Today you go into make a modern recording with all this technology. The bass plays first, then the drums come in later, then they track the trumpet and the singer comes in and they ship the tape somewhere. Well, none of the musicians have played together. You can’t play jazz music that way. In order for you to play jazz, you’ve got to listen to them. The music forces you at all times to address what other people are thinking and for you to interact with them with empathy and to deal with the process of working things out. And that’s how our music really could teach what the meaning of American democracy is.
Modern man lives isolated in his artificial environment, not because the artificial is evil as such, but because of his lack of comprehension of the forces which make it work- of the principles which relate his gadgets to the forces of nature, to the universal order. It is not central heating which makes his existence ‘unnatural,’ but his refusal to take an interest in the principles behind it. By being entirely dependent on science, yet closing his mind to it, he leads the life of an urban barbarian.
Public Domain Image via Pixabay
There’s another disadvantage to the use of the flashlight: like many other mechanical gadgets it tends to separate a man from the world around him. If I switch it on my eyes adapt to it and I can see only the small pool of light it makes in front of me; I am isolated. Leaving the flashlight in my pocket where it belongs, I remain a part of the environment I walk through and my vision though limited has no sharp or definite boundary.
–Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
You’re lost in your own world, in the things that happen there, and you’ve locked all the doors. Sometimes I look at you sleeping. I wake up and look at you and I feel closer to you when you’re like that, unguarded, than when you’re awake. When you’re awake you’re like someone with her eyes closed, watching a movie on the inside of your eyelids. I can’t reach you anymore. Once upon a time I could, but not now, and not for a long time.
Isolation heightens our self awareness. Is it what we lack or what we bring with us that frightens us most?
Can you imagine sailing completely around the world alone without ever once putting into port? In 1968, nine men tried. That year the Sunday Times of London sponsored the first ever solo, nonstop, around the world boat race. Prizes were to be awarded to the man who came home first and to the man who made the quickest voyage. Competitors could leave whenever they were ready, but no later than October 31, 1968, a deadline imposed out of fear of storms off Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America. I think most of us would balk at the idea of being holed up alone on a yacht for nine or ten months, on a route that would take us through the extremely tumultuous waters of the south seas, never stopping to stretch our legs or feast our eyes upon land. These fellows made the attempt without the aid of global positioning satellite technology, which was in its infancy, and no one at that time was sure that a boat could make the trip, let alone a human being. It was a highly dangerous pursuit, and almost half left the race before exiting the Atlantic Ocean.
Deep Water, directed by Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell, sheds light on the horrific struggles they faced. It focuses on the tale of Donald Crowhurst, an amateur sailor seeking to prove himself and to win prize money to help his failing business and support his wife and children. Caught between a rash agreement with his patron, a romantic portrait painted by his publicist and his own lack of preparation and fear of disgrace, he suffered a mental breakdown and was the only one of the nine to lose his life while competing in the race.
The three men who actually completed the circumnavigation of the globe had their own difficulties. One would sail on past the turn home, finding himself unwilling and unable to return to civilization, eventually ending his journey in Tahiti and becoming a vagabond of the south seas, leaving his family behind in Europe. Another sank his boat in the mid Atlantic trying to stay ahead of Crowhurst on the return trip and would be found a few years later hanging dead from a tree dressed in woman’s lingerie. Only one man completed the task by returning to England, winning both prizes. Recalling the difficulty of the south sea, which he acknowledges as “a bastard”, that man donated the money he received for the fastest voyage to the family of Donald Crowhurst. His empathy speaks to the torture he experienced in his own isolation upon the deep sea.
Deep Water is a fascinating film that explores the sea’s uncanny ability to intensify the personality and amplify and exploit weaknesses in mind and body. It’s a strong person that can look into that mirror without looking away or going mad.
For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.
–E.E.. Cummings, maggie and milly and molly and may
Video via MovieTime on YouTube.
I limited myself to one shout a day. But I didn’t like the sound of my voice. It sounded panicked, it sounded scared. And I knew from experience you can’t hear more than 50 yards either way down a canyon.
Outsiders inspire fear and enchantment. What does our reaction to those who are different say about us and our beliefs?
Literature and film contain shining examples of outsiders, but I doubt there are many stories in either medium that contain as many outsiders as John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. The most genuine and endearing element of the book is that every single character seems to be experiencing some form of isolation.
Irving has created a fictional town, bleakly named Gravesend, that resembles his hometown of Exeter, New Hampshire. John Wheelwright, our narrator, is the dyslexic stepson of a teacher who will follow in his stepfather’s footsteps, a lonely boy who hungers desperately to know the identity of his biological father. Owen Meany and many of the more sensational parts of the novel are fiction, but the kernel of John Wheelwright as described above is John Irving himself. What is it that Irving needs to say about his experience growing up in small town America that requires the detailed and loving construction of Owen Meany?
In comparison to the secret sufferings of most of the inhabitants of Gravesend, Owen Meany’s difficulties seem far more obvious. He is small in stature and possessed with a shrill, pre-pubescent voice. His father is in the granite business, considered disreputable and dirty, and his mother is a silent invalid who spends her days sitting by the window, staring away from the outside world. By the time we meet them, a secret belief about the nature of Owen and his birth has already impacted their lives.
Owen creates strange feelings in those around him, feelings that have less to do with Owen himself than they have to do with the person reacting to him. His smallness and fragility inspire others to either become protective of him or abuse him, his “unnaturalness” speaks to those inclined to superstition (including his own parents), and his unwavering faith speaks to those who struggle with their own faith. This effect is amplified as his life plays itself out, a life in which he will be responsible for the accidental death of his best friend’s mother and for a heroic deed which he foresaw in his own dreams. Owen gives those around him a nudge toward believing that which they were inclined to believe, but never could embrace. His life is such an authentic one that it polarizes those who come in contact with it.
What is it that Owen stands for? Perhaps that depends on where you stand. He might be the spirit of an American innocence that was lost forever in the Vietnam War, a Christ like figure who took on the sins of others to protect the innocent, or a victim of the cruelty of society, of chance, or of God himself. Perhaps he is just a symbol of Irving’s own childhood, stunted and lost, or a clever tool which allows Irving to explore not only his own painful experiences, but those of the community in which he grew up. When it comes to being polarized by Owen, we are no exception. Whatever attitudes we bring to this stunning piece of literature will be strengthened by it. John Irving does not force his beliefs upon us, but he provides us with Owen Meany, a mirror in which we may find our own faces revealed. What do you see?
How do people survive horrible experiences? In Beloved, Toni Morrison gives an illustration of resilience and how fragile it is.
When good hearted Paul D. appears on Sethe’s porch one day in 1873 neither has any idea how his arrival will shake their lives and their Ohio community. It isn’t that he carries a secret. It is that he is unaware of the truth that everyone else knows. His coming will awaken that truth, opening old wounds that will either heal or kill.
Paul D. and Sethe are both former slaves who escaped from a farm called Sweet Home after it was passed on to relatives of the original owners. Mr. and Mrs. Garner had been atypical slave owners who allowed their slaves to learn to read and write, to carry guns and to speak their own opinions. This left their small group of slaves easy prey to the racism and prejudice of the new owners, who felt obliged to punish them for “privileges” to which they had become accustomed. Paul D. and Sethe are the last alive and are free after years of hardship… at least they appear so.
When Paul D. arrives, Sethe is in a bad situation: she lives alone, isolated from the community, in a house inhabited by her youngest daughter, Denver, a teenager, and the ghost of her dead baby girl, who bumps and stomps around the house. Her mother-in-law is long dead, her husband never made it back from Sweet Home, and her two boys have run away. She and her house reek of death and despair, but Paul D. is drawn to this beautiful woman that he desired so many years ago and he is unwilling to see it. Unspoken truth looms over them, sowing discontent.
In Alabama, where Paul D. was in prison, he was part of a chain gang. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, prisoners were put on the chain for the duration of their sentence. They couldn’t relieve themselves or sleep without being chained to the next man. These men were escaped slaves or captured free men and many were there on trumped up charges, for stealing in order to eat, for assault or killing in self-defense. Through incredible teamwork, Paul D.’s entire unit escaped one night in a heavy rainstorm and were freed by Cherokee Indians who sympathized with the prisoners and removed their chains. He became a free man, although he feels that he doesn’t know how to be one.
Sethe was never chained in the way Paul D. was, although she spent some time in prison. Instead, her chains exist in her mind and are every bit as real as his leg irons. She has withdrawn from everyone who might help her remove them, isolating herself from the world around her and thus verifying and accepting the judgments of her neighbors and of her former captors. She has nourished accusing memories and remained stoic and silent.
Beloved stirs up deep emotions. How much can a human being take? It also encourages us to reach out to each other, to try and understand and help those who have horror in their past. The chains required are chains of love and acceptance, not chains of punishment.