Once the Sixties generation began its Long March through the institutions, conservatives started to despair of ever being able to counter what they saw as the uniform degradation of American culture. In the past couple of decades, however, more and more critics on the right have looked past the surfaces of seemingly antinomian and relativistic popular art and found serious and often positive meanings in it. One such writer is Thomas Hibbs, a Baylor University professor of ethics and culture, film critic for National Review Online, and author of Shows About Nothing, a 1999 study in which he found Nietzscheanism to be rampant in American pop culture. In Arts of Darkness, Hibbs examines the distinctively American popular art form known as noir.
Hibbs writes that, although noir seems bleak and cynical on the surface, the meaning behind the phenomenon is a good deal more complex and significantly more positive: What is significant about these films is not just that they present a dark and dismal world but that they display their main characters as on a quest for love, truth, justice, and even redemption. What interests Hibbs is the convergence of noir with the religious quest : Noir arises from the same impulses that prompted Pascal to write of the hiddenness of God, and of the faithful believer who seeks with groans.
Hibbs sees noir as engaging and critiquing the two major philosophical dangers of modernity: nihilism and Gnosticism. He writes: Enlightenment theorists promise liberation from various types of external authority: familial, religious, and political. But an unintended consequence of the implementation of Enlightenment theories is the elimination of freedom. The film noir vividly expresses this truth, as the protagonists find themselves ever more deeply enmeshed in the complex, bureaucratized, soulless modern cities and webs of uncaring institutions that are the consequence of the Enlightenment passion for controlling the world through science. In portraying the tragic limitations of the Enlightenment project, Hibbs argues, noir shows liberal modernity as a potential source of nihilism, a human existence devoid of any ultimate purpose or fundamental meaning, where the great tasks of inquiry and the animating quests that inspired humanity in previous ages cease to register in the human soul, a place where the very notion of a soul is suspect. --National Review, Feb 25, 2008
Hibbs makes a unique and valuable contribution to this endlessly fascinating subject, offering an interpretive grid for understanding the neo-gnosticism of so many popular films. Hibbs deserves much credit here for thickening the moral conscience of moviegoers beyond counting the number of dirty bits or blasphemies uttered. He is not afraid to talk religion and thereby give some recognizable content to the concept of redemption: "The religion of a humiliated, crucified God--inconceivable to natural reason--accounts for the paradoxes of human nature." --First Things, April 2008
About the Author
THOMAS S. HIBBS, PH.D., established his reputation as a highly original critic with his earlier book Shows About Nothing. His reviews and essays appear regularly in the national media. A former professor of philosophy at Boston College, Dr. Hibbs is now the Dean of the Honors College and Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.