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The Ghosts in Our Machine

Ghosts-1

There is a guy sitting in front of me crying. He looks like the kind of person I’d be friends with—I don’t know why, it’s just a look. I later find out his name is Dan, he’s a schoolteacher, and just a year ago he met the woman sitting next to him, with her hand on his shoulder, at a half-marathon race. She was vegan at the time, active in animal rights; he was vegetarian, sometimes. (Over the next year Dan turned vegan, dropped ten pounds, took ten minutes off his half-marathon time. He speaks of quickened muscle recovery and ‘living aligned’. They both think that each of them has lucked-out in finding the other. He tells me all this the next morning as we run together. Near the end of the run he stops, waits for his girlfriend, and I go on alone.) There is a fresh and loving intimacy between them, as she cares for this man crying in her arms, that I crave. It is perhaps a little of why I’m crying too, because what I’m watching is hurting, and I need support.

It’s the scene in the fur farm. It’s Jo-Anne McArthur’s still pictures, used so affectively as they are woven into the urgency of having to break in to the farm facility, take her pictures, and then leave without being discovered, and without saving a single one of these scared creatures. It is what McArthur says in the foreword to her book We Animals: for all those I could not save. It is why I am crying now (watching the film; writing these words). For every good thing we do, we don’t save these individuals in front of us. They are already dead. The use of the stilled images makes this point strongly, sadly.

Still life. It makes me think of when my grandmother died. I was in Australia on a gap year, travelling. My family told me not to come back, to continue on my journey. My grandmother was ill, cantankerous, gave up on life early, except her sherry and her cigs. The only affection she ever really showed late in life was not towards us, but towards Scruffy and Tigger, their cats. So I did not go back. I send instead to my grandfather a condolence card with the image of a bowl of fruit on the front. On the back, it’s title: Still life. But she was dead. I don’t think my grandfather ever forgave me for not returning, for doing everything I could to get there. This is strangely the same feeling the film leads me to: please, let me go back to this farm, save them, do more. This is perhaps why Dan, I, others, so many others, are crying here as we watch The Ghosts in the People Barn at Farm Sanctuary. Have we done everything we can? For these foxes in the fur farm, death is not still life. Who will forgive us for not doing more?

The Ghosts in Our Machine is an elegy. A plaintive poem, a funeral song and lament for the dead. And because it is this, it knows it needs to hold its nerve. To stay in this tone of the elegiac, edited to perfection in the film, never missing a melancholic beat. To break this tone will be to lessen the story’s power. Even when animal protection workers know that a single story is more powerful than the facts and figures (85 billion animals each year, one cow every 12 seconds…) or a combination of both, they cannot seem to resist drawing us back to the incomprehensible, the overwhelming. I don’t know why this is. It’s like that episode of Friends where Monica wants to make everyone cry at her parents’ wedding anniversary. Perhaps the animal rights campaigners and communicators secretly want to not only stir emotions in others, but overwhelm us, be the one who has the power to do that. Secretly, they all want to be Ross (his first word has everyone crying; Monica flounces off). Ok! I admit it—I want to be like Ross, to write with impact. Comically, Ross has ‘it’. The Ghosts has ‘it’ too, but with a markedly different soul. What makes The Ghosts exquisite is that it holds its nerve all the way through, beyond the credits. The tone never wavers. And so, pure, it will linger on in ways that is, most of all, respectful to the lives lost, of all the lives lost.

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Novel Writing, Writing

The vague feeling of love

(A short exercise in “putting the problem into the writing” based on a character from my novel.)

emotionally vagueThe vague feeling of love

And he knew somehow that the vague feeling was not love itself but only the thoughts he had about love, which is why it was not a true feeling, what the analyst William James was calling a primary emotion, but rather just a thought about it, masquerading as the real thing, for where the real thing ought to be, he supposed, was an absence. Thought loves a vacuum.

And yet what this vague feeling was, was definitely a feeling – he felt it, even if his feeling processes were disordered, and to feel it he had to see it as a fantasy, a story inside his head on the cinema screen that ran just inside his brow (and how did people imagine thoughts before the cinema?). Were thoughts not feelings too?

He knows they could be the interpretation of the feeling anyway. That was it. An interpretation. And quite simply he had not yet fully translated the affect, the energy he felt for her, into a story he could make sense of. That’s why it remained vague, like the ideas he would put into his writing – and why this sense of love, or love as a possibility, or more precisely, not love, but simply her, Marine, as the symbol of possibility, was so closely linked, in its vagueness, to writing as a process. Both were processes in formation. Both began as fantasy in the mind. Both had a number of possible outcomes, from the utopian (publication, marriage, sensualness, fame) to the disastrous, and then worse than the disastrous, the absent, the never-happened.

It was perhaps why he had so many relationships with women that ended rather badly—and also why so far his writing had not brought him the life he desired, and knew—or at least idealised that it would or could bring him. He would rather leap into the relationship with a new lover who had entered his fantasies than forego the chance of it ever happening. That loss—the loss of the fantasy constructed in his head—was too difficult to bear. The real loss—of the girl, of the love, of the relationship, was much easier to let go, although not altogether painless. It was also why perhaps much of his work had not yet found its way into print. He was too indiscriminate. He jumped into ideas before he was committed to them, and then his energies waned, and he let the stories go, unfinished, unpolished. He did not let go easily ideas that were not his to write. Rather, he wanted everything he thought to become real. This was the boundless child, he knew, who was magical, and at the centre of his world.

Although no, that was not true. Not totally true. Rather love and writing to him seemed complementary, or opposite in their attraction. Although, yes, the thought that they stemmed from the same source, seemed to him to be true. It all began with the imagined ideal, it all began with thinking “what if?” and then conjuring up scenarios.

Was that writing? Yes.

Was that also love?

The vague feeling returned. As did Marine with a coffee pot and two cups.

(c) Image via Emotionally Vague