Strange Bedfellows: Love and Existentialism in Benedetti’s “The Truce”

The Truce (“La tregua”) by Mario Benedetti

Reviewed by Gary Gautier

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS

It takes a while to realize who the “truce” is between in this fine 1960 Uruguayan novel. I read it in Spanish so I may have missed something (and my native Spanish readers can comment), but the spoilers are definitely real, so best not to read this if you’re considering reading the book for the first time.

You don’t often see true love and existentialism as bedfellows in the arts. Even Shakespeare reserves his proto-existentialist threads for King Lear and Macbeth. Such threads are not for the romantic comedies, nor even for the love tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. But although it isn’t clear until the end of the novel, Benedetti has masterfully woven those two themes together in The Truce. Martín Santomé, whose diary forms the novel, is an accountant on the verge of retiring. The diary of an accountant seems a subject for the mock-heroic form if ever there was one, but there is nothing mock-epic about The Truce. The quotidian nature of Martín’s daily life is indeed humorous at times, but it is a credit to Benedetti that we feel so bonded to the protagonist so quickly that the otherwise boring tableaus of his daily life engage us fully, even if it is a close-in engagement rather than the panoramic one we might get in a true epic. I, at least, loved my glimpses of his office routines, the casual friends that pop in and out, etc.

Martín is an aging widower who has very responsibly raised his kids, even though he does not know them very deeply. When he falls in love with Avellaneda, 25 years his junior, he suddenly realizes that he had been “dead” in inside for many years and now feels a spark of life that he did not even realize was missing. His diary account of falling in love is both funny and moving. Although classical versus romantic approaches to love and life is a perennial theme, I think it best to consider three options here: classic, romantic, and sentimental. The classical form is rational, balanced, stable (think of the pairings that work best in Jane Austen novels). The romantic is full of overflowing passion. For example, in Francis Ford Coppola’s film, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Coppola’s Dracula is as much a romantic hero as he is a gothic villain, passionate beyond measure but morally dangerous – so dangerous in fact that he is perfectly willing to destroy and violate any number of innocent bystanders in the reckless pursuit of his passion. The sentimental form is not rational like the classic and is not full of wild passion like the romantic but is something else – it is a matter of feeling, not of reason nor of wild romantic passions but of the simple affections that bind people in domestic bliss.

At first, Martín seems rather classical in his love. The emotions are real but maintaining balance and a rational discretion is important. Ultimately, though, I think his love proves the truest form, the sentimental in the case of this novel. Romantic love, in the specific sense of excessive/unbounded/dangerous, does not get much play in the novel. For better or worse, the characters are too grounded for that. Avellaneda’s parents perhaps demonstrate the shallowness of classical love, which tends to erode into a purely practical function, into something less than love. “They love each other, I’m sure of that,” Avellaneda says of her parents, “but I don’t know if that’s the way of loving each other that I like.”

BIG SPOILER: The existentialist undercurrent of the novel comes to the surface after Avellaneda’s sudden death. Martín realizes that any offer of meaning in life is a mirage. He reflects back on his few months of love with Avellaneda as a flashing moment of truce between God and himself, in which the dark world of the existentialists was temporarily put on hold. And in another flash all goes dark again, and the full weight of a meaningless universe descends like an inevitable curtain.

From the point of view of the final sequence, one can retrospectively see the veins of existentialism running through the novel. The quirky side characters are not pointers to some grand symbolic scheme, some ground of meaning, as they would be in a Charles Dickens novel. They are random, all surface and no depth in terms of the economy of meaning. Martín ’s relationship to his kids, loving, living up to one’s daily responsibilities, but without depth, the same. Even the sudden revelation of Avellaneda’s death – a casual, dashed-off note that she had died – emphasizes the irrational, empty “thrownness” of the world, as existentialists in the Heidegger line might put it.

Also in the manner of Albert Camus and the existentialists, The Truce mentions suicide several times. So I expected a suicide. But Benedetti, in true existentialist manner, knew that after a “truce” such as Martín’s, suicide would be too easy, a mere evasion. The prospect of extending indefinitely into the future a life totally void of meaning or joy or value – this prospect is more frightening, more powerful, and more telling philosophically, than death.

But something is different in The Truce, some excess that existentialism cannot contain. Yes, the final world is dark and meaningless, and Martín feels the full weight of it, but for the reader the novel is also a response to the existentialists. The end is sad, but the reader remembers the love between Martín and Avellaneda, and that love, although temporary, gives a deep value to the world that does not simply vanish, that is timeless, no matter what happens next. The beauty of this moment fills the universe, and even God cannot deny it. Maybe Avellaneda’s mother was right (although Martín himself cannot see it) when she said there is something sweet about our sorrows, something the darkness fails to snuff out.

So perhaps the truce that Martín reflects upon, the truce between God and himself that temporarily holds the absolute darkness at bay, is on another level a truce between these two economies of meaning – the economy of existentialism, in which all meanings cancel out, and the economy of human love, where human connection reaches such a joyous depth that the eternal darkness of the indifferent universe itself becomes trivial in comparison. Whereas the truce between God and Martín ends with Avellaneda’s death, and the darkness rushes back in, the truce between these two economies of meaning is less settled at the end. Which takes precedence? The darkness at the end that promises to extend indefinitely, or the light of the short-lived love, which belies the efforts of that darkness? Whereas Benedetti settles the first level of the truce, perhaps it is the up to the reader to settle the second.

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Colliding values in Frankenstein

That the monster represents some projected aspect of the good Dr. Frankenstein is clear enough. (And Victor is indeed a good and noble man at bottom, his fall that of a tragic hero.) But what projected aspect? What exactly is it that the doctor sublimates into monstrosity? I’m sure many illuminating answers are possible, but I have one that relates to three value systems operable in the culture and literature of Shelley’s day.

I am grateful to Shelley for giving Victor a pathological work ethic, evidenced by the time he spends in his lab, because I call on the doctor here to perform a double duty. Among the value systems of the day, Victor represents both the Enlightenment faith in science and the Romantic passion to strive beyond all accepted limits. A third value system – let’s call it the Sentimental — was anchored in the kinder, simpler domestic bonding of friendship and companionate marriage as the locus of value, and it would reach from the 18th century Cult of Sensibility (Laurence Sterne, Henry Mackenzie, et al) toward the novels Dickens would write in the decades after Frankenstein. Even as a teenager, Mary Shelley would be quite aware of these cultural formations, since her parents were famous Enlightenment radicals, her young husband already a famous Romantic poet, and the sentimental novel had been all the craze for some decades.

While Victor epitomizes both the Enlightenment faith in science and the Romantic excess of passion in his pursuits, Elizabeth (and to a lesser extent, Henry) represents the Sentimental, pulling Victor away from strife and excess toward the more domesticated bliss, the sweet contentment of conjugal love and home life. Elizabeth fails, of course, and Victor hurtles to the outer reaches of the earth, following his extravagant aspirations to his own self-destruction. Elizabeth fails to turn the plot, that is. In terms of the moral of the tale, she wins hands down. What did Victor’s relentless Romantic passion to do great things beyond measure, what did his faith in human science get him? How much more fulfilled might he have been if he had settled down with Elizabeth in domestic bliss and spent out his years peacefully “tending his own garden,” as Voltaire had recommended we do? Despite the wild and stormy romanticism of the novel’s setting and plot, despite the fact that Shelley was at the time of writing traveling with two of the greatest Romantic poets of the day – it seems that the novel’s resolution, after all the crash-and-burn of colliding value systems, favors the Sentimental anchor of fulfillment – at least for us mere mortals.

Rosalind’s (Anti-)Romantic Flourish

While reading Shakespeare’s As You Like It, I whimsically plotted one of Rosalind’s most brilliant moments into the thematic field (romantic, classical, sentimental, etc.) of my recent blog entries (Dracula, Von Trier’s Melancholia, Darkness and Melancholia).  In the Forest of Arden (Act IV, scene i), Rosalind, disguised as a young man named Ganymede, meets Orlando, who is pining for the real Rosalind. Orlando’s excessive avowals of love might mark him as a Romantic in the schema of my previous blog entries (albeit a Romantic with a sentimental rather than the darker Byronic underpinning), but Rosalind (naturally, since this is a Shakespeare comedy) decides to put him to the test. While Orlando thinks she is Ganymede, she offers to pretend to be Rosalind and engage him in a discourse of love. (On the Elizabethan stage, this means you have a boy actor pretending to be Rosalind, who is pretending to be Ganymede, who is pretending to be Rosalind, piling up layers of human and gender identity as Shakespeare so often does.) So Orlando pitches his love to Rosalind, believing her to be Ganymede. When “Ganymede” theatrically rejects him, he laments: “Then in my own person I die.” Here Rosalind (as Ganymede) beautifully debunks all the patterns of romantic love that make such excessive claims:

“The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love-cause. Troilus had his brains dashed out with a Grecian club; yet he did what he could to die before, and he is one of the patterns of love. Leander, he would have lived many a fair year …. Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”

Orlando further protests that Rosalind’s very “frown might kill me.” To which “Ganymede” dismissively responds: “It will not kill a fly.”

Between Shakespeare’s mastery of wordplay and the dramatic irony of Orlando’s ignorance that he is speaking to the real Rosalind, the comedy is rollicking in this scene. But there are real value systems being seriously played out against each other. In her speech, Rosalind (Ganymede) represents the cynic, who comically debunks pastoral/romantic love, and who does so with cold hard facts. It is beyond dispute that no young lover, however bold in love, has ever died from a female frown. So Rosalind’s speech seems to win the day. Using the schema of my recent blog entries, we might hypothesize that Shakespeare has deflated romantic nonsense from the point of view of the classical – the Greek cynic or the Roman satirist in this case. But Shakespeare (naturally, since he is Shakespeare) is not done with us. By the end of the play – nay, by the end of the very scene – Rosalind’s factually indisputable speech debunking the excesses of romantic love becomes, itself, nonsense. As soon as Orlando exits the stage (having been sounded and passed the test of love), Rosalind lets loose her true feelings: “How many fathom deep am I in love!”  Orlando may have been comically incapable of refuting in language the solid facts of the cynic, but his love was true; and Rosalind may have put forth the case of the cynic in terms that cannot be disputed, but her heart shows how hollow those words are. Not only is she in love, but she is in love beyond all rational measure. It is a love with “an unknown bottom, like the bay of Portugal,” a love “born of madness.” It is exactly the kind of unrestrained, limitless romantic love that her theatrical speech had denied.

Let this scene be a reminder to those who emphasize the play’s satirical element, which pokes fun at the conventions of love poetry, that the satirical element is recontained within a larger theme. Rosalind’s beautifully crafted and factually undeniable anti-romantic speech becomes, in Shakespeare’s hand, the perfect vehicle for showing the overwhelming and even more undeniable power of romantic love.

Von Trier’s Melancholia

A friend with whom I’ve had long and beautiful talks about romantic versus classical ideals led me into a discussion recently of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, which reminded me of a third pole that in my mind is equidistant from the other two: the existentialist pole. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is clearly not classical in sensibility, as there is nothing rational or tranquil about her relationship to the world. But nor does she represent a romantic world view. Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, for example, represents a romantic world view. Dracula has an all-devouring passion that transgresses all limits – religious, rational, moral – all boundaries shatter before his excessive passion. This is romanticism in its Byronic/Blakean form but with additional attention to the moral dangers that Byron and especially Blake downplayed. The existentialist is in a way the opposite. The world seems drained of meaning, of passion, of emotion, of any kind of authentic sentimental connection to others. Justine’s existentialist mindset (not that she chose this mindset but she expresses it) would find Coppola’s Dracula a bit ridiculous for putting so much frenzied importance on an emotional bond to a woman. Dracula’s attitude implies that there can be enormous meaning in the world, that enormous passion is justified. Justine’s problem is the opposite.

Justine’s foil in Von Trier’s film, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), shows that even our new tripolar model – classical, romantic, existentialist – falls short. Claire indeed represents a value system that stands in primary conflict to Justine’s, but Claire’s world view is neither classical, romantic, nor existentialist; it is a fourth pole, best labeled as the “sentimental world view” – where all human values hover back to the sensible, sentimental, domestic forms of bonding that hold families together.

So Justine and Claire force me into this final sweep on the broad strokes of Western cultural history. If we generally think of the classical ideal as symmetrical, rational, stoical, poised, and the romantic ideal as passionate, excessive, overwrought, suprarational, one can hypothesize a pendulum swing through periods of European cultural history, from classical Greece and Rome to the romantic tendencies of the Medieval era, to the classical Renaissance, romantic Baroque, then neo-classical/Enlightenment, then Romanticism-proper in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With 19th-century realism, something changes. The ideal that centers the symbolic economy of great Victorian novels by Dickens and others is neither classical nor romantic but sentimental, and it traces back to an underrepresented moment in cultural history, the “Cult of Sensibility” that emerged in 1760s England and Scotland. The Cult of Sensibility sprouted up alongside Romanticism as a reaction against the rational symmetries of the neoclassical aesthetic. But whereas Romanticism-proper favored excessive passion and a power of imagination that stretched beyond all rational boundaries, the Cult of Sensibility favored the tender emotions that could bond people together in the domesticated bliss of their own little gardens. So although Romantics and Sensibility writers shared a rejection of stoical reason as a touchstone of human values, they produced quite different kinds of heroes. Romanticism would produce powerfully ambiguous heroes from Byron’s own Manfred and Childe Harold to Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights and Coppola’s Dracula (and one might even reclaim Milton’s Satan as Romantic hero, as Blake and Percy Shelley did quite explicitly). Sensibility would produce the tender domestic heroes of 18th-century writers like Sarah Fielding and Henry Mackenzie, who were laying the groundwork for the sentimental novels of Dickens and others.

With those four poles, we at least have a more complete heuristic model for cultural analysis. E.g., in Coppola’s Dracula, Mina struggles between romantic (Dracula) and sentimental (Jonathan) options. The symbolic economy of Von Trier’s Melancholia is energized by the conflict between existentialist (Justine) and sentimental (Claire) world views. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein shakes the model in its own way, with Victor Frankenstein representing a compound of romantic and classical, evincing not only the excess passion and overwrought idealism of the romantic but also a more classical trust in reason and science as his methodology; Elizabeth in that novel, on the other hand, represents the sentimental ideal of tender domestic emotions (and the arc of the plot would seem to validate Elizabeth’s point of view).

But I believe I’ve exceeded the reasonable limits of the blog entry format, so I’ll end with a simple solicitation. If anyone has read this far without becoming overly resentful, please remind me to write a sequel on the following topic: Romantic and Existentialist — Two Forms of Melancholia and Two Forms of Darkness. (Sequel is here.)

Coppola’s Dracula

Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) demonstrates nicely why film directors should never stay “true to the book.” Film and literature are different media, each with its own characteristic strengths and limitations, and directors ignore that at their peril. A film cannot compete with a novel on the novel’s own terms and vice versa.

Coppola’s Dracula is at its weakest when it tries to stay too close to the book. For example, Coppola retains all five protagonists. Other film versions of Dracula trim this configuration down to achieve the greater unity and focus that is required for basically a two-hour experience in the theater. Coppola would have done well to do the same.

On the other hand, Coppola’s film succeeds spectacularly when he takes the greatest liberties with the story. The first ten minutes of the film is all Coppola’s invention, and it sets up a uniquely interesting Dracula (Gary Oldman). Don’t get me wrong. Each director, wittingly or not, plays on particular facets of the character. E.g. we saw in the Bela Lugosi character (dir. Tod Browning) a kind of metaphysical threat commensurate with the black-and-white medium, we saw in the Jack Palance character of the 1970s (dir. Dan Curtis) more of a flesh-and-blood cruel masculinity, and we see in Gary Oldman’s character a perfect conflation of romantic hero and gothic villain. Despite the title of Coppola’s film, Oldman’s romantic count, who courts the women he loves and is capable of sacrificing his eternal interest for them, is a far cry from Stoker’s character. And this is what makes Coppola’s film great. When Coppola’s Dracula provides a foil for Jonathan (Keanu Reeves), Mina (Winona Ryder) faces a choice much richer and more dramatic than the one faced by the novel’s Mina. Dracula offers the romantic figure, passionate beyond measure but morally dangerous – so dangerous in fact that he is perfectly willing to destroy and violate any number of innocent bystanders in the reckless pursuit of his passion. Jonathan offers the sentimental Victorian figure, morally safe, genuinely kind and trustworthy, but utterly lacking in passion.

This also allows Coppola to put more pressure on female choice in the film, whereas the novel removes choice from women in an exaggerated manner, as Dracula’s power turns women into helpless somnambulists over whose bodies good men struggle against bad. And this unique element of Coppola’s film lends much power to the entirely invented final scene, with Dracula and Mina/Elisabeta in the chapel, where Mina’s power is real power and not just the traditional female power of passive goodness that we see in so many Victorian novels like Dracula.

Now I’d love to go into some of the quirkier visions of Stoker’s brooding count, who exercised such power over the 20th-century imagination – e.g., Andy Warhol’s Dracula (dir. Paul Morrissey), which has the best opening credits ever set to Dracula, but then, after its 15 minutes of fame, becomes either the worst or the most interesting Dracula ever made (or both). Certainly Warhol’s conception of the character is unlike any other. But this is beyond the scope of my own present title, so I’ll save that for another day.

(For further thought, see my comparison of Coppola’s Dracula to Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.)