Enough of my cinephile friends, particularly those with religious interests, speak of “the myth of redemptive violence,” to make me think that phrase has entered the popular lexicon. I’m hoping that the phrase “the myth of instructive alcoholism” joins it pretty soon.
I’m not here complaining about the too pretty alcoholic, like Elizabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas, who somehow manages to make you forget how really unpleasant is the experience of trying to remember that someone is made in the image of God after you’ve once woken up to the smell of their dried vomit.
And we’ve all seen enough episodes of House to remember that the term “functional addict” isn’t purely an oxymoron.
No, I’m not talking about the sentimentalizing nor glorifying of alcoholism but rather the spiritual fetishizing of it.
Alcoholics have “moments of clarity,” or at least some purport to having some. In a postmodern age that longs for but doesn’t believe in transcendent insight (because it doesn’t believe in transcendent meaning) there is a perverse (doesn’t matter how you parse that word) jealousy towards those who have the feeble counterfeits of the religious experience. in a period steeped in the mock epic and the mock heroic, the moment of clarity may not pass for the religious experience, but hey, it’s the closest thing we’ve got.
Of course railing against the evils of postmodernism is as tired and as gauche as wagging ones finger at all the secular humanists, so let me hurry to add that I really blame the University of Iowa, which, it seems, ever since Flannery O’Connor has been churning out MFAs whose cardinal rule of writing appears to be that epiphanies must always, only fall in equal measure on the unjust and the undeserving. (If you instinctively said, “Yes, Ken, but we are all undeserving,” pat yourself on the head, give yourself a gold star and go to the head of Sunday School class.)
Raymond Carver is less overtly spiritual in his work than is O’Connor, but his characters are no less grotesques. Hers are misshapen by (spiritual) pride, arrogance, racism, bitterness…in short, original sin. She is in that long line of literary Puritans descending from Hawthorne who haven’t yet forgotten that evil comes from within. I think you pretty much have to believe that in order to buy into the notion of violent grace–that the most loving thing one could ever do is to confront another with his or her own ugliness.
Carver’s works always strike me as a more desperate descendant of John Cheever. Alcohol may be the thing that makes us lose our grip on reality, but it is spiritual pollution (usually in the form of consumer gluttony) that infects us with the sickness unto death. Because no one has the power within to throw off the shackles of possessions (and because the postmodernist doesn’t really, honestly believe there is any power from without either to deliver those in bondage or empower them to participate in their own transformation) the luckiest man is the one who drinks enough to lose control and end up having everything that is not really good for him anyway taken away by force.
None of that is to say that Carver is a bad writer or that Everything Must Go is a bad film. Just that there is, for all the film’s self-aware (and somewhat self-indulgent) plotlessness, a routine series of movements going on here that will be intuitively familiar to anyone who has ever read “Cathedral” or “Are These Actual Miles?” It’s not even that I object to the condemnation of consumerism as the root of all evil. It’s just that when it gets filtered through a “man vs. nature” or “man vs. himself” rubric the one who is reaping what he sowed ends up looking a little too much like Job for my taste. At least in, say, Glengarry, Glen Ross, the critique of capitalism contains the admission that it makes actual people (or facsimiles of them) into actual assholes. Will Ferrell’s Nick Halsey is one of those alcoholic equivalents of the prostitute with the heart of gold. Sure he may throw stuff through windows and cuss you out if you won’t sell him beer on credit, but his piss don’t stink, and hey, when all is said and done, he said he was sorry.
That must be evidence that he’s further down the path of enlightenment than all the rest of us right?