Davin Kubota
British Literature

  Suffering, the San Greal and The Fisher King *

The Holy Grail continues to inspire, mystify, and soothe the troubled hearts of contemporary humankind. We continue to live in an age of great suffering and despair (the burden of all humanity): the homeless wandering our streets, the impoverished masses foraging for food, and those lost individuals who have forgotten the very crux of their existence--their spirituality--are all examples of the moral and psychological degradation of the modern age. The quest for the San Greal that once inspired so many hopeful knights in Britain, however, prevails in other time periods and locales, even in present day New York; the image of the Grail is a timeless one, a symbol not only of God's divine grace, but an object of great spiritual/physical healing and the alleviation of suffering. Terry Gilliam's motion picture, The Fisher King, helps to emphasize that although setting and time have changed, the quest for redemption and forgiveness embodied in the search for the Grail remains eternal. (THESIS STATEMENT)

Redemption and an end to suffering would be a welcome change to the inhabitants of New York's modern Waste Land. Jack Lucas, at the motion picture's start, is living the "inauthentic life"; he has a lucrative radio job, a high-rise apartment, luxurious possessions and a beautiful, but loveless girlfriend. We first meet Jack making other peoples' lives more miserable--he cruelly denigrates a woman with marriage problems, teases a woman who had an affair with an elected official, and tells Edwin Melnick, an introverted and mentally-disturbed individual that the "yuppies" must be stopped. Ironically, not realizing that he himself (Jack) epitomizes the yuppie way of life with his luxurious material possessions, obsessive pursuit of fame and fortune, and emphasis on self-gratification, Jack's advice will have tragic consequences--the death of seven innocent people by Edwin Melnick's hands. Thus we see from the start of the movie, the inauthenticity of trying to acquire money and fame (since Jack would like to expand his face, not only his voice into mass media). Such avarice and obsessive self-gratification on the part of thousands of people like Jack, is the way in which most of the Waste Land is formed; the dearth of human esprit de corps and empathy--a careless disregard for the thousands of homeless people, mentally-ill individuals, and criminals. In summation, the modern Waste Land can only be truly healed by "the milk of human kindness" that is latent within us all.
Various adaptations in imagery help to clarify how the Grail myth can be incorporated into a current context.

I was especially impressed by the music within the film; Donna Summer's song, "I got the power" (the Jack Lucas show's theme song) and its refrain, "The king, the king, the king's got to have it" clearly reveal that Jack has deluded himself into thinking that the inauthentic life is for him, and that his greed for fame and fortune is what guides his life. The Grail myth has always been about human suffering and redemption; when Jack is in the bathtub smearing white skin cream/cleanser on his face, he repeats "Forgive me!" a punchline taken from a T.V. sitcom; clearly, this is a foreshadowing of Jack's desire to literally "cleanse" himself of sin and ask for God's forgiveness. Other images that revolve around Jack that I really found original and innovative was the Pinnochio doll that a little boy gives to Jack in the spirit of compassion, and the weights attached to Jack's legs when he plans to throw himself into the water underneath the bridge. The Pinnochio doll is a visual reminder of how Jack is not really alive, as Pinnochio was not alive until he performed an act of empathy by saving his father from the whale. The weights attached to Jack's feet serve to remind the viewer that every person is literally bedraggled down by his or her own sin; Parry, the other main character, is weighed down by the memory of his beautiful wife who was slaughtered by Edwin Melnick, preventing Parry's rejoining of the "real" world and his ability to move on with his life. Each Grail knight is weighted down by his or her own personal sin and corruption of the spirit; it is only the Holy Grail that can remove these heavy weights and lift up the person's sense of morality and compassion.

When I was in the seventh grade, I remember visiting an old folk's home Palolo valley in Hawaii. It was Christmas, and many of the old Chinese grandfathers and grandmothers, wizened like preserved plums, would talk about their daily mahjong games and about their own lives across my island home. One old woman, wheelchair-bound and arthritic, told me that she had not seen her granddaughter in over six years for reasons not divulged; I could see this woman's pain over not seeing her grandchild actually burrowed into the wrinkles on her forehead--she was clearly weighted down not by sin, but extreme sadness and loneliness. Being seventh graders, and not even knowing these strangers, many of my classmates felt odd and alienated shaking hands with people some of my cruder classmates (in whispers) called "wrinkled prunes." Having a great-grandfather who was stricken with Alzheimer's disease, I was used to seeing and dealing with the elderly and felt an almost overwhelming empathy for this old woman. Some of my classmates were shocked when I gave this old woman a hug and comforted her; some of them wouldn't even shake their (the elderly's) hands. Sitting down with her, giving her cookies, and talking about various things was probably my first true "Grail" experience, when I understood what compassion really was. Seventh grade was the year we had completed The Once and Future King and Le Morte d'Arthur; for the first time, I realized what the Grail itself was--it was looking past the difference and strangeness of others, finding in those wrinkled, Asian faces, my own face staring back at me. I realized that when I am that age, possibly lonely, possibly childless, I would give more than anything to be hugged and cared for by a total stranger, even a dorky-looking seventh grader with braces.
The Grail "feeling" was there when I went walking in A'ala Park (where many homeless people live) not feeling disgusted and repulsed by the homeless' dirty clothes and ragged hair; it was, rather, feeling sympathy and affinity for their situation in life. I realize now, because of my visit to that Chinese old folk's home and walking through that park, that compassion is one of the only vestiges of hope left in an otherwise uncaring and sterile world. Jack and Parry, the two protagonists in The Fisher King, are both Grail hero and Fisher King combined--they epitomize each of the Grail constructs. Both characters are suffering; Jack tells Anna that he "really feels cursed, that he feels like "a magnet" who "attracts shit." Jack truly feels responsible for the death of Parry's wife; his job as a controversial disk-jockey helped to bring countless amounts of misery into the world--he titilates the crude listeners of his show by making cruel jokes about other people's sad lives. Whenever some mention of his true and painful past is mentioned, Parry also suffers; the Red Knight, a symbol of Parry's inability to cope with the brutal slaying of his wife, reappears to torment him throughout the film. Jack is chained to the inauthentic mentality; in his mind, people succeed by helping themselves and by exploiting others. I laughed at the scene where the transvestite wants to get trampled by some galloping debutante's horse; Jack's first impulse is to think that the transvestite is drunk, so he advocates letting him "sleep it off [due to alcohol]." One of the greatest lines in the movie is when the transvestite ironically chides Jack by saying, "Oh, I just love bleeding in horse shit. How very Gandhiesque of you"; the line accurately shows that Jack must learn compassion for all of God's creatures, straight or gay, wealthy or poor, sane or crazy, in the example of Gandhi and Mother Teresa (who Parry notes is retired). Everyone in the Waste Big-Appleland is so concerned about their own lives that they cannot see that below the office buildings and the money-making schemes, real human beings are living on quarters and dimes, their only subsistence pay, on a daily basis. Thus, Parry and Jack, through their individual suffering, represent the Fisher King who must be healed through compassionate love.

Our perspective on the Grail hero has been radically transfigured. Both protagonists show that they have the potential to be Grail heroes since they display compassion for others (Jack learns this quality from Parry). Parry tells Jack that Jack is "the one" who must fulfill the quest; Parry cannot complete the quest for the Grail because he is slavishly bound to the Red Knight's torture--bound to the pain of his memories. In the final climactic scene, Jack borrows Parry's clothes; thus, he assumes the role of the hero who will heal the incapacitated Fisher King [Parry]. Jack also hallucinates and receives visual reminders of Parry's pain: he sees the Red Knight in Carmichael's stained glass window, and imagines the shotgun-toting Edwin Melnick while going to steal the trophy (Grail) from Carmichael's study. Parry, up to the point of his brutal beating at the hands of the hoodlums, has been the Grail knight who gives all that he owns to those worse off than him, helps others in need, and saves Jack from the ruffians and from Jack's own attempted suicide. Again, one must conclude, the Grail myth is alive and well, since the idea of the compassionate Grail hero is emphasized in the personas of Parry and Jack.

In the Waste Land, many people are incapacitated, unconscious of their ability to live--they are in a perpetual state of life and death. Jack knows this undead feeling when he is in his alcoholic stupor; Parry is comatose as a result of remembering his former trauma, and the thousands of mental patients who are displayed in the hospitals are all in this mentally paralyzed state. The person who epitomizes this insensible state is Landon Carmichael, the wealthy billionaire who Jack finds almost dead because of an overdose of pills. Carmichael won the Grail (the trophy) in Christmas of 1932, which would have been in the midst of the Great Depression, a period in American history where many individuals were economically, morally, and physically depressed. Carmichael is another Fisher King image, a person who has found little meaning in life; although he is an extremely wealthy man, he is completely alone in his castle and it is apparent that he has no one to really care for him.
In my own experience, my great-granduncle who died when he was eighty-two, had no one to care for him and no one to truly love. Although he wasn't a rich man like Landon Carmichael, he was an extremely lonely man who found some vestige of happiness in gambling in Las Vegas, Vegas being a virtual Waste Land itself, full of greedmongers, fast money, and lust. When he was plagued with cancer, my father showed this uncle such care that I truly was impressed by my father's "extension of the Grail feeling": Dad would buy the paper for uncle Hitoshi, set his financial affairs in order, and try his best to make his uncle happy in uncle's final, extremely painful days. I think my uncle appreciated having his grandnephew show him the care that is derived from the words "family" and "love." Parry, Jack, and my father, are three men who learn and know that compassion comes from within, and because of it, people in any malevolent condition, can be healed.

My own Grail experience relates a lot to this movie, and to Robert Johnson's Grail vision. All my life, I have been blessed with parents who support me, friends who make me laugh, and no real tragedies that occurred to me. During my senior year of high school, however, I became increasingly depressed and irritable because of the many demands that four A.P. classes and forensics and a lot of other commitments placed on me, physically and mentally. One night, exhausted and returning from a grueling study session, and realizing that I had two essays due and a test to take the next day, I walked home from the bus stop and I began to cry. My family used to live in a townhouse on a hill, and you could see the stars amid the palm trees; although the night was beautiful, as it usually is where I lived, I felt inconsolably melancholic. I looked up into the sky, tears glistening on my cheeks, and I sat down on one of the steps leading to my townhouse. While I was sitting on the steps, feeling just as miserable as I could possibly be, I looked down and picked up a silver, crumpled up gum wrapper. It could have been how the starlight was shining on the gum wrapper, or how depressed I was, but I swore that I saw some vision of the Grail shining up from that aluminum foil paper. After awhile, I felt somewhat refreshed, went inside and finished some of the assignments due the next day. Seeing a visual reminder of hope in the gum wrapper, I tried my best in a very stressful situation.
In the movie, when Parry reaches into the garbage and has the tiny chair made out of wires, he says, "Sometimes, there is beauty in the trash," showing that although our lives might be filled with deadlines, murder, corruption, greed and sexual perversion, the trash of our lives can be cleaned up.

Parry says that he is the "janitor of God," while Jack notes that he is a "magnet of shit." Although all of us may attract a lot of garbage into our lives, like Parry, we can be janitors of the moral and spiritual refuse of our society and help to clean up our lives for the better. In such a way, true redemption and the healing of men and womens' hearts can truly be accomplished--in reaching out to others and alleviating their suffering and pain.