Monday, January 6, 2014

Christmas, Catharsis and Cinema

Well, it is the Feast of the Epiphany, and Christmas is drawing to a close. This is the time we witness those poignant sights-- Christmas trees in dumpsters (or in "skips", as we say in Ireland) and people taking down festive decorations.

I wrote a poem about this a few years back:

The time is past for tinsel
The holly’s out of date
The clockwork Santa’s lost the will
To celebrate.
The workday world is rousing;
It hates a paper crown.
What’s left of the carousing
When the Christmas tree comes down?

There's a second verse, but it's terrible.

I was in America for Christmas. I've just returned to Dublin today. The whole experience has left me feeling rather restless and pensive.

Travel always seems to leave me with this sensation; a haunting feeling of emptiness, or rather, of thinness. Standing in an airport and watching the thousands upon thousands of people go by always fills me with a disagreeable sense of being a unit, an atom, a part of a faceless mass. Though I've always believed in the beauty of the ordinary, I don't get a sense of this when I travel. In fact, I get an overwhelming sense of banality. Admittedly, that has something to do with the awful books and magazines that are to be found in the airport shops. Nothing could be more depressing than the idea of the whole Western world reading the same handful of techno-thrillers, self-help books and Booker Prize winners.

Perhaps even worse are the brave attempts that airports (and airport businesses) make to evoke a sense of local character. This always strikes me when I pass the Oak Café bar in Dublin Airport. This has information panels on the walls explaining the Ogham alphabet of ancient Ireland, and (if I remember correctly) waxing poetic on the importance of wood in ancient Gaelic culture, as well as attempting to draw a parallel between old Irish myths of journeying and air travel. The attempt to throw a little bit of "ethnic" icing on something as essentially flavorless as air travel only makes it seems colder and more soulless.

But worst of all was a poster I saw yesterday in JFK airport (I flew through New York), which enticed the viewer with the idea of swimming in a sacred river previously reserved for priests of some native religion or other. The quarrying of the sacred and the unique for the sake of titillating tourists could hardly come in a crasser form.

I get the disturbing sensation of being a ghost in a world of ghosts, forlornly seeking to find and feed off some pulse of real, full-blooded life.

This sense of alienation is heightened by the inevitable Christmas socializing, often with people you don't know very well. I spent a weekend this year visiting a couple who I like very much, and who are both good and willing conversationalists. Other people were there, too. I liked all of them, and I appreciated the invitation, and I enjoyed the weekend, but at times I had to go for a walk outside or just lie down in my room, the strain of "making conversation" for hours on end being so oppressive. "Everyone else feels the same", Michelle told me. "There are a lot of introverts here today finding this really hard work". Of course she was right. I don't think I'm especially sensitive or somehow superior to social rituals.

But the whole thing left me feeling I was gasping for air. Life is so short, and we spend so much of the time we have waiting in queues and at bus-stops and in waiting rooms, casting about for something to think about. Or we spend it in social situations where we are casting about for something to say. And too much time in these situations makes life seems thin and lacking in nutrition.

The same thing, I think, is true of Christmas as a whole. I find myself feeling a strange conflict when it comes to Christmas. In one way, it's not only my favourite time of the year, but my examplar of what the whole year should be like-- traditional, innocent, cheerful, cosy, celebratory, full of rituals and customs.

But, in another and a strange way, I find myself resenting Christmas. As a lover of tradition, I don't appreciate how Christmas has become the tradition, the vortex which seems to suck up all other traditions and festivals. I don't think living for the weekend is a good idea, and I don't think stuffing all the year's festivity into its last few weeks is a good idea, either. We have so many Christmas songs and Christmas movies and Christmas TV specials and bumper Christmas issues of magazines. But the rest of the year is rather denuded of traditions. In England, apparently, Guy Fawkes's Day has almost disappeared. It's as though people are overdrawn not only financially, but energetically, by Christmas.

(One example of this is the connection between Christmas and the ghost story, a connection that goes back to M.R. James and Charles Dickens before him. So it is a venerable tradition, but it seems a lamentable one to me. Why should Christmas have ghost stories too? Shouldn't Halloween have the ghost stories? Why should Christmas have everything?)

And, with all this, Christmas still seems unsatisfying. I am not talking about the religious festival. The religious festival is wholly satisfying, wholly meaningful, wholly engaging. Christmas carols seem to only really come alive when they are sung as hymns, in a church.

No, I mean the secular festival, of which we are all partakers, whether we want to be or not. Christmas is a huge societal celebration of-- of what, exactly? Nobody seems to exactly know. We feel that it should be a time charged with significance, but when we put any weight upon this, it tends to give way beneath us. I feel slightly naive and embarrassed, writing this. But I think the truth is that, for all our conspicuous irony, we do yearn for some kind of emotional experience at Christmas. We want all the lights and the carols and the decorations and the get-togethers to add to something greater than the sum of their parts. We want some kind of emotional breakthrough. But we always come away disappointed-- at least, I do-- because of a frustrating lack of any essence to the secular Christmas. What's it all about? Nothing, really.

But writing this-- and thinking about it, as I have been over Christmas-- makes me ask, what are we looking for, anyway? Not just at Christmas, but at all other times of the year? What is it that we are always seeking?

For my part, I think "catharsis" is the best word I can come up with. I realize I am, perhaps, abusing the word. I understand that it had a very specific origin in Aristotle's dramatic criticism, relating to the release of repressed emotions, specifically pity and terror. Nevertheless, I think its meaning has (legitimately) expanded in popular usage, since it seems to express something that no other word does.

I use it to mean an intensity of emotion and experience which is something we crave-- or, at least, something I crave.

Perhaps I am extending the use of "catharsis" in the same way Lewis extended the use of "joy" or James Joyce extended the use of "epiphany", and perhaps all three are not so different from each other.

Catharsis, to me, is when we overflow with emotion, or fascination, or excitement-- the very opposite of casting about for something to think about, or something to talk about, or something to be enthusiastic about.

It may be objected that this is simply a mood, a whim, something essentially subjective and fickle. I don't think so. To me, moments of what I will term catharsis tend to have a lasting effect. The moment passes, but the memory lingers, and remains with us, and continues to bring us joy.

Here are some of my own personal sources of catharsis.

Eating and drinking. I feel rather embarrassed to admit this, but eating and drinking always tend to give me this deep sense of satisfaction. Whether this is an oral fixation, gluttony, comfort eating, or some other symptom of mental or spiritual malaise, I wouldn't venture to say. I would claim, however, that eating and drinking never seem to me like a compensation for something else. I never don't feel like eating or drinking. And food and drink tend to heighten other pleasures, not replace them. I never feel so absorbed in anything that I forget food.

I mean more than just that I enjoy eating and drinking. I mean that eating and drinking fill me with a sense of life's fullness, and make the world seem friendly, and add to all other pleasures-- for instance, conversation, or enjoyable weather. (I'm thinking about hot chocolate on a frosty day here.)

And food and drink does, truly, linger in my mind in a way that seems life-enhancing. For instance, I am just now remembering eating a tuna salad sandwich in the Bamboo Café in Richmond, about a year ago, while reading the introduction to a book about the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg. I felt utterly content in that moment, and the tuna salad sandwich was part of it. There it is.

Reading. What can I say? If I walk into somebody's house, I immediately gravitate towards the bookshelves. Books seem solid and real in a way that nothing else really does. A book is a companion in a way that nothing else can really be. The intimacy of the writer addressing the reader is, in a way, a deeper intimacy than any other. But I wrote a whole post about this.

Writing. I never feel more alive, more filled with a deep, deep sense of satisfaction, than when I am writing.

Serious, deep conversation. Awkward and desultory conversation is one of the worst things in life, but animated and eager conversation must surely be one of the best. Even listening to animated and eager conversation is a pleasure. Is there anything more beautiful in life than the sound of two people conversing on a subject that they really know and love, whose depths they can sound out?

Deep conversation is cathartic in the dictionary sense of the word, as well as the expanded sense that I am using here. Reader, how often have you come away from a deep conversation-- perhaps one with someone to whom you had not spoken much before-- positively glowing, feeling a powerful sense of release and exhilaration?

I think The Breakfast Club is a movie that dramatizes this very well.

Deep conversation doesn't have to be about one's own emotional or personal life, as it is in The Breakfast Club. But even a really engaged conversation on some neutral topic-- comedy, or capitalism, or claustrophobia-- can carry with it this sense of interpersonal encounter.

Friendship, Family and Love. This hardly needs expansion. But I will say that our deepest relationships, in my view, are not simply a steady source of bliss, but rather the context where so many of our most profound experiences happen.

Religion. Some Christian writers (including C.S. Lewis) are dismissive of "religion", seeing it as a kind of generic social phenomenon from which true Christianity is entirely distinct. I've never liked this idea. I would rather affirm what is good in other religions, and in religiosity in general, and in the religious impulse even in its humblest forms, than to contrast it with a kind of bed-of-nails Christianity where everything comforting, cheerful, cosy and human is torn away from us.

I sometimes wonder if non-religious people realize what simple pleasure and even fun is to be found in the practice of a faith. I feel a bit wary about writing this, but I can't help thinking it's true. Sometimes I get bored at Mass, but on the whole, I love going. I love praying before the Blessed Sacrament and reading about the Faith. Everything in life, unless we are to float from whim to whim, involves some element of effort, some irksomeness. But I wonder if unbelievers realize how little irksomeness is involved in the outward observances of religion? How did religious devotions come to be seen as dull and deadening, when they are just the opposite?

Notice I have avoided talking about the profound, unwavering joy that comes of religious conviction. I feel shy about claiming that I have even attained a far-off glimpse of this. I would rather insist that even the most casual manifestations of religion are a source of the catharsis I write about here. Even stepping into an empty church for a few moments seems, to me, more satisfying than any number of parties. People who don't practice a religion seem, to me, to be missing out in a very obvious way. I wonder they don't feel it.

Movies. This is of particular interest to me right now, and is mentioned in my blog post title, because I watched a lot of movies over Christmas.

Here are the movies I watched:

When Harry Met Sally, on the flight to America (Delta airlines have an entertainment system whereby passengers can choose from about a hundred different movies)
Argo, on DVD, with Michelle
Steel Magnolias, on DVD, with Michelle
Groundhog Day, on DVD, with Michelle
Identity Thief, on DVD, with Michelle
The Hunger Games, on DVD, with Michelle
Silver Lining's Playbook, on DVD, with Michelle
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with Michelle, in the "Cinebistro" in Richmond, Virginia-- a cinema where you can eat dinner while watching the movie.

I enjoyed most of them. When Harry Met Sally was a lot of fun, and I'd never seen it before. Steel Magnolias was my suggestion, and was just as mawkish and sappy as I'd expected. Identity Thief took a thin premise and stretched it as far as it would go. There were a few laughs but it was mostly vapid. Argo is brilliant and deserved its Oscar. The Hunger Games was well-made but the basic situation was so nightmarish that I couldn't really enjoy it. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, despite an unpromising and cartoonish start, built to a very moving and satisfying finale.

Silver Lining's Playbook was nasty art-house rubbish, and Groundhog Day is the most awesome film ever created.

I very rarely feel that time spent watching movies is time wasted. In fact, watching movies seems to me to be one of the most intense and rewarding activities there are. I think human beings need stories like we need Vitamin D.

Nor do I feel that movies are a purely passive, transitory, diversionary activity. I always feel I have lived a little more, a little deeper, after watching a good movie (or even a not-so-good movie). I feel added to.

And I also feel movies can be a powerful bonding agent between a couple, or between friends, or between family members. It's a shared, intense experience. It's even a shared journey. It provides terms of reference for life ("this is like that scene in The American President...")

Some of my sweetest and most romantic memories with Michelle are of watching DVDs. (DVDs especially. Our forays to the cinema have been less fortunate, so far. I suspect that DVDs are a more romantic format, anyway, taking romance in the interpersonal sense.) We've done plenty of outgoing and adventurous and social things, and I remember them with fondness. But somehow being curled up on a sofa watching Made of Honor or My Big Fat Greek Wedding seems just as memorable to me, and just as worthwhile, as descending into underground caverns or standing at the Lincoln Memorial.

Sad? No, I don't think it's sad. I think it's cathartic. So there.


  1. An enjoyable post Maolsheachlann. I don't think there's anything I can add to your points about catharsis, but I do agree with you about Christmas. Even the build up to Christmas isn't so exciting to me anymore. The only things I really look forward to are Mass and the dinner. The Mass is the only eventful thing that happens on Christmas, and like you I enjoy food too. Other than that it seems like a non-day, and then you're unhappy when it ends because you didn't do much with it.
    As for your comments about Christmas getting everything, maybe we should do more to give more life to other traditional holidays. Consider St. Patrick's Day. There's a parade early on in the day, and when that ends most people go off to get drunk. Not particularly exciting. I reckon we could think of some interesting ways to make these holidays better. Start off small and see if it catches on. That's how most traditions start. Just an idea. Personally, to go back to food, I think there should be some sort of feast involved. All good festive holidays should involve some sort of feast. Holidays should be happy occasions, and full stomachs are usually happy. Oh, and don't forget the religious aspects of course.
    Yes, that went on a bit longer than expected, but that's the point I was trying make.

  2. I do think we should try to re-invigorate less celebrated holidays. Food, processions, games, decorations, maybe particular books to read or songs to sing...for the last few years, I have read St. Patrick's Confession on St. Patrick's Day. There is a sadness to Saint Patrick's day these days because it feels as though his great work is being undone after having endured so long, and also because people so shamelessly calls it "Paddy's Day".