December 23, 2005
Pre-Christmas Guatemala Update
Well, I've been back for over a week now, and so far I've taken the easy way out and just posted chunks of my paper (as you may have noticed). But I see that it is time for me to compose a post on my activities, such as they are. Things were pleasantly slow for the first few days.
On Thursday my mom and I gave Rachel the Grand Tour of the orphanage . . . and a lot of it was new to me. Two years, as I've said before and will say again, is too long to go between visits. I saw people around here again, and that was fun. Then we went to pick up my brothers from school and I said hello to a few people around CAG that I haven't seen in quite some time.
On Friday Brett got here and we continued to do stuff. I was re-watching Firefly with my brothers (who hadn't seen it) and re-watching Pride and Prejudice (the definitive mini-series version, not that new Keira Knightley krap) with Rachel (who hadn't seen it). Mostly it was just extremely relaxing.
Saturday was much the same, and on Sunday morning my dad was preaching at Union, the english-speaking church in Guatemala City. We went there for the late service and I ran into even more people I haven't seen in awhile. Asa had come in the same day as Brett, so I saw him there. I was also introduced to Dan Todd, a fellow that I have heard much about from my parents and Mr. Fry. He teaches English at CAG, and I was told we had much in common . . . so that was fun. Hopefully I'll have a chance to talk to him a bit more while I'm here. Meanwhile, after the service, I poked around in the used book room and found a very nice copy of The Poisonwood Bible which I purchased for Q1 (about 13 cents).
On Monday Rachel went with my mom on the weekly grocery shopping expedition, and I stayed around the house anticipating Tuesday's outing. We had to be up by about 6:30 on Tuesday morning to go spend the day in Antigua. Quick history lesson:
In the early 1500s, Hernán Cortés (as everyone knows), led the Spanish conquest of Mexico. His second-in-command was Don Pedro de Alvarado, who went on to conquer Guatemala in the 1520s and became its first Spanish governor. He established himself in what is now known as "Ciudad Vieja" (Old City). After his death in 1541, his wife, Doña Beatriz de la Cueva, became the new governor.
However, shortly thereafter, a nearby dormant volcano (now known as "Agua" or "Water" for reasons which will soon become obvious) collected a veritable lake of water after several days of rain, which was released from the crater by an earthquake, resulting in an enormous deluge which eradicated the city. The flood killed Doña Beatriz and about 1000 others. In 1542, the survivors of the flood founded a new capital a bit farther from Agua, which is now known as "Antigua" (Antiquity).
When it was first built, Antigua was named "La Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala" (The Very Noble and Very Loyal City of Santiago of the Knights of Guatemala). Over the course of the next 200 years it became one of the wealthiest capitals in the New World, but it was largely destroyed by a pair of earthquakes in 1773. The governor at the time ordered the construction of a new capital in a safer location. Construction began in 1776 on what is now Guatemala City, the current capital. Should anything ever happen to it, its name will no doubt be changed to "Anciano" (Ancient One), or something of that nature.
Meanwhile, Antigua still exists in much the same form it always has. A building code was imposed upon it so that everything constructed there must conform to the colonial style. The streets are still paved entirely with cobblestones. It is a gorgeous city, full of museums, old churches, and ruins. It has a lovely central park full of beautiful trees and eroding stone fountains, and it supports a thriving retail community of small vendors of typical clothing and trinkets.
We began our own visit to Antigua with breakfast in the Hotel Santo Domingo. The hotel is one of my favorite places to visit. It is located within a refurbished monastery of the colonial period, and everything is very well preserved and taken care of that might have historical value. The owners are constantly excavating new sections, which are open to be viewed by the public, and the hotel also supports a candlemaking shop, and a pottery shop.
Rachel and I wandered down into one of the crypts while we were looking over the grounds, and found a large sculpted relief of the crucifixion scene dominating one wall. There were large sections of floor covered with human bones, and sealed off with glass to protect them. It was very eerie, but very cool. Breakfast was delicious, and we were well fortified to continue our tour.
We went to a nearby coffee plantation which my parents have discovered since my last visit and took the hour-long tour of the place. There was a coffee museum, which outlined the history of coffee, the entire process by which it is grown, harvested, and readied for consumption, and detailed some of the economics involved in coffee production and sale.
The next time you're forking over a hefty sum at Starbucks for your cup of gourmet brew, consider this: for every dollar you spend on coffee in the United States, sixteen cents goes to the producing country and eighty-four cents is divided between the retailer and the importer.
After wandering through the museum, we saw a bit of the actual plantation. Harvesting had just begun the day before. Workers are paid a little over $3 for every hundred pounds of coffee berries that they pluck from the trees. A hundred pounds of coffee takes approximately eight hours to pick, so that is their wage for a full workday during harvesting season. The harvesters are all women, and they bring their children (some too young even to walk) along to help pick. That hundred pounds of coffee berries, once its beans have been extracted, dried, roasted, and ground, will translate into about sixteen and a half pounds of actual coffee.
Moving on from the plantation, we visited the Church of Hermano Pedro de San José de Betancurt. Hermano Pedro is a Guatemalan saint who was canonized on July 30th, 2002. He lived and worked in Guatemala for about fifteen years in the mid-1600s. The priest was just beginning the Eucharist when we arrived, so we wandered around the edges and stared at the statues and candles and so forth. Hermano Pedro had three or four supplicants kneeling at his tomb.
We exited the church and went around to the back to wander through the museum and ruins. The museum has tons of relics related to Hermano Pedro, including his clothing, the rope that he used to flail himself with as penance, and the skull he held while meditating on death. There are also pictures on the walls of everyone that he has done favors for, and a collection of crutches from lame people that he has healed. Its an interesting place.
By now we were hungry again, so we shuffled off to eat, and then spent about three hours shopping. Rachel found a bunch of stuff she liked, and I tried to pretend that I wasn't terribly bored. By 4:00 we were nearly ready to go, just stopping of briefly to enjoy a stroll in central park before heading home again. It was a fun day.
Wednesday, Thursday, and today have largely been spent helping my mother with a variety of things. We made sure that stockings for 44 children were adequately stuffed, and ensured that everyone was receiving roughly the same number of gifts. When we first sorted and inspected the piles, we found that the number of presents ranged from two to ten (an unacceptable discrepancy). By the next day we had equalized things to a range of five to eight presents per child, and decided to call it good. Rachel has also been baking a lot for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and my mom has been very happy to have the help.
At any rate, I am quite tired now, having typed a great deal in the midst of my vacation, and I am ready to wander off to bed. Christmas festivities begin shortly! Merry Christmas everyone!
December 21, 2005
Myth and Myopia IV: The War That Never Ended
The hardening of the Southern mind and deepening of sectional differences built for decades towards the seminal conflict of Southern, as well as American, history: the Civil War. Throughout the decade following the Compromise of 1850, events such as the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) and Bloody Kansas, the Dred Scott decision (1857), John Brown’s raid (1859), and the election of 1860 served to widen the rift steadily until South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union on December 20th, 1860.
Through all this, the South felt its way of life definitely threatened by two movements. First, the United States was ceasing to be a collection of sovereign states, becoming instead a single nation. Second, the protests of abolitionists were steadily gaining in power and volume. Cash asserts that the fundamental cause behind the Civil War finally boils down to the simple fact that "it is not the nature of the human animal in the mass willingly to suffer difference."
The full range of causes behind the American Civil War, an explanation of the events that preceded it, and a description of how it was waged are far beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say that, after four long years of a bloody conflict which exacted a greater toll of American lives than any other war before or since, the eleven Confederate States of America were soundly defeated and occupied by the United States of America and were forcibly returned to the national fold during the period of Reconstruction which followed.
It is difficult to overstress the significance of this conflict and defeat to the South of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whatever its other effects may have been, the trauma of these years of war and rebuilding ensured a Southern mindset immovably different from the rest of the nation for at least the next century. This new Southern cultural nationalism manifested itself in a variety of ways. It resulted primarily in regional isolation (from the rest of the nation), unity (within the South), degradation, and in the creation of new myths which quickly took hold in the Southern imagination.
In American history, losing a war and facing occupation by the victors is unique to the South. This experience of defeat in the midst of the American legend of unbroken success and victory is part of what Woodward calls "the irony of Southern history," and in many ways it culturally cut the South off from the rest of the country. The combined humiliation and defeat of the Civil War and Reconstruction helped fashion a unique "self-conscious white Southern identity" through "fear, grievance, defensiveness, and the memory of hardship and bitterness." The effects of this on the Southern mind lasted for generations.
Cash refers to the effects of Reconstruction on the South as "the frontier the Yankee made," saying that "its people were once more without mastery of their environment and must begin again [. . .] to build up social and economic order out of [. . .] chaos." While the North entered modern, industrialized society, the South reverted to "primitive, violent, individualistic, provincial life."
The memory of Radical Reconstruction became an enormously divisive force between blacks and whites. Whites remembered it as a time when the Yankee attempted to reverse their former hierarchy and set the black man to rule over the white. Blacks remembered a time of nightriders and white brutality. Whites emerged with the fixed idea of preserving racial purity, and blacks knew just what lengths they would go to in order to maintain it.
After the Civil War, the white Southern mind was dominated by romantic myths, some from its antebellum days, some new following the "War Between the States" and Reconstruction. During the final decades of the 19th century, the Southern predilection for history grew stronger than ever, and its people’s view of that history gained the status almost of a civil religion. The old ideas of lost, bygone days (“moonlight-and-magnolias” and the myth of the Cavalier) were as important as ever, and to these were added the Southern perspective of events following 1860.
It was during the post-Civil War period, Cash declares, that the South began finally to have a literature of its own, at least of sorts. However, he qualifies this statement by observing that the outburst was decisively prompted by patriotic sentiment and had the purpose of defending, justifying, and showing pride in the South. "What we really have in the literature of the Reconstruction era is [. . .] propaganda."
Southern authors devoted themselves to the glorification of the Old South; not that this purpose is the only significant thing about it, of course. Much of it did contain some literary value, even the most propagandistic works of authors like Thomas Nelson Page. Nevertheless, a purely artistic literary portrayal of the South would not arrive until the turn of the century with the works of Ellen Glasgow.
Meanwhile, in 1866, Virginia journalist Edward A. Pollard published a book entitled The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates. The immense popularity of this work gave the Southern revisionist view of the Civil War its name: The Lost Cause myth. The belief that the people of the South had entered a righteous war to preserve their way of life, but (despite acquitting themselves bravely in battle) were ultimately doomed to defeat due to superior Northern resources, took hold in the Southern imagination.
Politically, the myth was extremely useful as a rallying point during Reconstruction, and it continued to hold a prominent place in popular views of the Civil War throughout the 20th century. Belief in, and celebration of, the Lost Cause became a coping mechanism for a region that had suffered a terrible blow to its pride. To add the suggestion that the South had waged an unjust war to the humiliating fact of its defeat by the North would have been intolerable. While the Southern memory of the Civil War may largely be based upon a myth, "for many Southerners the Lost Cause has been a myth believed and acted upon."
December 19, 2005
Myth and Myopia III: Deepening Sectionalism in the Antebellum South
Cash strongly refutes the myth of an old and established Southern aristocracy, arguing that only a single generation at most (1820-1860) separated most of the South from its rough, uncivilized, and embattled frontier days and the Civil War. Nevertheless, those intervening decades are the setting for the plantation myth, possibly the most lasting and dominant picture of an idyllic South among later generations.
Central to what began as an outgrowth of the Southern need to distinguish itself from the North is, of course, its vision of Southern plantations as epitomizing the highest principles of the Old South. The plantation was the foundation of the agrarian social order, the stately center of civilized life, dominated by a patriarchal family unit which benignly governed its community of black slaves. Ruled by a complex system of honor, manners, and a hierarchical social order, this dignified aristocracy maintained an ideal way of life. This mythic view of antebellum Southern life is also called “moonlight-and-magnolias” after the image presented by the maudlin novels of Thomas Nelson Page and others, published during the final decades of the 19th century.
The Cavalier myth stood hand in hand with the plantation myth. Its imagery embodies the idealized Southern male, whose every action was characterized by an adherence to the code of Southern virtue. Cavaliers were the courtly sons of wealthy planters, and, later, the brave and tragic defenders of the Confederacy.
The strong appeal of the Cavalier image lies in its combination of four qualities: wealth (in both currency and land), class (as heir to the highest tier of Southern social life), heritage (as heir, also, to a long and hallowed lineage of Southern aristocracy), and honor (virtuous nobility, generosity, and magnanimity in dealing with friends, implacable courage, strength, and skill in the protection of women, family name, and home).
Acceptance of the Cavalier image is akin to belief that Arthurian ideals of chivalry and nobility were universal among the aristocracy of medieval Britain. Nevertheless, the Cavalier and plantation myths became two of the defining ideas that separated North and South, and would grow into cherished recollections of a legendary past following the Civil War.
Also during the antebellum years, the Southern mind continued to develop apart from the North along four distinct paths: First, politically, the attitudes of Southern sectionalism deepened steadily as a result of events like the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and the nullification crisis of the early 1830s. In this and in other important legislative events, John C. Calhoun, senator from South Carolina and the most influential Southern politician during the first half of the 19th century, became the spokesperson for Southern interests.
Serving in various roles in government throughout his life, Calhoun was chiefly concerned with threats to the “peculiar institution” (slavery) and agrarian interests of the South. Hints of unrest among the slave population surfaced occasionally, and even flared into revolts, as with the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831, and this, too, drew Southerners together.
Second, intellectually, the South began to seriously develop its unique historical consciousness. It is perhaps a mistake to speak of the Southern mind at this time in intellectual terms. As Henry Adams wrote in 1905 about his experiences in 1854, "Strictly, the Southerner had no mind; he had temperament. He was not a scholar; he had no intellectual training; he could not analyze an idea, and he could not even conceive of admitting two."
In any case, between 1830 and 1850, a multitude of historical societies sprang up in the region, and the Southern view of history began to shift from national to regional. Aspects of Southern life common to the whole region were stressed and differences downplayed on the one hand, while, on the other, differences between South and North were emphasized over similarities between the regions. Southerners celebrated the heroes of the past and attached annual importance to the dates of historic events.
However, despite an increased awareness of their history, Southerners were not engaging in any meaningful analysis of it. As Cash puts it, "Analysis is largely the outcome of two things: the need to understand a complex environment [. . .] and social dissatisfaction." Without either of these ingredients, the South produced no thoughtful examinations of their history or of their society. Mythological elements began entering historical perspectives almost immediately.
Third, religiously, the antebellum decades saw a movement of faith described as a "triumph of the evangelical sects." Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians; these and denominations like them began to dominate Southern religion, marginalizing the Anglican Church. The Southern religious experience came to be characterized by passion and emotion, a strict view of morality, intolerance, and a focus on the frightening images of hellfire and damnation; in short, a Southern interpretation of the legacy of the Puritans, and a foreshadowing of the fundamentalism of later generations.
The extremes of chivalry aspired to by the Southern male were also related to this aspect of Southern life, if only tangentially. This led ultimately to what Cash calls "downright gyneolatry." He explains the worship of Southern woman as a reaction to the shame felt by Southern males regarding adultery with black slaves and the resultant necessity of maintaining a fiction of marital fidelity. This fiction needed to be sustained not only in order to preserve the stability of familial bonds, but also in the face of the intolerable attentions directed by the North at so-called "Southern lechery and decadence."
Without such a fiction, the South would lose both the moral high ground and the very foundations of its society; hence, the intense veneration of Southern Womanhood. Cash concludes that, "At the last, I verily believe, the ranks of the Confederacy went rolling into battle in the misty conviction that it was wholly for her that they fought."
Fourth, socially, the quintessential Southerner of the antebellum South, what Cash calls "the man at the center," far from an aristocratic Cavalier, is a simple yeoman farmer of the frontier. As such, it is important to note the appeal of Jacksonian-era democracy to the Southern mind. Andrew Jackson, the first president from outside of the clique of the American Revolutionaries, departed significantly from the earlier democratic ideas of the founding fathers (whose intellectual roots lay in the Enlightenment).
Jackson’s idea of a democracy was one where all free, white men had a vote, not merely the intellectual, landed gentry. Rather than connecting freedom to knowledge and opportunity, Jacksonians viewed freedom as economical, social, and inherent. In the South, Jacksonians saw slavery as protecting independent white farmers from becoming subservient to the plantation owners. Slavery was a way to preserve the equality of whites, particularly those Southern whites who were conquering the frontier with their visions of joining the world of plantations and Cavaliers.
This highly romanticized vision of the Old South was not unique to Southerners, either. The North (and Europe with them) also bought into the myth wholeheartedly. The New England mind, long accustomed to acquiring its perception of the region from its nearest neighbor, Virginia, had no trouble envisioning the South as a land of majestic plantations governed by hospitable aristocrats.
Additionally, these pre-Civil War decades were the years of the Romantic Movement in art and literature, whose adherents sounded the call to return to nature, in all its common simplicity, for inspiration. Nothing could be more natural than for some of this sentiment to direct itself towards one of the last purely agrarian regions in Western culture.
The prevalence of the Cavalier myth is strikingly illustrated by the most influential anti-slavery novel of the 19th century: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, published in 1852. The chief villain of Stowe’s novel is not a Southerner at all, but a Yankee overseer.
December 17, 2005
Myth and Myopia II: Emerging Regional Identity in the Colonial South
Spanish explorers were crawling all over the Americas by the early 16th century, and in 1565, in Florida, they established the first successful settlement in the South (and in North America), St. Augustine. The Spanish also kept a tight grip on Texas from an early date.
After the abortive attempt at Roanoke in 1587, English colonists, too, established a beachhead in the New World, at Jamestown (also in the South) in 1607. By the time of the Revolutionary War, the English had expanded south through both Carolinas as well as Georgia, occupying the whole of the South east of the Appalachians.
The French were involved in Europe’s early exploration and population of the South, as well, with inhabitants scattered around the mouth of the Mississippi by the late 17th century. New Orleans, the capital of the Louisiana colony, was founded in 1718, and that enormous territory also included Arkansas and portions of Texas.
The competition between nations which fueled exploration and colonization provides the first clue to a distinct identity for the American South. In this region were combined a mix of influences from four (including the important Native American element) distinct cultures and national histories. By 1700, slaves from Africa (the first having been brought in 1619) were beginning to arrive on American soil in significant numbers, adding a fifth culture to the blend.
Related to this, and also integral to the developing identity, was the Southern experience on the frontier, largely realized by Scotch-Irish settlers. The Scotch-Irish settlers were unique; quite different from the English settlers. They were wild, violent, and ruggedly individualistic, but also fiercely loyal to family and susceptible to religious influence. Many of these prominent features would eventually manifest themselves in the distinctly Southern personality.
A second clue to emerging regional identity lies in the differing motives of settlement between North and South, and in the differing perspectives of settlers regarding the land they inhabited. "If the Puritans established New England to be a City on a Hill, the early Southerners portrayed their area as a new Garden of Eden."
While the colonizing of the North owes a debt to the search for religious freedom, the colonization of the South was (ironically, considering later developments) a purely materialistic venture. The Southern colonies were consistently described as an earthly paradise, infinitely rich and fertile, by everyone from John Smith in the early 1600s to William Byrd II in the mid-1700s.
The third important clue to the divergence of the South as a region lies in the early development of social castes, already firmly in place by 1776. The Southern class-system, standard in this as in other respects, resembled a pyramid in structure, with the smallest group occupying the highest position. These elites were the large planters, a Southern aristocracy existing almost exclusively in the coastal colonies, particularly Virginia and South Carolina.
Beneath them was the upwardly mobile middle-class, aspiring to ever-greater heights of social prestige, and beneath them were the lowly “poor whites,” commonly viewed as illiterate, diseased, and shiftless. And, of course, at the absolute bottom of the pyramid lay the foundation of black Southerners, lowliest of the classes, largely fated to an enslaved existence on the plantations.
Above all else, white Southerners adhered to a moral code that may be summarized as the rule of honor [. . .] The sources of the ethic lay deep in mythology, literature, history, and civilization. It long preceded the slave system in America. Since the earliest times, honor was inseparable from hierarchy and entitlement, defense of family blood and community needs. All these exigencies required the rejection of the lowly, the alien, and the shamed. Such unhappy creatures belonged outside the circle of honor. Fate had so decreed.
It is both significant and interesting to note that, despite this foreshadowing of a separate identity, the colonial South had not yet achieved the recognizable degree of homogeny that would later characterize it. Additionally, Southerners had not yet acquired the all-important attachment to the past which would eventually become so prominent. On the contrary, the vision of the South was focused chiefly on the future, on prosperity to come. It might be speculated that this was less a distinction between earlier and later Southern personality, and more related to the lack of a revered history to obsess over, but such conjecture could only be investigated and confirmed by pursuing lines of inquiry beyond the scope of this paper.
Historians disagree as to the exact date when the South finally emerged as a region apart. During the greater part of the 18th century, at least four different societies existed within the Southern states. However, as unifying, nationalistic sentiments swelled during the American Revolution and after, the South achieved a new unity within itself and came to be considered in different terms from the North.
It is natural that this should be so. The South could hardly be considered separately as a region within a national context until the formation of the nation. Only as the principles that would govern the United States began to take shape could the unique interests of the South emerge in opposition to those of the North.
The more traditional historical view places the flowering of this identity in the 1820s, but John Richard Alden argues for an earlier date. This South, which he calls the “First South” was distinct from the "Old South" of the antebellum period, and was undoubtedly already recognizable by the Revolutionary period, possibly
"as early as 1778."
Certainly the most momentous development in the life of this First South was the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793. This proved to be of prime importance. The increase in efficiency "release[d] the plantation from the narrow confines of the coastlands and the tobacco belt, and stamp[ed] it as the reigning pattern in all the country" although "it was actually 1820 before the plantation was fully on the march, striding over the hills of Carolina to Mississippi."
Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison became the foremost "intellectual force in the South during the years from the Revolution to the 1820s." The atmosphere during this time was much freer and more open than it would later become. In fact, prior to 1820, more antislavery organizations existed in the South than the North.
December 15, 2005
Myth and Myopia I: A Brief Introduction to Southern Intellectual History
It began as a requirement to research and write a 20-25 page paper on some topic relating to the intellectual history of the United States and my own vague idea of doing something related to the writings of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. It became a 33-page survey of Southern intellectual history up to about 1970 focusing on the importance of the Southern Literary Renaissance between 1929 and (approximately) 1965. In fact, the full title is "Exorcising the Demons of Myth and Myopia: The Southern Literary Renaissance, 1929-1965."
This paper was obviously the major thrust of my efforts during the entire last half of the semester. I consulted (in varying degrees of depth) around fifty sources, both primary and secondary, and poured virtually all of my creative drive during that month and more into crafting something I could be proud of. Naturally I wanted it on here in some form, even if no one reads it. And, also naturally, there's no way I'm going to display it within a single post . . . that would be nightmarish and would virtually guarantee that no one would read any of it.
The prospect of serializing this paper, added to my ten-part "Top Fifty" list which spanned the last month, led me to create a new category in the sidebar: Serials. I have no plans for any such serials aside from these two things in the immediate future, but you never know what may crop up. In the meanwhile, I'll be publishing the Southern history and literature paper in bite-size, topical chunks until it's all up here . . . hopefully no more than nine or ten parts. We'll see how it goes. Meanwhile, I shall begin by introducing the topic as I see it and trotting out my thesis as quickly as I reasonably can.
In 1928, historian Ulrich B. Phillips stated that the central theme of Southern history was that the South should be and remain "a white man’s country." Less than forty years later, this no longer seemed like a possibility for the South of the future. A key flow of changing thoughts and attitudes during these pivotal decades took place within the Southern Literary Renaissance: a flowering of literary production by Southern authors which was impressive in terms of volume, national popularity, and as a reflection of, and force for, cultural metamorphosis.
William Faulkner, the literary giant of the period, and the legions of Southern writers surrounding him, revolted against generations-old assumptions about their society and its history and criticized Southern mores even as they recorded, and sometimes celebrated, a way of life and a significant American worldview which became suddenly marginalized over the course of just a few generations. Writers during the Renaissance took the first steps in Southern history towards uprooting deeply dishonest ideas about Southern society and the past by honestly examining and openly questioning the validity of them.
Of course, a truly holistic approach to the subject, while ideal, would not be complete without four things:
-First, a plenary picture of the entirety of Southern history, tracing the development of the region, its people, and their identity from the colonial foundation, through the all-important Civil War and Reconstruction periods, and finally to the first rumbles of Renaissance which began in the modernist milieu of post-World War I America.
-Second, an exhaustive survey of each of the dozens of literary voices, major and minor, storyteller and poet, historian and critic, who carried the Renaissance forward, along with an examination of important themes and ideas in their writings and the response of their society.
-Third, representative excerpts from their work to demonstrate the widely varying styles employed and subjects addressed by the writers of the Renaissance.
-Fourth, a discussion of the impact of the Renaissance on Southern, American, and literary history both during and since the middle of the twentieth century, including a historiographical review of differing viewpoints on its effects, to firmly place and understand the movement in its complete context.
Needless to say, this paper will not attempt to take a truly holistic approach to its subject, lest it become instead a stack of volumes. Rather, it will simply attempt to briefly account for the intellectual history and attitudes of the South until the 1920s in order to illustrate the significance of the development of the twentieth century intellectual movement known as the Southern Literary Renaissance. Even such a short and incomplete treatment of the subject, however, requires some inclusion of each of the elements already discussed (save, perhaps, the third), beginning with an outline of Southern history.
Every aspect of Southern life is so closely tied to memory of the past, whether truth or fantasy, personal or transmitted through the traditions of family and community, that there can be no hope of understanding the Southerner without some sense of this heritage. This principle applies equally to the minds and personalities of the South, its social structure, behavior, and hopes and expectations for the future. It is precisely that peculiar consciousness of, and concern with, history which sets the literature of the South apart from that of any other region in America.
December 14, 2005
It is quite good to be home, I must say . . . Better, even, than I thought it would be, despite months of feverish anticipation. Perhaps the pleasure of being back in Guatemala was heightened by the horrors of travel, I dunno. I swear, I used to love flying, back before my legs got too long for it to be comfortable. But now, I hate travelling more and more every time I do it. I told Rachel yesterday that the current state of air travel in the United States is a foreshadowing of the downfall of Western Civilization, and the more I think about it, the more true it sounds.
Anyway, perhaps a paragraph or two to catch the world up on my activities of the last month would not be amiss. I pretty much poured all of my blogging efforts into the "Top Fifty" list, and didn't have any time left over that wasn't taken up by schoolwork. Since last we spoke of life, I visited West Texas for Thanksgiving along with Rachel and her brother Jonathan. We had a pretty good time . . . and Jonathan did most of the driving, which was nice. I got almost all of my Christmas shopping done while I was there, and relaxed a bit more than I should have, knowing that I wouldn't have another chance to rest until I was sitting on an airplane.
Seriously, I feel as though everything between my return after Thanksgiving and my arrival in Guatemala was just a single, interminable day. It was positively dreadful. By the time I got back I was 15 pages into my 33-page paper for Intellectual History. I had to reread and present and write a paper on Till We Have Faces, plus finish the three quizzes I'd missed for C. S. Lewis. I had various last-minute details to see to about the Student Literary Conference, and I had to present my paper there and chair another session, and I had to write something for the newspaper about it. I had five journals to write for Literary Criticism. I had five journals to write for Reading the Bible as Literature, and a rather dense book to read. I had to collaborate with Paige on a book review of Memoirs of a Geisha, which I'd only half finished. I had to complete an overdue reflection paper and come up with some sort of resume for Crapstone. And all this was work to be done aside from finals week business, and packing to leave for Guatemala on the Wednesday of finals week (a departure time that was beginning to look more and more like a mistake).
Well, I got it all done, obviously, although I probably pulled 6 all-nighters or so during the intervening period. The C. S. Lewis presentation was on that Tuesday, the Literary Conference was that Saturday, my Intellectual History paper was the following Wednesday, my Bib as Lit journals were the day after that, and my Lit Crit journals were the day after that, after which I still had to find a time to write my paper for C. S. Lewis. Two of those all-nighters were this week (Sunday night and Tuesday night). I was finishing up my take-home final for Apocalypse through the Ages within an hour of departure time.
But it's over now. The trip down was an adventure. Uncle Doug locked his keys in his car at the first gas station where we stopped on the way out of Longview. For awhile I was more worried he was going to go fling himself in front of traffic than that we wouldn't be able to get back in the car. Rachel's brother came to our rescue with a few coat hangers, and we were on our way after a half-hour's delay. That cut things a bit fine, of course . . . We got a bit lost in DFW (despite all the times I've been there) because we took one wrong turn and couldn't go the right direction for awhile.
When we finally got to the gate, the line was out the wazoo . . . But we made it to check in with 45 minutes to plane departure. We also discovered that the weight limit has been decreased from 70 to 50 pounds. Even now that fact makes me want to engage in a profanity-filled rant. My suitcases will not hold that little weight . . . Besides which, one of them probably weighs a full 15 pounds by itself. I own books that weigh 10 pounds. It's just not right. Moving on, we had to clear security next. It was, as usual, an enormous hassle. The line was incredibly long and very slow-moving. We, of course, had to take off shoes, jackets, empty pockets, pull out Rachel's laptop from its bag within a bag . . . and then re-assemble ourselves instantaneously in order to avoid a traffic jam. We reached the gate just in time to hear the final boarding call.
We boarded amidst a crowd and found, of course, that there was absolutely no more room in the overhead compartments. Can someone explain to me what this racket is all about? Either luggage manufacturers are making carry-on suitcases that they know are too big, or airlines are using airplanes that they know are too small to hold everyone's carry-on luggage. Either way, everyone involved is a flipping 'tard. I turned around and asked a very irate stewardess what I was supposed to do. She said I could either go to the very back of the plane to stow my stuff (unacceptable . . . I'd have to be the last person off when we arrived) or I could check it.
I opted to check it . . . but I had to stand around for five minutes waiting for people to stop coming in so I could get back out with the two suitcases. Then, we sat at the gate for about half an hour after the final boarding call had been given, waiting for late connections so that other people could make it aboard. I have no objection to that practice, personally, having had a number of late connections myself . . . but why did they give a final boarding call if we were going to be there an additional half hour?
They showed Fantastic Four on the way down, but I slept the entire flight. Once we arrived in Guatemala, I bulldozed us through immigration, then sat for what seemed like forever waiting for the luggage. It seemed like most of our bags were about as separated from each other as they could be while still being on the same plane. Two of them happened to be right next to each other, and a very stupid young lady that was standing next to me refused to make room for me to get both of them off no matter how many times I said, "Excuse me." So, I proved to myself that, in fact, I haven't been gone too long. I knocked her over with the bags when I hauled them off. She wasn't happy. I didn't care.
We fought our way outside to where my family was waiting, got loaded into the van, and grabbed some supper from Burger King. I suddenly remembered that I hadn't eaten all day. We got home, everyone else went to bed, and Rachel and I watched "Mr. Monk and the Airplane" and laughed profusely.
Conclusion: Air travel is fast becoming the ever-loving suck of the world, but it's great to be back home again.
December 13, 2005
Biblical Unity Revealed: The Great Code by Northrop Frye
Our final two weeks in "Reading the Bible as Literature" were devoted to The Great Code by Northrop Frye, the famous literary critic. His book is devoted to an examination of the biblical material from a literary perspective. The title comes from William Blake: "The Bible is the great code of art and literature."
I absolutely loved the book, but almost no one else did. Gallagher was my only fellow Frye fan. The response of others in the class ranged from "I haven't read it" to "I don't understand it" to "This guy is retarded." The first two were almost forgivable . . . the book was not short, nor was it an easy read, but . . . Northrop Frye is a genius. I was astounded by Frye's ability, writing as a secular figure, to achieve such balance and sensitivity to the material in his critique of the Bible. Anyway, in honor of my classmates, here is my explanation of the book (as produced for my final exam in the class):
In The Great Code, Northrop Frye begins by outlining his general purpose in the introduction. He will discuss in his book the idea that the Bible is a literary unity and is the most important book in Western history and culture. He will do this by describing general factors under the headings of Language, Myth, Metaphor, and Typology in Part I. In Part II he will apply these factors more specifically within the Bible, returning backwards through them and giving the book a chiasmic structure.
In Language I, Frye notes that Christianity, unlike either Judaism or Islam, has relied primarily on translations for its religious texts since the very beginning of its history. First there was the Greek Septuagint of the early church, followed by the Latin Vulgate in the Middle Ages. Around the time of the Protestant Reformation, translations in English and Germany gained prominence. And today there is a concerted movement to see the entire Bible translated into every language known to mankind.
In examining, in particular, the language of the Bible, Frye describes the three phases of history posited by Giambattista Vico: the Age of Gods, the Age of Kings, and the Age of Men. He also discusses the difference between langue (or different languages like French, English, and German) and langage (or the common experience of living on earth which gives all languages equivalent terms and the ability to be translated into each other). Frye notes that there is a history of langage which moves through three distinct phases. Vico calls them poetic, heroic (or noble), and vulgar. Frye describes them as hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic. However, for most of the chapter, he refers to them as metaphor, metonymy, and descriptive.
In the metaphorical phase of language, words carry a great deal of power with them, for they invoke their objects when they are used. A word is the object which it refers to, and all concepts (even those we might consider abstract today) are concrete and real. Thus we see in the Bible how God speaks and Creation begins, how Jepthah’s vow must be kept, how the Hebrew people never say or write out the name of God, etc. At the center of the metaphorical phase is the concept of the “god” of nature and the world. A sentient personality is given to virtually everything, and from this we have a sun-god, rain-god, war-god, and so on.
In the metonymic phase of language, words shift from a state of “this is that” to a state of “this is put for that.” The language becomes capable of sustaining abstract concepts, and the idea of a transcendent “God” (who is outside of and over all things) moves to the center of the language. In metonymy, what was once literal is now much more poetic in nature.
In the descriptive phase of language, words arise out of the need to describe that which we see before us. In this phase, “God” no longer has any linguistic function because the concept cannot be sensed physically or in any way tested or measured empirically. Therefore, in the third phase of language God is said to be dead. However, Frye points out that God “may not be so much dead as entombed in a dead language.”
Once he has described these three phases, Frye states that the Bible does not fall squarely into any of them. The Bible contains metaphorical language, metonymic concepts, and descriptive writing, but it is actually something else altogether. The Bible makes use of a kind of rhetorical oratory which claims to bring revelation from a time outside of time. The Bible, then, is what Frye calls kerygma, or proclaiming rhetoric. Kerygma, he says, is the vehicle of the Bible’s revelation. In turn, the linguistic vehicle of kerygma is myth.
Myth, Frye says (in Myth I), serves to “draw a circumference around a human community.” Myth is communicated in story form, and it delineates the things which a society needs to know about itself. Myth is differentiated from other forms of story in two ways. First, it is part of a larger canon, or a Mythology. Second, it serves to set a particular society or culture apart from all others by forming the basis of a cultural history.
There are two types of history: Weltgeschichte and Heilsgeschichte. Weltgeschichte is authentic, accurate history which recounts events as they actually happened. Heilsgeschichte explains the importance of and meaning behind those historical events. The Bible, Frye asserts, is the latter type of history, and accurate history is usually secondary (and even irrelevant) to the biblical message. The myth of the Bible serves to redeem history by explaining its purpose and meaning.
In Metaphor I, Frye explains that the Bible, in accomplishing the construction of a mythology, uses a great deal of poetic imagery, despite the absence of a literary purpose as such. The reason for that is because of the value a verbal structure has in constructing a corresponding material structure. Frye notes that, when any verbal structure of words is created, it artificially links disparate material elements into a material structure. These material elements are only a minute part of all material reality, and may be totally unrelated without the presence of the linking verbal structure.
The purpose of this sort of structuralization in the Bible is to draw together the various events of the past in the construction of a unified, purposeful history. The Bible at its core consists of a universalized structure which remains open to a variety of theological interpretations. The history of the Bible presents a natural cycle of events which recurs over time, moving us towards a final denouement, or judgment, in which all creatures are divided between paradise and hell. Although Frye states that the Bible cannot be reduced to a single “metaphor cluster,” the guiding purpose throughout this historical movement is embodied in the word of God. The word of God can refer to both the Bible itself and to Jesus Christ.
In Typology I, Frye reveals that the Bible is able to carry its purpose (to account for the forces guiding all of human history) because it possesses a typology. A typology is essentially a theory of historical process which holds that there is a meaning and a purpose behind all events which transpire. Every event which occurs is a type, pointing to some event in the future which will remain clouded and unknowable until it actually takes place, thus revealing both itself and the manner in which it was concealed in the preceding event. This future event is the antitype of the type that came before.
Frye shows that the Bible consists of Old Testament and New Testament, which are type and antitype of each other, forming a “double mirror” in which each reflects the other but not the world outside. However, not only are the Old and New Testaments type and antitype, but every event in the Bible is in some way the type of what is to come and the antitype of what has already been. In this way, Frye believes, the Bible moves inexorably from beginning to end, carrying a single purpose forward throughout.
In Typology II, Frye discusses the seven specific “Phases of Revelation” which make up the totality of the Bible: five in the Old Testament, two in the New Testament. These phases in order are: Creation, Revolution (the Exodus), Law, Wisdom, Prophecy, Gospel, and Apocalypse. Each of the seven is, as previously discussed, the type of the phase after it and the antitype of the phase before it. Frye carries the reader through each of these phases, describing them and their links with each other. These descriptions serve largely as review material for anyone who possesses previous familiarity with the text.
In Metaphor II, Frye discusses the unity of biblical images. Imagery in the Bible is of two kinds: either Apocalyptic (good), or Demonic (evil). Each of these kinds is further divided, Apocalyptic into Group and Individual, and Demonic into Manifest and Parody. Parody only exists within the Demonic type because everything within Parody is a perversion of something good. Good does not pervert evil, so there is no Apocalyptic Parody. Parody itself is further divided into Group and Individual.
Once the images have been placed beneath one of the above headings, they are further divided into one of seven categories: Divine, Angelic (or Spiritual), Paradisal, Human, Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral. All biblical imagery fits somehow into this scheme, presenting the reader with a unified picture of the world where everything is part of the positive picture or the negative picture, all the way from the divine down to inanimate objects on earth.
In Myth II, Frye discusses the unity of the biblical narrative. He describes the entirety of the Bible as a rising and falling cycle of high points and low points tracing their way throughout history towards a final, ultimate high point. The narrative goes something like this: Garden of Eden, Sin/Wilderness/Cain’s City/Ur, Promised Land I (Pastoral), Sea/Wilderness/Pharaoh, Promised Land II (Agrarian), Philistines, etc., Jerusalem/Zion, Captivity/Babylon/Nebuchadnezzar, Rebuilt Temple, Antiochus Epiphanes, Purified Temple (Maccabees), Rome/Nero, Jesus’ Spiritual Kingdom.
Within this narrative, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Antiochus, and Nero are all spiritually the same oppressor, and Egypt, Babylon, and Rome are the same place. Furthermore, the Garden of Eden, the Promised Land, Zion, and Jesus’ Spiritual Kingdom are all metaphors for the same place, and Moses, David, Joshua, etc. are all pointing towards the coming Messiah.
In Language II, Frye first addresses the question of the biblical canon which has formed this unity of imagery and narrative that he has just discussed. He believes that it has been formed around the book of Deuteronomy. The other books in the Pentateuch were re-written to conform to it. Earlier prophecy was interpreted according to it. Histories were written in light of it. And, finally, the New Testament books were selected according to their conformity with, and illustration of, Deuteronomy 6:5.
While some might see the question of authorship as integral to the selection of the canon, Frye states that this is not the case. In fact, authorship and the question of inspiration are fairly irrelevant. If inspiration is to be believed, then we must also believe in the inspiration of editors, translators, compilers, and so forth.
As for authorship, Frye states that the Bible was largely composed during a transitional phase between oral tradition (wherein the author is anonymous) and writing tradition (as in modern times, where the author is named). In this transitional phrase we have a great deal of pseudonymous writing, in which the actual authors will attach the name of some famous or important person in order to show the legitimacy of their writings. Frye supplies us with the example of II Peter.
Frye further describes the unity of the Bible as being largely built out of innumerable smaller units, or kernels. Examples of these include the proverbs or aphorisms of Wisdom literature, the oracles of Prophecy, the commandments of the Torah, and the pericope of the Gospels.
Proceeding forward, he discusses the importance of the Bible as a piece of objective (rather than subjective) art. Objective art by Frye’s reckoning consists of works which form an integral part of a society’s cultural history. In our case, this might mean such things as the writing of Shakespeare, Dickens, and, of course, the Bible.
Objective art, he states, has achieved “resonance” with its audience. In other words, particular phrases have achieved their own power and significance within a culture, even when separated entirely from their context within the original text. The example he gives is the phrase “Grapes of Wrath” from Isaiah 63, which has become a famous line in a culturally significant song as well as the title of an important piece of literature.
Next he describes Dante’s ideas of finding multiple meanings within a single passage. Dante classifies these meanings as: Literal, Allegorical, Moral, and Anagogical. Literal is the obvious meaning of the actual words. Allegorical is how the words form a picture or symbol of our salvation from a fallen state. Moral is how the words form a picture or symbol of our movement from a sinful to a virtuous life. And Anagogical is how the words form a picture or symbol of our glorification from base, human, earth-bound existence to an existence in the divine presence of God. Frye is careful to note that these varying meanings do not conflict with each other, but rather operate on various levels and are all, in some sense, true.
There are two cautionary notes which Frye provides to the application of Dante’s theory of polysemous meaning, however. First, it assumes the validity of a single worldview through which we interpret (in Dante’s case, Medieval Catholic Christianity). Second, it assumes that the words themselves are not important, but rather some higher meaning which exists behind the words.
However, Frye states that what Dante is trying to accomplish in the search for polysemous (but unified) meaning in a religious or spiritual sense is very near to what Frye is advocating in the application of polysemous (but unified) interpretation in a literary sense. He states that this approach is the most useful in any consideration of the Bible as literature. It must be considered as a unity of narrative and imagery, a product of composition which sought to account for a purpose behind history, and a self-contained work of proclaimed revelation in order to allow for the most useful study of its text in literary terms.
I found that Frye had a great deal of value to communicate in The Great Code. His approach to the Bible was both profound and meaningful. At times his writing could be quite difficult to follow and understand, yet this was not a failing of that writing, for once I understood what it was communicating I could think of no better way to explain whatever he was trying to say. In other words, I found the reading of the book to be a very rewarding and stretching experience. Frye challenged my beliefs without belittling, demeaning, or dismissing them, and I think I came away from the book ultimately strengthened in those beliefs.
Nevertheless, it is a marvel to me that a man with Frye’s obviously intimidating intelligence should be capable of conducting so thorough and knowledgeable a study of the meaning and value of the biblical text without himself believing in the truths espoused within that text. There were times in The Great Code where I felt that he was very close to believing just that, times when he seemed puzzled because something did not quite add up between his own assumptions and the actual situation he found, yet somehow he does not seem to have been capable of making that last leap to faith.
Even towards the end of the book when he is describing the nature of faith so well, there does not seem to be the least spark of any such knowledge or sentiments on his part. This both astounds and saddens me. However, Frye’s lack of faith in the Bible does not in any way affect the importance of what he has to say about it in his book. The Great Code was of considerable value to me in giving me perspective on what exactly the Bible is that I had never before heard or considered on my own.
One Literary Theory to Rule Them All
As anyone could easily tell from the preceding entries, I've had a lot of fun this semester playing around with different perspectives and ways of looking at literature. But through it all I must confess the slightest shade of discomfort. All of the critical theories to which we were exposed were alright in their way, but none of them worked perfectly for me. In particular, I was bothered by the fact that I could not fit my own critical efforts in the past into any of the categories which I was being taught.
I despise New Criticism, as I've mentioned before, for its total rejection of context and its attempt to reduce what I consider art to what it considers science. To me, New Criticism seems cold, dry, boring, and ineffective as a theory.
Reader-Response is fun in its way, and probably allows me the greatest latitude to exercise my opinions . . . but I can't help but feel that it is a cop-out as a serious theory. All you have to do is talk about your feelings while you were reading and voila, you have a piece of textual criticism. It can't be that easy, surely. I can't take myself seriously that way, at least.
Deconstruction is one that I've had a great deal of fun with this semester: presentations, papers, journals, and a lot of serious thought. And I was surprised to find that there is a great deal more to it as a serious approach, even for someone who believes in objective truth, than I might have expected. But unknowability is all you are ultimately allowed to arrive at, and that is far, far too limiting, surely. Certainly the objective reality of the text may always prove to be unknowable, but that doesn't mean that I can't draw a single, most-valid reading out of it which will be of use.
Psychoanalysis I have played with, both seriously and (more often) in jest, for years now. There's just something both quaint and entertaining about looking for sex in everything, just as a purely intellectual exercise. Phallic symbols, sexual frustration, parent-related trauma . . . all very inviting and easy to fall back on in a pinch. And, again, here is a theory that should be applied from time to time as the most useful in a particular case . . . but not always. Sex may well motivate everything, I don't know, but it isn't the meaning of everything, and as such I am not satisfied entirely with psychoanalysis.
Marxism is just flat out-dated, and does very little for me outside of functioning as an amusing joke. It, too, is fun to play with, and is actually applicable (largely for comedic value) in a few instances. Perhaps it can be most seriously applied where an author is clearly and intentionally dealing with the socio-economic themes which are dear to the Marxists heart, but for myself I have no interest in their politics.
Historical/Biographical certainly has its place, particularly in attempting to explain authorial intent. Why did the author produce this text, and what did it mean to them? But I still believe it is important to consider what it means, or ought to mean, to us. And there is no real room for that here. This theory I find extremely useful, but only in a secondary role, not as an end in itself.
Postcolonialism, Cultural Studies, Feminism, Post-feminism, and Queer Theory . . . all of these are variations on a theme. Not a bad theme, really . . . simply the idea that there are voices in both literature and history which are woefully underrepresented, and that this ought to be examined and rectified. Perhaps advocates of these theories, in their enthusiasm, turn a bit more material on its head than is strictly necessary, but it is an admirable effort nonetheless. But do they not see that they have simply boxed themselves in in a new location? There is no freedom here to accept certain types of literature on its own terms. I can't accept that, as much as I may enjoy dabbling in any of the above from time to time.
What I am not finding in any of these critical theories is a true accounting for literature itself. Some of them attempt to measure empirically, others to describe, others to account for in terms of libido or cold, hard cash, others to evaluate and re-evaluate from a dizzying array of angles, and still others merely to respond to. But who among them seeks to find a purpose and a great theme or drive behind the production and lasting value of literature? None . . . not really . . . not in the way I mean. These were the sorts of thoughts that were floating around in my head in a very disconnected fashion for quite some time.
And then, on the final day of class, Watson produced a handout for us which, quite frankly, made my week. I have copied it out below. It delineates the essentials of a critical theory which embodies precisely what I have been trying to do myself beginning some years ago. The origins of my own thought along those lines go back at least seven years or so to my first arguments over Harry Potter (if not even further back than that).
Essentially, the conflict that arose both in my own mind and between myself and others, and which has continued to resurface regularly throughout the intervening period, is whether I may positively state that any text is worth my time to examine and account for in terms of my own Christian worldview. Can I acceptably combine "All truth is God's truth" with "Art for art's sake" as I have long sought to do? The handout in class crystalized the definite, solid answer to that question which I have long postulated but seldom adequately proved: Yes.
But, I'm not sure if any of the above is making any sense at all, so maybe I'd better just get on with reproducing the contents of this handout for you. Maybe then everything will explain itself:
Assumptions with which to enter the text:
1. The glory of God is the central issue in all human endeavor.
2. The production of all literature is motivated by obedience or rebellion against God.
3. Your interpretation (insight) is influenced by your own relationship to the Spirit of God.
4. Literature, its writing, its reading, and its criticism is an arena for influencing conversion, redemption, and/or sanctification.
Questions to ask while reading the text:
1. Who has "fallen" and how did it happen?
2. What does the text say about redemption, forgiveness, enlightenment, or growth into wisdom?
3. What is the impact of evil/good, sin/forgiveness, etc. on the characters and their choices, dilemmas, and interactions with each other?
4. How is God's grace at work at various levels to bring about His moral and spiritual purpose in the text?
5. How is the text itself a product of God's grace?
6. What incarnations of God and godliness are reflected in the work (whether knowingly by the author or not)?
7. How does the work reflect or challenge a theistic or Christian understanding of life, the universe, and everything?
Practices to apply in analyzing the text:
1. Identify issues of sin, judgment and redemption in the text.
2. Identify who has spiritual power; what kind of spirit lies behind it; what is done with power; and who wants power.
3. Identify issues of faith, hope, and love.
4. Determine whether the text supports or undermines the status quo, "the world."
5. Observe the sacramental archetypes in the text (water, bread, blood, marriage, forgiveness, the call of God, etc.).
6. Trace the "passion" of the main character (figures of agony, betrayal, trial, execution, resurrection, etc.).
This, outlined in clear, practical terms and steps, is the theory I have been blindly striving to apply to everything I have read or watched for the past several years, with varying degrees of success. Suddenly having it dropped in my lap, and all contained so handily on a single sheet of paper, was . . . well, rather a rush to say the least. I felt both vindicated and purposeful . . . and a little disappointed he hadn't introduced it earlier in the course.
Anyway, I think I finally have a pet critical theory.
December 12, 2005
Gendering Till We Have Faces
Till We Have Faces presents C. S. Lewis's retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche from the viewpoint of one of the "evil" older sisters from the original myth. Lewis's changed message in this book is about the difference between sacred, selfless love and profane, selfish love, and about truly knowing ourselves ("having faces") before we can know "the gods" and meet them face to face. However, very little of that is truly related to the most important aspect of the story: its treatment of gender identity.
The story is narrated in the first person by Orual, the ugly but clever oldest daughter of the King of Glome, a barbaric, pre-Christian society heavily influenced by the Hellenistic world. The King of Glome has no sons, so Orual inherits the throne when he is no longer able to rule. She has begun covering her face shortly before this time, and she soon becomes a wise, strong ruler, adept both in battle and at the negotiating table, and leads Glome into a period of prosperity during a long and profitable reign.
It is difficult to stress enough how insignificant Orual, as a girl in the royal family, actually is while growing up. As far as The King is concerned, she has no value whatsoever, because not only is she female, she is ugly, a fact which he reminds her of as often as possible. She lacks both the value of being a male heir and of being desirable to marry off to a potential ally.
The King, with hopes of a male heir, acquires a learned Greek slave named The Fox, and he sets him to teaching Orual as practice for when the male heir arrives. This is very fortunate later on when no male heir is forthcoming as The King begins to require Orual's new wisdom in his deliberation in the throne room. As far as he is concerned, she might as well be of assistance there since her looks will not allow her to be of any other use. The skills she acquires at this time will serve her well later.
Meanwhile, Orual's early life begins miserably and proceeds unsuccessfully because she does not fall into the proper stereotypes of femininity. Shortly before her father falls gravely ill and is unable to rule any longer, however, she assumes a thick veil which hides her face and begins to train with swords and riding horses. Additionally, she has managed to find a place in the formerly male-dominated world of the throne room, where important deliberations take place and a well-developed intellect is vital.
By the time her father is dead, she has assumed many more aspects of masculinity than femininity. She is performing her gender, as per the theories of Judith Butler, and that gender is male. In fact, Bardia, one of her most trusted advisers, observes "Oh, Lady, Lady, it's a thousand pities they didn't make you a man" (Lewis 197). Although this comment wounds her deeply at the time, she forcefully pushes that emotion, and all others, aside.
Before long Orual is experiencing more and greater success than ever before in her life. From one perspective she has conformed her personality to the demands of a male-dominated society. From another perspective, however, it was only by breaking free of the constricting gender identity imposed on her from birth that she was able to fulfill her potential. She has natural skills of both mind and her body which would never have been allowed to mature within the bounds of her former gender.
In this way, Lewis seems to show a definite bent against the entire social construct that is gender identity in Part I of the book. People of the male sex should not be forced to perform as members of the male gender, and people of the female sex should not be forced to perform as members of the female gender. Rather, everyone should be free to exercise the full range of their identity, wherever that leads them in terms of gender. Glome's pre-Christian, patriarchal society is, of course, full of these social expectations, but in Orual Lewis seems to have created a character that movingly transcends those boundaries.
However, he pretty much blows it in Part II. In this much shorter portion of the book, Lewis asserts that, rather than finding her true identity by abandoning gender-based modes of thought, Orual has lost it. Almost her last experience before death is a beatific vision in which she finds herself remade in the image of her beautiful younger sister, Psyche (the essential type of femininity), for only then does she truly have a face and an identity with which to meet the gods. Lewis begins his book by freeing his female character from a prison of gender, which would have led to a life of unfulfilled potential and frustration. He ends his book by twisting this on its head and asserting that this freedom was, paradoxically, the real prison. He sets her free by imprisoning her once again, perpetuating the stereotypes of a male-dominated literary tradition with yet one more book.
The Historical Flannery in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"
In 1953, Flannery O'Connor wrote "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," which would become the title piece in her first published collection of short stories. One of her shorter and more anthologized works, the story concerns a Southern family (parents, two children, baby, and grandmother) that sets out on a vacation to Florida. The grandmother, who has been opposed to the trip from the beginning, partially on the grounds that there is a notorious killer named "The Misfit" on the loose, has snuck her cat, Pitty Sing, into the car against the will of her son.
Along the way to Florida, she regularly feels the need to make conversation and generally makes a nuisance of herself, finally manipulating the children into begging for a detour so they can visit an old plantation mansion she recalls from her youth. However, much to the grandmother's horror, she suddenly realizes that her memory has been playing tricks on her, and the plantation house is not located anywhere near where they are. At about this time, the cat gets loose and causes the family to have a wreck. No one is hurt, but The Misfit and his accomplices happen along in the midst of the chaos.
The grandmother recognizes him and stupidly blurts out his name, prompting him to send the family off into the woods one by one to be executed. While this is going on, he holds a discussion with the grandmother during which she tries every trick she knows to convince him not to hurt her, almost to the point of denying the Resurrection of Christ. Then, suddenly, she experiences a shock of revelation. She finally escapes her self-centered babbling long enough to recognize that The Misfit deserves her love and compassion as if he were one of her own children.
As she reaches out to him, he shoots her, observing that "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life" (O'Connor 153).
There are two vital historical and autobiographical keys to understanding the full context within which this story was originally written. First, Flannery O'Connor was a devout Roman Catholic whose faith played a significant role in her fiction (and nonfiction). Second, Flannery O'Connor was a native of Georgia writing during the Southern Literary Renaissance which took place during the middle of the 20th century.
Aside from studies in Iowa and some time in Connecticut, Flannery O'Connor remained largely a home body, never straying far from the family farm in Milledgeville where she raised peacocks. She published her first book, Wise Blood in 1952 and died in 1964 at the age of 39. Her particular concerns as a writer in the South during the Literary Renaissance manifest themselves in this story through her concern with familial relationships, the importance of historical consciousness in the grandmother's mind, and the religious concerns of two of the characters.
In "Good Man" each successive generation is portrayed as having less respect for their elders than the generation before it, yet the grandmother continues to live with her son despite the difficulty of putting up with her. This indicates that family connections are still important to her son even if he isn't happy about it. At the end of the story, the grandmother recognizes that everyone is connected to everyone else in some way, all part of the same family.
Historical consciousness crops up a number of times in the story, mostly from the grandmother. She speaks fondly of the way things used to be, reminiscing about the good old days when people were nice and decent and had good manners. The cause of the family's demise is a detour to visit an ancient house that the grandmother remembers from the past.
At one point on the trip, the grandmother points out a graveyard that was once attached to a plantation. When her granddaughter asks where the plantation is, the grandmother replies, "Gone With the Wind [. . .] Ha. Ha" (O'Connor 139). This reference, of course, is to the famous book and movie which gained immense popularity in the South when they were released in 1936 and 1939, respectively. Elements like this not only lend the story a distinctly Southern flavor, but cultural references show the importance of the time period as well.
Additionally, beginning in the late 1920s writers like O'Connor became some of the first Southerners in history to openly portray the South in a bad (or even questionable) light. They began to question their world honestly in an unprecedented fashion, and the result is the finest literature ever seen in that region, and some of the finest in the nation's history as well. O'Connor examined many of the same subjects that her contemporaries were examining: the poverty-stricken, socially backward country people of the region. But rather than attributing their condition to any economic or social trends, she blamed an unfulfilled longing for God's grace. O'Connor's own religious notions of good and bad approaches to things like prayer and Christ, and her views on states of grace are very obvious in "Good Man," particularly near the end.
The grandmother's religion is portrayed as something which she has never really thought about, only used like a charm or a magic spell, and now it has ceased working for her. "Pray, pray" she tells The Misfit (O'Connor 149), and then later "If you would pray [. . .] Jesus would help you" (O'Connor 150). Still later, she is almost entirely unable to speak: "She found herself saying, 'Jesus. Jesus,' meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing" (O'Connor 151).
Finally, when everything else has failed, she is reduced to a half-hearted denial. "'Maybe He didn't raise the dead,' the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying" (O'Connor 152). Then, her mind clears for an instant, she has her epiphany. Experiencing true charity for perhaps the first time ever she reaches towards someone else in the midst of her own troubles (almost certainly for the first time), and she is dead almost immediately.
The Misfit, too, addresses the topic of religion, something he seems to have thought about too much. His style of oratory as he speaks to the grandmother is vaguely reminiscent of evangelical preaching, and he claims to have been a gospel singer (among many other things) at some time in the past. When the grandmother asks him why he doesn't pray, he claims to be doing all right by himself. We soon learn that he believes that "Jesus thown [sic] everything off balance. It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn't committed any crime [. . .] I call myself The Misfit because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment" (O'Connor 151).
Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead [. . .] and he shouldn't have done it. He thown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can - by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness (O'Connor 152).
The Misfit cannot believe in anything he hasn't seen for himself, and there is no way for him to have seen whether or not Christ's claims are true, therefore he cannot believe. But he is haunted by the thought that it might be true, and the conflict is tearing him up. In the meantime, as he concludes at the end of the story, "It's no real pleasure in life" (O'Connor 153).
December 11, 2005
The Kitchen Boy Who Would Be King: Steerpike and Class Struggle in Gormenghast
Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Novels are, as previously indicated, densely populated with rich characters that move, sometimes in dignity, sometimes in madness, but always within the constricting bounds of ritual, through day-to-day life in Gormenghast castle. There is a place for everyone in the castle, and those places have been occupied by them and people like them for over seventy generations. The patriarch of the Groan family presides as lord and master. His family is waited on hand and foot by a vast array of servants.
There are the coveted, prestigious positions: Lord of the Library, personal butler to the Earl of Gormenghast, personal nurse to the children of the line of Groan, Chief Gardner, Head Cook, Duster in the Hall of Bright Carvings. Then there are the villagers whose houses huddle against the outer walls, and who only enter the castle once per year for the Festival of the Carvings or when a new Groan baby requires a wet nurse. However, lowliest in the hierarchy of class that governs the world of Gormenghast, even lower than these ignored peasants, are the countless, nameless kitchen workers. Little better than slaves, these hapless individuals work tirelessly in the heat and the smoke and the noise to perform all tasks related to this area of castle life. For instance:
The walls of the vast room which were streaming with calid moisture, were built with grey slabs of stone and were the personal concern of a company of eighteen men known as the 'Grey Scrubbers.' It had been their privilege on reaching adolescence to discover that, being the sons of their fathers, their careers had been arranged for them and that stretching ahead of them lay their identical lives consisting of an unimaginative if praiseworthy duty. This was to restore, each morning, to the great grey floor and the lofty walls of the kitchen a stainless complexion. On every day of the year from three hours before daybreak until about eleven o'clock, when the scaffolding and ladders became a hindrance to the cooks, the Grey Scrubbers fulfilled their hereditary calling. Through the character of their trade, their arms had become unusually powerful, and when they let their huge hands hang loosely at their sides, there was more than an echo of the simian. Coarse as these men appeared, they were an integral part of the Great Kitchen. Without the Grey Scrubbers something very earthy, very heavy, very real would be missing to any sociologist searching in that steaming room, for the completion of a circle of temperaments, a gamut of the lower human values (Peake 18-19).
It is the centuries-old system of class hierarchy which relegates these workers to a role where they are so obviously oppressed and exploited by the ruling class. But one, single bold member of the proletariat in Gormenghast is not satisfied with the injustice of his subjugation. His name is Steerpike, and he is a kitchen boy. Unlike his legion of fellows, who are content to remain the simpering lackeys of the bloated chef, Abiatha Swelter, Steerpike possesses ambition and an overwhelming sense that his mind makes him worthy of something better.
And he is most definitely right! Steerpike's resourcefulness, ambition, and natural intelligence enable him to escape his job in the kitchen, taking a series of successively higher positions in Gormenghast: first as assistant to Dr. Prunesquallor and finally as Lord of the Library and Keeper of Ritual himself. Yet, in The Gormenghast Novels Steerpike is considered the villain because of his efforts to overthrow the established order in the castle.
What that order amounts to is the perpetuation of an aristocratic class system which crushes the many beneath it while glorifying the few. And as for those few who are glorified, many of them are certifiably insane, and those who are not insane are for the most part either cruel or stupid. Their power derives from, in one memorable scene (I kid you not), a farcical aquatic ceremony. In a broader sense the ruling class stays in power simply because that is their traditional role, handed down for over six dozen generations, and no tradition in Gormenghast Castle ever goes away, once begun.
Despite the obvious and grave problems with this system, Peake's storytelling angle very clearly seems to support the ruling class in all its decadence, in particular the heir to it, Titus Groan. Steerpike's many excellent qualities (courage, intelligence, resourcefulness, skill), however, are of no consequence except insofar as they help him in his "evil" designs, for he wishes to overthrow the established order of rank and class. This book very clearly shows the tension between the classes and the revolutionary spirit of the Proletariat waiting to break forth, but the sympathies of the narrator are entirely with the old, hierarchical order.
Glamorous Indigo Eye: Fuchsia's Sexuality Revealed in "The Frivolous Cake"
Fuchsia Groan, older sister of the title character of Titus Groan (first of the three incomparable Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake), is a character who cannot truly be understood and sympathized with without an understanding of her psychological make-up. As the neglected eldest daughter of the 76th Earl of the House of Groan, Lord of the ponderous, sprawling, and decaying Gormenghast Castle, Fuchsia is presented as somewhat of a tragic heroine (bearing more than a slight resemblance to Ophelia, when all is said and done) when we first meet her at the age of about fifteen.
She is a lonely and reclusive girl, neglected all her life, but now even less important as a result of the birth of a male heir, Titus. Her love for her father, Lord Sepulchrave, is rivaled in intensity only by her hatred for her mother, Gertrude. Both, however, are equally indifferent to her existence. Fuchsia, the perpetual child who never really grows up despite her physical age, has a very clear Electra Complex. Meanwhile, the only two people who seem to care for her at all are her mousy nurse, Nanny Slagg, and the effeminate Doctor Prunesquallor (unmarried and living with his spinster sister, Irma).
Prunesquallor, however, is (as our story begins) totally absorbed with the birthing of baby Titus, and Nanny Slagg, who will take charge of the new baby, is equally preoccupied. Fuchsia's fury at the arrival of a baby brother is boundless. She responds to the news by throwing a tantrum and retreating to her sanctuary, the existence of which is unknown to anyone but Nanny Slagg.
Behind her bed, a door in the wall leads up steep and rickety stairs into a series of attics which lead finally to a window to the outside world. In this sanctum, Fuchsia has comfortable furniture, food, and all of her favorite things about her. These things include pictures, costumes, and books of all kinds. Nanny cannot climb the stairs to reach her here, and when she is inside this place, it is almost as though she has retreated into her own mind. In her sanctuary, she is untouchable and safe.
Among the many books she keeps in this room there is a book of poetry, and her favorite of all the poems in the book is a nonsense piece called "The Frivolous Cake" (Peake 64-65) This poem, reproduced in its entirety beneath the fold, provides a fascinating summary of Fuchsia's psychological state and subtly foreshadows the course of her fateful romance with the conniving and evil Steerpike, who will soon invade her world.
The poem is about a cake (a fruitcake, no less) which sails "on a pointless sea" (line 2) beneath a strangely-colored sky, amidst flying fish and enchanted islands populated with fantastic creatures. This cake, all unsuspecting, is pursued by an amorous knife which, when it finally catches up to her, proceeds to devour her in a fit of passion.
The life and environment of this "frivolous cake" parallel Fuchsia's own activities and picture of her surroundings. She has neither duties nor cares, and may come and go as she pleases. This she does, "in a manner emphatic and free" (line 4), floating about in a world which she can make no sense of and over which she has no control.
Soon, a new figure enters the scene where the frivolous cake has cavorted so carelessly, "filled to the brim/With the fun of her curranty crew" (lines 19-20). This figure is, of course, the knife, swiftly pursuing the cake through the water, and winking "his glamorous indigo eye/In the wake of his future wife" (lines 31-32). This tension within the poem refers directly to the imminent sexual pursuit of Fuchsia by Steerpike, who relentlessly worms his way into Fuchsia's affections in order to take advantage of her connections. Steerpike carries a swordstick about with him wherever he goes. In the poem, the imagery of the phallic knife pursuing the fruit-filled cake is unmistakably sexual within the poem.
In the end, the knife reaches the cake, and crumbs begin to fly in all directions as the "tropical air vibrates to the drone/Of a cake in the throes of love" (lines 39-40). The phallic knife, burying itself in the cake, satisfies its own lusts but destroys the fragile cake in the process (even though the cake doesn't seem to realize that it is being devoured). Meanwhile, Steerpike grows closer and closer to Fuchsia, and she remains oblivious of what his true purpose is until it is almost too late.
When she does realize what he has been up to, a part of her dies and she sinks into deep melancholia. "Her need for love had never been fulfilled; her love for others had never been suspected, or wanted . . . a girl who was, in spite of her title and all it implied, of little consequence in the eyes of the castle" (760). The combination of events drives her to the very brink of suicide, and she ultimately drowns in a flood, a sea just as pointless as that which the frivolous cake of her favorite poem sailed on.
"The Frivolous Cake" by Mervyn Peake
A freckled and frivolous cake there was
That sailed on a pointless sea,
Or any lugubrious lake there was
In a manner emphatic and free.
How jointlessly, and how jointlessly
The frivolous cake sailed by
On the waves of the ocean that pointlessly
Threw fish to the lilac sky.
Oh, plenty and plenty of hake there was
Of a glory beyond compare,
And every conceivable make there was
Was tossed through the lilac air.
Up the smooth billows and over the crests
Of the cumbersome combers flew
The frivolous cake with a knife in the wake
Of herself and her curranty crew.
Like a swordfish grim it would bounce and skim
(This dinner knife fierce and blue),
And the frivolous cake was filled to the brim
With the fun of her curranty crew.
Oh, plenty and plenty of hake there was
Of a glory beyond compare -
And every conceivable make there was
Was tossed through the lilac air.
Around the shores of the Elegant Isles
Where the cat-fish bask and purr
And lick their paws with adhesive smiles
And wriggle their fins of fur,
They fly and fly 'neath the lilac sky -
The frivolous cake, and the knife
Who winketh his glamorous indigo eye
In the wake of his future wife.
The crumbs blow free down the pointless sea
To the beat of a cakey heart
And the sensitive steel of the knife can feel
That love is a race apart
In the speed of the lingering light are blown
The crumbs to the hake above,
And the tropical air vibrates to the drone
Of a cake in the throes of love.
"This Be the Verse" . . . That Tears Itself Apart
Well, folks, it's that time again: time for the ol' Watson lit journals to come out to play here at the end of yet another semester. For my opening act I'll be applying Deconstruction Theory to "This Be the Verse" by Philip Larkin, just as my group did during our class presentation (full text of poem appears beneath the fold . . . oh, and it has a couple of naughty words, if that sort of thing curls your toenails).
In the journals ahead, I'll be covering a whole gamut of contemporary critical theories: Freudian Psychoanalysis, Marxist Theory, Historicism, and Gender Studies . . . all (well, most) delightfully pagan in their outlook. I am relishing the chance to dabble in a wide range of perspectives that fall well outside conventional Christian norms. This'll be fun, I promise.
Philip Larkin's "This Be the Verse" is an interesting study in self-defeating bitterness and angst. On the surface, his poem suggests that parents inevitably screw up their children, whether intentionally or not, by passing on their faults. However, this is not entirely the parents' fault since they, too, were screwed up by their parents (old fools in out-dated clothes), whom Larkin accuses of being "soppy-stern" (line 7), pairing off two apparently contradictory words which ultimately don't seem to mean anything.
In this way, the progression of human history from generation to generation becomes a sort of relay race where each runner passes misery on to the next runner, and with each successive runner the misery becomes that much heavier and more difficult to carry, deepening, as Larkin puts it, "like a coastal shelf" (line 10). Presumably, like a coastal shelf, man's misery will eventually drop over the edge into the depths and the human race will face drastic consequences. Larkin's solution to this problem? Ditch your parents as quickly as possible and avoid having any children of your own at all costs.
Now, this is, on the surface, what the poem seems to be saying. However, if we go back and examine more carefully what Larkin's use of language actually communicates, we see that his proposed solution is actually self-contradictory on two levels. Line 3 asserts that our parents fill us "with the faults they had" (emphasis mine). The use of past tense seems to indicate that these faults no longer plague our parents, almost as if they have purged themselves of these faults by handing them to us (as per the relay race analogy). This idea of something passed from one person to another is confirmed by line 9: "Man hands on misery to man."
In light of this, what might Larkin's command to "Get out as early as you can,/And don't have any kids yourself" (lines 11-12) now mean? Well, that partially depends on the motive for getting out and avoiding children. If the emphasis is on the first line, the motive seems to be a selfish one. In other words, escape from your parents and avoid having kids so that you don't have to deal with any of these problems anymore. Save yourself that grief.
However, taking the alternate reading of the poem into account, whoever follows this advice will retain the faults and misery of previous generations. Unable to purge themselves by having children, they will carry this deepening burden themselves throughout their lives. This, then, is no solution at all for the person with selfish motives. They must have children or face an intolerable strain.
On the other hand, if the emphasis is on the last line, the motives seem a bit more altruistic. It is almost as if we are being counseled to avoid having children for the childrens' sake rather than our own. However, in this case (if the motive then, is indeed to save later generations from the increasing burden of grief and misery which may ultimately destroy them), the proposed solution is still a failure. If everyone were to refuse to perpetuate the human race, ostensibly to save humanity, the entire race would be gone within a single generation.
This fundamental contradiction within the poem's own verbal structure ultimately subverts its entire intended meaning, transforming it into a meaningless expression of negative emotions which fails entirely to address the problems it raises. Larkin has been defeated in his attempts to communicate by the inherent subjectivity of language, which allows his point to be undermined and destroyed.
"This Be the Verse" by Philip Larkin
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.
December 10, 2005
Well, I've seen it, and have pronounced it RAVE-WORTHY. I've half a mind to see it again before I skip town now that I've heard that the gayness that is Guatemala's movie distributor won't be releasing this masterpiece until January 6th. Boneheads. Anyway, this is supposed to be a movie review about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, not a rant about foolish Guatemalans.
In general terms, the movie absolutely drips gorgeous ambience. The music is absolutely enchanting. The cinematography is decadent. The actors are, for the most part, beautifully-cast in their roles (particularly Tumnus, Edmund, Lucy, Professor Kirk, Mrs. MacReady, and most especially the White Witch . . . Tilda Swinton is brilliant). The movie's effects are top-notch, and it does not overindulge in unnecessary glitz until the final battle sequence, during which they are almost forgivable (but for a more than passing resemblance to similar scenes in Lord of the Rings . . . WETA really ripped themselves off big-time, but at least they ripped off something good).
In terms of quality of adaptation, the movie succeeded beyond my hopes. Consider, if you will, the following line from the first description the book provides of the room where the wardrobe is: "There was nothing else in the room at all except a dead blue-bottle on the window-sill."
They put the blue-bottle in the movie.
Now, with attention to detail like that, I wondered later on why the plot felt it had to deviate in other areas . . . nevertheless, most of the essentials are there. My one big gripe in this regard is that the Beavers don't tell the children that Aslan is a lion, and it is not revealed anywhere else by anyone else until he emerges from the tent. I'm sure this was done in an extremely misguided attempt to surprise us all at the appearance of a lion instead of a man or something. That's just dandy except that anyone who has read the book knows what's coming, and for anyone who hasn't Aslan's head takes the dominant spot front and center on every freaking movie poster that is splashed around the entire freaking theater.
I'm especially bitter about this change because there are a lot of really great lines spoken about Aslan by the Beavers which get cut in order not to "ruin the surprise" later on. And, just a few scenes after the Beaver's Dam, when Edmund is wandering around the White Witch's castle, he draws glasses and a moustache on the stone lion he finds, but now it doesn't mean jack anything anymore because he hasn't heard that Aslan is a lion. It's just something random he does on a whim. He doesn't even say anything . . . just draws his little whatsit and chuckles to himself and moves on. *sigh*
So, because of a few extremely retarded moves like that, I didn't give it a perfect score. They did keep a lot of things that lesser directors might have cut . . . like Father Christmas. *cough*Bombadil!*cough* I do have to note that any adaptations of The Chronicles of Narnia ought to have a big leg-up in this regard, because the books on which they are based aren't as thick as bricks. Therefore there won't be the necessity to make a marathon movie as with Lord of the Rings, or to slice-and-dice as with the mutilated slop we got in the last Harry Potter movie.
A lot of people I talked to found Aslan's portrayal underwhelming, but that didn't bother me overmuch. The emotional impact of the scenes at the Stone Table was rock solid . . . truly the centerpiece of the movie (as they should be) and that was what counted for me. Honestly (and I feel a little funny admitting this), these scenes moved me more deeply than the entirety of The Passion. Perhaps it was the context supplied by Narnia (and not supplied by The Passion) which showed just what Aslan dies for and what the effects of it are. Perhaps it was the fact that I wasn't totally desensitized to violence and gore by the time the actual death took place. I don't know. That's just what I observed.
The other complaint I heard was about the battle scene. Virtually everyone in it was dual-wielding (two swords). Everything in it, I heard some say, was straight out of either Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Well, maybe it did get to be a bit much . . . but it was pretty cool at the same time! There were gryphons divebombing the baddies with big rocks, for instance. On the one hand, that's totally LotR territory. But on the other hand, it provided an excellent visual link to the Germans-bombing-the-crap-out-of-London scene that the movie began with. So . . . pros and cons, pros and cons.
That reminds me, though. Many of the changes were very positive. For instance, as I thought about it afterwards I realized that the four children in the original book are rather flat as characters. In the movie they were much better developed, on the whole. We felt emotionally attached to them, for a variety of reasons. We see that Edmund is feeling the absence of his father more than the other children, thus fueling his resentment of Peter's authority. We see that Peter has been specially charged by his mother to look after his siblings when the children are separated from her (an especially heart-rending scene). And I don't remember so much attention being paid to the development of family love and loyalty between the four children in the book. I was blown away to find the movie version of a C. S. Lewis book devoting even more time to positive, Christian themes than Lewis himself!
Oh, I mustn't end without mentioning the elderly black ladies who were sitting behind me. They seemed to think they were at a Baptist church service, getting steadily louder until I wanted to knock their heads together by the end of the movie. I'm thinking, "It's on an inanimate screen! You don't interact with it!" They're sitting back there going:
Lady 1: Oh, there he is.
Lady 2: Uhhhh-huh.
Lady 1: Looks like they've killed him.
Lady 2: Mmm-hmm
Lady 1: He won't stay dead for long, though.
Lady 2: No, sir!
Me: AHHHHHHHHHHHHH! !#@%!%#!#$!!@#!@!#
Anyway, I shall end the review with a little piece of advice (and this goes for all movies, not just this one). Do yourself a big favor. Stay put for the freaking credits.
December 09, 2005
The Top Fifty, Part X
The Man Who Was Thursday (G. K. Chesterton) - There are seven members of the radical Central Anarchist Council who, for security purposes, name themselves after the days of the week - Sunday, Monday, etc. However, the turn of events soon cast doubt upon their true identities, for the man who was Thursday is not the impassioned young poet he pretends to be, but rather a member of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist squad of secret detectives. Who and what are the true identities of the other days of the week? Chesterton unwinds the mysterious entanglements in his own inventive and lively way and then escalates the mounting nightmare of paradox and surprise, culminating in a shocking revelation. He probes the mysteries of behavior and belief in an all too human world.
Chesterton wrote a whole lot of great stuff. I adore the Father Brown Mysteries. and Wilson's got his own little (very little, I guess) Orthodoxy cult going on. Last Christmas break, I camped out in Barnes & Noble over the course of a few days and read (among other things) The Ball and the Cross and The Man Who Was Thursday. They were both good, but the latter was magnificent . . . a thrilling, convoluted, suspenseful, and shocking story of intrigue on a global scale. Chesterton piles on the plot twists until the reader doesn't know what to believe anymore, finally taking the whole plot in a wholly unexpected direction, full of powerful Christian symbolism, at the very end.
The Inimitable Jeeves (P. G. Wodehouse) - Bertie Wooster's friend Bingo falls in love with every woman he meets, from Mabel, the waitress at the bun shop, to the Amazonian Honoria Glossop (whom Aunt Agatha has earmarked for Bertie). Naturally there are obstacles to be overcome - the matter of allowances, class prejudices and a lack of revolutionary tendencies. Rely on Jeeves, the consumate gentleman's gentleman, to apply his superb brain-power in emancipating Bertie and Bingo from the tightest of corners in plenty of time for tea.
I don't remember when I first heard of P. G. Wodehouse, but Watson and his three shelves of Wodehouse books probably had something to do with it. I got a collection of three Jeeves books for Christmas a year or two back, and worked my way through them at my leisure. I distinctly recall needing to read them alone because I created a significant disturbance whenever there were other people around. The adventures of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster are so funny, I just couldn't help it. This particular book had a great overarching plot with loads of deliciously humorous supporting stories that built towards its conclusion. Wodehouse is definitely one of the more fun (and funny) reads I've experienced in recent years.
Everything That Rises Must Converge (Flannery O'Connor) - Collection of nine short stories by Flannery O'connor, published posthumously in 1965. The flawed characters of each story are fully revealed in apocalyptic moments of conflict and violence that are presented with comic detachment. The title story is a tragicomedy about social pride, racial bigotry, generational conflict, false liberalism, and filial dependence. Similarly, "The Comforts of Home" is about an intellectual son with an Oedipus complex. Driven by the voice of his dead father, the son accidentally kills his sentimental mother in an attempt to murder a harlot. The other stories are "A View of the Woods," "Parker's Back," "The Enduring Chill," "Greenleaf," "The Lame Shall Enter First," "Revelation," and "Judgment Day."
I like Flannery O'Connor so much that it makes Rachel jealous. She gets tired of hearing "Flannery O'Connor this" and "Flannery O'Connor that" . . . is it my fault that O'Connor is handy when you need paper or presentation topics in a pinch? Well, maybe I have been a tad bit insufferable since I got a copy of her Collected Works. I have read (and probably raved about) all of the short stories and essays already, but I have not yet ventured into the novels. Maybe this Christmas Break . . .
Anyway, I love all of her short stories, and it was difficult to choose between A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge. Both are excellent. However, ultimately I decided that the latter was the superior collection. Her earlier stories are a bit more heavy-handed in their symbolism, a bit more obviously grotesque in their technique. The later stories, on the other hand, are much more subtle and less fantastical and seem largely to possess greater depth as a result.
I have read that O'Connor obsessively groomed, touched-up, and edited her stories until she thought they were perfect . . . and it shows. And, of course, the powerful Christian themes she addresses have lost none of their spiritual relevance in the forty years since she died. She is one of the supreme masters of her craft.
Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov) - Humbert Humbert is a European intellectual adrift in America, haunted by memories of a lost adolescent love. When he meets his ideal nymphet in the shape of 12-year-old Dolores Haze, he constructs an elaborate plot to seduce her, but first he must get rid of her mother. In spite of his diabolical wit, reality proves to be more slippery than Humbert's feverish fantasies, and Lolita refuses to conform to his image of the perfect lover.
Surprised? You probably should have seen this coming when I praised Nabokov's prose so highly while talking about Mervyn Peake. I've read Lolita twice now, seen the movie version twice, and written two sizable (roughly ten-page) papers. Nabokov's grasp of the English language, and the ease with which he manipulates and shapes it, astounds me. Nabokov is a true literary artist, and Lolita is a true work of literary art. The prose is as exquisite as it is impenetrable, with its maze of hints, riddles, and allusions. This, however, only serves to make the work a good deal richer with each successive reading. The plot is tense, the characters are tragic, and the moral and emotional impact (at least for me) is high. Lolita is certainly not for everyone, but then . . . few books are.
As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner) - At the heart of this 1930 novel is the Bundren family's bizarre journey to Jefferson to bury Addie, the family matriarch. Speaking in no less than sixteen distinct voices, Faulkner lets each family member, including Addie, and others along the way tell their private responses to Addie's life through the brilliant flow of stream-of-consciousness prose.
I just read this about halfway through the semester. It is only the second book I have read by Faulkner, but I was floored by it. As I Lay Dying is a good deal more accessible than The Sound and the Fury, but it still doesn't hand everything to the reader on a plate. Faulkner masterfully and believeably weaves together over a dozen totally different voices to create a story which could only be set in the deep South. I decided not long after finishing The Sound and the Fury that I was a definite fan of stream-of-consciousness. I enjoy the unique challenge it presents to the reader and the writing skill required on the part of the author (when, as with Faulkner, it is well-done).
In this book, the characters are very alive and very real, and their situation inspires a great deal of empathy on the part of the reader, partly because they are so movingly described and their struggles so memorably portrayed. It is not a long book, but, as the narrative slowly unwound and drew to a close, I felt as if I had been with the characters for quite some time.
And so ends my "Top Fifty" list, at last. I started it nearly a month ago believing that it was practically ready to post. Little did I suspect how much more time it would take me to put it together properly . . . or how little time I would have to do so. Now that it's over, I will return to regular posting . . . in fact, I've almost got a bit of a pile-up already what with all sorts of eventfulness going on here and there. Before I bring this whole thing to a close, though, I'm going to go ahead and toss out a quick list (in no particular order) of two dozen books that were in the running for the "Top Fifty," but didn't quite make the cut . . . just for kicks and giggles. Some of these were very difficult to remove, some not nearly so much . . .
By the Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischman
Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls
Redwall by Brian Jacques
The Firm by John Grisham
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Homer Price by Robert McCloskey
Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy
The Twenty-One Balloons by William Péne DuBois
God's Smuggler by Brother Andrew
Jackaroo by Cynthia Voight
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare
The High King by Lloyd Alexander
Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit
Christy by Catherine Marshall
The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald
Escape from Warsaw Ian Seraillier
The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong
Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré
December 08, 2005
The Top Fifty, Part IX
Master and Commander (Patrick O'Brian) - This, the first in the splendid series of Jack Aubrey novels, establishes the friendship between Captain Aubrey, Royal Navy, and Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon and intelligence agent, against the thrilling backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Details of life aboard a man-of-war in Nelson's navy are faultlessly rendered: the conversational idiom of the officers in the ward room and the men on the lower deck, the food, the floggings, the mysteries of the wind and the rigging, and the roar of broadsides as great ships close in battle.
Fry loaned me this book when I went back to Guatemala for Christmas two years ago, and I read it over the break. I had already seen the movie by this point, it had met with my approval, but little did I suspect the vast depth the books add to the characters of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. In addition to the dazzlingly captivating characters in the book, I was drawn in by a narrative style that reminded me very much of Jane Austen (as both the second and third books in the series have continued to do). Master and Commander is a supremely magnificent historical read. Aubrey, master tactician on the water, and Maturin, master spy on the land, are a literary pair on a level with the likes of Holmes and Watson, and certainly worthy of an entire series to chronicle their adventures.
The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde) - Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax are both in love with the same mythical suitor. Jack Worthing has wooed Gewndolen as Ernest while Algernon has also posed as Ernest to win the heart of Jack’s ward, Cecily. When all four arrive at Jack’s country home on the same weekend—the "rivals" to fight for Ernest’s undivided attention and the "Ernests" to claim their beloveds—pandemonium breaks loose.
Few plays, if any, are more fun to read (particularly in a theatrical setting) than this one. The SC Players have done it twice in the past, and both times I played my favorite character, Algernon. I have also read through the play on my own a few times. I remember once in British Lit II when I, sitting in the back of the room, randomly opened to it in our textbook and began to read, only just managing to stifle my laughter (which is so much more difficult the harder you try).
Wilde in this play is simply so recklessly frivolous and trivial, and it seems as though every singly line of dialogue states the facts of life in a manner which is both precisely the opposite of the truth and (at the same time) more true than we might care to believe. In this case, as well, I happen to own the movie version (which I believe I actually saw before I had ever read the play) and I haul it out and watch it every so often as well. The play is a short, light read with gut-bustingly hilarious dialogue and a wickedly convoluted (but easy to follow) plot which provides the audience with a shocking twist and an excruciating pun all rolled into one at play's end.
The Gormenghast Novels (Mervyn Peake) - A doomed lord, an emergent hero, and a dazzling array of bizarre creatures inhabit the magical world of these novels. At the center of it all is the darkly humorous, stunningly complex tale of the life of Titus, heir to Lord Sepulchrave. He stands to inherit the miles of rambling stone and mortar that form Gormenghast Castle and its kingdom, where all events are predetermined by a complex ritual whose origins are lost in history, understood only by Sourdust, Lord of the Library. Titus will one day rule as the seventy-seventh Earl unless the conniving Steerpike, who is determined to rise above his menial position and control the House of Groan, has his way. The Gormenghast royal family, the castle's decidedly eccentric staff, and the peasant artisans living around the dreary, crumbling structure make up the cast of characters in this engrossing story. Peake's command of language and unique style set the tone and shape of an intricate, slow-moving world of ritual and stasis where all is like a dream--lush, fantastical, and vivid.
Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Novels astound me on two levels. First, they are unbelievably good. Peake's prose remains virtually unmatched in my mind by anyone except perhaps Vladimir Nabokov. His story, characters, and world are deep, rich, and full of surprises and symbolism. He defies classification . . . the books are generally classified as fantasy for sheer convenience, for they do not fall into any known category. Second, at times it seems as though no one has ever heard of Gormenghast, much less read the books. How can writing and storytelling of this caliber fly practically under the radar for over half a century?
The first two books are totally enthralling and nearly flawless, the third less so. Peake envisioned a truly epic series which would follow his hero, Titus Groan, from birth to old age. The pace he expected to maintain is evident when we have reached page 100 or so of Titus Groan and our hero has only just emerged from the wound. Sadly, Peake became mentally diseased after beginning the third book, during which Titus is supposed to be in his early twenties, more or less, and died just a few scribbled pages into book four. Titus Alone, while still brilliant in a unique way, shows the sad effects of Peake's decline. The story is often confusing and disjointed and lacks some of the perfection of the earlier works. Nevertheless, it is an excellent read, and the first two books stand alone very effectively.
As a brief preview of coming attractions, I've been absolutely itching to begin producing a body of literary analysis of the works from a variety of perspectives (there are certainly plenty of angles of approach). Soon, my friends, soon . . .
Man and Superman (George Bernard Shaw) - John Tanner is horrified to discover that he is the object of Ann Whitefield's ambitions in her search for a satisfactory husband. For Tanner, political pamphleteer and independent mind, escape is the only option. But Ann is grimly resigned to society's expectations and ready for the chase. A protracted, allegorical detour through Hell in the third act features a mind-numbing, but fascinating debate between supernatural figures and reveals the startling philosophical thesis of the play before the final denoument. In this caustic satire on romantic conventions, Shaw casts his net wide across European culture to draw on works by Mozart, Nietzsche, and Conan Doyle for his re-telling of the Don Juan myth. Haled as "the first great twentieth-century English play," this remains a classic exposé of the eternal struggle between the sexes.
I believe this is the third and final playwright to make my list. Shaw, much like his character Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, is not in the least afraid of offending everyone equally. His plays are radically and courageously anti-establishment in a way that I find it difficult not to admire. In addition to his pointed and often disturbing philosophical agendas, Shaw has a devastating and hilarious wit which he employs to brilliant effect in his plays. This is my favorite of his plays due in large part to a ponderous third act (of four) which outlines a starkly pragmatic philosophy of life (the "Life-Force" Philosophy, in fact) from within a wicked vision of the afterlife that (in his day) only Shaw would dare to dream up and put on the stage.
Besides this third act, which is a dream sequence that lasts longer than the other three acts combined and contributes next to nothing to the plot while slipping in nearly everything regarding the point that Shaw is attempting to put across, Man and Superman is a cute and funny romantic comedy filled with quite a number of truly humorous characters and situations.
A Room With a View (E. M. Forster) - This Edwardian social comedy explores love and prim propriety among an eccentric cast of characters assembled in an Italian pensione and in a corner of Surrey, England. A charming young English woman, Lucy Honeychurch, faints into the arms of a fellow Britisher when she witnesses a murder in a Florentine piazza. Attracted to this man, George Emerson--who is entirely unsuitable and whose father just may be a Socialist--Lucy is soon at war with the snobbery of her class and her own conflicting desires. Back in England she is courted by a more acceptable, if stifling, suitor, and soon realizes she must make a startling decision that will decide the course of her future: she is forced to choose between convention and passion.
The process by which E. M. Forster has become one of my favorite authors is singularly bizarre . . . no less so as this is the only book of his which I have read. I first encountered him in British Literature II during the spring of my sophomore year, in which we read a chapter of A Passage to India and watched the 1984 movie version. The movie instantly became one of my favorites and I have since watched it at least three times. Sometime during the following fall semester I got the movie versions of both Howard's End (featuring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson) and A Room With a View (with Helena Bonham Carter and Maggie Smith) from the library and loved them both. By now I had enjoyed three movies based on the works of Forster without once having read one of his books. Unacceptable.
Returning to the library, I arbitrarily settled on A Room With a View as Christmas Break reading and loved it. The book is hilarious, a fantastic read from its period. It skewers both Romantics and Aesthetics, and generally has a great deal of fun at the expense of the British upper-middle class. I'm already planning to squeeze A Passage to India in sometime this Christmas Break. We shall see.
To be continued . . .
December 06, 2005
The Top Fifty, Part VIII
Paradise Lost (John Milton) - This is the quintessential epic English poem. Penned by Milton in the 1600s, it relates the story of Lucifer's revenge on God after he has been cast out of Heaven. Bursting from the confines of Hell he blazes a trail to Earth, bent on corrupting God's pristine masterwork in any way he can. Little does he know that even his success in destroying Man's innocence and introducing Sin into the world will lead to God's ultimate victory with mankind's redemption and salvation. In the poem's final section, an angel reveals God's plan for mankind's history to Adam in its entirety, giving him hope for the future even as he is cast forth from the Garden of Eden forever. Beautifully written and vividly described, the real strength of Paradise Lost lies in its characters and in its source material: The Bible.
Oh, look at me! I'm such a poser (again)! I have Milton and Shakespeare on my list! Well, this is a book which I have written about before, it just so happens. I stayed up all night to finish Paradise Lost one Christmas break because I couldn't put it down, and I was so excited about it that I got up and started writing a post that shows definite effects of sleepiness. That aside, I guess Milton probably isn't for everyone, and I've heard a lot of complaints about his theology (however relevant that may be to a literary work). But whether he gets it right or wrong in the end, Milton did give me a startling new perspective on the story of Creation and Fall which, while it probably didn't shed much valuable light on the story itself, gave me a lot to think about with respect to almost everything else. And, in the end, isn't that the essential point of a retelling anyway?
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J. K. Rowling) - The pivotal fourth novel in the seven part tale of Harry Potter's training as a wizard and his coming of age. Fourteen-year-old Harry gets away from the pernicious Dursleys and goes to the Quidditch World Cup with Hermione, Ron, and the Weasleys. He then begins his fourth year at Hogwarts Academy where he is mysteriously entered in an unusual contest that challenges his wizarding skills, friendships and character. The event involves two other rival schools of magic, and a competition that hasn't happened in a hundred years. Amid signs that an old enemy is growing stronger, all he wants is to be a normal, fourteen year old wizard. Unfortunately for Harry Potter, he's not normal - even by wizarding standards.
The Harry Potter series (idiot controversy aside) is one of the supreme children's literature creations of all time. Sadly, as of this writing, it is still one book shy of completion. Nevertheless, the series thus far is an incredible joy to read. My personal favorite thus far (by a nose) is Goblet of Fire, as the central book on which everything else hinges. This is, of course, yet another case of a book in a series that might not be on the list without the support of other books which are not.
Despite the publication of the first book in 1997, I was not allowed to begin reading the series while still living at home. This was a subject of much contention for years (you may find my definitive final word on the subject here), and ultimately I did not begin the first book until I moved out of the house during the summer after I graduated from high school (2002). It was probably, in fact, one of the first things I did. At the time, the fourth book was just coming out in paperback, but I only bought the first one to read and discover what all the fuss was about to see if I would want to continue the series.
To make a long story short, I did, and I rapidly acquired the remaining three. I read most of book two during the trip from Lubbock to Longview when I moved in at LeTourneau my freshman year. I read book three during Thanksgiving Break my freshman year. And I read book four during Spring Break my freshman year (at least the final half of it one sitting). Book five came out that summer, and a generous aunt (one of the few relatives I have who will tolerate the series . . . and, incidentally, who has actually bothered to read it) loaned me a copy. I finished it in three sittings while on vacation travelling about the state with my family. And, of course, book six came out just this summer, and just as I was casting about for the means to get my hands on it, my wonderful girlfriend informed me that she had bought it as my early birthday present. When it arrived I finished it in two sittings.
All that I need add to complete this brief history of myself and the Harry Potter series is that I have arrived on opening night to showings of the last two HP movies (the third was the best of the series, the fourth perhaps the worst). Trust me, people should be reading these books, but if they don't or won't . . . well, their loss.
The Great Train Robbery (Michael Crichton) - Lavish wealth and appalling poverty - and Edward Pierce easily navigates both worlds. Rich, handsome, and ingenious, he charms the city's most prominent citizens even as he plots the crime of the century - the daring theft of a fortune of gold. But even Pierce could not predict the consequences of an extraordinary robbery that targets the pride of England's industrial era: the mighty steam locomotive.
To the best of my recollection, I read this book in its entirety during one night in the lounge of Andy's suite at John Brown University. I had finished my first spring semester at LeTourneau, and I was spending a week at JBU with Andy while he took his finals in order to return to Colorado Springs with him. I got a lot read that week . . .
It is not uncommon for me to read large portions of Michael Crichton books at a single go. I recall reading hundreds of pages of Sphere without moving a muscle, and when I finally finished the book, one of my arms and both of my legs were asleep. The Great Train Robbery is quite simply the best "caper" story I've ever encountered, and it paints a very vivid and memorable picture of the seedy underbelly of Victorian London. I can't say for certain how much of the story is actual historical fact, but I know that a great deal of it is, and while I was reading it I certainly felt as though every word was true.
Arthur (Stephen R. Lawhead) - They called him unfit to rule, a lowborn, callow boy, Uther's bastard. But his coming bad been foretold in the songs of the bard Taliesin. And be had learned powerful secrets at the knee of the mystical sage Merlin. He was Arthur -- Pendragon of the Island of the Mighty -- who would rise to legendary greatness in a Britain torn by violence, greed, and war; who would usher in a glorious reign of peace and prosperity; and who would fall in a desperate attempt to save the one he loved more than life.
Well, well, another version of the Arthur legend has appeared on my list. Now there's a shock. I felt that Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle (an attempt at a more or less historically based retelling of the myth) got off to rather a slow start with Taliesin, the story of Merlin's father. The second book, Merlin, was considerably better, but still not perfect. The third book, though, totally blew me away. It's use of multiple first-person narrators to tell the story of Arthur's exciting reign is quite riveting. You might think that, with that opinion of book three I might have moved on to book four, Pendragon, by now. But I haven't due to a busy reading schedule. Also, I've heard that it's not as good as the others in the series . . . maybe I'm afraid that's true.
Many Dimensions (Charles Williams) - The book turns on the discovery of the magical Stone of Solomon, infinitely divisible, and through which one can move at will through space, time, and thought. Those who think they can manipulate the stone to serve their own ends, however, find to their horror that, as Jesus once ironically said, "they have their reward." While the story clearly deals with the extraordinary, through his humorous and loving depiction of his British characters Williams more deeply shows us the spiritual reality that lies inside the ordinary.
Charles Williams is the third and final Inkling on my list, and only with great difficulty would I be able to convince myself that he isn't the best. I feel that both Lewis and Tolkien themselves would agree with that assessment. I was introduced to Williams in the Inklings Only class I took during the fall semester of my sophomore year. We bought a collection of three of his novels in a single volume and were required to choose two to read. Of course, many of us read all three. Of those three, while I know that Wilson prefers the depth and profundity of Descent into Hell and perhaps others might prefer the epic good vs. evil themes of War in Heaven, my favorite is Many Dimensions, with a little of both of the above and an extremely exciting concept to boot.
To be continued . . .
December 05, 2005
The Top Fifty, Part VII
The Foundation Trilogy (Isaac Asimov) - Asimov's epic of Empire and the ebb and flow of history covers a span of several hundred years in the history of an ideal universal ruling organization. When the Galactic Empire began to decay and crumble, Hari Seldon and his band of psychohistorians planted a colony, the Foundation, on a remote border planet. The Foundation would incubate art, science, and technology, and form the nucleus of the Second Empire, thus shortening the Dark Age between empires from 10,000 years to only 1,000. The first section, Foundation traces the Foundation's embryonic development and the beginnings of its rise to power. In Foundation and Empire, a period of disruption transpires amid the death throes of the Galactic Empire, followed almost immediately by the sudden appearance of a powerful mutant force, known as "The Mule," that not even Hari Seldon could have predicted. Second Foundation describes the climactic search for Seldon's hidden Second Foundation undertaken separately by both The Mule and the desperate, reeling First Foundation.
I graduated from fantasy to science fiction, and hence to Asimov, somewhat late considering my predilection for the former. It was probably Star Wars that did it when I saw the trilogy for the first time in 1997, but I no longer remember. In any case, Asimov is certainly one of my favorite authors, and one of my most read. There is not a great deal of action in his novels . . . in fact, almost nothing seems to happen in some of them, despite their length. Nevertheless, I was always fascinated by them from start to finish.
Asimov is a master of plotting on a grand scale, and many of his books demonstrate this on three levels. Each book contains elements that are part of itself (obviously), elements which connect with the larger series (often trilogy) of which they are a part, and elements which fit into the grand scheme of "Asimov time" which spans something like 20,000 years of human history. His Foundation trilogy is a perfect example of this, and it employs a classic Asimov device. Each part is neatly divided into sub-parts so that really the entire massive saga seems like a collection of novellas more than anything else.
My favorite part of the trilogy is probably the third book, but it could hardly be a favorite without the context of the preceding two. That, plus the facts that the previous two are excellent books and the trilogy is available in a single-volume form made it a necessity to add to the list. The Foundation trilogy is undoubtedly one of the great masterpieces of sci-fi literature (although if you find that term to be an oxymoron, you might want to avoid it).
A Midsummer Night's Dream (William Shakespeare) - Three members of a love triangle (and a fourth who wants in) along with a troupe of rustic tradesmen with thespian delusions stumble into an enchanted forest on the eve of the wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and become the playthings of a group of mischievous, feuding fairies. Of course, love conquers all by the end, but some very strange events transpire along the way.
Shakespeare is another of my most read authors, and that made it extremely difficult to decide which of his plays ought to go on his list. I feel like such a poser to begin with by putting anything by Shakespeare at all, but I assure you that I do genuinely love the works of Shakespeare. I have read 25 of his plays, and over a dozen of those at least twice, and I'm looking earnestly for the time to complete the remaining 13.
My immediate problem was really whether to choose a comedy or a tragedy. Both are so different from each other that I had legitimate favorites in both camps that almost defied comparison. In the end, however, I decided that none of Shakespeare's plays has given me more joy than A Midsummer Night's Dream. I've probably read it at least five times, more than one of those aloud in a "reader's theater" setting. I also own the charming recent movie version, and have watched and enjoyed it several times (one of the few instances where a drastic change from Shakespeare's original setting, from Ancient Greece to 19th century Italy, genuinely works).
My favorite character to act, incidentally, is undoubtedly Bottom the Weaver, whose flamboyant, good-natured chutzpah make him one of the most endearing characters in all Shakespeare. On the one hand, he is obnoxiously proud and self-centered, but on the other, he is so charitable and guileless about it (not to mention comical) that he is almost impossible not to like.
The Eye of the World (Robert Jordan) - The peaceful villagers of Emond's Field pay little heed to rumors of war in the western lands until a savage attack by troll-like minions of the Dark One forces three young men to flee their home in the company of an Aes Sedai (a powerful female mage) as the Dark One's evil armies pursue. While a series of life-threatening encounters keep them constantly on the move, they are visited by terrible dreams that hint that they must soon confront a destiny which has its origins in the time known as The Breaking of the World.
Some may think this a strange choice, being disgusted with the the way Jordan has stretched out his saga to cover eleven massive books without yet being done. Personally, I am currently stalled out on book six, searching for a chance to proceed, and still enjoying the series for what it is. In any case, regardless of what some people may think about this series, they probably only think it because they liked it enough at the beginning to keep reading later. After all, if the first book had sucked, why would they have picked up the second? No matter how much later portions of the series may have jumped the shark (and I'm still enjoying it immensely at book six, personally), book one is an excellent read.
I'm noticing that I have given fantasy a great deal of space on this list, which should indicate how fond of it I have been in the past. The Eye of the World provides solid high fantasy in the tradition of Tolkien, and Jordan's world is enormous. I found his writing to contain an excellent mix of borrowed elements common to all fantasy and his own highly-original ideas. This series contains some fascinating elements which lead to exciting developments from the beginning of the first book. The Eye of the World, despite its length, is a very absorbing read, full of suspense, action, and some very unexpected twists. It is both satisfying by itself and an excellent primer for the later books.
City Boy (Herman Wouk) - This work about a "Bronx Tom Sawyer" spins the hilarious and often touching tale of Herbie Bookbinder, an urban kid, and his adventures, misadventures and wild escapades on the street, in school, in the countryside, always in pursuit of Lucille, a heartless redhead personifying all the girls who torment and fascinate pubescent lads of eleven.
I read City Boy twice in a single summer, directly after I had graduated from high school, and was highly entertained both times. Herbie's story is by turns nostalgically poignant, side-splittingly hilarious, and painfully suspenseful. And through it all, I was captivated by the rise and fall of Herbie's fortunes, participating vicariously in his adventures and misadventures. It's no wonder this book won the Pulitzer Prize. The grand money-making scheme he devises while at summer camp, the manner in which he carries it out (which occupies a significant portion of the story), and the ultimate result of the whole experience had me in stitches and on pins and needles at the same time. That may not sound very pleasant, but I assure you it was.
The Princess Bride (William Goldman) - Westley, handsome farm boy who risks death and much, much worse for the woman he loves; Inigo, the Spanish swordsman who lives only to avenge his father's death; Fezzik, the Turk, the gentlest giant ever to have uprooted a tree with his bare hands; Vizzini, the evil Sicilian, with a mind so keen he's foiled by his own perfect logic; Prince Humperdinck, the eviler ruler of Guilder, who has an insatiable thirst for war; Count Rugen, the evilest man of all, who thrives on the excruciating pain of others; Miracle Max, who can raise the dead (kind of); The Dread Pirate Roberts, supreme looter and plunderer of the high seas; and, of course, Buttercup, the princess bride, the most perfect, beautiful woman in the history of the world. From the Cliffs of Insanity through the Fire Swamp and down into the Zoo of Death, this incredible journey and brilliant tale is peppered with strange beasties monstrous and gentle, and memorable surprises both terrible and sublime.
Everyone's seen the movie, not so many have read the book. Yet I can assure everyone that the book is every bit as worthwhile (and in some ways more so) as its cinematic counterpart. The characters and situations of The Princess Bride are unforgettable, and hardly need explaining here. However, the most amazing aspect of the book is the way in which it operates as both the ultimate fairy tale and as a satire on all other fairy tales.
The author, William Goldman, pretends that the book is a condensation, a "good-parts version," of a much longer work by a fictional author named S. Morgenstern. Goldman constructs a very elaborate autobiographical portrait of the books impact on his own life (in much the same way I have done with some of these books, but longer and more developed) and maintains his fiction so thoroughly that I was completely taken in until I had finished the entire thing. The story is written in a charmingly tongue-in-cheek style, and Goldman interjects frequently with explanations and justifications regarding what portions of the unabridged version of the story he has removed and why he chose to remove them (interrupting the flow much as the grandfather and grandson do in the movie version). The total effect produces one of the most original and memorable reading experiences that I have run across.
To be continued . . .
December 03, 2005
The Top Fifty, Part VI
Till We Have Faces (C. S. Lewis) - This is the timeless tale of two mortal princesses — one beautiful and one unattractive — and of the struggle between sacred and profane love. A reworking of the classical Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, it is the story of Orual, Psyche's embittered and ugly older sister, who possessively and harmfully loves Psyche. Much to Orual's frustrations, Psyche is loved by Cupid, the god of love himself, setting the troubled Orual on a path of moral development. Set against the backdrop of Glome, a barbaric, pre-Christian world, Orual's struggles are illuminated as she learns that we cannot understand the intent of the gods "till we have faces" and sincerity in our souls and selves.
C. S. Lewis wrote a lot of great books, and of course The Chronicles of Narnia were the favorites of my younger days and still rank very highly. Nevertheless, I consider this to be the best book Lewis ever wrote. It has a level of depth and maturity that his other fiction doesn't, and there is the added bonus of an extremely absorbing narrative which is naturally absent from his nonfiction theological works.
I've read this book three times now, always for a class, but always with great pleasure: first in about 9th grade (I think), second for the Inklings course I took during the fall of my sophomore year at LeTourneau, and most recently for a presentation and paper for my C. S. Lewis class. Each reading has provided me with a new angle of approach, and I am sure that they are many left to discover. Orual's story in part one is as exciting and suspenseful as anyone could wish for, and her epiphany in part two is one of Lewis's most emotionally and spiritually impacting passages, no matter how many times you've already read it.
Mila 18 (Leon Uris) - It was a time of crisis, a time of tragedy--and a time of transcendent courage and determination. This novel is set in the midst of the uprising that defied Nazi tyranny, as the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto boldly met Wehrmacht tanks with homemade weapons and bare fists in a heroic effort to counter continued deportations to death camps.
I first discovered Leon Uris when I read Exodus, his novel of the tumultuous founding of the nation of Israel. After that I couldn't get enough of his historical fiction for awhile. I read Armageddon (The Berlin Airlift), Mitla Pass (The Six-Day War), QB VII (A British court case related to Nazi war crimes), and Mila 18 (The Warsaw Ghetto during World War II). Uris has a fascinating manner of making his fictional characters completely genuine by not only developing their personalities and personal histories, but giving them a fleshed-out past that goes back for generations. It is not uncommon for the story to digress for 50 to 100 pages while we get a fascinating and compelling account of the lives of the main characters' parents and grandparents. This is particularly important because his best work is centered around the Jews, where heritage is crucial. Leon Uris, even before Fiddler on the Roof introduced me to Jewish life in tsarist Russia, pogroms and all.
Mila 18 is an astoundingly moving read, where we know from the outset that most or all of the characters are doomed. It may be morbid of me (although I don't think that's it), but I never get tired of stories which treat on the contrasting depravity of Nazi Germany and the courage and fortitude of their victims during the Holocaust.
The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury) - In these connected, chronological short stories are recorded the chronicles of Earth's settlement of the fourth world from the sun. Mars is a place of hope, dreams and metaphor - of crystal pillars and fossil seas - where a fine dust settles on the great, empty cities of a silently destroyed civilization. It is here the invaders have come to despoil and commercialize, to grow and to learn - first a trickle, then a torrent, rushing from a world with no future toward a promise of tomorrow. The Earthman conquers Mars . . . and then is conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race.
Who cares if Bradbury writes of breathable air on Mars, an enormous and ancient telepathic civilization, or colonizing another planet beginning before the year 2000? That The Martian Chronicles has left the realm of science fiction and entered the realm of pure fantasy after several decades does not detract from the rich, deep quality of Bradbury's prose, or the power and fascination of his short stories. Fahrenheit 451 is the Bradbury book that everyone reads, but his best work, I think, is in his collections of short stories, most notably this one, The October Country and The Illustrated Man (not to ignore his beautiful novel Something Wicked This Way Comes).
Anyway, returning to the work at hand, the stories in this book embrace a broad range. There are funny stories, tragic stories, mystery and suspense stories, just plain weird stories . . . etc. The total effect produces a very satisfying and memorable experience, and I have revisited and even retold individual favorites from the collection a number of times.
A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula K. LeGuin) - Ged was the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, but once he was called Sparrowhawk, a reckless youth, hungry for power and knowledge, who tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. Sparrowhawk becomes apprentice to a Master Wizard; but impatience to learn faster takes him far from home to Roke Island, where he enters the School for Wizards. As a student of magic, Sparrowhawk exceeds his years in accomplishment, but pride and jealousy drive the boy to try certain dangerous powers too soon. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death's threshold to restore the balance.
I am quoted as having once said: "There are women who can write [high fantasy] and I'm sure I can think of one if I sit here long enough." The quote arose from a discussion of a particularly horrible fantasy short story I had been reading, by a female author, in which the main character (among other things) wandered around firing a longbow "from the hip." That's still one of the most asinine things I've ever seen in print, but it doesn't forgive the fact that I sat there for quite some time and didn't immediately come up with Ursula K. LeGuin, a shining beacon of the genre.
I snagged A Wizard of Earthsea on a whim from a hole-in-the-wall used bookstore in Antigua, Guatemala for Q19 (slightly less than $3 at the time), and proceeded to devour it that afternoon. The style and flow of LeGuin's writing is indescribably serene and beautiful. The world of her Earthsea series is a fascinating one, consisting of the Archipelago, hundreds of islands of all sizes scattered across thousands of miles and populated by all manner of peoples and cultures (and some dragons). There are no epic journeys by land in Earthsea, for there are no land masses large enough. Virtually all travel is by sea.
The plot of A Wizard of Earthsea also captivated me. I was often frustrated during The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings because Gandalf appears out of nowhere with no background or history, and often wanders away on dark and mysterious errands which the reader isn't allowed to know about. LeGuin's book is the exact opposite of this. The entire story follows the wizard character through his early life and training and on to his first great quest: to track and defeat the shadow he himself unleashed.
And this is only the first of six Earthsea books (although two had not yet been published when I discovered the series). LeGuin's other work is worth checking out as well, although I haven't read nearly all of it. Some of her books can be a bit hard to find, and others I just haven't gotten around to reading yet. Her science fiction is excellent, and her book Rocannon's World is a close second behind A Wizard of Earthsea.
The Icarus Hunt (Timothy Zahn) - Independent space shipper (smuggler) Jordan McKell accepts a contract to deliver a sealed cargo to Earth aboard a ship of unknown origin and dubious quality. After the suspicious death of a crew member and several attempts to "acquire" his cargo, McKell realizes that he has become the center of a conspiracy that pits him against the powerful race of aliens who control galactic trade and aspire to much more. With everyone in the galaxy looking for the Icarus, and an unknown saboteur amongst the crew, McKell begins to suspect that whatever he is caring may have the power to change the course of human history.
The Icarus Hunt is my self-indulgent (okay, who am I kidding? the whole list is self-indulgent) nod in the direction of pulpy, action-packed, contemporary science fiction. I read it during the first summer (of two) that I spent in Colorado Springs with my good friend Andy Winger . . . in fact, we read it concurrently, a chunk at a time, and had a grand time trying to figure out all of its twists and turns along the way.
Timothy Zahn is a fantastic author, and I first discovered him through the Star Wars books he had written (five at the time, if memory serves). I have since read eight or nine of his non-Star Wars books, with a few more waiting in the wings. No other sci-fi author that I have encountered has come up with more different original ideas than Zahn has. Almost every one of his books begins from scratch with a new vision of the galaxy. Once it was a world where all humans had extraordinary telekinetic powers . . . until the age of 12. Another time it was a black hole which emitted quantum particles that compel people to act ethically. A third book has humans as the late-comers to interstellar travel relegated to colonizing the few low-resource planets left . . . only to find themselves in possession of one that contains priceless ancient technologies buried beneath its surface.
But I digress. The Icarus Hunt is by far my favorite of Zahn's books, obviously, and I've made a number of people read it since I first completed it. Intricate plot twists fly successively thicker and faster as the story builds to a fever pitch, culminating in a climax which does not disappoint. With all this going for it, plus excellent characters and fun writing, this book was a must for my list.
To be continued . . .
December 01, 2005
The Top Fifty, Part V
Cheaper by the Dozen (Ernestine G. Carey & Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr.) - No growing pains have ever been more hilarious than those suffered loudly by the riotous Gilbreth clan. First, there are a dozen red-haired, freckle-faced kids to contend with. Then there's Dad, a famous efficiency expert who believes a family can be run just like a factory. And there's Mother, his partner in everything except discipline. How they all survive such escapades as forgetting Frank, Jr., in a roadside restaurant, going on a first date with Dad in the backseat, or having their tonsils removed en masse will keep you in stitches.
Seriously, this book will make you laugh. It's hilarious. Before there was the crappy movie starring Steve Martin and Hillary Duff and a crappy sequel to said crappy movie, there was the great original. This book provides another example of my affinity for anecdotal-type stories . . . especially true ones (although so long as its a good story, I don't really care about veracity so much). I honestly can't say whether members of large families would find it humorous or not, but I know that I (not having an enormous family, but being familiar with several) do. And, to the best of my knowledge this is an accurate portrayal of the environment surrounding such . . . ummm . . . units. I'm trying to be tactful here, because I am marrying into a large family. Suffice to say, some of the stories in this book are reminiscent of stories my fiancée has related from her youth. However, let me assure the world that it is no insult to anyone to be compared to the charming Gilbreths.
The Flames of Rome (Paul L. Maier) - The sensuality and excesses of first-century Rome, the treacherous and deadly ploys of imperial politics, the shocking persecution of early Christians by a power-mad emperor - Maier faithfully reconstructs the dramatic conflicts preceding and following the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64 through the experiences of a family of Roman nobility caught up in the political and religious clashes of the world's capital. The family of Flavius Sabinus, mayor of Rome under Nero, was among the first crucial converts to Christianity, and this novel recounts "the rest of the story" following the book of Acts.
This is probably the only book on my list that might fall into the category of "contemporary Christian fiction," and I am hesitant to call it that because of all of the negative connotations associated with that genre. In other words, I don't like to say that that is what this is, because this actually doesn't suck. I really need to go back and reread it in light of some of my Bible classes (most notably "Social Backgrounds of the New Testament") and in light of Historiography, but to the best of my rememberance it does not fall prey to any of the glaring fallacies often common to religious historical fiction.
Even if it does, and I just don't remember, it is so compellingly written that it easily falls into the realm of perennial classics like Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis . . . and I actually prefer it to both of those, personally. This was probably the book that first truly interested me in the history of the Roman Empire, and it gave me a solid grasp on the details of Nero's reign. It is both exciting and moving, and I highly recommend it.
Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell) - An epic, romanticized story about the American Civil War from the point of view of the Confederacy. In particular it is the story of Scarlett O'Hara, a headstrong Southern belle who survives the hardships of the war and afterwards manages to establish a successful business by capitalizing on the struggle to rebuild the South. Throughout the book she is motivated by her unfulfilled love for Ashley Wilkes, an honorable man who is happily married. More than this, though, it is a sweeping story of tangled passions and the rare courage of a group of people in Atlanta during and after the Civil War.
Speaking of Historiography, Gone With the Wind is not a book that I enjoy because it's good or accurate history (it's not), but because it's a good story, well-written, and a cultural icon. Gone With the Wind may not be solid history, but it is very solid myth. Granted, I didn't realize this when I first read it, but I think it was for that reason that it resonated with me. I would probably hesitate to call it literature per se, but it is definitely a classic work of the South and well worth reading by any who enjoy things from that region.
For me, Gone With the Wind (more than any of the other highly romanticized Southern works of its type) transcends the petty prejudices and jaundiced perspectives of history that skew lesser works beyond the tolerance of a modern audience. This is because it is about a particular character that can be identified with universally. Scarlett O'Hara is not a lost vision of perfection from the past, but strong survivor in the present who maintains a hope for the future right up until the final lines of the book. For that reason, I think the novel has survived and will continue to survive as a classic favorite in a way that a work like, say, The Clansman could never hope to match.
Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë) - Orphaned into the household of her Aunt Reed at Gateshead, subject to the cruel regime at Lowood charity school, Jane Eyre none the less emerges unbroken in spirit and integrity. How she takes up the post of governess at Thornfield Hall, meets and loves Mr Rochester and discovers the impediment to their lawful marriage are elements in a story that transcends melodrama to portray a woman's passionate search for a wider and richer life than that traditionally accorded to her sex in Victorian society.
Almost the only kind of romance novel (of the love story type) that I read and enjoy is the kind which has the word "Gothic" in front of it as a modifier. Jane Eyre is enthralling and creepy in a way peculiar to the great Victorian authors, with their familiarity with death, insanity, and cruelty. Sometimes they seem melancholy even when they and their characters are most happy and at peace. Jane herself is among the most endearing narrators in literature, and her story is almost impossible to stop reading. I read both this and the next book for school during the same year, and I remember both of them providing me with hours of quiet bliss over the course of entire afternoons and evenings during which I barely shifted from my bed or the couch.
David Copperfield (Charles Dickens) - Fervently embraces the comic delights, tender warmth, and tragic horrors of childhood, it is a classic tale of growing up, the enchanting story of an orphan discovering life and love in an indifferent adult world. Persecuted by his wrathful stepfather, Mr. Murdstone; deceived by his boyhood idol, the callous, charming Steerforth; driven into mortal combat with the sniveling clerk Uriah Heep; and hurled, pell-mell, into a blizzard of infatuation with the adorably dim-witted Dora, he survives the worst--and the best--with inimitable style, his bafflement turning to self-awareness and his heart growing ever more disciplined and true.
Speaking of great Victorian works and endearing narrators, David Copperfield is my favorite Dickens book. It is very long, and I very much wished (when I read it) that it was a good deal longer. I was completely drawn in by the experiences of the main character . . . indeed by all of the characters. Dickens, of course, has a special flair for creating iconic and memorable personalities to populate his thick novels. Like Jane Eyre, and a few of the other books I have discussed, I have a soft spot for David Copperfield partially because it is a coming-of-age story. And its length makes it something I can really sink my teeth into (as with three of the other four books I just discussed). Long can be bad . . . but often it's really good.
To be continued . . .