“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers”
So said Socrates, allegedly—a quote often used to make the point that intergenerational conflict is nothing new. However, the words actually originate in the 1907 Cambridge dissertation of Kenneth John Freeman. But Freeman was summarising the views of a string of ancient authorities (Socrates among them)—so the point stands: successive Western generations have harboured contempt for both their elders and young.
Much commentary on the Millenial/Gen-Z v. Gen-X/Boomer dichotomy talks as if such intergenerational conflict is something new. For example, a recent NYT piece argued that “OK Boomer” marks “the end of friendly generational relations”—as if such a thing already existed.
However, in spite of the ubiquity of intergenerational breakdown, its particularities will vary from one instance to the next. Perhaps our discourse needs less incredulity over our current crisis, and more precision about its unique features.
To that end, Roberts Eggers’ The Lighthouse is worthy of our attention: a tale of two isolated lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) descending into madness. Dafoe is the old sea-dog, Pattinson the green landlubber. Their characters are named during the film, but the screenplay calls them simply Old and Young—a clear indication that intergenerational relationships are a central focus.
The remainder of this piece will explore how The Lighthouse illuminates the dynamics of our current intergenerational conflict—namely, how an older generation have lost their hearing with a younger generation, which holds them in contempt, yet remains inescapably envious of them.
Authority, Superstition, and Chesterton’s Fence
The Lighthouse’s central conflict is Old’s imposition of authority on Young. Chief in this regard is his adherence to maritime superstitions: bad luck to leave a toast unfinished; bad luck to kill a seabird. When Young brands these “tall tales”, Old slap him hard across the face.
Young remains unconvinced, but does his best to keep the peace. However, unsurprisingly, he eventually throws caution to the wind, and kills an aforementioned seabird. Infuriatingly, Old is proven right: bad luck arrives and all unravels.
Young falls afoul of Chesterton’s Fence—a warning to those who, seeing no immediate use for old tradition, insist on its removal. G.K. Chesterton explains:
“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it”
Chesterton’s shortcoming here, perhaps, is hoping the would-be reformer will think his way to appreciation—as if the fence’s benefits can be rationally elucidated. Yet often the “fences” questioned by the young are not the kinds of things which can be easily justified.
Eggers seems to understand this by foregrounding superstition; not to defend superstition itself, but to illustrate the inarticulable wisdom of age. No amount of reflection would have made clear the benefits of Old’s superstitions; only tearing down the fence does that.
Being a New York liberal, Eggers probably speaks better than he knows—though he has stated his interest in exploring the traditional folklore and religion of his native New England. Many things currently called into question by liberal Millennials/Zoomers are former “common goods”, the benefits of which defy simple explanation: family, gender, households, local community, ritual.
Who can articulate the benefits of all these—or what will be lost if they disintegrate? These are enacted, embodied realities, thick with meaning; their benefits cannot be fathomed by individual reflection. Yet this fact has turned them into oppressive superstitions for many; fences outliving their usefulness; social Stonehenges.
But Eggers does not dwell on what wisdom our elders have. His pressing concern is that, even if they do have any, they have lost the right to have it heard.
Distrust, Disgust, and Fart Jokes
Old elicits two responses in Young which erode his authority: distrust and disgust.
On distrust: Young is delegated exhausting menial labour, obeying Old’s mantra: “See to yer duties.” Yet Old’s respect for duty is selective. Rules stipulate alternate night shifts watching the light, but Old jealously guards it as his alone; alcohol is forbidden, but he drinks at every meal. Young also picks up on inconsistent allusions to his past, contradictory accounts of how he got his limp, and apparent gaslighting.
The final lines of Young’s climactic speech are telling:
“You goddamned, no-account, drunken, son-of-a-bitch-bastard liar! That’s what you are, you’re a goddamned drunken horse-shitting—short— shit liar. A liar!”
The ultimate indictment: Old is a liar.
There is nothing new about our elders losing trust through dishonesty. However, recent years have precipitated an especially intense distrust. British pastor and writer Mark Meynell, in A Wilderness of Mirrors, observes:
“Human beings have always deceived and been deceived… Such things have always occurred around centres of power. This gives history its spice… But it feels different now. The West in the early years of the twenty-first century seems afflicted by a deeper, more corrosive cultural mood than previously. It affects the street and the academy, the private and the public, politics, the arts, and the media. We no longer seem to trust those in power”
That was astutely observed in 2015 (a simpler time). “Post-truth” was the OED’s 2016 Word of the Year; “fake news” was Collins’ in 2017. Google Trends shows both terms’ usage has dropped since, but research suggests this is because they’re now part of the furniture, with their role continually evolving. It seems reasonable to concur with Mark Meynell’s suggestion: though we’ve always been deceived and distrustful, perhaps we are uniquely so now. This seems likewise to be a central thrust of The Lighthouse.
Alongside distrust comes disgust. Old’s lies expose his hypocrisy, but his bad habits expose his repugnant, disappointing humanity.
Surprisingly, for a black-and-white arthouse movie, this is mainly achieved through fart jokes.
Flatulence proves humanity, and so can serve profundity. One of Good Will Hunting’s most moving moments is Robin Williams’ improvised reminiscence of a dead wife’s farts. Martin Luther’s scatological humour is much documented, and his farts were explicitly aimed at pricking the pride of the devil or the Pope.
Likewise, The Lighthouse’s farts expose fallibility. Old’s obvious bodiliness shatters his illusion of authority, making Young unable to respect him. Young’s final speech again:
I’m sick of yer orders! I’m sick of your laughing, your snoring, and your goddamned farts. Your damned goddamned farts. Goddamn yer farts! You smell like piss, you smell like jism, like rotten dick, like curdled foreskin, like hot onions fucked a farmyard shit-house. And I’m sick of yer smell. I’m sick of it!
Discovering the fleshy failings of our elders is also nothing new: consider Judah in Genesis 38, Pope Julius II in Erasmus’ Julius Excluded from Heaven, Willy Loman in Death of Salesman. But we currently have a particular fascination with the gory details. Maybe it began with Bill Clinton carefully parsing sex acts, but Trump’s Access Hollywood debacle feels like the Rubicon moment. The downfalls of Harvey Weinstein, R Kelly, Louis CK, and more in the #MeToo era all involved vivid and vile bodily detail. Most recently, the Democratic Debate showed us detail must be given where sexual misconduct is concerned.
And it is not just those who have committed such crimes who are the objects of disgust. The sins of the brothers are visited on the rest of the generation, and all are disgusting by association. Anyone could have their own hidden scandals; if not, they probably stood idly by and let others get away with it. This is why “OK Boomer” became meme-worthy: one blase, cutting phrase tars all with the same brush.
Prometheus, Sex, and Envy
Yet in spite of this mounting distrust and disgust eroding his authority, Old always has something Young wants but cannot have: the light.
When Young finally reaches it, he experiences an ecstatic vision, before tumbling down the tower. The film ends with Young blind and broken on the rocks, seagulls eating his innards. This final shot explicitly recasts him as Prometheus (though Prometheus is briefly mentioned shortly before, in an original poem of Old’s). Whatever Old was guarding becomes the fire of the gods, and Young suffers the consequences of reaching for it.
Few mythical figures are reinterpreted more than Prometheus. We overlook the fact that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is subtitled The Modern Prometheus, yet she hardly has the monopoly on modern reinventions. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Goethe, Ridley Scott, and Terry Pratchett (to name just a few) have all adapted the myth. Now Robert Eggers joins the club.
Eggers draws on Goethe’s visceral contempt, but adds envy to the mix, linking this most obviously to sexuality. Old writes Young up for “self-abuse”, but Young overhears sexual noises (and spies octopus tentacles) when Old is keeping the light. He has erotic mermaid visions, and during one of these the screenplay reads “IMAGE: THE LIGHTHOUSE, at a 45 degree angle, LOOKING LIKE A PENIS.”
Yet the rich Promethean tension of contempt and envy encourages further (hopefully subtler) readings (and Eggers celebrates “question marks” over the film).
Despite Young’s contempt for Old, he envies his possession of the light. Eggers here touches on a particular accent of our current intergenerational breakdown: in spite of the palpable contempt for older generations among the young, there is also a palpable envy.
Endless stories about Millennials being worse off than their parents—with house prices, debt, pensions, benefits, the climate—evidence this quite clearly. In 2016, TheGuardian ran a piece in which a Millennial and a Boomer “swapped lives”. No prizes for guessing who envied who in the end.A more recent piece explores the phenomenon of young people roleplaying as Boomers online—an activity comprised of equal parts contempt and envy. Less frivolously, something like Greta Thunberg’s U.N. Climate Action Summit speech, with its talk of stolen dreams, radiates envy for what her elders have jealously guarded.
Strangely of course, envy feeds rather than dilutes contempt—and has done ever since Abel received favour and Cain did not. In our day, we see this less in brother turning against brother, than in son and daughter turning against father and mother.
Intergenerational breakdown is like the common cold: constantly evolving, and therefore ever present—yet never as bad as we first think. The church, more than any other institution, can take peculiar comfort in knowing it is nothing new under the sun.
Yet this knowledge does not excuse inaction. Indeed, it should prompt vigilance, and constant attention to the particularities of one generation’s conflict with another.
With Chesterton, we must warn the young against needlessly abjuring the faith once handed down. There are positive indications of such warnings being heeded, as more evangelicals tire of the cult of novelty, and movements of Protestant retrieval and Reformed Catholicity rebuild broken fences. There’s a growing sense that it is indeed bad luck to kill a seabird.
Yet we must be attentive to the real danger of a lost hearing among the young. Scandals involving high profile evangelical leaders and their enablers just don’t stop coming, and they prove The Lighthouse right—an older generation may have much wisdom, but that is irrelevant when they have lost all credibility in the eyes of the young. We know they lie. And we know they fart.
G.K. Chesterton, “The Drift from Domesticity” in In Defence of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton Ed. Dale Ahlquist, Joseph Pearce, Aidan Mackey (San Francisco: Igantius Press, 2011), 173-182 ↑