Hurrah for cynicism! A toast to self-loathing!

What, you think I’m against these things?

To be sure, a cheap cynicism is an ugly thing: the cynicism of those who can’t handle the responsibility to act in an ethical way. The cynicism of business and government—of the manipulator, the cheater, and the me-firster—is not what I’m talking about.

But the cynicism of the broken-hearted idealist, the ethical loser, the romantic realist: that’s my kind of cynicism.

Look at Rick in Casablanca. Torn from the love of his life by the war, he fled to a remote political no-man’s land, where he runs a bar and proclaims that he “sticks his neck out for nobody.” His best friend, to the extent he has any friends, is a corrupt police captain.

The police captain is what we’d now call a sexual predator. A young couple from Bulgaria has made it to Casablanca, but they can’t finish their escape without an exit visa, and they can’t afford the fee. The captain lets the refugee wife know—she’s seventeen, he’s fiftyish—that exit visas might be provided if she sleeps with him. She goes to Rick for advice. She asks him what kind of man the captain is.

“Like other men, only more so,” Rick tells her: a classically cynical answer. He tells her to go back to Bulgaria. But in the next scene, he rigs the roulette wheel in his bar so her husband wins and has the money for the visas. It doesn’t endear him to the captain.

It’s a purely sentimental act. Rick gets no reward for saving the Bulgarians. I don’t think he even feels proud of it. He’s just acting according to his true character. Although his heart doesn’t bleed (except for his lost love), neither can he ignore a true innocent who asks for his help.

Rick is a cynical man saved by sentimentality, and Casablanca is a sentimental movie redeemed by cynicism. It’s the movie’s bleak vision that makes it bearable. Ilsa Laszlo’s do-gooder husband is so bland he’s almost not there. Even the resident prostitute—the one who sings the Marseillaise—is more memorable, and she’s only on screen for a minute. More pleasure comes from watching those icons of petty evil, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet.

There are less intentional darknesses in the film that I find fascinating, although not pleasant. One is the film’s own attitude toward the captain’s predation, which is that it’s a moral failing but not a very culpable one. (All is forgiven when he betrays his German masters and throws in with Rick at the end.) One is Ilsa’s display of the casual racism of the time by referring to Sam the piano man, 29 years her senior, as “the boy at the piano.” One is the glowering countenance of the Bulgarian boy-husband, who I can tell at a glance is far too dark and moody a man for the good of his poor young wife. (I can only imagine the bloody violence if she had slept with the captain—to save both their lives—and he found out.)

But as with most Humphrey Bogart pictures, the primary fascination of the picture is Rick. Rick is a misanthrope. He thinks the worst of people, including himself, and he idealizes no one. He drinks to excess and turns a blind eye to all sorts of crime in his establishment. But he’s a good man. It’s because he was happy once, and good, and good still comes out of him, involuntarily, like an embarrassing tic. He can’t help it. He was broken by disappointment, and that’s what made him a cynic. But the Bulgarian girl was right to trust him. Somehow she sensed his character.

I admire our grandparents’ conception of virtue as independent of self-esteem. Whether a man liked himself or not was his own business. It was his character and his actions that counted.

Even in the midst of self-loathing, there’s a pride that can keep you afloat, and the pride comes from knowing that, when it counts, you act in accordance with your character, your values. If you know that, no one else’s judgment matters.

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22 Responses to Hurrah for cynicism! A toast to self-loathing!

  1. Jacquie says:

    Wow. That’s all I have. A lot said to provoke much thought and self examination.

  2. Sirsbutterscotch says:

    I really need to rent that movie again! Hope all is well.

  3. Sirsbutterscotch says:

    Just got it at the library!!!

  4. Susan says:

    Such an insightful dissection of that classic movie. Wow. Thank you.

  5. Grace says:

    “I admire our grandparents’ conception of virtue as independent of self-esteem. Whether a man liked himself or not was his own business. It was his character and his actions that counted.”

    So true. I’d pick virtue over self-esteem any day.

    “Even in the midst of self-loathing, there’s a pride that can keep you afloat, and the pride comes from knowing that, when it counts, you act in accordance with your character, your values. If you know that, no one else’s judgment matters.”

    I’m not sure I’d call it pride, but I agree, if you know that you’re doing the right thing then the judgement of others doesn’t matter…not that it won’t have an effect on you at all necessarily, being human and all, but it becomes much less relevant.

    • Kevan says:

      You’re right: pride isn’t the perfect word. The concept I’m looking for is closer to self-respect, but even that term is a little too puffed up and self-regarding. I need a word that conveys self-knowledge, a groundedness that comes from experience and familiarity. It’s like when you have a favorite tool—a pair of scissors, a pen, a drill, whatever—and the reason you like it is that you’ve had it a long time, you know the feel of it in your hand, you know its weight and its texture, and it has always done the job. You don’t have to think about it; you can count on it, and that’s what makes it comfortable. If you can feel that about your own character, you’ve achieved something. You might be otherwise very unhappy with your life and with yourself, but you know what you’re made of, so to speak.

  6. Susan says:

    I think that a healthy self-esteem comes in part from our actions. The more we act with integrity, in harmony with our highest self, the more we come to like and respect the person we are. And knowing that in spite of the way we might have acted in the past, we can make amends and move forward in a better way can help, too. That’s why in my opinion, parents who simply praise but don’t teach and expect good behavior are not helping build self-esteem in a child. A big part of feeling good about ourselves is doing what is right and good.

    Kevan, please analyze more films for us! Please. = )

    • Kevan says:

      Casablanca was easy pickings, Susan, because I’ve seen it a bunch of times and have had years to think about it, and it’s one that most of my readers have probably seen, too. And most of all because it gave me a great way to write about myself. Not many other films fit all those prerequisites! Hmmmm—2001 helped me think about my spiritual outlook, and Magnolia says what I’d like to say about how the tragedy and beauty of human life begins in childhood. And there are about twenty other films that I think are amazing examples of what movies can be. I’ll put the subject in the back of my mind and see what percolates. Thanks!

  7. harmonyann says:

    Watch Twelve Angry Men. Awesome movie and REALLY makes a statement.

    • Kevan says:

      That is a good one. Dated (no women jurors? No minorities?), and pretty obviously based on a play, but very emotionally effective.

      Oh, and of course Henry Fonda is right up there with Gregory Peck in playing a principled human being.

      • harmonyann says:

        You have to take the old movies for the time when they were made, you don’t have to like the injustice/prejudice (and I don’t) but it was what it was and you can’t change history. Just learn from it and pray we don’t make the same mistakes in the future.

        Was more of a James Stewart fan more then Gregory Peck. Although I did love Spellbound and Roman Holiday.

        • Kevan says:

          I like James Stewart best as a tortured neurotic (“Vertigo,” “Rear Window”). Was thinking of “To Kill a Mockingbird” when I mentioned Peck.

          • harmonyann says:

            Good choices. I like Mr. Smith goes to Washington and (I know, I know it’s to easy) It’s a Wonderful Life, but you can’t bet a classic.

  8. Sirsbutterscotch says:

    Well, it holds up and I was reminded of what real movie stars look like. Ingrid Bergman is stunning. We could all benefit from good lighting and an out of focus camera. My kids loved it and then we watched Some Like it Hot. This is my idea of a good education. : )

    • Kevan says:

      Mine too.

      There was some trick they used to use to get that soft-focus effect—might have been stretching nylons over the camera lights or something similar. I agree that Casablanca was just about Bergman’s peak of attractiveness. I just saw her in Gaslight (1944), and even allowing for the weakness of the character she was playing and the awful hairstyle they put her in, she didn’t have the same spark.

      Thanks for reporting back, Butterscotch!

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