Ashley Sanders continues her guest stint at BCC.
Last act, and then some other posts about other things entirely…
We also learn one more crucial lesson from love. This lesson is one that Shakespeare lets us learn from Helena and God lets us learn from worship. And it is this: throughout the play, Helena loves Demetrius. She starts by loving him for specific reasons, but when he abandons her and loves someone else, she persists. At first, this persistence seems childish and undignified. And it is; it really partly is. But there is something strange about Helena. Even after Puck hexes two desirable men (Lysander and Demetrius) into loving her—even after she believes everyone is mocking her and her friends abandon her—she still chooses Demetrius. She still loves him. Now, we could make a thousand arguments about why this is: perhaps she has no self-esteem, or is certainly irrational, or that her worship has made Demetrius into a false god. And in the beginning, Shakespeare does seem to be making fun of Helena’s childish professions (protestations) of love. But we also know that Helena used to love Demetrius and he used to love her back. And so, while her actions seem laughable or irrational to us they are rational to her—they proceed from a memory of a great trust and an ensuing and confusing separation. Indeed, the whole play is full of couples who break promises and otherwise hurt each other, but who nevertheless forgive the breaches in their desire to love again. Perhaps this is simply unschooled desperation and fawning; after all, they should all at least consider whether they can trust each other when former trust seemed altered on a whim. But I also think Helena is something more than a caricature. Specifically, I think she has a lot to teach us about devotion and deception.
I would hope that we love God for a reason; to love him for no reason would be absurd and arbitrary. But once we start to love God, we also begin to love him for no specific reason at all. We are, in a word, devoted to him. This devotion is dangerous and must be checked constantly in its natural overreach. But this devotion is also profound; it sees more than circumstance can see. If it is done right, it is lunacy and love and poetry combined. Therefore, when God appears to abandon us or love someone more, the strong poets turn lunatic in their love: Aware of deception and aware of perspective, the poet will assume that there is more to the abandonment than can show up in fact and, as lunatic, will persist in her love while insisting on God’s.
For loveless critics, the world is as it appears. A broken promise a broken God, and preference is mutiny. Bound by ethics and law, critics must criticize God and reject him, certain of their perspective and more certain of their resentment. To be honest, I understand these critics; often I am one. But I also believe that devotion knows something that mere criticism can’t: that the most dangerous thing is to doubt that we have been loved. If we know we have been, we must insist on it. Questioning is not, then, mere questioning, or criticizing mere criticizing. It is the question: Why don’t you love me when I love you? It is that question again and again. Criticism is not a question or a comment; it is the desperate hope for an answer. That is what both Helena and religion can teach us.
Ultimately, they both teach us that—since truth is in relationships—love must be its method. As Helena knows, the question is not whether something or someone is true but whether someone or something makes us true; it is not the question of whether or not God exists but whether he teaches us how to; it is not the question of right or wrong—of ethics—but of righting wrongs: compassion.
I am not saying that we should dismiss our reservations to love a God we do not trust. I am also not saying that we should excuse God for things we think are wrong simply because someone somewhere told us to love him. We must be true to our perspective. That is conscience, criticism. But we must also be true to the limitations of our perspective. That is love, lunacy. And a mad love is far, far more risky than anything else. As we have seen, it is capable of great deception: of self-love playing at real love, of romance, of irrationality and excuse, of simplistic worship. It is a wonder that God trusts us with the emotion at all! But love is also capable of seeing more than is there, for it requires us to love others more than ourselves and to answer the limits of perspective by inhabiting the perspective of others. If truth is in relationships, then the knowledge of it is best found through compassion—through the togethering of perspectives in love. It is no coincidence, then, that Jesus became most true at the moment that he entered into a relationship with everyone—when, through the atonement, he inhabited a million million perspectives. It was this act that finally made him a true object for our worship, or, in other words, an object that could make us true. It was also the moment that qualified Jesus to judge us. All of this happened because Jesus loved and expected love freely and–to borrow an idea from earlier–transcended hypocrisy by literally allowing himself to be convicted. This combination–refusing to restrain his love while giving people the power to abuse it–made him a God and a judge. If we can do the reverse–if we can stop abusing our duty to love and accept the love God offers us–we will transcend self-deception. A redemptive chiasmus.
So here we are, at the end of a long idea, with the realization that self-deception is hardly a problem at all, at least not one to be gotten rid of. It is, instead, a testament to the relationship of love and judgment. Love and judgment cannot be separated: love requires judgment and judgment requires love. Anytime someone separates our duty to love from our duty to judge wisely, we should defend our consciences. But any time we are asked to judge without love, we should defend devotion. Maybe, in the end, we will stop being the wrong kind of hypocrites and becomes the original kind: actors who know they are acting, who become real through this knowledge, who know they must speak feelingly to a wise audience. Then we, with the courtiers, could say the wisest thing: “Methinks I see things with a parted eye/ When everything seems double.”