The Courage to Transcend the Pious Philistinism of Conventional Religious Belief – Liberation of Reverend Lawrence Shannon

“I collect evidence of man’s inhumanity against god. The pain we cause him. We have poisoned his atmosphere. We have slaughtered his creatures of the wild, polluted his rivers. We have even taken god’s noblest creation, man, and brainwashed him into becoming our product, packed, stalked and
canned.”
Larry Shannon in “NI”

“… something to believe in, broken barriers in between people wanting to help each other… I am a human being and when one of that unique species builds its nest in the heart of another the questions of permanence and propagation is not the first or even the last thing to be considered.”
Hanna Jelkes in “NI”

“O courage could you not as well
Select a second place to dwell,
Not only in that golden tree
But in the frightened heart of me?”
From Jonathan Coffin’s poem in “NI”


Whole his life and system of values Shannon built on the Church, but observing his parishioners and what’s happening with life around, he as an intelligent person developed his doubts – not in the existence of God-father and Christ and in their relevance – but in the value of regular believers’ faith. He started to feel how dogmatically conventional their pious clichés are and how conceited and self-centered they are themselves. He began to see that they are just philistines who need Christ’s love to stay philistines, that they are sinful with a kind of pious complacency. He understood that they want to be protected and saved no matter what’s going on in this world, and that’s why they are regular Church goers. Their religious belief is completely socio-morphic, it has nothing to do with overcoming egoism and megalomania Christ was talking about. They are bathing in self-aggrandizement of being associated with God-Son and this provides them with spiritual comfort and pride.


What to do when your career and future contradict your subjective truth – the belief in the necessity for more disinterested, sublime and refined faith. This situation ends for Rev. Shannon dramatically when after trying to explain to his parishioners that their passive and egoistic belief is not the right way to live – he was removed from his duties and sent to a “probation job” as a bus-driver for a tour agency organizing travels for American religious groups.


We see here Ms. Fellowes (the leader of the women tour group) with a mandate to watch Shannon’s behavior day and night and register his expected missteps.


Shannon is under the seductive attack of a pretty girl from the tour group who is attracted to him for his infamy and hopes by association with him to win the attention of group’s other members. For her to be a “harlot” in their eyes is better than to be nothing.


With Maxine Shannon understood that he is not as ambitious as he thought he is and that his real dream is simply to be left in peace, less burdened by spiritual and emotional repression. He decided to step back from social life into private existence, to be just an Adam. But this temporary solution can be the path of liberation for trying to find a more existential spirituality.


In this shot, we see the two Mexican guys whose job is not only to work at Maxine’s hotel but help her in her solitude.


For Huston, these two characters personify the American expectation of how “foreigners” (people of other countries) should behave. These two young Mexicans move and act in a completely artificial manner (as though their every move/step is choreographed) – they are a kind of dancing robots ready to serve and to entertain American tourists and settlers. But behind their robotic mask they keep an indignant and belligerent posture.


Hanna Jelkes is how a “saint” (without connotations suggested by religious ideology but) inside a purely existential frame of reference can be imagined to be like. To erect this character in the film is the exceptional achievement of Tennessee Williams, John Huston and Deborah Kerr.


Without Hanna’s spiritual help Shannon could never have recovered after being punished for deviating from the prescribed standard “faith”.


The encounter with the old poet and his sacred dream of creating spirituality inside life (based on human togetherness, and internal world as a space of introspection), became for Shannon a spiritual guidance he didn’t find in the official church.

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If in “A Streetcar Named Desire” Blanche Dubois (for whom the problems of human soul and how people treat one another are much more important than fight for social success) was marginalized, insulted, humiliated and finally sacrificed, in “The Night of Iguana” the main character Larry Shannon (who is similar to Blanche in his existential orientation) is able to go through all his ordeals in a predatory world and find his truth and destiny. The both, Blanche and Shannon are educated people with subtle and inquisitive minds (in a sense of being psychological wholeness, not of having technical – professional intellect): they are interested in understanding of human life in its holistic (including moral element) aspect. Why was Shannon successful while Blanche failed? Blanche was all alone while Shannon was helped by several quite exceptional people. Another factor is that Blanche was traumatized by the suicide of her beloved – she was tormented by guilty feelings and weakened by her (irrational) psychological defenses against the unbearable reality. Shannon also has his weaknesses but generous and disinterested psychological help made him able to pull through.

In Huston’s film we have the equivalent of Stanley Kowalski from Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” (American reality was already then producing Stanleys in disproportionally bigger numbers than cultural people like Blanche and Shannon, although not as overwhelmingly so as today). It’s the character of Hank (probably, Tennessee Williams calls him like this by association with “honk”), the second driver of the tour-bus. Hank in Huston’s film is a parody on pop-image of “American hero abroad”. He is a blond guy with standard features and the absence of personal judgment (loyalty to job description took place of his mind while pride for being American – his soul). Hank-honk is pathetic in his readiness to always take the side of official power and in his belief that his mission in a foreign country is to teach foreigners how to behave. The result is – he is badly beaten but still keeps the righteous consciousness of his “international mission”. Today we see exactly this psychology in how we Americans behave with innocent civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Latin America, and how the conservative leaders treat poor, needy and pauperizing Americans.

Like Blanche understood something valuable outside of consumptive and appropriative behavior, Shannon is able to do what no one Stanley can – he can disagree with his career and secured future because he follows his call to become a human being with a personal destiny, not somebody who just “survived” and “succeeded”. Today, there are not many Shannons left among the young Americans, but there are legions of Stanleys. Almost nobody can anymore discard a job by spiritual reasons. Many people in the “Occupy movement” are “awakening” only because they have unjustly lost or expect to lose their jobs and careers and because the cost of life is drastically up. Larry Shannon is much ahead of them – he is able to decide his destiny, not just disagree with how others (bosses) have decided it for him.

Shannon’s ordeal is very difficult – he cannot tolerate a false spirituality of being a priest (representative of social power masking itself as spirituality, of social power that has invented spirituality as power), but at the same time he is not able to emanate a genuine existential spirituality – he is not capable to go to the world with Hanna Jelkes. He needs Ms. Faulks as Adam needs Eve – he wants to be free. In this sense he is a figure from Old Testament but he is not a person of power. The essence of the film’s iguana motif is liberation from the constraints of a false ego constructed by conventional social expectations, and ideologies. Instead of persuading himself that his job is not too bad, pays well and has a creative/satisfying aspect in it, Shannon “behaves irrationally” according to many who accept job regardless of how their work’s results will be used, for humanistic or for repressive purposes (a good example is the technical specialists and scientists who are personally people with liberal sensibility but working for military-industrial complex).

The film describes the most important point in Shannon’s life – the change in the very direction of his destiny. He is punished but the loss of income and status became the path of his liberation. While Shannon is dedicated to the search for truth about himself, Stanley exists only as a social self. For Stanley there is no other motivation, no other logic than to fight for prosperity and prestigious public image. The important questions here are how many Americans today if they will not have jobs for a protracted period of time will agree to accept jobs of killers of civilians and torturers of suspected enemies.

It’s interesting to compare how Marlon Brando’s Stanley and Richard Burton’s Shannon express themselves verbally. With Stanley, the words he pronounces as if are not separated from one another, as if flowing into each other (anally-undifferentiated style of verbalizing), but it’s not only words but ideas and concepts are combined in amorphous ways, while Shannon tries to stop himself from talking where Stanley continues to blabber – Shannon starts to stutter because unconsciously he resists to allow himself to psychologically excrete into the world. It is from this resistance comes his psychological/spiritual development, while with Stanley speech becomes more articulated only when he aggressively verbally attacks – shouting/shooting (anally penalizing the world).

The birth of human internal world is connected with the ability to love another person – to share life with somebody else (to let other person also make decisions). Simultaneously, this ability cannot develop without building one’s internal world (and that cannot happen without the internalization of not-simplified cultural symbols and concepts). To be able to love otherness demands much more courage than killing, torturing and even dying do. To share responsibility in love can be compared with sharing of responsibilities in the free market economy (when the competitor is allowed to make free decisions and when victory in competition is an open game without any guarantees). Even free market (not as demanding as personal love) is too much for today’s leading American entrepreneurs – they are positioned to control the market through their monopolistic power, not to let it be really free. The behavior of Larry Shannon as that of Stanley Kowalski become metaphors of behaviors not only in personal and social relationships but also in economic sphere.


John Huston (1906 – 1987)

Questions to help viewers in further study of the film

1.Can Shannon’s and Charlotte’s ecstatic walking on glass be read as Williams/Huston’ parody on masochistic passions and even martyrdom based on repression of “pleasures of the flesh”? Can we say that in traditional (religious) universe even “harlot” thinks in terms of sin and repentance?

2.Why Shannan, in paroxysm of anxiety, repeatedly keeps calling himself in the third person – Reverend Lawrence T. Shannon?

3.How can we define the role of the poet Jonathan Coffin in the semantic structure of the film?

4.How can we describe the personality of Hank, the young bus driver? What is the basic difference between Shannon and Hank? Which American pop-archetype does Hank personify?

5.What kind of a relationship Ms. Fellowes has with Charlotte (Ms. Goodall)? Can we talk here about Ms. Fellowes’ obsession with virtue, her tendency to idealize and symmetrical proclivity for scapegoating projection?

6. Through which visual images the film defines what Shannon tries to liberate himself from while simultaneously being afraid of losing? What is the symbolism of the gothic contour of the church, of the chain with amethyst cross, of hammock and of the iguana?

7. What is the symbolic meaning of the scene when following Shannon’s order Hank stops the bus near the beach where the Mexican women and their children are enjoying the sun and the river?

8. What is the symbolic meaning of Hank’s fight in the pub? For what purpose did he come to the bar? How adequate was his assessment of the situation? Why did he get into a fight? Is he a hero? Are his bruises/wounds to be applauded and celebrated?

9.How can we understand Ms. Jelkes’s image of the “blue devil”? How can we decipher this seemingly contradictory metaphor?

10.What role do guilt and shame play in Shannon’s psychological organization? Why is it so difficult for him to resist being seduced by Ms. Goodall? What is the importance of getting the identity of being just human in terms of liberation from excessive guilt and shame? Can non-repressive spirituality develop on the guilt and shame?

11.What makes the last scene between the three main characters – Shannon, Ms. Jelkes and Ms. Faulks a spiritual experience, an extraordinary event?

12.Why does Huston show Maxine’s hotel in a manner that is strange for Hollywood – we cannot get the impression of what the hotel is like in terms of space, structure, décor, interiors and furnishings?

13.What disservice is Shannon unintentionally doing to Charlotte (Ms. Goodall)? What job he was not able to do with her and why?

14.Isn’t liberation from false spirituality that left Shannon and Maxine free (parody on a “romantic” happy ending) but without cultural self-realization, a tragic end for our American culture?

15.How can we interpret in the spiritual terms the composition of the film – the fact that the chain of events is going from the theme of the church – to the theme of business – to the theme of nature – to the theme of private life, and – with Hanna Jelkes to the theme of social life again, with new psychological position? Can we following the old poet – talk here about two histories, factual and alternative?

16.How to characterize Shannon, Maxine and Hanna through their body language, mimics and verbal expressions?

17.What four areas of societal life in USA are represented in the film and how this representation characterizes our country today, in 21st century?

18.What concepts of madness, mental disturbance and psychological normality can we infer from the film?

19. Can we say that Hank is not only person in “Iguana” who can be named similar in its behavior with Stanley in “Streetcar”? Is any similarity between how Ms. Fellowes treats Shannon with how Stanley treats Blanche?

20.Can we say that totalitarian mind is not able of addressing problems in democratic (sober and rational) way and is prone to transform them into their mythological (aggrandized and absolutized) version, and then only extreme – militant measures are felt as capable to handle these problems?

21.Which American politicians in 21st century can be examples of Stanley/Ms. Fellowes’ manner of addressing the problems and what concretely problems and how exactly they mythologized them to be able to use pompous and awkward military solutions and get away with it? Why were they able to get away with it?