‘The English Patient’:
A Classical Tragedy of Love and Paradox

Juliana Geran Pilon

[From HUMANITAS, Volume X, No. 1, 1997. © National Humanities Institute]

"The English Patient" 1996. Director Anthony Minghella. Producer Saul Zaentz. Screenplay Anthony Minghella, based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje. Cinematographer John Seale. Music Gabriel Yared. Editor Walter Murch. Production design Stuart Craig. Art director Aurelio Crugnola. Ralph Fiennes as Almasy. Juliette Binoche as Hana. Willem Dafoe as Caravaggio. Kristin Scott Thomas as Katharine Clifton. Naveen Andrews as Kip. Colin Firth as Geoffrey Clifton.

In Plato's timeless Symposium, the wise Diotima tells Socrates: "He who has followed the path of love's initiation in the proper order will on arriving at the end suddenly perceive a marvelous beauty, the source of all our efforts." For Socrates, Beauty is on a par with Goodness and Truth in the trinity of perfect Ideas. Love embodies the desire for beauty, for completion, the yearning for immortality. The Greeks considered love to be a form of divine grace; thus their inimitable sculptures personifying various gods and goddesses glorify the sensual. But the Beauty they instantiated was eminently earthly: to be exact, the distinction between humans and immortals was aesthetically negligible. Men and women rivaled the deities in physical splendor; mortals actually tempted the gods, who often succumbed, and often, too, disastrously. Yet the residents of Olympus seemed unable, or at least unwilling, to resist such temptation.

It is no accident that "The English Patient"—surely the best movie to come on the American screen in a very long time—chooses the Greek Herodotus as a leitmotif. His History happens to be the main character's constant companion, even improbably surviving a fiery crash that all but consumed its merely human owner. The movie's principal theme has been routinely described as "romantic"; and it is that as it involves the relationship between a man (the Hungarian Laszlo) and a woman (the English Katherine). On closer analysis, however, both the style and the message are in reality quintessentially classical. Thus Nobel-prize winning Mexican essayist Octavio Paz wrote in his recent masterpiece The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism: "Greco-Roman Antiquity knew love, almost always, as a passion that was painful but nonetheless worthy of being experienced, desirable in and of itself." The passionate love described in this movie is, in such classical terms, definitely painful. But at the same time it is impossible to deny that it is portrayed as eminently beautiful.

Beauty notwithstanding, what makes this story interesting is its moral core. Morality was central to the Greek mind. However overwhelmed by their passion, the lovers have to accept the consequences of their actions to themselves and to others. Intoxication is no excuse: those who love must still act, and all action is either right or wrong. But free will aside, there is—naturally—a role for destiny.

The Greeks fully appreciated the role of the Moirae, the ubiquitous Fates, in human behavior. Once condemned to desire, the lovers are subject to a kind of curse masquerading as grace. The victims' only choice is to worship one another in endless torture, for true love has no consummation. Each seeming conquest only fuels the desire for more—to say nothing of jealousy, pathos, remorse. . . . If the flames of the inferno have any meaning, this surely must be it.

Except for being—magnificent. Thus just as fire changes elements into new substances, so the lovers are transformed: they are no longer merely objects of physical attraction (which is the origin of the original erotic impetus); they learn to venerate one another as souls worthy of respect. To cite Paz again: "Love is . . . ceremony and representation, but it is something else besides: a purification, as the Provençal poets said, that transforms the subject and object of the erotic encounter into unique persons. Love is the final metaphor of sexuality. Its cornerstone is freedom: the mystery of the person." But the price of freedom is, again, the imperative of morality.

At the very essence of morality is the principle of treating others as ends in themselves. Yet love is sometimes, perhaps more often than not, curiously incompatible with morality—which the lovers, in classical terms, transgress at their peril. The paradox is that love itself makes all danger, including death, entirely subservient to the inescapable, all-consuming passion that defines such love. Which is itself a kind of redemption. But is that enough to render it moral?

Admittedly, death itself is the ultimate redemption. And in a way so is passion itself, since it is equivalent to death-by-fire, death by all-consuming fire, destroying as it exalts. But much more important is the fact that passion not only betrays but also begets life.

In a strikingly ambivalent, most dramatic scene, Katherine slaps Laszlo hard in anger, desperate at her own need for him, even as she comes to him for the first time, dressed in white, presenting herself as his true (though certainly not legal) bride who needs him more than she can bear. She hates and loves him at the same time; is ecstatically happy and miserably unhappy at the same time—as she confesses to him, fully aware of what is happening to her, yet unable and ultimately unwilling to resist it.

It is not irrelevant that Katherine is married. Her status as "forbidden fruit" must surely add to the dramatic tension between the two lovers—not unlike the tension between Romeo and Juliet, and countless others in literary history. But while Juliet's love for Romeo was forbidden only by political circumstance, that of Katherine for Laszlo implied betrayal, defying both Truth and Goodness. Can Beauty do that and still be ravishing? So it seems.

The betrayal is not only adulterous (although it is that primarily, and the eventual cause of the horrible deaths of all three people caught in this tragic triangle). Loving Laszlo, Katherine also violates her own choice to stay, in effect, spiritually a virgin: by having married her best friend from childhood rather than anyone who would cause her pain, she had made a conscious decision to shun passion. She betrays her emotional celibacy when she tells Laszlo that what she likes most is to swim alone, and to take baths alone (decidedly "not with someone else" she tells him even as she is in the bath with him). And what does she hate most? To lie, she answers promptly, without blinking. Yet this is precisely what she must do to keep her lover a secret.

Laszlo too realizes, almost from the moment he lays eyes on Katherine, that he is doomed. Writes Paz: "Love begins with a look: we gaze at the person to whom we are attracted, and he or she gazes back. What do we see? Everything and nothing. After a moment we avert our eyes. Otherwise we would be turned to stone."

One of the most sensual moments in the movie is, improbably enough, the scene by the campfire where Katherine tells the gathered (all male) explorers a story from Herodotus. The camera focuses on her with almost impudent, intrusive closeness as she describes the night when the ancient queen undresses (unknowingly) in the presence of a man who will be her future lover. The close-up of Katherine shows her subliminally aware of the fact that the erotic moment she describes embraces her as well, that she is actually addressing Laszlo at whom she looks as she speaks—with the camera following that gaze. And as her figure is blurred while the focus sharpens on him, we know that Laszlo is himself the stunned voyeur, finding himself unable to resist undressing her—the willing lover/raconteuse—with his eyes. He is destined to be the inevitable victim of the splendid Medusa/Katherine whose magnificence will turn him not to stone but to burning fire. He does not avert his gaze, but looks on, mesmerized, unable to believe. The fact that he will later die as a result of literal burns is only meant to underscore the fact that he has already started to be consumed by the flame inside his body, the flame of passion and, eventually, devotion.

This man who shouts that "There is no God," who states that he does not want to be owned by anyone—that is to say, he wishes to be his own god—seems unwilling to believe that he can succumb to the greater force of love. That only insures that he will fall so much the harder for resisting, denying, desperately fearing it; he is hopelessly drawn into it for the simple reason that he happens to be human. He too had vowed to stay celibate, no less than Katherine. He detests above all "ownership"—the kind that love commands, that he cannot escape. But later, having just made love to her, he demands that he possess a part of her body, the delicate hollow in her collar bone—when in fact what he truly needs is not only every inch of her but her entire soul, which he cannot be sure he can ever possess. The fact that she loves him as much does not change that truth. These are both tragic Greek characters who fully realize the danger of passion.

Descendants of Adam and Eve, they try to avoid tasting the forbidden fruit—but, like the pre-Christian Greeks, they know that the road to love's precarious paradise leads through hell. They know that the price of their surrender must be everything. This is why they fear it and why they (and only such as they) have the privilege and misfortune to succumb to it.

The beauty of the love between Laszlo and Katherine is greatly enhanced by the fact that it takes place against the background of enormous calamities both man-made and natural. As they live through a sandstorm of truly biblical proportions, the two, who still have not acknowledged their mutual attraction, fall asleep together in the same car only to awaken the next morning nearly buried, obviously brought closer together by the catastrophe. And when they discover a prehistoric cave—the object of Laszlo's expedition—where ancestors of all humanity left their trace in art, they are reminded of the reality of transitoriness, of death, and the everlasting human yearning for beauty. In this dramatic setting, Laszlo and Katherine are keenly aware that they represent a mere incarnation of the ancient pattern. Herodotus, the father of history, reminds them of the fact that their own lives—like all others—are merely tiny chapters in a magnificent, tempestuous tome. That background cannot but add to the sense that their union is both irrevocable and hauntingly beautiful.

Genuine passion implies both splendor and torture. Writes Paz: "Through love we steal from the time that kills us a few hours which we turn now into paradise and not into hell. In both ways time expands and ceases to be a measure. Beyond happiness and unhappiness, though it is both things, love is intensity: it does not give us eternity but life, that second in which the doors of time and space open just a crack: here is there and now is always. In love, everything is two and everything strives to be one."

Love is especially powerful as against the horror of war, the exploding mines that kill randomly regardless of ideology or moral worth, as if God had suddenly forgotten all sense and reason. The beauty that emerges from the love of two human beings who find each other absolutely splendid and irresistible, becomes almost sacred. Actually, it is sacred—it is the essence of life.

But, again, what of morality? Does the story condone the illicit affair, in the end, or does it not? Perhaps even more important: is it possible to forgive Laszlo for having given his archeological maps to the Germans in exchange for a plane to rescue Katherine? One reason this is so haunting a story, and so truly unusual, is that the answer is extremely complex, which is why this is not mere drama but a tragedy. On the one hand, there is no doubt that the lovers' horrible deaths—with Katherine left alone in a cave while Laszlo takes too long to rescue her, and Laszlo (his unrecognizable body already scorched in the plane gunned down by the Germans) finished off with morphine by a compassionate nurse—constitute, on the face of it, their well-deserved punishment. But to end there would be to miss the point of this story entirely.

In order to understand more deeply the main theme one must look to the subplots. There is, for example, the brief affair of the nurse and her Sikh soldier lover, which is surely genuine and beautiful, innocent, devoid of distrust or betrayals, yet lacking in both intensity and drama. The reason is not simply that the relationship is not illicit; it is rather that the protagonists are constitutionally incapable of the intense eroticism that consumes the principal couple.

When the nurse plays the piano, the young soldier comes running to warn her of unexploded mines. She later calmly declares to Laszlo as she is caring for him that the young man will become her husband, since her mother had predicted that she would call her mate by playing the piano. No tragedy, no fear of passion, no agony, no stunning first gaze. Accordingly, she will not be burned on the incandescent cross of desire. But at least she and the soldier are true enough to themselves not to promise to marry; they merely expect to meet again some day, in their lovely church. No date is set. By implication, if they do not meet, they must not meet—for it means that they are not fated to do so. They will be true to themselves, but they cannot predict that they will be drawn to one another again. The audience cannot be sure either. While their love is pure, it fails to be scorching, fails to be splendid.

In what way, by contrast, does Katherine and Laszlo's love deserve to be called splendid? That moment comes, it seems to me, when Laszlo takes on the task of rescuing not Katherine herself, the beautiful object of his desire, but Katherine's corpse. When Laszlo takes on the deadly journey to the cave where he knows, even if only subliminally, that she lies still and cold—given that this is long after her supplies have run out—he takes on the task of Antigone: ending the anguish of an unburied beloved's soul at the risk of one's own life. At that moment it is absolutely clear that his love is truly transcendent, more important to him than anything else on earth or heaven.

So if he could obtain the rescue plane only by offering the Germans his maps, it seems virtually impossible to blame him. What could he have done? The British, whom he approached first, not only refused to help him but proceeded to imprison and deport him, assuming, inaccurately, because of his name, that he worked for the Germans. It is probably also not irrelevant that the war was practically over, the Germans already losing. Could we have forgiven him if he had left Katherine in the cave and betrayed his promise to her to make sure he comes after her? Had she not begged him to let her be buried in her garden, at home?

In the process of rescuing her he will expose himself to being shot down. Love may have made him mad, but it has also made him a hero. And in that moment, we realize that if there is a moral to this story, it is that the sublime beauty of his love is indeed, in all probability, worth everything. That sacrifice saves his soul even as (and yes, because) it scorches his body—for which—and this is critical—he is fully prepared.

The Canadian spy whose hands had been horribly mutilated by the Germans, who had vowed to locate all those implicated in that torture and kill them, lets the unrecognizable Laszlo be after hearing the reason why he surrendered the archeological maps. (The Germans had found him as a result of studying Laszlo's maps.) This does not justify Laszlo's act, which was essentially treacherous; but it does explain that the tragic hero was faced with a horrible dilemma, to which there was no clear solution. And his heart dictated that he must act on his holy promise. There is at least some reason to forgive the dying star-crossed lover.

For that matter there must be compassion for Katherine as well, once it is revealed, in the last scene, that as she lay dying she had been haunted by the betrayal that—as she says—"is everywhere," including within herself. And despite her wounds, her thoughts turn to her dead husband, whose body she had asked Laszlo to bury, just before he left her.

The fact that these people are intensely aware of moral truth even as they seem unable to resist violating its law while—and this is important—making no excuses for themselves, renders the movie particularly powerful. There is no trace of relativism here, or nihilism: there are truths, loyalties, and many examples of deep affection. Ultimately, it is the fact that the two protagonists are devoted to one another beyond life that makes their story so hauntingly beautiful.

This is not pure romanticism, if that term refers to the glorification of morally oblivious feeling. The movie portrays passion in all its terrifying, dangerous reality. It states too that moral laws are violated at a price—and that price is very high indeed. Innocent people end up getting hurt. But it does not go on to conclude that feeling is therefore to be denied, shackled, obliterated. There are no traces here of stoicism; only courage—which is entirely different, in many ways its exact opposite. In the final analysis, does the story of these lovers prove that their love was wrong, and reprehensible? The answer would have to be, it seems to me, essentially yes. And yet. . . . Did they prove that their love was sublime? That answer, paradoxically enough, must also be yes, truly yes.

Is this confusing? unacceptable? contradictory? Perhaps. But ultimately, this is no didactic morality play but a work of art. This is not to imply either relativism or immorality. It is simply not an artist's place to pronounce ethical judgments. As Benedetto Croce wrote in 1912 in the Guide to Aesthetics, "the artist neither believes nor disbelieves in his image; he produces it." Significantly, however, it was Croce who also believed that the more something is art "the more it shows the morality inherent in the nature of things." That morality is not necessarily clear-cut should not diminish its significance. "The English Patient" is a work of art not despite the fact that it does not present us with a definite moral conclusion but, surely, because of it.

Updated 29 July 2010