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UNDERSTANDING LOVE

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UND ER S TA ND ING
LOVE
P h i l o s o p h y, Fi l m , a n d
Fi c t i o n

EDITED

BY

SUSAN

WOLF

AND

CHRISTOPHER

GRAU

3
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Understanding love : philosophy, film, and fiction / edited by Susan Wolf and Christopher Grau.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-19-538450-5 (pbk. : alk. paper)ISBN 978-0-19-538451-2 (hardcover : alk. paper)
1. Love in motion pictures. I. Wolf, Susan R., editor of compilation.
PN1995.9.L6U53 2014
791.436543dc23
2013018993

1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2
Printed in the United States of America
on acid-free paper

In memory of Hilde Wolf,


who taught me so much about love, novels, and the movies,
and who let me stay up late every time The Philadelphia Story was on
television
SW
For Susan Watson,
whose love, friendship, and support cannot be adequately acknowledged
in a dedication
CG

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CONTENTS

Acknowledgments
Contributors . .

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Introduction by Susan Wolf

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. ix
. xi

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1. Grizzly Man, Sentimentality, and Our Relationships With


Other Animals

Macalester Bell
2. False Racial Symmetries in Far From Heaven and Elsewhere
Lawrence Blum
3. The Untold Want of Now, Voyager

Maria DiBattista
4. Communicating Love: Ian McEwan, Saturday, and Personal
Affection in the Information Age

. 79

. 97

Frances Ferguson
5. Love, Loss, and Identity in Solaris
Christopher Grau
6. Embarrassing Fathers

. 123

. 141

Nick Halpern
7. Projected Love
Rae Langton

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8. Between Desire and Destruction: A Reading of


The Go-Between .

. 163

Douglas MacLean
9. Something That Might Resemble a Kind of Love: Fantasy and
Realism in Henrik Ibsens Little Eyolf

. 185

10. Rousseaus Julie: Passion, Love, and the Price of Virtue .

. 209

11. Shermans March: Romantic Love in Documentary Films .

. 231

12. Hitchcocks Family Romance: Allegory in Shadow of a Doubt .

. 251

Toril Moi

Frederick Neuhouser

David L. Paletz

Gilberto Perez
13. Lessons in Looking: Krzysztof Kieslowskis A Short Film About Love . 271
C. D. C. Reeve
14. Talking Back to Hollywood: Ordinary Love Stories on
Film, 19461964 .

. 287

. 317

. 345

17. Loving Attention: Lessons in Love From The Philadelphia Story

. 369

. 387

Judith Smith
15. Dipping Into Omniscience With Willa Cather: Authorial
Knowledge as Love

George Toles
16. Love and Bullshit in Santa Rosa: Pastiche in The Man Who
Wasnt There .

George M. Wilson

Susan Wolf

Index

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The project from which this volume emerged could not have been carried
outindeed, it would not have even been conceivedbut for the extraordinary generosity of the Mellon Foundation. We are deeply grateful to it
for both the Foundations intellectual and financial support of the project
and for its ongoing commitment to the flourishing of the humanities.
The volume took shape through a series of workshops in which the contributors came together to discuss their ideas and present their work. We thank the
University of North Carolinas Parr Center for Ethics and its Philosophy
Department for the use of their facilities and administrative staff. Further, we
are indebted to Maria Francisca Reines for planning, arranging, and running
the workshops with consummate skill, attentiveness, and good cheer, and to
Jordan MacKenzie for her excellent editorial and indexing assistance.
Finally, we owe thanks to the National Humanities Center for providing the
time and space to see the volume to its completion.
Susan Wolf
Christopher Grau

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CONTRIBUTORS

Macalester Bell is an assistant professor of philosophy at Columbia University and


works in ethics and moral psychology. Her published papers take up fundamental
questions concerning anger, blame, forgiveness, reparation, and inspiration. She is
the author of Hard Feelings: The Moral Psychology of Contempt.
Lawrence Blum is Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Education, and
a professor of philosophy, at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. His books
include Friendship, Altruism, and Morality; Moral Perception and Particularity;
Im Not a Racist, But ...: The Moral Quandary of Race; and High Schools, Race,
and Americas Future: What Students Can Teach Us About Morality, Diversity,
and Community (2012). He works in the areas of moral, social, and political
philosophy; race studies; moral education; philosophy of education; moral
psychology; and philosophy and the Holocaust.

Maria DiBattista, a professor of English and comparative literature at Princeton University, has written extensively on modern literature and film. Her
books include Fast Talking Dames, a study of American film comedy of the
1930s and 1940s, and most recently, Imagining Virginia Woolf: An Experiment
in Critical Biography and Novel Characters: A Genealogy.
Frances Ferguson is Ann L. and Lawrence B. Buttenwieser professor of
English and the College at the University of Chicago. She has published Wordsworth: Language as Counter-spirit; Solitude and the Sublime: Romanticism and
the Aesthetics of Individuation; Pornography, The Theory: What Utilitarianism
Did to Action, and various essays on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century subjects and on literary theory.
Christopher Grau is an associate professor of philosophy at Clemson University. He specializes in ethics (including applied ethics), topics in metaphysics
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(personal identity, free will), and philosophical work on film. He has previously
edited two books on philosophy and film: Philosophers Explore The Matrix
(Oxford University Press, 2005) and Philosophers on Film: Eternal Sunshine of
the Spotless Mind (Routledge, 2009).
Nick Halpern is an associate professor in the English Department at North Carolina State University. He is the author of Everyday and Prophetic: The Poetry of
Lowell, Ammons, Merrill and Rich, and he has coedited two other volumes of essays on contemporary poetry. He is at work on a book about embarrassing fathers.
Rae Langton is a professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge and
a Fellow of Newnham College. She is the author of Kantian Humility: Our
Ignorance of Things in Themselves and Sexual Solipsism: Philosophical Essays on
Pornography and Objectification, both published by Oxford University Press.
Douglas MacLean is a professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina,
Chapel Hill. His teaching and research focus on moral and political philosophy,
specifically our policies and attitudes with respect to risk, nature, and the future.
Toril Moi is James B. Duke Professor of Literature and Romance Studies, and
a professor of theater studies, English, and philosophy at Duke University.
Among her publications are Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism; Simone
de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman; and What Is a Woman?
Frederick Neuhouser is a professor of philosophy and Viola Manderfeld
Professor of German at Barnard College, Columbia University. His interests
include social and political philosophy, nineteenth-century German thought,
and psychoanalysis. His most recent book is Rousseaus Theodicy of Self-Love:
Evil, Rationality, and the Drive for Recognition.
David L. Paletz is a professor of political science at Duke University, where
he teaches Politics and the Media and Politics and the Libido. His books
include The Media in American Politics and American Government and Politics
in the Information Age. For many years he chaired the Selection Committee of
the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
Gilberto Perez was born in Havana, Cuba, and educated at the M.I.T. and
Princeton. He is the Noble Professor of Art and Cultural History at Sarah Lawrence College and the author of The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium.

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C. D. C. Reeve is Delta Kappa Epsilon Distinguished Professor of Philosophy


at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He works primarily on Plato
and Aristotle, but he is interested in philosophy generally and has published
on film and on the philosophy of sex and love. His books include PhilosopherKings (Princeton University Press, 1988, reissued Hackett, 2006); Socrates in the
Apology (Hackett, 1989); Practices of Reason (Oxford University Press, 1995);
Substantial Knowledge (Hackett, 2003); Loves Confusions (Harvard University
Press, 2005); Action, Contemplation, and Happiness (Harvard University Press,
2012); Blindness and Reorientation (Oxford University Press, 2012); and Aristotle on Practical Wisdom (Harvard University Press, 2013).
Judith Smith is a professor of American Studies at University of Massachusetts,
Boston. Her teaching and research interests cross the fields of twentiethcentury US culture, history of film and media, ethnicity and race, and family
and womens history. Her books include Visions of Belonging: Family Stories,
Popular Culture, and Postwar Democracy, 19401960; Family Connections: A
History of Italian and Jewish Immigrant Lives in Providence, Rhode Island,
19001940; and the forthcoming Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public
Radical, 19461970.
George Toles is Distinguished Professor of Literature and Film at the University of Manitoba. He has published widely on literature and film, and for
twenty-five years has been screenwriting collaborator of Canadian director
Guy Maddin. Their most recent feature is Keyhole. George is currently writing
a monograph on Paul Thomas Anderson for the University of Illinois Contemporary Directors series.
George M. Wilson is Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California. He has also taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Johns Hopkins
University, and the University of California at Davis. His research has been
primarily concerned with the theory of action and the philosophy of film. His
books are Narration in Light ( Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), The
Intentionality of Human Action (Stanford University Press, 1989), and Seeing
Fictions in Film (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Susan Wolf is Edna J. Koury Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her interests range widely over
moral psychology, value theory, and normative ethics. Her publications include
Freedom Within Reason and Meaning in Life and Why It Matters.

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UNDERSTANDING LOVE

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Introduction
Susan Wolf

t is a well-known saying, and a true one, that money cant buy love. But it can
buy or at least provide a basis for stimulating thought and discussion about
love. At least, so this volume suggests, as it has its origins in an extraordinarily
generous grant I received from the Mellon Foundation, to be used to fund intellectual projects of my choosing.
I wanted to initiate some project or other that would bring philosophers
together with other scholars in the humanities to encourage more engagement
among them in a way that would make their ideas accessible and interesting to each
other and to a wider nonacademic public. The idea of organizing the project around
the exploration of connections and interactions among philosophy, fiction, and
film occurred almost immediately, since first, literature and film are the principal
subject matter of so much work in the humanities and, second, everyone, or at least
a lot of people, like (or love) novels and movies. Many of us love talking about
novels and movies, too. So I gathered a group of scholars togetherprofessors of
literature, philosophy, film studies, and othersto consider how best to give the
project shape and unity. What emerged was the decision to hold a series of workshops for which we would each write papers that we would discuss and eventually
put into a volume. We wanted a theme that would be substantial enough to make
likely the prospect that the issues and essays would speak to each other, but that
would be expansive enough to make it easy for all the participants to find something they could get excited about working on. We chose love.
Though the essays in this volume do not form an organized or systematic
answer to any question, they provide evidence, examples, and stimuli for
thought both about the relations of the humanities to film and fiction and
about love. And, of course, apart from their relation to each other, they offer
individual rewards. In this introduction, I will highlight a few of the essays

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overlapping and intersecting themes that may help guide the reader with particular interests in one or another of the collections distinctive features.

Models of Interdisciplinarity
Interdisciplinary scholarship has been officially praised and encouraged for as long
as I can remember. Interdisciplinary centers and institutes, undergraduate majors
and certificate programs abound; if you have a project for which you want funding,
finding a way to cast it as interdisciplinary will help. There are plenty of good
reasons for this kind of support. Academic disciplines, after all, are artificially constructed. Though they train us to think, study, and work carefully and well on projects and issues that demand expertise, they may also bias or blind us to aspects of the
phenomena we are trying to explore or understand. Our world and experience are
not compartmentalized into disciplinary parts. A full understanding of any piece of
our experience is apt to be enhanced by looking at it from multiple perspectives,
and pooling information gathered from different sources will ordinarily improve
the accuracy and soundness of ones investigations. Thus, for example, it would be
good if philosophers writing on psychological concepts such as motivation, emotion, and reasoning were familiar with psychological research on these subjects; at
the same time, psychologists working on these topics might benefit from a greater
appreciation of the conceptual distinctions and categories that philosophers have
found it useful to make in this area. But the reasons and ideals of interdisciplinary
research naturally vary with the combinations of disciplines and the details of the
project. It is my impression that interdisciplinary efforts within the humanities have
tended to be less successful than many that involve the natural or social sciences.
Philosophy, and especially analytic philosophy, has a particularly bad track
record, and an even worse reputation, for working cooperatively and fruitfully
with others in the humanities. Much analytic philosophy aims at understanding
phenomena and concepts in a way that abstracts from historical origins and cultural variation. Related to this, much philosophy that is not explicitly about political institutions and ideologies is insensitive to the social and political assumptions
reflected in the way its problems are conceived. At the same time as it aims for
reaching conclusions that are as universal as possible, analytic philosophy places a
high premium on precision and rigor. Thus, analytic philosophy is frequently criticized both for its failure to appreciate the historical and political nuances inherent in any intellectual enterprise and for being obsessed and pedantic about
terminology and detail. Finally, many people in the humanities and in the general
public object to (analytic) philosophical discourse as being too judgmental. Philosophers are trained to argue with each other, to search for holes in each others
arguments (and in their own) and for counterexamples to each others (and their

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own) conclusions. In many other disciplines, especially within the humanities,


responding to another persons ideas in terms of thats right/wrong, thats true/
false seems arrogant and aggressive, if not intellectually out of place.
To many outside of philosophy, then, analytic philosophy appears nave,
arrogant, and pedantic. To some within philosophy such criticism seems indicative of an opposite set of vicesconfused, vague, or mushy thinking and
intellectual cowardice, perhaps. Though there may be truth in both these perspectives, the portrayal of analytic philosophy is a stereotype, and like most
stereotypes, it presents an inaccurate picture of its target and relies on false
dichotomies. Many philosophers are sensitive to the historical contexts and
political implications of the texts they analyze and of the views they discuss,
and even more philosophers would welcome learning from others what their
writing unwittingly presumes. The search for truth is compatible with humility
about ones ability to reach it. And the acknowledgment that some ideas and
interpretations of a phenomenon or a text are better than others is compatible
with the belief that there is no single truth for all times and cultures.
Still, models of interdisciplinary work involving philosophy and the social and
natural sciences are easier to come by and better defined than interdisciplinary
work within the humanities themselves. In the former case, work is regarded as
interdisciplinary if the researcher in one discipline has read and absorbed work
that has been conducted in another, and made use of that work in framing a question or answering it, structuring a problem or solving it. The latest findings in
neuroscience may be relevant to philosophical research on moral responsibility;
knowledge of contemporary physics is necessary for an adequate philosophical
treatment of time. Conversely, a linguist or anthropologist or biologist might find
that distinctions coming out of academic philosophy provide her with conceptual
tools that improve her ability to analyze her data or to design a research program
that will focus precisely on the hypothesis she aims to test. Within the humanities
it is less clear what should count as interdisciplinary research and scholarship,
since literature and film are not, after all, the exclusive domains of literature and
film departments, and the exploration of questions about the meaning of life and
about ideals of human flourishing is not restricted to debate among professional
academic philosophers. Though philosophers sometimes use novels and films,
not to mention historical incidents, as examples, to illustrate a position or make a
philosophical problem more concrete, this is hardly interdisciplinary. Nor is it
clear that it should count as interdisciplinary to give a literary treatment of a text
in the philosophical canon (such as, for example, one of Platos dialogues or
Augustines Confessions) or to mine it for historical information.
Do the individual essays in this volume have any greater claim to be characterized as interdisciplinary? This is open to dispute. They were all written for a

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group whose members come from different disciplinary backgrounds, and with
an even wider eventual audience in mind. But in many cases, if not all of them,
it might be more accurate to describe the essays as nondisciplinary: exercises in
thinking and writing that, while inevitably reflecting the authors training and
temperament, engage with a text or explore an idea in a way unconstrained by
disciplinary boundaries. Many of the essays in this volume are, first and foremost, close readings or interpretations of a particular film, play, or novel. (This
includes the essays by Maria DiBattista, Frances Ferguson, Douglas MacLean,
Toril Moi, Frederick Neuhouser, David Paletz, Gilberto Perez, C. D. C. Reeve,
and George Wilson.) Reading these essays in conjunction with viewing or reading the works on which they focus can be revelatory, both about how much is in
these works and about ways of reading films, novels, and plays more generally.
Overlapping with these are essays that use individual texts or films as a springboard for introducing a more general idea or problem. (See, for example, the
essays by Macalester Bell, Lawrence Blum, Christopher Grau, Rae Langton,
Judith Smith, George Toles, and Susan Wolf.) One essay (Nick Halperns) does
not focus on specific works of fiction or film at all, but rather on a type of
relationshipthat of son to the Embarrassing Fatherthat can be seen both
in fiction and in the lives of a striking number of authors and poets.
If the volume as a whole is illustrative of a particular model of interdisciplinarity among the humanities, it consists in this nondisciplinary approach. Underlying it is a commitment to the idea that wearing ones disciplinary training
lightly and being as open as possible to the questions and ideas that humanists
of all sorts are inclined to come up with will help one get the most out of a book
or a movie or, for that matter, out of an exploration of a concept like love.

Love
The contributors to this volume were invited to write on any item they likeda
novel, a film, a play, a problem, or an ideaas long as it concerned or involved
some aspect of love. It is hard to imagine that a group of this size could have found
a greater variety of relationships to discuss. While many of the essays concern
themselves with romantic and sexual love, some (e.g., Halpern, Moi, Perez) discuss
varieties of familial love; Ferguson considers a type of relationship she terms professional love; Bell looks at love between humans and animals; and Toles considers the love an omniscient narrator might hold for a character! Moreover, although
a few of the essays (for example, DiBattista, Wolf ) consider ideal, healthy, and
desirable forms of love, at least as many are occupied with loves darker sides and
consequences (thus, there is discussion of obsessive loveReeve; incestuous
lovePerez; destructive loveMacLean, to name only a few).

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Whether there is a useful concept of love that is broad enough to encompass


what we might naturally call love not only between people but between people
and animals, and even between people and objects (like movies) or activities (like
philosophy), yet narrow enough to exclude other relationships that are perhaps
merely cordial or, quite differently, merely passionate is an interesting question,
although it is not taken up in this book. Even if there is such a unified concept,
we use love differently in different contexts, sometimes, for example, in a way
that implies a certain type of approval or admiration, and sometimes not.
Readers may well think that the relationships central to some of these essays are
not really love relationships at all. But that would not keep their examination
from helping us understand lovereflecting on a relationship that falls short of
love, as well as on the question of whether and why it falls short, may teach us as
much about what love is as the study of paradigm cases (and such problematic
relationships may well tend to make for more interesting novels and movies).
To a philosopher, a title like Understanding Love may seem to promise a
theory of love, including an analysis of the concept of love in terms of necessary
and sufficient conditions, and an explanation of loves value and importance.
Although neither this volume nor any of the individual essays in it aims to give
anything like a theory of love, someone in search of such a theory may find in
these essays both positive suggestions and negative ones. Thus, some essays may
be suggestive of features that are arguably essential to love or to good love, while
others, which explore unconventional relationships, may warn against simplistic
overgeneralization.
To many others, though, understanding love refers less to a theoretical
aspiration than to a personal one. Understanding love, in this more personal
sense, may not require the possession of a satisfying and articulable definition
of love, so much as an attunement to the complexities of relationships and to
their potential both for enriching and for damaging peoples lives. It is to be
hoped that reading the essays in this volume, especially in conjunction with
some of the texts and films they discuss, will contribute toward understanding
in this sense as well.
Each of the essays stands on its own and may be read independently of all the
others. Due to the remarkable variety of topics and treatments of love in this
volume, as well as the range of interests with which a reader may come to the
book, there is no special order in which these essays ought to be read for maximum benefit. (They are arranged by alphabetical order of the authors.) Still, one
can find in these essays overlapping themes and recurring discussions of some of
the same questions. For the reader interested in pursuing ideas about love in a
somewhat more systematic way, I call attention to a number of these connections in the remainder of this introduction.

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Love and Society


A significant number of the essays in the book as well as the works on which
they focus explore and illuminate the degree to which social forces shape our
relationships, encouraging love in some cases, confining or prohibiting it in others. Thus, Lawrence Blum examines the way the film Far From Heaven portrays
the effects of racism and heterosexism in 1950s America on interracial and
homosexual relationships. In Douglas MacLeans discussion of The Go-Between
we see class barriers destroying not only a loving relationship but at least one of
the lovers themselves. Maria DiBattistas close reading of Now, Voyager is more
hopeful: Though social conventions of marriage raise obstacles for the love of
the central characters of that film, the determination, ingenuity, and commitment of the movies heroine lead her to find a form in which the characters love
can express itself and flourish.
While the works and essays just mentioned explore the way social expectations and prejudices constrain our possibilities for love, other essays in the volume bring out ways that the material character of social life shapes the sorts of
relationships we form and the pressures they face. Highlighting a group of
films made outside of the Hollywood system that focus on working-class love
and marriage, Judith Smiths essay calls our attention to the ways in which the
tensions and challenges faced by lovers and married couples vary with the circumstances of class. George Wilsons essay on the Coen brothers film The Man
Who Wasnt There takes the fact that the social world depicted in it is pervaded
by an incessant barrage of bullshit to be salient. He argues that, against this
background even the attenuated and repressed relationship the films protagonist has to his wife may count as a kind of love. Another unfamiliar extension
of the possibilities of love is articulated in Frances Fergusons essay, Communicating Love: Personal Affection in the Information Age. In her close
examination of Ian McEwans novel Saturday, Ferguson focuses on the books
portrayal of an unconventional and surprising form in which a deep connection between people can be realized. While sharply contrasting with the loves
a husband may have for his wife and a father may have for his children, Ferguson
sees in the difficult and uncomfortable relationship that is central to the novels
narrative a kind of love grounded in professionalism that may be a peculiar
product of contemporary life.
While the essays just mentioned and the works that are their focus highlight
the ways concrete features of specific societies shape the relationships we are
capable of forming and sustaining, Jean-Jacques Rousseaus novel Julie and
Frederick Neuhousers essay about it discuss more general questions about the place
of personal relations in a larger society. Interpreting Julie against the background

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of Rousseaus more familiar philosophical work, Neuhouser shows us how the


novel allows Rousseau to explore the tensions between our passions for particular individuals and our duties to society at large, and to develop an ideal of love
that will overcome and transcend them. As Neuhouser explains, however, Rousseaus novelistic presentation makes it possible for him to express ambivalence
about the viability and appeal of this alleged ideal in an especially effective way.

Love and Eros


Because the kind of love that Rousseau sees as particularly at odds with social
duty is grounded in erotic passion, Neuhousers essay on Rousseau also exemplifies one of the other themes frequently alluded to in this volumenamely, the
complex relations between love and sexual attraction. Does intense erotic attraction itself constitute a form of love? To what extent does it contribute to love or
otherwise enhance ones life? To what extent is it dangerous, or even destructive,
a form of desire to be avoided or suppressed? The only clear answer (or beginning of an answer) that emerges from reading the relevant essays in this volume
is Its complicated.
Perhaps it is not surprising that most of the essays that focus on erotically
charged relationships are occupied with ways in which the erotic passions or the
relationships that involve them are problematic. In some cases, the relationships
that are fueled or shaped by sexual passion are or become, well, weird. C. D. C.
Reeves fine-grained study of a relationship that begins voyeuristically in Kieslowskis A Short Film About Love is a case in point. The central relationship in
The Innocent, the subject of Rae Langtons essay, is another. A less overt example
is explored by Gilberto Perez in his discussion of Hitchcocks Shadow of a
Doubt, where, according to Perez, the heroines affection for her uncle expresses
an erotic and incestuous attraction to evil. In other essays, the problems that
come up in connection with erotic love are not so much problems in the loving
relationships themselves as in the tension between them, on the one hand, and
the demands of society or family on the other. The works discussed by Blum,
DiBattista, and MacLean, each of which illustrate ways that social convention
and prejudice interfere with the lives and loves of its characters, emphasize the
erotic element to varying degrees. In Neuhousers reading of Julie, the force of
the erotic passion at the heart of Julies relation to Saint-Preux is what leads to
Julies downfall. In Little Eyolf, the focus of Toril Mois essay, erotic desire is the
cause of a different sort of tragedy.
This is not to say that erotic desire is always taken in these essays to be a
source of problems. As Ferguson notes, the difficult, and presumably totally
nonsexual relationship that is at the center of McEwans Saturday is presented

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against the background of a family whose other relationships, including the


sexual ones (the protagonist to his wife; the daughter to her husband) are
healthy and strong, and the quest for true (romantic and sexual) love in Shermans March, the prime object of David Paletzs study, is hopeful even if, at the
end of the film, the results, as it were, are not yet in. But, as both Ferguson and
Paletz comment, happy, successful romantic relationships are hard to make the
basis of a good story.
Even in the cases of the erotic relationships explored in this volume that are
ultimately unsuccessful, it would be rash to conclude that the relationships
were, all things considered, bad. In some of the instances where erotic love conflicts with societal demands, the fault seems to lie in society and its issuance of
unjust and unjustified constraints. And if the reader or viewer were to ask of any
of the participants in the depictions of erotic love discussed in this volume
whether it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, it is
not clear how they would answer.

The Imperfect Realities of Love


When philosophers write about love in abstraction, they typically characterize it in ways that bring out what is good, perhaps incomparably good, about
it; they offer definitions and conjure ideals of love that are intended to explain
and support the high value most people assign to love in their conceptions of
happiness and fulfillment. But, as we have already seen, when novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers portray love, their depictions are rarely so rosy. Sometimes, to be sure, the difficulties are not internal to the relationships or their
participants. Events and circumstances beyond the control or the characters
of the loving partners subject the relationships to pressures and strains. (Consider, for example, the relationships in the essays by Blum, Smith, and DiBattista.) In other cases, the fault comes from within: our passions are misdirected
or our cowardice or insensitivity or selfishness destroys love or its potential
(see, e.g., the cases discussed by Reeve, MacLean, Langton, and Moi). Sometimes, we are just unlucky. The perfect mate is hard to find (see Paletz); or
perhaps we find her, and she dies (Grau).
So far we have been primarily occupied with the range and limits of romantic or sexual love. But at least two of the essays in the volume remind us that
other sorts of loving relationships can also be deeply flawed. Nick Halperns
essay on The Embarrassing Father vividly traces a personality type through
the biographies of (the fathers of ) Henry James, William Butler Yeats, and
Edmund Gosse, whose smothering but narcissistic attention make filial love a
challenge and a burden. Macalester Bell explores the possibilities and the limits

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of love or friendship between humans and nonhuman animals. Through an


examination of Timothy Treadwells attempt to live in friendship with Alaskan
grizzly bears and Werner Herzogs critical documentary about it, Bell asks
whether sentimentality inevitably colors and mars our relationships to nonhumans, concluding that the dangers may be recognized and avoided.

Love, Projection, and Knowledge of the Beloved


Of course, sentimentality can infect not only our relationships to nonhuman
animals; it can also affect or afflict our relationships with each other. Furthermore, sentimentalization is but one of a number of ways in which understanding of a beloved can be distorted or inaccurate. The temptations and tendencies
to project traits and thoughts onto a love object that arent really there come up
remarkably often in the essays in this volume. (The films discussed by Reeve and
Perez are striking examples.) Can we ever see someone as she really is? If we can,
does it enhance or impair our love of the person we see? To what extent are our
loves a function of what we see in our beloveds? Do we really love concrete
individuals at all, or do we love the qualities we find or imagine them to exemplify? These questions are discussed and debated across a number of these essays.
The last of these issues has been a concern in philosophical writings about
love from Plato to contemporary philosopher Derek Parfit. As Christopher
Graus essay shows, Steven Soderberghs science fiction film Solaris offers a particularly vivid opportunity to explore the issue on an emotional as well as an
intellectual level. At the same time, the film invites us to ask how much it matters whether the ideas we have of the people we love are accurate, as opposed to
projections we impose upon them expressing our own needs and wishes as much
as the independent realities of the ones we supposedly love.
The role of projectionand especially of the projection of a lover onto his
or her belovedis the explicit topic of Rae Langtons essay. Taking up a theme
of the philosopher David Hume, for whom projection is a ubiquitous feature of
human life, Langton uses Ian McEwans novel The Innocent and the film that is
based on it to distinguish three different kinds of projection. While some kinds
of projections are unhealthy or harmful to love, she argues that others are necessary or good for it. Bells essay, which argues that sentimentality can play a crucial role in a loving relationship, supports a similar thesis.
Susan Wolf s contribution to the volume defends a contrasting view, according to which the best sort of love is a love that sees the other as she really is and
that loves the other in full knowledge of her failings and imperfections. Using
the concept of loving attention that figures prominently in Iris Murdochs
philosophical writings to develop her claim about the best kind of love, Wolf

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finds an example of it in an unlikely placethe classic Hollywood comedy The


Philadelphia Story, where indeed all the characters of the movie seem to be
occupied with the arguably false tension between loving people and seeing their
faults.
The idea that full knowledge of an individual is compatible with love receives
support from an utterly different angle in George Toless essay. Toles, focusing
on Willa Cathers novel Lucy Gayheart, shows us how Cather uses the vehicle of
the omniscient narrator to express her authorial love for the tragic character she
has created. The selfless and knowing attention to the other that Murdoch takes
to be fundamental to love and virtue finds its most radical illustration in Toless
interpretation of Cathers narrator, an anti-self whom Toles describes as having exchanged all the advantages and anxieties of being for oneself for a powerful identification with a disembodied state of endurance in the flow of time.

Love and Attention


While the essays in this volume take up and illustrate a range of positions on
the relation between love and selflessness as well as on the relationship between
love and objectivity, there seems to be no disagreement on the close relation
between love and attention. In every relationship discussed in this book, love
is marked and expressed by the attention the lover bestows on his or her
beloved. (This includes even the smothering attention of the embarrassing
fathers Halpern discusses and the belittling attention of the protagonists
mother in Now, Voyager. Note also how effectively inattention or negligence
signals the absence of love, as for example, in Little Eyolf.) Indeed, although
love is often identified with a desire for the good of the beloved, it is arguable
that a disposition to attend to the beloved, to be interested in her, to find her
fascinating, would be an even better indicator of love.
Interestingly, the connection between love and attentiveness seems to work
in both directions: as love seems always to provoke attention, attention frequently leads to love. The more one knows someone, the more one is apt to
love him; and a similar phenomenon seems to take place when attending to
particular works of art. This makes the choice of love as the topic to be explored
in this experiment in interdisciplinary engagement with fiction and film especially fortuitous. For if love is a dominant theme in the essays in this collection,
attentionparticularly, to individual literary, dramatic, and cinematic works
is an implicit but manifestly important and dominant virtue. At least
some of the contributors chose the works on which they would focus on the
basis of love. That is, it was because they loved a particular film or novel, or a
particular author, playwright, or director that they elected to devote so much

susan

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attention to the work in question. Others may have chosen their subjects for
different reasonsperhaps they were attracted to the challenge of trying to
understand a particular work because it was especially opaque; perhaps they
chose a topic or text that had bearing on an independent ongoing research
project of theirs. But it would not be far fetched to imagine that in the course
of attending to the works as carefully as they did, they also came to love them.
Readers of these essays may experience something similar. Certainly in my case,
the essays in this volume introduced me to a number of works I had known
nothing of before. Reading or watching them in conjunction with the essays
that discuss them heightened my attention to them (as well as explaining what
would otherwise be obscure and guiding my thoughts about them in fruitful
ways), leading me, if not to love them, at least to admire, appreciate, and enjoy
them to a degree that would have been impossible otherwise.
Lessons in love are thus also lessons in attention, or, as C. D. C. Reeve puts it
in the title of his essay, lessons in looking, and vice versa. As attention to fiction and film about love may contribute to our understanding of love, so too it
can lead us to love the works of fiction and film themselves, or even to love the
activity of interdisciplinary engagement with such works. From my perspective,
this last result, stimulating the readers of this book to carry on the activity themselves, would be the most desirable of all.

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Grizzly Man , Sentimentality, and Our


Relationships With Other Animals
Macalester Bell

any people take themselves to enjoy important relationships of love and


affection with nonhuman animals.1 But some object that these relationships (and the love and affection that partially constitute these relationships) are
irredeemably marred by sentimental fantasies and projections. Are critics right
to object that these relationships are likely to be spoiled by sentimentality? What
is it about these relationships that make them especially prone to this criticism?
I will take up these questions by considering how relationships between humans
and animals are portrayed in Werner Herzogs Grizzly Man.2
Grizzly Man tells the unique and dramatic story of Timothy Treadwells
attempt to befriend wild Alaskan grizzly bears. Treadwell lived, unarmed, with
the bears for thirteen summers. But in 2003 Treadwells peaceful coexistence
with the grizzlies came to a tragic end when he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed and devoured by a bear. Throughout Grizzly Man, Herzog
engages in what he has described in interviews as an ongoing argument with
Treadwell concerning what Herzog sees as Treadwells sentimental attachment
to the grizzlies.3 While Grizzly Man depicts one mans ill-fated attempt to

According to a recent survey, 52 percent of American pet owners would choose their pet over any
human companion if they found themselves stranded on a deserted island, and 93 percent said
they were either very likely or somewhat likely to risk their own lives for their pet (2004 Pet
Owner Survey American Animal Hospital Association, accessed February 1, 2007, http://www.
aahanet.org ). For ease of exposition, I will often use the term animals to refer to nonhuman
animals. Also, I will ignore the important differences between the terms persons, people, and
humans and will use these terms interchangeably in what follows.

2
Grizzly Man, directed by Werner Herzog and produced by Discovery Docs and Lions Gate
Entertainment (Santa Monica, CA: Lions Gate Films, 2005).
3
See, for example, Herzogs interview on National Public Radios Weekend Edition, July 30, 2005,
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4778191.

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befriend wild bears, the film also explores some common concerns about
whether it is possible for humans and nonhuman animals to enjoy relationships
of love and affection, and it raises fundamental questions about the value of, and
dangers associated with, these relationships. Through an exploration of Grizzly
Man, I hope to show that we have good reasons for sentimentalizing our relationships with nonhuman animals. While responding in a sentimental manner
is blameworthy under some circumstances, a proneness to sentimentality may
also be an important part of loving relationships.

The Value of HumanAnimal Friendship


Some people claim to enjoy relationships with nonhuman animals that are similar to friendships between human beings, that is, relationships of mutual love and
affection that extend over time.4 There are, of course, many differences between
humans and other animals (e.g., most animals are mute, the animals people keep
as pets are often highly dependent upon the humans in their lives, animals are not
usually considered moral agents, to name a few) and these differences mean that
friendships between human beings will be fundamentally different from relationships that people may enjoy with nonhuman animals. But despite, or maybe
because of, these differences, many people prize their relationships with other
animals. These relationships are valued for all sorts of reasons: some people think
that animals are especially loyal companions, others value the lack of pretense in
these relationships, and some simply enjoy the tactile pleasures associated with
caring for another living creature. But if we value our relationships with other
animals solely for these sorts of reasons, it might be objected that these relationships are merely second-class substitutes for interpersonal relationships. Is there
any reason to think that our relationships with animals are distinctly valuable and
not simply poor substitutes for our relationships with other persons?
One reason for thinking that at least some relationships between persons
and animals are uniquely valuable is that they seem capable of staving off the
feelings of isolation associated with being a human in a universe of nonhumans.
Let me explain what I have in mind.
In a different context, Rae Langton has described how friendships between
persons can help protect against solipsism:
My world is solipsistic if I am alone, interacting with things, but treating
them as people. My world is also solipsistic if I interact with people, treating
4

In what follows, I will use the term relationship to refer to relationships of love and affection
that extend over time. There are obviously a wide variety of other kinds of relationships, but for
the purposes of this paper, I am interested in relationships that are similar to friendship.

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them as things. How one is to escape these worlds is a matter of philosophical debate. One pursues the path of virtue, perhaps. One finds a
reply to the sceptic. In practice however, an effective remedy for (and
proof against?) both worlds is to be found in love and friendship. One
cannot believe of a friend that he does not exist, cannot be known, does
not matter. If he is a friend, then evidently he does exist, he is known, and
he does matter.5
Friendship, and perhaps love in general, can offer us protection against solipsism and the feelings of malaise or despair which sometimes accompanies it.
This is because genuine friendship requires us to acknowledge the existence of
other persons. So, too, our relationships with animals can protect us from what
we might describe as a different kind of solipsism. Insofar as I am able to forge a
relationship approaching friendship with an animal, I am sheltered from the
thought that I am all alone with them, where them refers to the rest of humanity, or other persons. Of course, the solipsist, of either variety, is not necessarily
filled with despair. One can derive a great deal of satisfaction from declaring
that one is alone (as we will see, this is probably Herzogs position vis--vis other
animals). Nonetheless, many people find the solipsists world incredibly bleak
and yearn for release. A relationship with an animal may offer a kind of escape
from this particular type of solipsism; insofar as we are able to form a relationship with another animal, we must acknowledge that human beings are not the
only creatures in the world. If one experiences a genuine relationship with an
animal, then one cannot doubt the animals existence or wonder whether the
animal really matters.
We can see a version of this thought in John Bergers essay Why Look at
Animals?:
With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is
different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a
companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species. Such an
unspeaking companionship was felt to be so equal that often one finds
the conviction that it was man who lacked the capacity to speak with
animalshence the stories and legends of exceptional beings, like
Orpheus, who could talk with animals in their own language.6
5
Rae Langton, Love and Solipsism, in Love Analyzed, ed. Roger E. Lamb (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997), 127. Langton goes on to say that [t]here are limits on the extent to which the
functions of a friend may be performed by beings that are not peoplelimits that are placed by
nature (127).
6

Why Look at Animals? in About Looking (New York: Vintage International Edition, 1991), 6.

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Our relationships with animals can save us from what I have described as a kind
of solipsism and what Berger describes as the loneliness of man as a species.
There is obviously much more that could be said about the kind of solipsism I
have described and the ways in which our relationships with other animals can
offer us protection from these feelings of isolation, but a full exploration of this
topic must be reserved for another occasion. Here, I simply wish to stress that if
our relationships with animals can stave off the loneliness of man as a species,
then it follows that our relationships with animals are not simply watered-down
substitutes for our relationships with human beings. And if our relationships
with animals are uniquely valuable in this way, then we should be especially
troubled by the suggestion that these relationships are irredeemably marred by
sentimentality.
Lets turn now to Grizzly Man and Herzogs critique of Treadwells sentimental affection for nonhuman animals.

Grizzly Man: Treadwells Great Experiment


and Herzogs Critique
Treadwell was, I think, meaning well, trying to do things to help the
resource of the bears, but to me he was acting like a, like he was working
with people wearing bear costumes out there instead of wild animals.
Those bears are big and ferocious, and they come equipped to kill you
and eat you. And thats just what Treadwell was asking for. He got what
he was asking for. He got what he deserved, in my opinion. The tragedy
of it was taking the girl with him... . My opinion, I think Treadwell
thought these bears were big, scary looking, harmless creatures that he
could go up and pet and sing to, and they would bond as children of
the universe or some odd. I think he had lost sight of what was really
going on.
Sam Egli, helicopter pilot, Grizzly Man
Treadwell lived for thirteen summers in Katmai National Park and Preserve.
During that time he amassed over 100 hours of video footage of his interactions with the native bears. Treadwells footage makes up approximately onehalf of Grizzly Man (the other half of the film is composed of Herzogs
interviews with Treadwells friends and family and others associated with
the case).
The film opens with a long shot of two large grizzly bears. Treadwell walks
into the frame, introduces the two bears behind him, and launches into a long
monologue that reflects many of the films main themes:

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Im out in the prime cut of the big green. Behind me is Ed and Rowdy,
members of an up-and-coming subadult gang. Theyre challenging everything, including me. Goes with the territory. If I show weakness, if I
retreat, I may be hurt, I may be killed... . Occasionally I am challenged.
And in that case, the kind warrior must, must, must become a samurai.
Must become so, so formidable, so fearless of death, so strong that he will
win, he will win. Even the bears will believe that you are more powerful.
And in a sense you must be more powerful if you are to survive in this
land with the bear. No one knew that. No one ever friggin knew that
there are times when my life is on the precipice of death and that these
bears can bite, they can kill. And if I am weak, I go down. I love them
with all my heart. I will protect them. I will die for them, but I will not die
at their claws and paws. I will fight. I will be strong. Ill be one of them. I
will be master. But still a kind warrior. Love you, Rowdy. Give it to me,
baby. Thats what Im talkin about. Thats what Im talkin about. Thats
what Im talkin about. I can smell death all over my fingers.
In this monologue we see Treadwells obvious passion for the bears and his
commitment to these animals. But Herzog also forces us to immediately confront Treadwells darker side: Treadwell appears egocentric, unstable, and more
than a bit out of control. Timothy Treadwell 19572003 appears as Treadwell
begins to speak, but even without the prompt, or antecedent knowledge of
Treadwells untimely death, the opening scene portends doom. If we needed any
further confirmation of the disquiet we immediately feel, Treadwells last line
provides it: I can smell death all over my fingers.
It is clear that Treadwell takes himself to enjoy a kind of friendship or fellowship with the grizzlies. He regularly expresses his love for them, he does his best
to promote their interests, he desires to spend his time with them, and he reports
that the bears inspired him to become a better person. From Treadwells perspective, his affection for the bears was reciprocated. In his autobiography he
reports that female bears often left their cubs near him for protection while they
searched for food.7 And one of the bears, Mr. Chocolate, seemed to act as his
protector in several altercations with other bears.
Yet Herzog makes it clear that he thinks Treadwells interactions with the
bears were irredeemably marred by sentimentality. He makes this criticism
explicit through interviews with people who share his concerns about Treadwell.
In addition, Herzog offers his own direct line of argument against Treadwell by
showing us four clips of Treadwell in quick succession.
7

Timothy Treadwell and Jewel Palovak, Among Grizzlies (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005), 67.

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In the first scene, Treadwell is shown in the center of the frame looking
directly into the camera. He tells us that he is in love with his animal friends. He
also acknowledges that he is very, very troubled.
In the second scene we see Treadwell kneeling down next to a fox. He is
quietly crying and gently stroking the fox: Do you know youre the star for all
the children? They love you. And I love you so much, and thank you. Thank you
for being my friend.
In the next scene we see a close-up of a bumblebee, apparently dead, attached
to a flower:
Isnt this so sad? This is a bumblebee who expired as it was working at
doing the pollen thing on this Alaskan fireweed. And it just is ... Just has
really touched me to no end. It was doing its duty, it was flying around.
Working busy as a bee, and it died right there. Its beautiful, its sad, its
tragic. I love that bee. Well, the bee moved. Was it sleeping?
Finally, we see a close-up of bear excrement and see Treadwells hand come
into the frame. He holds his hand over the bear dung and is thrilled to be so
close to it. He acknowledges that his delight may seem rather strange, but he
declares that everything about the bears is perfect.
The quick juxtaposition of these four scenes paints a decidedly unflattering
portrait of Treadwell. To complete his argument, Herzog goes on to show several scenes that, according to Herzog, depict the true brutality of nature: in one
shot we see Treadwell staring sadly at the severed paw of a bear cub while Herzog informs us in a voiceover that it is not uncommon for male bears to kill
young cubs so that they can stop the female bears from lactating and thereby
ready them for an early round of mating. Herzog cuts to a scene in which we see
the skull of a bear cub that has been eaten by its hungry mother. In another shot
we see Treadwell weeping over a fox cub that has been killed by a wolf in the
night. In the voiceover Herzog intones: He seemed to ignore the fact that in
nature there are predators. I believe the common denominator of the universe is
not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.
Herzogs worries about Treadwells sentimentality derive from a more basic
worry that is also a theme of the film. It is possible to read Grizzly Man as an
extended meditation on ouror Herzogsanxieties concerning what we can
and cannot know. Herzogs objection to what he sees as Treadwells sentimentality is motivated, in part, I think, by Herzogs skepticism about the possibility of
knowing another animal.
Herzog never explicitly articulates this worry, but Grizzly Man is packed
with references to what we can and cannot know. For example, in the opening

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monologue Treadwell emphasizes what others do not know about his relationship with the bears: And in a sense you must be more powerful if you are to
survive in this land with the bear. No one knew that. No one ever friggin knew
that there are times when my life is on the precipice of death and that these bears
can bite, they can kill.
And in Treadwells last monologue of the filmindeed, the last filmed
monologue of his lifehe again emphasizes a claim to knowledge, this time
stressing what he knows about the bears:
Ive tried hard. I bleed for them, I live for them, I die for them. I love
them. I love this. Its tough work. But its the only work I know. Its the
only work Ill ever, Ill ever want. Take care of these animals. Take care of
this land. Its the only thing I know. Its the only thing I wanna know.
Beyond his use of Treadwells soliloquies, Herzogs preoccupation with what
we can and cannot know is evident in Herzogs treatment of Huguenard,
Treadwells girlfriend who died with him as she attempted to save his life.
Although Huguenard accompanied Treadwell on several trips to Alaska, she is
rarely seen in his footage. Herzog makes much of the fact that we have little
footage of Huguenard and never see her face: She remains a mystery, veiled by
a mosquito net, obscured, unknown.
Finally, I think we can understand one of the most powerful moments of
the film in terms of the anxiety surrounding what we can and cannot know. I
am referring to the scene in which we see Herzog listening to the recording of
the bear attack that killed Treadwell and Huguenard. Huguenard turned on
Treadwells video camera in the middle of the fatal attack. Since the lens cap
was still on the camera, only an audio recording of the attack remains. Immediately before the scene with Herzog, we learn about the tape from the coroner,
who gives us a detailed account of its contents. He tells us Treadwell can be
heard moaning and screaming for Huguenard to run away. Huguenard can be
heard screaming and beating on the bear with a frying pan. Then, in the very
next scene, Herzog steps in front of the camera and, using headphones, is shown
listening to the tape and reporting its contents to Jewel Palovak, Treadwells
ex-girlfriend and business partner. After experiencing the recording, he warns
her never to listen to the tape.
This is a rather peculiar scene. We have just been made aware of the existence
of the tape and its contents, so what purpose does this scene, in which we watch
Herzog listen to the tape, serve? Herzog seems to be playing with the audiences
desire to hear the tape. He implies that there are some things we simply should
not know.

understanding

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love

So what does Herzogs preoccupation with what we can and cannot know
have to do with his arguments against Treadwells sentimentality? Friendship,
some people think, involves more than love or the desire to benefit and spend
time with ones friends. Genuine friendship also involves knowing the other. In
describing the ways in which friendship makes certain epistemic demands on us,
Langton writes:
Friendship is a matter of doing, and feeling, and also knowing: it has
aspects that are both practical and epistemic. Friends do things together,
act in ways that bring joy to each other; but this is possible only if each
(partly) knows the mind of the other. In friendship one must exercise an
active power of sympathy, a capacity that is no sentimental susceptibility
to joy or sadness, but a communion that is practical in its orientation,
providing a way to participate actively in the fate of others ([Kant, Doctrine of Virtue], 126). Friendship is a duty to know another person, and to
allow oneself to be known.8
The fact that friendship demands or presupposes partial knowledge of the other
is what allows friendship to serve as a buttress against certain skeptical doubts.
On Langtons view, there is a tension between what we might call loving attention and sentimental affection; loving attention involves genuine knowledge
of the other, while sentimental affection involves feelings of affection in the
absence of genuine knowledge of the other.9
Herzog seems to think that the bears, qua wild animals, are unknowable in
the sense presupposed by friendship, and, because of this, Treadwells professed
love for the bears will always be tainted by sentimentality; the kind of knowledge that Treadwell could have of the bears could never support his professed
love for them. Herzog suggests that Treadwells affective responses are merely
sentimental and ought to be dismissed as unfitting and inappropriate.
Given Herzogs skepticism regarding the possibility of humananimal
friendship and his obvious distaste for sentimentality, the film ends in a very
puzzling manner. After showing us Treadwells last monologue, Herzog remarks

8
9

Langton, 128.

What I am calling loving attention is discussed in Iris Murdochs The Idea of Perfection in
The Sovereignty of Good (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970). In her paper in this volume, Loving
Attention: Lessons in Love from The Philadelphia Story, Susan Wolf discusses loving attention at
some length. While Wolf does not specifically contrast loving attention with what I have called
sentimental affection, I think she would agree that there is a fundamental tension between these
two stances. I part company with Wolf insofar as I think that sentimental affection has a role to
play in loving relationships. I will say more about this in the last section.

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that Treadwells footage illuminates the human condition rather than giving us
special insight into the bears he filmed. At this point, a highly sentimental song
begins to play and the film ends with three brief scenes. In the first, we see
Treadwell leaving camp with two foxes scampering behind him.
In the next scene, Treadwells friend Willy Fulton is shown flying in his airplane over the Alaskan wilderness. He is singing along to the music, changing
the lyrics slightly to include Treadwell in the list of those gone but not forgotten:
Now the longhorns are gone
And the drovers are gone
The Comanches are gone
And the outlaws are gone
Geronimos gone
And Sam Bass is gone
And the lion is gone
And the red wolf is gone
And Treadwell is gone
Finally, the film ends with a truly remarkable, beautiful, and highly sentimental image. We see a river and Treadwell in the distance with two bears.
Treadwell walks down the riverbank away from the camera and the two bears
follow behind him like faithful servants. The scene is in soft focus and is without
a trace of menace or dangerit really is as if Treadwell and the bears have
bonded, in Sam Elgis words, as children of the universe.
Given Herzogs condemnation of Treadwells sentimentality,
what are we to make of
this highly sentimental
ending of the film?
There seems to be a deep
tension in Grizzly Man:
on the one hand, Herzog
sternly insists that our
responses toward other
animals should avoid sentimentality at all costs. Yet, on the other hand, Herzog
ends his own film in a highly sentimental way.
As we have seen, Grizzly Man raises some important questions regarding the
possibility of loving relationships between humans and other animals. Is Herzog
right to dismiss Treadwells feelings toward the animals as merely sentimental? If

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so, do these considerations tell against all humananimal relationships? If genuine friendship presupposes knowledge of the other, is anything like friendship
possible between humans and nonhumans?

Our Relationships With Animals and the


Threat of Sentimentality
With the exception of the films puzzling ending, Grizzly Man paints a rather
bleak picture of the possibility of humananimal friendship. In this section, I
will consider the charge that our relationships with animals are always irredeemably sullied by sentimentality.10
The Nature of Sentimentality
What is sentimentality and why is it thought to be objectionable? The Oxford
English Dictionary defines sentimental as follows: Of persons, their dispositions, and actions: Characterized by sentiment. Originally in favorable sense:
Characterized by or inhibiting refined and elevated feeling. In later use:
Addicted to indulgence in superficial emotion, apt to be swayed by sentiment.
The dictionary goes on to give anther sense of sentimental: Of literary compositions (occas. of music or other art): Appealing to sentiment. Expressive of
the tender emotions, esp. those of love.11 As this entry illustrates, our concept of
the sentimental is multifaceted and has changed over time. To understand
whether our relationships with animals are always marred by sentimentality, we
will need to delve more deeply into what we mean when we criticize a person for
being sentimental.
While a sentimental response often involves excessive sweet and tender emotions, there is not one distinct affective response associated with sentimentality.
Instead, when attitudes and emotions are felt, experienced, or expressed in a
particular way or in a particular context, or toward a particular range of targets,
they are described as sentimental. But while it is true that sentimentality is a
mode or way of experiencing emotion (and should not be identified with a particular emotion or set of emotions) it seems wrong for one commentator to
claim that any emotion can on occasion be sentimentally entertained.12 Some
10

Herzog does not explicitly argue that that all our relationships with nonhuman animals are
marred by sentimentality, but the overarching argument in Grizzly Man suggests this might be
his view.
11
12

Oxford English Dictionary, accessed February 12, 2007, http://www.oed.com/.

Anthony Savile, Sentimentality, in Arguing About Art, ed. Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley (New
York: Routledge, 2002), 318.

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emotions do not seem amenable to sentimentalization. For example, we do not


normally think that fear can be experienced in a sentimental way. I think this
can be explained, but to do so, I will need to say a bit more about the nature of
sentimentality.
When I respond sentimentally to something, my attitude is thought to misrepresent the world in some way. But not all inaccurate or unfitting emotional
responses are properly called sentimental. A sentimental response is thought
to be false to the world in a particular way.
Some have suggested that what is distinctive about our sentimental responses
is that they encourage the sentimentalizer to sustain certain feelings about himself. That is, a sentimental response is always reflexive and often self-sustained.
Milan Kundera nicely brings out the reflexive element of sentimentality in his
discussion of kitsch (understood as a kind of sentimentality): Kitsch causes
two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children
running in the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with
all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes
kitsch kitsch.13 As Kundera suggests, when we respond sentimentally, we are
both responder and observer of our own response. To be sad about a dead bumblebee frozen on a flower may not be sentimental, but to be moved by ones own
sadness at the bumblebees fate suggests that one may be responding in a sentimental way. In addition, sentimental responses are usually sustained by the subject.14 Given the reflexivity of our sentimental responses, we often work to keep
our sentimental responses alive. This adds to the sense in which these responses
are false to the world; self-generated emotions are not so much responses to the
world as they are responses to the subject of the emotion.
Sentimental responses are not simply reflexive and self-sustained; they are
also self-congratulatory. As Kundera notes, when we respond sentimentally to
children running through the grass, we are pleased by our own responsiveness.
That is, we take our emotions to be a credit to us as persons. This helps to explain
why sentimental fear is rare if not incoherent: It is difficult to imagine a case in
which one experienced ones fear in a reflexive and self-congratulatory manner.

13
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), 251.
Several philosophers writing on sentimentality appeal to Kunderas discussion in the Unbearable
Lightness of Being. See, for example, Robert Solomon, On Kitsch and Sentimentality, Journal
of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 49, no. 1 (1991): 114 and C. D. C. Reeve, Loves Confusions (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).
14
Joel Feinberg remarks that the autogeneration of sentimental responses is part of what makes
them disvaluable: emotions that would normally weaken and vanish tend to turn rancid when
kept alive artificially. Joel Feinberg, Sentiment and Sentimentality in Practical Ethics in Freedom and Fulfillment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 107.

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Just as some attitudes seem more open than others to being experienced in a
sentimental way, some targets seem especially prone to being regarded with sentimental attitudes. Part of the reason why some targets are sentimentalized more
frequently than others has to do with the fact that the sentimental is closely connected to the symbolic. To respond sentimentally to some target is usually to
value the target as a symbol for something else, and we will be inclined to
respond sentimentally to things that we already value symbolically. For example,
children are often the targets of sentimental responses because children have
become symbols for innocence or carefree happiness. In addition, children are
less likely and less able than adults to challenge or push back against our tendency to value them symbolically; we are more likely to respond with sentimental attitudes if we can do so without encountering resistance. Finally, it is
arguably more difficult to gain the kind of knowledge of young children that
would preclude responding to them in a sentimental way since children are, in
many ways, quite different from adults. It is challenging to succinctly describe
the kind of knowledge that would block a sentimental response, but this includes
knowledge of the targets specific traits and qualities. To the extent that children
are still developing and may not yet have fully developed traits and qualities, it is
especially difficult to gain this sort of knowledge of young children.
Given the connection between the sentimental and the symbolic, it is not
surprising that we often respond to animals in a sentimental manner: animals
have, throughout history and across cultures, been viewed as symbols for other
values. Like children, animals generally lack the power to challenge our symbolic
valuation of them. And, like children, it is difficult to gain the kind of knowledge
of other animals that would preclude responding to them in a sentimental way.
Many are critical of sentimentality. As one commentator describes it, sentimentality is a deceptive, dangerous vice.15 What is it about sentimentality that
has attracted such ire?
Oscar Wilde tells us that sentimentality is merely the bank-holiday of cynicism, for it involves wanting to enjoy the luxury of an emotion without paying
for it.16 To respond in a sentimental way is to indulge in cheap and false emotions. Thus, the sentimental person might wail at the plight of the poor without
fully or appropriately feeling sorrow for the injustices that they suffer and without taking any steps to relieve their pain.17
15

Joseph Kupfer, The Sentimental Self, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 20 (1996): 543560, at 560.

16

Oscar Wilde, Letters, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), 501.

17

This view is also expressed in Mary Midgleys analysis. For her, being sentimental is misrepresenting the world in order to indulge our feelings. Mary Midgley, Brutality and Sentimentality,
Philosophy 54, no. 209 (1979): 385.

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It is sentimentalitys tendency to distort the subjects perception of his target


that seems especially troubling to Herzog. Treadwell weeping over the remains
of the fox cub or lamenting the bears cannibalism disturbs Herzog because
these responses distort what Herzog regards as the basic facts about nature:
nature is merciless, chaotic, and cruel.18 To weep over a dead bear cub is to fail to
recognize these fundamental truths about the natural world.
But the problem with sentimentality cannot be explained merely by appealing to its tendency to distort the subjects perceptions of its target. All emotions
present their targets in a certain light and thus can be said to distort their subjects perceptions to some extent. When I am angry with you for slighting me,
my attention is drawn to you as wrongdoer and not to you as a caring teacher or
to you as a gourmet chef. So, too, when a mother loves her child, her attention
is drawn to the childs loveable qualities and away from the childs less loveable
qualities. And, as the example of maternal love suggests, it is arguably a good
thing that our emotions selectively focus our attention on their targets in this
way. Part of what is valuable about maternal love is that, in its best instantiations, it focuses the mothers attention on the good qualities of her child. In fact,
we might criticize a mother whose love is too attuned to the real faults of her
child. Such a love might be said to lack the generosity characteristic of the best
forms of maternal love.19 If we accept that maternal love is good, in part, because
it focuses the mothers attention on the lovable qualities of her child and directs
her attention away from her childs less loveable qualities, then we must acknowledge that not all emotions that distort our perceptions are disvaluable. Thus,
simply pointing out that a sentimental response is one that distorts is not sufficient to show that there is something wrong with sentimentality, and if most or
all emotions distort, this does not explain what is distinctively bad about our
sentimental responses.
Another problem with sentimental emotions is that they are self-indulgent.
While sentimental responses do have the potential to be self-indulgent, it is not
clear that this sort of self-indulgence is always disvaluable. Consider, for example,
18
Space does not permit a discussion of this issue, but we might wonder about the ways in which
Herzogs clear-eyed antisentimentalist stance distorts his own perception of the natural world.
19

Wolf argues that the best sort of love (at least from the point of view of The Philadelphia Story)
is a love that sees its object as it really is, and can love completely and unreservedly even in light
of that knowledge (p. 375). While this does seem to be the ideal of love implicit in The Philadelphia Story, I wonder whether this characterization of the ideal of love captures what we think is
valuable about the best instances of maternal love. Ideally, does the mother love her child despite
his flaws or does her love so strongly focus her attention on her childs good qualities that she does
not notice his flaws at all? From the perspective of the beloved, it seems that we value more highly
the second kind of love. That is, we would rather be loved as someone who is seen as spirited and
independent than loved despite being seen as bossy and overbearing.

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resentment: many people think that resentment is sometimes an apt response to


wrongdoing. However, resentment is a reflexive response, and, as such, it also has
the potential to be self-indulgent. Despite this, few of us would conclude that
resentment is always objectionable for this reason. It seems then that it cannot be
sentimentalitys self-indulgence that makes it distinctly pernicious.
Rather than concentrate on the bare fact that sentimentality distorts or its
tendency toward self-indulgence, Mark Jefferson argues that the problem with
sentimentality is the particular form its distortion takes:
What distinguishes the fictions that sustain sentimentality from those
that occur in other forms of emotional indulgence? Well, chiefly it is
their emphasis upon such things as the sweetness, dearness, littleness,
blamelessness, and vulnerability of the emotions objects. The qualities
that sentimentality imposes on its objects are the qualities of innocence.20
Thus, a sentimental response is one that simplifies its target in a way that has the
potential to compromise the subjects moral vision.
To illustrate the ways in which sentimentality can simplify in an objectionable way, it may be worth returning to Kunderas discussion of kitsch in The
Unbearable Lightness of Being:
The senator stopped the car in front of a stadium with an artificial skating rink, and the children jumped out and started running along the
large expanse of grass surrounding it. Sitting behind the wheel and gazing dreamily after the four little bounding figures, he said ... Just look at
them. And describing a circle with his arm, a circle that was meant to
take in stadium, grass, and children, he added, Now, thats what I call
happiness. ... How did the senator know that children meant happiness? Could he see into their souls? What if, the moment they were out
of sight, three of them jumped the fourth and began beating him up? The
senator had only one argument in his favor: his feeling. When the heart
speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the
dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme.21
As Kundera imagines it, the senators sentimental response depends, in part, on
the fact that he did not really know the children running in the grass. Children
are complex individuals, but the senators response does not take into account
20

Mark Jefferson, What is Wrong With Sentimentality? Mind 92 (1983): 519529, at 526527.

21

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 250.

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their complexities or individual merits and faults. Instead, the senator responded
to the image of the children with a stock set of sentimental, and simplifying,
clichs and projections.
Returning to the distinction drawn in the previous section, loving attention
is responsive to the complexities of its target, and it does not simplify or project
qualities of innocence upon its target. Instead, it is a clear-eyed and genuine
response to concrete particulars. Sentimental affection, on the other hand,
involves the simplification of the target and falsifies its target by projecting qualities of innocence onto the target.
Through its characteristic distortion and simplification of its target, a sentimental response is objectionable for two reasons. First, sentimental responses
may devolve into a kind of harmful idolatry. We may get so caught up in valuing
the target as a symbol for some value that we may neglect the real interests of the
target or fail to respond properly to its value.22 We may, for example, be so
caught up in our sentimental veneration of children (qua symbols of carefree
happiness) that we may fail to properly attend to some cruelty that one child
inflicts upon another. Or we may get so lost in our sadness after reading a fictional depiction of the lives of street children in Calcutta that we do not think
to give any of our money or time to charity. We are prone to getting caught up
in valuing the target symbolically because of sentimentalitys reflexivity: we
come to value the fact that we value the target as a symbol for some other value.
Second, as Jefferson points out, those who respond in a sentimental way
tend to demonize those who threaten or oppose the focus of sentimental affection.23 Since the target of a sentimental response is seen as good and because
sentimentality tends to simplify ones perception of the target, the target may be
seen as pure and vulnerable to destruction or defilement. In these cases, the sentimentalizer takes herself to have reason to oppose anything that would threaten
the purity of the sentimentalized target. Of course, not every instance of sentimentality will involve these sorts of moral distortions, but the tendency of the
sentimentalizer to see the world in terms of Manichean dichotomies of good/
evil and pure/impure can have serious consequences for the target of sentimental affection and for anything seen as a threat to the targets purity.

22

For a discussion of moral idolatry, see Robert Adams, A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in Being
for the Good (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 76. Feinberg makes a similar point about the dangers of sentimentality: Sentimental actions [i.e., actions
based on sentimental affects] very often are excessive responses to mere symbols at great cost to
genuine interests, ones own or others. In the more egregious cases, the cherished symbol is an
emblem of the very class of interests that are harmed, so that there is a kind of hypocritical inconsistency in the sentimental behavior (110111).
23

Jefferson, 527.

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love

Sentimentality and Our Relationships With Animals


Given our long history of valuing animals symbolically and the fact that animals
are incapable of challenging our tendency to value them as symbols, our
responses toward animals are especially likely to be sentimentalized. Those who
think that our attitudes toward animals are uniquely and wholly marred by sentimentality assume that it is impossible to have the kind of knowledge of animals
that a genuine relationship with another requires. Against this, I will sketch a
couple of different ways of thinking about how we might come to have genuine
knowledge of other animals.
Some suggest that to know an animal (in the sense required for a genuine
relationship) one must be able to control the animal. Perhaps this is what
Treadwell thought, for page after page of Among Grizzlies is filled with descriptions of Treadwell adroitly finessing and defusing potential conflicts with the
bears:
I had seconds to defuse the situation. Warren was a large bear, 1,000
pounds and nine feet long. I spoke softly and calmly to him as he closed
to within forty feet. Backing up slowly, I moved my head to one side to
expose my neck, and lowered my eyes. This was the equivalent of the
shaking of hands between two human fighters. Easy Warren, easy, big
boy. Im not a problem, I said. Thirty feet from me, Warren finally
started to slow down. He began to calm down, looking at Dahlia. Without running or turning my back on him, I retreated. Two minutes later, I
was back on the grassy fringe above the beach.24
Throughout her writings, the animal trainer and philosopher Vicki Hearne
emphasizes the importance of control in coming to have knowledge of other
animals.25 As Hearne sees it, for a human to know a dog, she must be able to
command the dog. More specifically, she must get the dog to recognize her
authority to issue commands. To the extent that an individual cannot get the
animal to recognize this authority, the human and the animal must, to some
degree, remain estranged from one another:

24
25

Treadwell and Palovak, 74.

Hearne was a disciple of William Koehler (a trainer who was notorious for his rigorous and
thoroughly unsentimental training techniques). As Hearne writes, Koehler holds against the
skepticism that in the last two centuries has become largely synonymous with philosophy, that
getting absolute obedience from a dogand he means absoluteconfers nobility, character, and
dignity on the dog. Adams Task: Calling Animals by Name (Pleasantville, NY: The Akadine
Press, 2000), 43.

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It is the full acknowledgement of language that closes the gap. Except for
complete isolation, only such acknowledgement can deprive authority of
its power to render false and sadistic the operations of our relationships ...
We do assume authority over each other constantly, or at least we had better do so if only to be able to say, Duck! at the right moment ... or the
person so addressed may not duck. A refusal to give commands or to
notice that commands are being given is often a refusal to acknowledge a
relationship, just as is a refusal to obey.26
Hearne goes on to argue that we ought to attempt to gain this control in the
most respectful way possible. This means properly training our animals:
Trainers like to say that you havent any idea what it is to love a dog
until youve trained one, and there is a lot to this. When I first got
Belle, I certainly loved herin fact, I fell head over heels in love. I
spent a fair amount of time just sitting and watching her, saying, Oh,
Pup! And I said her name to anyone who would listen, as often as possible, the way lovers do. Then I trained her in novice work, and when
she started off-lead heeling something quantum happened, and Oh,
Pup! became a phrase that compelled me anew, revised me. (Even
though Belle is not the first dog I have trained, I still didnt know this.)
With retrieving, love became capable of other powers yet, and now,
in tracking ... I come to regard her with a new degree of awe and wonder ... We are at this stage moving with some trembling into an arena
where I will be wholly dependent on the dogs integrity to get the job
done. Or, rather, an arena in which I can no longer escape knowing this
about everything that is commanded between us; now this aspect of
the shape of talking and loving emerges more clearly; that emergence is
my new knowledge. Now it is something else again when I say, Oh,
Pup!27
For Hearne, to know a dog is to be able to give the dog authoritative commands, and this ability to authoritatively command opens the door to the possibility of genuine relationships between persons and dogs.
Barbara Smuts offers us a different way of thinking about what it means to
know another animal through friendship. As she sees it, knowing another
animal has to do with recognizing that animals are social creatures like us. We
26

Ibid., 49.

27

Ibid., 9394.

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may have a personal relationship with another animal if we each relate to


the other as individuals.28 Smuts describes her friendships with her dog
(Safi) and with several baboons she worked with in the wild. Smuts claims
that her relationships with these animals are predicated on mutual respect
and reciprocity.29 While Safi is dependent on Smuts for care, she insists that
this dependence is contingent, not inherent.30 If Smuts lived in the world
of wild dogs, she would depend on Safi for protection and food just as Safi
now depends on her. As Smuts characterizes it, her relationship with Safi is
remarkably egalitarian, and she describes negotiating with Safi about whether
she is up for a bath. If Safi climbs into the tub, then she is willing to undergo
the indignity of a bath; if Safi chooses to forgo the bath, she heads to the
kitchen, where she stays until the mud on her coat dries off enough to be
brushed off.31
Hearne and Smuts both think that we can know other animals in the sense
presupposed by friendship, and they each offer (seemingly competing) conceptions of what is required to gain this kind of knowledge. They both stress that
gaining this knowledge of a dog is difficult and takes many years; Hearne stresses
the rigorous process of training that she claims is a prerequisite for this kind of
knowledge, while Smuts suggests that this kind of knowledge can only be gained
though a long process of relating to, and living with, the animal. I will not
attempt to adjudicate the apparent dispute between Hearne and Smuts or
defend either of their accounts against potential objections. Instead, I cite their
accounts of what is involved in knowing another animal in order to help shift
the burden of proof: it is up to the critic, I think, to show us why we can never
have the kind of knowledge of animals that Hearne and Smuts describe, that is,
the kind of knowledge that would make a genuine relationship between a
human and nonhuman possible.
Of course, even those who think we can gain knowledge of our pets may
resist the suggestion that we could have this kind of knowledge of wild animals. The relationships that Treadwell had with the bears were substantively
different from the relationships that Smuts and Hearne enjoy with their
dogs. Nevertheless, through his years living with the same bear population
Treadwell did eventually establish some sort of relationship with them. He
was, at least for a time, able to control the bears. As we have seen, much of
28
Barbara Smuts, The Lives of Animals, ed. Amy Gutmann (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 1999), 118.
29

Ibid., 118.

30

Ibid., 118.

31

Ibid., 117.

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Treadwells autobiography is devoted to descriptions of his standoffs with


the grizzlies and he did live, unharmed, in very close proximity to the bears
for thirteen seasons. Moreover, Treadwell responds to the bears as individuals and claims that the bears know him as an individual as well. Of course,
Treadwell, as he is depicted in Grizzly Man, is an unreliable source and we
have reason to suspect that he exaggerated his ability to control the bears and
the extent to which the bears recognized him. But the kind of knowledge
presupposed by friendship surely admits of degrees: while Treadwell may not
have known the bear he called Mr. Chocolate as well as Hearne knows Belle
or Smuts knows Safi, it seems fair to say that Treadwell had at least partial
knowledge of the bears he lived with. And, if Treadwell did have partial
knowledge of the bears, it seems wrong to dismiss all of Treadwells responses
as merely sentimental.
To the extent that Treadwell did respond in a sentimental manner, was this
objectionable? As I have argued earlier, sentimentality can be objectionable
when it devolves into a kind of idolatry or leads one to demonize those seen as
threats to the target. Treadwell certainly did seem to demonize those he considered potential threats to the animals he befriended. In one scene we see Treadwell
mourning the death of one of the fox cubs. He is kneeling beside the dead cub
and reflecting upon how sad it is that the cub has fallen victim to a predator.
Suddenly, he becomes irate at the flies that are buzzing around the cub and
screams: Get out of his eye, you friggin fly! Dont do it when Im around. Have
some respect, you fucker. Since he conceives of the fox cub as completely innocent and pure, the flies buzzing around the dead cub must be wicked and impure.
This same logic plays itself out several times throughout the film. In another
scene we see Treadwells anger directed toward the Park Service; his anger is so
palpable that Herzog describes it as incandescent.
In addition, Treadwell may have succumbed to the kind of idolatry I
described earlier. At times, Treadwell is so caught up in his symbolic valuation of the bears that he fails to appreciate that in valuing the bears as symbols of innocent virtue he actually acts against the bears interests. Treadwells
symbolic valuation of the bears ultimately led to the killing of the two bears
suspected of the attack on Treadwell and Huguenard. If Treadwell had not
been so focused on valuing the bears symbolically, he might have been better
able to appreciate the ways in which his behavior put them at risk. It is not
Treadwells sentimental affection that is worthy of criticism but the harm that
some of his attitudes caused. Thus, while Herzog is wrong to dismiss
Treadwells affection for the bears as merely sentimental, we must conclude
that some of Treadwells sentimental affection ended up harming the bears,
Huguenard, and himself.

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love

Loving Relationships and Sentimental Affection


There are reasons to think that our responses to animals are especially prone to
sentimentality because of the difficulty associated with coming to know another
animal, and, as we have seen, there are reasons to criticize Treadwell for the
harm caused by his sentimental affection. But, stepping back from the narrative
of Grizzly Man, is it bad that we are prone to sentimentalizing our relationships
with animals? Is there anything we can say on behalf of sentimental affection
(assuming it does not lead to the harms described in the previous section)?
Critics of sentimentality often suggest that a loving relationship requires that
we regard our beloved with loving attention and avoid sentimental affection
altogether. Against this, I would like to suggest that sentimental affection might
play a crucial role in our loving relationships. Sentimental affection is valuable
when it is a perspective we occasionally take up and is balanced by loving attention. A loving relationship completely devoid of sentimental affection may fail
to provide the reassurance that loving relationships often require. Consider what
C. D. C. Reeve says in defense of clichd expressions of love between persons:
In the grip of what is deepest, we often reach for a conventional phrase or
textone sanctioned by long useprecisely to avoid the lightness of the
merely original. When people make up their own wedding vows or
funeral services, we usually find ourselves wishing they had stuck to the
Prayer Book. I love you is a clichd expression of love. But attempts to
find a more original one often fall flat. The clich alone reassures.32
Reeve suggests that there may be value in expressing ones love in a clichd way,
and, at least sometimes, the clichd expression best communicates the depth of
ones feeling. Moreover, the clichd expression can inspire an authentic emotional response in oneself or in the other.
I think a similar point holds for sentimental affection more generally: while
there is a fundamental tension between sentimental affection and loving attention, occasionally retreating to the world of sentimentality in order to ease our
anxieties and reassure ourselves (and the other) of the joy we take in our beloved
may be an important part of an ongoing relationship. While it is objectionable,
and potentially harmful, for a lover to respond to the beloved exclusively with
sentimental affection, for creatures like us, who need the kind of reassurance
that sentimental affection can provide, occasionally responding to our loved
ones in sentimental ways might be a small, but important, part of love.
32

Reeve, 102.

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Sentimentality reassures us by making it easier to attend to the target of our


sentimental affection. Careful attention to a person or an animal is difficult and
can provoke anxiety. The simplification characteristic of sentimental affection
allows us to attend to the other without being overcome by the anxiety that can
accompany careful attention. Of course, if sentimentality becomes a habit, we
will look without really seeing, and this is why sentimental affection must be
balanced by loving attention.
Although Reeve does not make this explicit, I take it that part of the reason
we often prefer that people stick to the Prayer Book at weddings and funerals
is that clichd expressions of love allow the audience to participate in the service in a way that is not possible when couples recite vows they have written.
Participation here does not, obviously, mean coming to experience the same
sentiments expressed in the vows. Instead, the audience participates in the
sense that they are able to sympathetically identify with the emotions expressed
in the vows. So, too, the experience of sentimental affection may be more
accessible to third parties than loving attention. The simplification and clichs
typical of sentimental affection are more easily communicated than the idiosyncratic experience of loving attention, and this may lead to greater sympathetic identification with our sentimental affections. Knowing that others are
able to sympathetically identify with ones response may provide additional
reassurance.
The reassurance provided by sentimental affection may be especially important when it comes to our relationships with other animals. The characteristics
of animalschiefly their mutenessmake knowledge of them particularly difficult to attain. Because animals are so difficult to know, the reassurance that
sentimentality provides may be especially helpful in the context of these relationships. Third parties can easily understand and respond to ones sentimental
affection for an animal, and in participating in this way, they may ease some of
the anxieties characteristic of these relationships.
It is natural to experience anxiety and frustration as we attempt to gain
knowledge of another. Sentimental affection is valuable because it allows us to
continue to love in the face of this anxiety. Langton has suggested that loving
attention is a cure for solipsism. What is less well appreciated is that sentimental
affection may be a cure for the anxieties associated with attempting to really see
and know another.
These positive aspects of sentimental affection may help explain why Herzog
retreats into sentimentality, rather unexpectedly, at the end of Grizzly Man.
Herzogs apparent ambivalence toward sentimentality is, I think, appropriate.
We have reason to be critical of those who always respond to the world in a
sentimental way. But the criticisms of sentimentality should not lead us to be

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critical of all sentimental responses. Sometimes, responding sentimentally is


what is called for by love itself.
Herzog helps us appreciate the dangers and value of our sentimental
responses toward others. While loving attention and sentimental affection are
in tension with one another, Grizzly Man highlights the ways in which both
perspectives may be important aspects of our relationships of love and affection.

Acknowledgments
I am very grateful to Susan Wolf for the invitation to participate in the working
group and for her helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this paper. Thanks also to
Christopher Grau for introducing me to Hearnes work and for his many astute
suggestions and criticisms. I am grateful for Nancy Lawrences detailed comments on an early draft of this paper. Finally, I would like to thank the other
members of the Philosophy, Film, and Fiction working group for a wonderful
year filled with many interesting conversations about love.

2
False Racial Symmetries in
Far From Heaven and Elsewhere
Lawrence Blum

he 2002 film Far From Heaven portrays interracial love and the obstacles
to sustaining it, taking its place in a long tradition in Hollywood films
utilizing the built-in dramatic arc and sensationalist hook of love across the
color line. In this paper, I call attention to the ways that interracial love (and
friendship) stories rely on a familiar trope in popular culture, popular thought,
and even official discourse about race, which I will call the false symmetry
view of race. False symmetry is present when a particular type of immoral or
problematic behavior is assumed to carry the same moral significance when its
target is whites as when it is blacks; or when a race-neutral principle is applied
as if there were no significant difference between white and black, when there is.
(The symmetry can function for other races as well, but as most of the Hollywood films dealing with race concern blacks and whites, I will confine myself to
these two groups.) An example of the former is when a white social group
excludes blacks and a black social group excludes whites, or when it is thought
that because both honky and nigger are racial slurs, the social and moral
significance of using the first against a white person and the latter, a black person is the same.1 An example of the latter is the frequent use of the phrase from
Martin Luther King, Jr.s famous 1963 I Have a Dream speech, about the
wrongness of judging people by the color of their skin rather than the content
of their character. As stated, this is a racially symmetrical principleit is equally
wrong to judge people by the color of their skin no matter what their skin color.
But in at least many situations, it is not, and King did not mean to imply that it

To claim that the two behaviors are asymmetrical, as I am doing, is not to say that a black social group excluding whites or blacks calling whites honky is perfectly acceptable from a moral
point of view. It is only to say that it has a different and less serious significance than the analogous
behavior toward blacks.
37

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was, as the context of this speech makes clear. He meant the speech and that
particular statement to be a criticism of the exclusion and unequal treatment of
black people, not an invocation of a general principle of color blindness.2 False
racial symmetry stands in the way of getting a grip on the deep asymmetries still
existing between white and black lives, an understanding made complex by the
difficulties in getting clear on the ways in which racial progress has and has not
been made since the era of state-supported segregation and discrimination.
It can also stand in the way of appreciating the history of race in America.
Far From Heaven explores interracial love and racism in Connecticut in the
segregation-era 1950s. It is also concerned with forbidden love in its same-sex
form and sustains a comparison between the two types of forbidden love
throughout. The film portrays insurmountable obstacles to love between the
black and the white main characters, while the main gay character is enabled to
find and keep love. The former obstacles are portrayed in a manner that I will
argue exemplifies false racial symmetry.
I will also discuss Rainer Werner Fassbinders Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, an important antecedent to Far From Heaven, yet, I will argue, with none of its false symmetries. False racial symmetry is present in other films as well, and I will briefly
discuss two important 1967 race films. In the Heat of the Night is centered on a
kind of (interracial) love relationship between two buddies. Guess Whos Coming
to Dinner, like Far From Heaven, deals with interracial love between a black man
and a white woman. Finally, I will comment on the 2005 race-themed film Crash.

Haynes and Sirks All That Heaven Allows


Todd Haynes, the writer-director, made Far From Heaven very consciously as
an homage to Douglas Sirks 1950s melodramas, most directly All That Heaven
Allows (1955), and to a lesser extent Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind,
and Imitation of Life. The style, use of color, framing, music, and genre are
deliberately based on All That Heaven Allows. More significant for my concerns, the story and characters are based on it as well. Set in a small town, All
That Heaven Allows concerns a burgeoning romance between an upper-middleclass widow, Cary (played by Jane Wyman), and her gardener, Ron (Rock Hudson). Like Far From Heaven, All That Heaven Allows portrays love across
boundaries, in the latter case those of age and class. Ron is beneath Cary socially,
2

That the speech is meant primarily as a critique of the unequal treatment of black people is indicated by the sentence immediately prior to the one in the text: I have a dream that one day, even
the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of
oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. See Martin Luther King, Jr.,
I Have a Dream in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther
King, Jr., ed. James Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), 219.

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and her attraction to the younger man is seen by her peers and her family as
disgusting and shameful. Though a gardener, Ron is not working class but an
independent spirit not easily categorized in standard class categories, who
eschews the materialistic and social status values of the town, the widows
world. Cary and Rons relationship garners great disapproval from the widows
friends as well as her children.
Sirks films do not pretend to be or attempt to be realistic, and the same is
true, but only in part, of Far From Heaven. Haynes remarks (in the DVD
commentary) that there was only one point in the film in which he did
research on the time period, and that most of the film is based on references
to other films. One might think, therefore, that it is not an auspicious choice
to examine themes about the real world of race relations or other matters.
But I am interested in what ends up on the screen, and how it depicts and
reflects views circulating in the broader culture. False racial symmetry is
important in part because it forms a taken-for-granted background way of
thinking about race, not only because it expresses a way that people explicitly
think about race when they are reflecting on the subject. Moreover, many
viewers of Far From Heaven are not necessarily or even likely to be aware of
the intertextual references of the film. Far From Heaven was a fairly substantial hit, and Robert Sklar notes that it was widely discussed.3 I want to call
attention to Far From Heavens circulation of these tropes about race, given
their embeddedness in the discourse about race familiar in the wider culture
and society.
Far From Heaven shifts the forbidden love from age and class to race,
although race is tacitly taken to encompass class as well. The main character,
Cathy Whitaker ( Julianne Moore), lives a visually perfect suburban life in
Hartford, Connecticut, with her successful and up-and-coming corporate
executive husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), and their two young children.4 In
fact, Cathys life is far from heaven. As her relationship with Frank deteriorates further, she enters into a romantically charged though barely erotic relationship with her gardener, a local black man, Raymond Deagan, the son of the
Whitakers previous gardener. Raymond has (with the help of a college business degree) expanded his fathers operation to include a flower shop. Raymond is very deliberately modeled on the Rock Hudson character, Ron, in All
That Heaven Allows. Like Ron, he dresses in flannel work shirts that express the

3
4

Robert Sklar, review of Far From Heaven, Cineaste 28, no. 2 (spring 2003).

The age of the children is an important disanalogy between All That Heaven Allows and Far
From Heaven. In the latter, they are too young to be part of the wall of disapproval that faces the
mothers relationship. In the former, they are very much part of it.

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out-of-doors that is his natural milieu as well as his spiritual independence,


especially his independence from the conventions of the society around him.
(In Raymonds case, that society is both Cathys white and racist society, and,
at least partly, his own black society.)

Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia in Hayness


View of Far From Heaven
We will look at Cathy and Raymonds relationship in more detail next. But
Haynes brings in another element potentially relevant to the symmetry issue,
which is not present in Sirks original portrayal of 1950s forbidden love, and that
is homosexuality. The central, though not the only, part of the falseness and
misery of Cathys life is that her husband is homosexual. Franks coming to grips
with his homosexuality and ultimately accepting it is a major theme of the film.
In doing so, Frank is very insensitive, unloving, and even cruel to Cathy when
she attempts to understand and comfort him. He takes out on her his internalized homophobia and fear of damage to his reputation, with seldom a hint of
kindness or sympathy for her.
Franks struggle with his homosexuality is constructed to parallel the interracial romance and to deepen the social critique of the American 1950s as a
society that does not accept these two forms of love. As Haynes implies various
parallels between white and black in relation to interracial romance and racism more generally, so he also means to compare homophobia to racism in
regard to their stigmatizing of the two different kinds of love. Far From Heaven
is thus, as political and social critique, more ambitious than All That Heaven
Allows. Indeed, it also revisits and emphasizes the critique of womens oppression that permeates Sirks film, a theme artfully interwoven with the critique
of racism and of homophobia. Haynes very much admires Sirks delineation of
the social forces that constrained womens lives in the historical period of
Sirks films. As he makes clear in the DVD commentary, Haynes sees his own
film as dealing with sexism, racism, and homophobia. But he also means to
comment on which of these is the most oppressive. In a spring 2009 interview,
he said:
All three of the central characters are suffering in one way or another. I
felt that it was really interesting to compare different levels of oppression
in a particularly codified, repressed era. And, ironically, its the gay man,
Frank Whitaker, who has the most freedom, and who gets closest to satisfying his desires, through hiding. Hes not as intensely visible as Raymond the gardener. But Cathy is at the bottom of the hierarchy; she gives

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up the love object, loses the husband, and is left with responsibility for
the children.5
It is fascinating that Haynes sees the historical situation in this way.6 The
oppressiveness of Cathys social role as a protector of her husband and his public reputation, and of keeping up the faade of a respectable family, lies partly in
its preventing her from even knowing what her desires are. But in addition,
Frank is entirely complicit in the structure of disapproval that represses Cathy;
he viciously attacks her (verbally) when rumors are floating around that she has
been seen with a black man. And at one point he violently slaps her. Although
Cathy does not approve of homosexuality, she never expresses horror or shock
at Franks revelations, and she remains loyal to him throughout, in marked contrast to the way he treats her. Indeed, Frank is a remarkably unsympathetic
characterself-pitying, selfish, overconcerned with his reputation, inattentive
and unconcerned, and entirely unloving to Cathy. The viewers much greater
sympathy for Cathy than Frank might facilitate accepting Hayness prioritizing
of sexism over homophobia. However, Haynes might be underestimating the
occupational and economic consequences of being gay in this time period; at
least one of his colleagues knows he is gay, and the film does not imply that
Franks job is threatened by this.
Haynes sees the racism of the period as less oppressive than the sexism. I
think his false symmetrizing of the situations of whites and blacks (discussed
later) contributes to his failure to recognize the severity of the Northern racism
he is portraying. But what I want to emphasize here is the contrast between
Hayness acute awareness that racism, sexism, and homophobia function in
quite distinct ways and are by no means symmetrical to one another, with his
5

Scott MacDonald From Underground to Multiplex: An Interview With Todd Haynes, Film
Quarterly 62, no. 3 (spring 2009): 60. Amy Taubin articulates this point insightfully: [O]f its
three central charactersone black, one gay, one femaleit positions the female as the most oppressed. The extremity of Cathys oppression is a result of her having no way to articulate it and no
place to escape from it. Review of Far From Heaven, Film Comment, September/October 2002,
p. 26. Perhaps Hayness prioritizing of sexism over racism and homophobia is influenced by Sirks
special interest in womens oppression.

The one piece of historical research Haynes claims to have done for the film relates to his view
that homophobia was less oppressive in this period than was sexism, and he has the psychiatrist
whom Frank visits suggest that homosexuality might not be a changeable condition and that
more people are finding it acceptable (though he also presents electric shock therapy as an option
if Frank wishes it). Haynes claims that this somewhat advanced thinking about homosexuality
looking ahead to the American Psychiatric Associations declaring in the early 1970s that it was
not an illnesswas present, if a minority view, in the psychiatric community at the time. (One
can trace this view back to Kinseys work in the 1940s.) The several reviews I have read of the film
missed this progressive aspect entirely and saw the psychiatrist as simply part of the forces that
are stigmatizing Frank.

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failure to fully recognize this asymmetry with respect to whites and blacks in
relation to racism, to which I now turn.

The White Response to Cathy and


Raymonds Relationship
The relationship between Cathy and Raymond carries the portrayal of racism in
the film, and it is the site of its representation of (false) racial symmetries. An
interracial love relationship lends itself to false symmetries, since there is a sense
in which both parties to the relationship are equivalently constrained by the
taboo on that relationship. That is, both the black and the white party to the
relationship are forbidden from having a relationship with the other. That fact
represents a true symmetry. However, the significance of the prohibition is
entirely different, and asymmetrical, for the two characters. It affects the two
characters differently, has a different rationale for the black than for the white
character, and has a different meaning to and in the white and the black worlds
involved.
A major element of the false symmetry is in Hayness portraying Raymonds
and Cathys love as equally disapproved of by both the white and the black
community, and as disapproved of for a similar reason, namely prejudice.
Haynes shows the white disapproval in several ways. One is an early scene in
an art museum displaying works of modern artists such as Joan Mir. Raymond is a connoisseur of modern art and has brought his 11-year-old daughter
Sarah to see the exhibit. Cathy is at the exhibit with her friend Eleanor and
others of their social set. She spots Raymond, whom she has encountered once
in the earlier scene in her garden, and goes over to speak with him and to meet
Sarah.7
Hartford society is scandalized by this museum encounter, and the other
patronsall whiteare abuzz at Cathys violation of the rules of segregation.
They stare at her disapprovingly, and the scene is shot in such a way as to emphasize this. (Fassbinder uses a similar technique.) Cathy is entirely oblivious to this
reaction and when her friend Eleanor calls her impropriety to her attention,
Cathy cannot see the problem. Later in the film, the disapproval is expressed
directly to her by several characters. And Frank, already very edgy about his
homosexuality and what its becoming known might do to his social standing,
hits her when he learns of the rumors of her relationship with Raymond.
7

Cathy says to Raymond, My husband and I believe in equal rights for the Negro. Raymonds
response to this clumsy and patronizing statement shows his recognition of Cathys limited racial
consciousness; but he also recognizes her essential good-heartedness and genuine desire to connect with him.

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Cathy and Raymonds relationship develops tentatively. Raymond catches


Cathy at a vulnerable moment and sympathetically extends himself to her. They
take a ride together to the country, in a Sirkian scene that deepens their relationship while introducing some possibly false symmetries. Cathy says she wondered what it was like for Raymond to be the only black person in the room (at
the art museum). Raymond invokes his world by telling Cathy that there is a
part of Hartford of which she seems unaware, where everyone looks like him.
This use of looks like as a way of talking about racial identity seems a current
usage, out of context for the 1950s. It plays into the false symmetry by making
racial identity seem like a matter of phenotypic appearance rather than a deeply
significant social identity that has completely different meanings for whites and
blacks.
Raymond then adds, And no one ever leaves that world. This remark is
ambiguous. Is Raymond saying that blacks remain segregated because segregation is a system in which whites keep blacks in an entirely subordinate
position as a separate caste, interacting with whites primarily to serve them?
Or is he saying that his black peers have a mindset that prevents themin
contrast to himselffrom taking the steps necessary to break out of their
racial isolation?
It is not clear, but the latter reading is certainly possible, and it constitutes a
psychologizing of a sociopolitical structure of domination, familiar in current
discourse about race. It is not an accurate way of portraying current forms of
racial isolation and separation. But it is a particularly preposterous way to portray segregation in the 1950s, including in Northern cities like Hartford, where
the de jure structure of segregation was weaker than in the South.8 Blacks did
not live in separate and poorer communities because they had adopted a mindset that kept them from venturing out of them, but because whites created and
enforced the structures of separation and inequality that kept them there,
although those structures included blacks feeling more comfortable with other
blacks than with largely hostile whites.
In the film more generally Haynes portrays northern segregation more as a
system that keeps the races apart than one that keeps one of them subordinate
to the other. Segregation was simultaneously a system of separation and of
inequality, and the two depended on each other; but inequality was the more
profound injustice. I think that current discourse of segregation feeds the
8

Hayness film shows how entrenched racism was in a Northern city like Hartford, in a period in
which the national memory has consigned racism to an almost entirely regional (Southern) phenomenon. Linking Northern and Southern racism, Haynes has some of the characters in Cathys
social world express frank support for Arkansas governor Orval Faubuss resistance to school
desegregation in this period.

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confusion about inequality and separation. Segregation is indeed often used


in contexts in which what is highlighted is racial separation rather than racial
inequality. The title of Beverly Tatums best-selling book, Why Do All the Black
Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria?, captures the national hand-wringing about
social separation of the races in high schools and colleges, generally completely
removed from a recognition that the racial isolation of blacks contributes to,
and reflects, the deep structures of racial inequality in jobs, income, health,
housing, and education.9 Given the current confusion on this issue, Far From
Heavens similar confusion about the character of segregation is perhaps not
entirely surprising.

The Black Community, Interracial


Relationships, and Segregation
At the end of the scene previously described, Raymond invites Cathy to get a
bite to eat at a local bar and restaurant in the black part of town, suggesting
that this will help Cathy see his world and understand better what it is like to
be the only one who looks like me.10 Although Raymond declares that the
restaurant is a friendly place, from the moment they enter they experience
hostility from the other patrons and waitresses. It begins with a former flame
of Raymonds, a waitress, who forthrightly expresses disapproval of Cathy.
Raymond lightly dismisses her and amiably reaffirms the friendliness of the
place. Although the waitress had a particular personal reason for resenting
Cathy and Raymonds relationship with her, in fact virtually no one else in
the bar is friendly to them, several patrons express disapproval on their faces,
and one explicitly criticizes Raymond (What are you doing, boy?). One
patron of the bar grudgingly raises a glass in response to Raymonds hailing
him specifically.

This point concerns only the title of Tatums book and the use made of it in public discourse;
the content of the book is entirely grounded in the existence of racial inequality. Beverly Daniel
Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: A Psychologist Explains
the Development of Racial Identity, revised edition (New York: Basic Books, 2003 [original
1999]). A particularly good account of black/white inequality in historical context, bringing
out both the progress and the lack of it since the segregation era is Michael Katz and Mark
Stern, One Nation Divisible: What America Was and What It Is Becoming (New York: Russell
Sage, 2006).
10
Again, this framing partakes of false symmetry as it implies that racism fundamentally concerns discomfort felt by and toward people because they look differentnot because of prejudice
toward or the inferiorization of a social category of person. Blacks, and probably whites as well,
would be very unlikely to have spoken about race this way in the 1950s.

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The clear import of this scene is to express a symmetry between the white
and the black communitys disapproving response to Raymond and Cathys
relationship.11 This is very much a false symmetry, in two ways. First, in the
1950s, blacks were much less disapproving than whites of interracial relationships. It was overwhelmingly within the black community that such relationships could and did take place. According to a 1958 Gallup poll, 5 percent of
whites outside the South (and 1 percent in the South) approved of marriage
between blacks and whites. A poll in the same year found 70 percent of blacks
not objecting if one of their children married a white person.12 One historian
of black-white intermarriage summarizes the situation in the 1950s as the tolerance of the black community and the intolerance of the white [toward
intermarriage].13
Although much less than whites, there was some opposition among blacks
to interracial relationships; but it was for entirely different reasons than
whites. Blacks almost uniformly asserted the right of blacks to marry whites,
that is, the right of anyone to marry whomever they please, in part because
they recognized that the denial of that right by whites was a lynchpin of segregation.14 Some blacks did nevertheless oppose interracial relationships,
while upholding the right to have them, or rejecting the criminalizing of them.
Reasons for doing so included seeing them as expressing a lack of pride in
black identity; a resistance to relationships (white men/black women) with a
history of sexual exploitation; a fear that the black partner would desert the
black community; a concern when the black partner was male about the
diminished availability of partners for black women; a resistance to buying
into white racist ways of thinking; a concern for the welfare of the black partner in light of white opposition; and a fear of harming the struggle for black
political and social equality by playing into white fears that such equality

11

Reviewers commonly read the diner scenes import in this symmetrizing way: Once when
they take a ride in his truck, they enter a black diner, where their reception is as frosty as it
would have been in a white place (Roger Ebert, Chicago SunTimes online, November 15, 2002).
[W]hen they go to a bar-and-grill in Raymonds neighborhood ... the reaction from the black
clientele is only marginally friendlier [than the whites were toward them in earlier scenes] (Andrew OHehir, Salon.com, November 8, 2002).
12
Renee Romano, Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 2003), 45, 101.
13
14

Romano, 108.

Blacks recognition of the prohibition on intermarriage as being crucial to maintaining segregation is discussed in Judith Smith, Visions of Belonging: Family Stories, Popular Culture, and Postwar Democracy, 19401960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), chapter 4.

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would lead to amalgamation.15 Thus, to the extent that blacks of various


classes objected to such relationships, the objections were of a completely different character, rationale, and severity than was white opposition.16
Cathy eventually comes to feel that she cannot sustain a relationship with
Raymonda decision based partly on the uniform hostility and stigmatizing of
the relationship by her peers, including her best friend, and partly out of fear of
Franks wrath at the possibility of the relationship (which she denies when he
berates her about it). She tells Raymond that she cannot continue. Raymond
gently resists and suggests that the two of them share a belief and a hope in a
world in which people can move freely and relate freely with one another. He
implores her to reconsider her decision, hoping to remind her that she values
their relationship in a way that she sounds like she has lost touch with. It is a
powerful scene, as Raymond entirely retains his dignity when he asks Cathy to
reconsider. He is in no way begging her to come through for him, but rather
inviting her to choose what he rightly perceives to be her better self, the values
in which she genuinely believes. But she is unable to do so.
However, especially in the context of the film, Raymonds remark about a
world in which the two of them could move freely invokes a misleading or at best
very partial way of framing segregation againas a system that keeps people apart
but not one that renders one group systematically subordinate to the other. Segregation has a completely different meaning for whites than for blacks; and the rules
and understandings that prevent romantic relationships between the races as part
of that system of segregation have completely distinct meanings, as their point is to
keep blacks in their place, that is, inferior and subordinate to whites. These rules
and understandings rest on a conception of blacks as a stigmatized, inferior people,
intimate contact with whom pollutes and degrades whites who engage in it. The
system does not declare that whites pollute blacks by being intimate with them.

15
Romano, 8588. Romano notes that the fear that the black community would lose the black
partner was very seldom realized, since the white community virtually never accepted the interracial couple, who generally ended up becoming part of the black community (104f ).
A closer look at the restaurant scene possibly suggests a bit of the more complex attitude in the
black community toward interracial relationships mentioned in the text, drawing on Romano.
When the man says to Raymond, What do you think youre doing, boy? there may be an implication here that the man feels that Raymonds bringing a white woman into the restaurant will
result in harm to the black community. The use of boy could be a sort of invoking and reminder
to Raymond of how the white community is likely to regard the relationship, and the deleterious
consequences that could well follow (as indeed they do). (I am indebted for this reading of the
scene to Crystal Feimster.)
16

In the 1960s with the rise of the Black Power movement, a greatly intensified sense of loyalty
to blackness and to the black community arose, in a black nationalist framework, that greatly
heightened opposition to black-white love and sexual relationships. But this was very much after
the period portrayed in the film.

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The Black Community Drives Raymond From Town


The black opposition to Raymond and Cathys relationship builds to a climax.
Some time after Cathy terminates the relationship, Raymonds daughter Sarah
is accosted by three white boys around her age (eleven) who victimize her and
taunt her, saying that her father has a white girlfriend.17
Later, Cathys son tells Frank that three boys have been expelled from school
for throwing stones at an unnamed Negro girl. Cathy barely attends to this conversation (neither Cathy nor Frank pay much attention to their children), but
in a later scene, Sybil, Cathys maid, tells her that the girl in that incident was
Raymonds daughter. Upon hearing this, Cathy runs to Raymonds house to
express her concern and remorse for not knowing what had happened to Sarah.
The scene following is the climactic scene in the film. By this time Frank and
Cathys relationship is over; Frank has pitifully confessed that he has fallen in
love with a younger man (whom we have seen briefly in a scene in Miami, where,
under Cathys initiative, she and Frank have gone to try to breathe life into their
relationship) who reciprocates his love.
In the scene in question, in Raymonds yard, Raymond tells Cathy that in the
interest of protecting Sarah, he has been forced to leave town and move to Baltimore, where his brother can find a job for him. He cites two reasons for this move.
One is that he can no longer get any business, presumably because whites will no
longer hire him because they have learned of his relationship with Cathy. (There
might be an implication that blacks will no longer patronize his flower shop, but
this is unclear.) The other reason is that people have been throwing rocks through
his window (every day, he says), and he says that it is black people who have been
doing this, his neighbors, and for the same reason that whites will not hire him
they are scandalized by his relationship with Cathy. Vaguely invoking the rockthrowing against Sarah and the rocks through his window, Raymond says, This
seems to be one place that whites and blacks are in full harmony. Cathy tentatively
and touchingly proffers the possibility of reestablishing their relationship at a later
time, in Baltimore, but Raymond gently expresses unwillingness to open up that
possibility: Ive learned my lesson about mixing in other worlds. With deep but
barely expressed emotions on both sides, Cathy leaves and walks back to her car.
This expression of race symmetrythat blacks vilify the interracial relationship just as whites do and would try to drive Raymond out by throwing rocks
through his windowis historically preposterous. It is extraordinarily unlikely
17
In an earlier scene, Sarah has suggested that a paper airplane the white boys were trying to fly
was too heavy to do so, and the film suggests that this assertion of a black childs (especially a girls)
superior knowledge is an affront to these boys, although at the time they simply walk away. In the
current scene they chase her down an alley and throw stones at her, knocking her unconscious.

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that black people in the 1950s would victimize a respected black man in their
community (with a young child living with him) for having a relationship with
a white woman. And the film does not need this false symmetry for Raymond
to have to leave town, and for any hope of a relationship with Cathy to have dissipated. Raymonds losing his business would have been enough. It seems that
Haynes is wedded to a view of black-white symmetry that frames his understanding of the barriers that keep Cathy and Raymond apart. That this false
symmetry shows up so blatantly in the climactic scene in the film also builds on
the false symmetry in the earlier scenes I have discussed.
Haynes wants the relationship between Cathy and Raymond to be doomed.
He mentions on the DVD commentary that he sees this (rightly) as being more
real than the ending that Sirk gave to All That Heaven Allows, in which Cary
and Ron get together after Rons almost-fatal accident. Sirk was compelled to
give All That Heaven Allows a happy ending, although he also undermined the
meaning of that ending by making it unbelievable.18 Haynes, by contrast, wants
a more true-to-life ending; but the form in which he provides itwith the
black community driving Raymond out of townis entirely historically false
and relies on the logic of false racial symmetry.
These false symmetries in Far From Heaven resonate with familiar tropes in
popular racial thought. Film reviewers repeated these false symmetries in their
description of the film. Robert Sklar, a prominent film historian, says: Whats
directly at stake is not white racism, of which the film presents numerous insightful
but not unfamiliar examples, but the defensive fear and anger it inculcates in blacks.
Raymonds friends make it abundantly clear that he has stepped too far over the
line.19 But there is no historical basis for attributing the defensive fear and anger
to blacks in regard to Raymonds relationship with Cathy, and it is completely
implausible that fellow blacks would run Raymond out of town for this. (Interestingly, Sklar does see a racial asymmetry in the more severe consequences for Raymond than Cathy, which Hayness prioritizing of womens oppression over that of
blacks denies.) An Australian critic, Gabrielle Murray, says, Cathy seeks out Raymond only to find that his own African American world is just as bigoted about
interracial relationships as her own.20 Again, as we saw, the African American
community at the time would not have been remotely as bigoted as whites about
interracial relationships. Indeed, even the expression as bigoted as is misleading
18

Richard Lippe, entry on All That Heaven Allows, in Film Reference: http://www.filmreference
.com/Films-A-An/All-that-Heaven-Allows.html. Accessed May 9, 2009.

19
20

Cineaste 28, no. 2 (spring 2003).

Gabrielle Murray, The Last Place in the World ... A Review of Far from Heaven, Sense of Cinema: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/03/25/far_from_heaven.html

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in this context. As mentioned earlier (p. 45f ), whatever opposition blacks might
have had to interracial relationships would not have stemmed from bigotry.

Fassbinders Ali: Fear Eats the Soul


The false racial symmetries in Far From Heaven can be seen particularly clearly
by comparison with the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinders Ali:
Fear Eats the Soul (Angst Essen Seele Auf) from 1973. Fassbinders films of the
1970s were also greatly influenced by Sirk, and Ali, like Far From Heaven, is
meant as an homage to All That Heaven Allows. Moreover, Haynes expresses his
own direct indebtedness to Fassbinder. Ali also deals with a forbidden love, or
love across social dividesin this case race, immigration status, culture, and
agein the context of social oppression. The character Ali is a Moroccan guest
worker in Germany; Emmi is an ethnic German cleaning woman about twenty
years older than Ali.21 In contrast to the characters in both Far From Heaven and
All That Heaven Allows, Ali and Emmi are at the bottom or margins of society.
That is what brings them together initially. Ali is lonely; he has no family, just
some Moroccan friends at a local bar where he hangs out. Emmi is a widow; her
three children live in the area but are not particularly close to her. They meet
when Emmi takes shelter from the rain one night in the bar.
The two characters are initially kind to each other and are happy to have found
one another. It is the care and companionship they offer one another as marginalized persons that draws them together. They are married soon after. But the society
around them shuns them and stigmatizes their relationship. In contrast to Far From
Heaven, the way it does so is very asymmetrical for the two characters. The male
Moroccan friends in Alis world accept the relationship without much ado. It is not
that they embrace Emmi, but they do accept her; when Ali invites the friends over
to Emmis place, where the two of them now live together, they are happy to oblige.
By contrast, Emmis German peers and family viciously exclude her and treat
her horribly. Her fellow cleaning women, with whom she has had lunch every
day at work, talk in front of her as if she is not there, then move away from and
completely shun her, leaving her to eat lunch alone. Occupants of her apartment
building complain to the landlord (who will not act on the complaints). Her
three children walk out of her apartment when she introduces Ali to them, spitting insults; one kicks her television in (a reference to a scene in All That Heaven
Allows, in which Carys children give her a television, which comes to symbolize
her own social death).
21
The age difference between Ali and Emmi is not entirely clear. I have seen references both to fifteen years and thirty years. My guess is that Emmi is in her early fifties and Ali in his early thirties.

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In the racial dimension of the film, Ali is analogous to Raymond; but whereas
Raymonds community is portrayed as shunning him, Alis is not. Of course, the
historical situations in the two films are very different. Blacks under northern
US segregation were not in the same situation as Moroccan guest workers in
Germany in the films period; for example, the latter were not situated in an
historically long-standing community as were the former. Nevertheless, they are
analogous in being treated by the dominant and majority group as a racially
stigmatized minority, and as being a subordinated group in society. It is noteworthy, then, that Fassbinder is clearer about how this ethnoracial asymmetry
between Emmi and Ali means that her peers and family would shun her and her
relationship with Ali, whereas his friends will not do so to him. Nowhere is there
the symmetrized message that both whites and Moroccans stigmatize the relationship, or that Ali would be rejected by his community for having it.
We can see the films depiction of this asymmetry in a scene in which Alis
peers do seem to ridicule Ali for his relationship with Emmi. Emmi comes to the
auto shop where Ali works to say how much she needs him and to implore him to
stop going out with other women. Alis fellow workers laugh at her, and at Ali, and
ask whether she is his grandmother. But this is not a case of racial symmetry. The
workers are not ridiculing Emmi because she is white (or German) but because
she is so much older than Ali. And the workers themselves are German, not
Moroccan, so they are not analogous to a racial peer group, such as blacks in relation to Raymond in Far From Heaven, or Alis actual friends. The film plays on the
symmetry between the way Emmi is viewed and treated as an older, unattractive,
washerwoman, and Ali as a non-white, non-German guest worker. But what it
never does is draw parallels between Emmis whiteness and Alis non-whiteness.
There is nothing analogous to the blacks and whites agree in being prejudiced
trope that plays such a conspicuous role in Far From Heaven. The Moroccans and
the Germans behave in entirely different ways toward the interracial couple.22

22
This brief discussion omits a central and significant difference between the two films. In Far
From Heaven, what dooms the relationship is the world surrounding the lovers. In Ali, Fassbinder
begins with a similar trope, but in this film the hostility of the world initially brings the two lovers
closer together. However, Fassbinder then mutes the external opposition; for different reasons,
people who initially stigmatize the relationship begin to accept it (for example, a shopkeeper near
their flat wants their business). As a result of these barriers falling, Emmi begins to desire acceptance by her peers and in doing so, takes on the same racist and anti-foreign attitudes she initially
resisted. Ali is hurt and distressed by this and begins to see another woman. So, in contrast to Far
From Heaven, it becomes the attitudes of the protagonists, but especially Emmi, that damage the
relationship, rather than the outer society itself, although those attitudes are themselves a reflection of those of German society. Fassbinder is concerned to show that Emmi herself carries the
racist attitudes that victimize Ali and threaten their relationship. (There is a good discussion of
this aspect of the film in Thomas Wartenbergs Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism [Boulder, CO: Westview Press], 173189.)

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False Symmetries in In the Heat of the Night


Filmic representation of interracial romances can be fallow territory for circulating the trope of (false) racial symmetries, since each party faces opposition to
the relationship. Perhaps the best known of such films in the mainstream Hollywood tradition is Guess Whos Coming to Dinner. In this 1967 star-studded
film with ten Academy Award nominations and two wins, the nave daughter of
a white race-liberal couple (played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, in
their final outing together) is planning to marry an (almost absurdly) accomplished and upright black doctor (played by Sidney Poitier). While the main
drama centers around the white parents struggles to overcome their prejudiced
opposition to the marriage, an important part of the plot is structured around
establishing a parallel opposition by the black doctors working class (but portrayed as extremely respectable) parents. In both parental couples the mother
overcomes her initial shock, eventually to embrace the couple, and has to try to
bring along her husband, who remains opposed. The reasons for opposition of
the two fathers are barely explored.23 The black fathers opposition is intense but
given no real content, apart from his brief mention that the world will not
accept it (essentially the same reason the white father gives).24 In doing so, it is
almost implied that this is simply the stance that one would expect of black
parents in this period, and thus that the black and the white reactions to interracial marriage are essentially the same. We have seen how false a picture this is
of black America of this general time period.25 Thus, the film also presents a false
racial symmetry in the context of an interracial romance.
Heterosexual love relationships are not the only sorts of interracial relationships that lend themselves to filmic racial symmetry. In the Heat of the Night
came out the same year as Guess Whos Coming to Dinner. But in contrast to the

23
The white father originally thinks the Poitier character an impostor, early on learns that this is
not true, and then expresses his opposition only as a concern that the couple will face obstacles to
acceptance that make the union unwise; yet the film implies that this is not his real or his primary
reason, which is vaguely left to be some sort of unspecified prejudice that is inconsistent with his
race-liberal principles.
24

Interestingly, the one basis (apart from societys opposition) for black opposition to the couple
is articulated by the white couples maid, who objects on the grounds that it is inappropriate for a
black man to attempt to rise above his appropriate station by marrying a white woman (especially
from such a distinguished family). In other words, she is essentially buying the white racist basis
for opposition.

25

The 70 percent acceptance by black parents of a child marrying a white mentioned earlier
is from a 1958 poll. There may have been a change in such attitudes toward greater opposition
by 1967, but only among those buying the black nationalist outlook, as mentioned earlier (see
p. 45f ). But there is no indication that the Poitier characters parents are in any way affected by
such sentiments.

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latter, it is now generally regarded as a forward-looking race film. Somewhat


daringly, it is centered on the relationship between a white racist local sheriff,
Gillespie, in a small Mississippi town, dealing with the murder of a businessman
from the North, and a black Northern homicide expert, Tibbs, in the town by
chance, who gets drawn into the investigation. Rod Steiger is brilliant in the
former role, coming to terms with the fact that he is out of his depth in the case,
and that solving the case requires him to work with and to recognize the superior investigative powers of the black investigator, played by Sidney Poitier. The
relationship between the two mentheir growing if grudging affection for one
another, the Steiger characters growing respect for the Poitier character, and
their wary and unequal but genuine teaming up to find the murderer26is the
emotional heart of the film. (The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture
of 1967, and Steiger won Best Actor.)
False symmetry is by no means as central a dimension of In the Heat of the
Night, as it is of Far From Heaven. Nevertheless, for a substantial portion of
the film, a type of false symmetry drives Tibbs to look in the wrong place for
the murderer. Tibbs gets into his mind that the crime was committed by a
prominent local citizen, plantation owner, and traditional Southern genteel
racist, Eric Endicott, who resented the dead Northern businessmans intrusion
into the local scene. The film implies that Tibbs is blinded by prejudice toward
Endicott from following the clues that point to the real murderer until later in
the film. In a crucial exchange, Tibbs implores Gillespie to give him more time
to pursue Endicott as a suspect, stating, with an emotion that contrasts with
his generally professional, cool demeanor: I can pull that fat cat down. I can
bring him right off this hill [they are standing in front of Endicotts plantation]. Gillespie replies, Man, youre just like the rest of us. The camera lingers on Tibbs, who looks rattled and is clearly registering Gillespies calling
him on his prejudice, as the audience is meant to do also.27 (But Tibbs continues to pursue Endicott until fairly late in the film.)
26

The Steiger character contributes virtually nothing to the actual investigation; but he does get
Tibbs out of several jams and supports him against various racists who would either hurt him or
derail his investigation of the murder.

27

The most famous scene in the film actually challenges a false racial symmetry. Immediately
prior to the scene just described, Endicott slaps Tibbs for implying that he might have had something to do with the murder. Tibbs slaps Endicott back immediately, without batting an eyelash.
The slaps are symmetrical but their significance very much is not, as the film makes clear that
Tibbs has seriously breached the racial etiquette of the times and the setting, while Endicott is
upholding it. So his slap is much more shocking and indeed potentially dangerous to him than
is Endicotts. Endicott remarks that he could have had Tibbs shot not many years before and he
attempts to have Gillespie arrest Tibbs. So here is a situation in which formal symmetry is used
effectively to make a profound point about substantive asymmetry. (I am indebted for this point
to Harry Chotiner.)

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Gillespies remark affirms what the audience has already been led to think,
that Tibbss prejudice is of a racial nature, and it is derailing him from his professional instincts and reasoning. In the DVD commentary, Norman Jewison, the
director, expresses this view of the film. [Tibbs] certainly has a big ego and a lot
of pride but he is also prejudiced which is revealed a little later when hes confronting Endicott. And Jewison repeats Gillespies remark to that effect mentioned earlier.28
The film thus sets up a parallelism between the local white sheriff s racism
and the black investigators alleged anti-white prejudice against Endicott. This
symmetry is false in two ways. First, even if Tibbs harbors animosity toward
Endicott, the film gives us no reason to call this animosity prejudice, other
than Gillespies implying that it is. It can much more plausibly be explained as a
reactive hostility to the racism toward him that Endicott has powerfully shown
in the scene prior to the exchange just reported (see note 27). It is not condemning someone because of his racial group membership without evidence, as
prejudice or bigotry implies, but a reaction to someones behavior toward
himself of exactly that character. It is not analogous to white townspeoples
anti-black bigotry, which, as the film shows, is in no way responsive to evidence
about the actual character of blacks. They are part of a system in which white
prejudice is normative; this is entirely disanalogous to anything Tibbs feels
toward them.
Second, attributing to Tibbs hostility toward whites is out of line with his
character as developed in the film. Tibbs evidences no other hostility toward
the townspeople. He is shown being drawn into the murder case not primarily
in order to show up the local racists, but out of a professional ethos of wanting
to solve a murder. Tibbs is certainly aware that whenever he correctly diagnoses
something about the case, the racist locals are both amazed and distressed
about this; but he is not gleefully seeking this reaction. He just does what is
called for by the case (with the Endicott exception). He is indeed sometimes
angry at how the whites treat him. The slapping of Endicott is a simple assertion of his dignity in a difficult situation. The implication of a serious character

28

Jewison, at least in retrospect on the DVD, clearly sees this symmetry as very important to the
film. After the remarks just quoted he says, You know the film is really very human because it
doesnt take too many sides. I wanted it to be as truthful and honest as I could make it and still
have it makes its point. He seems to be suggesting that what makes the film human is that Gillespies racism is paralleled by Tibbss prejudice and the character flaws Jewison associates with it.
And this seems to be what he means by saying, it doesnt take too many sides. So he seems to
be saying that the film condemns racism but presents Tibbs as a flawed and prejudiced character,
as is Gillespie. So the false racial symmetries are actually integral to Jewisons seeing the film as
human, truthful, and honest.

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flaw, or of racism that would symmetrize Tibbs and Gillespie, does not really fit
the character.29
The false symmetries in In the Heat of the Night, like those in Far From
Heaven and Guess Whos Coming to Dinner, are perhaps at least partly a product
of the conventions of Hollywood storytelling on which these films drawthe
buddy movie In The Heat of the Night, the convention-challenging interracial
romance in Far From Heaven and Guess Whos Coming to Dinner. I am thus not
necessarily accusing the filmmakers of operating from a false historical view of
race, but simply saying that the final product is misleading in presenting these
false symmetries.
A particularly interesting and more contemporary text that circulates both
false symmetries and true asymmetries is the 2005 film Crash. Racism itself is
the films theme, and many instances of racism are portrayed. Both the perpetrators and the targets of that racism are from many different racial and ethnic
groupsAfrican Americans, Latinos, whites, Iranians, Koreans. This very diversity leaves the impression that racism is something regarding which all racial
groups are similarly positioned and Roger Ebert expresses this view, which is
common to many reviews of the film: All are victims of it [i.e., racism], and all
are guilty of it.30
And yet if one looks at the specific instances of racism in the film, many of
them are in fact very sensitive to racial asymmetries. Perhaps the most talked
about is a white cop humiliating and abusing an African American woman
through an unwarranted body search, and thereby also humiliating her husband
who is powerless to stop him. The scene captures important elements of the
asymmetries of power between whites and blacks and the particular form of
anti-black racism in the United States. Another vignette involves a white TV
29
Interestingly, the novel on which the film is based contains none of the false symmetry. Tibbs
is simply a guy trying to do a job. There is no suggestion of his harboring any race prejudice with
respect to any character. (In the book, Endicott is the richest man in town, but not a white racist
at all.) Tibbs must constantly defend himself and ward off racist assumptions and racist treatment
by others; but he never behaves in less than a fully professional and dignified manner. Tibbs does
spend some time pursuing the wrong perpetrator, as in the film (not Endicott, however), but his
reasons for doing so are entirely comprehensible from a professional investigative point of view
and are treated that way by all the characters in the book, including the man Tibbs falsely pursues.
John Ball, In the Heat of the Night (New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 1992 [1965 original]).
The filmmakers make Tibbs a good deal angrier about the racism he faced than was the Tibbs of
the novel, though that anger is seldom directly expressed, the scene described earlier being a notable exception. Anger at racism is not the same as racial prejudice. The films resorting to the false
symmetry of attributing racial prejudice to Tibbs in order to establish a parallel with Gillespie
may have been an attempt to cushion the explosiveness of representing black anger on screen. On
changes from the novel to the film, see Mark Harris, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the
Birth of the New Hollywood (New York: Penguin, 2008).
30

Roger Ebert, review of Crash, Chicago Sun-Times, May 5, 2005.

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director humiliating a black actor by forcing him to conform to the directors


stereotype of a black way of speaking. Indeed, the film actually contains no
examples of whites being victims of racism. In this respect it is quite sensitive
to racial asymmetry.31

False Symmetries in Supreme Court


Legal Reasoning About Race
The trope of false racial symmetry circulated in Far From Heaven and other
films is important in part because of its centrality in the broader political culture. A particularly striking example of this is the Supreme Courts reasoning
about racial matters in the past twenty-five or so years, especially though not
only in relationship to affirmative action. Over these years, the Supreme Courts
majority has generally come to regard making decisions based on racetaking
race into accountas the evil against which policies that take race into account
are to be assessed. Taking race into account is an entirely symmetrical idea,
applying equally and identically to blacks as to whites. That is, if it is wrong to
make use of racial classifications in policy, it is equally so with respect to blacks,
whites, Hispanics, Asians, and so on.
So this norm cannot distinguish between a policy that excludes blacks from
voting in elections and one, such as affirmative action, that aims to remedy past
injustice to blacks and is plausibly designed to accomplish this end. Because
both policies make use of or reference to race, both equally violate the prohibition on policy based on racial classification.32 In seeing a fundamental wrong to
31

The argument of the two previous paragraphs is expounded in greater detail in my A Crash
Course in Personal Racism, in W. Jones and S. Vice (eds.), Ethics in Film (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2011).

32

To be more precise, what the Supreme Court has said is that racial classifications might be
valid under certain conditions, ones that are difficult to meet, expressed in the legal terminology
of strict scrutiny. As the Court said in its 1989 decision, Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co. (488 US
469 [1989]), strict scrutiny as a standard of review is not dependent on the race of those burdened or benefited by a particular classification. That is to say, strict scrutiny cannot distinguish
between black and white and the very different historical and contemporary situations of blacks
and whites. In theory, strict scrutiny can be de facto race sensitive, since the law allows for rectification of an institutions own past discrimination. So if a law school, for example, could prove
that the lower (but still adequate) qualifications of black applicants compared to whites was a
product of the law schools own past discriminatory practices, the strict scrutiny standard would
permit race preference toward blacks in admission to that particular law school. But of course this
causal connection would be very difficult to prove and is in any case not very plausible. It is not
the law schools specific past discriminatory practices themselves but the more general exclusion
and discrimination in all of societys institutions that has resulted in the educational weaknesses
and thus lesser qualifications of the black applicants and prospective applicants. But this societal
discrimination, as the Court called it in the Croson case, is precisely what the Croson decision forbids as a justifiable standard for permitting racial preferences under the strict scrutiny doctrine.

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lie in taking race into account, the Court reasons in a faulty manner. It is wrong
to take race into account when race is used to exclude, subordinate, and stigmatize. When racial classification is used to include and to render equal, or to help
to create racial equality, however, it is not wrong, or, to be more precise, if there
is any wrong involved in racial classification itself, that wrong is outweighed by
the benefit of using that classification to render equal, for example, by rectifying
historical injustice.
In the first affirmative action in education case, the 1978 Bakke case, four
justicesBrennan, White, Marshall, and Blackmunrecognized this racial
asymmetry. They thought that affirmative action was justified to rectify historical injustice; that is, they recognized that racial classification was not a conclusive wrong but that the purpose for which classification was used was the
controlling ethical and constitutional factor. As Justice Marshall said in his dissenting opinion, [I]t is more than a little ironic that, after several hundred years
of class-based discrimination against Negroes [meaning discrimination against
blacks as a class, or group, not discrimination based on socioeconomic status],
the Court is unwilling to hold that a class-based remedy for that discrimination
is permissible.33 But Justice Powell, who wrote the decision that came to be
taken as the majority decision, rejected this argument and said, Preferring
members of any one group for no reason other than race or ethnic origin is discrimination for its own sake. This the Constitution forbids.34 The constitutional issues are beyond my expertise, but Powells statement is a completely
misleading way to think about the moral issues involved and partakes of the
false racial symmetry that the four dissenting justices rejected. Rectifying historical injustice of a racial character does involve race classification, but it does
not involve the racially symmetric wrongs of discrimination for its own sake
or preferring members of any group for no other reason than race or ethnic
origin. Rather, it prefers members of some groups for a very good reason,
namely that they have heretofore suffered a cumulative disadvantage that can
not be remedied simply by taking the present situation as a starting point and
going forward under a regime of symmetric nondiscrimination.35
33

Thurgood Marshall, opinion in University of California Regents v. Bakke, 438 US 265 (1978).

34

Lewis Powell, opinion in University of California Regents v. Bakke, 438 US 265 (1978).

35

Just to fill out the bigger picture of the education affirmative action cases, including the 2003
University of Michigan cases: Although the majority in both the Bakke and the Grutter (539 US
306) and Gratz (539 US 244) cases rejected a rectificatory justice approach to admissionsthe
one following the asymmetry-acknowledging logic of Marshalls opinion in the Bakke casein
all three cases the majority was favorable to a diversity rationale that allowed for the very race
preferences that the (rejected) rectificatory rationale also required. Despite allowing for race preference, the diversity rationale is nevertheless in an important sense racially symmetric. It says that

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Another egregious example of this inappropriate symmetric racial thinking


is an important 2007 case (Parents Involved) concerning two school districts
fairly minimal use of secondary school students race in the districts practices of
assigning students to schools, in order to foster greater racial integration in their
schools.36 In the culminating paragraph of his majority opinion (in a 5-4 decision), (Chief ) Justice Roberts says the following:
Before Brown, schoolchildren were told where they could and could not
go to school based on the color of their skin ... The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of
race. (4041)
What was wrong with school systems prior to the 1954 Brown decision was
not that they directed students to attend school based on their race, an alleged
wrong directed to white and black alike, as Roberts very much means to assert.
It was that the systems policies reflected a caste outlook, consigning black students to an inferior education and premised on a declaration by the states in
question that these students were not fit to attend schools with white children.
Roberts sees the wrong as an entirely symmetrical one, one that can be remedied
only by refusing to use race as a basis for student assignment. He calls this
rejected policy discriminating on the basis of race, an ambiguous formulation
that can signify either (1) making a distinction between races, or taking race into
account in policy (Robertss meaning), and (2) consigning one race to an inferior status, or contributing to an already-existing such status (what pre-Brown
states were actually doing). The asymmetrical evil of (2) was the intended target

all college studentsof every racial groupbenefit if there is a critical mass of each racial group
present among the student body. If racial preferences are needed to bring into the institution that
critical mass in the case of certain racial groups, that result, hence the racial preference itself, is
thought to benefit each group equally (in contrast to the rectificatory rationale, in which it is the
benefit to the admitted students that drives the policy, in the name of rectifying historical injustice
against the groups from which those students are drawn). The weaknesses in the diversity rationale taken purely by itself have been pointed out by both detractors and supporters of affirmative
action. For the latter, see the discussion by Robert Fullinwider and Judith Lichtenberg, Leveling
the Playing Field: Justice, Politics, and College Admissions (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield,
2004), chapters 9 and 10, and Elizabeth Anderson, The Imperative of Integration (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 2010), chapter 7. (As of this writing the Fisher v. University of Texas
affirmative action case has been argued but not ruled on by the Supreme Court. Whatever the
ruling on the case itself, it is not likely that the false symmetry reasoning about race will be abandoned, though it may be challenged by a minority.)
36

Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School district #1 et al., 551 US 05-908. (The
case was decided with another, Meredith, Custodial Parents and Next Friend of McDonald v. Jefferson County Board of Education et al.)

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of the remedy in the Brown decision, as Justice Breyer said in his dissent to the
majority decision in Parents Involved:
[S]egregation policies did not simply tell schoolchildren where they
could and could not go based on the color of their skin, ante, at 40; they
perpetuated a caste system rooted in the institutions of slavery and 80
years of legalized subordination. (6667)
That the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court would show such an appalling
ignorance of the character of race and racial history in the United States is a
cause for despair.
The symmetries in Far From Heaven are false for the same reason the Courts
reasoning isthey fail to recognize, or explicitly deny, that blacks historical and
current social position is dramatically different from whites. Just as Far From
Heaven falsifies the character of segregation and portrays the white and the
black communities as comparably opposed to Raymond and Cathys relationship, whites and blacks as equally prejudiced and narrow-minded, and, by implication, the barriers to whites and blacks mobility in the society as comparable,
so the Supreme Court in the cases mentioned treats whites and blacks as comparably situated morally with respect to policies that involve race preference.37
Films like Far From Heaven are important to scrutinize because they help to
circulate and reinforce these false and misleading but familiar ways of thinking
about race. That commentators on the film continued to circulate them is further
evidence that these tropes resonate with popular thought in ways the public is
often unaware of, and unaware that they are invested in. It is true that Far From
Heaven challenges the racism that kept whites and blacks apart in the 1950s. It is
worth noting, however, that in our current situation, the validating of interracial
marriage and of mixed-race offspring of these marriages does not address structures
of racism, and since the 1990s conservatives have often seized on these phenomena
to deny racism.38 Although affirming interracial relationships, Far From Heaven
purveys a false racial symmetry in the way it portrays the interracial relationship
itself, which plays into blindness to the current and historical reality of race.
More generally, films depicting love across racial and other divides are a particularly good subjects for looking at issues of racial symmetry and asymmetry.
37

There are other false symmetry decisions in the past two decades. Besides the Croson case mentioned earlier, another important asymmetry-blind decision is in Adarand v. Pena (1995).

38

For an excellent analysis of the larger significance of the increase in mixed marriages, mixed-race
persons, of the politics of the mixed-race movement in light of continuing racial inequality, and
the conservative use of these developments to thwart racial justice, see Ronald Sundstrom, The
Browning of America and the Evasion of Social Justice (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2008).

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Love is always in one respect symmetrical, when both parties love the other. So
in the racial situation, both parties are challenging or defying a barrier, when
such a barrier is present in the context of their relationship. This point applies
equally to the two parties to the love relationship. Cathy and Raymond, Emmi
and Ali, and the doctor and the daughter genuinely love each other. (To the
extent that the relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie is a genuine friendship, and that is taken as a type of love, this is true of them as well.) They are the
same in that respect. And they are each defying social norms in crossing racial
and other boundaries; they are the same in that respect as well.
What we have seen, however, is that this symmetry can mislead if it is taken
to suggest that the meaning of the relationship in its wider context is the same
for the two loversthat is, if the way that each party is defying the social prohibition is taken to be the same. While the love might be perfectly genuine, it has
a very different significance in the world that the two parties inhabit, a significance due to the asymmetries between the life situations of the racial groups of
which each character is a part. Thus, love relationships in film have a strong
potentiality to contribute to viewers misunderstandings of the racial world of
the film, and indeed of their own racial world. Films about interracial love do
not necessarily purvey this misunderstanding; Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a striking counterexample. And one applauds such films that avoid this pitfall. But the
pitfall permeates our political culture, as the Supreme Court cases illustrate.
And we do well as viewers to watch critically and try to avoid being seduced into
this way of thinking, so commonly embedded in films portraying love across the
racial divide.

Acknowledgments
I am grateful to Harry Chotiner, Crystal Feimster, the members of the Film,
Fiction, Philosophy, and Love working group, especially Chris Grau and Susan
Wolf, and especially to Judith Smith for feedback on previous drafts of this
essay.

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3
The Untold Want of Now, Voyager
Maria DiBattista

Oh, Jerry, dont lets ask for the moon. We have the stars.
With these emotionally extravagant words, which bring to a close one of the
most intensely romantic melodramas in American film, Love apparently reaches a
limit beyond which it seems impossible, and even unwise, to venture. Beyond lies
the wastelands of romantic clich (asking for the moon); before it, human feeling
contemplated in its ultimate and transcendent form, of which the stars serve as
symbol. In speaking of love in such elevated terms, Charlotte Vale, self-proclaimed
spinster aunt of the Boston Vales, is idealizing the unusual love she shares with a
man she cannot marry but whose child she has just been told she may consider her
own. She urges him to accept that ordinary romantic love, conventionally overseen and symbolized by the moon, is not to be hoped, much less asked for,
and then reassures him
that what they possess
is equally heavenly and
not only within reach
but already in their possession (see Fig. 3.1).
Does it matter that
the stars, while more
numerous than the solitary moon, are also more
distant and less indulgent, perhaps, of the
human longings projected upon them? In
It Happened One Night, Peter Warne (Clark Gable) rhapsodizes about the
romantic night when you and the moon and the water all become one. The
61

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stars, brilliant as they are, have no place in this sensuous fantasy. Nevertheless,
Charlotte is satisfied and feels secure in their possession, however difficult holding on to them may prove. Charlotte, played with absolute conviction by Bette
Davis, makes her declaration with a matter-of-factness that reassures not only
Jerry but the audience that her sense of love is no groundless fantasy (it entertains,
after all, no wild hope of pocketing the moon). Rather she is staking her claim, in
the American pioneer tradition, to a little strip of territory they have made their
own and whose legend is not to be found on any ordinary map. The camera, visually responding to the logic and trail of her thoughts, pans to the night sky as
if validating her claim. Once released from the erotic spell the film may have cast
on us, we may, however, find ourselves wondering whether Charlottes vision of
love represents a sublime idea or the late-flowering dream of the sentimental old
fool who earlier had shed tears of gratitude because a man had called her darling.
That this question is not so easily decided is a tribute to the force of
Charlottesand the filmsbelief in the exceptional love she and Jerry share and
may, indeed, have invented. Of course, love notoriously abets such illusions of
uniquenessthe uniqueness of the beloved, the uniqueness of the sensations,
feelings, experiences love offers those caught in its spell. As Freud, who, to say the
least, gave much thought to this matter, reminds us, things that have to do with
love are incommensurable with everything else; they are, as it were, written on a
special page on which no other writing is tolerated.1 The special page on which
Charlotte records the things that have to do with her love may not tolerate any
other writing, but it would have remained a blank page had she not been inspired,
guided, and sustained by the poem that summoned her to adventure. Walt Whitmans short lyric Now, Voyager gives the novel and film its title and Charlotte
the motive for spiritual exploration: to seek and satisfy the untold want by life
and land neer granted. Charlotte reads out the poem as if it were an oracle that
holds the secret to her future, which in a sense it does. It is the parting gift of her
psychiatrist, Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), who personally transcribes and hands it
to her on the eve of her departure as both a reminder of the emotional adventures
ahead and, one suspects, as an amulet against disaster. On their first meeting she
had given him a decorative box she had painstakingly carved out of ivory. The
hard purity of ivory hints at one quality of her spiritual substance, just as the
camellia she will come to wear as a visible sign of her idiosyncrasy expresses
another, more tender, delicate, and impressionable side to her nature. The ivory
box, like the camellia, then, is a token of what is distinctive about and for Charlottethe beauty, both enduring and fugitive, of things that have to do with love
1

Sigmund Freud, Transference-Love, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of


Sigmund Freud, Vol. 12 (London: Hearth, 1975), 160.

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(among which we may include the love of beauty itself ). In giving it to Dr. Jaquith,
she was in some symbolic sense giving him the gift of herself. Now he is returning
her gift, changed literally beyond recognition. He bestows upon this transformed
woman the name and vocation of voyager, an identity that will not replace but
will certainly complicate and ideally enrich the life of Miss Charlotte Vale.
That she may indeed remain Miss Vale throughout her voyaging life is the possibility both the novel and film are willing to risk and ultimately will insist upon.
Now, Voyager asks its audience to imagineno easy mental exercise in early forties America, and indeed not all that much easier nowthe unmarried state as a
threshold to adventure rather than a holding cell for those in marital limbo. This
being a melodrama, such histrionic images of emotional quarantine readily suggest themselves. The impression the Vale mansion makes on Dr. Jaquith when he
visits to consult on her casebastions, firm, proud, resisting the new, houses
turned in upon themselves, hugging their pridemakes such a comparison
seem less overwrought than it may initially sound. The film opens with heavy
rains that later will be seen beating against the windows of Charlottes room as
she herself breaks down in tears, the first hint of Charlottes melodramatic power
to pull the world into her emotional orbit of untold want. At the close of the film,
this power extends to the stars, which appear in the last shot of the film not to
suggest the existence of another, suprahuman world indifferent to Charlottes
vision of love, but as extensions and confirmation of it.
Ones reaction, even respect for the film and for the book by Olive Higgins
Prouty from which it was adapted, most likely will depend on how one interprets Charlottes vision of love and the untold want it seems to satisfy. Charlotte
herself is conscious of the told wants that motivate and promise to fulfill a
womans existence, at least as they have been authorized by the reigning social
conventions of her day (and arguably, of course, of our own): a man of her own,
a home of her own, a child of her own. Many critics of the novel and the film,
especially those with feminist concerns, have remarked that Charlottes untold
want may be unvoiced, but it is easy enough to guess: namely, a yearning for
sexual and romantic love. Conventionally pretty, certainly less stout heroines
might openly confess such a want, but Charlotte, that fat lady with the heavy
brows and all the hair in the Vale family photographs, must never even be suspected of harboring such unrealistic desireshence her imprisonment in the
confines of melodrama.
Untold wants, we might say, constitute the elemental psychic stuff of
melodrama, a genre devoted to unearthing the buried feelings and repressed,
festering wishes that lurk just beneath the well-appointed surfaces of everyday, respectable life. Tragedy and farce, the antipodes of the dramatic representation of human experience, also may excavate the minds libidinal depths,

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tragedy to enact a catharsis, farce to depose the sober, daylight orders of reason
and routine. Melodrama may occasionally assume the stateliness of tragedy or
flirt with the anarchism of farce, but it entertains no real hope of purging the
passions or unfettering the instincts that convulse its characters. Melodramas
indictment of the world is less cosmic than tragedy and its expectations for
freedom more modest than farce. As Thomas Elsaesser has observed, in the
domestic melodrama
the social pressures are such, the frame of respectability so sharply defined,
that the range of strong actions is limited. The tellingly impotent gesture, the social gaffe, the hysterical outburst replaces any more directly
liberating or self-annihilating action, and the cathartic violence of a
shoot-out or a chase becomes an inner violence, often one that the characters turn against themselves. The dramatic configuration, the pattern
of the plot, makes them, regardless of attempts to break free, constantly
look inwards, at each other and themselves. The characters are, so to
speak, each others sole referent; there is no world outside to be acted
upon, no reality that could be defined or assumed unambiguously.2
Melodramas reasonableness in accepting things about the world it cannot
change may look sensible but seldom is. Resignation becomes a mask or a justification for self-pity and moral cowardice. But now I am beginning to sound
like Mother Vale, whose strong argument against being melodramatic I shall
revisit later.
There is much in Charlottes romantic history that confirms the view that
her untold want is, all told, a common one, made melodramatically interesting only because it is so brutally repressed by her mother, ruthless enforcer of
Bostons social codes and the stringent, emotionally demanding laws of what
Dr. Jaquith calls the New England conscience. Charlotte begins the film as her
mothers vassal, forced to perform, rather thanklessly, the duties of daughter,
companion, servant. With no moral standing as an actor or agent in her own
life, she is primarily conscious of herself as an ugly duckling, her mothers judgment, which Charlotte does not dispute. Her sense of her unattractiveness is so
strong that she introduces herself as Miss Charlotte Vale, spinster, as if pronouncing a life sentence without any hope of parole. What man would ever
look at me and say, I want you.? Im fat, she blurts out to Dr. Jaquith on their
2

Thomas Elsaesser, Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama, in Imitations of Life: A Reader in Film and Television Melodrama, ed. Marcia Landy (Detroit, MI: Wayne
State University Press, 1991), 56.

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first meeting, summarizing her present wretchedness in that one helplessly rhetorical question. That Charlotte, feeling herself beyond, or rather beneath, any
mans frank (or even covert) desire, has successfully kept her own want, indeed
her inner nature, untold, accounts for the shock her transformation into an
elegant woman produces in those who knew her in her earlier incarnation, a
shock intensified by the trail of male suitors seen to be buzzing in her wake once
she returns home from her voyage out. Obviously, whatever else Charlottes life
may be lacking after her metamorphosis into a graceful swan, it is not want of
sexual attention. Once she has received it, she can begin to insist on her rights
as a romantic heroine.
Charlottes reinstatement in the ranks of sexualized women may advance
the story but troubles feminist critics hoping to dismantle morally shallow
orthodoxies of sexual attractiveness. Toward the end of the film Charlotte, with
her experience of being looked at both as an ugly duckling and a beautiful swan,
will attempt to cheer Tina, Jerrys unpretty and unwanted child, with the
knowledgeor is it only a promise?that there is something besides prettiness that you can have if you earn it. A kind of beauty... . Something that has
nothing to do with your face. A light shines from inside you because youre a
nice person. Charlottes idea that one can project an inner beauty that has
nothing to do with ones face is a fairly conventional one. This bromide has
probably been administered to countless plain or decidedly unpretty young
girls. What is unusual is Charlottes proposing that beauty is something one can
earn and earning rightfully possess, something that emits, like the stars, a special
kind of light.
So much hinges on how Charlotte looks to and at the world at any given
stage in her emotional development that it is worthwhile pausing to reflect on
how the film chooses to look at her, especially as she appears in her most abject
and her most exalted states. Much has been made about the way the camera
lingers on Charlotte, especially on her lower body, in her two extraordinary
entrances before and after her cure and metamorphosis: the first as she
descends the stairs of the Vale mansion, the second at the top of the gangway,
about to descend into the human world from which she has so long been
excluded. But critics often neglect to observe that our first glimpse of Charlotte
is limited to her hands; the camera is more interested in them than in her face.
It seems, in fact, almost clinically interested in the way they are intently working
on what turns out to be an ivory box; it observes them emptying and hiding an
ashtray in her desk drawer, covering over the butts and ashes with a tissue, as if
enacting a grimly funny funeral rite. We then see her make her way, hesitatingly,
to the company waiting below; the camera lowers its gaze and tracks the movements of her lower body, lumbering heavily and cautiously down the stairs.

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When Charlotte finally steps into the full view of the camera, we see a rather
shapeless and ill-clad creature caught in the middle distance, furtive, suspicious,
anxious, her eyes pleading for kindness, or perhaps only to be left alone. The
ordeal will prove too much for her and she becomes visibly agitated as the afternoon drags on: Charlottes got the shakes, as her niece later mercilessly but
accurately observes.
Charlotte has lost her shakes and gained her composure the next time the
camera visually isolates and frames her. Her appearance is heralded by a tracking
shot of the deck of a luxury liner, where clamoring passengers, eager to depart
for shore, are impatiently, some resentfully, waiting for her to show her face.
Whether they feel rewarded or disappointed in what they see we can only guess,
for the camera suddenly detaches itself from their midst and repositions itself,
like a devotee, at Charlottes feet. Shes coming down, are the first words of the
film, an announcement that sends the servants of the Vale household scurrying
to make sure all is in order for Charlottes imposing and demanding mother.
A similar, but less terrified excitement attends the prospect of Charlottes coming down, as later a somewhat comic excitement surrounds Tina as she eagerly,
yet uncertainly descends the Vale staircase to greet her father with her new dress
and lit-up face. Indeed, Now, Voyager elaborates a rather subtle iconography out
of this animated pictorial motif: Woman descending a staircase.
This iconography accords Charlottes appearance at the top of the gangway
the status of an apparition. The world of the film becomes preternaturally still, a
stillness that emanates as much from Charlotte as from the entranced gaze of the
camera. This stillness betrays none of the coldness of a purely iconic or fetichized
image. It is a stillness that seems to gather into itself all Charlottes instincts for
life, for adventure just at the moment they are about to be set free. Almost as if
aware of the ritual gravity of this moment, she pauses to collect herself, allowing
the camera the time to move slowly, almost wonderingly up her body. This visual
unveiling of Charlottes slimmer figure, new clothes, and, for all we know, new
personality, culminates with a slightly angled profile shot of Charlottes head
crowned by a wide-brimmed hat that shades as well as sets off the rich theater of
her face. The hat, as Stanley Cavell3 has remarked, completes and glamorizes her
metamorphosis, endowing it with the aura of mystery, of transfiguration. But it
also affords her a certain protection, shielding her face from the curious looks,
even stares she is not ready either to withstand or return (see Fig. 3.2).
3

Stanley Cavell, Ugly Duckling, Funny Butterfly: Bette Davis and Now, Voyager, Contesting
Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1996), 119.

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There is a certain
courtesy, if we might
call it that, in the cameras respectingup to
a pointthe privacy of
Charlottes face, especially at this moment, so
full of hope and terror
for her. Privacy is one of
the rights Charlottes
mother had denied her
both as child and as a
grown woman and Charlottes transfiguration
insofar as the film is on
Charlottes side it must devise and then conscientiously employ visual strategies
for protecting those rights. The unusual shots of Charlottes hands, lower limbs,
upper body, and finally the vertical pan that culminates in that radiant close-up of
her face, are, accordingly, at once attentive and discreet. Indeed, one of the surprises of Now, Voyager, arguably the quintessential womans film dramatizing
how womens looks affect the way they are treated and how they feel about
themselves, is that it refuses to worry overmuch about the voyeurism and other
scopophilic perversions that the sexualizing gaze of the camera may arouse.
The film seems more intent on turning our attention elsewheretoward those
at whom no one bothers or cares to look. Charlotte enters the film in the midst
of a full-scale nervous breakdown whose primary cause is her mothers determination to ensure that she is never exposed to the full, frank, admiring or desiring
gaze of others. Charlotte herself traces the miseries of her introverted and cloistered existence to her mothers merciless regime, a regime that forbids her to
diet, to pluck her eyebrows, to wear anything but the most sensible shoes and
nondescript clothes, a regime that ensures no man will ever look at her and that
leaves her vulnerable to the casual but unrelenting ragging that appears to be
the only notice her family takes of her. Charlotte has consequently been
marked, to use her mothers own term, by the narcissistic injuries that her family routinely and casually inflicts upon her. Hence her conflicting desire, obvious
from her first interview with Dr. Jaquith, both to remain unnoticed and to be
publicly recognized as a person capable of attracting desire and even inspiring
love. Hence, too, the importance she places on the proudest moment of her life
so far, when a young ships officer had not only defied her mother but placed her
on a throne and before a witness, too.

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Luckily for Charlotte someone has noticed and pitied her, her sympathetic
sister-in-law, Lisa. Through Lisas kindly intervention, Charlotte is introduced to
Dr. Jaquith, who takes her under his care and commits her to his sanatorium,
whose name, Cascade, seems to promise that her dammed-up feelings might flow
freely and freshly once again. There she sheds the extra pounds, the excess hair, and
the cowed, depressed spirits that made her want to keep to herself, out of sight. She
is encouraged, indeed expected to contribute, to take an interest in others, prescriptions, of course, that directly contravene her mothers interdiction against acting like a commercial traveler and mingling with anyone outside her class.
Charlottes course of treatment may be said to be completed, not when she
leaves Cascade, but when she accepts an invitation, issued by a man she will later
fall in love with, to see the sights like any ordinary tourist. What Charlotte sees
at this critical moment is the most visually extraordinary shot in the film: the
face of her mother suddenly superimposed over her own, glaring at the camera
like a witch out of a looking-glass, issuing reprimands as if uttering a curse:
Could we try to remember that were hardly commercial travelers? Its bad
enough to have to associate with these tourists on board. This phantasmagoric
image not only visually projects Charlottes subjection and subsequent struggle
to defy her mothers authority; it also institutes a new dramatic redistribution of
powersof which the power to speak for and to oneself out of the hearing of
others is among the most coveted. From this point on, Charlotte is given the
license not only to live but to dramatize her own life. How else explain why she
is allowed to project a hallucination that no one else in the film can possibly see,
except as a demonstration that what goes on within her mind is as exciting as
anything else that might be happening in the film? The fascination Charlotte
begins to exercise on others is nothing compared to this dawning fascination she
feels in the presence of herself. The novel, which begins with the ocean voyage,
introduces Charlotte as The Stranger. This is how she appears not only to others but to herself. When Jerry, puzzled by Charlottes changing moods and cryptic remarks, confesses that I wish I understood you, Charlotte, in a response
her mother would be proud of, coolly replies, Since we just met this morning,
how could you possibly? For all its coolness, though, there is not the slightest
trace of indignation in Charlottes mild rebuff to Jerry for presuming he could
possibly understand a woman he had met a few hours before. She can hardly
object to a wish she herself shares, a wish she literally voices when Jerry leaves to
cable his wife: He wishes he understood me. He wishes.
Charlotte will henceforth enjoy a special dispensation to interrupt the external drama of her own development with glimpseslet us call them cinematic
asidesof the tormenting memories, tortured images and unspoken thoughts
troubling her mind. Previously Charlotte had been lent the privilege and

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prestige of voice-over, but only for the limited purpose of telling Dr. Jaquith the
story of her aborted shipboard romance. Her flashback, a narrative device for
visiting the past, is unambiguously a part of her conversation with Dr. Jaquith.
This revived memory is different. She can do what she wishes with it. She is not
simply remembering a moment in the past but actively working on and working through it in order to rid herself of the mothers curse, condemning her to
emotional isolation. For Charlotte, whose own face is partially eclipsed and
blurred, but not obliterated, this hallucinatory image does not so much recall
her unhappy past as foretell her impending separation from the moral body of
her mother. The first sign that Charlotte has exorcised this maternal ghost is her
refusal to allow her identity, her I, to be so completely absorbed and bound by
her mothers royal we. Coming out of this bad reverie, she returns to the
realistic surface of filmand responds positively to Jerrys invitation: Ill be
glad to see anything you like, she says, a line that effectively serves as her declaration of moral independence (see Fig. 3.3).
Nevertheless, it is part of the films emotional intelligence that it never underestimates Mother Vale both as a figure of identification and as an adversary. In
presenting Mother Vale as a spirit of anti-life, the film, like Charlotte, endows
her with a terrible power that is not easily overthrown. It is an authority whose
basis is not to be found in reason or custom, but in myth. That the giver of life
could also be the destroyer of life is foremost a mythical idea about the power of
mothers. It is an idea that haunted Prouty, whose own writing career began
partly as therapy for the loss of two children within so many years. This is surely
one, if not the sole reason that her fiction represents motherhood as an Emersonian idea, a spiritual state rather than a biological imperative or cultural form.
Prouty wrote two novels, both turned into film, in which this idea is given its
most extreme, indeed
monstrous incarnation:
Stella Dallas, the eponymous
heroine
of
Proutys 1923 novel, and
Mother Vale (as she is
consistently called in
the novel and in this
essay). Both mothers
are figures of excess
Stella in her profligate
altruism, Mother Vale
in her voracious selfishness. While Stella will I was thinking of my mother

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sacrifice everything for her daughter, including her daughters respect and, eventually, her maternal rights, Mother Vale is the tyrant who insists on the absolute
right to decide every issue in her daughters life. To Charlotte, she is the demon
mother out of a fairy tale who forces you to grow hair you do not need, have
eyebrows that are too bushy, wear glasses for eyes that see perfectly well. As if
revenging herself on a nature whose fecundity brought her an unwanted late
child, Mother Vale turns her daughters body into a pitiable emblem of excessive
and unsightly growth.
She could not be more of a villain if she sprouted a mustache and menacingly bandied a pistol at Dr. Jaquith when he has the temerity to suggest that if
you had deliberately and maliciously planned to destroy your daughters life,
you couldnt have done it more completely.
mother vale: How? By having exercised a mothers rights?
dr. jaquith: A mothers rights, twaddle. A child has rights, a person
has rights, to discover her own mistakes, to make her own way, to
grow and blossom in her own particular soil.
mother vale: Are we getting into botany, doctor? Are we flowers?
Appalling as I find Mother Vales idea of maternal rights, I cannot help being
impressed by this particular flash of sarcasm. She speaks within the melodrama
for those readers or moviegoers impatient with the emotional much ado that
melodrama can make out of nothing. Sylvia Plath, who knew Prouty and went
to Smith on the scholarship she endowed, was one such reader. In The Bell Jar,
she ridiculed Proutys novels as crammed from beginning to end with long,
suspenseful questions: Would Evelyn discern that Gladys knew Roger in her
past? wondered Hector feverishly and How could Donald marry her when he
learned of the child Elsie, hidden away with Mrs. Rollmop on the secluded
country farm? Griselda demanded of her bleak, moonlit pillow.4
Plaths parody is so droll and alive to the overheated absurdities of melodrama in its crudest state that it is a shock to return to Prouty and see how cool,
clipped, and controlled is her own management of her feverish material. We feel
this immediately when encountering Mother Vales questions, which, impartially regarded, are neither long nor suspenseful. They are short and decisive,
and are quite unambiguous about the answers they expect to receive. They also
display flashes of wit. Her hauteur has a comic side that will feature in the arch
banter that she comes to enjoy with her daughter. What Mother Vale lacks is
not a sense of humor, then, but her daughters sense and gift for poetry. She is
4

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (New York: Perennial, 1999), 41.

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disdainful of any use of language that departs from the most respectable prose.
Had she taken the time to learn the language of flowers she might have come to
know and even love her daughter in the way the film wants us to. Charlotte may
not belong among the flowers, as Mother Vale contemptuously reminds us, but
we can find in their beautiful, if fragile nature a reflection of her own. This is a
possibility Charlotte acknowledges when she consents to be called Camille, the
special name that marks her relation to Jerry and later to his daughter, Tina.
Charlottes spiritual readiness to seek, accept, and live by such metaphors for
heror indeed other peoplesnature is what qualifies and distinguishes her as
a voyager. Her very capacity for spiritual adventure is, as Stanley Cavell admits,
rather ponderously symbolized as metamorphosis (117). The film, he notes, is
preoccupied with change, a preoccupation laid on with a trowel, as issues in
melodrama tend to be laid on with trowels; caring for them depends on whether
you can care about matters that demand that openness or extravagance of care
(118). Whether you care, or even can tolerate that openness and extravagance of
care Now, Voyager brings to this melodramatic and poetic elaboration of Charlottes metamorphosis from a terrorized child-woman to an adult woman
responsible for the cultivation of her own life and, at films end, for the life of
Jerrys child, may largely depend on whether you consider psychiatry to be a
healing science and credit it as a human art. Prouty did both. Nevertheless, as
Dr. Jaquiths dismissal of the psychiatric jargon bandied about by fakirs and
writers of best sellers suggests, her belief was tempered by a hardy dose of the
Yankee moralism that mandates a stiff upper lip rather than a quivering lower
one. Dr. Jaquiths mantra for maintaining spiritual and emotional well-being is
not emote, emote, emote (the typical melodramatic stage direction) but Ignore
emotions. Think, act, feel, in this order. Then thumb your nose at what you
feel.5 Not the least remarkable thing about this advice is that it echoes and confirms, although on psychological rather than snobbish grounds, the mothers
interdiction against emotionalism of any kind.
I earlier observed that it is part of the films (and the novels) emotional intelligence that it never underestimates the mother as the daughters adversary. But
Now, Voyager also acknowledges the creative power of the mother as advocate.
In the closing sequence of the film, Charlotte takes on the role of mother to
Tina, demonstrating that she is not only capable of surviving her own metamorphosis but also capable of being the cause of metamorphosis or spiritual recovery in others. Tina will flourish under her custodial care, just as earlier Jerry
rediscovered and returned to his work as an architect because of her love and
belief in him.
5

Olive Higgins Prouty, Now, Voyager (New York: Feminist Press, 2004), 53.

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This creative and restorative power is not something Charlotte learned from
Dr. Jaquith, nor is it original with her. It is part of her maternal inheritance, a
female willfulness and energy that does not find its rightful, if unconventional
object until the films conclusion. The camera early on alerts us to the somatic
and moral affinity between Charlotte and her mother by focusing on the movement, alternately symptomatic and creative, of their hands. Even as we are settling into an absolutist view of Mother Vale as the indomitable tyrant, the camera
isolates the agitated motion of her hands, stroking and kneading her fingers like
a careworn Pilate. The camera then immediately cuts to the hands of her daughter, furiously working at some urgent task. At first, we may not be immediately
sure what is actually happening: is Charlotte injuring herself or laboring to create
something? Perhaps something of both, something like giving birth (as if to oneself ), which also may be said to entail a painful but productive labor of this kind.
Charlottes hands will find other employment and more human material to
work withand ononce she is no longer under her mothers absolute control. At Cascade we see her at a loom, her hands occupied with the shuttle as
Dr. Jaquith pronounces her well and ready to return to the world; on shipboard,
absorbed in her knitting as she listens to the story of Jerrys unhappy marriage;
on her return home ritually pinning camellias to her dress. But once her hands
begin to probe and delight in the tenderness of flesh, they encounter certain
taboos of touch. On first putting her hand on Jerrys arm, she quickly withdraws
it, as if remembering what we also may have forgotten, that his body by rights
(and this is a film interested in the question of rights, a childs rights, a mothers
rights, marital rights) belongs to another. Charlottes hands become most
noticeably excited when, late in the film, she enfolds Tina in her arms, repeatedly stroking her hair, trying to exorcise the night terrors that have broken her
sleep. In this intimate embrace she seems to be at once comforting Tina and
coaxing a fantasy into unmistakable lifethat this is Jerrys child and that in
holding her, she is holding part of him in her arms.
For Charlotte, then, keeping on course will not prove as simple as sailing as
far away and as fast as she can from Mother. On the contrary, Charlotte, for all
her ambivalent feelings for her mother, inherits and assumes her mothers place
in the Vale mansion at the end of the film. Her voyage of self and erotic discovery
requires of her no violent self-uprooting. The film may take its idea of voyaging
from Whitman, but it takes its directions, sensibly it seems to me, from
Dr. Jaquith, who, using the homely language of parable that even a skeptical
Mother Vale might understand, describes his therapeutic work in the following
terms: People walk along the road. They come to a fork in the road. They are
confused and unsure of which way to take. I just put up a signpost. Not that way.
This way. Charlottes emotional pilgrimage is full of such forks in the road, all

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marked by signposts urging her not to go that way (the conventional route) but
this way (the more open and indeterminate route). Recovering from a nervous
breakdown, she comes to a fork in the road (even though at sea!) when she falls
in love with a man. He is, however, a married man; she decides not to become his
mistress but to go on her way without him. Back in Boston, she renews her
acquaintance with a childhood friend who, as she herself describes him, comes
from a fine Boston family and is a fine man, too, a widower with two half-grown
sons. Now here is a man who her mother can approve, a man who can give
Charlotte what most every woman wantsa man of her own, a home of her
own, and a child of her own. Another fork in the road. She turns that way
becoming engaged and by all appearances ready to go down the well-beaten and
mother-sanctioned path of marriage. But then she meets Jerry again, another
fork in the road. She changes her course and breaks her engagement, accepting,
as she does, the possibility of never marrying at all. This decision leads to a violent quarrel with her mother that ends, this being a melodrama, with her death.
Charlotte, feeling morally guilty (I did it. I did it. I did it. I did it. I never did
anything to make my mother proud) retreats to Cascade and is about to settle
into another full-scale breakdown when she meets Tina. Not that way (nervous
collapse) but this waytaking on a new responsibility and becoming, in a way
she could never have foreseen, a kind of mother herself. The true voyager, then,
must be willing to follow an erratic and uncharted course. The untold want she
seeks must be pursued down forked, winding roads with many blind turnings.
Yet before we follow Charlotte along the path that will lead to the stars, I
think it would be worthwhile imagining a road not taken: that is, to speculate
about what would have happened if Charlotte had fallen in love with her therapist. I return once more to that ivory box she gave the good doctor on their first
meeting. A strict, if unimaginative Freudian would have immediately seen the
sexual offering in that gesture. Yet the film refuses to dramatize or otherwise
declare what Charlottes feelings for her therapist might be; that they might
flower into something beyond gratitude (the basis, we recall, of her love for
Jerry) is an emotional fork in the road that the film approaches but never will
regard as a fork. This erotic fork in the therapeutic road to emotional recovery
is known as transference. When Charlotte gives her ivory box to Dr. Jaquith, we
see a glint in her eyes that suggest a dawning of that sexual interest associated
with transference love. This glint never becomes a starburst, although at the end
of the film Charlotte and Jaquith, seated on the floor of the now bustling Vale
mansion, going over their plans for a new addition to Cascade she is financing
and overseeing, seem as involved with each other as Jerry and Charlotte. Indeed,
in Cavells view, while Charlotte and Jerry may have a child together, she and
Jaquith have a life together (136).

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Clinically, we might regard their collaboration on a new childrens wing as


the successful outcome of Charlottes transference. Yet at least in my experience
of the film, this transference, however successfully terminated at the level of plot,
is never resolved at the level of casting. The emotional chemistry between the
two actors, one a star, the other one of the most charismatic character actors
of the era, is never fully sublimated. Dr. Jaquith, waiting in the wings for his cue,
becomes the shadow other man in Charlottes love story. For isnt one of Charlottes untold wants an unacknowledged and impermissible love of her therapist? Surely she has entertained the fantasy, all patients, Freud assures us,
generally do, and Charlotte, we know, is a woman to whom all sorts of socially
unacceptable fantasies occur. This fantasy (Charlottes or mine?) is made even
more plausible and appealing since Jaquith is played by Claude Raines, an actor
who, whether playing a sympathetic, wise, and unpretentious man (Now, Voyager), a mad man (Invisible Man), an imperious and villainous man (Deception),
a villainous and lovestruck man (Notorious), a mild-mannered and persecuted
man (Mr. Skeffington), or, most memorably, a genially amoral man (Casablanca),
unfailingly and liberally entertains us with his irony (both gentle and scathing),
his irreverence, his general talent for making and enjoying mischief (both harmless and malignant). As played by Raines, Dr. Jaquith displays all the qualities
sense of humor, sense of beauty, and sense of playthat Charlotte feels
distinguishes Jerry (Paul Henreid)6 from his only other (acknowledged) rival,
Elliot Livingston (an appropriately stiff and stony John Loder). In the novel
Dr. Jaquith is pointedly described as virile, a word that takes on an extra
potency and inordinate value in the hot-blooded world of female romance. Virile is not a word any casting director would affix to Henreids character; his
masculinity is of a gentler nature, one associated in the film with a knowledge of
flowers and the names of certain species of butterflies.
The film, of course, never ventures or otherwise finds its way into that little
strip of forbidden territory known as transference love. Instead, it prefers to feel
its way along some unknown, possibly treacherous ground where it believes no
one has gone before. I have claimed that Prouty and the film made from her
novel represent motherhood as an Emersonian idea. Love, I would conclude, is
also represented this way. So let Emerson, that confident visionary, lead the
way into the unknown territory Now, Voyager explores. Here is a passage from
Emersons essay on Love that Dr. Jaquith might also have written down for
6

This trio of actors (only Davis can be called a star) are reunited and reconfigured in the deadly
love triangle of Deception, in which only Henreid stays in character as a courtly man with oldworld charm. David and Raines finally marry in Ms. Skeffington, which gives Raines one of his
most affecting roles as the uxorious husband of Daviss unrelentingly selfish and lethally narcissistic wife.

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Charlotte to commemorate the end of her voyaging: Hence rose the saying, If
I love you, what is that to you? We say so, because we feel that what we love is
not in your will, but above it. It is not you, but your radiance. It is that which
you know not in yourself, and can never know.7 Prouty, as we have seen, called
this self that we know not and can never know the stranger. And it is as strangers, rather than intimates, that Charlotte and Jerry encounter each other in the
last bittersweet moments of the film.
That these moments are not more bitter, and that we probably do not
remember them as containing any bitterness, is remarkable, given that what
Jerry tells her in the final moments of the film comes to her as bitter news
indeed. He has come to her house and beheld the near-miraculous transformation of his daughter; he has seen both the woman and the child he loves at the
center, rather than on the periphery of a warm circle of life (that there is finally
a fire in the fireplace of the Vale mansion and that you can even roast wieners in
it has the status, in this melodrama, of a revolutionary act). All this vibrant life
that Charlotte has created and gathered around her, Jerry threatens to destroy as
completely, if not as heartlessly, as Mother Vale might have done herself. He
announces that he is taking Tina home with him, that No self-respecting man
would allow such sacrifice to go on indefinitely. Jerry has been identified
throughout the film, as he is in the novel, as a figure of chivalry, dedicated to the
care and protection of the people and things he loves. But now that chivalrous
love, like Mother Vales maternal love, is enlisted by the forces of anti-Life, of
respectability, of soul-destroying, hide-bound convention. He even begins to
sound like Mother Vale in piously declaring that No self-respecting man would
allow such sacrifice to go on indefinitely.
It is the indefiniteness of Charlottes self-sacrifice that offends Jerrys pride
in being a chivalrous man. One would have hoped that a man whose name
Durrancesuggests some capacity for moral endurance, would have sympathy
with projects, especially human ones, that are necessarily of indefinite duration.
Certainly Charlotte seems to have expected more sympathy for what she is trying to achieve and rebukes him for suddenly turning that way into the plodding, worn path of respectability: That is the most conventional, pretentious,
pious speech I ever heard in my life, she complains. This complaint is followed
by a more serious criticism. I simply dont know you. Perhaps she doesnt, or
perhaps she is simply pretending not to in order to shame him into joining her
in taking an untried route to a fulfilling life.
Whether she knows him (and I believe she does) is secondary to the question of whether he knows her. Charlotte is beginning to have her doubts. If he
7

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Love, Essays: First and Second Series (New York: Vintage, 1990), 103.

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did, how could he think that she would prefer finding happiness with some
man to her relationship with him and Tina? She is at once incredulous and
outraged that he could have so misunderstood who she is:
Some man wholl make me happy? Oh, so thats it. So thats it. Well, Ive
certainly made a great mistake. Here I have been laboring under the delusion that you and I were so in sympathyso onethat youd know without being asked what would make me happy. And you come up here to
talk about some man. Apparently, you havent the slightest conception of
what torture it is to love a man and to be shut out, barred out, to be
always an outsider, an extra.
Davis says these lines as if she were pleading with Jerry, not accusing him of
destroying the foundations of their love. As I said, it is surprising that there is so
little bitterness in her voice, since there seems to me great bitterness in her
words. She had been morally fortified as well as emotionally sustained by the
very thought that they were united in sympathy so complete that they would
not need to tell their wants, that even untold they would be understood. It was
a mistake, Charlotte now realizes, to have thought so. She now sees that, as her
mother always insisted, she had been laboring under romantic delusions more
proper to a schoolgirl of eighteen than to the mature daughter of one of the finest families in Boston: And I even allowed myself to indulge in the fantasy that
both of us loving her and doing what was best for her together would make her
seem actually like our child after a while. But I see no such fantasy has occurred
to you. Again, Ive been just a big sentimental fool. Its a tendency I have.
Charlottes command of an irony directed both at Jerrys pieties and her own
illusions is quite extraordinary in this final encounter. So is her spiritual composure at this decisive crossroads in their love. I morally admire her ability to say
these bitter words without being overcome by bitterness, to own that the fantasy
she thought was mutual belongs to her alone. I admire even more her willingness
to be judged a big sentimental fool and her refusal to be worldly wise. For there
are certain kinds of foolishness that dignify rather than disgrace the spirit.
Still, we may feel that by this point in the film Charlottes foolishness might
indeed lead her into dangerous places. She has been so venturesome in trying to
be mother to Tina, courtly lover to Jerry, and both mother and father to
herself that even the supportive Dr. Jaquith feels the need to put up one more
signpost. The signpost does not tell her to take this way rather than that way.
The signpost tells her that she is approaching an unknown zone and must proceed more cautiously. Charlotte interprets this signpost effectively to mean that
she is on probation.

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Now, Voyager ends, then, but it does not conclude in any conventional sense
of that word. In conventional love stories and romantic melodramas, lovers
either unite (happily) or separate (sadly, but wisely) at storys end. Now, Voyager
leaves us, as it does Charlotte and Jerry, on probation. She seems to know what
that means and requires of her, and so, importantly, does Jerry. His suggestion
that they light a cigarette on it shows that he not only understands but accepts
the terms of that probation. Despite his earlier backsliding into an outworn,
pious, and unimaginative chivalry, we should not dismiss Jerry as Charlottes
equal and supportive partner in this pact. We should remember instead that he
had once extended Charlotte the most important invitation of her life: he had
asked her to join him for a days adventure as a tourist and pleaded with her to
give him a particular kind of response: Dont say no. Say lets see. Mother Vale,
for whom saying no was as natural as breathing, did everything she could to
stifle her daughters inclination, her sentimental tendency, as Charlotte might
say, to say yes. Sensing this, anticipating a negative response, Jerry could have
pressured Charlotte to say yes. Instead, he urges her to respond in provisional,
not final terms. Waiting to see what life might bring ones way is somewhat different than living on probation, a sign of how complicated the future will be for
Charlotte and Jerry. That is why, I take it, Charlotte thinks they should not
bother asking for the moon, an erotic symbol reserved for less complicated situations. But what, finally, is it that they have in the stars to help see them through?
Perhaps it is the sense of each other as strangers, the sense of each other as the
source of a radiance that eludes any common eye, the sense of each other that
may never be told because it can never be finalized in ordinary language. If, as
Emerson claimed, love so exalts our perception that the stars are letters, then it
is only with and among the stars that Charlottes vision of love may be written
written and, finally, told. One of the original meanings of the verb to tell is
count, and one of the original uses of that meaning appears in Genesis 15:5: tell
the stars, if thou be able to number them. Will Charlotte find and be able to tell
her love, that untold want in life and land neer granted, among the radiance of
countless stars? As Jerry advises, she should wait and see.

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4
Communicating Love
ian mcewan, saturday , and personal
affection in the information age
Frances Ferguson

mmediately after September 11, 2001, Ian McEwan wrote two brief essays for
The Guardian in which he talked about the shock of hearing reports that terrorists had commandeered airplanes and steered them into the towers of the
World Trade Center. In the first he described what already seemed a familiar
sense of incredulity, the sense that the actual devastation that was being reported
to us surpassed anything we had encountered in the glossiest movies with giant
budgets and special effects.1 In the second he wrote that a combination of
mobile phones, answering machines, and television had provided us with last
words [from ordinary people] placed in the public domain. Once, he observed,
such final words had been the prerogative of the mighty and venerableHenry
James, Nelson, Goetherecorded, and perhaps sometimes edited for posterity,
by relatives at the bedside. Now a new technology has shown us an ancient,
human universal: There was really only one thing ... to say, those three words
that all the terrible art, the worst pop songs and movies, the most seductive lies,
can somehow never cheapen. I love you.2
What McEwan means when he speaks of the impulse to love and to say I
love you as an ancient, human universal is not particularly mysterious. Yet his
remarks also strikingly foreground the historical aspect of love and our consciousness of changes in the way in which love is practiced and sustained. The
technology through which we speak the words of love is dramatically different

Ian McEwan, Beyond Belief, The Guardian, September 12, 2001. http:///www.ianmcewan.com.

Ian McEwan, Only Love and Then Oblivion, The Guardian, September 15, 2001. http://www
.ianmcewan.com. McEwans wording strikingly echoes his description of the encounter between
the lovers Robbie and Cecilia in Atonement, published in 2001.
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from that even of the stationary telephone of the recent past. (Now, we can
readily speak of a private relationship outside of our homes and offices and
within public hearing.)3 Mobile telephones make it easy for us to reach and be
reached. (Now, we can have helicopter parents, whose children can never leave
home even though they may be hundreds or thousands of miles away. Now, we
can be in touch the moment we realize that we are about to die.) Answering
machines preserve even the domestic messages that once seemed to struggle for
recognition. (Now, we have the ability to retain the unmemorable request that
someone stop at the grocery for a bottle of orange juice and to archive suddenly
significant calls to emergency services and people we love.) And twenty-fourhour news channels pick up remarks that would once have been entirely fugitive, set them in a larger context, and repeat them endlesslyuntil they replace
them.
We express annoyance at not being able to get away from these devices and
describe ourselves as being stalked by technology, but McEwan does not rehearse
the usual litany of complaints we all hear and make about the decay of manners,
the insensitivity that individual mobile phone users display in talking about
their personal lives in public, and the difficulty of escaping television news in
airports and elevators. Rather, he speaks as someone properly shocked and horrified by the actual event of the collapse of the towers and the deaths of nearly
three thousand persons, and he also speaks as someone abruptly conscious of
the weight of technological change.
Only television could bring this. Our set in the corner is mostly
unwatched. Now my son and I surfedhungrily, ghoulishlybetween
CNN, CBC and BBC24. As soon as an expert was called in to pronounce on the politics or the symbolism, we moved on. We only wanted
to know what was happening. Numbed, and in a state of sickened wonderment, we wanted only information, new developmentsnot opinion, analysis, or noble sentiments; not yet. We had to know: was it two
planes or three that hit the Twin Towers? Was the White House now
under attack? Where was the plane the airforce was supposed to be tracking? An information junkie inside me was silently instructing the cameras: go round that tower and show me that aeroplane again; get down in
the street; take me on to the roof.4

David Paletzs discussion of the film The Intimacy of Strangers in his essay in this volume takes up
the life cycle of a romance narrated through overheard cell-phone conversations.

Ian McEwan, Beyond Belief.

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As McEwan goes on to talk about his consciousness that those who had
unleashed the destruction might be watching with us now, equally hungry to
know the worst, he reports that the thought covered me in shame. On the one
hand, he is expressing the fervent hope that novelists have frequently expressed
and that photographers (and particularly television photographers of the Vietnam era) have articulatedthat seeing what Susan Sontag calls the pain of others will bring home to us the need to alleviate it.5 On the other hand, he also
gives voice to a rather different and stranger emotionthat he feels ashamed to
be part of a viewing audience that is so radically undifferentiated as to include
both mourners and celebrants of the disaster. The simplicity and conviction of
his reactions war with this consciousness that a report with such personally devastating news for some is being broadcast to an audience that includes both the
sympathetic and the unsympathetic, lovers and friends who will respect the
emotional attachments that have been ruined and enemies who will not. On the
one hand, he accepts and honors other peoples professions of love with unusual
seriousness; on the other, he thinks of the contemptuous satisfaction that must
be greeting those recorded farewells somewhere in the uncertain geographies of
modern life. He knows that for every partner hearing last words from a wife or
husband and forgetting the quarrel they had had the day or the week before
there will be viewers who will exult at hearing recordings that preserve the panicky consciousness of imminent death. For them, he knows, the disembodied
voice of a woman marked for death seems merely a necessary and insignificant
part of a desirable and just outcome. Having such a radically diverse audience is
what it means for us all to participate in a radically communicated world, one in
which we have many more impersonal relationships than persons did only a
century ago and one in which our personal relationships cannot escape the
judgments of persons thousands of miles away. In this communicated world,
McEwan locates shame less in being seen with the wrong people than in seeing
along with people whom he takes not to understand the claims of love. He
notices how expressions of love that had once been sheltered by privacy are
exposed to withering contempt, unsympathetic disapproval that far exceeds any
reservations that acquaintances might have about whether the members of a
couple are right for one another.
Much of the commentary on Saturday focuses on the technological integration of the modern worldour ability to learn about distant events and to
5

Susan Sontag takes up this theme extensively in On Photography (New York: Farrar Straus and
Giroux, 2001) and Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002).
Luhmann has written eloquently about various different eras in recent wartime broadcasting
in The Reality of the Mass Media, tr. Kathleen Cross (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press,
2000).

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communicate, both instantaneously and in recordings, with distant persons.


And a substantial portion of that commentary sees McEwan as mounting a fictional defense of national and family values from a consciousness of the threat
that terroristsinternationally or locallypresent to them. The novel is, for
them, a novel that finds its only defense in self-defense; they see it as a manifesto
expressing the consciousness of what we should least be willing to lose, our
affectionate ties to our spouses and children, and suggesting the lengths to
which we might go to protect these.6 In the view of these commentators, love
and terror combine to sort the world into us and them.
Yet while such critics categorize McEwans novel as a contemporary exercise
in neoliberal polemic or a belated repetition of Victorian liberalism, Saturday
does not exactly conform to the us-them picture that we might develop if we
were thinking of the novel as a political allegory in which alien danger is fought
and conquered. Rather, McEwan is here particularly alert to the ways in which
persons pick one another out in the radically communicated and diffuse world
of the early part of the twenty-first century. The recordings that he describes in
his account of September 11 represent one formthe love that enables persons
to recognize one another and to identify their own particular I and you,
even as there are thousands of Is and yous speaking simultaneously into
their cell phones. Many people utter the same words, but the pronoun references are completely disambiguated by the work that their emotional ties provide. To McEwans mind, this aspect of the grammar of love has implications
that extend past the usual workings of language, and it begins to suggest a contrast between the behaviors that he will associate with love and those that he
will associate with eventfulness and justice.
In Saturday the opening scene isolates the novels protagonist, Henry Perowne, reporting on what he sees or thinks he sees in the darkness of three forty
in the morning. Perowne, a forty-eight-year-old neurosurgeon, wakes before
dawn for no particularly good reason, thinks he sees a comet, and then thinks he
sees a burning planeand a recurrence of the eventfulness writ large that the
September 11, 2001 hijackings represent. On the one hand, there is the possibility of an event that would count as such for lots of peoplesomething newsworthy that he would have been among the very first to see. He thinks of himself
as a privileged spectator: he was there to observe. (And it will later become
something of a running gag in the novel that the story of this planeand a story
that Henry thinks of as his storyprogressively drops in the news rankings as
6

See John Banville, A Day in the Life, New York Review of Books, May 26, 2005. http://www
.nybooks.com. See also Elaine Hadley, On a Darkling Plain: Victorian Literalism and the Fantasy
of Agency, Victorian Studies (Autumn 2005), 98.

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the first, imagination-enhanced accounts of the incident are repeatedly scaled


back. When it becomes clear that there was no hijacking, that there was no
Koran in the cockpit, the story becomes simply the story of a Russian cargo
plane with an engine firea simple mechanical failure.) On the other, there is
the story that counts as a story less because of its containing news of a notable
happenings than because Perowne thinks of telling it to his wife, Rosalind. If
the fire in the night sky is that of a comet, Perowne wants to tell his wife. If the
fire is the result of an explosion caused by terrorists, Perowne wants to tell his
wife. The two different motivations for storytelling converge, with the general
story about a major event becoming absorbed into Perownes familiar relations with his son Theo, who wryly assures him after hearing the less-thancatastrophic story on the four thirty news, So, not an attack on our whole
way of life then (36).
The news has its standards and keeps putting pressure on each new story to
be generally interesting enough to hold its placeagainst the competition from
things like the anti-war protests only hours away and Hans Blix, yesterdays
man (36). The stories that are told simply as part of the exchange among persons who love each other are more modest things: the routines of a day will do.
The novel tracks its chief protagonists movements and thoughts with the sort
of closeness only available in the mode of reported speech and thought, and part
of its interest is that we learn things that are scarcely grippingexcept to someone who might take a special interest in Henry Perowne. We observe Perowne
observe himself thinking and doing and also predicting what he will think and
do. Moving with this husband, father, neurosurgeon, party to a minor traffic
accident, squash player, and son, we see the banality of his watched but unretouched mental processes, in which the thoughts about work on his day off
jockey for position with his thoughts about having once been younger and his
anticipating being older, his thoughts about the state of the world, and his
thoughts about his errands and appointments. A paraphrase of a representative
portion of Henry Perownes streaming consciousness would not distort much if
it rendered him thinking, for example, And then I went to the market to buy
fish. Do you know what it costs these days? We dont have to worry about
money now, but I can remember when my first car cost less than the fish Im
buying now.7 The reader is effectively treated as an intimate who has asked how
Henrys day is going and who, in the manner of an attentive spouse, is willing to
stay to hear a full report.
Indeed, part of the interest of Saturday lies in McEwans having so far displaced love from a developing story to a justification for the ordinariness of the
7

My paraphrase is of a passage that appears on p. 128.

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ordinary that one almost expects a story of midlife crisis, the sacking of one
world in the name of a newfound passion. (Perowne himself wonders Whats
wrong with him that he has no curiosity about other women, that when he
thinks of sex, he thinks of [his wife Rosalind], and that he has not yet become
that modern fool of a certain age, who finds himself passing by shop windows
to stare in at the saxophones or the motorbikes, or driven to find himself a mistress of his daughters age [4041, 2829].) His attachment to his children is
similarly undramatic. Henry the neurosurgeon is unquestionably committed to
his children even as the concerns that shape his life and theirs differ dramatically. Highly educated professional that he is, he can scarcely imagine his
eighteen-year-old son Theos life, his formal education already long behind
him and his blues guitarists satisfaction in twelve bars of three obvious chords
that represent a life project for him (27). And Perowne and his daughter Daisy,
Cambridge-educated poet that she is, are joined by their agreement to disagree.
Although Henry dutifully addresses himself to items on the reading list that
Daisy has drawn up in an effort to remedy his woeful ignorance of literature and
history, their love for one another manifests itself as genuine affection in the
absence of common interests. Their attachment to one another does not resolve
itself into agreement about politics (where Perowne demonstrates no settled
convictions but rather a commitment to disagree with whoever has just articulated a view) or about sources of satisfaction. Henry, rational scientific man that
he is, thinks about his son Theos library of barely touched books on UFOs
and his hunch that somehow everything is connected, interestingly connected,
and that certain authorities, notably the U.S. government, with privileged access
to extra-terrestrial intelligence, is excluding the rest of the world from such
wondrous knowledge as contemporary science, dull and strait-laced, cannot
begin to comprehend (30). Convinced though he is that Theos curiosity, mild
as it is, has been hijacked by peddlers of fakery (30), Henry applies the lax standards of love that deprive him of any will to fight.8
The Perownes affection for one another is notable first for its ordinariness
with Henry and Rosalind sometimes lying in bed talking about their children
and with Henry having spent much of Theos childhood showing up for his performances in school plays and soccer games and spending part of Theos adulthood showing up for his performances at clubs. And this affection is remarkable
for the ways in which it does not look like affection that any matching service
would suggest: a dating service would connect people who share common interests; Henrys affection prompts him to try to acquire interests he does not
8

See Susan Wolf s essay in this volume for a development of Iris Murdochs views in defense of
the partiality of love.

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already have. Henry comes to haveor hopes to come to havean interest in


the blues and in literature as a result of his commitment to his children and his
wife (who, though a lawyer, plans to work on a novel).
In anatomizing the distributions of modern love, McEwan is both writing a
realist novel and incorporating a sense of the work that love has historically
done for the realist novel since its advent in the eighteenth century. As writers
from Adam Smith to Niklas Luhmann have observed, the realist novel as a
genre has largely seen itself as a series of studies in the love story. Courtship
plots, marriages, and divorces are not merely frequently rehearsed trajectories;
they are deep-dyed into the fabric of the genre. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith observes that literature knows how to invert our judgment of the
relative weight of misfortune, and to make a more real calamity, such as the
loss of a leg, look like a catastrophe unworthy of literary treatmenteven as it
takes up the frivolous misfortune of losing a mistress and gives it substance.9 In
talking about eighteenth-century literature in that way, Smith was noticing how
personal relationships could be marked as valuable precisely because of their
implausibility to an impartial spectator. Indeed, Smith particularly singles out
modern tragedies and romances for their ability to depict love as graceful and
agreeable in spite of its appearing ridiculous or odious to any but the lovers
themselves.
Luhmann, in Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy, further develops
Smiths line of thinking when he treats romantic love (which he particularly connects with the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century) as the central example
of what he calls the paradox of incommunicability. Under the dispensation of
love, that is, the statement You wouldnt understand comes to be a triumphant
assertion rather than a mere statement of failed communication.10 And, indeed,
from Luhmanns perspective, the incommunicability of love produces new configurations of emotions. The ancients, to follow out his thinking, had no love
stories of the kind that we would recognize. They felt that the general incomprehensibility of a particular lovers object choice was shameful, a cause of astonishment; and their stories of passionate attachment revolved around moments of
love explainedthe revenge of a Medea or the revelation of identity of an Oedipus. The modern novel (particularly if we think of it as the realist novel of the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), by contrast, treats the difference between
the attitudes of lovers and their observers as important evidence of the value of
9
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie (Indianapolis,
IN: Liberty Classics, 1976), p. 29.
10
Niklas Luhmann, Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy, translated by Jeremy Gaines and
Doris L. Jones (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).

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love. The paradox of incommunicabilitythe lovers inability to explain their


love to observers and the documented inability of nonlovers to understand
becomes, in the novel, a triumph rather than a weakness. It testifies to the
strength and insightfulness of the love that it is treated as incommunicable
knowledge, and the love story features the meum (what is mine) as distinct from
the tuum (what is thine) much more insistently than does private property.
It responds to claims about justice and justification by talking about the irrelevance of demands for them. It continually, as Luhmann suggests, treats its lack
of explanatory and justificatory power as a strength rather than a weakness,
and affirms the rankest clich You wouldnt understand as if it represented an
adequate retort to any observers doubts.
McEwan has been occupied with love relationshipsand the connection
between catastrophes and lovein various novels (The Cement Garden, Enduring Love, The Child in Time, and The Innocent being notable examples),11 but
nowhere has he pressed more on the question of how love relationships create
understandings and misunderstandings and pushed them into greater tension
with justice than in Atonement. He has characterized that novel, which he published just prior to Saturday, as his Jane Austen novel; and Jane Austens distributions of love in a novel like Emma may help us to grasp both how McEwan is
developing his treatment of love in Saturday and, perhaps more important, how
he is not. In Atonement McEwan plays by largely Austenian rules and rehearses
gambits much like those she had used. The precocious adolescent playwright
Briony Tallis gives herself as much credit for understanding human love relationships as Emma does in Austens eponymous novel. Yet the difference between
Brionys understanding and that of those she observes is everywhere marked. In
what Frank Churchill would call a blunder in Emma, Robbie has put a passionate love letter to Brionys sister Cecilia in the wrong envelope, so that Briony
has received the message in error. Briony, precocious but prepubescent, is thinking of Robbie Turner, the caretakers son who has grown up with the Tallis children and been Cecilias contemporary at Cambridge, as a sex-crazed maniac.
Meanwhile, McEwan describes Robbie and Cecilias making love in the library in
terms that faithfully echo Austenian gestures. The two suddenly see one another
with wonder and speak and repeat the three simple words that no amount of
bad art or bad faith can ever quite cheapen (129), as McEwan had almost said in
his Guardian essay of September 12, 2001. (It is a near echo of Emma Woodhouse
Knightleys famously mentioned but unreported words at her wedding.)
In Atonement, Briony, an endless source of misinformation about the behavior she sees around her, continually mistakes love and sex for manic evil. Under
11

See Rae Langtons essay on The Innocent in this volume.

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the impression that she knows what she is seeing, she discerns in the considerable darkness that an unfamiliar bush on a grassy bank is in fact two bodies
entangled, later hears her cousin Lola Quincey say that she was raped, and proceeds to testify that she had herself seen Lola struggling against a rapist whom
she identifies as Robbie Turner, her sister Cecilias old familiar and new love.
Briony thus, through her adamant assertion that she knows what she has seen,
brings about Robbies entirely unjust imprisonment. Yet while Austen would
have used marriages to effect recognition and sorting of the characters to make
it seem as if love could become publicly communicable in its representation in
marriage, McEwan underscores the incommunicability of love in two different
ways in Atonement. First, it almost permanently seals the record of the incident
about which Briony testified. Alhough Paul Marshall had actually been the one
having sex with Lola Quincey when Briony had seen that unfamiliar bush
morph into two human figures, the subsequent marriage between Paul Marshall
and Lola Quincey becomes the very emblem of secrecy. The two never disclose
the fact of that early sexual encounter, and they spend much of their adult lives
bringing suits for libel against people who have anything to say about them.
Second, McEwan positions his novelist Briony as persistently mistaken about
love. Even when she develops her detailed imagination of a restorative ending in
which Cecilia and Robbie are reunited, McEwan explicitly labels that narrative
as just the sort of thing that a novelist would produce.
The effect of identifying the story of Cecilia and Robbies eventual reunion
as Brionys is to call attention to the problem of the communicability of love,
and to reveal Briony as someone who continually imagines herself a kind of
participant when she ought to recognize herself as an observer, someone who
should never presume to understand. (By force of contrast, we can see how generous Austen is to her character Emma. In according Emma her own romance,
Austen allows Emma to become the most perfect representative of the incommunicability of love. This is, in the first place, a matter of her repairing the damage that Emma has done; cleaning up after her character, Austen awards Harriet
Martin the husband whom Emmas intrusive efforts very nearly denied her.
Moreover, and more important, however, she removes Emma from a position
that is not to be tolerated in the games of lovethat of the observer who acts
like a participant. Lovers knowledge is thus both different from the knowledge
of others and insistent upon that difference, so that Briony, even when she is
creating imaginatively enhanced images of the relationship between the people
she injured is much like a member of an audience rushing the stage to intervene
in the action.)
By comparison with McEwans canny adaptation of Emma, that representation of endogamy in its most charmed and charming form, Saturday depicts

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family relationships that are decidedly less centripetal. Austens Emma, on discovering that Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill are secretly engaged (and have
been for months), speaks of them as lovers who resemble the terrorists of modern life. Frank and Jane have not declared their intentions but come among us,
looking like participants in games of courtship rather than like persons already
spoken forjust as political terrorists operate by looking remarkably similar to
the persons they target, looking merely, for instance, like some air travelers
among others. The novelistic world that once (in Austens handling) was called
upon to sort out alliances through the marriage plot has now, however, in Saturday expanded its alliance formations into all aspects of daily life, in which
planes, cars, and routine shopping trips continually depict a character like
Henry Perowne trying to understand the people he observes and encounters
and, occasionally, to question whether they are friends or foes when they come
among us.
One answerand the simplestto the question of why persons who are
not already completely known to us come among us is that our world is much
larger than that of Austens three or four families in a country village. They
come among us largely because we send ourselves out into the world daily to
encounter the friends and strangers with whom we interact in provisioning ourselves and doing our jobs. Thus interinvolved, a public world and private life are
treated as anything but separate spheres. Marriage and family are not distinct
from the larger world of errands and general commerce. Moreover, Henrys
career as a neurosurgeon and his wifes career as a lawyer make them both
emblems of people who are always on call, liable to be summoned to the world
outside the private sphere of the family. (Indeed, while Austens love stories tend
to focus on love stories as if they were as much the business of life as Ozzie Nelsons visits to the soda shop on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Henry and
Rosalind have the careers they do less for McEwan to flaunt their privilege than
to put them in the position of having expertise and insight that will connect
them with a world not made tolerant by love.) Briony Tallis has, every bit as
much as Emma Woodhouse, indulged her own imagination in crossing over
into loves of which she is not part. Henry Perowne, however, is not merely recognized by his family; he also lives poised to hear himself paged, in the modern
secular version of being summoned by some supernatural force.
Emma Woodhouse and Briony Tallis claimed a misplaced expertise in other
peoples emotions (and their own), but Henry is given the insight of an expert
with some actual knowledge, the ability to look at various people and read their
bodies more reliably than any fortune-teller for signs of their prospects in life
and love. He notices a teenage couple walking across the pedestrian square and
goes from regarding them with almost parental interest (That girl should be

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wearing a coat [63]) to realizing that the girl is new to heroin and scratching
futilely at the pruritus she has developed in reaction to the drug (What she
needs is an opioid antagonist like naloxone to reverse the effect [63]). Hovering on the verge of a decision to go after her in his running clothes to give her a
prescription, he resists his Emma-and-Briony moment, realizing that she needs
more than he can offer: But she also needs a boyfriend who isnt a pusher. And
a new life (63).
Henry Perowne, urban observer, does not cross the proscenium into the
young heroin addicts life, but we learn that he had done so before. Years earlier
he had met Rosalind when a calamitycertainly an attack on her whole way of
life in the form of a tumor on her pituitary gland had brought her to his hospital, prompting him to fall in love with a life as a neurosurgeon and also, of
course, [to fall] in love (46). He had stationed himself by this young patients
bedside so that he would be the first person she saw on regaining consciousness,
had made himself useful by removing her stitches, and had stayed on after shifts
to talk to her (46). If it was behavior of mildly questionable propriety for a
young surgeon, it had long since been justified by the durability of their marriage. His ability to love her had been very much bound up in his having recognized what her symptoms meant when she presented herself at his hospital
experiencing the sudden deterioration of her vision. He could appreciate her
bravery because he could understand the ways in which her body was talking,
and her very symptoms and his scrutiny of them represented an equivalent of
the private understandings of love even before he loved her.
Henry Perownes medical knowledge repeatedly appears in the novel as a
path to understanding what Sontag called the pain of others without treating
photography, as she does, as a technology that inspires empathy. It is only his
diagnostic understanding that enables him to have a conversation with his
mother, Lily, despite her advanced dementia. And this understanding enables
him not to react with the irritation he might feel if he could not translate her
behavior. Lily Perownes Alzheimers appears as a direct inversion of the movement through which persons like Emma Woodhouse and Geoge Knightley,
Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner go from seeing one another to seeing one
another with the emphatic and exclusive knowledge of lovers. For Lily Perowne
does not merely fail to recognize her son in the special way involved in being
able to see him as someone with whom she could exchange the words I love
you; she cannot now recognize him at all. She cannot distinguish him as the
same person whom she had watched over throughout his childhood, and calls
him Aunty rather than Henry. He still operates with the pained consciousness
of what her words might mean if she were a part of the world of persons with
powers of connection and recognition (so that he virtually flinches when she

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declares that she does not have a room and is waiting to go home, even as he
knows that she is referring to her childhood home). Yet, with his knowledge of
the course of the disease, he can speak to her in a special language made available
by long-standing love and a diagnosticians translations, an intensified version of
the toleration that his son Theo showed him in wryly suggesting that Henry had
been too quick to see disaster in the night sky, and of the toleration that he
shows Daisy and Theo in all their difference from him.
Lily Perowne also provides the occasion for Henry Perowneand Ian
McEwan as wellto comment on the limitations of the tasks that the realist
novel once assigned to love. Perowne, thinking back on his childhood impressions of his mother, sees how far the good-exploratory heart-to-heart and
gossip that his mother had exchanged with her neighbors in his youth was
aligned with the moral picture of the nineteenth-century novel with which
Daisys reading list had acquainted him:
Then there were running accounts of infidelities, or rumours of them,
and ungrateful children, and the unreasonableness of the old, and what
someones parent left in a will, and how a certain nice girl couldnt find a
decent husband. Good people had to be sifted from the bad, and it wasnt
always easy to tell at first which was which. (159)
Without having been a writer herself, she had shared the interests of Jane
Austen and George Eliot in peoples behavior, and, Perowne thinks, there was
nothing small-minded about them. What Daisys novelsrealist novels
do not take into account, however, is that both moments of precise reckoning
and pressingly unresolved misinterpretation are rare in real life. What the clinician sees that the nineteenth-century novelist did not is how the questions
simply fade. People dont remember clearly (159).
Perowne is, with his mother, alert to her alarm at names she does not recognize (so that he is careful not to bring her the greetings that his son Theo had
asked him to convey), and he talks to her about his work in the knowledge that
he must have a steady stream of material that will allow him to maintain the
sound, the emotional tone of a friendly conversation (166). Yet shortly before
he drove to visit her, he had himself remained in the world of the nineteenthcentury novelists, in which one established emotional ties with persons in the
understanding that they were essentially rational actors. In addition to everything else we observe in accompanying Perowne on the day that McEwan documents in the novel, we observe one eventa minor traffic accidentthat could
have developed simply into a drain on his time but that increasingly comes to
have the look and feel of catastrophe. For Perowne has a minor accident with

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catastrophic sequelae that extend well past any simple but time-consuming
encounter with an insurance bureaucracy. As his white Mercedes and the red
BMW of a young tough named Baxter brush against one another, each man is
eager to avoid being put in the wrong by the other. Henry immediately thinks
that something original and pristine has been stolen from his car (82), but he
also more extensively coaches himself for the appropriate emotions and reminds
himself to act as though he is in the right: Its important, Perowne thinks as he
goes round to the front of his car, to remember that hes in the right, and that
hes angry (83). Baxter wants payment in cash to have his car repaired. Perowne,
conscious that Baxter is about to encourage his two associates to administer a
severe beating to him, uses the only weapon available to him: namely, the clinical expertise that enables him to diagnose Baxter as manifesting the symptoms
of Huntingtons disease, the inability to initiate or make saccades, those flickering changes of eye position from one fixation to another, quick, jerky movements, and emotional lability (9192). Baxter is temporarily disarmed by
Henrys promise to help him find an effective treatment programa promise
both disingenuous and deceptive because Henry himself knows, as someone
fairly current on the medical literature, that there are not, as yet, any such effective programs. Henry could not deliver the proffered help even if he wanted to.
Baxter comes to suspect Perownes offer, but by the time he does, his associates
have already walked away, and he is in no position to inflict further bodily harm
on Perowne.
What McEwan records here is a peculiarly modern emotionthe motorists rectitude, spot-welding a passion for justice to the thrill of hatred (82), its
basic ingredientscars and persons otherwise unacquainted with one another
who see themselves occupied with plans they are trying to fulfill. Henry, having
taken advantage of a policemans having rather absent-mindedly waved him into
a street that has been closed to through traffic because of the anti-war protests
taking place on February 15, 2003, surprises a driver pulling out of a parking
space he had taken hours earlier. Neither man has expected to have to take
another car into account, and so neither has been as alert as he might have been.
(To Baxters I didnt need to be looking, did I? The Tottenham Court Roads
closed. You arent supposed to be there, Perowne replies, The rules of the road
arent suspended [89].) Motorists rectitude, though we see it most distinctly
from Henrys perspective, operates in two breasts simultaneously. It distances
them from one another, as each sees himself unjustly injured: his car damaged
and his day ruined. The accident involves two cars [pouring] into a gap wide
enough for one (81); the emotional reaction mirrors that narrowing in its registration of a contested claim on a justice that suddenly has more claimants than
it can satisfy. Moreover, motorists rectitude, like the expression of love under

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threat of imminent death, has the positive power to reanimate clichs: various
worn phrases tumble through his thoughts, revitalized, cleansed of clich: just
pulled out, no signal, stupid bastard, didnt even look, whats his mirror for,
fucking bastard (82).
Perowne, having suddenly acquired not a lover but an enemy, faces down
the only person in the world he hates (82) and gambles on his diagnostic skills
to try to gain an advantage in his confrontation with Baxter and his two associates. Even as Perowne is making annoyingly superior remarks, refusing a proferred cigarette, and demanding to exchange insurance details, he shows himself
so much the clinician that he almost fails to notice the fist approaching his sternum. His professional understanding and its jargon prevent him from recognizing the language of the street:
there remains in a portion of his thoughts a droning, pedestrian diagnostician who notes poor self-control, emotional lability, explosive temper,
suggestive of reduced levels of GABA among the appropriate binding
sites on striatal neurons. There is much in human affairs that can be
accounted for at the level of the complex molecule. Who could ever
reckon up the damage done to love and friendship and all hopes of happiness by a surfeit or depletion of this or that neurotransmitter? (92)
Immediately after the confrontation over the traffic accident, Perowne
replays the street theater on the squash court with his friend and colleague Jay
Strauss. The object of the gameas with the encounter on the streetis to
name a winner, to make one recognize the superiority of the other, and Perowne
and Strausss game, for all its routine qualities, involves recreational rectitude
every bit as intense as the motorists rectitude that had emerged shortly before.
The tendency of the game is to make winning a scarce commodity. Its two-menenter-one-man-leaves format draws Perowne and Strauss so thoroughly into it
that, when the two collide in what Perowne takes to be the last point of the
game and in what Strauss calls as interference, these two friends exchange first
names tipped with poison (116) and Perowne sees Strauss as an opponent
wanting to steal or deny something essential in his own nature (117)even as
he mentally rehearses his list of errands for the day. Perowne and Strauss have
recognized one anothers emotions during the game and have seen them as the
desire for personal vindication, justice from the first-person point of view. They
feel the same thing, but the game will offer its confirmation to one and not the
other.
What links the episodes of the traffic accident and the squash match is the
way in which they involve their principals in something like the thought that

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only you, my opponent stand between me and satisfaction. The men effectively
utter the pronouns I and you while thinking of themselves as wishing to
eliminate that you that seems to compromise the I. If only you can make the
I feel the force of destiny in love songs, these episodes of direct confrontation
exaggerate every injury in the process of awarding blame. The Henry Perowne
who had been described pages earlier as feeling no particular thrill about his car
(7475) is transformed by opposition into someone who can feel that something original and pristine had been stolen from his car (82), the Baxter who
could authoritatively demand compensation for the loss of his side mirror is convinced that Perowne has injured his standing with his friends, and the Jay Strauss
who contests that Perowne actually won what would have been the final point of
the game escalates the stakes by accusing Perowne of calling him a liar (118).
Critics such as John Banville and Elaine Hadley have felt that Perowne displays professional privilegethat he throws around the weight that comes with
his being a neurosurgeon. Yet I take McEwan to be doing something rather different and more ambitious in his handling of Perownes professionalism. For
while he enjoys the superiority that any expert has over the nonexpert, in that he
can see and say things that most persons cannot, his expertise also equips him
with a language that, for at least a time, overcomes intensely felt animosity. Baxter, hearing Perownes description of his medical situation, temporarily treats
him as if he were Orpheus, with sounds that soothe. And Henry Perowne and
Jay Strauss move from intensely felt antagonism to polite reciprocal compliments to a discussion of a patient with an astrocytoma. To Perownes I think we
can help her, Strauss, understanding him, replies with a grimace (119).
In a moment like this one, I take McEwan to be depicting a kind of understanding that we have typically associated with love in the novel (and particularly in novels like Austens). In Emma the lovers Jane Fairfax and Frank
Churchill can thus carry on a kind of abbreviated conversation over a game of
alphabets that they play with Emma Woodhouse; every wordDixon and
blunderis visible to all three, but two understand the words and their meanings for their deployers, and the third (Emma) only thinks she understands. In
Saturday, Jay Strauss, in hearing words that would sound encouraging to the
uninitiated, marks himself as having a special relationship with Henry by showing himself to participate in Henrys understanding. He recognizes the person
talking to him and recognizes himself in that recognition. And while the two
are both conversant with the argot of specialized medicineits Glasgow coma
scores, craniotomies for meningiomas, and its vestibular schwannomastheir
reciprocal understanding is most strongly marked and most eloquent when they
speak and grasp the words of public language in ways that distinguish them
from virtually everyone else in the world.

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In the climactic scene in the novel, this special communicative function


persists. Baxter, feeling that his confrontation with Perowne has not reached a
satisfactory conclusion, invades the Perownes home with his friend Nigel,
holding a knife at Henrys wife Rosalinds throat and planning to rape his
daughter Daisy before a family assembly that consists of the young womans
grandfather, parents, and brother. The poem Dover Beach makes its star
turn when the young woman, naked in front of family and strangers alike,
heeds her grandfathers prompting and recites Arnolds poem as if she were
reading one of her own. (We know from Henrys earlier stream-of-consciousness account of Daisy that her own poetry, highly erotic and explicit, would be
inappropriate for the occasion and that she has a store of poems by heart.)
Baxter, overcome with the beauty of Arnolds poem, marvels at it and the skills
of the young woman he supposes to have written it. He abandons his plan to
rape her and goes with Henry to his study to discuss treatment regimens. In
the event, that susceptibility to literature serves Baxter ill. It has created the
conditions in which Henrys teenage son Theo can mount the stairs and help
Henry throw Baxter down them, with substantial collateral damage to Baxters
skull.
The novel might have ended in this retributive mode, but it continues. In the
emergency room Jay Strauss, seeing the full extent of Baxters head injuries and
unaware that Perowne has caused them, telephones him and asks him to come
in to perform the surgery. Perownes presence is not essential; someone else
could operate. Moreover, he does not usually operate on people he knows. Thus,
when he decides to report to the hospital, his wife, Rosalind, plausibly worries
that he is planning to exact revenge, that he has decided to provide the kind of
justice that the nineteenth-century novel usually awarded to obviously bad
behavior. Yet he operates on someone who had earlier been the only person in
the world he hated, and he does so because he has recognized Baxter as only a
neurosurgeon might do. He must, he thinks, persuade Rosalind, then the rest
of the family, then the police, not to pursue charges. The matter must be
dropped. Let them go after the other man (287). What Perowne wants for Baxter is the same lax standard that love supplies to members of a family. And what
he feels for Baxter is not exactly affection but a kind of professional equivalent,
a recognition that the emotions of modern fiction must address not just the
mutual understandings of love that novels like Austens foreground but also the
desperate asymmetries of mental and affectionate abilitythe mood swings of
a deteriorating consciousness like Baxters and the volatile emotions of a disconnected one like Lily Perownes. For that task a profession and a professional
language are not cold and objective instruments; they may, instead, be the most
feeling.

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Acknowledgments
I am grateful to Representations and the University of California Press for granting me permission to include some material that first appeared in its pages:
The Way We Love Now: Ian McEwan, Saturday, and Personal Affection in
the Information Age in Representations 100, no. 1 (Fall 2007). 2007 by the
Regents of the University of California. Published by the University of California Press.

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5
Love, Loss, and Identity in Solaris
Christopher Grau

teven Soderberghs Solaris (2002) was a significant critical success: Salon


described it as a visually astonishing and thoroughly admirable new film;
the BBC declared it to be one of the finest science fiction films since 2001: A
Space Odyssey; while the reviewer from Time Out claimed, its probably the finest, certainly the most stylish, sci-fi film in years ... this is perhaps the most ambiguous and cerebrally sophisticated Hollywood movie in nearly three decades. All
this, despite the fact that the film inevitably competes with two classic works, each
of which is often regarded as having the status of a sacred text: Stanislaw Lems
1961 science fiction novel and Andrei Tarkovskys 1972 cinematic adaptation of
that novel. Soderbergh managed, against the odds, to hold his own, with some
reviewers even preferring his version over Tarkovskys or Lems.1 Nevertheless,
Soderberghs film was a tough sell to general audiences. It was poorly marketed as
a supernatural romance ( la Ghost), and viewers looking for the sort of action and
effects that dominate contemporary science fiction films left the theater more
than a little disappointed. Costing $47 million but bringing in only $15 million in
domestic box office receipts, Solaris may eventually make money on DVD sales,
but given than Amazon is currently selling the new DVD for a discounted price of
five bucks, I suspect the executives at 20th Century Fox arent holding their breath.

In his review, Andrew Sarris remarks, But I prefer Soderberghs concentration on his two lovers
over Tarkovskys mostly male, mostly patriarchal debating societies. I have been suspicious for a
long time of all the accolades bestowed by many of my colleagues on the work of Tarkovsky. Where
they see greatness, I see only grandiosity, and a laborious, overlong grandiosity at that (The New
York Observer, December 15, 2002). The reviewer from Time Out proclaims, Soderberghs movie
beats its predecessor in virtually every respect. Its not only richer and more rigorous, philosophically, than the Russians woolly musings, it also has an emotional force barely there in Tarkovsky
(http://www.timeout.com/film/74916.html). Writing in Film Threat (December 5, 2002), Rick
Kisonak discusses both the 2002 film and the original novel and concludes, Its a gutsy move and I
have to say I find Soderberghs Solaris an eminently more satisfying experience than Lems.
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Part of what has made the film both appealing to some and frustrating to
most is its ambiguity. On first watch, it isnt that clear just what is going on, and
though the film richly rewards repeat viewings, the patience required for such
efforts is significant. Here I want to offer an analysis of Solaris that focuses on
questions regarding love and personal identity that are raised by the film.2 Ill
begin with a fairly detailed (but, given the complexity of this film, necessary)
recounting of the narrative, and then consider the philosophical puzzles of
attachment and identity that the film highlights. Still focusing on issues of identity, Ill argue that the ending of the film is plausibly construed as disturbingly
ambivalent. In the final section of the essay, I will consider a different take on
the film, one inspired by the work of the philosopher Derek Parfit. A Parfitian
philosophical framework allows for a significantly more uplifting vision of the
films end, but (as well see) this buoyancy comes at the cost of radically revising
our attitudes toward identity and attachment.

The Story
The film begins with a shot of rain falling on a window pane,3 followed by Chris
Kelvin (George Clooney) sitting pensively on his bed. In voice-over we hear a
woman say, Chris, what is it? I love you so much ... Dont you love me anymore? We then see him at work and infer that he is a therapist as we watch him
engage with patients. Later, he returns home and prepares a salad, cutting his
finger in the process.
Two officials arrive and present him with a video message from an old
friend, Gibarian, who pleads that Kelvin needs to come to a space station
orbiting the planet Solaris. Gibarian also suggests that, as a therapist, Kelvin is
ideally situated to help out the crew as they attempt to deal with some as-yetunexplained crisis.4 We are then given our first glimpse of the bluish-purplish
gaseous globe that is Solaris as we see Kelvins shuttle slowly dock with the
space station.5
2
I dont assume that my take on the film is an accurate reflection of all of Soderberghs intentions. Soderbergh discusses some of his intentions on the DVD commentary track as well as in
interviews. One particularly informative interview with Soderbergh and Clooney can be found
at http://www.scifi.com/sfw/issue293/interview.html
3

I suspect the appearance of rain here (and later) is a subtle reference to Tarkovskys less subtle
employment of rain in his version of Solaris.

Gibarian actually goes further, saying, I hope you will come to Solaris, Chris, I think you need
to ... You will see what I mean, suggesting that Gibarian believed Kelvins encounter with a visitor of his own may be somehow therapeutic.

At this point Solaris is a bluish color. As the film progresses, we see the planet shift in color from
blue to purple to red.

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Upon arrival at the station, Kelvin notices bloodstains and, eventually, the
corpse of Gibarian.6 He then comes upon Snow, a crewmember who seems generally out of sorts and surprised to see Kelvin. Snow explains that the blood
Kelvin saw belonged to Gutard, who was chased and killed by security forces.
Snow also tells Kelvin that he is the one who discovered Gibarians death (a
suicide). Kelvin, shocked, asks for an explanation. Snow responds cryptically,
saying, I could tell you whats happening, but I dont know if that would really
tell you whats happening.
Kelvin seeks out the only other living member of the crew, Dr. Gordon. Gordon,
scared and unfriendly, insists Kelvin not enter her cabin. She refuses to explain the
state of the ship, saying only, Until it starts happening to you, theres really no
point in discussing it. Kelvin then encounters a boy who quickly runs away.
Returning to Snow, Kelvin is told that the boy is Gibarians son Michael. Wanting
to know more, Kelvin requests a formal interview with both Snow and Gordon,
and is mysteriously warned by Snow to lock his door before going to sleep.7
In the formal interview Gordon reveals she has been suffering from assorted
psychiatric maladies. She doesnt explain the situation on the ship, saying only:
Just that I want it to stop. But I want to stop it. If I can stop it, that means Im
smarter than it is.8 Returning to his room, Kelvin listens to a recorded message
from Gibarian in which he mocks the space program, saying, We are proud of
ourselves, but when you think about it, our enthusiasm is a sham. We dont want
other worldswe want mirrors.9

Here we get a brief shot of a bloodstain on the ceiling. Only toward the very end of the film will
we come to learn the cause of this stain.

7
What Snow actually says is, I find I sleep much better with the door locked. He is presumably trying to encourage Kelvin to lock his door and thus come to realize that his own visitor
materializes within his quarters (and has not simply been hiding somewhere else on the ship). As
we later learn, Snow (being a visitor himself ) presumably doesnt actually have a need to lock
his own door.
8
Gordons interview is followed by an exchange with Snow in which he claims, I would kill to go
back to Earth. The irony of this statement wont become apparent until it is eventually revealed
that this version of Snow has in fact killed the original Snow.
9

The theme of mirroring is pervasive throughout Solaris. Gibarians remarks here are themselves
mirrored by the comments of the dinner party guests in one of the flashback scenes. (Though
they are discussing God, the ideas in circulation apply equally well to Solaris.) In addition, the
suspicion of distortion through projection that comes up in the context of God/Solaris is closely connected to the worry expressed by Gordon, Kelvin, and a Rheya visitor that perhaps Kelvins memories of Rheya are nothing more than a mirroring and projection of his own needs
and wants. (In one heated exchange Gordon says to Kelvin, Shes a mirror that reflects part of
your mind. You provide the formula.) The structure of the film also offers many points at which
segments mirror each other (e.g., the Earth and Earth scenes, the first line of dialogue from
Rheya and its later repetition, the suicide doubling [flashback and on ship], the doubling of sex
on Earth with sex on the ship, etc.).

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Kelvin falls asleep, and we then get a flashback sequence (in much warmer
amber tones, contrasting sharply with the bluish-gray shots aboard the ship)
that begins with a shot of a woman holding a doorknob on the subway. We learn
this is Rheya, a woman Kelvin soon meets again at a party and pursues. While
he flirts with Rheya at the party, he talks to Gibarian about the planet Solaris
and is told that that the most interesting thing is, well, it seems to be reacting,
almost like it knows it is being observed. (This is said while we are presented
with a shot of Rheya seductively walking off, clearly aware that she is being
observed by Kelvin.) Kelvin continues to flirt with her, attempting to woo
her with excerpts from a poem by Dylan Thomas: And Death Shall Have No
Dominion.
In the next sequence we return to Kelvin sleeping on the ship and see an outof-focus figure coming up next to him. Eventually this figure is revealed to be
Rheya. A montage follows with alternate shots of Kelvin and Rheya apparently
making love on the ship and flashback scenes of both coupling on the night they
met. The montage ends with a shot of Kelvin sleeping (clothed, thus revealing
the ship sex scene we have just watched to be a dream), and a hand gently caresses
his neck. Kelvin awakens and is immediately shocked by what he sees: Rheya
appears to have materialized from his dreams. Wondering whether he is perhaps
still asleep, Kelvin jumps out of bed, slaps himself, and paces anxiously. Eventually he gains some composure and he quizzes this visitor about where she
thinks she is and who she thinks she is. Accurately describing their apartment
back on Earth, as well as how they met, she seems to actually be Rheya, but
Kelvin knows this is impossible.10 She then echoes the lines we first heard when
the film began, saying, Chris, Im so happy to see you. I love you so much.
Dont you love me anymore? These words, however, are delivered with a slightly
uncanny expression on her face and a not-quite-human blink of her eyes.
Suitably distressed, Kelvin says he needs to talk to the crew and attempts to
leave his cabin. Rheya2 immediately rushes to stop him. Shortly afterward we
see Kelvin lure her into an escape pod and then, looking both confused and
distraught, he ejects the pod into space in an effort to rid himself of this ghostly
vision of his lost love.
Afterward he asks Snow, What was that? Typically, Snow isnt forthcoming. When asked where his own visitor is, Snow says, I dont know. Stopped
appearing. and claims the visitor was his brother. Kelvin reveals to Snow that
his visitor was a copy of his dead wife, Rheya. Kelvin asks whether she will come
back, and Snow responds, Do you want her to? Kelvin doesnt answer, and his
expression suggests that he isnt sure what he wants at this point.
10

From this point on, Ill refer to her as Rheya2, the next visitor as Rheya3, and so on.

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With suitcases piled high against his door to prevent entry, we see Kelvin
attempt to fall asleep. This leads to another dream/flashback sequence in which
we learn that Rheya was a psychologically troubled writer, that Kelvin repeatedly tried to convince her to marry him, and that she eventually accepted his
proposal. We then cut back to Kelvin sleeping on the ship, and once again a
hand lovingly caresses his neck. He turns and faces the new Rheya (Rheya3).
There is an immediate cut to a postcoital shot of them both in bed undressed.
(We infer a sex scene much like the one previously dreamed has now actually
occurred on the ship.) Lounging in bed, she quizzes him about the cut on his
finger, saying, I dont remember that. When did you get that? This leads to an
extended sequence in which she questions him about how she got there and
reveals that she doesnt remember much. Later, while Kelvin works at his desk,
she gazes at Solaris and apparently has flashbacks/memories of purchasing a
pregnancy kit, discovering she is pregnant, and arguing with Kelvin over her
moodiness and lack of sociability.11
This flashback sequence culminates in memories of a dinner party in which
the guests debate the idea of God. We learn that Kelvin has a coldly rationalistic
vision of a purposeless universe while Rheya seems more open to some idea of a
higher intelligence. Gibarian, grilling Rheya, accuses her of anthropomorphizing God: You are ascribing human characteristics to something that isnt
human. The theme throughout the conversation is the utter inscrutability of
God. We see that Rheya isnt particularly pleased with the vision of Kelvins (or
his friends) worldview that manifests in this discussion. There is a cut back to
the space station where Rheya3 appears to be unhappily absorbing this information. She confronts Kelvin:
rheya : Chris, Ive got to talk to you.
kelvin: Whats wrong?
rheya : I dont understand whats happening. And if I do understand
whats happening, I dont think I can handle it.
kelvin: What do you mean?
rheya : I mean ... I mean ... Im not the person I remember.
Or, at least, Im not sure I am. I mean I do remember things, but I dont
remember being there. I dont remember experiencing those things.
11

While many of Rheya3s memories that are shown to us via flashbacks could plausibly be derived from Kelvins own memories, these shots of Rheya in the pharmacy and, later, responding to
the pregnancy test are harder to explain, as Kelvin is clearly not present. We also later see another
scene in which she, very much alone, commits suicide. Perhaps we are supposed to infer that these
are based on Kelvins imaginings of what must have happened, or are instead Rheya3s imaginings
of those scenes. More likely (though perhaps stylistically inconsistent) we are being granted something closer to an omniscient point of view.

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[... Kelvin attempts to calm her and encourages her to take sleeping
pills ...]12
rheya : No, you dont understand. Because I dont think that I can live
with this. I dont understand what is happening now. And this, I
remember this. I have a memory of it. But I dont remember seeing
it, I dont remember being there.13
Rheya3 comes to realize that she is something like a copy of someone else, with
memories that are borrowed from somewhere else. Kelvin, already aware that
this Rheya is an imitation, has apparently gotten over his initial shock and
decided to embrace this illusion: he seems eager to pacify her and prevent her
from dwelling on the reality and oddity of the situation.
Kelvin seeks advice from Snow and warns him to never reveal to Rheya3 that
the previous visitor Rheya2 was cast into space. In an apparent nonsequitur, Snow
says, I wonder if they can get pregnant?14 This leads to a flashback/memory that
both Kelvin and Rheya3 seem to experience simultaneously: alternating between
shots of both of them (with Rheya3 staring out the window at Solaris), we see Kelvin and Rheya back on Earth arguing over her pregnancy and a subsequent abortion. In the flashback, Kelvin yells, You should have told me! Rheya responds:
Chris, I had to. Obviously I had to. You know that about me. I had no
idea youd react like this. Listen. Listen. Whats changed? I didnt even
know you wanted one.
In a rage, Kelvin makes it abundantly clear that he did want one. He pushes her
away, and when she claims, Please, I wont make it without you! he responds,
Then you wont make it! and storms out.
12

In what may be a reference to The Matrix (a film that Soderbergh has said he admires) the sleeping pills Kelvin foists on Rheya are blue, while the stimulants Kelvin will take later in an attempt
to avoid sleep are red. (In The Matrix Neo is offered a choice between two pills: a red one that will
cause him to wake up from an illusory world or a blue one that will put him to sleep.) In the end,
however, the red pills in Solaris (combined with sleep deprivation) cause Kelvin hallucinations
rather than accurate perception.

13

Tom Wartenberg has insightfully pointed out (in conversation) that Rheyas description of her
condition is in some ways similar to the phenomenology of watching a film. Rheya seems to experience visions and sounds playing in the theatre of her mind but lacks the conviction that she
was really present when the experiences depicted actually occurred.

14

I say apparent here because, on reflection, the juxtaposition of the mention of the expulsion of
Rheya2 with both Snows query regarding pregnancy and a flashback of Rheya and Kelvin arguing
over her abortion is clearly intentional: the fact that Kelvin aborts Rheya2 against her will is bitterly ironic given that Rheyas suicide was triggered by an argument over her receiving an abortion
without Kelvins knowledge or consent.

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Cutting back to the station, we see Snow offer up Kelvin a plan for bringing
Gordon and Rheya3 together to discuss what to do about Solaris. There is then
another flashback to Rheya committing suicide while we hear the Dylan
Thomas poem being read in voice-over by Kelvin. This is followed by a cut
back to the ship and Rheya3 apparently taking in this information about her
suicide and contemplating her situation. Somehow knowing that Kelvin discovered the original Rheyas dead body, Rheya3 asks him about it. Responding
to Rheya3 as though she was the original, he says he came back for her, and
apologizes.
A meeting between all four on ship occurs and they discuss the constitution of
the visitors. It is suggested that they could be disintegrated through the proper
machinery. Kelvin insists he wants to take Rheya3 back to Earth rather than have
her destroyed by the proposed machine. This leads Gordon to quip, Should we
pick up the other one on the way? Rheya3 gradually figures out that a previous
incarnation of her has been forcibly evicted from the ship, and she reacts accordingly, saying, Oh my God. Oh my God. Dont touch me! to Kelvin.15 This
exchange provokes Gordon to angrily warn Kelvin that he is mistaking an artificial projection for a genuine human being.
Later we see Kelvin sleeping, and in an apparent dream Gibarian visits him.
Kelvin challenges this visitor, saying, Youre not Gibarian. Gibarian responds,
No. Who am I then? A puppet? And youre not. Or maybe youre my puppet?
But like all puppets you think you are actually humans . . . Its the puppets
dream, being human. Asked about his son, Gibarian answers, Thats not my
son. My son is on Earth. And thats not your wife. They are part of Solaris,
remember that. Kelvin asks, What does Solaris want from us? and Gibarian
replies, Why do you think it has to want something? This is why you have to
leave. If you keep thinking there is a solution, youll die here. Kelvin says he
cant leave and that he will figure out a solution. Gibarian ends his visit with the
proclamation: There are no answers. Only choices.
Kelvin awakens to discover Rheya3 missing. She has attempted to kill herself
by drinking liquid oxygen. The attempt fails: in a deliberately unsettling scene
we see her body resurrect and heal itself. Clearly disappointed that she has
survived the suicide attempt, Rheya3 simply says, Oh no! and turns away from
Kelvin. When he asks, Why did you do that ... Rheya? She responds, Dont
call me that, and cries.
We then learn that Gordon has indeed constructed a device that will annihilate visitors. Rheya3 expresses her desire to have the device used on her, leading to an exchange with Kelvin in which she questions her own reality and her
15

For a brief discussion of the relevance of this line (and the role of touch generally), see note 20.

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capacity for free choice. Kelvin makes it clear that he needs her to help him
have a chance to undo that mistake from his past. In tears, she begs him to let
her go. Knowing that she will attempt to have the device used on her once he
falls asleep, Kelvin takes a large number of red pills in an attempt to stay awake.
This leads to a series of hallucinations: we see shots of him looking panicked
and sweaty which alternate with shots of multiple Rheyas, Rheya3 speaking to
Gibarians son, a damaged doorway, and other images of Kelvin groping along
a hallway. This latter sequence is intercut with a flashback in which Kelvin discovers the original Rheyas dead body back on Earth. We see that he finds the
dead Rheya holding a page ripped from a book containing the Dylan Thomas
poem.
Kelvin wakes up from this delusional sleep and finds another suicide note
of sorts: Rheya3 has recorded a video message explaining to Kelvin that she
asked Gordon to destroy her. She says:
I realized Im not her. Im not Rheya, I know you loved me, though. And I
love you. I wish we could just live inside that feeling forever. Maybe theres
a place where we can, but I know it is not on Earth and not on this ship.
Kelvin finds Gordon, argues with her, and in the process both discover blood
stains on the ceiling. Investigating, they uncover the frozen corpse of Snow.
Realizing that the Snow they have been dealing with must in fact be a visitor,
they confront him, and he claims he had to kill the original Snow in self-defense.
Before they can dwell on how to deal with this twist, Snow2 reveals to them that
Solaris appears to be growing and they dont have long to escape. We then see
Kelvin and Gordon make preparations to leave.
There is a transition to a shot of a rainy window exactly similar to the one we
saw in the very first shot of the film. This is followed by other familiar shots of
Kelvin on a bed, in the street, on the train, and walking up stairs in the rain to
his home. We hear him talking in voice-overhe comments on the oddity of
being back and the difficulty to readjusting. We then see him back in his apartment preparing a salad, just as he did at the beginning of the film. (One notable
difference is that his refrigerator now has a picture of Rheya on it.16) He cuts his
finger as he did at the beginning of the film, but this time the cut seems to heal
itself instantaneously as he runs it under water. Looking dazed and puzzled, he
glances at the photo of Rheya.
16

When Rheya2 was asked by Kelvin to describe their apartment, she commented, And there are
no paintings on the wallsno pictures anywhereno pictures on the fridge even, which I always
thought was a bit strange.

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The film then cuts back to the station as Solaris advances toward it and we see
that Kelvin chose not to accompany Gordon in the pod.17 Staying behind, we see
him groan and collapse while the station loses power and become enveloped by
Solaris. Snow2 is also there and seems to possess a look of rapture as he gazes at
Solariss approach. Gibarians son Michael2 walks up to the collapsed Kelvin and,
though barely conscious at this point, Kelvin manages to slowly reach out and
touch his hand in a gesture that resembles Michelangelos The Creation of Adam.
There is a cut back to the photo of Rheya on the refrigerator in Kelvins
apartment. While Kelvin stares at the photo, he hears Rheya call to him; he
turns, surprised and confused to see her. He walks toward her and asks, Am I
alive ... or dead? She responds:
17

At just this point there is a curious sequence in the station corridor in which we see him repeatedly doubled on screen (one image of him fades out while simultaneously another fades in).
This seems to hint at the interpretive decision demanded of the viewer here (as to whether we
think he stayed on board or returned to Earth with Gordon). (Thanks to George Wilson for
pointing out the relevance of this scene.)

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We dont have to think like that anymore.


Were together now. Everything weve done is forgiven. Everything.
They kiss and embrace. She is smiling and seems at peace; his face is harder to
read: he looks exhausted, teary-eyed, and perhaps happy. The film ends with
receding shots of Solaris.

Identity, Attachment, and Solaris


The sci-fi premise of Solaris allows Steven Soderbergh to tell a distinctly philosophical love story. The visitors present us with a vivid thought experiment
and the film effectively prods us to dwell on the possibility it illustrates. If confronted with a near duplicate of someone you have loved and lost, what would
your response be? What should your response be? The dramatic force of this
premise derives from the fact that the tensions raised by such a far-fetched situation reflect tensions that can exist in real life between an attraction to qualities
possessed by a person and attraction to the person in a manner that seems to
transcend an attraction to qualities. In short, the premise of the film challenges
us to reflect on what we really attach to when we fall in love: do we really love
the person, or is it just the cluster of qualities the person happens to manifest and
that could (possibly) be found in another? Philosophers have commented on
this topic, and one particularly clear statement of the issue was offered by Robert Nozick:
Apparently, love is an interesting instance of another relationship that is
historical, in that (like justice) it depends upon what actually occurred.
An adult may come to love another because of the others characteristics;
but it is the other person, and not the characteristics, that is loved. The
love is not transferable to someone else with the same characteristics,
even to one who scores higher for these characteristics. And the love
endures through changes of the characteristics that gave rise to it. One
loves the particular person one actually encountered. Why love is historical, attaching to persons in this way and not to characteristics, is an
interesting and puzzling question.18
As Nozick notes, loves bond, though frequently beginning in an attachment
to qualities, doesnt always end there. A deep love for another person often involves
an attachment that cannot be reduced without remainder to an attachment to the
18

Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 167168.

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qualities of the beloved. The beloved is, in an important sense, irreplaceable.19 Of


course, even those of us who affirm this sort of bond as a model of love should
admit that another form of attachment is both possible and often tempting: an
attachment that remains at the level of qualities; qualities that could (in theory at
least) be repeated in another. How could the difference between these two sorts
of attachment manifest itself ? Well, in ordinary life, it might not, as qualities we
love are often multiple and complex and we dont usually find them presented to
us in more than one instantiation. In certain crude cases we can witness the distinction, however. To take a perhaps too-crude example: a person who is primarily
attracted to, say, the blonde hair and biting wit of the beloved may well be willing
to accept a substitute, so long as the substitute possesses those desired qualities.
Such a person may well be accused of being superficial; however, this
charge of superficiality can have multiple sources: some may object that the person simply values too simple a collection of qualities, while others may be objecting that it is the attachment to qualities themselves rather than the person
exhibiting the qualities that is the objectionable feature of the attachment. It is
the latter sort of complaint that is particularly interesting, philosophically, and
the nice thing about the cinematic thought experiment we get in Solaris is that
it allows us to contemplate and reflect on this question regarding the focus
of ones attachment. Through the films presentation of a fictional scenario in
which a duplicate (manifesting many, if not all, of the qualities of the original)
is created, we can see the protagonist struggle with his own attitudes regarding
what sort of bond is appropriate.
At the beginning of the film, Kelvin is a man still in mourning over the suicide of his wife, Rheya. He seems to feel both deep love for her and deep regret,
as he knows her suicide was triggered by his own actions. When he travels to the
space station and Solaris offers up visitors that are strikingly similar to his late
wife, his response is complicated. He goes from shock, to rejection, to acceptance, most of the time manifesting what seems to be an appropriate level of
confusion given the bizarre situation in which he finds himself. Kelvins shifting
reactions at encountering this unusual scenario are gripping because they track
19

Elsewhere (Irreplaceability and Unique Value, Philosophical Topics 32: 111129) I discuss this
issue in the context of The Missyplicity Project, a now defunct research program at the University of Texas to clone a particular dog funded by the wealthy owners of that dog. Finding
the plan deeply creepy, I tried to explore what, exactly, is going on when we occasionally find
ourselves drawn to attaching to the type rather than the token of that type. In a more recent
article (Love and History, The Southern Journal of Philosophy 48, no. 3) I attempt a provisional
philosophical defense of the sort of token-directed attachment that many naturally feel is appropriate in love relationships. Here my goals are different: I wont offer a thorough defense that
love directed at an individual is metaphysically coherent and ethically preferable to love directed
at qualities. What I want to focus on instead are the conflicts that can arise from both sorts of attraction, and the way in which Solaris exploits this tension for dramatic effect.

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our own ambivalence about such matters. Frankly, most of us dont know just
how we would react to such a situation. The thought that accepting and embracing such a visitor involves a violation to the original person is natural and
pervasive, especially if the acceptance of the copy comes with a failure to
acknowledge the distinct identities of the two persons. At the same time, a deep
attraction to such a visitor would surely also be entirely natural and perhaps
even inescapable.20 As viewers we are, like Kelvin, torn in different directions by
this (perhaps thankfully) far-fetched possibility.
Once Kelvins initial shock and confusion over the arrival of the first visitor
(Rheya2) wears off, we see him decide that he ought not to accept his visitor as if
she were Rheya. It has become clear to him that a miracle has not occurred:
Rheya is not back from the dead. Instead, a copy has been created by an intelligent alien forcea copy drawn from Kelvins own memories of his lost love.
This copy is surely appealing to Kelvin as it is both physically accurate and psychologically very similar to his wife (or at least his memories of his wife), but he
cant quite bring himself to ignore his knowledge that it isnt really his wife after
all. Thus, in a decision that comes quickly but nonetheless does not seem easy
for him, he chooses to mislead her and eject her out into space.
It isnt clear if, after the fact, Kelvin regrets this rather rash decision; when
Snow asks him if he wants her to return, we just arent sure what Kelvin is
thinking. With the arrival of Rheya3, however, his immediate willingness to
bed down with her suggests at least some degree of acceptance. The degree of
acceptance grows with time as he talks to her and sees her exhibit so many of
the traits he remembers Rheya possessing. While viewers naturally sympathize
with his deep desire to have a second chance and understand the strong psychological pull he feels to embrace Rheya3 as his dead wife, as the film progresses his attachment comes to seem increasingly problematic. The ethical
difficulties here are highlighted in a very direct fashion by Gordon when she at
one point tells Kelvin, She is not human. Try to understand that. [...] Your
wife is dead. [. . .] Shes a copya facsimile, and shes seducing you all over
again. Youre sick!
20

The inevitability of such an attraction is highlighted in the film through a careful emphasis on
the role of touch. Shortly after a scene in which Rheya3 yells to Kelvin Dont touch me! (see
note 15) Kelvin says to Gordon, What about your visitor ... Does it feel? Can it touch? Does it
speak? (emphasis mine). Each of the two copies of Rheya on the ship greets Kelvin by first gently
caressing his neck. The third copy of Rheya (on Solaris) also greets him with an embrace and then
similarly strokes his neck. Though Soderbergh does not explicitly discuss these repetitions in the
DVD commentary, he does at one point say, Im imagining that it is very hard to argue with the
tactile sensation of her being next to you. Note also that the original Rheya and Kelvin initially
come together through holding hands on the elevator, and when the station is being absorbed by
Solaris, Kelvins last act is to grasp the hand of Michael2 (Gibarians son).

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One explanation for the diagnosis that Kelvin is sick is that he seems, as
time goes on, to have decided to take the easy way out and embrace a comforting
illusion rather than expend the effort required to come to terms with the (moral
and metaphysical) reality of his situation. His motives for yielding to this denial
of the facts are no doubt complicated but appear increasingly ethically suspect:
while he is surely motivated by a sincere longing and love for his late wife, he
seems equally motivated by a misguided and self-centered attempt to use Rheya3
as a vehicle to atone for his past sins to Rheya. Trying to undo the past by recreating the past with a copy, he appears more and more unhinged, both psychologically and morally, as the story unfolds.
That Gordon is on to something in her diagnosis of Kelvins state is emphasized
by his interaction with Rheya3 as she reflects on and becomes increasingly aware of
her dubious ontological status. Recognizing that she is not simply a copy of another
person, but a copy of Kelvins (possibly distorted) memories of another person, she
comes to question her potential for free choice and any sort of authentic existence:
rheya3: Dont you see I came from your memory of her. Thats the
problem. Im not a whole person. In your memory you get to control
everything. So, even if you remember something wrong, I am
predetermined to carry it out. Im suicidal because thats how you
remember me.21
Kelvin, at this point disturbingly self-absorbed, responds:
I dont believe that were predetermined to relive our past. I think we can
choose to do it differently [...] This is my chance to undo that mistake ...
and I need you to help me.
Rheya3, in tears, exclaims, But am I really Rheya? and Kelvin responds, as if in
a daze, I dont know anymore. All I see is you... . All I see is you.22
Later Rheya3 suggests that in order for Kelvin and her to continue on, they
would have to have some sort of arrangement, some kind of unspoken understanding that Im not really a human being. Saying only, No, Rheya, he reaches
21
Solaris has interesting thematic overlap with the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless
Mind. In both we are presented with tales of lost love and second chances, and in both the female
of the couple is presented to the viewer almost entirely as a projection based on the male characters memories of her. Solaris also seems to implicitly reference the classic film about love, loss, and
projection: Alfred Hitchcocks Vertigo.
22
To my mind this is an excellent example of someone failing (rather spectacularly!) to follow Iris
Murdochs injunction to really lookto strive to perceive the reality of a situation accurately. Murdoch eloquently argued that such perception is demanded by both love and justice. For more on
Murdochs conception of morality and love, see the contribution from Susan Wolf in this collection.

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for the red pills that will keep him awake and thus enable him to ensure she
doesnt attempt suicide. Rheya3 comes to reject this possibility of them staying
together, saying, This? What kind of life is this? Trapped here? Its not a life,
I dont know what to call it. Kelvin, at his most disturbing, replies, It is what
we have. It is enough for me. By now Gordons earlier claim that Kelvin was
sick seems an understatement. He naturally craves his lost love, and we can
appreciate why he would desire some sort of redemption from her, but of course
Rheya3 is not actually in a position to forgive Kelvin for his earlier abandonment of Rheya, and while at some level he clearly knows this, he doesnt seem to
carean imitation of forgiveness, from an imitation of Rheya, has come to
seem acceptable to him. Thus my earlier charge of self-absorption: if he was
really caring about Rheya at this point, hed be sensitive enough to notice that
shes not there. If he really cared about the visitor, hed be sensitive enough to
notice that she isnt Rheya (and is an autonomous individual). Since he isnt recognizing the distinct identity of either, but instead blurring them, he is simultaneously disrespecting both. This willingness to indulge in fantasy and ignore
Rheya3s pleas is truly striking, and it is a testament to George Clooneys sympathetic portrayal of Kelvin that we dont find him loathsome at this point.23
That Kelvin is disregarding Rheya3s wishes, her autonomy, and her individuality is patently clear. It is possible that one might try to excuse his behavior by
pointing out that Rheya3 isnt, after all, a human being and thus his violation
here is not as morally problematic as a failure to respect the needs and desires of
a real person.24 While I think this defense is misguided, rather than respond to
it in detail with an argument in favor of Rheya3s humanity, I want to instead
focus again on the way in which Kelvin is also disregarding the memory of a very
real person, his dead wife Rheya. What would the original Rheya have thought
about Kelvins willingness to ignore the distinction between her and the visitors
that appear to him? It seems likely that she would have been disturbed, and
perhaps even disgusted, by his attempt to compensate for his failure to her

23
Another reason why many viewers continue to interpret Kelvin sympathetically (and one reason why, I think, this story works better on film than on the page) is that the viewers are, just like
Kelvin, shown a woman who looks exactly like the original. Seeing is believing, as they say, and
I think part of the pull to accept Rheya3 as Rheya comes from our instinctual trust in what we are
shown on the screen. Reflecting on the situation after the fact, it is easier to recognize that Rheya3
is indeed a fully distinct individual. (This same point will apply later to our initial willingness to
trust that the Kelvin we see at the end is the original Kelvin.)
24

Another rather different sort of defense might focus on the wrongness of suicide and interpret
Kelvins actions here as primarily motivated by a concern that Rheya3 not commit this wrong
act. While I dont want to deny that Kelvin may have this motivation, it seems quite clear at this
point in the film that his primary motivations concern his desire to use Rheya3 in order to fulfill a
misguided fantasy of moral redemption and lost love regained.

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through building a new life with a copy of her. (Think how you would feel about
someone you love behaving in a similar matter toward a copy of you, i.e., refusing to recognize that you and the copy are distinct individuals. You might come
to forgive the person for this failure to acknowledge your individual identity, but
such forgiveness in itself necessarily involves an acknowledgment of a significant wrong on his or her part.) Kelvins descent into denial and fantasy involves
not just mental illness but a morally troubling attitude of disregard toward the
memory of the woman he so urgently claims to love.

The Ending
Perhaps luckily for her, Rheya3 does manage to destroy herself (with Gordons
help) and Kelvin is left alone, forced to choose whether to try and return to
Earth or stay on the ship as it is absorbed (and presumably destroyed) by the
ever-growing Solaris. The structure of the film at this point deliberately misleads
the viewer (at least on first viewing): we are led to infer initially that Kelvin
chooses to return to Earth with Gordon, and we are shown several shots of him
living out his daily life that very closely echo the shots that began the film. Only
later are we shown footage that reveals that he in fact remained behind on the
ship. What exactly occurs from that point on remains opaque, even after the
credits roll. What is clear enough is that Kelvin (or someone just like him) is
reunited with Rheya (or someone just like her) in an environment that looks
just like Earth. However, the structure of the film and the final shots of the
receding Solaris make it clear that this Earth is, in fact, Solaris.
One tempting interpretation of the ending of the film is to see it as offering
a heartwarming tale of resurrection and redemption in an afterlife created by a
sympathetic God-like intelligence.25 (The producer James Cameron, predictably, pushes just such a cheery interpretation in the DVD commentary.)26 I
think it is beyond doubt that we are supposed to initially consider such an outcome, and surely part of the appeal of the ending for many viewers is this possibility. Nevertheless, upon reflection, I think the most plausible interpretation of
25

The inclusion of the Dylan Thomas poem and the focus on the line: And death shall have no
dominion (derived from Romans 6:9) can obviously be taken to support a construal of the films
ending as offering an optimistic vision of resurrection and reunion. An extended consideration of
the poem is beyond the scope of this essay, but I take it that the poem, like the film, lends itself to
both a superficially happy interpretation and, on reflection, a darker reading. Notably both Kelvin
and Rheya agree that, in the end, it is not a very happy poem.

26

I say predictably here because there has traditionally been a strong commercial incentive for
films to have happy endings and presumably Cameron, as producer, is in part motivated by such
incentives. For a dismissive discussion of the film as offering a happy ending, see Vida Johnson
and Graham Petrie, Ethical Exploration, Sight and Sound 13, no. 2 (February 2003): 1718.

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the final sequences leaves matters decidedly more nuanced and unsettled. Here
Ill try to make the case that the most reasonable reading of the film is one in
which we take seriously the possibility that the Kelvin we see in the last sequences
of the film is not, in fact, the original Kelvin but some new creature created by
Solaris and probably based (like the other visitors) on memories. If this is
right, then a straightforward reading of the ending as one involving everlasting
life and reunion with a lost love is far too simplistic.
What are the reasons for thinking we should conclude that the Kelvin we see
at the end of the film is best construed as Kelvin2 rather than a magically
enhanced and now immortal Kelvin? First off, the absorption of the space station by Solaris presumably destroys the necessary life-support mechanisms on
the ship and would cause any remaining humans to die. We see Kelvin in great
pain and apparently close to death when he encounters Michael2 (the copy of
Gibarians son). Though we dont clearly see Kelvin die, it is plausible to assume
he does. That his final pose resembles Michelangelos painting The Creation of
Adam suggests that what we will encounter next will indeed be some kind of
significantly new creation.
Since we eventually learn that Kelvin did not go back to Earth with Gordon, we can safely conclude that the Earth we see Kelvin return to is actually a recreation of Earth on Solaris. The Rheya who appears is also, presumably,
a recreation. It makes sense, then, that Kelvin is also a recreation at this point.
His bodys ability to instantly heal the cut on his finger certainly suggests this
idea. (We already know that the visitors can heal themselves, and we know that
the creation of a brand new Kelvin is entirely within Solariss powers, for we
have learned that the original Snow was killed by a Solaris-created copy of
himself.)
Consider also that Kelvins monologue (delivered as a voice-over) about
returning to Earth takes on a different and perhaps more comprehensible tone
if we imagine it being uttered by a duplicate Kelvin trying to make sense of his
new existence and situation27:
27
The shots that appear while this monologue is being delivered mirror shots we see at the beginning of the film, but there are subtle yet important differences. In all these later shots we get a
distinct impression of distance that is not present in the early versions. With the camera being
further away, sometimes at a different height, and usually in motion, the suggestion seems to be
that the camera now represents the point of view of a removed intelligence monitoring Kelvin.
In contrast, the earlier scenes are either shot in such a way as to align us with Kelvin or are shot
in a traditional transparent style. To my mind, the distancing present in these later sequences
further suggests the idea that what we are looking at in these scenes may not be Kelvin but instead
yet another creation of Solaris. The style of these shots is a subtle indicator that perhaps we, as
viewers, should also be distancing ourselves from this man. It helps push us to not be complacent
with a superficial interpretation of the film that would suggest an all-too-happy ending to this
nuanced and melancholy story.

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Earth. Even the word sounded strange to me now. Unfamiliar. How long
had I been gone? How long had I been back? Did it matter? I tried to
find the rhythm of the world where I used to live ... I followed the current. I was silent, attentive, I made a conscious effort to smile, nod, stand,
and perform the million of gestures that constitute life on earth. I studied these gestures until they became reflexes again, but I was haunted by
the idea that I remembered her wrong. That somehow I was wrong about
everything ...
The need to study and practice basic gestures is not entirely surprising if in fact
he is some sort of a recreation or duplication of the original Kelvin. (Recall the
somewhat odd behavior of Snow2 as he struggles throughout the film to accurately portray the original Snow.) Kelvins worry that he was wrong about
everything may well include a worry about the nature of his own existence at
this point.
In addition, it is worth remembering the dream visitation of Gibarian and
his cryptic comments to Kelvin about puppets (Who am I then? A puppet?
And youre not. Or maybe youre my puppet? But like all puppets you think you
are actually humans ... Its the puppets dream, being human.). With this speech
in mind, note the mildly odd and artificial stance of Kelvin once he notices
Rheya and walks over to her in the final sequence of the film. The somewhat
unnatural posture of his arms in this scene brings to mind the image of a marionette: a puppet held up by strings and manipulated by someone above. Of
course, if he is in fact a creation of Solaris at this point, a puppet metaphor is not
far off.
Finally, while it may be tempting to interpret the film as telling an uplifting
spiritual tale of resurrection in an afterlife, it is important to keep in mind that
throughout the film various characters emphasize that Solaris is an entirely alien

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sort of intelligence, and attributing benevolent motives to it is little more than a


leap of faith given that it has not communicated any such intentions to those
members of humanity it has thus far interacted with. Perhaps it seeks to give Kelvin everlasting life, and perhaps it has the ability to do this, but it is just as possible
that it is merely experimenting with his memory blueprint for its own, mysterious
aims.28 After all, Solaris did not seem to show benevolence in confronting Snow
with a copy of himself, or Gibarian with a copy of his son (while his son is still alive
back on Earth!), and though we never find out who Gordons visitor was, it is safe
to assume (given her response) that it was not a welcome guest. To suggest that
Solaris nevertheless has created an afterlife for Kelvin and Rheya as an act of love is
to make the alien planet into a disturbingly fickle God. It is much more plausible,
given all that we are shown, to conclude that the ending represents something
significantly less comforting than the traditional conception of Heaven.

Parfit and the Unimportance of Identity


Ive suggested that we should resist the temptation to see Solaris as presenting
an unambiguously happy ending and instead consider that the ending of
this film is actually fairly disturbing once we reflect on the possibility that the
reunion we see is, in fact, the coming together of two newly created creatures
who possess merely apparent memories derived from the genuine memories of a
real human who has perished. However, there is yet another rather different way
to make sense of the ending, given the interpretation of the film Ive offered
28

Given that toward the end of the film Kelvin seems to have decided to accept an illusion and
stop recognizing the distinct reality of Rheya3, it is ironic that at the very end of the film he too
appears to be a duplicate. It is as if Solaris, far from feeling benevolent, has decided to deliver just
deserts: if a copy is good enough for Kelvin, then why shouldnt a copy of Kelvin be good enough
as well?

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here. One could challenge the presupposition that we can coherently mark off
the identities of these various entitiesone could question the very reality of
the self. If the boundaries of the self are in some sense illusory, then perhaps the
ending of the film represents as genuine a reunion as is ever possible, and perhaps a cheerier response to the ending is justified. I want to conclude by sketching out this rather radical possibility through borrowing some ideas from
philosopher Derek Parfit.
In discussing questions of personal identity and attachment, Parfit has recognized that many people would be reluctant to allow the replacement of a
loved one with a duplicatehe admits that we often attach to persons in a way
that cant be understood solely through reference to their qualities. Regardless
of whether we naturally tend to attach to persons in this manner, he argues that
we are nonetheless better off if we come to love in a more reasonable way. Considering the fictional case of a woman named Mary Smith who creates a duplicate of herself using a replicating device, he says:
I fall in love with Mary Smith. How should I react after she has first used
the Replicator? I claim both that I would and that I ought to love her
Replica. This is not the ought of morality. On the best conception of
the best kind of love, I ought to love this individual. She is fully psychologically continuous with the Mary Smith I loved, and she has an exactly
similar body. If I do not love Mary Smiths Replica, this could only be for
one of several bad reasons.[...] The remaining explanation is that my love
has ceased for no reason. No reason is a bad reason. Love can cease like
this, but only an inferior kind of love.29
The duplicate or replicated Mary has everything about Mary that one could
reasonably love: she has the same personality, an exactly similar body, and even
qualitatively identical memories (or quasi-memories, as Parfit calls them).
Whats not to like, or in this case, love?
Parfit understands that few will be inclined to accept this revision, but he
thinks this is because most of us hold, either explicitly or implicitly, confused
29

Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 295296. Note
that this passage comes in the context of Parfit defending the more limited point that loving
a series-person is reasonable. In the end, however, his position commits him to denying the
importance of the identity of a loved one even in our world (and not just a world where seriespersons are common), and thus accepting replaceability as rationally appropriate. This is because
Parfit argues (in Reasons and Persons) not just that identity does not matter, but that what does
matter are psychological relations with any cause, and a duplicate possesses these psychological relations (albeit through an abnormal cause) (287). (I also discuss this passage from Parfit in Love
and History, The Southern Journal of Philosophy 48, no. 3.)

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metaphysical beliefs. Most of us think that the identity of a person is some sort
of deep further fact over and above the psychological and physical relations
that make up a person.30 Parfit provides several intriguing thought experiments
that are supposed to bolster his claim that identity cannot rationally have the
importance we normally grant it. Perhaps his most effective argument relies on
an example (derived from David Wiggins) in which we imagine one person
splitting into two. Here is a brief reconstruction of that fission thought
experiment:
1. It is commonly accepted that a person can survive a hemispherectomy. In
other words, people have survived operations in which an entire hemisphere
of ones brain is removed. While the surviving person may be changed
in very significant ways, we dont consider the person to be numerically
distinct from the original person who chose to undergo the procedure.31
(Your thought going into such a procedure is not, presumably, that you
will be destroyed by the operation and replaced by another less functional
person. Rather, you would anticipate surviving as a less functional version
of oneself.)
2. It is also commonly accepted that if ones brain could be transplanted into
a different body, the person would go where the brain goes. In other words,
our brains are essential to our identity in a manner in which the rest of our
body is not. (Thus the plausibility of brain in a vat scenarios we see and
accept in so much science fiction.)
3. Given 1 and 2, we can assume that if it were possible to, say, destroy one
hemisphere of a persons brain and transplant the remaining hemisphere
into a new (but similar) body, the resulting person (in the new body)
would be numerically identical to the original person that existed prior to
this procedure. In other words, the survival of half of your brain (put into a
new but functional body) is enough to constitute your survival. (It does not
follow that this is a happy state of affairsmerely that it is a state of affairs
in which you have not ceased to exist.)
4. Consider now a variation on the scenario described in 3: Rather than destroy one hemisphere, imagine that we take your brain and transplant each
30
31

Ibid., 210.

Numerical identity is being contrasted here with qualitative identity. While the person who exists after the operation will not be qualitatively identical to the previous person, as many of his or
her qualities will have changed, he will still be numerically identical in the sense that he is one and
the same person who chose to undergo the procedure. Philosophers discussing personal identity
are usually focusing on numerical (rather than qualitative) identity. It is this sense of identity that
is being analyzed by Parfit.

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hemisphere into two new (but similar) bodies. In the case of this fission,
which resulting person is you? There seem to be only three possibilities:
(A) You do not survive. (B) You survive as one of two people. (C) You
survive as both.
5. None of these possibilities is satisfactory. Consider each in turn: (A) How
could a double success be a failure? (B) Which one? Choosing either as
the survivor seems arbitrary. (C) This seems nonsensical. Survival involves
identity, and I cannot be identical (numerically) with more than one
thing.
6. Though we know all the relevant information, we seem unable to come up
with a determinate answer to the question of your identity in such a case.
As the fission example shows, there are puzzles involving personal identity
that raise questions to which we have no idea how to answer. Parfit thinks that
such cases cannot be easily answered because they have no clearly correct answer.
Our criteria for identity do not cover every conceivable casethere are situations in which they are incomplete and come apart. We readily accept that this
can happen for concepts such as table or nationthe indeterminacy of our
criteria for the identity of such things doesnt disturb us. Cases involving personal identity are importantly different, however. We often feel they must have
an answer. How could there not be a yes or no answer to the question of
whether the person possessing my body tomorrow will be me? We tend to think
that no matter what occurs between now and then, the resulting person either
must be me or must not be me. In other words, we think there must be some
determinate answer, even if we dont currently know what it is. Parfit argues that
we should give up this belief, and further, that we should give up the language
of identity.32 (After all, the fission case shows that we can have a situation in
which, at the end, what does matter is present, but numerical identity is absent.)
According to Parfit, what actually matters in survival comes in relations of
degree (i.e., physical and/or psychological continuity and connectedness). Personal identity in itself (which is all or nothing) doesnt matter. A person is like
a nationwhat matters are the parts.
It is natural to believe that there is some further fact about our identity that
decides all possible cases (thus we posit the existence of a mysterious soul or
mental substance), and it is also natural to believe this must be a rather deep fact
about us. Parfit denies that there is any such fact. Surprisingly, he does not see
this as a depressing conclusion:
32

Derek Parfit, Personal Identity, in Personal Identity, ed. John Perry (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1975), 203.

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Is the truth depressing? Some may find it so. But I find it liberating and
consoling. When I believed my existence was such a further fact, I seemed
imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I
was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness.
When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now
live in the open air. (281)
Parfit argues that only the existence of some deep further fact would give me a
reason to be specially concerned about my future. In the absence of this fact,
mere personal (numerical) identity gives me no such reason. To put it bluntly,
self-interest becomes absurd without a self.33 Further, an attachment to the identity of another individual (such as a friend or lover) is also, on this view, similarly problematic.34
At the end of Solaris we see someone who looks like Kelvin asking someone who looks like Rheya, Am I alive or am I dead? He may well just be
wondering if hes alive back on Earth or instead in something like Heaven.
Given the subtleties of the film, and the peculiarities of the situation he finds
himself in, however, I think it is plausible to take him to be asking (or at least
groping toward) a more disturbing question: is he the original Kelvin (back
on Earth) or is he instead a copy of Kelvin (in some simulated world)? (Certainly this is a question that we are inclined to ask about him at this point.)
We have now seen, however, that a Parfitian need not accept this sort of question as legitimate. There may be no justifiable distinction to draw between
being the original Kelvin and being a copy, for such a distinction relies on
a notion of identity that, according to Parfit, lacks the importance we normally grant it. Similarly, Parfits conclusions suggest that our earlier concerns
over whether Kelvin was recognizing the distinct identities of the Rheya visitors may also have been misguided. If identity doesnt matter, then the drawing of lines marking off the individual identities of the various Rheyas is

33

Admittedly, this phrasing puts things more strongly than Parfit does. He prefers to characterize
his position as a version of constitutive reductionism rather than eliminative reductionism.
Parfit doesnt deny that selves (in some sense) exist, but he does deny that this existence has the
importance we ordinarily grant it. Cf. Is Personal Identity What Matters? (2007).

34
Effective criticisms of Parfits approach toward identity can be found in the writings of Mark
Johnston. See in particular Human Beings, The Journal of Philosophy (1987) and Reasons and
Reductionism in Reading Parfit, ed. by Jonathan Dancy (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers,
1997). While I think Johnstons arguments are successful, it should be noted that many contemporary philosophers have followed Parfit in rejecting the idea that identity can have importance
in itself. Among those who agree (more or less) with Parfit on this issue are Sidney Shoemaker,
John Perry, Carol Rovane, Jennifer Whiting, and Anthony Quinton. Parfit has also claimed that
the Buddha held something close to his view.

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wrongheaded. The question, Is Rheya3 identical to Rheya1? may be as pointless and arbitrary as asking the question, Do I still have one and the same
audio system? after I have chosen to replace some but not all of my audio
components.35 When we encounter situations that stretch the limits of the
criteria we have for the use of a concept, we can end up with genuine indeterminacy. In cases where there is no determinate answer to be uncovered, all we
can do is choose to adopt or create an answer by convention. We find ourselves
in a position where we might say, echoing Gibarian, There are no answers.
Only choices.
If we accept both the occasional indeterminacy and the ultimate unimportance of personal identity, the ending of Solaris takes on a very different flavor.
Kelvins question about his own identity is given what can now be recognized as
a thoroughly Parfitian response by Rheya: to give up the language of identity is
indeed to recognize that We dont have to think like that anymore.36 Here are
Parfits own comments on how his approach can allow him to deny that death
has dominion:
After a certain time, none of the thoughts and experiences that occur will
be directly causally related to this brain, or be connected in certain ways
to these present experiences. That is all this fact involves. And, in that
redescription, my death seems to disappear.37
Following Parfit, Kelvin can free himself from the pseudo-problem of his identity and instead embrace both Rheya and the situation they now find themselves
in. Free from ontological concerns, they are finally able to realize Rheyas earlier
ambition to just live inside that feeling [of love] forever.
What of Rheyas final proclamation to Kelvin regarding forgiveness? Interestingly, that too can be given a Parfitian reading. Parfit points out that his project of attacking the traditional notion of the self provides compelling grounds
for suspecting that the equally traditional notions of desert and punishment
should also be rejected.38 If the locus of responsible agency (i.e., the self ) does
not have the robust reality we naturally take it to have, then perhaps the whole
35

This example is offered by Parfit in The Unimportance of Identity in Personal Identity, eds.
Raymond Martin and John Barresi (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), 301.

36

In keeping with the Parfitian spirit of this section, from this point on I drop the use of subscripts
to identify the various versions of Kelvin and Rheya.

37
Derek Parfit, The Unimportance of Identity in Personal Identity, eds. Raymond Martin and
John Barresi (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), 317.
38

Derek Parfit, Comments, Ethics 96 (1986): 832872.

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idea of moral responsibility ought to be jettisoned. If this is right, then there is


indeed a sense in which, as Rheya says, everything weve done is forgiven.39

Conclusion
Ive been interested in two tensions elicited by Solaris. One tension arises once we
start to think about how best to make sense of the plot. The film, particularly the
ending, is ambiguous. Given that a primary theme of the film is the unknowability of the alien intelligence that is Solaris, I think this ambiguity is appropriate
an ending in which we knew exactly what was going on would (arguably) not
resonate as well with the idea of Solaris as deeply inscrutable and alien. By the end
of the film, though things are ambiguous, they are not entirely obscure, and what
I have tried to show is that the film gains some of its force from the pull it creates
between rival interpretations.
There is the pull to interpret the film as one with a conventional and happy
Hollywood ending, and a superficial reading of the ending allows us to see Kelvin as gaining entrance to something like Heaven while being reunited with his
lost love. There is also the pull to interpret the film as offering something darker
and significantly less conventional. Keeping in mind that the director started
out as an indie auteur and the source material is both melancholy and complex, we can look for more than standard Hollywood fare here, and if we look
closely we will indeed see a film in which the ending is quite nuanced and potentially disturbing.
I dont think this tension is due simply to an unhappy compromise arising
from the conflicts between an auteur and a major studio (i.e., between art and
commerce). As I mentioned before, I think the film is quite deliberately ambiguous. More specifically, I think there is a way in which the narration is, to use
George Wilsons phrase, rhetorically unreliable. Consider Wilsons comments
on You Only Live Once:
The spectator is led to draw conclusions from parts and aspects of what
he sees even though the screen equally displays information that, taken
together with the general knowledge of the probabilities of the actual
world, ought to serve to undercut some of the prompted inferences.40
39

Though admittedly the sense here is not the standard one (which presupposes the existence of
genuine moral responsibility). Instead, here the idea would be that they have discovered there is
nothing to forgive since no culpable wrongdoing is, in fact, possible. (Thanks to David Cockburn
for pushing me to emphasize this point.)

40

Wilson, George M. Narration in Light: Studies in Cinematic Point of View (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1988), 42.

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Supplement his talk here of general knowledge of the probabilities of the actual
world with something like our general knowledge of criteria for identity, and
you end up with a description that I think fits this film pretty well.
Focusing on the issues of identity and attachment, as I have tried to do, we
can see that our initial temptation to grant benevolent motives to both Kelvin
and Solaris needs to be tempered by an appreciation of the actual facts presented
to us: Kelvin isnt asking his wife for forgiveness; hes using a copy of his wife to
try and get past his guilt. Solaris isnt a loving, God-like force; it is instead an
inscrutable alien being whose motives remain mysterious and seem to be, at
best, amoral.
This tension regarding how to best interpret the narrative is related to and
informed by a distinct tension elicited by the film concerning the focus of
attachment when we love. The film naturally evokes contemplation on the complexities of love; in particular it encourages us to consider the nature of loves
bond. The far-fetched scenario presented to us resonates with very ordinary tensions we can feel when we ourselves love. I have argued that with the character
of Kelvin we see a good person go bad (or at least go ill) in deciding to ignore
important moral distinctions between individuals in order to satisfy a very
strong emotional thirst. The interpretation of the film Ive offered is also compatible with rather different philosophical approaches to questions of attachment and identity, however, and Ive tried to show how, in particular, a Parfitian
vision fits surprisingly well with the final moments of the film. Im not a Parfitian, so Im inclined to continue to see the films resolution as less than heartwarming. I think a Parfitian perspective is worthy of consideration, however,
and the fact that film can be rewardingly construed along such lines is an additional reason why this complex, ambitious, and ambiguous film merits our
attention.

Acknowledgments
Id like to thank Sean Allen-Hermanson, Carlene Bauer, David Cockburn,
Richard Hanley, Richard Moran, Bruce Russell, George Toles, Tom Wartenberg, Susan Watson, Stephen White, George Wilson, Karen Wilson, and Susan
Wolf for helpful discussions and/or comments on earlier drafts of this essay.

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6
Embarrassing Fathers
Nick Halpern

n enormous amount of attention has been paid to the absent father, the
father who cannot love. I am concerned here with the present, everpresent, too-present father, the father who can love or says he can: the embarrassing father. Some people, hearing the words paternal love, may think only
of a powerful and peculiar affect they endured as children and tried to escape as
adults. For such people paternal love may be what (still) prevents them from
getting work done in the world. I want to focus on the work of writing, and to
look at the fathers of Henry James and W. B. Yeats in order to show what the
two future writers endured in the way of love and to describe how they escaped
it in order to write. Henry James Sr. and John Butler Yeats are particularly useful
for my purpose in part because the late-Victorian period offers us images of the
embarrassing father at his most vivid and defiant and also because their children
wrote about them with extraordinary insight.
What is it like for a writer to be loved by an embarrassing father? What is it
like to be such a father? In this essay, I do not intend to add another theory (this
time, of embarrassing fathers) to the embarrassing theories spun out by the
fathers I write about. Rather, I hope to be simply literary (like the children in
rebellion against such fathers). I do not avoid abstraction and generalization
here, but I try to stay close to the felt experiences of the children. Although I
concentrate on embarrassing fathers of future writers, it might be rewarding in
the future to consider the phenomenon and effect of such fathers more broadly.
I should also add that I am not arguing here for a conceptual or psychologically predictable unity to the qualities I describe. I am merely saying that it is a
puzzling empirical observation that many of these qualities seem to reappear frequently enough to be part of a recognizable type. Embarrassing fathers of future
writers do not share all the same qualities, but there are overlapping similarities
or (to use Wittgensteins term) family resemblances between them. To be loved

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by a father with many of these qualities is often the cause of great emotional
hardship in the life of the writer as he or she develops, and it may be a threat to
the writers creative life.
If there were a composite version of such a father, he might have these
characteristics:
1. He doesnt know he is embarrassing. He has, as a critic said of one of George
Eliots characters, no idea how his words will sound in a mind unlike his
own (Nuttall, 48).
2. He is a stay-at-home, and hopes, as he says, that the home will be remembered for its coziness.
3. He reads incessantly, generally books of one genre.
4. He writes incessantly; he persists in writing. His work may be philosophical
or theological or encyclopedic or all three. He has a theory. In his autobiography, Henry James called his fathers theory a religion that was ...
systematically a philosophy, a philosophy that was ... sweepingly a religion
(334). The father claims to think outside theology, outside philosophy, and
he does, for better or worse. His work has a rarified vocabulary and totalizing ambitions. Although he has little or no presence in the marketplace, he
has tremendous presence on the page. His style is instantly recognizable to
his children. Casual when abstract, he is weirdly focused when particular:
his use of examples, especially, is abrupt and tone-deaf. Still, he insists he
is utterly at home in the realm of the ordinary.
5. Although he cannot see his children clearly, their intellectual, spiritual, and
emotional upbringing is of great interest to him. If he has failed to create
an audience in the world, he will succeed in the home. He wants, he says, to
open vistas for his children, but it is always just the one vista, which they
know well. He does not seem quite human to his children.
6. The word human is central to his vocabulary, written and spoken.
7. His children can readily identify him with one extreme of personality and
also its opposite, and it is hard to decide which is more accurate. Is he titanic
or a nonentity? A buffoon or a tragic figure? If he seems at times to be both
at once, the combination strikes witnesses as strange. In Virginia Woolf s To
the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe says of Mr. Ramsay: How strangely he was venerable and laughable at the same time! (45). Whether dignified or ridiculous,
he is always histrionic. His children, remembering him, might identify two
central modes of being: narcissism and wounded narcissism. He wants his
childrens compassion, but it is hard for them to express a compassion equal
to the intensity and thoroughness of his self-pity. His self-pity is unslakeable
and rushes to fills up mental space where introspection might occur.

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8. He celebrates creativity, his favorite topic. The children are discouraged


from creating anything specific.
9. The father is, at times, not just embarrassing but mortifying, a term which
evokes, for the children the life-and-death struggle they must go through.
The struggle is not for the fathers recognition. The father cannot recognize
them. Their struggle is simply to escape in order to live in the world and to
get work done.
10. Escape is, unluckily, one of the fathers subjects. He is happy to describe
every kind of escape beforehandhe went through one himself as a young
adultand to generalize about it. Everyones life is a long series of miraculous escapes, Yeatss father writes his children.
Not everyones life. But some people do escape.

1
If Emerson was famous, if Carlyle was famous, why couldnt Henry James Sr. be
famous? Something was wrong with his writing that was not wrong with Emersons or even with Carlyles, but he didnt know that, and if he almost did he still
didnt know what it was. But everyone else seemed to know. His ideas were
snickered or yawned at when he aired them in public; at home they were called
Fathers ideas or pet ideas. His ideas, though putatively about the nature of
reality, seemed really to be about him, for him, his therapy. One of his ideas was
explicitly about him, or at least about fatherhood. He divided Creation into
three stages. In the first stage, the Creator is whole. In the second stage, he creates a separate creature. In the third phase, the Creator reunites with his creation, who hereby gives up selfhood (quoted in Wyatt, 23). In Substance and
Shadow (1863) he insisted that there are no separate beings and nothing can possibly succeed on its own. The children understood. William James lived at home
until he was thirty-six and Henry James Jr. was twenty-six before he went abroad
and thirty-two before he finally left home.
Staying in the nest was a good thing. The love that kept his children at home
was passionate paternal love (ardently theorized), and paternal love is irreproachable love. Why try to escape it? Henry James Sr. wasnt cold, strict, or
standoffish, but warm, genial, talkative. If Henry James Jr. said his father had a
palpable intensity of presence, his father called it instead a human presence. If
he was, in his happiness, sometimes too present, it meant he was just more
human. How could anyone want another kind of father? No one could accuse
Henry James Sr. of being a distant, unapproachable Victorian father. His father
had been like that. Without you I would not be a parent but just a Victorian

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sage, he told his children. He shared jokes with his children, talked to them,
hugged them, loved them, and told them he loved themintensely, humanly.
Intensity was the same thing as humanness: as a demonstration or reminder of
this truth, Henry James Sr. liked to add intensifying adjectives to the word
human. It was better to be fully and deeply human than being just human.
To be all-too-human was best of all. Like the father in Christina Steads novel
The Man Who Loved Children, his humanness (constantly performed) was his
all-purpose alibi. After Henry James Sr. died, William James wrote of him that
he was the humanest and most genial being in his impulses whom I have ever
personally known, and had a bigness and power of nature that everybody felt.
His father would have been glad, probably, to have the word humanest, especially accompanied by the word genial, and to be told he had a bigness and a
power of nature that everybody felt. In fact, hardly anybody outside the house
felt his power or his humanness. But the children felt both and felt them all the
time.
The children were an almost constant audience. Their father was almost
always home. In A Small Boy and Others, Henry James Jr. remembers the almost
eccentrically home-loving habit in my father (43). He loved his family so
intensely that he couldnt, he said, bear to be away from them for long. Alice
remembered her father going away for two weeks and returning after thirty-six
hours to pour out the agonies of desolation thro which he had come, while the
five children pressed around him and Mother soothingly held his hand (Habegger, 414). When his children did finally move out, he wrote long, warm letters
to them. Such fathers are not, of course, simply a nineteenth-century phenomenon. A New Age parenting manual called Parent as Mystic, Mystic as Parent
(1998) by David Spangler gets the tone exactly. In his acknowledgments, Spangler addresses his children: Thank you for supporting me in my writing, which
can at times keep me from being with you when you would like. Without you I
would not be a parent but just a mystic, and a lonely and a less wise one at that.
(Without you I is a formula beloved of such fathers.) Spangler is both a mystic
and an everyday person like us. Though he does not, like Henry James Sr, use the
word interiorating, he is fluent in both mystical and ordinary language: Spangler calls himself a practical mystic and adds, In many ways, parents are practical mystics (4). He adopts the hapless father tone, the corny dad voice.
Do I spend my life in retreat and contemplation, prayer and silence? With four
kids? Hardly! Yet I do take time every day for a quick attunement to listen to my
inner self and its connections with a larger universe and to be aware of the sacred
in that movement. Do I seek wisdom? As a father, you bet! I can use all the wisdom I can get. (And as for initiation into the mysteries of humankind, I would
love to understand what goes on in my kids minds sometimes!) (12). In an

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ideal world, such a father believes, all fathers would be like him. Henry James Sr.
hoped to teach other people how to be mystics and good fathers at the same
time. In Houghton Library, there is a dialogue by Henry James Sr. (never published) in which a parent, in an unintentional burlesque of a facts of life talk,
lovingly and with patience explains the multifold meanings of spirit to his
child. His own children already knew, just as they knew about the glories peculiar to paternal love, one of which is a continuous and uninterruptible rehearsal
of humanness.
John Butler Yeats also rehearsed humanness in front of his children. (After
he moved to New York, he did it in letters.) And he too was a problem for his
children. At eleven, William noticed that his father couldnt finish any of his
paintings. In Reveries over Childhood and Youth, he writes, Once a stranger
spoke to us and bought us sweets and came with us almost to our door. We
asked him to come in and told him our fathers name. He would not come in
but laughed and said, Oh, that is the painter who scrapes out every day what he
painted the day before (19). Allen Grossman, in his poem The Department,
writes of a recently dead colleague at Brandeis: he left his work unfinished.
Whether /It was good or bad nobody knows/It was not done (72). The children know. Lady Gregory wrote to W. B. Yeats about his father: It is wonderful
how hopeful, how cheerful, how impossible he is. Space and time mean nothing
to him; he goes his own way, spoiling portraits as hopefully as he begins them,
and always on the verge of a great future. He was unable or reluctant to seek
commissions actively. If his haplessness was loveable, wasnt his integrity another
reason to love him? Rossetti sent three messages inviting John Butler Yeats to
call, but he didnt, telling his son, I admired Rossetti very much and wished to
postpone my visit to some time when I should think better of my own work
(Murphy, 76.) Meanwhile, the paintings remained unfinished. He lacked,
according to William, the one quality without which the others meant
nothingdecisiveness, will power, the inner drive to work out an idea or project to its conclusion (Murphy, 162). The father knew this and worked up a
comic routine on the topic: he had, he said, a quality called wont power. To his
poet son, this kind of humor was neither funny nor loveable. William wrote,
This infirmity of will has prevented him from finishing his pictures and ruined
his career. He even hates the sign of will in others. It used to cause quarrels
between me and him, for the qualities which I thought necessary to success in
art or in life seemed to him egotism or selfishness or brutality (Murphy,
162). The father, as much as he hated the sign of will in others, had a tendency to
offer advice, and particularly enjoyed advising other fathers. Once he gave a
public lecture called How to Bring up a Family. In the lecture, he encouraged
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he did lavish William with many kinds of attention. William at nine may not
have been able to read yet, but he could certainly read paternal feeling.
Reading feeling was crucial because feeling was at the center of Yeats family
life. The father talked often about it, sometimes calling it human feeling. It was
a kind of sentimental intensity, always ratcheting itself up. John Butler Yeats
cultivated a tone of passionate immediacy. He liked to rhapsodize. Am I growing too dithyrambic? he would wonder aloud. A passionate emotion that seems
as if it is directed at (but is at the same time oblivious to) other people can seem
like autistic rapturea phrase George Steiner uses about Heidegger. A child
might appreciate and even celebrate the parental exuberance but at what cost?
In a beautiful poem E. E. Cummings writes, Scorning the pomp of must and
shall /my father moved through dooms of feel. (Some of Cummings unsuccessful poemsgushing, aggressively human, coercively sentimentalsuggest
the price he paid for his identification with his father.) The child of such a father
can seem to herself condemned to watch her father move through feeling after
feeling (first in real time, and then in memory). Charlie Wales, the father in
F. Scott Fitzgeralds Babylon Revisited, periodically experiences tremendous
waves of love for his daughter, Honoria. Is a child in the wrong if she wants love
to come to her in some other form than a wave crashing? She might feel she is.
The father (who feels only love, after all, the irreproachable emotion) must be in
the right and deserves to have his love reciprocated not with equal intensity
(which is impossible) but with dedicated self-effacement. If the child rejects the
love, such fathers might respond with a wave of self-pity and start imagining
themselves as tragic figures from books. Leslie Stephen had his favorite tragic
figures, and so did John Butler Yeats. His favorite Shakespearean character was
Richard II, and he couldnt understand, as he said repeatedly, why critics were so
mean about him: Shakespeare was a kind man, Im inclined to say.
Such fathers like to appeal over heads. Here John Butler Yeats appeals to the
author (a stand in for the father) over the heads of the critics, the ungrateful
children. The father may also appeal over the heads of his actual ungrateful children to us, his future readers. Isnt there a kind of heroism in loving this way (he
seems to ask us), especially given the resistance of such cold-fish children? If the
children stubbornly show themselves incapable of loving selflessly enough, posterity will know how to right the wrong. Posterity often does know. Its remarkable how many biographers have taken the side of such fathers, writing
defensively and protectively about them. It may be a natural impulse when
someone is embarrassing to try to hide it from him, from his readers, from history. One biographer writes about Henry James Sr.: Had he not insisted upon
employing his peculiar and unconventional terminology his contribution to the
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deserves (Young, 64). The biographer then tries to explicate the terminology,
confessing frustration all along the way. How we wish he had elucidated the
meaning, to him, of philosophic naturalism or realism! (Young, 104). And:
Had James desired any one systematic rendering of his thought, he himself
would have imposed upon his works such a systematic form. Upon his expositor, therefore, falls the risk and responsibility of selecting some principle of
order in the presentation of Jamess main doctrines, and the writer does so now
in full consciousness that there is an arbitrary element involved; but he is assured
that that must needs be true of any scholar of James. So long as writer and reader
are together conscious of the situation, there is little danger of seriously misapprehending James at the truly vital points in his thought (Young, 92). Writer
and reader are together conscious of the situation. The good child has arrived
at last.
The actual child may, as I said, try to be generous but the price is high, often
too high. William Butler Yeats did not want to be forced to participate in his
fathers joyful inner world. He chose instead to celebrate the normal active
man. William wanted, like the young Henry James, to be hardheaded, businesslike, professional. The father couldnt finish his pictures, but by his thirtieth
birthday the son had published or made ready for publication seven books (and
American editions of four of them), had seen 173 essays, letters, or poems published by 29 different periodicals, and had edited or contributed to 14 other
volumes. The father, not wanting to appear to discourage his sons productivity,
at least not explicitly, wrote to him, I am very glad to hear about your work, you
seem to be getting quickly through with a lot of work. And then added: I am
very sorry to hear about your eyes being troublesomeI suppose there is nothing for it but complete rest.
William would not rest or relax; he would not be loveable or warm like his
father. He was known, in fact, to rise from the table with the words, I will now
remove the chill my presence is causing (Murphy, 585). Nietzsche, his father
suspected, was to blame for his sons behavior. The whole of Nietzsche is
malign, his father wrote to him, adding: I have long thought of your idea of
the superman quite mistaken. The true superman is such as Chas. Lamb or
Keats (Murphy, 343). Charles Lamb? When Yeats expressed incredulity, his
father was ready with his answer. You are far more human than you think.
Later he wrote to his son, Had you stayed with me and not left me for Lady
Gregory and her friends and associations you would have loved and adored concrete life for which as I know you have a real affection (Murphy, 529). One can
imagine Henry James Sr. using the same phrases to his children: I know you
have a real affection and had you stayed with me. The implication, in both
cases, is that the child could have been both prodigious and human. John Butler

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Yeatss friends in New York always told him that he was both things. He was the
Irish Walt Whitman, they told him. John Sloan said of him, He is a fine
unspoiled old artist gentleman. His vest is slightly spotted; he is real. The father
wrote his daughter Lily, I wish Willie did not sometimes treat me as if I were a
black beetle (Murphy, 272).
John Butler Yeats recognized that his son treated him like a black beetle.
What else did he understand? How much insight can the embarrassing father
allow himself ? I suggested early that embarrassing fathers feel self-pity where
others might engage in introspection. But they are open to insights, if the
insights are like epiphanies: the drama of the epiphanic realization is irresistible.
Such dramatic insights may turn out, though, to be evasions or postponements
of what their children might call the truth. Or the father (maddeningly) may
seem to give himself a tonal escape hatch. He might tell the whole truth about
himself but tell it complacently, as if no other tone could be appropriate, as if
nobody could ever have been hurt by who he is. Henry James Sr., for example,
announces, My disposition is so tyrannous that I can hardly allow another to
be comfortable save in my own way. Like the title of O. J. Simpsons notorious
2007 memoir, If I Did It, such words tempt the reader into believing the father
has finally acknowledged his effect on his children. But he hasntnot quite. Its
a kind of tease. Stay here and I might one day say that I know what Im like to you.
ListenI am almost saying it now. Everything is right but the tone, but next
time, maybe, the tone will be right.
I said that many of the children put as much geographical space as possible
between themselves and their fathers. Moving out does not, of course, all by
itself constitute an escape from paternal love. The memory of a domestic interior without oxygenwhat Henry James in Notes of a Son and Brother calls an
intensely internal interiorremains with the children (256). While the fathers
celebrate their intellectual and emotional achievements (Who shall say I am
not /the happy genius of my household? William Carlos Williams asks in his
poem Danse Russe), the childs memory of the domestic atmosphere may be
one of claustrophobia. A certain kind of paternal love can, like Donnes version
of romantic love, make all the world one room. In Kafkas story The Judgment,
the son happens one day to enter his fathers room. Kafka writes, It surprised
Georg how dark his fathers room was even on this sunny morning. Its
unbearably dark here, [Georg] said aloud. Yes, its dark enough, answered his
father. And youve shut the window, too? I prefer it like that (81). Dark
rooms, close rooms, are everywhere in stories about the embarrassing father.
Casaubon is not a father, but he can seem like one to Dorothea and to the reader.
In Middlemarch the dark room is compared to a tomb. Dorothea sees herself as
living more and more in a virtual tomb, where there was the apparatus of a

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ghastly labour producing what would never see the light. Leslie Stephen, too,
forces his family to live in a gloomy, airless room with him. A nineteenthcentury Job whose comforters kept dying, Virginia Woolf s father put more and
more pressure on the survivors. At meals he sat miserable and bewildered, too
unhappy and too deaf to know what was being said, until at length, in one scene
after another all through that dreadful summer, he broke down utterly and,
while his embarrassed children sat in awkward silence, groaned, wept and
wished that he were dead. In the accounts that Vanessa and Virginia have left of
this period in their lives the image that recurs is one of darkness; dark houses,
dark walls, darkened rooms, Oriental gloom. ... It was, for the children, not
only tragic but also chaotic and unreal. They were called upon to feel, not simply
their natural grief, but a false, a melodramatic, an impossibly histrionic emotion
which they could not encompass (Bell, 4041). Edmund Gosse also evokes the
claustrophobic effect of intensely internal interiors filled with histrionic emotion. In Father and Son he tells us that he and his father lived in an intellectual
cell, bounded at its sides by the walls of [our] own house (44). Gosse recalls
scenes in which my Father and I were the sole actors within the four walls of a
room (185). Sometimes it seems as if the child is not just inside the house with
the father but is, in fact, inside the fathers mind. Some children, missing their
father after his death, experience the eerie and lonely feeling of living in the
fathers mind without the father. John Wheelwright explores this feeling in a
poem about his father: Come home and talk to me again, my first friend.
Father, /come home, dead man, who made your mind my home (78).
One reason for such dark and airless rooms is that the world offers no other
room for the father, certainly not the amphitheaters he dreams of. A biographer
describes Henry James Sr. with his cork leg, his iron spectacles, and his ragged
fringe of beard in the stuff y gas-lit halls, night after night, decade after decade,
talking about Swedenborg, using paradoxes that intrigue but only for a moment:
Spiritual Socialism or Spiritual Realism. His essays, in Linda Simons words,
usually found a home in small journals threatened with imminent demise
(37). He published his books at his own expense. No one ever seemed to agree
with or expand on his ideas. It wasnt just that he wrote a lot about Swedenborg.
Other people (Emerson, for example) were interested in Swedenborg. But
Henry James Sr. staked everything on the eighteenth-century Swedish mystic.
Whats more, he refused to try to make him seem relevant to the nineteenth
century. If anything, he seemed to make Swedenborg seem more distant in time
than he was. James Freeman Clarke wrote, And first, we are struck, in reading
the book [Substance and Shadow] with its foreign, antique, Oriental, or inverted
style of thought. It seems not to have been written in New England, but in
Egypt or Persianot in the nineteenth century after Christ, but the nineteenth

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century before him (Habegger, 117). Truth happens to an idea, William James
would later write, but truth didnt happen to his fathers ideas. Nobody knew
how to make truth happen to them. Often, people didnt understand what he
was talking about.
Unable to find the interlocutors he needed in the outer world, he imagined
them. In the thousands of manuscript pages he left behindessays and lectures and treatises and thirty-page rebuttals of unfavorable reviewshe never
lets up. He is always going at some antagonist who hasnt reached first base in
the spiritual world and has nothing of value to say, always setting this third-rater
straight about the nature of things. Mind well what I say here, he constantly
demands (Habegger, 3). Henry James Sr. condescended not only to nonSwedenborgians but also to other Swedenborgians, who excommunicated him
finally. He condescended to Emerson, in part for not loving Swedenborg
enough. Kant was a third rater who needed to be set straight. Hadnt Kant realized that to say that the world and God were unknowable in themselves was to
disturb the foundations of human belief ? Kant had exhibited a fatuity unpardonable in a philosopher and Henry James Sr. professed a hearty conviction
that he was consummately wrong, wrong from top to bottom, wrong through
and through, in short all wrong. The word hearty perfectly captures the peculiar kind of embarrassment he could provide. It was useless for the children to
argue with the father. Henry James Sr. would, his son wrote in Notes of a Son and
Brother, answer one with the radiant when one challenged him with the
obscure, just as he could respond with the general when one pulled at the particular (339340). Embarrassing fathers are liable, when challenged, to flare
into radiance, as in that scary moment in Kafkas The Judgment when Georgs
father becomes ecstatic in response to his own ideas. His insight made him
radiant, Kafka tells us (85).
James might condescend or flare into radiance, but what he wanted more than
anything was to persuade. His theories were, as his son put it in Notes of a Son and
Brother, not only susceptible of application but clamorous for it to the whole field
of consciousness, nature and society, history, knowledge, all human relations and
questions, every pulse of the process of our destiny (335). Clamorous of application is a wonderfully straight-faced phrase. If only there was a way once and for all
to compel people to apply his ideas! Henry James Sr. never ceased trying to compel
others belief in the most muscular way imaginable (Habegger, 168). The children
at least would believe. They already believed, surely. In Notes of a Son and Brother,
Henry James writes that the James children might have been for [his father], by a
happy stretch, a sign that the world did knowtaking us for the moment, in our
selfish young babble, as a part of the noise of the world (334). How could a philosopher deny himself such an audience? Stanley Cavell writes, Science can be said

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to have no audience, for no one can fully understand it who cannot engage in it; art
can be said to have in each instance to create or re-create its audience. Philosophy is
essentially uncertain whom in a given moment it seeks to interest (5). Cavells
remarks take on an ominous coloring in our context, in which at any given moment
philosophy is trying to interest the children of the philosopher.
And all these attempts inevitably take place in an atmosphere of claustrophobic isolation. Social relief might be welcomed, but, on the other hand,
guests might also provide fresh occasions for embarrassment. The James children learned early that Henry James Sr. had to be stage-managed, required constant vigilance. Howells recalls that Henry James Sr. would now and then break
out and say something that each of the others had to modify and explain away,
and then hed be clapped back into durance again. Oscar Wilde held that
fathers should be seen but not heard. That is the secret of family life. Henry
James Sr. demanded to be seen and heardin his home, if nowhere else and by
his dinner guests, if nobody else. But the children were crucial. If they modified
and explained him away on social occasions, at least they saw and heard him.
And they were a captive audience at almost all times.
A captive audience that the captor cant see clearly. There can be no prodigal
son in the narrative of the embarrassing father because the father would not
recognize the returning child. The story of the prodigal son was one of William
Blakes favorite Biblical passages, and his reading of it to Samuel Palmer was a
memorable experience for Palmer. I can yet recall it when, on one occasion,
dwelling upon the exquisite beauty of the parable of the Prodigal, he began to
repeat a part of it; but at the words When he was yet a great way off, his father
saw him could go no further; his voice faltered, and he was in tears (quoted in
Wyatt, xiii). The father in the story sees his son from a long way off ; the embarrassing father sees only himself, and avatars of himself. The figure in the dark
and airless room with him is himself; the figure a great way off is also himself.
Malcolm Cowley, reviewing F. Scott Fitzgeralds Letters to His Daughter, wrote
that Fitzgerald wasnt writing those letters to his daughter at Vassar; he was
writing them to himself at Princeton. In her introduction to a new edition of
the letters, the daughter comments: This is the point, really. I was an imaginary
daughter, as fictional as one of his early heroines (xv). A. A. Milne told an
interviewer who asked whether he was very fond of children: I am not inordinately fond of them if that is what you mean, and I have certainly never felt in
the least sentimental about themor not more sentimental than one becomes
for a moment over a puppy or a kitten. In so far as I understand them, this
understanding is based on observation, on imagination, and on memories of my
own childhood (Milne, 13). If he can see a child at all, it is always himself as a
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Mr. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf s To the Lighthouse is one of the most memorable depictions by an adult child of her oblivious, embarrassing father.
Mr. Ramsay cannot see his children or, in fact, anyone who is childlike, since he
himself is childlike, the only one (in his mind) who is. But its not just children.
He cant recognize anyone. Lily Briscoe and William Bankes watch as Mr. Ramsay approaches them. His eyes, glazed with emotion, defiant with tragic intensity, met theirs for a second, and trembled on the verge of recognition (25). He
trembles on the verge of recognition, but the recognition does not come and
cannot be wrested from him.

2
Embarrassing fathers fill their children with suspense. It is tempting to stay forever, waiting, hypnotized by the tragedy of the fathers outer and inner world
and the comedy of his trembling on the verge in each world. Or one could leave
and try to have a successful professional life.
How did Henry James become disembarrassed of his father? (The phrase
is from Notes of a Son and Brother.) We can get a sense of his strategy by looking
at his treatment of his father in his autobiography. Never, probably, was the sons
tone of indirection, of amusement and forbearance more useful to him. His
criticisms are (seemingly) gentle and as indirect as possible. In Notes of a Son and
Brother, Henry recalls longing for a greater diversity of expression when his
father read aloud from his latest work: Variety, varietythat sweet ideal, that
straight contradiction of any dialectic, hummed for me all the while as a direct,
if perverse and most unedified, effect of the parental concentration (344). Like
a child looking for pictures, Henry looks for stories in his fathers books. But
there are none, not even the story of his conversion to Swedenborg. Still, Henry
will not launch an attack on his fathers mind, not directly; he will let his cousin
Minnie Temple do it. I agree with you perfectly about Uncle HenryI should
think he would be very irritating to the legal mind; he is not at all satisfactory
even to mine (506). Later he quotes another letter from her. Uncle Henrys
talk ... has seemed to me hitherto neither reasonable nor consoling. When I
was with him it so far disgusted me that I fear I showed him plainly that I found
it not only highly unpractical, but ignoble and shirking . . . His views didnt
touch my case a bit, didnt give me the least comfort or practical help, and
seemed to me wanting in earnestness and strength. Henry lets Minnie Temple
attack his father in part because if he himself attacks him it might feel as if he
has turned into his fathercontentious, argumentative, blindly aggressive.
He wants in his own person to be protective of his father, to pretend (as
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he didnt know, what the books are like. Obliviousness can be an act of love, if
its intentional and localized and temporary. Henry tried to maintain a distance
from his fathers books, in order to protect himself and also to protect his father.
(One can almost understand why he might have wanted to develop a mind so
fine no idea could violate it.) In his autobiography, writing about his fathers
ideas, James writes, I feel almost ashamed for my own incurious conduct (332).
Five pages later, he adds, I am not concerned with the intrinsic meaning of
these things (337). I am not concerned, James says. Concern, of course, is a
double-edged word. James recognized that Fathers ideas must concern him.
The intellectual eccentricities of aunts and uncles and cousins can be enjoyed as
Dickensian; those of ones parent must be wrestled with, cant be seen, in spite
of William Jamess efforts in that direction, as just another variety of experience. Still, he is, he says, unable even to dream of aspiring to give an account
of his fathers work (335). He says of the ideas that the children breathed them
in and enjoyed both their quickening and their embarrassing presence (330).
Breathing them in is not the same as sitting down and reading them, and the
passages in Jamess autobiography dealing directly with his lack of concern are
like a parodic version of the take and read passage in Augustines Confessions.
Every child has a limit, where embarrassment turns into something elsepanic,
sometimes. Henry refuses to take the books and read and evaluate them. His
brother will do that. He can, though, say something about his fathers style, if
not his ideas. The style is too philosophic for life and too living for thought
(344). He calls the theory monotonous . . . limitedly allusive and verbally
repetitive. In a key word, not literary. Like so many embarrassed children, he
wants to protect the parent, while signaling to someone, to his future self, perhaps, or to his childhood self, that he knows whats wrong with the fathers ideas
and with the father himself. In the course of one long paragraph we are assured
that his fathers system is not thin and bte, patched up and poor, wrong, falsifying, sentimentalized (372373). Two pages later we learn that it is also not
flatulent (375).
He can be indirect. Another strategy is to turn the father into a blur, to treat
him the way Wordsworth treats the leech gatherer in Resolution and Independence. Wordsworth can ask the leech gatherer, What occupation do you there
pursue? or How is it you live, and what is it you do? and it isnt an embarrassing question, as it would be if Henry asked his father, as he must have longed to
do at times. Once he did ask, and in Notes of a Son and Brother, he recalls the
answer. Say Im a philosopher, the father said, say Im a seeker for truth, say
Im a lover of my kind, say Im an author of books if you like; or, best of all, just
say Im a Student (278). Wordsworth does suggest there are other actions
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writes: But now his voice to me was as a stream /Scarce heard; nor word from
word could I divide. Henry is often very funny on the positive saving virtue of
vagueness (412) and on the way in which the vivid yields again to the vague
(168). I like ambiguities and detest great glares, he tells us in Notes of a Son and
Brother (299). This yielding is inevitable when he has to do more than allude to
his fathers work, whenever his narrative teases him into prolonging an invocation or dramatization or even explanation of it. He calls his fathers work a little
temple which stood there in the centre of our family life, into which its doors
of fine austere bronze opened straight ... we passed and repassed them when we
didnt more consciously go round and behind (332). James writes that we took
for granted vague grand things within and something perpetually fine going
on (332, 334). He remembers that the Swedenborg volumes were a regular part
of the family luggage on their travels in the 1850s, and that the family never felt
settled until the books had been taken and placed on the shelves. These volumes
represent his fathers traveling libraryliterally, his intellectual baggage. In one
sentence alone the son describes them as tokens of light ... a majestic array ...
the purplest rim of his librarys horizon ... colored properties. His fathers purple Swedenborg volumes with such titles as Arcana Coelestia, Angelic Wisdom,
and Apocalypse Explained are reduced in the autobiography from a great glare to
a soft glare, are blurred, are almost effaced. Effacement of the father (if only as
revenge) must represent a great temptation, particularly when ones own sensibility is allowed to display its virtuosity. Compare the vision of the pink copies
of the Revue des Deux Mondes, which were piled with the air, row upon row, of
a choir of breathing angels (193). Almost a hundred pages later Henry James Jr.
returns to his vision of the Revue accumulating on its shelves at last in serried
rows and really building up beneath us with its slender firm salmon-colored
blocks an alternative sphere of habitation (288). A new habitation, with a new
atmosphere, a literary one this time.
James was writing long after his fathers work had been forgotten by any public; he could have given it a great deal less notice than he does. But to ignore the
material would have been to waste itas his father himself, maybe, wasted it.
(It is hard not to think of esoteric systems as wasted without a simultaneous
Blakean or Yeatsian exploitation. Imagine James Merrills Ouija Board notations
in The Changing Light at Sandover without the poetry: we would have hundreds of pages of monotonous . . . limitedly allusive and verbally repetitive
injunctions.)
Henry lacks, he feels, his brothers competence to search the fathers system
for recoverable value. But he is able to locate a version of his father in which
there is recoverable value. In A Small Boy and Others, Henry, after sketching an
almost-forgotten classmate named Napier, remarks, He vanishes, and I dare say

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I make him over, as I make everything (337). Henry suggests that, in relation to
his father, this is a kind of assignment. My part may indeed have been but to
surround my fathers part with a thick imaginative aura; but that constituted for
me an activity than which I could dream of none braver or wilder (44). Two
points suggest themselves. The first is that Henry James Sr. requires an aura
because his son has stripped him of the one he hoped to have. The second point
is that this activity is an ironic variation on the fathers battle cry: Convert!
Convert! Convert! (123). James, with almost limitless power over his father as
a character, turns him from a failed prophet to a minor writer, mostly of letters.
He was the vividest and happiest of letter writers, he remembers in A Small
Boy and Others (43). (His father would probably have liked the word vividest.)
Quotations from the father, especially from his letters, now begin to proliferate
in the sons autobiography. His expression leads me on and on so by its force
and felicity that I scarce know where to stop (352353). He cant stop quoting
now, but what he quotes are passages of a certain kindfor example, a long letter in which his father expertly, almost professionally, recounts a long anecdote.
Over and over Henry praises his fathers rare gift for style in his letters (409).
Henry James Sr. starts to sound more and more like John Butler Yeats. The
father is reduced to his letters and the letters reduced to a tone, a style. Finally
Henry James Jr. can write: poor father, struggling so alone all his life, and so
destitute of every worldly or literary ambition, was yet a great writer. Not the
kind of great writer the son himself would read, not Turgenev or Flaubert or
Ibsen or George Eliot, but someone he might recommend to a friend who likes
that sort of thing. People who bought The Letters of John Butler Yeats also
bought The Letters of Henry James Sr.
Kafka, in his Letter to His Father, wrote, It is as if a person were a prisoner,
and he had not only the intention to escape, which would perhaps be attainable,
but also, and indeed simultaneously, the intention to rebuild the prison as a
pleasure dome for himself. But if he escapes, he cannot rebuild and if he rebuilds,
he cannot escape (113). Jamess autobiography engages that paradox directly.
His transfiguration of the prison house of his fathers language is effected without his fathers knowledge. This is not because the transfiguration has occurred
solely in the autobiography: a reader suspects that the peace reached with his
father in life must have involved a rudimentary version of this process. Because
Henry James Sr.s system was a system he was happy to fling as far as the child
might flee, the best bet might be to appear not to have fled. Henry James Sr.
wrote to his Henry: All my children have been very good and sweet from their
infancy, and I have been very proud of you and Willy. But I cant help feeling
that you are the one that has cost us the least trouble, and given us always the
most delight (339).

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There was great pathos surrounding the fathers death. As he was dying he
has strange visions, once of some old men sitting along the wall doing nothing,
he explained, but taking a kindly interest in me (quoted in Simon, 180). Henry
James Sr. had wanted his children to do nothing but take a kindly interest in
him. Henry had managed, miraculously, to take, in his autobiography, something like a kindly interest but he had also been able to show us the atmosphere
from which he, the son, had escaped. In a crucial sentence in Notes of a Son and
Brother he writes, What I wanted to want to be was ... just literary (413).
Above all, he did not want to have a grand theory of anything. He wrote, Nothing is my last word about anythingI am interminably supersubtle and analytic (Edel, 306). Rather than countering with the invention of another,
somehow more answerable system (an act, despite Blakes famous warning, rare
in parentchild relationships), the son counters with literariness. At the same
time, as I have shown, he shows that the father was himself just literary, lofty,
eloquent but still just literary. A writer of letters, a cheerful amateur unlike the
professional son. But being a cheerful literary amateur must be preferable to
being a frustrated prophet. Henry wanted to show his father that a literary mind
can accommodate not only explanations but also ambivalences, scruples, misgivings, impressions, reverberations, vibrations. Everything he writes demonstrates to his father, in a sense, how spacious and hospitable a mind can be, when
doctrines arent taking up valuable space in it. And he shows his father that there
were moments when he, the father, enjoyed a mind like that.
There was still the question of getting work done. What I wanted to want
to be was ... just literary, Henry wrote. But it wasnt enough just to be something because to be was to be in his fathers realm. Henry James Sr. had urged
his children over and over to be and not to do. One should sit, interiorating. His
children might become artists but should not practice a specific art. By artist,
however, he did not mean actual practitioners, painters or poets or musicians.
Like John Butler Yeats, Henry James Sr. distrusted professionalizationeven if
there was something oddly professional about the way both of them loved their
children. Art was or should be the gush of Gods life into every form of spontaneous speech and act, and by this definition the artist was the ideal, the universal man. When William studied art, his father was horrified at his tumbling
down into a mere painter (99). Actual artists were a sorry lot. Writers were
worse. There is nothing I dread so much as literary men, especially our literary
men (60). How do some children of such fathers manage nevertheless to grow
up to write and to write so much? They transform their fathers, blur them,
improve them.
Or they put their fathers into group portraits. Henry turned his father into
one of the literary men his father dreaded. Yeats did something similar. Six

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weeks before he died, John Butler Yeats wrote to John Quinn, Many thanks for
the $30. I have been badly wanting underwear and socks. He died with only a
few lonely effects, like the crumpled letters from his children that he had carried
about in his pockets until they were almost pulp. Yeats refuses to join his father
in his self-pity; instead, he wants to make his father seem beautiful and lofty,
what fathers are before they are embarrassing, if the child can remember back
that far. He wants at the same time to do something subversive, something liberating, and what could be more subversive, more liberating for a son struggling
to escape paternal love, a son not given to writing poems about his father, than
to put his father into a group portrait? John Butler Yeats was a warm, convivial
man. He would not, could not have objected. Probably he would not have
understood exactly what his son was doing; yet the gesture is clear to his readers.
In his poem Beautiful Lofty Things a series of portraits, or heads, of Olympians, Yeats includes a quick reference to his father with his beautiful mischievous head thrown back. John Butler Yeats is, like Henry James Sr., no longer the
one formidably difficult and embarrassing father. Now he is one of the many
beautiful lofty things in one of the many works his child published to great
acclaim.

References
Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. St. Albans, Hertfordshire, England: Granada Publishing, Ltd. 1982.
Cavell. Stanley. A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1994.
Donadio, Stephen. Nietzsche, Henry James and the Artistic Will. New York: Oxford University
Press, 1994.
Edel, Leon. Henry James: A Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Letters to His Daughter. New York: Scribners, 1965.
Foster, R. F. W. B. Yeats: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Gosse, Edmund. Father and Son. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1984.
Grattan, C. Hartley. The Three Jameses: A Family of Minds. New York: New York University Press,
1962.
Grossman, Allen. The Woman on the Bridge over the Chicago River. New York: A New Directions
Book, 1979.
Habegger, Alfred. The Father: A Life of Henry James Sr. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1994.
James, Henry. Autobiography (A Small Boy and Others, Notes of a Son and Brother and the Middle
Years). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.
Kafka, Franz. The Complete Stories. New York: Schocken Books 1971.
Kafka, Franz. Letter to His Father. New York: Schocken Books, 1966.
Lewis, R. W. B. The Jameses: A Family Narrative. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1991.
Milne, Christopher. The Enchanted Places: A Memoir of the Real Christopher Robin and Winniethe-Pooh. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc. 1975.

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Murphy, William M. Prodigal Father: The Life of John Butler Yeats (18391922). Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 1978.
Nuttall, A.D. Dead from the Waist Down: Scholars and Scholarship in Literature and the Popular
Imagination. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.
Simon, Linda. Genuine Reality: A Life of William James. Chicago: The University of Chicago
Press, 1998.
Spangler, David. Parent as Mystic, Mystic as Parent. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.
Stephen, Leslie. Selected Letters, Vols. I and II. Edited by John W. Bicknell. Columbus, OH: Ohio
State University Press, 1996.
Wheelwright, John. Collected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1983.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1989.
Wyatt, David. Prodigal Sons: A Study in Authorship and Authority. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1980.
Yeats, William Butler. Autobiography (Reveries over Childhood and Youth, The Trembling of the
Veil, and Dramatis Personae). New York: Macmillan, 1965.
Young, Frederick Harold. The Philosophy of Henry James, Sr. New York: Bookman Associates 1951.

7
Projected Love
Rae Langton

machine throws its bright pattern of light across empty space, onto a surface that then takes it, and wears it, as if it were all its own. From this literal idea of projection we can glean a more figurative one, though the figurative
idea emerges in philosophical discussion long before the advent of its most vivid
literal incarnation, the projection of moving pictures in cinema. It is there in
Hume, who claimed that the mind itself has, like that magical machine

a great propensity to spread itself on external objects, and to conjoin with


them any internal impressions, which they occasion.1
The mind, like the machine,
has a productive faculty, and gilding and staining all natural objects with
the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises in a manner, a new
creation.2
Hume found in this phenomenon a debunking explanation for many commitments that philosophers, though not only philosophers, have held dear: our
attribution of necessary connection to sequences of events; our attribution of
colors to surfaces of objects; our belief in objective value; our belief in supernatural beings. For Hume, the natural world turns out to be merely the neutral
screen onto which the human mind projects its grand drama of causation and
1
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, revised P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 167. I have been helped in thinking about this topic by Peter Kail,
Projection and Necessity in Hume, European Journal of Philosophy 9 (2001): 2454.
2

Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Selby-Bigge, 194.


141

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law, color and taste, good and evil, god and devil. Whether Hume was right
about all or any of these commitments, he was surely right to draw attention to
the productive faculty possessed by the human mind.
According to Proust, love too is entirely a projection, if we can, oversimplifying, identify the fictional Marcel with the real:
When we are in love with a woman we simply project on to her a state of
our own soul.
It is only a clumsy and erroneous form of perception which places
everything in the object, when really everything is in the mind ... [L]ove
places in a person who is loved what exists only in the person who loves.3
For Proust, it is the other, the woman, who is the neutral screen upon whom we
project the grand drama of love, a drama that has nothing really to do with her.
We need not go as far as Proust to agree that projection plays some role in
love. Anyone who has been in love has firsthand acquaintance with the transformation in feeling or internal sentiment that brings with it a transformation in
ones perception of the world. In those heady first days, the loved one walks in,
and the whole room seems literally to light up. Love gilds and stains everything
with its colors. The sun shines more brightly, the birds sing more sweetly, and
the most mundane objects are radiant with significancethe toothbrush (his
toothbrush!), the razor (his razor!), perhaps even the socks on the floor. Nor is
the phenomenon restricted to romantic love, as the newly besotted mother
knows, unable to tear her gaze from the cot, the fluff y blanket, the impossibly
tiny hatall the delightful, minute paraphernalia of newborn life.
Here we shall look at the role of projection in love, looking at Ian McEwans
The Innocent, his novel and the subsequent film, directed by John Schlesinger,
based upon it.4 The book is a love story and spy thriller, by turns funny, moving,
gruesome, and manipulative. The film version is cruder, possessing some but not
all of these features. The story is set in Berlin in 1956, at the dawn of the Cold
3

Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, trans. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (London: Chatto and Windus, 1981), I 891/833 and III 950/912; A la recherche du temps perdu (Paris:
Gallimard, 1954). References are to the translation, followed by the Gallimard edition (translations slightly adapted).

Ian McEwan, The Innocent (London: Picador, 1990); The Innocent, directed by John Schlesinger
(Santa Monica, CA: Miramax, 1995). Ideas about projection, as it appears in Hume, and in The
Innocent, are prefigured in Langton, Projection and Objectification, Brian Leiter (ed.) The Future for Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); and Sexual Solipsism, Philosophical Topics 23 (1995), Special Issue ed. Sally Haslanger, 181219; both reprinted in Langton, Sexual
Solipsism: Philosophical Essays on Pornography and Objectification (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2009).

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War. Berlin is divided among the Allied powers, and a young English technician, Leonard Markham, works with an American team on the Berlin Tunnel, a
joint MI-6/CIA effort to tap Russian telephone lines from underground. Leonard, shy and awkward at twenty-five, is the innocent of the title, beginning his
first serious job after a sheltered youth spent at homethe sort of home where
leather-bound encyclopedias line the bookshelves, and doilies and milk jugs are
expected at teatime. Maria, older and wiser at thirty, notices him at the ballroom, charmingly bespectacled, tipsy, and with a rose behind his ear. She takes
the initiative and sends him a message. Maria is German, works as a translator,
and her cramped apartment (so he soon discovers) is a place where doilies and
milk jugs are conspicuously absent. The novel tells the story of their affair and
how its fate becomes entwined with the fate of the spy tunnel.
Well be looking here at the love story and projections role in it. Hume notwithstanding, there is no need to approach the topic of projection in a merely
debunking spirit. Projection in the novels love affair is a two-edged thing, a
source of joy as well as danger, enlivening as well as damaging whatever it touches.
The film, by contrast, ignores this dimension, and this absence is no coincidence
but (I shall argue) a symptom of the limitations of film itself as a medium. The
book succeeds where the film fails; and the explanation for this lies in a mismatch between the projective phenomenology of love, captured powerfully by
McEwan, and the capacity of film to capture that phenomenology.

Three Kinds of Projection


In writing about projection, Hume describes at least three mechanisms, all having the capacity to generate projective belief, given some internal sentiment
such as a desire, a fear, or a feeling.
I shall call the first of them phenomenological gilding, since it has best claim
to being what Hume had in mind when he wrote of the way we gild and
stain natural objects with colors borrowed from sentiment. The phenomenology is quasi-perceptual, perhaps even literally perceptual. It can give rise to
belief the way perception can. Hume, like many philosophers since, was keen
to draw an analogy between our perception of color and our perception of
value:
Disapprobation ... lies in yourself, not the object ... Vice and virtue may
be compard to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which, according to modern philosophy are not qualities in objects.5
5

Hume, Treatise, 468469.

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Just as colors look to belong to the surfaces of objects to anyone with normal
vision, so the world literally looks threatening to the fearful, food literally looks
delicious to the hungry, bed literally looks wonderful to the exhausted. When it
comes to perceptions of value, there is a permeability between perception and
internal sentiment. The perception is caused by the sentiment, without seeming to be caused that way, indeed seeming to independently justify the sentiment. To the fearful person, perception of a threatening world seems to offer
more proof that there is danger, thereby further vindicating the fear. And for the
lover, perception through loves rosy glass seems to offer more proof of the
beauty and wonder of the beloved, thereby further vindicating the love.6
It is not only our perceptions of value that are permeable to internal sentiment. Hume identifies a second projective phenomenon, familiar to us all as
wishful thinking, through which almost any of our beliefs can be vulnerable to
the influence of desire and feeling. The passions, he says, are very favourable to
belief. He writes, in The Natural History of Religion, of how primitive belief in
gods was generated by a desire to control, through propitiation, the otherwise
random powers responsible for life and death, health and sickness, plenty and
wantpowers which become the constant object of our hope and fear.
Among passions that are favourable to belief, fear can be as potent an engine
as desire, so wishful thinking should really be extended to include fearful
thinking. The gods are wanted and dreaded; the polytheism Hume describes is
wishful and fearful at once. More straightforwardly wishful is belief in the
immortality of the soul, at least on Humes verdict:
All doctrines are to be suspected which are favoured by our passions; and
the hopes and fears which gave rise to this doctrine are very obvious.7
What role might wishful projection have in love? William James suggests that
love depends for its success on a certain kind of wishful thinking.
How many womens hearts are vanquished by the mere sanguine insistence of some man that they must love him! He will not consent to the
6

This apparent justificatory vindication is a topic of Mark Johnstons The Authority of Affect,
Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63 (2001): 181214; and Susanna Siegels Cognitive
Penetrability and Perceptual Justification, Nous 46 (2012): 201374. Comparable cases are discussed in Siegels Affordances and the Contents of Perception, forthcoming in Does Perception
Have Content? ed. Brit Brogaard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Hume, Treatise, 120; The Natural History of Religion (1757), ed. H. E. Root (London: Adam
and Charles Black, 1956), 140; On the Immortality of the Soul, from Essays Moral and Political
(17411742), reprinted in David Hume: Selected Essays, ed. Stephen Copley and Andrew Adgar
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 331.

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hypothesis that they cannot. The desire for a certain kind of truth here
brings about that special truths existence ... faith in a fact helps to create
the fact.8
In this case we have a belief that is clearly favoured by ... passions. Is it therefore to be suspected, as Hume thought? James thinks not. That is because he is
interested in a possibility that Hume did not, to my knowledge, confront. His
idea is that wishful thinking is no illusion, no mere projection, when it manages
to be self-fulfilling. Wishful belief that you have an immortal soul does not,
sadly, help you acquire one. Wishful belief that you have her love, however, just
might help you acquire it.
The third projective mechanism we can find in Hume is one Ill call pseudoempathy. It is the dubious cousin of something good, namely sympathy, the tendency of our minds to harmonize with the minds of others:
We may remark, that the minds of men are mirrors to one another ...
because they reflect each others emotions.
As in strings equally wound up, the motion of one communicates itself
to the rest; so all the affections readily pass from one person to another.9
Sympathy allows for genuine perception of other minds. What Im calling
pseudo-empathy, by contrast, is an overreadiness to assume that ones mind is the
mirror for something or someone else. While Hume has warm words for sympathy, he at the same time decries the
universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object those qualities, with which they are
familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious.10
This tendency is responsible for anthropomorphism, where we project human
qualities onto the nonhuman world, so that we find our own Figures in the
Cloudes, our Face in the Moon, our Passions and Sentiments even in inanimate Matter.11 Pseudo-empathy also provides part of Humes explanation for
8

William James, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Norwood, MA:
Plimpton Press, 1896), 23, 25.

Hume, Treatise, 363, 576.

10
11

Hume, Natural History, 141.

Hume, Letter to Gilbert Eliot of Minto, 1751, reprinted in Hume, Dialogues and Natural History
of Religion, ed. Gaskin (Oxford University Press, 1993), 26. Thanks to Peter Kail for the reference.

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primitive polytheism. In addition to the wishful belief that we have control,


there is the pseudo-empathic belief that the beings responsible for life and
death, plenty and want, are just like us, only more powerful. Like us, they get
angry, and like us, they are open to persuasion.
If we are thinking about a possible application of Humes idea to lovewell,
here again, the optimistic lover from William James provides a possible illustration. The lovers insistence that the woman must love him may have its source
not only in a desire that she love him, but in that universal tendency among
mankind to conceive of others as beings like themselves. The lover transfers
to the woman those qualities . . . of which [he is] intimately conscious: in
short, his projective insistence may be not just wishful, but pseudo-empathic.
And again, James would resist Humes debunking attitude to it. What begins as
dubious pseudo-empathy can end up (so James appears to think) as a triumph
of loving sympathy, when the affections pass from one person to another (in
Humes phrase) as in strings equally wound up.
Three kinds of projection, then, to keep in mind as we consider what, if anything, love has to do with it.

Projection in Love
We are looking at the role of projection in love, but we mustnt lose sight of the
thought that love is supposed to be a relationship between individuals (whatever Proust might say to the contrary), and one which is rightly taken to have
moral significance. Kant is no exception. In optimistic mode, Kant thinks that
friendship and romantic love are alike. Friends care for each others happiness,
and so do lovers. Friends confide in each other, and so do lovers.
Love, whether it is for a spouse or a friend ... wants to communicate itself
completely, and it expects of its respondent a similar sharing of heart.12
Kant speaks of friendship and romantic love in parallel terms of self-surrender
and retrieval. Kant writes of friendship that, if I love my friend as I love myself,
and he loves me as he loves himself, he restores to me that with which I part
and I come back to myself again. He writes of sexual love, if I yield myself
completely to another and obtain the person of the other in return, I win myself
back.13 He says that the man without a friend is a man all alone, who must shut
12
Letter to Maria Herbert, Spring 1972. Kant, Philosophical Correspondence, tr. Arnulf Zweig
(Chicago: University of Chicago, 1967).
13
Kant, Lectures on Ethics, trans Louis Infield (London: Methuen, 1930), from notes by Brauer,
Kutzner, and Mrongovius, ed. Mentzner, 202203, 167.

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himself up in himself, who must remain completely alone with his thoughts, as
in a prison.14 He thinks of friendship, and by extension sexual love, as an escape
from the prison of the self, an escape from a kind of solipsism: each of us needs
a friend ... from whom we can and need hide nothing, to whom we can communicate our whole self.15
But sex is the serpent in the garden of love, according to Kant:
Human love is good will, affection, promoting the happiness of others
and finding joy in their happiness. But it is clear that when a person loves
another purely from sexual desire, none of these factors enter into love.
Far from there being any concern for the happiness of the beloved, the
lover, in order to satisfy his desire, may even plunge the loved one into
the depths of misery.
His notorious discussion concludes with an extraordinary metaphor:
Sexual love makes of the loved person an object of appetite; as soon as
that appetite has been stilled, the person is cast aside as one casts away a
lemon that has been sucked dry.16
Kant allows that sex can be united to human love, that sexual lovers can care
about each others happiness; but the dangers of objectification he finds in
merely sexual love have found echoes in more recent feminist work.17
Sexual love may have distinctive costs and benefits, as Kant appears to have
thought, but leaving those aside, let us here pursue the idea that projection may be
involved in both. Projection may have a role to play in whats good about sexual
love, when it goes well; and in whats bad about sexual love, when it goes wrong.
Projection may be involved in whats good about sexual love in all three ways
just considered. When your world lights up, through the phenomenological gilding of sexual love, that is one aspect of the distinctive happiness that love brings.
Wishful thinking and pseudo-empathy might (whatever their epistemological
pathologies) have their positive side. They may play a part in the success of love,

14
Kant, Doctrine of Virtue (1797), trans. Mary Gregor (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 144,
italics added.
15

Kant, Lectures on Ethics, 205206.

16

Kant, Lectures on Ethics, 63.

17

See, for example, Barbara Herman, Could It Be Worth Thinking about Kant on Sex and Marriage, A Mind of Ones Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity, ed. Antony and Witt
(Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993).

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love

as for the insistent lover described by William James. They may play a part in the
moral development of lovers, who wishfully project an image of the other that is
rosier than the reality, a projection that can inspire and enable its fulfillment, as
lovers live up to the high hopes each has of each other. Love of friends and family
has been observed to have this feature, and sexual love might well share it.18
Projection can be involved in love gone wrong, too. Some of its more sinister
possibilities are expressed by Prousts Marcel.
I carried in my mind ... the mental phantomever ready to become
incarnateof the woman who was going to fall in love with me, to take
up her cues in the amorous comedy which I had had all written out in my
mind from my earliest boyhood, and in which every attractive girl seemed
to me to be equally desirous of playing, provided that she had also some
of the physical qualifications required. In this play, whoever the new star
might be whom I invited to create or to revive the leading part, the plot,
the incidents, the lines themselves preserved an unalterable form.19
Whether the projection works for good or ill depends on what, exactly, is being
projected.

Projection in Love Going Well


Whenever Leonard recalls Marias face, it is gilded with his feelings for her.
Her face
shone for him, the way faces do in certain old paintings ... Her eyes were
serious, though not mournful, and were green or grey, according to the
light ... Her most typical expression was one of dreamy watchfulness, the
head slightly lifted and tipped an inch or so to one side. It was the sort of
face, the sort of manner, onto which men were likely to project their own
requirements.20
Like faces in old paintings? This phrase conjures the thought of another
Maria, revered through ages in paintings, and allows the reader to see in the
18

On a connection with trust, see, for example, Richard Holton, Deciding to Trust, Coming
to Believe, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 72 (1994): 6376; Philip Pettit, The Cunning of
Trust, Philosophy and Public Affairs 24 (1995), 202225. On a comparable role for friendship, see
Dean Cocking and Jeanette Kennett, Friendship and the Self, Ethics 108, no. 3 (1998): 502527.
19

Proust, Remembrance (I 951/890).

20

McEwan, The Innocent, 47.

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minds eye a glow, a halo, surrounding Leonards image of this one. Her face is,
we are told, the kind of face onto which men were likely to project their own
requirements, an anticipation of what is to come.
A week after their meeting at the ballroom, Leonard goes to visit Maria. He
had planned only to leave a carefully rehearsed note, but then finds himself inexplicably turning the door handle to her apartment, and there she is. He is struck
dumb, by joy and self-consciousness awkwardness (why did he just barge in?).
She too is struck dumb, for another reason:
during the seconds before she recognized him, Maria had been immobilized by fear. This sudden apparition stirred ten-year old memories of
soldiers, usually in pairs, pushing open doors unannounced.21
Leonard can hardly be oblivious to this possibility. He has some inkling already
of what Berlin women had been through just after the war. He had been chatting with English workmen posted to Berlin, helpful with their tips about getting on with the local girls.
These [Berlin] girls, as long as youre not a Russian you cant go wrong.
His friend ... agreed. They hate the Russians. When they came in here,
May 45, they behaved like animals, fucking animals. All these girls now
see, they all got older sisters, or mums, or even their fucking grannies,
raped, knifed, they all know someone, they all remember.22
Leonard had even reported this fact with quiet authority over drinks with his
own workmates. But his knowledge of the womens experience of wartime violence remains theoretical. What he projects onto Marias face is a more familiar
attitude:
Leonard misjudged her expression as the understandable hostility of a
householder for an intruder. And he misread the quick faint smile of recognition and relief as forgiveness.23
They have tea together (without aid of doilies and milk jugs), but he feels locked
in a script that will keep them apart:

21

Ibid., 52.

22

Ibid., 29.

23

Ibid., 52.

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a pattern was waiting to impose itself: a polite inquiry would elicit a


polite response and another question. Have you lived here long? Do you
travel far to work? ... Only silences would interrupt the relentless tread
of question and answer. They would be calling to each other over immense
distances, from adjacent mountain peaks ... It was an assumption, lodged
deep, beyond examination or even awareness, that the responsibility for
the event was entirely his.24
Maria has ideas of her own, however, and as he begins on his script (Have you
lived here long?), she interrupts, asks him to take off his glasses, admires his
eyes, admires his smile, interlocks her fingers with his. He feels a delicious abandonment, and his mind has just one thought, repeating overso this is it, its
like this, so this is it. She asks about other girlfriends in England, and he makes
a lunge at the truth:
Well, actually, none.
Maria leaned forward. You mean youve never ...
He could not bear to hear whatever term she was about to use. No,
I never have.
She put her hand to her mouth to stifle a yelp of laughter.25
Leonard realizes immediately that his confession is a tremendous blunder. He
finishes his tea, says he must be getting back, invents an appointment. She protests that he must stay, but armed with excuses, he prepares to leave. His projection of her contempt (fearful rather than wishful) threatens to destroy the
chance of something better. One could almost wish for Leonard the brash selfconfidence of Jamess insistently wishful lover, who simply presses onshe must
love him!
But Leonard has misread Marias laughter.
Hers was the laughter of nervous relief. She had been suddenly absolved from the pressures and rituals of seduction. She would not have
to adopt a conventional role and be judged in it, and she would not be
measured against other women. Her fear of being physically abused had
receded. She would not be obliged to do anything she did not want. She
was free, they both were free, to invent their own terms. They could be
partners in invention. And she really had discovered for herself this shy
24

Ibid., 5657.

25

Ibid., 57.

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Englishman with the steady gaze and the long lashes, she had him first,
she would have him all to herself. These thoughts she formulated later in
solitude. At the time they erupted in the single hoot of relief and hilarity
which she had suppressed to a yelp.26
Leonard has a script for small talk, but innocent as he is, he lacks a script for
seduction. In this respect he is unlike Prousts Marcel, whose amorous comedy
had been all written out in his mind from earliest boyhood. Leonard has no
ritual for seduction, and that is just what delights Mariathe prospect of a freedom from script, freedom from having to corral ones feelings in conventional
ritual.
Maria, for her part, does not misread Leonards evasive actions, destructive
as they are of his own happiness.
Though it still surprised her, she was to some extent familiar with the delicacy of masculine pride. Despite a surface assurance, men were easily
offended. Their moods could swing wildly. Caught in the turbulence of
unacknowledged emotion, they tended to mask their uncertainty with
aggression ... she was thinking of her husband and one or two violent
soldiers she had known. The man scrabbling to leave by the front door was
less like the men she had known and more like herself. She knew just how
it felt. When you felt sorry for yourself, you wanted to make things worse.27
She takes matters into her own hands again, reaches up, lifts off his glasses, and
hides them under a cushion. Leonards glasses are an ongoing motif in the novel.
He is always inspecting them, taking them on and off, seeing things and people
as a blur. Signaling Leonards status as a school-boyish boffin, his glasses also
provide a metaphor for his social and moral myopia. Other people are often a
blur for him, in more ways than one.
Look here ... He had wanted to stay, now he had to. I really do have to
be going. He stood in the centre of the tiny room, irresolute, still attempting to fake his hesitant English form of outrage. She stood close ... How
wonderful it was, not to be frightened of a man. It gave her a chance to
like him, to have desires which were not simply reactions to his. She took
his hands in hers. But I havent finished looking at your eyes. Then, with
the Berlin girls forthrightness ... she added, Du Dummer! wenn es fr
26

Ibid., 5758.

27

Ibid., 5859.

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dich das erste Mal ist, bin ich sehr glcklich. When this is your first time,
then I am a very lucky girl. It was her this which held Leonard. He was
back with this.28
Leonards awkwardness, his self-doubt, give Maria a sense of space, of opportunities to want, and feel, and act in her own right. It is precisely Leonards retreat
from the pose of the brash, Jamesian loverhis reluctance to insist that she
must love himwhich wins her. So he stays. And they do become lovers, the
very partners in invention she had hoped for.
Marias face shines for Leonard, like the faces in some old paintings, and as
the affair proceeds, that gilding extends to the most mundane objects. McEwan
vividly captures the poetry of everyday things colored by love. Marias flat is a
tiny unheated rear-facing apartment, and the intense beginning of their affair
coincides with the coldest week of the winter. They wake to windowpanes fantastically patterned with ice, the greatcoat on the bed frozen. The apartment is
unpretentious to the point of squalor, plates stacked in the sink, shoes jumbled
on the floor, but the simple domestic objects and happenings all smolder with
Leonards ardor, the candlelight, the smell of her body:
she was standing at the stove in a mans dressing gown and her football
socks cooking a potato and mushroom omelette. They ate it in bed with
black bread. The Mosel was sugary and rough. They drank it in the tea
mugs and insisted it was good. Whenever he put a piece of bread in his
mouth, he smelled her on his fingers. She had brought in the candle in
the bottle and now she lit it. The cosy squalor of clothes and greasy plates
hung in the air and mixed with the smell on his fingers.
Later in the day, still unbathed and unshaven, Leonard is back at work on his
circuit boards, where his own body continues to bear pungent witness to recent
ecstasies.
If Leonard needed proof of his dedication to a passion it was in the matted thickness of his grey socks, and the aroma of butter, vaginal juices and
potatoes that rose from his chest when he loosened the top button of his
shirt. The excessively heated interiors at the ware-house released from the
folds of his clothes the scent of over-used bedsheets and prompted disabling reveries in the windowless room.29
28

Ibid., 59.

29

Ibid., 80.

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Much later, at a point when it seems that Leonard might never see Maria again,
his mind turns backs in agony to tiny, ordinary things about her
The blade of callus on her toe, the mole with two hairs, the miniscule
dents in her lobes. If she went, what was he going to do with all these loving facts, these torturing details?30
Loving facts, torturing details, black bread, pungent smells, greasy plates, a blade
of callus on a toeall shine for him with the same beauty he finds in that
Madonna image of her face.
The first intense weeks of their relationship convey a sense of unimagined
freedom, which in retrospect they look back on as a time when
it had seemed possible to make their own rules, and thrive independently
of those quiet forceful conventions that keep men and women in their
tracks. They had lived hand to mouth in lordly squalor, out at the extremes of physical delight, happy as pigs.31
Secure at last in Marias affection, Leonard encounters trouble, however, from a
quite different direction, from within himself.

Projection in Love Going Wrong


The trouble comes from an element of mind creeping in, as Leonard begins to
be haunted by fantasies which, though somehow alien, seem irresistible.
It began ... with a simple perception. He looked down at Maria, whose
eyes were closed, and remembered she was a German. The word had
not been entirely prised loose of its associations after all ... German.
Enemy. Mortal enemy. Defeated enemy. This last brought with it a
shocking thrill. He diverted himself momentarily ... Then: she was the
defeated, she was his by right, by conquest, by right of unimaginable
violence and heroism and sacrifice... . He was powerful and magnificent... . He was victorious and good and strong and free. In recollection these formulations embarrassed him . . . They were alien to his
obliging and kindly nature, they offended his sense of what was reasonable. One only had to look at her to know there was nothing defeated
30

Ibid., 112.

31

Ibid., 118.

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about Maria. She had been liberated by the invasion of Europe, not
crushed.32
But Leonards fantasy of the conquering hero continues and evolves:
Next time round the thoughts returned. They were irresistibly exciting ... she
was his by right of conquest and then, there was nothing she could do about it.
She did not want to be making love to him, but she had no choice ... She was
struggling to escape. She was thrashing beneath him, he thought he heard
her call out No! She was shaking her head from side to side, she had her
eyes closed against the inescapable reality ... she was his, there was nothing
she could do, she would never get away. And that was it, that was the end for
him, he was gone, finished... .
Over the following days, his embarrassment faded. He accepted the
obvious truth that what happened in his head could not be sensed by
Maria, even though she was only inches away. These thoughts were his
alone, nothing to do with her at all.
Eventually, a more dramatic fantasy took shape. It recapitulated all
the previous elements. Yes, she was defeated, conquered, his by right,
could not escape, and now, he was a soldier, weary, battle-marked and
bloody, but heroically rather than disablingly so. He had taken this
woman and was forcing her. Half terrified, half in awe, she dared not
disobey. It helped when he pulled his great-coat further up the bed so
that by turning his head to the left or the right, he could catch sight of
the green.33
Projection seems more than metaphor at this point. It is as if Leonard is using
Marias body as a screen, upon which his mind casts its narrative of conquest.
All those ordinary physical details are viewed, as we say, in a different light
and it is not the light in which Marias face shone for him at other times.
Leonards desires conspire with his senses, so that he literallyor almost
literallysees what he wants to see, hears what he wants to hear. She has her
eyes closedyes, against the inescapable reality. She thrashes beneath him
yes, trying to escape. She is a German womanyes, defeated enemy. She
moanssurely she calls out No! He catches sight of his green greatcoatyes,
he is a conquering soldier.

32

Ibid., 83.

33

Ibid., 8384.

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It is not quite a literal seeing. It resembles phenomenal gilding, but this time
it is driven by a complex inner play script, hungrily hunting for props. There is
an echo of Prousts Marcel, whose perceptions of women are driven by his inner
script. At some level Leonard remains aware that his thoughts have nothing to
do with her. He half recognizes that his fantasy is solipsistic. And this presents
the next problem. Leonard wants his thoughts to have something to do with
Marianot just with Maria as a useful screen for his heroic film but Maria as
herself.
He found himself tempted to communicate these imaginings to her ...
he wanted her to acknowledge what was on his mind, however stupid it
really was. He could not believe she would not be aroused by it ... His
private theatre had become insufficient ... Telling her somehow was the
next inevitable thing ... He wanted his power recognized and Maria to
suffer from it, just a bit, in the most pleasurable way . . . Then he was
ashamed. What was this power he wanted recognized? It was no more
than a disgusting story in his head. Then, later, he wondered whether she
might not be excited by it too. There was, of course, nothing to discuss.
There was nothing he was able, or dared, to put into words. He could
hardly be asking her permission. He had to surprise her, show her, let
pleasure overcome her rational objections.34
We should stop to remind ourselves: Leonard knows, in theory, how women in
Berlin suffered at the hands of Russian soldiers. As he reported to his colleagues,
theyve all got older sisters, or mothers, even grannies, who were raped and
kicked around. He knows something else, too. Maria has an ex-husband called
Otto who appeared unpredictably two or three times in a year to demand
money and sometimes smack her head.35 He has this theoretical knowledge, yet
it does not filter through to his understanding of Maria herself. Instead, there is
wishful projection. He could not believe she would not be aroused by it. He
admits he has been living in a private theater, but he blurs the boundary
between fantasy and fact. He wanted his power recognized, and Maria to suffer
from it, just a bit, in the most pleasurable way. The next instant he acknowledges to himself that there was no power; it was only a story in his head. But
then he convinces himself that she will be excited, too, and that pleasure will
overcome her objections.

34

Ibid., 84.

35

Ibid., 33, 40.

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Leonard now has the overconfidence of the optimist described by William


James. That insistent lover moved from a desire that the woman loved him, to
wishful belief that she loved him, to eventual success in love. Leonard moves
from a desire that Maria should love this, to a belief that she will love thisand
what are his prospects of success? He has James on his side: How many womens hearts are vanquished.
There is also pseudo-empathy here, that tendency we have to conceive of
other beings as like ourselves. Jamess optimist can look pseudo-empathic, as
well as wishful: it is not just a case of I want her to love me, so she loves me but
also I love her, so she loves me. Leonards thought likewise manifests pseudoempathy as well as wishfulness: not just I want her to love this, so she loves
this; but I love this, so she will love this. Leonard believes Maria will be
excited by the fantasy that excites him.
But lets think about that pseudo-empathic inference from I love this to she
will love this. What is the this? Described as a rape fantasy, the this he enjoys
seems the same as the this he anticipates Maria will enjoy, but the apparent synonymy is an illusion. It is wholly different for him and for her. For him it is the
fantasy of raping; for her it is the fantasy of being raped. Why think the desirability
of the first, for one, yields the desirability of the second, for another? This attribution of desire has the appearance of pseudo-empathy, an overready assumption that
others will be like us: but in fact the inferred desire is not the same but complementary. It is not like expecting someone to enjoy haggis because you enjoy haggis. It is
like expecting the fox to enjoy being hunted because you enjoy hunting. So even by
the low standards of pseudo-empathy, Leonards hypothesis is less than promising.
Leonard acts on his hypothesis one evening, emboldened by the Sekt they
had been sharing to celebrate their first meeting. The scene strikes the reader as
at once ludicrous and tragic. Leonard is trying to be sure of himself.
He knew that if he acted confidently and was true to his feelings, he
could not fail.36
One can almost imagine he has been reading James, on the will to believe as a
path to success.
Leonard blocks Marias way and begins to bark his orders. Take off your
clothes. Do as youre told. When she laughs indulgently, teases him for drinking
too much and thinking hes Tarzan, he runs her against the wall, harder than he
intends, knocking the wind out of her. He keeps up the orders. She is startled,
resists. He still keeps up the orders.
36

Ibid., 86.

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She shook her head. Her eyes looked heavy and dark. He thought this
might be the first indication of success. When she began to obey she
would understand that this pantomime was all for pleasure, hers as well
as his.
She tries to get past him, but he continues blocking her and issuing his
commands.
Her jaw had dropped and her lips were parted. She was looking at him as
though for the first time. It could have been wonder on her face, or even
astonished admiration. At any moment it would all be different, there
would be joyous compliance, and transformation.37
Caught up in his plan, convincing himself that it suits her as well as him, he
continues to project its requirements. Marias open jaw and heavy eyes are the
signs, not of horror, but of admiration for her newly powerful lover. He tears off
her clothes, pins her to the ground, positions himself for action, and begins
but then stops. He can no longer ignore her eyes welling with tears, as she asks
him, a second time, to please leave. What has happened? To borrow Kants
words, it seems that the lover, in order to satisfy his desire, has plunged the
loved one into the depths of misery. If Kant is wrong about sexual desire per se
being the snake in the garden, he may still be right to be wary of the forms sexual
desire can take. The desire for domination can be closely entwined with sexual
desirenot just according to feminists but to past philosophers such as Rousseau. Here is Rousseau, explaining how rape, or its epistemic possibility, provides the chief charm of an ordinary sexual encounter.
Is it weakness which yields to force, or is it voluntary self-surrender? This
uncertainty constitutes the chief charm of the mans victory, and the
woman usually has enough guile to leave him in doubt.38
In the ensuing silence, Leonard is angry with Maria (she was taking it literally, using it against him, and that was quite unfair). He is desperate, too, wondering how they could ever get back to how they were, a mere half hour before,
walking arm in arm along Oranienstrasse. Again an image comes to his mind,
37
38

Ibid., 87.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, mile, or On Education (1762), trans. Barbara Foxley (London: Everyman, 1911) drawing on amendments by Grace Roosevelt, ILT http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/
pedagogies/rousseau/Contents2.html (accessed January 15, 2011) Book V, 1261.

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this time from his boyhood, of a beautiful clockwork locomotive, which met its
end when he overwound it one afternoon, in a spirit of reverent experimentation. An image comes to her mind, too, from ten years earlier, when soldiers
from the advancing Red Army broke into the bunker where thirty civilians were
hiding. Her uncle had hidden her, while the soldiers proceeded to rob and rape.
Leonard can do nothing but leave. When he returns with flowers the next day,
Maria has gone.
Three weeks later he finds her waiting on the landing outside his apartment.
Over time, she has come slowly to a decision that Leonards actions were the
result of an innocent stupidity; that he lived so intensely within himself he
was barely aware of how his actions appeared to others. But she has not, yet,
forgiven him; nor has she managed to cast off her fear, which was
like a madness, this fear that someone pretending affection wanted to do
her harm. Or that a malice she could barely comprehend should take on
the outer forms of sexual intimacy.39
Leonards clumsy efforts to apologize backfire. He allows the light on the
landing to go out, crosses toward her in the darkness, trying somehow to
recapture the intimacy of the darkness of those precious winter nights. He
again misreads her. Aware of her fast, shallow breathing, feeling her tremble,
he wonders whether she has somehow arrived at the extremes of sexual arousal
and places his hands on her shoulders, shaking her gently, to remind her of
who he isand she screams. But she doesnt want to be rescued by Leonards
solicitous neighbor. She goes into Leonards flat and, still undecided, gives
him a chance to speak. He eventually does, haltingly, but with an openness he
has never managed before: saying how he loves her, how precious and beautiful she is, how happy they had been, what an idiot, a selfish ignorant fool he
had been to frighten her, how he didnt know what had come over him, how
he had meant no harm, and it would never, ever happen again. For her part,
she found it
almost unbearable to watch this clumsy, reticent Englishman who knew
so little about his feelings lay himself open.40
There is silence. He thinks he has said too much, that it sounds dishonest. But
no, there she is, at last, unbuttoning her coat and coming over to him.
39

McEwan, op cit., 110.

40

Ibid., 113.

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Love Extended and Interrupted


Projection can, then, be involved in what makes love good, when it is good, and
what can make it bad when it is bad. But before we go further, we should
spoiler alert!complete the story.
United again, Leonard and Maria build a different relationship, taking comfort in the ordinariness of being a courting couple, going to the movies, giggling
together, dancing rock and roll, making love often and merrily enough. Their
comfortable happiness is marred by a visit to Maria from her ex-husband, Otto,
who threatens, extorts money, and beats her, punching her in the face three
times with his full strength. Leonard, tending her injuries, is aghast at the violence of which human beings are capable. He now has knowledge by acquaintance, rather thanas beforemerely by description. And he is newly aghast at
his own past actions.
On the night of their engagement party, they return to Marias flat, but their
celebrations come to an abrupt halt when they find Otto hiding in a cupboard,
drunk and snoring. He wakes. There is a terrible fight, during which he almost
strangles Maria. It is a scene of appalling terror and pain, and it gets worse. Otto
ends up dead, with a shoe last impaled in his skull, and then, as the lovers gradually realize they could be guilty of manslaughter or worse, they decide they must
dispose of the body. Over the hours as they ponder what to do, their minds
clouded with ever-increasing exhaustion and alienation from each other, a grisly
solution presents itself. At this point in the novel, a reader feels not just horror
but betrayal. Drawn in by affection for these characters, we never expected to
have to go through this. A gruesome chapter is devoted to the dismembering of
Ottos body. The Authors Note acknowledges help from an expert in pathology (compare the neurosurgery in McEwans Saturday), and it is drawn upon in
unrelenting detail. Eventually Leonard, his mind stretched to the breaking
point, takes the boxes packed with body parts and leaves them in the spy tunnel
itself, underground in the Russian sector.
To cap this innocents litany of sins, he sells the secret of the spy tunnel to the
Russians, in faint hope of preventing discovery of the boxes by his American
coworkers. The Russians do indeed break into the tunnel, though by chance it is
through a different breach of security. When Leonards supervisor, Bob Glass,
comes to see Maria, suspecting her being responsible for the breach, he discovers
her more gruesome secret. The Russian police meanwhile have found the boxes
and begun a murder enquiry, but Glass uses his influence to have the whole
thing hushed up, from the public, and also from Leonard. In the novels final
scene Maria and Leonard meet at the airport. Maria is in a mood of strange
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promises about meeting in London, Leonard is uneasy. His worst suspicions


seem confirmed when, seated on the plane, he looks out at Maria, waving on the
runway. He sees Glass join her, and they wave at him together. Leonard leaps to
a conclusion. And then his jealous projection of a relationship between Maria
and Glass, his consequent humiliation and despair, all get in the way of communication that might resolve this last suspicion. Marias letters to him remain
unanswered, and she never comes to London.
By this stage of the novel, its title has become bleakly ironic. The fresh-faced
innocent of the storys beginning has, in turn, tried to rape the woman he loves,
helped to kill and dismember a man, and betrayed his country. It is a remarkable
achievement of the novelists art that the readers affection for Leonard remains
undiminished, throughout. What one finds hardest to forgive, in the end, is not
the butchering or the treachery, but the fear and pride that drives Leonard to
project a love that is not his but is entirely his own invention. Recall that William James said, in a spirit of encouragement and warning, that faith in a fact
can help create the fact. That can help the lover who has faith in his own love.
It can hinder the lover who has faith in his rivals love. That is Leonards tragedy.
His projection of love between Maria and Glass is just what helps, in the end, to
create the thing he fears most.

Love Projected on Screen


McEwan himself wrote the screenplay for the film version directed by
Schlesinger. The film plays up the spy story, and plays down the relationship
between Maria and Leonard, except insofar as it matters to the genre. Despite
its impressive cast (Isabella Rossellini as Maria, Anthony Hopkins as Glass,
Campbell Scott as Leonard), the film was not properly released or marketed by
the studio, Miramaxas if they themselves had lost faith in it. I wont speculate
about why, but there are certainly shortcomings for any viewer interested in
what McEwan has to offer on our topic.
My hunch is that the shortcomings are inevitable, given the limits not just of
this film, but of film more generally. When it comes to the projective phenomenology of love, film tends to obscure what novels can reveal. When love is projected on film, there is something about that medium which prevents us grasping
aspects of love that can be made clear when clothed in words.
Perhaps the converse is also true: perhaps film can reveal what novels tend to
obscure; but that is not our topic. Perhaps, too, other verdicts are possible. Why
generalize about film, and books, and love, on the basis of this sample? There
may be nothing more grand to note than here, as so often, the film is not as good
as the book.

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Whatever the wider implications of this evaluation, the difference I want to


bring out is this. When reading McEwans novel, you find yourself constantly
projected, with great sympathy, into Leonards perspective and Marias perspective by turns, with occasional revelations from an eye-of-God narrator. As a
viewer of Schlesingers film, by contrast, you have the role of a third-party
observer, with only the conventions of the spy genre to guide youconventions
that are also allowed to distort the plot.
Maria is, to the viewer, constantly under suspicion, a femme fatale, who picks
up Leonard, and seduces him, with seemingly sinister motives. She tries to pry
his secrets from him, mingling seduction with subtle interrogation. In this narrative, unlike that of the novel, she is under pressure from ex-husband Otto to
extort secrets, in a climate where secrets are worth money. Marias attraction to
Leonard is unfathomable. The titles meaning is flattened. We cannot see why it
matters to Maria that Leonard is an innocent: we cannot see what that innocence means to her, given her experience of a violent world. We learn nothing
about Maria and are given nothing from her own perspective. Cast as a femme
fatale, she has to be mysterious. We do not see Leonard from her viewpoint: the
charm of the shy young Englishman with the long lashes. We cannot see how
Leonard represents for Maria a space and freedom she has never known. The
viewer is forced to look for ulterior motives of espionage entirely absent in the
novel. Maria is manipulative to the end. In the greatest plot change, Maria
begins a relationship with Glass as a way to buy his help in the cover-up, having
convinced herself that things are finished with Leonard, given the bloody ordeal
they have been through. Maria tricks Leonard into believing she will accompany him to London on the plane, and then at the door of the plane (shades of
Casablanca!) turns to stay with Glass.
The conventions of the genre, and the limitations of film, tell on the depiction of Leonard, too. If Maria is a femme fatale, Leonard is a clumsy young
geek. We are outsiders to the inner lives of these two. While exclusion from
Marias inner life means we never grasp what she sees in Leonard, exclusion
from Leonards inner life means we have no understanding of his later violence
toward her. The rape scene does appear in the film. But without the readers
privilege of inhabiting Leonards imaginings beforehand, as he projects his
private theatre on Marias body, we have no sense either of what he is doing or
why he is doing it. What is he doing? He is fantasizing that he is a conquering
soldier, raping a German woman; he is trying to invite her to share his fantasy.
Why is he doing it? Because he finds the fantasy irresistibly exciting; because it
has been haunting his interactions with her for some time; and because he has
managed to persuade himself, through an unhappy mix of wishful thinking
and pseudo-empathy, that she will surely enjoy it, too. Without this crucial

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preamble, Leonards actions are neither intelligible nor tragic. Leonard is simply drunk, and inexplicably brutal.
Viewers are also outsiders to the happiness of Leonard and Maria, when they
are happy, in a way that McEwans readers are not. That is partly because we are
outsiders to the way the world is gilded especially for them. There is no sense of
her apartment as a tiny, cramped haven in a freezing winter, her dark, piled-up
bed a glorious, muddled refuge where they live hand to mouth, in lordly squalor, out at the extremes of delight, happy as pigs, beyond all consideration of
domestic detail and personal cleanliness. The Maria of the film pours tea from
an elegant tea set, and she remembers to put the milk in first. Rough football
socks, a mans dressing gownthese are not the lingerie of choice for Rossellini,
nor are fried potatoes the directors idea of an aphrodisiac. In the novel, McEwan manages to engage all the senses in his depiction of a physical world that
glows with love. It is a world where smell, and taste, and texture matter just as
much as sight and sound: rough comforting wool, slippery smoothness, tiny
hairs on a mole, potato omelets, trembling arms, the sulfur smell of a match,
sugary Mosel, the indentation of a navel discovered in darkness, the reverieinducing reek of ones own unwashed body. This sensory wealth from the characters viewpoint is part of the novels success. The novel captures how the world
looks, sounds, feels, tastes, and smells to the lovers. The film captures how the
lovers look and sound to a third party. That narrowing of the senses, and that
failure of empathy, are predictable.41 It is probably impossible, in film, to convey
the transformation, through love, of ones five senses and what they tell of the
world; but it not impossible in words, as McEwan demonstrates.
My hunch, then, getting back to Hume, is that a novel can give us better
access to the internal sentiments of its characters, and better access to a world
gilded and stained by those sentiments. By contrast, love as projected on screen
misses something significant: it misses the way love is projected by lovers on the
world, and on each other. This something, which includes loves distinctive
phenomenologythe way the world lights up for loverscan be captured by
a novelist like McEwan, whose empathic skill and imaginative power finds no
equal in film.

41

A more adequate exploration of films potentially more objectifying perspective would draw on
feminist film theory, such as that expressed and provoked by Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and
Narrative Cinema, Screen 16 (1975): 618.

8
Between Desire and Destruction
a reading of the go-between
Douglas MacLean

exual desire is a pretty simple emotion, but love is not. Reason and social
normsego and superegoplay essential roles in love. Reason helps us control desires, rather than being controlled by them. It directs desires ideally to attitudes and activities that make for a healthy person capable of loving relationships.
As Freud and others have noted, this is part of normal human development. Where
id was, there will ego be. Social norms also control unruly desires, but for a different
purpose. They protect the social order through institutions like marriage, making
sure that the right unions are permitted and threatening ones forbidden.
Too much, too little, or misdirected guidance from the ego or superego can
stifle desire or lead it astray. Reason and social norms can also come into conflict
with each other over the management of libidinous instincts. These conflicts
can create pressure to revise or change social norms, but they can also stifle the
development of love. When social norms prevail and desire is channeled in
socially acceptable ways, order is preserved. These norms become part of a societys moral code and are written into laws, regardless of whether they are healthy
or beneficial to the individuals involved.
None of this is news, of course, even if weekly reports of mismanaged sexual
desire among celebrities, politicians, the clergy, or neighbors unfailingly provoke our interest and sell magazines and newspapers. From Plato to Freud, by
way of Rousseau,1 we have tried to understand the nature or possibility of
healthy erotic love, and poets and artists going back to Homer have dwelt on the
tragic ways Eros can lead to ruin.

Fred Neuhousers essay in this volume explores Rousseaus discussion of this topic through an
analysis of his novel Julie, or the New Heloise.
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The Story
The Go-Between is a story of the failure of love and the destructive power of
sexual desire. The novel by L. P. Hartley was published in 1953,2 and the story
was made into a movie in 1971, directed by Joseph Losey with a screenplay by
Harold Pinter. Told through the eyes of its main character, Leo Colston, The
Go-Between brings together two periods of Leos life. The first period is the summer of 1900, when Leo is twelve years old and just entering adolescence. Marcus
Maudsley, his schoolmate and friend, invites Leo to visit Brandham Hall, the
family estate and the epitome of Edwardian elegance. Brandham Hall is also a
symbol of Englands strength, wealth, and decadence in the declining years of its
empire. Leo will celebrate his thirteenth birthday there, at which time he naively
expects to emerge seamlessly from the chrysalis of youth and enter the ideal
world of adulthood, where love and order magically coexist. This seems to him
a perfect setting for his metamorphosis.
But Brandham Hall is an alien world, and Leo will experience and witness
emotions there that he lacks the resources to understand and integrate into his
own psychic development. He has neither the rational and emotional capacities
nor the social support he needs to comprehend adult love and desire or even his
own adolescent feelings. Disaster results, for which Leo assumes responsibility,
and these experiences traumatize and destroy him.
The second period of the story occurs fifty years later, when we see the toll
that the earlier events have taken. Leo is an emotionally empty man living alone
in a dreary flat surrounded by files and books. From this vantage point, he looks
back on the summer of 1900, trying to make sense of his youthful experiences
and how they have shaped him. He will revisit Brandham Hall, which is now
virtually a shell of its former self, just as he is a shell of his lively adolescent self.
His beloved England and its aristocracy, having suffered through two wars, the
great depression, and the collapse of empire, also bear little resemblance to their
flourishing at the turn of the century.
When Leo first visits Brandham Hall, he encounters Marcuss beautiful sister
Marian (played by Julie Christie), who is planning to announce her engagement to
Lord Hugh Trimingham (Edward Fox). Theirs is a socially proper but passionless
union. Trimingham is thoroughly decent and bears his title comfortably; but he is
physically unattractive, his face badly disfigured from a wound he suffered in the
Boer War. Although Marian knows and accepts that she is fated to marry Hugh,
her passion is directed toward her strong and sexy lover, Ted Burgess (appropriately
cast by a young Alan Bates), a commoner who farms the land adjacent to the estate.
2

The Go-Between, New York Review of Books, 1953. All references are to this edition.

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Driven by his eagerness for acceptance into the world of Brandham Hall and
by his initial infatuation with Marian, Leo willingly and unthinkingly becomes
a go-between for her relationships, delivering innocent messages between Marian and Trimingham and not so innocent messages between Marian and Ted.
Leo is at first unaware of the dynamics of Marians relationships, for he fantasizes that the adults with whom he is involved are eternal, passionless characters
inhabiting a timeless world. He imagines them to be figures in the Zodiac:
Trimingham is the archer, Ted the water carrier, and Marian the virgin goddess
at the center. Ted calls Leo his postman, while Trimingham inadvertently
feeds Leos fantasies by nicknaming him Mercury, the messenger of the gods.
Leo greatly admires Trimingham, but, as we will learn, his relationship with
Trimingham will remain distant.
I was aware of something stable in his nature. He gave me a feeling of
security, as if nothing that I said or did would change his opinion of me.
I never found his pleasantries irksome, partly, no doubt, because he was
a Viscount, but partly, too, because I respected his self-discipline. He
had very little to laugh about, I thought, and yet he laughed. His gaiety
had a background of the hospital and the battlefield. I felt he had some
inner reserve of strength which no reverse, however serious, would break
down. (111)
Indeed, Trimingham has inner strength, but that is the only trait that Marian
or we will find in him. And although Leo correctly sizes up Trimingham, he is
disoriented by Ted. He understands neither the passion Marian and Ted share
for each other nor his own erotic attraction to each of them. Leo knows that
the letters he carries facilitate their relationship, but he is nave as to its nature,
and his confusion only deepens as he gets to know them better. He cannot help
but detect an urgency in Marians manner when she is dealing with Ted, which
she does not show toward Trimingham. But he doesnt know what to make of
this fact.
To be of service to her was infinitely sweet to me, nor did I look beyond
it. I did, however, impose on my errands to and fro a meaning of my
ownseveral meanings, indeedfor I could not find one that satisfied
me. Even in the world of my imagination no hypothesis as to why Marian
and Ted Burgess exchanged their messages quite worked. Business they
both said. Business to me was a solemn, almost sacred word; my mother
spoke it with awe: it was connected with my fathers office hours, with
earning a living. Marian did not need to earn a living, but Ted Burgess

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did; perhaps she was helping him; perhaps in some mysterious way these
notes meant money in his pocket. Perhaps they even contained money
cheques or bank-notesand that was why he said: Tell her its all
rightmeaning he had received it. I was thrilled to think I might be
carrying money, like a bank messenger, and be set upon and robbed;
what confidence she must have in me, to entrust me with such precious
missives! And yet I only half believed this ... Or perhaps she was comparing notes with him, notes about the temperature, for instance ... Suppose he was in some kind of trouble and she was trying to help him
out ... Suppose he had committed a murder ... Suppose only she knew
about it and was keeping him informed of the movements of the police!
This, being the most sensational, was also my preferred solution to the
problem. But it did not really satisfy me ... Neither he nor she behaved,
it seemed to me, as people would in any of the circumstances that I had
imagined. (124125)
His fantasies are shattered in an afternoon, when Marian hears Trimingham
about to enter her room as she is finishing a note to Ted. To avoid detection, she
quickly stuffs the note in an unsealed envelope and hands it to Leo. He then sets
off to Teds farm to deliver the message, but he loses his battle with temptation
and stops to read the note. Darling, darling, darling it begins, and Leo
breaks down in tears. He must now accept that Marian is romantically involved
with Ted, whatever that means, even though she plans to marry Trimingham.
And if Ted is Marians darling, then Leo isnt.
Leos confusionfear, perhapsis compounded by his own attraction to
Ted, an attraction he is unable to acknowledge even to himself. Although he
doesnt recognize it, Leo is jealous of both Ted and Marian. Sensing only danger
in Marians socially unacceptable attraction to Ted, Leo tries unsuccessfully to
extricate himself as their go-between. He first seeks help from his mother, asking her to call him home; but she misinterprets Leos letter to her as an expression of homesickness and refuses his request, saying it would seem impolite for
him to leave Brandham Hall earlier than planned.
He then tries on his own to end his role as postman by making an excuse to
Ted about why he will no longer be able to visit the farm on his own. Although
Ted genuinely likes Leo and has a personal, friendly relationship with him, he
also needs Leo to continue to be his postman. He first tries to pressure Leo to
continue delivering messages, but sensing that his pressure makes Leo uncomfortable, he changes the subject. We then get a further, painful expression of
Leos innocence, a navet that is becoming increasingly dangerous for him. Ted
happens to mention that one of his mares, Smiler, is ill because she is going to

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have a foal. Leo wonders why Smiler is having a foal if it makes her ill, and Ted
remarks, Between you and me, she did a bit of spooning. What is spooning,
Leo asks? There is more to it than just kissing. I know that. But what? Ted
refuses to say, but Leo keeps pressing. Could you marry someone without
spooning? Leo is quite sure his mother and his dead father never spooned. You
could, Ted replies, ... but it wouldnt be a very lover-like thing to do. Leo, now
thoroughly confused, begs to know more, but Ted insists hes said enough. You
havent told me anything. Tied to his love of Marian, Ted now seizes this
opportunity to save their relationship. Ill tell you all about it, on condition
that you go on being our postman. Leo agrees.
Soon afterward, Marians engagement to Trimingham is announced, and
Leo thinks his problems have now been solved. He is then dumbfounded when
Marian asks him to deliver another note to Ted. He tries once more to refuse,
but he cannot resist Marian and crumbles when she accuses him of being an
ungrateful guest for refusing such a small favor.
Leo is just beginning to sense that Marian is something other than the perfect goddess at the center of his imagined world. Ted had told him that Marian
cries easily, that she cries when she does not hear from Ted, which is why Leo
must continue to deliver their notes.
Did you make her cry?
She cried when she couldnt see me.
How do you know?
Because she cried when she did see me.
Leos original infatuation with Marian has by now developed into something
else. He doesnt know what to make of her, let alone of the attraction he feels for
her. She can be an emotionless goddess; she can also be a flirtatious beauty who
manipulates people, including Leo; and she can be an angry aristocrat. She is
certainly not all good, but at this moment he sees her as a beautiful, vulnerable
woman who can cry easily. Why doesnt she marry Ted, he wonders aloud to
her? Holding back tears, she replies, Because I cant. I cant. Dont you see?
But why are you marrying Hugh? Because I must. Ive got to. She begins to
cry openly, and the scene in the movie closes with Leo hugging her closely, feeling her in his arms.
Unable to comprehend Marians desire to keep seeing Ted, even after her
engagement has been settled, and failing to coax Ted into explaining to him the
nature of love and spooning, Leo turns at last to Trimingham for help. He enters
the smoking room of Brandham Hall hoping to talk with Trimingham, man to
man, about adult relationships. But Trimingham is still in many ways an alien

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figure, and Leo can only approach this personal topic obliquely. He describes a
story that he read, in which two men fought a duel after a quarrel over the wife
of one of them. The husband was shot and killed. Trimingham hasnt any idea
what Leo is getting at. He leans forward and asks Leo, Whats your question?
Leo explains that it appeared to be the ladys fault, but she didnt have to fight
the duel, which seems a bit unfair. Speaking very deliberately, Trimingham
replies, Nothings ever a ladys fault ... Any other questions?
Triminghams explanation of the social rules passes right by Leo. He wants
to know about spooningor perhaps he doesnt. Mr. Maudsley has now
entered the smoking room and invites him to view some mildly pornographic
Teniers prints hanging on the wall, but Leo cant bring himself to look at them.
Instead, he awkwardly tries to engage Trimingham with a slightly less indirect
question. What do you think of Ted Burgess? Trimingham takes a moment to
think about his answer. He lights a cigar; he repeats the question. The annual
cricket match between the Hall and the town had recently been played, and Ted
was a threat to win the game for the town. Although lacking polish or style as a
cricketer, he was a natural athlete and a powerful batsman. This is the only scene
in the story in which Trimingham and Ted directly encounter one another. Leo,
who had just entered the game as a replacement on the Brandham Hall side,
amazingly caught Ted out to save the game. Now, in the smoking room, Trimingham continues to deflect Leos question by quipping that Burgess is a powerful hitter, although you had his measure. Finally, he responds more directly.
Ted Burgess is a decent fellow. A bit wild. Does this mean that Ted is dangerous? Hes not dangerous to you or me. Hes a bit of a lady-killer, thats all.
Whatever Trimingham knows about Marian and Ted, he also knows that Marians destined union with him is secure. Ted will not threaten the plans of a
Viscount; Leo can be sure of that.
Leo is still in the dark, however, as the tension in Marians relationship with
Ted continues to mount, and Leo continues to be disoriented by the passion he
sees between Marian and Ted and the sexual attraction he feels toward both of
them. The relationships between Marian, Ted, and Leo are deeply conflicted,
and Leo is desperate to break free from this web. Since all his efforts to end his
role as go-between have failed, he finally resorts to invoking magical powers that
he believes he possesses. In an amazing scene in which masturbatory fantasies
intermingle with his attempt to work magic (to which I shall return), Leo
attempts to put a curse on Marians relationship with Ted.
The story at Brandham Hall reaches its tragic climax on the day of Leos
thirteenth birthday. Marian is late for dinner, and Mrs. Maudsley, keen to verify
her suspicions by uncovering her daughters affair, drags Leo away from the table
upon which the cake has been served and forces him to lead her to the couple.

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I could not bear to aid her in her search and shrank back, crying. No,
you shall come, she said, and seized my hand, and it was then that we saw
them, together on the ground, the Virgin and the Water-carrier, two
bodies moving like one. I think I was more mystified than horrified; it
was Mrs. Maudsleys repeated screams that frightened me, and a shadow
on the wall that opened and closed like an umbrella. (305)
Helpless against the forces of Brandham Hall and abandoned by Marian
after their affair has been discovered, Ted returns to his farm and commits suicide. Leo of course is devastated by Teds death, for which he feels responsible,
as well as by his sudden loss of innocence. Cast out of Eden, he leaves Brandham
Hall at last and returns home. We learn (in the book) that he has a mental
breakdown and, despite receiving counseling, never completely recovers.
Trimingham marries Marian as planned, and Marian gives birth to Teds child.
Although Trimingham dies a decade later, he makes sure that his wife, now Lady
Trimingham, is provided for and protected from the judgment of others.

The Novel and the Movie


Before looking more closely at the unfolding of Leos destruction, it is important to notice how the movie and the novel differ. The movie, a superb adaptation of the novel, is remarkably faithful to the plot and tone of the book. It uses
sumptuous cinematography to capture the mood of Brandham Hall, and the
details of the summer of 1900 are kept intact. The screenplay is taken almost
verbatim from the books dialogue. Nevertheless, the movie employs cinematic
techniques to frame the story differently, and through these techniques Losey
and Pinter draw different conclusions. The novel focuses on Leos psychological
destruction and his partially successful therapeutic attempt half a century later
to come to terms with the traumatic events of his youth. The movie is less interested in this therapeutic theme and more concerned to show the social and
political forces that control and ruin the lives of people who dont fit in.
The novel situates the story of the summer of 1900 between a prologue and
an epilogue, which establish that the present is 1952. In the prologue, Leo comes
across a diary in a closet, which triggers memories of Brandham Hall that will
lead him to recall the details of that summer. The story of the novel is thus a
painful therapeutic exercise of recollection.
The movie omits the prologue. It opens with credits rolling down the screen
against a background of a pane of glass, which opens to a dark exterior. As we
read the credits, we also see rain beating against the glass and falling in tear-like
beads. The accompanying music is filled with tension. The credits end, and the

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first scene of the movie shows twelve-year-old Leo approaching Brandham Hall
with his friend Marcus in a horse-drawn carriage on a warm, sunlit day. Leo
looks in amazement at the estate that is just coming into view. Losey and Pinter
thus tell the story from the perspective of 1900. In place of the prologue they
insert a series of flash-forwards that take us to the later stage of Leos life. These
insertions begin as brief, incomprehensible cuts, lasting only a few seconds. As
they continue, the flash-forwards occur more frequently and last a bit longer.
We come slowly to realize that they are piecing together the movies final scene.
In that scene, the older Leo has taken a train to Norwich and hired a car, which
he drives in the rain to revisit Brandham Hall. The glass that we saw behind the
opening credits turns out to be the cars window.
The book and the movie both open with the line: The past is a foreign
country: they do things differently there. In the novel, this memorable juxtaposition of time and place, followed by discovering the diary, evokes Leos awareness of his youthful self and of England at the turn of the century. In the movie,
the line is spoken as a voice-over by Leos later self (Michael Redgrave). Leo is
entering a different social world, one that no longer exists but whose effects
remain.
The diary in the books prologue triggers Leos long-suppressed memories
and stirs up feelings of which, at sixty-odd, I felt ashamed (17). He will now
force himself painfully to recall and come to terms with those memories. The
details are at first obscure to him.
To my minds eye, my buried memories of Brandham Hall are like effects
of chiaroscuro, patches of light and dark: it is only with an effort that I
can see them in terms of colour. There are things I know, though I dont
know how I know them, and things I remember. Certain things are
established in my mind as facts but no picture attaches to them; on the
other hand there are pictures unverified by any fact which recur obsessively, like the landscape of a dream. (45)
He begins to think about the boy he was, and he compares that boy to the sad
adult he has become. The older Leo is not a man naturally moved by curiosity,
and he does not want to open the diary. He knows that its message is one of
disappointment and defeat.
I felt, with a bitter blend of self-pity and self-reproach, that had it not
been for the diary, or what the diary stood for, everything would be different. I should not be sitting in this drab, flowerless room, where the curtains were not even drawn to hide the cold rain beating on the windows,

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or contemplating the accumulation of the past and the duty it imposed


on me to sort it out. I should be sitting in another room, rainbow-hued,
looking not into the past but into the future; and I should not be sitting
alone.
So I told myself, and with a gesture born of will, as most of my acts
were, not inclination, I took the diary out of the box and opened it. (1819)
Leo cant help but recall immediately his youthful expectations and hopes
for the future, which he sentimentally links to the mood of the country at the
turn of the century.
The year 1900 had an almost mystical appeal for me; I could hardly wait
for it: Nineteen hundred, nineteen hundred, I would chant to myself in
rapture ... the dawn of a Golden Age. For that was what I believed the
coming century would be: a realization, on the part of the whole world,
of the hopes that I was entertaining for myself. (20)
Just before he immerses himself fully into the details of that summer, he pauses
for a moment, his thoughts poised between the past and the present, and enters
into an imaginary dialogue with his younger self. He begins, perhaps for the first
time, to consider his own responsibility for his fate.
If my twelve-year-old self, of whom I had grown rather fond, thinking
about him [recalling especially his strength in in an earlier incident dealing with tormenters bullying him at school], were to reproach me: Why
have you grown up such a dull dog, when I gave you such a good start? ...
What should I say? I should have an answer ready. Well, it was you who
let me down, and I will tell you how. You flew too near to the sun, and you
were scorched. This cindery creature is what you made me. To which he
might reply: But you have had half a century to get over it! Half a century, half the twentieth century, that glorious epoch, that golden age I
bequeathed you! Has the twentieth century, I should ask, done so
much better than I have? ... You were vanquished, Colston, you were
vanquished, and so was your century, your precious century that you
hoped so much of. (3132)
As this dialogue continues, Leos younger self challenges him: but you might
have tried. You neednt have run away ... Did you take any action? Did you call
down curses? He did call down a curse, and he believed that it had disastrous
results, leading to the uncovering of Marians affair and Teds suicide. What

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more could Leo have done? What could he do now? His initial reaction is to
avoid admitting any responsibility for his fate and to blame his younger self,
from whom he feels dissociated. That, I said, was for you to do, and you didnt
do it. As he begins to expand on his reasons for blaming his younger self, he is
caught up in the realization of the absurdity of this fantasythat he is wishing
now that as a boy he had tried harder to invoke magical powers. He begins to see
these things in a more realistic light.
You didnt want to injure them, Mrs. Maudsley or her daughter or Ted
Burgess or Trimingham. You didnt admit that they had injured you, you
wouldnt think of them as enemies. You insisted on thinking of them as
angels, even if they were fallen angels. They belonged to your Zodiac. If
you cant think of them kindly, dont think of them at all. For your own
sake, dont think of them. That was your parting charge to me, and I have
kept it. Perhaps they have gone bad on me. I didnt think of them because
I couldnt think of them kindly, or kindly of myself in relation to them.
There was very little kindness in the whole business, I assure you, and if
you had realized that and called down curses, instead of entreating me
with your dying breath, to think about them kindly. (3233)
He stops. The last line of this dialogue is young Leo imploring his older self:
Try now, try now, it is not too late. Then, The voice died away. But it had
done its work. I was thinking of them. These memories, buried and sealed in
vaults, are now bursting open.
Excitement, like hysteria, bubbled up in me from a hundred unsealed
springs. If it isnt too late, I thought confusedly, neither is it too early: I
havent much time left to spoil. It was a last flicker of the instinct of selfpreservation which had failed me so signally at Brandham Hall. (33)
As the clock strikes twelve, Leo now hopes that the piles of books and papers
that have buried his spirit in this library all these years should witness my resurrection. And the story of the summer of 1900 begins.
In an interview published many years after the movie was made, Losey commented on his reasons for representing the two periods in Leos life differently
than they were presented in the book.
[W]hat interested me primarily was the possibility of representing 1900
using shots from the present, not in a chronological, but in an almost subliminal sequence, superimposing voices from the present on the past and

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voices from the past on the present, so that threads which started off parallel
gradually intertwine and in the end past and present are one and the same ...
I am fascinated by the concept of time, and by the power the cinema has suddenly to reveal the meaning of a whole life from the age of 12 to 60, and the
effect that those few weeks lived at the age of 12 are to have on the grown
man. These, then, were the main reasons, plus the fact that I believe there are
many traces of the society of that time remaining in society today ... Certainly, standards of living, the way of life and specific preoccupations have
changed, but the position of women, servants, the working class hasnt.3
To tell the story between the prologue and the epilogue of the book, as a flashback, a remembering, or a therapeutic exercise, obviously wasnt the way I
wanted to do it in the film.4
For Losey and Pinter, the story of The Go-Between is as much political as it is
personal. They make it a commentary on the oppressive aspects of Edwardian
aristocratic life and the constraints of the rigid class system. This was the last of
three movies that Losey and Pinter made together, each of which explores
aspects of English life and the class system in different settings.5 The impossibility of Marian marrying the man she loves leads to Teds suicide, and Leos alienation from this world isolates him in a way and at a time in his life that causes his
own psychological destruction.
These different ways of framing the story culminate in a subtle but crucial
difference in the endings. After Leo recalls being forced by Mrs. Maudsley to
witness Ted and Marian spooning in the barn, his final recollection, which is not
in the diary, is that somehow he learned about Teds suicide. Leo leaves Brandham Hall, returns home, has a breakdown, and loses his memory. His doctor and
mother tried unsuccessfully to make him recall what had happened to him. His
mother tried to assure him that he had nothing to be ashamed of, but he didnt
believe her. His curse had worked: Ted was dead. And Leo was forever changed.
So whichever way I looked, towards the world of experience or the world of
imagination, my gaze returned to me empty. I could make no contact with either,
and lacking the nourishment that these umbilical cords convey, I shrank into
myself (308). He retreats into a safer world, gives up his desire to be a writer and
instead becomes a bibliographer, an accumulator of facts that existed independent of me, facts that my private wishes could not add to or subtract from (308).

Michel Climent, Conversations with Losey (London: Metheun, 1985), 303304.

Ibid., 306.

Their other collaborations were The Servant (1963) and The Accident (1967).

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The culmination of this therapeutic exercise is his decision to return to


Brandham Hall. There he sees a young man whom he recognizes immediately to
be the descendant of Ted. When he learns that the man is Lord Trimingham,
the eleventh Viscount, Leo realizes that Marian married Trimingham after all
and that Trimingham, now dead, made sure that nothing would be her fault.
In the books final scene, Leo meets Marian again. Her grandson now lives in
a wing of the house, the rest of which has been rented out as a girls school. Marian lives in a cottage on the grounds. Her life, like Brandham Hall, is a shell of
its former self. She lives alone and in denial that her title means almost nothing
now. Her grandson rarely sees her, but she is concerned, like her own mother
was before her, that he should marry and continue the family line. Marian
explains to Leo that her grandson thinks he is under some kind of curse. Leo
may be able to help him by explaining the truth to him about how he is the
descendant of a great love affair.
Marian asks Leo to act as a go-between one more time and deliver this message to her grandson.
And make him get out of his head this ridiculous idea that he cant marry:
Its that that wounds me most ... [E]very man should get marriedyou
ought to have got married, Leo, youre all dried up inside, I can tell that. It
isnt too late; you might marry still; why dont you? Dont you feel any need
of love? ... You owe it to us, Leo, you owe it to us; and itll be good for you,
too. Tell him theres no spell or curse except an unloving heart. (325)
As Leo leaves Marians house, he marvels at the extent of her self-deception. She
doesnt understand that whatever healing Leo might be capable of, he will never
marry or love. But he has at last come fully to terms with his memories; no longer
ignorant or deceived, he now understands the cause of his destruction. Marian is
right; the only curse is an unloving heart, and he, Leo, is the victim of his curse. He
had loved Marian, in an impossible way, as he had loved Ted. Leo now finds himself
moved by her plea. Although he is cursed, he can yet try to undo the effects of this
curse on others, and in so doing, he can at least acknowledge the value of love. So
he acts as a go-between one more time and delivers the message to her grandson.
This ending does not fit with the political theme of the movie and would not
appeal to Pinter and Loseys more astringent sensibility. They bring the story to
a different conclusion. After discovering Marian and Ted in the barn, we see a
still shot of Ted hunched over his table, dead, with his rifle in his arms. We then
hear Marians voice, fifty years later, telling Leo how beautiful their love was. The
juxtaposition of this claim and the picture of Teds death is striking. Marian
assures Leo that Hugh was as true as steel. He wouldnt hear a word against me.

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But everybody wanted to know it of course. I was Lady Trimingham, you see. I
still am. There is no other. As if this matters any longer! Then Marian orders
Leo to be her go-between and deliver a last message, this time to her grandson.
Remember how you used to take our messages, bringing us together and
making us happy? Well, this is another errand of love, and the last time I
shall ever ask you to be our postman. Our love was a beautiful thing,
wasnt it? Tell him he can be proud to be descended from such a beautiful
union, a child of so much happiness and beauty. Tell him!
In the movies final scene, Leo sits in the car with an expressionless look on his
face as he drives up to Brandham Hall. The car slows while he takes one final
glance at the house, and then he drives on. He will never marry or love, but nor
will he be Marians go-between. Leo has at last broken free of the curse from
which he and Ted both suffered, which was not so much an unloving heart as
the oppressive demands of this aristocrat and her class.

Desire
The main symbol of Leos emerging sexual feelings at Brandham Hall is the heat of
the summer and the rising mercury in the thermometer that he is constantly checking. As he later recalls the features of Marian and Ted that exerted such a powerful
attraction on him, he also remembers the unusual heat, his sexual arousal, and
(implicitly) the thrill of masturbation. He believed that these feelings would lead
him to some desirable end. But his ignorance prevented him from understanding
their nature, for he failed to understand that these feelings were not fitted for the
timeless world of the Zodiac but directed to living, breathing, sexual human beings.
Leo was infatuated with Marian from the moment he saw her, but his first
personal encounter with her was a shopping trip they took together to buy him
summer clothes. He recalls this trip as a turning point: it changed everything,
but he does not remember any of the details. Of the expedition itself I remember little except a general sense of well-being which seemed to mount and mount
in me, ever seeking higher levels, like wine filling a glass (62). He then expands
on this sense of well-being, and we understand that it is sexual arousal.
From being my enemy the summer had become my friend: this was
another consequence of our Norwich shopping. I felt I had been given
the freedom of the heat, and I roamed about in it as if I was exploring a
new element. I liked to watch it rise shimmering from the ground and
hang heavy on the tops of the darkening July trees. I liked the sense of

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suspended movement that it gave or seemed to give, reducing everything


in nature to the stillness of contemplation. I liked to touch it with my
hand and feel it on my throat and round my knees, which now were bare
to its embrace. I yearned to travel far, ever farther into it, and achieve a
close approximation with it; for I felt that my experience of it would
somehow be cumulative, and that if it would only get hotter and hotter
there was a heart of heat I should attain to. (65)
Shortly later, Leo is walking with Marian as she returns from swimming in the
river. She playfully flirts with him, and we again sense his excitement. In the
book, he describes his feelings at this encounter:
I walked back with her through the lengthening shadows, anxious still to
be something to her, though I didnt know what. Every now and then
she asked me how her hair was, and whenever I touched it to see, she
pretended I had pulled it. She was in a strange, exalted mood, and so was
I; and I thought that somehow our elations came from the same source.
My thoughts enveloped her, they entered into her: I was the bathing-suit
on which her hair was spread; I was her drying hair, I was the wind that
dried it. I had a tremendous sense of achievement for which I couldnt
account. But when she gave me back my property, damp with the dampness I had saved her from, and let me touch her hair once more, dry with
the dryness I had won for it, I felt my cup was full. (75)
Achievement, indeed! Leo also describes these feelings as new and alien. As a
liberating power with its own laws it [the heat] was outside my experience (94).
He senses that these feelings are connected to earth and nature. The heat was
sensual.
Besides altering or intensifying all smells, the heat had a smell of its
owna garden smell, I called it to myself, compounded of the scents of
many flowers, and odours loosed from the earth, but with something
peculiar to itself which defied analysis ... In the heat the senses, the mind,
the heart, the body, all told a different tale. One felt another person, one
was another person. (94)
Leo wants to explore and understand the heat, to feel its power and be at one
with it (95). Drunk with desire, he wanders away from Brandham Hall to
explore nature further. His wandering takes him down the path, past the river,
to Ted Burgesss farm.

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Leo had seen Ted earlier at the river. Ted was swimming when the group
from Brandham Hall arrived. Leo, who didnt swim, sat watching his friends
undress when he noticed Ted, who was dressing nearby. Although Leo attended
a boys boarding school, his experiences there did not prepare him for what he
felt when he sat gazing at Teds naked body.
His muscles bunched, his face tense with effort; he did not see me, and I
retreated almost in fear before that powerful body, which spoke to me of
something I did not know. Believing himself to be unseen by the other
bathers, he gave himself up to being alone with his body. He ... looked at
himself critically all over. The scrutiny seemed to satisfy him, as well it
might. I, whose acquaintance was with bodies and minds developing,
was suddenly confronted by maturity in its most undeniable form; and I
wondered: What must it feel like to be him, master of those limbs,
which have passed beyond the need of gym and playing field and exist for
their own strength and beauty? What can they do, I thought, to be
conscious of themselves? (7273)
The movie shows Leo looking at Teds body, partly hidden in the rushes, for only
a second, but the erotic effect is clear.
When Leo reaches the farm, he feels comfortable for a moment, away from
Brandham Hall, and he allows himself to slide down a haystack, hitting a stump at
the bottom and hurting his knee. Ted then appearsliterally the water carrier lugging two pailsand yells at this strange boy. What the hell do you think youre
doing here? Ive a good
mind to give you the
biggest thrashing youve
ever had in your life.
Everything about Ted
conveys strength and
manliness. In the movie,
this effect is emphasized
by Teds dress. He wears
farm pants, but the end
of his thick belt dangles
conspicuously, suggesting an ample phallus.6
6

In a comic touch later in the movie, we will see Leo at the cricket match wearing a thinner and
smaller belt that dangles the same way.

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Leo is terribly frightened by Teds appearance but also terribly aroused.


Ted dresses Leos wound and then (in a scene not included in the movie) introduces Leo to his favorite horse.
He stopped and kissed the velvet nose, and the horse showed its appreciation by dilating its nostrils and breathing hard through them.
And whats he called? I asked.
Wild Oats, he answered with a grin, and I grinned back, without
knowing why.
All the heat of the afternoon seemed to be concentrated where we
stood, intensifying the smell of horses, the smell of manure, and all the
farmyard smells. It made me uncomfortable, almost giddy, and yet it
stimulated me; and I was half sorry and half glad when, the inspection
over, we turned back to the house. (100)
The scene ends with Ted asking Leo to deliver a message to Marian, and Leo,
happy to do Teds bidding, becomes his postman.

Social Alienation
Although the movie makes perfectly clear Leos infatuation with Marian and his
sexual attraction to Ted, it emphasizes the themes of social class, in part to make
vivid Leos alienation at Brandham Hall. As he approaches the Hall in the opening scene, he can hardly believe the mansions opulence. He stumbles up the
stairs, distracted by the family portraits on the wallsMarcuss aristocratic
lineageand we see the servants scurrying around doing their chores. A butler
carries Leos heavy bags to the bedroom, where Marcus tosses his hat on the
floor. Without comment, the butler puts down Leos bag, picks up Marcuss hat,
and places it where it belongs. The boys go downstairs, and Leo passes tables set
with elegant silverware and serving dishes laid out for the next meal, as the camera pauses on the silver. Outside, members of the Maudsley family and some of
their friends, dressed in fine white, stand or lie around frozen in statue-like
poses, in contrast to the hustle and bustle of the working staff.
The book also portrays the life of the upper class, and the movie emphasizes
these scenes. Shortly after Leos arrival, the boys are upstairs changing clothes in
the bedroom. Leo lays his shirt neatly on a chair, and Marcus, looking exasperated, picks up the shirt and tosses it on the floor. And another thing, he says,
When you undress, you mustnt fold your things and put them on the chair.
You must leave them lying wherever they fall. The servants will pick them up.
Thats what theyre for.

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The meal begins with Mr. Maudsley reading a passage from the Bible and
saying a prayer. The family is seated around the table, and the entire staff marches
into the dining room and sits in rows at the foot of the table. They listen to the
passage and then kneel for the prayer, like slaves or supplicants receiving a blessing from a master or priest. When the prayer is finished, they quietly file out of
the room and return to their chores. As the family and guests sit for the meal,
Mrs. Maudsley says, Now everybody, let us decide what we are going to do
today, and the conversation revolves around figuring out how to relieve the
boredom of their leisure hours.
In the middle of the story is a scene of the family and staff of Brandham Hall
playing the villagers in a cricket match. Ted plays for the villagers, and Leo is a
reserve on the Hall side. The movie makes this scene prominent because it
brings out most pointedly the class differences. The Hall team is dressed in
smart white outfits, while the villagers wear ordinary working clothes. Marcus
explains to Leo that he cannot wear his school cap at the match; it simply isnt
done. The spectators from the Hall sit in chairs under parasols, while the village
spectators sit on a bench swatting flies away. After the match everyone retreats
to the pavilion for dinner and singing. The scene is filled with images of the differences between Trimingham and Ted, Marian feigning indifference to Ted,
and Leo interacting with various members of the family. This is as close as he
will come to being accepted by them, and his innocence in all that is taking place
is painful to see. At the end of the evening, while the boys are walking home
together, Marcus again expresses his disdain for the commoners. Well, thank
goodness weve said good-bye to the villagers for the year. Did you notice the
stink in that hall? ... What a whiff !
Leo is isolated. At first he finds his role as go-between exciting, but when he
is confused by feelings he doesnt understand, and when he first senses the danger of Marians conflicting relationships, in which he is now deeply involved, he
doesnt know what to do or where to turn for help.

Nothings Ever a Ladys Fault: The Failure of Love


As the boys are walking home from the cricket match, Marcus tells Leo that
Marians engagement to Trimingham is about to be announced. Leo looks puzzled, and Marcus asks him whether he is pleased to hear this. Leo has to pause
to think, and then says, Yes, I am. Then, after a moments further hesitation as
he tries to make sense of this, he says with little conviction, Im sure I am.
Fifty years later, as Leo recalls these events in the novel, he tries to figure out
his feelings at that moment to these other characters. He admired Trimingham,
and now his engagement to Marian was to be publicly announced. There was

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nothing Leo could recognize as love between them. Still, he concludes, Though
I was not worldly, I got some extra satisfaction from the suitability of the match.
But how can he make sense of Marians feelings toward Ted and of his role as
their go-between?
I liked the secrecy and the conspiracy and the risk. And I liked Ted Burgess in a reluctant, half-admiring, half-hating way. When I was away
from him I could think of him objectively as a working farmer whom no
one at the Hall thought much of. But when I was with him his mere
physical presence cast a spell on me; it established an ascendancy that I
could not break. He was, I felt, what a man ought to be, what I should
like to be when I grew up. (182)
At the same time, Leo is jealous of Teds power over Marian, or perhaps of Marians power over Ted.
He came between me and my image of her. In my thoughts I wanted to
humiliate him, and sometimes I did. But I also identified myself with
him, so that I could not think of his discomfiture without pain; I could
not hurt him without hurting myself. He fitted into my imaginative life,
he was my companion of the greenwood, a rival, an ally, an enemy, a
friendI couldnt be sure which. (182)
What Leo cannot imagine is Ted as his lover, so instead of redirecting or comprehending his true feelings, he clings harder to his fantasies. One of these fantasies is that by triumphing over Ted at the cricket match and in the singing after
the dinner, Leo had succeeded in killing his erotic feelings. I had killed [Ted],
he was dead, and that was why I no longer felt him as a discordant element in my
orchestra (183). The farm, too, where Leo could be his natural self, was now as
dead as a hobby one had grown out of.
Leo also falsely believed that Marians engagement announcement meant an
end to her relationship with Ted and to Leos role as their postman.
Totally ignorant as I was of love affairs, and little as I knew about
their conventions, I felt sure that when a girl was engaged to a man,
she did not write letters to another man calling him Darling. She
might do it until the day of the engagement, but not after. It was automatic; it was a rule, like leaving the wicket at cricket when you were
out; and it scarcely crossed my mind that to comply with it might be
painful. (184)

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When Marian pressures Leo to deliver her next note, Leo grabs the paper out of
her hand and runs in tears to the farm. Ted is sitting in his kitchen, naked to the
waist, holding a rifle that he is cleaning between his knees. The flap of his belt
again dangles conspicuously between his knees. Seeing Leo in tears, Ted attempts
to comfort him by inviting him outside to watch him shoot birds, and Leo is
again aroused. [T]aking the bird by the claws, he so alive, the bird so dead, he
threw it into a bed of nettles ... I went back to the kitchen a different person ...
The deed of blood had somehow sealed a covenant between us, drawn us together
by some ancient, sacrificial rite (203). Then Ted shows Leo how to clean a gun.
Now you take this cleaning-rod, he said, and this bit of four-bytwo ... The slightest movement brought into play the muscles of his
forearms; they moved in ridges and hollows from a knot above his elbow,
like pistons working from a cylinder. And then you press it down the
breech, like this, and youll be surprised how dirty it comes out. He
pushed the wire rod up and down several times. (203)
Leo inspects the rifle to see how clean it is, touching the barrel that Ted had
been stroking. I got a strange thrill from the contact, from feeling the butt press
against my shoulder and the steel cold against my palm. They return to the
house, and Leo asks Ted again to explain sex.
You havent really told me, I said, what spooning is.
He carefully put down the teapot and the plate and said patiently:
Yes, I have, its like flying, or floating, or waking up and finding someone
you thought was dead is really there. Its what you like doing best, and
then some more.
I was too exasperated to notice how exasperated he was.
Yes, but what more? I cried. (209)
Ted becomes angry, takes a step toward Leo, tower[s] above [him], as hard and
straight and dangerous as his gun, and then sends him away.
Trapped in fantasies that have turned nightmarish and still failing to comprehend his feelings or the feelings of the adults in his world, Leo desperately
tries to invoke a curse on Ted and Marian to end their relationship. For this
curse, he will use the deadly nightshade that he has discovered in the untended
garden near the shed. It must be performed at night, so Leo secretly leaves the
house in his pajamas to find the belladonna plant.
Ted has several times aroused Leo, as we learn in his masturbatory images.
The final such image, however, is directed at Marian. The scene is difficult to

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depict in the movie and comes off clumsily. Leo runs into the garden and stands
panting over the plant. He yanks it up by the roots while saying, Die. Die all
evil. Then he falls to the ground holding a branch of the plant between his
spread legs and chants, Delenda est belladonna. Destroy the beautiful lady!
This scene in the book is a more explicit image of the deadly nature of sexual
desire.
Although my eyes got gradually accustomed to the darkness, I was almost on top of the outhouses before I saw the thick blur of the deadly
nightshade. It was like a lady standing in her doorway looking out for
someone. I was prepared to dread it but not prepared for the tumult of
emotions it aroused in me. In some way it wanted me, I felt, just as I
wanted it; and the fancy took me that it wanted me as an ingredient, and
would have me. The spell was not waiting to be born in my bedroom as
I meant it should be, but here in this roofless shed, and I was not preparing it for the deadly nightshade, but the deadly nightshade was preparing
it for me. Come in, it seemed to say; and at last after an unfathomable time I stretched my hand out into the thick darkness where it grew
and felt the shoots and leaves close softly on it. I withdrew my hand and
peered. There was no room for me inside, but if I went inside, into the
unhallowed darkness where it lurked, that springing mass of vegetable
force, I should learn its secret and it would learn mine. And in I went. It
was stifling, yet delicious, the leaves, the shoots, even the twigs, so yielding; and this must be a flower that brushed my eyelids, and this must be
a berry that pressed against my lips ...
At that I panicked and tried to force my way out, but could not find a
way out: there seemed to be a wall on every side, and I barked my knuckles. At first I was afraid of hurting the plant; then in my terror I began to
tear at it and heard its branches ripping and crackling. Soon I cleared a
space round my head, but that was not enough, it must all be clear. The
plant was much less strong than I had supposed. I fought with it; I got
hold of its main stem and snapped it off. There was a swish; a soft, sighing fall of leaf on leaf; a swirl, a debris of upturned leaves, knee-deep all
round me; and standing up among them, the torn stem. I seized it and
pulled it with all my might, and as I pulled, the words of the missing spell
floated into my mind out of some history lessondelenda est belladonna! delenda est belladonna! I heard the roots creaking and cracking, felt
their last strength arrayed against me, the vital principle of the plant defending itself in its death agony. Delenda est belladonna! I chanted, not
loudly, but loud enough for anyone listening to hear, and braced myself

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for a last pull. And then it gave, came away in my hands, throwing up
with a soft sigh a little shower of earth, which rustled on the leaves like
rain; and I was lying on my back in the open, still clutching the stump,
staring up at its mop-like coronal of roots, from which grains of earth
kept dropping on my face. (280281)

Awareness and Self-Deception


How deep was Marians self-deception? She was under no illusion that her marriage to Trimingham was not an expression of love but strictly a response to a
social imperative. And indeed Trimingham was able to protect her from social
opprobrium. But she was deceived if she thought that the fact that she was still
Lady Triminghamthere is no othermeant anything. The more interesting
question, however, is what she thought about her relationship with Ted. We
may think she was deceived when as a young woman she insisted that her position made it impossible for her to marry Ted or remain true to him. She was
surely deceived in believingback then or fifty years laterthat [their] love
was a beautiful thing, and that her apparently cursed grandson should be
proud to be descended from such a beautiful union, a child of so much happiness and beauty. Leo sees correctly that there was very little kindness in the
whole business. Marian was beautiful, vulnerable, and passionate, but she was
not kind.
Ted, of course, was not bound by the restrictions of aristocracy. He loved
Marian wholeheartedly. He trusted her; he put his fate in her hands; and he felt
he had no alternative but death when Trimingham acted to remove Marian
from his world.
But the central character in the story is Leo. Isolated in a world in which he
did not know how to talk or act, in which people took little notice of him, he
was left alone to cope with his own adolescent desires and to sink deeper into his
fantasies. His sexual feelingsthe rising heatwere connected in his mind
with magical powers, although these powers had no role in Teds suicide or Marians marriage.
Some commentators on this story have emphasized its homosexual theme,
but this seems to me to be a misinterpretation. Leos feelings for Ted were surely
sexual, as were his feelings for Marian, but his desires were unable to develop
and take shape into anything that we could call a sexual identity. In the epilogue
of the novel, Leo acknowledges that he missed many of the experiences of manhood, spooning among them. Ted hadnt told me what it was, but he had shown
me, he had paid with his life for showing me, and after that I never felt like it

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(309). Seeing the power of sexual desire before he was able to understand it, he
tried to close it off. He withered like the belladonna plant he tore up, and he was
destroyed. The curse of an unloving heart, in the end, was on Leo.

Acknowledgments
I have received comments and help from many people on this paper, most especially from Maria DiBattista, Lawrence Blum, Geoffrey Brennan, Chris Grau,
Fred Neuhouser, and Susan Wolf.

9
Something That Might
Resemble a Kind of Love
fantasy and realism in henrik
ibsens little eyolf
Toril Moi

It is in the capacity to love, that is to see, that the liberation of the soul
from fantasy consists. The freedom which is a proper human goal is the
freedom from fantasy, that is the realism of compassion.
Iris Murdoch

enrik Ibsen (18281906) published Little Eyolf in Copenhagen on December 11, 1894.1 In the series of Ibsens late plays, Little Eyolf comes after
Hedda Gabler (1890) and The Master Builder (1892), and before John Gabriel
Borkman (1896) and When We Dead Awaken (1899). The play was an instant best
seller. The first printing of 10,000 copies sold out in a few days; already on December 21 a new printing had to be ordered. In comparison, it took thirteen years to
sell the first 10,000 copies of Ghosts.2 The world premire of Little Eyolf took
place on January 12, 1895 at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin.3 Three days later,
Ibsen attended the first Norwegian performance in Kristiania (now Oslo).

Didrik Arup Seip, Innledning [Introduction], in Hundrersutgave: Henrik Ibsens samlede verker, ed. Francis Bull, Halvdan Koht, and Didrik Arup Seip, 21 vols. (Oslo: Gyldendal,
192857), 175.

2
Anonymous, Lille Eyolf, Aftenposten (Kristiania), December 22, 1894 (unpaginated cutting
consulted in the Ibsen Center library in Oslo). All further references to unpaginated cuttings are
to texts consulted in the Ibsen Center library.
3

Michael Meyer, Henrik Ibsen (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1974), 766.
185

186

understanding

love

Ibsens Scandinavian contemporaries received the ageing masters play with


enthusiasm. Most were relieved that it was far less obscure than its predecessors.
Edvard Brandes began his review in the Danish paper Politiken by saying that this
Ibsen play would surely not inspire the same sort of clever and convoluted attempts
at interpretation as the two previous ones.4 In general, Little Eyolf was taken to be
Ibsens lyrical return to ethical ideals, a hymn to reconciliation and renunciation,
the very values Ibsen had become famous for rejecting in plays such as A Dolls
House, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, Rosmersholm, and Hedda Gabler.5 Across the North
Sea, Henry James read the first English translation in prepublication proofs. He too
saw the end as a reconciliation, but unlike his Scandinavian colleagues, he saw it as
a loss of artistic nerve. After reading the first two acts, James thought that Little
Eyolf was a work of rare perfection.6 The third act, however, was a huge disappointment to him: it was too simple, too immediate, too much a harking back, a
singular and almost inexplicable drop [...] strangely and painfully meagre.7
Some modern critics have assumed that the character of Rita Allmers, Eyolf s
mother, a passionate, jealous, and resolutely nonmaternal woman, was so challenging to nineteenth-century ideals of womanhood that early audiences must
have considered her the villain of the whole piece.8 Surprisingly, this is not the
case. The truth is that, at least in Scandinavia, critics thought Rita was the best
thing in the play.9 Vital, passionate, and dangerously sexual, she appealed to the
sensibilities of the fin-de-sicle. Ibsens contemporaries noticed that Ibsen
explicitly endows Rita with noble qualities of soul. Allmers calls her my honest,
proud, faithful Rita, and nothing in the play undermines his assessment (12:
224).10 One 1890s critic praised her as a real contemporary woman ... the most
4
Edvard Brandes, Henrik Ibsens Skuespil, Politiken (Copenhagen), December 14, 1894, unpaginated cutting.
5
See for example Brandes, Henrik Ibsens Skuespil; Christen Collin, Henrik Ibsen og troen
paa livet, Nyt Tidsskrift-Ny rkke 3 (1894/95): 227; A.A., Henrik Ibsens nye Drama, Politiken
(Copenhagen), December 12, 1894, unpaginated cutting.
6

Henry James, Theatre and Friendship: Some Henry James Letters. With a Commentary by Elizabeth Robins (New York: Putnam, 1932), November 22, 1894, 155.
7

James, Theatre and Friendship, November 25, 1894, 157158.

Robin Young, Times Disinherited Children: Childhood, Regression and Sacrifice in the Plays of
Henrik Ibsen (Norwich, UK: Norvik Press, 1989), 166.
9
I was surprised not to find a single truly negative account of Rita in the Scandinavian material
from the 1890s I consulted. It would be interesting to do a full-scale reception study to find out
when and where perceptions of Rita changed.
10

du min rlige, stolte, trofaste Rita. All references to the Norwegian text are to Lille Eyolf in
Henrik Ibsen, Hundrersutgave: Henrik Ibsens samlede verker, ed. Francis Bull, Halvdan Koht,
and Didrik Arup Seip, 21 vols. (Oslo: Gyldendal, 192857), vol. 12, abbreviated to 12. Page references will be given in the text. All translations are mine; from now on the Norwegian original will
be provided in the notes.

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beautiful and truest woman in the whole of Ibsens great gallery.11 The Swedish
writer Hjalmar Sderberg was wholeheartedly positive: She is simply a warm
and good woman [...] her nature is above all impulsive and open.12
The initial enthusiasm for Little Eyolf quickly waned. According to Asbjrn
Aarseth, the play has received less critical attention than any of Ibsens other
contemporary plays.13 Even books concerned exclusively with late Ibsen tend
either to omit it altogether or treat it quite briefly. In the 1970s, Michael Meyer,
Ibsens British translator and biographer, made a strong case for the play, calling
it one of the greatest that Ibsen ever wrote, a work in which Ibsen achieved
exactly what he set out to achieve, namely to reveal [...] the interior of a human
soul in which love has died.14 For a long time Meyers opinion was not widely
shared. Recently, however, a number of critics have defended it warmly:
Michael Goldman praises its dramatic coherence and calls it the subtlest of
Ibsens avalanches, while Arnold Weinstein declares that Little Eyolf is Ibsens
most under-recognized and brilliant play.15 In my view, Little Eyolf is a profound and coherent play, and, if played well, also a deeply moving one. In
Ibsens production it stands as a parallel to The Lady from the Sea.16 Just as The
Lady from the Sea (1888) offers an everyday alternative to the fatal skepticism
of Rosmersholm (1886), Little Eyolf offers a vision of life, and love that stands as
the counterpart to the metaphysical madness analyzed in its predecessor, The
Master Builder.17
Unlike Ibsens contemporaries, modern critics have found Little Eyolf
remarkably difficult. Many critics agree that it is extraordinarily hard to say what
the play actually is about. The British Ibsen scholar James McFarlane calls it
fearsomely convoluted; the Norwegian Frode Helland writes that it is cryptic
11

en virkelig nutidskvinde, A. Haug, Nyrealismen, Samtiden 1898, 228. See also the extremely
positive account of Rita in Kongstad Rasmussen, Lille Eyolf, Nordisk revy fr litteratur och konst,
no. 1 (1895): 171.

12
Hon r en varm och god kvinna helt enkelt [...] hon r framfr alt en impulsivt ppen natur.
Hjalmar Sderberg, Tv mnniskor, Ord och Bild 4 (1895): 235.
13

See Asbjrn Aarseth, Ibsens samtidsskuespill: En studie i glasskapets dramaturgi (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1999), 282.

14

Meyer, Henrik Ibsen, 764.

15

Michael Goldman, Ibsen: The Dramaturgy of Fear (New York: Columbia University Press,
1999), 107, 114. Arnold Weinstein, Northern Arts: The Breakthrough of Scandinavian Literature
and Arts, from Ibsen to Bergman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 75.

16
Aarseth has an excellent discussion of the many parallels between The Lady from the Sea and
Little Eyolf. Aarseth, Glasskapets dramaturgi, 292293.
17

For my readings of Rosmersholm and The Lady from the Sea, see chapters 9 and 10 in Toril
Moi, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy (Oxford and New York:
Oxford University Press, 2006).

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to the point of hermeticism.18 As for what the play is about, McFarlane, who
barely mentions the Rat Wife, settles for the rather vague idea that it is concerned with changing and disrupted relationships presented through an overlay of deception.19 Helland reads it as an analysis of the subjects melancholic
isolation, an exploration of violent negativity, a study of death in life. While
Hellands strong and challenging interpretation convinces as a reading of the
first two acts, it produces a forced interpretation of the end as purely negative.20
Recently, childhood and sexuality have been the most common answer to
the question of what Little Eyolf is about. Often focusing on Allmerss sexuality,
and particularly his relationship to his half-sister Asta, recent critics foreground
child abuse, incest, perversion, impotence, cross-dressing, pedophilia, and female sexual desire. Interestingly, none of the early Scandinavian critics found
Asta and Allmerss cross-dressing games suspect in any way. Where we see incest,
homosexuality, and pedophilia, they saw sweet innocence. One critic wrote: in
a quite delightful way there is here a suggestion of a hidden passion between the
two supposed siblings.21
Goldman reads the play as a childs fantasy of vengeance on his parents
through suicide and suggests that Allmers has sexually maimed his sister and
then memorialized that abuse in his child.22 Young reads it a play about the
sacrifice of a child to the immaturity of its parents.23 Some critics link childhood and sexuality to death, and to the supernatural element introduced by the
Rat Wife. When the Rat Wife explains that the rats drown because they simply
must follow her boat, Weinstein sees this as a shockingly brutal picture of libidinal tyranny. To him, Rita is a werewolf who ultimately turns into an altered,
nurturing, redemptive version of the Ratwife.24 While the themes of childhood
and sexuality clearly are important in Little Eyolf, readings that take them to be
the plays overarching concerns usually end up marginalizing the character of
Borghejm, and generally leaving too much of the play in the dark.

18
James McFarlane, Ibsen and Meaning: Studies, Essays & Prefaces 195387 (Norwich, UK: Norvik Press, 1989), 308; kryptisk inntil det hermetiske, Frode Helland, Melankoliens spill: En studie
i Henrik Ibsens siste dramaer (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2000), 242.
19

McFarlane, Ibsen & Meaning, 325.

20

subjektets melankolske isolasjon; en voldsom negativitet, Helland, Melankoliens Spill,


291292.
21
ganske henrivende er her antydet en skumrende Elskovsflelse de to formentlige Sdskende
imellem. A.A., Henrik Ibsens nye Drama.
22

Goldman, Ibsen: The Dramaturgy of Fear, 94 and 103.

23

Young, Times Disinherited Children, 164.

24

Weinstein, Northern Arts, 79, 87, 110. He writes Ratwife throughout.

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Another challenge to modern critics is the vexed question of the end. Is the
end a straightforward endorsement of the characters, or an ironic condemnation
of their paltry illusions? Like Henry James, critics inspired by modernist aesthetics find the idea of a final reconciliation to be insipid, sentimental, and
melodramatic. To rescue Ibsens reputation as a critical playwright, they read the
end as a savagely ironic condemnation of the futile and unrealistic idealism of its
protagonists. Helland is the most extreme: he thinks that by the end of the play
the protagonists remain completely out of touch with reality, and that the only
effect of their self-deluded talk about a new altruistic project is simply to make
Eyolf invisible again. To Helland, the play shows that even the death of their own
child only serves to fuel his parents monstrous narcissism.25 Other scholars, notably Aarseth, have firmly claimed that such ironic readings simply have no basis in
the actual text of the play, and certainly not in the last lines.26 But even if we agree
with Aarseth (as I do), we still have to show that a nonironic reading does not
necessarily produce an idealist and sentimental understanding of the end.
Three further questions have also proved challenging to anyone trying to
understand what Little Eyolf is about: What are we to make of the Rat Wife?
What is the law of change [forvandlingens lov (12: 249)] that the characters
obsess about after Eyolf s death? And what about the form of the play? Was
Ibsen wrong to place the death of Eyolf in the first act? Is the result, as Helland
puts it, undramatic and static?27 In short, how do we explain the structure of
Little Eyolf ?
My project in this essay is to present an overarching reading of Little Eyolf
that answers these questions. Since the play is not as widely known as it ought
to be, I shall begin by summarizing the text. (Obviously this is not intended as a
substitute for seeing or reading the play.)28

A Summary of the Play


Little Eyolf is the story of the death of a nine-year-old child and its aftermath.
Little Eyolf, a child with beautiful, wise eyes, is lame in one leg. His parents,
Alfred and Rita Allmers, live in a luxurious mansion overlooking the fjord.
25

See Helland, Melankoliens spill, 288291.

26

See Aarseth, Glasskapets dramaturgi, 306.

27

udramatisk; stillestende, Helland, Melankoliens spill, 244.

28

The BBC Ibsen Collection (readily available on DVD) includes a fine 1982 TV version of Little
Eyolf, directed by Michael Darlow with Anthony Hopkins as Allmers, Diana Rigg as Rita, Peggy
Ashcroft as The Rat Wife, Charles Dance as Borghejm, Emma Piper as Asta, and Timothy Stark
as Eyolf. While Anthony Hopkins struggles as Allmers, Diana Rigg is a splendid Rita, and Charles
Dance makes more sense of Borghejm than any other actor I have seen in this difficult part.

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Thanks to Ritas fortune, Allmers has been able to spend the last ten years as a
leisured man of letters working on a grand tome on human responsibility.29
A curvy, sexy, passionate woman, Rita is deeply disappointed in Alfreds lack of
sexual interest in her.
In Act I, set in the Allmerss living room on a bright summer morning, Asta
Allmers, Alfreds twenty-five-year-old half sister, arrives from the city carrying a
locked briefcase. Allmers, who has just returned from a six-week walking tour of
the mountains, has decided to abandon work on his book and instead devote
himself to little Eyolf s education. The Rat Wife, a mysterious character who
kills rats with the help of her little pug, visits the house. She explains that the
rats drown because they feel compelled to jump into the fjord in order to follow
her little boat. Frightened at first, Eyolf is soon fascinated by the Rat Wife, who
leaves without getting any business from the Allmers family. Offstage, Borghejm, a cheerful engineer and road builder, asks Asta to marry him, but she
refuses him. While Rita and Allmers engage in a heated conversation about
their marriage, Eyolf slips out unnoticed. Jealous and possessive, Rita resents
Allmerss decision to focus on Eyolf rather than her and comes close to wishing
Eyolf dead. There is commotion down by the fjordside: Eyolf has drowned.
Later, we learn that Eyolf walked off the quay transfixed by the Rat Wife rowing
away in her little boat.
Act II is set twenty-eight hours later, down by the fjordside on a heavy, rainy
day. This act consists of three conversations, each containing a major revelation
about the past. In the first exchange, between Asta and Allmers, we learn that
before Allmers married Rita, Asta used to dress up like a boy in Alfreds old
clothes, and that during these games Allmers always called her his little Eyolf.
The second conversation, between Allmers and Rita, reveals that Eyolf s leg was
crippled when he fell off a table while his parents were having rip-roaring sex.
(That this still has the power to shock is demonstrated by the Danish director
Lars von Triers use of the same motif in his 2009 film Antichrist.) Guilty, aggressive, and full of recriminations, they blame each other for having maimed and
killed Eyolf. Allmers confesses that right from the start he felt frightened by
Ritas blatant sexuality and only married her for her money, to be able to provide
for Asta. They decide to divorce. In the final conversation between Allmers and
Asta, Allmers claims that the only human relationship not subject to the law of
change is that between brother and sister. Asta then reveals that in her locked
briefcase she carries her mothers old letters, which prove that Asta and Allmers
are not related at all. At the end of the act, Asta gives Allmers some water lilies,
saying that their relationship too is subject to the law of change. As Nina
29

In this essay, I will follow Ibsens habit of referring to male characters by their last name.

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Alns has shown, in Norwegian folklore water lilies (Lat. nymphaea alba) are
connected to female desire.30
The last act is set later the same evening, in the Allmerss garden, on a hill
with a wide view of the fjord. The weather has cleared up, and it is slowly getting
dark. Asta refuses Borghejms proposal a second time, and Allmers and Rita beg
Asta to stay with them. Asta then suddenly changes her mind and agrees to
marry Borghejm after all. The two of them leave together. Left alone, Rita and
Allmers acknowledge that they lack the courage to kill themselves and wonder
how to live. Hearing the screams of the boys by the fjordside as they are being
beaten by their drunken parents, Allmers suggests razing their hovels to the
ground. Rita wonders whether it wouldnt be possible to help them. Finally,
they decide that instead of divorcing, they will try to work together to do something for the poor children who live so close to their mansion. Allmers then
hoists the flag, which has flown at half-mast, all the way up, and the two of them
express a hesitant hope for transcendence and peace.
As this summary shows, the structure of Little Eyolf is quite unusual: Act I
ends with the uncanny, almost unreal, death of a child. In Act II the experience
of despair and meaninglessness after Eyolf s death leads to three key revelations
concerning sex and sexuality, and an impending divorce. Act III contains a marriage, and a remarriage of sorts, and ends on a somewhat uncertain decision to
embark on a philanthropic project.

Little Eyolf: A Play About Realism


and Love in a World of Suffering
In an 1894 letter to his British translator, William Archer, Ibsen wrote that Little Eyolf was concerned with a serious thought content [af alvorligt tankeindhold], or in a freer translation, that it had serious philosophical concerns.31 In
a letter to his French translator, written about the same time, he stressed that the
actors in Little Eyolf must not do philosophy on stage but play his characters
as living human beings.32 Explicitly acknowledging his play as philosophical,
Ibsen is at pains to stress that there is no need to act philosophically to be
philosophically interesting: philosophy can be found anywhere ordinary human
beings act in ordinary ways.

30

See Nina S. Alns, Varulv om natten: Folketro og folkediktning hos Ibsen (Oslo: Gyldendal,
2003), 383387.

31
yvind Anker, ed. Henrik Ibsen: Brev 18451905; Ny Samling, vol. 1 (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget,
1979), 411. Letter dated October 24, 1894.
32

gjre filosofi ... symbolisme. ... levende mennesker. Quoted in Seip, Innledning, 12: 176.

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What, then, are the philosophical concerns of Little Eyolf? The play gives us
two clues, namely two explicitly philosophical-sounding phrases: human
responsibility, the subject-matter of Allmerss abandoned book project, and the
law of change, repeatedly invoked after Eyolf s death.33 That responsibility is a
key theme in a play where two parents accuse one another of having caused their
childs death is obvious. We can expect Little Eyolf to be concerned with questions of morality, freedom, and action, and specifically with the question of
what to do and how to live with the consequences of what one does.
In Norwegian, the law of change is forvandlingens lov. Forvandling, which
I have translated as change, mostly means transformation, metamorphosis,
or even transfiguration. The word has connotations to the miraculous, to fairy
tales and to the dream of becoming entirely new and different, connotations
lacking in forandring (the more common word for change). In Little Eyolf, all
the characters except Borghejm fear change. Rita thinks of forvandling as a
threat and a curse, and Allmers speaks of the law of transformation or the law
of change as a law of nature, as something to which we are subject whether we
like it or not. In this respect Little Eyolf differs strongly from a number of earlier
Ibsen plays, in which forvandling is represented as a hope and an achievement
(A Dolls House, The Lady from the Sea, and Rosmersholm).
What, then, is this law that scares Allmers but holds no terror for Borghejm?
Linked with desire, birth, and death, it appears to be the Schopenhauerian or
Buddhist insight that nothing is permanent except change itself; and that
change in the end will destroy us and everything that matters to us. Change is
temporal: to fear the law of change is to fear time, and thus, ultimately, to fear
death. The law of change entails the law of human finitude: we are subject to
change because we are embodied, which means that we are separate from one
another, sexually finite, and mortal. The connection between the law of change
and human finitude emerges clearly in Allmerss belief that the relationship
between brother and sister is the only human relationship not subject to the law
of change, presumably because he considers it the least carnal, the least sexual,
the least embodied of all love relationships. Given the obvious sexual tension
between him and his half sister, nothing could be more ironic, or more indicative of Allmerss incapacity to break out of his own fantasy world. Rita, Allmers, and, at least in part, Asta, all fear the law of change and attempt to avoid
acknowledging time and human finitude. Such avoidance can take many forms.
The crucial question, therefore, is: how does Little Eyolf represents the characters flight from the reality of human separation and death?
33

Allmers refers to forvandling several times in Act I, but the law of change is not mentioned
until Act II.

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In Little Eyolf the attempt to deny finitude and time is represented as a complete incapacity to acknowledge others as others, as separate from themselves.
That this is the key theme of the play, and its major philosophical preoccupation, is brought out by the fact that it is around the question of the existence of
others, and the duties and obligations we have toward them, that the two explicitly philosophical themes of the play, human responsibility and the law of
change, intersect.
Little Eyolf is a play about the difficulty modern human beings have in
noticing others, in seeing others as genuinely other, as different from ourselves, as persons with their own needs and wishes, and not simply as projections of our own wishes and desires. The play methodically works through
three kinds of othersones spouse or lover, ones child, and ones sibling
before finally arriving at the hardest case of all: the children of strangers, that
is to say, the whole of humanity, here embodied by the poor boys living down
by the fjordside, who remain invisible, but not inaudible, to the characters and
to the audience. The play ends with the two protagonists hesitant efforts to
acknowledge even these children. The action of the play takes them from
blindness and hard-heartedness to an effort to look at the boys who mocked
Eyolf with compassion, or as Rita puts it, in the hope that she will find something that might resemble a kind of love (12: 266).34 Little Eyolf shows that if
we have the courage to face reality, the only viable response to the suffering of
others, and to our own sense of guilt and responsibility for their suffering, is
love, not in the sense of some new feeling, or inner experience (Rita knows
that she does not feel genuine love for the boys by the shore) but in the sense
of doing the things that a loving person would do. In Little Eyolf there is an
intrinsic connection between realismthe attempt to see others as they are
and love.
At this point, Iris Murdochs understanding of what realism means, artisticially and morally, helps us to see what is at stake in Little Eyolf. For Murdoch, a
realist is someone who contemplates reality with detachment and yet with
compassion; realism is attention to reality inspired by, consisting of, love.35
The opposite of realism is fantasy, understood as a proliferation of blinding

34

Noget, som kunde ligne en slags krlighed. This is often translated simply as something resembling love. While I agree that this sounds better in English, I want to bring out, as accurately
as possible, how tentative Ritas formulation is.

35

Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (1970; repr., London: Routledge, 2001), 65. Susan Wolf s
contribution to this anthology brings out the philosophical implications of Murdochs moral philosophy, and particularly of her idea of loving attention in a fascinating way. For the purposes
of reading Little Eyolf, I stress Murdochs claim that the loving gaze is just and thus a necessary
feature of realism.

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self-centred aims and images.36 Attention is a key term for Murdoch.37 It does not
simply mean to focus on something but to [direct] a just and loving gaze [...]
upon an individual reality (33). The same just, dispassionate, unselfish, and loving gaze, the same quality of attention, is required whether the object of our attention is nature, art, or life. To learn to love is to learn to see reality as it is: It is in
the capacity to love, that is to see, that the liberation of the soul from fantasy consists.38 Here Murdoch sounds almost like Freud, a writer who frequently declared
his admiration for Ibsen. Unlike Freud, however, Murdoch stresses that the realistic vision must be compassionate, must be an expression of love. For her, love
and knowledge go together: just vision is true vision is loving vision.
For Murdoch, the key problem of moral philosophy is this: How is one to
connect the realism which must involve a clear-eyed contemplation of the misery and evil of the world with a sense of the uncorrupted good without the latter
idea becoming the merest consolatory dream?39 This formulation captures
almost perfectly Ibsens project, and problem, in Little Eyolf: How are Rita and
Allmers to live in a world full of suffering? How are they to find some values in
such a world? How can they go on living without succumbing to despair and
meaninglessness, and without seeking refuge in more or less sentimental fantasies? How can Ibsen write a play about such matters without succumbing to the
temptation of melodramatic sentimentality or a trite happy end?
I wrote that Murdochs formulation almost captures Ibsens project. Unlike
Murdoch, Ibsen never espouses a notion of the uncorrupted good. Even at his
Romantic high point, in Brand, Ibsen makes Brands understanding of the
uncorrupted good look more than a little ambiguous; in The Wild Duck, Gregerss ideal demand leads to the death of a child. Against this, one might argue
that both plays show the disastrous consequences of a pursuit of the good
divorced from love. However we resolve such questions, I cant find any commitment to the uncorrupted good in Little Eyolf. In this play Ibsens understanding of the good strikes me as more ordinary and less idealist than
Murdochs, but no less of a moral goal for all that.
For Murdoch, the capacity to pay attention, too see things with a just
and loving gaze, is the essence of realism, in art as in life. In terms of literary

36

Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, 65.

37

Susan Wolf s brilliant discussion of loving attention in her contribution to this volume brings
out some of the philosophical implications of Murdochs moral philosophy. In the context of
Little Eyolf, the most striking aspect of Murdochs loving attention is her insistence that such
attention sees the world as it is. The loving gaze is just.
38

Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, 65.

39

Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, 59.

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history, it is crucial to note that Murdochs understanding of realism is not


to be taken as the opposite of modernism. On the contrary, it has much in
common with the first modernists understanding of the task of art. Where
Murdoch writes about attention and gaze, writers like Rainer Maria Rilke
and Virginia Woolf write about seeing and vision. I am learning to see,
Rilke wrote at the beginning of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. To
learn to see is to be open to change, to be ready to discover new depths in
oneself: I am learning to see. I dont know why, everything penetrates me
more deeply, and doesnt stop at the place where it always used to end. There
is a place in me I knew nothing about.40 To learn to see, moreover, is to learn
to see things afresh, for oneself, to learn to trust ones own vision, as opposed
to established authorities and received opinion. For Woolf, the artists task is
to attend to reality with total integrity and truthfulness, and then to convey
that vision to others.41 (To clarify: I am not sure whether Rilke and Woolf
would connect the idea of love, or compassion, to the task of seeing the world
as it is, but I am sure that love and seeing others clearly are connected in Little
Eyolf.)
The structure of Little Eyolf brings out the connection between realism and
love: Little Eyolf is structured as a double, or simultaneous, movement from
fantasy toward reality, and from selfishness toward love. The first act focuses on
characters living in an atmosphere of dreamlike unreality or fantasy (heightened by the presence of the Rat Wife); the second on the pain caused by the
irruption of reality (death and suffering); and the third, in its avoidance of
either a happy or a tragic end, on the characters effort to live in a world of
suffering.
On a metatheatrical level, the movement away from fantasy and toward reality and away from selfishness toward love takes the form of a struggle away from
traditional forms of theater (tragedy, comedy, melodrama) and toward a new
kind of realism. The play as a whole comes across as Ibsens attempt to develop a
new form, not naturalism (as in Ghosts), but a new kind of realism, a realism in
which the vision of the characters and their world is mixed with compassion, or
love. I take the controversial last act to be the expression of Ibsens struggle to
find a theatrical form suited to this vision.
The fundamental oppositions between fantasy and reality, and between
selfishness and love, organize all the major thematic oppositions in the text:
40
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), trans. Burton Pike (Champaign, IL and London: Dalkey Archives Press, 2008), 3.
41
See particularly the last chapter of Virginia Woolf, A Room of Ones Own (1928; repr., New York:
Harcourt, 2005), 94112.

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Fantasy
Selfishness
Self
Stasis
Alienation
Isolation

love

Reality
Love
Other
Change
Freedom
Community

The items in each column are connected: the movement from fantasy to reality
also entails the acceptance of change (and so of time), and of the necessity to
reach out to others (and so of community). Above all, it means that the quest to
see reality as it is is also a quest for love: Little Eyolf shows that people who cant
see others, or themselves, clearly, cant love either. The play does not represent
the end of this journey. At the end of the play, Rita and Allmers are just beginning to learn to see, just beginning their struggle to develop the just and loving
gaze they never had for their own child.

Plot and Pathos


If the form of Little Eyolf has irked critics, it is clearly because it does not follow
any established nineteenth-century theatrical form. Is it a tragedy? A comedy?
A melodrama? Is it realism? Symbolism?42 To get a sense of the form of the play,
it is useful to read Little Eyolf through the lens of Aristotles Poetics. A good
tragedy, Aristotle writes, must have a peripeteia or reversal, defined as a change
from one state of affairs to its exact opposite.43 In the very best tragic plots,
however, the reversal coincides with another necessary plot element, anagnorisis
or recognition, defined as a change from ignorance to knowledge; only such
plots inspire both pity and fear.44 For Aristotle, the ideal tragedy is Sophocles
Oedipus Rex, since Oedipus begins as a detective setting out to find the cause of
the plague that has struck Thebes only to discover, in a moment of radical plot
reversal, that he himself is in fact the criminal: here peripeteia coincides with
anagnorisis, in the most seamless way.
In Little Eyolf, the reversal (Eyolf s death) happens at the end of the first act.
Far from causing a change from ignorance to knowledge, the reversal causes a
pervasive sense of meaninglessness. Allmerss first words after Eyolf s death shows
the pain involved in waking up to reality. Gone are the fantasies of turning Eyolf
42

In the 1890s, Ibsens plays were often linked with French Symbolism, and particularly with the
Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlincks Symbolist theater.
43

Aristotle, Aristotles Poetics, trans. James Hutton (New York: Norton, 1982), 56.

44

Aristotle, Poetics, 54.

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into his perfect successor; now he must try to cope with the reality of his death:
No, I cant comprehend it. It seems so completely impossibleall this. [...] Is it
really true, Asta? Or have I gone mad? Or am I just dreaming? Oh, if only it were
just a dream! Imagine, how lovely if I woke up now! (12: 227).45 In these lines
Allmers moves from a failed attempt to comprehend Eyolf s death to thoughts
of madness and dreams. At this point, he has neither realized that his previous
life was the dream, nor that the present nightmare is reality. Past convictions are
gone; new ones have not yet arisen. Allmers is in an unbearable state of confusion and doubt.
By placing the reversal at the end of the first act, and by making it lead to
confusion rather than insight, Ibsen shows that his major concern is to explore
the characters reaction to Eyolf s death. Little Eyolf thus emphasizes neither
anagnorisis nor peripeteia but Aristotles third plot element, pathos or suffering,
which Aristotle defines as an action of a destructive or painful description,
such as the deaths that take place in the open [...], agonies of pain, wounds, and
so on.46 While Aristotle understands pathos as a matter of external suffering
visibly displayed on stage (Philoctetess wound, for example), Ibsen is interested
in inner suffering, the suffering of the soul. The last two acts of Little Eyolf
explore inner suffering but also the power of theater to express it.
How can theater show what goes on inside a human being? The skeptical
problem of how to understand others is a fundamental problem for theater as an
art form. Every time an actor walks out on stage, his or her task is to convey the
characters feelings and state of mind to the other characters and to the audience.
As an art form, theater always confronts the question of how to convey to others
the inner life of a human being simply through the use of language and the other
expressive capacities of the human body (gesture, movement, positioning in
space, etc.). Silence and inexpressiveness are also forms of human expression.
The audiences task is to understand and acknowledge the characters plight. In
this respect there is no difference between the challenge of understanding characters on stage and the challenge of understanding other people in real life.
The end of Little Eyolf is a challenge to the audience: just as Rita and Allmers
will try to acknowledge the suffering of the children by the fjordside, we will
have to try to acknowledge their suffering. That these two characters are neither
heroic nor ideal, and not necessarily well equipped to carry out their project,
makes the task more difficult. After seeing Little Eyolf in Kristiania, Ibsen is said
to have asked a friend: Do you think Rita really wants to take on those naughty
45
Nej, jeg kan ikke fatte det. Jeg synes, det er s rent umuligt,dette her. [...] Er det da ogs
virkelig sandt, Asta? Eller er jeg blet gal? Eller drmmer jeg bare? , om det bare var en drm!
Tnk, hvor dejligt, hvis jeg nu vgned!
46

Aristotle, Poetics, 56.

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boys? Dont you think thats just a Sunday mood?47 But even if we share Ibsens
doubts about Ritas persistence and resolve, it doesnt follow that she is wrong to
try to lead a life of charity and compassion. As Ivo de Figueiredo has suggested,
we can believe that Rita and Allmers genuinely want to change without being
convinced that they will succeed.48
The last two acts of Little Eyolf are a relatively plotless dwelling on the aftermath of tragedy, on what we do once the worst has happened. This makes it a
precursor of radically modernist plays such as Becketts Waiting for Godot or Endgame. Yet unlike some of its late modernist successors, Little Eyolf does not dwell
in negativity. Three elements break with modernist aesthetics: First, the figure of
Borghejm provides a reminder of the power and possibilities of what Osvald and
Mrs. Alving in Ghosts call the joy of life. Second, Little Eyolf is explicitly concerned with ethical and moral problems: how are we to live given that there is no
God, and given that we are responsible for the suffering of others? Third, the play
emphasizes love as a moral and dramatic force. While Act I is all about the characters selfish fantasy world, and Act II is about guilt and responsibility, Act III
asks how to go on living in the full knowledge of the guilt we bear and the responsibility we have for the suffering of others. Little Eyolf is not a tragedy in Aristotles
sense. It has no heroic figures, and it is not meant to inspire pity and fear, or to
provide catharsis. This is not tragedy, not comedy, and not melodrama, either, but
a new form of realism that hovers on the brink of high modernism.

The Rat Wife as the Embodiment


of the Law of Change
What is the Rat Wife doing in this play? Dressed in old-fashioned clothes, she
is old, her limbs ache, she is tired, and, helped by her little pug, she entices rats
to drown themselves. To understand her role in Little Eyolf, we need to consider
the situation she disturbs when she enters. There are only two scenes before the
Rat Wife turns up. In the first, Asta arrives from town literally bearing a secret
in her locked briefcase, yet she pretends that she has just come on an ordinary
visit to little Eyolf. Externally, she keeps up appearances; internally, everything
has changed. Rita, for her part, carefully conceals her disappointment in Allmerss sexual refusal of her the previous night: the conversation between the two
women is anything but straightforward or honest.
Just as the conversation turns to Allmerss attempts to educate Eyolf, father
and son enter. Eyolf is wearing a kind of soldiers uniform and walks with a
47

Tror De Rita vil til med de uskikkelige guttene? Tror De ikke bare det er en sndagsstemning?
Quoted by Seip, Innledning, 12: 184.

48

Ivo de Figueiredo, Henrik Ibsen: Masken (Oslo: Aschehoug, 2007), 451.

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crutch. When Asta enthusiastically asks after Allmerss book, Allmers reveals
that he hasnt written a line on human responsibility while he was away. In fact,
he has now come to think of writing as a debased activity: Thinking contains
ones best. What gets set down on paper is not worth much (12: 203).49 That
Allmers prefers thinking to the hard work of writing is another sign of his flight
from reality. (On this point, he is the perfect echo of the failed writer, poet,
actor, and political speaker Ulrik Brendel in Rosmersholm.)50
Allmers mysteriously declares that someone will come after him who will do
it better, and when that happens, he will return to the mountains, which in this
play are closely associated with death. Eyolf, who clearly worships his father, says
he wants to climb the mountains with him. This pains Allmers, who upbraids
Rita for having allowed Eyolf to dress in a uniform. Yet he himself is incapable
of telling Eyolf that because his leg will never heal he will never be a soldier in
real life. When Eyolf, in a reference to conscription, insists that hell have to
become a soldier when he grows up, Allmers turns away in pain while Asta
diverts Eyolf s attention by saying that she has seen the Rat Wife. Eyolf says that
hes heard that she is a werewolf at night (12: 205).51
There is very little reality in Eyolf s life. Neither Rita, nor Allmers, nor Asta
has the courage to tell Eyolf the truth about his physical condition. The boys
down by the fjordside, however, taunt Eyolf by saying that he can never be a
soldier. When Allmers hears this, he gets angry:
ALLMERS (repressing his anger). Why do you think they say that?
EYOLF. I suppose they are envious of me. For you see, daddy, they are so
poor that they have to go barefoot.
ALLMERS (slowly, half-choking). Oh, Rita,how all this gnaws at my heart!
RITA (soothing, gets up). There, there, there!
ALLMERS (threatening). But those boysone day theyll learn whos the
boss down there at the shore!
ASTA (listening). Someones knocking. (12: 205206)52

49

Det at tnke, det rummer det bedste i en. Hvad som kommer p papiret duer ikke stort.

50

For a discussion of Brendels intellectual bankruptcy, see my Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism, 274277.
51
52

varulv om natten

ALLMERS (med undertrykt harme). Hvorfor siger de det, tror du? EYOLF. De er vel misundelige p mig. For, pappa, de er jo s fattige, de, at de m g barbent. ALLMERS (sagte, med kvalt
stemme). , Rita,hvor det nager mig i hjertet, dette her! RITA (beroligende, rejser sig). S-s-s!
ALLMERS (truende). Men de gutterne, de skal engang f fle hvem der er herrer dernede p
stranden! ASTA (lyttende). Der er nogen, som banker.

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love

The two women do nothing to stop Allmers theatricalizing himself in this way.
(The vague threat about teaching the boys whos the boss is pure performance,
in the style of Hjalmar Ekdal, the histrionic father in The Wild Duck.) In this
household, clearly, nobody looks at Eyolf with a just and loving gaze. Rita and
Allmers are too wrapped up in their own fantasies to pay genuine attention to
their son, and Asta, who may see more, is reluctant to intervene. (After the Rat
Wife leaves, Ibsen stresses Eyolf s invisibility, his ghostlike existence, by indicating that he slips out unnoticed.53)
The Rat Wife may be based on a memory from Ibsens childhood (as Ibsen
insisted), or she may be a figure out of a fairy tale, a version of the Pied Piper of
Hamelin.54 Whatever her origins, she instantly rips to shreds the Allmerss web
of self-serving fantasies. When she asks: Do the master and mistress have anything that gnaws in this house? Allmers answers: Do we? No, I dont think
so (12: 206).55 Maybe he genuinely has forgotten that he used the word gnaw
about his feelings about Eyolf s lame leg just a few minutes earlier. But even if he
has, the theater audience has not. The Rat Wifes arrival exposes Allmerss denial
of reality. That she also takes in Eyolf s situation at a glance is revealed when
she addresses him, gently, as little wounded warrior (12: 207), a phrase that
acknowledges his dreams as well as his costume, his inner as well as his outer
wounds.56 There is painful irony in the fact that the Rat Wife looks at Eyolf with
more reality than his parents. In the self-deluded Allmers household, the Rat
Wife represents the awful irruption of reality, for she is the embodiment of suffering, ageing and death, the incarnation of the law of change, a constant
reminder of human finitude.

Ice and Fire: Narcissism and Sexual Egotism


Our love has been like a consuming fire. Now it must be extinguished, Allmers
says to Rita after Eyolf s death (12: 245).57 Rita is horrified, but by the end of the
conversation, she agrees that they must separate. At the beginning of Act III,
Allmers says to Borghejm: There is something dreadful about being alone. It is
as if ice runs through me (12: 256).58 A more idiomatic translation of this
phrase would be something like I shiver when I think of it, or, as Michael
53

gr varsomt og ubemrket ud.

54

Seip claims that the Rat Wife stems from Ibsens childhood in Skien. Seip, Innledning, 12: 182.

55

Har herskabet noget, som gnaver her i huset? Vi? Nej, jeg tror ikke det.

56

lille blesserte krigsmand.

57

Vor krlighed har vret som en fortrende brand. Nu m den vre sluknet

58

Der er noget grufuldt i det at vre alene. Det ligesom isner igennem mig

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Meyer puts it, rather more melodramatically, The thought of it chills my


blood.59 In Little Eyolf fire is sexual love; ice is loneliness and separation. Fire is
associated with Rita (the flames of passion emanate from her), ice with Allmers,
whom Rita accuses of having fish-blood in his veins (see 12:245).
Allmers is a narcissist whose idea of love is to require the beloved to reflect his
own image back to him. In Act I Allmers says to Asta that his life since his marriage
to Rita appears to him as a fairy tale or a dream. (12: 211).60 The happiest time of
his life, he claims, was the period in which he lived alone with Asta, who willingly
dressed up in his old Sunday clothes and let him call her his little Eyolf. Both Asta
and Allmers appear to think of this time, and these games, as an innocent childlike
paradise. Yet, according to the timeline of the play, Allmers and Asta played at Little Eyolf until his marriage, that is, until Asta was fifteen and he was twenty-seven.
As for the other little Eyolf, Allmers wants him to reflect his own image back
to him, too: Eyolf will take up my lifes work. [...] Eyolf will become the fully
finished one in our family. And I will make it my new lifes work to turn him
into the fully finished one (12: 214).61 As if hearing the egocentricity of his own
plan, he adds that Eyolf of course may want to take on a different project, yet
there is no doubt that Allmers expects the fully finished Eyolf to be a person
who will mirror himself. Allmers, then, has no idea how to love, or how to live
with others. It is not surprising, therefore, that when Rita draws his attention to
the suffering of the boys who live in the hovels down by the fjordside, his first
thought is to raze their hovels to the ground. This is the cruelty of narcissism.
In his inability to see others as genuine others (and not mere extensions of
himself ) Allmers has much in common with Rosmer in Rosmersholm. The difference is that Rosmer is blissfully happy with Rebecca because she has turned
herself into the kind of sexless, high-minded companion Rosmer wants her to
be. In both cases, sex reminds the man of the womans otherness, her existence
as a separate, human being. In both cases, the man would like to avoid sex, while
the woman is full of raging desire. Since Rita doesnt reflect Allmerss own image
back to him, he experiences her as other, which to him means scary, threatening,
even death dealing. One can easily construe the Rat Wife as a manifestation of
Allmerss horror vision of his own wife: if Rita is sex, the Rat Wife is death.62
59
Henrik Ibsen, Little Eyolf, trans. Michael Meyer, Ibsen Plays: Three. Rosmersholm. The Lady
from the Sea. Little Eyolf (London: Methuen Drama, 1988), 277.
60

som et eventyr eller som en drm.

61

Eyolf skal ta mitt livsvrk op. [...] Eyolf skal vre den fuldfrdige i vor slgt. Og jeg vil stte
mit nye livsvrk i det at gre ham til den fuldfrdige.

62

Many critics have connected the Rat Wife with Rita, whether negatively or positively. A brief
overview of some recent Norwegian readings can be found in Bjrn Hemmer, Ibsen: Kunstnerens
vei (Bergen: Vigmostad Bjrke, Ibsen-museene i Norge, 2003), 476.

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Rita finds the meaning of life in the flames that frighten Allmers. Fanatically
devoted to the absolute passion she believes she shares with Allmers, she draws
a ring of fire around the two of them, as a barrier against others. Even her son is
outside that ring. To her, any intrusion is a threat. Rita is not a narcissist, but
rather a classic case of existential alienation. Throughout her marriage, she has
identified with a static image of herself as the great sex goddess. When that
image is threatened, her sense of identity disintegrates. Her alienation thus
makes her absolutely intolerant of change. She must hold on to her self-image or
fall apart. In a felicitous phrase, Helland writes that Rita lives in congealed
time [stivnet tid ].63
In Little Eyolf, fire and ice are equally destructive. Both kill and destroy, both
signify different ways of denying time and change, both represent isolation and
selfishness. If Allmers and Rita are to survive, they must find a way to relate to
others; that is to say, they need to learn that there are others in the world. To live
with others, to establish community, they will have to stop being afraid of
change and give up their alienated self-images in order to find some kind of
freedom.
At the end of the play, Rita has discovered that her sexual egotism has made
her cruel, destructive, and lonely. When she speaks of reaching out to the poor
as something that might resemble a kind of love, she means that she needs to
find new criteria for what is to count as love. Her previous understanding of love
turned out to be death dealing; now she must relearn the meaning of the word.
Stanley Cavell reminds us that we learn the meaning of words from others, not
just in the sense that we learn the shared criteria and the shared grammar of
their use, but in the sense that we literally begin our journey into language by
learning what words mean to others. If Rita wants to discover the meaning of
love, she will have to break out of her alienation, her world of private dreams
and fantasies, and let herself become part of a community, however tenuously.
In relation to Rita, Cavells insight about the relationship between meaning and
community applies almost completely: The philosophical appeal to what we
say, and the search for our criteria on the basis of which we say what we say, are
claims to community. And the claim to community is always a search for the
basis upon which it can or has been established. [...] The wish and search for
community is the wish and search for reason.64 The opposite of reason is madness: Cavell means that when we discover that our words are meaningless to
others; or, inversely, that we no longer understand their words, we are on the
63
64

Helland, Melankoliens spill, 273.

Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 20.

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brink of falling through the thin net over an abyss, the only thing that binds us
to others, namely our shared language.65 Seeking the meaning of love, Rita
seeks community, and reason, too.

Borghejm and Asta


So far, I have focused on Allmers, and Rita, and on Asta in relation to Allmers.
But what is Borghejm doing in this play? And why does Asta choose to follow
him to his distant road building project at the very last minute? The first reference to Borghejm comes right at the start of the play, when Rita teases Asta
about him, using the phrase our road builder [vor vejbygger] twice (12: 200).
There may be a reference here to the last line of Ibsens preceding play, Hilde
Wangels ecstatic, desperate, mad: My-my master builder! [Min,min bygmester!] (12:123). Borghejms level-headedness and constructive spirit is the antidote to the madness and destruction that devour Hilde and Solness in The Master
Builder; his road building the opposite of Allmerss empty philosophizing.
Unlike house building, road building requires engineers to confront the
immovable obstacles thrown up by nature: crags, ravines, waterfalls. Borghejm
is full of joy at the thought of building extraordinarily challenging mountain
crossings: Oh, what a great, beautiful worldwhat happiness it is to be a road
builder! (12: 217).66 Borghejm asks Asta to share his joys, not his sorrows: he is
the embodiment of the joy of life, the joy of life that Mrs. Alving killed in her
husband in Ghosts; the joy of life that is totally absent in the gloomy rooms at
Rosmersholm. In these plays, Ibsen shows that without the joy of life, the human
spirit is crushed, and existence becomes nothing but a source of suffering. In
Little Eyolf Borghejm is there to remind us of the same thing.
Borghejm exemplifies the realistic spirit. In this respect it is significant that
he is the only character to come on stage after the Rat Wifes visit. If the Rat
Wife is there, as I have suggested, to remind the other characters of the real
conditions of human existence, of time, suffering, and death, Borghejm does
not need to meet her, for he already lives in the real world. Our attention is
drawn to Borghejms realism well before he enters. When Eyolf tells his father
that Borghejm has given him a bow and an arrow as a present, and taught him
to use them, Allmers is struck by the appropriateness of the gesture. The implication is that unlike Allmers, Borghejm sees both Eyolf s dreams (his wish to
become a soldier) and his handicap clearly, and deals with them imaginatively
and lovingly.
65

Cavell, The Claim of Reason, 178.

66

, du store, vakkre verden,hvad det er for en lykke, det, at vre vejbygger!

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Is Borghejm not too optimistic, too constructive? Should he not be suspected of failing to understand that time brings change, and that change means
suffering and death? After all, in Act I, he tells Rita that he believes that some
things in the world never end, and it is clear that he thinks of love. Yet Borghejm
does not deny the possibility of change; rather, what he says to Asta is that he is
not afraid of the law of change (12: 225). The implication is that if Borghejm has
to suffer the loss of love, he will not avoid, but acknowledge that reality. If Borghejm played as relentlessly cheerful throughout, he will come across as shallow.
But Borghejm does not lack seriousness and passion. In the last act, he violently
argues that Asta is mad to refuse the possibility of happiness, in terms that
remind us that time and change do not only bring death and suffering, but love
and life, too: Just beyond today and tomorrow our lifes happiness may be waiting for us. And we just let it lie there! Wont we regret that, Asta? (12: 255).67
Because he does not fear change, Borghejm encourages Asta to take a risk on
him and strike out for happiness. Like Rita, Borghejm is a vital, warm-hearted,
passionate human being. But unlike Rita, he is not alienated. He wants to work,
and he wants to love, and, crucially, he is fully capable of both. (Freud, a pessimistic thinker if there ever was one, famously thought that work and love are
the foundations of human happiness.) Astas fascination with her brother has
kept her fixated on the past. Yet however attracted she may be to Allmers, she is
sane enough to flee in time.68 To choose Borghejm is to choose the future, construction, change and hope over the past, destruction, stasis and despair. When
Asta leaves, Allmers is deprived of his last crutch.69 Only at this point, when
Rita and Allmers are left alone, do they finally face reality, and realize that they
too have to change.

The Last Lines


How are we to understand the much discussed last lines of Little Eyolf? Rita and
Allmers have just decided to try to do something for the poor boys on the shore.
Allmers goes over to the flag pole and hoists the flag, which has flown on half
mast, to the top. The play ends with the following lines:
ALLMERS (comes back to her). We have a strenuous workday ahead of us,
Rita.
67

Lidt bortenfor idag og imorgen ligger kanske hele livslykken og venter p os. Og s lar vi den
ligge! Kommer vi ikke til at angre p det, Asta?

68
69

Both Asta and Allmers call her departure a flight (see 12: 258259).

Tjnneland also thinks that Asta leaves because she fears being used as a crutch by Allmers. See
Eivind Tjnneland, Ibsen og moderniteten (Oslo: Spartacus Forlag, 1993), 91.

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RITA. Youll see,a Sunday calm will fall on us from time to time.
ALLMERS (quietly, moved). Then, perhaps, well sense that the spirits
have come to visit.
RITA (whispering). The spirits?
ALLMERS (as before). Yes. Perhaps they will be with us then,the ones
we have lost.
RITA (nodding slowly). Our little Eyolf. And your big Eyolf too.
ALLMERS (looking straight ahead). Perhaps, still, now and then,on
lifes waywell catch something like a glimpse of them.
RITA. Where shall we look, Alfred?
ALLMERS (looking at her). Upwards.
RITA (nodding her approval). Yes, yes,upwards.
ALLMERS. Upwards,towards the mountain tops. Towards the stars.
And towards the great silence.
RITA (gives him her hand). Thank you! (12:268)70
Alns reminds us that it is usual in Norway to hoist the flag to the top at the
end of a funeral.71 By hoisting the flag, Allmers signals that he and Rita now
have buried Eyolf. To bury little Eyolf is neither to deny him, nor to forget
him; it is to acknowledge that he is dead. For these parents this is extraordinarily hard to do, for they couldnt acknowledge him while he was alive, and
now they have no body, no coffin, just the memory of a little boy swept out
to sea.
The transcendental gesture at the end of Little Eyolf (looking upward toward
the mountains and the stars) reminds me of Bette Davis at the end of Now, Voyager (But we have the stars).72 In his analysis of Now, Voyager as a member of
the cinematic genre he calls the melodrama of the unknown woman, Cavell
reads we have the stars with Emerson and Thoreau as signs of a romance with
the universe, a mutual confidence with it, taking ones productive habitation on
70

ALLMERS (kommer fremover igen). Det vil bli en tung arbejdsdag foran os, Rita. RITA. Du
skal s,der vil falde sndagsstilhed over oss en gang imellem. ALLMERS (stille, bevget). Da
fornemmer vi ndernes besg, kanske. RITA (hviskende). ndernes? ALLMERS (som fr). Ja.
Da er de kanskje om oss,de, som vi har mistet. RITA (nikker langsomt). Vor lille Eyolf. Og
din store Eyolf ogs. ALLMERS (stirrer frem for seg). Kan hende, vi endnu engang imellem,p
livsvejenfr se ligesom et glimt af dem. RITA. Hvor hen skal vi s, Alfred? ALLMERS (fster
jnene p hende). Opad. RITA (nikker bifallende). Ja, ja,opad. ALLMERS. Opad,imod tinderne. Mod stjernerne. Og imod den store stilhed. RITA (rkker ham hnden). Tak!
71
72

Alns, Varulv om natten, 390.

Maria DiBattistas essay in this anthology adds an important layer of meaning to the idea
of having the stars, by helping us to see Now, Voyager as a reflection on the transformational
possibilities of love.

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earth; signs of possibility, a world to think.73 In Little Eyolf, Rita and Allmers
are more tentative: they dont claim that they have the stars, yet their wish to
look toward the stars from time to time does signify a hope that one day they
too might feel at home in the universe. Or, at the very least, that they might find
some meaning in their everyday struggle to do something for others.
Ibsen used a similar end in Pillars of Society (1877). There Martha Bernick, a
woman who waited for her beloved for ten years, only to see him sail away with
a younger woman, makes a similar gesture: The sky is clearing. The light is
growing stronger over the ocean. Her brother, Consul Bernick, replies: And
wewe have a long workday ahead (8: 148).74 The end of Little Eyolf also recalls
An Enemy of the People (1882), where the ostracized Dr. Stockman decides to
remain in his home town and start a school. With the help of his daughter and
wife he will educate his own two sons alongside some real shabby [...] louts off
the street (9: 312).75
Bette Daviss character will continue to devote herself to her ex-lovers
daughter. Bernick will start reforming his community, with the help of his sister
and the other women around him. Dr. Stockman will devote himself to educating a new generation of free human beings, and Rita and Allmers will start taking care of poor children. In these works, working for others, above all for other
peoples children, represents an attempt to free oneself from illusions and turn
toward the world with something like a realistic spirit. These projects are
attempts to live in a fallen world. At the end of Little Eyolf, Iris Murdochs idea
that realism means looking at others, and the world, with a just and loving
gaze feels right.

Why Should We Care?


Why should we care about Rita and Allmers? We should not make the mistake
of seeing them simply as deluded representatives of the fin-de-sicle bourgeoisie. They are closer to us than that. Just consider: They are rich in a world of
poverty. They behave as if they think they can live forever. Their major worries
concern his unfinished book and her frustrated sex life. They are so wrapped up
in themselves that they neglect their own son, emotionally and spiritually. Only
the unbearable reality of the death of their child has the power to drag them out

73

Stanley Cavell, Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1996), 138.

74
Hvor himlen klarner. Hvor det lysner over havet. [...]. Og vivi har en lang arbejdsdag
ivente.
75

rigtige lurver; gadelmler.

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of their self-protective cocoon. Why should we care about Rita and Allmers?
Because they are like us. We should be relieved that Ibsen was capable of looking
at them with enough love to give themto give usanother chance.

Acknowledgments
I want to thank Susan Wolf for her generosity in inviting me to participate in
the working group on philosophy and love; Susan Wolf and Christopher Grau
for their comments on an earlier draft; and Mria Fskerti, the Head Librarian
at the Centre for Ibsen studies in Oslo, for helping me to find materials on Little
Eyolf in August 2008. Finally, I am deeply grateful to the Camargo Foundation
in Cassis, France for providing me with a splendid view of the Mediterranean,
and time to work, in the spring of 2009.

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10
Rousseaus Julie
passion, love, and the price of virtue
Frederick Neuhouser

[In his Discourses, Rousseau] quite correctly demonstrates the inevitable


conflict between culture and the nature of the human race, considered
as a physical species in which each individual ought to achieve his full
destiny. But in his Emile and Social Contract ... he attempts to solve a
more difficult problem: how culture must progress in order to develop
the capacities of humanity in accordance with its destiny as a moral
species in such a way that the latter no longer conflicts with its destiny as
a natural species.
Kant, Conjectural Beginning of Human History

ants insightful description of Rousseaus philosophical project emphasizes


two themes: the inevitable conflict between culture and human nature
that occupies the First and Second Discourses (1750, 1754) and the possibility
that culture of a particular sortthe domestic education described in Emile
(1762) and the political institutions recommended in the Social Contract (1762)
might be able to resolve that conflict by developing humanitys capacities such
that human nature becomes not an impediment to virtue but compatible with,
perhaps even an instrument of, moral progress. Like most philosophers after him,
Kant regards the Discourses, the Social Contract, and Emile as the essential core
of Rousseaus thought and has little to say about the other major text Rousseau
wrote in the same period: Julie, or the New Heloise (1761). Although in the eighteenth century Julie was by far the most widely read of Rousseaus works, Kants
neglect of it is understandable. For in contrast to the texts he takes most seriously,
Julie is not primarily a philosophical treatise but a work of fiction, one that must

209

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have seemed to Kant far removed from philosophys domain. In this essay I try to
elucidate the thematic continuity between this work and the more obviously
philosophical texts that Rousseau wrote in the same period. What, if anything,
does Julie tell us about the themes that dominate Rousseaus philosophical work?
To what extent is Julie, too, a meditation on the tensions among morality, culture,
and human nature and on the possibilities for resolving them?
No one who has read Julie can doubt that virtue, romantic love, and the
relation between them are among its central themes. Moreover, the tragic outcome of the novels principal love affair makes clear that it views romantic love
as susceptible to conflicts of such intensity and intractability that satisfaction in
love is difficult, perhaps impossible, to achieve. It is considerably harder, however, to articulate precisely the novels central conflict: what exactly is in conflict
with what, and why does that conflict have such disastrous consequences? One
description of the novels principal conflict is suggested by an early letter to Julie
in which St. Preux gives expression to an ideal of harmony that their incipient
love seems to promise: Ah, it is from you that one must learn ... that divine
accord of virtue, love, and nature that never was found except in you! (I: xxi).1
The main problem with this suggestionthat the novels central preoccupation
is a conflict among virtue, love, and natureis that each of these terms has multiple meanings for Rousseau. It is no doubt true that on some construal of each,
the conflict among virtue, love, and nature, is Julies main theme. But without a
more precise understanding of these concepts, this observation tells us too little.
The interpretation I offer here is guided by the thesis that the central problem of Julie is a conflict among virtue, love, and sexual passion. The main support for this claim must come from showing that this understanding of the
novels theme makes most sense of the work as a whole. But some support for it
can be found in observing that a version of the same conflict is the main issue in
the tragic love affair that is the source of Julies subtitle, that of Abelard and
Heloise. The contrast I mean to draw between love and sexual passion is the very
distinction Heloise relies on when, after Abelards castration and their forced
separation, she complains to him of his neglect and speculates about its cause:
Whyafter our conversion, which you alone decreedhave I fallen into
so much neglect and oblivion on your part that you do not even direct to
me a word of nourishment when you are present, nor a letter of consolation in your absence? Tell me this, if you can, or I shall tell you what I feel
1

Citations of this form refer to Part and Letter numbers of Julie (here: Part I, Letter xxi). My
translations rely heavily on Julie, or the New Heloise, in The Collected Writings of Rousseau, trans.
Philip Stewart and Jean Vach (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1997), vol. 6.

frederick

neuhouser

211

and what everyone suspects: concupiscence united you to me more than


friendship, the fire of passion (libidinis) more than love. When your desire
ended, its manifestations evaporated as well. (Letter 2, emphasis added)2
This contrast between love and friendship, on the one hand, and concupiscence and passion, on the other, is a recurrent theme in the letters of Heloise
and Abelard, just as it is in the exchange between Julie and St. Preux. It is
relatively easy to see what the first two lovers have in mind when they distinguish the love associated with friendshipwhat Abelard calls true love
from sexual passion (libido), or concupiscence. The latter is taken to be a
longing of the flesh that is by nature unbridled and immoderate and that
because of the intensity of the delight it promisesthe joy of supreme pleasure (Letter 4)is capable of absorbing (Letter 5) those affected by it,
leading them into incontinence and vice. Further, as Heloise implies in the
earlier quotation, sexual passion by itself is compatible with neglect, even
abuse, of the object of its longing, whereas love shows itself in the sharing of
joys and sorrows and in the urge to console the beloved in her (or his) grief. It
is Abelardthough generally much less perceptive than Heloise in these
matters3who formulates the main difference between sexual passion and
love: It was [God] who loved you truly, not I. My love, which led both of us
to sin, has to be called concupiscence, not love. I poured my wretched desires
into you, and this was all that I loved (Letter 5). Sexual passion alone, in
other words, is egoisticit seeks to gratify its own lust, even at the expense of
its objects ruinwhereas love expresses itself in a concern for the beloveds
true good, the most important element of which is his or her moral purity.
Sexual passion looks at its object and sees only itselfa reflection of its own
longings and a means to satisfying themwhereas love recognizes in its
beloved a separate being with his or her own good, which may or may not
coincide with passions ends.
A similar understanding of the difference between love and sexual passion
informs the exchange between Julie and St. Preux: love is more than a fever of
the senses or a desire of debased nature (II: xiii). One of the prominent themes
of Julie is the contrast between the turbulence of sexual passion, which burns,
2

My translations of Heloises and Abelards letters rely heavily on The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff (New York: Knopf, 1926). Some editions number the letters
differently, not counting Historia Calamitatum as a letter. If consulting those editions, subtract
one from the letter numbers given here.

Rousseauor St. Preuxseems to agree: Heloise ... had a heart that was made to love, but
Abelard has never seemed more to me than a miserable man who deserved his fate and who knew
love as little as virtue (I: xxiv).

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ferments, and devours (I: iv, xiv, xxx), and the tender, peaceful union of
souls (but not necessarily bodies) essential to loveincluding love among friends
and family members. It is this distinction Julie relies on when she speaks of a
tranquil and tender love that speaks to the heart without stirring the senses and
that makes intelligible her plaintive question to St. Preux: sensual man, will you
never know how to love? (II: xv). The importance of this contrast is evident in
Julies many examples of relationships that lack sexual passion but exhibit the
affection and mutual concern characteristic of love. Examples of love without
sexual passion include Julies affection for her parents; her relation to her cousin
Claire; St. Preuxs friendships with Lord Bomston and Wolmar; and even two
apparently successful marriages: that between Claire and Monsieur dOrbe and,
more significantly, Julies union with Wolmar. The central relationship between
Julie and St. Preux, however, clearly includes both love and sexual passion, and
the aspiration to unite them in a single, exclusive, lifelong relationship defines the
ideal of what I call romantic love.
It may seem obvious how St. Preuxs formulation of the three elements he
desires to find united in Julievirtue, love, and naturemaps on to my depiction of the novels conflict as among virtue, love, and sexual passion. But equating sexual passion with nature is more problematic than it appears. One obvious
reason for linking sexual passion with nature is that it has its source in biological
nature and serves an endreproductionof animal life in general. Moreover,
sexual passion is bound up with bodily pleasure in a way that other passions
(ambition or greed) are not. Yet, although human sexuality is unthinkable for
Rousseau without these foundations in nature, he insists that sexual passion is
not primarily a biological phenomenon; it is not, in other words, simply a longing of the flesh.
That nature in Julie does not correspond to any familiar sense of the term
will come as no surprise to readers of Rousseaus other texts, who already
know that there, too, nature bears a bewildering multiplicity of meanings.
Rather than attempt to sort out the various meanings nature has in Julie, I
intend to deal with this problem in a more roundabout way. I propose to
elucidate the central issue of the novel by examining first the conflictbetween
sexual passion and virtueat the heart of Abelards and Heloises love. We
can then get a picture of what Rousseau means by the harmony of virtue, love,
and nature by looking at what he finds unacceptableunacceptably Christian
(or Catholic)in how this medieval story of tragic love resolves its central
conflict. Once we see what Rousseau rejects in that solution and what criteria
he thinks an acceptable alternative must satisfy, we will have a better understanding of what nature signifies here and of what the desired unity of virtue,
love, and sexual passion consists in.

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Abelard and Heloise: A Theodicy of Sexual Passion


In the case of Abelard and Heloise, sexual passion figures as an impediment to
virtue because of its power to introduce chaos into the soul, to overwhelm and
disorient its possessor so that (as Julie puts it) sense and reason are poisoned
(I: iv). Their sexual passion repeatedly leads Abelard and Heloise to act rashly,
resulting in behavior that is imprudent and sinful, even to the point of desecrating a refectory dedicated to the Holy Virgin with their impetuous lovemaking. (If having wild sex in a church fails to strike one as a serious moral
infraction, it is easy to imagine other crimes of sexual passion. Abelard admits
to forcing Heloise with blows and threats in the heat of passion, as well as to
betraying the trust of her uncle in order to satisfy his lust.) Another way of
describing the disorder of the soul that sexual passion can induce is contained
in Abelards confession: I put those wretched and obscene pleasures before
both God and myself (Letter 5). Passion, then, can lead not merely to impious
deeds but to perverted priorities, and thisassigning both God and ones own
true good a lower place than they meritis the essence of sin. A further consequence of this disorder is that under the spell of sexual passion Abelard loved
Heloise beyond all measure or proportion (supra modum): I desired to possess you forever and for myself alone (Letter 5; emphasis added). In other
words, the jealous exclusiveness with which sexual passion strives to possess its
object is incompatible with the legitimate claims that othersGod, Heloises
family, Heloise herselfhave on the beloved. In desiring its object for itself
alone, sexual passion seeks to remove its beloved from the web of obligations
that joins him or her to others, demanding the neglect of all duties external to
the single bond of passionate love.
It is not difficult to find a similar view in Julie. Though Julies and St. Preuxs
passion does not lead them to desecrate a house of God, it results twice in the
crime of intercourse out of wedlock and in the vile loss of restraint; in fits
of passion ... that resemble attacks of fury more than tender caresses; and in
delusions of the senses that destroy their zeal for wisdom and honesty
(I: xxxii). Rousseau also highlights the tendency of sexual passion to upset the
souls affective priorities and to lead the impassioned to neglect their obligations
to others. One feature of the jealous love inspired by sexual passion is that
lovers never see anyone but themselves, they attend incessantly only to themselves, and the only thing they can do is love each other (III: xx). Or, as Julie
realizes early on: When two people are enough for each other, does it occur to
them to think of a third? (I: xlv). It is no accident that one of the first consequences of Julies fall is her nearly disastrous neglect of her servant Fanchon,
whom she had promised to protect and who now, through circumstances Julie

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is in a position to alter, faces poverty, seduction, and permanent separation from


her fianc (I: xxxix).
One significant difference between Julie and the tale of Abelard and Heloise
is the formers greater emphasis on the tension between passionate love and
social obligations, especially obligations to the members of ones household. In
fact, the most important conflict in Julie derives from Julies need to choose
between running off with St. Preux and (as she sees it) fulfilling her duties to her
parents (II: vi). I shall have more to say later about this conflict; for now it is
important to get a better grasp of the kind of reconciliation among virtue, love,
and sexual passion that Rousseau aspires to find, including the demand that
such a reconciliation accord with nature. To do so, we must first examine the
resolution of this conflict elaborated in Julies medieval predecessor.
The letters of Abelard and Heloise can be read as proposing a strategy for
resolving the conflict between romantic love and virtue, insofar as they articulate a vision of the transformations sexual passion must undergo in order for
romantic love to be compatible with the lovers virtue. That such a strategy has
been at work in their love is precisely the claim Abelard makes, retrospectively,
in proposing to Heloise that the apparently tragic course of their love, including
his own castration, is Gods way of restoring them both to righteousness: rather
than merely punishing them for their sin as they deserved, God made use of the
very passion that led them astray to lead them to salvation. (It is worth noting
that although Heloise endorses certain elements of this account, she never
clearly embraces all of it, with the result that she finds it much more difficult
than Abelard to be reconciled to the outcome of their love. This is another reason Heloise appears as the more human figure.) This theodicy of tragic love is of
sufficient relevance to Julie to warrant reconstructing it in some detail.
According to this account, Abelards castration at the hands of his in-laws
henchmen is Gods effort to cure his soul by wounding his body. Like the most
faithful physician, who in seeking health does not spare pain (Letter 4), God cut
off the source of Abelards immoderate passion by (literally) cutting off that
part of my body that was the seat of lust and the source of all its concupiscence,
in order that I might grow in many ways (Letter 5). Thus, in removing the bodily
source of Abelards passion, God liberated him from the heavy yoke of concupiscence that had led him into sin, thereby restoring the possibility of
his salvation. Moreover, God accomplished this cleansing in such a way that
Abelard could enjoy its spiritual reward (sinlessness) while avoiding culpability
for the sin of bodily mutilation. Because Abelard suffered castration at the hands
of others, he escaped the guilt that, for example, Origenes incurred by inflicting
the same fate on himself (also for the purpose of conquering his lust). Abelards
castration, then, is a manifestation of divine mercy because even while persisting

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in sin, he was involuntarily restored to blamelessness; though Abelard deserved


death, he obtained life (Letter 5). A further piece of this theodicyand a significant contrast with Julieis that Abelards castration and entry into monastic
life aided him in fulfilling his true vocation: they enabled him to resume his philosophical work with the vigor and concentration he enjoyed prior to meeting
Heloise, and through them he escaped the tedium and degradation of family life:
the crying of children, the songs of nurses, ... the endless, sordid shit of infants
(Historia Calamitatum, 7).
Gods strategy for Heloise is more complicated. In her case, the remedy for
sinfulness is not physical amputation but the sacrament of marriageor more
precisely, a double dose of that sacrament, for she is married twice, both times
against her will. The first of these marriages is to Abelard: after Heloise has
borne his child and their illicit love has been discovered, Abelard proposes their
(secret) marriage as part of a package of concessions designed to placate Heloises enraged family. Even though the shotgun character of their proposed
union might have been enough to elicit her resistance, Heloise insists that no
matter what the circumstances, she would have preferred to be Abelards
friend, even his concubine or whore (Letter 2), to becoming his wife.4 When,
as Heloise predicted, her marriage fails to mollify her family, Abelard seeks protection for her in the convent at Argenteuil, where, once he has been castrated
and has himself taken refuge in a monastery, she is subjected to a second marriage, this time to Christ. Although Abelard describes his wife as having taken
her monastic vows voluntarily, at my command (ad imperium nostrum sponte)
(Historia Calamitatum, 8), Heloise recalls the event differently. For her it was
Abelard, in an act of betrayal and mistrust, who handed her over (mancipasti)
to the holy garments (Letter 2); it was he whoin a gesture that will resonate
mightily in Julieplaced the veil (velum) on her.5
Regardless of the extent to which Heloise chose her fate, her double marriage
is (on Abelards reconstruction) part of Gods plan to save both of their souls.
From this point of view, Heloises first marriage, though the consequence of sin,
serves to guarantee her chastity and thus her sinlessness after Abelards castration,
for if the indissoluble law of holy matrimony had not bound Heloise to Abelard,

Among her reasons: she regards the estate of marriage as dishonorable for a philosopher; she
thinks it sweeter to be joined to Abelard by affection than by the bond of marriage; and she believes their passion would remain keener if they were not always together (Historia Calamitatum,
7, and Letter 2).
5

At Historia Calamitatum, 7, Abelard makes a point of saying that when he first brought Heloise
to the convent, he put on her ... the garments ... that befitted the monastic profession, except
the veil; it is only later, when at his command Heloise took the vow of chastity and became
Christs wife, that he can be said (figuratively) to have placed the veil on her.

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the allurements of carnal pleasures might well have been powerful enough to
lead her to cling to the world and hence to sin (99). Thus, God uses Heloises
sexual passion to bind her to a man who, once God has accomplished his purpose
in him, is physically incapable of satisfying her lust and therefore no longer a
possible accomplice in sin. Moreover, the divine plan uses the love that springs
from Heloises sexual passion to lead her into a second marriage (since she takes
the veil to please her earthly husband), this time to a worthier spouse, union with
whom is the very essence of righteousness. If Heloises marriage to Christ cements
her salvation (and rescues her from the roles of wife and mother so that she,
too, can devote herself to the higher callings of learning and spiritual stewardship), it also serves to preserve her first marriage on a higher plane by reuniting the
two lovers in a new, exclusively spiritual love mediated by a third figure, her new
husband. As Abelard says in attempting to console Heloise: For we two are one
in Christ; ... I am more joined to you now by spiritual love than subjected to you
by fear (Letter 5).
Although the resolution of the conflict among virtue, love, and sexual passion
might now appear complete, there remains one important issue: what is to become
of Heloises sexual passion, given that, in contrast to Abelard, the bodily source of
her libido remains intact. This is an urgent issue for Heloise herself, for her letters
make clear (as will Julies): libido is female as well as male, and it manifests itself
with similar power in the two sexes. In some of the most moving passages of her
letters Heloise complains bitterly that she cannot forget the sweetness of loves
delights, that she dreams constantly of them, that sexual fantasies haunt her even
in prayer, and that at times, unexpectedly and against her will, a movement of my
own body or unanticipated words reveal my souls thoughts (Letter 4). It is not
difficult to guess what use the divine plan makes of Heloises sexual passion once
its natural expression is blocked: the passion that was directed at her first husband
must be transferred to her second. This is the thought Abelard expresses in
response to Heloises confession of lingering desire: put all your devotion,
your compassion, your remorse into Him, not meinto Him who through
His passion (passione6) cures every illness and removes all passion (passionem)
(Letter 5). Thus, it is not merely that Heloises sexual passion for Abelard is what
leads her to marry Christ; that same passion, redirected to a new object, must
also be at work in her new marriage: her passion for Abelard is transformed, via a
passion for Christ, into a passion for virtue.
One final point remains: there is a sense in which, according to Abelards
theodicy, it is Heloise who ends up in the better position. More precisely, the
6

Although passio might be rendered as suffering, Abelard elsewhere uses the term to refer to
what we would call passion, e.g., in Letter 5.

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hierarchical relation that existed between them beforehis being her lord,
her father (Letter 2)has been inverted by her new relationship to Christ so
that now he is her servant (servus) (Letter 5). There are two asymmetries their
relationship acquires after Heloises marriage to Christ. First, insofar as she is
wed to Christ and Abelard is not, Heloise enjoys the more intimate relationship to the Savior. Abelard takes this to mean that he is now dependent on his
former wife to intercede with Christ on his behalf, not only for his bodily
safety but for the health of his soul as well. Thus, one result of Heloises dual
marriage is that the burden of Abelards salvation now falls on her shoulders;
he places his hopes for salvation in the hope that you may obtain by your
prayers what I cannot by mine, especially now when the dangers and confusions of everyday life allow me neither to live nor to find the leisure for prayer
(Letter 5). Indeed, from the beginning of their correspondence it is hard to
avoid the impression that Abelards most pressing concern is his unceasing
need of Heloises prayer rather than a desirethe impulse of true loveto
comfort or encourage her.
The second asymmetry concerns the degree of righteousness available to
each. Because Abelard, but not Heloise, has lost the capacity for sexual
passionand, presumably, because the sublimation of passion envisioned for
her can never be completethe only state of righteousness available to him is
sinlessness, whereas she has the opportunity to achieve something higher: the
crown of virtue, together with its reward, a more glorious place in heaven.
(Here, again, Heloise is clear that this is not what her love leads her to desire: I
do not seek a crown of victory. . . . I will be satisfied in whatever corner of
heaven God puts me [Letter 4].) Because virtue, in contrast to mere sinlessness, requires overcoming sinful desires through struggle, someone who has no
longings of the flesh against which to fight is unable to achieve the crown of
victory. Precisely because Heloises innocence remains in doubt in a way that
Abelards no longer is, the crown of virtue is still achievable for her but not for
him. Thus, her involuntary path through two marriages has brought Heloise to
the point where, though she still must struggle, she is in a position to emerge
victorious. Divine providence has produced not her virtuewhich it could
not in any case, since virtue requires the struggle of a free willbut a favorable
opportunity for achieving it.
The most important respects in which Rousseaus tale of romantic love
diverges from its medieval predecessor are related to the various ways he takes
the latter to rely on unnatural means in reconciling virtue, love, and sexual
passion. In my view, the major differences between the two stories reflect Rousseaus intention to modernize the medieval tale of Abelard and Heloise by seeking a resolution of the conflict among virtue, love, and sexual passion that,

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unlike its predecessor, respects the constraints of nature.7 My suggestion, in


other words, is that Rousseaus rewriting the story of Abelard and Heloise
reflects his dissatisfaction with the ways its, to his mind, exceedingly Christian
(or Catholic) solution to the conflict depends on doing violence to nature.
Locating the three respects in which Rousseau wants his treatment of romantic
love to accord with nature will help clarify the meaning of that divine union of
virtue, love, and nature that serves, on my reading, as Julies guiding ideal:
1. The resolution may not rely on physical mutilation or other interventions
that seek to extirpate sexual passion in either lover.8
2. The resolution may not be achieved at the expense of the lovers earthly
happiness. There is no genuine resolution if the lovers end up unhappy, and
their happiness may not depend on supernatural phenomena, such as reward in the afterlife.9
3. The resolution may not require a monastic retreat from the world; it must
be compatible with the lovers participation in the natural institution of
the family and with the achievement of its natural end, reproduction.10

Purifying Sexual Passion


Julies strategy for reconciling virtue, love, and sexual passion envisions not the
extirpation of sexual passion but its purification.11 It adopts, then, a version of
the strategy employed in reforming Heloises sexual passionsublimation in
the service of virtueand applies it to both members of the couple in love.
A description of this strategy is provided by one of the last letters Julie writes to
St. Preux, shortly before her fatal jump into the Lac Lman:
What a delightful sentiment I feel in beginning this letter! This is the
first time ... I can write you without fear and shame. I pride myself on the
7

Alternatively, one could describe Julie as Rousseaus attempt to Protestantize a Catholic tale
though if Hegel is right, these two descriptions amount to the same thing.

Our passions are the principal instruments of our preservation. It is ... as vain as it is ridiculous
to want to destroy themit is to control nature, or to reform the work of God (Emile, trans.
Allan Bloom [New York: Basic Books, 1979], 212).
9
That happiness is an end of nature is a cornerstone of the Second Discourse and Emile; see also
III: xi, where unhappiness is presented as the cost of violating natures laws.
10
This view of the family is prominent in the Social Contract (I.2) and Emile (Book IV), as well as
in Julie: celibacy [is] ... a state ... contrary to nature (VI: vi); see also VI: viii.
11

Articulating what it is to purify, sublimate, or redirect a passion lies beyond the scope of
this essay. Neither Rousseau nor Freud completely masters the complexities of this ensemble of
concepts.

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friendship that joins us as a reversal without example. People stifle great


passions; rarely do they purify them. To forget someone dear to us when
honor so dictates is the effort of an upright and ordinary soul; but after
what we have been, to be what we are todaythis is the true triumph of
virtue. The cause that puts an end to love can be a vice; the one that turns
a tender love into a no less lively friendship can hardly be equivocal.
Would we ever have made this progress by our own strength alone?
Never, never my good friend... .
Now see, instead, what our present situation is... . To see each other,
to love each other, to feel our love, to congratulate ourselves for it, to
spend our days together in fraternal familiarity and the peace of innocence, ... this is the point we have reached... .
To whom do we owe so rare a happiness? You know. I have seen how
your sensitive heart, full of the beneficent deeds of the best of men [i.e.,
Wolmar], loves being penetrated by them (aimer sen pntrer). (VI: vi)
According to this passage, the purification of passion aims at transforming
romantic love into a fervent but chaste form of friendship that not merely
accords with but promotes both lovers virtue. This strategy aims to regulate
rather than destroy (IV: xii) the attachment between Julie and St. Preuxthat
is, to preserve their love by establishing between them an affectionate, lifelong
relationship of mutual care and attention, though now in a union where carnal
knowledge has been replaced by fraternal (or friendly) familiarity. Since their
fraternal friendship is to be no less lively than the romantic love that preceded
it, the sexual passion that animated their love must be redirected rather than
stifled or extinguished. Not surprisingly, the force of their original passion is to
be rechanneled so as to serve virtue12 rather than sexual satisfaction, and, as in
the case of Heloise, this is to be achieved through the lovers relationship to a
third, Christ-like figure, Wolmar (the best of men).
Julies relationship to this mediator, like Heloises, is secured through an
involuntary marriageher second13whereas St. Preux, like Abelard, is united
to Wolmar through his love for his former mistress: joining Wolmars family is
his only possibility for maintaining a relationship with Julie after a forced
absence of several years. St. Preuxs relationship to Wolmar is more difficult to
pin down; the former is variously presented as the latters son, as his friend, and
12
This strategy is an instance of diverting great passions and arming [them] against themselves
(V: xii); it follows the principle that pains of the soul ... always carry their remedy with them
(III: xxii).
13

From natures perspective, Julies sexual bond to St. Preux constitutes a marriage that, as the
product of passion, is not exactly forced but also not fully willed.

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as co-father (since he is charged with raising the children Wolmar has sired with
Julie). There is even a hint that St. Preux is bound to Wolmar by a sublimated
erotic attachment not unlike the love the post-Oedipal boy has for his father: as
Julie observes, St. Preux finds happiness in being penetrated by Wolmar (by his
beneficent deeds).14
Even though Julies marriage to Wolmar produces children, it is in one sense
chaste15 since, though he loves Julie and functions normally in the matrimonial
bed, he is (as we are frequently told) a stranger to passion. Wolmars passionlessness
is crucial to the purification of sexual passion for two reasons. First, a superhuman
coolness and distance from passion is required to reform Julie and St. Preux, whose
need for moral instructorship is due precisely to their inability to master their passion. Like the legislator in the Social Contract and the tutor in Emile, Wolmar has a
supernatural gift for reading the depths of hearts (IV: xii), and he needs such a
power in order to accomplish his educational task. For Wolmar must not only be
able to discern the psychological condition of his charges and to see what their
reform requires at every moment; he must also be able to guide their new lives
while remaining unaffected by any of his own passionsjealousy, for example
that could interfere with the concern for their good that his educational mission
depends on. Wolmars godlike remove from human passions is evident in the final
test he imposes on his charges in order to give them the one thing their newfound
happiness supposedly lacks, confidence in their own virtue: once he judges
their reform to be complete, Wolmar removes himself from Clarens in order to
expose the unsupervised lovers to whatever temptations the vestiges of their former
passion might present.
As I suggested earlier, purifying sexual passion depends on strengthening
Julies and St. Preuxs commitment to virtue by providing them with new
motives for virtuous conduct that spring from their attachment to Wolmar. The
point is not just that when put to the test, Julie and St. Preux overcome temptation because, out of gratitude and love, they do not want to hurt Wolmar or
violate his trust (though these motivations no doubt also play a role). Wolmars
love for Julie and St. Preux inspires in them not merely a desire to please him or
to return his kindness but, more important, an allegiance to a new ideal, an
aspiration to become worthy of Wolmars care (VI: vi; emphasis added). Thus,
the former lovers find the strength to resist their passionate urges because their
relationship to Wolmar transforms them internally, providing them with new
14
It would be interesting to explore the parallels between the relations among Wolmar, St. Preux,
and Julie and those among Alfred Allmers, his sister, and his wife in Ibsens Little Eyolf, the subject
of Toril Mois contribution to this volume. According to Moi, that play, too, attempts to solve the
conflict among the triad of virtue, love, and sexual passion.
15

By Augustines standards in The City of God (Book XIV, chapters 16, 26).

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psychological resources that fortify their commitment to virtue. Through their


love of himthe natural response to his beneficent powerWolmar comes to
function for Julie and St. Preux as the embodiment of their highest ideals, as a
concrete picture of the kind of person they, too, aspire to be. Julie and St. Preux
are motivated to imitate Wolmar because their satisfaction with themselves
comes to depend on it. This is due in part to the fact that Wolmar shows esteem
for them precisely when, overwhelmed by their passion, they least deserve it
(IV: xii). After this, imitating Wolmarmaintaining the course of virtue
becomes for both a way of continuing to find that esteem, now not only in his
eyes but also in their partners, and in their own as well.
This points to the second reason Wolmars impassiveness is crucial to the
purification of the lovers passion. Because of his lack of passion (III: xx), Wolmar embodies the very essence of virtue: the perfect regulation of sentiment by
reason (III: xx). For this reason Wolmar is just the right figure for his pupils to
internalize as their model. This does not imply, however, that Wolmars goal for
Julie and St. Preux is the same passionlessness he possesses. Whereas beings, like
Wolmar, who lack recalcitrant passions need rely only on a pure, cold reason
to be morally good, human beings require something more: a passion for virtue
sufficiently vigorous to win the strugglesagainst other, similarly vigorous
passionsit will be forced to wage. Given Rousseaus naturalistic starting point,
the only possible source for such a passion is a more original, natural passion
that precedes virtue but can be diverted to serve its ends. As Wolmar explains:
Only fiery souls are capable of struggling and conquering... . Cold reason has never achieved anything illustrious, and a person triumphs over
passions only by setting one against another. When the passion of virtue
arises, it alone rules and holds everything in equilibrium. That is how the
true sage is made, who is no more immune from the passions than anyone else but who alone is capable of conquering them with themselves, as
a pilot sails using adverse winds. (IV: xii)
Two implications of this passage are noteworthy. First, Wolmar presupposes
that the sublimation (diversion) of original passions into the passion for virtue is never complete. Instead, moral education leaves behind a residue of sexual
passion that retains its power to act as virtues opponent. Even if the goal of
moral education is to create the beautiful soulwhere reasons rule over sentiment produces harmony rather than oppressive restraintthis goal is never
fully realized. Since progress toward this end takes place only through internal
struggle, a force of the soul stronger than cold reason is required. This means
that the end of moral education is a state in which the soul exhibits the same

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order that reason alone would produce, but where it is the heart, animated by
properly formed passions, that rules rather than passionless reason (V: ii). The
second implication is that, like Heloise, Julie and St. Preux are being trained for
a level of virtue higher than mere blamelessness, and higher even than their
instructors: since Wolmar is immune from the passions and hence cannot
achieve victory over them, he can never be a true sage.
The orchard Julie has cultivatedher Elysiumis obviously a metaphor
for the purification of passion (IV: xi). As such, it depicts the outcome of that
endeavor as a kind of second nature, in which first nature has been remade by
human hands but in accordance with its own aims and with great care taken to
cover up the cultivation required to produce it. Shortly after her mothers death,
Julie remakes the orchard in which she, her cousin, and St. Preux innocently
played in prelapsarian times into a garden retreat that gives the appearance of
being uncultivated, or fully natural. Julies horticultural efforts reproduce the
effects nature intends but in a way that enhances nature by helping it realize its
own immanent ends and by securing it against its main threat: human intervention unguided by an understanding of natures order. It is this denaturing activity
of humans that produces the artificial order of society that St. Preux laments
on leaving the garden, and the need to protect second nature from it is why
the garden must be self-enclosed, carefully locked, and accessible only to the
four holders of its key. Like the intended products of Wolmars education, Julies
Elysium is lush and full of life but also serene and pleasant; it contains an immeasurable variety of forms and colors, while exhibiting an unlabored harmony that
makes it an exemplar of natural beauty (akin to the beauty of the souls that
Wolmar cultivates). The gardens most celebrated inhabitantsits birdsare
unrestrained and enjoy the same domestic bliss the inhabitants of Clarens
appear to embody: inseparable spouses, the zeal for domestic cares, paternal
and maternal tenderness. Although Julies Elysium appears to have eradicated
every trace of those birds that embody natures darker sidethe voracious
hawk, the funereal crow, the terrible Alpine eagle that later in the novel cause
nature to resound with their shrieks (IV: xvii)the unmistakable connections between her garden and death (Elysium is where the dead reside, and the
creation of this one was occasioned by a death) anticipate the novels end, which
can be understood as the self-assertion of that part of nature that refuses to be
domesticated or purified.
A further dimension of Julies educational strategy is relevant to the third
respect in which Rousseau modernizes the tale of Abelard and Heloise: reconciling virtue, love, and sexual passion without depending on a monastic retreat
from the world. Indeed, the contrast in this regard between the two stories could
hardly be more striking. In Rousseaus modern version, the sexual relationships

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end is precisely the moment at which the two lovers are driven into the world and
forced to take up social roles whose obligations extend beyond the exclusive dyad
of romantic love. At first, their integration into the social world follows a familiar, gender-specific pattern: Julie is married off, forced to renounce the role
of lover for those of mother, ... wife, ... friend, ... and daughter (IV: xi),16
whereas St. Preux is sent into the world to work, to participate in society and
state, and to establish those nonromantic attachments to the world that enable a
man to love life generally (III: xxii).
As the novel progresses, this social integration takes an unfamiliar turn, for
St. Preux ultimately abandons the world of work and citizenship and joins Julie
in seeking satisfaction domestically, as a member of the extended, patriarchal
family headed by Wolmar. First the nuclear family of Wolmar, Julie, and their
children is expanded by the addition of St. Preux as Wolmars son and Julies
brother. Soon St. Preux is accorded the status of co-parent (IV: xiv), and
shortly thereafter the family is extended again to include Julies widowed cousin,
her children, and St. Preuxs benefactor, Lord Bomston. Beyond this, even the
hired help regard their master and mistress as father and mother (IV: x). Finally,
Claire and Julie undertake to consolidate their extended family even further
to turn our two families into one (IV: ii)by engaging the formers daughter
to the latters elder son (thereby extending into the next generation the practice
of imposing arranged marriages on ones children).
The family is important in this context because it offers a refuge of tranquil
friendship, sheltered from the storm of impetuous passions (IV: x) that enables its
members to find trust, intimacy, transparency, and enduring love (IV: xi). In other
words, it is precisely because the family banishes sexual passion from its midst
Julie and Wolmar ensure that no sexual relationships develop even among their
servants (IV: x)that it can function as an instrument of moral regeneration. As
Julie argues in a letter to St. Preux, the familys being the site of the purification
(IV: x) of passion depends on its replacing romantic love with familial affection:
What has long misled me ... is the thought that [romantic] love is necessary
for a happy marriage. My friend, this is an error; honesty, virtue, certain
affinities ... suffice between two spouses, which does not prevent a very
tender attachment from resulting from this union that, though not precisely love, is no less sweet and ... more enduring. Love is accompanied by a
constant anxiety of jealousy or deprivation that is ill suited to marriage,
16

The enumeration of these roles recalls the form of address Heloise uses in her first letter to Abelard,
calling herself ancilla sua immo filia, ipsius uxor immo soror (Letter 2; emphasis added). Julies
replacing handmaiden (ancilla) with friend is part of Rousseaus modernization of the tale.

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which is a state of enjoyment and peace. People do not marry in order to


think exclusively of each other, but in order to fulfill together the duties of
civil life, to govern the household prudently, to rear their children well. Lovers never see anyone but themselves, they attend incessantly only to themselves, and the only thing they can do is love each other. (III: xx)
The domestic solution championed here depends not only on replacing the exclusivity of sexual passion with a socially minded, familial love but also on the benevolently patriarchal character of the family that makes it an abode of wisdom and
union (IV: x).17 That is, the family that Wolmar heads fosters a healthy soul, a heart
free from the tumult of the passions (IV: xi) only because a part of the masters
wisdom ... has passed on to each of [its members] (IV: x). Like Platos philosopherking, Wolmar governs his domestic polity in accordance with his own dominant
trait (reason), and in being subject to such governance, the souls of his wards internalize the same rule of reason their master imposes on their collective life.

Purifications Limits
The novels climax (IV: xvii) promises to be, as St. Preux hopefully describes it,
the crisis that will restore me completely to myself. Its setting is a boating
excursion that Julie and St. Preux undertake one afternoon when they have
been intentionally left unsupervised by Wolmar. A pounding storm drives
them to seek shelter on land, and after an arduous (and symbolic) battle against
the natural elements, the former lovers find themselves alone in the same wild
and secluded spot, surrounded by steep cliffs and rushing streams, where years
before the temporarily exiled St. Preux had come to dream of Julie and await
permission to return to her. In such fraught surroundings the undomesticated
forces of nature nearly prove too much for the former lovers; their old passion
re-erupts, and temptation threatens to overwhelm them. St. Preux leads
[ Julie] to the cliff ; she sees him move closer to the brink, but in the end
virtue conquers lust. Or, more accurately, Julies virtue carries the day, for it is
she who at the crucial moment interrupts natures cataclysmic course and,
while moaning, manages to cry out, Let us go from here, my friend; the air
in this place is not good for me. As in the case of Heloise, Julies more intimate
bond to the mediator enables her to achieve the higher level of virtue, and
St. Preuxs avoidance of guilt, like Abelards, depends on his lovers virtue.18
17
It is interesting that patriarchy is a crucial part of the solution since, as I point out later, it is also
a part of the problem.
18
St. Preuxs attachment to virtue still has not progressed beyond loving the figure of that adorable woman [ Julie] who so well represents it in [his] eyes (V: i).

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Book V opens in a triumphant spirit. Julie and St. Preux have turned back
their passionate urges, and it is time to enjoy the fruits of Wolmars labor, understood both symbolically (as the victory of virtue) and literally (in the festivities
of the grape harvest). The extended family is now assembled and complete, and
the dominant mood is exhilaration. The picture painted is one of good folk
finding contentment in the bosom of their family and voluntarily enclosing
themselves within it, of peaceful days [spent] between living reason and sensible virtue (V: ii). Interpreters tend to read these scenes as an unambiguous
celebration of virtues triumph that depict a remainderless reconciliation of culture, nature, and morality.19 Such a reading, however, pays too little attention to
the events that follow in Book VI, and it overlooks the signs of foreboding
already present in Julies climactic victory over sexual temptation and in the
scenes surrounding the grape harvest itself. The harvest is indeed a celebration
of virtue and the fruits of moral education, but it is not the novels final word on
those topics, for Julie also points to the considerable cost of cultures achievement. When this difference is attended towhen one realizes that the voracious hawk and the funereal crow refuse in the end to be domesticatedJulie
appears more the literary counterpart of Civilization and Its Discontents than of
Emile or the Social Contract.
If we approach the novels end with the assumption that Julie is simply a
paean to virtue, it is easy to miss that the climactic scene in which sexual passion
is renounced and virtue emerges victorious is clouded not only by sadness and
tears but also, as St. Preux relates it, by disorientation and despair, by an overwhelming melancholy that is too quickly cast out of mind, andperhaps the
effect of that repressionby violent, even murderous fury and rage: I was
violently tempted to hurl her with me into the waves, and there in her arms to
put an end to my life and my long torments (IV: xvii).
More ominous signs appear in Book V. Immediately after the triumphant
harvest scene, St. Preux, reminded of all he has lost, succumbs momentarily to
despair and gives voice to a death wish that plagues him until the novels end:
Would she were dead! ... I would embrace her cold tomb without remorse... .
I would at least have the hope of rejoining her... . But she lives; she is happy! ...
and her happiness is my torture! ... she lives, but not for me (V: ix). These pleas
for his lovers death are followed by St. Preuxs fateful dream in which that overburdened symbol of the novelthe veilreappears, this time covering Julies
face as she reclines on her mothers deathbed and eluding St. Preuxs reach as he
19

Starobinski claims that Julie ends in felicitous synthesis, admirably expressed through symbols
of the harvest feast. All veils have been lifted (87), though he later acknowledges that the story
does not end with the idyllic happiness of Clarens and that some ambiguities remain (113114).

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tries to remove it. Friend, be calm, says Julie weakly, The terrible veil covers me,
no hand can remove it (V: ix). St. Preuxs failure to lift Julies veil, as a bridegroom would at his marriage, is both a symbol of a marriage that will never take
place and a foreshadowing of Julies death.20 It is alsoas both Wolmar (V: xi)
and Claire (V: x) recognizean expression of St. Preuxs wish for her death,
which would rid him of the tormenting spectacle of her (professed) happiness
and afford him the possibility of possessing her in death or in a world beyond. In
making the sign of Heloises vow of chastity into a symbol of Julies death, Rousseau equates the renunciation of passion with the premature loss of life, each of
which can be seen as a thwarting or betrayal of nature. Lifting the veil also figures
in the novel as a liberation from error and vice (III: xviii), so that another meaning of St. Preuxs dream is his inability to remove the veil that long clouded [his]
reason (V: ix), an indication of the ultimate failure of Wolmars attempt to
purify his charges sexual passion. (Both tales of romantic love make the man
responsible for his beloveds wearing of the veil: Abelard imposes the veil on Heloise, ensuring her chastity and removal from the world, whereas St. Preux has
every opportunity to lift the veil in his dream but is unableor, as Claire perceptively charges, unwillingto do so [V: x].21)
It is not only St. Preux who wills Julies death, but even Julie herself.
Although her death is not exactly a suicideshe sacrifices herself out of motherly love, to save her drowning son22once her health is beyond recuperation,
she embraces her end with relief, willing it, as it were, after the fact (VI: xii).23
(Wolmar, too, recognizes this just before she dies: I have seen through you.
You are rejoicing in death. You are more than happy to leave me [VI: xi].). In
her final two letters, the illusions and self-deception on which the previous
scenes of harmony and reconciliation depended fall away, and the psychological truth that underwrote domestic life at Clarens emerges clearly. Just before
her fatal plunge into the lake, after having examined herself more closely, Julie
confesses to St. Preux an involuntary sentiment that has lessened the value
she places on her own life:
20
The veil also symbolizes the impenetrability and inaccessibility of the one it covers (I: ii, IV:
xiv, V: ix).
21

Earlier, in the brothel, St. Preux attempts to veil Julies image in order to remove it from his heart
and to drive away the sexual desire that the setting awakens (II: xxvi). And although it is Claire
who finally lays the veil on Julies corpse, it is a veil procured by St. Preux during his travels.
22
Julies death, then, is overdetermined by St. Preuxs murderous wishes, her own desire to die, and
the duties of motherhood (the consequence of her renunciation of passion).
23

That she welcomes her own death without actually causing it means that, like Abelard in relation to his castration, she is in the morally fortunate position of willing (retrospectively) her death
without being guilty of it.

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Everywhere I see only causes for contentment, and I am not content.


A secret languor steals into the bottom of my heart; it feels empty and
swollen, as you once said of yours; my attachment for everything I hold
dear isnt enough to occupy it, it retains a useless force it doesnt know
what to do with. (VI: viii)
The depression Julie admits tosuffering from a restless heart that desires
without knowing whatis reflected in her conviction that nothing earthly can
satisfy her, that hope and new life can be found only in leaving this world to
be reborn in the one beyond. Buried within these expressions of religious longing is a diagnosis of the earthly cause of her will to transcend, and so renounce,
nature and its this-worldly realm: in yearning for an existence not tied to the
bodily passions and free of their shackles, Julie locates the source of her pain
in a denied sexual passion that, imperfectly purified, retains an energy she can
neither discharge nor master. It comes as no surprise, then, that once she has
jumped into the lake and her death is assuredonce her self-delusion is no
longer needed and the heart no longer disguises (VI: xii)Julie admits that
she has never been cured of her passion and that, like Heloises desire in the
convent, it continues to impose itself against her will. In her final moments Julie
recognizes not that she is about to die but that, in having renounced passion for
virtue, she already has. With this recognition it is easy to embrace the fate she is
about to suffer: it is merely to die one more time (VI: xii).
In a twist on the familiar connection between romantic love and death, the
ending of Julie links death not with the expression of sexual passion but with its
renunciation: to die after having forsaken romantic love is merely to die one
more time. Julie, of course, remains virtuous to the end. Not only does she succeed in avoiding adultery, she also remains blameless in the desire she continues
to feel for St. Preux since, as she recognizes, her passion is involuntary and hence
not a source of guilt. Virtue, howeverboth hers and St. Preuxsrequires
Julies death, not only because death is inseparable from repressed passion but
also because, as she comes to see at the end, only her permanent absence, and
not their commitment to virtue, can guarantee the lovers chastity. If the wages
of sin are death, so too, for Julie, are the wages of virtue.
It is important that neither the novel nor any of its characters suggests that
virtue paid for by death (the death of a woman) is purchased too dearly. The
point of Julie is not to cast doubt on the value of virtue, or even to suggest that
we rethink its content. In the final sentence of her last letter, Julie reaffirms her
allegiance to virtue as it has been conceived throughout the novel by describing
herself to St. Preux as only too happy to pay with my life the right to love you
forever without crime, and to tell you so one more time (VI: xii). If there is a

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truly liberatory moment in the novels end, it is contained in the final words of
that farewell: in dying, Julie wins the freedom to declare her passionbefore
herself, her lover, and her husband24openly and without shame. For readers of
the novel today it is difficult not to regard Julies newly won transparency, both
to herself and to others, as a more important victory than her virtue. The sweetness of her final words to St. Preuxher happiness and serenity in telling him
one more time of her undying passiononly underscores, however, the price
Julie has paid for purity. Her words drive home that the cost of virtue is not only
her (second, bodily) death, not even merely the earlier living death25 that
passion repressed for the sake of virtue represents, but also, and perhaps worse,
the lifelong self-opacity that her struggle to master the conflict between sexual
passion and virtue made necessary.
If there is a reconciliation of virtue, love, and sexual passion in Julie, it is
one that is hard to celebrate or affirm, even by Rousseaus standards. The strategy for purifying sexual passion explored in the novel proposes a reconciliation of culture, morality, and nature that successfully avoids the violence to
nature represented by Abelards castration, as well as the monastic retreat
from the social world (especially the family) that Abelards and Heloises restoration to virtue depends on. Natures demands are less well met, however,
with respect to the single inabjurable end it imposes on every human being:
happiness. Although Julie insists (sincerely) throughout Books IV and V that
her happiness is complete,26 the ultimate revelation of her depression, unrest,
and will to die makes it impossible to take her claims at face value. Though not
precisely falseno doubt she enjoyed a sort of happiness at Clarensthose
claims are, at the very least, gravely overstated, for they conceal both the limits
of her happiness and the alarmingly high costboth natural and spiritual27at
which it was purchased.
Moreover, Julies treatment of the conflict among virtue, love, and sexual
passion hardly succeeds in reconciling romantic love with virtue. Instead, it
repudiates romantic love, for its strategy for purifying passion requires the splitting apart of romantic loves two constituent elements, restricting love to its passionless, familial form, while reconfiguring sexual passion into a zeal for virtue.
Perhaps, though, we are meant to locate the novels true solution to this conflict,
one that carves out a certain place for romantic love, not in the arrangements
24

Julie gives her letter, unsealed, to Wolmar, whom she asks to read it before giving it to St. Preux.

25

Jason Hill suggested this phrase, along with other points in this essay.

26

Except for the pain caused by Wolmars atheism.

27

Self-transparency, a kind of self-consciousness, is a spiritual value, since nature cannot be transparent (or opaque) to itself.

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examined at length in this essay but in the scenario Julie hopefully sketches in
her final words to St. Preux:
When you see this letter, worms will be gnawing on your lovers face and
her heart, where you will no longer be. But ... I do not leave you, I go to
wait for you. The virtue that separated us on earth will unite us in the
eternal abode. I die in this sweet hope, only too happy to pay with my life
the right to love you forever without crime, and to tell you so one more
time. (VI: xii)
The hope expressed by Julie on her deathbed envisions a final victory of romantic love, a victory not merely consistent with virtue but dependent on it. For, as
Julie suggests, lovers who have been separated on earth can hope to be forever
joined in the beyond, as long as their earthly conduct has been sufficiently virtuous to admit them into the eternal abode. As inspiring as Julies vision may be,
however, it is not one nature can find satisfying. The problem from natures perspective is not merely that sexual passion still comes up short on this solution
(since, once the worms gnawing is complete, there will be souls but no bodies
to be united). Its weightier objection is that Julies hope rests on a psychological
ploy that, as Nietzsche points out a century later, constitutes the most radical
renunciation of nature conceivable: the desperate positing of a world beyond
nature and life that alone makes it possible to say yes to this one.
What, then, are we to make of the failure of Julies strategy for reconciling virtue, love, and sexual passion without doing violence to nature? Are we to read the
novels conclusion as evidence that this conflict is irresolvable? If so, Julie would
stand in conflict with Rousseaus philosophical works, especially Emile and the
Social Contract, whichas Kant correctly seesargue for the possibility of reconciling nature, culture, and morality. (Emile, for example, finds a harmonious
solution to the problem of Julie in the romance and marriage of Emile and Sophie.)
Perhaps the key to resolving the apparent conflict between Julie and Rousseaus
philosophical texts lies in the difference between the two genres hinted at in
the first line of Julie: Large cities must have theaters, and corrupt peoples,
novels. The suggestion here is that whereas philosophy engages in ideal theory
elaborating the social and domestic conditions under which reconciliation among
nature, culture, and morality could in principle take placenovels are the province of corrupt peoples and of times when it isnt possible for anyone to be good,
which is to say, times in which institutions ruin the beautiful souls [that] nature
makes (Second Preface).
The meaning of this becomes clearer when we consider the specific conflict
that precipitates the crisis of this novel and makes happiness and virtue through

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romantic love impossible for its protagonists. Although Julie acknowledges two
nonaccidental sources of tension between sexual passion and virtuethe threat
passion poses to the souls order and its tendency to distract lovers from their
obligations to othersthe specific reason the love between Julie and St. Preux is
doomed derives not from these tensions but from the harsh and arbitrary
demands of her tyrannical father. (St. Preux is from a lower social class, and Julies
marriage to him would dishonor the family; moreover, her father has promised
to marry Julie, without her consent, to a friend in repayment for having saved his
life.) The novels crisis is a conflict between the natural course of romantic love
(II: iii) and a daughters duties to her parents, but that these conflict in Julies case
is an accident of patriarchal prejudice. Nor is this merely a twenty-first-century
reading of the conflict; the novels characters repeatedly acknowledge that Julies
fathers demands are unjustconsequences of his medieval ideas (III: xi). Nevertheless, eloping with St. Preux and escaping to a distant landmade necessary
by the possibility that her father would then seek to kill her! (III: x)would
(as Julie sees things) mortally afflict her parents and drive them to despair
(II: vi). What Julie confronts is a conflict between romantic love and duty, but
one that has its source in corrupt social prejudices thatas Rousseaus philosophical works emphasizecan in principle be changed, even if real change is
difficult to engineer. Novels, for Rousseau, take into account that the world we
actually inhabit is not the realm of Platonic Ideas but an imperfect world that is
unlikely ever to be completely rid of arbitrary social prejudices. It is in this sense
that novels address corrupt peoples, which is to say, they address us. Rousseau
might have concluded from thisas Freud did laterthat conceptions of virtue
that make death and sexual unhappiness the cost of moral purity demand too
much and ought to be replaced. Rousseau did not take this path, which is
why any novel he writes examining the conflict among nature, culture, and
morality is bound to end as Julie does, with unfulfilled longing, death, and a
self-transparency that is achieved only with the heroines final breath.

11

Shermans March
romantic love in documentary films
David L. Paletz

omantic love is at the heart of many fiction films.1 Boy meets girl, boy
loses girl, boy gets girl, usually culminating in their happy-ever-after (heterosexual) embrace.2
Yet, ubiquitous as romantic love is in fiction, it is rare in documentaries.3
Documentary films fall into several categories, with some overlap.4 The most
common, in alphabetical order, are as follows: biography, business, civil rights,
competitions, the death penalty, disability and illness, environment and pollution, gays and lesbians, government and politics, show business, and sports.
Romantic love is hard to find.5 Devotees of documentaries are just as likely to

Romantic love is also the subject embraced by the pseudo reality, essentially fictional, shows,
contrived and designed to create love, such as The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Flavor of
Love, and the like, which abound on television.

Boy Meets Girl (1938) is the title of a comedy (based on a Broadway play) about two screenwriters seeking success. It is also the title of a 1984 French film, a poetic meditation on the failings of
human interactions.
3

There is a documentary entitled Love (1998), which dutifully surveys some of the subjects biological, cultural, social, and historical dimensions. Better is Love Stories: Women, Men & Romance
(1987) in which individuals, representing a range of class, ethnic, and racial backgrounds, are interviewed about their experiences of heterosexual love.

From my perch as co-chair of the Selection Committee of the annual Full Frame Documentary
Film Festival, I viewed some 400 documentaries annually and become acquainted with many of
the best of the rest of the 1,200 submitted.

Among these categories, a few documentaries, mainly ones about gays or lesbians, include
romantic love. Chris & Don. A Love Story (2007) is about the devoted relationship of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, as well as spirituality, celebrity, literature, aging, and death.
Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House (2002) tells the story of two Jewish women who
fell in love and in 1974 left their husbands and children and moved in together. It is a love story
with family and religious complications: the womens struggle, problems with their children, and
the relations between Judaism and lesbianism. Barbara & Tibby: A Love Story in the Face of Hate
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encounter its antithesis, for example, Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan (2004)


depicting the snatching of young women for marriage against their will. Perhaps
Jostein Gripsrud is right that love is made for fiction.6
This essay begins by considering three explanations for the scarcity of romantic love in documentaries. Next, it briefly describes three distinctive and disturbing documentaries whose subject is romantic love. The heart of the essay is a
detailed analysis and discussion of Shermans March, the documentary devoted
to one mans search for romantic love.

Why Romantic Love Is Rare in Documentaries


Let us look at three possible explanations for the rarity of documentaries about
romantic love. We will consider a fourth explanation, the tension in documentary filming between intimacy and the camera, when we discuss Shermans
March.
Differences Between Fiction and Documentary Films
One explanation can be found in the differences between fiction and documentary films. Fiction films feature actors more or less adept at portraying romantic
leads. Indeed, many fiction films about romantic love take off from and sustain
the star system. The films are scripted, staged for the camera, their scenes often
worked out on storyboards ahead of shooting. Scenes can be shot repeatedly
until the actors get them right and the director is satisfied.
Documentaries are usually unscripted, their protagonists ordinary people
(although on occasion performers), not trained actors. The footage is authentic,
not acted or reenacted. It is of reality, found in the flow of life.
The makers of fiction films featuring romantic love can marry the most desirable elements of fiction and documentaries.7 Consider Richard Linklaters two
fiction films about romantic love, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset
(2004). They feature appealing actors (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) who,
aided by the placement and movement of the camera, create the sensation of

(2004) traces the oppressive consequences, on a lesbian couple who have lived together for thirtynine years, of Virginias Affirmation of Marriage act voiding civil unions, partnership contracts
or other arrangements between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or
obligations of marriage. The film recounts how the couple is forced to leave their home and community and move to another state. Their loving relationship is not the films subject but is taken
for granted as the bedrock sustaining their battle for gay rights and for human rights.
6

Personal observation, November 2006.

For example, the documentary interviews in Henry Jagloms Venice, Venice (1992).

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romantic love for each other (and rouse desire, if not romantic love, for them
among viewers). The films also incorporate documentary elements. They seem
to take place in real time during which the romantic lovers woo each other and
then decide whether to meet again (the first film) or stay together (the second).
The stars conversations often sound unscripted, even improvised. Documentary filmmakers usually refrain from the obvious use of fiction techniques in
their films.8
Hollywood Idealism?
A second possible reason for the paucity of documentaries about romantic
love is that making them may require the idealistic belief that romance is
possible, that the person loved loves back or can be brought to that happy
outcome; and that if love fails this time, it will likely succeed in the future. It
may be odd, even perverse, to suggest, but perhaps the denizens of Hollywood are more idealistic about romantic love than documentary filmmakers.
Their many relationships and marriages may reflect such idealism or at least
optimism.
More cynically, their motives may be mercenary, catering to their audiences
desire to be seduced by romantic love and sex on screen, or by any of a relationships possibilities. As the shrewd and successful filmmaker Billy Wilder told a
young screenwriter: You and I will leave political satire to others. You and I will
write about screwing and become very rich.9
Documentarians deal in reality. They have few illusions about the existence,
let alone the triumph of romantic love. Moreover, most of them lack the
resources to make films about it.
Many documentary filmmakers are idealistic or hopeful, but about trying to
improve the world, change or influence public policies, expose iniquities. They
believe that their films should concern important subjects such as poverty,
injustice, violence, and war. (This belief is reinforced by the propensity of such
documentaries to receive Oscars at the Academy Awards.) Of course, they do
make documentaries, such as Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, on quirky topics.
But in their eyes, romantic love may be seen as trivial, a subject best left to
Hollywood fiction.
8

Some documentaries portraying the search for love have been partly scripted, for example, Robert Siodmaks delightful German film People on Sunday (1929) and the execrable 20 Dates (1999).

9
Tom Milne, The Difference of George Axelrod, Sight and Sound (Autumn 1968), 165. Axelrod
ignored or defied this advice when he wrote the screenplay from the novel of The Manchurian
Candidate (1962). That film, to paraphrase him, went from release to classic without ever passing
through (financial) success.

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love

Lack of Access
A third possible reason why there are so few documentaries about romantic love
is that the filmmaker is not present from the start or does not have access to the
initial romantic events.10 Unless the situation is contrived (as it is in many reality
television shows), cameras are rarely present at love at first sight or during wooing or seduction or sex. Nor is there any guarantee that what begins as romantic
love will last even as long as the first reel.
In comparison, when the subjects of a documentary are dead, the filmmakers
can have access to them from the start. The remarkable A Certain Kind of Death
(2004) begins with an unclaimed dead body; shows how the bureaucrats of the
Los Angeles Coroners Office effectively deal with it and others; and ends with
their disposal as ashes into the ground. The bodies are given, their fates inevitable, the bureaucratic routines unchanging.11

Documentaries About Romantic Love


Given the preceding discussion about the difficulties of making documentaries
on the subject of romantic love, it is no surprise that the few films on the subject
treat it unconventionally.
The Intimacy of Strangers (2005) is experimental. It shows people revealing
their intimate private lives in public. The filmmakers organize peoples (overheard) cell phone conversations into a narrative from the initial exultation of
romantic love, mainly from women, through frustration, to breakup.
Other prominent documentaries involving romantic love focus on relationships that have extreme and sensational elements.
Crazy Love
The documentary Crazy Love (2006) recounts the relationship of Linda and
Burt Pugach by deploying many documentary elements: home movies, faded
photographs, diaries and letters, newspaper headlines, the observations of family and friends, and stock footage evoking times and places.
The film and their relationship start in 1959 when Burt woos the Bronx
beauty, eleven years his junior, with flowers, trips aboard his single-engine plane,
nights out at the Latin Quarter night club, and exaggerated tales of his (modest)
success as a filmmaker. Tiring of his unfulfilled promise to divorce his wife, she

10

There are a few long-term documentaries such as the UP Series, but romantic love plays a very
small part in them.

11

The filmmakers did have to wait a while for unclaimed bodies.

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terminates the affair and becomes engaged to another man. His response is to
hire hit men to throw lye in her face, disfiguring and almost blinding her (she is
now blind). During his fourteen years in prison he writes her love letters. The
couple renews their courtship after he is paroled in 1974. He proposes on television and they get married.
Crazy Love is a particularly stark contrast to fiction films happy endings of
marriage or its equivalent. It traces the evolution of the relationship from start
to its unfinished present. It thereby moves from romantic love and obsession,
through thwarted passion, hate, destruction, remorse, and a modicum of tender
affection and mutual caring. This is followed by over thirty years of decline into
the bickering and tedium of their mundane marriage. As the films maker Dan
Klores puts it: Those obsessive thoughts and actions that come about when we
are hurt, when we love, thats what I thought at first this movie was about. But
what I discovered it really is about is what we do to not be alone.12
Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997)
Even a documentary showing love at its most romantic and devoted does so in
an unconventional, some might say bizarre, context. Kirby Dicks extraordinary
film is about the last four years of Bob Flanagan, a performance artist and poet
(notably Slave Sonnets, 1986, and Fuck Journal, 1987). Flanagan built his career
on masochistic video pieces (Body, 1989; Nailed, 1989; Bob Flanagans Sick,
1991; and In My Room, 1996).
Flanagans performances are audacious and outrageous: early in the film he
presents in cooking-show style the construction and operation of his sculpture
The Visible Man, a version of the childrens toy which in his incarnation urinates,
defecates, and ejaculates. He later nails his penis to a board, an action accompanied on the soundtrack by an uplifting rendition of the folk song If I Had a
Hammer.
The subjects of Sick are creativity, courage, the sacredness of life, and the fear
of dying. At the heart of the film are the love affair and mutually rewarding marriage of Flanagan and his wife and collaborator, the video artist, photographer,
and dominatrix Sheree Rose. A reviewer of the film wrote that their elaborate
pas de deux of dominance and submission are among the most intimate love
scenes ever filmed.13 In a performance entitled Autopsy in the film, Flanagan
lies naked on a gurney as his wife examines the scars, tattoos, and piercing
12

Quote comes from Ruth La Ferla, Whats Love Got to Do With It? New York Times, May 27,
2007, Section 9, p. 7.

13
Stephen Holden, An Artist Whose Medium Was Pain, New York Times, April 3, 1997, http://
www.nytimes.com.

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covering his body. She shows on his skin the history of their physical relationship, and then demonstrates their S&M practices.
Throughout his life Flanagan suffered from and at the end of the film dies at
the age of forty-three from cystic fibrosis. His life and art were his way of defying the chronic pain from this excruciating disease. Sheree Rose takes snapshots
of him on his deathbed. She remains loving, loyal, and caring to the end. And
beyond: a month after his burial, she exhibits a container of his lungs floating in
the body fluid that drowned him.

Shermans March
The documentary that best reveals the intricacies of romantic love is Shermans
March (1986).14 Ross McElwee was the director, cinematographer, and sound
man; he wrote the narration and edited the footage (although he did have three
editing assistants).15
Shermans March cleverly and effectively keeps the pursuit of romantic relationships at its center by accompanying McElwees encounters with women
with subjects more typical of or common in documentary. These are history
(General Tecumseh Sherman and his attack on the civilian population of the
South during the Civil War), the desire and search for celebrity in film and
music, isolated living on an island, and the social issues of nuclear proliferation
and of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).16
Given its subtitle, A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the
South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation, which also appears at the
beginning of the film, it could be argued that Shermans March is not frontally
about romantic love. Calling it A Meditation suggests contemplation over
action and spirituality over sex. Moreover, the subtitle refers to the Possibility,
not the likelihood, of the actual accomplishment of romantic love.
However, on the cover of the DVD, in advertising, packaging, and posters,
the subtitle becomes An Improbable Search for Love. According to McElwee,
this change was made at the behest of the distributor.17 Doubtless, one reason
14

In 2000 the film was included in the Library of Congresss National Film Registry.

15

In Trouver sa voix in the French film quarterly Trafic 15 (Summer 1995): 1430, McElwee
acknowledges the influence of the films of Ed Pincus, particularly Diaries (1977), although commenting that there wasnt enough of Ed in his diaries to satisfy me fully. The article is reprinted
under the title Finding a Voice (quote on p. 246) in the bilingual book, Landscapes of the Self:
The Cinema of Ross McElwee (Paisajes del yo: El cine de Ross McElwee), ed. Efren Cuevas and
Alberto N. Garcia (Madrid: Ediciones Internacionales Universitarias, 2007), a study of McElwee
and his films.

16

This insight is from Gabriel M. Paletz, personal communication, March 8, 2009.

17

Personal communication, March 27, 2009.

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was to boost sales: Search being more action filled than Meditation. But the
change also probably reflects the distributors understanding (realization) that
the film is indeed about a quest, no matter how improbable, for romantic love.
Indeed, McElwee is quite clear about the importance of romantic love in the
film. Early in the film he tells us: For a long time Ive had this notion that love
was possible. I mean romantic love, you know two people falling deeply in love
with each other and somehow managing to stay together for more than two
weeks.18
At the 2007 Full Frame Festival Ceremony giving the Career Award to Ross
McElwee, novelist Allan Gurganus described the subject of the film as marathon dating (sequential); and Michael Moore recounted that his wife, in urging
him to see the film, said that it was about a guy who has women problems.
I shall analyze McElwees relationships with the women in the film, showing
that Shermans March reveals many aspects of romantic love. True, the film
often appears artless. As befits a documentary, the events all happen, the people
are real not actors playing parts, and the conversations are spontaneous. Nonetheless, it is McElwee who decided what to film and who edited the footage,
determining what to include, in what order, and what to exclude. He shot
around twenty-five hours, ending up with a two and a half hour film.19 We see
and hear what he wants us to see and hear.
It took McElwee four years to edit the film. Part of what prolonged the process was the difficulty he had in finding the tone and rhythm of [his] voiceovers and on-camera appearances.20 It is these monologues, confided to us off
camera and on camera in his appearances in settings where the film is unfolding,
that seem so natural and effortless, that draw us into the film from his perspective, and are so essential to our understanding of what takes place.
McElwees creation and control come through in the way he weaves the films
subjects together. Nuclear conflict is an example. In a monologue he tells us that
when his love life is going badly he looks at the sky and becomes fearful of
nuclear war. One of the women he meets is connected to survivalists. Another
woman and her mother store supplies in a bunker in their home in anticipation
or in case of a nuclear holocaust. A third woman is involved with the peace
movement and takes him to a monument containing instructions in twelve
languages on how to rebuild civilization after a nuclear war.
18

I would note that the films perspective is that of the heterosexual male, McElwee, not of the
women involved.

19
See Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews With Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 276.
20

Personal communication, March 23, 2009.

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McElwees Persona
Before the titles, we hear the voice of Ricky Leacock (one of McElwees film
teachers at M.I.T. and a founder of the style of documentary films eschewing
narration) asking, Is it ok? about his voice-over narration of what appears to
be an historical documentary about General Shermans Civil War march on the
South. To which McElwee replies (in the Hollywood mode of praise without
being satisfied), Great. Do you want to do it once more?
Their interaction informs us or encourages us to infer from the start that
Shermans March, like almost all films, including documentaries, is constructed.
It also encapsulates the complicated almost contradictory way McElwee will
appear in the film: as somewhat diffident, asking Leacock about doing it again;
but at the same time as the filmmaker in control, his reply to Leacock more a
command than a question.
After this pre-title introduction, we see McElwee alone and lonely in an
empty Manhattan loft. He tells us that his New York girlfriend had told him
shed just decided to go back to her former boyfriend. He desultorily sweeps
the floor with a broom. The broom may be just a broom (although the fact that
it is sweeping an empty room is almost too apt to be a coincidence), but it alerts
us to the many phallic symbols that will be scattered throughout the film,
including a Highland Games caber, guns, a cross, a log, monuments, a furled
umbrella, and the horns of large plastic animals.
Soon thereafter, his sister suggests that he use his camera to meet women. So
McElwee will travel the South looking for the perfect woman. He says later:
It seems Im filming my life in order to have a life to film.
These opening scenes tell us that the films McElwee, the protagonist and
authorial voice, is a persona, based on the real McElwee, but a persona nonetheless.21 The persona he creates for and portrays in the film is self-effacing, intensely
self-conscious, seems ineffectual, and is sometimes inept. Filming one of the
women doing her anti-cellulite exercises in front of him, he becomes discombobulated and fails to record sound to accompany the image. Filming himself
walking sideways-backwards at one of the Civil War battle sites, as he talks to
the camera, he disappears, falling down into the tall grass on the river bank.
This McElwee persona lacks physical prowess. At the Highland games in
North Carolina, where he begins his quest, he watches but does not participate
as powerful men compete in such displays of strength and virility as tossing
the caber. Note, however, how adeptly he wields his ever-present camera. (I will

21
As McElwee acknowledges in MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 2, 282; on authorial voice, see
McElwee in Cuevas and Garcia, Landscapes of the Self, 256.

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have more to say later about the different ways McElwees camera has an impact
on his relationships).
Contrast to General Sherman and Burt Reynolds
At the Highland Games a woman reminds McElwee that as children they used
to play Superman together. Now, neither in his imagination nor his existence is
he heroic, rescuing damsels in distress. Instead, he is drolly compared and contrasted throughout the film with the marauding Union General Tecumseh
Sherman, whose route he is more or less following, and passages from whose
journals and diaries he recites to us.
Sherman waged total warfare primarily against the civilian population of the
confederacy, mainly women. Women hated Sherman. McElwee tells us that in
her diary a woman called him The Nero of the 19th century. The General
sought conquest, not love. Shermans March to the sea is illustrated in the film
with a thick red linered can symbolize blood but also love. Over the course of
the film McElwee tells us that Sherman loved the South, that just years before he
commanded the campaign that destroyed the South, he painted portraits of
his friends in Charleston and still-life watercolors of the landscape (just like
McElwee will film Southern women and the South), and that Sherman died on
Valentines Day.
The essential difference between the two men is that Sherman achieved his
military objectives, whereas McElwee does not succeed in his campaign to find
an ideal Southern woman to love him.
The contrast with General Sherman is particularly visible and comic when,
early in the film, McElwee appears dressed as a confederate officer for a fancy
dress ball he is going to attend with one of the women. Later that night, still
wearing the uniform, he delivers one of his onscreen monologues but has to
speak in hushed tones because, he tells us, he is in his parents house, they are
asleep, and he does not want to be overheard or discovered.
The ironic comparison of McElwee with larger-than-life males is extended
to the period of the film by the person of Burt Reynolds, Hollywood leading
man, symbol of virility, and portrayer on screen of a Southern macho hero. The
actress McElwee meets at the Highland Games identifies Reynolds as the ideal
man of a Southern womans dreamsthe star of real movies (not documentaries). She fantasizes he will fall in love with me and Ill fall in love with him.
McElwee twice thinks he will meet Reynolds. The first time he is mistaken:
the man he assumes to be the star is friendly but turns out to be a Reynolds
look-alike hoping to find work in a film as a Reynolds double. The second
time is where a film starring Reynolds is being shot. But he never gets close: he

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is banned from going anywhere near the set and kept away from it by a security man.22
So, McElwee waits with hordes of women outside the set for the star to
appear. Reynolds crosses the barriers to make a brief appearance, to sign autographs and bestow perfunctory (unromantic) kisses on the cheeks of some of
the women and a black baby girl. The babys grandmother vows not to wash the
babys face and to change its name to Bertha.
Invidious comparisons of McElwee are not limited to Sherman and Reynolds. One reviewer of the film compares him to the dogs, often hounds with
woebegone expressions, appearing throughout the film. She observes that they
are more successful in winning the womens affections than he is. Indeed, one
dog is being taught to guard and protect one of the women when she goes to
New York to pursue her singing career. The reviewer points out that after his
return to Boston, McElwee shows a shot, symbolizing his situation, of a
sweater-clad dog seating himself resignedly in a puddle of icy water.23
The Camera
We should not be deceived. True, the McElwee character is self-effacing and seems
ineffectual. Certainly, he never indicates that he is in control of the filmmaking
process.24 But McElwee the filmmaker is making the film. At the Full Frame award
ceremony, Allan Gurganus pointed out that McElwee rests his camera on his
right shoulder, where
pirates positioned their
parrots. His camera is a
weapon to control the
filming. It gives him the
power to decide what to
shoot or not, from a distance or close up, how
long to hold a shot, and
the length of a sequence.
He even films himself in
a mirror (see Fig. 11.1).
22

This is emblematic of the differences between the complicated Hollywood way of making films
with celebrity casts and large crews and the single-person documentary, as McElwee points out in
MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 2, 281.

23

Ellen Draper, Shermans March, Film Quarterly 40, no. 3 (Spring 1987): 43.

24

Sharon R. Roseman, A Documentary Fiction and Ethnographic Production: An Analysis of


Shermans March, Cultural Anthropology 6, no. 4 (November 1991): 513.

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Through his camera, McElwee is able to ask and demand answers from the
women to questions that are personal, prying, and probing; to steer the conversation to his chosen subjects of relationships, emotions, and love.
His camera also enables McElwee to forge and renew relationships, to meet
or meet again and film the women. It allows him on occasion to be less than
straightforward about his motives. In contacting his former girlfriend Karen, he
asked: Can I come and spend some time with you? I have my camera and Ill
probably do some shooting. Im making this film about women in the South
and about my journey along Shermans route.25
And the camera enhances McElwees appeal as a suitor. It endows him with
a glamour he would otherwise lack. It is also a way of wooing, even of seduction.
It enables him to violate the womens privacy and personal space. At the same
time, it gives the women, as the focus of the cameras attention, an incentive to
be open.
The camera also serves as a protective device, a shield separating McElwee
from the women and them from him. His friend and former teacher Charleen,
the subject of his first film (Charleen, 1978), accuses him of hiding behind his
camera. When she introduces him to one of the women, she puts her hand
against the lens, demands and tries to force him to put the camera down: Turn
it off. This is important. This is not art, (Ross). This is life, she says. In a subsequent film, Time Indefinite (1993), McElwee will relinquish his camera in order
to say his wedding vowsbut have a friend film the ceremony.
This brings us to a fourth reason, alluded to earlier, why romantic love is not
a common subject of documentaries: the sometimes tension between intimacy
and the camera. There are situations and emotions the documentary filmmaker
and camera rarely capture. In one scene in the film the camera is a literal obstruction to intimacy: McElwee reaches out to comfort one of the women, but his
camera gets in the way, preventing an embrace. About the same woman he tells
us: She remains committed to her boyfriend and to working out their relationship. Bumbling around with my camera, I dont really know how to film these
things.
The camera sometimes provokes resistance, particularly during intense emotional moments. One woman turns her back on him when he tries to discuss
their relationship on camera. Another woman says: Stop filming, thats cruel.
She has to ask him three times before he turns off the camera.
Putting the camera aside enables McElwee and the women to increase the
intimacy of their relationships. The decision not to film acknowledges their
shared understanding that certain interactions and events should not be filmed;
25

MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 2, 276.

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they must be allowed to take place off camera. They are too confidential or intimate to be seen by other people. Although there is no explicit sexual activity in
the film, McElwee acknowledges in an interview that he slept with some of the
women. Then adds: It seemed to me not the point of the film to graphically
render that dimension of things, even if it had been possible to do so... . Also,
we have to keep in mind that this is a film about real people and real events. Its
a documentary, not a fiction, and there are certain issues of privacy one simply
has to respect.26
The Women
Some of the women McElwee spends time with are former girlfriends (old
flames) or friends he has known for years, relationships he tries to resurrect.
Others are strangers he first meets during the film. The women differ in lifestyle,
class backgrounds, careers, and professional and intellectual achievements. They
are distinctive and independent. Each womans relationship with him is different, revealing different aspects of romantic love.
In his masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, the French novelist Marcel Proust,
captured the narcissistic spirit of romantic love that often seems to animate
McElwee in the film. The desire not to let this girl go on her way without her
consciousness registering my presence, without my intervening between her
and her desire for somebody else, without my being able to intrude upon
her idle mood and take possession of her heart.27
McElwee returns to North Carolina from New York City and sets off on his
quest for romantic love. During his time with the women he and we will find
out, more or less, about their lives, aspirations, other relationships, and views of
love. We will observe their busy daily activities, which McElwee sometimes
joins.28 In order of appearance, the women whose lives he enters are Pat, Claudia, Winnie, Jackie, Deedee, Joy, and Karen. Seven women! Surely an invocation of the wonderful Seven Chances (1925) in which Buster Keaton is pursued
by thousands of women (and a few men) all wearing bridal veils, ends up with
the woman he wanted all along, and inherits a fortune.29

26

MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 2, 282.

27

Marcel Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, trans. James Grieve, Volume 2 of In
Search of Lost Time (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), 291292.

28

Although I will not develop it, I would note that some of the women have protective mothers
and others are protective mothers.

29
According to McElwee, Keaton is my muse. His (McElwees) visit to South Carolinas Sheldon
Church Ruins in Shermans March is a direct homage to [Keatons] Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928).

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All the relationships give promise of romantic love, contain elements of it,
and end in failure. They come close to confirming the pessimistic, perhaps realistic, view of Roland Barthes: I believe ... that the amorous phenomenon is an
episode endowed with a beginning (love at first sight) and an end (suicide,
abandonment, disaffection, withdrawal, monastery, travel, etc.).30
I shall describe McElwees relationships with each woman. Then I will specify the romantic love elements involved in each relationship.
Pat is an aspiring actress. McElwee writes that she has a strong sense of self, is
entertaining and funny, and that she had her agent circulate Shermans March to
studios in California to help her obtain work.31
She displays her cellulite removal exercises in front of him, pointedly mentioning that she is not wearing any underpants. He confesses to us of feeling
a primal attraction to her. But she has a boyfriend who, as she says, has her
heart. She is also becoming pragmatic about love, telling a girlfriend (and
McElwee who is filming) that the man who has just interviewed her in Atlanta
for an audition had said, You cant be in love if youre in this business.
Pat tells him the absurdly narcissistic science fiction inspired plot of her
movie script. He accompanies her to Atlanta, where she tries to meet Burt
Reynolds. She leaves McElwee for an audition in Hollywood and to return to
her boyfriend.
In the next scene McElwee is on a bed in a drab motel. The camera is positioned so that we see another bed, unoccupied, between it and him. Both beds
are huge and falling apart. He watches reruns on television of The Beverly Hillbillies and of The Love Boat.
Claudia, a friend of his sisters, is a recently divorced interior decorator and a
roller skater. Describing roller skating, she tells him that it is just like riding a
bicycle or making love. You never forget. If youve done it once, you can do it
again. McElwee likes Claudia and she seems attracted to him. But he appears
disappointed to discover that she is religious, a believer in the rapture, and a survivalist. He goes with her to the mountains of North Carolina to meet a group of
gun-toting, pro-nuclear arsenal survivalists. It is yet another situation in which
he is uncomfortable in the presence of macho menmacho men with firearms.
Although Claudia tells McElwee that she is not involved with anyone, he
does not pursue her. Symbolic of their unfulfilled relationship is his statement
to us: I drop by to say goodbye to Claudia, but shes not there.
30
A Lovers Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1984), 193,
quoted in Linnell Secomb, Philosophy and Love: From Plato to Popular Culture (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 2007), 2.
31

McDonald, A Critical Cinema 2, 278.

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McElwees car breaks down. While it is being repaired he stays in a jail cell in
the absence of a motel. Over the sound system he hears an announcement about
four female escapees from the womens correctional institute white females,
seventeen to twenty-four years of age, in blue jean shorts, white t-shirts, and
tennis shoes. He tells us that he finally fell asleep and dreamed about being held
captive by the four female escapees.
The next woman he spends time with is Winnie. She lives on an island off
the coast of Georgia (echoes here of Pats movie script). She is a doctoral candidate in linguistics. A multitasker like several of the women, she carries on her
conversations with him while expertly engaged in such chores as cooking, making bread, milking a cow, and repairing a machine.
At his insistence, she explains linguistic theories to him. There was once a
vocabulary to express romantic love. Now there is linguistics. It would seem
almost antithetical to love. Yet Winnies explanation of it to him brings an erotic
flirtation into their relationship. McElwee tells us my interest in linguistics
continues to grow. Winnie tells him that she had been involved with a linguistics professor, saying for a very long time I believed that the only important
things in life were linguistics and sex.
Later, he asks her whether she sees any resemblance between him and Sherman, pointing out that the General had a red beard and so does he, and that both
were insomniacs and insecure. He parallels Shermans business failures with his
(supposedly) disastrous love relationships, a comparison Winnie rejects.
McElwee is involved and seems happy with Winnie. He tells us: Im convinced Ive stumbled into Eden. But he presumably has to go back to Boston to
earn money to complete his film. He promises to return after two months but
stays away longer; when he comes back, she is living with a geologist, the only
other human inhabitant of the island.
McElwee remains on the island for a while. But it is no longer a paradise. He
sleeps alone except for the roaches and blood-sucking insects that torment him.
Winnie is no longer present to remove ticks from his body.
He asks her why she left him. While drying clothes by squeezing them (and
him metaphorically) through a wringer (close-up of a pair of jeans), she replies:
you left, he was here. The last we see of Winnie she is turning her back on him
and walking away. His last act is to saw a (phallic) log into two with the geologist.
McElwee returns to the mainland. Everything he encounters reminds him of
women, of romance, of sex: the voice of a woman on the television in his motel
room leading exercises up down, back down, up and down; and a man in a bar
singing about love. A monument is being erected by The Women of Sumter
District to Their Confederate Dead. One of the women says, Many of those
young boys... . They never had had a sweetheart.

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He telephones and meets with a former girlfriend. Jackie is an art teacher in


a local public school in the town where she grew up. An antiwar activist, she has
campaigned for ten years against nuclear weapons, the proliferation of nuclear
reactors, and the dumping of most of the nations nuclear waste in South Carolina, primarily by Northerners.
McElwee goes with her to an anti-war rally, where a folksinger sings about love.
He accompanies her and her students to see a massive, muscular bronze statue
(another invidious comparison to him). Look at that body, says one of the kids.
Later, other students complain in jest that he and Jackie have been smooching.
Their previous relationship had ended when he couldnt commit to her.
Now he tries to discuss it. Jackie is lying on a boat with her back to him. The
boat does not move forward nor does their relationship. He asks: Do you want
to get married? The question is ambiguous. Is he asking about marriage to him
or in general? After a long pause, she replies: Not at the moment. To which he
responds: Well, I wasnt asking you at this very moment.
They visit an anonymously erected monument that explains how the survivors should reconstruct civilization after a nuclear war. The camera pans down
the monuments inscriptions showing particularly Balance Personal Rights
With Social Duties then Prize Truth-Beauty-Love.
Jackie has told him that she has a new boyfriend, she is exhausted with causes
in South Carolina, and that she intends to go to California. At the airport,
against a shot of a plane taxiing, McElwees voice-over comments: It seems we
never really did find time to talk and now theres barely time to say goodbye.
McElwee goes to Charleston, where his friend the dynamic Charleen introduces him to Deedee. Deedee is a singer-musician and an administrator at the
exclusive girls school she attended as a student.
On a walk with Charleen in her neighborhood, at a disused military base he
films a wall on which is written Becky Loves Ben... . More Than He Will Ever
Know. Charleen reproaches him for lacking passion and not wooing Deedee.
She had earlier threatened to prod him in the soft parts of his body with Deedees
furled umbrella.
Charleen takes him to visit Deedee at the school. There he films Deedee
singing a song at the lower school assembly. The lyric includes: You always have
my unspoken passion. I love you just the way you are.32 He observes in a voiceover: It dawns on me that I have somehow wandered into the very cradle of
Southern womanhood.
32

In Just the Way You Are by Billy Joel, the line after You always have my unspoken passion is
Although I might not seem to care. The line Ill take you just the way you are ends the previous
verse.

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Charleen is eager for Ross and Deedee to marry and have progeny as she
puts it. McElwee describes Deedee as a singing angel and as a woman of
purity, strength, conviction. Deedee tells him on camera that she is a Mormon, a believer in revelations and the apocalypse. As he recounts to Charleen,
Deedee, in an unfilmed conversation the previous night, had said that she
wanted to marry a man who can bring the priesthood into her house. He tells
Charleen that he and Deedee dont have that much in common. Just as with
Claudia, he does not pursue Deede, nor does she pursue him.
Never daunted, Charleen tells McElwee about a wonderful girl she has
found for him. Shes absolutely perfectly beautiful. Shes not a Mormon. In
fact, she sleeps around. He is not tempted and travels on, although confessing
to us of being sort of lust ridden.
Joy ( Joyous) is a singer who performs in bars and nightclubs around the
Carolinas with her African American accompanist. Like the actress Pat, she is
comfortable being filmed. The film gives the impression that McElwee already
knows and has been accompanying Joy around. He tells us from the first
moment I saw her sing I became a dedicated and ardent groupie. We first meet
her belting out the song R-E-S-P-E-C-T in front of a strip mall. When she is
finished, she says to the audience: Come back and see us at nine oclock tonight.
We love you.
Her unromantic use of the word love, common parlance by people in show
business, plus his low position as a groupie, no matter how ardent, deny him the
role of romantic lover he seems to seek. Yet he persists and remains with her.
After some weeks together, Joy like Pat leaves him. She goes to pursue fame
and fortune on another night club tour. Again he is undone, discarded for the
womans career and by geographical separation.
McElwee moves on to Karen, a lawyer and ERA activist. Another multitasker, she simultaneously talks on the telephone and mops the floor. McElwee
tells us that he had known her in high school. Their relationship then and after
had always been platonic, except during a temporary breakup with her boyfriend when she had visited him in Boston. There it became romantic and, at
least for him, intense.
Karen talks about her past with him and her on-off-on again relationship
with that boyfriend. Her unavailability increases McElwees desire. But he fails
to convince her to leave her boyfriend and resume her romantic relationship
with him. He tells us: I find myself arguing for it as if Im in court, which is
especially ridiculous, considering that Karen is a lawyer. He continues to plead
his case at an ERA rally. With consummate timing I insist upon talking to
Karen about our relationship in the midst of ten thousand angry Southern
women.

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Heightening the emotional tension, McElwee shows a tight close-up of


Karens face as she gives evasive answers to his invasive questions and is unwilling to respond to his pleas (see Fig. 11.2).
She says: I know
you love me. He
replies, I do.
Asked in an interview about the sincerity of his efforts with
Karen, McElwee answers: If I were really
serious, would I be
filming her? If I really
wanted her to love me,
would I not have put
the camera down and
convinced her of my seriousness in doing that? Part of it is knowing that its a lost
cause, so I may as well make a good film out of it.33
McElwees car runs out of gas so Karens boyfriend brings some to him (more
symbolism). He hangs out for a few days with the boyfriend who seems to spend
his time with his friends collecting, trading, and moving giant plastic animals,
replete with (phallic) horns and trunks.

Romantic Love
Romantic love rarely runs smoothly. For Andrew Marvell in the last stanza of
The Definition of Love it is the union of minds thwarted by fate. To quote:
Therefore the Love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debars,
Is the Conjunction of the Mind,
And Opposition of the Stars.
McElwees search for lasting romantic love with a Southern woman does not
succeed. Over the course of their relationships with him, the women he pursues
variously prefer to follow their careers, stay with another (rival) man, are indifferent toward him, or he decides they are not for him.
33
Cynthia Lucia, When the Personal Becomes Political: An Interview with Ross McElwee,
Cineaste 20, no. 2 (1993): 34, emphasis in original.

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Despite or because of this lack of success, elements of romantic love are palpable and visible in all of the relationships. I summarize them next, acknowledging that doing so imposes an academic heaviness on McElwees deft filmmaking
and the films lightness of touch.
Pat. Enchantment with and desire for her. Envy of her fascination with Burt
Reynolds. Distress when their relationship declines into companionship.
Loss and loneliness after she leaves him to pursue her career in Hollywood
and return to her boyfriend.
Claudia. Initial pleasure at meeting her. Sadness and regret upon realizing
that, despite her availability, her interests and beliefs make them incompatible.
Winnie. Happiness with her. Jealousy when she tells him that because of his
absence she has left him for the geologist. Suffering when he sleeps alone.
Jackie. Hope. Then disappointment that he cannot resurrect his romantic
relationship with her. Dismay at her unwillingness to discuss it with him.
A sense of rejection after she leaves for California.
Deedee. Bemused by this pure and angelic woman and by Charleens determination that he and Deedee marry. Doubt that she is suitable for him. Relief
after Deedee explains why he is unacceptable to her.
Joy. Infatuation with her. Frustration that her show business personality
resists taking love seriously and that his groupie status does not change to
romantic love. Resignation after her departure to pursue her career.
Karen. Obsession with her. Some cruelty in how he treats her. Despair at her
refusal to requite his love and leave her boyfriend.

Idealism, Realism, Pragmatism


McElwees persona is an idealist. He hopes, perhaps even expects, that the next
woman will meet his ideal. Over the course of the film, he discovers (realizes)
that the women he has encountered, although they do not eschew romantic love
or at least the idea of it, are more pragmatic and more realistic about it than he is.
The womens realism and pragmatism start with their appearances. McElwee
sees and shows the women in the film variously putting on makeup, ironing
their hair, and primping. His sister details her plans for cosmetic surgery and
shows him some of the results. The girls at the private girls school where Deedee
teaches look at their class photographs and listen to a young woman explain
how air-brushing will remove their imperfections: pimples, birthmarks, bags
underneath their eyes, widen or slim down their noses.

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With respect to romantic love itself, most of the women in the film are realistic and pragmaticindeed clear eyedabout McElwee. Most of them see why
a relationship with him would be unacceptable or at least difficult. One reason is
that he seems more committed to, even more passionate about, his camera than
he is about them. No wonder they reject him, leave him, or prefer other men.
At the same time, the film is a celebration of all its womens uniqueness and
originality. It embraces and celebrates them (often through close-ups) in all
their idiosyncrasy and individuality.

Conclusion
Leaving Karen, McElwee returns to his home town of Charlotte, North Carolina, where his odyssey began and where, he tells us, the Confederacy officially
dieda death marked by another (phallic) marble monument. Burt Reynolds
is in town. McElwees desire to film him for a few days and interview him about
concepts of masculinity and romance in the South are frustrated.
None of McElwees seven relationships has culminated in romantic love
reciprocated. He tells us: My real life has fallen into the cracks between myself
and my film. Yet the consequence is that he has created a documentary on the
search for a romantic relationship in daily life without a gimmick such as a certain number of dates, or the elimination of contestants in reality television
shows, and the like.34
McElwee informs us that the whole notion of actively searching for the perfect person to fall in love with seemed foolish and the chances of finding such a
person seemed remote. His decision coincides with the final mechanical breakdown of the car he has been using in his quest.35 He resolves not to get involved
with anyone for a while.
Proust reflects that the love one feels, insofar as it is love for a particular
person, may not be a very real thing, since although an association of pleasant or
painful fancies may fix it for a time on a woman, and even convince us that she
was its necessary cause, the fact is that if we consciously or unconsciously outgrow those associations, our love, as though it was a spontaneous growth, a
thing of our own making, revives and offers itself to another woman.36
Back in Boston, McElwee audits a music history course. (The McElwee persona would be auditing rather than taking it for credit). Pam, the instructor,
34

Thanks to Gabriel M. Paletz for this insight.

35

James H. Watkins, Sword Holes in the Sofa: Documenting the Autobiographical in Ross
McElwees Shermans March, in Cuevas and Garcia, eds., Landscapes of the Self, 174175.
36

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, 221.

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lectures about the duel between flute and soprano in Bel Canto. As the camera
brings her closer, she plays a romantic melody on the piano. (If music be the
food of love, play onbut not to excess).
He goes to see her sing as a member of a chorus. She is shown in long shot,
then middle distance, but not individualized with a close-up. His camera has
(temporarily) lost its privileged position.37 Still, we see and hear the chorus singing the Ode to Joy from the last movement of Beethovens Ninth symphony,
thereby clinching the films optimism about the possibility (likelihood) of
romantic love.38
McElwee tells us: After the concert I thought things over and then somewhat cautiously asked her if she would like to see a movie with me on the following weekend. One does not take a camera on a movie date. Shermans March
ends with the next likely romantic relationship off camera. It will not be a
documentary.

Acknowledgments
I am indebted to Ross McElwee and Gabriel Michael Paletz for insightful and
illuminating comments that I have incorporated in this essay.

37

Draper, 44.

38

Pointed out by Gabriel M. Paletz.

12
Hitchcocks Family Romance
allegory in shadow of a doubt
Gilberto Perez

All the irony of the situation stemmed from her deep love for her uncle ...
the girl will be in love with her Uncle Charlie for the rest of her life.
Alfred Hitchcock on Shadow of a Doubt1

n image of waltzing couples haunts Hitchcocks Shadow of a Doubt


(1943). Its an image of old-world elegance and romance. It belongs
nowhere in the world of the film, and yet it keeps impinging on it. Where does
it come from? It seems to come from the past, but a past that never was, a
fantasy of bygone glamour, an unattainable yet persistent dream. Its an image
that floats on the screen, fluidly dissolving in and out of view, a construct of
the imagination unmoored from reality. The waltzing couples in their oldfashioned fancy dress turn and turn, impeccably, incessantly, with something of
the clockwork quality of figurines on a revolving table, but figurines uncannily
animated and aggrandized, glamorous ghosts dancing without end in the circles
of the mind.
What does this image mean? For some the meaning is all in the music, in the
strains of the Merry Widow waltz accompanying the dancing couples and
pointing to the fact that one of the two main characters, the worldly, shady
uncle visiting his family in sunny Santa Rosa, California, is the Merry Widow
murderer sought by the police. According to Mladen Dolar, one has to consider the couples as the images in a rebus: if we concentrate on the images, on
the ornate visual presentation, we will never find the answer, which lies only in

Franois Truffaut, Hitchcock, rev. ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), 155.
251

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wordshere in the title of the operetta from which the waltz is taken.2 But that
answer, which we are virtually given from the startwhen we see the uncle in a
shabby room in Philadelphia, a pile of money beside him, two detectives after
himdoes not dispel the haunting image of the waltzing couples and the mesmeric mystery it evokes.
The waltzers are the films initial image, seen under the credits, and they
recur, briefly yet arrestingly, several times later on. They are photographed from
a rather low angle, as if someone were looking up to them. Though set apart
from the rest of the film as credit sequences usually are, they keep going after the
credits are finished, and, like dancing angels hovering above a fallen world, they
lingeringly dissolve into a panning shot along a river on the rundown outskirts
of Philadelphia, where the story begins. And these lofty romantic angels make
three other intrusions into the world of the film, each at a key point in the story.
Angels dancing, a fallen worldthis sounds rather metaphysical. Hitchcock
has often been interpreted in such terms, as have stories of mystery and suspense
more generally. But the metaphysical does not exclude the social. Shadow of a
Doubt may be construed allegorically, but the allegory has social texture and
specificity. Raymond Durgnat sees the waltzing couples as something from the
Gilded Age and the rundown outskirts as representing the Depression. The
Depression was barely over at the time the film was made, and the impoverished
middle class would look back to the Gilded Age as a dream of bourgeois
splendor.3

The Double Beginning


Together with Strangers on a Train (1951), Shadow of a Doubt is Hitchcocks
most sustained treatment of a theme that preoccupied him throughout his
career, a theme rooted in romanticism and the Gothic tradition: the doppelgnger, the alter ego, the double. Everything in this film depends on the principle
of rhyme, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol wrote about Shadow of a Doubt.
There is probably not one moment in it that does not somewhere have its double, its reflection. Or, if you prefer, let us say with Franois Truffaut ... that
Shadow of a Doubt is based on the number two.4 The film has two main characters, two detectives in Philadelphia, two detectives in Santa Rosa, two suspects
2

Mladen Dolar, Hitchcocks Objects, in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan
(But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock), ed. Slavoj iek (London: Verso, 1992), 34.
3

Raymond Durgnat, The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974),
185.

4
Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, Hitchcock: The First Forty-four Films, trans. Stanley Hochman
(New York: Ungar, 1979), 72.

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who could be the Merry Widow murderer, two church scenes, two family meals,
two scenes in the garage, two attempted killings in the family homeand,
among other doublings, two opening sequences, the first in Philadelphia, the
second in Santa Rosa, the first introducing Uncle Charlie ( Joseph Cotten), the
second his niece Charlie (Teresa Wright), who was named after him and who,
when he comes to Santa Rosa, tells him that the two of them are sort of like
twins, which we knew already, from their neatly parallel introductions in the
twin beginnings.
The principle of rhyme, deployed by Hitchcock with what Durgnat calls his
virtuoso sense of form as meaning,5 establishes the doubling of the two Charlies in this double beginning. The camera proceeds in each case from an overview of the location to a tilted shot of the window of each Charlies room to a
traveling shot approaching each Charlie as he or she lies in bed in the daytime,
each awake and dressed, supine and pensive, and then to a profile shot of each
Charlie, seen in the foreground as he or she talks with someone standing at the
door (the rooming-house landlady in Uncle Charlies case, young Charlies
father in her case). Some have stressed the opposition between the two Charlies,
who may be taken as small town versus big city, innocence versus corruption,
good versus evil. Form as meaning: each of the two profile shots is the reverse of
the otherwe see Uncle Charlies left profile screen right and young Charlies
right profile screen leftwhich suggests that the two are opposites. But the two
traveling shots are not reversed, each advancing from right to left on the screen
in its movement toward the recumbent figure. And the insistent visual rhyming
bespeaks twinning. If the uncle is evil and the niece good, we may surmise that
good and evil are twins, reflections of each other.
No less striking than the differences are the similarities, the congruencies
between the two Charlies. The uncle sends a telegram to his family announcing
his coming to Santa Rosa just as the niece decides to send him a telegram asking
him to come. There is something beyond the ties of family that binds this uncle
and niece together. Let me mention two overlooked points of analogy between
them. If Uncle Charlie is indifferent to the money on his bedside table, some of
which has fallen on the floor, young Charlie also cares little about money, as she
chidingly tells her father, who works in a bank and takes money to be the likely
cause of her worries. If the uncles cigar has often been noted as a phallic symbol,
few have noticed the bedpost, somewhat out of focus but placed in the foreground, surely deliberately, so that it seems to rise out of the nieces crotch like a
phallus symbolizing, in contrast to her emasculated fatherwho stands in the
place of the landlady in the corresponding shot of the uncleyoung Charlies
5

Durgnat, 185.

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mettle, her spirit. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar; sometimes a bedpost is just a
bedpost. But Hitchcock is a very calculating filmmaker, and Shadow of a Doubt
is a film suffused with sexuality.
The Philadelphia beginning lets us know that Charles is a criminal. The law
is after him; two policemen have come to the rooming house and await him in
the street outside. He looks at them from his window and mutters to himself:
What do you know? Youre bluffing. Youve nothing on me. He goes outside,
walks right past them, and manages to elude their pursuit. We dont know what
this man has done, but we know that he has done something bad. And yet, when
the film moves to Santa Rosawhere it stays through to the endfor a long
stretch we view Uncle Charlie not as someone we know to be a criminal but
much as young Charlie views him, as a man of the world who brings sophistication and excitement to the uneventful small town. Though there is a shadow of
a doubt, we want Uncle Charlie to be, if not exactly innocent, at least someone
who isnt so bad, who maybe did something wrong but hopefully will turn out
to be all right. This is to say that for much of the film we are in denial; we disavow what we know. Thats where Hitchcock puts us. Shadow of a Doubt is,
among other things, a film about denial, disavowal of the undeniable.

The Point of View of the Devil


When Charles looks out of his upstairs window at the two policemen down in the
street, the camera assumes his point of view, as it does again when he goes down
to the front door and looks at the two men standing at a corner, and again when
he draws closer, and again as he strides toward them and the camera tracks with
him and gives us a tracking point-of-view shot through his eyes. But as he walks
past them, the point of view switches. We stay with the two detectives as Charles
turns the corner and recedes into the background; they start following him and
we stay in place as they recede. Cut to an overhead long shot of a stretch of urban
wasteland where we see the tiny figures of the man pursued and his two pursuers.
This is the kind of commanding high view that strikes us as authorial, godlike. Cut
to another godlike perspective on another barren stretch, but now the two pursuers have lost their quarry, and the man pursued is nowhere to be seen until, in a
stunning move, a gesture whose audacity matches Charless own, as William
Rothman wrote, the camera twists elegantly to the left, spanning this cityscape
and finally settling on Charles himself, in profile ... survey[ing] the scene with
amusement and contempt as he puffs on his cigar.6 Hitchcock takes us by surprise
6

William Rothman, HitchcockThe Murderous Gaze (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University


Press, 1982), 183.

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and switches the point of view back to Charles, whom we would have thought to
be somewhere down there but find right here, up above, puffing on the cigar that
symbolizes his potency and assuming the commanding high view as his own. We
associate that view with the author, and the author associates it with Charles, in a
poised and daring gesture of identification with this poised and daring villain. The
godlike perspective is revealed to be the point of view of the devil.
The authorial high view that becomes identified with the villain occurs in
other Hitchcock films. In The Birds (1963) there is the broad aerial vista of
Bodega Bay under attack by birds, a vista that at first seems godlike, far above
everything, but then starts being invaded by birds in the sky. Hitchcock likes to
mix anxiety and humor, and here a stroke of wit brings on a shudder of terror:
the fearsome birds, we recognize, rightfully command this commanding birdseye view. In Psycho (1960), as the detective walks upstairs in the Bates house,
there are two successive cuts that do something remarkable. First, as William
S. Pechter described it,
Hitchcock shifts abruptly to the remote impersonality of an overhead
angle; the very ultimate in aplomb; managing, thereby, not only to analyze and anatomize the action with an almost scientific, cool precision,
but, almost inexplicably, succeeding in making it incalculably more terrifying as well. For, in classic nightmare fashion, the overhead perspective
has the effect of showing you everything and yet revealing nothing; the
essential secret is left more unknowable than ever.7
Then, as a figure we take to be Norman Batess mother briskly comes out of a
room onto the landing, wielding a knife, and attacks the detective at the top of
the stairs, Hitchcock cuts from high above to a close view, also from above, of the
detectives bleeding face, with his widened eyes looking straight into the cameraa view maintained on the screen as the detective falls backward down the
stairs, flailing his arms and gaping aghast at his killer, whose face we dont see but
whose implacably descending perspective we share. The detectives gaze into the
camera puts us right in the place of the killer close above him all the way to the
bottom. This isnt a conventional point-of-view shot: for that there must be a
precedingand usually also an ensuingshot of the character whose perspective
the camera adopts. Here Hitchcock cuts directly from the authorial overhead
angle to the killers overhead angle, which, as Slavoj iek has discussed,8 makes a
startling identification between the godlike author and the satanic, faceless killer.
7

William S. Pechter, Twenty-four Times a Second (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 182.

Slavoj iek, In His Bold Gaze My Ruin Is Writ Large, in iek, 247252.

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Hitchcocks identification with his villains may be understood simply as an


acknowledgment of the villains agency in getting the plot going and of the
authors agency behind the villains. The villain is a surrogate for the author, the
one who really gets the plot going, who unleashes the birds on Bodega Bay and
sets Norman Bates on his psychotic path and Uncle Charlie on his murderous
career and his fateful visit to Santa Rosa. But the godlike author who created
these devils could have chosen to remain outside his creation, and Hitchcock
instead makes his presence felt, his presence and his complicity with the evil
that motors his plots.
No other director is present in the film in the way Hitchcock is. I dont just
mean his signature cameo appearances, though these indicate how his presence
is felt in the film as a whole: no other director could appear on the screen as
himself, for everyone in the audience to spot and recognize, without disrupting the illusion, without intruding like a foreign body in the world of the film.
Significantly, in his one attempt at realism, The Wrong Man (1957), Hitchcock
chose not to appear except in a preamble, because his appearance in the midst
of the story would have disturbed the illusion of reality. This tells us what kind
of illusion Hitchcock usually creates, not the illusion of reality but the illusion
we enter into knowing its only an illusion, only a movie.9 The kind of relationship he establishes with his audienceand hes nothing if not a director of
audiencesasks us to recognize his authorial presence, his agency in making
this movie were watching. His characteristic rapport with us calls for our
awareness that hes in control, that we are in his hands, at the mercy of his
manipulation. We willingly consent, we are complicit, with the director, with the
villainat the end of Psycho, as iek observes, Normans grinning-deaths-head
look into the camera directly addresses us and makes us his accomplices10
and we are to own up to our complicity as Hitchcock owns up to his.
Rohmer and Chabrol attached much importance to Hitchcocks Catholicism and offered a theological reading of his filmsthough one may agree with
Pechter that there is clearly not a trace of actual religious feeling in them.11
iek in his Lacanian fashion basically accepts the Catholicor more precisely
Jansenist, which isnt far from Protestantconstruction of Hitchcocks universe as the domain of a Dieu obscur, a cruel and inscrutable God bestowing
grace or inflicting misfortune arbitrarily, without discernible correspondence to
9

All art deals in illusion, and we always know that. But there are different degrees and different
kinds of illusion, and with Hitchcock we dont quite suspend our disbelief but enter into the
illusion in a spirit of play. This brings him pretty close to comedy but doesnt keep him from the
unsettling suspense hes famous for.

10

iek, 244245.

11

Pechter, 178.

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a persons character or deeds.12 In such a universe we are at the mercy of a ruling


deity who may be good but, as iek says, is not easy to distinguish from the
devil.13 And, he continues,
it is ultimately Hitchcock himself who, in his relationship with the
viewer, assumes the paradoxical role of a benevolent evil God, pulling
the strings and playing games with the public. That is to say, Hitchcock
as auteur is a kind of diminished, aestheticized mirror-image of the
unfathomable and self-willed Creator.14
Who would so usurp the role of God? Who would pull the strings and play
games and take such wicked pleasure in it? Who else but the devil?

Hitchcockian and Expressionist Allegories


The Wrong Man accords perfectly with the notion that a cruel and arbitrary
deity rules over the universe: the protagonist is a good man who finds himself in
a bad situation for nothing he has done. Yet the Hitchcockian edge is missing
from this film, which has its admirers but failed with the public and has never
won much critical favor. Whats wrong with The Wrong Man, iek argues, is
that here Hitchcock steps aside and lets God do his inscrutable will in Gods
world, the world of our reality. The characteristic Hitchcock universe is not
Gods world but Hitchcocks, the world of a movie over which the godlike director is seen to preside. What The Wrong Man lacks, iek elaborates, is the
allegorical dimensionby which he means that, as he sees it, a Hitchcock
movie is essentially about itself, an allegory of its own process of enunciation,
its real theme being the transaction between the director and the viewer: one is
even tempted to say that Hitchcocks films ultimately contain only two subject
positions, that of the director and that of the viewer.15 One might propose then
that such dual protagonists in Hitchcock as Uncle Charlie and young Charlie, or
Norman and Marion in Psycho, or Bruno and Guy in Strangers on a Train, stand
for the director and the viewer. What iek calls the Hitchcockian allegory
which he considers modernist, self-referential, as opposed to traditional
12

iek, 211216.

13

Indeed, only a thin line separates this notion of Dieu obscur from the Sadeian notion of the
Supreme-Being-of-Evil. iek, 215.

14
15

Ibid., pp. 215216.

Ibid., p. 218. iek draws on Fredric Jamesons account of Rothmans book on Hitchcock. See
Fredric Jameson, Allegorizing Hitchcock, in Signatures of the Visible (New York: Routledge,
1990), 99127.

understanding

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love

allegory, which refers meaning somewhere beyond the worklies in the way
the characters and incidents serve to stage and signify the directors relationship
with his audience.
But a Hitchcock movie isnt merely about the director and the audience.
ieks own reading of Psycho takes the film as a parable of American life, with
the Bates Motel, built in a nondescript modern style, standing for the present,
the adjacent Gothic house for the pastarchitectural symbolism is part of
Hitchcocks inheritance from the Gothic storyand Normans psychotic split
for the breach between present and past in a society incapable of relating them;
and with the shift from Marions story to Normans, the terrible narrative rupture effected by the shower murder, representing the point when American
alienation (financial insecurity, fear of the police, desperate pursuit of a piece of
happinessin short, the hysteria of everyday capitalist life) is confronted with
its psychotic reverse: the nightmarish world of pathological crime.16 This is surely
an allegorical reading in the traditional mode. The self-referential allegory
modernist, if you willcombines in Hitchcock with the traditional kind. An
emphasis on Hitchcock as auteur tends to neglect the generic character of his
movies, which are thrillers, mysteries, suspense stories, in the line of popular
expressionism. At once intensifying and generalizing, dealing in emotions and
at the same time in abstractions, expressionism is fundamentally allegorical.
The cinematic language of expressionism, the play of light and shadow, the
studio-constructed ambiance of anxiety, was developed in Weimar Germany.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) translated the First World War it closely followed into an allegorical horror tale, with the demonic doctor as a figure of
insane authority and the somnambulist made murderous under his spell as a
figure of death, representing all the young men sent to kill and be killed in the
war. Hitchcock owes an evident debt to Weimar cinema. His first completed
picture as director, The Pleasure Garden (1924), was filmed in Germany, and
while working at UFA he visited F. W. Murnau on the set of the soon-to-befamous Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924). Murnaus influence he
acknowledged, but not Fritz Langs when Truffaut suggested it to him (maybe
because Lang was his Hollywood contemporary and he saw him as a rival,
whereas Murnau died at the end of the silent era and he could look back on him
as an old master). Questions of influence aside, an interesting parallel can be
drawn between Shadow of a Doubt and Murnaus Nosferatu (1922), the first, freest, and best film version of Bram Stokers Gothic novel Dracula (1897).
All horror tales are allegorical. The fear they arouse in us cant be fear of
what they literally depict, which we know to be a fantasy, so it must be fear of

16

iek, 227.

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something else, which the fantasy stands for. What that is may not be clear,
but allegories are often obscure. Count Dracula, in the novel and in its various
stage and screen adaptations, has been seen as a figure of wicked sexuality.
A different vampire, however, looms in Nosferatu, not a sexy and seductive
vampire but something like a monstrous cross between a rat and a human
skeleton, with long predatory arms culminating in claws, the two front teeth
protruding like a rodents, and between pointed ears a pale bald head like a
bare skull. Nor does his bite turn his victims into vampires themselves: accompanied by rats carrying the plague, this vampire simply, inexorably kills. As I
see it, Nosferatu is, like the somnambulist in Caligari, a figure of death.17 In
the novel Draculas opponent is a scientist, a figure of reason, Professor Van
Helsing, but in Murnaus film the professor plays a minor part: science may be
able to postpone death but can do nothing about its inescapable, impending
finality. Nosferatus opponent is instead a young wife who has the courage to
confront himwhat Heidegger called the courage of anxietyand who
keeps him by her side until the sun rises and its light, shining through the
window, does away with the vampire. This doesnt mean she has conquered
death: as a fact death is invincible, and in the process of killing the vampire she
dies herself. What fades away in the morning light is not the fact but the fear
of death, death as a specter haunting the consciousness, a specter she bravely
embraces as part of her humanity and thereby succeeds in dispelling. She triumphs over death not by not dyingthat can only be temporarybut by
making her death her own.
The most remarkable similarity between Shadow of a Doubt and Nosferatu
lies in the central pairing of a young woman and a fiend. In each case the two,
Charlie and Charlie, the stouthearted wife and the horrific vampire, even as
they stand in opposition to each other, are linked together by a mysterious
bond. From far away the young wife in Nosferatu, awakening from a sleepwalking dream, is somehow able to stop the vampires deathly advance on her husband; Murnau cuts back and forth between the wife in her Baltic hometown
and the vampire in his Transylvanian castle, her extended arms and intent gaze
reaching out toward the left of the screen, his head turned to look behind him
toward the right, as if he were glancing back at her, as if this were a shot/reverse
shot and the two were facing each other preternaturally across the distance. Do
you believe in telepathy? young Charlie asks at the telegraph office where she
has gone to send her uncle a telegram and finds that one from him has just
arrived. In Nosferatu there seems to be a similar telepathic connection between
the young woman and the fiend. The wife waits by the sea for her husbands
17

Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 123148.

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return from Transylvania, but, as she couldnt know except through a paranormal intuition, its the vampire, not her husband, whos coming by sea.
For some the doubles in Nosferatu are the vampire and the husband. True,
the first part of the film centers on the husband, whom we follow in his trip to
Transylvania and his encounter with the vampire. But as that encounter reaches
its fearful climax, the husband, the type of young person who shrugs off death
as something that happens to others, something too far off to worry about, collapses into utter helplessness when death stares him in the face, and the film
switches to the wife, who distantly yet powerfully takes over and faces down the
vampire. One might rest content with saying that Nosferatu sets up a triangulation rather than a doubling. But at that crucial moment when the wife takes
over, it becomes manifest that this is between her and the vampire, and from
then on the husband recedes into a relatively minor role as one of several characters whose attitudes toward death are seen to be inadequate, inauthentic, as
Heidegger would put it (Being and Time came out in 1927, five years after Murnaus film, but Heideggers ideas had earlier begun to circulate in Germany): the
wife is the authentic existential hero.
Every duality in Shadow of a Doubt, Mladen Dolar argues, involves a third.18
An example he gives is Emma (Patricia Collinge), young Charlies mother and
Uncle Charlies sister, who named her daughter after her brother and who loves
him beyond a sisters love as her daughter loves him beyond a nieces love, the
mothers desire now delegated to the daughter marked by his name ... The
mother is thus in the position of the third in the relationship Charlie-Charlie.19
Also in the position of third party to that duality is the detective, one of the two
in Santa Rosa, who falls in love with young Charlie and makes Uncle Charlie
apprehensive about his investigation of him and jealous about his courtship of
her. The husband in Nosferatu may be reckoned a similar third party to the wifevampire duality.
Shadow of a Doubt recalls Nosferatu in other ways besides the woman-fiend
duality. Just as the vampire and his attendant rodents travel from the spooky
Carpathians to the ordinary Baltic town, so the sinister Uncle Charlie comes to
a small town that epitomizes placid normality. The sunlit site of the familiar is
in each case struck by the frightful. Dracula also moves from a remote setting to
a familiar one, but Murnaus treatment of space and actual locations in Nosferatu
(a far cry from the distorted sets of Caligari) conveys an arresting sense of a
natural world where death inheres. After the vampire arrives in town bringing
the plague with him, the phantasmal monster vanishes from sight and to all
18

Dolar, 3339.

19

Dolar, 37.

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appearances we witness a natural calamity. Hitchcock, by inclination a studio


directorbetter to keep things under controlwent out on location for
Shadow of a Doubt as he had rarely done before, and he gives us a vividly rendered Santa Rosa. Both Hitchcocks film and Murnaus depict the passage of
anxiety into the heart of everyday life.
Lying in bed during the day, Uncle Charlie seems inert when we first see
him, but he suddenly grows alert when the landlady pulls down the shade and
his face is covered in shadow. He awakens to darkness like a vampire, Rothman
observes. The idea that Charles is a kind of vampire runs through the film.20
Yes, but what kind? Sexy like Dracula and death-dealing like Nosferatu, he
seduces and strangles rich widows. If not money, which apparently doesnt matter to him so much, what drives him to murder? Those strangulations occurred
before the film begins; we see his murderousness in action when he directs it at
young Charlie, and then it can be viewed as bound up with the love they feel for
each other. Regarding this film, Hitchcock mentioned Oscar Wilde on killing
the thing you love.21 Are the widows Charles killed perhaps associated, in the
recesses of his mind, with his older sister Emma, who was like a mother to him
when he was a child (We were so close growing up, she tearfully reminisces),
so that he enacts a version of the Oedipus complex by repeatedly killing his
mother (like some suave forerunner of Norman Bates)? And the mothers desire
has been transferred to the daughter, whom he repeatedly tries to kill and who
ends up killing him as the wife in Nosferatu kills the vampire. I read Nosferatu as
an allegory of the human confrontation with death. What about Shadow of a
Doubt?

The Ring
Uncle Charlie arrives in Santa Rosa with presents for the family, and he has
something special for his niece Charlie. But at first she declines: it would spoil
things if you should give me anything. Youre a strange girl, Charlie. Why
would it spoil things? he asks. Because were not just an uncle and a niece, she
replies. I know you ... I have the feeling that inside you somewhere theres
something nobody knows about ... Something secret and wonderful andIll
find it out. Its not good to find out too much, Charlie. But were sort of like
twins, dont you see? We have to know. Give me your hand, Charlieand
now the shot/reverse shot alternating between them changes to a symmetrical
two-shot. His present for her is a splendid emerald ring. With an air of ceremony
20

Rothman, 182.

21

Truffaut, 153.

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he takes her hand and, the camera drawing closer as he draws her closer, puts his
ring on her finger just as if he were giving her an engagement ring. The two
Charlies, Rothman comments, are now betrothed.22
But their betrothal is tainted. When her uncle prompts her to behold the
fine piece of jewelry he has given her, she notices a detail that had escaped him.
There is a rather faded inscription on the ring: TS from BM. He wants to return
the ring and have the inscription removed, but she likes it that way: Someone
else was probably happy with this ring. Her uncle doesnt look happy, though.
And at this point the image of the couples dancing to the Merry Widow waltz,
unseen since the credits, dissolves onto the screen over the subdued, somber
Uncle Charlie, which intimates that this may be an image, and a sound, in his
mind. But now, as if uncle and niece were again in telepathic touch, the sound
of the Merry Widow waltz comes into young Charlies mind: she doesnt know
what it is, but she starts humming the tune and cant get it out of her head.
Intending to mislead, her uncle says its the Blue Danube waltz, and he knocks
over a glass to cut her short when shes about to say the right name. The emerald
ring belongs in the world of romance evoked by the waltzing couples, but it
holds a secret that taints the romance between uncle and niece. His gift to her
will spoil everything just as she thought it would.
What taints the romance between uncle and niece? The something secret
and wonderful she was sure she would find out turns out to be something
awful: the initials inscribed on the ring prove that her uncle is the Merry Widow
murderer. But even if he were not a murderer, a romance between an uncle and
a niece nonetheless carries the taint of incest. Doubles of the same gender are
the more commonJekyll and Hyde, the student of Prague and his reflection,
Jane Eyre and the madwoman in the attic, the good Maria and her evil mechanical replica in Langs Metropolis (1926), or, in Hitchcocks films, Guy and Bruno
in Strangers on a Train, the dual Kim Novak character in Vertigo (1958). Doubling between a man and a woman usually, in the Gothic tradition, has to do
with the fear of incestthe brother and sister in Poes The Fall of the House of
Usher, Norman Bates and his mother in Psycho. And incest marks the twinship
of the two Charlies in Shadow of a Doubt. Murder is a metaphor for what really
taints the uncles engagement ring on the nieces finger.
Incest is not a subject that, under the Hollywood Production Code, a movie
could have dealt with directly. But murder is always okay, and Hitchcock,
through the conventions of the murder mystery, deals with incest allegorically.
Merely a rebus as far as the murder mystery is concerned, the waltzing couples
make more sense and take on larger resonance as a symbol of the romance
22

Rothman, 192.

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between uncle and niece, secret and wonderful yet frightening and forbidden.
And the denial in which we find ourselves in Shadow of a Doubt, the disavowal
of what we ought to know, also makes more sense with regard to incest, which
families are often unwilling to recognize even though it happens right in their
midst. Such denial seems to have kept even critics aware of the curious close
bond between uncle and niece from looking into it as an incestuous bond.23
The incestuous Charlie-Charlie duality is compounded and complicated by
the analogous relationship between Charles and Emma. For the reunion of
brother and sister, Robin Wood wrote, Hitchcock gives us an image (Emmy
poised left of screen, arrested in mid-movement, Charlie right, under trees and
sunshine) that iconographically evokes the reunion of lovers (Charlie wants to see
Emmy again as she was when she was the prettiest girl on the block).24 Near the
end, at a party celebrating her brother, Emma cries in front of everybody when
Charles suddenly announces his departure from town, and her tears are mirrored
in her daughters tears for her. EmmaHitchcocks most memorable portrayal of
a mother, done when his own mother, also called Emma, had just diedis her
daughters double both because she shares with her the object of desire, the incestuous love handed down from the past, and because she represents the future, the
life of paltry domesticity that lies ahead for young Charlie in the small town.
The detective in love with young Charlie is another variation on the incest
theme. He sees her as the nice girl next door and sees himself as the nice boy
next door. He talks to her about how similar the two of them are, how they both
come from average families, how average families are the best. The two are like
brother and sister, but this is incest without erotic spark, incest as the reassurance of the familiarwhich, here as in Nosferatu, is shown to be a false reassurance. The detective proposes marriage to young Charlie, and there are many
marriages such as he proposes, alike with alike, no romance, no glamour, no
waltzing couples. She gives him no answer. And she cant reach him on the telephone when she needs help, nor does any telepathic communication bring him
to her side. Young Charlie must face her uncle, as the wife in Nosferatu faces the
vampire, all by herself.
Joe and Herb are a running joke in the film, young Charlies father and his
neighbor talking about murder all the time. This is of course ironic, two clowns
23
Robin Wood is an exception to this disavowal. The key to Hitchcocks films is less suspense
than sexuality, he argues. In Shadow of a Doubt it is above all sexuality that cracks apart the family facade. As far as the Hays code permitted, a double incest theme runs through the film: Uncle
Charlie and Emmy, Uncle Charlie and Young Charlie. Necessarily, this is expressed through images and motifs, never becoming verbally explicit. Robin Wood, Hitchcocks Films Revisited (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 300.
24

Ibid.

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obsessed with murder stories and unaware of the real murderer in the house. But
its also Hitchcocks joke on us in the audience, who sit there watching a murder
story, and on himself, who concocted it for us. The murderer in the house isnt
real: this, Hitchcock reminds usas he liked to remind actors he thought were
taking things too seriouslyis only a movie. On another level, though, the
movie can be taken quite seriously, and by playfully reminding us that the murder story is only a fiction, while still arousing in us real emotion, Hitchcock
points us to whats really in the house, which the murder story stands for.
Walking by within earshot of the two Charlies, Joe and Herb discuss the
news that the police have solved the case of the Merry Widow murderer and
found the culprit to be a man in the east accidentally killed while trying to
escape. Only the two Charlies know the truth. They alone share the secret that
he is the true murdereror, taking murder to signify incest, that he is her true
love. And only she now stands in the way of his official exculpation, only her
knowledge, the shared secret knowledge binding them together and locking
them in conflict. She doesnt expose him because she fears it would break her
motherwhich can be understood either way, exposure of the murderer or of
the incestuous love. If in the murder story, she, rather than any of the policemen,
is the detective who solves the crime, in the incest allegory she, as well as her
mother, partakes of the guilt her uncle represents.
Now the uncle attempts to kill the niece who could send him to the electric
chair. Regrettably, according to Wood, this turn[s] the films most complex and
ambivalently viewed figure (Uncle Charlie) into a mere monster for the last
third.25 According to Rothman, Uncle Charlie may just mean to scare young
Charlie, who has given him back his ring and wants him to leave Santa Rosa, so
that she will let him stay and come to terms with him and their feelings for each
other.26 But the murderer means to murder: only at the allegorical level, with
murder construed as incest, can it be said that his trying to kill her bespeaks a
threatened and threatening love. At this level it is significant that, when he first
contemplates killing her and makes a strangling gesture with his hands, he looks
at her out the windowhe commands a high view but his phallic cigar slips
from his contorted fingerswhile in the garden below she meets the detective
positioning himself as a rival for her affections. And the detective, now off duty,
free of worry about a case he thinks closed, proposes to her in the garage, which
is where one of her uncles attempts on her life takes place.
Uncle Charlie is staying upstairs in young Charlies rooman architectural
symbol of their twinship. That he stay there was her idea, her father tells him on
25

Ibid., 219.

26

Rothman, 227228.

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265

his arrival at the house, and superstitiously warns him not to put his hat on the
bed; but after Joe leaves the room Charles takes a flower from a vase to adorn his
lapel, looks out the windowas if to satisfy himself that the high view is his
and, the camera panning in complicity with his gesture, defiantly tosses his hat
onto his nieces bed. The liberties he takes in her room smack of sexual liberties
with her. Now she wants him out of there, but she no longer has the evidence of
his guilt, the incriminating ring she returned to him, and in order to force him
out she must find that ring symbolic of their betrothal somewhere in that room
symbolic of their intimacy.
When she comes downstairs wearing the ring, her uncle is raising his glass
for a toast. This is the party in his honor, following a lecture he gave in town. She
didnt go to the lecture, having just survived the car fumes in the garage by which
she knows he tried to kill her; she stayed home and retrieved the ring, her
weapon against him, which she brandishes at his party. We see her from his
point of view as she makes her entrance down the stairs, her eyes on him, so that
she looks right at the camera, which mimics his attention and moves in close to
the accusatory ring he notices on her fingerwhereupon he relinquishes the
toast he was about to propose and instead raises his glass for a farewell toast ...
tomorrow I must leave Santa Rosa. But thats only the murder story. The incest
allegory lends quite another dimension to the scene. She comes down wearing
his ring, and he raises his glass when she makes her entrance, just as if this were
their engagement party.
The stage is set, as Rothman interprets the scene, for Charles to toast Charlie as his intended bride, and she in kind, radiant, a vision of beauty, descends
into the party dressed as a promised bride who seems to be offering herself to
him in a way that inscribes a pledge as well as an ultimatum . . . She wears
Charless ring and vows her faithfulness to him, on the condition that he depart.27
His farewell toast may then be construed as his acceptance of her terms, both
erotic and chaste, and dealing in one stroke with both his amorous and his murderous aspect: you can have me, so long as you go away. But the murderer would
go away simply on account of the evidence she has against himno need to offer
herself to him and vow faithfulnessand in any case he doesnt accept her terms:
she knows too much about him, and right before going away he makes another
attempt to kill her. As for the amorous uncle, I am proposing an allegorical construction of the film that keeps the uncles two aspects distinct, the murderous
belonging to the literal, the amorous to the figurative level of meaning. Young
Charlie is complicit with Uncle Charlie both in the murder story (Durgnat, who
doesnt take the incest very seriously, says that the young, idealistic American
27

Rothman, 232233.

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girl is, by her collusion, already, in moral equivalent, keeper of a gigolo and
accomplice after the fact28) and in the incest allegorybut shes complicit on
two different levels. And the ring as evidence of murder and as symbol of the
amorous pairing between uncle and niece works on two different levels.
Seeing their uncle off, young Charlie and her two younger siblings accompany
him aboard the train hes taking out of town, and he keeps her with him after her
siblings have left and the train has started going. The murderer means to murder.
For the first time, as Rothman notes, he allows himself to be viewed without his
mask; he appears as a monstrous figureshades of Nosferatucondemned to
haunt the earth and to represent death.29 As the train gains speed, he holds her by
an opened door, his strangling hand over her mouth, the two locked together in
what at moments resembles a conventional Hollywood image of a lovers clinch,30
the camera tilting down to their intertwined legs, which move around as if doing
the steps of a dance, as if the uncle and niece were waltzing together at deaths edge.31
The waltzing couples dissolve onto the screen for their final appearance when Uncle
Charlie falls to his death. Whether he slipped or she pushed him is hard to tell.
He never intended to kill her, Rothman suggests, but to have her kill him.32
Already at the start, when he lies recumbent and listless in his seedy room, Uncle
Charlie is a man visibly tired of life. Young Charlie also lies recumbent when we
first see her, but shes dissatisfied rather than listless, she wants something better
from life, shes reaching out for something wonderful that she thinks he represents. Shes animated by her dreams, while his seem spent. If the waltzing couples are an image the uncle and niece share in their minds, they share it from
opposite perspectives: he has been through that dream of glamour and romance
and come out the other end, having decided that, as he tells her after she finds
out his secret, The worlds a hell. Stories of the double often end in suicide. Its
fitting that the jaded uncle, despairing of life, would have his double, the spirited niece who bears his name, put an end to it all for him.

The Garden of Eden


Making the amorous uncle into a murderous monster aggrandizes the fear of
incest into a confrontation with evil. This is melodrama, if you like, but I
wouldnt have wanted Hitchcock, even if the Hollywood censorship and his
28

Durgnat, 182183.

29

Rothman, 237.

30

Rothman, 238.

31

I owe this observation to my student William Parker Marshall, who made it in class.

32

Rothman, 240242.

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267

own talent had allowed it, to paint a more realistic picture of a family corroded
by incest. Melodrama is a disreputable but popular genredisreputable
because popular, snobbishly relegated to inferiority when in fact, like any other
genre, it may often be inferior but it can also be superiorand it is a genre that,
departing from realism, tends toward allegory. Along with the incest allegory,
Shadow of a Doubt enacts an allegory of good and evil and of the knowledge of
good and evil.
The two, good and evil, niece and uncle, are, as she tells him, like twins
who have to know. She learns his terrible secret in that repository of knowledge, the public library in town. Suspecting he was trying to hide something
when, in a game he played with her younger sister, he tore and folded a page of
the daily newspaper, she hurries to the library to track down that page. She gets
there a little after closing time, 9 p.m., but the librarian lets her in and turns on
a light for her. On the page she finds a story about the Merry Widow murderer,
and the story mentions the names of one of the strangled widows and her late
husband. The initials match the TS and BM inscribed on the emerald ring.
From a close-up of the ring, which young Charlie takes off and inspects, the
camera now rises to an extreme high angle in a crane shot as striking, an authorial move as assertive, as the panning shot near the beginning in which the godlike perspective suddenly became identified with the devil. Here the high angle
is again godlike, and it comes at the moment of knowledge, though it belongs to
the author alone, not to the character acquiring the knowledge, the young
woman distraught at her discovery and casting a long shadow amid the librarys
shadows, as if the ring incriminating her uncle had brought out her own dark
side. The godlike perspective is commonly called omniscient, all-knowing, but
at this moment of knowledge the shadows evoke a sense of mystery. The waltzing couples appear at this point, superimposed first over young Charlie, dwarfed
in the view from far above as she gloomily leaves the library, and then over Uncle
Charlie at the house, reading a newspaper as she just didwhich again insinuates that this may be a mental image telepathically shared between uncle and
niecebut though the mystery of the couples eternally dancing to the Merry
Widow waltz would now seem solved, nonetheless it lingers and even deepens.
And in the panning shot that revealed the high-placed Uncle Charlie coolly
looking down at his baffled pursuers, there was, too, combined with the posture
of knowledge, a sense of mystery about this man, his misdeeds and his motives.
Shadow of a Doubt can be read as a parable of the Garden of Eden, with
Uncle Charlie as the devil, Santa Rosa as paradisethough paradise from the
devils point of view looks rather comical and confiningand the godlike high
angle as the tree of knowledge. Biting into the fruit of that tree doesnt so much
impart knowledge as bring on the loss of innocence, the recognition of what

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there is to know and what it means to know it, and so the high angle is fraught
with mystery, not an omniscient perspective but a symbol of the will to know, of
the horizon of knowledge, of what coming to know the world entails for those
living in it. You think you know something, dont you? You think youre the
clever little girl who knows something, the uncle tells the niece when she gives
him back his ring. Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you
ripped the fronts of houses, youd find swine? Even as he tries to keep her from
knowing his secret, he represents for her the temptation of knowledge, knowledge of the wide and risky world, the knowledge of good and evil associated
with the devil. To rise to the high angle of knowledge is to fall from grace; Uncle
Charlie is the fallen angel who assumes a godlike posture. Hitchcocks knowing
camera cannot identify itself with God but only with the devil.
Home after her visit to the library, young Charlie hears her mother humming the Merry Widow waltz and asks her to stopshe wants to get that tune
out of her head. Though nothing paranormal got it into Emmas head, the
hummed waltz signifies the mothers implication in the incestuous family
romance. But Emma doesnt know, and her innocence in paradise sets her apart
from her daughter, the clever girl who knows something. Except for the two
Charlies, all the inhabitants of Santa Rosa are portrayed more or less humorously, which is how Uncle Charlie sees them (The whole world is a joke to me,
he says when his malicious humor embarrasses his brother-in-law at the bank).
But the film cant be said to adopt Uncle Charlies point of view; rather than the
central consciousness, hes more like the central mystery. The point of view is
closer to young Charlies as we grow suspicious with her, find out with her about
her uncle, fear him with her; and she, though never malicious, may well be
amused by people in the small town she would transcend. Shes enough like her
uncle to look askance at paradise.
Yet the high angle of knowledge, associated with Uncle Charlie from the
beginning and often given to him, is withheld from young Charlie. When the
uncle and niece hear about the polices conclusion that the Merry Widow murderer has been killed in the east, the camera follows the gleeful Uncle Charlie
(I think Im going to get ready for dinner. Im hungry. I can eat a good dinner
today) briskly up the stairs, and when he pauses at the top and turns around to
look at the niece who knows better, we get a high-angle point-of-view shot
through his eyes as the two Charlies stare at each other and she looks right at the
camera. It is a shared moment of knowledgeshe knows, he knows that she
knows, she knows that he knows she knowsbut the high angle of knowledge
belongs to the uncle. Standing at the door, the sun behind her, young Charlie
casts a long shadow here as at the library, a shadow that doubles her, suggesting
that there are two sides to her nature, sunny and dark, good and evil, the side

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that opposes her uncle and the side complicit with him, the side that stands in
his way and the side vulnerable to him. But it is from the uncles high angle that
we see the nieces two sides.
When Uncle Charlie and the rest of the family have gone off to his lecture,
young Charlie, alone in the house, tries unsuccessfully to reach the detective,
and the camera twice dissolves to successively higher angles and then pans to the
view from the top of the stairs, the uncles high angle in his absence. This feels as
if the author were directing young Charlie to give up on the detective and
assume the high angle vacated by her uncle. Seen from that angle of knowledge,
the authors knowledge but not yet hers, she goes upstairs to look for the ring in
her unclesand herroom. Cut to the view from the top of the stairs later in
the evening, an empty view until the door opens and the family and the guests
coming to the party arrive from the lecture. Having found the ring that gives her
the upper hand, young Charlie is ready to descend the stairs and confront her
uncle. Now, we would expect, is her moment to assume the high angle. On her
way downstairs she must of course start there, at the top, but Hitchcock doesnt
give us her view from that angle. The author declines to put her in the symbolic
position of knowledge, as if she still hadnt earned it.
She attains the high angle of knowledge only at the end, and then it is Uncle
Charlie the devil, here completing his surrogacy for the author identified with
him, who puts her in that position as hes about to throw her off the train. Only
then do we get a high-angle point-of-view shot from her perspective, and what
she seesand we through her horrified eyesis a quickening, dizzying blur of
railroad tracks, the least omniscient of high angles. The high angle in Hitchcock
may be knowing, but it is always unsettling, an angle we assume at our risk; and
here, as in Vertigo, or when the detective in Psycho falls down the stairs facing his
killer, it is vertiginous. It is a view of the abyss, comparable to the view, from the
wifes window in Nosferatu, of a procession of coffins down in the street coming
out of the distance and steadily, irremediably advancing toward the viewer in an
unshakable image of the death we all face. But if Nosferatu is about confronting
death, Shadow of a Doubt is about confronting evil. Rather than the death we all
face, young Charlie faces murder at the hands of the uncle she loves. Unlike
Dracula, Nosferatu is not evilhe personifies death as a natural fact we human
beings fear because we are aware of our own inevitable endbut Uncle Charlie
personifies evil, whether it stems from murder or incest or both. Young Charlies
view from the accelerating train finally brings her to the knowledge of evil, the
undiminished apprehension of the world as a hell.
But the niece survives the encounter with the uncle who drops his mask and
reveals himself as a monster. Her confrontation is not as final as the wifes with
Nosferatu. Knowledge in the story of the Garden of Eden is knowledge of good

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and evil: no knowledge of evil without knowledge of good. Young Charlie has
her dark side, whether in the murder story (her willingness to cover up for a
murderer and let him get away, free to murder again, and her own capacity to kill,
though she cant be blamed for killing him in self-defense) or in the incest allegory (her dark desire for her uncle, though she recoils from his predatory amorousness when she becomes aware of what hes up to). Still, whatever her shadows,
she is good, and better for her knowledge. Others besides Hitchcock have taken
the devils side in his rebellion against a God who would forbid us to know.
Young Charlie is not the devil, but she is his double, and a rebel. Uncle Charlie
loved his niece, Hitchcock told Truffaut, but not as much as she loved him.33
If equal affection cannot be, to quote from W. H. Audens poem about looking
up at the stars, Let the more loving one be me.34 Young Charlie is the more
loving one, and in the end better not only for her knowledge but also for her love
of her uncle, tainted yet true. Hitchcock rightly undercuts the conventional resolution in which she would have found love with the nice average detective. Shes
too goodgood in significant part because she knows evilfor him.
An Eve without an Adam and restless in paradise, young Charlie has dreams
of glamour and romance beyond the small town, and she learnsthis is her
uncles teaching, the devils knowledgethat with that glamour and romance
comes evil. She finds out the worlds a hell, but she also knows thats not all it is.
Maybe shell always love her Uncle Charlie; certainly shell never forget
him. But the presence of evil in the world shouldnt deter her from pursuing
lifes possibilities, though along that pursuit she should keep aware of that
presencethis is her uncles gift to her. Like Nosferatu, Shadow of a Doubt is
the story of a coming to consciousness, fearsome yet brave consciousness of
what it means to be human in the world.

33
34

Truffaut, 153.

W. H. Auden, The More Loving One, included in his Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson
(New York: Random House, 1976), 445.

13
Lessons in Looking
krzysztof kieslowskis a short film about love
C. D. C. Reeve

rzysztof Kieslowskis A Short Film About Love (1988) is an expanded version of Decalogue 6, one of a series of films about the Ten Commandments
made for Polish Television in the same year.1 Since what the sixth commandment forbids is adultery, we might wonder why these films seem to deal not
with it, but with voyeurism.2 Yet the answerat least once we move from the
Old Testament to the Newis obvious enough. Ye have heard that it was said
by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, that
whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery already
with her in his heart (Matthew 5.27-8). A Short Film is About Love, indeed,
because it is about how lust and love look at people and how they look to them.
It is a lesson in looking taught by the cameras loving eye. It is about adultery,
too, but for reasons that take some time to emerge, since the marriage adulterously betrayed is itself one committed, so to speak, in the heart or mind alone.

1
In Danusia Stok, ed., Kieslowski on Kieslowski (London: Faber and Faber, 1993), 153. Kieslowski
describes the relationship between the two films: I wrote longer versions of the screenplays [of
Decalogue 5 (about killing) and 6]. Later on, while shooting, I made the two versions of both
films. One for cinema, and the other for television. Everything got mixed up later on, of course.
Scenes from television went to the cinema version, from the cinema version to television. The
screenplay, translated in Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Decalogue: The Ten Commandments (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), 149184, offers yet a third version.
2

Annette Insdorf, Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski (New York:
Miramax Books, 1999), 95, calls them an exploration of voyeurism. To Mark Holtof, The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski (London: Wallflower Press, 2004), 95, they are the story of peeping
Tomek, voyeurism, stalking, lust, and sexual humiliation. Slavoj Zizek, The Fright of Real Tears:
Krzysztof Kieslowski Between Theory and Post-Theory (London: BFI Publishing, 2001), 115, considers them a kind of introverted slasher in which the man, instead of striking at the woman, deals
a blow to himself. But then he thinks they deal with the fifth commandment!
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Tomek, a nineteen-year-old boy, works as a clerk in the post office. His landlady
is the mother of a more adventurous friend, Marcin, who is serving with the United
Nations forces in Syria. Before leaving home, Marcin teaches Tomek to peep through
opera glasses at Magda, a beautiful young woman artist living in the apartment
opposite. N.A.N.F. (nice ass, nice fuck), he says. When we meet Tomek, he has been
peeping at Magda for a year, masturbating while watching her make love to other
men. Lonely, isolated, and friendless now that Marcin is gone, peeping at Magda is
the center around which his life is organized: his alarm clock rings at the time she
usually comes home in the evening, so that he wont miss anything. As A Short Film
About Love (1988) begins, Tomek is seen breaking into a school to steal a telescope.
The opera glasses no longer enable him to look closely enough.
When we first see Magda herself (the opening flash-forward aside), she is in
Tomeks post office carrying a long cardboard tube. It is her version of Tomeks
telescope. As the latter embodies his power to penetrate into her private places,
it, filled with her drawings, represents her creative powera power implicitly
contrasted with her reproductive capacities (she is childless). In the early scenes,
Magda appears to be a happy, sexually liberated woman devoted to her work as
an artist. We are soon made aware, however, that something is missing from her
life: she wants love, tootraditional love.3
Magdas most striking feature is her magnificent red-blonde hair, which she
is often seen drying and playing with. Like her name, which is short for Maria
Magdalena, it associates her with the scriptural Magdelene, recalling the story
in which the latter dries Christs feet with her own similarly colored hair.4 We
are being set up, apparently, to think of Magda as a fallen woman, who needs to
be redeemed by love as her namesake was redeemed by Christs love. Much in
the film encourages us to see Tomek as a possible source of such redemption.
Magda may even come to see him that way herself. Yet, if she needs redemption,
hea lonely, adolescent, voyeuristic, stalkersurely needs it, too.
The turning point of the film is the scene in which Tomek is at last alone
with Magda in her apartment. When it is finished, watcher and watched switch
roles. Then it is Magda who anxiously watches through opera glasses. As the
scene opens, though, she is off screen taking a shower. Tomek walks from her

In this regard she is a forerunner of the heroine of Kieslowskis next film, The Double Life of Veronique (1991), whom he describes as constantly faced with the choice of whether or not to take
the same road as the Polish Weronika, whether to give in to the artistic instinct and the tension
intrinsic in art or to give in to love and all that it involves. That, basically, is her choice (Stok, 185).

Luke 7.36-50 ascribes the hair drying to an unnamed woman, whom he characterizes only as a
sinner (hamartlos). John 11.1-2 identifies the feet-drying Mary with Mary of Bethany (sister of
Martha and Lazarus). Catholic tradition identifies both women with Mary Magdalene, and her
sin with prostitution or unchastity.

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kitchen into her living


room. For a moment
he is out of sight, concealed by the separating
wall. When we next see
him, he has a snowglobe in his hand. As
the camera brings it into
full-frame close-up, we
see that it contains a
small, blue, fairy-tale
house (see Fig. 13.1).
We are reminded of
the famous snow-globe
in Citizen Kane, which
represents Kanes lost paradisethe obscure object of his desire.5 What Tomeks
globe represents to him, the film has by this point enabled us to work out.
A frustrating date with the Blonde Man of the credits has ended with Magda
storming out of his car and running into her apartment. She takes a bottle of milk
from the fridge, kicking the door shut. As she sits down, she knocks the bottle
over, spilling the milk across the table. Drawing idly in it with her fingers, she
starts to cry and then, her head in her hands, to shake with deep, racking sobs.
Overwhelmed, Tomek takes his eye away from the telescope. Then he looks again.
Perhaps sensing his disquiet, the landlady calls out his name. He enters her
bedroom, sits on the edge of her bed, and asks her why people cry.
landlady: You dont know? Youve never cried?
tomek : Once. A long time ago.
landlady: When they left you?
Only much later in the film do we understand what she means. Talking to
Magda on their first date, Tomek casually mentions that he knows how to speak
Bulgarian, because there were two Bulgarians with him in the orphanage. He
has an excellent memory, he tells her, and remembers his entire life from the
beginning. His parents alone, he cannot recall. Not them, he says. If he cannot
cry, if he is blind to the source of peoples tears, this is where the explanation lies.
5

Kieslowski says that in film school at Lodz, he watched Citizen Kane a hundred times (Stok,
34). A similar globe, again containing images of houses, also figures significantly in The Double
Life of Veronique.

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Tears, stifled because they bring back unbearable memories, have blocked
empathic understanding.
Tomek is a voyeur and a stalker. There is no getting around that. Yet the
glimpse the film gives us of his early life casts these unattractive activities in a
somewhat forgiving light. Where love is concerned, he has always been on the
outside looking in. If he obsessively chases after what he has seen, if he knows
nothing about how to get it except what he has learned from Marcin, is it any
wonder? Where love is concerned, there is something of the voyeur and the
stalker in all of us. Tomek is looking at Magda and following her, but so, in our
own way, immersed in the film, are we.
Whats that? Magda asks when she returns from the shower and sees the
snow-globe. A present, Tomek replies. Magdas response is revelatory. Im not
a good person. I dont deserve presents. You know Im not good. Its true. As
she speaks, we see the snow-globe full-frame. Magda understands all too well
what it means. Tomeks love, already twice declared by this point, is projecting a
future for itself. Denied a loving home, he now wants one. A good woman might
deserve that sort of traditional love. But Tomek has seen for himselfhasnt
he?that Magda is not a woman like that. Well, hasnt he? Seeing, looking, the
film will show us, is never so simple.
A fake notice Tomek has sent Magda informing her that a money order has
arrived for her at the post office results in their first meeting. Later he puts a
second notice in her mailbox. When she comes to the post office again, she is
irritated to find herself on yet another fools errand. Summoned by Tomek at
Magdas request (Could you call someone older?), the shrewish manageress
soon discovers that the notices were not genuine. Tearing them up, she loudly
accuses Magda of attempting fraud. His tender feelings already aroused by having seen her weep, Tomek chases after her. He sent the notices, he tells her,
because he wanted to meet her. To meet me? she says, walking away. You
were crying yesterday, he shouts after her. She turns and walks back to him.
How do you know? It is a moment of truth. To his credit, Tomek does not
fudge it. He tells her that he watches her through the window. Tears springing
to her eyes, she pushes him violently away. How vulnerable and violated she
must feel. But as he slowly walks off, the very figure of dejection, she begins to
summon him back, then changes her mind. In the films closing scene, she will
return to the episode of the spilt milk and imagine Tomek consoling her with a
love she reciprocates. The seeds of what she will feel about him then, it is clear
from her expression and body language, stir in her even now, though they
quickly get overshadowed by the anger his peeping arouses.
When she arrives home and turns on the light that evening, Tomek watches
her go to the living-room window and peer out. She takes off her raincoat,

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revealing a sexy, low-cut black dress. Walking into the kitchen, she holds up the
clock key for him to see: noticing that her clock has stopped, he has found a key
for it and sent it to her. Dramatic, meaningful time, threatened by the absence
of love in her life, has once again begun to tick along. Returning to the living
room, she moves her bed until it is visible from the window. She holds up the
telephone inviting him to call, as she now knows he hasanonymouslyin the
past. She sits on the bed waiting. Hesitatingly, he picks up his own phone and
dials her number. I moved the bed, just for you, she tells him, have fun. As
she throws back the beds red coverlet, the doorbell rings. It is the bearded man
we met in an earlier scene, where his lovemaking was comically interrupted by
the arrival of the gas company, sent by Tomek to investigate a fictitious leak.
Apparently eager to pick up where they were forced to leave off, Magda now
pulls him quickly into the living room and immediately begins to take off his
clothes. As she maneuvers him shirtless into bed, he turns out the light. She
quickly turns it back on again. He is lying between her naked legs when she tells
him that he is being watched and points toward the window. Covering his torso
with the bed sheet, he leaps out of bed and scuttles bent-over into the kitchen.
Laughing, Magda throws his leather jacket and shoes after him. If she is taking
revenge on Tomek, she is also taking it, we feel, on the bearded man, and indeed
on all the men that see her simply as a nice fuck. As she stands with her hands
on her hips looking at the window, then at her fleeing lover, she seems to be
glorying in her sexual power. Then her laughter subsides and, as she looks at the
window again, her triumphant look becomes wistful.
Soon the bearded man is outside Tomeks building, calling him to come
down. The landlady, alerted by the shouting, enters Tomeks room, curious as
usual to see what is going on. Invited to put up his hands, Tomek makes a halfhearted effort to comply. In a gesture equivalent to turning the other cheek, he
then lowers his hands as he is about to be knocked to the ground by a hard
punch in the face. A fast cut deepens the Christian symbolism. Tomek is now
lying on his bed, being taken care of by his landlady. A damp white cloth covers
his face. It is an allusion to the veil used by Veronica to wipe Christs bloodied
face as he went to be crucifiedan event commemorated as the sixth of the
Roman Catholic Stations of the Cross. The heroine of Kieslowskis next film will
be named Veronique; A Short Film is related specifically to the sixth commandment.6 The allusion is sufficiently arcane, to be sure, that it will be lost on most
viewers. But that is part of its point. Tomek looks at Magda with a loving and
6
In Red (1994), which is Kieslowskis final film, the number six continues to be significant: six
rocks are thrown through the window of the eavesdropping judge, Joseph Kern ( Jean-Louis
Trintignant), one for each of the six characters rescued from the sinking ferryboat in the final
scene (Insdorf, 175).

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observant eye, so he sees a lot. But a film, too, is an erotic object, something that
invites our loving gaze. If we fall in love with it, we will look long and closely. If
we dont, we are sure to miss things. This is especially true in the case of a filmmaker like Kieslowski, whose avowed goal is to capture what lies within us. For
this cant be filmed except as visually expressed in objects and rituals that are
the repositories of the superstitions, presentiments, intuitions, and dreams of
which the inner life consists.7 The snow globe can show Tomeks inner life to
Magda, because it is filled with meaning that comes from withinmeaning she
can intuit. Similarly, the spilt milk scene reveals her inner life to him.
Speaking of this scene in an interview, Kieslowski first seemed to disavow
any symbolic intent on his part:
[W]hen I film a scene with a bottle of milk, for example, somebody suddenly starts to draw conclusions which never crossed my mind. For me, a
bottle of milk is simply a bottle of milk; when it spills, it means milks
been spilt. Nothing more. It doesnt mean the worlds fallen apart or that
the milk symbolizes a mothers milk, which her child couldnt drink
because the mother died early, for example. It doesnt mean that to me.
A bottle of spilt milk is simply a bottle of spilt milk. And thats cinema.
Unfortunately, it doesnt mean anything else.
But the disavowal, revealing in itself (the reference to the child deprived of milk
by its mothers early death is not one that is likely to have crossed any mind
except Kieslowskis own), quickly emerged as having more to do with success
than endeavor:
But if once in 10,000 times it turns out to mean something else, that means
that somebody achieved a miracle. Wells achieved that miracle once. Only
one director has managed to achieve that miracle in the last few years and
that is Tarkovsky. Bergman achieved this miracle a few times. Fellini
achieved it a few times. A few people achieved it. Ken Loach, too, in Kes.8
The more successful the milk-bottle scene is, in other words, the more it does
manage to mean something more than that milks been spilt.
It is as a milkman, in any case, that Tomek is next seen. He has taken the job
to gain more access to Magda. As he crouches to put the milk bottle down, her
door opens, knocking him backward, so that he ends up sitting against the
7

Stok, 194.

Stok, 195.

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opposite wall, his split lip and swollen eye much in evidence. Dont you know
how to fight? she asks him, laughing and taking his chin in her hand. As if
stung, he leaps to his feet and runs to the end of the corridor to stand in front of
a wall of square red glass bricks, which casts the rest of the conversation in the
religious light of stained-glass windows. When Magda joins him, the two look
for all the world like a couple at the altar exchanging wedding vows. He peeps at
her, he says, because he loves her. But she is skeptical. Declarations of love, in her
experience, are always just disguised expressions of sexual desire. Yet he denies
that he wants to kiss her or make love to her. Her laughing flirtatiousness
changed now to real engagement, she asks him what he does want. Nothing, he
replies. Moved and intrigued, she leans forward as if to kiss him. But he quickly
bolts past her to the other end of the corridor and runs on up the stairs.
In a moment, he bursts out of the dark of the stairwell into the brightness
of the buildings high, open roof. As he moves to the edge, it seems that he
will jump. Then we see
him holding his head
between his hands, an
ice pane pressed to each
ear (see Fig. 13.2). It is
exactly the pose he will
assume when, in the
love scene, Magda asks
him to show her how
she puts her hands to
her head when making
love (see Fig. 13.3). In
assuming it now, he is
recallingand trying
to coolthose hot,
painful scenes. Rubbing
the ice against his ears
until the panes begin
to crumble, he eats the
last remaining shard.
Calmer now, he goes
back to Magdas apartment and invites her out
to a caf for some ice cream.9
9

Instead of cold white ice cream, however, they end up with warming red wine (Magdas suggestion) and hot tea (Tomeks).

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In the closing scene of Decalogue 1, one of the strongest in the series, a


father, undone by his young sons accidental drowning, goes to a nearby
church, which is still under construction. He destroys the makeshift altar that
has an icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa as its centerpiece. Then he
holds a circle of frozen holy water to his forehead. In that case, we know, the
image of the ice as the symbol of the Host was carefully planned by Kieslowski.10 Here, too, when Tomek eats the white ice pane, the same symbolism
seems to be reinvoked. Caught in webs of memory, personal and cultural, we
are always doing more than we are doingalways providing more places to
look than we can see. The ice cools; the body of Christ sanctifies the sinful
sexual body.
With him now in the caf, it is to Tomeks declaration of love that Magda
(revealingly) turns, her pose of worldly cynicism partly undermined by her
obvious interest: Its been ages since anyone said ... What was it you said this
morning? It is an interest with roots in her recent history. A year earlier, a slim,
young man used to visit her:
tomek : I remember. Hed bring milk and bread rolls and take parcels
away.
magda : He went away and never returned.
tomek : I liked him a lot.
magda : Me, too. But he left. For Austria, and then Australia.
The slim young man fed and sustained Magda, helping her to be productive.
What else can the parcels contain but something related to her art? He was
gentle rather than phallic and aggressive with her. Why else would Tomek have
liked him so much? In all these respects, he is a precursor of Tomek himself
young, slim, nonphallic, bringer of sustaining milk.
When Tomek confesses, in response, that he has been stealing her letters
from the post office, aware now that their Australian stamps mean they are from
the young man he liked, Magda is initially angry: This is harassment. You bring
the milk, send the gas company, get me to the post office, steal my letters. As
she reads one of the letters, however, her anger changes: In the end, what does
it matter? She turns to Tomek with a new smile. In a moment, she will be
teaching him how to caress her. Nodding toward another couple, she says,
Thats how you should do it. Then they will be on their way to her apartment,
where the love lessons will continue.
10
Haltof, 161, n. 20, citing Grzegorz Gazda, Nie chce realizowac formy poza swiadomoscia rezysera [interview with Wieslaw Zdort], Film na Swiecie 34 (1992): 129.

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In response to the gift of the snow-globe, Magda reminds Tomek of what he


has seen her doing with other men and what it (conventionally) means about
her. Its all the same to me, he responds, I love you. We cut abruptly to a fullframe, dark image. It is the landlady, shot from behind, crouched over something, her gray hair and brown crochet shawl combining with the darkness
surrounding her. In front of her, dimly lit, we see the blue-gray faade of the
apartments opposite, dotted with lighted windows. As the camera pans slowly
around till she is in right profile, we realize that she is watching, as we are. What
she will be making of the scenetraditional views of womens sexuality, concern
for Tomek, and fear of losing him coloring her visionwe will shortly discover.
In response to Magdas questions, Tomek describes what he has seen while
peeping through her window. You make love, he says. Before I used to look ...
Not anymore. Its got nothing to do with love, she replies. Shaking her hair, still
wet from the shower, to splash him playfully with the spray, she asks him if she
always does it like that. When he replies that he hasnt noticed, she says, See ...
things arent always the same. What Tomek saw through the window looked like
love to him, but it was something else. What is happening now may look like
what he saw, but it isnt. Never has the films own association of lessons in love
with lessons in looking been more openly on display.
You undress, Tomek continues. You undress them too. Then you lie on
the bed or on the floor ... Sometimes you raise your hands ... and hold them
behind your head. He raises his hands to his ears in the gesture familiar from
the scene on the roof. Through the living-room window, we see Tomek seated in
the red armchair, his hands to his ears. Through the circular lens in the window
we see a ghostly Magda move toward him. Then we see her through the window
proper. She stands in front of him, her right knee slightly between his knees:
magda : Have you had sex with a girl?
tomek : No.
magda : And when you look at me, do you do it with yourself ?
He rubs his eyes in shame and embarrassment.
tomek : I used to, but not anymore.
She tenderly strokes his face, cupping his chin to raise his downcast eyes to hers.
magda : You know thats a sin.11

11
Thomas W. Laqueur, Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation (New York: Zone Books,
2003), ch. III, cites and discusses many of the relevant texts.

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It is the one occasion on which Magda explicitly invokes the traditional Catholic views on sexuality she no doubt learned at her Polish mothers knee.12 Even
for a sexually liberated woman, apparently, male masturbation is sinful, taboo.
As Magda continues to caress his face, Tomek nods: I know. Then, looking
fully into her eyes, he says: Now I think only of you. Magda runs her fingers
over his lips: Sssh. Dont speak. As the camera pulls slowly back, Magdas eyes
stay on Tomeks, her lips parted in loving desire. Her hands slip downward from
his face as she moves onto her haunches. What she is doing with him really isnt
what we have seen her do through Tomeks telescopeor what the landlady,
still watching, will think her to be doing even now.
Abruptly, the camera angle switches, so that the screen is partly filled with
the back of Magdas head. Tomeks face, his eyes still locked on hers, is visible
over her right shoulder. When a woman desires a man, she gets wet inside. Im
wet now. The camera pans down to show that Magda has taken Tomeks hands
between hers. Such delicate hands. She begins to separate them and draw
them toward her. Dont be afraid. A hand now in each of hers, she draws
them down, one onto each of her thighs, until his fingers are just below the
hem of her shirt. The camera pans up to Tomeks face. As it pans down again,
Magda lifts her hands off Tomeks in an eloquent gesture of invitation and
places them open on the floor by her hips. She is all his. As he begins to move
his hands to touch her, the camera pans up again to his face. He is trembling
and sweating in anxiety. In a few seconds, the tension becomes too much. With
a cry, he climaxes. His head falls forward, his eyes close tightly, he sobs in disappointment and defeat. Magdas head moves down over his. Their faces are
inches apart. Already? we hear her ask. She sits back on her heels away from
him. As he looks up at her from under his eyebrows, she says: Love ... thats
all it is. Wash in the bathroom, theres a towel. Tomek leaps up and rushes out
of the apartment.
It is easy, during the fraught final moments of the scene, to forget that they
had antecedents. It is easy, too, to forget Magdas own desires and feelings, her
own investment in what is happening. Yes, she is playing the role of the teacher,
the one with experience, the one who knows and is in control. But she is also
aroused, wet, responding with nascent love to Tomeks lovethe memory of
her love for the slim boy in Australia newly revived in her. In moments like this,
especially when old feelings are sparked, our best and latest selves sometimes get
eclipsed. Our ego is composed of the superimposition of our successive states.
But the superimposition is not unalterable like the stratification of a mountain.
12
Another may be when she answers, Yes, to the landladys question Hes fallen for the wrong
woman?

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Incessant upheavals raise to the surface ancient deposits.13 One such deposit
has already risen to the surface in the scene: the taboo against male masturbation. Amplified by fastidiousness and love of bathing, it is this, I think, that
now, quick as a whip, comes into play. Magda imagines the sticky mess in
Tomeks pants, and before she can think, her response is out: Wash in the bathroom, theres a towel.
Perhaps not so ancient are the sources of her cynical comment about love:
Love ... thats all it is. We know this isnt her considered opinion. (Its got
nothing to do with love, she says earlier when she is more collected. Later, she
will agree that Tomek was right to resist her in the caf when she denied that
love exists.) Instead, what she says is the manifestation of a defense, erectedor
re-erectedin response to pain at the loss of love a year before. Defused somewhat by Tomeks declaration of a selfless love, focused not on his own pleasure,
but on her, that defense has now, confronted with another frustrating man, simply done its old work.14
The effect on Tomek, as we saw, is galvanic. He dashes out, knocking her
aside. Shocked, not just by his behavior, but by her own, Magda, too, leaps into
action. She watches Tomek enter his apartment building, noticing which window becomes lit up. She runs to pull down a box, rooting though its contents
until she finds a pair of opera glasses. Through them, she sees him turn out the
light. (He has gone to the bathroom to try to kill himself.) She holds the telephone up to the windowa stratagem she has used earlier to get him to call.
She begins to make a sign on the back of an old drawing: COME BACK.
SORRY. She holds it to the window. Her art is no more now than a handy surface on which to write that simple message. We see her stand pensively by her
spinning wheel, the opera glasses to her chinnot looked at, when she most
wants to be seen. Glancing to her right, her eye is caught by Tomeks raincoat,
thrown to the floor in his flight. She looks through the pockets and finds the
tickets from their bus ride from the caf. The bearded man rings the doorbell
and is sent away: Im not at home. She hears noises from the courtyard.
Through her opera glasses, she catches a glimpse of an ambulance pulling away
from Tomeks building. She sees an old lady in a nightdress and brown shawl
walk slowly up the steps and into the building. She puts on her own raincoat
and leaves, Tomeks abandoned raincoat in her hands.
13

Marcel Proust, The Fugitive, in Remembrance of Things Past, trans. C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and Andreas Mayor (New York: Random House, 1981), vol. 3, 555.
14
Perhaps deceived by the defense, Zizek, 119, writes that Magda entices Tomek into a humiliating sexual game which ends in his premature ejaculation. The episode with the bearded man
that ends with Tomek getting punched is in part such a game. But only someone in the grip of a
theory could view the love scene as a repeat performance.

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No doubt, Magda does feel guilty. But as her response to the bus tickets and
the arrival of the bearded man show, that cannot be the whole story; for these
events do nothing whatever to amplify guilt or turn it into action. What they
do, instead, is bring her old life and the new one that was beginning into contact. Is it to be the usual round or something else? This contact is a chance occurrence, mere happenstance, yet, without it, would there have been a sequel?
Mightnt Magda have admitted the bearded man for another loveless fuck, or
worked on her weaving, or simply gone to bed? Whatever guilt she feels, whatever is expressed by SORRY, it is not enough to get her to take the next step.
Face to face with the landlady for the first time, Magda exhibits the forgotten raincoat and is invited to leave it in Tomeks room. When she asks whether
Tomek has gone out, she is told that he is in the hospital. The obvious thought
that he is hospitalized because of what has just happenedseems not to occur
to her, even though she has seen the ambulance herself. By the time Magda
leaves, she knows that the landlady is afraid of being alone, wants to keep Tomek
for herself, and will lie to get what she wants (she denies having a telephone).
Yet Magda has to learn from the postman the next day that Tomek is in the
hospital because he cut his wrists (for love, they say) before she begins to try
to find him.
Part of the explanation for this odd behavior, part of the reason she treats the
landladys word pretty much as law, is that Magda is herself confused by what
has happened. Her nascent love and concern for Tomek is there in her, to be
sure, but so is that protective defenseso, one might say, is who she is. It is what
happens with the landlady, however, that proves decisive. She has told Tomek
that she is not a good person. The echoes of that thought are in her head. The
landlady shows her the telescope and alarm clock, reminding her of just what
Tomek saw when it went off. Explicit sexual images, we may imagine, flash
across her minds eye. Then the landlady asks her: Hes fallen for the wrong
woman? What else is she to answer but Yes? As the wrong woman, however,
what right could she possibly have to oppose someone whose status is almost
that of a mother?
Between the end of the love scene and the closing one, Magda watches
Tomeks window through her opera glasses, looking for him at the post office,
asking the postman and landlady about him. So thoroughly has she exchanged
roles with him that even the musical leitmotif that was his signature at the
beginning of the film becomes hers. Born of a double anxiety caused by the loss
of one slim young man and the threatened loss of another, however, her love,
finding itself stymied, quickly becomes obsessive. Draining her life of energy
and joy, dulling even her wonderful hair, now often left unwashed and worn up
in a demure bun, it also stifles her creativity, so that her weaving stands neglected.

c.

d.

c.

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283

Yet it is love we are looking at. Magda has fallen asleep. The telephone wakes
her. The silence on the line and her own anxious state make her think it is
Tomek, who, in his early voyeuristic days, used to call without speaking. Hello.
Hello. Tomek? Is that you? Tomek? Say something. As she goes to the window
with her opera glasses to see whether his window is lit, we see that she is wearing
a long white, almost bridal, nightdress. Ive been looking all over for you. I
went to hospitals. Ive been looking for you to tell you that you were right.
Tomek, can you hear me? You were right. What began hesitantly to grow in the
corridor and caf scenes, suffered a setback in the love scene, is now sufficiently
entrenched that Magda can confidently identify it.15
When the phone rings for a second time, Magda learns that the maker of
both calls was a male acquaintance inviting her to join him and another woman
for a drink. It is then that we hear her full nameinterestingly, in the form of a
question: Maria Magdalena? (Is that who Magda is?) As she puts down the
receiver, worried only about whether the man has heard what she said when she
thought he was Tomek (he didnt), we see her get back into bed and curl up in a
tight fetal ball, her hands now behind her head for a very different reason. Every
bit the repentant Magdalene, she is no longer interested in drinks or men.
In the closing scene in Tomeks room, the sleeping Tomek guarded from her
by the landlady, Magda unveils the telescope and puts her eye to the eyepiece.
What she sees is the scene in which she is weeping over the spilt milkthe one
that made Tomek contact her and declare his love. In Magdas fantasy, as it plays
out before the telescopes camcorder-like eye, Tomek now actually enters the
kitchen to comfort her. She sees herself lean her head down onto the hand he
has placed on her shoulder, while her other hand reaches up to caress his face. As
the camera switches back to Tomeks room, we see a wistful smile play over Magdas face, then, as it quickly fades, her eyes squeeze shut, and the credits begin to
roll. It is just possible to believe, I suppose, that when Tomek wakes up, he will
help Magda turn her apparently nostalgic fantasy into reality. The film would
then indeed be a short film not just about love, but about loves triumphor
potential triumph. With the landlady factored into the scene, however, something else emerges.
As Magda approaches the supine Tomek, the landlady quickly moves around
her, interposing herself between them. As Magda moves to avoid her, the landlady herself turns so as to hold her gaze and remain in the middle. The very
15

Magda tries to find Tomek, Kieslowski comments. This is because of guilt but also, no doubt,
because shes reminded of the fact that she was like him at some stage, too. When she was his age,
or maybe younger, she was like him. She was pure and believed that love existed. Then she probably got burnt. She touched something hot which hurt her very badly and decided never to love
again because she realized that the price was too high. Then this surfaced (Stok, 169).

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choreography of the scene shows the landladys certainty about her role always
defeating Magdas insecurity about hers. Prevented from having even a moment
alone with Tomek, she sits down at the foot of the bed, completely blocked
from our view by the landlady, whose back darkens the screen. The camera
itself a player in the complex dancethen pans up to show us Magda over her
right shoulder. Magda reaches down to take Tomeks bandaged left wrist in her
right hand. The landladys own right hand comes down to prevent her. As it
grips Magdas wrist, we see the wedding ring glittering on it.16
Looking up into the landladys face, filling the screen with its calm sense of
being in the right, Magda frees her hand. She heaves a deep sigh, abandoning
the struggle. We see the landlady againresolute. With Tomeks sad voyeuristic theme in the background, we cut to Magda as the landlady sees her, licking
her lips, drawn tight in resignation. The camera, apparently tracking the landladys gaze, slowly pans to the left until the red cloth covering the telescope
shares half the screen with Magdas pale face. As if following that gaze herself,
Magda turns to the telescope. In a moment, she will be looking through it at
herself and the spilled milk. But this time Tomek will be there to love and
console her.
Motives are usually mixed, of course, and it may be that the landlady is acting
in what she takes to be Tomeks best interests, not just her own. When the right
girl comes along, perhaps she will relinquish her hold, and allow the wedding
ringthat symbol of the attempted domestication of Erosto pass from her
hand to the hand of someone else. As barely within the films event horizon,
such possibilities cannot be altogether excluded. Working against them, however, is the fact that the film begins with a flash-forward to the closing scene,
effectively turning the rest of the film into flashback. The necessity of the past
seems, as a result, to lock the future in the grip of fate and repetition.
The circles that are everywhere in the film might seem to tell the same grim
story. There is the circular lens of Tomeks telescope, the convex circular lens
that hangs on the left pane of Magdas living-room window, the circle cut in the
glass of Tomeks own window at the post office. The red circle of sunrise in
Magdas weaving and drawings, echoed and apparently upstaged by the red
circle made by Tomeks blood when he cuts his wrists. The white circles of ice
Tomek holds to his ears. The potent circle of the landladys wedding ring. The
omnipresent lens of the camera itself. Finally, there are the circles Kieslowski
himself mentions: Decalogue is an attempt to narrate ten stories about ten or
twenty individuals whocaught in a struggle precisely because of these and
not other circumstances which are fictitious but which could occur in every
16

In Poland, the wedding ring is worn on the right hand.

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lifesuddenly realize that theyre going round and round in circles, that they
are not achieving what they want.17
To interpret flashback as just another such circle, however, is to project the
fixity of the future past onto the future proper. And that is not the only option.
A person, Kieslowski writes, may select his or her path through life and so to
a certain extent determines what happens along the way. But to understand
where you are in the present, it is necessary to retrace the steps of your life and
isolate the parts played by necessity, free will and pure chance.18 What Magda
sees through Tomeks telescope-turned-camcorder need not be a mere sentimentalized vision of the past; therefore, it can also be a vision of a future transformed by understanding of the past. Maybe, as Kieslowski puts it in writing
about his film Red (1994), we can repeat something, but better.19 It is in its
embrace of this possibility that A Short Film About Loves own true but properly
modest optimism seems to reside. Looking can indeed feed the obsessive circle
of fantasy, but when done with love, it can lead to seeing and understanding.

17

Stok, 145.

18

Kieslowski and Piesiewicz, ix.

19

Insdorf, 175; 196, n. 6.

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14
Talking Back to Hollywood
ORDINARY LOVE STORIES ON FILM ,

19461964

Judith Smith

eterosexual love stories essentially defined Hollywood cinema prior to


1960. David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson have estimated that 85 percent of Hollywood films made before 1960 revolved around
this kind of romance, and 95 percent involved a romance as either the main or
secondary plot concern. In the early years of cinema, romantic plots broadened
films appeal to women and middle-class viewers: Chaplin added romance to his
physical comedy after 1915 in an effort to expand his audience beyond workingclass men. Film characters found romance by regularly crossing the supposedly
impermeable barriers of class, ethnic, regional, and even sometimes racial
boundaries on screen as frequently as did characters in other popular forms of
fiction, Tin Pan Alley songs, vaudeville skits, and Broadway musicals.1 Nonetheless, representations of romance were governed by prevailing norms. The film
industrys Production Code, enforced after 1934, encouraged heightened surveillance of racial boundaries as part of policing sexual respectability.2
A set of films made between 1946 and 1964 constitute alternative efforts to
imagine love situated within and affected by social context. From This Day Forward (1946), The Marrying Kind (1952), Marty (1955), and Nothing But a Man

Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompsons finding cited by Virginia Wright Wexman, Creating the Couple: Love, Marriage, and Hollywood Performance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 4;
Charles Maland, Chaplin and American Culture: The Making of a Star Image (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 2023; Rachel Rubin and Jeffrey Melnick, Immigration and American
Popular Culture: An Introduction (New York: NYU Press, 2007), 97.

On the Codes policing of racial boundaries, especially on its explicit prohibition of sex relationship between the black and white races, see Susan Courtney, Hollywood Fantasies of Miscegenation: Spectacular Narratives of Gender and Race, 19031967 (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 2005).
287

288

understanding

love

(1964) all talk back to Hollywood genre romances by featuring ordinary


love stories between characters defined at least in part by social, rather than
individual, circumstances. Three of the four films extend beyond the conventional journey of falling in love to explore the challenges of sustaining romance
and marriage in the face of everyday social and economic constraints at odds
with assumptions of love and marriage as private and personal. Making these
films was a project by writers and directors who were part of the progressive Left
in the 1940s and 1950s. Because it was increasingly difficult for radicals to work
in Hollywood, only the first two were produced within the studio system.
Marty was produced by an independent company and distributed by United
Artists; Nothing But a Man was produced and distributed outside of Hollywood networks.3
Historically, the exclusion of black and working-class characters from representation as ordinary had been a primary mechanism through which forms
of cultural expression, from minstrelsy and vaudeville humor to literary naturalism, had indelibly marked them as other. In contrast, creating ordinary
love stories on film, peopled by ethnic working-class characters in the 1940s
and 1950s, and black working-class characters in the early 1960s, was a progressive strategy to dramatize inclusion as the fulfillment of a promised postwar expansion of democracy. However, the persistence of segregation in
defining national norms of respectability in this period made filmic representations of expanded citizenship that departed from the conventions of white
only highly contentious.4
The postwar radical writers who created ordinary love stories positioned
intimacy, romance, and marriage within social and economic contexts in order
to undermine the postwar culture of victory that equated family happiness with
private domestic consumption.5 Ordinary love stories presented an alternative
to the representations of material abundance that saturated postwar popular
culture, and questioned the mainstream focus on individual mobility and accumulation, in the hopes of rekindling prewar Left-led social visions of collective
gains through a strong labor movement, a government-secured safety net, and
the expansion of civil rights. These depictions of love and romance promoted
the sexual modernism and psychological frameworks associated with the

3
For a fuller discussion of the left-wing project of representing the ordinary, see my book Visions
of Belonging: Family Stories, Popular Culture, and Postwar Democracy, 19401960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004); on ordinary love stories, see 242280.
4
5

See Visions, 109139; 166204; 281327.

Elaine T. May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic
Books, 1988).

judith

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cosmopolitan social milieu of 1940s radicalism. In the films I discuss, workingclass kinship networks, friendship, and class solidarity sometimes provide support for, rather than simply presenting obstacles to, the couple. The films also
reflect labor feminisms attention to the subjectivity of working heroines; three
of the four show the workplace as significant for women as well as men. Before
conservative anticommunism established itself as the dominant postwar ideology in the mid-1950s, ordinary love stories fit easily within the expanded social
aspirations of wartime filmmaking.6
A stylistic dimension of these ordinary love story films was their reliance on
location shooting and somewhat unconventional casting, in order to invoke
specific social and class identifications and to distinguish them from standard
Hollywood products. Their use of certain realist effects promoted by the crossfertilization between feature and documentary filmmaking in the 1940s identified the ordinary love stories as following the precedents established by wartime
socially concerned filmmaking. The combination of location shooting, fictional reconstruction of nonfiction footage, and a mixture of trained and nonHollywood and nonprofessional actors had appeared in numerous Hollywood
studio productions, such as John Fords Grapes of Wrath (1940), Orson Welless
experimental Citizen Kane (1941) and William Wylers The Best Years of Our
Lives (1946), as well as Italian neo-realism films such as Roberto Rosselinis
Rome, Open City (1945) and Vittorio De Sicas The Bicycle Thief (1948).7 Combining studio and newsreel techniques was so common at the time that, as Tom
Doherty has pointed out, the motion picture industry named the hybrid form
newsdrama cinematography.8
Interrogating the domestic realm of love, marriage, and family within a
social and political analysis distinguished the creators of ordinary love stories
from other Left-influenced filmmakers. For one thing, they were venturing into
territory usually reserved for low-prestige, daytime radio and melodrama aimed

Smith, Visions, 242280. See also my essay, Judy Hollidays Urban Working Girl Characters
in 1950s Hollywood Film, in A Jewish Feminine Mystique? Jewish Women in the Postwar Era, ed.
Hasia Diner, Shira Kohn, and Rachel Kranson (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press,
2010), 160176.

See articles by John Grierson, Postwar Patterns and Philip Dunne, The Documentary and
Hollywood in Hollywood Quarterly 1, no. 2 ( January 1946), reprinted in Eric Smoodin and Ann
Martin, Hollywood Quarterly: Film Culture in America, 19451957 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 91108; David Forgacs, Rome Open City (London: British Film Institute,
2000), 1011. See also Paula Massouds discussion of documentary and neo-realism in An Aesthetic Appropriate to Conditions: Killer of Sheep, (Neo)Realism, and the Documentary Impulse,
Wide Angle 21, no. 4 (1999): 2041, especially 2532.

8
Tom Doherty, Documenting the 1940s, in Boom or Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 417418.

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at female audiencesa territory not generally associated with radical critique.


Left-wing writers were much more likely to indict the domestic realm as claustrophobic, narrow, and provincial, as exemplified by the critique in the dissenting war stories filmed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, such as All My Sons
(1948) and From Here to Eternity (1953), based respectively on the play by
Arthur Miller and the novel by James Jones. Other left-wing filmmakers relied
on hard-boiled popular urban fiction as the source for films that explicitly questioned victory culture and its premise of domestic happiness, using representations of corporate and political corruption, faithless women, and hardened
embittered men to reveal what director Joseph Losey termed the complete
unreality of the American dream. The Left-inflected film noir, categorized as
film gris by Thom Anderson, included numerous films made in the 1940s and
early 1950s: for example, Force of Evil (1948); Night and the City (1950); Asphalt
Jungle (1950); and Try and Get Me (1951).9 The common association of family
and romance with private life partially obscured the dissenting political intentions of the ordinary love stories.
When left-wing writers working within the culture industries tried to create
alternative representations of female subjectivity within courtship and marriage
in ordinary love story films, they were operating within and against the romantic formulas of mass culture, such as popular songs and fiction, mass-market
magazines, daytime and primetime radio drama, and Hollywood film. Working
women were not new characters; womens work outside the home sometimes
played a role in the marital disruption and reconciliation process in screwball
comedies, and it could offer opportunities for representing female sacrifice in
womens films, and marital betrayal in film noir. The working women in postwar
ordinary love story films were imagined in the different, somewhat more egalitarian terms established by popular front labor feminism in the late 1930s and
early 1940s. These female characters neither valorized the domestic nor fled
from it. But even venturing into the terrain marked as domestic meant the writers of these films would have to face the challenge of distinguishing these ordinary love stories from mainstream romantic formulas.
Conflicting ideas about love and marriage were part of broader wartime
social debates and social changes. Changing cultural expectations of love and
marriage reflected transformative experiences that men and women experienced
9

Joseph Losey cited by Michael Denning in The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture
in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1996), 421; Thom Anderson, Red Hollywood in
Suzanne Ferguson and Barbara Groseclose, eds., Literature and the Visual Arts in Contemporary
Society (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1985), 141196 and Frank Krutnik, Steve Neale,
Brian Neve, and Peter Stanfield, eds., Un-American Hollywood: Politics and Film in the Blacklist
Era (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007).

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during the war and were an important expression of the class mobility fueled
by a wartime economy that expanded the middle class. Historian Nancy Cott
has commented that civic dialogue during the war years, in which Hollywood
participated . . . emphasized the private and public doublesidedness of the
institution of marriage. Wartime official stories featured reluctantly heroic
men, supportive and self-sacrificing women, and the postponement of personal pleasure. Fighting for democracy was equated with fighting for the
promise of private family life: the loose plot linking the variety performances
in This Is the Army (1943), for example, was organized around a woman convincing her soldier boyfriend that marriage is one of the things this war is
about.10
In practice, wartimes all-male world provided a powerful escape from the
domestic, heightening the potential tensions of postwar reintegration. Writer
Mario Puzo, son of working-class Italian immigrants, recalled the draft as his
salvation from the suffocating prospect of working-class marriage: I was being
dragged into the trap I feared and had foreseen even as a child. It was all there,
the steady job, the nice girl who would eventually get knocked up and then the
marriage, and the fighting over counting pennies to make ends meet ... But I
was delivered. When WWII broke out I was delighted... . My country called. I
was delivered from my mother, my family, the girl I was loving passionately but
did not love. . . . I must have been one of millionssons, husbands, fathers,
loversmaking their innocent getaway from baffled loved ones.11 Some women
also escaped the domestic in the short term, via new opportunities in military
service, unionized factory jobs, and public employment that resulted from male
absence.12 Of course, mens wartime severance from women and marriage was
only temporary, as was much of the new window of opportunity for women.
Puzos five years in the military, touring Europe, and having love affairs, changed

10

Nancy F. Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 2000), 188; Robert B. Westbrook, Fighting for the American Family: Private
Interests and Political Obligations During WWII, in The Power of Culture: Critical Essays in
American History, ed. Richard W. Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1993), 195221; Elaine T. May, Rosie the Riveter Gets Married, in The War in American
Culture: Society and Consciousness During WWII, ed. Lewis A. Erenberg and Susan E. Hirsch
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 128143.
11
Mario Puzo, Choosing a Dream, in The Immigrant Experience, ed. Thomas C. Wheeler (New
York: Dial Press, 1971), reprinted in The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions (New York: Dial
Press, 1972), 2526. The protagonist in Richard Brooks 1945 novel, The Brick Foxhole, comments
similarly on the wartime Marines as a destination for men who enlisted to get away from their
wives, not to make the world secure for their wives (2526).
12
Susan Hartman, The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s (Boston: Twayne,
1982).

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him, but then he described himself as walking back into that cage of family and
duty and a steady job.13
The 1940s was a period of frantic heterosexuality, expressed both in higher
marriage and divorce rates, at the same time as same-sex socializing became
more visible. Beginning in 1943, rising rates of marriage were encouraged by GI
allowances and full employment. Acting on homosexual desire was more possible in cities that offered the possibility of wage earning and rich social networks
outside of family life. Although wartime disruptions forced public acknowledgement of premarital and nonmarital sex, the pressures to contain sexuality
within marriage and to define maturity as directed toward marriage, homeownership, and childrearing also intensified.14
Different class-inflected meanings competed to define marriage in this period.
There was still the common sense that marriage closed off youths fleeting freedom. It could be an entrapment for young working-class men and women, making them poorer together than they would have been separately, saddling them
with responsibilities for wage earning, pregnancy, and child care that would keep
them from experimenting with different kinds of work, maybe even a career
requiring investments in training, education, or travel. Depending on the extent
of parental claims on a young persons paycheck, residing as a wage earner at
home, without the responsibilities of housekeeping, could provide the chance for
a carefree nightlife. Several of the ordinary love story films contain scenes in
which married couples, both husbands and wives, warn young lovers against getting married. On the other hand, a modern marriage held out the promise of
middle-class inclusion, social freedom, and romantic intimacy, as opposed to the
traditional, working-class marriage Puzo identified as claustrophobic and emotionally barren, associated with economic dependence and obligations to kin.
Ordinary love story films were often shaped by writers who were familiar
with both working-class ethnic cultures and cosmopolitan sexual modernism.
Often they or members of their families had made the transition out of the working class, though the Depression had in some cases reversed prior gains. They
grew up amidst people whose marriages were shaped by familial considerations
and economic constraints, who took the distance between male and female
13
14

Puzo, Choosing a Dream, 2526.

See John DEmilio and Estelle Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America
(New York: Harper and Row, 1988); Elizabeth L. Kennedy and Madeline Davis, Boots of Leather,
Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (New York: Routledge, 1993); Alan Berube,
Coming Out Under Fire: the History of Gay Men and Women in WWII (New York: Free Press,
2000); May, Homeward Bound; Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social
History of American Family Life (New York: Free Press, 1988), 151175; Nancy Cott, Public Vows,
180199.

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social worlds for granted, and whose unrelenting effort to bring in wages constituted a primary expression of affection, love, and commitment. They became
adults in the 1930s and 1940s, when love and romance, sexual and emotional
intimacy, desire and pleasure were everywhere on display in advertisements, popular song, advice columns, and paperback book covers. Many male writers had
working wives and aspired to some version of sexual egalitarianism. Sexual candor and experimentation was part of the social milieu associated with radicalism.
Postwar ordinary love story films dramatized the tensions between these competing marital sensibilities.

Love Without Money: From This Day Forward


The production of the 1946 Hollywood film From This Day Forward illustrates
one effort some leftists made to revise the Hollywood romance. Its source material
was the commercially successful 1936 proletarian novel All Brides Are Beautiful,
written by Thomas Bell, a second-generation Slovak immigrant steelworker turned
writer. RKO secured the film rights in 1940.15 The talented Hollywood director
and screenwriter Garson Kanin, who would write and direct the 1952 ordinary
love story The Marrying Kind, did the first adaptation of the story. The star playwright of the Group Theatre, Clifford Odets, was initially announced as writer
and director, although he ended up doing only uncredited scriptwork. The eventual producing unit included two left wingers, director and Hollywood newcomer
John Berry and screenwriter Hugo Butler. When the RKO producer, William
Pereira, pitched the film to Berry, he emphasized its social location and concerns:
New York story, New York kid; social content, socially engaged young fellow.16
Bells novel was unusual among novels with Communist protagonists for its
attention to sexual politics and its portrait of a marriage in which the bitter
aspects of male unemployment are ameliorated by the husband taking on the
cooking and shopping while the wife supports them both with her job as a
bookshop clerk.17 The opening scenes of the novel contrasted the romantic
15
The novel went through six printings. Although Bell worked for MGM as a writer from 1936 to
1937, he did not renew his contract or work on the script. Apparently he saw writing dialogue for
films as conveyor-type work. See John Berko, Thomas Bell: Slovak-American Novelist, Slovak
Studies 15 (1975): 147. On the film, see the oral histories of John Berry and Jean Rouveral Butler
in Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist by Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle
(New York: St Martins Press, 1997), 5589 and 154176.
16
Berry grew up in the Bronx, the son of Jewish immigrants. He and Butler had been members of
the Communist Party, as had Odets. Although uncredited, like Odets, Berrys buddy Charles
Schnee and Edith R. Sommer wrote additional scenes.
17
After the early 1930s, Bells career as a writer was subsidized by his wifes employment. Apparently, when she got home from work, he had dinner ready; Berko, Thomas Bell, 145.

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aspirations of the new couple with the combativeness of her sisters workingclass marriage, ensconced in a crowded tenement apartment amidst intrusive
extended family, but its conclusion proposed a partial reconciliation of these
opposites. The novels recounting of the pleasures of marital sexuality, based on
mutuality and avoidance of pregnancy, led reviewers to note its absolute
modernity; they predicted that a whole lot of people are going to find it
shocking.18
Breaking through polite reticence about sexual desire was part of the books
appeal for the filmmakers, and promised commercial rewards; it also required a
strategic tussle with the Hollywood censorship apparatus. The wartime challenges to the Hollywood Production Codes standards of morality and the
increasing number of projects with more complex representations of sexual passion were already expanding what was permissible on screen. Still, the Production Codes top administrator, Joseph Breen, opposed filming marital sexuality,
challenging scenes that in any way revealed the sacred intimacies of married
life. He requested that the production of From This Day Forward eliminate legible indications of what he considered offensive sex desire between the married couple.19
The film juxtaposes conventional music and romantic soft-focus glamour
shots of the female lead, 1941 Best Actress Joan Fontaine, with contemporary references to social circumstances, such as repeated scenes in an unemployment
office in New York City. The titles borrowing of a phrase from the standard wedding ceremony adds an ironic inflection suggesting a tension between the romance
that precedes marriage and the prosaic struggles that follow.20 Butlers script structured the narrative as a series of flashbacks generally introduced through the
voice-over reflections of a recently discharged vet, played by newcomer Mark Stevens, who is urgently seeking a job. The flashbacks emphasize the uncertainties at
wars end and evoke Depression-era housing conditions and unemployment crises, forces that threaten romance in working peoples marriages. The loud argumentative tenement dwellers spilling out of windows onto the street may have

18

See Alfred Kazin, Love Without Money, New York Times Book Review (November 1, 1936), 7;
Florence Milner, Boston Transcript (December 26, 1936), 1; Frances Woodward, Saturday Review
of Literature (Vol. 15, November 7, 1936), 6.

19
Breens comment about the sacred intimacies of marriage appeared in his April 1946 correspondence with Goldwyn about his objections to the proposed screenplay for Best Years of Our Lives;
cited by Leonard Leff and Jerold L. Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship
and the Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 136. See also
MPAA-PCA files on From This Day Forward, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion
Picture Arts and Sciences (MHL-AMPAS).
20

Maria DiBattista called my attention to this resonance of the films title.

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been clich to habitual moviegoers, but the specific New York urban geography of
Highbridge in the Bronx, the subway entrances, and the employment office were
fresh efforts at creating verisimilitude. Although the only traces in the film of the
novels hopeful vision of a militant communist movement are its positive portrayal of the union and the factory shop floor, it is union collectivity, not an individual solution, that saves the protagonist Bill from the unemployment that has
eaten away at his self-respect and threatened his marital happiness.
The film associates contentiousness with the extended working-class
family living in the tenement, although it also proposes that they can come
through in a pinch: seated around the kitchen table, they raise the cash for
Bill to redeem the toolbox he pawned in hard times, so that he can take the
union-provided night-shift machinist job. In contrast, the film narrative
establishes the romantic working-class couple, Bill and Susan, as nearly free
of conflict, depicting a model egalitarian partnership in which they share
the sexual division of emotional, productive, and reproductive labor. Both
have fears about marriage; both want sex and romance; both work (and
when they work opposite shifts, disappoint each others sexual desire, falling asleep waiting for the other to come home). Significantly, when only
Susan has a job, Bill takes over the cooking and shopping; but he bangs the
pots in frustration, and she comments that at some point she would like to
take care of a house and children. They are shown to be in complete harmony about whether and when to have children.
The promotional materials for From This Day Forward suggest RKOs
postwar confidence that there was an audience for this new kind of ordinary
love story, which promised to explore what happens when the honeymoon
fades out ... and marriage sets in. The taglines for the advertisements confidently juxtapose romance with economic constraints, promoting a story as
close to heaven as the milky way ... down to earth as the family budget. The
ads foreground working wiveswhen a bride works days and the husband
works nightsbut also suggest that marital sexuality could be titillating: so
much love, yet loves a luxury ... to be indulged at dawn and dusk. The magazine ads emphasize the contrast between the couple and the extended family
(more so than the film narrative): a photo close-up of Susie lovingly admired
by Bill, with an inset of the argumentative relatives posed around a kitchen
table.21

21

These ads for the film appeared in mass market publications (Colliers, Look, Life, Liberty),
womens magazines (Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, McCalls, Cosmopolitan), and fan magazines
(Photoplay, Screen Romances, Silver Screen, Movie Life); pressbook for From This Day Forward at
University of Southern California Archives for the Performing Arts.

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From This Day Forward was released in February 1946; reviewers and audiences alike embraced its contemporary social framing. Commonweal, a liberal
Catholic publication, termed it an almost perfect production. Newsweek
claimed that the film succeeded where others had failed in presenting a believable story of young married love in the last decade. Several Los Angelesarea
reviewers approvingly identified the films aspirations to the social relevance
familiarized by wartime filmmaking: conveyed here is a very tidy message.
New York reviewers were more critical; one accused the film of having a radio
soap suds look, suggesting how ordinary love stories ran the risk of bleeding
into a genre then widely regarded as overfeminized. But the film did well for
RKO, and by May 1946, the Los Angeles Examiner critic described it as a surprise cinema bestseller.22

As Unusual as Most Average People:


The Marrying Kind
Just six years later, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordons ordinary love story The
Marrying Kind (1952), directed by George Cukor, had a troubled fate. Movie
audiences had begun to decline from their all-time high in 1946. The studios
were reeling from the impact of the Supreme Courts 1948 Paramount decision
that mandated the separation of production from exhibition. As John Houseman noted: Most of us face this harassing dilemma that we are working in a
mass medium that has lost its mass audience.23 Left-wing cultural authority had
diminished from its wartime high, battered by the resounding defeat of Henry
Wallaces third-party campaign in 1948 and contested directly by conservative
anticommunism, which had been barely audible in 1946.
The production team for The Marrying Kind was made up of Hollywood
insiders, less closely tied to the Hollywood Left than the creators of From This
Day Forward, but nevertheless affiliated with progressive circles and causes. The
director and writer Garson Kanin had been in Hollywood since 1937, working
with left-wing writers and directors Dalton Trumbo, Paul Jarrico, and Herbert
22

Philip T. Hartung, The Screen, Commonweal (April 26, 1946), 47; Movies: Love Out of Uniform, Newsweek (April 29, 1946), 89. James OFarrell, From This Day Forward at Two Houses,
Los Angeles Examiner (May 31, 1946). See also Jack D. Grant, From This Day Forward, Hollywood Reporter (February 26, 1946); and reviews in Motion Picture Herald (March 2, 1946), Film
Daily (March 2, 1946), and Variety (February 26, 1946). John McCarten, The Current Cinema,
New Yorker (April 20, 1946); J. T. M., At the Palace, [undated clipping]; Saturdays Children,
New York Times (April 21, 1946); all from the clippings file on the film at MHL-AMPAS.
23

Houseman quoted in Penelope Houston, The Contemporary Cinema, 19451963 (Baltimore:


Penguin, 1963), 169, as cited by Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema,
19301980 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 139.

judith

smith

297

Biberman. After working on war-related documentaries, he lent his support


to the Civil Rights Congress and the Wallace campaign, and spoke out in
opposition to the Hollywood blacklist.24 The New York stage actress Ruth Gordon, who married Kanin in 1942, had participated in the theatrical Left in the
1930s and 1940s, supporting antifascist organizations, left-wing alternatives to
postwar mainstream politics, and Henry Wallaces Progressive Citizens of
America.25 Kanin and Gordons joint screenwriting efforts featured unusually
sympathetic attention to womens aspirations as they challenged conventional
sex roles and patriarchal marital prerogatives, especially in the romantic comedies they wrote for Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey, Adams Rib (1949)
and Pat and Mike (1952).
Director George Cukor had been working in Hollywood since 1930; his circle included many people active in the Hollywood Left, although he saw himself as less politically interested and engaged than many of his friends. He also
worked on Office of War Information (OWI) documentaries during the war.26
Since 1947, he had directed the films written by Kanin and Gordon. The films

24

According to his entries in Current Biography (1941: 453454 and 1952: 294296), Garson
Kanin was from a left-wing Jewish family. His father was a revolutionary from Vitebsk, Russia,
who immigrated to escape arrest, a tinsmith by trade, a poet and playwright by avocation. His
mother was a buttonhole maker from Kovno, Lithuania, who met his father when her amateur
Yiddish theatrical society performed his play. Kanins father eventually became a builder, moving
from Buffalo to Detroit and in 1922 to Brooklyn, expanding and losing his business twice during
the depression years: Jerry Tallmer, Garson and Kate and Spencer, New York Post (November
13, 1971). Kanin mentions his relationships with Trumbo and Jarrico in his affectionate memoir,
Hollywood (1967: reprint, New York: Limelight, 1984). His association with Sticks and Stones
is described in Edward Eliscus interview in Tender Comrades, ed. Buhle and McGilligan, 240.
Kanins postwar activism was catalogued in Red Channels (1950). The Committee for the Negro
in the Arts 1949 conference call, on which Kanins name appeared, is in the Counterattack files on
the CNA at the Tamiment Library; my thanks to Terry Signaigo for providing me with a copy.
He also tried to find work for the blacklisted actor Phil Loeb; He is at present a victim of the ugly
and sordid radio and TV blacklist, and his primary means of livelihood has been pulled out from
under him. In my view there is only a technical difference between killing a man and not allowing him to live; Garson Kanin to George Cukor, September 8, 1951; George Cukor Collection,
MHL-AMPAS.
25

Ruth Gordon, Current Biography (1943), 238241. Gordons postwar affiliations were catalogued in her listing in Red Channels (1950).

26

George Cukor, born in 1899 into a cosmopolitan middle-class Jewish family with an
American-born father and a Hungarian-born mother, had directed stars on Broadway and then in
Hollywood film through the 1920s and 1930s, developing a reputation as an actors director and
more specifically as a womens director (perhaps a coded way of referring to his widely known
homosexuality). His close left-wing friends included Stella Bloch, Donald Ogden Stewart, and
Edward Eliscu. Other left-wing writers and theater and film people stationed at Astoria included
Irwin Shaw, Arnauld D Usseau, William Saroyan, Arthur Laurents, and Stanley Kramer. Patrick
McGilligan, George Cukor: A Double Life (New York: St Martins, 1991); for his political beliefs,
see 167169.

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star actress, Judy Holliday, had been associated with popular front causes
throughout her early career.27
Kanin had been associated with Holliday since she had starred in his 1946
play, Born Yesterday, a wildly successful po