Tag Archives: interpretation

What I Learned From A Friend When All I Wanted Was To Bash His Head In

Image: Graeme Cross

This friend of mine  – I will call him Paul –  falls asleep during all the movies I recommend.  All of them. 

After hearing Paul´s deep breathing, and after digging my elbows into his ribs for the umpteenth time, I asked him why he didn’t like the movie we were watching. The movie was Mudbound. He said:

 There’s no action.

I can’t force him to see (or like) what I see (and like). I can only try to understand why he can neither see nor like it.

I quickly realize that Paul and I have differing notions of what constitutes action. I’m more interested in what I will call internal (or psychological) action, that is, in the emotional forces that drive the characters to behave as they do. He, Paul, is more interested in external action; in the deeds the characters perform. Paul is looking for deeds, for peaks, conflicts, bullets, in sum, for the real, hands-on obstacles that a protagonist overcomes.

Mudbound, the movie he couldn´t keep his eyes open through, is strong on the internal action scale. As far as the external action goes, however, and despite the potentially epic dimensions of the themes the movie uncovers (poverty, racism, war, faith, the harsh reality of the American dream, for more detail feel free to google), Mudbound is not an action-packed film which rapidly unfolds in any way. 

Image: Rakesh Singh

No one has a monopoly on your interest

A person´s interest is steered by the questions the text/film/etc encourages you to ask. If you feel you have no questions to ask, your interest dies. We could argue about which questions you’re asking, why you are(n’t) asking these types of questions, but at the end of the day, no one has a monopoly on your interest, and you are free to decide what is ‘good’ according to your own terms. 

Mudbound is a movie that requires empathy. I realize that this friend, Paul, a white male, well off beyond any personal merit, feels no empathy because he has never been or needed to imagine himself in the shoes of a poor sharecropper, let alone a black sharecropper, or someone whose soul is damaged by war. Am I entitled to judge him for this?

I ask myself:

Is it simply him? Or men in general? Or white men in general? Or white people in general? Or rulers (or those who perceive themselves to be) in general???

And suddenly I see a common thread, in men, white, ruler… and I see in them: the hunter. The hunter can have no empathy with the hunted. The hunter must obliterate all empathy (if empathy is there at all…) otherwize the hunter will be unable to kill.

The hunted, on the other hand, are constantly putting themselves in the mindset of the hunter, they need to know, to anticipate and outwit the hunter, for that’s the only way they will survive.

But no one speaks of hunters anymore, do they? All the talk is about heroes. We decriminalize the concept, and (or so that?) the game goes on…

Image: Taryn Kaahanui

Months later, I´m still thinking about all this. My hypothesis still felt right. For a while. 

Who am I to judge? What is the use of knowledge if it doesn’t transform anything, starting with yourself? Surely, the ultimate goal of any form of understanding is love. Yes, I know how corny that sounds, but love must win. Love wants to win, love will win, thus I am grateful for this internal debate for the understanding it has brought me. Yes, there is prejudice. Yes, there is ignorance. Yes, power is mightily abused. Those who are crushed may live that anger. Use that anger. Transform that anger… for nothing is gained if all we do is fall in love with anger…

Let’s not stop here, let´s not relinquish our agentivity, for we are not mudbound. We cannot neutralize negativity by directing even more negativity at it so that the strongest negativity will prevail (no matter what the warlords say).

I will take the beam out of my own eye…

and I thought I would ‘teach’ Paul something, but look how things turned out. It is (always) about the self. I was the one learning.

If knowledge does not lead to change, then we have learned nothing.

Mudbound: it’s smart and hard and leaves me thinking about forgiveness and how it is demanded of black people to constantly forgive white people for what they have done to us.

No, I´m not inclined to tone this down to cater to white fragility. If the hat fits, wear it. 

What was I saying? Ah yes, forgiveness. And we do. 

But remember: Ronsel’s pa, Hap, is a pastor… it is the ultimate Christian act to turn the other cheek, but listen carefully to what Hap says by the graveside of that old Klan member, Pappy McAllan. It was hardly a eulogy.

Ronsel´s Ma, Florence, is a midwife. These two professions – the pastor and the midwife –  have always been essential and respected work in human society, yet in this film these qualified leaders are reduced to digging the soil… They are black.

Yeah, it’s definitely a film about give and take at so many levels.

And it’s a film that has you digging in your own soul like the protagonists do in the soil. What is it we are searching for anyway? For some eternal truth that God has given mankind? God: no one knows you though we have all given you a name.

And who knows if that soil will bring fruit? Maybe in your soul all there is to be found is mud? 

Again, lots of Christian imagery in that film:

Darkness, light, crucifixion, father-son relationships, love thy neighbour, turn the other cheek, all equal before the eyes of God…

But the church in the film ain’t got no roof, so: religion but an empty edifice? Do you even need a special building to be a true Christian?

You can say the Bible, which, incidentally, Ronsel’s dad, Hap, only pretends to cite from  – his son is still teaching him how to read –  is yet another empty symbol, cos what really counts isn’t the Word but the deed…  We have an embittered, old white father, Pappy McAllan, who belongs to the Klan. Killing black people is his favourite pastime.  One of Pappy´s two sons, Jamie (the other one is Henry) is not only totally unlike him, but bonds with Ronsel over their wartime traumas. Jamie cannot forgive his father´s behavior and kills him in the end. What do we have here: we have a black family that not only tolerates the dehumanizing attitude of the white society, but somehow manages to turn the cheek to a white family that is Christian enough to want a holy man to preside over the funeral of its racist patriarch, Pappy McAllan. Henry McAllan acknowledges Ronsel´s dad in this capacity as a pastor, but somehow fails to see the hypocrisy of asking the black preacher to bury the racist man who was killed by his own son because the same father tried to kill the son´s black friend, who happens to be the pastor´s own son.

When Ronsel´s father, Hap, agrees to say a prayer at the funeral of this bigoted, vicious, ignorant man who has not one drop of love in his soul, it is not an act of subordination to the political and discriminatory forces of the day. Hap sees it as his Christian duty. It is not in his power to judge. We will all get what we deserve when the day comes.

The way many who object to it see it, Christianity is a religion that says yes to suffering and that’s what makes it such an excellent tool for exploitation. But of course, that´s not what it was designed for, was it? In Mudbound, as in fiction in the humanist tradition, we see human nature close up and cannot help but direct the questions we pose about such fictional characters to various aspects of our own behavior.

Image: Sami a Hussain

You choose. 

You choose to see or not to see. You choose to react or not to react. To regard yourself as a victim, or to transcend victimhood. You choose to judge the other, or take a critical look at yourself, and do something to counter the thick, encrusted mud on your own feet, in your own heart, the mud which stops you from moving forward to become that better person you know you are. 

Please note: this is work in progress. Pictures are placeholders and courtesy of Unsplash

who wants to live forever?


thinker statue edit 2
photo copyright © 2011, joan barbara simon



Chewing this over with my teenage daughter over breakfast one morning. I speak English, she answers in French:


Me: can ideas exist forever?
Her: yes, of course they can.
Me:  why?
Her:  because.
Me:  that’s not an answer.
Her:  if an idea has been thought, it exists.
Me:  so you mean every idea that has ever been thought, exists?
Her:  yes, because someone will still know they exist.
Me:  what about ideas that have never been written down, ideas that have been forgotten? Let’s say I have an idea but don’t tell anyone about it or write it down, and then I forget it, does it still exist?
Her:  it still exists.
Me:  but how can my idea exist if I’ve forgotten it?
Her:  you’re so self-centered (she says nombriliste in French, nombril being my belly button…). An idea doesn’t need you to exist!
An idea doesn’t need me to exist… all my ruminations on fiction and reality annihilated in an axiomatic instant. It takes me some time to recover. I stare at my daughter, who returns the gaze and notches it up one as if to say: wot you staring at?
Me:  so, ideas don’t… need… us… to exist… would you say God is an immortal idea?
Her:  yes. God is an immortal idea. And ideas don’t need you to continue to exist.
She keeps staring at me staring at her staring at me. How comes she finds (so) easy what I find (so) hard?


Gunther dame edit oct 2014
copyright © Martin Gunther

He had loved her. She hadn’t Loved Him Back said the way he had painted her mouth so delicately, perfectly set somewhat back in her face out of his reach, a shadow perching on the other side. Love had painted a mouth about to speak words he feared for those he could not control. Love, those black eyes sizing him up or were they closed they looked different every time now they looked as if (what if???) she might be crying over whom?

Straight indecisive line leaving the direction of the nose open. Klee to the left? Anyhow, angles –  he never got hers, not really – but for the triste arch of her unyielding eyes, that mouth, that chin, it had been Love up a one-way street and there he was with his gearstick all broken. She would never know never know how many strokes he had taken or where he had placed his last. How many times he had taken the effigy of her into his dreams how many cups of coffee, instant, how many rizzlas till the last. How many times she had resisted, resenting his intrusion and how many yielded how many times he had changed his mind, painted it over and what was the intention of that oblong of blue anyway was there room for symbolism in a portrait? Life is symbolism? Ahhh. Ok.

Black is a hard colour to paint with. He grafted shades of her skin onto it. Mille feuille. Breathing life into its cosmic potential like the Lord God who saw what He had done and was Pleased.

Her shoulders disagreed. This could hurt.

Copyright ©, Joan Barbara SImon, 2015. From Verses Nature, forthcoming.


I’ve been working on a novel for the past four years which I now know will never be written. Why? It was the wrong novel. Why did it take me so long to find that out? Because I was following a plan, not following my heart (queasy from the word Go). And yet I maintain: it has not been in vain. Allowing my new plan to be guided by my heart,  I’ve now got a hell of a lot more to say about creative writing as praxis. My reading in the field makes more sense. My theoretical contribution to the field will make more sense, just as I know that my initial doubts made sense, as much as my fear today makes no sense.

Get it down. Get it done.

she who preoccupied thought has seen words come like foreseeable attacks and she changed their course. (Brossard, 2006)

style is not much a matter of choice (…) it is both a response to a constraint and a seizing of an opportunity. Very often a constraint is an opportunity. (Barthelme,1997)

A desire without a horizon, for that is its luck or its condition. And a promise that no longer expects what it waits for: there where, striving for what is given to come, I finally know how not to have to distinguish any longer between promise and terror. (Derrida, 1996)

on the art of meaning

JBS meditating in garden 12-07-20(2)

words might have a beginning in sound but not in meaning. I can understand you

like t h i s
but maybe you mean


Art is therapy. Eventually. (F. Bianco)


The three of us slept in the same room last night: First-born, Second-born and I. We tend only to do this when we need extra emotional security, like in the worst phases of my separation. First-born is glad to be home. She is not happy at her father’s.

Their breathing in the dark was like the call of the sea beyond the horizon. I hardly slept at all. I just listened. Feeling guilty for what they have had to suffer because of my drive for freedom, knowing I would do it all again, for I cannot be other than myself…

in the end, I couldn’t bear it. Got up, went outside. Waited for the dawn.

Hmm… GUILT… what “they had to suffer”… Had you not broken free– what would all three of you feel now? just some first thoughts to keep you warm…

You say we do our best to block or enhance our doubt zones. i still stumble over the idea of enhancing one’s doubt zone. can you explain that to me? Maybe we are simply using our tools – language – in the wrong way; must use it to go beyond language, to tap into the affective plane that is crucial to understanding (hard-core psychologists now up in arms!) tho it still cannot guarantee that we really understand what is going on in another´s mind. You say I`m too ‘soft’. Well, I say I don`t belong to the fornicators, and I have never been keen on the clergy, either.

Re: that other comment: How does your wife feel? Do you humour her desires, too, or is she also a workaholic and you both spend your days buried in paper? I suppose, like most, she has bowed to your wish. I really would make a ghastly wife…

Most of the time I can handle the guilt. Banish it. I’m fine just the way I am, doing what I do, thinking what I think, wanting what I want, growing my own way, but the children’s quiet, faithful trusting breathing was too much for me last night and counter-rhythm to my impatient hunger.

I cannot sleep. I go outside. Let my dressing gown fall in two velvet folds as I bare my breasts, my sex, to the night, inhaling deeply as they howl at my lack of means to pacify them. I am so hungry, I could kill.

… and there will be the moment of delicious pacification…feeling your body embraced gently, the warmth of the other… and feeling the other deep in you… the forest will listen to the audible silence… the birds will be gossiping later on…

what is your ultimate intention behind the expression of your ideas… the expression of ideas You will have to explain the correlation between closeness and evasiveness because I don’t get it.


if there is one thing you are not lacking in, then it is words…

i prefer silence at times… and much of my writing is intensely compressed into tough idea complexes hard to understand

I think I know why you feel close to me.


if you don’t, why do you say that you do? obviously here we differ in meanings–

i never shared your “promiscuity clause”  HOW DID YOU GUESS? WHAT DOES IT MEAN? FROM YOUR END  Because I let you. SO DO I, I think not… this is why you keep negotiating the immediacy, turning it to its opposite SO DO WE we???  is there anyone else involved here that I have failed to take into account? we= you + i + your doubts = 3 in total

I don’t want to be embraced


i want to see who you are…

setting yourself tough goals… i am in movement

trust means acknowledging vulnerability

not my idea of trust… vulnerability is not a concept there

you seemed surprised, if not offended, that I challenge you. Is there a patriarch slumbering in your breast? the spring of the patriarch? a nice title for a short story… NEVER MIND WHAT YOU COME ACROSS HERE IN MY “CASE”, THIS VERY SAME “DEMANDFUL GIVING” WOULD MAKE IT VERY DIFFICULT TO ACHIEVE YOUR GOAL OF SHARING AND BEING WITH I think you made the crucial mistake of a) presuming to know where ‘this’ was going  b) presuming to control where ‘this’ was going. Sharing involves a degree of negotiation. I’m negotiating. I’m saying, Hey, you alone don’t call the shots.

fighting, fighting… but there is no battle

Maybe I should have said this much, much earlier

and what would have been different?