-A window ajar is a prelude in building to the joy of being limitless! That uneasiness of being familiar somehow, sometime, somewhere.......

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Michael Corleone as Ubermensch?

Another one overdue, settling all old scores--

An entire century was a single seed of thought for Nietzsche. Sigmund Freud , Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Oswald Spengler, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Rainer Maria Rilke, André Gide, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, George Bernhard Shaw, WB Yeats, one cursory glance through the streets of 20th century intellect and the influence of Nietzsche is undeniable. Some men indeed are born posthumously.

With all due respect for his gifted ability for original and innate insights, it would be unjust to credit Nietzsche alone for such remarkably widespread influence. For, he had the privilege and the premise to take his aim standing on the shoulders of giants: From Plato to Dostoevsky, he had systematically drawn from and dissected all schools and thoughts before him. What he came up with the confluence of such a comprehension was an abstract and fragmented ideology that would go on to define the direction of the 20th century starting from Freud in the early part to the deconstructive post-modern movement during its later quarter.
Anyone who is acquainted with the works of Nietzsche would know that there is no single defining principle in his thought unlike most of the schools that preceded him. In Nietzsche, one encounters abstract planks which are hard to be understood and thereby are only open to interpretations. Yet they are recognised as a salient signposts in the journey of human thought. One such major plank is that of Ubermensch.

Nietzsche alludes to the Ubermensch in the opening segment of Thus spake zarathustra and only vaguely without much elaboration . This unfortunately has lead to the often misconceived notion that Ubermensch is an ideal man superior to any other average human. A mistake even balanced thinkers like Santayana couldn’t escape. I think an easier, although agreeably a tedious attempt to understand Nietzsche’s Ubermensch is to follow his thought process through his complete works beginning from The birth of Tragedy to Ecce Homo as one single entity. But alas! Even then, just like life, all one gets is to make only an interpretation. I have, since being introduced to Ubermensch tried to peel layer after abstract layer to understand this concept at different times and from different perspectives. I saw that such efforts led me to form a core of a concept often wrapped by other changing satellite-ideas. Naturally the next step was to find the match for the concept amongst famous people known. I found weirder and obscure matches but a popular and a compelling one would come from a fiction. And the more I ponder I about him(character) and his life the more I’m convinced he has come to be the valueless nihilistic icon that Nietzsche had written nearly hundred years back. He is Michael Corleone , conceived by Mario Puzo but imprinted in our memories by the genius of Coppola in the form of the talented Al Pacino. Yes, very few men in the history of humanity for what it is now and what is to be written, would supersede Michael Corleone as an example for Ubermensch.

I initially had thought of writing this post by alternatively comparing Nietzsche’s writings with the character of Michael corleone and sketch out the similarities/differences. But it made me realise that it is too intricate and also perhaps quite demanding on the reader if s/he is not well acquainted with either or both. Hence to avoid the risk of that free floatingness I have decided in favour of just presenting a summary of Michael Corleone’s character. Hopefully this would encourage the readers to find out more on Nietzsche ‘s idea of Ubermensch and make their own judgement.I have restricted only to film and not the charecter in the book on which it was based. Again, such a task being a product of individual taste and perception naturally it precludes any logical consistency and objectivity. Therefore dear reader, proceed with utmost prejudice.

Michael is almost like any man, brought up in a protected culture, loving and loved by his family, starry eyed at the ideals , proud of his nation and privileged to make his conscientious choices. He aspires to lead himself and his wife to be into a civil domestic life. One, that promises respect and comfort that any man seeks. Yet Michael appears like a man who hasn’t made his peace. Underneath all , there is a mild air of chastened sadness around him that is presumably imagined to have come from an underlying conflict. On one hand, as an intelligent being he feels strongly for his values that define him, on the other he understands that the family he loves so much and is a part of is not legitimate and is contrary to the very values he cherishes. In this sense of understanding he departs from any average hero. He is not a Christ, Gandhi or Spartacus who symbolise a moral struggle in a value conflict with the extant inimical premises. On the contrary, Michael, born into a paradox, is in conflict with himself. He starts out as the militant attacking himself under peaceful conditions. His yearning to pull himself away from the family shall always be overcome by the fact that he is born into it. As perhaps you would expect Michael to have done all his growing years- the more he reflects about himself and the family, the more he is wants to pull away. Yet is convinced that a respite eludes him , a sad realisation which perhaps renders him so cold, mean and calculative. Unlike a few other protagonists known, it must be noted that Michael chooses to be dedicated to the family out of his own volition. He is not prodded into it. Or there is no personal identification with the pathos that he chooses to lead. Nothing he does is impetuous or precedent. Doesn’t a man hurt worst when punished for his virtues?

Soon, this split devotion to his family is moulded and given form leading him to make desperate choices and share the repercussions of the sins he isn’t personally responsible for but the ones he fully understands and vows his allegiance to. He lets go of his cherished values just like how Ulysses departed from Nausicaa, blessing it rather than loving it. As he says, it is all business. Nothing personal!! So all of this is done with disturbing ease. Thereby, he ensures the personal suffering ensuing from the change in his value system is smooth and well concealed. From his individual aspirations to his family and love, he renews himself in newer values every time he fails himself. And since each of the value is further apart from his real wish he copes by making himself emotionally inaccessible to others and more harrowingly to himself. His anger is the smoke arising off the cold ice. He never grieves in spite of one bereavement after another befalling upon him. As a being, he erases himself. One can only speculate what were his own thoughts about deserting his girl friend and marrying another woman elsewhere, losing her and then after return resuming the old relationship blithely. And in this whole process of alienation that is coupled with personal expectation to fulfil his responsibilities, he departs further away. And away.[1] From everything. Slowly he loses personal desire, value, identity. He will because he ought to. His life is slowly ushered into decadence.

But it must be noted this is only in principle but not in phenomenon. He successfully manages to evade any affective identification towards him and also he is totally in control of his acts and hence is prepared to be accountable for the consequences.

An illustration would help- in the last scene, when Kay questions Michael if he really killed Carlo (Brother in law)? He lividly raises his voice warning her not to question him about his business. This scene evokes two type of principal responses from the audience-- 1.To worship Michael as a symbol of power(and dominance) 2. To sympathise with Kay. But, mostly it is forgotten that he was the same young man dressed in an Marines? uniform who had sat and conversed softly with her at the marriage in the first scene.
Far more importantly, no one would hate him or feel for him. Although it is known that he himself who has consciously willed his destiny (or decadence) he successfully evades hatred and sympathy. That is the elegance of the whole mechanism. Within Michael, a man dies and other is born every time. With this being sustained as a means of preserving himself , his worth as a value(self) ceases and a process begins[1].

If the first part was alienation and initiation of the process, second would be the inevitable direction it had to take. Of power, will and its callousness. He has now learnt very well that the greatest juncture of life is when we gain courage to rebaptise our badness as the best in us. There is no such thing as a moral phenomenon. There is only desire and will. And the rest lies in the great ocean of contempt to be concealed in the heart. In this duties that he has reached out for himself, we see that his fears are validated again - that even a slightest carelessness on his part would mean doom to his successful efforts so far. Similar to the making of Plato’s philosopher king, he battles against everything in the world. Against unidentified enemies, against the state, against his wife (who seems be growing distant), disloyal friends, family, and most notably against himself.

This is symbolised in what I regard as one of the greatest scenes ever captured for the motion picture[2]. I think it runs for about a full minute and a half or two at the beginning of the second DVD. Michael in the heart of the senate enquiry with a failed attempt on his life behind him returns in a car to his Brooklyn mansion. It is winter in New York and one can notice the sullen skies and the overnight snow trodden all around. His car is let in and a solemn looking Michael dressed in a dark suit, a long overcoat and a bowler hat carrying a briefcase gets down and walks slowly towards the door dragging himself in heavy steps. He pauses to look at a small toy car of his child. He comes into the house moving about the study and the dining room, glancing intently at the belongings before he rests his suitcase and takes off the hat. Finally he stands before one of the rooms and finds Kay absorbed in tailoring. The background music is aptly kept minimal. Not a single word is uttered.

It is the pain and the possibilities that adds depth to the character of this scene. Bound to his family, he realises the ultimate of all the truths that in spite of everything, he is alone and doomed to be prepossessed in fundamental doubts. The ones he cant share with others or make peace within himself. At this juncture, he supersedes his desires as responsibility/duty into an abstract attribute, beyond good and evil that takes control and care of him passively into the future. It all comes naturally now, with no emotion or thought underneath. There is no family now, it is him and a world that wants to be without him. And the consequences.
Not everyone, I just want to wipe off my enemies, that is all. Even if the enemy is supposedly his own brother he is pushed aside, mercilessly. A demonstration of exercise of will naked without any form of draped morality. Or even pretension of. He survives. His family survives. But in his efforts to survive he has created a world of its own new values, successful and productive to many lives but built on personal losses, including his own -- his children and family as his wife separates from him. Now,expectedly, The apollonian is slowly parted with to make way of growing Dionysian.

The criminally underrated third part is completion of the harmony[3] . With age and failing health Michael has grown soft. The powers are distributed and fragmented throughout in return for much sought legitamacy. He is shown to be socially humorous, something he wasn’t before( I was listening to Tony Bennett songs). It is all about reminiscing and a Dionysian accounting himself for the past within. He understands his acts- the inevitability and responsibility of it all. (remember the Pope’s words it is only just for him to suffer) But still he is neck deep in the consequences of his own making. He continues in another conflict to complete the promise he made to his father and also unable to restrain his own need for security and power. As he remorses (not repent) for his deeds, he tries to-- cut off his children from his business , mend his relationship with his wife and for the last time he takes one final half hearted plunge at more power -all small steps to pave way for his descent as he himself understands very well.(The more I want to get out, the more they pull me in) And consequently, he ends up paying a heavy ransom for his life, the one he never owned in a full sense anytime. He fails to protect his daughter and his son does not share the lineage of his dreams.

Understandably, for Michael life has come full circle. It is here one might start identifying with his futility and take him for a version of a tragic hero.I think casting him into the mould of tragic hero would be imposing a self presumptous role on his life, a life that has not been open to us in the first place.Although his life has been tragic in a sense there are huge issues that separates him from a conventional tragic hero.
One could easily as well imagine Michael to be taking his son to a baseball game on a Saturday noon or retiring as a senator too dignified to use a walking stick in public. But then, knowing Michael, he would have known well at the bottom that he had more to offer and effect world better. And still, the irony of it all is that if given the choice he still would have been compelled himself to choose the life he did.
Again and again. Eternally. because that is what makes his pain, glory, legacy, himself.

The concluding shot is a deserving tribute-a frail, dust-beaten image of the old Michael Corleone stooped in a chair, open to the sun, slowly falls unto the earth lifeless; him a moral idealist, son, brother, lover, father, and above all Don corleone, breathes his last - lonely and alone, resigned and trodden like a common man. He has lost his father, brothers, wives, friends, mother , daughter and the grand empire he constructed, in fact everything that he ever valued. He has no more to offer, accept, refuse or bargain. His entire life has amounted to neither individual glory nor personal love that could be cherished. He is not a successful hero , not even a failed martyr. Yet he has changed the world around him irrevocably as such and given every possible chance he would continue to do the same. And In that-- he has transcended himself, history, and humanity thus transforming himself into an idea, into an abstraction , into Ubermensch.

At the end, despite everything , what he represents beside a caution is hope and power of will and a constant attempt to be better eternally against everything, however futile that such a venture is in itself, that being the nature and the inclination of us all as humans , in different shades of desires and varying resources at disposal he becomes the essence and embodiment of humanity.

That is the tragedy and the beauty of it all.

Where you see ideal things, I see what is --
human, alas, all-too-human. I know man better.
~Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

[1] It is this process that Coppola has beautifully captured on the film. Notice the lack of subtitles in the restaurant shooting scene for Italian but when Michael is in Italy subtitles are used while he speaks to Apollonia’s father . It is this smooth flow in transformation in values that Nietzsche alluded to so abstractly.

[2]That scene is unbearably haunting. The first time I watched it I was too occupied with the story and missed it under my nose, but the second time around I was almost choked. Every drop of ink spilled from Freud , Mann, Sartre, to Camus, et al has been so gracefully captured in one cinematic moment. Beside its conceptual bearings it not only shows how coppola has understood the character of Michael but also is a stamp on Al Pacino’s talent. In my view only two actors could have pulled it off as convincingly Al Pacino did- Herr Humphrey Bogart and that cute Cossack named Sean Penn. The latter perhaps would have needed a tighter director. The scene also is an excellent reference for film techniques, for e.g. lighting and sound , music. Et al. Pure mad genius.
Trivia -Coppola suffers from Bipolar affective disorder which my friend considers as a role of living a playful god and pained human in one life.

[3] Although not widely agreed, I’ve never felt the series would have been complete without part 3. The scenes in the third part are in a unique way mirrored with the first-The function, hospital scene, the conversations(with Kay, Mancini, his son Anthony with his own in part1 ) the assassinations. Etc.

PS- Having not said all and with the length of the post, I am not quite happy but the Glasgow London train doesn’t run indefinitely.


AdHocQuirks said...

wow! i like this lucidity of describing the idea of what an ubermensch is.

but wat did he better? -> "At the end, despite everything , what he represents beside a caution is hope and power of will and a constant attempt to be better eternally against everything,"

Inkblot said...

yes he overcame, left his mark , may not regret buit given a choice would he do it over again? Love the character but never could decide if he was weak, strong or just not smart enough to be happy.

its all about 'power' and 'failure'perhaps but in all of this- delusion or human frailty or just denial?

lovely exposition though. want more.

Ubermensch said...

For surviving the lengthy post and the comments folks.

Better? That would depend mostly on your value/moral system. As for Michael himself, he is a process, a flow that starts from one end of the spectrum of humanity and finds itself at the other end. As I have said - for him, better is a paradox. It is not linear to be a higher state as it is for others.
The write up is a speculative in description; it is not explanatory because values are not absolutes. Hence I do not know if we betterment would speak for Michael as a person.
Again we can only make surmises here and there. Michael in the novel is a travesty of the process but he is clearer. In the movie, he is mostly inaccessible. So we cant arrive at an unchallengeable premise.
If you ask my personal view- I would see him carrying on again and again because that is what he is, that is what made him – hit the police officer, marry appollonia..etc etc… till he opposes mancini marrying his daughter. He is changed yet he is the same.

Rajesh said...

Uber, you must have been in the "zone" to spread ink on Uber thoughts. Relished the clarity and flow.

A thought: do being in control of actions and detached disposition towards judgement and conscience bring in pathos in its abstract sense? Or is it an act of desensitizing to do the job in hand?

Thanks for identifying the trails Coppola left behind.

We should do more such expositions.

Anonymous said...

Hey S
Great! After reading this, I watched the scene again and its great.Do you see all movies in so different eyes?
And please could you give an example of new value?

Ubermensch said...

Hey Rajesh Im happy the post held your interest.Zone 1 allrite.;)
Is teh question in the context or on its own. If in the context, I guess It doesnt apply for Michael, as we see him in the movie.Because Pathos and desensitization presupposes an perceived emotion.
Micheal does not value emotion, he is like a version of tomas from Unbearable lightness..of course not that shallow.
Le me know if I have failed to grasp your question.
Its always a pleasure to sing coppola, he is complete director who accidentally happens to be on that side of the pond.(The other I can think of now is Terence Mullick).
One of the few directors who justify film as a medium.
If I remember correctly --In his despair in not finding right actor for Michael he had shot a letter to R2D2 asking him to be his Michael? Thats creative passion.
I cant find the letter anywhere? If you do ...I have to snatch it.

Im delighted to see that teh post warranted a comment from you.
Well I have my days!. Its been a long day. Ill reply while in the gondola.

Bit Hawk said...

S (Following your pattern of single letter abstractions ;)),
It was a damn good writeup. Though I am unaware of Neitzsche and all that and your writings are too abstract most of the times, your blogs are very interesting to read.

Reading this was like a quick recap of Godfather trilogy.

Ubermensch said...

Hey V ;)
Thats the one letter abbreviation,no abstractings there.
Im pleased you dropped by and found the write up worthy of a few words.
Each one has their own Nietzsche;)

Anonymous said...

"Unlike a few other protagonists known, it must be noted that Michael chooses to be dedicated to the family out of his own volition."

True, he is more act than behavior; complete opposite of Sonny.

But I'm not sure if I agree that his value system was drastically transformed.

In the opening scene with Kay, he tells the story about Luca brasi without judgment. Later he tells Kay that his father is no different than a Senator or powerful man. In another scene with his father, he shows regret that he'll have to wait another generation to produce a senator. In part two, he tells the senator the same corruption applies to both worlds, not just his.

I infer a couple things from this: (1)in his mind, the separation between both worlds have always been ambiguous, and his desire to use criminal means to make the Corleone family legitimate expresses this confusion; and (2) that he had wanted to become a senator or big businessman. If so, based on what we know is his shrewd, calculating mind, he only used the military as a means of distinguishing himself from his family's reputation to make his future bid in the political world all the more possible.

Anonymous said...

You've got it wrong raj. Keyser Soze is the ubermensch.

Anonymous said...

Oswald Spengler / Herbert Butterfield / Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy :

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