Three Things I Experienced Over the Break

Three Things I Experienced Over the Break
  • 2023-24

Our experience of the world often presents itself in little clusters. Things happen, and we try to connect and combine them in our minds.

This is the way our intelligence works. The human brain seeks patterns as a way of making sense of our lives.

Over the holiday, one idea seemed to arrive in three different ways.

Firstly, my sons decided they wanted to watch a film together. We considered A Matter of Life and Death and Persona, but in the end, we opted for Dr Strangelove.

It is many years since I last saw the film. Made in black and white in 1963, directed by Stanley Kubrick, and starring Peter Sellers and George C Scott, the movie carries the witty subtitle, ‘Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’.

Made at the height of the Cold War, following the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film takes a comedic angle on the solemn issue of nuclear war.

Peter Sellers plays three roles: a British captain operating as the sole voice of reason in the Pentagon; the US President, and a former Nazi scientist in a wheelchair, whose crazed enjoyment of the Doomsday scenario is both scary and hilarious.

I learnt a couple of things about the film I didn’t know before.

Sellers was supposed to play a fourth role but broke his leg falling out of a suspended cockpit when arguing with Kubrick on the set. He was replaced as the pilot by the cowboy actor Slim Pickens, who famously rides the bomb like a rodeo horse at the end of the movie.

Also, the film had been slated for release on 22 November 1963 – the day John F Kennedy was shot dead.

The première was delayed for three months out of respect for the President, and out of sensitivity for the material depicted in the movie. A derogatory reference to Dallas (the site of the assassination) was dubbed in post-production as ‘Vegas’.

My sons, born almost 40 years after the film was made, were both enchanted by it. I can’t recommend it highly enough. The designs of the war room, the performances of Sellers and Scott, and the quality of the dialogue. It’s just brilliant.

This is the first node in the cluster of experiences. The second and third came close together a couple of days later.

I was listening to a podcast as I walked to the Francisco Goya exhibition in the Palazzo Reale.

The podcast was from the BBC’s In Our Time radio series and focused on the life and work of the twentieth-century Swiss theologian, Karl Barth.

Two things stayed with me from the programme.

The first is the story Barth tells of Martin Luther who in 1517 posted his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenburg, and so launched the Protestant Reformation in Germany, dividing the Christian church in Europe to this day.

In a vivid simile, Barth likens Luther’s action to a blind man climbing a belltower, who loses his balance and makes a grab for the railing to steady himself – only in his blindness he misses, and what he grabs instead is the rope for the church bell that rings out over the town, waking citizens from their sleep.

The second takeaway from the podcast was that Barth – unlike his fellow theologians working in Germany during the Nazi regime – refused to sign an oath of allegiance to Hitler.

As a result, in 1935, on Hitler’s personal order, Barth was dismissed from his job as Professor at the University of Bonn and forced to return to his native Basel.

It was an enormously brave act to defy Hitler publicly. One can only admire the integrity of the man and his deep conviction that Hitler’s enterprise was ‘evil’.

The podcast finished just as I arrived at the Palazzo Reale for the Goya exhibition, where the first thing I read was Mayor Beppe Sala’s introduction.

Sala writes how this display by a Spanish artist enriches the city and demonstrates the way galleries (in Milan and Madrid) can work together for the benefit of citizens across Europe.

The Mayor’s statement read more refreshingly than it should, given the nationalistic flavour of recent rhetoric from politicians both within Europe and beyond.

The exhibition features more than 70 works by Goya illustrating the theme of ‘The Rebellion of Reason’.

Goya (1746 – 1828) lived at a time of great change, experiencing the tumult of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

He was a close contemporary of Beethoven (1770 – 1827). And oddly like Beethoven, Goya also went deaf.

Beethoven’s famous defiance of Napoleon after his coronation as Emperor – having once dedicated his Eroica symphony to him – is mirrored in Goya’s etchings of the effects of war.

Most artists before Goya had glorified and ennobled the idea of war. Instead, Goya shows the horrors of violence and the barbarity that armed conflict always brings. 

I could add a fourth point to the constellation that unites Dr Strangelove, Karl Barth, and the works of Goya, in the shape of Ridley Scott’s biopic of Napoleon, which I saw just before the Christmas break.

The film’s closing title sequence reveals that the wars prosecuted by Emperor Bonaparte were responsible collectively for the deaths of three million people across Europe.

What do I conclude, then, from this little cluster of experiences over the break? Two things, I think.

First: there is always hope that art – whether painting, the written word, or film – can operate as an act of resistance, creatively transforming our perception of tyranny and war.

Second: Goya, Barth, and Kubrick all show that, while imagination is a rich and wonderful thing, it can also generate nightmares. So, to balance the power of wild imaginings and grand political projects, we also need to use reason.

Reason that allows us to reject an oath to a tyrant; reason that rejects the dark logic of the bomb, and reason that unsentimentally depicts the terrors of war.

With Kubrick, we might want to add a third thing: the capacity to mock authority and the need to laugh at ourselves; the ability to recognise the savage humour that lies beneath – and may even help to subvert – the most apocalyptic scenarios.

For, as Goya warns, when Reason sleeps, monsters grow. And when laughter dies, we may be left to confront only nightmare visions with unconsoling tears.

Chris Greenhalgh
Principal and CEO

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