Act Passively, Pass Actively (h2so4 13)

Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia: Unsuspecting Nietzschean Case Study in How to Reconcile Will to Power with Eternal Return of the Same, or, Love, Soft as an Easy Chair in which it is exceedingly difficult to sit..

Why do the people who hate Magnolia hate Magnolia? There are of course many possible answers to this question, some of them more valid than others. But I think the most common reason for hating Magnolia is perhaps the least "valid," and the most telling: that is, the objection that it simply does not describe the world we live in.

People hate Magnolia because it makes a point few people want to take, or teaches a lesson no one wants to learn: that much of what happens in this world is way beyond any of our control. A truism. But it goes further--this lack of power means that we constantly have to give up the dream of control, make up things as we go along, and deal with the fall-out from our and others' mistakes. Another truism. But Magnolia is even more demanding--it insists there are some mistakes we never should have made: we knew better, even at the time. Magnolia explores all this in the form of an implicit question: what does it take to do good?

The film sets up a number of situations ripe for the coming of tragedy or comedy (comedy not in the sense of Seinfeld but "within human--rather than only within a god's--control") onto the scene. It then (if we wish to anthropomorphize film) simply sits back and lets it all happen. In the course of all this "happening," we, the audience, are witness to various degrees of, on one side of the scale, downright hubris and other resistances to "fate," and, to the other extreme, acceptance and resignation.

The message is clear that both hubris and resignation miss the point; both of these, active and passive, are a form of resistance to the truth of the human condition--that somewhere between complete mastery and utter helplessness we eke out our existence together, create justice, and find others to love. In other words, this is what it takes to do good, this searching for, finding and then heeding the balance between action and passivity. Our aim is (or ought to be) to know when it is time for resistance, and when acceptance.

What, then, comprises this "resistance" I have noted in "those who hate Magnolia" to acknowledging the lesson about action and passivity? The answer: Freedom. Freedom thought as an absolute value, that is, as the priority, the very foremost, top shelf, upper deck, blue ribbon, gold medal of human values, is what forms the stuff of this resistance. To get the point of Magnolia is to admit that freedom is not our highest value (and this is not the same as saying that freedom is not important)--and this is precisely what we've always been taught (especially as red-blooded Americans) we must resist admitting.

There are, of course, other reasons to hate Magnolia: "it is 3.5 hours long!" "directorial excess," "these people are all stupid," "a morality play," "an experiment in neuroses," etc. Regardless of any other reasons for dismissing the film, however, accepting the film comes as a struggle, and is meant to be so. Struggle is part of the process of "what it takes to do good."

* * *

The film's "framing" character is Jim Kurring, a gentle-ben sort of an LAPD officer, whose speeches, spoken to himself while sitting in his car, occur just after the opening introductory sequence and right before the closing sequence. He opens the film thus: "We move through this life, we should try to do good. If we can do that, and not hurt anyone else, well then..." Ellipsis. Possibility. It is the opening of a closed structure, this open-endedness of ellipsis, these "dots" at the end of a sentence. Jim sounds to us like a simple man, perhaps too naive to appreciate the complexities involved in this "doing good" he speaks of. But this simple formula of Jim's, "we should try to do good," is actually a complex demand the mechanics of which are worked out throughout Magnolia's 3.5 hour claim on our time. The film instructs us, without being pious, spiritual or otherwise conventionally moralistic, to help others when we can. It seems to say: when you have hurt others, ask for forgiveness--Sometimes we do wrong without knowing it--We learn from this so as not to repeat ourselves--And sometimes we do know better-Please, just don't do the bad things that you know are bad even as you do them. The film is not about good and evil-something of cosmic register that calls a god to mind-it is about good and bad, and it is about the process of learning the very difficult structure of how to do good.

There is always a paradox. Resistance to seeing the film's message for what it is almost proves the film's point--that what seems easy is really difficult, and vice versa. The so-called naive demand to do good is anything but simple-minded. It is reliant on a structure that must be learned and then paid heed to continually if it is to succeed, whereas what seems so difficult, the complex web of lies we fashion to keep ourselves safe, is really the easier course, which is the reason why it so often prevails. Of course, such "cute" self-fulfilling-prophecy type structures that prove themselves right by being ignored are only so "helpful" when it comes to advancing the cause--abovementioned--of eking out our existence together, creating justice, finding others to love, and loving them well. How then, to bring about this "revelation"--how to make the people love Magnolia, or at least see it for what it is?

The resistance I've been speaking of to learning what it takes to do good is, to my thinking, the same "illness" that leads many Nietzsche readers to misunderstand Nietzsche. I mention this only because it does bear directly on the topic at hand--so forgive me in advance for the following short excursus into Zarathustra's world, where will to power and eternal return of the same can be reconciled, analytic philosophy and its tale of non-contradiction aside.

The unexpected does happen. That which is outside of control, prediction, rules and convention will at times assert itself despite our best efforts to order our own lives. Such occurrences present themselves as challenges to human freedom or will--there's no stopping an "act of God," no changing the past, and very little chance of controlling other human beings when it comes to what tends to matter to us most--love.1

Despite the obvious truth of this, most of our psychic and societal structures are set up as challenges to what is beyond our control, as if to help us live out the assumption that human freedom is what is essential in humanity, coming prior to everything else in importance. We all want to erase our regrets, make what is bad about the past different than it was, control or predict the unpredictable, control or lay out in advance the course of any love, friendship or other human dealing. But all these things are impossible. Still, we do try to change the unchangeable, because we are told that we are creative and innovative and there is no end to our possibilities. Anything not chosen freely, we think, is unworthy of us--we are heirs to Nietzsche and our world is will to power. According to Nietzsche, any body, be it an individual human, or the body we call the state, is driven by nature to overpower what stands in the way of its creative will. Thus, any "body," Nietzsche tells us, "will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant--not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power."2

Will to power is a creative force and thus an unqualified human good, so the story goes. Via will to power, we affirm human life, bravely and without recourse to the kind of religiosity that solves problems by forestalling happiness or reward for goodness until the afterlife. Our world is our creation and we live it now.

Yet in Magnolia, various characters admit that they do not know how to handle the situations they face: they've never done this before, they don't want to do what it is they have no choice but to do.

  • Earl says in his first scene: "I don't want to do this...." the long, drawn-out, dramatic death, "this is boring, this dying-man-on-a-bed-wants-one-thing." But he has no choice but to die. And along the way he chooses, though he professes not to want to, to ask his nurse to find his estranged son, to make good past wrongs, if at all possible.
  • At the film's midway mark, after slapping the nurse's face for getting in touch with the estranged son Frank, Earl's wife Linda says, about the scene of imminent death in which she has been living, "I'm sorry I slapped your face. I don't know how to do this. I fucked up. Can you forgive me?"
  • Toward the film's end, at their home, facing his cancer, Jimmy says to his wife Rose, "How do we do this, then?" She replies: "We just do it. We figure it out."

No matter how powerful we make the work of the human will, things new and unexpected do happen. Nietzsche knew that such "unpredictables" posed grave difficulty for his precious will to power. Thus he had to come to grips somehow in his philosophy with that which the will has no power to change.

This he did by means of something he called "eternal return of the same." The doctrine is called "eternal return of the same," because it, in effect, declares that in order to affirm life, a creative being must will that his or her life be repeated over and again in exactly the same manner, that she who truly affirms life is willing to repeat it all again, in all its highest and lowest moments, without alteration. Thus, if will to power is strong in me, it is because I will only that which I would will to live over and over, and I accept every height of ecstasy and every dark moment of the soul as parts of my life which, if choice were possible, I would choose again. This is not some rebirth of mythic cyclical time but a metaphor for what makes will possible: it is a method for determining the difference between what only seems impossible but is worth the effort to change, and what truly is impossible and thus ought to be accepted and dealt with. Creative will is strongest when it knows the limits of its power.

Eternal return requires of the willing agent an absolute passivity in the face of what it cannot effect. But this is no ordinary passivity. The paradox of what would seem to be the endless cycle of eternal return (that in it time repeats itself over and over) is that once the will accepts its own limitations, it changes its own destiny, and thus escapes the cycle. Passivity sets action free. For instance, in Magnolia, once Claudia realizes that no amount of should-have/would-have will change the fact of her troubled past, her will to change or cover over that past is set free from battling against the impossibility of reaching an unreachable goal, and is set free to create things, to make the future into something that the past does not control-perhaps to fall in love with Jim, end her drug addiction, and maybe even be happy. This does not mean that she learns to forget the past or call what was bad in it good, but rather, simply, that she disconnects the past from the future, freeing the life she has left from entrenchment in past harms.

In the scene just following the one wherein Jimmy and Rose are figuring out "how to do this," Claudia, their daughter, whom we suspect has been molested by her father as a child, says to her date, Jim Kurring, "let's not lie, let's not be those people who have no guts to say what is real, let's make a deal not to do that stuff that maybe we've done before...." It is a deal to learn from the past, and then to let it go: that is the structure of Magnolia's lesson in how to do good. Help others--Learn from your mistakes--Don't do what you already know is wrong. Of course, as simple as it sounds, it is not so easy. As soon as Jim and Claudia agree to enter into this brave new world, Claudia says something that shocks Jim, she apologizes, he apologizes, "I didn't mean...," "Sorry," "No, I'm sorry," and they back away, retreat into their safety zones. This retreat seems safer, more comfortable, because it risks nothing--this is how we all tend to live. But risking nothing is itself a risk--by retreating back into old behaviors we have already established as wrong, unhealthy or liable to make us unhappy, we risk the future, which is in truth all we have. The courage to create and live in a "new world" is the courage to live, to face the unexpected or what is beyond our control, deal with it, and reinvent the future.

This is a complicated line I'm treading (and that Magnolia treads). On the one hand, I'm saying that it is important to let the past go. On the other, I'm saying that it is important to learn from the past. It is possible to read these two statements as contradictions, as if the first needed to erase the past and the second needed to underline it. But the combination of these two orientations to the past into one is precisely Magnolia's method for how to do good. Treading the difficult line is the point here. It is difficult to do good and live well, because these require our constant thought and vigilance with regard to what a good life is and how it can be attained. The genius and concomitant danger of Nietzsche's philosophy is the ease with which it can sound like a truism or "common knowledge" when taken too superficially. That with an error or two in one direction or another, Nietzsche's philosophy would do nothing but justify everything exactly as it stands is a danger. But these "errors," easy as they are to make, are huge errors, and knowing them to be errors is the skill we are seeking to inculcate herein.

As illustration of the above problematic, consider the story of Linda Partridge. She married Earl Partridge, an older and richer man, when she was younger, and not in love with him. She cheated on him repeatedly, and used his money lavishly. During their years together, she grew to love him, and something in her changed. Then, as she nursed him through his protracted and painful death, she was racked with terrible guilt over her past behavior. Instead of letting go of and learning from the past, she makes the past a living part of the present, and, instead of staying by the side of the man she has grown to love, runs all over town trying to get herself written out of the will--as if that would cancel out her guilt--takes too many antidepressants, and then attempts suicide. She cannot change what she has already done, and, instead of concentrating on what she can do to make a difference in Earl's life, she fixates on death, his and hers. Her method is resignation: she cannot change what she has done, so she will let it bury her.

The other method is hubris, an ancient Greek term for the kind of human presumption that would claim the powers of a god. It thinks: I am free to do this--nothing is stopping me--so I will do this. Frank Mackey thinks that by changing his past on his resumé he will make himself into someone other than he is and, in that way, erase what it is that made him that way. As is apparent from his story in Magnolia, however, this rewrite of history has the opposite effect: everything he has done, does, and will do is influenced by the past he has refused to deal with, learn from and let be. Before I proceed deeper into hubris, however, I'll dispense with some common errors we might face in using Nietzsche's will to power/eternal return structure as our guide.

* * *

As might be expected, given the difficulty of locating and sticking to the line between hubris and resignation, misreading (or, to be more diplomatic, difference with regard to interpretation) of Nietzsche abounds. There are some who read will to power in Nietzsche as absolute will subject to no boundaries, and who then find eternal-return-of-the-same to contradict this "earlier" theory of his. Thus, since contradiction destroys logic and philosophy is logical, the criticism goes, Nietzsche's philosophy is inconsistent or even self-refuting.

There are also readers who take eternal return rather literally to mean that Nietzsche believed in a cyclical account of time wherein the same events do occur, over andover again without change. Such readers then ask, "if nothing ever changes, what is the use of will to power, and, what's more, when does the 'overman,' this great creative being, enter?" Such a reading fails to encounter eternal return as a trope, a metaphor for the passivity that sets the will's action free. This failure misses what might be the most important and indeed most profound insight of Nietzsche's philosophy: as we've seen, it is only in accepting what the will cannot effect that the will is set free, and this setting-free is the very birth of possibility, which in turn is the condition of possibility of all those things we value, like justice, our living together, and our love for other people. Taking freedom--that I am "free" to do this thing, whatever I now intend--to be an absolute value prior to everything else (as we all tend to do, in the land of the free) leaves no room for that space wherein passivity negotiates with action to lend freedom its power. Magnolia illustrates that certain acts, performed freely, imprison their actors in determined structures--the opposite of freedom. No wonder, then, that we can't "understand" how it is we so often come to feel "trapped" in these lives of ours that are, by definition, free.

The unreflective view assumes freedom to be absolute, an unqualified good. But freedom is meaningless in the absence of community (how could one person alone be free or even know what the term meant?), and community requires some constraint of freedom if there is to be justice. We would not want it to be otherwise, even if it could be. Frank is right in thinking "I am free to do this," but he is wrong in thinking that his freedom is his absolute and individual property, something separate from and unaffected by any other being. Being "free" to do something does not mean that that thing is right or that it will succeed. Such a definition equates freedom with will or the simple ability to act, and we have seen that the will is most powerful when it knows its limits. Freedom, too, has its limits: freedom is the liberty to constrain ourselves with commitments we have chosen. We are always responsible to other beings, without having chosen to be. We have freedom because we know the value of choosing commitment, not because we are somehow born without constraint. (Any search back in memory or history to a time when we were without constraint on our choices will find the answer to be "no time.")

Nietzsche names the tendency of the will to want to master the past "the spirit of revenge"--one look at the Balkans, at Magnolia, or perhaps even at our own families, neighborhoods, etc., suffices to show that revenge is indeed an endless cycle of reaction against past harms that ends only when one participant simply refuses to strike back (or when every participant is dead, which hardly advances the cause of humanity). Aimee Mann, lyricist to Magnolia's soundtrack, tends to capture this particular failure (what some call an overactivity) of the will in her work. In her song "Momentum," she writes, "But I can't confront the doubts I have/I can't admit that maybe the past was bad/And so, for the sake of momentum/I'm condemning the future to death so it can match the past." Though eternal return is figured as cyclical, it is not eternal return but the time of revenge that is never-ending. When someone hurts me, I must hurt them back. Then that someone must hurt me (or maybe someone else, my substitute), who then must hurt someone as well. "It is only natural," we think, to act this way, and with this assumption, we seal our fates: we determine that the future will never escape past wrongs, and we will never be free from what others have done to us--this is the paradox that claims a freedom that destroys freedom. The endlessness of revenge applies as much to clan warfare as it does to our everyday dealings in love and business. Eternal return of the same, however, is the passivity of that refusal to strike back that ends revenge, a passivity that takes strength, and is decisive, and thus is revealed as something other than "conventional" passivity. It is an active passivity. Eternal return having unleashed possibility, will to power then forges onward to build new worlds, having learned from its vengeful "mistake" to avoid battling things beyond its power, thus showing that it is not some unqualified lust for power, but a knowledge of what it can and cannot effect--at times it is a passive form of action. Act passively, pass actively.

Unsurprisingly, the figure who "is" will to power (in absence of eternal return) in Magnolia is Frank T.J. Mackey, the "respect the cock" creator of "Seduce and Destroy," a program for getting women into bed and uncertainty out of the future. For him, "Seduce and Destroy" is about "finding out what you can be in this world and defining and controlling it." As he tells his interviewer, Gwenovier, "The most useless thing in the world is that which is behind me." Yet it is apparent throughout the film that Frank is his past, is haunted by it, is what he is because of it-he doesn't understand why his womanizing father left him at age fourteen as sole nurse to a dying mother, why he, too, couldn't leave his mother, why it was so painful.... So he makes his life a testament to the power of his own will. Every woman bows before him, he assures us. His science of seduction cannot fail, we are told. And yet, pitiful or hateful (depending on your take) as he is as a character, we sense, when the interviewer has ambushed him on camera with facts about his past he did not want to reveal, that he is deeply right when he stares her down for the rest of the interview time. When asked what he is doing, he replies, "I am quietly judging you." Yes, it is wrong that he tried to make his past something other than it was (but that wrong takes care of itself, because it cannot succeed.) When Frank shuts down his interviewer, however, he reminds us of something we can change. There is not enough shame in this world, is his message. This is important because shame functions as an indicator that, somehow, the person capable of feeling shame still knows what respect is, what right treatment is. It is possible to forget this, but it is also possible not to forget it, or, better yet, constantly to remind oneself of it and act in accordance with it--this is part of what it takes to do good.

Frank's father Earl, the one who abandoned him to the dying mother, the one who we now watch dying throughout the movie, knows this lesson in shame all too well: "I am sixty-five years old and I'm ashamed. Don't let anyone say you shouldn't regret--use it." Earlier he confesses, in morphine-induced unclarity: "This is the regret that you make.... Mistakes like this you don't make. Sometimes, you make some, then O.K., other times not O.K. that you make some. You know you should do better."

You use the regret, the knowledge of past wrongs, to better yourself in the future. Again, a truism, but really not so easy as that. There is a difference between living in the past and learning from the past. It is the difference between revenge and possibility: this is how we change our destiny--what we think we cannot escape about ourselves (as opposed to what we truly cannot change)--by learning the difference between revenge and possibility. Revenge strikes back at the past to redeem what went wrong there, and in so doing weds itself to the past, operates by the same rules, ensures its continuation. Possibility learns from the past so as not to repeat it. It acts decisively, creates anew. We hear these two words as markedly different--revenge and possibility--but all the same we too often confuse one with the other, and fail to choose possibility.

"History will teach us nothing" and "those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it" are clichéd expressions that point to the danger and the constant possibility of "misreading Nietzsche" or "hating Magnolia." This ought to be the lesson: we learn from it, and then we let it go. It is all too easy, however, to think that letting it go is not learning from it, or that forgiving is forgetting, and forgetting is destructive. Not noting the complicated border area wherein action and passivity make each other possible is the staging ground of every revenge cycle, and is the end of our hope that we can learn from the past and learn to do good.

Donnie Smith was famous as a child for being a know-it-all quiz show winner. As an adult he is less than successful, always looking for love in all the wrong places, dreaming up elaborate schemes for procuring love, but not knowing how to find it: "I have love to give, I just don't know where to put it."

His crush on a beefy bartender with braces leads him to contract with an orthodontist to get braces of his own. He actually believes that this thing-in-common, these ridiculous dental adjustments, will win him love. His mantra is "make it happen"--hubris in the face of love, as if he never learned that love simply cannot be forced. He's looking for the kind of love a child has for parents--his only model, and a broken one at that. His parents "shit on him" as a child, pushing him into game show fame, stealing his earnings, stealing his childhood, so that, strangely, he never grew up.

We see this same cycle--of parent and child, parent acting wrongly, child learning wrongly--at an earlier stage, in the relation between current quiz kid Stanley and his father, a father who makes fun of his son for studying, pushes him too hard to win, and seems to think only of the money he will gain by his son's "talent."

Donnie, drunk and throwing up in a barroom toilet after declaring his love to a perplexed bartending stranger with braces, recites Exodus 8:2 over and over into the toilet bowl: "the sins of the father will be visited upon the children." Exodus 8:2, and the numbers '8' and '2' play a prominent visual role in the film. It is another version of the also prominent "we may be through with the past but the past ain't through with us," which is recited by three different characters in the film. The first means: the wrongs you commit will have ill effect on your progeny, whether that progeny be your children, your projects, or your life possibilities. The second means: leaving the past behind you without dealing with it or learning from it is a fool's solution--it simply isn't possible, it will always cycle around to "teach" you again. Both of these are descriptions of revenge.

As Donnie drunkenly declares, "when you're shit on as a child, it hurts. It scars." His parents' actions have made him who he is, and he, in turn, has not dealt with his past and so he still dwells there. Yet it is always possible, the film wants to say, despite any "bad training," to know what shouldn't be done or to learn and then move forward. The current quiz kid, Stanley--the youngest character in the film--shows us this.

On the quiz show, he is asked to identify, and then sing in Italian, the opera from which this translated line is taken: "Love is a rebellious bird that nobody can tame, and it is all in vain to call it if it chooses to refuse." Stanley succeeds, and the film moves on to observe a number of seemingly vain attempts to start or stop something that cannot be forced: Jim insinuates himself into Claudia's house for coffee, though she clearly does not want him there; the quiz show's producer refuses to let Stanley go to the bathroom3; Earl's nurse tries to get the estranged son Frank to visit his dying father; Donnie--a grown man--gets drunk at the bar and complains about his parents while wooing the bartender whom he does not know, but thinks he loves; Gwenovier approaches Frank with a sneak attack about the real identity of his parents; Linda tries to change Earl's will to alleviate her guilt.... In all of these scenes, someone tries to force something that cannot be forced, or change something in a way that cannot change anything. Sometimes these moves of force bear fruit: Jim does get a date with Claudia because she sees he is a good man; the nurse does get Frank to visit Earl, though it is not on the terms the nurse expected. In both cases, force wins not because it is forceful but because both parties to it adjust their expectations to fit the situation, and something new is created. Love cannot be forced, and no one can determine how it happens. All of these actors are free to act as they do, but none of them are guaranteed success, nor are they owed it.

Towards the end of the film, we witness a number of regrets in the making, those you-should-have-known-better actions. Frank goes to see his dying father and says, "I hope it fucking hurts. Fucking die." Donnie steals money from his old employer to pay for his braces. Jimmy refuses to admit that he knows he molested his daughter. Linda attempts suicide. Stanley's father violently threatens him when he won't cooperate on the quiz show. Claudia abandons Jim on their date not because she doesn't like him but because she does.

But, about to take the left-hand turn on to Magnolia St., Donnie realizes what he has done--he is smart enough to know better--"What the fuck am I doing?!"--and turns around to return the stolen cash before it is noted as missing. The light turns from red to green. And then--the frog storm.

Yes, frogs fall from the sky, causing panic amongst all the characters in all their various stories. And then it becomes apparent that Stanley, the child genius, is by far the wisest character in the film. As Donnie shouts drunkenly earlier on, "it is not dangerous to confuse children with angels." What we call the naive view is not necessarily the unworldly one. Stanley's life of all-books-every-day has led him to read about weather. And his experience with incompetent and unreliable adults has given him a sense of what it means to have one's life out of one's control. He sees frogs falling from the sky, and is not afraid. He says, "This happens. This is something that happens."4 At this moment, the shadows of the falling frogs projected against the library wall behind him slow down: he slows time, changes his own destiny, by accepting that the unpredictable really does happen. And we deal with it, because we have no choice but to deal with it. Resisting this is hubris, and destroys what is good in human will: its ability to master some situations, to create tremendous things, while leaving off trying to effect what it is impotent in the face of.

Linda, having failed to change Earl's will (and testament), and feeling unworthy of Earl's love and of her own life, overdoses on antidepressants and vodka, only to be saved by the young boy who steals her wallet--he calls 911 on her cellphone before taking off. Linda's approach to the struggle with how to live a good life is not hubris but resignation: she gives up. But she gives up with regard to the wrong things. Her strategy should be resistance, not resignation. Frank should give up trying to rewrite his past. Donnie should give up blaming his parents for his current unhappiness. Jimmy should stop denying his past misdeeds. But Linda should resist giving up, and make her life better than it has been, just as Claudia should resist the repetition of old patterns of behavior. The nature of the deeds of these different protagonists is different (and it does split down gender lines in the movie, and, perhaps, often in real life, too): Frank, Donnie and Jimmy are figures of hubris; they try to make the past other than it was. Linda and Claudia are figures of resignation; they dwell in the past, thinking they have no power to change their lives. Either way, the future is infected with a false or unhappy past. The way out of this trap is different for each character, but is embodied in the Nietzschean structure we have been investigating: when you know what is impossible, it makes more things possible. Since we are not omnipotent, this is the best way we have to change the world.

* * *

Donnie, having broken his key off in the lock upon leaving the stereo store, is unable to return the cash so easily. As he attempts to scale the side of the building, he is hit in the head by a falling frog, and falls to the ground, smashing all his new dental work. This is bathos-style punishment for hubris à la classical Greek tragedy. It declares: Silly man! You will not find love with braces, especially braces paid for with stolen cash! Why have you not given thought to how to love?!

Jim Kurring, driving by, comes to Donnie's aid, drags him out of the frog storm, helps him return the money, and, back in his car, gives his closing speech, as frame to the film:

    "It is so hard to do the right thing. People don't see how hard it is. When I make a judgment, it is not on them, but on the whole situation. Sometimes people need a little help. Sometimes people need to be forgiven. And sometimes they need to go to jail. That is a very tricky thing on my part, making that call. The law is the law, heck if I'm going to break it. But you can forgive someone--that's the tough part. What can we forgive? Tough part of the job. Tough part of walking down the street."

Forgiveness is eternal return, the end of revenge, an active passivity that refuses to strike back. It is a power every individual has, a power that no state or law can coerce or control, and thus, like love, is the most valuable--and indeed the most anarchic and thus most permanent--power humans have. Why would we refuse the only power we have that can never be taken away? Forgiveness--when envisioned as a powerful and decisive thing rather than a weakness admitting it is not free, when seen as the method for treading the line between hubris and resignation-lets the past be past, and lends to the future its quality of possibility.

Again, the lesson of Magnolia is that, as we walk through life and encounter things that threaten our freedom, we ought to know when it is time for resistance, and when acceptance. The films reminds us that, because some forms of resistance and some forms of acceptance are caught up in revenge, it is life-threateningly important and mind-bendingly difficult to know how to choose. This is why doing good is not easy. But surely it is worth the effort, and the thought behind the effort.

The film ends as Jim arrives at Claudia's house. He won't let her walk away from this "new world" she has created. He says, "We should say things, not lie. I'm going to do what you said, Claudia. Can you forgive me? You are a good person. I won't let you walk out." She smiles, for the first time in the film.

Jill Stauffer thanks Halliday Dresser for reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra with her, and for talking about Nietzsche, and, beyond bookishness, for being such a good friend.

  1. Love is the same as justice, on a different scale. If you think money is more important, my only question is, why are you reading this? Please let me know, if you will, c/o js@h2so4.net.
  2. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House) 1966, p. 203
  3. David Strauss pointed out to me that Stanley pees his pants at the 2 hour mark, which is precisely when everyone else in the theater really needs a bathroom break.
  4. Interestingly enough, Paul Thomas Anderson related an anedote on, I think, Fresh Air (NPR), about how, when he was pitching the film to Jason Robards, he was afraid that the frog storm moment would be the one of refusal. But, it seems, Jason Robards had actually seen a frog storm in his life, during an early filming experience or something like that.