Monthly Archives: November 2020

Jude the Obscure

Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure is a novel that meant a great deal to my mother when she was pressed to major in education rather than follow her dreams in college – a career school teacher, she has always loved books and adventure, and has always felt cramped in her profession and her role as a single working mother. I finally read the novel for the first time this year, and it helped me find a way to relate to her on her own terms – I never understood her dislike of her job until I saw her life through this lens.

This poem, based on the 33rd Psalm, is addressed to Jude in the voice of various villagers whose “common sense” disapproval of his scholarly ambitions is parochial in the extreme. The picture above is from a screen adaptation entitled Jude, starring Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet.

Sing softly, if in Latin, to the wet heath;
for the tradesman, the least said is befitting.
Recite the Greek and Hebrew under your breath,
with a scholar’s hesitations make your prayers.
Set to your heart new Psalms, but give nothing out,
ply your trade deftly, and keep your soul apart.
For the harsh laws of circumstance are binding,
and we must shoulder each our own in good faith.
Time rewards the unassuming laborer.
virtue’s kindness toward the meek is all you need.
Just so did your maker fashion the heavens,
out of the same providence sprang their array.
The same hand gathers like a barrow deep seas,
and fashions treasure houses of the great reefs.
All the earth fears the one who gave you your lot,
all dwell in his creation, all dread his wroth.
For He need only speak – it will come to be;
as He commanded, even so has it stood.
Long has He thwarted the counsel of nations,
unravelling all the devisings of men.
The Lord’s counsel will always weigh upon us,
it is all we can do, to study His heart.
Happy the village whose people seek the Lord,
whose simple people choose as they are chosen.
From the glittering firmament God looks down,
and He sees every villager among us.
From His exalted throne our Lord can survey
all the human sinners who dwell on the earth.
He fashioned even your heart, your vanities.
He who made one and all understands you well.
No king owes his rescue to his own success,
no warrior escapes death through his own power.
A horse will not save you from your enemies,
his wonderful speed will help no one escape.
Can’t you see? His eye is on those who fear Him,
who yearn only for an easing of their lot,
to postpone death a little while for loved ones,
and in times of famine, for help to provide.
Be sensible, modest, and wait for the Lord.
Be thankful your future is already planned.
For in providence the small man rejoices,
for all we need trust in is His holy name.
Turn in your schoolbooks, and pray for mere kindness,
what more do you yearn for, in all the wide world?

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Filed under Music, Poetry

Boy Erased

Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased deals with the lived experience of homophobia much more explicitly than any other film I’ve ever seen on this subject, treating the layers of hypocrisy and passive-aggressive attitudes toward rape culture that are intimately folded up in “family values politics” with a visceral intensity that eschews cinematic style points for the sake of clarity.

As Edgerton said, this film isn’t intended to stand the test of time with audiences – it’s intended to change the audience, and make itself redundant in a world where conversion therapy is no longer a thing.

Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman deliver superb performances in supporting roles here, but this poem, based on the 32nd Psalm, is in the voice of Edgerton’s character, addressed as a sort of high-minded sales pitch of his services to Russell Crowe’s character, a conservative minister who has been advised by his colleagues in the cloth to subject his only son to conversion therapy, over his wife’s unspoken objections.

Embrace your son, be glad – his sin forgiven,
he is confessed and absolved of all offense.
Who among us has ever been so happy
as to stand before the Lord unspotted, clean
of conscience, and never halting in deceit?
When I withheld, my limbs sagged under the weight
of my unwieldy burdens – no help arrived
when fresh roars of anguish rent my throat all day.
For before I brought my case before the Lord
His hand lay heavy upon my shrinking skin.
My veins convulsed, my heart churned out salt and dust.
At last, I gave my sin a public hearing
and uncovered crimes that touched me to the soul.
I testified to how I had offended,
and God forgave the sin, making me whole.
This love I come to share with you sustains me.
In my daily work I shelter from relapse,
the means of my deliverance surround me.
Let me teach your son, for I have seen first-hand.
A child fights like a young horse, or like a mule,
relying on the harness and the curb, worn
to keep him from rushing after his parents.
Unceasing struggle dominates the wicked,
but he who trusts in God, gentle ease greets him.
Be glad of these trials – be proud as a father,
and hymn with the righteous, like all upright men!

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Filed under Acting, Boy Erased, Directing, False controversies, Poetry

A Beautiful Mind

This poem is an adaptation of the 31st Psalm to describe what was going through John Nash’s mind when he went to greet his wife, Alicia, for the first time since his initial psychiatric admission at a Harvard medical center. The mood is doggedly optimistic, leading up to the moment when she is about to interrupt him to show him that his drop box has never been opened, and all his classified documents are still sealed. Working on this poem, which is based on the 31st Psalm, meant watching A Beautiful Mind again for the first time in a long time. Definitely triggering, but worth it.

John’s pugnacity as a student in this story really inspires me, abrasive and nonconformist though he is. I love the idea of chasing a theory of everything, at all costs. That’s where you want to be, if you go in for higher education – you want to be at the leading edge of discovery, but you want more than just an original idea – you want it to all make sense.

I’ve been reading another pugnacious mathematician’s science writing lately, and her enchanting way of writing about the need to reconcile truth with beauty, measurement with intuition, in the expressions of quantum physics gives the impression that in her own way, she anticipated the work of mathematicians like Nash – even if only by stating the need for the solutions they found, before they had taken up the problems themselves. Her name is Simone Weil – highly recommend anything written by her.

In these, the images of truth, I shelter.
In this language hides my eloquence and pride.
From proportion comes grace, from leverage, freedom.
These governing dynamics speak, they listen.
But time is running short for them to save us.
Stand by me now, more solid than thought – be strong,
for we are under siege – your arms are my fortress.
At your hand alone can I grasp for safety,
and in this, I will need you to be my guide.
Help me escape this trap that they laid for me,
help me, for you are my only stronghold now.
My life’s work, our futures, are safe in your care.
You know me as no one else can – I trust you.
I hate this terrible secrecy, the lies.
But through everything, I trusted in our love.
Let me relax for an instant with you here,
relieved that you came for me, that you can see
what these people are putting me through, the loss.
I know you are not the one who betrayed me,
you can discover a way to get me out.
Help me find the axis of symmetry.
My mind is exhausted and numb from these shocks,
my throat and my belly convulse every time.
I was in despair even before – worn out,
trapped in secrecy, hunted, afraid for us.
I faltered because I had too much to hide,
my body was failing me, broken by nerves.
To my old colleagues, I must seem a disgrace,
the same to our neighbors, a threat to our friends.
Those who see me walking by draw back from me.
They have emptied their hearts of feeling for us,
and I have been drifting, unpiloted, lost.
I heard their whispers, the slander and mocking,
but terror consumed all my thoughts regardless,
so when this conspiracy closed around me,
I knew already they meant to take my life.
Deep in my mind, I build a refuge for facts.
I said to myself, “the truth will set us free.”
Our lives hang in the balance – I can save us
from the secrecy and lies, if you’ll trust me.
Take my hand, and use your genius for magic,
be my rescuer from this insane impasse.
Help me lift my head and show my face again.
Shame is for the double-dealing, wretched spooks
who tried to drag me down with them with death threats.
Somehow I will outmaneuver these liars,
silencing their self-important, unjust slurs
– they treat us with such arrogance and contempt!
Somehow I will justify your faith in me,
that you hid from these, my gaolers, to see me.
You have wrought miracles – keeping me going
under the noses of hostile observers.
Keep your voice low, though – your presence is enough
to rally my strength – they may be listening.
Hide your hopes for our future from my captors
and ignore the slanders heaped on me for this.
We must join our faith in the impossible,
for against all expectation, truth will out
even through the darkest of our night terrors.
A day ago, my racing thoughts misled me:
“I have been banished here because you left me.”
But you must’ve heard when I cried out for help,
pleading my case with anyone, everyone.
Trust me, now, to appeal to a higher law,
a system of probabilities that clinch
the most elusive codes imaginable.
Lend me the strength of your heart, for my hands shake –
ours is a chance no one can spirit away.

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Filed under A Beautiful Mind, Poetry

Navigating with schizoaffective disorder

An intake psychiatrist once tried to tell me that “schizophrenics don’t get depressed.” That surprised me, since I had been in treatment for unipolar depression and schizophrenia for about ten years at the time. It also puzzled me, because I find schizophrenia pretty depressing in its own right, apart from and on top of other things that get me down.

He referred me to a neurologist who offered a differential diagnosis replacing both my psychiatric labels with the much simpler PTSD within the first 15 minutes of our time together. Needless to say, her offer didn’t carry much weight. I already knew I had PTSD, and I had learned the hard way what happens when I go off my antipsychotic and antidepressant for any length of time.

So I switched to a traditional couch-style counselor for a melange of symptoms ranging from breakthrough paranoias to lingering questions about my past. We talked very freely about big ideas in the history of psychiatry and clinical psychology, but when I brought up Freud the conversation went south pretty fast, so I dropped him, too.

Now I rely mostly on self-help books and peer reviewed journal articles for ideas about my mental health. Sometimes I get good leads on an angle from the cinema, too. Mad to Be Normal in particular introduced me to R. D. Laing’s penetrating insights into schizophrenese and the family dynamics of young adults who are on the verge of slipping into catatonic schizophrenia.

Although popularly considered part of the anti-psychiatry movement, Dr. Laing wasn’t against treating schizophrenics – he just found it counterproductive to keep them vegetative 24/7 in inpatient care. He distrusted the drugs that were available in his day because they were such overwhelmingly strong tranquilizers that they left most patients unable to cope with the simplest of interactions, making interventions like talk therapy virtually impossible. He recommended listening attentively to the content of schizophrenics’ delusions, and reading between the lines to decode the drivers of their descent into madness.

Although much has been gained over the years in terms of insight and compassion that has benefited patients, that sense of existential loss that comes with insight into having a mental illness is still a hallmark of patients’ experience with their initial diagnosis. And films like The Soloist, Mad to Be Normal, A Beautiful Mind, and Fathers and Daughters bring some of that anger to the screen in ways that are at once triggering and cathartic for me.

A 19th century social worker and theologian I’ve been reading lately named Bernard Bosanquet warns against succumbing to this kind of anger, popularized in the romance novels of his day, in a lecture series he gave at the University of Edinburgh from 1910-1912:

“There is hardly a morbid romance but founds its pessimism on … what it calls justice – some proportion .. between the given wants and fortunes of man .. the reiterated ‘Why’ – ‘Why should A be at a disadvantage when B is not?’ – and we feel it to be wholly discordant with the temper of stronger souls in whom we delight to recognize the ready welcome of differentiation and the insight that even the call for endurance is an opportunity. Justice as thus demanded is a principle of compensation for being what you are .. [as opposed to] accepting the whole involved in the differentiation, to transcend his apparent limits.”

That’s pretty stern medicine for our day and age. But I like the way he writes about the difference between our gut feelings and our best judgment, and I think that applies here, too: “You cannot anywhere, whether in life or in logic, find rest and salvation by withdrawing from the intercourse and implications of life; no more in the world of individual property and self-maintenance than in the world of international politics and economics; no more in the world of logical apprehension than in that of moral service and religious devotion. Everywhere to possess reality is an arduous task.”

I think it’s natural to get angry when we feel that we have failed ourselves, and mental illness frequently brings that feeling to bear on adults who find themselves falling far short of childhood expectations. When we fail, Bosanquet tells us, we confront the absolute head on. “It is only by the conjunction of what is quite beyond us with what is deep within us that the open secret of the Absolute confronts us in life, in love, and in death.”

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Filed under A Beautiful Mind, False controversies, Fathers and Daughters, Music, Poetry

Ayshe

Quantum of Solace Bond girl and Water Diviner leading lady Olga Kurylenko is now in three movies on my watch list – a drama about peacebuilding work (A Perfect Day), a drama set in the Spanish Civil War (There Be Dragons), and Terry Gilliam’s much-anticipated The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. This short poem, based on the 30th Psalm, is in the voice of her character Ayshe in Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner.

As I would draw from a well, hope drew me up,
just when I had to face my fears, and say “no.”
Rooted in fond memories, hope sustained me.
I wept for hope of better days – faith healed me.
This is what pulled me away from purdah,
a faith in a life that was too full for mourning.
A house should sing back to the garden’s wild birds,
and I have not forgotten those songs, that love.
All of our losses are over in moments,
our lives hurry on, with more pleasure than pain.
In the evening, perhaps you bed down with tears;
and come morning, the sun smiles – all is glad song.
And I, I used to imagine our future,
never missing a beat – no one could stop us.
That hope gave me the stubbornness and the strength
a mountain needs, when I found myself alone.
To this faith in happier days I reach out,
once more gambling on hopes long set aside.
“What would be gained by seeing me walled away,
in thrusting me down to face only the dead?
Can dust acclaim the love I bear my husband,
can this enforced mourning show our son his truth?
I protest, and I reach out in hope of grace.
I pray for our promises for our Orhan.
Out of a dirge, I found a tune to dance to,
laying aside the veil and taking up joy.
Hope fills my heart with constant, restless music –
I will never abstain from giving it voice.

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Filed under Acting, Directing, Music, Poetry, Roll Credits, The Water Diviner

Noah

What was new about the myth of the deluge in this film, for me, was the way it brought home the pathos of Noah’s vision of a world made more perfect by the extinction of humankind, as a husband and father whose sons wish to beget children. This hits close to home, as someone raised by atheists who tend to see humanity as a curse on the planet Earth. It’s a theory that is hard to dismiss in the face of global warming – the theory that our world would be better off without us – meaning ALL of us. Helluva thing for a patriarch to embrace though.

Simone Weil writes beautifully of the tension between justice and Creation in her essay on classical science, written at Marseilles in 1941:

“Our simplest actions are ruled by a necessity which, when we relate it to all things, presents the idea of a world so totally indifferent to our desires that we feel how very nearly nothing we are. By conceiving ourselves, if one may so express it, from the point of view of the world, we attain to that indifference about ourselves without which there is no deliverance from desire, hope, fear, and becoming, without which there is no virtue or wisdom, without which one lives in a dream. .. [classical science] tries to read behind all appearances that inexorable necessity which makes the world a place in which we do not count, a place of work, a place indifferent to desire, to aspirations, and to the good. The sun which it takes for an object of study shines indifferently upon the just and the unjust. … [but while] it is true that the matter which constitutes the world is a tissue of blind necessities, absolutely indifferent to our desires [and] spiritual aspirations .. if there has ever been real sanctity in the world then in a sense sanctity is something of which matter is capable; since nothing exists except matter and what is inscribed in it .. We are ruled by a double law: an obvious indifference and a mysterious complicity, as regards the good, on the part of the matter which composes the world; it is because it reminds us of this double law that the spectacle of beauty pierces the heart.”

I also love how, instead of reifying the tribalistic post-hoc analyses of why the children of Ham were “not-us” and disinherited, the film shows how totally human and at the same time utterly unexpected Noah’s reaction was when Ham walked in on him in the nude.

Simone Weil has some intriguing ideas about a lost prophecy of Ham that I’d like to track down, somewhere in her essay Waiting on God. She mentions this in a fragment on Greek philosophy:

“Concerning this Pherecydes there is an extraordinary text of Clement of Alexandria, which is a strange confirmation of my hypothesis about the sons of Noah and also throws a singular light – which could be used in propaganda – upon the origin of Yggdrasil of the nordic mythologies: ‘Pherecydes the Syrian has said: ‘Zeus made a large and beautiful cloth and embroidered on it the Earth and the Ocean and the dwellings of the Ocean’ … Isidorus [a contemporary gnostic] .. taught what are the winged oak and the embroidered cloth that hangs on it, allegories which Pherecydes included in his theology and whose basis he borrowed from the prophecy of Ham.’ ”

This poem, in which Noah speaks to and prays for his family, is based on the 29th Psalm. It is situated before the end of the deluge, and thus before Noah’s escapade of skinnydipping in Iceland, and all that follows from that.

Grant only to God, my sons, glory and strength,
grant to the children of God no such conceit.
Acknowledge our maker, grant His name’s glory.
Humble yourselves before His perilous might.
Listen – His voice rises over the rivers.
Our Creator bore witness – now, he thunders.
God is unfurling all the mighty waters.
Can you not hear the Lord’s voice, in His anger?
Can you not feel the Lord’s awful majesty?
The Lord’s voice tearing out cedars by the roots?
His voice shattering proud Lebanon cedars?
He makes Lebanon’s mountains dance like a fawn,
Syria’s valleys toss like a young wild foal.
The Lord’s voice hewed my doubts in portents with flames.
Can you not hear Him make the wilderness shake?
The Lord’s voice makes the near wilderness tremble.
Who but the Lord brings on the birth pangs of does
and lays waste the mountain forests in a flood?
His glory says all, the world in ruin waits.
Our God was enthroned in this monstrosity
and by this flood, His will be done, for all time.
May the Lord give strength to our sons; forgive them.
May He look on their ways kindly when they err.

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Filed under False controversies, Noah, Poetry

Maximus

One of my favorite scenes in Gladiator is also one of the simplest, quietest moments in the story. The night after his fateful conversation about the succession with the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Maximus says a brief prayer for his family.

That this is a daily ritual is acknowledged by his manservant Cicero in the moment of silence he allows as he douses the lamps. Then Cicero exchanges a few laconic words of advice with the troubled General before he, too, goes to bed.

This poem, based on the 28th Psalm, is inspired by that scene, but it unfolds as though Maximus had spoken to Cicero and resolved himself to fulfill the Emperor’s wishes before making his prayer, rather than after.

To you, ancestors, and to the gods, I pray.
My senses warn me – do not be deaf to me.
Lest you answer my prayers in silence gone cold
and I number with those gone back to the dust.
Hear me, kneeling before you, uninstructed
when I call up your examples before me,
when I lower the oil lamps and raise my lips
to my family’s effigies on your altar.
Do not pull me down like a despot at bay,
and number me with the worst of the Caesars,
whose oaths to the state were empty flattery
from men whose vices met no natural limits.
Deal evenly with the corrupt – repay them
only as their schemes to cheat the state deserve.
Give back in kind nothing but their handiwork.
Their dues will be repaid with meager justice.
For they have not shared in the dream that was Rome
and her future they would sell short, not strengthen.
Ancestors, I honor you facing this trial,
for your wisdom and courage go before me.
Gods, grant me fortitude. Guard my family.
In this long absence, their care I ask of you.
As you have long watched our footsteps, my heart smiles
when I seek out your guidance and protection.
The laws of Rome are the light of this wide world
and their imprint on us, the refuge of grace.
Ancestors, gods of my people, bring back Rome
to her estate – free her of this decadence.
Tend to her people, bear them up for all time.

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Filed under Gladiator, Poetry