The Cost of Greatness
On Damien Chazelle's Whiplash and Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, and what both can tell us about what some will sacrifice to become great.
What do you say to the man who has tortured you mentally and emotionally, and who you have secretly conspired against to make him lose his job, and who has just taken a seat at your table? The man is dressed all in black, his muscles tense, twitching and flexing as if ready to throw a chair at your head (as he once did before). One of you has to speak. Perhaps the question is not what you will say to him, but what will he say to you?
This is the situation young Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller) finds himself in near the end of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. Across the table is Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), the band leader who screamed at sobbing musicians in his care, and berated a student to the point of suicide. Neiman, having been kicked out of Fletcher’s band for failing to live up to his superhuman standards, has given his testimony to the tribunal leading to Fletcher’s dismissal. The viewer, like Neiman, has no idea whether Fletcher knows that his ex-student played the role of Judas.
What Fletcher puts forward at that table is not an apology but an apologia – he regrets nothing of his behaviour, only that he no longer has the opportunity to continue behaving as he once did. He tells Neiman:
“I don’t think people understood what it was I was doing at Shaffer ... I was there to push people, beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is an absolute necessity. Otherwise we’re depriving the world of the next Charlie Parker.”
Fletcher is convinced – on the basis of a historically-questionable anecdote about the jazz musician Charlie Parker pushing himself to greatness because of a humiliation suffered – that no great artist would have become great if they’d just been told that they were good enough. Neiman asks if there is a line beyond which “the next Charlie Parker” would be discouraged rather than motivated. “No, man, no,” says Fletcher. “Because the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged.”
Whiplash is a bold film – tense, energetic, exhausting, loud, and it leaves you sweating. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day, is, by contrast, restrained, quiet, its heart nowhere near its perfectly ironed sleeve, demonstrative not of any emotion but old-fashioned British reserve and decorum. Yet this film and this book have much in common, especially their shared fixation on the question of greatness, and the exacting standards required of to achieve greatness, which lead some people to forfeit their own humanity.
The Remains of the Day (here abbreviated to Remains) is the story of a butler named Stevens. Over the course of his distinguished career, he has seen the glory days of Darlington Hall, followed by its lapse into decline as the era of manor houses and gentlemen comes to a close. When his employer suggests he take a break in order to tour the country, Stevens insists that men in his profession “did actually ‘see’ more of England than most, placed as [they] were in houses where the greatest ladies and gentlemen of the land gathered.” His work, while preventing his seeing the wider world, gives him a sharply focused picture of a specific part of it. Better a narrow depth (he believes) than a broad, shallow life.
This is a philosophy taken up by Neiman in Whiplash when his uncle asks if he has any friends. “No,” replies Neiman. “I just never really saw the use.” In a brief speech that echoes Stevens’ preference for specified success in a career over the generalised pleasures of an average life, Neiman says:
“I’d rather die drunk, broke at thirty-four, and have people at a dinner table talk about me, than live to be rich and sober at ninety, and nobody remember who I was.”
We see here not only what Neiman is willing to forgo (friendship) or give up (health and longevity) but also what he is sacrificing it all for: greatness. Greatness to Neiman is being remembered by strangers for the things he achieved. In Remains, Stevens is similarly forthcoming about what “singles out a ‘great’ butler from a merely competent one”. He tells us that “great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost”.
To the utmost. For people like Stevens or Neiman, “the utmost” is almost Platonic in its admitting of nothing less than perfection. It is a standard that most fail to achieve, and most of that failed majority numb themselves to their defeat with the two words Fletcher deems the two most harmful in the English language: “good job”.
A “good job” (that is, a competent rather than an excellent performance) would lack the defining feature in Stevens’ idea of professionalism, which is “dignity”. Dignity, he believes, is a virtue one must “meaningfully strive for throughout one’s career” and which is acquired “over many years of self-training and the careful absorbing of experience”, much like the effort Neiman goes to in playing the drums until his hands bleed.
Ultimately, the dignity of Stevens and the commitment of Neiman can be expressed in Stevens’ own words: both have to do “crucially” with an “ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits”. Every facet of life, every aspect of their being, must all be subsumed by the roles they have committed themselves to performing with nothing less than absolute conviction. Their devotion and fervour rivals that of the religious fundamentalist.
For my money, Remains has some of the most painfully poignant scenes depicting obsession. The first of these begins with a preamble whose restraint masks the very thing that, on a re-read, punches us in the gut. Here is Stevens’ set up of what is to come:
“It was one of those events which at a crucial stage in one’s development arrive to challenge and stretch one to the limit of one’s ability and beyond, so that thereafter one has new standards by which to judge oneself.”
The set design of the verbal stage on which this sentence performs draws all attention to the beneficial outcome caused by the barely noticed “it” at the start of the line. That “it” happens to be the death of his father, which Stevens chooses to be absent for because he has professional duties to perform. While Stevens pours drinks for Lord Darlington’s guests, his father passes away in a room upstairs. Stevens never abandons his role.
Every reader of Remains can plainly see that Stevens is in love with a woman on his staff, even as he fails to see, or denies seeing, the truth of his feelings. Later in the novel, she tells him that someone has proposed to her, and all the subtext beneath her body language and the silences between her words reveal that she is giving Stevens a chance to confess his feelings. Rather than do so, he insists he must leave right away as Lord Darlington requires his services.
In his own stuffy, inarticulate manner, Stevens is acting out what Neiman has the self-knowledge and American expressiveness to make clear when he breaks up with his girlfriend. Neiman sits down with her at a diner to lay out with sociopathic lucidity the reasons they should end things. “This is what’s going to happen,” he tells her, in a speech that doubles as a metacommentary on the tropes of the music biopic genre:
“I’m going to keep pursuing what I’m pursuing, and ... I’m not going to be able to spend as much time with you. And even when I do spend time with you, I’m going to be thinking about drumming and ... you’re going to tell me to ease up on the drumming, spend more time with you because you’re not feeling important, and I’m not going to be able to do that. Really, I’m just going to resent you for even asking me to stop drumming, and we’re just going to start to hate each other, and it’s going to get very ugly.”
Ultimately, he tells her, he wants to break up because he wants to be great, and she will lead him into mediocrity. She rightly storms out of the diner, but Neiman looks serene as she does, perhaps feeling vindicated that he has done the right thing. Stevens, too, having walked away from the woman he loves as she prepares to marry another man, feels a sense of profound achievement much as he felt about having prioritised his work over his father’s death. “For all its sad associations,” he says of the night his father died, “whenever I recall that evening today, I find I do so with a large sense of triumph.”
It’s the contiguity of sacrifice and reward in these two stories that distinguishes them from other, more didactic explorations of genius and its attendant costs. Stevens may have missed out on love, and he may have been absent for his father’s final moments, but he has earned the right to be called a “great butler”, which was what he desired above all. Neiman might have practised until he bled, and pushed away a loving relationship, and alienated his family, but Whiplashends on the highest note of victory, with Fletcher finally giving his approval to Neiman, who drums as if he is the next Charlie Parker. As Stevens puts it near the close of the novel:
“And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.”
Given that both the book and the film back away from preaching and insist on revealing both sides of the coin, what a reader or viewer takes away from each will be largely dependent on what mindset they bring to the experience. A reader might feel (as I did on first reading Remains in my mid-twenties) that, because we are finite creatures with finite resources, we must either excel at a few things or be merely competent at many, and that there is something noble about those rare individuals who do what they must to be truly excellent; or they might feel (as I did on re-reading the book in my thirties) extreme melancholy at all the missed opportunities for love and connection in Stevens’ life. A viewer of Whiplash might criticise Neiman’s selfishness and Fletcher’s cruelty, or they might be grateful that people like Neiman can be determined enough, in a manner beyond the will of most, to become great and gift us with the products of their talents.
In the end, the truly disturbing thing about such hard-hearted, single-minded pursuits after greatness might be that it can actually work. Not always, and the rarity of success is precisely the point – if everyone could do it, it wouldn’t be worth very much. But some few actually reach the heights they set their sight on, and we all benefit from their art and their thought. In accepting, rather than denying, this truth, we can move on to what might be the more important question that we, as a culture, must begin to ask: can we find a way to greatness without the emotional collateral damage?
• Whiplash, dir. & written Damien Chazelle (2014)
• The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)