While I unfortunately missed the opportunity to view Hal Ashby's masterwork Being There at the North Carolina Museum of Art's sold-out screening on January 11, 2019, I nonetheless felt that peculiar insistence of Spooky Action at a Distance.
I love this phrase. It comes from Albert Einstein, a phrase used to criticize his contemporary Niels Bohr's work in Quantum Mechanics:
"It involves a pair of particles linked by the strange quantum property of entanglement (a word coined much later). Entanglement occurs when two particles are so deeply linked that they share the same existence. In the language of quantum mechanics, they are described by the same mathematical relation known as a wavefunction. Entanglement arises naturally when two particles are created at the same point and instant in space, for example.
Entangled particles can become widely separated in space. But even so, the mathematics implies that a measurement on one immediately influences the other, regardless of the distance between them. Einstein and co pointed out that according to special relativity, this was impossible and therefore, quantum mechanics must be wrong, or at least incomplete. Einstein famously called it spooky action at a distance."
The title Being There is an English translation of the German dasein. Dasein is the consistent subject in Heidegger’s text. Dasein has this or that character, when Dasein does such-and-such, etc. Who is Dasein? Heidegger defines the “who” of Dasein with “the expression ‘Self’.” Selfhood for Dasein is not the selfhood of any revealed entity, but rather is “defined formally as a way of existing, and therefore not as an entity present-at-hand.” (Being and Time, 312)
Philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto claims that “when art attains the level of self-consciousness it has come to attain in our era, the distinction between art and philosophy becomes as problematic as the distinction between reality and art,” and that “the degree to which the appreciation of art becomes a matter of applied philosophy can hardly be overestimated.” This is especially true when materials used to produce films are used to create great works of art. Film art resembles our world more closely than any other, and can subtly elaborate meaning in a way that philosophers can envy – and that some have used themselves. Unlike so many adaptations, Being There is a rare case of a film adaptation being more powerful than the literary work at its foundation – the poetry of the image adding much to the poetry of plot, characters, and dialogue.
In the absence of technocratic understandings, Chauncey offers only the knowledge he possesses; because truth is the source of that knowledge, it extends beyond the narrow constraints of specificity. For Ben Rand especially, Chauncey’s wisdom surpasses the value of specific knowledge or craft or cleverness. “You don’t play games with words to protect yourself,” he says to Chauncey. This honest approach to the world is what Heidegger calls authenticity. Chauncey’s authenticity can be understood best in light of the bookended scenes of the film involving death.
When death is approached authentically, life is appreciated in anticipatory resoluteness, Dasein’s authentic being-towards-death. Even in the opening sequences, we glimpse Chance’s anticipatory resoluteness. Louise is astonished by his indifferent attitude when she tells him the Old Man has died; her expectations are based on everyday Dasein’s inauthentic response to death – Chance should respond with fear, not with seeming indifference. This is a mere misunderstanding; his response is best seen as an expression of anticipatory resoluteness. Because of his intimate familiarity with cycles of life and death in the garden, Chance is unsurprised by the event. He is not ignoring the death; instead,
anticipatory resoluteness is not a way of escape, fabricated for the ‘overcoming’ of death; it is rather that understanding which follows the call of conscience and which frees for death the possibility of acquiring power over Dasein’s existence and of basically dispersing all fugitive Self-concealments.” (Being and Time, 357)
The conclusion of Being There particularly illuminates the transcendent power of the film and its superiority to Kosinski’s novella. While Kosinski was responsible for the screenplay adaptation of his book, Hal Ashby, the film’s director, crafted the final scene in a fit of inspiration. Benjamin Rand has died, and Chauncey, Eve, and Robert join with the President to attend his funeral, along with the rest of his associates and other undefined characters. While the President presides and eulogizes Rand, Chauncey wanders off into the woods, tending to a young tree that was overcome by a dead branch in the midst of a snowy winter’s day. He continues his walk. Eve sees that he has walked away, then turns her attention back to the funeral scene. Presumably thinking, Chauncey walks – directly onto the surface of the water in the woods.
Walking on water; this image, while it draws from the rich storytelling traditions of Christianity, it is perhaps all-the-more powerful as a metaphor for letting be, and the Other Beginning Heidegger aspired to for philosophy. Poetic dwelling sees human beings as not a separate phenomenon, but a thing intimately familiar to nature. In pure reflection atop the water. Chauncey offers us the potential for our own ability to be authentic and reflect nature itself, building a Self, and being a vehicle for Being and steward of nature. The lofting music explodes beautifully with the scene; the voice of the President running parallel all the while, eulogizing Rand. Chauncey becomes aware of his circumstances, dipping his umbrella through the surface of the water. The voice rings clearer now. “Life…is a state of mind.”
Being There. By Jerzy Kosinski. Dir. Hal Ashby. Perf. Peter Sellers. 1979.
Danto, Arthur. "Art, Philosophy, and the Philosophy of Art." 12 February 2013 <http://www.csulb.edu/~jvancamp/361/361_r1.html>.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. 7. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1962.
My first experience of this film was watching it with one of my best friends, with whom I was unrequitedly in love for 10 years, at his house in Winston-Salem circa 2009. We broke bread and drank water and I watched as Chance walked the water while the All Seeing Eye stood guard, with and for the dead.
Although I missed the screening, I was at The West End Wine Bar of Durham while it was taking place and another friend of ours, who manages the bar, unknowingly had Satie's Gnosseines on the playlist. It came on. I stopped all conversation to gasp, my eyes welling with tears, and feel the entanglement course through me, my waves rippling through space in time. I did not know the name of the piece, but I knew the piece.
How much meaning is too much for one person to handle?
It has not occurred to me that, a month before while shooting my friend's guitar recital at North Carolina School of the Arts, that he too had played Gnosseine I. I didn't recognize it until I was editing the video a few days ago. You can hear it in my most recent YouTube shenanigans.
Looking for clues, I checked the Wikipedia on Erik Satie and specfically, the Gnosseinnes:
When I was a child an anime called Neon Genesis Evangelion came into my life, introduced me to the Dead Sea Scrolls, Kabbalah, and became the inspiration for my foray into Nag Hammadi (gnostic) scriptures discovered en masse at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. Mysticism is my bag.
The complete text of The Gospel of Thomas was then revealed, though fragments existed during Satie's time.
If you look for the truth it will find you. If you look for meaning you will discover it inside you. If you do not look you will never find it.
If your leaders tell you, “Look, the kingdom is in heaven,”
then the birds of heaven will precede you.
If they say to you, “It’s in the sea,”
then the fish will precede you.
But the kingdom is inside you and it is outside you.
When you know yourselves, then you will be known,
and you will understand that you are children of the living father.
But if you do not know yourselves,
then you dwell in poverty and you are poverty.