The Act of Killing (about the brutal suppression of communists and "communists" in Indonesia) is a good film, although not as surreal as some reviews had led me to expect. If you don't read any such reviews, though, I think it would be surreal. The sight of overweight, middle-aged murderers performing a musical about their crimes in drag is weird. The painful reality of memory and evasive fantasy take turns, with fantasy mostly winning out. Its victory is never secure, though, because it's so unbelievable. (Which is related to its badness as art and tempts me to say something about the truth of great art, but I'll resist. Evil people do seem to have terrible taste, though, and I think this must have something to do with an inability to see, or to accept, reality.)
Not long after seeing this I watched S21, about the torture and mass murder of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The best part of the film is where one of the survivors of the S21 prison, Vann Nath, talks to former prison guards. He objects to their use of words like 'destruction' instead of 'murder' or 'killing', and to their claim that they had no choice about whether to kill prisoners because they would have been killed themselves if they had refused. He does not deny that they would have been killed, but he presents their excuses as a kind of attack on humanity. Humanity requires that we not use de-humanized, evasive words like 'destruction' and that we not think of ourselves as having no choice or responsibility, even when threatened with death. Humanity requires a kind of realism, albeit not the kind of realism that would see a coerced person as indeed having no real choice or responsibility. It isn't realistic to say, "What could I do? My hands were tied," because a person whose hands are tied does not just shrug when forced to kill.
Thinking about what it means to be realistic has led me to think about the meaning and ethics of facing death, and of what Wittgenstein says about this in the Tractatus. Here's 6.4311:
Death is not an event in life. One does not live through death.
If one understands eternity not as an endless period of time but as timelessness, then he who lives in the present lives eternally.
Our life is just as endless as our field of vision is limitless.The first sentence there is odd. Death certainly is an event in life, i.e. it happens. But it happens to other people: one does not live through one's own death. That's almost a joke. It's hardly news. So my death is not an event in my life in the sense that within the duration of my life the end of that life does not arrive. That is also a tautology or analytic truth that sounds almost like a bit of comforting Epicurean therapy, but anyone who is comforted by tautologies is surely confused.
The next paragraph sounds like the kind of idea that is standardly labeled 'inspirational,' but again it's just playing with words, isn't it? If one takes 'eternity' to mean timelessness then the present, which is not a measurable period of time, is an eternity. So what? We cannot live our whole lives in the present in this sense any more than Zeno's paradoxes mean that we can never reach the door or catch up with a turtle.
And then the comparison of life with the field of vision: Life as we experience it contains no limits because we do not, cannot, experience a limit to our experience. Again this is a tautology. The limit of my field of vision is not part of the field of vision, not one of the things I can see. Any sense of wisdom, insight, or comfort here seems illusory.
There's also this:
6.431 As too at death the world does not change, but rather stops.This strikes me as false. The world does not stop when I die. I'm not sure what it would means for the world to stop, actually, and if it's a possibility then it might stop at the same time as I die. Not because I am so crucial to the world but rather because if the world ever stops then I will probably not survive. At my death my world will stop, the world as it appears or exists for me will stop, but that's just to say that I will permanently lose consciousness. And 'death' here presumably means something like 'permanent loss of consciousness.' This is not a hypothesis about immortality. 6.431 seems to say nothing, but it is a comment on 6.43, so what does that say?
6.43 If good or evil willing alters the world, then it can only alter the limits of the world, not the facts; not that which can be expressed through language.
In short, the world must then thereby become an altogether different one. It must, so to speak, wane or wax as a whole.
The world of the happy is a different one than that of the unhappy.This doesn't sound like nonsense, or empty speech. How might the world of the happy differ from that of the unhappy? Well, one belongs to the happy and the other does not. Is the former in some sense, or in what sense might it be, larger than the other? Some people do have little minds, lacking imagination or much sense of the reality of other people's lives. Their cares are narrowly concentrated on themselves. These are the kind of people we call small or miserable. This section does not feel like a joke, but its apparent content does seem to evaporate on inspection. The benevolent are happy if by 'happy' we mean 'benevolent', and likewise for the malevolent and unhappiness. Is there more here than that?
Does this tell us or show us anything about the ethics of murder or memory or fantasy? I don't think so. It might show that philosophy cannot tell us what is realistic (or good?). Only reality can do that. Can goodness? So far as it, like evil, is part of reality I think it might.