Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Light amid the Darkness

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Light amid the Darkness

Article excerpt

Short of goodwill after a bruising 2016? Mark O'Thomas prescribes a viewing of Elf for some much-needed seasonal joy and optimism

It has been a truly bruising year for liberalism and higher education. But now it is Christmas: a time for passing around the mince pies and feeling goodwill to all as we gather to watch yet another festive family film. And while we do that, perhaps we can rediscover our passion for resolving differences and find some way we might all move beyond the fraught schisms of the past 12 months.

The transcendental charm of the Christmas film has helped to paper over many a crack in familial relations. It has built bridges over the tops of fortified walls and erased stubborn borders. So, in this TV-on-demand era, which of the perennial Yuletide offerings might best offer an antidote to the current landscape of post-truth cynicism and fractured loyalties?

The Sound of Music (1965) is a serious contender. While it remains the most un-Christmassy of all Christmas films (it is set in spring and explores the early exit of a nun from a convent), for many families Christmas would not be Christmas without Julie Andrews humanising lonely widower Christopher Plummer.

Like many other Christmas films, The Sound of Music is really about the outsider - in this case, Andrews' Maria, a stranger who comes into the midst of the von Trapp family to share her soft skills of singing, dancing and sewing. Although Captain von Trapp is initially hostile to her, he is gradually seduced by her magnetism and by the sheer beauty of hearing his children sing. The family ultimately become refugees, who flee across Europe to avoid living under the incoming Nazi regime.

So you have bullying patriarchs, refugees and the fascistic closing of national borders: how much more topical could The Sound of Music be? If anything could melt the alt-right heart, it is surely this.

Christmas is often a time when neighbours become more neighbourly. They exchange cards and presents, and may even drop in on each other to share a seasonal beverage. In a year when political events in the US and the UK have seriously threatened community cohesion, such neighbourly bridge-building needs to be encouraged more than ever. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas famously invoked the figure of "the Neighbour" in his work on ethics, arguing that seeing the face of "the Other" - who might be your neighbour - comprises an ethical act of humanity. This is in stark contrast to the view of Slavoj Zizek, who flippantly suggests "smashing the Neighbour's face" in his critique of Levinas, which sees justice and love as definitively incompatible. …

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