Title: The Body in Question
Written by: Henry Bromell
Directed by: David Carson
Aired: November 4, 1991
Log Line: A frozen body discovered in the local river could cause a world-wide historical revolution: was Napoleon really at Waterloo or was he ice fishing near Cicely and fathering a tribe of French-speaking Native Americans?
Listen to the podcast of the episode here.
The episode 3.6 “The Body in Question” ends with Chris reading a passage from Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust:
When from a long distance past nothing persists, after the people are dead, after things are broken and scattered, still alone, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long, long time like souls, ready to remind us, waiting, hoping for their moment amid the ruins of all the rest, and bear unfaltering in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence the vast structure of recollection.
Here we are, well aware of the passing of time, seeing people we love grow frail, seeing those we admire pass on, and seeing ourselves become older day by day. So many things have lived inside us, and died too. There are so many things we forget: a moment of joy in the embrace of our parents, the devastation of realizing we may not become what we dreamed of for ourselves. Many things have been abandoned, lost in the minute folds of time, buried under layers of ice. But what Chris reads out over the airwaves reminds us that there may be some rare moments, prompted by a photograph, or a thread of a song, or a messy scrawl on the corner of a torn notebook, that will bring it all back, the sharp memory that is unearthed, the “vast structure of recollection,” so much so that your whole being is suffused with joy. The memory is yanked back to the present and you see it all, you hear it all, you smell it all, you relive it all. These little floating bits of what you once remembered lives inside you, ready to come alive in the synaptic receptors of your brain.
Perhaps you are an infinite container. The episode surely gestures at this possibility, as Joel muses that “I’m four million years old…We’re all our genes…I’ve slept in trees. I have crossed the Negev. I have run from Cossacks. It is all me.” Joel, of course, gets this idea from Holling, who despairs over his aristocratic ancestry: “We are all just genes, Joel. And this mortal coil, nothing more than a vessel by which the gene pool is transported from one flower to the next.” Holling, ashamed of his lineage, is determined not to leave any heirs so the DeVincoeur line ends with his own death. In a dream sequence, Joel travels back in time to Poland during the Seder at Passover, and he sees his great-grandfather, his uncle who came to New York, and his other uncle that he was named after. He realizes that he is the continuation of their hopes and dreams, that his life is a continuation of their lives. Like the river that we see at the beginning and end of the episode, our individual lives flow from the past into the future, mixing with other lives until it is ours no more.
So we come to the mystery of Pierre Le Moulin. Pierre the Windmill, circling in time from past to future, carried along by the river’s current. A thick layer of ice separates him from the residents of Cicely. Some folks like Maurice see him as an object, something to make money from (“As far as I’m concerned, after a hundred years, carrion becomes memorabilia,” he says). Pierre becomes the centre of speculation in this small town, and people line up to take a peek at him. His frozen body says little about his life. But there is a diary that reveals the bombshell that his travelling companion Napoleon Bonaparte wasn’t at Waterloo after all, but rather escaped to Alaska and fell in love with a local Native woman. Yet even with this diary, there is still precious little we know about Pierre. Asks Chris, “Where’d he come from? Where is he going? I guess we could all as the same questions of ourselves.” Residents can’t help but project a bit of themselves onto Pierre; Shelly thinks the same thing that happened to Josephine will happen to her; Joel sinks into an existential crisis and thinks “the course of Western Civilization” rests on his shoulders; Chris fears for the “karma of the collective unconscious.” Yet Pierre says nothing. It is interesting then, that Chris quotes John Keats’ famous lines “Truth is beauty, beauty truth,” from “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” because the experience of the speaker in the poem reflects the residents’ experience with Pierre and his diary.
The poem is all about a person meditating on a beautiful urn on which are portrayed scenes of everyday Greek life. All at once, the speaker seems to know about scenes of woo and pursuit on the urn, and the scenes of a cow being sacrificed. But the poem ends:
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
The speaker comes out of his trance realizing that even while seeing the scenes of Greek life, he can never know what the urn is saying. Even while he imagines the meaning behind the urn, the urn itself is silent, a blank eternity. The urn is silent, yet it speaks. The urn will continue on as people around it age and die, and it will always be the same mute form. The only thing that it says is those familiar lines “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” – a line which seemingly means much but actually means nothing at all. These final two lines are mysterious, because those are the only words that the urn has to offer humanity. They are as strange as the urn itself.
How do we end? With the mystery of the past, of objects people leave behind. These artifacts seemingly say a lot, but in the end they leave us with more questions than we have answers for. Do we know that the events that Pierre wrote about really happened? Was he actually with Napoleon, and did Napoleon actually miss the battle of Waterloo?
Perhaps we shouldn’t look at historical objects, because what is most real is in our own bodies, where our link with the past is visceral, in our blood, DNA, and cells. We are our own museum, we are our own history book. We are carried by the rivers of time but we ourselves are rivers. And to imagine histories poised in the single bite of a cookie, such as the madeleine which triggers the narrator’s memories in Proust’s own multi-volume “vast structure of recollection”, is something indeed.
Themes / Recurrences: History; time; the body; identity; memory; creativity; reinvention; inheritance.
The Good: The emergence of Ruth-Anne and Ed’s relationship. The sheer number of ‘big ideas’ tackled in a single episode.
The Bad: There isn’t much we don’t like about the episode. If pressed, we might fight fault with how quickly Joel flip-flops on his position to do with revealing the truth to the world. Then again, we’re not even sure that we see that as a weakness.
The Notable: Dave the Cook is starting to become a character.
On’s Rating: 9 out of 10
Shane’s Rating: 9 out of 10
Such a clever episode
It’s a compass! 😀