I’ve been in the grip of the common cold for a week and lacked the capacity for any significant project. (The gap between blog entries is one indicator.) I’ve spent this period of lassitude in bed, occasionally on the phone or reading the newspaper, but uncurious even to read a book. Trying to take my own advice about the use of emotions to heal, I spent over nine hours yesterday searching television for humor or pleasure or love, to appropriate for myself vicariously. The miserable box had nothing of the kind on offer.
Perhaps instead of merriment or eros, excitement would do something for me. The neighbor upstairs was watching some kind of sports event for an hour or so, but I couldn’t figure out what the game was. I couldn’t make out his words, but the announcer was EXCITED! And fast! He never stopped for a single second. It couldn’t have been baseball, which is terribly slow, or even football, when the announcer reaches a fever pitch during a play but then returns intermittently to a normal conversational tone. I decided it may have been a boxing match. The audience was roaring at times. There were no cheerleaders. What is the tempo of hockey? Of soccer?
I think people choose their entertainment because it provides an occasion to feel particular emotions. But, having said so, I cannot fathom why anyone’s preferences. I felt no positive emotions — mostly just disgust — during the nine hours of viewing yesterday. So why did I keep watching? The best excuse I can offer is that it absorbed my attention. No pleasure, little pain, but fairly consistent interest.
I watched three episodes of CSI Miami, which shows lots of images of beaches and expensive condos, plus good-looking, shallow people of both sexes. I have stopped trying to figure out whodunnit when watching American cop shows. What counts is the attractiveness of the images, not the emotions or motivations of the characters. There is no chance that one will empathize with a character; he is simply a moving photograph with well-designed lighting and a background that is usually pale blue, especially in the crime lab. The story involves professional forensic scientists working in a laboratory, and they never express the slightest emotion. There’s a stunning woman detective — played by Emily Proctor — who speaks in a monotone, remains poker-faced, and goes about picking things up with rubber gloves and peering into microscopes and test-tubes. The hero, Horatio somebody, is played by David Caruso, who reminds me of Archie Hanlan forty years ago – sandy-haired and preternaturally unemotional.
Is that what viewers want from this? Images of well-dressed characters moving through sets of uncomplicated modernistic design and solving human tragedies that seem devoid of tragic, or even buman, complexity? Using technology to solve problems that never extend in time before or after each assigned episode? And, in using their technical expertise, not being affected personally by the minds of the criminals or victims? These skilled professionals feel nothing, learn nothing. Indeed, they seem to lack any interior wherewithal to feel or learn. With such characters, multiple millions of viewers are apparently satisfied. Nothing much is required of them. If they undergo CSI Miami as strictly a visual experience, they need not even try to think about the intellectual puzzle that is being presented. I have stopped trying to solve the puzzles myself. But it leaves me empty, as if I have been lost in the meaningless, abstract world of a Mondrian painting.
I watched Jan Wong on George Stroumboulopoulos’s show, The Hour. That actually was worth seeing. She described trying to right a great wrong of hers that occurred in Beijing when she had been a university student there. She had denounced a fellow student for asking how to escape to the West. It had wrecked the woman’s life, and in her recent book Wong tried to track her down and apologize. We didn’t get to hear the end of the story, but it was enough to make me want to read the book. This was real, authentic, human. I don’t suppose it did much, one way or the other, for my cold.
I watched Just for Laughs Gags, a program about practical jokes produced in French but with no sound except music. Usually this is a good source of laughs for me. I don’t laugh at jokes (stand-up comedians turn me off) but I enjoy watching real people caught in absurd situations. Candid Camera used to be a great favorite. But this episode was constructed from recycled materials. I had seen most of the sketches before and I don’t think I laughed. But of course one never notices oneself laughing. I have tried to count the times during a show when I laughed, but it never worked. It just distracted me from the situation that was funny. Maybe I laughed a lot. But not at the female TV reporter who was interviewing people on the street with snot oozing from both her nostrils.
Finally, I ordered a film from Rogers on Demand: The English Patient. I knew enough not to anticipate feeling pleasant emotions, but I didn’t feel many others either. There was a good bit of sex, but between people whom I could not really like, so I didn’t empathize. I kept wondering what they saw in each other. The only lovable character was the nurse.
Well, I shouldn’t hold that up as a definite standard of excellence. I should be prepared to explore an anti-hero too, and the burned protagonist was definitely morally ambiguous. But I did not quite accept the rationale for his betrayal of country during the war – his promise to rescue his dying mistress in the desert.
No, let me qualify even that statement. I didn’t feel that he should have been more committed to the Allies; I just didn’t think he made a good bargain. He gave the Germans the maps of North Africa that his geographic expedition had made, in exchange for gasoline to go to the desert and pick up an injured woman who would certainly have died by then. After her probable expiration date, his promise was no longer binding.
Would I have favored his betrayal of country, had it been possible to save her life? That would have been a more difficult problem, at least in the context of the war as described within that film. In everyday life I know that the Nazis were terrible, but nothing in the movie said so. It would have been plausible for the protagonist to assume that both sides in the conflict were morally equal. Perhaps he did assume that; we are not told.
In most wars I would make the same assumption. The war itself is the abomination, not the issue that is being contested. World War II was different, though. And now the plight of the Burmese against the junta – that issue is morally compelling. I would not fight physically, but I would support the cause of Burmese democracy nonviolently.
In an essay I read a couple of years ago, someone compared The English Patient to Casablanca, In both stories, the passionate lovers are troubled by their awareness that the woman is married to another guy – indeed, a nice guy. In a peacetime situation he might have been jettisoned rather easily, but the circumstances of war complicate the love triangle with an issue of loyalty to country. In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart's character tells Ingrid Bergman’s character to go back to her husband, who is working for the allies. In The English Patient, the opposite moral choice is made, but without arguing the case. We are supposed to feel compassion for the traitor because of the nature of his motivation – love. I felt no such compassion – merely cool interest. Only his nurse felt compassion for him, and she silently performs the final favor that he asks of her — to administer morphine and end his life. Her kindness almost makes up for the emotional inadequacy of the other characters.
Casablanca teaches this moral lesson: to put loyalty to one’s group ahead of personal relationships. I don’t always believe that it’s the correct lesson, however. In many conflicts, collective identity is a source of wrong-headedness. But each case has to be assessed independently. I’m still trying to figure out how one should have behaved during World War II. Hitler was so bad, it’s hard to imagine an alternative. But I know there were some.