The Demon Within

I watched Trumbo in Oxford. There is a small independent theater in the Jericho area that shows good films. It is roughly a fifteen-minute walk from our flat, and a rather nice excursion to make. So on the second day following Trumbo‘s premiere in the UK, I took an evening stroll and saw the movie.

In some ways Trumbo is a cliche story. It is a minority’s fight against a majority. It is courage to hold one’s ground when bullies come. It is loyalty to one’s principles and self-respect. It is the kind of film one does not need to follow too closely to unravel its plot or guess at its ending. We knew (or we presumed) that it was, in loose terms, a touching account of triumph – good over bad, virtue over vice.

Such an account would, nonetheless, suffice to make the film a good one in my opinion. I do not seek originality for its own sake, and I cannot stand those who belittle stories simply for them being too precedented. Things that warm us at night are often not that unprecedented; I’m thinking honesty, kindness, compassion, or wisdom.

However, Trumbo was, to me, not merely a good story. It was an extraordinary story, and it is so especially because of one scene.

(Nearing the end, Trumbo finally receives long over-due recognition for his work produced during the Blacklist period. He is awarded The Writers’ Guild of America Laurel Award, and at the ceremony, Trumbo gives a speech.)

Trumbo: …The blacklist was a time of evil. And no one who survived it came through untouched by evil. Caught in a situation that had passed beyond the control of mere individuals, each person reacted as his nature, his needs, convictions and particular circumstances compelled him to. There was good faith and bad. Courage and cowardice. Honesty and dishonesty. Selflessness and opportunism. So when you look back on that dark time, as I think you should now and then, it will do no good to search for heroes and villains. There were none. There were only victims. Victims because each of us felt compelled to say or do things we otherwise would not. To deliver and receive wounds we truly did not wish to exchange. That is why none of us – left, right or center – emerged from that long nightmare without sin… What I say here is not intended to be hurtful to anyone. It is intended to repair a hurt. To heal wounds which years ago we inflicted on each other and most of all… ourselves.

I knew then, that I had been wrong. I had been mistaken about the story. I had been mistaken about what it longed to tell. It was not a mere story of triumph. Far from it, it was a complicated story of loss – the kind of loss not ten Laurel awards could make up for.

Sometime earlier, I had read Coates. I bought Between the World and Me at a publishing bookstore in Soho, New York. It was on sale, ten-percent off, though that was still in the relative height of the public’s preoccupation with this newly crowned National Book Award recipient. A day later, I took a two-day side trip to Boston, with a round-trip Amtrack ticket. I nestled in the dining car on both rides, and finished the short but mighty work.

I had known Mr. Coates before this book, but scantly. He was one of last year’s MacArthur Fellows, or as they are also known, the Geniuses. The Atlantic did a short but amusing interview with him following the announcement and I caught it. Mr. Coates, in less than three hundred words and ten minutes’ worth of conversation, displayed both wit and humility – two qualities abundant in imitations but rare in authentic copies. That interview was the reason I grew interested in the book.

Mr. Coates seemed gently witty and comfortably humble in the interview. His work, on the other hand, pierces with its wit, scathes with its honesty, and concedes inferiority to none. Some say it is an exaggerating and alienating vent, devoid of any constructive insight. Some say it is a brilliantly informative account on racial relations in America. I don’t know what the rest of the readers or critics or onlookers say. I haven’t tried that hard to learn. I did try hard to read into Mr. Coates’ own words, and they hint at me that our preconceived premise might be somewhat off. Notwithstanding certain politically sensitive identities and socially sensitive issues, I read, above else, not an assuming social expose, but only an ordinary man’s extraordinary struggle to consciousness. It’s just that this man happens to be Black and his life happens to frequently include things we’d rather discuss in vague abstracts instead of painstaking details.

One part of Mr. Coates’ struggle involved making sense of his losses, losses from I suppose growing up and surviving the way he had (an honorable way, but not an easy way). He used to think his loss (though I think in part he still does) amounted to drug-ridden neighborhoods, dilapidated classrooms, disproportionate sanctions, and a cheated chance at the American Dream (whatever that may mean to a kid who made sure he mastered the street language before he mastered French so he won’t be shot at). Now he thinks his loss manifests in one form: fear. It is fear given shape and made impregnable by his years in drug-ridden neighborhoods and dilapidated classrooms, by his encounters with shattered Dreams and incapacitated friends. It is fear that has compelled him to flash anger and panic – emotions otherwise uncharacteristic of the man he has become – in front of his young son. It is fear that has driven him to doubt every stranger’s caring and kindness. It is fear that has costed him friendships and love. Mr. Coates finds himself shackled by fear, when he longs to be free.

Trumbo reminded me of Coates.

In the aforementioned scene, Bryan Cranston’s Trumbo stood behind the podium. His eyes wet, his voice calm. He spoke, without blame. He said he did not want to hurt, but to heal. I think I can guess at why. No one emerged triumphant from the Blacklist and Red Scare days. Everyone sustained a loss, even John Wayne, even Hedda Hopper, even Joe McCarthy. And in ways, their losses are in nature similar to that of Trumbo’s. Drowning amidst pervasive fear, they lost that most glorious capacity to tolerate, to believe, to strive for better versions of oneself, and to stay free. Mr. Trumbo does not wish to hate, nor hurt, because he wants to break free of that suffocating grip by fear. He wants to reclaim his highest capacity. He is ready to be himself again.

I felt a slight jab at my heart.

Walking home from the theater, I passed by several groups of gaily drunk young men and women. They almost all wore too little for a January evening. Wind brushed their hair back, and they laughed in a manner that almost seemed fearless – fearless of the dark, fearless of the cold, fearless of others judging, fearless of the cobbled pavement that could break their heels. But a minute later, I entertained the thought of it all being quite the opposite. Perhaps they were cold. Perhaps the ladies loathed walking in the dark with heels and the gents hated wearing ties that chocked their necks. Perhaps they were not fearless, but acted this way only because they were fearful: fearful of never having a chance to wear the suit or dress, fearful of being without company, fearful of being rejected by the worthless but everlasting idea of popularity, fearful of many other possible and impossible things.

It is wild speculation, but I couldn’t help but smiled wryly. Ah, our demon within.

(*Featured Image: Sculpture on campus at Berkeley, a place that has encouraged me to fear a little less.)

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