Category Archives: Books

Temptations of snow…

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We all need to hear or read a simple story sometimes. I increasingly enjoy going back to stories written for children – but fundamentally they’re written for humans, so that gives me the permission, as I am one of those (or trying to be).

I enjoyed The Snow Queen (written 1845) as a child because it was sparkly, pretty, exciting and mysterious. I saw it again recently as an adult, with an eight year old friend – it was slightly less sparkly, fairly earthy rather than pretty, but just as exciting and mysterious.

I would say that’s rather like growing up – life develops rough edges, becomes less pretty and more complex, and its challenges remain.

The story is itself exactly like this too. It is about two best friends, a boy called Kay and a girl called Gerda.  They live with their grandmother and play amongst the flowers each day.  All is innocent and happy.  They sing the song ‘Roses bloom and cease to be, But we shall the Christ-child see.’

There is in existence, however, a mirror (created by a Hobgoblin years before), which unfortunately has the nasty skill of distorting the truth – everything that is beautiful is reduced to nothing, and everything that is evil is magnified. A person looking in the mirror sees the worst side of everything.  A confusing state of affairs you might say.  Most awful of all – the mirror has become broken and shattered into millions of pieces of glass all over the earth.  Instead of one dangerous mirror, we have its powers multiplied – infecting everything.

Time passes, the children grow a little, and a tiny piece of the mirror makes its way into Kay’s eye and heart. Disaster – particularly as once it is in there, he cannot feel it.  He is immune to its corruption and it becomes his ‘normal’. He soon finds himself under the spell of the Snow Queen (who happens to be around in the area) and who is a control freak, to say the least.  She seems protective and caring, but only wishes to trap him from being his true self and living an authentic life.  He is taken away by her and is to serve her only.

snow queen le cain

So not only can he not see anything rightly or justly, but he loses his identity, sense of self and is manipulated by the Snow Queen. He forgets his past and his content life with Gerda, and has even told Gerda she is ugly when she cries.  He prefers the cold-hearted Snow Queen who never cries (probably because she was told when she was a child it was the wrong thing to do).  You could say this is an existential crisis.  Kay tries to pray, but forgets how to.

Gerda has a difficult journey to rescue him. She is alone and scared, but finds people and creatures in the forest to help her along the way.  She also prays while she is travelling.  I’d say she was better placed than Kay to survive – however hard life gets, she knows who she is and has some friends – who like her for who she is.

After much adventure, Gerda reaches the Snow Queen’s palace, finds Kay, and bursts into tears of joy. Her tears save the day – and quite literally the life and soul of Kay, as they fall on him, and melt the glass in his heart.  He in turn ‘feels’ again, hence cries also – his own tears pushing out the piece of glass in his eye so that he recognises his friend.

I always get slightly choked up at this point in the story. The children in the audience are usually just happy and relieved that Kay and Gerda are best mates again, but for me it is the journey of suffering and forgiveness being the most profound forces for change in a person’s life.  Kay’s personhood is redeemed by the warmth and honesty of Gerda’s tears.  He doesn’t recognise her but she recognises him for his true worth, and that is what transforms him.  The tears that repelled him are now the very tears that restore his true humanity.

‘And the moral of the story is…’ – well, there could be many on an individual and world level. Six come to mind: usually the people who trap us or don’t encourage us to flourish are themselves trapped.  Loving someone and not giving up on them is the catalyst for them to love themselves, (and is the foundation of the Christian faith).  Be mindful of which eyes you see the world with – the eyes of judgement or the eyes of empathy.  The journey of life may seem insurmountable but support comes from unlikely places and the kindness of strangers has great benefit – Gerda took a risk by giving out her true self in the forest, and offered kindness along the way – in turn she got kindness back and gained respect.  People become powerful but it doesn’t mean they are the right people to give power to.  The corrupted mirror gave enhanced visibility to the wrong people, while diminishing other people and emotions who should not have been.  Many things in life are transient – some things are not and are worth holding to – hence the line they sing about roses and the Christ-child.

Kay is impressed by the Snow Queen’s wealth and beauty yet in the midst of that he forgets who he is, and the things that used to make him happy, including prayer. Gerda on the other hand, is able to hold on to who she is and doesn’t give up on the more humble, less materialistic aspects of life, and ultimately reaches her destination saving her friend from a terrible existence.

At the end of the story when the children are back with their grandmother, Hans Christian Andersen has the grandmother speak a line from Matthew 18 verse 3 ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ When we think of the qualities of a child – spontaneous, open, and most of all not scared to be who they naturally are – these are also the sturdy qualities we can lead life with.  Kay’s journey could be seen as a coming of age tale – he becomes immersed in a complex world and chooses to grow up too quickly gathering the baggage and corruption of adulthood, and the person he was is forgotten.  So that line in the bible taken more broadly is about asking us to accept who we are – and go to God, our family and friends, as ourselves – nothing more.  It’s a hard thing to do, because it’s hard to recognise that strength of character in fact comes in being vulnerable.

It’s also at the heart of the Christmas message when in Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone’ – and amongst this we wonder what we have to give to a world which is still just as hard, hostile and seemingly impenetrable. But Gerda’s tears melted something bigger and more powerful than her.  Even if we are laden with wealth and material luck, none of that will make any difference if it’s not given with the gift of love and authenticity – and by far the most important are the latter two.

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A Way of Seeing

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I often wonder if people who don’t enjoy culture or do not feel drawn to any kind of artistic endeavour, are missing out on a way of seeing the world.  The poet Coleridge said of imagination – that it is the unconscious, primordial power of the soul and that knowledge is wedded to feeling.  So this would indicate that for knowledge to be accurate, it must have a relationship to feeling, to emotion – even to the irrational.  He also said that imagination allows us to see reality as a whole.  Parts are seen as a whole through the creative imagination; art is not a skill – it is the imaginative work of the soul.  Art is a certain kind of seeing – the inner eye’s fusion of the external and internal.

Coleridge

Freud went so far as to say that the discontent of the world is due to the lack of connection between the inner and the outer.

So what of the person making the art – singing the song, playing the instrument, writing the music/song, painting the picture, dancing the dance, writing the poem or book, or acting the character?  Coleridge said that a poet can be known by how he/she makes the reader express their emotions. The artist does not know what they’re expressing until it is expressed – hence it is unconscious.  Mentality cannot be strictly identified with consciousnes itself – e.g a musician is not completely aware/conscious of what or how well they’re playing.  They have a mentality of it but are not 100% conscious of it.

So having said all this, we are pointed to the concept that imagination clarifies and makes aspects of life clearer; in the act of elaboration, ironically we see more clearly.

I leave you with two quotes; one from a composer of great music – Sergei Rachmaninov – who says that his need to create music is linked with his reaction to it after it is created.  Both are efforts to create something good and beautiful through which the rest of life can be carried –

‘I always feel that my own music and my reactions to all music, remained spiritually the same, unendingly obedient in trying to create beauty.’

Life is lived forwards but understood backwards and we often need tools – such as the arts and imagination – to understand it.  In the book ‘The Other Side of You’ by Salley Vickers, one of the characters says ‘how little of another person’s reality is visible to us.  We see their form, their features, their shifts of expression, but all that constitutes their sense of self remains unseen.  And yet this invisible self is what to the individual constitutes their real identity.’

Vickers

Imagination is like a window which allows us to see others more clearly, as we use imagination to interpret the arts which are about people.  Film and Theatre Director Rufus Norris says in relation to his film ‘Broken’ – acting is the business of humanity.  The arts are more informative than we give them credit for and far more than simply fantastical.

Broken

The universality of Les Miserables

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I’d been excited about the transfer of Les Miserables from book to stage, and now to film for a while.  I’ve now seen the film and it is the best film I’ve ever seen.  I was so pleased that the reality of the characters and life at the time rang true – it was much more raw and disturbing than I’d expected, and, surprisingly untheatrical.  The characters bring a truth through song that has not been witnessed before – they are not ‘performing’ – they are living with the reality of the story.

I always thought that the reason why Les Miserables has done so well in the world theatres during its 28 year run is because the story addresses emotions and questions that ‘everyman’ asks at some point.  It is set against a severe background of poverty; scenes of which have not gone away in many countries, but even if the poverty aspect was removed, the characters are still like us in their search for forgiveness, purpose, love, recognition and peace.

I could not fault the casting in the film – none of them were sensational – all of them had the vitality and earnestness that was needed for us to relate to the characters.  The character of Javert (the police inspector on the trail of Valjean all his life) is the ambiguous character in the story – Javert believes he knows right from wrong but Valjean is a man who rocks Javert’s boat of once steadfast morals.  Russell Crowe plays Javert with heartbreaking sensitivity who in the end cannot face the fact that his version of goodness has been turned on its head by one who he thought was ‘bad’.  Crowe does brilliantly at showing how Javert grows in doubt:

Javert

and the way he sings throughout also matches his outward aim of rightness and smartness but inwardly those defiinitions are challenged.  His voice has a pure, clear tone to it and he struggles not with reaching the high notes in ‘Stars’ – as his character does not struggle in condemning Valjean – until Valjean challenges Javert’s moral position.  There is a beautiful moment in the film between Gavroche and Javert when the line between rich/poor, old/young and experience/inexperience is crossed.  Crowe’s face says it all at that point.

Gavroche

Gavroche, above, captures the innocence and courage of childhood, matched by the leadership and fight for equality by Enjolras, the amazing student leader (Aaron Tweit):

Enjolras

The characters bounce off each other as much on set as off.  The issues that connect the characters are the same issues that connect the actors and audience.  The character who you could say comes off worst is Eponine, played with great understanding by Samantha Barks.

Eponine

Her loyalty to Marius is known only to her and she is a catalyst to Valjean becoming aware of Cosette’s love for Marius.  I’ve mentioned Valjean but not the actor who plays him – Hugh Jackman is astounding and allows the audience to see his soul.

Valjean

The gift of singing in the film also allows us to see and hear everything and more about the characters.  It is as much about ‘how’ they say something (in song) as ‘what’ they say.  What they say is so profound that the genre of song allows the audience to absorb and think about what they say much better than if it was simply said.  Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine (above in the pink dress in the picture) would not be as real if it was said.  Her song allows her to go the extra mile.  Tom Hooper has done a magnificent job in directing this film.

One of the most moving moments for fans of Les Miserables like me who’ve known the musical since the beginning, is seeing Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop of Digne.  Wilkinson was the original Valjean when the stage musical opened at the Barbican, London, and seeing him return as the Bishop – the character who gives Valjean his life back, is layered with meaning.  From one Valjean to another.  From one generation to another has Victor Hugo’s story lived.  And, if viewers think Wilkinson as the Bishop is meaningful, wait until you get to the end of the film and the weight of the story’s meaning, and the actors who’ve made it live for us, is a revelation.

Valjean (Jackman) sits with the Bishop (Wilkinson) and the famous candlesticks

Valjean (Jackman) sits with the Bishop (Wilkinson) and the famous candlesticks

The Significance of ‘The Snowman’

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I love the Christmas animation, The Snowman, by Raymond Briggs.  I think it is a family event for some families; the kind of event which encourages people to sit together and watch at home, especially if there are children around on Christmas Day.

As a child, I loved it because of its magic.  Wow!…this snowman came to life and flew with the boy who built it.  Maybe this could happen to me if I build one.

flying snowman

As an adult, I love it because it holds memories of how easy it was to be transfixed by make-believe as a child – the memory is sad because life has taken over since and reality, which I find increasingly hard,  is not something we can run away from.  And if we do have the chance to run away for a brief moment, we are reminded that happy moments don’t last forever.  As with the snowman, he melts.

melts

But I do love it also because it does present that moment we have either within imagination or within real life, to escape – and learn from it – or even be changed forever by it.  The boy invites the snowman into his life to share some part of his human life:

Xmas lights

The snowman finds a motorbike – a novelty of the human world –

bike

and uses it to share some of ‘snowman world’ with the boy, when on their flight they drop in on a snowman party –

party

I guess again, I am making the point for good entertainment having a point to real life – since much of the time it is about real life.  The Snowman is about the need to imagine.  In the real world, imagining opens us to other worlds and other poeple.  In the case of this story, both snowman and human are able to live in each others’ worlds for a little.  There is always a risk when we open our minds – but most of the time it is because good moments are had, and good moments don’t always last – but the memory does and the morals learnt are not forgotten.  The risk is that we will be sad to lose something we love, but we will be likely better off for the experience.

cuddle snowman

The Script Within Us

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We write a script for ourselves that sits within us – we probably don’t know we do, and we often use the wrong words or write the wrong story.  There’s an internal monologue in our heads that narrates our lives.  Are we always our most honest narrators?

It’s why art forms which use no words are necessary and valuable.  Matthew Bourne, known for his radical reworking of classic ballet, says dance is telling a story without words.  His new project, Sleeping Beauty, has been turned into a gothic romance where Tchaikovsky meets Twilight.

Sleeping Beauty

In many ways, non-spoken arts forms offer us a more neutral commentary on our lives.  Our lives are so full of words (which are not always truthful) – our own and other people’s, they crowd our heads.  Images, dance, puppetry, leave things open.  Bourne says ‘if you’re telling stories, it’s important not everyone looks the same.  I’m drawn to people who can act, who are “searchers”.’

We can look at a piece of dance, and it will communicate something different to each person, whilst letting us escape ourselves for a bit for ‘time out’ but at the same time, ‘time in’ to focus on other truths which we might not have considered.  The novelist Barbara Kingsolver says ‘It’s about how people can look at the same set of facts and come away believing different things.’

If you think about it, this comment applies to other areas in life as well as the arts – apply it to religion, love, people, the world…remember the ‘duck rabbit’ – which is it, and how do you know?

 

The Spirituality of Rabbits

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My friend has a pet rabbit whom she loves dearly.  They have a connection and gain much from each other.  It is unspoken on the part of the rabbit but he brings a stillness and peace to her life because he just ‘is’.  It is not surprising though that animals have this benefit for humans – not everything in this world has to be articulated to be meaningful.

I am increasingly interested in the use of rabbits in particular to articulate meaning in human lives.  The ‘Duck-Rabbit’ is an image used to express Wittgenstein’s discussion of aspect perception: there is more than one way to look at something, and the head of a duck can also be the head of a rabbit as the following picture shows:

In the brilliant book ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ by Sarah Winman, Elly asks Arthur if he believes in God.  He replies: ‘Do I believe in an old man in the clouds with a white beard judging us mortals with a moral code from one to ten?…I do not!  I would have been cast out from this life years ago with my tatty history.  Do I believe in a mystery; the unexplained phenomenon that is life itself?  The greater something that illuminates inconsequence in our lives; that gives us something to strive for as well as the humility to brush ourselves down and start all over again?  Then yes, I do.  It is the source of art, of beauty, of love, and proffers the ultimate goodness to mankind.  That to me is God.  That to me is life.  That is what I believe in.’  Elly asks ‘Do you think a rabbit could be God?’  Arthur replies ‘There is absolutely no reason at all why a rabbit should not be God.’

This raises questions on the nature of belief and truth.  We often believe in something because we see its intrinsic truth – the truth of the thing itself, the truth of its discourse.  We believe in something because we are affected by it.  We believe in a person because of what they stand for or what they represent in our lives.  We believe in a pet for the same reasons, and the passage from the book indicates how this could be the same for faith in God.  To believe in mystery is not to sit on the fence but it is to acknowledge that there is much unexplained in the world and that for this we need a different ‘type’ of thinking – we cannot believe in complex concepts like love, and God, in the same way that we believe – or have knowledge of – sitting down reading a blog.

If you ask a question to a rabbit, it will not answer you.  So, when you come up against a mystery that appears to only give you more questions and stare back, remember there is more than one way to look at that mystery, and that the answer may be in the way you look at it.