In the introduction to his The Function of Criticism (1984), Terry Eagleton writes :
“criticism today lacks all substantive social function. It is either part of the public relations branch of the literary industry, or a matter wholly internal to the academies.”
The problem, according to Eagleton, is that criticism is only of social use when there is a robust public sphere. A public sphere, according to Habermas, is an intellectual void in between the sphere of public authority (dominated by the state and the law) and the private sphere (dominated by the exchange of commodities and the market). In the sphere of public authority, the government and ruling elite speak with authority, determining values and the prominence of some ideas at the expense of others. By contrast, in the private sphere, this kind of ordering is done according to the demands of commerce. Criticism, according to Eagleton, currently lacks a social function, as the private sphere has come to dominate those matters that were previously considered to be exempt from the marketplace. The role of the critic still exists, but he has no constituency and no natural subject matter. An example of this kind of modern-day criticism can be seen in R. J. Cutler’s documentary about Vogue magazine The September Issue (2009). Anna Wintour is a private sphere Doctor Johnson : She takes it upon herself to decide what will be ‘fashionable’ in a particular season and the commercial interests that make up the fashion industry abide by her judgement. The same process exists in the sphere of public authority. When a problem affects the state, the ruling class make a decision and the apparatus of the state then enacts that judgement. While the members of the ruling class may be determined by democratic or aristocratic means and members of that elite may be more or less open to public opinion, the process is the same. The people no more get a say in the day to day realities of how the state is run than they do in determining whether purple or mauve will be the fashionable colour to be seen in this autumn. The process is just as autocratic as it was during the heyday of the 18th Century critic. As Eagleton quotes, the criticism of the time was characterised by :
“its partisan bias, the vituperation, the dogmatism, the juridical tone, the air of omniscience and finality”
Of course, the importance of the three spheres varies significantly over time. As I suggested in my review of Sidney Lumet’s The Offence (1972), the moral corruption of the state, the ruling classes and the church, mean that a form of moral public sphere has opened up. One in which rabble-rousing journalists compete with traditional intellectuals and people equipped with social networking tools to impart some kind of moral sentiment upon a supposedly individualistic and relativistic general public. Paul McGuigan’s The Reckoning, a cruelly over-looked adaptation of Barry Unsworth’s 1995 Booker-nominated novel Morality Play portrays a similar shift in spheres of debate : A moment in history in which the church and the state began to surrender their moral authority to a burgeoning public sphere.
The Reckoning opens with Nicholas (Paul Bettany), a young priest, delivering a sermon to his congregation. It is a sermon that seems designed to quell any feelings of unhappiness or dissent that the people might have over their treatment. Nicholas reminds the people that their lives are necessarily miserable because otherwise they would not yearn for the happiness they will receive once they reach heaven. The film is set in the 14th Century and a caption then informs us that since the arrival of the Normans, Church and State had spoken with a single voice. A voice which , we must assume, is about to break.
Nicholas flees his parish and dons civilian clothes. The reasons for this are not made immediately clear but the implication is that he has committed adultery by bedding one of his female parishioners. This places Nicholas outside of the traditional sphere of public authority. As a fallen priest, he speaks no longer with the authority granted to him by membership of the church, instead he speaks with the authority of an educated man with a keen conscience and a sense of culpability for the crimes that forced him out onto the road. In a forest, he comes across a group of actors. These actors bear the coat of arms of a nobleman and claim to be gifts from one noble family to another. However, their status as gifts clearly does not ensure them a living as they find themselves having to perform in order to keep themselves fed and their equipment maintained.
Nicholas and the actors soon come across a town framed by beautifully bleak landscape and dominated by a vast castle. Initially, the town seems deserted but the actors soon realise that the entire town is attending the trial of a mute woman who is accused of having strangled a young boy in order to steal his money. Martin (Willem Dafoe making full use of his background in physical theatre), the leader of the troupe, decides that in order to make some extra money, the company should create a play based upon the murder of the boy. This is presented as something of a radical departure as in the 14th Century, actors lacked the access to classical writings that would bootstrap European theatre into the Elizabethan age. In fact, the suggestion is that there were quite strong taboos against creating anything new, thereby limiting performances to enacting the biblical mystery and passion plays that would eventually solidify into the canon known as the N-Town plays.
In order to research the play, Nicholas and Martin set about making inquiries about the victim and the accused. Feeding mostly upon hearsay and rumour they begin to construct an image of a boy lured off the path of righteousness by a sinister woman, but this simplistic morality tale shatters when the two men pay to speak to the accused herself. While she may well be mute, she is no demonic presence. Not only does she claim innocence, but she seems to be an almost saintly figure who devotes most of her time to healing the sick and helping the poor. Nicholas voices his concerns over the woman’s apparent guilt but Martin insists upon pressing on… he knows that his company cannot compete with the elaborate stagings of bigger companies and so he is desperate to try out his idea of creating a play for a particular town.
The actors begin their performance and, initially all goes well. But then the audience start disagreeing with the version of the murder presented on stage. The boy was too strong to be murdered by a woman, there were no traces on the body that suggested he might have been knocked out. Soon, the audience become so enraged that the sherif clears the stage and tells the actors to be gone by day-break.
Terrified by what they have started, the actors flee the town, leaving Nicholas to learn the truth about the involvement of the local lord (Vincent Cassel) and a Benedictine monk. As he sleuths his way about the town, Nicholas encounters the King’s Justice (Matthew Macfadyen) but while the Justice knows the truth about the local lord’s proclivities, he is not concerned with issues of morality. He serves the state. Realising that neither the state nor the Church will do anything, Nicholas takes it upon himself to tell the truth to the people. Along with the actors, he whips the crowd into a frenzy of moral outrage as the people move against their lord.
The Reckoning shows us the birth pangs of the public sphere, but the film is actually quite ambivalent about this process of creation.
It is possible to read the events of The Reckoning as essentially emancipatory. The film begins by making clear that the state and the church serve their own interests. The film presents members of the clergy and the ruling class as morally corrupt and, at best, brazenly self-serving. For example, the local priest will not bury a friend of the actors as they lack the money. Similarly, the King’s Justice is only interested in enforcing the laws when it suits the King. Against this kind of vested and corrupt power structure, the outcast status of Nicholas and the actors seems progressive : These are men with consciences of their own and they are intent upon seeing that justice is done. Under this reading, the play is simply unlocking a store of resentment and moral outrage that already exists in the town. By the act of creating a new play and the act of unlocking the store of resentment, the actors are encouraging people to think for themselves and to seek out their own justice. Under this interpretation, Nicholas’ eventual comeuppance takes on almost messianic qualities as though the creation of a moral public sphere constitutes some kind of new covenant.
However, while this is an interesting reading, I feel that it does reduce a complex film to a rather clicheed fantasy about the transformative power of art as created by a mythical artist/auteur who is a spiritual leader, a rebel, a destroyer of boundaries and a mid-wife to the truth. If one looks beyond such self-indulgence, one finds a film that is actually far more ambivalent about the role of the artist.
The Reckoning is a film about the fear of responsibility. From Martin’s first suggestion that the company create a new play, his fellow actors are sceptical. They do not want to assume the risks that accompany the creation of a new form of art and nor do they want to run the risk of offending either the Church or the nobility by pursuing the matter of the child’s murder. When they eventually stage the play, they are horrified at the people’s expectation that they should reveal the truth about the murder. They would rather flee the town than assume that kind of position of authority. They are not judges, they are actors. Indeed, while the creation of the new play does incite the villagers to complain, the villagers are not confronting their lord or the Church. During the trial itself they are silent. It is the silence of consent. These kinds of moral judgement are not part of their role. They are not judges, they are the judged. They are subjects of the moral law, not its authors.
This refusal by both the actors and the people to take responsibility for telling the truth expresses one of the fundamental paradoxes of being. It shows that while we crave freedom, we are also terrified of responsibility. This paradoxical attitude is what makes us consumer slaves, blue-sky thinking corporate drones and self-actualising individualists who nonetheless feel obliged to follow any number of fashions, trends, creeds, religions and movements. Sartre explained this paradox by stating that people are cowards when faced with the realisation that they are free but this is fiercely uncharitable not to mention as finger-waggingly elitist as anything produced by Nietszche. A better way of thinking about it is that the characters of The Reckoning yearn for structure. They want to be free but they also want to be judged, to be ordered and to enjoy the structure and stability that comes from living out someone else’s moral and political judgements. This paradox is beautifully expressed in Sidney Lumet’s The Offence when Connery’s detective slumps to his knees, psychologically demolished by Bannen’s manipulative paedophile. Biting the man’s hand, the detective begs for help. He needs someone to tell him who to be and what to do. His image of himself has been shattered and he cannot face demands of rebuilding it.
Eagleton’s 18th Century critics understood this aspect of human nature. Having opened up an arena of discussion and opinion-making that was neither dependent upon the state, the church nor the markets, they assumed positions of authority. They took it upon themselves to sort the wheat from the chaff and tell people what they should be reading. The assumption of this kind of authority was not repressive or dictatorial, rather it was the necessary filling of a social role. Just as Anna Wintour currently fills the role of telling people what they ought to be wearing. The Reckoning accepts that this kind of position is not an easy one. Not only does it run contrary to human nature to assume responsibility, it is also intensely risky to want to challenge the vested interests of both the state and the Church.