Sunday, December 21, 2008

George Bailey and the Struggle of the Ethical Man

I love the holiday film classic It's a Wonderful Life, a movie typically dismissed by sophisticates as cornball. Yes, it's corny, but cornball and depth are not exclusive. And It's a Wonderful Life has depth.

In fact, the film is almost a primer on Kierkegaard's three stages of existence. I say "almost" because it gets the aesthetic and the ethical stages right, and even gets the border between the ethical and the religious right; but then it finally falters at the transition to the religious stage. This is where the cornball comes in. But up to the final moments, It's a Wonderful Life is pure Kierkegaard.

The film is structured around four critical "moments" in Kierkegaard's sense of the term: Moments when the character of a man and his life are revealed. The first is when George, fresh out of high school, is set to leave Bedford Falls and embark on the adventures of which he has always dreamed. But the recent death of his father Peter has left the Bailey Building and Loan without leadership. The villain Henry F. Potter, wealthy, clever and unscrupulous, is intent on dominating Bedford Falls; the Building and Loan is the main obstacle standing in his path. When George passionately rebukes Potter at a meeting of the Building and Loan, the board of directors agrees to resist Potter's attempts to take it over - on the condition that George himself assume the position of chairman.

The second moment happens four years later when Harry Bailey, George's younger brother, returns from college. The agreement between George and Harry was that George would run the Building and Loan while Harry went to college. When Harry graduated, he would take over for George and release George to pursue his own ambitions. But when Harry gets off the train, he is accompanied by his new bride ("Meet the wife!") who brings with her a great career opportunity for Harry in the plastics industry (and you thought it wasn't all about plastics until The Graduate.)

The third moment happens years later when George finally marries the girl he was always meant for, Mary Hatch. They are about to leave for their honeymoon just as the great crash of 1929 happens, and there is a run on the Building and Loan. George takes the money he and Mary had saved for their honeymoon and uses it to save the Building and Loan. After this last episode, it is clear that George will never leave Bedford Falls.

The final moment happens just after the end of the Second World War, when George's Uncle Billy mistakenly leaves $8,000 of the Building and Loan's money in Henry Potter's office. Naturally Potter sees this as an opportunity to finally rid himself of the Bailey family and he does not return the cash. When Uncle Billy confesses to George that he lost the money, it is clear that one or both of them will be ruined.

The first three moments are moments within the ethical stage of existence. They are moments when George must decide whether he is a man of duty living for others or a man living primarily for himself. The aesthetic man is a man primarily living for himself. George's youthful ambition to leave Bedford Falls and do great things was not ignoble, but it was essentially aesthetic because self-centered. At all three moments, George chooses to sacrifice himself for the good of others and reveals himself to be a truly ethical man.

The irony of the ethical man, however, is that his struggle is lonely and inward, so that his nature as an ethical man is revealed only to himself (if he has the requisite self-awareness) and to God. He must hide his nature from others so that he may sacrifice himself for them; were they to know the true nature of his suffering they would not permit it. So the ethical man cannot be known directly as such. He is always dodging and hiding himself through irony.

It's a Wonderful Life is at its best in showing this inward struggle of the ethical man; the struggle of Kierkegaard's "Knight of Hidden Inwardness." Jimmy Stewart (playing George) must simultaneously reveal to the audience his hidden struggle (so that we know he is genuinely ethical) and hide it from the other characters in the film. Stewart pulls this off masterfully, with some help from Frank Capra's close focus:

George Bailey is an ethical man who lacks self-understanding. Contemporary thought would dismiss him as "inauthentic" because it misunderstands his irony as self-deception. But George does not deceive himself; he understands precisely what he is sacrificing at each of the crucial moments of the film. His lack of self-understanding consists in his belief that his "real life" has been put on hold while he serves the good of others. George's nemesis Henry Potter, while vicious, is also a keen student of human nature. He appreciates George's talents and sees through his irony to the frustration and despair George successfully hides from everyone else. Potter makes a final attempt to seduce George by playing on this despair, ruthlessly exposing it in some of the best lines in the film:
"Forty-five. Now, if you were an ordinary yokel, I'd say you were doing fine. But George Bailey is intelligent... ambitious. He hates the Building and Loan almost as much as I do. He's been dying to get out of town ever since he was born. But he's trapped. Trapped into frittering his life away to a lot of garlic-eaters. Do I paint a correct picture, George, or do I exaggerate?"
I love that "garlic-eaters." Potter is nearly successful in his seduction, but George finally recognizes what is happening, reject's Potter's offer, and turns Potter into a permanent enemy.

The ethical life is essentially unstable because it involves a paradox. The ethical man recognizes his duty and performs it, but sacrifices himself in the process. George Bailey becomes older, lives in a drafty house, watches as his friend Sam ("Hee-Haw") leaves town and becomes rich; during the war George stays in Bedford Falls as air raid warden while Harry Bailey wins the Medal of Honor in the Pacific. All this time his inner despair grows until his ethical existence collapses in the face of his impending ruin as a result of Uncle Billy's loss of the Building and Loan's funds.

Here again Henry Potter is perspicacious. George comes to Potter for a loan to replace the $8000, which of course Potter will not grant him. Potter takes the opportunity to return some long-remembered insults:
"And you want eight thousand? You once called me a warped, frustrated old man. Well, what are you but a warped, frustrated young man? Crawling on your hands and knees for help. Why don't you go ask that riff-raff you love so well? Ask them for help! I'll tell you why. Because they'd run you out of town on a rail, that's why."
George finally succumbs to despair and contemplates jumping off a bridge into a freezing river. George is saved by Clarence, an angel sent by God in response to George's prayers, as well as the prayers of his wife and children. When George wishes he had never been born, Clarence turns the wish into a saving act by showing George what the world would be like without him. George's brother Harry dies in childhood because George was not there to save him from freezing in a river; Mr. Gower the druggist becomes a convict after poisoning a woman by accident; Henry Potter successfully takes over Bedford Falls, renames it Pottersville, and forces everyone to live in his slums. Worst of all, Mary Hatch never marries and becomes... a librarian! Horrors! Clarence sums it all up by telling George that "you really did have a wonderful life."

Clarence's retrospective allows George to perceive the true meaning of the ethical life. He sees the selfishness of his despair and his suicidal inclinations. It also brings him to the threshold of the religious stage of existence, for George abandons all of his worldly ambitions. This is the spiritual movement Kierkegaard calls resignation. By resigning from all his worldly ambitions George experiences a freedom unknown to the aesthetic and ethical stages of existence. He is free because he now lives entirely for others, so that what happens to himself becomes a matter of indifference. He runs home and greets the sheriff in his living room - who has a warrant for his arrest - with "Merry Christmas! I'll bet that's a warrant for my arrest. I'm going to jail, isn't it wonderful?"

Kierkegaard tells us that the border between the aesthetic and the ethical is marked by irony, and the border between the ethical and the religious is marked by humor. The ethical man is ironic because he must present a false front to make his sacrifice effective. Were George still a merely ethical man, and had he not succumbed to despair, his response to the news that he was under arrest would be to downplay its seriousness, to say it isn't so bad and he'll be out soon. He would hide his true appraisal of the situation - that it is very bad for him that he is going to jail. As a religious man, George attempts no such irony. He states straightforwardly and truthfully what he thinks - that it is wonderful that he is going to jail. Of course his joy makes no sense to the ethical and aesthetic stages of existence, and so appears as humorous to everyone but George. The ethical man must hide his nature from others, but the religious man's nature is hidden of its own nature from others and so he makes no attempt to hide it.

The film would have been better if George actually did go to jail. It pulls back from showing the true meaning of the religious stage of existence by giving George a worldly reward: His friends have collected money to pay the debt, the sherriff tears up the arrest warrant, and everyone celebrates Christmas by singing "Auld Lang Syne" together. But George - if he is truly Kierkegaard's religious man, which I think he is - would have been just as happy going to jail. It doesn't matter if the townspeople are the "riff-raff" that Potter says they are, or if they really do run George out of town on a rail. George is invulnerable to Potter because he is invulnerable to worldly consequences. As the film actually plays out, George's victory over Potter is diminished, because it implies that George's victory is based on the falsity of Potter's dim view of human nature - Potter says the "riff-raff" will run George out of town when in fact they don't. But George's joy at the end of the film is not based on a renewed faith in human nature. It's based on a renewed faith in God, because George no longer sees his sacrifice for others as competing with his desires for himself - he has lost all desires for himself.

It's not an accident that an angel is involved in George's final transformation. The transition from the aesthetic to the ethical stage is one the "natural" man can make on his own, but the transition to the religious stage can only be made, as Kierkegaard puts it, if God grants man "the condition." George asks for the condition when the hopelessness of his final predicament overwhelms him:

"Oh God... God... Dear Father in Heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if you're up there and you can hear me, then show me the way. I'm at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God."

Here the depth of the film is shown when the immediate response to George's prayer is a punch in the face from a man he had insulted earlier. This finally crushes George's ethical existence, for he is attacked by one of the very people he has been attempting to save with the whole trajectory of his life. (George has sacrificed himself to save Bedford Falls from Potter, so everyone in the town is his beneficiary.) When he has lost all hope in human nature, George is in a state to receive the "condition" (that is, grace) from God and not mistake its source. The condition will result in George's renewed (or, rather, new) faith in God, not a renewed faith in men.

So if you love Kierkegaard, Christmas, and classic movies, there is no better holiday film than It's a Wonderful Life.

Clarence - " Oh, no, no. We don't use money in Heaven!"

George - "Oh, that's right, yeah, I keep forgetting. (pause) Comes in pretty handy down here, bub."


EdT said...

Great post. Much discussed at Mom and Dads after the xmas meal. The use of IaWL to explain Kierkegaard really helped. Now that you have whetted our interest can you recommend a good intro Kierkegaard book?
- Ed

David T. said...


Three Outsiders

by Diogenes Allen is very good. I think I loaned it to Kev. Maybe not, I'll look for it here.

Merry Christmas.


Michael Beirne said...

This is brilliant, thanks again David.