Some Greatness

It’s the sensation when you’re halfway to the airport and then, suddenly, certain you’ve forgotten something. You don’t know what it is, but you’re certain. This was how Ned experienced his life, most of the time – he should have prepared more, he should have accomplished more, more, more, more, it was an extended trance mix, on loop, in the background. He had reached that point in the mid-30’s where you are no longer judged by what you might do, but by what you haven’t done. Or maybe it’s just you who are doing the judging.

Ned had done things, but they weren’t good enough, they weren’t big enough, they weren’t enough. As he texted to a friend, “I am high on standards and low on self-esteem and have emotions that go up and down to meet both.” It definitely felt like Bibi Anderson and Liv Ullman in Persona, two faces blending together in a perpetual dissolve, both visible and in. He hated Ingmar Bergman films.

Occasionally, though, something would land, big enough to crush all of that with the weight of glory. Often it landed at a party. At the Doole house.

Everyone knew that Sheila and Prentice Doole’s parties were in their own time zone. They went on forever and were over in a flash. This one didn’t even start until 10 PM; the planning for it had started at the last one, around 2:30 AM, when Sheila was rhapsodizing about Twelfth Night. “We should read it together,” she said, with such authority that it became a commandment.

Ned didn’t need to be commanded, as he was always ready to obey Sheila, especially when a party was concerned. Somehow her invite list was invariably long on feelers, people who just radiated physical confidence and reached you with their rays. Normally Ned would swat away such intrusions to his personhood, but after drinking, his body’s drought would rise in a heat of demands. Simply put, there weren’t many opportunities for touch that were permitted by his conscience.

And, well, obviously he liked Shakespeare, too, and had seen the film adaptation of Twelfth Night with Helena Bonham-Carter years ago, remembering a rather electric scene where Viola, believed to be a boy, sat by a bath containing her master, Count Orsino. For those who escaped school without reading it, here is a synopsis: in the kingdom of Illyria, Count Orsino is desirous of Olivia, who is in mourning and denies his proposals. Viola washes up on the shore of this place, having been separated in a shipwreck from her twin brother, whom she assumes is dead. Determined to find work, she pretends to be a young man and applies at Orsino’s household, where she is hired as his page. Viola begins to fall for Orsino, as Olivia begins to fall for her, and things begin to fall apart, but because it’s a comedy, at the end, they are put back together again.

Not for Malvolio, though. And this was the role Sheila assigned Ned. Malvolio is the humorless steward to Olivia, whose other staff conspire to punish his pedantry by sending fake love letters from their mistress. Malvolio is flattered by this love, and even more so, preoccupied with the notion of becoming important by association, as Olivia is the daughter of a Count. From there, the deception devolves, each outrageous lie closer to the obvious truth, even as Malvolio continues to rearrange reality to accommodate his fantasy.

Ned found himself investing in this fantasy: first, as an actor, eager to give a worthy performance; then, as a sympathizer, appreciating the pain expressed in Malvolio’s need to believe; and then, suddenly, as one with the character, integrated, inseparable. And from that unity came an understanding; or, more precisely, a compassion.

All the attention to Malvolio, though imaginary, rouses an idea long asleep: that he could be great – no, is great – and has simply been awaiting confirmation; now he will commune with greatness. When the truth finally invades – his perceived value is a bubble, it has burst, and the very house surrounding has betrayed him – Malvolio is defenseless against it. So was Ned. And together, they sobbed. The emotion was a grounded floating, a kite with a long string fastened to a tall tree. Ned realized other actors had lifted heads from scripts: those outside of the scene, riveted by it; those inside, energized even further towards their character’s intent. There was a sort of power and he was trembling with it.

In Perelandra, the second installment of C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, the titular planet has only two natural inhabitants, both uncorrupted, including the Queen, Tinidril. A tempter arrives, telling her tales of women pursuing their own desires completely, whom he characterizes as heroines. The appeal is the same: become great. Become like God.

Ned didn’t remember this until days after the Twelfth night, and then he couldn’t stop reading Lewis. In a sermon delivered a year prior to the publication of Perelandra, he writes:

“What I had mistaken for humility had, all these years, prevented me from understanding what is in fact the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasures – nay, the specific pleasure of the inferior: the pleasure of a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before its teacher, a creature before its Creator. I am not forgetting how horribly this innocent desire is parodied in our human ambitions, or how very quickly, in my own experience, the lawful pleasure of praise from those whom it was my duty to please turns into the deadly poison of self-admiration. But I thought I could detect a moment – a very short moment – before this happened, during which the satisfaction of having pleased those whom I loved and rightly feared was pure.

“And that is enough to raise our thoughts to what may happen when the redeemed soul, beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, learns at last that she has pleased Him whom she was created to please. There will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that it is her doing. With no taint of what we should now call self-approval she will most innocently rejoice in the thing that God has made her to be, and the moment which heals her old inferiority complex for ever will also drown her pride deeper than Prospero’s book.”

The book, of course, is full of magic, which Prospero throws into the deep, near the end of The Tempest. Ned couldn’t imagine anything better than all the spells, cast into the water, buried alive.