Sunday, December 16, 2012
The World This Christmas: a Meditation
Tonight, I want to look at the face of Lillian Gish.
Rightly or wrongly, I was raised to believe that she was the closest thing to perfectly good that a person could be, and tonight I feel the need of goodness. It seems in short supply in this low world. I need to look at the face of Lillian Gish.
When something evil happens, we dwell upon it. We usually get it wrong, focus on the wrong thing, obsess; everything around us encourages us to that bad end. We blame the media, we blame the vultures who descend on tragedy; we get sidetracked, we nitpick at little details and the little minds who blow them out of all proportion. I have to look at the face of Lillian Gish.
I will admit it: I have no special love for children, and I despise the aspects of our culture that are infantilizing, that promote the cult of children at a level of the saccharine that our Victorian forebears, no slouches they at the sentimental, might find embarrassing. I am at times perplexed by those who choose to teach small children. Tonight, I must look at the face of Lillian Gish.
What does it take, to look death in the eye and lie: there are no children here? In Night of the Hunter, her greatest film, Lillian Gish says: "I'm a strong tree with branches for many birds. I'm good for something in this old world, and I know it, too." She also says: "You know, when you're little, you have more edurance than God is ever to grant you again. Children are man at his strongest. They abide." I hope that's true. I hope that strong trees know their goodness, in the moment when they need to know it, and that children do abide. I look at the face of Lillian Gish.
What is wrong with us? I don't just mean the guns, the violence; I don't mean the systems that fail the dangerously sick, the disenfranchised; I don't mean the schools that have no idea of what to do with the odd boy out, or the neighbors, families, strangers on the street who miss the sign, the dangerous moment, the instant or two of no-turning-back. I mean us. Lillian Gish paraphrases from the Gospels: "A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits, ye shall know them."
I don't believe in God, anymore, and as a result I struggle to express how I define the abstracts, good and evil. I do believe in them, however, and I've raised fruit trees, too; the Gospel parable, in this case, is on the mark. I wonder what is we're bringing forth. It goes beyond a single horror, one more blaring headline at the top of the hour. I don't want to think too much about that corrupt tree, at what we are and have become and have and may bring forth. I want to look at the face of Lillian Gish.
In the final moments of her greatest role, having vanquished evil, singlehandedly (with the most effective line, perhaps, she ever delivered: "Get your state troopers out here. I got something trapped in my barn."), Lillian Gish prepares her Christmas dinner. She says: "Lord save little children. You'd think the world would be ashamed to name such a day as Christmas for one of them and then go on in the same old way."
We have to find a way to stop having reason to be ashamed. I don't what that way might be, and at the moment I feel very far from ever knowing. But we have to find a way. She ends the film: "The wind blows and the rain's a-cold. Yet they abide...They abide and they endure." I hope it's so.
Tonight, as Christmas comes, I want to look at the face of Lillian Gish.