Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Living then and now

Isn't this a lovely picture? It's a painting by Jan Van Eyck, circa 1439, showing the Madonna and child. One can't help noticing that the Madonna, rather than being a Semitic beauty, with a black haired child, is a richly clad, blond, Northern European woman holding a golden haired baby, with both rooted in the mid-15th Century. Likewise, the backdrop, rather than being the desert dwelling of your average carpenter in Bethlehem, circa the beginning of the Christian era, is a rich medieval house, with a lovely view of a Flemish town (maybe Brussels or Bruge?). And of course, there's a lavishly attired Northern European medieval man there to worship. The past is the present, the present is the past. History as we understand it, with a continuum of change, didn't exist. Karen Armstrong, in The Battle for God : a History of Fundamentalism, explains this phenomenon as follows:

In the premodern world, people had a different view of history. They were less interested than we are in what actually happened, but more concerned with the meaning of an event. Historical incidents were not seen as unique occurrences, set in a far-off time, but were thought to be external manifestations of constant, timeless realities. Hence history would tend to repeat itself, because there was nothing new under the sun. [Emphasis mine.]
I mention this premodern view of history because I think we're beginning to see this same intellectual paradigm again. Certainly, that's the only way I can explain away such phenomena as Winona Ryder's Little Women or the recently released Pride & Prejudice. I'll start with Little Women, because it's easier to explain my point. For those of you too far away from childhood to remember Louisa May Alcott's book, it's the story of four sisters: Margaret (Meg), Josephine (Jo), Elizabeth (Beth) and Amy. The real heroine, of course, is Jo, the loving, impetuous tomboy. And whether or not modern sensibilities like it, the entire point of the book is to teach that Jo's salvation lies in taming her wilder impulses. When she's careening around thoughtlessly, she invariably leaves disaster in her wake (although it's often funny and always endearing). Jo herself only finds true happiness when she sublimates her own goal's and ambitions to her family's needs. The 1994 movie of Little Women is absolutely beautiful to look at, and stays true to the book's major plot outlines. However, it gutted the book by removing this fundamental life lesson. Instead, in a scene about two-thirds of the way through the movie, we have Winona Ryder, as Jo, explaining to her love interest, Professor Baehr, that she and her sister were raised, basically, to follow their bliss. (I can't remember the exact wording of that little speech, but that was its underlying message.) In other words, the modern eternal truth is that you need to serve only your own needs (to Hell with the community around you), a message the complete opposite of the point Alcott was trying to make. I'm perfectly willing to agree that Alcott's core message -- that women need to sublimate their own needs for the greater good of their community and family -- is going to be distasteful to modern sensibilities. But if that's so, don't pretend that your movie is a faithful adaptation of Alcott's book. Instead, at least have the decency to say that it's loosely based on, or inspired by, or something else equally distancing. The same holds true for Pride & Prejudice. Let me hasten to add here that I haven't yet seen the movie. I've seen previews and read reviews. My own sense from the previews, which is strongly bolstered by the reviews, is that Keira Knightley, while lovely, is a completely modern woman, with modern mannerisms and a modern sensibility. She has nothing to do with Jane Austen's heroine, who is a creature of her times -- the times being the turn of the 19th Century. Elizabeth Bennett was not a rebel -- she was simply someone with sufficient humor and intelligence to understand the nature of the manners and mores to which she happily conformed, and to point out the foibles of those who either took them too seriously or who violated them. Or, as James Bowman says of the disconnect between the book and the movie:
When I say they [those who made the movie] have left out the moral dimension, I mean they have left out the morality that Jane Austen would have understood and that, naturally enough, she put into the novel. But the film substitutes for it a typically Hollywoodish moralism in the form of an implied critique of Regency England's social order. It is important to understand that this is desperately unhistorical. It's true that the first social critics as we recognize them were around at the time. In particular, the French Revolution had spawned revolutionaries in England like William Godwin and even feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft. But Jane Austen was not such a social critic, given to glib formulations about "society" and its shortcomings. She was utterly at home with her society and with its morality and accepted it as her own. The novel is in fact on one level a kind of taxonomy of moral types according to the categories generally accepted at the time. The whole point of Elizabeth Bennet's initial rejection of Mr. Darcy has to do with a deficiency of manners which she loudly proclaims to his face without realizing that her own moral judgment is to be faulted for being too hastily arrived at.
To the modern sensibility, this idea of historical truth is meaningless. The universal truth of the here and now is that society is stodgy and pointless, manners are to be laughed at, and the freedom to follow your bliss and poke fun at your "betters" is a paramount value. And so just as Van Eyck draped his Semitic Madonna in Northern European medieval finery, so too does modern Hollywood take books that were supposed to serve as guides to achieving the highest cultural goals, and reduce them to self-indulgent frolics in long dresses. Because I'm a purist, I see this as a form of disrespect to the books. I also see it, with great sadness, as a form of societal decay, where we've gone from powerful women who saw it as their goal and responsibility to support the society in which they live, to whiny women who believe nothing is more important than their own immediate satisfaction.