The year 2017 has already, for many of us, been one of tumult and trouble and doubt. The news, be you Blue or Red, is pitiful, mercenary, and divisive and the language of the general populace is not of solace but often of ineptitude and drivel. One must look to the reliable countenances and steady bodies of friends, family and especially faith for the support of making it through 2017—and beyond.
But what if there are no friends? What if one has lost touch with or simply lost one’s family? What if faith is for you one of those pieces—indeed a cornerstone—of tumult, trouble, and doubt? I speak not for myself, as I am trebly blessed on these accounts, but for the multitude others who, I know, am certain, are grappling with and losing grip on hope. This is not an open opportunity for Obama to make a re-entry, much as many would really like that, but the Hope that the former administration promised moved many of us to think better of one another, and to reach farther than we thought we possibly could, and to feel proud.
It did, unfortunately, also move many of us to lose sight, and slip up on our journey. The knife-edge of possible failure was not so near anymore, what with the potential for social programs going forward, both Osama and Saddam taken care of, and a literacy in the White House that made language buffs (like myself) vindicated for our degrees.
And yet it is that slight possibility of it all being taken away that often gives way to the most creative and genuine and useful work. Truly. I think of my favorite film, Casablanca, and am without a doubt convinced that it is so marvellous because it was made with the cloud of war rising and moving steadily and rapidly closer to America’s—and Hollywood’s—own shores. The film, made in 1941, stars (if you’ve been living in a cave or are a millennial) Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and is set against the Nazi invasion of Paris and the subsequent displacement and distress this invasion caused. The players—Bogie as an American named Rick, and Ingrid as a European named Ilsa—are caught within the crosshairs of someone else’s choices and are not free to make their own. But are they not?
Indeed, that is the central point of the story. For while we are all the time led to believe we are both choiceless and voiceless under totalitarian rule—as the characters themselves are led to believe, until the denouement, the final scenes—we can never leave the confines of subjugation unless we remember we are more than subjects, and human. The story is not actually about Rick and Ilsa as individuals, or not entirely about them as such: they represent any ordinary person at any ordinary extraordinary time. That is, any time the water rises, any time the walls close in, any time the rug is pulled out from underneath you, you are given the opportunity to become an Ilsa or a Rick.
Of course, you do have other choices: you could become a Ferrari, owner of the Blue Parrot, who capitalizes on the coming invasion and exploits commodities for his own gain, and seems to get away with it; or an Ugarte, who attempts the same but is less clever, and less likeable and a little less shrewd, and winds up at the hands of the firing squad, a ‘suicide’ victim. There is also the more noble and notable option of becoming a Victor Laszlo, a freedom-fighter to set all freedom-fighters to right, and who has stayed true to his woman throughout the war, and who has endured torture (as we are told) in a concentration camp somewhere in Eastern Europe, and who is willing to risk it all—woman, reputation, life—to do what he believes is right, and moral, and true.
In the end, it is Victor whom we have to thank for the stunning and memorable ending of this film. We all know that famous last line, uttered by a young and noir-ish, trench-coated and fedora-ed Humphrey Bogart as he walks with the chief of police, himself a renegade and a very real counterpart for our more sinister selves, through the mists and the shadows and the gates of the municipal airport: “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful frienship.” That line would not be possible if Victor Lazslo, husband of Ilsa and BA leader of Free France (more on that in another post), had not been willing to give himself up to misery and despair by offering to go on without his woman, his love, his light, so that she might survive, she might be happy. If he had fought and scratched and insulted—the way it is now so often done—then we would have no, feel no vindication when, at the last minute, Rick puts Victor on the plane instead of himself, and tells the couple that they are to escape, essentially, for all of us, for the good in us. This sacrifice—not only in Victor, but in Rick, as well—is necessary because it is real, and it is so, so very uncommon. Only when we see the such truth spread out before us do we know our only choice is already made, and that we are only playing a very small, but very important part in the greater scheme. In the end, we always have choices, even if it isn’t the choice we wish it to be, have imagined it being. But we are always capable of choosing truth, and it, in return for our choice, grants us freedom and peace.
And so, in the year 2017, when so much nonsense is being passed as vital news, when so much nepotism and back-biting is tearing up the threads and fibers of what we thought was a viable democracy, we find we have a choice. We need not be wrestling with a past lover’s advances or a present Nazi soldier’s threats, but the question of whether to show intergrity in our words and even our appearances matters. It is a reflection of who we are, and what we wish to become.