The Banshees of Inisherin and the Tragic Worldview

What does McDonagh’s film tell us about the nature of reality, and what are we going to do about it?

Wabi Sabi
The Small Dark Light

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Photo by Ryan Parker on Unsplash

Trivial warning: this post contains The Banshees of Inisherin and I’m Thinking of Ending Things spoilers.

Serious warning: it also explores topics like mental illness, despair and suicide, and although the essay is in no way intended to cause distress, some people may find certain aspects of my perspective upsetting.

This is probably the most difficult post I’ve written to date, and working on it over a period of weeks felt like wading through treacle. If anything in it helps you or resonates with you, I’d be really appreciative of a comment or direct reply letting me know. Thanks all.

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I came a little late to The Banshees of Inisherin, but I’m glad I got there in the end. It’s great. Attention-grabbing from the off and resonates in your head for a good while afterwards.

A few commentators have compared the film to a Greek tragedy in passing, but so far I haven’t come across a piece that really fleshes out the comparison. The movie certainly feels tragic, but how well does it actually map onto the ancient template laid down by Aeschylus and Sophocles?

Pretty well, I think. The film’s protagonist, Pádraic, fits the model of a tragic hero in many ways. According to Aristotle, this figure should suffer a reversal of fortune that arouses our pity; they should be essentially virtuous, making them even more sympathetic; and they should be relatable enough to arouse our fear, in that we can imagine their fate happening to us. The horror of what befalls the hero derives from the fact that it seems so out of proportion to what they deserve.

At the same time, tragic heroes aren’t completely innocent victims; they each suffer from a central defect that ultimately engineers their doom. In the most subtle tragedies, the fatal flaw derives from the very heroism that makes the character so admirable: just like your worst traits are the flipside of your best, your best qualities can ruin your life if you take them to extremes. The classic example is Oedipus, who isn’t brought low because he killed his father and slept with his mother, but because he pursues justice so singlemindedly that he finds out he did these things. As Litcharts has it, ‘In such cases, it is as if the character is fated to destruction by his or her own nature.’

In Banshees, when Pádraic is first inexplicably snubbed by Colm, we feel sorry for him. And when he doesn’t take his rejection lying down, we admire him. He wants the truth, and tells Colm he’ll follow him in and out of the pub until he gets it. Good man Pádraic.

The genius of the film lies in how subsequent events complicate our initial reaction. Bit by bit we’re shown just how stubborn Pádraic really is, and what seemed like a virtue at first — the willingness to stand up for himself and his way of life — is revealed to be a flaw — being constitutionally incapable of taking no for an answer. The more obsessive and clueless our tragic hero reveals himself to be, the more understandable Colm’s rejection becomes. If Pádraic was always as obnoxious as this, would you want to be trapped on an island with him?

Even the brutal, bizarre way Colm goes about fighting for his solitude — cutting his friend off with no explanation, mutilating himself to drive his desperation home — starts to make more and more sense. After all, extreme as his methods are, they’re still not enough. Off come all the fingers, and Pádraic still won’t leave his friend alone.

The painful irony of the film is that Pádraic misdiagnoses his own heroic-virtue-slash-fatal-flaw. He thinks his problem is that he’s too nice, and reasons that if he acts less nice then Colm will find him more interesting and want to be his friend again. But the fact that he finds his supposed core virtue so easy to shed suggests it was one he never really possessed in the first place. (This is suggested earlier in the movie when a fellow drinker makes a remark about his in vino veritas side: ‘You’re more one of life’s good guys, aye. Apart from when you’re drunk’.)¹

Of course, all Pádraic’s “no more Mr. Nice Guy” approach achieves is to alienate his ex-companion still further. The film toys with the idea that the heartless stunt Pádraic pulls with Colm’s fiddle-playing friend is the deciding factor that stops Colm resuming the friendship. There’s even the suggestion that the disillusionment the prank engenders in Dominic (‘I used to think you were the nicest of them. Turns out you’re just the same as them’) may be a contributing factor in the boy’s suicide. Not that we can be sure. This is a story of dark hints and ambiguities.

Pádraic’s problem, then, is the exact opposite of what he thinks it is. He doesn’t stand up for himself too little, he does it too much. This is a man obsessed, someone with no conception of limits or boundaries. The more he throws himself at Colm, the less Colm likes him. The more he moans about Colm to Dominic, the less Dominic likes him. And the more he lets his grieving and scheming take over his life, the less his sister can stand to be around him. His determination to keep his friend in his life is what ends up driving Colm, and everyone else in the vicinity, away from him; even his beloved donkey is sacrificed to the neverending drama.

In a word, our tragic hero’s fatal flaw is stubbornness. When we impose our own demands on life, it delights in frustrating us; when we surrender to its plan for us, it gives us everything we need and more. Pádraic refuses to accept things as they are, resign himself to change, adapt to new circumstances, abandon his fixed ideas about how things should be, reinvent himself when required to, enjoy life on its own terms — in short, to be a good Buddhist. It’s back to the old cliché about swimming with and not against the current. The irony of the fish’s existence is that the life it’s designed for is, by definition, the opposite of any life it could possibly plan for itself.

The worst part is that for all Pádraic’s obsession with Colm, he never truly values him. To value someone is to treat them as a subject, someone with free will and their own ideas about flourishing. But when Colm changes the rules of the men’s relationship, Pádraic treats him not a person making an (admittedly upsetting) choice, but a thing disrupting the patterns of a familiar routine. When your remote control stops working you mash the buttons and mutter epithets, because it isn’t doing what you want it to and it can’t answer back. Pádraic spends Banshees treating Colm like a broken remote control. Like an object.

I’m reminded of Chögyam Trungpa’s description of the “animal realm”, a term he uses to denote not a literal place but

a mentality which stubbornly pushes forward towards predetermined goals…The animal mentality looks directly ahead, as if wearing blinkers. It never looks to the left or right but very sincerely goes straight ahead…continually trying to adjust situations to make them conform to its expectations. The animal realm is associated with stupidity…You are not able to relate with the messages given to you by your environment. You do not see yourself mirrored by others…there is no sense of humour, no way of surrendering or opening…It is like being a tank that rolls along, crushing everything in its path.

The depths of Pádraic’s “animal mentality” are revealed towards the end of the movie, when he’s offered a second chance via Siobhán’s letter. It turns out the island’s longsuffering intellectual hasn’t turned her back on her brother, merely on a situation that keeps him, Colm and everyone else on Inisherin stuck in an endless cycle of action and reaction. She offers Pádraic an escape route. He turns her down. This isn’t a man trapped on a remote island. This is someone who’s caught in the remorseless grip of his own mind.

Does all this mean Pádraic doesn’t deserve our pity after all? Does he forfeit that right the moment he tells the fiddler to leave the island? Or when he turns his nose up at Siobhán’s offer? Or when he sets Colm’s house on fire? What’s the point of no return here?

To me, what makes the film truly tragic is that there is no point of no return. To say Pádraic’s imprisoned by his own mentality isn’t to say he’s not really imprisoned at all; that he could just snap himself out of it if he put the effort in; that his psychological disadvantages are somehow less of an obstacle than his circumstantial ones. The man’s personality represents the biggest threat to his wellbeing on Inisherin. You can get off an island; you can’t escape your own brain.

Which leads me on to I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Like Banshees, Kaufman’s existential horror takes an unflinching look at mental illness, unrealised ambitions and the everyday tragedy of a deeply sad person dragging his way through a grindingly ordinary life. (I recommend these analyses of how it does that.) The majority of the movie takes place within the lead character’s mind, exploring his fantasies, preoccupations, traumas, arguments with himself and flashes of self-awareness. Rather than being presented with the plain biographical facts of Jake’s story, we’re given a window into how he feels about that story, and what kind of life he’d rather have lived instead. The film’s essentially trying to represent the claustrophobia and regret of suicidal depression from the inside out.

In one scene, Jake reflects on the ‘lie of it all…That things are going to get better. That it’s never too late. That good things come to those who wait. That God has a plan for you. That age is just a number. That it’s always darkest before the dawn. That every cloud has a silver lining. That there’s someone for everyone…That God never gives us more than we can bear.’

The more we’re shown about how Jake’s life has turned out, the more we understand his embittered pessimism. Things never did get better for the depressed janitor; he never found love; in fact, he appears not to have forged a meaningful connection of any sort. Like Pádraic, like Colm, he was doomed from the start. His sad ending derives remorselessly from his sad beginning, just as surely as all those janitors’ uniforms emerge from the washing machine in the basement of his childhood home.

At the end of the film, Jake thinks back to the farm where he grew up and visualises a pig that died a cruel death, eaten from the inside out by maggots. As the imaginary pig walks alongside Jake it suddenly starts talking, its resigned monotone drawing a parallel between its fate and the janitor’s and offering some Stoic wisdom to sweeten the pill:

It’s not bad. Once you stop feeling sorry for yourself because you’re just a pig, or, even worse, a pig infested with maggots. Someone has to be a pig infested with maggots, right? It might as well be you. It’s the luck of the draw. You play the hand you’re dealt. You make lemonade. You move on. You don’t worry about a thing.

The swine-Seneca’s advice doesn’t seem to work for Jake, who — we infer — takes his life shortly afterwards.

Both these tragic heroes are utterly trapped by the flaws in their perceptions. Pádraic is constrained by the limits of his imagination, his ploddingness, the cage of his animal mentality. Jake, for all his superior book smarts, is equally trapped by his mixture of arrogance and insecurity, his self-loathing, his inability to see people as themselves and not extensions of his fantasies and projections. Both men crave attention and approval, and are prevented from ever winning them by the very mechanisms of the cravings themselves. Neediness is inherently self-defeating because wanting something from the Other prevents you from encountering them as Other.

Unfortunately, neither protagonist has the wherewithal to diagnose their own problems, at least in such a way that they feel able to do anything about them. In Bob Dylan’s memorable phrase, they’re ‘born already ruined’. There’s no one event that seals their doom; there’s nothing they could have done differently. They’re simply born at the wrong place and time, with the wrong coping mechanisms. The entire tragic sequence of their lives has been mapped out from the start. Jake is as helpless as an infested farm animal, while Pádraic is watched over by mocking banshees who know what’s going to happen in advance as surely as any Greek oracle.

It’s a grim paradox. Oedipus’ own actions are what doom him, and similarly you could say that people who view the world through a gloomy lens are creating the very outcomes they say are inevitable. That pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, just like all those mythological predictions that are brought to pass by the very steps their victims take to avoid them. That the only thing in the universe capable of extinguishing hope is the statement ‘There is no hope’. But does Oedipus’ complicity in his own downfall imply that he could have chosen to behave otherwise? Not with all those prophecies going around.

The worldview of Oedipus Rex, Banshees and Ending Things leaves no room for the protagonists to meaningfully choose their own actions. None of them possesses free will, not really.

The dark heart of tragedy is inevitability.

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The question is, how are we supposed to respond to the stories of Oedipus, Pádraic and Jake? Do we just wallow in the dark aesthetics like we might with a Munch painting or a Radiohead album? Or are we actually supposed to take the worldview that powers all this seriously? Is it true that someone has to be the pig, that ‘Some are born to sweet delight / Some are born to the endless night’?

This is a particularly pressing question for those of us who believe that the ‘lie of it all’ isn’t all lies. I believe that the nature of reality is fundamentally good. I believe life springs from and returns to this goodness, like a wave rises and falls in the ocean. I believe our species is fundamentally oriented towards love, even if we spend a lot of our time pursuing it in wrongheaded and destructive ways. And I believe that nothing — not poverty, not sickness, not prison, not violence, not starvation, not trauma, not oppression, not death — can come between us and the love that keeps the whole baffling show on the road.

This love, like the sun, shines on everyone equally. But if you spend your life in a windowless basement, for all that the sun is keeping you alive you’re never going to feel its warmth on your face. And it’s very hard to take an honest look at the world and not conclude that many people were born in windowless basements and will spend the rest of their lives there.

Even if we’re all loved by what the great religions call God, millions of people don’t experience love as any sort of reality in their lives, and may never do so. Whether because of severe mental illness, or an all-consuming addiction, or a run of unfathomably bad luck, or relentless persecution from society, or an utter lack of available resources to help them, or a quirk of personality that inevitably turns everyone in their lives against them, they’re just never given a chance to bloom. Even the saints and bodhisattvas can’t help them, either because they never get to meet them or because they wouldn’t be able to get through to them if they did. We can’t know what it’s like to live inside one of these brains. But from the outside, it appears as if such people’s cards have been marked in advance by the real-life Fates of genes and circumstance, just as surely as if some Delphic oracle or banshee had condemned them at birth.

That’s why I find the “positive vibes only” of so much spirituality so shallow. It may be true that everything’s perfect in the final analysis, that suffering is the product of illusion, that if we could just wake up we’d see that there was never a problem all along. But does everyone have an equal opportunity to wake up? I don’t think so. The teachings are subtle. They’re hard to follow. They’re not yet universally accessible. And some people, through no fault of their own, are buried very deep in illusion — very deep indeed.

Yes, to quote another tragedy, ‘There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so’. But some people’s thinking makes things very, very bad. Yes, we have nothing to fear but fear itself. But some people’s fear is very, very frightening. We’re all “thrown” into childhoods and personalities we don’t choose, assaulted every day by thoughts and emotions we haven’t chosen to think or feel. While some of us come across the friends, self-help books, belief systems and coping strategies we need to help us straighten things out, at just the moment we need them, others don’t. That’s what makes threads like this so sobering.

Does this mean we shouldn’t reach out to people we’ve decided are beyond help? No, because we have no right to declare anyone beyond help. People have endured discrimination, torture and even concentration camps and come out the other side with an unshakeable faith in the basic goodness of reality. And others with seemingly intractable psychological problems have undergone profound transformations as a result of inner work, changes in circumstance, psychedelic therapies, the right person believing in them, or simply divine grace. If all that could happen before, it can happen again. Fatalism is the absolute worst way to conceptualise the future, either at the level of the individual or of society as a whole. It’s both demotivating and inaccurate.

The reason I choose to engage with the fatalistic worldview at all is because it helps me make better sense of the past. It sounds inexcusably pessimistic to look at a life like Jake’s and say it couldn’t have gone any other way. But the alternative is to say that it could have gone another way, which implies that Jake could have made things better for himself if he had just tried a little harder. I realise that many people will strongly disagree with me on this, but at my current stage of philosophical development I find this to be the more repugnant of the two conclusions.

My thinking on this could well evolve over time, but for now I’m inclined to think that everything can be endured in principle, but not by everyone, and that if free will exists at all, it only applies to the future; once something’s already happened, that’s the way it always had to happen. In other words, we never know how something’s going to turn out, so we should never use the past as a guide to the future, even in the most seemingly hopeless of cases. But once someone’s actually made a decision and acted in the world, there’s no point judging them for it, any more than you condemn a tree for bending in the wind.

If you were to ask Ram Dass how to rationalise the fact that some people are fated to live happy lives and others aren’t, he’d probably say that each individual life is nothing more than a fragment of a much larger story; that each of us goes through billions of incarnations; that everyone lives every conceivable life eventually; that one day all our karma will be burned off, we’ll finally have shed every last illusion that made us feel separate and alienated, and we’ll come home to rest in the blissful oneness from which every distinct existence emanates. This isn’t a million miles removed from the stoical pig’s take in IToET: ‘I’m just evolving…Everything is the same. When you look close enough…You, me, ideas. We’re all one thing.’

In this way of thinking, the soul’s wider redemption arc, its “grand narrative”, gives meaning to the seemingly meaningless suffering of so many of its individual incarnations, in the same way that an old person enjoying the happy-ever-after of a fulfilling, contented retirement can see in retrospect how various difficult episodes in their early years got them where they needed to go in the end. I’m strongly inclined towards such “grand narrative” thinking myself, even if I lack Ram Dass’ total commitment to a particular metaphysical framework that glues the whole thing together.

Many people don’t share my spiritual inclinations, and believe that suffering truly is as random as it often seems to be. But there’s a big difference between having a nihilist perspective and spending every waking moment ruminating on the implications of that perspective, which is why we spend so much of our time on entertainment and so much of our entertainment is escapist.

Not tragedy, though. The unique courage of this genre rests in its willingness to confront the darkest corners of human existence and say This all belongs too. No sugarcoating, no moralising, no explaining away — just the raw facts of the saddest lives it’s possible to live, presented for the edification of those whose loads aren’t quite so hard to bear. Only in tragedy do we get an artistic attempt to do justice to just how bad it can get.

I’m hammering on this theme because there are those who say that a nihilistic worldview need not equal a bleak worldview: yes, life is meaningless, but that leaves us free to make our own meaning; yes, there’s no ultimate reason for all this, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take care of each other and have some fun. And this rosy outlook would be all very well if everybody could share it. But what I’ve been arguing is that some people cannot and will not develop such a phlegmatic perspective in this lifetime, because their inner and outer circumstances prevent their minds from getting there — and this fact alone makes their lives inherently tragic.

As far as I’m concerned, if even one person’s life is unbearable, that says something about the nature of reality as a whole. An ugly blotch on a painting affects how we see the entire painting. Similarly, as long as the reality of unbearable suffering exists, nihilism and bleakness are inextricably intertwined. Even if you can make peace with your own existence being meaningless and finite, it’s harder to declare that purposelessness is what makes life beautiful and brevity is what makes it precious when faced with the reality of people whose entire time on Earth is shot through with torment. All we can hope is that their suffering isn’t quite as total as it looks on the outside — but how can we know?

The picture certainly becomes less desolate if you aren’t a nihilist — if you think that even the worst torment carries redemption in its very essence — but I’d argue that even the spiritual perspective fails to entirely dispel the tragic nature of totalising suffering. Because even if the happy retiree of my earlier example is at peace with their earlier trials now, they still deserved sympathy and support while the trials were happening. Similarly, even if grace is present in even the saddest of lives, we can’t approach the people caught in them with the compassion they deserve unless we acknowledge just how overwhelming a force that sadness is — unless we really take the depths of the mind’s capacity for pain seriously. That’s what the tragic genre does.

Ultimately, the person who believes in grace and the person who doesn’t end up in the same place: If things are this bad, what can I do about it? Because frankly acknowledging that things have been unbearable for some of us, and are currently unbearable for some of us, is not the same as believing that things always have to be unbearable for some of us.

Like I said before, we have no idea what the future holds. A lot of things have gotten startlingly better over the last 500 years, both materially and in terms of how we treat each other; mediaeval peasants wouldn’t even have been able to imagine the abundance and relative nonviolence that characterise so many modern democracies. One person who would have starved to death in a previous era has enough food to eat today. Another who would have died slowly of an awful disease is vaccinated. Another who would have been declared crazy and ended up wasting away in an asylum has been diagnosed with a specific condition and treated accordingly. Another who would have endured decades of psychological torment before finally killing themselves is on a pill that significantly boosts their resting mood and quality of life.

All we can do now is continue the work. The task ahead of all of us is to do our best to ensure that as few as possible of the people being born every second have to endure more than they can bear. We don’t know if we can ever fully eliminate totalising suffering. All we know is we have to try as hard as we can. The project is as multifaceted as it is essential, involving developing friendships, building communities, founding charities, joining outreach programs, lobbying for legislation, devising therapies, administering remedies, developing pills, pioneering treatments, writing books, making art and raising compassionate children, all while processing our own suffering so we can diagnose and treat the suffering of others more effectively.

Because ultimately, tragedy only describes the world as it is now.

Our job is to change it.

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  1. Self-awareness, and the lack thereof, is a major theme running through Banshees. I’d argue that Colm knows just as little about himself as his more obviously hapless friend: while he’s undoubtedly a big fish in a small pond, it’s clear that he overrates both his musical abilities and his intelligence. He’s not an especially good violinist or composer, and his knowledge of music history is revealed to be shaky when Siobhán corrects him on a basic point of information.

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Wabi Sabi
The Small Dark Light

Writer, composer and filmmaker, into soul music and Chinese philosophy. Editor @ The Small Dark Light