Marriage can be challenging, not unlike an outpost in the cholera infested jungles of Mei-tan-fu, China. Kitty and Walter Fane face both, but while their abode tests the limits of their slumping relationship, it also inspires a love in each that forgives, reaches for, and finds the other. Based on selfish motives, false assumptions, and misguided notions of love, their relationship is weak at the base, and therefore, strained on the surface. However, on new cutting edges, they learn that when they judge by the self, they harshly judge the self, and overlook the heart connections that reach past the personal issues. Based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, the film, The Painted Veil, echoes the encouragement that John offers so many couples: you don’t need to solve the problems of the self to be be together.
Kitty and Walter demonstrate the awkwardness of a relationship deprived of heart dedication and an orientation of meaning. By relating from the self, they fill their relationship with spite. The staleness of their relationship is conveyed, for example, when they arrive in Shanghai: Kitty, eager to play her music, asks, “don’t you have a piano?” And Walter replies, “no, I don’t play the piano.” Each relates narrowly to their own experience and fails to consider the other’s perspective. In the next scene, the fractures of their relationship prove to reach right to the surface. As the couple attempts to make love, Walter says, “shall we shut the lamp?” “What for?” Kitty replies, and then he states it: “I must shut the lamp.” This symbol of light and dark shows a disagreement that is at once deep and trivial, showing again how deeper heart connection, or the lack of it, informs the details of their relationship.
Their selves are a mismatch, no doubt. Kitty is a child of a snooty London elite; Walter is an awkward bacteriologist whose eye for microscopic faults has no appeal for a woman waiting for juvenile dreams of romance to sweep her away. As her cosmopolitan background associates her with superficial notions of love, Walter’s base in China symbolizes his emotional distance and that, like the remote Mei-tan-fu, he is difficult for Kitty to relate to. Their backgrounds represent the differences that upset their relationship. Walter’s character mirrors the challenges of Mei-tan-fu: complication, stifled communication, and division, and Kitty embodies the illusions of her London scene. When Kitty succumbs to ignoble impulses, Walter’s narrowness, which is first a naive appeal to love, becomes a cold scorn, blind to Kitty’s humanity. Both want love, and while he confuses it with heartless loyalty, she seeks it in a passionate affair. These difference between their selves challenges their marriage.
However, it isn’t the difference between their selves that undermines their connection, but how rigidly they use their selves to judge and be judged. Oriented around their own selves, each misunderstands the other. In his coldness, Walter only sees unfaithfulness, and Kitty, eager for thrills and comfort, is blind to his quiet virtue. An orientation around self-satisfaction oppresses them until simple love supercedes personal expectations.
John reminds couples to place dearness before differences. Let go of every issue; only dearness can hold them; only openness and softness of heart can resolve them. As in nature and so many facets of human life, change and healing depends on levels deeper than the issue itself, like a wound mended by the deeper knowledge and coordination of the whole body. As John explains,
“Your self isn’t able to thrive if you’re depending on your self and using your self for what it isn’t even able to provide. It isn’t able to provide living knowledge and your own being. Your self isn’t your being and it isn’t your living knowledge. Your self is a subsequent form to your own being. Your self in its own well-being is completely dependent on your coming from your own being.”
So it is in relationship. Issues from the self aren’t resolved by the self, but by the deeper love and trust that hold the relationship together. Addressing issues from the self is like a string trying to untie its own knot. Kitty and Walter suffer from their addictions to their selves. Pining after romance and resenting Walter’s personality leads Kitty astray and Walter’s scorn for Kitty almost defeats their marriage. By insisting on their individual perspectives, they almost choke out what little love they share. Finally, under pressure from cholera and Nationalist rebels, Kitty recognizes the basics of direct loving they’d missed for so long. Inspired by Walter’s work in the hospital, Kitty realizes the point:
“I don’t think it has to be so complicated and gloomy. And I think what you’re doing, for instance, is incredibly noble. Walter, I can’t believe that you, with all your cleverness, should have such little sense of proportion. We humans are more complex than your silly little microbes. We’re unpredictable. We make mistakes and we disappoint….it was silly of us to look for qualities in each other that we never had.”
Oriented around expectations and dissatisfaction, they miss each other. Only when they drop the issues do they love each other enough to consider them.The liabilities of the self are a given, but the deeper resources of love are chosen and earned.
Those foundations are brought into relief by the trials of Mei-tan-fu: the threat of cholera and nationalist rebels on the one hand, isolation within a foreign culture on the other. Most superficially, those pressures expose the the couple’s caustic patterns and push them into deeper connection. On a symbolic level, Mei-tan-fu represents the zone of piercing honesty, a cutting-edge for a stagnating couple. The challenge itself promotes evolution, but so are the details of their culture-shock a recipe for transformation.
For example, learning to communicate is crucial to their relationship and their life in Mei-tan-fu. At the beginning, Kitty falls for Charlie Townsend, all his smooth talk signifying nothing. When communication with her bodyguard is reduced to gesture, she discovers how only the heart can speak meaning. In regards to communication, Walter receives his own humbling. When Walter doubts his partner’s English proficiency, Colonel Yu challenges his prejudice with this pithy reply: “Yes, I understand, Dr. Fane. I received my military training in Moscow. If you don’t like English, we can speak Russian.” Both Kitty and Walter discover that communication is both more subtle and expansive than they thought.
As well as new horizons, Mei-tan-fu provides a societal counterpart for the couple. The politics echoe their relationship, and while Kitty and Walter can rest in openness and softness of heart, the social conflict is set against the backdrop of the sublime Chinese landscape. Each struggle can choose to restrict itself to its own futile resources or settle into a foundation that is so much greater and cleaner.
The politics resolve the same way the relationship does – by letting go. The people of Mei-tan-fu are at once adverse and grateful to the proselytizing nuns and to Walter’s controversial policies. Walter decides that the dead must be buried further downstream, but his mandate challenges religious beliefs. The locals adapt to new influence and Walter taps the creativity needed to deliver clean water without disturbing religious practices. All these differences are negotiated by softening stances and trusting each other.
In politics and marriage, The Painted Veil suggests that relating from heart to heart mends the self. Between Kitty and Walter, simple love ends conflict. Walter’s resentment and Kitty’s betrayal fall away and all that’s left is a promise without condition or reward. In John’s words, “when you see a little bit of beingness in someone else that you know is lovely, in your heart you love that more than your self. There your relating as awareness is coming from your heart instead of from your self.” By resting in the heart’s wisdom, Kitty and Walter retrieve the meaning, the pearl, of their relationship. “In real relationship, hearts grow bigger and selves grow up.” Once they mature beyond the childish demands of their selves, Kitty and Walter know that the pearl is worth its price.