My performance of Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu’s brief Interlude to Water, the fourth piece in his Pleiades Dances I, Op. 27, for solo piano.
There are long stretches in Martin Scorsese’s new film Silence that are so, well, silent, I couldn’t help but notice a faint, persistent clacking noise coming from behind the theater wall next to me, to my endless irritation. I’m not sure what the sound was, maybe the movie next door, or perhaps the HVAC unit or something. There is a similar maddening sound that emanates from the walls of my house in the early morning when I get up for a few minutes of prayer, trying to find some holy peace and quiet to no avail.
What drives me craziest about trivial noises and distractions in moments like this is that God does not seem to want to comply in producing the divine, reverent atmosphere I think he should, given the spiritual significance of what is taking place. It is akin to that feeling you get when you attend a funeral and realize everything outside keeps tumbling along and buzzing as if nothing’s happened.
Throughout much of Silence, Father Rodriguez seems to share a similar indignation, granted on a more intense and dramatic scale. In the movie, and the book especially, he finds it hard to come to terms with the sheer indifference of the world in the face of spiritually significant events, especially suffering. Christians are crucified in the sea, and the waves just rumble along unassumingly. A peasant is beheaded in the stale afternoon heat without so much as a flicker of shade or gust of wind. There is no rending of the heavens which Rodriguez has imagined would accompany the death of a martyr. Only blithe ordinariness, the absence of the divine, the worst kind of silence.
The epiphany I experienced the end of the book/movie—which is tough to put into words because it is the culmination of the story (at least for me)—is that there is no divine absence where there is compassionate human presence. Perhaps we flatter ourselves when we assume that the voice calling out in our head for justice is our own; perhaps that it is the voice of God, the shattering of the silence. To paraphrase Rodriguez, even when God seems silent our lives may speak of him. Indeed, our lives—our actions, our thoughts—bear witness.
I often turn to nature in times of spiritual searching, or even just spiritual wandering. I see divine significance in the grandeur of things like waves and clouds and stars. I’ve also felt incredibly lonely sometimes gazing at these things, at how far away God seems from this beautiful wreck of a creation he left behind (if the stars are millions of light years away, how much further their creator?). And yet, sometimes maybe looking and listening for God somewhere out there is looking and listening in the wrong direction.
I’ll be upfront and say I haven’t read One Thousand and One Nights (a.k.a Arabian Nights) the collection of Middle Eastern folk tales from which inspires the title and, I’m assuming, the content of Salman Rushdie’s novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (do the math). As such, I’m sure there are all sorts of allusions I probably missed in the novel. Even so, I found much to admire in this story, which presents a modern allegory of the ever present tug of war between reason and unreason. It is a particularly powerful read during this current election season.
Here’s the main gist of the tale: a rift has appeared between the thick layers that separate our world from “Peristan” (i.e., the fairy world), and mischievous Jinn (i.e., genies) have seized the opportunity to travel to earth and mostly wreak havoc, save one peculiar princess who has a soft spot for mankind. The Jinn are the personification of irrationality, driven largely by hedonism, violence, and mindless bravado, and thus, wink, are an apt avatar for most people in the news these days. To save mankind, a special tribe of humans must join the aforementioned princess to defeat the Jinn, and thereby restore reason and sanity to the world. Ironically, they must first forgo reason and unleash their own dormant Jinn powers within to do so.
While incredibly thoughtful, the story is also surprisingly fun, which makes it particularly enjoyable. It is told from the perspective of our future descendants, who refer to us as their “ancestors,” which is interesting to think about: how will people 1,000 years from now view this time? In Rushdie’s future society, it turns out all unreason has finally been conquered, leaving everyone to live rational, productive and peaceful lives. So what could be the downside? Well, read it and find out. Suffice to say, we need both the rational and the irrational—reason and unreason—to fully experience life. It’s finding a proper balance that’s the rub.
warning: mild spoilers
I’ll begin at the end. As The Revenant came to a close, my dad leaned over to me and whispered something about the reverent atmosphere as people noiselessly began to rise and leave the theater. I nodded in agreement. We stayed through the credits, listening as the music unwound in plaintive strings, and then walked to our cars with little conversation, uncharacteristic of our usual post movie talks. I can honestly say the film left me speechless. The astounding, visceral counterpoint of beauty and brutality pounded through my internal walls, pressing me into a place of quietude.
When you work in a windowless corporate office five days a week, you tend to romanticize nature. Admittedly, when I saw the early trailer for The Revenant, I was looking forward to a bit of escapism amid the towering, high-def shots of snow crested Montana, ready to imagine life as a frontiersman on a harrowing adventure. Yet for all its unflinching gore, mysticism and unbelievable survival scenarios, The Revenant somehow eschews escapism and feels deeply, fundamentally real. Its exploration of family and friendship, racial hatred and human evil is not only timely, but urgently so, for a modern world which has somehow managed to become more volatile and uncivil than ever under the reign of technology.
The Revenant returns to a simpler time to lay bare the human condition, and in so doing dares our jaded culture to give a damn. How sad it takes such an intense portrayal of physical and spiritual suffering for some of us to feel something, anything—and even then not everyone is moved. In one poignant scene, when Glass hugs his seemingly resurrected son, only to wake and find he is grasping a tree, the couple next to me could not suppress a laugh.
I found The Revenant to be neither hopeful nor despairing, it just is in the way the best poems are. It speaks to themes that are hard to put into words, but deeply felt—above all, for me, how such brutality can exist in a world of such boundless beauty. When Fitzgerald suggests that his father found God, a fat squirrel in a tree, and “ate the son of a bitch,” it actually seems perversely just, in a way. Yet, we are subtly reminded of the creator’s sovereignty a few scenes later, when the camera pans up to towering birch trees, revealing a squirrel’s nest above (thanks to my dad for pointing that out). It is, of course, in final deference to the creator that Glass at last finds peace.
I’ll end now at the beginning. After the devastating opening sequence, the film cuts to a rushing river, a symbol of life but also power, even danger. As one character observes, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. The same may be said of this film, which bestows a kind of dignity to human suffering and yet takes away the illusion that we can escape it.
This is my interpretation of Floral Dance by Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu. It is the first piece in his solo piano suite Pleiades Dances I, Op. 27 (1986). Learn more at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pleiades….
they are born to summer breeze
gone with autumn leaves
“Why don’t we have a word for the utterance between laughing and crying?” -The Dog Stars
The first thing you notice is the broken prose—but coming from a broken man, it seems fitting. Higgs, the protagonist of Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, speaks in halting, rambling phrases that blindside you from time to time with their power and insight. There is a familiar state of being in this novel, a space between beauty and tragedy, in which so much art seems to dwell. And it’s in that state that Higgs confronts the void of a post-apocalyptic world—through poetry, through fishing and flying, and most of all through genuine companionship. As I write this, I’m reminded of so many recent tragedies, in which the horror of life assaulted is blunted by the beauty in those who respond and rebuild. In times such as these, The Dog Stars is a respite and an honest reckoning.