O Brave New World: The Phoenix and Survival

Monday Morning Musings:

“There was a silly damn bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up. He must have been the first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but . . .we know all the damn silly things we’ve done. . .someday we’ll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them.

–Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

In mythology, the phoenix is a bird that is constantly reborn. It is associated with the sun—sometimes pictured with a nimbus around its head—and it is said to rise from the ashes of its predecessor. Time and again, civilizations also fall, and others rise from their ashes. Humans seem to have an infinite capacity for destruction. We also seem to have an infinite capacity for expressing our feelings, emotions, and desires through various forms of artistic expression, whether it is painting on a cave wall, secretly writing in a journal, or performing theatrical works in varied and sometimes bizarre locales. We find friendship and love in times of destruction and strife, the need to connect with others often overpowering thoughts of surviving without them.

You know those “what if” games? What books would you want if you were stuck on a deserted island? What belongings would you rush to gather in a disaster? How would you survive a zombie apocalypse? I don’t know. How can anyone know?

The book, Station Eleven, explores survival in the aftermath of a worldwide plague, and along the way it discusses theater, comic books, love, and loss. The story moves back and forth through time and the characters’ lives. One horse-drawn wagon of the Traveling Symphony caravan carries the slogan, “survival is insufficient.” The author of the novel, Emily St. John Mandel, has said she “stole it [the line] shamelessly from Star Trek: Voyager.”

The novel is about how people survive after present day civilization and conveniences no longer exist. What would we value in this brave new world? The Traveling Symphony performs Shakespeare and classical music; one of the actresses collects editions of an obscure comic book and treasures a snow globe. The book makes the argument that art and music of all types are necessary—simply surviving is not enough. Human connection—friendship, love, family bonds—all of these are necessary, too. And sometimes strangers connect us in ways we can never imagine–and perhaps will never know. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, obtaining food and shelter are crucial, but Mandel argues they are not enough. Humans want more. We want stories and art, too.

After finishing the book, I watched the Star Trek Voyager episode that inspired Mandel. (“C’mon,” I said to my husband, “don’t you want to watch Voyager again after all these years?” He did not seem overjoyed, but he watched it with me, demonstrating that indeed in marriage, too, “Survival is insufficient.”) In the episode, Seven of Nine, formerly of the Borg collective, realizes that living in freedom, even for a brief time, is more valuable that living in bondage or in a life you did not choose.

The German movie, Phoenix, explores the idea of survival in a different way. In this 2014 film by director Christian Petzold (that just opened in Philadelphia), Nelly, a concentration camp survivor (the wonderful actress Nina Hoss) returns to Berlin after undergoing reconstructive facial surgery because of injuries inflicted upon her during the war. She has endured unimaginable horrors, and now she wants to find her pianist husband, Johnny. She finds him working as a bus boy in a jazz club, the Phoenix, in the American zone. How did he survive? Did he betray her to the Nazis? How can he not know his own wife? The movie makes viewers reflect upon what we might do in order to survive, and what lies might we then tell ourselves to ease our guilt? We are shown photographs—that person is now dead; that person was a Nazi. “Who him?” asks Nelly. Secrets and lies. What is the truth? There are echoes of Hitchcock here. But in postwar Berlin, many people assumed new identities. Her friend Lene, who knows Nelly’s story, believes she and Nelly should immigrate to Palestine and build a new life. Nelly, however, wants to rebuild her old life—and herself—from the ruins that literally surround her. The song “Speak Low” by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash is repeated throughout the movie, the lyrics speaking words that the characters themselves cannot voice to one another.

“The curtain descends,

Everything ends

Too soon, too soon.”

Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash, “Speak Low”

Station Eleven seems to offer more hope in its belief that love and art will triumph. It is set mainly in a post-apocalyptic world, but almost two decades removed from the plague that nearly wiped out humanity. Phoenix is set immediately after the end of WWII. Perhaps a re-born Nelly will, in time, rise in the post-war world. Perhaps she will find joy in song again. Phoenix may not be a great movie, but I can’t seem to stop thinking about it.

In Station Eleven, there is Shakespeare, comic books, art, music, and story telling. Those who remember the past, tell stories of air conditioning and the Internet to those who were born later. In Fahrenheit 451, a passage from which is quoted above, there is a future world where books and reading are banned. Rebel survivors memorize and tell stories so they will not be forgotten. In Phoenix, perhaps it is too soon. Yet Lene plays a record, saying that listening to it helped her survive the war in London. Nelly says she no longer can enjoy German songs. The survivors have survived, but at what cost? Can we be reborn in the aftermath of tragedy?

These are fictional works that share a common theme—they emphasize the importance of literature and art. Sometimes we need fiction to find the truth about our world and ourselves.

         “Some stories are true that never happened.”

-Elie Wiesel

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17 thoughts on “O Brave New World: The Phoenix and Survival

  1. I like that your musing this Monday included a book review and a reflection on literature and art. What especially stood out was your husband’s willingness to watch the Star Trek Voyager episode with you. You can tell him he gets points in my book for going beyond “survival mode” in marriage.

    Years ago I heard Elie Wiesel speak. He is wise and true as is the quote you included.

    • Thanks so much, Marian. You got “first responder” credit this week! My husband didn’t really mind watching Voyager. It used to be one of our family shows many years ago–but he was really tired that night. (But I will tell him that you give him points!) 🙂
      I imagine hearing Elie Wiesel speak was an unforgettable experience.

  2. If music and art hadn’t survived an apocalypse, mankind would have to invent or create them again in order to grow. It’s those things within the world of the arts that inspire men to better things though in this time, in this world, unfortunately not to peace.In my eyes peace is the best time of all where man can create things of inspiration and beauty.
    xxx Massive Hugs Merril xxx

  3. Merril, fabulous and thought-provoking post. I was recently daydreaming about what books I would take with me if a situation like this were to occur. I realized that one of the books would have to be a fat poetry anthology because when I considered all the narrative novels they seemed so linear that I would grow sick of reading the same two stories over and over again for the rest of my life. But each poem would be a window into other images, places, and thoughts, and I could see the poetry anthology opening up windows inside of doors inside of windows. It was a very cinematic experience just thinking about it.

    • Wow, Luanne! Thank you for your kind words and thought-provoking comment. I think when I read it often becomes a sort of cinematic experience inside my head, but I never quite thought about it the way you mentioned. I love your phrase about “opening windows inside of doors inside of windows.” I truly don’t know what I would opt for. I do wonder how many times I could read a favorite book, but I think I might also get tired of poetry and want a linear story. I hope I never have to make that choice. 😉

  4. Merril, I have been wondering how the Minecraft generation would respond to a real life crisis and what their survival skills would be like. Both of my kids do Scouts and yet their self-care skills at home are pretty poor.
    However, I agree that along with the basics of survival we need art, literature as well as artistic forms to express ourselves. When I was in hospital for 7 weeks when finally diagnosed with my auto-immune disease, my writing was so important. It really helped me get through xx Rowena

  5. Merril … I am in awe of people like Sir Nicholas Winton who saved hundreds of children by arranging passage to a safe haven. His courage and savvy helped them avoid being sent to a concentration camp. What would any of us do in a similar situation? I do hope we’re never tested on that.

    “Survival is insufficient.” Perhaps, but it might be the next best thing until you are free.

    • Thank you, Judy, for your comment. You’ve added another dimension to my post with it. Yes, of course, to survive is the first thing, but then it’s what happens after that.

      I think many of us have wondered what we would do if tested in such a situation. It takes a lot of courage to rebel–to save others, to sit at the lunch counter, to protest. And even here in the US during the 1950s, people turned their backs on people who were suspected of having communist ties or who were blacklisted.

  6. WOW! Your post drew me in because lately, I’ve been identifying with the Phoenix. Then to read on about that movie with the same title, I have now added it to my must-see list. I love reading or seeing movies about the remarkable strength the holocaust survivors had to come through such a horrendous ordeal and rebuild their lives in such remarkable ways. I feel such compassion for them.

    • I’m glad my post resonated with you, Rachel. We saw the movie at a theater in Philadelphia that shows indie and foreign films, along with a few more mainstream ones. Perhaps it will be on Netflix at some point.

  7. Station Eleven… got to find me the movie. I like to watch movies from different cultures. I remember watching one German movie when I was in England. WIll surely watch this one. Thanks for this wonderful post 🙂

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