Sacrifice in Glasgow and Dumfries/Galloway

DSC04304While in Scotland I delivered my presentation, “Scotland as a Site of Sacrifice” twice: once to the faculty of film studies at the downtown campus of Glasgow University and then to the department of interdisciplinary studies at the Dumfries campus. The experience was very positive, and it was a wonderful chance to meet a number of scholars whose works have contributed to my understanding of Scotland and its depiction in film; scholars such as David Martin-Jones, Ian Goode, David Archibald, Karen Lury, Benjamin Franks and Stuart Hanscombe.

DSC03980Glasgow University was founded in 1451, making it the fourth oldest university in the English speaking world. The main campus is awe-inspiring. There is a tall, gothic spire visible from the distance, and the main building around which the rest of the school is centered looks like a castle.  I delivered my paper in Gilmorehill Hall. From the outside it, like the main building, looks like a structure from the ancient past. Once you step inside, however, the place is completely modern, with a state-of-the-art movie theater, glass enclosed offices, and classrooms outfitted with full technology.

The Dumfries campus is unusual in that its grounds are shared with the University of West Scotland, Dumfries and Galloway College and the Open University. The whole campus is referred to as “The Chrichton,” which caused me some confusion when I was trying to find it. The idea behind this arrangement was to bring higher education to a region that previously had no established universities or colleges. Although Dumfries is only about two hours south of Glasgow, the town is small and most of the surrounding areas are rural, consisting of farmland, sheep pastures and ruins. This entire southern area of Scotland is referred to as the Dumfries/Galloway region.

DSC04277The Chrichton, like the main campus of University of Glasgow, is home to some amazing buildings. The most impressive is a gothic church called the Chrichton Memorial Church, which was completed in 1897. It stands in the middle of the campus, commanding your attention as you approach. This is the sort of structure that I always imagined as the anchor point of an old and respected educational institution; and it is a far cry from what I’ve become used to on the west coast of the US where most things are temporary and impermanent. There is something comforting about a campus where you know that the buildings have been around for a long time and that they won’t disappear tomorrow. It makes me think, in contrast, of my own school, the College of Marin, which is currently undergoing a radical transformation with most of the old edifices being torn down and shiny, new, modern ones being put up.

imagesI delivered my presentation first at the downtown campus and then drove south to Dumfries the following week. This gave me the opportunity for a road trip during which I  stopped along the way to explore some of the locations where the classic 1973 British film The Wicker Man had been filmed. My presentation deals with this movie extensively, and so this was a terrific chance to do some on-the-ground research that would enrich my understanding of how the actual geography of Scotland is related to its cinematic representation.

Renting a car, I followed the A77 down the west coast, and as I ventured further and further into this area, I developed an increasing sense of an ancient past that has not yet been overwritten by modern influences. I could imagine that the people populating many of these small towns and rural villages live lives in many ways similar in daily rhythm to their forefathers: fishing, ranching, herding sheep, going to church. As always, the driech, grey and drizzly weather contributed a dreary backdrop to the scenery, helping me to feel like there was something mysterious and a bit sad about the landscape.

DSC04105My first stop was Culzean Castle, which served as the exterior for Lord Summerisle’s residence in The Wicker Man. The castle itself was closed when I arrived, but the grounds were open, so I wandered around taking in the spectacular ocean vistas and surveying the castle and its gardens. As I walked up to the structure, I immediately remembered the scene from The Wicker Man when Sgt. Howie meets Lord Summerisle at his home. The approach to the castle is exactly reproduced in the film, and being there gave me a weird feeling like fantasy was blending into reality. It was beautiful, majestic and a bit spooky all at once.

DSC04157I had booked a room in the coastal town of Portpatrick, so this was my stop-off point at the end of the first day. A storm was kicking up by the time I arrived, and the shoreline was a maelstrom of waves crashing against black rocks while rain poured down from the sky. The middle of winter is not the tourist season here, and yet I found myself feeling supremely happy that I was able to see this place under these conditions. As I stood by the shoreline, I was mesmerized by the chaos of the ocean and invigorated by the wind and pelting rain. A Scottish flag, planted in a hill of rocks by the harbor, flapped and snapped in the squall. There was no doubt about the fact that I was in Scotland, the severe, cold wilderness to the north of England.

The next morning I hit the road, this time traveling east on the A75. I dropped south onto 747 so that I could visit St. Ninian’s Cave and Burrow Head, both of which served as locations for the filming of The Wicker Man. The route southwards is very narrow and a bit treacherous. I think I probably pissed off many of the locals with how slow I was driving, but the last thing I wanted to do was to end up careening off of the side of the road and into a ditch, so I continued on at a snail’s pace to Whithorn, where I saw a sign directing me to my next stop.

get-attachment.aspxThe finale of The Wicker Man occurs when the character Sgt. Howie is lured to a rocky beach where he finds the young girl he has been searching for throughout the film. She is standing in the mouth of a cave, which in reality is St. Ninian’s Cave. The location is reached by way of a mile-long walk down a pathway that starts in a cow pasture, goes through a forested area, past a sign warning of dangerous bulls and ends up on the beach. When I arrived at the trailhead, the rain was coming down and I had to trudge through the mud in order to reach my destination. At first I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place as there are no signs directing you to the cave once you hit the shoreline. I looked about and finally found it. In reality it is less like a true cave and more like an indented opening in the rock cliff next to the water.

It was an unexpectedly moving experience coming to this place. St. Ninian is credited with being the first person to bring Christianity to Scotland sometime around 400 AD. The cave is supposed to have been where he prayed on a regular basis and now, in addition to being a film location, it serves as a point of pilgrimage for the faithful. All around the entrance lie religious mementos: crosses, rocks inscribed with prayers, memorials for dead loved ones, and flowers. This is obviously a meaningful place for many folks, connecting them with a man from hundreds of years ago who devoted his life to his religious mission. It makes sense that this was chosen by the makers of The Wicker Man as a spot in which to depict a confrontation between paganism and Christianity, as both world views really did encounter one another here.

DSC04250Continuing south, my next stop before heading for Dumfries was Burrow Head. Burrow Head is now a caravan park, perched right next to the water, and it is where the final burning of the wicker man took place. I immediately recognized the location when I arrived. A grass lined path leads down a small hill to a clearing, encircled by jagged rocks and crashing ocean waves. In the film, this is where the villagers stand as they watch the burning of their sacrifice on the hill above. Apparently there were three wicker men built for the movie, only one which was ignited. The remains on the shore are those of an unburned wicker man. Although the only things left are two wooden posts embedded in concrete, I still felt a surge of excitement as I reflected on the fact that this was where Christopher Lee argued about the nature of sacrifice with Edward Woodward before committing him to flames in the movie. Here was a not so ancient artifact, marking the landscape discreetly, but nonetheless acting as a significant reminder to visitors of how human beings feel compelled to alter their environment as they make things and engage in existential projects. I must confess that these two posts, despite their plain and simple appearance, were no less remarkable to me than Culzean Castle or St. Ninian’s Cave.

My own Wicker Man pilgrimage was completed by passing through Creetown and Castle Douglas, two more places that served as sites for the making of the movie, before heading off for two nights in Dumfries. After my presentation, I departed northwards, and back toward the west coast for a two night stay on the Isle of Arran. The trip requires a ferry ride, and though Arran is not a complete backwater, there is a feeling of relative isolation that comes from being on an island that is sparsely populated and separated from the mainland.

get-attachment-1.aspxArran is not a big island. It only takes a few hours to drive its circumference, and over the course of that drive most of what you see are sheep, ocean views, and collections of buildings too small to be called villages. I stopped along the east coast in order to take a hike across a sheep pasture to visit an ancient set of artifacts, dating to some 2000 years BC, which stretch out along a protected pathway in the middle of a flat moor. Along the path are a number of “cairns,” or burial sites where ancient tribe leaders have been layed to rest. Each cairn is marked by a ring of stones surrounding a mound of earth. As you continue along, there appear monoliths jutting up into the air in the near distance. These structures become more and more prominent as you advance, looming against the landscape like giant rock blades embedded in the earth. They are ancient pillars, placed in this location for reasons that no one is sure of, but which may have to do with the marking of tribal boundaries or with some sort of religious/cerimonial purpose. As with St. Ninian’s Cave and the wicker man legs at Burrow Head, there was something moving and sublime about these stones. They protrude into the air, standing about 15 ft tall, defying gravity as they jut upwards. Their stark, silent simplicity is dramatic and striking against the otherwise flat landscape. Here is a place where thousands of years ago people lived their lives, pursuing routines that modern humans can’t even understand. I felt a chill looking at this place, knowing that in the distant past there were human beings who methodically placed these monoliths here for some deliberate reason that is now lost. Today they still stand, for no utilitarian purpose other than for people like myself to gaze awestruck and to wonder why they are there.

This week-long adventure to the south of Scotland helped me to understand a number of things. Seeing these locations, walking around them, being in the spots where some of the key scenes from The Wicker Man were staged revealed how the actual geography of Scotland has contributed to the making of this modern cinematic masterpiece. My additional trip to Arran further helped to reinforce the sense of Scotland’s silent, mysterious and yet unmistakable prehistory. The legacy of human culture and religious practices here is ancient, going back to a time even before Christianity made its way to Britain. This landscape and the monuments that adorn it are reminders of the ongoing projects pursued by both prehistoric and contemporary humans.

Scotland as a Site of Sacrifice

DownloadedFileI will deliver my presentation “Scotland as a Site of Sacrifice” on January 30th at the University of Glasgow, in Glasgow Scotland and then again on February 5th at the Dumfries campus of the University of Glasgow.

Friedrich Nietzsche delineates three stages of sacrificial behavior. The first stage consists of the sacrifice of particular human beings to a god. The second stage involves the sacrifice of one’s own instincts to a god, and the third stage culminates in the sacrifice of God himself. (BGE: 55) This last stage describes the death of God and signals the “final cruelty” of our present times. Our age is the age of nihilism, the point in history during which humans “sacrifice God for the nothing,” fulfilling a kind of nihilistic sacrifice. In this presentation I examine three different cinematic depictions of sacrifice, two of which clearly illustrate Nietzsche’s first two stages and the last of which suggests the possibility of the third, nihilistic stage. The films I have selected share a common thread insofar as they all take place in Scotland. The first two films,The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973) and Breaking the Waves (Lars Von Trier, 1996), take place in rural, northern Scotland, capitalizing on what scholars have called the myths of Tartantry and the Kailyard in order to depict sacrifice as something disengaged from the modern world. The third film, NEDs (Peter Mullan, 2010), takes place in modern Glasgow and draws on a myth that scholars call Clydesideism. This myth highlights the postindustrial, gritty, urban face of Scotland. In NEDs, the sacrifice made by the main character is of a sort thinkable only in modern times and in an urban setting, and it comes very close to what may be a kind of nihilistic sacrifice.

For more information, visit Screen Seminars at Glasgow.

Disease, Pain and Sacrifice

rembrandt_sacri_296x300The book Disease, Pain and Sacrifice, by David Bakan, is a work that I did not fully appreciate upon a first reading. I discovered a copy about a year ago among a stack of discarded books at the college where I teach, and the title alone was enough to catch my attention, but I also gleefully savored the reactions of people who would ask me about it. “Well, that sounds like some light,  uplifting material!,” was a common, sarcastic response. Usually such comments would be followed by an uncomfortable laugh and then a quick change of subject. It was no big surprise that most people prefered to avoid dwelling on such dark subjects!

When I first read the book, it wasn’t the grim subject matter that put me off, but rather the author’s integration of scientific medical findings into a work that otherwise leans heavily on literary theory, biblical analysis and psychoanalytic interpretations. Originally published in 1968, the book draws on studies going back as far as the 1930’s, and due to the ever-changing nature of science, I was naturally skeptical about the continued relevance of such material. It makes me suspicious when a philosopher  makes too many appeals to science in order to buttress interpretive claims. While such appeals might be superficially interesting, I tend to think that they generally distract from the underlying issues at hand. What count as the latest scientific findings of today quickly become the outdated speculations of yesterday, and so authors always run the risk of making their writings seem outdated and irrelevant when they put too much confidence in the current state of scientific research. Additionally, when non-scientists make appeals to science, the result can sometimes turn into a kind of pseudo-science, further undermining a reader’s confidence.

Upon a second reading however, I have come to see the book as a kind of artwork in-itself, the beauty of which partly depends on appreciating how all of its various pieces intertwine in order to produce a unique and profound reflection on the nature of human finitude. The author describes the book as a “triptych”: a description that now seems very apt and revealing to me. The point of the book, thus, is not to focus on a literal set of facts, but to give expression to a distinctive human experience: the reality of suffering and the aspiration toward its alleviation. What I find especially refreshing about Bakan’s treatment of this theme is his clear-eyed insistence that human life is a paradox in which suffering and extinction are presuppositions even as we strive toward their overcoming. There is no way to overcome our finitude, in other words, and so the human experience is one in which we struggle and strive toward something that is ultimately impossible. As the author puts it:

Pain and mortality make up the tragedy of man. Within these he squirms around. (p. 91)

Without calling himself a nihilist, Bakan here nonetheless eloquently expresses what I understand to be the “truth” of nihilism. We are destined to “squirm around,” doing one thing after another as we attempt to convince ourselves that all of this is not in vain. We subject ourselves to strain, stress and suffering in the attempt to overcome strain, stress and suffering. In the end, we die, which is the only thing that can halt our incessant “squirming.” This is dark stuff, but it is also hopeful in the sense that Bakan argues we are capable of understanding this process and, through the cultivation of that understanding, come to terms with our situation.

I’m not so sure of the last point myself. In my experience, the confrontation with disease, suffering and death is always accompanied by a sublime and terrible awe that exceeds my own capacity to feel reconciled or content with the nature of the world. I would note here that I’m not even referring to my own disease, suffering and death, but to that of the people around me and with whom I am close. When I stop to reflect on the inevitability that there will be a point in time when I personally will be visited by these evils, I tremble. Though intellectually I understand the day will come when terminal disease or some other bodily assault will strike and I will finally face oblivion, existentially I remain in state of awe-filled dread.

I can report that I have also seen what appears like this same fearful incomprehension in the eyes of others; for instance when I am in public with aging and physically fragile relatives. Strangers on the street are generally kind, but behind the kindness I often detect a shudder. They, like me, see their own destiny when they encounter old folks. There is, thus, an unusual solemnity that occurs in the presence of the elderly, and especially the elderly who are infirm, fragile and vulnerable. It is something like the “fear and trembling” described by Kierkegaard in reference to Abraham’s encounter with God when he had to surrender his will to the Holy. All of us, by virtue of being human, must eventually surrender our will to live when death arrives.

Bakan expresses these sentiments, and yet he also seems confident that our intellect can save us from utter despair in the face of oblivion. He ends his book with the suggestion that if we stop “lusting” after eternal life, then we can become “comfortable” with the reality of old age, disease and death; something that I myself am not currently capable of doing. Maybe some day I’ll get it.

The “tryptich” of Disease, Suffering and Sacrifice is constructed out of the three themes that appear in the book’s title. Like the panels of a three-sectioned art piece, each part echoes and develops the ideas in the other sections, weaving together a whole that is more than simply the sum of the parts.

The first “panel” focuses on disease, characterizing it as the result of what the author calls “telic decentralization.” Contrary to the conventional “Darwin-influenced” view of life as a battle for individual survival, Bakan makes the (Freud-influenced) claim that individual life itself is internally endowed with a drive toward extinction, and that “the goal of all life is death.” (p. 26) If biological organisms are conceived of as consisting of parts (like cells and organs), which must subsume their own individual purposes to the goals (or teloi) of the whole, and if the goals of the whole organism at times differ from the goals of the parts, then there will inevitably during the life of the organism emerge points of internal conflict during which either the parts must sacrifice themselves for the whole or the whole must sacrifice itself for the parts. Disease, argues Bakan, occurs when when the parts of an organism start to pursue their own purposes without being subservient to the higher order purposes of the whole. “…disease is to be conceived of as decentralization of this higher telos of the organism, and its loss of dominance over the lower teleoi.” (p. 32) This is what happens with cancer, for instance, when individual cells multiply uncontrollably and thus interfere with the normal functioning of the entire body and its systems. The paradox for multi-cellular creatures is that on the one hand, their growth depends on the complex nature of their bodily organization while on the other, it is this same complex organization that leads to eventual disease and death.

In the second “panel,” Bakan addresses the nature of suffering and pain. He points out that the existence of pain “forces the question of its meaning.” (p. 58) When we experience pain and suffering, in other words, it is natural and automatic to ask why we are in distress. What is the reason for our pain? Bakan’s contention is that pain is the manner in which telic decentralization becomes manifest to human consciousness. It is a mental indicator for when a bodily part is not playing its subservient role in the overall purposes of the organism. Psychologically, this experience encourages us to view the out-of-control part of ourselves as “not us.” We mentally separate our overall identity from that of the troublesome part, and thus prepare the way for the sacrifice of that part in service of the whole. For instance, a tumor, which is made of the cells in a person’s own body, is experienced mentally as a painful intruder that needs to be removed for the benefit of the rest of the body. It becomes “the tumor” that is a attacking “me.” A separation thus emerges internally between the “I” and the “not-I” as a preliminary step toward the elimination of a part that was originally a part of the “I.” (This same process, by the way, is implicated in the logic of fascism. Hannah Arendt, in her classic book The Origins of Totalitarianism, suggests that in the Nazi state, “undesirables” like jews, slavs, communists, capitalists, etc. were viewed as “other” as a preliminary step toward their extermination. It is fitting, accordingly, that the Nazis used the language of disease in order to characterize those elements within their society that they sought to eliminate.)

The third and final panel focuses on sacrifice, and it is here that Bakan engages in an utterly fascinating interpretation of the Book of Job from the Bible. The story of Job is one in which a pious man, Job, becomes the subject of a bet between God and the Devil. The Devil suggests to God that Job’s piety is merely due to the fact that he has never experienced enough suffering to make him question God’s goodness. God knows that this is not the case and so He challenges the Devil to make Job suffer in the most terrible ways in order to demonstrate that nothing will make him lose his faith. Consequently, Job’s livestock and his family are killed and yet it is not until Job himself is struck with a horribly painful skin disease that he truly begins to express dejection. For Job, it is ultimately his own physical suffering, and not that of others, that forces him to question the meaning of this ordeal. Bakan argues that before Job, Old Testament figures like Abraham and Moses were willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the tribe, family and race. But with Job,  a psychological change occurs. With him we find a man more motivated by the desire for personal survival than by the desire for the survival of his progeny. The death of his livestock and his family are nowhere near as powerful a motivating factor as is his own personal pain. Job, the author claims, is thus one of the few Old Testament heroes to make a distinction between himself and “other.” Here we have a man who has experienced a telic decentralization of his own “self” from the community as a whole.

Bakan reads this story as an allegory indicating how disease and personal, physical suffering are implicated in sacrifice. Psychologically, Job is a figure who, like Abraham before him, has a child’s trust in his father (God). However, unlike Abraham, Job does not seem to be at all concerned with the legacy of his own children. Whereas Abraham agrees to sacrifice his own son Issac in order to ensure that the members of his family and tribe will be rewarded with a “promised land,” Job is concerned primarily with the alleviation of his own suffering, and he seems to put his own children and family on the same par with his livestock and his private property. In fact, the “happy ending” of the story has it that Job is rewarded for his continued faith with new livestock, a new farm and a new set of children; as if there was nothing all that unique or special about his own kids! Job is the head of a family, but his concern with his own goals and health are more important to him than the goals and health of his family. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son for the good of the rest of his family and his tribe. Job is not. As the cells in his body undergo a telic decentralization, producing painful disease, Job himself becomes telic-ly decentralized from his community. He becomes an individual.

Bakan argues that the final biblical development of Job’s way of thinking becomes manifest in Christianity where, through bodily suffering, Jesus overcomes death once and for all, living forever at God’s “right hand.” The message here is that if one is an obedient son to the father, punishment in the form of suffering and personal death can be overcome. This, Bakan claims, is “one of the major defects of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the tendency to subsume death under punishment, to leave out the possibility of death which is not punishment.” (p. 126) His point is that personal sacrifice in the pursuit of personal immortality is a lie. It is an infantile wish. Life just is a “squirming” around between life, suffering and death. Suffering and disease are not punishments from “the father,” but brute facts that derive from the very constitution of our biological makeup. The second to last paragraph in Bakan’s book sums up the message of the entire work:

There are two major points in life which are beyond the scope of the individual will. One is conception; the other is death. Between these, but not including them, the will of the individual has its proper sphere. To fancy one’s self one’s own creator, or to place death within the power of the will, are the real sins of mankind. This Job understands. And this, I believe, Freud understood when he stressed the fantasy of presence and witness to the primal scene, on the one hand, and the death instinct, on the other. (p. 128)

Because we are biological creatures, we must all be born and we must all die. There is nothing that can be done about these facts. As the existentialists say, we are all “thrown” into the world, and once we are here we are are all “beings-toward-death.” While we are here, we can engage in projects. We can “squirm around” for a short period of time. All of these are things that I agree with. What I find hard to come to terms with is the idea that all of this is good. I still wish things were otherwise.