Some Thoughts on Whit Stillman

What people a few hundred years back might say about us

I was pleased to read Carl’s notes on the charming new comedy Love & Friendship. As imitation is said to be the most sincere form of flattery, I’ll try to offer some thoughts in the same vein, about Mr. Stillman and Jane Austen — with the benefit of his insights in the previous posts and with thanks for comments on this one.

I’ll start with the obvious problem, the title. It’s a good title. Allan Bloom’s deathbed book of essays, including one on Austen, is titled Love and Friendship, it occurs to me. It doesn’t seem to be hurting the movie, either — it’s not taking the country by storm, but it might make enough money to keep things going so another one can be made not too far into the future. A curious thing about Mr. Stillman’s movies fits with one thing we know about Austen’s novels — both have admirers and a well-earned influence worth noting, but neither found the kind of popular attention or the rare patrons whose generosity might be accepted with propriety. It would go to far to say theirs is a thankless task, but it is not much rewarded.

What the title is good at is telling us what’s wrong with modern love: Without the equality of friendship, it is bound to fail. The worshipful aspect of love might have worked in regimes based on inequality — though Shakespeare’s tragedies suggest otherwise — but it cannot work anymore. Friendship is less intoxicating and more reasonable than love — it is as practical as doing good things for someone else and it is free of any sense that suffering might constitute good proof of worth . . .

This matters because of what’s concealed in the modern Romantic stories about doomed lovers and predatory, mercenary beloveds who exploit love and friendship. Suffering is used as a currency in human affairs or as a measure of the depth or authenticity of passion in such stories. Let’s just recall two incredibly influential, Rousseau-influenced stories: The Dangerous Liaisons of Laclos and Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. In both cases, moral corruption is presented as an art of living. One involves ruining people and the other suicide, but both make the point that love is what teaches people that life is not worth living. That is why shows of suffering are proofs of love or authenticity of passion. Those stories were on Jane Austen’s mind — she wrote to mock them in her youth, and there is no reason to expect she changed her mind when she changed her mode of writing.

There is an unfolding revelation of individualism in these Romantic stories. At first glance, pretending to be in love or to be a friend for purposes of exploitation implies that only criminals are really who they are — only they are really individuals; everyone else, in being obedient to morality, is alienated from himself, to speak like our Marxist friends. This is vulgar rationalism — the good is what’s important, not the beautiful or noble. One problem with this view is that it gives short shrift to our own experience of love and friendship. And then there is a deeper problem. The Romantic stories are about a great strife of love and friendship against society or the world. They are immoderate encouragements to immoderation. They are not meant to encourage criminality or even what we usually call immorality — they are meant to destroy the legitimacy of the institutions that bind people together.

Such people as the beautiful, sophisticated, cunning Lady Susan offend deeply against love and friendship as commonly understood, not merely against the laws about property or propriety. Such people use people’s decency to exploit them, as we see when Lady Susan says friendship means that you get people to do things for you for free. That’s an offense against the freedom implied in such free service — she never intends to reciprocate, for one thing. Such offense is worse than any loss of labor or monies. The obvious crimes might be punished in a world where things like propriety are replaced by punitive justice. That would clarify things in terms of what’s strictly speaking illegal and of which kinds of exploitation — willing slavery, let’s call it — are legal. But that clarification certainly implies a loss of innocence.

It’s the part that’s not as obvious that’s more problematic. Such people as Lady Susan do what they do because they are believers in Romantic love. Indeed, if thieves did not have strong opinions about property and the hope of enjoying what they get by theft, they would not do their jobs properly either. The love and friendship we see in this story are primarily about Lady Susan. She is seeking and seeking to share the pleasures and advantages of immorality with Manwaring — what a name! — and Alicia Johnson, an American apprenticed to the she-devil, learning all about European sophistication . . . Aristotle would call these people barbarians. Their main qualities are arrogance and cruelty. Then again, Machiavelli might call them virtuous! They certainly dare much, though they do not dare well.

This new barbarism is sophisticated. It accepts the liberal separation of private and public life as civil society and state. It also does what we see done every day in our times: it removes every conceivable authority from society in the name of individual freedom. Mr. Stillman might be serious about the fact that seeing such barbarians as what they are would require going back awhile to a different version of our own societies. What he shows us in showing the moralism of Lady Susan and Alicia Johnson is that such people believe society really belongs to them, to be ruled by intrigue such that the clever exploit the fools in the most shameless manner without any obstacle.

Indeed, the opinions of these barbarians are now received opinion. The truth revealed by love and friendship barbarically understood is this: People are unhappy in a moral society and will go to great lengths, if they have the ability, to get what they really want. As Carl explains, the men in the story are either simpletons or too easily corrupted. That’s not new for Mr. Stillman’s movies, but it’s somewhat strange for Jane Austen stories. What Lady Susan wants, England will refuse her, but as far as patriarchy goes, England is not doing a sterling job of it . . . So you can see that the novelist and director are on the side of England, with certain qualifications. They really do believe that there’s more than a little truth to what corrupt creatures advertise in Romantic stories — also, that there’s no going back to the good ol’ ways before liberalism, when there might have been no one to make fools of the patriarchs and to exasperate the reasonable women. In the modern liberal society, the distinction between public and private always includes the possibility of this new, sophisticated barbarism.

As I read Carl’s posts, a thought occurred to me: Friendship in a non-corrupt sense is supposed to be the modern defense against the tyrannical and slavish aspects of love. Friendship is both more democratic than love and less, because it is more demanding, deliberate, and less spontaneous. People break oaths and laws when they become lovers; beloveds become thieves. Indeed, the problems erotic love causes in a free society are now in the press and on TV every day, from presidential candidates to the colleges where the future leaders of America are supposed to be educated.

So we might benefit in our situation from an examination of civilization and barbarism in Austen’s terms, which are never vulgar nor despairing. The defenselessness of civilized people is always a concern in Austen novels, some vulnerability on the part of decent people is on display, but never quite as naked as in this story. The Victorian editor of the short epistolary novel on which the movie is based thought that was not enough, so he chose a title — Lady Susan — which Austen herself had not chosen and Mr. Stillman has rejected. That title would make Lady Susan a heroine. There is only one Austen novel named for a character, for a girl, and she is not corrupt. This title is all of impropriety–and the first thing to learn about both Mr. Stillman and Austen is that they marry irony and propriety.

This is one way to see that such authors want friends not lovers so far as their audience goes — unlike the Romantic cults. Broadly, it should be said about Romantic novels that they are either attacks on modern liberalism or defenses of it. Austen’s novels are always defenses. They are written from the perspective of a friend of people who seek love and friendship and therefore a defender of a society where that is possible. At the same time, Austen makes it clear how difficult and rare this is, because people are beholden to a very imperfect authority, both the predatory types and their victims.

The foregoing has been the best I can do to defend the film from Carl’s most serious objection. He seems to have wanted more by way of a show of what’s good and fine in love and friendship and less of a show of how difficult and rare it is. That’s the kind of good taste Austen herself encourages, both through her plots and by addressing her audience directly. But trouble and unhappiness seem crucial both to the plausibility and the interest of drama.

I’ll conclude with a partial defense of this concession to the less elevated interest in scandal. I believe that the elements of the story which he has so well interpreted as reflecting on modern things–on our own times — seem to have forced the director to show so much of the unpleasant stuff. I’d like to point out that this was also the opinion of the Romantic novelists in England that followed Austen: They always put forward — at greater and greater lengths — second-rate characters from Austen novels. The Brönte sisters and even George Eliot, to take only British examples . . . This is what Austen’s youthful writings do as well and this movie is a far better introduction to Austen than most, precisely because it reveals much of the goings on concealed in later novels . . . In this sense, I concur in Carl’s opinion that this might be the best Austen story on film.

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