Saturday, August 22, 2009

Concerning my mental diet…

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been reading and viewing a lot of books and movies. One book I read yesterday, in classic, truly "unputdownable" fashion, was William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist (1971). Wow, it was just so well written (except, I admit, for the cardboard cutout-like persona of Christ MacNeil, the mother of little Regan). It is certainly one of the best horrors I've ever read, and I had already seen the movie, so even "knowing what was coming" didn't help. I would also like to say it's one of the most sophisticated pieces of religious writing I've encountered. Let me post a few quotations from the book (New York: Harper Fiction, 1994), which I found most memorable:

Perhaps he [i.e., Fr. Damien Karras's Provincial] understood that faith was finally a matter of love. (p. 55)


Fr. Merrin: "…I think the demon's target is not the possessed; it us…the observers…. I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity, Damien: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy. And there lies the heart of it, perhaps; in unworthiness. For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it finally is a matter of love; of accepting the possibility that God could love us." (pp. 351–352)

Fr. Merrin: "…the love which He asked was in my will and not meant to be felt as emotion at all. Not at all. He was asking that I act with love; that I do unto others; and that I should do it unto those that repelled me, I believe, was a greater act of love than any other. … How many husbands and wives… must believe that they have fallen out of love because their hearts no longer race at the sight of their beloveds. Ah, dear God!" (p. 352)

Fr. Dyer: "…if all of the evil in the world makes you think that there might be a devil, then how do you account for all the good in the world?" (p. 382)

An equally impressive work for me was Blindness (2009), which I watched this evening. I am quite surprised at how harshly this film has been criticized by both critics and viewers (check out Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB, respectively, to see what I mean). I found it visually engrossing, philosophically weighty, and, ultimately, extremely touching.

The film begins with a man in his car suddenly going blind while at a stop light. Another man passing by helps him to get home, but within hours, handfuls, and then scores, of other people are suffering the same spontaneous blindness: a pure, blinding whiteness without any medical explanation. The protagonists of Blindness are an apparently ill-at-ease, but basically civil, married couple, played by Mark Ruffalo as an ophthalmologist who soon succumbs to the blindness and Julianne Moore as his wife, whose vision seems indefinitely immune to the blindness. Soon, they and other blind patients are hustled away by the government for quarantine in an old mental hospital. In Ward 1, Mark Ruffalo's character and his wife assume leadership, as he becomes a fatherly voice of reason and she is (literally) an unseen guiding hand. After not too long, however, the residents of Ward 3 start asserting thuggish and dictatorial pressure on the other two wards. This leads to a savage second-act climax, which then transitions into the film's final act.

A viewer of Blindness must realize it is an allegory, a very gritty fairy tale, and therefore he or she needs to suspend a certain amount of disbelief in order to meditate on the themes and concepts being unfurled and explored minute by minute onscreen. At first I assumed Blindness would be a straightforward political allegory, somewhat like Orwell's Animal Farm, and I admit it has its moments of heavy-handed "narration" and symbolism. But again, it is an allegory in the tradition of "magical realism," so I felt the director, Fernando Meirelles, was well within his rights for employing deep symbols and motifs in order to draw the reader to a very meditative viewing. Certainly, many of the characters are stereotypes––indeed, no character is ever named––but this, once more, aids in our reflection on just what roles we can and do "play" in society. By the second half of the film, the themes extend beyond mere political allegory and enter into a realm of epic spiritual and anthropological considerations.

What I found most touching about the film was how it ended on a note of transcendent hope, a hope as mysterious and "preposterous" as the affliction which sets the film in motion. Blindness is a fairy tale about faith, love, and hope (in that order). I find it strange that many viewers felt Blindness was crushingly pessimistic and depressing, even absurd, since, for me, hope, light, and the joy of sacramental redemption are its dominant themes. In the mental institution, Blindness depicts how, given human nature, the feeble attempts to create "institutional" order nearly always succumb to the primal drives of our lower natures. Only when these drives are opposed by a life-giving act of innocent death can there be any foundation for the good. The good of social order, in other words, cannot stand unless its foundations are first struck deep within the earth, no less than in the depths of a tomb. Along similar lines, Blindness makes an interesting nod in the direction of "just war theory," by suggesting that the good, by virtue of its intrinsic vitality, is, in some cases, not only entitled to defend itself with force, but perhaps required to do so boldly, prophetically, without kid gloves.

In any case, the film's message of hope shone most brightly in two scenes. In the first scene of hope, a handful of the blind are celebrating a kind of family dinner together in the dark, even as the world crumbles outside. The symbolism of wine, bread, blessing, communion, and koinonia are hard to miss. This little meal nearly brought me to tears, but it was not until the second scene of hope that my floodgates really opened.

The second scene, about which I must be discreet, so as not to spoil the film for possible viewers, concerns a startling change in one of the victim's plight. Is there a cure for the blindness, after all? As the narrator (voiced by Danny Glover's character) notes, while they feel joy for the blessing one among them enjoys, their celebration "was not entirely selfless," since, if one of them can possibly work towards a cure, perhaps they all can. That just broke me. Completely caught me off guard. Despite myself, I just began weeping. Hard. I was even doing exercise while watching the film, so I wasn't in any particularly sensitive or sad mood. But I guess the second scene resonated so strongly with a situation in my life that I couldn't help but feel myself in the secne. (Indeed, much of this scene is shot from the perspective of the blessed blind man, so we "see" the world in his eyes.)

For the sake of respecting confidentiality, I can't be too explicit, but let me just say that my best friend in the world is going through a kind of blindness of his/her own right now. It is a spiritual blindness, an all-consuming emotional confusion and paralyzing semi-despair, that I know all too well myself. I was touched by the second scene, because the blessed man surely must have felt conflicted to rejoice in his improvement while his companions still suffered in total blindness. That's how I feel towards my friend: I want to encourage him/her with my own testimony of overcoming despair, but also don't want to "rub it in his/her face" while he/she continues to bear the burden. Just as a sighted person cannot "make" a blind person see what he sees, neither can I make my great friend "feel" the happiness I know after I emerged from my own depressing blindness. Just as there is no way for a sighted friend to "reach into" a blind person's world and "make" him/her see the brilliance of the world, neither is there any way for me to "enter into" my friend's gloomy world right now and "convince" him/her that life is, indeed, beautiful. As I know all too well––and as my friend is now experiencing––for the hopeless, hope itself can be a burden, can look like a threat. Every bleeds, everybody hurts, and, as I have learned from my many accidents and injuries and surgeries, sometimes the only thing worse than the pain of the injury itself, is the pain of moving with it to seek help and the pain after surgery. Paradoxically, healing hurts! (That was something of the point of this post a few months ago.)

Again, the reason I wept as deeply as I did towards the end of Blindness, is because I felt like the character who had come through the darkness and was now plagued by a new, bittersweet burden: the burden of at once encouraging his erstwhile fellow blind companions with his new sight and discouraging them with the "taunt" of incredible hope, since perhaps his blessing was only his blessing, and they dare not face the "threat" of resurrected joy. How do you cheer up a friend who cannot see your smile? How do you accompany someone who cannot really hear your voice as a reliable guide back towards joy, since your voice and other cheerful sounds are drowned out by the hissing of confusion within? How do you enter a place of danger when the one you want to help orders you to stay out, lest your added weight and motion cause the whole cave to crumble around them? How do you accompany and encourage someone who is trapped in his or her own world? I honestly don't know. But it is what I pray for: that my dear friend, and anyone else suffering a similar malady of semi-despair and emotional exhaustion, can hold on by faith––guided by the distant echo of love from a time and a world seemingly long past and irretrievably gone––and can at some point reach out in hope for a hand which can only be offered but not forced. After all, to the blind, a helping hand extended too forcefully or suddenly feels like a surprise punch.

Hence, perhaps the only help that a former blind man like myself can offer to the now-blind, is to step back and simply "be there" for when the blind him-/herself dares to walk forward in hope. Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, but Lazarus still had to walk out on his own two legs. Jesus did not go into the tomb to pull Lazarus out, as if he were still a powerless corpse. Rather, Christ spoke a word of love and life into the tomb from outside the, and then left it up to Lazarus himself to emerge from his own darkness to new life and light. Indeed, had Christ gone into the tomb with Lazarus, Lazarus might have assumed he should stay in the tomb with Christ! Yet, paradoxically, by keeping His distance, Christ gave Lazarus a goal towards which he could walk in freedom. The more Christ or His disciples might have tugged on Lazarus to "hurry" him into new life, the more Lazarus would have felt like a passive corpse. I hope I can do the same for my dear friend, and for others who are tempted to take up residence in the tomb of isolated darkness: not tug or force, but simply "be" as a beacon of hope, and as one who has survived similar scars. Indeed, my smile––any smile––is but a scar carved by joy.

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