“Lift not the painted veil which those who live / Call Life”

My philosophy tutor recommended The Painted Veil a year or so ago.  I finally watched the film yesterday and have been mulling things over since then.  The film is adaptation of a novel by W. Somerset Maugham and is set in the 1920s.

It is perhaps simplifying things too much, but it does tend to be the case that we find we make relationships with people who either “complete” us in that they are very different to us and have what we lack.  Or we choose as our friends those who are quite like us.  What we like in them is what we like in ourselves.

It is likely to be true that the latter friendships are less problematic, less challenging.  For, although it is possible to conceive of the former as entirely positive relationships of completion, it is also true that those friends or partners represent those characteristics which we would like for ourselves and do not possess.  We can find ourselves in an internal battle in relation to those people where one part of ourselves (how we are) fights the other aspirational part (how we wish we were).  These relations of opposites can also feel sublime as one defective half merges with another half and the two make one.  Seducing as this is, it is like two birds, each with a broken wing, trying to fly together.

The Painted Veil is the story of an unlikely couple with a beginning that does not bode well.  She is being pushed out of her family nest, her mother irritated by her indolence.  He wants to escape his internal island.  The background is a cholera-infected China where every British ex-pat is an exaggeration of the types found at home.

He is a self-contained doctor who lives for his work.  And how virtuous that is.  Saving lives, no room for anything else.  She is a warm, sexual party animal who enjoys tennis games and wafting around uselessly in beautiful clothes.  They have nothing in common.  Abandoned, a work widoew, she is adulterous, finding a steaming lover; he is just as unfaithful to her.  For he has no regard for her.  He is not interested in her.  He does not see her except as His Wife.  He cannot see beyond to the person she is, to her needs.  They are two strangers parading a paper marriage that is too fragile to last.

Yet only her lack of virtue is criticized.  She is the shallow, superficial one.  She is the one who wastes time.  She is the one who lacks a vocation or a cause whilst he haunts the ghastly wards of cholera hospitals doing important good things.  He is the embodiment of The Good Man as, eventually, she discovers when her boredom drives her into his world.

She moves towards him and he then begins to see his own brand of virtue reflected in her and falls in love all over again, but this time with his own reflection.  Stupefied by drugs and in mad bout of sexual passion, they find each other.  And then he dies.

So, it’s a bit like the insects that mate once and then die.  The bliss of union is too much to be borne without the self dissolving.  Somerset Maugham wrote

“I have most loved people who cared little or nothing for me and when people have loved me I have been embarrassed… In order not to hurt their feelings, I have often acted a passion I did not feel.”

He could have been describing the two characters in The Painted Veil.  And yet the film hints at a moment when the dance of distancing and pursuing is resolved and, for a short moment, there is stasis.