Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 8, 2014


Filed under: Film,philosophy — louisproyect @ 6:12 pm

Although it should be obvious at this point that I am mainly interested in reviewing films that have a social and political agenda, every so often I run into something that harkens back to my preoccupations as a young existentialist. What is the meaning of life, and perhaps more importantly how do we come to terms with our inevitable mortality? But when we discover that the state has the right to interfere with our personal existential decisions about exiting life, then it does become political. When I was 21, these matters were more theoretical than they are today, now that I am 69 years old and can’t help but notice that’s the average of people written up in the N.Y. Times obituaries, including Harold Ramis, the groundbreaking comedian who died on February 24th.

“Honey” (Miele), an Italian film directed by Valeria Golino, opened yesterday at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. Honey is the pseudonym used by a very young woman who has made a profession out of administering euthanasia. The first 15 minutes or so of the film show her going about on her rounds, instructing the terminally ill or those suffering chronic illnesses that have become unbearable on how to take the barbiturates she picks up on her frequent trips to Mexico City. In pharmacies that she never visits more than once, she asks for the brand of the drug requires no prescription since they are meant for sick animals, like your pet poodle. The bottle in fact carries a picture of a dog.

She likes to think of herself as an angel of mercy but one senses that she has some mercenary interests in the job since dropping out of college has left her few alternatives. She lines up assignments from a doctor who she is having an affair with behind his wife’s back. Since Honey spends much of her time in a hedonistic fashion–either swimming in the ocean behind her beachfront apartment or hanging out in bars picking up men behind her lover’s back—she is a symbol of the threat to traditional values of the sort upheld by the Vatican.

A trip to meet her latest client, a man named Carlo in his mid-70s, leads her to question everything about her role in society as well as right to make existential decisions of the most basic sort. After her first trip to his lavishly furnished apartment, she discovers that he is neither terminally ill nor clinically depressed (he might be the latter but the film leaves the question open so as to challenge your preconceptions.) As he explains to her, he has seen and done everything that he wanted to and has made up his mind to check out. Perhaps the best way to describe his state of mind is weltschmerz, or world-weariness—a term that is identified with Schopenhauer’s philosophy. When I read Herman Hesse’s “Steppenwolfe” at the tender age of 17 or so, I completely understood why the hero contemplated suicide when he had to put up with the pain of living:

He who has known the other days, the angry ones of gout attacks, or those with that wicked headache rooted behind the eyeballs that casts a spell on every nerve of eye with a fiendish delight in torture, or soul-destroying, evil days of inward vacancy and despair, when, on this distracted earth, sucked dry by the vampires of finance, the world of men and of so-called culture grins back at us with lying, vulgar, brazen glamour of a Fair and dogs us with the persistence of a emetic, and when all is concentrated and focused to the last pitch of the intolerable upon you own sick self.

I had never known a day of gout attacks but I certainly knew what it felt like to wake up in the morning and feel just as out of sorts as Hesse’s character. It was what they called adolescent turmoil and seemed that half the students at Bard College suffered from it.

Golino’s film is brilliantly done. The cinematography, the acting, and the casting put to shame all the crap from Hollywood I endured in November and December as the NYFCO awards drew near. The film is basically a two character philosophical dialog between two people who begin to find comfort in each other’s company even if it appears that Honey will not be able to convince Carlo that life is worth living.

In spirit, the film is related to Michael Haneke’s “Amour”, a 2012 film that dealt with an octogenarian couple’s ordeal when the wife is stricken by a nearly paralyzing stroke. Despite her weakness, she does everything she can to hasten death despite her husband’s attempt to keep her alive. Unlike Haneke, whose goal most often seems to be to make the audience uncomfortable in Steve McQueen fashion, Golino is more interested in showing the small pleasures afforded Carlo in his waning months as a beautiful and caring young woman tries to persuade him to choose life over death.

Of course, such decisions should be totally up to the person who is affected, not by the church or the state. If and when I face the inevitable knock on the door that we all have to face one day, I don’t want someone like President Obama or NY’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan sticking their nose into my business.

With respect to the big D itself, I hope to be able to see things as philosophically as Fred Feldman, a Bard College graduate three years ahead of me. Fred has sort of carved out a niche for himself professionally as the death expert. He wrote “Confrontations with the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death” in 1994 and articles for scholarly journals such as “Some Puzzles about the Evil of Death” that can be read online. Here’s an excerpt:

My answer is a version of the traditional view that death is bad (when it is bad) primarily because it deprives the deceased of goods-the       goods he would have enjoyed if he had lived. I have attempted to provide my answer within a predominantly Epicurean framework. I have assumed that hedonism is true, and I have assumed that when a person dies, he goes out of existence. I have attempted to show that even if we grant these assumptions, we can still maintain that death can be evil for the deceased. I have furthermore attempted to show that if we formulate our account properly, we can provide satisfactory answers to some puzzling questions: “How can death be bad for the deceased if he doesn’t exist when it occurs?” “When is death bad for the deceased?” “Is there an illegitimate comparison between the welfare of the non- existent and the welfare of the existent?” “Why is death worse than prenatal nonexistence?” Along the way, I have also discussed the merits of some other proposed solutions to the puzzles.

Well, with all due respect to Fred and Epicurus, I’ll stick with Sartre.


  1. I find Herbert Marcuse’s beautiful meditation on the meaning of death to stand far above the existentialist way of thinking about it. Just read the LAST paragraph of Eros and Civilization. After all, even “the necessity of death,” Marcuse writes, “does not refute the possibility of final liberation. Like the other necessities, it can be made rational—painless. Men can die without anxiety if they know that what they love is protected from misery and oblivion.” It IS utopian but any wishes we have now for the future of humankind are just as utopian.

    Comment by uh...clem — March 8, 2014 @ 9:28 pm

  2. My mother choose death over desperate efforts to prolong her life, and I assisted her in her efforts to do so. I hope that, when the time comes, I will confront the challenge with the same firmness of purpose that she did.

    Comment by Richard Estes — March 8, 2014 @ 11:39 pm

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