October 31, 2006
Good Company II: The Family Tree of Modern Non-Violence
In 1838, William Lloyd Garrison, along with a man named Adin Ballou (1803-1890) and numerous others, signed his name to a statement of peaceful non-resistance which began:
We do not acknowledge allegiance to any human government. We recognize but one King and Lawgiver, one Judge and Ruler of mankind. Our country is the world, our countrymen are all mankind. We love the land of our nativity only as we love all other lands. The interests and rights of American citizens are not dearer to us than those of the whole human race. Hence we can allow no appeal to patriotism to revenge any national insult or injury . . .
I'm more than a little sympathetic with that statement, certainly. However, the group went on to repudiate as unlawful, immoral and unchristian all wars for any reason whatsoever, all preparations for war, all armies and weapons, all prosecution of criminals and acts of self-defense. And then they declared themselves removed from all official positions related to human governments for the duration of their lives (governments are enablers of violence, you see). "Radical" and "extreme" seem to fall short as descriptors of the stance they took.
Adin Ballou lived that life, too. He wasn't messing around. In 1842, Ballou and others purchased some land in Massachusetts and founded the town of "Hopedale" (which still exists to this day). The town existed on principles of absolute equality and peace, and during its peak years (early 1850s), about 230 people lived there. The venture more or less folded in 1856 when the primary stockholders pulled their support and invested in a factory instead. Ballou, however, continued to live in Hopedale for the rest of his life, publishing books about abolition and non-violence.
His most important work on the subject is Christian Non-Resistance (1846). In it, he explains what Christian non-resistance is, examines scripture that he believes supports it, answers common arguments (both against the concept and against his interpretation of the scripture involved), and argues that non-resistance is more conducive to self-preservation. Ballou's view is particularly significant as being the first to advance a pacifist position on rather naturalistic rather than strictly religious grounds. In any case, you've probably never heard of Adin Ballou. I hadn't.
But I had heard of Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). Of course, I hadn't heard that he was a major figure in the history of pacifism and non-violence, just that he was responsible for those two famous paperweights (long valued for their shelf-filling capacity) Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Well, Tolstoy had a bit of a crisis of faith at age 50, but it was after his literary peak so I suppose it isn't considered important in my discipline.
A few years after this, in 1884, Tolstoy decided to share. He wrote a little book called What I Believe. Naturally this work was immediately supressed in Russia (although Tolstoy notes that an astounding number of Russians wrote widely-circulated refutations of it, which was quite interesting considering that no one was supposed to acknowledge that it existed). In any case, it found an appreciative audience almost everywhere else, especially in America. Before long, Tolstoy began to receive a flood of correspondence, particularly from Quakers, responding to his pacifist leanings.
Before long, Tolstoy discovered Adin Ballou and corresponded with him until the latter's death in 1890. Three years later, Tolstoy came out with a 500-page treatment of the subject of non-violence and the Church: The Kingdom of God is Within You. He meant it to be the definitive argument in favor of a position which he observed had existed for many centuries. However, he had also bitterly observed the response to those who had come before him:
The work of [William Lloyd] Garrison in his foundation of the Society of Non-resistants and his Declaration, even more than my correspondence with the Quakers, convinced me of the fact that the departure of the ruling form of Christianity from the law of Christ on non-resistance by force is an error that has long been observed and pointed out, and that men have labored, and are still laboring, to correct. Ballou's work confirmed me still more in this view. But the fate of Garrison, still more that of Ballou, in being completely unrecognized in spite of fifty years of obstinate and persistent work in the same direction, confirmed me in the idea that there exists a kind of tacit but steadfast conspiracy of silence about all such efforts.
Tolstoy was shocked and outraged to find (as I, too, have noticed in my turn) that all of the noise that he and others like him were making about this idea was conveniently ignored by almost everyone. It is no wonder that this is the case, certainly, for there can be only two responses. One sees few blanket justifications of war by Christians floating around, and when we do we know what they're worth. But neither do Christians seem comfortable embracing a position that is so potentially scary and (*gasp*) discomforting as this. So, it remains largely ignored. Such was the fate of the men who influenced Tolstoy, and such was the fate of Tolstoy's own book on the subject. Not only had I never heard of the book, but, as I mentioned, I didn't even know he was a pacifist.
Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) was living in South Africa when he first encountered The Kingdom of God is Within You. Of it he later said, "Its reading cured me of my skepticism and made me a firm believer in ahimsa [nonviolence]." Gandhi corresponded regularly with Tolstoy, beginning in 1909, and continuing until Tolstoy's death in November of 1910. Gandhi considered Tolstoy to be the greatest apostle of non-violence of the age, which is interesting since many people would apply that same title to Gandhi himself.
Gandhi's most significant contribution to the ideas he picked up from Tolstoy was to change the focus from non-resistance to non-violent resistance. I haven't been very good at maintaining a consistent differentiation between these two ideas thus far, so let me clarify. While Tolstoy and Ballou believed in almost total non-resistance whether violent or not (extreme passivity, I'd call it), Gandhi believed in the power of non-violence to both resist and transform. Ballou and Tolstoy sought to remove themselves from society and effect slow change through individual conversion to their ideas and through non-cooperation with "the system." Gandhi saw, I believe, something much closer to the route Christ himself takes (if we're really paying attention).
Certainly, Jesus was not a passive non-resistant. In particular I would point to the most important act of his life: his death. If Christ's crucifixion does not represent the ultimate resistance of evil, then I'm not certain what it does represent. And through it he accomplished more than every violent act in human history combined, from the murder of Abel to the people who died in Iraq today. It is a powerful testament to force of a non-violent approach, if not one that many people may feel can be applied to their own lives. Under what circumstance would the results of a violent approach be more positive than the results of a non-violent approach to the same situation.
Gandhi, of course, dropped many pearls of wisdom during his long life, here are a few:
"What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?"
"There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no causes that I am prepared to kill for."
"Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary."
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was introduced to Gandhi's teachings on non-violence at a time when he had "despaired of the power of love in solving social problems." He immediately began to read everything he could about the man:
As I read, I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency . . . The 'turn-the-other-cheek' philosophy and the 'love-your-enemies' philosophy' were only valid when individuals were in conflict with other individuals; when racial groups and nations were in conflict, a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was.
We are all familiar with the results of his efforts. I find it fascinating that principles and ideas explored by abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Adin Ballou helped to yield many of the objectives they worked and hoped for after more than 100 years had passed and their ideas had traveled around the globe, arriving back in America precisely when they were needed. The observation is neither here nor there with respect to what I have to say, but I thought it was worth noting.
Indulge me again with your comments and questions. I am stating a belief that non-violence (but not non-resistance) is not only a defensible and highly effective approach to life, but also an important part of being a Christian. Tell me what you think, that we may all develop our ideas further.
Because I'm Thoughtful
Bill O'Reilly: Do you want the United States to win in Iraq?
David Letterman:*heavy sigh* First of all, I--
O'Reilly: It's an easy question. If you don't want the United States to win--
Letterman: It's not easy for me, because I'm thoughtful.
October 27, 2006
Good Company I: A Brief History of Christian Non-Violence
"It's very hard to look at [the] family tree of non-violence in a way that makes the religion incidental."
That sentence in a review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion intrigued me. The philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. is known to all of us, I'm sure. Gandhi's ethic of non-violent resistance inspired MLK's crusade to transform our own country. But, I wondered, who inspired Gandhi? And who inspired the guy who inspired Gandhi? And how far back does this go? What is the well-spring of this important ideal and how (if at all) has it changed?
These, at least, were the questions that I originally set out to answer. I thought I could insulate and isolate a few people apart from the historical milieu of Christian non-resistance and trace their influence on each other over the course of about a century while ignoring everything else. Unfortunately, my research style (rabbit-trailing) got in the way, so we start with some groundwork before moving on.
It should surprise no one to learn that the history of nonviolence begins with Jesus Christ. Christianity and the Church may have inspired a lot of hatred, death and violence, but there's a lot of peace-mongering hovering in the margins as well. Jesus, by all accounts, lived "a blameless life," part of which was the substitution of love and grace for hatred and violence, and the repayment of evil with good.
His life, his message, and the testimony of the church he left behind all attest to the Christian obligation to act always in a spirit of love rather than of violence. The jumping-off point for many later proponents of non-violence begins with Matthew 5:39 (most specifically, "resist not evil"), but really there is a broad scriptural (New Testament) basis for non-violence (Romans 12:17-21 is another reference that comes to mind).
Unlike many of the sectarian doctrines and dogmas under constant debate (*cough*Calvinism*cough*), non-violence does not rely on the sketchy intrepretation of a verse or two. It is a pervasive and recurring theme. Various finer points may be argued as ethical "what-ifs" are proposed, but it does not seem convincingly arguable that a commitment to non-violence should not be a part of the Christian lifestyle. I suspect anyone who would seek to deny this of being more interested in interpreting the Bible based on the standards of contemporary social mores than on discovering and living by what it actually teaches.
For centuries there has always been some portion of Christianity devoted to pacifism, non-resistance, non-violence, etc. These have included the Amish and various other types of Anabaptists, the German Baptist Brethren and the Mennonites. The trail of important individuals which I am trying to link up with, having begun with Jesus Christ and continued through early Church leaders for a few hundred years (more on that in a moment), makes a very long leap of about 14 centuries to George Fox (1624-1691) and the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers).
Fox established what is known as "the Peace Testimony" in 1651, refusing to be involved in England's military endeavors (he found himself sitting in a nasty prison for his pains). This idea was derived from the teachings of Jesus, various passages from the New Testament and the example of the Early Church. Later Quaker sources point to a multitude of first and second century Christians who either refused to enter military service, or who left the military immediately upon converting.
According to one Quaker (writing in the 1800s), there is no record of a Christian in military service during the first 200 years after Christ's death . . . and precious few for about a century after that (these two statistics are "probably not true" and "probably true," respectively). Early Church leaders who discussed this doctrine in their writings include Justin Martyr, Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Origenes.
According to this and other sources, the Catholic Church eventually killed that bothersome "pacifist Christians" idea (sometimes literally), ruling that it applied only to members of the clergy. Interestingly enough, this happened practically the year after Constantine made Christianity the official state religion of Rome (Synod of Arelate, 314 A.D.), and Christians suddenly found themselves in a position quite different from any they had ever been in before. I'm trying hard to be fair in my judgment of something that happened a very long time ago, but really I almost have to attribute the sudden change in doctrine to the necessities of political expediency within a Church corrupted by its rise to power. In other words, from the beginning, Christians who say war is okay are pretty suspect.
Various minority groups continued to flock back to it from time to time for the next several hundred years. Most notably, of course, were the Albigensians (or Cathars) in the 11th century. Their beliefs included the condemnation of all war and capital punishment. Eventually, Pope Innocent III declared a crusade on them, and they were wiped out over the course of two decades of massacres which were considered barbaric even by medieval standards. It would be unfair to imply that their doctrine of non-resistance was the only beef the Roman Catholic Church had with them. They also believed in reincarnation, and their view of Jesus had a suspiciously Gnostic flare. However, it was a reason.
As one might expect, when the Reformation rolled in the issue flared up again. However, as I (for one) would not have thought, mainstream Protestants (Lutherans and those dirty Calvinists) were perfectly in step with their Roman Catholic enemies on the subject of Christian non-resistance. Only the Anabaptists insisted that Jesus be taken at his word.
That brings us back to George Fox and the Quakers. I don't want to spend too long on the Quakers, except to note that a large group of them eventually wound up in Pennsylvania in 1681, where they were safe from religious persecution. Their influence has been felt here and there on the history of the United States ever since. In particular, a fellow abolitionist and friend of the Quakers, William Lloyd Garrison (perhaps you've heard of him), was quite probably inspired (at least in part) by their Peace Testimony to take a shockingly strong stand behind the principle of non-resistance in the late 1830s.
I'll quit with Garrison for now, as this will soon be a history of individuals and their ideas rather than of denominations and sects and their doctrines. I'll leave you with a question that a lot of advocates of Christian non-resistance are going to start asking right around Garrison's time, namely: How can so much of mainstream Christianity pretend like the conflict between the true faith of peace and love and Church-sanctioned practice of violence and war does not exist?
Please don't hesitate to throw comments and questions my way. In particular, if you feel that anything needs clarification, further justification, further research, more sources, or you wonder why I didn't mention some fact (I probably wasn't aware of it), say so. That'll help me render my own knowledge of the subject as complete as possible.
October 26, 2006
I'm trying hard to get a post out soon (like, before November). I've been working on it for the last week or so. Meanwhile, check this out. It's an incredible story from the blog of Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert).
October 20, 2006
Like a Cliff-Diving Hippo
So, I keep hearing about this new satellite production company: FoxFaith Movies. This looks to me like the first rumblings in the direction of an established Christian movie industry to match the Christian book and music industries. (This is, at best, tangential to the point of this post, but it occurs to me that, while the South may have been the "Sahara of the Bozart" 85 years ago, that title must now assuredly rest squarely upon that segment of society which identifies itself as "fundamentalist Christian.")
Anyway, needless to say I was more than a little alarmed at this prospect, for a number of reasons. I have every reason to hope that any such venture will flop like a cliff-diving hippo. And so I sought further information. I came up with, first, a neat little self-description at the new label's own website, foxfaith.com:
FoxFaith Movies is the Christian moviegoer’s online guide to current and upcoming faith-based theatrical releases from FoxFaith. FoxFaith is a new branded distribution label from Twentieth Century Fox, created to house and distribute its growing portfolio of morally-driven, family-friendly programming. To be part of Fox Faith, a movie has to have overt Christian Content or be derived from the work of a Christian author.
With FoxFaithMovies.com you can use the navigation bar to the left of the screen to click for information about FoxFaith films currently playing in theaters and where to find them in your area . . . We also have a banner in the bottom right hand corner of the home page where you can find out about other family friendly films. Because these are not titles with overt Christian content, they are not Fox Faith titles, but they are Movies that we believe that many in the Christian market will enjoy.
Morally-driven programming? I guess it's the old didactic vs. beautiful debate that's been raging about art since Aristotle. Still, whenever I hear someone talk like this, I always recall the words of Oscar Wilde:
"There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
"The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium."
No, the real kicker is the requirement of overt (and, apparently, capitalized) Christian Content . . . or having a Christian author as a source in order to qualify for FoxFaith's "high" standards. The adjective "overt" brings to mind particularly alarming visions of gratuitous teary-eyed conversions and half-baked sermonizing splashed all over the screen. Speaking of Christian authors, please to be reading All Truth is God's Truth (1977) by Dr. Arthur Holmes . . . actually, in this case, the title alone should do the trick.
Really, though, I think we have their true measure when they let slip that little phrase "the Christian market." Congratulations, American Christians. Hollywood has raised you to the level of "preteen girls," "dating couples," "horror movie fans" and what have you. They think they have you packaged and pegged and they're ready to make a profit . . . and a lot of you are ready to play along.
A little more rooting around uncovered this article from the LA Times.
Fox might seem an unlikely studio to pioneer a religious label, given its history as a purveyor of salacious TV programming. Yet people in the Christian community say the company has gained credibility as the voice for conservative America through its Fox News Channel.
FoxFaith films, to be based on Christian bestsellers, will have small budgets of less than $5 million each, compared with the $60-million average. The movies each will be backed by $5-million marketing campaigns. Although that is skimpy compared with the $36 million Hollywood spends to market the average movie, the budget is significant for targeting a niche audience, especially one as fervent as many evangelical Christians.
Fox seems to be getting a warm reception from the Christian community. "It is extremely satisfying to be taken seriously," said Nancy Neutzling, vice president of marketing for Word Distribution, FoxFaith's distributor to Christian retailers. "It's like we have arrived."
How ironic (and yet, how very unsurprising) that a news organization that specializes in slanted, yellow journalism should be viewed as the source of credibility for an otherwise undesirable organization. And then there's that head-scratcher about our supposed "arrival." Where has the Christian community arrived? Why did we want to be here?
What, precisely, could make anyone believe that this is a sign of the Christian community being taken seriously? We have been placed in a constraining box of our own making and we will now be exploited by an industry which is proving savvier than we. They will make money from us by selling us what everyone else recognizes as an inferior product (and which should be evident from the amount of money being spent on it as well as from the pre-defined formula for its production).
Peter Chattaway, Christian film critic (that's Christian reviewer of films, not reviewer of Christian films) from Canada, is keeping a close eye on the whole business, as reported on his blog, and had this to say:
This may sound like heresy, but for years, I have said that I am glad we do not have a Christian movie industry on anything like the same scale that we have a Christian music industry.
Don't get me wrong, I like a lot of music that can usually be found only at Christian book stores. But there once was a time when magazines like Campus Life reviewed mainstream music as well as the relatively small number of albums put out by Christian artists. That was what Christian critics had to do if they wanted to engage the culture on some level.
However, in more recent years, as the Christian music scene has grown into the institution that it is today, it has become all too easy for we Christians to focus on our own little niche market and to ignore the larger musical world as a whole.
So far, movies are a different story. They cost a lot of money to make, and there just aren't that many Christian films out there. So one of the joys of being a Christian film critic is that you have no choice but to constantly interact with the world outside the Christian ghetto.
I know that all of these quotes and my commentary on them are a bit scattered, but I guess what I'm trying to say is this: Road to Perdition and Schindler's List are both incredibly moving stories of sacrificial redemption from evil. The Godfather, Parts I and II provide a fascinating study of innocence and noble intentions corrupted through too much power. Amadeus dramatically shows (among many other things) the destructive effects of attempting to trade devoted service to God for self-aggrandizement and success. All of these heart-stopping works of cinematic art, but they are still full of meaningful Christian themes if anyone would just take the time to watch them properly.
This idea that we must pull far, far away from secular art in any of its forms and substitute our own unworthy attempts simply for the sake of having a "Christian" version of what someone else is already doing . . . well, it's just wrong. And the fact remains, the purpose of most Christian "art" is not primarily to glorify God with its beauty or speak to deep truths which resonate within the human spirit, but to drive home a trite, shallow message. If I, as a Christian, don't want to watch the cinematic equivalent of your pastor's latest power point presentation, why would anyone else?
Confession time: When it comes to church services, I have a memory like a sieve. I honestly can't remember a single full sermon that I have ever heard in my life (and I must have been to over 1,000 in my lifetime). And you know what else? That means that a sermon has never offered me anything in the way of a life-changing, perception-altering message. You may blame that on me, and you may be right, but the fact remains. I don't say that it can't be done, I just don't hear a lot of really worthwhile messages coming from a church setting . . . and I've even taken to listening to the talking heads on one of the local Christian radio stations in recent weeks, looking for someone out there who has something important to say. Perhaps this belongs in another post . . . I sense that I am getting off-track.
What I mean is, my life and my ideas have not been changed or even shaped by people behind a pulpit, they have been changed and shaped by conversations, by classes, by books, and yes, by movies. I ache for new things to really chew on, and that's where they are to be found . . . And I'm not really going to manage coherent, on-topic specificity. At this point, I'm clearly just throwing up a smoke screen around the topic I started off addressing.
Anyway, I'm still not focusing the way I'd like to be, but here are a few related links I turned up as I was contemplating this subject:
Christianity Today provides this fascinating compendium of a wide spectrum of opinions regarding Christian movies. It's quite long, but well worth at least a skim.
Columnist Terry Mattingly of the Council for Christian Colleges and universities speculates about the consequences of low-grade Christian movies achieving financial success:
If this film DOES make tons of money, Hollywood may distribute more of them. Do we really want to send the message to Hollywood that the kind of films Christians want will be characterized by poor acting, low production values that are inoffensive, make us cry and also make tons of money? Is this truly how we want to influence Hollywood for God?
Dick Staub tells us where we've gone wrong:
Any Christianity that knows God as savior, but not as creator, will produce "Christians" who are less than fully human and such people will never create good art or care to.
And this is our dilemma as people who love Jesus and art. We live in a culture that loves art but not Jesus and in a Christian sub-culture dominated by a Christianity that loves Jesus, but not good art.
And the people over at getreligion.org wonder if we are witnessing the birth of Contemporary Christian Cinema.
The problem, of course, is that creating this kind of culture is really hard work that takes talent, patience, skill and teamwork — teamwork that almost always is going to include seeking excellence among unbelievers as well as believers. There are, of course, serious (and diverse) networks of Christians already doing fine (and commercially hot) work in Hollywood. They make real Hollywood movies for audiences of normal moviegoers.
The question, it seems to me, is whether we are about to witness the birth of what can only be called the Contemporary Christian Movie industry. Wait, that “CCM” thing has already been claimed. Contemporary Christian Cinema? CCC? Is this kind of niche market strategy (again) a good idea for faith in popular culture?
Do you see the irony? This is a solid niche market. But it will not help shape the mainstream. Also, it is hard to imagine how Contemporary Christian Cinema will reach many people who do not already believe. This is evangelism for the already evangelized.
October 19, 2006
You Make Me Sick
Take Four: As I listen to and observe the well-nigh incessant whining, complaining, outrageous rudeness, and (yes) even stupidity of our patrons here at the library, I am frequently tempted to blog about them. However, these occurrences are so frequent, and the specifics pass out of my memory so quickly, that it just generally doesn't happen. But seriously . . .
What is it with you people who don't wanna talk to me? You walk up and throw a stack of books and a library card at me. I start to check them out to you only to discover that they're already checked out to you. Perhaps you want to turn them in? Perhaps you'd like to renew them? I don't know . . . You didn't tell me. Sometimes you shove a driver's license in my face instead of a mysterious stack of books. What? No, really, what? I'm not a cop. I didn't just pull you over. What do you want?
Let's not kid ourselves. I know you can talk. Remember last week? When I told you you had a fine? I don't recall you having any trouble telling me off then. Did a truck happen to run over your voicebox in the meantime?
Look, I'm not asking for a friendly greeting. I don't care for small talk. Don't feel bad if you don't have a witty remark ready for me . . . Chances are I've already heard it 4 times today anyway. I understand your dilemma. Here I am, this obnoxious total stranger with whom you must establish contact in order leave with what you want. Honestly, I don't relish our fleeting interactions any more than you do. But, for both our sakes, bite the bullet and tell me exactly what you want so I can get you out of my sight that much faster. Because . . .
You make me sick.
October 18, 2006
Check this out. As Moore would say, "Hot book-on-book action!"
I think my two favorite shots were of the British Library and Trinity College Library. I should visit these. All of them. Longview needs a top-notch, horizon-broadening employee exchange program for stuff like this. Note to self: Drop by a city council meeting on my way home some evening.
What Is It With You?
Take Three: As I listen to and observe the well-nigh incessant whining, complaining, outrageous rudeness, and (yes) even stupidity of our patrons here at the library, I am frequently tempted to blog about them. However, these occurrences are so frequent, and the specifics pass out of my memory so quickly, that it just generally doesn't happen. But seriously . . .
What is it with you people who can't read? Why are you here? We're a library. What do you think we have to offer you? You stand next to the signs that say "No Cell Phones," conversing loudly with someone neither of us can see. Sometimes you do it while I'm trying to check out your books for you. You know, the ones you can't even read, you illiterate twerp. You walk right past the signs that say "All Computers are in Use" and ask me if there are any computers available. What are you going to do on the internet if you can't read? We don't allow porn on our machines.
You know what . . . new policy. You're an illiterate idiot. Get out of my library. You can come back when you're literate. Unless you're still an idiot.
You make me sick.
October 17, 2006
Take Two: As I listen to and observe the well-nigh incessant whining, complaining, outrageous rudeness, and (yes) even stupidity of our patrons here at the library, I am frequently tempted to blog about them. However, these occurrences are so frequent, and the specifics pass out of my memory so quickly, that it just generally doesn't happen. But seriously . . .
What is it with you people who don't understand me when I say, "All of the computers are taken"? No, really. They are. All of them. No, I don't have any special computers set aside for college students. Or old people. Or people with 11 fingers, people who prefer Burger King to McDonald's, or freaking Somolian refugees. No. I do not have a computer that I am saving just for you, Mr. John Q. Public, you egomaniacal freak of nature. You are not important. You are not special. You are not even very well-liked. Take a number and wait like everybody else. Or better yet, go buy your own dang computer. I promise it'll always be set aside just for you. Unless you have relatives or friends who visit you at home (which I find doubtful, at best).
You make me sick.
October 16, 2006
Don't Get Me Started
As I listen to and observe the well-nigh incessant whining, complaining, outrageous rudeness, and (yes) even stupidity of our patrons here at the library, I am frequently tempted to blog about them. However, these occurrences are so frequent, and the specifics pass out of my memory so quickly, that it just generally doesn't happen. But seriously . . .
What is it with you people who show up with movies that are multiple days overdue and say, "Can't you cut me some slack? I didn't even get to watch them!" Are you kidding me? No, seriously. You had a week to get those back to me, and you didn't. Now I find out that you didn't even make good use of the extra time you took. Since you obviously couldn't come up with even so much as half an hour during the past 10 days to pop down and turn them in, it's no wonder you didn't quite find the time to watch all five of them.
No, I'm not going to reward your poor time management. No, not even if you come up with more examples of just how bad you are at getting stuff done. The only real question is, "WHY DID YOU CHECK THEM OUT IN THE FIRST PLACE?!" Well, that and the ever-pressing, "Is it that everyone else in your life panders to your every need, or is your self-centered excuse-mongering entirely a product of your own pathetic lack of any sense of personal responsibility?"
You make me sick.
October 11, 2006
The Hitchcockian Way
I have adored Hitchcock movies for so long, I can't even remember which one I saw first . . . probably North by Northwest. That's certainly the one I've seen the most. I've had different favorites at different times: the aforementioned North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Psycho, Rear Window . . . By this point I couldn't really name a favorite, maybe just point to a few that aren't it.
When Andy moved to Guatemala with his family in 1997, old suspense movies and radio shows were just one of many things we both enjoyed. And, of course, Hitchcock's movies and television programs figured prominently in many an evening's entertainment (along with the likes of Wait Until Dark, Dead Ringer, The Bad Seed, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and anything with Vincent Price).
I believe it was the summer of 2001, which I spent in Colorado Springs with Andy, when AFI aired their "Top 100 Movie Thrills" TV special. We ate it up, and decided on the spot to watch every single one of the top 100 (that we hadn't both already seen). 9 of those movies were Hitchcock films, and I believe Rebecca, Notorious, Stage Fright, Psycho and Vertigo were among the Hitch movies I saw for the first time that summer. Other notables included The Manchurian Candidate, Gaslight and Laura. I actually don't think we covered a lot of ground as far as that list was concerned, between one thing and another, but that is neither here nor there.
It has long been my ambition to own every movie that Hitchcock ever made, but for a long time my goal was even more basic than that. I wanted to at least watch every single Hitchcock movie. The lack of either a civilized cable service or well-stocked video stores in a third-world country made that difficult enough at the outset, and Hitchcock films have been depressingly slow to be released on DVD.
Plus, there are just so many of them, it doesn't make sense to buy them unless one is buying in bulk. And here we encounter another failing of "Hitchcock on DVD" availability: the incredibly poor selection of so-called "Essential Hitchcock" collector sets. Few if any of these since the inception of DVD has included more than one or two Hitch movies made after his first big success in 1935, and the bulk of the set is inevitably rounded out with the ones you've never heard of.
I forgot to mention earlier that somewhere along the line I saw one of Hitchcock's pre-break-out films, Sabotage, and Oh, brother! My ambition vis-a-vis Hitchcock films thinned out at that point to a desire to see/own all of his more or less well known stuff beginning (with a few notable exceptions) in the post-1940 era.
Anyhow, the point of my rambling here is this: Everyone in circulation has to take turns writing a contribution to the monthly newsletter, and I signed up for the month of October with mystery/suspense as a general topic. I probably don't even need to tell you what I decided to write about . . . my article appears beneath the fold.
Well, researching and writing about Hitchcock got me thinking again about my old desire to own more of his films, and I started hunting around on Amazon.com for good collections. An evening of poking and prodding revealed an offer I couldn't refuse, and (with Rachel's unexpected blessing) I bought two collections with a total of 23 Hitchcocks between them at about $5.50 a film. Score.
They are: Foreign Correspondent (1940), Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), Suspicion (1941), Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Rope (1948), Stage Fright (1950), Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969), Frenzy (1972), Family Plot (1976)
Of these 23 I have seen 13 (most only once). A quick perusal of the list reveals that there are a mere 7 remaining Hitchcock movies that I wish to own, and shall hopefully acquire at my leisure as opportunity allows: The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Rebecca (1940), Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946) and To Catch a Thief (1955). Of these, I have never seen The 39 Steps or Lifeboat, but I am particularly anxious to see the latter.
Five of the above seven (not Lifeboat or To Catch a Thief) were released in a set by the Criterion Collection in 2003. They originally sold for $124.95. I'm not sure if they can still be acquired at list price or not, but as near as I can tell they cannot be purchased now for anything less than $200 . . . and prices range as high as $700. I have seen all but one of these movies and I find it hard to believe that they are so rare and hard to come by as to be worth such exorbitant amounts. Nevertheless, Criterion is the shiz when it comes to movies, and it is somewhat infuriating to see most of the remaining titles I seek packaged so neatly and priced so far out of reach . . . especially after paying so little for the other (many undoubtedly better) films.
Anyway, I'll stop rambling about that for now . . . drop beneath the fold and enjoy the article. I had a lot of fun researching and writing it, and I got to do it while I was at work, so it was just generally a good afternoon.
He was born the son of a greengrocer in London’s East End at the turn of the last century, but by the mid-1930s he was well on his way to achieving worldwide fame and popularity as one of history’s most influential film directors. Alfred Hitchcock (b. 1899 – d. 1980) revolutionized, popularized and legitimized the suspense thriller during a career in motion pictures and television that spanned more than five decades.
The best part about Hitchcock’s films is that, while they are tense, exciting, and full of surprises, they are also smart, thought-provoking, and loaded with intriguing insights into the human psyche. His movies feature a recurring motif of fractured identity. For instance, the main character of Rebecca has no name of her own. We never learn who she is at the beginning of the film, and she soon marries widower Maxim de Winter and becomes only “the Second Mrs. de Winter” for the duration of the story. In Vertigo, private detective Scottie Ferguson loses his grip on reality when his inability to face his deepest fear results in personal tragedy. Notorious has the daughter of a Nazi saboteur infiltrating a group of her father’s friends as a double agent. And in North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill is mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies and mistaken for a murderer by the police at the same time.
Deeper themes aside, Hitchcock’s movies are also just a lot of fun to watch. He once said, “Some films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake.” Hitch (as his friends called him) had a bone-dry sense of humor (he suggested that his tombstone read “This is what we do to bad little boys.”) and a penchant for practical jokes.
The great director made brief cameo appearances in every single one of the 62 movies he made between 1927 and the end of his career in 1976. In one film, he walks out of a pet store with a few dogs. In another, he wrestles a large cello case onto a train. In yet another, he rushes up to board a bus only to have the doors slammed in his face. In a few, he appears only in photographs. Hitch always tried to insert these amusing appearances as early in the film as possible, because he knew that savvy fans would be watching for him and he didn’t want to distract too much from the story.
During his long and illustrious career he worked with some of the brightest stars in Hollywood. His leading men included Laurence Olivier, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Paul Newman, and Sean Connery. Among the great actresses he directed are Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, Doris Day, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak, Vera Miles, Janet Leigh, and Julie Andrews. Gentleman or not, Hitch clearly preferred blondes.
Despite directing an Oscar-winning performance (Joan Fontaine in Suspicion) and 1940’s winner of “Best Picture” (for Rebecca, awarded to producer David O. Selznick), Hitchcock himself won almost no awards for his incredible efforts. Throughout his lifetime he was nominated for 6 Oscars, 3 awards at the Cannes Film Festival, 6 awards from the Directors Guild of America, 2 Emmys, and 2 Golden Globes. Of those, the only award he actually collected was a Golden Globe for his TV show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Nevertheless, his movies continue to startle and delight a large audience even today, more than 25 years after his death.
For more information about Hitchcock, have a look at one of our biographies about him (you’ll find him sandwiched, rather unfortunately, between Emperor Hirohito and Adolf Hitler back in the Biographies Section). Kids interested in a good mystery can read one of several books in the series endorsed and inspired by the man himself: Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, located in the Junior Series section. And, of course, be sure to check out one of the classic movies he directed (our collection is listed below). I personally recommend Rear Window and North by Northwest as perhaps the best of a good bunch. Whether you’ve seen them many times before or you’re just getting started, a Hitchcock film is sure to please.
The 39 Steps (1935) DVD, Rebecca (1940) VHS, Suspicion (1941) DVD, Notorious (1946) VHS, Rope (1948) DVD, Strangers on a Train (1951) DVD, Dial M for Murder (1954) DVD, Rear Window (1954) DVD & VHS, To Catch a Thief (1955) VHS, The Trouble with Harry (1955) DVD, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) DVD, Vertigo (1958) DVD & VHS, North by Northwest (1959) DVD & VHS, Psycho (1960) DVD & VHS, The Birds (1963) DVD, Topaz (1969) VHS
October 02, 2006
Literature and the Libido of the Lifelong Learner
As I was mulling over my recent reading last week, I bethought me of an interesting trend in the way a particular type of character is often portrayed which struck me as being worth a little extra thought. Not worthy of a major paper, perhaps, but more of a journal of sorts.
I've been reading some Nabokov lately, mostly during my break at work. I'm working on the third of his novels that I've picked up, and I've begun to notice a bit of a recurring theme which called to mind another of my favorite authors: Mervyn Peake.
I've written both frequently and at great length about the first Nabokov novel I read, Lolita, since I first encountered her a few years ago (most notably here). I'm not particularly interested in her right now, but in her revolting and sympathetic immortalizer, Humbert Humbert.
HH's career path is, essentially, "intellectual academic." He is a brilliant writer who falls back on teaching university courses when the creative well runs dry . . . or when it is too consumed with "extracurriculars" to be of any other use. By all accounts (well . . . at least, by his own account), Humbert is extremely smart, well-read, widely-traveled, a man of refined artistic tastes and delicate sensibilities, articulate, knowledgeable . . . and a pedophile and sexual predator.
He is not particularly ashamed of it (at least, for most of the novel), wandering easily into detailed descriptions of the exact numeric specifications that make up his tastes (age, build, size, personality, disposition, and so forth). His character seems to flow quite naturally from brilliant into deviant, with no marked contrast between these aspects of his personality.
The second Nabokov I picked up, fairly recently, is the lightly comical Pnin. A more different book from Lolita can hardly be said to exist. Timofey Pnin is the charming, bumbling antithesis of Humbert Humbert. He teaches a few extremely unpopular Russian courses, is widely lampooned by students and fellow faculty alike, and maintains his position at the University only through the benevolence of the head of the German department (under whose jurisdiction he somehow falls).
His English is abominable, his skill in the classroom dubious, and his skills outside the classroom virtually nonexistent. Timofey is extremely kindhearted, but intolerably timid and fussy (very like Mr. Norrell, in fact, although that is neither here nor there). He is also (of course) quite, quite impotent (sexually and in most other respects). He was married, decades earlier, to a mediocre poet named Liza who abandoned him for a mediocre psychologist (a profession which Nabokov particularly despised).
She returns, months later, pregnant and feigning reconciliation just long enough for the hapless Timofey to pay her passage to America, then revealing that she will be living there with the father of her child. Years later, she visits Timofey again to gouge money out of him for her son's education. She has him wrapped tightly around her little finger, but their relationship brings him nothing but pain in return. His subservient role in their relationship is quite possibly at the core of his lack of success and happiness.
And then, finally, there is Pale Fire . . . a very odd and interesting work indeed. I can't even pretend to come up with a brief and coherent summary of the book on my own, so I'll swipe one:
John Shade is a homebody poet in New Wye, U.S.A. He writes a 999-line poem about his life, and what may lie beyond death. This novel (and seldom has the word seemed so woefully inadequate) consists of both that poem and an extensive commentary on it by the poet's crazy neighbor, Charles Kinbote. According to this deranged annotator, he had urged Shade to write about his own homeland--the northern kingdom of Zembla. It soon becomes clear that this fabulous locale may well be a figment of Kinbote's colorfully cracked, prismatic imagination. Meanwhile, he manages to twist the poem into an account of Zembla's King Charles--whom he believes himself to be--and the monarch's eventual assassination by the revolutionary Jakob Gradus.
Charles Kinbote aka (maybe) Charles Xavier aka King Charles II is an even more difficult character to get at than Humbert Humbert. (Side note, in case you were wondering: Pale Fire (1962) came out the year before the first X-Men comic book (1963). I have no idea if Professor X's name owes anything to this book. I doubt it, but it does seem like a rather astounding coincidence.)
Anyway, putting aside all questions of whether Kinbote even exists, whether he is insane, whether he is hallucinatory, schizophrenic, and paranoid, whether the poet he idolizes exists, and so on . . . Putting all of that aside and taking Kinbote at face value (dangerous from a Nabokovian first-person at the best of times), what do we have?
An extremely obsessive academic (Professor of literature, actually); a compulsive liar; unbearably arrogant, sneeringly superior, pretentious (but then, he might be royalty, after all); and an unabashed sodomite to the most hedonistic degree, frequently indulging in oily digressions to drool over the lithe form of some young buck.
Humbert is certainly a slimier character than Kinbote, but Kinbote lacks Humbert's charisma. Poor Pnin is just pathetically pitiable.
In Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, there are a plethora of extra-special characters, but few are as special as the castle's professorial staff: Bellgrove, Cutflower, Perch-Prism, Opus Fluke, Throd, Shred, Shrivell, Splint, Spiregrain Flannelcat, and the rest. One of the most memorable and entertaining sequences in the novel (although it has little or nothing to do with any of the central plot threads) takes place when Irma Prunesquallor, Gormenghast's only eligible spinster, invites all of the professors to a party with the intention of marrying one of them.
The professors are immediately thrown far outside of their comfort zones at the prospect of encountering even one member of the opposite sex. No one knows quite how to react, but they all agree to go. The opening minutes of the party are excruciating, but it takes the reaction of one in particular to really freeze things over:
And it was then, at her third convulsive stride in the headmaster's direction that something happened which was not only embarassing but heart-rending in its simplicity, for a hoarse cry, out-topping the general cacophony, silenced the room and brought Irma to a standstill.
As every head was turned in the direction of the sound a movement became apparent in the same quarter where, from a group of professors, something appeared to be making its way toward its rigid hostess. Its face was flushed and its gestures so convulsive that it was not easy to realize that it was Professor Throd.
On sighting Irma, he had deserted his companions Splint and Spiregrain, and on obtaining a better view of his hostess had suffered a sensation that was in every way too violent, too fundamental, too electric for his small brain and body. A million volts ran through him, a million volts of stark infatuation.
He had seen no woman for thirty-seven years. He gulped her through his eyes as at some green oasis the thirst-tormented nomad gulps the wellhead. Unable to remember any female face, he took Irma's strange proportions and the cast of her features to be characteristic of femininity. And so, his conscious mind blotted out by the intensity of his reaction, he committed the unforgivable crime. He made his feelings public. He lost control. The blood rushed to his head; he cried out hoarsely, and then, little knowing what he was doing, he stumbled forwards, elbowing his colleagues from his path, and fell upon his knees before the lady, and finally, as though in a paroxysm, he collapsed upon his face, his arms and legs spread-eagled like a starfish.
While all of Throd's colleaugues and Dr. Prunesquallor gather around him an academic fascination, Headmaster Bellgrove moves in on Irma and whisks her out to the garden to woo her off her feet. Their dialogue is straight out of a third-rate melodrama . . . Naturally, since that is the closest either of them has ever been to genuine romance. In the midst of this, Prunesquallor manages to pull Throd out of his catatonic state and the professor makes a most undignified exit, streaking naked out the window, through the garden and over the wall, never to be seen again.
The point of all this (which I've been such a very long time getting to, I admit) is that the old "nerd" stereotypes from high school and beyond are carried one step further in literary circles. Academics don't get girls, either because they don't want them or because they simply can't. I found it very interesting that, over and over, I see academics in literature imbued with a somehow deviant or defective version of what is commonly viewed as the "normal" sex drive. I'm not entirely certain why this is, but it happens a lot.
A few other examples of this which come to mind: Cecil Vyse (A Room With a View), Frederick Chasuble (The Importance of Being Earnest), Quentine Compson (The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom). With a bit of reaching or speculation, I could spin out a couple dozen more candidates as well. Any thoughts (if you're still here)? Perhaps Wilson could ask that History of Sexuality chick what she thinks . . .