Friday, 19 September 2014

The Children of the Last Men: Nihilism and World-Loss

This was originally going to be part of a much longer piece which never really went anywhere (which is partially to blame for the unofficial hiatus...though that was more due to an onset of lethargy). So, have a piece about P.D. James' novel The Children of Men and the Alfonso Cuaron film adaptation of it. Health warning: this is long and opinionated. 

I will, as ever, assume at least a passing familiarity with the novel and/or the film from the reader. If you want to refresh your memory, or fill it up in the first place, Wikipedia provides (here and here), as it ever does. Obviously, here be spoilers.



The Children of Men is a conservative novel. More than that, it is a conservative, Christian novel, by a writer who is both an Anglican and a Conservative life-peer. Still here? Good. I thought I'd get the awkwardness out of the way.

To say that it is 'conservative' isn't to say that it has a political agenda, per se. It is, rather, a conservative reaction (don't worry, it isn't those guys again) to the perceived nihilism of the modern age. It becomes all the more interesting in comparison with Cuaron's harrowing and moving adaptation of the novel, which James was reportedly pleased with. The film is more overtly political than the novel, and very obviously leans towards the left, but not to the detriment of having a clear moral centre which will appeal to conservative and progressive alike (at least, it appealed to both my conservative and progressive sides, so...). Like the novel, the film doesn't have an overt political agenda, and like the novel, it is not sympathetic to those for whom politics (or, rather, the politics of Great Deeds) trumps morality. Indeed, there is little real difference between the insurrectionaries seeking to use the pregnancy for political ends and the government they're fighting. 

This isn't going to be a point-by-point comparison between the film and the novel, as that wouldn't be fun to write, and would be even less fun to read. Rather, I'm going to draw on the film and the novel's imagery and themes as I deem appropriate. A few changes and similarities are worth noting, though. Both have main characters named Theo with cousins in position of office. They are both emotionally involved with a woman called Julian. Britain has moved towards totalitarianism. Both stories carry a great deal of Christian symbolism. The major differences are that Theo's cousin in the novel, Xan Lyppiatt, is the country's 'benevolent' dictator, the 'Warden of England,' while in the film his cousin is head of a project that is rescuing the world's art treasures. The infertility crisis has affected women, rather than men, as is the case in the novel. The novel also takes place on a much smaller scale than the film, having a more provincial flair to it. Interestingly, the despotism of the novel is of a noticeably 'softer' variety than the overt quasi-Fascism of the film. But, a lot of this we can put down to the differences between cinema and the novel as mediums. 

Although his occupation and background has changed, Theo is largely the same in both film and book. Disaffected, uninterested, somewhat selfish. It comes across more in the book, largely because of James's narrative voice, that Theo is a man who has run away from every responsibility he has ever had. His failed marriage, his position on the Council, his attempts to distance himself from the Fishes at every opportunity. And, like the Theo of the film, he only comes alive as a person when he does start to take responsibility for his life, his actions and surroundings. It is an ethical awakening, ultimately, a moral one, rather than an heroic Nietzschean awakening (we'll be coming back to dear old Friedrich in a little while, however); it is his recognition of his greater moral role, his duty, his transcendental duty to the Other and to humanity, to the world (to God?) that gives him vigour and vitality.

The Christian voice of the novel is quite explicit: the father of the child (in the novel, it is men who infertile, while the film has it that it is women- I don't think that one should look too closely into this difference, it is more a plot device than anything else) is a priest of a distinctly 'old school' High Church tradition, the mother is an avowed Christian, the story ends with Theo drawing the Sign of the Cross onto the baby's forehead. There are a plethora of cults and sects in both book and film, though both glides over them without much interaction of exposition. Interestingly, the film's cults are of a much darker, self-denying spirit than the book's 'wishy-washy', neo-hippie hedonist movements, but I risk going off on a tangent. The film's religious symbolism is much broader (including several nods towards Eastern religion), though the essential Christianity of its symbolism remains obvious. The focus on the mother of the child (who is, very literally, the hope of the world), of course, ties in with the tradition of Marian veneration. Their refugee status harks, perhaps, to the flight of the Holy Family from Herod into Egypt. The birth of the baby into poverty and chaos reinforces this.

Interestingly, in the film there are several references to the phrase 'Shantih Shantih Shantih,' a Hindu prayer for peace that comes at the end of a ritual, lesson or scripture. Importantly, it appears on screen during the end-credits, suggesting the film itself is a kind of ritual re-telling of the sorrows of the world, a celluloid prayer of sorts. What is more, 'Shantih Shantih Shantih' is used at the end of T.S. Eliot's mournful masterpiece The Waste Land, a disturbing image of Western society after the calamity of the First World War (in my reading, at any rate). I can see this post wandering still further into a general discussion of 'themes' and 'imagery,' so I might as well use this as a jumping-off point for the main idea I want to discuss, which is nihilism.


Welcome to the Desert of the Now

Both the film and the novel deal with the (at least, perceived) nihilism of modernity. Žižek sums it up nicely in this short clip. What both film and novel deal with is the loss of roots, of tradition and history. For the novel, it is the loss of the Christian tradition in particular that is traumatic, but the film opens the field, makes it global, a true 'world' loss. In neither novel nor film is an explanation for the infertility crisis given, only speculation. This maybe partly to do with avoiding distracting exposition, but I feel that it is linked with the general theme of forgetting one's past, losing one's world. The loss is so total that even the nature of the loss is shadowy at best.

But what does it mean to discuss a loss of tradition, of roots and history? It must be remembered that capitalism is the great innovator and renovator, the re-shaper, the destroy of boundaries and territories. It does, of course, create new boundaries and territories (for Deleuze and Guattari, it creates the nation-state and the 'Oedipal' family), but only at the loss of the old ones, the old certainties, and what it offers us in return is an ambiguous gift to say the least (social atomisation, alienation, uncertainty and all the other irritatingly accurate Marxian critiques). With the loss of the old certainties, it is no longer obvious what to strive for and how to do it. This is where it becomes appropriate to bring in Nietzsche.

"God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?" 

The death of God, the opening of possibilities for new forms of relationship, new edifices of value, is a shocking, disconcerting one. The ontological horizon crashes away and we no longer know what it is we stand upon. We loose the traditions of our ancestors, and find ourselves (very literally in the case of Children of Men) unable to pass any such thing along to our descendants, as our world has so little solidity to it. We have become, so suggests the film and novel, Nietzsche's Last Men:
"Lo! I show you THE LAST MAN.

'What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?'—so asketh the last man and blinketh. The earth hath then become small, and on it there hoppeth the last man who maketh everything small. His species is ineradicable like that of the ground-flea; the last man liveth longest.
'We have discovered happiness'—say the last men, and blink thereby. They have left the regions where it is hard to live; for they need warmth. One still loveth one's neighbour and rubbeth against him; for one needeth warmth. Turning ill and being distrustful, they consider sinful: they walk warily. He is a fool who still stumbleth over stones or men!

A little poison now and then: that maketh pleasant dreams. And much poison at last for a pleasant death. One still worketh, for work is a pastime. But one is careful lest the pastime should hurt one. One no longer becometh poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wanteth to rule? Who still wanteth to obey? Both are too burdensome. No shepherd, and one herd! Every one wanteth the same; every one is equal: he who hath other sentiments goeth voluntarily into the madhouse. "Formerly all the world was insane,"—say the subtlest of them, and blink thereby. They are clever and know all that hath happened: so there is no end to their raillery. People still fall out, but are soon reconciled—otherwise it spoileth their stomachs. They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.

'We have discovered happiness,'—say the last men, and blink thereby.—" 

The Last Men are mediocre, unimpressive, believing themselves to have already achieved everything worthwhile. They have little but scorn for the past, and dismiss its values as mere fancies and follies. A phrase used in the novel: 'comfort, security, pleasure.' This is what Britain wants after the infertility crisis has shattered the world. To be given somewhere warm to sleep, in the hope of not waking up. The elderly are encouraged to commit suicide in perversely sentimental rituals dubbed The Quietus; with the accompaniment of familiar songs and the hymn 'Abide With Me,' the (drugged up to the eyeballs) elderly, dressed in white and carrying flowers, are quietly euthanised on a barge which is then left to sink... Oddly, it was these horrible moments of forced sentimentality (women using dolls as surrogate children, blasphemous 'christenings' for animals) that I found the most overtly disturbing in the novel. The film makes use of it too, but not as much. In the opening scene, we hear the announcement of the death of the world's youngest person, the obscenely named 'Baby' Diego, accompanied by soft music oozing with sentiment. The world of The Last Men is awash with sentiment, rather than feeling...


What is to be done?

Go forward. Go back. Those are the only two directions open to us in the world of The Last Men: either, we try and go beyond them (dreams of the Übermensch), or we try and go back to what we had before. Discovery, or re-discovery. It is not clear which of these two options is the more accessible one, or even the preferable one. Certainly, there is much now lacking which once we had, but an attempt to abort modernity and simply return to 'how things used to be' is a childish dream; as attractive as it might indeed be, one wilfully forgets the perversities and pathologies of the past that much of the drive to modernity was an attempt to replace. Indeed, if you'll forgive me for paraphrasing Moldbug: Cthulhu swims left. That is, it seems doubtful that we could go back, even if we wanted to.

James's novel certainly wants a return to the past, a re-discovery of sorts. Perhaps that felt more likely before the Millennium, and the new (that is, return of the old) conflicts it brought. The film is more ambiguous. 

 Žižek rightly observes that the film ends with the protagonists both literally and symbolically cutting their few remaining roots and forging ahead in a new direction, but it does still take time to observe the customs of the past. The most moving scene for me was a very short one, where an old Russian woman sings a song and plays with Kee's baby, as the camera pans around the room, showing us Icons of Orthodox saints, and images of Lenin. That is what I mean when I talk about handing down tradition, from the ancestors to our descendants: history, stories, songs and pictures. Meaningful things that, their 'truth' regardless, at least deserve to be remembered because they mattered to us. There are other, less sympathetic attempts to restore the past in the film, in particular the 'Ark of the Arts,' a project that 'rescues' works of art from around the world and stores them, far away from the public eye. All this project is doing is lifting out these artefacts from the worlds they occurred in, removing them from their context and keeping them from revealing themselves and their world to us, thus, in a way, destroying what it was that made them 'art' in the first place. All it does is create hollow facsimiles of tradition, forgetting that a tradition is only real if it is lived. 

But if all we now have of those traditions is the facsimile, the simulation of a tradition rather than a real, living, growing, organic tradition, then perhaps the only option that is left open to us is to go forward, to forge ahead and try to create new traditions, find new worlds, new stories to tell. It may be that we have to loose what is left of our world in order to re-discover what it was that made it worth keeping in the first place.