Art, History, and The English Patient

IN ONE WAY I entirely agree with the point of view Bob Hulteen expressed about Michael Ondaatje’s revisionist spin of Count Laszlo Almasy in the review of The English Patient ("Worthy of Note," May-June 1997). I would be hopping mad if a book or film were produced portraying, say, Hitler, as a cute, buff romantic guy who had a thing about orderliness.

Unfortunately, Hulteen seems to have come down with a numbing and artistically crippling disease of our age; a stultifying literalism in which the "creative wall of play," as Northrop Frye put it, is lost. We are losing the ability to recognize and accept the significant differences between play and reality, fact and fiction, art and history. Because we cannot tell them apart, we then expect and demand that they should be one and the same.

In The English Patient, and all of Ondaatje’s incredible prose work, historical figures are used as vehicles to explore not historical fact, but deep human dilemmas: the choice between allegiance to ideology or allegiance to individual human relationships; the ambiguity of existence in the face of the certainties of propaganda; the problem of living in a fragmented world, culture, and history.

Sure it’s revisionist, but Ondaatje’s writing holds none of the political baggage that term usually implies. The result of such artistic revisionism is not a historical checklist of a story, but one that engages us at the core, the soul. The novel, and to a lesser extent the film, does this because Ondaatje is addressing the mystery of our being, not the Historical Fact Center in our cerebral cortex.

In such a dry, artless era as ours, where we simultaneously have access to more vacuous entertainment and less meaningful art, we cannot afford to dismiss writing such as Ondaatje’s, which engages our minds and hearts to their fullest mystery. C’mon, enjoy that creative wall of play!

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