Monday, February 18, 2013

May we ever obey thy godly motions

Discernment, to be true to reality, must be something that happens in light of experience. So it appears that for me freedom, what it means to be truly free, is my Lenten focus. This focus came to me through Pope Benedict XVI's announcement of his decision to abdicate the papacy, which thoroughly shook me, through Fr. Carrón's perception of what Joseph Ratzinger's decision means, and through my decision, quite unrelated to either of the first two things, but decided upon on the basis of my remembrance that at the beginning of his spiritual exercises Archbishop Forte dealt in detail with the subject of yesterday's Gospel- Jesus' temptations in the wilderness- to take To Follow You, Light of Life, as my main Lenten reading. Also, during this season of Lent, I am praying Morning and Evening Prayer from the traditional Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

At end of Morning Prayer as laid out in the Book of Common Prayer three collects are recited, two (one for peace and the other for God's grace), which the rubrics stipulate "shall never alter, but daily be said at Morning Prayer throughout the year," and the collect for the day, most often meaning the collect from the preceding Sunday. Because I am now highly attuned, that is, very aware of when exhortations or supplications for freedom pop up, I was twice struck this morning while reciting these prayers. First, by the collect for peace: "O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of our adversaries; through Jesus Christ our Lord." Then I was struck by the collect for the First Sunday in Lent: "O Lord, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights: Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness and true holiness, to thy honour and glory, who livest and reignest with Father and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end." Ever obeying God's divine and providential "motions" strikes me as true freedom.


Yet another experience brought home my call to focus on freedom. I mentioned at the end of my earlier post that last night I watched the fourth of Éric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales, La Collectionneuse. I began watching these magnificent films in order well before Lent and certainly before last Monday's startling announcement. Rohmer ends this film with what I hope I can call an existential meditation on freedom without sounding too abstract. As with the café scene from Rohmer's Ma nuit chez Maud, I want to try and capture it in written form (there is another scene in which the subject of the meaning of work is discussed that is also worthy of some treatment).

Upon deciding to leave Haydée in the company of two men who called out to her on the road, Adrien begins to relish what he thinks is his hard-won freedom. Haydée is a rather promiscuous young woman with whom Adrien had been maneuvering to sleep for weeks. Upon his arrival at his friend Rodolphe's villa on the Riviera he unexpectedly discovered her to also be a guest, along with his friend, the artist Daniel, whom he expected. Adrien quickly recognized her as the same young woman he encountered before going on vacation when he unintentionally walked in on her having sex. Just a moment before deciding to leave her there, Adrien, who is restless and rootless, an anti-hero, was selfishly enjoying the fact that he now had Haydée all to himself for the final the week of his vacation, reflecting about how reality seemed to be conspiring, through a series of unlikely events, to give her to him.

It was on their drive back to the villa, while passing through the nearby village, that Adrien and Haydée pass two men in a white convertible who, recognizing Haydée, summon her. Adrien stops his vehicle and she gets out. The two men invite her to another friend's villa. She declines to go with them just then, but wants to take down the address in case she decides to join them later. Adrien is stopped in the road, as are the two men in the other vehicle. Both cars are blocking traffic. A car pulls up behind Adrien and the driver, growing impatient, honks several times, prompting Adrien to move in order to make way. It is here that Rohmer's meditation on what I will call our "freedom" from which we must be liberated begins, as he drives from the village to the isolated villa:

When I started the engine, it was just to clear the road and perhaps put an end to Haydée's dallying.

But I quickly realized that I wasn't going to stop and that I was making the right decision for the first time.

This is the story of my twists and turns.

The way was finally cleared for the decision of my first days here ["here" being his friend's villa, his "decision" was to be by himself and do nothing].

Adrien on the porch of the villa

Now I could actually live my vacation dream [being by himself and doing nothing].

Peace and solitude were at last mine for the taking.

They weren't just handed to me.

I'd gained the right to them by at last asserting my freedom.

I reveled in my victory and ascribed it to my actions alone, not chance.

I was overwhelmed by a feeling of exquisite freedom.

Now I could do whatever I wanted.

Upon arriving at the villa, he gets out of his car and enters the house. He makes his way to his "monastic" bedroom, begins to undress, with the idea of getting some sleep. His monologue continues as he continues to undress and lays down on the bed:

But once back in the emptiness and silence of the house, I was seized with anxiety and unable to sleep.

Once on the bed, he lays restlessly looking around the room. He arises, moves to the window, and looks out the window. He clearly does not find the beautiful, early morning rustic setting, featuring as it does the crowing of the roosters, soothing. Rather, he seems to become more anxious, feeling even more isolated. So, he changes into clean clothes, picks up the book he has been trying read since his arrival, The Complete Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and enters the room in which Haydée, who clearly went with the two guys, had been staying. He takes a cigarette from her nightstand and lights it. As he stands smoking, he glances at her bed, which has some of her clothes laying on it.

The scene then shifts outdoors, where we see Adrien sitting in a chair under a tree with his book open on his lap, but he is not reading it. Instead, he sits looking at the villa. He closes the book, stands up, looks around and meanders slowly towards the house. As he reaches the porch, which has a commanding view of the surrounding fields and woods, with the Riviera visible over the treeline, he stands for a moment, surveying the view, then, with some determination enters the house, reaches for the telephone and dials a number. On making the connection, he says,

Hello, is this the airport?

When's your next flight to London?

Yes, today.

This hearkens back to the beginning of the movie, when Adrien endeavors to talk his model girlfriend into coming to the villa on the Riviera with him instead of going to London for her work. She insists Adrien come with her, but he strongly refuses, hoping to prevail upon her to come with him. They end at an impasse, which occurs just before his first encounter with Haydée. This is the same girlfriend who expresses a fascinating view of beauty during the final of films three prologues, which, along with the scene in which the meaning of work is the subject, could also be treated at length.

Much can also be said for how Rohmer deals with Rousseau's thought in this film, especially Rousseau's explication of human freedom, which was coming to be widely accepted in the 1960s (La Collectionneuse dates to 1967). While Rousseau's philosophy does not occupy as central a place in this movie as does Paschal's in Ma nuit chez Maud, it does frame Rohmer's tale. Briefly, Rousseau believed human freedom was corrupted by society. Rohmer does not necessarily set about to completely overthrow this understanding, but he does try to engage it, to argue with Rosseau.

Of course, Rousseau's conception of freedom has long since become culturally dominant in the West, a development that Rohmer, who was described in his 2010 Telegraph obituary, as "a Roman Catholic film-maker rather than a film-maker who happened to be Roman Catholic," could not accept uncritically. It is a freedom that, as exemplified by Adrien, is as cold and calculating, in a (hyphenated) word self-centered, as it is indifferent and untethered in Haydée. A freedom that both characters show to be fickle and ultimately unsatisfying. Nonetheless, any story of freedom, even an authentic story, is a story of our twists and turns.

I owe my present fascination with Rohmer's ouevre to my dear friend Sharon, who reviewed a film I have not yet been able to watch, Rohmer's Le rayon vert, for Il Sussidario in a piece entitled "A Restless Vacation."

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