“Mercury revolves around our mutual parent sun in such a way that one face is always turned toward the sun and is brilliantly lit and burningly hot; and the other side is always turned toward the cold dark of interstellar space. But Mercury oscillates slightly on its axis, and thereby sunside and nightside are integrated by a temperate zone which knows both heat and cold, light and dark. So the two disparate sides of Mercury are not separated by a chasm; the temperate zone mediates […] thereby making wholeness instead of brokenness.”
–Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season
I see this as a theme in a lot of Jim Henson’s work; the disparate halves of light and dark, warm and cold, inward vision and outward vision. And while I don’t claim to know what he thought and felt about things–while I always have to be very careful not to assume that I know–the fact that the theme showed up as often as it did in his work implies that he thought a lot about it, and perhaps he struggled to find that temperate zone between dayside and nightside.
This duality is present all through Jim’s work with the Muppets. It can reach the greatest possible heights of silliness, with explosions, boomerang fish, and characters eating each other, but it can also plumb the greatest depths of poignant emotion.
On Fraggle Rock, Jim played two different characters: Cantus and Convincing John–or, as I call them, the sage and the showman. I think that each represented a different facet of his personality.
(As an aside, I’m always amused by the fact that Convincing John’s baloobius, i.e. the tuft of fur at the end of his tail, doesn’t match the color of the hair on his head. The implication being that he dyes his hair. I think that’s hilarious.)
When you watch Jim Henson in interviews–particularly when he doesn’t have a puppet in his hands–he always seems very gentle and soft-spoken and often somewhat ill at ease, with a simultaneously endearing and infuriating habit of putting his hands up by his mouth, often muffling his words somewhat. In interviews, I find Jim to be very much the sage; for example, here’s an interview in which he makes some very farsighted predictions about the future of television technology. This interview is also interesting because you can see the difference between the way that Jim casually chats and laughs a bit with the people in the room before the interview starts (and after it ends) with his more calm and serious demeanor during the interview itself.
But he could also be a showman. There was a pitch reel–which, unfortunately, I can no longer find–for an early iteration of The Jim Henson Hour wherein Jim himself gets up and gives a pitch for this kooky TV show he wants to make, with a rotating schedule of content. From what I remember of it, he seemed much more comfortable in front of the camera (perhaps because he was working from a script and not answering questions extemporaneously); he assumed something of the energy, the gestures, and the vocal tone of the carnival barker, and his hands never went anywhere near his mouth. It’s a completely different attitude from that which he has in interviews. So, which is the “real” Jim Henson–the showman or the sage?
Well, that’s the thing–they’re both real. Or, in a sense, neither is real because a human being is more than the sum of his multiple facets.
There are other examples of this duality in Jim Henson’s work–Bert and Ernie come to mind–but perhaps the most dramatic example is the Skeksis and the Mystics (or urRu) in The Dark Crystal.
(WARNING: Thirty-five-year-old spoilers ahead.)
The first time I ever saw The Dark Crystal was fairly recently, within the last five years or so. I was completely blown away by it. At first the story seems like a rather familiar story of good versus evil. We have our protagonist Jen who–like Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter–is a lonely young orphan, fostered by the gentle urRu after his parents were killed, with a special destiny to go on a quest and defeat evil by finding a MacGuffin, in this case the crystal shard with which he is to heal the eponymous Dark Crystal, by which the Skeksis will apparently be vanquished.
Ah, but then Jim Henson throws us a curveball: it turns out that the Skeksis and the urRu are actually the same creatures, unnaturally split apart when the Crystal was broken, and when Jen heals the Crystal at the time of the Great Conjunction of the three suns, he sets off a chain reaction that reintegrates the two divided halves–Skeksis and urRu–back into their singular selves; the glorious UrSkeks.
This is not a straightforward story about good and evil after all. The Skeksis and the urRu need each other. One cannot live without the other. Without the Skeksis, the urRu lack agency. Without the urRu, the Skeksis lack moral fiber. It’s not that the Skeksis are evil and the urRu are good. The real evil is the division between them.
This is an old idea–dating at least as far back as Plato–with far-reaching social, political, historical, etc. implications around the world–but it’s applicable to the situation that we, as Muppet fans, are in now with regard to the Schism between Disney and Steve Whitmire.
It is not, as one faction might argue, that Kermit is good but Steve is evil. Nor is it, as another faction might argue, that Steve is good but Disney is evil. It is not that one faction of Muppet fans are good and any and all other factions are evil. But in each case, whenever we stop cooperating and start competing, whenever we start believing that some people’s contributions are not necessary or not important, whenever we start thinking, “I am right; therefore, anyone who disagrees with me is automatically wrong”…those are the things that divide us, and it is the division itself that is inherently evil. As Dumbledore says at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”
So how do we bridge the chasm between sunside and nightside? How do we find the temperate zone that moderates the two? How do we move from brokenness to wholeness without subordinating one side or the other?
The reason I started this blog is because I think it is imperative to keep the conversation going in a civilized way; to firmly but gently probe and palpate the bruises, the open wounds, and the recently formed scar tissue–not with the object of causing more pain but with the goal of diagnosing and treating the wounds that this Schism has caused.
At the same time, I think it is equally imperative to respect and validate opinions with which we disagree. All too often–not only as Muppet fans, but as human beings–we fall into the trap of thinking, “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” We assume that the dissenter must necessarily be wrong. We equate “having a different opinion” with “having a bias.” We regard anyone who disagrees with us as an evil enemy. I’m as guilty of that as anyone, by the way.
However, it doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to see things from another point of view without losing your own, and it is possible to recognize a valid viewpoint while still disagreeing with it. The more we are able to have a respectful dialogue, and try to see things from another point of view, the closer we can move toward a consensus.
If there’s one thing that I have in common with Jim Henson, it’s that I’m averse to conflict of any kind. And speaking strictly for myself, the reason why I’m conflict-averse is that I’m terrified of losing my temper. I’ve always seen myself as something akin to Jekyll and Hyde, or the Incredible Hulk; when I get angry, it’s as though I turn into a completely different person, and I’m terrified of what I might say and whom I might hurt while in that angered state. And I do work on trying to integrate the light and dark sides, and to channel whatever anger I feel constructively–to turn a negative into a positive–but it’s a constant struggle.
That’s why I prefer to write a blog, so I have the chance to rethink and revise my words before they are published, and also, so that I don’t come across as spamming other blogs and forums through lengthy, in-depth analysis.
It doesn’t come easily or naturally to me to jump into the fray and take the risk of being provoked into that angry state that I so fear, but if it helps to get–or to keep–the dialogue going, it’s well worth the risk.