“If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.” — Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in The Master (2012)
|L. Ron Hubbard (c. 1950)|
Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master has already received an enormous amount of critical attention…and rightly so. Like all Anderson’s other films (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood) it’s a movie that rewards careful thought. A number of his earlier films (most notably Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood), are built on a very careful evocation of a particular time and place. Most of the action in The Master is very specifically set in 1950..though rather than being set in a particular place, The Master, as its title suggests, revolves around a person: Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), though the film’s protagonist is its other main character, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled navy veteran drawn into Dodd’s circle.
If you know anything about The Master, you probably know that Dodd is an only-slightly-fictionalized version of L. Ron Hubbard, and his movement / cult (called “The Cause” in the movie), is very closely based on Dianetics, the immediate precursor to Scientology. Although the director–and his stars–have occasionally tried to downplay the connections between Dodd and Hubbard and the Cause and Dianetics / Scientology, Anderson very carefully researched the early days of Dianetics and changed relatively little in his movie, beyond altering some terminology (e.g., in The Cause, recruits undergo “processing”; in Scientology, they undergo “auditing”) and creating some composite characters.*
But like Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, The Master is not in any simple sense a historical picture, or even an exposé of Scientology. Instead, Anderson using his very specific historical setting to explore larger themes. And one of these themes is the place of men like Lancaster Dodd in American life. The quote above comes from what’s in many ways the film’s climactic scene, the final meeting meeting its two main characters. A number of critics have drawn parallels between it and There Will Be Blood‘s climactic confrontation between Daniel (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Eli (Paul Dano). But what we are supposed to make of Lancaster Dodd’s final meeting with Freddie Quell is less clear than how we are supposed to view Daniel’s savaging of Eli. For example, how seriouslyare we supposed to take Dodd’s above-quoted statement about masters…and what does it tell us about Dodd and his world?
Among the many things that Lancaster Dodd shares with L. Ron Hubbard is a peculiar kind authoritarianism that presents itself as promoting radical individualism. The Cause is about freeing oneself from the burdens of one’s past lives in order to return one’s mind to its “natural state of perfect.” And yet, the movement is built around the personal, and rather capricious, authority of Dodd. And the path to liberation is through often humiliating “processing” games, the content of which is tightly controlled by Dodd himself.
One of the many ways in which the film is not a simple exposé of Scientology is the extent to which Dodd is presented as a kind of representative figure. Anderson is after bigger game than just Scientology. The film does a nice job of suggesting that the promises of the Cause are a more fanciful and extreme variation of the promises of post-War America, which are conveyed, early in the film, by more conventional authority figures, as Freddie recovers from behavioral problems in a naval hospital immediately after the war.
Indeed, I think that Hubbard and Scientology are of interest–or at least ought to be of interest–to historians of mid-to-late twentieth-century U.S. thought and culture precisely because they are not unique. In ways that I haven’t yet entirely worked out**, Dodd also reminded me of another authoritarian leader of a movement promoting a vision of individualism in the immediate post-War era: Ayn Rand. Rand, of course, has attracted a lot more attention from historians than has Hubbard, in part because her ideas are both slightly more respectable and her impact on arenas of traditional interest to historians–especially politics–is more direct.***
The differences between Rand’s Objectivism and Hubbard’s Scientology are obvious and numerous. Nonetheless, the similarities between the two “masters” are also clear: Both propounded grand, totalizing philosophies that claimed to be scientific. Both began their careers writing works of fiction and became public figures through surprise bestsellers. Both wrapped themselves in the mantle of anti-communism. Both simultaneously proclaimed a radical version of individualism while imagining the social sphere in a deeply hierarchical way (Rand’s makers and takers and Hubbard’s tone scale). And each ran his or her movement in often tyrannical ways.
* Tony Ortega, the former editor-in-chief of The Village Voice, who has written about Scientology for close to two decades, has written about some of these parallels.
** Thank goodness for blogs!
*** The other relevant difference is that Scientology is deeply secretive and rather brutally litigious. Nevertheless, serious historical work about it is beginning to get produced.
**** In the late ’20s and early ’30s, first at Marburg and then in Freiburg, Heidegger led a tight group of students who saw him as, in the words of Hannah Arendt (who was one of their number), “the secret king of philosophy.” Interestingly, when, in the mid-1960s, a North American organization was formed devoted to Heidegger, it called itself the Heidegger Circle.