Broken Lives

21 October 2010


My all time favorite television show is Route 66. Originally broadcast before I was born, I discovered Route 66 in the 1980s when it was played on the Nickelodeon network late night (as part of their “Nick at Night” line up). After having not seen the show for a couple of decades, its reappearance on DVD has made it possible for me to watch whenever I like.

When I have tried to describe the appeal that Route 66 has for me, I have sometimes said to others that I enjoy the fact that the show deals almost exclusively with broken, deeply flawed characters. Although the series was almost tragically hip for its time, a very dark vein runs through the hipness. The tragically hip today are ironic rather than dark, and irony runs to humorous superficiality; the darkness of early 1960s hip ran to greater depths, approximating actual tragedy rather than the pose of ironic tragedy.

Damaged, flawed, and broken characters are far more interesting than exemplars of Apollonian purity. We read Milton’s Paradise Lost, but who reads Milton’s Paradise Regained? And why do we read Paradise Lost? Could there be a more damaged, flawed, and broken spirit than Milton’s Satan? Similarly, Dante’s Inferno is much more widely read than the Purgatory or the Paradise. The Inferno is all about broken men and their broken lives.

In There Was a Broken Man I wrote, “Even the ruin of a man can write poetry — some of the most profoundly damaged spirits have given us the greatest literature.” Ruined men come in many forms. Some you would never know are ruined; others, you cannot but know that they have been ruined, for they wear their ruined condition like a badge, openly for the world to see.

I was thinking about this recently when I was watching the film The Reader. The DVD of the The Reader has several deleted and extended scenes that run to almost another hour’s worth of material. Whereas deleted and extended scenes can be a mere indulgence of the filmmaker, these scenes are well worth watching, and I would like to see an extended cut of the film that seamlessly included them. I think it would be better film, with more depth, with the additional material. The Hollywood approach to filmmaking has inculcated taut economy to the exclusion of more complex stories that take more time to tell. I welcome longer versions of films that allow more subtle elements of plot and characterization to be developed.

The male lead in the film, Michael Berg played by Ralph Fiennes, is superficially a very successful man, but he is also revealed as a deeply damaged and broken man. One could attribute his damaged state to his encounter with the female lead of the film, Hanna Schmitz played by Kate Winslet, or to the fact that he holds a secret that could have exculpated her, or one could attribute his condition to both. Success cannot necessarily salvage a life that is damaged at its center.

Some broken men are focused inward, on themselves, and on their turbulent inner life. Such men, like the character of Michael Berg, may be successful, sophisticated, worldly men, men of substance and status, men of privilege and position, who are nevertheless hollowed out inside by some past trauma. But there are also broken men of a very different caliber, broken men who look broken, and whom the world considers broken, but men whose damaged spirit, precisely because it is manifest to the world at large, does not prevent them from living fully. Such men live as broken men in the world. Such spirits give us the greatest poetry and literature and art.

The significant difference here is not that between the broken and the whole, but between those spirits that turn inward upon their inner lives and those that project themselves outward into the world and onto the world, with their inner lives as the point of departure. As Charles Dickens put in the mouth of a ghost in A Christmas Carol:

“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world — oh, woe is me! — and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”

The difference is that between the spirit as end-in-itself, as that to which one returns seeking rest and refuge, as the still point in the turning world, a place to retreat and a place to hide, and the spirit as means-to-an-end, as the point of departure from which we start, time and again, each time we are battered and beaten down by the world.

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