Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Beauty of Being Indirect

"He did not hate the Winter now, for he knew that it was merely the Spring asleep, and that the flowers were resting." -from Oscar Wilde's short story, The Selfish Giant

There are a handful of people from history I would love to share a meal with; Oscar Wilde is one of them. When I first came across his short story The Selfish Giant, I did so because I heard he often read it to his children before bedtime. According to one of his sons, Oscar would always start to cry come the story's end. Once upon a night, his son Cyril asked his father why he always cried at the end of The Selfish Giant. Oscar replied, "Because really beautiful things often makes me cry."

Sometimes, these 'beautiful things' can only be approached through story, through metaphor, through a roundabout way. Maybe that's why a movie like The Passion of the Christ didn't affect me personally as much as the movie The Wrestler did. The first is a straight story of the cross. It's about what happened, it's about going through the 'facts' (or, at least, the facts we have come to know), and the lives of Jesus, Mary, and the disciples. The second, however, is a metaphorical story of the cross. It's about the emotional, spiritual undertones. Pain. Suffering. Exclusion. Isolation. All these play into the scenes of the ripped, torn (human) flesh. All of them are as much about the physical as they are about the emotional, the spiritual. Many would argue that The Passion of the Christ succeeded in being about this, too, but I would heartily disagree. The Passion of the Christ gave us torture, gave us violence, gave us torn flesh, but the context was so stooped in religious controversy (and in religious historical debate), the story failed to connect with many people. And why? Because it was too focused on the facts, rather than the spirit and the truth of Christ's lived experience.

In The Wrestler, we see how scared, how confused, how alone Christ must have felt. It's similar, in a cinematic sense, to what Nikos Kazantzakis did in his fantastic novel, The Last Temptation of Christ. In it, Kazantzakis understood what human beings were missing when they were reading the Gospels. They constantly sought out Christ's divinity without every giving much thought to his humanity, his finite nature. That's not wrong or anything, but I don't think it's much help to us in terms of how we live, how we feel, how we love, or how we forgive. Furthermore, there's a distance that's created from the former approach compared to the latter. When you watch The Passion of the Christ you rarely think, "I am like Jesus. He understands my pain." No. All you (can't help but) think is, "I'm sinful. I would have killed Jesus, too. I could never do what he did for me." But when you watch The Wrestler, one is eerily empathetic to "The Ram's" plight because, well, we've all felt like he's felt before. We've failed in relationships, we've let our family down, we've abused our bodies for the sake and pleasure of others and ourselves. The loneliness, the drugs, the wrinkles in our faces. They all reveal time's toll on us. They all reveal the fact that we will one day die.

To take the analogy one step further, it's as if The Passion of the Christ was all about overcoming death and looking towards eternity, and The Wrestler was mostly about facing death and accepting one's own fate, one's own path into eternity. And what does this have to do with Oscar Wilde and The Selfish Giant? Because in it's final sentences, I was reminded of this narrative, literary, metaphorical power. The way you can hear the same story a thousand times and then, hear it told indirectly and finally 'get it.'

I still don't think I've 'gotten it,' but I do think Wilde has helped me see the Passion story in a new light. In the spirit of hospitality, charity, and comforting the week, the lonely, the down-and-out, Wilde has crafted a simple, short, beautiful story that reminds us (through a different type of garden encounter), of how to be human.

And this, Wilde believes, is what makes us divine.


nateshorb said...

1) you've helped me to appreciate the wrestler even more than i already did.

2) you haven't said much about the selfish giant but you've made me want to read it.

Neville said...

2) Yeah, but I linked you to where you can read "The Selfish Giant"...and it's only about 5 pages long, so telling the story (my way) or any details about it, would do a great disservice to the story and Mr. Wilde. Take 10 minutes and go read it, Nate. It will be a nice, after-church devotion for you.

1) That makes me smile. :)

nateshorb said...

ah! i didn't catch the link first time around. thanks.

Will said...

Wilde is one of the most brilliant, meaningful writers ... ever.

His short stories - almost all of them - are moving, and ripple with the resonance of Good News. Even if he wasn't a believer (and who knows?) he seemed to realize how significant redemption could be.

Thanks for posting this! Makes me want to read them again. Aside from The Selfish Giant I'm remembering my favorite as The Nightingale & the Rose. But The Happy Prince is good, too.
You know, there might be an interesting comparison here between Wilde and Von Trier as artists who repeatedly use redemption/Christ-figures as a theme, without intending 'Christian' messages.