It Was Mother

It was On

It Was On
Wayras Olivier

ON THIS RED-LETTERED month the Movember-man ought to remember that long ago the word ‘bad’ was associated with people who were timid and feeble whereas those who were effective and imperious were studied as ‘good.’ He indeed ought to remember this when he’s examining his head (even if he’s in the clear) for that one word that best describes how he feels when he’s staring down at his testicles. One or two will come to mind, Dankbarkeit, a guttural German word for gratitude, humanity’s most prized emotion, or two, ressentiment, the euphonious French word for a person who is unable to express to others that he owns a pair of brass balls. 

The second word fascinated a brilliantly sour kraut who earned a Chair in the Philology department at the University of Basel when he was in his early twenties (a feat unheard of in 1869). Friedrich Nietzsche himself had a most impressive moustache when he later explored the previously mentioned (but historically forgotten) rubric: the fragile and failing were ‘bad’ and the robust and enduring were ‘good.’

Hence, the weak/bad invariably felt, Nietzsche noted, ressentiment towards the strong/good, who never had to take orders; exercise humility; observe temperance; or endure the discomfort of self-sacrifice. It was here, in those three essays, On The Genealogy of Morality, that Nietzsche argued why, long ago in a galaxy not so far way, it was the weak who imported the conception of the dark side. The weak, in other words, swapped nomenclature with the strong, branded themselves ‘the good,’ and went one step further by substituting the word ‘bad’ with a much more malevolent word: ‘evil,’ to describe the strong.

By enthroning notions of deference, submission, and meekness as superior, the weaker but newly self-appointed ‘good’ were able to cloak their desire for revenge against the physically superior ‘evil’ by deeming worldly pleasures and possessions inferior. For all that, undesire became the parturition for ‘slave morality,’ and the very pretext that allowed a slow uncloaking of a rising priest class. On the grounds of their unalloyed soul (a product of their compulsory subjugation and forced austerity), the priest, claiming to know how reality organizes itself and what conditions compromise the human personality, could now negotiate with ‘the evil.’ In some isolated cases, they could even influence and control ‘the evil,’ who because of their ‘master morality’ (which made them ostensibly undefeatable) never were required to think of anything other than the superficial three-dimensional reality they so effortlessly took charge of.

The priests, however, were also victims of their own self-constructed disadvantage—depth.

Made unshallow by their pensive daydreaming, and relentless preoccupation with the inestimable degrees of eternal reward and punishment, the circumference of the priest’s psyche expanded. Like a near bottomless bucket, their ability to receive and carry greater volumes of love eventually surpassed the average person—but so did their storage capacity for dread and disgust. So who, at the end of the day, ran the risk of spilling the most profound quantities of contempt towards mankind? The priest.

Envy, a natural emotion one generally feels upon seeing others who have been able to maximize their skills, abilities, and talents, and is really nothing more than the recognition that one can do the same with the correct amount of effort and discipline, was regarded by the herd (the weak), as unhealthy. Under the priest’s tutelage, the herd were commanded to simply love their neighbor. Feeling envious over a neighbor’s accomplishment or recent acquisition was something to be ashamed of, a sign of sickness within the self. Shame and guilt were thus correlated with coveting ‘strength’ which kept the herd in a state of bondage to perpetual, self-replenishing mediocrity. A pernicious stance, to say the least, that’s somewhat hostile to the general spirit of progress and increase.

One idea you can play with in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is that the priest, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), knew (before the story started) that the numinous alone was insufficient to ensure his family’s survival. Naturally, he was ‘weak/good’ to begin with but the aforementioned insight made him ‘strong/evil’—a side of himself he was loath to envy. Eli, no longer able to repress both his envy and the insight that oil prospecting is a vital part of the equation, ‘creates’ Paul. Eli’s ultra-religious family would also do their part in helping him to distance himself from his envy by calling his pathology ‘the twin.’ In other words, Eli is indeed Paul. This relieves Eli, who is only concerned with evangelical pursuits, of any guilt for having to lure Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) another ‘strong/evil’ person, back to the Sunday farm to broker a deal. Eli’s hands remain clean for prayer, as Paul, the family ‘Judas,’ was the one who performed the reprehensible deed of letting a fox near the henhouse.

(Notice anything unusual in the scene at the real estate office, immediately after Plainview closed his deal with the Sundays? Plainview flinches upon discovering that six dollars an acre, the price Eli seemed to ‘guess,’ was spot on with the market price for the Sunday ranch. Eli most definitely did his due diligence before Plainview had arrived in town.)

If confronting one’s envy is genuinely regarded as a prerequisite for self-mastery, then watching Plainview, the town’s ‘evil’ presence, own up to his suggests that the process itself is both daunting and haunting.

“Do you get envious?” Plainview asks the man who is posing as his brother. “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed…” Plainview continues before turning misanthropic “…I hate most people,” he escalates, “…there’s times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking.” Be that as it may, his admission ironically puts Plainview on the same level as the priest, and thus begs the unpleasant but necessary question: of the two, who provides more value to the hens, the weak/good person or the strong/evil person?

Take, Plainview, ‘in the henhouse’ addressing the folks of Little Boston about inanition and that cherished biblical staple called “…bread, let’s talk about bread. Now to my mind, it’s an abomination to consider that any man, women, or child in this magnificent country of ours should have to look upon a loaf of bread as a luxury.” 

Upgrading Little Boston will take a miracle, one Plainview can demonstrate rationally and perform methodically when he promises to “…dig water wells here, and water wells means irrigation and irrigation means cultivation and we’re going to raise crops here where before it was simply not possible. You’re going to have,” Plainview assures, “more grain than you’re going to know what to do with. Bread will be coming right out of your ears. New roads, agriculture, employment, education…” the very things that inoculate a community from the vagaries of life that ordinarily exploit and eradicate the hopeless and defenseless. Making the difference between mere survival and predictable flourishing a solvable mystery.

Inoculation from paucity that Plainview offers is a tacit shot: detached, impartial, and analytical Hero-worship, geared preferably towards the unsentimental power of cause-and-effect, is itself a reliable and genuine savior in times of great difficulty. Thus, without having to scream the ever awkward “I Have The Power!” He-Man, or, the Übermensch, if you insist, is revealed to the people of Little Boston. Leaving Eli adequately emasculated, at least momentarily, when he timidly holds up his hand while asking the rather gangsterish “…will the new road lead to the church?” 

In the film’s ending, there’s a patently obvious analogue to spot between that infamous allegation in The Gay Science (about a certain someone’s expiration) and Plainview’s intelligible if not inevitable response to Eli’s pitiless attempt at a shakedown. Consistent with the film’s timeline (late eighteen to early nineteen hundreds) Nietzsche’s ideas were being introduced into the ether and are echoed in Plainview’s commandment to Eli, “I’d like you to tell me that you are, and have been, a false prophet and that God is a superstition” in return for one hundred thousand dollars. Altering the chemistry, when you think on it, of that molecular but atomic question I mentioned earlier regarding who provides more value. So it becomes, as one can’t overlook the nihilistic explosion at the ending of this magnificent film: of the two, which bully is undoubtedly the most threatening, the strong/evil person or the weak/good person?