The MacLamity

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Sunday, August 21, 2005


To play God's advocate, here are some reasons why it's wrong to diss Movies that call Mad Scientists mad, as The American Prospect does.

There are lots of sane scientists in Hollywood movies, especially if engineers count as scientists. If Amity had listened to Richard Dreyfuss's ichthyological expertise in "Jaws," no one would have been dentally mangled for the sake of tourist bucks. In "Jurrasic Park" the insane scientist is matched by two sane scientists -- three sane scientists, if the hippy-dippy, "nature will find a way," pseudo-chaos-theory of Jeff Goldblum qualifies as science (try falsifying the statement "nature finds a way").
Similarly, if the greedy developers hadn't re-wired Paul Newman's wonderful edifice, we'd remember The Towering Inferno as The Towering (although my argument is slightly undercut Fire Chief Steve McQueen's awesome mini-speech (look up ":[sighs] Architects."). Indeed, any disaster movie from the 70s worth its salt should have a scientist pleading with small-minded little Hitlers to stop whatever it is that they're doing before a disaster occurs and then has a disaster occur when they go on regardless. What kind of an idiot wouldn't listen to the following kind of advice?

Dr. Peter Venkman: This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.
Mayor: What do you mean, "biblical"?
Dr Ray Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath-of-God type stuff.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.
Dr Ray Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies. Rivers and seas boiling.
Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness. Earthquakes, volcanoes...
Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together - mass hysteria.

Hollywood doesn't hate mad scientists because they're scientists. Hollywood hates mad scientists because mad scientists are mad. We should remember that before Frankenstein, which The American Prospect sets up as Hollywood's archetypal vision of the destruction wrought by the unbridled pursuit of knowledge, there is Faust and that before Faust there is Ulysses in Dante's Inferno. Both those earlier figures, both proto-modern-men committed two crimes, which is obscured by eternal damnation's ability to punish all crimes at once.

The first crime is the Bellerephon crime. This is where Zeus finds it unbearably arrogant that mortal has the gall to scale Mount Olympus and cripples Bellerephon accordingly. Ulysses perishes in a whirlpool to please "an Other," which always makes me bitterly hope that that makes Him happy. I think most of us find it neurotic of the Gods and God to act this way, and this is the crime The American Prospect refers to when it's saying

I'm fed up with the insinuation (for it's never an argument, always an insinuation) that there's a taboo against the pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge and that certain technological achievements -- especially those with the potential to affect life itself -- are inherently "unnatural." Or as Victor Frankenstein puts it in Shelley's novel, "Learn … by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow."

But Hollywood movies don't care too much about that. They generally find mad scientists guilty of the other Faust-Ulysses crime, which, to take a subtly different lesson from Greek mythology, I can call the Deadalus crime. While we focus on Icarus's tragically youthful play for the sun in this story, it's also worth identifying Deadalus's flawed assumption that all problems are resolved in technology. He should have paid as much attention to teaching Icarus obedience as he paid to fashioning wings for Icarus.

A mad scientist is mad because he believes that the power of technology includes the power to resolve competing virtues. As anyone who's read Isaiah Berlin knows, this is bad news.

A mad scientist pursues whatever virtue his research will achieve AT THE EXPENSE OF EVERY OTHER VIRTUE THERE IS. Faust pays an absurdly high price for some knowledge and the chance to live beyond the plague-reduced life expectancy of the Elizabethan era***. At least he was bargaining his own soul. Ulysses sacrificed the love of his wife, his children, the men who served him, all for death in a whirlpool.

Similarly, to use the American Prospect's example, Anakin becomes Darth Vader because he doesn't recognise that the good of saving Padme is outweighed by the bad things he will have to do to achieve it. Science doesn't make him kill the younglings and destroy the republic. His inability to balance his ethical demands and realize that two abstract virtues are irreconcilable (equality and freedom being the classic examples), is what leads to the withering of Anakin's moral sense. The "small-minded fools" that Mad Scientists hate have small minds because they see the virtues of science as being no more or less than virtues. Mad Scientists think science reconciles the contradiction between doing what's best for the world and performing experiments on your son (as in "Peeping Tom" or ... er ... "Hulk"), just as Lenin might argue that the sending vast amounts of people to a Gulag leads to more of the right kind of freedom, for society as a whole. It doesn't. It's a lesson that the mayor of Amity, who thinks tourism is the only good Amity should pursue, could learn as well.

Not that Hollywood's particularly wise. Nor that I'd ever say Hollywood isn't too preachy. But I think we can comfortably side with Hollywood against the Mad Scientists and tell The American Prospect that being preachy is a small crime compared to poisoning Gotham with schizophrenia in order to reverse the damage that urban decay does to the general sense of morality.

*** The plague part is Christopher Ricks's explanation for what otherwise seems like an absurdly stupid bargain -- even for an allegorical figure -- the infinity of hell makes anything the devil cares to give you in exchange into a relative bag of peanuts .