February 26, 1997
I wish we could have continued the lively discussion on Breaking the Waves that we had nearly two weeks ago because I wanted to ask you why an atheist like you would
a) let himself be so angered by the film as you apparently were and
b) have any sympathies with Bess McNeill at all.
Before I explain my reasons for asking such questions, I want to be clear that, although you have been incautious enough as to reveal your atheism to me, you may, nevertheless, be confident that your secret is safe; I won't blow your cover to your undergrads, and you may continue to bewitch them with that ambiguity of which you are so very proud, you theological Janus, you. Come to think of it, perhaps your desire to have half of your students suppose you a theist and the other half the exact opposite was the ultimate reason behind your decision not to assign this film to your class. You perhaps feared that if you assigned this film, the class would take this as your endorsement of Director Von Trier's bell-ringing. This would explain your dislike of the final scene, which indeed wipes away all traces of agnosticism as to Bess's end. The final scene forces you to believe that Bess's faith in God was right, if, that is, you want to accept this fairy tale, which one can believe or dismiss as hocus pocus just like any other fairy tale. So, my suggestion that your assigning this film would dispel all doubt in your class's collective mind as to what you believe is surely wrong. Had you assigned it, you, no doubt, would have put in a disclaimer as to the extreme dubiousness of fairy tales, thereby safeguarding your highly prized secret. No, you refuse to assign this film because you merely think the film is not worth seeing, much less worth assigning.
Well, no, you don't "merely" think this, do you? This film angers you, and something that is "merely" thought of surely cannot provoke something that is so forceful and violent as anger, can it? I would not imagine so. This brings me, after a rather long digression (I do apologise quite humbly for the digression), to the heart of this letter, or part of the heart, at least, namely to my first question: Why would this film anger you? If I understand you correctly, the utterly unambiguous unsubtle end of the film angered you. That God at the end of the film unequivocally rewards and celebrates such a degrading and preposterous sacrifice of the self as Bess's sacrifice is so ridiculous, so outrageous, so ungeheuerlich that it could not but be an affront to your sense of Rationality, Ethics, and the Good.
But why let that anger you? The film is merely a fairy tale. Lots of mad things happen in fairy tales that go against our reasonable grasp of reality. In one fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, for instance, a devout and pious family slowly (and presumably painfully) starves to death because God has willed it so. We can just say simply that this is a fairy tale and, as such, has nothing, nothing at all to do with our reasonable grasp of reality (and we all know what this is, especially those of us who have read many books and attended many years of university to firm up this grasp)--and that would be that. But things are a whole lot different if we believe the fairy tale or even if we have only the slightest twinge of a feeling that maybe, just maybe this fairy tale does have something to do with reality, in which case we are forced to re-assess our reasonable grasp thereof. We have to ask ourselves such questions as, if God is good, why would He will such a horrible death on such a good family? This question would lead us only to more painful questions like, do we even know what the good is, and this would perhaps smack us up against a most horrible suggestion, namely that perhaps our reasonable grasp of reality for all its reasonableness does not help us to understand anything at all. All this would, I imagine, be an insult to all of us who are very proud and confident of our reasonable grasp of reality, especially to those of us who have endured years and years of study just to make this reasonable grasp tighter and more secure.
But an insult can only sting if it comes from someone you put trust in. The trust gives rise to expectations or pleasantness which the insult frustrates. If there are no such expectations, then the insult loses its power. Now, you saw Breaking the Waves on the strength of my recommendation and did not like the film one bit. Your animus should be directed at me for having made you see such a worthless film but not at the film for I was the one who violated your trust and not the film, unless, of course, you did put some trust in the film. Of course, you could say that you transferred your trust in me to the film, but logic would still dictate that you should be angry with me, the primary repository of your trust, and not the film, which can only be secondary in this regard. But never once did you say something like, "You, Paul, made me waste three hours of my precious time with this utterly worthless and pointless film, and, therefore, I am pissed off at you." No, you said that this film "pissed me off." So, perhaps, I am wrong in assuming that you thought this film utterly "worthless and pointless". No, obviously you thought the film had some worth or some potential for worth that somehow was destroyed for you by the end. Otherwise, you would not be so angry with it. In other words, the film let you down.
Yes, the film let you down; I won't back down from this statement. The film let you down because it wasn't true to its, to use your phrase, "authentic core", and this you have admitted to be a tragedy. How odd then that this film with its bell-ringing happy ending should let you down because it did not end in tragedy. As odd as it sounds, I will, nevertheless, not back down from my claim: the film did let you down. And I think I know why.
This leads me finally to another part of the heart of this unfortunately rambling letter, namely to my second question: why do you sympathise with Bess at all? You could simply regard her as a pathetic, gullible naif, nay, you could regard her as insane, as schizophrenic--as the good Ms. Goodman [the student who reviewed the film in Stud Life] does--and the film would trouble your rationality not. You refuse to do so because, I believe, you see in Bess the epitome of Kant's good will, of Kant's good heart.
Yes, that's it! Bess's good heart is what you admire. If only it could be harnessed by the mighty power of the Categorical Imperative, if only Pure Reason could universalise it for our world, think what would happen, my dear Professor! Finally alle Menschen werden Brüder under Bess's gentle smile! Cold, callous Indifference and petty Selfishness would cease! The warming fire of Generosity would light up the night! Hunger would no longer embarrass us! And War would be as insignificant as historical dates in a schoolboy's lazy mind! Bess's abundant, overflowing, wild love, if only it could be controlled by our reasonable Ethical Theories, oh, would that not be the fulfillment of every wet dream of every Ethics Professor in this world! Nietzsche's deepest wish would come true: we would make Caesars with the souls of Christ.
But, my dear Professor, render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and render unto God what is God's. Bess's good heart as Christ's soul is not of this world. This, I suggest, is what let you down. This is what angers you. Bess's good heart belongs to God, and you resent that it does because you want it for this your world. If you can't have it, then no one can, not Jan, and certainly not God, Who by your lights does not even exist. You will assert that the "authentic core" of Bess's story is a tragedy because for you it is a tragedy. It is a tragedy because your dearly held Ethics has suffered an unrecoverable loss, the loss of the only thing that can make it work, a good heart. And you rather mourn this loss, you rather mourn the lost potential of what might have been than suspend your disbelief, if only for a moment, for a fairy tale and share the miraculous joy that this good heart is not lost at all but borne to eternal life. But, of course, this good heart is rendered unto God and not unto your world, and this, even in a fairy tale, maddens you.
It maddens you so much that you deny Bess's greatest and fondest wish, the life of her beloved. For the sake of your Ethics, Jan must die, is that it? I believe this to be the case indeed. I do not know what sacrifice is more frightening, my dear Professor: the sacrifice that God demands of Bess for the sake of her love or the one that you demand for your Ethics. Let me think about this.
Bess's sacrifice is frightening indeed. As she went to the boat to meet her death, I cried. A friend of mine told me that at that moment he could not bear to be in the theater. Nevertheless, a few critics have dismissed the horror of this scene, claiming that the audience is in no doubt that divine Providence will set everything right. I can only wish that one day I can have such an easy faith as these critics and the alleged audience they write about. Yes, yes, I heard God tell Bess that He was with her, but I could only see her being butchered. And, yes, I cried because I could not bear the loss of such a trusting and loving human being. Yes, I admit it, I want her for my world just as much as you want her for yours. I could not help but think what I could do to keep her from the boat--I would have done anything--, but even if somehow I could have been put into this contrafactual, I would have been able to do nothing for Bess's faith is too great to subdue. She must go to the boat and be butchered. This sacrifice is frightening because it is inevitable.
"A ha!" I can hear you exclaim, "Despite all your vicious ad hominems at me, painting me as a blaspheming, self-deceiving Ethics Professor, you have all but conceded by your own emotions that this story is indeed a tragedy!" Yes, but my emotions are just human, Bess's smile is human and more so. Would a tragic figure smile so gently as she meets her doom? No, because tragedy belongs to the realm of the merely human. After the Incarnated Word, there is no tragedy because we humans can be more than human: Death has lost its sting. And, therefore, smiling faith is possible. I am not claiming that I know this. I can only repeat what I memorised of my catechism, but somehow I know that Bess knows this--somehow. Even though I may think her sacrifice a horrible tragedy (which I would not wish even on Ethics professors), I dare not think this too loudly lest I insult Bess's intelligence. And in insulting Bess's intelligence, I would be insulting Bess herself. I cannot bring myself to insult someone whom I admire and love. Therefore, as agonizing as her sacrifice is, I am nonetheless forced to take comfort, however thin and brittle this comfort may be, that Bess genuinely knows something that I can only parrot.
Now let's look at the sacrifice you demand. This sacrifice is necessary for this fairy tale to be the tragedy you claim it really is. As a tragedy the story would have no miracle, Jan would die, and, of course, no bells would ring. I must remark once again how odd and, if truth be told, perverse all this is: you want a story with a joyous ending to be instead a rather pointless tragedy. I say "pointless" because, to put it crudely, without the miracles there is no pay-off. We cannot but conclude that Bess's most cherished belief was simply wrong, that this woman threw herself to slaughter to no purpose other than to satisfy either the mad delusions of her mind or of her husband's evil fantasies or the whims of a cruel, sadistic God, none of which point to anything we should desire or hope for. Tragedy, of course, defies our fondest teleologies. I merely want to make clear the enormity of your sacrifice. By your insistence that Breaking the Waves is a tragedy at its authentic core, you are not only condemning Jan to death but Bess and all the charms and great power of her love to utter utter hopelessness. Whereas Bess sacrifices only her self and that is horrible enough, your sacrifice seems a thousand times more awful for you are sacrificing hope.
But now you are jumping up and down wildly, screaming at me, and your screams go something like this: "Oh, no, don't blame me for sacrificing hope. You make it sound like I want to do this, this monstrous sacrificing of hope, as if I were some metaphysical Robespierre. Bess herself says just before she dies that maybe, she was wrong. She herself has renounced hope and meets her demise in awareness of her failure. Hence, she herself realises that hers was a tragedy, which makes her--by all classical definitions of tragedy, I might add--a tragic hero. That's why I say that the authentic core of this film is a tragedy; I am merely understanding Bess as she ultimately comes to understand herself (and that is Straussian, Paul; how can you not see my argument now?). My objection to Jan's miracles and the bells is simply an observation of what even you cannot deny, Paul, namely that they just do not square with Bess's own last words, the last articulation of her 'authentic core'." Oh, now you got me! I won't even quibble that Bess's "maybe" allows us to believe that her renunciation of hope is not quite complete (a literature professor would, but I am merely a humble dabbler in philosophy). No, you really got me. How can I take comfort, even a little comfort in Bess's faith when even she renounces it? I can't unless Bess's faith is greater than Bess herself and as such does not go away even though she abandons it when she dies. But this is absurd, eh? Yes, you got me. This film, properly understood, is indeed a tragedy, and everything I have written in this letter has been like a clanging gong.
And, hence, you have been right all along. You can rest assured, my dear Professor, that Ethics is safe. Bess has met her tragedy because her wild love led her to hubris against Ethics for which she paid dearly. She may have condemned herself to pointless tragedy, but, it must be admitted, the tragedy for us is not pointless at all. It serves as a dire warning to any of us who would dare put our trust in our profoundest yearnings for a greater love and not in Ethics. I think we should call Von Trier's editor and tell him that he must needs re-edit the film.
One last question: I am sure you have seen Peter Pan at least once in your life. Did you clap to save Tinkerbell?
Love, Paul S. Rhodes