Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Theodicy Of Eichah/Lamentations - Grappling with Evil in a Postmodern World

Trying to say something new or relevant about theodicy is tantamount to attempting to say something creative about the writer Franz Kafka, or Radiohead. I love talking and writing about these artists, so here goes an attempt to talk about theodicy in light of the Jewish fast, Tisha Ba’av, a fast that commemorates the destruction of the temple amongst other national tragedies.
For the most part, people tend to think of theodicy as a settled matter, one way or the other. Either, the weight of evil proves so the absence of a god, or the irrelevance of god so conclusively that it obviates the need for further discussion, or the matter requires too much metaphysical speculation and Talmudic casuistic thinking that it provides nothing but the most superficial of intellectual answers. The only people who actually speak about theodicy in any sort of dynamic manner are the theologians of today who in general few people read. We find ourselves in theodicy limbo. The question retains its importance and its complexity while we feel that no answer could even begin to provide solace or intellectual satisfaction.
After the Holocaust, most thinkers slowly realized the paucity of any previous answer to attempt to justify the ways of God in the eyes of man. Consequently, they opted to explain that though an answer exists, we cannot, with our limited human understanding, possibly fathom the divine reasons for the way of the world. Instead of focusing on the vexing questions, they explain, we should focus on how we can better both ourselves and the world. To an extent, this type of answer respects human dignity while at the same time it undercuts our human intellect. It posits that we would never deign to deny the pain and suffering or attempt to explain it away through a simplistic understanding of evil as tit for tat for sin. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, one of the unsung thinkers of Jewish thought in the 20th century stated that any sort of theodicy you would not feel comfortable saying to a parent who lost their child is not any sort of theodicy we can endorse. Theodicy must not only provide academic answers but emotional solace.
However, this type of thought also treats human beings as limited, and sets boundaries to human thought. They tell us both based on authority and experience not to delve into these mysteries of the infinite. It will provide nothing but frustration. But to whom will this suffice? We never think of the horrors of tragedy until it relates to us personally, but when it does, how many of us can truly take heart in the eternal mercy of a God we cannot ever in this lifetime understand? So much of our religious personalities these day centers on the questions we can ask, and if we take away the ability to ask this basic question then we deprive religious man of the great founts of religious frustration and inspiration.
Yet, what other options do we have? No one, in the history of thought has ever created a coherent, accepted, and holistic thought of theodicy. Even on an intellectual level, every answer in the long tradition has not stood the test of time. Every answer contains glaring and obvious logical holes on top of the fact that it fails to provide any emotional comfort. Dostoevsky, in perhaps one of the most famous pieces on theodicy give voice to this sentiment. Intuitively, or implicitly, we realize that much of what we call evil stems from free will. People hurt other people. Of course this doesn’t account for all sickness or natural disasters, but much of the evil in the world does stem from our ability to choose. Dostoevsky, in his dramatic fashion through the eternal voice of Ivan Karamazov, exclaims that if one child is needlessly killed so that the rest of the world can enjoy their free will then anyone who would create that world lacks any sense of Justice. A god that choose the pain of the innocent so as to give us free will is not any god that he would want to worship. I find it immensely hard to disagree with this argument.
People love to point out that Judaism, traditionally, is a religion of protest. It never simply accepts the ways of God, rather, it frequently questions the way of God. Abraham protests God’s desire to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses protects the people from destruction, and Hasidic masters always defend their people from the prosecution of God. I find attempts such at these to distinguish Judaism from other religions slightly offensive, simplistic and misguided. As much as Judaism can be said to be a religion of protest, it is also, for centuries, a religion of acceptance of our harsh fate. Most immediate answers to the horrors of the Holocaust, if you read them today, would embarrass the staunchest of religious conservatives. Many rabbis simply adopted the prevalent sin theodicy in which the Jewish nation was being punished for a sin, whether assimilation, a lack of unity, and even Zionism.
Even with Abraham, if you read his conversation he evinces a skewed sense of justice. He beseeches god to spare the righteous inhabitants, but gives up when God tells him that not even ten righteous people live in Sodom. What about children though? Abraham doesn’t ask the simple question of how could a just God punish children for the sins of their fathers? Abraham, as well, and I thank my grandmother for this question, Abraham the defender of sinful strangers never even protests for a second the slaughter of his righteous son. No figure in the bible ever truly questions the ways of God. Rather, they question what appears as injustice. Even Job, the quintessential study on theodicy drops his questions after god appears out of the whirlwind and restores Job’s life to its previous glory. Most of the world receive neither of these courtesies.
If so, where does this leave us? It appears to leave us in a constant state of ambivalence. Even if we want to embrace a godly world, a world in which a divine being cares about us, about our children, our worries, our world, we must confront this unanswerable question. Enter the scroll of Eichah.
Eichah, one of the five scrolls in the Jewish bible is a lamentation written in response to the destruction of the first Temple. Written in a dense, terse, poetically rich and complex five chapters, it has been a challenging text since its appearance. To then attempt to extract a theodicy from Eichah seems like a losing endeavor. Despite all of this, I contend that eichah offers an interesting model of engagement with theodicy that both respects human dignity and our human intellect.
The most curious part of Eichah, besides its jarring poetics, is its lack of narrative coherence. At first glance, as many academics note, it’s hard to fathom how these five chapters fit together. If we look at these chapters in a holistic sense in terms of their stance on theodicy we see the same phenomenon. The first chapter largely consists of classic sin theodicy (see verse five,) in which the narrator easily accepts the justice of God’s punishment. Yet, chapter two turns a 180. Chapter 2 of eichah signifies one of the harshest chapters in the whole bible. In it, the narrator rails, yells, screams at God that he destroyed without any mercy (a phrase that is repeated no less than five times.) Twice, God is referred to as the enemy of the Jewish people, and at the end God is a God who can watch mothers eat their children in the streets without intervening. This is the theodicy of protest, not of sin or of acceptance. This same vacillating pattern repeats itself through the rest of the book numerous times. How though can we reconcile these conflicting strands. Scholars give numerous answers all of which make sense.
One answer simply explains that these voices represent temporal stages. Who says that these chapters need to have been written at the same time. In fact, it is clear from the text itself that chapter five was written with hindsight, with some distance from the tragedy. If so, then perhaps, these different sentiments arise at different points in the stage of national mourning.
Another answer, in a similar vein, doesn't see this as a temporal continuity but as the varied, layered, and complex feelings of a mourner. A mourner, at any given moment can feel both a sense of justice and a sense of injustice, anger and love can mingle with ease in the life and mind of a mourner. Consequently, given the disarray of life after the temple it would be shocking if we found any a coherent theodicy. While I like this answer, we need to realize its nature as wholly reconstructive. We only say this because we are backed into a corner, and when backed into a corner in the academic world one of the greatest ways out is to turn a weakness into a strength. Here, the incoherence of of Eichah turns into the beauty of eichah as it perfectly captures the tenor of mourning. Clever, but not so obvious. Furthermore, it relies on the fact that Eichah reads and feels like the immediate sentiments of a mourner. Eichah is raw, painful and harrowing. But we cannot let its power overshadow the fact that it is a masterfully crafted book. We generally don’t mourn or cry out in poetry. Rather, a poetic person like Jeremiah needs to channel these painful emotions through the prism of language. To then accept this theory we need to accept that Jeremiah purposefully wrote an incoherent text in order to mimic this feeling, which we can see as possible but not necessarily probable.
To modify this answer, we need to think of Eichah as more of a dialogic text. Mikhail Bakhtin, a famous Russian literary theorist, explicated a dialogic theory of literature in which certain texts can be read as engaging in an active, dynamic dialogue with previous texts, with itself, and with readers. To that, we can add that often in biblical texts there is a dialogue with God. This helps explain a curious facet of Eichah. Despite the harsh sentiments, the narrator turns from talking before or about God to talking to God (see chapter two verse 19 for the most jarring example of this.) Almost out of nowhere, after attacking the ways of God, the narrator will urge that we all turn to god and pour out our hearts. You can understand that these turns towards God soften the anger of the texts, but alternatively, you can understand that they frame the anger in the text in dialogues. What allows Jeremiah to oscillate between positions is not simply the complex emotions of a mourner over time, but as well, an extended conversation with God about theodicy. Theodicy, according to this, gains its importance not only as answer to an impossible question, but as an ongoing issue to discuss with God.
Theodicy is not something abstract that resides outside the realm of our messy reality, but neither is it simply a prod to do better deeds. We are owed an answer for the Holocaust, and for all tragedy. God, in this scheme does not want us to let him off the hook. Rather, what he desires an engaged conversation with Him. Theodicy is an endless prompt to deepen and broaden our relationship with God. Just as a husband and wife who don't fight but let their wounds fester will experience backlash, so too in our relationship with God, often referred to as a marriage relationship demands that we discuss everything, whether our joy or our anger. the experience of life. It is an essential part of our ongoing conversation with God.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Misguided Ambition of Christopher Nolan - The Dark Knight Rises

Our enjoyment of anything under the sun will always depend on our expectations. Even when we go into a movie knowing nothing about it we still work off our expectations. We generally know the genre i.e.  a sleek, savvy european thriller, so we can adjust accordingly. However, attempting to parse through all of the expectations I bring to the TDKR would take too long and yield few edifying results. We can say that as a baseline, we expect the world from this movie. It must serve as a fitting end to a story that has defined this cultural decade.
    Before I attempt to delineate Nolan’s glaring weakness both as a writer and director, he deserves his due. Let’s discuss his absurd talents. His cinematic scope remains unparallelled in Hollywood. His thematic ambition knows only the boundaries of his talent, not his will, and he knows the emotions of storytelling with the wisdom of a genius. The images of beauty that he creates, designs, places him on the top tier of directors. He understands, perfectly, how to manipulate our expectations, our emotions, but with subtlety. His cinematographic arsenal comes almost fully equipped: thriller, suspense, romance, action etc. he can do all of it. The fact that he can do all of this on the largest scale makes him all the more thrilling to watch. (I cannot think of a more engrossing action scene than the bank heist from TDK.) To that extent, his new movie, TDKR works perfectly as an ending, a coda to his great magnum opus. It satisfies everything we could have wanted from this trilogy, ties thing into a neat bow, revisits and closes themes from the first movie, and even leaves room for a future. But it leaves me intellectually bored, cold, and plain old unsatisfied. The only thing I am left to think about is why I have nothing to think about at all. The only Nolan moving that left me reeling was TDK, but that mostly stemmed from the otherworldly performance of Ledger.
Inception, through all the smoke and mirrors and heavy handed ambiguity, lacks intelligence, especially given the materials to work with. (A dream world, the equivalent of a blank page and somehow most of the dreams look like James Bond videogame levels. Nolan should have listened to Hardy’s advice from Inception, “You mustn't be afraid to dream larger.”) After all the pseudo-intellectual mazes, after all the layers the movie sounds and look intelligent, but lacks anything to chew on. I believe we can say the same about pretty much every Nolan movie. All of his movies have that same tone of freshman dorm room, late at night, a few beers and you begin to discuss “weighty” issues. Ever notice how so much of the intellectual heft of Nolan’s films work off aphorisms. Sentences that sound brilliant, but when inspected, when pushed sound empty, bordering on the simplistic cliche - “It’s not who you are inside that counts, it’s what you do.” “Not the hero the city deserves but the hero it needs.” “You either live to see yourself become a villain or die trying.” “What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient... highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it's almost impossible to eradicate.” 
 Sometimes I go back and try to parse through all the Hallmark cards from these movies to see if they even make sense. You can only conquer your fear by embodying that fear for that true, does that even make sense? Often, I get the feeling that Nolan sees life on the grand scale that negates intimacy. He rarely seems to care about the small details of life, whether inter or intrapersonally. He thinks on the scale of mythology and thereby creates stilted husks of phrases that sound bombastic, laden with meaning, but ultimately devoid of true content.
    So much of his dialogue flags itself as the inspirational quote, one for the movie poster, or one for teachers to use in their lessons about morality - the scene on the boat from the second movie plays over and over again in NCSY/Jewish Youth conventions around the world. For all the darkness that Nolan supposedly captures, for all his ability to capture the paranoid apathy of our time, he sure does lay it on thick with the cheap platitudes about believing in yourself, about justice, about facing your fear. Nolan relies much more on spectacle or gimmicks than on content. Look at Memento, a movie that clearly challenges the viewer stylistically, but looking back, what stays with you is the style, the ingenuity and the grand stage he can execute upon. I’ve never left a Nolan film feeling the need to think something through, but I generally leave a Coen bros. film with just that experience. (Oy vey, The Prestige. I felt embarrassed by the end of that movie. It serves as the example that proves Nolan’s true gifts: a master of expectations, but a novice in thought, in the punch at the end. Also, when Batman tells the Joker that the people of Gotham showed him their true colors, I wanted to vomit, just a bit. Way to go humanity!)
Sometimes, ambitious artists buckle under their vision. They take too much on and create an onslaught of themes: fear, justice, trust, but density has never been his problem. Rather, behind all the stunts, the convoluted plots on plots, the different threads, they all lead to nowhere, to meager thoughts. Not that this disqualifies a movie in any sense, but Nolan sets himself up as the reigning king of intelligent Hollywood films when instead he panders to our simplistic moral sensibilities. (There must be more to Catwoman...). Deep down, when it counts, people will not disappoint you. Life Lesson Learned! You can make the claim that movies, or stories in general should not be judged by their moral complexity.
Regardless of the truth of this statement, Nolan always asks us to expect more. He never speaks of his movies as about Batman fighting Bane in a bad-ass manner, rather he speaks of his movies as an exploration of themes. Yet he explores themes the way a dilettante explores the academic world of The Revolutionary War: fumbling through weighty and heavy themes with fat fingers. Without any spoilers, Nolan in this movie attempts to tackle the topical issues of Occupy Wall Street, of economic inequality, the stagnancy of politics, the desire for revolution. He also attempts to flesh out more universal themes of civic responsibility, of individual sacrifice, and as always, of redemption. Yet, his large, expensive set pieces add nothing to our cultural conversations about any of these topics. He still lives in a comic book world in which simple ideas, and symbols hold real weight. To his credit, he takes a comic book story and makes it believable, but it still remains a comic book story full of moral clarity, not ambiguity. I never fully understand the struggle of the protagonists. Bruce always does the right thing, even with Alfred the preacher telling him otherwise. Most of Alfred's speeches are not only paternalistic, but misguided. The enemies are never relatable human beings, which works well for the Joker but makes everyone else annoying. The League of Shadows, which plays the evil roles in two of the movies, is a ridiculous conceit only because who would ever thinks like that. It sounds like the Protocols of the elders of Zion, or some conspiracy theory about rich republican billionaires from the Simpsons putting Aids in the chicken nuggets. (That speech when Liam Neeson talks about how the League of Shadows sacked Rome and London... Yikes.)
Even the most fascist propaganda attempts to hide behind a clever conceit. It wins the hearts of its people both through fear and scapegoats, but also through a heavenly utopian vision to rise out of all this despair. Bane somehow convinces a city to believe in him, I think, when it's clear that he is no more than a powerful thug. Nolan always feels so close to intelligence. He hangs around genius to the extent that he can mimic its structure, but not its essentials. Bane’s storyline, especially given the cultural wars we find ourselves in could really have been scenes for the ages. But Nolan never fleshes out what this new revolution looks like for a normal family. Do they loot as well? He focuses so much on moving his plot forward that he forgets to give meat to his ideas, to relationships. 
Logistics in these convoluted movies never bother me (Oh, but how did Batman get stabbed if he wears a kevlar suit that Lucius Fox said specifically stops knives!) Sometimes, you need to accept the rules of the created world, but gee whiz, when will Nolan stop thinking that effects, style, and that cool wow factor can take the place of actual thought.
Even his earlier films, take Insomnia for example, works much more off effects and acting than dialogue or plot. It creates a perfect mood of a sleep deprived cop who slowly loses his mind in the haze of the forest, but their ends its merits. Its plot, prosaic, mimics other movies. Pacino redeems the movie in a similar manner that Ledger redeems so much of the platitudinal nature of the Dark Knight. Given his genius, I would love to see Nolan take on a movie that works more on dialogue than twists and turns. Theatricality and misdirection are indeed powerful tools to the uninitiated, but are the initiated. Deception and illusions are indeed powerful tools, but for a magician, or maybe for a crime fighter, but less and less so for one of our most talented directors. Maybe I expect too much from the person who changed the face of movies, but why should we set our standards low for genius?

Monday, July 9, 2012

On Being Sick - The Limits of Human Limitations

For the most part, getting sick as an adult retains none of the adventurous advantages of being sick as a child. As a child a small-time illness, a cold, a virus, the flu, strep throat offered a free vacation day from school, the high of which negated any of the pain from the actual illness. Not only did a sick day provide an unplanned day off, but a day off without any sort of parental supervision. I could walk around in my underwear, eat everything I wanted, use the stove without causing my mother to worry intensely, and blast a movie to eardrum shattering levels (sometimes a rated R movie, shhhh, don't tell,) and the best, watch someone come to the door and just not answer it. For the most part, as children, we associate sickness with freedom so we feign sickness, or celebrate when the thermometer (ok, just noticed that word has mom in it...) or our mother’s hand, which seems preternaturally capable of telling real fever from our whining, announces real fever. We feel accomplished, oddly so, in our illness as if we helped contract whatever we contracted.
Kids are either ridiculously smart or absurdly stupid.
    Then we, without our permission, turn into adults and sickness equals not freedom but a sort of slavery. Adulthood for the most part and rightfully so, entails the freedom of responsibility: to our partners, to our children, our friends, our work, our own ambition, the standards we set for ourselves. Consequently, sickness, even the small cold is less a gift from the gods and more a punishment, a hindrance, an annoyance of a forced day off from our important lives as we rush ourselves through the pain - piling on medicine after medicine or prophylactic upon prophylactic. We try to work from bed, we answer emails, keep our smartphones on and just simply try to continue as if our bodies aren’t signalling to us to stop. None of the allure of sickness during childhood remains simply because it provides none of the ostensible freedoms. We don’t, for the most part, live under the tyrannical reign of our parents who force us to go to bed at a normal hour, we don’t live in fear or dread of school, in fact, we hate to miss school because it just creates more obligations on the backend, and we generally can enjoy ourselves much more when it doesn’t hurt to swallow. So, instead, we lose days of our schedule, we wait till these annoyances end so we can return to functioning.
    In a sense, the disparity obviously stems from the different life situations. We cannot wish for a return to a more naive, free situation of our childhood any more than we can wish away the common cold or debilitating flu as adults. Yet, perhaps nostalgia distorts my memory, but somehow, regardless of the illness, I cared less about pain as a child than I do as an adult. Our reaction to pain, so preconditioned by the purpose of pain and the societal associations, lies fully in our minds, in our thoughts. Past that first almost blinding sensation of pain, so much of its power lies in it ability to affect our thoughts about pain. Mainly, we associate pain with debilitation, with incapacitation, with death, with demise, so much of the pain of pain comes from worrying about the effects of pain on our larger lives. Ok, fair, I regurgitated the mindfulness approach to pain, but to what end? To me, sitting here on my couch, congested, sinuses flaring up, both ravenously hungry but nauseous, sweaty but cold, and obsessing over the fact that I cannot, for this day, live up to my potential, I ultimately find myself laughing at this conceit. Life's pain often boils down to a widening and sickening gap between what we want/what we think we deserve and what life, fate, destiny or god actually provides. Sometimes, I think, if we embraced our mediocrity more than our somewhat illusory belief in our singularity I think we all might live better lives.
However, can you imagine a parent telling their child some wisdom from positive psychology? “Look, son, I know we often tell you how smart and talented you are, but now that you are about to begin high school, well, it's time you realize that the odds you achieve what you actually think you can achieve are slim to none. In fact, you might actually be happier at a lower tier school in which you will definitely succeed then in a higher tier school in which you might just be another number…it's just the numbers. Think about it. You're pretty good at math. Imagine how many other people are as smart and talented as you, if not more, now realize that the work force depends on so many factors outside of your control, some fair, some not, that the odds of you, personally, becoming an astronaut or a huge writer, or a politician, well, son, it doesn't look pretty. You need to realize that success rarely equals happiness and that most people, statistically, find happiness in their relationships, regardless of their job. So aim with more realistic accuracy."
    Still, something about sickness as adults clarifies. In the more serious, threatening situations, illness allows us to clarify our priorities in life. We think of our personal goals, we rank them, and we realize that intimacy, family, friends tops of charts, while personal ambition withers away. The specter of death rarely pushes us towards personal accomplishment, but guides us back home. Yet, the smaller illnesses of everyday life, not necessarily, but can clarify to some extent. As enforced vacations, they promise us a day of nothing but survival, of living. We take an hour to drink tea, to eat toast, to get out of bed. It reminds us either that sometimes we need to live just as flesh, as physicality, as a pure piece of meat that needs some tender care. While other times we realize the complete ethereal nature of pain. It gains more strength the more we focus on it, the more we acknowledge it, like a child and their temper-tantrums. Regardless, what emerges is that every situation, when seen from a stoic more detached sensibility provides an opportunity for exploration of any kind.
    All of these straddles the line between rationalization of my laziness as I sit in bed and stew in my own germs, medicating myself, trying to feel useful while at the same time I am trying to accept my limitations. Sickness, of any sort, provides an hyper-realized situation we face everyday of our lives: living comfortably within our boundaries at the same time that we discover the true borders of our limitations. Life, defined as such, is a constant battle between true self-awareness and the gumption to constantly push our abilities past our known boundaries. Knowing when to pull back, when to draw in, to hide within ourselves and knowing when to push forward, to argue, to engage in conflict, to not accept easy limitations, mediocrity, feels oddly so, like the real nagging question of life. When our true limitations present themselves, will we summon enough courage and bravery to limit ourselves, and when we cage ourselves out of fear, fear of success, of failure, will we be able to challenge our beliefs about our limitations?
   Who knows?
Right now, G.I. Joe is on, and right now the clouds in my head allow me to not think about this question and just enjoy the insouciant charm of one Channing Tatum.