Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Daisy Miller and Doubt

Now that I have Netflix, I’ve been watching a lot of movies, some of which remind me of famous books (see previous post). This time it was the 2008 film Doubt about a very severe nun who accuses a priest of child abuse on very flimsy, though compelling, evidence. The priest resigns his position, which the nun takes as his confession, but in the end she breaks down and confesses to another nun that she has “such doubt” about his guilt.

Most friends that I talked to about the film thought the priest was guilty, but I was not so sure; indeed, at the end of the film, I leaned toward his innocence, at least in this case.

The film is deliberately ambiguous, as are many great works of literature. I was struck by the theme of gossip and the use of the wind blowing around the autumn leaves as a symbol of suspicious talk, speculation, and allegations about others based on ambiguous appearances.

I was reminded of the 1878 novella Daisy Miller by Henry James about a young American woman in Europe who is destroyed by malicious gossip about her sexual activity, gossip that is based on unconventional, but completely harmless, behavior.

Daisy dies of malaria, which she catches while out at night unchaperoned with a man at the Roman Coliseum. Literally, “malaria” means “bad air,” a symbol, like the wind in Doubt, of malicious gossip. Like those who were sacrificed in public at the ancient Coliseum, Daisy serves as a modern-day sacrificial victim of social judgment.

Whenever I have taught the book, it has stirred heated discussion, some seeing Daisy as an innocent victim, others seeing her as a shameless “flirt” and “tease,” if not entirely a “slut.” Some readers complain about the ambiguity: “Why can’t he say what he means?” “Why leave us in such doubt?”

Indeed, what is the value of ambiguity and doubt, whether it be in literature or film? My answer is that the fictional situation is a rehearsal, if you will, or reenactment, of our actual life experience, so often full of ambiguity and doubt, despite our frequent, sometimes desperate, clinging to certainty.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, and The Last King of Scotland

Speaking of Westerners seeking adventure in non-Western countries (see previous post), I recently watched The Last King of Scotland, a film based on the book about Uganda by Giles Foden, and was reminded of the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. When I googled the two titles, I got 12,400 hits. When I googled those two titles along with Apocalypse Now, a contemporary film roughly based on Heart of Darkness, I got 820 hits. Obviously, I am hardly the first to see the parallels between Conrad’s 1899 novel about the Belgian Congo, the 1979 film about the Vietnam War, and the 2006 film about brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

All three feature a white Western male who goes to a non-Western country and confronts, not only the “darkness” to be found in a foreign land but the darkness to be found in his own heart. Critics have long debated whether Kurtz’s final words “The horror! The horror!” in Heart of Darkness refer to the native culture, European imperialism, human corruption, or all three. Both he and Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now lead Western expeditions into non-Western territories under banners of heroic idealism and proceed to self-destruct as they confront their own roles in the raw exploitation of native resources, culture, and people.

In The Last King of Scotland a Scottish doctor exploits post-colonial Uganda to satisfy his own fantasies of adventure, accidently becomes the private physician to Idi Amin, and finds himself an unwitting accessory to the brutal dictator’s savage murder of his own people.

Despite the differences, all three works dramatize the disillusionment that ensues when the white Western “heroes” discover their own human capacity for corruption and, by implication, the capacity of their Western homelands for exploitation and brutality under the guise of idealism and innocence.

Similarly, Heart of Darkness, a classic Western novel that confronts the universal theme of the darkness in the human heart and the political theme of evil in the heart of Western imperialism, has itself been critiqued as a literary masterpiece that perpetuates the racist attitudes and stereotypes of its day.

To what extent does The Last King of Scotland, by focusing on the horrific acts of Idi Amin, perpetuate the popular and well established Western myth of African savagery? By comparison, The Camel Bookmobile (see previous post) offers a much more balanced view of the non-Western world.