Climax is a vision of hell, more or less, and arguably a much better one than those ubiquitous productions of Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames that played in churches throughout America at the tail end of the 20th century.
“One’s neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him” – writes Freud, describing everyone – “to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him”
A dance troupe assembles for practice in a remote French location. They divulge their most presentable vices to us in a set of “audition tapes,” in which the leaders of the troupe ask increasingly invasive questions. “What would you do if you couldn’t dance anymore?” “Suicide.” “Are you comfortable dancing with a homosexual?” “I’ve never done it before. I’m interested in what he will do.” “Are you wiling to do anything,” one troupe leader asks what looks to be a late-teenaged boy, “to get to the top?” He does not answer, but smiles demurely.
The dancers we meet are about like anyone, which is to say, they’re eventually going to detonate.
“Life, as we find it, is too hard for us,” Freud continues. “It brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks.” Director Gaspar Noe seems to agree, and he telegraphs as much with title cards that flicker onscreen every half-hour or so – “LIFE IS A COLLECTIVE IMPOSSIBILITY,” etc. He could be a neo-Rousseauian, wistful for the days we all, allegedly, found peace alone in the woods. More likely, he’s simply on of Freud’s “discontents.”
For years I thought Noe was a pacifist. I showed Irreversible to my classmates at Oklahoma Baptist University as a check-mate in an argument over whether violence can be redemptive, and Noe’s previous films plays like an argument to the negative. Roger Ebert agreed.
But Noe probably didn’t, because he probably isn’t. Last year, I stumbled upon his Instagram, which is filled with reactionary sloganeering (“ALWAYS BE ARMED,” etc.) and exultant praise for the grimiest films at Cannes. Two years earlier, he’d released Love, a largely pornographic film in 3D, whose most fascinating element was the posters visible on the protagonist’s wall, one of which was Birth of a Nation, which reportedly came from Gaspar’s personal collection.
Now, why would you have-or-want a poster for the 1915 film Birth of a Nation? I can think of number of reasons: Birth resurrected the Ku Klux Klan. Quite literally. It destabilized communities – in one particularly gruesome story, a group of men finished up at a showing of Birth and headed promptly to the steps of an African American church, dragged the elderly minister into the street, stripped him naked, cut off his testicles, and then dragged him along the highway until there wasn’t much left of him.
The film was evil – unambiguously and irredeemably so – which likely fascinates Noe, though it was more than that. Plenty of films are evil but impotent. But Birth was powerful. It agitated the public so thoroughly that a whole country teetered on the edge of unstitching itself. Noe likes to agitate, and he admires agitation. Griffiths was Agitator Par Excellence.
That stands, likewise, for Irreversible, which is probably more nihilistic than pacifistic, and it stands for Love, and it maybe stands for Climax just the same. And yet, not unlike Irreversible, it’s not all sound and fury and it’s wrong to say it signifies nothing.
Since we live in a Hobbesian hellscape, “we cannot dispense with palliative measures.” Freud clarifies: “There are perhaps three such measures: powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; substitutive satisfactions, which diminish it; and intoxicating substances, which make us insensible to it.”
For our ill-fated dance troupe, sangria is the “intoxicating substance” of choice. “No honey, that’s not juice,” one of the troupe leaders grabs a glass of sangria from her young child before sending him to bed. One dancer, on the prowl for a lover, fills two glasses and traipses around the room for someone to intoxicate.
To make a long story very short, someone drugged the sangria. Everyone panics. That modest control we normally maintain over our “bestial impulses” dissipates. The dance floor becomes a threshing floor. Gehenna breaks loose.
One dance has sex with his sister – forcibly, it would seem. Another lights her own hair on fire. A child is electrocuted and his mother slits her own wrists out of shock and guilt and error. One man, a Muslim, hasn’t drank any sangria, because Muslims are teetotalers. This detail is completely lost on the drugged-out troupe, who conclude that he’s the one who drugged the beverages and unanimously throw him out into the snowy night. He freezes to death. Another dancer has abstained from drinking because she’s a few months pregnant. The crowd turns likewise on her. One dancer pushes her over and aborts the child inside by kicking her stomach to the point of stillbirth.
As before, Climax is a vision of hell.
To say as much is to depart from the narrative we’re used to. I won’t rehash the Charles Taylor schtick, but it’s accurate enough to say that, in the “secular imagination,” there’s no “hell,” there’s only “yesterday.”
“As man gradually advanced in intellectual power, and was enabled to trace the more remote consequences of his actions; as he acquired sufficient knowledge to reject baneful customs and superstitions; as he regarded more and more, not only the welfare, but the happiness of his fellow-men, as from habit, following on beneficial experience, instruction and example, his sympathies became more tender and widely diffused,” wrote Darwin, “extending to men of all races, to the imbecile, maimed, and other useless members of society.”
In other words, what we think of as “hell,” as the absence of God’s preserving grace directing our thoughts and wills and behavior, Darwin and co. would chalk up to primitivism. We were unhinged and belligerent, but biology sanctified us, or can: We developed, over time, the ability to push past our most troubling instincts. Many – or most – will not, but it’s an option. We can “crucify ourselves,” so to speak, as we cling toward the benevolent structures we develop from our “higher” instincts over against the violence we gravitate toward. Marginally speaking, Darwin’s is a vision of “sanctification,” if loosely so.
But that is by no means guaranteed, as he points out in Descent: “Man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system – with all these exalted powers – man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”
Social theorists like Francis Galton took his work in a decidedly antihumanistic direction, publishing a rousing set of works in defense of a thoroughgoing (and potentially violent) program of eugenic social engineering: Given that the destiny of humanity is bound up in our genetics, they wrote, and our genetics are as malleable as we make them, there is no sense in approaching our special development with a laissez-faire attitude; we must “curate” our future.
The jury is out on whether Darwin agreed with the Galtonites, but it’s worth comparing notes with Noe: Whatever was in the sangria holds, essentially, a de-sanctifying property. The plot summary says “LSD,” but in Darwinian terms, it functioned like “Yesterday”: Over the course of a night, the members of the dance troupe are reduced to what they would’ve been at an earlier stage of development; the “advancements” in human nature, human consciousness – the revolutions in norms and habit and attitude – are a house of cards, they collapse under pressure, we are so easily co-opted by everyone and no one; the sangria doesn’t so much intoxicate as unstifle; the dancers don’t become “different people” under the influence – they become themselves.
That is to say, under Gaspar Noe’s dystopic vision of humanity, eugenics is probably a waste of time. No degree of social engineering can fix this. This much places him more squarely in the Freudian than Darwinian camp.
Our subjectivity is, Freud agrees, the sum of our drives, our unconscious desires, although he roots them in murkier territory. For both men, the drives that shape our experience and behavior are reducible to the chemicals at work in our bodies, but Darwin sees them tied (however faintly) to the flourishing (however slight) of the species. This flourishing isn’t owed, or even hoped for consciously; we weren’t created for it; it isn’t contingent upon our bending to some “benevolent design,” but it is a kind of flourishing, as species bend themselves to the immovable pavements of reality. Whereas humanists envision a world molded around humankind, God’s particular treasure, Darwin envisions a finite and malleable humanity, molded blindly by the coercive and arbitrary parameters of the environments in which they take shape.
No such flourishing is in view for Freud, although he does share Darwin’s conviction that our brief and provisional existences function best when we conform ourselves most nearly to the patterns that we have inherited. In that sense, then, both men are “essentialists,” however broadly they depart from those who went before them: we are essentially what we are made of, they’d say, what we’re driven to want. And these essential elements of our being will shape us into something. The measure of a person is their willingness to redirect their innate or inherited drives in directions that promote the well-being of civilized society. Only Freud terms this act “sublimation,” but Darwin seems to presuppose its necessity all the same: Our repressed drives will erupt into violence, or they will take more admirable shapes as we sublimate our bestial energies into good art, “good will,” and good citizenship.
Does Noe believe in sublimation? Maybe. But it’s a threadbare sublimation, if anything – one that crumbles on first brush with any substance that genuinely neutralizes our shallow inhibitions.
This much, it seems to me, is more realism than nihilism. There’s no sense flagellating Gaspar Noe for lacking confidence in our starry-eyed presumptions of “infinite progress.” For sublimation that have that kind of staying power, it would have to transcend itself. The problem with sublimation is that it’s not transfiguration.
There is evil in the world, observes Augustine, which seems strange given that the God who exists is omnipresent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient.
It’s important, Augustine insists, to understand that God is utterly good – omnibenevolent – and that his goodness does not produce evil. “Evil,” as he frames it, is a lack of perfect goodness – it doesn’t exists, at least not in itself. To be “evil” is to bend out of shape, to be a crooked and violent aberration of God’s peaceable design: It’s good to cultivate strength, it’s evil to turn your strength on others; it’s good to have sex, it’s evil to have sex with an unwilling partner; it’s good to tell creative stories, it’s evil to weave falsehoods about your neighbor. Evil things are good things, but bad. Evil thoughts and desires and behaviors are distortions of the good.
Conceivably, Augustine thinks God could prevent the evils that have warped human culture since The Fall, but suggests that he often doesn’t because his mercy and justice are displayed as he turns both our good and evil choices into good.
Anticipating Freud (and echoing Plato), he attributes the goodness-or-badness of the world to our the instability of our wills. The things we do, we do because they’re the sort of things we would do, yes, but our actual wants are often a mystery to us. We’re insatiable, yes, but in an often stupid way. There’s a Donald Trump in everyone – an infantile, uncontrolled and uncontrollable parasite in everyone; our “wills,” unchastened by something, somewhere are chaotic, and worse. The world eats itself, because it’s made out of us, and we eat ourselves. Augustine dubs this phenomenon the “City of Man.”
But there’s good news. The “Causal power of the will is part of the overall causal order of events foreknown by God,” he says. Thus, a good person is one who wills and chooses the good. Such people are citizens of the City of God. An evil person is one who fails to do so – such people are citizens of the City of Man.
Citizenship in the City of God requires the transforming presence of the Spirit, who somehow guides our wills. Without this divine guidance, we will not be able to perfectly choose or even will the good – that is to say, “life is a collective impossibility” in the “City of Man.”
Faith enables us to hand over the keys, in essence, to the Spirit, who sanctifies our wills and produces true “prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude” in us. This does not mean that we will experience bliss in our earthly lives. There’s no one-to-one correspondence between living a good life and enjoying the good life. The wicked may prosper while the righteous suffer. But in the final judgment, all will be rewarded according to whether the sought the good – those who, by the aid of the Spirit, pursued the good will dwell in Beatific vision with God while those who failed to do so will suffer a “second death” in which they are abandoned, body and soul, by God.
Freud doesn’t think much of Augustine’s vision. “Ethics based on religion introduces its promises of a better after-life,” he says. “But so long as virtue is not rewarded here on earth, ethics will, I fancy, preach in vain.” In a vacuum, he’s correct, but he’s largely missed Augustine’s point. Freud points out elsewhere that to share Augustine’s narrative of “Civilization through Sanctification,” of “Citizenship through Transfiguration,” is to sign your own death-warrant: “The commandment, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’, is the strongest defense against human aggressiveness and an excellent example of the unpsychological ones of the cultural super-ego, he grants. However, “The commandment is impossible to fulfill; such an enormous inflation of love can only lower its value, not get rid of the difficulty.”
The problem, Freud clarifies, is that “Anyone who follows such a precept in present-day civilization only puts himself at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the person who disregards it. What a potent obstacle to civilization aggressiveness must be, if the defense against it can cause as much unhappiness as aggressiveness itself! ‘Natural’ ethics, as it is called, has nothing to offer here except the narcissistic satisfaction of being able to think oneself better than others.”
I end, rather than begin, with this quote because Freud makes Augustine’s case for him: The pastor from Hippo envisions a world bent into submission to the Shema, a universe of people who come around to “loving the God who created them” by “loving the people created in his image” against their most deeply ingrained instincts. Freud suspects this vision is fantastical. But Freud’s alternative is unsatisfying. Civilization produces discontents because its inhabitants are immutable. “Loving thy neighbor” is always fictive – we cannot do good for its own sake, only by incentive. Civilization is a collective impossibility. But in the process he makes us wistful. We can’t be good, he says, because we don’t want to – which makes us downcast because we wish we did want to. We wish we could be good. We wish we could love our neighbors. We wish Gaspar Noe was wrong and Climax was incomplete and obeying the Shema was within reach, because then we could be sanctified, transfigured, we could be neighbors who love neighbors because they are neighbors, because God has changed our desires, or something like that. Freud is a drag because he tells us what we think to be the truth about ourselves, but we respond so dismally to his dour pronouncements because we wish they weren’t true. We wish that we could wish that we were kind. As it happens, that’s step one on Augustine’s pathway out of Noe’s hell and into God’s city.