Tragedy’s Silver Lining

“We feel an unforeseen relief at the end of the tragedy.” ~ Nikos Kazantzakis 

Silver Linings PlaybookThere’s a compelling scene in Silver Linings Playbook where the bi-polar protagonist (Patrick) feels anything but “relief” while reading the final pages of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms

Patrick hurls the book through a (closed) window.  At four o’clock in the morning

Then, he charges into this parents’ bedroom to debrief the tragedy:

“The whole time you’re rooting for this Hemingway guy to survive the war and to be with Catherine, the woman he loves… and he does!  He survives… after getting blown up… and he escapes to Switzerland with Catherine… but now Catherine’s pregnant.  Isn’t that wonderful?” 

Patrick, just released from a psych ward, wants to fix his broken marriage but he’s obviously deluded.  Positive thinking, he thinks, is going to win back his wife. 

“And they escape up into the mountains and they’re gonna be happy, and they’re gonna be drinking wine and they dance… [but] you think he ends it there?  No!  He writes another ending.  She dies.”

Hemingway’s tragedy has poisoned Patrick’s mind.   

“Dad!  I mean, the world’s hard enough as it is.  Can’t somebody say, “Hey, let’s be positive?  Let’s have a good ending to the story?”

Patrick’s rant predicts the climax—it could stand as the subtext of our hero’s actions as he resolves key personal issues in the closing minutes.  

The tone of the film is mildly comic, so we know from the get-go that it’s going to end well enough.  But if Silver Linings has one weakness, it’s exactly that—the Hollywood ending. 

Farewell to ArmsAnd it comes as the expense of A Farewell to Arms lying in tatters outside in the dark amongst shards of glass.  I dislike the notion that only gushing happy endings nourish readers.

I challenge Patrick to retrieve his Hemingway and revisit that ending.  Look again at the protagonist in that Swiss hospital room where his wife has just died.  He’s just died, too, so to speak.  He stands at the window, looking out. 

That’s how it ends.  It’s terribly sad, and at the same time, according to Nikos Kazantzakis, the story isn’t over.

We know that though the hero may die, may be reduced to bloodstained mire beneath some invisible heel, there is something within him that will not die.”

Look again at the Hemingway character at the window.  What’s he looking at?  Keep watching as Kazantzakis explains how we might appreciate this tragic scene:

Apparently there is a power outside and inside man which has one aim and only one—to rise.  Where?  Up towards what?  No one knows.”

Is this the silver lining of failure?

The “unforeseen relief at the end of the tragedy”—is this the nourishment imbedded in a good tragedy? 

The writer would seem to be asking us to conjure up the “relief” in our own hearts.   

Kazantzakis suggests that we instinctively understand this mystical aspect of tragedy.  We might even yearn to be a Macbeth or an Othello, but the demands of everyday life steer us well clear of any such possibility. 

As a result, says Kazantzakis, it’s our fate to be left behind “in the tepid mud to limp through life, limp through love, limp through desire.”

And limp off to the movies.  Yikes!

Let’s end this gloomy post with the final lines of Patrick’s rant.  Visualize his parents cowering under their covers:

MOM:  Pat, you owe us an apology.

PATRICK:  Mom, for what? I’m not going to apologize for this.  You know what I will do?  I will apologize on behalf of Ernest Hemingway, because that’s who’s to blame here.

[Silver Linings is written by David O. Russell.]

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  1. says

    I actually liked his rant. Sometimes you are in the mood for escapism, but in his obsessed “I’ll read every single book my wife is teaching” state, he just didn’t pay attention to the fact that you don’t expect happy-go-lucky from Ernest Hemingway. : )

    I do have several complaints about that movie, one of them being its number of Oscar nominations. Sure, it had its several moments, and I liked how Robert De Niro’s character was written and portrayed: an average, loving yet clueless family man trying to cope with his son’s situation in the best way that he can.

    But I failed to see the “amazing performances” or the wonderfulness of the script. It was a quirky, partially dark romcom that didn’t deviate from other romantic comedies.

    But I found the parents’ complaint ridiculous. People, he spent 8 months in a mental hospital, and you are upset that he woke you up? Come on! What were they expecting? I found his outburst endearing, actually. And I’d actually expect that from an angsty teenager without any mental disorders.

    But I do agree that the ending is too happy. Not because they got to be together, but one dance competition and promise of a romantic future seemed to clear away all their problems. Things don’t work out that smoothly, especially after having gone through what they’ve gone through.

    And I hate to give spoilers, but I also like the unhappy ending that comes with a promise- like the one in Royal Affair.

    Have you seen that one?

  2. says

    Pinar… oh, I loved that rant, too. I hope I didn’t give the impression that I didn’t. That scene stood out for me because it so clearly made its point about tragedy vs happy endings. That scene only made Patrick more “loveable”. Of course, the parents are the really crazy ones. But theirs is a benign lunacy. They’re not a danger to themselves or anyone else. The society is loony! Patrick’s journey is our journey… I guess.

  3. says

    God, this Kazantzakis sounds amazing. I love every quote, in fact I’ve purloined two or three (for the file). The quote about ‘a power outside and inside man which has one aim and only one—to rise.’ is just brilliant. Love that. Genius.

    I always aim to be as honest as possible in all my writings. So, I’ll tell you, PJ, I’m not fond of a sad ending. I prefer to avoid tragic movies, books, etc. Maybe it is because there have been so many tragedies in this family? I don’t know. But, I can appreciate your point of view and respect it. I really truly admire that there is a transformative, mythological aspect to the way you view everything. It’s uplifting and inspires one to deep, contemplative thought.

    p.s. I must say, nothing I’ve heard so far about Silver Linings has made me want to see it.

  4. says

    Yvette… “Silver Linings” has a (spoiler alert!) a happy ending… so you’ll like it. Actually, Robert DeNiro in his supporting role as Patrick’s father is worth the price of admission. This is not a disfunctional family… despite all of them being nuts.

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