In Defense of Darkness

August 29, 2016

On Sunday, August 28, I delivered another sermon (an annual thing for me) at my home church of UU Church of Medford, MA. I dealt with darkness in literature and religion. The sermon text is below.

In spring of 2015, I finally put together a small collection of short stories for publication online. I say finally because while a few of the stories were older shorts, one was a new one that was at last on paper in a form I liked. Once that was finished, I gathered all of them together, packaged it with an introduction and a cover image, and posted the collection online under the title “Starry-Eyed Halluncnations.” The title is as much a play on words as it is a state of mind at that present moment. In the introduction, I spoke about dreams as a writer that had been deferred by life, economics, choices both in and out of my control. A lot of what I had hoped to accomplish as a writer had fallen by the wayside, what were once hard and fast goals had become mirages and to get anywhere now, I would have to be less starry-eyed in my look at the world.

To say the least, it was a much dimmer view of my life, but then so were the stories in the collection. A monologue by a guy who turns out to be a rapist, a first person perspective of an office massacre, a speculative fiction piece about society where abortion is illegal, and a man so far down that suicide is his prefered option. I never stated the plots so blatantly on the back cover blurbs (you have to leave the audience wanting to read it), but it all hinted at a series of moody and dark tales. When friends of mine bought, read it, and posted reviews online, “dark” was the operative word used to describe the collection. What did surprise me were the reactions from friends in this congregation. The oft-repeated phrase I heard was “How could you write so dark?” or variations of it. My immediate reaction to that was what’s wrong with being dark? For these particular stories the dark mood was necessary and would be a betrayal of the narrative. Thinking about it later, I realized what bothered me was that “dark” was being used as a pejorative, as if being gloomy is a bad thing and against the norm. I think this irked me more than anything else. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect someone or anyone to be in a good mood all the time; so, too, the various things they may create need not always be uplifting and cheery. Certainly life isn’t this way, so I don’t know why we expect it out of those around us. Hearing that review, I had the impression that people expected me to be bright and sunny all the time even in what I write, and I know that I’m not like that all the time, and certainly my writing isn’t like that. So I wanted to look at why we see darkness as a bad thing and how it is used in both literature and religion.

When faced with all the questions about the tone of my stories, I flashed back to a source I rarely think about: the fables of the Brothers’ Grimm. I say rarely because when one often thinks of the Grimm’s work, they are thought of as fairy tales for children. While they are mainly for children, these stories are not exactly fairy tales and not as innocent as people are often led to believe. The collected works of 19th century folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are actually much darker than we may remember them. In any strange forest, wolves, witches, any number of animals or beings lie in wait for our protagonists to come in and be taken under their spells or guile for whatever purpose they seek. Make the right choices and you will be rewarded; the incorrect can cost you your humanity or life. And these are the tales that were told to their children for years and years hoping to impart wisdom and common sense.

Of course we don’t seem to remember the dark qualities of the stories, but often the lessons. Part of that isn’t because of the material but the attempt to brighten up things to the extent that dark elements are wiped out. The most egregious offender of this is Walt Disney and his company. For example, Disney’s first major animated feature was the Grimm’s “Snow White.” In the Disney version, the Queen, jealous of Snow White’s fairness, gives Snow White a poisoned (or at the very least cursed) apple that puts her in a deep, death-like sleep that could only be broken by a kiss from a handsome prince. The original Grimm story was different. The apple was truly poisoned and meant to kill Snow White. The rest is a comedy of errors. As the dwarves lay a vigil over Snow White in a glass coffin, a king rides through the woods and is enamored by her beauty. He asks the dwarves to allow her to be interred in his castle. As the king’s servants carry her down the hill, they trip, throwing Snow White out of the coffin, hitting the floor that dislodges the apple stuck in her throat and not digested, at which point she awakes from what can only be described as the strangest diabetic coma in recorded history. By trying to make the ending more palatable, it obliterates the original morale. Whereas the Grimm tale told of the folly of trying to stem youth and beauty and the consequences of ego, Disney changed it to be about goodness and beauty rewarded by true love.

While this may seem like subtle shift in tone, it has led to serious ramifications on societal thinking. The idea that someday my prince will come is a mantra we struggle against in stories, life and a patriarchal society. How many of the baby boomer generation had to be deprogrammed in that “it’s only a fable?” How often is such a lesson required in the movies produced and are inundated with? How many people still hold onto that moral? By making the original story all sweetness and light and family friendly, a false narrative emerged that was strong enough to have a life and consequences on their own.

One reasons for altering the events is out of protection, especially as these were lessons for children. The urge to protect our children from harm is natural and good. Trying to protect our children from everything is smothering and can lead to harm. While in later editions, the Grimms edited their stories to remove any sordid sexual innuendoes, the violence was kept in. In the “The Frog Prince,” while the Grimms took out the implication that there was an intimate relationship between the prince and the princess before they were married, they kept in how the frog was transformed back into a prince: the frog was thrown into a wall (it was changed to a kiss much, much later). In many ways the violence carried the moral weight of the stories. The protagonist was rewarded for good behavior and the antagonist was punished for their cruelty. In their story “The Juniper Tree,” the stepmother kills her stepson, tricks her stepdaughter into believing she killed him, and then cooks him for dinner to cover up her daughter’s crime. At the end, the stepmother is killed when a millstone is dropped on her head, and the stepson is brought back to life.

It’s also important to note how context can affect how we see how dark a story or action can be. Take the song “Long Black Veil” by Johnny Cash sung earlier. One of the lines in the first verse is “there were few who saw but all agreed/the slayer who ran looked a lot like me.” Having the Man in Black sing that lyric back in the 1960s obviously sets the stage for a gloomy song to follow. But having a black man sing that same lyric in 2016, with all the historical problems of the criminal justice system in a media driven society, has more sinister implications. Different context, different perception.

Cultural differences can also determine what might be considered appropriate. This is key to look at, as the Brothers Grimm were very keen to portray their stories in the light of a national identity (German in this case). In 1893, folklorist Marian Roalfe Cox collected all the variations of the fable “Cinderella,” and found 345 distinct versions that vary by countries, cultures, and morals. In the Grimm’s version, the punishment for the stepsisters’ cruelty was that birds—that Cinderella communicated with—pecked out their eyes, blinding them. As dreary as that may be, this was in the middle of the punishment levels. In the Philippines, the stepsisters were torn apart by wild horses, and in Indonesia, the stepsisters were killed, chopped up and presented to the stepmother as salted meat to dine on. On the lower scale, India had Cinderella forgiving the stepsisters who came to live with her and the prince (this is also the same ending as the Sesame Street version with Elmo). Yet no matter how harsh the punishment in any version, each one is considered a family fable.

As we bring the Cinderella story into this, one important feature that bears mention is the use of the “fairy godmother.” This was not in the Grimm version of the tale, but was a creation of French author Charles Perrault in 1697. He also introduced the glass slipper and the pumpkin carriage to the tale. In the Grimm’s story, as well as other versions, the magic interaction was at the hands of “natural magic.” Various Asian versions made a fish the girl’s protector and guardian; the Chinese version, the fish is the reincarnation of the mother. In the Grimm story, Cinderella took a twig given by her father from one of his journeys, planted it at the mother’s grave, and it grew into a tree which she would pray under; later a white bird would perch in the tree, Cinderella would tell the bird her wishes, and the bird would bring what she wished for. The version we hear and are more accustomed to—and codified by Disney—is the Perrault interpretation.

Part of the reason for this is religion and its impact on culture. While 19th century Germany was a Catholic and Christian majority, German paganism still survived at the time (in part due to the Grimm’s preservation of the folk tales of the German homeland). Meanwhile, Roman Catholicism was the overwhelming dominant religion in France despite racial diversity. At the time Perrault wrote his Cinderella tale, Catholicism was the state religion; so the necessity for an otherworldly intermediary to grant magical wishes to those worthy and of good virtue is more in line with canonical religion than say asking a tree or a fish. This in turn translates well into American Christian thinking when Disney gets a hold of it. Again it is this way of presenting the story—watched over by “fairy” godmother, the divine providence of the glass slipper fitting only her—reinforces a form of Christian magical thinking that is prevalent in society today. Not that the fable caused the thinking, but it certainly exploits a deep undercurrent within Western Christian thought.

This leads to a common problem in Christian thinking that unless it is of divine providence and affirming of God, it is heretical and inherently evil. Monotheism sets up an incorrect narrative that only the one God can bless, provide for, and rule the believers (“True Believers”), and that others are to be punished for their failure to believe, Having said monotheism does this, I must point out that Islam and Judaism recognize other faiths even if they don’t profess their beliefs, and they aren’t known for converting at the point of a sword as Catholics or Christians. One can also see the harsh, punishing God of the Old Testament as a very foreboding presence on the faith, however it seems that the stories of the Old Testament and Talmud are much like Grimm’s morality tales, warning people on what good behavior looks like and the rewards it entails. Also with the development of the Catholic and Christian churches and/or organizations, practices arose that normalized certain black and white perspectives that even subvert the idea of an all forgiving God. A perfect example of this would be the idea of Original Sin and views on homosexuality. Thus I use Christianity as the moral absolutist group, as the evolution of the church lends itself to such criticisms more so than Judaism or Islam. The lens through which one sees the world in the Western Christian thought is divided into black and white, good and bad, dark and light. If it doesn’t conform to Christian normative standards, then it is heretical, pagan or simply inappropriate.

What gets lost in all this moral absolutism is the nuances. Not everything in life is necessarily black or white, but often choices etched in gray that need to be decided by other human beings; and this can be seen in religions as well. Buddhism doesn’t see actions by judging them good or bad, but in terms of the impact of actions on our lives and others. In Roman and Greek paganism, the various deities had similar human vices, passions, and foibles, yet they were still deified. Neither of these contain black and white thinking or moral absolutism, but still imparted important lessons to their precepts. But the best example I can use to talk about nuances in religion and stories is the Taoist concept of yin-yang. This concept is about not opposites, but contrary forces that are complimentary and interrelated. The symbol is well-known: a circle with two swirling sides, one black, one white, with different dots inside the halves. Yin is the black swirl with the white dot. Yang is the white side with the black dot in it. It has been described as sunlight moving across a mountain and valley: with the light gradually moving across and revealing things not seen and visible things retreated to the shadows. In fact, one doesn’t exist without the other. One simplistic, yet meaningful definition I’ve come across said “the black side is the bad within nature; the white is the good within nature; the black dot is the bad within the good, and the white dot is the good within the bad; the whole circle makes up nature as we know it.” This is also reminiscent of a lesson learned in dramatic writing: find the comedy within the drama and the drama within the comedy. Well rounded storytelling isn’t a matter of either or, it’s about measures of both. Hence when stories are glossed over to paint a prettier picture than originally expressed, or sanitized to eliminate certain aspects, the stories fall flat or present a false positive meaning than intended. Stories and parables that make up religious texts are also about both, as well as the transformation of any character along the way. Good stories with a moral still can be the best way to teach young children (and some adults) life lessons; the ones that stand the test of time are not one-sided but have more nuanced tones, characters, and actions leading to the main theme.

Knowing that nature doesn’t exist without both positive and negative elements, why do we act or insist that all negative aspects or emotions of life is a bad thing? The answer can be as varied as the number of people on the planet. For many it’s a matter of not wanting to feel bad or feel the negativity of others. That to feel bad is only the start of a downward spiral that may have seemingly no end, so to ward against that is to never surround yourself with anything negative, dark or depressing. The biggest problem with that is no one can ever be constantly positive. If darkness, negativity, or however you would describe it is a part of nature, then such darkness is natural and a part of life. This is seen in basic psychology in that repressing unwanted emotions has deeper and more serious consequences than feeling it to begin with—supressing anger can lead to depression, unchecked depression can lead to potentially suicidal thoughts and possibly actions. Better to admit and deal with the negative feelings than wishing them away.

In some cases it is still a matter of societal pressures. Our society still sees things in black and white despite all the shades of gray surrounding us. We’re still under the influence of Western Christian normative standards and all that entails, including a disdain for anything dark or negative (“sinful”). As such that makes it harder to even approach the subject without scorn or derision, so we avoid it. That brings us back to the whole repression of negativity I just mentioned, and the vicious cycle continues without remedy.

Having said that, the question still remains as to why the stories I wrote were dark. In all honesty I answered that in the introduction the collection in “Starry-Eyed Hallucinations.” Each individual story had their own reasons for why dark and gloomy was the way to go, in subject matter as well as tone. The rapist monologue was a story that happened when the main character started talking in my head, and wouldn’t shut up. To quiet him down, I wrote his story. In 2005, I wanted to do a story cycle as a critique of the George W. Bush Presidency. Each story would revolve around a theme of despair that America was headed at the time: the uncertainty of the economy, polarization of discourse, disappearing ideas of how American life should be, and so on. The cycle never really manifested but the stories of the office shooting and the suicidal man in the hotel are now in this collection. The speculative fiction piece about abortion being illegal was something I had in my head for a while, but wasn’t able to work on for a long time. That was the hardest for me to write as I was doing it in my own downward spiral. Despite the spiral I kept trying to write. As I said in the introduction: “I’ve always been a writer, but for the longest time, I thought I didn’t have the time to carve out to write. The truth is I never had the wherewithal to make what time I had count. It’s a skill I never mastered. It’s one that every writer needs and has to make count. The way I realized how to do this was embrace any short form writing as a way to maximize time. It also gave me the accomplishment of finishing an honest writing project. Damn the word count, write a story and make it mean something.” Rather than repress the negativity, work with it. And it worked.

Not everything I do requires me to be positive, upbeat and perky all the time. More often I need the wherewithal to stand against a barrage of dark thoughts because that’s where the story is at. One of the great things about being a write is the ability to take negative energies and work it to create works of art, even positive ones. In my old apartment, I had hanging over my desk on the wall a Chinese caligraph of the word Chaos. I had heard that the chracters have within it for crisis and opportunity, but that is actually a mistranslation now taken advantage by motivational speakers. However there is something to be said about positive and negative energies to be creative. In the Hindu tradition, the universe was created out of the dance between Shiva the destroyer and Brama the creator. Destroying the old to make way for the new. We need to have a better relaitionship with negarive or darker things because both are needed. Positive cannot exist without negative, light can only exist in the darkness.

Blessed be.

Closing words:
“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”—Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

Still Trying

December 4, 2014

It’s December now and I’m still working on that short-short I was hoping to finish November 30. As I’ve said before, I write fast fiction, but I don’t write fiction fast. Honestly I don’t even know if it’s a problem or not. Part of me hates when I can’t be a man of my word and do something when I say I will, but another part of me hates when I take on too much work and thus can’t do the work I need to when I said I’d do it. Part of me is ready to beat myself up for not working faster, another part wonders why I make unrealistic demands on myself.

When I was just out of grad school and by myself, I was able to maintain a rigorous writing schedule and completed 10 screenplays in 12 years (among other things), while holding down full time work. Now that I have a full time daughter and a part time job, if given the choice between writing or sleeping I’d rather sleep (or force a third option and lie on the couch watching TV). Is it getting older? Yes, partly. Is it because of different priorities at any given time? Definitely. Is that bad? No, it’s just life.

I write what I can when I can. I’d like to do more but it’s the best I can offer at the moment. Sometimes what I can do is a 1,000 word essay, sometime’s it might be half a sentence. At least I’m still trying. If anything I need to give myself some slack—or at least tell that nagging part of me to shut the fuck up.