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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Just Thinking

For those interested, here's a link to my article for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. It concerns my analysis of James Cameron's, Avatar. The topic was chosen for me, and this is certainly not a film I would have chosen to critique, but I was led to some interesting and unanticipated conclusions.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Keeping the Monster in the Closet: Lovecraft and the Tradition of Cosmic Horrror



Though Lovecraft's work is often marred by an overabundance of archaic terminology, and contrived dialogue, the man had a definite vision according to which he chose to operate. Many of his so-called defects can be explained by this vision. Frequently, his stories are accused of lacking a climax, of failing to deliver the monstrosity which has been steadily hinted at throughout the course of the narrative. Though many of his disciples would forsake this technique, Lovecraft was adamant about leaving the most explicit details to the reader's imagination. He even had a name for the genre in which he operated: "cosmic horror."

Howard Phillips Lovecraft set out the groundwork for his peculiar trade in a sparse piece of literary criticism entitled, Supernatural Horror in Literature, in which he aims to sketch out the contours of the "weird" tradition. The word "weird" has not faired well since Lovecraft's benevolent usage. The word now refers exclusively to strange habits or temperaments. In Lovecration lore, however, the word takes on more sinister connotations. It refers to something alien, remote, and uncanny. Indeed, in Lovecraft's hands the word becomes synonymous with the supernatural.

A mild-mannered man who spent hours in the city archives, cataloging, and studying antiques, Lovecraft had a way of maximizing his talents which few could hope to rival. A thread running through all of his work is the theme of insignificance. There are countless psychological ramifications that come along with this one, but let me restrict myself to a few artistic remarks on Lovecraft's techniques. "Cosmic horror" throws mankind's minuscule status within the universe into sharp relief. Everywhere, there are sinister forces and deities whose sheer immensity makes a mockery of any human effort. All about us, there are strange forces and beings who pervade the atmosphere. In one of his most effective stories (From Beyond), Lovecraft introduces a character who has created a machine which enables a sixth sense, effectively adumbrating a sinister world which lives all around us. In typical Lovecration fashion, the only real description we get of this netherforce consists in the reactions of the people who witness it, all of whom are compelled to donate their sanity as payment for the view.

Supernatural Horror in Literature is remarkable for its learned approach to the genre. Lovecraft opens the book with the now almost- famous lines: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." But the "unknown" must remain unknown if it is to be effectively wielded in fiction. Consider this quote: "It may be well to remark here that occult believers are less effective than materialists in delineating the spectral and the fantastic, since to them the phantom world is so commonplace a reality that they tend to refer to it with less awe, remoteness, and impressiveness, than do those who see in it an absolute and stupendous violation of the natural order." This is vintage Lovecraft: intense, hyperbolic, and tragically sincere. But Lovecraft is right. If you attempt to introduce too much of a scientific, or pseudo-scientific framework into the tale, the atmosphere is jettisoned. So, the inviolable rule of Lovecration horror is never to reveal the monster completely, and to allow the reader to languish in an atmosphere of relentless terror and panic, with no recourse to anything of even vague familiarity. Here, I would say, Lovecraft often succeeds. His style is hampered by archaic terminology, and truly comical outbursts of dialogue, but the scenes are set so effectively that the atmosphere becomes the story's greatest merit.

It's worth noting that Lovecraft also finds the "weird" in some more conventional places. He dedicates a few obligatory remarks to James's, The Turn of the Screw, adding that James is clearly more interested in playing with words than nerves. He singles out Nathanael Hawthorne for special attention. Goodman Brown is a notably macabre story, weighted with supernatural themes and apocalyptic imagery, but it is his House of Seven Gables that Lovecraft truly wishes to praise. The hints of spectral presences and a family curse all find ample support from Lovecraft, though I suspect, he may be seeing more than your average Hawthorn reader. Lovecraft also singles out Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights for especial praise, naming Heathcliff as a dark Byronic hero of the first order.

The "unknown" is not simply uncharted territory for Lovecraft, but an entire aesthetic. It is the "unknown" which fills the universe with a mystical splendor, and allows us to give voice to true fear and awe, both of which Lovecraft seems to regard as the most noble of human emotions. Why noble? Because a sensitively-attuned mind will recognize man's infinitesimal status in the cosmos, and his total ignorance of nearly all the forces gathered about him. Clearly, Lovecraft saw a stark beauty in this conception of the universe. Given his atheistic convictions, it is interesting that Lovecraft dedicated his most ambitious intellectual pursuits to saturnine deities bent on man's destruction. But they had to remain concealed, or the magic was lost. Lovecraft was a practitioner of a kind of "aesthetics of concealment." The formula works because the things about which Lovecraft writes are so alien and immense that they preclude description. The genius behind this maneuver resides in its ability to demonstrate the fertility of the reader's imagination, effectively making a weapon of it, and turning it against him.

Understandably, Lovecraft dedicates an entire chapter to the work of Edgar Allen Poe. Ever cognizant of the academic resistance to Poe's oeuvre, Lovecraft praises Poe's unique and sophisticated psychological insights which undergird his best works, though he recognizes Poe's melodramatic defects, as well as the many coincidences scarring his work. Of special interest here, are the references to Charles Brockden Brown as Poe's predecessor.

Aside from Poe, there are three masters whom Lovecraft singles out for special attention in his little book: Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and Lord Dunsany. Lovecraft took the best elements from all three of these writers, and carved out his own niche in the genre. Of these three, Blackwood's, The Willows, is the most kindred to much of Lovecraft's work. The test of time has secured Lovecraft an admirable place in the world of horror literature. Many authors cite him as influence, and have built upon his mythological framework, but Supernatural Horror in Literature remains an overlooked gem. It should stand as a classic treatise on the horror genre. The central thesis of adumbrating the "unknown" through a series of careful hints, and atmospheric pulses ought to be more emulated. We would be spared much of the brainless carnage that has become the standard trade of the horror genre. What Lovecraft tells us here is that horror--cosmic horror, at least--is less about revulsion, and more about awe and wonder.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Carrying the Fire


I'm going to bypass the unwritten law stating that a writer should always recommend the book before the movie. I'm ethically justified, of course; I think this movie will drive you to the book.

The "post-apocolyptic" thriller is becoming a theatrical staple. A slew of films dedicated to our society's expiration seem to fill our screens every month. Cormac McCarthy, who usually restricts himself to copious bloodshed on the Texas and Mexico borderlands, makes a contribution to the genre with, The Road. All similarities end once we move past the generic category. The remarkable economy of the book is matched only by its ferocious honesty. The language is parred down--one is tempted to say worn down--and effectively conveys the austere conditions in which the protagonists find themselves: A world reduced to a bed of ashes, and traversed by marauding bands of cannibals, everything either devoured, or in the process.

The film matches McCarthy's furnace-of-a-world visually and atmospherically. The actors are haggard and emaciated in the manner of concentration camp victims. They are known simply as "the man," and "the child." Their names have been effaced along with their homes, along with society. All that matters is the bond uniting them, which the man calls, "the fire." This fire might also designate "humanity," since the character uses it to refer to those few who have chosen to retain their "human" values, rather than embracing their animal instincts, and consuming flesh indiscriminately. It is a striking name. Fire has primal connotations, bringing to mind a key element of the dawn of civilization. Fire is also a source of animation, combating darkness with light. We seek it also for warmth. Taken together, it seems a highly spiritual manner of describing the thread running through mankind.

It's a harrowing film. The imagery is harsh, and the director is uncompromising in his visual translation. The extreme conditions in which the characters find themselves throw the tenderness between them into sharp relief. The bond (the fire) is powerful, but their bodies are so fragile; we know that both can't survive. And here is where the film/book grows very interesting. What drives these two to survive, and to affirm life, as many in the story refuse to do, is something beyond their biological instincts. It must be. The only options otherwise are suicide, or savagery. The Man and the Child opt for neither because they believe there is something which elevates man above this squalor, something transcendent, something sacred. If they both carry the fire, others must also. If others carry the fire, who bequeathed the fire to them?

After I first saw the film, two days before Christmas, the resounding question in my heart was: In whose image are we made?

Monday, June 7, 2010

"Your Own Personal Jesus": A Review for Viral Bloggers



Matt Mikalatos makes a provocative, and frequently hilarious debut with Imaginary Jesus. A welcome breath of unconventional air, the narrative begins with Matt's "imaginary" Jesus coming to fisticuffs with the apostle, Peter. Jesus absconds, and further mayhem ensues as Matt and Pete take to the Portland streets in hot pursuit.

The book creatively indicts all of us who call ourselves Christ's followers, pointing to our inveterate tendency to remake Jesus in our own image, using him as a convenient badge to our identity, or as a helpful sidekick. It is fitting that Mikalatos treats this practice with a great deal of severity. This accounts for the author's habit of rapidly shifting from slapstick to ideas of great gravity. The results can sometimes be disorienting, or even a bit unfocused.

The prose is highly accessible and bereft of any ornamentation. The book moves too fast to lavish the reader in details. Mikalatos does display a rather deft grasp of Portland culture, and the pretension of hipsters in general. At any rate, laughter will abound as you navigate the story.

Why read Imaginary Jesus? Stated most baldly, the book is an invitation to dispense with your own imagination, and to come into the real presence of God, a noble purpose indeed.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Living Art


I've been reading a new column in the New York Times Opinionator blogs called, the Stone. It's a forum for contemporary philosophers to do what most contemporary philosophers now do exclusively: examine culture. Culture here usually refers to current music or reality shows, but in this particular post: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/sitting-with-marina/ Columbia professor, Arthur C. Danto, examines the work of a performance artist, Marina.

Performance art is not for the faint of heart; the acts themselves usually involve, among other things, nudity, public defecation, and various forms of humiliation, all in a semi-public setting. What all of these rituals are supposed to prove is a matter of great debate among advocates. At any rate, the experience is seen as a great deal more dynamic than looking at a painting. The subtleties of the Flemish painters may wain next to the conceit of a woman urinating in a cup in front of you.

Marina's act involves her sitting in a chair across from an empty seat in which you are invited to sit and observe. That's all. She is fully clothed, so this is a relatively modest act as far as performance art goes. Nothing is said, though you are free to throw some dialog her way. Some reportedly have sat across from Marina for hours. Professor Danto reports that his experience bordered on the spiritual.

He describes Marina as becoming "incandescent," a work of art undergoing a change at the hands of the sculptor. This, he counters, is a delicate experience made all the more precious because we are invited to participate in it. We may become part of Marina's piece, so to speak.

Danto has written extensively on the interface of philosophy and art. Though I cannot here hope to elaborate on the subtleties of his work (I haven't read most of it), he has concentrated on the loss of "beauty" as a standard criteria of modern art. This paradigm shift was largely ushered in by the Modernist movement. What really seems to be missing in this scenario--and I think Danto would agree--is a sense of transcendence in the pieces themselves. An "ontic-referent" is a term in currency among theologians. It simply means something of our world, like a painting or a book, which points to something greater, or divine. Modernism sought to divest art of this kind of thing. Here is the world in all its wretchedness, and no religious sentiment is left upon which to lean. This is a purer expression of reality, and beauty is something for which we are now too mature.

Perhaps this is how people see Marina's act. In a world of such austere criteria, a woman sitting across from you in a chair may well be a religious experience. I can't help but think that we've lost something vital...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I Still Exist

I apologize for the long absence. I've been working on an article for Just Thinking magazine, a periodical published by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries on a triannual basis. The article concerns my analysis of James Cameron's most recent film, Avatar. It is slated to hit the press at some point in July, I believe. I'll post a link for those of you who are interested when it's released.

My ostensible plan for this blog is to post some of my thoughts on Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. I'll have to finish the book first, and though this is my second reading, it may still take a few days after I've concluded the piece before I can form a coherent thought about it.

In the meantime, here's a video of Duke University Professor Stanley Hauerwas discussing the subject of a good death. It's a very moving interview, and I've found much to cherish in this man's words as of late.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

He's back and yes, he's that bad! (Warning: Spoilers Ahead)


A Nightmare on Elm Street remake was inevitable. If you've seen the original, you'll remember some of the memorably dated special-effects and outfits. For all its failings, Wes Craven's film remains a deeply disturbing, and surreal look at fear at its most intimate and primal. Fred Kruegger is not just a horror icon; he is a modern archetype of evil, and part of the American mythological landscape just as much as John Wayne, or James Dean.

The remake is a film propelled entirely by its storyline. This is a surprising fact, given our recent cinematic horror shows which refuse to do little more than disclose obscene acts of torture for our fevered perusal. A Nightmare on Elm Street continues to demand the audience's attention. This is not to say that there isn't a copious amount of bloodshed, there is, but the film does sacrifice some carnage for the plot. Critics are already railing against the acting, but then again, there weren't any Oscar-worthy performances in the original, so this seems a mute point. The film is still "stylish," which seems to me to be a stock compliment bestowed by badgering critics these days upon films about which they have very little to say. For my part, I found the film's cinematic techniques to be functionalist at best. Everything is subordinated to the story, even the effects, and the inevitable blurring between dreams and reality.

The marketing strategy of the film was creative. Freddy's guilt is brought into question, which would have been a fairly radical change to introduce. We've yet to see the slasher vindicated for his crimes. Well, you won't see it here. As it turns out, Freddy really is that bad. His crimes are given a more wicked distinction because of the story's focus on pedophilia. Fred remains a portrayal of senseless wickedness in the face of child-like innocence. So, he's still that bad.

Though the film's story is altered slightly, it doesn't deviate much from Wes Craven's vision. The film's exploration of the collapsing wall between dreams and reality, as well as its near Freudian preoccupation with guilt set within the context of the child/parent relationship all remain. One memorable addition to this film is its focus on the consequences of revenge; the parents are held to a higher standard for their vigilantism, and the film joins the growing list of stories exploring the perils of taking the law into your own hands.

But, I'll say it again: Kruegger is still a bad guy, and in a world of multiplying Dexters I find that somewhat comforting.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dead Again: For Good This Time


At the age of eleven, I made a brilliant discovery. I was perusing CDs at an electronics shop in Vienna where my family lived at the time, and happened upon the Mortal Combat soundtrack. I knew nothing about any of the artists featured in the package, but was excited by their names: Bile, Napalm Death, Type O Negative. It was this last band, however, that has remained with me ever since.

Once I had moved through the first industrial licks of the album, my ears were accosted by a deeply sonorous voice, accompanied by a psychedelic cacophony that would warm the heart of any self-respecting Doors fan. I was hooked. The guitars were low, the bass was basically a baritone guitar, and Josh Silver's keyboards ran the gamut of 80s cheese to the somber groans of a Cathedral organ. The track was Blood and Fire, the band was Type O Negative.

Soon, I had October Rust, an album for which there really is no comparison. It's a moody, brooding masterpiece fit for the crazed mind of any subversive adolescent. Every missionary mother's worst nightmare, the album explored everything from love triangles and hedonistic druids, to werewolf's in search of menstrual blood. I had no possible means of defense against such an intense lambaste of melody and rebellion. But the album that would turn the "drab four" into reluctant stars was Bloody Kisses. From a casual listen you would never conclude that this was a group of blue-collar guys from Brooklyn. The album is filled with a powerful and even sophisticated ambiance that has been dubbed "Gothic" for lack of a better word. But Peter Steele's compositions (decompositions) are too lavish to be painted with that brush. This is not Cradle of Filth, after all. I would venture to say that Peter Steele was a musical genius. The rich and layered texture is only the beginning for the listener. Steele's wicked humor frequently makes its way into the song, assuring you that these pale morticians don't take themselves too seriously.

Beginning his career as a sanitation worker for the New York City parks department, Peter Steele, at six-foot-seven, was an imposing figure, sulking about Brooklyn's worst districts in search of waste. Initially, he hopped from band to band. Fallout was an early incarnation of Type O and even yielded a demo. Steele also fronted the notorious hardcore band Carnivore, in which he showcased his highly progressive political views; he also offered some helpful tips on dealing with domestic disputes (I say this with tongue planted firmly in cheek).

The first Type O Negative album was entitled Slow,Deep and Hard. I can't think of a better title nor can I imagine a more gorgeous piece of sonic misogyny. It's a miracle the band recovered from this album, which makes most of Cannibal Corpse's work look like child's play. But it is beautiful for all its violence and the lyrics are sadistically ingenious; Steele's band mates asserted that he would never top them.

Peter Steele died April 14 of heart failure at the age of 48. He left a rather strange and tragic legacy. Our first introduction to the man was of a towering, handsome, Viking-of-a-man who appeared in a magazine or two of ill repute for certain generous endowments that were of a decidedly non-financial nature. By the end, he was a depleted hag with green saucers for eyes and decaying teeth, recently released from prison and trying to recover from a long battle with cocaine. His latest album was a step in the right direction for the band and his reported conversion to the Roman Catholicism of his youth left many scratching their heads. As a Christian, I still struggle with the blasphemous nature of many of his lyrics, and wonder whether anything sincere could have come out of this mordant troll.

But I'm paying tribute to Steele because he was a constant presence throughout my adolescence. I picked up a bass because of the man's symphonic technique and I still can't write anything that doesn't smack of something he already came up with. There's never been a better metal band and I'm confident there won't be. I love heavy metal as a genre, but what Type O Negative did was too interesting to fit into such a narrow category. I'll always remember driving down the highway and blasting Blood and Fire, a song hated by the band, but one that held a special place in Steele's heart. Listen to it sometime.

I haven't stopped listening to Steele's music since I first discovered it at the age of eleven. I used to think I'd grow out of it one day, that I'd mature. Now at the age of twenty-five, it is my sincere wish that I never reach maturity; this music will be with me always.

Friday, April 9, 2010

04/09/10

Not long ago, I finished George Steiner's Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. His argument is essentially that these are the two greatest novelists of the twentieth century, but, given their radically divergent conceptions of life, would benefit the general reader by being compared and contrasted.

Steiner designates Tolstoy as an author who writes in the "epic" mode, in which we have a "primacy of form." Simply stated, this means that Tolstoy's novels are preoccupied with details that lend them a great deal of verisimilitude. He follows the Homeric tradition in concentrating on events occurring within a broader time frame. As an example, Steiner points to an instance in War and Peace in which one of the characters encounters an acquaintance several years later in a war hospital. We the reader will remember this acquaintance from several hundred pages back. Though this is clearly quite a convenient coincidence for the author, it allows him to breath a great deal of life and dynamism into his story, while at the same time keeping it from feeling forced or embellished. Tolstoy, as many have stated, was a master of details and capturing the concrete facets of life. Reading his stories is intoxicating. You feel them, hear them, smell them. In short, you're there. Think of the famous plowing scene from Ana Karenina.

Conversely, Dostoevsky operates within the "dramatic mode." This means a "primacy of action" dominates his stories. Much more in the mold of Shakespeare, his characters writhe, seethe and overflow with life. A voracious consciousness seems to characterizes their many speeches, which, incidentally, should probably be called monologues. Moreover, immediacy plays a great role here as well. Dostoevsky's stories all take place within a relatively short timespan. Part of the power of his prose is the raw, undiluted, unrefined and even vociferous feel of it. Read Notes from Underground aloud and see if your spirit isn't stirred, and see if you don't begin sharing the protagonist's feelings. The criticisms often heaped upon Dostoevsky for his clumsy style are here met with an adequate explanation in my view.

Most importantly, however, the two men saw God in different ways. Boiled down, Tolstoy's Gospel is a secular one from which Christ is ejected and Reason is supplanted. Tolstoy never could understand the musings of Christ and had no time for speculations on the afterlife. He used to chide that, once we die, two and two is still four. In other words, no matter what spiritual contortions wrack our minds, the rigid laws of logic and common sense remain inviolable. Dostoevsky, flying in the face of this hyper-rationalism, stated that he would believe in Christ in spite of any evidence opposing him. Christ superseded reason and even truth for Dostoevsky, a fascinating assertion from a man who probably launched the most profound argument against Christianity with his Grand Inquisitor. Steiner makes the suggestion that perhaps this Inquisitor is a stand-in for Tolstoy. His words would indeed find ample support with the sage of Yasnaya Polyana. Perhaps it's just speculation.

At any rate, it's a book well worth your time as well as a vital aid to confronting two elusive, but necessary giants.

Friday, March 19, 2010

03/19/10

My less-than-prolific status notwithstanding, I've been spurred out of silence by David Bentley Hart once again.

In his superb collection, In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments, Hart has an article entitled "The Laughter of the Philosophers." This should catch the eye of anyone who has ever brushed the sunken shoulders of such bleak entities as Immanuel Kant, Hegel (let's omit his entire name, shall we?), Derrida. There's a litany of vile epithets that come to mind, "funny" not being one of them. But Hart contends that humor is important. Why?

Harold Bloom has stated that the most important critical tool our age lacks is a sense of irony. Humor tends to sharpen arguments rather than hinder them. At least, this is the case in my limited experience. Those who wear their hearts on their sleeves, and proffer a slender sincerity, refuse to laugh at themselves, will often find themselves at the center of the joke. Humor is perhaps the most powerful mode of exposing a contradiction. Consider the work of such classical satirists as Swift and Voltaire. Many idols flourish within the dusty temples of humorless sages and archival moles, but humor may just be the "hammer of the gods" of which Nietzsche spoke.

I do sometimes suspect that Derrida is laughing at me beyond his convoluted grave as I wade through his sordid swamps. Isaiah Berlin must chuckle as I "thrash in the shallows"with him as Hart puts it. And what of our modern progeny? I detect very little humor in the Rorties, the Dennets (ostensibly a scientist, I suppose), Dawkins (a proselyte). Read the new atheists and they speak with the fearsome sincerity and moral candor of street preachers wielding signs declaring "the end is nigh."

Seriously, let's loosen up!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

03/09/10

Letter to a Well-Meaning Church

“Not all who wander are lost.”
J.R.R. Tolkien

Dear Church,

I wanted to thank you for the warm welcome my wife and I received this past Sunday. Your congregants truly are a generous group of people. The compulsory greeting sessions are always somewhat painful, but I met some people I may actually shake hands with again.

Your worship team is impressive to say the least. I thought I was mistaken initially when I heard the first few licks of “Crazy Train.” I wouldn’t mind playing a few songs with those guys if they could tolerate an amateur.

When your pastor mounted the podium I hardly knew it; he looked just like me. Informal and at once familiar, I’d swear I’ve met him before. After he had recommended a few movies and television shows, he spoke of reaching the lost and inviting a friend to the next service. It seems your church has a great bash planned for just such an occasion, and for the benefit of just such a person.

Here, I would offer you some humble words of caution. I have many friends who make their homes as far from any church as they can. There are many ideal places I can think of to go with them, but your church is not one of them. You feel certain of your positive influence upon them, but seem to think little of theirs on you. It also seems not to have crossed your mind that a church may be the worst place for someone who does not yet speak its language, so to speak.

May I offer some further advice? It seems that you make a categorical mistake when you insist on calling your church the Church. The capitalization shouldn’t make you blush. There is a world of difference between your congregation, and what Christ means when he refers to His bride. The Church is nothing less than the organic body of believers world-wide who, by God’s grace, act as His ambassadors. It’s not that the Sunday morning service shouldn’t be evangelistic; it’s just that inviting the uninitiated to such a gathering is a bit like starting a story with the climax.

You spoke often of the importance of culture. For you, the word seems to refer exclusively to the domain of the media. If there were any references to classical paintings or Greek deities, they escaped me. With all the talk of conversion, I must confess I sometimes wonder whose converting who. We might consider making the church a shelter from pop culture instead of another one of its havens. After the many film, music, television and twitter references, I grappled with the question of what a phrase like “in Christ alone” even means. Your team sang it you know?

Please understand, I mean no disrespect by any of these remarks. I’m just a fellow believer who needs a place of rest and replenishment.

Faithfully yours,

A Wandering Believer

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

03/02/10

I have a rather unsettling matter to attend to.

In my junior year of college, I laid out an argument against Satan as the hero of Milton's epic poem. I did so by examining both of the most recent Humanist Manifestos and seeing whether Satan measured up. He didn't, of course, and I was able to pass him off as the effete dictator that I then believed him to be.

Well, I'm not of this persuasion any longer. Milton, no doubt, intended Satan as the villain. After all, he is the foul deceiver of the Genesis narrative, and this is Milton's stage. But he got away from Milton. Satan became something more than a villain, he became emblematic of the human condition. It's exceedingly hard to resist his charms the more you read the poem. In the face of total devastation, he continues to lambaste Hell's acrid landscape with his cries of revolt. His delusions are as magnificent as those envisioned by Cervantes.

As I see it, and I'm making a considerable claim here, all literary criticism proceeds from a psycho-analytic standpoint. This may be our "cross to bear" in a post-Freudian age, but I think it's an intrinsic quality of the discipline. We engage with great works to engage with great minds, to touch genius as Nabokov once stated. Our analysis of a given text hinges on our perceptions of an author's given motives however opaque they may be. In the case of Shakespeare, we've come to an overwhelming black hole where only speculation is possible. Milton, on the other hand, left a slew of conflicts behind for us to absorb. But his epic is filled with Satan's voluminous personality which is impossible to discard. God, however, is his greatest failure in the poem, and is a lifeless piece of truncated doctrine. As a Christian myself, these are difficult facts to acknowledge, but I find it intolerable to lie to myself on the subject of Milton's literary hedonism.

So, there you have it, I think Satan emerges as the hero of Paradise Lost because of Milton's own short-comings.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

02/27/10

A magical night on the town last night, and I do mean magical; for the first time in seven months, Heather and I didn't have to suffer violent pangs of guilt for doing our part as consumers...

I'm adding the re prefix to many things lately. My latest: I re-watched Taxi Driver. For highly personal reasons the film remains my favorite. Reading over the first few descriptive lines of the script, Paul Schrader adds to Bickle's character the superb epithet "consummate loner." And so he is, prowling the sordid streets of 1970s New York with the uncanny eye of an outsider, or, to put it in a literary context, the stranger. The violent climax leaves me breathless every time, despite the lusterless color imposed by the censor; the originals have perished unfortunately. All that red gone to waste.

Picked up Bloom's Genius. I indiscriminately love anything touched by the man's pen, so my opinion on the book is truly of no consequence. Bloom frequently falls under his own spell, talking himself into an ever-higher pitch of ecstatic fervor. The book gives an explicitly religious twist to Bloom's literary idolatry. He is a self-proclaimed Gnostic in the tradition of Valentinus. The book follows a Kabbalistic system and is arranged in the form of a mosaic. In this way, Bloom hopes to augment our understanding of how genius propagates, so to speak. The book has a palpably organic structure, crowned by Shakespeare, Bloom's God. Idiosyncratic, and in fact, downright bizarre at times, Bloom's brilliant erudition and Olympian prose overshadow his religious short-comings for me. Though I think he makes an egregious critical error by placing Shakespeare above the Scriptures, his passion is intoxicating, and I always end his books as a staggering drunk.

There are some obscene omissions, but Bloom claims these are "his" choices, and reminds us they are not authoritative, though, I suspect, he's rather certain that they are. Where, may I ask, is Vladimir Nabokov, a trilingual genius who reshaped the stylistic conventions of a language not his own and gave us a whole host of dazzling books, including three indisputable works of literary genius: Pale Fire, Lolita, and Ada or Ardor? One might also make a case for Pnin, but I'll leave that to professionals.

As always, the sudden bursts of polemic are glorious. I'm still waiting for a book dedicated solely to the enterprise of insults.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

02/25/10

People are fond of saying life never stops. At least, I've heard a great many self-designated sages utter some variation on that theme, especially since I made it through college. Granted, life proceeds despite our best efforts to slow it down, no inertia takes place within this Heracliton river. Few will dispute, however, that the period following college is a peculiar kind of interstice, a life before life, so to speak. It's a place where everything seems swelling with potential but hasn't been given an actual shape yet. As hopelessly juvenile as this all sounds, my imagination fails when I try to put it any other way.

Heather has been out of work for seven months. Seven long months in which we subsist on a grocery store paycheck and my earnings from a weekly blog. They've been hard, but I know we'll look back on them fondly. I look at our box of an apartment and it already has the nostalgic quality of a memory; we'll never see this place again. I know I shall miss it. I miss most things that recede into the past because I know that they're now inaccessible, and I can see everything about them that mattered most. As Kierkegaard says, "Life is lived forwards and understood backwards."

Well, as is often the case, Heather received several call-backs all at once. Long story short, she's landed an amazing job. One which meets all of our needs and more. She effectively makes more than twice what I do annually. That's a rather humiliating note to sound, but my pride for her overshadows it.

Graduate school is the next step for me. I'm excited but it feels like one more intermediate stage, another purgatorial hill to ascend. All of this hyperbole is starting to make me blush, but I'm using it to illustrate how much like children we still feel at the moment. My plan is to study literature because philosophy is just too serious for me. I will always owe the beginning of intellectual odyssey--maybe excursion is more accurate--to Kierkegaard, Camus, Sartre et all. but I know I'll never escape the shadows of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, O'Connor, McCarthy, Bloom, Steiner--I could go on but I won't.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

02/24/10

I reread Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts and was astounded. The central thesis of the book, it seems to me, is that compassion without Christ's mediation turns toxic. If we are to take upon ourselves the burden of humanity, we must lay it at the feet of Christ, or else succumb to that burden.

Miss Lonelyhearts (West will call him nothing else) writes the agony column of a newspaper. As the narrative unfolds, his rage builds in an alarming crescendo. He begins to hate people for their pain and for their helplessness in the midst of it. He hates them because of his own impotence to better it, or to conquer it. Consider this sentence: "She was like a kitten whose soft helplessness makes one ache to hurt it." West seems to make the same demands of his prose that we have come to expect from poetry, packing as much meaning, humor and irony into a single phrase as is humanly possible. As Harold Bloom has remarked, nearly every sentence counts.

For me, the book's value lies in West's assumption that altruism itself turns into moral autism without a higher power intervening. I have no clue whether West was a Christian, but I do know that his Christ-haunted narrative was a huge source of inspiration for Flannery O'Connor. She ranked Miss Lonelyhearts and Faulkner's As I Lay Dying in her top ten American novels.

Here, West does what Camus was attempting with The Fall and does it better. Where Camus can only give us a man caught up in his elliptical and selfish motives, West shares a deeply metaphysical drama that is, despite its comic underpinnings, as grave as Lear. The letters he answers daily which began as a joke, now begin to systematically unravel his vision of reality. A teenage girl born without a nose, a boy whose deaf and mute sister has been raped and will receive severe retribution if the mother finds out, a women whose husband insists on children despite her failing kidneys. All written in illiterate and highly believable broken prose. The letters will not let him rest and drive the novel toward its apocalyptic conclusion.

On a different note, I finished Updike's A Month of Sundays.

Monday, February 22, 2010

02/22/10

Heather's at work and the apartment becomes an anonymous collection of square feet. One benefit of her new job is that I get to come home and find her in bed, relaxed and vulnerable; she sleeps with her head bowed forward like a religious supplicant. I love to kiss her forehead when she sleeps.

But I'm off today, and I continue to plod through the Updike. A mere twenty pages stretch before me like twenty miles. Lots of distance allusions today.

The sky looks like it's been filled with cement. Outside, a firetruck has been waiting for twenty minutes. Maybe somebody's expired, maybe a stroke struck someone. Apartments are strange. Compartmentalized lives stacked one on top of the next, and lined up in rows. To think that above me, someone's hopes and dreams are filling the space, someone's live is moving as surely as mine is. It seems strange to think that anything so momentous is happening amid the bovine thundering I hear up there. How could this couple be doing anything but pretending their couch is a vehicle?

It looks like grad school may be on the horizon for me. I'm excited though I know it won't hold all of the splendor I've assigned it in my mind. It's the next step to furthering my career which is at a stand-still. My mind recoils at the thought of arguing ad nauseum over the intricacies of our pricing system, or the fine print on our coupons; I work in the grocery business. An academic hermitage may be the only place for me, somewhere I can take my passion for footnotes and put it to good use.

Since the window's open, the apartment is roughly the color of dishwater, a far-from-inspiring template for anything really, but I think that's the best place for work sometimes. Rigid discipline becomes the sole pilot of our endeavors, and we are free to brush the opiate of artistic ecstasy away. I read that J.M. Coetzee never smiles, works non-stop. I'll wager he never waits for inspiration.

Friday, February 12, 2010

02/12/10

Let's dispense with the formalities; obviously I've abandoned this as a daily discipline.

In the spirit of honesty, I'll opt to return on a semi-regular basis. Vultures always return to carnage. Perhaps I need a better analogy...

The snow has fallen and continues to fall. Just when I had managed to build my meteorological skepticism into a virtue, these cascading flakes decide to make a fool of me. Heather and I haven't ventured out of our little secular hermitage though. The roads are frozen and I'm not a particularly adroit figure skater. The people who have moved above us either need crutches or have managed to secretly turn their apartment into a horse stall. That, or their keeping time to the beat of their music with hammers.

Still not finished with Updike nor he with me. In the interval I gobbled up Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. It's inspired my latest HandsforChrist blog. You can check that out on Monday. Reverend Tom Marshfield, he of Updike's usual fearful symmetry, has taken to nearly every woman in his congregation. I'm now officially sharing your struggles Ethan; I can't see past Updike's penchant for bottling up filth and passing it off as treasure. Is all of this squalor meant to augment our moral understanding of man? In the wake of our vile modern age do we really need one more sage confirming how fallen we all are?

Monday, February 1, 2010

02/01/10

Went to the gym and felt defeated the second I entered the stagnant, sauna-like heat of the place. No matter where I walked, it seemed I was walking into someone else's discarded carbon dioxide. Should have been a chemist; I'd appreciate these things.

On the treadmill, my hamster-like suffering lasted until I got to a mile, and then I decided I'd rather read the Church Dogmatics in one sitting than continue on this limbotic course that took me nowhere. It's a form of psychological torture. Objects hang before you in static entropy as you frenetically adjust the speed of this imbecilic machine. Space and time remain suspended. You feel that Bishop Berkley was correct, and that if you look away it will all vanish faster than a waiter who sees you wince.

Got home, put the meal on the stove and,unawares, offered fragrant incense to Moloch. Eventually, after a sustained clamor of feline hissing accosted me from the general direction of the kitchen, I realized that I should turn the burner down. Luckily, I was able to salvage our food just in time, though a group of naked savages have assembled outside my apartment in ecstatic expectation.

I continue to read the Updike though I can sense it's detrimental to my mental health. Ministers always seem to exude an air of pageantry, and Updike's all-too-believable misanthrope is too much for me at times. Still, the section I just read contained a fascinating parody on miracles. In a sense, the protagonist, Reverend Tom Marshfield, suffers because he can't see faith in anyone else. His whole congregation is a group of impostors keeping up appearances. The closest touch of vitality in his life comes through adultery. Secluded in the shelter of his recovery center from which he writes the confessions that fill the book, I wonder what kind of conclusions this latter-day Augustine will draw.

Friday, January 29, 2010

01/29/10

A frantic journey to the library turned up two treasures: an Updike book about a doubting, sex-crazed minister and Einstein's theory of relativity. In the one, I have a familiar voice I've grown to love, and a descriptive power I've not encountered in anyone but Nabokov. In the latter, I'll probably understand a fraction, and be able to apply none of it, save for some of the most esoterically banal conversation-stoppers I can muster for future cocktail parties.

I do love Updike though. Part of the draw to him is in the spiritual depth of his novels. The experience of an Updike novel is uniquely visceral and the details are powerfully vivid and dynamic. But there's always more. Many have remarked that no one does sex like Updike. True. No one does doubt like Updike either. He has a way of charting the motions of the soul within the context of a terrifyingly mundane and secular world. The lusts seem to act as extensions of the spirit in an Updike novel. We are always reaching for that ultimate point of contact only to find it shattered by a paradoxical sense of isolation. Adultery is the theme running rampant throughout all of Updike's prose. It serves as a metaphor for our own wanderings away from our true source of light.

Updike used to read from Karl Barth's commentary on Romans every night before he went to bed. He never tired of citing Kierkegaard and Barth as the vital sources of inspiration for his work, the set of coordinates by which he operated. His books are profoundly existential and profoundly theological. His characters are always trying to stay in motion, to stave away inertia. They are always trying to crowd away their emptiness with voluptuous bodies. Ironically, this ends up compounding the problem.

I am grateful to return to this most Christian of contemporary writers.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

01/23/10

My father-in-law reminded me of my sustained absence on this blog; my initial hope was to make it a daily discipline. Still, good intentions are harder to come by these days...

I've been somewhat depressed and vexed the past couple of days. The question of vocation looms large in my mind. Having recently graduated from college, I'm certainly not alone here. Many of us are trying to lay low while this wounded economy slouches toward some kind of recovery. My own qualms regard my particular calling. A "calling" is now a well-worn cliche, tread by many a preacher and evangelist, but the term is not yet so muddied as to be incommunicable. By calling I mean a particular line of work peculiar to my talents and proclivities that will serve in some small way to further the kingdom of God.

I called my Dad in an inspired fit of self-pity. He drew my attention to my motives and after I was done blushing, he proffered Proverbs 3:5-6. Familiar verses which I had yet to truly consider, much less implement in my own life. I've been reading them every day and attempting to understand what it means to not lean on one's own understanding. If that sounds like an oxymoron, I'm in good company with many esteemed theologians, though they would probably call it a paradox. At any rate, I won't be content to settle for anything less than a life of service to Christ.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

01/19/10

A more somber post.

I can't strive with Nabokov any longer. I'm forsaking Ada for now; I sense an alarmingly hollow sound behind all of the elaborate ornamentation. The excess of details isn't enough for me. I guess I'm realizing that moral backbone is important to me in the fiction I read, attractive as the idea of gloriously useless writing is.

I'm spiritually restless at the moment. A man with whom I work laid his hand on my shoulder recently and told me to listen to God. Amazing how little of that I do these days. I'll spend hours venting to God and devote not a second to opening my ears or heart to Him. As I press on these days, I'm rapidly coming to the realization that most of this world revolves around the question of what one values. Put simply, we do what we value, we forsake what we don't. That's a frightening thought for me.

The only way to communicate value then is to point toward what one values with one's own actions. The immanence of Christ's love won't be comprehensible without physical and verbal demonstrations of it on a daily basis, communications of its value. I just finished reading an essay by Marilynne Robinson on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His sole purpose in life was to communicate Christ's immanence to us through his actions. If we value Christ, we will act as Christ did to the best of our limited abilities. Every day, we're bombarded with a deluge of values that we're supposed to accept without question. Value-judgments are constantly made for us. I guess, I think I need to pray for the discernment to distinguish were my priorities as a follower of Christ lie.

Monday, January 18, 2010

01/18/10

An unfaithful diarist fesses up.

Currently reading Nabokov's Ada along with Boyd's book. The experience is quite enlightening since this enchanting little fairy-tale is nearly incomprehensible without some sort of Virgilistic guide.

Boyd points out that one aspect of Nabokov's flashy style that is frequently glossed over is his exploration of consciousness; that is, our awareness of individual and disparate things. The reader will be treated to a sprawling sentence where the author weaves seamlessly in and out of the character's head. Long parenthetical digressions make their way into the mix and disparate facts and characters who you'll never meet again throughout the coarse of the book pop out like party favors. As Boyd sees it, this testifies to Nabokov's desire to present the world as being comprised of individual entities. He will zone in on a particular detail and elaborate extensively and exhaustively, all the more if the detail is superfluous because it illustrates the nature of our world. These details are like an independent set of coordinates mapping out a radically heterogeneous world, hence the fact that Nabokov liked to compose his stories on note cards. These note cards were like individual specimens, slides in a lab. Here is our literary taxonomist. So, with Nabokov you have a collection of powerful details, each of which could stand alone. The result can be somewhat disorienting for the uninitiated.

I'm on the fence about a lot of this. I admire Nabokov more than most novelists right now, but it's hard for me to see any great spiritual depth in all of this splendor. Boyd's arguments are compelling and much more discerning than my own, but I still feel a remarkable impoverishment when I read Nabokov. When I read Lolita (not his best work in my opinion) for instance, the one redounding thought I had was, "He wrote this because he could and for no other reason." I think Nabokov would like that answer, but I'm not sure I do. Nabokov was fond of castigating many of the Russian masters, chief among them, Dostoevsky. As I grow older, I'm more and more drawn to the admittedly clumsy but always rich, novels of Dostoevsky, novels that assure me there are other worlds than this.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

12/15/10

After a night of processing and self-flagellation, I'm willing to declare myself a fan of the film "World's Greatest Dad." Not an easy film to watch by any stretch, this outrageously black little gem will take you places you probably haven't been since "Spanking the Monkey."

We join an English teacher who is actually a failed writer, desperate for fame and recognition. His son, to put it mildly, is the spawn of Satan, and can't seem to engage with anything that isn't Orphic. When a perverse accident interferes with this little freak's respiration, our failed writer seizes the opportunity to unleash his creative forces and to make a saint of Satan.

Though the film boasts some of the most memorably juvenile dialog you've heard since the last "South Park" movie, its themes are so deeply complex that we are forced to look beyond the surface. Robin William's character is exploiting his own son's death for money and fame, and who could blame him? We the audience are accomplices to the extend that it's hard to find fault with him for what he's done. His son is probably one of the most unsympathetic characters we'll ever see. But the film demonstrates brilliantly what the mystique of death and a little poetic license can accomplish. The son functions as the scapegoat initiating all of the redemptive themes in the film, hence, some of the guilt we feel about endorsing William's creative drive in the film.

It's a touching movie for all that, and the scene where William looses his son is painful to endure. Fine acting all around and a good soundtrack. Some of the lines truly are funny, even if they do make you cringe.

And another thing. Here's a little aside to all of the prudes in the audience. A casual glance through the foolish reviews posted on Amazon.com illustrates some rather interesting inconsistencies. For one, people have repeatedly complained about the language. It's excessive, crude, vulgar--nobody talks like that, it makes the film loose credibility. Such people are more than happy to turn the other cheek for some of the most aberrant behavior ever captured on screen in films like the "Hangover," or "Pineapple Express." Also, the vigilantes like "Batman," "Iron Man" et all. take many more liberties than Williams' sad character ever will in the film. In fact, being an opportunist is usually smiled upon in America's business circles, but somehow, this film seems to be hitting the sanctimonious nerve in a lot of people. It's ludicrous and hypocritical. My own theory is that many of you feel guilty for secretly supporting Williams' decision.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

01/14/10

I've begun reworking a short story I've been toying with for about three years. I have yet to hash out a pattern for my work (my fiction). The plan now is to devote the first hour of my mornings to this task. This is generally the time when my mind is at its very best. After that, tasks like tying one's shoes begin to take on the significance of joining the Human Genome Project for me. If I exhale successfully, it's sure evidence that I should be rewarded the Noble Prize (that wasn't another tired Obama joke).

No truncated passage or version of the story will be on display here. I share Nabokov's disdain for displaying a work in progress. Apart from that, I have nothing more in common with my favorite writer, excepting my grumpy and irascible nature... I do plan on providing occasional updates on the work as a means of accountability. What I will say in all seriousness is that I truly am beginning to see this as what will emerge as both my purpose and my vocation, as something that is vital to me.

The story is, I think, a good exploration of some of the conflicted themes that have most troubled me over the course of my short life. I tend to see conflict as one of the central motions of all great fiction. I should specify: by conflict I mean a deep dialectical schism in the soul of the writer himself. The writer is usually torn between many themes tugging at his heart. The greatest battles and wars within fiction are waged within the heart of the author himself. Blame Bloom for this conflict-centered approach, but it's proven to shape much of my thinking. I also think a writer ought to nurture a fierce and fearful sympathy. The kind of sympathy that drove Cormac McCarthy to write a story with a necrophiliac for a hero. Read Child of God and you will feel the radical and merciless sympathy of one of America's most gifted living writers. The only character I care about in any book is the writer himself. Nabokov again: "A writer's readers are his greatest creation." Some say Shakespeare created us all. I know Who created me, and I intend to know that author more deeply every day.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

01/13/10

I'm headed to the Seeking7 conference in Birmingham Alabama this afternoon. I'll be traveling with my HandsforChrist employer, Richard Duhe.

The conference will cover a variety of topics, ranging from current scientific issues to radical Islam, but the thread running through all of the sessions is the issue of contemporary apologetics. Mr. Duhe flies out on a business trip tomorrow, so we'll only be attending one session unfortunately.

Apologetics seems to be becoming more of a contested field these days. Many wonder whether it is counterproductive, or, worse yet, whether it represents a compromise. Should we not meet our critics on their own terms and turf? Would it be more honest to offer the Gospel and nothing else, Christ alone?

For starters, I think that this is a false dilemma. Developing cogent arguments for the faith, and relying on philosophical conventions to do so hardly constitutes an evasion of any kind. Theology relies on the rigor of logic for its own development. Even the most existentially ecstatic of theological thinkers have had recourse to some kind of philosophical discipline at some point. Moreover, we have scriptural evidence--not simply from that fated Acts passage, but from the very fact that a third of the Old Testament is poetry--that Scripture used cultural conventions to make the Gospel credible to a hostile audience.

Another thing, refusing to engage our critics communicates an attitude of both cowardice and hostility. If we summarily dismiss these men, how is that showing them love? You may reply that we ought not to scatter our pearls before swine, but to say that would be to reinforce my point. These men care enough, whatever their motives are, to hurl critical missiles this way. If we refuse to accept the challenge we send a message of complacency, cowardice and hatred. They won't go away, you know.

I'm fond of quoting I John 4:1 as my favorite apologetic apothegm. These men are the spirits of the age and they must be tested. As Larry Taunton of Fixed-Point Foundation has said in an interview on my blog, these men already have an immense audience and lavish media attention. They have the spotlight.

Is the Gospel sufficient? I say yes with reservations. It is sufficient for those already indoctrinated. For those who don't know, it's lunacy. That is its glory. The Gospel changes and inverts everything. Nietzsche would have said it "transvalues" everything. In order to lead these men to the way of the cross, the empty tomb and the resurrection, we must establish some common ground initially, and then, quite simply, pray for a miracle because any shrewd Christian knows that no elaborate logical construction or syllogism is going to lead anyone to God. The Holy Spirit must sow the seeds in their heart, Christ must compel and the Father must welcome them into His arms in His own good time.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

01/12/10

It's always disheartening to see an actor you love in an uninspired film. Last night, my wife and I rented "500 Days of Summer." Joseph Gordon Levitt became my favorite actor after I witnessed his awe-inspiring performance in "Mysterious Skin." But this little sleeper left much to be desired.

For starters, Zoe Deschenell is cast as the same character she always plays; a free-spirited, fun-loving and somewhat wayward girl, who hides her vulnerability from all but the most privileged of people. Also, the sonorous narrator of the film warns us that this is no love story; it is, and it's one you've seen many times. In many ways, the film seems to be a reworking of "Annie Hall," only with a change in setting. The usual qualms are on the table. Profound questions like, "Is there even such a thing as love?" and "Is Ringo Star the greatest of the Beatles?" Too much name-dropping goes on, by the way. Every five seconds we get a Smiths reference, or a Bergman ode. Think of a pretentious friend who majored in English and is fond of quoting Milton at cocktail parties--me for instance.

Anyway, at the end, there is a hint of hope. The hero, realizing that Deshanel's character (Summer) is a manipulative user, finally ditches her for a better girl with the hysterically-contrived name, Autumn.

Levitt is great as is to be expected. The film, for all its weaknesses, does boast one of the best couple's fights I've seen. Summer doesn't want to "label" the relationship, Levitt, who has grown tired of the irksome play, declares, "I have a say as well, and I say we're a couple goddamn it!" It is a powerful scene, and the only good one the movie has to offer.

The only other strength of the film is Levitt's awesome vintage wardrobe. His outfits are much more inspiring than the script, or the immensely over-the-top soundtrack. Give this one a pass.

Monday, January 11, 2010

01/11/10

David Bentley Hart--a personal favorite of mine--in his essay Notes on John Paul II's Pontificate 2001, recalls the tragic schism between the Western and Eastern branches of the church. Hart, himself a conservative Eastern Orthodox proponent, seems to hint that, not only is a more unified approach necessary, but that an ecumenical effort on behalf of the global church may well be needed.

According to Hart, we are confronted with three major religions: Christianity, Islam and mindless consumerism. Islam, in its most radical presentations, has a dogmatic license for violence at its disposal. Consumerism is nothing more than a sort of "comfortable nihilism," and a belief in nothing. Think of "Family Guy"; nothing is sacred.

The church may well be compelled to mobilize despite its many theological squabbles. There are hints in the essay that we are drawing inexorably close to events of cataclysmic proportions, but Hart is too subtle to be overt here. Hart is not without his own qualms of course; he is a scholar after all. He has some rather unflattering words for John Calvin and his followers (I'm among them, so reading those passages is humbling to say the least). But these are strange times, and Hart's words sound a note that is not so much radical as necessary. We no longer have the luxury of wasting words over the works of dead theological thinkers. In the wake of modernism, the church has often appeared dissolute and defunct, and internal struggles have done nothing to fortify the edifice, well-intentioned as they may seem. Hart seems to be saying that our collaborative efforts at evangelism and the Gospel imperative incumbent on all Christians just may aid us in leaving these shrill battles behind.

May God grant us the strength, maturity and the courage to make it so. We shall need plenty of all of three if we are to meet our most callous of critics.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

01/10/10

On certain days, when I'm at work, my personality seems to enter a vacuum and I become capable of nothing but monosyllabic grunts. Sometimes I simply revert to sign language, though owing to my ignorance of this communicative field, I usually end up making some obscene gesture when all I meant to imply was: "take good care now, and look at that beautiful sky up there!"

Let me share with you another language of my own invention. Well, perhaps it's not really a language, more of a sub-language, or sub-narrative, so to speak. It's my own method of clandestine insults, or covert insults. Exhibit A: "Have a good afternoon." Think about it. I'm restricting my good tidings to a very minuscule portion of the day, think of a small cheese wedge or portion of a pie. In essence, I'm saying, "hope your afternoon's great, but may the rest of your day be a raging inferno of pain and misery." This last portion is implied of course and it takes a certain amount of subtlety or sadism to appreciate. You can go too far. Don't say, for instance, "Hope you have a great hour," or "Have a wonderful minute Mam." Such remarks are apt to cause perplexity in the dull, and offense to those with shrewd sensibilities.

"Have a good day," when it is placed alongside that immense cyclical beast we call life, begins to appear both banal and offensive, so even here, you have an opportunity for some well-placed infective if an offense has been done to you. Another way of classifying all of this might be the "colloquial insult," a piece of everyday nonsense with a hidden poison or bomb. So, now that all of you passive-aggressive satirists are armed to the teeth, have a good afternoon....

Saturday, January 9, 2010

01/09/10

James Cameron's "Avatar" may make others recall their first "Star-Wars" experience, but it made me think of Northrop Frye...

After overcoming the nearly irrepressible desire to grab onto the iridescent 3D foliage, my lackluster sensibilities began to kick in. I'm not interested in Cameron's less-than-subtle political undertones, but I'm very interested in the mythopoeic aspects of this film.

We have, first of all, the garden of Edenic beauty, inhabited by a race both respectful and reverent of its resources; there is also a "tree of life" borrowed, it seems, directly from Genesis. Frye would call this classic pastoral imagery, though we have none of the traditional animals since this is another world than our own. Another thing Frye would say is that this is an analogical world presented in high mimetic form: "We find here the emphasis on cynosure or centripetal gaze, and the tendency to idealize the human representatives of the divine spiritual world, which are characteristic of the high mimetic. Divinity hedges the king and the Courtly Love mistress is a goddess; love of both is an educating and informing power which brings one into unity with the spiritual and divine worlds."

If you've seen the film, you'll know that the romantic subplot of the film follows this little formula nearly to a t. Another way of looking at it is to see in it the classical Romeo & Juliet motif running through the story; two star-crossed lovers from warring kingdoms coming together for the sake of their mutual love.

The humans in the film are another matter. Coming to colonize this Edenic heaven, they bring all of the steam, smoke and smog of the Waste Land at their heels. The massive space-ships, and heavy-duty industrial equipment are certifiable "Leviathans" in their own right. We should have in mind Eliot's Waste Land, Browning's Child Roland, Dante's Inferno etc. Their (humans of the corrupt corporate world) only goal is to plunder the world of its natural resources and leave, to destroy Eden and the "Tree of Life." They carry with them an entourage of all of Frye's demonic imagery: "the demonic human world is a society held together by a kind of molecular tension of egos, a loyalty to the group or the leader which diminishes the individual, or, at best, contrasts his pleasure with his duty or honor." Again, if you've seen the film, this will sound strikingly familiar.

I was being coy by the way, Frye was the last thing on my mind as I took in this visual feast. Do yourself a favor and go see it.

Friday, January 8, 2010

01/08/10

Got the aforementioned book, much long-winded discussion is sure to follow...

Snow fell, people panicked, there was a twenty-seven car pile-up near the airport. Having spent the past five days exhausting the subject of the weather, that's all I'll say. If a new Ice Age is upon us, I'll be the first to redirect the discussion to the question of whether postage stamps are mightier than the sword.

I'm celebrating my wife's birthday today, because I've been locked in the safe for the past week. I bought a bottle of Chianti which keeps giving rise to the rather disturbing proposition that I should also prepare some fava beans, along with the organ most compromised by alcoholic consumption in the first place. Also, I've procured some crackers and a cheese that's been tortured through several seasons of decay until it has, quite literally, come back to life; it informed me that it was from Ireland.

I plan on reading Nabokov's Ada before delving into Boyd's book; it would be like jumping ahead to the answer key on a crossword puzzle. Lately, I've been hitting a dry spot with the novels I've begun. I attempted to reread Moby Dick but ended up impaling myself on a harpoon in the process. I also tried Millhauser's Martin Dressler. It's good, but not as spell-binding as Millhauser's books usually are. Works of literary criticism have been the only imaginative ventures I've been able to manage as of late. Ada, with its labyrinthine plot-twists and intricate textures should prove as fine a study as any, and I may have recourse to a harpoon in the process, but at least I have Boyd's cheat sheet.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

01/07/10

Now that we're up to date...

I'm actually considering purchasing Brian Boyd's literary connect-the-dots, Ada: The Place of Consciousness. It's a sure-fire proof that I'm a firm vulgarian; I also used to think that colloquial titles such as Mr. and Mrs. were conferred by Universities.

Boyd's most recent ideas on the "evolution" of fiction are apt to enrage me. The quotation marks demonstrate my hatred of that word--in its scientific and ideological sense--being connected in any way with artistic creation. A great work of art is a marvel of consciousness as Dr. Boyd's title suggests, and a scandal to any of Darwin's manic disciples. There is simply too much to reduce here, which is why, incidentally, I'm beginning to grow impatient with Frye. What does he hope all of this literary taxonomy will accomplish? By becoming an inveterate archivist, will we better discern the mysteries of artistic genius? And by the way, make no mistake, there is such a thing as a genius, tropes concerning the "death of the author" notwithstanding. There are people who possess a peculiar point of vantage that makes most of our conceptions concerning the world appear as opaque as a black and white film. Not that "Citizen Cain" isn't great.

Anyway, I think I'll get the book, since it was written years before Boyd became deluded by decadent and atavistic thinkers...

01/06/10

I feel like Gogol's mad diarist because today is clearly the seventh. But since I've elected to make this mundane blog a daily discipline--which incidentally explains many of its deficiencies--I will operate under the delusional premise that today is not today, but yesterday.

The past few nights I've been cloistered away in the cash-office hermitage. I'm a slow financial scribe, but so far, accurate. These things take time. Admittedly, this is not the area of my gifting; that would be mapping the mental phenomena of tree sap. Since my thumb is attached by nothing more than a glorified piece of sackcloth, I've found thumbing through copious amounts of bills to be a tedious task. By the end of the evening, my hands are so black you'd think I'd traded my profession for that of a chimney sweep, and that I'd emerged from a furnace and not a cash room.

Snow has been promised today, which means that every sensible Georgian will be on the hunt for those two most perishable of items: bread and milk. If a true and impending cataclysm ever makes its way to this state, the natives will subsist on nothing but mold and cottage cheese and probably mutate into some inconceivable abomination of nature.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

01/05/10

Reading Frye's Anatomy of Criticism.

The tentative system proposed by Frye involves locating a series of organizing principles within a given literary text. These he terms archetypes. Archetypes are usually fairly conventional features shared throughout world literature. An example would be representations of food throughout the world. This will have a resonance no matter where we find it displayed because of our dependency upon nutrition. It's not too much of a stretch to see these images cropping up in myths of fertility gods and the like. Symbols act in much the same way for Frye. A symbol at its core, reduces to a simple structure which he calls a monad. All of these operate as a set of coordinates whereby we may classify, categorize and file away what we read. Sounds quite taxonomic doesn't it? Well, it is. Some of us may even remember that dismal poetic scheme in the "Dead Poets Society", which Mr. Keating has his class tear up. But Frye's proposal is much more imaginative than his structuralist interpreters would have you believe.


Frye seeks to import scientific rigor to the admittedly less precise field of literary criticism. In this manner, he hopes to ensure a higher level of precision in our appraisal of literature. This is also a more objective approach to the text.

I'm only half-way through the book, so bear with me here, but one of the more interesting proposals that Frye makes is that literature should be studied as an isolated phenomenon. Literature forms its own universe and the network of texts by which it is constituted are insulated against all historic contingencies. This is a world onto itself. Importing other disciplines into the field such as anthropology, psycho-analysis and philosophy is counterproductive at best. In order to study literature, the proper study is just that, literature. Another example provided by Frye is of abstract paintings which seek to represent those geometrical shapes residing at the core of representational paintings. This is the way he views archetypes.



Fascinating thoughts...

I'll try to share some of my own when I finish.

Monday, January 4, 2010

01/04/10

Fatigue is shutting down my mental faculties. I woke up this morning at an hour that would incense a rooster. With my thumb wrapped up more warmly than I was, I sailed off to work amid some arctic winds that had me convinced I'd never be able to have kids.

As I said, my mind is going to the place that Frank Black talked about in that Pixies song. Time to stop.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

01/03/10

Reaching down to peel a sticker off of the grocery store floor, I had placed my hand on the underside of the metal counter to steady myself. One day, there'll be a market for discarded banana stickers, I just know it! As I gripped tighter to prepare to bring myself back to an upright position, I slid forward simultaneously and opened the crease in my thumb like a book. It was a squirter.

In the wake of the "Twilight" franchise, I'm sure there's a market out there for this prodigious stream evacuating my finger. I should have gotten a vial and soled it to a "vegan" vampire, or at least, one attempting to wean himself off of blood.

Well, I painted a door frame, the wall and much of the floor with my biological ink. After haphazardly wrapping my finger in gauze, it now looks like a Minny-mummy attached to my hand. Anytime the finger throbs I have a crazy urge to build it a sarcophagus; I've settled for decorating it with crude hieroglyphics.

What's the moral here? I should have settled for falling on my face. Guess it's either my teeth or my hands. Maybe a better question is, when attempting a complex task like the one mentioned above, which one of my limbs is most expendable?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

01/02/10

Marilynne Robinson has a seemingly outrageous thesis in an essay ironically entitled "Facing Reality." The title is ironic because Robinson is identifying our modern conception of "reality" as one of the most popular fictions currently on the market. Another way to say it would be that this new reality is our new mythology, bequeathed to us by our modern predecessors. She has in mind men like Freud, Marx and Darwin. Her thesis: "I suggest that, for us, the sense of sickness has replaced the sense of sin, to which it has always allied, and that while we are acutely aware of the difficulties surrounding notions of good and evil, we ignore, though they are manifest, the equally great difficulties surrounding notions of sickness and health, especially as these judgments are applied to behavior."

Quite a lot is packed into this little quotation. On the one hand, we seem to have an innate sense of something that is deeply conflicted, both in ourselves and in the world we inhabit. Some have termed this fear that precedes fear, anxiety. It's a "weasel-word" nowadays that's become the stand-in for any behavioral anomaly or non-physical malady affecting the mind. But what is it? Why are our cabinets filled with Valium? Most importantly, why have we projected this deep-seated dread onto the world? Robinson contends that this tendency manifests itself whenever we attempt to strip all of the outward appearances of things in order to view the depravity we knew was there all along, why we feel compelled to focus all of our critical insight on history's "dirty laundry" and nothing else.

I'm not immune to this epidemic, and in many ways, I see myself and much of what I've written and said in the past few years as symptomatic of it. Reading Robinson has been a sobering experience for me, and probably a much-needed corrective to much of the poison upon which I've become intellectually dependent. I can't close any better than she did in her essay, so I'll share it with you: "This being human--people have loved it through plague and famine and siege. And Dante, who knew the world about suffering, had a place in hell for people who were grave when they might have rejoiced."

Friday, January 1, 2010

01/01/10

Strange to see the date above.

Last night, working the front desk, I was reminded of one of the more dismal distractions practiced by many: gambling.

Every night, a motley crew of familiar faces limp up to the desk with a plethora of numbers racing through their fevered skulls. You'd think they were Pythagorean ecstatics but not so; they're simply in search of a wealthy deluge. They hand me stacks of tickets and listen with avid attention to the sounds the machine will make, either confirming that they've stumbled by blind chance upon a winning number, or that they've committed their hard-earned dollars to a vortex.

This is all they know. One gentleman will talk of nothing else. From the numbers on the tickets, he's worked out an intricate system of discernment when it comes to winning tickets. If he'd put some of this speculation into a discipline like quantum physics, he'd probably solve the problem of the nature of a singularity. Nothing else is worthy of discussion in his mind.

I have decided to crown this crew with the rather unflattering title, the Lottery Fiends.

I should mention also that this crowd is highly superstitious. If I sneeze they line up to get the ticket I sneezed on. Once, I faked an epileptic fit and dissolved into a paroxysm of contortions and foam and soled five hundred dollars worth of tickets. If the lights in the building flicker, they all become convinced it's a sign from God that they're meant to spend the rest of their days in inviolable decadence.

One lady crawls up to the counter in a walker and has two telescopes attached to her glasses, and an oxygen tank that requires an auxiliary tank to pick up the slack. I wonder whether she has the time to spend her millions. Perhaps it's just the thrill of emptying your pockets.

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