Interpreting ‘A Quiet Place’ – closer than you might think

We might wonder sometimes if that most woke of the woke, Hollywood, knows what it is doing. Could it really have backed a film which is an allegory for the mayhem and destruction which the intolerant enemies of human discourse have unleashed on our civilization? This is probably a pointless question, because in Tinseltown, the love of money trumps everything.

In March 2017, Paramount hired John Krasinski to rewrite the script and direct A Quiet Place, his first directorial venture for a major studio. A Quiet Place and its sequel are two parts of a science-fiction horror franchise – A Quiet Place III, to be directed by Jeff Nichols, will be with us in 2023. But this is a horror tale with a difference. Like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, it tells us much more about ourselves and our condition than we might like to admit.  A Quiet Place can be read as a tale about something very unpleasant, a tale about very disturbing aliens which are currently are invading our world.

When we read, or saw the film version, of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 it probably worried us to some extent. But did we ever think we would be facing its like this side of the Iron Curtain, then still a painful reality? If not, we should have. In today’s London Daily Telegraph  (September 13) we read this headline: “Now woke activists are burning books – and it’s become a frightening gamble to write one”. 

A Quiet Place is a truly frightening film about silence, not about the golden gift we know and which we associate with peace and serenity, but about the repressive and maddening silence forced on those who speak their mind, by those who hate them, because they say things that are found disagreeable by some. Threatened with violent extinction, they are forced to live in a condition of terrified silence. 

This is a simple science-fiction story of a family trying to survive in a world which has been invaded by monsters which destroy any human being whom they hear. Hearing them speak, or make any noise, they are targeted and killed. As Nikki Baughan, described in her Sight and Sound review of A Quiet Place, the cinematic success of Krasinski’s film lies in its operating at a deep emotional level This apocalyptic tale is told entirely through the prism of a single family, one struggling to cope not only with actual monsters, but also with insidious personal demons of grief, blame and guilt. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” insists the father to his son, echoing the stock reassurances of parents everywhere. “Yes there is!” comes the terrified youngster’s incredulous, entirely accurate response.

Allegories are stories which include a representation or the expression of truth using symbolic, fictional characters. They tell a story which looks like one thing on the surface but also ask us – if we are able to see – to look at something which is much more than a story lying under that surface. They invite us to interpret the story and find in it truth about ourselves and our condition.

As the renowned Irish literary critic, the late Denis Donoghue wrote in The Practice of Reading, interpretation begins when someone decides to pay attention to a text. When a text – in this case a film – seems to be saying something it invites us to look under the surface. Interpretation begins when we have acknowledged that invitation and set about fulfilling it. We are, as it were, enriching our experience of that work. Donoghue explains the process:

“We try to understand the text as if its character were hidden and must be brought to light. We move along the interpretive process when we try to make our preliminary understanding of the text explicit to ourselves, thereby turning the occasion into an experience. If we offer to make the experience—or something like it—available to other readers, we have in mind to put the text into the public domain.” 

He adds that “It is fairly generally accepted that the interpreter of a text can’t appeal for authority to the author’s intention—at least beyond a certain point—not only because we rarely know what that intention was but also because the author may not have realized his intention in the text; the text may in the event have exceeded the intention or diverged from it.” 

We bring each text – which is a gift to us from its creator – into our own world and bring our own world to it. Our relationship with it is now part of its meaning and we offer our interpretation of it to others, in the hope that it may help them connect with the deeper meaning that we have found in it, rightly or wrongly. That dialogue is part of the joy of artistic experience, our relationship with works of art. 

This, of course, is the joy which the monsters in A Quiet Place want to extinguish, representing all those in our culture who want to silence those with whom they disagree. The grotesque murderous creations which populate this allegory, provided by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic company, are not just some silly inventions designed to make you jump out of your seat. They do that, but they are much more. They are representations of something truly alien and destructive in our midst..

Will they succeed in extinguishing all dialogue, free expression and dissent? We await the third part of A Quiet Place and hope that the allegory will continue its narrative arc and show a path to victory over all those who would condemn mankind to silence and fear of speaking about what we think, see and feel. The first part of Krasinski’s film ends on a note which Baughan interprets as “a realisation that survival may not, in fact, come from avoiding the assault, but in finding the courage to rail loudly against it.” The sad evidence in our daily news is that this courage is in short supply in our creative community today. 

Darkness descending – again?

When you read a column in The Sunday Times (London) which introduces itself to you with this cri de coeur,  “I’ve found a way to sidestep cancel culture: I’ll tell you everything I’m not thinking instead”, you can’t help feeling you are in some kind of enemy territory. When someone as outspoken as the larger-than-life Jeremy Clarkson is reduced to a strategy like this you cannot but think, I better keep quiet.

Clarkson’s editors were afraid to print something he had written the previous week because it might offend the safetyniks. They deleted what he had said and substituted it with a new clarksonesque paragraph “expressing an opinion which I don’t have”. So the next week, feeling that letting them do his work for him was selfish, he sat down and “wrote something that I’m not thinking instead”.

We cannot but feel that the cultural surveillance which provokes this state of affairs must end soon. The lunatics may take over the asylum for a period but it’s hardly reasonable to expect that the situation will continue indefinitely, or even for an extended period. Or is it?

A very sobering read which might make you question any naive expectations that sanity might return to our culture anytime soon is Arthur Koestler’s seminal novel, Darkness at Noon.

Koestler wrote this book over the years 1939/40. It is a fictional chronicle of an interrogation of an old Bolshevik who becomes a target and eventually a victim of Stalin’s terror apparatus. It features several such victims who by just not managing to say the right thing, or appear not to be thinking the right thoughts, or are fool enough to suggest the simplest deviation from the “correct” path, end up with bullets in the backs of their heads.

Reading Darkness at Noon will set off all sorts of  unpleasant bells ringing in your head as you find yourself wandering through the labyrinth of a political culture which had determined that human nature was not something that was fixed but was something that a flawed inherited culture had constructed – or mis-constructed – and had to be put right. For this new culture it became an absolute principle that in the name of progress, justice and equality, former ways of thinking had to be replaced by a new order.

There are enough stories appearing in and on our media every day to make it unnecessary to spell out in detail why Koestler’s novel is likely to set off those chimes in your head. Just today, Sunday 18 April, Ben Lawrence writes

in London’s Daily Telegraph:

I nearly didn’t write this piece. I realise that as a white, middle-class, middle-aged man wading into the identity-politics debate, I may as well just find the nearest pack of wolves and throw myself in their path. But something needs to be said about the regressive idiocy that is threatening the creative spirit and the sheer enjoyment which the worlds of arts and entertainment bring to millions of people.

There are enough regular reports of people being required to grovel to make our minds hearken back worryingly to the show trials of 1930s Russia. Like those targeted then, those now in the cross-hairs of ‘woke’ warriors are not only required to grovel but are  being obliged to say that they are very grateful to be made grovel.

In the mental battle of minds which ensued in Darkness at Noon between the interrogator Gletkin and his victim, Rubashov,  we can see the gradual disintegration of truth before the relentless machine which was moulding its own version of “truth”. 

Without becoming aware of it, they had got accustomed to these rules for their game, and neither of them distinguished any longer between actions which Rubashov had committed in fact and those which he merely should have committed as a consequence of his  opinions; they had gradually lost the sense of appearance and reality, logical fiction and fact.

Rubashov occasionally found himself clutching at straws of real truth in the midst of this battle because he was a man who had known truth, who had a history which still lived in him. His interrogator had none. He was the “new man”, the creation of the system. He was a new Neanderthal, fresh out of the mists, whose most conspicuous trait, as Rubashov sees it, “was its absolute humourlessness or, more exactly, its lack of frivolity.”

These are the traits of those in our own time who cannot see beauty, humour, or who cannot value any kind of creativity without passing it through the sterile filter of their own tortured “correct” cultural framework – and then call on those who fail their tests to apologise and disappear. 

Rubashov reflects that he and his fellow victim, Ivanov – whose first appearance in the story is as Rubashov’s interrogator – came from  a world which had vanished. “One can deny one’s childhood,” he observes, “but not erase it. Ivanov had trailed his past after him to the end; that was what gave everything he said that undertone of frivolous melancholy; that was why Gletkin had called him a cynic. The Gletkins had nothing to erase; they need not deny their past, because they had none. They were born without umbilical cords,  without frivolity, without melancholy.” Ivanov’s fate has another parallel in our own time in the fate of those like that one-time progressive, J.K. Rowling.  The guardians of the progressive ideology turned their guns on her when she dared question the latest addition to their ever expanding canon of what is correct and what is not.

Today’s progressive generation has set out to cancel the culture which is our inheritance. This relentless urge, more bewildering every day, stems from this frightening truth: they may know facts but they know nothing of history, of the real past, the living past. Erasing is easy for them because what they are erasing is meaningless to them. Their great evil is so-called privilege but they have no understanding of privilege. They see only a privilege which has a root in some injustice. They condemn all privilege, failing to see that most privilege has its roots in the exercise of human virtues – hard work, love and more. Rather than seek the cultivation of those virtues and the curtailing of the vices which blemish privilege, they tear down structures which offer to all the riches associated with privilege.

The absurdity of it all is laid before us by Jeremy Clarkson when he tells us what he’s not thinking:

You need to be constantly aware of your privilege so that you are aware of the challenges faced by people who lack that privilege. And you need to understand, once you’ve spotted someone without your privilege, that you should give them your Bentley. Then the next day, when they see you waiting for the bus, they should give it back. How refreshing that would be. Sharing everything and chatting in the day-long queue for bread with people who are just the same as you are. And thinking the same thoughts about everything as well.

It worked with climate change. There was a time when the subject could be debated, but then the BBC announced that there was no debate and that anyone who thought man might not be involved was a climate-change “denier”. Suddenly everyone was on side. Like we are today on meat, the royal family, trans issues, mental health and colour. It’s so much easier that way.”

The final dialogue of Rubashov with his interrogator echoes into our contemporary cultural landscape.

He put on his pince-nez, blinked helplessly past the  lamp, and ended in a tired, hoarse voice: 

“After all, the name N. S. Rubashov is itself a piece of  Party history. By dragging it in dirt, you besmirch the history of the Revolution.”  

To which Gletkin responds: 

“To that I can also reply with a citation from your own writings. You wrote: ‘It is necessary to hammer every sentence into the masses by repetition and simplification. What is presented as right must shine like gold; what is presented as wrong must be black as pitch. For consumption by the masses, the political processes must be coloured like ginger—bread figures at a fair.’ 

Rubashov was silent. Then he said; 

So that is what you are aiming at: I am to play the Devil in your Punch and Judy show——howl, grind my teeth and put out my tongue——and voluntarily, too. Danton and his friends were spared that, at least.” 

Gletkin shut the cover of the dossier. He bent forward a bit and settled his cuffs: 

“Your testimony at the trial will be the last service you can do to the Party.”

Darkness at Noon is read by many as an exposure of the fundamental philosophical contradictions of Stalinism. If it is, it offers another parallel with our time. The infuriating illogicality of the progressivism to which we are now being subjected is confronting us every day as Stalinism did when Arthur Koestler wrote his revealing work of political fiction.

Rubashov summed up its inherent contradictions like this:

The Party denied the free will of the individual—and at  the same time it exacted his willing self-sacrifice. It denied his capacity to choose between two alternatives—and at the same time it demanded that he should constantly choose the right one. It denied his power to distinguish good and evil—and at the same time it spoke pathetically of guilt and treachery. The individual stood under the sign of economic fatality, a wheel in a clockwork which had been wound up for all eternity and could not be stopped or influenced—and the Party demanded that the wheel should revolt against the clockwork and change its course. There was somewhere an error in the calculation; the equation did not work out.

Neither does that of the crazy political philosophy of our time.

Darkness at Noon makes grim but salutary reading. This era must never be forgotten – because its clones are still with us, and will probably always be threatening us. They are with us now in equally virulent forms – China today –  but also in embryonic forms like the ‘woke’ plague just now in gestation. Cancellation then might have been literal and lethal but the poisonous spirit is still the same in the daily cancellations of our time.