Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Learning about Love

One of the greatest mysteries of my life has been learning what love is. No one taught me how to love another. My parents taught me what family love means and my grandmother taught me how to treat the opposite sex. But no wise mentor ever taught me what it meant to really love. The great authors often served as my guide.

Here are some of the books I have taught over the years and what they have to say about the power of love:
· A Christmas Carol (Dickens): the need for having love in one’s life
· A Doll’s House (Ibsen): the destructive power of love which fails to see the true other person
· A Lion in Winter (Golding): the ties of remembered love, dysfunctional family ties
· Death in Venice (Mann): the destructive power of obsessive love
· Madame Bovary (Flaubert): the failure of romantic love in a realistic world
· Siddhartha (Hesse): love of family, the inability of love to define our search for self
· Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare): love at first sight, allowing ourselves to change for others
· The Alchemist (Coehlo): love at first sight
· The Book of Lost Things (Connolly): love of family and the healing power of love
· The Iliad (Homer): the destructive power of lust, the nobility of love of family and country
· The Turn of the Screw (James): the effects of “twisted love”
· To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee): love of family, responsibility toward others.
· Washington Square (James): The pain of unrequited love

Of all the works I’ve taught, the one that has taught me the most about love is Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac which speaks of shaping one’s life with beau gestes, the pain of unrequited love and the power of dedicating oneself to serving another. Cyrano taught me to place others above myself. He is constantly performing beau gestes (beautiful gestures which hurt him but help others). His love for his cousin enriches his life while at the same time teaches him the pain of unrequited love. At the end of his life he has the love and admiration of his friends. In his final hour he learns that Roxane has always loved him—even though she thought it was Christian she loved. He dies knowing the joy of hearing another say they love him unconditionally.

Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines

This poem was written by Pablo Neruda, from Chile:

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example,'The night is shattered
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.'

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me sometimes, and I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is shattered and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight searches for her as though to go to her.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another's. She will be another's. Like my kisses before.
Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Coming Into the Light: The Raising of Lazarus and Dr. Owen Harper

Recently our gospel reading dealt with the raising of Lazarus. My pastor pointed out in his homily that Lazarus wasn’t resurrected, he was resuscitated… He will die again, but for the moment he rejoins the living. Eventually he will have to die again. Only at Lazarus’ resurrection will he live eternally.

I was thinking about that homily as I ironed my shirts this weekend. And I kept looking at the 7-inch scar running down my lower left arm where my vein was taken out to use in the triple bypass operation that saved my life back in 2005. And I pondered those existential questions that face us all—Why am I here? Where am I going? What is my purpose?

My favorite television series—the one I stay home for this year—is BBC’s “Torchwood.” As a fan of the early “X-Files,” before they loaded the series down with the alien conspiracy story-line, I loved the interplay and semi-romantic banter between Scully and Mulder. In “Torchwood,” we have a main character—growing out of the series “Dr. Who”—named Captain Jack Harkness. Jack is witty and charming. He has a past which is mysterious and only occasionally explained. We know that he was born in a previous time period and has survived death. He cannot die. He is also unashamedly gay. His “shagging” buddy is Ianto Jones, whose job on the Torchwood team is that of a general support character. Ianto idolizes (and sleeps with) Jack. [When Ianto believes that Jack has been killed, the writer quotes “Brokeback Mountain,” by having Ianto standing holding Jack’s coat.]

Straight members of the team include Gwen Cooper, a former policewoman, who Jack recruits in the first episode. Dr. Toshiko Sato, a Japanese-American computer specialist, searches for love while being totally devoted to the team. Dr. Owen Harper, the cynical medical doctor of the team, offers us the cynical Scully view of the world. He is also highly sexual. In one funny moment of last year's finale, upon learning that the death of the world was imminent, he asks the team if they want to shag.

Two episodes ago viewers—if they were like me—were shocked when Owen was shot and killed. The team is such a great unit together, it was hard to believe the writers would kill him off. Since that episode, Owen has been brought back—resuscitated—but he and we are unclear whether he will die immediately or 30 years down the road.
Death has been a common theme dealt with in several episodes. Most commonly the writers’ viewpoint is that death is nothingness—the great black beyond, devoid of hope or comfort. When you are dead, you’re dead. But Captain Jack’s existence questions that very statement. And Owen’s return offers the writers’ another chance to deal with the existential questions of life and death.

In last week’s episode, Owen talked about having a “bad week.” He died, he lost his love of food, his love of sex, and his love of life. He is separated from the team—since they are living—and his sense of existential angst drives him to the despair of wanting to just have it done and kill himself again. But when he tries to drown himself, he stays underwater, still living. In the episode, he comes across what the team believes is a bomb filled with energy. Instead he discovers it is similar to our Pioneer 11 attempt to send our life prints to other galaxies. The machine draws energy and shows us in a darkened world that there is light—wonderous, magical, healing, comforting light—light which allows Owen to find meaning here and go on.

Do we all become Lazarus, locking ourselves in our living tombs, waiting for someone or something to call us forth and help us find meaning in the darkness? I think so. In fact, I think I have the scar to prove it.
[The picture is a modified version of Caravaggio's Raising of Lazarus.]

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Is Anybody There?

Not too long ago I was teaching doing the blog to my juniors, and looking at my own blog I find a deficiency. Nobody seems to want to make any comments. I don't know if that means the entries are too esoteric or too long or too uninteresting. I'm not sure how to get comments, but I know that having them would help open more of a dialog between me and you. Do you have anything to add?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

A fairy tale search for lasting love

I am currently teaching A.I., one of my favorite films, to two high school junior English classes after their reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We are looking at the similar themes and new questions that man as creator introduces.

The first image we have in this futuristic fairy tale is of powerful ocean waves while a soothing omnipotent narrator describes the time when the ice caps have melted, the major cities have been flooded, people have migrated, thousands have starved, and the remaining humans have placed limits on the number of live births, thus making the creation of Mechas which don’t eat important. [How insightful for 2001.]

Science is personified in Professor Hobby. His objective in the film is to create a perfect Mecha [future-speak for ‘robot’] which will love genuinely, unconditionally—a Mecha child that will never grow up, never get ill, never reject, never stop loving. … “A Mecha,” his creator says, “that dreams.”

“But,” responds one of the professor’s colleagues, “given the animus toward machines, can you get a human to love it back? And what sense of responsibility will that love carry?”

The professor ends his argument with, “In the beginning, didn’t God create Adam to love him?”

Monica and Henry’s real son Martin lies in a cryogenic cocoon, unresponsive, seemingly lost forever. Henry brings home the Mecha child David from work to try to pull her out of her depression.

“On the outside he looks so real,” Monica observes, “but I know he is not.” That assertion is something Speilberg constantly reminds us—remember these are only Mecha, but then why are you feeling so sorry for our treatment of them?

Henry cautions Monica that they must be sure they want to keep David because after a Mecha’s imprinting occurs, if they want to give him up he has to be returned to the Cybertronics lab to be destroyed.

Quickly we see David imprinting on his mother and learning what it is to be human—to prepare and eat food, to play, to laugh. At first he is too present. She suggests he sleep so she can get away for awhile. “I can never go to sleep,” he tells her, “but I can think quietly and never make a peep.”

We know that David has gone begun thinking for himself when he laughs at Monica with spaghetti hanging from her mouth—a reference to Disney’s Lady and the Tramp?

After Monica says the words to imprint David to her, we know the change because he stops referring to her as Monica and calls her “Mommy.” But as a loving Mecha, David learns fear. “Mommy, will you die?” he asks. “I’ll be alone,” he says embracing her. “How long will you live?” “For ages…for fifty years,” she answers.

Like Disney and Collodi’s Pinocchio, this artificial boy wants to be a real child, but David is created to be only an illusion of human. He is given a Disney wise-mentor Jiminy Cricket in the form of supertoy “Teddy.”

Martin, when he returns, introduces David to the idea of being “real.” “When’s your “build day?” Martin asks. David has no concept of what Martin is asking. Suddenly David is confronted by questions of a larger world: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? The answers seem to lie in Collodi’s Pinocchio which Martin has Monica read to David.

After we see the destructive power of jealousy and hate through David’s encounters with Martin, Monica takes him to Cybertronics to be destroyed, but she can’t bring herself to do it. Instead she deserts him in the woods. David pleads, “If I become a real boy can I come back home?” “It’s only a story,” Monica says and leaves him with Teddy to face a world for which he’s totally unprepared.

The rest of the film becomes David’s journey to find himself, to reach the Blue Fairy, and ultimately to become a real boy. Along the way, other Mecha help him—especially Giggolo Joe [the fox from Collodi’s story] who even takes him to a city of Lost Boys just as in Pinocchio.

David’s journey finally takes him to the offices of Cybertronics where he discovers there are hundreds of Mecha just like him—the unique boy is only the image of Professor Hobby’s dead son.

If the film were to stop here, the sadness of the journey would create only despair that we live in a world of cruel humans where magic can’t happen. But the film has one final surprise. Centuries pass and benevolent aliens come to study our culture. [Spielberg’s Close Encounters return in an advanced future.] Nothing remains of us—except for David, Teddy and a lock of his mother’s hair.

David is given the chance to have one last day with the mother he loves—and when it is over, he lies quietly beside her, dreaming and sleeping for the first time. And Spielburg tells us that of all the remaining traits of our humanity which may have meaning in our universe our ability to love unconditionally is the most redeeming. David spends an eternity loving. If only we could.