Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Road to Mecca – an essay

A quick note... The following is an essay I wrote for my English literature module at university. We had to discuss the character Marius Byleveld from the Athol Fugard play The Road to Mecca, which is based on the life of outsider artist Helen Martins, creator of the Owl House. I thought I'd share, specifically if there are other students or interested parties who might benefit from having my thoughts available. 

The Camel Yard, Owl House
Picture: Robin Tweedie / Wiki Commons
At a glance, the character Marius Byleveld in Athol Fugard’s play The Road to Mecca, is not a sympathetic character, yet on closer reading, he is revealed to be an individual who displays surprising depth tempered by the tragedy of the socio-historical factors he is unable to transcend. 

To understand the man, we need to grasp his position among the people he serves. As dominee of the village of Nieu Bethesda, Marius is an important member of a highly conservative community. In that regard, people look up to him, and he is under a fair amount of pressure to maintain high standards and function as the spiritual and moral pillar of this community. It is also clear that he takes his work seriously and is hyper conscious about what he considers his Christian duty, even if it results in actions that might be viewed as authoritarian from a more liberal point of view. As a religious leader, he must display only exemplary behaviour according to the norms of the time, perhaps even at the cost of his own happiness.

This is borne out by his attitude towards Helen’s predicament, when he says, “We can’t tell you what to do. But if you want us to stop caring about what happens to you, we can try… though I don’t know how our Christian consciences would allow us to do that.” (Fugard: 60)

He speaks for the community, but in a way, perhaps, it can also be construed that he uses his position as a community leader who expresses what a community feels, as a front behind which he hides his true feelings, consciously or unconsciously.

As dominee and friend, he approaches Helen with the proposition that she apply to live in an old age home. The most obvious reason for this he gives as Helen’s recent “accident” where she almost burns down her home. It is implied that her actions may have been intentional when Marius lets slip, “She had stopped trying to put out the flames herself and was just standing staring at them.” (Fugard: 63)
In the play, he is set up as the antagonist, whose actions threaten Helen’s way of life and her continued connection to her beloved home with all its sculptures and artworks. This does not immediately make him a likeable character, but then Fugard weaves in additional details that develop Marius as a person and allow us to gain a degree of sympathy with him.

This is illustrated when he shares that he came to Nieu Bethesda to escape a painful past. “This was going to be where I finally escaped from life,” Marius says, “turned my back on it and justified what was left of my existence by ministering to you people’s simple needs. I was very wrong. I didn’t escape life here, I discovered it, what it really means, the fullness and the goodness of it.” (Fugard: 53)

He also expresses his deep connection with the earth (through his thriving vegetable garden), and the practical nature of his soul, when he says, “With every spadeful of earth that I turned when I went down on my knees to lift the potatoes out of the soil, there it was: ‘thank you.’”

Not only is he in this case—almost literally—down to earth, but he is by his own admission also deeply spiritual and humble. His intentions are good; he honestly wishes to serve his community even at the expense of himself.

He is about to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his service to Nieu Bethesda and its people, and it’s been twenty-one years since his wife, Aletta, passed away, and it is clear that his reason for coming here in the first place was to escape and find peace (this is also a play on the Biblical Bethesda in Jerusalem, that was associated with healing). 

Yet at the same time, for all his good, Marius (and by default the majority of the Nieu Bethesda community) also displays that he is incapable of understanding why Helen’s home and its art is so important to her. Examples of this are:
“And then your hobby, if I can call it that, hasn’t really helped matters. This is not exactly the sort of room the village ladies are used to or would feel comfortable in having afternoon tea. As for all that out there… the less said about it, the better.” (Fugard: 60)

This encapsulates how Marius misunderstands the nature of Helen’s art, as if it were a mere hobby, a trifle. In a way he blames her for isolating herself by creating an environment that is contrary to accepted norms. He simply cannot wrap his head around the idea that an individual would willingly step outside of accepted social behaviour.

This results in him, despite his good intentions, to act in a patronising manner towards Helen (for which Elsa chastises him) because he cannot control nor understand her yearning for artistic expression. He cares deeply, yet he himself cannot express himself.

When the subject of the community’s behaviour towards Helen’s eccentricity is brought up (children damaged some of her sculptures) Marius claims, “We don’t persecute harmless old ladies”, (Fugard: 65) yet he goes on to admit, “You’ve seen what is out there… How else do you expect the simple children of the village to react to all that? It frightens them, Miss Barlow. I’m not joking! Think back to your impressionable years as a little girl. I know for a fact that all the children in the village believe that this house is haunted and that ghosts walk around out there at night. Don’t scoff at them. I’m sure there were monsters and evil spirits in your childhood as well.”

With this statement, I feel Marius truly reveals what he is feeling about Helen’s art, though he hides behind his designation as work as a community leader and representative when he makes that statement.

Elsa points out to Marius that Helen dared to be different by not going to church anymore and engaging more in her art, which is representative of her freedom. Helen, according to Elsa, is expressing an awareness of self and life versus the groupthink of the community, and in that very fact she isn’t as harmless as Marius would make out.

This pushes Marius into admitting, “You call that… that nightmare out there an expression of freedom? … In another age and time it might have been called idolatry.” (Fugard: 67)

He views her art as not only a threat to her spiritual well being but to her physical well being too – taking up space meant, in his opinion, for growing vegetables that could nourish her body. (Fugard: 68)

Helen uses her art as a way to pass time, thereby implying that people only attend church to “pass time”. That first Sunday she skipped church Marius worried about her and went to check up on her after the service, only to discover that she was busy making a sculpture. 

It is a natural step for him to feel threatened and jealous by her attraction to this pursuit, and view the sculptures as idols.

He is angry and confused, when he says, “I feel as if I’m on trial, Helen. For what? For caring about you? That I am frightened of what you have done to yourself and your life, yes, that is true!” (Fugard: 59)
This is a turning point for Marius, where the mask of Marius-the-dominee slips to reveal Marius-the-man, who has harboured feelings for Helen all these years without admitting them. He has hidden behind his role as an authority figure in the community all this time until events come to a head in Helen’s house that evening.

Helen further communicates how Marius’s world has lost meaning to her when she says, “All those years when, as Elsa said, I sat there so obediently next to Stefanus, it was all a terrible, terrible lie. I tried hard, Marius, but your sermons, the prayers, the hymns, they all became just words. And there came a time when even they lost their meaning.” (Fugard: 70)

She reveals more when she discusses how, after her husband Stefanus’s funeral, she felt it was her own life being packed away. With Stefanus gone, so was her last tie to her old life and her reason to pretend. Marius’s action of lighting a single candle for her that evening became highly symbolic to her choosing her new path and her discovery of her inner world. 

When Helen talks about her Mecca, Marius still doesn’t understand. He can’t get past Mecca as a physical place that one has to look up on an atlas. Yet he has his epiphany that he is incapable, at his age, of making that intuitive leap that Helen has, and Marius-the-man triumphs over Marius-the-dominee, in that he admits that Helen’s way of seeing things is valid, even if he can never follow her there.

“I’ve never seen you as happy as this,” he says. “There is more light in you than all your candles put together.” (Fugard: 74) This is perhaps the most telling statement near the conclusion of Act Two. Marius shows that he is mature enough to let Helen go; the gulf between them is too vast. He has loved her for twenty years and has only admitted it now, when it is too late, which is to my mind the real tragedy. 

The Road to Mecca is at its core, a story of the tension that arises between societal norms and the individual’s need for self-expression, and much of the dramatic tension in Marius’s story arc presents the opportunity to subvert the audience’s opinion of the man. In Act One, Marius is offered as the antagonist, very much Marius-the-dominee, who is the linchpin poised to separate Helen from her home for her own good (in his and the community he represents’ point of view). By the time Marius appears in Act Two, it’s difficult to like him and what he represents, but then Fugard goes on to show us the man behind the somewhat dour mask. Marius is revealed as humble, and down to earth, and as genuinely caring despite his prejudice against artistic freedom and his somewhat patronising attitude towards Helen.

However, as the tension builds, and many of Marius’s deeply held feelings are exposed, he begins his journey of acceptance by letting go of his fear. He may not understand the appeal of Helen’s artistic freedom, but he can appreciate her personal light and beauty, for what it is.

Tragically, he cannot let go and join her, but there is a resolution of sorts, and peace is made. Marius, though he has dropped his mask and the authoritarian figure has been defeated, still retains his human side, and has gained the reader’s grudging respect for having backed down even as Helen has learnt to stand up for herself out of her mire of self-pity. They both go their separate ways, their differences irreconcilable—freedom vs. tradition—but they have a better understanding of who they are and what they want. We are not left with complete closure, but rather a “happy for now” situation.

Fugard, Athol, The Road to Mecca. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1992 (80pp).

Kane, Gwen, Byrne, Deirdre and Scheepers, Ruth. Introduction to English Literary Studies (3rd edition). Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 2013 (217pp).

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Things a Little Bird Told Me by Biz Stone #review

Title: Things a Little Bird Told Me
Author: Biz Stone
Publisher: Macmillan, 2014

Love it or hate it, social media is a large part of our daily digital communication, and it’s social media platforms such as Twitter that are often at the forefront of breaking news. How we share information has changed rapidly over the past few years, so it is with this in mind that I looked forward to delving into Things a Little Bird Told Me.

In this book, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone not only shares how Twitter came about, but he touches on creativity and, most importantly, how he finds ways to turn his limitations into advantages.

This slim volume is simply jam packed with inspiration and, though much of what Stone shares can be deemed common sense, it certainly helps having these thoughts offered within a context.

Far from presenting the public with a cold, corporate face, Stone recognises the power of connecting with other people through his social media platform – in essence what lies at the heart of social media.

Not only does Stone propose looking beyond the obvious for solutions, but he is an advocate for empathy, and the power that small acts of kindness can have for creating change in the world around you.

Stone writes: “Technology is the connective tissue of humanity. Designed right it can bring out the good in people. It can connect us into one giant, emergent, superintelligent life form. That is what I saw happening with Twitter.”

What I take away from Stone’s book is to be a little less passive from here on in, to find ways to create my own opportunities, and to embrace whatever constraint I experience, because great ideas are born out of limitations.

This little book serves as suitable encouragement for anyone who might feel a little worn down by effort, and it also serves as a reminder to encourage and cherish the value in feeling empathy for your fellow humans. Together we can do so much more if we just reach out.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer #review

Title: The Art of Asking
Author: Amanda Palmer
Publisher: Piatkus, 2014

Amanda Palmer’s special brand of art-making has been threaded into my cultural landscape for years now. While I’ve never been a raging fan of her music, both solo and in her band The Dresden Dolls, I’ve nonetheless appreciated her attitude, and there’s something to be said for her music; it’s memorable and snarky, and you won’t forget it quickly (or look at the map of Tasmania in quite the same way again).

This formidable artist is the antithesis of the ephemeral, cosmetically enhanced pop divas whose sameness relegate them, ultimately, to a homogenous anonymity.

Amanda Palmer, singer, songwriter and self-described activist, and wife to author Neil Gaiman, is not afraid to express exactly what’s on her mind. If some find her loud and off-putting, it’s too bad, so far as she’s concerned. She has no qualms about over-sharing which, in its own way, is refreshing. She connects with people in a way many celebrity musicians don’t.

Perhaps this very fact is why The Art of Asking is so engaging – Amanda breaks down many of our traditionally held norms and calls into question our natural reticence that prevents us from reaching out to others. This is especially pertinent in situations where we do need to ask for help, but don’t.

Amanda isn’t shy. That is one of the first things we learn about her. Yet that outward mask of bravado also hides a fragile, somewhat brittle interior, and Amanda is frank when she speaks of concepts such as “The Fraud Police” that crop up during moments of crippling self-doubt.

While some have criticised her methods, stating that she’s attention-seeking, that she’s constantly asking for favours and exploiting other artists – and this is despite her recent Kickstarter success – I have to give her this much: she’s honest about her wart-and-all methods. She’s not afraid to admit when she’s made an error in judgement.

What’s also immediately clear is that Amanda refuses to be pinned down by traditional methods of making and transmitting art, and she’s willing to experiment. She discusses also how the music industry is limited by traditional methods, and how musicians (and other artists) can break out and empower themselves. By asking.

Granted, Amanda’s results have been unpredictable (both good and not so good) but there’s no denying that she’s a maverick in the industry (which is bound to result in some folks getting their knickers in a twist).

What we have in The Art of Asking is a unapologetic, in-your-face and highly personal account of how one artist refused to be defined by traditions, and how, despite moments of self-doubt, she carved out a niche for herself. This serves as an inspiration to any of us who ever dreamed of following our passions instead of settling for what is safe and predictable. If you’re looking for a book that will inspire you to break out and connect with others, and find ways to turn your limitations into advantages, then The Art of Asking may resonate strongly with you.

Amanda’s intense bond with her fans highlights just how vital this connection is, and many of us would do well to realise that this sort of relationship works both ways.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Setting Fires #opinion

I shouldn’t do it when I’m feeling fragile, but I do it anyway: I go look at my Amazon ratings and trawl Goodreads to see whether my books have picked up any new reviews. Invariably, I’m disappointed. Invariably, I feel even more like shit. To make matters worse, I then go read my older three-stars-and-less reviews. Admittedly, I don’t have many of those, but it’s not like I’m drowning in new, glowing four- and five-star reviews either.

And I doubt myself. Terribly. And I doubt my ability to form and shape words. And I hate the fact that I’m once again failing in gaining what I believe to be validation for my efforts.

I shouldn’t have to care what other people think of my art, but I do.

I think Amanda Palmer sums it up best when she says it’s about wanting people to see you, and not just look at you. You want them to *notice* you.

Because, face it, as a creative, be it a musician, author or artist, there’s no denying that you *need* to share your vision to help it grow. Simply having the intent and the means to create works of art isn’t enough. Your audience completes the picture. Without that cosy, warm assurance that you’re not completely barking mad for laying your soul bare, you’re essentially shouting into a hurricane. There is no moment where the winds abate and others can hear your song.

(I could also phrase this a little more indelicately by stating that an artist without an audience is basically just wanking.)

Why do we create? I’ve heard some folks say it’s because they want to leave something of themselves behind for future generations – a stab at immortality, if you will. The ancient Egyptian pharaohs had the right of it, in that case.

That’s all fine and dandy, but that doesn’t fill that void I, as an artist, feel *now* – that what I create *now*. I don’t want to be like Vincent van Gogh, who only became famous after he died. His success meant nothing to him once he was dead.
isn’t appreciated

Also, consider this, that an artists needs to be present to curate their own works. They don’t create in a vacuum, but are also shaped by society and events around them. A legacy is not so much that which is produced but it is also the process and the interactions within a society.

Remove the artist from society, and you sit with a stagnant body of work that is only good so long as there are dedicated fans to keep the spirit alive and somewhat functional. Yet there will be no new growth – only deviations presented by others who view the works through their lens, which may not quite match what the artist initially intended.

I want to be here, *now*, and involved in my art. I want to enjoy my art *now*. Even if I write fanfiction for an established fandom without any financial gain – simply having readers respond with enthusiasm feeds my spirit. Rather that than a deafening silence.

When random readers message me to tell me that they’ve devoured my book in one sitting or others as, “So, when is the next one coming out?” I dance on sunbeams. (Yeah, prerequisite fluffy imagery there.)

I am inspired. I will create more because that which I have created has not vanished into a dark hole. To be quite honest, I don’t care what happens to my writing once I’m dead because, well, I’ll be dead, and nothing will matter to me. What’s the point of not being around to witness whether one’s legacy endures?

So, if you’ve read this far, and whether you are an artist or a consumer of art, you may wonder what you can do during present times when nothing is certain.

Here’s the deal, and Neil Gaiman nailed it when he simply said, “Make good art.” If you’ve yet to listen to the keynote address where this immortal line comes from, go do so now. I promise it will make it better. I feel like tattooing those words on my left hand.

Now, whether you are painting pictures of cats on sidewalks in chalk or composing a string quartet, carry on making art. Even if you play your song to an audience of three (and one of those present is your mom) carry on playing. Carry on writing your flash fiction. Embroider a tapestry of a jabberwocky hunt. Whatever it is that makes you happy, *do it*.

Then, if you have heard someone sing, or you have read a book that gave you all the feels, take a moment out of your day to thank the artist. Put a coin in a hat. Tweet @ them on Twitter. Leave a review over at Goodreads. Hell, write them fanmail. Share with them what it was about their art that touched you.

Do it now.

Do it every time their magic sets fire to your spirit, and you will spread that magic and make this world a little brighter, a little less cruel.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A little gossip from ancient Greece

This week I've decided to share part of my Greek Mythology in Context assignment from university. We were tasked with writing a gossip column about one of the Greek gods' sexploits, and I went for the obvious culprit. Enjoy!

John William Waterhouse Danaƫ
Well, my dearly beloveds, auntie has had another dizzy week keeping up with the sexploits of our simply divine Olympians. Word has it that Zeus has been up to his old tricks again, but then again, nothing’s new if Hera’s latest public outburst has anything to do with it.

We all know how it went with that Phoenician wench Europa. There she was, minding her own business picking flowers by the seaside (and who could ask for a more enchanting pursuit for a young maiden?) when Zeus found her a particularly tasty morsel. To be honest, we do need to question her taste in men if she found a bull to be so charming.

Then, who could forget Leda? The fact that she was clearly already taken meant little to Zeus, and it is alleged by a source close to her that she wasn’t aware that it was Zeus, at the time.

“He came to her as a swan,” the source claims. “And she does rather have a fondness for birds. She thought nothing of the incident until she started hunting for nesting material not long after.”

King Tyndareous was less than charmed with her hatching those eggs, our same source reports.
When Zeus visited Alkmene, his penchant for disguises really pushed the limits.

“She swears it was her husband,” erstwhile handmaiden Agathos claims. “Though his royal highness was off on a campaign at the time. We all knew something was up, but no one dared to say anything.”

An oracle’s prophecy led to further trouble when it was widely reported that Danae, daughter of King Arkisios, would give birth to a child who would later kill the king of Argos. He thought to solve the problem by having his daughter locked up. This proved no obstacle to Zeus’ amorous intentions.

Danae recounts: “He was so persistent. My father’s attempts to protect his own hide meant nothing to my lover, who came to me as in a shower of gold. Zeus was so gentle, so loving, and I would do it all again. To Tartarus with the prophecies. And my father!”

We all know what happened to poor Io, driven half crazy by a vengeful Hera. Then again, it can’t be much fun being turned into a cow and chased all the way to Egypt by a persistent fly. Just ask Herakles; you really don’t want to mess with Hera.

Speaking of Hera (Looking back, who truly blames her for having had it with Zeus’ philandering ways?) what she did to Kallisto was just plain nasty, turning Artemis against her own handmaiden just because Zeus turned a lecherous eye on the girl. And if you think getting turned into a bear is a raw deal, having your own goddess use you for target practice really takes the cake.

Which brings us to this week’s bit of juicy gossip. And, surprise surprise, it’s not some lass who’s been plucked but a lad. Seems that Ganymede’s pretty face has caught Zeus’ fancy, and he has taken up employment as a barista over at Zeus’ palace. We all know that Ganymede’s going to do a bit more than pouring ambrosia.

His father, Tros, comments: “We are devastated. He was taken so suddenly, but we are assured that he is in a better place and that his beauty will be preserved for evermore.”

Hera was unavailable for comment.