on gravity and what grounds you

Eugene_ONeill_Cape_Cod_1922

Eugene O’Neill, Cape Cod 1922

Dreaming, not keeping lookout, feeling alone, and above, and apart, watching the dawn creep like a painted dream over the sky and sea which slept together.  Then the moment of ecstatic freedom came.  The peace, the end of the quest, the last harbor, the joy of belonging to a fulfillment beyond men’s lousy, pitiful, greedy fears and hopes and dreams!  And several other times in my life, when I was swimming far out, or lying alone on a beach, I have had the same experience.  Became the sun, the hot sand, green seaweed anchored to a rock, swaying in the tide.  Like a saint’s vision of beatitude.  Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand.  For a second you see — and seeing the secret, are the secret.  For a second there is meaning!  Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!

~ Eugene O’Neill Long Day’s Journey Into Night

I loved this passage when I read O’Neill’s play so many years ago.  I’ve never forgotten it.  Spoken by the wry and melancholic Edmund, it paints both a picture of transcendent peace and disillusion and utter hopelessness.  This was the sort of stuff that spoke to me when I was the age my students are now, but all these years later, can I just say, Ugh!  Despite its poetry, I wonder if I would be as in love with the passage today if I came across it for the first time?  It’s so sad.  I wonder still, if Edmund had had this transcendent experience  — if even for a moment — how come it didn’t change his life?  How come he wasn’t transformed by it?  Because isn’t that the sort of wisdom you try to hold on to?  He says just after this, it was a mistake, my being born a man, I would have been much more successful as a seagull or fish.  As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death!  How dismal!!  And yet isn’t his existential hopelessness so similar to that felt by the character Sandra Bullock plays in Gravity

She is afraid.  So afraid.  Spinning out of control and beyond reach.  And not only has she been physically abandoned and left alone in outer space, but she has no spiritual connection either– no divine pull to ground her and give meaning and purpose to her life.  Without that, what else can she do after losing her daughter in a tragic accident and then getting lost in outer space but despair and do all that worry-ish panting and grunting and giving up while George Clooney tries to encourage her and guide her to safety.  Where do his strength, and courage, and grit come from?  How come he can let go so easily and drift away from her toward certain death — and with his sense of humor intact?

And isn’t it interesting that like an angel he comes to her in a vision, lifting her up with one last option, one last hope, which saves her life and propels her back to earth.  I love how the final scene shows her struggling to stand up.  To me that’s an indication she’s undergone some spiritual healing and transformation, perhaps it’s even an image of resurrection.  From what I know of Alfonso Cuaron, who directed the film, this would never be an overt message but rather suggested through nuance.  To me, whether you think the film deals with spirituality or not is not so important as the positive themes of persistence and regaining one’s faith in the future, of a return to hope.   This is gravity, it’s what grounds us, what anchors us in the swaying tide.  And because of that, if I were to choose which story I prefer today, I’d have to say I like the movie so much more than O’Neill’s play.

 

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