Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Snowman's Fate

Yes, and in the grand scheme of things, won't we all.

All Heaven and Earth
Flowered white obliterate...

Snow...unceasing snow”
-Matsuo Basho 

While in graduate school in 2005 I took a digital art class as an elective and got to mess around with Flash. I ended up making this animation:

I showed the film to numerous faculty and peers during a final critique at the end of the semester. Afterward one professor who had come to know me, my work, and my secular humanist worldview quite well approached me. He laughed at the audience's reaction, saying, "Did you see their faces, all waiting for a resurrection that never came?"

I've thought about that a lot over the years. Indeed, the film was ultimately about death as a natural part of life. But how much did my naturalistic worldview, my inability to comprehend, much less believe in a literal soul or afterlife, influence my art-making process? Would someone who believes in a literal heaven and hell or reincarnation make such a film? And if so, how would they interpret it?

I was reminded of this recently when I acquired and read the excellent picture book Snow Day by Daniel Peddle. This is a wordless picture book. It tells its deceptively simple tale with a series of economical watercolors.

The story begins with a wide-open, snow-covered field. Under a bright sun, a child rolls up great balls of snow to create a classic snowman, complete with carrot nose. The sun starts to set in a brilliantly peach-colored sky, turning the two figures into blue silhouettes that match the long, slanted shadows they cast in the snow. The snowman is left alone under a sky glittering with moon and stars.

But then something curious happens.

I turn the page and suddenly I'm looking at the snowman from space. He sits atop the earth impossibly huge, gazing toward the red-rock moon. This is the point where things go from poetic-yet-descriptive to outright surreal. It is here I feel the snowman is much more than a literal snowman. He becomes a sort of everyman. A fragile, beautiful, transient being briefly erected as king of a humongous spinning rock in space.

I turn the page again, and encounter a breathtaking sunrise exactly behind the snowman. I turn the page again and now the snowman's body is encircled in glowing yellow light. The sun is the harbinger of death, and yet it creates a glorious halo around the snowman, highlighting his significance, his majesty, his tremendous State of Being right here in this very moment.

I turn the page again, and he is gone.

I have no idea what Daniel Peddle's worldview is, so I can't know how he meant his book to be interpreted. I suppose that anyone who believes in souls or reincarnation could interpret the light of the sun washing out the white of the snowman's body as the soul leaving the body and melding with some sort of afterlife or whatever (like I said, I can't really comprehend such concepts, so I'm not sure how to imagine the interpretation of someone who does.)

Maybe Peddle meant it to be just a funny book about how snowmen melt. Or maybe the snowman could symbolize something other than humanity, such as childhood.

That's the thing about art - once the artist puts it out there, it's for the audience to interpret from our own perspectives. And I find the humanist interpretation of this book as about the beauty of life and quiet, inevitability of death most poignant and powerful.

This picture book is geared toward (or at least marketed toward) the youngest of readers. My two year old enjoyed it very much. She could understand the story, pointed excitedly at "the sun", and at the end loudly declared, "The snowman melted!"

I liked it too (honestly I would have bought it whether I had kids or not) but for other reasons. I like to simultaneously ponder both the brevity and beauty of life. It reminds me to be appreciative, accept my tiny place in the universe for what it is, and not greedily hope for something else or something more. I think of this when I see butterflies or the remains of perished birds.

I read this picture book to my toddler in the hopes that experiencing it might play a role in her forming a mentality that regards death as part of a natural progression.

There will be no resurrection. But oh, the light before it burns out!

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