The real world is simply too terrible to admit. It tells man that he is a small trembling animal who will someday decay and die. Culture changes all of this, makes man seem important, vital to the universe, immortal in some ways.
– Ernest Becker
I’ve often wondered what role art can play in ameliorating our species’ greatest existential crisis, the awareness of our own mortality. Can any work of art provide insight into the fear and despair so many feel knowing that their life as a conscious being in this universe is limited, a mere blip in time before oblivion erases everything? Can great works of art offer us hope, and help us find a purpose for our lives? Or do they only provide a false sense of meaning? Are they just distractions that enable us to evade the horror of our impending demise?
* * *
One afternoon many years ago, I watched Dersu Uzala, Akira Kurasawa’s second film shot in color, set in Siberia. Dersu astonished me with its ability to create emotional reactions that serve Kurosawa’s narrative, through both the performances of the actors, and in the scenes shot during the Siberian winter, landscapes that Kurosawa, like a master painter, captured on film. The surreal quality of the images – an endless red shifted sun flashing across a frozen lake, the blizzard that assaulted the Captain and Dersu during their trek to save the expedition – cannot adequately be conveyed with words.
Dersu Uzula is epic in its portrayal of the Siberian landscape, but intimate in how it carefully reveals the details of the relationship between the two principal characters: the Captain, an engineer and leader of a survey team in the early 20th century, and Dersu Uzula, a local guide. Dersu is a native hunter who has lived in the Siberian wilderness all his life. His knowledge of the land far exceeds that of his more-civilized companions. A man of indeterminate ancestry, Dersu is a character who, in his intensely spiritual relationship to nature, reminds me of the hunter-gatherer tribes of North America. In the opening act, he is the butt of jokes by the Russian members of the expedition, who find his behavior and customs peculiar and barbarous. Over time, however, he shows his value as a hunter, through his particular knowledge of the land and by employing his survival skills to, time after time, save his Russian colleagues from disaster and death, including an attack by a man-eating Siberian tiger.
Siberia is the true antagonist of the story, as distant as the angels of the higher ranks are distant, cruel as the evil Creator of the world that the Gnostics postulated, as alive as any of the people or animals in the film. Siberia, with its vast spaces and hostile climate is portrayed as indifferent to human life, and it haunts the human characters in the film. Ultimately, Siberia’s hold on Dersu is the prime mover in the plot, creating the conflict that leads to the film’s tragic ending.
When he made this film, Kurosawa’s career was at its lowest point. Thought to be washed up as a director and unable to obtain funding for his movies, he attempted suicide in 1971 at the age of 61. That he ever made another film was due entirely to the only nation at that time still willing to fund his work: the Soviet Union. When Mosfilm approached him to make a film in Russian, he quickly agreed and suggested an adaptation of an autobiographical work by the early 20th Century Russian adventurer and explorer, Vladimir Klavdiyevich Arsenyev, titled Dersu Uzula.
It took Kurosawa a year and a half to complete principal photography on location north of Vladivostok. Kurosawa couldn’t speak the language of the actors or the technicians on his set, and he had to contend with the censors and bureaucrats of Mosfilm. He battled numerous obstacles that took him to the edge of madness: delays caused by inclement weather and the bitter cold of the Siberian winter, fights with his producers, and his own inner demons, amplified by homesickness and despair. The movie depicts the vast power of nature and its ultimate victory over man. Perhaps Kurosawa felt that he also had been conquered by the power of nature that his film glorifies in some of the most spectacular and beautiful scenes in cinematic history.
* * *
Here is a true story from roughly the same period I first watched Dersu Uzula.
It was midsummer and I was coming home from – where? Not sure. Perhaps I was coming home after going out for coffee, or maybe after dropping off my daughter at soccer practice. Odd, I can’t remember when the incident occurred, but I know that it did. A random memory from some random time, it floated around in my mind, waiting until just this instant as I sit here, writing about Kurosawa and Derzu Usula, to reveal itself.
I pulled into the circle drive on which my house sits, a left-hand turn off the main road. Passing by a friend’s house, I saw her son on the lawn, stretched out on a towel, fully dressed. He lay on his stomach under a hot sun, eyes closed, with his head turned toward the street. His posture gave me the impression of lifelessness. Uneasy at seeing him like that, I stopped my car in front of his fading yellow house and rolled down the passenger door window to look more closely at him.
I knew he wasn’t stretched out in order to get a tan. Michael was fair-skinned and prone to burn easily. I remember feeling quite anxious. He was the same age as my daughter. Indeed, I long suspected that he had a crush on her, but he was so shy and quiet that he never told anyone of the feelings he might have had for her. But I always liked him. He was a good kid – a good kid with a pacemaker.
Yes, it’s true. His heart never worked properly. The details of his disorder were somewhat vague, but I know he had two surgeries after the insertion of his original pacemaker to install newer models. The most recent one was installed – what a word: installed – the year before. Every so many years, as he aged, the cardiologists had to replace his pacemaker to match his growth. They adjusted for the increase in his height, weight, and perhaps other factors, such as the various hormones associated with puberty. As I said, I was ignorant of the details, only grateful that no child of mine ever faced such a life-threatening condition.
I watched him lying there, motionless, and had the horrible thought that maybe he was dead. Literally, he appeared to be lying dead in full view of everyone passing by. From my car, I shouted to him. Shouted his name three times, in fact, and each time, my voice was louder than the last. He did not answer me or otherwise respond. In that moment, my own heart stopped.
However, shortly after third time I called to him, he startled and woke up. Groggy and a little incoherent, nonetheless he answered me back. I apologized for disturbing him, and asked if he was okay. He nodded, looking around in the disoriented fashion people exhibit when the anesthesia wears off after surgery.
As he sat there, getting his bearings, the sun shining of his freckled face, I drove away, feeling mildly foolish, but thankful he was alive. I still wondered why he had been lying in that hot sun, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and jeans. In that heat, I would have felt extremely uncomfortable, even in a t-shirt and gym shorts, much less fully dressed. Yet, my relief at his seeming good health filled me up. How strange that possessing a little information about a person changes how you look at him or her. Anyone else lying there like that, I wouldn’t have noticed. I would have driven on by without a thought.
Ironically, years later, Michael died at the age of twenty-two, but not from an irregular heartbeat. One night, for unknown reasons, his heart raced faster and faster, until it exhausted itself and stopped. His pacemaker was not designed to prevent a racing heartbeat, only regulate an uneven one. The grief I witnessed on his mother’s face at his wake was beyond any sorrow I’ve ever seen.
* * *
Sitting at the computer, contemplating my memory of Michael as a boy, and my fears for him, my mind leapt again, to a completely different subject, Wallace Stevens’s poem about the jar on a hill in Tennessee.
ANECDOTE OF THE JAR
placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
How strange. How unfathomable. Stevens hides his intention from his reader, I believe. To understand his meaning, we must play his puzzle game. We are left to see that jar (and the “I” figure who placed it there) in the abstract and, as on a scavenger hunt, look for meanings there among the verses, or consider the chance the poem has no meaning, that is the equivalent of a literary snipe hunt. When I first came across it, I found nothing there at all. The jar took dominion, and yet it was gray and bare. What the hell?
The jar gives us nothing, yet it acquires everything. It destroys the wilderness just by its very existence. It is a riddle. Do I believe it represents “Humanity” or “Civilization”? Is the jar a representation of all the ideals and evils human beings have ever concocted, a crude retelling of the myth of Pandora? Or is the jar a symbol for God, the God who still lingers in places like Tennessee, who still cares what happens to his creation? To me, the jar doesn’t represent the idea of creation ex nihilo, and yet it has this mysterious power to alter creation. It brings order, yet Stevens speaks of it as being barren. How complex the thought of the poet, or more accurately, how complex the poem, whose words appear simple and unadorned upon first reading.
Is the jar good or evil, or both? Stevens hints at many possible interpretations. He prods us along with the words of the poem, and also, with those that he omitted; but he does not supply us, his readers, with any answers. I can take his poem as his metaphysical statement about the nature of existence or its end in an ambiguous apocalypse. Or I can read it as the drunken ruminations of some crazy-ass writer who should have stuck to the insurance business.
What would Michael, my friend’s son with the pacemaker, have thought of that damn jar? I pondered this for a while before realizing how futile an exercise it was.
* * *
What, after all, do fiction, poetry, narrative, cinema, even music offer us? What function do they provide? Do they offer us distractions or insights, or simply a way to shut off the tyranny of our egos for a time? Can any work of art ameliorate the physical pain I feel each day? Does it solve the problems that rise up when I interact with family or friends, when they must care for me or when I am called on to care for them?
In like manner, does Kurosawa’s film provide a catharsis? Do whatever insights I can glean from Stevens’ poetry provide anything that helps me endure the life I lead? Do the stories, true or fictional, that I tell, act as a balm for my current blighted situation, filled with fatigue, pain and depression? Does art provide any value to a person who suffers? I cannot say. I can only observe and write, just as Stevens and Kurosawa created their own works of art. But what if there is no better place to which art can transport us, no grand lessons to learn? For we all suffer. What is art but merely an expression of what so many find inexpressible? A brief vision of beauty or a distracting escape before reality again kicks us in the teeth.
* * *
Here is a story about my daughter. The daughter whom I love so dearly, but whom I cannot protect from the world as it is. This happened when she was in high school, after a junior varsity volleyball game. My daughter was a member of the team, and this is a story about psychological horror.
Silence came indifferently on a cold October evening, but only after the end of a long trail of tears, tears my daughter wept. I held my daughter for over an hour, held hostage by her speechless anxiety. The bruises on her legs, back and hands were the result of hardwood floors and aluminum bleachers, into which she had been tossed, or had thrown herself. That physical damage, however, was nothing compared to the damage to her mind. The bruises to her psyche resulted from that actions of a middle-aged man, her volleyball coach, and his strange, unknowable desire to tell a tale of murder and horror to a gaggle of teenage girls on a bus trundling home through fog rising from the ground after another winter high school volleyball match. The story was about a psychotic criminal stalking a young woman, and it ended in blood and murder and terror. Holding my whimpering child, I asked myself over and over, What had he been thinking? What possible purpose could his tale of the murder of a young girl, all roughly the age of my daughter and her teammates, serve? Team bonding? Really?
When I picked her up at the high school after she stumbled from the yellow school bus, I knew immediately that something was deeply wrong. She had tears streaking down her face and could hardly speak to me. Her arrival home provided no solace. She described that awful story that her coach forced her to listen to, and her reaction to it, to my wife and me, in unruly fragments.
She kept asking why no one, but especially her coach, heard her protests to “Stop! Please stop!” Either oblivious or indifferent to her fear, he continued to regale the team with his story of a child-killing monster. Was it because her voice wasn’t loud enough? Did the big yellow bus with its bellowing engine and grinding tires mute her words, creating a white noise that canceled out her terrified cries? Or did he just not give a damn? Was he some kind of sadist, using his position of authority to take pleasure in her misery?
I stroked her back, and held her head to my heart so that its familiar rhythm might calm her as it once did when she was an infant. “You’re safe now,” I kept saying to her, but my words were inadequate, and failed to soothe her anguish. A slice of pumpkin pie smothered in Redi-Whip finally provided a brief antidote to the poison that he injected into her mind. An hour, two hours—the time dragged until at last fatigue allowed me to steer her haltingly down the hallway to her room and to tuck her into bed. “Don’t leave me!” She said that as I pulled the covers up to her head. “Stay with me until I fall asleep. It won’t take long. I promise.” Spoken slowly, but I could read the fear in her voice, so I complied.
* * *
How did she get to this point? The explanation requires another tale that I don’t wish to recall, but I will tell it anyway.
As a little girl, she was happy. A stubborn kid? Sure. Willful? Yes. But happy, playful, a child who made friends like a dog attacks a bone – with relish. She loved especially to have me read her stories, or to make ones up. She loved my absurd tales of talking penguins, or the songs I sang to her off key. She adored Dr. Seuss, Goodnight Moon, Sesame Street, Barney, The Little Mermaid—all the familiar story books that parents of my generation read to their children. She absorbed the light from the television as a sponge absorbs water.
She was six years old when the Towers came down on September 11th. What can anyone understand about the desire to slaughter other people? Kurosawa made samurai epics about it and Stevens wrote his poem, ‘The Death of a Soldier,’ about the tragedy of war. Many fairy tales told to children have gruesome ends where an evil witch or monster or dangerous beast is killed. But what is that to a child when faced with death outside the pages of a book?
A year later, a young blonde woman, a mother, who lived two houses down the street from us, was shot and stabbed to death by her husband and half-brother. She had two small boys of her own, this smiling woman of 26 years to whom my daughter sold Girl Scout cookies (two orders of Thin Mints – I was there with her at the door, I remember the sale). TV trucks and the police cars popped up overnight. Reporters knocked on doors wanting comments from the “neighbors” about the murder, comments I refused to give them, while my daughter hid in the shadows, watching my interaction with the reporters. Two weeks later, playing at a friend’s home, she witnessed several people smashing in the windows of a car parked in the yard of a neighbor, before they moved on to bashing the doors, the fenders, and the headlights. She came home after the other child’s mother phoned, frantic because my daughter was freaking out, melting down, inconsolable.
Her asthma worsened under the stress. Her nightmares increased. Some children’s films that we owned became unwatchable for her if they contained even the smallest threat of violence, regardless of the inevitable “happy ending.” I threw out our only copy of The Neverending Story because of the wolf, the bloody-fanged, red-eyed wolf, whose only purpose in the film is to threaten the hero with death. If she was present when her brother watched it (it was one of his favorites), she screamed in terror at the appearance of the wolf. Knowing this, he frequently brought up the subject in a teasing manner to elicit the same reaction, perhaps not realizing the extent to which he tortured her.
These events damaged her in ways I could not immediately grasp. Thoughts raced through her head and so she raced around as well, using any activity to distract her mind and keep those thoughts from consuming her, those never-ending thoughts that delivered her into evil. “Why does everything bad happen to me?” At the age of seven, that was her most frequent question to me. No answer I gave was the right one. Nothing I said comforted her. All those happy, silly children’s books I read to her for so many years were lies in her view, and the truth that those lies tried to hide was too large for her to bear.
* * *
the secret I left out when I started writing.
The afternoon I watched Dersu
Usula, my daughter watched it with me. She must have been no more than
thirteen. We did not finish the film because she asked that I stop. She could see the inevitable tragic ending
coming. She could see Death waiting to
claim its victim, and she wanted no part of watching Dersu die, a fictional
character that she grew to love through the magic of Kurosawa’s artistry. I stopped the movie. The next day, I watched the end of the film
without her. Now that she is an adult, I occasionally ask if she would like to
see it through to the end. Her answer is always no. I suspect she does not believe in catharsis.
 My explication of one of Stevens’ greatest poems is no doubt naïve and deeply flawed. I did not study Literature in college, nor did I read poetry seriously until my forties. However, others, who are more qualified than I, have analyzed the poem, and often speak of Stevens’ desire to resist easy interpretations of his work. He adored being thought of as enigmatic. Or so they say.
 I have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder diagnosis known as TRAPS, or Tumor Necrosis Factor Receptor Cell Associated Periodic Syndrome. I suffer from periodic inflammation of the connective tissue throughout my body, from the lining of my gastrointestinal system to the cartilage in my joints. It can lead to hospitalization if I fail to take my medication in time. The side effects of that medication acts to lower my immune system, making me more susceptible to infection.
My wife suffers from a traumatic brain injury due to the chemotherapy that was used to combat her pancreatic cancer. She has poor short term memory, difficulty concentrating and difficulty maintaining a daily routine, which is problematic because the surgery that removed her pancreas made her a Type I diabetic. Often nauseated, she forgets to eat, or does not eat enough, and has lost a great deal of weight, risking the dangers of Diabetic Ketoacidosis, a life threatening condition for which she has already been hospitalized once.
 I and several parents complained to the school administration about this coach and his actions. He was required to apologize to the team, and he promised never again to repeat the story he told the girls to any students under his charge, but he was not fired. That was the last year my daughter participated in high school volleyball.