Friday, January 27, 2012

The Ordinary Mysteries of Life

Spoiler alert: If you have not watched The Descendents, and are planning to do so, this blog post gives the game away. And this post will make much more sense if you have seen that movie.

Alain de Botton believes that secular museums get it wrong when they exhibit religious art. For the people who created these works, and the audiences they had in mind, these were more than works of art. By arranging their exhibits purely in terms of their place in the history of the art, the museums lose the opportunity to communicate the real meaning of these works
Christianity, by contrast, never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to teach us how to live, what to love and what to be afraid of. Such art is extremely simple at the level of its purpose, however complex and subtle it is at the level of its execution. Christian art amounts to a range of geniuses saying such incredibly basic but extremely vital things as: "Look at that picture of Mary if you want to remember what tenderness is like"; "Look at that painting of the cross if you want a lesson in courage"; "Look at that Last Supper to train yourself not to be a coward and a liar".
When I first saw it, I thought the recent movie The Descendents is a fine example of such art, which shows us how to live. It is a classic morality play. The main character is Matt King, an everyman hero, a man who learns after his wife's death that she had been betraying him, and struggles to protect his children and bring them back together into a family. We watch him being challenged repeatedly, and see him respond with modest grace. There are many other characters, but King is in every single scene, and the story is about him and how he restores peace to his life. I felt for him throughout the movie, and wanted him to find happiness.

However, is he a good man? Would Alain consider his behavior a good model for others? King's wife might have disagreed; after all, she cheated on him and was planning to ask him for a divorce. His father in law doesn't seem to hold him in any high regard. At least one of his friends blames him for his wife's straying. When he learns that his wife was sleeping with another man, his response is to seek out that man, to give him a chance to see her one last time before her death. Who does that? A gentle man, or a weak one?

He is instinctively conservative. Born into great wealth, he chose to do nothing with it, and lives on what he earns as a lawyer. He did not buy his wife the boat she craved, but there is no sign that he intends to use his money at all, whether for great purposes or trivial. He is the sole trustee of a vast family estate on Hawaii, and has to decide what to do with it before the trust expires in seven years. The laws against perpetuities are intended to protect the living from the whims of the dead: property which has been inherited in trust should be employed as the living wish to use it. However, there is no sign that he feels burdened: all he wants is for that land to remain as it is, another thing which he does not wish to use or change.

He was unable to handle the two women in his life. He took refuge in his work to avoid his wife, and sent his daughter away to an institute for troubled girls. When his wife dies, and he learns that she had been planning to leave him, he seems to spend very little time wondering why. The movie ends with him and his two daughters on a couch, watching a documentary on TV.

So, is The Descendents the story of a fine, modest man who responds with charity and generosity to the pain he has to suffer? Or is it the tale of an emotionally cramped, over-cautious man, whose self-isolation brings disaster on himself and his family, and who seems to have learnt nothing from the experience? Dear Reader, you will not be surprised to know that I believe the answer to my question is "both, and neither". Even if it is the latter, we have to empathize. This man is suffering. He may not be an actively good man, but he means no harm, and is certainly not an actively bad one. If he has a fault, it is that he is passive. Certainly I appreciate the pleasures of a quiet life. Without a clue to his motivations, his behavior is hopelessly ambiguous. A good man, and a weak one, can be hard to tell apart: the movie makes that point very well.

The director has achieved this effect artfully, by what he has left out. There are no clues which can help us resolve the uncertainty about his character. There are no flashbacks. The main character does not confide his thoughts to a diary; he does not have an extended conversation with a friend of family member; he does not confess to a priest. There are no soliloquies: there is only one episode where the director allows King to address the audience directly. We observe his behavior, and infer his character, as we do with most of the people we know in the real world. This is what I like best about this movie: the director uses the resources of the cinema to show us everything, and yet leave us wondering who it was we were watching all along. In the end, King remains a mystery. The director is not writing an abstract treatise on how to live. He is showing us the ordinary miseries of a particular man's life, and won't let us draw any lessons from it.

Alain de Botton may be correct when he says that the original intent of Christian art was propaganda: to shows how to live a Christian life. He may also be correct that this art served to console and guide the viewer, and that it could still serve that purpose for some of us. I doubt we need reassurance and help any less than those who lived five hundred years ago. However, I wonder if their art is what we can draw any consolation from that art , if we no longer believe what those who created those works believed. They lived in a hierarchical, ordered world with God everywhere, where man's duty was ordained by the place assigned to him by heaven.

Many of us live in a world without any signs to guide us. When Alain De Botton asks us to look to the great masters for lessons in how to live, he is reducing the possible range of reactions we can have to that art: he assumes that there is only one possible response. When we look at St Catherine, we are required to view it as a lesson in how to face death fearlessly, but why should we see it as that? And if we do, can we not seek out other teachers from whom we can learn the same lesson?

Consider the story of Petronius. When the "arbiter of elegance" at the court of Nero fell under Imperial suspicion, he committed suicide.
He did not fling away his life with precipitate haste, but having made an incision in his veins and then, according to his humor, bound them up, he again opened them, while he conversed with his friends, but not in a serious strain or on topics that might win for him the glory of courage. And he listened to them as they repeated, not thoughts on the immortality of the soul or on the theories of philosophers, but light poetry and playful verses. To some of his slaves he gave liberal presents, a flogging to others. He dined and indulged himself in sleep, that death, though forced on him, might have a natural appearance.
To him, his death was as inconsequential as his life was frivolous. He was fearless in death, but his manner of dying was as different as possible from that of the Christian martyrs. Which is better at helping us find meaning in life and courage in the face of death? For some of us secular modernists, both are too alien to be of any use at all. We are no longer able to seek lessons from art because, for us, art is another ambiguous element of an already illegible world.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi! An engaging read indeed. But I beg to differ on your interpretation of King as a suffering man. May be he is, but his suffering is one of a kind- available to feudal aristocrats of bygone days (not to 'everyman' of the mysteries and moralities at all). His has this instinct to 'possess'. He possesses his wife as he possesses his land. He can move away from them as along as they silently and uselessly lie with him, but as soon as there is a question of them being outside his control, he suffers. He means no harm if one reads doing harm as a conscious active engagement with people/situations. He does harm in the old fashioned aristocratic way, by leaving his lady and lands away to purse a modern life through which he justifies his pain on learning about his wife's afffair. It is a christian film, with forgiveness as the silent puppeteer that motivates its characters to forgive the sinner; but not in the everyman kind of way.It is very patriarchal, it glorifies aristocratic patriarchy by using christianity as an excuse.