Sunday, June 19, 2011

On Dementia, Fink, and Grace

 Does psychology work? 

It's a funny game, really. I recognize that many, many people, many of my friends, some of my family, having benefited greatly from getting counseling. I recognize that we hold deep-seated desires, beliefs, and projections that are wholly illogical and often detrimental to our health. I recognize many things; all these things -- and still I wonder.

Grace is incalculably important to understand. The whole of Christianity swings on its fruit. A simple definition of grace would be 'something given unearned', yes? That seems to me to be a sufficient synonym. Unearned. Perhaps this is also why I have a vague dissatisfaction with the idea of gratuitous gift-giving for birthdays. It seems to say, 'You deserve a reward for continuing to exist -- for making it through another year'. Or maybe it doesn't. Maybe birthdays are an expression of grace, since it is no big thing to survive these days. Perhaps it is grace plus tradition. I don't know.

I've watched Barton Fink several times in life. Upon each viewing I found it unnervingly confounding, which of course made me appreciate it without nurturing any resonant affection for the flick. Today, I saw it with new eyes. The Hotel Earle is the place we go to create, to write the next great American novel, to conquer the unconquerable problem, to swim the impossible sea; to bring together every soul in the world under one roof.

But we, the creators of thought, must share the Hotel Earle with another breed of men. We are not alone, wallowing within our four walls to seek out inspiration so as to speak for the illusory common man. We are not alone.

You must see >> Mr. Barton Fink was a playwright -- apparently, a damn good one (or so the New York critiques believed). Someone shouts "Go West young man", and so Barton answers the call. He moves to Hollywood; to work in pictures. What happens to Barton in Hollywood? Well, a lot. After finishing the film today, in hopes of finding some attestation of my newfound belief of the meaning of the movie, I read Roger Ebert's 1991 review (here). Ebert would have us believe that the main metaphor for the film is that of the rise of Nazism as well as McCarthyism. As it reads now, Ebert appears quite sure of his interpretation. I am not positive of my own interpretation, but I pretty well believe that Mr. E is wrong on this one, as the film in my eyes has much more in common with the likes of Adaptation than The Front.

Follow me here >> Whilst picnicking with William Faulkner's doppelganger relatively early in the film, Fink releases a brisk monologic burst in which he posits that all great writing comes from a place of pain. Remember, Barton is living and working at the Hotel Earle. Charlie also lives there. Charlie does bad things. Exasperated during his last scene on screen, Charlie rings out:

You think I made your life hell? 
Take a look around this dump. 
You're just a tourist with a typewriter, Barton, 
I live here.

To be clear >> this dump, that's the life of the mind.

Another truth Charlie lets us in on gets us back to ruminating about grace. After a supposed hard day of selling door-to-door insurance, Charlie speaks of how it is cruel for people to make fun of his appearance. The idea here is that there's nothing Charlie can do about it. His appearance is inherited, so the criticism of appearance is unearned. Then some time later, when Barton blatantly tells Charlie that he's known as 'Madman Muntz', Charlie's response is a solemn, 'people are so cruel; if it isn't appearance, it's character.' Again the inference we can make is that Charlie also sees his personality as something inherited. Unearned.

Now >> much can be made of the last scene of the film. Barton sits on the beach with an unopened box beside him. A pretty lady sits in front of him looking beyond the sea's horizon directly simulating the picture from Barton's hotel room. The distinction between the life of the mind (the Hotel Earle) and the external world has become blurred. As for the box, I understand it to be a manifestation of Barton's creation, his work. The pretty lady turns to ask Barton about the box. She asks an odd question: 'Is it yours?' Barton's reply:

I don't know.

How could Barton not know?  >> If the box is his thoughts, compiled and composited together, than he should know with certainty that the box is his. But he doesn't because he acknowledges that it is its own unique entity. And whatever he gave to it was a giving out of that which he was given. From grace comes grace. Ashes to ashes, grace to grace.

I don't mean to assemble a deterministic worldview here, nor do I fancy taking liability out of the individual's grasp.

I mean to say only this >> we are not our own. We are not our own, and we are not alone.

Psychology is a funny game, no? If you think much about the topic, it's like trying to look up a cheat code for an impossible level on a videogame. For the life of you, you can't seem to figure out how to drop over that rolling barrel that donkey kong keeps hurling at you. With your own eyes you can't see the answer. And so you get someone else to show you the way. You trust that they know the answer, or at least can find the key.

I'm watching a cruise-liner leave the port here in Koper. It is a massive vessel. It is taller than the tallest building in the town. It dwarfs the city. It dwarfs everything around it. There's probably more folks on that boat than in all of Koper. But they're just tourists on a boat...

I live here.