Never once, during all those years, during all those Seders, did I think -- or was it pointed out to me -- that those plagues had human victims, that the sufferers from boils and blood, the ones whose houses filled with frogs and locusts were human beings like myself. Around the Seder table, my parents and my relatives -- deeply kind and compassionate people who would have been appalled to learn that a child was in pain or danger -- never seemed to notice that the Egyptian firstborn had once been living human children. And it simply never crossed my mind that the firstborn whom the angel slaughtered could (except for a few particulars of place and time) just as easily have been me.Big Fish ends with a reconciliation. The son, who for so long had abhorred the father's story, finishes it. He then takes the even more important step and passes it on to the next generation. This story, then, takes on a life of its own and becomes a myth. In effect, although he knew the history, he chose to ignore it and live in the story, as improbable and untrue as it was, because it did carry with it the germ of truth. But think about the lessons of the story for a moment. Yes, it has some wonderful truths, but it carries with it the faults of the myths upon which it was based. The love interest, the wife, takes on the traditional role of the goddess in myth and the damsel in fairy tale. She is there to be wooed and won, but when it's time for another adventure her job is to sit and wait at home. This, after all, is the traditional role of the wife in myth and fairy tale. It's why more traditional branches of the Christian church have such a big problem with feminism in any and all forms, be it the bra-burning feminist stereotype of the women's lib movement, the independent working woman idea that's grown up since then, or even Hillary Clinton running for President. Women are supposed to sit around and wait while the menfolk change the world, after all. Anything else upsets the god-ordained balance of power. It's right there in the Scripture. But what if it's all bullshit? What if the Scripture is just a bunch of fairy tales elevated to the status of eternal truth by the constant repetition of a story that, ultimately, has no more authority than an episode of House? What if, and this is even crazier, that story that's now been elevated to the core of an absolute truth was never supposed to illuminate anything other than a single aspect of life? See, we're all the center of our own life story. Whether it's an individual story or the story of the foundation of a people, the storyteller is really limited. I can only tell my story and guess at the story of another, even if that other is a close friend, relative, or lover. This is where the historian comes in. It's the job of the teller of history to research all sides and try to tell everyone's story. But that, too, is complicated. Historians have only been seen in that role for the last hundred years or so. Before that they generally told the myth. And even at that, humans are lousy witnesses to history. We see what we want to see and can be swayed quite easily by the seduction of a good story, even one that contradicts what we saw with our own eyes. When we reach far enough in to the past, too, we can only find fragments. Religion as we know it today is based largely on things for which there were no direct witnesses, no footnotes, and, at the end of the day, no impartial observers, recorders, or editors. Which, again, is why the historian in me filled in the gaps the storyteller could not. But I'll have to leave that for later.
Monday, June 9, 2008
Is That All It's About, Part 3
You know this year was a blur I think I know you but I'm not sure If I don't know I don't care I only took you home on a dare It's only livin' now It's all I'm given We're only livin' now A quarter to seven Hits me with the bright lights --Local H, "Blur" The movie Big Fish is a beautiful illustration of the point I've been trying to make with this little interlude. If you haven't seen it, I'd recommend going to watch it. Like, now. Seriously, it's an amazing movie and I'm about to spoil it like a steak left on a sidewalk in July. See, Big Fish is a movie about reconciliation and understanding. It's a movie about the stories we tell ourselves about growing up, growing old, and finding love. It's also a movie about the very roots of myth and fairy tale. I don't remember any of the character names, so I'm just going to use the actor's names here. Ewan McGregor's character is the prototypical mythological figure, especially since he historically exists, but is mostly a construct of Albert Finney, the storyteller. He goes through the hero's journey exactly as if Joseph Campbell himself had written the script. Along the way he meets the various stock characters and locales of myth and tames them in the way of the hero. Meanwhile, we have Billy Crudup playing the role of the historian, attempting to chase down the fact behind the myth like a modern-day Schliemann. There are two moments when he encounters the myth and we see behind the story. The first comes when he finds the little town that represents paradise and discovers that the young girl is also the old witch. When Crudup is unable to understand the concept, she gives one of the greatest answers in the history of myth. In his father's world there were exactly two women: his wife and everybody else. In this, too, we understand that his wife is actually the goddess, but I'll get back to that in a moment. The second moment where myth and reality converge is the funeral scene, where we see all of the characters who populated the father's myth and discover that they were, in fact, real. They just weren't quite as, shall we say, super sized as they became. But we can make that inferential leap from the really tall man to the giant and the Asian twins to the two-headed Korean singer. From the storyteller's perspective, then, what lies between the myth and reality is all that matters. At the end of the day, you see, we prefer to live in the story and not the history. The history is messy and full of holes and uninteresting moments while the story is exciting and larger than life. This, for the record, is why you need a story to fight a story. It's why my break from Christianity was fueled by history, but catalyzed by a story. It was a simple story, one that didn't even involve me. I called it the traffic jam analogy. I imagined the sort of Christian I knew a little too well, the one who seemed to believe that most every event of the day was somehow influenced either by god's benevolent or the devil's malevolent influence. This Christian went to work one morning and was delayed by a traffic jam. Because of the delay, however, the Christian ended up parking and walking in to the office with someone who they'd never met and "witnessed" to them (I put the term in quotes because, honestly, "witnessing" means different things to everyone, from being really polite and holding the door open with the understanding by both parties that they know it's because Jesus dwells in the heart and guides the actions to outright telling of the Gospel and all points in between). This Christian then goes to their midweek Bible study and tells everyone that god put that traffic jam in place specifically so they'd make this divine appointment (yeah, that's an actual term I've heard). Now, lest anyone believes I'm painting a particularly naive or self-involved picture of the Christian mindset, I say again that this story would not exist were it not for the fact that I know people like this. It's this mindset that gave this story its power. But that doesn't make any sense until I tell the second half. See, in this same traffic jam there was a man. This man missed an important appointment because of the traffic jam. I have two versions, one in which he's on his way to see an estranged child who grew tired of waiting and left, another in which he is late for work or a meeting and got fired. The line of reasoning then goes that if god created the traffic jam to allow the Christian above to make a divine appointment, then that also means that, whether by design or ineptitude, god also created greater suffering. I told this story to myself not to make fun of the Christian, but to bring to light the self-centered worldview inherent in the system. See, if god is waiting at your beck and call, you actually become a destructive person without realizing it. You become the center of the universe, largely ignorant of the pain and suffering that the very things you hold dear create in the lives of others. Even if the traffic jam Christian's story is primarily about god's love for that person who received the "witness," and even if said traffic jam Christian doesn't know about the suffering of the guy who lost his job/son/whatever, it makes god and that probably well-meaning Christian culpable for the suffering of another. This, then, is the downfall of the Chosen People. We see it writ large in the Bible. God slaughters the firstborn children of Egypt just to tell a great story about bringing the Israelites out of a captivity. But there's a phrase that's often repeated in the book of Exodus: "then god hardened Pharoah's heart." See, there were a bunch of points when Pharaoh was about to release the Israelites. Then god hardened Pharaoh's heart, he didn't, and a plague of locusts was unleashed o'er the land, or boils broke out or a bunch of firstborn children died. It's a horrible macabre story, one that I think Francine Prose handled beautifully in the Exodus chapter of Killing the Buddha: