As Phil Connors (Bill Murray) and his drinking buddies agree in a moment of despondency, it seems that we are all stuck living in the same place, doing the same things, and nothing we do makes a difference. What can we do about it?
Having, literally, all the time in the world, Phil can make mistakes and learn from them. But what is it that can make him grow beyond perfecting his pickup lines, from quoting French poetry and making toasts to world peace?
It occurred to me that the ways available to him are all pre-determined by the culture he lives in: they are clichés. Learning the piano. Learning to ice-sculpt. It is not a coincidence that they all kinds of artistic expression. These are the very things that, in the last two centuries or so, people rising up in society—coming in from the country to the city, or immigrating from a poorer to a richer country, or getting an education or giving their children an education to rise out of poverty—use to consolidate their status. The joke is partly about this when Phil Connors, asked if this was his first lesson (he has been taking months of first lessons, and improved considerably), says yes, “but my father was a piano mover.” Learning the piano has in fact been used by historians as an index to measure such processes.
That was my big realization as I watched this film. That the resources for becoming a good person are culturally determined. In other words, if we want people to become Muslims, or Muslims to become better Muslims, we have to give them the cultural means to do so. Abdal-Hakim Murad struck me with how well he summed it up in Contentions 17: “Inculturation is included in the command of ‘Amr bi’l-Ma’ruf’.” (See all the Contentions here).
Where do we find our cultural forms? Can we just invent them, when we find ourselves, as modern Muslims do, in new conditions or new countries? Sometimes I think that we should. Of course, it need not be so dramatic, and in the past it was not. It is a fact of life that we evolve, and so in an ideal Muslim community, this problem would solve itself: as it has already solved itself, with Muslims producing all sorts of cultures over the course of their history. The present situation, though, is a bit different. The change in circumstances is sudden. And it is characterized by uneven power. Muslims find themselves playing the piano, because people who are better than them think it is a good idea. Just like Phil Connors, they need to prove that they are good people, and they use the models most readily at hand. Just like Phil Connors spouting French poetry at bars to pick up girls, this can seem despicable. What’s the answer then? For men to wear kohl and carry a walking stick because it was a sunna?
Groundhog Day provides an interesting answer. What makes learning the piano more worthwhile than spouting French poetry at bars, even though both potentially belong to the category of empty showing off, is that Phil Connors eventually plays the piano for other people. It is his way of contributing to the pleasure of the town. Groundhog Day feels like an American dream in reverse: go back to the small town, to living with the people you find yourself with, even if they happen to be hicks. “Let’s live here,” Phil Connors says at the end, where the American dream would say, “let’s get out of here.”
Playing the piano, just like anything else, is not innocent. It carries a history of social assumptions. But Muslims can bring their own assumptions to whatever they do, and change how it happens. (Which does not mean that we should give up trying to find our own cultural expressions. Until we do, though, we can borrow.)
Wherever we live, let’s really live there. Which means that we must not be afraid to sing, every day at 6am, “put your little (kafir) hand in mine.”