"Act of Valor" and Learning How to Die


Why is philosophy important?

If we take Cicero's word for it, because philosophizing is learning how to die.

Of course, we prefer not to dwell on death, especially our own. As I wrote in another article, it's seen as useless, unhealthy, and depressing. Philosophy, in contrast, is not after use, health, or happiness, but truth - and the most obvious and vexing part of life is that it ends, for everyone. (As Louis CK brilliantly put it in a recent stand-up bit: "Out of all the people that ever were, almost all of them are dead...And you're all gonna die, and then you're gonna be dead for way longer than your life - that's mostly what you're ever gonna be. You're just dead people that didn't die yet.")

So I think it's no coincidence that as interest in philosophy has faded, a sort of cultural ducking of death has emerged. The two seem to go hand in hand. Philosophy classes are emptying out as students pick more career-oriented majors; meanwhile, euphemisms like "passed away," "gone," and "not with us" are multiplying to avoid uttering the uncouth word "died." Physicist Stephen Hawking banished the "first cause" argument and other philosophical questions to the obituaries; at the same time, we're busy banishing last rites and last goodbyes to nursing and funeral homes. (In the 19th century and before, the washing and laying out of dead bodies mostly took place in the home.) 

This cultural pattern of avoiding confrontation with death has, I think, rippled over into art. But a recent action film, Act of Valor - though certainly not Oscar material - ends with a philosophical meditation on death that is one of the most profound and moving I've seen in recent years. 

Tecumseh
The film follows US Navy Seals (and stars some active duty members) as they combat international terror rings and navigate dangerous areas run by drug cartels.

Toward the end of the movie, there is a heart-breaking scene of supreme heroism that really caught my attention (I admit that until then, I was really only half-watching). After this scene, a soldier writes a letter to the fallen man's son, about the father he will never know. He concludes the letter with a passage by Native American warrior Tecumseh, which we hear while watching the military funeral unfold:
"Live your life so the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their views, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and of service to your people...When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home."
I was absolutely stunned by this scene. It transformed all of the warfare and heroism of the Seals into a meditation on what it means to be "a human being fully alive"; it conveyed to the audience that that we are all engaged in a parallel struggle every day, one which will reach its consummation when our own death bell strikes; it reminds us that philosophizing - meditating on how we should live, why we should live, what we love and fight for, where we're going - is nothing less than learning how to die. 

"Parable of the Rich Fool,"
by Rembrandt (1627)
As I watched it, I asked myself: If I knew I would die tonight, that I would suddenly have to leave all the people and places I've known behind for good, what kind of state would I be in: peace, or panic? Would I be like Charles Borromeo who, when he asked what he would do if the world was coming to end while he was playing chess, said: "Keep playing"? Or would I wish for more time to correct mistakes and live rightly? Would I go like a hero singing my death song, or like John Tutorro in Miller's Crossing - a coward begging for a way out? Would I "go gentle into that good night," or "rage against the dying of the light"?

An unsettling thought. But, to paraphrase Kafka, we should love the art that unsettles us, that takes an axe to the frozen waters of complacency inside of us. It's this kind of art that strengthens, improves, perfects.

But what it doesn't do is sell. So, rather than trouble audiences with death, many artists just focus on destruction. They don't anguish about mortality, but relish in the macabre. They expunge all of the lengthy philosophical dimensions of death, but keep the event itself for dramatic thrust. As a result, we audience members can watch thousands of violent deaths on-screen, and yet somehow avoid thinking seriously about death for more than a second. 

Times have changed in this department. In the late medieval period, there was an entire genre of art focused on the universality and inevitability of death: the "danse macabre." Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting "The Triumph of Death" looks like something out of a Sam Raimi film - but is actually a religious meditation on how "death comes for us all, even for kings." The painting depicts people of different social backgrounds – from peasants and soldiers to nobles as well as a king and a cardinal – being taken by death indiscriminately.


A written reflection accompanying the 1463 painting Totentantz by Bernt Notke captures the idea behind a painting like this:
Wer war der Thor, wer der Weiser
Wer der Bettler oder Kaiser?
Ob arm, ob reich, im Tode gleich
(Who was the fool, who the wise man
Who the beggar or the Emperor?
Whether rich or poor, all are equal in death.)
Again, a lot of modern art plagiarizes the fiery, skeletal themes of the danse macabre art, but empties it of its original intention. We have no formal genre like this, designed to really zero in on death - only slasher films to distract us from life. In 1604, Caravaggio painted "St. Francis in Meditation" and Shakespeare penned the second quatro of Hamlet - both men depicted as holding skulls and wondering about this "quintessence of dust" doomed "to die, to sleep," about "what dreams may come" after that sleep. In 2003, we have Saw - all of the spurting blood and cracking bones, but not much wondering about anything.

Yet, the danse macabre lives on, as it does in this last scene of Act of Valor. It lives on in movies like Departures, Love and Death, and 50/50, and songs like "Lonesome Valley," "Rabid Bits of Time," and "Crossroads." Regardless of the great lengths we go to avoid thinking about it, death will always live on in our hearts so long as we're mortal creatures. And art, at its best, doesn't resist the natural synergy it has with philosophy on such subjects - instead, it asks in unison with it: "Are you making time to learn how to die?"

10 comments:

  1. A friend of mine is in the process of joining the Australian Army so I went with him to watch the movie.

    What I found interesting was that the film left it openended enough that the pursuit of fighting for a cause (family, future, adrenalin, sense of purpose) also extended to becoming a terrorist or a criminal.

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    Replies
    1. I honestly can't comment on that either way - as I noted in the article, I was guilty of only "half-watching" until the end. I'll have to give it a second viewing soon to digest the rest of the movie!

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  2. "Act of Valor" is a much more interesting (if not necessarily technically better) movie than a lot of people give it credit for, and I'm glad you picked up on it.

    It's still basically a shallow propaganda film, but I like a lot of the things about it that you discuss. I hadn't really picked up on the meditation of death, but the thing that made me realize that I should be paying more attention to how the film is being crafted was when they used the first-person P.O.V. of the SEALs. At first, it looks like it's just trying - and failing - to emulate first-person shooter games. But then we get to the scene where the character, all in first person, puts down his gun, places a blanket over a torture victim, and carries her out. It's such a clever subversion of what I had been taking for granted up until that point.

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    Replies
    1. Interesting observation - I did notice that a lot of the film used this first-person POV technique. It definitely made for a more visceral and immediate experience.

      I agree that the film is not the best ever - the acting and plot leaves something to be desired. But the ending really affected me in a profound way (obviously)!

      Glad you enjoyed the article and thanks for commenting!

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  3. Beautifully written Matt. Well done.

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