Frank Capra’s celebrated 1946 It’s a Wonderful Life is, perhaps, his and star James Stewart’s most recognizable film. Fully ensconced as a Christmas mainstay, it has come to represent the epitome of Capra idealism, replete with the characteristic Capra narrative trajectory: a man, pure of heart and marked by an ingenuous integrity, takes on the forces of corruption; he falters before the enormity of deeply rooted evil and is revitalized in his strength by the support of his neighbors and fellow citizens (representatives of the “common man”).
It’s easy to forget that despite five Academy Award nominations, It’s a Wonderful Life made a starkly unimpressive showing at the box office in 1947 (it lost $525,000 for RKO) and was the turning point in Capra’s career. The remainder of his creative life was marked by the growing disaffection of the public and critics, which led to his early retirement and ever-deepening embitterment.
The film met with deeply divided critical assessment and the entrenched takes on the film’s value continue to reverberate in its current reception. Time and Variety both found the film charming and indicative of Capra’s filmic craft. Variety claimed that the movie proved that Capra “can fashion what ordinarily would be homilizing hokum into gleaming, engaging entertainment for all brows — high, low, or beetle.”
For other critics, the hokum wasn’t transmuted but simply remained insipid hokum. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times lambasted the “sentimentality of [the film] — its illusory concept of life.” John McCarten, writing for The New Yorker, lamented that only Stewart managed to occasionally “escape from the sticky confines of the script with a bit of honest acting.” The implication behind both critiques is that the film is fundamentally dishonest, offering a whimsical dream in the place of reality.
The two poles of reception continue to find their advocates today. The resurrection of the film came through television. The medium made It’s a Wonderful Life a ubiquitous holiday presence and thus it seems to embody all of the sentimentality (syrupy or hard-won, depending on one’s point of view) we associate with the holiday season. For some, the film (and the season) offers a respite from the vicissitudes of the every day and presents an idealized vision of what the world might be like if only we allowed ourselves to be kind. For others, the film (and the season) is a false veneer laid over a far more complex reality and by embracing its charm we ignore at best and erase at worst the suffering, turmoil, and dire contention that characterize our society.
Some of the film’s admirers attempt to defuse this critical standoff by claiming that this is not really a Christmas movie. I think that’s a false move, not disingenuous so much as misguided. It assumes that Christmas movies are inherently facile, devoid of social critique, and to be passively received without deeper consideration. This may be true of many Christmas films (I don’t consider myself an expert in the genre) but the best and most celebrated of these films all seem to me to have a darker side to them than that view allows.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) may strike one as a simple fantasy involving an encounter with a supernatural figure (Santa) who can grant a young girl her grandest wish and heal the wounds of her terminally disappointed and world-weary mother. On deeper consideration, however, the film is a disquisition on faith — not in God per se, but in humanity and in the personal integrity of those with whom we work and live. The concerns Doris (Maureen O’Hara) expresses regarding the wisdom of maintaining ties with a man, Kris (Edmund Gwenn) who appears to be suffering from the delusion that he is Santa Claus seem well founded. How far ought we go in allowing faith to “be restored” before we are simply made dupes and even worse consequences ensue?
A Christmas Carol (1951) broaches even deeper concerns and is far more harrowing (particularly in my favorite realization of the story — the 1984 television movie starring George C. Scott as Scrooge). One might dismiss the film as the story of a man forcibly redeemed through a contrived experience of nostalgia, pity, and the imminence of death. Scrooge becomes infused with the “spirit of Christmas” and increases the joy of the world. But consider the trajectory of the film (or the Dickens story itself, for that matter) and the extreme measures it requires to redeem a man who is greedy, yes, but not intractably evil. Sure, it all occurred in one night but required the ghost of an old friend, three spirits, and countless disturbing realizations. The film rightly suggests that moral improvement demands outrageous effort and is thus unlikely and justly celebrated when it occurs.
It’s a Wonderful Life has certain resonances with A Christmas Carol. George Bailey (James Stewart) is, like Scrooge, shown the impact he has on his friends, family, and neighbors through supernatural means. But Scrooge is taken to a past and present where he exists (and then, of course, a future in which he doesn’t). He witnesses things of which he was already aware or could have been had he sought the knowledge. George is offered the chance to see what the world would entail had he never existed at all.
This is a crucial difference and it’s what imbues the film with its existential import and thus places it within the postwar concern for Existentialism as a means of grasping our place in the world — or, more accurately, our ontological lack of place, thus demanding that we create a place for ourselves through our deeds, rendered in part from our will to belonging. To exist in the aftermath of World War II was to ask why anything exists at all. Why should there be something as opposed to nothing? Or is what we experience set upon by nothingness all the same?
Insofar as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of It’s a Wonderful Life, marked in part by a Platinum Edition of the film released on Blu-ray and DVD by Paramount, I would like to take this opportunity to explore some of the darker elements of this cultural icon. This is not to cast aspersion on the film. I have long adored It’s a Wonderful Life and have found myself defending its merits to naysayers and film buffs who feel that its very ubiquity is a sign of its devaluation.
The darker aspects of the film are, I believe, integral to its success as a film and make it, in my estimation, the most fully articulated and philosophically satisfying realization of Capra’s oft-maligned but beguiling idealism. Although, we will explore notions of the limits of divine involvement, the denial of free will, existential crisis, and the depths of evil as they appear within the film, my overriding contention is that these themes ultimately contribute to the positive and life-affirming message of the film that rises far above the dismissal of it as saccharine frivolity with no purchase on reality.
In what follows, in what I can only characterize as a labor of love and an effort to come to grips with an object of affection that I have savored for as long as I can remember, I will explore three issues: 1. the film’s representation of the “problem of evil”, particularly in how it treats the character of Mr. Potter; 2. the film’s view of the role of divinity and free will in human affairs, as revealed in the conversations with God and the figure of Clarence the angel; 3. the film’s take on death and existence, particularly with respect to the way in which an awareness of death (what Heidegger would term a Being-toward-Death) shapes one’s view of moral and social responsibility and the role of happiness in a proper mode of living.
Capra, Mr. Potter, and the Problem of Evil
In a United States embroiled in the cold war and McCarthyism (Capra was a target of HUAC but was never called to testify), Capra’s brand of idealism rife with social brotherhood, his vision of an America that was truly “of the people”, seemed out of step with the era of suspicion, increasing world dominance, and mutually-assured destruction. Capra’s “America” is a community, not a nation.
The FBI issued a memorandum on 26 May 1947 accusing the film of employing a “common trick used by Communists” in that it “deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.” The film was seen specifically as an attempt to “discredit bankers” by finding the antagonist of the film in the person of the predatory Mr. Potter (played with pestiferous aplomb by the formidable Lionel Barrymore).
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Potter should be the point of contention for the FBI as indeed he becomes a central problem for an adequate understanding of the film. Barrymore’s depiction of the repugnant moneylender threatens to devolve onto purely melodramatic caricature. Despite George Bailey’s attempts to understand the source of his craven rapacity, Potter is never really humanized in the film. We never discover the causes of his covetousness. He remains an unassuaged figure of anti-social greed and unchecked power.
As a man of position, however, Potter can be read as a metonym for the increasingly global financial and political prominence of the United States. Indeed, Potter works both as a symbol of the power of the US in the world and the increasingly centralized power of the ruling class within the US in a culture that has become progressively mired in bureaucracy. If, as Capra seems to imply, a man who “controls the town” is inevitably corrupted by his position, if absolute power corrupts absolutely, then what hope remains for a post-WWII US in its bid to somehow insist on its simultaneous right to prominence and moral rectitude? Can the shining light of liberty not be darkened by an “American dream” that’s more and more reduced to the pursuit of filthy lucre (and moreover, lucre that inherently comes at the cost of the liberty of others)?
Furthermore, in a cold war mentality of a zero-sum antagonism, of a world divided into “us” and “them”, even if we can overlook Potter’s role as a metonym for the rapacity of the elite, the fact that he seemingly continues to pursue his evil plans unchecked at the end of the film presents a further hermeneutic conundrum and one that’s not to be avoided even by those in league with Capra’s communal sentiments. In the cold war world the day of reckoning must come and for Potter it simply doesn’t.
Imagining Capra through the lens of cold war logic (a logic of retribution to defend the Manichean divide between good and evil) seems nearly impossible or at least hilariously implausible. Indeed, one of the better skits on Saturday Night Live from 1986 features Dana Carvey as George Bailey in a “rediscovered lost ending” to It’s a Wonderful Life. In this alternate ending, Uncle Billy realizes that the $8k must have been taken by the loathsome Mr. Potter (here played by Jon Lovitz). So naturally the whole town marches over to Potter’s house where they proceed to give him a vicious beating. The sketch works in two, seemingly contradictory, ways.
First, it supplies a denouement that many viewers find lacking in the original. In Capra’s film, Potter never receives his comeuppance; there are no consequences shown for his felonious deed. He’s characterized throughout the film as avaricious and cruel, but until that moment he always stayed within the bounds of legality. By stealing Billy’s deposit, Potter breaches the last boundary of decency remaining to him. His violation of civil law re-inscribes and furthers his constant abrogation of moral law. The malice of his pilferage becomes one more manifestation of his unsanctionable spitefulness toward his fellow man. Viewers often find this dissatisfying on a basic karmic level. The Dana Carvey sketch ties up that loose end through a savage, and brutally satisfying, beat-down.
From Whence Does Evil Arise?
Second, by being so ludicrously wrong, the sketch reveals a central tenet of the Capra universe. Of course, Potter goes unpunished. The evil figures in Capra films almost always go unpunished within the diegesis of the film. Those who were of good spirit but became corrupted, such as Senator Paine (Claude Rains) in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) might be redeemed by a last-minute confession of guilt, but the true sources of malevolent power, such as the political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) in the same film, are hardly ever dealt with on-screen. There are sometimes allusions to the idea that they will be investigated later, but the truly evil in these films is not so much brought under the rule of law as dismissed from the social conscience. In Capra’s world, enemies aren’t eradicated; they are rendered ineffectual and left to molder into dust.
The impulse to cry out “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord” is misplaced in the Capra universe of positive social endeavor. Stooping to address evil, instead of exorcising it through social and narrative exclusion, would weaken the ethical resolve of the community, which is properly focused on constructing an ever-new world of social cohesion, communal cooperation, and affective union (that is, a community of feeling and mutual support). Punishment taints the punisher by forcing her into the position of cruelty. To redress past wrongs is to inflict some form of pain on the transgressor. Thus, the punisher becomes the conduit of suffering (justified or no). This may be necessary in real life, but in a Capra film it would be incongruous with the zeal of his idealism.
This supplies us with some insight into Capra’s take on the so-called “problem of evil”. In a world endowed by its infallible creator with intrinsic harmony and goodness, whence does evil arise? The problem boils down to a logical contradiction. God is defined as omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent. This means that presumably God would not want evil to exist, would know how to stop it from existing, and would have the power to prevent (or eliminate) its existence. Yet evil exists. Therefore, God does not exist or does not exist as here defined (modus tollens).
Capra seems to take a different tack by claiming that in the strict definition of the term, radical evil does not exist. Evil acts in his filmic universe are not indicative of evil men but rather small men, men who have not developed toward an understanding of the good but are not incapable of doing so. Some of the antagonists in Capra’s films are simply misguided but relatively easily redeemed. Think of Paine (as mentioned above) in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or Anthony Kirby (Edward Arnold) from You Can’t Take It with You (1938), or Henry Connell (James Gleason) from Meet John Doe. These are good men caught in a corrupt system. Once they have the opportunity to behave ethically, they do so willingly.
The other type of antagonist is a more difficult case. This would include Potter as well as D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold again) in Meet John Doe (1941), Jim Taylor (mentioned above) from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and John Cedar (Douglass Dubrille) from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). Of this rogue’s gallery, only Cedar receives on-screen punishment: a punch in the nose and even that’s not much, given that Mr. Deeds metes out such assaults with less provocation. These men don’t seem to have much history or much depth. They are an impediment to right conduct more than they are forces in their own right. More to the point, their malevolence seems to derive from a lack of good. That is to say, it’s a negative attribute — it’s the lack of moral fiber rather than a positive need to do evil. These men seem to find unethical behavior efficacious, not necessarily desirable in its own right.
These are the “men of power”, and the way to efface them is to remove power from its singular source and to disperse it among the men of goodwill. One wrests control from the man of power not through violence or force but through “showing him up”. This is most clearly shown at the end of Meet John Doe when Mr. Connell, who has seen the light, turns to Mr. Norton and trumpets: “There you are Mr. Norton, the people! Try and lick that!” Of course, the implication is that Mr. Norton can’t lick the people and never could.
There’s no true source of evil for Capra. Evil is rootless and unmoored. It’s the absence of light not the fullness of darkness. But the fact of its existing within an ontological lack does not dissipate its effectiveness. Evil is parasitic on the social good; evil exists as the shadow of that good. Good cannot radically escape evil, no more than a man can escape his shadow. The best good one can do is to turn away, to focus on the light and condemn the shadow to insignificance, to “show it up”.
In other words, Capra constructs a sort of filmic theodicy in which the existence of evil does not mean the absence of God. Moreover, evil does not stand in opposition to God or the good but rather is a lack of goodness. That is to say, evil per se has no positive existence; its state of being is the dilution of the good rather than a “real” presence in its own right. It’s the result of stepping too far outside of the light of goodness. In this sense, Capra is a filmic Plotinus. This then leads to our second major concern: Capra’s understanding of the role of God in human affairs.
Selective Interference: Capra’s Theodicy
What manner of God inhabits the universe of It’s a Wonderful Life? If we have seen that in Capra’s Plotinian view, evil really amounts to the dilution of the good, that still doesn’t absolve the deity of a central question raised by the problem of evil. Indeed, in some ways the Plotinian doctrine puts even greater pressure on what appears to be divine indifference. If evil is not a force in its own right that can stand in opposition to God, if it’s merely the weakening of an ever-present basic goodness that suffuses the world owing to divine beneficence, then why would an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God not take the relatively simple step of eradicating it — or more accurately, since there’s no positive evil to eradicate, why not bolster goodness so that it cannot be weakened to the extent that gives rise to evil?
The typical rejoinder is that divine wisdom and benevolence also leads to free will. While God does not give rise to evil (that would, of course, be contrary to divine goodness), the dissipation of the good results not from divine impulse per se but rather to vouchsafe the sanctity of free will. Omniscience and omnibenevolence here serve to curb the employment of omnipotence. In other words, being good and knowing what is right, divinity does not use its power inappropriately. Since coercion is, by definition, an abuse of power, God, according to this view, refuses to abrogate free will in order to guarantee the purity of goodness. An incursion on freedom is itself deemed an evil and is thus contrary to divine being.
Capra’s relationship to this line of thought is somewhat murky. It’s true that some of the characters make choices that they come to regret, thus showing that they had the freedom to choose and could have done otherwise. The most obvious example (though not without its complications) is Violet. She has made some undisclosed mistake and comes to George to give her money to go away. George assures her that it’s a loan and what he considers a good investment. He recognizes she has erred (notice the word there, which literally implies one has “gone astray”) and she wants to repent of it by leaving the town and starting over. George seems to feel she is brave.
Later, at the film’s conclusion, she declares she will stay in Bedford Falls and presumably face the shame she feels she’s earned. This too, I think, is meant to be seen as brave. Ultimately, the latter choice is not only deemed brave but the better of the two. By staying and facing her mistake, whatever it was (one presumes a sexual indiscretion), Violet returns to the fold of a good town full of good people. Hers was an error, a wandering from the right path, not an act of evil.
But this reveals a deeper concern with respect to the film’s notion of a freedom of the will. George feels she’s a good investment because he recognizes her as a good person. She erred. Indeed, her errancy is built into her character. Throughout the film, she’s ogled by men and encourages their desire for her. Her unmoored flirtation (the fact that she has several suitors) was bound to lead to error, but this doesn’t alter the fact that she is inherently good, as George sees and as is true of all of the citizens of Bedford Falls aside from Potter (and, I suppose, his assistant).
So in that sense, perhaps she didn’t err out of free will. Perhaps her mistake was built into her character in the same way her redemption is. This seems to ring true of the Capra universe, especially as portrayed in this film. George’s father even claims that Potter cannot really help his demeanor: “He’s a sick man, sick in his mind, sick in his soul, if he has one.” You can’t really hold a man responsible for his actions if you excuse them as the result of illness. Notice how this completes our foray into Capra’s concern for the problem of evil: evil is sickness that befalls what should be a healthy entity; it’s a disease that infects the body social.
There are deeper waters still. The most obvious denial of free will in the film is the life of George Bailey himself. He wants to leave, to travel the world, to become an architect. He tries to leave, after years of working with his father, to tour Europe and then go to college. His father dies and he has to remain in Bedford Falls to prevent Potter from taking over the town. Four years later, his brother returns from college (having used George’s college money) and is supposed to take over for George so he can leave. But the brother has other opportunities and George is stuck again. He declares he doesn’t want to get married (“I want to do what I want to do,” he protests before embracing Mary in acquiescence), but he does. He says he will never live in the Granville house that Mary loves (he says he wouldn’t live in it as a ghost — a line I’ve always loved), but he does. Of course, we are to believe it’s all a matter of fate, but fate is just a nice way of saying we lack freedom of will, that we are enchained by utter determination. He can’t even go on a proper honeymoon, using his money instead to bail out the Savings and Loan. God just doesn’t want this guy to travel!
The more surprising consequence of all this emerges in the extended sequence when God’s emissary Clarence (angel, second class — no wings) shows George what life would be like had he never been born. These lovely people that we came to admire and love during the first half of the film are rendered bitter, mean, and disillusioned. But notice that the implication is not that these people have become cruel and hateful owing to some decision of their own (an exercise of free will) but rather because George Bailey was not there.
I think it beyond Capra’s worldview to suggest that George is some kind of messianic figure who brought goodness into the town. George is messianic insofar as he carries the divine spark that all good people carry in the Capra universe; so if George is messianic so is nearly everyone else. I contend that Capra would insist that the absence of nearly any of the good citizens of Bedford Falls would have equally (or nearly so) deleterious effects on the town and its populace.
This, it seems, is how the Capra theodicy works. God doesn’t have to combat evil, but merely has to manage goodness. Divinity does this by creating a structure of goodness that can thwart and absorb the dissipation of goodness that Potter represents. Free will is not only illusory but also unnecessary. It has no structural position in the finely calibrated system of goodness erected by the divine impulse.
This also explains God’s limited interference in the film. There’s no need to interfere once the structure is established. Indeed God, who briefly appears in the opening of the film, strikes one as a good and kind manager of affairs. He’s utterly relatable. There’s no vestige here of the Nobodaddy described by William Blake. The angels are not perfect beings; they exhibit their flaws openly. Joseph, the chief angel, is dismissive of Clarence and rather short-tempered with him. Clarence is said to have “the IQ of a rabbit”, redeemed, of course, by the fact that he has the “faith of a child”. These are human characters despite their purported participation in divinity. God is literally the manager of Heaven where there is even room for advancement. Clarence hopes for a promotion should he do well with his assignment.
Discouragement Is the Ultimate Disease
God in this film is the ideal, congenial businessman, a sort of divine equivalent to Charles Dickens’s Mr. Fezziwig from A Christmas Carol. Kind to his employees and concerned for their welfare, He knows that they function best when they are busily employed and yet assuaged by the comforts of their mutual care and respect. Once the business is properly appointed, it needs little interference from the manager. The employees are not happy all the time, of course, but there’s a general disposition toward happiness. Disappointments arise, but they are counterbalanced by the overall spirit of wellbeing.
So then the question that emerges is: given the efficacy of the divine plan, why must George suffer what’s clearly portrayed as a painful existential crisis? God demonstrates a foreknowledge of the crisis. When Joseph reports that a lot of prayers concern the welfare of a George Bailey, God recognizes that “tonight’s [George’s] crucial night.” What’s the divine purpose in allowing this good man (and we, along with Clarence, witness the progress of George’s kindness and sacrifice for others) to suffer? This question leads to our final consideration: what George Bailey learns from a view from nothingness.
The View from Nothingness: George Bailey and Being-toward-Death
When Clarence is summoned to work on George’s behalf, he asks of God “is he sick?” God responds, “No, worse. He’s discouraged.” I have often been guilty of chuckling at that line. It strikes me that in the great abacus of suffering, being discouraged ranks rather far below being seriously ill (granted, Clarence just said “sick”, not “seriously ill”, but I doubt they call in guardian angels for a head cold). But in Capra’s moral universe, a universe where God represents managerial benevolence and disposes the world for the overall good, discouragement is the ultimate disease.
To be discouraged is to have lost confidence in the divine plan, to be emptied of enthusiasm for the richness and tribulations of life. To be discouraged is to have lost heart and insofar as the heart is the organ that metaphorically finds joy in goodness, discouragement is a degenerative disease that undermines one’s purchase on the meaning of existence — which in the Capra universe seems to be the joyful mutual endeavor of the body politic. The fragility of mutual endeavor is precisely why the town (and really the world insofar as his absence impacts WWII) falls into dystopia when George is made not to exist. It’s not that those fine people cease to be good; it’s that each element of the constellation that Capra’s God has set in place must be in position for the world to function properly.
Just like Fezziwig’s shop, a well functioning business (or world) leads to joy through prosperity and cooperation. Mere prosperity is not joy (that’s the malady from which Potter and Scrooge suffer). Potter confuses his private wealth with satisfaction. That’s why George’s father claims that Potter isn’t happy as long as anyone else has something. If joy were derived from mere ownership, then maximum ownership would lead to maximum joy. Potter is unhappy, so in his confusion, he seeks to own more. He becomes increasingly miserable owing to the delirium of his malady.
But if one feels that prosperity no longer suffices, if one finds (as George thinks he has found) that cooperation isn’t reciprocated, that the structure is out of alignment, one becomes understandably discouraged. Now in a universe imbued with free will, discouragement can be a goad to further achievement; it can be a force for the good. But in Capra’s deterministic universe, discouragement is a rejection of the divine boon. To put it in the capitalist terms already raised by the comparison between Capra’s God and Fezziwig, discouragement causes the employee to function less efficiently, thus threatening the productivity of the whole business and, furthermore, contributing to the dissatisfaction and disaffection of the employee. A good manager resolves worker dissatisfaction to make the business run smoothly; a great manager resolves it to also make the worker happier. Capra’s God is meant to be a great manager.
But now we must account for the extremes to which God goes to bring George back to joy, to bring him back to the fold of the body social as a productive, efficient, and caringly cooperative member of society. George is shown how Bedford Falls would look had he never been born. Now you might say, it was George’s idea so he merely got to see what he wanted to see. However, as I hope I have shown, George hardly has anything we could rightly describe as free will. This path was chosen long before; God knew it was to be his “crucial night”. This is the lesson George Bailey was destined to learn from the beginning.
The lesson is a peculiar one, given that the Capra universe operates through joyful cooperation, thus placing the emphasis on community and mutual caring. What George learns, on the surface, seems to correlate well with this image of the divine plan. He sees how important he is to the community, how the people for whom he cares would be far worse off without his presence in their lives. In this sense, he’s made aware of the fragility of the social fabric and comes to appreciate his vital place within the body social.
When we look deeper into the matter, however, the lesson turns out to be somewhat more disturbing and, on the face of it, runs counter to a vision of a community that is greater than the sum of its parts. George’s lesson is an indoctrination into something that closely approximates Martin Heidegger’s notion of “Being-toward-Death”.
Heidegger claims that most of us live most of our lives in a flattened-out view of existence, an inauthentic mode of living that relies upon an average everydayness. This is what Heidegger refers to as Das Man, often translated as “the They”, but also translatable as “the One”. Whenever we consider what “one ought to do” or what “one generally does in such and such a situation”, we’re dealing with the They. By conforming to the They, we’re not taking a stand on our existence, but rather living through social mores and linguistic conventions.
Our decision to follow the They is no choice at all. It goes through the motions of a choice but instead simply takes on a factical role rather than actually acting on one’s own accord. In other words, I act in such and such a way because that is what a “good citizen” or a “teacher” or a “son” does; I allow a generic role to live through me rather than living my life authentically, that is, for myself.
We also commonly think of death through the mindset of the They. We know that death is a fact that awaits us. We will die, of course, but that will be later and we need not deal with it or think about it now. It’s a fact, but not a lived fact. Our death will probably be much like the deaths of the others whom we have seen pass away. For the They, death, in one sense, doesn’t really happen (or matter) at all. When one dies, one no longer is. Therefore, death doesn’t happen to one, death is simply the marker of when one is no more.
Being-toward-Death is an authentic mode of living in which we live with our death as the actuality of our life and what makes it “our ownmost” life as opposed to “one’s” life. Being-toward-Death involves three aspects. First, it’s mine alone. It’s my death and no one else’s; it’s what individuates me existentially. No matter what I may have in common with people in my community, ultimately I have an ultimate truth (my death), which is mine alone. In fact, my death is not an event, but rather it inflects my understanding of my life, it inflects my mode of being now. I live my death now; it doesn’t merely await me in some unspoken, undetermined future.
Second, it’s non-relational. I can’t learn about death from watching other people pass away. Death is non-communal. We will all die but we all die separately, cut adrift from each other. I can’t die your death. But more importantly, I can’t live your death. I can only live my own. This gives the lie to the whole notion of making sense of my existence through factical roles (such as son, teacher, citizen). None of these factical roles rely upon my existence for them to persist. If I were never born, there would still be sons and teachers and citizens. Those roles have no real bearing on what I am in my ownmost being.
Third, death, in this existential sense, is not to be outstripped. It cannot be avoided and is ever-present. Moreover, it reveals the nullity that’s at the core of my being. The factical roles are social. They go on without me and don’t inform what I am. What I am is nothing, or at least nothing determined. Death individuates but not by giving me something positive that I am, but rather it separates me out from the They, it negates my immersion in the crowd and makes me aware of the fact that I am not.
Here is the crucial turn in Heidegger’s thought regarding death and it’s this, to my mind, that makes the comparison to Capra so compelling. Death is non-relational and thus isolating. But in my existence in this world, I’m inherently being with others, I live in a relational configuration with other human beings, animals, and objects, and the onus is on me to care for those with whom I find myself in relation. We all die but not in the way of the They. Death is not merely a fact, it’s a condition on our very mode of existence. It’s the isolating, irrevocable truth of our ownmost self, but by living our death authentically we are in a proper position to truly care for others — not simply as an enactment of a factical role (that is just what sons do) but as an expression of our own inclinations toward our open possibilities.
This, it seems to me, is what George ultimately learns and it’s for this reason that he seems transfigured at the film’s conclusion. He returns to his family but seems transported — not aloof by any means, but somehow beyond human reach. Stewart plays this scene with an immaculate attention to how one spiritually inhabits a space (as opposed to merely physically occupying space). He doesn’t seem particularly relieved by all of the donations of money that come pouring in. He’s clearly moved but at the same time removed. Notice the way he calls out to his brother Harry when he enters the room with the news of more money set aside to recover his loss. George seemingly takes no notice of his financial salvation. He sees otherwise, now.
God was right: this was George’s crucial night. “Crucial”, of course, derives from the Latin crux, meaning cross. George was at a crossroads between despair and complacent immersion in the They. “Crux” also relates, obviously, to “crucifixion”, and perhaps there’s an element of messianism to George, after all. But I stand behind what I wrote above: George was not any more messianic than any other good person of the town. He became more so, perhaps, owing to his ordeal. Just watch his face throughout the final scene. He has a beatific vision inaccessible to anyone else in the room. He sees the truth: his own death, his own truth.
Part of that truth returns us to the issue of free will. Even if George was never really vouchsafed any true freedom of choice with regard to his actions (he simply did what a good son, a good brother, a good citizen would do — Capra portrays him as special but not anomalous), he now sees that he has a freedom of choice with respect to his mode of existence, his way of accepting the world. This doesn’t negate Capra’s determinism, for that’s a determinism relative to action. This is a freedom of attitude and one of vision. The world goes its way and we are forced to succumb to its ineluctable momentum. Our freedom, according to Capra, resides not so much in action but in deportment. We stand aware of what we do, aside from what “one does”, and we remain resolute in that knowledge.
And so George stands, holding Zuzu in his arms beneath the Christmas tree staring off into eternity as his friends surround him. He calls to Harry as if from a distance. George sees the world differently now. He’s living authentically. Perhaps soon he will melt back into the factical roles of father, citizen, and loan officer but for now he’s his ownmost self, resolute in his Being-toward-Death, aware of his utter isolation amidst friends and loved ones, aware that his existence is based on a nullity, a lack of positive essence, a lack of an assured place in the world, and yet he finds himself immersed in Being-with-Others, nestled in the warm embrace of a community he adores and that adores him. He’s certainly no longer discouraged.