JSB: When the Devil Whispers
When the Devil Whispers
We don't hear much about honor these days. Most of the classic virtues, in fact, have fallen into a pretty sad state. Little taught and rarely practiced, they sit in rocking chairs in dusty bookshelf rooms, talking amongst themselves, remembering the good old days.
Personally, I'd like to see them back. Honor in particular.
I first learned about honor from my Dad, a World War II naval officer and lawyer, who taught me that honor was about things like not cheating when you know you can. And giving due respect to your opponent on the field if you were bested. Also showing up when someone who depends on you needs your help. I remember more than a few late night calls from neighbors, when a son had been arrested for drunk driving or fighting or running his car into a storefront window. Dad was there for these neighbors, generous with his legal expertise and time, because that's just what neighbors do for each other.
Dad showed me the right way to live and when I've fallen short, I imagine having to tell him about it. That hurts. But it is also what makes me want to do better.
I guess that's why the novels and movies I like most have something to do with honor.
Like High Noon. You know the story. Will Kane (Gary Cooper in an Oscar winning role) is the retiring marshal of a small Western town. He's just married a Quaker woman (Grace Kelly) and they're about to ride out to start their quiet lives together.
Then Kane gets the terrible news. The killer he helped put away has been pardoned. And he's announced he's coming to town on the noon train to take care of Will Kane once and for all. With three other gunmen to help him in his deadly task.
Maybe he should stay, Kane says. The townspeople herd him and his wife onto a buckboard and rush him out of town.
But a half mile later Kane pulls up the horse. He tells his wife he has to go back. If he doesn't, the killers will hunt them down. The two of them will be on the run for the rest of their lives.
But it goes even deeper than that. The really important theme is that Kane knows he won't be able to live with himself if he runs, let alone with his wife. He's a man who cannot live with dishonor, because to do so is worse than death.
He has to go back. And for this he risks losing Grace Kelly. Grace Kelly! Talk about a virtue holding sway over a soul!
The key moment in the film occurs just before Act 3. Kane has tried unsuccessfully to gather a posse. The town he had served so well has let him down. He is alone, and four gunmen will soon arrive to kill him. He will almost surely die.
In the livery stable he begins to crack. What has he done? He's given up a wife and a future, for what? For honor? Is that worth anything?
He sees a horse and saddle and wonders if he should just get on and get out.
In walks Harvey (Lloyd Bridges), the young deputy who has bristled under the shadow of the great Will Kane. A coward at heart, Harvey wants nothing more than to have Kane leave town so he can take over the role as the big man. He's even tried to take Kane's former lover for his own, but she now holds him in contempt.
Harvey sees immediately what Kane is thinking, and happily starts saddling the horse. "No one'll blame you," he says. "Sure, this is what you've got to do."
And in that moment Will Kane sees what he'll become if he leaves. His dishonor will turn him into Harvey. His life will effectively end, even if he stays physically alive.
Kane refuses to get on the horse. This angers Harvey so much he tries to knock Kane out. They fight, and Harvey is the one who ends up on the ground.
Kane stays to face the killers, and you'll have to watch the movie to see what happens.
But it is that one moment, that interior reflection, where Kane fights the most important battle. As the essayist Montaigne put it, "It is not for outward show that the soul is to play its part, but for ourselves within, where no eyes can pierce but our own."
In the Christian realm, honor has sometimes had a hard go of it, because of the sense that one should be humble and avoid the sin of pride. But this is a misunderstanding of the virtue. Aristotle made the distinction in his Ethics. One can be vain, he argued, by both too much esteem of the self on the one side, and on the other a put on meekness that does away with any ambition to do honorable acts. The latter "pusillanimity" was best captured by Dickens in the character of Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. The smarmy Heep went about, rubbing his hands and bowing, claiming to be "your 'umble servant." Yech.
True honor is found in another literary classic, Moby Dick (yes, I said Moby Dick). Ishmael is astonished when Queequeg, the cannibal harpooner, risks his own life to save a young greenhorn from drowning. The astonishment comes from Queequeg's nonchalance about it all. He accepts no congratulations and seeks no reward. Just some water to wash off the brine and a place to smoke his pipe. Ishmael seems to peer into Queequeg's mind, catching the thought that we are all in this world together, and we have to look out for each other. That's just what people do.
Honor and duty are related, and when combined in fiction create a most compelling story. In a way, it's the heart of most great stories. Who a character is comes out in those moments when, under moral stress, he has a choice to make. Will it be honorable or dishonorable?
When Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) gives up the love of his life, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in Casablanca, it is a transcendent and perfect ending. Blaine has made a sacrifice because to take another man's wife, even though she is willing, is too much dishonor to abide. They may not regret it now, Blaine says to Ilsa, but they will someday soon, and for the rest of their lives. In this way, the anti-hero Blaine becomes a real hero, and shoves off with his new friend, Louis (Claude Raines) to rejoin the war effort.
Contrast that with An American Tragedy, the Dreiser classic that was magnificently made into the film A Place in the Sun. Clyde Griffiths starts with one dishonorable act that leads to his inevitable downfall. Early in the novel, goaded by some of his fellow bellboys to visit a brothel, Clyde has a choice to make. He's curious but a little scared, because of his background. His parents were staunch Christian and brought him up that way.
Clyde, Dreiser writes, puts thoughts of his parents "resolutely out of his mind." Thus the choice is made.
After the experience in the brothel, Clyde has thoughts of shame, thinking back on his parents' teachings from the Bible. Yet the experience was "lit with a kind of gross, pagan beauty or vulgar charm for him."
Griffiths has made his choice. He goes on to seduce the tragic Roberta, consents to marry her (to save his own rep) when she conceives, then lets her drown so he can be free to pursue another woman.
As thoughts of seeing Roberta dead come to Clyde, Dreiser calls it "the devil's whisper."
I suppose that's the crux of the matter. The devil whispers and we are tempted to dishonor. Only a strong faith on the other side can withstand the assault.
When our characters show us the full fire of that inner battle we have the makings of great fiction. For whether the choice is ultimately for honor or dishonor, we will see the consequences and be instructed without being taught.
That, I think, is the purpose of art.