We spent the first Friday in September with our nine year old daughter and three of her friends at Raging Waters Amusement Park in San Dimas, California. Rushing down the steep, uterine canals of rides with names like Freefall, Speed Slide and High Extreme we slam into the unborn moment alongside a menagerie of modern American types out of a Simpson’s episode. Gangly, pimpled high school kids laugh and flirt with each other among heavily inked biker dads and tattooed Latinos with big bellies and long black braids as FM radio pumps loud out of hidden speakers everywhere.
Taking the rides was a total gas but I also enjoyed standing at the bottom and watching the ecstatic, luminous faces of people stepping up out of the pools or hoisting themselves out of the inflatable rafts they had just ridden into the energized gap that opens when we are startled or surprised. Within moments the confining narratives of their lives would settle back onto their shoulders, drawing them away from the thrill of falling back into that open space. It’s a taste of the same transient freedom supplied by good entertainment of all kinds, and also by good art with its higher intention. The hero of the movie opens his front door and finds the unexpected – in his eyes we see the gap open, we rush in and bond, riding the energy of connection toward the ever-
The difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment is structured so that the energy from this connection pours back into the complex waking dream of our lives, adding a fresh coat of paint to the ego’s cherished fantasy of a permanent happiness. Art, on the other hand, works to undermine the dream by pointing, however obliquely, toward an altogether different way of relating to experience, a non-dual mode that is always there, close by, just out of reach. Even when the artist is largely unaware of what his or her work is doing, art points toward presence. And in the long run art works its transformative magic, refining and enriching the cultural ground out of which entertainment, with its shallower roots, also grows.
To see how this works, ponder the enduring impact of the playwright Samuel Beckett, considered by many to be the poster child of opacity and alienation. Shortly after the horrors of World War II Beckett wrote the post- Apocalyptic Endgame in which a decrepit, arm-chair bound patriarch (Hamm) endlessly torments a genial servant (Clov) who may or may not be his son. A few years later came Harold Pinter’s Homecoming, in which the malevolent arm-chair bound East Ender Max is clearly a descendant of Hamm from Beckett’s play. One can feel Max, in turn, in Alf Garnett, the misanthropic East End paterfamilias of the 60s British TV series Till Death Us Do Part … which was the model for Norman Lears’ All in the Family. From Hamm to Max to Alf Garnett to Archie Bunker to all the armchair misanthropes (including hapless Homer Simpson) who have anchored two generations now of American sitcoms, cherished by millions.
The idea of the authoritarian father, and the Master Discourse it represents,
has been seriously undermined by these representations. In Beckett what
we see is the surrender of the Cartesian mind, which has acted as the
engine of paternalism in the modern era. The incipient fascism of Dick
Cheney and the American right is but the latest fearful reaction to this deep
tidal movement toward the feminine and toward Asia. At Raging Waters,
surrounded by the inked and pierced bodies of long-haired fathers while Van Morrison sings “Wild Night” through
the invisible speakers I feel that powerful tide.
Still, in a culture that celebrates simple cheerfulness above all other emotions, it’s hard to fathom how the austere Mr. Beckett has managed to seep so deeply into the cultural ground, much less help to transform it, through his work. Partly Beckett’s impact has to do with his recognition that language itself is what binds us, and his ferocious insistence on plugging into the energized silence that lies beneath words. Language, that genie of the left brain, provides an illusory sense of control that keeps the ego’s underlying feeling of groundlessness and lack at bay, but at the cost of our innate freedom. Beckett’s plays are long cranky laments that give full voice to this fundamental feeling of lack, which historians such as David Loy are coming to view as the driving force of Western history. In Beckett’s work this root emotion is given its proper place at the center of an imbalanced world.
But one of the strange features of lack is what lies beneath it. One Tibetan Buddhist practice designed to cultivate the “immeasurable” emotion of Sympathetic Joy involves locating our critical inner voice and following it down into the underlying well of lack. Rest the mind there, returning to the feeling again and again as you ride the breath, and the ways you have unconsciously identified with that feeling of lack will begin to dissolve. At some point you will feel a shift, an energized opening – when awareness rests fully on lack, it opens out into an even more fundamental feeling of joy.
I think of Beckett’s later monologues this way – by drawing lack fully into a character up on stage, the work allows us in the audience to experience the covert lift of that underlying joy. We are close here to understanding the mechanism of tragedy itself. In Beckett’s last monologues and fragments the spectacle of human suffering manifests on stage with such distilled clarity that what arises in the audience is a balancing sense of non- separation. Audience and spectacle form one mind, the performer experiencing the suffering, while the audience experiences connectivity and presence. The performer collapses down to embody the alienated aspect of awareness, while the audience expands to experience the aspect linked to joy and compassion. In this way Beckett’s work takes aim at the very roots of suffering, and it is this high intention that explains the on-going relevance of his art…and our enduring loyalty.
First published by Nancy Cantwell on Times Quotidian.
Sympathetic Joy, Till Death Us Do Part
kirk wilson says:
September 27, 2009 at 10:29 am
Wonderful. Perfect read for a misty Sunday morning here in San Miguel De Allende. Thanks Guy.
Sharon Yablon says:
September 29, 2009 at 1:04 pm
Great piece Guy. Our relationship with amusement parks and thrill rides is very interesting. The latest roller coasters at Magic Mountain are very violent!
Right on about Beckett. He poses difficult questions; questions we don’t want the answers to or questions there are no answers to. He also allows his characters to exist in or at least visit a dark emotional place or landscape, something our culture runs away from, as it is very escapist oriented and the preferred approach to unpleasant emotions is often medication, for example.
Guy Zimmerman says:
September 29, 2009 at 4:58 pm
Good point, Sharon, about medicating negative emotional states. I’m sure it’s warranted sometimes,