The Road last night. I was on my own in London, and walking home through the dark puddled streets after the late showing, I felt nervous in a way I rarely do in this city. I was gripped by a deep sense of melancholy about human nature, by a feeling of how little trust and communion there is among us, and by a fearful suspicion of my fellow human beings.I went to see
But need it be so, or have our imaginations become infected by a vicious individualism and an evolutionary ethos in which survival of the fittest is the only creed we know and the only value we live by?
Of course not. Every one of us knows that isn't true, if we stop and reflect for just one moment on the nature of our daily lives. Most of us go through our lives in a spirit of trust, not of suspicion and defensiveness, because most of our encounters with others affirm that trust. We remember occasions of betrayal, violence and malice because for most people these are the exception rather than the rule of our lives.
But does all that break down in situations of extreme social or domestic stress? Is it true that human beings revert to a kind of savage despair when things go seriously wrong? My last blog reflected on media representations of Haiti as a place of lawlessness and corruption, whereas the photographs tell a different story of solidarity and shared sorrow. A few years ago, Jewish theologian Melissa Raphael wrote a book on the narratives of women survivors of the Holocaust, The Female Face of God in Auschwitz, in which she argues that these are not marked by the atheist nihilism of many of the male writings which have come to epitomise post-Holocaust reflection on God and the world, but by a sense of the shared presence of God and of mutual dependence on one another in the most extreme imaginable conditions of betrayal and violence. How much of our present ethical and spiritual malaise in our relationships with one another and with nature might be because this capacity to express the co-dependence and care which are present even in extreme situations, has been overriden by a more aggressive and competitive ethos of survival at all costs?
Cormac McCarthy offers us a bleak dyspeptic view of the solitary male individual struggling to survive in a hostile world, and films such as No Country for Old Men and The Road translate these dark parables into visual nightmares which haunt the mind - although The Road has none of the satire of No Country for Old Men. Many have observed that The Road is ultimately a film about redemption, as the unnamed man (harrowingly played by Viggo Mortensen) and his small son (an astonishingly nuanced and sustained performance by Kodi Smit-McPhee), make their way through a landscape devastated by some dimly glimpsed catastrophe which evokes all our well-founded fears for what might lie just ahead, whether the conflagration and ruin are caused by the immediate human activity of nuclear war, or the less immediate but no less human activity of environmental destruction.
Father and son trudge through a sulphurous world without birdsong, vegetation or human kindness, sustaining one another by a boundless love tormented by loss (I am reminded of the photograph of a father and child I posted in my last blog), constantly threatened by the cannibalistic gangs which prowl the charred woods and scenes of urban ruin looking for children to eat. The man has frequent flashbacks to his wife (Charlize Theron) who, unable to bear the fear of the raping mobs, chose to go outside and freeze to death, rather than to eke out survival against such dread and despair.
The son, we learn at the beginning, represents the voice of God for the father, and there is something in the portrayal of the child's unfailing faith in humankind and persistent desire that they should remain 'the good guys', which lifts this film out of its dystopian misery and whispers of grace and love in the ruins - just as those photos of Haiti do. When the father indulges in a searing moment of retribution - Michael K. Williams gives a cameo performance which offers perhaps the most stunning visual moments of the film - the son becomes the voice of conscience and kindness. How far is the film an existentialist parable about life played out in the wilderness of history against the horizon of eternity? The sea is the goal of this film's bleak pilgrimage, and yet there is nothing there but more ruination, not the blue imagined sea of their dreams but an endless grey desolation lapping against the far horizons of time and place, and a journey which must go on with no apparent destination in sight.
I think 'redemption' is too decisive a word for what this film offers. 'Hope' seems to me a more appropriate word. It's my favourite word, 'hope'. It's more realistic and radical than optimism, for it is realized in the very act of experiencing it, whereas optimism must achieve its ends to be legitimated and people can do terrible things to one another in seeking to live out their optimistic ambitions. In other words, optimism is about the future whereas hope is primarily a quality of the here and now. It's hope that lets people love even when redemption may not be at hand - Albert Camus' The Plague and its forerunner in the figure of Dostoyevsky's Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov express what this quality of hope amounts to and what it can achieve, not by pointing to a better tomorrow or a rosy hereafter, but by saying what a difference love can make in the present, never mind what lies ahead tomorrow or at the end of time.
Yes, I left the cinema feeling uneasy, but with an elusive sense of hope too. Can we refocus our gaze so that, when we look at the world, we concentrate not on evidence of trust betrayed and goodness surrendered, but rather on those who sustain trust and goodness against all the odds? The Road is a film about the power of human love and, to coin a phrase, 'the audacity of hope'. The camera lingers with tender sorrow on the vulnerability and trust of the child and the anguished love of the father even as it shows us a human world surrendered to brutality, and that lingering gaze is the vision of hope. If the ruin of the world and our role within it is not inevitable, then we too need to refocus our gaze - and the media could play no small part in this - in order to ask, not why are so many people so bad, but in order to ask what it is that allows some people (many more than we realize) to be so good.
I walked home through the midnight streets of London and I passed ordinary people like me, doing ordinary things. Sometimes, the boys in hoods turn out to be gangsters, but most of the time they are just kids doing what kids do. Most of the time, the man who walks quickly up behind you is simply hurrying home to his wife and kids, not trying to rape you or rob you. (Even so, guys, I wish you wouldn't do that! If you must rush up to overtake a woman on her own late at night, cross the road or at least give her a wide berth).
Saint Paul says that love is greater than faith and hope, but in the end, aren't those words synonymous?
Saturday, 23 January 2010
Tuesday, 19 January 2010
Why are the media so discreet when it comes to publishing graphic images of dead and wounded westerners, and yet offer so little discretion and dignity to those whose suffering we observe from a distance?
In all the harrowing images of Haiti, I found myself dwelling on these few from a website on CNN, because they dwell not on mutilation and death but on compassion and, dare I say it, even a dark and dignified hope that, beyond this immediate senselessness, there is yet love in the world and meaning to be discovered.
Sunday, 17 January 2010
I took part in a study day at the National Gallery yesterday on the Sacred Made Real exhibition. To read a copy of my lecture and see the Powerpoint presentation, go to my website and click on the links.
Wednesday, 13 January 2010
Wednesday, 6 January 2010
Saturday, 2 January 2010
This is the outlook from Fairlie, a village on the Firth of Clyde where my mother lives. The glorious view includes this shipping terminal, built in the 1970s for shipments of iron ore, here silhouetted against the snow-covered island of Arran. It would be easy to rage against this industrial intrusion in a space of such natural magnificence, but it also has a strange kind of beauty. There is a nuclear power station a little further along the coast - Hunterston B. So this is a place on the edge of things, somewhere liminal, perched on the very brink of a wilderness of sea and sky, but still bearing the deep gouge of our human presence. Is this a violation, or is it in some sense also part of the natural environment, an expression of the kind of animal we are perhaps? But if so, how can our species learn to adapt so that others might live? On these bitterly cold winter nights, it seems romantic in the extreme to lament the industries which brings us light and warmth, but surely our human genius can find a better way of doing all this, if only there was the will?
There's another review by Mary Midgley on the same page, of Ian McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Burnside discovered that he had to listen to the voices which played in his mind rather than trying to silence them - 'To ignore the voices is to be chased by them (into the pub, more often than not); to try to forget that he believes in what he calls the afterlife, in which "the dead we once knew ... will go on forever, or some element of them will, folding endlessly into rain and leaves and new animals hunting in the first grey of dawn".' McGilchrist argues that modern culture conditions us to privilege the left side of the brain - the side which is concerned with particularity and practicality - at the expense of the expansive vision and intuitive insights of the right side, so that we have become captive to a dualist vision which has all but destroyed our capacity to see meaning and transcendence in the world. There is surely a deep connection between these two thinkers - the poet and the philosopher, the one learning to live with the voices which speak to him of other worlds, the other analysing what has gone wrong with our culture that we no longer allow such intuitions space in our minds.
I love these serendipitous connections between texts and worlds. I'm reading The Brothers Karamazov, and today I read the chapter on 'Talks and Homilies of the Elder Zosima'. Here is an edited extract of the passage that lingers now in my thoughts:
‘Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love. Love the animals: God gave them the rudiments of thought and an untroubled joy. Do not trouble it, do not torment them, do not take their joy from them, do not go against God’s purpose. Man, do not exalt yourself above the animals: they are sinless, and you, you with your grandeur, fester the earth by your appearance on it, and leave your festering trace behind you – alas, almost every one of us does! ... My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds: it seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world. Let it be madness to ask forgiveness of the birds, still it would be easier for the birds, and for a child, and for any animal near you, if you yourself were more gracious than you are now, if only by a drop, still it would be easier. All is like an ocean, I say to you. Tormented by universal love, you, too, would then start praying to the birds, as if in a sort of ecstasy, and entreat them to forgive you your sin. Cherish this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to people.'
Maybe that will be my New Year's resolution: to ask forgiveness of the birds and to learn to cherish the ecstasy of praying to the birds. That surely is a form of prayer which comes from the right side of the brain, and which requires us to listen to rather than run away from the voices that haunt us.