Far more than monsters and ghosts or the joy of a well told horror story (which I admit, I am quite fond of), it is the “why” questions that seem far more threatening and scary to me. There is something about the uncertainty and fear of the unknown that tends to show itself in places I least expect and linger long after the lights have gone out.
Giving Thanks For Virtuous Idealism
Thanksgiving is an opportunity for our extended family to come together over food and conversation. Although we do live relatively close together, it is typically the nieces and nephews who are the most visible measure of another year gone by, arriving a little bit taller, a little more socially mature… a little more graduated than the year before.
And with graduation comes an increased awareness of those why questions. Like where should they go to school and what should they be taking in school and why (and how) will these decisions matter for their future. Our own son is merely a year and a half away from facing these same questions, something that is, if I am being honest, both exciting and extremely frightening for me as a parent.
For one particular family member this year, these why questions had led them to consider, given the irreversible impact they perceived human activity to be having on our environment, that the single most important human endeavor needs to be a renewed commitment to space exploration. Space is the only way future generations will have a chance to survive, and this was leading them to work through a decision to head into engineering in an effort to help towards this goal. A valiant and ambitious goal to be sure.
Damien Chazelle’s First Man
In a similar way, considering the importance of space in shaping the future of humanity, the much anticipated new film by Damien Chazelle (the director of Whiplash and La La Land) tells the story of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and, in the larger context, the story of NASA and the complicated political nature of the space race.
The way Chazelle frames these two aspects of the film shapes the most interesting dynamic of what I think is an exceptional cinematic accomplishment. It is for movies like this that we go to the theaters. He takes the larger context and sees it through the lens of Armstrong’s personal story (it is based on his biography). And in doing so he affords an expansive, culturally aware, larger than life event a sense of intimacy and urgency by putting us in the chair with Armstrong, played to wonderfully restrained, cold, static affect by Gosling.
In effect, Chazelle is asking us in this film to consider, from this perspective, the question of whether the risk of this mission was truly worth the reward. It is a harrowing question given the vulnerability and sacrifice required to accomplish this mission.
A Spiritual Experience
It would be an understatement to suggest that something happened in my spirit as I was watching this film. To see a monumental moment of human achievement in the light of a tragic human story allowed me to see both the event and the person in a way I had never considered before. And the more I began to see of this story, the larger the why questions began to loom in my mind. Over the course of the film we watch as Armstrong deals with loss and grief by sinking himself into the mission and distancing himself from the pain, causing growing dissension in the family unit which Chazelle sets directly against the demands of the mission. The more Armstrong and others sacrifice for the sake of the mission, the further detached he becomes from the things that seem like they should be the greater priority.
The question that ultimately lingers in the shadows of this monumental accomplishment (and yes, we all know he ultimately makes those first steps onto the moon) is not whether America won the race, or even whether Armstrong accomplished his goal. This is demonstrated as a matter of fact in a film that is brave enough to shift the flag planting to the background and move the relationships to the forefront. Rather, Chazelle chooses to explore the greater why questions using this shifting perspective to consider why this mission mattered and why this momentary step taken by a single man became such an important part of our cultural and human story? What it is that makes this giant leap forward a necessary human accomplishment? What made the race for space worth the cost, sacrifices that become increasingly evident as the film moves forward. And why do we (or should we) value space exploration to begin with?
A True Horror Film
In exploring these questions, in his own way Chazelle has made what might be the most horrifying film of this season. And really, when it comes down to it, framing something as small and intimate as the human experience against something as large and monumental as the space race is scary business. Not simply because of what it celebrates, but for what it reveals- we don’t necessarily have the answers to the questions, and there is no promise that they will come by the time we reach the end of this film.
What the film does capture with certainty though is the complicated process by which we measure the things that are most important, the messiness of our human condition and the reality that we are not as in control of our world as our achievements tend to make us feel. And that leads to a growing sense of fear, both in the characters on screen and for me as a viewer. What Chazelle coaxes to the surface through the performances is a sense that it is actually this fear that fuels much of our need for progress and the pain we feel when we become a causalty of it, whether we recognize it or not. Hiding underneath the surface of accomplishments like the moon landing is the tragedy of our human story, the stuff that we often would rather ignore rather than face head on.
When asked why they wanted to go into engineering, this young family member answered by offering a stark commentary on our human condition. Our life here on earth is past the point of no return. We are self destructing. We have messed things up so bad our only means of survival as a species is to get off this earth and start over. And yet I couldn’t help but think as I considered his answer in the moment, why? If humanity is so messed up, why is it so necessary that we find and fight for a way for to survive? What makes this fight for survival a meaningful endeavor, and at what cost will it arrive?
This is the same question asked of Armstrong in the film. Why go to the moon? For him he was given a glimpse of the world from space, and it is this shift in perspective, this new way of seeing the world that makes him the right candidate to fly to the moon. And yet the more he gazes at the moon the more he blinds himself to his earthly struggle and is haunted by his failures and mistakes. He fails to see what is right in front of him- his life, his wife, his son, the memory of his daughter, and he allows his pain to build a wall that begins to separate and guard his mission from his relationships.
And ultimately what Chazelle constructs is a sense of context. For as awe inspiring as that first step is in the film (an incredible moment to experience in Imax format), it is the tragedy of the human story that affords it meaning.
Quest for meaning: values, ethics, and the modern experience by Robert H. Kane
When it comes to the relationship between our why questions and our search for meaning, recognizing the tension is half the battle. And in his book, Kane argues that one of the things we need to recognize is that modernity, in its shift towards relativism, has actually begun to erode our sense of meaning, and, as one critic added in conversation on Goodreads, “stripped value from fact.” There is a sense that one gains from this book that society, or more specifically philosophy, has been attempting to (over) correct this by reinserting meaning back into the current reigning system of thought (using Locke’s blank slate theory as an example) by reestablishing value as creative (or created) fact. Whether it is doing this successfully is a matter of interpretation and perspective, but at the very least one could argue this is a problematic exercise at best.
Married to this notion (again, from Kane’s book) is the idea of progressivism as an idealized process. This is the idea that our social systems, human (technological) invention and our biology is being perfected (progressed or progressive) over time. He takes the time to examine this idea by offering a focused break down of the main schools of philosophical thought: Spinoza’s feeling-emotion tradition, Hume’s appeal to human nature (Sentimentalist approach), Hobbes and Rawls’ social contract theories (Contractarian approach), Bentham and Mill’s utilitarian theory (Utilitarian approach), and Kant’s reasoned ethics (Rationalist approach), understanding that each of these schools of thought plays into how we understand this ideal progression in terms of human reason and rationalism.
And yet, as another commentator put it, the reality is “the game theory of Utilitarians (the aim and expression of this perfection), the veil of ignorance of the Contractarians, the categorical insistence of the Rationalists, even the optimism of the Sentimentalists, all try to reduce humans to stick figures which are interchangeable with any other human.” This is the truth we often choose to ignore in favor of our accomplishments, our visible progress if you will. The bi-product of this is a confusion of the nature of personal responsibility. In other words, we seem to deem it necessary to hold humankind responsible while simultaneously allowing our reason and ration to dismantle the source of our responsibility- free will. And what ultimately gets sacrificed in this wake is meaning, or at the very least an honest expression of it.
Through all of the work of building these philosophical frameworks, we seem to still be sitting in this tension between “modern ethics and the wisdom of the ancients”, an idea I referenced in my previous blog on The Tangled Tree and the problem of Progressive Thought. Which is to say, meaning itself has become something of a problematic and volatile construct that finds itself stuck between the concreteness of rationalist ideals and the allusiveness of relativist meanderings, with the real question being, “is there a universal and absolute good that can actually connect these two worlds of stripped and re-created meaning (the questions of MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” and Plato’s “Good”).
In the book the suggestion is yes, there is a universal, objective truth of meaning. And he finds this by tracing it back across the secular-religious lines (or modern-ancient line), from everything such as the Eastern mystics and the Mosaic commandments to Jefferson’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, suggesting that we have always retained a shared sense of who we are and how things should be- which is precisely the foundation we need to recognize a shared value system of virtues or meaning that is not bound by cultural lines but rather shaped by human progress. And what does this come down for Kane? Love. Love is what we share and what gives us meaning.
THE GOOD PLACE AND GOODNESS FOR GOODNESS SAKE
It is interesting to note that a recent episode of The Good Place recently came to precisely this same conclusion. Outlining the same essential philosophical constructs, one of the shows main characters faces an existential crisis when an unexpected realization threatens the ability of his philosophical constructs to define and offer meaning to our everyday actions, primarily by doing away with the question of motivation. No longer able to assume a proper motivation for determining what is good and what is not, what has value and what does not, the only thing he has left is nihilism. Another character eventually helps to remind him that life means something simply because it is meaningful, and therefore we must do good for goodness sake, especially in the context of relationship. And to simply do this should be enough.
As I suggested in my previous blog, there is an obvious (to me anyways) leap of logic (or faith) that is necessary for this episode to arrive at this final conclusion (season 3, episode 5, for those keeping track… And it feels like they will be using this to set the stage for the remainder of the season). There is an existing, and arguably unbridgeable tension that exists between these two conclusions, nihilism and goodness for goodness sake. And while authors like Kane and the writers of The Good Place do deal with this tension in some shape or form, in both cases they eventually choose to ignore the inconsistencies of their reasoning in order to allow themselves to reconcile the fragility of the human experience with the reigning philosophical lines of thought that guide them. The values and virtues and meaning that they desire to find and uphold are, as I argued in my previous blog, antithetical to the facts of nature (survival, reproduction, non-linear adaptation and the selfish gene), and it is only (really) by neglecting the idea of human nature (which Locke does) that we are free to circumvent this fact as a necessary contradiction. As another commentator understands it, “goodness often creates disorder and disunity” precisely because it circumvents the natural order. If, as in the Jefferson mantra and the religious constructs of the ancient world, it is about freedom above all (as the highest expression of love as virtue), we are essentially left with a world that is consistently pushing back against the order that has imposed itself on our will. To be free is not our natural state.
And So We Start Over… and Over Again
The solution of the young idealist in my family (mentioned above) is to leave the mess and start over. To let the world self destruct and try again. Our responsibility today is to give future generations the opportunity to leave behind humanities mess and push forward towards something better. Given this individual has grown up in a relativist philosophical system, it is likely fair to assume this idealized future somehow sits above the accepted natural order that informs it. In this system of thought, humanity is the reason but progress is still the end game. All of which, once again, assumes meaning where meaning is not a given, while at the same time it cannot function unless these pursuits mean something. In this context it assumes the race for space is in-fact the greater good, while forgetting that it is the tragedy of the human story that this goodness is supposed to be for.
In the movie First Man, Chazelle recognizes that assigning meaning to something like the space race as one of the greatest and most important achievements of human kind can only be true if framed against the more intimate, human story that informs it. The painful why questions of Armstrong’s life. In-fact the tension that Chazelle manages to achieve in this film comes from the way he allows these questions to haunt Armstrong rather than satisfy him with the answers he needs. He believes what he is doing means something, and yet the closing scene leaves us with an open ended silence that simaltaneously shakes our confidence in what we just experienced and returns us to the brokenness that brought us to this point. Was it worth it? Here I think is where Chazelle does a rather brilliant job of giving this tension a subtle yet distinct trajectory, both as a larger cultural statement and as an expression of Armstrong’s personal story, giving us glimpses of hope while allowing the uncertainty of the moment to linger. We have landed on the moon, but the truth is the world he left behind is still a divided mess. Armstrong has completed his mission, but the truth his relationship with his family is still broken. The pain still persists. For all that we can control, even now as we try to get to Mars and manipulate genes and create robots, we remain as much out of control, at war and divided as we were back then.
In my previous blog I mentioned that one of the biggest obstacles to our ability to derive meaning from human progress is the latest research (The Tangled Tree, or HGT- Horizontal Gene Transfer) that is pushing back on one of the foundations of rationalist thought- that linear picture of evolution that allows us to posit and locate an original source for our progressive ideological and biological pursuits, a source that is able to draw a clear line in our progression from here to an idealized there. I then wondered if the greatest obstacle to our ability to locate this source is, in-fact, the human experience. After seeing First Man I am left wondering this even more.
As a film, First Man dares to wonder whether the cost was worth the reward, and in doing so considers why the space program is so important. What is it that we are after? Immortality? Survival? Achievement? And what gives these things meaning in the first place? To find the answer it has to dig underneath the surface to see the human story that helped guide this mission, and in doing so considers that it is the stories that we neglect in our need to control the future on our own terms that tend to be the things that leave us most out of control. Armstrong is not established as a pilot with super human abilities or a series of amazing accomplishments. He is simply presented as the last one standing. He must complete the mission because it is something that needs to get done. To what end is not a question he truly considers until it costs him everything. And the truth is, exploring the grief, the loss, the broken relationships, the uncertainty that marks Armstrong’s journey to the moon, this requires us to actually get into the mud with him and wrestle with the why questions on a deeper and more complex level. It requires us to wrestle with what is virtuous and good and right and meaningful in this world. And it requires us to do this even when we don’t have all the answers.
More Than Goodness for Goodness Sake
Truth be told most days (again, if I am honest) living life in the name of survival and progress gives me more reason not to live than to go on living. In truth, it is difficult for me to see the moon when I can barely see myself on the best of days. And so it requires faith for me to believe that who we are and what we are striving for matters. A faith that can transcend the experiences of this world and speak to something universal, something that is given to us rather than created by us. Because the truth is, for as awe inspiring as it was to go to the moon, to see the surface open up before me in all its accomplished glory, it is the broken experience of Armstrong’s story that left me most shaken. And if there is a greater point to Chazelle’s film (subjectively speaking of course), I think it is that, for all that we give to achieving the impossible, it is our willingness to enter into the human story that is the far more worthwhile journey. Because it is when we enter into this story that we can actually attend to the brokenness rather than escaping it. That we can learn to embrace it rather than try to control it. This perspective, the perspective Armstrong finally seems to gain near the end of the film, even if in limited fashion, has the ability to turn our gaze away from the false promises of our ambition and towards something greater, something other. Something we can actually call good not for goodness sake or because it is something we accomplished or achieved by the measure of our ambition, but because it has the power to change us.