Saturday, July 23, 2011

Coda for my thesis--(Draft)

Coda: The Role of the Player

The play's the thing”--Hamlet

At the first rehearsal of a recent production of As You Like It, which I had the privilege to observe, the director opened the read-through of the script with the words “Now, it's Good Friday today, so feel free to crucify yourselves.” He meant, of course, that the actors were welcome to approach the script with as much creative gusto as they liked and ought not be too self-conscious about it. A sound piece of advice I thought, and one that I find too often actors need to be reminded of—especially when they approach Shakespeare. The simple reason, I expect, is this: modern actors favour character-focused interpretations over plot-centred ones. Such an approach assumes that Hamlet's value of “that within” is greater than a man's outward actions and that the truth and value of something is dependent upon its inward emotional manifestation. We have already examined the dangers of this approach for the actor. However, we have said little about the quality of the performance it produces.

As a part of the Elizabethan repertory system, plays were produced at frequent intervals. Andrew Gurr notes in The Shakespearean Stage that the players “can have had little time for doing more while studying their parts than the essential learning of the lines”(103). They performed 6 days a week and each day demanded a new play. Gurr observes that, “The Admiral's in their 1594-5 season...offered their audiences a total of thirty-eight plays, of which twenty-one were new to the repertory, added at more or less fortnightly intervals” (103). Such frequent introduction of new plays would hardly have allowed for in-depth character interpretations. As such, players were often type-cast to some degree according to their talents and plays were often tailored with the talents of the particular company in mind. While actors were admired for their versatility, the breadth of their talents rather than the idiosyncrasies of their interpretations were the real attractions.

By contrast, the modern actor is concerned with producing realistic and complex emotions on the stage. The preparatory work of the actor often involves a labour-some psychological background study of his character, including the invention of that character's biographical history. It is an extensive individual creative process. Similarly, in the modern production of Shakespeare plays, the design and direction of the play often involves careful and particular decisions aimed at offering a unique concept and fresh approach to the play. This approach or interpretation is frequently based on a particular message or issue of great personal importance to the director. In other words, the modern theatrical production is not only carefully crafted in its every detail, but is also essentially self-referential.

There is no question that Shakespeare took the purposes of playing very seriously, that his plays offered much more than mere entertainment, and that much of his own personal interests, beliefs and ideas must have gone into his writing. But the concept of a play or of that play's characters could not have been intended to overshadow the scripted play as a whole. The practical and business lives of the company members would have made such detailed artistic refinement impossible.

As such, many of Shakespeare's plays give trouble to modern actors and directors because they must invent non-existent motives and explanations to account for scenes or dialogue, which may have been intended as little more than an entertaining interlude to display the talents of a particular player. Such an idealistic approach to the script can, in a way, be admirably reverential. The assumption behind this approach, I imagine, may be that Shakespeare's genius is such that one must only stare at a play long enough and like a Magic Eye stereographic it will reveal its ultimate unifying truth. All the director needs to do to make sense of the play is figure out the meaning and purpose of anomalous scenes or bits of dialogue.

No doubt this approach is partly symptomatic of the past two hundred years of character-focused criticism, but the expectation that each play should be a consistent unified revelation of truth often leads to the most fantastical interpretations of characters and the creation of ever more bizarre play-concepts. And perhaps more unfortunately, it leads to the alteration of the script in order to aim at such concepts and present a unified play. Such a production is not one of the author's invention, but of the director's and the players'. The play is lost in the concept of the play, the character is lost in the concept of the character and the play, and the humanity of the production is lost in the concept of humanity represented by the production.

Part of this problem, I think, is due to the widely accepted method of characterization first introduced by Constantin Stanislavski, and now taught almost universally as part of an actor's training. Stanislavski invented what is known as “method acting” or “the method.” The basic principles of his approach involve an actor's use of his personal memories or actions on stage to produce convincing emotions. The actor is not performing a fake emotion. He is endeavouring to produce the emotion psychologically through memory or action and to react to it genuinely.

Most actors utilize method principles to some degree and many of today's most lauded and versatile actors are of the method school. Audiences value the believability of an actor's stage performance and there is no question that method principles help bring about some of the most marvellous and complex character interpretations which audiences cannot help but admire for their texture and realism. However, because the actors are looking at themselves and focused on their individual emotions as a way to tell the story, they are too often busy finding the truth of their character's emotions to tell Shakespeare's story instead of their own. The overall value of the play as a whole is often diminished

The loss to the performance is threefold. First, the method-actor whose performance is self-referential, runs the risk of never really performing anybody but himself. There is a sensationally funny scene in David Mamet's State and Main in which an actor is insisting to his director that cuts must be made to the script before they begin shooting. When the director asks his film star why a certain line must be cut the actor responds, “Because he wouldn't say that.” What the actor really means of course is that he himself wouldn't say that. With this attitude, the character is perceived by the actor as just another incarnation of himself under different circumstances and the craft of acting amounts to little less than self-indulgent fantasy.

Secondly, the actor who uses a self-referential form of characterization, while often pulling off brilliantly complex creative performances, also contributes little to the unified effort of the cast of a stage play. Method techniques may work wonderfully in film when one can cut and paste different shots or re-record dialogue to create a certain flow and consistency. But on the stage the players must work together to tell a story in real-time. I recall seeing Paul Gross play Hamlet in Stratford, Ontario several years ago, and while his performance of the character was quite compelling, the play itself was utterly forgettable. None of the actors were really talking to each other—least of all the lead, and the story was again eclipsed by the character.

Third and finally, the actor who is self-referential not only cuts himself off from his fellow actors, making for a disjointed production, but he also cuts himself off from his audience. This approach is easier because it involves looking no further than himself for emotionally stimulating material, but it is also easier because it is safe. While I was observing the rehearsals for As You Like It the actor playing Orlando was struggling with his opening speech and the coach recommended that he try not to allow the energy of his speech to build up in his shoulders, but to come from his gut and be cast into the audience. He tried the speech again in this manner and the result was beautifully engaging. The coach asked him how he felt about it and he replied that it was scary. When I asked him why, he said that throwing his performance out to the audience made him feel as though he was vulnerable and not in control. The actor who plays himself on the stage is effectively playing himself in disguise. The character becomes a barrier between himself and his audience and therefore any real contact with his audience is greatly diminished. The emotions he portrays are all genuine, but since they are not offered to the audience the loss to his performance is great.

In many instances I would argue, especially in the production of Shakespeare for the stage, what this approach amounts to is a disappointingly inconsistent play-experience. Shakespeare clearly felt that a person's actions, as opposed to emotions or intellectual thoughts, to be the determining factors of their character, both on and off the stage, and while there must be a certain amount of preparative thought that preempts a performance, method acting encourages a self-focused, emotive view of the craft which lends little to the talents of the actor, the production of a play, or the experience of an audience.

What Shakespeare seems to promote is an unself-conscious approach to acting which assumes a certain acceptance of one's part in the company. The clown may be free to extemporize but he was not free to play the hero. Nor indeed was the hero free to play the clown. In A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare makes fun of the idea that being an actor proffers complete freedom to choose one's part. Bottom the Weaver repeatedly interrupts the handing out of parts in rehearsal to beg that he might play each one as well as his own, and while the absurdity of his excitement is almost endearing, the clear message is that every man must play his own part or there can be no play. Some men must play the heroes, others the lions, others amount to nothing more than a wall. The play is greater than the parts within it. This principle applies not only to the company of players, but to the world at large. The player's contribution to society is complex and important, but it is nonetheless a humble part to play and appears perfectly ludicrous when it is taken too seriously.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What am doing here? : Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog

When I was considering what I should write my Honours paper on my first thought was that I was very sad my venerable Children's Lit prof (Kieran Kealy) had retired when I was in Britain because I wanted to do George MacDonald for years and the only Christian professor left with a remote interest in him was too sick to take on an Honours paper. I still had some inhibitions about Shakespeare then because after years of disappointing road blocks to my ambitions I was accustomed to thinking of Shakespearean theatre as inaccessible to me. So my next idea was Connie Willis and I spent a good two months frantically emailing everyone in the English department to see if anyone had heard of her. No one had.

Connie Willis writes Science Fiction, also known as SF by the initiated (as opposed to Sci-Fi). I know this because my Mum is a writer of the same genre and I gather that people who write "SF" actually know what they're doing and happen to be among the more brilliant and unappreciated writers of our particular literary era. This is because the education system functioning in most western countries is invested in teaching students to reject things which are exciting and fantastical as mere entertainment for the plebeian masses. Writing must be dull, depressing, and political to be remotely intelligent and worthy of note. I suspect this is why Connie Willis has remained below the notice of anyone at UBC.

I will openly confess I do not like SF myself and I can give no intelligent reason for this except that in general I prefer magic to science (though they are often indistinguishable) and for some reason most futuristic fiction bores me because it does not appeal to my feminine appetite for frilly fantasy with flowers and songs and long-haired maidens and beautiful elves and quaint hobbits and medieval-style battles. Science offers a backdrop of hard lines and cold technology. I enjoy it on television, but I cannot read it.

However, Connie Willis is one illustrious SF writer who really breaks out of the genre entirely in To Say Nothing of the Dog and some of her other novels and short stories. She is a Science Fiction author for people who don't like Science Fiction. The more I think about it the more I am convinced that only SF writers (and only ones of particular genius like Willis) can integrate so many genres into one piece of writing. To Say Nothing of the Dog is historical fiction, romantic comedy, mystery, and farce as well as SF. It's got something for everyone and, like much Science Fiction, it is also incredibly profound.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is the 3rd time-travel story which takes place in Willis' futuristic Oxford. I know I read it before I went to Britain because I had a very different picture of Oxford in my head the first time I read it and after I had been to Oxford, the book came alive to me in a different way. It is the story of Ned Henry and Verity Kindle, historians and time- travellers whose mission is to discover what happened to the bishop's bird stump and to somehow prevent the space-time continuum from collapsing accidentally.

If this brief description doesn't sell it to you I won't be surprised. I myself had great difficulty reading past the first three chapters. This is because you spend the first three chapters wondering what the heck is going on. Willis drops you right into the story, like one of Oxford's time-travelling historians, with no idea where you are or what is going on and it takes you 3 chapters to figure out that either you or Ned or both of you are suffering time-lag and you haven't a clue where you're both going or what to expect on your mission or indeed what your mission is even about because everyone keeps talking nonsense around you and all your historical and literary preconceptions are muttering in your ear about the role of women in Victorian society and where the fish fork goes and what science fiction novels and literature should be like. And bang!-- you're in the past (probably) and your trying to figure out what time it is and where you are and what the heck you're doing there. You thought you were going on holiday to recover.

It really is a piece of genius that is so rarely appreciated because the reader is often so grounded in the prejudices of his own literary era that he doesn't realise he's being used as a character in the bigger story itself. Instead of seeing where the story will take him and trying to figure out his place in it at large he gives up on the Grand Design-- a victim of our current literary era which emphasises the role of Blind Forces in the shaping of the world and art by extension. Our role in the great tapestry of earth's history is meaningless, nonexistent, which means so are we. This is why we are so completely obsessed with our individual identities and spend our lives (and obscene amounts of money too) in the interest of self-fashioning. We care less about what we do in our lives on a daily basis with others and more about what we can call ourselves to set ourselves apart from the meaningless Blind Forces and give our lives soe significance.

Both Ned and the reader experience the same displacement and it isn't until Ned mistakenly takes up with one of the "contemps" in Victorian Oxford that he begins to realise the gravity of his situation. He is NOT there on holiday. This is NOT about him. He has a very specific mission to perform, but he's too muddled by time-lag to remember what it is, and if he doesn't figure it out the entire space-time continuum could collapse or the Nazis could end up winning World War II--which pretty much amounts to the same thing: the world will tumble into chaos and evil.

Of course Willis does all this very humorously with Ned nearly being run over because it didn't occur to him that the horn he kept hearing wasn't the All-Clear siren of the Battle of Britain, 1940, but a bloody great stream train coming down the railway--which ought to have been obvious because he was standing on the tracks. How often it is that we are amidst the obvious answers to our problems and can't see them because of our ignorant "chronological snobbery" (as Lewis would call it) which enables us to assume that we are much better informed than all our elders. Time and what we now call "education" has really done nothing for the human race but help us to assume that because hindsight is 20/20, we therefore see perfectly clearly in comparison to everyone that came before us. As a matter of fact, all it means is that we have a much bigger muddle of information to sort through and are therefore aware of less of the world. I am sure that the internet has only reinforced this notion.

As Ned floats down the Thames with Terence (the contemp-- ie the Victorian) and Cyril, (his bulldog), he realises that not only is he not supposed to be there on a pleasure cruise, but that missing the details of his role in this historical mission could be disastrous. He knows that the historians in Oxford are researching every last detail of Coventry Cathedral before it was destroyed in the Blitz so that it might be rebuilt in perfect detail by the unstoppable Lady Shrapnell in Christ Church Meadow of all places. He also knows that the hideous piece of Victorian kitsch, referred to as "the bishop's bird stump"-- a cast iron urn of some sort-- is missing somewhere in history because it was not in the cathedral ruins after it was bombed, but it was there only a few days before and they cannot figure out when and where it was taken from the cathedral before the bombing. And though every historian on the project thinks it ugly enough not to bother recovering Lady Shrapnell insists that "God is in the details." This is how Ned ended up with time-lag in the first place-- he was flying all over the past trying to figure out what happened to the damned thing.

The "bishop's bird stump" is the Macguffin-- the thing everyone seems to be voluntarily or involuntarily chasing after, though it seems insignificant in itself-- it drives whole the plot and as a matter of fact serves as the perfect illustration of what we all really are: hideous, presumptuous creations that are neither aesthetically pleasing, nor particularly intelligent, that convey no obvious meaning and are base imitations of whatever fantastical nonsense seems to be popular in our own time. We are "cluttered, artificial, and...mawkishly sentimental." Nevertheless, we are all important details in one great creation that needs to be rebuilt, beyond all odds, because it has been destroyed in spiritual warfare.

This idea that we all have a role, that we are all important details in Creation, so great that we cannot actually perceive our own significance, is the main thing that blew me away about this book. It may be summed up by the often quoted maxim "everything happens for a reason." And this was not exactly news to me when I was at college. I recall years earlier talking about life and eternity with Dad-- I was probably 14 or 15-- and he told me that the history of the world is like a tapestry or painting and that we can't understand it because we can't see the whole thing. I'm not sure what occasioned this conversation but the idea of a Grand Design was not new to me when I read To Say Nothing of the Dog. What was new was the idea that I had an important role in the picture and that the things which happened to me in my life, good or bad, would ultimately be significant details, not only in my life but in everyone else's life too. I could not even begin to imagine how every detail of my life was affecting the lives of those around me.

When the bishop's bird stump goes missing Ned meets Verity, who has unwittingly created her own temporal incongruity by bringing a Victorian cat through to the future-- something they had always thought was scientifically impossible. The "net" or time-travel mechanism would not allow incongruities. They needed to return the cat to Victorian England and find the bishop's bird stump to prevent the space-time continuum from collapsing and of course everything they do to try to "fix" the problem only seems to make it worse. But in the end they find that everything they have done, intelligent or (mostly) otherwise, has been drawing them nearer and nearer to solving the mystery and preventing disaster. Time is altered slightly, the mystery is solved and the detectives go home to find that The Continuum has repaired itself, the Heavens are declaring the glory of God, both in spite of them and because of them.

The pagan notion of an inescapable Fate is redeemed by making the events that befall us in our lives not ultimately about us nor about nothing, but about all of us and everything. This is where Christianity transforms things. Where individual self-sacrifice to the Blind Forces which seem to shape our lives and make us believe in our insignificance becomes the Redeeming Force that changes everything and moulds it into the Grand Design. Christ did not seek out His death, but when the blind men nailed Him to the Cross it changed all of Creation and He allowed it to happen to Him for all of us. It had never occurred to me that accepting my Fate, such as it was, was actually submitting myself into the hands of God and allowing Him to use me in the redemption of His Creation-- if only I could stop looking at the world in hopelessly time-lagged dementia and see God in the details I could save not just me but all those around me.

This has been a hard hard lesson for me to learn and I am still learning it really, on a daily basis. We have the cursed luxury in the modern Western world of believing ourselves in control of our lives and we have all kinds of technology to assist us and reinforce this belief that we are our own. Letting God tell you what you can and can't do because you belong to Him is terrifying. Most of us Christians pretend we have faith in God, but the truth is I only have faith in Him when I already know what's going to happen to me and think I've got things in my life under control. It takes stepping into unfamiliar territory, taking a degree at a secular university, fleeing to a foreign country for two years, stepping into a marriage, opening oneself up to childbearing, throwing oneself into parenthood, going back to college at 28, to realise that we're at God's mercy. We might be insulted, defaced, bombed, revealed as foolish, but God doesn't want us to disappear and He'll seek us out and make sure we're there on the Last Day and in the Age to Come because we are all heroes in His epic Creation.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Keep Pedalling: C.S. Lewis' The Four Loves

I don't recall precisely the first time I picked up C.S. Lewis' The Four Loves. I read Lewis a lot in first year at UBC because he was a refreshing change from bullshit and something about his beautifully written, often intensely personal, and easily penetrable prose combined with his good common sense was just what I needed. It made me feel safe and a hell of a lot less confused.

I spent a good portion of my first year at UBC in the atrium at Regent College, the non-denominational Christian college. They boasted a terrific bookstore where I rediscovered the George MacDonald of my early childhood as well as entire Lewis and Tolkien sections. That year Lord of the Rings came out in theatres and I'm sure that was another draw at the time, for while Lord of the Rings cannot truly be among the most important books of my life, it was a part of my youth and reminded me forcibly of my parents. It contained a rich world in which Christianity was made almost epic without being explicit, and most importantly it taught me courage in the face of the outside world. Its popularity and Regent's extensive Tolkien (as well as Lewis) section was my access to my past and my future.

The most stunning part of The Screwtape Letters for me was the part where Screwtape reprimands Wormwood for allowing his patient "two real positive Pleasures" because it would "make him feel as though he was coming home, recovering himself." I cannot count how many times this has happened to me. It is always a little uncanny, but not in an unwholesome way. It is disturbing not for what it is in itself, but always because of what I am in myself in comparison to the reminder of the self God wants me to be: the kind of person those real positive Pleasures reveal to us, the people we used to be before our lives were clouded with nonsense and sin.

The Regent College bookstore was a refuge, a safe haven. Plus their cafe had delicious Lenten soups. I read a lot of Lewis that year, but I'm not certain The Four Loves was among them. My earliest memory of reading that book was when I was in Scotland. By then I had abandoned UBC in frustration, and disgust. I'd abandoned poetry in disappointment and Canada in misery. Love was something I needed to read about by then. I had no direction either at UBC or in my personal life. I was young and lost and far far away from home trying to figure out who the hell I was.

Culture shock is agonising. It is best described as waking up in a foreign country and realising you've been operated on by some anonymous, abstract and menacing power and come out of it with a different face. I literally looked in the mirror one day in a cafe loo on North Bridge and did not recognise myself. I cannot stress enough that this was neither because my actual appearance had changed, nor because I hadn't looked in a mirror for a month. It was because the internal me was radically different and somehow that radically new me was staring back in the mirror.

The only explanation I have for this is that we are what we do and what we do is indefinitely determined by who we interact with. We behave in certain ways with certain people. It's kind of like changing masks, like mimesis, but to call it pure imitation is a little too simple I think. There is give and take, and habit is a powerful personality determinant. Sometimes I wonder if this adapting to one's environment, which has a lot to do with one's ability to read social cues, is not only a more North American thing (Britain has more eccentric people per square inch than any place I've been), but also maybe not a particularly healthy thing. I think it must be a natural process--openness to change is a good thing for the soul, but I think it is sometimes considered an end in itself and prevents any real kernel of individuality to stick. The soul must have some stability as well as flexibility. In any case, I was in a country with no one I'd known much longer than I'd been there. Everything I did was new, everything I said was new. Those who knew me at the time will testify I had a bizarre half-Scots accent and I swear it was unconscious. One day I looked in the mirror and there was a flash of who I was and who I had been.

The new me was not a bad me, I should say. It wasn't the same kind of wake up call one gets when one suddenly realises the Enemy has slowly and silently sucked them into sin. But the sudden shock of realising you don't know quite who you are was very similar. I had been through a tough year. Scotland wasn't the half of it. My personal life had seen more ups and downs that year than any other. I had been a student living with her parents, whose church was English speaking and full of people who loved her and thought she was brilliant, whose ambitions were artistic, drama, poetry, art, who was working her brain and heart to outwit the hounds of the secular university, always single and able to picture herself braving the world alone and winning. Suddenly I was lost, ignorant, untalented, weak, working at a picture-framer's--a trade job. I was dating an Orthodox guy who was more opinionated than I was, that I had nothing on because he was cradle AND his dad was a priest, a priest radically different from mine. Church was like the Tower of Babel--different ethnic factions argued openly during the service about which language they should be using. No one thought I was great if they noticed me at all. I couldn't sing on key, I knew nothing about music, and I couldn't read Cyrillic. And no one took communion. Every week I trudged up to the chalice guiltily with the children and a few old ladies. I had no time to write. No idea who I was or what the heck I was doing.

This is a very grim picture of Edinburgh. It was not as bad as that all the time and it was a fairly young parish at the time. It has since grown into a beautiful little community, very different from St. Herman's in Langley, but most places are and I do not regret the growing pains I experienced in that parish. Nevertheless I was at sea within a month of moving there and church compounded the problem.

There was a terrific bookshop on South Bridge near where I was staying briefly on Drummond
Street and they had a boxed set of C.S. Lewis' apologetic works: Screwtape Letters, Miracles, Surprised By Joy, The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain, and The Four Loves. I had definitely read Screwtape and Surprised by Joy while at UBC, but The Four Loves was, I'm certain, new to me. And for the first time in my life I was actually experiencing love in a real Romantic messy way.

My courtship with Greg is not something I look back on with nostalgic longing. It was hard. It was hard like things that are real are hard. I'm fond of telling people I was only in love with him for two weeks: after that it was work. And it was harder because we'd been "set up" and prompted to expect that we would be great together. Discovering that we drove each other nuts within a couple of weeks was not fun. But we had many important things in common. The night things got complicated was the same night he told me he thought he might like to marry me, but it wasn't the early use of the "m" word that complicated things. I was shocked to discover that I felt the same way even though I told myself it was crazy. What followed was a year of me figuring out who I was while Greg tolerated, begrudgingly, his foreign girlfriend's dramatic mood swings and battle with culture shock. I don't believe in "taking a break" from marriage. But before marriage I think it is a really healthy thing to do and I'm sure if I hadn't left Greg in Edinburgh for 6 months to move to Oxford I never would have figured myself out and we would most definitely not be married.

What does all this have to do with C.S. Lewis and The Four Loves? Well I picked it up during the phase of my life that I was figuring myself out. The book describes four distinct forms of love. The first three, Affection, Friendship, and Eros (romantic love) are earthly, natural loves, and I was experiencing them all intensely in ways I hadn't before.

Affection for Lewis was partly need-love (ie the kind of love that one needs from others) but what it often needs is to give love. It is the domestic love and the love which develops in unlikely places through familiarity. I was near nothing familiar and desperate for Affection. Sometimes people land in strange places and immediately find family. People take you in. Affection was something I needed. I didn't find it till I got to Oxford over a year later.

Friendship is the ideal love for the medieval man-- the love that develops out of common interest. It also has needs. It happens when two people realise that they are doing something together that they like, be it as dull as collecting stamps, and form an attachment over it, over a meeting of minds. Greg and I had nothing in common. He liked riding bikes at a billion miles an hour down mountains and skillfully building picture frames and music. I liked music but by his standards I was a plebeian and he made no secret that he thought so. He was a high school drop-out too. We had led two very different lives before we met. He was smarter than me and more talented and I was good at nothing which interested him. I was a writer, a university student, a poet and a theatre person. I was from a vastly different Orthodox tradition. Sometimes I wonder what the heck we talked about for those first few weeks. I had no other friends in Edinburgh to talk to. Not really. I was busy trying to make myself a "friend" and adopt a passion for his interests.

Then there was Eros. Ah Eros. It fuelled a good two weeks and no it was not about you-know-what. Lewis calls that "Venus" and I will not deny it had its place in our early relationship, as befits a chaste, unmarried Orthodox couple, but Eros is quite different. And for a good two weeks that's what it was about. In love. Soaring, tumbling, stumbling, where-am-I? in love.

One night we had THE TALK. The one where it's not just about the two of you now, but who you have been all of this time and who you want to be: the big step, where you go from enjoying each other to really knowing each other, which includes filling in the gaps, even the ones we'd rather forget. It was uncomfortable, it was painful. Oh dear God, you're not an angel! That was when it got messy.

It got messy because after that we were people, and people, generally, SUCK. After that our relationship had to be about something else. It couldn't be about Affection-- we hadn't been together long enough. It couldn't be about Friendship. I'm not sure it's ever been about Friendship and I'm not sure it ever will be. And Eros can only take you so far. As Lewis points out, all earthly forms of love, if we treat them as gods, they become demons. All love eventually becomes hatred if it is not guarded by the divine form of love: Charity.

I think the majority of my relationship with Greg has been about Charity, the self-sacrificial love. The kind Christ had for us. I say this observing that it has been thus for both sides, because I would not like anyone to think that it has been hard for only one of us the whole way. But our sinful halves have been fighting it tooth and nail and the figuring-out-who-we-really- are has played its part as we struggled with our earthly expectations of Friendship and Affection and lasting romance: our needs, our demands, for affirmation. For when left unchecked by Charity, these demands were vicious, towering, abusive assertions of independence and authority. Charity means letting yourself be nailed to the cross.

Lewis' book put me in my place and reminded me who I was and who I belonged to. When Greg came to Oxford to visit me for a weekend, I knew he was the right one because he spent his afternoon reading it the day before he proposed-- and not at my recommendation.

The night before we signed the papers in Leith I couldn't sleep but I had the most truly spiritual experience I'd ever had before or since. I knew the saints were there and they were telling me to do it. Flying down Leith Walk towards the registrar on the tandem bicycle in our wedding clothes, a fight broke out. We were going too fasting, I felt like I was falling and stopped pedalling. Greg barked at me to pedal and stop trying to counterbalance. It's been like that the whole way, me leaning one way and him the other, him flying on ahead, me screaming at him to slow down. Charity keeps the bike from falling into traffic, but it's a scary unpleasant ride sometimes and all you can do is hang on and keep pedalling. But when you get there, you get to do the nearest thing to a free act you've ever done. "Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom, and perhaps a man is most free when, instead of producing motives, he could only say 'I am what I do.'"

Friday, March 4, 2011

Return to Modesty: Sex, Feminism and the Domesticity Debate

I picked up a book of G.K. Chesterton's for the first time the other day because I am writing a term paper on rebellion against traditional forms of domesticity in the the inter-war period. I know: gripping. Chesterton was an outspoken advocate for the traditional family at a time when the Victorian ideal was under attack. The First World War left an entire generation shattered not only physically (through war wounds), but psychologically, politically, and socially. Chesterton felt that the attack on family values exacerbated the fractured psychological state of many Europeans and was detrimental politically as well. National identity was beginning to replace social identity and the casualties were both men and women, but most importantly children. Born into a world in which the home has no boundaries to separate them from the assault of capitalism, socialism, feminism, materialism, and atheism, children were given a more than daunting, perhaps even impossible, task of making sense of their world-- a job women were leaving for the State to manage.

This topic greatly interests me at the moment because I am currently trying to figure out precisely how to reconcile my responsibilities as a mother with my ambition to do more in my life than parent and keep a house. On the one hand, I do not think that mothers should abandon their children to "the State" for the sake of having a "fulfilling" career. Children need their mothers as much as possible, and while I understand perfectly how difficult it is to spend all day, every day even with one's own children, I do not think one's career ambitions should be a higher priority. If they are, maybe think twice about having kids. The procreation of children isn't a right and while some mothers have no choice but to put their kids in full-time daycare, it is not ideal and we should not behave as though parenthood should come without any sacrifices of our time and energy.

On the other hand, I think that many women of my generation have be raised in a world where they are expected and encouraged to pursue careers before having children. I think this is a good thing. Women have varied intellectual needs, the same as men, and not all women can feel satisfied with with a purely domestic life. God gave us other faculties that we ought to be able to use if we can. And I firmly believe that it does children a lot of good to know that Mummy's life isn't all about them all the time. Otherwise they will never appreciate the sacrifices she makes for them, however glad she may be to make them anyway.

These issues were becoming quite serious during the inter-war period and they remain pertinent today and especially for me at the moment as I try to juggle school, a possible forthcoming career, my marriage, my current two children, and my hopes for more children down the road. Feminism vs. Christian ideals are suddenly of interest to me again.

When I first began my Arts degree in 2000 I quickly discovered that most studies in the Humanities were really about two topics: Sex and Feminism. No matter what great poetry or works of literature we read, the only issues pertinent to our class lectures were these two. And I found myself severely outnumbered and up against some pretty tricky stuff that I hadn't had to deal with in high school. In high school, topics on the ethics of abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, pre-marital sex, and drug or alcohol use floated around the school among the students. I was a well brought up Christian whose parents never ever refused to engage me in discussion about these issues or treated me condescendingly if I happened to express a less than Christian view-point. They merely asked me to think very carefully about why I was saying what I was saying and pointed out respectfully why they thought I was wrong. I remember these discussions as early at 10 years old. But I'd never seen anything like the attack on my long-held Christian principles than what I got in first year university. It was good for me, but it was a struggle.
The biggest struggle by far was the issue of sex. All kinds-- for there are many you see, and even pedophilia was raised as something that our culture ought to think about accepting, because of course sex, is the true expression of who we are (to these people) and so should therefore be as free as possible. We were reading Nabokov's Lolita, which tells the story of pedophile Humbert Humbert and his sexual exploitation of Lolita--12 years old. The first half of the book was pretty hard to get through and I was appalled by Vanity Fair's quibble on the front that the book was "The most convincing love story of our time." Sadly, I think Vanity Fair may have been right, but I think that was ultimately Nabokov's point-- to criticise or at least openly display the selfish, exploitive nature or modern relationships in a world where the social constructs, which used to divide children from adults, men from women, mothers from fathers, have all been torn down. Moral duty is almost meaningless without them. Whether Vanity Fair meant "romantic" and "ideal" is not certain, but the post-modernists tend to prefer and idealise "convincing" stuff rather than that which is truly uplifting, beautiful, or traditionally ideal. We pretend it's beautiful because it makes it easier for us to be ugly people.

But pedophilia was not the only or major issue. Homosexuality was also a big one. Or even boring old adultery and sexual promiscuity were exciting topics of choice. Now I was
single and modest and all this talk about sex made me very uncomfortable, particularly because we never ever talked about normal marital sex: ie the kind almost everybody is having. One would almost think that normal domestic life was as gone as Pompeii: nothing but tragic plaster-cast statues of emptiness signifying destruction. All that was left was depravity. Let's pretend it's great.

This was certainly the attitude many took to traditional values after the First World War. In a way, time stopped for a whole generation and those who survived lived in an obliterated social landscape, no rank, no role in society, nothing but empty holes in the shape of a dying race. And yet they were free to do whatever they wanted with their dearly bought freedom. Instead of rebuild and repair, a great many of them tore down all the last remaining fragments of the old world and did their very best to build up everything in utter mockery of it, as though the old world were to blame for the destruction in the first place.

What I was trying to figure out that year was why the old world was worth preserving. I knew it should be preserved. I was Orthodox. We go in for tradition, and good thing too because it is very silly to tear down something when you don't actually know what it's for-- as Chesterton would say. That is when I discovered Wendy Shalit's Return to Modesty.

Return to Modesty was Shalit's final thesis for her philosophy degree (I believe) though probably heavily revised for publication I imagine. It is a very methodical, and yet humorous and readable argument for the virtue of sexual modesty-- incredibly well researched too. She was Jewish, which in many ways can be much closer to Orthodoxy, when it comes to lifestyle, than other Christian denominations. And the real selling point: she was basically a feminist. Her argument was (in a nutshell) that women are worth everything that the feminists say they are, which is why sex before marriage is an affront to their dignity and honour as equal members of the human race. We risk almost everything when we say yes to sex. Men ought to do us the courtesy of offering us everything before they ask us for it. It had never occurred to me that feminist ideals (which I was tempted to in many ways) were also justifiable Christian ideals: that Christianity was, in a sense, a great feminist religion. Except for God Himself, our greatest saint is a female, and a mother.

This idea has carried me through a lot of rubbish I had to deal with in university and led me to understand that much of what we do as Christians (particularly Orthodox Christians) is a transfiguration and enlightenment of a lot of originally good modern concepts. We do not say black is white or evil is good. But we are not what we seem either. While appearing (to the modern) to be sexist with our male-only clergy and our masculine god, we actually honour women more highly than men by our saints and our lifestyles. While appearing to be prudish and oppressive with our fasting and our sexual ethics that forbid extra-marital and gay sex, we actually nurture a healthful freedom that allows things to grow and flourish in good soil, not be choked by the thorns of lust and appetite. We could be feminists, real feminists, and we could be free -lovers too-- real lovers.

I had always assumed that Christianity was right about it's various rules and religious laws as being the best thing to strive for. I had also assumed everyone else who argued otherwise was just stupid. What had never occurred to me was that I could speak to non-Christians on their own grounds as equals. I could speak as one feminist to another and not be accused of narrow-mindedness and ignorance at the hands of my religion. I could engage in discussion with homosexuals and not be accused of hatred and homophobia. I didn't have to say they were all right, but I could say that I understood them. That I wasn't shutting my eyes to them or standing above them, superior.

This was a huge leap for me, for I confess I spent a good portion of my high school years in complete confidence of my superiority to all my silly little school mates who believed everything the telly fed them. When I got to university I had to stop being a snob and actually use my brain because there were far more intelligent people, far better educated, and far nicer than I was, who were going to accuse me of bigotry if I couldn't come up with anything to justify myself to them through my lifestyle.

The old ways, the traditional social constructs (and I will acknowledge them as constructs while arguing that this does not indicate they ought to be torn down or that they reflect anything false in them) needed to be justified to me in a language that I could then use to engage others without condescension. Wendy Shalit opened that door for me. What has since occurred to me is that what I was always missing, what might have brought me to this without her help, was what Lewis called "Charity" in his book The Four Loves. This will make up the review in my next post.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Genuineness and the Immortal Poet: My Love of Keats

The other night our lodger (who was suffering puke flu courtesy of my children) picked out my Bright Star DVD to console himself. Bringing him up some ginger tea, I remarked "Oh Bright Star-- I can't watch that."

For those of you who don't know, Bright Star is a film about John Keats and his romance with one Fanny Brawne, cut short by the poet's tragic demise from consumption at the age of just 25. My parents picked out this DVD for my birthday present last year because for years and years I have been saying that someone (preferably me) ought to make a film about it. (This harks back to my days when I thought film-acting was the career for me). Had I been the one to produce such a film, it may have affected a kind of catharsis.

I discovered John Keats quite by chance one summer. Mum offered to buy each of us a book to take on our summer holiday. Browsing the classics section (already in love with Shakespeare), I picked out a 2-dollar Dover Classics volume of John Keats' Lyric Poems. I think, looking back, that the initial appeal of this volume was the attractive light blue cover and the name of the poet which conjured up some image of a wise old poet with a white beard. I opened it and read the first few lines of "I stood tip-toe." I felt immediately overwhelmed with deja-vu--instantly transported in that experience we call sublime. It felt uncannily familiar (and yet not so uncanny), as though it were almost written by me. I flipped to the back and read the brief biography detailing his short, tragic life. Sold. (What can I say? I was 16 or so-- tragedy had a special appeal to me.) I was immediately infatuated.

What began that summer, (probably the first summer in which there was a Shakespeare-shaped hole because I had gotten too old to participate in Bard on the Beach's Young Shakespeareans Program), was a romance with John Keats that has produced a delicious, enduring ache. An ache I don't have time for and need to avoid for the sake of being a useful, sensible human being.

Keats' was instrumental in my switch from Theatre to English Literature as a post-secondary focus. At first his tragic life story merely aroused a sort of longing and pity of the sort that can only be manifested in the hormonal tempest of a 16 year-old female, and encourages infatuation. But when that settled, and I was able to take a more sober and educated approach to his poetry, it was his relative innocence and optimism, and most importantly his genuineness which held lasting appeal. His "philosophy" was unpolished and his verse somewhat immature (and occasionally just plain cheesy). But I liked this better than the appalling self-importance and sophistication of the other Romantic poets. Here was a man laying himself open completely to you in all his imperfection and asking you to love him.

Anyone who has done a degree in English Literature will tell you that genuineness is not what we do. We play at philosophy and psychology, at theory and politics (all of which are sometimes indistinguishable), but genuineness is right out like "5" in Monty Python's Book of Armaments. I shall count myself worthy of my time at college if I can say confidently at the end of it that I had lobbed my academic work (The Holy Hand-Grenade of Antioch) at the Foe, who being Naughty in His Sight, shall snuff it.

I did have two excellent and very different profs for Romantics. One was a (now old-fashioned) traditional academic type in his 50s. He taught from the text and his secondary sources were mostly contemporary-- if he brought up any. And he was a badass Anglican. The other was a young academic, an atheist (almost certainly), who taught from mostly modern critical sources, (Freud, Benjamin, Zizek, Lacan), and then applied his theories to the poems I had loved for years. His idealism was endearing and he was much more engaging in a classroom. He had himself, and allowed his students, some measure of genuineness, but he marked you higher if his genuineness was compati
ble with yours. And being an atheist, he never agreed with me of course. What these two profs had in common was a passion for the philosophical theory that comes as part of studying post-enlightenment literature, which always went against the grain for me.

For me, the value of Keats' poetry was not in the philosophy behind it (of which there certainly was some), but in the man who produced the poems and so came to life in them. Whereas with Shakespeare the appeal of the poetry was about the people it created (and allowed me to create on stage), with Keats, it was about the man who created the poetry and who the poetry recreated for me. Keats, unlike his Romantic predecessors and peers, talked philosophically now and then but he loved practically.

Now, by 'practically' I mean simply 'realistically' and 'in practice' as opposed to 'idealistically' since idealism seems to be characteristic of much modern philosophy (that I have come across). Philosophers of this kind spout all kinds of nonsense about how no one is really 'free,' by which they mean that no one is free to be a scoundrel without consequence-- as if this were some great and shocking revelation. And their idealism is really a sort of fatalism which imagines happiness and joy to be an aesthetic pleasure derived from pretending we like this vale of tears--cuz it's the only thing we got and we ain't gonna change or get out of it-- except by aesthetic snobbery or rebellion.

'Freedom' in the mind of any sensible human being, means freedom of creativity--that is to say, we count it as an unjust restriction of our freedom when our creative faculties (physical, verbal, artistic, or spiritual) are limited. The modern philosopher tends to rely on these kinds of restrictions (while pointing out their inescapability) to manage their idealistic approaches to modern life-- which often involves a kind of intellectual snobbery (often called aesthetics).

Keats played at such philosophy like his contemporaries, but he was not such a fool as to become its slave. In the end, he loved Fanny (and everything else which claimed his affection) far beyond his poetry and not a bit because it fit in with any of his Romantic ideals-- or because he could indicate a high and mighty reason or explanation for it. Ultimately he was not really concerned with anything's idealistic virtue of the kind men like to philosophise about. Just its simple, homely, domestic genuineness.

Now, Keats' genuineness (and affection for genuineness) has, for me, kept alive that ache which I first felt on opening that 2-dollar Dover Classic. It has led me to his house in London more than twice and all the way to Rome and to his grave. It has survived the dreadful theorising and philosophising of my academic studies and encouraged me in my own pursuits, both domestic and artistic. That ache, an absence of that man himself-- or more accurately what his genuine humanity revealed, has been my quiet companion through many years.

I cannot relive the pain of his untimely death through film more than once because it will turn me into a sighing adolescent, unable to let go of the delicious tragedy of it all. I have mourned him from the moment I knew him in his poetry because he is gone and he was genuine and his genuineness made him familiar to me. The loss is keen because there always seemed more of him to lose. But mourning must have an end--as Freud observed so insightfully. Otherwise it becomes melancholy and in Hamlet's poor case, madness.

His poems I can come back to time and again because they are the man himself alive and whole, unpolished and imperfect. To me he has achieved that immortality of spirit which his contemporaries so desired, and he came by it honestly, by real love, by genuineness, as do all the saints.