Song of the Sea: Deeper Thoughts

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(in all this I am likely taking myself far beyond the intentions of Tomm Moore, but it’s his fault for making such a good movie)

It is often said that the advent of Darwinism effectively bridged the gap between humans and nature: we can no longer view ourselves as special or separate from other animals when we recognize our common biological origin.

But the curious thing is that, in the years since Darwin, modern western civilization has if anything become increasingly alienated from both the natural world and our own nature as humans. This is because western civ has been playing out the consequences of intellectual developments that stretch backwards in time a few centuries.

In the ancient and medieval worlds, it was generally understood that natural things had discreet essences; the natural world was charged with meaning. The task of the natural philosopher was to understand the essence and causes of things.

As natural philosophy began to develop into what we now recognize as modern science, two major developments occurred. William of Ockham denied that the essences of things could actually be known, and felt that this sort of language was at best a sort of shorthand for talking about aggregates of irreducibly unique individual things. This is often called nominalism.

The second is that philosophers such as Descartes and Bacon decided that, regardless of what your take on essences was, it would be best if we could bracket our consideration of them in favor of focusing on the quantifiable and manipulable aspects of reality. Thus we have the scientific experiment: intervene into the natural world and tease the secrets of its mechanical workings out of it. This knowledge then allows you to better predict and control nature. Hence why the early modern period is also something of a heyday for magic, which also operates under a motive of exercising control over things – it simply chooses methods which are highly problematic.

Anyway, the uptake of all this is that the idea of nature (including human nature) as being inherently meaningful gets gradually brushed aside, and wisdom-knowledge is largely replaced by knowledge as (technological) power. So progress becomes increasingly measured in terms of how we increasingly come to assert our own personal meaning over meaningless nature, which we slowly rise above through technological mastery and political reform. Compared to this, the development of Darwin is something of a red herring.

song2

What does all of this blather have to do with Song of the Sea? Well, this progressive alienation is, in essence, also an alienation from any sort of mythos. For the folk tale or the myth are all predicated on the assumption that humans live in a world of symbol and meaning that is larger than us, and to get by, we need to, like the natural philosopher, discern the essences and causes of things in order to play our part well. Song of the Sea, I’d argue, expresses this alienation we feel quite well. We find it harder to believe in selkies – not because we’ve grown to a better understanding of marine biology, but because our use of symbols feels arbitrary.

As I have stated in the past, I am of the view that our modern alienation and disenchantment is less a reflection of how reality really is and more of a spell that has been cast on us. And, indeed, Song of the Sea postulates that it literally is magic that is keeping all the faeries hidden from us.

You see, the goddess Macha couldn’t bear to see her son suffer, and so she drained him of his emotions. This had the side effect of turning him into stone, but no matter – soon enough she had fallen into a habit of sucking all the supernatural creatures of Ireland dry until very few were left. Now there are two striking things about Macha’s plan of action: the first is that it is very therapeutic in nature. The second is that, since the therapy reduces its patients to inanimate objects, it is in effect saying that the only way you can be “cured” is to not exist. Macha peddles the vice of despair.

Yes, despair is a vice. It is not an emotion; it is a state of being. It is, as Soren Kierkegaard put it, the sickness unto death. Yet, as the Danish philosopher said, the most subtle of states, which people can gradually succumb to, unbeknownst to themselves.

The virtue which despair is a privation of is hope. In the Christian tradition, hope is seen as the second of the theological virtues: the first theological virtue of faith is infused in the soul by grace, and the knowledge that this gives allows the believer to hope that he can attain eternal beatitude with God. These (along with the third virtue, charity) are called theological because they require the direct operation of God to be present in the soul.

It is often said that it is stronger to do without hope. Belief in God, heaven, etc. is easy; much more profound is to recognize that one’s own existence is like a candle that will one day burn out, that the world is an unsolvable riddle which is utterly indifferent to us, that you will do a better job of living your life and making the world a better place if you don’t have your head in the clouds like that.

I disagree. The man without hope has far less of a stake in things because all paths lead to the same grave. The temptation to take the easiest path, to take the road of compromises, is that much greater. On the other hand, the man who has a destiny really has been entrusted with a terrible responsibility. The one who believes that future generations have a fighting chance is the one who can put greater stake in them.

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Back to the story: the world of Song of the Sea is a world that has slipped into despair. The human family at the heart of it is in despair, having lost their selkie mother, Bronagh, to Macha’s curse. Her half-selkie daughter Saorsie must be reunited with her selkie coat in order to be able to sing the song that will redeem both the faerie world and her family. She succeeds, but the faeries still have to leave the human world. Bronagh still must be separated from her family.

Most of this action takes place on Hallowe’en, a holiday where the borders between the mundane and the mysterious are often seen as getting a little blurred. And, of course, Hallowe’en is All Hallows Eve, or rather the vigil before All Saints Day and All Soul’s Day, the Church’s commemoration of the saints in heaven and the souls in purgatory. Indeed, by the climax of the story, the feast of All Saints has technically begun.

This three day period of All Hallowtide is seen as a particularly acute time to pray for the dead, that they may be released from purgatory. Indeed, the image of all the faeries, fully restored, triumphantly leaving the world behind is particularly apt.

But All Hallowtide is also a reminder that the dead are not cut off from us. The Church on earth, the Church in heaven and the Church in purgatory all form one Body of Christ. If the lines feel a little blurred on Hallowe’en, it is because they are in a sense always blurred. The dead are always with us.

In the denouement of Song of the Sea, hope has been restored to Saorsie’s family, even though the pain of loss remains – for hope is not an escape from suffering, but rather helps in its redemption. Even as the faerie world passes away into invisibility, its presence is paradoxically more operative in the world than it was before. Christ remains present even after his ascension into heaven, as are the saints who dwell with him. The essence of things has been restored. “Behold, I make all things new.”

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Academia as self-parody

In the middle of doing some research for a paper on Gerard Manley Hopkins, I happened to come across a quotation from an address to the MLA given by one fellow called Jonathan Culler:

If “love” were a pure, disinterested relationship, there would still be a question of whether this was the best relation to literature, but of course love is more likely to be just the opposite: a highly interested, obscure, desiring relation of overinvolvement. Love without aggressivity, transference, sadomasochism, identification or fetishism is scarcely love at all.

Yeesh. I wouldn’t want to live in that man’s world.

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7 Quick Takes (13/3/2015)

1

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Over the course of 2014 I read throuh Hayao Miyazaki’s manga, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Strangely, I failed to mention this here.

Anyway, it was interesting to see Miyazaki operating in the realm of soft sci-fi. The combination of ecological themes, political intrigue and messianic prophecy recalls Frank Herbert’s Dune books, but aside from that, they’re very different beasts. Herbert’s vision of human existence is ultimately very materialistic and Machiavellian, whereas Miyazaki’s Shintoism and usual idealism is operative here. As you might expect, I find Miyazaki’s worldview more sympathetic than Herbert’s.

A more detailed look would require, as usual, a reread, but I enjoyed it immensely, and the second half managed to subvert a lot of the expectations I had built up.

2

pluto_03
Speaking of manga, one series which I followed but for some reason never finished is Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto, which is a rewriting of the “Greatest Robot on Earth” story arc from Astro Boy. Urasawa shifts the focus away from Atom (Astro Boy) to Detective Gesicht, changing the genre into a detective story. I don’t remember much of it aside from liking it, and since I already have most of the volumes collecting dust on my shelf, it will perhaps be the next manga I take a look at.

3

Back in the fall I obtained a complete collection of John Milton’s poems by way of a gift certificate. I’ve been slowly making my way through it in fits and starts over the course of the school year. I’m currently reaching the end of Paradise Lost. I first read Milton’s epic as a teenager, and shortly after that lost interest in the poet.

Paradise Lost is sometimes contrasted with Dante’s Divine Comedy, them being seen as the ultimate Protestant and Catholic epics respectively. In spite of my ecclesiastical leanings, I find myself enjoying Milton more than Dante. The latter’s architectonic designs engage my intellect, but otherwise don’t move me too much. A lot of this likely stems from how Dante’s work is a medieval allegory, whereas Milton’s is a rewriting of the Genesis story as an epic tragedy (and this is where comparisons break down). Milton’s attempts at theodicy are not terribly interesting, but he does a good job of getting a lot of drama out of his cast, and I find that easier to appreciate, even as Dante’s theology resonates more with me.

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One thing I’ve noticed is how Biblical and literary studies seem to have moved to opposing extremes of the spectrum. Literary theory still holds large sway over the latter field, which results in books and authors being converted into various structural patterns for the amusement and edification of a few English departments. Meanwhile, Biblical studies is dominated by the historical-critical method, which tends to bracket all considerations except figuring out the author’s intent (and possible identity), the historical context, and the redactional history of the text. There isn’t much patience for the sort of allegorical scripture commentaries you find in the Church Fathers.

The Church Fathers were operating under the assumption that the books of the Bible encoded meanings beyond what the authors themselves intended. This notion of a spiritual level of meaning is part and parcel of the Church’s understanding of the Bible, which is why the Nicene Creed can say that the death and resurrection of Christ happened, “in accordance with the Scriptures.”

That isn’t too different in form from what some literary theorists claim to be doing with their texts. The question is really whether the ontological and epistemological assumptions that you get your interpretive principles from are correct or not. In the case of Derrida, Foucault et al., the answer is generally – no.

 5

The two of the most disappointing classes I took during my undergrad years were on Science Fiction and Graphic Novels. Actually, I think most of my deep hurting with regard to English departments can be traced back to that one-two punch, where I found myself surrounded by some of the most obnoxious classmates ever, and taught by professors who had nothing interesting to say.

And that’s a shame, as I do think that sci fi and comic books are worth being taken seriously. Compared to Shakespeare and Milton, they’re relatively uncharted territories, too.

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Christopher Nolan’s space travel movie Interstellar came out a few months ago. You might think that I’d have been all over that, but I still have yet to see it. For one thing, I find Nolan’s movies  to be workmanlike, but not quite worth the fuss they get. For another, it seems to be orbiting awfully close to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the orbit of films which attempt that almost inevitably decays, resulting in them burning up in the atmosphere.

Why is 2001 even a good movie? On paper, it sounds incredibly, indefensibly self indulgent. The best answer I can think is that it takes a genuine delight in the things it indulges in, and does a good job conveying it to the audience.

What strikes me as the most emblematic moment in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is acually the credits sequence. It features a reprise of Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube waltz playing on the soundtrack while still, white-on-black title cards are shown. Curiously, when the sequence finally reaches “The End,” and the words fade to black, Strauss’ waltz is allowed to play to completion for a few more minutes over a completely blank screen. While other movies have made use of overtures and intermissions, I can’t recall any aside from 2001 which just allows the audio to continue for some time after the video has ceased. I could be wrong, though.

This little postlude could be seen as giving theater patrons a few more minutes to wrack their brains over just what the final twenty minutes were all about. But I tend to think of it as Kubrick inviting the audience to simply enjoy a few more minutes of the waltz. That’s why I find it so emblematic – it delights in the music for its own sake.

Why all the hard sci-fi stuff? Because it’s fun. Why does the Stargate sequence have to be ten minutes long? It looks cool. Normally these sorts of rationales would destroy a movie, but for whatever reason, 2001 remains watchable. Perhaps I am just tuned in to whatever wavelength Kubrick was operating on…

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look at all this work

Posted in fragments of culture, higher education, Our Allies in Nippon, pop culture and its discontents, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

It’s just a game, man

I don’t even know why people say Airman is so hard to defeat; just ignore the tornadoes, keep close to him and trade hits. His energy will run out before yours does.

Posted in Our Allies in Nippon | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Identity salad

I’ve mentioned on a couple of occasions that I’ve grown tired with the ongoing debate regarding whether its ok for orthodox Catholics to use sexual orientation lingo like gay, straight, etc. It seems like others are starting to get a little bit worn out too.

A little while ago, Dan Mattson published an article which had a certain exasperated tone to it (or perhaps I’m engaging in some self-projecion).  That provoked a kinda smart-alec response from Jeremy Erikson, which at least suggests that things are at a complete impasse by now.

Anyway, Mattson’s concern in his article is that sexual orientation lingo can have the effect of sexually ghettoizing people and preventing them from further growth in their spiritual life. That’s a valid pastoral concern.

The concern that you find amongst Spiritual Friendship types is that the whole, “I’m not gay, I have same-sex attraction,” language ultimately alienates the very people its trying to reach out to. That’s also a valid concern.

It’s a micro version of a more macro tension in evangelization, which requires a degree of inculturation. But inasmuch as form and content are related, there is only so much you can do to the form before you start (often unwittingly) altering the content.

That is the concern of Bill Maguire, who wrote in the Catholic World Report:

However, affirming the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexual morality is not necessarily synonymous with affirming the Church’s understanding of the human person and human sexuality. And if we lack a proper understanding of the latter, we will inevitably undermine the very truths about the former that we wish to affirm and defend. And this in spite of abundant good will and sincere intentions to the contrary.

It is just here—at the level of what John Paul II calls an “adequate anthropology”—that Tushnet’s work falls short and undermines her otherwise laudable project. Tushnet’s attempts to depict an understanding of human sexuality that is essentially grounded in LGBT gender theory as being compatible with the Church’s teaching on sexuality—and the fact that these efforts are quickly gaining popularity and acceptance in Catholic circles—call for a substantial and unwavering critique.

And then he goes on to make his critique, drawing heavily upon John Paul II’s theology of the Body.

On that note, this academic year has been, among other things, something of a year of John Paul II for me; I’ve had the chance to study some of the recently canonized saint’s writings in more depth, including his famous theology of the body, which, like Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, is both one of those tomes that intellectual Catholics must Contend With, and is increasingly becoming the norm for talking about its respective subject matter.

I’ve previously expressed bafflement over the existence of this debate, and studying JPII has helped cast it into sharper relief for me, so that I at least think I have a better grasp of what’s going on here. A lot of people say that the only real sexual identities in Catholicism are male and female – and that’s true, but it’s often articulated in a fashion that leaves them open to the critique that they have a crudely biologistic understanding of sexuality that ignores the total person in favor of their plumbing. The theology of the body does do a good job of articulating that sexual anthropology in a much more personalist manner. So it allows me to see more clearly how, when you throw modern sexual orientation lingo into the mix, you risk making it more difficult to explain the rational behind Catholic sexual morality.

But that also stoked the coals for another train of thought I’ve had developing for a while.

If you read a fair amount of Eve Tushnet, you’ll notice that obedience is a big virtue for her – and it is worth defending, given its modern disrepute. And I noticed that Bill Maguire, in his critique of her book, took issue with how it acknowledges that the Church has the authority to dictate what you can and can’t do when it comes to sexual matters, but otherwise doesn’t offer a substantial explication or apologia of its teachings.

And I understand where he’s coming from. The Church herself got a little complacent over the centuries in assuming that there would be a culture of obedience that would be willing to receive her teachings. In the 1960s she said no to birth control. But that culture of obedience had already been swept away, and the ability to articulate the rationale behind the prohibition had withered. So people just ignored the Church.

As a result, a lot of work in the ensuing decades has been put into making Church teaching intelligible to people, and theology of the body is one of the fruits of that. So in one sense, the work of Tushnet et al comes across as paradoxically regressive, throwing a spanner in the works of the Church’s meticulously articulated anthropology.

On the other hand, I worry that there can be a kind of misguided optimism that can emerge out of the (otherwise laudable) desire to make doctrine as explicable as possible.  It can become easy for us to forget that we are all operating under limitations that make it necessary for us to learn obedience. Most of us have a doctrine or two that we just can’t make heads or tails of. Reading all sorts of apologetics material doesn’t help, talking with people about it doesn’t help, and we feel like we’ve just hit a stumbling block. The way we get by it is to trust that the Church knows what she’s talking about, and to hope that it becomes clearer down the line.

It’s pretty obvious that the Church’s teaching on homosexuality is one such doctrine for a lot of people. There needs to be some breathing room here, and a recognition that repeated definitions of theological terms like “objectively disordered”, or “spousal meaning of the body” will likely fall on deaf ears. Naturally, you want people to come to a fuller understanding of the issue, but it doesn’t seem like something that can be strong-armed (please note, I’m not trying to say that there’s something wrong with the theological terms themselves).

Failing to understand this means that you risk being the new teacher who, after drawing up the perfect lesson plan, finds that it collapses under the recalcitrant reality of her actual first class.

This isn’t to say that you can’t ever critique the class for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. It means, rather, that having a top-notch curriculum is only half of the equation. You can’t simply present it; you have to actually know how to teach it. And that’s where a lot of people drop the ball. I’ve read many Catholic articles on homosexuality that I agree with, but which I can’t imagine would have been helpful to me a few years ago.

Which brings me to a post  Tushnet recently had about some of the roadblocks to moving away from sexual orientation lingo:

And partly I’m so struck by the way Paris’s and Hannon’s analyses sideline any discussion of the mistreatment of gay people. The most painful parts of our shared experience are mostly invisible in their accounts. (If Hannon mentions anti-gay attitudes or actions at all I missed it. Paris does mention stigma, mistreatment at church, and discrimination, though quite briefly. She clearly thinks those things are wrong, which is refreshing…) If we can’t just bluntly say “because I’m gay,” a lot of those painful experiences become much harder to speak about. If you can’t call yourself “gay” it’s harder to describe or explain why you’re confused, scared, unwelcome, or stigmatized; even why you’ve been targeted for harassment, discrimination, violence, or rejection. And “Don’t call yourself gay”–which, frankly, is what 95% if not 100% of the practical recommendations of Paris and Hannon boil down to–helps to separate us from people with whom we might otherwise find solidarity. It encourages Christians who are same-sex attracted to view “gay people” as other, rather than as brothers to whom we have a special connection and responsibility. It encourages us to view our own positive experiences in gay communities, when we’ve had them, as something we need to completely reject rather than seeking ways to baptize what is good in those communities.

But also, as regards the specific subject of this post, we can note that the abuse suffered by gay people reinforces gay identity. If you share terrible experiences with someone, of course you will often feel deepened solidarity with them. If some aspect of your identity comes under intense, painful pressure, of course that aspect of your identity will be more important to you. And if gay people are a stigmatized class, everyone in the society ends up scrutinizing their desires to see if they might be a part of that class; any desire which deviates even slightly from what’s considered “enough” or “the right kind” of attraction to the same sex becomes a source of fear and shame. What we fear in our own psyches, what we’re ashamed of, and especially what we’re ashamed to offer to God, often grows bigger in the rich soil of our anxiety.

I think this gets close to the core of why this terminological debate has become so heated. Both sides more or less agree that the LGBTQ acronym will soon become so dense that it will collapse into a singularity and destroy us all. What Tushnet is highlighting is how getting away from all that can be an emotionally complicated thing.

If you’ve suffered with a particular group of people, then it is often the case that an attempt to disassociate yourself from the group will, instead of feeling like a moment of personal transformation, feel like a betrayal of the tacit solidarity you had. It’s difficult to feel like you’re being authentic to your true nature when you feel like a traitor.

That is at least part of the dynamic affecting this debate. Again, my point isn’t to say that these conflicted feelings represent the last word on the situation; merely that you need to take into account the baggage that people bring if you’re going to get through to them.

 

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Gaius and Titius

I’ve had something resembling a rant about public school systems percolating in my mind, and, as if on cue, a philosopher at the NY Times gives me another reason to loathe them:

A few weeks ago, I learned that students are exposed to this sort of thinking well before crossing the threshold of higher education. When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

Hoping that this set of definitions was a one-off mistake, I went home and Googled “fact vs. opinion.” The definitions I found online were substantially the same as the one in my son’s classroom. As it turns out, the Common Core standards used by a majority of K-12 programs in the country require that students be able to “distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.” And the Common Core institute provides a helpful page full of links to definitions, lesson plans and quizzes to ensure that students can tell the difference between facts and opinions.

So what’s wrong with this distinction and how does it undermine the view that there are objective moral facts?

First, the definition of a fact waffles between truth and proof — two obviously different features. Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false. For example, many people once thought that the earth was flat. It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives). Furthermore, if proof is required for facts, then facts become person-relative. Something might be a fact for me if I can prove it but not a fact for you if you can’t. In that case, E=MC2 is a fact for a physicist but not for me.

But second, and worse, students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both. But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both. For example, I asked my son about this distinction after his open house. He confidently explained that facts were things that were true whereas opinions are things that are believed. We then had this conversation:

Me: “I believe that George Washington was the first president. Is that a fact or an opinion?”

Him: “It’s a fact.”

Me: “But I believe it, and you said that what someone believes is an opinion.”

Him: “Yeah, but it’s true.”

Me: “So it’s both a fact and an opinion?”

The blank stare on his face said it all.

In short, the Common Core standards in the States are pushing a sort of logical positivism that has been reheated in the microwave a few too many times. Lacking taste and solidity, the Powers That Be have evidently decided that it would make excellent baby food without bothering to check the ingredients.

Things weren’t that bad when I was still growing up, but it is a development of the same tendency towards small mindedness I saw.

Insofar as my own public school system taught me basic reading and writing skills, a basic grasp of mathematics and other sciences, it deserves my thanks. Many in the world do not have that privilege. Beyond that, however, I find it committed to a programme of closing minds and producing vapid, joyless adults.

This can especially be seen in how English is handled.

The typical raison d’etre given for the continued existence of English classes is that virtually every career in the modern world requires literacy, and that the primary purpose of English is to make kids literate enough to be able to get by. Secondarily, the hat is tipped to this thing called “culture” which is something that most people agree is a good thing to have, so the curriculum will have to include someone like Shakespeare, even if it can’t quite be articulated as to why he should be read.

This justification contains some truth (regarding the need to be literate), but it is otherwise BS because it puts reading and writing at the sole service of careers and the economy. The idea that reading and writing is a good to be nourished for its own sake is barely present in it.

The Soviets believed that all art should serve the purposes of communism, but were aware that it could be used otherwise, and so took care to censure those artists who didn’t go along. Your modern school system seems simply unaware that literature can serve much of a purpose beyond serving the modern state or modern capitalism, or to instill in them a fashionable moral message.

The one science fiction novel I was assigned to read in high school was John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, and it is not hard to see why: there’s a fairly easy moral about nuclear war, and about accepting people who are different to be drawn from it. Reading and analyzing the novel is just about learning to locate the moral, so it’s no wonder that students find the exercise to be pointless and preachy.

The result, then, isn’t just an association of reading with work and puritanism; it is a stifling of the imagination. Literature – especially the good stuff: fairy tales, mystery, science fiction, poetry, fantasy, etc – is one of the primary ways of expanding your sense of reality beyond whatever options the status quo offers you. It is difficult to see this when it is instrumentalized for the sake of that same status quo, and is not taught as if there were not something intrinsically ennobling to storytelling as such. Contempt for literature promotes a diminished ability to be able to imagine other possibilities for your life.

But it is perfect, if your desire is to produce soulless husks who will mindlessly pursue wealth and pleasure until they die.

I am perhaps being over-the-top and sensationalist. But do note that the article referenced above indicates that some school systems have now moved onto actively teaching kids bad logic. The assault isn’t just against the imagination – it’s against basic reasoning skills. The result will be more adults who may be technically proficient regarding this or that profession, but who will otherwise not have the resources to make good judgments about what to believe and what to do with themselves. Again, if we ask the question of what kind of adult all this is supposed to be laying the grounds for, the obvious answer is: a tool.

All this, often from the same sorts of minds who would tell me that Christianity, and especially the Catholic Church, was historically the closed-minded enemy of human reason and creativity.

It should go without saying that there are many good teachers in the trenches who actually care about giving their students a good education. They are commendable people. But the system, for the most part, works against that

I can only recommend public school as a last resort for your kids: if private school or homeschooling are simply not feasible, and you have no real choice. Real life often means compromises. Just make sure you arm your kids to the teeth. Or at least give them a copy of The Last Unicorn.

(for those who don’t get this post’s title)

(via Rod Dreher, as usual)

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Ghost stories

mononoke
Don made a rather glowing recommendation of Mononoke a few weeks ago, which I mentally filed away until recently.

Having watched the first story arc (which spans two episodes), we have: a rather laconic, mysterious man known only as the Medicine Seller who hunts down spirits with an enchanted sword in feudal Japan. That sounds a bit like a setup for your average Shonen anime, except it isn’t.

*early show spoilers to follow*

What we get instead in the beginning is a ghost story told in a rather aggressively surrealistic manner. In this case, a pregnant woman winds up taking shelter in an inn where the Medicine Seller happens to be staying. Since there are no other rooms available, she gets put in a “store room” that turns out to be haunted. An assassin sent by the child’s father tracks her down – only to be killed by whatever is lurking in the room.

mononoke4

The medicine seller interrogates the inn’s owner and finds out that the inn used to be a brothel, and the “store room” was actually where the babies of the prostitutes were aborted. The ghosts of those babies are what is haunting the room. Then the woman seems to enter into the psychic suffering of the prostitutes and their dead children as reality increasingly comes apart at the seams until the medicine seller is able to exorcise them. It’s really unnerving. Now, I’m not sure what Japanese attitudes towards abortion are, but from a western perspective, its a pretty ballsy move to depict it in a tragic and horrific light.

What it reminds me a bit of is Flannery O’Connor, who made use of the grotesque and horrific to jolt her readers out of moral complacency. I don’t know whether Kenji Nakamura and his writers actually had some sort of moral impetus here, or if they just felt it would be something messed up that they could use for dramatic effect. But it goes to show how simply telling a story well can have a potentially powerful moral effect on people. Part of the reason we live in a culture that is saturated with secular leftist values is that they’re by and large the only ones these days who care about good storytelling. Would that more orthodox Christians took note of that.

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Anyway, the art is as aggressive as the story. The best description I can come up with is, “Yoshitaka Amano artbook on drugs,” which is saying something, given Amano’s designs. Everything looks flat – in a good way – with a painterly, tactile feel.

So: colour me intrigued.

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RIP, Mr. Nimoy

No sooner had I completed my SoTT post when I found out that Leonard Nimoy had died. We’ve lost one of SF’s most iconic men.

Here’s the ending music to The Wrath of Khan, which includes the voice of Nimoy closing the movie out by reciting the Star Trek motto at 2:50. It’s what I thought of when I heard the news.

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Reading The Shadow of the Torturer – Chapters IX-X

SYNOPSIS: Severian and Roche arrive at the House Azure, and Severian chooses to bed a prostitute who both has the same name and likeness as Chatelaine Thecla. The episode is disturbing enough to prevent him from wanting to return to the brothal. As time passes at the Citadel, Thecla effectively becomes Severian’s educator. Since he is coming of age, he is offered the options of either leaving his apprenticeship behind and becoming a journeyman, or to leave the guild.

ANALYSIS: The first notable thing is the identities of the people at House Azure. The owner is described thus:

The person who had admitted us wore thick-soled shoes and a yellow robe; his shourt, white hair was smoothed back from a wide but rounded brow above a beardless and unlined face. As I passed him in the doorway, I discovered that I was looking into his eyes as I might have looked into a window. Those eyes could truly have been of glass, so unveined and polished they seemed – like a sky of summer draught.

A little bit later on, he introduces his women:

“All the beauties of the court are here for you,” our host said. “Here in the House Azure, by night flown here from the walls of gold to find their dissipation in your pleasure.”

Half hypnotized as I was, I thought this fantastic assertion had been put forward seriously. I said, “Surely that’s not true.”

“You came for pleasure, did you not? If a dream adds to your enjoyment, why dispute it?”

The irony is that there is an element of reality to the fantasy here. In chapter vii, we found out that the Autarch wants the Chatelaines of House Absolute to be sexually vulnerable so as to keep their respective families at bay. If the exultants do anything, their daughters will pay.

The House Azure is the manner by which he does this. Real noblewomen are brought here to roleplay in a fantasy version of their own lives for the pleasure of others. And this, indeed, suggests that the owner may be none other than the Autarch himself.

This raises the question of who, exactly, the fake Chatelaine Thecla is. I have no good answer; just a slightly crazy hypothesis. From what we later learn about the Autarch’s vizier, Father Inire, it would not be beyond the pale for him to have access to cloning technology.

Severian’s conversation with the fake Thecla gets unusually philosophical:

“Very strong. Aren’t you strong enough to master reality, even for a little while?”

“What do you mean?”

“Weak people believe what is forced on them. Strong people what they wish to believe, forcing that to be real. What is the Autarch but a man who believes himself Autarch and makes others believe by the strength of it?”

In pithy fashion this actually illustrates one of the problems with relativism. If there is no truth, and what counts as “true” is merely a function of its enforcability on people, then power has nothing to answer to. Many proponents of relativism tout that it protects the vulnerable by removing any rational justification the powerful can have to oppress them. But in the process of doing that, it undercuts any rational claim that the weak might have to justice; they are weak, so they lose. It is an ideology that serves the interests of those who desire, and are able to maintain, power. The totalitarian regime is the most relativistic form of government.

The whole incident also indicates that Severian’s ability to relate to the opposite sex is extremely damaged (he almost beats her). This is something of an unpleasant running theme throughout the series.

And now, the real Thecla:

“No one really knows what the Autarch will do. That’s what it all comes down to. Or Father Inire either. When I first came to court I was told, as a great secret, that it was Father Inire who really determined the policy of the Commonwealth. When I had been there two years, a man very highly placed – I can’t even tell you his name – said it was the Autarch who ruled, though to those in the House Absolute it might seem that it was Father Inire….”

There’s an onion-like quality to the political intrigue in BOTNS. The House Absolute won’t actually be visited until the Claw of the Conciliator, but everything that has been said about it so far (including the trip to its literal self-parody, House Azure) should make us wonder exactly how much of it can be taken at face value.

I told him firmly – and as though I were slightly shocked by the suggestion – that I had never considered it. [leaving the guild] It was a lie….Furthermore, though I loved the guild I hated it too….I do not know how better to express my feelings about it than by saying that I hated it for starving and humiliating me and loved it because it was my home, hated and loved it because it was the exemplar of old things, because it was weak, and because it was indestructible.

One example of why people can sometimes find it difficult to leave a situation that they know to be perverse or hurtful to them. While Severian recognizes that he can leave, it seems to be an almost futile option for him. “Where would I go?” At this point, he can’t imagine himself living a life where he is not a torturer, because this is the reality that he has grown up in.

(Index)

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Pokemon as a language acquisition metaphor

Masculine, feminine, verb, noun, adjective...

Masculine, feminine, verb, noun, adjective…

You see – Pokemon is a JRPG where your combat party consists entirely of cute imaginary animals that you need to hunt down and capture. Along the way you fight several pokemon gym leaders who award you badges that grant certain privileges. Finally, you have to defeat a group of people called the elite four in order to be recognized as the reigning Pokemon Champion (and along the way you usually foil the schemes of a laughably inept criminal organization).

It occurs to me that you can use this format as a metaphor for learning a language. The Pokemon themselves are your vocabulary. Like words, Pokemon have a life separate from that of the trainer, with their own behavior in the wild. But with some effort they can be brought under your command. Both Pokemon and words are studied by Pokemon profs and linguistic profs respectively, but just about everyone makes use of them. The pokedex, which catalogs and describes Pokemon, is obviously a lexicon.

Pokemon are classified into different types, and a substantial amount of combat strategy falls back upon understanding their affinities and weaknesses. Similarly, in learning a language you need to get a grasp of how to use the different kinds of words correctly in order to put them together into a meaningful sentence.

Your Pokemon will grow and evolve as you practice with them; similarly your use of words will become more nuanced the more familiar you are with them.

Gym badges are your grammatical paradigms – your declensions, conjugations, etc. Gaining one will make some unruly Pokemon obey you and allow you to access or do things you couldn’t do before. The badges allow you to advance in status and power in the world of Pokemon – just as mastering the grammar piece by piece is the essential backbone to becoming linguistically competent.

I dunno. It’s just a thought I had.

Posted in fragments of culture, Our Allies in Nippon, pop culture and its discontents | Tagged , , | 2 Comments