An ambitious trip towards the deep subconscious of Man, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 The Master showcases a gladiatorial battle of wits between a perturbed individual, exacerbated by his animal appetites, and an apparently civilized and yet animalistic man of letters.
Don’t be fooled by the presence of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the supposedly titular character. Although Lancaster Dodd, as the founder of a cult, looks the type, he might not even be the master of himself. Is Freddie Quell, on the other hand, enough of a daring anti-hero to be called an Übermensch? Paul Thomas Anderson – one of the greatest filmmakers of the last twenty year, who seems to never put a foot wrong – looks into the eyes of archetypal America in order to explain the trends of nowadays.
Just after World War II, mentally unstable Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) finds a job as a photographer in a department store. In his spare time – which he makes sure to be plenty – he distills alcoholic spirits out of paint thinner. After being fired for fighting with a customer, Freddie finds work picking vegetables in California. There too, his deranged behaviour leaves him without a job. One night, drunk and aimless, he enters a yacht holding a group of religious fanatics. There he meets Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the founder of ‘The Cause,’ and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams). Dodd accepts Quell into his group and they then travel spreading his teachings. In his madness, Freddie beats up anyone who disagrees with Dodd. Eventually, Quell leaves the movement.
It would be a mistake to believe that The Master is mainly about a man, the initiator of a religious cult (much like Scientology) and not about the human condition. > There happens to be a war – the most far-reaching of them all – as the result of political intentions gone wrong; then there are the harmful effects of such events on human beings. Before that, there was individual trauma and abuse, psychological instability and perhaps some inferiority complex as the consequence of a low social standing. Ultimately, there is within each and every one of us the search for meaning. Even for someone who does not have to face what Freddie Quell had to, there’s still an insurmountable peak to climb. Thus most people feel inclined to follow natural born leaders.
..The Master Trailer © Annapurna Pictures.
By the end of the film, after encountering every kind of opposition to their brand of charlatanism (including, but not limited to, legal matters) Lancaster Dodd transfers their activity to England. There, after a long hiatus, the old guru welcomes Freddie back and tries to convince his old protegé to give up drinking and dedicate one hundred percent to ‘The Cause.’ Quell, in his mad lucidity, refuses the offer, and it is here that Dodd exposes what could be seen as his main philosophy: ‘If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.’ Though such a thought could be attributed to, and linked with, Nietzsche’s idea of the ‘master and slave morality,’ that’s not so simple!
I suspect that the great German philosopher would argue vehemently that first and foremost one has to be master of oneself. Before finding weak souls to rule over or false idols to guide us, we should strive to find the necessary discipline to control our own impulses, guide our own reason and ultimately be our own masters. Zarathustra advises his followers thus ‘[n]ow do I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when ye have all denied me, will I return unto you.’ (Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche – Part I, Chapter 22: The Bestowing Virtue) It is rather easy to be fascinated by power (and what it can make others do) and forget that its main aim should be directed inward – exercised by us over ourselves.
It is perhaps controversial to say unreservedly that Nietzsche’s philosophy leads inexorably to the idea of positive liberty – as the truest aspect of freedom – due to his well-known critique of the free will. If we, however, understand positive freedom as the ability to act upon one’s own will (in contrast to its negative version that simply means free from external restraint) then Nietzsche’s own idea of the Übermensch – a strong, this-worldly, infused in potential greatness, human being – is the epitome of the concept. Even though Nietzsche acknowledges the animal within man, thus distancing himself from man’s supposedly god-given attribute of reason, his whole philosophical oeuvre aims at a potential god-like figure without the metaphysics.
Thus the bizarre friendship between two charismatic men (sometimes bordering on the homoerotic), which seems to be the central theme pervading the movie, become irrelevant once the real alpha type appears on the scene. Neither Lancaster Dodd nor Freddie Quell fit the description of the superman for they can’t even be masters of themselves. Instead, it is Dodd’s wife Peggy who seems most in control of herself. The scene where she asserts her calm power over her cult leader husband is indeed enlightening. While masturbating him by the bathroom’s sink, she pragmatically lays down the rules about his escapades. As Dodd moans and grunts – at that precise moment, more animal than man – he can only listen and consent to her instructions.
I like to think that for Nietzsche there are as many gods as there are human beings. Each of us with the potential to become our own support system, perhaps simultaneously beastly and divine, but nonetheless in total control of our reason and emotions – the perfect synthesis between Apollo and Dionysius…