Readers Write In #300: Karma Yoga and Jean-Pierre Melville

Posted on November 16, 2020


(by Kartik Iyer)

Vivekananda writes, “Work, but let not the action or the thought produce a deep impression on the mind”. He continues, “Therefore, be ‘unattached’; let things work; let brain centres work; work incessantly, but not let a ripple conquer the mind. Work as if you were a stranger in this land, a sojourner; work incessantly, but do not bind yourselves; bondage is terrible”. Vivekananda wrote this in his treatise on Karma Yoga: the branch of philosophy stressing importance on a human’s actions and their consequences. Work as a sojourner. This statement can describe Jef Costello, the assassin in Le Samourai.

Two tenets of Karma Yoga can be applied to Melville’s characters: non-existence of Self and the liberation attained from that practice. The goal of most Hindu philosophies is liberation from life, moksha. Whether that is reflected through Melville’s characters or not, I do not know. Even if the end is not the same, the process may be.

During the battle in Kurukshetra, Krishna advised Arjun to kill his elder brother, Karna. Krishna makes a plea to Arjun’s dharma, morality: a Kshatriya’s morality demands protection of clan. Karna is then killed. The basis of this concept is Karma Yoga, whose foundation lies in the Sankhya philosophy. Since this human life is a sojourn, the body and the mind are limited by time and space. The soul exists in permanence with the One. Hence, the actions and their consequence in this human life do not matter as long as the soul, inhabiting this body, is not tainted. Such non-attachment can be attained through the practice of Karma Yoga.

Melville’s characters struggle with established morality. They belong to the ‘wrong side’. They are mostly criminals; starting with the German officer in Le silence de la mer, Bob in Bob Le Flambeur to Corey in Le Cercle Rouge and Jef Costello in Le Samourai. These characters look reserved, displaying little emotion. Alain Delon as Corey and Costello is remarkable in his restraint and apparent coldness. His rigid face emotes nothing but remoteness; a kind of non-attachment from his existence. All these characters carry out actions that can be termed immoral. They steal, kill and do not display remorse. They act as if they are carrying out an existential function equal to breathing. They are not immoral. They are amoral. Beyond the pale of right and wrong, they exist in a space far removed from human nature. They can be called ‘stoics’. They can also be called Karma Yogis.

Melville’s characters fulfill the most important criteria of becoming a Karma Yogi: non-attachment from the human self. In the celebrated scene of absolute precision in Le Cercle Rouge, Corey and his fellows loot a jewellery store. Along the long and quiet walk in the dark alleys before reaching the store, Corey and his mate do not display any emotion. They have been here before. They have done this before. They will be here again. And they will do this again. They know the outcome. They know the cost. It is not that they do not care. They are beyond it. The robbery for them is just a work they must do, without any attachment. A Karma that will not affect their soul, for their human life is a sojourn. Thus, they feel liberated in a sense.

Even those characters that are not criminals or deviants, like Leon Morin and Barny in Leon Morin, Priest follow this philosophy. In fact, they represent the process of non-attachment. Barny is tempted. So his Leon. But they both must accept their fate and the inconsequentiality of their human life. In Two Men in Manhattan, Melville himself as Moreau, walks the dark streets of New York in search of a missing person; without any emotion. The results don’t shock him and the process does not tire him. Philippe Gerbier in Army of Shadows carries out the secret work of French Resistance to Nazi Germany dispassionately.

Jef Costello and Corey die on the line of duty. Both serving their dharma, doing their work without tainting their souls. Whether they get liberation or not, they seem to be content with being sojourners. That is the life of a Karma Yogi; the life of Melville’s characters.