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The False Idol of Unfettered Capitalism
Posted on Mar 16, 2009
By Chris Hedges
When I returned to New York City after nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans, I was unsure of where I was headed. I lacked the emotional and physical resiliency that had allowed me to cope as a war correspondent. I was plagued by memories I wanted to forget, waking suddenly in the middle of the night, my sleep shattered by visions of gunfire and death. I was alienated from those around me, unaccustomed to the common language and images imposed by consumer culture, unable to communicate the pain and suffering I had witnessed, not much interested in building a career.
It was at this time that the Brooklyn Academy of Music began showing a 10-part film series called “The Decalogue.” Deka, in Greek, means 10. Logos means saying or speech. The Decalogue is the classical name of the Ten Commandments. The director was the Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski, who had made the trilogy “White, Blue and Red.” The 10 films, each about an hour long and based on one of the commandments, were to be shown two at a time over five consecutive weeks. I saw them on Sunday nights, taking the subway to Brooklyn, its cars rocking and screeching along the tracks in the darkened tunnels. The theater was rarely more than half full.
The films were quiet, subtle and often opaque. It was sometimes hard to tell which commandment was being addressed. The characters never spoke about the commandments directly. They were too busy, as we all are, coping with life. The stories presented the lives of ordinary people confronted by extraordinary events. All lived in a Warsaw housing complex, many of them neighbors. They were on a common voyage, yet also out of touch with the pain and dislocation of those around them. The commandments, Kieslowski understood, were not dusty relics of another age, but a powerful compass with vital contemporary resonance.
In film after film he dealt with the core violation raised by each of the commandments. He freed the commandments from the clutter of piety and narrow definitions imposed upon them by religious leaders and institutions. The promiscuous woman portrayed in the film about adultery was not married. She had a series of empty, carnal relationships. Adultery, at its deepest level for the director, was sex without love. The father in the film about honoring our parents was not the biological father. The biological mother was absent in the daughter’s life. Parenting, Kieslowski knew, is not defined by blood or birth or gender. It is defined by commitment, fidelity and love. In the film about killing, an unemployed drifter robs and brutally murders a cab driver. He is caught, sentenced and executed by the state. Kieslowski forces us to confront the barbarity of murder, whether it is committed by a deranged individual or sanctioned by society.
I knew the commandments. I had learned them at Sunday school, listened to sermons based on the commandments from my father’s pulpit and studied them as a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School. But Kieslowski turned them into living, breathing entities.
“ ... For 6,000 years these rules have been unquestionably right,” Kieslowski said of the commandments. “And yet we break them every day. We know what we should do, and yet we fail to live as we should. People feel that something is wrong in life. There is some kind of atmosphere that makes people turn now to other values. They want to contemplate the basic questions of life, and that is probably the real reason for wanting to tell these stories.”
In eight of the films there was a brief appearance by a young man, solemn and silent. Kieslowski said he did not know who the character was. Perhaps he was an angel or Christ. Perhaps he represented the divine presence who observed with profound sadness the tragedy and folly we humans commit against others and against ourselves.
“He’s not very pleased with us,” was all the director said.
The commandments are a list of religious edicts, according to passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy, given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. The first four are designed to guide the believer toward a proper relationship with God. The remaining six deal with our relations with others. It is these final six commands that are given the negative form of “You Shall Not ... .” Only two of the commandments, the prohibitions against stealing and murder, are incorporated into our legal code. Protestants, Catholics and Jews have compiled slightly different lists, but the essence of the commandments remains the same. Muslims, while they do not list the commandments in the Koran, honor the laws of Moses, whom they see as a prophet.
The commandments are not defined, however, by the three monotheistic faiths. They are one of the earliest attempts to lay down moral rules and guidelines to sustain a human community. Nearly every religion has set down an ethical and moral code that is strikingly similar to the Ten Commandments. The Eightfold Path, known within Buddhism as the Wheel of Law, forbids murder, unchastity, theft, falsehood and, especially, covetous desire. The Hindus’ sacred syllable Om, said or sung before and after prayers, ends with a fourth sound beyond the range of human hearing. This sound is called the “sound of silence.” It is also called “the sound of the universe.” Hindus, in the repetition of the Sacred Syllable, try to go beyond thought, to reach the stillness and silence that constitutes God. Five of the Ten Commandments delivered from Mount Sinai are lifted directly from the Egyptian “Book of the Dead.” No human being, no nation, no religion, has been chosen to be the sole interpreter of mystery. All cultures struggle to give words to the experience of the transcendent. It is a reminder that all of us find God not in what we know, but in what we cannot comprehend.
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