January 02, 2010

One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest


The 1970s in America are commonly seen as a revolutionary decade for film. Films produced in that era like the Godfather, Mean Streets, Five Easy Pieces and Chinatown have defined what audiences expect and directors and actors want to create ever since. The demise of the studio system brought the rise of great directors- Polanski, Scorsese, Coppola- whose works consciously looked to the European auteur tradition rather than to the style of a particular studio. The world of film changed forever, becoming less formal and more rebellious and more innovative. One flew over the Cuckoo's nest sits in this tradition. It employed non-traditional actors, placed an emphasis on verrisimilitude and its stance was deliberately anti-establishment. The film is set inside a deserted wing of a mental asylum. Many of the actors were themselves inmates of the asylum and the chief psychiatrist took a role in the film. We have to remember how self consiciously 'new' the film was tyring to be when we analyse its purpose.

The film is about a character who finds himself inside a mental asylum as an alternative to being placed in prison. R.P. McMurphy is a petty criminal with nothing particularly vile in his record but equally with a multitude of lesser offences- minor assaults, petty thefts and statutory rape (of a seductive fifteen year old by McMurphy's own account). This is our hero. He is basically unrepentant. He comes to the asylum because he wants to escape being sent to prison and so volunteers for a mental examination. In the asylum he meets various other patients, a massive Indian called by everyone 'Chief', various other insane elder men including the educated Harding, the aggressive Taber, depressive Billy, delusional Martini and childish Cheswick. The cast is complete when we add the supervising nurse, Nurse Ratchett and her attendants- one female nurse and several young black men. McMurphy decides to rouse the madmen- to try and get them all to watch the baseball every evening, to play cards seriously and even at one point to escape the asylum to go fishing. Nurse Ratchett thwarts him at every step.

The message is partly libertarian. The criminal is lauded and not shown to be anything more than generally benevolent. Nurse Ratchett on the other hand is shown as a true repressive- she never speaks abovea moderate tone- she strikes McMurphy with repressed emotion and mean spirited bureacracy. For him and for the film maker, madness is not a condition but an imposition from society. In social philosophy this took the form of Foucault's theory of madness as an alternative to leprosy as a means of exiling the marginal, in this film it takes the form of R.P. McMurphy and his minor rebellion. We know that he will not succeed for to some extent he actually beleives that the institution is what the institution proclaims itself to be, a place for the care of the mad, whereas what it is is a place for the confinement of the mad. Nurse Ratchett does not- as she shows most clearly with Billy towards the end- interest herself in what is good for the mad, but in what can control them.

This view of psychology is perfectly good for a radical director or philosopher, it does not really help anyone to understand the mad or to explain criminality. Examine the film another way and it does start to reveal more interesting things. McMurphy may not succeed in his ultimate objective but he does succeed in changing the atmosphere of the asylum. As a study in charisma the film works far better than as a study in madness. We see the mad men respond to McMurphy's swagger and his enthusiasm. What marks him out from Nurse Ratchett and her attendants is that he pretends the mad are sane, whereas they pretend they are insane. The truth is that all the men are partly sane and partly insane- even Martini can vote for the baseball game- and McMurphy's assumption flatters them and rouses them to join in with his games, his activities and his trips. Whereas Ratchett's power is based upon her formal authority, McMurphy's is based upon his informal charisma.

Two types of power and two types of authority clash together in the film. They produce a tragedy but they also provide an insight into the ways that human beings relate to madness. McMurphy has nothing to lose, he has gone as one of the men and therefore can make these informal connections with them. He does not have to treat them. Insofar as he does have attitudes to their conditions, he wonders why they are not doing what he would do. His main purpose in life though is to get a cushy ride in the asylum and get out to where he can chase girls and have fun. Nurse Ratchett is in the asylum for good and her position makes it hard for her to exert McMurphy's informal power, she is restrained from it by her position. She understands the conditions of the men around her and whereas she seeks to make them better, does so as a professional not someone who seeks in any way to be their friend. Her coolness and her confinement to formality are the rules of professionalism.

In this sense the real division within the film is between the professional and the charismatic and the kinds of power that they exert. McMurphy may be a criminal but he can communicate on another level to these men and care for them on another level to Nurse Ratchett. The irony of the film is that he is almost certainly a worse human being than Ratchett, on one level the film is simple authoritarianism, on the other it opens up the chasm for us between the doctor and the fellow human being, the fellow patient. A doctor must be cool and professional to some extent to survive, a patient can get involved in a way because he or she bears no responsibility for the way that the case will go. One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest shows how professionals can go a step further and start thinking about protecting themselves rather than their objects. This danger is always there and Nurse Ratchett has fallen victim to imagining that her patient's good is equivalent to her own good.

January 01, 2010

Review: A Political Gene

Denis Sewell's book is a huge and important mistake from end to end. It is feebly argued, put together with the persuasiveness of a magazine column and with the same attention to the solidity of his argument. Mr Sewell argues that the trail of evolutionary theory, the trail of what he calls Darwinianism, stretches across the twentieth century to include both Naziism and Eugenics. He suggests that these ideologies were involved in the original Darwinian program and that the only guard against them is Christian and Catholic theology. To believe in Evolution today and to be an atheist is to step on a slippery slope towards the horrors of the third Reich and to condone abortion or to believe in contraception is to begin the ride of Dr Mengele. Mr Sewell's argument about the consequences of Darwin is both historical and political therefore, the two parts are supposed to buttress each other and remind us that our only guide and guardian in the perilous quest to understand modern science is the holy mother church. It deserves to be analysed both as a historical argument and as a political argument separately: in the first case Mr Sewell has something to be said for him, in the second alas his arguments are easily demonstrated to be false.

Historically there can be no doubt that some people used Darwinian theory to allow themselves to speculate on the evolutionary doom of the poor (Herbert Spencer) or of subject races (see A. Hitler for an extreme example). To deny that would be perverse and part of the interest of Sewell's book lies in the way that he accumulates examples of people using evolutionary metaphors to describe their own political ideas. Obviously this, as Sewell acknowledges, betrays a basic misunderstanding of evolution: firstly there is no such thing as a wealth gene, secondly evolution functions on the level of the individual organism- there is no such thing as the struggle of the races. Sewell is right to note that Darwin had an influence on people- but what he will not or does not write about is that Darwin's influence came in context. No one set of influences predisposed Europeans to think of other races as sub-human: as Colin Kidd for instance shows there were a whole set of languages coming out of the Bible (about the children of Ham for example) which supported a racist way of viewing the world. Darwin's ideas were understood, are still understood by people, in the context of other beliefs that they had. There is an interesting study to be done about how people interpreted and re-interpreted Darwin- but this not it as it does not discuss, or acknowledge, the ways that Darwin's ideas related to and spoke to other ideas around at the same time.

Furthermore Sewell's book contains no development. Historical accounts are often, especially if stretched over a century, accounts of development and change. For Sewell though, there is no development and no change. The Eugenecists of the Edwardian period, the Nazis of the Second World War, the abortionists of the 1960s and the geneticists of today must be doing exactly the same thing. There are moments when Sewell gets absurdly close to becoming a conspiracy theorist who believes that no matter what happened in British medical history, the Eugenics society were behind it. The problem with this thesis is that things have changed and there is an interesting history in the ways that the twentieth century has seen change. Whereas in the early century, from Sewell's book, genetic advances were being used by social scientists and others to model an ideal future population, at the end of the century they are being used by doctors and others to increase personal choice. Sewell raises cases of forced abortion in the United States in the 1920s and condemns them and then advances straight to cases of abortion today: but of course the forced abortion and the chosen abortion are fundementally different entities. Failing to realise that means that Sewell does not really understand the course of the history that he navigates.

Heavily involved in Sewell's history is a polemic against Atheism. As you might infer from the paragraph above, Sewell is a Catholic polemecist. Some of his politics is unobjectionable- some is deeply wrong. The central claim he makes is that a purely evolutionary position on the development of life will not and cannot allow anyone to take a moral view of the world. Mr Sewell has obviously not read much David Hume and believes that a fact and a value are the same thing. Quite why a reality should determine what I value in the world is something that he does not explain. Quite why an omnipotent God is needed for me to infer a morality, or why a God's omnipotence translates directly into making the orders of that God right he leaves out. If the book's purpose is as it appears to be to suggest that Atheists have done nasty things, that evolutionary ideas have led to some hideous acts, Mr Sewell is not wrong, but then again the same thing could be said of the Church itself or of many other ideologues. Christ did not intend the inquisition but Christians performed it, Muhammed did not intend 9/11 but it happened. Ideas have consequences but the generators of those ideas are not responsible for those consequences- especially as they go down the centuries and people change the meanings they assign to ideas. A scientific theory is either a correct or incorrect explanation of phenomena within the world- whether it is or not incorrect or correct does not effect what it is right or wrong for us to do!

Mr Sewell does have a point in attacking particular evolutionists including Darwin for some of the things that they have said. Darwin did allow Francis Galton to say things without contradicting them that he probably should have demurred from. (Quite what Darwin's responsibility for his grandchild, Leopold Darwin, should be is something I'm not sure about). Others too from the Webbs onwards have said some terrible things about eugenics and evolution, not to mention of course the range of people who rallied to support the Nazis. But the same could be said of the church, Mr Sewell presumably would agree with me that not every deed done in the name of Christ is to be endorsed. This reflects badly on the individuals concerned but ultimately the theory whether of Christianity or Evolution is distinct from the individuals. Philosophically, Mr Sewell is out of his depth (not to mention scientifically where he cites a television program to suggest that there may still be a debate about race and genetics (see p.199)). Whatever evolution tells us about the world or Christianity, you cannot infer a value from a fact- whether that is the competition to acquire genetic decendents or the existance of a God. Secondly almost all ideas can be used in a profusion of ways- almost all ideas will be- the central issue is whether the idea is correct, not whether it has been used by unpleasant people to unpleasant ends.

Ultimately Mr Sewell's book is about an interesting subject. He can write and he can obviously think. He has read quite a bit and could have, perhaps should have written a more interesting book. He does retreive some good quotations and has taught me a bit about the reception of Darwin's ideas and we do need to know more about this, about how they were received and combined with other ideas, about how their reception evolved. Both historically and philosophically he is out of his depth and what could have been an interesting book turns into an uninteresting polemic. This book would have been wonderful if written by a cautious scholar, unfortunately Mr Sewell has the caution of Lord Cardigan and the attitudes to truth of a Daily Mail hack.

December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

I thought I'd put up as its New Year's Eve, one of my favourite poems, Thomas Hardy's Darkling Thrush, written as 1899 closed into 1900. Its an important poem, one of the readings I give it is a hopeful one- though at times the current moment and the future look bleak, they looked bleak in the past as well. One of the mercies of being human is that we cannot know the future and whatever it is will surprise both the most mordant of our fantasies and the most hopeful of our prognostications.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited ;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

December 29, 2009

The Machinist


The Machinist is a film in which the work of the cinematographer is obvious. The film is all grey slates and slats. The film is deliberately industrial- we are seeing not merely a machinist's story but a machinist's life. Machinery metallically grinds against itself. Christian Bale has even turned his body in this performance (he lost sixty pounds from a fit frame to play the title character) into a machine, you can see the bones as they jut into each other and connect just as you can see the inner workings of the machines on the factory floor. The rain glances off the truck (and it must be a truck at that) and renders the world outside grey. The inside of Trevor Reznick's flat is grey, metallic and dark. He reminds me more than anything of John Hurt in 1984, the same wizenned frame, the same haunted eyes, the same bony body. As in 1984, the way that we know that the leading male character is sick in his head is by comparison with the female characters. When we first see Christian Bale he is in bed with a prostitute played by Jennifer Jason Leigh called Stevie: Stevie's normal stomach contrasts with Bale's bony contours and renders the shot even more terrifying. We see this film through Trevor's eyes and through his eyes it is significant that only the two important female characters, Stevie and a waitress in an airport cafe, have anything that ressembles beauty or softness- the rest of the world is grey and dull.

In some senses it does not really matter what has rendered the world grey and dull for Trevor and I will not unfold to you the plot. It is important to note here that Trevor, like Leonard in Memento, slowly reveals that he cannot see the world in the same way that others do. So for example, he believes that there is a man on the shop floor called Ivan that none of his co-workers can see and his bosses say doesn't exist. Ivan is the reason that Trevor was distracted and by mistake committed a hideous error with a machine. Slowly we grasp that Trevor's world is different and distinct from the worlds of others: his co-workers draw away from him, he alienates his friends if they exist. Either the world is a vast conspiracy motivated to get Trevor for some reason, or there is something wrong in the way that he perceives the world. What matters here for the film is not which of those options is true, though we do find out, but what Trevor makes of this. His wizenned appearance, his gaunt face are responses, replies to a world that he cannot quite believe in. He cannot sleep and has not slept for over a year, he does not trust anyone bar Stevie and his experience is fractured, as is the film, into shards. Trevor's world is rendered to him in a series of events, stochastically, rather than in a stream.

Whatever happened to Trevor has changed his attitudes to his world as well as changing his world. He becomes aggressive. The kind of worker who knows his rights and is ready to object when they are touched. His aggressiveness carries over into imagining conspiracies so for example he accuses the victim of his accident of instigating it in order to destroy Trevor's world. He finds it difficult to extend human sympathy- whatever happened to Trevor destroyed his sense of empathy. One of the crucial differences between Trevor and the sympathetic female characters is that he lacks what they have, a basic interest in other human beings. His aggressiveness carries into blaming others for the world in which he exists, lost in the darkness of this world, Trevor turns that darkness outwards. As he becomes increasingly distressed, he becomes increasingly violent, increasingly angry that whatever it is that is happening is happening and around him everyone becomes increasingly repelled. Trevor causes his condition to deepen and his condition causes him to hate further causing his condition to deepen yet again.

The resolution of what is happening to Trevor is believable and links to the plot. In a sense we realise the film is an exaggeration and possibly an unrealistic one. The central point though is not about the cause or explanation of whatever is happening but it is Trevor's sense of impending darkness. The film's power comes from that rather than from the explanation.

December 28, 2009

Review: Lord Broghill and the Cromwellian Union with Ireland and Scotland


Lord Broghill was one of the most important figures in Cromwellian Britain. He was one of its architects. Broghill served Cromwell in Ireland as a general, in Scotland as Lord President of the Council there and lastly in England as an MP. In Ireland, he was a key figure in the Cromwellian conquest, rallying Munster to the English cause and allying the Protestants of Ireland with the New Model Army rather than with Ormonde's royalists. He became a staunch patron of the Protestants of Ireland in the Cromwellian regime and an advocate for their interests, an ally of Henry Cromwell and an opponent of the radical courses designed by the New Model Army. In Scotland he devised a policy which he hoped would bring into being a constituency for the Cromwellian regime amongst religious moderates who had given up the hope of a Stuart restoration. In Parliament, Broghill was one of the principle agents behind moves to give Cromwell the crown and restore what might look like a traditional and legitimate regime to power. These three strands of Broghill's career might seem to be incompatible- they are actually related and part of the skill of Patrick Little's biography of Broghill is that he shows that the peer had a consistent strategy to acheive peace.

What Broghill seems to have desired was the protection of the Protestant interest in the three Kingdoms. The war in Ireland was a war with three sides: a royalist army commanded by the Marquess of Ormonde, a Catholic army commanded by Owen Roe O'Neill and Thomas Preston and a Parliamentary army commanded by Michael Jones and later Cromwell. Sides changed subtly through the war but the key point here is that Ormonde was willing to do a deal with the Catholics, but Jones and Cromwell were unwilling to do so. Broghill sided from the early 40s onwards with the Parliamentarians because he beleived that they would secure the future of Protestant Ireland and not, as the royalists might, make concessions to the Catholics. Broghill's politics were motivated like those of his father by the preservation of the English governing interest in Ireland and ultimately the King, by allying with the Confederation of Kilkenny (the Catholic party) might jeapordise that. If we read that purpose through Broghill's career, his politics seem straightforward rather than complicated: when the Parliamentarians were expelled in 1660, Broghill returned to the Stuarts on the grounds that they were the only remaining English party and only with an English party could the Irish Protestant Grandees remain in control of Ireland.

Such a policy makes sense as well, as Little argues, of Broghill's preoccupations in Irish politics during Cromwell's regime. Broghill believed in maintaining the Old Protestant interest. The English Parliament during the civil war had issued IOUs to its soldiers secured on Irish land- at the end of the war in Ireland in the 1650s, a competition arose between those like Broghill who wanted to reclaim their lands and acquire more for their service in Ireland and others who wanted to redeem their IOUs. Broghill stood with the planter aristocracy rather than backing the New Model's claims on Irish land and the controversy burst into public at various points- most notably in the pamphlet wars between Vincent Gookin (an ally of Broghill's) and Marshall General Richard Lawrence. Such a perspective though also makes sense of Broghill's policy in Scotland. In Scotland Broghill backed the moderate Resolutioners against the extremist Protestors, as Little explains this was part of Broghill's strategy for achieving moderate Protestant unity against Catholicism and against the extremist Quaker and Fifth Monarchist Rabble. In England this came through too in Broghill's attempts to get Cromwell to claim the crown- by claiming the crown Cromwell's regime would become a traditional and legal regime and would begin a process of unifying Protestant Englishmen across Britain.

What Little acheives in this biography is a kind of synthesis of Broghill's ideological outlook. It is a fascinating study because it shows how Broghill's motivation in the civil war was inherited from his father's generation- the 1st Earl of Cork wanted to maintain Protestant unity in supporting England in Ireland and Broghill's policies were all designed to support that achievement. Little reminds us that we should always look at politicians- especially dynastic ones- through the prism of the previous generation. Furthermore he shows how Broghill's network of relatives allowed him entrees into the other three kingdoms- through his wife's Howard relations and her ties to Scotland- that influenced his conduct there. The most interesting part of the book to me was a sophisticated analysis of Broghill's finances. Because his Irish estates were devastated by the wars, it was not until 1657 that Broghill actually acquired financial certainty. Before then he was reliant on loans, selling his English estates and most importantly salaries from the Commonwealth and later Protectorate. One of the consequences of the English civil war was to create a massive fiscal state machinery that could mean that someone like Broghill would survive on salaries alone for twenty years- the same was even more true of those who unlike Broghill had no inherited wealth and several like his ally Phillip Jones built up massive fortunes and estates through office holding.

This biography is about someone who is little known today- Broghill would never be mentioned in any of the history channel documentaries about Cromwell that are put on. But he was crucial to the period- it is often forgotten just how important the old Planter aristocracy were in Ireland to the Cromwellian settlement- often forgotten as well how much Cromwell in England bartered between men like Broghill and more radical individuals especially about the crown in 1657. Broghill's career ended in frustrated irritation when Cromwell turned down the crown and Richard Cromwell's career failed, he became a key figure briefly under Charles but only in Ireland and after the fall of Clarendon in 1667, his old enemy Ormonde dominated the King's counsels, and yet Broghill is an important figure when we come to consider the nature of the English Revolution. In Ireland, for men like him and Sir Charles Coote (his only Old Protestant rival), Protestant unity trumped an old association with the crown: vulnerable to the Catholic threat they subordinated everything to fight for Protestantism in Ireland and you cannot understand the Irish dimension to the English civil war without understanding the context Patrick Little so clearly sets out.