Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Across the Street and Around the World

A few years ago, I took a group of senior high school students to the Getty Center perched on a hilltop here in Los Angeles. I suspect many of them had been to a museum before, but I am also sure a few had not. In a room filled with priceless statues from antiquity, several girls moved within inches of the statues and mimicked the poses captured in the marbles. This involved balancing on a single leg, arms outstretched while craning their necks to see the statue they were emulating. The security guards did not hesitate. They quickly moved in to prevent a costly disaster.

Later in the cafeteria, the girls questioned me about their stern reprimand from the security staff. They felt the museum personnel overreacted and embarrassed them. I tried to explain. “Those statues are thousands of years old. Can you imagine what would be lost if you fell against one and knocked it over?”

“It’s not a big deal,” one replied. “They have stuff like that all over Caesar’s Palace in Vegas and you can touch them and everything.”

In a recent posting on YouTube, a UCLA student ranted about Asians and their behavior in the library. Her views were obviously racist and ill-considered, and she not only received an angry response from around the world, but also death threats.

In an article on the Huffington Post by Jonathan Montgomery, Americans are taken to task for their cultural ignorance, and Montgomery argues that this could have worldwide repercussions.

Why should Americans be concerned about their cultural I.Q.? “With the United States graduation rates and scores in math, science, and literacy falling behind other developed nations,” Montgomery writes, “researchers are now looking at ways to give students an edge to compete globally.”

The first step in the process of learning how to compete globally is to develop a cultural intelligence. The Cultural Intelligence Center defines this as “a person’s capability to function effectively in situations characterized by cultural diversity.”

The elephant in the room here is that we have a rancorous debate ongoing in this country over the admission of “foreigners” and “illegal aliens.” We are deeply suspicious, and extremely prejudicial against those who look different, speak another language, or worship a different god. It is an obvious paradox that the most multi-cultural society on earth has major problems with racism, discrimination and prejudice.

Montgomery cites a Metlife/Harris Survey that says “Two thirds of teachers (63 percent), parents (63 percent), and Fortune 1000 executives (65 percent) think that the knowledge of other cultures and international issues is absolutely essential or very important to be ready for college and a career.

Jonathan Montgomery quotes David Livermore Ph.D., author of Leading With Cultural Intelligence, at the end of the HuffPost piece: “It’s less about becoming an expert about every culture and more about developing an overall capability that allows you to become effective and respectful in any cultural situation.”

Monday, March 28, 2011

Never Too Broke To Bomb

Due to technical difficulties, this Sunday post was delayed to Monday.

How long have we known that Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi is a nutcase? We recently heard from Libya’s ex-Minister of Justice Mustafa Mohamed Abud Al Jeleil that Quaddafi himself ordered the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. He has been a thorn in our side for decades. However, can we really dedicate our dwindling resources on yet another front? Now we find ourselves policing a no-fly zone over Libya while mired in a budget crisis here at home.

According to Glenn Thrush, senior White House reporter for, speaking on National Public Radio’s Madeleine Brand Show this week, the cost of our efforts in Libya amounts to $100 million per week. The Tomahawk missiles we lob into Qaddafi’s command and control installations run a half-million dollars a piece. Times that by the more than two hundred missiles fired so far, and the cost of this latest action becomes clear.

What is far from clear is the strategic importance of Libya to U.S. interests. The debate rages across the internet and on the news channels. Yes, Libya occupies several miles of Mediterranean coastline, and produces about two percent of the world’s oil, most of which goes to Europe, and, as Jason Pack points out in his article on the NPR website, “Libyan nationals have been prominent jihadists in Iraq.” Pack rails against Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations for describing U.S. interests in Libya as “less than vital” in a Wall Street Journal piece last week.

Putting aside the economic and political ramifications of the situation, do we not have a responsibility to defend human life? Yes, we do, and not only because we are Americans and Americans always come to the defense of the defenseless. We need to defend human rights because it is the moral and ethical thing to do. There is really no equivocating on this, but increasingly, we here in the U.S. are facing choices, and none of them are good.

We have high unemployment, bankrupt cities and states, a weak economy, and in many cases, a collapsing infrastructure, as is the case with our public school system. States are forced into dramatic cuts in services, and no help will be forthcoming from the federal government as President Obama fights with Republicans over spending cuts and tax breaks. Now, to add to the burden of Iraq and Afghanistan, we are fighting on a third front in Libya. We are sending our men and women in uniform into yet another desperate situation. The president said he would not put boots on the ground, but as we saw last week, things can go wrong quickly.  Two of our servicemen were lucky enough to be rescued after their fighter jet crashed in Libyan territory.

Muammar el-Qaddafi is certainly a problem that we might have handled years ago. He is a brutal, incoherent tyrant who has raped and pillaged his country for decades. We need to support people who wish to be free and have basic human rights. However, the degree of sacrifice in the U.S. for the Libyan people opposing Qaddafi is a topic that must be discussed. This is why I believe President Obama should have made his case to congress and the American people before launching the offensive. The strange thing about our president is that on several occasions, he has waited too long to take action. Often, it feels as if he wants to put a poll in the field before he decides what to do. When he does act, he tends to do so without consensus, and I have not been impressed with his choices. Increasingly, I am disturbed by his arrogant attitude and lack of explanation of his actions to the country. For a man who was considered an excellent communicator on the campaign trail, he has not been as good at getting his message out in office. We could blame his advisors and staff, but those faces were changed recently and the communication problem continues.

So, do we have an obligation to spend 100 million dollars a week to help a ragtag group of citizens rise up against a tyrannical dictator? We have an obligation to help, certainly. But at a time when nine percent of the people in this country are unemployed, many more are underemployed, where almost twenty-one percent of children and fourteen percent of all Americans live in poverty, where states are facing billions in deficits, and schools are struggling to offer a basic education, we need to think twice about trying to right all the wrongs in the world. We have a responsibility to take care of those who struggle against the tyranny of poverty and the lack of education right here, right now. For the moment, we have enough on our plate here at home.

Photo: Raytheon

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bread and Chocolate

Bread and Chocolate (Italy, 1974)
Dir. Franco Brusati
Hen’s Tooth Video; $24.95, DVD

This feature film, directed by Franco Brusati and released in 1974, tells the story of an Italian immigrant in Switzerland and the discrimination he faces as he tries to survive. The film represents the “commedia all’italiana” genre, meaning Italian-style comedy.

The central character is Nino Garofalo, played by Nino Manfredi, a guest worker from Naples who works as a waiter in a Swiss café. From the moment, Manfredi appears on screen eating a sandwich in the park while watching various Swiss people enjoying their holiday, he reminds one of American actor Jack Lemmon. He has the comic facial expressions of Lemmon, and the ability to portray a range of emotions—humor, fear, confusion, regret, et cetera—with a simple look into the camera. Director Brusati uses the actor’s face throughout to convey the bewildering misfortunes, trials, and tribulations of the poor immigrant character, a man whose hair is too dark, whose skin is too olive toned, and whose mannerisms are never quite right to fit in with Swiss society.

The comedy in the film ranges from the sly to the more obvious. Nino loses his work permit through a series of accidental incidents culminating in a charge for public urination. There is a good dose of black comedy here, too, as when Nino stumbles upon a murder in the park for which he is paraded in front of the magistrate. Nino’s life is one of inopportune moments and misfortunes, all of which Manfredi plays with a subtle patience that moves toward exasperation as the movie progresses.

Elena is the Greek woman who supports Nino, one of a number of people he encounters in his travails as an immigrant worker. Johnny Dorelli is an Italian industrialist who becomes Nino’s friend and benefactor, and whose suicide due to financial stress sets off one of the funnier set pieces in the film. Brusati ably stages tragedy with comedy, such as in the suicide scene, where the audience can feel Nino’s discomfort and unease while also finding humor in his facial expressions and mannerisms.

The film also presents a number of cultural cues, portraying the Swiss as cultured and high-mannered while the Italians are the lower class workers who fail to understand fully the snobbish attitudes they experience in their guest worker roles. The Neapolitan chicken farmers who offer Nino a place to stay offer us a commentary on the “hillbilly” nature of the Italians in another culture. They are rubes who live, literally, with the chickens, and Nino finds them too rural even as he finds he does not fit with more polite society in the city.

In an attempt to blend with his new country, Nino dyes his hair blond to look more Swiss. In a comically played scene, it is not just his olive skin that gives him away. He is caught cheering for Italians in a soccer match while in a bar. For this heinous crime he is arrested and deported. The scene demonstrates clearly that Nino does not fit in anywhere: in Switzerland, he is too ethnic and lower class; or back in Italy, where he cannot find steady employment and respite from misery. He rides the trains back and forth between the two countries, listening to the other migrant workers and passengers sing of sun and sea. Manfredi conveys the sadness and confusion of the character in this scene.

His misadventures lead Nino to decide he would rather live illegally in Switzerland than in Italy with nothing. He does not feel he belongs anywhere, the proverbial man without a country. It is a powerful and sad epiphany for the character. Brusati gives us this in the final image of the film. Nino is on a train headed back to Italy when the train enters a tunnel. The camera lingers on the darkened entrance. A figure emerges on foot, suitcase in hand. Nino has decided to try once again to live in Italy. There he is with his symbolic burden, the suitcase.

The source of comedy is often pain. In watching a character experience difficulty, embarrassment, ridicule, loneliness, heartache, and discomfort, we are able to live out our own fears of just these same emotions. Nino Manfredi and Franco Brusati create for us a man caught between to worlds, neither of which he fits. Like the character of Nino in the opening scenes of Bread and Chocolate, we wander through the picnics in the park, outsiders looking in on a world we can never fully inhabit. We feel Nino’s pain, and we understand the poignant humor of the marginalized, the outsider doomed to always look in the window and never come inside.

Photo: Crossed Flag Pins

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Conformist

The Conformist
By Alberto Moravia; Trans. by Tami Calliope
Zoland Books, $17.00 paper
ISBN: 978-1-883642-65-5

What drives someone to cruelty? Were the perpetrators of the crimes against humanity in the Second World War psychopaths from childhood? Did some event occur to turn them against their fellow human beings?

The answers to these questions become clearer through the lens of history. Alberto Moravia attempts to analyze what makes a fascist by using a fictive narrative. His main character, Marcello Clarici in the novel, The Conformist, displays many of the traits of a psychopath from early in his childhood. Moravia also gives us some suggestions on how a person’s experiences and genetic history might push him toward anti-social, murderous behavior.

Marcello cannot locate his emotional center from the start of the novel. He studies others to see their emotional reactions and then apes them in order to manipulate. As the novel opens, Marcello is a child torturing and killing lizards in his Italian garden. When his friend, Roberto, expresses horror at Marcello’s shredding of the lizards with a rush, he becomes angry enough to fire off his slingshot at Roberto’s hedge availing himself of the opportunity to at the very least, scare his friend, but also quite cognizant that he could potentially harm or even kill him. Marcello succeeds only in killing Roberto’s cat, but this is a powerful scene because of Marcello’s lack of empathy for the suffering of the animal. Instead, he finds himself terrified because he confessed to killing a cat the night before to his mother to see her reaction. Now, he is faced with the fact that he has actually killed the pet, and confessed it to his mother. This, he believes, is “an uncontestable sign that he was, in some fatal mysterious way, predestined to commit acts of cruelty and death.”

Beyond this experience, Marcello suffers with his feelings of abnormality. He is abused by his father, a man later imprisoned in a mental asylum because he believes he is one of Mussolini’s men. His mother lives in squalor, a woman who lacks the sense to know the difference between sex and abuse. His schoolmates taunt and abuse Marcello because they consider him too feminine. When the boys attack him on the street and attempt to dress him in a skirt, a chauffer named Lino comes to his rescue, only to attempt to molest him in exchange for a real gun. Marcello does not understand the defrocked priest’s motives, but he dearly wants the gun in order to commit more mayhem. Marcello’s childhood comes to a close when he shoots Lino during an encounter in the chauffeur’s bedroom. The boy leaps out the window, believing he has killed the older man.

From here, we jump to Marcello as an adult, about to be married, and searching for normalcy in his life as a way of hiding his secret work for the fascists as Italy ramps up to the war. He agrees to take his honeymoon in Paris in order to renew his acquaintance with a former teacher, a man named Quadri. Moravia takes us through Marcello’s thinking, driven by wanting to be normal, something Roberto denied him in childhood, but which Marcello has searched for all his life. He harbors no real dislike for his teacher, but he is an anti-fascist agitator and therefore must be eliminated. The novel takes an interesting turn when Marcello, his new bride, Giulia, Quadri and his partner, Lina meet up in Paris. Marcello sees his betrayal of Quadri as similar to Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus. He even considers kissing his former teacher on the cheek to identify him to the assassin, another agent named Orlando.

Moravia should also be credited with writing scenes of frank and open sexuality in the novel. Lina, Quadri’s partner, wants to start a lesbian affair with Giulia, who rebuffs her. Meanwhile, Marcello develops an obsession with Lina and believes they are secretly destined to be together. She, of course, wants nothing to do with him since her sights are focused on Giulia.

The novel and the characters are twisted and deformed by their lives. This is not a study of fascism per se, nor even of Italy during the war. Moravia truly focuses his work on characters. How does one reach such a level of depravity? Is there any such thing as redemption for someone so devoid of emotion and so bent on murder? The resolution of these conflicts in Marcello’s life makes for powerful reading, and in the end, themes of lost innocence and the confusion of normalcy with conformity, hence the title, come to a satisfactory if somewhat coincidental conclusion. The reappearance of Lino is especially too easy, offering Marcello a chance to confront the person he believes set him on the path to ruin.

Moravia writes in spare, poetic prose, relishing in the details and brilliantly lit Italian landscape. Although Marcello displays many of the stereotypical traits of a fascist, Moravia avoids the clichés by making his character an individual. The thread of sexuality that runs through the story borders quite often on the perverse, assuring the connection between sexual repression and fascism in the novel.

Alberto Moravia, who died in 1990, is a challenging and powerful writer. He resists the standard existential angst of more famous work such as Camus’, The Stranger. It might be easy for some readers to dismiss Marcello’s evil as a product of his abnormal nature, but psychosis does not happen in a vacuum, and the depravity of the fascists cannot be explained away as simply a matter of dysfunction. Moravia knows better; he recognizes and develops the psychology of evil, and in the end, the reader can actually feel for Marcello even as we identify him as a monster. This is what makes Alberto Moravia a good writer and The Conformist an engrossing and compelling novel.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


I am caught in one of those periods where I cannot focus or concentrate for longer than a few minutes. There are piles of books and articles to be read, pieces to write, work to get done, but I find myself watching endless tape loops of the devastating earthquake in Japan, or the people of Libya rising up against that odd looking tyrant.

It does not help matters that I am struggling to breathe. For the last few weeks, what started as a chest infection blossomed into a pneumonia-like conflagration. I have completed my cycle of antibiotics and still, the hacking cough lingers. It is one of those coughs where you pull muscles trying to clear the airway. So I cannot breathe, I am sore, and the fatigue is overwhelming. Writing the last sentence requires a rest.

Outside, we are experiencing perfect spring weather here in Los Angeles. No doldrums between winter and the first buds here. We have jumped right in with both feet: eighty degree temperatures, bright sunshine, and beautiful blue skies. This weekend, we moved the clocks ahead an hour for daylight savings, so now we have what would constitute summer for many parts of the country.

I have been struck over the last months that things are changing. Of course, they are always changing, but I have felt this change in my bones, on a profound level, but what puzzles me is the nagging question: changing to what? I sense movement, but I cannot ascertain the destination. At heart, I am a control freak, I guess, because when on a journey, I like to know where I am going. Of course, we never know where we are truly going, but I like a trip with an announced destination, even if we do not wind up there. All I know is that things are moving, I am along for the ride, and there is no telling where we will end up.

The other thought that keeps circling my brain is that in America, we are defined by our jobs. I am a writer or a teacher or a content-provider. Right now, I feel like Paul. That’s it. Just Paul. When I am thrust into the role of student, teacher, writer, I don’t feel permanently those things. I feel like I am in Burlington Coat Factory and they are having a sale. I am trying on different coats and looking at myself in the mirror. Sometimes, when someone calls my name—“Paul!”—I want to stand there and see what happens, as if a ghost me will come bounding into the picture and respond. My name does not feel it belongs to me anymore. This weirdness started up when a colleague of mine kept confusing me with another person named Daniel. I actually emailed her to tell her I was not Daniel because she kept labeling my work as “Daniel’s Report.” Both names are strong and biblical, but if she were going to rename me, I would have liked Ezekiel, or Elijah. Paul was Saul who had to have God knock him off his horse because he was too stubborn to mend his ways, and Daniel hung around with the lions, and I hate cats, but Ezekiel and Elijah were prophets, seers of the future. Plus, how cool is this dialogue: “What is your name?”

“I am Elijah.”

That would stop conversation at a party.

I am not Elijah. I am Paul, a distracted writer living in Los Angeles, recovering from a chest infection, and trying to refocus his attention on the world. Just last week, someone was saying how bloggers are clogging up the universe with too much navel gazing. Sorry to reinforce the stereotype.

Occasionally, we must all take a time out, a moment to breathe and let our attention wander. We reassess, refocus, redouble our efforts, set new goals, and off we go. We are not defined by our jobs, but often our work gives shape and heft to our lives, and although work pays the bills, it often informs our existence and gives us purpose.

I also think that when things are too overwhelming, we have no choice but to become distracted. The pictures and stories from Japan keep haunting me. Yes, we could have something like that happen here in Los Angeles, but it is more than just self-interest that paralyzes me. Once again, real life trumps anything we could create. We are so proud of our evolution, our higher order thinking skills. We are civilized. Yet, who really runs this planet? In the end, like sheep or gazelle, we are at the mercy of nature and the forces of the universe. And the disaster may not be over. The coup de grace may come at our own hand: our desire to harness the power of nuclear fission. Not the earthquake or tsunami, but the exploding power plant will be the one to get us all in the end, although the earth shaking and the flooding killed their fair share on Friday.

So maybe it is the waiting for the ax to fall that gives me the temporary attention deficit disorder. Maybe it is the fragility of life, the perilous way the future might unfold that gives me pause. Like I didn’t know these things before?

There is only one defense against the awesome power of fate, the destructive force of nature: the story. We must tell the story. That is what the poets and the prophets do. They tell us what it means to be alive. They tell us of heroes, of battles on the horizon, of strength in the face of adversity. We must lift ourselves out of the malaise and go on. These are the best of times, the worst of times—isn’t it always that way? We are human, and often, humans must be knocked from the saddle on to their asses and struck blind to see the error of their ways. Then we get up and shoulder on. In the midst of immense tragedy and destruction, the story continues, and so do we. That is the way of the world

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Many people think of a study in the humanities as light-weight work. Cancer will not be cured by a humanities student. Neither the tallest skyscraper, nor the spacecraft that carries the first humans to Mars will be built by a humanities student. However, if we seek to understand the glory and the dream of being alive, the power of human intuition, the beauty of art and poetry, we will find answers to many of life’s questions. The sciences will come from our understanding of the world and the laws of nature; wisdom comes from understanding ourselves. We need both, but our other pursuits will be vastly enriched if we begin our study with the humanities.

To study humanities, one must be ready for critical self reflection. The path begins with a question, not a thesis, another difference from sciences. What does it mean to be human and humane? Rational and reasoned? Cultured and moral? Learned and worldly? How do we envision ourselves as human beings bound to other human beings? What roles do empathy and imagination play in our existence? Humanities links traditional interests and values such as aesthetics, ethics, and politics, with imagination, signification, deconstruction and power. History matters, as does conscience and historical memory. They are essential to any understanding of the universe.

Humanitas was a word coined by Cicero regarding what he saw as the ideal human being, “educated to possess a collection of virtues of character suitable for an active life of public service.” He felt there were certain disciplines of study that would enrich the life of a human being. These included poetry and literature, mainly, but the term soon broadened to include ancient and modern languages, literature, law, history, philosophy, religion, visual and performing arts. These early concepts of humanistic study influenced the Renaissance, and a host of other revivals of the classical education model, as well as persuaded some eighteenth century British citizens in new world colonies to form “a more perfect union.”
Many people argue that American education has become too focused. Students pick a course of study as early as high school, and therefore lack the scope and breadth of learning required to be a citizen of the world. Others argue that students waste too much time and money studying things in school that they will not need in life.

Education is to make a better, more aware, more active and cultured person who is guided in life by strong morals, values and ethics formed from intense study of the world. Whatever challenges one faces in life, whatever setbacks, disasters, blows, and storms a man must weather, his education will guide him to make the right choices, and he will understand that money and fame are transitory, but love, honor, courage, and friendship fuel the journey.

So what can one do with a humanities degree? One can understand why ignorance is more dangerous than any bomb. One can understand why the greatest threat to humankind is humankind. One can understand why racism, bigotry, and bullying are products of fear. One can see great beauty in a farmer tilling his field. One can appreciate the plight of a beggar in Calcutta. One can understand when people demand a better life, a more informed government, a voice in the process. One can understand that human beings often succeed against overwhelming odds, and that some will call this a miracle or an example of divine intervention. In the end, it is simply human beings and their remarkable capacity to thrive in the most harrowing of circumstances.

Years ago, I took an astronomy class. I dreaded taking it, because I lacked ability and confidence with advanced science work, but it was a requirement for graduation, so I signed up. The course began in the laboratory with parabolas, elaborate equations for computing the arc of planets through the skies, the mathematical positioning of entire constellations. Numbers, numbers, numbers, numbers. I was lost. One night class meeting, we trudged out in the middle of a citrus grove to a small shack that contained a telescope owned by the university. We each had a set of stars to chart in their paths across the sky. Once out there, hundreds of yards from the nearest campus building, the professor found that the telescope was missing an important eyepiece. He cancelled the evening right there, and rescheduled the event for later in the week. The students packed their notes and returned to the campus. I found a grassy patch in an open area among the blossoming, sweet-smelling trees, spread out my jacket on the cold ground, and threw myself down to stare up at the stars. No calculations, notes, or graphs. I lay there, hands under my head, the night skies of March above me. It was so hard to believe that the light from the stars was a million years old but only reaching my eyes on earth right then. Some of those bodies of light might not even exist anymore. I thought of philosophy and history, struggling to find a comparison. We live and die, but the light from our lives continues long after we ourselves are extinguished.

I stayed out in that citrus grove for a good hour with the stars, the blinking lights of planes, the whispers of the universe. When I stood up, it was close to eleven o’clock, the air was crisp but heavy with the scent of orange blossoms, as only early spring nights in Los Angeles can be. I gathered my things and walked toward the lights of the university, knowing only a little about the science of stars, but already becoming fully aware of my place in the universe. It was a good night.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ophelia In Winter

I have spent some time in the last weeks rereading Hamlet, and that brings me around to contemplating Ophelia again. To me, she is one of the most captivating characters in English literature. Why? Because she is caught in the mechanizations that are not of her own creation. Because she is a lost soul who can find no other way to fight back in her world but to sink into madness. Because, in the end, Hamlet loves her, and the result is tragedy of the deepest kind.

I love literary critic Elaine Showalter’s essay, “Representing Ophelia: Woman, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism,” if only because she gets it right when she writes about Ophelia that she brings forward “the issues in an ongoing theoretical debate about the cultural links between femininity, female sexuality, insanity, and representation.” Ophelia suffers in the play, caught in the pedantic spying of her father, Polonius, the treacherous actions of Claudius, the savvy escapism of Gertrude, and Hamlet’s focus on revenge for his father’s murder. Meanwhile, here she is, simply in love, and thinking that love is all that is necessary to live a rich life. Instead, she gets pushed away by Hamlet, who publicly tells her she is a whore and to “get thee to a nunnery.”

Showalter tells us that “She appears in only five of the play’s twenty scenes; the pre-play course of her love story with Hamlet is known only by a few ambiguous flashbacks. Her tragedy is subordinated in the play; unlike Hamlet, she does not struggle with moral choices or alternatives.” I would posit her scenes are by far the most harrowing. Upon the dissolution of their relationship, Ophelia longs to give Hamlet some “remembrances” that he gave her once, and he coldly refuses them with the line, “I never gave you aught.” Their back and forth leads Hamlet to rage: “Get thee to a nunn’ry, why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?”

He is as much as calling her a whore, and this from a prince. It is a harsh slap in the face for Ophelia, crushing her. There are many theories about their relationship—how far it went, what should have been the future, and what promises were made. Kenneth Branagh, in his film of the play (1996), makes it clear in brief flashbacks that Ophelia and Hamlet were intimate, which means that his public rejection of her would be tantamount to saying she was not a virgin or was damaged goods. In any case, when Hamlet rejects her and then kills her father, she descends into real madness played against the feigned craziness of her former lover.

We later see Ophelia when she “enters, distracted,” into a room with the queen after her father’s murder. She is out of her head, singing and parading around. When questioned, she says, “Quoth she, ‘Before you tumbled me, you promis’d me to wed.’” Later, she encounters her brother, Laertes, returned to Denmark upon hearing of his father’s killing. He cannot believe his eyes when Ophelia enters handing out symbolic flowers to each person in the room. She has no way to fight back against society; she cannot dispute Hamlet’s rejection of her, and she cannot avenge her father’s death, so she must resort to symbolic acts like handing flowers to characters that represent their personalities and actions: fennel for flattery; columbines for ingratitude; rue for sorrow and repentance.

And then she is gone, and the much better manipulator, Gertrude, gets in the final epitaph: “There is a willow grows askaunt the brook, that shows his hoary leaves in the glassy stream, therewith fantastic garlands did she make of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples…When down her weedy trophies and herself fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide, and mermaid-like awhile they bore her up, which time she chaunted snatches of old lauds, as one incapable of her own distress…Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death.”

Like a crippled mermaid, she goes down singing, wreathed in flowers to a watery tomb. Sad, indeed, but Hamlet learns from her death. He comes to understand the impermanence of life, the fragility of existence, and that he must seize the day and his own destiny. He comes upon the grave diggers preparing Ophelia’s tomb after her death now labeled a suicide, and he has an epiphany. He tells his best friend Horatio: “To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander…Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beerbarrel? Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away. O that that earth which kept the world in awe should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw!” In the end, we turn to dust and our essence returns to the earth, as Adam was formed from the same earth in Genesis.

Upon the conclusion of the scene in the cemetery, Hamlet leaps forth to declare himself, and says “I lov’d Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum.” Better late than never, Hamlet.

So it is in the dead of winter, I am thinking of Ophelia. Is she a victim of love, a casualty of life and the innocent belief that things will work out in the end? Life is, as Darwin told us, a matter of survival of the fittest. Gertrude knows how to play the game, the role a woman should embrace, wrong as it is. Ophelia, who takes the world as she finds it, goes down to a watery death.

I believe we are all a little like Ophelia. We dream of a better world, and trust that all we have to do to get there is to love. Often, we are crushed when we cannot reach high enough, or travel far enough to find this better world, if the better world ever existed in the first place. Deep into winter, we wait for the spring, hoping that this year will be our year, that love will be enough, and that faced with the fathoms of water beneath our fragile lives, that we will float on just a little longer until someone, anyone, will reach out and save us.