After the WWII ended in the victory for the Allies, America positioned itself as the leader of the ‘Free World’: it was supposedly the best time to be an American. Jazz was at its coolest, Elvis reigned the chart (sadly, not Chuck Berry, who is now belatedly credited for his contributions as the original rock ’n’ roller) and Hollywood was at its supposed peak. It was in the 1950s when the likes of John Wayne and Gary Cooper starred in the Western movies wherein America’s self-image was established: rouguish ‘good guys’ who came to the aid of innocents, defeated the evil and delivered justice by not following the rules in the wake of the WWII victory. This distinct image of American heroes caught the imagination of the post-WWII Geist in that we have seen the same narrative in virtually every WWII movie made by a Hollywood studio. Whilst America’s ‘Manifest Destiny’ was achieved long ago, the decisive influence of the myth of the ‘Frontier’ and Turnerian vision of ‘true’ American Geist was still evident as America’s self-image further developed as it assumed the role of global leader who safeguard ‘freedom’ against the threat of ‘Communist conspiracies’. Americans found the image of free-wheeling cowboys fitting to the way they wanted to tell the story of Pax Americana: Americans were meant to be likeable heroes who defend the ‘freedom’ for all humanity. It is important to note the implications of this self-image of America as a self-proclaimed Messiah in the context of international relations: 1) Americans are ‘good guys’ by definition, and this is the ‘fact’ that makes American victory morally necessary; 2) Americans fight the war away from ‘home’, thereby keeping the civilians only indirectly involved; and 3) They would go as needed, blast enemies and leave as they please. And from then on, this is the way America would fight the war: by means of industrial and military superiority, Americans would go any part of the world to defeat the ‘evil’ as liberators and go home. It must be noted that this is an exceedingly cheerful concept of warfare based on a false assumption that a military conflict always ends in a clear and definite conclusion. Whilst the reality of war should have banished such a self-serving notion as a delusion, the hangover from the victory of the WWII has been difficult to cure, and there have been countless cases of unfounded assessments of a given conflict wherein the affected see themselves as the reincarnations of Winston Churchill or Dwight D. Eisenhower as if they live in their own parallel universes constructed with ‘alternative facts’.
Hence we must see the seminal importance of the era: the decade following the WWII was decisively impactful regarding the formation of American Geist. The 1950s was when America came of age and produced American icons that have since defined America’s self-image, thereby it has become the ‘Golden Age’ of the American Geist. In the wake of the victory against the Axis, Americans projected a sense of youthful optimism for the future in which Americans saw themselves as ‘heroes’. The heinous state-sanctioned war crimes committed by Japanese and Germans made it easy for Americans and its allies to create the narrative of good versus evil. Despite their role as liberators was specific to the context of the WWII, their self-image born out of the outcome of, not the process of, this global conflict was soon to be an integral part of their self-identification. To add to this flattering self-image, America’s economic expansion and its incontestable grip on global market helped its citizens to sweep everything under the bed and collectively fall into a dreamless slumber. Yet, despite the smothering stream of ‘bread and entertainment’ from the colonial cornucopia, all was not well. Notwithstanding the glitter and the sheen of Pax Americana, there was a growing angst within American Geist. Firstly, there was a real anxiety about the future: Americans were living with a growing unease about the threat of Communism represented by the Soviet Union and the Warszawa Pact. As Stalin sealed off the West Berlin and the standoff between the two political ideologies began, the world was aware of the possibility of another global war. Whilst the Britain and the USA did their best to prevent the Soviets from capturing German nuclear physicists, they knew that it was a matter of time for their new foes to join the arms race that could, and still can, end the world as we know it. Secondly, there was an acute angst from the past: many Americans silently suffered the reverberations from the war. Despite the result of the war has created the popular narrative of the 'greatest victory and glory' which dominated the WWII movies, this should not grant the willful oblivion of the actual process of the war: it was the deadliest in human history with an estimated total of 85 million lives lost, and the USA suffered over 40,000 casualties. Therefore it is astonishing to read very little about the WWII veterans’ mental health issues compared to those who served in Vietnam and the WWI. As the following testimony of the daughter of a WWII veteran attests, America chose to look only into future, not the past. Despite the horrific struggles of veterans and their families and associates, PTSD was not officially recognised as a problem until 1980 in the United States, and many veterans found themselves alienated at ‘home’ to which they so longed to return.
"My father was a functioning alcoholic," says Schultz's daughter, Carol Schultz Vento. "It was self-medicating, really." The dominant narrative at this time was relentlessly upbeat, she says. The heroes of World War Two were now building a prosperous post-war society. People who remarked upon the large numbers of marriages in the immediate post-war period tended not to mention the record number of divorces. The fact that veterans' hospitals were full of men with serious mental health problems went undiscussed. The movies of the 50s and 60s did not depict the reality of war. "People did not want to know what it was like," her father told her. Unlike some troubled veterans, Dutch Schultz was never violent and didn't fly into rages. When he was drunk, he was "either goofy or crying", Carol says. But his nightmares continued for the rest of his life. Carol's mother described routinely waking up to find not only the sheets but also the mattress soaked in sweat. After they divorced, Schultz called Carol one night, sobbing down the phone line. His new wife had tried to slit her wrists in the bath and Schultz said he now wanted to kill himself. He had been a terrible father, he said; Carol told him this wasn't true. Years later she learned that he had been holding a gun to his head as they spoke. After this Schultz went into rehab and built a career running anti-alcohol and anti-addiction programmes. He fought continuously to persuade the Department of Veterans Affairs to recognise and treat the psychological wounds he had brought back from the war, winning this battle only at the age of 80 - two years before he died. (A testimony given to the BBC by Carol Schultz Vento)
Whilst the struggles of the WWII veterans and their associates need to be respected and studied further, to have a picture of a society in crisis, we need to turn to an aesthetic representation of a Zeitgeist in a form of an iconic personality who embodies it, because: 1) whilst the stories of individuals who experienced traumas first hand are essential to understand the nature of their sufferings, due to their anecdotal nature, such stories themselves cannot give us a picture that represents the Zeitgeist itself; 2) despite the indispensable role of scientific research in analysing the traumas and assisting those who suffer them, no amount of scientific papers cannot give us a ‘soul’, that is, a character who can give us a crystallised expression of the symptoms suffered by an entire Form of Life; and 3) since a human society requires a symbol to represent its respective Geist in order to create and maintain its coherence, if we wish to gain a clear view on a given Form of Life, it is necessary to curve out an icon that aptly represents the Geist in question in order for us to perform an accessible diagnostics of the falsities, contradictions and paradoxes possibly existing within it. This is precisely what Jim Jarmusch has done with Dead Man in which the Myth of Frontier was comprehensively demolished by the creation of Cole Wilson, a cannibal bounty hunter who took over the place of John Wayne and Gary Cooper as their Doppelgänger. And through the eyes of Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood), we saw the true picture of Manifest Destiny: once the colonial conquest was completed, America’s Promised Land turned out to be a Waste Land. Drunk and confused, Plainview gradually came to realise that there is nothing to live for in this destination. Having fought his entire life to reach this shore, the disappointment of his was acute. The resulting self-hatred was projected onto anyone who crossed Plainview’s path, and he came to hold the entire world in vicious contempt. Therefore, in Plainview, P. T. Anderson was able to represent the malady of Industrial Materialism in a specifically American context. To continue the study of American Geist, what we need at this point of inquiry is: a representative character who embodies the forgotten suffering of America’s ‘Greatest Generation’. Thanks to P. T. Anderson’s insightful work, we do have our character ready: the American’s follow-up, The Master, gives us a perfect representation of the Geist of this generation in a form of Freddie Quell. After a long period of neglect, the story of this WWII veteran breaks the silence about the suffering of the veterans at ‘home’. And what a homecoming it is: Joaquin Phoenix’s fearsome performance shutters any possible delusion regarding the nature and the cost of the war that turned America into a global ‘superpower’.
The Master tells the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). In the first scene, Freddie is on a remote Pacific Island with his shipmates. He climbs on a palm tree, harvests a fruit and cuts it in half to devour the flesh. The moment he appears on the screen, the sense of unease begins to creep. He sits apart from the rest of the crew who appear to enjoy the beautiful environment: the sun is shining, waves are gentle and water is crystal blue; they play on the beach, carefree as if they were on holiday. When the lads sculpt a crude figure of a naked woman with sand, Freddie suddenly places himself on top of it, and begins to initiate an intercourse. The crowd reacts to his antic with a mixture of amazement and disbelief. Then things get really bizarre when Freddie goes to water and begins to ejaculate in public. At this point it becomes clear: he has problems; we just don’t know what they are. In the next scene, he is seen on board a US warship: he cuts a stark figure and projects a strong sense of unease and disquiet. Yet it is impossible to pin down what makes him so different from others on board: he is seen draining ethanol from a torpedo to concoct his moonshine, yet the rest of his shipmates are just as drunk as he. In fact, Freddie checks every box of the list of typical characteristics of military recruits: drunk, horny and absolutely bored with life. Yet none has exhibited such an intensity and disquietude as Freddie does: there is something deeply unsettling about him, and this quality of his proves disturbingly captivating. When the war ends in the unconditional surrender of Imperial Japan, Freddie is discharged from the US Navy which conducts psychological evaluation of its veterans to assess the risks of their return to civil society. During the interview, the extent of Freddie’s trauma from the war begins to emerge: he has experienced frequent outbursts, crying bouts and once threatened an officer with a knife. The evaluation ends in failure due to Freddie’s stubborn refusal to cooperate: like many war veterans, he digs in his heels and denies the very existence of psychological trauma. Yet it must be obvious to all: Freddie is going to have serious problems and things are going to get very difficult for him.
Notwithstanding our concerns, he seems at first unexpectedly well-adjusted. He becomes a portrait photographer for a luxury retail store. Dashing and engaging, he wastes no time in getting his first date with an in-store model for a clothing brand. Yet, the sense of relief is agonisingly short-lived. Freddie’s date goes nowhere as he falls into a stupor at the dinner table. Unsettled, Freddie is involved with a violent altercation with his client shortly afterword. For no apparent reason, Freddie decides to set the lighting equipments uncomfortably close to the client’s face despite the protest that the heat generated by lights is too great to endure. As Freddie continues to torture him, the clients has had enough and pushes Freddie back. Soon they engage in a violent confrontation, chasing one another in the store, and Freddie begins throwing glasswares at the man. Eventually Freddie storms out the premise with his distressed ’girlfriend’. So it begins Freddie’s life as a post-war drifter: it is clear by now that he has no home to return. In the next scene, Freddie is seen working as a farm hand. After work, he serves his moonshine to his fellow workers. When he notes that one of the older men reminds him of his father, he generously serves him an extra drink. Later that night, the old man suffers alcohol poisoning and dies. The workers accuse Freddie of intentionally poisoning the man, and the fury erupts amongst them. Freddie escapes his pursuers on foot, running across the field into the distance. Freddie survives this incident and finds himself in San Francisco wherein he randomly comes across a cruise ship upon which a lavish social gathering is taking place: in a blink of an eye, he slips onto the deck and disappears. It turns out that the ship belongs to the organisation called the Cause, which is founded and headed by a man named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd claims that he is many things: a scientist, an experimental philosopher, a doctor among other things. Dodd takes an immediate liking of Freddie and his moonshine, and invites him to stay on board in exchange of the supply of Freddie’s special concoction.
This is an extraordinary development: Freddie Quell conceived by Paul Thomas Anderson and superbly embodied by Joaquin Phoenix is redefining a quintessential American hero as we watch: like Jarmusch’s cannibal bounty hunter and Day Lewis’ life-loathing California oil baron, Freddie serves as an invaluable counterpoint against America’s self-image, that is, a free wheeling ‘good guy’ who roams as free as a wind with his beloved gun and a sweet ride. Freddie Quell singlehandedly shatters this very narcissistic American icon perfected in the wake of the WWII: a ‘war-hero’ of the ‘Greatest Generation’ turns out to be a traumatised alcoholic drifter with an erratically violent disposition. He is a lost soul and barely holding onto what is left of his humanity. As quoted earlier in this article, Freddie’s behavioural problem is consistent with the conditions suffered by the WWII veterans. Like many from his generation, Freddie finds it hard to be ‘at home’: America has just won the ‘just war’ and is elated with the optimism for its future. No one wants to hear about the human cost of ‘greatness’ and the suffering of those who helped the cause. The general public are only interested in the pursuit of ‘happiness’ by means of attaining the picture-perfect American dream: a house with a green loan, a car that fits the whole family, a yard for kids and dogs, a good job, a beautiful wife and a relaxing weekend with beer and some sport on TV. American heroes are supposed to have their lives easy until the next war against the evil. They are supposed to have a slightest of worries if another conflict arises: after all, ‘good guys’ always win as a rule. Sadly, like many WWII veterans, Freddie finds the taste of the great victory bitter: they are systematically alienated from the very Form of Life to which they served. Whilst the military has been aware of the psychological problems suffered by the veterans, it prefers to be laconic about the negative effect of war, fearing that the public recognition of the veterans’ problems might create some unwelcome challenge for its agenda: the support for war effort may wane and funding could be diminished as a result. Besides, once again, no one is really interested in being reminded of the human cost of one’s life style. The general public choses to keep the skeletons in the closet and continue to enjoy themselves.
Whilst this may be so, there is no denying that Freddie is an odd one out: no one should be surprised if the veterans of war, any war, insist that they are nothing like Freddie, and I have every reason to believe them. That being acknowledged, we must also note that the peculiarity of Freddie as a character does not prevent him from representing America’s ‘Greatest Generation’. If one focus not on Freddie's individual pecuriality but on the Zeitgeist he represents, one must admit that Freddie Quell is the most realistic character about this revered generation: until The Master, no one attempted to show us the human cost of the storied victory in the specifically American context which has been overwhelmingly focused on the result of, not the process and/or the effect of, the war. What is at stake here is: challenging the self-image of America which has been detrimental to the health of American Form of Life. This is of critical importance: when a Form of Life self-destructs, it is often that the members of the given society are collectively blindsided by their unrealistic expectation of themselves. In fact, Americans benefited from this phenomenon during the WWII: both Japanese and Germans made numerous strategical and tactical errors partly due to their impossible self-expectations. Operation Barbarossa ended in a catastrophic failure due to the German High Command’s unreal expectation to destroy the USSR by the end of the summer of 1941: after the Battle of Moscow, German advance stalled, and the invaders were greeted by the hard winter without adequate equipments to survive the cold. The Soviet Winter Counteroffensive followed and delivered the decisive blow to the German military, thereby effectively determined the outcome of the war. As for Japanese, the over-ambitious attempt to conquer mainland China overextended Japanese war effort before entering the war against the USA, and the Kamikaze, that is, mystical ‘God’s Wind’ that supposed to stop American advance over the sea was never going to come. Despite the relentless waves of suicide attacks named after the mystical meteorological phenomenon recorded in the medieval Japan left fearsome impressions upon the opponents, Japan’s defeat was a foregone conclusion. Their respective self-images of being invincible warriors who were 'destined' to subjugate the world at their feet successfully galvanised their military and intensified the public support of war in Imperial Japan and the Third Reich, yet no amount of self-belief cannot change the fact: a war cannot be won by propaganda. By conflating fantasies with the objective state of affairs, both countries inflicted and suffered horrific pains, senseless violence and unnecessary deaths of an unimaginable magnitude. And, despite Freddie’s peculiarities, he emerges as a representative character of the era by giving us the most realistic picture of the world according to a WWII veteran: he effectively subverts the popular myth born out of the famous victory of the WWII and deconstruct the conventional icon of an ‘American hero’ by illuminating the true human cost of the war that made America ‘great’. In succeeding this, Freddie transforms the popular perception of the period and, by extension, America’s self-image.
Whilst Freddie Quell illuminates American Geist like no other, the most striking aspect of this drifter is: self-medication as the coping mechanism. Freddie, like his countless peers, is dependent on alcohol to suppress the pains and the angsts. Alcohol consumption is a widely practiced method of coping with all sorts of challenges posed by life, and thus, it is particularly dangerous due to the ease of access as well as the strong social incentive to consume alcohol in peace and at war. As I intend to return to this point later in this article, it is useful at this juncture not to focus on a particular method of self-medication: it is more important to focus on the self-medication as a praxis, especially in military which regards the use of powerful synthetic drugs as an indispensable tactical device. As noted here, military, regardless of nationality, has a long history of substance use and abuse due to the high-stress nature of its functions. Yet, given the advancement in chemistry, the sophistication in the manufacturing process and improved efficiency in the supply chain, synthetic drugs have become indispensable arsenals for military. The substances are divided into two categories: stimulants and depressants. The former is used to increase alertness, reduce the sensitivity to pain, fatigue, and other physical discomfort. It is also used to promote indifference toward one’s safety. During the WWII, the use of amphetamine and meta-amphetamine at front lines was common, and military distributed amphetamine/meta-amphetamine to their troops in quantities. Wehrmacht provided an ample supply of Pervitin, an extremely potent meta-amphetamine widely used by general public before the war, to their troops, and the US Navy supplied amphetamine to its pilots in order to increase their alertness and fight off physical and mental exhaustion. The pilots were told to visit a medic to get the supply of ‘Go-Pill’ (stimulant, a variation of amphetamine) before the mission, and ‘No-Go-Pill’ (a form of depressant) after the return for quick recovery. Whilst the Pentagon maintains that it has been always up to service members’ decision to ‘seek help’, according to testimonies, it was also clear that the use of these pills are considered necessary, and refusing them would result in ‘grounding’, a career ending treatment for a pilot. In fact, a certain US Air Force doctor, himself a pilot, considers these synthetic drug as an integral part of a military operation: according to him, the use of drugs in military is a ‘matter of life and death’, the notion usually reserved for high-quality military equipments and high-value intelligence.
The willingness to justify means by end is consistent with the Geist of Industrial Materialism: the difference is that, with the advent of medical science, humankind has become alienated from its own physical existence: Body has ceased to be a part of ‘self’ and thus has been treated as mere means to an end. As a result, we see our own bodies as a mere vehicle to realise our desired ends. Whilst this particular concept of Body has been helpful regarding the advancement of medicine and science, this attitude toward human body has had some extremely negative consequences. This is the case regarding miliraty: in military, its end is always achieving a certain tactical or strategic objective, not safeguarding the well-being of the combatant. Therefore, each and every personnel is an instrument for achieving an end, and combatant’s body becomes a part of the war-machine. Whilst this way of understanding the place and the function of service members is aligned with the function of military, it is also the case that industrial military complex has been practicing instrumentalism with a morally questionable level of ruthlessness. A pilot’s physical/mental limit, for example, has been regarded as the performance cap of a combat aircraft, and thus such human limitation must be overcome to maximise the tactical effectiveness of a machine in question. Enters amphetamine: the use of extremely potent stimulant should remove some of the performance restrictions imposed by the human operators, and military has seen some success with it; the drug has been keeping frontline soldiers fighting longer and harder. That being acknowledged, as we have seen above, the use of powerful synthetic drugs takes a toll despite the denial by military. The deterioration of combat effectiveness and the loss of lives as the result of the systematic and routine use of such drugs have been reported. Whilst the use of such chemicals increases alertness and combat effectiveness, and thus it may result in saving lives of service members in short term, long-term effects on combatants must be also seriously considered: addiction and numerous side effects are obvious concerns, as well as the impact on a wider society when combatants return ‘home’. Yet, as noted above, military has been focusing on short-term benefits of drugs, and it has been systematically enforcing their applications. The institutionalised use of synthetic substances as a tactical device means one thing: service members have been not only trained in combat; they have been systematically made dependent on some form of medication as the prime coping mechanism. Whilst these substances become largely inaccessible once they are discharged, the habit instilled during the service naturally persists. And, as we all know, the perceived benefit of self-medication is temporary: the relief from the pain lasts only a brief period, and, as one repeats its use, the experience of a solace soon becomes absent altogether.
It must be obvious to those who may concern that such dependency will bring devastating effects not only upon the service members themselves, but also upon the society to which they may return. As it is evident from the testimony of Carol Schultz Vento, substance abuse devastates the lives of the veterans and their families. Some suggests that a person’s trauma may be inherited by her/their/his descendants for generations. Therefore it must be clear by now: to know that they have been prepared to become addicts by the very institution whose reason d’être is the safeguarding of the society is to identify yet another contradiction existing within the Geist of modernity. It is, as it were, one attempts to defeat the enemy by becoming the worst enemy of oneself. This point draws a parallel to the way in which the WWII was won: it was only possible by an uneasy alliance against the Axis signed by FDR, Churchill and Stalin. And this alliance was indeed short-lived: before the celebration of the victory, the world was already preparing for another global conflict. Hence the glitter and the sheen of newly established Pax Americana were there to conceal the angst and the paranoia which haunted America’s ’Greatest Generation’. There was a new threat of Communism, especially that of the Soviet Union, which challenged American hegemony both ideologically and geopolitically. The paranoia amongst Americans over the threat of Communism manifested in a multifaceted way: Whilst 1940s and 1950s are celebrated as the Classical Era of Hollywood, there was also a steady stream of propaganda films based on paranoid conspiracy theories. Whilst the collective hysteria manifested as the ‘Red Purge’ has been well documented, and the possibility of total nuclear warfare was quite real, the likes of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956) give us the glimpse of the fear of the Other which had become a hyperbolic and dominant ‘reality’ for Americans. Whilst it is not clear how much of this symptom was the result of the fear from the past of or for the future, and whether there is any causal link between the substance abuse by the public and the collective hysteria in response to the perceived threat of the Other, the trip to the dark side of post-WWII American Geist reveals an interesting fact: Americans grossly misconstrued the nature of the darkness that haunted their Form of Life; they must have feared themselves, not the Other, for the malicious aliens were already amongst them. Not only they lived amongst Americans; they had become the prominent figures in American society. Once we study the way in which the WWII ‘ended’, it becomes abundantly clear: the seed of darkness was already planted well ahead of the storied victory.
Americans took a committed move that irreversibly corrupted American Geist at the closing stage of the WWII. In response to the Soviet Union’s Operation Osoaviakhim by which some 2,000 German specialists were forcibly recruited, Truman approved the Operation Paperclip to recruit German experts. As the result, Americans recruited 1,600 German scientists, engineers and technicians. The problem was: many of these Germans were former members of the Nazi party, and some held leading positions in the party or even within the SS. The most significant personality in this regard is Wernher von Braun. He was the man behind the ‘giant step for mankind’, the star rocket scientist for the NASA whose Apollo program successfully sent American astronauts to the Moon. Yet he was also the creator of the feared V1 and V2 rockets, the first operational Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles launched at the Britain by the Third Reich. He was also the member of the SS, and held the rank of Major by the end of the war. Despite his record, von Braun was allowed to lead America’s ‘Space Race’ against the Soviets and the development of the ballistic missiles, including Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile program for the US Army. In short: the shining representation of America’s exceptional status was made possible by von Braun and other Nazi rocket scientists whose contributions proved indispensable. Therefore, the fairytale story of the space as the New Frontier and the great victory of so-called Big Science were only made possible by the very people who provided the means of mass destruction to the regime which engineered the most systematic genocide in human history. To commit to such a move after knowing everything the Nazi regime carried out is staggering in and of itself. Whilst the decision was no doubt made under the duress, it stinks of a tremendous hypocrisy: instead of developing their own based on the seized materials and the intelligence, Americans had given the absolution to the Nazi scientists and allowed them to play the mastermind of many future projects for the rest of their lives. Yet, the fact remains: Americans wanted the fastest track to a certain end, and they were ready to make a deal with the persons of dubious war-time records. This willingness to ruthlessly put the desired results above all else have been also observed in the substance use and abuse amongst military personnels. And this problem in return is symptomatic of Industrial Materialism: once one regards one’s own body as a means to an end, this abstract concept of our ‘essence’ as a mental entity detached from the physical one leads to a view according to which a body is a vehicle to be mede to work in order to fulfil the command, the objectives, and the desire of a mind, a demonstrably false view which is nothing short of a modern industrial iteration of Platonism. As anyone who suffered some form of substance abuse knows, implementing such an abstraction in life means that one is only living on borrowed time. Therefore, one must shudder for the prospect of an entire Form of Life which regards the systematic use of synthetic drugs as a tactical necessity: when the credit runs out, there is no one to bail out the American public.
Home Sweet Home
Whilst these modern synthetic drugs have been problematic, and thus its systematic use must prompt us to question the very nature of modern military itself, we cannot overlook one category of recreational drug whose unmatched social acceptance and availability makes it particularly dangerous: alcohol. Given the universal use of alcohol throughout the human history in all shapes and forms, alcohol abuse amongst active service members and veterans appears inevitable: when the use of a given substance is not only accepted but encouraged in a society from which they come and to which they may return, it is a foregone conclusion that those who bear the blunt of unspeakable experience would heavily rely on some form of self-medication to avoid facing the pains from the ‘past’. The use of alcohol is so prevalent in most societies in that many do not even consider it a recreational drug: whilst it is less available than caffeine, alcohol is nonetheless a part of most Forms of Life, and thus the general public won’t even take a moment to consider its effect on themselves and those who interact with them.
At this point, one might recall the famous one-liner from one of the most celebrated drug-addicts, William S. Burroughs: so long as human existence is found painful, there is a need to escape Weltschmertz; and so long as there is a need to ‘control’ the pains, there will be some means to meet this end. Whilst his remark touches on one aspect of the human condition, it is important to note what the American author did not say: whilst substance abuse may temporarily allow someone to escape from the pains, it also creates painful experiences for those who are related to her/them/him, thereby increases the net total of pains and miseries in the world, and the pains they helped to spread will eventually come back to haunt her/them/him. This points to an inherent and unresolvable contradiction: the means to escape from the pains of the human existence in fact increases the very pains from which one desperately seeks to escape, that is, the human condition to which we all are bound. Burroughs must have known this fact quite well. The American author accidentally murdered his wife, Joan Vollmer; he was estranged from his two children; and Billy, his son, died of internal haemorrhage caused by his lifelong alcoholism at the tender age of 33. And it is very difficult to deny that all of these tragedies were the direct consequences of his addiction. Substance abuse to ease the pain of human existence is thus a representative case of a supposed remedy being worse than the disease, hence one must reject altogether the non-sensical notion of self-medication as a ‘cure’: like all manners of schemes that promise an instant gratification, it solves no problem; it irreparably exacerbates it.
That being the case, we must also acknowledge the fact that the addiction is often inherited, rather than the result of a deliberate choice. There are two kinds of inheritance: family inheritance and societal one. Firstly, the case of family inheritance is alarmingly commonplace: it is well-established that children of addicts also develop their own habit of substance abuse. As recent studies demonstrate the vital importance of parents’ emotional availability to children, it is not difficult to see the devastating effect of absent parental figures in their lives: the parents struggling with substance abuse may be physically ‘present’, yet they are really not there at all. Since children tend to over-identify themselves with their parental figures, not only such an emotional unavailability damaging to their cognitive development, they are likely to follow their parental figures' steps to escape the pains caused by the lack of care. This case is well-demonstrated by the tragic existence of William Burroughs Jr: all evidence suggests that Billy spent his life trying to compensate for the absence of his father. Like his father, he became a Beat writer and an addict, yet the recklessness with which he abused various substances, including alcohol, speaks volumes regarding his trauma. Secondly, we also inherit the habits of substance use/abuse as the members of a society if the use and abuse of certain substances are widely accepted. This point is acute when it comes to the social cost of alcoholism: in many cultures, alcohol consumption is closely connected to masculinity and thus there is a strong peer pressure to drink in social settings. Alcohol consumption is also perceived as effective means to promote bonding amongst peers and a family, and thus it plays a significant part of sociality in many societies. Therefore it is not all together surprising to see that many of us are exposed to the threat of alcoholism both from our family members and the society to which we think we belong: we may inherit alcoholism both as a Form of Life as well as the first trauma of neglect by our parental figures.
This point is particularly relevant to our present inquiry, for we need to see beyond the trauma of war to identify the cause of the need to escape from American From of Life. In short, we need to identify the root cause of addiction, not merely immediate causes. In this regard, it is a pleasure to note that Anderson has seen further than his peers: America represented by Freddie Quell did not begin its descent at war: it had already begun in peace. As he confessed to Lancaster Dodd, he has been alcoholic prior to the enlistment to the Navy. His father was a violent alcoholic and so is he. Having been intoxicated, he engaged with his aunt incestuous sex on multiple occasions. Whilst we know very little of his life before the war, it is clear that Freddie has always been a drifter, a lost soul. The reason for this phenomenon has been already demonstrated in There Will Be Blood: the nihilism inherent in the very notion of America’s Manifest Destiny. The reality of America’s Promised Land instilled a bitter nihilism in American Geist which is represented by Daniel Plainview, the man with a vicious contempt for humanity. There was nothing to live for in this ‘Promised Land’, yet, true to the Turnerian spirit of the Frontier, Plainview simply would not die and refused to loosen his clutch upon the world he loathes so bitterly. Freddie Quell, an alcoholic drifter with an erratically violent disposition, is born in the wake of this California oil baron: it is the industrial-materialist America, the destiny manifested in the eyes of Plainview, wherein Freddie came of age. Yet, unlike Plainview, he has no plan, no ambition, no aspiration. Whilst many are too intoxicated to have such a maniacal drive for success, others have also foreseen the hollowness of the American Dream, as Lou Reed sings:
Men of good fortune often cause empires to fall. While men of poor beginnings often can't do anything at all.
The rich son waits for his father to die. The poor just drink and cry.
And me, I just don't care at all
(Lou Reed, ‘Men of Good Fortune’)
Freddie is a product of American Form of Life in which the lack of meaningfulness has driven him and his contemporaries to temporary means of escape: sex, drinking and drugs to name a few. In this skeleton Form of Life, le jois de vivre has been reduced to a series of neurological stimulations, and thus we have effectively placed ourselves in a position of lab mice who incessantly push a switch to trigger a pleasure response. That being acknowledged, one must note an important detail: Freddie, unlike Plainview, is not from the Frontier. He hails from Lynn, Massachusetts, which, according to Turner, represents the antithesis of American Frontier: for Turner, New England was the sphere of the East Coast establishment which upholds Anglo-European Form of Life, as allegedly opposed to a distinctly American one forged by the bloody deeds of colonial expansion to realise the Manifest Destiny. Yet, Freddie manages to shadow and deconstruct the quintessential American heroes iconised by the likes of John Wayne and Gary Cooper: the archetype of American Geist is now represented by an alcoholic drifter with an erratically violent disposition. Then, we owe ourselves to ask: How a dysfunctional alcoholic from Massachusetts has managed to fit the Turnerian concept of an 'authentic American' even before the war began?
The answer is surprisingly simple: it is the maturity of ad hoc Industrial Materialism, a unique ideological variant surviving in America, has allowed the emergence of a Turnerian character such as Freddie in every part of the United States. Before examining what made it possible to have bred a Freddie Quell in New England, it is useful to spare some time to touch on the ad hoc nature of Industrial Materialism in America. American Industrial Materialism took a unique course of development: due to the public misconception of ‘being democratic’, Americans adopted ad hoc Industrial Materialism and left other elements of its Form of Life unexamined. For example, philosophically, the metaphysics of Industrial Materialism is at odds with religious beliefs, yet they have been compartmentalised due to Americans’ infinite tolerance of incoherentness; American public has consistently disrespected the need to test the rational justifiability of their beliefs. Having shamelessly glorified anti-intellectualism and self-entitled ignorance as defining components of national identity, Americans reject the need for the cohesiveness and consistency in their belief systems: they simply appeal for support of their positions to the notions such as: faith; identity; tradition; integrity; and/or masculinity. In face of contradictions in their belief systems, their likely response is: I am sticking to my gun because it’s a land of the free. This particularly self-entitled mode of irrationality entrenches American Contradictions in its Form of Life, thereby, ironically, accidentally imposes a unique American characteristics to its Geist. Whilst the rest of the world has attempted to establish and maintain some degree of cohesiveness in respective Forms of Life, Americans simply have chosen to overlook numerous inconsistencies in theirs: for once, they are industrially materialistic yet they claim a moral high-ground and/or spiritual superiority as their innate qualities. Yet, as we have seen in There Will Be Blood, Americans have been obsessed with one thing and one thing only: domination. And this singular goal can be only either bought or strong armed, hence they worship profit margins and sophisticated weapons.
Notwithstanding the callous characteristics which Turner would surely approve, Americans have allowed to see themselves as ‘good guys’ due to the storied victory of the WWII. Americans conveniently ignore the fact that their cherished status as the liberator against the evil from the WWII victory is bound to the specific historic contingencies, and thus they have been struggling in vain to repeat the glory of their ‘Greatest Generation’: as in the Britain, there have been numerous wanna-be Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower in the United States. Yet this flattering self-image betrays reality: they are not the ‘good guys’ who roams free and defeat evil as needed; they are traumatised alcoholic drifters with erratically violent dispositions. This is the picture of a realistic American from the ‘Frontier’, someone who arrived at America’s Manifest Destiny. Yet, the fact that these characteristics are represented by an alcoholic drifter from a broken home in New England means: the Turnerian character has somehow taken over from coast to coast. This is not due to mere academic acceptance of Turner’s Frontier Thesis: it is rather the result of the brutal takeover of Industrial Materialism in capitalist America. In the pursuit of ‘happiness’, America has turned itself into a town of Machine (Dead Man), a harsh dead-end wherein everyone but the owner of capital is regarded as mere means, a disposable entity who is employed to achieve the ceaseless production of commodities to increase the capital. Yet the sense of disappointment in the Promised Land cannot be escaped by the accumulation of wealth and power; as we have seen in There Will Be Blood, neither Daniel Plainview nor Eli Sunday had joy in this destination. Whilst these extraordinary characters represented the ruthlessness at the top, the rest of the society has been escaping the pain and the hollowness of their existence by means of self-medication, the method which is consistent with the ethos of Industrial Materialism: we are alienated from our own bodies now by treating them as mere means to an end. Thus, The Master, wherein masculinity, alcoholism, violence, and family dysfunctions come together, points to one fact: America is not the land of the ‘free’; it is an empire of lost souls.
An Empire of Senselessness
Whilst Anderson’s work on the development and the predicament of American Geist has been invaluable, and There Will Be Blood ranks amongst the best in his filmography, with The Master, he brings out another dimension in the picture of disillusioned dysfunction of American Form of Life: a religion. Whilst the false prophet in the Frontier met his violent end by the hand of his nemesis in the form of a self-loathing California oil baron, the writer-director explores the darkest corners of American Geist through the trajectory of Lancaster Dodd. The difference between Eli and Lancaster is significant: whilst Eli was a cynical non-believer, Lancaster began his journey as a true believer of himself. Thus, in the next essay, I shall analyse the full extent of this subject.