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Monday, August 8, 2011

Poets of Faith I: Kierkegaard and Scorsese - "Don't Fuck With the Infinite"












Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Scorsese are religious existentialists concerned with how the objective world is hopelessly saturated with "religion,” and yet people find themselves unable to develop spiritually or grasp the Eternal. Fed systems of wholesale faith, individuals cannot declare themselves Christians as described by the New Testament, though they are aware of how "Christendom," whether in 1840s Copenhagen or present-day New York, is absurdly contradictory to the values they espouse, associated with Christianity. Kierkegaard and Scorsese are concerned with the meaning of religion, and they, as "poets," draw out the struggle of human beings with the Eternal.
Can one fail to see a certain discordance between what is demanded by the world of God and what is actually lived out in the world of human affairs? In the wake of a surge of activist atheism (led by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchins), how can't we look at the modern age and see how multitudes of church-goers live contradictorily to the creeds and gospels of their faith? This is not reducible to the facile accusation of hypocrisy. Rather, it seems a natural outcome of compromising worlds of religion and men, where meaning is manufactured and suited to the demands of a world that has just endured a tiresomely existential century. The ideals of comfortable living demolish the deepest demands of religion. If a human being cannot adapt to the currents of a world that is increasingly systematic, technological, and “leveling,” he will perish, a quandary that cannot afford people to think seriously about religion – which is why most people, indeed, do not. This is not a conscious rejection of deep religious matters, so much as it is the casual deferment of a nonsensical dilemma. God is nowhere in our "objective" experience of the world, so this unconscious dismissal is a rational action.
Yet inward minds do measure it, and always have. That Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) should have insisted that Christendom be "honest" with itself in his Attack on Christendom is one such example, though this theme of discordance between two opposing worlds (the religious and the secular) is a recurring one in the Danish philosopher's work. The religious existentialism of Kierkegaard gave way to the atheistic existentialism of countless thinkers that followed, and the struggle with God became a moot point. Rather it was a struggle with un-meaning. Though dubbed a father of existentialism, Kierkegaard is anachronistic as an existentialist, given his Christianity and focus on the Eternal.
Does God still exist in the popular imagination of "Christendom”? Millions of people still profess a belief in God, and though scientific advancements have made God obsolete, discussions in the religious sphere remain passionate. Reading Attack on Christendom today and applying its points to today’s issues shows that Kierkegaard’s problem lingers. Religion's relationship to the secular world is unexamined, perhaps for fear of realizations that may be damaging for a numbed populace.
That the films of director Martin Scorsese should be saturated, whether overtly or latently, with these same concerns of Kierkegaard, is of special interest to the religiously speculative individual. Though the two are separated by different cultures of Christianity (Kierkegaard a Danish Lutheran, Scorsese an Italian-American Catholic) in addition to a century of time, Kierkegaard and Scorsese are both at war with themselves concerning the issues of religion that both men take seriously. How does one live in the world of secular accomplishment and the world of God? One cannot. These two worlds are unbridgeable. How do "good upstanding citizens," for that matter, perceive individuals that are religious? As madmen, as murderers, and as undesirables. How does one become a genuine Self? Through inwardness, sacrifice, striving, and passion. Kierkegaard and Scorsese ask similar questions in their art, and seem to arrive at similar conclusions. But most importantly, even if they are not in alignment, their focus is set on that religious question that has been hushed by systems of philosophy, rationality, and governance. The Hegelian system, where God is unveiled temporally through "History" as a kind of pure thought and sign of progress, was a thorn in Kierkegaard's side. It does not only stamp out the transcendent aspect of religion, but also requests that the individual give himself over to the duties demanded by bourgeois society for the greater good. Similar "systems" and collective attitudes are prevalent in Scorsese's cinematic journeys, dismissing the religious and seeking to consume the individual. Progress emerges as a sham in Scorsese's stark and sometimes nihilistic visions, and his protagonists demand, for good or ill, to independently seek their souls.
Beginnings
The environments in which they grew up enriched the foundation of both Kierkegaard’s and Scorsese’s religious passions, and are important in understanding their subsequent work. That both men would have rebellious youthful periods before their poetical careers flowered (Kierkegaard's flirtations with Schlegel's Romantic ideas, and Scorsese's own relationship with the '60s counter-culture at NYU) serve a function in detailing how strong religion was instilled within them. Whereas both German Romanticism and '60s radicalism would disentangle many people from the constraints of orthodox religion, for Kierkegaard and Scorsese these movements rather proved to be the inceptor of the ongoing dialectic concerning religion.
Kierkegaard (whose name means "churchyard") was given a hard-line Lutheran upbringing by his father, himself the son of a local priest. The father sets up the tension between the religious and the secular, as he apparently cursed God and then became a successful businessman. Yet religion would not let go of him. With a dead wife, and only two children surviving out of nine, Kierkegaard’s father believed that he was being punished for his youthful blasphemies. The Kierkegaard house played host to the key religious figures in Copenhagen, brewing discussions of theology that simmered through Soren’s formative years. God was not a casual thing that one came into contact with during a Sunday morning, but was a serious pervasive force. All pertinent political issues, such as were discussed by community leaders at the Kierkegaard home, were permeated with religion. Soren Kierkegaard's life was not given an ordinary calling for a secular career, but it seemed his destiny would be presiding over a Copenhagen congregation. At school, his major of study was theology, prepping him for this life.
But Kierkegaard would come to reject the bourgeois path. In his early twenties, he became entranced by the Young Germany movement, a form of Romanticism fueled with poetry, political activism, free love, and vibrant philosophy. It was populated with people that "had made their lives interesting" (Mullen). The Romantics were champions of the individual imagination, with satanic defiance woven through it (Milton's Satan had become interpreted as a tragic hero, just as Shelley would paint Prometheus). Kierkegaard would begin embracing drunkenness and the earthy temptations of university life’s decadent ecstasies. This perhaps climaxed, some biographers speculate, with an experience at a brothel which made Kierkegaard leave in a distraught hurry, after which he jotted down in his journal, "My God, why has Thou forsaken me?" Kierkegaard's reaction to this experience indicates how he remained bound to his Christianity, to the point of completely identifying himself with Christ crucified. He would reject this life of the Romantic rebel, and further examine aspects of the bourgeoisie (why was the bourgeois style of living so negative?), roaming as an individual between the worlds of Romantic Ideals and bourgeois satisfaction. These alternate investigations into different styles of living are probably responsible for Kierkegaard's philosophical style, adopting alternate personae in pseudonyms to explain his ideas of "stages" (the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious) in their various forms.
Scorsese's background is similar, to an extent. Rather than being inundated with religion by his family, it was he that sought religion as a youth. Asthmatic and sickly, born into the violent Italian neighborhood of New York, Scorsese had difficulty forging relationships and remained indoors. Though religious thinking was not an important aspect of his domicile, he was still surrounded by Roman Catholic imagery, the staples of many Italian-American homes. The iconography of Catholicism, in its ornate spectacle, enraptured Scorsese in the same way that movies would. Both offered him a kind of preternatural "mystical" escape from the stark realities and filth of "the neighborhood." Of his own volition, he started attending mass regularly, became an altar boy, and idealized a young parish priest, with whom Marty had an affinity regarding a passion of movies. Scorsese says, "I needed to be accepted somewhere. I couldn't do it in the streets – the kids were really rough…so I guess the acceptance I went for was in the church. It started going to Mass, and those Masses were kind of theatrical….as a result of that, I began to take it much more seriously than anybody in the family did" (Keyser).
As a teen, Scorsese believed he would be a priest, and he enrolled at Cathedral College, the seminary for the New York archdiocese. But just as soon as his life path began to take shape, he was becoming aware of discrepancies between the demands of religion and the allure of living a "normal" life. "I took the Gospel very seriously," he notes. "I wondered then and I still wonder whether I should quit everything and help the poor. But I wasn't, and I'm still not, strong enough" (Keyser). This notion of how serious the religious life truly is, requiring a kind of unfathomable courage and endurance, set the stage for themes that, however incidentally, his films would explore.
The sacred life became secondary to an awareness of his precocious sexuality, which became sublimated into his transformation as class clown, resulting in expulsion. He was estranged permanently from his original dreams of the priesthood when he was rejected by Fordham University, where he was intent on studying theology. Instead, he enrolled as a student of literature at NYU, eventually becoming a film student, a field in which he proved a prodigy. In love with rock music, both obscure and popular, amassed with companions absorbed in political issues, and in an environment ripe with avant-garde approaches to art, Scorsese nonetheless discovered that he was still bound to his Catholic roots, which was unique for the counter-cultural filmmaking environment of his companions. Under the guidance of a teacher, Haig Moohigian (to whom Scorsese would dedicate Raging Bull in memoriam), Scorsese was taught that he should affirm his religious concerns with whatever he came to create. The result was a filmmaker that was unabashedly Catholic, though aware of the pitfalls any religious thought entailed.
Kierkegaard was, in his own opinion, a poet and a theologian as a writer. Though in the guise of his pseudonyms, he addressed the issues of Christianity head-on in his decade-long passion as a prolific writer. This is a personal luxury not afforded to a film director under the constraints of time, money, and supervision by authority. Though Scorsese would direct personal self-written autobiographical reflections (Who's That Knocking at My Door? and Mean Streets), the bulk of his career is similar to other Hollywood directors (which, though he is often classified as a hero of the independent film movement of the '70s, '80s, and the '90s, is how Scorsese chooses to address himself: he is a Hollywood director), and has been the realization of acquired work, beginning with a Roger Corman exploitation film (Boxcar Bertha), then a "woman's picture" (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), and continuing in the present with The Departed. Yet Scorsese has been successful in making each acquired project appear personal, in both his choosing and handling of given material, giving the work his stamp and mark of passion. What is of interest in a comparison of the ideas of Kierkegaard and the pictures of Scorsese is how the latter remains thematically consistent with his concerns of the religious in whatever arena he is given to wield his camera. Like Kierkegaard, Scorsese affirms his individuality, however defiantly, with the seeds that were supplanted to him in his formative years. "My whole life has been movies and religion," Scorsese has said. "That's it. Nothing else.”

I. "Don't Fuck With the Infinite"
The Opposing Worlds of the Religious and the Aesthetic in Who's That Knocking at My Door? and Mean Streets
The religious concerns of Scorsese become instantly apparent upon the release of his first film, a student project that took him four years to piece together, Who's That Knocking at My Door? (released 1968). A young film enthusiast, J.R. (Harvey Keitel), falls in love with a girl, but his values compel him to reject her after discovering that she's not a virgin. The picture is an extraordinarily felt reflection on the double binding values of social mores and authentic religion in an urban landscape. The binary of the street and the transcendent are immediately addressed during a gang fight, where one brawler kisses a crucifix just before the pummeling begins, a modest precedent to what Scorsese will show with the opening battle of Gangs of New York in 2002.
The violent world of Hell's Kitchen is diametrically opposed to the compassion of the Church, but it is no less Catholic in nature, regardless how contrary the acts of aggression may be in light of Christian dogma. With this first film we see the world drenched in religious imagery, though the imagery seems to have lost its reference regarding a kind of original meaning or context. Scorsese is aware of this, and in his subsequent film, Mean Streets, the protagonist Charlie Cappa (also Keitel, essentially playing the same character) begins the narrative with a voice-over (spoken by Scorsese): "You don't make up for sins in Church. You do it on the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it."
There's a deeply felt consciousness of the need to atone for sins and receive salvation, but the "wholesale" religion granted by Church is inadequate. There is no passion or sacrifice in this atonement, only words, which are empty and distributed mechanically. In an early scene in Mean Streets, Charlie is kneeling at St. Patrick's Cathedral, trying to sincerely pray: "Lord, I'm not worthy to eat your flesh. I'm not worthy to drink your blood." After crossing himself, he begins to sincerely discourse with God: "I just come out of confession, right? Right. And the priest gives me the usual penance. Ten Hail Marys, ten Our Fathers, ten whatever. Next week I'll come back and he'll give me another ten Hail Marys and another ten Our Fathers and…I mean you know how I feel about that shit. Those things, they don't mean anything to me, they're just words. Now, that may be okay for the others, but it just doesn't work for me. I mean, if I do something wrong I just want to pay for it my way. So I do my own penance for my own sins. What'ya say, huh?"
Charlie's problem is the dilemma any religious person faces in light of the orthodox dogma of a faith. First, we should note that Charlie distinguishes himself "from the others," and refuses to be leveled to a mass denominator. Individual sins must be paid individually, otherwise what is the meaning of atonement? This expresses the problem Kierkegaard sees in Christendom. The Catholic God of Mean Streets is present everywhere in iconography only, however present he is in Charlie's subjectivity. God is simply an objective "given" for the culture, and thereby it's ignored, and even ridiculed when it becomes a subjective factor. "An objective acceptance of Christianity is paganism or thoughtlessness,” writes Kierkegaard. And once the question of God is in the subjective realm, where it is batted around, it instantly becomes a struggle. For Charlie, it means something to be a Christian, and there is a great longing for the eternal in his character which, ironically, may be associated with a kind of megalomania that will follow Scorsese's characters in subsequent films (including Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ), though this is also a conflict one may gather from Kierkegaard's biography, seeing how he apparently had a habit of mythologizing aspects of his life to give himself a sense of meaning.
"If anyone thinks he is Christian and yet is indifferent towards his being a Christian, then he is really not one at all,” Kierkegaard writes in Works of Love. The eternal is a living thing for Charlie and J.R., however anachronistic that is when set against the rest of the culture. This sets up the tragic downfall of his characters. As Scorsese noted, he was not strong enough to follow the religious life because of the allure of the secular world surrounding him. The same can be said of Charlie and J.R.
J.R. and his buddies are demonstrative of Kierkegaard's aesthetic stage, where human beings are bored and fill their time with incidents to distract them from the blasé. For nearly five minutes, J.R. bickers with his best friend on "what are we going to do?", the answer amounting to what it has always apparently amounted to: drinking and getting "broads" (the two take a vacation to upstate New York, where it's decided that they will spend three days drinking). While his friends seem to be near the lower rungs of Kierkegaard's aesthetic ladder (empty of any kind of reflective self-consciousness, and thus with a low amount of what Kierkegaard calls “despair”), J.R.'s despair is great. He has a longing for meaning, which plays out in his relationship with "the girl." In contrast to time that he spends with "broads," he resists having sexual intercourse with the Girl because he wants to be with her permanently. "Why'd you stop?" she asks him during an intimate moment. Embarrassed because of his Catholic-motivated reasons (she is a Village bohemian), he blankly answers, "Just felt like it. No reason. Do you mind?" J.R. is trying to be ethical, in the sense of making a decision and following through with it. Because he loves the Girl and wants to marry her, he won't fuck her. She accuses him of being old-fashioned, and seems dismayed. "I love you. If you loved me," he replies, "you'll understand." With her, he is conscientious of the religious iconography surrounding them. He chides her for lighting holy candles before they eat dinner at his apartment, and tells her not to touch a Madonna ornament in his mother's bedroom.
J.R.'s ethical expectations also prove to be his unraveling. It is interesting that the ethical personage in Kierkegaard's Either/Or proves to be a judge, as ultimately the ethical life may ultimately lead to one evaluating the less virtuous lives of others, and thus ignoring the Christian idea of not judging. In an attempt to be honest with J.R., the Girl says that she was raped. He now sees her as a whore and rejects her. Disillusioned, he drunkenly throws himself back into the aesthetic life of wasting time with his buddies, though this makes him miss the Girl more. He goes to her apartment and asks her to marry him, adding, "I forgive you." This statement of unconscious chauvinism and immodesty (and a lack of reflection on his own actions), results in the Girl rejecting him. What is interesting about J.R.'s downfall are not his actions, but his subsequent reflections. His flaw is his pride, which is manifested in his ethical Christianity as judge of those around him (how can he presume to grant forgiveness?). What follows is a captivating and haunting montage set in St. Patrick's, where Scorsese expressionistically shows J.R. trying to atone for his sins. "I detest all my sins because of thy just punishment," he says mechanically in the confession booth, showing the inadequacy of words. The picture cuts to J.R. standing before a hanging crucifix and kissing the feet of Christ, while flash-pans, tracking shots, and zooms of Christ-statues are inter-cut alongside J.R.'s fantasies of the girl's rape. The doo-wop rock song "Who's That Knocking at My Door?" plays alongside the images in this confused marriage of sacred and profane. The music is not simply an ironic counter-note to the holy images, but is asking a question of J.R.'s consciousness. Indeed, it is God knocking at his door, confusing him, and demanding his struggle. If he is to be a religious person, J.R. – or Charlie in Mean Streets – cannot be the hedonistic aesthete he is with his buddies, and he cannot be the ethical married man in a secure and happy normal life that he dreamed of accomplishing. Penance in Scorsese, as we shall see, requires passion and blood. As J.R. removes his lips from the crucifix, the gritty realism of Scorsese's film is broken for surreal expressionism (like Kierkegaard's image of Christ, the eternal absurdly enters the temporal), and his lips are covered with blood.
Examining Who's That Knocking at My Door?, it is best to remember that it is in many ways a student film, sometimes with no through-line narrative guiding it, constructed of elaborately filmed sequences without dialogue or exposition (it took four years to complete). Mean Streets is a more fulfilling film to interpret, given that the ambiguities of the first film are given more depth in regards to spiritual conflicts. Charlie is not just anybody trying to be religious and secular. As we saw earlier, he is a devoted and conscientious Catholic, but he is also working for his Mafioso uncle, Giovanni, and becoming a player in running numbers. His best friend is Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), an uncontrollable trouble-maker whom Charlie has, against his better judgment, sworn to protect from loan-sharks. Charlie is popular among his friends and loves to have a good time dancing and drinking at a bar owned by his pal, Tony (David Proval). Torn in so many directions – between the need to atone for “his own sins in his own way,” pleasing his uncle, carrying on an "inappropriate" sexual relationship with Johnny's epileptic cousin Theresa (Amy Robinson), protecting Johnny, and having fun in a wise guy's “aesthetic” life – Charlie is a fractured person, his despair high because he is unable to make an ethical or religious commitment. Yet he is conscious of his failures.
After his discourse with God, Charlie stands in front of a church candle and thinks to himself: "It's all bullshit except the pain, right? The pain of hell. The burn from a lighted match increased a million times. The infinite. Now you don't fuck with the infinite. There's no way you do that. Pain and hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hand. The kind you can feel in your heart. Your soul, the spiritual side. And you know the worst of the two is the spiritual." But of course Charlie is fucking with the infinite. The very next scene is sewn together with earthy attachments, set appropriately to the Rolling Stones' "Tell Me You're Coming Back to Me," as Charlie exuberantly moves through Tony's bar and begins dancing with strippers.
Charlie exhibits a doubling of consciousness, similar to most of Christendom's despair. He's a social player and chummy wise-guy in training, but with a spiritual awareness "knocking at his door" that won't allow him to sleep (the film's opening images feature Charlie waking up from a nightmare and contemplating himself in a mirror, a cross visible in the background). He has an unlikely model – St. Francis – and voices a need for compassion. Talking to Theresa, who is chiding him for helping Johnny Boy, Charlie uses the excuse of compassion. "That's where you got it all wrong, Theresa! St. Francis had it down. He knew! He knew!" After which she reminds him, "St. Francis didn't run numbers."
His friends are aware of his religious scruples and joke with him about it. In rapport, Charlie acts out his role as "holy man" with a sense of pride, not only assuming the role of Catholic, but also of Christ. He is called "Saint Charles" by his cousin Joey, with whom Charlie has to settle a betting dispute, before which Charlie jokingly blesses the pool table and the respective players. This is a humorous moment that Charlie plays along with, though his religion is also a source of ridicule, particularly in regards to Tony, who mocks Charlie's belief as it applies to a priest’s anecdote involving two young teens on a Catholic retreat. The two used the priest's car for dates, giving in to sexual temptation. A truck, too close to the side of the road, crashed into the car, killing the sexually active teens. Tony tells Charlie of how he heard the exact same story years before from a different priest. "You believe anything anybody says," Tony tells him. "That's right, I believe anybody," Charlie answers. "That's my charm."
Tony angrily responds. "You want me to say it? You gotta be like me. You wanna be saved." Tony is the most honest character in the film, recognizing the absurdity of religious institutions, disgusted by the "organization" of the church. As owner of the bar, Tony is a businessman. Charlie's concern with being important amongst a group of friends coupled with his religious tendencies feeds into a megalomania contrary to the prudence of St. Francis. "I've come to create order," he tells Tony. "God be with you and his spirit." "Art thou the kind of the Jews?" counters Tony. "Does thou say this of thyself or have others told thee of me?" Charlie quotes Jesus. "Am I a Jew?" Tony asks. "My kingdom's not of this world," Charlie answers, finishing a drink, in pursuit of a card game.
Kierkegaard writes, "The comfortable – precisely the thing in which our age excites – absolutely cannot be applied with respect to an eternal blessedness." Charlie would be better off, or at least have a lower level of Kierkegaardian despair, did he not think so earnestly about God and had a more cynical view of things like Tony. He understands the need to extend Christ beyond Sunday morning, but what he cannot understand, or he chooses not to, is how incompatible it is to be a man of God and a man with secular ambitions and comforts. The demands of "the world of men," which will be examined in subsequent Scorsese pictures like Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing Out the Dead, and The Departed, disallow the notion of "being thyself," though one may "know thyself." Charlie is not a laissez-faire neighborhood don like his uncle, which is all too apparent in his awkward conversations with the older man. But he has no problem in pretending to adopt the role that has been selected for him by his culture. John Douglas Mullen speaks of the Kierkegaardian extension of Socrates: "'Know thyself' must be supplanted with the maxim 'be thyself.'" Charlie's Christian compassion is thwarted by his relenting of inwardness in respect to his social duties and roles. "[Existence] contains a gigantic chasm – which cannot be 'mediated,' that is, the chasm between the transcendent (infinite, eternal) and the secular (finite, temporal)," Mullen writes. Any attempt to bridge this will end only in despair. To 'know thyself' and 'be thyself' requires a commitment that cannot be distracted by the demands of social obligations.
Charlie's wish “to pay for his sins his own way” plays out during the picture's climax. Bound to take care of Johnny Boy, who is in danger from retaliation from a loan-shark, Charlie drives Johnny with Theresa to New Jersey. "I'm trying, Lord, I'm trying," Charlie says to himself as he crosses the bridge, a comment leading his two companions to laugh at his expense. Charlie is accused of "talking to himself," and in a sense he is. His relationship to God is subjective and binds him to a kind of eternal responsibility, much as he seeks to avoid that responsibility by hiding in either the ethical life of his uncle's business, or the aesthetic life of his buddies. His demand of exclusion separates him from an easy way out of his need for atonement: "Do you remember each time you throw yourself in this way into the world around you, that in this relation, you relate yourself as an individual with eternal responsibility? Or do you press into the world, where the one excuses himself with the others?" writes Kierkegaard. Passion doesn't exist objectively for Kierkegaard – or Scorsese. Because Charlie has a link to the eternal, his passion demands a heady sacrifice that will tear him from his earthbound duties. While driving, an assassin in pursuit of Johnny Boy shoots at their car. The resulting crash shows Johnny Boy stumbling with a bleeding neck, Theresa's bloody arm through the broken wind-shield, and Charlie, his hand wounded by a bullet, kneeling as a fire hydrant sprays a cleansing fountain into the air. The hand wound is a stigmata, an allusion to the passion of Christ. A dually mournful and celebratory Italian folk-song chimes through the air as the city is seen from various high angles (God's eye views), nothing hidden, and every character separate from others, locked in their own consciousness.
Charlie's despair ranks the highest among these characters. With his stigmata he is assuming the role of Christ as he never wanted it, though his inwardness and sense of religious longing demanded it (if we are to link the conclusion of the picture to the opening voiceovers). If Charlie is to be a man of faith, he must suffer. As he humbly kneels on the pavement, it is evident he was not prepared for this sacrifice. His atonement anticipates two subsequent Scorsese protagonists: Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Jesus Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ, both of whom arguably take a “leap of faith” in embracing this fate.

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