Friday, April 24, 2015

Beyond Tokens

Beyond Tokens

When I left academia, a tremendous burden was lifted from my shoulders. I was able to see things, and more importantly to see people, as themselves. I was never able to understand the beauty of oriental art, until I was allowed to look at it freely, as art, not as a token picture placed in an art history textbook so that the author could claim to be “diverse.” In academia, if you say, “oriental art is beautiful,” the response is, “How enlightened you are for disliking Rembrandt!” And so, if you like Rembrandt, you are not allowed to like plum blossoms and nuthatches. But outside of academia, you can say, “Western art has died, but in Asia art still flourishes.”

But most important was the discovery of great women artists and intellectuals. Emily Dickinson was no longer just somebody tossed into the poetry anthology so that the compilers could have a token woman. She was--is--one of America’s finest poets. For the first time I saw her, with her peculiarities, as a woman and a person, and I saw her poetry, with all its idiosyncrasies, as of a fine and beautiful caliber.

To my delight, I found that one of my most beloved composers had a most beloved sister, the very Queen of German Lieder. I found the Jewish women of 19th Century Berlin, who preserved the music of Bach, ran the literary and musical circles, and fostered the rise of the Romantic era. I found the most breathtaking of poets, a reclusive Westfalian noblewoman. You will hear more about them later.

But once again, I am finding myself surrounded by academic false respect. I am told that I am not allowed to call Fanny Hensel “Fanny,” nor Clara Schumann “Clara.” I dislike artificial familiarity, but these women are not objects of study, they are persons--how can I call them anything else? I know them far to well. They are my friends.

Furthermore, the only people who have the authority to tell me whether to use their first names or their last names are Fanny Hensel and Clara Schumann themselves, and they have gone to be with the Lord. If the Lord sends me an apparition of Fanny Hensel, Clara Schumann, or both, and they say "Call me Frau Hensel!" or "Call me Frau Schumann!" then I will change my ways, but since the Lord has not done this, I will call them what seems appropriate. But I digress.

Doodling Canadians

Now there is an uproar over putting a woman on the American $20 dollar bill. Our Canadian friends, meanwhile, have progressed much farther than we have, by putting prominent Vulcans on their currency.

“Now, don’t be silly, Clärchen,” you are saying, “Vulcans are not real, and this doesn’t come from the Royal Canadian Mint.”

These things I know. But the doodling Canadian Star Trek fans are wiser than American ideologues. Vulcans may not exist in real life, but the character Mr. Spock represents an aspect of the human person which is very real, and consequently Mr. Spock’s character resonates deeply with many people. The doodling Canadians do not put Mr. Spock on their $5 dollar bills because “Now is the time to put a Vulcan on the $5 dollar bill.” He is not there to be a token Vulcan, to satisfy ideologues. He is there because he is Mr. Spock, and, regardless of whether or not he would consider it "logical," people love him.

Wouldn't it be loverly?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could say, “This woman was so great that she should be on the $20 bill!” Instead, we are saying, “We need a woman on the $20 bill. Who the heck can we scrape up?”

This way we can be assured that, no matter how honorable or beloved the woman on the $20 bill may be, she was not put there out of admiration or love. She was put there to placate ideologues.

Last summer I found my mother and father engrossed in an old black and white movie about Madame Curie, her husband Pierre Curie, their marriage and family, and their great contribution to science, the discovery of Radium (Uranium). My father, who knows much more about the Curies and about science than I do, was taken with the accurate representation of the characters, of their dignity and nobility.

I was taken with a particular scene, which came after the hard labor that the Curies had to go through in order to separate the elements, and during a time in which they thought that their work had been in vain. In the movie, their daughter asked her father to tell her a story before bed. His story becomes a little allegory of his love for his wife. There is a princess in the story, but no prince, just an ordinary man, and the princess came to the man and told him about a treasure trapped in an enchanted stone, but the man and the princess were not able to free the treasure from the stone.

Shortly after this scene, Pierre and Marie Curie go out to their laboratory and find that the stain left in the dish in fact was their Radium.

I don't think I ever knew, for no science textbook with the Token Madame Curie had ever really told me, how significant Pierre and Marie Curie's discoveries were, until I saw the portrait of them in this film, which was made from thought and esteem. While at its end, Madame Curie urges scientists to look forward, with Divine wonder, the film, for those of us who must look backwards, those of us who study people, art, music, literature, and culture, provides an example of how we should look at great people--men and women--of the past, as persons, in the case of great women as women, not as objects of study, not as ideological statements (which are also objects), and of how to respond to them as persons.

The film-makers did not reduce Madame Curie to a token or an ideological statement. They were making a film about Madame Curie, the person, the woman. Do we have the ability to respond to Madame Curie, or any woman, or for that matter any man, as a person? As a person created in the image and likeness of God? As a society, no. We have reached a point at which we can only respond to women as tokens, statements, and political objects. I think we also lack the power to respond to men as persons as well.

I say, perhaps there was a time for a woman on the $20 dollar bill, but that time is no more. If it will ever come again, I cannot say.

Wouldn't it be lovely if that time were to come again? It will only come when we set ideologies aside and learn to love and admire men and women.