Monday, December 1, 2008

Rousseau and The Lost World (1997)

In his famous second discourse, the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755), Jean-Jacques Rousseau preempts the vacuous call for “family values,” more than two centuries before the fact. That the family is merely a result of the unnatural socializing of human being, Rousseau concludes in his account of the transformation of human being from the state of nature to civil society. Because human being is originally independent, unsocialized, with no capacity for love beyond an anodyne sympathy against suffering, its emotions cannot attach to the visage of another.

One crucial question in this issue addresses the maternal relation to offspring. Is the mother indifferent to the child, and if not must this not be the sign of an original sociality? Rousseau answers: the mother cares for the child until it is old enough to go its own way, and then they part, such that later neither the mother nor child shall be capable of remembering the other. This will turn out to be the site of an intersection with The Lost World (1997).

Rousseau’s account is fascinating, in part, because of its audacity. Rousseau begins the Discourse with a careful outline of the difficulties confronting him. The discourse may reveal the origin of inequality among men only by recovering the original human nature, which Rousseau believes his contemporaries (Locke, Hobbes, etc.) have confused with a later stage in that development. But one of Rousseau’s presuppositions, which his contemporaries do not observe, is that human nature is subject to dramatic change within history. But how, if human nature may change so, shall it be recognized? The problem is not merely that human nature itself is changed, but that our knowledge of ourselves, in the present, grows, and as such managed to conceal our knowledge of ourselves beyond the present. With the increase in knowledge of the knower, the object known becomes unrecognizable, because of the faith required to overlook the temporal distances crossed, conditions overcome, and to see what is most familiar in what seems most different. Rousseau admits this presupposition, accepts in its greatness the difficulty of this undertaking, and submits as resolution a conjecture. In my students’ profane language, a guess.

What leads Rousseau to this most unapposite of decisions? Perhaps his conclusions, which consist largely in the critique of civil society and the endless revolutions therein. Perhaps his faith in the perfection of the original nature, befitting the design of our benevolent creator. It is not anthropological research, which although he draws upon heavily, nevertheless Rousseau claims does not admit of human being in the state of nature that he describes.
Having the chance to see Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World (1997) this afternoon, I can confidently say that the profound query Rousseau raises has not been left to merely scholastic frippery. In fact, the root of Rousseau’s concerns appear in both this film and in its precursor, Jurassic Park (1993), but only in The Lost World is this problem so clearly stated. In one of the early sequences of the film, the basic condition appears for all of bloodshed to follow: the maternal instinct of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Namely, the question remains, does the T-Rex have it (and no, sadly I speak of no Marc Bolan)? Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) poses this question to her boyfriend, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), almost in passing, after he finds her on the famous “Site B” that allowed the sequel to occur, since presumably by the first film the original “Jurassic Park” had been filled with the skeletons of lysine-deficient lizards (by the way, how did they give those dinosaurs their dose of lysine every seven days?). Harding complains that modern science has given the T-Rex a bad rap, focusing on its murderous hunger, without regard for the one capacity that might allow humans to empathize with this terrifying figure: the maternal instinct.

The entire film depends on the maternal instinct and the care it demands for offspring. Of course, this sort of thing reminds one, humorously, of Rodney Dangerfield’s character’s great line in Caddyshack (1980), after meeting the grandchild of his foe: “Now I know why tigers eat their young.” But that really is the question. Why doesn’t the T-Rex eat its young? If the instinct of the T-Rex is to hunt, to search mercilessly until it finds food, why would it not simply eat the children it bears?

Concern for offspring, real or imagined, was also a premise of Jurassic Park, in which Sam Neill’s character, though originally exclaiming no desire for children, finds himself well-suited to the paternal guidance of the two grandchildren of the pater familias of Jurassic Park. In The Lost World, it is Malcolm, the largely silent, nihilistic (because a “chaos-stitian”) cerebral type of the first film (who quickly reveals a very unreflective attitude towards scientific development—that it must be borne with reflection on its ends—as if this was the history of scientific development!), turns out to be the father of a young, precocious black girl (at one point in the film, onlookers remark “I do not see the family resemblance”) who handily follows Malcolm, albeit surreptitiously, to the famous “Site B” where his girlfriend, Dr. Sarah Harding, has been visiting alone (at her own risk). Malcolm explicitly claims, at one point, when corrected by a colleague that the dinosaurs they are watching are merely protecting their young, that he too is trying to protect his “baby,” meaning Harding. In the course of the film, it will not only be his “baby,” meaning Harding, but also his daughter, that he will try to protect. Granted, here we speak of a paternal instinct, but (sans Freud), the point is the same. Throughout all the numerous reversals of the films, the T-Rex continually follows its offspring, wherever that child may go (out of the nest, San Diego, Las Vegas, etc.).

So where does Rousseau fit in this paean to the powers of nature? Well Rousseau too is haunted by the maternal instinct. The maternal instinct describes the differance, if you will, at the basis of his argument. In both settings, the state of nature and in civil society, the mother expresses a basic care for the offspring. Now the state of nature that Rousseau describes is nothing like that of The Lost World. The latter conforms to the European, Herzogian vision found in Locke and Hobbes: the state of nature is unfettered violence (I reference Herzog in respect of his contribution to this genre, the film Grizzly Man (2005), in which Herzog plays the fool to Timothy Treadwell’s fantastic, Rousseauesque vision of nature, in which bears are social beings capable of love just as are humans—a vision revealed myopic—as Herzog puts it, “I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder”). But the question is, does this maternal instinct betray that human being is originally social, sympathetic, possessing an underlying “moral sense”?

Rousseau’s conclusions leave plenty of space for the aforementioned frippery. And frippery indeed. The true gem of the second Discourse is the reflection on nature, its dynamic … nature, and the difficulties approaching it. Rousseau admits what The Lost World shall not: consciousness of the ideological content of the concept of nature. I am tempted to say the emptiness of the concept. But perhaps it would be better to say the overdetermined character of the concept. And The Lost World, what does it have to say to this? What lesson does it portend for Rousseau?

P.S. The picture above belongs to one of the many palimpsests of The Lost World. But which is the original?

1 comment:

Torn Halves said...

A nice dovetailing of the high and the low, and nice that you make a point of Rousseau's eternal maternal. Interesting.