Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Not Enough Ghosts: Ideas Man Watches Ghost Story

Not Enough Ghosts

Warning: This contains lots of spoilers, but you should thank me for that because then you won’t have to see the movie.

What if a demon crept after you into your loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to you: ‘This life, as you live it at present, and have lived it, you must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to you again, and all in the same series and sequence - and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and you with it, you speck of dust!" (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 341).

Provocation: The Eternal Persistence of Casey Affleck

Sadly, Nietzsche went mad before adding the only logical corollary: “AND, what if also, Casey Affleck were invisibly standing around in a sheet the whole time, silently asserting his ownership over the whole shebang.”

Such is the philosophically daring and admittedly pathbreaking provocation presented in David Lowery’s well-reviewed Ghost Story. It was those good reviews, along with an evocative trailer (a really lovely distillation of what turned out to be the only emotion that the movie could do well), that made Emily and I excited to see it.

That’s not what the movie bills itself as being about. The reviews told us, and the trailer implied, that this was a movie about Love and Grief, though they’d helpfully not told us whether the Grief in question was the grief of the Ghost or of the survivor. Perhaps, like the Love, it was supposed to be both of theirs.

And indeed, there are a few bits in the movie where it almost seems to be about Grief. When we watch a very beautiful woman crying. When we watch a very beautiful woman eat a pie and then puke it out. When we watch a very beautiful woman do what human beings do: move on and move out.  That occupies about twelve minutes of the movie.

No, that’s just a ruse so that we’ll stick around for the provocation. And we don’t get the provocation explicitly until around two-thirds of the way into the movie and by that point it was too late to ask for our money back, at least not without running the risk of The Sheet haunting us too. Dude has some jealousy issues.

It is a solid moustache
Of course, there’s foreshadowing before that. Before Affleck becomes The White Sheet, he and his soon to be really sad partner (played by Rooney Mara) are talking about their relationship to the house that they live in. Soon To Be Sad imagines herself as a leave-taker. But, she tells Not Yet A White Sheet, she always leaves some part of herself behind, in the form of a note, shoved unobtrusively into the cracks of the house. In contrast, Not Yet a White Sheet, is reluctant to leave the house because he feels that he has memories there. Later, Still Quite Jealous White Sheet Man has managed to scare Now Very Sad Woman (whose lovely, luminously sad eyes provide the best case that I’m wrong and the reviewers are right, this really is a movie about Grief and Love) away from the arms of a friendly enough looking fellow, White Sheet manages to use his newly acquired ghost powers to knock a couple of books off the shelf.  Prominently displayed amongst them? This guy’s moustache. I’ll have more to say about the Eternal Persistence of the Moustache.
But the kicker comes after Now Quite Sad Woman has moved out of the house, and after Grieving Angry Sheet has chased away a perfectly nice mother and her two kids, breaking all their china in the process (because Grief!) leaving it in the louche hands of a bunch of hipsters who ain’t afraid of no ghosts! Sheet, still in the house, walks past a few folks billed in the credits as Making Out 1, Making Out 2, Spirit Girl, Magician and Just Wants to Dance to a guy listed in the credits as The Prognosticator, who seems to think he is completing Nietzsche’s thought.

Why do we create, he asks his assembled audience. Do you believe in God? No, no, everyone assures him. Well supposing you do and you make songs or novels or symphonies for God, just like all symphonists did, what happens to the art without that belief in God?  Of course, this last bit about the motivation of symphonists is entirely wrong. Symphonies were a largely secular form, often made for rich patrons during the eighteenth century and still implicitly into the nineteenth, the grand era of the big symphonies when under the influence of Romanticism and absolute music, many symphonists would likely have proclaimed that they composed symphonies for the artist themself, or what may amount to the same thing, for art itself. This definitely isn’t the only time that the movie mistakes the artist for God.

But let’s forgive the Prognosticator his little mistake: Just because he sees the future, why should we assume he knows anything about the past.  The Prognosticator now launches into the rant that will end with the eternal return. Actually, though, it’s mostly stolen from Plato’s Symposium, where a woman named Diotima who Socrates identifies as the one who taught him about love, hypothesizes that we all desire Immortality (Maybe we all desire it, but only one Ghost seems to occupy this house. I’ll have more to say about that later). Because we all desire it, we all pursue it, following one or more of essentially four strategies. The Prognosticator actually runs the first three of Diotima’s strategies together: children, glory and works of art. These approaches, Diotima tells us, all strive for eternity in a form that Baruch Spinoza will later talk about as sempiternity, unending duration. But, Diotima, Spinoza, Nietzsche and the Prognosticator all agree, this sort of Immortality is illusory: even if one’s lineage, one’s reputation lasts for a really long time, it’ll eventually fade. The Prognosticator gets there near the end of his ferociously long rant, talking about the Earth getting swallowed into the expanding Sun, now a red giant (because he can see the future he does manage to get this date right: around 2 billion years from now) or the eventual  heat-death of the universe (which he not necessarily wrongly associates with the Big Expansion).
I worry this is what I look like when I'm prognosticating too

So where’s the eternal return in all this? No, I don’t mean the seeming sempiternity of the speech, though it was really really long. (Emily, nine months pregnant, had to excuse herself in the middle to use the restroom. It was still going on when she got back.) No, because right at the end, the Prognosticator leaves aside banal truisms and hypothesizes the Big Collapse. And then it all begins again.

So, arguably, our Prognosticator had gotten as far as Nietzsche in his thinker. But it would be foolish to think that this is necessarily what the director believes. That would be unfair to the vision of the director. No, the Prognosticator does not quite see what the director ingeniously shows us: “AND, what if also, Casey Affleck were invisibly standing around in a sheet the whole time, silently asserting his ownership over the whole shebang.”

Indeed, soon after the Prognosticator’s speech finally ends, the movie, which has up until now been self-consciously, fastidiously slow, accelerates at a massive pace. We see the house in a low density suburb get destroyed. A corporate office building is put up. The ghost persists. The corporate office building is now a skyscraper in the middle of a giant futuristic city. Still-A-Sheet-Occupying-What-Is-Still-His-House-Damn-it (indeed, there had been another ghost in the house next door but when the houses are destroyed, that ghost finally gives up waiting and leaves. White Sheet Men don’t share places, despite the eternal finitude of place).

Writer/Director David Lowery. I'm not joking
Then, wham-o, bam-o, suddenly there are trees again and grass and a stream. Or we in some distant future, beyond Ragnarok, when the planet has finally shuffled off the clever ants who for a long time marred its surface? Sadly for Mother Earth, no. Because suddenly we see: the first human settlers coming to this spot: pioneers.  Well, the first white settlers I mean, but that’s close enough right? Soon enough, we’re back at the start of the movie. It’s almost as though we can hear some moustachioed guy: "This life, as you live it at present, and have lived it, you must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to you again, and all in the same series and sequence. AND, what if also, Casey Affleck were invisibly standing around in a sheet the whole time, silently asserting his ownership over the whole shebang.”

So that was the provocation I found myself faced with yesterday.  How should I have responded?  Nietzsche, again? “Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth, and curse the demon that so spoke? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment in which you would answer him: "You are a God, and never did I hear anything so divine!"

Given the Affleck-Addendum I propose a different option: “Give me more ghosts or else fuck off.”

I mean, really, can you imagine anything more awful than the Eternal Persistence of Casey Affleck?

The Periodic Recurrence of Fred

Come on, Ammon. These are just your own personal demons you’re working through. You really think we should trust your hot-take on the movie over other critics?

It’s about Grief and Love, damn it.

I humbly submit that I’ve already offered an arc of the movie that explains a lot more of the movie that the reviewers. That’s no criticism to them: reviews have to be short. By forgoing any audience I can, like the Prognosticator, or like a guy filming a White Sheet, take all the time I want.

But I also admit it’s my own issues. Coincidentally, earlier in the day, I’d been talking with a colleague about the eternal return. It’s not the bit in Nietzsche that interests me the most, but it recurs periodically. We’d been reminiscing that both of us had read Arthur Danto’s very weird essay where he’d tried to test the idea of the eternal recurrence as an actual metaphysical proposition about the natural world, as Nietzsche does admittedly sometimes imply, and had unsurprisingly found the argument to be invalid.

Certainly, the more common respectable take on the idea involves a sort of immanentizing take on Kant’s categorical imperative, which was itself a transcendental (as opposed to transcendent) take on the role that eternal forms play in Platonic standards of morality (I’m glossing very quickly from the 5th to the 3rd to the 1st phase of Nietzsche’s well known “How the Real World Became a Fable” whilst leaving the 4th and 2nd phases implicit). If there is no God and no eternity, then what becomes the standard by which we evaluate life? Well, it would be the capacity to affirm these things immanently, in this world, in which both eternity and sempiternity are illusory.

So why care about the eternal return? It’s a funny thing about ideas how easily they can transform themselves into their opposite. I’d mentioned how closely Spinoza, Kant and Nietzsche had all come to saying something that Plato already seemed to have said, but I left a few details out.

Sils Maria, where Nietzsche conceived of the eternal return.
Thankfully moustache free.
Leaving aside the metaphysical proposition that Danto found wanting (and that the Sheet experienced), there’s at least one other thought that Nietzsche’s trying to work through with his understanding of the Eternal Return.) If the other two ways or metaphysical-scientific and moral, respectively this one is natural-aesthetic, an attempt to reimagine a circular sense of time after the disastrous linear teleology of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Unlike, say the Romantics, who were already thinking the Death of God in order to reimagine the Divinity of Man (indeed, this is the point of Schiller’s Ode to Joy that Beethoven put to music in that one symphony that you all know and that recurs periodically in Ghost Story, most annoyingly when the Prognosticator imagines its sempiternity), Nietzsche was keenly interested in what the poet Paul Celan would later call die “Lieder zu singen / Jenseits der Menschen” (“The songs to be sung beyond humankind.”)
The hypothesis of the  eternal persistence of Casey Affleck may be compatible with the metaphysical-scientific and maybe even the moral senses of the Eternal Return, it’s flatly inconsistent with the natural one.

The Eternal Persistence of White Masculine Possessiveness

Well, so what? I’m not worrying about this as a matter of Nietzsche interpretation. And although philosophically, I find the last sense the most suggestive, it’s not something I spend a ton of time thinking about it, not even the bit of Nietzsche that I personally am the most interested in.

And anyway, just because a writer/director models his moustache off of Nietzsche’s, that doesn’t mean that he is beholden to getting Nietzsche right. Can’t he just use a provocation from Nietzsche to tell a story of his own about Grief and Love? Aren’t Grief and Love more like the Eternal Persistence of Casey Affleck than the Eternal Recurrence of the Same anyway?

God, I hope not. But I do think that it might be true -- about what 21st century white men imagine Love and Grief to be, anyway.

Let’s leave my long complaint about Nietzsche aside and pretend that the movie really is about Grief and Love.

Ok, what does it say about Grief and Love? Well, as I mentioned, there really are about 15 minutes when The Very Sad Woman is Very Sad. And there’s a lot of bits when the White Sheet scrapes at the door jamb to get at the note The Very Sad Woman puts in there when she moves away. And the Sheet Across the Street (A Sheet with a Floral Pattern far more interesting than the Plain White Sheet that we’re forced to follow) talks about waiting for someone and then finally decides to leave. All those things are in the vicinity of Grief. And Pre-Sheet Casey Affleck does write a very lovely song for the Very Sad Woman that is kinda lovey dovey. And they are certainly convincingly fond of one another.

But I’ve only briefly touched on what keeps the movie moving: the dramatic narrative of Grief. The
Imagine a moustache under the sheet
Ghost at its most expressive shows his love: at his sadness when the Very Sad Woman Almost Gets Laid, at his sadness when the Very Sad Woman Leaves and we see her drive off into the sunset (Emily pointed out to me that that’s the only bit of the movie that really was affectingly and satisfyingly about grief). Her moving on is very sad for the Sad White Sheet. How do we know White Sheet Man remains very sad? Well, because he torments the nice mom and her kids who move in after them.

This family, constructed fully as interlopers by the ghost also happen to be Latinx, some of the only non-white characters in the film. As I watched this part, the only thing I could think about is what a douchebag Angry Grieving White Sheet Man was. Why not fuck off and leave the nice mom alone? She’s working hard to take care of those little kids and here’s Angry Grief Man waking them all up in the middle of the night and breaking all their dinnerware.

But maybe that’s the point of grief, right? You do things you shouldn’t, like torment a perfectly nice family. And they’re not the only perfectly nice family.  There’s also the perfectly nice family of pioneers that come and are the first settlers in the ghost’s recurrent life. Well, the first white settlers. They are also driven off, killed off actually, not by the ghost, but rather by arrows that clumsily imply indigenous people. Apparently hauntings only happen when you have property rights recognized by Western capitalism.

Look, maybe that is Grief. But if Grief is just the Eternal Persistence of White Male Capitalist Property Rights, maybe Grief is the thing we need to get over.

Jenseits der Menschen

There’s a moral failing to how narcissistic the centering of white male “grief” is, even if the movie thinks that the empty gesture of “letting go” at the end redeems that. But there’s also an aesthetic component. I mentioned that I wish we were following the story of the Other Sad Floral Sheet. Or that we had just stuck to the story of the Very Sad Woman. Or that we had let that house’s story become the story of The Nice Mom and her Kids. Or even the boring pioneers. Literally anyone or anything other than the Eternal Persistence of Casey Affleck.

But no, that’s all we get. And as we imagine the Eternal Persistence of Casey Affleck, White Guy Ghost, we even only imagine the most boring parts of that Eternal Persistence. What was it like to be a White Sheet after those big tall building crumbled? Did the earth freeze as it was incorporated into the giant Sun? As the universe crunched and re-exploded (magically, however, retaining the property of place)? Do ghosts feel the plates move over eons under their feet? How does it feel to be Sad Sheet during the Pleistocene? Did the Sheet learn anything watching millennia of people come and go? We’ll never know, because whatever is true of the Sheet, the camera is bored until whiteness shows up.

This failure of imagination naturalizes the illusion of white ownership. The director makes the connection between this sense of ownership and identity. Both Pre-Sheet Casey Affleck and Sad White Sheet are defined by belonging to the place they occupy. Indeed, it’s necessary to the Eternal Persistence of Casey Affleck, and to its difference from Nietzsche’s Eternal Return of the Same. Here’s the bit I’d left out of the Lowery Provocation that he’d lifted from Nietzsche: “And similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself.” Where Plato (through participation in the forms) and Kant (through the rational postulate of the eternal soul) and the White Guy in a Sheet (through property rights over women and place 4eva) all imagine an eternal identity over time, this is exactly what Spinoza and Nietzsche are trying to un-imagine. The only successful way to participate in eternal life, in Spinoza, is insofar as we intuitively understand ourselves to be part of the whole universe, whose eternal recurrence is the constant internal happening by which it affects itself. In this way, eternal life is not a property of human minds. For all the obsession over the Death of God in Nietzsche, this is a prelude to probing the limits of human subjectivity, the brevity of the illusion that a contingent configuration of the roiling motion of the will to power will last forever.

So many wills, so many ghosts wandering over the landscape, and the camera can only imagine the brief moment of the temporarily mortal coil of the White Sheet that it imagines itself to be:

Nietzsche again:

“It was in the marvellous art and capacity for creating Gods in polytheism that this impulse was permitted to discharge itself, it was here that it became purified, perfected, and ennobled; for it was originally a commonplace and unimportant impulse, akin to stubbornness, disobedience and envy.  To be hostile to this impulse towards the individual ideal, that was formerly the law of every morality.  There was then only one norm, "the man" and every people believed that it had this one and ultimate norm.  But above himself, and outside of himself, in a distant over- world, a person could see a multitude of norms: the one God was not the denial or blasphemy of the other Gods!  It was here that individuals were first permitted, it was here that the right of individuals was first respected.  The inventing of Gods, heroes, and supermen of all kinds, as well as co-ordinate men and undermen dwarfs, fairies, centaurs, satyrs, demons, devils was the inestimable preliminary to the justification of the selfishness and sovereignty of the individual: the freedom which was granted to one God in respect to other Gods, was at last given to the individual himself in respect to laws, customs and neighbours.  Monotheism, on the contrary, the rigid consequence of the doctrine of one normal human being consequently the belief in a normal God, beside whom there are only false, spurious Gods has perhaps been the greatest danger of mankind in the past: man was then threatened by that premature state of inertia, which, so far as we can see, most of the other species have long ago.  For all of them believe in one normal type and ideal for their species and they have translated their morality into their own flesh and blood.  In polytheism the free spiriting and poly-spiritism of manaheived its preliminary form - the strength to create for ourselves new eyes - and again new eyes that are even more our own.  Hence, man alone, of all the animals, has no eternal horizons and perspectives” (Gay Science, 143).


As bad as the movie was, I’m still glad that we went to see it. I had a great time watching the movie with Emily and parsing exactly what made it so bad. We’ll be having a baby soon and it’ll be increasingly hard to see movies in public for a while.  I’m looking forward to having a baby in the house again, and so are the kids. Not going to the movies isn’t a big deal. Anyway, it’s not that far off in the grand scheme of things until I can see real movies with him. I’m already almost there with Elena, who is really starting to have her own take on things. It would be silly to obsess over having seen one bad movie.
I only hope that when they’re grown up, they’ll want to still hang out with me and Emily at the movies sometimes. And that the movies we watch will be full of more beautiful ghosts.