I saw a movie, I had a reaction to it, I reported my reaction, and in return I received a great many thoughtful, intelligent, knowledgeable responses, every one of which carried the discussion far beyond where I had begun it. Thank you all. I have read the comments and learned from them all. Let me try to say a little bit more about what I understand to have been the reason for my reaction to the movie, and then segue into a reprise of something I wrote a long time ago after brooding about Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. [One of the comments makes direct reference to what Marcuse had to say, in a way that is directly apposite to my puzzlement.]
By the way, among the many deeply thoughtful and knowledgeable comments, let me give a shout-out to Nick Pappas’ wonderful parenthetical question: “[Do we not mind "Ring around the rosy" these days because bubonic plague is no longer a great threat to life?]” I had forgotten, if I ever knew, the original meaning of that children’s game.
I experience the world as radically devoid of meaning, as prosaic, as utterly without transcendent significance. In short, for me God is not merely dead, He never existed. I have deep, powerful moral commitments and political beliefs, none of which I experience as in some way immanent in the world. This sense of unmystification, if I can put it that way, extends even to the environment. I have no sense of Mother Earth or of a oneness with nature, no belief that I owe a debt to the seas or the forests or biota, the realm of living things. My debts are only to other persons.
At the same time, I have a powerful emotional and intellectual response to and involvement with the aesthetic dimension of experience. Never mind that I love the music of Bach and the poetry of Dickinson and the drama of Shakespeare. That goes without saying. But it matters deeply to me that my writing be graceful, that it exhibit an elegant and transparent simplicity. I am more pleased when something I have published is considered well-written than when it is judged to be true.
Which brings me back to The Zookeeper’s Wife. The actors and director present me with an aesthetic object [for that is what a movie is, after all, even one without pretensions, like this one.] Like any movie [or painting or poem or novel or statue] it is shaped by its creators, for better or worse, so as to appeal to our aesthetic appreciation. But it does so by choosing as its background a real series of events – the Nazi occupation of Warsaw and slaughter of its Jewish population – about which I, and anyone else today, has a quite independent moral judgment. The invocation of these events lends weight to the story, but the aesthetic object being presented, the movie, by its very nature asks to be judged, so to speak, aesthetically, not morally. Now, as it happens, the moral point of view of the movie makers is the same as mine. They hate and condemn the Nazis as I do. So this is not a Leni Riefenstahl situation. But the shape and thrust of my moral evaluation of the Holocaust is entirely separate from my aesthetic appreciation of a rendering of the events of the Holocaust, even when these two align perfectly so that there is no jarring conflict between them.
Has art then nothing to do with morality. Not at all. The two are very importantly related. To put in a few brief sentences the insight I garnered from Marcuse and spelled out at great length in my essay, “What Good is a Liberal Education?”, all of us have powerful infantile fantasies of instantaneous and guilt free gratification residing deep in the unconscious. Great art miraculously overcomes the inevitable disappointments and frustrations consequent upon interactions with the constraints of the real world. In doing so, a great work of art keeps alive the fantasy of a world that embodies what Freud calls the Pleasure Principle rather than the Reality Principle. One example will illustrate what I mean. The rules for the composition of a fugue are rigid and constraining. They are [yes, I really mean this] the real world versions of the requirements of toilet training. A novice composition student finds these rules irritating and constraining, forcing the student to squeeze a lovely them into a rigid framework. But when Bach writes a fugue, he transcends the rules, soars above them, effortlessly creates exquisite music, all the while absolutely conforming perfectly to those same rules. Thus, in that fugue, we keep alive our infantile fantasy of effortless immediate gratification with all of its psychic power undiminished.
And it is those same fantasies that provide the psychic energy for revolutionary action! “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!”