Saturday, July 25, 2015

Truth and Beauty

Yes, that is the name of a book by Ann Patchett and I just finished reading her essay about how some “concerned parents” at a South Carolina University took her exquisite tribute to a friend who had died and turned it into something hideous, making her “an accessory to rape, murder, sexual harassment and a $50,000 swindle.” (See her essay “The Love Between Two Women” in her book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.”) Turns out that the book was required reading for the freshman and some parent decided it would destroy the moral fabric of the youth, the University and the nation. I wish I could report that everyone ignored the fellow as a raving lunatic, but somehow such folks (read Hitler) call out the latent lunatics just waiting for the crowd for protection and off we go into Bizarro-world. (Kind of like Donald Trump running for President.) Ms. Patchett weathers that storm with characteristic grace, but not without the undertone of “What the f**k?!!!”

This business of fearful, narrow-minded and yes, sometimes certifiably crazy people turning something beautiful into something ugly is far too common an occurrence for my taste. It has happened to me, it has happened to people I know, people making a lovely gesture and having it interpreted as a transgression. The truth gets spun into a lie, beauty turns ugly. And when that happens, the door is wide open for lies to be disguised as truth and ugliness to be the new standard of “beauty.”

I just watched again the old Frank Capra movie Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and the beauty-to-ugly story is at the center of the film. A guy likes to play the tuba, write poetry and give away a $20 million dollar inheritance to help farmers out of work and is called into court as insane. Every sincere gesture on his part is interpreted and misinterpreted as either laughable, malicious, dangerous or just plain loony. (Of course, I can’t give away the end, but if you’ve seen Mr. Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, you know he has a punch line to deliver and it's mostly about the triumph of human values over money. In the land of the Almighty Dollar, it’s actually quite remarkable that his movies weren’t banned!) We all interpret— and misinterpret— words and actions according to our values and mindset and when someone takes your sincere gesture or heartfelt words and twists them into unrecognizable shapes, it often reveals more about them than us. Perhaps it’s best just to think and/or say; “Either I failed miserably to say it clearly or you failed miserably to hear it clearly or everything in-between. So let’s start over.”

At any rate, such strange things are part of what’s called “character building,” a call to try to articulate yet more clearly one’s intention or dig deep into the source of one’s strength. Duke Ellington responded to the racist pulling of a Pulitzer Prize saying, “I moped long enough to write a blues” and Ann Patchett responded with a stunning essay (also in the above book) titled “The Right to Read.”

And that’s what’s really weird about the whole scenario. Often the “Limiters,” those people in power or those who grab power to stop us or vilify us or misunderstand us, often push us to better work, sharper vision, deeper determination and we end up having to thank them. Not necessarily to their face (they wouldn’t get it), but in our hearts because they provided the heat to temper the sword of our passion.

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