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Metaphysics

1 The Special status of metaphysics

The characteristic feature of metaphysics is that it does not have any characteristic feature. Metaphysics is after all that which is beyond physics, beyond what we know, it's the mystery of the world and life. Which is the answer to these mysteries? What is there beyond death? What is evil, where and how does it originate? Why do I have to suffer? How different do other people feel and perceive reality as compared to me? Since there is no 'objective answer' to these questions, famous philosophers like Wittgenstein and Levinas have said that we should not talk about metaphysics. We have to live with the fact that metaphysics exists, but we just don't know what it is.

Since metaphysics exists but is in a way nothing, it makes the same move as individuality, which is so specific as to also approach nothingness: it becomes something else, preferably nature, but also society. The examples are taken from Dan Brown's (in)famous The Da Vinci Code:

 

hierosgamos

Example 1:

Metaphysics and nature

From Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code

heretics

Example 2:

Metaphysics and society

From Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code

2 Metaphysics in Western culture: Christian religion

Christian religion: Our Western culture also knows its own specific metaphysical stereotypes. One preferred metaphysical area is, of course, religion, in Western culture Christian religion, and there stereotypes abound. These stereotypes are, theologically speaking, absurd, yet they hold Western society in its grip.

Eden, sin, the fall and the mind-body split: In our subconscious lurks the half-truth that according to the Bible, human beings once lived in a kind of unspoiled natural state, i.e. paradise or the Garden of Eden, and were driven from it because they disobeyed a God who did not want them to think on their own. Estranged from their own nature in sexual terms and from a natural environment which had turned wild and savage, they were driven out from that state of unspoiled nature and into the corrupt world of society. That degradation of nature, and the unsatisfying experience of social life, left as only available option a return to metaphysics in the form of God-given grace (through Christ's resurrection): we are nothing, dust, and only divine grace can save us. Hence the (false) mind-body split so typical of many accounts of Christianity. Many representations of people who for one reason or another we don't accept as our likes are forced to different degrees into this stereotype.

columbus

Example: Eden, sin and the fall

Columbus' view of the Indians

(taken from Tzvetan Todorov's account in La Conquête de l’Amérique)

 

Old Testament and New Testament God: One stereotyped view of Christianity distinguishes between the Old and New Testament God. The Old Testament God is said to be authoritarian and punitive (preferably seen as warrior, king and judge), while the New Testament God is usually described as paternalistic and loving. This distinction into two gods has been generalised into a universal response when human beings face the holy or "numinous": we either feel awe or terror - our "tremendum" response to the OT warrior-God - or we feel wonder - our "fascinosum" response to the NT paternal God (Rudolph Otto, Das Heilige [The Holy], 1918). This distinction informs, for example, the beginning and end of Francis Ford Coppola's 1996 version of Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Coppola's Dracula (1996)
Beginning
End

Tremendum / authoritarian & punitive: Vlad the impaler, a warrior-king who fights ad maiorem Dei gloriam, curses God when He lets his wife Mina die. God turns out to be incomprehensible and unjust, terror wins the day.

Fascinosum / paternalistic & loving: Bound to become a vampire and risking a life of loneliness, Mina sacrifices herself and saves Dracula from eternal life by mercifully killing him in a church. The picture of the vault of the church, which usually shows God father in his benevolence towards human beings, shows Mina and Dracula together. Love between equals replaces paternal love.

 

3 Eastern metaphysics

Nature, metaphysics and eternity: Many movies present so-called Eastern stereotypes of religion, in which the individual is at one with nature. This nature tends to be presented as an eternal present. This combination yokes together nature, metaphysics and Riemann's yearning for eternity. The idea of an eternal present often entails the explicit rejection of past or future, a rejection which can lead to the dissappearance of basic categories of our everyday experience such as 'meaning', 'thought', 'morality' or 'good and evil', for these only exist projected in time.

Feelings, love and accuracy: Sometimes lliving in the eternal present also entails the rejection of feelings, although that curiously tends to enhance the passion of the amorous protagonist. The somehow unfeeling protagonist also becomes much more accurate in his (martial arts) actions. In a way he becomes more machine-like in action and more sensitive in his affective world. The Matrix trilogy, although syncretic in its approach to metaphysics, The Last Samurai, Karate Kid and Batman Begins are all movies which, in one oway or another, share many of these features.

The Western world, or the rejection of society: In opposition, the Western world is defined in negative social terms, as oppressive, acquisitive, technological, etc. Evil are only those who are trapped within (social) time. They make plans for the future, and are ultimately trapped by the fear that their projects may come to nothing. In fact, the ultimate fear is that these project, which look like something, which seem to have a meaning and provide motivation for those who believe in them, are ultimately revealed to be nothing in the face of an eternal now which allows nothing outside the present.

This kind of stereotype is applicable to many idealised divisions between Western and other cultures, from native Indians (Dancing with Wolves) to Martians (ET). The element of idealisation at work in these cultural representations is at least as great as the element of truth.

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Le Pacte des Loups: The French blockbuster Le Pacte de Loups (Brotherhood of the Wolves, 2001) shows how an idealised division between Western and other cultures leads to an unproblematic cultural fusion along the metaphysics-nature-eternity triad. The reason for this culturally unwarranted fusion is merely that of providing a ready-made alternative to a - also ready-made - Western world defined in negative social terms. In the movie, events around some mysterious beast-haunting in a little pre-revolutionary, 18th-century French backwater are accompanied by the typical division alluded to above (although, if you think too much about the movie, things may get a little confusing).

At one remove from Western French society is the naturalist and libertine Grégoire de Fronsac, who tries to solve the mystery of the beast. The word 'naturalist', and his reputation as a libertine, already mark him out as opposed to what is supposed to be French aristocratic and superstitious society. He is accompanied by an Iroquois called Mani. The movie suggests that as an Indian, Mani is simultaneously close to the natural and metaphysical world, for Mani

  • is a shaman and thus provides a transition between the natural and supernatural at the magical level
  • believes in totems, which is a way of saying that the religious is informed by the animal and thus natural world

We also see Mani repeatedly listening to the voice of wolves and nature in general in a silent, patient, and unmoving attitude. The suggestion that Mani grasps the eternal in an intuitive way is thus close at hand.

What is surprising is that both Mani and de Fronsac excel at martial arts, a skill which has little to do with de Fronsac's Indian experience or Mani's origin. If the audience accepts this incongruity, it is not only because it provides good entertainment, but because they sense an affinity between two non-Western cultures which does probably not really exist.

Works cited (and referred to):

Otto, Rudolph. Das Heilige: über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen. Breslau: Trewendt und Granier, 1918.

acknowledgement of pictures:

 

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daniel.candel@uah.es | ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann