Out like a…

By now you’ve likely noticed, been charmed by, and grown rather tired of this image:

A WWII graphic that the English government’s Ministry of Information commissioned for use in the case of a Nazi occupation, the poster was set aside and virtually forgotten until it was rediscovered by a bookseller about ten years ago. He began printing copies on demand; during the shock-doctrine Bush years and their aftermath, the image grew increasingly widespread until its popularity peaked sometime last year. In the meantime, it inspired inevitable parodies, the best of which, designed by Olly Moss, can now be found on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and hipster walls everywhere:


The red-blue color scheme puts me in the mind of the forced calm/panicked freakout pendulum upon which we all swing, with Shepard Fairey’s Obama “Hope” poster squarely in the middle. Hope is cautiously optimistic. Hope wills good things into being, by giving us reasons to act. Hope, despite what some news outlets might argue, is eminently practical.

Maybe it’s this spring weather, the smell of things growing, the health care bill finally getting signed, or a bunch of good things happening in my life after a long period of just slogging through, but hope is my m.o. right now. I choose hope over the death, illness, unemployment, and pain that has plagued my family for a couple years now. When it’s this hard-won, hope is even more precious.

In my Intro to Drama courses, I spend the first few class sessions going over some of the basics of classical dramatic genres, particularly the tenets of tragedy Aristotle lays out in the Poetics. Tragedy dwells on separation, isolation, impermanence, and loss. Tragedy⎯at least in the theatrical sense⎯doesn’t really exist unless the protagonist experiences a sharp reversal (usually partially of his or her own making), and unless he/she recognizes and strives to comprehend the suffering it precipitates. Tragedy depicts the human psyche at its exhausted, anguished limit, just as it topples off the cliff into insanity. Always, I ask my students the same question: Why, given a choice of entertainment, do people choose tragedy? Why spend your hard-earned time and money putting yourself through that? You could be laughing your ass off at Hot Tub Time Machine instead!

If the students have done the reading the night before, they come armed with the magic word: catharsis. Echoing the textbook, they argue that audiences feel the need to purge the pity and fear the play generates because it gives them a vicarious experience. They get to have the cleansing sensation of catharsis, feel the full range of human emotion, without actually having to lose anything. And if they’re smart, they leave the theater with a refreshed appreciation for their own quotidian lives.

It’s a pretty good argument. For a long, time, I thought it answered the question full-stop. But recently, another part of the answer has revealed itself to me⎯something that’s implicit, but difficult to grasp, in the first part. Tragedy is practice.

That vicarious loss gives us the opportunity to recognize, identify, work through, and achieve a sense of mastery⎯however illusory⎯over pain and suffering. Not to pretend to suffer, which would be grotesque. But to prepare. The suffering will come, inevitably, and we will need every bit of mental strength when it comes. It won’t do a whole lot, no more than swimming lessons will help you in the event of a shipwreck⎯but it can help you keep your head above water until help arrives.

So “hope” it is, balanced between merely “carrying on” and “freaking out.” Betting on the future. Being grateful for the present.

Continuing the red-blue theme is one of my favorite recent graphics, Nick Dewar’s WPA-style “Simplicity” poster. I am going to try and remember this as life gets ever-more complicated, because the most important things in life, when your back’s against the wall, really are that simple.

So, the end of another long March. In like a lion; out like a…

2 responses to “Out like a…”

  1. Dave says:

    The Simplicity poster is kind of odd to me — the illustration is really complicated, even though there are only two colors of ink, and it depicts a complicated machine. I mean, a bicycle with a generator to power the lights? And then the typefaces, three of them, for one sentence. I wonder how the same thought would look in a more Obama-style, or more Don’t Panic-style treatment.

    Anyway, more on topic, you made me think about the paragraph from David Brooks’s column that Yglesias quoted yesterday, about how the most happiness-inducing activities are sex, socializing, and dining with others, and that these activities will make you much happier than doubling your salary. To that end, I’ll recommend a delicious and simple recipe I tried recently — make it for your friends and lovers, and happy spring.

  2. LP says:

    Rachel, I love this post and am so glad to hear you’re having a hopeful spring. That feeling of emerging from something difficult into an easier time is so sweet… I have a lesser version of that every time I finish a project and get to relax for a short while, and it’s such a wonderful feeling. What I’m less good at is figuring out how to maintain some of that happy, relaxed feeling as I move into the next project, when the cycle starts all over again.