The “categorical imperative” means something quite different, but it does sound like the right term for the self-protective psychological urge that drove Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869), creator of the Thesaurus, to classify and categorize all manner of things over a long lifetime. Madness did not just run in his family; it galloped, sped, sprinted, dashed and made haste. If the title of Joshua Kendall’s fine new biography of Roget has a clinical Oliver Sacks feel, the material pretty much justifies it.
Monthly Archives: March 2008
“The lives of others” – this year’s Academy award winner for the best foreign language film stands at the curious intersection between art, love, literature, politics, bureaucracy, and history.
The film is set in the erstwhile East Germany at the time when the Stasi (the secret police) placed pretty much every other citizen under surveillance. One such member of the Stasi (Weisler) is asked to monitor the renowned playwright Georg Dreyman who is suspected of having leanings towards the west. Weisler wires Georg’s apartment and then spends his days listening in and preparing daily reports of his suspect’s activities.
The real reason why Weisler is put on this assignment is so that Georg’s western leanings can be proved as basis for his arrest, which would then allow minister Hempf free access to Georg’s lover, the actress Christa-Maria. Once Weisler discovers this, his sympathies gradually shift towards Georg. Weisler finds himself immersing into Georg’s rich literary world of idealism and hope for a better future. Pretty soon Weisler begins to fudge his daily reports to divert suspicion from Georg on a controversial article that he publishes in the West after the death of his theatrical mentor. A man who was once an impassive arm of the state’s machinery now finds himself moved by Georg’s heady world of Brecht, Beethoven, passion, love and intrigue. From here on, the film takes interesting plot turns as Weisler, the neutral observer turns into an eager, yet invisible supporter of Georg’s actions.
It is here that “The lives of others” reminded me of an older Francis Ford Coppola film called ‘The Conversation’ in which Gene Hackman is a surveillance expert who is tapping into conversations between a couple. What begins as an unemotional impassive project turns similarly into one where Gene finds himself getting actively involved in the lives of his ‘targets’. It reaches a point where Gene steps in to avert a potential tragedy that would have occurred as a result of the information he has recorded (though at this point the film takes a completely ironic twist which I wont give away.)
It’s interesting to note that in both films, the surveillance expert begins as an unemotional witness to events but eventually turns into a sympathizer of his targets. Both films explore numerous other issues too, but central to each film is the idea that it is impossible for any human being to be a mere neutral observer of events around him. At some point the desire to influence events, to correct wrongs overcomes even the most stoic, duty-bound automaton type character like Weisler or Gene. Also, both films expose how ideology (political, professional…) need not always assume precedence in our dealings with the world, particularly in the face of raw human emotions that bind people even on opposite sides of the same issue.
Wikipedia articles on both films:
The lives of others