10 July 2017

Who Are Those Guys?

In her book At the Existentialist Café Sarah Bakewell writes that Simone deBeauvoir understood that even as she and her intimate community judged the past, so would she and her communities “be judged by the criteria and values of those in the future. Bakewell quotes Jean-Paul Sartre who speaks autobiographically in his book Saint Genet. Sartre acknowledges that he and his generation would be judged by the future: “We feel that we are being judged by the masked men who will succeed us . . . our age will be an object for those future eyes whose gaze haunts us”. What they mean is that the future always will measure the past not by the standards of that past but by those that are held in the future. Beauvoir and Sartre were aware that they could have no control over this judgement but must instead act in good faith in the present.
     I was reminded of the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Butch and Sundance are running from the posse that has been organized to bring them in after a botched train robbery. Butch had used too much dynamite in his attempt to open the railroad safe that had been reinforced by agent Woodcock following a previous train robbery by Butch, Sundance and the gang. This time Butch’s dynamite had slightly exaggerated the difficulty of the task and had not just blown open the newly fortified safe door but had splintered to bit the entire train car, safe and all. In the explosion the bank’s money floated about chaotically in the wind touching down like leaves on the ground. Butch and Sundance look up from the confusion to see on another track a powerful stream of black smoke billowing from the smokestack of an advancing dark train engine. As the train noisily comes to a screeching halt, the doors of the car slam open and atop their horses out jump the Super-posse, organized to hunt down the gang. Butch and Sundance gallop desperately away. Looking back from atop their horses they look behind them. In the far distant the pair see the dust raised by the galloping horses of the posse heading in their direction. Sundance says to Butch, “They’re very good!” The pair head hastily into the open and difficult terrain in flight from the tightly bunched and unwavering chase by the members of the Super-posse, and at least three times Butch turns to Sundance and question, “Who are those guys?” Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are chased by the faceless and inexorable future that would punish them for their acts in the present.
     I think that is the point. In a sense the future always hunts down the present. Butch says, “How many of ‘em are chasing us?” and Sundance says, “All of them!” There is no escaping the gaze of the future that is, like the Super-posse, faceless, relentless, inscrutable: ultimately hostile. Sartre and Beauvoir broke with Camus over the issue of commitment, but I think the position of Father Paneloux in Camus’ The Plague speaks to what stance one might take aware even still of the judgement that must inevitably come upon the present from the future. Despite the horrors, demands and inevitability of the plague Paneloux says, “You must be the one who stays.” The present should always be the concern. Like Walter Benjamin’s angel, looking back to the past we are blindingly blown into the future. Camus’ Paneloux insists we stay engaged only in the present.

And then there is another allusion drawn from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. As Butch and Sundance run just ahead of the Super-posse, Butch says, “We just got to get to Fanny’s, that’s all. Once we get to Fanny’s we’ll be fine.” In the film, Fanny’s is a brothel and Butch believes that there they will be safe. But Fanny’s really doesn’t provide safe harbor, and Butch and Sundance barely escape out of the back window just ahead of the Super-posse. For years and years, I have listened to and adored the song “The Weight” sung by The Band on their 1969 release Music from Big Pink. They sing,  
     Catch the cannonball, now to take me down the line
     My bag is sinking low, and I do believe it's time
     To get back to Miss Fanny, you know she's the only one
     Who sent me here, with her regards for everyone

     Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free
     Take a load off Fanny, and you put the load right on me

I never did understand what they meant, though I always did feel the weight. I’m still not exactly sure why Fanny sent me out, but I think it might be nice to return to her even though, I think, it is not shelter from the storm she offers. 


Post a Comment

<< Home