Can you ever forgive me for being a member of society?

We all need recognition. But we also deserve a world that is worthy of our recognition.

Can you ever forgive me for being a member of society?

We all need recognition. But we also deserve a world that is worthy of our recognition.

In an early scene in the film Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the writer Lee Israel, played by Melissa McCarthy, steals a coat. She nabs it from a literary party hosted by an agent who won’t respond to her calls. The guests are all bougie-boring, middle-aged, dressed alarmingly in garish early ‘90s colors, their bodies contorted into the clashing geometries of houndstooth blazers and turtlenecks. One of them, it turns out, is Tom Clancy, he of Hunt For Red October fame, who boasts of never having writer’s block.

Israel stoops her shoulders, turns her face to the floor, does everything she can not to have to talk to anyone. She heads to the refreshments table, where she necks a bunch of cocktails that she’s poured into one big glass, and then starts shovelling nibbles into her bag. She tries to take some toilet paper from the cupboard in the bathroom, but all she discovers there is an enormous stash of half-used rolls — her host has gotten into the habit of replacing them before they’re finished because she thinks her guests will only want to use “full” ones. And so Israel heads to the coat check that the host has set up in one of her apartment’s rooms, lies about having lost her ticket, and departs the party wrapped in someone else’s property.

Throughout the film, McCarthy — who has deservedly received an Oscar nomination for her performance — plays Israel with an air of general and cloying embitterment. The world owes her something, it owes her happiness, owes her a living. But it is not giving her what it owes, so she may as well just take whatever she can.

As you might already know, Israel — a biographer whose last book was a notorious failure and who can’t do anything to secure an advance for the next one — starts selling forged letters from famous literary and entertainment figures like Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker in order to be able to afford booze, cat medicine, and rent. But this is not a film about a woman’s descent from respectability into a “life of crime.” Israel is defiantly not respectable, and her criminal decision has already been made — at least in a fundamental, existential sense — from the start. Can You Ever Forgive Me? tells the story of Israel’s attempts, initially successful and then later less so, to make this decision work.

I went to see Can You Ever Forgive Me? last week. It’s a good film, I enjoyed it. But afterwards, as I left the cinema, I couldn’t stop thinking about Hegel. In his Philosophy of Right, Hegel defines civil society — the stage in his grand system that corresponds most closely to the society we exist in today — as consisting, in part, in a “system of needs” in which my needs as a particular individual may be satisfied through the work of others; likewise, my work helps other individuals satisfy their needs. Individuals cannot satisfy all their needs by themselves, so they obtain what Hegel calls their “truth” only in a social context. The nature of this “truth” is defined by the work that we do — through work we become “somebody,” we gain “recognition” as being some particular person, justifying our existence by performing some useful function “both in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of others.”

But as Hegel points out, comfort “is something inexhaustible and infinitely extendable, for every comfort can be shown to have its discomforts, and these discoveries never come to an end.” People’s needs are never quite satisfied: the well-off are therefore driven to horde more and more of the resources they are able to appropriate, resulting in inequalities that are compounded over time. This means that not everyone will be able to participate fully in civil society, some people are going to be robbed of the opportunity to “be someone” entirely.

“When the standard of living of a large mass of people falls below a certain subsistence level,” Hegel writes, “there is a consequent loss of the sense of right and wrong, of integrity and of honour in maintaining oneself by one’s own activity and work.” “The result,” he says, “is the creation of a rabble of paupers,” who share “an inner indignation against the rich, against society, against the government, etc.” “Frivolous and idle,” this rabble lacks “sufficient honour to secure subsistence by its own labor,” and yet simultaneously claims “the right to receive subsistence.”

Here Hegel employs a rhetoric dripping with the sort of scorn reserved by contemporary conservatives for “scroungers,” “benefits cheats,” and “welfare queens.” Whether through charitable handouts or petty theft, this pauperized rabble is in Hegel’s caricature simply willing to take what they need without ever having really earned it. Thus Hegel, and, by extension, civil society in general, is unable to recognize them as being like the real, normal people who perform honest work for a living — even in a fundamentally unjust society.

Not everyone will be able to participate fully in civil society, some people are going to be robbed of the opportunity to “be someone” entirely.

But even in her honest work as a biographer, Israel never seems quite comfortable with the idea that she might be recognized as anyone at all. Her great strength as a writer is that she can make her voice disappear behind that of her subject; their words are able to live in the world on her behalf. Her forgeries are successful because she can write more like Noel Coward than Noel Coward, be a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker. But she can only really do this because she wants so badly not to be Lee Israel. When Anna, one of the bookstore owners to whom Israel has sold forged letters, suggests that one day people might be buying and selling Lee Israel’s letters, Israel winces as if in pain.

The forgeries weren’t really work, Israel says in her sentencing towards the end of the film — or at any rate, they weren’t really her work. If they had been, she says, she could have been criticized for it. Or even, one might add, though she doesn’t, praised. Either alternative would have risky for Israel, since it might have ended up making her fully present in the eyes of others.

At times, yes, Israel does appear to want to be recognized by others — even desperately so. But for the most part she seems set on disavowing herself entirely. Her last relationship ended because she was unable to bring herself to do any “normal, family stuff” with her girlfriend, unable to be the sort of person with whom it was possible to be in an adult relationship; another potential one with Anna never even begins, not just because of the forgeries but because Israel, unwilling even to contemplate the possibility that she might be attractive to anyone, tells Anna that she sees her as merely a prospective “drinking buddy.” Anna hands her a short story she’s written to look over, but Israel leaves it by her bed unread — even the work of that small personal favor would have left her too exposed.

Hegel, for his part, would see Israel’s spiritual refusal to be herself as a matter of immaturity. “Especially in youth,” he writes, individuals “chafe at the idea of deciding upon a particular estate,” seeing in this a restriction upon their character, a necessity imposed from without. But I don’t think it’s just that. Maybe for Hegel being a real person was easy (although he did struggle quite a bit professionally before becoming a Very Important philosopher; his first major book was published at age 37), but for a lot of people it’s hard, especially if you live in a society that seems determined not to let you be anyone you might consider it worthwhile to exist as at all.

If you’re forced to work a precarious job, to flee from new home to new home whenever your situation changes, to watch other people — perhaps more deserving or perhaps less — flourish ahead of you every day, it can be tempting to consider all of your interactions with society in brutely instrumental terms: finding ways to take and to get without ever having to be real enough to give.

It’s hard to be a “real person,” especially if you live in a society that seems determined not to let you be anyone you might consider it worthwhile to exist as at all.

And yet looked at another way Hegel, as much as I might hate to admit it, has a point here. His philosophy, perhaps, can be boiled down to the thought that “we live in a society!” — and it’s true that we owe it to the people around us to be, if at all possible, something more than just a ghostly half-presence, emerging every now and then to absorb whatever scraps we need to survive. Our needs will only really be fulfilled if we fulfil them all together.

I’ve recently been forced to confront this myself. This is a trivial example but, for years, I used to make a deliberate effort not to remember my family members’ birthdays, in the hopes that maybe they would forget mine — I didn’t want to anyone to feel like they had to acknowledge I was still alive. But now, I’ve found myself in a situation in which not only am I less financially precarious than I’ve ever been, I have a partner who’s pregnant. A lot of this is still a bit of a distant dream for now, but we’re thinking about things like home ownership, “settling down.” Suddenly, it seems entirely inappropriate for me to be the sort of person who doesn’t wish the other people in his family happy birthday. When I failed, entirely out of habit, to wish my dad a happy birthday the other day, I felt genuinely guilty, and really a bit childish and silly. I’m a part of the social order now, I have a shared life with other people. That means real responsibilities, real commitments — as well as things like participating in our practices of basic tact.

But there remains danger — by participating in society we also risk becoming complicit in its evils. “What is rational is actual and what is actual is rational,” as the central slogan of the Philosophy of Right goes: if something is in fact the case, it must be so for a good reason. And the fact is that society really does work in the interests of the people who already have all the power and resources: the rich who Hegel is far too easy on, where he is far too harsh on the poor. How can we possibly justify becoming complicit in that?

I’m a part of the social order now, I have a shared life with other people. That means real responsibilities, real commitments.

Hegel’s solution to the problem of poverty is literally colonialism: if a state founds colonies, suddenly the impoverished rabble can be exported as a useful source of labor. Commit genocide and clear yourself a wilderness: that way there will be no need for anyone to take the rich’s stuff. In a far more trivial way, the rank hypocrisy of the straight society Israel rejects is exposed in Can You Ever Forgive Me?’s closing vignette, in which she reveals to a store owner that a Dorothy Parker letter he’s selling for $1,900 is one of her fakes. The owner considers taking the letter out of his shop’s window, but then decides not to. The lie is more profitable, after all.

It is here that the significance of the film’s central relationship becomes apparent. As she begins forging letters, Israel becomes friends with Jack Hock, a gay, homeless, cocaine-dealing, HIV-positive alcoholic, played by Richard E. Grant. Hock appears like the spirit of what Hegel called the rabble, drifting through New York from bar to bar, party to party and bed to bed; for years, the film implies, he’s traded on his wits and his looks to avoid ever really doing anything or having any commitments to anybody else at all.

And through it all, Hock is completely and utterly glorious. He is a genius of disrespect: his swaggering presence, in full bloom around but not inside the society Israel cringes away from, offers her an alternative to recognition from the order both reject. Their complicity is initially forged by an anecdote in which Hock does not simply steal a coat from a literary party, but publicly pisses on an entire cupboard of them. The film’s great tragedy is perhaps not that Israel gets caught, but that in doing so her friendship with Hock disintegrates. By the end, Hock’s condition has worsened, his new medications make booze taste like mouthwash, and he is preparing to die.

And here we find the film’s great secret. We all need recognition. We need to exist through our work and what we contribute to society. But we also deserve a society that is worthy of our recognition. However briefly, Hock and Israel form a two-person social order that tries to turn the straight world on its head. The real trick would be to find a way of making that alternative order universal.

Tom Whyman, a writer and philosopher in the UK, is a contributing writer at The Outline.