Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Beauty Bone

Okay, you know the funny bone, that weird little spot on your elbow that tingles something awful when you bump it in just the right way? It has something to do with ligaments and joints, and how muscles and bone and flesh come together in a spot that swings and creaks around a few thin, long nerves.

I think I have some sort of internal tragicomic 'beauty bone' that tingles and tears up whenever something--an idea, an image, a word or memory--strikes me in just the right way. This quote by Terry Pratchett, for example:

As they say in Discworld, we are trying to unravel the Mighty Infinite using a language which was designed to tell one another where the fresh fruit was.

The first time I read it, I smiled and chuckled, yes, isn't that so clever and true... Then I read it again--and I started to cry a little.

There it is, do you see it? The Elbow of Spirit swinging on necessity and longing, nerved words of practical need banging up against the rock-hard ineffable. Do you feel the pinch? Fruit, that is hunger, that is Spirit, that is language, that is fruit.

The other day, I went to see the new Chronicles of Narnia film, Prince Caspian. A pleasant fantasy-adventure movie, with beautiful landscapes and daring sword fights, and a little girl named Lucy who's burdened with an overabundance of faith. All in all, an enjoyable movie, even the fearful battles mitigated by a sense of safe familiarity because, in Narnia, nobody dies, not really. But there was a moment, towards the beginning, when Lucy dreams of the birch trees dancing in the forest, their nymphs coalescing in clouds of blossoms drifting on the breeze--and she wakes to find the grove utterly still, the trees just trees again. She pauses by one, leans against the trunk touching the papery bark lightly with her little fingers, and whispers, "Please wake up..."

Perhaps it's that phrase, the please wake up, that has been whispered in movies and books by so many children to so many dead, the still bodies that look to be only sleeping, that move too limply when shaken--maybe that's what hit the beauty bone this time. As the children's movie rolled on, I suddenly remembered another film, a film about actual war in the actual world, and the old man who sighed deeply in the dark theater as if he didn't know I was there. I remembered how, upon leaving the theater as the credits rolled, I saw him coming out of the bathroom, his eyes red from crying, his jaw set against the embarrassment of being caught in the bright sunlight of the street outside.

There it is--the sighing grief in the dark, and its juxtaposition. A sense of vertigo, when cliché breaks open again and there is the void lurking just beneath it, the sense of loss, layer upon layer, all of us having lost something, all of us whispering, pleading, until the please itself becomes a thin membrane of voice and grief that holds us up. There it is again, the particular breaking open, the bodies of the dead, the pale tree, the single pear, the stem and seeds, that which becomes the bones and soft flesh of a god. The muscles and joints, how the world is put together, how it moves, and the currents of longing and hope and helplessness running through it.

Do you feel the pinch?


  1. I would hazard a guess that the movie was "Saving Private Ryan"?

    Amongst other things, every time I hear Israel K's rendition of "Over the rainbow/beautiful world", I cry, I think because it was the theme of Mark Green dying of brain cancer on ER.

    Stupid, the pinches we feel, and what makes us cry.

    I managed to survive Nam, but if I ever get to see that wall........sigh.......that one will really hurt.

  2. Nope, I've never seen "Saving Private Ryan" and don't plan to. I'm not a big fan of movies that use sensory overload to give the audience a sentimentality rush so that they can leave feeling like they've experienced something real when what they've experienced is Hollywood (same reason I refuse to see "Passion of the Christ").

    This movie was out very recently--I forget the name, but it was about a veteran whose son returns from Iraq and is later murdered by his own friends. The film is basically about PTSD and the ravaged psyches of returning soldiers who struggle to reintegrate into a society that treats war as something that happens "over there" and on the television. I remember, especially, that this movie made correct symbolic use of the upside-down American flag (the meaning of which is basically, "we're fucked--please send help"), which was very powerful in itself. It was the kind of movie that was subtle and quiet, that made you actually think about violence instead of merely bombarding you with rapid-fire images of it.