Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Vow and Walker Percy "We have sinned and grown old"

This week I went with my wife to see The Vow. In the film, a wife (Paige) emerges from a coma forgetting who her husband (Leo) is. He spends the film trying to win her back and trying to learn how to love this new woman his wife has become. For my own part, I liked the movie. It wasn't great filmmaking, but I was partial to the soundtrack (some prominent songs by The National) and found myself somewhat absorbed by the whole concept of a man trying to get his wife, who has forgotten him, to love him again.

In reflecting on the film, I was reminded of the first chapter of Walker Percy's book Lost in the Cosmos. In the book, Percy spends time exploring man's self-alienation and desire to escape from himself. Percy appreciates that this is a somewhat modern phenomenon (Percy rightly observes that there was no word in the ancient world for 'boredom,' for example). Why is it that man so strongly desires to not be himself? Percy asks. In particular, Percy spends some time getting his reader to reflect on the usage of amnesia as a plot device in movies.
A variant of the amnesic-plot device is the inadvertent return of the amnesiac to home territory, where he is welcomed by a lovely woman, unknown to him, who is evidently his wife. The crucial scene is his being led off to bed... The source of pleasure for the moviegoer is not the amnesia but the certified and risk-free license to leave the old self behind and enter upon a new life, whether by amnesia or mistaken identity.
There is, indeed, a similar scene in The Vow where Leo decides to take Paige out on a date and try to get her to remember him. Though they have been married for years, here they end up sleeping together and spending the night as a brand new couple who barely know one another. The viewer is, of course, tantalized to a certain degree at the newness of all of this, but then they keep reminding themselves that these two people are married. Percy should have stopped writing brilliant novels and worked on some screenplays.

The Vow
has been a popular movie, and I understand that the movie was 'inspired' (loosely) by a true story. But I think Percy is on to something in his comments. People go to movies to find an escape. In many respects, there is something romantically intriguing about a tale where a woman wakes up with license to throw away the encumbrances of the decisions made for a half decade. After all, she has no choice in the matter - she has amnesia. What person does not - on some level - want to abandon their life only to experience the life she knows from a new perspective? Recall at the end of the movie 50 First Dates. Drew Barrymore wakes up in a strange bed, on a boat. She watches a video summarizing her life up to that point and being told that she has a daughter and she should come above deck to meet her family she has made anew for another day. Every day for her is new. Every day is a delight and discovering of the new.

One of the keys to living a life of joy (and I stress this is not the only or even the best key) is choosing to see each moment from Drew Barrymore's perspective in that movie - only without the amnesia. I quote Chesterton now:
It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.
What we need is not to lose our memory in order to reclaim the joy of life. What we need is perspective. "And he is before all things, and by him all things consist" (Col. 1:17). I turn to Jonathan Edwards:
It is plain, nothing can exert itself, or operate, when and where it is not existing [because] what is past entirely ceases when present existence begins…it does no more co-exist with it, than it does any other moment that had ceased twenty years ago.
There is a reason why God every morning cries out, "Again!" It is because the Sun cannot speak for itself. It does not have the power of self-sustenance. Every moment is anew. We have become bored of God's continuous work in creation, not because we understand it, but because we have ceased to understand it.

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