Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Poetics of Grief: Considering Pearl and Wm. Paul Young's The Shack.

Grief has a funny way of choking out your perspective and balance. It's so easy to let that creeping vine take hold, and once you do, it's so very hard to wrench yourself free.  Grief can become, during our darker moments, a trickster-friend. You get so used to its presence that you forget how to live without it, insidious though the relationship might be.

Having spent the better part of this Fall attempting to journey forward after an intensely personal and awful loss (I miscarried right before the start of the term), I've found myself thinking a lot about how humans grieve, and on the literature that has been born out of these moments of agony. So much has been written on this topic, but for me, poetic works and their explorations of how we suffer and grapple with loss have always moved me the most and have helped to transport me (or at least begin the journey) out of those dark spaces.  The journey to a place of peace and balance after experiencing a profound loss is always a difficult one, and I have grown fascinated with, and taken considerable comfort from, those who have written about their own journeys through grief as a result.

Given that most of what I study these days is medieval, I have found myself thinking a lot about Pearl of late. The poem has been one of my favorites ever since I first encountered it as an undergraduate.  Nearly a decade later and particularly in light of my most recent loss, I have returned to the poem with a fuller awareness of the grief that gives Pearl its initial fuel and momentum.

Simultaneously, I've found myself thinking as well about a far more recent work: The Shack. The novel is, at its core, a framed dream vision. The first eighty pages or so chronicle the protagonist's (Mac's) loss of his youngest daughter, Missy. This portion of the novel is agonizing, and it ends in the very place where the authorities find clear evidence of Missy's murder – a dilapidated shack in the wilds of Oregon. Mac returns to the shack after receiving a cryptic invitation from "Papa" – the name that his wife, Nan, uses for God.  He falls asleep in the shack after a fit of rage and an ensuing mental breakdown, and when he "wakes" he enters into a dream vision in which he finds the comfort he's been searching for and his release from grief and anger.   

What strikes me the most about both of these works is the candor with which they recount the deeply personal and awful grief that comes with the loss of a child (or any loved one). Both Mac and the narrator of Pearl are angry, lost, and utterly encased in their grief at the outset of these works.  As I returned to them both over the past few weeks, I immediately identified with these characters because of that. Their questions, their hurt, but most of all, their journeys through grief to a place of balance felt so deeply familiar and so strangely comforting.

As I kept thinking about these two works (largely in isolation at first), I began to realize just how much they actually share. Granted, there are NUMEROUS differences (cultural, structural, and theological) that separate them, but I found certain aspects profoundly intertwined nonetheless. For starters, both the Pearl narrator and Mac have — as I mentioned earlier — allowed their grief to consume all aspects of their lives by the time that we're introduced to them. Take, for instance, stanza five of Pearl:

Bifore that spot my honde I spenned
For care ful colde that to me caght.
A deuely dele in my hert denned
Thagh resoun sette myselven saght.
I playned my perle that ther was penned
Wyth fyrce skylles that faste faght.
Thagh kynde of Kryst me comfort kenned,
My wreched wylle in wo ay wraghte.
I felle upon that floury flaght -
Suche odour to my hernes schot,
I slode upon a slepyng-slaghte
On that precios perle wythouten spot. (49-56)

Before that spot my hands I clasped / For care full cold that seized upon me / A desolating grief in my heart lay deep / Though reason would have reconciled me. / I mourned my pearl that there was trapped / With fierce arguments that fast contended, / My wretched will in woe nature wrought . . .

The speaker here kneels over the very spot where he "lost" his pearl — which is often interpreted as a young daughter — and laments that the awareness of this loss "does nothing but pierce my heart sharply, / Swell and burn my breast painfully" (17-18).

Mac's grief after Missy's abduction and and murder is similarly all-consuming:

Little distractions like the ice storm were a welcome although brief respite from the haunting presence of his constant companion: The Great Sadness, as he referred to it. Shortly after the summer that Missy vanished, The Great Sadness had draped itself around Mack's shoulders like some invisible but almost tangibly heavy quilt.  The weight of its presence dulled his eyes and stooped his shoulders. Even his efforts to shake it off were exhausting, as if his arms were sewn into its bleak folds of despair, and he had somehow become part of it. He ate, worked, loved, dreamed, and played in this garment of heaviness, weighed down as if he were wearing a leaden bathrobe – trudging daily through the murky despondency that sucked the color out of everything.

At times he could feel The Great Sadness slowly tightening around his chest and heart like the crushing coils of a constructor, squeezing liquid from his eyes until he thought there no longer remained a reservoir. Other times he would dream that his feet were stuck in cloying mud as he caught brief glimpses of Missy running down the wooded path ahead of him, her red cotton summer dress gilded with wildflowers flashing through the trees. She was completely oblivious to the dark shadow tracking her from behind. Although he frantically tried to scream warnings to her, no sound emerged and he was always too late and too impotent to save her. He would bolt upright in bed, sweat dripping from his tortured body, while waves of nausea and guilt and regret rolled over him like some surreal tidal flood.  (27)

Both protagonists find themselves utterly consumed by their awareness of what they have lost. It dominates their thoughts and oppresses any capacity for joy.  Seeking (whether they realize it or not) an end to their suffering, both journey to origin point of their pain: to the places where they lost their beloved children.  The Pearl narrator moves into a garden (often interpreted as a graveyard) where his pearl "sprang away" from him, while Mac journeys to the shack where they found Missy's dress and an awful blood-stain, clear evidence of her murder.

It is through this return to a place of complete pain that their dream visions occur. The dreamer in Pearl "awakens" to find himself in a transcendent and beautiful landscape, where he soon encounters the Pearl Maiden — a figure who both represents the child he lost and the Divine Wisdom he so desperately needs. Mac, in turn, wakes from his despair-induced slumber inside the shack and exits in complete frustration, only to find the landscape slowly transform itself from Winter to Spring and the desolate shack reshape itself into a warm and inviting log cabin, with clear signs of life inside. Mac is soon greeted by three humans, each of whom is revealed as an aspect of the Trinitarian God. 

From here, The Shack diverges markedly from Pearl in a number manner of ways, but a pivotal moment in the second half of the novel shares much with the medieval dream vision as well.  In this particular episode, Mac finds himself and his outlook — overshadowed as it is by The Great Sadness — challenged and questioned by Sophia.  Just as the Pearl Maiden challenges the narrator's misguided, grief-stricken perceptions, chiding him at one point for having misinterpreted and incorrectly contextualized his loss (5.265-76), Sophia forces Mac to face his destructive worldview in a similarly blunt and masterful way.  At the end of their dialogue — which proves as cathartic and transformative as the dialogue between the Pearl narrator and the Pearl Maiden — Mac is given a glimpse of Missy in the afterlife. He sees her playing with his other children (who are, themselves, experiencing dream visions of their own), and she eventually runs directly towards him. An invisible force (represented by a waterfall) separates them, but Mac is told that she knows that he is there "on the other side of the waterfall." Mac tries desperately to get to her, but the invisible force won't let him move. Once he stops, however, and simply gazes on her, taking in "every detail of her expression and hair and hands" she smiles at him and mouths "It's okay, I . . . love you." Sophia tells him at this point that while Missy cannot see him, she knows that he is there, and that she herself chose for their meeting to be this way. Eventually "the water roared down from above, directly in front of him, and obliterated all the sights and sounds of his children" and he finds himself in a grotto behind a waterfall (exactly where he had entered to talk with Sophia). Like the Pearl narrator, then, Mac is challenged in this portion of the narrative by a female counselor who speaks with Divine authority.  His resulting vision of his daughter, in turn, challenges his attachment to The Great Sadness and affirms what he has learned from Sophia. Just as the Pearl Maiden chides the narrator for becoming too attached to his limited perception of the world, Mac learns that he cannot – in the end – be the world's, or God's, judge, and that the more he accepts the limitations of his perception, the more free and more joyful he will become. The Great Sadness, then, loses its power because it can only hang over him so long as he convinces himself that his perceptions are wholly accurate. 

The water imagery in this scene, I should add, also parallels Pearl, because in both the protagonists meet their lost children but are separated from them by an impassable body of water. The water prevents the dreamer from completely accessing the afterlife and those within it.  Both Mac and the Pearl narrator try frantically to cross these bodies of water at certain points and rejoin their beloved children, only to realize that their reunion cannot come to pass while they are both alive. Both find their attempts to ford the barrier to be in vain — the Pearl narrator is held back initially by the maiden's words, and eventually wakes up because he tries to ford the stream. Mac, in turn, tries repeatedly to force his way through the invisible barrier, but to no avail, and Sophia eventually explains that the barrier is truly impenetrable. The fact that they want so desperately to experience the physical presence of their lost ones speaks, rather poignantly, to their reliance upon their limited sensory perceptions.  What they learn — in no small part through these vain attempts — is that true vision and wisdom lie in a state beyond the senses. They learn, as a little prince once said, that "One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye."

As Pearl winds its way to a close, as the narrator comes to discover a world and a worldview much larger than his grief, the word "delyt" appears frequently, suggesting that the narrator has begun to move forward from the place of grief that brought him into the dream vision. Mac too finds a way to reclaim his life from The Great Sadness and to live in joy not in spite of his loss, but because of it. Both works, in their own way, explore the ways in which we can locate a sense of purpose in the midst of these awful losses. And this isn't to say, as Mac mistakenly observes, that these events come to pass for the benefit of our souls and psyches, but rather that "grace doesn't depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors" (The Shack, 188).

Ultimately, I'm not seeking to argue here that the author of The Shack drew inspiration from Pearl. Rather, my point in drawing out this comparison is to suggest that both of these works — separated as they are by centuries, by theological nuance, by culture — tap into the same mysteries of loss in uncannily similar ways, and that these similarities can — if we let them — remind us that we are never truly alone in our grief, deeply and intensely personal as those experiences always are. Considering these works alongside each other can offer us the deep and abiding comfort of knowing that when we experience the intensity of loss and grief, that we are entering into a strange and beautiful communion with all who have (and all who will) endure the same. This may seem terribly bleak at first, but it's actually — in my mind at least — quite beautiful to know that even with full knowledge of the pain that will come with the loss of our beloved "pearles," that we can never quite keep ourselves away from love. That we are always invited and drawn back into relationship with others and with ourselves because of these risks. Pearls of great price, indeed.

Monday, November 7, 2011

"Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou Art Translated!"

Hi everyone! I'm excited to join In Romaunce as We Rede, and I thought I would start with some musings I had thanks to teaching. As so often happens, the collective process of discovery in class has led me to see a text I've read many times in a fresh way. I've been teaching A Midsummer Night's Dream, and my students have been especially interested in the mythological background of Theseus (probably because they were excited to connect Ariadne to Inception). While we were talking about the minotaur, labyrinth, etc, it occurred to me that I could look at Bottom's transformation as a kind of perversion of the minotaur image. Instead of a frightening bull-man, Bottom becomes a silly mechanical with an ass's head. He's been attempting to play every role in one Ovid story, and has somehow found himself in a different Ovid story altogether. Translation here means transformation, certainly, but I also think that Bottom's transformation becomes synecdochic for the multiple kinds of translation that are going on here (linguistic, cultural, generic, chronological, imagistic, etc.). His hybrid body, part man and part ass (and I do think it's important that the animal aspect is his head, traditionally the seat of reason) is both man and beast, as the stories he performs mingle tragedy and comedy, literal and metaphorical, etc. In each case, the story Bottom represents becomes ridiculous with him as the protagonist, and he is the butt of our jokes throughout.

Yet if Bottom is a sort of ridiculous stand-in for the minotaur, that seems to increase both his centrality to the play and his alterity. He has certainly fascinated audiences, and most of the artistic representation of the play I've seen have been of Bottom and Titania in her bower. Such an image, indeed, often adorns the cover of editions of the play. Bottom therefore becomes an image for the play itself. He's a defining figure, at the center of the labyrinthesque dreamscape of the play. His freakish aspects and eagerness to take on every role make him an object of fun and pity. And it may be with some anxiety that we realize that he is, for Titania, a representative of mortality, of those creatures who connect with the earth itself, unlike her ethereal and supernatural immortality. A creature, therefore, very much like us. My students found the play-within-the-play, often performed to such hilarious effect, troublesome. They pointed out the class problems with the play; they lamented the fact that the mechanicals, who had worked so hard and been so excited when their play was chosen, were mercilessly and unanimously ridiculed. Perhaps they, as new college students whose work is being judged constantly, who work hard without always understanding what the end result should be, who are eager to please and to learn a variety of subjects, perhaps they saw something of themselves in Bottom and the mechanicals. Bottom attempts to be a learned man, a man of authority, and yet is unaware that everyone can see his ass's head. As a graduate student, this may encapsulate my own fears as well.

Many critics, from what I have seen thus far, find Bottom's transformation to be a literalization of what he already is -- a visual pun on the fact that he's an ass (and the play's use of dramatic irony when he claims that the others are trying to make an ass of him backs up such a reading). With some supernatural intervention, his physical form does grow to match his behavior. And in a play the ass's head must be performed literally -- an animal head is actually placed on the actor's body. It is such a literal rendering, however, that I find both fascinating and troubling. It may be a joke about Bottom playing an ass's role, but it also indicates that he is not quite human, not quite worthy of the noble class's empathy. We are meant to laugh along with the Duke and Duchess as Bottom plays the fool (and I have often done exactly that when I've seen the play performed). Like the minotaur, he's not as human as we are; he's both at the center of the puzzle and permanently marginalized. And the fact that my students stepped back and worried about what he was thinking and feeling made me proud as an instructor. Far from being only concerned with their own experiences, they were able to empathize even when to do so was to read against the text of the play.

I'd like to know what others think about this play, about Bottom's hybridity, about moments in teaching or reading that bring hope or empathy like this one did for me. So, what do you think?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Introducing . . . Kristi!

  As promised in my previous post, big changes to In Romaunce have been in the works.  After giving things a lot of thought, I realized that having a cohort with whom I could share this space would make the blog come alive in new, exciting, and (hopefully!) more frequent ways. I'm very happy to say that my colleague and dear friend, Kristi Castleberry, has agreed to come on board as a co-author.

Our goal for ourselves is to have at least one post published per week. They'll range from the professional, to the contemplative, to the absurd, and we hope you enjoy the ride!

Two beleaguered (but still excited!) ABD's

Kristi and Kate (NYC, 2011)