Alice Birch vs. Victor Hugo: Despair versus Inspiration

This week has been a roller-coaster of emotion for many reasons, two of which I’d like to put on the record.

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  1. Public Desperation: what’s it good for?

Yesterday’s review by Ben Brantley of Alice Birch’s play, Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again (playing at the Soho Rep) left me perplexed, as did the visual captured in the New York Times, which showed three women in drab work shirts and ripped jeans, sitting at a drab dinner table behind which there is a large screen reading:

REVOLUTIONIZE THE WORK. (DON’T DO IT).  REVOLUTIONIZE THE LANGUAGE (THAT WORD DOESN’T EXIST HERE). REVOLUTIONIZE THE WORLD. (DON’T ASSOCIATE WITH MEN). REVOLUTIONIZE THE BODY. (STOP EATING). REVOLUTIONIZE THE BODY / THE LANGUAGE (STOP SPEAKING).

This loud manifesto immediately transported me back to Women’s Studies at Princeton in the 1980s, and the angry puzzlement that dogged my footsteps from campus to home and back, as I felt the opposing pull of hard-edged feminism (no men at the WS dance!) and the tender loving care of he who would become my husband (Rich Viglione, chef-de-cuisine and bon vivant extraordinaire).

More importantly, this manifesto fills me with sadness. How sad that all visionary action is phrased in negative terms. Even if it is meant as an ironic satire on The Way Things Are, still, Alice Birch, couldn’t you give us a little guidance and hope?

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  1. Les Misérables student papers: a surprisingly edifying slog

Every teacher dreads grading papers and I’m no different. I have a thick pile in a folder labeled “To grade and deal with,” a label that captures the slog in no uncertain terms. It is my job to read these things and move along the process of academic work. Bleh.

But this morning, in an effort to forget why I’m reading this work, I’ve forced myself to push everything else aside, unplug, and take time to enjoy the writing (if possible).  An amazing thing has resulted: I’ve been moved, I’ve even felt inspired, by their work!  How not to be touched by a young voice telling you, “If enough people change in that way, we can change the public consciousness,” and astutely identifying the exact point in the story of Marius where he “no longer saw the world through the prism of an ideal, but rather with human sympathy.”

How interesting it is to learn about Hugo’s relations and correspondence with his various publishers and especially the chosen one, Lacroix, a young, relative nobody on the publishing scene. How useful to be reminded of the notion of the Slow-seller, the classic work which may take more time to achieve fame, but which long outlives the hyped-up Best-seller. How inspiring to learn that Victor Hugo really did practice what he preached, by organizing Pâques d’enfants in his home, where he and his family served dinner to destitute children themselves, and shared the meals with them.

This reminded me of a chance conversation I recently had with artist Vanessa German, who is a modern-day exemplar of the same kind of engagement with social injustice in real-time, from her home neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA.  Talking with her was powerfully stirring, as she reminded me of the joy of process, and the danger of falling prey to the desire to monetize work, instead of enjoying the transcendental moments we experience when we create things, alone or with others.

Thank you, young people, and artists old and new, for sharing your optimism for humankind. It is good to be reminded, now and then, of the power of human sympathy to help carry us through.

Art really can keep despair at bay.

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