30 November 2007

Horror Movies, and Entering into the Story

David Taylor (of Diary of an Arts Pastor) has an excellent new post called Horror Movies Revisited, elaborating on his thoughts from an article he wrote a while back in Christianity Today (which he links to).

I think the art of film is under-represented on this blog, and I hope to remedy that at some point, with more reflections from the excellent courses on film & theology, taught by film director/producer and theologian Bruce Marchfelder, that I've been auditing at Regent. But for now a link to something someone else has written is all I have time for.

I'll just tag on quickly to David's post with my favorite horror movie (I don't like many and haven't watched any since beginning to think more specifically about film as it relates to faith, so I don't have a lot to compare this to): The Sixth Sense. In it a young boy (played by Haley Joel Osment) has a troubling gift of being able to communicate with spirits who don't know they are dead. "I see dead people," he tells the child psychologist (Bruce Willis). What I liked about it: It's very suspenseful without being too gruesome. It was very well acted, an especially brilliant performance by the young Osment (age 11), who was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor. It has a delightful surprise twist in the end. Now I'll have to see it again and watch for some of the things David talks about, and see if the way I watch it has changed now that I've been studying film theory and the theology of film.

OK, one other thing I thought of before I end this post. I've been thinking a lot lately about an idea that I've been introduced to relatively recently: Fiction and film are meant to be stories which we can enter into, identify with the protagonist, and participate in some way in the hero's journey, coming out the other end with new ability to face whatever challenges it was the main character faced in the story. I had never thought of the concept of story that way before, and in fact I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around that notion. It must be second nature to people who have read lots of fiction all their lives. But I've come from a math & computer background, was never really much into reading literature until the past 10-15 years, and most of the reading I do is non-fiction. Though I've watched movies all along, I probably don't see anywhere near as many as the average filmgoer. So I haven't learned to read stories or watch movies with an eye to entering into the narrative. I view it all objectively as something that is happening "out there" in the world of make-believe, or else something to educate me about some period in history (e.g., Schindler's List). I might grip my chair if the action gets intense or suspenseful, but I never imagine myself facing the same monsters or difficult parents or whatever challenges there are in the movie. The closest I've come to being transported into the world of a movie is the feeling I sometimes get when I come out of a cinema, that time in the outside world has stopped and doesn't matter anymore. I'm still running through all the open questions the movie left me wondering about, and I can be in a daze for several minutes. But I am not actually seeing myself in the shoes of one of the characters. Am I imaginationally handicapped? Do you enter into stories you are reading or watching? Is that something one can learn how to do, or does it just happen without you knowing how you do it? Is there any hope for me? Or is my more cognitive experience of movies perfectly valid and I should just not worry about it? Or is it possible that I do actually enter into stories without being aware that I'm doing it, and I just need to learn to be more self-aware while I'm reading/watching?

27 November 2007

When is an anti-religion actually a religion?

Someone, in order to satirize the idea of Intelligent Design, created a spoof religion which says the universe was created by a being known as the Flying Spaghetti Monster. That tongue-in-cheek "religion" soon gained followers who rallied around their common opposition to Intelligent Design. But at least one of them actually began to believe this invented deity was someone out there she could pray to. The American Academy of Religion took up this phenomenon in a session on "the Subversive Function of Religious Parody" at their annual meeting earlier this month. With our recent discussions of presuppositions regarding the existence of God, I thought people here might be interested in reading the article (Pasta monster gets academic attention) and perhaps commenting on it.

24 November 2007

Books to Read Before You Die

The Modern Language Association (MLA) has published a list of 30 books adults must read in their lifetimes. Here it is:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Bible
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by JRR Tolkien
1984 by George Orwell
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
All Quiet on the Western Front by E M Remarque
His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Tess of the D'ubervilles by Thomas Hardy
Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzenhitsyn

It seems a kind of random list. I've read 15 of them; maybe that's why I think it's random! Anyway, how many have you read, and which ones would you add or subtract? I personally think the world would not be one jot poorer for the non-existence of The Life of Pi.

I would add:
The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams
The Narnia Chronicles and Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis
Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet by Shakespeare
Paradise Lost by John Milton
The Divine Comedy by Dante
Confessions by Augustine
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L'Engle
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man James Joyce
Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

For now. I'll surely think of others.

23 November 2007

Unbiased or intolerant -- the only options?

Is it possible to teach without bias?
Is it even desirable to do so?

For several weeks last year I was posting a series on “What’s your worldview?” and “How do you express and present your worldview through your teaching and your art?” We discussed a few points of my worldview here and here and here. I’ve been meaning to revive that series, so maybe I’ll do so soon. But there’s a basic assumption underlying that second question (“How do you express and present your worldview through your teaching and your art?”), which is that it’s good to express and present your worldview to your students or audience. Even more: that it is good and desirable to convince your students/audience of the truth of your worldview.

Now, there’s a tricky line to walk here. There’s been something of a consensus in discussions on this blog that an artist should not push her beliefs on her audience, because then the art is degraded to propaganda. There’s been agreement that if you want to present your beliefs to someone else, you have to do so in a gentle, non-threatening manner and leave your listener to decide for himself the truth of your claims. And in class this past week, several people proposed that education should proceed without bias; that all sides of a question should be presented with equal weight to a student who will then decide for himself which position, if any, is true or correct. The example we discussed was the Evolution vs. Intelligent design. AVA suggested that parents and/or school supervisors should hire two science teachers or practicing scientists for lectures on origins: one who believes firmly in and works from the premise of macroevolution, and one who believes firmly in and works from the premise of young-earth creationism. Then students should be allowed to determine for themselves which position is correct.

Well, that sounds like a good proposal. But there are at least two problems with it from a covenantal Christian point of view. First, we Reformed Christians believe that human beings are totally depraved, and therefore incapable of accepting or even recognizing the good without the work of the Holy Spirit and the teaching of more experienced Christians. Second, most Christian parents take a vow (at the time of their babies’ baptism or dedication) to raise their children in the Word of God, to train them up in the way that they should go. Therefore, if the parents strongly believe that one position or another is the Biblical position, they have made a promise to try to train their children to understand and commit to that position.

Maybe Evolution/Creationism is a touchy example, because there are plenty of Christians who think that Evolution and the Bible are perfectly compatible. But think of other “issues” for a moment. Think about other debatable doctrines, such as Predestination and Free Will, or Infant vs. Adult Baptism, or interpretations of the Lord’s Supper—Transubstantiation vs. Consubstantiation vs. “Real Spiritual Presence” vs. Memorial. Or consider moral/social/political issues rather than doctrines, such as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, illegal immigrant status, gun control, health care, education, global warming, the War in Iraq.

In these doctrinal and social debates, wouldn’t the ideal parents present both sides to their children and then also present all the arguments in favor of the side in which the parents believe? Wouldn’t ideal teachers lecture from both points of view but then announce which side they support and why? Because the perfect parents and teachers care about their children/students from a holistic point of view: as a teacher, I want you students to become well-rounded, godly people, and I’m as concerned for your salvation as I am for your grades.

I know that sounds intolerant. How dare I believe that I know what’s good for your soul? But I do believe that God has revealed what’s good for human souls, and I want my students to follow God’s way instead of the world’s way. I want to teach that, as well as teaching facts about when and where Shakespeare lived and how many lines make a sonnet and how to pronounce “epistemology” and what are the major characteristics of Romanticism.

Here’s the bottom line: Is communication with a view to persuasion always propaganda? Is certainty bigotry? Is commitment intolerance?

What do you think?

15 November 2007

War in Heaven: fantastic, or frustrating?

A fellow online writer, Orphan Ann, and I have been having a friendly debate about Charles Williams's War in Heaven. She has kindly given me permission to reproduce our debate here, so I am doing so, with slight editorial omissions and alterations. Please feel free to participate!

Orphan Ann wrote:

Dear Iambic Admonit,

You commented in my Livejournal about Charles Williams’ novel War in Heaven and I thought I’d tell you what I though of the novel now that I’ve finished it. In short, I liked it, but found myself strangely unmoved. I thought that it was good, but too intellectual and didn’t have enough time spent on the characters themselves (with the exception of the Archdeacon and Persimmons.) That it’s a somewhat austere novel for this reason which one wouldn’t ever expect to be popular. And this looks true to me throughout the different parts of the book.

The plot, for instance. It begins with a murder victim being discovered, but this subplot isn’t attached to the rest of the plot until almost the end, when the police realise that Persimmons was the murderer and move to arrest him. This looked wilfully perverse and boring to me when first I read it, but now it’s an obvious part of the novel’s theme of the spiritual world succouring the physical. (Did Williams read thrillers, and was this a deliberate subversion, do you know? Or did he just do what he felt he had to?) As far as I can remember, the mystery subplot serves only one plot function, “mopping up” Persimmons at the end. But the “good” characters are so passive they become a nuisance to read about; I can only remember two times they take the initiative (when the Archdeacon steals the Graal and when Mornington and the Duke attack the chemist’s shop [which was a scene I enjoyed, even if it did involve my favourite character being killed off], which backfires mondo.) I realise that it’s partly the point, but it’s not much fun to read. The Graal’s defence mechanism makes the good side’s actions retroactively pointless, it seemed to me, as well. Now, on the one hand, I quite enjoyed seeing plot subverted, but on the other hand it made the story seem designed solely for the edification of the Archdeacon and the readers – which isn’t just “preachy”, but, I think, completely disrespectful to both readers and characters. There’s no compassion in it. That’s going a bit too far, as both Adrian and Jessie are saved by the Archdeacon’s making a nuisance of himself, and the Satanists’ ill-starred attempt to kill him, but it’s certainly the main thrust of the novel. You won’t find many descriptions of it as “Good vs. Evil struggle over the fate of a serving girl and a four-year-old boy”.

Nor did I think the characters were very interesting people, except Persimmons and the Archdeacon. Most of them have a fairly good introductory scene, especially the Duke, and then pale off into plot-related actions. This is especially bad for Adrian, who is only a child but seems to be little more than a spiritual poker chip for Persimmons to cash in, and Manasseh and Dmitri, one of whom explains to Persimmons that they are literally evil for evil’s sake (in the chapter “The Ointment”.) The satirical aspects of the book I felt were a bit mean-spirited, but I often feel that way about satire (not my favourite genre) and they weren’t that bad. But making the Archdeacon look clever by comparing him to his locum isn’t playing fair. One of the best characters, I thought, was Sir Giles; any opinions there? All the not-explicitly Christian characters seemed to be either entirely unspiritual or, in Lionel’s case, miserable, with the possible exception of Inspector Colquhoun. And that is not true. Non-Christian lives are not necessarily either worldly or meaningless (and yes, they’re both the same in War in Heaven), and this is just a basic mistake Williams makes describing these characters. Unbelief doesn’t lead to depression. (He might think their lives are ultimately worthless because they’re not based on God, but that’s not the same thing either.) I think the fact that the only foreign characters are both evil (and referred to as “the Jew” and “the Greek”) is related to this. He’s too – schematic, perhaps – in his attitude to people, and not interested enough in people per se; who are the bedrock, I think, of a novel.

I didn’t like the ending. It would have been sappy if a lesser talent had written it, but I can’t think quite how to describe it. I didn’t like the fact that Mornington’s death wasn’t mentioned at all, as if it was unimportant, and the rest of the book supports that reading to me. The chapter title was a bad touch. And I thought the identification of the Archdeacon with Sir Galahad, whilst resonating nicely with the Duke’s offhand comment earlier, was truly presumptuous. (That looked like a typical Inklings move to me, wouldn’t you say?)

A few scattered thoughts: the basic Archdeacon/Persimmons structure was too schematic, I thought. I did like the humour, though I wouldn’t call it hilarious; dry, perhaps. Was I totally ignorant to realise that the Holy Grail came from Ephesus? And do you have any idea why Prester John cropped up? I don’t think he’s got anything to do with the Grail at all, and assumed he was an angel, or perhaps the Holy Spirit. But it was only Williams’ second novel, so I’ll definitely give his others a try – have you a favourite?

And I replied:
I’ll see if I can respond somewhat intelligently to your clearly presented objections, but I’m not sure I can. This is due to the fact that the very characters, techniques, events, and other elements that you object to with clarity and precision are some of the elements that delight me—so part of our responses to each other is the incontrovertible matter of taste! I’ve been perhaps raised to enjoy a certain flavor in a book, which you find unmoving. That’s fine. But I suppose the more important question is whether the elements you mention are flaws in CW’s book and I like it even though it’s a poor work of literature, or whether it’s a great work that just doesn’t appeal to you. Hum. Let’s see what we can do.

First of all, you say the book is “too intellectual.” This can be either a fault or simply the author’s choice to pack his work with ideas as the expense of alienating certain readers. In C. S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress, I would say the esoteric intellectualism is inaccessible to a fault. Lewis himself admitted this ten years later in the afterword to the third edition. He wrote it when he was very young, either trying to show off or honestly and naively thinking that everybody else had gone through the same complex intellectual journey he had! But then other books, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy or even Moby Dick need all the facts and ideas and thoughts that are packed in; they are as much compendiums of the knowledge of the day (in Dante’s case) or the science on which the story is founded (in Melville’s case) as they are ripping good stories. I think that War in Heaven is the latter, that the thoughts and ideas and big words and metaphysics are integral to the story. But of course, they do slow the plot down. For example, I think that the details of publishing, the pedantic quotes from archeological type texts, etc., are necessary for giving the mock-scholarly background to finding the Grail in Fardles. Could CW have done the same thing in a more lively, lighter way? Well, he couldn’t; somebody else could, I’m sure. Is it a fault? Maybe, but I personally love the layers of dry academic dust on top of the murder-theft-black mass-car chase plot. It just tickles me pink!

Next, you object that there isn’t enough time spent on the characters themselves (with the exception of the Archdeacon and Persimmons). Right, there isn’t a lot of time spent. Whether it isn’t enough time is a matter of opinion. Sure, CW’s characters are kind of flat, almost two-dimensional. You correctly observe that none of the “characters were very interesting people, except Persimmons and the Archdeacon. Most of them have a fairly good introductory scene, especially the Duke, and then pale off into plot-related actions. This is especially bad for Adrian, who is only a child but seems to be little more than a spiritual poker chip for Persimmons to cash in, and Manasseh and Dmitri.” Yes, I agree. You could add to that the apparent racism, which infiltrates some of CW’s other books, too, especially Many Dimensions. But I think we need to stop and ponder CW’s Platonism here, as well as his theology. First of all, CW was some kind of a neo-Platonist who believed that everything here is a shadow or copy of its reality in the World of Pure Forms—or, in Christian terms, in Heaven. So therefore his characters were kind of copies of absolute spiritual realities, which is why Manasseh and Dmitri can be “pure evil”: they are earthly manifestations of the Form of Absolute Evil. Adrian is a terrestrial representation of Innocence; Mornington and the Duke are a shadow and copy of the Ideal of Friendship, and so on. Also, CW believed that human relationships (especially romantic ones) followed certain theological patterns. For example, Williams believed that marriage follows the pattern of the earthly life of Christ, including the times of temptation, crucifixion, and death. So he would structure the interactions of his characters to emphasize the action, not the person. Furthermore, one of his friends wrote about him that “I have never met any human being in whom the divisions between body and spirit, natural and supernatural, temporal and eternal were so non-existent, nor any writer who so consciously took their non-existence for granted” (Browne, E. Martin. Two in One. Cambridge UP, 1981. p. 101). In other words, he will sacrifice the psychological and emotional complexities of a character to the eternal realities or dramas they represent or in which they participate. It’s a choice he made; lots of readers won’t like it. But he’s not writing realistic, psychological fiction or novels of manners and relationships. I’m rereading Pride and Prejudice right now; nothing could be more different! So you are exactly right when you say that “it’s a somewhat austere novel for this reason which one wouldn’t ever expect to be popular.” Yup. And you also say “He’s too – schematic, perhaps – in his attitude to people, and not interested enough in people per se; who are the bedrock, I think, of a novel.” Well, of some novels. That’s why he called these “metaphysical thrillers” rather than novels. I think I’ve already tried to explain that he’s interested in people not for themselves but for what they represent, or for the larger realities behind them. But this doesn’t lessen their importance, at least he (and I) doesn’t believe so. It actually puts them in their rightful relationship to the cosmos, and therefore gives them universal and eternal importance, rather than just localized and particularized emotional or psychological interest. And that’s really the very reason other readers (including me) love it!

Also about characters, you also say that “the ‘good’ characters are so passive they become a nuisance to read about… I realize that it’s partly the point, but it’s not much fun to read.” Well, maybe. They certainly are passive. But their passivity is a choice; not CW’s choice, now, but their own choice. It’s the active, intentional decision they have made to submit their wills to the Will of the Omnipotence. In each of CW’s novels, there is at least one character who lives in a great serenity, whose soul has a center of calm. Williams grants his heroes or saints—Isabel Ingram, Archdeacon Julian Davenant, Chloe Burnett, Anthony Durant, Sybil and Nancy Coningsby, Peter Stanhope, Margaret and Pauline Anstruther, Betty Wallingford, and Lester Furnival—a profound serenity that might be called “the peace that passeth understanding.” It is their quietness, their unshakable tranquility, that allows them to be the instruments of averting or righting catastrophes.

So then you talk about the plot. You are precisely right: “It begins with a murder victim being discovered, but this subplot isn’t attached to the rest of the plot until almost the end, when the police realize that Persimmons was the murderer and move to arrest him. This looked willfully perverse and boring to me when first I read it, but now it’s an obvious part of the novel’s theme of the spiritual world succoring the physical.” Yes. I honestly do not know if CW was being deliberately subversive, but I suspect he was. And I love that! I think it’s just hilarious that you being the book with that perfect, fantastic opening sentence, expect this to be a page-turning murder mystery, and then it turns out to be a metaphysical drama and the poor murdered guy isn’t really all that important. I don’t know, it just makes me chuckle endlessly. Maybe I have as twisted a sense of humor as CW did. I just don’t see this method as “completely disrespectful to both readers and characters” as you do; I just think it’s a clever and tricky as any magician’s sleight-of-hand. Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to the reader who has no idea what she’s getting herself into, and this was his first novel. But I just love the idea of being totally fooled.

I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say “making the Archdeacon look clever by comparing him to his locum isn’t playing fair.” Would you want to explain that a bit more?

Now you introduce a complex and interesting discussion. You think Sir Giles is one of the most interesting characters, and I agree; he turns up again as the primary villain in Many Dimensions. Then you observe: “All the not-explicitly Christian characters seemed to be either entirely unspiritual or, in Lionel’s case, miserable, with the possible exception of Inspector Colquhoun. And that is not true. Non-Christian lives are not necessarily either worldly or meaningless (and yes, they’re both the same in War in Heaven), and this is just a basic mistake Williams makes describing these characters. Unbelief doesn’t lead to depression. (He might think their lives are ultimately worthless because they’re not based on God, but that’s not the same thing either.)” Hum. I’m not sure. Let’s see. I think Sir Giles and Persimmons are extremely spiritual; Persimmons actually worships a spirit—Satan—and both are very in tune with the spiritual world. Williams would just argue that there’s a good side of the spirit world and a bad side, and that all the characters are spiritual, but some have chosen “The Dark Side,” as it were. He himself, by the way, dabbled in the Dark Side. Williams was a member of the Salvator Mundi Temple of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, an offshoot of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, for either four-five years or for his entire adult life, according to various sources. He reportedly practiced bizarre sexual/magical/poetic rituals with various young women. If nothing else, he was something of a mystic and was fascinated by all that side of the spiritual world which Christianity traditionally avoids or forbids. So I really don’t see an non-spiritual characters in the book. And I’m not sure that all the “non-Christians” are miserable. Barbara isn’t. She is a profoundly solid, rooted, happy character, who grounds Lionel when he’s about to fly off into black depression. And I get the feeling that Lionel’s deep skepticism and negativity are such integral parts of his disposition that even if he “got saved” he’d be the same way. Williams sees something strangely salvific in Lionel’s assumption that everything will be difficult and that the universe will not be handed to him on a silver platter.

You didn’t like the ending. I understand. I’m not sure how to respond to it, either. I also hate the fact that Mornington goes unmourned. But again, that’s because he was a part of something so much larger than himself that his death is caught up into redemption and all that. And the same goes for the archdeacon’s death. He didn’t really die; he was absorbed or assumed into the larger life he had always worshiped. I don’t have a problem with his identification with Galahad; I just think it’s weird and bizarre, not presumptuous. It has to do with Archetypes again. He’s another manifestation of the archetype of the male virgin who is given over to a quest or a cause. Williams’s great work is his cycle of Arthurian poetry. He worked his favorite themes into these poems; he saw his life and the human body and theology as all indexing together onto/with “The Matter of Britain” (his name for the collective Arthurian legend) in some kind of holistic correspondence. In Taliessin through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944), Galahad’s household was the ideal civilization of the True Logres where reciprocal love and the bearing of one another’s burdens were practiced. Yes, this is a typical Inklings, times ten! And it thrills me.

As far as the Holy Grail coming from Ephesus, and why Prester John crops up, I’m really too ignorant of Arthurian lore to comment intelligently, except to refer again to what I wrote above about CW taking everything he ever believed and mapping it all on to the Arthur legend. I do think that Prestor John was the keeper of the Grail in one thread of the legend, but I don’t really know.

I do hope that you give some of his other novels a try. Descent into Hell is probably his best, and The Place of the Lion is my favorite. But a fair warning: in all of them, you will probably be frustrated by the flatness of his characters, because they continue to be subordinate to the great forces they serve. I’d love to hear more of what you have to say if you read more.

~ Admonit

12 November 2007

How do I know I'm not lonely?

This morning in philosophy class, we listened to “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles and discussed the worldview that is presented in that song -- one of existential loneliness that posits the impossibility of meaningful interpersonal relationships. Now, it is possible to argue (and some members of the class did suggest) that the Beatles were actually teaching that there is a solution to loneliness, or that the song insists that no one needs to be lonely, or that people are created as social beings and only live meaningless lives when they are all alone -- that “love is all you need” and so on.

But a tangential conversation developed. We discussed the proposition that each person is totally and completely isolated in his or her consciousness, inaccessible to anyone else. I referred to the following passage from Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities:
A Wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life's end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?
Some ladies in the class insisted that they know for a fact that not everyone needs to be lonely, and not everyone is isolated. To prove this fact, they cited personal experience, in which they had enjoyed personal connection with one another in which “the masks came off” and they were able to be perfectly honest with their friends, sharing everything and feeling totally connected. So then we had to ask what proof they had that such experiences were real and not subjective, deceptive, emotional realities. “Z” suggested that we could apply sensors to the subject’s head and measure her responses to various human interactions, thus proving a real physiological response to the honesty of friendship. But then, how do we know that the biochemical counterparts to emotional realities are any more “real” in an objective sense? Then “hmmm” asked the very good question: Why should emotional or experiential claims be subject to “objective” scientific [evidentialist] tests to prove their validity? So I am converting that question in this week’s post questions:
How do we know that someone’s subjective experience is a true reflection of reality? and By what means can we verify truth-claims that are based on personal experience or emotional states?

You may object that we do not need to test such claims. But consider the following situations:
1. How do you know whether or not you are really in love? Isn’t that just a subjective emotional state?
2. Someone claims to have seen an angel. How do you know he or she is right or wrong?
3. Someone claims to have personal knowledge that God cannot exist, due to occurrences in his own life that prove there cannot be a loving God. He knows for a fact that if there were a good God, He would not have allowed such suffering as this person has experienced.
4. Someone claims to have been emotionally abused by a spouse or a parent. What constitutes emotional abuse, and who determines that someone has been a victim of such abuse?

Perhaps you can think of other examples. Please respond to the questions in bold above and to the situations here if you like. I’ll add one more question, for the artists in the group:

How do you know when a work of art (painting, sculpture, poem, novel, play, song, movie) is good? Is artistic value based simply on how you feel about the work?

Thanks! Enjoy!

08 November 2007

What are your presuppositions?

I've begun teaching another philosophy class, an extended version at a different school. This is a fine arts center with a Christian foundation, so I'm hoping to really gear the class towards Aesthetics and the application of philosophical questions/ideas to both the making of art and the development of a Christian worldview.

Yesterday, in our first class, we discussed presuppositions and van Till's idea that we cannot set God aside in order to hypothesize. However, that is exactly what we need to do to some extent when studying philosophy. We need to pretend we know nothing in order to learn something--in order to learn anything at all.

To that end, I have two questions for my readers and my philosophy students.

First: What are your fundamental presuppositions? In other words, what are the basic assumptions on which you base everything you believe and how you live your life?

Second: What knowledge or worldview do you hope to impart to the audience of your works of art? If you create paintings, poems, songs, pieces of music, sculptures, dances, plays, novels, or any other works of art, what spiritual or philosophical ideas do you present through those works--whether intentionally or not?

06 November 2007

C. S. Lewis Conference report

Last weekend G, "Eurydice," & I attended a conference at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, at which I presented my first professional paper. The conference was entitled C. S. Lewis: The Man & His Work, a 21st Century Legacy. It was a wonderful weekend! It was excellent for each of us to get away from the office/cubicle/computer for a while and enjoy stimulating intellectual fellowship. Below, I will report on the most notable paper-readers (in my opinion).

The papers were presented in parallel sessions, so some of those discussed below I did not personally attend, but I received the report from G or E, or by means of requesting the paper from the speaker later.

Friday’s sessions

Samuel Joekel, from Palm Beach Atlantic University, paper entitled “Bacchanalian Feasts, First Jokes, and Aslan’s Romps: The Spirit of Comedy in The Chronicles of Narnia.
N attended this paper, and I met Sam later and he gave me a copy. It’s excellent, all about how Bacchus was a violent, licentious, dangerous god whom Lewis “baptized” and sanctified in the Narnia Chronicles. There are remnants of the fertility rites in Prince Caspian, but cleaned up for children by means of Aslan’s presence.

Kip Redick, from Christopher Newport University, paper entitled “Wilderness, Arcadia, and Longing: Mythic Landscapes and the Experience of Reality”.
This speaker’s thesis was that landscapes are operative in CSL’s fiction to the point that they become characters in the action, integral to the plot and the Kappa element (although Kip didn’t use that term) of—especially—the Space Trilogy. “Place is a living presence” and “longing [Sehnsucht] is mediated through landscape. He reminded us that the descriptions of Heaven in Scripture are symbolic, and that Nature has symbolic potential to express or communicate the Sublime. In CSL’s fiction, “Landscape is integral to the action and induces numinous affect.” His talk very nearly replicated my unpublished chapters on “Embodied Longing” in the Space Trilogy (better called the Interplanetary, Cosmic, or Ransom Trilogy, as per Michael Ward, because CSL went to great lengths to convince us that Space is just precisely not empty space), but with one very interesting difference. Kip is convinced that what Tinidril is longing for on Perelandra is the Fixed Land—that it is her paradisiacal goal. That sounded wrong to me until I remembered the end of Perelandra, in which Ransom walks through ripple-trees, meets a singing beast, and climbs impossibly high mountains until he comes to a high valley carpeted with crimson flowers, where he meets the gods.
He also talked about Till We Have Faces, in which divinity and the physical mountain coalesce. Psyche was always half in love with the mountain itself, not knowing she would love the One who inhabited the mountain; “the place and the god are interchangeable.” The mountain was a symbol of something more. Psyche’s Sehnsucht was a longing for home; Orual’s was wanderlust, a desire to wander.

Harvey Solganick, from The College at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, paper entitled “The Hard Knock at the Door of Christianity: C. S. Lewis and W. T. Kirkpatrick—An Apologetic against Agnosticism and Atheism”.
G attended this one, and I’ll have to get a summary from him.

David Rosenberg, from University of California, Santa Barbara, paper entitled “The Polarity which Divides: Lewis’ Christian Paganism”.
N attended this one, and kept insisting that I had to meet and talk to this brilliant scholar of German Romanticism. Well, N & I went to a Starbucks when we had a some free time, and there he was! N was just trying to summarize David’s paper, so we invited David over to talk to us. I guess the paper was about the chain of thought from Goethe onwards, which accused Christianity of being a “vampire,” because it is so focused on the afterlife and so insistent on chastity that it (according to Goethe et al) sucks all the sensuality out of this life. But Lewis, of course, performs a re-marriage ceremony between Christianity and Paganism, and thus re-infuses the church with rich, sensual life.

Three papers from the panel headed “Women in C. S. Lewis’s Works: Sources and Issues”
Bruce Johnson, from James Madison University, paper entitled “C. S. Lewis and Women: Hierarchy, Misogyny, and Characterization”.
The main point of this talk was that, yes, Lewis did believe in a hierarchy in which husbands are above wives, men above women, but that he realized this is a prelapsarian ideal (a Platonic hierarchy that depends upon perfection) and cannot always be realized in this fallen, sublunary world. He discussed CSL’s distinction between gender and sex (but surprisingly did not bring in the end of Perelandra). He reminded us that we are all “feminine” in relation to the “masculine” God, since the Church of which we are all members is the Bride of Christ. He quoted CSL’s great statement: “There must be a little of the woman in every man and a little of the man in every woman.”

Katherine Cooper, from North Greenville University, paper entitled “A Feminist Examination of Orual and Psyche in C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces: Misogynistic or Not?”
An excellent paper! First Ms. Cooper retold Apuleis’s source tale of Psyche & Cupid from The Golden Ass, which is a “decidedly misogynistic” tale in which Psyche’s beauty and virginity are sexual commodities to be sold or even stolen without her consent. In contrast, CSL’s story “uses the archetypes [of the beautiful virgin and the jealous step-sister] in a complex psychological modern tale of a woman’s introspective self-searching.” Till We Have Faces is a mimetic novel, a conscious outworking of CSL’s anima [Jung’s term for the soul or psyche]. Here, CSL created a convincing narrative frame in a female voice, and did not resign his characters to mere female beauty—he never describes Orual’s face and lets the reader imaginatively fill in the blank space created by her veil. In King Trom’s male-dominated society, Trom compares women to a disease, but it is interestingly Orual herself who is the most misogynistic voice in TWHF. She denigrates her feminine side and “tries to slip out of her categorization as the Other.” In the end, she “comes to a satisfactory solemnity about herself.”

Elizabeth Baird Hardy, from Mayland Community College, paper entitled “A High and Lonely Destiny: Sources for Jadis, the White Witch, in Milton’s Paradise Lost and Spenser’s Faerie Queene.
Jadis is Jung’s “bad mother” archetype: beautiful, vain, cruel, powerful. She shares several characteristics with Spenser’s Duessa: trappings of royalty via usurpation, terrible practicality, physical attraction/sensual desire, words as powerful weapons, ability to seduce and threaten, magic arts that pervert nature, false promises, sexuality and sterility united (turning people into trees/stone), a noble but shameful heritage, a bag of tricks, and a deceitful death-like castle [although for this last point she brought in another Spenser character, which confused me]. Both are non-human daughters of deceitful parents; Jadis of Lilith, Duessa of Deceit & Shame. “Jadis” means “two-faced” and reminds us of “false jade,” “jaded,” and the hiss of a snake.
Jadis also shares several characteristics with Milton’s Satan: both chose destruction and rule over servitude, look down on everyone, refuse authority and refuse responsibility, both perceive themselves as tragic heroes, both are admirable but ultimately unheroic bullies and cowards. Satan goes a progress (or digress) from Hero—general—politician—secret service agent—peeping Tom—toad—snake. Jadis, likewise, follows a downward evolution: queen—mass murderer—common criminal—thief—murderer of children and animals. Both share the same illicit entry into the Garden, both convince themselves that their lousy location is better than the glory they have lost, both have an initial victory and are overcome in the long run. And both underestimate God’s power to use evil for good.
Finally, Ms. Baird Hardy claimed that in each case, the author’s early antagonist was more complex, subtle, and memorable than his later ones.

Next were two papers from the panel headed “Personal Glimpses of C. S. Lewis.” This was a great session, because since there were only two speakers, they had half an hour for questions afterwards. Both speakers stood up front and took questions together, and they were both graceful, tactful, funny, highly intelligent and learned scholars who worked well together.

Don King, from Montreat College, paper entitled “Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman”.
Don talked about how Joy’s letter reveal her search for truth and chronicle her religious, philosophical, and political journey. He mentioned three topics in passing—that they also illustrate the struggles of her marriage to Bill Gresham, show her influence on CSL, and correct the view that she chased Lewis into marriage—but saved detailed discussion of these for another time. Then he read excerpts from both Joy’s letters and her movie/theatre reviews, which are hilariously scathing. Joy had a “clear, definite, unique voice” that is “persistent, hard, and insightful” with a “sharp, biting tone.” He recommended her autobiography, The Longest Way Round.

Diana Pavlac Glyer, from Azusa Pacific University, paper entitled “C. S. Lewis in Disguise: Fictional Portraits of Jack in the Work of the Inklings”. this fascinating paper described four characters in the writings of Owen Barfield and J. R. R. Tolkien that are really CSL in disguise. The first three are in Barfield’s work: “Jak” in the short story “Night Operations,” “Hunter” in the novel Worlds Apart, and “Ramsden” in the novel This Ever Diverse Pair. Barfield also appears in disguise in Lewis’s work: as “History” in The Pilgrim’s Regress and as Coriakin in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lewis also appears as Treebeard in The Lord of the Rings and as “Philip Franklin” in Tolkien’s story “The Norton Club Papers,” which is basically a fictionalized account of the Inklings’ meetings—the working title of which was reportedly Out of the Talking Planet!!

I’m sorry, my little summary here recounts little of the delightful humour of this sessions, which was lively and packed with delicious anecdotes and glimpses into the lives of these men and women.

Saturday’s sessions

Stephen Yandell, from Xavier University, paper entitled “Medieval Loss: the Pearl-Poet and C. S. Lewis”.
N attended this session, and read to me from her notes later. This scholar claimed that Till We Have Faces follows the traditional pattern of the Medieval dream-sequence fable, which “Pearl” also follows. In this form, a family member (father/Orual) is suffering from the loss of a loved one (daughter/Psyche), goes to the edge of a river and sees the loved one, inaccessible, on the other side, is forbidden to cross, tries to cross anyway, loses the loved one again, and wakes wiser and better prepared to meet his/her God. I think that was the pattern; perhaps Eurydice can correct me if I’m wrong.

Sanford Schwartz, from Pennsylvania State University, paper entitled “Why Wells is from Mars, Bergson from Venus: The Hybrid Worlds of the Space Trilogy”.
This fascinating paper proposed that in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, C. S. Lewis simultaneously parodied and “baptized” two kinds of evolution respectively: first a Wellsian/Darwinian “nature red in tooth and claw” nasty, stronger-devouring-the-weaker kind, and second, a Bergsonian life-force, developmental, powerful, spiritual, positive kind. CSL parodied these types of evolution by having the antagonist Weston believe in and attempt to propagate Wellsian evolution in OotSP, and Bergsonian life-force evolution in P, and in each Weston is defeated. However, Lewis once wrote that there must be a true principle of which Bergson’s ideas were a perversion; Mr. Schwartz proposed that in the Space Trilogy Lewis was imagining what that true principle would look like, and embodied it in the species and landscapes of his Mars and Venus. So on Malacandra, there are three species living in harmony, while the spiritual life of the hrossa depends upon their mutual, and mutually satisfactory, rivalry with the hnakra. This is perhaps the good original of which natural selection and the preying of the stronger on the weaker which Darwin proposed is a poor copy. In the same way, on Perelandra the entire planet is in flux, and Tinidril herself is in a state of rapid development. This seems to be a Christianized version of Bergson’s life-force evolution.

Stephen Boyer, from Eastern University, paper entitled “A Kneeling and a Sceptered Love: Lewis’s Perilous Passion for Inequality”.
This paper also discussed CSL’s love of hierarchy, whether of gender, politics, or religion. Mr. Boyer first described how Lewis loved hierarchy, and used Nature as his prime example. He explained that Christianity affirms and negates Nature, depending on her relation to God. Regarded as second to God, she is glorious; regarded as a god, she is a demon. “Subordination is the pathway to exaltation.” But then he talked about the fact that it just doesn’t work: in daily life we seem to see equality—or do we? No two people are exactly equal in any way. Only in the abstract quality of “humanness” are they the same, which ignores real individual human beings. “Inequality is the concrete reality; equality is the abstract ideal.” But equality in a necessary legal fiction, because fallen people use inequalities as weapons against one another. He described the dangers of a belief in hierarchy, such as marital abuse, ethnic cleansing, and other atrocities. Finally, he summarized as follows: “Ordered differentiation is everywhere and we should celebrate it for theological, aesthetic, practical, and moral reasons. This is compelling and moving, yes, but not safe. Love of hierarchy can be death-dealing.”

And then me. My paper was entitled “Heavenly Heraldry: The Development of Lewis’s Sehnsucht in his Correspondence and Cultural Context,” but I didn’t have time to talk about the cultural context, so I cut that out and read a paper just on the correspondence and my favorite discussion of genre & why Till We Have Faces is CSL’s best work of literature. Here’s the introduction to my paper:
At the end of his sojourn on Perelandra, Ransom perceives the “Great Dance” in which all things are interrelated. It is possible to examine the work of C. S. Lewis, a writer of great variety in subject-matter and genre, according to the analogy of the Great Dance. On any given journey through Lewis’s oeuvre, a discerning reader might trace one ribbon or thread as if it were Lewis’s primary or even sole idea. But another examination might privilege a different theme.
I consider “Joy” or Sehnsucht a centerpiece of Lewis’s polymorphous literary consciousness. Over the course of his writing, Lewis tried various signifiers to capture, express, and contain the powerful experience of “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction” (Surprised by Joy 18). My roughly chronological study records the developing lexis of longing through Lewis’s correspondence. Lewis’s search for just the right word for “Joy” has generic implications I will explore.

There were also three plenary speakers.

Walter Hooper spoke twice, once at lunch and once at dinner on Friday. He’s a good storyteller, and he told lots of really hilarious stories. His two themes were 1) his work as editor and 2) personal memories of CSL. They’re the same stories he weaves into the introductions to CSL’s books, so there was only one I hadn’t heard before—and consequently now I can’t remember it!

Bruce Edwards. He talked about the fact that America has appropriated CSL for themselves so that he is now our apologist and our fantasy writer even more than Britain’s.

James Como. His speech was highly intelligent, to the point of esotericism. I think it was brilliant, but I was so exhausted and nervous (I read right after his session) that I could hardly follow him! I think it was about what a brilliant social philosopher Lewis was, and that we should spend more time studying his essays than “wasting oxygen” on his fantasy. So then I got up in the next parallel session and wasted oxygen for half an hour!

02 November 2007

November Poem of the Month

Sonnet 102

How, when He had breathed tetelestai
and died forsaken, sinking into Hell—
the Three Who must eternally be One
somehow undone, and all created selves
down to their cells in fear of separation,
even death from life-beyond-death split
(witness these somnambulic saints in shrouds)—
did not creation fly to blasted bits?
Somehow the Three-in-One encompass Time
inside His timelessness, and thus that rift—
if right it was, which Christ in God-forsaken
agony accused—that mobiüs strip
that never splits Them, splits eternally,
is microcosm for the Triune Mystery.

I wrote this poem after a conversation with "Sesoztai," in which we were pondering what actually happened during the Crucifixion. I would love some recommendations of books to read about this question.