29 January, 2011

Speech and Silence in Decalogue One

In class the other day we watched the first of a series of ten one-hour films by Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski. Called the "Decalogue," the series deals, unsurprisingly, with the Ten Commandments. Which could be a set-up for disaster of the most stupendous "Christian moralizing" sort. But Kieślowski doesn't approach his subject from a moralizing perspective at all. The first Decalogue is profoundly elegiac, sensitively negotiating questions of love, the nature of belief, and death in its recounting of the apparently senseless death of an eleven-year-old boy. So it comes as something of a tonal non sequitur when about halfway through the film the private world of the father, son, and aunt is interrupted by a lecture on linguistics at the public university. We have not left behind the central characters: the father is simply appearing in his public role as a university professor, his son, Pawel, accompanying him. But this temporary shift away from personal interaction gives Kieslowski a chance to simultaneously articulate one of the central concerns of the film in theoretical terms inappropriate to ordinary conversation and to increase the tragic irony of the father's preoccupation with science.

The film is attentive to questions of communication, both verbal and non-verbal, and this lecture takes up the same topic. Yet the father restricts the lecture’s focus to linguistic communication. Building an argument for the possibility of intelligent volition in computers, he reconfirms his fascination with technology through his choice of subject matter. But a certain tension—parallel to that existing between his non-reductive love for his family and his obsession with scientific logic—exists between the beginning and ending of his analysis of language here.

He begins affirming a holistic view of language, seeing it as an organic entity, specific to a culture and expressive of that culture’s individuality. Transmitting the “metasemantics”—that is, the controlling vocabulary—of one culture to another is almost impossible, he says, even in the best of translations: language is too deeply rooted, too tied to a distinct locality and common cultural experience. His approach hints at elements of transcendence contained in language when he suggests that this metasemantic is in essence that culture's metaphysic, the meaning hidden behind the delimiting effects of words. Yet somehow, though he argues so seriously for the value of “what is hidden behind the words,” he concludes by questioning Eliot's idea that “poetry is untranslatable.” Poetry is untranslatable in some respects, according to his initial observations: it is an expression of beauty and love that must by its nature be particularized within a culture that can comprehend its premises and value what it values. But he does not seem to follow these implications through to their logical conclusion. Rather than be satisfied with the existence of the inexpressible, he prefers (at least according to his own words), to essentially deny its existence. Translation is difficult, he suddenly begins to claim, not impossible. And it is difficult only because human linguists are finite, incapable of comprehending a sufficient number of variations of culture and temporality: surely a computer, with its potential for a near-infinite permutations of 0 and 1 can do what the limited human cannot. It is, after all, a translator “capable of accumulating all knowledge of words and language.”

Throughout the lecture, however, images of Pawel, smiling, watching his father, and experimenting with perspectives from which he can see him, contrast with this theoretical conclusion. Pawel hardly seems attentive to the words being said, but he is highly attentive to his father. This attention to the whole person, rather than to what is only verbally expressed, reminds the viewer of the aunt’s earlier conversation with the boy. As the he talks to her about his father and the existence of God, she is able to anticipate and respond to the unspoken questions behind his words. She eventually realizes that the best response is one that is not essentially verbal, hugging him to explain that God is love; we see that real human communication in this case is an expression of love as well.

Given his rejection of the unspoken for the language of the computer, one may, out of context, suspect that this father fills the role of the unimaginative counter to the aunt’s unquestioning love; that between the two exists a divide between reductive rationality and non-reductive love. But for Kieslowski to have moved in this direction would have been for him to make the characters into symbols rather than human beings. The father’s love for his son contradicts his argument for the computer’s ability to assume any crucial human function. The pleasure with which he announces that “in [his] opinion” a computer may have its own aesthetic preferences, personality, individuality, is particularly ironic in the context of the film’s conclusion. He has intellectually (though I emphasize again, not emotionally) set up the computer as a god of sorts, or at least as an entity capable of comprehending and surpassing all human capacities. But if this god even has a personality and volition, what are we to make of the fact that it fails him at the end? When the boy dies, is this a proof that technology does not have the power the father attributes to it in this scene? Or will unpredicted breaking of the ice appear the act of a malevolent deity, à la Hardy's “Hap, to this university professor and father whose theory is haunted by the possibility of such volition and whose practice is nonetheless in constant contrast to his ideas? The movie answers these questions neither in absolute terms, nor with respect to the father himself, forcing the viewer, like the central family here, to remain content with the “meaning behind the words” or images. We can understand the film’s “message” only by empathizing with the father and making his unanswered questions imaginatively our own.

1 comment:

Gerald McEachern said...

Computer as metaphor for the rational mind. Very nice, and good essay. You might enjoy John Ralston Saul's exploration of rationality (limits, challenges, deformation of the human condition) in The Unconscious Civilization. Cheers!