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Tuesday 10 June 2014

Being Naughty

“Naughty” is a song written by the anarchic comedian Tim Minchin for Dennis Kelly’s musical adaption of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel, “Matilda”. If you are unaware of the original story of “Matilda”, it is about a downtrodden yet very intelligent and bookish little girl who suffers at the hands of her family and her tyrannical headmistress, but gets her revenge when she discovers she has telekinesis. Yes, it’s “Carrie” for the pre-teens sans the bucket of blood on prom night. Like a lot of great fantasy, the fantasy elements are understated in favour of a strong narrative and character development allowing the incredible to seamlessly be interwoven with the rest of the action. This is honoured in the songs from the musical and, in particular, “Naughty”.  A central message runs through the musical and is reflected in this song, which makes a defiant break with a stoic or passive acceptance of life.

The very simple tune of “Naughty” takes us through lyrics that reflect on fatalistic stories. Matilda, the character singing, begins with a description of Jack and Jill’s unfortunate tumble and Romeo and Juliet’s “gory” demise. She muses on the “inevitable” outcomes of these characters and wonders why they didn’t rewrite their stories. Moving from nursery rhymes and Shakespeare’s tragedy, she crosses over into the fairy tale of “Cinderella”. This time we have a character that meets a happy ending. However, Matilda is not impressed. Cinderella, she argues, had a fairy godmother that helped her out, essentially doing nothing herself to improve her life. Perhaps it is a reflection of Minchin’s sceptical stance that he dismisses the karmic moral in “Cinderella” - that it was the goodhearted maiden’s act of charity to a disguised fairy godmother that profited in her being freed from the oppression of her adopted family and becoming a princess – and Matilda simply poses the question what about the fate of those who aren’t lucky enough to have a magical patron.  Direct change by the individual is needed and this means being naughty. 

I hadn’t seen “Matilda: The Musical”, but this song reached me via my daughter. Every day I take her to school and we use the time rehearse songs she is learning. She is part of “Stagecoach”, having a natural desire to perform that I romantically like to think comes from the 300 plus unbroken years of live performance DNA. Daddy performed a live act, so did grandma, so did granddad and, if the Parish records do eventually substantiate the legend, so did her first recorded ancestor in 1683. However, in line with the song’s philosophy I do not accept that a career in the very hard and competitive world of showbusiness is inevitable.  My parents may have reared me on a traditional travelling circus, imprinting that culture on my sense of identity, but they did not influence my decisions in life. They did not pressure me to become an animal trainer, which is the most common and famous profession of my ancestry.  I ended up working for them to support other interests, firstly as a kickboxing instructor then a performer/pro wrestling promoter, and today as a self-protection/eclectic martial arts coach and writer.

Looking back I made a lot of silly decisions in my professional and personal life. I still make them today. There are a variety of reasons why I have made mistakes and many are probably irrational psychological issues that affect everyone, from cognitive blind spots to laziness to fear. However, keeping with Minchin’s song, many big ones were due to circumstances where I did not act decisively enough. Most people come across bullies in their lives. I remember feeling I was being bullied at the same primary school I drive my daughter to and writing down my experiences in a school journal that clearly was never read. I don’t really remember the incidences, as so much else has occurred in my life that has left bigger impacts. Besides overt bullying, I think there are other issues that help render an individual to a state of miserable acceptance of their lot in life. We compromise and we people please. It happens all the time and it is probably part of our tribal nature. This is in line with our natural altruism and what makes up human society. This is also why Minchin regards any act of changing that to be seen as rebellion, making mischief and being naughty.

It would be interesting to see what the bookish Matilda of the song would have made of some of Shakespeare’s other tragic characters. Gloucester from “King Lear” utters his famous pessimistic view on fate as being controlled by sadistic omnipotent powers:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,

They kill us for their sport.”

Although no gods are named in Shakespeare’s play the idea is not dissimilar to ideas that Greek and Norse religion had about fate. In his Saxon Stories, Bernard Cornwell describes three spinners of fate. He is possibly referring to the three most powerful Norns of Norse mythology who attended to Yggdrasil, the tree of life central to Norse cosmology. Comparable to the Greek Moirai, these giantesses spun the threads of fate. As Cornwell warns of a prophetic twist in the tale that will spell trouble for his hero, Uhtred Ragnarson, he sometimes describes these spinners as being malicious in their intent, often laughing at the assumptions of Uhtred.

Writer Stephen King reflected in his novel, "The Storm of the Century", on the apparently motiveless spite shown by God in the Old Testament in "The Book of Job". For those who are not aware, this book has God being challenged by his favourite archangel, Satan*, to test his pious subject Job, one of God's most dutiful and grateful subjects on Earth. Rather than dismissing the challenge, as "turn the other cheek" New Testament God might advise, the Great Creator tells Satan to do his worst. This might be due to this scripture's possible view that Satan was seen more as a type of prosecutor who sat on God's Divine Council than the demonic usurper that he becomes in The New Testament's "Book of Revelation" and should be seen more as a test for a pious man's ability to love his creator than as a direct challenge to God. Nevertheless, Job, much like Abraham before him in "The Book of Genesis", seems to have go through personal trauma for little good reason other than to appease the whim of the powers above:
“When his life was ruined, his family killed, his farm destroyed, Job knelt down on the ground and yelled up to the heavens, 'Why god? Why me?' and the thundering voice of God answered, 'There's just something about you that pisses me off'”.

Thomas Hardy, that master weaver of the bleak and foreboding cruelty of fate, projected similar malice through the punishment he meted out on the unfortunate Tess Durbeyfield in “Tess of the d’Urbvervilles”. Tess is a hapless and virtuous victim - much like Justine in Sade's novel - who is punished for the crimes of her aristocratic ancestors. Her final scene involves her lying on the sacrificial alter – with very obvious symbolism - at Stone Henge before being arrested and likely to be executed for the murder of her seducer. The book ends the novel’s final paragraph begins with this line, which echoes Gloucester’s earlier line:

“’Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess.”

This philosophy of Gloucester is in contrast to his bastard son, one of Shakespeare’s most attractive Machiavellian villains, Edmund who gives us a soliloquy with these opening lines:

“Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law

   My services are bound.”

Without turning this into a second rate A Level English Literature essay what we have here are two opposing views on the savage pagan world where Shakespeare’s most depressing tragedy is set. Gloucester sees himself as a victim like Jack and Jill or Romeo and Juliet in “Naughty”, naming spiteful motives being behind the forces of influence. By contrast Edmund sees himself as an agent of these forces. Seeing himself disadvantaged by his status as a bastard he takes direct action. He is a renaissance thinker, believing nature rewards those who act in line with her savage whims. It is much like the jaded Buddy Ackerman in the George Huang’s “Swimming with Sharks” who informs his exasperated assistant who he has been mistreating for a year, “Hey, I don’t make the rules. I play by them”.  Ackerman, in this sense, who extols the earning the dues in order to graduate to success in showbusiness, seems to be emulating the God who gave Job such a hard time.

Richard Duke of Gloucester in Shakespeare’s earlier play, “Richard III”, justifies his action because of the physical deformities nature has burdened. Scorned by many he accepts his position as a villain and uses the skills of the villain. The Marquis de Sade would have approved of Richard’s attitude. Juliette, the titular heroine of his sequel to “Justine or Good Conduct Well-Chastised”, embraces vice, engaging in a catalogue of depravities and murders her way to success and happiness. This is in contrast to the previous novel, where we see the life of her poor sister, Justine, who is at the mercy of everyone who exploits her virtuous behaviour, eventually being killed by nature via a lightning bolt. Some have commented that behind the violent pornography that both novels described throughout these are works there is a message that aligns itself with The Enlightenment. Minchin shares Sade’s atheism. Although I am not going to for one second say he would have approved of the crimes Sade champions in his prose, the two both see that acts to change a miserable existence may be viewed by the status quo as acts of rebellion or even criminality.

In self-defence or bullying situations – both physical and verbal abuse - I have also noticed that when a usually quiet and passive individual takes physical action and neutralizes their attacker the tribe is not happy. Far from gaining the round of applause the turned worm normally gets when we watch in entertainment, the community around him immediately becomes wary. Being beaten down by an established bully might be upsetting and many might cry out at the injustice, but when someone who has taken it for a length of time suddenly takes action in some form, scoring a victory for themselves in some way, it is likely he will lose friends. He has not only suddenly shaken up the bully’s perspective, but also the rest of the community. The bully might be an overbearing alpha male or female tyrant, but everyone has begrudgingly accepted this role. It is how it works in most mammalian packs. The worm who turned is suddenly a mutant. He is not what he seemed. What else is he concealing? He is a revolutionary and therefore a mischief-maker.

So, Minchin accepts that this is the role that Matilda might play. It is a very mature look at her situation, understanding that Matilda’s actions are not going to be initially seen as being heroic. They are acts of revolt and disruption. She has been virtuous and kind, and she thirsts for a better education, but is denied it by the oppressors around her. Being a little girl she has many natural disadvantages compared to the overbearing adults around her. Her size is regularly referenced in the song, but she disregards it as a bad excuse. In the story, before she even discovers her supernatural powers she puts to use the advantage she has that all renaissance and enlightened people have: intellect. She exacts her early revenges on her selfish and unkind parents as well as the ogre-like headmistress by using trickery.

The subject of trickery immediately reminds me of another favourite children’s story, Richard Adams’ “Watership Down”. In the story the Sandleford warren rabbits are brought up on a religion that teaches nature via their god, Frith, has disadvantaged them by making them the prey of a “1,000 enemies”.  Their key attribute to survive is by being “full of tricks”. In the story the group have escaped warren of origin against the wishes of their chief rabbit when one of their number prophesises the warren’s destruction. The group are action-takers.  Throughout the story we see their adventures will bring them in contact with different rabbit groups, where the majority choose the comfort of a disadvantaged existence over bucking the system and escaping to a freedom of the new Watership Down warren. The domesticated rabbits they find are institutionalized and the militaristic Efrafran rabbits are held under a harsh dictatorship of fear. However, it is a warren that is resided in by a rabbit called Cowslip that most contrasts the difference between taking action and allowing the fates to decide.  Cowslip’s warren, comparable to the island Lotus Eaters of Homer’s “The Odyssey”, seems like a lazy idyllic existence. The rabbits are free to do what they please and are fed by the farmer. Later it is revealed that the area is snared and Cowslip lures other rabbits in to increase his chances of survival. Dismissing the trickery central the rabbit religion’s survival, Cowslip promotes a life based on dignity, which ends up translating to a passive acceptance of fate.

Hamlet, who was far more a man of action that he is given credit, ends up resigning himself to fate. Contrary Lawrence Olivier’s overly simplistic opening line to his 1948 feature film production of “Hamlet”, that “This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind”, the prince of Denmark had good reason to not act when he had opportunities to avenge the murder of his father. Firstly, it was a popular belief that evil spirits appeared as the ghosts of loved ones to trick mortals into committing crimes, so by deciding to test his stepfather/uncle, Claudius, for his crime rather than simply slaying him when the ghost of his dead father ordered him thus, Hamlet was just being sensible about his supernatural dealings. Likewise, when Claudius was at Hamlet’s mercy after confirming his guilt, Hamlet held his hand for good reason. His target was kneeling in prayer and such an action might indicate penitence and forgiveness in the eyes of god, allowing Claudius to possibly assail to heaven on Judgement Day rather be condemned to damnation. At the time Hamlet’s father was suffering in purgatory, so it would hardly be apt vengeance. As it turned out Claudius could not be penitent, but Hamlet was not to know at the time. The final part of the play sees Hamlet become fatalistic and he is able to avenge his father, but not before carnage ensues.

Sarah Connor in James Cameron’s 1991 science fiction action thriller, “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” is no Hamlet. She battles to change a dystopian future and follows the motto, “No fate except the one you make”. It is a very proactive attitude that would probably please the psychoanalytical philosopher Viktor Frankl who is an inspiration to us all in the way he mentlaly handled his experience in a Nazi concentration camp. Proactivity is a line taken by any number of bogus and genuine inspirational teachers. It just means to act rather than to react to circumstances. There seems to be some sort of psychological benefit to an individual who feels they have acted rather than allowed matters to take control of them. On the other hand, many feel frustration at those who they feel are not acting enough to improve their situation. There are those who even if their effort was futile and some might have argued was a weak or pointless attempt to act the individual can have satisfaction in saying “At least I tried”. As time has gone on I have learnt that neither is that so simple. I do like to be proactive and often see it as a default method for improving one’s circumstances, but sometimes such pro-activity can be the choice not to overtly act. When one acts one should consider who the action is for and what is its actual purpose. Am I acting to appease my audience, to satisfy my ego and comfort my pride or to actually make a difference?      

I have noticed that people who suck up pain and hardship on a regular basis have a limited window for help from greater society and even their close friends. Support diminishes after a certain period of time, especially when a struggle does not seem fresh. Society does not like injustice. However, if this injustice goes on for an extended length of time sympathizers soon peel off. Self-justification sets in and mutates into several forms. Viewers either forget the person and their plight or write it off, telling themselves that it is the victim’s own fault. I have known of plenty of people who have had to make the hard decision to stick with something that is damaging to them in order to find the right way out. Changes cannot always be made automatically. They take time, especially when the person being hurt feels they have responsibilities to others and cannot just check out of the situation. Other people - such as parents who have dedicated their lifetime to looking after their severely disabled offspring - really have little choice according to their moral compass. Then there are those who suffer in silence. They don’t want pity or even sympathy, but it doesn’t mean they hurt any less. It is an understanding of this in the microcosm that has led trainers in First Aid to teach students to over-ride our natural desire to attend to a screaming patient ahead of a quiet one during an emergency situation.

My current view on life is that it is governed by what is best categorized, for ease of understanding, as chaos. Whether that apparent chaos is revealed to have an actual meaning that we cannot currently comprehend is another debate altogether. We struggle to make sense of it all. Even in the huge apparent wastefulness of evolution by natural selection our desire to seek reason is present with scientists being challenged to seek out the evolutionary advantages of different mutations. Despite my reservations on his logotherapy and psychoanalysis in general, 

David S. Goyer once put over an interesting philosophy about fate and action in the martial arts movie, “Kickboxer 2: The Road Back”. It addresses the same issue Hamlet faced in his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. It is revealed in a discussion between the story’s hero and his wayward and doomed student, and can be summarised as this: “Sometimes it is better to flow than attack, sometimes it is better to attack and a wise man knows when to do which”. There are some other brilliant lines that hint at the greatness Goyer would reach with superhero blockbusters from the late ‘90s to today, but this particular line nails Hamlet’s dilemma. Acting is fine and sometimes even futile action can bring in a psychological sense of relief. At least I did something. However, sometimes being a bit naughty at the wrong time jeopardizes everything and worsens the situation. Action is nothing without control, a good plan and good timing.

*This assumed favouritism at the time of the chronology is depending on whether or not you go with the view that Satan's rebellion occurred before "The Fall of Man" and the "War in Heaven" described in "The Book of Revelation (12:7-13)" was a second rebellion. John Milton in his epic poem,"Paradise Lost", held that the war was before "The Fall of Man", but the description of a battle only occurs in the final book of "The New Testament" and is tied up the end of the world. 

Material referenced in this article. 


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