Friday, December 19, 2008

These Movies

And so these movies. These two simulacra. It’s a Wonderful Life and Schindler’s List. Are quite similar in their subject matter. In the focus of their stories. And not surprisingly they are quite similar in the quality of their outcomes. Schmaltzy party in the one. Schmaltzy real life people and actors join hands across the generations in the other.

In a sense, they are both fictional. Fictional because they do place before us dramatizations. Imitations. Mimetic semblances. Stories that are quite selective as to what they include and exclude, unlike real life. Stories that are acted for us by professional actors whose job it is to play a plausible someone. A possible someone. A someone we might know or be ourselves. Or could be. Or could be like. Stories that include dialog that strictly speaking, in the case of Schindler’s List in particular, may have never happened. At least some of it. Dialog that is there to support the story. To make the story more compelling. More interesting. More explicable.

Most of our stories aren’t altogether explicable. Most of the time, we do things that are. Oh. Random seeming. Out of character. Whimsical. We wonder off track for no apparent reason. No good reason. It happens all the time. Look for example at all the Christians who divorce. Half of Christians divorce. Christians, mind you. People who are supposed to be taking the Bible seriously. Taking God seriously. Taking love seriously.

But we all have this tendency to go random. Go evil. Do destructive things. Say harmful things to people we love. Not once. No. Many times. But sometimes once is enough. And then it’s done. Then we’ve participated in the destructive processes of the cosmos. Then we become members of that army. That relentless march of the living enlisted in the army of death. That army that hurries itself on toward its own destruction and that tears at itself, tormenting itself as it goes.

And so what these two films do is to show us a different way. A different way to be human. A different way to be before God. To be in God’s presence.

And they show us that we aren’t necessarily talking about self-control here. Personal discipline. Resisting temptation. An act of the will in defiance of or rebellion against our natural impulses. We aren’t necessarily talking about denying ourselves anything when we choose to turn toward love and life and God.

What these films intimate is that there is something natural and wonderful in us. Residing in us. In our hearts. Something that wants to love and care for and look after and nurture and provide saving help to others. Even though this may be costly. Even though we have to sacrifice.

And sometimes. I don’t know. I think that love and sacrifice are the same thing. Aspects of the same thing. The same reaching outward to affirm. Encourage. Support. If you think you can love without sacrifice, maybe it isn’t really love. Maybe it’s something masquerading as love.

So these stories encourage us to rethink our willingness to love. To love practically. To love faithfully. To love in how we live. They allow us vicariously to participate in the protagonist’s love. His acts of love. And by doing so they encourage us to try our hand at this sort of love. To take it into our lives and see if we don’t feel that sense of.

Oh. That presence of the beautiful. That presence of the divine. That we experience when we watch these movies. But maybe it’s also possible out here, we think, as we watch the credits scroll up into nowhere. Maybe its possible also with us, out here. In our particular stories. In our normal, everyday lives. To experience the beautiful also. To experience love this way also.

Maybe it’s possible for us to be protagonists. For us to be the main character of our own particular story, rather than the bystander or the Potter or the Goth we sometimes feel ourselves to be. Maybe we have, today, the opportunity. To.

Well. Despite all our self-doubts and fears and second-guessings. Maybe we have the opportunity to love like a protagonist in a novel. In a play. In a movie. Maybe we have the possibility of living as if it really did matter. As if it really could bring hope or faith or peace or safety or love into somebody’s life. As if it could really save somebody’s life. As if it could open the door to the light of the beautiful and allow that light to come flooding in.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Twentieth Century

When I was eight or nine or so, I discovered The Twentieth Century, the CBS documentary TV show on Sunday nights. Walter Cronkite was the host, and. Well. What a contrast. I mean, Cronkite in his day and at this point in time was regarded as one of the most trusted men in America. But he would show newsreel footage of the most horrendous and disturbing things.

There was a lot of war footage, particularly World War II. And I was horrified occasionally to see film of the concentration camps. Film showing Jews who were still alive after liberation. A lot of film showing Jews who were dead in the camps. Other film related to the Holocaust. I became so upset that I would routinely turn off the TV in the middle of the program. How could this have happened? How was this possible? Dead people stacked like distorted, emaciated dolls on carts or on shelves. Living people so malnourished that they looked more like animated skeletons out of a horror film than real live people.

I felt. Oh, I don’t know. I felt like crying, but I couldn’t. I felt cruel looking at these people in their misery in my comfortable suburban home. I felt like I was doing something evil. Unforgivable. I felt like Walter Cronkite should be ashamed of himself for showing these horrors to us and should be prevented from doing this ever again.

And so when I watched Schindler’s List, I felt some of those same emotions. I won’t go through the plot in any detail. If you haven’t seen it, you should, but to understand this post, you might look it up on Wikipedia and read the plot summary.

So Schindler’s List is about a corrupt business man that becomes a Nazi to profit from World War II. He buys a factory in the Krakow area, which is also the location of the Plaszow Concentration Camp. The camp is run by Amon Goth, a madman who personally kills certainly many hundreds and perhaps thousands of Jews. A man who as I say does this personally. Many other Jews are killed at the camp and in Krakow, but he is personally responsible—with his own handgun—for killing perhaps thousands of people.

Oskar Schindler buys a factory and then arranges to use slave Jewish labor to operate the factory. Initially his objective is to make a great deal of money from manufacturing war goods for the German government. He bribes people left and right. He becomes a darling of the SS. But then he witnesses one of the Krakow roundups of the Jews in the ghetto there, in which Goth murders many, and his attitude toward his factory workers changes. They become human. And he decides to protect them.

The rest of the movie is about his work to protect the 1100 or 1200 people who work in his factory. How he bribes Goth, members of the SS, and anyone he needs to bribe to keep these people safe. Keep them from being murdered or shipped back to Germany for extermination.

By the end of the war, Schindler has run through all his money to save the workers in his factory. The ending of the movie shows the actors in the movie with many of the real people who Schindler saved. Art and life, fiction and fact, in a sense, come together.

In real life, Schindler went on after the end of the war to start a number of businesses that failed. He ended up penniless, on the dole. And he died that way, alone.

There are some interesting similarities and differences between this film and It’s a Wonderful Life. Schindler is like George Bailey in that he is faced with moral decisions that have significant consequences. They both make good decisions, and the outcomes of their decisions benefit their communities. The benefit in Schindler’s case is life for 1200 people who would otherwise have been murdered. The benefit in Bailey’s case is the economic well-being and moral character of the community of Bedford Falls.

George Bailey is fictional through and through. Oskar Schindler is real through and through. He really happened. Speilberg—the producer and director—and his writers didn’t so much make him as brought the real Schindler through an actor to the screen.

But it’s odd. Schindler almost makes himself up, in a way similar to the way that Bailey makes himself up. There is strong motivation pulling George away from community and toward making money, and there is strong motivation pulling Oskar toward treating the Jewish community in his factory as merely a colony of ants and toward using them solely to make money. But then there is something in both characters that works against this greed motive that enables them to rise to the occasion. Many occasions, as it turns out. To make of themselves something more interesting and salvific.

For both, this resistance comes with a substantial cost. It literally costs each a comfortable existence to listen to their hearts. To act in accordance with what their hearts are suggesting they do. Both are forced into personal economies that are quite iffy. Quite marginal. Quite contingent. Neither becomes comfortable. The choices they make take all economic cushions away and leave them both vulnerable. And in the case of Schindler, he constantly runs the risk of being murdered himself.

Oh, and then we have Amon Goth and Mr. Potter. The personifications of evil. In Potter’s case, this is what George might look like some number of years hence if he allows his ambition and his cupidity to get the better of him. In the case of Goth, here we have someone who does not see the Jews really as people. They are more like ants to him, and he enjoys his life-and-death power over them in the way a boy might enjoy life-and-death power over a colony of ants.

What drives Goth is certainly money. So in that way he is quite similar to Potter. He sucks Schindler dry almost single-handedly, he is so greedy. And one can imagine that if Potter were given the legal and moral latitude given to Goth, he would become a profligate murderer as well. But his cultural and legal context does not allow him that. It only allows him bigotry and economic oppression. And so that is what he exercises. He will be as evil as his cultural and legal context allows.

So what we have in both cases is a character doing extraordinary things but doing these things in an ordinary way. Making one decision at a time. Choosing to divert, one step at a time, from the path he begins on. The choices the two characters make are moral choices, but these are not so much motivated by the characters thinking that something is right and they therefore should do it. The choices seem to arise more from their hearts rather than from an idea about what is right and wrong. Choices their hearts make first to love someone, to care for someone, to take care of someone. And then the action—their behavior—follows this choice their hearts seem to have made independent of their minds or their wills.

Both are comedies, then. Oh, I know. Schindler’s List isn’t a laugh a minute. Let me tell you, it’s not at all fun. It’s serious stuff. And throughout watching it, I have a horror and sense of dread and enormous grief that sits in the back of my eyes and in my throat and in my insides like an alien that is trying to tear me into ragged, bloody, little pieces. Like I did back in the days when I watched Holocaust newsreels on The Twentieth Century.

But unlike the newsreels, Schindler’s List shows us what one quite flawed and ordinary man can do, if he let’s his heart have its way with him.

He can save lives. Real human lives. Nothing at all pretend in this. When in fact he’s just an ordinary Joe or Oskar putting one foot in front of the other, doing what his heart asks him to do.

And this choice. These many choices a person can make to follow the heart. When strung together through actual and simulated life. With their many not so happy consequences and the many possibly happy ones as well. Become like a string of gemstones, a glittering and beautiful thing. One weeps or wants to weep, this is so beautiful. So fragile. And so possible.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why Is George Bailey Frustrated?

It’s almost always useful to ask obvious questions. Questions whose answers appear to be immediately obvious. I suppose it’s useful because stating the obvious needs to be done to get us through the front door of a story and on into its interior. If we can’t make our way through the front door, we can’t begin to appreciate the internal architecture, the furnishings, the interior decoration. We can’t meet the inhabitants and get to know them.

So let’s ask an obvious question about It’s a Wonderful Life: Why is George Bailey frustrated? Isn’t it because of his capacity for love? Isn’t it because he loves too well to suit the ambitious and self-interested impulse in him? Isn’t he really more frustrated by the affections of his heart and the wisdom of his heart and the decisions of his heart than he is by his nemesis, Mr. Potter, or by the incompetence of Uncle Billy, or by the apparent passivity and mediocrity of his father?

Let me remind you of George’s initial motivation and a bit of the plot. George wants to leave his home town, Bedford Falls, since the time he is “elected to membership in the National Geographic Society” and probably before. As a boy behind a soda fountain, he wants to become a famous explorer. As a young man, he wants to travel widely and become an architect who will design great bridges and buildings to constitute and adorn the world’s great cities. He wants to become sophisticated, rich, and famous. He definitely does not want to work with his father in his family business, at the “two-bit” Bailey Building and Loan Association.

But George’s love for his brother, Harry, his love for his father and his father’s memory, his love for his community, and then his love for Mary Hatch keep him from going to college and realizing his ambitions. He sends his brother, Harry, to college, at the same time filling in at the Building and Loan for his dead father so that the working poor and the marginally middle class of Bedford Falls can afford homes of their own, rather than having to pay Mr. Potter’s outrageous rents.

So George’s American Dream of riches and fame is consistently frustrated by the wisdom and the commitments of his heart. As his hair begins to gray and he is barely able to afford his growing family, Mr. Potter offers him compensation that is almost 10 times his current salary at the Building and Loan, if only he will sell out to him. The American Dream side of George leaps at the opportunity Potter offers, and he accepts. But then as he puffs away on one of Potter’s expensive cigars, his heart realizes what a betrayal this would be to the life he has chosen for himself and the values he lives by, and he rejects the offer.

Finally, on a Christmas Eve day, the present of the story, which has mostly been told to us in flashbacks, Uncle Billy misplaces a substantial sum of the Building and Loan’s money, which actually ends up in the hands of Mr. Potter, who keeps it and tells no one. This threatens to result in jail for someone, and George imagines this will have to be him. He can’t figure out how he can go to jail without his family being destroyed. So he goes through a crisis in which he considers suicide, because he wants to restore the money, without harming his Uncle Billy. He feels so overwhelmed by his lost opportunity—his frustrated dreams of success—that he wishes that he had never been born. An angel—Clarence Odbody—who appears to have the intellect of a bag of rocks but who turns out to have considerably more wisdom than any other character in the story, shows George what life in Bedford Falls would have been like without him.

At first, George cannot believe what Clarence shows him. He’s convinced that the world would have been better off without him and that his life has been a waste. Further, he’s convinced that the world Clarence shows him is some kind of mental trick. But no, after he becomes convinced that the might-have-been world that Clarence shows him of joylessness and poverty and greed and sin and viciousness might not be a mental trick—it might actually be a kind of parallel world in which he really never did exist—he prays to be returned to his family. He then is miraculously restored to the world he helped create—the world into which he actually was born. He is returned home by one of the town policemen, and he is reduced to tears of joy and humiliation at his reunion with his family.

The people of the community, after hearing about George’s financial trouble, have apparently all pitched in and more-than-replace the missing funds. The movie ends with George’s restoration to his family, his community, and himself, in a schmaltzy Frank Capra Christmas Eve party full of singing, silliness, and celebration.

Throughout, then, we see George at war with himself. His heart leads him into commitments that his mind tells him are unwise. His mind—his self-interest, which is his ambition—continues to chafe against his heart until the crisis on Christmas Eve, when it is once again put down. It is put down by reality. The reality that George’s heart has helped to create as he has made choice after choice throughout his life. It is a reality that is shown to be much finer—much more fortunate and more beneficial and more happy and more inspiring and more beautiful and more meaningful and more loving—than the alternative reality that Clarence Odbody shows him. The alternative reality in which George’s heart and its decisions play no role and in which Potter, the greedy, loveless, voracious businessman who grasps to own and control all of Bedford Falls, dominates without any contest from George.

George—through his sacrifice to his community, his love of his neighbors—has helped to strengthen the character of his friends and neighbors. They have seen how George has sacrificed for them. Now they sacrifice for him, by contributing more money than they can really afford to bail him out of his trouble. Please notice that they really don’t care what the nature of his trouble is. They will help him no matter what.

What if his community had not come forth and rescued George? Well, the world that he had helped to create would have been the same in its essentials, but it would not have been fully realized. It would not have fully become itself. But George’s decision to pray for restoration to his real and actual life would not have changed. And his joy at his restoration to his family and friends would not have changed.

The party ending is important, but it isn’t essential to George’s life. George’s struggle is what the story is about, the shaping of his character and the shaping of the world that he inhabits. We want to see the sacrifice of the community in the end, though, because it is just and right and beautiful, in a schmaltzy sort of way. It is the realization of the good of George’s temptations and his sacrifice.

And it puts to rights the Christmas story. The story of Jesus. We want to know that it is possible to get a different outcome these days—even in America—to a life of sacrifice. We want to know that a life lived through love and forgiveness does not have to end in defeat. That it can change us this time. We want to know that we can fully participate this time around in the love and the beauty of such a life, rather than be the cause of its destruction.

And so we identify more than we may care to admit with Uncle Billy and Bert and Ernie and Cousin Eustace and Cousin Tilly and Mr. Martini and Nick and Sam Wainwright and Ruth Dakin Bailey and Carter and Mr. Gower and Violet and the others. We want ourselves this time to fully participate in the possibility of salvation. In the possibility offered us by someone who only knows how to put one foot in front of the other on his way to a destination that only his heart knows. A destination that is right here. Right here in this place. Wherever and whenever this happens to be.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


But allow me to digress. Allow me to regress. Allow me to readdress myself back, back, back in time to let’s say. Oh. Where and when I lived with my forgiving and loving bride 30 years or so ago. Allow me to send myself and you back to a rather poor, beat-within-an-inch-of-its-life flat in Syracuse, New York, where I read books and wrote papers and was poor. Bassett was the street. A poor, sad-eyed homophone-of-a-street.

We were middling poor, what with me going to school and Pat nursing. We had the one car. The one green car her parents gave us. I think our rent was $140 a month, and that included utilities. Our furniture was junk pulled out of somebody’s garage and doused in varnish remover. A normal meal was hotdog casserole or macaroni and cheese, sometimes meatloaf, when we could afford it. I walked a mile to school and back, down streets and across a park where people were occasionally robbed or raped or murdered or all of these.

Those were the days, as I dim-wittedly dodged knives and bullets on my way, back and forth to school, in which I was both a grad student and a teacher. In which I taught a variety of students a variety of subjects, all of them having to do either with writing or literature. In which I was the particular sort of an indentured servant called a teaching assistant.

And Syracuse was the place where I read my early Plato, my Aristotle, my Bloom, my Campbell, my Brooks, my Wittgenstein, my Clive Bell, my Kant, my Tolstoy, my Beardsley, my Freud, my Jung, my Santayana, my Frye, my Arnold, my Saussure, my Warren, my Ransom, my Leavis, my Barthes, my Levi-Strauss, my Chomsky, and my horde of other literary critics and philosophers, along with literature itself, my Shakespeare, my D.H. Lawrence, my Yeats, my Williams, my Pound, my Woolf, my Faulkner, my Dos Passos, my Beckett, my Ionesco, my Camus, my James, my Forster, my Carver, my Melville, my Flaubert, my Swift, my Donne, my Herbert, my Eliot, my Dostoyevsky, my Wordsworth, my Coleridge, my Shelley, my Pope, my Milton, my Ibsen, my Chekov, my Neruda, my Borges, my Cheever, my Gogol, my Keats, my Browning, my Dickens, my Stendhal, my Bishop, my Thomas, my Heaney, my Carruth, my Dillard, my Whitman, my Hawthorne, my Twain, my Golding, my Updike, my Pynchon, my Lowell, my Hughes, my Lewis, my Ford, my Sinclair, my West, my Roethke, my Hemingway, my Joyce, my Fielding, my Richardson, my Defoe, my Wilde, my Conrad, my Hardy, my Cervantes, my Homer, my Frost, my Millay, Aeschylus, my Euripides, my Sophocles, my O’Connor, my Virgil, my Bunyan, my Samuel Butler, my Cummings, my Turgenev, my Goethe, my. My, my, my, one does go on!

And one of the questions that insinuated itself into me. Wormed its little way in through my ear and into my brain and wouldn’t leave. Wouldn’t be shaken out. Was the question that goes something like this: “If literature is an imitation of life, what in us is it imitating?” And its corollary: “If literature is made for reading, what is reading literature made for?”

In other words, why do we need it? Why do we want it? Why do we look for it? What is its use? Yes, it certainly serves the economically and politically powerful in exhaustively and boringly elaborated ways. But it also serves the powerless. Stories and poems and plays seem egalitarian in their service to everyone, everywhere. But what, beyond reinforcing political and economic ideas, is literature serving in us? Why do we put up with the brainwashing aspect? Why isn’t law and custom and social sanction and the exercise of direct political and economic power sufficient to reinforce political and economic interests? Why literature, in particular?

Why all these replicas? These representations? These imitations? Why all this dangerous and expensive and circuitous and labyrinthine and distracting and refracting and indirect and ramifying and recursive and recalcitrant and philosophically illegitimate and illogical and irrational and emotional and morally slippery and impractical frou-frou?

Background. Plato first writes about mimesis or imitation or representation or acting or reciting or presenting a simulacrum in Ion and The Republic. Aristotle picks up the discussion later. And others, down through the ages, have tried to understand what goes on between plays, poetry, narratives, novels, stories, music, dance, art, film, etc. and us. Why we make these things, which I’ll call simulacra for lack of a better word. How we use these things. What their function is. Why they exist. What good they are or do.

And of course the opinions are all over the map. Plato begins the discussion by having Socrates assert that the actor and by extension and implication the poet or story-teller don’t really know anything. They have no truth to convey. They have no particular skill or craftsmanship. They are merely inspired. They are divinely inspired to a kind of madness. Truth is the province of the philosopher only. (If he were alive and writing today, he’d probably say philosophers, mathematicians, physicists, and scientists only.) And these stories and plays and art and all other simulacra are therefore mere entertainments. And to the extent they may mislead people and convince them of things that are false, they may in fact be quite dangerous.

So I did quite a bit of reading at the time. And some since. And some thinking. I won’t go through it all. It’s boring and irritating. Tedious. I list some of it above. I circuitously touch on some of it in previous posts, and I’m certain I will in future posts.

So please allow me to skip most of that and arrive immediately in the present. And this present is. Oh. Maybe an eight to ten year ongoing sort of a present.

And in this rather fluid sort of a present, here’s what I’ve come to, propositionally speaking, and in no particular order of precedence or importance: (1) We do think by story, by image, by character unfolding, by accumulating narrative meaning; (2) Our hearts do most of our useful thinking, with the assistance of our heads; (3) Our hearts use words and actions and images and smells and color and flavor and sounds and the feel of a thing to reason about it—but always our hearts place these sensations in the context of a story, a narrative, a timeline, a sequence, with character implicit, imputed, or invented, no matter how minimally realized or referenced; (4) Character is our principal way of entering the world of simulacra, our principal construct through which we extract meaning; (5) Good tragedy presents us with one or more characters who are greater in some respect (usually morally or in their capacity for suffering) than we are; (6) Good comedy presents us with one or more characters who are just about the same as we are, in morality and moral capacity; (7) In both, the most credible protagonists are flawed; (8) Congenitally, we prefer comedy, given half a chance, because it aligns with a terminal orientation toward hope and purpose, a capacity for love and forgiveness and generosity, that is emergent and ascendant and insistent in us; (9) Comedy tends toward resolution, restoration, love, forgiveness, and redemption, while Tragedy tends toward dissolution, destruction, death, suffering, and judgment, and we choose which of these orientations we will like best and perhaps have, ourselves; (10) Poetry (of which song lyrics are a species) is still one of our most powerful and pervasive story-telling techniques; (11) Simulacra (e.g. plays, novels, short stories, poems, songs, TV shows, painting, sculpture, dance, music, etc.) all find their home in narrative, in plot, in sequence; (12) Simulacra are all metaphors in which we imaginatively place ourselves to think usefully and operationally about our lives and one another and the world and God; (13) Metaphor is how we figure we can possibly know anything; (14) We make figures-tropes-metaphors in order to think about or know anything; (15) Most propositional argument—philosophical discourse—is built with metaphor; (15) Most propositional knowledge is explained through the use of narrative or narrative reference, no matter how minimal; (16) Beauty is always (but not only) what we are looking for in simulacra—beauty in character, in event, in appearance, in sound, in movement, in shape, or in expression—as though it were our purpose in coming to simulacra in the first place; (17) Meaning is always (but not only) what we are looking for in literature, and when a work of literature is well done, meaning and beauty become one; (18) Words themselves are metaphors, in a sense, rather arbitrary sounds and marks standing for things and ideas and emotions that only they make present and comprehensible; (19) Grammar and syntax taken together as semantic structure is a metaphor for action and stasis, for living itself.

Oh, I know. What I’ve done here is skip the proof. Skip the steps in the mathematical proof. Or proofs. Skipped the argument and the evidence and gone straight to the conclusions. It’s wrong. It’s illegitimate. It’s backward. It’s non-linear. It’s convoluted. It’s anti-intellectual. It’s non-verifiable. It’s an outrage. It’s not to be trusted. It comes out of pure air. Pure blue air. If this were a Freshman essay, I’d give it an F.

And another thing. These propositions (and others like them) are to this blog as quarks are to atoms, and to all else that I write. Or know. Or think I know. I think.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

But Then

But then, after saying all that, it also occurs to me to say that we do all end up dead. No matter our choices for good or ill. No matter whether we had a jolly good time or a jolly rotten time. No matter whether we married and had children and were happy. Or whether we were murderers and were chronically angry and depressed.

We could have been loving and forgiving all of our lives and been blown to bits in a spectacular highway crash or drowned in a tsunami or killed by starvation in a dusty, barren, and indifferent wasteland of a world.

Depending on the activity or inactivity of others and of nature itself, we could lead utterly trusting and loving and forgiving lives and be rewarded, in part, by suffering—by terrible suffering—and early destruction here on earth.

And so if that can occur—and let me assure you that it does all the time—you have every right to wonder what I could possibly be talking about. Comedy? you might ask. Comedy? You call the people who perished in South Africa leading up to the ending of apartheid characters in a comedy? You call the Holocaust a comedy? You call Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot and Hitler a bunch of comedians? A bunch of characters in a comedy?

You’ve got to be kidding, you are thinking. You have got to be out of your mind.

You call Jesus’s story a comedy? A story in which he dies a terrible death at a young age. A brutal and lonely death. This is comedy?

And so this is what I mean about Laurel and Hardy, for example. Comedy in the sense that I am using the word may include Laurel and Hardy, but it also definitely does include Hitler and Stalin and all the rest. It does entail an iffy plot and a lot of characters that do not come out to entertain us so much. Rather, many of them come out to torment us and destroy us, as it turns out.

So when I assert that life and the world has within it a comedic structure. Or the possibility of a comedic structure. When I say that life lived in a certain way is comedic. Is a comedy. What I don’t mean is that it is a laugh a minute. What I do certainly mean is that beneath all the suffering and evil is something that is more real. More essential. More actual. Than all the suffering and evil that conceals it.

What I do mean is that liveliness and loveliness and hopefulness and forgiveness overpower and overwhelm what endeavors to destroy these qualities, when exercised. When lived. When given human expression. When insisted upon. When embodied. When enspirited. When allowed expression by one’s spirit. When lived out by anyone, even by people who are facing death. Whose bodies are failing and passing away.

There is something thrilling about a person who in the face of death and suffering will choose to love, to forgive, to affirm, to encourage, and not to despair. Something noble. Something that seems beautiful. That makes one weak in the knees, it is so beautiful.

It is this underlying beauty that I am talking about here. And this beauty, which I’ve written about elsewhere in this blog, and our mysterious, mystical response to it, which tells us we’re on to something. Tells us we really do have something here. Independent of the evidence and logic and beauty and rightness of the Resurrection, which I’ll get to later.

Oh, I don’t know. Have you ever seen the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life? How about Schindler’s List? One is largely fictional. The other is largely factual. But don’t these stories get at something that we want to believe? Aren’t we drawn to the possibility that we can personally make a difference? That we can change the world?

Isn’t changing the world in our blood somehow? Isn’t wanting to bring a contribution that makes a difference deep down in us somewhere? Isn’t there an intuition that changing the world is what we are put here to do?

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. It’s a Wonderful Life is schmaltzy and old-fashioned and kind of silly and not really what the real world looks like. And you’re thinking that Schindler’s List is an extraordinary example. That real people don’t have the opportunity that Schindler did to make a difference.

But of course these are merely rationalizations for living a comfortable life. A selfish life. A greedy life. For preferring comfort over heroism. Over beauty. Over sacrifice. For preferring safety over risk.

We can all make a difference, if we choose to. We can make a difference to one another. To our families and friends and co-workers. We can make a difference in the suffering and pain of others. I see it all the time. I see better people than I am do this all the time.

But seeing it does require opening one eyes. It does require one to look for this sort of thing. To expect it. To expect God to give us help right here and now to live this way. To live beautifully. To live lovingly. To live forgivingly. To give up the comfort and righteousness of one’s anger. To give up the comfort and righteousness of a materialistic and money-oriented life. To give up acquisitiveness. To give up the idea that one’s significance has anything at all to do with money and acquisitions.

In the divine comedy that I’m talking about, we all. Without understanding it. Against our better judgment. Against our American instinct for economic accomplishment. Could very well find ourselves like George Bailey. Frustrated and wanting and vulnerable. Just scraping by. Wet-faced with tears of joy and humiliation. Dependent. Completely contingent. A few paychecks away from homelessness. Grinding out ordinary lives that occasionally seem schmaltzy and contrived and flawed by impatience and anger. But also tilting the world, however minutely, in the direction of the sun.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Characters in the Play

The characters in the play, in other words, need to help write the play. Write the play that fits the genre in which they wish to exist. The kind of world in which they want to live. Write themselves the kind of role they see for themselves. The kind of role they want to play.

The playwright has chosen to do only so much after all, and the characters must do their part. They must develop. Well. Their own character, their own logic. Their own attitudes. Their own motives. Their own particular places in the action.

It’s kind of like improv. Only instead of stand-up comedy, it’s stand-up narrative. Stand-up playing. Stand-up theater. You and the other actors in your play are all improvising your parts, largely.

I say play, but pick your literary form. Pick your medium. Could be a movie. Could be a novel. Could be a narrative poem. Could be. Oh, I don’t know. A TV show.

But here’s the idea. You’re an actor, see, if it’s in one of the performing arts. Or you’re an agent, if it’s purely literary. Purely written and not performed. A clue is that an agent is not fully human yet. So also is an actor with respect to his character. They are both proto-characters in search of their full human identity. Actor or agent in search of who they will be. Who they will choose to be. What role they will actually play. And that role may change. May evolve. One hopes it does, because with experience, one would hope there is some learning and some changing. As one interacts with others, develops relationships with others, one hopes one would change to accommodate the needs of others. One hopes for a dynamic quality to the performance.

In other words, you start off in the life of the narrative as something pretty close to a blank. A mere possibility. A possibility, however, that is qualified by certain constraints. Certain givens about your circumstance. Some are given more options than others here. And as the narrative progresses, you realize progressively more and more of the possibility you’ve been given. You make choices. You select a particular path through the landscape. Everywhere you go, there are branches off the path you are on, and you are therefore making choices all the time.

The path you take is selected from a many, many possible paths. You become individuated. Your genre almost selects you based on these individual choices you make. Let’s use weather as a metaphor for genre. So your path leads you to. Oh. San Diego, for example, where, except for the June Gloom, it is mostly sunny and warm. Comedic, let us say. Or you select a set of paths that take you to Barrow, Alaska, for example, where for six months of the year, it’s dark, and for most of the year, it’s cold. More of a potentially Tragic sort of a place, where you really must scramble to make any sort of a living at all, where there are few jobs to speak of, and where hunting and fishing are the principal occupations. Which is in contrast to San Diego, where the jobs are plentiful, of great variety. Et cetera.

But let’s shift our metaphor back to the theater, for a moment. So you’re an actor, let’s say. A male actor, who finds himself in a play, playing A, for example. A young man fresh out of Columbia University with a degree in English, of all things. (Who gets a degree in English, you moron? What were you thinking? You can’t get any sort of a job with a degree in English. A good-paying job, I mean. Oh, you can be a clerk or dishwasher or bathroom attendant. Yes. If you want a career in cash register jockeying, an English degree is ideal. But otherwise, you are up a sorry, stony, dried-up creek-bed without a paddle, Fella!)

Where was I? Oh. Then A meets B, a successful comedienne on Saturday Night Live. And that’s it. That’s all you’re given. Now you make up who you are as you go. And what you do. What your attitude is. What your values are. What you believe. What kind of a life you want. Improvise!

You decide what your genre will be. What kind of story you will live inside. What you’d like the beginning, middle, and end to look like. To live like.

For example, here’s one plot and implicit genre that you might try to fashion for yourself: A falls in love with B, but B doesn’t fall in love with A until late in the third act, when A goes to work for an NGO in Darfur. A is rivaled by C for B’s affections, a rich up-and-comer investment banker. C woos B in A’s absence. A feeds the hungry and contracts a disease that almost kills him. He’s rushed back to New York for critical medical care. B helps to nurse him back to health, revives his will to live type of deal. C proves himself to have been a linchpin in the development and sale of mortgage-backed securities. B finally rejects C for his moral bankruptcy. Word-play intended. A writes a best-selling book about his experiences in Darfur. A and B marry, taking an apartment together in SoHo, where they live a bon vivant type of life, routinely having parties for the cast of Saturday Night Live and the homeless, in which everyone yuks it up over hors d’oeuvres and drinks.

Or here’s another plot and implicit genre you might try on for size: A never falls in love. He’s kind of like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, except that instead of falling in and out of love, he never falls in love. He’s too demanding. Too picky. Too whiny. He meets a nearly infinite number of possible Bs, but each of them is faulty. Each of them is something less than perfect. A knows what he’s looking for. He knows exactly what he’s looking for. But he can’t find a B that meets all the requirements. So he becomes a career employee of the New York Public Library. He works in the bowls of the organization on obscure conservation projects. He slowly gets his MA in Library Science, one course at a time. He saves his money carefully for his retirement. He’s promoted slowly over the decades after he receives his MA. He begins to take winter vacations in Belize, where he delights in sea kayaking. He begins to dream of retiring early there. He saves his money carefully, almost never going out, eating macaroni and cheese for dinner or spaghetti, looking forward to the day when he can retire to Belize—he loves the sound of that word, when he says it—where he can live in the sun. But then one day, at his desk, he dies.

In other words, you have a great deal of latitude here. Particularly in North America. You in fact have a great deal of freedom. But so does everyone else. You may have difficulty getting your plot to turn out exactly as you wish, but your character and your attitude. That wonderful Mr. Wonderful You. Is the one aspect of this whole metaphor that you have quite significant choice over. (Particularly with 21st century psycho-active drugs.) And to the extent that character can increase the probability of genre—and it can quite profoundly—you always have that.

Plot. The particulars of plot. Well. That’s a bit more iffy. As I say. What with freedom running rampant all around us and a certain randomness embedded in everything.

But I’m repeating myself. But I’m repeating myself.

The point is that the structure of the world is open in some significant measure. Is open in the sense that much of it can be up to you.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Metaphor That Changes the World

So the hypothesis that the structure of the world is fundamentally comedic is what all my examples at the beginning of the last post have in common. Or maybe you want to call it a theory, since there is some evidence for it. Some significant evidence. Take the recent history of South Africa as described in Desmond Tutu’s book.

If people are in fact forgiving. If they act consistent with the theory that forgiveness creates a better life for them. That love creates a better community. That love and forgiveness are possible and that they lead to better outcomes. That they themselves are in fact capable of the improbable emotions and intentions and plans and sacrifices that are bound up with love and forgiveness.

If people will not only entertain the theory but act on it, in contrast to all reasonable expectation. If people will allow themselves to be led into a simulacrum. Into a story in which vicious retribution, bloody revenge, descent into hatred and destruction are all set aside. Into a story in which the oppressors are forgiven. Are allowed to walk away. Free and carefree as birds.

If people will suspend their other less lovely ideas about the way the world works and entertain the comedic idea, no matter how improbable. No matter how apparently naïve. No matter how vulnerable this makes one. No matter how silly looking and perhaps unsophisticated and perhaps stupid-seeming. Perhaps unstylish or unwise or foolish. One may appear.

It may actually turn out to be true. Accurate. The comedic model may fit remarkably well. But its fit. Its reasonableness. Depends completely on our willingness to use it. To live in accordance with it. To operate as though loving and forgiving were our most natural and favored modes of being, of acting, of feeling, of believing, of doing. To live as though we were made to operate this way.

In other words, its use does require choice. Its operative reality does require intentionality. Choice sometimes in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. And contrary emotion. And pressure from others.

I remember, for example, decades ago now, a man who. Oh, the memory is dim. A man who was walking with his daughter. (Perhaps you remember him also. He became famous at the time.) This was in Northern Ireland. I don’t know which they were. Catholic or Protestant. Anyway, a bomb goes off. They are buried in rubble. The young woman is killed. The father survives and goes on the radio saying that he forgives those who did this terrible thing.

He repeatedly goes on the radio and the television also. And I think he was interviewed in the newspapers as well. And everywhere he proclaimed forgiveness. Everywhere for a time he was found to be saying the most ridiculous thing: that he forgave his attackers. His daughter’s murderers.

People called him crazy. Insane. They dismissed him as mentally defective. Because he forgave his enemies. Forgave the murderers of his daughter.

What was his trouble, really? It was that he reasoned by metaphor. He reasoned that the world really does have, underneath all the death and suffering and hate and oppression, a comedic structure. He reasoned that his role in this comedy was to live in accordance with this metaphor’s precepts. And so he forgave.

He was faithful to this idea about the world. He was faithful to this idea about his daughter. He was faithful to this idea about his community. He was faithful to this idea about how all of us are made. And what we are made for.

He was faithful to this idea no matter what. No matter that his beloved daughter had been slaughtered needlessly. For no good reason. A person he loved more than his own life.

And he was faithful to this idea when his friends and family maybe joined others in calling him crazy. Insane. Unfaithful to his daughter’s memory. Unfaithful to his daughter. Maybe.

He reasoned by metaphor that life was bigger and more important than his own anger. Than his own desire to destroy the people who would do such a horrible thing. He reasoned by narrative. He reasoned by story. And he found himself—found his real, actual, genuine, made-up, fictional, intentionally selected self—in a role in that story. In the role of protagonist. The role of lover. A lead role in his own story and the story of the world.

Monday, December 1, 2008

And When I Say Comedy

And when I say comedy, what I’m thinking of is, in no particular order, Dante Alighieri’s Commedia, Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt, the movie A Thousand Clowns, Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness, the Gospel of John, and other such simulacra.

Other such representations. Other such meditations. Other such narratives. Other such explorations into the world as a fortunate place, into the idea that life is. Well. Filled with cupidity and insanity and banality and terror and death and suffering and corruption and evil. But also into the idea that life has in it restoration and order and beauty and light-heartedness and enjoyment and vitality and love and generosity and forgiveness and word-play and a modicum of hilarity from time to time.

Explorations that discover a dark world where there are also the moon and stars. And ultimately the sun.

Narratives that acknowledge that while our particular lives end, our endings may not be all that bad. And they may very possibly be good.

And this is from someone who is a hospice volunteer. Who occupies himself with people who are dying.

I sit with people as they die. I sit with people whose brother or sister or wife will not sit with them as they die. So I see death. And I see a bit of suffering. And I see cowardice. In other words, I am not isolated from the real world in a world of books.

So when I say comedy, I mean something beyond Laurel and Hardy. There’s nothing wrong with Laurel and Hardy. I think The Music Box is a scream, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was a teenager, when I fell off the couch laughing as the classic short played on the television.

But let’s face it, the destruction of a home and the destruction of a player piano by idiots, while amusing, doesn’t discover much in the end but destruction and mayhem and guffaws. Low humor such as this can serve the purpose of amusement in a larger comedic structure, but this is not itself an example of the comedy I mean.

The comedy I mean is unlikely. Improbable. The skeptic in us momentarily rebels at the comedic ending. But we put him down. We put down the skeptic in order to let the restoration or the salvation or the consummation or the survival of love in the ending stand.

Oh it may sometimes stand a bit shakily, depending upon our phase of life. Depending somewhat on our life experience. On whether we are clinically depressed or not, for example. On whether we have lost people we’ve loved.

And this shakiness is part of what comedy discovers also. It requires something of us—a steadying hand, in some sense. It requires a willingness to overlook whatever contrivance there might be. A willingness to forget something of what we think we know about the way the world works. And to remember hope. And to remember possibility. Consciously. Deliberately. As a matter of choice.