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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