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Monday, February 2, 2009

Groundhog Day

Today is Groundhog Day, a quaint Pennsylvanian tradition involving a ground-dwelling rodent predicting the next six weeks of weather, and a time for some families to gather around their old TV-VCR and dust off that unlikely American existential classic, Harold Ramis' movie of the same name.

Everyone knows this plot, or should. In it, Phil the jaded weatherman gets stuck in an endless repetition of the same day until his commitment to ingenue Rita surfaces above ingrained selfishness and frees him.

These themes of repetition and conviction can be found in Kierkegaard and Neitzsche, of course. Repetition grapples briefly with Kant's categorical in arresting our attention. Everything that repeats in our life fades back into a suggestion of an event, rather than the event itself. Thus, morning becomes the category of events in which we witness the magical becoming of the day, and since we can be certain that morning came before, is coming now, and will come again, we are allowed and solicited to fold its specificity into a category. To a small child each new horse is just that: new. Only a maturing intellect sees yet another boring repetition of the horse form.

Heidegger says that death is unique for each person, only the same sharable experience for each other. Death, the end of the life cycle, repeats for each mortal being. It cannot come twice to a single (multiple death is a sign of a god, as Phil learns), so it can only categorize us en masse, and from second hand. Our culture helps us keep going by substituting fear of categorical death for our eerie yearning for that singular closing newness to be had in a life that descends ever so slowly, as we age, into endless repetition. I wake up. I go to work. I feed my face. I lay down.

Nietzsche extends from such reflections that absolutely all is repetition. We cannot escape the hidden epicycles of existence, only meet them with fierce braggadocio. Heidegger suggests we make a riposte, a reciprocal rejoinder, to this flood of the past breaking across Dasein and washing into the future. This rejoinder attempts to reconfigure history. A brave thing, to be sure.

Kierkegaard insists that no such significant action has a chance without commitment, as if we were not, standing alone, strong enough to make such an earth-shaking resistance to repetition. And this commitment we find in few others, certainly not in Heidegger or Nietzsche. They seem to content themselves with the individual will or intellect. It is Kierkegaard who points to that which stands outside himself, and sees in any such help, which in the end must be essentially irrational, magical, the hazy shadow of a saving Christ.

So having laid these pieces out, categories disguising repetition, death disguising itself, liberty of action disguising inevitability of fate, and magic disguising salvation, let us proceed into madness. For Dostoevsky comes from an insane asylum. His is the endlessly repeated epileptic fit we cannot escape, the sudden seizure of brilliance in which intellectual madness, divine insight, uncontrollable bodily quaking, and exhaustion become momentary in time.

Like all compelling morality tales, or horror stories, his consist of what we fear the most, of the sudden, uncontrollable urge to rape or be raped, to murder another or one's self, to make a conspiracy of one or two, to steal, to lie, to betray. These gory, trans-emotional, life-shattering events are what Nietzsche and Heidegger want to talk about but can't, quite. Too bad. No millions died because of Dostoevsky's fiction, only countless readers steeled against the oh so human madness he lays down before us.

Unlike Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky occludes the commitment his extravagant sinners are always offered before or after throwing themselves into our collective and depressingly repeatable crimes. The Underground Man is offered the prostitute Lisa as wife and soulmate, but he rejects her and becomes the pathetic burrowing creature he rightfully claims to be. Rogozhin is offered Prince Myshkin, a living, blameless sacrifice, whose death would have surely spared their beloved Nastasya a gruesome death at Rogozhin's own hands. Raskolnikov is offered Sonia, and accepts her, and recoups his soul from the consequences of that savage, unforgivable axe murder we have all, in some inscrutable repetition, commited in his image. The parricide Smerdyakov is offered Ivan's confession, tentatively, as his very last hope before suicide, but he cannot trust Ivan and hangs himself anyway.

It is these attempted rescues, some successful and others not, with which Dostoevsky sprinkles his fiction and offers us as tangible, existential clues to our own best hope of making change. Not great historic movements like Nietzsche and Heidegger expect, but small human taps and nudges, which alone create the human matrix for real change to unfold in our cultures. Indeed we may choose to see history, not as a series of great works and grandiose flourishes, of temples, books, leaders, ideas, but as a long chain of exactly such conflicted, intimate touches of mercy, hoarse whispers in the flickering candlelight, incrementally elevating the human to the divine.

So a superficially senseless commitment engaged by mercy to others - not the cold, insistent, unbreakable bond that Kierkegaard prescribes, but the momentary, incidental, tentative possibility of grace - Dostoevsky believes can overcome death and meaninglessness. These are authentic. These are superhuman. These are the lessons Phil eventually learns on Groundhog Day.

2 comments:

BH said...

Dreyfus should really consider adding this movie to his course.

Of all the 20th century philosophers I've become aquianted with in the last year it seems to me that the film comes closest to the views of Levinas. Phil learns the absolute priority of "the Other" and it is in this shedding of his self-absortion that he finds himself. Levinas wrote, which I think is in the spirit of the film, "the other's material needs are my spiritual needs."

The character of Aloysha embraces this way of life. I can't imagine Aloysha standing on a mountain preparing to kill; his love manifests itself in his encounters in this world and not calls from another.

I remember once reading somewhere in Nietzsche where he writes something to the effect that there is a part of him that would want to help defend a weak and besieged African village. I like to think that Nietzsche the man may have caught a glimpse of something that eluded Nietzsche the philosopher. Maybe that slanting ray of light?

Both Levinas and Dosotoyevsky place a priority on an ethics of responsibility towards the other. It is primordial. "We are all guilty for all and for all men before all, and I more than others."

Did the groundhog see his shadow today?

BH

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