But before I get started...how 'bout I take you on a quick trip down memory lane?
So back in the good old days of Badger football, students brought marshmallows to home games and threw them at one another for entertainment. And you didn't just throw the marshmallows you brought. No, no. When you got hit with a marshmallow, you picked it up and threw it at someone else. It goes without saying...prior to the arrival of Barry Alvarez, games were pretty boring.
As a result of this marshmallow-throwing chicanery, I met my first "real boyfriend" in college. It was a chilly Saturday afternoon. I was wearing mittens. An incoming marshmallow smashed into my shoulder and fell to the bleachers. So I bent over and picked up the sticky, previously-thrown-by-many-people-marshmallow...and I let it fly.
Or at least I thought I did.
But actually, the marshmallow smacked square into the chest of the rather cute-ish guy standing directly behind me. And that's how we ended up dating for the next 3-4 months.
I don't remember much about that boyfriend (well actually I do, but not tons of it is favorable, and the point of this blog isn't to trash old BFs), but he was the one who took me to see Six Degrees of Separation. And he was the one who said, as we were walking out of the theater, "Well that was boring." And I said, "Um, I think there was actually a lot to it. Maybe we just didn't get it all and should talk about it?" And he said, "Well I thought it sucked." And that was the end of that conversation.
Fortunately for me, a totally awesome English professor (Jonathan Veitch) had us read the play and watch the movie in a class I took my sophomore year. If I remember correctly, the over-arching theme of the class was exploring the extent to which we create our own identities vs. the extent to which they are imposed upon us by the world with which we interact. It was a great class. And Professor Veitch is, to this day, one of the most intelligent and engaging professors I ever had.
So back to Six Degrees...(and if you haven't seen the movie or read the play, you might want to skim the synopsis here)
Obviously, one of the central themes of Six Degrees is the creation of identity and how people respond to and treat one another based on said identity. In my humble opinion, sincerity, or more precisely, authenticity, is an equally important theme in this story. Paul is pretending to be someone he isn't (a Harvard student and the son of Sidney Poitier) so he can work his way into the world of these wealthy, white families to which he so desperately wants to belong. The Kittredges fall in love with him for who he says he is (the son of a famous, ground-breaking, black actor) and who they become because they are acquainted with someone like him.
There are many noteworthy passages in Six Degrees, but the lines that rocked my socks off upon introduction to the material and continue to do so to this very day are:
(at the end of the play/movie, as Ouisa tries to come to grips with what just happened)
"And we turn him into an anecdote to dine out on. Or dine in on. But it was an experience. I will not turn him into an anecdote. How do we fit what happened to us into life without turning it into an anecdote with no teeth and a punchline you'll mouth over and over for years to come. "Tell the story about the impostor who came into our lives--" "That reminds me of the time this boy--." And we become these human jukeboxes spilling out these anecdotes. But it was an experience. How do we keep the experience?"
The idea--to use Ouisa's language--of preserving the experience and not reducing others to anecdotes is one that has stuck with me since my first experience with Six Degrees. This idea that there is a more-encompassing way of thinking about the concept of authenticity is incredibly piercing to me. Ouisa isn't just concerned with sharing her interpretation of the interaction with Paul...she is determined to preserve the integrity of the entire experience. Extending beyond the rather simple, self-gratifying notions of honestly representing ourselves or being true to ourselves and into the realm of truthfully representing life's experiences and what they mean...this idea is Six Degrees' important contribution.
So it's no longer just about me being honest with myself about me...or even me being honest with you about me. Now there is a larger sense of responsibility to what we experienced together. We must--with authenticity--capture and represent a larger moment in time, as well as the lasting impact of that moment. In Ouisa's monologue, listed above, I think you can hear her trying to capture what it meant to all of them...to her, to her husband (Flanders) and to Paul. Because how can we really grasp the complete experience, if we don't strive to understand it from the vantage points of each of the players?
Phew. Does any of this even make sense? I wrote a paper about Six Degrees for Professor Veitch many, many years ago. I worked my ass off...and got a B+. He told me I did a decent job, but still needed to work on fleshing out my ideas and expressing my thoughts on the topic. Apparently, more than 16 years later, I'm still trying to do just that...