I recently saw A Late Quartet, a film about a string quartet thrown into disarray when the cellist is diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson’s disease and decides to leave the group. (If you haven’t seen, or even heard of, the movie, that’s no surprise. It’s box office figures lead me to believe that pretty much no one has seen it.) Peter, the ailing cellist, played by Christopher Walken, had lost his wife a year earlier, and still is not done grieving. He might be entitled to feel sorry for himself, or even expect the group to cover up his limitations for a while so he can continue to perform the music he loves. Though torn by sorrow, he is not in the least self-indulgent, thinking instead about the welfare of the quartet and focusing more on finding a suitable replacement than on his own miseries. Thus, he is a noble, even heroic, figure.
Though the movie is flawed in a number of respects, especially by characters behaving in ways that simply aren’t believable, I found it quite interesting how each of the three male members of the quartet handled their relationship with the quartet as a whole. Their differing reactions form a partial typology of ways that individuals interact with groups of which they are a part
Besides Peter, the other male members of the quartet are first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir) and second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), with the latter violinist being married to the final member of the quartet, violist Juliette (Catherine Keener). Whereas Peter is heroic, Daniel is egoistic. He is a perfectionist about his music, even constructing his own bows to make the sound as pure as possible. He uses the quartet to achieve his goals; he has driven the group toward excellence but away from any sort of risk-taking, to the consternation of Robert. When asked why he didn’t pursue a career as a soloist, Daniel says that working with the same musicians over a lengthy period of time allows their interpretation of the music to develop much more than would be the case if he did brief stints as a soloist with various orchestras. He appreciates the advantages of the quartet, but, in contrast to Peter, values it not for itself but only for what it allows him to accomplish. When he refuses to give up his fling with Robert and Juliette’s daughter Alex even though their relationship is damaging the quartet, Peter’s rebuke is stinging: “Then working together has taught you nothing.”
Unlike Daniel, Robert is willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the quartet. He says to Juliette, “I never wanted to be second violin, but I never pushed it because we were so good.” He and Juliette married after she became pregnant. She had previously been involved with Daniel, and Robert has wondered through the years whether he was second fiddle to Daniel not only in the quartet but in Juliette’s affections. Outwardly, he accepted his diminished role in both the quartet and the marriage, but was privately begrudging. When Peter announces his plan to retire, Robert proposes that he and Daniel alternate as first violin. Juliette’s failure to back him results in his veneer of amiability cracking to reveal the rancor that’s accumulated over the years. Juliette has difficulty understanding the depth of his feelings, apparently because he had previously been so accommodating. His reaction reminded me of ressentment, which according to Nietzsche characterizes slave morality and entails an underlying sense of inadequacy.
So, which of these characters am I most like in the groups of which I am a part? Am I heroic like Peter, focusing on the well-being of the group with no thought for myself? Am I egoistic like Daniel, thinking mainly of how the group can benefit me? Or am I reluctantly sacrificing like Robert, contributing to the group but always aware of what my contributions cost me and harboring desires to bend the group more to my ends? I can think of examples of each reaction, but I sympathized mainly with Robert while watching the movie, and I see myself as most like him. Even now, when I’ve given up much of my career for the sake of family, I can’t say I’m doing so heroically. I am very aware of the sacrifices I’ve made, lament what I’ve lost, and struggle to keep from short-changing family members by spending too much of my time on my own interests. Perhaps with time I’ll be able to relinquish some of my ego and became more like Peter, but that’s a long journey from where I am now. I suspect that the times that I’ve been either hero or egoist have been responses to groups in which those orientations are the norm. Perhaps I need to put myself in more situations which pull one towards heroism.
Another thing I found intriguing about the movie is the metaphor for relationships provided by Beethoven’s Opus 131, which the quartet performed. I’ll give some thoughts about that in a later post.