‘But I Ain’t Lost’: Values Can Help Us Navigate Change

The Misfits (1961 - BFI

The Misfits (1961 - BFI

'One thing about this town, it's always full of interesting strangers.’

The 1961 movie ‘The Misfits’ is a sad tale of lonely hearts, lost souls and the fading West.

Scripted by Arthur Miller and directed by John Huston, it stars Miller’s then wife Marilyn Monroe as a recently divorced woman looking to start a new chapter. In Reno she encounters veteran cowboy Clark Gable and his tow-truck driving sidekick Eli Wallach. For a while they settle in Wallach’s unfinished house on the edge of the Nevada desert.

'That's what I can't get used to. Everything keeps changing.’

Gable has a wistful air. He’s a man out of time. He laments the passing of the old West and struggles to come to terms with modern life. Wallach mourns his wife who died in childbirth a year or so ago. It was for her that he was building the house. Monroe, scarred by previous relationships, seeks emotional truth and independence.

'If I'm going to be alone, I want to be by myself.’

They’re all misfits - trying to deal with the past, to find companionship, to define some relevance and purpose in the midst of progress and change. Having enlisted the help of rodeo rider Montgomery Clift, the men set about rounding up wild horses in the desert - a last taste of freedom and the autonomous life that is fast disappearing.

‘It's better than wages, ain’t it?’
‘Sure, anything's better than wages.’

‘The Misfits’ is a complex movie, a reflection on the rootless and displaced; on people left behind by progress, powerless to control their own lives.

At one stage Gable relates an anecdote which may provide a key to understanding the plot.

'Did you ever hear the story about the city man out in the country? He sees this fella sittin' on his porch. So he says, "Mister, could you tell me how I could get back to town?" The fella says, "No." "Well, could you tell me how to get to the Post Office?" The fella says, "No." "Well, do you know how to get to the Railroad Station?" "No." "Boy," he says, "you sure don't know much, do ya?" The fella says, "No. But I ain't lost.”'

There may be a lesson for us all here.

In times of transformation and upheaval, all around us we see doubts and dilemmas. We chase fads and fashions. We pursue answers - new horizons and fresh certainties. It’s easy to get confused and disorientated.  If we can just retain a robust sense of who we are, an adherence to some core principles, then maybe we’ll not get lost. Values can help us navigate change.

'You know, sometimes when a person don't know what to do, the best thing is to just stand still.’

An air of melancholy hangs over ‘The Misfits’. It was a troubled production. Huston drank and gambled his way through the shoot. Miller had written the screenplay for Monroe, but their relationship deteriorated in the course of filming. He was constantly redrafting the script and her addictions led to delays. Clift too was fragile. Gable, who had clearly been unwell, died of a heart attack a few days after filming ended. He was just short of sixty. Monroe passed away a year and a half later. ‘The Misfits’ was her last film.

Writing about Monroe in his memoir many years later, Miller observed the following:

'Whatever Marilyn was, she was not indifferent; her very pain bespoke life and the wrestling with the angel of death.  She was a living rebuke to anyone who didn’t care.' 

'I watched you suffer a dull aching pain.
Now you've decided to show me the same.
No sweeping exit or offstage lines
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind.
Wild horses couldn't drag me away.
Wild, wild horses couldn't drag me away.'

Wild Horses’, The Rolling Stones (Keith Richards / Mick Jagger)

No. 215

Do We Know Too Much and Understand Too Little? What Einstein Might Have Told Us about the Quest for Truth


‘It’s like riding on the subway. I know where I get on and where I get off. While I’m travelling I don’t know where the hell I am.’

I recently attended a production of ‘Insignificance,’ an excellent 1982 play written by Terry Johnson (which in 1985 was turned into an equally splendid film by director Nicolas Roeg).

Set in 1954 New York, ‘Insignificance’ imagines a series of encounters between Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and Senator Joe McCarthy. It’s a funny, intelligent, disturbing work that asks the audience to think about fame, identity, misogyny, time and nuclear war.

‘Do you ever get the feeling it might be later than you think?’

Running through the play is a debate about knowledge and understanding. Monroe is in awe of Einstein because he knows so much. But Einstein is at pains to point out that knowledge is over-rated – understanding should be the objective.

‘Knowledge is not truth. It’s just mindless agreement. You agree with me. I agree with someone else - we all have knowledge... You can never understand anything by agreeing, by making definitions. Only by turning over the possibilities. That’s called thinking. If I say ‘I know,’ I stop thinking. As long as I keep thinking I come to understand. That way, I might approach some truth.’

Einstein goes on gently to chide Monroe:

‘You know too much and understand too little.’

I couldn’t help thinking of our own modern malaise. In the internet age infinite knowledge is accessible at the touch of a keyboard. And yet we seem in an endless quest for the latest news, the killer fact, the inside story. What we seek to know seems so temporary and transient. Have you heard? Have you read? Have you seen?

In business we similarly pride ourselves on using the most fashionable phrases, the coolest case studies, the most notable names. We congregate around the same theories, flock to the same theses, patronise the same platforms.

How often do we pause properly to understand what we’re talking about? How often do we question our own assumptions? How much do we ‘turn over the alternative possibilities in our minds’?

You have to wonder if this is knowledge at all. Or is it just conventional wisdom, complacent consensus, ‘mindless agreement’?

It’s said that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who died in 1834, was the last person to read every book ever published. After that it became an impossible endeavour. But perhaps the quest for total knowledge was always somewhat futile.

In ‘Insignificance’ Einstein is parted from his only copy of the calculus that he has been working on for some years. Monroe is concerned. But Einstein seems pretty relaxed. He explains that in his working method, the process of writing the calculus internalises it. He doesn’t need the copy. Through thinking he understands, and through understanding he approaches truth.

‘I have finished my work four times. Each time I have destroyed the calculus and started over.’

This year I have resolved to spend less time seeking to know, and more time seeking to understand.

Happy New Year!

No. 162