The Weekly Grok: "Top Gun," "Perpetual Peace," and "Long Day's Journey into Night"
Some thoughts on freedom, flight, and getting high and tight.
I’ve yet to figure out whether I can deliver a regular newsletter. And yet the influx of subscriptions (especially paid subscriptions) are regularly a fresh source of guilt.
So here’s a new idea: a weekly newsletter with mini-reports on what I’m reading, watching, thinking, and writing about. I can’t promise that these updates will be completely polished, well-organized, or edited (those requirements are what currently keep me from publishing regularly). But hopefully they’ll be enjoyable or useful to subscribers—let me know.
What I’ve Been Watching
The film is a celebration of fast and slow: the need for speed on the one hand, and emotional weight of 80s nostalgia on the other. Some interplay between fast and slow is perfectly natural: if you want to do more than ditch the past at some multiple of Mach, then you’re required to circle back. Yet if the turn is tight enough, the G-forces could knock you (or your ride) out.
Everything speedy that happens in this film is diverted by the fact that it is essentially a reference to another film and an homage to a bygone era, one more youthful in spirit and protagonist. For an almost 60-year-old Maverick (Tom Cruise), the mid-life crisis must rise to the level of an F-14 or F-18 rather than be satisfied with a Mazda Miata or Harley Davidson. Which is not to say motorcycles and even racing sailboats aren’t involved—the middle-aged will take whatever stretches their stiffened mortal coils, and helps them prolong the illusions of mobility and possibility.
Yet in this case, the illusion seems to have become magically real. It’s really quite strange to watch a film in which 50-somethings successfully make everything feel like the first time. After more than 30 years of evading domesticity and career advancement, Maverick is finally ready to settle down with the girl of his dreams and become … a teacher. It helps that both lover and beloved look—by some deal with technology or the devil—eerily like young people, barring a few disconcerting tells. Have you ever ridden your Kawasaki Ninja at 120mph through the Uncanny Valley? It’s something like that.
So it’s no surprise that Maverick is the kind of teacher who ends up mixing it up with his 20-something students. In a different sort of movie, with poets instead of pilots, he’d be smoking pot with these youngsters at the point where he made the tragic discovery that he cannot escape the fate that time’s arrow—really the fastest and most reliable vehicle around—has in store for him. But in light of Tom Cruise’s successful quest for eternal youth, there is indeed time enough for everything, and oh does he dare. The bomber jacket must not be doffed: Maverick joins the competition for which he was only supposed to be only a coach. In that way, the incorrigible rebel can be everything to his charges: peer, surrogate father, and savior. O Captain, My Captain!
The effect is cheesy and sentimental in the extreme. There’s a contrived obstacle-course of a mission in an unnamed country with an unidentified enemy who use generically branded but theoretically superior “Generation 5” jets, all concocted to showcase an airborne Formula 1 race that pushes pilots to the very limits of cerebral blood flow. (Will they black out? Will their airframes bend? Will the 80s erupt in the form of a poltergeist, and swallow everything before it mends?) All dramatic conflict is jerry-rigged in a similarly artificial way, in order to squeeze some lubricating sentiment into the engine of the film.
I’m tempted to say that this is a murderous airshow that wears the leathery skin of the expired film it has cannibalized. But the airshow itself is enjoyable, and I haven’t seen the original Top Gun in decades and so can’t remember if it’s any better. The sequel has universally pleased critics and audiences. Even Anthony Lane gave it a positive review. I can also be accused of thinking too hard about something that merits no thinking (the film itself explicitly celebrates doing over thinking). And yet … I have to admit that I still think that everything but the action is laughably and distractingly ridiculous. I did very much enjoy the airshow. Let’s just agree to disagree about the rest, and chalk it up to me not being able to take the G-forces.
What I’ve Been Reading
Long Day’s Journey into
Night Crunked Tight (for Subtext).
While reading, this phrase kept popping into my head: “momma’s back on the smack!” “Dope fiend” is just too dated. “It’s not smack, cruel boy” she replies to me. “It’s my medicine!” Medicine for: childbirth, or rheumatism, or homelessness, or loneliness. Or medicine for forging a path back to loved ones engaged in their own self-medicated withdrawal.
I’m not sure why at times I had trouble taking the play seriously—perhaps, like Jamie, I feel too “wise” to all, and “know the game backwards.” But knowingness, like slang, ages poorly. Perhaps it’s because it’s too difficult to bear watching four people tangled in a rat king of complementary miseries. Addicts, in particular, can be unbearably dishonest and self-interested, just because they strongly prioritize substance over subject, so to speak.
What I mean (by this reference to Hegel) is that in addiction, a material thing and its effects have come to supplant human beings and and their interrelations. Form has decomposed into matter. The psychoanalytic theory here is that the substance has taken on the significance of relationships, and the drugged feeling replaces the feeling of connectedness. The medicament becomes the “object.” The drug is a special sort of signifier, because it not only represents this object but simulates the experience of it. There seems to be have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too quality to the material thing that is also narcotizing: none of the complications of human relationships, but something of their intimacy. Once we take seriously the concept of dependency, this theory must be altered.
So why, in the end, do substances fail? Here’s another Hegelian idea: we can’t do without the reciprocity. We “need the eggs,” even if there’s a sense in which other minds and attentions are not actually there in the way we conceive them (to get to the heart of Woody Allen’s joke), at least in the satisfying way that sensible material things are there. We need others’ comprehension and recognition, even if our fantasy of it is wildly distorted. Substance must become subject.
Drugs cannot alter our minds enough to fully simulate reciprocity with others. Nor do they really even facilitate it in a deep way (no matter how warm and sentimental we get with others when we’re under the influence). By her own account, Mary remains lonely; she has no one to joke and gossip with; she has no home. The narcotic is a failed attempt to remedy attachment to her itinerant husband—who wanders in profession and character and via booze. The narcotic is an attempt at homemaking, and oddly enough an attempt to undo the intoxication of others, to remedy their lack of presence. There’s a sort of vicious cycle to the way each family member try to counter the other’s intoxication with their own.
The most interesting thing to me about the play is the desire of Mary (and the others, to some extent) to operate in a fog (the fog they pretend to hope will lift). Mary wants to have her habit and yet have others embrace her lie, and so vindicate her shame. There is no shame if others pretend not to see: and this is a variation on reciprocity and recognition, in which the seeing-me of others is replaced with a kind of willful blindness, and social sustenance is to be drawn from the way others adapt to and enable one’s withdrawal into pure fantasy.
Another thought, based on my conversation about this with Erin yesterday: being under the influence is a way of taking the reins and providing our own substitute for every other formative influence that makes us who we are (parents, culture, and every other part of our autobiography). The existence of such influences—and whether or not they absolve us from any blame for our faults—is a key question of the play. The point is to be free of fate: it’s a feeling we can get, famously, from the ethical or the artistic (not to mention an F-18). If that’s right, drugs (and sex) can serve as prostitutes not just for intimacy, but responsibility and creative work. Edmund himself tells us this by quoting Baudelaire:
“Be always drunken. Nothing else matters: that is the only question. If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time weighing on your shoulders and crushing you to the earth, be drunken continually.
Drunken with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you will, but be drunken.”
Edmund’s brother Jamie then goes on to say that it is he who created Edmund, and created him precisely both to love poetry and to fail at it (and life). Edmund is his Frankenstein’s monster, and is not actually free. But the freedom ultimately comes not from denying one’s influences, something that intoxicants allow us to do (they give us the feeling of being entirely self-determined, by way of the self-administered substance). One accepts the influences and sublimates them (the distillery of the soul!).
Notice that the ethical and the artistic are the two lost alternatives that Mary regrets: the nunnery, and the piano. There is an old debate about whether the latter must take priority over the former, when it comes to the quest for freedom—this is the point of Edmund’s interest in Nietzsche, the philosopher who makes this argument in a sophisticated way. (To say that “God is dead” is in part to say that a fusion of art and philosophy must become ascendant over moralism, either of the religious or scientific variety). But then, the libertine is in danger of thinking that wine and poetry go together. It’s actually hard to get anything done that way. One must choose one’s poison.
Mary’s morphine is referred to as “poison.” But so is Jamie’s influence on Edmund’s mind; and so is failure’s influence on Jamie’s mind; and so, implicitly, is Tyrone’s effect on Mary and their sons, and Mary’s influence on everyone else. So, implicitly, is alcohol. Every influence is poison, if it leads to a configuration of character. Fate itself is poison. The poison that redeems is education, if it lays the groundwork for free activity (again, creative work and virtuous action).
Alongside creative work and virtuous action, we can place love: this is what Jamie and Tyrone tell us. No one is worth anything without love (even if that means the love of a prostitute). This returns us to the issue of intimacy with which I started these reflections: it also can serve as a basis for freedom. The influence of love is not merely confining, even if often feels that way. Long-term relationships can indeed shape people’s characters in sinister ways. But in the form of genuine reciprocity, it can be educating and freeing. Naturally, this triad—love, responsibility/virtue, and work—are interconnected in important ways (a topic for another time).
Kant’s Perpetual Peace (for The Partially Examined Life).
Here’s one way to solve the problem of war: get rid of countries. Why not establish a universal state and make everyone a citizen? This is, Kant notes, the desire of every despot whose ambition is to conquer the world. Given the pride nations take in their boundaries and sovereignty, establishing a universal state would indeed require a great deal of violence. It would also require the (potentially genocidal) enforcement of more linguistic, religious, and cultural homogeneity.
Better instead to establish a “federation of states”—an idea that sounds a lot like our United Nations. The entity is weak, in that it has no substantial coercive power—no reliable way to enforce the peace. But we can rely on the inevitable forces of historical progress, Kant tells us, to produce peace in the long term. This inevitability is the result of the fact that peace is a long-term emergent property of conflict. It is conflict (and the brutishness of the state of nature) that 1) leads to the development of civil societies structured such that the selfishness of people has an emergent positive effect, a la Smith’s “invisible hand”; 2) pushes people apart, and yet demands their relatedness; scatters people to all ends of the earth, but then requires commerce and international relations. While cultural differences can lead initially to dehumanization and prejudice, overcoming these things leads to higher forms of mutual reciprocity. All of this is to say that conflict leads naturally to higher forms of organization (this goes for political entities, but also for consciousness—Hegel raises his head again, as in the master-slave dialectic).
As for (1): critical here is the development of states that are constitutional republics a) with systems of checks-and-balances, especially a division between executive and legislative branches; b) with representative governments (no direct democracies, no tyranny of the majority); and c) and that prioritize equality (under the law) and freedom (rights). Here’s what does not work for peace: the prioritization of realpolitik and supposed realism (really, cynicism) over ethical obligation; which is to say, making the ends justifying the means.
The upshot here is that the just is prior to the good: we do not allow ourselves to “break a few eggs” to make our utopian omelets. We do not violate rights (and undermine freedom and legal (formal) equality) in the pursuit of perfect societies (in which there is total material equality—wealth, status, etc.). Instead, we look for incremental improvements. Putting the ends before the means is, according to Kant, the biggest obstacle to peace (this is in line with his deontology and rejection of eudaemonism). Prioritizing ends inevitably becomes a rationale for violence (something that I don’t think can be disputed historically). If we’re patient, the good will follow our ethical behavior, according to Kant, to the extent that circumstances (and fortunes) allow.
Meanwhile, the so-called “realism” and empirical-mindedness involved in trying to take unjust or unethical shortcuts to the perfection of society are hampered by the fact that there’s so much uncertainty (this is a problem that plagues utilitarianism): we don’t actually have a good way to predict the outcomes of our political machinations. What we know far better, according to Kant, is what’s right. (This is a variation on the Cartesian argument for the Cogito, as is any appeal to the a priori and the transcendental).
So let’s review the counterintuitive results: the key to peace, according to Kant, is to stop trying so hard when it comes to our goals, and focus instead on process (and the prioritization of due process in liberal societies falls directly out of this idea). No dictatorships in the service of utopia, no empires in the service of of some version of a Pax Romana, and no amoral political realism motivated by the worry that being strictly ethical is naive and destabilizing to a political order that can only be guaranteed by prioritizing power and force. As difference takes its conflictual course, it inevitably leads to higher levels of organization, and builds the institutions that make us less prone to violence.
This is a statement of a liberal point of view that will always have its detractors, impatient with the social injustices that liberalism seems to leave unaddressed (or to the fate of supposed incremental progress that is not as inevitable as liberals believe). As most listeners to PEL know, I’m firmly in the liberal camp, and I think preserving liberalism is critical to preventing the sort of mass violence we see in Ukraine.
What I’ve Been Thinking About
It’s not what you think it is. In particular, the contradiction involved in doublethink is structured, according to Orwell’s account: the thesis asserts the primacy of the good, and the antithesis asserts the primacy of power (compare my comments on Kant, above). More on this soon.
Hume’s Of the Standard of Taste
I’m writing about Hume’s Of the Standard of Taste. The point of appealing to the concept of discernment is—beyond the idea that we can identify people who are as a matter of empirical fact more discerning—persuade each other about matters of aesthetics. The more discerning critic can a) make us aware of details that we have missed in a work of art and b) take aesthetic principles with which we already agree, and apply them to these details. The result is to demonstrate that once we take into account such details, we must come to believe—by our own standards—that the object in question is or isn’t beautiful (or more broadly, aesthetically successful or not). The critic informs, and disagreement about matters of taste are resolved when one person alters another’s taste by educating it. Is there so much packed into to “discernment” that Hume’s standard becomes circular? I’m not sure. I think that Hume could be right that we can appeal to the fact of one person being more discerning than another, without appealing in a circular way to their greater talent in judging what is beautiful (the person who can taste the effects of leather on wine when we can’t has passed a non-aesthetic test). But one possible challenge involves the question of salience: which features (and details) are actually relevant to aesthetic judgment? What if a critic is too sensitive, and to the wrong details? Do aesthetic principles change depending on our level of scrutiny? We could ask many more questions of this sort.