Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Existentialism and Film Music

Jean-Paul Sartre, 1945
A friend recently made a film and wrote for permission for use of some popular music to score the film. This reminded me of another filmmaker friend who employed the opposite process. He made a short film and passed it along to a musician, who composed music to fit the film. It turned out to be something of a reverse music video, that is, the music expresses the film short rather than the other way around.

You can see that reverse music video, entitled "Smile Around the Face" here, and I pay tribute to Dan Wilde for his creativity.

As it happens, Dan and I both studied philosophy and theology at Cambridge, and rowed. During outings, an occasional philosophical issue might arise that would prove stimulating for our conversation (and a bit boring to other guys in the boat). As I think about the "what came first" issue in film and music, my mind goes to existentialism, and here's why:

Jean Paul Sartre gave an example of typical philosophical outlooks: a manufacturer has an idea of a product, and then creates that product. Suppose he thinks about making a new paper cutter. The essence of the paper cutter is in his mind, then he brings it into existence by making it. This is a way of describing how God conceived of creation and brought it into existence. Essence precedes existence. Sartre denied this as true to reality, and said instead that human beings begin with existence, and then subsequently determine their essence.

The standpoint of his existentialism began with a hopeful seed, of radical human freedom. Sartre believed we were determine ourselves and our essential reality through our choices. Having come of age in the midst of his nation's occupation in WW2, perhaps we can sympathize with the freedom Sartre describes, at a time when actual freedom was thin on the ground. He had a crisis of choice in whether he should leave French North Africa, which would harm his mother, or remain, which would harm his sense of duty to fight with the Free French.

A Christian knows that optimism for humanity is based strongly on pessimism about our capabilities to choose freely. We are enslaved to our desires and only become free by means of the transforming power of the grace of God, to whom we render grateful service. An optimistic view of human nature leads to a pessimistic view of life, which I think afflicted Sartre. He did not decry morality, but purpose in life was ultimately absurd since we all die. The cruel joke on humanity is awareness of our existence in the face of the certainty of death.

I must hasten to note two things: one, Sartre is said to have privately come to Christian faith just prior to his death (tragically and absurdly, dying in a car accident but found with a train ticket for the same journey in his pocket), but he made no public renunciation of his atheism so it is not possible to say. Second, not all existentialist philosophies are atheistic. Kierkegaard is called an early existentialist and there are other modern philosophers who call themselves Christians and existentialist. But for my money, no hope for an eternal future but awareness of death means sitting in a Parisian cafe in a black turtleneck and beret, while chain smoking and suffering through life is pretty much the right reaction if existence precedes essence.


Chad said...

interesting thoughts cliff. though not put the same way, I have been engaging a lot of study - in one way or another - regarding the human "essence" in seminary this past year. Another interesting take would be to think about how Sartre might present his facebook profile given his views? blessings my friend.

Clifford Swartz said...

Great to hear from you, Chad!

I expect that Facebook would have been right up his alley. It is very much an arena of self-creation. Or at least of presentation that seems to be self-determined -- though we know that people are subject to desires that make this an illusion...

Anonymous said...

I think you are mixing Sartre to Camus. It was Camus who died in a car accident.

Clifford Swartz said...

You're absolutely right, anonymous! I mixed the two in my mind, which is a pity because they were very different men (and indeed had a falling out over political philosophy, I think).

It was Camus who died in the car accident and who may have become a Christian before his death (according to the memoir of an American minister in Paris in the last decade). Sartre died of a disease in 1980.

Thank you for the correction!

Maggie Mae said...

Interesting point of view. Finding a way of bringing existencialism and chistianity into terms seems to be a hard yet valid thing to do... been drifting between both for some time now and haven't found the link yet. Sure they deserve more study from my part, though. And thanks once more for sharing your thoughts!

Clifford Swartz said...

Thanks Maggie Mae.

I guess I'm due to re-read Kierkegaard, since he is typically termed the first Christian existentialist. At the moment, all I can remember is his essay on Abraham as a knight of faith, but it didn't leave me thinking that he had done much more than expose a seeming paradox. I need to read and consider his writing afresh, probably giving more attention to the historical context of the Danish Church (which I'm due to do anyway as I will be speaking on the subject of the Lord's Supper and using the film "Babette's Feast" as an illustration).

Thanks again!