The Stoicism of Black Narcissus

An erotic thriller about nuns searches for salvation beyond mere happiness.

The Himalayas. Photo by Simon on Pixabay.

Erotic thrillers about nuns are a rarity outside of exploitation cinema, but Black Narcissus (1947) is exactly such a film. Instead of nudity or explicit sexual content — this isn’t Nude Nuns with Big Guns (2010) — it delivers tortured passions, big ideas and a look at life that’s as disinclined to gloss extreme challenges as it is to surrender to adversity.

Black Narcissus is based on the 1939 novel of the same name by English author Rumer Godden. It’s about nuns who start a convent in the Himalayas but find their environs to be challenging. Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger filmed in Technicolor at a time when many films were still in black and white, which makes the sets, matte paintings and costumes stunning and lends a sumptuous air to the psychological drama. Controversial in its time for pairing eroticism and religion, the film is more likely to incur disfavor today for its colonial outlook and casting of white actors to play members of the local Hindu population.

From the start, sex is in the air. The building where the nuns establish their convent was once a prince’s pleasure palace and murals still depict the licentious acts that occurred there. Then the handyman Mr. Dean (David Farrar) shows up. Sweaty, muscular and insolent, he’s everything the nuns’ libidos desire. A rapport, initially expressed through antagonism, arises between Mr. Dean and Sister Clodagh, the head nun played by Deborah Kerr. Her habit leaves nearly everything up to the imagination, but if you simply must know what’s underneath, there’s always the beach scene in From Here to Eternity (1953).

Sex isn’t the only problem. Everything from the failing plumbing to the turbulent weather is against the nuns, including the villagers, who don’t trust them. The nuns struggle and their thoughts turn to what their lives were like before they joined the order and what their lives might be like if they should ever get out. Matters come to a head when Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) decides she wants the handyman’s thews all for herself and sees Sister Clodagh as competition. There is blood, but remember, this isn’t Flavia the Heretic (1974).

Instead of lurid thrills, Black Narcissus focuses on the ancient question of worldliness versus holiness. Both Eastern and Western religions have grappled with this problem, resulting in as many solutions as there are sects. Not every religion makes grave sins of worldly desires, but the gap between the sacred and secular in Black Narcissus is as wide and perilous as any chasm in the Himalayas. In response to this dilemma, the film presents three distinct paths.

Photo by Ane_Hinds on Pixabay.

The first is renunciation of worldly desires. The nuns demonstrate this through their monasticism, but Black Narcissus presents an even more extreme example. While touring the convent grounds, Mr. Dean shows Sister Clodagh a Hindu ascetic who sits lost in meditation atop a cliff. He never leaves his seat, eats only what villagers bring him, and is unresponsive to his surroundings. When a life-or-death situation arises, the nuns reject asking him for help because he would show no concern at all, so absolute is his break with the world.

The opposite path is capitulation. The nuns are overly harsh in their assessment of Mr. Dean, but indeed he is no saint. He’s useful when it comes to repairs, but he smokes, drinks and just might fornicate at houses of ill repute. It is he who brings the 17-year-old Kanchi to the convent for work. She’s beautiful, knows how to flaunt it, and has the hots for the Young General. The Order of St. Faith allows its members to leave upon fulfillment of annual vows, but Mr. Dean and Kanchi are the type who would never, however fleetingly, feel the call to a chaste life.

The movie succinctly states the key dichotomy in dialogue. When the mountain begins to get the better of the nuns, Sister Philippa says, “I think there are only two ways of living in this place. Either you must live like Mr. Dean or like the holy man, either ignore it or give yourself up to it.” Sister Clodagh responds, “Neither would do for us.” This is because the nuns haven’t fully renounced the world. They’re deeply involved with it through their efforts to proselytize, educate and medically treat the local people. They have a foot in both the sacred and profane and thus need a third way.

In this, they’re a lot like most of us. Given to neither excessive dissolution nor extraordinary righteousness, we find ourselves stuck in the middle. It’s a difficult place to be, caught up in the world with all its cares, caught up in the action, pushed one way by our desires, pulled another by our higher aspirations. We’re likely to meet ourselves coming and going and to look at our other selves with mistrust. How are we to cope with such an unsettled situation? Black Narcissus’s solution is a particular brand of Stoicism.

“Instead of lurid thrills, Black Narcissus focuses on the ancient question of worldliness versus holiness.”

The Stoic school of philosophy was founded in Athens early in the 3rd century B.C. by Zeno of Citrium. It would continue to be a powerful strain of thought until the second century A.D. and the reign of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations is one of Stoicism’s core texts. During its flourishing, Stoicism was a multifaceted philosophy commenting on everything from logic to the ultimate nature of reality, but it’s most widely known today as a reservoir of self-help philosophy.

The good life begins with the recognition that some things are within our power while others are not, at least according to Greek philosopher Epictetus (c.55–135 A.D.) in his manual for life called The Enchiridion. Thus, we should only attempt to control those things that are within our power, foremost among them our own attitudes and actions. Everything else — the attitudes and actions of others, financial fortune and misfortune, sickness and health, life and death — we should accept without excessive attachment or aversion. To do otherwise is to fight the world, an unwinnable fight, and thus invite despair.

The Roman Stoic known as Seneca the Younger (c.4 B.C.-A.D. 65) makes a similar point in his letters to his friend Lucilius. The following translation by Richard M. Gummere is from Letter VIII:

“Do you call these things the ‘gifts’ of Fortune? They are snares. And any man among you who wishes to live a life of safety will avoid, to the utmost of his power, these limed twigs of her favour, by which we mortals, most wretched in this respect also, are deceived; for we think that we hold them in our grasp, but they hold us in theirs. Such a career leads us into precipitous ways, and life on such heights ends in a fall.”

Reality is unrelenting in teaching this lesson to the nuns in Black Narcissus. The local water causes them to break out in spots. A patient nearly bleeds to death from an injury. An attempt to help an ill baby only increases the villagers’ suspicion. A member of the order asks for transferal to a new location. The Young Prince runs off with Kanchi. Jealousy sows discord among the sisters and death drags one of them down. Eventually, the nuns must abandon the fledgling convent. Sister Clodagh has utterly failed in her first post as Sister Superior.

Yet she chooses to stay with the order — even though the hope (temptation?) of a life with Mr. Dean hangs in the air. She has learned a lesson in humility toward her fellows and with respect to larger forces, forces beyond human control. I imagine she will spend the rest of her life within the order, facing further challenges and growing spiritually. She isn’t happy — Black Narcissus’s brand of Stoicism is more tight-lipped than the more easygoing of the ancients would have recommended — but perhaps fortitude and realism have more spiritual value than mere happiness.

Photo by Pexels on Pixabay.

Stoicism remains a subject of interest outside academia. Books like Donald Robertson’s How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (2019) fit nicely into the self-improvement market and perhaps address a growing awareness that we only appear to have everything under control. Something could come along at any moment, on a personal or global level, that tears clean through us. As Sharon Lebell writes in The Art of Living (2013), which presents Epictetus’ thought in The Enchiridion and Discourses in a breezy-to-read style, no one escapes loss, but “Stoicism can be a steady, trust-worthy companion during such times, a beacon that lights the way to the other side of despair.”

Black Narcissus is an odd film, surprisingly grim for a classic film, surprisingly areligious for a movie about nuns, and surprisingly chaste for an erotic thriller. Yet somewhere amidst these incongruities is a powerful statement about the strengths and weaknesses of human beings under pressure.

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