Teaching Fish the Word for Water

Teaching Fish the Word for Water August 29, 2012

In the last Sondheim Symposium post, I talked about Giorgio struggling with Fosca’s implacable love.  If his reluctance to accept her unconditional love parallels the flinch away from grace, does it follow that Fosca is a Christ-like figure?

Probably not.  For a while after I saw the show, I suspected her of ostentatious humility.  In fact, I hoped that some of her prostrations were insincere.  She was starting to remind me of the awful, self-abnegating image of love on display in “Unworthy of Your Love” from Sondheim’s Assassins.

But Fosca doesn’t quite match Squeaky Fromme’s terrifying disregard of self.  Right after Fosca offers to lay down her life for Giorgio, she tells him calmly, “In time you will come to see what is beautiful about me.”  It’s not clear what Fosca’s sense of self-worth is rooted in (it could be as simple as her ability to recognize Giorgio’s physical and moral beauty and venerate them), but her sacrifice is not offered lightly.  However, that’s not really enough reassurance to keep us from being frightened of Fosca (or, if you’re better than I am, for Fosca).

Passion may echo the terror and ecstacy of undeserved grace, but the protagonists are not offering us a true image of that ideal.  Sondheim’s show is an exercise in the grotesque.  Fosca and Giorgio are acting out an old story, but refracted until we can encounter it as if for the first time.

Just as the word “awesome” has been drained of meaning through overuse, the Christian story is so interwoven into Western culture that it can feel hackneyed or even camp when we encounter it.  Passion doesn’t offer us a true image of the kind of love evinced in the Passion, but it’s strange and contorted shape focuses our attention on one facet of the Christian story: the awesome, terrifying power of unconditional, unearned love.

In The Lion’s World, Archbishop of Cantebury Rowan Williams praises C.S. Lewis for taking on this challenge, both in the Narnia books and in That Hideous Strength.  In the final book of Lewis’s Space Trilogy, Williams writes:

[W]hat happens is that they are brought directly against what it is that ‘religion’ is about — the real peril of damnation; that is human souls radically and lastingly losing the possibility of good or well-being, but also the real possibility of joy beyond imagining, the fact that the world as we know it is soaked through with symbolic meaning and intelligent energy.

And that is what Lewis is after in the Narnia books. He wants his readers to experience what it is that religious (specifically Christian) talk is about, without resorting to religious talk as we usually mean it.

How do you make fresh what is thought to be familiar, so familiar that it doesn’t need to be thought about it. Try making up a world where in which the strangeness of the Christian story is encountered for what it is, not as part of a familiar eccentricity of behavior called religion.

At the end of Passion, when the credits rolled, everyone let out their breath at once, and one of my friends flailed at the air and let out a frustrated shriek.  Then we had a three hour argument.  (This is, in my circles, a very successful birthday party).

No one was able to watch the musical and remain lukewarm.  Whether my friends were fascinated or disgusted, they were all inflamed and spurred to engagement.   Because the musical is a jarring, half-echo of an ideal, we twist it about, trying to figure out which bits don’t fit and are giving us the heebie-jeebies.  It’s good practice for giving our lives and our character the same treatment, spotting what is sickly and discerning the form underneath.

As we were cleaning up and seeing people off, one of my friends said to me, “I really hated Passion while we were watching it, but I loved that conversation, and I don’t know how I would have ever ended up having it otherwise.”



UPDATE: I came back to the topic of truth through the grotesque, but reframed the discussion to be more about analytics that aesthetics.

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  • deiseach

    Fosca is ugly, correct? She’s presented as plain, unattractive, destined to be an old maid? Would it make a difference if she were young and beautiful – would that be more enticing, would it whitewash over the stalkerishness of her character?

    • leahlibresco

      Then her tactics would look a bit more like RomCom stalkers-who-are-also-protagonists-ugh. But I think the character of the love she’s offering is different by the time she gets to “Loving You.”

    • I wondered about this while watching it. I don’t think it would change the level of creepiness involved in her actions, especially if Giorgio was explicit about it the way he is in the original. (To those who haven’t seen it: he tells her repeatedly what is wrong with what she’s doing.) However, it would be harder to believe that he wasn’t somewhat tempted right from the outset in the fairly traditional brain v. libido trope, and so Giorgio’s reactions would have seemed less visceral. And the whole of the situation would not have felt as horribly unfair to everyone involved.
      So, I don’t think it could have worked for Sondheim’s purposes if she were physically attractive.

      • deiseach

        Yes, that’s what I was getting at. Since Giorgio already has a love interest, and since we’re culturally conditioned to disapprove of trying to poach someone who is spoken for (unless it’s Overwhelming Love and the existing partner is presented as a tie or burden or just not Mr/Ms Right), then it’s easy to disapprove of Fosca.

        But if Giorgio were free, and/or Fosca were young, rich, beautiful, well-situated with regard to social position – would we make the same judgement of her behaviour, or would it be “Dude, she’s gorgeous, she could have anyone she wanted, she’s crazy about you – go for it!”

        It’s the plot, after all, of all the great romantic love stories, love songs, Harlequin/Mills and Boon romance novels and, as Leah points out, a RomCom staple: the persistent suitor who keeps ondispite all obstacles, including those the love interest puts up, until he (or she) sweeps the love interest off his/her feet and the movie ends with the triumph of Twu Wuv.

        It’s easy to see the creepiness when it’s a poor, ugly woman chasing a happily-attached man, but flip it about to be the beautiful woman/handsome man chasing the recently divorced/engaged to a snooty fiancé(e)/settled but bored character, and how easily would we recognise the wrong (if there is wrong there) in that picture of love?

        It’s like the question Leah posed in the later post: what’s the negative result that comes closest to passing your model’s test? How close can we come to the idea of the devoted lover and irresistable love, and yet it’s not the right kind of love?

  • Kristen inDallas

    Sometimes I wonder… real, genuine unconditional love doesn’t seem that scary. Love from a parent (if we are blessed with emotionally healthy parents who are not abusive or manipulative) and later love from a child, sometimes even love from a good friend can be expressed unconditionally whether or not we think we deserve it or can return in in kind without being so… repulsive. And really why wouldn’t anyone want genuinely unconditional love. If you think about it, it really can’t be our own unworthiness if there truly are no conditions. I think what (for me anyway) makes me unwilling to accept love from certain people is a mistrust or a fear that there really are conditions. The “you can’t give this to me because I won’t be able to…” implies there was something that was expected in return. And I think that’s what keeps a lot of people from accepting God’s Love as well, the idea that there “must” be some sort of condition on it, that we won’t be able to live up to. It’s our inability to understand the word “unconditional” that creates the fear, not the love itself.

    • I think that this is a key insight. Fosca doesn’t seem to be offering truly unconditional love – her love is obsessive but comes with conditions demanding its acceptance. This is one of my issues with the Calvinist notion of irresistible Grace – it puts God in the role of creepy stalker who won’t take no for an answer (although there is some support for that position for particular people, namely prophets – see Jonah) instead of a God who desires to love and be loved freely.