27 December 2008

I am thinking of the new film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which we saw in a-too- crowded theater on Christmas Day when the world is supposed to safe for Jews but which the Christians have once again appropriated discovering our secret: empty movie theaters and Chinese restaurants on the day of Jesus’ birth. As my daughters wonder, shouldn’t the Christians be in Church or home at family dinners? I concur with their wonder and even concern.

Benjamin (the name of Jacob’s youngest child, though not his favorite) is born old, and the course of his life is reversed: as the years progress, he becomes physically younger. But though born physically old, he is not born with the wisdom of those who have already lived their lives. As with the rest of us, he must learn by his living. And I suppose the issue is not so much that he learns as must the rest of us, or even what Benjamin Button learns throughout the course of his curious life: his path may run in an opposite direction, but it heads to the same end. Rather, it seems to me that what is significant here is that Benjamin’s learning is saturated from the beginning by mortality. What Benjamin learns derives from his being out in the world, but all his learning seems founded on mortality: on death and loss. These seem to be the sources of his learning.

As with the rest of us, Benjamin carries death within him from the beginning, but Benjamin Button is born emblematic of the end to which we all will arrive. Not only is he born looking like an old man, but he resides during most of his ‘childhood’ in an early twentieth century version of an old person’s home, returning regularly to it from his forays out. Every time he does return home, someone else in the residence has died; even as he constantly appears younger, the world inexorably grows older pieces of it die. And though Benjamin is himself old, he is born with none of the knowledge that living brings: he must learn by himself. And though Benjamin is apparently surrounded by the wisdom of the elderly, none of that wisdom serves him much purpose: it comes to him mostly as tall tales or piano lessons. Out in the world, it is loss, disappointment, destruction and death from which Benjamin learns. What he might have understood from the aging remains unavailable to him: he grows visibly younger as his life proceeds, and though it is the curious fate of Benjamin Button to age and die, he must do so without any of the familiar signs which might give comfort, and he must do so completely alone. For him, everything along the way to dusty death appears to him in a different form. He is forever out of synch with the world, a state itself a form of alienation, and his brief moments of happiness must inevitably be brief: Benjamin can grow old with no one. There can be no comfort in his aging. Benjamin Button moves toward death in a direction opposite to that from the rest of us, but he moves inexorably towards it. He will die unlearned and ignorant—an infant.

Indeed, in this film, in this world nothing is learned: the film begins with Benjamin’s birth at the end of the first great moral breach of the twentieth century, World War I, and it ends with the waters flooding the basement of the broken levee announcing and prefiguring the moral failure of Katrina. The waters will soon cover the curious clock which was made to run backwards. This strange device was the creation of Mr.Gateaux, and was commissioned before World War I to celebrate the newly renovated New Orleans train station. But Gateaux made it to run backwards, hoping to change the course of history and make time move in reverse and stop the killing and destruction of the War in which his own son had recently died. Alas, the clock ran backwards but time moved intractably forward. Making time run backwards certainly could not halt death, and it certainly could not stop the regular destructions and devastations which human stupidity and callousness produce in the world. Benjamin Button’s life, too, runs in reverse, and there is no escaping life’s losses or his inevitable death.

There is death and loss everywhere Benjamin goes; indeed, he carries mortality, as do the rest of us, as part of his being. And it crosses my mind now that what is curious, perhaps, about the case of Benjamin Button, is that there is nothing curious about it at all: he is just like us. Forever out of synch, alienated, and fatally mortal, trying to make his way in a world in which too much of that death and destruction derives from moral failure rather than natural causes, Benjamin’s joys are as contingent and ephemeral as are those of our own lives, framed as they are forever by death.


Post a Comment

<< Home