No, Sir, his manners are such that he would not know how to ask a woman to accept his service, although his looks are of Love’s color. ― Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival
If I survive this life without dying, I’ll be surprised. ― Mulla Nazruddin
What links Being There with the New Gilded Age? The Tycoon and his wife live in a huge mansion, so almost indescribably, laughably large, with dozens of servants and vast fleets of limousines, that we have to wonder what the director was conveying. Well, it turns out that principal filming occurred at the Biltmore Estate, the largest private home in America, located in Asheville, North Carolina.
Indeed, this building, mentioned above in Part One, was by far the grandest – or if you prefer, the most ostentatious – of all the original Gilded Age “homes.” Viewers were familiar with the images of Hearst’s castles in Citizen Kane, but few were prepared for this. Some may have been sickened by such a display; others were enthralled.
Was Hal Ashby speaking of the second Gilded Age ten years before anyone else? Was he also describing our new political age (the film was made after Watergate), when most actors on the national stage would be “practiced,” as the Rolling Stones wrote, “at the art of deception,” performing their shtick for the cameras? Did he know that by the end of the century the Republican Party would have its own TV network? Or that it would drop the old pretense of appealing to moderate, undecided voters and focus exclusively on fearmongering (well, not exclusively – they would also discover voter suppression and computer fraud)? Or that by the second decade of the new century both parties would be preaching mainly to their own choirs? Or that by 2016 there would no longer be any appreciable difference in what we would all like to watch – politics or entertainment?
The plot of Being There has a long and somewhat tarnished history. It is based on Jerzy Kosiński’s novel of the same name, published in 1970 and written presumably during the Nixon years. However, wrote historian Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska, “…most Polish critics immediately recognized [the book] as a version of…a very popular novel from 1932.” This was not the only time that people accused Kosiński himself of being a con man, or in mythological terms, as a Trickster.
It’s oddly appropriate that a writer of deliberately shifting identity should give us this story of a man who has no identity at all other than what people attribute to him. But I suggest that the basic theme is much older, so old that it is archetypal: the Holy Fool, best known in Christian literature as Parzival, in the Muslim world as Nazruddin, and among Jews as an entire community, the wise men of Chelm.
The Tricksters of myth deliberately enter our world to fool humans into wisdom, while the Holy Fools (pictured repeatedly in fairy tales as the youngest and simplest of three brothers) seem to succeed mainly because of their own trusting, naïve natures when more worldly, experienced men fail. All of these characters survive because, like Chance/Chauncey, they have no ego identities – no self, in Buddhist terms. There is no wizard behind the screen that we watch.
When the characters in Being There – most of them high-functioning professionals – encounter Chauncey, they are entranced in the same way we all respond to babies, kittens, clowns and, occasionally, some of the “neurally diverse” among us. We see what we think is the innocence in their eyes. We rush to meet that trust, that assumption of the best in us, with our own innocent gaze. We do this because our indigenous souls have never lost the old memory of who we were (and might still be), before the world draped its experience and plans and roles and griefs and identities and mythologies over us,
This part of us has always been waiting to see images that reflect who we really are in what Yeats called “the Deep Heart’s Core,” and it has nothing to do with the cult of celebrity. His longing to see and be seen in this way is palpable:
If I make the lashes dark
And the eyes more bright
And the lips more scarlet,
Or ask if all be right
From mirror after mirror,
No vanity’s displayed:
I’m looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.
What if I look upon a man
As though on my beloved,
And my blood be cold the while
And my heart unmoved?
Why should he think me cruel
Or that he is betrayed?
I’d have him love the thing that was
Before the world was made. (1933)
At no time in the history of man has the world been so full of pain and anguish. Here and there, however, we meet with individuals who are untouched, unsullied by the common grief. They are not heartless individuals, far from it! They are emancipated beings. For them the world is not what it seems to us. They see with other eyes. We say of them that they have died to the world. They live in the moment, fully, and the radiance which emanates from them is a perpetual song of joy.
Critic Matthew Lucas writes:
…by the end of the film, Ashby has turned Chance into a kind of Christ-like figure, as he literally walks on water in the film’s final shot. In that regard, Chance’s rise to prominence is not necessarily meant to be a bad thing. He opens people up, and connects them with a simpler, less complicated view of life…”Life is a state of mind,” goes the final line of the film…Therein lies the real beauty of the film – Chance’s rise is both positive and negative, bringing out the best and the worst of human nature. Whether or not his influence is good or bad is never really explored, and ultimately left up to the audience…It’s both a critique of a world that allows such a man to achieve such a prominent role in American leadership…and a celebration of his good-natured, completely non-cynical outlook, standing apart from the high-speed neurosis of modern American life. Being There is, like Chance, whatever we want it to be…a film that closed out the 1970’s with a knowing smile, mourning that which was to come, and celebrating an unassuming antidote to the decade’s increasing sense of materialism and political polarization. And it feels more essential now than ever.
Then there are others in our demythologized age who arise among us seemingly as far as possible from such holy fools. Persons with massive, if highly fragile, egos who lust for power and seem to embody the desperate narcissism of a culture – us – that has been soaked in electronic images for several generations. And some of these persons have learned that the art of the con sometimes involves playing the fool. Chance/Chauncey (innocently) and Donald Trump (quite deliberately) are projection screens for us all.
Before continuing to Part Five, you might want to read my series, The Con Man: An American Archetype.