In 2003, a 27 yr old American, Aron Ralston, went to the Blue John Canyon in Utah for a hike, telling no-one where he went.
He fell down a narrow slot, unsettling an 800 lb boulder, which trapped him against the canyon wall by his right arm.
He spent the next 5 days and nights trying, in vain, to free himself before finally breaking the bones in his trapped lower right arm and cutting it off.
There followed a book Between a Rock and A Hard Place (!), a film 127 Hours, various talk shows and a career as an after-dinner speaker.
It is easy to see what so captures the imagination about this- a tale of foolhardiness, accident, loneliness, desperation, fear, strength, courage and survival, wrapped up in the skin of a not-unattractive, white, middle class male now sporting a dramatic mechanical hand.
The horror has universal relevance because- unlike tales of societal or racial oppression, acts of war, political kidnappings and the like- a version of it could happen to anyone, given an enormous amount of bad luck (plus a dash of the arrogance of youth).
And what captures the imagination of mainstream society racks up dollars for an entertainment industry sustained by marrying good stories to wide audiences.
But there’s a problem with misery: it isn’t entertaining. Beauty can spring from pain but pain is not itself beautiful.
Danny Boyle shows that he knows this in 127 Hours.
He uses jump-cuts and flash-backs to bring the action-free incident to life and- evocative though the sound and visual effects are- circumvents too much jaw-clenching with a deliberately perky sound-track and imaginary conversational devices.
However, it’s this watchability that makes the film a failure within a greater context.
Because what this story is about- or what matters about this story- is the individual’s gargantuan capacity to overcome adversity.
In illuminating truth, art- in any of its forms- may suggest itself for the job of telling it.
But as the experience of pain is wholly personal and non-transferable, it may fall short: pain’s bleakness lies in its loneliness, in the impossibility of separating oneself from it, in its fear.
How long will the suffering last? Will it get worse? Will it become too much to bear?
Then there are ways that art itself is the antithesis of pain- inessential, distanced from direct experience, sharable, engaging, finite.
So even as we are taught to be positive and look on the bright side, there are times when good old-fashioned dwelling has merit- when it is worthwhile facing discomfort head-on.
Consider- not for 127 hours but for one moment– the reality of a man trapped in a hole of despair, partly of his own making.
Days from the raising of a missing persons alert. Miles from the nearest passer-by. Trapped in an upright position, with hardly any water or food. Entirely at the mercy of fluctuating temperatures.
Hungry, thirsty, alone, afraid, sleep-deprived, delirious and in excruciating pain.
Imagine the unfathomable darkness he must have contemplated.
Yet, pushed to the extremes of experience, he didn’t panic or make poor judgements.
He acknowledged his failings and thought outside of himself, of his family.
He faced the prospect of his death with dignity. He didn’t yield to despair.
He went to Hell.
But he came back.
That he now profits from sharing his story makes simple economic sense; that he took learning from his suffering is the real gift.
Aron Ralston is all of us: unthinking, unlucky, self-centred.
He’s also what we all have the potential to be and that’s nothing less than a hero.
The trials of the human condition can be made palatable by art.
But we must beware that, in the process, its wondrous triumphs are not diminished.