March 29, 2013


I have walked out of films because I found them execrably bad (Four Weddings and a Funeral), I've walked out of films because I thought the history was inaccurate (ok I didn't see JFK in the cinema but I would have....) but I've never walked out of a film because I found it too painful to watch- or not until now. Amour is a wonderful film- but its a deeply disturbing film because it takes you right to the frontier of what human life is at the end. Its not pretty. It deals with a couple in their old age- they come on to the screen as typical representatives of a particular European intellectual and social class, rejoicing in the classical music that postwar respectability has brought them. The day afterwards they have breakfast together but it slowly becomes evident that she is unable to function properly anymore- she is suffering from several little strokes and will eventually lose her mind and her individuality.

The film's title points I think to its subject- and plenty of other reviewers have made this comment- that amour is about love. Its about sexual love between a couple and the way that that becomes at the end the only love in this case that matters. Children, friends, even former pupils cannot reach the woman who can only be exposed in the nakedness of her madness to her lover. In that sense it says that Lear would have company on the heath, if his queen survived. I think this picture of romantic love is of course very relevant. In a society where generations are torn apart culturally and economically and even technologically, its very difficult to see people outside your cohort as your peers. The picture of love here is an assertion of understanding: the husband asserts he understands the wife in a way that daughters and nurses can't- the problem and I've faced this myself in a small way- is that there is an insistant totalitarianism is this assertion of understanding. Its hard to understand someone who is closed off from the world- but as soon as you start saying that you understand them better than anyone else by virtue of your relationship with them, the ethics get cloudy.

Most people talk about amour as though its a film about the power of love and I suppose yes it is- but I think its more powerful as a film about the limits of love. We are what we think and how we behave ultimately. Once only the shell of the human being is left: what is it that you are loving? I think Emmanuelle Riva's performance conveys this perfectly- the cultivated older woman slips into being a grotesque infant, one without the capacity for growth. What surrounds her is her husband's memories and we call that love: but in reality whereas love is often seen as a moment of communication- this kind of love is a deliberate deception about the continuing of something that has just left. Or rather we are left with the sense that the husband for all his charity and ability to communicate, just can't break through the wall to his wife- can't communicate to her.

March 27, 2013

Epictetus being pleasant

'While you are kissing your child', Epictetus once said, 'murmur under your breath, tomorrow it may be dead.' 'Ominous words' they told him. 'Not at all' he said 'but only signifying an act of nature. Would it be ominous to speak of the gathering of the ripe corn'.

This comes from Marcus Aurelius's meditations but its a fascinating vignette about Epictetus. I think it demonstrates something about the ancient world: after all his advice was much more practical in the days when infant mortality and young child mortality were much higher. In one of Chinua Achebe's novels about Nigeria the young Nigerian is not reckoned a full human until they have passed 12, before then they might easily die and I think Epictetus is making a similar point. Whereas Achebe's characters think religiously though, Epictetus is using a philosophical comparison to nature- and perhaps this comparison allows us to explain a bit more of the psychology behind Stoicism. Its a theory of acceptance of the world- elsewhere in the Meditations, Aurelius says that the fool experiences the world through sensation, the wise man through action- note he doesn't say that the wise man experiences the world through thinking. What's going on here is a theory of acceptance.

March 25, 2013

Marcus's attitude to the present

I'm sure that everyone has thought about the meaning of a particular metaphysical proposition for their own lives. I rather like Marcus Aurelius on this:

Either things must have their origin in one single intelligent source and all fall into place to compose, as it were, one single body- in which case no part ought to complain of what happens for the good of the whole- or else the world is nothing but atoms and their confused minglings and dispersions. So why be so harassed?

The argument is of course very comforting! Its also interesting that those are the alternatives- picking up on an earlier post they look still like alternatives that seem real to us today.