Tea And Sympathy With The Devil: A Reconsideration Of “The Shining”

Tea And Sympathy With The Devil: A Reconsideration Of “The Shining”

This weekend, between bouts of berating the smugly self-satisfied buyers on “Tiny House Hunters”, I re-watched “The Shining” (1980) because, as the saying goes, it was there. We all know that television passively feeds us, and all we have to do is sit back and allow ourselves to be fed. Me being me, even when that engagement starts out as passive, it eventually becomes rather active, not so much because I am anticipating certain lines or scenes – “Wendy…love of my life…” – but because the brain cannot stop being a brain simply because I want it to switch into idle mode.

I am not a Stephen King fan, and so cannot speak to “The Shining” the film’s relationship to “The Shining” the novel. The lone occasion when I casually picked up a collection of Stephen King short stories at the beach and read one at random is an event that I wish I could undo, or at least bleach what I read from my mind. Therefore if you are an expert in his work, please, refrain from commenting on how if I *only* read the book the film would make more sense, since that is never going to happen.

For a long time I have always felt a great deal of sympathy for Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) in the film version of “The Shining”, because I never quite understood why it is that he ends up the way that he does. From other horror films, we know that opening the door to the occult by playing with Ouija boards or tarot cards is never a good idea. Yet even this weekend, in discussion with someone who watched the film with me, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was that led to Jack’s downfall. After all, he had not drawn a pentagram on the floor or started worshiping goats. It was only when I had the long trip back to DC yesterday that I had the chance to think a bit more about the damnation of Jack Torrance.

Two thoughts occurred to me, in considering what it was that made Jack something other than a dull boy. The first is that, in a sense, Jack actually did invite the devil in – an old one that was already very familiar to him. For Jack, as we learn early on in the film, is a recovering alcoholic. Although alcohol has been removed from the hotel as part of their insurance coverage, he nevertheless turns to the idea of alcohol in his frustration, an idea which his mind (or the haunted hotel, take your pick) is all too happy to indulge.

Jack’s addiction is not an excuse for his harming others, but it is an explanation. Perhaps today, we are more conscious of the complicated roots and effects of addiction than we were when this film was made, and we can understand that there is some degree of mental illness or brain damage that has taken root in the serious substance abuser. However the choices that one makes as an adult are, like it or not, still choices made using our own free will and not staring down the barrel of a gun. As a result, these sorts of choices have consequences.

The second thought, which is perhaps tied to the first, is that Jack’s character is motivated primarily by self-interest. While it is easy to mock Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) because of her appearance and mannerisms, it is she who not only displays real backbone but, more importantly, a sense of self-sacrifice. After all, she follows her husband out into the wilderness, because she believes him when he says that this will be a good opportunity for them to start afresh. The fact that she references the Donner Party while doing so turns out to be rather an inauspicious coincidence, as we watch the family unit slowly devour itself.

Recall the moment when Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) shows up with unexplained bruising around his neck, and Wendy naturally runs to her husband for help. Given Jack’s reactions, she concludes that it is he who has inflicted physical abuse on their son, as indeed he had done previously. Wendy is trapped, both in an abusive marriage and in a location so isolated, forbidding, and dangerous that it may as well be outer space (something which Kubrick as a director understood very well.) Yet even toward the end of the film, when her own future seems bleakest, Wendy is more concerned with saving others than she is with saving herself.  

Perhaps then, the demon that gets Jack in the end is the one that stalks all of us: selfishness. For much of the film, Jack complains to Wendy that he is doing what he has to do for his family, except that he really isn’t. His choices are largely based on what he wants, and what he (as it turns out, mistakenly) believes is the best way for him to make up for his failures, as he descends into madness. Even if the Overlook Hotel somehow amplifies that selfishness, because of evil things that have taken place there previously, the hotel itself is not responsible for the individual’s decision to sit down to tea with the Devil in the first place.

However one cannot help but recognize, as Jack flails about in the maze at the end of the film like a wounded animal, incapable of forming human speech, that to look upon this figure without sympathy is to somehow become an animal oneself. Yes, Jack receives his just desserts, but without downplaying the horrible things he has done, one cannot help but feel just a tinge of pity for someone who could not finish the good fight. If we were isolated and battling our own demons, would we really come out of the fight any better than Jack? I wonder…and yet personally, I do not care to find out, thanks all the same.


Amy Winehouse: The Wages of Sin

[N.B.: This post is written in response to one by my friend Milo Yiannopoulos, which appeared this morning on Blottr.com]

There is a little man who lives in a cardboard box around the corner from my office, in front of an old school building which is in the process of renovation. I run into him about once a week, depending on our respective schedules. He is best described as mangy, looking somewhat like a young Charles Manson – albeit with very kind, pale blue eyes. He usually calls me his “big brother”, probably because he is about 5′ 5″ inches tall, whereas I am about 6 foot 3.

He is a chronic alcoholic, suffering from innumerable health problems involving his heart, liver, and kidneys, which take him off the streets for periods of time and into some clinic or hospice, until he recovers and is cast back out again into the wilds of Washington, D.C. He is also an inveterate liar, repeating drunken stories about how he found himself in the circumstances of that particular day which cannot possibly be true, because they are tall tales he periodically recycles. And he is clearly suffering from some type of mental illness, though whether this precipitated his addiction or was the result of it, I am not qualified to say.

So while reading this essay about the late Amy Winehouse this morning, I could not help but think about my “little brother”, and how through a combination of factors life had brought him low, as indeed they did the late British singer. While the author of this essay makes some salient points about Miss Winehouse’s career, the media reaction to her activities and her death, and a very valid point about our collective guilt for fueling the fire of her addiction by lapping up stories of her bizarre exploits, the piece is at the same time guilty of some inaccurate assessments of Miss Winehouse’s career.  It also betrays a lack of charity toward those suffering from addictions, in which realism needs to be tempered by compassion.

We cannot say for certain whether Amy Winehouse would have become a recording artist at the same level as that of her idols, based on her limited output. A couple of albums and some unreleased studio recordings do not a large oeuvre make. It is entirely possible that she would not have been able to match “Back to Black”, and it would remain her one, great solo effort, much as “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” appears to have been, since these days Miss Hill seems to do little other than sit around wearing a tinfoil hat, issuing fatwas against the Pope.

While it is unfair for the mainstream media to try to place Amy Winehouse at the same level of achievement as some of her idols, it is equally unfair for the writer of the essay to state that “an interpreter of the human condition on the level of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday or Nina Simone she was not.”  That Miss Winehouse did not live long enough to provide the degree of material these other women did, is hardly a reason to discount the often penetrating and profoundly disquieting songs she managed to produce in such a short period of time, so very early in her career – unless of course the author of the essay feels that Ella Fitzgerald’s first big hit recording, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”, is a more profound interpretation of the human condition than “You Know I’m No Good”.

We all know that the death of a celebrity can cause near-hysteria these days, thanks to the media’s presence in virtually every corner of our lives.  From the car crash that killed Princess Diana to the bizarre circumstances of Michael Jackson’s demise, we are imposed upon by television, print, radio, and internet with countless stories about every detail of how a famous person met their Maker.  Yet while we can certainly agree that the media encouraged Amy Winehouse to act in a bizarre fashion, and I will further agree with the author of the essay that Amy’s life should be taken as a cautionary tale, rather than a heroic tragedy, I cannot help but find his attitude toward addiction and the death of addicts from said addictions to be rather callous.

In truth, the author is right to note that the death of a pop-star addict is no more tragic than the death of any other addict.  For those of us who are Catholics, this is certainly how we understand death through the eyes of God.  We are told by Christ Himself that not a sparrow falls from the air that God does not know, and care about.  Therefore how much more does He care about us, made in His image, above the life of sparrows.

While the wages of a lifetime of unrepentant sin must ultimately be paid, not just in physical death but also in the permanent damnation of the soul if that soul is culpable and unrepentant, we are absolutely not permitted to make the judgement as to who is going to end up where. We do not know why Amy Winehouse could not stop herself from injuring herself.  And we must acknowledge the fact that addiction is a type of habitual sin, so that in the case of substance abuse addictions the Church recognizes that sometimes voluntary, self-destructive behavior is combined with underlying issues to yield addiction. Thus, without condoning the practice of sin, the Church recognizes that people suffering from addiction need our compassion and help, not our doling out of judgement.

The scourge of addiction and its impact on someone’s life do not fit nicely into a little cardboard box, even a roomy one parked in front of an abandoned building.  There are many reasons why people become addicted to things that ultimately do them harm or do away with them altogether: emotional depression, physical illness, peer pressure, etc.  And while it is true that we need to recognize that people are ultimately responsible for their own actions, and for the impact of the choices they make, this does not mean that once they have made a bad choice that we are to abandon them to their fates, as so much wasted space.  If that were the case, then we would not have the example of St. Dismas, “The Good Thief” of the Gospels, who waited until the very last moment to repent of his evil past, and still managed to get a personal welcome into Heaven from Christ Himself.

Moreover, when we look at what the addicted person actually does with their addiction, even from a purely secular standpoint, it is not infrequently the case that substance abusers produce some of the most splendid and original works of art.  Charles Dickens was addicted to opium for many years, while F. Scott Fitzgerald was ultimately done in by his alcoholism exacerbating his underlying heart and lung problems – both men, of course, paying for their substance abuse through the money they earned as popular writers.  So while Amy Winehouse may have been, at least in the eyes of God or a substance abuse counselor, no different from any other addict, in one important respect she was different, which the author of the above-linked essay fails to recognize: her combination of depression and addictions helped her to create her wonderful music, just as van Gogh’s combination of depression and addiction helped him to create his powerful paintings.

As a final thought, allow me to leave you with the following comparison: Miss Winehouse died at the age of 27, having completed only two studio albums and an unknown number of individual recordings. At the age of 27, Ella Fitzgerald had just released her first solo album, after having been a singer with a swing band for years, and was still over a decade away from making her seminal recordings of the great American songbooks. At the age of 27, Billie Holiday had just released what would turn out to be the best-selling record of her career, “God Bless the Child”, but with nearly two decades of more recordings to come, including the haunting “Lady Sings the Blues”, before drugs ultimately ruined her voice and took her life. And at the age of 27, the great Nina Simone, whom I had the privilege of seeing in concert shortly before her death, had just recorded her second studio album, and quit her job as a piano singer in an Atlantic City cocktail lounge.

Taking these examples to heart, those of us who enjoyed Amy Winehouse’s music, despite her terrible personal choices, and the monstrous way that she and the media managed to create an infernal marriage to suit each other’s respective addictions – despite all of that, we do sincerely mourn the loss of her talent, and what might have been, and hope for God’s Divine Mercy toward her.

Amy Winehouse (1983-2011)