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This week for our theological article, we will be examining Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844 – 1900) infamous statement, “God is dead.”
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (pronounced ‘knee-cha’) was born in Röcken, near Leipzig, on October 15th, 1944. His father, Karl Ludwig Nietzsche (1813 – 1849), was a Lutheran pastor and former teacher, and his mother was Franziska Oehler (1826 – 1897). The Nietzsche family quickly grew to include a daughter, Elisabeth (1846 – 1935), and another son, Ludwig Joseph (1848 – 1850). Unfortunately, the family would be beset by tragedy. In 1849, when Nietzsche was five-years-old, Karl Nietzsche would suffer a devastating brain haemorrhage and die. Then, as if to rub in salt in their wounds, the infant Ludwig Joseph, would die unexpectedly shortly after.
Nietzsche was educated at the prestigious Schulpforta school near Naumburg. There he received an education in theology, classical languages, and the humanities. After graduating, young Nietzsche attended the University of Bonn before moving to the University of Leipzig. During his time there, Nietzsche became acquainted with the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) whose work, the World as Will and Representation (1818), would have a tremendous influence. Then, aged only twenty-four, Nietzsche was awarded the position of professor of Greek language and Literature at the University of Basel in Switzerland. He had never written a doctoral dissertation.
Nietzsche left academia briefly to serve as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). He was discharged due to poor health. Nietzsche returned to Basel where he came acquainted with the cultural historian, Jacob Burckhardt (1818 – 1897), and the composer, Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883). Wagner’s influence on Nietzsche can most readily be seen in the Birth of Tragedy.
During the late 1870s, Nietzsche became increasingly beset with debilitating health problems: digestive problems, poor eyesight, and migraines. He was forced to spend months off work, and eventually agreed to retire with a modest pension. Nietzsche was only thirty-four years old.
From there, Nietzsche devoted the rest of his life to the study and writing of philosophy. Between 1870 and 1889, Nietzsche wrote nineteen books, including: The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks (1873), Human, All Too Human (1878), the Gay Science (1882), Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), Twilight of the Idols (1888), Ecce Homo (1888), and the Will to Power (1901, technically unpublished manuscripts published by his sister, Elisabeth).
In 1889, in Turin Italy, Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown after seeing a horse being flogged in the Piazza Carlo Alberto. In the following days, Nietzsche sent a series of ‘madness letters’ to Cosimo Wagner (1837 – 1930) and Jacob Burckhardt in which he signed his name ‘Dionysos’, claimed to be ‘the crucified one’, and asserted that he was the creator of the world. It was quickly agreed that Nietzsche should be brought back to Basel. There he was incarcerated in a clinic in Jena.
In 1890, Nietzsche’s mother, Franziska, brought him home to Naumburg where she looked after him until her death in 1897. From there, Nietzsche was cared for by his sister, Elisabeth, in Weimar. He died on August 25th, 1900 at the age of fifty-five.
The statement, “God is dead” is Nietzsche’s most memorable and provocative statement. (Of course, he wasn’t the first one to coin the term. That was Heinrich Heine (1797 – 1856). Nietzsche merely philosophised it). It first appeared in the Gay Science in a fable entitled, the Parable of the Madman. In the parable, the madman asks, ‘where is God?’, only to be informed that God had been killed by man:
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderer of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe the blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves?”
Of course, Nietzsche wasn’t talking about the literal death of God (he was, after all, an atheist). Instead, he was referring to the death of the concept or idea of God. The statement was meant as a reference to the decline of traditional and metaphysical doctrines that had dominated European thought and culture for centuries.
Nietzsche observed, correctly, that western morality was predicated on the presumption of the truth of Judeo-Christian values. Christianity had become infused in European culture and thought. Philosophers and scientists like Copernicus (1473 – 1543), René Descartes (1596 – 1650), Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727), Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), George Berkeley (1685 – 1753), Saint Augustine (354-430AD), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), and more were all deeply influenced by their belief in God. Culturally, Handel’s (1685 – 1759) Messiah, Da Vinci’s (1452 – 1519) the Last Supper, and Michelangelo’s (1475 – 1564) Statue of David are all infused with religious themes.
The decline of Christianity’s supremacy in society began with the Enlightenment. Science replaced scripture. During this time, the belief in a universe governed by God was replaced by governance through the laws of physics, the divine right to rule was replaced with rule by consent, and morality no longer had to emanate from a loving and omniscient God.
The legacy of the Enlightenment, Nietzsche rightly observed, was that Christianity lost its central place in Western culture. (Of course, it can also be argued that Christianity’s central doctrines and tenets have been so absorbed by society people no longer recognise their influence). Science, replete with its elaborate depictions of physical reality, ultimately replaced religious truth.
Nietzsche’s assertion is often seen as a triumphal or victorious statement. However, analysis reveals that Nietzsche did not necessarily see the death of God as a good thing. He recognised that as society moved closer to secularisation, the order and meaning religion gave to society would fall by the wayside. People would no longer base their lives on their religious beliefs, but on other factors. Their lives would not be grounded in anything. As Nietzsche wrote in the Twilight of the Idols:
“When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident… Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole.”
Nietzsche believed the solution to the problem would be to create our own, individual values. Christian morality (derided by Nietzsche as ‘slave morality’) would be replaced by ‘master morality.’ Human beings would strive to become Übermensches or overmen.
The problem with Nietzsche’s suggestion is that it is virtually impossible to keep society ordered when everyone’s values are different. Furthermore, as Carl Jung (1875 – 1961) points out, it is impossible for us to create our own values. Most of us can’t keep our new year’s resolutions, let alone create a value system that will bring order to society.
Nietzsche, along with Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881), predicted that the 20th Century would be characterised either by apocalyptic nihilism or equally apocalyptic ideological totalitarianism. In the end, the world experienced both. The wake of the Great War (1914 – 1918) saw Europe plagued by communism, fascism, Nazism, and quasi-religious nationalism. In Russia, communism, through which a person’s value was derived from his labour, arose under the Bolsheviks. In Italy, fascism, through which a person’s value was derived from his nationality, arose under Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945). In Germany, Nazism, through which a person’s value was derived from his race, arose under Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945). All of these systems attempted to give people’s lives meaning by replacing the state with God.
In the end, the 20th Century would be the deadliest and most destructive in human history. The legacy of two world wars, nuclear weapons, communism, and fascism has been millions of painful and unnecessary deaths. This is what we get when we remove God from society: needless pain and suffering.
For our weekly cultural article, we will be looking at the film Casablanca. Released in 1942, Casablanca delves deeply into themes of morality and human sacrifice, tentatively exploring both the good and bad aspects of humanity.
The American Film Institute ranks Casablanca as the second greatest film of all time (ranked behind Citizen Kane).
The fact that Casablanca is still so revered, even after seventy-five years, is nothing short of a miracle. The film was made on a tight budget in the style common to the studio system of the time, having been made on set with a studio director, studio writers, and studio actors.
Its script has been voted by the Writers Guild of America as the greatest ever written. That, too, is a miracle. The script was based on a play that was never performed: “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”, by Murray Burnett (1910 – 1997) and Joan Alison (1901 – 1992). The task of adapting the play to film was given to three separate screenwriters, who completed their task in three different locations. Julius G. and Philip G. Epstein (1909 – 2000; 1909 – 1952) would finish theirs just a few days before filming began. Howard Koch (1901 – 1995), on the other hand, wouldn’t hand his in until filming was well underway.
And even then, scraps of dialogue and scene rewrites were being rushed to the set, the ink still wet on the page.
Perhaps one reason for its long lasting success is its refusal to be categorised. Casablanca is one part war film – being presented against the backdrop of the Second World War, one part love story – Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) are embroiled in a bitter love triangle, one part political thriller, and one part allegory – presenting both the best and worst aspects of human nature.
Another reason is the stellar cast it boasts: Humphrey Bogart (1899 – 1957) – considered the greatest film star of all time by the American Film Institute, Ingrid Bergman (1915 – 1982) – one of film’s most naturally beautiful women, Claude Rains (1889 – 1967), Sydney Greenstreet (1879 – 1954), Paul Henreid (1908 – 1992), and Peter Lorre (1904 – 1964).
Naturally, no one thought Casablanca would be a hit, people weren’t even sure if the allies would win World War Two. However, as Alrean Harmetz wrote in Round Up the Usual Suspects: the Making of Casablanca, Casablanca seemed almost destined to be a film classic:
“There are better movies than Casablanca, but no other movie better demonstrates America’s mythological vision of itself – tough on the outside and moral within, capable of sacrifice and romance without sacrificing the individualism that conquered a continent, sticking its neck out for everybody when circumstances demand heroism. No other movie has so reflected both the moment when it was made – the early days of World War II – and the psychological needs of audiences decades later.”
I believe Casablanca‘s long lasting success boils down to its depiction of the goodness of human beings in the wake of great evil. Early in World War Two, Casablanca was Vichy France, and therefore Nazi German, territory. In the film, Casablanca is depicted as a world of corruption, a crossroads where Nazis, members of various resistance forces, criminals, spies, and traitors come together. It is a fascist society where the oppressors imprison millions, where human life is a commodity to be traded for benefits. No one cares about anyone, save for themselves.
The imprisoned respond to their imprisonment in different ways: some fight against it, others try to escape it, and others try to profit from it. In one scene, a man is shot dead trying to escape. He falls under a poster of Marshall Philippe Petain (1856 – 1951), the Chief of Vichy France. We learn he was clutching a Free France handbill.
Desperate attempts to escape to freedom are understandable. But the film also presents us with an array of lowlifes and criminals, and, remarkably, even asks us to express pity for them. Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) is a shrewd and callous gangster who, it is suggested, profits from the sale of human beings.
The total disregard for human life is depicted in a scene where Ferrari offers to buy Rick’s friend and piano player, Sam, portrayed by Dooley Wilson (1886 – 1953). Rick refuses, saying “I don’t buy or sell human beings.” “Too bad”, Ferrari replies, “that’s Casablanca’s leading commodity.”
Then there’s Signore Ugarte (Peter Lorre), the North African black market dealer who represents disorganised criminal who profits from the misery of others. Rick ignores his pleas for help as he is arrested for murdering two German couriers in order to steal non-rescindable, French General Marshal Weygand signed, letters of transit.
Ultimately, Casablanca is a film of redemption and human sacrifice. It asks its audience to not only imagine winning the loves of their lives but asks them to imagine giving them up for the greater good.
Rick starts out as a cynical and resentful anti-hero. “I stick my neck out for no one”, he tells us at one point. By the end of the film, he has been transformed into a selfless hero. “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”, he tells Ilsa.
In the end, Casablanca shows the power of sacrifice and brotherly love over tyranny and evil. Even when everything is lost, hope can be found among those few human beings who are willing to put their personal needs aside and sacrifice themselves for others.
This week for our cultural article we will be looking at Glenn Miller’s signature tune, the dreamy ballad Moonlight Serenade.
BIG BAND JAZZ
Moonlight Serenade is a classic of Big Band Jazz, a popular form of music during the Swing Era of the 1930s and 1940s. Unlike smaller jazz combos, which relies heavily on improvisation, Big Band Jazz is usually highly arranged. It typically involves ten or more musicians, including a minimum of three trumpeters, two or more trombonists, four or more saxophonists, and a rhythm section consisting of a pianist, bassist, guitarist, and drummer
Glenn Miller was born on March 1st, 1904 in Iowa. His family moved frequently through his childhood: first to Missouri, then to Nebraska, before finally settling in Colorado in 1918. Miller briefly played the mandolin before switching to the trombone. He played in the school band while attending High School in Fort Morgan, Colorado.
Upon graduating in 1921, Miller joined Boyd Senter’s Orchestra. He left the band briefly in 1923 to attend college, but quit after a year to return to music. He worked with the Ben Pollack Band in Los Angeles, California, before moving to New York City to work as a freelance trombonist and arranger.
In 1934, Miller became the musical director for Tommy Dorsey’s Band. The next year, Miller would form an American orchestra for British bandleader, Ray Noble. That same year, Miller formed his own band and began recording under his own name.
The Glenn Miller Orchestra found fame in 1939 when it performed at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York. The performance was broadcasted on the radio, exposing Glenn Miller to millions of people.
On December 15th, 1944, the transport plane taking Miller to the newly liberated Paris disappeared. He was forty-years-old.
Moonlight Serenade was written in 1935 when Miller was working as a trombonist with the Ray Noble Band. In 1938, Miller used the song has a theme for his NBC radio broadcast. On April 4th, 1939, Miller recorded Moonlight Serenade as a b-side for Sunrise Serenade. The song became a success, becoming a top ten hit on the US Pop Charts, and reached number three on the Billboard charts, where it stayed for fifteen weeks.
Miller’s Moonlight Serenade symbolises the sound of a by-gone era. An era when men wore suits and women wore dresses, and when Big Band Jazz ruled the airwaves. Why not consider giving it a listen?
For our weekly cultural article, we will be examining Martin Scorsese’s 2004 masterpiece, the Aviator: a biopic of the legendary businessman, aviator, filmmaker, and eccentric, Howard Robard Hughes, Jr. (1905 – 1976).
The Aviator stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes, Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn (1907 – 2003), and Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner (1922 – 1990). It focuses on Hughes’ glory years and is set between the late 1920s and the late 1940s.
The film essentially follows two competing storylines. The first storyline depicts Hughes’ struggle with his mental health, his battle with his worsening OCD and paranoia which, by the end of his life, would culminate in utter madness. In this guise, Hughes is depicted as a man whose intense germophobia renders him unable to touch the doorknob of a public toilet (he has to wait for someone else to open the door so he can leave), who washes his hands so ferociously he actually draws blood, who gets stuck repeating the same phrase over and over again (“the way of the future, the way of the future, the way of the future”), and who locks himself in his projection room for months on end.
The second storyline focuses on Hughes’ life as an entrepreneur: his success as a filmmaker, his successful career as an aviation pioneer, and his fight with the Senate War Investigating Committee. In this guise, Hughes is depicted as a man of unbridled ambition spurned on by his incredible early successes and comforted by legions of romantic conquests (which would include Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, among others). The film opens with Hughes directing the Hell’s Angels (1930). An early theme is quickly established, with Hughes’ peers ridiculing him for his boldness and ambition. By the end of the film, Hughes defies prediction by successfully test flying the H-4 Hercules.
HOWARD HUGHES: THE MAN
The Aviator ends after Hughes’ after the successful test flight of the Hercules. In real life, Hughes lived another twenty-nine years and died a lunatic and a recluse. If you happened upon the man during the final years of his life you would describe him as an impoverished and gaudy man of six-foot-four. When he died of kidney failure in 1976, he weighed only 40kg, had grotesquely long fingernails, toenails, hair, and beard, and had hypodermic needles embedded in his arms. So unrecognisable was Hughes that the FBI was forced to rely on his fingerprints to identify him.
Howard Hughes ought to be remembered, and admired, as a brilliant businessman and pioneer. He was an eccentric perfectionist who, between the ages of eighteen and seventy, managed to amass a personal wealth of one-and-a-half billion dollars. He was a man who made remarkable, and often groundbreaking, successes in film, aviation, and real estate. Between 1926 and 1957, Hughes produced twenty-six movies, including Scarface (1932) and the Outlaw (1943), and directed the classic World War One air warfare film Hell’s Angels (1930).
As an aviator, Hughes’ not only helped to revolutionise air travel, he also set many aviation records personally. In 1935, Hughes set the overland flying record by travelling nearly 352mph over Santa Ana, California. In 1937, Hughes set the record for transcontinental flight by flying from Burbank California to Newark, New Jersey in seven hours, twenty-eight minutes, and twenty-five seconds. Then in 1938, Hughes, along with a four man team, circumnavigated the globe in a record three days, nineteen hours, and seventeen minutes.
In a re-release trailer for Hell’s Angels, Howard Hughes is introduced as:
“Howard Hughes: millionaire genius, was a pioneer in aviation and motion pictures. He defied convention, set new patterns for others to follow, made stars of unknowns, and left the world a legacy of film classics.”
Howard Hughes represents a type of man that doesn’t really exist anymore: the bold, dashing, larger-than-life individual. A man who achieved incredible things against what was often overwhelming odds. It is characters like Hughes that build countries and improve the world we all live in. And it is films like the Aviator which presents their stories to us.