February 24, 2023


Destructive Authenticity in Full Focus : In The Whale, Darren Aronofsky wants us to sympathize with his morbidly obese main character, but it's not clear that we should. (Gage Klipper, 2/07/23, Law & Liberty)

His salvation comes through the missionary Thomas, the closest approximation of a villain in the story, who unintentionally teaches Charlie to separate his actions from his identity. Thomas reads him a Bible verse: "For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live" (Romans 8:13). Thomas believes that Charlie's lover died because he failed to repent for his homosexuality and pleads with him not to make the same mistake. After making incessant apologies throughout the film, Charlie finally has an epiphany: he will no longer apologize for "being in love." With this realization, he tells his students to forget everything he taught them and just write something honest. When they do, he turns on his webcam and reveals himself. 

After finally learning to be honest with himself, Charlie's ultimate atonement comes from "saving" his daughter--teaching her to overcome her defensive cynicism and navigate the world in the way he refused to for so long. He sees that all her bad behavior disguises the caring person she truly is, and wants her to see herself as he sees her. He succeeds in the final scene and can die in peace knowing she will lead not just a "good life" in the material sense, but an authentic life of self-love and genuine connection. 

While we empathize with Charlie, it is not clear that we should to the extent that Aronofsky wants us to. A more "honest" assessment of Charlie's atonement would not reveal a strict mutual exclusivity between his identity and actions. One need not be a fundamentalist Christian to contend that raising Ellie in a stable family ought to have trumped his own desires--no matter how inherent they are to his being. Would the middle ground--postponing his own happiness for ten years until Ellie was grown--really have been such a terrible thing? Aronofsky would like us to think so, but to accept Charlie's atonement requires prioritizing subjective authenticity over moral obligation to others. 

Since we are instructed to empathize with Charlie's journey toward self-realization, we are then expected to understand the condition he winds up in. Speaking on his collaboration with the Obesity Action Coalition, Aronofsky said that if the film leads just "one doctor to look and say, 'Oh I know someone like that, I've met Charlie'" then he's done his job. This ignores that harsh judgment from a doctor was exactly what Charlie needed most. Empathy does no good when it leads to excusing harmful behavior. We can rightly feel compassion for Charlie's condition while still demanding the recognition of the cold, hard truth: he is needlessly killing himself and once again abandoning his daughter. Choosing authenticity can--and in Charlie's case does--in fact, lead to negative consequences. When taking this instrumental approach, The Whale becomes a cautionary tale and presents an inconvenient reality for champions of authenticity at all costs, including both the director and his critics.

Man is fallen.  No man should be authentic to his nature. 

Posted by at February 24, 2023 7:03 AM