An Interpretation of Jason Mehl’s Essay “Ears to Hear”

A note from Rock & Sling: Jason Mehl’s essay “Ears to Hear” appears in Rock & Sling 13.1. You can read the essay here.

By Jon Maire

On the surface, “Ears to Hear” is an interesting personal essay about a safari and a guy with a real – or imagined – heart problem. But when the superficial level is penetrated, there are myriad complex symbolisms and metaphors that present a real challenge to the reader. As its title, excerpted from observations made by Christ following his parables, suggests, there are here deep meanings to be understood by those who have “ears to hear.” This, I think, is real art, and at the risk of missing the mark I will take a shot at interpretation.

First, there are the three principal characters, presented individually and as symbols:

There is George, who symbolizes a comfortable worldliness, perfectly comfortable “in his skin,” with no more lofty goals than the “cash at the end of the day” he receives from the “mzungus” and no more duties than to conduct a successful safari and to smile for his passengers. He has worldly joys, “but not much else.”    

There is Louise, excited but not afraid, who intimately knows the narrator and his flaws and faults and yet loves and cares for him with an unconditional love – a symbol, perhaps, at least in this respect, of the divine.

There is the narrator, a sensitive and complex person. But more about him as the story unfolds.

Then there are the animals, who play an essential role in the story. They also can be understood as symbols:

The water buffalo, who is really dangerous (can tip over the vehicle and break the windows). He is wary because he lives in a constant atmosphere of “prowling death.” But he is fearless in the sense that he has come to accept prowling death as a constant and has accommodated himself to it. His entire life is lived as a response to whatever situation he finds himself in, and his sole interest is self-preservation in a perpetual atmosphere of latent community danger that envelops his existence.

The lioness is not, under these circumstances, dangerous, but is at this moment so engrossed in the love for her babies and the fear for their safety – a natural instinct, that is, an instinct shared by all creatures, the same instinct felt strongly by Louise and the narrator with regard to their own baby – that she literally turns her back on the narrator.

The giraffe, who presents as a Christ figure: a creature who is wounded. A creature “of sorrows and acquainted with grief” who would not be selected for appearance in documentaries (“without form or comeliness…despised and rejected of men.”) His stare, unlike the insensitive and uncaring stare of the water buffalo, indicates an interest in the narrator (“What do you see in my eyes?”) and he imagines a sort of conversion transaction in which the Christ-like giraffe offers him a life without the crippling anxiety, in reciprocation for which the narrator will bear his disfigurement.  

We meet these animals in a sort of ascending order: the uncaring water buffalo bent only on self-preservation, followed by the lioness who by natural instinct values those within her family above herself, followed by the Christ-like giraffe. And beyond it all is Lake Albert, representative of a peace that “flattens the horizon.” These stages could represent “horizontally” different kinds of people, but more likely “vertically” represent stations in the spiritual life of an individual, in this case the narrator. When the narrator constructs a mental map of their slow but steady journey with its three stops for the animals, he sees for the first time exactly where he is, perhaps visualizing himself as the “red pin on the edge” of that blue water of the lake, i.e. on the edge of a salvation in which he can finally find that peace that will enable him to live in danger without fear. He has gone a great and perhaps unrecoverable distance from the hospital, from those that have cures for the body but none for the soul.

The stare: From every source the narrator feels “the stare”: the wary stare of the water buffalo, the giraffe’s caring stare, the Ugandan children’s stares of curiosity, the Ugandan elders’ stares of suspicion. There are two who do not stare at him: the Vietnamese doctor, who “never looked at my face,” and to whom he was, in Buber’s terminology, an “It” and not a “Thou,” and the lioness, whose back was “turned to us,” consumed as she was with care for her babies. A care that only a mother – or God – could comprehend.

But perhaps most of all the narrator is conscious of “God’s eyes” being upon him. The narrator’s anxiety reaches its most acute stage when he feels the giraffe’s gaze upon him: What does the Christ-like giraffe see in his eyes? He feels the need to rub his heart in a gesture he has come to realize is not palliative, but indicative: God, here is my heart; speak to it, respond to its need.

The narrator feels himself to be a “square peg in a round hole”: he is a missionary who has never notched a conversion, a stumbling block without the gift of evangelism that is expected to be among the equipment of every missionary. He has to admit that he prefers the freedom and spontaneity of African dance and drums to the perhaps suffocating conventionalism of the organized rites of western Christendom. He has found it difficult to channel his feelings into a conventional evangelical mold that his environment has always prescribed and held up as the “gold standard” for Christian faith, with its implicit suggestion that the Christian life entails earthly blessings: “Every good boy deserves fudge.” He is both puzzled by and envious of the easy worldliness of George, and even guiltily entertains the thought that instead of saving George, George might “save me.” That pain might itself be a grace, a gift, is from this perspective inconceivable.

He seems to be living in that state in which he questions his childhood faith, and this anxiety is compounded by the realization that, “If you wonder if you have it, you don’t have it.” He has, perhaps unconsciously, lapsed into a faith-defeating fatalism which suggests that the world is largely composed of Georges and Vietnamese doctors, undesiring and unneeding of his compassion, who seem to have perfectly and painlessly adjusted to their social and cultural environment. Perhaps instead of physical death he fears a wasted and inauthentic life. He finds himself entangled in a paradox, the place between the “shiver” (of fear) and the “yawn” (of resignation), the two words with which the story, importantly, concludes.

In the concluding scene, the narrator coughs – and finally realizes why he coughs “when the pain hits”: the cough does nothing for him physically. It is itself a symbol of that which is within him that is “real” and yet undiagnosable and untreatable by human means. He yearns for the exorcism of that “bloody, wet, hairy, scratchy and black” thing, that “placenta” of pain, the life centered upon himself that strives in its own strength to be something he is not, the life that Christ tells us we must lose in order to gain real life, the life that Paul found had to be crucified with Christ so that in him Christ may live. The cure is not just the elimination of the gross thing, but its replacement. The house must not only be swept clean, it must be filled with the grace, the self-effacing love that casts out fear, if the evil spirits are to be kept away.

Some Ameliorating and Explanatory Comments on Art and Evangelism

Those who are artistically sensitive and honest are both blessed and cursed. They cannot live the monochromatic lives of the Georges and the Vietnamese doctors, who may seem to get the “fudge.” But the Georges and Vietnamese doctors will never produce art. Art, every bit as much as evangelism (and for some, with greater effect) is a calling. Indeed, conventionalism can be stultifying to the artist, destructive of his or her creativity. Catholic theologians speak of beauty as a “transcendental” along with goodness and truth, and hold the Christian revelation to be the epitome of beauty in its exemplification of God’s love in the manifestation of his Son in his life, death and resurrection. The evangelical sometimes misses this. The Christian artist should not.

Cynicism is a defense mechanism that can destroy or warp the very essence of the artist. It may protect him from pain, but ironically it is the pain that is necessary to the production of the art. Cynicism takes comfort in looking down on others, in salvaging a superior sense of self in a world that passes it by and proclaims its insignificance. Its worst form is captured in Nietzsche’s “ressentiment,” which, ironically, Nietzsche attributes to his idea of Christianity. Its essence is judgment, and we are told by no less an authority than Christ himself that we are not to judge. Partly because we are really not better than others but mainly, I think, because judgment does something bad to us: it keeps us from doing what we should do, which is to love.

“Loving the unlovable” – in particular, the Vietnamese doctors but also the Georges to whom we may always be an “it” – is a gift, a grace; something we cannot do in our own strength and that we therefore depend upon God for, as we depend on him for the grace of humility that allows us to see others as those for whom Christ suffered and died – and to see in ourselves that ever-lurking “bloody, wet, hairy, scratchy black placenta” of potential pain.

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