The destructive element

‘Yes! Very funny this terrible thing is. A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns… No! I tell you! The way is to submit yourself to the destructive element, and the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up.’ (from Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad)

I like a Venn diagram. I use them a lot to help my teenage Vietnamese students move towards a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between supposedly synonymous lexical items. I used to start with a brief introduction to the work of Ferdinand de Saussure and Ludwig Wittgenstein, but I found drawing intersecting circles on the board to be more effective.

I also like to use Venn diagrams in my free (or leisure) time. This week, for example, I used a mental Venn diagram to help me analyse the relationship between the three ‘texts’ that dominated my week – the above mentioned Lord Jim, Episode One of the Slap, and a doco screened on the ABC called Lesson Plan.

Lord Jim is a book about a young sailor who commits an act of shameful cowardice and then, like Cain, wanders the globe from port to port, too proud to stay anywhere where even a single person knows his humiliating secret.

Lesson Plan is about a young teacher, Ron Jones, who worked in a high school in Palo Alto, California in the 1960s, and conducted an experiment in fascism; a week-long simulation with his class to see how easy it would be to create a totalitarian system. It proved to be easier than anyone imagined, and The Third Wave movement that the class created took on a brutal life of its own, that included informers, mock executions and brutal coercion.

The Slap, for those who are reading this in another place or time, is a book, and now a television series, about the repercussions (pardon the pun) of an incident that takes place at a 40th birthday party of a Greek Australian man, Hector, when one of the guests, his cousin Harry, slaps a young boy, Hugo, in front of his parents.

My Venn diagram was an attempt to establish what, if anything, existed in the overlap between these three texts. I wanted to show you, dear reader, what this looks like but couldn’t work out how to do it electronically, so instead I drew it with a marker pen on the inside of an old brown paper mushroom bag, took a photo of it, loaded that photo onto the computer and then uploaded and inserted it below.

You will notice that there is a question mark in the middle, where the three circles overlap to visually represent the question I posed to myself.

The answer (and here the tone of the post abruptly changes) is somewhat cryptically encapsulated in the quotation from Lord Jim that opens this post. It seems to me that all three of these texts, in very different ways, touch on the danger that exist when people are naively unaware of, or are consciously fleeing from, their own darkness and destructiveness. In the case of Lord Jim this is literally the case, as Jim flees from place to place in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the truth of who he is, and in the process denies himself any chance of being truly known or truly accepted. His pride is such that he would rather be completely alone, than have to face anyone who knows what he has done; even if those people’s view of him is not affected in any way by this revelation.

Interestingly, Joseph Conrad turns out to be Christos Tsiolkas’ (author of the Slap) favourite writer in English (see this interview), and just like Conrad in Lord Jim he uses a single ‘explosive’ act to expose the unacknowledged destructive element that lies beneath the surface. Tsiolkas sees ‘both conservatism and political correctness… as linked, part of an escalating punitive moralism that has affected politics, religion, culture, our media’, restricting debate and dissent. The result is a collective form of the kind of dangerous denial that we see in Conrad’s Jim. When Harry slaps Hugo, Tsiolkas wants all of us to see that though this is a shocking act, there is a part of us that, with the narrator Hector, is kind of glad; that feels like Hugo had it coming.

A month ago, a little girl, who must have been about six months older than Tilly, came into the park where Tilly was playing, and the very first thing that she did was to run straight up to Tilly and push her to the ground. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have violent thoughts towards that little mean-faced brat. I didn’t share these thoughts with the girl’s mother, but (as I have done in previous posts, ad nauseum) I am sharing them with you, dear reader. Because, in the words of Tsiolkas again, ‘I can try and pretend that I don’t have racist or sexist or ugly or violent or misanthropic or homophobic thoughts but that would be a pretence. I try and think through why I have such emotions and thoughts, try to educate myself, try to make sense of them. My writing is one of the ways I do this.’

Lesson Plan was the first of a series of classic documentaries that the ABC is screening on Sunday nights, and last night I watched second, a documentary called Jesus Camp. It’s not in the Venn diagram above because I wrote the first half of this post before I saw it. On top of which, I don’t have another mushroom bag. However, it really is the perfect companion piece to Lesson Plan, as it a modern day example of the same kind of manipulative, dare I say fascist, dynamics at work, but this time not as a simulation, but for real. At the end of Lesson Plan, one of the participants says that the experience taught him to be very wary of groups with extreme positions, and those who follow charismatic leaders, and in Jesus Camp we see both. Pentecostal children’s pastor, Becky Fisher, takes kids away on a camp every year, and what we see on this camp is a brutal array of emotionally manipulative techniques employed to create complete uniformity of belief in these children (some as young as three or four, it seems), and an unshakeable conviction that all those, even other Christians, whose beliefs and behaviour differ in any way from their own are the enemy.

The two particularly confronting things for me watching a doco like this are: a) I happen to be a Christian myself, and b) I have a child. What to do?

It’s easy to say, ‘Well, just don’t raise her as a Christian. Raise her as nothing in particular, and then when she is old enough she can make up her own mind.’ But unfortunately, there is no such thing as nothing in particular (nature abhors a vacuum, as we all know), and the default belief systems in our own culture, especially as portrayed in the Slap, don’t particularly appeal to me

A hero of mine once said that the older he gets, the more and more strongly he believes fewer and fewer things. I am going to indoctrinate my child, but that indoctrination will be shaped by this credo. By which I mean that I will take Tilly to church, and tell her Bible stories, and teach her how to pray, and tell her that God made her and loves her; but you won’t ever see her holding up ‘God Hates Fags’ banners outside the funerals of dead soldiers (oh no, now yet another doco is pushing its way into my diagram – for more see). In fact, she’s more likely to end up at a pro-gay marriage rally with a ‘God Loves Fags’ banner. That would be entirely up to her (and the insidious influence of her gay-loving mother. What was I thinking when I chose to marry that fabulous woman?).

Christopher Hitchens in his memoirs says at one point (I can’t remember where) that he can’t trust anyone who isn’t capable of holding two contradictory viewpoints at the same time. And the truth about me is that I am a Christian, but I am also an Atheist, a Buddhist and a Philatelist at times. I believe in faith, hope and love, but the universe often seems to me to be more characterised by lies, despair and hate. I certainly have a love/hate relationship with Christopher Hitchens. And (in age appropriate ways, obviously) I plan to let my daughter see all those things.

I hope that in the end she becomes a person who is able to accept her own, and other’s, contradictions, darkness and destructiveness, and more importantly is able to love herself and others, not just in spite of these things, but also because of them.

When I first read the quotation from Lord Jim that I started with, I didn’t really understand it, and I’m still not sure that I do, but somehow it comforts me.

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3 Responses to The destructive element

  1. Rodule says:

    Somehow I don’t think you’ll indoctrinate at all Rod and I’m sure Tilly will ask some very critical questions of your credo – great to read your thoughts and reflections on fatherhood.

  2. Pingback: Art and [my] Spiritual experience | be kind 2 yourself

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