GUS VAN SANT’S “ELEPHANT”
Rented “Elephant” last night and watched it. It was on my list of “to sees”. I recommend it for the same reason I recommend many movies of that type: they don’t depend on plot. “Plotted” fiction distorts reality. Life doesn’t have a plot. Life is a series of happenings around about which the mighty left brain, always trying to make sense of sensory input, casts a net of meaning where there is no meaning.
The left brain imagines a god and then makes a meaning out of religious life and forces a religious interpretation onto the activities of the happening world. The left brain imagines a philosophy called “existentialism” and feels it everywhere in its mental landscape of firing synapses which it, then, projects onto the stuff “out there”, beyond the cranium. I’d say, projecting my own reality, that “Elephant” uses a nonsensical Universe as the basis of its meaning. Nothing is explained in the movie, no meaning projected onto the happenings. You get a series of unexplained activities from beginning to end. The “why” is left out, the left brain given no encouragement to “figure things out”, but, of course it does its work, and I ramble on about “absence of structure”.
When I was a kid, during the double feature era, and watched eight movies on some weekends, I took in so many plot-directed films that I truly did believe that life itself had denouements. I imagined that if I just said the right words at the right time, I could alter a conclusion or change a situation. I thought life had BIG moments that changed circumstances for ever if one could just find that moment and act on it. I believed that the structure I was forcing on the happening Universe was the true structure.
Unfortunately, that’s not how life works. Reality keeps happening while we try to manipulate it and others to our own purposes. All that a belief in plot-driven life leads to is to those kinds of persons like myself who become wheedlers and manipulators, always trying to make life and people come out as we want them to. Gosh, could our and Islam’s fundamentalists use a healthy dose of the reality which underlies Van Sant’s movies! They’d maybe learn to let go and let be. Peace would fall on earth like a stone. We wouldn’t know what to do or how to feel. We’d be struck dumb....
But that’s just my left brain practicing wishful thinking.
PAST MANIPULATORS AND AN AMERICAN LOYALTY OATH
In 1964, I was awarded a teaching assistantship at Southern Illinois University. Upon arrival, I was surprised to find I had to sign a loyalty oath in order to get the assistantship and enter the graduate program. In Illinois, McCarthyism was still alive, and they would not offer government employment to people suspected of being harmful to America. I was furious as I scribbled my name illegibly on the dotted line.
Today, as I watch fundamentalist Christians, Muslims and Jews cause trouble all over the globe and endanger America, I’m not so sure that we shouldn’t revive loyalty oaths. In Marietta, Georgia, for example, a fundamentalist school board has decided to undermine the Constitution of the United States and to teach Creationism for which there is no evidence (Adam and Eve, etcetera) even though we all know that Creationism is a Christian interpretation of human evolution. Furthermore, fundamentalist President Bush constantly pushes his religion on all of us.
To protect American freedoms, our new loyalty oath ought to ask job applicants if they are Americans first or a—fill in your religion—first. If candidates can’t vow they are Americans first, they should not be allowed to hold government jobs. Anyone who can’t put the Constitution above their religion is attacking the heart of America as surely as someone who flies a plane into an American building. The Constitution is all that guarantees our freedoms. It’s an oath no true American should have any trouble with, and it doesn’t discriminate against any one religion but rewards everyone who swears loyalty to the Constitution. If America should have a Bible, it should be the Constitution which is an unmistakably secular document.
PAGLIA DOESN’T [DIDN’T] GO FAR ENOUGH
Paglia writes, “[Shakespeare’s] ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’ demonstrates that life cannot be lived as a series of perpetual self-transformations without violating social and ethical principles. My generation learned this the hard way, going down in sexual disease and drug overdoses.” (p. 227, Sexual Personae)
Her interpretation of “Anthony and Cleopatra” aside, I don’t know why Camille would say that. I was a teen ten years before her hippy generation but adopted the hippy life when it came my way, cast off a wife, children and traditional marriage, sank into alcoholism and suffering, came into existentialism and lived that for awhile, then moved on into the 21st Century and science and did not die back to the conservative youth I was. I found true freedom in atheism and cast off Paglia’s conservative Apollonian line for a better reality which lives neither in Apollonian rigidity nor in Dionysian disintegration. She may think she has found a way out, but she didn’t go far enough if she has returned to those worn out conundrums of Dionysus and Apollo, outworn images of the human animal’s religious past brought back over and over and reinterpreted ad nauseam. Perhaps she didn’t experience debauchery deeply enough to get through to the other side. Perhaps she didn’t even try to throw off the shackles of Puritan America. Of course, I haven’t finished her book yet—it’s slow reading. Maybe she’ll win through yet. I begin with Chapter Eight when next I hold Paglia’s body* in my hands.
“One must have a heart of stone not to read the death of [Charles Dicken’s] Little Nell without laughing.” —Oscar Wilde