First, I was amazed it made the top 5, which Meredith Vieira revealed early in the program on tonight’s Grand Finale of The Great American Read. Then, I was shocked it wasn’t number 4 and then flabbergasted that it passed up the number 3 position, beating out the wildly popular Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Pride and Prejudice.
At that point, my incredulity so distorted my judgment that I wasn’t certain any more it couldn’t beat To Kill a Mockingbird. But it didn’t. It only beat 98 other well-loved novels to become the number 1 contemporary novel in America’s esteem, number 1 out of all 21st-century novels in English, at least through the lens of the PBS Great American Read campaign.
I knew the Outlander fan base was devoted and highly motivated on social media, but I had no idea how much traction the book series must have gained thanks to the Outlander STARZ TV series’ starting and doing so well since August of 2014. Published in 1991, Outlander is more popular today than ever. Perhaps what throws me most is how close my opinion is to some sort of mainstream, especially concerning taste in books.
Now I can say with the weight of a country’s most avid readers behind me: Read Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. America recommends it.
Although this one wasn’t for my classics book club, I have wanted to read it for years. As a play, it’s a relatively quick read, so I was able to tuck it in among other readings.
A Streetcar Named Desire may be a better, more entertaining play than The Glass Menagerie, but together they suggest a pattern of playwright fixation on the destruction of fragile, helpless women at the hands of hapless or hostile men. Yet, although critics claim that Stanley is the catalyst for Blanche’ s tragedy, I see undeniable, culpable shades in the sorrows of sister Stella and would-be husband Mitch. Besides these influences, a case can be made that Blanche needs little nudging by anyone to plunge her into her ultimate abyss, a place she seems headed for from the start. Either way, the question is posed clearly before the tragedy is complete: Who is to blame?
The tragic arc is a twisted tree root. Plunging through the rich soil of clever, careful staging, eerie overlays of music and echoed sounds, and crisp, character-making dialogue, the reader (not just the playgoer) falls irrevocably into the suffocating depths of a taut, primal, sensual plot. With his usually detailed stage directions, Williams also leaves nothing in the production plan to chance, while his storytelling strikes a delicate balance by revealing just enough both to engage and to mystify his audience.
The emotional effects of these elements for Blanche are a haunting by the past that cannot be shaken and a shackling by her imagination that stunts her growth. Her character is static in the course of the play as the distance between the danger and the fall proves all too short. Stanley, likewise, is static, and so they come together like immovable object and unstoppable force. The intriguing question for me is what change must occur in Stella beyond the play’s ending as a result of this close family tragedy, with one member the victim and the other, the perpetrator. Stella, at least, has dynamic potential as collateral damage.
Penguin Modern Classics edition book cover
Still, none of the main characters reads as a monotone stereotype; they themselves get to play with those concepts as they size each other up. The tension permeating the play stems from perceptions of class differences, ethnic backgrounds, sexual attraction, and affectations brought into sharp relief by the visit of Blanche DuBois to her sister and brother-in-law’s small apartment during a typically oppressive New Orleans summer.
The result is a smoldering tragedy without a clear path as to how it might have been avoided. Remarkable paradox comes through Williams’ writing: Stella, Stanley, and Blanche all prove to be decent people even as their inflexible selfishness, by turns, renders them on many levels indecent–and ultimately inhumane–to one another.
Raw, obvious character flaws, especially Stanley’s, do contribute to the mess, however. His inherent roughness of manner, speech, action, and mere presence directly feed and elicit Blanche’s carefully constructed delicacies, charms, snobbery, and veneer of the victim. They could hardly be more different, and as foils, these opposites both attract and repulse.
Like the down-to-earth Stanley, the reader knows upon meeting her not to take Blanche at face value, but as we get to know her, we begin to empathize with, if not believe in, Blanche DuBois. When Stanley finally exposes her past sins, the whole truth of them is doubtful, they are inextricable from her suffering, and we see that both Stanley and Stella can be right about her sister in their opposing views.
Blanche is a menace being treated unfairly.
An emotional atmosphere of steamy New Orleans chaos reigns over the play. Ripples of racist overtones, sexism, raw sensuality, crime, vice, and class prejudice collide and reinforce one another to disrupt the characters’ moral compasses. Danger vibrates constantly just beneath the surface, and I kept expecting brawl, beating, or suicide around the next corner. Peripheral scenes foreshadow ultimate conflict as violence escalates, but it’s all very restrained, held in check for the bulk of the story, which makes each scene all the more intriguing.
The shock of the penultimate act of violence, committed between active scenes, can resolve into either the satisfaction of poetic justice or an indignation against grave injustice, a verdict that rings loudly through the end. The ensuing resolution is also unequivocally sad, and we even get a moral from the perfect, trembling lips of Blanche DuBois. Coming from her, the line “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” is both ironic caution and sad testament to a frail psyche.
This is one of the few plays I’ve read besides Shakespeare that so strongly compels me to seek out a production to watch this very minute. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams exposes seedy corners of mid-twentieth-century American society and equally dark corners of its minds and hearts. First, he is the realistic, impartial painter of human coarseness, failure, beauty and love. Then, in affecting lyrical form, he hints at judgment of all these through their close, unflinching examination. In his complex process, Williams has crafted a true literary and theatrical treasure.
~ Read the post (contains explicit language), then take the poll. ~
Here is my adapted definition of synchronicity: A mild (positive) shock of recognition of the convergence that alerts your mind to a potentially important connection between one object, person, place, or idea and another.
The phenomenon is neither deja vu nor ESP, but something akin to both. Whereas these two focus, respectively, on the past and the future, synchronicity lives in the present, with us, urging us to be captivated–now. Yet, there is a predictive factor in play with any associated time delay between one half of the connection and the other. Perhaps it is a form of ESP after all.
It serves as a kind of homing beacon, saying simply, “Yes. Yes, this is for you and you alone.” The meaning of the convergence is unique to the recipient; the recognition is one that only the recipient can experience in just this way. The effect on the recipient may be an urge or need to follow up–to say, write, or do something to acknowledge the synchronous event.
Why does it happen? Because we asked for it somewhere deep in our subconscious mind. Why do we respond as we do? Because we realize it is an answer to an unspoken (or perhaps spoken) question we had sent out into the ether.
You could call it an answered prayer. Some call it meaningless coincidence. Whatever you call it, it is good, for our good.
The Artist’s Way author Julia Cameron explains that when we open ourselves up to these connective possibilities, the flood gates open, and these moments may arise more frequently. If our answer to the “yes” of the synchronous moment is also “yes,” in the way we keep ourselves open, receptive, unafraid, even in awe, and lovingly curious about what may happen next, the chance of these recurrences increases.
An emotional rejection of the moment, whether through fear or scoffing skepticism, will discourage the shy matchmaker that is synchronicity from reappearing and offering its gifts again.
For me, the visitations have been relatively few and infrequent but, mainly, consistent with the definition and “rules” of relationship the experts present.
The most vivid recollection I have of this phenomenon is of an instance while driving in my daily commute from Cuyahoga Falls to University Circle in Cleveland several years back. It was so vivid that, in retrospect, I almost believed I must have made my query aloud. How else could the reply have come with such stark, unmistakable delivery?
Traversing a highway bridge in relatively bright daylight, I spotted a dark object ahead of me near the end of the bridge but in the middle of the road. It was fairly large, so I thought it might have been a shredded semi tire or large trash bag.
As I drew closer, details revealed a flapping motion toward the top of the somewhat rounded object. It did not move like a bag and moved too much to be heavy rubber or any other usual debris.
Considering the possibility of its being a dead animal, I was puzzled, as no road kill I had ever seen, whether squirrel or groundhog or raccoon or even deer, would present this kind of motion. Within range to see the object clearly, I gasped when I realized what it was.
The shock of recognition in this case was neither mild nor particularly positive. It was a dead Canada goose, on its back, with its stiff, webbed feet waving in the wind of the traffic on a bridge.
I had seen such geese alive hundreds of times, so ordinarily, a witnessing of this deceased version should not have disturbed or frightened me much at all, I suppose. But I immediately recalled my unspoken question of recent days, which even in my mind had been more of a passing observation:
“Hmm. I’ve never seen a dead Canada goose before.” I had thought it odd not to have seen one, or realized seeing it, in my nearly 30-year lifetime.
The universe gives us what we ask for.
After I gasped, in consternation and with furrowed brow, I said aloud, “Oh, no, that’s not what I meant!” I brought hand to face as I refocused on the road ahead of me. Being a bird lover and an animal lover makes seeing dead animals, however repeatedly, a slightly saddening experience for me, but I rarely tense up or feel the need to say or do anything in particular but sigh or inaudibly exhale and keep driving.
Even though I had no particular love of Canada geese–we all know they can be obstinate, loud and disgusting nuisances in large numbers–seeing the answer to my question lying there, in that ridiculous position, trying to swim upside down through the air while glued to the asphalt, struck me as rather horrifying. But it took the question’s existence and this clear answer of that question to create the full impact.
Was this synchronicity? If so, what ever for? Was it mere coincidence? If so, why was my reaction so vehement? Was it answered “prayer”–God, I hope not! Thinking that the last option might be the case, I was stricken with a sense of guilt and fear that I had somehow made it happen, that I had provided the outcome for myself.
How could I say “yes” to such a perceived power? Who wants to be able to kill innocent creatures one normally admires and sometimes loves by simply wondering about their death? Was it a sign that I needed to think more positively, else I could start offing things with my brain waves?
After all this, providing these definitions, rules, explanations, and the sense that I must know something of what I speak, I must confess: I don’t know why it happened or what it meant, if anything. I do know, however, that my awareness of synchronicity as a phenomenon had been heightened around the same time, though focused, or at least tossed haphazardly, in other directions.
This was certainly an unexpected confluence, an unanticipated call and response. Unwelcome is more like it. If there was anything to do, what could it possibly be? Too freaked out to follow up, to face the strangeness of it any more than sharing the story with others, I never did pursue, or seek to create, any meaning from the experience.
Is this writing piece itself the answer? Is the point merely to make material available for writerly pondering? Why do I bring this up now? Why not?
The truth is I crave positive synchronicity in my life and art. It’s a way of overcoming reluctance to express myself, of beckoning what I perceive to be external motivation to make it a regular part of my life. Yet, I have not decided exactly what constitutes regular enough or legitimately constant self-expression. Perhaps this desire is just a childish way of shirking routine responsibility.
These misgivings are the kind that lie at the heart of the purpose of The Artist’s Way program. Art is legitimate, Cameron hammers home. You do have something worth expressing. Stop asking for permission and seeking some undefined legitimacy. Just express you. Let the creativity, the communication, the thing to give flow through you out into that same ether where your questions linger and sometimes receive answers.
As a philosopher, I stand by the notion that seeking and knowing the right questions remains largely more important than having the answers. I’m good at asking provocative questions. They serve me in personal growth, as a tutor and teacher, as a mentor and writing peer, as a wife, a daughter, a caregiver of a special needs pet, and a friend.
Like anything, though, in excess, questions merely cripple, and they strain to serve the pursuit of art. This can take the form of self-sabotage.
Whether that’s what the goose encounter was or not, it definitely felt counterproductive and thwarting. It only raised more questions and fears. And it was just downright unpleasant in itself.
So, am I to redefine or relabel more appropriately, if that’s the case? Was it not synchronicity, this supreme, benevolent source of all good, as I had interpreted it to be? (Really, I thought God was saying, “Here you go!” in a cruelly cheerful tone.)
Are we all just full of shit? Sometimes I think so.
If it didn’t really mean anything, why do I feel compelled to frame it in this way, or to talk about it at all? Is the interpretation more of a twisted desperation to experience life-saving synchronicity? Or, is it a way to close the door on synchronicity’s potential forever, by saying, “If this is what it looks like, I’m not looking!”?
I wish I knew, but I don’t. All I can do is move forward now. That did happen about seven or eight years ago, anyway.
I have experienced what I would label as positive synchronicity since then, again in the context of re-raising my awareness of it, particularly in re-reading The Artist’s Way, though that isn’t the only source of discussion about it I have read. And this time, art was served, in the form of a poem, or, rather, the affirmation of a poem I had just created.
My recognition of the occurrence took the form of exclamatory marginalia, which are anything but marginal in my studious life. It impressed upon me a subtle encouragement to continue on the theme I had chosen, to try it out in new works, to dwell in the world of this general theme, which happens to be my relationship to animals.
That’s not coincidence. It’s not answered prayer. It’s not really synchronicity either. It’s just part of who I am, a thread of personality running through my experiences and artistic tendencies.
Whatever the causal label, the effective reality is authentic living, being true to myself. And by thinking and writing about it, I reinforce and hone my understanding of who I am.