Saturday, November 6, 2010

Hakuna Matata: It Means Screw Everyone Who Took Timon's Gold

First off, I have to own up to the fact that I missed my year deadline on reading all the complete works. I was supposed to be done on Halloween, but as you can see, it is past Halloween and I've still got a number of plays to go. I got really busy. And I got distracted by a couple of other pieces of reading material. One of which was Freedom, which I wasn’t going to read because I HATED the Corrections, but I was enticed by the fact that several of the main characters went to Macalester. It’s not bad (I say with a grumble). Anyway.

Speaking of St. Paul, I used to work at the Minnesota Children’s Museum, and my absolute, all-time favorite thing to do there was Storytime. 10:30 and 2:30 everyday, we’d swing open a giant wooden book on the second floor atrium, set up a little easel, and yoink 4 or 5 awesome children’s books from our library to read aloud to a group of rapt youngsters. The point of the activity was to provide a model for reading aloud for families, but I didn’t see it that way. I liked to put on a show.

I liked to channel Bill Irwin for an interpretation of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Or fall over in fear at the revelation of the monster in Go Away, Big Green Monster, by Ed Emberley, or stomp my feet and shake my fist along with the children to re-enact the mocking monkeys in Caps For Sale. These books have physical actions and building rhythms, they have call and response, and opportunities to ask the kids questions to which they can yell out “NOOOOO!”

I love kid’s books, but there’s one to which I wouldn’t ever dare expose those impressionable young minds: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. It is a story of absolute and utter abuse where the boy takes and takes and takes from the tree, even physically assaulting her -- and the tree is happy to be assaulted! Happy to be taken from and chopped down and abused, so long as the boy comes back!

I think it’s a dangerous book and it demonstrates the perils of one-sided, unconditional love. But even though I hate it I found myself wishing that Timon of Athens could have been a little more like that maligned tree.

Timon of Athens is one of the plays Shakespeare wrote that may never have been performed in his lifetime. It has no love story to distract us from the main plot. The only female characters are prostitutes. It’s about a rich guy who spends all his money throwing parties for and bailing out his friends. Then he runs out of money and none of them help him out. He gets banished from Athens and becomes a hermit and a misanthrope, but he happens to discover gold buried in the ground and thieves and artists come back to try to take it from him. He gives most of it to Alcibiades, who is marching on Athens to conquer it for his own vengeful purposes. Timon never forgives anyone. He’s pissed off and complains and then he dies. The end.

There’s something Gatsby-esque about the giant parties Timon throws and the way he is completely abandoned by everyone when the parties stop. Nobody loves you when you’re down and out and all that jazz. If Shakespeare had given Timon a Daisy to long for, then this might rank among his stronger plays. But there’s no Daisy. Timon can’t even relate to Apemantus, the churlish philosopher, who shares his disdain for humanity:

TIMON: What wouldst thou do with the world, Apemantus, if it lay in thy power?

APEMANTUS: Give it to the beasts, to be rid of men… the commonwealth of Athens is become a forest of beasts. (4:3)

These guys should be bros, but Timon just wants to get rid of him too:

Mend my company, take away thyself. (4:3)

When he is visited by the only character comparable to the boy from The Giving Tree -- his honest steward Flavius -- Timon recognizes him as the only honest man in the world and gives him gold and this directive:

Go, live rich and happy.

But thus condition’d: thou shalt build from men;

Hate all, curse all, show charity to none,

But let the famish’d flesh slide from the bone

Ere thou relieve the beggar. Give to dogs

What thou deniest to men. Let prisons swallow’ em,

Debts wither ‘em to nothing; be men like blasted woods,

And may diseases lick up their false bloods! (4:3)

Timon seems so generous and happy early, and when he’s betrayed he does not have the capacity to forgive. Even when Athens is in direst need, he wishes them all to hang themselves from his own giving tree before he’ll lift a finger to Athens’ defense:

I have a tree which grows here in my close

That mine own use invites me to to cut down...

Tell Athens, in the sequence of degree,

From high to low throughout, that whoso please

To stop affliction, let him take his haste,

Come hither, ere my tree hath felt the axe,

And hang himself. (5:1)

The bitterness and misanthropy of Timon is so tyrannical that it’s impossible to care about him in the end. He has no dead Cordelia to mourn with wild howling. There is no moment where we recognize goodness in him, he’s just filled with hate. He was generous with his fortune, but it was not because he was a generous person, it was because he was a fool with money.

Timon the misanthrope is an old story, and Shakespeare maybe knew better than to ever allow it to be performed. Like The Giving Tree, he might have known it was a character who could be interpreted to unfortunate ends. Why present the world with a model of dangerous behavior and attitudes when there is no redemption for them in the end? The Tree may have been an idiot for allowing herself to be so used by the boy, but at least the boy did come back and love her in the end and they were happy.

I was raised Catholic and so my model for unconditional love was Jesus. The bloody, crucified Jesus whose 6-foot-tall statue haunted the hallways of St. Mark’s Catholic school. His magically-roaming, forlorn eyes made me hurry uneasily past that statue even when I returned to the school as an adult to substitute teach for a few weeks. We were raised to believe that life without sacrifice and suffering isn’t heavenly. This lesson was mixed in with the better lessons about being good to everyone, forgiving, and living a life of service and compassion, but still. Bloody Jesus… He’s just as bad as that dang tree.

It’s no wonder that the first time I fell in love I thought I could just hope and be good and sacrifice and that would win out. There are more important things to fall in love with than devotion. Love is a biological tool, and the science of it deems that strength overshadow alacrity for forgiveness.

But compassion still has its place. What good are the great abuses we commit against each other if they don’t give us a chance to find redemption? In television writing we joke that the theme of every single story of every single television show is redemption. Redemption is the cleanest. It’s a word that implies an entire story: fall, fight and forgiveness. Timon is never redeemed.

Instead of finding gold or an abusive Boy in the wilderness, what Timon really needed was to find a hippie-ish warthog sidekick to show him the delights of impoverished exile. Hakuna Matata, motherf-----s.

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