Antichrist

Lars Von Trier’s film Antichrist is one of the most upsetting, horrifying and gruesome films I have ever seen. It is often repellent, frequently pornographic and nearly unwatchable in parts due to some extremely brutal depictions of bodily mutilation. There is almost nothing entertaining about the film. It is unpleasant to watch. It is bleak, and it is depressing.

And yet Antichrist is also masterfully crafted and psychologically deep. The repulsive and unsettling character of the film’s imagery and action hammers home a profoundly nihilistic message that is cosmic in scope, and which is depressing precisely because of its difficult truth. This message is that nature is vicious, and that  humans, even though we want to forget it, are a part of nature. As a part of nature, the only thing that keeps us from tearing one another apart is our uncanny ability to repress and sublimate our deepest urges and drives. Without this ability, civilization would be impossible, and yet, ironically,  it is because of repression that we are doomed to experience self-alienation and despair. We are a part of nature, but we must pretend that we are not if we hope to hold onto such things as human dignity, moral law and social order. In order to live with one another peacefully, we must deny who we really are.

“Supposing truth is a woman – what then?” writes Nietzsche in the Preface to Beyond Good and Evil, and in Antichrist Von Trier eagerly sets his talents to answering this question. The movie begins with a prologue, filmed in slow-motion black and white, and set to Handel’s “Let Me Weep.” In this prologue, the film’s two nameless protagonists, “He” (Willem Dafoe) and “She,” (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are having sex. In their passion, they are lost to the world around them; so much so that they are unaware that their young child has observed them (in what Freud referred to as the “primal scene”) and subsequently has fallen out of an open window to his death onto the sidewalk below. This opening sequence is shamelessly shocking in how it contrasts the innocence of a child with explicit shots of an erect penis thrusting into a vagina. The connection between the two is obvious – children are the product of sexual union between men and women – but still, we desire to obscure this truth. The child in the film has no knowledge of the primal sexuality of which he is the product, and we ourselves think it indecent to be reminded of this fact of nature. But that does not make it any less true. Nor does the horror we feel upon watching this child fall to his death make the reality of human mortality any less true. Everyone who is born is the product of physical lust and is destined to die. In this short, awful prologue then, Von Trier has compressed the entire trajectory of human existence.

The couple now falls into grief, and Chapter One of the film (Grief) begins. “He” is a therapist (or as a feminist sociology teacher of mine was fond of saying, “the-rapist”), and makes the poor decision to act in this capacity for his wife. “She” is a graduate student who has been working on, but has not finished, her thesis project dealing with the history of witchcraft and the persecution of women. In order to confront her grief, He compiles a list of things of which She is fearful. Near the top of this list is Eden, the name they have given to their cabin in the woods where She has done much of her writing. They decide to go back to Eden so that She can confront and overcome her most primal fear.

Eden and the forest are the embodiment of nature. The fear that She has of this setting is the fear that anyone has when forced to confront their authentic and true self. She is afraid that her real essence will be exposed, that the mask of civilization will drop away and that she will stand naked without a disguise. This is not just embarrassing; it is terrifying since it is a revelation not just to others, but also to one’s own self. It entails a confrontation with one’s own bestial nature. Consequently, She does not even want to walk through the woods in order to get to the cabin. Her feet burn as they touch the ground, even as her husband insists that it is all in her head. But her burning feet are merely an indication that nature is not a welcoming place to be. It is terrifying and uncivilized. It is a place where “chaos reigns.”

Chapter Two is titled “Pain (Chaos Reigns).” It is during this section of the film that He subjects She to a course of exposure therapy. She must walk on the ground, confront the woods and come to terms with her fear of nature. In Eden, as it turns out, all is not well. We come to find that nature is cruel and excessive in the suffering it demands. A deer is spied with a stillborn fawn hanging limp from its birth canal. A wounded, bloodied fox lies dying in the grass and barks “Chaos reigns!” The oak tree standing next to their cabin drops hundreds of acorns onto the roof, reminding them that in order for one tree to thrive, hundreds of acorns (its babies) must die. A baby chick falls from a nest, helpless and covered with ants, only to be snatched up and eaten alive by a passing bird of prey. This is nature, “red in tooth and claw.” As She tells her husband, “Nature is Satan’s church.”

With this exposure, her cure is initiated, and so is Chapter Three: Despair (Gynocide). It is during this part of the film that some of the most awful and appalling imagery appears. After announcing that her treatment has been successful, He comes to realize that the result is not what he had expected. Her defenses lowered, She comes into full contact with her inner nature, experiencing the sublime force and savagery of desire unleashed. She furiously copulates with her husband, and then masturbates madly before exploding in an uncontrolled rage because she fears that her husband will leave her. She crushes his testicles with a wooden beam, knocking him unconscious, rubs his penis until he ejaculates blood and drills a hole in his leg, to which she then attaches a heavy mill stone in order to keep him from leaving. She wanders away and He eventually regains consciousness, flees with difficulty and hides in a hole beneath a tree. (The hole, no doubt, represents a vagina, which in this film is both a danger and a lure to the male character. Throughout the film, the female lead is terrified of this particular tree hole; an indication that she fears her own nature.) While in the hole, He encounters a blackbird whose loud, cawing cries betray his hiding place, and so his wife finds him and drags him back to the cabin.

In the final Chapter: The Three Beggars, She, seemingly unable to endure the unrepressed intensity of her own boiling, primal, sexual rabidity, snips off her own clitoris with a pair of scissors. As She lays bleeding on the ground, He detaches the mill stone from his leg. When he looks over toward his wife’s prostrate form, the three animals, who are the the first three chapters’ namesakes, are laying next to her. Grief is a deer, pain is a fox and despair is a blackbird. He envisions them all as constellations in the night sky, reinforcing the idea that these are cosmic principles, laws of nature that are inscribed into the heavens. Nature is cruel and eternally filled with grief, pain and despair. He then strangles his wife to death and escapes the cabin.

The Epilogue depicts He climbing to the top of a hill and then seeing the three animals – “the three beggars” – ghostly but still present. As he looks upon them, He realizes that a multitude of faceless women are climbing the hill toward him. Nature is still in pursuit. He is not going to escape.

“Supposing truth is a woman – what then?” Lars Von Trier has answered Nietzsche’s question in this film. Nature is the truth, and in Antichrist woman is the embodiment of nature. She is beyond good and evil. “Mother Nature” is terrifying if left to her own devices. She requires the repression and sublimation of her forces in order to build civilization and to avoid the reign of chaos. “Thus man likes woman peaceful – but woman is essentially unpeaceful, like a cat, however well she may have trained herself to seem peaceful” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 131).

Lars Von Trier states that Antichrist is the most important film of his career. It was made when he was just emerging out of a deep depression so severe that he required hospitalization, and as a testament to his own grief, pain, and despair, the film is tremendously powerful. While many people, including critics and some of his leading ladies, accuse Von Trier of being sexist and misogynistic, such ad hominem attacks do nothing to undermine the profound depth and authenticity of this film. Von Trier confesses that he drew from his own dreams (and nightmares!) in order to make Antichrist, and it is in dreams, as Freud taught, that the unconscious forces of thanatos and libido make their most honest and unrepressed appearance. In this way, Von Trier is perhaps more naked in Antichrist than are his lead actors.

Buddha

Buddhism is a belief system that stands somewhere between a religion and a philosophy. Like all religions, it asks followers to have faith in a program that promises to alleviate human suffering once and for all. Like a philosophy, however, it encourages people to use logic and reason in order to sort through and understand the realities of human existence. Buddhism rejects the notion that there is any form of supernatural help to be had in the struggle toward perfection, insisting that it is only through personal effort that one can achieve enlightenment. “Be lamps unto yourselves,” Siddhartha is reported to have told his closest attendant, Ananda, as he neared death. “Do not look for refuge in anyone but yourselves.”

I find the individualism and the non-supernatural character of classical Buddhism very attractive, and after reading Karen Armstrong’s biography of the Buddha, I am even more intrigued by the system of Buddhism and the man who created it. It is, incidentally, important to emphasize that Siddhartha Gautama was a man, and not a god. In becoming a buddha, Siddhartha did nothing more than “wake up” to the reality of the world. He relinquished his desires and found peace amidst the impermanence of all things. He ended his craving for the world to be anything other than what it really is. This is all that Buddhist enlightenment consists of. In fact, according to Siddhartha, anyone is capable of becoming a buddha and of achieving nirvana, which is why writing a biography about Siddhartha is so appropriate. He was a man who struggled with problems like anyone else, making mistakes, learning lessons and changing directions throughout his life. He started by following in the footsteps of others, and later came to break away from all authority, ultimately establishing his own path toward reconciliation with the infinite.

Armstrong’s biography highlights, more than most other texts I’ve read, the mistakes and u-turns in the life of Siddhartha, from his abandonment of asceticism to his initial refusal to admit women into his order. Armstrong does a wonderful job of showing that Siddhartha was not a divinely inspired figure who claimed to channel the unquestionable and final wisdom of the gods, but a real flesh and blood man who, though he sometimes stumbled, remained magnificent due to his willingness to admit mistakes, readjust his views, struggle with difficult ideas and to keep preaching the Truth as he saw it. In this regard, Siddhartha resembles someone like Socrates more than he does Jesus. He was not a god/man, but a human being through and through.

There are ideas and speculations in Armstrong’s book I have never encountered before, and that imbue the Buddha’s life and message with an increased level of complication. One of these claims is that the Buddha offered a different set of teachings to those who were ready to fully commit to enlightenment than he did to those who were not. Armstrong writes that the Buddha encouraged the less committed to follow the basic rules of morality simply because it would make their lives easier and happier in the here and now. This is a quite pragmatic attitude toward morality that does not seem entirely consistent with other Buddhist doctrines, such as the second step in the Eightfold Path, which emphasizes the necessity of “right intentions,” or the Buddha’s assertion, in the Digha Nikaya that “there is no teaching for one type of person and another for other types.”

Another alarming speculation that Armstrong raises is that the Buddha’s death might not have been the result of accidental food poisoning, as the Pali texts report, but that it may have been a deliberate act of murder. She cites a scholar who points to the fact that upon sitting down to his last meal, Siddhartha did not allow any of his friends to eat from the same bowl out of which he served himself, and afterwards that he had the leftover food buried. This might be an indication that Siddhartha knew that his food had been tampered with and that he was trying to protect those who were with him. If this truly is the case, then it would be one more way that Siddhartha resembles Socrates, who willingly drank hemlock while his friends looked on.

For those who approach Buddhism from a religious orientation, Armstrong’s book might be unsettling. The overall picture she paints is of a man who was fallible, at times mistaken, and often depressed and isolated. Such characteristics might not be the sort that inspire faith and unshakable confidence in followers. For those of us who approach Buddhism from a philosophical perspective, however, these same characteristics inspire empathy and reinforce the feeling that the Buddha was a real, flesh and blood human being who suffered in many of the same ways that the rest of us still suffer. If this is so, then his thoughts on how to confront the pain of impermanence can stand alongside those of other great philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger.

Why I am not religious

When I was in high school, as I struggled with recurrent bouts of adolescent despair, I went through a period during which I tried desperately to believe in God, thinking that if I could just cement such a conviction in my mind I would feel safe, secure and certain that life was worthwhile and meaningful. I remember kneeling by my bed, clasping my hands in front of my face and trying with all of my inner will to convince myself that there was a loving Creator above who was listening to my prayers. Although I wished so much for this to be true, I always ended up feeling quite foolish as I kneeled there, staring at the wall and muttering into the dark. It seemed that no matter how much I desired to believe in God, I just could not do it. The idea that there was a caring, supernatural consciousness floating somewhere beyond time and space struck me as more than just implausible; it seemed downright childish. God was like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, honest politicians or good government. A person would have to be immature or delusional to think that such things really existed.

This attitude of mine extended to all religions, both eastern and western. If anything, the eastern religions struck me as even more bizarre than the Judaism and Christianity with which I was most familiar. When I was growing up, we had neighbors whose house was decorated with Hindu and Buddhist statues and tapestries. I recall being puzzled, and a bit troubled, by the fact that the designs of some of these decorations included swastikas. “Why is there a swastika on your wall?” I asked our neighbor. “That’s the Buddha’s footprint,” was the reply. That seemed vaguely scary and just plain weird to me as a teenager.

I developed into a devout atheist as time went on, and defined myself as an opponent of religious superstition. Of course, I never bothered to read the actual texts that served as the basis for these religions. Why should I read them? I knew, a priori, that they must be devoid of any worth or insight. They obviously must be filled with fairy tales and nonsense. They were, I assumed, a waste of time.

It wasn’t until I was well into my adulthood and teaching philosophy full-time that I was forced to reexamine my prejudice against religion. I was working toward tenure at a school on the East Coast when I was assigned to teach a class in world religions. Upon receiving the news of my assignment, I immediately felt anxious. After all, I was an atheist who had never had much of an interest in pursuing serious study into this topic. In fact, I had self-consciously avoided the topic for a good portion of my life. Nonetheless, I dove into my preparations, remembering that when I was an undergraduate, I had indeed taken a course in which we read the classic book by Huston Smith, The World’s Religions. Because it was somewhere to start, I decided to revisit Smith’s book and use it as the central reading for my upcoming class.

Smith’s book had a profound effect on me once I reread it; not because it convinced me of the truth of any particular religious tradition, but because of how convincingly it argues for the legitimacy of a single impulse behind all religious faiths. I know that Smith has been criticized for making the diverse variety of world religious traditions seem too similar to one another, however it was precisely this perspective that excited me about the book. Smith likens the various religions of the world to differing paths up a mountain. Even though the sights seen and details encountered on these routes may be unique, they all lead toward the same summit: the Holy. Ultimately then, the differences between religions amount to differences in language, culture, ritual and tradition. Behind and beneath all of that is a deeper, broader and more fundamental similarity: the aspiration toward Holiness.

This idea really resonated with me, and in a strange way made me realize how close the religious impulse is to my own form of nihilism. Nihilism, as I define it in my book Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism, is a sort of frustrated idealism. It is a philosophy based on the following claims: 1. Humans are separated from the ideals of their highest aspiration, like Truth, Beauty, Justice, Goodness, etc. 2. This is a situation that is other than it ought to be. 3. There is nothing we can do to end this separation. It is the first two claims of nihilism that seem to overlap with religious belief, while the third claim is what sets nihilists and religious people at odds against one another. Nihilists, like the religiously faithful, aspire toward the superlative; toward perfection. Also like nihilists, religious people claim that there is a gap between the aspirant and the object of adoration, whether it be God, Brahman, Nirvana, etc. The nihilist and the religiously faithful part ways, however, at that point when the faithful claim to have a means to mend the separation between worshiper and the worshiped. In fact, it has become increasingly apparent to me, now that I have actually taken the time to read about and study various forms of religion in greater depth, that the core of all religious traditions probably lies in the advocacy of some sort of mechanism or practice that is claimed to be useful for bridging the gap between worshipers and the Holy. As Smith argues in his book, the details may differ, but the goal is the same.

This fundamental difference allows me now to understand what I both admire and disagree with in the various religions of the world. While I admire the aspiration toward something greater and more wonderful than our present here and now reality, I disagree that there is an end to this aspiration so long as we are alive. Life is struggle, striving and suffering, and there is no rescue from this for us nihilists; but this is not really all that awful since it is through struggling, striving and suffering that things get done and the world moves on.

I now don’t begrudge religious people their faith. On the contrary, I envy it. I wish I was able to believe in the actual existence of something beyond the natural world of flux and change. There is still that part of me that remains intact from high school that would love to believe in God, or perhaps Brahman or Nirvana.

But still, I just can’t do it, for whatever reason.