By Dr Zahra Tavassoli Zea
To make a podcast episode on academia is to question the philosophy with which we try to live our lives. Do we enter university to become better individuals, or do we enter higher education to do something good for the world we live in? Are these two avenues complementary, or do they exclude each other? What does it really mean to become the “best”; or better, what does such a notion reveal about the person, the group or the society that pursues this idea?
While I was reading Honoré de Balzac’s letters to Madame Hanska, I was struck by a short maxim, generally attributed to Voltaire: “the best is the enemy of the good” (Balzac 1876, 410). In the middle of a torrent of words, this sentence, alone, encapsulates, in my opinion, one of humanity’s most important conundrums. Either we, mortals, resign ourselves to living as ordinary biological creatures caught amongst a whole range of different species, within a dense and complex universe with powerful, all-embracing cyclical laws, or we consider ourselves as essentially superior species, separate from nature, and capable, ultimately, of transcending the realm of the finite.
Today, I wouldn’t have any trouble saying that Balzac was well aware of his own limitations, be they of a purely economical, social, physical or even intellectual nature. He thought he wasn’t free but rather chained to his money problems, peasant roots and obsessive need to be recognised and acclaimed by the highest strata of French society. In a way, an important percentage of people could still identify themselves with Balzac’s psychological traits, notwithstanding his extraordinary drive and unrivalled work capacity. It is even highly probable that only a tiny percentage of my readers were born with a silver spoon in their mouths. In fact, aren’t we all relentlessly trying to upgrade our social status, to improve our lifestyles, to break with previous belief and behaviour models, with a view to prove to ourselves that we have freedom, after all?
Now, what happens when Alfred Hitchcock, the son of a modest food merchant, collides with wealthy American students from one of the world’s most prestigious universities? Educated in a Jesuit school, Hitchcock must have learnt lessons on Christian resignation:
We should be resigned to the will of God when He afflicts us, because affliction is for our good (…) because at the very time that we are suffering under his hand, he has in reserve, and is preparing for us, the happiness of heaven and immortality (Thomson 2015, 423–424).
Christianity comes with the premise that man, like all other living creatures, is bound to suffer and, in the midst of his ordeal, should find solace in his capacity to love and keep faith. This community of people, who feel accountable to the divine judgement, stands in contrast to the academic community whose principles rest on self-fulfilment, the development of a skilful individuality, the consecration of scientific minds and, occasionally, genius discovery.
In Rope (1948), Hitchcock infiltrates the exclusive society of wealthy Harvard undergrads, whose privileged life appears to bore them to death (pun intended). In a theatrical manner, Hitchcock raises the curtains on an act of murder: Brandon and Phillip strangle their classmate David with a rope. Motive? Playfulness, plain and simple… not even fame (yawn). Naughty as ever, Hitchcock presents the strangulation like a sexual climax:
- Brandon, how did you feel?
- During it.
- I don’t remember feeling very much of anything, until his body went limp… and I knew it was over.
- And then?
- Then I felt tremendously exhilarated. H-how did you feel? Oh, I… I…
Inside their luxurious New York apartment, Brandon and Philip move and speak like a toxic, co-dependent couple. They also form part of the happy few, who can afford to pay the services of their maid, Mrs. Wilson, on a daily basis. Refined meals and the finest champagne are served and poured to their guests, who arrive rather quickly and cheerfully to the murder scene. In plain sight, a wooden chest that supports a couple of candlesticks, cutlery and cured meat, hides the corpse. The perversity of the little soirée, which includes David’s girlfriend and father, is revealing of Brandon’s sociopathic and narcissistic traits: he is unable to empathise with others and doesn’t take responsibility for his actions. As a matter of fact, he believes his intelligence is superior to anyone else’s: “Being weak is a mistake… because it’s being ordinary”. Later, when the guests are gone, he even slaps the drunken and emotional Phillip on the face: Brandon controls the game; he sets the rules; he is the Alpha male par excellence.
While it is rather difficult to relate to these highly entertaining main characters, I believe that Janet, David’s girlfriend, is representative of western bourgeoisie’s common understanding of what is “good”. It would be safe to say that in the early nineteenth century, the rising middle-class began associating ideas of economical and social “betterment” with the concept of “happiness”. In other words, Voltaire’s old saying was radically updated in the wake of capitalism: “the best” became the “friend” of the “good”, for the ordinary man thought that excelling at work would make him and his family happier. In Rope, Brandon becomes the classical jester, whose function is to unveil a cynical truth: he suggests that Janet is dating (the late) David because of his money, and that she secretly prefers her other admirer, the half-witted Kenneth. The spectators become Brandon and Phillip’s unwilling accomplice, as they are already aware that Janet and David’s relationship is destined to a hapless fate. However, it is with a misplaced interest that we carry on watching Janet’s delightful attempts to please the father of her dead fiancé.
As for Brandon, we know nothing about his past – other than the fact that he grew up as a spoiled brat. Rupert Cadell, the prep-school housemaster (aka James Stewart, handsome as ever), seems to know something about Brandon that will quickly take him down a peg: “You always did stutter when you were excited”. Sure, universities can teach us to articulate properly, to control our facial expression or to improve the way we stand on our feet; postgraduate diplomas can even become a good-looking Band-Aid to cover self-esteem issues or other mental health problems… Yet, for Hitchcock and for Balzac, the denouement – in a film script, a novella or reality – systematically occurs as a result of one Christian certainty, which they assimilate to the truth. It goes along the lines of: one may look calm and brave while dying of fright inside… A stutter or a nervous twitch is nothing but the soul catching its breath.
Balzac, H. de (1838/1876). “À Madame Hanska, à Vierzschovnia”. In Calmann Lévy (ed.), Correspondance de H. de Balzac 1819–1850, 409–414. Paris: Librairie Nouvelle.
Thomson, A. (2005). Sermons and Sacramental Exhortations. London: William Whyte.