December 24, 2009


Dear Friends:

Merry Xmas to you all. Here's something to think about in the New Year.

One film I keep returning to–I must have seen it at least five or six times now–is Damage, by Louis Malle. The story is a kind of Greek tragedy. Jeremy Irons plays a successful British civil servant whose inner life is empty; Juliette Binoche is his son’s fiancé, with whom he gets involved immediately after they meet. By chance, his son comes to the flat where they are having a tryst, and catches them in bed. Thunderstruck, the young man backs out of the room and falls backward over the bannister, plunging several stories down the center of the apartment building to his death.

His life thus destroyed, the man retires from the world. He takes up residence in a small town in an unidentified country, perhaps Greece or Italy. Life consists of shopping, cooking, and washing up, along with spending entire days sitting in front of a blown-up photograph of the fateful triangle–himself, his son, and the girl–which is mounted on the wall. He has, in effect, constructed some sort of shrine; but to what?

The man ponders what happened to him–events that were (or seem to have been) completely out of his control. He never knew who the woman really was, and yet the attachment went way beyond sex. As a high-level bureaucrat, he experienced his life as totally meaningless. He gave TV interviews and public speeches that were perfectly turned out–he said all the right things–but in reality, he was a shell. The girl, for some unknown reason, promised to fill that void (or so he believed, on an unconscious level), and so the chemistry was instantaneous, ferocious. Now, in the aftermath of it all, the man spends his time staring at the photograph, trying to decipher what it all meant.

What makes us, he says to himself, is beyond knowing. We surrender to love because it gives us some sense of what is unknowable. Nothing else matters, not in the end. I saw her only one more time, at an airport while changing planes. She didn’t see me. She was with a man, and carrying a child in her arms. She was no different from anyone else.*

She was no different from anyone else. This realization–perhaps only momentary–means that the “shrine” was not dedicated to the woman, nor even to the love that they shared, but to love itself. But perhaps much more than that. The purpose of the shrine, the need for it, is to worship that thing that is beyond knowing, the only thing that matters in the end. So what is it?

If human life is finally a mystery, the key in the lock is not that hard to figure out: it’s the sense of a Presence larger than oneself, and beyond the grasp of the rational intellect. For hunter-gatherers, this was a presence with a small “p”: their reality was immanent, was the environment itself. (The “great spirit” of the Plains Indians was typically the wind.) With agricultural civilization and the rise of religion, the Presence became transcendent, exalted to a “vertical” reality: God. Yet this presence, or Presence–this irreducible otherness–is finally within us. In Damage, the central character projects this “divinity” onto a perfectly ordinary person, which he comes to understand only years later. Yet the photo remains on the wall, and the daily “worship” remains the central activity of his life. Love gives us some sense of the unknowable, and the unknowable–even though it arises as an interaction between the self and the outer world–is unfathomable, as is the interaction. Hence, the enormous fascination, born out of the conviction people have that the experience embodies some great truth; which it does. Yet no amount of analysis or contemplation can resolve it; it just is.

Damage can be framed in many ways. I have already referred to Greek tragedy, but we can see it through the lens of Christian allegory as well. We have a man–say, Saul of Tarsus–going through the motions of a meaningless, ritualistic life. Suddenly, he is blinded on the road to Damascus, and that vision, or apparition, redefines his reality. In so doing, it tears up the old life, lifts him on transcendent wings, and finally deposits him in a chair in front of a photograph, bathed in the light of Christ. It’s not likely that the central character of Damage, even beyond the death of his son, would ultimately have it any other way. After all, he went from No Meaning to Total Meaning–not exactly a trivial adventure. As he says to himself at the end, as he walks the streets of his new home, “I found a life that was my own.” Who of us doesn’t want that?

Of course, much of a political nature could be added at this point. Mesmerization by the cross, no less than by the swastika or the hammer and sickle (to name but a few), has caused many millions of deaths. This is just a matter of historical fact, and I don’t mean to treat it lightly. But it seems to me that it has a larger context, an anthropological one: namely, that the need to feel a part of something greater–even if immanent, as in the case of hunter-gatherers–has been with us for at least 100,000 years, when the first light of self-conscious awareness glimmered in the brain of Cro-Magnon Man. The birth of the self, in a word, may have been coincident with the desire to immerse the self, and thereby to endow it with meaning. This is the very essence of Homo sapiens sapiens, and it is not likely to leave us any time soon.

Viewed from this perspective, the “damage” of human relations, if not quite forgivable, is at least explicable. How much of our lives is driven by this archaic impulse? A good bit of it, I would guess; maybe even most of it. It is tempting to say, of course, that the solution is then fairly obvious: we have to get a “handle” on this impulse, to channel or control it in some way. This is the path (ideally, at least) of organized religion or psychoanalysis, and it is not completely in error. But it does tend to omit the central point, that of the need to experience the phenomenon–to be “taken” by life, to let life “come and get you” and make of you what it will, so that you might get washed up on the shore of some small town, staring at a picture on the wall–if that should happen to be your fate.

How many of us are willing to take that chance?

©Morris Berman, 2009

*This text does not occur in the novel by Josephine Hart, on which the film is based, but in the screenplay of the movie, by David Hare.


Blogger Jeff Wild said...

This post reminds me so much of your Wandering God, a book I have loved for years, and which led me to Gilles Deleuze, a writer who became part of my search along with the Talmud, Catholic theology and Shakespeare to name a few. This search tires me and frustrates me, but your words remind me how deep it is and how I must cling to those moments of clarity from wherever them come.

With warmest regards,

3:41 PM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman, It's been several years since I saw Damage so some of the details escape me. What I remember about the movie was he looked to me to be a man who had compromised his life away, killed his feelings along with his conscience and had nothing to give anyone. Even when he felt and acted on his powerful attraction to his son's fiance his motivation seemed more to take and possess than to love. His selfishness and amorality consumed him and (if I remember correctly) he didn't even appear troubled by the fact that his son was going to marry a woman who didn't love him and would actively hurt him. The human instinct to protect your child was even dead in him and what reassurance he sought was that she would continue to sleep with him after the marriage. Even though he didn't literally push his son over the edge he abandoned and betrayed him every step of the way. While the thrill was sex, I don't think the force behind it was love--I don't think he was any longer capable of loving. Zola wrote a novel on this theme too, Therese Raquin, and the lovers felt passion but once that soured there was nothing to take its place. I don't want to make my response too long--it was an interesting post.

6:29 PM  

Querido Mauricio:

I want to take that chance, but I make the mistake of leaving a certain trace, though naive, Hansel and Gretel type of route. Route that brings me back and does not let the experience come and get me with no return. In this sense we only flirt with life and awake to the comfort of forced illusion, thoughs to be able to survive.

I have come to a sad conclusion my friend: In the world there is almost no place left for a healthy and permanent madness to really live with others. We negotiate spaces of more or less permanence with the mystery of life, but they mostly find us alone. The real liberating experience for me would be in the act of communion experience, the “situation”, where the paradox (you well call in your book the wandering god) emerges; I see it as a kind of “unit” opposed to being under one global God, God in anticipation of the paradox. Infinity, deluding us from living the real emptiness.

As all of your last writing’s, they are “right” on the dot, leaving nothing “left”, "redonditos" as we say in spanish. I believe counterculture must find its materialism (fenómeno) as one not reactionary of formal rationalism. Until then rationalism will always think it's “right”, wanting to leave nothing else “left”. jaja

Felices fiestas amigo mio.

8:54 AM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear Prof. Berman,

Like Jeff, this reminds me of "Wandering God". Although in this essay, you seem to be more kind to "vertical" experiences, suggesting that anything is preferable to the "dullardism" of normal life.

Andres wrote: "...we only flirt with life and awake to the comfort of forced illusion..." How many times have I gone to bed with a sense of clarity and resolve, only to wake the next morning still stuck in the same routine!

I look forward to you writing a Self-Help book: "Ten (Un)Easy Steps To Real Life", or something along those lines.

8:47 PM  
Blogger Brian M. said...

I am very curious about your personal history; How does one get to where you are? Are you from a large or small family? Do you have any belief in a supreme being? Did you have opportunities that may be considered by some to be "more fortunate" or did you wait tables to put yourself through college? Did your father serve in WWII? Did you have a lottery number? I cannot find any information about you other than what you say about yourself. I am fascinated by your point of view. I feel that I must read your book on nomadic spirituality. How you could even come up with the idea for such a thing is fascinating in itself.

9:34 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Brian,

I'm not sure that I'm personally all that interesting, to be honest. Not that it is entirely true that my work is my life, but obviously there is a rather heavy overlap, as one wd expect of most authors. In other words, if you really want to know who I am, you'll probably learn more from reading my work than from talking to me. I don't have any belief in God, tho I do believe there is such a thing as sacred experience. I had a scholarship in college, but I also waited tables. I certainly never won the lottery. As for the projects I picked, the topics I chose to write abt: it wd be more accurate to say that they chose me, rather than the reverse. When it comes to the major decisions in life, I believe that we think we have free will; but in retrospect, we realize that our choices were pretty much "decided" for us. Heraclitus' statement, that "character is destiny," always rang true for me.

I do hope you'll enjoy "Wandering God."


9:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I think think there is a bit of confusion in the film (as you describe it) between a deep metaphysical merging and a pheremone cascade, it appears to point to some sort of everpresent trancendent state that people sense. I suspect that this "awareness" is actually a residue or cellular memory of events so deep in the history of life that they have become fundamental and direct many other functions in organisms. Probably the first event in this regard was the origination of the eukaryotic cell through a series of symbioses. This continues today on the cellular level in the merging of the egg and sperm in an aqueous solution.

Interestingly, in astrology, the planet Neptune symbolizes boundary loss - and also spirituality - both of which raise the definition of self. An exploration of this planet's nature in the literature may be enlightening.

Que pases un buen ano nuevo!

12:40 PM  
Blogger Brian M. said...

Thanks much for the response, even tho it had nothing to say to the point of this post - I am new to your work (xmas present from daughter) and find it extremely compelling. I am of a 'vedic' mind, I think that we are finite manifestations of an infinite consciousness that is trying to be self-aware. Our choices define not only us, but everyone we contact. I believe that there is no good w/o bad, no right w/o wrong, no love w/o hate, no joy w/o sadness... We interact and we experience 'life' more than thru our own life alone. His immature lover matures and goes on to create a new life, while Jeremy's character is no longer alive... his spirit died with his son's death. He is riddled with guilt, He's just waiting for the physical state to catch up. (He probably wants to kill himself, but he is a coward.) He feels nothing. He is the walking dead. And Irons was the perfect actor for the part too.

1:52 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Brian,

My interpretation of the film is very different from yours, actually. I see him as the walking dead *prior* to the turning point of his son's death, not after. After, he is in a sense reborn, for now there is Meaning in his life, although it does revolve around a relationship that no longer exists (except in his mind, or soul). His life acquires a profundity it never had. As strange a life as it now is, it is at least--a life.


5:43 AM  
Blogger Brian M. said...

I only saw the movie once and it was quite a while back. I admit that I react negatively to watching stories where people 'give in' to irresponsibility and lust. He didn't have to be emotionally lazy, empty, and lifeless, he chose that path. It is hard work to keep yourself mentally alive. If, as you posit, his affair extracted him from that state, doing so in such a manner bothers me immensely. I would admit that my reactions are possibly a manifestation of my own guilt, not from having "been there done that" as an adult, but from wondering what might have been different now, as an adult, if I had been more responsible in late adolescent relationships. Seeing adults make adolescent decisions is painful. Watching them get wistful about it after the fact is torturous. It reminds me of "Death in Venice."

2:57 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

I guess there are a lot of ways to interpret this film, but your own take stirs the memory (for me) of a line from Thoreau: something like: "Don't be too moral; you'll miss a lot of life."

It may be a copout, for all I know, but I don't think the Jeremy Irons character (Stephen Fleming) really had a lot of choice in the matter; which is of course not the stuff of "Dr. Laura," but it is the stuff of Greek tragedy. Who was more on target, do you think, Dr. Laura or Sophocles?

8:36 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

I'm not sure, but I think it was Sam Keen who once said, "A life without regrets has been wasted." Or something to that effect.

It's true, we do have more choice than we think ... but we also have far less than we would like to believe, alas. And the power of the irrational is astonishingly powerful. Hasn't everyone, at one time or another, experienced its pull, recognized it clearly & vividly, understood its immense danger -- and wound up going along with it anyway?

1:38 PM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman and Brian,

While I agree that Jeremy Iron's character lost control of himself and was in the grip of something (I'm not sure what to call it---emotion, desire, meaning) overwhelming, I don't draw the same conclusion as you. I don't think this is about morality and not wanting to miss any fun. He didn't want to "gain control" of himself b/c whatever this woman supplied in his life was more powerful than any other claim he felt. The ending was enigmatic---you saw a man who had found meaning in his life, I saw a man as befuddled and confused as ever but with the same inability to understand whatever he needed in his life (and she had temporarily supplied it) predated the picture on the wall. He went back to simply going thru the motions of life once again but this time in a small village rather than a public stage. The experience didn't so much as transform him as baffle him--or so it seemed to me.

6:07 PM  
Anonymous Mark Notzon said...

My introduction to David Hare was the film "Plenty" which I saw back in the early eighties. The dialogue was so good that I intuited, correctly, that he was a playwright. I then took in as much of his work I could before 1986, when I left for Africa and had little opportunity of seeing serious Western cinema.

I just took a second look at "Damage" because of your blog. I first saw it when I was back in the States after two years in Indonesia.

Just prior to my return I had been in Solo, Central Java where I had made a jaunt up Mt. Lawu (sacred to the Javanese) to visit a small temple built by the Hindu Mahapajits who once ruled Java, but whose power waned with the advance of Islam. This temple was one of the last built by the Indian civilization. The temple is called Candi Sukuh (the second word means "pleasure").

While erotic art is feature of Hindu temples, it is the highly stylized and almost "abstract" quality of the figures, and their unions (including bestiality)
which are most remarkable about this place. It is almost as if the dying culture were desperately attempting to revive itself
through all manner of sexual intercourse, as if that would renew a chthonic relationship with their gods and themselves.

I did have this in the back of my mind when I first saw "Damage." And looking back, the film started me off thinking about passion, attachment, "samsara," and so on.

That was, however turning it too much into a Buddhist "morality tale." Your comparison with Greek tragedy is more accurate as the main character becomes more human after he has been wounded, and it is that recognition which "redeems" him.

I don't have much use for Jung these days, but I do recall him stating somewhere, that after so much analysis, one has to jump into the 'waters of life.' The risk of course is immersion without awareness--the dominion of passion.

If we were perfectly transparent to ourselves, we wouldn't find the sacred.

7:06 PM  
Blogger Brian M. said...

So, you do comedy too! You give 'Dr. Laura' much too great a compliment by the mere mention of her name in the same paragraph, let alone sentence, as 'Sophocles.' Makes my skin crawl just thinking about that voice. Thoreau's sentiments are good, since morality has many dimensions - however, as a father of 3 daughters, one who has been raped, my moral compass may go a little haywire where adult sexuality is concerned. So, the son's fiancee actually raped Stephen Fleming... I hadn't thought of it that way, but it's a possible interpretation, n'est-ce pas?

10:36 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Thanks, everybody, for your input. Lots of stuff to think about. Just a couple of comments from this end, on Mark's contribution.

"Plenty" is also one of my favorite films, and it also deals with the theme of a life gone awry because of the huge need for Meaning. Being behind enemy lines in Vichy France enabled Meryl Streep (i.e., her character) to be high all the time; she was an "edge junkie." War over, she cdn't adjust to a drab postwar Britain, with a bedsitter and a job; or to the stolid man she decides to marry. As time goes by, she spirals out of control. (She insists on authenticity in a world of diplomacy, which is a formula for disaster.) It's a good study of what I call 'vertical energy' or the 'ascent tradition' in CTOS and WG.

And I tell you, Mark, that last line of yours is--breathtaking.

10:49 PM  
Anonymous Peter said...

Dear Morris,
I have recently started reading Richard Tarnas' "Cosmos and Psyche" (highly recommended), and your post reminded me of it in some ways. Of course, he expands at length on the theme (some 500+ pages), but at least the first 60 pages places this quest for understanding/realization in interesting historical context.

Another potent film I'd like to hear your thoughts on is "Under the Volcano" much of 20th Century art, when looked at from our "last days" perspective, seems very prescient, doesn't it?

9:10 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Peter,

I fear I'm not much of a Tarnas fan; check out my evaluation of his work toward the end of my book, "Wandering God." I haven't read his latest, however. As for Lowry...I fear I read it 30 yrs ago, remember very little...

Thanks for writing-


10:55 AM  
Anonymous 出会い said...


9:00 AM  

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