And, a happy new year to all. Time for new year’s resolutions we won’t keep, but that hopefully keep us pointed in the right direction at least. Time to assess the year before and see how far we’ve come and if last year’s leg of life’s journey has lived up to expectations.
It’s been a dark year, in many ways. Wars that seem never to begin or end, blurring into an endless gray mist of dusty ruins and young faces flitting across our T.V. screens. Drones fill the sky and body counts seldom even bother to reach us. (Is this what Purgatory looks like?) The war doesn’t seem limited to foreign shores anymore, though. In our own cities, protests and riots explode out of senseless deaths that seem to echo the deaths of bygone eras. Times and fears we vainly thought behind us now seem to rise anew in the dark shadow of a police force that seems to grow increasingly militarized and estranged from society. Who is the enemy at home? Look next door, or look in the mirror. Maybe that’s your choice, or maybe that’s a choice that was made for you before you were born.
Fantasy, and popular belief are often based on the premise that everything happens for a reason. That there’s some grand plan at work, though we can’t always see it, and everything will work out in the end. Angels watch over us and the devils are always slain in the end. That’s the rule. Maybe that’s the real key difference between the fiction genres of fantasy and science fiction. In fantasy, the outcome is generally assured. Good must triumph over evil. Science fiction however, acknowledges the randomness of the universe. We’re not spirits clothed in fleshy raiment with roles to play in some divine tragedy, comedy or love story. We’re apes who learned to talk and walk upright. Who evolved from lowly vermin after a random meteor killed the dinosaurs. I think a lot more people gravitate to fantasy, especially in troubled times like these, because it offers comfort through certainty. Much as religion does. Science fiction sometimes takes a darker path because it seeks the truth, and the truth, let’s face it, ‘aint pretty.
Fantasy seems lately to be coming of age, though. Case in point: Stephen Sondheim’s bizarre musical “Into the Woods” a retake/mash-up of popular fairytales that replaces the happy ending with the ambiguity of open and uncertain futures. No “happily ever after”; just hope for working it out day to day. Like traditional fairytales, this stylish black comedic romp has morals couched in symbol and metaphor. Dark, starkly vivid morals of sexual predation, infidelity, moral compromise and hard lessons learned at the cost of innocence. A happy ending at one moment seems a certainty and is then snatched away by an apocalyptic catastrophe, like a fairytale 9/11. Everybody blames everybody as answers are sought. Chaos ensues and deaths occur without rhyme or reason; a fall here, a misstep there. No justice or higher plan apparent; just random particles colliding. Just as the lives and disparate missions of the characters collide throughout the play, one affecting the other quite by accident. In the end, the only certainty is that everyone must work together against a common enemy in order to survive. Justice? No. Just survival. Happy ending? Not really. Cinderella finds the reality never lives up to the fantasy glimpsed at a distance. She leaves her prince and opts for a normal life where she can discover who she is day by day, not where she can be the prince’s fantasy. People pick up the pieces of shattered lives and begin anew, forsaking old dreams for new realities. No certainties. Just new beginnings.
A new take on old fairytales for our times. Fitting, I think. Life never hands us the guaranteed happy ending wrapped up in a shiny bow, no matter how hard or earnestly we work for it. As Buddha put it, the enlightenment lies in the journey, not the destination.
And so, we forge ahead…