Friday, 6 September 2013

Bad Ideas

Charles Barr has something very interesting to say, though he says it rather crudely.

What seem to be problems outside him are in reality projections of his own conflicts and repressions… [H]e sleepwalks through the film.  His treatment of Frieda is unconsciously sadistic…  Witness Robert’s actions in exposing her to his family and to his community while the war is on, with no smoothing of her way; in arranging for separate bedrooms…; in leaving his teaching job because of the gossip, and [sic] act guaranteed to double her guilty feelings; in bringing her ‘accidentally’ into a series of awkward situations, for instance to a public space where his sister is making an anti-German speech, and to a cinema showing concentration camp newsreels.  The moment he does tell her that he loves her, and kisses her, her brother abruptly appears on the doorstep and turns out to be a fervent Nazi who accuses her of being one too.  Irresistibly, he comes over as a figure conjured up by Robert himself, and his own feverish acceptance of the accusations –‘I wish she were dead’ – as a way out from his own conflicts and fears.  His fear of growing up, away from his own family, his own town, his own school where he has returned to teach; his fear of women; and his fear of thinking.  He seems never to have dared to think about the question of Frieda’s relation to Nazism, any more than has the community, which swings between blind prejudice and blind sentimentality.

The melodrama of the climax is a release in that it at last plays out the masked emotions of the story in a full-blooded way…  [However] there is little sense that the hero will have learned from his nightmare, or that the lessons of the experience can be integrated into his personality, and the film ends with the drawing of the cosy humanist moral (BFI Notes.  My emphasis)

The giveaway is the reference to repression.  Professor Barr interprets the film within a Freudian framework, which although highly illuminating – the explanation, by appearing to be insightful and profound, shows us the power of dogma - is wrong in this specific case.  The psychoanalyst, locked up inside his own adamantine theory, is too rigid and unsubtle to uncover the nuances that make Robert Dawson human. 

So come on, let’s take a peek underneath his couch…

·        No smoothing of the way.  My impression was that the family were aware of the marriage before the couple arrived in Denfield.  But let’s assume they weren’t - how else Robert could have done it?  To have left Frieda alone in a hotel would have been cruel; exposing her to the probability of far greater prejudice, as well as increasing her loneliness, made worse by the intensity of her feelings for him at that time; Professor Barr forgetting the psychic stress of young love; a stress that can be assuaged only by the presence of the loved one.  And what if Robert had prepared the ground… The prejudice would still have existed!  Cultural bias can only disappear through close personal contact; exactly what happens in the film; an accurate, albeit sentimental study of assimilation.  His assumption, although cleverly disguised, is a utopian one – that everyone is intellectually malleable and all differences can be reasoned away.  It is life seen from the senior common room of St. Mary’s University College… All we have to do, the good professor assumes, is to talk it out.  A few words and… everyone will be well!  If only they had that power!i
·        Separate bedrooms.  Because Frieda wanted a Catholic blessing they had to sleep in different bedrooms until the church service.ii  The impetus comes from Frieda, not Robert, who would, given her isolated situation, be more than ordinarily sensitive to her wishes.  The only alternative is for them to share the double bed.  Stating the obvious makes it absurd.
·        Leaving his job.  He didn’t resign from his teaching post because of gossip but because the children were leaving the school.  He had no alternative.  If he had stayed Robert would have destroyed his own sense of moral worth, becoming a burden to the headmaster who, for his own reasons of honour, tries to make him change his mind, despite the deleterious effects on the school’s finances.  Here are two men whose morality requires self-sacrifice to a common ideal, in this case to the values of the institution to which they belong.  For them the school has the same meaning as the Catholic Church does for Frieda; both are religious establishments that engender a moral conscience in its members, the more active of which sustain it.iii  
·        Accidentally on purpose.  This is possible but unlikely.  Could he really have timed the bus to arrive just at the moment when his sister is talking about her animosity to the Germans; her words prompted by a question from the crowd?  No bus schedule could have arranged that!  Moreover, these incidents occur at a time when the relationship is starting to take off; Robert at last falling in love with Frieda, a change that is making them both very happy.  This fact alone refutes the entire quoted passage.  The crisis in their relationship occurs only when her brother arrives. Indeed, the causes are all the other way around: it is Richard Mannsfeld who generates the horror; his prejudices parasitical on Robert’s love which has unleashed emotions that by their nature will be strong and unstable; and which will have a tendency to fixate not only on Frieda’s beauty and kindliness but also on concrete symbols and vague ideas (such as the Nazi pendant and Richard’s assertion that he will produce a Nazi baby – a brutally compelling thought).  Richard’s presence will also stimulate other feelings of jealousy and insecurity: we can easily imagine Robert fearing that Frieda will gravitate back to her brother, and so recreate an emotional bond stronger than their own.
·        Fear of growing up.  I would like to know where exactly in the film this is expressed.  I missed it.
·        Fear of living away.  Robert seems an extraordinary self-confident man, and I didn’t notice any worries about living away from home.  If the professor is referring to the hero’s decision to return to Denfield I would argue that this says more about his own pathology – does he need to lie down on the therapist’s couch, and slough off the excesses of 1970s radicalism (with its faddish attacks on the “authoritarian family”)?
·        Fear of women.  There is no evidence for this at all.  In her introduction to the screening the curator commented on the movie’s similarity to Black Narcissus, another film where a confident David Farrar is surrounded by “his women”.  With the exception of his early scenes with Frieda Robert is very comfortable in the presence of all the female characters.
·        Fear of thinking.  Maybe.  But I would phrase it differently: he is an ordinary man who tends not to critically analyse his life.  The reason for this is not fear, but lack of aptitude and mental interest; Professor Barr seemingly unaware of the differences between an intellectual like Nell and everyone else (the consequences of which I explore in a previous piece).
·        Between blind prejudice and sentimentality.  Almost true, but a very crude formulation.  A far more subtle analysis for these oscillations can be found in my Civilised Bigotry.
·        Cosy humanism.  Sort of.  Although stated in such terms it reveals the professor’s own prejudices.  I prefer to see the film in a slightly different light: Frieda, in my view, is about the essential goodness of the human animal; a goodness corrupted by ideas of cultural distance which are very difficult to remove - in this case only a tragedy can erase them.  By concentrating on Nell’s confession, and that last heart-warming hug, Professor Barr forgets the extraordinary scene where she decides to let Frieda die; a devastating comment on the British liberalism for which she is a representative figure.  To talk about “Humanism” is to talk about just one more alienating abstraction (made even more abstract by the professor’s ideological sneer).  And like all abstractions it makes rather clumsy assumptions about the human character that is more amorphous than its inflexible concepts will allow; a weakness spotlighted in this film.  The message of Frieda is simpler and more complex: we have to be sensitive to the individual and to the specific situation, testing our ideas against our feelings and our experiences, and the knowledge we precariously accumulate – thus believing in the “cosy humanist moral” the Dawson family are taken in by Richard Mannsfeld.iv  Beware of ideologies indiscriminately deployed!  They will always be wrong (in essence if not in fact – if the dogmatist is right it is almost certainly because he has struck lucky).

Professor Barr has got a theory and he wants the film to conform to it.  The theory is: that Robert is a typical 1940s hero who although charming actually hates women and torments them.v  And so our critic cuts off a bit here, adds a piece there, and squeezes them into the shape he requires.  He then squashes them into a box, and sits on the thing to push the lid right down…

It is a shame that Professor Barr wants to bury Robert under a pile of psychoanalytic textbooks, for his initial insight is important, and is clearly visible in the film itself (I had the same intuition when watching it).  Richard Mannsfeld does represent the doubts and anxieties that are bubbling just under the surface of Robert’s consciousness on the eve of his wedding day.  And this is surely the reason why Mannsfeld appears a few days before the marriage ceremony – because he is a symbol of Robert’s mental instability.  For such doubts, and the fears and fantasies they evoke, are psychologically plausible, although to understand them properly we have to leave behind the somewhat simplistic and teleological theories of Sigmund Freud (teleological because the unconscious is assumed to have a purpose – it always looking to fuck us up.  A more plausible view is that the unconscious is reflexive and value neutral, a bundle of energy and feeling that flows where the mood takes it, one day nice the next nasty.  Freud’s fundamental mistake: to give the unconscious a mind). 

Charles Barr is right.  During the early stages of the film Robert does appear to be “sleepwalking”.  It is because he doesn’t love Frieda, whom he married out of a sense of honour and loyalty – she saved him in Germany.  This means, amongst other things, that he has to relinquish his evidently strong desire for Judy.  This would create problems in any man, and we can easily imagine the supreme efforts of self-control he has to employ to suppress his real feelings.  Better not to feel at all, than to let the emotions rise to the surface, with all the unpredictable consequences that could follow.  Moreover, Robert would be only human if he resents Frieda, a symbol of a renunciation made piquant by his brother’s death and Judy’s availability.vi  And so he acts just like everyone else in Denfield: he is very self-conscious in Frieda’s presence; an obvious brake on the expression of sentiment.

We can also speculate (albeit keeping to the facts of the film) that Robert holds himself back so as to discourage Frieda from loving him; for any affection would encourage her feelings, and so increase his sense of guilt at his indifference.  Only when he starts to love Frieda does he relax, and their relations become free and spontaneous.  It is one of the strengths of the movie that this relationship doesn’t begin as a love match, but has to develop both out of Frieda’s love and their close proximity; Robert’s attachment to an abstract honour transformed into real feeling by their daily contact and Judy’s decision to live in London.  The development of their liaison is an obvious metaphor for Frieda’s assimilation into Denfield.  The film’s weakness is that such a transformation would be more fraught and complex than portrayed here.

Robert, just like the town, must overcome his own preconceptions and prejudices, which in his case are masked by their benignity: he also sees Frieda as a national abstraction, although for him it has a different value – she is the “Good German”.  Such a simplification brings its own problems: because it is just as unreal as Nell’s view that all Germans are evil.  Both positions are caricatures, and both suffer strain as the movie reaches its climax.  In Robert’s case it is easy to imagine a pure human being in the abstract; child’s play to fool yourself, when the wedding is months away, that the person you love is free of her culture’s influence.  But a few days before the ceremony?  Frieda will appear all too human then!  Especially in a town where pockets of virulent prejudice will always exist: a weakness of the film is that Richard Mannsfeld isn’t Richard Mansfield - he should have been an Englishman.

In the period immediately before the wedding his feelings, loosened and strengthened by love, bring out the buried tension between his ideas and his emotions; a tension which he has resolved into the unstable abstraction of the “Good German”.  That is, even now he does not see Frieda as fully human.   On the eve of his wedding day he still conceives her as part human being and part cultural construct.  The melodrama that follows shatters this fragile, albeit benevolent, construction.

He is in love; his emotions are running free; and like a turbulent river they bring all the rubbish to the surface - ugly doubts will rise up with enough power to destroy his simple ideas.  In this case his doubts crystallise around the prejudices of Frieda’s brother who embodies the Nazi cause.  Now he is certain!  Frieda is a typical German after all!  The Nazi insignia proves it…  Here is a crisis, and it arises from his love, which by stimulating his feelings unbalances his mental health so that he falls victim to vicious prejudice – Richard Mannsfeld’s.  There is a fight, the symbolism is obvious, and he destroys the Nazi.  But… in killing the “Bad German” he kills the “Good German” too.  Robert’s emotions, flooded with hate and anger, are no longer capable of making any intellectual distinctions at all, and so he abuses Frieda, who jumps into the river.  However… such a torrent of unstable feelings can, given the right circumstances, change their polarity very quickly.  And they do!  Robert’s affection spontaneously resurrected by Frieda’s suicide attempt; a moment when all thought is consumed by a different set of feelings which erases not only the racist prejudice but also the idea of the “Good German”.  When Frieda is recovered from the river she is no longer an abstraction.  She is simply the woman Robert will marry. 

(And let us speculate some more.  When she is underwater Frieda loses her German identity – it is killed off (can we say drowned?), and she is returned to the house as an individual free of abstract associations.  Out of the chrysalis of her nationality she emerges as an ordinary person; a process which has taken the whole film to achieve.)

The film is an exemplary case study of how a frozen personality (Robert’s) thaws under the impact of kind and tender care; love melting the ideas that can freeze up a person’s natural spontaneity.  For ideas can be terrible things!  They can make us think too much, and too simply (most people conceive of ideas as fixed and concrete facts, when in actuality they are organic substances constantly evolving – witness the dispute between Frieda and her brother over their conception of Germany), especially about trivialities; one consequence is that we become too conscious of someone’s differences which are often superficial and irrelevant.  Intimate contact and affectionate feelings can overcome the barrier of ideas; and they can reduce our mental self-restraint and so encourage the unconstrained expression of our personalities, that vital requirement for psychic health.  Stop thinking and feel!  And he does.  Robert is a happy man in the end.

Do you see what I see?

Professor Charles Barr has got this film completely the wrong way round.  Rather than the unconscious destroying Robert (or Frieda) it saves him (and her); his feelings and his ideas brought to the surface where they are expressed and released.  This causes some hardship, such as the town’s initial prejudice, Robert’s fight with Mannsfeld, and Frieda’s death wish.  However, these are trials that must be endured; until a stable life of happiness and security can be established.  Professor Barr, addicted to his Freud, downplays the role of ideas, while he makes the unconscious both too mental (thus all those abstracted fears) and too negative (Robert’s feelings are seen as universally destructive); and so he gets the film all wrong.  He also misreads a period of difficult transition, Frieda’s first months in England, and Robert’s recognition of his own doubts, as a permanent condition, rather than the understandable outcome of an unusual and difficult situation.  Pain is a natural part of life, and sometimes we have to accept it as inevitable; a truism easy to accept during a war, but much harder to conceive in times of peace (and comfort).

This is an optimistic film precisely because it recognises the ephemeral nature of prejudice.  Given the right conditions - a loving family and a generous community - the victim will eventually be accepted, as Frieda is here.  Immigration, or a marriage to the “enemy”, are not easy activities; both will produce terrible doubts and incur long periods of difficult transition; and yet, providing the community is reasonable and the individuals are essentially good, everyone will survive, and even prosper;vii Frieda and Robert and Nell do come through in the end.

However, Charles Barr, reluctant to lift his head up from the pages of The Interpretation of Dreams, doesn’t want to believe this is possible.  He thus comes up with a Freudian fiction of his own, which no doubt resonates with his natural pessimism (I guess, I speculate, I make it up…).  It is ingenious, certainly; but it is not right.  Put the book down Charles!  And watch the film again with me.




[i] This is the assumption behind Freud’s theories.  Recognise the truth and articulate it and you will be cured.  Freud part of a wider liberal culture, formed at the end of the 19th century, which believed in the extreme efficacy of words – educate the people and they will change (and for the better, of course).   Here was a high-minded liberalism whose nature was extremely ideological, although this was camouflaged from the participants themselves – they assumed they were speaking their rational and scientific truth, for it was obvious that there should be a more progressive political system, and that the people would want better living conditions,  and their children educated.  
            For such an intelligentsia words and ideas are extremely important; one of the reasons why liberals tend to live inside illusions – because for them their words and ideas are more important than the reality they describe (indeed, they are their reality).  This is further complicated by the simple nature of these ideas; a simplicity that makes them largely untrue (when applied to the individual case).   It was these aspects of liberalism that concerned Chekhov greatly, and which he both dissects and ridicules in his last great plays. 
            Words have a different function from what Freud imagined.  Instead of articulating a truth that cures more often than not they intensify existing feelings.  Thus Nell is not only the most articulate member of her family she is also the most prejudiced.  It is an extraordinarily important insight, and reveals something that has tended to be hidden in 20th century liberal discourse – it is often the liberals who have the most entrenched prejudices. (For a very revealing book on the intolerance of the liberals whose extremism he blames for bringing down the Tsarist government see George Katkov’s Russia 1917; The February Revolution.)
            And what does liberalism mean?  Ah ha!  For of course its meaning has changed too…  We are all liberals now…  I go too far, of course.  More accurately – liberalism is a culture founded on the verbal transmission of a cluster of ideas which facilitate Western style capitalism – property rights, freedom of the individual, cultural equality, preeminence of market relations….  However,  we must make a caveat.  The content of those ideas, usually poorly thought out and contradictory, are less important than their form: it is the preference for simple abstraction over the individual case (often messy and complex) that is the sign of a liberal; and is the reason why today nearly all mainstream figures are liberals, irrespective of what they say.  Let me put it in this provocative way – the definition of a liberal is someone who reads the newspapers  (it’s not what The Telegraph or The Guardian journalists write that is important, it is how their contents are presented – The Arab World, the Clash of Civilisations, Al Qaeda; the Underclass…  To properly understand the reality behind each of these ideas they have to be broken down and understood with reference to the underlying reality; an anathema to the liberalizing mind which believes these abstractions have their own concrete existence; and are therefore resistant to change.  The consequence is that we are supposed to either accept or destroy these ideas  (they are either true or false), when what we should do is recognise them as precarious generalisations (real fictions)  that are subject to constant evolution).
              "Now all words are applicable to many occurrences; therefore all words go beyond any possible datum.  In this sense, it is impossible ever to convey in words the particularity of a concrete experience; all words are more or less abstract."  Russell then goes on to qualify this statement with an argument that seems to argue for the specificity of particular cognitive events - the word "dog" may be modified in the perception of actually seeing an actual dog.  That is, the overall experience may make the word more individually concrete.  However,  although "dogs and cats have each their individual peculiarities... the ordinary inobservant person responds with the generalised reaction 'dog' or 'cat', and the particularity of the stimulus leads to no corresponding particularity in the knowledge-reaction."  (Bertrand Russell, Outline of Philosophy.  My italics.)
             The liberal, dependent as he is on ideas (founded on language and a further abstraction of it), automatically over-generalises and over-simplifies the world, and comes to believe that his version is the correct and only one.  And this language-orientated worldview when transmitted by the newspapers and similar types of media gives little more than an abstracted common sensical idea of the world (for the normally "inobservant person").  That is, a description of reality that is even more simple than our ordinary common sense experiences.
             Such a culture seems related to the nature of modern business, where our contacts with people and institutions have to the clear and straightforward and quick - when we ring up BT we do not need to know anything at all about the employee on the other end of the phone; we just want them to confirm they will fix the fault we are reporting.  The less data language contains the quicker it can be delivered...   We use abstractions not so much because we are busy, but because by using them we increase the speed of our communications.  That is, a particular kind of language use (the impersonal one of bureaucracy and modern commerce) generates our busyness.  Thus the liberal worldview is perfect for administration and management but weak for philosophical analysis; the latter prefers thought to simple verbalization, and is interested in the particular as well as the general (the attempt by Wittgenstein to reduce philosophy to language is almost certainly the effects of a particular brand of Austro-Hungarian liberalism on his thinking.  See Ernest Gellner's Language and Solitude)
[ii] It would be interesting to speculate how much prejudice comes from her being Catholic as well as German.
[iii] This sentiment can be seen as the outcome of nearly a century of secularization where the religious spirit had been divested from Christianity and transferred onto secular institutions such as the public schools and the municipal councils; a large topic I hope one day to write about.
[iv] See my Civilised Bigotry for more comment.
[v] Having recently seen Suspicion I can appreciate Professor Barr’s theory, though I still find it utterly unconvincing in regard to this film.  For example, compare the Cary Grant character, who is completely indifferent to his wife - he has no feelings for her at all -, with Robert Dawson, who is certainly no psychopath.  He is a lovable man, with principles and a sense of honour.  In the early stages of the film he is palpably restraining himself; yet later he relaxes his control and clearly falls in love with Frieda.  For the Cary Grant character everyone and everything has an instrumental purpose, and thus his self-conscious distance from the people around him; and this is a constant, except for the unconvincing final scene.  Because of his own sense of honour and his love for Judy Robert is likewise forced into self-consciousness.  However, in his case he finds it a strain, the source of much of his tension, and his rejection of Frieda in that explosive outburst.
[vi] And imagine all the feelings of guilt and shame over wanting your dead brother’s wife.
[vii] An Iranian friend has told me that most of the people he knows who emigrated here suffer from physical ill health –  it is psychosomatically caused by their (forced) transplantation into a foreign land.

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