Monday, June 11, 2018

Jesus Is Disappointed

Among the many time-tested ways of motivating one’s children to behave well is to tell them, when they fail to do so, that Jesus (or God, or Our Lady) is disappointed with their behavior.  “Time-tested,” I say; how well this strategy passes the test is, like so many things, a matter of debate.  Much of that debate seems to result from different understandings of what the statement implies—to the adults who use it, and to the children who hear it.

On the one hand, the idea of disappointing Jesus echoes the old Baltimore Catechism definition of sin (once memorized by all children preparing for first Confession and Communion) as “an offense against God.”  God is offended; God is disappointed—the second idea is easily derived from the first.

On the other hand, telling some children (and some adults) that “God is offended by what you did” is bad strategy.  Broadly speaking, the remark could provoke three possible reactions: (a) contrition, involving an appropriate degree of guilt and a resolution to offend no more; (b) guilt in an excessive or unhealthy degree, perhaps leading the culprit to despair of being good; and (c) anger or resentment at the messenger or (worse) at God himself.

If all these reactions are possible—and experience testifies as much—why is that?  And how do we know when to expect result (a) versus (b) or (c)?  In other words—how do we know when it is good to bring the idea of divine dissatisfaction to bear?

Read the rest at the Register.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

You're Not the Only Masterpiece in the House

It’s hard to find a piece of good advice that isn’t bad advice for somebody or, at the least, the wrong advice for a certain person at a certain time.  Indeed, perhaps the chief thing separating a good advice-giver from a poor one is that the former knows what to say to whom when, whereas the latter dispenses wisdom indiscriminately to all and sundry.  Likewise, the good listener knows when to accept and when to reject advice offered, and knows further that advice which was illuminating in one circumstance may be disastrous when applied in another.  This is perhaps especially true of the spiritual life, in which today’s victory is apt to become material for tomorrow’s temptation.

For some time I’ve been fond of two analogies regarding how earthly life works.  One compares life to a tapestry: while we live, we see only the backside, a confusion of buckling loops and tied-off threads.  It is only in heaven that the design on the other side will be manifest, and each dangling thread’s part in our good and God’s glory revealed.

The other analogy makes a similar point by comparing life to a story.  Like fictional protagonists, we don’t usually understand the significance of the little things we do and say and think and suffer; it is only when we finally view life from the Storyteller’s viewpoint that the plot becomes comprehensible, and we understand how its every twist and turn, however harrowing it seemed at the time, led towards the happy end.
These are comforting analogies, with a good deal of truth in them; but like any analogies they have their pitfalls, and may sometimes confuse more than they enlighten.  The problem (or potential problem) is that both analogies make it all too easy to assume that one is the central character.

Read the rest at the Register.

Friday, March 16, 2018

SQT 3-16-18—Spiritual Direction Edition

Seven Quick Takes is hosted at This Ain’t the Lyceum.

I’d been thinking about these for a while, and it seemed time to haul this growing list out, inasmuch as Lent is upon us.  Some of these may be worth a post to themselves … sometime.  Meanwhile …
1.     The problem with “forgive and forget” isn’t that it’s always wrong, but rather that it’s not always right—that is, it isn’t always the healthiest response to an injury.  Sometimes, forgetting is not possible.  And sometimes, it’s not even preferable: sometimes, coming to understand the injury from a supernatural perspective really is better than forgetting that it ever occurred.—Riffing off a good Jesuit’s homily-in-brief.
2.     “Sometimes you don’t have time for meditation, or a rosary, or reading anything.  Do you have a crucifix on your wall, somewhere where you see it often?  Good.  Then try just to look at the crucifix when you can during the day.  That is enough.”—Paraphrase of confessional advice to a mother of a newborn.
3.     “The sorrow of the world worketh death, says the Apostle; we must, therefore, Theotimus, carefully avoid and banish it as much as we can. If it be from nature, we must repulse it by contradicting its movements, turning it aside by the practices suitable to that purpose, and using the remedies and way of life which physicians themselves may judge best. If it come from temptation, we must clearly open our mind to our spiritual father, who, will prescribe for us the method of overcoming it, according as we have said in Part IV. of the Introduction to the Devout Life. If it arise from circumstances, we will have recourse to the teaching of Book VIII., in order to see how grateful tribulations are to the children of God, and how the greatness of our hopes for eternal life ought to make all the passing events of the temporal almost unworthy of thinking about.
“And last, in all the sadness which may come upon us, we must employ the authority of the superior will to do all that should be done in favour of divine love. There are indeed actions which so depend upon the corporal disposition and constitution that we have not the power to do them just as we please: for the melancholy-disposed cannot keep their eyes, or their words, or their faces, in the same good grace and sweetness as they would do if they were relieved from this bad humour; but they are quite able, though without this good grace, to say gracious, kind, and civil words, and, in spite of inclination, to do what reason requires as to words and works of charity, gentleness and
condescension. We may be excused for not being always bright, for one is not master of cheerfulness to have it when one will; but we are not excusable for not being always gracious, yielding and considerate; for this is always in the power of our will, and we have only to determine to keep down the contrary humour and inclination.”—Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God., book 11, chapter 21, conclusion.
4.     “The bees gather honey from the lily, the flag, the rose; yet they get as ample a booty from the little minute rosemary flowers and thyme; yea they draw not only more honey, but even better honey from these, for in these little vessels the honey, being more closely locked up, is kept better. Truly, in the low and little works of devotion, charity is not only practised more frequently, but ordinarily more humbly too, and consequently more usefully and more holily.
“Those condescensions to the humours of others, that bearing with the clownish and troublesome actions and ways of our neighbour, those victories over our own humours and passions, those renouncings of our lesser inclinations, that effort against our aversions and repugnances, that heartfelt and sweet acknowledgment of our own imperfections, the continual pains we take to keep our souls in equality, that love of our abjection, that gentle and gracious welcome we give to the contempt and censure of our condition, of our life, of our conversation, of our actions:—Theotimus, all these things are more profitable to our souls than we can conceive, if heavenly love have the management of them. But we have already said this to Philothea.”—Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God., book 12, chapter 6, conclusion.
5.     God answers all prayers.  Sometimes He says yes, and sometimes He says no.
6.     God answers all prayers.  Sometimes He says yes, sometimes He says no, and sometimes He says “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
7.     God answers all prayers.  He never says no.  His answers are Yes, Wait, and For you, I have something even better. 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Happy Lent

Every now and then in signing off on an email, one Catholic to another, I have to restrain myself from employing the phrase “Happy Lent!” as a complimentary close.  “Happy Easter” most people understand; but the idea of Lent as “happy” sounds off, at least in modern English.  Since most people would take it as sarcasm, I usually refrain.  But really, Lent is happy.

Mind you, I am not an utter barbarian: I would no more wish anyone a “Merry Lent” than I would express hope for their “merry death.”  That’s not just because “Merry Christmas” has different associations than the more solemn “Happy Easter.”  It’s because “merry” and “happy” actually have different connotations, even different meanings once word detection scrapes beneath the surface.  The first sense that the OED gives for “merry” is “That causes pleasure,” and most of the derivative senses of the word involve “pleasant” or “pleasing.”  The second major sense of “merry” is “Characterized by happiness or joy”—which makes sense, since “happy” and “merry” are sometimes treated as synonyms. 

Similarly, the secondary senses of “happy” “relat[e] to pleasing appropriateness or aptness” (italics added).  But the first senses of “happy” are those “related to good fortune.”  It is under this sense that the Beatitudes are sometimes translated with the word “happy,” even though that leads to some rather curious and (ahem) infelicitous combinations, e.g., “Happy are they that mourn.”  (Or, in the Old Testament, “Happy the man whom God chastises.”)  It is probably better on the whole, modern English being what it is, that “blessed” has been almost universally adopted instead; like “consubstantial,” it has the advantage of being a word that we all know we don’t quite understand, and thus cuts down on more serious misunderstanding.

But etymologically “happy” does suggest what the word “blessed” also aims to convey: the idea that one is fortunate.  It comes from the same root hap that yielded “happen” and “happenstance.”  Originally, all three were relatively neutral words relating to luck, lot, or chance.  But somewhere along the way some bright people (who were almost certainly Christian, and might recently have been discussing Romans 8:28) got the notion that, Providence being what it was, every hap that happened to a man was ultimately for his good.  So “happy” came to mean not merely “eventful” or “having stuff happen” but specifically “having good stuff happen, fortunate.”

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Little Lenten Sacrifices

For some people Lent is pretty hardcore.  I have at least two friends who are Eastern Catholics—that is, they belong to the churches in union with Rome, but have their own liturgy and customs, including the custom of eliminating all meat and dairy from their diets during Lent. I distinctly remember watching one of these friends at a restaurant a few years back. We had all gone out after a choir event and, while the music had been appropriately Lenten, it’s fair to say that the meals being ordered were on the celebratory, wow-I’m-glad-we-pulled-that-off side. Some time after the rest of us had finished making up our minds and were chatting away, this friend was scrutinizing the menu. Ultimately he ordered a salad, asking the waitress to hold the crumbled bacon, the cheese, and dairy-based dressing. I can’t recall, but I’m hoping there were a few nuts or seeds in there somewhere.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Of Artistry

The recently unveiled Obama portraits have sparked some mild, entertaining controversy.  There is no need for me to offer an artistic review.  I haven’t the credentials (not compared to my credentials for talking literature and philosophy, anyway); as for my taste, that is clear enough to anyone who has spent time on this blog.

But I did find it interesting when some people began to take note of the fact that Mr. Obama’s portrait may have been “outsourced to China.”  A cursory search (come, come, mon frowning frères, this is not my day job) indicates that bits of the work may well have been done in China, since the artist who painted the portrait, Kehinde Wiley, has a studio there.  According to New York Magazine

Producing work in China cuts costs, but not as much as it used to, Wiley says. These days in Beijing he employs anywhere from four to ten workers, depending on the urgency, plus a studio manager, the American artist Ain Cocke. The Beijing studio began as a lark: After visiting an artist friend there and liking what he saw, he and a couple of his New York staffers flew out, rented some space, and started painting, “sort of like a retreat,” he says. One thing led to another—“another” being a five-year relationship with a Chinese D.J.—and eventually the Beijing studio became the main production hub as well as his second home.  (Source)

There has been some tut-tutting over this revelation—The Obama portrait may not have been painted entirely by the artist?  Quelle scandal!—but it really isn’t scandalous.  (By comparison, Wiley’s portraits involving severed heads—also discussed in the article above, and by the left-leaning site Snopes—are perhaps worthy of discussion.)  As the magazine observes, “There’s nothing new about artists using assistants—everyone from Michelangelo to Jeff Koons has employed teams of helpers, with varying degrees of irony and pride …”  At the same time, “Wiley gets uncomfortable discussing the subject.”

Should he?  I don’t know.  In the wise words (which I have quoted before) of Pitti-Sing, “Bless you, it all depends!”

For hundreds, probably thousands of years artists have used assistants to create their work.  It was common during the Renaissance for a master painter to run a studio where his assistants, themselves in training to become master artists, would fill in the details of large works under his direction.  (Here’s a quick primer on the topic.)  In fact, the practice was so common that museums sometimes list works as coming “from the workshop of —.”  (I don’t know for sure, but I assume there is some fairly sophisticated art detective work involved in determining whether an artist had assistance, and how much he had—in other words, when a museum decides to list a painting with that caveat, it may be a guess, but it is a well-educated guess.)

The same sort of attitude can be seen in pre-modern literature.  Shakespeare was famously not embarrassed to “steal” his plots from elsewhere—everybody did it, and everybody knew about it.  Such “theft” could even be a selling point for a new work.  During the medieval era a common trope was to claim “an ancient book” as the source for one’s own ideas, since readers attributed more authority to older works.  (Does the phrase “stood the test of time” ring a bell?)  The earliest collection of King Arthur stories was produced by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who makes an “ancient book” source claim.  In his time, he was probably believed.  Today, though scholars think there may well have been a chieftain (more likely several) who inspired the Arthurian legends, it is generally admitted the Geoffrey made most of his stuff up.

A modern instance of this sort of thinking can be found in varying attitudes towards plagiarism.  For many non-Western students (middle Eastern, Indian, and Asian), the idea that you oughtn’t repeat another person’s words without attribution is strange.  For some Asian cultures, there is an assumption that if a thing is worth repeating it is also the sort of thing that everyone would recognize.  One does not put Confucius in quotes because to do so would be insulting to one’s readers.

It is the West that changed, largely through the adoption of the Romantic idea of the Artist as Solitary Genius.  For figures as enormous as Byron or Beethoven, collaborating with mere mortals would have been absurd (and, probably, given the personalities involved, painful for everyone concerned).  Somehow this notion spread throughout the arts and among the consumers of art, so that today the idea that a painter—like Wiley—might not create every brushstroke seems practically scandalous to those outside the field.

Back to the article on Wiley himself:

… Wiley gets uncomfortable discussing the subject [of his assistants]. “I’m sensitive to it,” he says. When I [the reporter] first arrived at his Beijing studio, the assistants had left, and he made me delete the iPhone snapshots I’d taken of the empty space. It’s not that he wants people to believe every brushstroke is his, he says. That they aren’t is public ­knowledge. It’s just a question of boundaries. “I don’t want you to know every aspect of where my hand starts and ends, or how many layers go underneath the skin, or how I got that glow to happen,” he says. “It’s the secret sauce! Get out of my kitchen!”

So, Wiley is embarrassed by his studio.  And I ask again: But should he be?

Here’s a question that would resolve that question—and I don’t know the answer; and I should emphasize that: I don’t know the answer.  Does Wiley’s work as a master artist actually overflow into the work that his assistants do?  Or, to put that another way: How much of the style we see in Wiley’s work is owing to him, and how much to chance?  Film directors are not ashamed to admit that their cameramen contribute, but that’s because they give the cameras well, direction.  How directed are Wiley’s assistants?

But that’s just what he doesn’t want to show.  “It’s the secret sauce! Get out of my kitchen!”  I very much doubt he actually has anything to be embarrassed about.  He just thinks he does.  It would probably be to his benefit if he embraced the reality and let people like his friendly interviewer into the kitchen.  But our Romantic ideas are in the way.

Of course, the other question, and the other possible difference between Wiley’s method and that of Michelangelo et al., is that there was a presumption that the assistants of Renaissance masters were learning the trade in order to become masters themselves.  Some of them did—del Sarto, Romano, Botticelli, Perugino …  Some even surpassed their teachers—Michelangelo himself was the student of the less famous Ghirlandaio.  One of my favorite examples of “group work” is a painting of “Tobias and the Angel” attributed to the workshop of Verrocchio; the painting is famous in part because some of the detail-work may have been done by a young Leonardo da Vinci.

That, of course, is what takes the sting out of the terms “master” and “assistant.”  If the relationship is not exploitive, but more that of teacher and apprentice, there is every reason to applaud the practice of studio work.  Hopefully, Wiley’s Beijing studio meets that description.  Will we be seeing portraits of Asian women à la Judith and Holofernes in ten or fifteen years?  Time will tell.

Friday, February 2, 2018

SQT 2-2-18 – On the Other Hand

"Seven QuickTakes" is hosted at "This Ain't the Lyceum."

1.     Number One Son now has not handed me weights during my workout, tried to feed me peas for lunch, and beat my breast during the penitential rite at Mass.  Nothing like an oldest child to keep his parents in line!  On the other hand, he flipped out when a latecomer to Mass did a full prostration next to our pew.  Apparently too much devotion is upsetting to the toddler mind?

2.     Fun money fact: If you have an IRA, you cannot transfer it to anyone else as long as you are alive.  No, not even your spouse.  No, not even if you’re unemployed.  No, not even if the account fees are slowly draining away your tiny balance so that it will be halfway evaporated by the time you can withdraw at age 59.  On the other hand, you can withdraw early and avoid the tax penalties if one of a few choice situations applies in your case.

3.     Dr. Seuss now lives in the drawer that we never open where the good silverware lives.  (Don’t ask me why we have good silverware; we haven’t used it yet because our ordinary silverware is pretty dang nice, and because I haven’t gotten around to ever washing the good silverware, ever, in three years of marriage.  #firstworldproblems)  It’s not that I am morally opposed to Dr. Seuss.  Nor am I actually opposed to anyone else reading Dr. Seuss while I’m around.  I’m just opposed to reading it myself.  I have no problems reading “I Am a Bunny” 2,347,891 times in an afternoon, but there’s just something about “Fox in Socks” that makes me want to curl up and die after the third repetition.  Part of it is probably the shortness of the lines and the similarity of the rhymes (see what I did there?), since ordinary Mother Goose is no problem for me.  Part of my repulsion, no doubt, is due to the ugly pictures.  (Really.  If they don’t corrode your soul on some level, maybe you ought to see a spiritual body mechanic about the damage that’s already been done.)  Whatever the reason, I’m not pretending it’s logically defensible.  As the Italian Mama says about her cooking, “You must feeeeeeeeel the love, Gino!  You no feeeeeeel it, you no coooook it.”

4.     On the other hand … It occurs to me that some people may feel that I am selfishly depriving my son of one of his chief joys in life, namelich, hearing Mama read “Fox in Socks” very fast with perfect diction and (depending on how insane she’s turned today) either the Boris and Natasha accent or the Julia Child voice.  Sorry, folks; I feel no guilt.  Here’s the thing about toddler desires: they’re pretty malleable, as long as you keep things out of sight.  Sometimes even if you don’t keep things out of sight.  A sixty-second snapshot of Number One Son’s brain this morning (expressed in whines, grunts, running, pointing, and the occasional “Pwee! pwee pwee pwee!”): I want … milk!  What?  No!!  I want … outside!!!!  Daddy, read book!!!! Mama, read book!  I like my stacking bowls.  Ice?!!!!  Is that my milk?!!! Outside?!!!!! OUTSIDE FOOLISH PARENTS!!!!!!!!  Oh, we’re going upstairs now??  OK.  Great!  My favorite place.

 *                    *                     *

Don’t feel too bad for him.  He’s just a little bipolar, like all toddlers.  And believe me, as long as he doesn’t know Dr. Seuss is in the drawer, he—and Mama—will be juuuuust fine.

5.     A little more fallout news from Hawaii:  (For those not familiar with XKCD, language and content warning—this installment is clean, but on the other hand there are plenty of others that are not.)

6.     It’s very sweet when all your high-energy sick child wants to do is lie in a blanket on your lap and babble at you.

7.     On the other hand, when said child tries to express his affection and gratitude by giving you open-mouthed kisses on the mouth …

"A Man Grimacing Grotesquely"

Bonus take: Another place to find old free images!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Purity of the Turf

There’s an old P.G. Wodehouse story titled “The Purity of the Turf,” which features respectable British gentlemen fooling around by placing substantial bets on the (pseudo-)athletic events at a local “school treat.”  A good part of the hilarity arises from the gravity with which protagonist Bertie Wooster and antagonist Steggles treat the situation: with all the seriousness of habitual horse race gamblers.  At one point, outraged by Steggles’ dishonesty, Bertie (also the narrator) uses the racetrack expression which gives the story its name: “‘And they talk about the Purity of the Turf!’ I said. And I meant it to sting, by Jove!”

Of course, when Bertie’s valet Jeeves snatches victory by similarly “impure” means (falsely confessing to having bribed participants of the egg-and-spoon race, thereby ensuring their disqualification) all is right and just.  Steggles, after all, cheated first; and anyway, the raison d’être of a Jeeves and Wooster story is that when J&W win all is right with the world.

It is also a natural human reaction, no doubt traceable to some scientific mechanism like the survival of the fittest, to feel that My tribe must win, no matter what the cost.  Interestingly, few My Tribe Firsters are willing to say aloud “The Purity of the Turf be hanged!”  They’re far more likely to pretend it’s still pure—or, when they no longer can bear ignoring its impurities, to leave for (hopefully) greener and purer pastures.

Of course, when the turf defiled is merely the grounds for a schoolsgirls’ egg-and-spoon race,  My Tribe First does little harm.  Problems arise in weighter affairs, when not only the manner but the matter of the contest is grave.  Whether your tribe is a particular family, a workplace, a school, a political party, or a segment within the Church, the temptation to overlook the sins and failings of the tribe, personal and institutional, can be nearly overpowering.  Sometimes, if the sins involve paperclips, it is well to overlook them.  Sometimes, when the sins involve poor men’s pensions, it becomes morally compulsory to speak out.

Unfortunately, there’s a large space between paperclips and pensions, and discerning when it’s time to “betray” one’s tribe or even abandon it is not easy.  And because deciding to speak out against a group for which one has or had some sympathy requires so much personal torment, it is particularly hard for this kind of whistle-blower to take accusations from those who remain staunchly My Tribe First that they are “virtue signaling” or “were never really one of us” or “don’t care about the goals of the movement,” etc., etc.  Hence the bitterness of many internecine quarrels: for My Tribe Firsters, it is hard to perceive the good will of the Purgers involved in preserving the movement(s) from itself, while for the Purgers who have left, it is hard not to feel that the My Tribe Firsters are willfully blind to the impurities of their turf.

Two late examples of this phenomenon are (1) the ongoing ire in a few quarters against those in the pro-life movement who have allied themselves with Trump and (2) the recent debates regarding Christendom College’s handling of some harassment cases.  Watching both cases unfold, one of the sadder elements has been the inability of both some Purgers and some My Tribe Firsters to recognize that their former compatriots may, despite differing opinions in a grave case, retain some faint degree of moral fiber.  That is a great pity, especially as problems like these are hard to judge because institutions designed to do good but made up of human beings are intrinsically complex.  Prudence is key; but even wise men make prudential mistakes on occasion.  When does your Tribe turn too piratical?  When and how do you jump ship?  When is the turf hopelessly defiled?  When is it time for a purge?  And what sort of purge is desirable?  Obviously, sometimes it is right to be silent about the sins of one’s Tribe.  Equally obviously, sometimes it is right to expose them, as much for the good of the Tribe as for the good of those who have been injured.  And it’s hard to conceive of a hard-and-fast rule that would cover a variety of complex moral situations and tell you how to act rightly in each and every one of them.  In other words: again: prudence.

But when prudence fails to emolliate such cases, as it seems to have failed in the two cases mentioned above, there is always the greater virtue of charity.  No matter how imprudent one my consider one’s opposing My Tribe Firsters or Purgers to be, it is foolish and wrong to behave as if they are lost.

Let us say (for the sake of argument) that some prolife leaders sinned grievously in supporting Donald Trump.  Let us say (for the sake of argument) that some Christendom faculty sinned grievously in their handling of harassment cases.  While concern for the victims (those injured by Trump or prolife leaders or Christendom faculty or students) should be paramount, that does not, that cannot exclude a simultaneously concern for the very people who are committing the sin.

Christ threw the moneychangers out of the Temple.  He was righteously indignant concerning their predatory and impious behavior.  But I don’t recall Him saying anything about how they had committed unforgiveable sins.  Indeed, he took action but as usual his words were remarkably short and pithy—certainly nothing that would amount to a “rant”.  He was merely and straightforwardly descriptive: “You have made [this house] a den of thieves.”

Contrast that to some of the opprobrium spewed in internet debates over the previous two issues over the last few weeks.

Now.  So what?

Nothing really, except a personal resolution on my part about what actions to take the next time one of my Tribes sins.  When it comes to leaving the Tribe, accusing the Tribe, or what have you—when it is my turn to make that move, be it through a well-researched article in some respectable and remunerative venue, or a passive-aggressive blog post here, or merely through a single comment on Facebook—whenever the time comes to take a stand against the Tribe, there’s a simple check to perform first.   Do I really want the good for the villains in this case?  Do I really desire their eternal happiness?  Or am I so involved in the plight of the victims that I see the villains as hopelessly irredeemable?

I’m not suggesting that this check ought to change anyone’s mind about what to do.  I’m not saying that more people need to ignore tribal victims for the sake of Tribes, to preserve some spurious illusion of the Purity of the Turf.  Much better to actually work to make it pure, which sometimes involves opening a vein—yours, or the Tribe’s.

But it is important that the surgeon, the Purger, not enjoy opening the vein.

There is more than one way to idolize the Purity of the Turf.  The common way, certainly, is put on the green glasses and loudly announce its greenness to all and sundry.  That is one kind of idolatry, the idolatry of My Tribe Firsters.  The other kind is when a Purger becomes so bent on seeing that the Turf Stays Pure that he constantly seeks infractions in order to boycott the race.  That too can be idolatry, of another kind.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Secondhand Temptation

In an examination of Guardians of the Galaxy II, one of the Marvel franchise’s more recent movies, I spent some time discussing the movie’s failure to portray a convincing villain, a failure which damaged the story as a whole.  If the villain in Guardians had been able to more effectively sell his masterplan to the hero (instead having to resort to hypnosis), it could have been a much better film.  A hero who has to make good intellectual and moral choices using his full capacities is a more interesting and on some level a nobler character than one who acts merely instinctively.  A villain who can almost convince a sound man to follow him is more interesting and on some level more useful character than one who is easily refuted.
Since the screenwriters had time in this case to make the villain more effective (they had only to change a rhetorically weak speech for a strong one), I assumed that the screenwriters were simply unable to write convincingly villainous rhetoric.  Upon further consideration, however, I wonder if that was the only thing, or even the main thing, holding them back.  It is at least conceivable that some of them had ethical scruples about portraying a villain whose tempting is nearly effective.

The problem with a good, solid temptation scene is that it operates differently upon different viewers or readers.  Even the story of the Fall in Genesis has this imperfection: I’ve known non-Christians to genuinely feel that God’s test is tremendously unfair to Adam and Eve.  In the Gospels, Christ refers to that sort of spiritual blindness using Old Testament references to those who lack “eyes to see, and ears to hear.”  Nor is the blindness always spiritual: during the latency period of childhood, which lasts from about age five to twelve, there is generally a diminished ability to comprehend and process certain adult knowledge (a diminished ability which, incidentally, ought to be respected).  And of course, there is always the question of intelligence pure and simple: the annals of history are full of evil men who rose to prominence in part because people were simple enough to believe them.

When it comes to literature, there are plenty of examples in which right and wrong portrayed subtly have led to confusion.  Evelyn Waugh’s masterful and very Catholic novel, Brideshead Revisited, is adored by numerous secular critics only because they fail to see its Catholicity.  Waugh, writing from the point of view of a narrator who is (for most of the story) not Catholic, is too subtle for his advocacy of the Faith to be grasped by many readers.  A still more grave example of this phenomenon is Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Milton asserts rather grandly near the beginning of his biblical epic that he intends “to justify the ways of God to man,” an intention which even a minute scholarly knowledge of Milton’s life and opinions supports.  But over the centuries since Milton wrote, scores if not hundreds of readers have felt (in the words of William Blake) that Milton was “of the Devil's party without knowing it.”  Milton has been rolling in his grave ever since.

This gives the writer a conundrum that is not faced by other creative artists.  If he is called, as some writers are, to write simple stories, stories that deal with good and evil on a level that a child can understand, then there is little or no danger that he will tempt readers beyond their strength.  But if he is called to produce anything more complex—if it is part of his secondary vocation to reproduce moral conundrums with anything like the complexity they sometimes have in real life—then there is always a danger, almost the inevitable danger, that some of his readers may (to paraphrase Blake) take the devil’s side without his intending it.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Seven Quick Takes, 1-19-2018

"Seven Quick Takes" is hosted at "This Ain't the Lyceum."

1.     If you are one of the three people who has been reading this blog for a while, you may have noticed that recent posts include a “Source” link under the picture captions.  This is because, after a conversation with a family member who happens to be a lawyer, I began to question my hitherto somewhat laissez-faire attitude towards pictures, and towards classical (by which I mean “painted probably in Europe between 1000 and 1900 A.D.”) artwork in particular.  Apparently (contrary to Wikipedia’s blithe assurances) just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s legally showing up in your web searches.  Fortunately for me, the Met recently decided to declare much of its collection public domain.  To view, go here, scroll down for the options on the left, under “Show Only” make sure to select “Public Domain Artworks,” and proceed to enjoy legal use of images of everything from Greek pottery to Dutch masters to random bits of armor—just make sure that you source the images back to the Met.

2.     I have discovered the (a?) secret to not going over budget: Don’t buy anything until after you’ve run out.  No, seriously.  You don’t need plastic wrap.  Or cooking spray.  Or a new rug for the bottom of the stairs down which your toddler is threatening to tumble.  Cavemen didn’t have plastic wrap, and they survived just fine.  OK, but seriously, there probably are alternatives in your house to almost anything that you might happen to run out of.  And if you run out of it first, you might discover that some of these alternatives are actually cheaper than you thought, and work just as well … Even if you decide to go back to your precious canisters of Pam, however, the trick of not buying until you run out should enable you to make it to the end of the month without crossing the red line when you’ve already maxed out your “household goods” column.

3.     I am sure this does not apply to all children and all ages, but if you are a new mom of a non-walker, let me promise you: some things do get a easier when they learn how to walk.  Yes, they’ll get into everything.  Yes, they’ll want to climb your couches, chairs, bookshelves, piano, and any other platforms more than .5 square feet broad and three inches high (“platform” being defined loosely, of course, to include such objects as Christmas trees and bags of fruit).  Yes, they’ll whine for those just-out-of-reach items until you drill it into them that they can’t have everything they see (and drill it into yourself that sometimes substitution or removal of the desired object is prudent).  But don’t children whine for and destroy things before they walk too?  And once they can walk, they can play sooooo much more easily—and hence happily.  On the whole, a worthwhile tradeoff, n’est pas?

4.     In world news, Hawaii’s random false nuclear warning last week was not the first such incident.  (In fact, there are several stories of nuclear near-misses, as you’ll find if you google for more information about the 1960 Thule event.)

5.     Meanwhile, the other kind of nuclear power—the power plant kind—is losing in California, winning in Minnesota, and providing interesting environmental benefits, even if you ask sincerely concerned environmentalists.

6.     Alright, alright, since we walked down this road, we’ll go all the way: Yes Prime Minister - Bernard Woolley on defence capabilities.

7.     And for a lighter sort of button game, which might perhaps be useful at your January Christmas parties … Remember that line in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, “Button, button, who’s got the button?

8.     Finally, a bonus take, in the form of a reminder that if cavemen don’t need buttons, neither do you.  Unless, of course, you’re still under budget for the month.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

In Which Good Screenwriting Just Makes Sense

It is a truth universally acknowledged by all who have the misfortune to know them that writers view movies with a jaundiced eye.  It’s not so much that we’re deliberately looking for what the screenwriters have done wrong, as that we’re on the lookout, even unconsciously so, for mistakes that we might make ourselves.
It will thus come as no surprise that I thought Guardians of the Galaxy II was less than stellar.  To be sure, this isn’t just a writer’s critique: friends also thought that Guardians I was generally better and specifically funnier.  Despite my hesitance to level that criticism from a distance of months, I’ll confess to having noticed more tastelessness this time around.  Possibly the tastelessness was there during the first round too, but I don’t remember it so vividly.

Likewise, the violence.  About halfway through I turned to my husband and said, “Does this even have the same rating as the last one?”  As with the humor, this installment of the series just felt rougher.  Once again, though, I’m not confident that the body count was higher, or the killing portrayed more lightly.
A third element of the film that made a definite difference in viewer comfort was the character of Groot.  Groot, an ancient tree in Guardians I, has been splintered into a baby shoot in Guardians II.  He’s undeniably cute.  Too cute.  Especially if you happen to be a female possessed of a baby or so, seeing anything bad happen to Baby Groot (even if he does look more like a pint-sized Ent than a human being) is incredibly painful.  The “mascot” scene was almost unwatchable.

None of these, of course, are critiques of the competence of the film’s writers, or not directly so.  But …

You knew this was coming.
Spoilers ahead.

One of the good things about Guardians I, people said, was that it didn’t take itself too seriously; by comparison, some friends felt Guardians II took itself too seriously (ironically—see above point re humor).  The real problem for any movie, of course, is rarely its seriousness, but rather its failure to do serious well.  And on this count, I think Guardians II may indeed be guilty.

I said spoilers ahead, right?
You all read these captions, right?

In its favor, the film is attempting to do something that its predecessor did not, in treating the theme of family ties and especially of fatherhood.  If the Yondu plot is the center of the fatherhood thread, then that is actually interesting.  But if the Ego plot is the center—and the amount of screen time rather seems to indicate that it is, even though the film ends with Yondu—then the film fails.
For those who haven’t seen the movie, here’s the basic setup.  Peter Quill, a.k.a “Starlord,” is the son of a human being from earth and a hitherto unidentified extraterrestrial.  Early in Guardians II his life is saved by a mysterious being who soon identifies himself as Peter’s father, and who turns out to be a “celestial” (think minor Greek god) going under the moniker Ego (hmmm …).  Ego warmly invites Peter to his home planet and, with varying degrees of suspicion, Peter and two companions go.

Once on his home planet, Ego reveals his masterplan to his new-found son Peter.  For—centuries? millenia?—he has deposited bits of his planetary magical stuff …

It’s blue and glows; what more do you need to know?

… onto other planets, along with fathering lots of children on said planets.

I told you he was basically a minor Greek god.

Ego’s masterplan is to grow himself over all these planets and turn the universe into—you guessed it—Ego!!!
But there’s a catch.  Ego isn’t powerful enough to do this on his own; he needs a second celestial to help him.  All of his children so far haven’t had enough god genes to be of any assistance, and so they’ve been painlessly euthanized.  (Nice guy, right?)  But Peter Quill, well … Peter has the god genes, as his handling of the Infinity Stones in Guardians I proved.

Of course, it would take a monster to listen to this recital unprotesting.  Since Our Hero Peter is instead a Very Nice Guy, the screenwriters evidently figured he needed some excuse for being tempted.  Thus, prior to the recital of the aforementioned Fiendish Scheme, Ego essentially hypnotizes Peter.

… whose eyes, of course, turn totally blue.  Paging Frank Herbert!

Thus, Peter is able to listen to the recital, be genuinely tempted by the prospect of joining with Dear Old Dad, and only snaps out of it when he learns that Ego, as a minor element of the Fiendish Scheme, had to off Peter’s mother.  This breaks the spell numbing Peter, and enables the commencement of the Final Battle (which according to custom takes perhaps a quarter of the movie, with brief respites for character development and comic relief).
It’s not a terrible solution—it’s better than some alternatives, e.g., changing Peter’s character such that he petulantly considers Ego’s Fiendish Scheme because, say, he’s mad at his friends for some trivial or not so trivial reason.  Still, this would have been a much better movie all around if Peter had been genuinely tempted.  But would have required a better Ego.

Recall C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra.  If you read the speeches of Lewis’s tempter Weston, it’s actually very hard to detect surface ethical issues.  As a reader, you can almost approve some of his arguments for disobedience.  You can admit to yourself while reading, “Wow, maybe that’s wrong in this situation … but I dunno … Would it always be wrong?”  Of course, Lewis gives us enough external information to know that the Bad Dude is in fact a Bad Dude and ought not to be agreed with.  But it’s a strength of the novel that the Bad Dude is almost persuasive.  Lewis pulls a similar thing off with his narrator in Till We Have Faces, who is credible until near the end of her story.  Dostoyevsky’s Ivan is another excellent example of the character whose false arguments are powerful and all but irrefutable.  Similar things have been done in literature from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath to Milton’s Satan to (some say) Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert.  Unreliable narration, whether for a speech or for an entire book, is a basic tool in the writer’s kit.
Ethically speaking, I think unreliable narration is oftentimes to the good.  In a story where the readers or viewers are eventually disabused of their error, the awareness that they were tricked or tempted has a cautionary effect—“I shouldn’t judge people so harshly,” “I didn’t realize I could find power so attractive,” etc., etc.  And regardless of the ethical implications, it just plain makes for a better blasted story.

That is why Ego’s narrative in Guardians II is so terribly dissatisfying.  We the viewers don’t agree with him for a moment.  He isn’t interesting anymore.  And we can sit smugly in our couches and shake our heads in righteous scorn at Ego and roll our eyes at the stupid, drugged Peter, in a lively exercise of Better-Than-Thouism.  It is stultifying for the intellect and not much better for the soul.
What’s more, this story thread is paired with two other family-themed threads: the reconciliation of sisters Gamora and Nebula, and the emergence of Yondu as Peter’s true father-figure.  They’re worthy stories, but they suffer by being juxtaposed with Ego’s.  Yondu is a clear alternative to Ego—a flawed but ultimately loving character, who at one point tells Peter, in re Ego, “He may have been your father, but he wasn’t your Daddy.”  But Ego is so bad that, attractive exterior aside, he hardly works as a foil for Yondu: there really isn’t a choice between them.  It would be more interesting for the audience, and require more discernment on Peter’s part, to recognize Yondu’s virtues if Ego were less appalling.  As for the Gamora-Nebula story, the root of their quarrel is a father who played them off against each other (literally—as gladiators) from childhood.  Although their father, Thanos, is not obviously juxtaposed against Ego (he’s offscreen for this entire film), once again a subtler portrayal of Ego could potentially have led to more interesting considerations about Thanos.  (For example, how is Ego’s plan to use Peter for his Fiendish Scheme like and unlike Thanos’s desire to train his daughters for his own empire?)

With so much to be gained by strengthening Ego’s character, why didn’t the screenwriters make him more interesting?  The usual answer, that character development takes too much time, won’t work here.  True, the film is, like all of its genre, devoted to providing an entertaining spectacle.  But it still takes time to outline at length Ego’s activities, past and future.  All the screenwriters needed to do was to substitute some plausible rhetoric for the dull pennyworth of  Nietzsche they used instead.  (E.g., Ego could have began by appealing to the corruption of fallen beings—wouldn’t it be better to wipe out certain planets, etc., etc.?)
I think the only possible reasons for failing to ante up Ego’s rhetorical skill are either (1) it didn’t even occur to the screenwriters that his rhetoric could be better, or (2) they realized it could be better, but didn’t know how to convincingly write such a speech.  Either possibility is a sad commentary on the state of their art, and the unfortunate result of their apparent incapacity an object lesson to the rest of us.