Desire, sex, vocation

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, ‘and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town to’another due,
Labour to’admit You, but O, to no end.
Reason, Your viceroy in me, should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly;I love You, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto Your enemy;
Divorce me, ‘untie or break that knot again,
Take me to You, imprison me, for I,
Except You’enthral me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.

I’ve always had a fondness for John Donne, the ardent lover turned Anglican minister. And this, his Holy Sonnet 10 (XIV) is one of his more famous ones – and also one of the more weird. Or at least it seems weird on the outside. Donne’s positioning of himself as a bride waiting to be rescued by his one true love from a marriage to, um, Satan, draws upon a tradition that goes straight back to the Old Testament of God being a divine bridegroom seeking to marry humanity. Or, to put it in another way, human marriages are actually just a metaphor for this divine marriage (just as the relationship between parent and child is actually just a metaphor for the relationship of the Father and the Son)

Sex as metaphor doesn’t fully exhaust the Judeo-Christian understanding of sexuality, but in an odd way it does a good job of impressing on me why there are rules, man. I am just enough of pretentious aesthete to be less inclined towards doing something if I fear that it would be aesthetically incorrect. I think, in spite of all my philosophy-majoring, I still look at reality primarily in terms of storytelling and art as opposed to a priori and a posteriori.

All this is something of a preamble to saying that, while I affirm the Catholic teaching on homosexuality, how, exactly, I apply it to my understanding of my life has been a work in progress. I’ve only been doing this for about three years. So while I don’t mind thinking out loud like this, I’m loathe to present myself as an exemplar who has all the answers.

I’m particularly not satisfied with how my most recent post on this went, so I’m going to revisit that topic: if diddling other men is not a part of God’s plan for sex, then the desire to do so isn’t either. The question then is what we do with that – particularly with regard to people like me, for whom it is a desire deeply entrenched in our psyches.

As I have said before, I have no faith in the claims of orientation therapy. It seems that, to the extent it effects a change in people, it tends to be in areas other than same-sex desires as such – things like continence and so forth. Otherwise, I view it as a bit like gambling – a waste of time and money for a lot of people, and actually harmful for some. Some people do experience more fluidity in their sexual desires than others; it’s the idea that you can brute force this that I find unconvincing.

There may be, I suppose, some time in the future where we will have the tech and know-how to make the human psyche more plastic than it is now. And that as a result orientation change becomes more of a real thing. That seems to open an ethical can of worms in its own right: making personality malleable opens up the possibility of both cosmeticizing personality traits, and of putting it to the use of more creepily orwellian purposes. There seems to be an intrinsic violence in the idea that makes me wonder whether it would ever be prudent to put it into practice. But anyway, we don’t currently live in that world, so it is a moot point for the time being.

In short, I view the ex-gay approach as one that runs a high risk of despair, despair despair. And I also view the liberal approach of baptizing gay marriage as also involving despair, in that it involves active rebellion against the Church. And there is also the fact that I feel fairly comfortable in my own skin. Finding myself attracted to another guy isn’t something that grosses me out on some meta level, etc.

There is a good recent post at the blog, A Queer Calling, which touches on my complaint regarding the tendency to glue vocation and choice together:

This isn’t exactly the same as our reader’s question, but we believe it is related: an argument we hear from some Christians with a liberal sexual ethic goes something like, “No LGBT person can choose celibacy freely unless his/her Christian tradition also affirms gay marriage. If the celibate LGBT person belongs to a non-affirming tradition, a sense of calling doesn’t matter. If all vocation options aren’t open, the choice to pursue celibacy — the only option — is meaningless.” We do believe that people should be able to discover their vocations rather than experience vocation as a mandate. However, we are also aware that this belief is influenced by our modern context. Anyone who has basic familiarity with Church history should know that for the first several centuries of Christianity, most people had very little personal choice in the matter of whether they would marry or live as celibates. To say that celibacy doesn’t matter if it’s the only choice available is to declare that thousands of people’s life experiences were meaningless. To those making this argument we ask: are you willing to suggest that there was no meaning to the celibate life of Hildegard of Bingen because her parents — not she herself — decided that she would become a nun? Are you willing to assert that because Hildegard didn’t choose her own way of life, she never experienced a sense of call to monasticism?

This is spot on. The fact that my celibacy started out as a sort of “shotgun celibacy” doesn’t preclude the possibility of it turning out to be a genuine call, just as the fact that someone may be in an arranged marriage doesn’t mean that there is no possibility of genuine love and commitment developing. If I were to wake up 100% straight tomorrow, I have serious doubts that I’d throw myself onto the dating scene (what the hell even is the ‘dating scene).

As I have said elsewhere, I believe God has permitted same-sex attraction to happen in my life for various salutary purposes, and I am beginning to wonder whether one of those purposes is to get me to take a celibate vocation seriously. Or maybe I would have anyway, if it is my true calling. I dunno. The point is that I view my celibacy less in terms of avoiding vice and more as actually getting towards where I am understanding it much more positively.*

To explain a little bit: although my outward stoicism doesn’t really convey this, I have tended to have something of an erotic/romantic character. I don’t mean that in the sense of being very sexual, but rather that I am driven by feelings of passionate devotion, a strong aesthetic sensitivity, etc. (which is perhaps one of the reasons behind my dubious career choices). That this never  expressed itself in the form of romance with another person, in spite of my wanting it very badly to, was something I previously interpreted as a sign of emotional stuntedness on my part. But that it has translated itself quite well into religion does make me wonder whether there has been no romance simply because romance was just not part of the plan for my life.

Really, the times where I have been miserable and resentful over being single have been times where I did not have my shit together. A relationship would have been more of a band-aid than a vocation. There will always be loneliness, but I also have (I hope) been growing up and recognizing that loneliness is just part of the human condition, and that there is no real panacea for it on this side of the veil.

Having said all this, I recognize that a lot of people are just not in my position. Indeed, one thing that I do find disturbing is contemplating just how much hurt a lot of the people close to me would have to go through if they converted. And I don’t mean just with regard to gay stuff. The only person near and dear to my heart who reverted was someone who didn’t have much to loose anyway. I don’t blame people for not finding the Church to be a particularly appealing place to live in. There are times when I doubt and wonder whether it all makes sense.

But, well, this is my life; take it for what it is.

*I suppose the implicit question here is whether I am discerning a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. The short answer is no. I consider myself to be too much of a ‘young’ Catholic to want to seriously consider those as possibilities


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The Church of Niceness

Speaking from a liberal Christian perspective, Giles Fraser has some words that are pretty spot on:

The takeaway message is this: no one needs churches to be nice or tasteful. If churches have a future, it’s in addressing our existential darkness: sin and death. Progressive politics is important, but it doesn’t do any deep religious work. And liberals in the church will have to rediscover this after we have won our culture wars. What other religion has such a dark image at its centre? And yet my own brand of liberal Christianity too often seeks salvation through a few gentle verses of All Things Bright and Beautiful or lots of self-important dressing up and wandering around in fancy churches. Devoted atheists are never going to be persuaded by a theology of the cross. But no one whatsoever is going to be persuaded by a theology of nice.

It is, I suppose, something of a cliche to say that liberal Christianity is just progressivist niceness wearing Christian garb (a cliche that I am less inclined to uncritically repeat these days). But it has been my experience as a Catholic that the cult of Nice has also set up shop in the more theologically conservative churches. I don’t mean that in a doctrinal sense, but rather in terms of what the average parishioner is fed. From the taste in music to the homilies, everything seems calculated to make you feel comfy, like spiritual muzak to make you feel at ease as you drift towards your inevitable demise.

I mentioned in my recent post about how there is often this desire to avoid the tragic. And one of the problems with this in religion is that it produces something which, while nice, feels very disconnected from the actual reality that people live in, which is often not nice. The human condition is filled with things that cannot be solved with a cloying, sentimental answer, and if that is all a church can offer someone, than it is no wonder if they leave. It is the sort of bourgeoisie Sunday Christianity that Kierkegaard sneered at.

A lot of people find the emphasis on death and suffering that crops up a lot in Catholic theology and imagery to be off-putting and ghoulish. But I find it to be paradoxically reassuring, because I want my religion to take suffering seriously.

[h/t: Eve Tushnet]

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Sacramental error


While your heart is in the right place, Sailor Mercury, a girl of your learning should know that a valid baptism requires someone else to do the dousing.

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The curious incident of the celibate gay

Nooo....not the soapbox again...anything but that!

Nooo….not the soapbox again…anything but that!

One of the things I have increasingly noticed is a convergence between liberals and conservatives over a particular sort of logic regarding same-sex attraction.

It goes something like this: if gay sex is wrong, then the desire for it is indicative of a moral flaw in the character of the person experiencing it. Successful annihilation of its presence in the your psychic makeup is a necessary prerequisite for holiness.

Conservatives will accept this logic and advocate orientation therapy as your only shot at salvation. Liberals will also accept it, but say this is just another good reason for throwing out the taboo against same-sex relations. Both agree that someone who just lives with same-sex attraction but refrains from sexually expressing it is just engaged in some serious cognitive dissonance.

First of all, I can’t help but feel a somewhat Pelagian undercurrent here – that we can, with effort on our part, effectively shape ourselves into the kind of person God wants us to be. There isn’t much talk about the necessity and sufficiency of grace. The disagreement is over where it is reasonable to put the moral bar. To quote St. Paul,

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1)

Chastity should be primarily understood in terms of sacrifice and self-surrender to God, rather than as a matter of fine-tuning your sexuality. Human sexuality in all states of life is something that needs to be redeemed. The question of molding your desires into a particular form or other seems to me to be a secondary question of prudence. While it is perhaps worth asking, the moment it displaces questions of grace and redemption is where things get problematic.

And this is tied to a tendency of us to want to avoid the tragic, and to explain away the tragic in terms of moral failure. It is the case of Job’s friends, who accuse him of sin on account of his sufferings.

I suppose a rebuttal that could be given is that Job’s sufferings were just things that happened to him – he didn’t suffer from desiring to do wicked things.

Desire is something of a tricky word. In a weak sense, people tend to apply it to all sorts of feelings and longings, but my understanding of its proper sense as an orientation of the will – to desire something is to consciously will for it to be yours, even if that desire is never actually consummated – and it is that desire which is appropriately open to moral praise and blame.

It also goes without saying that it does not conceptually make sense to ascribe moral praise or blame to something that we do not freely choose and cannot freely do away with. And I think a good amount of what constitutes our personality falls into that category. We make minor tweaks and sandpaper the rough edges, but from very early on the mold is cast.

It is in that sense that having a case of teh gays is something that just happened to me. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t be there, but, well, there it is. Anyway, it is something of a failure of imagination to be unable to see a personality trait as potentially being a cross rather than a moral failure. Perhaps because it also implies that we have to be more forgiving of the people who do things that piss us off, because we can’t really judge what they’re internally going through.

People sometimes change in weird and unexpected ways. But the idea that we can expect them to and hold them accountable when they don’t strikes me as irrational.

More peculiar to the liberal Christian side is the notion of choice. It is all well and fine, they say, for a gay Christian to discern a vocation to celibacy and freely choose it. But to have it forced upon her by the circumstances of her life is unfair.

But are vocations really best thought of as a choice? In the case of the man who discerns a vocation to the priesthood, my guess is that it is less a matter of, “this looks like a nice career path” and more of “this is the path that God walks me to walk, and it will cost me dearly to go down it, but I know deep down that I will not truly be joyful if I run away from it.” And, well, life isn’t fair dammit.

With regard to the question of vocation in my own life, my thinking seems to have shifted. A year ago I probably would have said that my vocation was to marriage and that it was just incredibly unlikely that that would ever come about. But now, abstracting from same-sex attractions and all that, I do wonder whether my vocation always was to celibacy – that it is just part of God’s plan to just try to live out that divine-human marriage in this life and eschew a human spouse.

It’s all rather heady, and uncomfortable to think about. Because I have gotten a bit used to my mediocre spiritual life.

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Reading The Shadow of the Torturer – Chapters V-VI

SYNOPSIS: At the Feast of Holy Katharine, Drotte and Roche are elevated to the rank of Journeymen, leaving Severian as the senior apprentice. He is later sent to deliver a message to Master Ultan of the guild of Curators. The message turns out to be a request to provide books for the Chatelaine Thecla, who is now in the custody of the Torturers.

ANALYSIS: Since Chapter V is short and more of a set up for VI, it seems like it would be a good idea to combine the two.


So the official feast day of the Torturer’s guild is the feast of Holy Katharine, whom I assume bears some relationship to St. Catherine of Alexandria. According to legend, St. Catherine confronted the emperor Maximus for his cruelty towards Christians. This led to him sending various thinkers to debate her into apostatizing. That plan backfired and led to some conversions, so Maximus had her imprisoned and tortured. When that only led to more conversions, Maximus proposed to marry her. She rebuffed him and declared Jesus to be her true spouse, so he decided to torture her on the wheel. The wheel broke, so she was beheaded.

When we actually see the Feast of Holy Katharine play out a little bit later on, the legend is recounted in a rather different fashion (although my memory is a little bit vague). She is a somewhat ironic patroness for torturer’s to adopt, to say the least.

After I had walked at least a league among these enigmatic paintings one day, I came upon an old man perched on a high ladder. I wanted to ask my way but he seemed so absorbed in his work that I hesitated to disturb him.

The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure’s helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.

Conversation with the man reveals that the landscape in this picture is the moon (which is now both terraformed and closer to Urth). So what Severian is looking at is an astronaut, likely holding onto an American flag. Exactly how that picture wound up here is anyone’s guess.

Chapter VI is heavily inspired by one of Jorge Luis Borges’ stories. As I have never read the man, I’m unable to comment on that.

he [Master Ultan] was a head and a half taller than I, a true exultant.

The exultants, who form the aristocracy of Severian’s world, are not just socially but physically different than the other classes. Since we don’t really know much about what a ‘normal’ person looks like in this world, it is difficult to gauge how alien the exultants are supposed to look.

“Do you apprehend any termination to this aisle?”

“No, sieur,” I said, and in fact I did not. As far as the candelight flew there was only row upon row of books stretching from the floor to the high ceiling. Some of the shelves were disordered, some straight; once or twice I saw evidence that rats had been nesting among the books, rearranging them to make snug two-and three- level homes for themselves and smearing dung on the covers to form the rude characters of their speech.

Evidently the vermin of the future are a little bit more intelligent than we’re used to.


“Indeed it is. My master was Gerbold, and for decades it appeared that he would never die. Year followed straggling year for me, and all that time I read – I suppose few have ever read so. I began, as most young people do, by reading the books I enjoyed. But I found that narrowed my pleasure, in time, until I spent most of my hours searching for such books. Then I devised a plan of study for myself, tracing obscures sciences, one after another, from the dawn of knowledge to the present. Eventually I exhausted even that, and beginning at the great ebony case that stands at the in the center of the room we of the library have maintained for threee hundred years against the return of the Autarch Sulpicius (and into which, in consequence, no one ever comes) I read outward for a period of fifteen years, often finishing two books in one day.”

The library and Master Ultan reminds me of Robarts Library , a rather imposing, massive, brutalist building which I have spent much time in over the years. To quote Wikipedia:

The elevation is mostly concrete, albeit differing in textures and directionality: smooth concrete lines the façade in a horizontal manner, the rough concrete lining vertically. The steel-framed windows are situated onto the bays protruding from the façade, and are reminiscent of overhanging towers in medieval castle architecture. Ironically, the bay windows seem to elevate upwards, opening up the two lowermost levels into voids enclosed with steel-framed glazing, making these elements seem lighter than they really are. To stretch further one’s imagination, it is as if these elements are elevators that transport the “scholar[s] anxious to escape the noise and turmoil of the vulgar press [into]… a dream palace enshrining in its holy mysteries the power of the word.”

Comprising fourteen storeys, plus two underground floors, the brutalist and futurist structure features raised podia and a suspended fourth floor.[4] A mezzanine level physically connects Robarts Library to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library building at its southeastern side, and to the Claude Bissel Building, housing the Faculty of Information, at its northeastern side. The concrete waffle slab floor plates are adorned with triangular-patterned tessellation. A hexagonal central circulation atrium is enclosed at the core of the building and through the middle of the mezzanine level.[4] The gross area of the building is over 1,036,000 square feet (96,200 m2).

While I have yet to run into a Master Ultan, I would not be surprised if I did. And, as someone who once considered pursuing a degree in library science, I feel the pull of immersing oneself in archives. Even though I find the architecture to be hideous, I have often spent time in there to just get away from it all and read. Indeed I suspect that some students are just consumed by the library and are never heard from again.

“In every library, by ancient precept, is a room reserved for children. In it are kept bright picture books such as children delight in, and a few simple tales of wonder and adventure. Many children come to these rooms, and so long as they remain within their confines, no interest is taken in them.”


“From time to time, however, a librarian remarks a solitary child, still of tender years, who wanders from the children’s room…and at last deserts it entirely. Such a child eventually discovers, on some low but obscure shelf, The Book of Gold


…Then the librarians come – like vampires, some say, but others say like the fairy godparents at a christening. They speak to the child and the child joins them.

This is a nice description of how one becomes a serious reader. I believe that in the Castle of the Otter (I can’t seem to find my copy at the moment) Wolfs says that Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth was the Book of Gold for him – and indeed BOTNS is itself a sort of re-imagining of Vance’s work.

As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I was not much of a reader as a child. I can remember my mother reading Rudyard Kipling, C.S. Lewis and E.B. White to me, and so they have become part of the ambiance of my childhood. But I didn’t do much on my own. In my adolescence I read Stephen King’s The Gunslinger and Don Quixote, and they changed things. I also read Tolkien, but am not sure as to where he fits in here.

“You, of all men, will excuse me when I tell you I tarried a moment to read a few lines of this book. Master, you know of the corpse-eaters, surely. I have heard it said that by devouring the flesh of the dead, together with a certain pharmacon, they are able to relive the lives of their victims.”

This is an early mention of something that will become important to the plot and narration in the next volume.

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Good night sweet prince

For those not in the know, beloved comics character Archie Andrews died yesterday. By taking a bullet. For his gay best friend. A particular quote from the late, gay Oscar Wilde comes to mind: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

While death by schmaltz is a not-uncommon demise, rarely does it claim a victim as spectacularly as this.

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Reading The Shadow of the Torturer – Chapter IV: Triskele

(I have been wondering whether or not to include spoilers from later parts of the series in these posts, and have met with something of a compromise: spoilers will appear in whited out form. Highlight them at your own risk!)

SYNOPSIS: Severian finds a dog that has been left to die near the Bear Tower. Calling him Triskele, he smuggles the dog into the guild and looks after it. One day Triskele disappears, and Severian goes searching for him. He winds up in the Atrium of Time, where he meets a girl called Valeria. Triskele has evidently found someone else to look after him, and drops out of Severian’s life.

ANALYSIS: This chapter is something of a counterpoint to the previous one. While in “The Autarch’s Face”, we see medical techniques being put in the service of torture, here Severian uses his training to help heal a wounded dog. Technology, medicine, crafts etc. are, I think, not just morally neutral, but actually positive goods. But they can be put to perverse use.

All our guild cloaks are voluminous, and this one was more so than most since the brother I had replaced was large of frame. Furthermore, the hue fulgin, which is darker then black, admirably erases all folds, bunchings and gatherings so far as the eye is concerned, showing only a featureless dark.

I quote this mainly because I find the idea of the fulgin cloak really cool. I’ve noticed animators from time to time creating a similar effect in their shows by animating the movement of the fabric while keeping the patterns of the clothing static.

I had been a man (if I was truly a man) such a short time; I could not endure to think that I had become a man so different from the boy I had been. I could remember each moment of my past, every vagrant thought and sight, every dream. How could I destroy that past? I held up my hands and tried to look at them – I knew the veins stood out on their backs now. It is when those veins stand out that one is a man.

In a dream I walked through the fourth level again, and found a huge friend there with dripping jaws. It spoke to me.

I often do wonder about the degree of continuity and discontinuity in my own life. Things tend to feel like they always have been the way they are now. I often feel as though I have always been Catholic, for instance. It is only upon allowing me to drift in my memories that how different the past has been at various points in my life. All this is, I suppose, somewhat tangential, but it came to mind.

This is the first time I noticed what the dream in the second paragraph is about:  it’s the Alzabo, a particularly horrifying creature that won’t make an appearance until The Sword of the Lictor. Here is a weird thought: what if Severian actually did run across the Alzabo here, and remembers it only as a dream? Perhaps they were keeping one in the Bear Tower? Or perhaps the guild was just keeping one here for their own nefarious purposes?

This doesn’t seem too plausible, as the Alzabo seems well-nigh impossible to tame, and tends to leave a high body count in its wake – something which doesn’t seem to be suggested in the narrative here. It is more likely that this is just an easter egg thrown in for alert readers.

I found myself crawling onto the ice-covered pedestal of one of those old, faceted dials whose multitudinous faces give each a different time. No doubt because the frost of these latter ages entering the tunnel below had heaved its foundation, it had slipped sidewise until it stood at such an angle that it might have been one of its own gnomons, drawing the silent passage of the short winter day across the unmarked snow.

The space about it had been a garden in summer, but not such a one as our necropolis, with half-wild trees and rolling, meadowed lawns. Roses had blossomed here in kraters set upon a tessellated pavement. Statutes of beasts stood with their backs to the four walls of the court, eyes turned to watch the canted dial: hulking barylambdas; arctothers, the monarchs of bears; glyptodons; smilodons with fangs like glaives. All were dusted now with snow. I looked for Triskele’s tracks, but he had not come here.


She [Valeria] looked younger than I, but there was an antique quality about her metal-trimmed dress and the shadow of her dark hair that made her seem older than Master Palaemon, a dweller in forgotten yesterdays.

The most obvious purpose of the Atrium of Time is that it once told the time for nearby residents. The slantedness of the sundial perhaps indicates how the passage of time has lost its meaning for a civilization so soaked in history.

Considering that Valeria winds up becoming Severian’s wife it is peculiar how absent she is through much of the narrative. Her own dialogue, and her description, suggests that she is one of a series of clones of some woman from the past.ab

They have mottoes. ‘Lux dei vitae viam monstrat.’ that’s ‘The beam of the New Sun lights the way of life.’ ‘Felicibus brevis, miseris hora longa.’ ‘Men wait long for happiness.’ ‘Aspice ut aspiciar.’

According to Wolfe’s own afterword to this book (which will be discussed more thoroughly in due time) the use of Latin is not meant to be taken literally – it is merely meant to suggest an ancient dead language. Valeria’s translations are also very loose. Here are my own amateurish attempts:

Lux dei vitae viam monstrat:  The light of God shows the way of life.

Felicibus brevis, miseris hora longa: happy hours are short, miserable ones long.

Aspice ut aspiciar: Look to look better




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Other things I’ve been reading

A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay

This is one of those novels that a lot of writers like to cite as being an inspiration, but which doesn’t seem to have much of a popular following. A man named Maskull takes a trip to the planet Tormance, which orbits around Arcturus. This becomes a sort of metaphysical quest as he gradually learns about the nature of reality (Lindsay was evidently a sort of gnostic) while exploring some really, really alien terrain:

Another remarkable plant was a large, feathery ball, resembling a dandelion fruit, which they encountered sailing through the air. Joiwind caught it with an exceedingly graceful movement of her arm, and showed it to Maskull. It had roots and presumably lived in the air and fed on the chemical constituents of the atmosphere. But what was peculiar about it was its color. It was an entirely new color – not a shade or combination, but a new primary color, as vivid as blue, red or yellow, but quite different. When he inquired, she told him that it was known as “ulfire.” Presently he met with a second new color. This she designated “jale.” The sense impressions caused in Maskull by these two additional primary colors can only be vaguely hinted at by analogy. Just as blue is delicate and mysterious, yellow clear and unsubtle, and red sanguine and passionate, so he felt ulfire to be wild and painful, and jale dreamlike feverish, and voluptuous.

Linday’s prose is often lacking, and his characters are often little more than ciphers for various philosophical positions, but the near constant intensity and creativity put into Tormance makes it worth a trip.

City of the Chasch, by Jack Vance

The first volume in Vance’s, “Planet of Adventure” series. Adam Reith gets stranded on an incredibly hostile alien planet and must fight for survival. The mysterious presence of human slaves gives things a bit of a “Planet of the Apes” feel to it. It so far hasn’t quite gripped me as well as Vance’s other works – what has been shown of Tschai (the planet) so far isn’t too exciting, and the characters are a bit too…pulpy? Still, it’s interesting enough that I’ll likely check out the next volume (I have an omnibus edition anyway).

And now, the currently unfinished ones:

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, by Richard Bauckham

Bauckham argues that eyewitness accounts played a crucial role in the early Christian community and in the composition of the Gospels in particular. He quite rightly diagnoses New Testament scholarship as still living under the shadow of sceptical form criticism theories, in spite of form criticism being for the most part discredited.

The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy

It’s a bit like Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, but set in Louisiana. Binx’s existential ennui and pop culture obsessions seem pretty easily transposable. We could have a modern version called The Otaku, for instance.

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Hipster Nazis?

There’s an article on Rolling Stone about how the Neo-Nazi subculture in Germany has moved away from the older Skinhead look and more towards appropriating mainstream pop culture:

Like Schroeder, whom he sees as an acolyte, Knape wants to give “nationalism” a friendlier, cooler face (in the NPD, and many other extreme-right organizations, “nationalist” often functions as a politically acceptable euphemism for “Nazi”). For Knape, who grew up with American pop culture, the idea of policing what young members of the scene watch or listen to is silly — he’d much rather hijack it, and use it to bring young people into the fold. Michael Schaefer, the JN’s excitable 31-year-old press person, chimes in: “We’ve taken over the nipster,” he says, giddily, before catching himself. “I mean nationalist hipster, not Nazi hipster.”

The term hipster has, of course, always been notoriously slippery. Back in his 2010 book What Was the Hipster?, Mark Greif described the term as meaning a “consumer” who “aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.” But in Germany, as elsewhere, the newly discovered hipster is often reduced to its more superficial component parts: “skinny jeans, a bushy beard, bright sunglasses” (Welt), “strange, nerdy and somehow different,” (Sueddeutsche Zeitung), “self-important culture snobs” (Tagesspiegel). Here, the hipster is simultaneously a uniform, a cooler-than-thou weltanschauung and signpost of globalized American youth culture and consumerism.

“We don’t want to cut ourselves off,” Knape says, about hipster culture. “I see rap and hip-hop, for example, as a way of transporting our message.” In recent years, a number of extreme-right hip-hop acts have emerged in Germany — with names like Makss Damage and Dee Ex. Despite the awkward politics of using hip-hop to preach the virtues of German identity, they’ve amassed a small, but significant presence within the scene. Dee Ex, for example, has over 7,000 likes on Facebook and posts photos of herself in a revealing outfit on her blog. There is now neo-Nazi techno (biggest act: DJ Adolf) and neo-Nazi reggae. 

Knape, on his end, has also gotten increasingly invested in online culture: “The Internet allows us to reach people we can’t reach on the street.” Now young people can get in touch with him over Facebook or e-mail without their parents, or anybody else, finding out. “They don’t need to out themselves immediately,” he says. Knape is especially proud of his viral-video outreach: last year, his group filmed a “Harlem Shake”video. In the JN video, people in masks bounce around junked cars while one of them holds up a sign saying “Have more sex with Nazis, unprotected.”  It has over 17,000 hits on YouTube. 

It would almost be too surreal if I hadn’t already caught minor glimpses of this happening. You just can’t make this stuff up.

(h/t: Arts & Letters Daily)


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Kaiju! Kaiju! burning bright

It occurs to me that it is 2014. I should be typing this post from inside a giant robot flying through hyperspace by now. What’s wrong with us? We need to get our act together, people!

Considering this attitude, it is strange that it took as long as it did for me to finally watch Guillermo del Toro’s giant robot flick, Pacific Rim. And here are some thoughts:

- del Toro is a director who kinda frustrates me. Now, I am completely on board with his baroque, phantasmagoric aesthetic, his Lovecraftian yen and his general fanboyishness. But he seems to have a really hard time assembling all the cool ideas of his vision into an actual film. The whole is always lesser than the parts, and Pacific Rim is no exception. So while I liked the film a lot, and thought it had a lot of cool and creative stuff in it, it also left me feeling a little bit cold, rather than pumped, by the end. On the other hand, Joss Whedon’s Avengers flick, while being every bit as superficial as Rim and less visually interesting, was tight and exciting because Whedon knows all the right buttons to push.

- Whedon also had a better idea of what to do with his characters. By far the biggest problem with Rim is that Mako is not the main character. I found Raleigh to be a pretty boring, phoned in protagonist. Mako’s whole, “I was orphaned and now seek revenge” thing, while not being particularly original, has more potential for cool in a movie that, to be frank, is trying harder to be cool than it is original. The prologue of the movie should be about Stacker Pentecost taking her under his wing, raising her as a father while also training her, etc. I felt like there was a lot of missed emotion in the climax because we’ve always been viewing their relationship from the outside. Raleigh should be a secondary character, and his brother should survive at least halfway into the movie so that his death actually has some impact.

- And I want to see more about what sort of physical and psychological training Jaeger pilots have to undergo. One of my favourite scenes in the movie was the sparring match sequence. There was a missed opportunity for some cool and ridiculous Batman Begins/Dragonball Z stuff here.

- Hey, maybe Whedon and del Toro should do a collab project at some point. Just a thought.

- But, insofar as this is actually a movie about giant robots and kaiju rather than humans, well, yeah, it does deliver. They even have swords.

- del Toro is an ex-Catholic, and his films often have an undertone of Catholic aesthetic ambiance. In Rim, there’s an almost Ecclesiological aspect to it. The name of the Jaeger pilot’s head honcho, Stacker Pentecost, suggests, uh, Pentecost, which is the birthday of the Church and a counterpoint to the Tower of Babel in Genesis. The words of the Apostles suddenly resound in all languages, suggesting a unity which has overcome traditional national boundaries. So similarly you have the interracial team of Jaeger pilots, gathering together to help save the world from monsters coming out of the sea (Revelation, anyone?)

And while the idea of controlling the Jaeger with your nervous system carries shades of Neon Genesis Evangelion, the idea that this requires another person whom you neurally link up with carries, perhaps, a whiff of the notion of communion. The unity of everyone in the Church is most explicitly actualized in the Eucharist, where, all partaking in the one Body of Christ, all become members of the same body. Piloting the Jaeger acts as the third that makes two into one.

Or perhaps as a wannabe theologian I’m just reading too much theology into giant robots (hey, they started it).

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