The God of Small Things

Arundhati Roy’s 1997 novel, “The God of Small Things” tells of the memories and experiences of two children in India and how cutlure, laws and society shape them.  It is the small things that govern their lives, the rainfall, the songs of musicals, the low-caste friends.

The notion of small things  governing our lives is a strong them of narrative and theology. Western complex has long been with strength and individuation, but eastern thinking has always been about the god in nature and life.  Hebrew teaching from which Christianity sprang is an eastern faith and although God is not equated with natural phenomenon, God works in and through small characters and small occasions to work history together. In the 4th century AD Augustine, Bishop of Hippo wrote this about the incarnation.

Man’s maker was made man,
that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast;
that the Bread might hunger,
the Fountain thirst,
the Light sleep,
the Way be tired on its journey;
that the Truth might be accused of false witness,
the Teacher be beaten with whips,
the Foundation be suspended on wood;
that Strength might grow weak;
that the Healer might be wounded;
that Life might die.

– Augustine of Hippo (Sermons 191.1)

Advertisements

Sonnet XLIII

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Does art mirror life or does life mirror art? Critics will tell you the best art conveys feeling and that even photographic art emotes. Art is more like  a dream -vision of reality, whether nightmarish, beautiful or haunting. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43 captures the relationship of art to life.

Art is the waking dream, and when we dream, we see as though to the heart of the artists emotions.

paul-delvaux-dream-girl-1931-1368529836_org

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

It surprises me occasionally to hear the comment, “I don’t read much fiction. Real life is more interesting.” or “Fiction is entertaining but I prefer spending my time on something informative.”  It’s clear that temperament types prefer different genres, but the way we frame art and narrative is definitely culturally constrained. Is art simply entertainment and distraction?

Frued and Jung based the science of their psychoanalysis on mythical archetypes. To this day an Oedipal complex or narcissistic personality are terms and types drawn directly from ancient narratives.  Narrative and art are deeply informative about culture, identity and being and carry important conversations about justice, courage and truth. A much maligned genre is fantasy and science fiction. Written off as kiddy or nerdy or pop culture, fantasy and science fiction are the modern version of myths, legends and faery which were the highest form of narrative in millenia past.

Science fiction films, comics, graphic novels and the like are a treasure trove of philosophical, theological and psychological thought. One celebrated and iconic film is a favourity of mine – Blade Runner.

Set in a futuristic Los Angeles, “Blade Runner”, the 1980s film by Ridley Scott, explores the world of artificial intelligence. The film is based on a Phillip K. Dick novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and features a cop, Rick Deckard and his asignment to hunt down artificially created humans called replicants.

Replicants, are highly sophisticated creations of the Tyrell corporation, originally built to be indistinguishable from humans but have become banned on earth due to faults. Replicants have escaped from astro-colonies where they function as servants and soldiers, and have returned to earth to extend their life span. Replicants are genetically engineered, have implanted memories. However, Replicants have been commiting crimes, indicating a mutation in their programming and Rick Deckard [Harrison Ford] has been hired to hunt them down.

frankenstein

The story, not unlinke Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, explores the internal reality of a creature, their consciousness of being and in turn reflects on what it is to be a human being. Decker falls in love with Rachael, a replicant in denial of her identity, convinced her memories and family photos prove her to be human. One by one, Deckard chases and exterminates the remaining replicants, sparing Rachael due to his intimate connection to her.

The plot denoument comes when replicant Roy, breaks into the Tyrell corporation to face his creator, demanding more life. Tyrell dismisses the request upon which Roy embraces his maker and then kills him. Deckard’s final show down with Roy on the roof tops of the city shortly follows. Roy is mortally wounded and when Deckard slips and hangs from the roof top, Roy saves his life and then shares his last minuetes of life with Deckard,  recounting his memories of existence and awareness of his own death.

tyrell

The story artfully explores the elements of human existence. We are because we love, we are because we remember, we are because we desire life, we are because we desire justice, we are because we show mercy. Deckard is haunted throughout the narrative by dreams of a unicorn and famously, the film closes with a henchman of the Tyrell corporation leaving an orgiami unicorn in Deckards office. As the closing credits roll, the audience and Deckard are left asking, “is he a replicant?” and all of ask “are we a replicant?”

unicorn

What if our memories are implanted? what is our frame of reference for existence? what gives us a common bond – our love for life? our shared experiences?

Not unlike the “Wizzard of Oz”, Blade Runner features an encounter with the Maker and the Maker comes up inadequate. Representative of the mega-corporatation ruling the world with an iron fist, the Maker is not capable of extending life and so has created something he cannot care for. Thus Roy commits patricide. Maybe Blade Runner captures the 20th and 21st century disappointment with our philosophical thinking – with religion, with God, with capitalism, with scientific rationalism.

I know another story, when humanity encounters God in flesh, their overwhelming desire was to kill the God out of rage for the existence dealt them. However, in killing God, life is reborn.

But that’s another story.

Door way stories and the relativity of time

“So these Kings and Queens entered the thicket, and before they had gone a score of paces they all remembered that the thing they had seen was called a lamp-post, and before they had gone twenty more the noticed that they were not making their way through branches but through coats. And the next moment they all came tumbling out of a wardrobe  door inthe the empty room, and they were no longer Kings and Queens in their hunting array but just Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in their old clothes. It was the same day and the same hour of the day on which they had all gone into the wardrobe to hide.” – C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion,  The Witch and The Wardrobe.

wardrobe-baynes

Old English faery tales tell the opposite scenario, a young maiden is carried off into the land of faery, and lives there a while. Upon returning to her home, she finds her mother and father long dead and years passed, even though for her the span had been but a few short months.  This common motif in narrative is an interesting feature.  Stories take us on a journey, and while the world around us might tick by to the solar clock, our soul can travel through an age long quest and return to the planet, so to speak, changed and transformed –  and surprised the world is still as it is.  The doorway story simply captures that with a metaphor of traveling between two worlds.

Ever notice that intense emotion heightens a feeling of time?! An epic day such as a family wedding seems to fly by in a blur, yet each moment seems burned in the memory. A car-crash or fearful experience seems to slow time down immensely. Watching the kettle boil, slows time down. A day at work or being busy and distracted, speeds time up. For children, time is counted in sleeps until a big day. For adults, each year is remarked upon “Is it Christmas again? how time flies by!?!” And the older you get, the faster time seems to fly by.

body clock

I once fasted for 21 days. The experience was a fascinating experiment of observing  time passing. The act of not eating brought on aches and pains, fatigue and boredom. Mostly it helped me detox, rest and consider life deeply. Time truly slowed down to a point that half an hour meditation yielded more than a day of busy activity. I distinctly felt that I was traveling. I felt my soul time in relation to solar time had shifted, that I was journeying through inner experiences at a more intense pace than normal. The only other time I’d experienced this was to go on a journey through a good story.

If youth equates to a more vital soul time – children experience days and weeks very profoundly – and old age equates to less vital soul time – adults remark on years and even decades passing in a flash  – they what does this tell us about story?  Einstein’s theory of relativity states that the speed of the individual traveling will affect their experience of time. Rather than time being a constant by which we measure reality, time shifts relative to the speed of the traveler.

I don’t believe the secret to immortality lies in story telling or story reading – but I do know that reading stories, takes the reader on a journey through inner experiences, and speeds up time again relative to the solar clock, returning them to a vitality of experience akin to being a child.

Thank you for the feeling

“For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.”
C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Horse and His Boy. 

horse and his boy

What is the secret of a good story? And why aren’t we taught to tell stories the ways children in Calormen are taught to tell stories? I believe the answer to the first question is – feeling. And the answer to the second is – the sacred and secular divide.

A good story is felt. Audiences can all tell a fraud when they read it. When a writer doesn’t truly care for the reality of the characters they create, their  spiritual and emotional reality. The story rings hollow, it smells of propoganda, it falls flat.  They know this from their deepest feelings.

In her memoir, Sarah Turnbull, a journalist in Paris, writes of  interviewing Kristin Scott-Thomas. The actress was once stopped outside her Parisian apartment by a fan not for – “can I have a photograph?” or “I liked the English Patient” but rather to hear, “thank you for the emotion.”

sand

Turnbull remarks –  where in the world but France would anybody say that? Thank you for the emotion.

english Patient 3

Herein lies the rub. By speaking the language of our heart stories and art, moves something much deeper in us than the logic can account for.

It fascinated me that around the time of Hitchen’s celebrated release of “God is not Great”, there were queues around blocks in major cities to buy the final Harry Potter novel. In one, a scientist, declares that all spiritual pursuits are contribution to injustice and evil in the world. The other explains how evil exists within two parallell worlds, one shut off from the other through a combination of  fear and  alienation.

In her stories, Rowlings takes on 300 years of western philosophy which has worked to alienate sacred and secular – to tell a story of epic struggle between good and evil. The readers voted and their passion broke publishing records.

 

Casablanca and the ‘second chance’.

Shakespeare writes in ‘Much Ado About Nothing”, speaking of the music and it’s power, “Is it not strange that sheep’s guts could hail souls out of men’s bodies?” One could say the same thing about language and story. “Is it not strange that the wind of the lungs and the vibrations of  throat can move us to tears, to anger, to love ?” Or “is it not strange that the combination of sounds into sentences, can move us to hate, to war, to sacrifice or obedience?”

I’m forever awed by the way that narrative can enable us to embody the protagonist’s consciousness , to travel in their shoes, to make us feel their feelings. Their love is our love, their struggle is our struggle, their sacrifice is our sacrifice and their redemption is our redemption.

A story that teaches me a lot about redemption is the 1940s film “Casablanca”.  The story goes like this:

Early in World War II, Rick and Elsa met and fell in love in Paris. Upon the invasion of Paris by the Germans, they planned to run away together, but the night of the rendezvous at the train station, Elsa didn’t turn up, leaving Rick heart broken.

A year later, in a bar in Morocco, Rick has money and influence, but he cannot forget Elsa. Casablanca is an outpost city through which fugitives of war, wealthy Europeans, political players, Jews, can seek visas to escape to the USA.  One day a Czech freedom fighter and political activist, Victor Laslo and his wife come to Casablanca. He is wanted by the Nazi party and desperately needs papers to escape.  When the couple arrive, Rick and Elsa meet again.

When it becomes clear that Rick can help Victor, Elsa declares her love for Rick and tells him the story of how, on the night of their rendezvous, she heard that Victor was alive. He had been arrested and put in a concentration camp but had escaped.  Not knowing how to tell Rick of her husbands’s existence, she decided that disappearing was the kindest act. She bargains with Rick that if she will stay with him in Casablanca, will he set Victor free and send him to the USA.

Rick has two visas – one for him and Elsa. The night of the flight, he takes them both to the airport, and puts both Victor and Elsa on the flight together to the USA.

This story tells me of redemption. In one case, the decision to let Elsa be with her husband is taken from Rick and he is left abandoned. This is a grief he cannot overcome. In the second instance, it is he himself, full with the knowledge of Elsa’s love, that puts them together on the flight to escape. This willing self sacrifice is the way that he can be free of the burden he has carried all the years of her decision to leave. He can show love in the most profound way possible, by sacrificing himself. In giving, he finds healing.

Poetic Inspiration

Where do great stories come from and why do some people have the knack to tell consistently amazing stories, and others – hit and miss?

According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge,  Kubla Khan, was composed one night after he experienced an opium-nfluenced dream. He had read a work describing Xanadu the summer palace of the Mongol ruler and Emperor of China. Upon waking, he set about writing lines of poetry that came to him from the dream until he was interrupted by a visitor. The poem could not be completed as the interruption caused him to forget the lines. Out of despair from losing the inspiration, Coleridge left it unpublished and kept it for private readings for his friends until 1816 when, on the prompting by Byron it was published.

Roald Dahl depicts dreams as small cloudlike puffs, to be caught in a net, bundled into a sack and blown through a pipe into sleeping children’s ears. Other writers speak of being visited by a muse or suffering mysterious writer’s block as though an external source had stemmed the flow of a stream.  Elizabeth Gilbert, writer of “Eat, Pray, Love” discusses this phenomenon to a contemporary audience, an audience steeped in a scientific-rational context. She manages to package the mystery of poetic inspiration in modern terms.

My take home thought from Gilbert’s speech is that by holding external to self, the artists’ gift of inspiration – as though through a muse or genius – the writer is free to be a humble human. One of the many results of the Enlightenment of the 18th century and the rational humanism of the 19th century, has been an existential despair in the 20th century as humanity contemplates solitude in the universe. For us all meaning rests within. All success or failure, meaning or purpose, stems from the individual will. The crushing paralysis that comes with such belief, can be eased by artists who can frame themselves in a dance with the universe, the Spirit, a muse. This simple surrender can be the release for an artist to let inspiration and industry flow.

The Truth of Fiction

This delightful video by Mac Barnett on “Why a good book is a secret door”  brilliantly depicts the power of narrative – wonder, joy and beneath the fiction – TRUTH.  Citing Pablo Picasso, he reads,

“We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth, at least the truth we are given to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”

To add my thoughts to Picasso, we have the ability to engage in poetic belief, because narrative is so closely aligned with our dreams and our dreams spring from our deepest being.  If we allow ourselves, we can read stories with the automatic comprehension of one who dreams. An artist needs no more to convince others of their lies, as to convince other they are dreaming.

The Book of Job as Satire

A favourite genre of mine, wierdly, is Modernist literature. Characteristic of writing between the turn of the century until the 1960s, it is characterised by a heavy cynicism about society, morality.and break with tradition.  Influenced by artistic movements of impressionism, cubism, surrealism and scientific turns from Newtonian physics to Quantum theory, interspersed with two world wars and other social upheavals, the period turned literature into introspective, doubtful and even absurdist narrations of human existence.

Gogh

I love Hemmingways experience of life through the senses – almost a verbal impressionism; I love Samuel Beckett’s tirade against reason in Waiting for Godot. I love Joseph Conrad’s journey through Imperial Africa to the heart of darkness. I love J. D Salinger’s depiction of a young man dissolving into madness and Sylia Plath’s depiction of her heroine’s dissolution in the Bell Jar.  Perhaps at the core of my love of Modernist literature is a turn to classical Greek and Roman literature to find meaning beneath life in archetypes and dreams, a kind of Jungian journey into the soul.

A novel that moved me greatly was Joseph Hellier’s “Catch 22”. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughter House Five”, It artfully depicted the absurdities of war. Intelligent generals wishing to send young men to their death. Sane young men, not wishing to die but facing the catch. The only way to evade duty was to declare madness, but only the truly mad would go happily go to their death. Thus the sane cannot evade death, though they desire to, and the mad will not evade death, since they will not declare insanity. And so the circle goes – the Catch 22.

catch22

When I heard at school that the Book of Job,  was not only one of the oldest pieces of literature in the world and also one of the most celebrated greats, I was facinated to read it. Unlike any other book in the bible it reads like a play, with behind the scenes notes, and lengthy dialogues between protagonist and antagonists.  Loving Shakespeare and Homer, the Book of Job struck me an epic Jewish classic, fit with mythical beasts and the voice of God from a storm. What delighted me the most was the cutting, at points sarcastic way Job addresses the platitudes of his friends and the way the narrative holds up their views as absurd. It intrigued me. It was almost an anti-text the way much of Modern literature cut against the optimism of society at the turn of the 20th century.

Why did I resonate with this text so much ? Well as an Aussie I love a good deal of cynicsm and sarcasm. It feels realer to me than boundless optimism and it’s candyfloss texture. It increasingly occurred to me that The Book of Job was not unlike “Waiting for Godot” and Job’s complaint not unlike the Catch-22.

Job

So could Job be satire?

I examined the text and found something interesting. Even though elements of the text may have originated early in Israel’s history, many charactertics of the text resembe Menippean Satire, a form of Greek classical poetry and prose between the 2nd and 3rd century BC. The lofty scenes of heaven set against the gritty reality of earth, the behind the scenes view privy to knowledge not shared by the protagonist, the strange denoument and restoration of Job’s fortunes ten fold. Most interesting was the establishement of the satiric norm – the ideal against which antagonists are placed to point out the absurdity of their views. Scholars believed that the Book of Job was thus compiled late in Jewish tradition, in a period when faith in old platitudes of the wisdom literature, placed into the mouths of the unfeeling friends, rang hollow to the suffering remnant.

menippean satire

How fascinating?! If Catch 22 and the like were written to a society experiencing bitter disappointment in the wake of the optimism of the 19th century, then Job was written to a Jewish audience experiencing the humiliation of the Roman occupation and the smashing of naive notions of a mechanistic blessing-cursing relationship to the law. Job faces the very real catch 22 of this law – he is as good an upright as any man can be. But man born is born to mischief as the sparks fly up [Job 5:7].   So are we born to condemnation?! No, he will not accept this resolution. Nor will he accept the resolution of the friends that he need simply repent to regain blessing. He pushes through this transactional approach to God and demands a hearing. When the God he calls upon appears, he is cowed – understandably overwhelmed by the awsome display of splendour from the clouds. However, this awesome divinity approves of Job’s faith – for Job sees through to the heart of the matter. Law can only condemn, but faith in the redemptive nature of the divine is commended.  Job cannot save himself through pennitance, but by grasping to God, not cursing nor turning from God, he clings to the knowledge that God alone can provide a solution to the Catch 22.

Unlike Modernist novels, The Book of Job ends “happily ever after”. Another characteristic of Mennipean satire. But here the book affirms biblical themes, those who orient themselves to God in faith are righteous, not those who abide by the law.

Selah.

What is “Bear Skin”?

Bearskin is in fact number 101 of the Brother’s Grimm collection of fairy tales. It is more commonly retold as “Beauty and the Beast.”

The tale begins after a bitter war, and of a soldier, who finds himself homeless as his parents have died and his brothers have no place for him. Lost one night in the woods, he encounters a green-coated man with a cloven hooves who offers to make him rich beyond his wildest dreams if he wlll engage in a wager.  For seven years he can not cut his hair, clip his nails, bathe, or pray. In addition he must wear a Bearskin cloak without removing it once. He cannot be free of the Bearskin cloak until a woman falls in love with him, with only the truest of loves. At the end of the seven years,  if he has not found anyone to love him, the devil will take his soul.

The desperate soldier, with little other option,  agrees  and the devil gives him the Bearskin cloak. The devil departs, telling the young man that he would find in its pockets a limitless supply of money. He renames the young man Bearskin and disappears.

Bearskin sets out on his way, finding many good friends upon his travels. He has limitless wealth in his pockets and can find companions easily. However, soon, because he cannot remove the cloak, nor cut his hair, clip his nails, nor bathe, he grows so revolting that he has to pay heavily in order to get any place to shelter. It becomes harder and harder for him to find friends and companions and people occassionally absue him and fear him because of his appearance.

bearskin

After four years, Bearskin hears an an old man lamenting and persuades him to tell his tale. The man recounts to Bearskin how he has lost all his money and does not know how to provide for his daughters. He cannot pay his debts and so he will be sent to jail. Bearskin, taking pity on the poor man, gives him two bags of gold, one for his debts and one for his family.

The old man is so grateful that he invites Bearskin to his home, saying that he will surely give one of his daughters as a wife to him.  However, when Bearskin and the man arrive home and the daughters are called, all is not well. When the set eyes on Bearskin, his hair matted, his nails long like claws, his body smelling without a bath in four years, the oldest runs away, screaming. The second daughter does not run, but she begins to ridicule Bearskin, saying she will never marry such a beastly man as he. It is only the youngest daughter, a soft sweet girl who loved her father dearly who consents to marry him.  Bearskin gives her half a ring and promises to return in three years. When he leaves, her sisters chastise their father and ridicule their sister at length.

At the end of the seven years, the devil reappears to Bearskin and demands that he be free of his curse. The devil asks whether Bearskin has found a woman to love him truly. Bearskin tells the devil of the farmers daughter who has agreed to marry him and the devil only chuckles.  The devil bathes Bearskin, clips his nails and cuts his hair until he a handsome fresh young man again. He then accompanies Bearskin to the farmers house dressed as a fine gentleman. Here the older sisters serve the two men not recognising Bearskin.  The youngest daughter, his fiance shows no reaction to him. The devil then announces to the old man that this young Prince would like marry one of his daughters. The two older sisters run off to dress splendidly, but the youngest sits mournfully in the corner. The devil challenges Bearskin saying “these girls do not love you, but they love the prince they imagine you to be.”

Bearskin calls to the youngest girl, asking whether she does not wish to marry him after all ? She answers, “oh no, I’m pledged to a man quite different to you, sir! His name is Bearskin and he will return for me this very year.” Bearskin drops his half of the ring into a wine cup and gives it to his fiance. She drinks it and realizes that he is her bridegroom. Upon seeing this woman’s true loyalty and love for Bearskin, the devil curses and disappears.

The young man and farmers daughter are soon married. Upon realizing who he was and what they gave up, one older sister hangs herself in rage and the other drowns herself. At the close of the story, the devil knocks on the young man’s door to tell Bearskin that he had gotten two souls for the price of one.

bear skin 2

To me “Bear Skin” captures much of what is powerful about the nexus between theology, philosophy and narrative. Embodied within the story is not only a “message” per se but a picture of a truth through fiction.  A man, desititute, encounters an offer of untold wealth in exchange for slavery to a beastly form. He agrees and faces social exclusion, lacking true human love despite his gold. It is only upon the encounter with true love that the curse can be liftted.

In one version of the tale,  the devil refuses to belive the girl’s love is genuine to Bear Skin based on his incredible wealth. It is only when she surrenders her life, and the devil gets his wager of a “soul”, that her love is proven and Bear Skin is returned to human form.  This tragic ending, while unsatisfactory, rings true.  Love is sacrificial.  Wealth and power often bestow a beastly form upon humanity.

As a Christian, I see in this tale, not unlike the Narnia tales, the embodiment of a message of the human condition.  In exchange for power, humanity has gained a beastliness that bars us from true intimacy and love to and from others.  Our animal nature can only be restored through true and sacrificial love, this by the innocent death of one who loves us without condition.

What I understand from this narrative, that is lacking from the Grimm’s version, is that this death is in fact the genesis of new life, not the end but the beginning. The fairytale ends with a wedding and so does the biblical narrative. Weddings signify the beginning of something new, a new creation and new life.