Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Susan Boyle, icon of the private imagination

As I mentioned yesterday, attempts to formulate why and how Susan Boyle's performance captures the imagination will continue. The question reaches fundamental issues of our understanding of ourselves, our experience as human beings. What makes anthropology fun and deeply rewarding is the sense that we are in some sense probing the essential qualities of humanity -- whatever that is, whatever we mean by it. So the struggle of so many to explain why they cry, why they keep coming back to the same event, to watch the same performance, over and over again, displays the sense of mystery deeply embedded within us. These special bursts of public discussion about such a person, such an event, an icon created in a single episode, reveal what resides within us: a continuous rumination over who we are; we are ever seeking to grasp ourselves. What is this peculiar creature, the human being? Creative, inventive, generous, and also cruel, intolerant, self-serving, bitter. All this I can only surmise -- for knowing no one else I have to extrapolate from my own private world. I presume that everyone else like me carries on this internal struggle to understand, manipulating the tools of imagining that are available, the kinds of things we always use to think with: words, gestures, objects. The anthropological task, I take it, is to monitor whatever extrinsic evidences of that internal calque we can find in others. These overt forms are the devices through which the anthropologist gains access to personal mysteries, private experiences -- elements of the human condition that are usually inaccessible. But when, as in the reactions to Susan Boyle, intense personal feelings burst forth in tears that astonish, we discover dimensions of the human moral sensibility that most of us are unprepared to find in ourselves. That makes Susan Boyle a special event as well as a special human being.

COLETTE DOUGLAS HOME, in The Herald, “The beauty that matters is always on the inside,” has the finest formulation on the reasons why Susan Boyle is a cultural phenomenon. Click on the title above for a link to the full statement, but here I reproduce a few statements that well capture some of the reasons that Susan Boyle has become an icon of the moral sensibility of so many.

“[O]nly the pretty are expected to achieve. Not only do you have to be physically appealing to deserve fame; it seems you now have to be good-looking to merit everyday common respect. If, like Susan (and like millions more), you are plump, middle-aged and too poor or too unworldly to follow fashion or have a good hairdresser, you are a non-person. . . .

But then ridicule is nothing new in Susan Boyle's life. She is a veteran of abuse. She was starved of oxygen at birth and has learning difficulties as a result. At school she was slow and had frizzy hair. She was bullied, mostly verbally. . . .

She didn't have boyfriends, is a stranger to romance and has never been kissed. . . . . Singing was her life-raft.

She lived with her parents in a four-bedroom council house and, when her father died a decade ago, she cared for her mother and sang in the church choir. . . . and being a carer isn't a glamorous life, as the hundreds of thousands who do that most valuable of jobs will testify. . . .

But [her frumpiness] is often evidence of a life lived selflessly; of a person so focused on the needs of another that they have lost sight of themselves.

. . . Susan Boyle's mother encouraged her to sing. She wanted her to enter Britain's Got Talent. But the shy Susan hasn't been able to sing at all since her mother's death two years ago. She wasn't sure how her voice would emerge after so long a silence. Happily, it survived its rest.

. . . . Susan is a reminder that it's time we all looked a little deeper. She has lived an obscure but important life. She has been a companionable and caring daughter. It's people like her who are the unseen glue in society; the ones who day in and day out put themselves last. . . .

Susan has been forgiven her looks and been given respect because of her talent. She should always have received it because of the calibre of her character.


Anonymous said...

Dear Dr Canfield ou have obviously given alot of thought to why people keep watching this video. I am one of those obsessive watchers - I love music and singing like that would always make me cry.

But there is something more to it than that. Susan Boyle reminds me of my sister, who also has a bit of a learning disability. She also mercifully has that forthright smiley personality. I remember a line from Cate Blanchett I think it came from the Australian film Little Fish - it was said of someone that they were 'a shiny shiny girl'. Susan is older but her spiritual grace or her humility, or her sense of confidence, optimism and humour are quite apparent.

To me that is why people watch the video - it is the combination of her qualities, and her voice that speaks to people.

If there is an echo from the world around us - perhaps it is that we all know good people, who are not applauded. But this one has luckily made it through the celebrity curtain, and is standing in front of the world.

Ricky L. Johansen, Jr., PhD said...

Susan Boyle's singing made me cry and I listened to it over and over again, over 12 times and each time I cried, it was that moving!! Your number one fan in Olympia, Washington, USA. Ricky L. Johansen, Jr., Ph.D. (retired)

Golden Goose said...

Dr Canfield, you write beuatifully. Anthropolgy has always fascinated me and you totally hit the nail on its head with your take on the Susan Boyle phenomenon.

My take on this? I was reminded of this passage by Salman Rushdie which I scribbled in my Moleskin back in September 2002:

Five mysteries hold the keys to the unseen: the act of love, and the birth of a baby, and the contemplation of great art, and being in the presence of death or disaster, and hearing the human voice lifted in a song. These are the occasions when the bolts of the universe fly open and we are given a glimpse of what is hidden: an eff of the ineffable. Glory burts upon us in such hours: the dark glory of earthquake, the slippery wonder of new life, the radiance of Vina's singing."
- Salman Rushdie, in The Ground Beneath Her Feet