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8 Theses on Nietzsche,
Orson Welles, and Us
Dermot O’Brien

Cuckoo clocks, bloodshed
and the nature of humanity.



Although Graham Greene wrote the screenplay for The Third Man, Carol Reed’s 1949 masterpiece, Orson Welles actually wrote the movies’ most famous lines, spoken by Harry Lime.

"In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace -- and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock."

The meaning of the quote is clear: if everything is orderly, then nothing is going to occur. Comfort stifles human freedom and creativity, history offers no prizes for neatest culture. Perhaps history offers prizes for the wrong things, but in any event, people are only interested in the remarkable. Why? So that they might corrupt it and drag it down to their level.


Nietzsche knew about individuality, creativity and the desires of the crowd. For Nietzsche, the individual is someone who doesn’t care what others think. That is why, even though he hated Wagner, Nietzsche knew that his view was irrelevant, what mattered was Wagner’s view: "Enough that his life is justified before itself." Some days, for some people, that kind of self-regard sometimes seems achievable.


Harry Lime was a criminal, a black marketeer of penicillin who caused injuries so revolting that Reed’s camera would not show them, but he also put the case against modernity very neatly. The ancient Chinese curse, "may you live in interesting times," gets turned around by Welles, and Nietzsche, to become a wish for a loved one -- but, again, only if you are one of the all-too-few people who are doing the interesting things that make the times interesting, or if you are looking at the times from afar. For everyone else, except us, the curse still has teeth.


We now live in an "interesting time," but we are also comfortable. The current central war, the war on terror, is the first war in human history in which ordinary citizens of a combatant state are still able to get exotic lettuce. There are many theorists, of all political persuasions and philosophical schools, who think that the supply of lettuces, the relative restraint on political power, the sheer comfort of our existence are too high a price to pay. For people like Michel Foucault and Theodor Adorno, to name just two, we exist in a tightly-controlled world (self-disciplined or an administered world as the case may be) and all the lettuce in the world isn’t worth the price of living in such a numbing void. People feel like that sometimes, but mostly we move forward and sometimes even enjoy ourselves. But that does not make them wholly wrong.


After all of our attacks, we were finally attacked. So we face a difficult moment. Like our enemies, we want to face it with a theocratic face. God, it turns out, is an American. Just as workers forgot international solidarity and went off to die in the trenches during World War I, so we have dumped modernity at the first sign of trouble. We appear to need God to have political legitimacy, and arugula.


A couple of hundred years ago, Western man created the Enlightenment. An ethos (or at least the kind of thing that a lot of intellectuals believed) that sought to strip away all of the encrustations of myth and superstition, especially religion, and thus allow reason to go to work on our problems. Our response to being assaulted by pre-moderns has not been, "let’s use our reason!" Instead it has been, "God (and the world’s largest army) will allow us to exact revenge." To win this war between civilizations, we have dismissed our own. Plus ça change. Today, as always, we can learn a lot from Nietzsche: "Madness is rare in individuals - but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule." He would not be surprised to learn that we hold such contempt for our own ideals - or that we never did actually live by them.


"A people is a detour to get to six or seven great men. Yes, and then to get around them." wrote Nietzsche, sixty years before Welles. He was far too optimistic.


We might be in an era which gives us bloodshed and...cuckoo clocks.


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