Ideas that add up #225

Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.

Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man

This passage is often quoted with an ironic chuckle: proof that an eruption of passion and creativity, in a tormented culture, trumps centuries of peaceful tedium. 

Lime is a racketeer in the ruins of post-war Vienna. A charismatic, insouciant American prospering in the venal heart of the old continent. His childhood buddy, Holly Martins, arrives in town and accidentally discovers that Lime has been dealing in lethally diluted penicillin. He tracks Lime down and they meet on a giant Ferris wheel overlooking the city.

limes-view2

Martins can’t persuade Lime to abandon his amoral enterprise, and Lime can’t tempt Martins into making a quick buck with him. As he saunters from the Ferris wheel cabin, at the end of the ride, Lime/Welles issues his riff on European civilization. The Devil gets the best lines, as someone said about Paradise Lost. Hell is where the real fun is. Anywhere but Switzerland.

By this point in the story we already know the consequences of Harry Lime’s profiteering, and we later learn that the victims include children left brain-damaged by the drugs he trafficks. From his monologue on the Ferris wheel it’s clear that he doesn’t care:

Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money…

Lime’s reasoning, with its market rationale, mirrors the attitudes of the powers-that-be. Those creatures inching around at ground level among bombed-out buildings, were always expendable in the eyes of the men who prosecuted the war. Accordingly, Lime absolves himself of personal responsibility.

Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t. Why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, I talk about the suckers and the mugs – it’s the same thing.

He’s delusional, of course, and the attempt to vindicate himself by association with Michelangelo and da Vinci underlines that. But Harry Lime, surviving like a rat amid the rubble of Vienna, also expresses an ugly truth. Whether those dots down there are civilians or soldiers, whether they’re wedding guests dismembered by a smart bomb or schoolchildren converted to shadows on the wall by the heat of a thermonuclear blast, whether they are oil-streaked seafowl twitching on the shingle, or orang-utan families fleeing as their forest is burned for palm plantation – their suffering is somehow an acceptable price for the glories of our civilized world.

That can’t be right though, can it? It cannot be an acceptable price. Lime is just the glib face of a self-serving system in which we’re all implicated. And we mostly turn a blind eye. But we should be clear about this: the excesses of that system, and of individuals who cash in on that system, are not excused by the Renaissance or whatever. 

The Swiss, incidentally, state for the record that despite all those centuries of democracy and peace they didn’t even produce the cuckoo clock. It comes instead from the Black Forest in Germany.

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