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.

Are You a “Self” or an”Organism”?

Self or Organism. Which word would you prefer as a label for yourself and other individuals?

Self  has a long history of helping us call attention to ourselves. Its earliest root several thousand years ago seems to have been a pronoun that referred back to the subject for emphasis, roughly like saying he himself. Today it evokes the uniqueness and separateness of a single person or a group (ourselves). The Wiktionary list of 242 self- prefix words such as self-image and self-confident is a sprawling catalog of all that we do, think, and feel that involve ourselves in any way. Added to these words are the many phrases such as true self, my old self, sense of self, and of course selfie.

self (selfhelpsage.com)

selfhelpsage.com

For many people, self is a key concept in their vocabulary for who they are, how they relate to others, and how they see themselves changing over time.  Phrases such as be yourself and don’t be too hard on yourself are popular tips for surviving in a culture that expects all its members to strive toward individuality.

But for others, self is an illusion that is no help at all. For them, the term conjures up a non-existent entity that demands constant attention and cuts us off from the present moment that we actually live in.

Organism is not an obvious alternative. The technical-sounding word refers not just to humans but to bacteria, whales, trees and every other living thing. Its earliest root meant to do, a sense that is closely preserved in work and more loosely in organize and orgy. Organism highlights the material structures and organization of an entity that is actively doing what living things do: growing, responding, reproducing, sustaining itself. In its concreteness, the term seems almost the opposite of the ghost-like self.

But the comparison between organism and self can take some unexpected turns. Wikipedia’s article on organism tells us that “there is a long tradition of defining organisms as self-organizing beings”—my italics. It adds that debates about the definition of the term have included the suggestion that the term “may well not be adequate in biology.” In science, the self, as some kind of template of organization, may not be quite so dispensable after all.

I asked a friend who is psychologically acute and spiritually oriented which term she preferred for referring to individual people, including herself. For her, organism, though its source is the immaterial Oneness that everything originates from and returns to, is a more usable term than self. The latter is vague, negative, an expression of our appetite for a specialness that separates us from that Oneness. Given my friend’s spiritual perspective, her preference for the “scientific” term surprised me a little at first but only briefly.

Conversely, I recently heard the research biologist and religious naturalist Ursula Goodenough use self instead of organism in speaking biologically about “the animal self” and the responses of all “selves” (including bacteria) to their environment. Though it was unexpected to hear her discuss single-celled creatures as selves , the term fit persuasively in her explanation of how living things know if they are well off or not, pursue what they need, avoid toxic substances, and repair bodily damage.

The preference for self or organism seems to depend on one’s view of the essential nature of being alive.

These days, I find myself liking organism. There is something clean about the word that suits my inclination to de-clutter my psyche and some of my life issues. The word seems to put all its cards on the table. The “I” part of the Brock organism (the irreducible self, I admit) wants to keep this brain, this heart, these connections with other people, all going along for as long as possible. And with organism I’m free of any of the old business about a true self versus a fake self, about losing oneself in something or being alienated from oneself; about the different sides of the self, the deserving and the undeserving, the blessed and the damned, centuries of European agonizing over the clashing selves.

Selves are cultivated, the product of cultures. Organisms are maintained, products of the cosmos and Earth’s marvelous chain of the self-sustaining. High expectations of my Self at this age don’t ring true; have I “made a difference” (but nearly everyone does), do I “have no regrets” (but I do), am I “wise” (hah). No, I’ll stick with feeling good and grateful about being extraordinary enough as a human organism.

Survival Poem: Bukowski’s ‘Tough Motherfucker’

The History of One Tough Motherfucker
by Charles Bukowski
 he came to the door one night wet thin beaten and
terrorized
a white cross-eyed tailless cat
I took him in and fed him and he stayed
grew to trust me until a friend drove up the driveway
and ran him over
I took what was left to a vet who said,”not much
chance…give him these pills…his backbone
is crushed, but is was crushed before and somehow
mended, if he lives he’ll never walk, look at
these x-rays, he’s been shot, look here, the pellets
are still there…also, he once had a tail, somebody
cut it off…”
I took the cat back, it was a hot summer, one of the
hottest in decades, I put him on the bathroom
floor, gave him water and pills, he wouldn’t eat, he
wouldn’t touch the water, I dipped my finger into it
and wet his mouth and I talked to him, I didn’t go any-
where, I put in a lot of bathroom time and talked to
him and gently touched him and he looked back at
me with those pale blue crossed eyes and as the days went
by he made his first move
dragging himself forward by his front legs
(the rear ones wouldn’t work)
he made it to the litter box
crawled over and in,
it was like the trumpet of possible victory
blowing in that bathroom and into the city, I
related to that cat-I’d had it bad, not that
bad but bad enough
one morning he got up, stood up, fell back down and
just looked at me.
“you can make it,” I said to him.
he kept trying, getting up falling down, finally
he walked a few steps, he was like a drunk, the
rear legs just didn’t want to do it and he fell again, rested,
then got up.
you know the rest: now he’s better than ever, cross-eyed
almost toothless, but the grace is back, and that look in
his eyes never left…
and now sometimes I’m interviewed, they want to hear about
life and literature and I get drunk and hold up my cross-eyed,
shot, runover de-tailed cat and I say,”look, look
at this!”
but they don’t understand, they say something like,”you
say you’ve been influenced by Celine?”
“no,” I hold the cat up,”by what happens, by
things like this, by this, by this!”
I shake the cat, hold him up in
the smoky and drunken light, he’s relaxed he knows…
it’s then that the interviews end
although I am proud sometimes when I see the pictures
later and there I am and there is the cat and we are photo-
graphed together.
he too knows it’s bullshit but that somehow it all helps.

(austenreveries.wordpress.com)