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Monday, February 29, 2016

‘Son of Saul,’ Kierkegaard and the Holocaust

Photo: Katalin Balog
"The Oscars’s best foreign language film delivers a moral imperative as well as an aesthetic choice." according to Katalin Balog, associate professor of philosophy at Rutgers University-Newark.  

Christian Harting, left, and Geza Rohrig in a scene from “Son of Saul.”
Credit Sony Pictures Classics, via Associated Press
Art is often the subject of philosophy. But every now and then, a work of art — something other than a lecture or words on a page — can function as philosophy. “Son of Saul,” a film set in Auschwitz-Birkenau during the Holocaust, is such a work of art. It engages with a profound set of problems that also occupied the 19th-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.

Written and directed by the Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, “Son of Saul” won awards at Cannes, the Golden Globes and elsewhere before making its way to the Oscars to win the award for best foreign language film. It follows a day in the life of Saul, a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of mostly Jewish prisoners the Nazis forced to assist with herding people to the gas chambers, burning the bodies and collecting gold and valuables from the corpses. The film creates a direct, experiential and visceral engagement with these events by maintaining a relentless focus on the minute-to-minute unfolding of Saul’s world... 

Much of Kierkegaard’s philosophy is a warning against the tendency — greatly accelerated in modern times — to take an increasingly objective, abstract perspective on the world. While the paradigm example of this is science, it is most problematic when applied to one’s own life and existence. To identify life with its abstractions is, in Kierkegaard’s view, a dangerous but all too common error.

Photo: Søren Aabye Kierkegaard
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

There are generally two, radically different ways to relate to the world: objective and subjective. Objectivity is an orientation towards reality based on abstracting away, in various degrees, from subjective experience, and from individual points of view. A subjective orientation, on the other hand, is based on an attunement to the inner experience of feeling, sensing, thinking and valuing that unfolds in our day-to-day living. This distinction has been brought into contemporary philosophical discourse most notably by Thomas Nagel, in a number of his essays, most famously inWhat Is It Like to Be a Bat?

The spectacular success of science in the past 300 years has raised hopes that it also holds the key to guiding human beings towards a good life. Psychology and neuroscience has become a main source of life advice in the popular media. But philosophers have long held reservations about this scientific orientation to how to live life. The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, for instance, famously pointed out, no amount of fact can legislate value, moral or otherwise. You cannot derive ought from is. But there is another, in some way more radical concern, expressed in Western philosophy most forcefully by Kierkegaard, and in literature by Dostoyevsky — two religiously inspired thinkers — namely that our experience of life matters in ineffable ways that no objective understanding of the world can capture...

One does not have to agree with Kierkegaard’s single-minded, hostile rejection of objective thought and objectivity to still consider what he has to say about the cultivation of subjectivity, because that is where his major insights lie. So what about his exhortation to become subjective? Why is there even a need for this? Isn’t it true that, given our experience of life, we already are? It seems that one cannot fail to be a subject, to be subjective. However, as Kierkegaard points out, the mind can flee its own subjectivity; instead of dwelling in the presence of one’s experience, one can escape into alienation; into theorizing about needs, goals and happiness, and live by abstract principles and objective measures. As Freud has described, there are various ways of doing this: by repressing experience, dissociating from it, numbing it, turning away from it.
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Source: New York Times (blog)


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