Philosophy, Morality, and the English Patient
Hurka, Thomas, Queen's Quarterly
THOMAS HURKA teaches philosophy, especially moral philosophy, at the University of Calgary. For a time he wrote an ethics column for The Globe and Mail.
The movie The English Patient, based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje, won nine Academy Awards this year, including Best Picture. This last award normally goes only to serious movies, ones that address important themes. But looked at this way, The English Patient is a disturbing choice. It has a moral perspective on the events it describes, but it is a me-centred and immoral one. Philosophy can help explain why.
IN saying this, I don't assume that all art is subject to moral critique, a common view in the nineteenth century. At that time, people believed that even landscape painting and instrumental music have as their main function to improve their audience morally, and should be evaluated for how well they do so. I think it's obvious that many works of art have no moral content, so a moral commentary on them is irrelevant. But other works, especially of literature and drama, raise and explore moral issues. And when they do, we can ask how well they do so.
The English Patient has a moral issue at the centre of its plot. In an Italian villa at the end of the Second World War, a burn victim is slowly dying. His face is scarred beyond recognition, and he claims not to know his own identity. But one character, Caravaggio, has figured out who the patient is. He is Count Laszlo de Almasy, a Hungarian desert explorer who just before the war gave the German army crucial desert maps that enabled them to attack Tobruk and almost win the war in North Africa. Caravaggio himself was captured and tortured in that offensive. He thinks Almasy is guilty of betrayal and wants to bring him to account. Caravaggio has killed everyone else responsible for his capture and torture, and he now wants to kill Almasy. So a key question is: did Almasy act wrongly in handing over the maps? The rest of the movie addresses this question by showing what led to his choice.
Before the war Almasy was deeply in love with a married woman, Katherine Clifton. Much of the movie describes their passionate and all-consuming affair. But just before the outbreak of hostilities, Katherine was seriously injured in a desert plane crash that also killed her husband. Almasy, who was present, carried her to shelter in a cave and promised to return with help. His first attempt to get that help, from the British army, was rebuffed. Confronted by someone with no identification papers and a foreign accent, they instead arrested him as a spy. After escaping from the British, Almasy went to the German army. But to get their help he needed to offer them something in return. As the only way to keep his promise to Katherine, and from profound love for her, he gave the Germans the maps.
When he hears this story Caravaggio says he no longer has any desire to punish Almasy. The "poison," he says, has left him. And the movie's treatment of Almasy is now overwhelmingly sympathetic. Its emotional high point comes when Almasy, finding he has returned to Katherine too late, emerges from the cave carrying her dead body. Tears stream down his face; the photography is lush and gorgeous; the background music swells. As portrayed here Almasy is an entirely romantic figure. There is an equally sympathetic treatment as Almasy, having requested a morphine overdose, dies at the movie's end. Again both the camera and his nurse surround him with unqualified love.
After his escape from the British, Almasy faced a choice between a political end, resisting Nazism or at least not colluding with it, and a personal end, keeping his promise to Katherine. And the movie's treatment implies that his preference for the personal end was understandable and even right. This is implicit in the movie's most important line, a remark of Katherine's that it emphasizes by repeating: "Betrayals in war are childlike compared to our betrayals in peace." Loyalty in love, this line says, is more important than loyalty to political ends such as those fought for in war. Whatever its consequences for politics, any action done from love is right.
IT is this utter denigration of the political that makes The English Patient immoral. There was not just some political end at stake in the Second World War; there was resistance to Nazism, a movement threatening millions of innocent people. Yet the movie treats even this end as morally inconsequential. Its attitude is therefore the opposite of that taken in Casablanca, a movie likewise set in North Africa in the Second World War. In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart's character, Rick, sacrifices his love for Ilsa in order to join the fight against Nazism. As he tells her and her husband, "The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." In The English Patient, by contrast, the fight against Nazism is blithely sacrificed for love. The problems of the world, the movie says, and of the millions of people threatened by Nazism don't amount to a hill of beans beside those of two love-crazed people.
This critique of The English Patient is most compelling given a certain assumption about its plot: that given the time it took Almasy to reach the British army, escape from them, and reach the Germans, he should have known there was no chance Katherine would be alive when he reached the cave. He was keeping a promise to someone dead, and however romantic that may be, it has little moral weight beside a duty not to collude with Nazism.
This assumption may be challenged, however. Maybe Almasy got to the Germans fast enough that he did have a reasonable chance of saving Katherine. Then his choice was fraught in a way that Rick's in Casablanca is not. Whatever Rick does, he knows Ilsa will be safe. But for Almasy to honour the political demand is to consign his loved one to death. Given this circumstance, is his choice so obviously wrong?
The English Patient, revealingly, doesn't bother to settle this morally crucial detail of plot. But let's grant that Katherine might still have been alive. A movie could then portray Almasy as caught between two powerful but conflicting moral demands, one personal and one political, with some horrible violation inevitable whichever choice he makes. If he resists Nazism he fails the woman he loves; if he saves her he colludes with moral evil. This possible movie has the structure some find in classical Greek tragedies such as Aeschylus's Agamemnon, where the protagonist faces a tragic conflict between two competing moral duties and cannot avoid doing something morally wrong. Whichever duty he chooses, he is guilty of violating the other and must pay for that guilt. But this possible movie is not The English Patient, which gives Almasy's political duty no serious attention at all. Here, when love is at stake, its demands not only outweigh the competing demands of politics but render them trivial.
This is certainly Almasy's view. Before the war he thought the coming conflict was just one between silly nationalisms. In the Italian villa, after his story has been told, he thinks his choice about the maps was not just right but obviously so. Told that his explorer friend Madox killed himself when he learned of Almasy's betrayal, he is simply and entirely surprised: why would anyone react like that? And he offers excuses for his choice that are morally pathetic. One is that his action did not mean that any extra people were killed; it only changed which people were killed. But even if this is true (and how does Almasy know it?), he couldn't have known it at the time. His transfer of the maps could easily have led to a Nazi victory in North Africa, with incalculable effects on the future course of the war. And doesn't it matter whether the people killed in war are guilty Nazi aggressors or morally innocent defenders?
Almasy's view is also the movie's. As I have said, its treatment of him, especially in its most emotionally loaded scenes, is entirely sympathetic. And this sympathy is almost inevitable given the way the movie frames the moral issue Almasy faces.
In a recent moral defence of the movie, Ondaatje has borrowed from that central line of Katherine's. Its theme, he says, is "love, desire, betrayals in war and betrayals in peace." This is indeed how the movie presents Almasy's choice, as one between conflicting loyalties and different possible betrayals. But the concepts of loyalty and betrayal are essentially personalized or me-centred: I can be loyal to a person I love or to the nation I belong to or to a group of people specially connected to ME. But I can't be loyal to a stranger, and I can't betray a stranger. In framing the moral issue as it does, the movie frames it in an essentially me-centred way. Almasy is to ask himself which of the people specially connected to him he should care most about, or which attachment to him, that of his lover or of his nation, is morally most important.
But this approach entirely ignores a more impersonal type of moral demand. This demand is impersonal not in the sense that it is not about people but in that it is about people independently of any special connection to oneself, or just as human beings. Other people matter morally in themselves, and we have duties to care about them whatever their relations to us. This impersonal type of duty was utterly central in the Second World War. Nazism threatened the lives of millions of innocent people, and regardless of their nationality those people needed protection. This is clearly recognized in Casablanca. In that movie, Rick has no reason of loyalty to join the fight against Nazism; he is an American, and the US is not yet in the war. But he sees that, loyalties aside, Nazism is an evil that must be resisted. His reason for fighting is therefore not me-centred but, in the sense I am using, impersonal. And this kind of reason is given no place in The English Patient. By recognizing only the concepts of loyalty and betrayal, that movie leaves no room for a demand to care about people only as people.
That is why the movie inevitably sympathizes with Almasy's choice. If the alternatives are loyalty to a particular person one loves and loyalty to something as abstract as a nation, of course the former is more important. It's the same with E. M. Forster's famous remark that if he had to choose between betraying his country and betraying his friend, he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country. As described, that choice again seems correct. But in each case this is only because the choice is described in a tendentiously incomplete way, one leaving out impersonal considerations. And those considerations are often morally decisive. Consider: if you had to choose between betraying your friend and colluding in the murder of millions of innocent people, would you hope you had the guts to murder those people?
This is the central immorality of The English Patient: its reduction of all moral demands to me-centred demands, those based on other people's relationships to oneself. The reduction appears in many places in the movie.
One is its taking seriously another of Almasy's pathetic excuses. He wasn't guilty of betrayal in handing over the maps, he says, because the British betrayed him first in refusing him help to save Katherine. Set aside the question of whether the British really did mistreat Almasy at all. With the world on the brink of war, he was in disputed territory with no papers; he was abusive in his manners and gave no satisfactory explanation for his request. But that aside, why should one little betrayal by the British license him to collude with Nazis? That conclusion would only follow if the coming war were, as Almasy thought, just another conflict between silly nationalisms. But of course in this war one side, whatever the other's failings, was incomparably morally worse. That is why Elizabeth Pathy Salett was entirely correct to say, in the Washington Post article to which Ondaatje responded, that the movie's "presentation of a moral equivalency between the Germans and Allies trivializes the significance of the choices men like Almasy made."
Even the voice against Almasy in the movie speaks in me-centred terms. That voice is Caravaggio, and what does Caravaggio want? He above all wants revenge, and revenge is again a personalized concept: I can want revenge only for a wrong done to me or someone closely connected to me, and I get revenge only if I inflict it myself. In both respects a desire for revenge contrasts with a desire for justice, which can be aroused by wrongdoing against anyone and can be satisfied when punishment is imposed by anyone, including the impersonal state. But expressing the moral challenge to Almasy in terms of revenge again has a trivializing effect. It reduces that challenge to a "poison" that can be easily extracted when Almasy's story is told. And it utterly underdescribes the subject of that challenge. As part of his torture Caravaggio had his thumbs cut off. This means that he can no longer do sleight-of-hand tricks -- when he tries one with an egg he drops it -- and can no longer ply his former trade as a pickpocket. It is hard to think of a less adequate representation of the threat posed by Nazism.
THERE are, then, three levels of moral critique of The English Patient. First, the movie sympathizes with a choice that is simply morally wrong. Second, it sees nothing at all problematic about a choice that, even if not simply wrong, violates an important political duty. Third, the movie casts its moral considerations entirely in the me-centred terms of loyalty and betrayal, never recognizing the impersonal demands that were so central in its setting of the Second World War. Of these critiques the second and especially the third are philosophical. Moral philosophy does not consider issues that are completely different from those of ordinary moral thought. It considers the same issues but at a higher level of abstraction, identifying the principles and structures of principles that underlie and explain particular moral judgements. In this, as in many cases, it is the most philosophical critique that is most important. It is because it recognizes only me-centred and not impersonal moral duties that The English Patient sees nothing troubling in, and even sympathizes with, a highly questionable choice.
Casablanca was very much a product of its time. Its impersonal moral vision expresses the experience of people who were fighting to resist aggression on another continent. The English Patient is, unfortunately, also a product of its time, one in which many people have abandoned concern for those in other countries or even for less fortunate members of their own society. It is a time of withdrawal from the impersonal concerns of politics into a smaller realm focused on the self and its few chosen intimates. It is no surprise that The English Patient won its Academy Awards. The movie has the kind of high-minded tone that Academy voters find impressive. And its substance fits the depressing tenor of our time.…
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Publication information: Article title: Philosophy, Morality, and the English Patient. Contributors: Hurka, Thomas - Author. Magazine title: Queen's Quarterly. Volume: 104. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 1997. Page number: 46+. © 1998 Queen's Quarterly. COPYRIGHT 1997 Gale Group.