In Khalil Gibran’s opus “The Prophet”, the story begins with a sage awaiting his ship—long has he been away from home. But when his ship arrives, the occasion is bittersweet; he knows he must journey forward and “return”—in Judaism, teshuvah, the ultimate spiritual act—and yet, he is deeply pained at what he is leaving behind.
Though he is divided in his heart, torn between two different places and two different selves, he knows that to stay is to die. It would be a spiritual death, a fatal malaise sprung from an inability to evolve. Hard as it may be, he has no choice but to take on the struggle:
“It is not a garment I cast off this day, but a skin that I tear with my own hands,” The Prophet says. “Yet I cannot tarry longer. The sea that calls all things unto her calls me, and I must embark. For to stay, though the hours burn in the night, is to freeze and crystallize and be bound in a mould.”
The central spiritual urge in Judaism is the possibility for transformation. We need not be whom we have been; the soul is meant to grow. The theme is universal, and the conflict between who we are and who we might be is sharply reflected in character tropes at the movies. The very formula for narrative arc, for instance, practically demands that a character changes. Isn’t it usually some kind of revelation that brings on the happy end?
But sometimes, art chooses the real over the ideal. And this year, two movies in particular—“Young Adult” and “A Dangerous Method” – undermine traditional character tropes by resisting the religious impulse towards change. The reasons vary: it’s too hard, there’s too much baggage, someone is too old. Sometimes, the revelatory moment comes – the ship sails into the harbor – but we are frozen in a mould and let it pass us by.
Mavis Gary, played flawlessly by Charlize Theron in “Young Adult” is a miserable grown up. She earns a living as a ghostwriter for a once-popular young adult series and lives a cozy urban lifestyle in a Minneapolis high-rise. The interior of her apartment is as messy and confused as her psyche. And night after night, she falls asleep in a drunken stupor, a cashed bottle by her bedside, as the pathetic plots on “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” play out in the background.
The two things she has going for herself are that she is beautiful and sad. She’s unhappy enough to be daring – she decides to return to her hometown to reclaim her happily-married high-school boyfriend, and vain enough to believe in her delusions – he will want her back, because she is rescuing him from his simple, small-town life.
It is worth seeing the movie to witness the stinging and snide tactics Mavis deploys – often distinctively feminine and boorishly funny—to achieve her goal. Her sabotage, of course, is a direct result of her self-pity, and so, the more desperately she tries to wrest her former flame away from his contented life, the closer she nears to utter breakdown. After all, it isn’t really him she’s after, but some younger, brighter version of herself.
Then comes the moment of truth. After wreaking havoc on everyone else, Mavis looks inward. “I have to change,” she says to the only person around who will listen. But because that person is so taken in by Mavis’s demonstrable gifts – her beauty, her brains, her exciting urban life – she reinforces all of Mavis’s basest beliefs about herself. Mavis is restored. Why do all that work when it’s simpler to be who she already is?
Obviously, change can only occur with will. But even if the motives are there, to what degree can a person alter their fundamental makeup?
That is the central question in “A Dangerous Method” in which Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, the fathers of psychoanalysis (then, “the talking cure”) duke it out over just how much people can change. Is total transformation possible? Or is small, incremental change the best we can hope for? At the center of their dispute over the efficacy of psychoanalysis is a fundamental difference in worldview.
Jung is a man deeply tormented by his own sexual repression. He has chosen a profitable but loveless marriage and uses his work to work through his demons. He begins an affair with his patient, Sabina Spielrein, who fulfills his sexual and intellectual fantasies but is a blight on his family life—not to mention, a madwoman herself, whose sanity and stability teeters on the edge of safety.
Jung is a divided self. Near the end of the film, he tells Spielrein that his wife is the foundation of his home, his mistress is the perfume in the air, and that she is the love of his life. He is not seeking a workable solution to his complex problem; he is seeking redemption for his soul.
Freud, on the other hand, is foremost an academic, who avoids his own psychology by focusing on the psychology of his patients. He seeks to unmask the causes of repression, believing that a keener awareness might beget more self-control. His methodology relies on illuminating the grand psychoses so that their everyday manifestations (neuroses) become more manageable.
Freud is a Jew. He’s seen too much. He knows the rhythms of history and how often, throughout, human beings resort to repeating patterns.
Jung, on the other hand, is not Jewish, but possesses the more religiously motivated belief system. He wants to know that transcendence is possible. That human beings can overcome the traumas that shape them and reinvent the contours of their lives. Spielrein, ironically, becomes his emblem: She overcomes mental illness, survives their affair, marries and has children, and establishes herself as a prominent voice in the psychoanalytic community. Then, the cruelties of fate intervene and she is murdered by the Nazis.
So much for transformation.
The precipice of change is a narrow bridge. And in the movies, as in life, it is difficult to cross without fear. Though the great sage, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav tells us to do precisely that: “The important thing is not to fear at all.” Judaism tells us that to live statically is to live slightly. Our souls should always be striving, journeying towards the place of promise, no matter how bewildering, exhausting or frightening the desert years.
There will always be arriving ships for souls adrift. Hearts will always be torn between differing desires. “[W]ho can depart from his pain and his aloneness without regret?” The Prophet asks. Leaving behind who you are in order to become who you’re meant to be is a task for the brave. It cannot be faked – even in the fictional world of movies.