I recently saw a play that stuck with me, Lisa Kron’s “In The Wake.” She’s a whiz and wild mind, once a member of the theatrical think tank The Five Lesbian Brothers, a playwright who usually casts herself in her plays, and whose works are for sale; see here.
“In the Wake” largely critiques the modern American assumption that the world is fair (in truth, it’s only “fair” for the rich). The play’s slightly sloppy: Sometimes the affected dialogue is jarring; and when characters play wrestle on stage, they really should play wrestle, not actor-play wrestle. But like all deep things, the mess was a sign of thinking that went beneath cliché. And at times, scenes jumped with such clarity they could change your worldview.
One great moment came in a scene about creationism. As the scene opens, we witness the end of a conversation between two women, an artist and a political thinker. The politician has spent the last four hours blathering in high-minded prose about her liberal theories, it seems. Without noticing, she’s talked the room empty: A large audience has left, and now only the glassy-eyed artist remains. The artist, sitting tired with some awe, finally whispers, “I love watching your lips move.” That is: She hadn’t been paying attention to the politician’s argument at all – just soaking in the look of her lips.
We quickly see that these two women represent two ways of engaging with the world: logical and experiential. The politician invests in preformed beliefs – about social class, human rights, and code of law. In contrast, the artist doesn’t like to talk or theorize as much. She lives through a romance with chance, exploring her accidents. She makes art by letting objects fall onto paper.
After the politician’s longwinded argument, the artist breaks the tension with dismissal: Perhaps, she says, the most magnificent things in life aren’t the ones we plan. Perhaps the greatest moments are born from chance. After all, even scientists admit this, she says: Penicillin was discovered without the plan to discover it. Gravity was too – discovered when the surprise of a falling apple bumped a thought to the surface, so they say. A lack of plans might be the key to brilliance.
The rational politician lets herself agree a bit, releasing tension in her shoulders.
The artist goes on: This is what makes me angry with creationists, she says. Creationists so often make their case by arguing that the world is so beautiful – so wild and wonderful – that there must have been a plan behind this life. But haven’t we been given repeated evidence that rational plans have greater limitations than chance occurrence does? Why don’t we assume, by default, that the universe’s brilliance was formed by an accident?
Nice idea. That scene popped like a new idea for me. Kron’s essentially saying that our minds so tightly manage survival by putting a rational order on things that we (defensively?) assume that Nature, too, uses an individual mind’s stubborn plan. But if we just admit how frequently chance has trumped logical planning in the birth of brilliant things – from penicillin to romantic couplings to Jackson Pollock’s paintings – we have evidence that chaos is the more complex designer. Is complex beauty more likely to come from a single mind with one idea or by innumerable events happening without consciousness of each other, gathering intensity as they clash?
Then Kron goes a bit deeper, arguing that we should all have less loyalty to logic in everyday life. Real receptivity might be wiser. If you trust your plans too much, you tend to become closed minded; faith that you’re right also tends to steer you toward hypocrisy and make you unfun to be with.
But to see the wisdom of those bits from Kron, you should see the play.
Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.