Friday, January 20, 2012

Swamp Thing: Humanity or Fear?

“Children show scars like medals. Lovers use them as a secrets to reveal. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh." ~Leonard Cohen

Your Humanity: "Listen, I know how you feel, believe me, I know that things look bad, but, listen, every cloud has a silver lining...a rolling stone gathers no..." ~Alan Moore

When, in 1983, Alan Moore wrote Swamp Thing, he hoped to create a "different" type of horror story compared to anything prior produced by the comic book industry, and he succeeded.  The Saga of The Swamp Thing, Volume I is horrifying while still being a delicate and artful mediation. Moore's horror centers not around monsters but questions of the nature of humanity and the essence of fear. Swamp Thing succeeds in being both accessible and shattering because Moore uses archetypal villains and heroes as a platform to suss out nagging concerns about the human condition.  The reader cannot "other" the Swamp Thing because, despite his form, he shares our plight. He is human.  In this first volume, the effects of fear and preservation one’s humanity are the recurring themes.  What is more human Moore asks his reader?: A bit of vegetation animated by the echoes of a dead man’s consciousness or an able bodied man full of malice and hate?  By the end of his work, the author concludes that humanity is a daily choice.  Making that choice requires individuals to set aside fear, lust, hate, hurt, and rage and allow themselves to feel love, empathy, and compassion.  Yet, that choice, as Moore suggests, is difficult.  The former emotions seem to protect us from harm while the latter ones open us up to horror and devastation.  Such a choice is, in and of its self, horrifying.  Or as Neil Gaiman explains:

Have you ever been in love? Horrible isn't it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defenses, you build up a whole suit of armor, so that nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life...You give them a piece of you. They didn't ask for it. They did something dumb one day, like kiss you or smile at you, and then your life isn't your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness, so simple a phrase like 'maybe we should be just friends' turns into a glass splinter working its way into your heart. It hurts. Not just in the imagination. Not just in the mind. It's a soul-hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain. I hate love.

I hate it too Neil!  In terms of my general ability to love, I most resemble Faye from Cowboy Bebop.  Whatever part of me could loved quickly and easily, could have loved widely, could have loved without fear, died as a child.  Like Faye, I stare at pictures of myself former self, laughing and waving and say: “I don’t remember her.” Its simpler and safer to shut down. Close off. Stop letting people in. Hearts are funny things. Stupid things with a nasty habit of beating away even after they've shattered. But is it as simple as Gaiman suggests? Just a stupid mistake on a stupid day? We've no control? No choice?  Well, in my opinion, (and I think Moore would agree), its a little more complex.

"Alec, you are not a damn vegetable, for God's sake! You're human Alec. Alec, you're the most loving, the most gentle, the most human man that I've ever met. Don't go." ~Alan Moore

To my mind, the parts of the human existence that matter (loving, hoping, and protecting) are a choice.  Sure we all stumble into love. How or why it happens is unclear. It just does. The choice comes after we've let someone in. It's what happens after we’ve play out our hands and stood broken that matters most. In every relationship, whether that of friends or lovers, at some point in the game, you'll find yourself hurt and confused. Not because the other person intended to crush you, but because we each walk in darkness. We wound not out of malice but out of ignorance. Herein lies our choice and our humanity.  The question we each must face when staring into the abyss, opened up and vulnerable, is: Love or Fear?

The Fear and The Fall 

"She'd lie there, a stillborn scream curdling in her throat, and listening to its soft and liquid wheezing. And, eventually, when the terror outdistanced that reality, she'd open her eyes." ~Alan Moore

"Of course the important thing is to remember not to start screaming. In case you find that you are unable to stop. Try to confront your fears. Try not to run away from them. And if all else fails... Call a friend." Alan Moore

For me at least, once I glance up and realize I'm in the midst of that awful experience called "caring" my emotions run the gamut, beginning with nausea and intense fear and ending with a fall from grace. I stand paralyzed and wheezing, a scream curdling in my throat, until finally the terror outdistances the reality. Then I open my eyes, admit I fell, and call a friend while I sort myself out. So why is caring about people so fucking scary? Not entirely sure, but, in times of doubt, I turn to wiser figures and better authors for answers.  Let's begin with Mr. Fear himself, H.P. Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”  Well, fair enough.  My imagination does terrible things when I allow it.  Every memory that hurts, every awful possibility, every idea my heart can’t bear to dwell on, every image that makes me ache down deep in my soul fills my brain, wrecks my peace, and fucks me up. Yes, indeed, Mr. Lovecraft the unknown is horrifying.  Yet, if we fear the unknown than why not simply find out the answers to our questions?  Why not ask what is in our hearts and heads?  For this particularly nasty little gem, I talked Eleanor Roosevelt.  She told me: “We are afraid to care too much, for fear that the other person does not care at all.”  Huh, Old Eleanor might have something there.  To be human, to show love and affection, requires a risk.  The idea of investing one’s most tender feelings and expressions of affection into indifference at best and ridicule at worst is paralyzing.  So we sit silent... We hold very still and try not to care and, in this aspect, Gaiman is right. We never mean to fall. We look up in shock and terror when it happens. Dammit! We're leaking love and affection all over the place and no one is handy with a mop to clean up the mess.

The Scars

"Troubled, he sit and sleeps and dreams. It is a dream of someone else, someone who wore flesh and not foliage. A frightened man. A man in a furnace. Alec Holland. He can hear the roar of the explosion, hear the sizzling and burning and popping. He is propelled, a blazing stringless puppet stumbling through the flames like a Catholic martyr. And he screams. And he falls. And wakes." ~Alan Moore

As Moore's quote indicates, even after we've transformed into a new person, even when painful memories are but an echo, we carry our scars with us. We guard those wounds and hide them away for safe keeping. Yet, Kahlil Gibran celebrates those tears in psyches and hearts: “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” In my opinion, Gibran is correct. Those fissures we can't seem to patch are the same ones that transform our harsh words into gentle assurances. Despite their beauty, we pretend they don't exist. But such was not always the case.  As the Leonard Cohen quote above suggests, when we are children, we reveal our desires and hurts with no shame.  We point to the bandage on our knees and our favorite pastimes with frank honesty.  No guile.  No secrets.  Yet, life teaches us, or at least taught me, that both our passions and our scars are fragile things because they are connected to our hearts and our souls. In our youth, we show our battle wounds to everyone, proudly displaying the chunk of flesh the playground took out of arms.  But as we age, we dress to protect the chunks taken out of our hearts.  The scars represent both our weaknesses and our strengths, simultaneously our source of solar power and our kryptonite.  Something so precious and painful must guarded, but it cannot be locked away forever.  To be human is to love and to love means to share a part of our existence with others.  

The Redemption

"And, after awhile, I ran...ran to the only person I know who isn't stupid or messed up.  Ran to the rock." ~Alan Moore

Holding onto humanity, I think, means letting go of fear. After the fall, if we're lucky, we begin accepting our fate, running to the rock and hoping we don't trip over it when we get there. Surviving this experience with one's humanity intact requires vulnerability. Rather than being a Dorothy Parker and quipping: “And if my heart be scarred and burned, The safer, I, for all I learned” as if heartache teaches us lesson (I doubt it does), we must become Mark Twain, "discrete in our indiscretions". In my opinion, nothing is more indiscreet and misguided than being honest about my darkest fears and inner dreams. I'm a Faye to about 99% of the human population: personable but calculating and rather selfish. Why the hell would Superman tell anyone where to find Kryptonite? Yet, there is still that pesky 1% of the population to think about. The handful of people whom I cannot let go. It drives me mad. Self sufficiency is so practical, so safe. But the indiscretion happens nonetheless. The best we can hope for, I think, is that we choose wisely when handing off the keys to our personal fortresses.

The Choice

Swamp Thing: "You keep nagging me. Why should I carry you when you keep nagging?"

His Humanity: "Because I'm your humanity. I'm important. I'm what keep you going...Oh, I know I'm a little beaten up and battered but I'm still worth the effort aren't I? After all, without without me there'd be no point in running would there? No point at all."

Like Alec Holland’s consciousness, we have a choice to make: Humanity or Fear.  We either lock up our hearts and abandon our humanity or we live with the scars and move forward.  We run to those we love.  Despite the indiscretion, we let others know where we keep the kryptonite because thats what makes our existence worthwhile.  Connection.  Understanding.  Love.  Its a horrible choice to make. A bit of you belongs to another person for safe keeping.  Horrifying.  I’d rather not love.  Rather stay secure.  Not run around handing others a gun to shoot me with.  Yet my humanity is tied up in my ability to do so.  To let go.  To cry out.  To hold on.

In my mind, Mumford and Son’s' Winter Winds (a personal favorite) embodies our horrifying choice: “The shame that sent off from the God that I once loved was the the same that sent me into your arms.” Now that particular line stirred a bit of debate among my friends (Some of us were not entirely sure we wanted this sweet nothing whispered in our ears), but for me this line refers to a philosophical shift.  Life has stripped the man of his belief in a loving Deity and a kind world, so in the arms of his lover he renews his faith in humanity.  Don’t we all? The refrain: “My head told my heart let love grow, but my heart told my head this time no.  This time no.”  There is your choice.  Can you let something grow when history suggests the end brings pain?  Should you take that risk yet again?  My answer, I suppose is, romantic: Yep! Suck it up and take the plunge.  What is the alternative?  Rely on history and refuse? There is no comfort in that, no hope. Listen to the rest of the song: "But when your strife strikes at your sleep. Remember spring swaps snow for leaves. You'll be happy and wholesome again when the city clears and the sun ascends."  Wait around and see the sun ascend.

“Games that never amount to more than they’re meant will play themselves out.” Falling Slowly

For me, waiting on the sun, means “Falling Slowly” (another favorite), watching my step and choosing as wisely as I can before handing over my stupid heart.  Discrete in my indiscretion.  Passionate in my love but selective in my choice.  Yes, “a scar is what happens when the word made flesh” but sharing those wounds allows them to become something beautiful, something revealed among lovers, something human.  So fall as slowly as you can, but once you've stopped screaming and realized you're already down for the count, suck it up, point your boat home, raise your voice, and sing your melody. Any good historian will tell you, we cannot predict the future with the past. Its too complex. Anyway, where is the fun in that? So we make our choice: Humanity or Fear.  When possible, I’ll choose Humanity.

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