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In the Garden

June 29th, 2008 No comments

I have been trying to figure out just what the point of this play is, really. I mean, one of the strong points or over-arching facets, I’m sure, is something that I, too, have been thinking about for some time: namely, how much of the crap we put up with during our daily lives do we really need? That is, the cell phones, the wireless phones, the laptops, internet connections, dvrs, dish tv, gps devices, home design, redesign, clothing, furnishing, and so-on—and all the pressure that comes with this ‘stuff’ (to quote Carlin, God rest his soul). Always there is the incessant pressure to communicate, to be available, and to be “on” 24×7. It is as if we live lives with no downtime, ever.

One of the main points of In the Garden is that Gabe (Tony Thai) lives in the park (a garden, of sorts, for the city). Of course, here it is reduced to a refuge for the homeless (possibly insane), for sexual trysts, etc. It is a place that people visit, briefly (jog through), but not for any real measure of time. Gabe is the only one who lives in the park (in this play) and the only one committed to experiencing life as lived in the park: some of his better lines involve his observations of the changing light, the clouds and sky, the different pace at which life moves in the “outdoors.” One of my favorite lines has Gabe saying that the Gods were invented at twilight—and through my own personal experience I could see very clearly how—more accurately, perhaps—feel very certainly how. It is at twilight, with the thinning of light, the sun sinking behind trees and casting shadows, sunlight filtering and slicing through the jagged puzzle pieces of leaf, the temperamental transition of energy from that of the active day to that of the hunkering night—that delicate time when a tenuous balance is formed for a moment of eternity; it is at this moment that I can see the Gods walking across the meadow at the edge of the forest; or appearing by a stream in the wood. And perhaps, more broadly, the question of what have we lost that now we spend so little time just out on the land, experiencing the weather and the passage of time—not in cycles of a processor, but in the movement of sunlight and shadow? It is the quiet time that allows us to be in touch with our soul: the element of us all that is most sound and sturdy. And this point, too, Norman Allen makes in one of his more dystopian moments: that we are on the cusp of lives lived as machines (automatons), not as human beings.

Other clues to the meaning of this play involve the obvious parallels with the title and the strong Biblical and Christian themes that run through In the Garden: 1) Eden 2) Gethsemane. The mythic parallels between the two Gardens are strong, of course, and here my reading and understanding of Joseph Campbell comes happily into play: Eden gave us the two trees which actually are one tree: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life; Gethsemane gave us the new Tree of Life—the Cross, on which Christ was Crucified (hanged and thus was the fruit of tree). The Garden of Eden is a place of unity, a place where the pairs of opposites are joined, and thus is likely also the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil from whence the knowledge of opposites comes. The mythic significance of this is well known, too, and its representation is everywhere and varied. This is why at the liminal spaces of temples one usually sees a pair of monsters or creatures (guardian figures): one with mouth closed and one with mouth open: representing desire and fear. Those who know fear and desire will not be able to fully enter the temple (unity) as they cannot see beyond the pairs of opposites of which the world is filled. This is why the Buddha’s temptations were of fear, desire (lust), and dharma—or social duty—thou shalt be this and do this… Where Christ’s temptations were food (physical hunger, desire), power (social hunger, duty), and fear (of death, cast yourself down). According to Campbell it is not coincidence that Christ experienced three temptations and had twelve apostles and that the Buddha experienced three temptations and had twelve followers either—Campbell also remarks that you can see the similarity in the personalities of all the apostles. The significance also is that the Buddha lived 500 years before Christ and raises questions about where Christ went for those 30+ years that are absent from this story. But I digress. The point here is that the Garden (Eden) as a symbol shows the hope of eternity (eternal life and a place in unity with the world) and the place of loss (where knowledge of the world is gained); and we see these represented in Allen’s piece. The Garden (Gethsemane) represents a moment of eternity (calm away from the world) and a place of betrayal (loss of that moment).

The sexual escapades with all of the characters, excepting Lizzie (Laurel Brooke Johnson, who, as Tony Brown points out, serves as a sort of Mary Magdalene figure–the irony being that she is chaste in this rendition), represent a sort of odd Garden of Eden for the other characters: John (Vince DePaul), a Philosophy Professor; John’s wife Muriel (Lucy Bredeson-Smith), head of a fashion magazine; and Lizzie’s fiancé, Walter (Arthur Grothe), a narcissistic businessman. For Lizzie and Gabe, the park is likely the Eden of the piece. It is ironic, however, that in this carnal Eden for three of the characters, Gabe entices them to reveal their most raw spiritual moments. In this way, Gabe serves as a sort of touch stone for them—drawing them out of their personas (or put on selves) and back to their souls (or true selves).

As one might expect, with the Biblical overtones and references to Christ, a crucifixion has to come. This aspect of Allen’s piece is difficult for me for several reasons. The first is, from a writer’s perspective, I feel that Allen must have felt forced to put this in. Force is a word I choose carefully because I felt the whole lead up to the end of this play was precisely that: forced. I felt that too much consciousness went into its design and calculation. The reason I feel this is based on my own experience: my own piece, coming up at the end of the season, also contains crucifixion as a metaphor; which brings me to the second difficulty. In my piece, the crucifixion came out unconsciously in the writing and I didn’t even realize it. Unfortunately, later I did realize it. When I did, I tried to use it and force that fate on everyone. It was Clyde, con-con’s artistic director, who pointed out to me that this was predictable and a let-down. I knew this to some extent, having discussed just this issue in the work shopping of the piece in Geither’s MFA class. Though I digress, this problem is still one that troubles me greatly—what the unconscious writes, the conscious will tamper with (edit). So, back to the second point, I realized that the writing had been unconsciously done and was in many respects dreamlike. If there’s anything the conscious mind can’t stand, it’s something that doesn’t make sense—and thus this part of my mind tried to “arrange” the writing so that is was sensible and lovely. The effect was disastrous. For Allen’s work, I don’t know that I would say disastrous, but the crucifixion certainly was expected and was a bit disappointing. As well, as soon as I saw it, I began immediately rummaging through the whole length of the play attempting to find all the other parallels with Christ’s story. An even worse consequence, perhaps, is that I have come to imagine In the Garden as a sort of re-write or re-visioning of this event. As a writer, I wonder more seriously if Allen didn’t get into the middle of this play—letting it go it’s merry way with Gabe and all the bed-fellows—and then wonder one terrible night just what in the hell he was into, and then, just as I mentioned above, force it a direction that seemed palatable and conclusive. The temptation to do this is great and, as I see now, more writers than me have to deal with the challenge it represents.

Ultimately, as many other reviewers have pointed out, the play is often confusing. There is too much philosophy and talkiness pummeling the audience and at times it was ridiculous to think of people having the conversations that these people were having. And in this case, it becomes more seam-splitting for Allen’s piece that the one character is a philosophy professor, which then justifies (or attempts to justify) the elevated level of conversation. That is, this character was created precisely so these conversations could take place: it is less organic. Another difficulty was that sometimes it was difficult to understand what Thai was saying, which muddled the meaning and slowed and strained the pace of the dialog. I think this play is good, but in my heart I feel that it is not finished. If this were my play, I would feel that very strongly—that something else needed for clarification or definition or that something needs examined more closely. Maybe it is because I, in some ways, feel that about my play that goes up in November—maybe I am projecting. I’ll have to get a copy of Allen’s play and read it to be sure. In the end, though, all five actors were strong and convincing. I give special kudos to Lucy Bredeson-Smith, who looked stunning throughout; and to Grothe who created a believable and smarmy Walter and who, with unbelievable grace, stopped the cap of a window blind cord from tapping incessantly against the wall (where the central air was pushing it). Complements also go to the set design, especially the multi-colored floor, which was very pleasing to look upon. I wish I would have seen this play earlier (the run is over), as I would like to see it at least one more time.

Jesus Walked on the Water

January 6th, 2007 No comments

Well, another irritating theory about Jesus has come out–get this, he walked across water why?  Because the lake was frozen.  Ooooooh.  If you’re going to literally posit a person walking across the surface of water, ice would likely be the first of several explanations, making this theory easily the least imaginative.  If this study was grant funded I’d want my money back.

But let me get to my real point.  If there’s one thing I hate it’s a literalist.  Literalists take all shapes these days.  You have literalists in science and literalist a-theists and you have literalists in religion and literalist evangelical literalists have a strange, zealous, hard-nosed fundamentalism that is to be avoided or that should be confronted directly and beat out of them.

Religion is a mass of symbols that represent a much more expansive realization of human experience.  Joseph Campbell, the great mythologer, notes that far, far too often people become entangled in the symbols (the literalists) and not only miss the greater message of religion, but greatly reduce it, codify it, and generally behave in so fascist a manner as to undermine the point of it in the first place.  Campbell once described a literalist in the following manner: he goes into a restaurant (one of those cheaper restaurants with glossy pictures of the entres on the laminated menu), he gets the menu, sees a picture of a steak and proceeds to eat the menu.  Dr. Nof is a literalist: he eats the menu.  In case you missed the point or I wasn’t clear, the picture of the steak on the menu is a REFERENCE to the real steak that is somewhere else back in the kitchen, likely frozen in the walk-in freezer.  In the same way, the symbols of religion are a REFERENCE to the experience: the experience that is somewhere else.

So, in many ways, this literalism is really a problem of human communication.  The experience of God, or the ultimate religious experience, is something that is beyond words as it transcends rational understanding.  It is an EXPERIENCE, which by definition is felt and lived and not easily conveyed or carried to other people.  This is one reason we value our greatest writers and artists: their ability to transfer and convey their own experience is so profound.  The inability to transfer experience easily results in symbolic expression of the experience or parts of it.  The mind is masterful at recognizing metaphor, and pattern and symbol is its natural language.  For those who cannot grasp the symbols we use metaphors, similes, and aphorisms: that is, we use powered words or powered phrases to describe it.  If you’re keeping track, the final fall to earth is everyday language: Hey, buddy, where’s the john?  So you can see, by the time a religious experience hits earth, using everyday words for its expression, it has fallen far from its heavenly origin and there’s plenty of room along the way for confusion, misinterpretation (honest or intentional), and outright stupidity.

Let’s look closer at a popular one: the Virgin Birth.  I am using Campbell’s explanation of it.  A religious fundamentalist devoutly believes that a woman with an intact hymen was impregnated by God, a magical force, or a shower of gold, if you’re into Greek myth.  She then gives birth to a god herself.  The hardnosed rationalist says that Mary was getting something on the side and pulled the wool over poor Joseph’s eyes further, that anyone who believes her hooey should be horsewhipped and then doused with cold water.  Neither representative above will look at the thing from a symbolic or metaphorical point of view.  The mention of the Greek myth above is important.  Christianity is certainly not the only religion/mythology that has a virgin birth, or other like events.  Whether these symbols rose in isolation from the Jungian collective unconscious or were passed along by transient cultures (both have happened) these symbols and metaphors are common in the society of mankind.  The Buddha was born from his mother’s side; she was impregnated after having a dream.

Campbell describes the Virgin Birth using images on the chakras that he saw in an Eastern religious text; chakras being bodily centers of energy in Eastern religious practices.  The first chakra he describes is at the level of the anus and bears the symbol of a snake.  He describes the alimentary canal as virtually being a snake in itself.  The symbol, however, is that for the physical energies of the body: hunger, for example.  The second is at the genitals and bears the symbol of the male and female genitals in intercourse.  It is the symbol of sexual energy and procreation.  The third symbol is at the abdomen and again is a snake, this time more elaborate.  It represents another kind of hunger: the hunger for possessions, territory, power. Anyone who has ever watched a nature show knows how much time is dedicated to large mammals fighting to walk certain fields and forests or to inseminate the herd. The forth chakra, and the last that I am going to discuss, is at the center of the chest and it bears the symbol of the genitals in intercourse again, this time they are golden. This is symbolic of love.  This is the Virgin Birth.

As Campbell explains it, of the four chakras mentioned so far, this is the first that is not an ANIMAL function.  The first three: physical hunger, sexual energy, and hunger for possessions, are all animal energies.  They concern themselves with the experience of the body and its desires.  The fourth is the energy of love.  More specifically, of concern for another other than the self.  It is the birth of the human OUT of the animal.  The Virgin Birth is the birth of the pure spirit from the animal existence.  It is the birth of the Holy Grail: compassion; from the human animal.  To have concern for another is to recognize that other person as similar to yourself, to empathize, to see his or her pain as your own and understand it.  It is the golden birth, the new birth of the human spirit.  It is out of his mother’s side at the level of this chakra that the Buddha’s birth is depicted.  It is at this point where the Sacred Heart of Jesus is observed.

The Virgin Birth is the birth of the human from the animal.  It is that point at which we each become fully realized human beings.  Sadly, there are some amongst us that never make it beyond the first three: greedy, oversexed, eating and shitting like animals in the woods all their self-referential lives.

Religion has been around for a very long time.  Magic was its mother, and she’s been around even longer.  She had another child, the brother to religion.  Do any of you know who he is?  Paraphrasing Sir James G. Frazer in The Golden Bough, the purpose of Magic was to control the external world by harnessing powers that are greater than us.  This involved elaborate ceremonies that, when properly carried out, resulted in the desired effect.  Later, Religion developed a line that appealed to a personal higher power, one that was sympathetic, intelligent, who provided guidance, care, and support.  The other line that stripped off became Science.  Note that it, too, follows elaborate ceremonies (procedures) that result in a desired effect no longer arbitrary, but proven by new scientific methods.

Overcoming our superstitious natures will always be a fight for humans.  This is not only due to the hundreds of thousands of years we have had to live at the mercy of nature, but due to the wiring of the brain, which Ray Kurzweil refers to in The Singularity Is Near–as being massively parallel–and as he and other brain researchers have found to be largely pattern-based.  The human brain seeks out patterns.  Poetry and metaphor is the best example of this: connecting unrelated ideas and making a new experience.  The newspaper floated along the street like a butterfly, gently its wings brought it to rest on a neighbor’s lawn.  Connecting the disparate, that is what we do.  And when one thing connects to another coupled with a violent, frightening event: well, those two things become associated forever.  I had friends at OU who refused to drink Wild Turkey ever again after a rough night one time.  This is a direct connection.  But to a so-called primitive man in the woods who has just eaten a mushroom, the bolt of lightning that splits the tree, setting it on fire, is no less a connection and just as much to be feared: never eat that mushroom again (taboo).

Religion, just like Science, is our attempt to understand the world around us.  And just like science, religion is not simple.  It’s no accident that Religion and Psychoanalysis are closely related and deal with experiences that can be described both as psychotic episodes or truly religious events.  Regardless, dismissing easily any one method we humans use to understand and experience our world is the truly ignorant message here, and it cuts both ways.  Reducing expressions of science or religion to simplistic, rationalist, or literalist interpretations does far more harm than good: whether it’s Christ walking on water or the Virgin Birth or humans descending from the monkeys swinging in the trees.

So did Jesus walk across the water?  Maybe you won’t look at the question so literally now, eh?  What is the water?  What does it represent.  I’ll leave that to all of you to figure out.  Just one clue, water is usually associated with the unconscious.  The deep well of our human heritage, as Jung says primordial images, in symbols which are older than the historical man, which are inborn in him from the earliest times, and, eternally living, outlasting all generations the groundwork of the human psyche.  There is a dynamism in the unconscious too, an energy.  The generator of dreams and unseen forces.  This dynamism is usually characterized as a beast or animal: a whale, for instance: a white one or the one Jonah encounters.  Does it eat you, or you it?  Jesus walked across the surface of the water.  He didn’t run, or skip, or flee. He walked the line between the conscious and the unconscious.  Easily, quietly.  Think about that, Dr. Nof; you Literalist.

**Note** Originally published, by me, elsewhere on April 8, 2006. 

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