Seen from one perspective, the Twentieth Century was not a pretty period: a long chain of wars, recessions, genocides, sex scandals, drugs…. The Twenty-first is not at present looking much better: 9-11, wars, recessions, genocides, sex scandals, drugs; not even much good rock-n-roll. The achievements of the past 111 years pale against the lurid colors of human suffering. Meanwhile, has painting recovered from Pollock, the piano from Cage? What happened to the novel after George Orwell?
Yet perhaps this is looking at not only history, but also beauty upside down. Redemption is not predicated upon righteousness; beauty does not require peace for its propagation. Art leaps savage and swift upon the back of surrender, defeat, surveillance, or digitization: human beings gather symphony orchestras in ghettos, produce Hamlet in prison, “propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache: it is our nature” (C. S. Lewis, “On Learning in War-Time”). Maybe it is panache! – it is still our nature, and sometimes our supernature.
I have recently been pondering three works of art (one novel, one story, one film) that stand golden and glorious in the midst of lurid red horrors. To be more precise, the first describes the lurid red horrors, the second is shot through with golden glory in the midst of the horrors, and the last transforms the horror into glory. Together, they present a microcosmic journey from total despair to redemptive sorrow. Taken together, they show humanity at its worst, in its greatest capacity for suffering, and at its best, and have the capacity to transform individuals who encounter them thus. In each pit of despair, the word and the image speak out beyond and through the pain.
The first is 1984, the justly famous novel by George Orwell (published in 1949), but one of the most hopeless works in the canon. The second is “Name,” a short story by Tony Woodlief, first published in issue 58 of Image journal (2008) and recently reprinted in Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE (2009). The third is Of Gods and Men, a Cannes-winning French film by Xavier Beauvois (2010).
Spoiler alert: each of these three works—exquisitely crafted, musically written, painfully detailed—is an inescapable march towards despair or death. Note, though: despair or death. Perhaps the result of this comparison is a realization that death and despair are not identical, nor inevitably linked.
1984 ends with Winston Smith—the anti-hero, the Everyman, the sympathetic/pathetic [pro?]tagonist—destroyed. He is no longer human in anything but physical form, and even that is broken, twisted, thickened, stiffened, and uglified by torture. 1984 is, essentially, a book of torture. Not a book about torture: a book of torture. Orwell’s narrator claimed that “Nothing in the world was so bad as physical pain. In the face of pain there are no heroes, no heroes, [Winston] thought over and over as he writhed on the floor” (197). Pain deprives this book of a hero. 1984 is also a book of psychological murder and psychological suicide. The mind is obliterated. Only the physical organism, no better than a beast, remains.
Of course, Orwell’s book was a warning, a hyperbolic analogue to the trend of his times, and Winston’s despair is that of humanity writhing under the vitiating cruelty of totalitarianism. Throughout Orwell’s century, many people groups suffered, or even died, under just such regimes. As just one devastating example: in 1975, Pol Pot took over Cambodia and began massacring millions on the killing fields and starving others slowly in forced agrarian communities. Had George Orwell lived to see this, he could have said, “I told you so.”
Yet not all of the Khmer Rouge’s victims were Winston Smiths. Tony Woodlief’s short story, “Name,” while fictional, paints the portrait of a narrator, tortured and murdered by the Khmer Rouge, whom even death could not rob of humanity and of a supernatural glory. Indeed, it is his very suffering that transmutes him into a bearer of something divine.
Woodlief’s narrator speaks in the first person and the present tense, lying on a cold floor under the feet of his torturer, remembering his childhood, his school, the motherly nuns, and his murdered sweetheart. He describes the torments of his fellow prisoners: “Sometimes we die” (390). Some died still guarding a precious secret, such as the name of a loved one they would not betray. This narrator dies a martyr’s death, still guarding his own “secret self”: the name he received at baptism, his identity in Christ: Gabriel.
While Woodlief is, in this story, no political allegorist like Orwell, his work does stand bravely among others in a cultural chasm. It seems our country is rent by partisanship, ideology, and other abstract binaries. In particular, artists whose work resonates with faith find themselves cut off on either side: misunderstood by the faith community, disregarded by the artistic culture. Image journal, issue by issue, stitches up this tear in our social fabric. Woodlief’s story is profoundly Christian without being precious and professionally literate without being elitist. It is, in short, an excellent piece of writing that shies away from neither pain nor faith. The story ends:
God has appointed my death for a beautiful day. I thank him for the silent blue sky, looking down at what we have become. They kill everything here, but they cannot kill the sky. It will be our witness, and it will mourn us.
With this deep, deep, transforming sorrow, Woodlief’s superb story closes.
This scenario is, in a way, how the film Of Gods and Men begins. It begins in peace, with a blue sky, but also with sudden scenes of killing. Yet as the movie progresses, death is transformed from a horror into a thing of beauty. Not only do these heroic monks retain their humanity until the very end, they also attain something superhuman, something redeemed and redemptive. Facing probable execution by terrorists, they tend their fields, care for the sick, sing Latin chants, drink good wine, listen to Tchaikovsky, and laugh.
Of Gods and Men is such an amazing film that it does even more than bridge the gap between the arts and faith. In the world of this film, that gap never existed. It is a piece straight out of the High Middle Ages, that glorious period of holism when human beings did not have to chop their lives up into bits and toss the pieces into various boxes labeled “religion,” “work,” “politics,” “science.” The heavens whirled in concentric perfection, singing the praises of their creator in an orderly harmony studied by astronomer, musician, and theologian alike. The monks in Of Gods and Men are like that; but they live in the postmodern/posthuman era, and their peaceful coherence is torn apart by the divisions of our brutal, uncivilized time.
The miraculous ending is twofold. First, beauty is not destroyed. They carry beauty in their folded hands up to the muzzle of a gun and beyond. Second, the holism of that pre-modern worldview extends beyond the screen. For although based on a true story, this is a crafted work of art. And in its story, characters, cinematography, acting, directing, all the technical elements of filmmaking, Of Gods and Men maintains unity. Faith and filmmaking are not separate. Beauty does not wait until Democrats and Republicans, Muslim extremists and Christian fanatics, mystics and poets, priests and novelists, pastors and filmmakers, start talking to each other. Beauty does not wait for peace. Beauty makes peace in the midst of war, or makes war itself a painful bearer of beauty in spite of itself.