In a yoga class this week, I asked my teacher about how to perform a movement which involves “sucking in” the abdomen without letting the chest rise (uddiyana bhanda, for the yogis). Should I think of this movement as pulling the abdominal muscles upwards within the body, or straight back toward the spine? He replied that I shouldn’t think about it at all. He warned against trying to understand everything through analyzing it (he’s read some of this blog and picked up that this might be my habitual way of doing things).
Instead, he advised me simply to watch how he does it and try to emulate his example. Eventually, I will “get it” and it will be clear when this happens. He used the image of a candle bursting into flame due to its proximity to another lit candle to describe this process of learning. He asked if I was happy with this answer. I said yes, but even I could hear that I didn’t sound overjoyed. Being told to stop thinking didn’t really thrill me.
However, the idea that some kinds of knowledge, possibly the most important ones, cannot be acquired by intellectual analysis or even by cultivating artistic skill, came up again when I went to see Michael Haneke’s latest film, Amour.
The central topic of Amour is how we deal with the deteriorating health and eventual death of aging loved ones. The film touches on issues raised by the availability of medical care (in privileged Western countries) that can keep people alive long beyond the point where they would have died without it, but can also mean that the quality of life in the last months may be very low, and caring for the not-yet-dying is a very demanding, even heart-breaking task. Is it love that leads us to keep people alive as long as possible, or is it a combination of confusion and selfish attachment? Or is human love so mixed up with these less desirable qualities that the judgments implied in this way of framing the problem are unhelpful?
Haneke’s film tells the story of an elderly married couple (the actors who play them, Emmannuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, are both in their 80s). Anne has been a successful piano teacher. In the course of the film, she suffer a stroke, undergoes unsuccessful surgery which leaves her half-paralysed, and then suffers a second, more serious stroke. Georges, her stoic and affectionate husband, honours Anne’s wish to remain at home after the surgery, and heroically takes on the challenge of caring for her as she becomes increasingly incapacitated, both physically and mentally.
Apart from one scene at the beginning (an audience shot which provides us with a rough mirror image of ourselves as viewers – implying that we are involved in this story), the whole film is shot in the apartment where Georges and Anne live. This enclosed space, with its empty entrance hall and doors leading to a nest of different rooms, powerfully evokes the claustrophobic, subdued intensity of the emotional situation that unfolds as Anne’s condition deteriorates. Although Georges is devotedly determined to carry out Anne’s wish not to be institutionalized at the end of her life, when she expresses the more final wish to be released from her increasingly painful situation by dying, he reacts violently.
Georges’ confusion in the face of Anne’s desire to die and the great difficulty he shows in accepting the grief of her loss are sympathetically portrayed, and are balanced by the moving tenderness he shows towards his wife. Haneke does not lead us to judge Georges harshly, but nor does he spare us a sense of horror at the fear, helplessness and violence that surface in the lives of this cultured and contented couple as the inevitability of death approaches, like bones breaking through soft skin.
The empty entrance hall of the apartment in this film reminded me of the empty upper room in the apartment of another Georges and Anne in Haneke’s earlier film, Hidden. In both films, the empty, central space can be read as a metaphor for the absence of god, or of any clear source of spiritual or moral wisdom in a society that is wealthy in so many other ways: not just materially, but also in terms of artistic culture and scientific knowledge.
In this film, it might also be taken to signify the absence of robust resources of love and connection to draw upon when facing death and grief. A sense of emotional brittleness is particularly palpable in the scenes between Georges and his daughter, who attempts, but largely fails, to make any meaningful connection with her parents during her mother’s decline.
|Isabelle Hupert and Jean-Louis Tringigant in Amour|
Science can tell us how to keep people alive longer, and give us tools to do so. Artistic culture provides a rich language for expressing the subtleties of human experience (music and paintings are an important part of this film). But it seems that neither science nor art can tell us when to accept the end of life, or how to do so with kindness. These powerful forms of knowledge and expression cannot substitute for love.
If science and art are not enough, how then can we learn to love? In the film, Georges’ encounters with a pigeon who flies in and out of the apartment a couple of times seems to symbolize an intuitive, if tentative, process of learning about loving in the form of catching, holding, and letting go.
Clearly, this isn’t a process of intellectual analysis.
I’d go so far as to say that Haneke’s film suggests that love might be learnt simply by carefully observing, and waiting for it to pass on like a flame, when the moment is ripe, from those who already know how.
But who are the ones who already know how to love? The optimism of this film, at least compared to Haneke’s earlier work, lies in the suggestion that, in spite of all the disconnected and overly intellectualised aspects of modern Western culture, the ones who already know at least something of how to love might include types as common as pigeons – in other words, us.