Monday, April 25, 2011

Limitless - The Problems and Advantages of Being Un-balanced

Eddie Morra (played by Bradley Cooper) is a struggling writer who wanders the streets of Manhattan like Dostoyevsky's Underground Man, resentfully bumping into strangers in his path. He is a sick and unattractive man who has no understanding of his illness. But Eddie's sorry condition is nothing that a new pill cannot cure.

Apparently we all know that "we only use 20% of our brain." It's a fatuous but pervasive conceit and it is the central premise of Limitless. The black-market pill in question - which turbo-charges the brain into full usage mode - is Eddie's instant access to the contagious state of excess and also his pharmacological key to success.

After popping a few pills Eddie cannot be stopped. He completes what he calls his "utopian" novel (more likely dystopian as I don't think there has been a straightforward utopian novel that has sold well in the United States since Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward from 1888) in four days. He learns to play the piano in three. And verbal acquisition becomes so easy that within a week he can say, "Would you like to come home with me," in six different languages. Eddie demonstrates real ambition by cleaning his bachelor apartment all by himself.

If, as psychoanalyst Adam Phillips observes, developing an excessive appetite is a self-cure for feelings of helplessness, we also know that the price of excess is a painful comedown. It is Eddie's crash that condenses the metaphors. Are Eddie's inevitable troubles with gangsters and Wall Street sharks (is there a clear difference?) a cautionary tale about how the dream of power can turn you into a vampire? Is the film a post-modernist take on how a presumably stable personality can be expanded, multiplied or even obliterated? Or is the deeper subtext a concern over our economic fears about the Chinese "overtaking us" if we don't get smarter real fast? If removing teacher seniority rules won't redeem our educational system, then better chemistry might. (One of the languages Eddie learns in a day is Chinese)

Eddie's new life becomes a blur of agitation and turbulence, a feeling that he has to "constantly move forward," but with all of his thoughts and knowledge "organized and available." This sensibility of being organized, calculating, having access to critical knowledge that will ensure a "limitless horizon" of never ending profit, is inseparable from the rise of the finance capitalism from which we are attempting to recover. Eddie's personal dilemmas take on the shape of his, and our, social surroundings.

Marshall Berman, in his book about the experience of modernity All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, (A line from Marx's Communist Manifesto that describes both the creative and destructive dynamics of capitalism) writes that "psychic dizziness and drunkenness, expansion of experiential possibilities and destruction of moral boundaries and personal bonds, self-enlargement and self-derangement, phantoms in the street and in the soul - is the atmosphere in which the modern sensibility is born." Eddie loses his moral boundaries and personal bonds in the streets of Manhattan, the city that Berman calls a "forest of symbols," where new meanings about our political and social lives are constantly springing up.

In a way, Limitless is an exploration of a particular view of what we commonly refer to as "human nature" - about what we would become if our intellectual and social powers were unfettered. If free markets create free people, which corporate funded "think tanks" tell us is the case, then our current economic model of freedom merely reflects the avarice and competitiveness that are part of an unalterable human condition.

Terry Eagleton, in his new book Why Marx Was Right, challenges this orthodoxy by examining Marx's complex views on "human nature." For Marx, our powers, capabilities and desires are shaped, restrained or liberated by the material conditions that we are born into. Marx writes in Volume I of Capital of "human nature in general and modified in each historical epoch."

Eagleton points out that our potential solidarity and empathy with each other and with different cultures and peoples has a "foundation in our bodies." "Because of the nature of our material bodies, we are needy, laboring, sociable, sexual, communicative, self-expressive animals who need one another to survive, but who come to find a fulfillment in that companionship over and above its social usefulness." We identify with others due to our similar physical needs and limits, our strengths and our vulnerabilities. These constraints - part of what Marx called our "species being," have a permanence that is both inevitable and desirable.

Both a realist and a visionary, Marx looked at the ravages of capitalism in England and imagined a potentially different future that might emerge from the transformative energies that capitalism had unleashed. His ideas were tragic - Shakespeare was one of his favorite authors - but not pessimistic.

Once again we are involved in a debate about the "limits" of the free market - about how best to restrain the worst excesses of our economic structure. But if being "limitless" is a problem and Limitless the film is a cautionary tale about how the individual cannot outrun the system itself - then what problems are derived from accepting too easily the limits of our political aspirations? Isn't extreme caution and a firm belief in the adage that "You can't change human nature," a bedrock assumption of the conservative worldview - a political acquiescence? How often do you hear the cynical adage that "nothing fundamentally changes" in this world? We have become the unconscious guardians of the status quo.

At least Limitless engages some of these questions albeit elliptically. Eddie, like "Fast" Eddie Felson of Paul Newman's The Hustler (which the movie obliquely references), is always on the edge of disintegration, unbalanced and hurtling forward at a dizzy pace. In that state, you forget where you began and you eliminate your desired end by focusing solely on the means.

Dostoevsky questioned in Notes From the Underground, whether the transformative energies of the urban world could ever be a source of nourishment - a home rather than a prison. Man needs to build, he wrote. But perhaps ..."he only likes that edifice from a distance and not at all at close range, perhaps he only likes to build it and does not want to live in it."

Eddie creates worlds he doesn't want to live in. He moves from novelist to day-trader to King of the stock market to mergers and acquisitions and ends up in a fortress-like home where he doesn't even unpack his bags. His plan to finally arrive at the life he has longed for - one of opulence and freedom - becomes elusive and distant, a central discord of the modern temperament.

The literary critic Frank Kermode argues that we need meaningful beginnings and endings to make sense of our lives, even if those beginnings and endings are fictions. It seems that movies require these types of beginnings and endings as well. Eddie is an exhausting character and the people around him end up as exhausted survivors of his ambition. There is no elaborate beginning to the movie except a vision of Eddie balanced on the edge of an abyss, the type of imbalance that always captures our attention. As for an adequate ending, there is none. Eddie's last word in the movie is consistent with the ethos of the film. With a triumphant idiot's grin he simply asks his girlfriend the question "What?" Not, What is to be done? What's it all about? What, me worry? Since there is no positive meaning to invest in - neither tragedy or its overcoming - at the end of the movie I'm guessing you probably won't care.

Further Reading:

Marshall Berman - All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

Terry Eagleton - Why Marx Was Right

Frank Kermode - The Sense of an Ending

Adam Phillips - On Balance


  1. Love the cleaning his apartment line.

    Also, i guess there's something to be said that his whole recent life is stagnated as he tries to create a utopian world and then given the means to do anything he gets that out of the way asap, leaves it on the page, and moves right to self-fulfillment. So perhaps the inference that he is a caring guy and concerned with the well being of others is just misdirection.

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