Friday, March 27, 2015

Mass Murder and the Critical Mom

A few days before Andreas Lubitz deliberately reprogrammed Germanwings Flight 9525 in order to lower the plane's altitude from 38,000 feet to 100 feet, ignoring the pleas of Captain Patrick Sonderheimer, a group from my children's school took the same flight--possibly with the same pilots.  German children often go on exchange programs, and my older son has been on several trips to China with international groups of students.   The children on the Germanwings flight lived in a small village slightly north of Düsseldorf, a city to which I frequently go, half an hour from our local Hauptbahnhof.  The sister of a colleague was booked on the fatal flight, but changed her plans at the last minute. A friend who works for Lufthansa loaded the plane with meals, glasses, cutlery.
When we first heard the terrible news, when speculations about the age of the aircraft and the dangers of birds or foreign objects being sucked into the plane dominated the news, I felt that this crash couldn't have been caused by mechanical failure, since most crashes happen during take-off and landing, even those that have occurred with pilots impaired by alcohol or severe psychological problems.  It is still very hard to imagine someone studying the Airbus system carefully enough to set the plane's course in such a way that the system could not override the pilot's intentions.   It is hard to imagine a man wanting to die by sending a plane into slow descent so that it crashes into an alp, killing babies, schoolchildren, opera singers, vacationers.  Even if we try to get into the mind of Andreas Lubitz--another colleague suggests that he wants people to be thinking and talking about him right now--it is difficult to imagine any result other than the kind of feelings experienced by the actor Ralph Fiennes when he prepared for the role of the sadistic nazi, Amon Goeth.  In a February, 1994 New York Times interview in which he reflected that "Evil may well be nearer the surface than we like to admit," Fiennes confessed, 
"It's not a rational thing, but it's an instinctive thing," he explained. "If you are playing a role, you are immersing yourself in thinking about that character -- how he moves, how he thinks. In the end he becomes an extension of your own self. You like him."

When the Times reporter asked Fiennes whether there was "an emotional residue from the experience of playing a character he nonetheless views as obscene and sick," Fiennes answered, "I think there was a price to pay for this one. When you're investigating behavior that is that negative so intensely for three months, then you feel sort of peculiar because you might have at moments enjoyed it and at the same time you feel slightly soiled by it. It just throws up all kinds of question marks -- about acting, about human behavior, about how all of that is probably a lot closer to the surface than we like to think."  For the chilling scene in which Goeth shoots at random, and for kicks, at concentration camp inmates, Fiennes combined memories of "that boyish thrill with an air rifle when you aim at cans on a wall . . . satisfaction when you hit a target--it gives you a kick" with "a desperate and psychotic personality with an unnatural void at the core."  This "desperate and psychotic void" reminds me of St. Augustine's definition of evil as "the absence of good."  In a way, it is what an actor must do--destroy the good parts of him or herself in order to let in--temporarily--the mind of, say, Hannibal Lecter.  The necessary process of actors--or writers--erasing their own personalities in order to inhabit the role of characters they play or create must be accompanied by some form of identification, and identification with another person is normally sympathetic.  The cost of even beginning to understand a mind like that of Andreas Lubitz is this kind of imaginative sympathy:  What if it thrilled me to known that I was going to die in a few minutes, and what if the screams of my passengers were music to my ears?  What if the sound of Andreas Lubitz's breathing was heavy breathing, evidence that he was sexually excited by the knowledge that he would die and kill many innocent people?  What if--alternatively--he had forgotten all about the passengers, lost as he was in the feeling of relief that his life would end?  What if nothing meant anything to him--either his own life or that of the passengers and the captain?  What if he felt things were so awful that he just could not even wait until he got home to kill himself?  If we could imagine feeling any of this, would we be closer to understanding or preventing tragedies like that of Flight 9525?  Or can we only thank our lucky stars that people like Andreas Lubitz are relatively few in this world? 

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Partially Eclipsed Critical Mom

I was expecting the sky to be dark, dark, dark amidst the blaze of 9:30 a.m. but when it was still a regular old cloudy-wintry sky by 10:00, I harrumphed around my office, walked down the hall to ask my colleagues if they had a better view out their window, but no one did.  Meanwhile, hysteria reigned--"You're not allowed to look when you're outside, Mommy," said the ten-year-old, who had almost convinced herself that she had to make her way to the tram stop with her eyes shut.  We were able to convince her that this would prove far more dangerous than staring directly at the sun.  But a friend in a neighboring city told me that the blinds were drawn in every window and that guards were posted at the doors to make sure no child emerged during any recess period.  Parents and pupils alike got hysterical. At my child's school no blinds were drawn, everyone was allowed out during the 9:30 recess, but for some inexplicable reason everyone had to stay in during the afternoon recess, that is, when the show was over.  And there hadn't even been a show in our part of Germany.  Oh, but eclipses can be so thrilling!  When I was in second grade we had a total eclipse and one girl in my class, instead of staring through the pinhole at the piece of white paper, looked right at the sun.  Her mother rushed her off to the ophthalmologist and the everyone wrung their hands.  P.S. She now has the same kind of vision I have--meaning that she, too, wears non-prescription reading glasses.  To find real romance in an eclipse, you'll have to turn to novels.  Wikipedia has an entry on solar eclipses in fiction.  The plot, for example, of King Solomon's Mines takes a nifty twist when the Englishmen just happen to have an almanac, and tell the African natives that they will put out the sun and not give it back UNLESS!!!! So that's how they get to go to the diamond mines, saving a damsel in distress along the way, but getting rich, I'll just spoil the plot for you, doesn't do any of them any good.  But who knows how many real life plots turned on eclipses before we had those almanacs?  Even so, nobody seems any less hysterical than they were before the advent of what is ambitiously and optimistically termed "modern science." 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Magic in the Moonlight and the Young Girl

In Magic in the Moonlight, Woody Allen is at his subtle best--bittersweet, romantic, filled with unfulfillable longing that is then fulfilled at the last moment, I won't tell you exactly how.  But I saw as I watched--admiring the music, the costumes, the wind-blown pastoral scenes, the elegant Firth and the wide-eyed Stone--a strong indictment of himself as a pedophile.  The girlishly slim Stone, made to look considerably younger than her twenty-six years, falls in love with the fatherly, distinguished fifty-four year old Colin Firth.  She's made to look flat-chested, 1920s-style; he's pedantic and repressed, but hoping to be rescued.  It's Lolita-ish, and he's looking for the kind of salvation Oscar Wilde depicts in The Canterville Ghost, in which a spirit is doomed, like Hamlet's father, to pace around like the Wandering Jew or the Flying Dutchman or any number of guilty types until, in this case, a "golden girl" makes a mysterious sacrifice, freeing the ghost from Purgatory.  That does seem to be the sort of tale we're getting here from Allen.  A sensible man, lonely in life but successful as a magician, investigates a supposed case of spiritualism, and teeters on the brink of religious belief, actually sitting down to pray when his beloved aunt is being operated on after a car accident.  In the middle of his effort to pray he has an epiphany--that religion is nonsense, and that somehow that spiritualist--remember, she's the Emma Stone character--is fooling him.  And he figures out how she's doing it, and whom to blame, and then he feels much better, only needing the Emma Stone character--with her air of the twelve-year-old, right down to eating three course meals chased by muffins--to scoop him up and love him.  Fade out.  Everyone who didn't believe Dylan Farrow ought to perceive the confession in this film.  Woody Allen is our modern day Lewis Carroll, and like Carroll, he's apparently gotten away with it.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Critical Mom Grades Final Exams

Did you know that Salome's beloved was named "Jonathan?"  They're probably out having sushi together right now.  Or that she had him "decapitulated?" And yes, that's a coinage that covers the process of screaming, "Back, daughter of Sodom!" and then having your head served up on a silver platter and your unwilling lips kissed by the frustrated teenager.  After grading a huge stack of first year English essays one year, I was rewarded by the following: "Although my opinion is based on the way I feel, that is what I think!"  Now that, in my considered opinion, is what twelve years of being educated by North Jersey nuns can do to a kid's mind.  I took for granted the Socratic approach when I was in a nun-free grade school.  Teachers were always bothering me:  "What do YOU think?"  I always told them.  And it never occurred to me at the time that many of my compatriots were growing up with "Memorize what I tell you to think or you'll be kneeling on a window pole for the next hour!"  (An acquaintance taught by "clerics" who endured said punishment became an orthopedic surgeon).  A friend told me that in her parochial school, down the block from where we played, the nuns liked to line up three girls, so they could slap them all across the face at the same time.  Nobody asked her to "think"--and she didn't know what they meant when they did--until she got to college.  And that's the kind of student whose exams so frequently come my way.  Another example:   passionately inveighing against animal abuse, one of my First Year English students wrote: "Animals are people, too!"  But my all-time favorite misunderstanding, when I was teaching Othello, occurred after I asked students to read the following passage:

And say besides that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcisèd dog,
And smote him, thus.

 Now, this was in the bad old days before "No Fear Shakespeare" or any Internet, and I had  explained in gory detail that Othello's telling them how he grabbed a Turkish soldier with whom he was fighting and slashed him across the throat--just as he's doing same to self.  I'd also explained that in the seventeenth century an awful lot of English people were Christian and thought of anyone who wasn't--the Turkish soldier is Muslim--as "infidels," a word I defined, along with "circumcision."   I wanted my students to be able to show that they understood the passage because my class was being observed on that day.  And I had them all prepped, had even given them lines, and so when I asked, "Well, Bob, can you tell us what these lines mean?" I had a sinking feeling as his face went blank.  He was sitting next to his also-prepped-by-me pal, to whom I turned in despair.  And the two of them looked at each other, clearly struggling to remember the right answer, the one I had given them in the previous class, and muttering and whispering together, they came up with: "Iago and Othello are circumcising a dog!"