My first year in graduate school I stuffed my schedule with courses in philosophy of religion and gender and queer theory; the material in those courses not only became central to my own work and teaching, but burned the circuitry of my psychic life. The lion’s share of my emotional vocabularies, coping structures, and understandings of self and love and loss comes from the texts and pedagogies of those baptismal months. And with all due respect to the years of work behind and ahead of me, maybe the best way to tell you about the relationships between Freud and Augustine and Judith Butler and Jesus and me might be to say that most of it I learned many years earlier from a scene in The Lion King.
Full disclosure, however: despite my, like, amniotic love for the The Lion King, there are aspects of the film that make me uncomfortable and angry, even though I know they are perhaps the only politically viable stories to tell in a Disney film. Scar is what queer readers might call a "deadly sissy"-- a malignant threat to a heterosexual dynasty, infuriated by his impotence, marked by physical weakness and leanness, resentful, malicious effeminacy, treachery, and association with other outcast deviants (the hyenas). Mufasa and Simba, on the other hand, are manly, monogamous tanks. Once Scar deposes the reigning heterosexual family, the circle of life is broken--the landscape literally becomes a black, bleak, lifeless boneyard---until Simba's triumphal life-ejaculating roar re-colors the savanna. (NB: Lion prides are not dynastic, and young males usually leave between 2 and 3 years old to take over other prides, kill the resident cubs, bone each lioness, and nap. Though I remain unconvinced that the cubs don't ride around on ostrich asses, because, please.)
The scene I'm talking about, however, is during Simba's exile. Rafiki, having caught Simba's "scent" in the air--the scent of the promise of life, restoration, latency, unclaimed birthright--has followed him to his No Worries Hakuna Matata land of plenty and anomie. Taunting Simba with nonsense, he finally whispers, "You're Mufasa's boy," prompting Simba to run after him. "You knew my father?" Rafiki responds, "Correction, I know your father." The scene's pulse quickens, the music becomes martial and insistent when Simba sighs that his father died long ago. Rafiki jumps up excitedly: "He's alive. I'll show him to you. I know the way." What follows is a masterful dreamlike pursuit sequence through the bases and roots of knotted trees. We don't know if we're above or underground; Simba, the brick-house big cat, crawls slowly, clumsily, desperately curious. I remember watching this scene the first time and feeling electrified at the possibility, the hope, that Simba would in fact meet his resurrected father in the open beyond the gnarled gauntlet. Rafiki stops Simba, parts a sheet of tall grass, and whispers, "Look down there." Simba peers down into a perfectly clear shining pool and sees himself. Deflated, he looks away: that's not my father, that's just me. Rafiki: "look… harder. He lives in you." But Mufasa is not Aslan. Unlike Bambi's mother, we have seen his dead body. (Like a reverse doubting Thomas, I could not quite believe it.) He appears as a specter in the sky to say, "Mark me. Remember me"--the words of Hamlet's father's ghost.
"Remember me"; "remember who you are"--I heard these exhortations, and still hear them, not as reminders of Simba's divine right of kingship, but in a literal, physical sense of the words themselves. Re-member yourself. Re-member your members. Put back together the parts that make you up--what in Freud's German literally translates to "investments" or "the places you've set yourself in." Which is only to say that the loss of these loves, these parts, would transform you and will transform you. Which is to say, says the father's ghost, you do not remember me because you have not grieved me; you have not re-membered yourself. Make my death a part of your life and your living. Not because you have rejoiced in it, but because it is a loss that brakes and builds you.
For me this does not mean that you will take your father’s place, that you will fully re-member yourself through your identification with him, and that he has therefore been successfully mourned as an honored legacy continued in and by you. (For Bible breathers: “Seeing you have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man, that is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him” (Colossians 3:10)). It does not mean that we become the fully re-membered, resurrected bodies of our fathers, mothers, formative loves and teachers. We are never fully re-membered in memory and resurrection (Mufasa, the father) by those who re-member us and thus re-member themselves (Simba, the son, who becomes a father in the end) because losses and absences are real and cannot be undone, even by love and helpful meerkats. After his famous conversion in the Milanese garden—“Pick up and read, and put on the new man, Jesus Christ”—Augustine in his Confessions gives us one of the most beautiful passages in theological literature on memory and desire, continually pursuing the God whom he loves, who is in him and eludes him. “Late have I loved you […] late have I loved you. […] You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours” (Book X.27.38). Augustine has converted, but there is no consummation; though he seeks God in the “vast fields and palaces of memory,” again God retreats. “If I find you outside my memory, I am not mindful of you. And how shall I find you if I am not mindful of you?” (Book X.17.26) We’re not talking about a dead God here, but a God that is always greater than we can remember. So Augustine’s love beckons him to the perpetually unfinished re-membering of himself and God.
Full disclosure, encore: J. Christ is not in my wardrobe. But Augustine’s ongoing re-membering—both of his spiritual body “after” conversion and of his God in his memory—takes place between the presence and absence of the beloved, the old man and the new one, the realities of loss and the possibilities of remembering. It’s about the fog of desire, memory, and the parts of us that are made up of our love for the living and the dead. It’s about what we say to the dead to keep them alive: “Wait. Don’t go. Don’t leave me,” as Simba says to the sky.
Thanks go to this tumblr for this and all of the incredible gifs in this post.
What important life lessons have you learned from children's movies?