Sunday, January 22, 2006

Paris: Romantics/Bourne Identity

Reminders of Paris on TV in one night: "The Romantics" and "The Bourne Identity", interestingly linked by that dominant idea in modern culture, individualism, as well as the individual's opposition to oppressive sytems. It's good to see this emphasis on themes I used to focus on in my lectures.

The Romantics
Sat 21 Jan

"David Tennant, David Threlfall and Dudley Sutton feature in the cast for this new series written and presented by acclaimed novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd. The English Romantic poets from Blake, through to Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and Keats were at the forefront of a movement between 1760 and 1830 which would re-draw the political map of Europe and North America, expand the limits of the human imagination and radically impact the way people see the world today.

Episode one [ much of it set in Paris] charts the development of the French Revolution and the birth of the individual in modern society.
The French philosopher Denis Diderot, played by Jason Watkins, insisted that men must reason for themselves. His friend, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, played by David Tennant, said that civilisation had corrupted mankind to free themselves, men must listen to their emotions. Rousseau's writings gave birth to a fresh hope for a new world of liberty, equality and fraternity. These ideas would fuel the greatest social upheaval in history - the French Revolution."

Peter Ackroyd points out how many of the (largely unquestioned) assumptions we have about art, artists and the importance of the individual were established in this period:

"THE IMAGE OF THE POET, and the writer, and the artist, is firmly fixed in the public imagination. They represent all the values to which we most loyally adhere; they are deemed to embody the imperatives of sincerity and spontaneity, of integrity and dedication. Above all, they must be original.

...The great triumph, however, lies in the spontaneous expression of feeling. They must be somehow apart, an observer rather than a participant. They may be in society — but not necessarily of it. Of course a writer is allowed, indeed encouraged, to have social and political opinions. He or she is permitted to speak out against the abuses of the day, and to write novels or poems that are relevant to the needs of the age. But a premium is placed upon personal observation and knowledge; if possible, the writer ought to write out of personal experience. Above all he or she must “express” that experience in eloquent and memorable ways. As a result there is an endless temptation to write ethnic novels, or gay novels, in implicit honour of the personality of the author.

Writers have been, and can still become, popular — almost celebrities — in a culture hag-ridden by the notion of celebrity. That is why they are allowed their foibles — drugs or drink (in modest enough quantities) are permissible. They do not necessarily need to support conventions. Their lives may be deemed wretched, or lonely, but that is part of the price of their genius. Suffering is beneficial. Genius is a word often employed. A genius is above the normal laws of society. He has a unique imaginative message that he may or may not care to impart. A writer is, in any case, a person of note. He or she has a duty to take himself or herself very seriously indeed.

These are all commonplaces, implicit in most discussions of what is now termed “creative writing”. They are not necessarily misguided but they are provisional and temporary. They have been learnt by several generations of readers and teachers, to the extent that they now pass as received wisdom. But they spring from a very particular phase of our cultural history. They are emanations of what we now call “the Romantic age”.

Romantics - Ackroyd

The Bourne Identity

Much of the film is set in Paris, including a pretty spectacular car chase, the hero driving a mini (appropriate for an individual against the system). But it is not just a simple-minded thriller set in pretty locations, as some critics claim.

While the Ludlum book which the film was based on was published in 1980, Tom Flynn relates it to post-9/11 America. While I don't agree with his acceptance of postmodernist claims that the notion of the self is SO different today, I do find his political analysis valid:

Post 9/11 – America as World Redeemer

"... Let us revolve back upon the question asked in the opening paragraph: Why was this film released in 2002? Perhaps the film's exploration of identity is befitting of a post-9/11 America identity crisis. Some in this country are exploring behind the façade of America's historical national identity, that of world redeemer. Analogous to Bourne's identity crisis in his amnesia, America has many possible identities to audition in post-9/11. Yet our current administration seems to have fallen back on that one identity of assurance - the world redeemer identity (others may call this imperialist), that top drawer identity, which is wrapped in the tattered flags of patriotism. As the Bush administration pontificates in the language of Ares and Athena about invading Iraq while comfortably cloaked in the myth of America as world redeemer, others want to shatter the monocular vision of us versus them that the world redeemer identity thinly disguises.

Remember that Jason Bourne, an assassin before his rebirth, possessed a singular self-assured sense of his Self not unlike the self-righteous willingness of America's present administration assuredness of knowing right from wrong that alienates other nations around the globe. While 9/11 had the potential to redress America's posture with the rest of the world, it seems we still stand unconvincingly in a guise of world redeemer and militantly chomping at the bit for a fight, like the one-dimensional aspect of Ares, the warrior.

The Separate Fates of the Hero and the Redeemer

"Jason Bourne, in his postmodern, post re-birth condition, finds some degree of resolution by the end of the film. He kills the central authority figure who was his controller [ he doesn't, he's killed by yet another assassin sent by the system to cover up this failure] he locates his love interest and the two are reacquainted with one another after some absence. Through his fumbling about with the combination lock to his identity, he discovers that the Ares warrior archetype no longer suits him except in the form of self-defense. He makes a hero's journey that parallels Joseph Campbell's expression of the classical hero's journey..."

Tom Flynn



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