Nyla Matuk

Just Another Angel In The Crowd

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Elaine & Mr. Pitt” (Seinfeld Season 6, 1995)

I’m asking myself what ‘grace’ means. Is it a quality of mercy, noblesse oblige, some largesse we’ve lost? Sometimes I have an image of the Royal family visiting with commoners and asking them all sorts of questions about themselves, their jobs, their children and their lives of ordinariness. They efface themselves, and this is grace.

Is grace looking at us for better answers, expecting more? Are we meant to perpetually rise above? I don’t ask these questions sardonically, but rather want to know if we’ve lost a certain dialogic civility.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Elaine Job Interview” (Seinfeld Season 6, 1995)

You either have grace or you don’t. Even in the secular world, we say that it has been given to us. By whom if not a divine entity? Or is it the luck of the nature/nurture draw?

I think of the young, self-sacrificing women of Lars Von Trier’s films. His “golden-heart” heroines possess so much grace — as he perceives it: selflessness, refusal of self-pity, naïve indulgence of the needs and weaknesses of others — that they become compliant slaves, willing martyrs, Joan of Arcs. Consider the compliant, childlike Bess of “Breaking the Waves” (1996) or blind Selma in “Dancer In The Dark” (2000) who is exploited, robbed, framed, and unjustly condemned to death by hanging, even though her every action has been intended to help and protect her son and the people around her, including her persecutors. Von Trier returns to this same fixation in “Dogville,” and this time even naming his heroine Grace.

Lars Von Trier, “Dogville” (2003)

The concept of grace will always be attached to its divine roots. It seems to involve not only elegance of form but also the ability to accommodate the inferiorities of others. Has it always been seen as a feminine quality? For example, when we see in film or television, over and over again, a woman slapping a man’s face for saying or doing something unkind (though it’s now a lost device, the way a woman opening her powder compact, peering into the mirror, and applying lipstick is also now never seen in film or television) are we meant to understand her slap as a version of grace? Is it grace in the context of insult? And when she does this (and he does not react in kind), the message is, “there, I’ve registered my unhappiness with what you did. And if you retaliate in kind, well, then, you’ve taken this contretemps well out of the orbit of grace.”

Whit Stillman, “Metropolitan” (1990)

And then comes shame. Her shame, and his. There is the slight shame of being slapped on the face, but there would be the much, much greater shame of retaliation.

At the end of “Breaking the Waves,” the bells of heaven ring out (we see them hanging in the clouds) to signal that a person with divine grace passed to the other side. In “Dogville,” the heroine escapes her “trance” and inflicts devastating, bloody revenge upon her torturers. We feel gratified, but we assume it means she forgoes her namesake as well as divine recognition on Judgment Day.

There is grace in the restraint of this young man in a dinner jacket. Don’t ruffle more feathers, take it like a man, keep calm and carry on. One simply expresses one’s difficulties in the world and then one heads out to Grand Central station, where “the people are nicer.”

Whit Stillman, “Metropolitan” (1990)

It seems the slap might be more graceful than spitting in the face, stomping down on the foot with one’s foot, shoving, or beating fists against his chest.

What is an example of a more dated version of a lack of grace? And why do I see grace divided along gender lines? Kissing and telling, by either a man or a woman is always graceless. So is it to have suffered an injustice and to complain or take revenge.

A friend expects a short thank you note to come his way after he has hosted a party. He writes a short note of thanks and appreciation after every get-together, no matter how informal. It’s interesting to think that I used to start every single piece of correspondence with “Dear—”. I was not merely being polite. It seemed like grace.

Maybe it is a matter of accepting one’s surroundings as they are. Not breaking a sweat. Mindfulness, a certain ease.

Dire Straits, “Wild West End” (Rockpalast, 1979)

Stepping out to Angellucci’s for my coffee beans
Checking out the movies and the magazines
Waitress she watches me crossing from the Barocco Bar
I’m getting a pickup for my steel guitar
I saw you walking out Shaftesbury Avenue
Excuse me for talking I wanna marry you
This is the seventh heaven street to me
Don’t be so proud
You’re just another angel in the crowd
And I’m walking in the wild west end
Walking with your wild best friend

And my conductress on the number nineteen
She was a honey
Pink toenails and hands all dirty with money
Greasy hair easy smile
Made me feel nineteen for a while
And I went down to Chinatown
In the backroom it’s a man’s world
All the money go down
Duck inside the doorway gotta duck to eat
Right now feels alright now
You and me we can’t beat

And a GoGo dancing girl yes I saw her
The deejay he say here’s Mandy for ya
I feel alright to see her
But she’s paid to do that stuff
She’s dancing high I move on by
The close ups can get rough
When you’re walking in the wild west end.

– Nyla Matuk

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Nyla Matuk is the author of the poetry collections, "Sumptuary Laws" and "Stranger." Her poetry, fiction, and essays have also appeared in numerous literary journals including Event, Room of One's Own, Descant, The New Yorker and Poetry Review. She has also contributed journalism on architecture and literary topics as a freelancer to the Globe and Mail and various magazines. She is editor of an anthology of poems, "Resisting Canada." For more Nyla Matuk, go here.