College is known for those uber-cliche moments where some incredibly brilliant person says something that changes your entire worldview. A professor’s genius insight that sends you on a path of intellectual inquiry, a classmate’s drunken/high/late-night eureka moment on the meaning of life, the day you realize that this whole experience is a tiny bubble in the big wide world and nothing that happened there will really matter unless you believe it does. I had one of those moments early in my studies, when my freshman intro English professor started our fall semester with an unforgettable metaphor for the “literary modes.” He likened romance to spring, the season of love and birth and singing critters (i.e., a Disney movie); tragedy to winter, peopled by black-cloaked Hamlets and fallen Satanic angels; and satire to . . . autumn . . . Huhn? The whole room looked a little perplexed at this last one. Even the professor’s charming British accent couldn’t mask the quiet incertitude in his voice at this proclamation.
“On a clear autumn day”—much like the one just outside the window, which the class had a perfect view of just behind his head—“when the sky is overcast, the air is crips, the spaces between the leaves make dancing shadows, everything is laid bare. You can see the truth of the world and feel its slight sting that makes you want to retreat into your jumper. That’s what satire does: forces us to really look at, and breathe in, truth, because there’s no other option.”
This was the first of many elegant metaphors this professor would spin in our five months together, but ultimately the one that stuck the most. It makes sense because I’m a fall girl by nature (vata pride!), but also because it was the most anti-metaphoric of his three examples. The seasonal correlative didn’t really need to be there given the essential truthiness of the idea itself. It also spoke pointedly to how apparently paradoxical art’s means and ends can be: art is meant to entertain, to be enjoyable, but it also sometimes comes with a dose of honesty you weren’t quite prepared for, one that made you cringe at what was happening outside you and within yourself to produce this expression.
I was reminded of this lecture in a most surprising context last week. One of the most soothing and transcendent ways to experience art is in the Rubin Museum in Chelsea, an institution that values the power of sound, and I was there for the first time watching a movie I admittedly hated up until that point: The Princess Bride. When I first encountered in high school, it was beloved by the cool-lit crowd I was tangentially related to but secretly couldn’t stomach; the boys who identified with T. S. Eliot, and the girls who swooned over Sylvia Plath (both great poets, undoubtedly, but a bit too angsty even for my teenage self). Watching the movie then was torture. I had no tolerance for the bad humor, the bad production quality, the disgusting Rodents of Unusual Size, the devoted blonde-blue-eyed lovers. In other words, I had no tolerance for, or rather no understanding of, the film’s deeply satiric impulse, and its sophisticated use of cliche and kitsch to make its point about true love and its viability.
For years I harbored this attitude, thinking myself above such an icon of low culture. But in a space housing some of the world’s highest cultural objects, and while seated before a man whose speciality is guiding people toward creating an “enlightened society,” I realized how blinded I’d been by the dirty, naive glasses through which I had previously seen the film. Ethan Nichtern, senior teacher of Shambhala mindfulness meditation and founder of The Interdependence Project, was leading a screening and discussion in conjunction with the publication of his new book The Dharma of “The Princess Bride,” which views the film through a Buddhist framework. This premise may seem “inconceivable” at first glance, but Nichtern is utterly convincing in how he maps the main tenants of the movie and its characters onto Buddhist principles, particularly those of the Shambhala lineage wherein the fundamental inner goodness of humanity is the foundation. Meditation, the clearing of the mind’s eye, is the key to discovering the inner goodness in ourselves, and then in each other. Taking it one step further, Shambhala empowers student to turn that vision into a reality through “enlightened society”—forming a community where people do good in the world by enacting the belief in our inherent stock of goodness.
As most of us who have tried meditation know, it’s pretty darn hard to even approach a state of mental clarity, let alone accept our essential goodness in a world being led by truly dangerous (or “misguided,” as Nichtern put it) people. It’s equally hard to see how a film like The Princess Bride, where ridiculous cliche rules the day, has anything serious to say about humanity. What helped this idea click for me was the turn in our discussion to Shambhala’s iconography of a (literal double-edged) sword: a blade that cuts through the b.s. of people’s language, of the masks they wear (i.e., the film’s famous line “People in masks cannot be trusted”), of the visual and narrative manipulations media conjures so that we look at everything but the reality of our world and news cycle. Swordplay was an essential part of the movie’s emotional and narrative trajectory, even the ambidextrous handling of the player, and was often useful in determining the truth of one’s identity. At the same time, the Buddhist sword has a softness; the side that saddens slightly when you execute your best sword-fighting choreography in the hope of cutting through to the truth, only to realize that you may not ever know who is underneath the mask you’re fighting. He might never know his true self either. But there’s relief, because the mere knowledge of the truth’s existence is something one can take on with bravery and, again, kindness. You see the truth of yourself, of others, and you do the good thing anyway; Westley, for instance, sees the truth of Humperdinck’s selfish scheming, and spares him.
Stepping back further to the meta-narrative of the movie, and of Nichtern’s book, is an even more fundamental truth about how we can come closer to that clear-eyed-autumn vision in daily life. The film is framed by a grandfather reading his grandson the story of The Princess Bride. The fairy tale is rather flat in and of itself; it gains more meaning, though, when it’s layered into an examination of the grandfather and grandson’s current relationship. The love, revenge, and betrayal serve as a way to watch the boy and man’s connection grow: the boy is sick and doesn’t want to be cheek-pinched by his crazy Grandpa, he assumes that the story will be too “kissy” and initially resists the draw of the love story, and Grandpa wears a mask of his own, sneaking these lessons about life into a rainbows-and-magic package that ultimately gives him victory. In the end, there is a truly happy ending solidified by a statement of ultimate truth-perception: “As you wish.” You are the teller of your own story; the ending is what you see it to be.
And in the telling of the story, we get more information about human nature than even the story itself. Nichtern drove this point home that evening, citing how it’s the “delivery of the recipe” for goodness that matters as much as the steps; that the practice of storytelling is a more spiritual act in and of itself than the spiritual content. In other words, it matters that we are able to project a truth in our stories, but also that we tell them truthfully. The narratives we dream up in words, songs, visual art, and everything in between, ultimately created to help us understand our place in the world, need to be shared and part of our being in the world to have an effect. As we all know, there are a lot of disingenuous stories floating out there these days. When we hear a “story” that’s been filtered through a hundred different points of view and commentaries on the news, for instance, that is not a story imbued with truth; it asks us to look at the commentary and away from the news itself, including our own part in it. Likewise with the yarns we weave in our own minds: stories told by ourselves to ourselves, often about nonrealities in the past or future that prevent us from being present, here and now.
Reconsidering The Princess Bride, and all such secretly wise cultural commentaries, in this light, I’m tempted to make what surely is an etymological faux pas and use my yogic swordpen to cut up satire into its component parts: sat, which in Sanskrit means “truth,” and ire, or “anger.” Obviously the Shambhala way is not an angry one, but it is an impassioned one, driven by the tapas or heat of intense practice and effort that’s essential to yoga and practice. So maybe that bite in the brisk autumnal skies of satire isn’t a punishing one, forcing us out of the elements and into seclusion. Maybe it’s one that calls us to action, that spurns us to do the work of wiping clean our inner eye throughout focused concentration, and ultimately allows us to see a world full of goodness every day, no matter what the forecast. To see a world that, like the love of Buttercup, is worth fighting for.