August 2, 2011
Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others.
It will never prove it now,
now that its years are numbered,
its gait is shaky,
its breath is short.
Too many things have happened
that weren’t supposed to happen,
and what was supposed to come about
Happiness and spring, among other things,
were supposed to be getting closer.
Fear was expected to leave the mountains and the valleys.
Truth was supposed to hit home
before a lie.
A couple of problems weren’t going
to come up anymore:
humger, for example,
and war, and so forth.
There was going to be respect
for helpless people’s helplessness,
trust, that kind of stuff.
Anyone who planned to enjoy the world
is now faced
with a hopeless task.
Stupidity isn’t funny.
Wisdom isn’t gay.
isn’t that young girl anymore,
et cetera, alas.
God was finally going to believe
in a man both good and strong,
but good and strong
are still two different men.
“How should we live?” someone asked me in a letter.
I had meant to ask him
the same question.
Again, and as ever,
as may be seen above,
the most pressing questions
are naïve ones.
– Wislawa Szymborska, “The Century’s Decline,”
Nobel Prize winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska published these lines in 1986. Twenty-five years later, I suspect that many people would agree with her statement. As I write this, the polar ice caps are melting. The oil is being used up. Millions throughout the world go hungry. Wars rage in many parts of the world; terrorism continues to be a threat to all. Many of us who live in affluent societies are disillusioned with our lives, plagued by the feeling that something is missing. Meanwhile, in poor countries (and in the poor sectors of wealthy ones) the daily struggle for survival overwhelms all other concerns.
“How should we live?” is undoubtedly a naive question – so naive that many of us would rather not ask it at all. And yet, it is becoming more and more imperative that we ask it to ourselves and others, and that we try to find some answers. Problema, a documentary film made by Ralf Schmerberg, exhibits the attempt of some of the world’s foremost philosophers, scientists, artists and policymakers to answer questions posed by people from all over the world. On a bright September day in 2006, onehundred-twenty thinkers from around the world gathered in Berlin’s Bebelplatz (the place where the Nazis burned around 20,000 books in 1933). They sat around a circular “Table of Free Voices” and simultaneously answered one hundred questions posed originally online by people from all over the world. The film only documents seventeen of these, and I think that Szymborska would definitely consider many of them to be as naive as they are compelling: “What is today’s most important unreported story?” “Why is there no peace in the Middle East yet?” “What does courage mean now?” Perhaps the questions most relevant to my own project included “What is God’s religion?” and “What are the myths that we need to create in order to change the world for the better?”
The answers vary from the simplistic to the truly profound and thought-provoking. The film flips from one respondent to another, declining to identify people by name until the final credits. In between answers, Schmerberg offers a beautiful (though at times disturbing) collage of images from around the world. He also depicts many humorous and occasionally awkward moments which the respondents experienced in between questions (often when they did not realize they were on camera), thus revealing these “experts” to be not all that different from the rest of us. For me, some of the most engaging answers were provided by evolution biologist Elisabet Sahtouris, who talks about the potential (and necessity) for human beings to develop away from social structures based on competition in favour of ones characterized by collaboration, and her conviction that entropy in the universe is and continues to be counterbalanced by syntropy. However, many of the answers were very thought-provoking and perhaps (let’s hope) even action-provoking.
Because this film makes use of footage taken from several different films, it cannot be shown commercially. However, it has been shown in private screenings and it also available online, and I would recommend it as definitely worth the hour and a half it takes to watch. The film can be found on its main website, http://www.problema-thefilm.org/, and also on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/playlist?p=PL2DB3B747AE2A2029; “answers” to the questions posed during this event (as well as many other questions submitted from readers) can be found at http://www.droppingknowledge.org/bin/home/home.page.