Movies As Education: Books and Selves

La Notte (English: The Night) is a 1961 Italian drama directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. The film stars Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, and Monica Vitti (with Umberto Eco, the novelist, appearing in a cameo).

Filmed on location in Milan, the film depicts a day in the life of an unfaithful married couple and their deteriorating relationship.

In 1961, La Notte received the Golden Bear (at the Berlin International Film Festival, the first for an Italian film) and the David di Donatello Award for Best Director.

La Notte is the central film of a trilogy, beginning with L’Avventura (1960) and ending with L’Eclisse (1962).

The movie follows Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni), a distinguished writer, and his beautiful wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) as they visit their dying friend Tommaso Garani (Bernhard Wicki) who is hospitalized in Milan. Giovanni’s new book, La stagione (The Season), has just been published, and Tommaso praises his friend’s work.

La Notte reflects the director’s intuition that “you are what you read,” and books create a kind of thread through the story.

The dying, hospitalized patient has recently published an article on the famous philosophical writer Theodor Adorno. At the party the couple drifts into, the works of the AustrianJewish writer, Hermann Broch, are mentioned. Essentially, in a depressing glitzy world of lost and semi-lost souls, reading and books constitute a kind of emotional life raft or direction-finding compass, at least potentially. Antonioni frequently uses this motif.

We find this kind of reading and books-centered view of people interpreting their (bewildering) worlds in the works of the French thinker Charles Péguy (who died in battle during World War I in 1914):

“The Jew,” he declares in a passage that has become famous, “is a man who has always read, the Protestant has read for three hundred years, the Catholic for only two generations.”

(quoted in Consciousness and Society, H. Stuart Hughes, Vintage Books, paperback, 1958, page 355)

Charles Péguy is also central to Louis Malle’s classic French film Au revoir les enfants (English: “Goodbye, Children”).

If we “zoom out” and look for a meta-intelligent lesson, we can say that reading, writing, and arithmetic, the three basics mentioned in the phrase we all know, are very deeply entwined with who we are. Stories explain us to ourselves, and stories involve books and reading in our “Gutenberg world.”

The replacement of these by various (post-Gutenberg) screens and games may or may not be thought of as a variant since they constitute a kind of “pseudo-participation” and not participation based on perusal.

Essay 54: Movies as an Off-Campus “Open University:” Antonioni’s La Notte (The Night, 1961)

Michelangelo Antonioni was an Italian film director, screenwriter, editor, painter, and short story author.  

Antonioni died on July 30, 2007 (aged 94) in Rome, the same day that another renowned film director, Ingmar Bergman, also died.

He is best known for his “trilogy on modernity and its discontents”—L’AvventuraLa Notte, and L’Eclisse from the early sixties.

One “hidden pillar” of the world Antonioni depicts in his movies is that “you are what you read.” This gives the viewer a “meta-intelligent” (latent overview signal) handle on the world being depicted:

In La Notte of 1961, Antonioni starts with an image of the Pirelli Tower in Milano, the most famous skyscraper of its time in Italy. In contrast to the impressiveness of the building, the characters in his movies are trying to “navigate” boredom and the enveloping sense of ennui.

One of the characters in the movie is said to be reading the masterpiece by Herman Broch, The Slkeepwalkers:

The Sleepwalkers (original title Die Schlafwandler), is a 1930s novel in three parts, by the Austrian novelist and essayist Hermann Broch

Opening in 1888, the first part is built around a young Prussian army officer; the second in 1903 around a Luxembourger bookkeeper; and the third in 1918 around an Alsatian wine dealer.  Each is in a sense a sleepwalker, living between vanishing and emerging ethical systems just as the somnambulist exists in a state between sleeping and waking.  Together they present a panorama of German society and its progressive deterioration of values that culminated in defeat and collapse at the end of World War I.

Antonioni implies the characters he depicts are a new version of “sleepwalker.”

When the movie starts, the characters played by Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau visit a friend in the hospital who mentions his new work on Adorno.  Adorno (1903-1969) was a German-Jewish theoretician who wants to understand how the world has gone off the rails leading to WWII and the death factories of the Nazis.  He argues that this is connected (paradoxically) to the relentless rationality of “The Enlightenment” and works in a “dialectical” way (i.e., something becomes its opposite).

In the movie, there’s a scene where the author played by Mastroianni is at a book talk concerning his new book.

In other words, the world Antonioni is depicting, a kind of “odyssey” of ennui made confusing by gleaming architecture such as the Pirelli Tower of Nervi (built from 1955-1958) shown in the opening shot of the movie.

The books mentioned in the movie confirm the director’s “you are what you read” motif.

The recent book: The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark is consistent with this sense of things.

Essay 15: Simplistic Critiques of Specialization Are Inadequate

There have been many critiques of specialization and the deepest ones involve the rise of the nihilistic techno-virtuosos of evil such as the Nazis who could make the transition from throughput of steel to throughput of corpses in death factories without a moment’s hesitation. One senses that “rationality” has here gone off the rails.

Husserl (died in 1938) observes that reason has become overspecialized, unilateral and instrumentalized, resulting in “a one-sided rationality that can become an evil. The sickness of Europe in 1935 thus cannot be isolated geographically or politically, the philosopher suggests.

At stake is a sickness of reason itself.” (quoted in The Enlightenment Past, Daniel Brewer, Cambridge University Press, 2011, page 202)

Adorno and Horkheimer in their classic social critique, Dialectic of Enlightenment published in 1944 argue that the whole Enlightenment project of rationality contains the seeds of 20th century irrationality epitomized by Nazi “experts” who became “technicians of evil.”

We have to tread carefully in this minefield because of a warning by Herman Melville when he says: “I like thinkers who can dive deeply before they soar.”  But how would one “dive deeply” without specializing. A field is also called a “discipline” or a “concentration” and those words tell you there’s something defensible about specializing since being a “featherdusting” dilettante cannot be the only alternative for that would be a “Hobson’s Choice” where both choices are bad or incomplete or unattractive.

The message of this educational remediation book you are reading is not that specialization is ipso facto bad but rather that the additional “skill” of also circumnavigating what life is and what knowledge is gives the student an evolving sense of overview, where all dimensions have been included, including his own existence.

Without this, one falls into the trapdoor expressed in the famous essay of William James “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” due to background and specialization “blinders.” Diplomas and careers aside, education’s purpose must be to come to grips with this Willliam James warning (i.e., you could “stumble” through your entire life without seeing anything larger than your training). You could become what they describe in German a bit harshly as a “Fachidiot” (a “specialist fool”).

Specialization, by itself, is not the problem even with the Husserl, Adorno and Horkheimer strictures. It’s rather the Jamesian “blindness in human beings” that’s the problem. 

Simplistic attacks on educational specialization as such don’t get at the profounder problem. The same William James talks about the Ph. D. “educational marathon” as “the Ph. D. octopus.” We do get an intuitive sense of what James is getting at while we do want to balance this with the Herman Melville admonition about “diving deeply before you soar.”

There are educational paradoxes here and we propose to handle them by “completeness excursions and exercises” which are the theme of this book.

Essay 10: Towards a Cosmopolitan Re-Education

Education today is still completely parochial and we will now give an example of making education completely cosmopolitan (i.e., based on global “inputs”).

There’s a Japanese critique of the entire Western tradition of technology-and-man defeating nature. We will come to the Japanese critique in a moment. First, we remind the reader of Western ideas of man as conqueror of nature: think of Sophocles’ classic play Antigone where perhaps the most famous choral ode in Greek drama occurs, “Ode to Man” which celebrates man’s techno-rise (our word technology derives from Greek “techne”):

“Humanity has built ships to conquer the seas, crafted plows to tame the earth, bent animals to his will, raised houses to defeat the rain and the snow.”

Nearly everything is about humanity asserting its will over nature.

One finds a restatement of this conquest-of nature theme in fellow Greek dramatist Aeschylus in his great Prometheus Bound, where he criticizes the men of old in their pre-Promethean ignorance:


“They handled all things in bewilderment and confusion. They did not know of building houses with bricks to face the sun; they did not know how to work in wood. They lived like swarming ants in holes in the ground, in the sunless caves of the earth. For them there was no secure token by which to tell winter nor the flowering spring nor the summer with its crops; all their doings were without intelligent calculation until I showed them the rising of the stars, and the settings, hard to observe. And further I discovered to them numbering, pre-eminent among subtle devices, and the combining of letters as a means of remembering all things, the Muses’ mother, skilled in craft.

“It was I who first yoked beasts for them in the yokes and made of those beasts the slaves of trace chain and pack saddle that they might be man’s substitute in the hardest tasks; and I harnessed to the carriage, so that they loved the rein, horses, the crowning pride of the rich man’s luxury. It was I and none other who discovered ships, the sail-driven wagons that the sea buffets. Such were the contrivances that I discovered for men.

“Greatest was this: in the former times if a man fell sick he had no defense against the sickness, neither healing food nor drink, nor unguent; but through the lack of drugs men wasted away, until I showed them the blending of mild simples wherewith they drive out all manner of diseases…It was I who made visible to men’s eyes the flaming signs of the sky that were before dim. So much for these. beneath the earth, man’s hidden blessing, copper, iron, silver, and gold—will anyone claim to have discovered these before I did?

“One brief word will tell the whole story: all arts that mortals have come from Prometheus.”

(Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, University of Chicago Press, Aeschylus II, 1956, pages 155-156)

One can begin to see how “Promethean man” culminates in Francis Bacon’s (died in 1626) admonition to “place Nature on the rack so that man might force her to tell her secrets.” 

Thus, the Western tradition comes close to a war on nature itself.

Now we come to a critique of this from Japan on the other side of the Pacific:

Natsume Sōseki (died in 1916), the greatest writer in modern Japanese literature, has a protagonist in the 1913 classic Kojin (“The Wayfarer”):

“Constant motion and flow is our very fate.”

“Man’s insecurity stems from the advance of science. Never once has science, which never ceases to move forward, allowed us to pause.

From walking to rickshaw, from rickshaw to carriage, from carriage to train, from train to automobile, from there on to the dirigible, further on to the airplane, and further on and on—no matter how far we may go, it won’t let us take a breath. How far it will sweep us along, nobody knows for sure. It is really frightening.”

(Sōseki, The Wayfarer, Tuttle Books, 1967, page 285)

This sense of things that Promethean/Baconian man will place mankind in a runaway train with no brakes or endpoint is a critique that makes us think. The counterargument that we know of no other way out of poverty is “co-valid” and we have a kind of legitimate “argument without end” which cannot be easily dismissed. We cannot really divide the world into proponents of science/technology on the one side and Luddites on the other. That is too simplistic. There are legitimate concerns about de-humanization through modern science and technology in Adorno and Horkheimer, say, who fear a global shipwreck based on this “runaway train with no brakes or endpoint.” The current climate change crisis comes to mind.

Our main point here is not to enter this argument or to take sides but to show the reader how a cosmopolitan “post-parochial” education might look and how this kind of meta-intelligent pedagogy would be deeply “eye-opening” and help the Wittgenstein process where “light dawns gradually over the whole” as we have seen.

Cosmopolitan Re-Education That Includes Movies and Songs

Another dimension of cosmopolitanism in education is the complete assimilation of movies and songs into the analysis (i.e., all-media cosmopolitanism). here’s a movie example that continues the argument between the conquer nature position and de-humanization fears.

Think of the movie Things to Come.

Things to Come is a 1936 movie masterpiece based on an H.G. Wells sociological sci-fi masterpiece.

In the last minutes of the movie, there’s an exchange between “John Cabal” (played by Raymond Massey) who looks at the stars and says, “All or nothing. We must conquer all of it or disappear. No rest for man in general.”

The other man (“Passworthy”) radically differs: “we are such small little creatures and cannot live that way.”

The storyline of this movie:

A global war begins in 1940. This war drags out over many decades until most of the people still alive (mostly those born after the war started) do not even know who started it or why. Nothing is being manufactured at all any more and society has broken down into primitive localized communities. In 1966, a great plague wipes out most of what people are left but small numbers still survive. One day a strange aircraft lands at one of these communities and its pilot tells of an organization which is rebuilding civilization and slowly moving across the world re-civilizing these groups of survivors. Great reconstruction takes place over the next few decades and society is once again great and strong. The world’s population is now living in underground cities. 

In the year 2035, on the eve of man’s first flight to the moon, a popular uprising against progress (which some people claim has caused the wars of the past) gains support and becomes violent.

Essay 2: Connectivity and the Need for Meta Intelligence

Arguments without end and our attitude to them:

A reader of this book might ask:

How far does this quest for more holism go?  Are there limits on this type of inquiry?

This is a very good question.  In order to answer this, we quote something from the famous French historian, Michelet, who died in 1874:

“Woe be to him who tries to isolate one department of knowledge from the rest….all science [i.e., knowledge] is one:  language, literature and history, physics, mathematics and philosophy; subjects which seem the most remote from one another are in reality connected, or rather all form a single system.”

(quoted in To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1940, page 8)

Our attitude to such radical system building is non-committal. Rather we say, you the student should pursue flexible forms of increased connection and holism while you acquire knowledge and extend it and not worry about some once-and-for-all system underneath or beyond everything. We propose exercises in holism and all exercises are replaceable with new ones or better ones and there’s no “final layer” or hidden “mind of God” to use Stephen Hawking language. The existence of some underlying or final system is something like an “argument without end” (to use Pieter Geyl language).

This argument is captured by the classic “fight” between Hegel (the person that Marx and Kierkegaard rebelled against and who died in 1831) and Adorno in the twentieth century.

Hegel says: The whole is the true. Adorno (who died in 1969) says: The whole is the false.

We skip all such fights.

Thinking about University Knowledge Again:

One cannot major in every field. One cannot make everything a university offers your specialty or concentration.

“Sartor Resartus:”  The great British critic Thomas Carlyle (who died in 1881), close friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote a famous satire called “Sartor Resartus or The Tailor Retailored” where he lampoons a certain Professor Devil’s-crud who teaches at Don’t-Know-Where University and is Professor of Everything.

Obviously, we are not proposing the creation of professors-of-everything and propose nothing more than the heightened ability to “zoom out” of academic fields, topics, lectures, topics, campuses.

A person who has similar intuitions is Alfred North Whitehead of Harvard (died 1947) who says in his essays on education that the real purpose of university education is to enable the learner to generalize better using that person’s field as a help or aid.  The purpose of a university cannot be fields and monographs within fields alone.