Sunday, April 22, 2012

Good People and Gadamer

David Lindsay-Abaire
A couple of months ago, with my brother, Gav, and friends Jasmina and Donna, I went to see an excellent production of Good People, a play by American playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. The play is a very recent work, first produced in 2011. We saw it at the Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre in Melbourne.

Good People is about a middle-aged man and woman who grew up together in a rough neighbourhood of Boston. The woman is single, still living in “Southie” and struggling to hold down a job and support a disabled daughter, while the man has moved up in the world. He is a doctor, living in middle-class comfort with his beautiful, much younger, academic wife and a healthy child. As the plot unfolds, the audience is led to make an unstable, shifting set of assumptions about why the lives of the two teenage lovers have turned out so differently.

A central theme of the play is the question of responsibility for an individual’s worldly success or failure. Is a person’s social and economic standing a consequence of personal choices and hard work or laziness? Or is it a matter of “luck,” reflecting a complex set of systematic societal influences, over which an individual has little or no control? The play doesn’t limit itself to this right-wing/left-wing alternative; it also suggests that where personal choices play a role, those that lead to worldly success are not necessarily worthy of respect or emulation, since they may involve adapting to systems that demand and thrive on ruthlessly selfish behavior. But stereotypically “good” self-sacrificial choices are equally laid open to interrogation: are such choices really good if they leave the individual who makes them in a miserable situation, and saddle the successful with a corrosive burden of guilt? What is missing in this portrait of a society dominated by the rhetoric of personal choice (and its shadow: a vision of total subjugation of the individual to impersonal systems) is any reliable possibility of mutual care and trust, or political solidarity across differences of class, race and gender. This absence seems to make any convincing form of personal goodness either simply unattainable, or incompatible with worldly success.

Despite the weighty issues at stake there are plenty of laughs in this play, as the characters make clever digs at each other and themselves. But even while you’re laughing, you can’t help noticing that suspicion, resentment, insecurity, and self-loathing seem to form the consistent emotional backdrop to this contemporary liberal drama of personal choice.

Olga Makeeva, Andrea Swifte and Jane Montgomery Griffiths in Good People
I was recently reminded of this play and its message while thinking about a very different approach to the question of how to assess or give meaning to our lives and the way they unfold. In his theory of understanding, twentieth-century German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer gives a lot of emphasis to the notion of “play.” As he describes it, playing involves abandoning any strong sense of personal choice or control, since play “fulfills its ‘purpose’ only if the player loses himself in the play.”

‘Purpose’ is placed in inverted commas here, because for Gadamer, playing is a purposeless or non-intentional kind of activity. It is an activity, but one that shades into passivity: “all playing is a being-played. The attraction or fascination that a game exerts consists precisely in the fact that the play tends to master the players.” This carries a risk which is also a lure: we may become so engrossed in the game that our identity is transformed. Such transformation is not a matter of personal choice or responsibility, since the action or agency of play is located not “in the player, but in the game itself; the game is what holds the player in its spell, draws him into play, and keeps him there.”

For Gadamer, human play finds its “genuine completion” as art. In engaging with an artwork, or allowing it to play upon us, we experience a lucid form of play, a bit like lucid dreaming. We know we’re playing, but we also continue to play, or be played.

What if we were to think (lucidly) of our lives, or episodes in our lives, as games or artworks, in Gadamer’s sense, rather than the rational, inevitable working out of personal choices for which we must bear responsibility? Particularly when things go wrong, either for us or for people who are connected to us, we tend to think or feel that this is a product of choices we made earlier and could or should have made differently. This way of seeing things seems to give us the power to act differently in the future, but it can also lead to a powerful sense of self-recrimination. We can add a lot of intensity to our suffering with these kinds of thoughts.

Mightn’t it be kinder, and closer to experience, to suppose that our lives are shaped not by isolated personal choices, nor by impersonal social systems, but by the games that attract and fascinate us, the different forms of play in which we lose ourselves and are transformed, for better or worse?

Most games are social; you can’t play on your own. That’s why you can’t control or take complete responsibility for the outcome of a game – responsibility is shared. And it is the game, rather than the players, that determines the possibilities of play. On this way of seeing things, if we really desire change, we need to find or create space for a new game to play (or to play us), rather than letting obsessive concern with personal choices keep us blindly involved in the one that’s currently got us in its grip.

As my little niece Scarlett often says to me, with the insistent wisdom of a two-year old, “Let’s play!”

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Meditation for Fiona

This photograph was taken by Tom Sangster, a new Melbourne friend of mine. Among the many lovely images he captured while travelling in Spain, this one especially caught my eye.

A solitary chair stands against the high wall of a cloister with well-defined shadows creating a frame for it – an architecture of light and dark that speaks of gateways between life and death, and a moment of reckoning, or contemplation at the point of passage.

The three-leafed pattern stenciled in strong sunlight at the top of the photograph evokes the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but it also calls up more pagan associations especially since the angle of the photo has slightly elongated the lower petal of the trefoil, or triquetra. If this shape were scrawled on the wall by a graffiti artist, rather than produced by the decorative elements of monastic architecture, it would let us see the fertile force of sexuality present even in this orderly, peaceful place.

Triqutra on one of the
Funbo Runestones in Sweden
This seems appropriate since the triquetra is originally a pagan symbol. It appears on ancient runestones in Northern Europe, and is used by contemporary Germanic Neopagans and Wiccans to represent the division of the world into the realms of Land, Sea and Sky. They also use it as a symbol of triple goddesses such as the Morrígan, goddess of battle, strife and sovereignty.

These associations led me from this luminous image to thoughts of a friend of mine, Fiona, who died in January, just before I went on the yoga retreat which preceded my impromptu flight into the desert. It was a violent death: she threw herself in front of a train. For years she had struggled with mental health problems, which were exacerbated by the side-effects of medication she took in attempting to overcome her suffering. Her death brought back memories of another death that greatly troubled me, that of a young woman who did a doctorate in philosophy at the same university as me. This woman, Mairead, threw herself off the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Like Fiona, she was highly intelligent, attractive and sensitive. She was also suffering from side-effects of medication which had been prescribed to help her sleep.

On the morning of the day I left for Alice Springs, I felt I faced a turning point, or a decision like the one demanded of the reader at the bottom of each page in a choose your own adventure book. Each option is equally available, but will lead to quite different versions of the story. I had three possibilities. I could take an early flight and arrive back in Sydney in time to attend Fiona’s funeral. Or I could catch the afternoon flight I’d already booked and paid for before hearing the news of her death. This way I would miss the funeral, and simply continue along the pre-established track of my life. Or I could embark on an adventure that would take me across a vast, almost shadowless landscape, and give me a sense of opening myself to the intense pleasures, if also the dangers of life. I could live for a few days like a mythical goddess, traveling in a great white chariot, driven by a stranger who fortunately turned out to be a capable and trustworthy charioteer (albeit one who was highly dissatisfied with his chariot, but that’s another story).

I thought that Fiona would have approved of my selection of this third option, or at least empathized with it. But no doubt it was, to a greater degree than either of the options involving air travel, a form of flight. Eventually, I would need to stop, find a seat in a quiet, sunny space, and let myself face the fact of my friend’s death and the difficult emotions it provoked in me.

This finally happened over the Easter long weekend, when I did a meditation retreat at Vejjasala, a healing centre in the Southern Highlands. This is a lovely, tranquil place, recently opened by the Association of Engaged Buddhists, led by a wonderful monk and very dear friend, Bhante Tejadhammo. On this retreat, the first to be held at the centre, one of my fellow retreatants happened to be a psychologist who specializes in grief therapy. At one point we had a discussion about grieving. What I took from it was the idea that to grieve properly, or to help someone else to grieve, you need to let yourself feel the suffering caused by the loss. But to do this without becoming overwhelmed or reacting against the suffering requires a certain amount of equanimity, or peacefulness.

Peacefulness is what we are seeking when we turn to drugs to pacify our anxieties, but I doubt that drugs can ever produce real equanimity. Too often they only dam up the pain, which then accumulates to a point where it must eventually break the increasingly fragile barriers that hold it in, sometimes with terrible results. Equanimity, on the other hand, gives you the strength to let yourself feel the pain, and let it subside, or give way naturally to the next emotional weather pattern.

Bhante Teja mentioned that one of the Buddha’s images of equanimity is that of a mountain standing in the sea. Whether the water is moved by ordinary tides, churned into crashing waves, or unusually serene, the mountain continues to stand there, accepting whatever comes, never running from or refusing any experience. To cultivate this kind of solidity and ability to stay with whatever is happening is a central goal of meditative practice. It is the necessary support for the other practices of love taught by the Buddha: loving-kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy.

This suggests another interpretation of the triquetra, which is often shown with a circle entwining the three interlinked petals. The circle would be the profound peacefulness and solidity of equanimity, which allows the three more active aspects of love to flourish in response to the pleasurable, painful and ordinary conditions of human life and death.


A Gaelic Blessing

Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the gentle night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.

R.I.P. Fiona Gwynne, 1970-2012

Monday, April 2, 2012

Arrietty and the arctic banana

Last Saturday night I went to see Arrietty, a Japanese animé film produced by Studio Ghibli. It’s based on a novel from 1952, The Borrowers, by Mary Norton. Its a title that evokes vague, fond memories from my childhood – probably from the book but maybe also from one of the various tv adaptations. I saw the film at the beautiful old Astor cinema in Windsor, Melbourne, with my friends Jane and Libby and a gaggle of assorted relatives. The occasion was also memorable for my daring choice of choc-top: arctic banana. Jane commented that I was very adventurous, that she, for instance, would never… It was a risk, admittedly, and not every adventure comes off. But anyway, on to the film.

The borrowers are a family of tiny people who live secretly in a house of “human beans” and discretely “borrow” tiny quantities of things they need. In the course of the story, a friendship develops between a human boy and the tiny, agile Arrietty. They help each other, but must part at the end – the boy to face a heart operation, and Arrietty to flee with her parents to find a new home. The borrowers are decamping because the house they are living in has become unsafe. Too many “human beans” have become aware of their existence and a hostile cook (whose foiled antics provoked by far the most laughter from the children in the cinema) is planning to have them trapped by a pest control company.

In keeping with Ghibli’s philosophy, the main message of the film is ecological – in a rather heavy handed speech the boy tells Arrietty that her species is destined to die out, just as many other species have done. The environmental message is also more gently communicated through beautiful drawings of plants and some very endearing insect “extras.”

The film also made me think about how “little” relationships – contacts with others that are brief, apparently random, a bit magical and seemingly inconsequential compared to “big” relationships with “significant others” – can be quietly transformative. Childhood encounters, but also travelling friendships - relationships formed outside of the usual run of life - are sometimes like this. They change you, or open you up, in ways you only become aware of later. Memories of such fleeting connections remain vivid, and their impact clear, perhaps because the time spent together is short, so the impressions you form don’t get blurred under the palimpsest of repeated contact.

In the film, there is a sentimental farewell scene between the boy and Arrietty (which doesn’t appear in the book). Arrietty gives him the peg she uses to put up her hair as a memento, and the boy makes a speech about how Arrietty has given him the desire and courage to get through his operation and to go on living. Although they must say goodbye, he will never forget her - she is a part of him now.

Usually, you don’t have such touching scenes of parting from the borrowers in your life. They appear, they “borrow” something, something they need, something you have plenty of, and then they disappear off into their own lives. When you realise what’s happened, it can be tempting to get upset about what’s been taken from you (your pride and sense of control, mostly), and even to think of such people as pests that ought to be eradicated (or more sweetly, as highly questionable varieties of icecream). But the truth is that you’re sorry to see them go, and fortunate to have been altered a little by what they took and what they gave.