How to remember the future

nation 26 october 2009Stuart Klawans reviews Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass, in which the 87 year old master filmmaker returns once more to his great theme of memory and desire.  Resnais excels at depicting  characters who cannot quite tell the difference between the past and the future.  In this film, two middle-aged Parisians think about flirting with each other.  Confused as to which of their feelings are hopes for the future and which are regrets for the past, they struggle to see each other as they are and their relationship as it might be.  Successful lovemaking, apparently, requires us to find a way to distinguish between the future and the past.  

Many have said that the purpose of philosophy is to teach us how to die.  This line always reminds me of what John Silber said in 1990 when he was running for governor of Massachusetts and a voter asked him what the public schools should teach children: “Teach them that they are going to die.”  Silber was not elected, needless to say.  A review essay considers the idea of philosophy as a preparation for a good death.  There are some interesting quotes and paraphrases along the way.  For example, Freud contended that such teaching is pointless, because we cannot imagine our own death.  Thinking of Resnais’ films, we might add to Freud’s argument an appendix that although it may be certain that our future will end with death, there is nothing like it in our past.  We cannot envision death, because we cannot remember it.  Nor can we accept it as long as our hopes for the future pervade our minds.  To accept death, we would have to break from both the past and the future, and feel only the present instant as real.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross saw this, and at times preached a Buddhist-inspired doctrine urging us to emulate death in life by emptying ourselves of ego, and to see only the present, unaffected by memories or regrets, hopes or fears.  But she could not follow this through; as she neared death herself, Kubler-Ross clung to Hollywood-inspired fantasies of indefinitely long life.  Dying, like lovemaking, requires us to distinguish between the future and the past.        

Comic poet Calvin Trillin directs a swingeing attack at Roman Polanski’s Hollywood-based defenders.  They forget part of the past and cling fiercely to other parts of it.  As a result, they find themselves arguing that Polanski’s self-imposed exile from Los Angeles was worse for him than the crime he committed in 1977 was for his victim.  “Has he not suffered quite enough?/ How can these people get so riled?/He only raped a single child.”  Katha Pollitt took aim at the same targets in prose with an entry on her blog some time previously.  Society cannot survive without justice, and justice distinguishes between the future and the past.    

In the 5 October issue of The Nation, Noy Thrupkaew had written of failed efforts to curb sex trafficking in southeast Asia.  In this issue, she follows up with a piece on more successful forms of intervention.  Where the “rescue” groups Thrupkaew found fault with in her earlier piece began their work in southeast Asia with a set idea of what women and girls there needed and ended by building prisons in which they would be forced to take what they were determined to give them, the groups she finds here are either led by sex workers themselves or consist of people who listen to them.  What the women and girls want are approaches that address their present needs, not grand gestures that leave them worse off than before.  Here too, we see past and future mingled together.  The “rescuers” are outsiders who act in the name of an innocence that they imagine characterized the childhood of southeast Asian sex workers.  For the sake of this idealized past, they forcibly uproot those workers and leave them without homes, without families, without anywhere to go but even more degrading forms of prostitution.  Only an approach that clearly distinguishes between the future and the past can offer a way forward.

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