IBSA (ISKCON Bhaktivedanta Sadhana Asrama), Govardhana, India
17 December 2003
"I start out in this story a little bit like a hero, which I most certainly am not."
"There's a fair face to the land, surely; but you can't hide the hunger and the guilt. It's a bright guilty world."
"I'd be innocent, officially...but that's a big word: 'innocent.' 'Stupid' is more like it. Well, everybody is somebody's fool..."
These are some lines written by Orson Welles, who was a hero of mine when I was a teenager. He died in 1985. He was celebrated around the world by thoughtful people as a genius scriptwriter, film director and actor. Yes, a genius to some, but to many--especially to the money men in Hollywood--Orson Welles was an eccentric, overrated, self-indulgent money-waster. Still, at least one Welles film, Citizen Kane, released in 1941, is widely accepted as being among the best movies to come out of Hollywood in all its history.
So, as an idealistic youth I much admired Orson Welles, although I had to admit to myself that most of his films were difficult to digest. I remember how I really, really tried to appreciate and understand Welles' tortuously long production of Franz Kafka's The Trial, which was released in the 1960s. What I most liked about him was that he made an effort tell his viewing audience more about the meaning of life than 99% percent of the other moviemakers.
Of course, after coming to Srila Prabhupada's lotus feet I realized that Orson Welles really didn't have all that much to say about the meaning of life. He stood out because others had even less, or nothing at all, to say.
Anyway, the lines quoted above sum up for me the message of his art. The first seems to say that it isn't honest for anyone in the material world to pass himself off as a hero, even if he does something great. We know from Gita that the credit for action goes to the modes of material nature, not to the spirit soul. Thus a hero is a puppet of material nature acting out a script written by karma.
The second line seems to say that behind the beautiful mask of the material world lurks guilty desire. Everyone who takes part in this world shares in its collective guilt.
The third seems to say that some living entities in this guilty material world do seem to be more innocent than others; thus we may be tempted to conclude that some here are good. Welles tells us to never mind delving into the question of good versus evil. The clear fact of material existence is that everyone in it is guilty of being stupid.
So, like I said: I admired Orson Welles for trying to tell people more about life than most film-makers. But as you can see, what he had to say about life was negative. That negativity marked his films with a grotesqueness which was Welle's distinctive style. See the dictionary:
1. Characterized by ludicrous or incongruous distortion, as of appearance or manner. 2. Outlandish or bizarre, as in character or appearance. 3. Of, relating to, or being the grotesque style in art or a work executed in this style.
Let me just interrupt myself to tell you why I am thinking about Orson Welles after so many years. While I was in New Zealand I had a talk with Padmasambhava Prabhu about traditional Chinese theater. That is something I know nothing about, though I've always been fascinated by the photos I've seen of Chinese actors dressed in the old-style costumery. Padmasambhava Prabhu is Chinese (he was born in Malaysia, not in China itself). One thing he told me is that most traditional Chinese plays present a courtroom scene: either a court presided over by a human judge, or the court of the Chinese equivalent to Yamaraja.
That made me think of The Lady from Shanghai, a Welles film of 1948. At one point Welles takes his viewers into a theater in San Francisco's Chinatown where onstage a courtroom scene is being performed in the traditional way, with the actors dressed in long fancy silk gowns and elaborate crowns. To the Western eye, the music, singing and mannerisms of Chinese theater are rather grotesque. The funny thing is that shortly before that scene of Chinese theater, The Lady from Shanghai shows us an American courtroom scene. This is much more grotesque. I think what Welles was hinting at is that what we accept as normal in modern life is even stranger than "strange" Chinese theater.
The Lady from Shanghai was a flop in 1948 because people then could not stomach its grotesqueness. Nor could they appreciate its sly commentary that they--the viewing audience--are stupid for accepting the material world as it looks without facing what it really is, a prison for those guilty of stupidity.
Now things have changed. There's a slang word much in use among young people: "grotty", a hip way of saying grotesque. It's in now, and Orson Welles is lionized as being ahead of his time. I hear there's a big demand for his films these days.
But the grotesque is a dead end. Where's the lasting satisfaction in portraying over and over the absurdity of material existence? Even worse than a dead end, it is a dangerous end. Let me mention Owen Barfield again. As an investigator of consciousness, he saw a grave danger in the growing obsession in modern people for the dark side of the mind.
Today's taste for the grotesque can be traced back to Europe of three hundred years ago. In Dimensions of Good and Evil I traced out this trend in Chapter Nineteen.
The idyllic imagination shies away from a rigorous definition of goodness. It expects virtue to flow from freedom rather than the discipline of character. Thus the idyllic imagination is sentimental, not perfectional. This sentimental formulation of morality acquired its ideological voice in the writings of the Swiss-French philosopher Jean- Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who sparked an eighteenth-century revolution in European thought known as Romanticism.
Romanticism was a reaction to the so-called Enlightenment Project, which was a seventeenth and eighteenth century French school of rationalism. Rationalism means any doctrine that teaches the supremacy of the human intellect over all other considerations. The French philosophes of the Enlightenment--Diderot, d'Alembert, La Mettrie, Condillac, Helvetius, d'Holbach, Turgot and Condorcet, among others-- propagated an ideology of "the rational society" that is the precursor of twentieth-century technocracy. William Kilpatrick relates how romanticism arose to challenge the Enlightenment Project:
There was a limit to people's appetite for science, abstraction, and impersonal reason. When the limit was reached, a revolt set in. We now call it Romanticism. The Romantic movement rediscovered art, mystery, and irrationality. And it rediscovered emotions. In fact, it elevated emotion to a position it had never before held in the history of thought. And with this new emphasis on the emotional self came a whole new way of defining morality.
Similarly, the 1960s began with manned space flights that proclaimed to the world the triumph of scientific rationalism. Unexpectedly--during the trauma that followed the Kennedy assassination, while the body count in Vietnam mounted--the sixties were rent by an explosion of idyllic imagination. The blast radiated a shock wave of "pure" (read: undisciplined) sentiment that crashed against the soaring ice-cathedral of "pure" (read: scientific) reason. Though it failed to tumble the cathedral, the wave of sentiment did flood its interior. Barriers of racism and sexism were left in splinters. The gilded altars of wealth, power and intellectual pretension were heaved about. The wave left behind a trove of "new" values that the explosion had dredged up from the underground. This was the remnant of Rousseau's Romantic ideology, which itself had been buried by the wave of hard science, high technology, heavy industry, cut-throat materialism, mass annihilation and grim ideological confrontation that had swept over the face of the globe since the early 1900s.
Rousseau believed that human beings are at heart innocent. They naturally love justice and harmony. The urban structure of civilization--which encourages competition and the ownership of private property--corrupted us. Rousseau marked the path away from citified ruination by his maxim "To thine own self be true." This translates well into such modern pearls of wisdom as "Do your own thing," "Hang loose," "Get in touch with your inner child," "What feels right is right," and "Get back to nature."
Rousseau paid lip service to the virtues of compassion, friendliness and loving kindness, but his own character was undisciplined and shockingly deficient in truthfulness, purity and honesty. Other philosophers of his time, who were sympathetic at first to his message, soon soured as they came to know the dark side of Rousseau's personality. Hume and Voltaire dismissed Rousseau as a monster. Diderot called him "deceitful, vain as Satan, ungrateful, cruel, hypocritical and full of malice." A woman with whom Rousseau was intimate summed him up as "an interesting madman."
The last forty years of the twentieth century have seen any number of interesting madmen who proclaimed a new dawn of peace, love, universal harmony and spirituality. Like Rousseau, these rollicking visionaries of the new romanticism too often turned out to be Pied Pipers who marched the naive into a moral wasteland. In that wasteland, demons lurked.
The idyllic imagination lacks a tragic sense, and as a result it is more easily defeated by tragedy. Last year's Romantic idealist turns out to be this year's suicide. And because the Romantic is essentially naive about evil, he is less resistant to it. As a result, the idyllic imagination, upon encountering boredom, frustration, or temptation, sometimes evolves into..."the diabolic imagination."
...in the late sixties and the subsequent decade the popular imagination was captured by an idyllic vision. During that time, millions of young people turned away from the work ethic and immersed themselves in a world of idyllic dreams...As with previous idyllic flings, however, this one quickly developed a dark side. What began as a vision of Edenic innocence soon evolved into something else. If youngsters of the sixties were wearing flowers in their hair, many youngsters of the next generation were wearing spikes instead of flowers, and listening to a music preoccupied with themes of hopelessness, destruction, suicide, Satanism, and sexual mutilation.
Owen Barfield, who argued that our minds participate in the figuration of the world, warned that people who permit their imaginations to flow free will become captivated by the dark unconscious. That captivation will lead them to envision the world as "fantastically hideous." Barfield was specifically referring to the art of the Surrealists (think of the paintings of Salvadore Dali, for example). Now, the consequence of participatory reality is that the world we first see in "the mind's eye" as poetry, art, music, writing and film, will in time become the world out there. It is no accident that as more and more people cultivate a taste for the grotesque, the world around us increasingly appears to be a waking nightmare.
I am dealing with these all these thoughts here in In2-MeC because Vrndaban Dham is so absolutely removed from the grotesquery of the modern world. Sure, there is visible evidence of Kali-yuga here too, but the transcendental nature of this holy place renders that influence insignificant, like the buzzing of a mosquito in your room. It's a little bothersome, but it isn't a major disaster. In the world beyond the Dham, human beings are given over to the mentality of mosquitos. They exist to suck blood. Such people are demons and they've turned the world into a living nightmare.
Friedrich Nietzche wrote that those who would fight with monsters should beware that they themselves turn into monsters, for when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you. Orson Welles wanted a better world, but he had no clear idea of what that better world might be. He never took a pilgrimage to the holy dhama. So all he could do was portray the Kali-yuga world in a grotesque light. His hope was to shock his audience into some sort of reflection upon their situation. During most of his life, Orson Welles largely failed in that effort. And if now his films are finding a new popularity, it is more because people today like the grotesque. Far from being shocked and so moved to change the world for the better, they want to see the world in that way. They want to enjoy it in that way--as fantastically hideous. When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you...and changes you.
We should strive instead to see Krsna's pastimes, not the grotesqueries of our imagination.
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