58A Vane Attempt

"Don't Need a Weatherman To Tell Which Way the Wind Blows" 

A Series of Innocuous Blogs for Vainglorious Edification.

A Grand Illusion
May 29, 2009

Jean Renoir’s 1937 film masterpiece Grand Illusion examines the underlying humanity that brings together a socially disparate group of  World War I French prisoners and German captors.  Superficially separated by class and nationality, the French prisoners and their German guards maintain a courteous, often convivial rapport.  All the while the prisoners are plotting escape and the enemy ranking officers treat each other with decorum and respect.  Renoir’s initial intent is to strip away the artifice in military rank and command structures.  The absurdity of two warring factions, prisoner and guard joking and maintaining a respectful camaraderie is the substance of the titular illusion.  But Renoir’s masterpiece does not stop there.  There are many illusions for his camera to dispel.  The honorable relationship between enemy officers masks the subterfuge of the prisoner’s escape plans.  The strident differences in French class structure is carefully avoided even as it infuses the action of each soldier.  And the belief that a common, feared enemy will suppress independent human nature making us instant comrades, is shown to be illusory.

Renoir ultimately says to us that regardless of how we see ourselves, as soldiers, comrades, enemies or friends - it is the entire embodiment of life that is illusory.  And that when one illusion is dispelled it is replaced with another, and another after that.  Life is but a poor player given an hour upon the stage, and then is gone.  Replaced by yet another player who struts and frets and dutifully exits.  But it is in that hour
that Shakespeare tells us constitutes human experience, we find exhilaration.  Because in that hour we are subjected to myriad illusions, some of which we believe, some of which we disbelieve, and some of which must fall.  What Renoir suggests is that holding on to any one or other of these illusions is in itself an illusion.  Even if we see that such fantasies can bring about good.   Those of us who indulge in actions we believe have meaning may only be indulging ourselves.  Those to whom we assign the meaning are, at last, our own creations.  Conjured from our imaginations to play first and second fiddle to each of our poor players.

We ponder these thoughts and Renoir’s timeless motion picture not only because we love the humanist and artist, (we honestly do) but because we seek his wisdom.  We are at a cusp in life where old illusions are falling and new ones are rising up in their place.  And those who subscribe to one illusion will resist its fall and those who subscribe to the next illusion will be filled with hope.  It is a natural kind of rhythm this rise and fall.  It is a good part of the great consciousness that we try to describe existence by.  But lest we draw too maudlin, be our lives illusory or constructed with the hard matter of the firmament, we should do nothing without humor.  Because it is humor that remains even after the illusion falls.  And what could be more delicious than to dine on the nutrition of laughter while our notions of grandeur disappear? 

We foresee without any authority whatsoever, the impending collapse of a once-popular illusion.  The illusion was based on the idea that all of  human behavior could be corralled, like a herd of wild horses.  And in fact that was true at one time; but that time is now over.  What replaces the old illusion is a not-yet fully formed new one.  One that acknowledges a need for a new approach to human nature - without a demand to control human nature.  The old illusion assumed that by pricking the primitive instincts in man, he could be forced to react in certain prescribed ways.  But those instincts have been diminished by evolution.  They are no longer the sole, driving force of human nature.  The instinct for fright and flight has been replaced by one to stand and study.  And even though our master Renoir would tell us this too is an illusion - for many of us it is a better illusion.  And it is more fun.  Because what better stage to strut and fret upon than one where you stare the dragon in the face, throw back your head and bellow with laughter?  While we, the dragon and the universe around us may all vanish, the laughter will continue.  An eternal perturbation across consciousness  that may just draw a smile from our illusory brethren, and in turn an invitation to the abundant, illusory feast.