about, just “a picture of uniform horror, of which force is the sole hero.” (p. 27) But what’s sublime about Homer’s art, the lasting artistic value of ancient epic poetry, lies in the poet’s capacity to portray suffering befalling all – both Greeks and Trojans. Thus it points out to the fact that we’re all brothers in sorrow, and that’s an excellent reason for peace and compassion, as a Buddhist could put it.

“However, such a heaping-up of violent deeds would have a frigid effect, were it not for the note of incurable bitterness that continually makes itself heard. It is in this that the Iliad is absolutely unique, in this bitterness that proceeds from tenderness and that spreads over the whole human race, impartial as sunlight. Never does the tone lose its coloring of bitterness; yet never does the bitterness drop into lamentation. Justice and love, which have hardly any place in this study of extremes and of unjust acts of violence, nevertheless bathe the work in their light without ever becoming noticeable themselves, except as a kind of accent. Everyone’s unhappiness is laid bare without dissimulation or disdain; no man is set above or below the condition common to all men; whatever is destroyed is regretted. (…) Whatever is not war, whatever war destroys or threatens, the Iliad wraps in poetry; the realities of war, never. (…) The cold brutality of the deeds of war is left undisguised; neither victors nor vanquished are admired, scroned, or hated. An extraordinary sense of equity breathes through the Iliad. One is barely aware that the poet is a Greek and not a Trojan.” (WEIL: p. 30 – 32)

For Simone Weil, the poet who wrote the Iliad acted with marvelous impartiality, and sang about the misfortunes and losses, about the victories and triumphs, of both sides of the conflict, in such a way that Greeks and Trojans are shown as co-participants of a common process. “Attic tragedy, or at any rate the tragedy of Aeschylus and Sophocles, is the true continuation of the epic. The conception of justice enlightens it, without ever directly intervening in it; here force appears in its coldness and hardness; (…) here more than one spirit bruised and degraded by misfortune is offered for our admiration.” (p. 34) The enduring existential value of such art lies in this: to be aware of human misery is “a precondition of justice and love”, claims Weil. (p. 35)

When Simone Weil affirms that “misery is the common human lot” (p. 35), she’s once again approaching a landscape familiar to Buddhists: one of the Four Noble Truths enounced by the enlightened Sidharta Gautama is  “all is suffering”. From this awareness  springs compassion. Love, justice, compassion, can’t arise without the clear perception of our brotherhood in suffering. However, it’s clear as water that, even tough she was born in a Jewish family, Simone Weil is deeply suspicious of the doctrines and dogmas of Judaism:

“With the Hebrews, misfortune was a sure indication of sin and hence a legitimate object of contempt; to them a vanquished enemy was abhorrent to God himself and condemned to expiate all sorts of crimes – this is a view that makes cruelty permissible and indeed indispensable. And no text of the Old Testament strikes a note comparable to the note heard in the Greek epic, unless it be certain parts of the book of Job. Throughout 20 centuries of Christianity, the Romans and the Hebrews have been admired, read, imitated, both in deed and word; their masterpieces have yielded an appropriate quotation every time anybody had a crime he wanted to justify.” (p. 36)

Belief in gods is seen as highly problematic in Simone Weil’s philosophy, even tough it would be an exageration to call her an atheist, considering the intense mystical impulses that she manifests so vividly in her ouevre. What Weil can’t stand is the arrogance of those who use religion to falsely believe they are superior to the rest, that they are immune from evils that will only befall others. When religion leads to the denial of our common humanity, Weil rejects it: “the only people who can give the impression of having risen to a higher plane, who seem superior to ordinary human misery, are the people who resort to the aids of illusion, exaltation, fanaticism, to conceal the harshness of destiny from their own eyes.” (p. 36)

We still have a lot to learn from the Greeks, including its great epic poet, and Simone Weil admires Homer’s Iliad so much that she claims that

“in spite of the brief intoxication induced at the time of the Renaissance by the discovery of Greek literature, there has been, during the course of 20 centuries, no revival of the Greek genius. Something of it was seen in Villon, in Shakespeare, Cervantes, Molière, and – just once – in Racine. To this list of writers a few other names might be added. But nothing the peoples of Europe have produced is worth the first known poem that appeared among them. Perhaps they will yet rediscover the epic genius, when they learn that there is no refuge from fate, learn not to admire force, not to hate the enemy, nor to scorn the unfortunate. How soon this will happen is another question.” (WEIL: p. 37).

These words also sound, to my ears, in tune with Buddhist ethics, especially for the praise of compassion for the suffering of others. And of course that within the realm of The Other we should include Life-As-A-Whole, and not only human life. The Buddhist notion of “sentient beings” is such a great idea, methinks, because it describes something much vaster than Mankind, something that, without being a god, certainly transcends the individual self. Dogs and cats, lions and owls, sunflowers and worms, they all belong to the great family of the living, they are all sentient beings, even tough the degree of self-cousciousness greatly varies.

If both Simone Weil’s philosophy and Buddhist ethics are worthy of our attention, study and discussions, methinks it’s mainly because of the imminent ecological catastrophes that will quake our future and will shatter the current “Western Way” of dealing with Nature. Or, to put it in another words, it won’t be possible for the West to continue in its industrial-commercial path, on its productivist húbris, in its crazy consumerism meddled with egotisticall individualism, simply because the Earth’s biosphere won’t stand for it – and if we keep on going in the same direction, we can only expect mass-scale tragic consequences arising from so much atmospherical pollution, fossil-fuel burnings, deforestations, oil spills… A wiser relationship with Nature urgently needs to emerge from the cultural slumber of destructive capitalism – or else we’re damned.

Suzuki 2

“Westerners talk about conquering Nature and never about befriending her. They climb a high mountain and they declare the mountain is conquered. They suceed in shooting a certain type of projectile heavenwards and then claim that they have conquered the air. (…) Those who are power-intoxicated fail to see that power is blinding and keeps them within an ever-narrowing horizon. Love, however, transcends power because, in its penetration into the core of reality, far beyond the finiteness of the intellect, it is infinity itself. Without love one cannot see the infinely expanding network of relationships which is reality. Or, we may reverse this and say that without the infinite network of reality we can never experience love in its true light.

To conclude: Let us first realize the fact that we thrive only when we are co-operative by being alive to the truth of interrelationship of all things in existence. Let us then die to the notion of power and conquest and be resurrected to the eternal creativity of love which is all-embracing and all-forgiving. As love flows out of rightly seeing reality as it is, it is also love that makes us feel that we – each of us individually and all of us collectively – are responsible for whatever things, good or evil, go on in our human community, and we must therefore strive to ameliorate or remove whatever conditions are inimical to the universal advancement of human welfare and wisdom.”

(D. T. Suzuki, The Awakening of Zen, “Love and Power”, pg. 70)

REFERENCES

WEIL, Simone; BESPALOFF, Rachel. War and Iliad. Preface by Christopher Benfley. New York Review Books Classics, 2005.

SUZUKI, Daisetz Teitaro. The Awakening of Zen. Edited by Christmas Humphreys. Boston: Shambhala, 1980.

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(Article by Eduardo Carli de Moraes, at Awestruck Wanderer,
Toronto, Canada. March 2014.)

Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”

Blue-Jasmine

“Old habits die hard”, so the saying goes. It may be said that here lies one of the explanations for why comedy and tragedy are both so abundand in human existence: our psyches have a tendency to stick to behaviours learnt in the past, while the challenges we have to face are often new and unprecedented. I’m not simply stating the obvious – the “Freudian” thesis about how we’re necessarily “shaped”or “sculpted”  by our first childhood experience, when our characters are formed (and deformed…). What I meant to point out is something similar to Marshall McLuhan’s statement that “we look at the present through a rear-view mirror”. Or, as Kierkegaard said it: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

In Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine I get the impression a woman who looks at her rearviewmirror with a mixture of nostalgia and disgust, while she drives into the future to see what joys and catastrophes he’s got in store. Jasmine has lost a lot – her husband is dead, her big-money is gone, her son hates her guts… – but she’s still striving to recover what she has lost. What the film does really well is to transport us into a story in which we’re provoked to reflect upon Jasmine’s unfortunate fate, but she’s never merely a victim – she’s also someone who causes herself the disasters because of her unwise choices, her greed and arrogance, her belief that she belongs to a class of people above the rest. She’s diseased with the elite’s myopia: she believes to be part of the Special Caste. It’s a character that wasn’t made for an audience to love, much less idolize: Jasmine is at the same time a comical figure (a caricature of snobbish behaviour, a socialite-poseur who’s all about cheap tricks and bought glamour…), and a tragic one (a flesh-and-bone creature whose Psyche is being shattered to pieces).

Cate_Blanchett_7

The film, it seems to me, feels somewhat closer to the “dramatic” section of Allen’s oeuvre, belonging in the illustrious company of Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, Match Point, among others. There’s an artistic statement being made here, and, if I hear it well, is an alarm call against a peculiar brand of cultural madness that gets ahold of Jasmine – this character that Cate Blanchett brings to life so magnificently. The character may seem kind of typical of Woody Allen’s immense gallery of made-up-people: one more cheated wife who tries to start her life anew after the wrecking disaster of her marriage. But Blanchett manages to transform this character in something quite unique, into a multi-dimensional fictional creature.

It’s perhaps one of the greatest characters Woody Allen has created since Melinda and Melinda (2005). When Blue Jasmine ended, I had the impression that Woody Allen had achieved – at least for 30 seconds… – something as powerful and emotionally engaging as John Cassevetes did, in several unforgetable scenes, on the masterpiece of cinema A Woman Under The Influence (1974). If, throughout the film, Blanchett appears to be trying her skills on the art of comedy, as the reel rolls we marvel to see madness stepping in, and Blanchett portraying it in her flesh with a performance that would make Gena Rowlands proud.

Jasmine’s a woman that experiences an earthquake on her life, and the film chronicles the process of her downfall (from high-class to unnemployed tramp, from happily-married to a widowed single who’s “available”…). Woody Allen shows us lots of signs of her position in society’s classes: she’s rottenly rich, buys only fancy clothes and dresses all doll-like. To sum things up: she’s Barbie on Zanax. She’s somewhat similar to women in Lolita Pille’s Hell. She’s hooked on a drug called greed (she perhaps calls it “a comfortable life” and believes it can’t be bought with less than a billion dollars.) Woody Allen portrays her with a marvellous attitude of “no mercy”: she’s shown as someone full of vices and neurosis, a pouseur that acts like she’s a big-shot, refusing to acknowledge that she’s no longer part of the social pyramid’s top-floor. She’s a girl who once was rich and now has been thrown into the gutter, but who is still posing as a princess.

And one the most interesting things, in this movie, is the reason that explains Barbie’s downfall from privilege into the commonest of gutter-lives. Jasmine was married for years with a big-shot of Corporate Capitalism. Alec Baldwin’s character is an embodiment of what’s rotten on the behaviour – increasingly questioned in the streets of urban centers worldwide – of Wall Street, banksters, CEOs, and similar sharks and bulls of our present political and economical landscape. After the 2008 crisis and the Ocuppy Wall Street Movement, there seems to be another political wind in the air that’s also being captured in camera by some of the boldest filmmakers in North America. And Woody Allen and Alec Baldwin, it seems to me, were bold, and not so polite, when they portrayed, in Blue Jasmide, a lying-and-cheatin’ figure, which robbed his way into the top. In Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis we had another similar experience of utter disgust while we witnessed the day of a millionaire, in his limousine, while the riots flooded the streets around him, and a funeral procession for a dead rapper was being followed by thousands… Our are messy times. And perhaps they’re bound to get messier.

woodty

I really enjoyed Blue Jasmine because of it’s down-to-earth feel, of it’s refusal to indulge in the propaganda of a way-of-life. In fact, Woody Allen’s has used comedy as a weapon here in such a way that surprised me – I wasn’t expecting it, after Midnight in Paris, a movie that belongs to that category I usually call: “too cute to be true.” It may be said that, in Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen is not so interested in beauty than in truth: by the end of the movie, we see how much Blanchett’s body and facial expression have lost all that top-model-posing-for-papparazis look of her “glory days”. By the end of the movie, she’s a wreck, a walking disaster, and you’re suspecting she might kill herself with a Zanax overdose or throw herself from the bridge. It’s a great ending, pessimistic as it may seem, and – If you ask me – way better than any happy ending could have been.

It may be said that Woody Allen gives vent to his sarcasm against Jasmine – she’s described as somewhat stupid, un-educated, an economically priviledged woman who never payed no mind to her own education and enlightnement. After her husband is jailed, and all the wealth is gone, she discovers herself not only empoverished in money; her whole identity is shattered and cracked. Her psyche is like a broken mirror. And yet she ventures into the new experiences always looking at the rearviewmirror – a shattered one. Her habits sure die hard: she’s hooked on fancy clothes and expensive jewels, but the money to afford them has been flushed down the toilet by her rich husband (Alec Baldwin), who turned out to be both an excellent money-maker and a criminal (doesn’t this happen quite often?). Now, her plan for survival is this: “to learn about computers and to study interior decoration on-line.” Yeah: I’m quite sure that Allen’s relation to Jasmine has a lot to do with sarcastic remarks about a figure he’s aiming to ridicule.

But that’s not all. Of course Jasmine experiences not only a revearsal of economical fortune, but also a personal tragedy – and this is truly where the merit of Woody Allen’s film lies. Jasmine is an object of sarcasm, ridicule, and disgust; but she also has something almost tragic about her. Because we see her in the process of losing all her previous comforts and securities – both material and emotional. She’s lost much more than money: her family has crumbled apart, her wealth has turned to ashes, her American Dream has revealed its true face: that of a nightmare.

Jasmine, once a wealthy high-class figure of New York’s economical elite, finds herself thrown down the ladder. She discovers she’s been married to a corporate criminal, who could only buy them such an easy-living with money earned by illicit means. And while her husband rots in jail, and finally chooses to cut his miseries short with a rope around his neck, Jasmine moves to San Francisco aiming to start a new life. But old habits die hard. She doesn’t want her new life to be much different than the previous (and privileged) one. So she does what mortals such as we so often do: she won’t learn with experience, and she’ll tread a similar path to the one that has lead her to disaster; she’s gonna commit the same mistake twice. Instead of changing herself and her ways, she tries to follow in the same direction she once took: she wants to go back to her former “happy life”, but is constantly discovering that it’s dead and gone. Her glory days are buried.

But nothing can convince her desire to change. She wants the fancy, wealthy, trés chic lifestyle back. She’s hooked on consuming expensive trash and sparkling jewels, and she’s not gonna refrain from a lying-and-cheating behaviour to get what she wants. She wants to be married to a rich guy again, and when she meets a candidate, well… she doesn’t even bother herself asking: “how did he get so goddamn rich?” He might turn out to be another rich criminal – who knows? But it’s as if she doesn’t care a bit about that. In order to seduce the rich-guy into a marriage proposal, she sets her trap and leads him into it with the aid of an invented past, a fictitious construction of yersterdays that never were actually lived. In other worlds: she’s acting like a pathological liar. She’s selling to another person a falsified image of her own past – but this past won’t stay quietly buried. It will come back to life and demand that its truth must be recognized. That’s a theme that also propels Cronenberg’s narrative in A History of Violence, as I attempted to show on this article.

Jasmine, if she was wise, would have truly learned from experience and changed her route. Instead, she followed the path that Woody Allen so frequently portrays his characters following: the comical and tragic tendency to repeat the same mistakes and also manage to discover ways to make brand-new ones. In mood, Blue Jasmine is quite similar a Coen Brothers’ comedy of errors. But its relevance, it seems to me, lies much more in its psychological insight and its commentary on society, culture and politcs. As I’ve said before, in this movie Woody Allen and Cate Blanchett really achieved, working together, an artistic result that brings to mind some of the best elements in the work of John Cassavetes. Jasmine’s descent into the maesltrom of madness is depicted in a truly multi-dimensional way – she’s deeply wounded by past experiences, and almost choking because of too many traumas, but she’s never only a victim of others peoples’ misdeeds: she’s also a victim of herself.

She’s almost like a junkie, but one who’s hooked on wealth and status and is dying from its withdrawal. And, it seems to me, it’s a cultural madness that Jasmine embodies, one that could be summed up by this tendency of uncontrollable greed for material goods, especially those denoting superiority of class. In Blue Jasmine, I believe Allen has made one statement of impressive power. The film provides what we expect from his witty creativity – smart dialogue, good jokes, fast-paced narrative… – and leaves us astonished at Woody’s capacity to continue crafting such marvellous original screenplays at his already advanced age (he’s brain, born in 1935, is still quite sharp!). Someday, after he’s gone to the grave, and after all the clouds of gossip and scandal settle down, perhaps Woody Allen’s ouevre will be deservingly praised as one of the greatest artistic bodies-of-work that North America’s cinema has produced in the last decades.

Read on: Seattle TimesThe InquirerWashington Post – ReelviewsToronto Star – Rolling StoneTime MagazineThe New Yorker.

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Woody Allen: a Documentary [DOWNLOAD PART 1 & PART 2]

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