The Master (-Slave Dialectic)
"One of the ways you learn about life is to associate with people.” – L. Ron Hubbard
Forming a Worldview
Every once in a while, a piece of art is so strikingly poignant, so intense that we’re left reeling in a daze for weeks, even months on end. Better yet, a truly great work can stick with us for a lifetime and influence the cultural milieu of an entire subset of society. This type of transcendent art doesn’t provide resolution, but rather asks entirely new questions about ancient topics. Great artists create work that would rather dwell on the resplendent mystery of the universe than attempt to close off the process of discovery through mere categorization and objective depiction.
Christopher Nolan’s film Memento, David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, and Elliot Smith’s album XO, come to mind as contemporary examples of this type of art, and they have all had a profound influence on the way that I interpret the world. These works reward me with temporary euphoria and joyful disorientation whenever I revisit them. They confuse me, they elude me, and they frustrate me, but they elicit such a deep review of my values and preconceived notions of reality that I continually return to them to confront my belief system and replenish my sense of wonder.
I recently watched a film that seems to belong to this class of great contemplative art. Paul Thomas Anderson’s (Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood) latest effort, The Master, sent a shockwave down my spine, and I’ve been feeling the tremors of it’s after effects for nearly three weeks. Like most great art, the film is uncompromising, while remaining open to interpretation and analysis; it stands for something, but that something is elusive, at best. What does seem apparent, is that, at the root of the story, there exists a commentary on the Master-Slave dialectic enacted by the story’s two main characters.
Ostensibly a tale about the infancy of Scientology, the plot follows cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as he travels throughout the United States preaching the tenets of a vague spiritual discipline known as “The Cause” to a relatively small flock of lost sheep . After Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) - an alcoholic drifter and WWII veteran - stumbles onto Lancaster’s yacht during a wedding rehearsal party, the two quickly strike up a bizarre friendship, initially based on a shared love of paint thinner toddies.
The relationship between the two men immediately devolves into a twisted dynamic. Freddie is highly unstable, suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and on the run after accidentally killing a coworker by subjecting him to his highly potent libations. In short, Freddie is the perfect mark for a cult.
Dodd instantly recognizes Freddie’s vulnerability and capitalizes on it by lavishing his new charge with praise like, “You are the bravest boy I have ever known.” From this point on, the film becomes a narrative commentary on the nature of the Master-Slave dialectic - a philosophical theory about the nature of power and control in relationships.
The Master-Slave dialectic was first proposed by G.W.F. Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit, written in 1807. The theory contends that we can only develop consciousness through the recognition of the existence of, and relationship with, others. According to Hegel, the dynamic of such a relationship invariably develops into a power struggle in which one seeks to establish absolute dominion over the other. Paradoxically, once this occurs, the dynamic is nullified by the very recognition that the master was seeking, as the slave is no longer free to offer his subjection. The Master-Slave dialectic is a battle to assert one’s will over another person, but satisfaction in such a pursuit can never be fully achieved.
The theory contends that human beings are inherently social beings, and we all engage in social processes. The innate struggles of these processes are the manner through which we develop our consciousness. Of course, if we choose not to engage in interpersonal communication, our development is so stunted that we can't properly develop any kind of relationship dynamic.
Throughout the film, Freddie’s social skills are severely lacking, and he seems to possess an aversion to practicing even a modicum of socialization. Dodd recognizes Freddie’s reticence to engage in healthy social activity and uses his wild dogma to craft him accordingly. The problem, at least for Lancaster, is that Freddie is so maladjusted to society that he is incapable of living in a manner fitting the tenets of “The Cause.” He is a violent, perverted, sociopathic alcoholic relying purely on animal instinct rather than sophisticated logic. This is what sets him in diametrical opposition to his would-be “master,” Dodd.
Dodd is spending his life trying to rid himself, and all of mankind, of our more base instincts, but that’s what Freddie thrives on. In spite of the cult leader’s incessant reminders that, “Man is not an animal. We are not a part of the animal kingdom,” Freddie knows no other way of life. He’s simply not built to conform to the decorum demanded of him by modern society. He refuses to be corralled, despite his affinity for Dodd. It seems as though Anderson may be suggesting something here about the resiliency of man's more primitive nature. Perhaps we have to channel our inner animal to overcome mental manipulation.
As a practical extension of Hegel’s theory, The Master isn’t about the circumstances of the characters or the setting they inhabit. It isn't about Scientology, and it isn’t about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s a story about the paradoxical struggle of love and power in a platonic, heterosexual bond between two heavily flawed men. It asks why we seek to control certain people, situations, and feelings. What is the deeper motivation behind our actions? Why is man destined to a perpetual state of loneliness and despair, and why do we try to overcome these conditions at all? It serves as a mirror held up to modern man in order to examine how we approach our personal relationships.
Who's Your Master?
I've tried to determine who, if anyone, in this story serves as The Master, but I don't think that the answer to this question is meant to be neatly packaged. The obvious answer would be Dodd, the slightly more existential answer would be Freddie, and the trendy answer is Paul Thomas Anderson, himself - manipulating the thoughts of his audience for 137 minutes. None of these seem satisfactory, however. In the end, I don't think that there is a Master, and that suggests infinite possibilities for the human race.
It's exquisitely frustrating to develop a specific theory of what this film means, to discern the larger statement that it’s making. I’ve been left with nothing but questions about the dialectical nature of man and our inherent need to build relationships based upon control and submission. If control is temporary, power is illusory, and none of us can fill the role of Master, what does that mean for the development of our consciousness? I think even Hegel would be scratching his head at Anderson's masterpiece.