Friday, 21 November 2014

The Good Bourgeois

The form of this film is also its meaning.  What is this form?  It is best described by analogy: it is like the interior monologues of Leopold Bloom.  Scenes vividly delineated, so that both the characters and the action take on large elements of caricature - The Cremator more Czech expressionism than Czech surrealism -, suddenly shift to others equally striking; the only connecting link a word, an image or a metaphor they both share.  This is a film constructed out of a complex series of association of ideas.  David Hume the major influence on a movie made under a regime where Karl Marx held the monopoly on thought.

The sudden shifts of attention, the transformation of one image into another, and the merging of a metaphor into its literal interpretation all reflect the plasticity of the human mind; and reminds us that British empiricism, which for centuries has been thought as a philosophy of freedom, actually assumes our mental servitude.  The master is the environment and we are its servants.  Why?  Because our minds have little choice but to accept the ideas of their time and place.  Indeed, in the strong version such ideas are no more than commands; our mental faculties at the mercy of our bodies, which must adapt to the local geography, which by the early 20th century consisted mostly of other human beings.1  British empiricism the best justification yet devised for the manipulation and control of a subject people; for though we believe that everyone is free and autonomous in actuality it is those who shape this environment - the kings, the politicians, the media guys and gals - who determine its content; everyone else absorbing it, mostly by osmosis.  The overwhelming majority of any community happy to live in a prefabricated world, providing it is safe and comfortable.  British empiricism recognises this reality: according to its ideas the individual is the spectator, and it is nature who designs the scenery. Or to say it a mite more technically: our mind adjusts to the sense impressions that constantly bombard it.  Truth resides in our comprehension of these impressions; liberty in our ability to recognise such truths and act in accordance with their dictates.   All well and dandy if you to live in Britain in the 18th century; one of the freest countries in history; and one that projected its own well-being onto a nature it believed to be benign.  In such a country it doesn't matter if individuals are at the mercy of natural forces, because ultimately they mean us no harm; the balance and moderation within nature reflected in our own being.  Also, and we should never forget this when writing about the British empiricists, much remained unknown at the time they were thinking.  There was no fear of cognitive servitude then; these great thinkers able to project the mysteries of nature onto the freedom of the human mind.  Amongst the salons of London and Edinburgh liberty was believed to lie in an obedience to the right order of an essentially beneficent universe revealed by Sir Isaac Newton and codified by John Locke.  David Hume of course complicated that picture, and showed that there was no rational foundation to the new scientific outlook.  Nevertheless, he still made it safe for us: providing we do not think too deeply our lives will remain comfortable and secure.

In a bureaucratic state such carefully calibrated adjustments take on an entirely different meaning.  If we accept the assumptions of the British empiricists we would expect all (normal) citizens to adapt to the prevailing culture; for it is only through such adaptations that they can hope to win respect and wealth (or comfort and security).  Thus in a bureaucratic state all the (respectable) citizens should behave like bureaucrats, preferring the outer forms of things to their inner content; a state of mind I analyse at great length, and not a little idiosyncrasy, in my Critic as Clerk.  

According to such a philosophy it is only natural that Karel Kopfrkingl adjusts his ideas to reflect the environment that surrounds him.2  Indeed, according to the theory there is nothing else he can to do.  He is helpless against the truth of his own nature.  He is forced by his very biology to be a conformist.  An ordinary man is simply not strong enough to resist the processes of acculturation that occur around him.3  We cannot, therefore, blame Kopfrkingl for becoming a Nazi; it is the natural and inevitable outcome of his being a normal human animal; one that can only survive by adapting to its environment. Only the mad would resist.  Though we today call such crazy Czechs idealists.4 But this is a side point.  The nomenclature is not important, subject as it is to historical change and ideological manipulation. What is important are the arguments of the British empiricists, arguments which culminate in Darwin’s theory of natural selection; whose conclusion is clear and devastating: such mad characters are not fit enough to survive in a world that denies their value.  Too marginal to compete with the mass of their fellow men their fate is a rapid extinction.  Oh…do not misunderstand me.  It is not because they are too weak, that old Social Darwinian fantasy, that they disappear; their failure is due solely to their particular relationship to a specific environment - a mathematical genius in a society of warriors will quickly disappear; while a soldier in a school of sociologists will, alas, not last for very long.  Natural selection means the filtering out of those anomalies who cannot fully adapt to their time or place; those bizarre and unique individuals who cannot compete with the rest of their species.5  In our world natural selection takes place in the human environment; where the filter is both the average and the mass of humanity.  In modern democracies this means the average for the whole of society; not just its elite and the sub-groups that this elite protects - such as intellectuals and artists.  It is the reason why modern democracies are so dangerous.6 

Adolf Hitler.  Joseph Stalin. For sure they were insane.  But they acquired their power and were able to exercise it so ruthlessly because they took the logic of modern society to its most extreme conclusion.  Bureaucracy.  Technocratic utopianism.  Mass democracy.  Not only are these the very essence of modern life, but they are the best means yet devised of controlling a large and diversified population.  Democracy in a unified state gives leaders an immense power; the individuals too atomised to resist an elite that justifies itself with reference to all the citizens.  Small groups of bohemians and civil society activists are not able to compete against the claims of the People’s Will, especially if it is indifferent to the public realm.7  As cultural egalitarianism and democracy have become pervasive so populism has increased and become the mode of politics most suited to a mass electorate.  Populism appeals to The People and gives rise to authoritarianism.  Why?  Because it incites the prejudices of the ordinary person who is suspicious of the peculiarities of minority groups; especially if they consist of intellectuals, artists and political utopians.  Freedom, as understood by the Enlightenment, is a minority sport played by odd and unusual characters; it is therefore only right, that is if we accept the assumption behind Darwin’s theory, that such lunatics should perish.  Nature says that it must be so. Only the well-adjusted - in the 21st century this means the average; the typical person the standard by which all are judged - must survive.  In such a society, which is our society, Karel Kopfrkingl is the ideal citizen.

The Cremator is a film that shows one man adapting to an environment that is undergoing radical change.  Born into the Austro-Hungarian empire Kopfrkingl fought for it during the First World War; an important event for him, but one, since Czechoslovakia became independent, that he tries to hide; even from his own family.  He succeeds.  Kopfrkingl gradually erasing his German ancestry, at least from his own mind, until he can say with all sincerity that he is a full-blooded Czech.  By the late-thirties there is no German in his veins at all.  

There are a number of long running jokes in this film; one shows a couple that are so self-centred and stupid that they do not see the world around them; and so continually disrupt public occasions with their inane chatter and foolish behaviour.  They are the most common of common people; completely impervious to the changes taking place in their country.  They will be the same in any society.  Such people, and once they were in the majority, live solely within their sense perceptions and the opacity of their own minds, and are therefore protected from the culture that conditions the middle classes and the intellectuals associated with them.  The other joke is Kopfrkingl’s visits to a Jewish doctor, who tests his blood.  Ostensibly to check for syphilis (Kopfrkingl uses prostitutes) these tests have a deeper meaning - they are to confirm the purity of his Czech-ness; a nonsensical idea, as Doctor Bettelheim recognises.  

As Kopfrkingl becomes more successful he becomes more vulnerable to the climate of opinion; for he relies on the sentiments of his increasing numbers of customers, as well as the good will of the powerful, to maintain his wealth and social position.  The bourgeoisie is the class most susceptible to the selection pressures of society; for in order to prosper they must adapt to both the spirit of a place and the zeitgeist.  And they do so, invariably. 

This can make them appear inauthentic.  And it becomes easy to accuse them of being schemers, fakes and conmen.  It is why the aristocrats hate them.  It is also the reason for the ridicule of artists and intellectuals.  But this is to misunderstand this class.  A bourgeois is at his most authentic when he is performing; an actor no less real than a doorman.  Our mistake is to think that culture, which in modern societies depends upon the middle classes, is an artificial construct and therefore unreal; in fact, it is as real - that is: as substantial - as a tree or a tower block.  A culture may be intangible but it nevertheless exists; although it is more unstable than a house or a lump of granite; such instability forcing its practitioners (perhaps we should say inhabitants) to constant readjustments: negotiating a modern culture is like driving a car through heavy traffic.  It is this fluidity that unsettles the critics; or at least it did so until the vestiges of an older and more stable culture were weakened and largely removed during the 1960s.8  Today we all bourgeois.  Our modern lives makes us so. 

Doctor Bettelheim confirms that Kopfrkingl’s blood is ok.  He is pure Czech.  He is safe at last.

But it is the late 1930s, and the country is threatened by Hitler.  Increasing numbers of Czechs are becoming fascists; and an old friend suggests that Kopfrkingl joins the local Nazi party. This is not so easy.  The political situation is tense and tricky, and it is unclear which side will win.  Then there are his friends and employees who are Jews; one of whom is his best salesman.9  Even worse: his wife is half-Jewish, and although he uses prostitutes he still loves her in his peculiarly sentimental way.  They have their own love names: he calls her Lakmé; she calls him Karol; such romantic fictions emphasising the self-consciously artificial nature of their lives - these are people who must continually act to win acceptance from their society.  This artificiality is embedded in the form of a film that highlights every wisp of eccentricity.  Lakmé is more like a doll than a woman - her makeup is so thick it has the consistency of a mask (and is that a wig she wearing?).  Kopfrkingl looks like an uncouth butcher pretending to be a maître d’ in a fashionable restaurant.  The son is the spitting image of an intelligent moron.

The more changes the society undergoes - the more revolutions it suffers - the more personas these characters must adopt until they appear to exist solely as fictions; crude caricatures of the ideal type each new regime reveres.

Slowly Kopfrkingl adapts to the Nazi threat.  We see each minuscule change; the first: his comment that there might be some German blood in his veins.  These changes accumulate until he begins to talk like a Nazi.  Now is the time to sign the party’s membership form.  But…  Oh dear!   Walter Reinke advises him to get rid of his wife.  This is so hard!  And for a moment we wonder if Kopfrkingl will retain his humanity.  His friend knows him too well.  He pulls out postcards of blonde-haired prostitutes.  Later he takes him to the brothel where they work; Kopfrkingl looking on as a young woman sucks off his interlocutor.  His natural licentiousness cannot be denied.  The savagery begins.

But it is not so easy to cold-bloodily kill those we love.  We have to find some way to protect ourselves; our hero undergoing a psychological transformation that whilst highly bizarre feels true to life.  Kopfrkingl comes to believe that he is the new Dalai Lama.

Kopfrkingl is an ordinary man, although his job is strange and disconcerting - he runs a crematorium. To justify his occupation - to himself most of all - he often quotes from a big book about Tibet.  For him cremation removes the impurities from life.  “A body will burn in 75 minutes” is his favourite refrain; and he contrasts this with the 20 years it takes for an animal’s body to decompose in the ground.  The quicker the body is removed the faster the spirit is set free is the reasoning behind these strange statements; which are linked, we surmise, to some odd ideas about Purgatory.  Kopfrkingl believes he is providing a service for people.  The cremator taking away their purgatorial suffering by allowing them to enter heaven more quickly.  This is the illusion of a character who cannot wholly assimilate the horrible job that he does.  Such illusions can easily turn into insanities.

Such insanity helps him now.  The more of his family he kills the greater his belief that he will be the next Dalai Lama.  Reality and fantasy are growing ever further apart until under severe mental strain his personality splits, and his saint-like other self appears before him.  This vision will gradually take him over.  Indeed, he becomes Buddha.  It is his moment of triumph.  Kopfrkingl may even rule the country.  Although by now he is completely mad.  His society has turned him into a lunatic.



1.  This is brought out very clearly in Steven Lukes' biography of Émile Durkheim.  Although Durkheim was a rationalist his empirical bias led him to overvalue the role of society in the determination of an individual’s mind; thus, as Lukes' writes, his tendency to confuse mental capacities with mental content.  Such empirical bias may account for the enormous influence Durkheim has had on British anthropology.

2.  And - crucial qualification this - because it is natural it is good.  Compare with certain modern and fundamentalist views about Christians - because they believe in transcending nature through a faith in God they are thought to be unnatural and therefore bad.

3.   Note: Kopfrkingl is acculturated not indoctrinated; a confusion common amongst particularly Left intellectuals. 

4.  Marcel Dassault.  Hero? Villain?  Insane…

“The French arms industry was championed by Marcel Dassault.  The son of a Jewish doctor, Marcel was brought up in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century and developed an early passion for flight.  He set up his own company to make planes during the First World War.  After the fall of France in 1940 he was interned with other French aircraft designers.  He refused to work for the Nazis in return for his freedom and in 1944 was transported to Buchenwald, where he still refused to cooperate and was sentenced death, to be saved only by the arrival of the Allied armies.  He emerged a frail-looking man of fifty-two, partly deaf, with weak eye-sight, but still burning with ambition to build aircraft.  After the war he changed his name from Bloch to Dassault (his brother’s pseudonym during the Resistance), formed a close alliance with De Gaulle, was elected a Deputy of the French Parliament for seven years from 1951, and built an organisation more compact and impressive than its Anglo-Saxon equivalents.  His most glorious creation was the Mirage jet, famed for its Delta wing and rocket booster.  It became one of the most successful of all French exports and a major factor in French foreign policy.  With his immense wealth and dominance of the French arms industry, political connections and newspapers, Dassault became a one-man military-industrial complex.” (Andrew Feinstein, The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade.)

5.   I simplify of course.  In small pre-industrial societies idiosyncrasy is allowed because it is assumed to be a sign of knowledge; itself believed to be arcane and invisible to the senses (Witchcraft , Oracles and Magic among the Azande by E.E. Evans-Pritchard).*  In such societies oddness can give a person limited power; enough at least to survive.

* Contrast this with a very modern idea of knowledge:

“The time is past for speculation, awaiting divine information, to look down upon the modest course of popular wisdom.  As long as philosophers were searching into causes, while the multitude were observing indications, there was nothing in common between them: but now that philosophers are inquiring for laws, their loftiest speculations are in essential combination with the simplest popular notions, differing in degree of mental occupation, but not in kind.  I have repeatedly declared in this work that the philosophical spirit is simply a methodical extension of popular good sense to all subjects accessible to human reason - practical wisdom having been unquestionably the agency by which the old speculative methods have been conveyed into sound ones, by human contemplations having been recalled to their true objects, and subjected to due conditions.  The positive method is, like the theological and metaphysical, no invention of any special mind, but the product of the general mind; and the positive philosopher takes the spontaneous wisdom of mankind for his radical type, and generalises and systematises it, by extending it to abstract speculations, which have thus obtained the advancement that they exhibit, both in their nature and treatment.  It is only by the popular determination that the field of scientific research can be marked out, because that determination alone can be perfectly and certainly free from personal bias of every kind, and directed upon impressions common to all men; and it is in fact impossible to conceive of either the origin or the final unanimous propagation of positive speculations apart from the general impulse and interest in them.  The commonest facts are, as I have often said, the most important, in all orders of knowledge; and we have seen that the best instrumentalities of rational positivity are the systematised logical procedures given out by common sense.” (Auguste Comte: The Foundation of Sociology, edited by Kenneth Thompson)

Although this theory of knowledge is mistaken - modern science is counter to common sense - it does give an accurate portrait of much of sociology, albeit this discipline has tended to prefer behaviour to ideas; Comte a strangely idealist philosopher who believed the study of man was the study of man’s common mind.  

What is particularly striking about this passage is its equalitarian convictions; which equates knowledge with mass democracy.  In the long run such ideas, which pervade our own habits of thought, could only devalue knowledge, as it became something anyone could acquire.  In order to do this knowledge had to be simplified, as Comte makes clear; but he overlooks just how much real substance is lost when “speculation” is replaced by “popular wisdom”; no matter how sophisticated the systematisation.  This loss is very evident in the humanities whose subject matter is the unique, the original and the lofty; qualities that require a particular talent to understand them.

Although French structuralism seems a reformulation of Comte’s ideas in a different idiom; Foucault his closest intellectual descendent.

6.  As J.S. Mill saw only too clearly; although he expected too much from an enlightened elite.

7.   See my The Temperate Zone.

8. Deleuze and Guattari are the best example of this transformation.  Their critiques of capitalism are actually eulogies for the bourgeoisie, which achieved its essence in the America in the 1950s, and which has since spread to the rest of the world (see my Critic as Clerk for more complex and nuanced arguments to support this statement).

9.  One of his employees is a morphine addict, and Kopfrkingl’s changing attitudes towards him reflect his metamorphosis into a Nazi - compassion for the weak later becomes contempt.  It is a revealing irony.  The popular idea of evolution, which then became Social Darwinism, was that only the strong survived.  However, Darwin’s theory implies almost the complete opposite conclusion; Kopfrkingl prospering precisely because he is weak and pragmatic; able, because of his mediocrity, to adapt to his changing habitat.  Darwin, when we look at him carefully, is actually very close to the Nietzsche who argues that Christianity is used by the weak to control the powerful.  Although we have to careful with our terminology.  Replace weak with average and strong with odd and we have the process of natural selection as it occurs in a modern industrial society.

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