The Agony and the Ecstasy

Darren Aronofksy's remarkable new movie Black Swan is a companion piece to his equally striking 2009 offering, The Wrestler. The two films take place in settings that could not possibly be more different, yet each tells essentially the same story, a story that is undeniably relevant to our age and culture.

In both, the protagonist is an artist fanatically attached to his craft, to the exclusion of all else in life, even his own well-being. The bulked-up, over-the-hill professional wrestler portrayed by Mickey Rourke can't fathom giving up the career that once brought him stardom and acclaim, even though it's led to his physical deterioration, late middle-age decrepitude, and severe heart problems. Meanwhile, the outwardly frail, inwardly driven and emotionally obsessive Broadway ballerina played by Natalie Portman dances on the very edge of mental collapse, her behavior increasingly erratic, marked by bouts of frightening hallucinations and episodes of queasy self-abuse.

Rourke's character parks his trailer among the down-home Red State denizens of the pro-wrestling circuit, while Portman's dwells with the Blue State New York cultural cognoscenti, but Aronofsky evinces no chauvinism for one society over the other, and both films are utterly bereft of any taint of condescension. The setting, while meticulously detailed and enjoyably authentic, is merely backdrop, however; the real story concerns the central character's willful self-destruction for the sake of his art.

Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008)

Depressing as such a premise may sound, it is worth noting that the tragic denouement in both movies is paradoxically shot through with an exquisite jolt of exhilaration and triumph. The hero's determination to achieve artistic perfection at the cost of his health and sanity may expose him as spectacularly imprudent, but it inspires us just the same. There is indeed a grand romanticism to such gestures, one that temporarily shakes us out of our postmodern spiritual torpor and moves us to admiration.

One thinks of Hamlet's self-disgust at his own inaction, leading him to indict the couch potato mentality particularly endemic to so many in our age:

What is a man
If his chief and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.

Aronofsky's doomed wrestler and fated ballerina may be depraved idolaters, suffering as they do for no great purpose beyond personal fame and glory, but by damn, they are at least willing to suffer for something. They throw themselves with crazy abandon into their roles, ultimately not caring that the consequences for their monomania will be grave indeed.

Both movies caused me to think of Yukio Mishima's excruciatingly brilliant short story "Patriotism," in which a young, right-wing revolutionary attempts to restore what he regards as Japan's lost imperial majesty. He fails in his task, then commits seppuku--an act the narrative describes in horrifying detail--as a final gesture of fidelity to his cause.


Yukio Mishima during coup attempt, 1970

To be sure, Mishima's hero is a step above Aronofsky's single-minded protagonists, since he seeks not his own glory, but rather that of his nation. Still, there is an undeniable whiff of desperation about his self-inflicted ritual disembowelment. This brave man seeks, and finds, honor in death, but not transcendence; such can only be gained by dying for TRUTH, as opposed to mere aesthetics or ideology.

While such deaths as these are in a sense noble and tragic, they do not amount to martyrdom. To be a martyr, one must be willing to give one's life for faith. And in order to die for faith, one must first live for it. Which isn't easy to do in the midst of a culture that sees hedonism as healthy and self-denial as neurotic.

Yet one suspects that even Aronofsky--by all accounts a secular Jew--sees through to the heart of the dilemma. In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke's stripper girlfriend (Marisa Tomei) enthuses over his numerous bruises, and remarks how they remind her of this kick-ass movie she saw called The Passion of the Christ, which featured in its preface a line from the Bible: "By his wounds we were healed."

It is unclear whether or not Tomei's character knows the significance of the words she speaks, but Aronofsky is clearly using Mel Gibson's controversial classic (whose gory and ballsy aesthetic he clearly appreciates) to underscore the difference between true, redemptive and transcendent suffering inspired by faith, and its counterfeit, whereby one sacrifices one's flesh for no real purpose. While the latter may show guts and inspire pathos, its resonance is ultimately only negative and nihilistic; it is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

We can, and should, do better. Let us struggle to lead good lives, and when the time comes, to die good deaths, never betraying what we ardently believe to be true.