Friday, January 06, 2017

Readers can still find an epiphany in this post-truth world

Remember the impact of The Matrix when it debuted in 1999? The "Matrix" was the false reality created by machines. Humans lived in this manufactured reality. The scary truth is that humans lived in pods where their bodily fluids and brain waves were farmed as power sources by the machines. Neo (Keanu Reeves) suspects there is something wrong in this world. He gets the lowdown when he joins with Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and other rebels to upset the status quo.

The film boasted a cool cast and neat-o special effects. But its core was an old theme: Things are not what they seem. People are not whom they seem to be. In Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train  Shadow of a Doubt , Charlie is not the kindly uncle that his niece Charley thinks he is. In Chinatown, detective Jake Gittes finds out once again that things are not what they seem in Chinatown or San Pedro or anywhere else.

A well-worn theme. As in our recent presidential election, things are not what they seem. This liberal voter thought that his country of birth was a rational place that would elect the experienced person. As I told my sister Molly, who works in Italy, there was no way that Trump would be elected. Molly was telling me that Italians thought that Trump was a buffoon, an idiot, a flim-flam man. He was -- and is. But somehow, enough voters bought the act to make him president. They bought the fact that Trump was Professor Harold Hill and not, well, Donald Trump. Does that make them stupid, gullible or hopeful?

I have read many columns explaining the 2016 elections. The best are thoughtful examinations of the national psyche. They come from reputable sources such as the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles Times, Salon. The gap between Republicans and Democrats is unbridgeable. It was a battle between urban liberals and rural conservatives and the latter won. The working classes hate privileged liberals such as Obama and Clinton, even when they come from (as Obama did) modest roots. Sen. Bernie Sanders contends that the Democrats sold out to the moneyed elites and forgot the middle class, even though many middle class voters in Rust Belt states voted for a member of New York City's moneyed elite. Go figure.

Although our new president doesn't read, I do. I guess I will keep reading until this all makes sense. Or not. I am a bit tired of reading critiques of the election. Most of my reading from this point on will be in fiction and poetry. Today is the feast of Epiphany, or as we called it in Catholic school, that day we get off after Christmas vacation. I learned in religion class that epiphany means "revelation." This according to the Fish Eaters blog:
As described on the page on Twelfthnight, this Feast -- also known as the . "Theophany" or "Three Kings Day" -- recalls Christ revealing Himself as Divine in three different ways: to the Magi, at His Baptism, and with His miracle at the wedding feast at Cana.
I learned today on Writer's Almanac that Epiphany also figures heavily in a James Joyce story:
James Joyce’s famous short story “The Dead” is set at a party for the Feast of the Epiphany. The story ends: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Joyce also gave us a secular meaning of “epiphany,” using the word to mean the “revelation of the whatness of a thing,” the moment when “the soul of the commonest object [...] seems to us radiant."
I just finished Colson Whitehead's radiant novel The Underground Railroad. An incredible book. Does it help me understand the state of the U.S. in 2017? Our country's history is complicated, much more complicated than Lynne Cheney or Bill O'Reilly would have us believe. U.S. history is messy. Brutish and transcendent. The Underground Railroad pulls no punches when it comes to slavery's realities. But Whitehead adds some magical-realism elements that makes it much more than an anti-slavery screed. I can't give away the ending. That wouldn't be fair to millions of people who have yet to discover the book. Here is one tiny clue. The author is also interested in Manifest Destiny. Important to all Americans but especially to those who live in the Rocky Mountain West. Manifest Destiny leads us right to Wounded Knee and Little Bighorn and broken treaties and North Dakota's Standing Rock protests. Current events. And the timeliness of great fiction.

And poetry? More about that in my next post.


Susan Dress said...

Good post, but one correction: the movie was Shadow of a Doubt, with Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright, not Strangers on a Train.

Michael Shay said...


You are correct and I've made the change. Funny thing is, I just saw "Shadow of a Doubt" a few weeks ago on TCM. Joseph Cotten is so creepy and Theresa Wright so good as the niece who gets to the bottom of things -- and almost too late. Great movie. I was pleased to see that Thornton Wilder was one of the credited screenwriters.