Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Comparing Silence with 1984: "Do it to Julia!"

The late John Hurt as Winston and Suzanna Hamilton as Julia in the most recent film version of 1984

This post was prompted by an excellent review by Fr. Lawrence Lew of Martin Scorsese's film Silence.

The climax of the film, and the climax of the novel by Shusaku Endo that it is based on, is the moment where Rodrigues, a priest, arguably apostasizes - he mimics stamping his foot on a picture of Christ in order to save others (and perhaps himself) from horrific torture and death.

The question is not per se whether we should condemn the fictional Rodrigues for what he did. He obviously confronted an awful choice. Many men, including some of the greatest saints, denied Christ for far less weighty reasons. And Christ would surely have forgiven Rodrigues if he had asked for it.

Rather, the controversy concerns the question of whether this really does constitute apostasy - especially against the background of a final scene in which "Christ" tells the priest that trampling on the image was in fact he right thing to do. I put "Christ" in scare quotes because it's somewhat ambiguous whether it actually is Christ or just Rodrigues justifying himself in his own mind. It's only a story, of course, so in a sense, the question of who it really is, has no answer. But from the context and from some of his other writings, I think it's clear that Endo (and thus I assume Scorsese as well) meant to suggest that stepping on the image is what Christ would have wanted. From the novel:
“Trample!” said those compassionate eyes. “Trample! Your foot suffers in pain; it must suffer like all the feet that have stepped on this plaque. But that pain alone is enough. I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason that I am here.”
“Lord, I resented your silence.”
“I was not silent. I suffered beside you.”
“But you told Judas to go away: What thou dost do quickly. What happened to Judas?”
“I did not say that. Just as I told you to step on the plaque, so I told Judas to do what he was going to do. For Judas was in anguish as you are now.”
He had lowered his foot on to the plaque, sticky with dirt and blood. His five toes had pressed upon the face of one he loved. Yet he could not understand the tremendous onrush of joy that came over him at that moment.
But is this really the Christian position? Fr. Lew writes:
Christianity is essentially about the Person of Jesus Christ and one’s relationship with him. It is, above all, about loving him and following him even at the cost of one’s life. And here’s where the question concerning apostasy lies: how many of us, even to save others, would deny and stamp on our wife, our child, our Beloved? It is a conundrum, sure, but I believe that few of us would betray and stamp on someone we truly deeply loved. Now, if we grant that the external act of stamping one’s foot on an image of the Lord has that kind of relationship-breaking, love-denying significance, then the question we have to ask is: Do we love the Lord enough? Interestingly, that is the very question Jesus asked St Peter after he denied him: “Do you love me more than these?” (Jn 21:15).
There is a similar dilemma in another classic novel familiar to us all, George Orwell's 1984. In one of the final scenes, the Party attempts to break the hero Winston by confronting him with his worst fear - the prospect of being devoured alive by rats. A grotesque torture device is placed on his head:
The cage was nearer; it was closing in. Winston heard a succession of shrill cries which appeared to be occurring in the air above his head. But he fought furiously against his panic. To think, to think, even with a split second left – to think was the only hope. Suddenly the foul musty odor of the brutes struck his nostrils. There was a violent convulsion of nausea inside him, and he almost lost consciousness. Everything had gone black. For an instant he was insane, a screaming animal. Yet he came out of the blackness clutching an idea. There was one and only one way to save himself. He must interpose another human being, the body of another human being, between himself and the rats.
Winston instinctively knows that there is only one way to save himself, and that is to betray his lover, Julia. He screams out:
"Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don't care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!"
Winston and Julia are eventually released and they meet again on the outside. It is implied that Julia had gone through a similar ordeal. She tells Winston:
"Sometimes...they threaten you with something – something you can't stand up to, can't even think about. And then you say, 'Don't do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to so-and-so.' ... And after that, you don't feel the same towards the other person any longer."
Winston and Julia are physically alive. But inside they are dead. We might say they are now "spiritually dead," although Orwell of course wouldn't have put it that way. They do not anymore love each other. They love Big Brother.

This is how they break you.

I doubt there are very many readers of 1984 for whom that ending, as horrible as it is, does not ring true.

Contrast that with the ending of Silence and that "tremendous onrush of joy" that came over Rodrigues.

For many critics of Silence, that ending not only doesn't ring true - in any sense, Christian or otherwise - but positively drips evil.

The irony is that in some of his non-fiction works, Endo implicitly styled himself as a sort of "love expert," at least when it came to the Christian understanding of it.

Could it be that the atheist Orwell understood a bit more about love than the Christian Endo?


  1. This blog post is a very apt analysis. Thanks for sharing it.

    I agree that Endo's argument at the end doesn't really ring true when you study it more closely. The priest should have been more broken at the end, since as you've brilliantly argued, he basically betrayed his greatest love. And I don't think much peace can come out of that decision.

    God bless!

  2. Not sure the two stories are comparable. 'Silence' is about saving others. '1984' is about saving yourself. The issue with 'Silence' no one is really saved in a spiritual sense as they all must deny Christ. Therefore, he should not have stamped his foot on the picture as by doing so he was destroying the faith of others while saving their physical lives.

    1. Yeah, perhaps I should have made that distinction. But my (badly made) point was that it shouldn't be a utilitarian calculation. If you love someone - whether it's a friend, family member or Christ Himself - you don't stamp on them. And that's not because you might be setting a bad example per se. Rather, it's just not something you do to someone you love.

  3. I seem to remember that there's a similar crucial scene in "That Hideous Strength," the third volume in the great C.S. Lewis's "Space Trilogy." It's been years since I read it, but I remember a scene of the protagonist being commanded to stamp on a crucifix. I don't remember whether or not he did (!), but ever since I read it, that scene has been a powerful image for me of how a secular tyrant might someday try to torture me into apostasy.

    1. See below. I missed it at the time but Nick Donnelly had a great post on this at EWTNGB:

  4. Well, I tried to excerpt the full passage but it was too long for this space. See Nick's post for all of it.

    The twist is that Mark (the protagonist) is not a Christian, but he still refuses to do it. Here's the final part:

    Mark made no reply. He was thinking, and thinking hard because he knew, that if he stopped even for a moment, mere terror of death would take the decision out of his hands. Christianity was a fable. It would be ridiculous to die for a religion one did not believe. This Man himself, on that very cross, had discovered it to be a fable. And had died complaining that the God in whom he trusted had forsaken him, in fact, found the universe a cheat. But this raised a question that Mark had never thought of before. Was that the moment at which to turn against the Man? If the universe was a cheat, was that a good reason for joining its side? Supposing the Straight was utterly powerless, always and everywhere certain to be mocked, tortured, and finally killed by the Crooked, what then? Why not go down with the ship? Here Mark began to be frightened by the very fact that his fears seemed have momentarily vanished. They had been a safeguard…they had prevented him, all his life, from making mad decisions like that which he was now making as he turned to Frost and said,

    “It’s all bloody nonsense, and I’m damned if I do any such thing.” '

  5. I also thought of 1984! When I read it I got depressed thinking about how easily a tyrant goverment ended their love and thus their last piece of humanity died too. But then it hit me, it wasn't easily, it took an evil plot and war like conditions. We must not judge the same people under extreme circumstances like torture. The body is weak, it fights to live, even against the soul. But that doesn't erase love and its fruits. We should fight against torture and not let them win. Souls, faith and love can't be erased, even if they get thinner, their seeds will prevail. Loved both books!