Of Mothers and Imaginations

floramabel

In his poem “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” the English poet Thomas Gray memorably reflected on the legacy of un-famous lives buried in a rural graveyard.

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil //
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile //
The short and simple annals of the poor.

With tender lyrical beauty, Grey conveyed the worth and righteousness of a small, obscure life, one spent in the ordinary hum of love of God, family, and neighbor. It’s a sentiment that cuts across our fame-seeking, platform-building digital age. The idea of living and dying while the world isn’t watching is an idea that fills many of us with horror. But that is the fate of so many of whom Jesus said would be called great in the kingdom.

Here’s something to consider this weekend: Of all these noble unnamed, how many are mothers?

How many women have given their life to their children? How thicker would the books of history be if we could record the daily love and loss of women whose heart was with their home? I doubt it could even be imagined. When it comes to bearing the burdens of our very humanity, surely mothers carry the heaviest and hardest loads. And yet how many of these years—or rather, how many of these lives–of sacrifice ever cue public applause or congratulations?

Meditate with me on two women, two mothers, whose names will probably be strange to you: Mabel Suffield and Flora Hamilton.

Mabel Suffield lived to be only 44 years old, dying of disease. She was widowed less than 10 years into her only marriage, left to raise two children by herself. To make life even harder, she was shunned by both her family and in-laws when she joined the Catholic church during a time of rampant English anti-Catholic sentiment. Living in charitable housing and often relying on the kindness of priests and strangers, Mabel tied her whole self, her entire earthly well-being, into protecting and raising her children.

By earthly standards, her life was a tragic waste. She had married too daringly an adventurer who died in Africa, thousands of miles away. She had chosen religion over relationship and financial support. Nothing about Mabel Suffield’s existence registers on the scale of worldly success. What success she did enjoy, however, was in shaping the imagination and talents of her youngest son. She gave him

…more than a lovely world in which to grow up; she gave him an array of fascinating tools to explore and interpret it. We know little of her own education, but she clearly valued learning and vigorously set about transmitting what she knew…She taught him to draw and to paint, arts in which he would develop his own unmistakeable style.

Mabel was clearly talented, but her talents did not earn her the rewards of ambition or the approbation of her peers. They went, instead, to her son. That was to be, in divine Providence, the outermost borders of her life, her “short and simple annal.”

Flora Hamilton likewise died young, at 46, of cancer. In many ways her life is more obscure than that of Mabel Suffield. You won’t find anything named after Mabel in her native Northern Ireland. Even her love life was cool and temperate; she responds to passionate letters from her husband with, “I wonder do I love you? I am not quite sure. I know that at least I am very fond of you, and that I should never think of loving anyone else.” Imagine if those kinds of words appeared today, anonymously in an advice column. They would be met with pity and calls to radical action.

But nothing about Flora was radical. Her life was small and given to her children. She loved books and taught her boys to love them too. She was imaginative and rational, and educated her boys to think with both logic and fervor. When she passed away, few took note, except for her family. Her youngest son would write years later that Flora’s death had signaled that “all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.”

Flora and Mabel lived brief, small lives. They invented no great thing and built nothing amazing. The only architecture that bears their names are likely gravestones. What they did do was love, nurture, and teach their children. Their legacies were made in young hearts, not the hearts of adoring fans or thankful shareholders but the hearts of their sons.

What appeared wasted at the time was anything but. Mabel’s youngest boy would put her sacrificial spirit in the characters of his fiction—characters like Gandalf, and Aragorn, and Frodo and Sam. J.R.R. Tolkien’s mother may have been mere biographical trivia to the millions who were moved by The Lord of the Rings, but for Middle-Earth itself, she was a specter whose love and faithfulness and resolve is dazzlingly bright in the pages of her son’s masterpiece.

And Flora? I think we see her too. I think we see the mother of C.S. Lewis in The Magician’s Nephew. She is, I believe, Digory’s deathly ill mother. It’s not outrageous to think that Aslan’s gift of Narnia’s healing fruit is the moment of joy and life that Lewis always wished had come to Flora. She was a beam of happiness in his young life, and it’s not hard to hear lingering sadness in the description of the healing of Digory’s mother:

About a week after this it was quite certain that Digory’s mother was getting better…And a month later that whole house had become a different place. Aunt Letty did everything that Mother liked; windows were opened, frowsy curtains were drawn back to brighten up the rooms, there were new flowers everywhere, and nicer things to eat, and the old piano was tuned and Mother took up her singing again, and has such games with Digory and Polly that Aunt Letty would say “I declare, Mabel, you’re the biggest baby of the three.”

Without the brief, small, hard lives of Mabel and Flora, we may never have known the lives of Frodo and Sam, or Digory and Polly. Without the quiet, unremarkable love of two mothers, how much more impoverished would countless imaginations and faiths be?

How thankful we ought to be for homely joys, and destinies obscure!

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Biographical information is taken from The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams

The Legacy of “Schindler’s List”

Today, January 27, is known as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. For the vast majority of us, the Holocaust is only accessible via the historical record. Books, pictures, articles, and testimony are all that remain of the Third Reich’s “final solution” for millions of European Jews, gypsies, Poles, and other minorities. 

One of the most important moments of cultural remembrance of the Shoah is Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List. The film, which won 7 Oscars including Best Picture, is not without its flaws or critics. But there is no question that, perhaps more so than any other popular work of art, Schindler’s List has illuminated one of the darkest corners of human history for multiple generations. 

Below is an essay I wrote about the film last year for Patheos. My hope is that this film, a cinematic masterpiece as well as an indispensable record, endures for as long as people watch movies. Christians especially should take an interest in the story of a man who sacrificed everything he had to rescue those who were despised in society.

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Oskar Schindler was the greatest con artist in history. Most conmen fail. The successful ones manage to swindle a few people and make a few dollars. The greatest cons swindle more people and make more dollars. Oskar Schindler didn’t con 10, 50, or even 100 people; he conned the entire Nazi Party. He made a fortune, and then spent it all–becoming destitute by the war’s end– to keep his con working. And at the end, there were 1,100 Polish Jews who escaped Auschwitz because of him.

All of the great films tell great stories, but a few of them have stories of their own. One day in 1980 the novelist Thomas Keneally entered, by pure chance, a Beverly Hills store owned by an old Jew named Leopold. Learning that his customer was a writer, Leopold told Keneally that his real name was Poldek Pffeferberg and that he survived World War II in Poland because a German named Schindler had hired Jews to work in his factories. After much pleading, Keneally agreed to write Pffeferberg’s story, and published Schindler’s Ark (it was retitled Schindler’s List in the States) in 1982.

Steven Spielberg read Keneally’s book and knew it had to be filmed, but didn’t want to do it himself. Only after Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski both told Spielberg they couldn’t make it did he decide it had to be him (Polanski would make The Pianist ten years after Schindler’s List released). It proved to be one of the landmark decisions of his legendary career. No one could have made Schindler’s List the way Spielberg made it.

There are so many great scenes in Schindler’s List, so many moments of purity and transcendence and horror that it is tempting to merely dub it “great art” and esteem it the way we might a Renaissance painting or a Handel composition. But it is Spielberg’s great gift of storytelling that prevents us from doing so. We must confront the history, the events, the people, and the places. Schindler’s List is art, yes, but it is also fact, and must be received as such. It’s not easy.

Perhaps that explains then why Schindler’s List seems to be fading from cultural consciousness. It appears only very rarely on television, owing to Spielberg’s inflexible rule that it broadcast unedited. It comes up frequently on lists like the IMDB Top 10 films of all time, but I’m consistently surprised at how many people admit to not having seen it. It’s true that films like The Godfather and Gone With the Wind are such fixtures of culture that many feel like they have seen them even if they haven’t. Is that the case with Schindler’s List? I doubt it. More likely it is being slowly forgotten. It deserves better.

These days Liam Neeson has successfully styled himself as an action hero. His fans owe it to themselves to watch him carefully in this film. He plays Oskar Schindler like a man totally in control. The film’s second scene shows Schindler throwing money at waiters at an upscale SS dinner party like a soldier hands out cigarettes. We get the iconic moving close-up of Schindler as he identifies who among the Nazi guests should be schmoozed. Later on, in one Neeson’s best scenes, he rescues his accountant Izthak Stern (Ben Kingsley) from deportation by intimidating the officers in charge. We watch and might be tempted to dismiss Schindler’s persona as implausible, until we remember that Nazism won Germany in large part because of one man’s charisma. Those who believe they’re in charge often are.

Later, Schindler bribes the commander of Auschwitz after his workers are mistakenly taken there. Spielberg and his editor Michael Kahn, who won the Oscar, place this conversation immediately after the well-known “shower scene.” Our emotions reeling, we watch as Schindler seems to grow and the Nazi seems to shrink. “I’m not judging you, but in the coming months we all are going to need portable wealth,” Schindler says, unveiling a bag of diamonds. The commander threatens to have him arrested. “I’m protected by powerful friends,” Schindler replies, showing not the slightest bit of concern. A few minutes later, Spielberg gives us one of Schindler’s List’s most powerful shots: A shorn and terrified group of women leave the camp and enter safety with Schindler himself in their midst, towering over them like a protective shelter.

Schindler’s enemy is not Nazism but one of its manifestations, the work camp commandant Amon Goethe. It is said that some Jewish survivors on Spielberg’s set cried out in terror when they saw Ralph Fiennes in full costume. Just as Neeson gives Schindler a cocksure CEO persona, so Fiennes plays Goethe as a man with insatiable bloodlust and possible insanity. He falls in his love with his Jewish housemaid but beats her savagely to atone for it. From his villa overlooking the work camp he uses Jews for target practice. Spielberg makes no attempt to shield his audience from the psychotic randomness of the Holocaust’s evil.

In his essay on the film Roger Ebert asked whether it would have been better if Goethe had not been portrayed as a psychopath but as a man living out his ideals consistently and obediently. That’s a good question. My instinct says that it was precisely Goethe’s instability that gave Schindler an opportunity to master him. A sharper and more principled man might have called Schindler’s bluff or at least resisted all those bribes. In a way, Goethe’s madness draws comparisons to the Reich’s downfall; there is only so much pure evil you can imbibe without stumbling.

Spielberg contrasts these two men explicitly. Three important shots send the message: A scene early that cuts back and forth between the two men shaving; a confrontation over the ghetto massacre that puts both men on either side of the frame  and shadow between; and Schindler’s offer to purchase his workers from Goethe in exchange for their lives. Screenwriter Steve Zallian is flawless in that last scene:  “You want these people?” Goethe asks. “They’re MY people, I want my people. “Who are you, Moses?” It’s not the first or the last time Goethe speaks beyond his comprehension.

How did Goethe never catch on? As if to insult his intelligence, Schindler orders a hose to spray water into train cars filled with Jews right in front of him. Goethe cackles, “You’re giving them hope! That’s cruel, you shouldn’t do that!” I love the way Neeson smiles in response. He knows Goethe cannot stop him because he cannot fathom him.

Oh, how much more can be said! A little girl with a red coat, a typewriter creating salvation with every keystroke, and a candle burning quietly and fiercely against the night–so many timeless images that Spielberg created. There’s a tender hand in every relentless shot of terror. If it is true at all that art can reach into our souls, thenSchindler’s List does exactly that.

The Holocaust is unfilmable. No movie can capture what genocide of six million people actually means. Some have objected to Spielberg’s film because it has a happy ending. I’m not sure that survival is always the same as happy, and even if it is, so what? The memory of the six million lives in the testimony of the 1,100. It is their story that Spielberg tells, and tells with grace and truth. That is the test of a great filmmaker and a great film. Wherever Oskar Schindler’s name is remembered, Steven Spielberg’s movie will be remembered too.