April 30, 2006
Civil Rights South
It is a point of continual astonishment to me that, after over two centuries of prejudice, racial tension, and unequal treatment of blacks in one of the most consistently conservative and stubborn societies in modern history, after a few years the civil rights movement essentially succeeded in turning the South around 180 degrees. Even reading the details in the readings from this week, I find it difficult to believe that the event actually happened. The response was so violent, so vehement, so deeply entrenched in the very identity of the South, that it hardly seems possible that it should have transpired.
Our readings for the week were exceptionally short, drawn from three sources: “The Preconditions for Racial Change” by Harvard Sitkoff, “The Struggle for Civil Rights” by Doug McAdam, and the chapter on Martin Luther King, Jr. from Liberalism and Its Challengers by Alonzo L. Hamby.
Sitkoff’s essay discusses some of the factors that made it possible: economically, African Americans were far better off after World War II, making them far more difficult to marginalize. In addition, the advent of mass communication, particularly the television, piped the racial struggle directly into the living rooms of black people, and they reacted en masse. Additionally, now that the United States was one of two bona fide world powers, a stricter national adherence to the principles of equality inherent in a democracy became absolutely crucial in allowing the US to maintain credibility. In short, it was an issue of national security. A number of other new factors leapt into the mix after World War II, as well. Many people suddenly became very anxious to avoid comparisons with the horrific example of the Nazis. And many scientific theories about differences between the races, which had previously been used to justify segregation, simply lost their credibility.
The McAdam’s piece chronicles the pro-civil rights trials and efforts of members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the summer of 1964, “Freedom Summer.” Hundreds of volunteers, made up largely of Northern college students, ventured to Mississippi to conduct a voter registration drive. The students taught classes, stayed with black families, and frequently confronted the local whites. Their eyewitness accounts of what they saw and experienced during their time there is riveting.
They encountered squalid conditions beyond imagining, and a great deal of opposition and hardship. A few of them lost their lives, and (of course) many more were gravely threatened, even harassed and falsely imprisoned by police. While the last piece showed how many factors contributed to the positive change which took place, this piece shows how difficult it still was to effect change. The will shown by the students involved in Freedom Summer is inspiring, and well worth revisiting. However, it also shows (in case the previous article seemed to show otherwise) that this was perhaps one of the most difficult changes that the region ever faced, and it still has not, in many ways, been achieved.
The final selection, regarding Martin Luther King, Jr., was interesting for one reason in particular. I have encountered a number of historical figures that conservatives don’t seem to be able to deal with, but I’ve never really considered one that liberals don’t quite know how to handle. This particular author seemed to have great difficulty reconciling King’s political activity with his deep faith. In particular, he almost deals with it as a psychosis induced by a troubled upbringing (troubled because of religion). He stresses over and over again a supposed guilt complex which he perceives in King’s life, as well as what he sees as a messiah complex. From everything I have read by and about the man, Hamby completely misses the point. It’s sad that things so often went precisely the other way in the South, but it is entirely appropriate that a Christian did, in fact, lead the charge for civil rights.
People looking in from the outside simply don’t get that, and I can’t imagine how . . . unless it’s from watching the example provided by Christians themselves. This, I firmly believe, is precisely what it is. It’s rather a disturbing thought, actually, but perhaps my own surprise at the ability of the South to actually allow a successful civil rights movement to transpire is similar to Hamby’s apparent surprise that a Christian was one of its leaders. It’s always a shock when certain types of people who ought to know better but generally don’t actually begin to behave out of character.
April 29, 2006
New South, Old Problems
The South from the 1880s through the early 1920s must have presented quite the scene. It is a South of conflict and contradiction, ignorance and tradition, nostalgia and progress. It is the South that Mencken called "benighted" and many others called "new" (although both terms are misleading).
Our readings on this period were from Origins of the New South: 1877-1913 by C. Vann Woodward and The Promise of the New South by Edward L. Ayers. Woodward addressed the period in fairly general terms, covering the dull stuff (politics, industry, the economy) more than the Ayers selection. The chapters I have from Ayers cover the three areas of (to my mind) greatest interest about the South: race, faith, and literature.
Woodward's piece confused me when I first started reading because it seemed to be saying that the South left its past entirely behind after Reconstruction. He focused on the march of progress, the focus on creating a New South, building up industry, etc. The South he described seemed like a polar opposite of the South I've been studying. Then, about a dozen pages in, I started finding statements like the following:
"One of the most significant inventions of the New South was the 'Old South.'"
"Only then, when the movement was taken into custody by Southern Womanhood, did the cult of the Lost Cause assume a religious character."
By now I was on much more familiar ground. It is familiar, of course, because I've discussed it before. The Old South as we often think of it is entirely a creation of the post-Civil War generation, North as much as South. The Yankee became every bit as infatuated with the plantation myth of Southern history as the Southerners themselves. But, at the same time, this nostalgia and backward-thinking co-existed peacefully with the spirit of progress and industry. Some of the most prominent spokesmen of the New South, in fact, claimed that the spirit of the new age was no different from that of the old. Woodward notes one man stating in 1895 that the "New South" was "simply a revival of the South as it existed thirty-five years ago." In some ways, he may have been right, but I don't think they were the ways he meant.
I recall that it was noted in our discussion of this period that we found "pretty much what we'd expect" from the reading. This was probably in reference to race relations in the Jim Crow South. Ayes invests a great deal of attention in the racial tensions involved in train travel (which, according to Wilson, still has repercussions in train travel today).
One of the largest prevailing issues, it seems, (and one that white people had little control over) was whether the South was better off with or without black people. Many wished they would go somewhere . . . anywhere: Mexico, Africa, the North. Planters and others who employed black laborers, on the other hand, were far from comfortable with the idea of a mass exodus.
Meanwhile, race relations continued to smolder, ready to blaze up at any moment around a number of flashpoints, particularly miscegenation. Nothing could provoke a lynching faster than the hint of a black "insult" to a white woman. And yet, whites ironically blamed blacks for almost all of the problems of the South: violence, alcoholism, poverty, etc. Multiple generations of white women grew up in terror of black men, while for their part, the black men knew how little it might take to place them in a position to be tortured and killed. It was, as Ayers says, "a poisonous atmosphere."
However, in direct contrast to heightened violence and racism, the South remained by far the most devoutly religious region in the United States. Before the Civil War, whites and blacks often worshipped together, and there is at least one account of a black slave who served as the well-loved minister for every white planter in the area. The era after the Civil War and Reconstruction, of course, saw the two races going their separate ways in worship as in everything else.
During this time (catching the spirit of Victorian England at the tail-end of it) Southerners began to out-Puritan even the Puritans, restricting such lascivious practices as dancing and playing cards. Sharing strict religious observance, the chief difference between turn-of-the-century Southerners and New England Puritans of the past was the intolerance for open, intellectual discourse of the former group. The Southern strain of religion incorporated legalistic adherence to specific doctrines, practices, and behaviors with strong emotionalism fervor.
This bizarre blend of religious fanaticism and racist violence seeped its way into the "literature" of the period as well. Literature, in this case, is a term loosely applied, for Southern writers during this time produced virtually nothing of lasting literary value. Joel Chandler Harris produced his Uncle Remus Stories, which spawned an entire genre of dialectic literature, and Ellen Glasgow began to lay the foundation for the decades ahead.
Aside from these two, however, the literature was characterized by writers such as Thomas Nelson Page and Thomas Dixon, Jr. The former churned out dozens of "historical" novels between 1884 and 1914, most set in the Old South and all consisting of (as Oscar Wilde might say) "more than usually revolting sentimentality." The latter produced equally romanticized visions of "history," but laced them with an even more pronounced flavor of white supremacy.
Interestingly, these novels of dubious literary value were what established the national vogue of Southern literature which would last almost unfalteringly for nearly a century, and might even be said to continue through the present day. After the brief popularity enjoyed by Western literature in the 1870s had begun to fade, Southern literature quickly stepped in to satisfy the public's appetite for regional flavor. Novelists, far more than any historians, were responsible for the rise of the Dunning school of Reconstruction history in the public mind.
The South between Reconstruction and the Great Depression was the South of all our stereotypes and defamatory assessments, but it did not simply come into existence unprovoked. It was the product of a natural reaction by its people to twenty years of extraordinarily tumultuous events, and should be judged on that basis alone. Southern history up to this point had been characterized by an incredible imbalance: in race relations, in how the rest of the country saw it, in haw it saw itself.
Suddenly, historical forces shifted in another direction, but failed to produce balance, essentially leaving the people of the South to their own devices as far as attempting to reconstruct some sort of balance they could live with (but one which could not be allowed to take the form it had in the past). They cannot be entirely blamed if they failed to produce a reasonable system out of the chaos of their past.
Planning a wedding is like having a nightmare where you are forced to plan a nightmare for yourself. All of your friends and family and the people involved gather around and offer suggestions and seem to think that you ought to be getting everything just right, and all you can think is "I'm planning a freaking NIGHTMARE here! Even if it's the best nightmare in human history, it's still . . . y'know, a nightmare! Are you people insane?" But of course they are, because this is a dream, and nothing is supposed to make sense. And still they clamor on as if they think I'm going to enjoy this . . .
Six days 'til nightmare, seven days 'til morning.
April 28, 2006
I just got out of my last class as an undergraduate college student. It was Intro to Political Science with Dr. Johnson. I wore my Che shirt and black leather fedora. I showed up five minutes late. We talked about national security, international relations, and the United Nations. I got my last handout, and my last class assignment was handed back at the end. I got a 100. And then I walked away.
April 27, 2006
Drop whatever you're doing and go here to read Wilson's hilarious rendering of our visit to the Renaissance Festival in Waxahachie. It's quite the funniest thing I've seen today.
A Total Reversal
In Hero Quest and the Holy Grail this week we watched a History Channel documentary called Beyond the Da Vinci Code which purported to examine the authenticity of the history behind Dan Brown's book. In terms of serious scholarship and presentation of its thesis, I found the quality of the program to be very poor. It would have been much better had it not been so obviously made with television viewers, their short attention spans, short-term memory and need for sensationalism, and frequent commercial breaks in mind.
The film was 90 minutes long, and I suspect that nearly two-thirds of that was complete fluff and reiteration. I am fairly certain that I heard explanations of things (which I only really needed to hear once) beaten into the ground seven or eight times before they were let go. The documentary also employed a number of cheap tactics designed to keep viewers watching, which I found insulting partially because they were so transparent, and partially because I had to keep watching regardless.
The program broke down more or less like this: For the first third (more or less) it seemed to be confirming a great deal of the the historical foundation beneath The Da Vinci Code. It spent a great deal of time showing that events might have transpired the way Dan Brown describes them. It also referenced Brown's direct source: a book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail that was written in 1982 by three hack amateur historians in search of a sensation.
The documentary repeatedly refers to it as, basically, a non-fiction version of The Da Vinci Code. This is patently ridiculous, as its authors approached their subject with the rallying cry that their sole intention was to show that a certain sequence of events was possible, not to prove anything one way or the other. The silliness of the whole thing was underscored when one of the authors of the book appeared in the documentary looking, quite literally, like he would be more comfortable on a Harley than in a library. He sported a mullet, handlebar mustache, large sunglasses (indoors), leather jacket, and lit cigarette.
Finally paying their dues, the documentary spent its second third discrediting selected portions of The Da Vinci Code as less than accurate. Basically, they niggle at details, but leaving the overall premise mostly intact. Not until the third portion of the program did they finally bring out the big guns and essentially shred the entire foundation of the book. I was left feeling that my time had been wasted during the first two-thirds of the program while they declared that the pinnacle and middle-sections of Dan Brown's tower were intact, while knowing all the while that there was nothing holding any of it aloft.
However, I noticed one not-so-subtle impression that the documentary left behind. Near the end, one of the "experts" declared that Brown's history becomes steadily more accurate the farther back in history he goes. The same guy declared unequivocally that the person closest to Jesus in Da Vinci's The Last Supper is indeed a woman (which seems quite far from clear to me). This was left alone as conclusive in itself. During the initial portion of the program, a strong piece of evidence (considered within the context in which it was presented) was sprung upon us, seeming to confirm the program's most radical assertion, and was then left hanging.
In other words, despite eroding away most or all of the books historical facts, the documentary left one of Dan Brown's assertions almost completely alone, all but coming out and declaring it to be the probable historical truth. The fallacies they discredited are too legion and obvious to mention here, so much so that the History Channel would have looked far more intelligent had they begun by discrediting them rather than pretending their might be something to them. Nevertheless, Beyond the Da Vinci Code seems to have arrived at the conclusion that, whatever else may be true or false in the book, it is highly likely that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and fathered a daughter by her. His descendants may walk among us today.
Armed with this information, I have a pretty good idea of where the book is going now, I think. The discovery of the Grail will bring with it, not salvation, spiritual illumination, or the remembrance of Christ through the partaking of Holy Communion, but rather a repudiation of all that these things assert and stand for. The discovery of the Holy Grail will bring enlightenment, yes. But it will not be Christian enlightenment as in the Middle Ages, nor even simple areligious spiritual enlightenment as in The Fisher King. The illumination of completing a Grail quest in The Da Vinci Code has the effect of freeing the hero from the wool of historical lies that have been pulled before the eyes of humanity for the past 2000 years.
I am now more or less halfway through Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and I'm ready to talk some about it. Just a personal observation, the book bears out my theory that popular adult fiction is much dumber than comparably popular children's literature. Brown has a tin ear for dialogue, stereotypes pouring out of his ears, and no respect for facts. As a side note, I wouldn't have a real problem with that (this being a work of fiction and all), if he weren't so obviously trying to pretend that some of this is actually legitimate. However, I'd best move on lest I spend all my time complaining. Suffice to say that, despite its numerous flaws, my reading thus far has not been devoid of enjoyment.
The story pits agents of Opus Dei, an extremely conservative and very powerful Catholic organization with a shadowy agenda (which actually exists, but is, of course, misrepresented here), against American university professor Robert Langdon and French cryptographer Sophie Neveu in a race for the Holy Grail and the explosive 2,000-year old secrets that lie behind it. Langdon and Sophie have been thrown together when they meet at a murder scene. The curator of the Louvre has been murdered, Sophie is aiding the investigation, and Langdon is the prime suspect.
When they discover that the curator was the head of the ultra-secret ancient society known as the Priory of Sion (of which Leonardo Da Vinci was once a member), and that he left behind a trail of cryptic clues, they join forces and become fugitives of justice in the race to be the first to break the code.
So far, little to no mention has been made of any of the traditional Grail lore, and I cannot discern any obvious parallels between the characters and situations and any of the legends we have studied. I suspect that this book will ultimately be redefining everything we know about the Holy Grail, and that the ground we have already covered in class will not play much of a role in this particular Grail quest.
Actually, a great deal of what I have read already flies directly in the face of tradition. Brown is far from sympathetic to Catholicism, and whatever happens in the final denouement, I doubt it will involve a return to faith or the Church. Also, there is a great deal of emphasis on the sacred feminine and Christianity's eradication of it. We have thrown off the balance, Brown asserts, through an insistence on male dominance over equality between the sexes (an ideal state supposedly enjoyed by the ancient pagans . . . yeah, right). He makes a good point about the traditional Grail stories, though. Women don't ever come off very well in them. At best they are distractions from the goal, at worst they are devils in disguise. In The Da Vinci Code, of course, one of the primary seekers after the Grail is a woman.
The key question is, what will the discovery of the Grail bring with it for Sophie and Langdon? What will they get out of it, and how will that be different from what those who have completed the quest received in the rest of the literature?
The Mystery of the Godless Grail Quest
The Fisher King is a movie I'd never heard of before I took Hero Quest and the Holy Grail. I find this surprising on the one hand, because it's actually a very good movie. But on the other hand, some of the content, and the general weirdness of various scenes remind me that it is certainly not a movie for everyone. Nevertheless, it takes a very intriguing concept and setting and melds it with the general milieu of the Grail legends to produce a thought-provoking, moving movie experience. As a side-note, though, I wouldn't have believed last semester that a course about the Holy Grail would involve watching two movies starring Robin Williams, but no Monty Python (although this film was directed by Terry Gilliam).
The film is about a radio shock jock, Jack, (played by Jeff Bridges) who unintentionally encourages one of his listeners to go on a shooting spree in an expensive restaurant. His career falls apart around him, and he becomes depressed and suicidal, moving in with a girlfriend who lives in New York City in a small apartment above the tiny video rental store she owns. Driven to the brink of suicide one night, he is attacked by a couple of thugs and rescued by an insane homeless man named Parry (Robin Williams). Parry, it turns out, is a former college professor who lost his grip on reality when his wife was killed by the shooter in the restaurant.
The remainder of the movie is about Jack's attempts to redeem himself by helping Parry, and Parry's consuming quest to locate the Holy Grail (which he believes is being kept by a reclusive billionaire within a castle in NYC). Both men require healing, and both learn a lot along the way. Jack hooks Parry up with the girl of his dreams, Parry helps Jack see the value of his own relationships, and so forth.
The direct parallels with "The Story of the Grail" are even more overt here than in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Parry is very clearly a shortened form of the name "Perceval" and the character bears this out with his extremely simply outlook on life. His fixation is on the Holy Grail. Everytime he encounters some sort of psychological trigger to his past life, he is traumatized by terrifying visions of a red knight coming for him. When Jack first dresses him up a bit to make him look presentable, he keeps his trashy street clothes on underneath (just as the other Perceval puts his first set of armor on over his normal clothing, refusing to take it off).
When I first saw Jack wandering the streets of New York City, I thought to myself, "urban wasteland." The rural wasteland of the original Grail stories has been replaced with a bleak cityscape full of cold asphalt and concrete and littered with garbage and graffiti. Significantly, in the closing moments of the movie, Jack and Parry are seen lying out in the midst of a green field in Central Park, almost as though they have restored the grime around them to beauty and fertility once again.
As for the role of the Fisher King himself, there are many potential candidates to fill the spot. Parry and Jack are both emotionally wounded and need healing that they cannot seem to find anywhere else. Jack believes he is cured before he actually is (before he finds the Grail) and it takes a remission from Parry to galvanize him into completing the quest all the way. Once he has found the Grail he realizes that he cannot simply return to his old life as if nothing had happened to him in the interim. His wound was deeper and stretched farther back than the incident with the shooter. There was something fundamentally wrong with his worldview that must be fixed, and Jack is a better person for it.
Parry's wound is of a much more obviously crippling kind, as reflected by his comatose state before Jack seeks out the Grail. Jack thought that he could simply fix a few of the superficial problems in Parry's life in order to fix all of it, but only the drastic failure of this strategy convinces him that he must seek out the Holy Grail, however silly he thinks it is.
Finally, almost as though by accident, the billionaire seems to be a sort of Fisher King figure as well. He sits in his castle, hidden from the world, and when Jack breaks in he finds him dying with no one around to save him. Jack sets off the alarm and brings help, saving the man's life. He is a third figure (and perhaps the closest to a literal Fisher King) that can stand in for that character, healed by the successful completion of the Grail quest.
With very little imaginative effort on the part of the viewer, this movie conforms very closely to the Grail tradition in its basic elements, reimagining things just enough to keep it all interesting. But the most fundamental question that I am learning to ask of any Grail story is: What is the nature of the reward given for successful completion of a Grail quest?
In this case, there is certainly an element of spiritual healing, but it is also emotional and psychological healing (two elements which wouldn't have received a great deal of attention in the Middle Ages). Also, the healing and restoration that the Grail brings with it is really no longer attached to Christianity at all, except very vaguely. It certainly is no longer connected to the taking of communion in any way, and in fact, the Grail itself in the movie is not the literal Holy Grail, but an unrelated trophy of no real value. It is merely the idea of the Grail that brings healing, because the real, physical object presumably no longer exists, and has no inherent worth even if it did. The spirituality surrounding the Grail is still present, but it now lacks a source or a purpose. What will be the next step in this chain?
You are 88% true Southern!
|You are pure belle or gentleman! You know your Jones Soda, Nehi and RC colas, your Moon Pies and sweet potato pie; you'd absolutely die without air conditioners in the summer, and you've seen Steel Magnolias and Fried Green Tomatoes (or read the book!). Your grandmother lives in an antebellum home and has a cook who makes the best fried chicken and asparagus casserole and summer squash and everything else in the world. And you know the taste of honeysuckle and the feel of grass between your toes. You are blessed.|
|My test tracked 1 variable How you compared to other people your age and gender:|
|Link: The Southern-ness Test written by gwennykate on Ok Cupid, home of the 32-Type Dating Test|
It's not a very good quiz, actually, but it was fun. Relies too heavily on all-but-outdated stereotypes, and doesn't properly account for multiple types of Southerners. It takes all of the prototypes and mixes and matches characteristics from each.
Anyway . . . I'm still pretty Southern. And this reminds me: I need to go to Vicksburg this summer.
April 26, 2006
Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme
Our Grail class made a pilgrimage to the Scarborough Faire Renaissance Festival a few Saturdays ago to spend a day in the period we've been studying (sort of). Standing around while Dr. Watson picked up our tickets at the window, Wilson and I could already see a hint of the diversity we would be encountering pouring through the gates. The costumes ranged from wonderfully authentic to scandalously authentic to bizarre conglomeration to simply silly. I was envious of the guys sporting cavalier hats with ample plumage, sympathetic to the plight of large-chested women who (apparently) "could barely afford enough material to cover their breasts," and generally disdainful of those who seemed to be attempting some sort of Ren/Goth conglomeration. Emo just isn't medieval. Sorry.
Wandering through the gates, I wound up in company with Wilson, Rachel, and Rachel's friend Alyssa (who is also in the class). Wilson and I wanted to find ourselves some good hats, and look at cool things. Rachel and Alyssa wanted to look at boring things. Tension is essential to drive action, so I knew it would be an exciting day.
There was an additional ulterior motive behind the apparent aimlessness of our fair exploration, however. Wilson and I knew that there was more to be had at Scarborough than the novelty of the garb, jousting, and the like. Always avid seekers of illumination in any form we can get it, we resolved to locate the Holy Grail and make off with it, if possible. At the very least it might be worth a few points of extra credit. Arrayed against us was a whole host of devilish foes, both medieval and modern, internal and external, flamboyantly obvious and subtly hidden. In order to locate the Grail, we would have to best them all.
Our very first battle, one we were forced to wage throughout the day, was against the lure of commercialism. Everything was for sale, and everything looked good. There were costumes, trinkets, weapons, props of all shapes, sizes and varieties. Certainly we needed to leave no stone unturned in our attempts to locate the Grail, but it was difficult not to linger extensively over items that had nothing whatsoever to do with our quest. One particularly fiendish shop was full of items that might have included the Grail. Some of them looked very similar to what we were looking for, but we were not fooled. There can be only one Holy Grail.
The second obstacle, which we had foolishly brought with us, was (shall we say) female in nature. Everyone knows that no good can come of interacting with women when one is on a Grail quest, and our own experience was no exception. The girls were a constant distraction, wandering off at the drop of a hat or staring dull things for minutes on end. I, of course, couldn't leave them behind, and it was up to Wilson to show extra fortitude in standing by his companion on the quest instead of sallying forth alone.
The distractions kept coming, next in the form of shiny armor and feats of arms. We wandered off the path to watch the knights at work in the tournament grounds, darting about on horses and spearing things with lances. And, of course, after watching them for a bit, a new temptation made itself known: a test of gluttony. The flesh, in its weakness, demanded sustenance and I was drawn inexorably in the direction of large chunks of delicious white meat hanging off of turkey bones. Just as I finished with that (and my cup of apple cider), Rachel pulled out candy, and we ended up spending a great deal of time at table.
Not to be put off forever, though, we renewed our search with even more fervor after lunch. Wilson was the next to be tested, this time by vanity. He wandered into a hat shop and tried various articles on, checking them in the mirror and trying to decide which one he wanted. By the time all of this was done, the afternoon was wearing on and we were dangerously close to our time of departure.
To make a long story short, we managed to stay one step ahead of the big parade and scuttled into a section of the fair which we had not yet visited. There, in the back corner of a small booth, we found the Holy Grail. It shone like gleaming silver in the sunlight, standing solidly on a wide base with its long, elegant stem flowing upward into the distinctive communion-style "bowl" of the vessel. An attendant noticed our interest and wandered over to tell us about it.
After an ardent and lengthy quest that had lasted through many tests and many hours and consumed our visit to Scarborough Faire, our hopes of retrieving the Holy Grail were finally dashed entirely and with great finality (although we did get to touch it).
You see, he wanted money for it. Lots of money. How very Catholic of him.
April 25, 2006
Galahad in the 20th Century
So, obviously I've seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade a number of times, like everyone else in the world (except, it seems, about three people in my Grail Quest class). This, the third and final Indy flick (until they make the fourth sometime next year), has Indy racing Nazis for the Holy Grail, with his father (whose passion is Grail lore) in tow. It's a great thrill ride, with a fantastic balance of action and comedy and a very solid story holding everything together, and until I took this class, I didn't really see a lot more to it than that.
History, "Indiana Jones" style, might not bear up under close scrutiny, but it generally sounds good on-screen. This is an impressive feat in itself, and I've always liked that about these movies. However, after studying the actual history and legends surrounding the Holy Grail, I figuring something out that I probably should have known automatically. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade isn't about exploring pseudohistory to trace a believable real-world location for the protagonists to discover the Holy Grail at all. It's about reimagining the actual legend of the Grail quest, but setting it in the 1930s.
Once one starts looking for parallels, they begin to sprout like weeds. From the beginning, Indiana Jones himself is being groomed for knighthood. He goes on quests, some of which take years (the successful acquisition of the Cross of Coronado at the beginning). He rescues damsels (sort of). He invades a castle. He jousts (from a motorcycle, no less). He slays a fire-breathing dragon (well, a tank with a really big gun).
And, of course, he achieves the Holy Grail after successfully passing through ordeals which test his humility, his knowledge, and especially his faith. Of course, the story has now entered the 20th century, and it would seem that chastity is no longer required of a knight who seeks the Grail. It's rather a pity, as that, too, would have made a nice parallel. Nevertheless, the point is well-made.
Indy's companions are significant players, as well. Four of them reach the ultimate objective together. There is Sallah, the average guy (Sir Bors), Brody, the simpleton (Sir Perceval), Dr. Henry Jones, the father who is denied entrance to the Grail chamber (Sir Lancelot), and Indy, the son who actually achieves the Grail (Sir Galahad). Interestingly, Brody's character seems much more intelligent in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is possible that his character was deliberately changed to fit the Perceval mold (and, of course, provide some extra comic relief). Once again, though, that sexual impurity thing is really bothering me. The whole thing would fit so much more neatly if Indy hadn't made it with Dr. Schneider, and the movie would just have wound up short a couple of jokes. It just subverts the entire basis of the Galahad character in some ways. In any case, it still seems to fit together very neatly.
Some other connections might include the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword as the various monks and other helpers who appear during the original quest to explain things or point the heroes in a particular direction. Dr. Elsa Schneider is like a conglomeration of all of the women from the Grail legends: she is sexually alluring, but she only serves as a distraction from the Quest. And at worst, she may be a satanic fiend in disguise. Finally, of course, Indy's ultimate immediate purpose for retrieving the Grail is to heal a wound. Dr. Jones becomes the Fisher King at this point, with a deep wound located near the center of his body (though, most likely for the ratings and general sensitivity, not in the loins).
Most importantly, though, is the ultimate reward of the quest. It certainly isn't the Grail (you don't get to keep that), so what do the heroes take away from their experience? Well, it would appear that they achieve the same thing that all of their predecessors have. Not a physical reward, but (as Dr. Henry Jones puts it), "Illumination." Throughout centuries of telling and retelling, that seems to be one of the universal constants. The Grail is simply a tangible metaphor for something else that we cannot actually see, only feel.
One final thought about this particular Grail story: As the story finally enters the 20th century, one very important thing seems to be changing. Dr. Jones gets "illumination" out of discovering the Grail, but (despite the many Christian references in the movie) his newfound knowledge is no longer directly connected to a communion/salvation experience. The beginnings of a paradigm shift are further evident in what is no longer required of knights on the quest: purity. Where will it all lead?
April 24, 2006
Experiencing an Episcopal Eucharist
I had the opportunity recently to partake in "an instructed Eucharist" with Dr. Watson, my classmates from Hero Quest and the Holy Grail, and Rev. Carol Petty, associate rector at Trinity Episcopal Church in Longview. We have been studying the various versions of the legend of the Holy Grail throughout history, and almost all of them involve some sort of Eucharist in a central role. Naturally, Dr. Watson could not offer us a genuine Catholic Eucharist, because we aren't Catholics (with one exception), so he got as close as he could and arranged for us to attend our own service at Trinity Episcopal one Thursday night.
We arrived at the church that evening and were greeted by Rev. Petty, dressed in street clothing. She led us into the sanctuary (I think that's still the term that Episcopals use, but I'm probably going to get a lot of the terminology wrong) and explained various things to us, answered our questions, and prepared us to work our way through a service. We each got a bulletin from the Sunday before, so we could follow along and join in when necessary. Then, Dr. Watson and Rev. Petty went to put on the appropriate vestments so they could lead the service.
I found the service very personally meaningful, as I have when I attend St. Michael's. I enjoy the sense of tradition, the rituals, the heavy reliance on scriptural readings, recitation of the Nicene Creed, and sense of community throughout the service. I grew up attending churches of all kinds, but mostly those of a very informal tradition. I used to think that I liked it like that. Adherence to tradition smacked of legalism, and Christians are freed by grace to approach a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ in whatever manner they wish. The key here is basically freedom; not trying to pin anyone down, not saying that only one way is the right way to do a thing. But I've seen too many people take that and run too far with it, and eventually I got tired of watching.
My experience with the Episcopal Church has been the opposite of what I would have thought years ago. The ritual is not a factor of legalism, and the adherence to tradition is neither blind in its rigidity, nor particularly constraining. In fact, I have found that members of the denomination seem even more free than most of their Protestant brethren. It has given me a new perspective on the idea of "freedom in Christ."
But I digress . . .
The service included readings from the Old Testament, New Testament, Gospels, and Psalms. Dr. Watson preached an abridged version of his sermon from the Sunday before (involving baseball and his brief stint as a Little League umpire), and there was a prayer time. I volunteered to lead one of the responsive readings. All of this led up to the taking of communion. We all climbed up next to the altar and stood around it in a semi-circle while Episcopal communion was explained to us. Then we adjourned to the rail and partook of it together. Trinity uses wafers (St. Mike's uses actual bread) and watered-down wine as the elements, and they are administered by the priest to each individual in turn. I really like that.
Of course, the wine came from a very Grail-like cup, and it took very little imagination to picture what we were doing in the light of the stories we've been reading. I am reminded once again, as when I read de Troyes version of the Grail story, that this quest is really all about spiritual illumination, not the acquisition of a physical artifact. It's strange how often people miss that.
April 23, 2006
More Things Than Are Dreamt of in Your Philosophy
What Dreams May Come is a somewhat insipid story combining Robin Williams, melodrama, and a great deal of very beautiful art direction to create a curious vision of the afterlife. It is about a man named Chris who meets a woman named Annie and falls in love with her. They get married, have two kids, and lose both kids in a car accident when they are teenagers. Annie begins to suffer from depression. Then, Chris is killed in a car accident and is whisked away to heaven where he meets Albert, an old friend, who will guide him in his new life after life. Meanwhile, back on earth, Annie becomes too depressed to cope with life and kills herself, which is a one-way ticket to hell.
Chris has himself a quest: To journey from heaven to hell, rescue his wife from the dark prison of her own mind, and return. His journey falls squarely into the pattern of the monomyth, or hero cycle, outlined by Joseph Campbell. The "call to adventure" comes when Chris hears that his wife is in hell. Albert and The Tracker become his helpers along the way. He crosses the threshold of adventure in a "night-sea journey," taking a boat to hell over stormy waters. There are various tests along the way: Chris makes some startling discoveries, then he has to actually locate Annie, and once he has found her he must make her recognize him and her own situation. The climax of his endeavors results in success, whether we call it an apotheosis, sacred marriage, or elixir theft (with Annie being the elixir), and Annie and Chris fly back across the threshold to heaven.
It is here, I would say, that the monomyth within the movie, and the movie itself, breaks down. Chris has returned to heaven where his adventure began, but he has gained something (his wife . . . actually his whole family) along the way. This is exactly as it should be. However, Chris and Annie then decide to go back and live their lives on earth over again, and the entire movie (which had been operating at times on a very grand, epic, and noteworthy level) devolves into a trite Hallmark moment as the lovers meet as children in New Jersey (of all places). The cuteness is positively cringe-worthy and totally unnecessary.
The movie also never gets its pacing quite right, breaking up the action of the quest far too often with extremely weighty flashbacks that tend to drag. Sometimes these flashbacks provide valuable information and character development, but they still seem out of place, inspiring frustration rather than heightening tension. The movie's philosophy is rather a sad affair, full of warm-fuzzies but with little real substance. But then, perhaps that's not the point here.
Aside from obvious comparisons with Dante's Divine Comedy, the film's perspective on hell bears some strange parallels that I have noted previously with the work of C.S. Lewis and George Bernard Shaw. All three suggest (Lewis in The Great Divorce and Shaw in Man and Superman) that the barrier between heaven and hell, and those who go to one place or the other, may not be a physically insuperable one.
In What Dreams May Come, hell is a place for those who do not know they are dead, who refuse to acknowledge reality. In Shaw's play, the difference between the people in heaven and those in hell is a question of temperament. Philosophers (rational thinkers) go to heaven and artists (passionate feelers) go to hell. Both are happy with their surroundings. In Lewis's book, the inhabitants of hell are not physically barred from heaven at all, at least the outer edges of it, and may visit as often as they like. But they hate it, and it seems a hostile environment to them. Although they could decide at any time to stay (up to a point), they won't because they are too proud or self-centered.
All three works show people who were in hell deciding for heaven instead, but the similarities end there. The movie's philosophy is all about the power of human love to transcend all barriers. That's all very well, I suppose, but it (and the movie itself) seems more than a little empty when it's left standing on its own.
April 22, 2006
Enter the Holy Grail
The last Arthurian Romance by Chrétien de Troyes, the 12th century poet who is perhaps the most directly responsible for the Arthur legends as we know them today, was "The Story of the Grail." Chrétien was the first author to introduce the Holy Grail into the Arthur stories, and so for the purposes of a historical and literary study of the identifiable authors of Grail legend, it all begins here.
"Here," in this case, refers to the middle of a forest, where a disingenuous rube named Perceval lives with his mother. One day, as he wanders through the woods, he meets some knights, whom he immediately mistakes for God and His angels. He refuses to answer any of their questions, being so focused on asking them things, and finally they tell him how he may become a knight: by journeying to the court of King Arthur. This he eagerly sets out to do, despite his mother's great sorrow (her husband and other two sons were knights, and are now all dead). She has been trying to keep him from knowing anything about knights, but now that he does she tells him everything, gives him what advice she can, and sends him on his way. As he rides off, she falls unconscious behind him, but he fails to notice or care.
To make a long story short (as many of these tales tend to wind aimlessly from episode to unrelated episode), Perceval takes a snide remark from Sir Kay at face value when he arrives at court and immediately sets out to win his spurs as a knight. After many adventures, including the defeat of the red knight and the rescuing of a besieged castle (and the attached damsel), Perceval decides it is time to go get his mother. On his way to find her, he shacks up in the castle of a wounded king who spends his days fishing in the nearby river, and that night at dinner, a strange ritual takes place.
A procession passes by him bearing a sword, a lance, a dish, and a cup (the Grail). Not wishing to appear simple (he's learned a few things during his adventures), he refrains from asking what it's all about and goes to sleep. Waking up the next morning, he finds the entire castle deserted, and he saddles up and leaves, very confused. Not far away, he meets a maiden who informs him that, not only is his mother dead from the grief of his departure, but his failure to ask the question about the Grail procession the night before has doomed the Fisher King to continue in his wounded state, and his lands and peoples will continue to suffer.
Perceval wanders on, encountering Arthur and his court, and vows to never rest until he has relocated the Grail Castle and had a chance to redeem his mistake. At this point he promptly forgets about God for about five years and has many adventures. One day (Good Friday, in fact), he happens to meet a group of ten ladies and three knights, wandering around on foot dressed in penitential garb. They berate him for riding around in armor on such a day and direct him to a nearby hermit. It turns out this hermit is related to both Perceval and the Fisher King, and he brings Perceval back into the church. Perceval takes communion that Easter Sunday.
At this point, Perceval's story is effectively over, and the rest of the poem is meanders along after Gawain with very little direction. The story is incomplete, basically cutting off in mid-sentence, and it is believed that Chrétien died before he could finish it. Three later authors attempted continuations of it (all quite lengthy), but I have my own idea about the unity of the story.
This is the original Arthur/Grail story, and the Grail plays an almost non-existent role in the story. Furthermore, it seems to me that all that is truly important here is Perceval's story of a journey from spiritual darkness and immaturity to salvation and growth. Once he takes communion on Easter Sunday, everything ought to be over.
Consider: Perceval begins in ignorance of where he comes from and where he is going. His mother sends him out into the world with instructions to attend church and seek God, which he ignores (being so caught up in the drive to become a knight). Arriving in the Grail Castle after many adventures, he fails to ask about the procession, which seems to be obviously connected to some sort of Christian ritual.
The sword might be the Word of God. The spear could be symbolic of the lance that pierced the side of Christ. The dish and cup (or Grail) could bear the body and blood of Christ for the communion sacrament. The fact is, we don't know for sure, and neither does Perceval, because he simply doesn't care enough to ask. Perceval has his chance at this point to bring healing to his soul, to the Fisher King, and to the land and its people, but he misses it because he is not particularly interested in spiritual things. As a result of this, he fails to achieve understanding and is excluded from the building that houses the Grail (the church?). Not long after this, he forgets about God entirely for five whole years. Finally, someone explains everything to him and he is able to take communion, which he was not able to do when the dish and grail passed by years before.
One of the most interesting aspects of the story, as mentioned previously, is how minor the role of the Grail is. In the beginning, it would seem, the Grail was not the most central element of the entire story. Somewhere along the way, something seems to have changed all that, but as yet it is not quite clear what.
April 21, 2006
Reconstruction, Religion, and the Closing of the Southern Mind
Even more interesting than the overview of Reconstruction historiography was the piece by Genovese mentioned in the previous entry (A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South). Genovese, of course, was the historian who provided such interesting insights on Thomas Dew in the Antebellum reading. I found the prospect of reading his take on one of the formative moments in "the mind of the White Christian South" irresistible. While his discussion largely revolved around the evolution of Southern Christian opinions regarding the Confederacy during the Civil War, the shift in perspective he chronicles is a great deal more relevant to what happened in the minds of Southerners after the war.
Consider, as a Christian in the South in the 1860s, how one might explain or justify the formation, existence, and ultimate decline of the Confederacy in light of a worldview centered on the omnipresent control of God over all human events. As is to be expected, there were certainly pastors preaching sermons that declared the South to be fighting with God on their side, for a cause He approved of. The surprise, however, comes in finding a great deal of moderation among the Southern clergy, even before things began to look especially bleak for the Southern cause. Preachers emphasised the fact that the South still had many sins to atone for, and even spoke of God's wrath against Southern wickedness. Many sermons during the period acknowledged the evils of warfare, and its incompatibility with many Christian teachings.
In short, from the beginning, leading Christian voices strove to moderate the self-righteous, patriotic fervor of the Confederate South. As the South began to lose, its religious leaders broadcast the message that the region was only getting what it deserved. Naturally, by the time Reconstruction rolled around, it seemed to many as though the South were the children of Israel who had strayed from their faith, and God had brought down the heathens to chastise them.
I would speculate that these attitudes and messages show us two interesting things about the imminent shift in Southern perspectives of themselves and their values. First, prior to their defeat in the Civil War, Southerners seem to have been much more willing to question themselves openly and honestly rather than expecting certain things to be taken for granted and expecting everyone to toe the party line. This is evidenced, I think, not only in this reading about the open criticisms from Southern preachers, but even more especially in the writings of men like Thomas Dew and the many Southern intellectuals who came before him.
Dew was writing very shortly before the Civil War, and yet, not long afterwards, "intellectual" became almost a dirty word in the South, and still bears something of a stigma today. Without questioning the rightness of waging a Civil War to reunite the nation, or judging the measures of Radical Reconstruction, I dare say that having the opinion of the North regarding slavery stuffed down the Southern throat by force did a great deal to kill any hope of Southern openness, honesty, or internal debate for decades and more. Basically, after the Civil War and Reconstruction and before the Southern Literary Renaissance, the intellectuals that the South produced came in two flavors: people like Thomas Dixon who glorified "The Lost Cause" and the good old days of moonlight and magnolias, and people whose ideas turned them into exiles (usually by mutual agreement) to the North or to Europe.
The second thing that we may observe in the message of the Southern clergy during the Civil War is, perhaps, one of the links in the evolution of the historical myths which began to appear in earnest shortly after Reconstruction. So many of Southern attitudes regarding the era surrounding the Civil War have their origins in Southern Christianity. Consider the classic vision of Old South, Civil War, and Reconstruction reimagined as Paradise, Fall, and Redemption. It is a natural progression of seeing the Northern victory as a triumph of the heathen over God's chosen, but sinful, people. The pattern is obviously modeled directly on the Bible. Consider, "The South will rise again!" What basis does this statement have outside of the religious foundation we have just established?
To conclude, the Civil War, and especially Reconstruction, in conjunction with (for better or worse) a Christian worldview set Southern intellectual development (one of the nation's brightest stars in the days of the Founding Fathers, thanks, in particular, to the Virginians) back by over 60 years. In some ways, it is still recovering from that crippling blow today.
The Story of the Story of Reconstruction
I have begun to wonder if, perhaps, calling the years following the Civil War in the South might not better be named the Unreconstruction Era. Despite the best efforts of Reconstruction, virtually nothing changed that really mattered, i.e. in the hearts and minds of the people of the South. In fact, if possible, I would dare say that for at least sixty years after the Civil War, the average Southerner "out-Heroded Herod" in his desperation to retain the attitudes and beliefs of his antebellum forebears.
Before the Civil War there is strong evidence of Southerners willing to question themselves and their own beliefs and ideas. The South suffered a humiliating defeat after four years of exhausting commitment to proving their point by force of arms, followed by occupation and the attempts at reformation. This is largely responsible (I think) for the closing of ranks seen in the "Solid South" and the assumption that no one who criticizes any aspect of the South can be a friend of the Southerner.
Our readings on Reconstruction came from two books: Interpretations of American History: Patterns & Perspectives, and Eugene Genovese's A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South. The former had a nice little outline of the development of Reconstruction historiography which is worth reproducing here.
The first school to emerge shortly after Reconstruction is known as the Dunning school. Founded in a highly racist and somewhat emotional view of events, the Dunning historians interpreted Reconstruction in terms of an epic battle between good and evil, which good eventually won by overthrowing the Reconstruction governments. This view of events remained embedded well into the 1940s. My own first introduction to it was a selection from The Tragic Era by Claude G. Bowers, published in 1929. In it, he described a South where "Southern people literally were put to the torture."
Most of the work of the next school, the revisionists (I like to call them "the borings"), took place during the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. The borings explained the Reconstruction through an examination of the economic forces that shaped it. They framed the conflict as a struggle between agrarian values and industrialization. Racial tensions, they maintained, were merely a surface issue at most. This explanation of events, of course, isn't even remotely as appealing or captivating as the theories of the Dunning school. That school continued to dominate the public imagination throughout the peak of the revisionists' influence.
Finally, the neo-revisionists school began to emerge during the Civil Rights Movement following World War II. The neorevisionists acknowledged the economic factors which were in play during Reconstruction, but returned scholarship to the central issue of race (seen in a much different light than the Dunning historians). The struggles of Reconstruction became a question of whether whites were ready to accept equality with blacks. Although the push for equality failed at that time, Reconstruction left behind a lasting legacy in the form of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. The promise of these amendments would lie dormant for the next several decades until the Civil Rights Movement finally moved to hold the entire nation to their standard.
That, in a nutshell, is a sort of oversimplification of the history of how historians have viewed Reconstruction since it ended. So what was Reconstruction really all about? Well, without going into too much detail (lest this become overlong), I never paid a great deal of attention to Reconstruction until I came to college. It was part of that ultra-boring transitional period between the Civil War and World War I.
Further study has revealed that, particularly in the South, this is one of the most fascinating and important periods of history in the United States in terms of shaping attitudes and beliefs. Reconstruction and the period immediately following it produced virtually every idea and perspective we have about what what defines the stereotypical South, both past and present. Rather than go into too great of detail about why I think that, however, I will refer the reader to some of my previous writing about the period, particularly from the "Myth and Myopia" series.
April 20, 2006
The Master of the Monstrous
At the tail-end of the Late Middle Ages, in a provincial town in a corner of a conflicted region of the Holy Roman Empire, a boy was born to a family of painters. Establishing himself as an artist in his own right at around the age of thirty, he stood at the very threshold of the Early Renaissance period. But, although his art clearly influences and is influenced by the painters of his day, Jeroen van Aken went his own way when it came to the subjects of his paintings. A deeply religious man, he produced wild and fantastical visions of situations and creatures which have never existed anywhere but in his imagination. His work, with its bizarre figures, allegorical messages, and moralistic underpinnings, appealed to admirers among the nobility located as far away as Spain. He became quite famous for his distinct style by the time he died, but not under the name Jeroen van Aken. He was well-known, and still is today, under the name that he eventually took for himself, the name he attached to the few paintings he actually signed: Hieronymus Bosch.
Bosch was born in 1450 in the town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in what is now the Netherlands, about fifty miles from Amsterdam to the northwest, and the same distance from Antwerp to the southwest. At the time, ‘s-Hertogenbosch was within the Burgundian union (governed by the Duke of Burgundy), a territory which included the majority of Belgium and the Netherlands (History). Bosch would spend most (possibly all) of his illustrious career in the town of his birth.
Bosch was part of a long line of painters, beginning with his great-grandfather Thomas, who had migrated from the town of Aachen, from which the family’s name, van Aken, was derived.
Little, however, is known about his early life. In 1463, when Bosch was thirteen, an enormous fire destroyed thousands of houses in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, an event which may have helped to shape his apocalyptic perspective later in life. Aside from this major event, which may or may not have impacted Bosch significantly, the first significant documentation of his existence as an artist does not appear until he is thirty years old.
In 1481, Bosch married the wealthy daughter of a small-time aristocrat, ensuring that he would be able to paint whatever he wished rather than having to take every possible commission. Also around this time, Bosch became a member of the Brotherhood of our Lady, a religious organization only open to prominent members of society. Most of the members of the organization were prominent for reasons connected to either religious or social position. At only 38 years-old, Bosch was the only sworn member who was a craftsman.
Although a great deal of Bosch’s original artwork is lost, much is known about it from copies, tracings, and the records of those who purchased his paintings. Bosch painted five altarpieces for the Brotherhood, receiving some of his first commissions from its membership. Bosch painted a number of traditional religious pieces for the local upper middle-class, but his most famous paintings were commissioned by the nobility. Beginning in the late 1490s, Bosch received requests for various paintings from Flemish, Dutch, Burgundian, and Spanish aristocrats, among others.
Bosch’s paintings are notoriously difficult to categorize. They cannot be found to follow any particular chronological development, particularly since so many have been lost, and those that remain can rarely be dated. Even attempting to divide Bosch’s works into themes is an imperfect solution because first, those themes often overlap, and second, many of his paintings are packed with smaller scenes which often do not seem to pertain immediately to the picture’s central theme or themes. In the broadest of terms, Bosch’s paintings can be said to depict a religious scene (either from the Bible or Catholic tradition), a religious scene with a specific moral message, or a secular scene with a moral message. A fourth possible grouping would include paintings with eschatological themes and concerns.
Bosch’s strictly religious scenes were virtually all drawn from one of two sources. One source, as previously noted, is biblical narratives. Examples of these are found in his paintings of the stories of Noah, Job, and Jonah, as well as his numerous paintings of the life of Christ, largely from Christ’s childhood and the Passion. The second source consists of scenes from the hagiographies of saints. These include paintings from the lives of St. Jerome, St. Anthony, St. Dominic, St. Martin, and St. Giles.
Bosch’s religious art is much more conventional than his other work. One example of this type of work is his painting Christ Carrying the Cross. Bosch actually painted more than one work with this title, but this particular painting was produced in 1490. The painting shows an extreme close-up of the scene. Only Christ’s face and a single beam of the cross are visible among the crowd that presses in around him. As was common with such paintings, all of the people in the crowd are dressed in the clothing of Bosch’s time rather than Christ’s. Christ’s face in the painting is extremely tranquil. He might almost be sound asleep. The crowd around him, however, is full of grotesque, distorted faces, full of rage, wicked glee, and even blank apathy. This painting is typical in that it reveals Bosch’s preoccupation with the omnipresent evil of the world, but it contains none of the weird, impossible figures that the artist is most famous for.
Bosch’s depictions of saints are somewhat different from his paintings of biblical stories as he almost exclusively adapted his scenes of saints to the purpose of teaching a moral message. Many of the saints he painted were hermits, and he never painted some of the more common subjects of his day, such as the Virgin Mary, and St. Anne. His paintings of hermits were not, for the most part, drawn from the story of their lives in any way, but rather the way of life they stood for was used to represent whatever message Bosch wanted to convey.
Among the most notable of these paintings is Temptation of St. Anthony, a triptych (three-panel painting) depicting, on the left, physical torment, in the center, a horrific Black Mass, and on the right, the double allure of lust and gluttony. The “outer wings” (which fold over the front of the painting) depict Christ’s arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane on the left side, and Christ carrying the cross on the right. The figures drawn by Bosch, particularly in the terrifying central portion, are fantastical and surreal in the extreme: plant-like humanoids, fish with human heads and hands, and weird creatures impossible to describe. And yet, the figures are invested with a strange realism and sense of life, as if it would not be impossible to conceive of their existence in the real world.
Bosch’s secular paintings draw their subjects from well-known folktales, scenes of everyday life, and the like. Bosch’s fixation on the evil of mankind plays a fundamental role in this art as well. The paintings depict his condemnation of excess in anger, consumption of food and alcohol, and especially sexuality. Other prevalent themes include the evils of avarice, idleness, and waste. Tying all of these various vices together is the role that folly plays in leading men astray. Paintings like Ship of Fools serve as allegorical representations of this concept. The painting depicts a group of men and women sailing in the ship of humanity across the sea of time, eating, flirting, and generally wasting their lives away. A number of figures in the painting have additional symbolic meanings. An owl and Muslim crescent represent heresies, a lute and bowl of cherries represent lust, and additional symbols refer to gluttony and madness.
Ultimately, though, the paintings which are the most central to Bosch’s vision of the world, and those for which he is most famous, are his eschatological works. Scenes of judgment and apocalypse were nothing new in the 15th and 16th centuries, but somehow Bosch’s visions of them capture the human imagination in a unique way. His Tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things and the triptychs Last Judgment and Haywain all reveal a union between Bosch’s pre-eminent fascinations: man’s fallen state, the overarching plan of God for human history, and the terrors of judgment and hell for the wicked.
Grouped among paintings of this type, Bosch’s best known work is Garden of Earthly Delights. Painted near the end of his life, the work is a triptych containing the progression of human history and sin in three panels on the inside and the creation of the world on the outside. The leftmost panel shows Adam and Eve in paradise with Christ, in a state of innocence and bliss. They are surrounded by all sorts of animals, both real and imagined, including various birds, small mammals, lizards, elephants, giraffes, and unicorns. The landscape is dotted with fanciful structures which are strangely reminiscent of works of modern sculpture.
The right panel contains a depiction of hell. As in Bosch’s other paintings of diabolical torment, this portion of the work is full of surreal shapes and figures, some terrifying, many indescribable. Some believe that the large head appearing near the center of the painting is self-portrait of the artist himself. If true, this would be an interesting commentary on his view of the state of humanity, and of his own spiritual walk with God. Another hallmark of this type of scene is the striking resemblance it bears to more modern works. The style is very similar to something that an artist like Salvador Dali would produce in the twentieth century, and it is difficult to picture such a work existing over five centuries prior to this.
The central portion of Garden of Earthly Delights, however, is of even greater interest. This is the main scene of the painting, holding the two outer halves together. At first glance the center appears to illustrate the same thing as the left panel on a grander scale. The entire scene is full of very bright colors, nude (but happy) people, and animals. The same whimsical structures appear here and there, and everyone seems to be having a good time. Closer inspection, however, reveals that all is not as well as it might appear. All of the people are busily engaged in the most fantastic excess, including a variety of sexually deviant behaviors that reveal a startlingly active imagination. On the edges of the picture, shapes that are vaguely similar to those we see in the “Hell” portion of the work are beginning to appear. This “Garden of Earthly Delights” is nothing less than a glimpse of humanity fully in the grip of sinful behavior. Nothing good can come of it, however happy they may be now.
After Bosch’s death in 1516, he remained quite popular among the nobles of Europe for at least another century. His paintings influenced the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, whose work appeared during the mid-1500s. During the 17th and 18th centuries he lost his appeal for most of the world, but remained extremely popular in Spain (Garden of Earthly Delights still resides in Madrid). Finally, at the end of the 19th century, he began to regain popularity for different reasons.
Bosch continues to be both popular and controversial in the art world today, inspiring a great deal of scholarship regarding the true meanings of his paintings and what inspired his art. Theories involving strange psychological causes and secret heretical sympathies abound, but mainstream scholarship tends to agree with the traditional view that Bosch was an orthodox Catholic whose paintings were inspired by a combination of unique vision and conventional medieval themes.
Either way, his work remains not only a fascinating sample of the art that bridges the medieval and renaissance periods, but also an eerie foreshadowing of thematic work that would not seriously enter the art world until centuries after he first dabbled in it.
Final Personal Note: I ordered a print of Garden of Earthly Delights a few days ago. Rachel said I could hang it in the bathroom. I am pleased.
April 11, 2006
Thank God for Graduation
If you haven't seen it already, head over to this link ASAP. There you will find the final draft of LeTourneau University's Quality Enhancement Plan.
I have endeavored for the past semester and a half to comprehend just what it's all about, with little success. Everything anyone could tell me about our QEP sounded like meaningless business-speak (Christian Leadership Distinctives, anyone?). Only now, as I see the entire disastrous canker-sore that is this idea laid out before me do I truly understand:
The goal of the Quality Enhancement Plan is nothing less than the replacement of legitimate academic pursuits with pure, grade-A BS material such as the #@!$ I had to put up with from Dr. K in my capstone course last fall.
I don't understand. There are intelligent people that I like and respect on the committee that dreamed this up, including the chair. Why do they not comprehend that this is the worst idea ever?
To get specific, the QEP has basically chosen (from, apparently, several candidates) a theme for LeTourneau University. That theme is "The Five Christian Leadership Distinctives." (I can't help but wonder what the other candidates were . . . Ponies? The Bell Tower? Ingenuity?) They will now proceed to saturate us beyond the breaking point with their chosen theme.
What's that you say? We're saturated already? Plagued by the five gloopy inanities on every single syllabus and waving at us from freaking banners that blanket the campus, it's no wonder you think that. But you're wrong . . . so very wrong. Here's how. Implementation Strategies:
1) Faculty Development -- Goal 1: Faculty will increase their awareness of the five Christian Leadership Distinctives. Goal 2: Faculty will participate in professional development activities that foster the use of the Christian Leadership Distinctives in classroom instruction. Goal 3: Faculty will undergo training in the design of classroom assignments that can be incorporated into the student ePortfolio.
I weep for my professors. Truly.
2) Curricular Integration -- Goal 1: The Cornerstones course for traditional students and the Introduction to Team Learning course for nontraditional students will lay the curricular foundation for the understanding and integration of the Christian Leadership Distinctives. Goal 2: Each School offering traditional programs will identify multiple courses throughout the curriculum in selected major(s) for the integration of the Christian Leadership Distinctives. Goal 3: Students will engage in a variety of classroom activities that further their understanding of the Christian Leadership Distinctives. Goal 4: The School of Graduate and Professional studies will incorporate the Christian Leadership Distinctives into all Business courses in the online BBA core program.
This is the real kicker. Whereas before all of our teachers were required to merely slop the five limp-noodle mantras onto their syllabi, they will now be required to come up with actual classroom lesson plans that integrate them into the course teachings. For instance, Watson may now need to give a lecture on Collaborating Service in "English Literature II." Johnson may have to assign a report about Discovering Purpose in "Texas and the American West." Hood may be required to organize a group activity around Deepening Skills for "Revelation."
3) Student ePortfolios -- Goal 1: The ePortfolio will be introduced in the Cornerstones course for traditional students, and in the Introduction to Team Learning course for nontraditional students in the online BBA core program. Goal 2: Students in traditional programs will produce and continue to update their ePortfolios throughout their course of study. Goal 3: Each School offering traditional programs will identify one or two mid-level and one or two upper-level courses that will incorporate the ePortfolio. Goal 4: The School of Graduate and Professional Studies will implement the ePortfolio in each course throughout the online BBA core program.
Lest this sound like it might be a good idea, this is not about compiling a nice folder of the best papers or projects in your field which you produce during your time here. Specific upper-level courses within your major will now require you to produce additional material relating to your life goals which will then be added to your portfolio. The process begins in Cornerstones.
In the following five sections (each one corresponds to a specific Christian Leadership Distinctive) you should reflect on what you have learned. You should have a minimum of two paragraphs in each section, although most will require more length to cover both required and desired information.
Discuss your calling and vision as you currently understand it. First, answer the
following questions: Who has God created you to be? What has God called you to do, both corporately and individually? How can you begin to prepare for and practice that calling while you are a student at LeTourneau University? Second, based on your responses to the above questions, write a personal vision statement that is no more than two sentences in length. Third, reflect on the beliefs, values, and experiences that helped to shape your vision statement, and address the following questions: How does this vision statement give meaning and direction to your life activities? How does the process of discovering purpose, including your current understanding of your vision, shape or guide your development in each of the four Cornerstones (personal, intellectual, spiritual, and relational)?
You should include a reflection concerning your worldview, faith journey, and a discussion of the ethical values that you will use in your life. How does the process of grounding values—including your worldview, faith journey, and ethics--shape or guide your development in each of the four Cornerstones (personal, intellectual, spiritual, and relational)?
Examine how you have grown personally, intellectually, spiritually, and relationally through the courses that you have been taking at LeTourneau University.
Reflect on how courses that you have taken that apply to your major have affected your personal, intellectual, spiritual, and relational development as a professional in your discipline.
Examine what you have learned as a result of service to the community (such as the Cornerstones service project), your church, or the campus community. How do these experiences shape or guide your personal, intellectual, spiritual, and relational development? What service activities will you investigate or become involved in while a student at LeTourneau University?
There are three subsections to the My Documents area of the ePortfolio: personal documents, academic documents, and professional documents. In each of these three areas, you should include a section concerning your goals, strengths & assets, obstacles & challenges, and action plans. In other words, you will create a Personal Success Plan that you will include in the Personal Documents section of the ePortfolio. You will create an Academic Success Plan that you will include in the Academic Documents section of the ePortfolio. You will create a Professional Success Plan that you will include in the Professional Documents section of the ePortfolio.
There's a lot more worthy of discussion in this document (which runs to 79 pages in length), but that should be enough to get started. Please, if you are (or ever have been or ESPECIALLY ever will be) a student here, go take a look and decide what sort of response feels appropriate. Thank God I finished coursework here before this hit the fan, because I have to say, beginning a university education at a school that operates like we're about to start operating looks about as appealing as testicular cancer from where I'm sitting.