The most alluring movies from the turn of the century have staying power because they were the most original and unexpected. The ones most remembered from that year, however, can be lumped into a single movie called Gladiarequiemento, aggressive self-impressed entertainment masquerading as innovative cinema. As for the then-cutting-edge narratives which experimented with hyperlinked stories, they have not retained their interest. The Traffic Code Perros movies now exist as sets of dated signifiers of a cost-cutting, distracted future that has come to pass. So what? During the Bush-Gore election campaigns in 2000 and the last days of the dot-com bubble, many of us knew what was coming. So instead of those movies, here are what I think are the thirty-five best films of 2000, in order of theatrical release wherever they came out first—a grouping that represents how I spent my summer vacation twenty years later, because of Covid-19 and because I don’t have a car.
Mark Twain, though he did not go for spiritualism or immortality, would have agreed that siblings could tune into each other from opposite sides of the ocean. He believed, he once wrote, that a mind “still inhabiting the flesh” could reach another mind at great remove. There was an inciting incident in the spring of 1875 (before Twain’s red hair went gray), which he recollected as “the oddest thing that ever happened to me.”
The mail had just come at Twain’s home in Hartford, and he held a fat letter, still sealed. “Now I will do a miracle,” he drawled. He recognized the hand of someone from whom he said he hadn’t heard in eleven years. Even so, he knew without opening it that the letter contained a book idea. Their minds had been “in close and crystal-clear communication with each other across three thousand miles of mountain and desert on the morning of the 2nd of March.” Twain, in effect, had sat down to write to this very contact, on the same day, about this very same idea. Twain answered: “Dear Dan—Wonders never will cease.”
When the threat posed by the digitalization of our lives is debated in our media, the focus is usually on the new phase of capitalism called surveillance capitalism: a total digital control over our lives exerted by state agencies and private corporations. However, important as this surveillance capitalism is, it is not yet the true game changer; there is a much greater potential for new forms of domination in the prospect of a direct brain-machine interface (the “wired brain”). First, when our brain is connected to digital machines, we can cause things to happen in reality just by thinking about them; then, my brain is directly connected to another brain, so that another individual can directly share my experience. Extrapolated to its extreme, the wired brain opens up the prospect of what Ray Kurzweil called Singularity, the divine-like global space of shared awareness. Whatever the (dubious, for the time being) scientific status of this idea, it is clear that its realization will affect the basic features of humans as thinking/speaking beings: the eventual rise of Singularity will be apocalyptic in the complex meaning of the term: it will imply the encounter with a truth hidden in our ordinary human existence—that is, the entrance into a new posthuman dimension, which cannot but be experienced as catastrophic, as the end of our world. But will we still be here to experience our immersion into Singularity in any human sense of the term?
Much is made of the breadth of Weinberger’s learning. And it’s true that the number of facts and dreams and quotations that fill Angels & Saints is intimidating. But these things are just the raw material of his poetry-like prose. Ezra Pound wrote in a 1915 letter to Harriet Monroe that “poetry should be as well written as prose.” Weinberger turns the dictum on its head, making his prose as recondite and immediate as poetry. What he’s really doing when he overloads us with conflicting theological opinions about the sex lives of angels or various states of dead martyrs' bodies is gently unweaving our certainty about reality, returning the world to a state of mystery and grandeur.
Often, this works, but sometimes, it doesn’t. At its weakest, Weinberger’s technique gives us a rootless view from nowhere, especially evident in some of his writings about Christianity, a subject that requires an author to take a stand. The Irish critic Denis Donoghue said that pragmatists consider themselves superior to belief because they feel independent of its claims, when in reality, they merely “act on beliefs they don’t feel obligated to articulate.” The difference between the pope and the defiantly skeptical poet Wallace Stevens, Donoghue wrote, is that “the pope does not claim to have invented, or deduced from his private desires, the articles of his beliefs.” At his weakest, Weinberger is like Stevens. We should all be so lucky.
But at Weinberger’s strongest, each of his sentences thrums with its own vitality. Each subject feels like it’s been granted a second life in text. In an essay called “The Laughing Fish” in his book Karmic Traces, Weinberger traces the literary representation of the fish from an 11th century Kashmiri text up to D.H. Lawrence’s poetry. The tranquility of observing fish, Weinberger writes, “comes from its total lack of human association. Fish have no connection to our emotional life: unlike other creatures, they do not mate. ... They hardly squabble, they do not care for their young. Even insects work. A fish swims and eats and is pure movement and beauty.”
Angels & Saints is much like fish as Weinberger sees them: Its power comes from unburdening us of all of our casual associations. The language meanders through a history of paradox, of opposing opinions and contradictory revelations. And just when you begin to wonder where it’s all leading, you realize that the movement, free and purposeless, was the point all along. Pure movement and beauty, angels and fish.
In the following essay Scott Beauchamp shares with us his reflections on force and grace — two central themes in the thought of Simone Weil. Force as a theme appears in Beauchamp’s experiences as a warrior in Iraq, and again in his meditations on Weil’s reading of the Greek tragedy, Antigone. As for grace, while its shining rays just barely peak through in Sophocles’ play, its presence is far harder to discern on the real-world battlefields of Iraq. This raises a political question. Can that antipathy to force so characteristic of Simone Weil be justified in the real world? After all, in many cases no ready alternative is apparent. Even Weil, for all her pre-WWII professions of pacifism, once Hitler attacked France, she immediately abandoned them. Weil, like Beauchamp, proved ready to put her own life on the line. And so, are we fated to be ‘realists’ who must accept that we live in a world deprived of grace; where past evils lead in a tedious, endless cycle to future evils? That Weil affirmed the existence of grace we already know: but how should that guide us politically? Her answer, as one might expect, is paradoxical: “ … those beings who have, in spite of flesh and blood, spiritually crossed a boundary equivalent to death, receive on the farther side another life, which is not primarily life, which is primarily truth, truth which has become living … ”
This essay first appeared Aug. 7, 2020 in The Point , and is re-printed here with permission.
Both Swift and Sade created works with tenacious wills to survive. Their legacies now seem to cast them as more beast than ghost at first. Subsequent artists have tried to leash the anger of Swift or the depravity of Sade, taming them for their own transgressive ends. But in truth they are more like warnings. Swift’s and Sade’s literature was neither the literature of majestic vision nor of pure shock. They are not examples of a certain method of execution but of conditions that made other methods impossible. In considering the heirs of this kind of art, we move away from the provocative fantasies of Salò or Naked Lunch and toward the nightmare reportage of Elem Klimov’s film Come and See and Curzio Malaparte’s novel Kaputt. The result is a double-edged critique of humanism, which dredges the enduring capacity for cruelty out from beneath an enlightened, noble surface and shows the mind not as a parent to an idea but under the dictatorship of an idea.
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