23A Vane Attempt

"Don't Need a Weatherman To Tell Which Way the Wind Blows" 

A Series of Innocuous Blogs for Vainglorious Edification.

A Matter of “Doubt”
December 20, 2007

There is in the present day media lexicon a new word for thoughtfulness and it is, “amorphous.”   Amorphous is defined as something “without clear shape or structure.”   It is a subtle movement in thinking from fixed, empirical ideas to a new kind of fuzzy, doubting logic.  It is mirrored in modern physics by the recognition of quantum states that represent neither a one or zero.  And in the notion of particles that occupy a “superposition” where bits of matter are literally everywhere at once.  What has brought this about is our reading of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning play “Doubt.”  It is a good and thoughtful play addressing a disturbing moral issue in organized religion.  While the drama is built around the possibility of  an improper relationship between an alter boy and a priest - Shanley introduces myriad other elements to shade the conflict and soften the edges.  We are meant to see each character with a nearly equal dollop of uncertainty or doubt.  Shanley claims in his prologue that, “The beginning of change is the moment of Doubt.”  He says that in today’s world doubting is the path of the wise - and thus he creates a play in which nothing appears wholly true. 

What we find interesting about this trend toward amorphous thought is its omnipresence in our world.  The most dramatic moments in sports these days are razor-close plays in which the call could go either way.  We watch in slow motion over and again the ball bounce near a sideline and we are asked, “Is it in or is it out?”  The answer is meant to be amorphous.  Without clear shape or structure.  Herein we are told, lies wisdom.  Yet, ironically we are skeptical about this notion of doubt.  Indeed from the philosophical point of view all things for a very long time have been questionable.  The nature of philosophy is to question even the existence of firmly agreed systems like mathematics.  But philosophical doubt is different than this new amorphous doubt.  Philosophical doubt is built on the heretical idea that all authority can and should be questioned.  Questioning entrenched systems of government, religion, social structure is the foundation of good philosophy.  Amorphous doubt appears to suggest that indecision is a natural state.  We disagree.

Shanley’s play introduces a strict authoritarian school principle to challenge the priest and his apparent dalliance with the alter boy.  To further complicate the matter, Shanley makes the boy the school’s first black student whose parent wants him to graduate at any cost.  And finally we are given an innocent nun, who, caught in the middle of the scrape, is torn between her superior principle and the compassionate priest.   This all makes for very fine drama and it is clear from our reading why the Pulitzer was awarded to the playwright.  It reaffirms the role of human drama as a catalyst for serious discussion of unsettling ideas.  But we want to challenge the notion that doubt and indecision are a new state of being.  Because without agreement on a few touchstones of reality we must accept a universe in which even our most trusted friends and beliefs are flimsy apparitions.  While some of us might choose to live this way, we do not.  And from a contentious point of view, an indecisive, doubting person is an ungrounded adversary.

In a discussion of the play a friend was disappointed in the pat ending where the firmest believer suddenly suffers paroxysms of doubt.  We felt the same about another character.  While doubt of others may be a doorway to knowledge, self-doubt can be a destructive tool of coercion.  The more a person is pressed to be doubtful, the greater their indecisiveness.  And the indecisive person is a vulnerable person.   Shanley’s play suggests that indecision and lack of faith is some kind of virtue.  We sincerely doubt this.  We prefer to know that faith, belief and trust are immutable, real ideas that bind men to each other and their higher influences.  Doubt is of no greater or less value than is belief.  Together they make a whole.