Withnail & I Viewed From the RightMillennial Woes
Editor’s note: This is a transcript of Millennial Woes’ speech at the 2017 London Forum. We would like to thank Hyacinth Bouquet for this transcript.
Announcer: Some people need an introduction, some people don’t. The next speaker is someone who does not need an introduction. He is Millennial Woes!
Millennial Woes: This is going to be my first speech in Britain; and as such, I wanted it to be about something quintessentially English. After racking my brains, I had the idea — I was going to talk about the BBC. Mixed opinions, as I thought! Or, even the NHS. That is even more mixed, and polarized.
So, anyway, after racking my brains, I had the idea to give an analysis of the film, Withnail & I. I spoke about this film once, six months into my channel’s life, a few years ago now; but there’s a lot more to say about it than I said in that video. For anyone who hasn’t seen Whithnail & I, I have to warn you this speech is going to be full of spoilers. It’s going to completely ruin the film for you, if you haven’t seen it.
Having said that, there isn’t that much of a storyline. That’s one of the beauties of the film. Withnail & I is an art-house film, independent, made in 1987, on a very small budget, in England, by mostly English people. It was written and directed by Bruce Robinson, based on his real-life experience of being an out-of-work actor in the 1960s.
I will start by laying out the setting and plot.
It is London, in 1969. Old Victorian buildings from the heyday of the Empire are being demolished; and egalitarian, directionless concrete blocks erected in their place. By directionless, I mean that they point to nothing; an eternal present.
We find ourselves in one of the old buildings that have, for now, survived. But it is dilapidated and plagued with rats. Here, in this ramshackle abode, live a jaded, broken scion of the upper-classes, named Withnail, and his best friend, Marwood, who comes from the middle-class — the emerging, the new middle-class.
They are in their late twenties. They are out-of-work actors, and have apparently been out of work for a long time, with no hope in sight of things improving. Marwood has recently had an audition, but he is not optimistic about it. Meantime, Withnail is occasionally getting offers; but he thinks the roles are beneath him, with his incredible talent. So he rejects them.
The two men — both single, and poor, and confused, and lost — spend their time moping around their flat, sometimes going to the local pub, visiting the Labour Exchange once a week — that’s what the jobs center used to be called — once a week, to sign on; and doing drugs. Hard drugs, as well; psychedelics and amphetamines. In addition, they chain-smoke, and smoke marijuana; and Withnail is an alcoholic.
That’s the setting; now the plot. This is going to be fairly extensive, because I want to eliminate things that will be irrelevant to the talk; so I apologize for how long-winded this might seem.
Withnail’s wealthy uncle, Monty, has a cottage up in the north of England, in the Lake District. Marwood persuades Withnail to ask Monty if they could go up and stay in the cottage for a while, as a healthy break from their normal degenerate lifestyle. Monty is a flamboyant and eccentric homosexual. At first reluctant, he agrees to their request after his attitude mysteriously changes.
Withnail and Marwood drive up to the cottage, and there they encounter local characters and the challenges of self-sufficiency. Marwood is more practical and down-to-earth than Withnail; but Withnail, as ever, is the dominant party.
After a couple of days, Monty shows up at the cottage. He has driven up from London. He knows how to live in the countryside, and gets the cottage in order.
Marwood is disturbed by Monty’s clumsy flirting with him, but Withnail assures him that he is safe. However, one night after Withnail gets blazingly drunk, Monty attempts to seduce Marwood. It transpires that in order to persuade Monty to let him and Marwood stay at the cottage, Withnail gained Monty’s sympathies by telling him that Marwood is also a homosexual, but in denial about it. Monty took a fancy to Marwood, and decided to pursue them up north; where, in the secluded cottage, he would be able to corner Marwood — literally — teach him not to be ashamed of his sexuality, and seduce him.
Panicking at the prospect of being seduced by Uncle Monty — as who would not? — Marwood tells him that, yes, he is homosexual; but that not he, but Withnail, is the liar. That he (Withnail) is in denial about his sexuality. He further says that he and Withnail have been in a relationship for six years. Monty now feels terrible. Both because of being rejected, and because he feels he has intruded upon a loving bond between two young men; and violated it, as well as their trust. He leaves in the night.
Now, there’s a bit of ambiguity here that no one else seems to have picked up on, where he leaves him a letter calling himself an “eavesdropper.” Seems he has eavesdropped on Marwood’s subsequent conversation with Withnail, in which case he knows that he was tricked twice; once by Withnail, and then by Marwood. This is unclear. Either way, he leaves in the night, never to be seen again in the film.
This leaves Withnail and Marwood alone at the cottage. After years of declining, and enabling each other’s decline, and Marwood being dominated by Withnail’s force of character, and dragged down by his pessimism. After all this, Withnail’s betrayal, by telling Monty that Marwood is homosexual, is too much for Marwood. It is clear that he has had enough, and has made some kind of decision; although he never explicitly states this point.
Conveniently, at this most delicate moment in their friendship, a telegram arrives for Marwood. The audition that he felt had gone badly, had actually gone very well; and he has got an acting job, a major role. It’s a complete surprise, and it’s going to be the start of his career, his life proper. Withnail wants to stay at the cottage a little longer, but Marwood insists that they immediately return to London.
When they get there, they find their drug dealer friend, Danny, has broken into their flat, and is living there with his black friend, Presuming Ed. They also find a letter informing them that they are being evicted. Thus, the world they had together is now over. Marwood has to leave to begin his life, apparently in another city — I think it’s Manchester — and Withnail can’t stay in that flat anymore.
So, it’s all over. As for Withnail, he’s a hopeless alcoholic with no job, no prospects, a very self-destructive mindset, and a terrible attitude towards other people; and, therefore, he is now without his old friend by his side, doomed. And that’s quite clear; it’s quite obvious. Marwood has to leave, he has to do this; because if he doesn’t, he will eventually be destroyed by Withnail.
In the next scene, we see Marwood dressed smartly and having had his hair cut. It’s a complete change. He is packing his things, and about to leave the flat. Withnail tries to persuade him to stay for one last drink together, but Marwood is very anxious to get going. For the first time in the film, Withnail happily compromises, and takes the bottle of wine with him as he accompanies Marwood to his train.
The final scene shows them walking through Regent’s Park, alongside London Zoo. They are bound for the railway station, but Marwood says he wants to part ways here, not there. He is anxious to get away from Withnail, because he doesn’t want to elongate the pain of separating; but also because his future is beckoning, and he is already more attached to it than to the life that he has already left behind. Withnail understands this, and lets Marwood walk on alone. They will probably never meet again; and if they do, they will be different men and barely recognize each other. And they know this.
The two old friends part ways. Withnail watches Marwood go, then turns to an enclosure in the zoo, and delivers a monologue from “Hamlet.” He performs it wonderfully; with a blend of pathos, humor, exasperation, anger, hate, love, melancholy, regret, detachment, passion, arrogance, vulnerability, and sorrow. He shows that, after all the bluster about how brilliant he could be, he actually could be brilliant. But alas, his only audience is the uncaring animals, and he hasn’t the wherewithal to get a more appreciative audience for his talent, for his heart.
Withnail turns away from us and walks off into the distance, disappearing into the folds of rain on a day in London in 1969, never to be seen again, and probably never to matter to anybody again. And the end credits come up to some melancholy music.
So that’s the plot. It’s worth saying that, in the original screenplay, or at least the novel, the unpublished novel on which it was based, there was an additional scene after this. Withnail returned to the flat and committed suicide. Bruce Robinson decided that this was too dark, and that it was actually more powerful to end the story in the park, with Whitnail’s fate somewhat ambiguous; although, I don’t think it really is ambiguous.
Briefly, what I love about the film, just to get this over with. The pacing, the settings, the subtle storyline, the simplicity, which tends to come with low-budget material. The dreariness. I love the British dreariness, off of the set. The worn-down buildings, and so on. The pleasant 1980s synth’ soundtrack, which can be quite subtle; it’s not entirely synthetic. It’s definitely of that time. Also, the humor, and the soulfulness. It’s very soulful. That’s all I’ll say just now.
But, like any low-budget drama, this film lives or dies on its characters — and they are fantastic. They are incredibly relatable. You feel attached to them; you feel you know them, you feel you could be friends with them, you feel you could have a great time with them. Most of all, they seem real. Very rarely is the dialogue alien or sterilized. At no point does it feel like a character is reading from the Guardian. And I say that because, honestly, nowadays it’s difficult to find a TV drama, or a film, in which it doesn’t seem like every character is reading from the Guardian. I made a video about this once called, “The Dishonest Mirror.” I’ll not go into that now.
Nothing about the film is PC. And I mean “PC” in the very broad sense of being borne of intellectual compulsion. The film is, within certain confines, intensely honest. It could not be made today.
Guardian readers and social justice warriors do enjoy this film; but they do so, I believe, on the understanding that it is “old” — it’s thirty years old. If it came out today, these same people would be outraged by it, I believe, partly because it contains mild racism and homophobia. Yes, it does violate PC at that tangible level; but more importantly, it violates PC at a subliminal level.
PC is, after all, an entire attitude towards life, characterized by dishonesty and cowardice; a willingness to not report life as it is, or even to witness life as it is, and to not be open to people as they actually are. And not even to be open to one’s self, as one actually is. PC, after a long enough time, has the effect of blinding a people to themselves.
In the case of Withnail & I, this is a very English film. In 1987, the English were still allowed to make films about themselves; and I don’t think that’s the case now, for reasons I don’t think I need to go into with this audience. And it’s not even just about multiculturalism, multiracialism. Obviously every cast has to be multiracial now, but it’s not even that. It’s deeper than that. Every character now has to be a Guardian reader, or some laughable working-class fool.
To get into the meat of the thing; at the start of the film, one of the first lines of dialog you hear is, it’s actually like five minutes in, Marwood is in the bath going through an internal monologue; and he talks about coming down from speed. And he says, “Time change — you lose, you gain.”
In this way, we are introduced to their detachment — Withnail and Marwood’s — detachment from normal rhythms, normal life, and the world outside them. This is two people — and I think a lot of us will have been in a situation like this at some point in our lives. Two people lost in the world that they have created together — a dysfunctional marriage, or a despairing friendship; something like that.
For six years, Marwood and Withnail have been friends; and in that time they have descended together, very much as a single entity, as is the case with intense friendships, or relationships. The other person becomes your whole life, or at least the lens through which you view your whole life. You have the pleasant side of it; the in-jokes, the understandings, the little conventions that you share. But you don’t have a broader life beyond that person, and so your relationship with them becomes gangrenous.
Richard E. Grant was 29 at the time of filming, and his character Withnail is also 29, about to turn 30. Paul McGann was 28 at the time; but, apparently, the script specifies that he is 25. So a bit younger than Withnail, and perhaps that’s significant; but the age area is very important; the late twenties.
What we’re seeing is the terrifying experience of being a man in his late twenties — at the very end of youth — with no direction, and no marriage. You don’t know what you’re living for; you don’t know what you are for. It was okay when you were 20, and even 24; but not when you’re 27, and definitely not when you’re 29, to be in that situation.
It’s worth saying — since we’re talking about “Withnail & I’ with a view from the right — it’s worth saying that traditional marriage, and the male breadwinner role, would have alleviated this. Think a minute. I’m sure everyone knows some young man today, or even is a young man today, who doesn’t have these things, and is lost as a result. Atomized.
Of course, we leave young men just to drift, and that’s the key thing. In this example, the late ‘60s, that’s a long time ago; but they’re a sort of prototype for the NEETs of today. This is just something I’m improvising. I don’t think it’s particularly clever, but it’s relevant; because you have this aimlessness, and the despair, and the fear, and the worry, of not knowing where your life is going, and having nothing to rely on, nothing to build on. That’s a terrible situation to be in. And it’s one that was kind of [inaudible] then, it was kind of contained to the arty set. Nowadays, it’s very common — very common, indeed.
And then, of course, the other thing is that they’re single. They don’t have wives or girlfriends; again, increasingly common for young men. So, they rely on each other; Marwood and Withnail. As a result, they’re frustrated. They resent each other, but they also love each other. There’s a great sense of — I mean this in the platonic sense, just because there are some people, which we’ll get to in a minute, there are some people who think that they’re secretly gay. I think that is so silly.
Anyway, it’s a platonic love and it’s very deep. You get the sense of the love they used to have for each other; but it’s now struggling under years of mutual disappointment, and mutating into mutual loathing. Their friendship has become a prison; but the world around them, the world outside their flat, isn’t much better.
The post-1950s optimism of the early ‘60s has given way to the pop culture hedonism of the Beatles, which has given way to the degeneracy and nihilism of the hippie movement; which, in turn, has given way to despair.
The 1960s is shown as an enterprise that has failed — totally. And I don’t mean failed in the sense that it has not achieved its goals — that’s actually neither here nor there — but in that it has failed mankind. In the pursuit of those goals of the 1960s, the past has been obliterated. Roots have been cut. Heritage has been demolished. Social conventions have been pulverized. The very meaning of life has been filleted, leaving people confused — intensely confused.
Now, just to show a completely different perspective on this film, and I think how delusional leftists can be — and I’m not saying that we’re immune to delusion, but this is an example of leftist delusion. An online commenter — I don’t know where I found this, but it was a comment somewhere — “The ‘60s are ending, and Withnail was in his element. But the times, they are a-changing. This is a man out of place, in a world which was his oyster not so long ago.”
So the bad thing is not that the 1960s happened, but that the 1960s are ending. This is a Left-wing interpretation aiming to celebrate the 1960s; but, it simply doesn’t match up with what we see in the film. The 1960s have not suddenly turned bad for Withnail in the final year — it was always bad for him.
The idea that he was really happy in swinging London, and only a year or so before the story takes place, is ridiculous. He’s not a party animal. He doesn’t care about fashion. It seems very unlikely that he’s interested in pop music. And moreover, his career has never taken off. He has been on the decline probably since he graduated from drama school, so about 8 years; in other words, all throughout the 1960s.
This is not a character that exemplifies all that was great about the ‘60s, but one that exemplifies how short-sighted and destructive that decade was. He is content to partake of the degeneracy, along with everyone else, but he never “belonged” in that decade. Withnail belongs in the 1890s.
When Danny, the drug dealer, laments that, “The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over, and we have failed to paint it black,” Withnail — see, our natural reaction is to scoff at that, and I think it’s Withnail’s natural reaction as well. But whether he does it or not, he is intelligent enough to know that these words are just so much modern drivel; and he is educated enough to know that there was something much better than what the 1960s was aiming for.
The characters of Withnail & I are caught between two worlds, neither of which is the world envisioned by the ‘60s. The two worlds are the imperial past of Great Britain; Christian, class-based, non-materialistic — and I say that, obviously, the Empire, Victorian England, was materialistic; but within certain confines, within the context of Christian morality. It was not some kind of consumerist nightmare. The imperial past of Great Britain — Christian, class-based, non-materialistic, and soulful — and the other world — the late 20th-century Britain — monetarism, consumerism, egalitarianism, and mass production. Everything having its price, and everything being worthless.
The characters are sandwiched by these two worlds, while they fester, dazed, in the amoral swamp that has become of the 1960s, their own time. At the end, Danny laments that, “They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s!” Now, obviously, that would be a genuine phase, it would annoy — to the extent that Danny could get annoyed by anything — something like that would be a kick in the teeth. I can sympathize with them just on that basis, even though I think that it’s imbecilic; but the fact is, selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s, that is a harbinger of the age that was to come.
Thatcherism was on the way — monetarism, Reaganomics, vicious global capitalism — in stark contrast to what you might call the high Tory mindset of Withnail and Monty, and also Marwood, to a lesser extent; but still, he has it, too. He’s the one who moans about, “Murder and all-bran and rape!” Whilst Monty says that they are “shat on by the Tories, and shoveled up by Labour.”
Withnail — to get back to him — Withnail doesn’t belong in the 1960s, but he certainly doesn’t belong in the age that was on the way; our age. This is why the film should be of interest to people in the Alt-Right and Neoreaction, both of which movements have perceived the hollowness of consumerist culture, and yearn for something more nourishing.
On which note, let’s talk about Danny. I wasn’t sure what I was going to say about Danny. I was thinking I might have to omit him from the speech. I couldn’t think of something, but then this came up quite naturally; and it’s a bit reaching, but there’s maybe some truth in it.
You could say that Danny is a sort of proto-globalist, or at least a proto-modern person of our age. Whatever whims and pearls of wisdom pass through his head, he is ultimately just a consumer, and an idiot. The knowing fool. In this case occupying his time with frivolities and pseudo-philosophy; because he has no grounding, no history, and you could even say no identity.
He has the hippie clothes. There’s some kind of funny bone thing hanging from it, if you look closely; it’s quite amusing, the amount of attention to the detail of it. He has that, and the paraphernalia of identity, but not an actual identity. Nothing to root him, or nourish him, or make him a meaningful creature. He’s just another creature. A struggling actor trying to get by; that’s all.
He is a degenerate, like Withnail; but unlike him, Danny can stand it. He will be okay. He will never commit suicide. He will never have a nervous breakdown. He might end up in prison — he probably will — in and out of prison. He might end up freezing to death on a street one day. But he will never crash and burn, because there’s nothing to burn. In a world of nothing, Danny is a survivor; because he has nothing, and cares about nothing. He’s not a bad person, just totally detached; and he’s not like this because of the age.
One hundred years earlier, Withnail would have been a roguish officer, exploring the boundaries of the British Empire, forever searching for that elusive sunset. Marwood would have been an earnest and well-meaning missionary in Africa, tending to the poor and primitive, glad that he could bring them something of civilization. And Monty would have been a theatre financier, something like that, satisfied that he was sustaining the artistic strands of the British Empire.
But Danny would be exactly as he is in 1969. He would have been on different drugs, he would have been wearing different clothes, and he’d have had different phrases; but his lifestyle would be virtually the same. He is the only character who is not damaged by the post-war social revolution. Bear in mind that this is a parasite, a career criminal, a fraudster, a degenerate, and a liar who has absolutely no fealty to the truth, and who is too detached to care about anything. That is who gets on well with modernity; but, bear in mind also, that he is working-class.
It’s significant that, in this film, the lower down the social order a character is the more contented and capable he is. By contrast, the higher up he is in the social order, the less contented, more confused and more self-destructive he is. Marwood is right in the middle, and he’s the only character who’s right in the middle of the social hierarchy; and this perhaps explains why the film pivots on his character arc. He could end up going either way, whereas those on either side of him are fated.
Marwood is probably the first person in his family to go to university. He’s at that moment in time when university became more available. He doesn’t have Withnail’s self-confidence, or good breeding, or grasp of Latin. He has instead some of the wherewithal of the lower classes. He is the submissive and unassertive one; yet he is the one who gets things done, and who ultimately escapes the despair.
Every social class is ruthless in its own way. Danny, and Jake the poacher, a minor character they meet up in the Lake District, they’re both working-class. They will abandon you if you disrespect them, if you patronize them, if you lie to them. Marwood, middle-class, will abandon you for the sake of his career. Think of Rotherham; the social services. Think of the incredible ruthlessness of those people. Withnail will betray you for the sake of a weekend in the country, but we never actually see him abandoning anyone. In fact, the two aristocrats, or pseudo-aristocrats, in this film are the two most loyal characters in the film.
At heart, Withnail and Monty are romantics; and this is their fatal weakness. They are too romantic to adapt, and thereby survive. Like good aristocrats, they are wrapped up in the long term, the eternal; but that’s why they get tripped up by the short term, the here and now.
The next section is rather reaching, again. I’m sure there’s at least one person who didn’t like it, but here we go.
It’s about Monty. I’m going to talk about Monty, because I really like Monty. I think most people do, actually. He’s an adorable character. He’s difficult to hate. It’s all to do with the figure of the homosexual. The homosexual — and we’re speaking in archetypes here — is a tragic figure.
When people say that this film is homophobic, I don’t think they’re so much thinking about individual phrases, or Marwood’s reactions. I think it’s this fundamental idea that they’re focusing on; the idea that the homosexual is a tragic figure. They’re objecting to it — this is Leftists, and so on — because it’s true.
Even today, the homosexual is tragic. Yes, he can live openly now, he can adopt kids, he can even have his own babies; but he is not normal, and his sexual proclivities are not spiritually optimal. Not only do they drive him to engage in a non-reproductive act, they drive him to insert his penis into another man’s digestive system. I’m sorry to be going into such detail here, but it’s necessary.
There is great symbolism in that. The organ that is meant for creating things, instead of being used in the arena of biological creation, is instead used in the arena of biological disintegration — the place where things are broken down, dissolved, denied their structure, their function, their meaning, and reduced to primordial matter.
On a symbolic level — and I emphasize symbolic — this reflects the nihilism of the stereotypical homosexual. Nihilism comes quite naturally to them, I think, because they are outside by definition. They are outside the mainstream, and they live outside of the paradigm of biological continuation. Thus, nihilism.
Every good homosexual should battle against that nihilism, and I think many do. This is why Monty is a virtuous character. He battles against nihilism all the time, every scene he’s in; defending manners, doing the right thing, being kind, upholding high culture, and being attentive to those around him. On only one occasion does he fail; when he tries to seduce Marwood. Even this is inadvertent, to some extent, because he believes Marwood is gay. Nonetheless, it is a violation of trust; and he pays for it, because he is cast out.
There’s a “fan” theory, as I mentioned earlier, that Withnail and Marwood are secretly gay. This would create levels of deception — it doesn’t really matter. This theory has always really irritated me; because I think it’s simply — it’s silly, and it’s low-brow, and it also robs the film of its mystery. Of its heart. I don’t think they’re gay. I don’t think that at all. But the point is, that if they are gay, then it kind of puts a full stop on the whole thing.
Also, what I want to say about this theory, is it’s an example of how the Left tries to co-opt everything, by assuming that each thing is already under its spell. To the useful idiot, 18-year-old Leftist, Withnail and Marwood must be secretly gay; because that would mean the film is Left-approved. The film probably is Left-approved, for what it’s worth, but this would be a tangible sign, “Yes, it’s okay; it’s . . . my way of thinking.” And conveniently, it would also mean that no more thinking was necessary about their friendship and their relationship. It would cheapen things. Deep male friendship is obviously a thing; and as soon as you say, “Well, they’re just gay.” That’s it — it’s over. The depth is over. It would utterly ruin the film, I think, if it were revealed that was what was actually going on.
This gets into something else I want to talk about; the matter of faux art appreciation, and faux culture, which is the way that these fans of it come up with a stupid theory like that. In the same way that Doctor Who fans, who want to be eccentric, look for a faux way of being eccentric — a pre-packaged way that they can plug into something and be eccentric, and wear a frilly scarf and all that — so do leftists who are intrigued by melancholy. Melancholy is kind of a right-wing thing. I’ll get into that in a minute.
If they are intrigued by it, but they lack the psychological rigor to actually explore it, what they will do is they find them something like Withnail & I, a faux way of being melancholic. Most of them will never explore the film the way I am doing right now. That’s not to congratulate myself, just to point out that playing the drinking game, and then nodding solemnly to the bittersweet music at the end, is not to have explored melancholy. It’s playing at being melancholic. It’s faux. It’s faux culture.
Melancholy. Melancholy must be treated very carefully in art, and entertainment, and culture, and society. It’s something that’s very delicate; and you can ruin it very easily. I think the Victorians managed it, in terms of a balance. This is probably a part of their appeal to us today. Victorian England was not — at least in its photography, for example — it was not bright and happy. In its architecture, it was not bright and happy. It was quite solemn and foreboding. It was not optimistic, like America’s 1950s. They were obsessed with death, and sorrow and melancholy — even the melancholy of being the world superpower.
So, you could argue that melancholia is quintessential to the conservative mind. After you have conserved, you have the luxury of being able to question whether any of the effort was worth it; and before you conserve, you have the burden of wondering whether you will actually manage it.
The conservative is perpetually up against forces of nihilism and corrosion, so it’s only natural that he should live a life largely flavored by melancholy. In addition, the conservative is given to pessimism about the human condition, but this is usually tinged with the relief that comes with not expecting utopia; something, by the way, that does not happen with disaffected Leftists. Because in their hearts, they still expect utopia. That’s why they’re curmudgeons, rather than melancholic. That’s why they’re bitter, rather than regretful. This is the result; melancholy, yet again.
That brings us to the character of Marwood. I don’t have any real notes for this, but Marwood is supposed to be a stand-in for Bruce Robinson. He’s supposed to represent him in the events that actually happened to him in the ‘60s. Of course, you’ve got to wonder how accurate of an avatar is he? Does it really matter? Probably not. I suppose it does matter in the terms of his agency in the film. Is he let off too easily with certain things?
If I were to describe Marwood, the “I” character; sanguine, submissive, but also vengeful, placid, practical, impractical, at times. Devious — he’s quite feminine, actually. I mean that in the sense that you think he’s a nice guy, and he’s gentle, and never asserts himself; but he might poison you!
Uncle Monty actually comments on that. He says, “He’s so mauve,” meaning that he’s referring to that. Marwood is also obsessive, and insecure; but he has a survival instinct, which Withnail lacks — both in the macro and the micro.
Marwood is more able to adapt, and more flexible than Monty and Withnail. He’s less wedded to the past than they are. He comes from, probably, the mobile emerging middle-class. As such, he’s not at home — he has this soul — he obviously is elitist; and he obviously yearns for something that is slipping away, but he will be able to cope with the future. He won’t be at home in the coming age of monetarism and consumerism; but he will be perfectly able to navigate it, as we see in the course of the film.
Which brings us to culture and politics. By today’s standards — and this is one of the reasons it could never be made today. By today’s standards, Withnail and Marwood are homophobic, anti-Semitic, racist, ageist, sexist, elitist, and snobbish; and for the sake of it, I will enumerate the evidence for each of these claims.
Homophobic. Marwood describes Monty as a raving homosexual, and then criminally resists Monty’s advances, which I actually think is held against him now by Leftists. It’s amazing, but I think they do; despite themselves. They know that they would do the same in that situation; but still, it’s homophobic for them to actually show that on screen, you know.
The other evidence of homophobia is that Monty is, to some extent, a stereotype. He is a character. There is no doubt that he is a character in his own right, but he does adhere to some stereotypes. He is stereotypically predatory and flamboyant, and tragic, as an older homosexual preying on young men, and so on.
There’s also a reference to film directors preying on young men and plying them with money, which is a reference to Bruce Robinson’s experiences with Franco Zeffirelli in real life. Then there’s the matter of the violent Irishman, who Marwood fears “fucks arses.” And that’s a big thing, “Maybe he does it — maybe he’s been here.” So he’s paranoid. And then, finally, that Marwood is enraged that Withnail told someone he was a “toilet trader,” meaning a homosexual. That’s a phrase — actually, I wasn’t familiar with it in our time.
Then there is for the racism. What was the main one here is, “Who’s the huge spade in the back?” Which, I love. Then, there’s the pub landlord who says, “So, are you going to take a crack at the Mick?” And then, of course, there is the stereotype of the violent, Irish drunkard.
Anti-Semitic. Uncle Monty refers to his agent, or one of his former agents, as a “dreadful little Israelite.” Which is not the most overt anti-Semitism, but I am pretty damned sure it wouldn’t be allowed today.
Sexism. Among several examples, the one that immediately came to mind when I was trying to scan my memory for examples, was when Withnail describes some young girls as, “Little tarts, they love it!” There are other examples, but that’s the most amusing one, I think.
And then snobbery. This film is awash with snobbery! “Even the wankers on the site don’t drink that.” Meaning the building site; the manual workers, working-class people.
And then ageism. Marwood and Withnail’s attitude towards every character who is older than them is one of disrespect, mockery, and dismissiveness. Ageism, Left or Right, might have different attitudes towards this. It’s interesting, because it is actually in the Leftists’ cadre of phobias. Ageism is illegal. To discriminate by age is a crime in Britain. But anyway, it also clearly is a conservative concern; that you should respect your elders, and so on. So it falls on both sides.
The point is that most of these bigotries mark Marwood and Withnail as being on the Right; certainly by today’s standards. What this means is that this was the art school set, just immediately as the art school culture, was being taken over by the Left. This was the last of the conservative art school set.
Now, a qualification. Art students today are universally Left-wing, in my experience; but they maintain the snobbery of Withnail and Marwood. The snobbery is the one bigotry here it’s alright to have; and that goes for a lot of different people. But in the case of art students, I know why it is. They maintain the snobbery of Withnail and Marwood, but they do so towards a different end.
They simply — this is the art students today — enjoy feeling superior to the “chavs” and philistines who bullied them at school for being weirdoes. Fair enough. It’s not nice to be a bully; but the point is, it’s an inward-looking thing. It’s a personal vendetta. By contrast, Withnail, and Marwood, and Monty are snobs because they care about culture and civilization. It’s an outward-looking thing. So that’s what these silly, young art students today miss.
As I alluded to earlier, they are not just snobs; they are conservatives. Marwood says he voted Tory at the last election, but that is only the most obvious sign that they’re conservatives. The fact that these two characters, who are incredibly likeable and relatable, are Right-wing, or conservative, must irk and baffle a lot of the younger people who watch this film. Especially my generation, my age group, who are so nihilistic. But I imagine for people younger than me, in their twenties, who also come by it, it be strange for them today; to see conservatives who are not like Donald Trump. Right-wingers who are not like that. We’ll get into that in a minute.
One other thing I wanted to say about this, and I mentioned this in the video I made about it a few years ago, is that you have this strange thing: conservatives on the dole. Again, this is sort of a contradiction. Conservatives believe in personal responsibility, self-sufficiency, not being a parasite, taking care of yourself, doing your duty; and yet, here we have two drop-outs, essentially, who are on the dole.
From a certain perspective, from a High Tory perspective, I think there is certainly a case that could be made that we should look after these people, because ultimately they will — if they are correctly stewarded — they will produce the art of our culture, our society. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a contradiction; but, of course, you have to think of — good God — the mid-twentieth century Britain, the state of mid-twentieth century Britain. Financing art is not the most encouraging prospect; but then again, it’s not much better — in fact, it’s even worse — today. That is an argument that could be made for them being on the dole.
Also, they’re just surviving. I only want to mention this because it’s an interesting contradiction. That the one hand, they are undoubtedly cultural and social conservatives; but economically, I don’t know. Maybe they are economically conservative, as well, but they’re just betraying their principles for the sake of getting by. I don’t know. But it’s an interesting thing, anyway.
To get back to them being conservatives. Marlow and Withnail are conservative at the last point in British history when there was any point being conservative, and even then, in 1969, it was futile. After all, what’s the point of conserving a social structure that condemns oneself to obsolescence and uselessness?
This refers to Withnail and Uncle Monty. Two generations before, in the 1910s, the 1900s, Withnail would have known how to catch fish, trap hare and rabbit, kill a chicken, mend a broken window, successfully fight a violent drunkard, organize a fuel and wood-finding expedition, and probably, how to pull one’s socks up and stave off despair; because he would have been trained at the best schools in the world to be an English gentleman — a man who can take control of situations, whilst simultaneously having soul enough to understand what the point is of doing any of this.
After being educated in these schools, he would then be placed in a society that respected and had uses for such men. But by 1969, that man was just another man at the supermarket buying the same breakfast cereal as everyone else; and of course this is even more true today.
The collapse of class is ever-present in this film. We see a moment in time where the old categories were dissolving. You could take any point in time — 1980, 1990, 1997, with New Labour — any point in time you could say the class structure was more dissolved after that point. But, nonetheless, we could also pick this point, 1969. In different ways, it’s always true; because it’s always the same story, with the classes dissolving. We’re all becoming plebian in some way.
The collapse of class is ever-present in this film. We see a moment in time when the old categories were dissolving; and it’s those at the top of the hierarchy who simply don’t know how to respond. Yet feckless, vain and pretentious as the upper-class characters are, the film never goes so far as to say that these people are ridiculous because of their class. Frankly, I think the film laments their defenestration; perhaps, despite itself. This really gets us to the champagne socialist, who secretly absolutely loves hierarchy, but can’t admit it. We’ll get back to that later, in conclusion.
The character of Withnail. I don’t actually have a structured thing for this, because he’s the sort of character — well, he’s a fascinating character. He’s very flavorsome. He’s very distinctive. I have some words to describe Withnail. Vain — obviously; dishonest; passionate; jealous; vengeful — again; insecure, paranoid — but not as paranoid as Marwood, interestingly; witty; intelligent; debonair — even in his torn clothes; clumsy; socially inept; socially sophisticated — in different situations, and depending on his mood; he can be gormless, cruel — or at times he can be very suave; perceptive; gormless as I said; wise — at some points he does show wisdom, especially at the end; selfish; and also addictive, in both senses of the word.
He is, clearly, someone who easily gets addicted to things, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, and so on; and also all sorts of other small, strange habits. He’s also addictive in terms of you want to be around him. Obviously, I don’t want to be too presumptuous. Maybe you wouldn’t want to be around Withnail. I certainly would. I would find him fascinating to watch. I think a lot of people would.
He is a natural leader — if he could only lead himself. You don’t see him leading, at all. You see him just falling apart throughout the whole film; but in a different situation, a different age, I think he would have been a natural leader. That’s his force of character, his natural dominance.
Withnail is archetypically English. He can eat fish and chips, or caviar. He can chat to the working-class, or the upper-class. He can deliver a Shakespeare soliloquy, whilst leaning over a park railing, drunkenly, with a bottle of wine in hand. He could sleep on the street; he could sleep in a mansion. He can speak Latin, but also tell his drug dealer to fuck off. He could dine in a fine restaurant, or a small tearoom. He can volunteer to defend you from a pub drunkard, but then run away from said pub drunkard. He can be hungover, but still find his way home down the M1. He’s habitual, yet also random and unpredictable. He can snub every authority and institution, whilst still loving hierarchy. He can be passionate, but also cynical. He can be vulnerable, but also stiff-upper-lipped. He can be lost in his own despair, yet still smile at a friend’s success.
At one level, he’s the worst friend you could have; at another level, he’s the best. He’s an English rogue. He’s also — surprisingly, perhaps — very strong. This is one of the reasons that I think, in another age, he would have been a totally different and far more constructive person.
Why is he strong? What’s the evidence for that? Apart from anything else, it takes strength to endure his long-running failure. It also takes strength to congratulate your best friend on an eventuality which will surely take him away from you. You can see on Withnail’s face, in that penultimate scene, that he knows he is going to lose his best friend forever; and it’s awful to watch. It’s a horrible shot, a horrible moment.
In his time, the 1960s, Withnail is a man utterly wasted, in both senses of the word. If you could use your imagination, you can picture the man he could have been. He could have been an exemplary member of society. He has incredible drive, passion, intelligence, and talent; but in the age he finds himself in, these things can only work to destroy him. The zest for life that he should have, is mutated into a resentment against everything.
In an age which could destroy men, you would do well to absorb morality, as it might save you from becoming corrupted yourself. So now I’m going to talk about some moral lessons that we can draw from Withnail & I, the film; and I should say that I don’t think they were all intended by the director. I think it kind of accidental.
Before I get into the moral lessons, I’m going to read this excerpt from Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Book 2. And this is a quotation that I love.
The soul of man does violence to itself, first of all, when it becomes an abscess and, as it were, a tumor on the universe, so far as it can. For to be vexed at anything which happens is a separation of ourselves from nature, in some part of which the natures of all other things are contained.
There is a connection between all of us, and each one of us; and so it’s foolish and foolhardy to resent too much.
In the next place, the soul does violence to itself when it turns away from any man, or even moves towards him with the intention of injuring, such as are the souls of those who are angry. In the third place, the soul does violence to itself when it is overpowered by pleasure or by pain. Fourthly, when it plays a part, and does or says anything insincerely. Fifthly, when it allows any act of its own… to be without an aim, and does anything thoughtlessly and without considering what it is, it being right that even the smallest things be done with reference to an end. . .
I think there’s an awful lot that you can draw from that, but I’ll proceed to the moral lessons. Maybe I’ll do a video about that directly one day.
Here are the moral lessons from Withnail & I. The first one, Marwood says to Withnail upon discovering his betrayal, there the next morning, he says — and he had time to think about it. He’s had time to reach some conclusions and some decisions; and he says to Withnail, “You’ll suffer for this, Withnail. What you have done will have to be paid for.” I think that’s a very interesting sentence, a line of dialog in a film that is ostensibly left-wing, liberal, progressive. The people who made it, I think nowadays they would see themselves in those terms; and certainly it’s popular with people who do see themselves in those terms. And yet, here we have this idea of morality and justice, in people getting their just desserts — karma, moral balance. It’s a film that believes in these things.
Withnail sins because he is an abscess on the world and is entirely self-absorbed, and fails to take other people seriously. And for sinning, he does pay; as Marwood predicted. He pays perhaps the ultimate price. He becomes irrelevant to the entire world. He asked to be an abscess; he set it up so he would become one; he acted like one; and at the end of the film, he is one. The lesson is you pay for what you do. Moral assaults that you visit upon the world will be repaid to you in the form of isolation and despair.
Moral lesson two — and this relates to the confusion and despair of young men. It’s a useful, but very harsh, lesson. If you give in, life will crush you; and it’s really as simple as that. By contrast, if you take the initiative in things and maintain a constructive attitude — which sounds lightweight, I know, but it’s true — then you need never know despair.
If you try to be constructive, and you take the initiative, you need never know despair. You might feel despondent, you might feel depressed, or disappointed, or even lost, and confused, and worried, but you will not feel hopeless. So the film ultimately carries this lesson that you must not be the abscess on the world that the brilliant Withnail has become. Follow Marwood’s example.
Moral lesson three — an equally hard lesson — people grow apart. The best of friends can become like strangers to each other, and there’s nothing that we can do about it. People need to grow, and the manner of their growing is unpredictable, sometimes consciously chosen, sometimes random, sometimes a direct — or even scarier, an indirect — consequence of their past actions.
People are on their paths; and their paths will coincide for a while, but eventually they will diverge, or want to diverge. And the more you need the other person, the more you try to stop them from following their path, the more they will resent you; and the more you will lose them.
Moral lesson four. This lesson is definitely not explicit in the film, and is probably accidental. I think it grates with the general attitude towards life that is promoted in the film by Bruce Robinson, who is not fully honest. So this is why I don’t think he can have intended this lesson in any way; but I think it’s there, anyway.
This is the matter of male inadequacy. At several points in the film, at least two that I can recall, Marwood takes pleasure in Withnail’s failure. When Withnail is arguing with his agent over the phone, Marwood is laughing at his exasperation. And then, also, he teases him saying — Withnail says his family don’t like him being on the stage, being an actor — and Marwood replies, “Well, they must be delighted with your career.” So, he teases him.
The point is that it if it were just that — it’s funny to watch; but for a friend to say that to a friend is kind of sick. There should be no pleasure in the failures of one’s friends — or supposed friends. To do so, to feel that schadenfreude, in regards to somebody for whom you are responsible in some way, is to enter a murky, complicated, deceitful, and ultimately abusive situation.
This is especially true for men, who should maintain a constructive and honest, and to some extent, practical approach to life and to each other. Because they, men, are concerned with the construction of the world and the future; so if they’re not honest with each other — especially their friends — then it’s an impediment, a serious obstacle.
Moral lesson five — and this hinges on a comment that was posted under one of my videos about six months ago. I can’t remember which video it was, but it was a very interesting comment; and I’m going to read it out to you before I proceed to the lesson:
In the Catholic worldview, for an act to be moral, it must progress the things involved towards their natural goal or purpose, their telos. For example, cheating an employee out of his wages is wrong; not only because it is dishonest, but also because it denies the man the goal of his labor, and thus makes his labor in vain. Murder is wrong, not only because it is violent but because it denies the man the natural end, the telos, of his life and potentially makes some of the work and aims of his life vain. Vanity, meaninglessness, is in some respect the thing that is evil in Catholic theology. All sins are acts which ultimately mean nothing and lead nowhere. They are all dead ends — in fact, they often lead to death itself.
This sentiment was expressed much more concisely in the “Gospel of Thomas,” from the Apocrypha, and I love this:
If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
The fifth moral lesson; the brilliant might be the forgotten, the neglected, the never-known. Withnail’s promise will forever be unfulfilled. One day he will die, maybe soon, or maybe a long time away; but he will be forgotten, and leave no mark on the world. He has great talent and great intelligence, but because his attitude is not constructive, he will never reach his telos. His talent and intelligence will disappear with him, into the rain, on a random day, and never matter to anyone. And he, the vessel of these gifts, will destroy himself to avoid the pain of his failure.
Everything has to reach fruition, to achieve its telos and become, or it will turn on itself and destroy itself. The failed will become the poisoned and poisonous; and this is right and natural, for it is the way that the chaff is purged from the world, and the theatre of life is cleared for those who will bear fruit.
To watch Withnail disappear into obscurity at the end of the film is heartbreaking, but it must happen. There must be fruit, or there must be dust; and the greater the talent involved, the starker those options become, and the more the middle-ground between them diminishes. The grand lesson here is that nihilism is not clever, or flashy, but an attitude that is in fact in direct opposition to the way of nature. If this were not so, then Withnail would not feel compelled to boast of his talent all the time — to reassure himself that he has talent — and it would not hurt him so much that he has not fulfilled his talent.
There are gifts in the world, but it is up to the vessels of those gifts to bring them forth; if they instead deprive the world of those gifts, they are ignoring their own telos, and sealing their own fate.
Moral lesson six, building on the previous one; and this one is not so much a moral lesson as a practical tip, really, but I thought it was worth including. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. By forever waiting for the perfect role to come along, Withnail rejects opportunities, and so his career never starts at all; and he has no career. Idealism ruins his life, at least in part.
Moral lesson seven. Do not be, as Withnail is, and Marwood also is while under his influence, contemptuous of the people around you, even if they are your inferiors. Be open to the goodness of people in general.
This brings us to the very last line of the film, “Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither.” The monologue that closes the film, it’s from Hamlet; and it is described by Wikipedia thusly:
Hamlet is expressing his melancholy over the difference between the best that men aspire to be, and how they actually behave.
Yet Withnail has been surrounded by people struggling to be good, all throughout the film, with the exception of his drug dealer friend, Danny. He is basically surrounded by benign people; ordinary people, who are just trying to do what they can. So why does he not appreciate them? Even if they don’t achieve goodness, they are trying; and that is commendable, moral, and reassuring, and human — something to appreciate, to be grateful for — and to appreciate it, as such, rescues us from being hateful and bitter.
Moral lesson eight. Be an outsider, be proud of it; but only be an outsider if you must be, and never marinate in it. All four of the main characters are outsiders — Withnail, Marwood, Monty, and Danny — all four of them are outsiders, and they must be outsiders in order to be true to their nature. But at the same time, being outsiders is exactly what makes them depressed.
Indeed, the only one of them that elevates himself, finds happiness, and contentment, and direction, does so by getting a job; and in some sense, joining the mainstream of society. He’s not just a parasite anymore; he’s not an abscess on the world anymore. He’s doing something that is useful to his fellow man; and thereby finding self-respect, confidence, direction, and fulfillment. You might never be of the mainstream; but you must interact with the mainstream, and you must do so in a spirit of humbleness.
Now, I don’t think that Bruce Robinson set out to make a moral film. He strikes me as too cynical to attempt such a righteous thing. But he did make one anyway, perhaps despite himself. I also don’t think he set out to make a conservative film, for sure. Yet, there is little about it that could be described as liberal, or progressive, or socialistic.
The entire film is bathed in nostalgia for past glory, the lingering ghosts of halcyon days, and a grudging, or semi-grudging, awareness of the frailty of people. Man as a fallen creature. And a concern for people in general, which is expressed as a concern that they each find their place in the world.
Before I proceed to the final moral lesson of Withnail & I, let’s examine why this film appeals to middle-class left-wingers, and what it tells us about them that this film appeals to them.
Perhaps the root of why they love Withnail & I — apart from the spectacle of wanton debauchery and self-destruction — is that it is a malcontented film; surly towards convention, selfish in the present, and egotistical toward the future. This appeals to the archetypical Chris Morris fan — “brass eye,” that kind of thing — the archetypal Chris Morris fan — clued-up, burnt-out, Left-wing, fairly well-read, and perpetually pissed off at everything around him. I mean, I’ve spent time on the Cook’d and Bomb’d forum, for anyone — that is the sort of attitude; and it’s an interesting example of the Left.
But the film also appeals to the more moneyed and comfortable champagne socialist, who envies Withnail’s decadence, and especially his class. And finally, it appeals to the penniless art student set, who identify with the lifestyle and attitude of Withnail and Marwood; loving that they are both educated and degenerate, because that is precisely what they aspire to be.
What these different varieties of Leftists all enjoy about the film, is that it never owns up to the fact that it is cowardly to desire hierarchy, and tradition, and nationhood, if you don’t admit that you desire those things, and do what you can to protect them. There’s a hypocrisy running throughout the whole film — and I hate to say it, because I actually do love the film; it’s one of my favorite films — but there is this hypocrisy, lack of self-awareness on the part of the director.
There is no point wanting those things, if you don’t admit that you want those things, and then try to protect them. It’s even worse, of course, if you desire those things, hierarchy, tradition, nationhood, but work against them in your own way, and advocate their opposites.
This is what the film — or rather Bruce Robinson — does. It doesn’t take personal responsibility seriously. Every character in it is “luxuried,” in some sense, and the film invites us to laugh along with Withnail and Marwood as they disparage cultural convention, social niceties, and responsibility towards one’s friends. It encourages us to join the degeneracy; yet it does so in the face of all the evidence against degeneracy, that it cannot help but provide. In this way, the film is both irresponsible and short-sighted; displaying the lack of self-reflection that is characteristic of the bien-pensant Left.
Withnail wants the finest wines available to humanity, but he wants them for free. Withnail celebrates the humanity that consumes fine wine, but not the humanity that creates fine wine. He doesn’t want to have to say “thank you” for it; because that would require modesty and humility, and with that, an implicit acknowledgement that he himself is frail. In refusing to acknowledge his frailty, he becomes enslaved to it.
Withnail is a man of the twilight, not the dawn, and certainly not the mid-day sun. I think this is also true of Bruce Robinson, and this is where Robinson parts ways with his avatar, Marwood. Robinson is a Baby Boomer, born in 1946. Driven by the spirit of his generation to disparage what his ancestors created, even while he savors the fruits of it, Robinson has enough soul to see the danger in this, but not enough honesty to admit that we are all responsible.
If you want something’s flesh, be prepared to give of yourself. If you want the finest wines, be prepared to create the finest things in your field that you can; because otherwise, you don’t deserve the finest that other people have created. Likewise, if you don’t protect your society, you don’t deserve your society. If you don’t protect your friends, you don’t deserve to have friends. If you don’t protect, but instead despise, those who are beneath you, then you don’t deserve to be above them.
In conclusion, Withnail & I — and this is getting away from the moral stuff a bit. I want to be more upbeat; as I say, it’s a film that I absolutely love. So, Withnail & I represents the best of British filmmaking — simple, low budget, a small number of characters, and a small number of locations; but incredibly well-written, well-acted, and well-made. There is not much of a storyline, but there is a subtle and scintillating arc, which is meaningful and poignant. It also, though not entirely honest, provides intelligent, cultural commentary — not bombastic or overbearing, but calm and thoughtful, even poetic.
What Withnail & I also provides, by way of its main characters, and in itself as an artwork, is a glimpse into the English soul. Withnail and Marwood, and Monty, and Bruce Robinson, are lost in modernity; and they are snobs. They lament decline, and they loathe pretension, whilst being constantly in danger of it themselves. They are despairing. They observe strangers with genuine curiosity, and they perceive the inner lives of their friends with both detachment and concern. They are outsiders to the mainstream, whilst longing to be accepted by it. They yearn for hierarchy, whilst bucking and despising authority.
Because they have that English soul, which yearns to be enveloped in the higher things, to be involved in a system of traditions that guarantees civilization, to feel part of something that is greater than oneself, but also eternal and human. That English soul, which wants order and hierarchy, not of a totalitarian or autistic kind, but gentle and knowing, like the cathedrals of John Constable, or the concertos of Elgar, or the character studies of John Everett Millais, or the poems of Wordsworth.
Or, for that matter, a mid-‘80s synthesizer, playing over footage of rain, in a film about two out-of-work actors.
Announcer: Take courage; nature is on our side. Never despair; never give up; never give in. Despite the odds, with people like Millennial Woes, we will win!
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Woes if you are reading this… The story could use a Deus Ex Machina. Brigadier James Withnail arrives at the last minute and takes his son back to the estate to recover from the degeneracy. In Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, which is a female version of the Marwood/Withnail story, Matthew Radlett xenophobe and racist is there to provide a roof over the heads of his daughters and siblings when the clan are in danger.
This isn’t a huge deal, but the link to the speech, redirects to an episode of Milleniyule 2020.
Did you pick up on the reference in the film to Gordon LangleyDawn Langley Simmons – article published in tabloid ,read by Morwood , she was a transsexual and had the first legal interracial marriage in South Carolina , 21 January,1960
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