thoughts on Elon, part 3

3. I Live in Fear

Is art in this functional sense possible today, and if so, in what would it consist?

In 1954, the Japanese composer Fumio Hayasaka told Akira Kurosawa that he felt that someone who is in danger of dying is not capable of working well, which means, in Whiteheadian terms, not the necessary work of life, nor just living well, but working in the transformational sense of living better. Since Hayasaka was himself suffering from tuberculosis at the time (he would die from this disease the following year), Kurosawa thought that the composer was describing his own plight. In fact, however, Hayasaka was referring to something much more general and profound, less than a decade after Hiroshima and in the wake of the hydrogen bomb testing that commenced on the Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954 with the detonation of Castle Bravo, which was a thousand times more powerful than Hiroshima’s Little Boy.

In addition to the general threat to Japan of radiation fallout brought by the series of hydrogen bomb tests, the first of this series, Castle Bravo, was also well known in Japan because of the radioactive contamination to which the crew of the fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon 5) were exposed, leading to the death of one crewman, Aikichi Kuboyama, on 23 September 1954. Edward Teller, the nuclear physicist and ‘father of the hydrogen bomb’ (who would later become the inspiration for the character of Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s eponymous film), reportedly said of this death, ‘It’s unreasonable to make such a big deal over the death of a fisherman’.

Kurosawa decided to make a film on the subject raised by Hayasaka, which was released the following year, in November 1955, a month after Hayasaka’s death (it would be his last movie soundtrack): its Japanese title means Record of a Living Being, but it is better known in English as I Live in Fear. The movie tells the story of a character who has started worrying and hates this remarkable innovation known as ‘the bomb’. It is structured as a dispute between an elderly man and his adult children: the latter ask the courts to declare their father incompetent, because of his wish to sell the foundry he owns in order to finance the family’s relocation to Brazil, where, he thinks, they will be safer, at least from this threat. (Apart from anything else, this is personally interesting to me, because in 1961 my father – who had himself unwittingly contributed to the Manhattan Project during the Second World War – permanently moved from the United States to Australia, partly for this very reason.)

Despite the title of the film, the protagonist played by Toshiro Mifune claims that, in fact, he does not live in fear: on the contrary, all those who continue to live their lives as if this threat did not exist…they are the ones who are afraid. To be afraid is to run away from the knowledge one has of a problem, to deny that one is in possession of problematic knowledge, rather than to face it and respond. And to deny that of which one is in possession is to be possessed – that is, to be haunted by what one refuses to see. In short, this character is presented as a kind of parrhesiast, as someone with the courage of truth, but he is taken by those around him for mad: he is taken by his peers as the one who is possessed, which is always the fate of the parrhesiast, because the parrhesiast is mad – he is mad because, as is said to him in the film, this technological problem that so concerns him is ‘too big for the individual’.

When he loses the court case, and can no longer pursue his plan, he does become afraid, very afraid, and, out of desperation, he sets fire to his own foundry in order to destroy his family’s incentive to remain in Japan. When his workers ask him, ‘does this mean that you do not care about us?’, he recognizes his error: he needs a solution to this problem, not just for himself, not just for his family, but for everyone. And then he really does go mad. Arrested for the arson, a cellmate in jail says to him, mockingly (as if to Musk), ‘If you’re so worried, why don’t you just leave earth?’, and when he finds himself sent to a mental hospital, under the delusion that he is indeed on another planet, his psychiatrist states:

Whenever I see this patient, I become melancholic. […] All lunatics are melancholic, however this patient makes me melancholic. Maybe I’m not sane, although I believe I am. I’m often obliged to wonder, ‘Is he a lunatic, or am I the lunatic?’

This is a film, in other words, about the relationship between fear and melancholy, but more fundamentally about the relationship between truth and denial. It is not just that the protagonist is a parrhesiast: the film itself is a kind of parrhesia, which is why Kurosawa and his co-writers felt that they were ‘making the kind of picture with which, after it was all over and the last judgment was upon us, [they] could stand up and account for [their] past lives by saying’ that they had made this film. I Live in Fear is an attempt to dis-cover, to uncover, the knowledge of a dangerous situation, knowledge that is in everyone’s possession, but of which they cannot manage to take possession in order to transform their situation, the local situation of the localized beings that are the citizens of Japan, collectively forming the people of Japan: Japanese society.

The film was a work of art in the genuine sense to the extent that it was an attempt to renegotiate the relationship between the orders of magnitude comprising this situation, and to do so from out of the need that arose from a new and unprecedented challenge, a new danger. In this sense, it is a work of art precisely because it is a question of responsibility, and of the responsibility of the artist. In fact, it turned out to be the celebrated director’s greatest commercial failure: originally intended as a satire, it was anything but, and Kurosawa concluded that he had made it ‘too soon’. Or at least that is what he said nine years later, in 1964, the year of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. (And it would also be worth comparing this to Sion Sono’s post-Fukushima cinema, in particular Land of Hope, but also Himizu).

There is, of course, a long tradition of rejecting apocalyptic thinking, in the name of Enlightenment reason and progress, and there is good reason to remain wary of any trace of millenarianism. It is, however, now almost three quarters of a century since the ‘dialectical’ character of Enlightenment reason was first pointed out, in 1944, by Adorno and Horkheimer, for whom the ‘rationalization’ of this reason brought forth not just light but shade – darkness – as witnessed in the industrial revolution, at Auschwitz, and through the culture industry. Today we have reached another threshold, beyond this ‘dialectic’, where to overcome denial would seem to require the invention of a kind of ‘rational apocalypticism’, and one whose many facets have continued to proliferate.

Yet the only reason to adopt such a rational apocalypticism is if, by doing so, a bifurcatory path can be opened up that, if it is not capable of leading us away from the apocalypse, at least has the potential to illuminate a possible way through it, however improbably.

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