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 family is shaken, 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 some unwilling 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, as Kirk puts it, is 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 democratic 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.

~Roger Ebert, up to his usual standard, reviewed The Tree of Life. 

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