(with spoilers for Tarantino’s alternative history films)
“Art exists because reality is neither real nor significant.”
“The merit of originality is not novelty; it is sincerity”
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”
Introduction: From Cycle and Spiral to Fractal Pastiche
Some say great art is born of innocence, of the joys and suffering of youth, of the struggle to be born anew or to birth the new—that with wisdom and peace, comes a reticence, a burden of knowledge that prevents the novel and revolutionary from pouring forth or from even being conceived. Or more commonly, that with age comes not wisdom or peace, but complacency and ossification.
In the history of art we can see the pattern, not just in artists but in cultures themselves—where what is at first as new and fresh as the spring, becomes stale and formal, a mere repetition or recombination of old patterns. What was instinctive and spontaneous becomes over-thought and overwrought. Indeed it can be difficult to improvise with the weight of history and experience hanging over the creative mind. But it should be obvious that the spontaneous impulse uneducated by experience only produces novelty in environments that are new, where the conditions have not yet reached the level of stable medium.
This natural Spring-time phase of creativity becomes youthful naivety if it is not born in an environment it can help form as well as explore. As the self, environment or media ages, so the unexplored possibilities dwindle, and consequently, the likelihood that anything new will be produced through the raw and instinctual dionysian spirit, becomes ever more remote, unless new environments or media are found and exploited by the raw vital spirit.
What happens next is the test of maturity in any individual or society. In the modern West, we have prided ourselves on our geniuses, on our great individuals, and especially on our youth and their ability to challenge tradition. This preference has made it easy for us to choose constant innovation in the forms and concepts of our knowledge, media and culture, at the expense of facing the challenges of truly evolving our culture past its adolescent phase. We continually choose revolution over evolution, hoping a new scene, gadget, or slogan will save us from ourselves. This has led the West into a curious prolonged youth that previous ages could not sustain.
Cultural philosopher Oswald Spengler believed that as cultures grew past their prime, they shifted from a focus on truly creative work, to administrative activities like politics, economics, and engineering. He considered this a decadent phase. Yet he advised us to embrace it, since according to him, there was no choice in the matter. A poet in this late phase would only be a naive or insincere reiteration of an idea that has run its course. To Spengler, it was only in a whole new culture—one that throws off the forms of whichever legacy culture seeded it—that new ideas and art would flourish.
Yet what we see in the modern West, with its passion for engineering, is that those activities that Spengler considered merely a practical application and manipulation of existing forms and ideas, do offer a new life, a new medium in which to play out our myths once again. Indeed in our times, engineers have invented so many technologies and connected and recombined so many mediums, that our culture seems poised to go on playing with our reflections in new virtual worlds right into extinction.
Across the board in our culture, both in science and art, we need to develop the skills of maturity, the patience and subtlety to link the old and the new, to recontextualize and synthesize, rather than fall into the delusion of surface novelty. If that is possible, we can make the evolution of our creative mediums more than just a mutation in style and form that prolongs and obfuscates what would otherwise be an obvious stale repetition. The short-sighted obsession with the new only pushes the cycle to its next stage, where old forms are relived, where the gradient of difference that drives all creation becomes merely the endless pastiche of details (which, like the short cycles of much in pop music, is only interesting to those with no knowledge or memory of the past).
Though with the right eyes, one can see the seeds of maturity growing in our culture as well. Even in our entertainment media the myths are evolving. Increasingly we see our heroes and archetypes not just conquering new mediums, but pondering their purpose. Media critic John David Ebert has explored the mythical cycles of modern media and found that they do more than merely prolong the death of western symbolism. As the major archetypes of Western tradition became increasingly deconstructed and dissolved into technological innovation in the 20th century, our artistic imagination came to dwell on those very technological creations with new mythological force.
In film, we became obsessed with the myth of the machine—with the dangers and possibilities of technology. As the pace of innovation and revolution has increased with Capitalism going global, the new mediums have multiplied with every new world the machine has made into a market. The traditional spirits of cultures consumed in the process have been reborn within the mythological world of Western entertainment media. We have seen the reemergence of those spirits in our superheroes and more often their enemies. They take the form of some kind of antithesis of civilization that the early comic book hero battles in his defense of the Metropolis or Gotham, as he desperately tries to keep us from sliding back into the pre-rational, pre-urban magical mode, where the cultural cycle would begin again and new Gods and heroes would get their day.
And increasingly in the cultural imaginary, the conquered Gods are getting their revenge, continually emerging as a call to return to the Earth, to destroy civilization, to reclaim our natural selves in some kind of archaic revival of that Springtime creativity and spiritual reverence. What most of the critics of science and mass civilization miss however, whether they be conservative defenders of high culture against the machine of innovation, or liberal defenders of the cultural tribalism of identity politics or personalized religion, is that there is, in this back and forth cycle of growth and decay, a possibility we can learn from our past and create a sustainable vitality.
For this kind of culture, we need a mature consciousness that can critique and redeploy any aspect of tradition and give it new life. We continually avoid real progress when we stop recreating tradition. We must help foundational forms grow through critical reflection, rather than ossifying them in conservative idealization, or rejecting it in ignorant fetsihizing of what appears different or new (or what usually results since these two cultural forces are two sides of the same coin in liberal society: some of us preserve tradition as beyond critique, while its errors live on under new names as we grope towards novelty).
The Nietzchean ideal of transvaluation, of changing the meaning of the world rather than radically negating or transcending it, is not only the recipe for happiness, as the Nietzsche quote spells out, but also is the recipe for good late stage art, as filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino are all too aware of: “I steal from every single movie ever made…. I steal from everything. Great artists steal, they don’t do homages.”
The point of course being that true creative power, the power to change the world and create new ones, emerges not out of any novel energy or idea, not necessarily out of either youth or the wisdom of age, but out of an awareness of and an overcoming of the anxiety of influence, a transcendence of the reactive man who chases and rebels against the phallus of the old order, into the overman who embraces all influence in the process of re-evaluation, or rather, transvaluation.
In great art, pastiche must stem from a wisdom that penetrates to the spiritual meaning of the myths being integrated; it can, for instance, pick up where the stories left off and develop them further—fill out their details with the insight of experience, with the overview of a perspective that has seen these stories play out in different mediums and can distill their essence down, or build up from those amorphous essences into new visionary details which can guide the new medium—or even, as mediums themselves converge into virtuality, form whole new environments for the newly incarnating spirit, god, alien or hero of the new age.
In the current media environment, all previous art forms and mediums have become the content of the digital landscape enveloping the globe in its virtual glow. The stage is set for the integration of old and new if we can recognize the truly original innovation that blossoms from sincere reflection, not just jaded irony. On that note, let’s take a look at one of our premier pastiche artists, Quentin Tarantino. While he often devolves into kitsch and shallow irony, his sincere love of film often opens up space for greater depth, especially when he gets into wondering about his own late stage meta-movies.
Part 1: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
Once upon a time, or at least a time in Quentin Tarantino’s mind, the Manson family group of killers are inspired to attack the house of an actor that Tarantino imagines living right next to Sharon Tate, rather than going to the house where Tate and her friends were murdered in our reality. In his film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, the fictional actor played by Leo DiCaprio, his wife, his friend and his dog, brutally destroy their attackers, thus preventing the tragedy that some have marked as the end of the culture of the 1960s.
While it is easy to read this as a nostalgia period piece, there is something deeper running through the film that reflects a growing feeling in our culture, and which rewards a closer look. The 60s were the time-period America lost its innocence, gained a sober perspective on itself, and, by the end, reconciled its conscience, more or less, to the moral ambiguity and violence inherent in its existence. Likewise, Tarantino’s film wants us to grow up; it does not want to escape reality or preserve naive innocence, it wants us to confront our violent reality and create something better. It wants us to appreciate the power of art, especially the essential art of our time—film (or screen media)—in its late stage as a mature artistic medium that can only maintain its vigor if it becomes self-aware, as we all must do to evolve with time.
For Tarrantino, reality may be violent or ugly, but by transmuting that darkness into art, we can achieve a higher truth. “Once Upon a Time” in particular celebrates the creative process by which we face our limitations and, through them, overcome. It does not mourn the loss of America’s golden age, nor the loss of all good and pure things to reality and time; it celebrates the power of art to defeat time’s entropy and to make reality. We certainly see the tragedy of limitations—the loss of talent to age, the loss of friendship to changing circumstances, and the tainting of freedom and love with the realities of vice and violence. But rather than wallow in pity or long for what was lost, we are asked to make it anew.
If there is any line to be drawn in the film between sides of a 60s culture war, it isn’t square vs. hip, or old vs. young or new, but between a misguided idealism of pity and blame on one hand, and the values of a realistic optimism on the other. The film comes down very violently on the side of a realism that embraces the power of creativity within a mature self-consciousness that knows its limitations and embraces them as art.
This may seem like a stretch, given that the film is, on the most basic level, a revenge fantasy that rewrites history to save us from the grim reality of what became of the 60s countercultural revolution. But this is one of the most “meta” films from one of the most “meta” filmmakers. Tarrantino himself has suggested that he wants to retire while his films are still good, and this concern with legacy and declining potency saturate the film. While the young and flawless Sharon Tate is portrayed as at the height of her brilliance, with little self-consciousness beyond her awareness of and delight in herself as a celebrity icon, our aging male protagonists ponder their waning powers.
But they do not run from self-critique into bitterness and blame; they do not fall for the hippie seduction, as it is framed by the film. Youth is pure and beautiful but it can hide a darkness that is just around the corner. In the Sharon Tate of the film, we see his vision of the ideal youth: unlike the Manson youth and their version of idealism portrayed as mired in squalor and blame, Tate represents a youth made immortal by art.
With his early introduction of the Manson family and Polanskis into the film, anyone that knows the history, knows where this is going more or less, with allowances for a Tarrantino twist. We know it’s going to get dark, but we don’t know when. And he plays with that expectation, naturally. At one point we are led to wonder if the old man who was central to the old Hollywood the protagonists remember, has been murdered by the young hippies, only to find out, no, he has let himself be seduced, and is willingly wallowing in a dirty darkness, that nonetheless muddles any clear concept of freedom. At least that is how we are led to see it through Tarrantino’s camera and our protagonist’s eyes: we wonder if their version of freedom is not really a dangerous seduction.
But the protagonists are by no means morally hardened conservative masculinists. They no doubt reflect the director’s complicated relationship to the current climate of liberal moralism and gender politics. Both male protagonists make connections with young females. Brad Pitt’s character scores some LSD and flirts with an underage girl but seems to know from experience that every pleasure has its place and its price. Leo’s character is inspired to great vulnerability by a young female “actor”, who then gives him a compliment that seems to heal his wounded soul.
Tarrantino’s films are not easy to categorize. Media scholar Gregory Desilet has argued that though Tarrantino’s films often lack the clear lines of good vs. evil as you usually get in traditional melodrama, they still self-consciously exploit our desire for cathartic violence. Sometimes this is done for comedic effect, for shock value, often using quick unexpected shifts in tone to extreme violence. Sometimes he shows both the humanity and inhumanity of a character before he exposes us to the cleansing violence that both satiates our desire for revenge against evil people, and exposes that desire as gratuitous.
With “Inglorious Bastards”, however, I was struck by the obvious metacommentary on how dramatic violence is used by film itself to shape consciousness. With the subject matter of Nazi propaganda and its structure as a revenge film about Jews killing Nazis and changing history in a film theater—the very venue where one could argue they have indeed gotten their revenge— I was impressed by the connotations. I discussed this with Greg and he was not convinced any deeper connotations made up for Tarrantino’s films’ use of violence to manipulate and titillate audience emotion. With Tarantino’s subsequent films, neither, no longer, was I. For it is obvious that Tarantino loves violence sometimes more than he loves films.
Though in “Once Upon a Time”, he seems to be again pondering, just to what end that violence functions. Are his critics right? Should he be more conscious of the subtle messaging of the violence in his films, as opposed to his usual naive excuse that the violence is just entertainment? Or is their critique just another form of violence, a symbolic violence against his art, an idealism gone wrong, analogous to the violence that signified the end of the 60’s and the end of the old Hollywood that we see haunting the characters in the film? The film seems to suggest this, though it is difficult once again to classify, to relegate it to the categories of didactic or melodramatic art. He is no longer just having fun with violence, but neither is he simply using it to make us dislike a certain idea or people, like shallow didactic art. The film reflects enough of our ongoing cultural conflict to make its meaning ambiguous and thought provoking.
At the film’s conclusion, we may even wonder what the new timeline has in store for us. Will Polanski, representing the new Hollywood, avoid his fate of falling into moral depravity with an underrage girl, and thereby symbolize a wholesome integration of young and old, conservative and liberal, without the eventual backlash of liberal moralism Tarantino no doubt had in mind while making this film? Is this melodramatic wish fulfilment, or a violent call to forge a new path for our culture and its art? Perhaps both. Like many myths and propaganda, violence is used to solidify one side of a conflict over another, but the side denigrated here as in “Inglorious Bastards”, isn’t so much a clear evil as it is a consciously constructed scapegoat, a symbol of the dangerous but necessary desire we have to sacrifice aspects of our community to maintain order and vitality. In Tarantino’s defense, this violence is gratuitous indeed, but serves to make us laugh at the whole spectacle, not hate the people being sacrificed (whether they be Nazis or hippies).
In late-stage art, when the old myths are no longer working, and the boundaries between sides of the conflict are no longer clear, there is always great opportunity for something more complex than simple melodrama. All the more so as our story tellers become more capable of layering ideas at meta-levels, creating moral complexity without becoming merely ambiguous and tragic. What would otherwise be a forced choice between a simple melodrama and a complex tragedy with no coherent point of view, can be synthesized at higher levels of connotation. In classic tragedy, even when the characters fail to find solutions, there do arise new lessons and guidelines, even if they are not spelled out. Spengler, following Nietzsche’s early work, resented how tragedy morphed into the Socratic dialog and became lost in the merely rational. But as the rational itself has evolved, it has become more capable of combining with myth and metaphor, not merely being a parasitic supplement on the truly creative. The myth and image need not disappear into the conceptual and symbolic order as Freud and Lacan see as the inevitable process of development.
For instance, in “Apocalypse Now”, one could argue, film came of age as a mature medium and on some level dramatized this difficult transition into the symbolic order. John David Ebert argues that the hero Willard, in his sacrifice of Kurtz (which is intercut with a scene of a ritual bull sacrifice), is not siding with the social order against the out-of-control natural order embodied in Kurtz, but integrating them in his own individuation process. Sacrifice need not be framed as a complete repression/annihilation of evil, but as a curbing of excess. That development often proceeds as a kind of subjection of the earlier stages to later stages may just account for the very failure of development to proceed further.
Our attempts at civilizing violence and the libido so often necessitate the return of the repressed, precisely because a more harmonious integration is seldom found through a more decisive sacrifice. A sacrifice not of annihilation of the other, which never really works—nothing can ever really be destroyed—but of symbolic assimilation and transformation. Willard assimilates what Kurtz represents, but does not take his place as king. Both the jungle (the natural order) and the military (the social order) wanted Kurtz dead, but WIllard kills him to bring balance to both orders and become liberated from both.
Part 2: Acid Dreams
What Desilet calls melodrama is a narrative style that long predates any modern propaganda technique. It could be considered an expression of our deepest instincts to defend a territory, to demonize and scapegoat an “other” and solidify the identity of a community. There is a dark side to every process of community formation and all boundary defense, no matter how justified. In ancient wisdom, the necessity of sacrifice was often mourned and consequently dramatized in classic tragedy, and sung in ancient vedic hymns. This often degenerated into empty ritual and into fixed metaphysical narratives that justified repression of the new and different.
The 60’s saw a reaction against the fixed narratives of Western culture, often echoing or pulling directly from the anti-authoritative traditions that spread through the early metaphysical cultures, often emphasizing personal salvation and liberation against the backdrop of a corrupt world and society. But much as the individualizing movements within early metaphysics became, or were co-opted by, the repressive metaphysical movements of the majority, so did the 60’s youth movements meld with the mainstream in its mature formulation as neoliberal ideology, the value climate of Western cultural capitalism. Revolution, blame, idealism, all became important ideological support for the “liberation” of Capital from all restraint.
Born as it was out of the Greek fascination with the individual and with youth, Western culture owes much of its material and spiritual progress to a spirit of openness to the new. But with the worship of the new comes the vulnerability of the elders to the rage of Achilles. In the neoloberal revolution of the 1970’s, an interesting compromise was reached between young and old, male and female, freedom and constraint, and we are in the process of renegotiating that compromise that was forged in the aftermath of the 1960’s.
So what did happen to the 1960’s? Your answer to that question can say a lot about how you understand the political climate of our current era. People whose thinking is defined more by political argumentation than by structural knowledge of the important transitions in culture and economy of the recent past, will tend to look for scapegoats for the current state of the world and nation, no matter what side of the culture war they are on. Conservatives tend to trace continuities between the counterculture and today’s value climate, while left-liberals often see the 60’s accomplishments as a progressive flowering that was cut short, and which awaits further advancement.
While economic and political elites do their best to maintain the status quo and to co-opt any divergent populism into the mainstream alternatives of centrist political parties, populism on the Left and Right, (and a conspiracy culture not always so easily categorized), continue to grow. Yet our society remains bitterly divided, even more so at the populist extremes, where each culture seems to sometimes have entirely different meanings for the same words. Much of this revolves around many contradictory notions about freedom and community, capitalism and socialism, but on a deeper level the political language masks a more metaphysical negotiation. For what is more at stake in this era—since any deep and lasting change in our political system for the better is dependent on it—is our understanding of freedom and its complicated history and meaning.
According to “Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD”, 1969 was a turning point in the counterculture for many reasons, but perhaps some of them quite esoteric. The hippie acid chemists were in prison and into the gap in supply walked a mysterious man named Ronald Stark. With him was more LSD than the “Brotherhood of Eternal Love”, the hippie mafia then responsible for much of the 60’s distribution of LSD, had ever seen. The most famous of hippy chemists Owsley Stanley had believed that making LSD was an alchemical process where the intention and energy during the production process, drastically affected the mood and consciousness it provoked in its users. The “Brotherhood” didn’t seem to care too much where Stark got his acid, and it was later revealed that he was working for numerous intelligence communities. Whatever the “energy” of his labs or the hidden intentions of this mysterious man might have been, it was widely reported that there was a different vibe in the counterculture, and in the drug that fueled it, after Stark took over much of the supply.
Putting esoteric theories about alchemy and possible conspiracy aside, what is significant here is that the “Brotherhood” made a crucial mistake that expressed the overall naivety of the time. They supposedly assumed that anyone with that much acid had to have good intentions. Indeed Stark professed a desire to free the minds of everyone and change the world. And indeed acid does “free” the mind, if by free you understand the essential problematic of freedom, as American culture has always had a hard time doing. When the Manson family struck, it became a little less difficult.
Of course conservatives had long resented the kind of freedom flaunted by the counterculture and by the 70’s it seems like a greater number of people were desiring more structure to their freedom. People were becoming more tolerant of diversity, so culture continued to become more liberal, but the liberalization of the economy helped set up conditions to swing the country and much of the world’s social structure away from any real revolution as the Left had traditionally conceived it.
Conclusion: From Christianity to Postmodernity through Liberalism
Out of the three values of the original liberal revolution, now freedom came at the cost of equality and fraternity. One could say that the counterculture sold their soul to cultural capitalism: sex and drugs were liberated (though drugs only through a circuitous route that kept funding for pharmaceutical companies and the CIA, and kept the unwanted burdened with prison), while equality and fraternity became inscribed within a narrow cultural sphere of nominal rights to all. We can now do whatever we want as long as we don’t seriously challenge the economy. No one is making you fight a war, no one is telling you who to be, so you no longer have the right to say who we fight or what our country is to become. Basically we traded responsibility for freedom.
But the culture is getting tired of this compromise. I read Tarrantino’s film as part of a reaction against those aspects of liberalism that are being questioned across the political spectrum. At the center of this sea change is a working out of the meaning of responsibility. While PC culture and identity politics have their place and aren’t going away anytime soon, especially since a fractured political culture serves the elites so well, their excesses are becoming increasingly obvious. Their use as a tool by the establishment is increasingly understood by populist movements growing immune to the usual propaganda. But there is still much bitterness and blame as we work to integrate the youth’s call for collective responsibility and the old liberal’s American religion of self-reliance.
Will we see the end of liberal society? Or the end of the illusion of it? One can only hope that both camps of dogmatic liberals, that is, both the new Left liberals angry at society and the classical liberals angry at the Left and government, will continue to be seen more and more as unproductive.
But they are just the loudest voices of an essentially liberal minded society—whether people vote right or left or not at all, or whether they live here or in the countries more recently indoctrinated into the liberal democratic empire. In any case the framework is a trap. It puts us all at odds with each other, judging each other, caught in a dialectic that needs to be broadened with an understanding of the larger system and how that system mediates all individual action—something which gets covered up by everyone fighting for their “liberty” and by a dumbing down of our tradition to the most polarized cliches.
Both classical liberalism and the new Left arose at times in history when the rights of individuals or minority groups needed to be brought into the foreground. But given the seriousness of our collective problems, I hope we are learning that, like it or not, the future will be some kind of socialism. To what extent that will be an improvement or a nightmare, depends on how willing we are to negotiate our collective future together with people we don’t agree with and with a society that is nobody’s fault and everyone’s responsibility.
The West is all about transcending limits which is why Christianity evolved into idealism, socialism and eventually postmodernism, and why it may still yet evolve into a truly inclusive philosophy of universal brotherhood, as liberalism originally put it, and which it may achieve as the dialog of ideas that is the “Western” tradition, becomes more deeply integrated into the organization of our communities and social structures. Of course the tradition isn’t essentially Western, but rather, merely the sublimated spiritual bounty of the planet’s colonial transition through the dialectical trauma of war and genocide—the evolving cultural legacy of all the world’s peoples.