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30 Dec

There’s a moment of dialogue at the end of Ron Howard’s film, In the Heart of the Sea, that pricked my conscience when I saw it last week.  The film is otherwise formulaic in its writing, although being a Ron Howard film the technical side (namely the directing-cinematography-editing troika) can always be counted on to deliver, especially in the sailing sequences, which can be breathtaking.  The Herman Melville character, played by Ben Whishaw, turns to the narrator/interviewee who is the subject of the film, and says something to the effect of: The plot of the story I could come up with, but you have given me the courage I need to write this book.

This was the first in a series of three films in three nights, a kind of paroxysm of release from the semester and other tensions.  The next night I went to see Trumbo, a film that takes on the thought crimes against the American Left in a way that is not only engaging but fun, followed by the new Hungarian Holocaust film, Son of Saul, with its unrelieved claustrophobic tension, no fun and no uplift.  Where Trumbo is a paean to writers who have the audacity to hold on to their morals, stand up for their values, while subverting what they must in order to survive, Son of Saul is a portrayal of Auschwitz as a chamber of horrors so circumscribed that one can hardly come up for air, let alone get enough distance to even begin to consider acts of rebellion.

Speaking of audacity, I know that there is more to these films than a springboard to thinking about my own individual courage (at a time when I happen to be dealing with ongoing writer’s block and a relentless year of personal tribulations that has made any focus on my own creativity a distant possibility).  All three are about acts of moral courage (although to be certain, the story within the frame story in the Melville film is about physical courage), with Dalton Trumbo having the guts and also necessity (psychological as well as financial) to keep writing because that’s what writers must do. Not that all writing is courageous, but writing when the world wants you to be silent is. Auschwitz on the other hand was a world in which even the moral space needed for a courage response was so squeezed as to be impossible – and I don’t think Primo Levi would disagree.  That there managed to be rebellion at all makes us consider how we must be wired for this on some level, or at least a few people, since moral weakness seems to be more the hallmark of the human condition than moral courage.

Full disclosure: Dalton Trumbo’s National Book Award-winning novel Johnny Got His Gun was one of the most influential books in my life, one that, more than any other, turned me irrevocably against war and violence (and as the subject of a pivotal application essay that got me into an elite summer program in high school, also had an instrumental effect upon my intellectual careers as well).  Years later, when asked to recommend books for the “Suggested Reading” bookshelf at a local library, I had to have the librarian rescue the book from the depths of “young adult storage” where it most certainly did not belong for a number of reasons.  I didn’t just want to be a writer after reading Johnny Got His Gun for the sake of being a writer, I really saw what writing could do when it came to ideas and ideals and social change and how writing itself could break free from conventions of not only politics (which I would later see again in The Jungle) but formal written language (language without commas(!), language that represented interior thought and image, which I would come back to in Light in August, penned just a few years earlier).

At one point I wanted to be courageous, but somehow I had lost that over the past few decades.  Although in fairness to me, not giving up and still trying to stay within the bounds of the kind of career I wanted – which is to say, not working for any entity governed by the profit motive, while still occasionally being able to speak my mind in the form of a lecture or more collaboratively via a community or artistic project – took just about all the courage I had left in the tank. It wasn’t that I had lost hope that prevented me from “bothering” to write, it was that I have so profoundly lost courage because I’ve come to believe that nothing I have to say matters, in any way or on any level.  (And not being, like Jimmy Carter, a person of faith, I don’t have that pillar to lean on either.)

Trumbo reminded me that this is a time of exceptional moral challenge.  I also happened to have seen a production of Incident at Vichy by Arthur Miller (himself a playwright concerned with the very theme of moral courage over and over again, from The Crucible to All My Sons) just last week, and my friend remarked that the play seemed relevant “especially now,” and I too felt that urgency.  Why?  We are not occupied, nor at war to any greater degree than we have been since 2001, and yet it does feel especially with catastrophic climate change, a widening war against and by ISIS, along with the current crop of presidential candidates as well as the failure of our educational system to inform students about enough of the basic issues to make intelligent, i.e. informed decisions about policy, that each of us is being asked to take a moral stand, or simply give in, to consumerism as opiate.  Excuse me, but it does feel like at least once a day I have to make a decision that reflects my ethical stance in the world, from the class lectures that I give to the food I buy – maybe because I’m a teacher and I see most of my students living lives that are reactive to the economy, while more than a few are standing up to everything they have had to overcome just to get to college.  The courage of writers like Trumbo and Miller is handed down from generation to generation like a baton in a relay towards justice.

So as luck would have it, I picked up a paperback copy of Rollo May’s book, The Courage to Create, that I found in the trunk of my car, and began reading.  With the break between semesters, I’ve also been able to do some “outside” reading for the first time since at least the summer.  There’s a lot in the slim volume, and to be honest, he does still subscribe to the Western, high art bias that creativity and imagination require on some level novelty, something new, something replacing the old.  While that is an ethnocentric view of creativity, for me already there are at least four takeaways that have added to this week’s ruminations on art, writing, and courage.

I’m deliberately oversimplifying, but here are the main points (for my purposes):

  1. The act of creativity is fundamentally an act of courage.  (Although he contrasts “moral courage” with “creative courage,” and I see them as complementary, if not overlapping.)
  2. Artists have to deal with the existence and synthesis of several conflicting pairs, including chaos vs. form, conviction vs. doubt, and the “solitary” with the “solidary,” meaning, after Camus, the need for solitude as well as the need to connect with others out in the world.
  3. This: “the creative artist and poet and saint must fight the actual (as opposed to the ideal) gods of our society – the god of conformism as well as the god of apathy, material success, and exploitative power” (p. 26).  He wrote that in 1973.
  4. Psychoanalysis historically viewed creativity or the imagination as something negative, even a kind of neurosis, whereas May writes that “The creative process must be explored not as the product of sickness, but as representing the highest degree of emotional health” (p. 38).  (To me the whole diagnosis of ADHD as a kind of “disorder” reflects this residual hostility towards creativity and an institutional desire to destroy it.)
  5. Creative people use threat and anxiety as motivators that push us to creative action in response, while resolving those feelings of anxiety and tension through techniques like meditation can actually dampen our need or desire to resolve them creatively through action; they help us to tolerate the anger and imbalance rather than channeling them into something communicative as art is.  “Bliss” and the need to write can be antithetical.

I don’t know where I’ve misplaced my courage, but I’ve got to take it out of the drawer and start to wear it again.  Without it, in a way, I am and have been nothing.  I don’t have the kind of flow that Trumbo had to keep going, keep going, keep going, but neither have I faced the threats that he, or certainly Primo Levi, ever faced.  Although, that said, these are times when the gods of conformism and materialism are particularly harsh and destructive.  Maybe that’s why it feels that “especially now” the moral choices we make – whether speaking out against injustice or simply welcoming a refugee – are so immediate, a daily occurrence, even as we go off to work or pay the bills or learn the identity of the latest unarmed shooting victim.  That and the threat of a climate that we may soon need to renegotiate on a massive scale if we are going to continue living and flourishing, which will take all the courage and creativity we can muster, morally, socially, artistically, scientifically.

Hope is all very well and good.  But I wish you all Courage for 2016.


Cassandra and the curse of prophecy

2 Jan

On seeing the Metropolitan Opera epic production of Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz last night (one of their best designed and directed productions, in my opinion, by the way), I was struck by a scene in the first act when Cassandra speaks about the curse of prophecy. If I understand the original libretto, by Berlioz himself, correctly (“Tu ne m’écoutes pas, tu ne veux rien comprendre/ Malheureux peuple, à l’horreur qui me suit!“), Cassandra laments that she has the gift of prophecy, of seeing the future, only no one believes her or wants to listen. This is the result of the curse of Apollo.

In Catholic social teaching, “prophetic” has come to refer to those who speak out against injustice, who are part of a tradition that is trying to build a better future by denouncing unjust practices rather than enduring them. Archbishop Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are considered to be leading lights in this prophetic intellectual tradition.

But what is made explicit in the Greek, and not in the Catholic, is that true prophets are ignored – at best – sometimes reviled or mocked. Cassandra’s curse is a case in point. She sees the bad that is going to happen, but no one believes her, no one wants to hear her, and they only realize she is right when it’s too late.

This too is the side of the prophetic tradition that we forget. We rally around prophets, especially in death, but when they are alive, there are few who want to listen and take what they say to heart. No one would want to hire them. If I am trying to develop a prophetic social science, for example, it is little wonder I will be unemployed – unless I am super-productive in ways that are valued in the industry. Are people willing to listen to – and hire – the prophetic voice in the classroom and the lecture hall, especially if it rallies against inaction?

Prophecy is a curse in all economic systems and educational environments. Nonetheless, it must be kept nourished.

First thoughts on “Cloud Atlas” and civilized narrative

1 Jan

For personal reasons, I haven’t been reading as much as I want to be or should be reading these days. Having said that, the book that lodged in my consciousness the most last year was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I knew nothing about it when I was handed a copy at World Book Night in Cork, Ireland last year – coincidentally (or perhaps not) the city where Mitchell now resides. I was spurred to read it when the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and Roger Ebert, one of my favorite writers to follow on Facebook, wrote an enthusiastic review but urged readers to read the book before going to see the film, if only not to be confused by the multiple story lines. If you love literature, I think it’s always better to read the book first, although for me A Clockwork Orange is the exception that proves the rule. I still refuse to see any of the books based on Toelkien because I don’t want to cloud the image in my mind’s eye with someone else’s imaginary. I learned that from storytellers who decry the use of illustration in folklore books. The film of Cloud Atlas, while it has its own pleasures – especially the editing, the makeup, the acting, and some gorgeous cinematography – can only be disappointing to those who love the book, its rich characters, and distinct narrative voices. And for me the vision of some of the stories was so different from my own interior vision that what I remember from the screen is distinct from what exists in my mind’s eye. This is especially true of Zachry’s narrative that forms the exquisite middle novella at the heart of the book.

I’ve heard Mitchell interviewed – and by the way he could give lessons on how to be gracious with readers and call-ins – and much has been made of the master vs. slave dichotomies at the core of the six narratives. Like a lot about the book, though, it’s easy to oversimplify in that way. Far more significant, to my reading, than the master/slave conflict is the eternal conflict between the savage and the civilized, redefined across centuries in ways that are not immediately apparent. The master/slave dichotomy is there in some of the narratives, and it’s not exactly coterminous with the savage/civilized dichotomy that is also there, and that is more dynamic as well. Characters are faced with a stream of opportunities to show themselves as civilized, defined by Merilyne (I think), as those who think of the future generations and those who thing beyond their own individual gratification. It’s an easier reading of the book to see it as a reflection on the master/slave conflict, because we all want to see ourselves identifying with the noble slave, and there’s a feel-good quality to this reading. Who would identify with the masters? It’s more complicated and more painful to read the six stories through the lens of our own age which, like so many others, (perhaps all?), is dominated by savages and the savage urge to accumulate wealth. Mitchell doesn’t hold up a mirror as much as he places us in a hall of mirrors: we may think we see ourselves in the slave or anyone striving for freedom, but what we actually are are the proud descendants of generations of savages. Our relationship to the civilized is more ambivalent. Look at the treatment of Autua or Luisa Rey, for example, even Sixsmith. People, and the characters in the novel, can make choices about whether and when to think of others, think of the future, and be civilized, but we are all inconsistent, deeply flawed and ambivalent ourselves about the struggle to become civilized, before we all destroy one another in one way or another.

One of the things in the book that disturbed me, ironically enough, is the manifesto that ends the book (I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it but gets this far in my humble blog). It resonates, about the choices we make to construct a more moral world – issues that I am dealing with in my own life’s work and mission – but it’s also kind of comforting and feels a little like a bromide at the end of a long struggle which one would hope is more unsettling to one’s consciousness. I also think that would make for an oversimplified reading.

The book is not just about the sides we choose and the moral choices we make in our actions. It is equally about the sides we choose and our moral choice in our narratives, the way that our historical moment is not just constructed of the actions of generations that have come before, but also the narratives about those actions, real and fictitious, the ones that are told, the way they are told, and the ones that remain silenced histories. Read this way, there is significance in the selection of six different genres of narrative within the novel. The fact that the book is a compendium of genre fictions makes the stories go down much easier, but it is in the interstices, the way the narratives interlock – planned in the author’s mind but random in terms of actual probability (unless one believes in cosmic connections).

I am shaped equally by the actions of my great-grandfather coming to this country, by the actions of those European settlers before him who cleared the land of its Native inhabitants by killing them off, and by the narratives (and non-narrative morals) passed down in the family about who came here and why. We are shaped by the actions of those that came before, but also by the words about those actions, the self-reports and the third person accounts, by the masters and the slaves, by the savage and the civilized. To write, to narrate, to tell stories like a civilized person, speaking for the generations that come, this is a complementary mission to living a life that enslaves no one.

I’ll return to this later, but wanted to begin the New Year with some reflections on writing and storytelling in this vein.

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