by Roberto Rossellini

The hour of truth has struck for man. Some people believe that the events which lead to the end of human life on our planet have begun. Exactly what will happen and when is conjecture, but men who know more about these things than most of us do — those who deal scientifically with human behavior, mental health or the pollution of the environment — are agreed that mankind is hurling itself toward destruction at dizzying speed.

The progressive poisoning of the atmosphere, the waters and the whole environment, while real enough, is not the main problem. Man’s greatest danger springs from his behavior (which causes the pollution). It’s a point of fact that human behavior becomes increasingly pathological, as a few examples from daily life will demonstrate. The popularity of superficial and dilettantish psychiatry indicates at least that we are aware of aberrations in our behavior. There is the growing conflict between generations, between father and son. Also, the absurdities of our sexual behavior.

It has become costumary to pass all this off as evidence of man’s new freedom and a return to innocence; in reality, it illustrates the degree to which our animal behavior is overwhelming that which makes us human. Chaotic street traffic and daily massacres on the highway (man’s aggressiveness is approaching a suicide level!) are direct products of aberrant behavior. And then there is the conduct based on an ill-understood and out-of-date economic and legal system, on pride, selfishness and prejudice, all of which are antisocial in character. The paradox is that we, who are social creatures, go on committing actions that seem voluntarily aimed against our own lives and that have no relation to our intelligence. After all, the intellect, given a chance to manifest itself, is an exact measure of what is authentically human in us. As Bergson said, intelligence seems to be characterized by a natural incomprehension of life. What I have written so far may seem to augur moralizing discourse; but it’s not so. I’ve merely cited a few real facts that need be analyzed scientifically in conjunction with what we already know. (Etymologically “science” derives from the Latin sciens, “to know”.) For example — and the reasons for it are many — human society has changed profoundly in recent years: infant mortality has been reduced to a very low level: the number of lives saved has been increased; antibiotics and vaccines check epidemics; the techniques of surgery are ever developing from those of transplants to those of reanimation. The result is that the average life-span is increasing, and that society today includes a vast range of people of every age.

In the past, when the life-span was briefer, the elderly were rare. They were honored, revered and listened to for the authoriry that derived from their experience. The words “senator” and “signore” are rooted in the Latin senex, senis or “old”. Since infant mortality was high, men who survived the hazards of infancy and puberty threw themselves into life, giving vent to all their vitality. Men felt the joy of having emerged from the most precarious age of their existence, yet they also knew that in a few years they were destined to be eliminated by death.

To understand how greatly society has changed, it’s enough to remember that as recently as 1800, there were no more than 800 million persons on earth and that, in the following century, this figure doubled. At the beginning of 1900, in fact, we numbered one billion 600 million. In about fifty years we again doubled (3 billion 200 million) and that figure will double in the next twenty-five years. By the end of this century we will number over six billion, and in the year 2013, around 13 billion!!!

Revolutions in our way of life have also been accelerated: it took 40,000 years to reach the Agricultural Revolution, less than 10,000 to reach the Religious Revolution, another 1,600 years to arrive at the Scientific Revolution, and less than 300 years to enter the Electronic Revolution. And the pace continues to quicken. Fifteen years ago the idea of conquering interplanetary space seemed a subject for science fiction; this year man drove a vehicle on the moon. The future closes in on us with meteoric speed. Its effects are traumatic. In the past, the future appeared distant. Man had the luxury of prophecy, and we received warnings of charts before they occurred. Today the future is on top of us and no one dares to look it in the face. To understand this helps explain what otherwise seems only aberrant behavior.

There is, for example, a new need for savagery. Beards and long hair have lost the meaning they had in the last century when they were symbols of maleness, an aggressive spirit, and romance. The unkempt of today are just the contrary: they are bewildered, and seem ready at any moment to abandon humanity. (Even more expressive of “escapism” is the trend toward unisex.) The spread of drugs which numb and belittle the intellect indicates the extent to which we fear the most human part of the brain, that part which makes us think, which gives us choice and reasoned decision, conscience and responsibility. Those are facts that must be evaluated carefully. We need to look at our aberrant behavior patterns with understanding and compassion, for they are warnings that something must be done that will redeem us and allow a return to being human; that is, to being conscious, responsible persons, endowed with judgement.

Once before man may have survived an equally frightful and emotional adventure. I’m thinking of 50 or 60,000 years ago when we, homo sapiens, appeared on earth. The brain at that time, with a number of neurons equal to 2³³, differed sharply from that of our progenitor, Pithecanthropus erectus, the number of whose neurons was perhaps equal to 2³². The passage from 2³² to 2³³ represented a vast change, leaving man victim of fears that sprang from his expanded intelligence. New and sudden consciousness turned us into beings who, instead of living in and according to Nature, began to live according to ourselves, according to our own will and fantasy. At the beginning, however, the bewilderment must have been immense. (The grey matter, the reasoning part of our brain, developed last, enveloping and overpowering the subcortical encephalon, the original part of our brain, the most animal part that regulates the physiological functions, tropisms and instincts.)

The invention of language gave man the resources to break out of the life of the herd into a social life with its new ways of coping with obstacles and dispelling fears. Without natural defenses, without features or fur, fangs or claws or special muscular equipment, what could we poor bipeds do to survive in a hostile environment filled with dangers that we could now verify and evaluate intellectually? We must surely, at that moment, have yearned for a return to animality. But intelligence saved us. With language came the joy of expressing creative abilities and sense of direction; it helped us to memorize our experiences, to classify, separate and synthesize our observations and then to transmit them. It surely gave us, as one writer said, the exultation of a second creation. This was happening 50,000 years ago when scarcely 4½ million of us homo sapiens lived on this earth, divided into perhaps 150,000 small communities of about thirty individuals each. Through intelligence, we began to establish our domination over Nature which in turn initiated the demographic explosion. With humanity concentrating in areas suited to agriculture, communication between persons became increasingly difficult. Dialectical skills diminished, and fervidly creative language slowly turned into eloquence (or “means of persuasion”, as the etymology of the word indicates). Some 5,000 years ago, when 2 million men were engaged in the building of Babylon, a faithful dialogue — communication between each and every person — was no longer possible. From then on, rhetoric developed quickly. The sophists multiplied, and their most persuasive tools, delight and emotion, left great masses of men lost and confused.

It’s a common fact that man, like animal, needs to satisfy hunger, thirst, fatigue and the sexual appetites; that alone however is not enough to sustain us. For man, balance depends above all on the satisfaction of specifically human needs: stability, correlation, transcendence, identity. And very strong is the need for a sense of orientation and devotion. When we feel lost and when, for lack of facts and knowledge, we are incapable of satisfying our human needs, we build small pseudo-realities, small worlds, shells in which to enclose ourselves and which give the illusion of satisfaction. Superstitions, myths, faiths and dogmas are the substitute shelters to which we desperately cling.

Education as it has until now been practiced further complicates things. The Latin root of the word, educere, also means “to castrate”, and certainly educations begins by castrating, for the simple reason that it fails to hold in account the uniqueness of each human being. Let me explain. We know, and it can be proved, that each individual, though similar to other men, is distinct. Each child of the same couple is different from his brothers and sisters, though each has a certain resemblance to his parents. Possible resemblances are equal to the number 10 raised to the power of 2 billion 400 million. (To get a pale idea of what this means, bear in mind that 10 to the power of 8 is one billion!) So infinite a variety of individuals, each with its own tendencies and whims, specific qualities, talents, logic and tastes, result in a continuing and essential contribution to the richness of the intelligence of humankind, a fact that mass education, as practiced, is forced to ignore. Look at the situation as it really is: one man is more intuitive, another more mathematical; a third is a dreamer, a fourth is solid with few whims; another is full of imagination; a sixth is astute and another full of humor; an eight has a dramatic sense of life, and on and on in a number of infinite variants down to the shapes of facial features, hands and feet, so much variety that each of us can recognize a friend, even in a large crowd.

Education also castrates because it chooses certain styles of life and certain modes of thinking which it seeks to impose as models. But there is even more: educational systems, as oriented today, are concerned with remaking the man of yesterday rather than building the man of tomorrow. In the past the educational system may have responded to certain logic, because life, ideas and civilizations remained stationary for centuries. In a static society the example of yesterday’s man was of use. Today, however, life projects us into the future, and we must rethink and modify our systems of education to prepare us for what is to come. History’s function would then be not to celebrate the past but to guide us, and guide us better, toward the future. We should know what has already been done, but only in order to go beyond it. We must avoid the formation (as has until now been the case) of false orientations in which we take comfort whether impelled by vanity, weakness or cowardice.

Man must be aware that life for intelligent beings is the continuously recurring beginning of an exciting adventure in which we must constantly re-orient ourselves. In this connection it must be said that education — which I prefer to call the spread of knowledge because I find it a more useful phrase — should no longer be considered a preparation for living but a permanent component of life. (Even UNESCO has come around to this way of thinking.) The spread of knowledge should involve adults immediately; they too must be prepared to re-orient themselves, since it is in the family environment that the young learn and grow.

The irony is that every effort at re-orientation is frustrated by the enormous developments in communication whose so-called “information” is so oppressively present during every minute of our day. It is my opinion that man’s most serious pollution problem today comes from the media. Consider how they both poison us and affect our behavior. The products given us by the media are always the same, even when they pretend to change in form. They are sophisticated and rhetorical, in other words amusing and moving. Most often the media feeds us simple stock of little use to the mind and all the more harmful because it provides the roots of evasion, desertion and irresponsible behavior. Frequently media stimulate our destructive attitudes by feeding cynicism or pessimism, toxic products because they idealize and thus nurture both superficiality and false intellectualism. This puts me in mind of a statement by Dr. Omar Moore: “To the two elementary impulses that guide our modes of action — fear and desire — add a third, that of pretending to know.” If this is true, we can understand the paralyzing effect of the pseudo-intellectual, allegedly “artistic” output of the media.

Even “news” as given to us creates damage. Whoever works, as I do, in the field of cinema and television, knows that in televised or filmed “news” just as in press information, one must adhere to certain rules that have become the fashion. The endless pursuit of what’s new restricts man to the sensational, the topical, and the controversial. What, in the meantime, has happened to the news that should enable us to correct our current criteria and re-orient ourselves? The whole “information” operation is contaminated by a subtle chronic ill: propaganda. Still there might be a breakthrough in this field. We perceive signs of it here and there: certain television programs in Italy; a few also in France; and the creation of public broadcasting in the United States. These are encouraging signs, and there are others. My dream, however, is that the powerful voices of radio, television, cinema and the press should become the vehicles which, besides keeping us amused, would also spread knowledge; by inventing new formulae they could serve to reestablish a dialogue between each and every man. Should we ever arrive at this, how intoxicating it would be to take part in a new and vast human dialogue.

I should like at this point to say a few words to my colleagues. I have expressed my views without any intention of accusation. If what I have said has critical value, perhaps it will lead either to an examination of conscience or to self-criticism (they are substantially the same thing). So let us examine the problem and ask ourselves: in this historical moment of very great confusion in which we have lost contact with a galloping reality, are the means of information, as now used, the main vehicles of infection aggravating the pathology of our behavior?

(Film Culture nº 56-57, 1973, pp. 17-23)





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