Friday, February 4, 2011

"Curse braces, bless relaxes"

If you don't already know, and I didn't either before I read the review, my title is a line from the English poet William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  But this ain't about that.

Rather, it's about James Bowman's review of the film, The King's Speech. (Which, I'll confess, I haven't yet seen.)  Bowman uses the line from Blake to illuminate something about the movie that he feels makes it work for audiences despite its obvious conceit.  That is, that the fate of the West immediately before and during World War II somehow rested on poor King George VI's success in conquering an embarrassing stutter.  That is, of course, nonsense, but viewers don't seem to care.  Why not?

As Bowman has it, the King, who never wanted the crown in the first place, submitted nevertheless to the call to duty both by accepting it and, in order to be of use with it, by achieving a more than acceptable fluency.  All the while, however, his fulfillment of duty is contrasted with his relationship with his tutor, an Australian, i.e., an outsider, whose very presence calls attention to the fact that something is very wrong with the mores and stiff traditions that continue to govern in Great Britain.  In this way, according to Bowman, the movie manages to appeal to "both sides in the culture wars."
Surely, here we must have the secret of the film's success: that it manages simultaneously to appeal to both sides in the cultural wars that have raged in Britain and America, as elsewhere in the West, since the 1960s: both, that is, to the believers in relaxes and those fighting a presumably doomed rearguard action on behalf of braces. Litterateurs will recognize the allusion to William Blake's enigmatical dictum: "Curse braces, bless relaxes," which can also be read two ways. Is it, in other words, braces that are to be cursed and relaxes blessed? Or are we instead to recognize the bracing effects of the curse alongside the entropic relaxation of mere blessing? The answer, as everything about Blake requires us to insist, is yes.

In the same way, the PBS "Masterpiece Classics" series Downton Abbey ends with simultaneous disasters for the family of the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and the world at large. The latter disaster is of course the outbreak of World War I, while the former is said to be a result of the fact that someone "must say what I think." To this the Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith, pointedly replies: "I don't know why. Nobody else does." There, too, I believe, contemporary audiences must feel at once our morally relaxed culture's contempt for the inevitable hypocrisies of life in the highly structured and even more highly strictured world of pre-1914 Britain and a kind of grudging admiration for those who felt, for reasons we can hardly imagine anymore, that they had to live according to its rules.
Readers of this blog can have no doubt on which side of the culture war the Sage has enlisted.  But, just in case, the "relaxes", the libertines, have gone too damn far!  Nevertheless, Bowman, I think, through a movie review, has something useful to say about why we are fighting in the first place.  Read his review and then, like me, go see the movie.

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