Monday, February 6, 2012

The Soul Hungers for Beauty

I have a friend. It doesn’t matter what her name is. Let’s call her “Erma Duricko.”
Erma likes quotes. Lots and lots of quotes. She has quotes tagging the end of her emails. She posts them every day on Facebook. These quotes are usually of an inspirational nature. They are usually on the subject of how beauty and art and love conquer all.

I roll my eyes a lot around Erma. She encourages it. Truth be told, she loves it. We were at a conference together once when a student came up to tell me how Erma had encouraged her to look into her past lives to help her write her new play. I was about to explode in total exasperation when I looked up to see Erma hiding behind a potted plant, laughing her head off. She had set me up.

I was in a place. It doesn’t matter what place it was. Let’s call it “Montgomery, Alabama.”

I have it on good authority from a friend that there are lovely nooks and crannies to Montgomery. She spoke of eccentric farmer’s markets and creative yoga studios. I have no doubt that she told the truth. It was not, however, a truth that did much for a man charged with entertaining a 3 year old.

My experience of the town of Montgomery was different than my friend’s. I found the place to be horrendous, an endless flat expanse of concrete and chain stores and malls. Arid and soulless on a good day, it had been ravaged by the recession. Driving past the endless run of closed down strip malls, it was all I could do not to stick a gun in my mouth.

One night, with my son was asleep in the next room, I watched a movie. It was Steve McQueen’s Hunger, a 2008 film about the Irish hunger strikers. Netflix had sent it to me a while ago. I’d heard wonderful things about it, but the subject matter put me off. How many evenings do you do you say to yourself, “I’d like to watch someone starve themselves to death tonight”?

That night, I watched it. It was as bad as I feared. Worse. You see the deterioration of the body in horrifying detail: the festering sores, the incontinence, the mind slowly slipping off the rails. What happens to a body when it is denied food is that it essentially eats itself. It is an awful thing to witness.

The genius of Hunger, however, is that it is also beautiful. McQueen was a well-known visual artist before turning to film, and his mastery shows in every frame. However bleak the scene, he always frames and shoots it so that you can’t look away. Images from the film  a pair of bruised, bloody hands being washed in a basin, a shaken man smoking a cigarette alone in a snowstorm, the red sores of shoulder blades beginning to stick through skin in an otherwise pristine white room – are lodged in my mind. They may well be there for as long as I have a mind.

One image in particular stuck out. There is a visual theme in the film linking the first hunger striker, Bobby Sands, with some birds nestled in a tree. When Sands finally dies, the birds fly away all at once. They are black against a deep purple sky. They squawk and rustle and fly away into silence. The moment was so staggeringly beautiful I audibly gasped.

After I did, a thought appeared in my mind – “The soul hungers for beauty.” I say that because I think I gasped not just from the force of the image. I gasped because I was starving. After two weeks in Montgomery, I was desperate for beauty. I felt so grateful for it.

Now, I’m not the kind of person who says things like, “The soul hungers for beauty.” Reflecting on it now, it sounds stupid. A romantic, childlike fantasy. Christ, it sounds like something Erma would say.

But here’s the thing about me and Erma - we’re collaborators, and damn good ones. I’m a playwright. She’s a director. She’s as good as anyone I’ve ever worked with (and I’ve worked with some good ones).

Perhaps our sensibilities aren’t so different after all. Maybe we’re not as far apart as the roles we play to the world would indicate. Perhaps inside herself Erma’s rolls her eyes all the time. Maybe inside I long for love and beauty and hope. We are a fine yin-and-yang, as all collaborators should be.

So in her honor, with no eye roll, I say it:

The soul hungers for beauty.

- John Yearley

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written, John, guess my soul just got some reading this. But it's true and many places are like this or were like this or are going to be like this. Sometimes even when the place has beauty we miss it because of one thing or another weighing on our minds. Then I suppose we hunger even more and don't realize it. But when we do see it the way you saw it in that movie it is a moment of such unforgettable clarity that it must be recognized, it must be chosen and the Erma's of this world must be thanked.