Now, now that you're free,
what are you going to be?
And who are you going to see?
And where, where will you go?
And how will you know
You didn't get it all wrong?
-- "Monday Morning", Pulp
By far, the most memorable scene from Whit Stillman's movie
Barcelona is the scene where Chris Eigeman's Fred relates to Mira
Sorvino's Marta his recent concern that he's been shaving in the wrong
direction his entire life. The movie is about intercultural romance, ignorant anti-Americanism, and the
way people from different backgrounds completely misunderstand each
other's motives and how successful relationships are still possible.
In this scene Fred (an American, certainly not an Estadounidense)
and Marta (a Catalan) are in bed after the first time they hook up.
Marta is on her stomach, and Fred is half-sitting up, and Fred opens,
"Sometimes we think ... we almost always assume, we're going through
life surrounded by people. Then something happens and you realize:
We're entirely alone."
He continues very seriously and pausing often, gazing into the room, as Marta listens musingly,
"Tonight, while shaving, I always shave against the
beard, for a closer shave, I remembered this razor ad on
TV, showing the hair follicles, like this." (He says the following as
he mimes a razor cutting hair follicles with his hands) "The first of
the twin blades cuts them here. Then the hair snaps back and the second
blade cuts them here. ... 'for a closer, cleaner shave'. That we
"But what struck me was, if the hair follicles are going in this
direction and the razor is too, then they're shaving in the direction
of the beard, not against it. So I've shaved the wrong way all my life.
Maybe I misremembered the ad. The point is, I could have shaved the
wrong way all my life and never have known it. Then I could have taught
my son to shave the wrong way, too."
Not understanding, Marta asks "You have a son?"
"No," he answers, "but I might someday. Then, maybe I'll teach him to shave the wrong way."
"I think maybe my English is not so good", Marta concludes and we cut away to the next scene.
Yeah, it's a bit of a silly dialogue, but it's also profound -- how do
you know you're not going about it all wrong? And I'm not talking about
shaving any more; I'm talking making decisions in life. How do you know
you're living the right way? What is the good life? And are
we going through life surrounded by people or are we entirely alone?
We have so many TV ads telling us how to shave. But at the end of the
day it's always just us in front of the mirror putting blade to
cheek, no TV ads. And as we go through life, we ultimately only have
ourselves to rely on. That's the beauty of Whit Stillman's writing:
he gets us thinking about epistemology by discussing the subtleties
of shaving techniques.
We have philosophers that tell us what the good life is. To a lot
of people, taking a philosophy course their
first year of college is the first time they've been
exposed to the ideas of Freud, Plato, Aristotle,
and Marx in the form of the original texts. And they've
never thought about the principles leading them through life. They
make, for the first time, a conscious decision about what kind of life
they want to live. All throughout their growing up, society has
presented them with one model of life, and now they have to decide
whether that's a life that suits them. The source they have to draw on
for alternative is the reading list the professor assigned. Emerson tells the student to read all of these books and
"to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary".
And indeed, the student will draw out his own unique way to live based
on his own idiosyncratic experiences. There are as many ways to live
as people in the world, not entries in the reading list.
And thus, each of us, with our unique philosophy and way of life, is
a creed of one. Individualistic. That's the secular humanist attitude of E.M. Forster when he writes
And as for individualism - there seems no way of getting off this,
even if one wanted to. The dictator-hero can grind down his
citizens till they are all alike, but he cannot melt them into a single
man. That is beyond his power. He can order them to merge, he can
incite them to mass-antics, but they are obliged to be born separately,
and to die separately, and, owing to these unavoidable termini, will
always be running off the totalitarian rails.
And that's actually a great thing. But -- what if our idea of the
good life is wrong? What if one day we teach our sons and daughters the
wrong way to live?