Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Drama of the Individual

Some years ago, I contributed my conversion story to the website Why I'm Catholic. (It might be the most widely-read thing I've ever written, since the site says it has clocked up almost fifty-eight thousand views.) In that account, I was rather harsh upon the religious education in my Catholic school, writing this:

The religious instruction we received was poor, apart from our first year, where an old and intensely loveable nun taught us about the mysteries of the rosary, the Fatima apparitions, the story of Maximillian Kolbe, and other solid fare. After that, religion class became, more or less, a succession of inspirational videos (mostly feature films like Shadowlands and Not Without My Daughter) and pop psychology. I don't really blame our religion teachers for this. My generation had become so hardened to religion, through the propaganda of television and pop culture, that catechesis had become almost impossible. Whatever doctrine the teachers did try to impart was met with taunting questions and smirking incredulity, for the most part.


The funny thing is that some parts of that religious education-- and, ironically enough, the very parts that I singled out for criticism here-- have stuck in my memory, and have been coming into my mind a lot lately.

The inspirational feature films that I complained about, for one. I don't remember a thing about Not Without My Daughter, but Shadowlands has become one of my very favourite films. The memory of On Golden Pond also remained with me, and I bought the DVD recently. Then there was The Brady Bunch Movie, Ironweed and Regarding Henry.

Over time, I've taken more and more pleasure in the memory of those viewings. I don't know if it was anything I felt at that time. It must have been latent, I assume, or I would have forgotten all about them.

It was the context in which we were viewing them that makes me remember them, and hark back to them with pleasure. The whole reason that these films had an impact upon me was that we were watching them with a moral purpose-- they were supposed to be good for us. Chesterton says somewhere that adults err when they suppose children hate moralism in stories. In fact, children love moralistic stories. Well, I was hardly a child when we were being shown these moralistic feature films-- I was in my mid-teens-- but I certainly enjoyed, even if it was at an unconscious level, being shown movies for the good of my health. Ultimately, I think the reason this appealed to me was very simple and very ordinary-- it was simply the feeling that somebody cared.

But it went deeper. It was the idea that life was a big deal. It was the idea that life, the human experience, was worth analysing-- not academically, not theoretically, but as one wayfarer on the journey to another. I said in another post that, back when I was not practicing a faith, I always felt a strange hunger for sermons, and wanted to be sermonised. Well, this is the same principle-- I yearned for pastoral guidance, for paternalism, for somebody to give me advice and admonition and encouragement. I wanted a hand on my shoulder. But I didn't just want it for myself. I wanted it to be out there. 'Live and let live' I still consider to be one of the most depressing philosophies imaginable. I consider that staple of newspaper cartoons, the fellow carrying the 'End is Nigh' placard, to be a public benefactor. I admire grafitti artists who scrawl anarchist slogans on walls. I think crackpots obsessed with the Freemasons are to be lauded for their public spirit. And I guess this blog is my equivalent to all of those things.

Anyway, the memory of those films-- which were a kind of filmic hand in the shoulder, if only in the spirit in which they were shown- remains with me.

Another thing that remains is the very 'pop psychology' I complained about in the conversion story, too.

Once we were asked to draw a picture, incorporating various elements like a tree and a house. The teacher came round to look at each of them and comment. She told me that the tree I'd drawn was very large and it represented my perception that finding a life partner was very important to me. I remember how hideously embarrassed I felt at that moment. And yet even then I knew that, whether it was coincidence or not, the test was right. Ever since I was a little boy, I'd craved love of that kind, so that even looking at scenes of domestic life in advertising filled me with a wistfulness I hardly understood.

Another time, we were given the questionnaire (or a questionnaire-- I don't know if there's only one or not) for the Myers-Briggs personality test. This is a personality test based on the theories of Carl Jung. You fill out a questionnaire and the answers tell you what personality type you belong to. The personality types are all permutations of four different letters. My questionnaire answer revealed me to be an INFJ. I liked the description, and I especially liked the fact that INFJ was the rarest of all the types. (I've subsequently read that self-testing is very unreliable.)

In any case, I was rather besotted with the idea of being an INFJ-- with the whole idea, in fact, of personality types. Or even of personality itself. There is something mysterious, even mystical about personality. A person has so many drives, impulses, desires, appetites, principles, whims, and so forth, that there seems something miraculous in the fact that these do not add up to complete anarchy, but that there is instead a unity running through them all. And the fact that is it an enigmatic and elusive unity only makes it more fascinating.

In fact, I am fascinated with what I might describe (as I did in my blog post) as the drama of the individual. One human being-- one heart, mind, pair of legs, pair of arms, set of memories, etc.-- is, as the Midrash puts it, a world entire. There is no end to the things that could be said about each and every one of us. An event, an atmosphere, a relation takes on infinite importance simply because it is happening to somebody. We are like glow-worms that throw out, not light, but significance-- and an endless radiance of significance. An enormous painting of a landscape takes on a whole new meaning if one solitary, tiny figure is shown against it. The tiny figure makes the landscape far larger than it would have been otherwise.

And the internal landscape, the landscape of an individual soul, is itself almost inexhaustible. I like the Neil Sedaka song 'The Other Side of Me':

Why can't you see
What's on the other side of me,
The side of me that reaches out to you?
Sweet thoughts and dreams,
Like drops of rain on rippling streams
That wind and bend,
Rivers with no end,
Flowing on the other side of me?

Not just rivers with no end; but mountain ranges, oceans, caves, cities, deserts, jungles, plains, and the tracts of space...all inside one human soul.

It isn't only the thought of the immensity of each human soul that captivates, but the thought of its drama. Human life is so inherently dramatic. Even someone who is house-bound all her life, who never meets more than a handful of people, lives a life of such intensity, and such variety, and such range that all the resources of metaphor-- space travel, war, mythology, exploration--- strain to express it. Sometimes, indeed, the whole outer world seems to me like little more than a projecting screen for the mysteries of the human spirit. The world is smaller than the soul.

This inherent drama of the human soul is, I think, built into some of our most habitual activities-- principally storytelling, dreaming and (to go its very foundations) imagination itself. And, the more you think about these activities, the more strange they become.

By storytelling, I mean it in all its senses-- from writing a novel to daydreaming about the person sitting beside you on the bus. I think human beings can no more stop telling stories-- to themselves, as well as to others-- than they can avoid breathing. We live our own lives as stories.

Dreaming, too, is very strange. Think about it. Every night we slip into a private reality, which we think is real at the time. (At one time in my childhood, this idea suddenly terrified me and I was frightened to go to sleep. I didn't want to be deluded.) But the really surprising thing about dreams is their creativity. I can easily imagine a state of things in which we didn't dream at all. But, given the existence of our dreams, you might expect them to have a certain plausibility--- to occur in the same settings as our everyday lives, to be concerned with the same round of daily activities. Instead we dream of kayaking with Dracula, and being chased by mastodons, and so forth. Indeed, I've had dreams that would be impossible to describe. (By the way, I hereby copyright the phrase 'kayaking with Dracula'.) I often wonder if this extravagance of our dream life is what took us from being the wimps of the Pleistocene era to masters of the world and explorers of the solar system. Perhaps we conquered reality through the road of fantasy.

Ultimately, though, both our propensity for storytelling and our dream life are rooted in that more basic capacity-- the imagination itself. The human imagination must be one of the most sublime of all subjects for thought. It was a favourite theme for poets, back in the eighteenth century. ("The Pleasures of Imagination" by Mark Akenside is one of those poetic 'hits' which have been forgotten utterly by popular taste.) As with dreams, the more we think about the imagination, the stranger and more miraculous it seems.

The human mind can travel from the bottom of the sea to the furthest reaches of the universe in a flash. Indeed, it can be in both places at once-- or it can combine them-- or it can create 'a new Heaven and a new Earth'. But even the most simply operations of the imagination-- the ability to see a face that is not before our eyes, or the memory of something that happened five minutes ago-- is awe-inspiring in itself. The human mind can give existence to that which does not exist, presence to that which is not there.

When you walk past a stranger in the park, or stand behind a stranger in a queue, you have no idea what is happening inside that stranger's head-- whether they are remembering picking blackberries as a child, or imagining torturing their boss, or totting up a weeekly budget, or composing a poem, or accepting an Oscar. There is something exhilarating about that radical openness.

The privacy of the human mind is another of its wonders. Even if a person is locked away in a tiny cell, they stil have an endless territory of their own, which nobody else can share unless they are invited. Like Hamlet, we could be bounded in a nutshell, and count ourselves king of infinite space. This is the cosiest of all thoughts.

All this, to my mind, raises the dignity and the drama of the individual to dizzy heights.

As a Christian, I often find myself wondering if the doctrine of death to self, and of being reborn in Christ, means we must cast away all talk of personality, of 'finding ourselves', of 'discovering who we are', of self-actualization. I hope not, since I find that human drama-- repeated in every human life-- to be infinitely fascinating. I love movies that take this drama as their theme, from Regarding Henry to The Vow. I'd like to think that Christian life only raises this drama onto a higher level, and into a wider expanse.

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