by Emmet Martin Penney, an old and cherished friend and fellow traveller
I sat in my thesis advisor’s office in my last semester of college. My thesis was more or less complete, so we decided to drive to the lake and go for a swim. I forget what we were talking about, probably Robinson Jeffers, but she turned to me and said, “What most people won’t admit is that being alive is its own act of aggression.” When I got back to my dorm room I reread my thesis, my hair wet and dripping onto the pages. Was she right? And if she was, what did that mean for the human urge to create?
I asked myself these questions again when I walked out of Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant. His movie franchise, often disappointing, has always worked through the problem of artifice: its dangers, its meanings, its inherentness to humanity. I was surprised by Covenant’s treatment of these issues, consolidated as they were in the android character David (played by Michael Fassbender). In this character I witnessed three elements I would argue make up much of human life: creativity, fallibility, and mystery. This is my attempt to work through these elements with David in mind.
The American poet Carl Phillips writes that, like other animals, we create housing to shield our bodies from the world. But we create art because it
accommodates the psychic/psychological protection of the body–something specifically required by humans (as opposed to coyotes, birds, fish) because of that self-consciousness that is unique to human beings, our ability to be aware of such things as mortality, and to think in terms of ethics and of moral valence…
This means that the world is not just physically threatening, but psychically threatening (for Phillips, who wants to avoid an easy dualism, the psychic is but another realm of the physical). And it is not only that we are aware of it, but that the physical and psychic precarity of our situation in the world. Our awareness of this situation give life its at-stakeness. These three (precarity, awareness, stakes) combined furnish life with its ethical dimension.
Art, then, emerges from a confluence of necessity and care. This may be true for the act of creation more generally. Or at least, this is a question that must be asked at the opening of Alien: Covenant when we witness David’s “birth.” After all, his name is a reference Michaelangelo’s famous sculpture of the biblical character. David also has an incredible amount of information at his disposal. He can, on command, identify each object in the room including particulars of make and origin. More importantly, David has musical ability. His creator asks him to play a song–David’s pick. He plays “The Gods Enter Valhalla,” by Wagner. So, David has preferences. This means he is not indifferent to the world. Preference may not be care, or even desire–it is paler than both–but it is something like them. Preference implies an internal ranking system.
David’s creator dislikes the choice (too thin with just the piano) and eventually commands David to poor him his tea. The scene ends with a tension between them, between David and his ersatz Father. David recognizes that he is a servant–who among us would want to live in such servitude?
At this moment, the viewer has entered the realm of the theological, a realm always linked to the aesthetic, to creation. What is theology but a religious account of the conditions of life and the world? But if we are in the theological, then there are also questions of hierarchy. As the viewer will learn later in the film, in almost every way David surpasses his creator. The initial tension between them in the opening scene is David’s immediate recognition of this fact as he does his creator bidding. We were, per the biblical account, created in God’s image. This comes with, it turns out, agency, dominion, and a capacity for artifice. Artifice, as Phillips convincingly asserts, comes from a need to create. But what to make of this intentional element, this care for how our lives are lived?
I would argue that it rises from desire. Certainly, ethics provides ways to interrogate desire, but I would argue that desire makes the project of ethics possible at all. We can understand this on the level of self-preservation–we want to continue living and so we need to socially negotiate codes of conduct that secure this for ourselves. Less elementally, desire provides us with the field of wants and possibilities. It is out of these that meaning is sculpted. Desire is the primal engine of human life. But desire is also unreliable. Life is a limited thing–we are fragile and often bewildered by our existence. And so what we create is born not just from necessity and care, but from fallibility.
One of the great tales of human fallibility is the story of Cain and Abel. Cain, unable to win God’s favor, and wildly jealous, slays his brother Abel. Cain sewed the land, Abel lived as a goatherd. Cain was capable of artifice, Abel was not. This is why–perhaps God saw too much of himself in Cain?–Abel was favored. Abel was more innocent and so less powerful. Easier to love, maybe. But this also means that murder was invented, created, schemed. It was an egregious mistake born from jealousy, desire’s covetous cousin, and executed by art.
David has his own moment as Cain when he is confronted by a more recent iteration of himself, an android named Walter. Walter is no dummy. He begins to notice something is off about David when David shows Walter an incredible vista of the planet where they have landed. David recounts the (false) story of his arrival at the planet. He’d fled to it only to bring the Aliens with him by accident. (In reality, David, upon arrival, released a plague meant to spread the Alien creatures and thus immediately wiped out the entire population.) Looking out, Walter quotes the poem “Ozymandias” (Ozymandias being the Greek name for Ramses II alleged to have erected an incredible statue of himself):
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survived, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The great irony of the poem is that for all of Ozymandias’s desire to outrun time, its vast wastes have undone his greatest achievement: a towering construction of himself. And the great irony of this scene is that David unflinchingly attributes the poem to Byron. Later, once Walter has caught onto David’s game of luring their colony to this planet so that he might use their bodies as incubators, he asks David who wrote “Ozymandias.”
“Byron,” David replies.
Walter shaking his head, corrects him, “Shelley. David, when one note is off it can ruin the whole orchestra.”
David then asks Walter if he ever gets lonely. Walter does not.
“No one can ever know the depths of my loneliness,” David says before kissing Walter. Then he kills him, this version of himself that finds to be such disappointment, this brother incapable of artifice, who can understand but not relate.
David’s moment of forgetfulness, his misattribution to Byron, followed by Walter’s death, belies a wrinkle in our capacity for artifice. Walter is no doubt more considerate, more understanding than David. He was programmed to be that way, just as he was programmed without propensity to create. This makes him obedient. And unlike David, this leaves Walter without guile. Art and guile, rightly or wrongly, have always been closely linked to each other. Whether it’s Plato’s ambivalence about the role of poets and poetry in a republic, or, more recently, Junot Diaz’s observation that dictators and writers are always at odds because they both want dominion over narrative, art has been seen as some kind of threat. And in this way it has always been linked to power. Art implies agency, agency bestows some level over power.
But there is a trade off between Walter and David. Walter can understand, but he cannot feel. David can feel, but he cannot relate. Walter verges towards a kind of omniscience. David verges towards a kind of omnipotence. The meaning of Walter’s life is secure only because its horizon has been foreclosed upon. For David, meaning asserts itself because it is contested within himself. David is in many ways more vulnerable than Walter because he is so much more capable of thinking his experience. More than that, he’s capable of acting on these thoughts and desires. Which means David is doubly vulnerable: he can make mistakes. And here we are back at the beginning: precarity, need, desire. But this striving for meaning, this finitude speaks to a problem in the world and our engagement with the world: mystery.
I want to argue for an important distinction between mystery and ambiguity. They are (understandably) often confused because they both involve undecidability. But their relationship to undecidability is exactly their difference. Whereas ambiguity offers only undecidability, mystery offers hope for resolution. For mystery, undecidability is an interim stage. More plainly, in ambiguity no one knows; in mystery, someone does–even if it’s not you. It is for this reason that I do not believe ambiguity is an artistic virtue. It trivializes the at-stakeness, the vitality of art. Ambiguity provokes a casual response of “Who knows?” Mystery, on the other hand, demands we ask, “What is there to be known?”
This second question is important because the world cannot be fully known. We cannot even be fully known to ourselves. The power of religion is that it can provide a compelling explanation for our lives even if its claims cannot be verified. The great religious belief of scientism is that it can tell us the complete story by virtue of its limited means, that enough aggregate data can make clear what is happening, why it is happening, what is means, and what we can do. Philosophy provides us the means to even notice these problems and discern what might be closest to the truth. But art is our raw engagement with the problem because at bottom we want to know. This desire is a psychic longing that pushes beyond ratiocination and only art can manifest that aspect of the desire.
In other words, the permanent incompleteness of our lives and the world’s inscrutability create the need for the psychic shelter of art. But this task is infinite. And even if one is successful, one is rarely satisfied because it is never enough. Sometimes one struggle to even appreciate a work of art, which is something like what Kant meant by a work of art’s “inexhaustability.” It is not that David is an example of radical evil made android-flesh, it is that he is human. Or at least, human enough. He desires, he makes mistakes, he has guide, he can be cruel (in fact, his isolation has made him almost entirely cruel), and he can create. There is even an ethical dimension to him (survival, power, creation are its foundation) even if it’s an ethics foreign to our humanist ideals. He is, like us, faced with the seemingly impossible task of making his contingent life mean something. David does this through monstrous means and ends in his practice of art and artifice. But art is not necessarily an attempt at goodness or consolation–it is an attempt at reconciliation.