Action and Image in The Time of the Dismal Tide

Don Callen

The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. We do not even believe in the events which happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us. It is not we who make cinema; it is the world which looks to us like a bad film. (Cinema II, p.171)

... you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. (Pensées 233)

[1] Nietzsche established the keynote: the idea of God no longer has speculative or critical historical vitality. [1] In a modulation nearly a century later, according to Deleuze, the action form of the movement image, its primary large-scale form, died in the upheavals and horrors of the 20th century. [2] We have since been unable to believe that a single individual could respond to a society healthy but in crisis with an action that would effectively reconstitute the social order, return credibility to its dreams, perhaps at a new and higher level. The catastrophes of the 20th century destroyed our belief in a teleological history. Its principal political forms, liberal democracy and communism, would have to cope with this incredulity. Deleuze writes,

The soul of the cinema demands increasing thought, even if thought begins by undoing the system of actions, perceptions and affections on which the cinema had fed up to that point (i.e. the end of the war). We hardly believe any longer that a global situation can give rise to an action which is capable of modifying it – no more than we believe that an action can force a situation to disclose itself, even partially. The most 'healthy' illusions fall. The first things to be compromised everywhere are the linkages of situation-action, action-reaction, excitation-response, in short, the sensory-motor links which produced the action-image. (Cinema I, p. 206, my interpolation)

Of course even if God is dead, this doesn't mean that there isn't a town in which Zarathustra's message hasn't been heard or whose citizens choose not to believe it. Likewise, there has been no dearth of action-form movies in the past sixty years. The imperative of commercial success will continue to mean that the action-image will dominate current cinema, Deleuze claims. This is not, however, where the soul of cinema now lies (ibid). Great cinema, Deleuze argues, has in all good historical sense of the situation settled upon the pivotal importance of the time-image, images which show our actions arrested, our perceptions cut off from historical purpose, our concepts in crisis, and, positively, our historically disjunctive reflection on the possibilities inherent in the virtual potentialities of our situation. The challenge to contemporary (shall we say postmodern [3]) cinema is to discover new ways of believing in the world, in a time open with meaningful possibilities even as we maintain our critical skepticism regarding the old historical dreams that once gave life to the social organism (Cinema II, pp. 172-3).

The link between man and the world is broken. Henceforth, this link must become an object of belief: it is the impossible which can only be restored within a faith. Belief is no longer addressed to a different or transformed world. Man is in the world as if in a pure optical and sound situation. The reaction of which man has been dispossessed can be replaced only by belief. Only belief in the world can reconnect man to what he sees and hears. The cinema must film, not the world, but belief in this world, our only link. (Cinema II, 171-2)

Deleuze's thesis concerning the philosophical death of the action-form is puzzling, however, since recent and commonly acknowledged great films make it appear as if we are only lately confronting the apparently disastrous point that Deleuze gives to the middle of the 20th century. I will consider two here: the Coens' No Country for Old Men (2007) and David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007). [4] The first is a story of a 21st century Texas lawman's retirement from fighting to uphold law and justice in the face of the devastating and incomprehensible yet ever more ingenious evils that have befallen his country. Its very title, No Country for Old Men, seems to announce this very catastrophic loss of credibility in the possibilities of action (in the purposeful sense that the action-form demands). In Tommy Lee Jones's character, Tom Bell's withdrawal/retirement and concluding lament seems the ultimate renunciation that film noir detectives have been threatening for fifty years but from which, by and large, they always come back. [5] A second film, Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, is the story of Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife at a central London hospital, an ordinary person who battles to rescue a child whose life is threatened by a Russian mob boss's desperate efforts to save himself from exposure and arrest. The film turns the analysis of a representative society's moral crisis into the setting for a Christmas story, a redemptive action that springs from the unstable mixture of apparently naïve faith and the ambiguous manipulation of a monstrous present-day crime machine. In what follows, I want to argue that there is a good philosophical reason why the action-form continues to have critical historical vitality and that Deleuze overestimated the significance of the time-image for the present age. Indeed, the continuing crisis of sense suggests that we need to re-conceive the significance or function of the time-image in contemporary cinema. Rather than being a crystal reflecting the disjunctive potentialities of the sense of historical time as a whole (Cinema II, Chapter 4), the time-image marks the limit of our possibilities for moral reflection and resigned disbelief. It is faith's ambiguous twin rather than its contrary.

[2] The credibility of action of the sort Deleuze requires for the action-form may be determined mid-20th century, it may seem, against the background of an existentialist debate between Camus (The Myth of Sisyphus,1983) and De Beauvoir (The Ethics of Ambiguity, 1976) over whether we face a world in which human existence is absurd or a world in which morally purposive action is still possible even if inevitably ambiguous. Arguably, the action-form is dead, that is, lacking philosophical and critico-historical vitality, if we read the lesson of the 20th century in a Camusian way. Camus himself had difficulty establishing a vision for his Rebel who must face up to the absurdity of human life and the nihilistic compromise seemingly involved in all modern life (The Rebel, 1992). Consider his final novel The Fall (1991) and the cynical consciousness of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, disabused of the moral smugness of modernity but blind to any way of bridging practically the gap between its false moral self-certainty and the practical defense of human solidarity that the Rebel calls for. [6] Clamence is only interested in making others, and notably the reader, aware of their own moral poverty. Camus rigorously eschews any moral ambiguity that accepts the death of innocents as involved in truly liberating ends (The Rebel, Introduction, Parts I and II). Perhaps, however, if De Beauvoir's analysis of the challenge for action in an ambiguous rather than an absurd situation is correct, there is no philosophical justification for arguing that the action-form is dead in a way that must give way to the kind of global uncertainty and aspiration represented by Deleuze's time-image. For De Beauvoir, the ethical ambiguity of action as a practical determination of what to do is situational, not global. [7] In Deleuzian terms, for De Beauvoir (as well as for Sartre) the sensory-motor schema as a practical determination for action is not mediated by a global reflection, it being impossible to judge either the possibilities or the consequences of action with such a reference in mind. Similarly, it is on the scale of the situation that one judges senselessness or gives oneself to the world in a project that embodies the faith that life can be meaningful.

[3] Deleuze, by contrast, sees the problem as establishing a relation between man and world that is mediated by "believability" (cf. Quote above). In What Is Philosophy? (1996, 74-5) and in Difference and Repetition (1994, Chapter 2), he invokes the need for something like a Kierkegaardian leap of faith, something at once immanent to life yet at the same time more radical, incommensurable with the sameness of the world as one has heretofore known it. What is needed is the creation of a concept that gives a new sense to time, rescues it from the bad infinity of senseless contingency. Clearly we are talking about a concept that is every bit as big as God.

[4] If we are to tease out the significance of this contrast between De Beauvoir and Deleuze, we must first see how he and Camus share a global perspective concerning the alternative absurdity vs. credibility, while coming down on different sides. We must examine Camus's reasons for rejecting a Kierkegaardian leap of faith and why he would see Deleuze's response to the absurdity of things as nevertheless being still a matter of looking for God, despite his interest in transfiguring the same, the Deleuzian trajectory of transcendence.

[5] In The Myth of Sisyphus (28-50), Camus examines and sets aside the following argument [8] by which he represents the way in which the religious existentialist interprets the divorce between the human search for meaning and the response of an indifferent if not hostile world. In the face of a loss of sense in one's situation, the thing to do is to see that this senselessness is the very possibility of pure faith (Abraham), of a decision for action in the midst of meaninglessness that makes it possible for there to be a second sight, a vision of the possibility of sacrificing the now-apparent-and-lesser ram so that the promise of the future (Isaac) may be saved. For Camus, this embrace of the absurd as a positivity is a surrender to a humiliation of human reason, for all its limitations, a basis of human dignity; philosophical suicide, Camus calls it (ibid). One can see the force of Camus's point by recalling our ready contempt for the parson's "The ways of God are mysterious" in the face of senseless suffering, advising the sufferer to "have faith." For the parson's teaching encompasses the moments essential to the leap of faith: first, the refiguring of senselessness as mystery ripe with unseen goodness, and, second, the affirmation of the possibility of "miraculous" renewal if one seeks "God's" presence. Put this way, it is easy to see Camus's reason for rejecting the central move of religious existentialism (a move arguably recapitulated by Sartre in the name of Being rather than God). For to say that the absurd is the possibility of self-transcendence in a leap of faith before God, the unseen One, is to reinscribe nothingness, senseless contingency and suffering, in a teleology of becoming. It is natural theology all over again even if we substitute the vision of an incommensurably different world for the continuous dialectical overcoming that marks so much of the historical teleology that the postmodern Deleuze says that we can no longer find credible. But isn't Deleuze himself guilty of this move? Aren't our deterritorialized, nomadic, rhizomatic searches for new concepts, new visions of the potentialities that lie virtual in disjointed plates of history, so many leaps of faith made in the determination to not allow senselessness to be absolute, to find or make a new figure for the dynamic of meaning-making-the-whole?

[6] It is perhaps in this Camusian spirit that we can understand retired Sheriff Bell's bewilderment about what to do now and the dreams of loss and separation from his father recounted at the end of No Country for Old Men. Unchastened by Ellis's (Barry Corbin) reminder that the generations of his father and grandfather were no less marked by meaningless violence than his own, Tom is unwilling to accept this absurdity as a basis for seeing how to go on, even if he would rebel if he knew how. How does one reestablish a connection with a shared sense of human solidarity in such a moral wilderness? This is the problem Camus reflects upon in The Fall, seemingly unable to make room in his figuration of the modern moral wilderness for a rebel who can invoke the ideal of human solidarity only as an abstraction and rationalize "logical murder," the killing of unnumbered innocents in a revolution that presents itself under the banner of humanity.

[7] In short, Camus helps us specify more clearly the point at which we appear to need to say that the action-image is dead, rejecting with Camus the variously articulated religio-existentialist and postmodern leaps of faith that appear to humiliate the very reason that enables us to be aware of the absurd, turning its negativity into a faith in the possibility of new figurations of time, of believing in the world once again. Cinematically, the time-image is only essential as Deleuze conceives it if we answer the feeling for the absurdity of life with a thought that continues to insist and ponder upon how to make the whole make sense again and, differently, again. Setting aside that imperative, the time-image would need to be rethought.

[8] Still, if absurdity is the ground upon which we would need to declare the death of the action-image, perhaps we mistake as absurd a moment whose truth is rather that of moral ambiguity. Perhaps we can regain the possibilities of ethical action and a hope for the future on a different basis than a faith that restores historical promise and renewed credibility and surrender neither to irrationalism nor to any kind of postmodern nostalgia for a differentially-figured-yet-still-teleological history. In a key section of her Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone De Beauvoir describes what she calls antinomies of ethical action (EA 96-114). To understand these antinomies is to understand both the inevitable practical contradictions involved in moral action and yet to understand where it remains possible for us to act ethically despite the harm or wrong that we knowingly and outrageously do. At the heart of the concept of ethical or moral ambiguity is the idea that even where one can determine that the right thing is to perform some action, one does so knowing that inevitably one does or must accept the involvement of some terribly serious harm or wrong. The thesis that we live in a morally ambiguous time would then be the view that there is no possibility of circumscribing or protecting a space of ordinary life in which, barring personal weakness, one might in good conscience live a morally decent life. Yet, it is possible to act, to do good things, despite inevitable moral ambiguity. Interestingly, this seems to be a point of view that is dominant in Cronenberg's recent film. [9] We need now to explore precisely how De Beauvoir thinks ethical action is possible within ethical ambiguity and to determine what this implies with respect to how we see the future. With reference to Deleuze's problematic, we hope to discover how to recover the action-image and to save the time-image from a postmodern nostalgia for historical teleology. In recovering the action-image as the permanent possibility of ethical action, we will need to re-conceive of the time-image, to see it as the action-image's inevitable ghostly shadow rather than its crystal crucible.

[9] There is a scene early in Eastern Promises when in frustration with her patriarchal uncle Anna advises him to not worry about the four-letter words he may find in the diary she has asked him to translate. She is not an innocent child, she seems to say. After all, she works as a midwife at an inner-city London hospital and has seen much of the evil the contemporary urban world produces. Yet, she is naïve perhaps in a crucial way, in a way that Cronenberg wants us to see ourselves as naïve and to draw the implications we should draw when seeing how events unfold in this very evil world. Let's call naïve moralism the idea that there is a sphere of ordinary life in which human beings, barring personal weakness or ignorance, can live perfectly decent moral lives in overcoming their native or civilized self-interestedness to care for others with whom they have daily contact and even in supporting social policies and programs for extending such care beyond the limits of the possibilities for their own direct involvement. It is in this sense that Cronenberg suggests, I believe, that Anna, and the rest of us at our ordinary best, are naïve moralists. Ethical ambiguity, by contrast, is the view that much if not all of what we do that is decent in an ordinary way involves us in conduct (or significant omission) that does serious wrong or harm to persons and breaks the carefully constructed and morally necessary boundaries of our ordinary lives.

[10] At its limit, ethical ambiguity simply collapses into absurdity. De Beauvoir describes the various ways in which we necessarily do violence to ourselves and to innocent others when we support a struggle for the liberation of the oppressed – something we are in the abstract obliged to do if we are to, in understanding and constancy, live up to what freedom demands of us. In violence we turn ourselves and others into things so as to be able to move them through sheer force to bring about our ends. As oppressors do not often give way to moral persuasion, the urgency of the need and demand of the oppressed obligates us to be willing to support violence, despite the wrong and harm we thereby do to numerous innocents (Ethics of Ambiguity, 96-114). When our violent acts produce as much or more oppression than the oppression we seek to erase, our action is morally absurd. When or if, however, we can reasonably assure ourselves that the evil means we undertake or grudgingly support are reduced as much as we can possibly provide for while reasonably promising a significant future of liberation for significant numbers of persons, we may be justified practically in the situation (not just in the abstract) in the violent means we take up. [10] The evil that we do is no less outrageous for that justification, however, and there can be no conscience that is both honest and good.

... we have seen that every struggle obliges us to sacrifice people whom our victory does not concern, people who, in all honesty, reject it as a cataclysm: these people will die in astonishment, anger or despair. Undergone as a misfortune, violence appears as a crime to the one who practices it. That is why Saint-Just, who believed in the individual and who knew that all authority is violence, said "No one governs innocently." (Ethics of Ambiguity, 108)
Very well, replies the partisan who is sure of his aims, but this violence is useful. And the justification which he here invokes is that which, in the most general way, inspires and legitimizes all action. From conservatives to revolutionaries, through idealistic and moral vocabularies or realistic and positive ones, the outrageousness of violence is excused in the name of utility. It does not much matter that the action is not fatally commanded by anterior events as long as it is called for by the proposed end; this end sets up the means which are subordinated to it; and thanks to this subordination, one can perhaps not avoid sacrifice but one can legitimize it: this is what is important to the man of action; like Saint-Just, he accepts the loss of innocence. (EA, 110-11)

Given this understanding of the stakes in morally ambiguous situations, we can see how Anna accepts moral ambiguity in her motives in dealing with Nikolai in order to save Christina. She puts her family at risk; her uncle would die from her actions were it not for the unknown support that Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) has undertaken on her behalf: all of this rather than turn Christina over to foster care. Yet what could be more emblematic of a redemptive action than saving an innocent child from the dismal tide? It invokes all of the Abrahamic force of reestablishing a covenant with the future. But on what basis? Cronenberg cinematically effects the redemptive action in a fragile quasi-dialectical synthesis between Anna, midwife and custodian of the fractured sphere of ordinary moral decency, the family, and Nikolai, initially merely the driver for those who pursue the dismal purposes of corruption and slavery but who secretly occupies the morally ambiguous (does he think perhaps that it is absurd?) position of struggling against the dismal tide from within its depths. His good deed, thus, only plunges him deeper into corruption and Anna is left to restore the thin and unstable appearance of the sphere of decency. There is certainly no dialectical or transfiguring overcoming here of a sort that one might think could return a sense to the world, but there is for Anna ethical action in hope for the future and for Nikolai ethical action in spite of resignation to the dismal tide.

[11] Cinematically, from a Deleuzian point of view, Eastern Promises is ambiguous with respect to the action-form. If we focus on Anna's story, it seems a straightforward action-image. The dreams for the future that she represents in her occupation and her desire for a child are renewed despite the dealings she must have with the forces of corruption. Even if she is disabused of naïve moralism, her last scene represents the necessity of her having to sustain the appearance of a stable sphere of decency. Her responsibility to the child demands it. If we read the scene this way, however, we have something close to a leap of faith grounded in practical necessity. Anna must look for sense in her situation even if she has no reason to find sense a credible thing. It must become credible, in part through the actions which fulfill her ongoing commitment. Practically, she must "believe" in God, it seems. Too much depends upon it. Suddenly, then, our thinking (and hers, in our reconstruction) is displaced. From Kierkegaard we are transplanted into the world of Pascal's wager and Pascal's thinking looks utterly different from the usual way in which we have been led to understand his gambit.

[12] The standard interpretation is a familiar one (Pascal's Wager, The Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy; Lycan and Schlesinger, 1989). We begin with the agnostic position that there is neither sufficient evidence for belief in God nor sufficient evidence for denying God's existence. When we weigh what is at stake in the matter, however, the possibility of remaining indifferent is ruled out. For after all, the eternal site of one's soul is at stake, either damnation, let's say, eternal separation from the principle of the good that perhaps governs the world, or instead, an eternal proximity to this governing principle in the fruit of a life lived in its, as yet, undisclosed light. Pascal concludes that we must bet on God's existence, so great are the stakes. Betting, of course, is not believing, but, on the familiar interpretation, if we behave like a believer, we will come to believe. Belief will come to make sense of things. A crucial objection to the argument, however, is that Pascal provides us with no reason to think that the believer will ever have any more reason to believe than (s)he had at the beginning. There is no sudden Road-to-Damascus experience in which the scales fall from the eyes and through faith one now sees what before one could not. Instead we have what looks very much like the mechanism clarified in Sartre's concept of bad faith (Essays in Existentialism, 147-159). Deciding to believe, out of fear or need, despite the absence of evidence, one makes a project of constructing the references and patterns of action that will allow one to sustain the critically "sleeping" and "metastable" vision of oneself and the world the deception requires. Is this the Anna that we see at the end of Eastern Promises?

[13] There is no need to believe so. It is that Anna must have faith, not that she must believe. She must leap into her deeply morally ambiguous world looking for ways to construct a relatively stable sphere in which moral decency can prevail into an open future which encompasses the prospects of happiness for her rescued and now adopted daughter. She does not believe in this future as something for which she has evidence or even that she will come to have evidence to support such a belief. She is not deceiving herself and retreating to the comfortable illusion of naïve moralism. There is no reason to think that she is putting her critical reason to sleep. If anything, she will be more awake, more watchful given her experience; but watching as well for the positive possibilities that her project of faith will open before her, for herself and for her daughter. [11] Cronenberg gives us just one small fragment or symbol of this project. Having rescued Christina with the help of Nikolai, we see the child in her playpen, dressed in a luxuriously embroidered dress. Hearing the child cry, Anna's mother lifts the child from the playpen and brings her to her mother in the kitchen. Anna raises Christina in the air in a familiar gesture of admiration and love. She then picks up a bottle and carries her new daughter to a bench in a narrowly enclosed back garden, hung with laundry and decorated with a few brightly colored flowers. This is our last vision of Anna.

[14] The scene suddenly changes, and we see Nikolai sitting in Russian-mafia-master Semyon's place, the new head of the Russian mafia in London. The camera slowly moves closer to him and we see his gaze, leaving us to contemplate what he may be thinking. It is an affection-image (CI Chapter 6) and an indirect time-image (CII Chapter 6), in Deleuze's terms. There is disappointed love, certainly; a very human manifestation of an impossible moral synthesis between his at least very ethically ambiguous if not absurd position and the artificially yet necessarily circumscribed space of ordinary moral decency that Anna represents. There is perhaps also a rather skeptical disbelief in a possibility of making sense of things on a global scale. The moral outrage is too great to allow for large scale hope for humanity. "Yes, we have done a good thing, but do the little good things we do much matter in the long run?" he seems to ask. He loves Anna, he yearns to be able to embrace what he presumes to be her position; but he can't. Practical "agnosticism" for him must mean a wary skepticism as he struggles to sustain some semblance of rectitude in his deeply compromised position. His domain is one of every moral outrage imaginable; it is no place to be making leaps of faith. I want to suggest that we see this time-image as the appropriate "agnostic" reflection of Anna's morally ambiguous faith and action. Kierkegaard names this disillusioned avatar of the good the knight of infinite resignation. He stresses that this knight also makes the move toward the eternal, i.e. acts according to his understanding of what good purposes require of him (Fear and Trembling, 42-4). In one of the versions of the story of Abraham and Isaac which begin Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard has Abraham go to the mountain, prepare to sacrifice Isaac, and return, his faith devastated (Fear and Trembling, Exordium IV). The knight of infinite resignation in despair does not look for a different measure of sacrifice and good ends on the mountain and so fails to see the ram.

[15] For the argument to work, however, we must see Nikolai's point of view as reflected in Anna's faith. To save her position from collapsing into bad faith, we must imagine that her critical reason makes her fully cognizant of the ambiguity of her action. So even if there can't be the dialectical synthesis that redeems us from a bad infinity, we need to see how to make sense of what appears to be a contradiction. How can Anna at once be a knight of faith, truly Abrahamic in scale, and a figure of skeptical unbelief? The first thing to note is the wedge that must be driven between the concepts of belief (cognitive representation) and faith (resolute anticipation). Recall the problem with the Pascalian gambit on the usual interpretation. What begins in a wager becomes belief, but this belief collapses into bad faith in the Sartrian sense, into a carefully constructed illusion in which one puts critical reason to sleep. The initial recognition of a practical necessity for something other than skeptical indifference or resignation seems right. The stakes are too important to remain indifferent or passively resigned: "you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked," says Pascal (1958, 233). Being embarked, already invested in care for self and others, resonates with the last scene in No Country for Old Men. Loretta (Tess Harper) has no time for Tom's retirement, which she appears to regard with a certain ironic contempt, warning him away from his sudden inclination to make himself useful around the house. His world-weariness simply isn't good enough. One must get on with ordinary life and one does that without needing to find it possible to believe in the world once again. It is enough that one have a little faith, be disposed to expect some locally good consequences of investing oneself in projects designed to bring them about. It is quite compatible with this that one be skeptical about making sense in things writ large and be aware of the moral ambiguity involved in building a wall against the dismal tide, constructing and sustaining a community of ordinary moral decency.

[16] Having invoked Loretta as a minor yet homologous character to Anna in Eastern Promises, it now appears that the argument has carried us too far. For how can there be time for the time-image in the essential and practically constructive work of faith? No time for skeptical world-weariness means no time for the image which exhibits its thought. Having discharged the need for a time for reflecting on how the world might manifest the promise of meaning again, the promise relevant to the leap of faith is a promise made to the future, a commitment to care for its becoming in one's situation despite moral ambiguity and despite skepticism about being able to believe in a sense in the world, given or to be humanly created. For De Beauvoir the dimension of time with which one can be directly concerned in action is relatively narrow. The larger aims of moral aspiration, centrally, the long-term liberation of humanity from oppression, are typically abstract and not able to be meaningful ends of action; they lie beyond our possibilities of foresight and judgment of the reasonable probabilities that action in our situation may involve. It is this unbridgeable gap between what we can reasonably hope to foresee and accomplish and the abstract goods demanded to support human dignity that makes absurd the presumption that present action can be seen to serve some very long-term historical cause or good and through that whole be seen as making sense of things. What must concern us in practical action is the good of identifiable individual persons, not the good of humanity in general. Too many moral horrors have been wrought in presuming that one is justified in sacrificing these few or many individuals in some particular conception of a historical essence for humanity (EA, 111-12). Anna's commitment to the future is appropriately small-scale. Her concern is with the well-being of Christina; and she is attentive to the foreseeable probabilities there; quick to alter her plan of action when she learns from Nikolai that sending her to live with her Russian grandparents would not be a good idea. The small-scale indirect time-image, as in the diary-exchange scene, shows her waiting anxiously to see how an action plan undertaken will work out. Her eye is on the meaning of her action within the scope of foreseeable consequences. Promises to the future are kept by putting together lots of little morally ambiguous yet, on the whole, successful leaps of faith.

[17] How different this is from the dimensions of the time-image we get with the Coens. Those rolling tumbleweeds at the beginning of The Big Lebowski (1998), the inverse of the bowling ball moving directly to bring down its target pins; but Donny, Walter, and the Dude can't even manage a nice sensible game of bowling. The vast desert prospect, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) envisioning a score in a wilderness strewn with corpses and dirty money; the tiny infinity of a coin toss that will determine matters of life and death but from which all thought and responsibility have been sucked out: Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) will not accept this as a basis for either living or dying. It is the women who have the best sense of time: no country for men, old and young. They want the big score, wealth, justice, God, a sense to the world: an arrogant way to go about living. Women are agnostic but Abrahamic knights of faith on the scale where faith makes sense. In the Coens' world, agnostic men abdicate responsibility, withdraw from time, even those like Ellis who understand. It's still a matter of focusing on the big score. Practical action is mediated through an effort to secure an infinite depth of field and one cannot move.

[18] It may be objected that Kierkegaard certainly conceives of his knights of faith and infinite resignation as alternative responses to the absurd, not as mutually reflective twins. The message of Fear and Trembling is that faith is the way of relating oneself to the good as it presents itself across the abyss of the absurd, not action in infinite resignation. I have presented them such that each, eventually, understands the other's necessity, the conditional character of their own and the other's attitude and action. Each is right, one acting according to a practically necessary faith, the other acting in infinite resignation. For Kierkegaard, faith is an absolute, unconditional leap toward the good as it imperatively presents itself. One has faith by virtue of the absurd, not by virtue of the practical necessity of the good that presents itself. Importing Pascal into Kierkegaard's conception of faith provides an answer to Camus's concern that the (religious) existentialist embraces the absurd as the positive condition of the possibility of faith (and no doubt of much of the (religious) moral psychology that faith grounds, notably hope and love). Seeing Anna's nobility through the Pascalian lens dispenses with making the absurd or nothingness into the ground of a positivity. A Pascalian Anna makes a leap of faith (not belief, remember) as it is practically necessary as a function of what promises her to the future, her love for and desire for Christina's happiness. Is this faith not our most common bond with the future?


[1] The Gay Science (1882); Thus Spake Zarathustra. I interpret the God-is-dead idea by way of Nietzsche's essays on history, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (Hackett, 1980). Nietzsche's figure has more to do with the critical and historical vitality of an idea than the traditional debate over theism.

[2] Deleuze identifies a number of significant factors in the passing of the action-image: "the way and its consequences, the unsteadiness of the 'American Dream' in all its aspects, the new consciousness of minorities, the rise and inflation of images both in the external world and in people's minds, the influence on the cinema of the new modes of narrative with which literature had experimented, the crisis of Hollywood and its old genres ... Certainly, people continue to make SAS and ASA films: the greatest commercial successes always take that route, but the soul of the cinema no longer does" (Cinema I, p. 206). I stress the horrors of the war as I am particularly interested here in exploring the relationship between the action-image and the credibility of sense, or as Deleuze says in Cinema II (pp. 171-173), the challenge to art, and specifically cinema, that it help us to believe in the world that we have made, that we continue to make, once again.

[3] The familiar criterion of the post-modern we associate with Jean-Francois Lyotard (The Postmodern Condition) is incredulity toward such historical metanarratives.

[4] The argument of the paper does not rest on the interpretations I propose though I think they are plausible interpretations. They are offered rather as illustrations for the purposes of putting flesh and blood into the positions represented in the philosophical arguments examined and advanced.

[5] Consider Philip Marlow of the 1970's remake of Farewell My Lovely and the desperate conclusion to his career wrought in The Long Goodbye.

[6] The philosophical import of the novel is ambiguous between a reading that gives us no internal evidence of a redemptive action in the moral wilderness of modernity and one which imports the distinct Camusian perspective of the Rebel in order to judge Clamence's destructive nihilism. However, if we suppose, reasonably, that a philosophical novel is delimited by a philosopher's success at representing a problematic and believable strategies for taking us beyond it, the absence of the latter in The Fall suggests that he saw the gap between the task of the Rebel, abstractly represented as in the book of that title, i.e. defending human solidarity, and the practical difficulty of doing that where solidarity is only an abstraction relative to a moral wilderness.

[7] The criterion of the situation is defined by Sartre as the variable dimensions of action according to one's ability to make a reasonable estimation of the probable consequences of one's choice. Beyond one's ability to judge of probable consequences, one's involvement is simply undeterminable ("The Humanism of Existentialism," Essays in Existentialism, Citadel, 1965).

[8] I am telescoping Camus's discussion of both Chestov and Kierkegaard to stress what I take to be the essential point in his rejection of the religious existentialist's interpretation of the meaning of absurdity as the positive ground for the possibilities of love and faith.

[9] A closely related theme is developed in William Beard's recent study, The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg (University of Toronto Press, 2006).

[10] De Beauvoir argues that the determination is not made here as simply a function of numbers, i.e. in a utilitarian way. The killing of one innocent person is morally outrageous and that outrage is not discharged by necessary calculations concerning action that may liberate large numbers of persons or reasonable promise an open future for persons to enjoy freedom (in the fullest existential sense of that notion).

[11] The cellar-scene through to the end of M. Knight Shyamalan's Signs (2002) may be read similarly in terms of importing Pascal's wager into a conditional leap of faith.

Works Cited

Beard, William (2006) The Artist as Monster: The Films of David Cronenberg. University of Toronto Press.

Camus, Albert (1983) The Myth of Sisyphus. trans. Justin O'Brien. Vintage International.

Camus, Albert (1992) The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. trans. Anthony Bower. Vintage.

Camus, Albert (1991) The Fall. trans. Trans. Justin O'Brien. Vintage International.

Coen, Joel and Coen, Ethan (2007) No Country for Old Men (film). United States; from the novel, No Country for Old Men (2007) by Cormac McCarthy. Vintage International. Film.

Coen, Joel and Coen, Ethan (1998) The Big Lebowski (film). United States.

Cronenberg, David (2007) Eastern Promises (film). United States.

De Beauvoir, Simone (1976) The Ethics of Ambiguity. trans. Bernard Frechtman. Citadel Press.

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Deleuze, Gilles (1994) Difference and Repetition. trans. Paul Patton. Columbia University Press.

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Kierkegaard, Soren (1983) Fear and Trembling. trans. Howard Hong and Edna Hong. Princeton University Press.

Lycan, William and Schlesinger, George (2007) "You Bet Your Life: Pascal's Wager Defended", in Reason and Responsibility. 7th edition. ed. Joel Feinberg. Wadsworth.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. University of Minnesota Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1980) On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, Hackett.

Nietzsche, Friedrich (2006) Thus Spake Zarathustra. Trans. Robert Pippin and Adrian Del Caro. Cambridge.

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"Pascal's Wager", in The Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy, «». 4/12/08.

Pascal, Blaise (1958) Pensées. Introduction by T. S. Eliot. Dutton.

Sartre, John-Paul (1993) "The Humanism of Existentialism", in Essays in Existentialism. edited Wade Baskin. Citadel Press.