Monday, May 4, 2020

Theatrum Mundi

“Theatrum mundi”: the world as a stage, the stage as the world; an expression that is congruent with what I claim to be my own ars poetica (or at least one dimension of it), namely that art finds its true meaning in the representation of reality, of existence, being the only field of human expression that truly and fully has this capacity. Other areas of human activity - such as philosophy, theology, the empirical sciences - tell us about aspects of the worlds, even essential things about those - perhaps even about the most important things of existence; however, art has the unique and specific capacity (and mission, I would say) to represent existence as it is: in its richness, complexity, even ineffability; existence, as it were, in motion, alive.

Thus, in a kind of a follow-up to the previously posted opera travelogue, what follows below is an excursion (occasioned as well, in a way, by the COVID-19 pandemic) through different authors and works from the world of theater, trying to look at how existence is reflected and is brought alive in these pieces of art.

While reading the text of a play, I usually prefer to listen to it, at the same time – or at least to watch the play, very soon thereafter. First of all, because these texts are written in order to be played, and thus the text comes alive, receives existential depth, truly and really when being acted out. Secondarily, and especially in the case of Shakespeare, listening to the play while reading it (e.g. listening to a radio play) allows me to slow down mentally and to concentrate on the words, and thus to better take in the depth and richness of the Shakespearian language.

So this is what I did, then, over a week or so – I “read” thus five plays, from five different authors, from different cultural periods and spaces – and, yes, I did find life, existence, reality - alive, in them; but, in different ways, in each of them.

Twelfth Night, or What You Will, by William Shakespeare 

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In Shakespeare’s plays life resides and pulsates in the depth and power of his language, as he creates and uses a vocabulary that is not just tremendously rich and versatile, but also relentlessly innovative. Life, then, can be found beneath and in the words – in the language – of Shakespeare’s plays; hence also the many sayings and (by now) common expressions originated and “enshrined” by these plays.

Reading his texts, therefore, can not be done in a rushed, half-attentive, superficial manner; his words and his sentences are dense, thick, and poetic; they require attention and – as I mentioned above – to be acted out, to be lived out (which helps to further reveal their richness and meanings). Indeed, Shakespeare’s relationship to language is different from other authors’ (see, below, Tennessee Williams); in fact, I personally do not know of a greater craftsman with “language”, in any language or culture. And yet this is not facile craftsmanship, that plays with language for the sake of it; no, his words are rich with life, teeming with it - they're like round leather pouches filled up to bursting, veins showing – and how Medieval, how Renaissance, this is, of him, and of his language! – to have such a virile, life-filled baggage of words! What a difference from today, from our own times, when most words seem to have lost their power, their life-power, to have been tired out, worn out, spent! But maybe it is but Shakespeare himself, and his ability to grasp life, and to imbue his language with teeming life, that makes the difference. But maybe it is also the fact that life – emotions, passions, existence – seems to have been lived more intensely, even more violently, I would say, in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance (because I noticed the same aspects in Cervantes, as well). Because, yes, passions abound, in Shakespeare (or in Cervantes); powerful feelings, a certain violence of sentiments and of actions – that, once we start truly noticing it and taking it seriously – we realize how different it is from our less passionate times (and our less passionate words)!

So, yes, the great pleasure in reading Shakespeare is to watch, as it were, a craftsman at work; like one of those anonymous craftsmen who sculpted, with precision and imagination, with power of sentiment and of spirit, those wooden basreliefs on those magnificent cathedral doors.

And this is true even if, as it is the case with this play, what we have to deal with is a farce, a lighter piece - one probably written on commission (the Twelfth Night being probably written as a divertimento for the celebrations of the twelfth day of Christmastime, at the conclusion of that festive season; see also its other title, What You Will), by a journeyman artist who needs to make plays, in order to earn a living, as well. Yes, even so, and even here, we find the same craftsmanship at work – for example when we see Shakespeare coining expressions which concentrate life and experience with such zest and plasticity, that they have by now become part of our own vocabulary (for example, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them”; yes, this is from this specific farce, from Twelfth Night). And we can also observe in this play the craftsman’s sheer joy of creation, in his delight in wittiness - because, what is wittiness, if not the play with words and with meanings – that is, the skill to understand and to manipulate the relationship between existence and language, that goes to the very core of the craft of the writer?

And it so happens that the driving engine of this play is precisely that, wittiness – see the prominence, and the recurrence, in the play, of the character of the Fool, who is the master of wit par excellence. But being a master of wit - as another character observes – requires that one is a keen observer and true knower of human beings, and of their human nature; well, isn’t that true of Shakespeare himself, and isn’t he stating all this, implicitly, about himself, as well - and about his skill with language and about his understanding of human nature (of human existence)? Wittiness, then, is the elemental force shaping this play – and thus a lot of the play is actually taken up by such exercises in wittiness: wordplays, exhibitions of mental skill, pranks. This is why I think that stagings of this play that omit exactly these parts, these playful games with words and with existence, while focusing instead on “the action”, are in fact missing the main point, the driving force, the very meaning (in a way) of the play; especially since the plot itself is a light one, typically farce-like, being based on a case of mistaken identities, and of the conflicts, tragic and comic, arising from them; thus, a fairly thin plot, but an appropriately fitting opportunity - for wit, for wordsmithing, for mental games – and for us the spectators to delight in these fireworks – in this interplay between language and existence!

The play is even somewhat unfinished, we may say – or, to put it differently, maybe a bit imbalanced, overall; for example, Malvolio’s fate is never really and truly clarified and concluded; or, Antonio is left without a mate, while he probably should have ended up with Viola, at least for symmetry’s sake, mirroring Olivia’s final pairing with Sebastian; and so on. And yet, all this is not that important – as the purpose of the play, as said, is in our delighting in wittiness - of words and of actions; of how the characters play with the various possibilities of existence, with appearance and reality, and with the role of words in all this – each of the characters being both perpetrator and victim, at turns, of such games, pranks, and cunning plans.

Language and life, words and existence, then - and the great craftsman of language at work on them - within the framework of a delightful  - and witty - farce. 

The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov

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Apparently there is not much happening in The Cherry Orchard? It is summer and, under the oppressive heat of noonday, the crickets are chirping, and the people are... not going anywhere; neither outwardly, nor within; they are languishing, immobile, apparently. This is, anyway, the feeling - of a summery, static day (even if the action actually takes place in early spring, and then in the autumn). But, still, apparently not much is happening (although much is, in fact) - and this apparent immobility (which frustrates a few of the characters tremendously) actually covers (and reveals) life: real, human life - which is very much what is in fact happening.

But even in terms of the actual “action” of the play – aren’t there major things taking place, as well? After all, the family is in the process of losing the orchard, the house – of losing everything, in fact! Yes, everything seems to be going away, to be slipping through their fingers – just like existence itself.

And the characters? They are, obviously, tragic – and also, deeply comic. How? Well, first of all we notice the fact that most of the characters are meant to represent “types” – and thus we have comic types such as the frivolous maid, Anya; the pragmatic, business-minded, and somewhat dull Lopakhin; the idealist, revolutionary-minded Trofimov; the “slightly decadent and thoroughly impractical nobleman”, Gaev; the devious and untrustworthy servant, Yasha; the tragic, failed landowner, Lubov Andreyevna – a bit dissolute, but at the same time filled with passion; and so on. In their being “types”, there is comedy – expressed through their mannerisms and expressions... But the deeper comedy is not there, but comes from their very being – from their very tragi-comic being. In this sense, I would call the author’s perspective, his vantage point, almost god-like; in the sense that, “from a certain distance” (as the BetteMidler song goes), all of us humans are deeply and endearingly comical – but also deeply tragic, in our existential suffering.

The Chekhovian comedy, then, is the comedy of existence, of being – deep underneath.

But the most powerful aspect of this play, and of Chekhov’s artistry – is the presence of life. Life, as that great, deep river, that comes we know not wherefrom, and goes we know not whereto, and in whose middle we find ourselves, floating, taken by it – and it passes us, everywhere: above, below, and all around us. Life, or time - deep, overtaking us, carrying us, uncontrollable; it is this sensation of flowing, immense life, in which we find ourselves, which escapes our grasp and control, that feeling usually inexpressible through words - of real existence and of real time - that the play most poignantly reflects (underneath, and overall) - and this is what constitutes for me its most powerful artistic feature.

In terms of the “action” of the play proper, of what “happens”, the story is one of loss, and of human impotence in front of it. But isn’t life itself, loss?at least, in the sense of time, continuously departing us, rushing backwards, forever slipping through our fingers, sand-like? Aren’t we all helpless - and defeated – at the end, with regards to... the time itself?

And isn’t even Lopakhin, the pragmatic and successful businessman, who has risen from nothing to great riches, who is thus the great master of the materiality of existence, of that visible aspect of life – isn’t he, in fact, also paralyzed, impotent, incapable of “action”, seemingly, when it comes to matters of the heart? And, when pressed, doesn’t he admit that, besides the moments when daily busy-ness carries him and then gives him meaning, he is at pains at explaining what it is all about? (And that they, all of them, there, in his environment, live what are ultimately grey, boring existences?)

And Trofimov, the ideas-driven and -possessed, social reform-obsessed young student – isn’t he reproached by Lubov Andreevna, gently, for his severity and unbendingly demanding attitude toward the rest, toward her? Here are her own words, to Trofimov: “What truth? You see where truth is, and where untruth is (...) You boldly settle all important questions, but tell me, dear, isn't it because you're young, because you haven't had time to suffer (...)? You boldly look forward, isn't it because you cannot foresee or expect anything terrible, because so far life has been hidden from your young eyes? You are bolder, more honest, deeper than we are, but think only, be just a little magnanimous, and have mercy on me. I was born here, (...) I love this house. I couldn't understand my life without that cherry orchard, and if it really must be sold, sell me with it! (...) My son was drowned here. (...) Have pity on me, good, kind man.” Yes, have pity on the fallen... of this battle of life (the fallen who, as you will eventually come to discover for yourself, after you have lived life – are everyone). Yes, youth is rigid and demanding , because it hasn’t had time to be “broken”, yet; because it hasn’t had time to live, to experience, life (and thus to be eventually defeated, or tired, or broken, by it).

And isn’t it similar, as with the individual person, so with entire human societies (or cultures) as well? Without trying to be too ambitious or wide-ranging with our verdicts (which would be improper and rash), could we not say that this sort of understanding of existence, of time, and of history (which, we assume, the Russian culture and society possesses), is the outcome (gain?) of that society having had time (i.e. history) to experience defeat – because the outcome of history is always, inevitably, defeat? That time wins, in the end – so that no one (person or society) can ever becomes the master of time, of history? Thus I wonder what readers (spectators) from “younger” societies (“younger’, in this sense, of societies that haven’t had enough time to truly experience history) might make of Chekhov, of these characters, and of what happens in the play; what do they make of this understanding of (or feelings about) time, life, existence?

Two more notes about certain poignant moments from the play: one, at the end, when, after everyone else has left the house, Lubov Andreevna and her brother, Gaev, embrace each other, in a muted, mutual expression of pain, and of loss. Because they have not been completely unaware, throughout the play (contrary to how it might have appeared), of all that has been taking place – they have simply been taken over, rendered incapable of acting, of changing things - by it, by life. And another moment – again at the end of the play, in fact at its very end – when Fiers, the old and loyal servant (whom they literally forgot behind, in the locked house), examines himself, and his life, stating that: “Life's gone on as if I'd never lived. [Lying down] I'll lie down. ... You've no strength left in you, nothing left at all... Oh, you... bungler!”

Chekhov great achievement, then, is this – the depiction of life, of time, in its uncontrollable, ultimately ungraspable, all-overtaking and leaving-one-and-all-behind, continued flow. And this is indeed a remarkable thing - how Chekhov succeeds in depicting exactly this commonly experienced, yet hardly expressible, sensation of existence – this life experience so common to all human beings, and yet so rarely actually expressed. 

But isn’t it true that most of what life actually is, our daily experience thereof, we neither speak of, nor is it easily expressible? Which is why we mentioned at the very beginning of this survey that only art seems to have the capacity to express – or, rather, to depict - the complexity and the inexpressibility of existence; and here is Anton Chekhov, doing exactly that. And he does that in and through the deep and rich (yet absolutely not out-of-the-ordinary) characters that he creates – in whom said life comes alive. Characters who also possess (as all human beings do, when looked at benevolently) that bittersweet combination of the tragic and of the comic, that is a feature of human existence. And all of this is so... life-like.

La cantatrice chauve (The Bald Soprano), by Eugène Ionesco

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So, how could La cantatrice chauve (title whose literal translation would be “The Bald Songstress”), which everybody knows as a play that is the very “emblem” (like Ionesco himself) of the theater of the absurd  - how could it be included in a discussion about “art as the expression of real existence”? And yet, it is, this play – it is about true human existence - and quite powerfully so.

How? an expression of existence? Well, let’s see what The Bald Soprano actually presents to us, the spectators. Well, it presents us the dull small talk, around the dinner table, in which families engage daily, instead of real interpersonal communication; and thus - see? - it presents to us a very common, quite familiar, perhaps even central aspect of everyday life. Furthermore, does this not point, also, and perhaps, toward a deeper truth of existence; namely, a certain (perhaps unbridgeable) incommunicability of the self, within human interaction? - or, perhaps, simply to the lack of real communication that plagues so many relationships?

What else? Well, the play also shows us lack of communication as it happens at a social level - as illustrated by the emptiness and monotony of social small-talk; small talk that we could define as being the objectivized, emptied of meaning, polite, externalized exchange of “words”, but not of “selves” – which, thus, does not represent real human interchange.

And what else? Well, the play also presents us the accumulated tensions that sometimes linger beneath, underlying interhuman relationships – that are there, unsaid - muted resentments (stemming from hurts past, undigested, or perhaps from guilts) that plague so many of our interhuman relationships. (Strong existential stuff, isn’t it?) And, in this sense, I found the scenes in which Ms. Smith abruptly expresses these deep-lying resentments, by suddenly and aggressively (and impotently) baring her teeth, animal-like (like a dog, or an angry cat), as being both very expressive and poignant, as well as utterly funny.

All these – the lack of communication that plagues the human relationships; the tensions and resentments that poison them; the dullness and monotony of formal social interaction – are aspects that we know very well, that are obviously part of our everyday existence. Moreover, they are (or can be) very painful aspects of said existence – and the pain (especially for the perceptive or sensitive persons) comes exactly from the incapacity of expressing these things, of pointing out these phenomena - because how can one truly communicate the lack of true communication that plagues a relationship, exactly to the other person in that relationship, the very person who is seemingly incapable or unwilling to truly communicate (what a painful, agonizing, vicious circle!)? Or think of the difficulty of becoming aware of, of grasping and of taking hold of - let alone expressing – the deep, underlying resentments that plague our own relationships with others, sometimes unconsciously or unawares, sometimes not, and that stem, as said, from past hurts or maybe guilts... 

The virtue of The Bald Soprano, then (and I don’t mean “virtue” in an utilitarian sense, i.e. that a play needs to ”do” or to achieve something, but in the sense of it being a true artistic act, expressing existence) – its main virtue, then, is exactly the powerful, raw, and artistically courageous way in which it portrays these unsaid and inexpressible “interstices” or “subterrains” of our existence; thus expressing – the unutterable.

And let us also mention that Ionesco is funny, relentlessly so – by which I mean, that he himself is funny, as a person; that the absurd itself is comedic (by virtue of the inherent clash that it contains); and also that there are specific funny moments and utterances in the play. See, for example, bon mots such as: “Beware: if you caress a circle long enough, it will become vicious!” – and so on.

I should also mention Ionesco’s connection with the artistic spirit and style of Dadaism – which, I would say, are strongly reflected in the artistic freedom and playfulness of La cantatrice chauve – and, in fact, in its very absurdity. But I am not saying by this that Ionesco was “influenced” by Dada - but only that he was obviously in a mutual dialogue with it (the movement slightly preceding him, generationally – and many of the important figures of Dada having been, like Ionesco himself, of Romanian extraction). And what had Dadaism been if not an expression, emerging during and just after World War I, of civilizational collapse – which also implies a deep and generalized loss of meaning, and of communicability?

Speaking of words that have lost all meaning, one should note that this play (which was written, of course, in French) was inspired by (if I recall correctly) language lessons from English language textbooks, which Ionesco studied while trying to learn (or to improve his knowledge of) that language. And, yes, what better example of words that have lost all connection with their existential grounding, that have been completely removed from (and out of) life – of words that have become signifiers without the signified, objects meant to illustrate not existence but “rules”, simple mannequins engaged in an artificial, mechanical game – than the words used in grammar exercises or in vocabulary lessons! And this is also why the main characters, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, are an English couple; and why all the other characters – and the chairs, and the apartment, and the dinner, and the evening - everything, really – are English (English being the foreign language, and Englishness itself being  - at least until lately - the byword for formalism, etiquette, reserve, and lack of communication.)

This play, then, expresses in a paradoxical way (through its very absence, that is) the deep and important connection between language and existence, between words and being – showing us what happens when that existential grounding of language is gone - when words become empty vessels... for what? In that sense, what a powerful illustration of an existential truth, done not in a didactical fashion, but - as any artistic act worthy of its name would do it – through a representation of existence (of life, in action – even if absurdly so)!

And I should also note that, yes, I do find the play a bit uneven (at times), in that not all the moments are of equal intensity and constancy of purpose. Yes, I think that Ionesco could have been more disciplined, artistically, as I found him - at times! only at times! -  improvising, diverging from the main, focused thrust of the play, for the sake of facile, easy divagations; thus disturbing (in my view) the aesthetic unity of the work. (It’s like making silly, easy jokes - when the humor is actually deeper down, in the action of the play, and in its characters.) And yet, there is a degree of charm in this “unevenness”, as well, reflecting (or expressing) Ionesco’s perennial youthfulness (which is also a defining characteristic of any authentic Dada), perhaps youth-like rebelliousness. (It brings to mind the acidic or parodic literary essays that he wrote in his youth, and through which he attacked his contemporaries, as a true anarchist fire-bomber on the literary scene; and it brings to mind the genre of the “essay”, as that light, inspiration-driven, quick, and thus somewhat uneven, type of writing (as cultivated in Europe, e.g. in the Francophile cultural areas.) In other words, I can write up even this unevenness to Ionesco’s charm.

To conclude: yes, this is the theater of the absurd – but, in fact, or by that very fact, it is also an artistic expression, and a very powerful one, of (some) truths of existence – and more specifically of some of the unsaid, or hardly inexpressible, aspects of existence. This is, then, real, true art - therefore.

A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams

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Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire also reflects life, but through means at the opposite stylistic end from Shakespeare’s (his tremendously rich and powerful poetic language) or from Ionesco’s (the deconstruction of language) – namely, by using (in Williams’ case) direct, raw, “street” language: the (recognizable) language of our everydays. And it is this directness, this recognizability of the language, that first surprises us, and then inevitably draws us into the action of the play. 

Because of this artistic language, in this case I did not need to follow my habit of simultaneously listening to the play being acted out. Instead, I listened to New Orleans jazz, which was a most fitting choice - both personally, as a suitable soundtrack to my reading of the play (the action taking place in the French Quarter of NOLA) – and also theatrically, as, according to Tennessee Williams’ instructions, New Orleans music should be playing more or less continuously during the play, providing both the atmosphere and the “street noise” for the action. So, a felicitous and most fitting choice. 

Williams’ raw, direct, “natural” language, then, is perhaps the most poignant aspect of this play. However, that is not the only way in which “everyday, street” reality is present – as another existentially realistic dimension is represented by the dramatis personae that Williams’ creates and sets before us: Stella, Stanley, Eunice, Mitch (but less so Blanche, who comes across as a bit Bovarian, and thus a bit “artificial”, overwrought, maybe). 

Overall, then, what essentially defines  - and also sets this play apart from all the others that we have discussed - is its rawness, its realism, its recognizable everydayness - expressed both through the language (first and foremost), and also as embodied by the characters (secondly).

This “raw realism”, however, coexists with certain “expressionistic” touches, as well, and with a slightly “dreamy” atmosphere; yes, and these things coexist well, and do not deny or cancel out each other. I am referring here, for example, to Williams’ stage directions – his play with lights and shades, and with the shapes of the apartment, its walls and its doors – which is meant to both set the atmosphere, and to reflect the given state (mood) of the characters. I would also include here the aforementioned, ongoing soundtrack of the NOLA streets – the ever-playing background of jazz music, which sets the entire thing within a “New Orleans atmosphere” (both raw and instinct-driven, and also with a specific, quite appealing charm - just like some of the characters in the play).

And, just like in Ionesco's case, I felt some unevenness in this play, as well (although in fewer instance than in Ionesco's) – by which I mean aspects of the play that strayed, or took away, from its dominant tone (nature). First of all, I found the very title to be somewhat infantile, like adolescent poetry; yes, there might be a street named “Desire”, in NOLA, and thus a tram that leads there, which can thus be referred to by the same name; but this is such a cheap metaphor for what takes place in the play... although, we must admit, such tricks do work; and I am pretty sure that this play would not be as widely known (its title, at least), if it would carry a different title (just like with the novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, of which the title is the most memorable part).

I did not find the conclusion of the play all that convincing, either - namely the way in which Stella decides to put up with, and to live with, Stanley’s egregious transgression (by ignoring it). To be clear, it is not the depiction of the act of lying to ourselves that I object to – oh, no, that is a well known reality of life  (that we all do, at times, in order not to disturb or shatter our lives); I am referring specifically to the way in which this decision is so hurriedly argued for, settled, and then left behind; too momentous a decision for me, to be bypassed just so quickly, and so abruptly - and too big for Stella to do it so "easily". (And, no I am not referring to the decision regarding Blanche - but to her decision regarding Stan.) 

Finally, some of the emotional reactions of the characters seemed to me a tad overdone, a bit overly dramatic; but that might have to do with stylistic choices pertaining to the acting styles of the time (think of the James Dean, or of the women actors of the thirties) - or maybe with Williams’ peculiar artistic sensitivity.

Having made these observations, I should however say that these aspects, albeit duly noted, do not detract from the overall impact and poignancy of the play  - which, as said, quickly grabs and powerfully engages us, exactly because of (and through) the way in which it depicts raw, everyday, natural life - through its directness and authenticity. And all this is achieved mainly through the medium of the language that Tennessee Williams’ constructs and uses; and, make no mistake, this is a testament to Williams’ artistry, because creating “realistic dialogue” and using “natural language” requires tremendous effort and implies exquisite artistic skill. Through all this, A Streetcar Named Desire is, indeed, existence – “street, raw, everyday, natural” – on the stage.

Six Characters in Search of an Author, by Luigi Pirandello

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At first glance, Luigi Pirandello’s play, Six Charactersin Search of an Author (Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore), could not be more different from Tennessee Williams’, and from that “immediate description of everyday, street reality”, Indeed, Pirandello’s piece is about six “characters” who, abandoned by their original author (!), take over the rehearsal session of a theater troupe, looking for someone to stage their story. At first glance, then, as said, this could not be more different for Williams’ play – and, in terms of artistic approach, of style, it is – being something resembling meta-theater, or (some would say) even absurdist theater. At the same time, however, Pirandello’s work could not be more focused on what is the central issue of our entire investigation - namely, the relationship between theater and life, between art and existence. Because this is, in fact, what is at the center of Pirandello’s play: the relationship between existence and text, between one’s being and one’s story. And, as one of the “characters in search of an author”, “the Father”, concludes at the end of the play: all this is about real existence - about reality!

Even before starting to read his play, we might be helped (by being introduced to its central conceit) by Pirandello’s critical and authorial “preface” (which is also a kind of “personal  confession”), preface that is meant to set the stage for said “characters in search of an author”, talking about how they (and how characters in general) emerged etc. Yes, we can be helped by such a preface – and I very much enjoyed reading it; but I do not think that we absolutely need it in order to be drawn into the play - because, immediately after it starts, we are indeed “pulled in” by, on the one hand, the dramatic story of these “characters” - and, on the other, by the essential, existential questions that this entire “search for an author” raises about life, art and the artist. (Note that I will put the word “characters” in inverted commas, when referring specifically to those “characters searching for an author".)

And some of these questions about art and existence, raised explicitly or implicitly in and by the play, concern things (problems) with which we are all very familiar. For example, the fact that there is always (and that there always remains) a distance between existence (namely, the story, or the existences, that live in the head of the author) - and the text produced by the author (which tries to express on paper those existences) – and, then, the reception of the text by the audience (i.e. how that text is at the end transformed, again, into a new existence, in the mind or soul of the reader, so that at the end we have a result that is never the same as the original existences, that existed in the head of the author, and which started the whole cycle). But wait, there's more!

Namely, that (as is known by most authors) in the process of creation, once a character is born (comes alive) in the mind of the author, it very soon gains a certain independence, a life of its own - so much so that the author becomes (almost) a “scribe” who, guided by this “existing” character, simply jots down its adventures, its experiences, its life – which will then be the story of this now independent being. Well, this is exactly what happened in this case - explains Luigi Pirandello; that  characters were born in his mind, only now the author (Pirandello himself) refused to “give them a voice”, to “give them their story”, to “write down their existences”; so that now, thus orphaned, they need to roam the world (of theater, I presume) and to look for a possibility for their beings to be expressed, for their story to be told, and thus for their existence - to come to be.

This is then what happens in this play – and by thus cutting out (and off) the “characters” from the “normal” creation process, Pirandello sets the stage for us to be able to study and then to ask several essential questions about the relationship between existence and art, and between author, the work, and the public (including the role of the intermediaries, of the actors). And  - you see! - these are the very questions that are at the center of our investigation into theatrum mundi - into theater as the representation of existence!

But I mentioned that another, immediately gripping, aspect of the play is the very real and dramatic (and very personal) story in which the “characters” are involved - which is their story. In this sense, I should note that I found it very appealing that the drama that actually shapes and defines their beings is a shared, collective, family drama; that their being is thus inseparable from, and not understandable outside, this family drama (a fact most powerfully expressed by the failed attempts of “the Son”, who never wanted to be here, on the stage - to escape the play; and yet he can not, because his being is is indivisibly entangled in, and defined by, this family story; that he does not have being outside of this story). (In this sense, I noted for myself that this play would make for some excellent didactic material for training in systemic family psychotherapy – which is the field of psychotherapy that examines how a person’s self is inescapably shaped by the story of the system – the family – of which he or she is a part.)

For how can one have being, outside of one’s story? How could one’s self be separated from one’s existence? Existence being inevitably temporal, in the sense of taking place in time, each self has (intrinsically, as part of its very self) a trajectory (history); because one’s self grows only and through this history. (Of course, one should also add here – with many others – that there is also a dimension of the self that is transcendent of temporality, of historicity; yes, but please mark the “also” – namely, that the temporal dimension of the self is an inescapable, constitutive dimension of its existence - just like the transcendent one.) But this connection between self and the self’s story (its existence) also helps us explain how and why once a character receives “being” in an author’s mind, that character immediately starts “acting out” ("wants to act out") its “being” -  that is, the existence that is peculiar and characteristic to that self; and thus, as said, the author becomes a kind of a scribe, “only” assisting at, and noting down, what these newborn, alive characters "do".

But let us not forget that in this case the author refused to “write down the story of their being”, to “put in a text their existence” - thus orphaning these “characters”; oh, what a cruel, cruel fate, for these “selves”! So now they are out there, looking for an “author”, for someone to do just that - to allow for their story to be written or acted out, and thus for their existence to come to be. (The play therefore could have been called “six existences desperately looking for a chance at expression”; but Pirandello’s title might be better.)

And so these “characters” (the Father, the Mother, the Step-Daughter, the Son, the Boy, and the Child) materialize somehow at the beginning of a rehearsal session of a company of actors that is led by a slightly arrogant and hasty, a bit obtuse, but also artistically curious, director (il capocomico). And, after some persuading and explanation, the “characters” and the “director” set out to “write down the story” of their existences, which is done by the “characters” telling or acting out their very story (and, as they desperately try to explain, what they are acting out is not an "illustration" of their existence, but it is, right there and then, their actual - and only - existence!). Meanwhile, the actors of the troupe are watching and observing (preparing to act out this “play that is just being written”, engaging in hilarious attempts at interpreting or overacting what they see); at the same time, the prompter (who, as we know, is in charge of the script) is taking furious notes - composing, in fact, the script (the story), based on what he sees (the characters acting out the story). And all this, all this conundrum and hullabaloo, represents an excellent “stage” for illustrating and discussing the difficulties inherent in transferring existence into text - of the artistic process, from creation, to consumption - and even pointing out to the essential incommunicability of the self (the impossibility of complete and perfect communication).

And the play ends, as mentioned, with the Father exclaiming that all this is by no means pretense or make-belief - as the director keeps believing and stating; that this is reality, real existence - it is their existence! Indeed, and it is strange, isn’t it, how at the end of the play the “characters” – who, of course, are not supposed to be “real people” – seem to us spectators more “real”, more “flesh-and-blood”, believable beings, than the director and the actors and the technical staff of the acting troupe (who are supposed to be the “real people” in this play). Why is it so? Well, perhaps because by the end of the play the “characters’” story is the one that has been presented and fleshed out the most - and that is what gives their being reality; because, as we get to know and understand their drama, their own story, and how each of them acted or behaved throughout their story, we actually begin to understand and to know them as specific human beings. Yes, because, as discussed, the self is inseparable from its story (from its existence, which is inherently temporal). And thus we discover, with surprise perhaps, that the “beings” of the “real people” in the play - the director and the actors and the prompter and the technicians - appear in comparison “paler”, weaker, more superficial; in other words, that the “characters” are, by the end of the play, more “real”, than the presumably “real director and real actors”, whose beings seem like fleeting, surface-only existences. And the reason for this is exactly what we mentioned: that in the case of the director and of the actors we do not actually know their “stories”, but the only thing that we know about them are the superficial social interactions in which they engage during the rehearsal, including their outbursts of ego, the apparent power dynamics etc. – that is, the masks (!) that we put up at our workplace, or in social contexts. In other words, the drama told and manifested by the “characters” seems a more - "really and truly" - human story, an honest and poignant one – than the superficial interactions that, in this play, represent the “story” of the members of the theater troupe. It is understandable, then, why the selves of the “characters” appear to us more “real”, more poignant, more true... than those of the presumably “real people” from the play.

However, is not this superficiality of the social selves of the actors and of the director, a very accurate description, in fact, of how we ourselves actually live and behave? Are we not (at least some, if not most of the time), as it were, skating only on the surface of temporality, without actually taking hold of our selves, without truly getting assuming our own real existences? And even if we would want to actually “get hold” of our own self and of our existence, aren’t such efforts inevitably limited by the partiality of our capacities, by the ultimate obscurity of our own self, by the ultimate ungraspability of our existence - in other words, by the fact that the only one who truly and fully knows us, our self and our existence, is God?

If this is true, then, are not the “superficial” (and annoyingly so!) existences of the director and of the actors more reflective of our lived experience - than the “characters” who, although possessing a clear and well-defined being and story, are, exactly because of that, fictional (that is, clarified, simplified, already comprehended expressions of reality)? I suppose that the truth is somewhere in the middle - and we can not stop being annoyed at the waste of existence that the director and the actors are engaged in.

Anyway, these – and other such – questions arise, inevitably, from Pirandello’s engaging play, which involves us emotionally, intellectually, and existentially as well, by dealing with real questions about the self and existence - and also about art, the artistic process, and life; and doing this not through some dry pedagogical nonsense, but through the “real” and passion-filled drama of “real” and full-blooded (they are Italian, after all!) characters.


And thus we reach the end of this survey of five plays, from five different authors, from five different periods or cultural milieus – representing, it turns out, five distinct artistic approaches, as well. And yet, notwithstanding this variety, we discover – surprisingly? unsurprisingly? – that they all, all these plays, deal with, represent, and express, what we have been looking for: existence – and (implicitly or explicitly) the relationship between art and existence. Thus they seem most fitting illustrations of that fragment of ars poetica mentioned at the beginning – namely, that the mission of art is to express existence, because art is that field of human expression (and of human knowledge) that is uniquely and specifically able to express existence - lived existence, in its complexity and even ineffability.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Category of Joy (7)

After our Easter Octave investigation into the category of joy, which we endeavored without pretensions of exhaustiveness, or even of utter precision – and during which we looked at the state of joy as being associated with (artistic) creation, with (a type of, or a state of) laughter, with the act of marriage, with unconditional love and with sacrifice, and finally with Resurrection (or what follows after the Resurrection) – after this week-long series of discussions, then, perhaps it is time now to draw a line and to summarize what we have learned, proposing some...

7. Conclusions

And what have we learned? Well, essentially, that the state of joy seems to be associated with a (true) expression of being. And we saw this in artistic expression (or creation) – with the artist who, like a bird, can but sing... And we saw this, in a similar, “natural” fashion, in the case of children at play – who are unruly, like “wild animals”, unless they are tamed and guided – but in whose play there is an inherent goodness, being the natural expression of their (pre-moral, or on-the-way-to-becoming-moral) being.

But here we get into more troublesome territory, and closer to error – by which I mean all the misguided attempts at pursuing “joy” - that is, all that generally passes under the name of “pursuit of happiness”, yet is lived as a pursuit of self-satisfaction, of self-enjoyment (in various guises). Yes, there is a natural goodness to being. However, our human condition also contains the choice  - of the right living out of being, or of the wrong living out thereof; and the difference between these alternatives is that one of them is actually truthful to the true order of our being – while the other one is not.

And the best example in this regard, and one that we discussed this past week, is marriage – understood as a re-enactment or, even more so, as a living out of the original truth of the human condition: “Man and woman he created them... in the image of God he created them... [and] God looked ... and found it very good” (Gen 1:27, 31) Yes, one felt a sense of peace, of serenity, of an act being in accordance with “how things should be” (in our own, and in general existence) – when one looked at that statuary group depicting the betrothal. There is, thus, a choice – for us, moral animals – of living according to the truth of our being (and of Being, itself) – or not.

And this choice is the choice of what is truer, better, greater - over what is less so (or even the opposite). And we saw this choice being lived out both in the example of marriage (as choosing one person means rejecting all others, forever), and of the monks of La Grande Chartreuse (or of the Trappist monastery of the Tibhirine). As these monks explained in the film sequences included, theirs was a choice of a greater happiness, of a greater love; greater, in the sense of truer and more complete.

Detail of the Transfiguration Mosaic
from the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe (6th century) 
The state of joy, then, is not some shallow, ir-responsible, selfish seeking of enjoyment and pleasure, of “fun”. Instead it seems to be a calmer, deeper state of being – in which our being is more truthful to what it truly is, and to what it truly desires – and thus to the true order of existence. And this can mean a living out of the natural self, as in the case of the artist and of the child - pre-moral, as it were, but soon enough needing to be guided by a moral choice: the artist needing discipline, and to say no to self-seeking exhibitionism, in order to remain truthful to his vocation; and the child needing to be guided and to be reined in, so that his joy may be complete. And it can also mean a sacrificial pursuit of the true order, of the truth of our selves - for example, as in marriage, or as in a life completely consecrated to the Being that is the Source of our being.

And we used the term “sacrificial”, and we discussed it – to immediately see that this is, in fact, a voluntary, and most delightful and pleasurable sacrifice (although, yes, it does include a “no” to certain impulses or parts of our selves, and it might include pain), because it is done joyously, out of love (marriage), and drawn by love (monastic vocation). Love... if ever there was a more misunderstood, misconstrued, oft-misused expression! And yet, in the case of this term, “love”, as well, the same distinction can easily help us: between a self-seeking love (pleasure, enjoyment, satisfaction of oneself) - and a self-giving love (of marriage; of monastic life; of unconditional love).

And, indeed, we did talk about unconditional love, as well, as a sort of a basis or condition for joy – namely, for the expression and manifestation of being. For example, as in the case of the watchful gaze and continued care of the grandmother (unrecognized, anonymized), which allows for the children to play. Or, on a grander – or deeper – scale, the unconditional love of, as it is written, the “heavenly Father, [who] makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Mt. 5:45) – the constitutive foundation of the being of us all.

What do I mean? Well, the fact that - just like with the clueless children, or the fish in the pond – we simply find ourselves within being, and with being; in other words, that our being is not something of our own making, but is an unconditional, unmerited, free gift that we have received - and continue to receive. Being, then, seems to be a fruit of an unconditional love in action; and this is why the monks we cited talk about responding to a love (because we are not the initiators of this relationship of being).

And this takes us to the Resurrection – and to the “amen”, upon “amen”, upon “amen” of the Messiah chorus - which are the eternalized interjections expressing being, or life, finally and eternally victorious - that is, “being” without end.

In fact, the tremendous Easter Triduum (the three days, from the Last Supper, to the Resurrection) illustrates in a concentrated fashion the essential drama of all that we have been trying to express: the sacrifice that seems to be an inevitable corollary of choosing the good (or the truth of our being; as in the marriage choice, as in the monks' choice – and as in the cross of Good Friday), and the victory of Being, definitive, complete, and unalterable (over its apparent opposite – death, non-being, the diminishing of being, the corruption of being). This is how and why we associated “joy” with “Resurrection” – or, in fact, with what comes after the Resurrection. Because, if joy is the expression of being, then Resurrection (eternal life) is the final, complete, and definitive victory of being – its full manifestation. A state in which the members of the choir (which sings those “amens”) partake in the Being who is the very Source of our beings - in the unconditional Love that made us and that keeps our being in existence. Like the child who is drawn to the lap of the grandmother, so being tends toward the source of Being, which is Love.

Because being is - our self is - inherently dialogical, social, open to the other; yes, this is another thing that we have discovered, or that was confirmed, yet again, over this past week. And, since being is dialogical – so is joy; and thus we noticed that every manifestation of the state of joy also entails a relationship with, or at least an openness toward, an other (explicitly or implicitly, visibly or invisibly). This is true for the artistic act – for the child watched over by the grandmother – for marriage, essentially – and for the monks – and, of course, for Resurrection. Because Resurrection (or, more precisely, what follows thereafter) is a dialogical eternal life – a life with the Other (and with the others).

But let us conclude, here, this Easter Octave-occasioned, modest attempt at an investigation into the state of joy - into its manifestations, forms and expressions – and, finally, into its nature. We have listed all of our conclusions - or, the gist of them – above.

What remains to be talked about, perhaps – in a very brief postlude – is laughter. Yes, back to “laughter” – but, as explained, a specific kind or state of laughter. Yes, laughter, because I find it a most handy, accessible, universally available experience – or, at least, sign - of that state of joy that is the expression of true being. Again, we are referring here to a specific kind of laughter – which is the simple, free (childlike), and exuberant expression of the joy of existence itself - but also (implicitly) of the dignity and transcendence of the self, over and against the (sometimes) oppressive, burdensome, reductionist aspects of historical and material existence. A laughter that is the thumbing of one’s nose at the self-seriousness of what are – ultimately – "unserious", passing things. (And, for a manifestation of such laughter, see again the scene with the Carthusian monks sliding down the snowy hillside, in the Alps, not far from La Grande Chartreuse.)

And you can even take this – this idea of laughter - with you as a bookmark, perhaps - to remind you (and us), from time to time, of that state of joy that we have been discussing - that is associated (or so it seems) with the living out of our being, in its plenitude, truth, and openness toward the other (the Other).

Monday, April 20, 2020

The Category of Joy (6)


6. Joy as Resurrection

This is – famously – the very last part of Georg Friedrich Händel’s oratorio, Messiah; and the story is that, after composing this piece, Handel came out of his study and said, “I have seen [or experienced] Heaven!” Now, one could put this (his exclamation) down to a sort of aesthetic exaggeration; and, yes, the story is apocryphal. However, the fact is that I do find this final “Amen” chorus to be a most moving and powerful figuration of the Resurrection – or, more accurately and precisely, of what follows after the Resurrection – of life, eternal and glorious.

Of course, the entire work, Messiah, is a monumental feat of artistic genius. Musically, of course! – but what I am referring to here is its very core concept, of using only (or mostly) texts that are not from the Gospels, in order to tell the story... of the Gospels. In other words, using texts mostly from the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible) - to tell the story of the life of Christ (which is the central story of the New Testament), from his birth, to his death and resurrection. To tell an entire, momentous story, using only (or mostly) indirect language... prefiguration, metaphor, analogy, prophetic language – what a feat of artistic (and spiritual) inspiration! But I did not come to praise Handel – although that is most deserved, certainly – but to give a little bit of a background, which might help contextualize that very last chorus, “Amen”.

So, back to the chorus, let’s ask ourselves what does this word "amen" (of Jewish origin) actually signify? Well, in brief, it is an expression, affirmation and confirmation that something truly is; a “yes”, a “verily”, a “truthfully so” given to... well, to what is this “yes” given, in the oratorio? In the Messiah, the “Amen” chorus follows right after a piece that intones, “Worthy Is the Lamb”: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by his blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing... for ever and ever.” In other words, the “Amen” chorus is preceded and prepared by a brief restatement of the death (on a cross) of the Lamb - and by a statement of the victory of the Lamb over said death (victorious act that is usually expressed through the word, "resurrection").

And what does this word, “resurrection”, mean? Etymologically, it means to rise again (in Latin: resurgere) – or, to rise from the dead (in Church Latin: resurrectionem). And what is “death”? It is, apparently, the radical opposite, the sworn enemy, the end and the destruction, of life.  But! - not here! – as here the Lamb that was slain passes from life temporal – through death – to life eternal (through the act of Resurrection). Thus, “O Death, where is thy sting?”, sing the soloists, in a preceding section of the oratorio... The “amen” that comes at the very end of the oratorio, therefore, does not mark the "end" of the story of Christ - but is a repeated and confirmed affirmation of the fact that there is no end.

The meaning and the aftermath of the act of the Resurrection is, then, the definitive and ultimate victory of life, over death –. and the repeated “amen!” is given to that victory of life. And, listening to this chorus, we hear the musical lines (sung, as it were, by millions upon millions...) flowing up and down, swelling, overtaking each other, overflowing - “amen”, upon “amen”, upon “amen” – an eternalized crescendo of the eternal joy of the victory of life, eternal and glorious. “Amen”, then, becomes an expression of the unending joy of witnessing and of partaking in Life, eternal - in being, accomplished and fulfilled.

As we have seen in the previous installments of our investigation, the state of joy seems to be associated, in a deep way, with being - with the plenitude and the full manifestation of our being. Resurrection, on the other hand, is precisely the definitive victory of being - over and against what apparently is its very opposite, death (and, more broadly, over finiteness, imperfection, temporality, misery...) And this is why I have proposed this equivalence, of “joy as Resurrection” - and why I have used, as illustration, the final chorus from Handel's Messiah – because this final “Amen” seems to be an expression of the joy of Being - Being unending, glorious, victorious.

Indeed, I find this “Amen” chorus so uplifting and moving because it proclaims the eternal victory of Being - through the continuous, repeated, magnificent – joyous – affirmation of the simple yet powerful expression: “IT IS” (“amen”).


And thus we have reached the end (almost) of our inquiry into the category of joy. What remains to be done, still, is to review and to conclusively summarize what we have learned from this week- (or Octave-) long investigation; and that is what we will do in tomorrow’s, final installment of this modest series.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Category of Joy (5)

What is joy? Continuing our investigation...

5. Joy as Sacrifice

At first sight (and not just at first sight), these terms seem incongruous. And, if someone is familiar with Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s experience of the “dark night of the soul”, the picture below might seem slightly inadequate, as well.

What could this mean, then – this, “joy as sacrifice”? Well, let’s just think of the example of the grandmother, as discussed in yesterday’s installment of our little investigative series – who was the “giver” in that relationship of unconditional love, which the receiver lived out as (a condition of) joy; and let us remember that we asked ourselves then whether “joy” might actually be found (felt) at that giver’s end, as well, and not just at the receiver’s. How can we answer that question? Well, what do we know about the “giver” of unconditional love? We know that such giving of (and from) the self is – or implies, inevitably - an act of self-denial, of self-sacrifice – and that, as such, it also incurs, inevitably, pain, as well. So why does the grandmother do that? Out of love, would be the immediate answer – yet this is no sentimental, fluffy, romantic love, but the actual, harsh love of self-giving (giving of the self, and from the self). And, being an act of true love, there is in it – or behind it, beneath it -  a deep sense of joy, as well, a joy that is associated with living out what appears to be the vocation of the human being – which is, essentially, the giving of the self to(ward) the other. (Note that the same act of self-gift, but in reciprocal form, is what constitutes that “unity of man and woman” that was discussed in yet another earlier episode of this series).

It seems therefore that sacrifice is an aspect, or element – perhaps the visible one, the one that we perceive most readily – of what is, at a deeper level, existentially, a mysteriously joyous (?) act of self-gift (“self-gift” that is the true meaning of “love” – far from the sappy, romantic, sentimental, even self-seeking mis-understanding of the concept).

And now let us look at this thing from yet another angle, using the video below, which is taken from a documentary, Into Great Silence, which presents (with little to no commentary) the daily life of the Carthusian monks of La Grande Chartreuse (in France). It should be noted that the Carthusian order is among the so-called “strictest” contemplative orders; for example, the monks spend most of their days – even their time together, at meals or at work - in silence.

But here the aforementioned notion of “strictness” necessitates some further elaboration - and, in order to do that, let’s start by asking, “who are these monks, and why are they there?” The answer is that these are men (from different walks of life, originally, and of different origins) who have voluntarily decided to turn away from “the world”, from the temporal, in order to dedicate themselves completely, bodily and spiritually, their entire time, and life, to God. The aforementioned “strictness” of the order, therefore, is not some externally imposed, arbitrary, nonsensical rule – but it is the personal choice of each of them, to renounce the things that, in their eyes, represent a lesser or a partial good (of the world, of the temporal order), for a greater, eternal good (of God). Here is another excerpt from the same documentary, in which one of the monks talks about how their choice is, in fact, for happiness - a greater happiness.

I have chosen these examples in order to exemplify “the other side”, as it were, of sacrifice. Indeed, their style of life, of these monks, and their discipline, will seem – for many of us – very hard, even harsh; that, indeed, is the “sacrifice” part. And yet this sacrifice is but a means and a path toward what is considered by them a greater goal, a truer end – which is not dissimilar to how in marriage one in fact renounces (a sacrifice) all other possible options, all other persons – in favor of only one person - in the name of a truer and greater love. See below a short snippet (just some seconds, really) from the trailer of a movie, Of Gods and Men, which recounts the true story of a group of Trappist monks from Algeria, from the monastery of Tibhirine; in this very short sequence, an older monk, while in conversation with a young woman from the village, explains that he has known human love (which is a good), but that he has given up that kind of love, for a greater love (i.e. for Love itself).

[that sequence starts at 1:01]

Can there be, then, deep joy in sacrifice? It seems that there is - but not in a superficial, light, easy way. Instead, that deep joy seems to be the specific counterpart of a certain kind of sacrifice – one that is life-pursuing, life-searching, and life-giving. It seems also that this deep joy is associated with – and might arise from - choosing what we start to grasp as the truth of our being - while sacrificing what is only apparently or temporarily (or perhaps selfishly) so. Meanwhile, however, all of this does not remove the sting and the pain of the act of sacrifice. And yet – at least within this temporal human condition – it seems that sacrifice is almost a necessary corollary, even an inevitable condition - for the pursuit of that deeper joy.

Paradoxical, isn’t it? Well, yes, just like Good Friday is the necessary, inevitable, paradoxical path and condition – for experiencing the joy of Resurrection; so much so, that there is no resurrection without the cross. And what is “resurrection”, if not the experience of the plenitude, fullness, and accomplishment of being? But more on these, later.

And, not to leave our initial reference to Mother Teresa somehow open-ended, and inconclusive – and to further explain my initial choice of using her picture – all of this might also reflect how, in Mother Teresa's case, her inner “dark night of the soul” (her inner sacrifice, suffering) became, when turning toward us, the image and the face of unconditional love and inexpressible joy – in a very real way, for so many of us!  But these are not easy things...

So let us conclude by remarking how the state of joy that we are investigating seems to be very different from, and utterly unlike, the easy, superficial state of “having a good time”, or of “being happy” - understood as self-centered satisfaction. Indeed, we see yet again that joy seems to be an essentially outward- and other-oriented state – perhaps because our very being is essentially dialogical, and open toward the other / the Other. Finally, it seems - again - that this state of joy corresponds to a living out of - with a living according to - the truth of our being.

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Category of Joy (4)

Continuing our Easter Octave investigation into the various possible aspects, or meanings, or manifestations, of the state of joy, today let us talk about:

4. Joy as Unconditional Love

As you can see below, in order to illustrate this meaning of the concept of joy, I have chosen the image of a grandmother’s hand, holding her grandchild's hand. I am sure that, for some, an even better representation would be that of a mother’s hand, holding her child’s hand – and that is perfectly fine. There are various reasons for using this image, from my perspective – and one of them is that I consider that a grandmother’s love possesses an added dimension of frailty and vulnerability - of a love given, as it were, without authority – and thus, of gratuitousness - of unconditionality.

Still, this equivalence (and this concept, of unconditional love) is not without difficulties – first of all, because we implicitly tend to look at unconditional love from the perspective of the receiver (because this is how, instinctively, we associate it with the state of joy). But what corresponds to this “at the other end”, of the giver - a “giver” that gives so deeply, without holding back - is there also “joy”? Perhaps we should talk about this in another installment of our modest investigative series. For now, though, let us be satisfied with, and “joyous” because of, benefiting – as receivers– from this unconditional love, and let us look at the concept from this perspective.

Here again, though, we notice that the concept continues to pose difficulties - and I am referring to the fact that unconditional love, instead of being joy, seems rather to provide the condition for joy. What do I mean? Well, let’s take the example of a child (of the grandchild), for whom, more often than not, (the) unconditional love (of a grandmother) passes completely unobserved, being perceived as a natural condition of being, as normality. Later in life, of course, the ex-child will discover that nothing just is – and that what they experienced once as a given, as normality. was in fact something created, sustained, and offered to them, by someone else – mostly, without them observing. But back then, when they were at the receiving end, these children were like fish in the water, basking and swimming in it without care, unawares and unbothered by thinking about the necessary conditions... for the existence of water. And, just like said body of water, unconditional love is life-giving, life-sustaining and life-caring – even if the stupid fish seem to know nothing about it.

Thus, unconditional love seems to provide the condition for being to be - freely, in its natural state - with some good and not so good behavior, with straying and with coming back etc. You know – like the animal, in its natural habitat, doing what the animal does.

Unconditional love is thus connected with joy by being the underlying condition that allows, or that provides, for being to exist. Or, if it is joy, this unconditional love, it is that only at a deeper level, or in a deeper way; for example, at the level of a glorious summer afternoon of play from our childhood – in which we were busy with the rush and with the give-and-take of the play, with all its screams and chases, agitation and laughter – all the while not knowing and not observing that the glorious summer afternoon was – so normal, so everyday-like it all seemed. Unconditional love is like that afternoon – it is, so that we can be.

Later on, during adulthood, the former child will learn to distinguish and to notice the presence of such glorious summer afternoons - by learning to experience their absence. To put it differently, the adult will gradually learn to think about receiving unconditional love – especially in what concerns interhuman relations – as well-nigh a miracle, its possibility so remote as to be effectively dismissed (unless it is received from their still-living grandmother - or mother etc.). Until, of course, it is this adult’s turn (if it ever comes) to give that sort of unconditional love – perhaps as a grandparent - modestly, unknown, self-giving; but that, again, is a different side of the story.

To conclude, unconditional love seems to be the thing that provides the condition and the possibility for being - to be, to manifest itself, to flourish, freely. It is therefore associated with “joy” inasmuch as it seems to provide the condition (remember: life-giving, life-caring, life-maintaining) for the plenitude of being (to manifest itself); and, as this investigation proceeds, we seem to associate  - more and more - the state of joy with a state of plenitude of being

Unconditional love – then – makes being possible – and thus makes joy possible.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Category of Joy (3)

Let us continue our investigation into various hypostases of the state of joy, by talking about:

3. Joy as Marriage

What in the world could this mean? Well, if the term “laughter” necessitated clarifications, this term (and this equivalence) surely does, as well. In order to do that - to look into the ways in which “marriage” corresponds to and is expressive of “joy” - I will employ as a visual aid the following image, of a statuary group from the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington, DC.

the betrothal of Joseph and Mary
(by Vincenzo Demetz, Italy; installed 1961)
So, in what manner would the term “joy” find its manifestation – or one of its manifestations - in “marriage”? Gazing at this image of the betrothal of Mary and Joseph, one is struck (or I am, at least) by a sense of “peace”, of settledness, of “things being right” (impression that is, of course, supported by our contextual knowledge about this couple). Indeed, marriage – that covenant or sacred bond between two people, endeavored before God (see the enlarged image of the chapel, below) – is, according to John Paul II (in his commentary on the book of Genesis) reflective (in its original state) of the perfection and unity of God.

How does that work? Well, according to the mythical story of the Book of Genesis (“mythical”, in the sense that its main concern is not with relating “historical events”, but with revealing some essential truths about the nature and the condition of the human beings), after God created the human being (in Hebrew, adam - which is not a person’s name, but a general term denoting human beings, without determination of sex), the resulting human being looked around and “saw”  that he was as yet unaccomplished, incomplete – that it was alone. In consequence – so the mythical story goes, revealing additional information about the nature of the human beings - God put adam in a deep sleep, and then out of this adam He made man (in Hebrew, ish) and woman (in Hebrew, ishah). Then and thus - and only then and thus - was the creation of the human being accomplished:
“God created mankind in his image;
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:25)

In other words, the perfectly accomplished creation of the human being, in the image of God (i.e. reflecting His perfection, goodness, and unity), is only accomplished in this “original unity of ish (man) and ishah (woman)”. And “[t]hat is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” (Gen. 2:24) – i.e. thus, marriage. According to this Jewish-Christian understanding, then, marriage is a sacred covenant through which the man and the woman live out, together - and, in a way, re-enact - that original harmony and perfection of the original human condition – even if now only imperfectly, and in a flawed manner.

Thus, the image above, of the very Jewish wedding of Mary and Joseph (see, to the right, the young man who leaves, seemingly disappointed, while breaking a stick on his knee - which is a sign, according to Jewish customs, of being a rejected suitor of the bride), seems to embody and to reflect such a moment and state  - which connects them (and us) with, and which re-enacts, that original state of unity and harmony (of the creation of man, in the image of God, accomplished in the unity of ish and ishah). As such, what one “gets” from looking at this statuary group is a sense of peace, of “things being right”, of the world “being set aright” - of all the puzzle pieces finally falling into place, for once.

And it is in this sense that I identify in marriage another manifestation of - and thus set of meanings for – the existential state of joy. Joy, as a deep living out of our being being “at right”; of us being in the right place and in the right condition; before God, who is the source of our (and of all) being.

Note also that marriage is – naturally and essentially - a social, dialogical act; that this state of harmony and peace is attained (or aimed at, imperfectly) only through the common act of two persons, an act that binds them; that it is this covenant in which they enter, together, that endows them (as a couple) with the perfection (again, imperfectly lived out) that we were talking about (the image of the original unity and perfection of the human being). Thus we see, yet again, that joy seems to be a state that is essentially social, or at least fundamentally open toward the other - just like the human being itself is essentially open to - and in need of - the other.

The “Wedding Chapel”
(Cathedral of St. Matthew, Washington, DC)

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Category of Joy (2)

Let us continue our Easter Octave investigation on the category of joy.

2. Joy as Laughter

This dimension requires some work and clarification, as it is quite easy to confuse things, with regard to this term. For example, there is that shallow, self-centered “live, laugh, love” (appalling and unappealing); there is the somewhat “mechanical” understanding of "laughter" as “joking”, or as “telling jokes”; and there is a kind of meaningless, empty laughter, behind which one finds no self, but only superficiality; and there is also the very broad category of humor, much too broad to be used, in its entirety and indiscriminately, in association with this concept of “laughter” - and so on, and so on.

So, what do I mean, then, by laughter, as an expression of that state of joy? To exemplify what I mean, I have appended below a compilation video with scenes from (French comedian) Louis de Funès’ films about “the gendarme of St Tropez”. (This is, of course, only an example, not familiar to everyone – but one can find examples that are more suited to one’s particular experience.) However, the reason why I am using the work of Louis de Funès, and specifically this series of films, is because for me they embody some of the essence of that joyous laughter that I am trying to describe. Namely, that kind of liberating, childlike (not childish), freeing laughter, which raises one’s self out of - and above - the weight of sublunar existence.

Levity – yet not understood as “frivolity”, but in a sense closer to its etymological and historical meanings: as “lightness”, as that force that opposes gravity (as the term was used in pre-modern science) – an expression of freedom from petty, burdensome temporality. This is not, therefore, Kundera’s “unbearable lightness of being” (which actually represents a diminution in being); instead, it is an affirmation of being, of the dignity and transcendence of the human self, over and against the shackles of the sublunar, of the historical, of the material, even.

This is the laughter of children at play (seen quite unsentimentally), and also of grown-ups at play (for example, at a pick-up soccer game, in the afternoon). It is good-natured, good-humored, and well-disposed (with amiable feelings) toward the others – while, at the same time, not taking oneself, nor the others, nor life (in its intra-historical meaning) too seriously. It is thus revivifying and refreshing of the self.

Overall, it is an expression of the love of existence, of the joy of existence – and therefore a manifestation of joy, where joy is a state that expresses the plenitude of being.


At the end of the week, we will synthesize what we have learned from all these individual posts (on the various aspects or dimensions of joy), into one summary conclusion (of sorts) of our "investigation" into the category of joy.