Saturday, September 19, 2009

Obligation versus love in Samson and Delilah

On Thursday afternoon at the La Trobe staff/postgrad seminar a couple of postgrads presented papers on the film ‘Samson and Delilah’. Hannah offered an overview of the film, and talked about its disturbing and yet beautifully haunting quality. David asked the question why some people believe the central character, Samson, should need to speak. He does not. Apparently, David told me later, he had read numerous comments on line from people who had seen the film and resented the fact that the two central characters barely speak at all throughout the film.
'How can this be?' They ask. David backed his talk with an audiotape in which he had remixed bits of music from the film interspersed with the name, Samson, stuttered in the background. Samson's only sound comes when he voices his name with a stutter. He has been glue-sniffing for such a long time it has damaged his brain.

The third speaker, Alison who teaches at LaTrobe talked about the difference between obligation and love and how these two notions have become confused within western culture. Not so, she suggested within the aboriginal community as depicted in the film.

There is a scene where the young Delilah discovers her grandmother dead one morning. From the onset we can see that Delilah has been devoted to her grandmother. She takes her to the clinic, she cooks for her. They dot paint in the dust on the ground together.

It is hard to do justice to this film, to the images, the sense of barren hopelessness and boredom as depicted in the lives of Delilah and more particularly Samson who continues to sniff glue for comfort.

After Delilah finds her grandmother dead, the women from the town, a small group of them, round middle-aged aboriginal women, set upon her with sticks and their fists. They beat her savagely.
‘You did not look after your gran,’ they say. ‘You did not take her to the clinic.’ You did not feed her, care for all the things that we, the viewers, know the granddaughter has done.

It comes as a shock. I had expected the women of the town to embrace the young girl in her grief. I had expected them to take her in their arms, to welcome her into their homes, but not so. They beat Delilah back and blue and leave her listless on the mattress in the dirt that is her bed.

In the seminar we puzzled over the meaning of this event. One person suggested she had thought that maybe the women beat Delilah because they felt guilty for all the things they had not done themselves to support the grandmother – a projection of their guilt onto Delilah.

When I saw the film I had no idea about why this happened. Was it a cultural ritual that I knew nothing about? The film offers non-aboriginal people a close up view of life in a small aboriginal community and although it is fictional it resonates with a sense of being a truthful account of how things are. Alison wondered whether the women beat Delilah in an attempt to inflict bodily wounds that in time would heal, as an aid in the process of mourning, part of their obligation to the young abandoned girl.

Some one out there would know more about what this scene might mean. There were visitors in our audience from Batchelor Institute in Alice Springs. I asked if they had thoughts about the film, but Alison suggested they might not like to be put on the spot. They did not speak, which I suppose harks back to David’s question, ‘why does Samson need to speak?’

I still feel uneasy about my sense of discomfort that we, a small group of postgrads and staff from the English department at LaTrobe should sit around musing over the meaning of this particular aboriginal film, laying on it all our intellectual assumptions about what the story might be telling us, while in our midst sat three or four silent people from such a community, who chose to remain silent.

Chose I say, but I wonder, did we silence them? They were students of creative writing come to LaTrobe to learn. I suspect in their small groups they may well have learned especially under Alison’s care.

I am finding it hard to put into words Alison’s point about the clash between love and obligation. She reckons that we have lost sight of our obligations in our western style community/world because we tend to respond to crises with affect, affect as in emotion. We are taught from earliest days that we must empathise with the other. When something goes wrong for the other we become overwhelmed with our feelings, our tendency to identify and then we fail to act. We fail to act because we do not automatically, unconsciously know what our obligations are. We are burnt out.

In aboriginal communities Alison argues most people have a strong sense of obligation. She offered an example from her own life, eavesdropping on an aboriginal woman whom she had met who was dealing with a series of crises from those near to her. This woman did not, it seems, become overwhelmed. She did not judge those who had stuffed up such that they were now in crisis. I cannot remember the details, but the crises could well evoke moral condemnation in our community.

This woman knew instinctively what to do. Alison talked about how we in western societies are burned out by our struggles in responding to crisis with affect.

You get off the train at Flinders Street and you are surrounded by it, by people for instance begging for money. What do you do? She, Alison, when she visits the city gives away one twenty dollar note to the lucky one, whoever that might be and leaves it at that. She cannot do enough. She recognises the bottomless pit. Others, she said, might give a dollar muttering to themselves that they know the person begging will go off and most likely use it for drugs or drink. Others will distance themselves and rationalise that there is no point in giving anything when the person begging will most likely abuse it. We are burned out and overwhelmed by too many calls on or empathy.

I am afraid I have not articulated this well. I am still puzzling about it. I have not done justice to Alison’s argument, but it intrigues me because it introduces an element I had not considered before, the element of obligation as distinct from empathy and love.

I have long fed on the notion that empathy is all. Empathy is king. But now I wonder. I think Alison is suggesting that were we to have a clear knowledge and understanding of our obligations to one another then in a moment of crisis we might know how to act, almost on automatic pilot, a bit like driving a car through a dangerous situation, knowing exactly what to do without even thinking about it.

When her own beloved grandmother died, Alison said, she felt nothing. But she and her mother knew instinctively what to do as they sat there in the dead of the night in the small township of Maldon with her just deceased grand mother. They sang Anglican hymns.

I know that when my father died, I too felt a sort of nothingness. For me the action came with the funeral but even then I distanced myself from the event. The others, my older siblings took over and dealt with the crisis. Someone must and perhaps that is as it should be. The oldest ones generally move first, the others must follow or make their own way, whichever feels right.

Samson and Delilah as Alison suggests is a love story perhaps, but not a romance and one that deals with people who meet their obligations, while others fail.
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