Friday, August 3, 2007

From Here to the Grand Canyon--You Have to Cross the Symbolic Complex on the Way

I had a supremely trapped-inside-the-symbolic-complex moment last night. It happened while I was watching "From Here to Eternity" (1953), the great and grim classic film set shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor. It had wrenching, real-feeling characters and was filled with those memorable “treasurable” moments that happen in good movies where for an instant you sense that you are being let in on a secret about human life. And better yet for me, it was tinged with noir, which wasn’t what I expected from a film whose most famous moment involved Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr washing up on a beach in each other’s arms.

But it was actually that very scene that ended up haunting me the most, though for unexpected and extra-filmic reasons. Having seen countless pictures of the ahead-of-its time, sea-soaked smooch (which, inevitably, is featured on the cover of the DVD) I was all prepared when the Deborah Kerr character announces to her lover that she is concealing a bathingsuit under the little black number she has on. Here it comes.

And it came. And went. In a matter of about three seconds. Frankly, I was disappointed and I wasn’t the only one. “That can’t be it,” said my mother, who was watching with me. “That can’t be the scene.” We had, of course, expected greatness and were confounded to be met instead with the smallness of reality. No doubt it was a vigorous liplock that looked like it would be fun to be part of but it was brief, even missable if you’d happened to turn away for a moment. No camera circled the lovers’ heads, probing for the most intimate shot or attempting to suggest with proximity the sheer intensity of what was happening—though the naturalistic image of the lovers in a sandy embrace must have been hugely risqué for 1953. Regardless, the background music didn’t do what I had expected: it failed to hit a soaring note after a dramatically building crescendo designed to complement the crashing of the nearby waves. The characters looked downright small, almost distant compared to their counterparts in the enlarged stills I had seen so many times. And then, most anti-climactic of all, mere moments after the famous kiss, the two lovers began to argue…Burt is insecure and jealous because Deborah has had so many lovers before him. He makes some catty remarks and she nearly storms off. Hardly the romantic ending I had imagined.

I am once again reminded of the symbolic complex. I call it this of course because of Walker Percy’s 1954 essay “The Loss of the Creature,” in which Percy argues that modern man has lost the ability to appreciate sites/sights and experiences on their own merits. To illustrate his point, Percy asks us to imagine the thrill García Lopez de Cardenas must have felt coming upon the Grand Canyon for the first time. In an attempt to pass on this feeling of awe to others, the government allowed this site to be viewed by the general public. However, in so doing, just the opposite occurred. Saturated by images of the Grand Canyon, it is increasingly difficult to see it except through the frame of how we have been told we ought to view it. It is amazing. It is enormous. It is breathtaking. Something terrible is expected of us: we must be awestruck. Even worse, Percy says, we judge our satisfaction in seeing things (the Grand Canyon) or even having experiences (attending our senior prom, let’s say) based on how closely they conform to our pre-existing concept of what that thing should be like, a concept developed within the symbolic complex of advertising and marketing in all its insidious forms. Inevitably, we are disappointed when the thing fails to live up to our precise (and pre-packaged) expectations—it’s cloudy that day in Arizona. Seeing a natural wonder like the Grand Canyon should be an exhilarating experience like it was for Cardenas, marvelous in its specificity. Instead, it has become the most typical of all. The thing itself, that which forms the essence of an authentic experience in its purest and most vivid incarnation—what Percy called “the creature”—has been lost.

Hence my disappointment at the famous scene in "From Here to Eternity." To my chagrin, it wasn’t (and it couldn’t be) the spectacular moment that someone stumbling upon the movie might have felt it was, especially someone seeing the movie in its original historical context. Through no fault of its own it couldn’t live up to the hype. I have felt this way many times encountering purportedly incredible things—when I first saw the Tower of Pisa, for instance, or the Mona Lisa, or even when I glimpsed Claire Danes on the street once. I felt it when I stayed up to see an unspectacular sunrise, not because I really felt like doing it but because staying up to see the sunrise is just one of those magical things that one is supposed to do at some point in one’s life since one ought to be the kind of person who would enjoy that sort of thing. Who was I kidding watching "From Here to Eternity" in the first place? I was only seeing it because I had heard so many times that it was an unforgettable classic.

Percy said that we must enter into a struggle to recover the sights or experiences whose value has been lost to us. In more general existentialist terms, we must struggle for authenticity in a world ridden with bad faith. It’s a hard struggle, a losing battle. The only real chance we have is to be aware of the symbolic complex and as much as possible to resist it, even knowing that it cannot be very much. It is all we can do to seek authentic experience without falling into the trap of preferring something because on the surface it looks like what we imagine “authentic experience” should look like—staying up to see the sunrise, for instance…And aspiring to be free of outside influences that would make our decisions for us—not wearing Ugg boots just because everyone else is wearing them but also not not wearing them because everyone else is wearing them.

Is there anything harder? Even writing this entry I am sure I’m not succeeding.

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