Saturday, August 12, 2006

121. The Burden of Freedom


(WARNING: spoiler in 3rd paragraph)

Despite the title of this post, the topic today is not Kris Kristofferson--although, in its recognition of the slim thread by which our convictions hang, his song might not be a bad place to start. On the one hand, the one who seeks salvation is "bitterly" damned and condemned by those who "don't understand"; and on the verge of freedom--in the midst of its burden--he asks for the strength to forgive them. But by the end of the song, while he seems saved, he hopes to be forgiven for wounding "the last one who loved me," and himself ends up not understanding.

This song comes up a lot in my head, as it did last night, watching V for Vendetta. And here's another coincidence (although the film insists there are no coincidences): It ends with a song that contains excerpts from Malcolm X's "On Black Power," particularly those famous words about the virtues of self-defense "by any means necessary." While V for Vendetta presents some thoughtful ideas--the kinds Orwell handled so well in his seminal fables of totalitarianism--I'm made uneasy by V's (Hugo Weaving) dependence on violence, his appropriation of the enemy's strengths to assert not merely the truth but his need to revenge himself on those who unmade his life--and society at large. It is a simple objection I raise against the perpetuation of violence, "the chain reaction of evil," as Martin Luther King described war.

And then there is V's torture of Evey (Natalie Portman). Now, I won't deny the power gained by stripping oneself down, and the freedom earned through suffering. But Evey is not given a choice; and she is not punished for her convictions, but punished to create and hone said convictions. Martyrdom is one thing; coercion is another. And yes of course, V's society is venal, an opium-dispenser the likes of which Marx only glimpsed. But again, I'm simply unable to reconcile might with right. And I worry in these new nervous times whether terrorism--perpetuated not only by governments and groups but also individuals; the whole lot of them--should be extolled as a virtue. I'm not sure whether V's demolition of the Old Bailey or the Houses of Parliament is half as effective as his words. And there, then, is my last cliche: Speak the truth, live the truth, and you will give it to others, and make it so. Simple vendetta is not the truth, but an indulgence. You wouldn't have tragedy without the impulse for revenge, but you can accept the burden of freedom if you learn forgiveness.

And that leads me to one more thing: V for Vendetta is correct that death is not the worst fate. But I will not deal it out to others to achieve salvation; I cannot see the truth through such a curtain of blood. Instead, I hope, as in Kristofferson's song--and I guess I'm not just starting but ending with it--that I can be wounded and not succumb--or wound and be forgiven. C.S. Lewis' The Weight of Glory discusses some of this, including the joys of humility, in which one is pleased to please. At the end of Spike Lee's Malcolm X, Malcolm sends his bodyguard away, telling him he will not allow black men to kill black men; and in that final submission, in his own putting down of the sword, I think he shoulders freedom. And while V dies by his sword, I'm afraid the lasting image is the triumph of might.

I'll admit I'm still trying to decide exactly what to make of this movie. But I cannot deny the anxious voice I heard while watching it, the one that warns me against the misuse even of the truth and virtue. Maybe V for Vendetta loves Evey more than V; but she does cover his body with roses and propels the train toward Parliament. And the film seems too careful to portray it as a fireworks display rather than death and destruction. Someone must've been killed by such a use of force. And one is too many. That, too, is the burden of freedom.

1 comment:

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