Friday, November 20, 2015

Breaking: Students Protest Gustatory Insensitivity

We interrupt this venue’s usual programming for an urgent news bulletin from the Real World.

Yesterday, at 11 a.m. EST, as residents of Washington, D.C., New York City, and various other population centers along the eastern seaboard prepared for the immanent appearance of Leviathan, students at two U.S. college campuses launched a new protest against their universities’ gustatory insensitivity.

“When I first came here,” said sophomore Julienne Almonde, “I didn’t know how bad it was.  I expected life outside my little city to be different—less friendly, welcoming.  But I didn’t know there would be cornflakes on the breakfast menu.”

While whole sectors of D.C. were swept by emergency personnel, seeking to ascertain that evacuations were complete, we asked Almonde to provide more detail about his shock. Almonde said that for gluten intolerant people like himself, life in the presence of wheat was a constant struggle.

“But then some bright student gets the idea for a hazing—oh, here’s the guy who only eats cornflakes—and you’re the target of instant mockery.  I mean, yes, I eat corn; but only when it’s organically grown and stone ground—but not the kind of grinding that’s done by undocumented workers, Gaia bless their souls.  The kind of grinding, you know, that I would do in my spare time.”

Pressed for more details, Almonde admitted that he had last prepared his own meal when his grandparents gave him a KiddieMill for his eighth birthday.

“Since then, my mom’s ground everything for me.  I mean, she just does a much better job.  Hey, I’ll be sensitive enough to admit that,” laughed Almonde.

As citizens on the East Coast scrambled onto the last metro trains out of the city, junior Marilyn Toufeux made the case against her own school.

“President Blackhatte has completely ignored the fact that the containers in which we carry food are the virtual receptacles of mass discrimination.  Basically, if you look at the shape, every single one is circular.  Plates, cups—even the weird plastic containers that you pick up at the salad bar.  I mean, they’re not, like, ACTUAL CIRCLES, but they have these rounded edges.  It’s an insult to women everywhere.  I mean, if you’re skinny, it’s like they’re saying, ‘curves, what?’  And if you’re curvy, they’re basically just implying that you’re fat.”

With scientists at MIT desperately reviewing calculations from the latest sightings of the famed sea monster, hoping to buy Americans a few more hours of time—or at least of hope—Toufeux explained that her father had hand-carved a special set of wasabi-tree inspired dining dishes for her bat-mitz-moon-confirmation party.

Artist's rendering based on Toufeux's description.

“We’re a pretty diverse family,” she admitted, with her typical coy modesty.  “And the complexity of the shapes just expressed—you know, me, individually.  So it’s really, really hard to come here and see these PEOPLE—just eating—out of those THINGS.”

As sources announced that the President and members of the houses of Congress and Cabinet had been safely enclosed in separate facilities, designed to one-better the bunkers constructed after 9-11, Talon Sawteye related the harrowing tale of his encounter with an unsympathic teacher.

“I told her—expecting sympathy, I guess—that every time I passed the egg salad in the salad bar, I got these visions of chickens, caged ... my ancestors ... the chicken was our totem, you see.  I could feel their feathers, in my eyes; see their wings beating; feel their panic, caged; feel the blinding light of the cage lamps, the sleep deprivation, the torture ... She said maybe I should wear sunglasses.”

Sources within the university confirmed that the teacher had since stepped down.  It is unknown, however, whether she was actually fired by the university after Sawteye and his friends began egging the university administration buildings, or whether she had simply obeyed the evacuation orders issued by FEMA forty-eight hours before.

Asked whether he will also be leaving campus, Sawteye says he plans to stay right where he is.

“Leviathan?” he repeated when asked how he planned to deal with the inevitable guest.  “My parents used to talk about the guy.  I don’t think they really understood what he was all about.  I expect, once we figure out what kind of meals he prefers, we could sit down and actually have a really good conversation about what would make the world a better place.”

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Saints' Insides, Part 2

I concluded my last post by saying that, within the context of evangelization my problem, as a literary artist, is whether and how it is possible to create a Hero, and indeed a Saint, who is neither a rogue, nor a na├»ve, nor a bore.  Obviously the only satisfactory answer to this problem is to produce a performance which can be judged on its merits.  But it seems worthwhile to sketch out some reasons, theoretically speaking, for why the performance ought not to be considered fruitless on the face of it.

Typically, the reason given for disliking noble characters—be they saints in the strict sense, or simply that flavor of unblemished cowboy, superhero, or soldier whom the critics tend to despise—is that they are boring.  There is no interior conflict, or no real conflict, in such characters; they are, we are told, unrelatable.  Superman and Captain America are bland compared to Batman and Iron Man.

And there is a certain amount of truth in that criticism.  We literary artists tend to present noble men blandly—and, I would argue, badly—in the sense that a bland presentation of a noble man is, in fact, an inaccurate presentation.  The comment on my previous post suggested that this is perhaps because “nemo dat quod non got” (my preferred presentation of the adage): the artist cannot portray what he does not have or know.  Artists do not know what it is like to be noble, not because they are particularly bad men, but because few men in general are noble; having few examples of nobility around them, artists have difficulty in portraying nobility.  The unswerving exterior of a noble man—for it appears unswerving and unclouded from a distance—becomes for these distance-artists a key to his interior character.   The inner debate which ordinary selfish human beings experience, the should-I-shouldn’t-I, is removed from the representation of noble man’s psyche, and nothing is put in to replace it.  The noble man is empty or at best filled with a single-minded and undynamic interest in the pursuit of a severe ideal.  He is “too good” to be tempted from the ideal; but too good looks to most of us to be only too cold.

In some sense this portrait is correct.  The good man is unswerving in his devotion of the ideal; thinkers from Aristotle onwards have understood that true virtue entails such a love of the good as to reduce temptations from the interior to a negligible minimum ( barring special cases of testing, through which God will sometimes put his favorites).

Our Lady is the paradigmatic example of this nobility: “full of grace” by the gift of God, she was not subject to the struggles native to fallen human nature.  In fact, if Aristotle’s magnanimous man is not incompatible with the Christian ideal, one might say that Our Lady is the only truly magnanimous being to ever walk the earth.

“Magnificat anima mea Dominum …”

If she experienced sorrow or some sense of conflict, it was not due to her sin or imperfection, but to the sins and imperfections of others.  And lest this other-directed sorrow sound overbearing or holier-than thou, I submit the parallel case of a child, learning for the first time of some grownup failing.  We do not look the innocent in the eye and suppose that we are being judged—or, if we are being judged, we know it is only because we richly deserve it.  So, I would imagine, with Our Lady: not that she is ignorant, as the child is, but innocent, not knowing good an evil with that unfortunate intimacy which is part and parcel of daily existence for the rest of us.

If, then, Our Lady experienced some sort of internal conflict, it will not be from temptations rooted in her own soul—and likewise, the noble man qua noble will not be self-tempted.  I do not say noble men are never self-tempted—of course they are; no one is perfect in the way that Our Lady is.  But the whole question of this series is whether perfection can be portrayed in an appealing way; and hence it is the noble man on a good day, as it were, who concerns us here.

But even if his own imperfection is ruled out as a source of interior interest, there are three conceivable sources of interior conflict left to the good man: temptations from the exterior, sorrow at the sins of others, and intellectual doubts.  The first, what I am calling “temptations from the exterior,” is better known under the name “the dark night of the soul”—and while it certainly belongs to the experience of many saints, it suffers from the same flaw, artistically, as self-temptation: it is a deeply felt temptation to sin, albeit one for which the saint is not blamed.  It is an imperfection, not natural but supernatural in origin; a test, and a glorious one for those who, from St. Paul to Mother Theresa, succeed in passing it.  But however glorious the flaw, a flaw it is—and thus once again inadmissible in light of the original problem.

The literary artist desirous of portraying perfection is left, then, with two kinds of conflict in the soul of the noble man: sorrow at the sins of others, and intellectual doubts.  I would argue that both interior tendencies provide potentially fruitful sources of conflict for the literary artist—but more of that to come.