Monkeying with Literature

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/e5/White_chicken_egg.jpg/320px-White_chicken_egg.jpg

This is your brain.
(Photo by Ren West, Wikimedia Commons)

In my final semester of undergraduate study, I took a class called “The Brain and Literature.” I found this class torturous because of its strong scientific bent. We had to peruse numerous articles dealing with neuroscience and psychology. The class was heavy on brain and light on literature. At the end of this arduous course, our professor offered us the conclusion, based on these neurological studies of the effects of reading literature on the brain, that the first and foremost purpose of reading literature is…to have fun.

Huh?

Perhaps it was having to endure this class that made me resistant to the conclusion that literature’s primary function is enjoyment. Perhaps it was the need to have my major—and eventually my career—taken seriously. Am I really going to invest time, energy, and money into the neurological equivalent of a barrel of monkeys? Whatever the motivation, I was determined that literature had a more lofty purpose than tomfoolery and merrymaking.

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This is your brain on literature.(“Chimpanzee Vocalizing” by dsg-photo.com, Wikimedia Commons)

Eleven years later, here I am, after having read one abstruse and ponderous article after another in which the scholar dresses up a good point about a literary work with so many complicated clauses and unnecessary political, philosophical, or religious convolutions. I feel as if we’ve pulled the monkeys out of the barrel and clothed them in tweed jackets, spectacles, and pipes.

The thing is, I’ve always thought reading and interpreting literature—or any art, really—is fun (well, maybe not during my dissertation—okay, yes, then too). I remember teaching a class on Flannery O’Connor once during my doctoral program, while my professor observed; at one point in the discussion my professor wanted to join the conversation and asked if she could “play too.” When a class is going well, “play” is exactly what it feels like. Not that everyone involved isn’t working hard—we’re analyzing, listening, critiquing, questioning—it’s just that the work is accompanied by delight.

Maybe my bristling at the idea that literature is fun stemmed from my not understanding the significance of that fun. At the risk of sprucing up the monkey, I offer this observation of Jacques Maritain’s: “Art teaches men the delectations [pleasures, delights, enjoyments] of the spirit, and because it is itself sensible and adapted to their nature, it can best lead them to what is nobler than itself” (75-6). Literature and the other arts are fun because they meet people where they’re at and hint at even greater delight.

Maritain continues, “[F]rom very far, and unconsciously, [art] prepares the human race for contemplation (the contemplation of the saints), whose spiritual delectation exceeds all delectation, and which seems to be the end of all the operations of men” (76). The arts provide delight, and in apprehending that delight, we somehow know it’s incomplete and that there is greater delight to be had. As a result, we are prompted to seek communion with God. Lewis’s discussion of his search for Joy echoes this notion: “[A]ll images and sensations, if idolatrously mistaken for Joy itself, soon honestly confessed themselves inadequate. All said, in the last resort, ‘It is not I. I am only a reminder. Look! Look! What do I remind you of?’” (220).

Of course, art is not a foolproof sign pointing to Someone Greater. Lewis and Maritain admit the risk of idolatry in the enjoyment of art, not only of the artwork itself but also of the many false gods lurking in the fallen world and possibly in the minds of the author and reader. Perhaps these misperceptions of literature’s delight have brought about the convoluted writing about literature that can turn the chocolate-cake experience of reading a novel into a bunch of wilted broccoli.

At the university I taught at previously, I had a conversation one morning with my department chair. After we bemoaned once again American society’s general lack of regard for the humanities, he mentioned to me that he was adopting a strategy of teaching the texts he enjoyed the most, maybe even assigning the specific passage(s) of a work in which he found the most delight, in hopes that they would elicit greater enthusiasm from his students, most of whom are non-English majors.

What a novel idea! (Pun intended.) If we want students to take literature more seriously, why don’t we show them how much fun there is in doing so? Especially in freshman or sophomore-level, general education classes, perhaps the more we can proffer literature’s delightful qualities and demonstrate how its good-for-you qualities derive from that delight, the more students will see the value of literature and its ability to propel us on our search for the spiritual good of relationship with God.

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Lewis, C. S. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. San Diego: Harcourt, 1955. Print.

Maritain, Jacques. Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry. Trans. Joseph W. Evans. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962. Print.

Love the Lord Your God with All Your Books

book heart

Over the next several posts, I’ll explore how certain passages of Scripture that are essential to the life of a Christian frame the reading and study of literature.

The first of these passages is when an expert in the law comes to ask Jesus which of the commandments is the greatest:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).

How do we follow these two commandments when we read literature? Let’s look at the first one today.

Before people begin to pray or read Scripture contemplatively, Saint Alphonsus Liguori recommends that we prepare ourselves in the following three ways: express faith in the presence of God, perform a short act of contrition or humility, and pray to be enlightened. He advises that these steps be brief but done attentively. I think Saint Alphonsus’s recommendations are also instructive for how we can uphold the first and greatest commandment—“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”—when we read literature.

Express faith in the presence of God

When we read Scripture, we trust that the Father is speaking to us through it—to give us wisdom, solace, correction, direction. The Holy Spirit, when we alight upon a salient passage, resonates within us. Jesus is present with us, interceding for us, helping us draw nearer to the Lord through the fearful, trembling process of sanctification. We are not alone when we read Scripture, and our reading of Scripture grows richer and deeper the more we can quiet ourselves to acknowledge the divine Tutor with us.

Of course, a fictional narrative, poem, or drama is not Scripture; nevertheless God is still present when we read these other texts. The Father still speaks, the Holy Spirit stays alert within, and Jesus continues the project of reconciliation. The reader, on the other hand, often judges there to be a difference, drawing a line between sacred and profane reading experiences. How would the experience of reading literature change, though, if we acknowledged and welcomed the Lord’s presence as we picked up the book? What insights would He give us? What connections would we be able to make? By acknowledging God’s presence as we read literature, we allow ourselves to be guided by His wisdom in our understanding and appreciation of the text.

Perform a short act of contrition or humility

We know that a broken and contrite heart will not be despised by the Lord (Psalm 51:7), but why should we approach a literary work with such humility? Texts composed by fallen, fallible human beings rightly demand that readers approach them with discernment, but the critical eye can easily degenerate into the judgmental eye. Too often we read a text with a variation of the Pharisee’s prayer in our minds: “God, I thank you that I am not like the author of this book” (cf. Luke 18:11).

Our right judgment of a text comes when we are in right relationship with God, and our right relationship with God puts us into a position of humility. Jesus came to reconcile us while we were still enemies of God (Romans 5:10); we can hold no position of superiority over the fallen men and women whose literary works we read. Mind you, I am not saying that we should not read a work critically or find fault with a distorted view of the universe; rather, I am saying that such critical reading should be in submission to the command in Micah 6:8: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Pray to be enlightened

The Roman poet Horace’s twin criteria for poetry that it delight and instruct are worthy petitions to bring before the Lord as we prepare to read a literary work. The Lord desires to teach us, and He can give us insight and inspiration even in texts written by people who have repudiated God. (More on this in a later post.) The lesson we draw may not be a positive one (e.g. “This is how we love our neighbor.”); frequently the Lord will instruct us on something to avoid or show us how the world, the flesh, and the devil inflict pain on His creation. At the same time, however, He can teach us how to respond to such darkness with light and love. God can use literature to point us to the places in the world where restoration most desperately needs to occur.

Can such enlightenment be delightful? It can, if we look past light-hearted entertainment or non-threatening happy endings for a more durable, stout-hearted joy. The gospel teaches us that there is joy even in the midst of sorrow; there is hope even when circumstances are bleak. We can pray that God shine His light within the darkness of a text, to help us locate his divine beam, even when an author thinks it has been completely snuffed out. The discovery that God is truly present in such a text is the deepest joy to be had within literature.

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Mothers, Maidens, and Mistresses: The Story of Women in World Literature

This past week, after spending a few class periods on the literatures of the world’s three largest religions, we switched gears to focus on a subject that is surprisingly underrepresented in world literature: women. It is only surprising when you consider that about half the population of the world is comprised of females, so one would think that the literature that fills the canon of the world’s great writing would consist of a decent representation of writing by and about women.

The reality is that for the large bulk of human history, women have not been given a voice. They have primarily been treated as the subordinate to men, and therefore, lack access to an education to learn how to write, are not provided the opportunity to publish, or are simply oppressed as objects that only have worth fulfilling roles of child-rearing and home-making.

In fact, recently, in 2011, the writer V.S. Naipaul dismissed women writers as “unequal” to him and expressed his criticism for their “sentimentality.”

As a consequence, out of the pages and pages of text in our very substantial world literature volume, (It’s the kind of book that you dread taking to class because how heavy your backpack becomes and how sore your shoulders get) only a handful of selections in the book are written by female authors.

Not only are the texts of world literature written by women rare, but the depiction of women in world literature is typically not positive.

Traditionally, women fill three different roles in literature: mothers, maidens, or mistresses. For example, Gilgamesh’s Ninsun is a wise and loving mother, Penelope is a loyal and chaste wife to Odysseus. Don Quixote’s revered maiden is the sweet Dulcinea, and Ezinma is the good daughter and maiden in Things Fall Apart. Finally, there are a host of Mistresses, ranging from The Odyssey’s Circe and Calypso to Chekhov’s Anna in “The Lady with the Dog.”

The point is that women in the bulk of world literature, most literature for that matter, are depicted as objects—shallow characters that play roles that are essentially interchangeable parts. They lack characterization, they rarely play centrals roles to plot and theme, and readers are not allowed to glimpse the depth of their perspectives, motivations, and emotions within the action of the story. And, very often women are depicted as manipulative and highly-sexualized.

John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse

Of course, these roles are not always negative. In fact, Penelope is a model example of a loyal wife, staying true to her husband even after 20 years of his absence. And Ninsun is the wisest character in the story, passing on her wisdom to Gilgamesh when he reaches a crisis.

However, it is the fact that women across the canon of literature are objectified, filling set pieces in stories that place the male protagonist in the central and most important position. The bulk of literature is comprised of stories about men. Women are just there to nurture, advise, tempt, corrupt, or be possessed by the men.

So, in my world literature course we dedicate block of time to consider texts in which women play central roles, often stories written by women or about women—stories that depict women as subjects, not objects.

The first is Scheherazade, ironically a character in one of the most sexist texts of all literature, The Thousand and One Nights. Yet, Scheherazade is unique among women of ancient world literature.

Scheherazade had read books of literature, philosophy, and medicine. She knew poetry by heart, had studied historical reports, and was acquainted with the sayings of men and the maxims of sages and kings. She was intelligent, knowledgeable, wise, and refined. She had read and learned.

Scheherazade becomes central to the story, risking her life to save he fellow women and ultimately the kingdom itself. She
convinces the king and the reader that women are not manipulative, disloyal, sexual objects.

Scheherezade_tells_her_storiesThe second is Chandara and Mrinmayi from two of Tagore’s short stories, “The Punishment” and “The Conclusion.” Tagore writes these stories in order to present strong, female characters who resist the oppression of their society—one chooses death over dishonor while the other becomes a wife only under her own terms.

Then, we read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and find a woman’s perspective on the oppression of the imposed expectations of women in 19th century American society. Gilman’s cure to her own malaise is to make herself the subject of her own art, to tell her own story. Gilman, a supporter of the women’s movement, gives women a voice.

Finally, we read Egyptian writer Sadawi’s “In Camera,” which tells the story of a girl’s horrible punishment for speaking out in a public sphere. She is beaten and raped for her transgressions. Yet, Sadawi, a woman who devoted her life to exposing the human rights abused of women in the Arab world, gives her female protagonist a voice by putting her situation in the central focus of her visually driven narrative. Hence, the title, “In Camera.”

All of these examples are stories that shift the place of women in literature from roles as objects to characters as subjects, subjects who think, feel, and act as central figures in their own stories. All of these are rare exceptions to the depiction of women in literature.

This act, of studying, the depiction of women in literature also, I hope, reminds my students of another example of women in literature: the New Testament.  For when we observe the norms of placing women into objectified roles, then the gospel’s account of women stands out as Carl_Heinrich_Bloch_-_Woman_at_the_Wellexceptional in the realm of ancient, world literature. You see, Jesus viewed women as subjects. That is clear. For out of the typically patriarchal cultural of the middle east comes stories of Jesus ministering to harlots, offering his message of love and forgiveness to the woman at the well, healing women of unclean diseases, and including women amongst his closest followers. Jesus’s treatment of women falls under the rare examples of stories of human history in which women are treated as they should be, as humans.

DS

Belief Matters, Part 2: Al-Qur’an and Belief

Ten years ago, after the terrible tsunami struck the Northern tip of Sumatra, I found myself serving as head of a small group of volunteers attempting to improve the water quality in neighborhoods of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. I will never forget the day I met my most devout Muslim friend, Imam, as I was cleaning out debris and salt water from the ground-water well outside his home.Now, it is important to note that I had come to Indonesia originally as an English teacher. In fact, I had just finished my Master’s degree and was about to begin my doctoral degree when I was given the opportunity to serve the victims of that terrible disaster that claimed approximately 200,000 lives. It was because of my past experience teaching English in Indonesia that I had been chosen to lead the volunteers there. I was familiar with the culture and, as you will soon understand, I knew enough of the language to get around and get myself in trouble.

Photo/Dita Alangkara, File)http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/12/24/world/2004-tsunami-survivors-recall-how-mosques-stood-firm/#.VSf9p1J0zIU

Photo/Dita Alangkara, File)http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/12/24/world/2004-tsunami-survivors-recall-how-mosques-stood-firm/#.VSf9p1J0zIU

I will never forget the circumstances surrounding my first encounter with Imam because that is the day I learned how little Indonesian I really knew. The submersible pump  I was using to rid the well of salinized, dirty water had become stuck on some debris.  When Imam came out of his house to help me he asked me if the pump was stuck (machet). I became a little concerned when I thought he said there was a corpse (mayet) in the well.  Of course, things got even more confused when I replied, “No, there is just a human head (kapala).” I meant to say, “There is a coconut (kalapa).” So, because of my poor language skills, we were both convinced that the other person saw a dead body in the bottom of the well. In point of fact, it was some palm branches, a pair of shorts, and a couple of coconuts.

Looking back at it today, it seems humorous. But, at the moment it was anything but funny.

We must remember how devastating it would have been for Imam and his family to deal with a body in the bottom of their well. For them, it is so much more than an issue of sanitation. Imam and his family are devout Muslims, and a dead body is a ceremonially unclean thing. Its presence would have had a significant negative religious impact on them.

It was this moment that Imam and I first became friends. And, we would get together a few times over the course of the next couple of weeks and have conversations, largely about religion. In those conversations, it became clear to me that there was a great distinction between Imam’s faith and my own. One of the most powerful differences was that Imam’s faith gave him no assurance for where he would spend eternity. And, as we sat on his tsunami-damage porch surrounded by neighborhoods destroyed by the earthquake and its aftermath and talked about the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, several of whom were close to Imam, there was absolutely no comfort for him and his fellow Muslims that those souls would be in Paradise. “If God wills,” was the only possibility of hope.

This fact struck me as particularly tragic. For, had the tsunami hit my hometown, grief-stricken though I would be, I would have some measure of comfort that my family and friends who had passed would be in a better place. Isn’t that one of the simple and profound aspects of our faith that comforts us all, all of us who have lost some dear?

quranI tell this story to illustrate one of the characteristics of the Muslim faith that we discuss in my World Literature class. The first Sura of the Al-Qur’an says this:

Praise be to God, Lord of the Universe,

The Compassionate, the Merciful,

Sovereign of the Day of Judgment!

You alone we worship, and to you alone we turn for help.

Guide us to the straight path,

The path of those whom You have favored,

Not of those who have incurred Your wrath,

Nor of those who have gone astray.

We can learn a lot about Muslim theology from this first Sura, a passage that is quoted daily by Muslims around the globe.

What does this text teach its readers about humanity?

The people on earth are divided into two groups: 1) the favored and 2) those who have incurred God’s wrath. Those who are favored are those who have followed the straight path. Those who incur God’s wrath are those that have gone astray.

What does this text teach its readers about who ‘God” is?

God is the Lord of Judgment, judging people to either be deserving of his favor or deserving of his wrath. He is the sovereign Lord of the universe. The god of the Qur’an is not a god who acts on our behalf. He sits and judges.

What does this text teach its readers about right or wrong or how to appease God with our actions?

As humans we must attain God’s favor by following the straight path, lest we incur his wrath instead. For Muslims, this verse, recited during prayer five times a day, is a constant reminder that the only way to win God’s favor is to stay on the straight path. Their ticket to Paradise is not dependent on God’s mercy or Grace, but on their own righteous works.

How does this faith contrast with our own faith?

Isaiah 53:6 reminds us that we have all gone astray. In the biblical view, all are deserving of God’s wrath. But, the verse also reminds us that Jesus has shouldered all the iniquities for us all. This is the great assurance that the gospel gives its followers. It is that we know that we are deserving of God’s wrath, but through his grace we have been spared that wrath.

In the 21st century, as we witness the atrocities of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, my students have a lot of questions about Islam. And, although I am unable to answer all of those questions in one class period, I hope my students understand this one thing: one primary belief that motivates a segment of the Muslim population to do such horrible things is the simple understanding that they must win their way to Paradise. They must prove their devotion and righteousness to their Allah. Muslims are literally scared to death that their good deeds will not outweigh their evil deeds and they will spend eternity in hell. At its heart, the problem of militant Islam is a spiritual problem.

Once again, as we observed in our reading of the Hindu Gita,  we are made aware that what we believe informs what we do. Faith matters.

DS

Belief Matters, Part 1: The Bhagavad-Gita and Belief

In my World Literature course my students spend some time reading excerpts from texts that represent the top three religions on planet earth: Augustine’s Confessions (Christianity), The Bhagavad-Gita (Hinduism), and Al-Quran (Islam). I would like to spend two blog posts discussing what we talk about in our literature class pertaining to those texts.

Today, I would like to share just a little about some of what we discuss when we read the Hindu text of The Bhagavad-Gita.

Bhagavad_Gita_LgThe Bhagavad-Gita (Song of the Lord) is a Sanskrit poem from the first century B.C. in which a warrior is instructed in how to fulfill his sacred duty (to shed blood in war) and still continue on his spiritual path to enlightenment.  The Gita is a well-known Hindu text that has influenced poets such and Henry David Thoreau and important Indian leaders like Ghandi.  As a work of poetry, it certainly possesses a distinct sense of aesthetic beauty, and as a piece of literature it utilizes some important rhetorical devices.

We examine the text from both of those aspects. Yet, as part of my student’s exposure to important sacred texts of the world’s largest religions, we also spend a good deal of time on the theological aspects of the poem.

Here are a few of the questions we consider:

What does the text teach its readers about humanity?

Just as the embodied self

enters childhood, youth, and old age,

so does it enter another body;

this does not confound a steadfast man (2.13).

This stanza verbalizes the Hindu belief in reincarnation. Hindus believe that the soul or “embodied self” is reincarnated by changing bodies like we change clothes. Furthermore, when the warrior expresses grief over killing his blood  relatives  he is reminded that, because the self is eternal, “He who thinks this self a killer fail to understand; it does not kill, nor is it killed.”  In other words, those who kill the body are not killers because one cannot kill the soul.

The warrior is also reminded that his purpose in life is to fulfill the sacred duty of the caste to which he belongs. As a warrior his sacred duty includes waging war when necessary to protect his people and defend the faith.

What does the text claim about who god is and what god is like?

In the Gita Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu the supreme god, appears to the warrior in order to instruct him and encourage him to fulfill his sacred duty. At the end of the conversation, Vishnu reveals the “true majesty of his form” to the warrior.

It was a multiform, wondrous vision,

with countless mouths and eyes

and celestial ornaments,

brandishing many divine weapons (11.10).

Arjuna (the warrior) saw all the universe

in its many ways and parts,

standing as one in the body

of the god of gods (11.13).

The supreme Hindu god is a henotheistic divinity. Unlike monotheism, which claims that there is only one true God, and polytheism, which claims that there are a host of gods, henotheistic religions believe there are many gods who are all parts and incarnations of the one, supreme god. Additionally, in the teachings of the Gita the reader understands that all of the universe is part of the god of gods. Creation, including all the eternal souls of men, are inseparable from the body of the supreme god.

What does the text communicate about good/evil, right/wrong?

The sins of men who violate

the family create disorder in society

that undermines the constant laws

of caste and family duty.

The standard of right and wrong is based on the laws that govern the caste system. Doing good means fulfilling the sacred duty of your caste system.

Additionally, when a man gives up desires and is content with only fulfilling his sacred duty, then his insight is sure, or he is on the path to enlightenment, which will eventually end his cycle of rebirth.

How do these theological claims compare or contrast to your own beliefs?Slumdog-Millionaire

It is important for my students to consider the aspects of Hindu belief that contradict teachings of the Bible. While in Hindu teaching humans are eternal, disembodied selves, the Bible teaches that humans are created at a specific time and, while our souls will live on after our bodies die, our bodies and souls are uniquely bound to each other. No reincarnation in Christianity.

Furthermore, the God of the Bible  is the only God and he is holy, separate from his creation. He has always existed, but the universe was created in a particular space and time apart from Him. All the elements of creation, including us, are not God, or even part of God. Only God is holy and perfect.

Finally, there is a moral standard of perfection that is expected of all humanity. That standard is the same for everyone, regardless of race, socio-economic class, language group, geographical location, or gender. And, we have all fallen short of that standard.

We illustrate the reading of the text with a viewing of the film Slumdog Millionaire. The primary reason I show that film is to give students an exposure to the sights and sounds of modern India. For students who have never left U.S. soil, it is impossible to imagine the abject poverty of India and the regular daily occurrence of socio-economic injustice that characterizes life for the vast majority of Indians.

I want my students to understand two simple things. First, despite what our pluralistic society teaches us, all paths to “God” are not the same. There are important, significant, and contradictory differences between the world’s major religions. Second, what you believe really does matter to real people. I know that what I am saying is not politically correct, but I believe it with my whole being. Life experience and scripture both confirm to me that your religious belief and practice makes a real and significant impact on the everyday lives of normal people.

When my students see the children swimming in a dirty river full of garbage or being sold into slavery as professional beggars, I want them to know that those things really happen and that the foundational belief system of Hinduism allows and even encourages those injustices to happen.

There is no doubt that people of religious faiths may stand up and object to human rights’ abuses, and that human rights’ abuses happen on every continent regardless of the prevailing religion. However, India is the way India is in large part to its prevailing religious belief. What you believe makes a real difference in the lives of real people.

DS

The characters who change us

The conversation usually starts out like this:

“What types of books do you like to read?”
“I only read nonfiction.
Fiction is a waste of time when there is so much to learn from nonfiction.”

or worse –

“What kind of books do you read?”
“…I don’t.”

Quite honestly, the latter seems to be the more common response. Both of these responses worry me, and no, it isn’t just about job security. Recent studies have done work to confirm what we fiction readers have been experiencing for decades – reading fiction changes you.

via Book HavenOne of the more recent studies that found a correlation between fiction and empathy was conducted by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the New School for Social Research in New York. Using a variety of Theory of the Mind techniques, Kidd and Castano (2013) found that reading literary fiction, specifically, enhanced the reader’s ability to recognize and understand other people’s emotions. There is much debate about what constitutes “literary fiction” and the study authors are hesitant to pin down their own definition, but the study seems to suggest that readers learn empathy skills from novels that focus more on the psychology and emotions of the characters themselves. Whereas popular novels tend to be plot-driven with formulaic characters, literary fiction presents us with characters who challenge our stereotypes, interrupt our perceptions, and teach us how to understand those who are different than ourselves.

Reading fiction allows us to experience other worlds from a safe distance. When we are immersed in the lives of characters, we can listen in on their internal dialog. Where else are we invited to eavesdrop on the inner conversation that takes place in someone else’s mind?

The Bearing Rein – Nature vs. Art in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News

Oddly enough, as an animal lover one of the first books I can remember reading that helped me “experience” the life of another was not that of a human, but that of a horse in Anne Sewell’s classic, Black Beauty. Told in the first person voice of a horse, I was around age ten when I read the story for the first time and I’ve never been able to forget Beauty’s description of the use of a bearing rein:

“York came round to our heads and shortened the rein himself — one hole, I think; every little makes a difference, be it for better or worse, and that day we had a steep hill to go up. Then I began to understand what I had heard of. Of course, I wanted to put my head forward and take the carriage up with a will, as we had been used to do; but no, I had to pull with my head up now, and that took all the spirit out of me, and the strain came on my back and legs…Day by day, hole by hole, our bearing reins were shortened, and instead of looking forward with pleasure to having my harness put on, as I used to do, I began to dread it.”

Since then, my reading has branched out to considering the stories of humans. When I read Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us, I was forced to grapple with the desperation of a German single-mother living in Nazi Germany. I felt the pangs of hunger coupled with the intense desire to exert control when I read Laurie Halse Anderson’s telling of a young girl’s excruciating battle with anorexia in Wintergirls. When my children’s lit professor wanted us to know what it felt like to be a student with ADHD we were asked to read Jack Gantos’ Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. Even now, as I’ve wandered the roads of East Texas in the past month I’ve entered the world of Noa P. Singleton, a women awaiting what she refers to as X-day as she sits on death row, as she tells me her story via audiobook in first time author Elizabeth Silva’s The Execution of Noa P. Singleton. In fact, I’ve noticed in recent years that especially when I listen to audiobooks, I get so involved in the character’s story that I often find myself making the same facial expressions that I imagine the characters would have while telling their story. Again, odd, but what can I say? These fictional characters somehow become a part of me as I read them.

books_23Another study conducted by Mar, Oatley, and Peterson (2009) also explored the connection between reading and empathy. When observing the relationship between narrative transportation (the ability to “lose” ourselves in a novel’s world) and empathy they stated the following: “It seems that a ready capacity to project oneself into a story may assist in projecting oneself into another’s mind in order to infer their mental states.” The authors point out that more research is needed, but for now, it seems that reading fiction has “important consequences.”

Honestly, the list of fictional characters that I’ve learned from or reference when I encounter a life experience different from my own could go on and on. These stories stay with me in a way that influences how I interact and empathize with the people around me. One of my all-time favorite literary characters taught his young daughter about empathy when he asked her to think about what her teacher must have felt like on her first day of school:

“You’ll never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

- Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

d8a2f6aba69c3cab4037e74dd53d6eb9Reading fiction allows us to try on the “skin” of a character and walk around in it. For every time that I rejoice in a student’s new-found appreciation of a scholarly journal article or climb on my soap box about the value of information, there is an equal part of me that gets excited to talk to people about the place that stories should have in our lives. The next time that you find yourself struggling to understand someone different than you, I encourage you to find a work of fiction with a similar character. The people in our world need us to read fiction so that we can feel with them.

I’ve just scratched the surface on the stories that have influenced me. What about you? What stories have you read that have helped you empathize with someone?

EDP

I Can’t. (or… I Have Rehearsal.)

Maybe you’ve seen the t-shirt.

I can’t.  I have rehearsal.

It’s true, too.  Few people realize what a sacrifice it is to actually be a theatre major or practitioner.  There are so many events, opportunities, organizations, and televisions shows that we give up because rehearsals take precedence.  And in educational theater, we often start one show the minute we close and strike the previous.

Rehearsals are as unique as the production they are supporting.  I almost hate to catalog it here because there are infinite ways to mount a play.  And the hours will look different based upon the producing organization.  High schools will typically rehearse 8-10 hours a week.  Professional companies will rehearse eight hours a day.

At ETBU, we typically rehearse four hours each evening.  This is on top of the standard academic work day.  And every show receives 4-6 weeks of work, depending on its complexities and specific needs.

The calendar order looks a little something like this:

Table work.  This is the time when the actors and director (and possibly other support staff) read through the script as a company.  Often these rehearsals are used to discuss changes in rhythm or mood.  Difficult passages may be the focus or even correct pronunciation of unfamiliar words.  Dialects are honed.  Some directors limit this work to just a couple of days.  Others may spend a few weeks at the table, making sure the actors are comfortable with the text prior to staging.

Blocking rehearsals.  Visual storytelling should support the text.  As Hamlet advises the players in Shakespeare’s masterpiece, “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.”  If you see a play in a foreign language, the movement alone should give you an understanding of relationships, power, and conflict.  So you cannot underestimate the importance of good blocking.

Our rehearsals at the university tend to start off organically.  This means the actors are allowed to explore the space and define their characters bringing their instincts, preparation, physicality, and research to each scene.  We can find some really lovely moments this way, as they come up with their own ideas for motivation and action.  As a director, my job is to guide them into the strongest choices.  I always have to keep in mind what the audience will see and how they will interpret our spatial relationships.

Fine tuning the blocking can last throughout the entire rehearsal process.  Some moments are really difficult to stage, and choices made early in rehearsals may be scrapped entirely and reconstructed in an effort to make the emotion and storytelling stronger.

A dance rehearsal for Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca.  Produced by Baylor University.  Dr. Marion Castleberry, Director.  Photo by Sarah Chanis.

An early dance rehearsal for Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca.
Produced by Baylor University. Dr. Marion Castleberry, director. Photo by Sarah Chanis. 2009.

Special rehearsals.  Typically, these work days focus on a production’s additional needs such as choreography or set changes.  If a play is dance heavy, then choreography needs to be the focus early on so that each subsequent rehearsal reviews and polishes.  The same could be said for fight choreography.  It’s essential to commit these to muscle memory early so that later additions such as lighting, costuming, and an audience don’t distract the actor and result in injury.  Additionally, scenic rehearsals facilitate quick set changes and prevent the loss of the audience’s attention.

(Side note: I saw a play mounted at Actors Theatre of Louisville that had a twelve-minute fight scene involving sixteen actors.  When I asked members of the company how long it took to rehearse the fight, they replied 40-50 hours.  Respect.)

BW Rehearsal 02

A polishing rehearsal for Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca.
Produced by Baylor University. Dr. Marion Castleberry, director. Photo by Sarah Chanis. 2009.

Lines-off rehearsals.  No more scripts on the stage.  In addition to the work put in for academics, production work, and rehearsals, actors have also been carving out time to learn their lines.  This takes discipline and several weeks to master—depending upon the size of the role.  During these rehearsals, actors are allowed to call for “line” and the stage manager will read it to them.  Hopefully they immediately pick up and go with it.  However, sometimes these days feel like one step forward, fourteen steps back.  It all depends on how prepared and confident the actors are.  At some point, usually about a week after the first lines-off rehearsal, we institute a “no-more-line-call” policy.  It’s sink or swim.  It’s vicious.  And I like it.

BW Rehearsal 03

A dress rehearsal for Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca.
Produced by Baylor University. Dr. Marion Castleberry, director. Photo by Sarah Chanis. 2009.

Polishing rehearsals.  The last few days prior to going into tech rehearsals are where some of the best work happens.  The blocking is set.  The lines are solid.  Now the actors work on emotional truth and connection.  New discoveries are made and new risks taken in almost every rehearsal.  It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the entire process.  The really difficult scenes may get a lot of work here; in essence, everything is done to make sure the performance of the actor is worthy of an audience.

Because our goal is to tell a good story.  Always.

Later, in another blog post, I will talk about tech and dress rehearsals.  Those are beasts in and of themselves.  But for now, if you see a theatre major, ask them if they are in rehearsal.  Ask them what they are doing in rehearsals.  Ask them how many hours they put in.  Be invested in the work they do.

Just to have that work–those hours–acknowledged is reward in and of itself.

TEL

Don’t “Let it Go”: Why I Wish my Five year-old Daughter Would Watch More Frozen

A few weeks ago I was flipping through our movie collection asking my five year-old daughter which movie she would like to watch. When I came to Frozen I was shocked that she turned it down with a hint of disdain in her voice. I was surprised because until that moment Frozen had been her most favorite movie, by far.

Now, probably much like every other parent of an elementary aged child, I must admit that I know every line of the film by heart because of the sheer number of times we have viewed the film. I should be overjoyed that she has grown weary of Elsa, Anna, and Kristoff’s adventures.

Yet, I find myself quietly disappointed that she has moved on from Frozen.

Let me explain why. Unlike a number of Disney princess films Frozen avoids the objectification of women.

The objectification of women, as my World Literature students know, is a common motif in literature and it has been since the oral story tellers of Gilgamesh first began recording their story on clay tablets in the second millennium B.C. Women have been objectified in the ancient writings of Mesopotamia through the Greek epics and tragedies and on and on until the advent of godaddy.com commercials.

Literally the term objectification is more than a catch word for the ideology of feminism; it is simply the act of making a woman into an object. As such, women in literature are typically depicted as either maidens, mothers, or harlots. The three roles are interchangeable between stories. Hence, the motherly character of Ninsun in Gilgamesh is very much akin to the wise goddess of classical Greece. The unfaithful wife in A Thousand and One Nights has much in common with Circe and Calypso in The Odyssey.  On the other side, though, the male heroes Odysseus, Gilgamesh, and Oedipus all have rich character traits that make them unique from one another. Let’s face it, the one story of the world’s greatest literature is by and large a story of masculinity.

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus (1891) by John William Waterhouse

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus (1891) by John William Waterhouse

I want my daughter, though, to embrace female heroes that possess rich characteristics, women of literature like Scheherazade, who saves her nation by telling stories, or Tagore’s  Chandara who would rather die than live under oppression. Ultimately, I want my daughter to grow up wanting to be a strong, independent woman who is an active participant in her own story, very much like the kind of woman her mother is.

When we think about Disney princess films, though, more often than not they are stories of princess objects—characters that are interchangeable with one another, characters who lack depth and uniqueness. Most Disney princesses are passive characters led along through the story in order to find the prince. They rarely take an active role in their own story.

Let’s take Snow White as an example, the first Disney princess movie, and the model of princesses that came after her. In the final, climactic scene of the film in which our princess overcomes the crisis and fulfills her potential Snow White is objectified. She is depicted sleeping with arms folded across her chest in a chaste repose awaiting the prince to come and bless her with the kiss of true love. She becomes the princess object simply by passively receiving a kiss and waking up to marry the prince. The mise-en-scene objectifies her as a chaste, even angelic, maiden in the shot below. Snow White is anything but a subject who is active in her own story. 

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In contrast is the climactic sequence of Frozen. In the scene Anna, who dreams of becoming a Snow White-like princess finding love at first sight, instead chooses to turn away from her chance at uniting with her love interest, Kristoff. She makes the choice to turn from romantic love and actively sacrifice herself for her sister. The subtext of the Snow White princess motif is subverted when Anna chooses a true act of love—giving her life for her sister. This is the “true” love that is celebrated in Frozen. And, that is the type of love I want my daughter to strive for, the kind of love also modeled by Christ. 

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Don’t get me wrong, I like Snow White as much as any other dad. And, in our home all manner of Disney princess movies will never go out of style. Yet, if there is a Disney princess I want my daughter to emulate, it is the princesses of Frozen, the princesses who take an active role in giving their life for others.

DS

Connection (or… The Void)

This week one of my colleagues suggested I discuss how we connect with a production.  And, in reflection, each one has a different… love story.

Initially, we certainly hope to be touched by the narrative itself.  We all have our favorite novels, short stories, movies, or television shows.  There is something about them that we delight to revisit every now and then.  Maybe it’s the action or the setting.  Maybe it’s the language or the character relationships.  Maybe it’s the big mess of feeling we are left with at the conclusion.  Perhaps there is something satisfying or redeeming about the work.  Surely, it’s some fantastic combination of all of these.

In order to spend several months on any particular work, we must find something we desire to be a part of.  Something much bigger than ourselves.  Something that speaks to our own need for connection.

Connection.  That’s a huge reason why we do what we do.  And it starts with a connection to the playwright’s voice.

We are constantly reading.  New plays appear on the market all the time.  We listen to suggestions from friends and critics.  We seek out historical work with a timeless message.  The search is relentless for that one play or musical that grapples with our heart strings and illuminates a part of our own journey.

Connection.

When I set out to find my thesis play–a work I would spend months researching, rehearsing, and ultimately writing a 200+ page thesis on–I knew it must capture my soul.  It had to combine characters I would adore with a journey that would rend my heart.  I found it in Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.  Every single act ended with a page-turning climax.  The characters were both noble and flawed.  And their over-arching desire was to be loved.  To be loved.  Loved for who they were… in spite of who they were.  Battlefield skirmishes, honorable sacrifices, swordplay, poetry and unquenched desire set in seventeenth-century France?  What’s not to love?  It grabbed hold and would not let go.  It filled that void inside me… a need to be a part of something bigger than myself.  Something nobler than myself.  Something more beautiful.

From Act III of Cyrano de Bergerac (Photo Credit: Sam Hough)

From Act III of Cyrano de Bergerac
(Photo Credit: Sam Hough)

Cyrano and I connected.  And I poured myself into the process.

As a director, designer, playwright, or actor, so much of yourself goes into a production.  When your work is torn down or criticized, a little piece (or a huge chunk) of your confidence goes with it.  But I know of no other way to honor the work than to fully invest my own self in it.  Because I’m asking every one of my collaborators to make a personal investment as well.  So the choice must be to select something that feeds your creative soul.

So what happens when you don’t have a say in the choice?

You still have to find your way in.

When ETBU’s School of Fine Arts decided to do Sunday in the Park with George as its huge centennial celebration production, I didn’t really know much about the show.  However, people I trusted loved it and recommended it.

All throughout the summer prior to casting and rehearsing, I tried and tried to connect with it.  I read it over and over.  I researched it.  I watched the original Broadway production repeatedly on DVD.

Nothing.  Nada.  Zip.  I wasn’t connecting to it on any level.  Not the story.  Not the music.  Not the message.  Not the characters.

We finalized the design.  Nothing.  We held auditions.  Nothing.  We started rehearsals…

It wasn’t until I saw the students grapple with the difficulty of the piece that I found my way in.  I would come to love this show because I loved them.  Every one of them.  And I think we were all a little terrified of the challenge before us and deeply grateful that we were not alone in the process.

Act I Finale from Sunday in the Park with George (Photo Credit: Lindsay Steele)

Act I Finale from Sunday in the Park with George
(Photo Credit: Lindsay Steele)

Sunday in the Park with George is ultimately about the sacrifice and work it takes to make great art.  It’s about the compulsion to create and the need to make our mark through excellence.  But it doesn’t sugarcoat the end result which is often marred by the struggle to find balance and priority in the midst of the creative process.  It can get ugly, gritty, short-tempered, and self-absorbed.  George is also about connection and, conversely, disengagement.  Somewhere in there is a cautionary tale about the cost of art… and what happens when we mix up our priorities and fail to invest in those who invest in us.

Disconnection.

It’s odd, really.  We examine all kinds of human disconnection through this unique collaboration we call theatre.  Play by play we look at selfishness, fear, manipulation, rejection, and neglect.  Play by play we also examine generosity, courage, perseverance, grace, and sacrifice.  And we apply what we learn to our own lives and worldview.  We know intimately the God-sized hole in our own hearts and the many things we try to fill it with.

So by the end of my time with both Cyrano and George, I had become acutely aware of the respective sacrifices and hardships they explored, and my own life became the wiser for it.

We are made for connection.  And theatre, through its timeless tales and characters, connects people across history, across miles, across the curtain line, and across the stage.

…yet another reason why I love this discipline so much.

TEL

You Should Do Shakespeare! (or… How We Choose Our Season)

Once, after a performance of a contemporary play, a patron told me, “You should do Shakespeare.”

Sometimes it’s hard to find the grace to respond with kindness when I’d rather be banging my head against a wall.  Repeatedly.  Then I remind myself… they don’t know the whole story.

ScriptsChoosing a production season for any theatre, whether professional or educational, is a painstaking process.  We can agonize over it for months before we commit to next year’s work, essentially because there are several criteria that guide our selection of a play.

I’d like to share those with you.

1. Is the cast size consistent with the talent in the department?

It is folly to choose a show we have no hopes of casting.  Though our productions are open to the entire student body, we have found that only those who have a deep love for the theatre are willing to commit to the demanding schedule required of any show.  This limits the size of the cast and, as a result, the type of shows we can do.

2. Does the production have academic and thematic merit?

We are a university committed to the intellectual growth of our students.  If we say we want them to think critically, then the material must demand intellectual inquiry through skillful storytelling and ask the participants thought-provoking questions regarding the content.  Wrestling with great literature helps our students think and problem solve beyond everyday expectations.

3. Has the play been recognized for excellence?

This is closely tied to #2.  Usually those plays that have been popularized through strong word-of-mouth reviews, legitimate awards, or favorable critiques provide the richest academic and artistic challenges.

4. Will the demands of the show exceed our budget or workforce?

Selecting the wrong show can sabotage an entire department in one of two ways: we can break the bank by committing to a play that demands too much of our budget or we can break our backs by selecting an overly ambitious show that will drain our workforce.  With a season of at least four shows, we must find a healthy and economically sound balance.

5. Will the experience stretch, challenge, and grow our students (both on stage and behind the scenes) in a way that prepares them for professional or graduate-level academic work?

Students should experience a wide range of genres, forms, and styles from across history to better understand the discipline.  We must also prepare our students for the real world by engaging them with the work out there now.  They are challenged to make bold choices, take risks, engage their faith, and set their boundaries.  It’s not all black and white, and our students must know how to dialogue about their limits in a profession that won’t necessarily sympathize with them.

6. Does the play reflect the faith and values of the institution?

This question is best answered by our Theatre Arts and Christian Worldview statement found on our website and in our programs.  In short, we absolutely want to maintain the integrity and mission of our university.  We love to discuss the redemptive, cautionary, or unresolved conflicts found in the work we do.  As a result, we often schedule talkback sessions after particular performances to help answer the difficult questions.  Our goal is to balance the needs of our students with the expectations of our patrons.

7. Is it something we personally want to work on for 6-9 months?

That’s about how long we spend on any one show, often overlapping the various needs as the schedule demands.  While one show is in performance, another is being designed, while another is being researched and conceptualized.  If we aren’t passionate about the work we have chosen, the end product will suffer.

2014-15 Production Season

2014-15 Production Season

I love Shakespeare’s work and would welcome the opportunity to produce any one of his histories, comedies, tragedies, or romances if we can do the play justice.  However, large cast sizes, multiple male roles, few female opportunities, lengthy run times, multiple sets, iambic pentameter (with numerous variations), difficult thematic content, and some of the most beloved stories ever told make his work a significant challenge for a department of our size.

So we work to grow.  We try hard to recruit top-tier students.  We train them in voice and movement, acting and design, analysis and history.  We build our stock of period clothing, weapons, and props.  We dream big and problem solve within the limitations of our facilities.  We press on in the hopes that one day we will do Shakespeare.

But until that time comes, we strive to meet the immediate needs of the department in a way that gives students opportunities that are just as rich and rewarding.  Maybe it will be Miller, Ruhl, Brecht, Molière, or Sondheim, but it will be just as worthy.

TEL