Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Fantasia on Philosophical Myth in Tarantino and Tolkien

The psalmist says, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Ps. 111.10, Pr. 9.10), while Aristotle says that philosophy begins in wonder (Met. 1.1). Fear and wonder meet in awe, which engenders in the soul humility in the face of being and docility before the wise, our teachers.

Quentin Tarantino illustrates this in his philosophical allegory of the soul, Kill Bill. The different possible characters of the soul in its disposition towards knowledge are pictured in the Bride and her alter ego, Elle. Although their enmity is clearly shown from the beginning, its roots in their contrasting characters isn't revealed until Volume 2, in the Pai Mei sequence. The Bride approaches the kung fu master Pai Mei with a spirit of docility and a thirst for knowledge. She submits to his discipline and learns not only skill but wisdom, embracing her ignorance and weakness in order to overcome it. Climbing the stairs to his sanctuary like a pilgrim, she leaves her old life, her assumptions and worldly priorities, behind her in order to empty herself before him. As a reward for her dedication and discipleship the master reveals to her his deepest secrets.

Her rival Elle is not a Bride, but merely a She, a woman in thrall to a male superior but unwed (the Bride, like Elle, had been subject to Bill as his lover and subordinate, but left him to marry a lesser man, but entering a more honest and noble relationship of commitment and fidelity). Elle too learns from Pai Mei; but lacking docility, she learns only skill, not wisdom. Skill suffices to become murderous, and craft can take the place of wisdom well enough to kill the master by treachery, after learning what she could of his art, but she leaves him without having learned his secrets, and deprived of one eye for her insolence. (While Odin's missing eye is a sign of what he has sacrificed for wisdom, Elle's merely indicates her failure to learn it. So she loses her second eye to the Bride in the same way she lost the first, left blind and wretched.)

Just before their showdown Elle reveals the Bride's true name, Beatrix Kiddo, who only becomes blessed when she uses the virtue learned from her master, not for gain or for revenge, but to rescue her innocent offspring, her kid, her mother's heart. Elle on the other hand is as unfruitful as she is unwed. She kills out of a peevish malice. She wants knowledge and power -- Pai Mei's mastery and Hattori Hanzo's swordcraft -- but she wants to take them rather than earn them. Elle's name shows her blankness and emptiness; the Bride's anonymous nickname shows her fundamental difference from her rival in her openness to conjugal fidelity and fecundity, while her true name reveals her inner nature.

(Thinking of the Bride's name leads to thinking of the actress who plays her, Uma Thurman. She triumphs over her enemies with bloody virtue, and is last seen leading along a pure white innocent. How can Uma here not remind us of Una, in Spenser's Faerie Queene, accompanied by her defender, the Redcross Knight of holiness, and leading a pure white lamb? In Spenser too Una has a counterpart lookalike, a false Una who is not a bride, conjured up with twisted and dark skill but barren, for whom the martial strength of the knight fought, but who in the end abandoned her.)

The relation of Beatrix and Elle to the Hanzo swords (Beatrix has one made for and given to her, while Elle wants to kill and steal from the bearer of one) shows how they mirror the relationship between Gandalf and Saruman in The Lord of the Rings. Like Saruman, Elle seeks Baconian or Cartesian domination rather than Platonic wisdom. While Saruman wanted to either forge or steal a ring of power to dominate others, Gandalf was given a ring of power to resist and dismantle the domination of great powers. In the end Elle and Saruman both are shown reduced to sheer animality and then, not utterly annihilated, but denatured and degraded and wholly impotent.

In his boast to Gandalf Saruman calls himself Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of many colors. Only one of these is true, and not to his credit. He was once wise but is no longer; he hopes to be Ring-maker but, it appears, is not yet. He desires the Ring that is already made, and is thirsty for ring-lore; but only in this self-given title is there any indication that he tried to use this lore to make a ring of his own. Evidently he failed. Furthermore, his palantir which brings him knowledge is Noldorin, his fortress Orthanc which gives him strength and security is Numenorean: what did he make himself? By wisdom he seems, in the end, merely to mean power, but in the process of seeking more and more power he relied on tools which were not his own. This is what "science" means in post-Baconian philosophy: not an object of contemplation but a tool of domination, a tool we use mostly without making or understanding ourselves.

But Saruman is Saruman of many colors. He means this in the sense of appropriating all the other colors to himself, of bringing all other powers under his own sway. But what it really means is that he has broken something: the white light. As Gandalf tells him, "He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom." Why? When you break the white light you reveal something of its nature, but it is no longer white. Saruman's quest for power has broken his own soul.

Saruman wants a ring. Now a ring is a rigid circle rounding an empty space. A wreath is a ring made by twisting something straight into a circle. A loop is a non-rigid, non-enclosed ring made by coiling something non-rigid. A loop is an interruption. A knot is a tangled loop. A labyrinth is a path looped by bends and twists and turns. It need not be a knot; the entrance may be the same as the exit, and may or may not have only a single path. A maze on the other hand is a labyrinth with divergences: in it we can lose our way. There are labyrinths in which we are confounded but not lost, because although our sense of direction is confused there's only one path. A knot also has (typically) only one path, but unlike a labyrinth we can't proceed along it because the tangled loops have been drawn tight: the path, in being twisted and then pulled, produces its own obstructions. A knot may or may not be a closed circuit, a ring.

Celtic, anglo-saxon, and norse artwork is full of knots the threads of which are not pulled tight, expanded but not unravelled. The twists and turns are laid out so we can see what they are and follow their paths, but they are not broken. Following their paths produces contemplation, not power.

Being itself has knots: it's twisted, complicated, which means literally folded in on itself. When we're following a question down a given path and hit an obstruction -- an aporia, an impasse -- it's like slipping our fingers along a rope and hitting a knot. The wonder of philosophy can be generated precisely by hitting such a knot (see Joseph Owens, The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics, 216: "the aporia of the intellect points to a knot in the object. [Aristotle] seems to view the thing itself as somehow binding the intellect ...") Philosophical wonder is a sort of amazement, being stuck in the sort of knot which is a maze drawn so tight its paths cannot be discerned. The way to solve an aporia is to loosen it, not to untie it or to break it. Untying a knot is a de-amazement. Ariadne's thread, which leads through the labyrinth, is an unravelled knot. It solves the problem, but also eliminates the maze, the originating source of wonder. Unravelling a knot completely gives us a straight line; while loosening it and laying out its folds, open to view, transforms it first from a thing to a maze, in which we are amazed, and then into a labyrinth of contemplation in which thought is folded over on itself, following the path of being. When the labyrinth has been traversed the wonder of bafflement, the amazement at an impasse, becomes the wonder of theoria, seeing the whole as a marvel. Wonder as amazement is the beginning, wonder as marvelling (admiring, ad-mirare, to look at the thing as looking into the mirror of being) the end.

We can also cut through and destroy beings to replace them with beings of our own making. We can break them to find out what they are but eliminate their being; but this power is fraught with peril and, conjoined with the desire for mastery, is deadly. Why is breaking a thing to find out what it is to leave the path of wisdom? Because what it is, is one, and must be understood as one to understand it as it is. When broken it is no longer one and so no longer itself. The breaker may learn something from the pieces; but not what the broken thing was. For what the broken thing was was given in its form, which is the principle of the thing's unity, its truth, its goodness -- and of its being. The alternative to breaking is to unfold the complications of being in thought, enough to follow its paths in contemplation, but leaving its structure as it is. When thumos is subordinated to nous, both ruling over the passions, ring-making can be licit; when desire, especially desire for power, becomes the predominant principle, even wisdom is made wicked. True philosophy teases the loops of the knots apart to behold their weaving, but does not presume to cut the thread.

The aporia is a state of mind, but it is caused by a knot in the thing -- that is, by somewhat in the thing's being less simple or straightforward than the concepts I've hitherto used to conceive it. If I fail to meet, ponder, and loosen the knot, and instead merely cut it -- dispose of it by cutting it down to the concepts already at hand -- I have begun to replace the encounter with reality with the concepts themselves, which leads ultimately to living and thinking in an unreal world, the world of wraiths.


TP said...

This is amazing! What a joy to read. Thank you.

Jim Given said...

Dear Michael,
This is a meditation rich and fascinating in metaphysical and iconic terms.
First, it recalls, "Our Lady Undoer of Knots”:
Knots in this sense are evil or unfortunate; they are obstacles to be undone. Like sins, which Jesus empowered his apostles to loose or leave bound.
But there is much more to be said. Knots are what make the world complex and interesting. Here we have the Latin language connected with metaphors that describe our experience as CLOTH. Think about the “implications” of a sentence or the unfolding of a plot.
But knots and links also join together entities whose courses through life are non-intersecting. All lives are linked even if they never touch each other, because we all have the same Source. This is termed “entanglement” in quantum physics. How diverse; how elaborate can the entanglement be
Perhaps the most basic icon here is the Borromean Rings, which are an established metaphor for the Holy Trinity. No two rings are linked, but all three rings are linked and cannot be separated.
A knot records change; stores complications. The structure of a knot is stored in its set of crossings; loci at which one strand passes behind another so that both cannot be seen simultaneously. One may rotate the knot and seem to alter this structure, but the pattern of crossings is invariant; it is the essential nature of the knot.
Classical Greek metaphysics pictures an entity as a sphere; concentrated, centered, atomic; as energy drawn into and held within a determinate for; like a held breath. But a parallel ontology pictures an entity as a knot, as an invariant form through which an energy not its own endlessly flows through and its gone.
The former shows us an entity as a rock in the stream, a momentary blocking or suspension of the flow, like the holding of a breath. But the latter shows us entities as the windings and tumblings of the stream itself.
Indeed, what is the knot composed of but Life itself, seen as a flowing or streaming of energy, conceived generically not as a set of parallel flow lines, but as a vortex; spinning and winding as it flows. The central spinning core; tightly conserving its selfhood; the more disperse windings linking it with all other flows, directly or indirectly. The basic icon of the physical entity as a knot is the theory, due to J.C. Maxwell and Michael Faraday, of the Vortex Atom. The flow cannot be stopped or restrained for long; and it cannot be broken. But in its basic integrity and its dealings with others, the knot is immortal-

Jim Given

Steven Reyes said...

Unrelated to this post in particular but a popular podcast series: The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, is beginning to move on towards covering Duns Scotus (starting with an interview with Richard Cross):

There are also a few other episodes on Henry of Ghent, Bonaventure, Thomas of Aquinas, etc.

Steven Reyes