Dead Man and Crisis - Madrid Interview

The drum beat of demonstrators a few streets away in Madrid’s financial district can be heard. There are shouts, and dull thuds which could be the sound of feet hitting the reinforced glass doors of nearby banks. Just like in the movie, we see a group of young “bohemians” walk past swaying and chattering.

I went with the Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, to watch Limits of Control. The film -- released in 2009 -- is set in Spain. Now we are sitting in a cafeteria where I will interview Dr Ortega. I hope firstly to receive his reactions to the film, and then to ask his opinion on the social and ideological effects of Spain’s financial crisis. On the table are four expressos, two for him, two for me. Dr Ortega takes a pretty matchbox from his jacket pocket and pushes it slowly across the table to me. He no longer smokes, but likes to carry mint lozenges in a matchbox for old times’ sake. I thank him and take one. Then I push my inelegant matchbox toward The Philosopher. Mine is a supermarket-variety kingsize box for long matches. In it I carry an Olympus digital recorder, with two spare batteries.

Anyone who has seen the film will know the meaning of the scenes of coffees and matchboxes. They reoccur whenever Lone Man, the assassin, receives his instructions. I am still thinking about the assassin’s encounter with The American he is instructed to kill. The American’s loathing of “bohemians” puzzles me. Dr Ortega waits for the interview to begin. His expression is cheerfully expectant but his body is stiff and his pallor pasty-grey. Next to him in the cinema I was aware of an odour of damp earth and broken flowers.

I ask Professor Ortega, can he comment on the rumours of his death?

Jim Jarmusch [director of Limits of Control] asked me the same stupid question four years ago when he was here to shoot the film. You’re Dead, Man, he drawled, peering at me as if I were a corpse. Young man, I replied, you have much to learn about generational change in history. The most elemental fact of human life is that some men die and others are born - that lives succeed each other… However, this means that in every present there lives a boy, a mature man, an old man, as well as a dead man; the unity of four different ages in one historic time.”

From the moment we begin to be, death may intervene into the very substance of our life, collaborate in it, compress it and densify it at every instant… As you are there and I am here, we are together. We could say the same thing about this table and these chairs… But the thing which does not happen to the table and chairs, is that though I am here, I perceive without ceasing to be here that I am also there, in you. I exist for you; and vice versa; you, motionless over there, are at the same time here, in me; you exist for me.

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This is obviously a form of being together in an essential sense… I live in a social relationship with you to the degree that *I am you*… But suddenly something strange is happening to the man who was accompanying me. His body becomes immobile and rigid… I speak to him and he does not answer… A fellowship has vanished into thin air… A state of being left alone by myself is what we call death… Death is the solitude which remains out of a companionship which was… What is human is not man’s body, nor even his soul, but his life. The body is a thing, the soul is also a thing; man is not a thing, but a drama!

Yes, yes, I interrupt. (I’m aware of the shortness of time, of life.)

Dr Ortega, I do accept you are alive because we are in a kind of fellowship, exchanging ideas, and because you (or your drama) are inside of me. You may be motionless but you are not dead.

However, you were saying there is a generational factor?

Yes… the world changes with every generation for the very reason that the previous generation has done something for the world, has left it somewhat different from the way it found it. The *Madrid* which those who are twenty years old find today is different, even visually, from what it was when my own blossoming twenties discovered it… The world change which each generation, willingly or not, effects in the normal course of events is a change in the general *tonality* of the world… If we compare today’s horizon with that of no more than ten years ago -- and I refer not particularly to the *Spanish scene*, but the entire horizon -- we will be forced to recognize that in no field have concrete things changed very much, that in most fields the change is imperceptible; and true though this be, nevertheless the world change has been fantastic.

I nod, and my eyes travel from the old starched white tablecloth to AZCA’s shiny metallic skyscrapers, the Banco de Bilbao, the Banco Santander.

I ask Ortega’s opinion on the philosophical references in the film, the cryptic instructions given to the assassin, such as “Everything is subjective”, and “Reality is arbitrary”, which are repeated later.

Dr Ortega, let me remind you of the dialogue between Lone Man and The American:
American: You people don’t understand a fucking thing about how the world really works.
Lone Man: I understand, but I understand *subjectively*.
American: That’s fucking nonsense. Your sick minds have been polluted with crap. Your music, movies, *science*. Fucking bohemians on hallucinogenic drugs. All that shit has poisoned you, and it has nothing to do with the real world. And I suppose you believe that by eliminating *me* you will eliminate control over... some… fucking *artificial reality*!!!
Lone Man: Reality is arbitrary.
American: Fuck you. [quiet act of strangulation with antique guitar string]

Ortega shrugs. He says he tried to persuade Jarmusch to use phenomenological and perspectivist ideas in Limits of Control, but he suspects they were not adequately understood from a genuinely existential viewpoint. Feeling suddenly anxious lest the interview become complicated, I gulp my second expresso and check the battery level on the recorder. Dr Ortega notices, and pauses. “Incidentally”, he says, “I like the film. I think it gently wants to pull me -- the viewer -- away from fear of the unknown and into the perspective of a succession of outsiders whose only common characteristic is the capacity to see through phoniness and break the circuits of anxiety. By doing this the film places the viewer in the right frame of mind for the kind of philosophy I spent my life doing.”

He continues: “Subjectivity -- my self-conscious perspective on a reality -- is our only way of being in the world. That is a valid psychological foundation for truth about what it means to be human. Recall my famous motto: I am I and my circumstances… What is less well understood is that my life’s work has aimed to liberate ‘I’ from the prison of subjective experience. To save ourselves we require an *objective* theoretical consciousness that enables mastery of the general systematic facts of world history, scientifically.”

Neither the data nor the facts, however accurate, are the stuff of reality itself… *Reality* is not a gift which facts make to man… it is quite the opposite - an enigma, a profound secret, a problem… Science, the interpretation of facts, presents us with the problem of reality… In order to discover reality we must for a moment lay aside the facts that surge about us… Then, on our own *risk* and *account*, we construct an *imaginary* reality… and we compare those facts, which the imagined reality would produce, with the actual facts… That labour is what science is… What I ask of historians is only that they take seriously the general structure which our life has and which operates identically in all places and at all times…

The point is… When one tries to understand a confused crisis period one must start from a clear and precise concept of what life is and what are the functions that make it up...

In its primary dimension, to live is to be myself, the “I” which is each one of us, in the environment which surrounds us, and with no choice but to cope with it. But this imposes on life a second dimension, consisting of the need to find out what the environment is in an effort to resolve the problem. We think about our environment, and this thinking creates for us an idea, a map, an architectural design of the pure problem, of the *chaos* which in the first instance our surroundings *appear* to be… The world or universe is not given to us, nor is it simply there; it is created by our convictions… The most skeptical of us live amid certain fundamental convictions… The skeptic lives in a sea of doubts… Life is not solely man, the subject which lives. It is also the *drama* which arises when that subject finds himself obliged to fling his arms about, to swim shipwrecked in that sea which is the world. History is not primarily the psychology of man, but the refashioning of the structure of that drama which flares between man and the world… History must abandon the devotion to psychology, the subjectivism in which its finest modern productions are losing themselves, and must recognize that its mission is to reconstruct the *objective* conditions in which individuals have been submerged. Its basic question must be, not how human beings have differed, but how the objective structure of life has varied.

Life is drama; the character of its reality is not like the reality of this table, which consists merely in being here, but is made up of the fact that each one must go on doing for himself, moment after moment, in a perpetual tension, without ever having complete security… He is capable, but reality is not **defined** by what one is capable of doing but very well may not do… These days civilized man is feeling a terror of which, only thirty years ago, he was completely ignorant. Thirty years ago he believed himself to be living in a world where *economic progress* was without finite limits and free from serious lapses. But young men whose lives began amid ample circumstances now live in a world of economic crisis which sets every element of security in this sector of life to wobbling…

In principle, one generation carries the previous generation within itself… we are not riding free in the air… in our present, whether we like it or not, we thrash about like shipwrecked sailors… Confusion goes hand in hand with every period of crisis. Because what is called “crisis” is by definition no more than the transition which man makes from living attached to and leaning on one set of things to living attached to and leaning on another set of things. The transition comprises two *severe* operations: first, the letting go of that udder which has been nourishing our life; and second, the preparing of the mind to take hold of a new udder…

Dr Ortega, when you speak of two kinds of udder, would it be possible to say of Spain today that the first is a collective udder, the overflowing milk cow of state welfare, public sector employment, subsidies, and so on, whereas the second udder -- let’s say it is the udder of a hardy mountain goat -- would be a market where the supply of milk confronts the economic fact of scarcity, and the teat tastes of profit, and every goat must look lively to show they are frisky and deserve their share?

My own reply, so that you may clearly observe the path my thought is taking, is that an historical crisis is a world change which differs from the normal change as follows: the *normal* change is that yesterday’s system of convictions gives way to today’s, smoothly, without a break; this assumes that the skeleton framework of the society remains in force or is only slightly modified. That is the normal. Well, then, an historical *crisis* occurs when the system of convictions belonging to the previous generation gives way to a vital state in which man remains without these convictions. Man returns to a state of not knowing what to do and what to think about the world. The change swells to a crisis and takes on the character of a catastrophe...

I think I follow you, Dr Ortega. This is like the difference between continuous and discontinuous change?

Yes. It is a change which begins by being negative and critical. One only knows that the traditional norms and ideas are false and inadmissible. One feels a profound disdain for almost everything which was believed yesterday; but the truth is that there are no new positive beliefs with which to replace the traditional ones…

So I guess this must be the end of a history, a post-ideological world.

That system of convictions was the map which permitted man to move within his environment with a certain security, and since he now lacks such a map, he again feels himself lost, at loose ends, without orientation. He tries this side and then the other; he pretends to himself that he is convinced of this or that. During periods of crisis, positions which are false or feigned are very common. Entire generations *falsify* themselves to themselves… Life as crisis is a condition in which man holds only negative convictions. This is a terrible situation. The negative conviction, the lack of feeling certain about anything important, prevents man from deciding with any precision, energy, confidence, or sincere enthusiasm what he is going to do... It is a lamentable state of disorientation…

I said before that life is solitude, basically, fundamentally, solitude. Each of us has to go on living his own life by himself. And I must think a thought which will solve a problem for *me*… But in order to make decisions about my existence I must have a repertoire of convictions, of opinions, about the world [about reality]. I am the one who must actually be convinced. In the final analysis, each one of us carries his own existence suspended in the hollow of his own hand… To be centered within oneself is the opposite of living harried and confused… The opposite of being one’s self is to be in a state of otherness, to be shoved about and confused… A great proportion of the thoughts with which we live are not thought out by us with evidence in hand… If I allow things around me or the opinions of others to influence me, I cease to be myself… Man’s [unique] situation permits him to be more or less inattentive to what is going on in the landscape. This capacity, which seems so simple, is what makes man as such possible. Thanks to it, he can turn his back on the outside...

Dr Ortega, you seem to be saying that man must learn from history and be flexible and resourceful in confronting crises. Would you say this is a world in which collectivist or socialized systems have reached a point of saturation or over-extension, but that it is at the same time a world that has forgotten the individualistic and self-reliant ways of living?

“I”, in my solitude, could not call myself by a generic name like ‘man.’ The reality represented by this name ‘man’ appears to me only when there is *another* being who responds or reciprocates to me… But now we have become aware of something that is a constituent factor in all that we have called ‘social relation’… namely, that all these actions of ours and all these reactions of others in which the so-called ‘social relation’ consists, originate in an individual as such, I myself for example, and are directed to *another* individual as such. Therefore, the ‘social relation,’ as it has so far appeared to us, is always explicitly a reality *between* individuals… Man’s genuine self is swallowed up by his cultured, conventional, social self. Every great phase of culture ends in man’s socialization, and vice versa; socialization pulls man out of his life of solitude, which is his real and authentic life… Primitive man is a socialized man without an individuality. Those who believe that the socialization or the collectivization of man has only now been invented commit a grave error. This has always occurred when history falls into a crisis…

Dr Ortega, I can still hear the demonstrators. The European Union has demanded that in return for financial rescue Spain’s government must find 30 billion euros of additional budget savings in 2012. The new government has announced the most austere budget in many decades. Nearly 25% of the population is unemployed, there was a general strike last week, social tensions seem to be rising, and government is quite unable to control spending in the autonomous regions and municipalities. Can your book ‘Man and Crisis’ throw any light on the present crisis? Does Spain have the strength of will to endure austerity? What will the masses be thinking? Will they revolt? What will be the effects on Spain’s social fabric? What do you think?

“I have already told you what I think about the causes and trajectory of crises like this one, which fundamentally reduce to the capacity of the individual to imagine a new reality and find a new place in the world. As for Spain’s history, here there always existed Limits of Control. I did not find the undercurrent of conspiracy theory in the film at all persuasive. There is no mysterious evil foreign corporation attempting to control Spain or the world and its youth. In other words, there is no Bill Murray character. What we have instead are homegrown institutional obstacles. Reality has been arbitrary and unpredictable because of the phenomenon of particularism, which is expressed, for example, as regional nationalism, the opposite of universalism."

"In 1921, I said Spain is not so much a nation as a series of water-tight compartments. Particularism is rampant, yet individualism is suppressed. I complained of the stultifying abstract divinity of the collective. Day-by-day government forces us to give a larger part of our existence to society. Man is left no corner to retire to. The masses protest angrily against any reserve which we hold back for ourselves. What is the origin of this anti-individual fury?, I asked. I do not know whether these observations hold true today. I am much less in touch than I used to be.”

He is finished. It is not a tiredness that would be cured with another expresso. We gaze silently at the black helicopter circling overhead. Suddenly The Philosopher leans forward with a mischievous glint in his eye. “You don’t speak Spanish, am I right?”.

Just like in the movie.

Thank you Professor Ortega y Gasset, and may you rest in peace.

The Credits -

Man 1 - Italics are from Man and Crisis (1958) by José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), originally published in Spanish as ‘Esquema de la Crisis’ (1942).

Man 2 - Jim Jarmusch (b. 1953) is an American independent film director. His films include Dead Man (1995) and Broken Flowers (2005).;

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