PBS ran the San Francisco Ballet’s production of “The Little Mermaid” the other night. It was beautiful, and deeply, deeply sad. The Disney movie has Andersen’s mermaid making the transfer from fish to woman with little difficulty, but this mermaid suffers terribly. In one of the most affective performances I’ve ever seen, the dancer Yuan Yuan Tan wakes up with legs and feet, her wonderful fish tail gone. Because she’s in love with an earthling Prince, she wants legs and feet, and she counts her toes and fingers with glee, but she doesn’t know what to do with her new limbs and they dangle and tangle up with one another as, fish at heart, she tries to move through air as she had through water. It doesn’t translate.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot—life’s different forms—like the snail I talked about in a recent post, moving without sight and sound, finding its way through life with touch, taste and smell. On a less drastic level, I’ve been reading about color-blindness, especially when it’s extreme. There are people who can see only in black and white. The wonderful Oliver Sacks tells of a painter who, mid-career, loses his ability to see color. After a period of despair and readjustment, he begins to paint in black and white. If it were possible to have his color vision restored, he wouldn’t want it. “The world he perceives is—in Sacks words, too “coherent and complete”—to want any other. To see in black and white is to see texture where you missed it before, to trace the shapes of things where you never did, to appreciate the intersection of one thing with another.
Unlike the Mermaid, the painter makes the transition, and that despite the physical disabilities the truly colorblind can face in their daily lives.
I’ll bet Matisse wouldn’t have have made the same transition. Color was essential to his being.
I know that fishiness, the life of the snail, and color vision are very different, but the painful clumsiness of the Mermaid made me think about each of us and how different we are. In The Little Mermaid, the Poet, Hans Christian Anderson, is also in love with the yellow-haired Prince. The Poet is another aspect of the Mermaid, and her creator. He has as much trouble as she does swimming through air, relating to people, achieving love.
The Poet and the Mermaid are not unlike elderly people who used to run and flex muscle, wiggle and flirt, and move from one place to another effortlessly and with style, who suddenly catch a glimpse of themselves in a mirror, or wake up with stiff joints. Things have changed. They don’t look or move the way they did. Nothing is what it was. Like the Mermaid, they’re not used to their bodies. They’ve become disjointed and turned all akimbo.
Which reminds me of a recent TV interview with Justin Hines, the wheelchair-bound Canadian singer who is seriously disabled with a rare disease called Larsen’s syndrome. When he was five or six years old, Hines recalls, he asked his mother what it felt like to walk. Taken aback, she came up with as perfect an answer as possible. She put each of his feet on her own, and holding him up, walked with him. Walking, it turned out, wasn’t at all what it was cracked up to be, remembers Hines. How much better to roll around on four wheels.