A still from the film The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson shows a ship named Alethia

The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson, Annapurna Pictures, 2012. Image @ 19’28”. IMDb, official website and The Weinstein Company’s website for the film. Click for a larger view.

The following aims at providing a little more references about the name of the ship Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) clandestinely boards one night while being drunk in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film The Master. It is on this ship that he will meet Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for the first time. There are no spoilers and little interpretation here, merely references.

In a version of the film’s script available online at The Weinstein Company, here’s how the scene ―from which the stills displayed here belongs― is described:

EXT. DOCKS/SAN FRANCISCO ― NIGHT.

VARIOUS ANGLES. Freddie makes his way around the docks, looking for something/anything. PLAY OUT.

He comes across a SHIP that’s being readied for voyage. It’s an old cattle TRAWLER that seems converted to some kind of CRUISE SHIP/PRIVATE YACHT-type vessel.

There’s a buzz of getting ready around the ship also a minor cocktail party in progress. (light music playing from the ship…) DECKHANDS preparing to ship out, etc… (p. 10; PDF 4.9MB)

Still from the film The Master (2012) by Paul Thomas Anderson, Annapurna Pictures. Image @ 19'49"
Still from the film The Master (2012) by Paul Thomas Anderson, Annapurna Pictures. Image @ 19’49”

“Alethia” is a phonetic transcription (in English) of the Greek word ἀλήθεια (or aletheia in its usual orthographical transcription). The usual translation for it is “truth”. In their Greek-English Lexicon Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott signals that in Homer the word is opposed to “lie”. After Homer, it’s also used as “reality” in opposition to “appearance”. Used to qualify a character, it means “truthfulness, sincerity”. For more see ἀλήθεια in A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford. Clarendon Press, 1940).

The word is constructed from the privative “α” and “λήθη” which means “forgetting, forgetfulness”. In regard to Freddie’s heavy consumption of alcohol, it’s also interesting to note that the same word, “λήθη”, also gave us both “lethal” and “lethargic”. Hence, when one is drunk, one could be said to be lethargic, meaning one is not his or her true self.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger was notoriously not very fond of this translation. Basically, he explains that there is no gain in translating ἀλήθεια as “true” since we don’t really know what the ancient Greek meaning for “true” was or even, for that matter, what it means to us today. In other words, this translation doesn’t explain much, it only postpones the explanation. Heidegger’s explanation appears in various works, but one of its most exhaustive development can be found in his book on Parmenides:

If we asked ourselves off the top of our heads what precisely we think when we use the word “truth,” we would very quickly run into a tangled manifold of “views” or, perhaps, a general perplexity. What of course is more important than counting the divergent interpretations of truth and of its essence is the insight, bound to arise on such an occasion, that we have up to now never seriously and carefully reflected on what exactly it is we call “the truth.” In the meantime, however, we always and constantly desire “the truth.” Every age of history seeks “the true.”

But how seldom and how little does man understand the essence of the true, i.e., truth. Even if we people of today found ourselves in the happy condition of knowing the essence of truth, that would still not guarantee our being capable of thinking what in the early thought of the Greeks was experienced as the essence of truth. For not only the essence of truth, but also the essence of everything essential, has in every case its own wealth, from which an age in history may only draw a small amount as its own portion. (Parmenides, tr. by André Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz, Indiana University Press, [1942] 1992, pp. 10-11; in the official collection of Heidegger’s complete works, the Gesamtausgabe (an ongoing project), Parmenides is listed as item GA54.)

Heidegger will coin the word Entbergung to translate the Greek word ἀλήθεια. The translation of this neologism is itself a problem. The translators of Parmenides chose to render it with the circumlocution “sheltering en-closure.” (see the “Translator’s Foreword, pp. xiv-xv). Heidegger nevertheless acknowledges that a common alternative translation for ἀλήθεια is “unconcealedness” although he doesn’t quite agree with it:

What is named “unconcealedness” [“Unverborgenheit”], what we have to think in the name Ἀλήθεια in order for our thought to be fitting, is not yet experienced thereby, let alone secured in rigorous thinking. It could be that the specially formed word “dis-closure” [“Ent- bergung”] comes closer to the essence of the Greek ἀλήθεια than the expression “unconcealedness,” which nevertheless, for several reasons, is at first appropriate to serve as the guiding word for a meditation on the essence of ἀλήθεια. It should be kept in mind that in the following we will be speaking of “unconcealedness” and “concealment” but that the obvious expression “unconcealment” [“Unverbergung”] is avoided, although it is the “most literal” translation. (p. 12)

Following the same method, Heidegger insists that there would be no way of understanding what ἀλήθεια means without understanding what it negates, i.e. λήθη (see p. 11). And what applies to the the translation of ἀλήθεια by “truth” also applies to the translation of “λήθη” by “forgottenness”: it simply postpones the explanation. In his recapitulation of the relationship between ἀλήθεια and λανθάνω (the verb formed with the word “λήθη” in ancient Greek), Heidegger points toward a “withdrawal of forgetting” which has to do with the fundamental condition of “being”:

Therefore it could be that an invisible cloud of forgetting itself, the oblivion of Being, hangs over the whole sphere of the earth and its humanity, a cloud in which is forgotten not this or that being but Being itself, a cloud no airplane could ever breach even if capable of the most formidable altitude. Accordingly, it could also be that at an appropriate time an experience precisely of this oblivion of Being might arise–arise as a need, and so be necessary. It could be that with a view to this forgottenness of Being a remembering might awaken, one thinking of Being itself and nothing else, considering Being itself in its truth, and thinking the truth of Being and not only, as in all metaphysics, beings with respect to their Being. For this there would be required, before all else, an experience of the essence of forgetting, of that which is concealed in the essence of ἀλήθεια.

The Greeks experienced forgetting as a coming to pass of concealment. (p. 28)

What it could all mean in the context of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is for others to speculate. That being said, and since Heidegger’s philosophy is certainly not the exclusive path to take in this endeavour, it’s also worth noting that Lethe (Λήθη) is also the name of a Goddess in Greek mythology as well as the name of one of the rivers of Hades, the ancient Greek underworld. The Goddess is mentioned in Hesiod’s Theogony (see line 226 on Perseus, tr. by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, London: Harvard University Press, William Heinemann Ltd., 1914).

Charles Baudelaire also wrote a poem titled Lethe (Le Léthé) which was published in Les Fleurs du mal. I find it interesting in light of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film and especially of the character played by Joaquim Phoenix. Here’s the last strophe of the poem (in a 1954 translation by William Aggeler; see fleursdumal.org):

I shall suck, to drown my rancor,
Nepenthe and the good hemlock
From the charming tips of those pointed breasts
That have never guarded a heart.

Finally, I’d like to point out to a blog post (July 16, 2012) by Mathew Abbott. In the also excellent film You, the living (Du levande, 2007; IMDb) by Roy Andersson, he spotted a tramway which bears the name Lethe (the scene starts at 16’44”). Along the still from the scene, he provides a quote from the essay “The Passion of Facticity” by Giorgio Agamben about the relationship between Alētheia and lēthē.

• • •

Previously: Heidegger: On The Essence of Truth (1930), “The Limits of Control” by William S. Burroughs (1978) and The Ship Metaphor.

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