117: “And Re-Enact at the Vestry-Glass” (Thomas Hardy)

“[…] And re-enact at the vestry-glass
Each pulpit gesture in deft dumb-show
That had moved the congregation so.”
                -Thomas Hardy, “In Church”

To be natural is “such a very difficult pose to keep up.”
                -Oscar Wilde,
An Ideal Husband

                We have this idea that people should do what they’re good at, and that what they’re good at will come easily to them. I think that’s a lie.
                In Hardy’s poem, a girl from the Bible Class watches the priest, her teacher, as he speaks and inspires. She watches his gestures, hears the emotion of his voice. She trusts him, looks up to him–and then sees him step back into his vestry. The door doesn’t quite close. He turns to the mirror of his private office and recreates the motions and emotions of his sermon. She watches. It was all practiced. That makes it all seem like an act. This moment of “seeing behind the curtain,” in Hardy’s hands, is a moment of distrust and disappointment. At best, the performance feels disingenuous, manipulative. At worst it feels fake.
                I don’t think that’s fair. People can mislead us, they can lie to us, but work, practice, and revision are not in themselves misleading. I think we all work for the things we’re good at. If you read through Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, you’ll see him shaping his most powerful lines in speech after speech. Those phrases that sing themselves didn’t just happen: he shaped them, time after time.  If you look at a dancer and see grace, see a body that almost floats, you’re seeing practice and effort, too. At sixteen I watched a modern dancer perform David Parsons’ “Caught.” (You shouldn’t google it: its not itself on a screen). The dancer moves through a strobe light, and the flashes make him fly: we see his shape, caught again and again in the act of leaping, as though he wasn’t landing, stepping, breathing. But then we get a single spotlight. Inside the dancer stands “still,” but he isn’t still at all. His chest heaves. Sweat runs down his skin. We see how hard he’s working.
                I think most art is like that. Talents, too. (Whatever arguments Capote and Kerouac have, they both revise–Capote’s revisions happen in his next draft, and Kerouac’s in his next piece). We can act to hide ourselves, and we can act to show our hearts. We can practice speaking so that our lies sound convincing; we can practice speaking because there are hard things we want to say.

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