Tragedy as Antidote to Wokism

Edgar Wright's film Last Night in Soho is a profound cinematic experience. Wright and his cowriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns describe their film as a lesson on the dangers of nostalgia, but the film does far more than prompt a skeptical reassessment of a benignly distorted past. It illuminates the potentially tragic nature of human aspiration.

The story centers on Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), a young fashion design student whose move to London occasions episodes of clairvoyant displacement. Ellie finds herself transported back to the mid-1960s, where she dreamily inhabits/observes the persona of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring singer determined to win for herself the fame and recognition her talent warrants -- and talent she has in abundance, along with the full possession and masterful command of her charms. Sandie is a woman driven to succeed, and we watch (along with Ellie) as she boldly takes charge of her circumstances. Her clear sense of purpose stands in stark contrast to Ellie's evident insecurity.

Sandie's backstory is a mystery, but one might surmise something of it from her demeanor in Ellie's visions. She came to London from somewhere far smaller, far less grand, and one senses that from wherever she came, she was a big fish in a small pond. Sandie's past triumphs fuel her present ambition, and her tragedy is one of misplaced trust, backstage coercion, and illicit compromises that lead to a catastrophic loss of personal integrity. Having eagerly leapt into the ocean, the ocean quickly reduces her to chum for the sharks.

If Sandie possesses a tragic flaw, it is her aloofness. One is led to wonder: did her awareness of her own talent, her sense of her own incipient star power prompt her to dismiss hometown naysayers with such vehemence as to effectively back herself into a corner from which she could not retreat? Has she burned behind her those bridges that might have lent some support when things start to turn sour? Might this account for her evident isolation? Whatever the case may be, Sandie's fate (as relived in Ellie's visions) becomes Ellie's trauma.

Ellie's peculiar attunement to Sandie's ordeal imposes upon Ellie the burden to effectively relive a failed life with no prospect of rectifying its eventual course. Wright handles this poignant predicament with admirable deftness as the narrative shifts from scenes of heartfelt tenderness to episodes of nightmarish force. Ellie's "gift" places her in the role of a morbidly empathic intimate witness to a tragedy that played itself out in an irrevocable past, and this irrevocability compounds the tragedy.

In Sandie's fate we (along with Ellie) see the spectacle of a promising talent cheapened, misused, and debased. In a perfect society, every individual's humanity would be cultivated to the highest degree possible so as to ensure that no talent is lost. To the extent that no such society is possible, the distortion of talent is inevitable, and every potentially gifted life must face the prospect of misdirection and ruin. Debasement is the permanent threat that faces anything possessing potential worth. Given the imperfection of human life, there is no escape from this dilemma.

Such an assertion certainly runs counter to the conventional slogan-screaming wisdom of the Woke activist mob. Wokeism assumes that all human wretchedness is rooted in faulty social constructions. Since all human misery is a consequence of dysfunctional social practices, wretchedness is a political challenge amenable to decisive preemptive political correction. The pathway to universal human flourishing lies in the activist deconstruction of systemic oppressions; the key to elevating the stigmatized is to simply eliminate the stigma that oppresses them.

The woke hold that the social construction of human wretchedness is no mere historical aberration -- it is a villainous imposition. Wokeist activists demand the wholesale eradication of human wretchedness. This they seek to achieve by redefining every kind of wretchedness as a mere display of diversity and by identifying and forcefully subduing any villains who would dare suggest there may be anything more to it than that. One cannot help but envy the woke -- in their fanatical simplicity and political ferocity they have placed themselves among the ranks of those for whom the Riddle of Existence inspires no awe. Foucault's angry little parrots proclaim that episodes of human wretchedness can be wholly consigned to the past if only they are adequately avenged and celebrated in the present, and in so doing provide themselves with almost as many enemies as they have constituencies.

Wokeist leftism is a form of political debasement through which the potentially idealistic and energetic young are effectively brainwashed into wasting their lives wallowing in the stale, rehashed grievances of resentful failures. Life as it is actually lived by actual individuals involves the very real prospect of irrevocable ruin, and no amount of contrived inquisitorial outrage will change that, no matter how shrilly the outrage is screamed. Every life represents an individual challenge; devotion to wokeism trivializes this, turning life itself into little more that an opportunity to indulge in an infinitely expanding series of childish tantrums.

Viewed with sufficient seriousness, Last Night in Soho forces us (along with Ellie) to confront the Tragic, and this is a lot to demand of an audience. Yet for all its depth and darkness the film does not leave us wholly without some intimation that perhaps not everything precious is fated for debasement, perhaps not all interventions are wasted.

Image: Universal Pictures

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