Tuesday, October 18, 2011

On Rejection

“It is a defect of God's humor that he directs our hearts everywhere but to those who have a right to them.” ― Tom Stoppard, Arcadia


I was remembering a scene from an episode of Angel, the harrowing spin-off series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Both shows aired on the late WB, may it rest in peace. Angel’s your basic story of a vampire cursed with a soul who moves to Los Angeles in order to help the helpless. In a Sisyphus-as-existential-hero attempt, he seeks to amend the horrific atrocities he committed and the lives he destroyed in his one hundred and fifty years as a remorseless demon. I mean seriously, like, who hasn’t been there? In the scene I was remembering, Angel, confronting the woman who turned him into a monster, pleads that she consider redemption—it’s not too late for her to change. Grabbing a crucifix and chucking the emblem of hope at her would-be-savior, Darla (that’s her name by the way) resigns herself to damnation. But beyond that, in that act—since she knows as well as anyone that vampires in the Buffyverse growl and experience some serious flesh burnage when they come in close contact with a crucifix—Darla hurt Angel, violating his composed veneer, reminding him of the ever-present devil that set up shop in his body. His hope recoiled when he could not prevent his body from instinctually doing the same. She wounds: “You see, no matter how good a boy you are, God still doesn’t want you.” It’s just so hard to find good television like that anymore.
Perhaps the previous paragraph fails to properly convey the sheer poetry of the scene, but to me it’s a beautiful staging of basic Judeo-Christian philosophy. Think of it: A woman communed with the beast, resulting in an expulsion from paradise and purity not only for her but also for her male counterpart. But the fall from grace for one does not automatically indict the other. In the Buffyverse, penetrating bites alone do not transform men into vampires. Oh no, at the point of the prey’s death, the moment right before the heart’s last beat, the beast must break his or her own flesh, inviting the victim to drink the vampire’s demonic blood. Despite the compromising circumstances—you know, like his or her own impending death—choice resides in the individual, not the beast. Eve’s disobedience tempted Adam, but he chose to partake of the sweet forbidden fruit. She broke the rind; he imbibed the juice.
Consequently, cast from the presence of Providence, man strives to prove himself to the God he betrayed. But it doesn’t matter—the sons of Adam, just like Angel, suffer from the reality that their very nature has changed. Vampiric transition between humanity and life as the undead mirrors mankind’s descent from creatures of Eden to children of earth: both shifts evidence radical alterations occurring on a physical level. I suppose they’re both rather thinly veiled metaphors for puberty and adolescence—that would explain my fanatical fascination with Buffy and the Bible in high school. But anyway, ironically enough, the memorable abilities of vampires, like superhuman strength and the standardized extendable-teeth, emphasize their similarities not their differences with mortal men.
These folk-lored facets mimic man’s punishment to taste death and experience pain. God did not create man as the abomination he is: he is the product of his own volition to violate the Almighty’s designs. Apparently, my body bears the mark of disobedience. I don’t even remember doing anything wrong . . . but let’s be honest: either I did or I probably will. So, alterations in physical characteristics simply serve to outwardly manifest the unnatural character inside. Mortality flows through mankind’s degenerating veins. We yearn to taste carnality, a desire that decimates devotion. A Grand Creator extends covenants and a Christ, laws and promises of reconciliation, but the weak flesh denies the hopes of the willing spirit. God remains distant, removed; we still live east of Eden. Neither mankind’s displays of goodness nor the designs of deity prove efficacious in conquering the divide. Seeing and knowing the inclination of mankind’s bodies and dispositions to sin, is it any wonder why God sits silent, why He wouldn’t want us anymore?
Such a compelling philosophy! So dark in its cloak of hope, so dismal in its aspirations for obedience. And the entire epistemology hinges on the principle of rejection. The doctrines and dogma of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Judeo-Christian faiths certainly invest a lot of energy and focus in the idea in terms of the flesh. Most of us do. Rejection encompasses the frustrating failures of romantic or carnal encounters; however, it is not limited to that scope. I wonder how one reads and responds to the everyday rejections like that, like the denial of sexual hope, when one functions within a frame of mind which posits rejection as the universal relationship between deity and man. The narrative of the faith establishes a God so perfect that He houses the purity of every valued principle; He embodies our vision of our own potential. However, Judeo-Christians in the recognition and worship of the ideal supremacy also implicate their own disconnect from the exalted. Thus, there is a gap between God and Man. The Father expels Adam and Eve from the garden of bliss; the Lawgiver prevents the Children of Israel from entering the land of promise; the Christ warns that not all those who cry ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. The garden, the land, the kingdom—these are the temples of God, kept holy and pure upon condition of rejection.
It is an interesting word: reject. Like plenty of other words, it can operate as both a verb and noun. Without referring to the OED, my initial reaction compares and contrasts it to the words subject, object, and abject. Obviously, my mind has wandered into the realms of Julia Kristeva. And honestly, whose wouldn’t? She theorized the subject as the Self; the object as the Other that is similar to the subject in a number of ways but ultimately different in significant areas; and the abject as that which exists but does so without recognition or name, though it ultimately lies within and outside of both subject and object. It’s French linguistic theory—do with it what you will. The point is that the abject comprises all that lies outside the space of the subject and object. But where exactly does that leave the reject? Where is the space where it can exist? Where can it go? Perhaps into a lake of fire to be consumed in an everlasting flame?

But I guess it is also important to keep in mind, there are more ject words in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Kristeva’s philosophy: project, inject, eject, deject, interject. Apparently, there is a larger community of ject words. Which makes me wonder, what exactly is a ject? Is the re- operating as a prefix, performing the function it usually does? How does one ject again if he or she never knew how to ject in the first place? . . . Well, apparently, the OED supports some of these half-thoughts. The Latin reject stems from rejicĕre, which means “to throw back.” Jecting implies throwing. Throwing between, throwing down, throwing out, throwing in, throwing forward. Indeterminacy determines the essence of ject. Its nature is nomadic, granted direction only in the prefix it latches onto for a time. The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but ject has no concept of rest. And the thing about throwing—it establishes distances and necessitates force. Points of origin, points of destination, factions and individuals binarized between the two spaces. In addition to homelessness, jecting requires separation. Jection expends energy. Any form of the word, even inclusive sounding terms like injection and interjection, relies on these realities, these politics. However, none of these words carry the phonetic and social impact of reject. We do not use the word ject regularly, but reject seems to be its purest permutation, representing its most deeply rooted qualities. Rejection pushes a soul into a liminal space. Man exists in limbo. Like the vampire who is neither living nor dead, humans go on neither fully damned nor saved. Mortality constricts the spirit, throwing back the soul into the state of disobedience it chose.
Suddenly, it all feels more complicated than Kristeva led me to believe. However, finding the etymology of reject made me think about how fishermen throwing fish back into the ocean acts as stunning symbolism for God rejecting men from the kingdom of heaven—especially if you consider how the “ocean” in Jewish tradition served as a symbol of chaos. Isaiah once prophesied (well at least in my Protestant translation he did), declaring God’s definitive victory over Rahab, “the leviathan” which the Almighty destroyed in order to create order and the earth. This serpent beast resided in and effectively ruled the ocean. Slaying this serpent, God claimed possession of the waters and divided them that He might pull out the firmament of heavens and the dry land of earth. The turbulence of seas acts as a type for disorder which still remains—a space where God’s order has not come. So the ocean is actually a type of Sheol or Hell, where we the fish come from in the metaphor. If rejects are indeed “thrown back,” is that where part of them may they go?
As I said, man lives liminally, neither fully saved nor damned. But what if the shift in one direction or the other occurs only in degrees? When a literary or an academic journal returns my writing or research with expressions of gratitude-for-my-submission and regret-at-this-time, is that why I taste soot and ash? Maybe demons wrench organs like our stomachs, dancing on the graves of hope, when a graduate school envelope returns too thin. They take a fallen body and drag a piece back down, further than before. For anyone, caught in a space, the one between seeing others obtain what we desire and knowing we will never similarly attain it, the barriers fencing off our potential—be they glass ceilings or common prejudices—eventually, their shape just doesn’t really matter anymore. I think that’s what happens to a dream deferred: no withering, no festering, no explosions—it just dies; and its dreamer, once possessed by light, slithers back to Babylon. Maybe Dante had it right: in the ninth circle, he met politicians and lawyers who were not dead yet. They had betrayed family, friends, country, and god, locking their hearts to any warmth, denying the divine capacity to love. Their souls slid into a crowded, frozen lake. Demons set up shop in what remained of their carnal shell. On the other hand, when a willing body receives blood, tissue, organs—the elements of a new life—but rejects them, is that a test from Heaven, or simply God’s will? In the moment when the boy refuses to call or the girl declines the invitation, he or she, merely pawning sentinels, wield the flaming sword to keep one from the tree of life. Rejection is the psychological term employed to describe an individual who refuses to accept or is emotionally incapable of accepting the fact of being a parent to his or her own child. Can the bliss or promise of relief in paradise ever exist without the barraging pangs of perdition?

Yet even in this theological mire, a ray of light invigorates, perhaps even ignites, the soul. For as the great philosopher of our time, Madonna, once said: “Rejection . . . is the greatest aphrodisiac.” And I have a feeling given her reputation and line of work, she’s a fairly reliable authority on the subject. Certainly, this queen of queens sang these words to instruct her disciples in matters of romantic endeavors; however, Our Lady of Rejection whispers holy words of wisdom like the Virgin who she effectively dragged. An aphrodisiac, by the strictest definitions, is a substance which arouses one’s physical sexuality. Lady Madonna, aware of the acolytes and children at her feet, employs a broader usage of the term to include not only substances but obviously concepts and interactions. Quite simply, rejection arouses more than flesh. Digging past the bone and the sinews, rejection brushes by paltry flames of desire and focuses on burning the intangibles of our personalities. Rejection affronts the ego, but sometimes it spurs evolution as often as it demolishes possibility. Rejection awakens one to the reality of a lack: he or she is not complete, he or she (despite any intentions) lies outside his or her aspirations. Rejection kindles desire because it denies it. Satiation squelches momentum. Rejection, not accomplishment, propels us towards Eden . . . Right? It is the obliteration of hope that permits God’s true mercy to shine through, isn’t it? Don’t we tend to tell ourselves (and others) that everything happens for a reason? that maybe the Hells we each pass through are tests meant just for us? Lady Madonna, with a baby no longer at your breast, what do you say when the key to salvation turns on the lock of Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? Abandonment. Denial. Forsaking. God’s rejection of mankind is the soul’s desire, its aphrodisiac.
Months before his death and about sixty-five miles to the north, in what is now called Jordan, Christ rejected Legion. He cast the dark spirits into the ill-fated pigs. The unclean beasts of the field defied the designs of this compromise, opting for the chaos of the sea, the spirits thrown back from whence they came. But what of the man afflicted with Legion? I have a tendency to forget about him. Christ healed him; what else is necessary for me to know? Apparently, he sought discipleship. He desired communion with the growing body of itinerant saints. But Mark records, “Jesus suffered him not, but saith unto him, Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee.” The man went home, published peace, and marveled men towards faith. His plans changed. He stayed home when Jesus turned him away.

4 comments:

  1. Very good post. An interesting thought, that rejection is necessary for salvation (otherwise, what are we saved from?). I liked the wordplay in the passage, "The Father expels Adam and Eve from the garden of bliss; the Lawgiver prevents the Children of Israel from entering the land of promise; the Christ warns that not all those who cry ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. The garden, the land, the kingdom—these are the temples of God, kept holy and pure upon condition of rejection."

    Also, I feel like someone needs to give you a hug.

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  2. Well, to be fair. I did write it nearly two years ago when a hug definitely would have been an appropriate response. It's actually kinda hard for me to think of this piece as a whole on its own anymore. After I combined it with my performance art piece--which I know very few people saw--this work took on different meaning for me. As much as I said it was a project to explore the role of rejection between God and man, let's face it: that was not the primary contributing factor to the project. After facing those who had rejected me, asking them to vocalize the fears I always thought they might have thought about me . . . makes me rethink a lot of things, least of which would probably be about what it would be like to face God in the face and have Him vocalize my concerns and insecurities.

    I mean that's still there too. But when I cut off my hair and distributed this piece to my audience through the very girls who had rejected me, it really was cathartic. A bit of game changer. It was one time where I took control; where I exercised some agency. I don't think agency exists in the world of the writer or the character in "On Rejection." So yeah, as its author, I prefer to think of it as a piece that has changed as much as I have since I wrote it. Obviously that change is not present in the text itself, but only in my relationship with it as its Creator.

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  3. Look at how philosophical we all are! Great post, Allan. Rejection is generally so hard to talk about beyond a pow-wow with friends or a brief session on one's knees, you really made it almost beautiful.

    My favorite part though was more a side thought than anything - "ironically enough, the memorable abilities of vampires, like superhuman strength and the standardized extendable-teeth, emphasize their similarities not their differences with mortal men." This had never once occurred to me! How interesting.

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  4. If I can bring the discussion down a notch, for some reason this post reminded me of this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8yGZph5KRk

    You're off the case, McGonigle!
    You're off YOUR case, Chief!
    What does that mean exactly?

    ReplyDelete