“You can’t save someone from themselves”, says the Brazilian poet Paulo Coelho. And yet, the more we love someone, the less we seem to be able to resist the urge to try.
Coelho’s aphorism could very well be the preface to Anthony Minghella’s movie The English Patient from 1996, based on Michael Ondaatje’s homonymous novel. The movie actually tells 2 storylines, who become interlaced by a strange stroke of fate. In the last days of WWII, in Italy, the French-Canadian Nurse Hana (played by French actress Juliette Binoche, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress) loses her best friend to a landmine. She believes to be cursed, after all her loved ones have died in the war. Becoming aware of an unknown foreign prisoner who claims to have lost his memory, and whose body is critically burned, she decides to take care of him in his last days, as a way to redeem herself. She leaves her unit and takes refuge in a deserted, bombed-out abbey, alone with the anonymous foreigner (Ralph Fiennes).
His only possession is a copy of Herodotus’ Histories, in which the stranger keeps some hand-written notes, photographies and other mementos. He appears to be very well educated, speaks the English language fluently, and seems to know every single song Hana plays for him on an old record player. As the stranger starts remembering scenes from his past, we, the viewers, learn about his true identity. He is the Hungarian archaeologist Count Laslo Almásy, who took part in surveying expeditions in Egypt and Lybia for the English Royal Geographical Society in the late 1930’s. As the story goes on, we learn how and why he ended up scarred.
Almásy’s flashbacks begin their narration as the expedition is joined by a freshly-wed couple, Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton. Katharine (Kristin Scott-Thomas) is familiar with Almásys writings, which she praises as “impressive”, and for having so few adjectives. While Geoffrey Clifton (Collin Firth) leaves the expedition to allegedly take photographs for the Army in Cairo, Almásy and Katharine draw closer and eventually start an intense love-affair.
The Story of Gyges and Nyssia
This love-affair is being foreshadowed, unknowingly, by Katharine herself. One night, as the expedition peers entertain themselves at a campfire, Katharine narrates the story of the Lydian King Candaulice and his bodyguard Gyges. The king, priding himself that his wife, Nyssia, was the fairest woman in the world, decided to prove it to his friend Gyges. Candaulice hides Gyges in his wife’s chamber, so he can see her as she undresses. But the queen notices him and decides to take revenge for the caused shame. The next day, she summons Gyges, and scolds him for his indecent behaviour. As his punishment, he has to choose between being executed by her servants on the spot – or assassinating the king, in which case she promised to marry him and make him king over Lydia. Gyges chooses the latter option, stabs Candaulice in his sleep, and thereafter reigns for 28 years.
This story relates to the events in Northern Africa as Geoffrey Clifton brings his wife to an expedition that is “not accustomed to the company of women.” Almásy even warns Clifton that the desert is a tough spot for a woman, and that he shouldn’t leave her back alone while he’s going to Cairo. Geoffrey dismisses Almásy’s concerns with the words: “Why are you people so threatened by a woman?” This reveals Clifton’s crucial character trait. When asked how he and Katharine got married, he tells the story how they’ve known each other since they were 3 years old. She had always been “crying at [Clifton’s] shoulder over somebody, until [he] persuaded her to settle for [his] shoulder”, priding himself for his “Stroke of genius.” What makes Clifton a tragicomic figure is that he prides himself for his manhood, downplaying Almásy for being afraid of women. At the same time, he willfully ignores the fact that Katharine had been keeping him in her friend zone while pursuing other men, and choosing him only after she was desperate enough to settle for him. He’s even blind to the fact that Katharine had forgotten about their 1st anniversary – as if a woman passionately in love would ever forget an anniversary. As Katharine tells Almásy, she loves her husband. But she is also the one who had, in dramatic irony, been differentiating between “romantic love, platonic love, filial love”, when first talking to Almásy about the value of adjectives. Geoffrey and Caundales both share a hybris, which leads them both to expose their wives to other men. Just like King Caundales pays with his life for his pride, so does Clifton.
Because Almásy is quite a different kind of man. When he and Katharine have their first dance together, and she addresses him following her at the bazar, the interaction is quite revealing: “So why follow me? Escort me, by all means, but following is predatory, isn’t it?” – at which, after Almásy reacts with silence, staring her right in the eyes like a predator, she shyly lowers her gaze, like a prey. The fact that Almásy is a Count and thus high in the dominance hierarchy is only an addendum. And we’ve already mentioned that Katharine was fascinated by Almásy’s writing, which is quite telling. She was impressed with how few adjectives he used. Adjectives are additions that often try to give more expression to words. They’re often decoration, padding, embellishment. Almásy using so few adjectives reveals a strong, manly grip for words when describing things. In our time, this would be like the difference between poetry slammers that use language to impress, sound witty and entertain, and between somebody writing real, substantial literature out of intrinsic necessity, not caring for people’s liking. As Oscar Wilde says, men love with their eyes, while women love with their ears. The latter obviously refers not only to the spoken word, but to speech in general, including writing. Katharine is impressed by Almásy’s gravitas, his seriousness in the most positive sense of the word. And she finds his gravitas confirmed in his “predatory” behaviour, at the bazar aswell as when he makes her submit to him with his gaze.
This is how Almásy is superior, as a man, to Clifton. This is how Gyges kills King Caundales.
Betrayal in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy
The topic of adultery has a long history in literature. The story of Caundales and his wife Nyssia is probably one of the oldest, but certainly very well known, were it not for its mention in The English Patient. The most prominent couple in this segment of doubtful honor are certainly Paolo and Francesca, who appear in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Canto V. of the Inferno. The vicinity of Katharine and Almásy to Paolo and Francesca is by no means random. First of all, Paolo and Francesca fall in love while reading. They are reading the tale of Lancelot and Guinivere’s adultery, which later leads to the destruction of King Arthur’s kingdom. Inspired, or rather: seduced by the tale, Paolo and Francesca kiss aswell. Hence, both couples share the traits that man and woman fall in love through reading, and both share the common trait of having a literary prefiguration. For Paolo and Francesca the prefiguration is Lancelot and Guinivere; for Almásy and Katharine, it is Gyges and Nyssia.
Secondly, I’m arguing that the whole geographical setup of The English Patient orients itself to Dante’s Divine Comedy. As we all know, Dante’s famous poem is divided into 3 parts: Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. Paolo and Francesca appear in the Inferno, because they are sinners. Now, The English Patient, at least the story of Almásy and Katharine, takes place in the desert. The desert has historically always been the symbolic place of sin. We can find the first of countless literary examples for this in the Old and the New Testament. But: The story of Hana plays in Italy. And not only that, but after she redeemed herself and allowed Almásy to die peacefully, her convoy moves on to – Florence, the very native city of Dante Alighieri. Hence, we can easily establish that the Desert, the Abbey and Florence symbolically represent Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise.
So, what does this mean for The English Patient? In the desert dies, first of all, Geoffrey Clifton, in an attempt to kill Katharine and Almásy aswell. His sin is his hubris, his pride, that made him overestimate himself, and expose a wife that mostly loved him platonically to other men. In the desert, too, dies Katharine. Almásy tries to save her and bring her back to England, but the war gets in the way. The war to happen is certainly not their responsibility. But life is complicated. And when you start lying, you add complexity to it. So when you add lies to the naturally occurring complexity of reality, things get out of hand very quickly. Even without the lies, escaping the war would have been hard enough. But with Katharine being injured in Geoffrey’s suicide attempt, as a reaction to him finding out about his wife’s betrayal, Almásy cannot find a way through the circumstances.
His involvement with the betrayal gets Almásy critically injured as he tries to leave Africa with Katharine’s corpse, so he can bury her in England. But he does not die in the desert. Instead, he gets saved from dying in the desert, to die peacefully in the Italian abbey, with Hana watching over him. He, too, committed adultery, and therefore sinned. What is it that spares him from damnation? Is it his effort to save Katharine? Likely. But it still gets him killed. Loving somebody who refuses to act forthrightly is a two-edged sword. As Almásy had to find out, he could not save Katharine. He could not prevent her from dying alone – as we all do.
Attachment and Personal Responsibility
The topic of attachment has its own role in The English Patient. It is attachment what causes Hana to feel responsible for her loved ones’ deaths. It is attachment what, at first, Almásy hates: Being owned by somebody. But then, especially when he becomes jealous, he refers to Katharine as “the things which are mine, which belong to me.” While Hana is at the abbey, she learns precisely this lesson in the course of her romantic relationship with the Sikh sapper Kip, with whom she falls in love during her stay at the abbey. Being so exposed to danger in his job, Hana becomes overwhelmingly anxious to lose another loved one in Kip. But he teaches her to detach, and in the end they say their farewells. This is what enables Hana to also detach from Almásy’s fate. In the heartbreaking scene where Almásy asks her to euthanize him, Hana is able to let go and grants him his wish. She understands that everyone has to go his own way, and that she cannot change it, as heartbreaking as it may be.
In this scene, we hear Katharine speak through her letter, which Almásy has in his Herodotus. The monologue is as heart-wrenching and poetic as anything you’ll ever read. Together with the Bach-resembling requiem we hear in the background, this scene makes the toughest heart break.
What does Katharine say in her last letter? She says that she always wanted to walk in the palace of winds with Almásy. But not with him alone, also “with friends”, on “an Earth without maps.” Even in her last moments she seems to refute that she can only have one relationship in her life, and not live in a world where love claims no possession. She wishes to have the romantic relationship with Almásy, and still continue the platonic relationship with Clifton at the same time.
Aesthetic and Moral Judgement
But this is such a beautiful, romantic movie – why do we have to be so judgemental about it?
Well, we don’t have to. But going to the bottom of things does in no way diminish the aesthetic experience. Quite the opposite: The deeper understanding of a work of art enhances the aesthetic enjoyment.
Yet, this is not the epoch of purely allegoric art, where everything is reduced to its exact moral meaning or judgement. It was exactly Dante who started breaking these chains by enriching his poem with multiple layers of meaning. Since the uprise of Romanticism the arts have started to more and more aesthetically express immoral or sinful subjects. A prime example for this would be Lord Byron’s Cain, or Dostojewskij’s Crime and Punishment. Even in recent times, there are aesthetically stunning movies that contain a severe moral judgement – but carefully hidden under the layer of beauty. A great example for this is the Italian movie La Grande Bellezza, The Great Beauty by Paolo Sorrentino.
The truth of the matter is, we can still be moved to tears by Katharine’s last words, without having to judge or discard her as a person. In the end, we are all sinners and we all make mistakes. As Katherine says: “We die. We die rich with lovers”, but also rich “with fears we’ve hidden in, like this wretched cave” – the fear of being alone, or rather: The unwilling acceptance of the irrefutable truth that we die alone.
But all of this is not in vain, and no reason to be cynical. Just as Katharine writes “in the darkness”, and Hana reads these very words to Almásy who already has passed away, everything we do or say echoes in the eternal silence of those who come after us.