Saturday, November 29, 2008

"It all depends on other people."

I’m not usually a big fan of British historical romance stories, but Atonement (Wright, 2007) actually worked for me. It wasn’t the tragic romance that captured my attention, but the unexpected philosophy. The movie turns out to be a sort of postmodern Masterpiece Theater remake of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 masterpiece Blow Up.

The opening image is a typewriter. The sound of the typewriter is a recurring motif in the film, even being incorporated into the music. We don’t realize it until the end of the film, but the sound of typing functions as a subtle reminder that what we are watching is not the “absolute truth” as the main character Briony Tallis will later call it. It is Briony’s imaginative reconstruction.

After a friend of hers is raped by an older man, thirteen year old Briony fingers her older sister Cecilia’s lover Robbie Turner. She tells the police inspector, “I know it was him.” The inspector presses her: “You know it was him? Or you saw him?” Briony: “Yes. I saw him. I saw him with my own eyes.” This is a deliciously ambiguous statement. She did see the rapist with her own eyes. But it wasn’t Robbie she saw.

Atonement turns out to be a movie about imagination: seeing things you think you understand but don’t understand. Throughout the film (as with Kurosawa’s Rashomon) we see the same scenes replayed from different (sometimes even fictional) points of view. At various points it is unclear (though, as with Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, we don’t realize it is unclear until the end of the film) whether what we are seeing is reality, merely one person’s interpretation of reality, a dream sequence, or an utter fiction.

The first line of the film is Briony’s: “I finished my play.” She is excited, but can’t get others to cooperate in the performance and production of the play. So she decides to stick with novels: “If you write a story, you only have to say the word ‘castle’ and you can see the towers and the woods and the village below. But in a play it’s… it all depends on other people.”

After the close of the movie’s narrative, we flash forward to an elderly Briony in present day giving an interview about the story we have just seen. She explains that the story of Atonement must be her last novel. because she has a disease called vascular dementia in which “your brain closes down, gradually you lose words, you lose your memory, which for a writer is pretty much the point.”

Now, Briony’s “novel” is so “entirely” “autobiographical” that she says “I haven’t changed any names, including my own.” She claims it is “the absolute truth” with “no rhymes, no embellishments”. But if Briony is losing her memory, then how can she be trusted to tell the historical truth? And if the story is pure history, then how is it a novel? Shouldn’t we call it a memoir? Not so fast. Briony continues:

“I got first-hand accounts of all the events I didn’t personally witness[…]. But the effect of all this honesty was rather pitiless. You see, I couldn’t any longer imagine what purpose would be served by it. […] By honesty. Or reality.” She was “too much of a coward” to make amends for her false accusations and so she “imagined” the scene, “invented” it. “But what sense of hope or satisfaction could a reader derive from an ending” that told the ugly truth? She admits to changing the facts and giving her character the strength to do what she ought to have done, but says she’d “like to think this isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness. I gave them their happiness.”

This is Briony’s atonement, her attempt to make right the happiness she prevented her sister from having. But notice that the effectiveness of this atonement rests on a paradox. The novel must narrate a happy ending for Cecilia and Robbie while simultaneously confessing Briony’s sin of preventing that happy ending. Briony has to tell the story both as it did happen and as it ought to have happened but did not.

John Mullan gives a nice analysis of this final scene in the London newspaper The Guardian. (He’s writing about Ian McEwan’s novel upon which the movie was based, but his comments apply to the film, too.)

Unlike writers of metafiction, McEwan wants you to identify with characters, to succumb to narrative illusion. For Briony to undertake her “atonement”, her work of fiction must make up for, and confess, the wrong that she has done. In a novel, she can make the world better than it truly is. She can make Cecilia and Robbie survive and meet again. And we must be allowed to believe it.

In other words, the reason Briony’s atonement works (if it does) is that she has made us believe in the love story and feel the aesthetic appropriateness of its narrative conclusion. (Note the ironic symmetry here: like the play from the opening scene, the closing scene reveals that the effectiveness of Briony’s novel “all depends on other people.”) But Frank Kermode seems to give the opposite analysis in The London Review of Books, arguing that we are not supposed to believe the story:

It is, in perhaps the only possible way, a philosophical novel, pitting the imagination against what it has to imagine if we are to be given the false assurance that there is a match between our fictions and the specifications of reality. The pleasure it gives depends as much on our suspending belief as on our suspending disbelief.

But Kermode is using “believe” in a somewhat different sense than Mullan. Mullan argues only that we must be emotionally committed to the story -- that we “identify with the characters” -- not that we accept them as nonfictional representations of reality. So what is Mullan’s point? He is reading Atonement the way postliberal theologians read the Bible.

For modern theologians (both liberals and fundamentalists), the point of Scripture is its representation of reality. Believers must either accept all the Biblical stories at fact value (as do fundamentalists) or they must try to find the philosophical truth behind the mythical stories (as do liberals). But postliberals (and postevangelicals) realize that there is no way to get behind the text. There is no way to know exactly what happened historically and thus there is no way to know to what degree the stories are fact or myth – just as there is no way to know to which bits of Atonement are facts, which are Briony’s false interpretations of facts, and which are pure fictions.

And even if we could know “the absolute truth” about what “really” happened, this would be beside the point. The (historical) truth would, as the elderly Briony says, no longer serve any purpose. (Kierkegaard says much the same thing about the historical Jesus.) But as Mullan points out, this need not imply that we can’t believe the story. For postliberals belief is more a commitment to a form of life structured around the Biblical narratives. We can enter into the story without knowing what really happened. We can, as Mullan says, “identify” ourselves with Christ -- we can let him enact our “atonement” with God -- despite the fact that there are four (incompatible) versions of his life in the four Gospels. Scripture does not mirror the (uninterpreted) reality of history -- it structures our reality and teaches us to interpret history, giving us a “sense of hope or satisfaction”. But it is precisely in this way that Scripture turns out to be true.

Friday, November 14, 2008

"Donc, si vous voulez, mon art serait de vivre."

We are all artists.

Whether you want to be an artist or not, whether you feel like an artist or not, you are an artist. Even if you haven’t painted a picture since the days of kindergarten finger-paint, even if you haven’t danced a single step since your Saturday morning ballet lessons in elementary school, you are still an artist. Even if you haven’t written a story since junior high creative writing assignments and haven’t played a musical instrument since high school marching band or composed a song since your now abandoned late nights as an undergrad rock star wannabe, even if you have given up on all these artistic endeavors, you are still an artist.

As long as you are alive it is impossible to stop being an artist; for your life itself is your work of art. Every choice you make inscribes a sentence in your autobiography, every emotion you feel paints a brushstroke of your self-portrait, every belief and every desire sounds a note and choreographs a step in the performance of your life.

You have no choice about whether your life will be a work of art. Your only choice is whether you life will be a good work of art, whether you will live a beautiful life and cultivate a beautiful soul.

Unfortunately there are no rules for how to create something beautiful. Aesthetic achievement takes genius, an understanding of your own unique relation to the world. This, of course, does not mean that anything goes. There are clear paradigms of beautiful lives and obvious examples of unspeakable deformities. The problem is that in the art of life, as in any art, there is no mathematical formula for success. Creating beauty takes good taste, an ability to discriminate the relevant details of your life and your world and a sensitivity to the harmonies and dissonances that reverberate from your choices.

And yet, in life as in the other arts, we can develop good taste. We learn first to discern and then to love the good by contemplating the paradigmatic works of beauty available to us in our traditions, the masterpieces lived by the saints and heroes. And we learn in conversation with our contemporary community of fellow artists how to read and interpret these great models of the past by engaging together in a study of the great critics of the past, the master philosophers and theologians, applying the lessons of the classics to our own ever-changing situations.

For Christians, the primary workshop for our training as artists is worship, the regular participation in word and sacrament. Christians believe that in worship we tell God’s story, enact the drama of salvation, and rehearse our steps in the eternal perichoretic dance of the ultimate Reality. In worship we encounter the ground of true Beauty and our lives are sculpted anew into His image and likeness. In worship we are taught how to think and feel and desire, how to represent Christ in our lives the way Christ represented God in his own life. In worship our souls are made beautiful.

But even if you are not a Christian, you are still an artist. Your life is still formed in response to traditions and models you take to be authoritative. We are all artists. May God grant us the grace to live artistically.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Sunday, November 2, 2008

"You can't mend the heart in a heartless world by observing that the world is in fact heartless."

Here are some nice reflections on the problem of evil by Andrew Brown, columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian:
"In the end, I suppose, my objections to God are, as they must be, theological: the workings of divine providence are just a little too inaccessible to human reasoning. The problem of suffering remains insoluble. There is no possible theodicy. But I can't, either, take the Dawkinsian view that the problem of suffering is an illusion generated by the illusion of God. You can't mend the heart in a heartless world by observing that the world is in fact heartless. That's not the point. I suppose I end up saying that I accept the Christian account of the problem; I just can't accept Christianity's account of the solution, and so I remain, by the grace of God perhaps, an atheist."
You can read the whole essay here. (Thanks to Episcopal Cafe's "The Lead" for pointing me to it.)

I really like his criticism of Richard Dawkins. And I am sympathetic to his view that there is no solution to the problem of evil -- sometimes I'm tempted to agree. But I wonder what exactly Brown takes to be "Christianity's account of the solution".

I'm a Christian theologian (more or less), and I'm still trying to figure out what sort of theodicy Christianity actually teaches. There have been many different theodicies offered by Christians throughout history. And even the Bible suggests different responses to evil. I don't find it at all obvious which theodicy (if any) coheres best with the majority of other fundamental Christian theological committments.

If there's one thing I am fairly sure of (given my reading of the relevant Biblical texts such as Job, the Psalms, Revelation, etc.) is that the best response to evil is going to have something to do with worship of God generally and in particular the liturgy of the Eucharist. (Then again, I tend to think that everything has something to do with the Eucharist!)

The centrality of worship (prayer, liturgy, communion, etc.) for our response to evil is something the best cinematic theologians have realized. I have already discussed Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (see my earlier post) on this topic. Here let me just mention the work of Ingmar Bergman, perhaps the filmmaker most obsessed with the problem of evil. There are hints of Eucharistic themes in The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1957) and The Virgin Spring (Bergman, 1960). But the theme becomes most prominent in Winter Light (Bergman, 1962) whose story takes place in and between two celebrations of the Eucharist.

One could argue that Bergman intended these films as a critique of the idea that worship can provide an adequate response to evil. (For a really good analysis of The Seventh Seal along these lines, see Steven Greydanus's essay at Decent Films.) But even if it is true that Bergman intended to reject a Eucharistic theodicy, he was unable to keep the truth from shining through his work. In any event, I think Bergman's intentions were more complex than simply rejecting Christianity. He also struggled with the ability of art to respond adequately to evil -- most significantly in Persona (Bergman, 1966), but I don't think he ever quite gave up hope that art could help us go on living.

Unfortunately I don't have time now to give a detailed analysis of Winter Light (I hope to do so in a future post -- this post was supposed to be a simple link to the essay by Andrew Brown!), but I encourage you to watch it for yourself and try to figure out what is going on in the final scene. Has the priest lost his faith? Why does he go through with the liturgy? Is this an optimistic or pessimistic ending? How does the ending relate to the endings of The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring? And, most importantly, what can we learn from this film (regardless of what Bergman was trying to teach us) about responding to evil?

Let me know what you think.