My brother, James, watched a movie in theaters last week that provoked a thoughtful response. His response is similar to some things I’ve been reading and thinking about of late, namely self-control and the desire to be entertained.
What follows is some introductory notes that I hope to flesh out on and off in future columns.
The movie was Jordan Peele’s “Nope,” and it’s related to not only our current culture, but also human nature’s desire to turn everything into entertainment.
In his review, James quotes from two sources, Plato’s Republic and the Book of Genesis, to highlight his point.
“Leontius, the son of Aglaion, was going up from the Piraeus along the outside of the North Wall when he saw some corpses lying at the executioners feet. He had an appetite to look at them but at the same time he was disgusted and turned away. For a time he struggled with himself and covered his face, but, finally overpowered by the appetite, he pushed his eyes wide open and rushed towards the corpses, saying, ‘Look for yourselves, you evil wretches, take your fill of the beautiful sight.’”
– Plato, The Republic
“And as they brought them out, one said, ‘Escape for your life. Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley. Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away.’” …. But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.”
– Genesis 19:17, 26.
“I loved Nope both on the surface as an alien invasion thriller, a genre near and dear to my heart,” James said. “But also as a film about our desire to turn everything into entertainment, whether it be the domestication of animals that probably shouldn’t be domesticated, or turning tragedy into memes and skits. Our morbid curiosity and appetite for entertainment sometimes comes at the cost of respect for the dead or an understanding of our own limitations.”
Like Leonitus (one of the world’s first rubberneckers) and Lot’s wife, we are all curious even toward things we ought not look at. Who hasn’t slowed down to look at a wreck?
James’s words reminded me of what Edmund Burke wrote in his book, “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.”
In it, Burke wrote that beauty produces affection and tenderness in humans, which tempers our being able to appreciate and understand; but as for the sublime, he writes,
“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”
When it concerned a society, Burke warned that a society unrestrained by the tempers of beauty will only be captivated by the Sublime, which does not bring order to our passions and will lead to a disordered culture incapable of appreciating beauty.
This is something Herman Melville touched on near the beginning of his masterpiece, “Moby Dick.”
Shortly after introducing himself in one of the most iconic first three words in all of literature (Call me Ishmael), Melville’s character reflects on why people so often flock to the coast.
“But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No,” he writes. “They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling. … Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?”
The sea is perilous, yet those in Moby Dick respond to its call. What is it in humanity that draws us toward the Sublime, that oh-so-dangerous but oh-so-alluring edge of the cliff between danger and beauty?
I’ll leave my answer to that in a future column, Lord-willing.
However, for this one, I want to end with one of my new favorite quotes from a recent TV show episode. Amazon just released the first two episodes of their series “Rings of Power,” based on Tolkien’s works. The visuals are astounding and dialogue decidedly Augustinian, which means it is true to Tolkien’s view of the moral quality of beauty we seem to too often miss with the empty philosophy found in the modern relativistic notion that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Near the beginning, Galadriel’s elder brother, Finrod, gives her a metaphor of a ship and a rock, the former guided by the beautiful, and the latter by the sublime.
“Do you know why a ship floats and a stone cannot? Because a stone sees only downward. The darkness is vast and irresistible. The ship feels the darkness as well, moment by moment, trying to master her and pull her under. But the ship has a secret. For unlike the stone, her gaze is not downward, but up, fixed upon the light that guides her, whispering of grander things than darkness ever knew.”
As Burke noted, beauty ought to guide us, because it produces in us love, which, when properly formed in us, leads us to helping others, not simply seeking to fill our desire to be thrilled.
Joseph Hamrick is a semi-professional writer and sometimes thinker. He lives in Commerce and serves as a deacon at Commerce Community Church C3). He can be reached email@example.com