Friday, January 18, 2013


A movie that every scholar should probably see is the Israeli film Footnote. It tells the story of a father and son who are both Talmudic scholars, but of different types. The father is dedicated to finding the truth, however tedious or painful the quest, and the results, might be. He is consequently overlooked when it comes to awards, but admired by some for his dedication and courage or integrity. He can also be contemptuous of others who do not live up to his standards, including his son. The son is his opposite. He puts the likable above the true, and therefore produces works that people like and find interesting even if they are somewhat speculative (he isn't a complete fraud or anything like that). He also puts his father's feelings, and his relationship with his father, above the truth. So he seems weak and a little too trendy, perhaps, but also nicer than his father. I'm simplifying, though, and the movie is subtler than this, but that's the gist.

We have, then, something like an investigation into the ethics of the will to truth, although the emphasis on scholarship, textual analysis, and a footnote also reminded me of Kierkegaard's story of the scholar who worries greatly about an oddly-placed comma only for his wife to blow away what turns out to be nothing but a speck on the page. Nothing so trivial is at stake here, but it isn't all that clear, or so it seemed to me, who ends up being shown to have been right. The father's dedication to strict accuracy appears to produce more harm than good, but the son's well-meaning efforts to protect his father don't seem to be much more successful. If anyone is the good guy here it is more the son than the father, but what is the point of scholarship if truth is not the priority? It all seems a bit pointless, like worrying about the placement of a comma that isn't a comma at all. People matter more than books, even the Talmud, the film seems to suggest.  But there's much more to the drama than this.

One other thing that I've thought of since writing these paragraphs is the pattern in how each father relates to his son. They are pretty much jerks to their sons, and in each case for the same reason: they see their sons as unacceptably slack. The generational progress is from rigorous, careful scientist to stimulating, speculative theorist, to happy-go-lucky couch potato. It's vaguely reminiscent of the transition from Plato to Aristotle to Alexander, each more worldly than the last. I doubt any similarity is intended though.

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