Why I am So Wise – Nietzsche

Why I Am So Wise is one of several chapter essays with ironic titles including ‘Why I am So Clever” and “Why I Write Such Good Books,” in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is  [1908]. 

The book is the last original book written by philosopher before his death in 1900 and was published posthumously.

pontius pilate

The phrase ‘ecce homo’ is Latin for ‘behold the man‘ and is the phrase used by Pontius Pilate in John 19:5 [Vulgate] when he presents Christ, bound and crowned with thorns, to a crowd shortly before his Crucifixion.

According to Walter Kaufmann, the text contains parallels to Plato’s Apology which documented the trial of Socrates. Just as Socrates was presented as the wisest of men precisely because he freely admitted to his own ignorance, Nietzsche argues that he himself is a great philosopher because of his withering assessment of the entirety of Philosophy which he considered a cowardly failure to pursue its stated aim to its reasonable end.

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In this regard, the wording of his title was not meant to draw parallels with Jesus, but to suggest a certain kind of contrast.

Nietzsche posits that mythological figure of Jesus actually represents the mistake of failing to see that being a man is enough, that the important task of transcending the all-too-human requires nothing genuinely inhuman or supernatural,  nothing beyond the reach of flesh-and-blood humans.

Nietzsche holds that to believe in the existence of objective values is to believe in an illusion that is devoid of any constructive meaning, and therefore nihilistic;

In religion the constraint is lacking to consider ourselves as value positing.

Nietzsche maintains that when the will of the self is subordinated to the will of God,  the content of experience is negated.

Nietzsche’s scathing critique of religion and morality has exerted a profound influence on Western philosophy and modern thought, particularly on existentialism. However, his critique of the person of Christ, the ‘ecce homo’ of history and art, is in my view, somewhat amiss claiming Christ represented an embodiment of ultimate morality.

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In my view, Christ arrived not to represent a divine morality but to address the failure of human constructed morality, the very self-constructed morality Nietzsche championed.

A contemporary of Nietzsche, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, examined this dilemma in his 1880 novel, The Brother’s Karamazov. Nietzsche’s senior by only 23 years, Dostoevsky wrote of man’s attempt to create moral norms without God and concludes that it is not within man’s power to overcome nihilism — without God, man will inevitably destroy himself.

Why so? Dostoevsky’s Ivan asks to what end is mankind served by God’s plan for bringing about a harmony between good and evil in some distant future while meanwhile mankind suffers inexplicably. Ivan’s question is quite compelling because it addresses the problem of evil and suffering in terms of how mankind experiences it.

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Nietzsche’s thought on the reality of suffering fails to account for why anyone or anything suffers at all, or why the problem of evil was ever a valid moral question in the first place, because the exploitation and “overpowering of what is alien and weaker” is a natural consequence of strength passes unquestioned as a self-evident rule.

Dostoevsky’s novel, through the dialogue of the two brothers, examines and critiques the empty vanities of religion and moralism, pointing out many of Nietzsche’s later conclusions, yet ends on a very different note. Rather than championing the creation of new values within the moral vacuum of nihilism, the Jewish and later Christian scriptures address the self-created morals of humanity and their failure.

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It is in the Book of Job, written in the 3rd century BC, in which the protagonist who in the face of pointless suffering has the choice to turning back to moralism or towards nihilism, turns instead angrily and audaciously to address God with an ultimatum.

Answer humanity personally!

This challenge was answered in the person of Christ, not an ‘ubermensch’ or ‘superman’ because he represented God’s moral superior standards, but because he represented the face of God’s suffering with and for humanity. The cost of human freedom and moral agency finds reconciliation, and ultimate meaning in the scars of God himself.

 

 

The Good Guy/ Bad Guy Myth

This article was written by Marina Benjamin and published in Aeon Magazine on 25th January 2018.

For the original article please click HERE:

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The first time we see Darth Vader doing more than heavy breathing in Star Wars (1977), he’s strangling a man to death. A few scenes later, he’s blowing up a planet. He kills his subordinates, chokes people with his mind, does all kinds of things a good guy would never do. But then the nature of a bad guy is that he does things a good guy would never do.

Darth Vader

Good guys don’t just fight for personal gain: they fight for what’s right – their values.

This moral physics underlies not just Star Wars, but also film series such as The Lord of the Rings (2001-3) and X-Men (2000-), as well as most Disney cartoons. Virtually all our mass-culture narratives based on folklore have the same structure: good guys battle bad guys for the moral future of society. These tropes are all over our movies and comic books, in Narnia and at Hogwarts, and yet they don’t exist in any folktales, myths or ancient epics. In Marvel comics, Thor has to be worthy of his hammer, and he proves his worth with moral qualities. But in ancient myth, Thor is a god with powers and motives beyond any such idea as ‘worthiness’.

In old folktales, no one fights for values. Individual stories might show the virtues of honesty or hospitality, but there’s no agreement among folktales about which actions are good or bad. When characters get their comeuppance for disobeying advice, for example, there is likely another similar story in which the protagonist survives only because he disobeys advice. Defending a consistent set of values is so central to the logic of newer plots that the stories themselves are often reshaped to create values for characters such as Thor and Loki – who in the 16th-century Icelandic Edda had personalities rather than consistent moral orientations.

Edda

Stories from an oral tradition never have anything like a modern good guy or bad guy in them,  despite their reputation for being moralising. In stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Sleeping Beauty, just who is the good guy? Jack is the protagonist we’re meant to root for, yet he has no ethical justification for stealing the giant’s things. Does Sleeping Beauty care about goodness? Does anyone fight crime? Even tales that can be made to seem like they are about good versus evil, such as the story of Cinderella, do not hinge on so simple a moral dichotomy. In traditional oral versions, Cinderella merely needs to be beautiful to make the story work. In the Three Little Pigs, neither pigs nor wolf deploy tactics that the other side wouldn’t stoop to. It’s just a question of who gets dinner first, not good versus evil.

The situation is more complex in epics such as The Iliad, which does have two ‘teams’, as well as characters who wrestle with moral meanings. But the teams don’t represent the clash of two sets of values in the same way that modern good guys and bad guys do. Neither Achilles nor Hector stands for values that the other side cannot abide, nor are they fighting to protect the world from the other team. They don’t symbolise anything but themselves and, though they talk about war often, they never cite their values as the reason to fight the good fight. The ostensibly moral face-off between good and evil is a recent invention that evolved in concert with modern nationalism – and, ultimately, it gives voice to a political vision not an ethical one.

Propoganda

Most folklore scholarship since the Second World War has been concerned with archetypes or commonalities among folktales, the implicit drive being that if the myths and stories of all nations had more in common than divided them, then people of all nations could likewise have more in common than divides us. It was a radical idea, when earlier folktales had been published specifically to show how people in one nation were unlike those in another.

In her study of folklore From the Beast to the Blonde (1995), the English author and critic Marina Warner rejects a reading of folktales, popularised by the American child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, as a set of analogies for our psychological and developmental struggles. Warner argues instead that external circumstances make these stories resonate with readers and listeners through the centuries. Still, both scholars want to trace the common tropes of folktales and fairy-tales insofar as they stay the same, or similar, through the centuries.

Princess and Trolls

Novelists and filmmakers who base their work on folklore also seem to focus on commonalities. George Lucas very explicitly based Star Wars on Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), which describes the journey of a figure such as Luke Skywalker as a human universal. J R R Tolkien used his scholarship of Old English epics to recast the stories in an alternative, timeless landscape; and many comic books explicitly or implicitly recycle the ancient myths and legends, keeping alive story threads shared by stories new and old, or that old stories from different societies around the world share with each other.

Less discussed is the historic shift that altered the nature of so many of our modern retellings of folklore, to wit: the idea that people on opposite sides of conflicts have different moral qualities, and fight over their values. That shift lies in the good guy/bad guy dichotomy, where people no longer fight over who gets dinner, or who gets Helen of Troy, but over who gets to change or improve society’s values. Good guys stand up for what they believe in, and are willing to die for a cause. This trope is so omnipresent in our modern stories, movies, books, even our political metaphors, that it is sometimes difficult to see how new it is, or how bizarre it looks, considered in light of either ethics or storytelling.

Grimms Fairy Tales

When the Grimm brothers wrote down their local folktales in the 19th century, their aim was to use them to define the German Volk, and unite the German people into a modern nation. The Grimms were students of the philosophy of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who emphasised the role of language and folk traditions in defining values. In his Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772), von Herder argued that language was ‘a natural organ of the understanding’, and that the German patriotic spirit resided in the way that the nation’s language and history developed over time. Von Herder and the Grimms were proponents of the then-new idea that the citizens of a nation should be bound by a common set of values, not by kinship or land use. For the Grimms, stories such as Godfather Death, or the Knapsack, the Hat and the Horn, revealed the pure form of thought that arose from their language.

The corollary of uniting the Volk through a storified set of essential characteristics and values is that those outside the culture were seen as lacking the values Germans considered their own. Von Herder might have understood the potential for mass violence in this idea, because he praised the wonderful variety of human cultures: specifically, he believed that German Jews should have equal rights to German Christians. Still, the nationalist potential of the Grimm brothers’ project was gradually amplified as its influence spread across Europe, and folklorists began writing books of national folklore specifically to define their own national character. Not least, many modern nations went on to realise the explosive possibilities for abuse in a mode of thinking that casts ‘the other’ as a kind of moral monster.

Slavic Myth

In her book The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1987), the American scholar Maria Tatar remarks on the way that Wilhelm Grimm would slip in, say, adages about the importance of keeping promises. She argued that: ‘Rather than coming to terms with the absence of a moral order … he persisted in adding moral pronouncements even where there was no moral.’ Such additions established the idea that it was values (not just dinner) at stake in the conflicts that these stories dramatised. No doubt the Grimms’ additions influenced Bettelheim, Campbell and other folklorists who argued for the inherent morality of folktales, even if they had not always been told as moral fables.

As part of this new nationalist consciousness, other authors started changing the old stories to make a moral distinction between, for example, Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Before Joseph Ritson’s 1795 retelling of these legends, earlier written stories about the outlaw mostly showed him carousing in the forest with his merry men. He didn’t rob from the rich to give to the poor until Ritson’s version – written to inspire a British populist uprising after the French Revolution. Ritson’s rendering was so popular that modern retellings of Robin Hood, such as Disney’s 1973 cartoon or the film Prince of Thieves (1991) are more centrally about outlaw moral obligations than outlaw hijinks. The Sheriff of Nottingham was transformed from a simple antagonist to someone who symbolised the abuses of power against the powerless. Even within a single nation (Robin Hood), or a single household (Cinderella), every scale of conflict was restaged as a conflict of values.

IliadThe Iliad

Neither the Greeks nor the Trojans stand for some set of human strengths or frailties

Or consider the legend of King Arthur. In the 12th century, poets writing about him were often French, like Chrétien de Troyes, because King Arthur wasn’t yet closely associated with the soul of Britain. What’s more, his adversaries were often, literally, monsters, rather than people who symbolised moral weaknesses. By the early 19th century, when Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King, King Arthur becomes an ideal of a specifically British manhood, and he battles human characters who represent moral frailties. By the 20th century, the word ‘Camelot’ came to mean a kingdom too idealistic to survive on Earth.

Once the idea of national values entered our storytelling, the peculiar moral physics underlying the phenomenon of good guys versus bad guys has been remarkably consistent. One telling feature is that characters frequently change sides in conflicts: if a character’s identity resides in his values, then when he changes his mind about a moral question, he is essentially swapping sides, or defecting. This is not always acknowledged. For example, when in the PBS series Power of Myth (1988) the journalist Bill Moyers discussed with Campbell how many ancient tropes Star Wars deployed, they didn’t consider how bizarre it would have seemed to the ancient storytellers had Darth Vader changed his mind about anger and hatred, and switched sides in his war with Luke and the Rebels. Contrast this with The Iliad, where Achilles doesn’t become Trojan when he is angry at Agamemnon. Neither the Greeks nor the Trojans stand for some set of human strengths or frailties. Since their conflict is not a metaphor for some internal battle of anger versus love, switching sides because of a transport of feeling would be incoherent. In Star Wars, the opposing teams each represent a set of human properties. What side Darth Vader fights on is therefore absolutely dependent on whether anger or love is foremost in his heart.

Wonder Woman

Bad guys change their minds and become good in exactly the same way in countless, ostensibly folkloric, modern stories: The Lord of the RingsBuffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), the Harry Potter series (1997-2007). When a bad character has a change of heart, it’s always a cathartic emotional moment – since what’s at stake for a character is losing the central part of his identity. Another peculiarity in the moral physics of good guys versus bad is that bad guys have no loyalty and routinely punish their own; whether it’s the Sheriff of Nottingham starving his own people or Darth Vader killing his subordinates, bad guys are cavalier with human life, and they rebuke their allies for petty transgressions. This has been true since the earliest modern bad guys, though it scarcely exists among older adversaries who might be hungry for human flesh, but don’t kill their own.

Good guys, on the other hand, accept all applicants into the fold, and prove their loyalty even when their teammates transgress. Consider Friar Tuck getting drunk on ale while Robin Hood looks the other way. Or Luke Skywalker welcoming the roguish Han Solo on side. Good guys work with rogues, oddballs and ex-bad guys, plus their battles often hinge on someone who was treated badly by the bad guys crossing over and becoming a good guy. Forgiving characters their wicked deeds is an emotional climax in many good guy/bad guy stories. Indeed, it’s essential that the good side is a motley crew that will never, ever reject a fellow footsoldier.

Luke Skywalker

Again, this is a point of pride that seems incoherent in the context of pre-modern storytelling. Not only do people in ancient stories not switch sides in fights but Achilles, say, would never win because his army was composed of the rejects from the Trojans’. In old stories, great warriors aren’t scrappy recruits, there for the moral education: they’re experts.

Stories about good guys and bad guys that are implicitly moral – in the sense that they invest an individual’s entire social identity in him not changing his mind about a moral issue – perversely end up discouraging any moral deliberation. Instead of anguishing over multidimensional characters in conflict – as we find in The Iliad, or the Mahabharata or Hamlet – such stories rigidly categorise people according to the values they symbolise, flattening all the deliberation and imagination of ethical action into a single thumbs up or thumbs down. Either a person is acceptable for Team Good, or he belongs to Team Evil.

Frodo

Good guy/bad guy narratives might not possess any moral sophistication, but they do promote social stability, and they’re useful for getting people to sign up for armies and fight in wars with other nations. Their values feel like morality, and the association with folklore and mythology lends them a patina of legitimacy, but still, they don’t arise from a moral vision. They are rooted instead in a political vision, which is why they don’t help us deliberate, or think more deeply about the meanings of our actions. Like the original Grimm stories, they’re a political tool designed to bind nations together.

The idea that whole categories of people should be locked up made the concentration camps possible

It’s no coincidence that good guy/bad guy movies, comic books and games have large, impassioned and volatile fandoms – even the word ‘fandom’ suggests the idea of a nation, or kingdom. What’s more, the moral physics of these stories about superheroes fighting the good fight, or battling to save the world, does not commend genuine empowerment. The one thing the good guys teach us is that people on the other team aren’t like us. In fact, they’re so bad, and the stakes are so high, that we have to forgive every transgression by our own team in order to win.

Rumplestiltskin

When I talked with Andrea Pitzer, the author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps (2017), about the rise of the idea that people on opposite sides of conflicts have different moral qualities, she told me: ‘Three inventions collided to make concentration camps possible: barbed wire, automatic weapons, and the belief that whole categories of people should be locked up.’ When we read, watch and tell stories of good guys warring against bad guys, we are essentially persuading ourselves that our opponents would not be fighting us, indeed they would not be on the other team at all, if they had any loyalty or valued human life. In short, we are rehearsing the idea that moral qualities belong to categories of people rather than individuals. It is the Grimms’ and von Herder’s vision taken to its logical nationalist conclusion that implies that ‘categories of people should be locked up’.

Watching Wonder Woman at the end of the 2017 movie give a speech about preemptively forgiving ‘humanity’ for all the inevitable offences of the Second World War, I was reminded yet again that stories of good guys and bad guys actively make a virtue of letting the home team in a conflict get away with any expedient atrocity.

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Written by Marina Benjamin,  published on January 25th 2018, you can read the original article, titled “Why is Pop Culture So Obsessed with Battles Between Good and Evil?” in Aeon at https://aeon.co/essays/why-is-pop-culture-obsessed-with-battles-between-good-and-evil.

The Stranger Things of Story

There is perhaps no more striking representation of the battle between good and evil than in Stranger Things, the Netflix series which released its second season in late October 2017. This battle is seen through the eyes of children in a normal town of Hawkins Indiana.

Set one year after the events of Season 1, it is Halloween October 1984, and we are treated once again to pop culture references of ’80s movies including Aliens, Ghost Busters, Strange Encounters of the Third Kind, Dungeons and Dragons and arcade games such as pac-man and space invaders.

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In the first season of ‘Stranger Things’, we met Eleven, a girl with telekinetic powers who has been caged and tormented in a research lab, and who opens the door way to ‘the upside down‘. This nightmarish world is a dark shadow of our own, a literal ‘upside down’ version of reality where dark things lurk and various innocents such as Will and Barb are drawn and even lost.

In Season 2, we see the characters each dealing with the after effects of their adventures in season 1. Will, still connected to the upside down, is seeing visions of the evil menace over Hawkins and he warns his friends. They believe he is simply experiencing post traumatic stress flashbacks however soon he becomes affected by the “shadow monster” as though possessed by a demonic power.

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Can Eleven and the gang stop the forces of evil again before it consumes their friend Will, their town Hawkins and maybe their entire world?

As mentioned in earlier Bear Skin posts, many stories have a doorway metaphor allowing protagonists to pass into a magical or mythical world of adventure.  Indeed, classics such as “Alice in Wonderland” or ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, contain a literal door through which children pass into a magical land. Here a a battle of good and evil occurs, or at least a discovery of true self and courage. Other classics such as “Harry Potter” tell of parallel worlds [the worlds of muggles and of Witchcraft and Wizardry] which live in close relationship. Only the few special characters are able to navigate both and it is there the true battles of life and death are fought and won.

This metaphor duality of our world, of scientific objectivity on the one hand and the world of narrative and myth on the other, represents the division between the conscious and the subconscious, the natural and the supernatural. These stories and the journey of protagonists between worlds, through the doorway or portal, takes the reader or viewer on a journey into their own dream-state, to do battle with the evil which lurks there.

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‘Stranger Things’ and other doorway stories, shows how unexamined rationalism, or worlds without myth and legend, impoverish the mind and spirit. The ordinary world that denies the magical or mythical world does so to its own detriment. It seems that those who deny the chaos and disorder of the subconscious will eventually be ruled by it; 19th century humanist rationalism, ever optimistic about the greater and greater advancements of human knowledge, gave rise to the cruelty and chaotic destruction of the early 20th century regimes of Stalin, Hitler and Lenin.

And so what is the solution to our dilemma?

It is the hero who must bridge the two worlds, crossing between and doing battle with the forces or chaos within the subconscious. The hero-journey, so prevalent in narrative, myth and legend is the descent into the psyche as though into another world to encounter the monsters of chaos therein. The hero will face the beast he or she fears the most and there through acts of courage and often great sacrifice, vanquish them or contain them.

In returning, the hero can then seal up the fractured psyche, restoring the integrity of the soul. What magical force does this hero use? Well, the most powerful a mystical force available to humans – the force of love.

A Wrinkle In Time

Madeline L’Engle’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time” [1963] combines physics and metaphysics into an engaging science fiction fantasy novel for young adults.

13 year old Meg Murry is a bit out of sorts with her life, misunderstood by teachers and classmates and not as gifted as her athletic twin brothers Sandy and Dennys. Her father, a brilliant physicist, has disappeared a year earlier without a trace, leaving her beautiful and clever scientist mother and happy family with unresolved grief and questions.

Meg’s five year old brother Charles Wallace, a child prodigy, is her only kindred spirit and companion amid all the confusion of her teen existence.

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One dark and stormy night, Meg, Charles Wallace and their mother, are visited by their curious neighbour Mrs Whatsit. The eccentric old tramp mysteriously mentions,

there is such a thing as a tesseract…

…nearly making Mrs Murry faint. She reveals that it was their father’s life mission to discover the tesseract and he was close to making a breakthrough when he mysteriously disappeared. The revelation launches Meg and Charles Wallace on an adventure to find their father.

With the help of Meg’s high school friend Calvin, they track Mrs Whatsit to her ramshackle house in the woods where they discover her two equally mysterious and eccentric friends, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. These women transport the three children through a tesseract, a fifth dimension fold in the fabric of space-time, to the planet Camazotz where Meg’s father is held captive by “The Black Thing”.

Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace discover the universe is threatened by “IT”, an evil presence which already partially has a grip on planet earth. “The Black Thing” or “IT” controls minds and enslaves all living beings, removing all freedom, joy, creativity and love.

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Charles Wallace seeks to counter “IT” with his intellect but succumbs to its mind-controlling powers. It is only Meg who discovers that she is in possession of the one thing “IT” does not have – love.

The novel is a classic in teen and young adult fiction, placing the cosmic battle of good and evil into the hands of children. Meg realises that parents cannot always solve things, and sometimes kids can solve problems themselves.

Originally despondent she did not have the genius intellect of Charles Wallace or the athletic good nature of her brothers, Meg realises she is in possession of the most powerful force in the universe to counteract evil – love.

 

Prometheus [2012]

In his 2012 film Prometheus,, Ridley Scott revisits his Aliens franchise, deciding to tell the origin of not only his Alien creatures, but of humanity.

Plot Summary

The film opens with a humanoid  creature left on earth, a rocky and watery desolate place.  As his space ship leaves him, he drinks a potion and he collapses into the stream. His body dissolves into the water, and fragmented DNA reforms into strands; life is started on earth.

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Years later, in 2089, scientists Shaw and Holloway discover cave paintings of humans worshiping giants who are pointing to a constellation. They gather the data and present it to the Weyland corporation, invested in research into the origins of humanity. It seems Shaw and Holloway have found a star map. Weyland commissions the expedition aboard the space vessel, Prometheus, to seek out the star system and its inhabitable planet there.  The ship, and crew in cyro-sleep,  are guided by robot David.

Shaw and Holloway and the crew awake to find themselves near a desolate planet with a curious hive like structure. Within, there is a breathable atmosphere and heaped up bones and carcases of the inhabitants. The place seems to be a sarcophagus. David, proficient at multiple forms of communication, is able to awaken hologram like memories of the deaths of the giants here. It seems they were escaping a terror. David also opens long shut doors, taking the expedition into a temple-like chamber full of vases. Although dormant, from these vases quickly grow squirming, menacing demons – Aliens.

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The crew take a preserved giant head and one of the vases, back into the space ship. In the process they lose two crew in the honeycomb tunnels of the hive. These two poor souls are the first victims of the rapidly growing, frightening creatures disturbed in the chamber. In true Aliens style we know it’s just a matter of time before each crew member gets their come-uppance.

Aboard the ship, Shaw examines the giant head and discovers a close match to human DNA. They have discovered the Engineers – the predecessors to human life on earth. The discovery sends ripples through the crew aboard, “you’re messing with 300 years of Darwinism.” When Holloway asks Shaw if this disproves her faith, marked by a cross around her neck, she retorts, “but who made them?”

David opens the alien vase and extracts what looks like vials of liquid from within it.  Most enigmatically, he deliberately places a tiny drop of the black ink into Holloway’s glass of water.  That night Holloway and Shaw make love, but not before we discover that her father died fighting ebola in Africa and that she is sterile and cannot bear children.

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The next day, the crew return into the hive, however Holloway is seriously ill, and Shaw, unknown to her, is now pregnant with an alien foetus.  David explores alone and discovers the cockpit of the Engineers‘ spaceship. He activates the hologram memories again and discovers that the Engineers were bound for earth.

Curiously, the spaceship is packed to the gills with vases like those in the temple. It’s almost as if the ship is packed with weapons – fearful biological weapons.

Most interestingly, David discovers an Engineer in cryosleep with an audible heart beat. One is still alive.

Holloway is very ill and Captain Vickers will not allow him back on board. When the crew try to return him to get medical help, Vickers instead torches him with a flame thrower. Not long after Fifield, one of the ships crew left in the hive tunnels over night arrives, crazed and zombified. He too is promptly killed. Inside the ship, Weyland the elderly millionaire who established the Prometheus expedition, is found. It seems,  he commissioned the expedition to find the Engineers and discover the secret to his own immortality. Strangely, Captain Vickers is revealed to be his daughter. Both she and David have known the deadly nature of this expedition and are party to Weylands hubris.

At this point though now it is dawning on the crew, Shaw in particular, that the expedition is doomed. The alien foetus within her has grown rapidly and threatens to kill her. Boldly, she accesses a medical pod and performs surgery on herself, extracting the wriggling creatures and sewing herself up with laser stitches and staples. With only a few jabs of pain killers to abdomen and legs, she then proceeds to race and chase for the remainder of the film. The foetus she leaves to die, locked in the medical pod.

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Weyland and David awaken the Engineer, the one remaining creature of the race who spawned life on earth and are promptly and soundly beaten. This is no benevolent creator; no. The Engineer is bent on piloting his spacecraft straight towards earth where the vials of alien embyos and black sludge will obliterate life.

Is this the moral kick back for daring to name your space ship Prometheus? Is the search to find the gods, or to be like the gods, worthy of mortal punishment?

One by one the characters on the team Prometheus die off; in true Ridley fashion the female protagonist kicks butt. Despite the cesarian section, she shoots, kills, climbs and fights for the remainder of the film. She also maintains her faith, and although the Engineers wished to obliterate life on earth, she wishes to find the reason why, and the reason why they created life in the first place.

Thematic Points: 

Technology and Artificial Intelligence

Cryo-sleep, light speed, star maps, human like robots capabale of jealousy and deceit and proficient at “over 6 million forms of communication, ” the film explores a future only 80 years ahead of our own. David the robot is an enigmatic character, at once loyal to Weyland, he deliberately infects Holloway with Alien substance. His loyalty shifts from Weyland to Shaw upon Weyland’s death however, perhaps revealing a rather human expediency to preserve his own existence.

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Faith 

Shaw wears a crucifix and maintains a faith beyond scientific reason. At one point it is mentioned that surely by 2089, religion and faith would be no longer relevant. However, she is bent on asking the deepest of age old questions. Science fiction the genre, is able to ask the questions asked by myths and legends throughout time – why are we here ? where did we come from? What is the meaning of our existence? Is our creator benevolent or not? In fact, science fiction reasserts that humanity is not on a trajectory away from spiritual wonderings but into the same ones. The genius of Star Wars was that it portrayed a future and advanced scientific world into which spirituality was integrated, instead of being tied to the dated and contextual issues of post-enlightenment rationalism.

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The Myth of Prometheus & the Quest for Immortality

The central theme in Prometheus concerns the Titan who defies the gods and gifts humanity with fire, for which he is subjected to eternal punishment.  The gods want to limit their creations in case they attempt to usurp the gods.

Weyland is an elderly millionaire who seeks to find the origin of life and take immortality for himself. This hubris leads the mission to sure death and the unelashing of a terrible biological weapon into the universe. It seems both Weyland’s accomplices, David and Captain Vickers know of the dangers of the mission and comply. The moral framework of the story judges Weyland but not Shaw. She wishes to know her creator and to ask “why” and survives to continue her quest. Conversely, Weyland wishes to wrest immortality for himself, and so suffers judgement for his hubris.

The Origin of Life

As mentioned above, the narrative is set within the 21st century and is thus constrained by contemporary rational scientfic questions of life and origin. The story does not counter Darwinian evolution, instead addresses the missing link in evolutionary theory, “how did life start?” The Engineers are thus named because they are the agents of life [and death] but not the creators themselves. The film closes with Shaw jetting off, still searching for the answers. Moreover,  robotic responses [placed in the mouth of David] as to “why does it matter?”, sound hollow to the human heart and spirit. To be human is to question.

Interestingly, the Engineer who comes to prehistoric earth to generate life, gives up his own life,  for life to continue. Notes on the film production process allude to alternative plot elements, including an Engineer coming to earth 2000 years ago, to intervene in human barbarity, but was crucified. However Scott removed the plot element for fear it was too heavy handed.

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The Problem of Evil

The giants created life on earth and now seek to destroy it ? Why?  It’s like the planet and its hive are an enormous trap, set to lure over-reaching mortals in search of eternal life and answers of being, and then in turn to release utter destruction upon them and their species.

There is an amorality about the plot as well. The Engineers themselves are and have been consumed by Aliens. This biological weapon is indiscriminate, much like ebola, or the burrowing worm that lives in the eyeball intent only to blind, or the insect that lays it’s larva in the chest of a live host only to burst forth into life, killing it.

Why do we live alongside such creatures and imagine a benevolent world with a benign creator. Life is cruel – we alone place meaning onto that cruelty. So goes the questions as to the nature of morality in this universe.

However, it is intrinsic to narrative to create a meaningful universe. The characters have agency, face a crisis and struggle for catharsis. The absence of morality leaves both good and evil neutral – and removes the crisis. If there were no questions of morality, there would be nothing “wrong” with aliens destroying life; and we inherently believe in life. The suffering and randomness experienced in the universe does not discredit the existence of God, but rather, the existence of ultimate meaning  affirms that our suffering is significant and our struggle for catharsis, has worth.

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Some Final Thoughts:

In an earlier blog, Noah and the Quest for Immortality, I touched on the age old question, expressed in myths, legends and the greats of world literature – the question of life immortal. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero discovers that immortality lies only in human civilization and not in any herbal remedy to prolong life. The Noah story, which refashions this tale, reinjects into this epic narrative the note of eternal life. It lies in a promised descendent who would take destruction upon himself, delivering life and relationship with God back to humanity.

In the biblical account of Adam and Eve, the pair are originally granted immortality in the Garden and need not lust for it. Curiously they are tricked to eat of the fruit “of the knowledge of good and evil.” I say curiously,  because this knowledge is something they already possessed. Otherwise the dare would have no meaning for them. Why would they be tempted to take of what they already had ?

The power in the temptation was for them to believe God was withholding something from them – equality with him. He was a killjoy, a cheater, someone who wanted less for them than they could attain. The fruit of the “knowledge of good and evil” would bridge the gap. So in taking what they already had, they showed distrust for God’s voice and so distrust for God’s nature and their own identity. In doing so, they lost relationship with God, and so lost immortality.

The quest ever since then has been to reattain immortality. And more importantly, to reattain relationship with God. These two things should not be equated to be the same thing.

What the film Prometheus shows us, is that it’s not the quest for relationship with God, or to ask “why” that gets humanity into problems, but the selfish quest for immortality and its power, to the exlcusion of relationship with this creator, that is the problem. The one who seeks to know God, must also listen to how this God is telling the story of redemption in unexpected ways.

The film was a popular and critical success, grossing over $400 million world wide. Nevertheless, there  are major weaknesses to the plot, including the strange choice to have a young actor [Guy Pearce] made up to look like an old man Weyland. Moreover, the unlikely way Shaw runs, fights, climbs and chases after experiencing major abdominal surgery is close to ludicrous. Various other characters such as Captain Vickers and other minor characters are underdeveloped leaving plot elements enigmatic or weakened.

Nevertheless the story is an interesting prequel to the Aliens saga and exploration of origins.