Christ in Gethsemane: The Young Mr. Lincoln as Prequel

by zunguzungu


My chair broke while I was writing the last post. This is a picture of it.

The Star Trek movie re-captured my imagination yesterday for several reasons, but the one that was not Millicent’s observation that that the entire movie is a sequence of variations on the theme of woman-as-absence was a more general interest in the idea of prequels, which came as the confluence of three factors. First, having been monumentally disappointed by Terminator Salvation, which was, I maintain, a steaming pile of suck. Second, my friend the dial-a-Marxist was musing the other day about when the tide of prequels would begin to ebb, noting both the built in economic reasons for it (guaranteed sales without much risk) and the consequential tendency for these movies, as in Terminator Salvation, to be steaming piles of suck. Finally, after re-watching Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (which I first posted about, somewhat differently, here), I sent a triumphant text message to Scrimshander to the effect that this was fucking how you do a prequel. Fucking Hell, I thought to myself. Fucking Hell.

Young Mr. Lincoln is one of the three movies John Ford made in 1939. It’s a movie about Lincoln and the Civil War, of course, because even if though it begins and ends during Abe’s time as Springfield lawyer, the anachronistic term “prequel” is appropriate for the ways those later events structure the narrative of the film retrospectively. Precisely because we know what will eventually happen, the film’s plot is never in doubt as such; we know that Abe will become a lawyer, we know that he will win his court case, we know that he will eventually best Stephen Douglas in the  famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, that Douglas will hold his hat while he is inaugurated, and that he will eventually be shot in Ford’s theatre, etc.

There is therefore no narrative suspense, nor does the movie try to cheat and create it. Instead, there is a profound sense of doubt in an experiential sense, and the incredible pathos the film manages to refract through the great Henry Fonda’s depth of affect is both absolutely stunning and an opportunity to reflect on the difference between the uncertainty of a faked narrative suspense and a doubt that becomes existential (and much more interesting) precisely because nothing is in suspense.

After all, the thing about Fonda’s Lincoln is that he, far more than anyone else in the movie, knows exactly what his destiny is.* This is a subtle point, but it’s all over the movie, and has to be the first thing we take into account in making sense of him, since, in my view, the entire movie is one long Christ-in-Gethsemane story. The opening titles, for example, are the imagined questions Lincoln’s mother would ask from the grave: “How is my son?” she poignantly begs; “How did he get on?” And in 1939, the “we” who would be watching those titles in a movie theater would have been well trained by the vast Lincoln-as-Martyr genre of hagiographic movies to know the answer more in terms of human tragedy than simply in political triumph. Just as Lincoln shares with “us” a knowledge that he will one day be great, I think he also shares the knowledge that he will pay dearly for it. Lincoln could be, as was Christ, the one perfect actor in the story exactly because he was the blameless innocent; or, rather, he could be the carrier of the community’s sins because he was blameless. And he understands this, from the beginning.

To put this another way, while he is free to fall, he is also sufficient to stand, and knows that he will. Which means that this Lincoln is more like the Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ (or Sam, in Zelazny’s Lord of Light) in that he both knows himself to be human — and humanizes himself — by his fear to be what he is, and by his cynical understanding that his skill as an actor can substitute for the functionality of the character, in every important sense. Again, this is a subtle distinction, but important: he can be Lincoln, is smart enough and capable enough to fool a world into thinking he is a saint — in fact, he genuinely will play the role of a saint — but he isn’t, deep down, a saint. He is simply a human being, a tremendously gifted one, but human. The point, then, is that he realizes that this will never matter: the fact that he is not as moral, as honest, and as “of the people” as even he himself would like to be is irrelevant to his ability to play that role in practice, and “in practice” is what matters. Because he has the ability to play the role to absolute perfection, it doesn’t matter that his true ruling trait is ambition; he might as well be the real thing, and for all extents and purposes, he is the real thing.

And so, under the guise of an awesome aw-shucks folksiness, which he both employs cunningly (watch how ruthlessly he manipulates everyone else in the film) and uses as an alibi to hide from his destiny (in his early dialogues with Ann), we see a man who’s not only unspeakably ambitious, but whose honesty inheres in seeing that because his ambition is really what drives him, the only way he can be what he has the capacity to be (and what the world needs him to be) is to keep that fact to himself and to live a lie.

And since he wants so desperately to be simply a humble man of the people, the movie is, in part, one long demonstration that no such thing as “the people” exists. In contrast to Lincoln‘s own idealistic pronouncements, the America of this film is a country run by the stupid and the mean, democracy revealed to be a sham. Lincoln would like to believe in the Jeffersonian/Jacksonian mythos, of course, but he cannot, any more than Ford could: instead, Lincoln comes to realize, the responsibility of America’s great men is not to inspire the better angels of our human nature (because we don’t have them) but to manipulate us, against our will, into doing what needs to be done.

Among the panorama of spiteful  fools and vengeful simpletons who populate Springfield, then, only Stephen Douglas is worth taking seriously, but even he is only in the movie as a representative of the smarter and more powerful class of opponents in high politics with whom that Lincoln will one day cross swords. In this sense, while Lincoln bests him in the courtroom (by proxy), the stakes are negligible precisely because we are in a backwoods: Douglas’ reappraisal of his young political opponent is that of a chess player who has given away a pawn to test his opponent’s mettle, and therefore, perhaps, actually won the exchange. Douglas is not of Springfield, but is a different caliber of opponent precisely because he is of Washington. In Springfield on the other hand — metonymic of the “real” America — we see nothing but rubes and fools, authentic folks whose authenticity is a function of the naivete and vulnerability Lincoln does not share with them (making him, ultimately, able to represent them only to the extent that he is not representative of them).

This, anyway, is Ford’s cynicism, as I would dare to claim after having seen, now, forty-one of his movies (suck it, Scrimshander!). Occasional forays into populism like The Grapes of Wrath notwithstanding, Ford had a gentle affection for ordinary people — and never contempt — but he was haunted by an inability to believe in their common divinity in the ways that the Steinbeck of Grapes did. How Green Was My Valley therefore shows us the delusion of thinking it so, or Tobacco Road shows us the comedy of human frailty because the tragedy of it could never be fathomed by its own protagonists. And even movies like Doctor Bull or Judge Priest are drenched with the sense that the community has to be saved from itself (and, again, by a folksy con-man smart enough to know his own human frailty, and, therefore, to do what needs to be done in spite of it).  

As with Will Rogers’ incarnations in those movies, then, Fonda’s Young Mr. Lincoln is also a folksy con-man. But he is also more: as a Christ figure, he is a Calvinist or Catholic one and his grace is given to a community that cannot deserve it (or even understand it). But unlike Doctor Bull or Judge Priest — who live more peacefully with their own imperfections — Abraham Lincoln is called to actually be perfect. And so, his is ultimately a different kind of tragedy, a different kind of pathos. A fraudulent Jesus, but a necessary one, he realizes that he can play the role only by making the deception so perfect that he loses himself in the role, a different kind of martyrdom, in which he ceases to be a human being by becoming a myth.

* * *

This is all why I think the movie is great, which is to say, I believe that this reading of the film is at least partially a necessary one. Literary “readings” exist can be seen as either relativistic or empirical — even if, like the light as particle/wave problem, it is only useful to pretend that they are — and so the preceding has been my attempt at something like a claim for what the movie is in a objective sense.  I believe that the movie I’ve described is one that most viewers will see, if they look for it.

But to step back from that appeal to objectivity, I would like to also offer a more subjective reading of the movie by framing it, anachronistically, as a prequel, like Star Trek. This is an anachronistic move. As the dial-a-Marxist presumed in using the term, the idea of the “prequel” is a structuralist one: we understand what it is by reference to the economic and cultural forces into which it is integrated and which it articulates, in this case, the fact that cannibalizing old franchises is cheaper and more profitable than taking the risk of trying to build new ones. From such a frame of reference, therefore, we should be able to clearly see that Young Mr. Lincoln is not a prequel for a franchise but rather a stand-alone entity. But using that idea to make an analogy between Ford’s movie and Abram’s Star Trek can also be instructive, if only in a purely subjective way. And, I would observe, not only are both movies premised on a young man who will someday become great, they both begin with the event of dead women.

In Star Trek, it is the deaths of Nero’s wife and Spock’s mother that jump start the plot. But while the first reel sees Lincoln lose his mother and his first love, Ann Rutledge, these losses cause nothing. They are not, in fact, events at all in any narrative economy; they happen and Lincoln suffers, but his suffering is neither ennobling nor redemptive, nor do these loses shape him. He already is who he is, and it’s quite important that Ann Rutledge is the only person in the entire film who not only sees through him, but to whom he can openly admit to being the kind of fraud he is. In this sense, while these are light touches, they are incredibly important: it is she who tells him in the early minutes who he has the potential to be (and forces him to admit to the corresponding ambition), and it is only to her that he admits — albeit, in a dialog with her gravestone — that he has not so much allowed to destiny to choose him as he has, subtly and invisibly, allowed it to appear that way, the way you used to have to run for president by getting someone to nominate you and then pretending to be surprised.

In other words, absence is not a part of any kind of narrative economy at all, but is, rather, and quite simply, the opposite of value. While Star Trek makes of dead women a kind of unmoved mover for everything that happens in the world by transforming their absence into the only presence that seems to matter, Lincoln’s losses are simply the experience of anyone who loses a loved one, simply painful and without any rationale the mind can accept.

It is important, then, that we never learn how or why they died: to a griever, only the fact that they did is important, and — as such — these deaths have almost nothing to do with any problem of causation. Instead, as meaningless and unnecessary deaths, they represent the fact of a reality that will never live up to our idealized hopes for it. The fact that loved ones can die for no reason is, therefore, precisely because there is no reason to it, a way for the film to show Lincoln grappling with the nihilism and despair that such a meaningless universe could imply. If death can exist, he might have decided, what else could matter?

He will eventually choose, of course, to embrace the lie that the universe is meaningful, that all events are necessary, and he will do so because that lie has value. That lie will make him the savior of a country, the Great Emancipator. And that lie will make his martyrdom, ironically, come to mean something. But the movie shows us, with some of the darkest cynicism of Ford’s career, what kind of a deception it is: because it reminds us that those people were never quite the ideal versions of themselves that they came to represent — the “saintly mother” or the “lost first love” — they were, instead, simply human beings who lived and died like human beings do, with all the senseless horror of a life that is, in a general sense, petty, mean, and short.

You could say, I guess, that it’s hard to be a misogynist when you’re already as much of a cynical misanthrope as Ford was. And I think that’s true. But another way to look it at is to note that while the logic of Star Trek is to reinvest ourselves in conservative mythologies that posit reality as its own justification — a reactionary posture which regards any effort to make the world a better place with the same hysterical activism that Republicans decry anyone else’s activism — Ford is interested in how we make meaning even where there is none, both a hope and a fear grounded in experience and pain. As a prequel, therefore, Star Trek cannot afford even the idea of introspection or self-doubt, and we must be shuttled from action scene to action scene to prevent us from having even a single meditative moment; after all, if we had time to think, we would realize how under thought it all was, how underdetermined the myths we are being told to believe really are. In contrast, then, it is the very fact that nothing matters and nothing happens in Ford’s movie that means we can think about why things that happen matter, and why when people die, it is as human beings rather than as metaphors. It is in grappling with meaningless that meaning becomes useful.

* There is actually a scene in the original script in which Lincoln has a conversation with his disembodies destiny. For reasons of dramaturgy, Ford was certainly right to cut it, but it does confirm my sense that Lincoln already knows who he is to become.