December 24, 2009


Dear Friends:

Merry Xmas to you all. Here's something to think about in the New Year.

One film I keep returning to–I must have seen it at least five or six times now–is Damage, by Louis Malle. The story is a kind of Greek tragedy. Jeremy Irons plays a successful British civil servant whose inner life is empty; Juliette Binoche is his son’s fiancé, with whom he gets involved immediately after they meet. By chance, his son comes to the flat where they are having a tryst, and catches them in bed. Thunderstruck, the young man backs out of the room and falls backward over the bannister, plunging several stories down the center of the apartment building to his death.

His life thus destroyed, the man retires from the world. He takes up residence in a small town in an unidentified country, perhaps Greece or Italy. Life consists of shopping, cooking, and washing up, along with spending entire days sitting in front of a blown-up photograph of the fateful triangle–himself, his son, and the girl–which is mounted on the wall. He has, in effect, constructed some sort of shrine; but to what?

The man ponders what happened to him–events that were (or seem to have been) completely out of his control. He never knew who the woman really was, and yet the attachment went way beyond sex. As a high-level bureaucrat, he experienced his life as totally meaningless. He gave TV interviews and public speeches that were perfectly turned out–he said all the right things–but in reality, he was a shell. The girl, for some unknown reason, promised to fill that void (or so he believed, on an unconscious level), and so the chemistry was instantaneous, ferocious. Now, in the aftermath of it all, the man spends his time staring at the photograph, trying to decipher what it all meant.

What makes us, he says to himself, is beyond knowing. We surrender to love because it gives us some sense of what is unknowable. Nothing else matters, not in the end. I saw her only one more time, at an airport while changing planes. She didn’t see me. She was with a man, and carrying a child in her arms. She was no different from anyone else.*

She was no different from anyone else. This realization–perhaps only momentary–means that the “shrine” was not dedicated to the woman, nor even to the love that they shared, but to love itself. But perhaps much more than that. The purpose of the shrine, the need for it, is to worship that thing that is beyond knowing, the only thing that matters in the end. So what is it?

If human life is finally a mystery, the key in the lock is not that hard to figure out: it’s the sense of a Presence larger than oneself, and beyond the grasp of the rational intellect. For hunter-gatherers, this was a presence with a small “p”: their reality was immanent, was the environment itself. (The “great spirit” of the Plains Indians was typically the wind.) With agricultural civilization and the rise of religion, the Presence became transcendent, exalted to a “vertical” reality: God. Yet this presence, or Presence–this irreducible otherness–is finally within us. In Damage, the central character projects this “divinity” onto a perfectly ordinary person, which he comes to understand only years later. Yet the photo remains on the wall, and the daily “worship” remains the central activity of his life. Love gives us some sense of the unknowable, and the unknowable–even though it arises as an interaction between the self and the outer world–is unfathomable, as is the interaction. Hence, the enormous fascination, born out of the conviction people have that the experience embodies some great truth; which it does. Yet no amount of analysis or contemplation can resolve it; it just is.

Damage can be framed in many ways. I have already referred to Greek tragedy, but we can see it through the lens of Christian allegory as well. We have a man–say, Saul of Tarsus–going through the motions of a meaningless, ritualistic life. Suddenly, he is blinded on the road to Damascus, and that vision, or apparition, redefines his reality. In so doing, it tears up the old life, lifts him on transcendent wings, and finally deposits him in a chair in front of a photograph, bathed in the light of Christ. It’s not likely that the central character of Damage, even beyond the death of his son, would ultimately have it any other way. After all, he went from No Meaning to Total Meaning–not exactly a trivial adventure. As he says to himself at the end, as he walks the streets of his new home, “I found a life that was my own.” Who of us doesn’t want that?

Of course, much of a political nature could be added at this point. Mesmerization by the cross, no less than by the swastika or the hammer and sickle (to name but a few), has caused many millions of deaths. This is just a matter of historical fact, and I don’t mean to treat it lightly. But it seems to me that it has a larger context, an anthropological one: namely, that the need to feel a part of something greater–even if immanent, as in the case of hunter-gatherers–has been with us for at least 100,000 years, when the first light of self-conscious awareness glimmered in the brain of Cro-Magnon Man. The birth of the self, in a word, may have been coincident with the desire to immerse the self, and thereby to endow it with meaning. This is the very essence of Homo sapiens sapiens, and it is not likely to leave us any time soon.

Viewed from this perspective, the “damage” of human relations, if not quite forgivable, is at least explicable. How much of our lives is driven by this archaic impulse? A good bit of it, I would guess; maybe even most of it. It is tempting to say, of course, that the solution is then fairly obvious: we have to get a “handle” on this impulse, to channel or control it in some way. This is the path (ideally, at least) of organized religion or psychoanalysis, and it is not completely in error. But it does tend to omit the central point, that of the need to experience the phenomenon–to be “taken” by life, to let life “come and get you” and make of you what it will, so that you might get washed up on the shore of some small town, staring at a picture on the wall–if that should happen to be your fate.

How many of us are willing to take that chance?

©Morris Berman, 2009

*This text does not occur in the novel by Josephine Hart, on which the film is based, but in the screenplay of the movie, by David Hare.