Saturday, April 22, 2017

Beasts in Space

Part 3 in a series.

Modern adaptations of fairy tales—setting aside trend-busting exceptions like Branagh’s Cinderella—are too often prone to adopt a cynical tone, presenting a world in which everything (not merely the plot and the villains) is twisted.  The presence of this darkness is undisputed.  The reason for the darkness—whether it lies in the original stories, or is a modern imposition—is less obvious.  I have argued the latter, and suggested that the contrasts between various adaptations of “Beauty and the Beast” illustrate the tremendous tonal difference an adaptor can inscribe upon the relatively blank slate of an original story.

Interpretation is not limited to adaptations, however: every audience member of every film, however innocent of literary theory, perforce interprets what he sees; and the innocent will always see something other than what the experienced sees.  I say “other than” deliberately: not less than, or not necessarily.  It is true that children will not catch things that adults immediately notice (e.g., how (little) a character is dressed, or certain verbal double-entendres).  And in the case of children, this is certainly a noticing less, though it is all to the good.

But differences in what audience members notice are not limited to this kind of age-appropriate blindness.  In literary studies, some cultivate “suspicious” readings, readings where every character is suspected of hidden and invariably devious motives for his or her superficially beneficent actions.  This tendency is so ridiculously common that it would be an irresistible object for parody, were not actual scholars already guilty of thoughts which are substantially parodic: Fanny Price being the real villain of Mansfield Park, etc., etc.  But other readers, viewing “suspect” texts, see no such thing: Fanny Price is perhaps a bit dull (a matter of taste), but certainly a good person.  The secret pernicious motives which the suspicious detectives uncover are simply invisible to these readers.  Even after they are revealed and explained, the innocent reader can only say, “Very well, very well; but I just don’t see it.”

This is, I think, like the child’s hazy vision onto mature matters, a case of the innocent seeing otherwise than the guilty; only here, innocence does not also mean ignorance.  Here, innocent has its stricter sense: innocent signifies those who may know what good and evil are, but who do not know good and evil, who have not experienced evil by persistent commission.  Knowledge of evil—the commission of evil in one’s own thought—has an infectious tendency; one suspects everyone of the sort of thing one has done.  Even determinedly secular psychologists have a name for this: projection.  We project onto literary and cinematic characters our own ways of approaching the world.

 This of course leads to the question of how on earth one ever can
see a character truly, if that is even possible—a question not only for
another post, but for another series altogether.  For now,
I pause to note the problem, and move on.

Examples of such projection abound; a characteristic recent one is the movie Passengers, a scifi/romance released this past December, which (similarly to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast) has been attacked as glorifying “stalkerish” behavior and even “Stockholm syndrome.”

If you haven’t seen Passengers and are still planning to,
you may want to stop here.

What precisely led to these accusations?  I’ll let the Wikipedia summary start it off.

The starship Avalon is transporting 5,000 colonists and ship crew in hibernation pods to the planet Homestead II, a journey taking 120 years. Thirty years into its journey, the ship passes through a meteor storm, one of which causes a malfunction. The malfunction awakens one passenger, mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), 90 years early.

After a year of isolation, with no company except Arthur (Michael Sheen), an android bartender, Jim grows despondent and contemplates suicide. One day he notices Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) in her pod. Her video profile reveals she is a writer with a humorous personality. After struggling with the morality of manually reviving Aurora for companionship, he awakens her, claiming her pod also must have malfunctioned. Jim makes Arthur promise not to tell Aurora why she really woke up. Aurora is devastated that she will grow old and die before the ship reaches Homestead II. Her research for a way to re-enter hibernation is fruitless. Eventually, she accepts her situation and begins writing a book about her experiences. Jim and Aurora grow closer.

Of course, Aurora eventually finds out what Jim did—i.e., that he broke her pod, condemning her to share his otherwise solitary existence, and she is understandably furious.  When, however, she is towards the end of the film presented with an opportunity to reenter hibernation—to leave him, and join the rest of the passengers ... Well blow me to Bermuda!  Mon frères: Aurora stays with Jim.

Notice, by the way, that this ending is sort of the opposite of LaLa Land’s, except that here the stakes are even higher.  I don’t remember anyone being angry at the ending of LaLa Land (maybe I missed something?).  But oh my, were people ever angry at the ending of Passengers!  After all, Jim first ruins Aurora’s plans and her probable chance of happiness for a purely selfish reason; and (heaping one sin on another—I am not being ironic here—no serious Christian could look at Jim’s behavior and argue that it is not a sin) Jim then tries to conceal his actions from her.  Aurora has a right to be angry, and Jim certainly owes something in the way of atonement.

But to suggest that Aurora’s forgiveness of Jim is essentially a sign of mental instability on her part, or to insinuate that she should have left the jerk to himself on principle, strikes me as a bad case of reading into the film: a bad case, in other words, of reading badness into two characters who are not obviously deserving, finally, of negative judgment.

First things first: There’s no real argument for Aurora’s character to actually be a victim of Stockholm syndrome, or the victim of an abusive relationship.  She is not Jims actual prisoner; she is not persistently maltreated: she is deceived, and then wooed, and then undeceived, and then freely makes a choice to forgive the man who deceived her.

And if you’re having trouble distinguishing between wooing and compulsion …
well, maybe that’s matter for another post too.

I think that’s where the issue here truly lies: forgiveness.  The viewers and critics who found Passengers objectionable because they believe not in sin but in pathology.  Admittedly, sin is pathological (not for nothing did Aquinas adopt much of Aristotle’s ethical psychology); but this is primarily the case with a given sin which is habitual, repeated.  If I have a habit of taking snuff or taking small trinkets from the houses of elderly ladies of my acquaintance, those are pathological sins; I may even have a pathological habit of knocking off elderly ladies for their snuff and trinkets, which would involve a pathology of an even more serious order.  But if, being innocent of all kleptomania, and having struggled mightily with my obsession, I covertly avail myself of the aunceant cuckoo clock belonging to my Aunt Agatha, I am certainly a sinner, but hardly a pathological one.  And while my single theft may lead me to commit other sins (to lie and to hide the clock), thus contributing to the growth of a pathology where none existed before, it remains the case that the original sin itself was a free choice.

Why does this matter for Passengers?  Quite simply, because if Jim only released Aurora because he is a basket-case, it would be foolish in the extreme for her to maintain the relationship.  If he’s truly sick, he needs a doctor, not a wife.  If, on the other hand, he freely chose to do something that he knew was wrong (and his“struggling with the morality of manually reviving Aurora” suggests that he DOES know it’s wrong to revive her), there’s always the possibility that he could equally freely repent, and become a perfectly available Mr. Darcy look-alike.

How we read Jim affects how we read Aurora.  If Jim’s pathology is insisted on, she becomes at best the nurse to a peculiarly selfish sort of madman and at worst his equally mad dupe.  In fact, the insistence upon the irreformability of Jim’s character weakens the agency of her character.  If we allow her to retain good judgment, then we also have to allow her to judge, ultimately, that Jim is a good and sane person, despite his great offense.  If the Beast is truly beastly, Beauty is a fool for staying with him.

Of course, the problem with admitting sin rather than pathology into the picture is that … well, you have to admit that there’s such a thing as sin: that people can sometimes choose to be bad, and not simply act badly because of the inconvenient circuitry with which nature and nurture have combined to endow them.  And this admission is inconvenient, not merely because the spectre of sin brings with it the spectre of God (many pagan cultures managed to have a moderately lively notion of the first without necessarily adopting a Christian view on the second), but even more, I think, because it frightens us to admit that real sin exists.  Take away the notion that all bad behavior is pathology, and one is left with a highly unpredictable world.  I might steal from my aunt not because I am a kleptomaniac (a fact which could scarcely have been concealed for so many years) but because I chose to (a fact which is available only to me and my conscience and any higher intelligences possessing a super-human view of the situation).  Take away the notion that all bad behavior is pathology, and the husband might cheat, not out of a known constitutional weakness, but because he chose to succumb to a single temptation.  Take away the notion that all bad behavior is pathology, and we are left not with men who murder out of illness, but men who murder by calculated choice.

And then, of course, we are not only left with a more unpredictable world, but a world full of real people, people who aren’t less than us, whose choice is not impaired, but who chose evil knowingly, because they want to, because they can.  And sometimes, those people are us.

The good news, of course, for those holding such a worldview, is that however many times we here the cock crow, so many times we may start over.  People are fond of saying that life is not a video game, which is true; but on the spiritual level it is perhaps more like a video game than is usually admitted.  The grace we thought we possessed firmly can all be lost in a single bad move, or gained by a single stroke of luck; and we have not one life but an infinite number—though the donation of these lives is not inscribed in the rules of the game, but flows from the infinitely large heart of the game’s designer.  And once we realize this, truly realize it, the whole picture becomes light again: sin by free choice is no longer terrifying, but the most trivial thing on earth, provided we don’t make too much of it: provided that we render to our debtors as it has been rendered to us; provided that (returning to the somewhat less than sublime example from which this conversation began) we make Aurora’s choice.

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