“…the whole apparatus of absolution and forgiveness strikes me as positively immoral, while the concept of revealed truth degrades the concept of free intelligence by purportedly relieving us of the hard task of working out the ethical principles for ourselves.” Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian
I recently went to my local cinema here in Melbourne to see Ad Astra, a very effective and moving science fiction story about a man on a quest for some form of existential closure. Brad Pitt played the main character in a tense, terse performance of repressed emotion and jaded intent and disproved my theory that he does his best work in the smallest roles. When I don’t go to the movies with my wife and daughter to see the latest children’s offering, my regular viewing companion is a friend from work. At the film’s close, he and I viewed the redemptive arc of Pitt’s character differently. My friend was cynical about it and felt it was too ‘Hollywood’, too pat, too easy. While I agreed it was like a gymnast landing almost too perfectly, I also felt it was earned, that the tension and hurt of the two hours that preceded it led to the quietly cathartic release.
But my friend was like – Nah.
Afterwards, I found myself wondering about his stance, which is surely reflective of a larger skepticism that many people lean towards. Why is redemption depicted in a movie so easily dismissed? Why is it equated with sentimentality? What makes it so fantastical? So unbelievable? Is it simply that it is deemed incredible in the world of movies because it is also deemed incredible in real life? If so, why would that be the case? Is the whole idea of redemption somehow fallacious to begin with?
Any culture that has in their folklore heroic epics or tales of virtue and courage in the face of terrible odds has invested in the idea of redemption in so far as it can be an integral part of a hero’s narrative arc. There’s a forge in which heroes must prove themselves that invariably involves the negotiation of fear and resolve, as well as sacrifice and personal cost, either for their own salvation or for that of their tribe, whether that be family, community or country.
But redemption is perhaps more often thought of in terms of the transition from dark to light or from low to high, as in the sinner turned saint, the dissolute turned whole, the scoundrel turned paragon, which in their own way are hero stories. It is hard for this iteration of redemption not to be seen as a type of happy ending à la ‘and she lived happily ever after’. And maybe that is where the sticking point is to be found.
The idea of living happily ever after is anathema to us. That is not the world we live in. That is unquestionably the domain of fairy tales and fantasy, so beloved of children on one hand, and those who are ill-disposed to the realities of this world on the other. If you are a person of faith, this ‘happily ever after’ takes on a more profound note and is referred to by some as the eternal reward – the final reckoning when the rags of mortality are cast off and admission is granted to a realm of salvation, where the revelation of one’s essential purity, a Platonic perfection, is the keystone of perpetual happiness.
It is a nice idea, although I’ve never been that keen on deferred pleasure – I’d much rather get on with being happy now. Could the problem not be, as with so many other complexities of human behavior, that we are oversimplifying our concept of redemption? Is it possible that because we have inherited certain fairy and folktale templates, certain parables and bible stories, and continue to consume variants of the redemption narrative through pop culture, that we forget that what we are receiving is no more than an outline or a broad brush stroke? Do we fail to understand that what we’re getting is the abridged version of one person’s experience?
When I finish watching a movie like Ad Astra or reading (or watching) a story like A Christmas Carol, do I say “Cool story!” or “True life experience!”? I’m pretty sure it’s the former. Can emotions be stirred, and thoughts be provoked? Of course! Do I think if I watch and read those films and texts again and again that it will repeatedly improve my understanding of human nature? Unlikely. It’s art, as in artifice, and there really is no substitute for real life. Art is a reflection and a projection of the irreducible. In any form, art can touch us deeply, get right inside us and haunt us long after it has been consumed, but ultimately, it’s a setting off point. It’s a mirror in which we recognise something, but probably not everything. Which is fine.
But what of redemption? How should we think about it? Is it an essential, universal human experience? Does it speak to everyone, or is it only relevant to those who think of life in the archetypal terms of heroic morality tales? Perhaps what really lies at the heart of redemption is that it is relevant to anyone who to some degree never stops carrying with them the burden of shame, of guilt, and of failure. And is that not all of us in one way or another?
Surely, we all go through life with a varyingly present sense of our inadequacies and failings, those little pins to prick our confidence when we might be settling into something resembling pride or even mere satisfaction. Our shadow selves that linger long after the sun has gone down, our petty demons of doubt and self-sabotage that niggle and gnaw beneath the surface display of composure and unflappability. That never fully quieted voice that loves to remind us how far we are from perfect, that on a very deep level, pokes the places where the missing pieces should be.
Do we believe that those pieces might be found? By what method may we complete the puzzle of ourselves? Redemption. Salvation. Absolution. Should they be the stepping-stones of our transcendence from fragmentation to wholeness? To be redeemed, to be saved, to be absolved. These aren’t small things. They are profound shifts that redefine our sense of self. They are transactions by which we might unburden or cleanse ourselves. But with whom should we seek to transact? Who has the power to permit change, to allow transformation, to bestow worth?
We look up. To our elders. To our seniors. To our wise men and mavens. To our mentors and teachers. To our mothers and fathers. To our gods and their representatives. To our guardians and exemplars.
Of all of those, I believe the idea of a parental saviour exerts a hold over us in a way that is universally recognisable. As one critic of Ad Astra put it, ‘”Daddy issues” in all their forms may be humanity’s greatest common experience.’ In the film, Brad Pitt’s character, Roy McBride, a highly decorated astronaut, goes in search of his long-lost father, a similarly celebrated space pioneer, whose absence has become the defining event of McBride’s life. It is clear he believes finding his father will help him make sense of his life and finally provide the opportunity to resolve a lifetime of unanswered questions. But even though he is convinced it is his father who holds the missing pieces, he ventures forth in trepidation. Why?
Because we all hold the fear that that which created us can also destroy us. I know, it’s very biblical, and probably Freudian too, but I am certain that a tremor of that truth resides in each of us. It is why our parents can still loom so large in our lives even as adults. They are ones who are responsible for the making of us and the suspicion can linger long into adulthood that our shortcomings and neuroses are because of component parts they failed to insert when we were assembled, as if every mother and father has a small bag of unused pieces locked in a drawer somewhere, the finding of which would allow us to ‘un-wonk’ ourselves!
On a more emotional and psychological level, that sense of incompleteness can haunt us and become a source of anger directed at our parents, but also a source of shame and inadequacy, that we have somehow failed or disappointed them. A terrible tension of hard and soft impulses remains – are we seeking retribution or are we asking for forgiveness? Mary Shelley famously explored this in Frankenstein, with the monster, Frankenstein’s creation, epitomising this mortal struggle and giving vent to the conflicting emotions that ensue, threatening to fully indulge his rage if he cannot be granted love, and therefore worthiness. When he cannot reconcile himself with the world he has been brought into, he turns to his maker and says, “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel.” And where do fallen angels end up? Yes, in hell.
Which returns us to the idea of needing redemption. Does any of us deserve to be in hell? Or at least, in the type of slow burn anguish that is at the core of this discussion? That very human hell of facing the adversity within us, finding ourselves falling prey to lifelong dynamics, repeating our little role over and over with different people. A transaction must be made to return to us our worth. If you have a gift voucher, it is redeemed in the shop or business from which it came. The value of the voucher is confirmed, and you walk away with more than you had before. Who can do that for us on a personal level?
I am not sure anyone can.
Do we really believe that someone holds that much power in their hands? That there is a person who can ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ us? Of course there are toxic relationships where that is sadly a matter of course, but I am talking about the mean here – the average, reasonably adjusted person without an extreme element present. For that person, ‘us’ if you will, we have to believe that the gift of restoration lies within ourselves. We have the power to acknowledge our own pain and suffering, our own doubts and questions, our own missing pieces and to give ourselves permission to move on. We have to believe we possess strength enough to unburden ourselves of these millstones, these crosses, these anchors.
Surely, if we have done our own heavy lifting of those onerous weights, we have put ourselves through an ordeal that was ours alone. Why cannot the power of redemption also be ours alone? We need to say ‘enough’. Whoever we think is responsible for the person we have become, it is highly unlikely that they have anything new to contribute at this stage, so why extend them the presumption of power? We have to work this stuff out for ourselves. Just as Christopher Hitchens expresses in the quote at the top. Just like Brad Pitt does in the movie. It’s redemption. It’s not happily ever after, but he can move on. That’s all we need, isn’t it?
Absolved? Redeemed? Saved? Or was none of that necessary in the first place?