life imitates art


 

The habitual austerity of the Cordatian regime is always softened a bit in Easter Week, and so in recent days I have watched two Alfred Hitchcock films from the 1940’s, Spellbound and Notorious. In each, the heroine was played by Mrs Petter Lindström, better known by her maiden name, Ingrid Bergman.

One can see why this actress stood out in her generation: the particular cast of her beauty, at once wholesome and vulnerable, and the intelligence of her acting. She was ‘not like’ the other Hollywood stars, so the papers said, implying that these others were no better than they ought to be. She had a happy home life wholly separate from her career, and was glad to regard her Swedish husband, a neurosurgeon, as the head of their household.

Then in 1950 she revealed that she was leaving him for an Italian film director whose child she was carrying, and a nation mourned. Perhaps in America the 1960’s began in 1950.

The habit grew on her. The Italian was divorced after a few years, and then she ‘married’ another Swede. They divorced as well. She died officially unmarried in 1982, although her real husband, who had also married again invalidly, lived till the year 2000. They burned her body and threw the ashes into the sea.

Reading all this made me wonder about the dangers of acting. It’s not just that some of the scenes, even in films from 75 years ago, could not be performed without violating the virtue of modesty. But the very practice of mimicking romantic love, attentively and at length, is bound to make the reality of it sometimes spring up. Then what happens to the domestic life, especially if that has grown monotonous? ‘There are some occupations’, says St Gregory the Great, ‘which either hardly or never can be followed without sinning’.

Her husband revealed later that the Italian had not been the first man. It seems that Ingrid too had all along been no better than she ought to have been. But then who is, I wonder? In later life she came out with some sad stuff about having been true to herself. Rousseau is probably at the bottom of it all. I suppose she was simply trying to be happy.

One great idea on which all tragedy builds is the idea of the continuity of human life. The one thing a man cannot do is exactly what all modern artists and free lovers are always trying to do. He cannot cut his life up into separate sections. The case of the modern claim for freedom in love is the first and most obvious that occurs to the mind; therefore I use it for this purpose of illustration. You cannot have an idyll with Maria and an episode with Jane; there is no such thing as an episode. There is no such thing as an idyll. It is idle to talk about abolishing the tragedy of marriage when you cannot abolish the tragedy of sex. Every flirtation is a marriage; it is a marriage in this frightful sense; that it is irrevocable.

I have taken this case of sexual relations as one out of a hundred; but of any case in human life the thing is true. The basis of all tragedy is that man lives a coherent and continuous life. It is only a worm that you can cut in two and leave the severed parts still alive. You can cut a worm up into episodes and they are still living episodes. You can cut a worm up into idylls and they are quite brisk and lively idylls. You can do all this to him precisely because he is a worm. You cannot cut a man up and leave him kicking, precisely because he is a man. We know this because man even in his lowest and darkest manifestation has always this characteristic of physical and psychological unity. His identity continues long enough to see the end of many of his own acts; he cannot be cut off from his past with a hatchet; as he sows so shall he reap.

This then is the basis of all tragedy, this living and perilous continuity which does not exist in the lower creatures. This is the basis of all tragedy, and this is certainly the basis of Macbeth. The great ideas of Macbeth, uttered in the first few scenes with a tragic energy which has never been equalled perhaps in Shakespeare or out of him, is the idea of the enormous mistake a man makes if he supposes that one decisive act will clear his way. Macbeth’s ambition, though selfish and someway sullen, is not in itself criminal or morbid. He wins the title of Glamis in honourable war; he deserves and gets the title of Cawdor; he is rising in the world and has a not ignoble exhilaration in doing so. Suddenly a new ambition is presented to him (of the agency and atmosphere which presents it I shall speak in a moment) and he realizes that nothing lies across his path to the Crown of Scotland except the sleeping body of Duncan. If he does that one cruel thing, he can be infinitely kind and happy.

Here, I say, is the first and most formidable of the great actualities of Macbeth. You cannot do a mad thing in order to reach sanity. Macbeth’s mad resolve is not a cure even for his own irresolution. He was indecisive before his decision. He is, if possible, more indecisive after he has decided. The crime does not get rid of the problem. Its effect is so bewildering that one may say that the crime does not get rid of the temptation. Make a morbid decision and you will only become more morbid; do a lawless thing and you will only get into an atmosphere much more suffocating than that of law. Indeed, it is a mistake to speak of a man as `breaking out.’ The lawless man never breaks out; he breaks in. He smashes a door and finds himself in another room, he smashes a wall and finds himself in a yet smaller one. The more he shatters the more his habitation shrinks. Where he ends you may read in the end of Macbeth (G.K. Chesterton, ‘The Macbeths’)

May the divine mercy have released her from it before the end.

Out of all those persons whose adventures Tolkien preserved, and despite the fact that he liked to think of himself as Beren to his wife’s Luthien, the one whom he most resembles is surely Gandalf. Indeed, were one of the Istari to have lingered on, in our Middle Earth, until the early 20th century, what mode of life would he have adopted more readily than that of a crusty but beloved pipe-smoking Oxford don? And yet even the very wise cannot see all ends. Once at least he received a visitor who disconcerted him, and who seemed to raise a veil on perspectives beyond even his own vast horizons.

I am very grateful for your remarks on the critics and for your account of your personal delight in The Lord of the Rings. You write in terms of such high praise that [to] accept it with just a ‘thank you’ might seem complacently conceited, though actually it only makes me wonder how this has been achieved – by me! Of course the book was written to please myself (at different levels), and as an experiment in the arts of long narrative, and of inducing ‘Secondary Belief. It was written slowly and with great care for detail, & finally emerged as a Frameless Picture: a searchlight, as it were, on a brief episode in History, and on a small part of our Middle-earth, surrounded by the glimmer of limitless extensions in time and space. Very well: that may explain to some extent why it ‘feels’ like history; why it was accepted for publication; and why it has proved readable for a large number of very different kinds of people. But it does not fully explain what has actually happened. Looking back on the wholly unexpected things that have followed its publication – beginning at once with the appearance of Vol. I – I feel as if an ever darkening sky over our present world had been suddenly pierced, the clouds rolled back, and an almost forgotten sunlight had poured down again. As if indeed the horns of Hope had been heard again, as Pippin heard them suddenly at the absolute nadir of the fortunes of the West. But How? and Why?

I think I can now guess what Gandalf would reply. A few years ago I was visited in Oxford by a man whose name I have forgotten (though I believe he was well-known). He had been much struck by the curious way in which many old pictures seemed to him to have been designed to illustrate The Lord of the Rings long before its time. He brought one or two reproductions. I think he wanted at first simply to discover whether my imagination had fed on pictures, as it clearly had been by certain kinds of literature and languages. When it became obvious that, unless I was a liar, I had never seen the pictures before and was not well acquainted with pictorial Art, he fell silent. I became aware that he was looking fixedly at me. Suddenly he said: ‘Of course you don’t suppose, do you, that you wrote all that book yourself?’

Pure Gandalf! I was too well acquainted with G. to expose myself rashly, or to ask what he meant. I think I said: ‘No, I don’t suppose so any longer.’ I have never since been able to suppose so. An alarming conclusion for an old philologist to draw concerning his private amusement. But not one that should puff any one up who considers the imperfections of ‘chosen instruments’, and indeed what sometimes seems their lamentable unfitness for the purpose {extract from a private letter written by Tolkien in Autumn 1971}.

In my quest for intellectually unchallenging reading matter, suitable for flushing one’s brain after a whole day’s thinking, I recently came upon Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. For a science fiction novel (or probably for any modern novel), there was pleasingly little of sex and violence to mar my enjoyment of the plots, even though, ideologically, the books are of cause utterly unsound. I was quite amused by the author’s early 1940s enthusiasm about nuclear energy and faith in sociology. In the story, a central role is played by the science of psychohistory, defined by Wikipedia (is there any pop culture item without a Wikipedia entry?) as “a fictional science i[…] which combines history, sociology, etc., and mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behavior of very large groups of people”. The founder of this science uses it to predict with statistical probabilities the course of history and the incidence of crucial crises for a foundation established at the fringe of the galaxy over a course of 1000 years.

A helpful plot device, but somewhat risible, I thought. Something that people are actually trying to develop, according to Nature.