Thursday, April 23, 2015

Poetics of Tygers and the Withdrawal of God

I was entranced by the hated movie Tree of Life. I told a few people I liked it, but only folks I knew: It’s an art movie, I’m sure, although it was marketed as a mainstream movie.

By “hated” I mean I read in the newspaper that all over America angry people were walking out of the theatre. Not me. It helped that I was lucky enough, the very night before the movie, to read something by a famous essayist, either Dillard or Didion, (I forget who) about The Book of Job. As you know, Job was tormented by many misfortunes from God. Such as painful boils all over his skin, and Job’s servant reporting, “The roof collapsed and I alone survived to tell you.” The entire Book concerned the issue: Would a man maintain his faith if his God appeared to withdraw from him?

In everyday life, where we don’t have a lot of servants and animals, and where we live in a little nuclear family, never mind skin boils: The most devastating thing? To lose a child—I could never write an essay on what it’s like: It’s just too awful.

When people angrily walked out of the showing, it wasn’t because they were religious, or atheist, and it wasn’t because they couldn’t relate to the 1950’s family of Brad Pitt. It was because they didn’t “get it” that the whole movie thoroughly explored the issue of maintaining faith… backwards and forwards, in time and space.

Question: Does losing a child mean losing faith? As Pitt’s distressed family is wondering, the movie depicts the glories of the solar system implying, maybe, the existence of a Creator; the film shows two dinosaurs, surely to explore whether God’s creatures, and by extension God, can “give a care” about life, and other life forms, such as mere humans. Tree of Life was not intended to be a brief narrative of a 1950’s family, but to explore the questions Pitt’s family in their despair would grapple with, over time, even unto middle age, as does the grown son played by Sean Penn. It is fitting that Brad Pitt is presented so sternly—“It’s your house, sir,” says a boy—just like the Old Testament God.

Even if you are a modern atheist, not living in the 1950’s, you can still empathize with the family’s plight. At least, I would hope so. Too bad unwilling some movie-goers brought their expectations of an economical Hollywood “straight line between two points” story, a story they thought was “supposed to” begin and end in the ’50’s. An art movie, like any art, requires one be willing to sit with the art, to see the art on its own terms. I thought the film was well done.

All religions, I think, see God as ultimately unknowable. The Christian faith, as I understand it, sees God as deliberately not proving his existence. No fiery letters in the sky. No, lest faith be displaced by certainty, thereby destroying free will. (If you know there’s a hell, then where’s your choice?) Of course, in Jewish-Christian theory, God wants humans to have free will. There was an old Star Trek episode that explored the horror of a society without such freedom. (Called Return of the Archons) In that story it was speculated that a totally unfree people would require, in compensation, a “Red Hour” of freedom to sin, venting their base nature. (Captain Kirk discovers God to be a computer that is, as Kirk puts it, without a soul)

In our age, I once read, there is the question: Where was God during the holocaust? Free will then implies the answer: Where was man?

…Here in the west, with our freedom of thought, individuals touched by divine mysticism can freely ask classic questions. I’m thinking of William Blake, the poet, painter and reformist. Here’s his poem:

The Tyger

Tyger, tyger, burning bright,
In the forest of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, and what the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art?
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when that heart began to beat,
What dread hand, and what dread feat?

What the hammer, what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil, what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And watered heaven with their tears
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?

Tyger tiger, burning bright,
in the forest of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Sean Crawford

~I think if you “sit with” the poem you will instinctively slow down for the verse with the stars. I find I start speeding up until that verse.

~I typed “and” in a couple places where Blake used the ampersand, “&,” because some computers will not accept that typewriter key from the Internet. (As I have found out the hard way)

~The movie dialogue line is from memory: Probably wrong, while true to the movie’s spirit, since I haven’t seen the show since it left town after its run.

~The holocaust question and answer is one I read long ago, but I forget where.  

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Poetics of Airy Sacred Gnomes

Like last week, I will present the poem before the essay.
Like two weeks ago, I will follow the essay with some light fiction from “free fall” (as explained in this month’s Dr. Fell post).

Vocabulary: The word “glen” is from Scots-Irish meaning a narrow valley. At home, where the bow river eases through a spread out flat prairie landscape, I chuckle to refer the area of Glenbow.
The rest of the airy poem is in the footnotes.

The Fairies
By William Allingham

Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men

Sacred essay
Strange to think of an airy land being sacred, although I did read a story as a child (Perhaps in Alfred Hitchcock Presents) where there was a remote valley sacred to the indigenous God. A rich hunter persists on going into it, following some game. Luckily the white-man God comes into his camp at night and gives him a little totem. I imagine the hunter’s God as wearing a blue plaid jacket like my father wore.

I suppose an atheist might think there is no need for sacred, just as, to him, there’s no need for religion. I answer: Not quite. While I would never advocate religion to an atheist, sacred is something else. I would ask the person: Do you have a study desk that is just for studying? If you are associated with the armed forces, then do you have a parade square that is sacred, a square you would have to go walk all the way around rather than casually amble across? In both cases you beheld an object, or a place, to set your intention to study or train.

Sacred needn’t mean blindly religious. At your study desk you might do arts and crafts on a pre-Christmas weekend; if it’s dark late at night on an army base, then, after boozing in the bar, you might dash across the parade square to get back to barracks. I admitted doing so to a military policeman, while under interrogation, and we both laughed. (The MP was trying to track everyone’s movements on that night)

To me cemeteries are sacred, in a semi-religious way, but if scientists ever had a reason to believe an old graveyard might contain useful information on the origin of the deadly Ebola virus, then I would be first in line with a shovel. “The dead must serve the living,” I say. Again, sacred does not mean rigidly religious.

If my atheist friend confuses sacred and religious, then perhaps it is because the sacred intention being set is so often religious. But not always. I would point this out to my friend by rhetorically asking: Where is the religion in a preserved French battlefield where one is directed to neither laugh nor sing? Where is the religion in bowing as you enter the martial arts dojo? And what of that special area of an awesome intention to reach out, not for the religious but for the spiritual?

In our day and age, “spirituality,” as you know, is freely individual. Scripture-free. It’s not organized, not coercive and certainly not oppressive. How sweet to peer through the veil between this world and the next, or to seek a connection with another realm, or to seek a higher power whom some would call God, or to seek to transcend our common mundane life—Give me airy Gnomes and Fairies!

Perhaps spiritual is what I mean by sacred, and perhaps my meaning differs too much from the mainstream. Then again, our words change as our understanding changes.

I think there are things undreamed of in our everyday philosophy, things that, like a dream, cannot be grasped as solidly as we would grab a shovel handle. I sense this.

In the Pacific Northwest the indigenous elders would wrap away their sacred carved masks until next year, not preserve their “specialness,” not like a store packs away seasonal decorations, but, rather, to preserve for their people the opportunity to connect with the spiritual. I’m sure the elders were practical hunters, serious and realistic, yet also willing to see something beyond the horizon. 

“If the spiritual did not already exist, we would have to invent it.” (Paraphrasing Voltaire)

Gnome Fiction
I’ve mentioned my free fall group before. Our “prompt” one morning was “something heard on a public conveyance (bus or taxi)”

I’ve been a bus driver for a long time—of course I like my job. I always half regret when they change my route after every six months, because by then I’ve gotten to know Margret and Maggie and little Meg.

One day, of average summer weather, after the commuter crowd had dwindled, and I was waiting at my time stop, I heard a voice from the bottom of my stairs, saying “hello.”
I said hello back, guessing that it was a man, not a woman, just don’t ask me what age, a man dressed in a gnome costume, complete with tall hat.

The fellow continued, “Do you gnome the way to San Jose?”
I said, “I’m going right there. I guess you mean the San Jose Jotel, right on top of San Jose Pizza.”
“Yes,” he said, climbing the stairs to sit nearest me. “I’ve got a lot of friends, and there’ll be a place to stay.” He sat down with a lumbering motion of the older, but not the coordination of the oldest, and not the flop of the youngest. Then he leaned forward with the posture of a chatty customer, my favorite type.

I pulled the mighty swivel lever and swooshed the door, asking, “Have you been here before?”

“I’ve been away too long, too long among the mundane world.”

“Oh. Well, where do you hang your hat?”

“This weekend, with my fellows at LepreCON, the convention for the non-mundane at heart.”

“Hold that thought,” I said as I pulled out to the road.

He added, “Normally my hat is in a lot of closets, for I’m such a Gnomeo at heart.”

Peering into mirrors and the distance I said, “I can’t nudge wink to you, I’m driving… Have you a philosophy, oh Gnomeo?”

“Yes, yes I have come to believe that life is a great big freeway, and we are all free to travel the less mundane road, if we like.”
The road rumbled while we pondered this.

I said, “I see you like wearing green.”

“It’s not easy, being a gnome, but with a dream in your heart you’re never alone.”

Sean Crawford
~It was when she played the voice of Juliet in the 2011 animated movie Gnomeo and Juliet I first learned who Emily Blunt was. It’s a fun show. (Emily’s also the heroine in that 2014 Tom Cruise sci-fi movie, Edge of Tomorrow, and she’s in the fairytale musical Into the Woods)

~I can’t resist saying that in Edge Cruise does not just smile pretty but is a good actor, as a reviewer at Roger Ebert’s site notes. Cruise plays a uniformed noncombatant, a jobnik, a public relations flack named Cage (No doubt because he’s caged by the war) Writes Matt Zoller Seitz , “Cage is a complex and demanding role for any actor. It is especially right for Cruise in that Cage starts out as a Jerry Maguire-type who’ll do or say anything to preserve his comfort, and learns… By the end he’s nearly unrecognizable from the man we met in the opening.” Link to the review.

~My poetry policy, for all these past posts, is only to present what I have memorized. For today’s poem, I can only recite the first verse, so that’s what I posted. For the rest of it, here’s the link.

~Sometimes stuff, rather randomly, makes it onto our FreeFall Fridays blog. We post it as it was written that day, not revised. (Except for spelling and punctuation) Here is the link.