So, this is the third (and hopefully final) post in a series about the complicated relationship between art, politics and martyrdom – if you haven’t checked out the first and second parts yet then definitely give them a look before reading on, as everything from here on out is pretty much a longish response to shtuff covered earlier.
Roseanne Sullivan (another one of our intrepid posters here at DT who continues to provide an extensive education in liturgical music and Quetzalcoatl sightings) deftly pointed out in a comment that the previous pieces are, frankly, somewhat a slice of Debbie-Downer as, well, they mostly just describe all the jazz that goes terribly wrong when we talk about/relate to martyrs and martyrdom generally.
Part I focused a lot on how, when politics and spirituality get too bound up in each other, the line separating them starts falling apart and suddenly we have political attacks being interpreted as an assault on a person’s religious beliefs. Take, for an example, how territorial skirmishes between Christian-or-Islamic-linked gov’ts quickly became matters of WBWJW (what borders would Jesus want?), or look at how post-Reformation European states quickly used the excuse of defending their interpretation of Christianity as a reason for killing people. Sticky-sticky indeed.
Part II zoomed in more on the personal implications of martyrdom (including how martyrdom’s used by particular interest groups), which usually comes down to the loss of the martyr’s personality. As in martyrs, after their death, are often whitewashed, idealized, rinsed of complication and set up on pedestals – in a word: dehumanized. This happens in spite of best intentions and can lead to over-simplifying the actions that led up to their death in the first place; in the end, nuanced situations and histories are painted as black-and-white scenarios, and the whole thing only goes on to exacerbate conflict and entrench culture war.
While this led to a deadlier state of affairs in, say, Elizabethan England than in modern suburbia (see the story of Edmund Campion posted on DT last year – it quickly turned into the catalyst for these reflections), the complicated historical link between religion and politics still leaves tons of after-effects. Take for example in Canada: English and French powers (as mentioned in Part II) were linked with Protestantism and Catholicism, meaning that the killing/martyring of one side by the other (either directly or through Aboriginal proxies) was taken not just as a rebuff to Crown, but to Christ. While Canada has become a pluralist nation in the years since, the eventual compromise between French and English at the end of the 1700’s led to the birth of two different, publicly funded school systems – the Protestant one eventually became the public school system while the Catholic, separate school board survives as a gov’t-subsidized entity in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta. At the moment, the current Albertan gov’t is trying to sort through new guidelines for queer and trans-identifying students and, as the Catholic school board is (due to history, politics, martyrdom) still publically funded, they may be expected to follow suit. Cue everyone freaking out about the kids. Our ghosts are hard to shake.
Making things even more difficult is the apparently human tendency to settle for simple answers to knotty questions – even when a conflict isn’t all that dramatic, we still have a knack for making mountains out of molehills and painting minor inconveniences as statements/acts of resistance against a power wanting to take away life, liberty, freedom or our ability to pick from seventeen varieties of ketchup at the local supermarket. How much crazier do things get when actual lives are at stake?
Each of these images came to us from a complicated story, one that doesn’t fit into the loose mythologies we’ve knitted them into – but, then again, nuance doesn’t sell newspapers (or shares/likes/re-tweets) as much as, say, sensationalism. Even when we do have highly accomplished, highly complicated figures living among us, as soon as they die they’re pounced on by the media, bleached, varnished and cropped into images that’re sold all over again. Think Michael Jackson. Think Amy Winehouse. Think, from even just a month ago, David Bowie.
Okay, yes, we know a lot’s screwed up – so what can we do about it?
Speaker For The Dead
While most people know Orson Scott Card as a highly successful writer of young-adult-oriented science fiction (his more mature books, like the novel Songmaster and short-story collection Unaccompanied Sonata, are criminally neglected), most don’t know that his monstrously popular Ender’s Game (recentlyish made into a downright disappointing Harry Potter wannabe franchise-starter) was actually written* – first as a short story and later as a full-length piece – in an attempt to make a different novel work. That novel was called Speaker for the Dead.
Orson (totally badass name) is a writer who’s been able to merge pop fiction with compelling and complicated subject matter,** and in Speaker it shows through the hero’s job description. He’s a guy running through time (jumping at the speed of light further into the distant future) both from his past and toward the opportunity of redemption – without spoiling too much, he was the unwitting catalyst for the extinction of an entire sentient alien race and so has a bit of baggage to work through. His self-imposed penance involves becoming a “speaker,” someone who attempts eulogizing the dead in all their complexity and contradiction.
A typical eulogy, at least in my limited experience, tries to comfort the family by painting a fairly idealized picture of the deceased. There might be a few rough edges thrown in for good measure, but it’s usually only meant to lighten an otherwise totally oppressive mood. You get nothing less than a very complicated feeling to hear alcoholic co-dependents transformed into model parents, or mediocre artists becoming irreplaceable auteurs. Yes, we want to remember the best in someone but, in the process, the person disappears into the gaping cracks of their shiny new pedestal. A “speaking,” in comparison, tries to embrace the dead in their fullness and doesn’t attribute traits that didn’t exist, and likewise doesn’t ignore the more awkward parts of their personalities. In the novel’s introduction, Orson describes having had people come up to him and say how they’ve adapted his model to their very real remembrance services.
Imagine if we treated our martyrs (or our dead, generally) like this? As in, mentioning their flaws just as much as their virtues? Or admitting possible causes of death other than perfect dedication to an ideal? That maybe some were misogynists, or vicious anti-Semites, or generally bad-tempered if woken up before 10am? Maybe we wouldn’t be as quick to turn a person into a symbol if we were constantly aware of how many shades or ambiguities they occupied – and then maybe we wouldn’t be as quick to use them against Others. Maybe we’d see that the Other group has some good points when criticizing a particular martyr or saint, and then maybe a road to some real (if awkward/painful) dialogue could open up.*** And maybe we wouldn’t be stuck with overly simplified (and mostly embarrassing) martyrdom-art.
Film is probably the worst offender when it comes to it: the “Saint Movie” belongs to the elite club of genres that probably has more cringe-worthy entries than respectable ones. And when the saint in question is a martyr then, with a paltry handful of noteworthy exceptions, things get even more embarrassing as nuance packs a few heavy suitcases, buys a ticket to Hawaii and, a week later, sends a text to say it’s all over and, really, it’s him and not you. Even the Passion, with it’s big-budget chops and award-winning pedigree, can’t avoid scenes full of scheming, fuming crowds who can’t wait to rub their knuckles together and send Love to His death. Judas and Pilate were portrayed wonderfully, but the film’s Caiaphas was completely stripped of any complexity whatsoever. Are there any films out there that can serve as models for what a genuinely compelling martyr movie could look like?
As it happens, there is one – but it’s a tad awkward to bring up on a Catholic blog. Just hear me out on this one.
Meet Harvey Milk:
Now meet Harvey Milk, played by Sean Penn in Gus Van Sant’s 2008 flick Milk:
Yes, this is a gay**** man.
And it’s a very gay movie: Milk tells the story of how Harvey became one of the first openly-homosexual elected officials in the US. To make it an even more awkward topic at the coffee-and-donuts table after mass, it also goes into his personal life and portrays the different players, friends and lovers in his general orbit. But I’m not writing about it as a way to say it’s an overall good movie or to support the totality of what Harvey supported (obviously not), but as it provides an interesting approach to the “Martyr Film” genre as a whole. Because it turns out that on November 7th, 1978, someone came into his office at the San Francisco City Hall and put a bullet in his head. Before putting another one in right after.
Meet Dan White:
Now meet Dan White played by Josh Brolin in the movie:
Dan was on the same Supervisory board as Harvey in the San Francisco of the 70’s and the two men shared a complex working relationship. Complex obviously in the sense of ending when Dan killed him (and then-mayor George Moscone), later killing himself after serving time in prison for manslaughter. He was a Vietnam veteran, raised a Catholic and saved lives as a firefighter before getting into politics. He could have easily been played off as a nutso Christian fundamentalist out to get the liberal hero and nobody would have blinked an eye. It’s a story we’ve seen ten thousand times before.
But he wasn’t. And, in my opinion, it’s Josh Brolin’s performance as White that really steals the show from under Sean Penn’s feet.*****
Dan is a complicated figure whose ultimate instability comes more from a constant battering from life than from some crazy, uber-conservative time bomb hiding somewhere behind his frontal lobe, just waiting for a chance to snap. He looks out for his family and he eventually comes to respect and even care for Harvey about halfway through their running time together. He’s a little uncomfortable with the gay thing at first, but they’re able to work on a couple projects and put a couple ordinances through together.
Harvey receives a couple ominous death threats through the movie and they’re all connected to his sexual orientation – the whole thing plays as a morbid set of foreshadowing as we all know what’s going to happen at the end. Popular memory of the events kinda casts Dan’s homophobia as the eventual reason why he shot Harvey, thus linking up those earlier threats with the looming finale of bullets/blood – but this is where the film veers away and really makes the treatment rather special.
You see, director Gus Van Sant suggests that Harvey wasn’t killed so much as a martyr for gay rights as for the fact that he turned out to be, at times, an absolute jerk to Dan. Through the film, Milk mostly keeps his animosity under wraps, especially as he thinks that Dan’s in the closet himself – but there’s a crucial scene where Harvey’s having an upscale birthday bash and a drunk Dan shows up at the end looking for support and emotional validation. He’s warmed up to Harvey enough that he’s not afraid of being vulnerable, but Harvey rebuffs him with a surprising pettiness that runs counter to his generally warm attitude through the film. Things go from bad to worse for Dan and, after a couple of perceived betrayals on the part of Milk and the mayor, he eventually loads the gun, sneaks in through a window (to avoid metal detectors) and pulls the trigger on both of them.
So, no matter what one believes about same-sex relationships, one can still admire Harvey’s determination to fight for what he stands for in the face of possible assassination – the film totally could have gone that route and played him as the white knight to White’s backwards, outdated hater, but instead it creates something much more compelling: a martyr film whose very hero is the one laying the pieces for his own martyrdom. There is no politicizing on the part of Van Sant in terms of demonizing Dan White, and he creates a Harvey Milk who is charming, witty, courageous but human enough to crush the spirit of a man who could have been an ally but ended up being his killer. It’s an incredible risk for Gus Van Sant to have taken, and the artistic payoff is enormous.
But what does it mean for us?
Van Sant, in Milk, provides an incredible blueprint for how to portray martyrdom in art: his Harvey Milk is a humanized character and doesn’t fit into traditional stereotypes of what a hero should be – he’s a crusader, yes, but it’s his own lack of empathy that brings him down, Shakespeare-style. His killer is portrayed as an awkward, likable and vulnerable man who’s just as much a victim of his own situation as he is responsible for killing the dude who was once his friend. This, rather than being an unbearable cliche, becomes great tragedy transcending the moral context.
It also resists being used as a political bludgeon for or against anyone involved in the current cultural debate – there were no rampaging thinkpieces (that I can remember) in its wake. There weren’t any cries out against those blind, crazy Christians who just need to get with the times. What we’re left with are two broken men who ended up on a collision course. In other words, we’re left sitting with people, not symbols. Their dignity as human beings, against all odds, still intact.
It’s also a good exercise for us, as Christians with an interpretation of scripture/tradition claiming that God doesn’t bless same-sex unions as He does opposite-sex ones, to get past our reservations in terms of the story and learn from what it has to teach us about making good art. Humanizing our heroes isn’t the only path to dialogue, understanding and leaving behind the model of culture war: learning to look through someone else’s eyes and appreciating what there is to be appreciated (even/especially if we can’t agree on certain essentials) is one of the only few, necessary skills. We can consider this to be some very needed practice.
The image of Harvey Milk lying in a pool of his own blood (or waving, as it were, from a parade float) is joltingly different from the one we started with: Edmund Campion dangling at Tyburn. Christians are called to believe (easy in theory, ghastly in practice) that a saint can hang from a gibbet like fruit from a tree, on the promise of a mostly invisible God that somehow they, in their physical destruction, will somehow feed the world. And then we go take that promise and strip it both of power and awe by treating it as a mere slogan to be used, either through art or political maneuvering, even if we do it with the best intentions. Especially with the best intentions.
Milk shows us that it can be done with grace,****** that there’s a model here that can prevent our stories from being cheapened, that can give dignity and respect to those who have died while not denying their humanity or their flaws. We’re called and challenged to speak for the dead themselves, and not just for a sanitized image that we feel more or less comfortable with.
Because people aren’t all that comfortable in the end – but sometimes we’re warm.
If you have a minute, don’t forget to check out Karen Ullo’s response: “More Thoughts About Martyrdom.” The comment sections for each piece have also turned into a zone for really interesting exploration of these themes.
*As a prequel.
**At least it’s true in his early stuff: my own views on the soul were greatly influenced by a heart-twisting scene from his Children of the Mind. A lot of his later work started dropping to an unfortunate level of suck.
*** This is super-complicated, though, because to admit to the dicier elements of our heroes and martyrs means opening ourselves/our cause up to be deflated and attacked. Like mentioned in the previous posts, we’re fixated as a culture on white knights – any besmirching is taken as grounds to dismiss a person entirely. Not the most conducive environment to really working through our cultural and spiritual baggage.
****Yes, I know there’s still a huge discussion about what language to use in the Christian community – as in, some people are more comfortable using phrases like “same-sex attracted” rather than lesbian, queer or LGBT. Full disclosure: I’m a practicing (therefore celibate) Catholic who is somewhere on the queer-straight spectrum and I don’t take the terms that I use lightly. If you’re curious about why some queer Christians use this kind of language, I recommend checking out the blog Spiritual Friendship as they’ve articulated their reasons a lot clearer than I can here without hijacking the whole thing. It’s an ecumenical collective that has plenty of necessary things to say, so give them a read if you have the time.
*****I was sad to see Brolin passed up for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor – he was competing against Heath Ledger’s Joker, though, so what can you do. Penn went on to win Best Actor but acknowledged Mickey Rourke’s superior performance in The Wrestler (Aronofsky fan-boy shoutout!) during his acceptance speech. That’s class for you.
******The made-for-TV version of Joan of Arc was pretty darn good, though. More than worth a watch. Or ten.
Josh Nadeau lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.