I got no strings

PinocchioposterReading some of the reviews for Walt Disney’s second feature film, Pinocchio, is interesting: a substantial amount want to indict the film for being frightening and even cruel, in that Pinocchio’s bad behavior seems to lead to grotesque and horrific results.

These people do not understand faerie tales. For, although the film’s source material is not really a faerie tale (or so I am told by people who have actually read Carlo Collodi’s book) the film most certainly is one. And so if you understand Pinocchio as a sort of ‘Scared Straight’ film in saying, for instance, that if you play hookey, you will inevitably wind up locked in a bird cage, then I can only say that you don’t understand it at all. It would be more precise to say that the logic of the tale allows for the literalization of the moral action: the apparent freedom that lawlessness provides is actually a prison.

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Grow up

My apologies for the lack of posting. Total lack of inspiration, sloth, etc. etc.

I saw Pixar’s Inside Out a couple of weeks ago, and like many people thought it a good movie, possibly great.

The movie is more curiously layered than it seems – yes, it’s another animated flick which does the whole, “your interior life is actually an aggregate of little homunculi running the show from behind the scene,” schtick, but it uses the conceit to interesting effect. The story, wherein Joy and Sadness get separated from the other emotions and need to find their way back, plays out more like a Medieval allegory where the subject is psychological instead of theological. But then we also get to see the outward action literalized: a little girl (Riley) attempting to cope with a difficult move.

There’s something very culturally on the nose about this, as our post-Freudian world has made the psyche into a realm of myth; we like to talk about people as the playthings of occult forces like the subconscious or the id much in the way the Greeks would have said of Athena or Zeus, with a resigned fatalism at times obscuring human agency.

Anyway, while the overall moral of the story is such that I’d feel more comfortable showing Inside Out to a hypothetical daughter or son that most of the Disney princess musicals, the film does fall into that category of Pixar movies which are really meant for adults: its insights on loss and the role of sadness have such a retrospective quality to them that I’m not sure how well they’d ring true for someone Riley’s age or younger (the theater I saw it in was exclusively peopled by twentysomethings like myself).

Compare that to Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea, which is first and foremost a children’s film (which also deals with grief and loss), but which has enough artistic merit to appeal to adults as well. And to be honest, I much prefer that.* Yeah, it’s nice to see animation tackling more complex themes, but I’d rather see that handled in the form of animation which is actually targeted at adults. In a manner that doesn’t boil down to, “this has R-rated stuff in it.”

The trouble I have with the odd middle ground epitomized by modern Pixar is that it reinforces two false propositions: “Animation is for kids,” and, “you can’t be childlike and be profound.” Our current surfeit of kids movies for adults is an attempt to find a loophole in this, when we should be making movies that challenge it.

I’m not trying to say that Pixar movies are bad, or that I don’t like them. What I am trying to say is that part of the pleasure of watching a kid’s movie is that it isn’t an adult movie, and hence plays according to a different set of rules and expectations. You don’t read Virgil for his psychological realism. And to accuse me of favoring escapism on this regard is, again, to underrate the potential that children’s entertainment represents.

*and, while I admit to being biased in favor of 2D stuff, I still think that Moore’s work is more artistically accomplished and interesting to look at as a piece of animation.



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The Left Hand of Darkness

left hand of darkness

A friend. What is a friend, in a world where any friend may be a lover at a new phase of the moon? Not I, locked in my virility; no friend to Therem Harth, or any other of his race. Neither man nor woman, neither and both, cyclic, lunar, metamorphosing under the hand’s touch, changelings in the human cradle, they were no flesh of mine, no friends; no love between us.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, is one of my favourite books of all time – in spite of being, I believe, a failure with regard to the conceit for which it is most famous.

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QotD: Pixar edition

Eve Tushnet on Inside Out:

I led a charmed life as a child, and I had accumulated more Dostoyevskyan angst by age six than this kid seems to harbor at twice that.

I actually haven’t seen Inside Out yet, which is supposedly Pixar’s return to form. But this line from her review kinda spoke to me.

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My grandfather was an optometrist too

galactic patrol

One of the themes of my reading in recent times has been a more deliberate effort to fill in some classic sci-fi gaps. And one of the most classic is E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series, a pioneering effort in the space opera genre.

Alas, unlike many other genre-creating writers of the early twentieth century, Smith’s work seems to have fallen through the cracks. With the exception of some horrendously edited e-books, the Lensman series is out of print.

And the chronology of the saga is also confusing: most lists will describe Lensman as a six volume opus with Triplanetary as the first. So naturally I started with this one.

But, as it turns out, Triplanetary was a story which originally had nothing to do with the series, but was later retconned in as a sort of prequel, with the third book, Galactic Patrol being the real start of the series, and the second book (confusingly titled First Lensman) being a later interquel between the two of them. So, having read all these three books, I’ve basically done the equivalent of starting Star Wars with The Phantom Menace and no doubt have spoiled a lot of plot for me.

Anyway, what is Lensman about? Well, having developed interstellar travel, humans (among other spacefaring species) are finding crime difficult to patrol in the vast expanse of space. So a seemingly benevolent and highly advanced species called the Arisians have given an elite few the lens: a piece of tech which grants the wearer incredible psychic powers for the purposes of interstellar policework.

So what you wind up with are a lot of faster than light space combat, slower than light space combat, weird aliens, plans within plans, wheels within wheels, lots of tech described using words like, “ultra” and “laser,” purple prose, 30’s/40’s slang, space pirates, uber-manly heroes, etc. Pretty much everything the cover above suggests. In a way it feels very proto Avengers, with its diverse cast of supermen coming together to kick galactic evil in the face.

It’s all pretty pulpy, but it’s great fun. But it’s also weirdly inspirational, in a, “Josh it’s ok to write hokey space opera and fanfiction,” kinda way. You might not think that I need such inspiration, but I get a lot more discouraged with my assays into fiction than I do running my mouth on here.

And having read so far, I think I can agree that Galactic Patrol is the best place to start. While Triplanetary does feature a pre-Star Wars Death Star controlled by a guy called Roger, it feels pretty lightweight and tangential. And while First Lensman has a pretty cool plot about corrupt presidential politics along with some neat worldbuilding (Senator Palpatine has nothing on these guys), it gets kinda bloated in its attempts to check off as many continuity points as possible.  Galactic Patrol, however, is an ultra pulp classic with a pretty breathtaking pace. Sure, the hero reaches Mary Sue levels of superlative ability, but in a work as over the top and explodey as this, paper thin characters are almost an asset.

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A curious thing

Yours truly logged into WordPress today to find that the usual blue banner at the top of his Reader had undergone a colourful change:


This puzzled me for a moment, until I read the news and realized what this was obviously about: the staff of WordPress are attempting to show enthusiasm for their favourite My Little Pony character, Rainbow Dash.


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Jurassic Park/World


(Spoilers for both films, etc. etc.)

Jurassic Park isn’t the best movie in the world. It likely isn’t even the best thing that Stephen Spielberg has directed. And, although it ranks among my favourites, it doesn’t come close to the no.1 slot.

But JP, more than any other movie I know, is emblematic of what the moviegoing experience is all about – moreso than Star Wars or The Wizard of Oz. That’s largely a generational thing, however: both of those movies were dated home viewing when I was introduced to them. But I was old enough to see Jurassic Park in theater and be wowed by its groundbreaking special effects. And the fact that I was at the age where dinosaurs represented the zenith of coolness helped.

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Hazy thoughts on The Soul of the World


Having finished Roger Scruton’s recent book, The Soul of the World:

– Scruton’s ultimate aim here turns out to be pretty similar to where Kant wound up at the end of his Critique of Pure Reason: that is, the sort of speculative theologizing of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas et al. is ultimately a red herring, but we can, in the realm of practical reasoning, have good cause for finding faith in God.

The major difference is that, while Kant was specifically critiquing traditional theology, Scruton is interested in defending that philosophical realm of practical reasoning against absorption into the hard sciences. On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to this, but on the other, the Kantian understanding of faith and reason is, well, wrong.

– The first chunk of the book is dedicated to critiquing reductionist accounts of human behavior, with a particular focus given to religion.  To oversimplify things, even if we accept, say, a particular evolutionary psychology-type explanation of the origins of religious practices, this does not amount to a complete explanation of what those practices are about.

Scruton makes a helpful musical analogy here:

Consider the theme that opens Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto (ex. 1) From the point of view of science this consists of a series of pitched sounds, one after the other, each identified by frequency. But we do not hear a sequence of pitched sounds. We hear a melody, which begins on the first note and moves upward from C go G, via E-flat, and then stepwise downward to the starting point. But somehow the movement hasn’t stopped, and Beethoven decides to nail it down with two emphatic dominant-tonic commas. Then comes an answering phrase, harmonized this time, ad leading up to A-flat construed as a dissonant minor ninth on G. We hear a sudden increase in tension, and a strong gravitational force pulling that A-flat downward on to G, although the melody doesn’t rest there, since it is looking for the answer to the two dominant-tonic commas that we heard earlier, and it finds this answer in another pair of such commas, though this time in the key of G.

You could go on describing these few bars for a whole book, and you won’t have exhausted all that they contain by way of musical significance. The point I want to emphasize, however, is that you cannot describe what is going on in this theme without speaking of movement in musical space, of gravitational forces, of answering phrases and symmetries, of tension and release, and so on. In describing the music, you are not describing sounds heard in a sequence; you are describing a kind of action in musical space….In describing pitched sounds as  music, we are situating them in another order of events than the order of nature.

Similarly the content of religion exists on a different order than the psychological/biological reality that makes it possible, and so it invites philosophical rather than scientific analysis.

– Scruton notes that said content is not just a set of propositions to be believed in; all religions also are a particular way of being. The Christian doesn’t just believe in Jesus, she prays to him, consecrates her life to him, etc.

While this is an important point which is often overlooked in discussions about religion, it is also where my differences with Scruton come to the front. For Scruton, the divide between metaphysical God-talk and existential God-talk is enough to suggest that faith doesn’t have much relation to the former; faith entails a certain openness to the divine and the numinous, to encounters with God, but, “does not, as a rule, bother with theology.”

What Scruton is describing strikes me less as faith and more as a particular aesthetic attitude, and I’d say it’s entirely possible for people to have this without having faith.

The thing is that even though faith is relational, it can’t be disentangled from theology. To use Aristotelian-Thomistic jargon, in order for your will to incline towards something, your intellect has to know about it first. In order to love someone you have to know about them. In order to want something, you have to know about it first.

To have faith in God implies that you know something about him, that you already have a habit of theology. It doesn’t have to be philosophically fancy to be there, but it does mean that the world of creeds and the world of prayer are part of the same phenomenon.

(maybe more thoughts on this later)


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Haute couture


Are you a woman who watches My Little Pony? Are you tired of those geeky t-shirts? Want something a little more classy to wear? Well, you’re in luck: thanks to the efforts of UK fashion designer Fyodor Golan,  ladies need not limit the display of their MLP fan status to casual ware.

(via Equestria Daily)

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Is pop music bad for you?

I’ve been reading Roger Scruton’s book, The Soul of the World, which philosophically takes aim at reductionist accounts of human nature – stuff like attempts to explain human action entirely in the terms of neuroscience, Darwinian evolution, etc. To oversimplify things, Scruton argues for the existence of a personalist world of intentionality and relationships, which is dependent upon biological reality but which nonetheless is conceptually distinct and requires philosophical (or theological) analysis, in addition to what the hard sciences have to contribute.

He devotes one of the more interesting chapters entirely to music, which includes this striking comparison:

The civilizations that we know have incorporated sex into extended, sometimes lifelong projects of union between people. Sex has been absorbed, as I argued, into the world of vows, rather than that of contracts, and contractual sex, like recreational sex, has been accepted only with a form of ritual condemnation. In the world in which we live, a new kind of sexual norm has emerged, in which the overreaching intentionality of the interpersonal relation is curtailed. The sexual object replaces the sexual subject, and often, as in pornography, this object is reduced to a mere body part, or – to use the vulgar expression – a tool. This instrumentalizing approach cancels the other’s reality as a subject, and, when used to arouse and satisfy some kind of sexual urge, it removes sexual pleasure entirely from the I-You relation, there being, in this case, neither an I nor a You. What is interesting, from the psychological point of view, is that the resulting experience is addictive – that is to say, it can be obtained without effort, leads automatically to the pleasure that completes it, and rapidly colonizes the brain of the one who gives way to it. (see the recently established Journal of Sex Addiction for the psychological consequences.)

Something similar has happened with music, in which the “quick fix” has driven out the sympathetic response, and in which the I-You intentionality is no longer the focus of attention. In disco music, for example, the focus is entirely on repeated rhythmical figures, often synthesized digitally and without any clear musical performance, in which musical arousal is brought to an instant narcissistic climax and thereafter repeated. There is neither melody nor harmonic progression, but merely repetition, demanding no effort of listening and divorced from any relation with the external world. Those who dance to this music do not, as a rule dance with their partners, supposing they have partners, but at them for the simple reason that there is no “with” established by the musical line. The music is machinelike, not in its sound only, but in its mode of production and in its bypassing of all interpersonal relations, to focus on the pure stimulus and the pure response. It is a music of objects, from which subjects have been excluded. (If you want an example, try Technohead, “I Wanna Be a Hippy,” and don’t miss out on the video.)

In order to put the comparison into context, much of the chapter is devoted to arguing that the same sort of intentionality which defines our relationships with each other is also present, in some fashion, in music: only it is a kind of intentionality where there are no fixed subjects (to the extent that I understand his argument; the chapter warrants a reread).

But bracketing all that, what is interesting about this isn’t that Scruton claims that contemporary pop music is inferior to classical; it’s that he deems it bad enough to be comparable to pornography, and on musicological (as opposed to lyrical) grounds.

It’s true that every aesthetic experience involves a degree of submission to it, and that opens us up to influence, whether for good or ill. You can’t completely escape moral implication in what you choose to consume.

Still, if Scruton’s analysis is correct, it seems to imply that the sort of person who appreciates classical music is potentially more able to see human relations from the philosophical/theological vantage that Scruton is defending. Your average pop junkie would be, to some extent, numbing themselves to the world of relationality. Not in the profound manner of the pornography consumer, but enough to notice some correlations.

But, based on my own anecdotal evidence, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The vast majority of classical musicians seem perfectly capable of passionately, soulfully performing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion….while being tone deaf to its religious significance.

And vice versa: people who mainly consume pop should come across as more stunted in this regard. But, again, there doesn’t seem to be any noticable correlation.

To complicate things, there is a decent amount of mass produced music which invites the sort of intentional listening which Scruton praises (Talk Talk’s album, Spirit of Eden springs to mind). It’s never the majority, though. The structural features of the industry are such that the mindless stuff will always win – which strikes me as an easier critique to make.

An old Alan Jacobs quote about literature and moral formation springs to mind here (my emphasis):

It’s so strange to me that there is still anyone anywhere who think that there is any connection whatsoever between a given person’s reading preferences and his or her moral stature. There is no “civilizing function of literature”; people will only benefit morally from reading literature if they already have a strong moral formation. As Terry Eagleton wrote many years ago about the deeply cultured officers of the Third Reich, “When the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps … to arrest commandants who had whiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do.” Cole mentions this uncomfortable fact, but, reluctant to draw the obvious conclusion from it, remains puzzled that the President’s political and military decisions could somehow be at odds with what Cole imagines that a reader of Derek Walcott’s poetry would be likely to do. This is misbegotten in more ways than I can even list.

The effect that any particular aesthetic experience can have on a person is dependent in large part on what kind of person they already are.

Still, the temptation to write off critiques like this as a killjoy should be avoided. It’s worth pondering these things.

The bigger question is probably this: is Scruton’s theory about music and intentionality correct?


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