Gelassenheit

The world of a young filmmaker


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Three-in-one: Marriage, Community, and Pain

triquetra for blog

My wife and I celebrated our one year anniversary about a week ago. I started brainstorming ways we could commemorate a month before, mostly in the form of trips. Like Walter Mitty I had an itch for adventure, I think I always have, and it felt like time to visit a historic city or chase thrills at an amusement park. Then again, I would have been just as happy to find some peace in nature on a backpacking trip, similar to the way we chose to celebrate our honeymoon. But my wife had a very different idea: she wanted to commemorate our anniversary symbolically. How could I say no to that?

I grew up in a bit of an iconoclastic culture: the Eucharist was simply an exercise of memory, girls were instructed in modesty to keep boys from being the victims of lust, and tattoos were pretty suspect due to a few Old Testament verses. As I grew, however, my artistic nature began to challenge some of these ideas and my imagination became filled with symbolism, myths, and philosophies. Christianity, while not the most symbolic of all religions, does have a rich history of symbolism that I have been enlivened to discover. So when my wife suggested that we celebrate our anniversary by getting our wedding date tattooed, I listened. And then I started to think bigger.

A year ago, just before our marriage, I wrote a post on this blog called The Mysteries of Marriage. There, I dug into a theology of marriage as part of triune, perichoretic love that I still very much hold to. I decided that if I was going to get a tattoo, it needed to be more than just a memory: it needed to be a symbol. And that’s when I rediscovered the Triquetra.

An ancient Celtic symbol, the Triquetra has been a part of many religions and paganisms but has for centuries been a symbol of the Trinity within Christianity. Memorizing this symbol, I have been encouraged to find it emblazoned on the pulpit at my church and I’ve run into it elsewhere too. Looking at this symbol, pictured above in my design, it’s pretty obvious why it would be connected to the Trinity. Commonly known as the Celtic knot, the Triquetra is truly a visual representation of the “three-in-one.” For me, wearing this symbol daily is a reminder of the spiritual dimension of my marriage. As our pastor said during the marriage ceremony, marriage is not about two people facing each other as much as it is two people facing outward but standing side by side. That point has stuck with me.

It’s going to be hard to explain my tattoo to others because it’s wrapped up in a handful of big ideas. Fortunately, symbols are concrete signs of exactly such big ideas and the Triquetra itself is a portrait of multi-dimensionality. On one level, my tattoo is a witness to my marriage, signified most clearly by our wedding date in roman numerals. Marriage is a permanent commitment, something that simultaneously unsettles and comforts me. Call me emo (no seriously, I won’t mind) but I found the process of getting tattooed symbolic of my first year of marriage: periods of pain, periods of relief, and overall an increasing sense of beauty and achievement. A tattoo is a witness to struggle and marriage has been that for me, despite being the most worthwhile struggle of my life.

On another level, my tattoo speaks to the way in which my marriage is wrapped up in a wider community. Each concrete branch of the Triquetra is wrapped up in another and it is in this way that my wife and I are part of families, friend-groups, and ultimately Church. A goal I identified at the beginning of our marriage was to allow our support of each other to provide a platform for hospitality and community involvement. I still feel I have only taken a couple steps in that direction and I look forward to better meeting that challenge as a couple in the years to come. Now, I get to be reminded of that goal every day.

Finally, my tattoo speaks to the way in which all of these relationships are surrounded by the circle of God’s love and the way in which our intersections loves on earth mirror God’s dance of love in the Trinity. This is a great mystery, but what better way to speak of it than through a symbol? Through prayer and acts of service, I hope that my wife and I can be increasingly conscious of the Spirit’s presence within us in order to be stronger conduits of God’s grace. This is a huge goal, but perhaps it starts with kindnesses, sacrifices, and concern for one another. In that way, our marriage becomes a crucible for our sanctification and our love is made concrete first in order that it can overflow abundantly. This is the vision I see when I look at my tattoo. This is the prayer that I have for my marriage and the one I will bear witness to in my flesh, in my very person.


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The Plague: Camus’ Revolt as Hope?

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I can say I know the world inside out, as you may see–that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth, is free from it…What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest–health, integrity, purity (if you like)–is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter…it’s a wearying business, being plague-stricken. But it’s still more wearying to refuse to be it. ~Tarrou, Part IV.VI

Albert Camus’ The Plague is an indictment, a curse against the natural world and its overwhelming, incomprehensible malice. The setting is a “happy town,” an Algerian port city, that unexpectedly befalls the ancient plague, bringing hundreds daily into its black embrace. Their ferryman, and the protagonist, is Dr. Rieux, the guardian of futile remedies and uncertain prognoses. Indeed, no one is able to come to grips with what is going on, certainly there is “plague” but no one can find cure or treatment or explanation of how it began or when it will end. The people are, quite naturally, helpless.

While Rieux is our hero, a fascinating and critical character is the man Tarrou, an observer of life who keeps a diary of his impressions, first of the town and then of the plague. Early on, Tarrou volunteers to organize civilian teams and aid Rieux and the medical professionals in fighting the plague. His most interesting moments, however, come later in the book as he and Rieux take a short respite from their endless strivings. Tarrou begins to explain some of what he has observed, both in the town and in his entire life, especially a diagnosis that all people are always already sick with plague. Tarrou here sees through the physical veneer of “health” and into something spiritual; he sees the world as a history of killing and states that “once I’d definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end. I leave it to others to ‘make history.'” Tarrou recounts his witnessing a firing squad, explaining that:

you’ve gleaned your ideas about [firing squads] from books and pictures. A post, a blindfolded man, some soldiers in the offing. But the real thing isn’t a bit like that. Do you know that the firing-squad stands only a yard and a half from the condemned man? … Do you know that, at this short range, the soldiers concentrate their fire on the region of the heart and their big bullets make a hole into which you could thrust your fist? … I’ve never been able to sleep well since then.

Capital punishment, for Tarrou as well as for Camus, is a moment of truth, a window into the true soul of the world. Tarrou, with his sensitive heart, refuses to take part in that world, exiling himself and yet, nevertheless, being unable to shake his own guilt about his complicity in the murderous world. “For many years I’ve been ashamed, mortally ashamed, of having been, even with the best intentions, even at many removes, a murderer in my turn,” Tarrou confesses. He is, rather, convicted by what he calls “the path of sympathy” and declares that “what interests me is learning how to become a saint.”

“But you don’t believe in God,” Rieux retorts.

“Exactly!” Tarrou replies. “Can one be a saint without God?”


After reading these pages for the first time, I had to pause. The finale to that chapter is a beautiful one, as Rieux and Tarrou go down to the water and, for the first time since the plague began, go for a swim. Tarrou’s self-reflection, however, remains haunting to me. I, similarly, am often struck by the brutal nature of history, sure, but also of current power, of history in the making. Dominant forms exercise violence by necessity for self-preservation, dissenting forms of organization often resort to the same measures with the opposite intentions. However, it is not just power that is at stake. Ways of life are themselves violent: food systems are violent against ecosystems, animals, and human workers; transportation systems are similar. Corporations are all too often exploitative of their resources, especially human ones, and even corporate advertising is deeply manipulative. In the end, though, is there any escaping? We humans are rather inevitably tied together by infrastructure and it is a rare (if even existent) community small and ethical enough to avoid tethering to violent structures. I often find small hope in my anxiety about this tethering, i.e. at least if I am complicit I recognize my guilt. Like Tarrou, I find my political ambition sated; “I leave it to others to ‘make history.'” But what is left for me?

Tarrou’s primary response seems to be journaling, taking account of what he sees with a disinterested gaze. As Rieux later remarks:

Tarrou [in his death] had ‘lost the match,’ as he put it. But what had he, Rieux, won? No more than the experience of having known plague and remembering it…So all a man could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories. But Tarrou, perhaps, would have called that winning the match.

Rieux thus wonders whether knowledge was, for Tarrou, a kind of victory. But, in the face of so much death, what good does knowledge do? And knowledge of what, even? Rieux’s knowledge is limited to an acute understanding of the phases involved in death by plague, as he often recounts morning may bring a respite but by noon the true condition of the patient will show forth. Rieux, thus, is knowledgeable about death more than about life. Certainly, then, his victory is still contained by the event of plague. Plague, not man, is supreme.

It is for this reason, I believe, that Rieux decides to write his “memoir,” disclosing himself at the book’s end as it’s constant narrator. His anonymity, he claims, is that of a witness in a court, called to be as impartial as possible as he relates the conditions of the crime he observed. Plague, to Rieux, is that crime, a crime of nature against human beings. His book, thus, is an indictment.


In the face of such absurd (i.e. unknowable, unthinkable, incomprehensible) violence, Rieux’s response is to “revolt,” to act as if human beings have the upper hand and to try, by willpower alone, to make that belief a reality. His revolt is honorable even if it accomplishes little, other than putting him at the center of the storm–the better to give a true account of its history. And what good does such a history do? This question, it seems to me, is one often asked of audience to artist, but never the other way around. Tarrou, Rieux, and Camus–writers three–give account by necessity, regardless of their intentions. It strikes me that, often, this is the truth of art’s origin, necessity over intention. Our situation is such that we must give account of it, we must try to understand even if knowledge is a weak reward. We simply must.


Is it possible, though, that there is a grander reward, a surer purpose to guarantee our actions? Here, we poke into a religious dimension, one that Camus at least has little sympathy for. In The Plague, he paints the portrait of Father Paneloux, the local priest who preaches two sermons. In the first, Paneloux announces God’s judgment, imagining the plague as a condemnation on man’s evil like the plagues of Egypt. It is then that his silence begins, and in it the priest, to put it lightly, memorizes the last rites. It is one death in particular, the death of a child told by Camus in graphic detail, that burns itself into Paneloux’s imagination. It is here that, as Camus might say, Paneloux is confronted by the full weight of the Absurd. It is here that the child dies in protest to Paneloux desperate prayer “My God, spare this child…!” The Absurd, the plague, has set itself up as a rival deity and the one acting in the human sphere. Paneloux is shaken, yet announces his second sermon, where he tries with all his might to theologize this event, to reveal the deeper meaning. As far as Camus is concerned, his last attempt fails, and it is no surprise that Paneloux quickly falls ill and dies, but not of plague. In fact, his symptoms are so confused that Rieux cannot pronounce a diagnosis. Paneloux dies a victim of the absurd.

Camus, like Heidegger, accounts for a realm of existence far beyond the mortal plane, a Source more powerful and thus transcendent of our own. Neither attempts a definition, even though Camus gives it such a memorable face. In Heidegger, this transcendent sense always feels positive and hence gelassenheit is an appropriate and life-giving response. In Camus, however, this transcendence feels malevolent, all that is left to humans is to revolt, to surrender (i.e. gelassenheit) is to let nature get away with its vicious crucifixions.

Reading The Plague, as well as reading true stories of similar topics, it is hard to imagine that Heidegger, and with him most religious impulses, are right and Camus is wrong. Unlike Lars von Trier and other masters of dark tales, I find Camus to be rather crushing of any ultimate hope, any real belief that good outweighs evil anywhere but in the human heart. For Camus believes in hope as well, his sense of revolt is ultimately a hope, but I do not find in Camus a belief that this hope is efficacious or that it is met by any transcendence that could realize it. Revolt, for Camus, is a desperate, necessary hope that is nevertheless a vain one. Indeed, while revolt may help ease suffering, it is just as likely that human action will increase suffering and, in the end, suffering remains the ultimate state of things.

Yet it has always been my strong belief that hope exists, even though I would not dare to pretend that the weight of evidence is wholly on my side. Camus’ pragamatic pessimism is, in a way, the most realistic, yet I continue to doggedly believe that hope is the ultimate reality, that there is a transcendent Hope by which we humans are justified in our little hopes. In this way, I do believe in saints but, to answer Tarrou, I do not think that saints can be without God. Certainly we can declare saints, as an existentialist might put it, but this to me will never be the same as the believe that a saint is, rather than merely was. A saint, recognized after death, continues to be a real source of hope, not merely a human attempt to light a candle in the darkness. But Tarrou’s question remains one of the most pertinent questions of our time and I want to continue to ponder it, to be haunted by it, even if I have voiced my “opinion.” Because, in the end, we do not decide how things are, we merely hope for them, even if what we hope for makes all the difference.

But one more thing: The Plague was published in 1947.

 

 

 

 

 


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Dýrafjörður: Gelassenheit Gets a New Voice

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While I obviously love movies (look to the right just a bit…), I don’t post all that many reviews. Well, really, I think the only review I’ve ever done is Stoker, all my others thoughts on films are just that: reflections. Dýrafjörður offers a lot to reflect on, especially for this blog, and so I’m happy to be able to share a few words and then give a plug for my friend Philip Carrel’s wonderful piece.

And yes, I am using “friend” a bit optimistically since I only got to know Philip for about a month. After that, he took off; he told me he had to finish up his documentary in this Icelandic village and since then he hasn’t returned. You know that bucket list you’ve been making? Well, you might as well throw it out and just print Philip’s instagram feed; it’s a far prettier index of all those places you want to go. I could be wrong, but my impression of Philip has been that he isn’t traveling out of some enormous ambition to “see the world” but he and his wife are drawn by a sense of life as moving while listening, or listening while moving, a kind of Heraclitean earnestness that makes any pretty place as realistic as the next. Anyway that’s my read on Dýrafjörður, but I hope you keep reading a bit before you just go watch it (or maybe come back after??).

Dýrafjörður reminds me of Tree of Life, as soon as someone has started to tell a story you end up in a montage of nature shots. Unlike Tree of Life, I like it. There is so much Heidegger going on in this film that I could just post my paper on “The Origin of the Tree of Life,” but you’d probably enjoy watching that paper more than reading it so go watch Dýrafjörður (keep reading first!!). This village is portrayed with such harmony, such a rich sense of people bringing form and expression to their landscape and natural resources and living at the beneficent mercy of the giant, purple sky. There is so much beauty, but more than that there is so much context, such incredible detail and inspiration drawn from where each character sits, or works, or walks. This film comes alive on the boat “Eternity,” where a man does his work with a goal but not a plan and as he talks we are so immersed in the boat itself, its sides and corners and railings, that we might be sharing a point of view with this man. We are, in many ways, inside his imagination, and Dýrafjörður seems a place where artisans create their imaginations daily, always innovating and working with care (Heidegger points!!) but never trying to outstrip the beauty that has always already surrounded them, enveloped them.

There is so much gelassenheit, even to the point where a young musician describes her process of inspiration as “just,” just walking or just thinking but moreso “just” without a verb. There is a sense of openness that these artisans share, a failure to worry about where things are headed and a resounding affirmation of the simple, the beautiful, the gentle, and the fair. You really need to see this film because it gets life in a profound way, a way embedded in its images and music (but not so much its audio…).

I think Carrel has struck a unique chord here, following in the footsteps of Malick and more recently Lucid, Inc. and doing so with minimal equipment, an approach I don’t usually advise but he may have perfected it (so I can accept a few skews and jitters). In fact, like I recently remarked about Harmony Korine with Spring Breakers (what a comparison!), his style seems incredibly fun to work out, an inspiring sense of openness and adaptability that revitalizes the art of filmmaking, whereas too often it is overly technical. With each of his works, I am learning from Carrel as a filmmaker, but more than that as a human being with a stake in the modern world that can become overwhelmingly, again, technical. Heidegger, once more, saw this coming and prophesied that poetry and gelassenheit where the only ways forward. Well, Philip, Loralee, Scott, and whoever else is so far Stone Key Films, you have revealed Heidegger’s words in their truth once again, but in a refreshingly new way that is thoroughly enjoyable. Bravo and brava.

So buy it here (they would rather you rent it and then buy it but we all know that’s happening so): https://www.reelhouse.org/stonekeyfilms/dyrafjordur 


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Fashionable Fables: A Loose Trilogy

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Imagine you go to your favorite restaurant and discover a new appetizer. You have to try it. You wait, then order, then wait. Unbeknownst to you, the Chef is on vacation and the intern starts a small fire preparing your meal. “It’s nothing,” he says to the waitress as he hands her your plate.  “I’ll have it out in no time.” Meanwhile, you dig into a scrumptious appetizer. It’s not perfect, but it has wet your palate and you can’t wait to round out the experience with an entree (naturally your favorite one). But something has started to smell. By the time you’ve finished your appetizer, the restaurant has burned down.

Such is the experience of watching The Rover. 

The Rover is a masterful nihilist parable (i.e. a fable without animals), although that is to dismiss it too easily. Still, it is well worth noticing that the entire story is driven by a nihilist/existentialist sensibility. The landscape (the spiritual one, that is, and a perfect complement to the outback) is a bleak one, and vacant. The film’s tagline describes a near-apocalyptic future, Australia post-economic collapse, another Elysium or The Road or The Book of Eli, etc. Refreshingly, I found these comparisons to be wanting; the movie’s world is certainly one of scarcity but there is plenty to survive on. Perhaps the situation is different in the city, but in the country the sparse population seems to be scraping along okay. Infrastructure (esp. law enforcement) is not absent, but neither prominent. Most pronounced to me was a lack of authority.

Many films reflect hierarchical authority, the kind many people are used to, where the influencers at the top are protected by force and violence and are thus obeyed. This logic holds for government films (obviously) but also for crime dramas, where a para-government organization has the “real” power in a city or village. In The Rover, the really is no authority to speak of. As Judges so eloquently quips, “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6, NRSV).

Did you flinch? I’ll confess it; I often flinch when “Bible verses” are evoked in blogs, essays, statuses, etc. Why is that? Well, a large part of it has to do with my generation being allergic to authority.

Like the Enlightenment, the 21st century has declared (or maybe just noticed) a crisis of authority, a dissatisfaction with the powers that be. Unlike the Enlightenment, we don’t know what the hell to do about it. Enter The Rover, where Eric (Guy Pierce) assigns value to a meaningless quest: he wants to recover his car (the one with three men in it). [GO WATCH THE FILM AT THIS POINT BECAUSE I CAN'T REALLY IGNORE THE PLOT.] From the get-go this is strange, his car is stolen but he picks up a car that is certainly more durable, i.e. invaluable in a Darwinian context. Still, he loves that sedan and is willing to kill for it: over and over and over again. Why? Because human life has no value to him, as a good Sartrean nothing has value unless he ascribes value to it. His car: valuable. People along the way: who cares? To Eric, everyone is dying anyway, or more likely already dead. In a pivotal scene, Eric confesses to his arrester that he murdered his wife and her adulterer, buried them, and then waited to be punished. But no one noticed. His spirit was broken, more precisely, his faith in authority was broken. There was no one to punish him, not in this life anyway, and with no punishment how could any reward be meted out? And with no reward, what’s the point?

The only point possible, therefore, is what you make it out to be. Eric’s turning point, we find out, was ten years ago (that is, if it happened at all). At the beginning of the film, the stage is set as ten years after the collapse. But what was this collapse? An economic collapse, as the film’s marketers would have us believe? A moral collapse? I would say it is a collapse of authority. But let’s dig deeper (and sadly leave our investigation of The Rover. There is so much more that could be said, but just go see it. Bolster your soul first, then go see it. Go to a ballet afterward, or play with your kids. You’ll be okay.).

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Walking out of The Rover, I had a pervasive sense that this film didn’t stand alone. Don’t ask me what that means, but I immediately wanted to watch another of Robert Pattinson’s (grown-up) efforts: Cosmopolis. And so I did. The similarities are indeed striking, a disillusioned protagonist goes on a quest for something trivial, in this case a haircut. Along the way, he self-destructs. In Cosmopolis, however, we watch the self-destruction occurs whereas I found in The Rover a sense that this destruction has already occurred. Thus, Cosmopolis functions as something of a prequel, a similar portrait of the modern world which has been eviscerated by economics, by analysis, by the raw power of information. Eric Packer (they even share first names) is bored, engorged, sick of everything he has done which, at the age of 28, is quickly approaching everything that can be done. He is a multi-billionaire and, in what may be the hidden inciting incident, he has just gotten married to a billionairess. He has arrived, therefore he gets in his car and leaves. He is obsessed with death; he knows that the “logical extension of business is murder” and seems to be waiting for his turn to die. As it turns out, his turn is the present, a present which reasserts itself with a vengeance over-against his carefully designed future plans. Packer is defeated; he cannot master the market and he cannot master his wife. He is finished, unlike the taxi drivers he refuses to demarcate his territory, his power, with material possessions and so he falls under the weight of anonymity.

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A loose trilogy, I would argue, could be formed by The Wolf of Wall Street, Cosmopolis, and The Rover (in that order). Here we find the rise, fall, and plateau of the modern man, the powerful giant at the crux of his economy. The one who gets it done. I often hear it said that stories like this don’t need to be told, that biographies of the ruthless (fictional or not) are pedantic because the evils of the powerful are plain to see. Why put them under the microscope for two (or three!) hours? Why subject ourselves to that? I think this question is a bit misguided about the purpose of art, but entertaining it I would say two things. First, these films may feature concrete narratives but they, like all good art, offer a reflection of the current culture that spawns them. A nihilist fable may be depressing, but that doesn’t make it meaningless (…) because it is an accurate portrait of the power in the world. If there is one thing nihilism has been correct about, it is that power, like hot air, rises. These portraits, then, of the “men at the top” are insightful in their pairing of societal influence with purposelessness. Indeed, it is fascinating to chart the importance of human connections in these films and the way in which the protagonists rise and fall based on their friendships and enemies, especially as their enemies become those with whom they are most closely associated. I think there is a lesson in ethics there, but either way these films are a stark reminder of how much of the world operates. Perhaps, in a way, they prophetically proclaim the vapidity of the “American dream,” showing that a “rags-to-riches” story can all to easily be played in the opposite direction.

To wrap up, the correct counter-point to my last statement is that I haven’t “responded” the the critique at all but merely rephrased it. This is true; I suppose I did that because I am known to find value in stories that others don’t enjoy. Rephrasing the critiqued in my own words is a form of answer to me. But in the end, I do have to allow that there is something lacking in telling a story of woe and walking away. As I started out describing, it tastes something like a lost meal or a plate of ashes that you wish you hadn’t paid for. It is fashionable to tell fables, to point out something disturbing to the moral sense. Really these should be called parables, but that word has become rather loaded since Christendom. Indeed, it is that precise aversion that I think is so key, as I mentioned earlier we are allergic to authority claims (being disillusioned that they usually entail little more than people speaking loudly). And so our fables, our parables of choice have taken some liberties with the literary traditions in that the “moral of the story” is usually the antithesis, i.e. that there can be no moral to the story. I think artists have become very comfortable investigating stories about the problems of violence so long as there is no resolution (or at least no cheap resolution, which to many is another way to say “no resolution”). Partly, this is due to the fact that it’s hard for us to believe in resolutions. We, standing on sunken giants, have just enough vision to see what hasn’t worked before. Marx had a similar problem when he declared that the specter haunting Europe was communism. As Cosmopolis explores, it increasingly seems that the specter haunting the world is capitalism. So then what exactly should we do? For what do we advocate or preach? Seems like we might as well settle in for a good story and stop pretending there is a way out of the mess we are in.

But I’m a Christian so that isn’t good enough right? Right now, I don’t really know. I believe in the resurrection enough to know that it’s something I can’t imagine. That said, I do believe in resolutions. What I don’t believe in are the resolutions that I can write. In the end, I guess I am uncomfortable with The Rover because it buries hope in a rather sadistic way (sometimes cleverness is just sadism). But I am more comfortable with it than a lot of movies which try to offer hope too concretely and fail to really inspire. What we need is more art that really believes in resolution but doesn’t get into specifics. For those of us that still read the Bible, it seems to me that’s what the Bible does plenty of, hint at resolution but maddeningly deny specifics. Well, maybe that’s been the best way all along, but it might not be the most fashionable.


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Noah Shuts the Door

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Let’s deal with this nagging thing right away: This is a very Western imagining of ancient Mesopotamia. We can talk clothes: Noah’s jean and jean-jacket stylings, Ham’s buzz cut and Naameh’s perfect stray curls. Going deeper, we can talk about how patriarchy becomes individualism and how the youth of Noah’s sons allows for familiar heterosexual coupling tropes. These things are a bit grating.

But I am completely missing the point.

Noah thrives in its brilliant imagination, it’s enlivening of a storybook world nevertheless populated by familiar humans. I found the first half of the film most compelling: a magical, mystical earth where the Creator always manages to appear in new and surprising ways. This is certainly not the story of Noah as I ever envisioned it, yet to me that is the incredible power and necessity of film: through film we are enabled to venture into new worlds as discovered by the imagination of other’s. This is a world of Aronofsky’s conjuring, so of course it is rather Western and the character’s speak English. So what? I must confess I am more intrigued by this project of personal adaptation than a period-piece literalism. All throughout, I wanted so badly to believe that this world could be true.

But I can’t.

I loved Noah for the way it allowed me to imagine, unbridled, an earth freshly created by God. In the end, however, the world of Noah is one that I inhabited tenously, as the film ended and I slowly drifted back to reality I was uncomfortable–dissatisfied both by the strange reality of the film and the familiar reality to which I was returning. In neither do I feel at home.

To me, the movie that has best defined a religious world is Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. The scene of Töre struggling with the young tree has stolen my heart forever. Meditating on it, I am struck by a crucial difference (perhaps the crucial difference) between the trials of Töre and Noah. Both are broad-shouldered, powerful men–the heads of their families–and both commit unspeakable violence, allowing even children to die by their hands. Töre, however, is swept away by his anger; after, he runs from the walls of his home and pulls a tree down to the ground, collapsing on it. No matter how powerful his hands may be, Töre is out of control, he does not have the power to protect his daughter nor the power to right the tragedies that befall him. He, like the tree, is a broken man. He can only lay face-down beneath the sky.

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Noah is in some ways the opposite, and here I think Aronofsky departs in meaningful ways from the Scriptures, whose stories I would argue are more akin to the ordeal of Tore I described above. In Aronofsky’s vision, Noah is not only called by the Creator but is empowered by him, given the ability to judge between the wicked and the righteous. To this end, with his family inside, Noah shuts the doorrefusing to open it even when begged by his family to save those who are battered by the waves on the peak of rocky outcropping. This wide angle is haunting, terrorizing, and yet I cannot help but feel that in it something fundamental has been changed from the Genesis myth. And I have already alluded to it, in the film Noah opens and shuts the door of the ark, in Genesis it is written that “the LORD shut him in” (NRSV). For this reason, I never get the impression from Genesis that Noah is empowered to decide who will live and die. Indeed, throughout Scripture, it seems that this power is too great for any person to hold. While the arc of Noah is a powerful one; I nevertheless feel it is incomplete in that the Creator seems to reserve little power for himself. Put another way, I cannot understand the relationship between the Creator and Noah, especially how it is portrayed, and Noah receives crystal clear visions at first but then fails to receive any support once inside the ark. This change, however, is never given voice, rather once the ark is shut Noah becomes a stand-in for the Creator, even though it nearly destroys him. 

I agree with Aronofsky that the tension between justice and mercy is at the heart of the story of Noah. I also know that it is impossible to film a dialog between God and Noah as written in the pages of Genesis. The reliance on visions in the beginning is a stroke of genius, but I find that the subtle shift from a more external conflict (Noah trying to read the Creator’s will) to a more stereotypically Western internal conflict (Noah trying to decide his own will) is a loss. Still, I cannot wait to view the film again, just to be saturated by its vivid imagination, perhaps the best telling of a biblical myth I’ve ever encountered. My constant struggle with Noah, however, is not that Aronofsky changed the details of the story but that he may have changed the heart of the story, blurring the relationship between Creator and created and creating a Great Man (as the poster can attest) when I find God usually chooses the most humble.


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The Seer

A poem for our present time. Since last week, the controversy of vision has been on my mind, sparked of course by a controversy about an organization committed to vision.

We become so divided by the ways we see. The only meditation I would offer are these words.

 

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I see them over the ridge

Father says they are strange

Mother says the word has other meanings

like when it’s said to me

 

Our leaders have gone out to parley

But the priests have not joined in

Father says if they did he would ignore their tax

Mother says they would starve

and I’ve seen them share food with the orphans

 

Father says that my vision is failing

Mother says there is no such thing

She said the same about death

until sister

 

I see them over the ridge

Father says we’ve had enemies before

Mother says she gives bread to the prisoners

but I’ve never seen one up close

 

If they cross the plain, how will I tell us apart?

 

I hold my breath

I’ve seen one set foot on the ridge

She is small, like me

I gasp!

It is my sister!

 

Father says he saw a corpse

Mother says she saw a ghost


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Les Mis Domesticated: What the Musical can learn from Hugo, and from Christ

Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me

What your sacrifice was for

Empty chairs at empty tables

Where my friends will sing no more

I first read Victor Hugo’s epic a few weeks before the release of Tom Hooper’s film adaptation. At that time, I wasn’t overly familiar with the structure of the musical adaptation and I was floored by what I saw as an unfaithful interpretation of the book’s thematic content. Just last night, I had the privilege of enjoying a phenomenal performance of the music at the Grand Rapids Civic Theater. Unlike the movie, this stage adaptation seemed to get stronger as it went and I still have the haunting lines of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” running through my head (bravo Michael Peneycad!). However beautiful the song can be, the truth is that I still hate it.

Now, Hugo’s novel is far from perfect. It’s plot may be overly drawn out, at the least it is convoluted and the musical does a nice job of distilling a coherent thrust. Moreover, the novel follows a nineteenth century ideal of interpolating philosophical discourse between narrative segments. This makes it rather hard to read and detracts from some of its narrative power. On the other hand, these discourses serve to wrestle quite intensely with the nature of a true revolution and whether the (failed) revolution of 1832 was a heroic or futile endeavor. In the end, Hugo refuses to explicitly answer this question, a move that I found sympathetic to an understanding that revolutions can be both heroic and futile. More on that to come.

The musical, on my reading, eschews this possibility. The cost of the young revolutionaries death is driven home twice, first with the women and wives of the town, second and most poignantly with Marius. At the culmination of his song, Marius dares to utter the lines above, questioning whether his friend’s death was worth anything in the bigger picture.This is a bold move, and as the song ends in applause I believe the novel’s political content has been domesticated.

Domestication is further achieved by the dramatic, ridiculous shortening of Marius and Cosette’s love affair and the universalist quality of the final song, pinioned on the beautiful line “To love another person is to see the face of God.” The inclusion of the Thenardiers at the finale has always bothered me, as if their love of each other and relationship built on scheming is as proper a theophany as the love between Valjean and Fantine. This also levels the playing field for Enjolras and his crew; their salvation comes not from their martyrdom but from their comradery and solidarity.

Yes, I said it: martyrdom. I believe the musical adaptation of Les Miserables collapses the possibility of martyrdom, in effect (and not surprisingly) distancing itself thus even further from the more explicitly Catholic content of the novel. Hugo’s novel is a thoroughly political world, one in which the established powers have ostracized the poor to the point of starvation. Revolution in this world is a desperate attempt to upset the oppressive balance, an attempt which Hugo does not seem to believe is guaranteed success but one whose aims are noble, especially in the realization by young men that their individual lives do not belong to them but to a higher cause, one which may require sacrifice. In the musical adaptation, the social critique is present but blunted, pointed particularly at sexually voracious window shoppers and not so much at the financially wealthy, as we are treated to a ball complete with some degree of social mobility as the Thenardiers pass for a Baron and Baronness. Suddenly, the story is much more palatable to the Western middle class.

Of course, the book has an uneasy relationship to luxury as well, as Marius is rescued from the barricades and taken to recover at the palatial estate of Monsieur Gillenormand, a monarchist. It is here that Marius and Cosette’s love flourishes, ending in their marriage. Valjean, however, self-exiles from high-society, his secret is too hard to bear amongst those who see themselves as more free. The novel ends, however, with an affirmation of Valjean, the true hero of the novel, the social exile. In this way, the novel at least shows more signs of struggling with Marius’ privilege where the musical simply celebrates it, almost as a homecoming.

This I find incredibly troubling. I found the book, like any great artwork, to be arresting and challenging of my own relationship to privilege and poverty as well as my sense of self and what it might be willing to die for. As a pacifist, I was constantly uneasy while reading Les Miserables with the notion of justified revolution. In this way, I began the work more in line with the musical’s conclusion that violence is always tragic and never necessary. I still share this conclusion, but I was struck by what I would now call the novel’s appreciation of martyrdom. The absence of any sense of martyrdom in the musical is a great loss, as I have tried to detail above.

Martyrdom is always and everywhere challenging. In this sense it is prophetic, one makes of oneself a symbol that can energize a culture around a cause. In Les Miserablesthe students are willing to die for the sake of the poor; they stand with the poor and therefore against the government, a position which held brazenly enough will often end in execution. I believe this is also what happened to Jesus. Yes, Christ’s death was an atonement for sins in a spiritual sense, but let us not forget that Jesus was executed by the Jewish authorities because he represented a threat and rebuked their sense of social class and power. Jesus’ life was never free from political overtones; he died like so many early martyrs because he would not bend the knee to earthly powers, he would not (to paraphrase Augustine) become a citizen of any city but the City of God.

Animated by love, Jesus took sides with the oppressed and thereby became an enemy of the oppressor. Jesus was therefore hunted, much like Valjean was hunted by Javert. Christ’s death, though, is more akin to the students death at the barricades than Valjean’s peaceful end. While Jesus did eschew violent revolution, he was a revolutionary none-the-less. He was a revolutionary like the Bishop of Digne, who offered Valjean two silver candlesticks, his most prized possession, to “buy his soul for God.” The Bishop’s hospitality effects a personal revolution, bringing about Valjean’s conversion, and Valjean in turn extends his own love to Cosette and finally to Marius, saving Cosette from poverty and Marius from early death (which in the book is likened to suicide). 

This vision of salvation through love is so inspiring to me. On the surface, the musical preaches the same gospel, but digging deeper I have found that the musical’s conception of love is contentless. It is a Romeo-and-Juliet love, a love at first sight so powerful it almost causes death. In the novel, Marius’ attraction to Cosette is borne over months and while the two young lovers are still a symbol of naivety and purity, their love is not as ridiculous or easily-won as the musical would have it. More powerfully though, in the novel love does not embrace everyone, there is a strong sense that choosing to love one person may make an enemy of someone else. Thus, Valjean’s love of Cosette leads him to continually run from Javert. Thus, Enjolras and the students’ love of the people leads them to fight at the barricades. It is also thus that the Thernardiers are exiled to America by Marius, where they become slave traders. In the final scene of the musical, heaven seems to meet earth and the dead return to lead Valjean to eternal peace. An inspiring sense of good will prevails, however, this last scene (and the musical on the whole) buries the thought that there may actually be evil will in the world. Rather, Javert and the Thernardiers are as much a part of the heavently ensemble as anyone, the whole nation it seems has been united by Valjean’s love. This is anything but truthful, and while the inversion may seem slight I think, in the end, the gospel preached by the musical is that love will always end in peace and unity, perhaps suffering for a time but ultimately reconciliation.

This is simply not true, if it were then Jesus never would have been executed. Think about that. In the end, a part of why I find the story of Les Miserables as told in the novel so powerful is that it is not scared of this challenging truth: true love of others often brings suffering upon ourselves. Sometimes, it even brings death. Am I prepared to die for those I love? More radically, am I prepared to die for those whom Jesus would have me love?

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungoldy. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person–though for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8, NRSV)

We are called not only to love those who love us, but also our enemies. I cannot help but wonder how a true appreciation of this teaching would have changed the reaction of so many to the Worldvision announcement earlier this week. For those of us whose hearts are rent by the backlash and recanting of that announcement, I offer the message of Les Mis: true love of others often brings suffering upon ourselves. This is hard gospel, but it is the gospel to which I belong. It is the way of the cross, imagined so powerfully by Victor Hugo. I only wish that his story, the story of the wretched ones, had not been so co-opted, tamed, and emptied by its most popular rendition. May someone revive it in its full power someday soon.

Even so come, Lord Jesus.

Amen.

 

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