the problem of good

Part of the reason why William Peter Blatty considered The Ninth Configuration as a true sequel to The Exorcist is because they both attempt to address the “mystery of the good.”

Blatty, from my understanding of course, was a devout Catholic so he understood these terms from a very spiritual perspective. While I find the phenomenon of religion fascinating, I don’t view the universe in that particular way. Nevertheless, I think Blatty was attempting to address a very interesting question, particularly with The Ninth Configuration (the film. I haven’t read the novel)

Much ado is made about “the problem of evil”, but that’s only a problem from a religious perspective. If the the universe is indifferent to our plight, and life is inherently selfish, then there is no mystery. Furthermore, there is no good OR evil…it’s merely a projection of human perception.

Many philosophers have attempted to formulate a model for morality, notably Kant’s Categorical Imperative and utilitarianism, with varying degrees of success. I personally tend to favor something that I heard Bart Ehrman say: I just know it when I see it. However I do find it interesting that nearly every religion has some variant of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.

I don’t think that I have many philosophical convictions, but one thing I am certain of is that I am not a “blank slatist”. If we were born as blank slates, then nothing we do would be possible. Language acquisition itself provides some insight into the a priori nature of our being. What language can tell us precisely about our morality is unknown to me, but I think it warrants further investigation as evidenced by the Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule may not be a “philosophically consistent” principle, but I think it’s intuitive enough that there could possibly be something revealing about it. Empathy might be an example. To my understanding, empathy is a phenomenon that’s scientifically falsifiable, but I’m just spitballing here. Maybe “good” and “evil” are a priori categories of human reasoning, I dunno.

Either way, from both a religious and secular perspective, “the problem of good” needs answering.

woyzek and ninth configuration

I swear that I don’t plan what movies I’m gonna watch. I sit on my ass and scroll through some app on my smart TV and find random shit.

Oddly enough, the two movies I watched back to back were Werner Herzog’s Woyzeck and William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration. Both films are about military personnel dealing with insanity and philosophy….not subjects that you find in most films.

This is probably not one of Herzog’s more appreciated films and I wasn’t entirely certain what to make of it. If you watch it, it probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to you that it was shot in 18 days. For a period piece, it’s very small scale and stage-like. But knowing this might help on a second viewing.

Klaus Kinski plays the titular character Woyzeck. He’s a lowly soldier that’s essentially being gaslit by his commanding officer and a quack doctor. He’s a loving father and husband, but his wife sleeps around with another officer and that officer publicly humiliates Woyzeck. Finally, he murders his wife.

Other reviewers called this an “anti-Enlightenment” film. I think that’s apt. The two men egging on Woyzeck’s decent into madness are obsessed with science and philosophy. The officer even mocks Woyzeck, stating that he lacks “morals” due to his status in society. Woyzeck defends himself, claiming that as a man without money or education, he simply does what’s “natural”. When viewed from this perspective, the Enlightenment ideals espoused by the Officer and Doctor come across as abusive, while Woyzeck is actually the only sane and moral person in the movie. The small scale of the movie contributes to the anti-enlightenment narrative, as it isn’t flashy or self-congratulatory like we’ve come to expect with these kinds of films.

Meanwhile, The Ninth Configuration couldn’t be more different. I could tell you what it’s about, but then I’d be lying. I just know it takes place in a castle acting as a psychiatric ward for Vietnam vets, Stacy Keach is in it, and there’s a bar fight. The movie is totally disorienting. At times it’s a psychological drama, other times it’s a comedy, and at one point it becomes an 80s action flick. The tone is all over the place. Perhaps that’s by design but I’m not totally convinced. Either way, this disorder contributes to the overall mystique of the film.

It should also be noted that The Ninth Configuration apparently exists in The Exorcist expanded universe. Not that it has anything to do with those films, except that one of the characters is in the first one.

To be honest, if I watched these movies in isolation, I wouldn’t be a fan of either. But they work very well in tandem. The military aspect of both films seems trivial, but when we consider the discipline and order that the military provides, it contrasts with the chaos associated with insanity. Additionally both films expose the problem of insanity in different ways. One is very plain and straightforward. The other is a complete fucking mess. Woyzeck proposes that insanity is brought forth by the imposition of morals, logic, possession, and science. Ninth Configuration says that it’s the absence of such ideals…or more precisely, the absence of God… is it’s true driving force. Woyzeck is nihilistic. Ninth Configuration is hopeful. Yet both might agree that insanity arises out of the eternal battle between chaos and order.