Previously in this space, the difference between a fixation on literalism as a kind of litmus test for what to believe, in contemporary discourse, and a more symbolic metaphoric, archetypal and even mystical window on the nature of reality has occupied our time.
Yesterday, positing the picture of a Christian theology book-ended by original sin and a final judgement, dependent perhaps too much on a literal notion of both book-ends. And it seems worth some unpacking to shake these images loose from their strictly literal meaning and importance in order to open up overtones, resonances and rumblings of a different kind of perception.
Not the difference between figure and ground, as the gestalt’s would have us distinguish, so much as an integration into the threatening/dark implications of those damn book-ends, and their potential place in a mystical universe in which we all dwell.
There are some well-worn notions in our culture that speak for example, to an artist’s being able to present a scene/scenario that speaks to a contemporary audience, while it also expresses an eternal truth with which people hundreds of years hence can identify. Epitomizing this imaginative gift of bridging the “now” with the “eternal” from the perspective of literature, is Shakespeare. His histories, comedies and tragedies continue to shed light on the most intimate, nuanced, and profound human traits displayed in the face of other equally commanding, nuanced and intimate traits of others. Exaggeration in such controlled and muted delivery, often through only hints, glances, raised or lowered voices, a mere gesture perhaps, we are transported from the routine of our lives into the “weeds” of the lives of others albeit fictional characters, often to the point where we are ‘inside’ an experience the Greeks called pathos, ‘suffering’ as we enter into the “plight” of the tragic hero.
Literary and theatre critics have, and will continue to parse the components of a drama, comparing them to other titles and experience. However, the audience, (in Shakespeare’s instance the ordinary folk in the ‘pit’ (for a penny) is both ingesting and digesting what is playing out before them, and simultaneously being enveloped into the scene. The first dynamic (ingesting and digesting) is likely more conscious, cognitive and perhaps even emotion; the second, however, is likely to be more unconscious, not given voice perhaps until weeks or months after the experience. The immediate tensions being enacted on the stage like sound and light penetrate the first layer of perception. The resonations of those initial stimuli, like a pebble on a pond, continue to reverberate beyond our conscious, mental, emotional or even psychological control.
Depending on the unique relevance to each person in the theatre, the whole experience flows into a metaphoric stream of images, themselves both literal and imaginative, that like a river form currents, eddies, shoals, whirlpools and even cataracts to which each day, book, person, and imaginative vision are added. We are not necessarily cognizant of the imprinting each of these experiences leaves, at the time. It can be decades before they rise up into a new day of consciousness, demanding to be encountered again, as if for the first time.
One example: On reading Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea for the first time, one is left with the heroic endurance of the old man and his tender and deep affection for the young boy. Decades later, it is the “destroyed but not defeated” irony, paradox and the depth of the human spirit’s resilience that becomes the hero. Depending on the contemporary cultural current, some will read Hemingway as the prophet of macho Alpha masculinity; at other times, he will be considered a poet of such understated, even sparse prose and another irony/paradox will take centre stage. Curiosity, including a vicarious search for Hemingway’s own pursuit of the fine line between safety and danger, where the thrill of human existence comes face to face with the characters and each reader, seems to keep us reaching for his books.
In each and every moment, we can experience those same thrills, fears, tears, ecstasies and traumas that have been the life-blood of the human story from the beginning. And without our controlling these moments, we often come face to face with both trauma and ecstasy simultaneously without giving voice or even cognizance to all of the complexities of that moment. We have been so conditioned, trained, and shaped by a culture that considers such paradoxes outside the norm of normality that we unconsciously comply with the overriding convention. And religion, in its attempt to regain ‘touch’ with the depth and the beauty and the complexity of what it is to be human, too often falls into the same kind of complicity.
There is a legitimate argument to be made that religion, especially of the mainline religions, is too embedded in the corporate, for-profit, short-term revenue and happiness curve that comes from opinion polls, and thereby almost by default, either avoids or denies (or both) the deeper, wider, more complex and more penetrating truths of our relationship with the ineffable, the ultimate, the inestimable and the mystical.
Of course, we permit adventures of the imagination through science fiction time travels, or dark-forest thrills among vengeful beasts, or romanticized heroic adventures in epic conflicts, as part of our literary, imaginative and cognitive development. Nevertheless, we generally leave those escapades to the fiction writers, the screen writers and the movie producers to provide ‘entertainment’ that feeds our various appetites for adventure and/or escape.
It is, however, that moment when the art and the audience unite, that moment when there seems to be no separation between the actions and actors on the stage (screen, book) and the now participant in the scene that we know a different experience than one in which we are mere spectator/manipulator/objective evaluator.
The most common path to travel in pursuit of something “unique” and “moving” and “beyond both reason and imagination” is that path of human love for another human being. It is no accident that movies in which central characters travel closer together, not only physically and emotionally, but also as one spirit, continue both to be written and produced. Our appetite, among both men and women, for the inexplicable, ineffable, undefinable unity of two spirits, minds, hearts and persons is a core feature of our identity. Naturally, we ascribe our individual uniqueness to those occasions when it seems that we are in such a state of euphoria, with or without our trust in its capacity to endure.
And as in many of our activities, we ‘work’ at making such experiences of euphoria happen. It seems, to a superficial observer (as opposed to a clinical specialist) that both men and women “work” at this “adventure” differently. Ironically, as with other aspects of our journey, it seems that when we are less compelled, less obsessive, and even apparently less interested, and therefore less competitive, strategizing, finagalling and even dedicated to the pursuit, “something” happens for which we are neither in control nor prepared.
In a culture in which observable, measureable, definable objectives are the hallmark of achievement and the concomitant acceptance, integration reward and advancement, we are means to an end. Often, we participate in “ends” that have been designed and defined by others. And while those ends seem worthy, we are then embedded in the pursuit of creative means to achieve those ends. Along the way, we develop social and educational structures dedicated to helping young people fit into the needs of our defined ends, some of which are less worthy than others. Additionally, the full range of individual talents, skills, interests and proficiencies is shaped by the overall strategy with the “end” taking precedence over the means.
In our inflated perspective of our expert knowledge, based on the empirical evidence of researchers in various scientific fields, we leap into tactical decisions, in the first instance that seem appropriate for immediate reward (personal and/or organizational), having abandoned common sense insights of what it really means/needs/aspires to be fully alive as a human being.
In fact, even discerning between personal and cultural needs and aspirations has become something of a mystery. We are so intent on appearing appropriate, engaged, valued and “on point” that if we witness an eruption in the public consciousness, the culture, including many corporations, governments, schools, universities, and, yes, churches, seem to rush to be part of the band-wagon of public energy, enthusiasm, and change. Like moths rushing to the porch light, only to burn out to the porch floor by morning, we are gravitating from one pole of apparent innocence, ignorance, insouciance or even apathy to another pole of nuclear urgency. This is not to disdain the current “black lives matter” movement, nor the legitimate pursuit of equality by the LGBTQ community.
However, it is to illustrate how disengaged, disinterested and un-empathic we are unless and until we are stirred to some kind of new consciousness.
If we had been asked, six months ago, if we believed that minority races among us were being treated fairly and justly by the government and the society generally, most of us would have answered “No!” And then we would have walked away from that pollster, immediately engaged and engrossed in our next text or lunch date, or movie review. It is not out business to be constantly engaged in the plight of those voiceless among us, unless we have determined and sought a specific role in the minimal energy that seeks and welcomes new recruits.
Homelessness, poverty, racial inequality, economic disparities, and the history of such blights have become such a drum-beat of cultural reality that we have grown inured to its depth. And, yet, at a moment, completely out of our daily lives, we witnessed a brutal murder of an innocent black man, under the knee of a white cop. So enraged are we, and so emboldened by the breadth and the depth of the uprising around the globe, that we breath differently, in the hope/aspiration that such sheer coldness will thaw this time, although it has so far not thawed at similar and even more devastating brutalities.
Now we are individually and collectively at the point, it seems, where our aspirations are intersecting with our needs. We need to have lunch, to find or do work with dignity, and we need to fulfil our responsibilities. Do we also need to take formal, personal and collective steps to become part of the wave of change?
Do we have a sense that we are participating in a moment in history that really connects with our deepest passions, beliefs, ethics, morality and personal legacy? Or do we consider such moments as merely another passing “flame” like those Roman candles on July 1 and 4 (in Canada and the U.S. respectively) that light the sky and then burn to ashes almost instantly.
Are we really part of a universal, human and humane energy that is disturbed by the various injustices, inequities, disparities, and brutalities in which we are all complicit so long as they continue? Or are we merely passing through, just eking out an existence, waiting for the next anniversary, or the next home game, or the next election, or the next promotion?
Such questions are not exclusive to a specific ethnic or religious, or geographic or political ideology. They are questions at the heart of how we see ourselves, how we consider our relative importance to the moment we are living. And they are questions begging answers that can come only from the depth and freshness of that river of our spirit, infused with the literary, and reflective and physical and engagement opportunities that we have been provided, that we have sought and that we hopefully continue to seek.
Our personal needs, it says here, are not disconnected from our aspirational needs; indeed without our aspirational needs, we would have no imaginative energy to put one foot in front of the other. Aspirations cannot be left to politicians whose promises we expect are hollow and merely mascara for their election, while anesthetizing our expectations. It is our complicity in permitting our aspiring leaders to deploy such aspirational bromides as political grease to enable their success, without transforming their aspirations into our legitimate needs, and calling for delivery, that makes us all less interested and willing to engage in the public process.
The eternal, ineffable and the mysterious, beyond the empirical digits of data to which we are all seemingly addicted, continue to hold both promise and challenge for those courageous enough to consider taking a legitimate seat at the table of the public square.
Our participation only adds strength to the movement to right the glaring wrongs; our withdrawal, silence and cynicism only encourage those committed to their own needs, at the expense of the voiceless.