Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 9 May 2024

 ON MR. RIPLEY, WEALTH AND HIS TALENT

I have not watched the recent Netflix series based on the novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, nor do I intend to watch it. And today I would not spare time to watch the original movie or read the novel on which it was based. There are far too many other noble pursuits to indulge than what I consider to be wasteful consumption of fictional and fictitious media and showbiz bling, which I find distasteful and harmful in the extreme, to young and old minds alike. But I did have occasion to watch the original film based on the novel in the days when hotels universally had subscriptions to movie channels and hapless tourists stuck in small rooms at night or on days of inclement weather were helpless hostages to Hollywood dross and smut.

From what I gather, the latest version of the Ripley story treats the maligned protagonist from the outset as an incurable psychopath prone to all and any crime to satisfy his craving for wealth and luxury. If that is the case, then the makers of this series have completely misconstrued the very intriguing and problematic crux of the original story, which is more properly and subtly sketched in the original film with Matt Damon as the lead character. The very serious psychological and ethical problem tackled in the original novel and film is that, contrary to the mistaken and facile presentation in the latest iteration and in common understanding, Ripley does not start as an acquisitive ravenous psychopath ready to sacrifice loves and friends to his overweening ambition and lust for the good life, but rather he turns into such a refined monster only after a series of circumstances that are in part fortuitous and not always within his firm control. Let us call these oblique circumstances ‘temptations’ – temptations that are the combined and partly accidental by product of two elements: - Ripley’s innate ‘talent’ and his strong penchant for pursuing it, and the unhoped-for opportunities that present to him to enable that pursuit. After all, these are the conceptual ingredients of ‘temptation’: - the desire to pursue a perilous goal, and the opportunity to do so. Perilous means here the same as dangerous because the pursuit of the goal involves possible outcomes that may be harmful, physically and morally, both to one’s person and to others.

Ripley has a talent for artistic pursuits – not just a proclivity or a desire, but a true genuine ability to acquire and exhibit what are widely perceived as desirable and worthy activities and skills or virtues or even virtuosisms, if you like. That, in a nutshell, is the nature of talent – a natural or divine ‘gift’ not usually bestowed to the many among us. The problem Ripley faces is interesting in its manifold complexity. Ripley has had the good fortune to acquire the initial knowledge and skills to develop his talent; but, alas, he has come accidentally to a point where he is in imminent danger of no longer being able to afford the continuing pursuit or indulgence of this talent. As is easily opined, this presents us, the viewers, the readers, the judges, with a not negligible dilemma: is Ripley justified in pursuing his talent that his lack of wealth threatens imminently and immanently, or should he just accept his lamentable fate and acquiesce in it? In other words, is Ripley wrong to try to hold on to what he never had?

As Macbeth would have it, mirroring the existential dilemma faced by Hamlet, “to seek or not to seek: there is the rub!” And there, in this philosophical problema, in this existential conundrum, lies the interest in “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, or at least in the philosophically and ethically worthwhile part of it. By stultifyingly avoiding this dilemma, the recent Netflix series reduces Ripley to a flat, unproblematic psychopath – and in so doing it hides and buries the entire socio-political problem of how wealth in capitalism is accessed, acquired and distributed. And consequently of how existing wealth may bar the way, pose an insurmountable obstacle to the pursuit of talent. Ah, there is the rub!



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