Undiscovered continents of spiritual living

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Chretien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances

I see no postings, except in my imagination, since Desolation of Smog. Hmm. Have to remedy that bit of solipsism.

ReaScreen Shot 2014-09-09 at 2.22.12 AMding, finally, this collection of classics that has been on my shelf for years. One of the difficulties of being a generalist literature professor, teaching everything from Homer to Beckett, is hiding from your students the fact of all the great classics of western literature that you haven’t read (and which they may have). So, I’m coming out.

I haven’t read as much medieval literature as I want to or think I should have. Haven’t read the Arthurian cycle except Gawain and the Green Knight (Tolkien’s version), von Stassburg’s Tristan and Isolde, most of Eschenbach’s Parzival (in grad school; really regret not finishing this lovely story; guess I got bogged down in a slow part). Never read (gulp) Malory or even Ivanhoe or T. H. White. At PHC, taught only “The Franklin’s Tale,” which features a knight and his lady, as in the Arthurian romances, but the knight’s adventures are never told, and he is already married to his one and only, and while it’s a beautiful drama about what integrity and Christian marriage can be, it ain’t what I’m talking about here. Taught Don Quixote (ca. 1605), which, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, represents its age of skepticism and mocks these knights, lances, giants, and chaste maidens.

Looking for the sources closest to the original version of these tales of King Arthur, and unable to read Old French, you must arrive at a volume such as this, a translation of Chretien De Troyes. The originals were oral tales, created by no one knows who or when, transmitted by French Troubadours before the 12th century. De Troyes was the first to commit any of them to writing, and it can hardly be known how much he transmitted, originated, or embellished.

But how refreshing to finally read these good-hearted, simple-hearted, uncynical, strong-hearted stories. Looking for the brave knights who clash  swords with black knights and giants, looking for descriptions of love and desire between man and woman strong enough to set forests on fire, the struggles of heroic virtue that leave the body scarred but the soul purified, you will find here the well-spring from which it comes. The first story, Eric and Enede, even uses the phrase “damsel in distress” in this translation by Carleton W. Carroll. That was a masterstroke, Mr. Carroll.

More later.

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Why I tried Game of Thrones again and what happened

“If you want to lead, then follow.”

That is reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching: “He who would be a leader must be a servant.”  So is there a moral center in Game of Thrones? So far it seems not: evil is rewarded, those who engage in incest, treachery, cold-blooded murder succeed—but this I hoped was merely the coiling of the spring, the driver of a plot that will end with good triumphant.

And so I watched Season 2.  Here are my notes.

The Starks are good? Mostly for what they do not do—all that I listed above.  They act with mercy—Stark will not murder the children of the House of Whatever when he gets the chance—he doesn’t even want them to know who their real parents are.  Note that the counselors in the House of Evil are themselves quite treacherous, even competing in treachery, backstabbing, rumor, spycraft, etc. Not so in the House of Stark.

Now we have the Red Witch appearing—burning the old gods—How is she supposed to be an improvement?  This Red witch will lead Stennis on to war.

The Red Witch survives the poison and the old priest of the old gods dies–what is that supposed to mean?  That her beliefs are true, her gods more powerful? Left ambiguous— perhaps supporting the message that it is all meaningless, all contradictory, senseless.  And this is what the supernatural must seem like to a rationalist secular person today as it did to later Greek writers.

The scene: “Knowledge is power” says Patyr Baelish to his boss, Queen Cersei Lannister, insinuating that he might have power even over her.   Instead, with a word she commands her guard to instantly grasp him and nearly has him killed, and then retorts to him, “Power is power.”  Does this tell us more about the authors’ stance on good and evil?

Also in Ep. 2, it seems as if the writers/producers forgot to include the gratuitous sex and violence and had to rush to cram it into the end of the show.  A whore being taught how to fake orgasm properly, and babies killed.  In the same scene!  And then the end.  Perhaps the point is that the Common Folk are going to be madder than ever at house of Baratheon / Lannister with all their kids and babes yanked out because they are possible offspring of Robert Baratheon, that old goat.

To be continued.

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Why I Quit Watching Game of Thrones

Upon the end of season 1 episode 9 with the beheading of Eddard Stark, my reaction was more or less: “No, no, no, no, no. This is not how you write a story. You don’t kill off the only main character who has good character, the only one resembling a hero. You don’t kill someone for whom we have been rooting for 9 hours of teleplay. You don’t kill the hero, with no mitigation or redemption whatsoever.

“You certainly don’t have him murdered in most ignominious fashion, when he has agreed to lie and say that he was a traitor in return for mercy for himself and his children, and then get his head chopped off anyway. You even more certainly don’t do it in the sight of those children, at the command of a tyrant boy king about 12 years old, who the next day proudly shows the daughter her father’s head on a pike.

“You want to produce a drama that makes your viewer care about the characters? If you succeed, then you are holding the viewer’s heart in your hand. Do not then squeeze that heart to death.  You are not showing mercy. You are in fact acting doing to your audience what the Lannisters have done to the Starks.

“Here is how you are supposed to write a high fantasy story: Your hero struggles against ever-increasing opposition, going from one bad situation to a worse one until it seems there is no way he will win; but then he does. He overcomes, and the forces of evil are vanquished, or at least left reeling back on their heels until the next episode.

“That’s basic story structure. That’s the structure found in some form in every narrative, from Homer to the latest TV commercial. It is how story works. Every academic PhD theoretician of fiction will tell you that. Every issue of Writer’s Digest will tell you that, as will every book on How to Write a Blockbuster Movie Script.”

I had high hopes for Games of Thrones. A medieval fantasy world, knights and magic, princesses and intrigue, exotic locales from frigid snow to desert sand, walking undead and vast castles and keeps. But George R. R. Martin seems to have some of the most important wisdom about this kind of story writing out the window. My guess that he has become bent on merely proving that he is not going to redo Lord of the Rings.  No kid stuff. So bring on the graphic violence, nudity, and more loveless sex than you will ever see in an R movie.

But what is most sorely missed in his desire to be Not-Tolkien is any hope for transcendence. Note that all the real magical powers in the show are evil. The benign gods never seem to show up and their existence quite dubious to half the characters, ala Euripides or King Lear.

In Lord of the Rings, of course, the heroes were fighting an ultimately supernatural evil, one who was beyond all their powers. By the time our heroes realize how much danger is rising, Sauron has already become (apparently) invincible. Thus at times hope is the only thing that the heroes have left.

So Thrones has some excuse. The characters don’t need that kind of hope because the only enemies of the people (so far) are other people. If they were to have hope, what would they be hoping for?

The only hope that we viewers can possibly have is that the Starks will ultimately rule, if only so that others cannot. We see that the entire family are merciful and fair, unlike all the other families. Apart from the Starks, the show is nothing but a Peyton Place where everyone is scheming and lying and fighting everyone else—probably a description of Hell.

Towards the end of season 1 it began to gel and I saw that it was not merely a snakepit; Eddard Stark was the only hope. Then they killed him.

This is why I stopped watching. It failed at its most basic purpose and it hurt my heart. It is completely pitiless and leaves no hope for the future. Joffrey’s sadism is one with the scripts’ sadism upon us.

But then ….

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Desolation of Smog

I wanted to love this movie. And I saw it under what were ideal conditions: at the new Courthouse Plaza theaters in Arlington, Va., with plenty of space between each reclining, automatically adjustable seat. It felt even better than a Laz E Boy Recliner. You could literally watch a film lying on your back.

How fitting, because I found the film flat. I never felt pulled in. The script and direction I give a “B.”  As several people have said, The Hobbit is a great book, and someone should make a movie of it some day. This instead was Peter Jackson & Co’s LOTR prequel.  Too many facial expressions that weren’t convincing. Too many illogic goofs, not least Smaug not burning up Bilbo and the Dwarves when they are right in front of him. Too many lame limes. Too many inventions not in the book that contributed no heart or dimension to the movie but just made it longer–but at least they took it into a LOTR direction and not some other crazy ideas, as we saw with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Too much plain lameness, like a new elf-princess, but this one developing a mutual crush with a dwarf.  Instead of breathing the pure air of the heights of wonder I breathed Hollywood smog.

But I do not say I hated it. Just that I was disappointed and wanted more for 3 hours of my time. Legolas loves the new elf character, Tauriel, btw. Doubtless in film Hobbit 3 (The Glorification of Bilbo) she will be killed by Orcs and that will set Legolas  onto his new track as someone dedicated to destroying Orcs and Sauron and join a certain Fellowship later. Because this is a LOTR Prequel.  I could go on and on but it is 12:33 and I have to be up at 6:30 making breakfast for the kids.

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Currently reading ye olde “The Secret History” (1992)

Among other things I am currently reading Donna Tartt’s philosophical (I think) suspense novel, The Secret History (1992). Not much written in that subgenre, but one I am very interested in.  (I suppose Walker Percy fits in that genre somewhat, at least with Love in the Ruins, Lancelot, and The Thanatos Syndrome.)
It was v. popular when it came out.  It is about a clique of undergraduate, mostly rich, Classics students at a small northeastern liberal arts college who murder one of their own clique members.  Not a spoiler–that’s related to us on the first page.  Then the novel so far is discovering why and what lead up to it, and how our narrator–the newest member of the clique, and neither rich nor northeastern–involves himself with it.
And it seems clear that classical literature and philosophy will be implicated.  Oh, it’s rich.  One character tells the narrator about that clique, “They worship the devil.”  But to hear the Classics prof. seduce his private clique of students with a monologue on how ancient Greek and Roman writers aligned Beauty and Horror….
Perhaps that explains the attraction of this novel itself:  beauty and horror.
The Wikipedia article quotes one critic calling it a “mystery in reverse,” because the murderers’ identities are given at the beginning.  But that is not quite accurate.  The “mystery” here is why they did it, not who.  The source of suspense, the Terrible Event to Prevent, is not the murder itself, but, I surmise, the moral / philosophical consciousness that will lead these intelligent,  gifted, sophisticated students to such an act.  We—I am still near the beginning–do not know what that could be, or how we will get there.
It reads like a work of literature, not commercial “airport” fiction.  It will be interesting to compare it to Crime and Punishment.
The book was in the top ten bestseller list for many weeks and was translated into many languages.   An old NY Times article on the marketing campaign for the book revealed that Knopf paid 450K  for hardback and another 500K for paperback rights to this first-time author, who began the book while an undergrad.  She did not publish her next novel until 2002, and a third is expected in 2012.  She was fortunate also, perhaps, in having Bret Easton Ellis as a classmate, and thence got through to his agent, too.  Though we would like to think the novel would have done equally well on its own merits.
I’ll make later posts on this novel’s philosophy or use thereof, use of suspense, elements of success.
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Lady in the Water

(Alas, I also wrote these notes long ago and am only now rewriting and publishing them.)

Lady in the Water should have been welcomed by Christians, not to mention the rest of the population.  Those who were dissuaded because they heard or read that the message is watery and “New Age” were sadly misdirected. The kind of bar for a Christian film set by such criticism, the kind implied by the Washington Times‘ reviewer, only seems like a viable threshhold because it is not ever defined.  Does the reviewer really expect a Christian director (Shyamalan, though of east Indian descent, is a Roman Catholic) to come out saying only by faith in JC may ye be saved? But that kind of preaching would not belong in a movie; it belongs in a sermon; film is too different a medium. Audiences smell preaching a mile away and they only like it if they agreed with it before they walked into the theater.  Such a film would probably not be released, much less seen, unless otherwise tailored for the Christian market from the outset, ala Left Behind.

There are messages, ideas, concepts in the movie which, if not explicitly Christian, and if they could just as well be “New Age,” are nevertheless true, uplifting, inspiring, and represent what the best art is all about and what it should do.  Mainly, the film’s theme is this:  Ordinary, everyday, imperfect people can yet take part in a mythic story. This is an idea that John Eldredge has greatly succeeded in popularizing, but which as been elucidated by the likes of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien and other Christian writers, in telling us that Christians can take this one step further to say we are participating in a mythic story whether we know it or not.

It is amazing that Christian critics have not been able to see the Christian faith that is subterranean in Shyamalan’s movies. The Sixth Sense was a horror story that turned out to be a story of redemption (and in quite a Catholic sense, in that this redemption could be experienced after death and before Judgment Day). Unbreakable seems to have relied on a comic book reality invading our own—again, the mythic breaking into the everyday. Signs had quite an upfront affirmation of Christianity, esp. in how the priest had his faith renewed (don’t forget the heavy conversation on the couch with his younger brother) as indicated in the final scene where he is putting on his clerical collar. The Village largely failed on a popular level because it ultimately dealt with a question that only Christians and few others could identify with:  Do we take our children and community out of the world to avoid being ruined by its evil, or do we stay in and try to redeem it? The understanding that this issue is more important than werewolves on two legs striding about to attack people, is something only Christian believers and few others could agree with. To others it seems unreal, too abstract, too minor.  But after all, they are the world.

In Lady in the Water, Shyamalan gives us many redemptions:

  1. The life of the main character, Cleveland Heep, is redeemed.  Heep (Paul Giamatti) is the property manager of an apartment complex that towers over a swimming pool.   In fact Heep baldly tells “Story” at the end, “You saved my life,” referencing renewal not mortality.  Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a beautiful, naked, non-human who turns up in his apartment, dripping wet.  She is from another race, a naiad type of people called narfs, and she is being pursued by her people’s enemy, a race of werewolve-type creatures called scrunts, because she is destined to be queen.  In a crucial climactic scene, he sobs from deep in his guts as a group of women lay hands on him, as he gets in touch with the pain of having his wife and children murdered many years earlier, and his guilt over that, because he was not there to protect them.  He confesses it, I daresay, as well as confessing his love for them (he says, in that scene, “seeing your faces was like seeing God.” Now how is that for some nice, Biblical, family theology?).
  2. Story is redeemed as she is set free to rejoin her people (though I missed why she was flying on an eagle and where she was going).
  3. The Writer is redeemed as he finds the power to live out his calling.
  4. Story’s world of the sea people is redeemed by her, the Madam, coming into her own.
  5. And our entire world is to be saved indirectly by the book the Writer is writing. In addition, the Writer perseveres with writing this book even when he learns it will cost him his life—he will be murdered because of it.

There’s 5.  Now, name me one successful, high quality “Christian” movie or New Age movie that has dramatically portrayed that much redemption in one film, not including movies about the life of Christ Himself?

There are clear hints that something besides New Age-Joseph Campbell mythologizing is going on here.

In the beginning of the film, Heep is falling asleep in front of the TV but before he does so we hear a gospel song about “Going Down into the River.” Baptism. We don’t see the TV (it is in the background and out of focus) but the announcer breaks in to tell us we are at a church service, for Marines about to go off to war. This similarly plays into the plot, for it tells us what exactly there is about this world that seems doomed and needs redemption.

Not long after that, the character who is expert at crossword puzzles is trying to figure out a word—the first time in the movie we seem him doing so, before we know anything about it.  “What’s a 9-letter word for ‘in human form’? he asks his son and then answers out loud: ‘Incarnate’”.

At one point the Indian sister says about the crossword puzzle character, “God is speaking to him through a crossword puzzle!” It is a funny line and deserves the laughs it gets. It also melts the tension incipient in most of the audience:  Isn’t it ridiculous for a revelation to come through something as mundane and apparently irrelevant as a crossword puzzle? Certainly this plays into New Agers’ hands, who ala the Tenth Insight or whatever it was called, and Jung I guess, love finding meaning in the patterns of the world and their lives (though Christians in and since the NT can and do too.) But my point here is that she says “God,” not something else.

At another point Heep tells the life-denying, rather hostile film critic that in a film rain could be a symbol for cleansing and newness of life, or something like that. The critic (who as many have pointed out probably stands in for the critics that have hounded Shyamalan since his break-out movie) rudely dismisses the notion  without supplying reasons, but for this and other sins he gets his comeuppance later. My point is that the film ends when Story is carried off by the great eagle and the characters are all outside on the lawn around the swimming pool getting rained on by both man-made sprinklers and heaven.  Newness of life. Redemption for all.

Along with such an intensity of redemption in the plot, the film has many messages that  could be considered “New Age” as equally as Christian, but they are nonetheless  a welcome alternative to the secular, Nitzschean, Libertarian, atheist, do-it-all-yourself, we-are-all-alone theme of the modernist and postmodernist culture:

  • the idea that some “stories” (i.e., fairy tales, myths) are true;
  • that we can live these myths out;
  • in them each person has a purpose;
  • that discovering your purpose is a profound thing;
  • that “miracles” such as physical healing are possible.

For Christians to be wary of films like this because they are also susceptible to a New Age interpretation would be a profound mistake.

Shyamalan has succeeded in creating a mythic, fairy tale that is entirely believable. Almost. I was a bit incredulous that the residents were willing to believe in Story (note if you haven’t yet the import of her name) and her story. But I suppose that is part of the message too, as you may have guessed from that last sentence.  Some stories are hard to believe.  For most of the world today, stories with a supernatural element, such as the incarnation of God and one man redeeming all humanity, are very hard to believe.  In this film, to believe in Story means finding your role in the redemption of the world—and perhaps for all we know, of other worlds.

Yet there is one more crucial element to the plot that takes us away from New Age and solidly into Christian territory.  “Say something that will bring out your energy,” Heep is told in the aforementioned scene as he cradles Story and attempts to heal her (for he has discovered that Healer is his role). But what he comes up with, the suppressed memory and pain over his wife and children, is not strength and does not seem like energy. He talks to Story, who by all appearances is dead, and apologizes to her, says he should have been there with her, begins sobbing–and in the next sentence is no longer talking to Story but to his departed family: “I should have been there, I should have protected you…Seeing your faces was like seeing God.” He is actually bringing out his weakness, not his strength.  What religion apart from Christianity could have a person doing that as a mode of “finding your energy” and healing another? Portraying, as Henri Nouwen expressed it, a Wounded Healer? For it is Christ destroyed on the cross, suffering in agony, for the world’s sins that have become his, that is at the heart of Christian faith.  And in that scene Heep also tells his dear, departed family about Story, that “I think she’s an angel.”

The critical derision heaped upon the film after its release is astounding.  It won Razzies for Worst Director and Worst Film.  As summarized in the film’s wikipedia article, no one understood what S. was trying to do or was able to enjoy it.

Because S. cast himself as the Writer whose book would change the world, the critics committed the puzzlingly immature fallacy known as the biographical fallacy (have I got that right?) reading the author into his script.  Are we really supposed to think S. thinks of himself as the world’s savior?   Clearly, there is a bit of intentional irony there, in his casting, for S. is the writer of this film, a film that has self-reflexive aspects throughout.  And S’s casting choice is also fitting because, as most serious writers and artists know, we would like to create something that would help save the entire world—-and dream and put effort into doing so—-even if, short of schizophrenia, we know this is almost impossible.  I just can’t put S. into that category of unreflective narcissism that would belong to someone taking himself so seriously.  Remember, also, that ala Hitchcock and other directors, S. gives himself a small role in every film he makes.

And film critics seemed to have taken personally the film-critic character who is nasty, petty, uncharitable, and–central to the plot–wrong about who the correct Roles are–which leads to disaster–and who in the end is (the only character) killed by the scrunt.  The critics seem to have taken this as a serious, personal attack.  Obviously, they cannot laugh at themselves. Who is it that has the swollen ego?

Critics also were befuddled because they did not know how to categorize this film. Psychological drama? Horror? Fantasy?  As if categories rather than artists create films, artists who almost by definition aim for originality.  The critics failed at the very point in which they are supposed to excel:  Understanding something completely original and being able to elucidate it for others.

This a finely crafted film, as good as anything coming out of Hollywood.  It is telling that the critics faulted nothing in the craft.  There is no bad or inappropriate acting, no scenes that don’t work, no failures in the dramatic structure, no jokes that fall flat, no lame dialog.  The only thing the critics could criticize, apart from their aforementioned touchiness concerning writer and critic, was the genre itself, what the film was trying to be and do.   They were not able to suspend disbelief.  They could not abide this new genre, neither sword & sorcery fantasy nor magic realism (as in Like Water for Chocolate) .  They just didn’t get it.

This was not one of the worst films of 2006.  It was one of the best.  In fact, I cannot think of another that attempted anything like it, in its peculiar mix of fantasy/myth and realism, and it succeeded with joyful intensity.

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