28 February 2013

The Doctor Diaries II.2: "Tooth and Claw"

All-Pervasive Providence

Well, this episode did get my wheels turning! Besides the great speeches by Queen Victoria about wanting to hear from our loved ones who have passed on -- which are worth the price of the show on their own, by the way -- this story is causing me all kinds of mental trouble about two equal and opposite problems I have relating to PROVIDENCE.

Here's the situation. Without giving too many spoilers, I'll just say that the Doctor discovers that two guys, now dead, foresaw a terrible danger and set up a scenario for escaping from it. In other words, this plot is a retelling of the classic providence-prophecy-fulfillment story. There are many manifestations of this story in myth, legend, folktale, history, theology, fiction, and film throughout time. There is the simple prophecy-messiah version (like in The Matrix) and its inversion, the prophecy-doom story (think of Oedipus Rex). But then there is the more complex version, in which a person of high intellect, spiritual sensitivity, or both foresees a future situation and sets it up by his own actions, either to bring it about (if it is a great good) or to prevent it (if it is a great evil).

The Harry Potter series is an example: Dumbledore, it turns out at the end, foresaw everything and set it up by playing Harry, Snape, and others as his pawns. He even had to violate their personhood in various awful ways to bring about the eucatastrophic ending, taking advantage of their loves, their hates, their strengths, and their weaknesses to deploy them according to his grand plan.

Sherlock Holmes is another example, although his visions are usually retrospective: he sees what has happened, rather than what will happen -- but this frequently (not frequently enough) enables him to see what will happen next so that he can (sometimes) prevent a further crime or (nearly always) catch the crook. The Robert Downey Jr. films, while they were travesties of the Holmes character in just about every way, did play up the foresight aspect of Holmes's abilities: in the movies, Holmes would foresee a series of events in slow motion, then enact them at normal pace. This was, however, pretty much always just a nasty fight, rather than a mental game of chess.

Then there is the quintessential example in recent literature: A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving. This strange, creepy, sprawling novel turns out in the end not to be sprawling after all: every last little detail was driving towards one end, one day, one event. Owen Meaney was a prophet who knew the date of the day he would day and knew the skills he would need to perform his last heroic deed on that day. So every experience, every piece of knowledge, every conversation, even, went towards making that day what he knew it had to be. He was the voice of God, telling everyone who knew him (and everyone who reads the book) that God exists and that God plans every last little detail of our lives for a Purpose.

But I don't think Owen Meaney was really about that, not really. I don't think it teaches a theological message so much as an aesthetic one. I think Owen Meaney is not about the power of God, but about the power of the Novelist. Within the story, we are led to believe that God told Owen Meaney everything he needed to know, and that God set up each event, all to prepare for the final scene. Yet it wasn't really God who did all that -- it was John Irving. So the book was really "about," in my analysis, how the novelist chooses each event carefully, crafts each conversation, and structures the relationships among plot elements to lead to the conclusion.

This is the same with Tooth and Claw: it wasn't the two dead characters (Sir Robert MacLeish's father, and Prince Albert) who figured out what would happen in the future and then crafted each detail to set up the events of that fateful full-mooned night: it was screenwriter Russell T. Davies. So again, this is not a TV show about God's providence or about humanity's great foresight: it's about the art of writing.

....which leads me to my two theological problems.

I. I have a really hard time believing in the seriousness of Providence when it is depicted in fiction, and yet I ['m supposed to] believe it in real life. I have a hard time believing in anything, from the fact that I exist to the fact that Philip Petit walked a tighrope between the Twin Towers to the fact that God exists. So it's no wonder I have a hard time believing in Providence in fiction, never mind for real. When I encounter a Dumbledore or an Owen Meaney, I'm awfully skeptical. I tend to think it's cheesy. I tend to think that "nature red in tooth and claw" makes for more gritty, manly, serious Art.

(That's the second time I've come across Tennyson's "In Memorium A.H.H" today--coincidence? or Providence?)

But I'm a Christian, and a "Reformed" Christian at that. I do believe in Providence. And that is my second theological problem.

II. I have a really hard time believing there is anything BUT Providence. I am more Calvinist than Calvin. I just don't see how there can be any such thing as Free Will. I find it impossible to wrap my head around the concept that God c/would make creatures so entirely separate from Himself that they could make decisions contrary to His will. I don't see how little Me can make any decision at all, in a metaphysically meaningful way. He's God. He knows everything; He plans everything. EVERYTHING.

Which means that my theological system makes Him responsible for evil. And that's a big problem. Not that there is any way to solve The Problem of Evil, even with free will. But I certainly have gotten myself into a doctrinal mess. And all that from one little episode of Doctor Who. Look what a well-trained mind can do. Maybe that's why they say ignorance is bliss -- maybe I should go back to just drooling over Benedict Cumberbatch and leave the cultural analysis to Slavoj Žižek.

The Doctor Diaries II.1: "The New Earth"

Fear and Love

This episode is mostly just wildly fun. I mean, who doesn't want to watch David Tennant's body get possessed by a sexy female's psyche? I only wish that scene were 20 minutes long. Do you remember the original Star Trek episode "Turnabout Intruder" in which something much the same happens to Kirk? Anyway, the real fun of those episodes is watching an extremely talented male actor play the part of a woman. Kirk did it mostly by crossing his legs and filing his nails, as I recall, which was pretty amusing. Tennant's brief stint as Cassandra consists primarily of self-observation, with predictably hilarious results.

But anyway, is there anything serious to be said about this episode? I think so. There are two serious themes I want to point out.

The first is one I mentioned in the previous post: bringing our fears to life. This one is packed with things that just get deep into primal fears: disfiguring disease, slow death locked in a tiny cell alone, the zombie-like pursuit of half-humans. Each of these is melodramatic in the show, but is based on a real fear. Disease is a hideous, real enemy. There are diseases that destroy the body; worse are those that destroy the mind. These diseases can reduce their victims to something as terrifying, and terrified, as the "flesh" in this episode. Claustrophobia is a real fear, too, as is the terror of dying alone. Although each of these fears is quickly passed over in favor of action and humor, there are serious moments. Most notable is Cassandra's brief attack of conscience: after she visits the mind of one of the clones, she is stunned by the loneliness and emptiness she felt there: "They have never been touched."

This leads to the other serious theme: the particular twist on The-Battle-of-Good-vs-Evil that The Doctor personifies. His kind of goodness is embodied in his two hearts: he is, in fact, a man of double kindness, double love. Time and time again he is willing to exchange himself to save others. He finds the giving of love and kindness to be exhilarating adventures, thrilling, joyful opportunities. I don't think I will forget the expression of delight on Tennant's face as The Doctor pours medicines into a solution, then invites all the zombies to come bathe in it and be cured. His eyes and smile at that moment are more the rain of love than that magical shower-bath. As the zombies wash their illnesses away, then touch each other with the hiss of healing steam, he just stands rapt by the goodness spreading from himself outward, through the suffering crowd. As they are cured, he goes about hugging and touching them in a beautiful representation of Christ's healing love.

So, in the midst of silly aliens and sci-fi goofiness, I found inspiration and a challenge. Good stuff. 

27 February 2013

The Doctor Diaries: II.Xmas

"The Christmas Invasion," since it was a Christmas special, doesn't really count as episode one. It's a full hour of extra pleasure on top of the whole season, before it even begins! And it is packed full of fun. In just one episode--ok, less than one--ok, just one scene--Benedict Cumberbatch had to move over on his throne to share with David Tennant. That man can act! Oh, he plays up me like a pipe: he knows all the stops, he sounds be from the top of my compass to the lowest note. He's a laugh-riot, he's a tear-jerker.

I have found a couple of occasions recently to point out that there is a fine line between an archetype and a cliche. A really great work of art, or a really popular one, taps into those universal archetypes so that the very first time you read or watch it, you feel you've always known it. The minute I met Harry Potter, for instance, I felt I had always known him. He immediately became a permanent member of my mental dramatis personae. The enduring myths work this way: they have a limited cast of familiar characters, and they play the same few themes over and over again in endless variation: always new, always timeless, always familiar.

Doctor Who shamelessly piles archetypes on top of cliches, shakes the whole thing up, then dumps the resulting mixture on our willing heads. One moment there's a blatant piece of plagiarism--such as when the Doctor gets his hand chopped off, a la Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Just before that, there was a direct quote (with citation) to The Lion King, of all things. But those pop-culture references are more than just hilarious. They are also meaningful. The Lion King, for instance, is a retelling of Hamlet. Now, in 2005 Tennant had not yet performed his critically-acclaimed Hamlet on either stage or screen, so the Lion King reference and the subsequent sword fight cannot be references (more like prophecies?), but he was already a noted stage actor and had played Romeo at the RSC. So the Star Wars reference taps into timeless archetypes of family antagonism, while the Lion King reference and the sword fight point to Shakespeare's eternal appeal--and showcase Tennant's sword-fighting skills.

I want to comment on another skill of his that Shakespeare's original audience would have particularly admired. Actors in those days were highly praised for being able to pull off sudden, wild changes of emotion. Leontes in Winter's Tale, for instance, goes from loving to murderously jealous in no-seconds flat. Obviously, Tennant is a consummate master of the sudden mood shift. Yet he adds another, deeper layer below the changeability: his Doctor maintains a kind of permanent calm underneath the "wild and whirling words": a self-confidence, a sexual confidence, a sense of power and control. That's a huge part of what we love, I'm sure. My sister Nadine says he has every facial expression known to man, too, which certainly helps!

Two more points and then I'm done for today. Even before I started watching these, I was wondering what it is that gets Americans addicted to British television. I mean, we even went crazy over Downton Abbey, which is--you've got to admit--pretty lousy television. I still don't know, but I just want to point out that Russell T. Davies and the rest know they've got us hooked, so they can even make a cultural joke a serious plot point: the necessity of a cup of tea. "Very British," says Mickey, right before it saves the Doctor's life. Sweet.

Finally, one aspect of Doctor Who that just gets me every time is how the writers know how to tap into what creeps us out the most--killer angel statues, for instance, or in this case, people we love all walking, walking, walking, climbing, standing on edges, lemmings to their doom. Our fears, our horrors, coming to life on screen. And then all being solved by a loving, appealing, darling of a man. Who could resist?

The Doctor Diaries: prologue

I think I might keep a blog diary as I watch my way through David Tennant's career as The Doctor. Why should I do that? Why would anybody want to read that? And why am I so far behind the times?

Well, first of all, a couple of colleges do pay me to talk about my favorite books (although they don't pay me much). And I sometimes review movies (like here and here). And of course any cultural product can be read as if it were a text. Hence, I'm going to "read" Tennant's Doctor Who series like a text. Who knows -- maybe I will have some literary or cultural insights. At the very least, I'll have tons of fun! I don't know if you'll want to read along. I hope you will.

 But wait, next question: why now? Why an eight year old series, instead of what's running this year? Two reasons. One personal, one cultural.

The cultural reason is that 2013 is the Doctor's 50th anniversary, so it's a perfect year to do a bit of a retrospective. I hope everyone is rewatching old seasons in preparation for this year's festivities.

The personal reason is that I was homeschooled, raised in a conservative family, never got to watch television except for a couple episodes of Star Trek at my grandmother's house in the summers, so somehow that got translated into me now being stuck as a permanent teenager. I never had those teenage crushes on movie and tv stars. I never had lots of teenage stages of identity crisis--until my 20s. I started the whole search for my identity in fashion, personality, taste, etc. pretty much in grad school. And now I'm stuck. Weird. I think I'll be a teenager until I'm 80. That's ok; it worked for Queen Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth as a young lady
Elizabeth as a not-so-young lady
The result is that now, in my 30s, I'm in love with Benedict Cumberbatch and addicted to tv shows for the first time ever. So, as a homeschooled, English teacher, writer, would-be nerd, I think I might share my thoughts as I watch David Tennant strut his foxy, inter-dimensional stuff.

No promises: I guarantee nothing. Nothing regular, nothing permanent. Who knows: I might post once on this and never again. I have real classes to teach and real books to write. But for now, well, we'll see. I hope you're watching, too, and having fun with the Doctor's 50th year. Please share your Doctor stories with me! Cheers.

25 February 2013

Five-Minute Morrisson

I've just read a masterful work by a Penn State colleagues, Mark Morrisson. The title is Modern Alchemy: Occultism and the Emergence of Atomic Theory. The premise of this book is that the occult revival in Britain, c. 1890-1935, corresponded to the discovery and development of modern atomic science—and that the two cross-influenced one another, mostly in the matter of the diction they both used in the public eye. Furthermore, there were some member of the Alchemical Society who were also prominent scientists, and that Society helped to popularize the idea that modern atomic theory WAS the scientific realization of Medieval alchemy's original dreams.

In other words, many scientists, occultists, sci-fi writers, and members of the public thought that the functions of radium and of radioactive transmutation were the same as medieval alchemical transmutation. It's a brilliant thesis, and perfectly well supported.

I first picked up this book, of course, because of its relevance to my Charles Williams studies: CW's occult mentor, A.E. Waite, was a member of the Alchemical Society. This society was founded in 1912, at the same time that Waite was Chief of the Isis-Urania Temple. In other words, Waite's occult and pseudo-scientific interests were at their highest right before he and Williams started talking, seven years before CW joined the F.R.C.

I wrote to the author that his contextualization did help me better understand at least one aspect of Williams's complex personality. Since he considered himself a strongly committed Anglican, and since most of his works are deeply and overtly Christian, I have wondered what line of reasoning led him to occult practices. The Church of England mustn't have been too delighted with its members dabbling in alchemy, astrology, Kabbala, tarot, and the like. But Morrisson made sense out of this for me, when he quoted what Waite wrote in The Unknown World about "the 'superstitions' of the past, or, more correctly, ...the science of the future." If Waite and his followers truly believed that all of their occult practices would be proven scientific in the future, then there could be no quarrel with established religion, since the Christian God is also the creator of all nature and hence of all true science. I have not yet come across anything in Williams's writing that suggests he went through this thought process (he seems singularly unconcerned by, or even unaware of, the unorthodoxy of many of his beliefs and practices), but perhaps he was involved in conversations about this with Waite, maybe even before deciding to join the F.R.C. It is a fascinating possibility.

One other element was particularly relevant for my CW studies. One writer, Ellic Howe, described of the Golden Dawn as "an ingenious construction of arbitrary relationships between different symbolical systems." This is so right that it's funny: Waite and the others did layer symbols with a complexity to rival the stratigraphy visible in the Grand Canyon. Williams bought into this kind of arbitrary symbol-layering wholeheartedly: In fact, in his poetry, he took all of the symbolic systems of the F.R.C., piled them up, associated them with one another, then added two additional layers: human anatomy and European geography. You can see an image of this body map here. This kind of complex layering makes more sense to me in the larger context of the occult revival that Morrisson discusses. I will also have a sharper eye open for alchemical imagery in the poetry as I go through it now. I wonder whether his drive for a totalizing mythology (a drive that many writers seem to have been possessed by, from Blake to Tolkien and beyond) was at all related to the alchemical search for the prima materia? It certainly had a hermetic aspect, since he was convinced of the unity of "things above" with "things below" -- in short, of the doctrine of correspondence. Stephen Dunning has called him a Monist, which appears to me to have a relationship to not only broader hermeticism but also to the specifically alchemical project. The legend of Atlantis/Numenor also influenced the development of his geographical myth, and Morrisson talks about this myth and its connections to alchemy and atomic science.

Morrisson also mentioned many other works related to this theme, and I am sure that reading them would also help broaden my ideas about CW's historical and literary context. They include:
Yeats, "Rosa Alchemica"
Aleister Crowley, Moonchild
Bulwer-Lytton, Zanoni 
 Mary Anne Atwood, Suggestive Inquiry 
 H.G. Wells, The World Set Free

03 February 2013

What is Human Flourishing?

A student asked me for my personal definition of Eudaimonia, or human flourishing. Here is my answer. What's yours? 

1. I believe that fulfilling work is necessary for Eudaimonia. Each human being needs to have tasks, whether manual, intellectual, or creative, that require training, skill, and attention. Much of each day and of each person's energy should be dedicated to this work for individual flourishing. This could be a job, an avocation, the raising of children, or any other kind of task, but it must be followed with energy and enthusiasm for the person to feel fulfilled. To this I add that I do think pursuits of the mind are more fulfilling than physical or social pursuits, but I have no research to prove that.
2. I believe that mutually loving and serving relationships are necessary for human flourishing, and that these relationships are not meaningful unless they can weather terrible trials and survive. This does not apply, then, to transient, ephemeral romances or brief, passing friendships. It is necessary to put even more work into love than into work in order to develop these kinds of lasting relationships. Without them, a human withers.
3. I believe that some kind of service -- I would call it ministry -- is also necessary. How can one human flourish when even one other person on the planet does not? We are all connected. I prefer the word "coinherence" for the kind of acknowledgement of mutual exchange that occurs in the most profound kinds of service: the bearing of one another's burdens. This could be in friendships, in family, in volunteer work, in large charitable organizations, etc. But unless we are working to make the world a better place and to relieve others' sufferings, I don't see how our flourishing can be anything other than selfish and inward.
4. I am a Christian, so I also believe that human flourishing is impossible without the kinds of difficult moral commitments that the Church and our traditional call us to pursue. I believe that holiness is more important than happiness. While living a moral, spiritually healthy life is much more difficult than living an immoral, spiritually unhealthy life, and may indeed involve significant suffering, I believe that any other way of life leads to temporary flourishing at best and actual destruction of the soul and of personhood at worst. These morals involve chastity, charity, humility, mutual submission, and all those other traditional words that are so unpopular -- maybe even "radical" -- in 21st-century America.
5. I also have one other belief that I'm not sure can be universally applied, but I will share it anyway. I think that human flourishing also involves intellectual development, wide reading, travel, awareness of current events, open-mindedness about cultural differences, and a general sense of planetary cosmopolitanism. I am concerned by people who do not know what goes on outside their family, small subculture, or ethnocentric regional group.