‘Bout bloody time we wrapped this up. A couple weeks ago, in Part One , we talked about Nolan’s penchant for weaving Nietzsche into the tapestry of his films. We looked at The Dark Knight (a bit, sort of) and how some ideas from Thus Spoke Zarathustra onwards form the human dilemma in Interstellar. Last week, in Part Two, we looked at how Interstellar played around with the idea of the Übermensch, justifiably working it into his narrative and grounding it in Hollywood human relations. This time, we’ll look at where the whole Übermensch thing doesn’t work and collapses, and how Nolan explores this murky territory.
Lets focus on Mann. To recap, Mann (AKA Matt Damon) is one of the original pioneering astronauts who went out through the wormhole way before Coop et al to collect data on planet habitability. We’re told he’s a brilliant astronaut, a stable guy, and an all-round paragon of the homo genus; a real Übermensch candidate.
Things aren’t too bad in his neck of the woods, or so he says. Well, turns out they’re just awful, and he gave false data to lure Coop’s crew to his planet so he could take their ship and get right out of there. ‘I knew the day that I arrived here that this place had nothing. And I resisted the temptation for years’, he says, ‘But I knew that if I pressed that button someone would come and save me.’ ‘Don’t judge me’ – he begs Coop right before attacking him – and here’s the crucial bit: ‘Human Habit’.
If Tom, Coop’s son back at home, is anthropological or Darwinian Man (a man who upholds the sacred, unbudging trinity of Family, Agrarian Industry, and Property) then Damon’s character is Intelligent Man, a category that comes with a whole lot of corruption and cunning and plain old bastardry. Evolutionarily, this is what comes after Neolithic man, when real power over one’s fellowmen is achieved not by brute force but by cunning, deceit and cold blood. If you want some prime examples of this strain of Man then go watch Game of Thrones or a Shakespeare (Othello’s Iago has gotta be THE example, proper nobhead him) – or just simply look at today’s politicians and the guys high, high up the commercial food chain. This is the Man that’s holding the reins today; this is the Man that is to be overcome, and if it wasn’t already obvious enough in the film, Nolan’s gone and somewhat heavy-handedly named him MANN. Subtle, eh.
Thing is though, Mann has a point when he asks not to be judged, that Coop can’t know what its like to be entirely alone with no way home on an inhabitable planet, no way home except by taking someone else’s. And he’s also entirely right in saying that it was ‘Human habit’ that got him in the end. One man can’t fight his biology entirely on his own. And thats the crucial bit – on his own. Now, strap in, we’re going (ahem) Interstellar.
Through Mann, Nolan raises a really salient point about the idea of overcoming Man. Although it’s largely an individual pursuit, you can’t really do it on your own. You need other people about to either support you or pit yourself against – we define ourselves, after all, only through opposition. If we have something to prove, we have to have people to prove it to; If we have a strain of mankind to overcome, then we have to have a mankind around to overcome. And only opposing oneself is no good; no one ever wages war upon themselves and comes out of it intact. You just can’t do it on your own. People change without people around.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra doesn’t neglect this no-one-to-see-it problem. When Zarathustra, the first prophet, isn’t engaging in long, lone discourses to himself in his cave up in the mountains (about 90% of the book, as it happens) he’s changing his mind and heading back to civilisation (1%), addressing them (8%), before getting fed up again and slinging back home (the remaining 1%). His social life is just one long-winded and indecisive existential crisis.
So how do you do it? How do you change yours and everyone else’s humanity if you can’t completely depart from the very humanity you’re trying to change? The attainment of Überhood seems like it has to be an individual process, yet its outcome is supposed to be collective. It’s a nightmare of a problem, paradoxical on the surface.
Here’s the root of it (I think): We treat ‘Humanity’ as something prescriptive, yet it is in fact descriptive. By this, I mean that we tend to see it as something timeless and unbudging, something natural and solid as a rock, rather than a kind of statistical average of what people alive think is okay. This is probably an attitude that organised religions (mostly Judaism and Christianity, but plenty others too) have led to. We evoke humanity in the face of heinous acts. But a quick look at history will show us that our idea of ‘humanity’ has changed a whole lot over the years, as has what we regard as heinous (and we don’t need to look very hard for this – it’s all over the old testament, and throughout the classical period, and the medieval, basically just anywhere anytime). Our Humanity is mutable, as is our Good and Evil. This is Nietzsche territory all over.
Damon’s character shows us that no Mann is an island (sorry). If humanity and Man as we know it must be overcome to save the species, then we can’t go about it alone. Collective results require collective effort. A clean break is impossible: you can only change humanity from the inside, without losing your human touchstones. You must take the best and leave the worst, and be self-mastered enough in your own judgement to know that you are keeping the best things. Community and culture, for example, have to stay: This is (sort of) illustrated by how at the end of the film their mastery of gravity is shown through an errant baseball going through the window of a house vertically above them in the great cylindrical (and oddly suburban) space station they now live in, something which is just so appallingly cheesy and capital-A American that it almost ruins the whole film (almost). Either way, baseball (the epitome of western community and culture, apparently) is here to stay, even in the New World.
Its things like this that are the frail adhesive that hold us together, that put the ‘kind’ in mankind. And here’s where Nolan really departs from Nietzsche: in the upholding of community and compassion as virtues that are fundamentally good and here to stay, rightfully so. I agree with Nolan here: One of the big problems I have with Nietzsche (and, by extension, the character of Zarathustra) is his cloisteredness, his monk-like retreat into his study and his own head. He became a victim of the very abstraction he fought so violently against, loving the idea of humanity but not so much the individual humans. Ultimately, plain old chumminess and sentimentalism triumph over even the loftiest and most grandiose of our thinkers, because these are the things that ground us, and that we’re grounded in. It’s kind of telling that the full title of Zarathustra is Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, which he goes on to explain that it’s because there was no one alive who would fully understand it at the time of its writing, that it was written for some future people who are higher up the Überladder than mere turn-of-the-20th-century earthlings. Overwhelming pretension aside, this begs the question: Will there ever be anyone who fully understands it, and is this our fault or Nietzsche’s? I know what I think.
And that’s about the long and short of it. We can overcome as a species, but we can’t really entirely start anew. But, baseball aside, we’ve got some great stuff: why would we want to? Man may well be a bridge, but he’s also a compromise, necessarily so. All things considered, this isn’t so bad.