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My Night with Maud

September 14, 2015

MNAMFr. Andrew Greeley describes Eric Rohmer’s My Night with Maud (1969) and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) as being similarly sacramental for him. He believes movies to be particularly suitable for the creating of epiphanies, for they have an inher­ent power to affect the imagination. I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’s book The Pilgrim’s Regress, when Lewis portrays John hearing words near the Canyon: “For this end I made your senses and for this end your imagination that you might see My face and live.” Greeley argues that God discloses himself to us through the experiences, objects, and people we encounter in our lives. He writes that “grace is everywhere.” One must be concerned about the poor, thinks Greeley; but one must also be concerned with the arts, for the artist is a potential sacrament maker, one who can reveal the presence of God within cre­ation itself. Here is the theological basis for our experience of the holy in film. Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue – R. Johnston p. 161

The narrator (Jean-Louis), a devout Catholic, moves to a provincial town and vows to marry Francoise, a pretty blond he notices at mass. Vidal, an old school friend, invites him to visit the recently divorced Maud, and the narrator ends up staying the night, having philosophical discussions in her bedroom. Next morning the narrator engineers a meeting with Francoise

The series, Christian Science Monitor writer David Sterritt wrote in 2001, focused with “good-humored intensity on dilemmas of life, love, and the penchant of well-meaning people to find themselves in ethical quandaries.”

As a political and aesthetic conservative, Rohmer was an outsider in the milieu of French film making during the 1960s. His articulated Christian approach was not exactly popular in a time when the Church and all other social and political authorities were dismissed by the cultural elite. To understand Rohmer’s religious intentions and the religious content of his films, we need to understand the Catholic way of perceiving reality.

Ingrid Schafer makes a very clear distinction between what she calls the Catholic and the Protestant imagination. She talks about a Catholic “both-and” imagination versus a Protestant “either-or” imagina-tion. “Both-and” reflects the incarnation: God became man, and he is truly God and truly Human at the same time. The Protestant paradigm focuses on “divine transcendence” versus the Catholic focus on “divine immanence”. Divine transcendence sees the world “fractured by original sin,” while divine immanence views the world as originally blessed by a God who is a caring and loving Father.

The Catholic imagination is “analogical” according to Shafer. The world as God’s creation shows us how God is. We learn about God by understanding the world. This distinction is based on the Catholic emphasis on the Incarnation and the Sacrament. Divinity and flesh are intermingled; God himself is also truly human and the blood of Christ is physically present in the communion cup. For Thomas Aquinas the whole world was sacramental, “a bearer of grace.” In the Catholic perspective the “artists are sacrament makers, revealers of God-in-the-world”. R.A. Blake claimed that people tend to come closer to the divine “through the senses-through color and form, through song and story and dance–than through precise verbal formulations of their theologians” .

With one or two exceptions Rohmer’s films do not deal with any explicit spiritual or religious themes. His attention is rather directed to contemporary man, his values, conflicts, and everyday problems without any reference to religious or non-religious beliefs. Bedouelle notes that “such attention to what we might call the spiritual dimension of every human situation has become a commonplace in post-Conciliar Catholic thought” . For Bedouelle, Rohmer’s films, especially the “Moral Tales,” represent a rediscovery of Christian reality.

Rohmer, however, obviously had more on his mind than moral education. He held that “Christianity is consubstantial with the cinema,” and that “the cinema is the cathedral of the twentieth century”. The latter statement is interesting with regard to another significant focus of the Catholic imagination. Shafer states that the Catholics emphasize the “the individual relating to God as a member of a community”. The community of people serving God is realized through the cathedrals. And what is the “cathedral” expressing if not “the liturgical re-enactment of God’s comedy of grace,” Shafer notes. Film as a collective art form does carry traits of the cathedral. However, Rohmer probably had a more transcendent concept in mind when using “cathedral” as a metaphor.

Pascal’s Wager

Like many of Rohmer’s films, this film is about a moral choice that its protagonist is facing. He is both a devout Catholic and an amateur mathematician, who works with probability problems in his spare time. His dilemma is whether he can remain faithful to Françoise, a beautiful young woman whom he notices on the last Sunday of Advent, at mass.

The storyline is punctuated by the subtext of the philosophical debate about religion, resolution, temptation, luck, and, ultimately, the nature of faith. Most of the action in the film is constituted by conversations on philosophical topics. The central theme of these discussions is, in one way or another, the problem of choice. Jean-Louis’s imaginary counterpart is Blaise Pascal, known for his ascetic ways and the wager problem that he formulated. The wager refers to Pascal’s argument for believing in God.

The argument takes the form of what in modern philosophy is called game theory. According to its pragmatic logic, we should wager that God exists because it is the best bet. If God does exist and you have bet on his existence (“betting on his existence” needs to be interpreted further: does it imply the mental state of faith or the choice to lead a Christian life?), you have won the lottery, that of an eternal life in Paradise. Another possibility is that God does not exist, but you have bet on his existence. You still lead a Christian life but do not get any reward in the end. In this case, you have not lost anything other than forgone possibly pleasurable but sinful experiences. Following the same logic, if God does not exist, and you have indeed bet on his non-existence, you would not have lost anything because there is nothing you would have done differently. However, if God does exist, but you have bet on his non-existence, that is to say you have led a sinful and unrepentant life, you have lost your very soul: you have lost everything. You are now sentenced to an eternal life of hell and damnation. From the point of view of game theory, which uses the logic of mathematical expectation or expected utility, it makes the most sense to err on the side of God than otherwise. The win, in the case you wager on God, is positive infinity. The loss, in the case of wagering against God, is negative infinity. The first choice is only rational.

The idea of Pascal’s wager has a concrete embodiment in Lean-Louis’s moral dilemma. After he first encounters Françoise, it is suggested (but not spelled out directly) that he makes a kind of wager with God (or forces of fate). He decides to stay faithful to her, even though it is very uncertain, at this point, that he might ever meet her again, let alone marry her. The reward in this bargain, presumably, is having the clear conscience of celibate integrity when he hopefully gives himself to her later. The irony of the situation is, of course, that Françoise, having just emerged from an affair with a married man, is not a pure Catholic virgin he has supposed her to be. But Jean-Louis turns this situation into another kind of transaction, telling Françoise that he is glad that she is not a virgin. Since he is not a virgin either, this makes them even.

Vidal suggests that Pascal’s wager can and should be generalized as a philosophical problem, applicable to other areas of life—even for a Marxist like himself. As a Marxist, concerned with social justice and the transformation of society, he needs to believe that history has meaning, otherwise his life’s project becomes meaningless. He must choose between two hypotheses—one that society and politics are meaningless, and the other that history has meaning. Personally, he explains, the former makes much more sense to him. He ascribes to it the probability of of 80%. Yet he must stake his life on the less probable hypothesis to justify his actions and choices, because the gain, to him, is infinite.

In the final sermon, The priest says: Christianity is not a moral code. It is a way of life, which is an adventure in sanctity. The sermon functions as an invitation—an invitation to be admitted to the centre, by becoming a saint. It is an invitation that cannot be refused. The priest calls this path “a linking, a progression” that carries one along to holiness. …..It is the irresistible progression of faith, the irresistible working of grace. And the admittance to the centre is not effected through an acquisitive gesture that excludes the other and obliterates the difference between centre and periphery. It is brought about via an act of absolute inclusion that René Girard describes as an act of Imitatio Christi—imitating Christ not so much in the sense of imitating his good works but rather in the sense of imitating his non-acquisitive desire to resemble God the Father. This act of inclusion both preserves the worshipful distance to the sacred center and, paradoxically, invites the faithful to accede to it.

……the undeclinable and irresistible invitation to become a saint is a way out of the wager’s economy of calculation (what Jean-Louis does not like about Pascal’s wager is its economy of exchange) into sainthood’s logic of singularity. Despite denying Maud’s earlier claim that “every Christian is to aspire to sainthood,” Jean-Louis is not fully honest with himself. It is his fear and reluctance that are speaking. His friends too challenge him on his small prevarications. “You stake nothing, you give up nothing,” as Vidal chides Jean-Louis. Jean-Louis postpones and delays because becoming a saint is an act of sheer audacity. Even the priest says that one has to be insane to choose this path.

Jean-Louis: Are you still a Marxist?

Vidal: Absolutely. For a Communist, Pascal’s wager is very relevant today. Personally, I very much doubt that history has any meaning. Yet I wager that it has, so I’m in a Pascalian situation. Hypothesis A: Society and politics are meaningless. Hypothesis B: History has meaning. I’m not at all sure B is more likely to be true than A. More likely the reverse. Let’s even suppose B has a 10% chance of being true and A has 80%. Nevertheless I have no choice but to opt for B, because only the hypothesis that history has meaning allows me to go on living. Suppose I bet on A, and B was true, despite the lesser odds. I’d have thrown away my life. So I must choose B to justify my life and actions. There’s an 80% chance I’m wrong but that doesn’t matter.

Jean-Louis: Mathematical hope. Potential gain divided by probability. With your hypothesis B, though the probability is slight, the possible gain is infinite. In your case, a meaning to life. In Pascal’s, eternal salvation.

Vidal: It was Gorky, Lenin or maybe Mayakovsky who said about the Russian revolution that the situation forced them to choose the one chance in a thousand. Because hope became infinitely greater if you took that chance than if you didn’t take it.

Jean-Louis: You come here a lot?

Vidal: Almost never. And you?

Jean-Louis: I’ve never set foot in here before.

Vidal: And yet our paths cross right here. How strange.

Jean-Louis: On the contrary. Our ordinary paths never cross. Therefore, the point of intersection must be outside those ordinary paths. I’ve dabbling in mathematics in my spare time. It would be fun to calculate our chances of meeting in a two-month period.

Vidal: Can it be done?

Jean-Louis: It’s a matter of data and how you handle it. Provided the data exists. Obivously, if I don’t know where a person lives or works I can’t work out the odds of running into them.

Maud: Don’t you want to be a saint?

Jean-Louis: Not at all.

Jean-Louis: I’m happy around you. If I’m happy with you, it’s because we’ll never meet again. The thought of the future needn’t depress us, since we have none.

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