‘Man is Something to Overcome’: Interstellar and Nietzsche (#2/3)

So last time we left on a bit of a cliffhanger concerning a certain pickle that we’ve found ourselves in as a species (If you didn’t read Part One this won’t make much sense, so go back and read it here). The wider, more general problem is ‘Where do we go as a species once we’ve established basic sustenance?’ You could also say ‘What is the end goal of civilisation?’ or ‘What, beyond food, shelter and family, are we working towards?’. ‘Comfort’ doesn’t seem a very satisfactory answer, especially seeing as its this idea that we have an infallible right to limitless comfort and convenience that’s led us to tear up the planet for oil and other precious industrial materials. (BTW: Nietzsche’s answer to the comfort problem is to say ‘A meagre bed warms me more than an opulent one, for I am jealous of my poverty… I start each day with a wickedness, I mock winter with a cold bath’ – Safe to say this is one of Thus Spoke Zarathustra’s weirder and more self-indulgent parts, where it breaks away from the story/ Zarathustra’s long discourses to himself, and becomes (metaphorically but also quite literally here) Nietzsche himself just sort of splashing in the old philosophical bathtub).

This ‘where-do-we-go’ problem is the one that Nolan’s approaching in Interstellar, only in a more specific and applied context. The philosophical problem posed in Interstellar is ‘How can we sustain the human race without the environment and culture that we live in and define ourselves by? In the face of the destruction of these things, where do we go? And without this scaffolding, can we still call ourselves Man?’

Nietzche’s answer in Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a bit bloody, er, Nietzschian. If you’re tired and/or uninterested you can go ahead and skip this section, as things are going to get a bit dense a bit fast. In a nutshell, Nietzsche’s answer is to recognise the extent to which your subjectivity constructs a highly individualised understanding of ‘truth’ (what he calls ‘Will to Truth’), informed or conditioned by what will give us control over ourselves, other people, and our environment (what he calls ‘Will to Power’), and to put all the energy and newfound self-and-world-understanding born out of this realisation into the creative act, to put all of one’s will into becoming a ‘Creator’. Well, at least that’s my interpretation. Here are some things Zarathustra spoke to give you an idea of what it’s all about:

-‘Are you a new strength and a new right? A first motion? A self-propelling wheel? Can you also compel stars to revolve about you?… Do you call yourself free? I want to hear your ruling idea, and not that you have escaped from a yoke… Free from what? Zarathustra does not care about that! But your eye should clearly tell me: free for what? Can you furnish yourself with your own good and evil and hang up your own will above yourself as a law? Can you be judge of yourself and avenger of your law?… I love him who wants to create beyond himself.’ –

Phew! Still here? I should mention that ‘Creative’ in this context and time (end of 20th century) doesn’t necessarily mean artistic at all, but rather simply making things new and original on your own terms. Used here, it applies more to morality and law and world-understanding, the idea being to smash the old frameworks and conditioned reflexes and to reapproach these things anew. In this understanding, the Creative act is the only divine expression of will, as it elevates man to a godlier rank, allowing him to overcome his very humanity. In other words, we elevate ourselves to Super-status by re-directing our energies into Creation. What exactly we’re supposed to create once we’ve smashed the old law-tables and overcome dominant ideology, Nietzsche remains ambivalent on, but then thats him all over: He’s more of the explosively-open-a-can-of-worms kind of philosopher than the more classical boil-all-truth-ever-into-one-equation type. Don’t worry if you didn’t really get all of the above stuff by the way – Nietzsche himself spends a whole book trying to explain it, through metaphor after metaphor after metaphor. In truth, I don’t fully understand it either, so rest easy and let’s just move swiftly on now shall we.

The environmental ruin that forms the premise of Interstellar is a very relevant and imminent problem today, and not just for the continuation of mankind as a species (women of the world, please don’t get put off by my use of ‘mankind’ and ‘Man’; I think its pretty tacit that you’re included too). It seems that we’re really coming up to a crossroads where Man (considered as an ontological category) is concerned, and there are two main options in popular discourse, both of which demand that we either drastically reassess what me mean by ‘man’ – which necessitates challenging and overcoming our impulses and biology – or we become a different category of people altogether: something else, Posthuman. Both of these things require Übermensch-style wilful changes on a huge scale.

The first option is that we become, as it were, ‘better’ and more responsible humans, and start making the necessary sacrifices to rescue our planet. This, however, would require a lot more than just buying a hybrid car or weeing in the shower to avoid having to flush the toilet (this was legitimately a save-the-planet suggestion from the environmental department, BTW). It would require compromise and sacrifice on a global scale, and for us to stop exploiting our environment and forego our right to comfort and convenience. The problem is that as a species we’re basically hard-wired to exploit the environment and pursue comfort and convenience, so in order for this to happen we have to start living by our ideals, not our impulses. To make this leap on a universal scale, we’d all have to agree upon the same ideals and all act on them, something that Man has historically been just awful at. If we did manage to do this, it would be such a quantum leap that we could no longer consider ourselves as ‘Man’.

The other option is to do with Man and ‘Nature’. The standard understanding is that for thousands of Edenic years we lived in ‘harmony with nature’ (whatever that means), then our technology became such that we removed ourselves from ‘Nature’, yet we still live with it in a dualistic state, i.e. ‘Man and Nature’, rather than ‘Man in Nature. In this understanding, ‘Nature’ is not an abstract animating force but something material – it is literally the trees and birds and fish and beasts, and that it is our responsibility to look after this. The solution to this conservation problem, Suggested by Zizek , is to simply remove ’Nature’ from our understanding of ourselves and our environment, to cut ourselves off from it entirely, thereby alleviating any responsibility or anxiety for the welfare of our habitat. Now this, to me, seems not just selfish and unreasonable but also totally unproductive, and not exactly conducive to the progression/ survival/ evolution of the human genus.

To recap, option one is productive but basically impossible, whereas option two is possible but basically unproductive. Nolan has another solution, and it has very much to do with this Man/beyond-Man stuff.

Interstellar

This Man/not-man question is right at the heart of both the film and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Whilst Coop is in space, his son grows up to become a farmer. Recall that technology has long since reached its apex and is on the demise, and that there’s a world food shortage, requiring way more people to become farmers: in other words, society is going backwards, regressing to an agrarian, pre-industrial-revolution culture. Coop’s son farms the family land, defends that land fiercely, and is firmly established in his role as patriarch of the family. He will not budge from his property, even when his family are threatened by the rising dust. His status as a land-owning, land-working, family-leading patriarch (Land, Industry, Family) make him the film’s most prominent expression of capital-M ‘Man’, at least in the evolutionary sense.

Coop, meanwhile, has to forego these three things and venture on right out of the stratosphere. He is not Man, but he’s also not quite the Superman, or Übermensch, of Nietzsche’s philosophy. He is the bridge, and, as the hero of the film, this ties in with Nietzsche’s statement that ’What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal; what can be loved in man is that he is a going-across.’ Coop fulfils this role very well, facilitating his daughter’s discovery of how to manipulate gravity, making Plan A (relocate everyone to another planet) possible and saving a whole lot of earthlings from a slow and dusty death. The continuation of the species is achieved by overcoming earth’s environmental limitations rather than by exploiting them, a step forward for us all that more or less qualifies as bona-fide Übermensch, sort of.

It’s probably significant that the two people in the film who really achieve things and put the ‘Über’ in Übermensch are women. All Coop does is help them along. There’s Murph, Coop’s daughter, who solves the whole gravity lark, and there’s Brand, Coop’s co-pilot, who ends up being the one who first sets foot on the habitable planet at the end. This is one of the points where Nolan really departs from Nietzsche, giving women a whole lot more respect and credit than old Friedrich ever did. And it’s the patient hope and ceaseless love of these two characters (Murph’s for her father, Brand’s for the deceased astronaut on the habitable planet) that are the race’s saving grace in the end. Nolan recognises that we cannot simply shake off our humanity  and become something else: change doesn’t work like that. Rather, we have to take the best bits of our humanity (our capacity for hope and community, and our intelligence) and use them to leave behind the worst parts of mankind. As Nietzsche said, we have inherited both the reason and the madness of millennia: it is the bridge’s job to sort through the mess of impulses and conditionings we are heir to and sort out what must be left behind. It seems that Übermensch and cosmic migration aside, the poet Philip Larkin was right: What will survive of us is love.

Next week we’ll wrap up this little series with a discussion on the limits of humanity as presented in the film, and how Nolan explores some of the creases in the idea of the Superman with regards to community and collectivity. We’ll be focusing on Matt Damon’s character: ‘Mann’, which for a self-interested and deceptive guy isn’t exactly a subtle suggestive surname.  Hang in there earthlings.

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About Jacob Bolton

Yet another bloody writer. Been around, back in the North-west. 22.

3 comments

  1. Dennis

    A thoughtful piece, one I enjoyed a lot. I loved the movie and never thought I would find an equally compelling piece of literature expressing the same excitement of the movie.

    Like

  2. Pingback: ‘Man is Something To Be Overcome': Interstellar and Nietzsche (#3/3) | Eating From The Trashcan

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