A River and a Volleyball: Two Demigods from Stage and Screen

Dere’s an ol’ man called de Mississippi
Dat’s de ol’ man dat I’d like to be
What does he care if de world’s got troubles?
What does he care if de land ain’t free?

Paul Robeson singing

Paul Robeson singing “Ol Man River” in the 1936 film of Show Boat
(youtube)

Ol’ man river,
Dat ol’ man river
He mus’ know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’
He jus’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along….

You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ an’ rack’d wid pain,
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk
An’ you land in jail.

Ah gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ skeered of dyin’
But ol’ man river,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.

The 1927 sheet music for

The 1927 sheet music for “Ol Man River” 
(Wikipedia)

“Ol’ Man River,” a moving lament of hard labor, racism, and indifference, might sound like a Negro spiritual from the days of slavery, but it is not. It is a musical number from Show Boat, written in 1927 and set in the 1920s, about a river boat that docks and offers theatrical productions at towns along the water. “Ol’ Man River” is sung by one of the dock workers, Joe; here is Paul Robeson’s peerless rendition from the 1936 film. The lyrics were written by Broadway songwriter Oscar Hammerstein.

If it is not an actual Negro spiritual, how might we describe this song? Unlike traditional spirituals, the song includes very few biblical references—only to the judgment day when Joe will find rest and to another river, the Jordan, that he longs to cross to a new life. And Joe’s song is not a prayer, as many spirituals and hymns are; he is singing about the Mississippi, not to it.

But the song is spiritual in other ways. It is a vision of suffering. And it personifies the river as an all-knowing and constant companion. Although the river “don’ say nuthin’,” Joe nonetheless imagines it as a witness in order to feel less alone. All in all, the river is personified more than it is deified and the spirituality of “Ole Man River” seems mainly non-theistic. It adapts the language and emotion of a Negro spiritual to create a secular hymn of sorrow.

Wilson, Tom Hanks' companion in

Wilson, Tom Hanks’ companion in “Cast Away”
(rogerebert.com)

A personification similar to the river is Wilson, Tom Hanks’ volleyball in the film Cast Away. After a plane crash, Hanks’ character washes up on an uninhabited island along with cargo that includes a Wilson volleyball. Hanks draws its face with his bleeding hand. Over the ensuing years, he chats with Wilson, yells at it, and finally grieves when it floats away from the raft that Hanks escapes on.

Like Joe’s all-knowing river, Wilson, in Hanks’ mind, seems wise. Unlike the mute river, though, and appropriately for a man alone on a deserted island, Wilson seems to listen and respond. Both works portray the emergence of a spiritual persona in an object, the result of an individual’s suffering and the need for a wise—but not a notably supernatural or even sympathetic—companion.

Yet Joe’s river is, compared to the volleyball, a grander spiritual vision. The Mississippi is the witness for the exploitation and racism that fill not only Joe’s life but the lives of those around him. The Mississippi of the song is a transcendent presence and perhaps offers Joe some consolation that suffering and injustice are small pieces of a larger entity. Joe understands that the flow of the river, like the flow of time, does not stop for the struggles of anyone.

Stephen Pinker on the Decline in Violent Deaths

Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature may be a more upbeat book than most people can accept. Pinker argues that the rate of violent human deaths of all kinds across the globe has been declining for several thousand years. The 20th century was a bloody horror, but it is also an example of our selective memory; we forget that the second half of the century was relatively peaceful. Humans, as David Hume observed, tend to “blame the present and admire the past.”

Pinker:

Pinker: “To maintain the credibility of their deterrent threat, knights engaged in bloody tournaments and other demonstrations of macho prowess, gussied up with words like honor, valor, chivalry, glory, and gallantry, which made later generations forget they were bloodthirsty marauders.”

Violent deaths declined in stages. Judging from skeletal remains thousands of years old, the violent death rate among the earliest humans was roughly 15%. That dropped as the first governments began to constrain local murders, feuds, raids, and battles. Then in 17th and 18th century Europe, the “humanitarian revolution” reduced the frequency of forms of violence that had been common for centuries: slavery, torture, cruel punishment, even dueling. Since the end of World War II, the world has seen a “long peace” with no wars pitting major nations against each other and no nuclear holocaust. Most recently, the “Rights Revolution” has reduced violence against minorities, women, children, gay people, and animals.

The prominence of death stories in the modern media is misleading. In the 20th century, only .7% of all deaths occurred in battles, or about 3% if indirect war deaths from famine and disease are included. In Europe and most of America today, the violent death rate is 1% at its highest.

What has caused this steady reduction? In a word, government. Even bad government is better than no government for reducing violence. And expanding education that enables people to glimpse the lives of others seems to have been crucial as well.

The Better Angels of Our Nature has received high praise and some hard criticism. Reviewers have questioned Pinker’s comparison of six-year-long modern wars with the century-long Mongol conquest and have noted the book’s omission of Mao, Stalin, and the impact of colonialism. Many reviewers seem admiring of the book but not convinced; the modern world still seems very dangerous and the bad news never stops.

One reason for the skepticism is demographic. Until 1800, the world numbered fewer than a billion people; it reached 2.5 billion only around 1950 and today soars over 7 billion. This curve skews comparisons of violent death numbers. Ranked by death rate at the time, the deadliest event in world history was the 8th century An Lushan revolt in Tang China, resulting in 36 million deaths, a sixth of the world’s population of about 250 million. But today, despite the global billions, even a handful of deaths rate as “breaking news.”

About the future, Pinker makes no predictions. By implication he suggests that we need to understand ourselves as well as we can and learn from the past to sustain the decline. At a time when ideologies and technologies seem beyond the control of government and decency alike, The Better Angels is sobering and steadying.

The Spiritual and the Sentimental

The word sentimental doesn’t get good press. “Having or arousing feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia, typically in an exaggerated and self-indulgent way” is how the usual definitions run. “Exaggerated and self-indulgent” emotion does sound pretty unwholesome. But I see no reason to disdain tenderness, sadness, and nostalgia, and I think they even have a place in religious feeling as well.

Unlike emotions with more voltage like anger or joy, sentimentality about a person, a place, a pet, a song or even a smell amounts to a quiet but vivid sense of the thing itself and how fleeting it is or was. I am sentimental about people I’ve known in the past but also about those I feel close to today. I’m being sentimental about them whenever I stop for a moment to take a mental snapshot of them, in the hope that doing so will hold them from fading away. The old saw about taking time to smell the roses is sentimental for the same reason.

Sentimentality is about the fleeting nature of things, ultimately about the swift passage of life itself, about stepping into the river that never stops moving. It can also be about merging. The desire to hold on to a moment or a memory can shape itself into a craving to lose oneself in it. The object of nostalgia may be a mother or father or other figure from childhood, but it may also be a god, nature, the cosmos, eternity, or mystery itself. Sentimentality and spirituality overlap here.

I’m not saying that spirituality is sentimental, nor that sentimentality is spiritual. I’m sensing, though, that some of my spiritual moments and my sentimental ones have a thread of emotion in common. They both mourn the frailty of worldly things in time. We are always in the present moment, which thus is a constant, but the past is no such thing.