Friday, 27 February 2015

Book-Eaters and Titanomachy

TW: a brief discussion of cannibalism

Back in November, I posted the following to Facebook:

Does anyone else find themselves, at times, thinking, "I ate that book," rather than, "I read that book"?
Eating a book, for me, is different from reading it. If you read a book, you look at the words, understand them, and recognize the whole book as an object. If you eat a book, you do all of that, but then you also internalize it, assembling its ideas and perspectives into yourself. Moreover, you bring those perspectives into yourself as one perspective among many, and you do not take it as is; you fix it, alter it, improve it, nuance it, cut out the stuff that doesn't work, fit it into your framework. It may challenge you, but after you've responded to its challenge, you then challenge it. You internalize it, but you also tame it. If you merely internalize it, and you let it take you over, you did not eat the book, but rather the book ate you.
(Today, I was thinking of a book, and then imagined telling someone, "I ate that book," and it was weird but also made sense to me.)

What I doubt any of my Friends knew was that I had in mind the Majesty 2 computer game. The goblin shamans, in what is probably a pretty problematic joke, are said to have a “from stomach to heart” philosophy: they learn about potions and medicine and so forth by eating everything they find or concoct. If it cures them, they know. If it makes them sick, they know. They learn by eating. This struck me as a limited philosophy; I feel like shamans would be interested in a lot more than just medicine. So I started to imagine that “from stomach to heart” had metaphorical applications elsewhere: all learning was imagined as eating. Certainly we use traces of this metaphor ourselves, allowing thoughts to “digest” and maintaining a “balanced diet” of books or news sources. Thus, one day, my brain produced the quirk of thinking, “I ate that book.”

(The other influence was endocannibalism, the practice of eating your in-laws when they die so they stay a part of the tribe. Cannibalism holds no appeal for me in itself, but when I learned about endocannibalism I could immediately understand why some cultures practice it.)

Eating ideas is an agonistic vision, though, isn’t it? Either I eat or I am eaten: if I do not conquer it, it conquers me. And lately I’ve noticed that there is this dynamic in my learning process. If I find a work important or influential, I am at first taken away with it and I see everything in its terms. And then, in a little while, I decide it is time to outgrow it; either this happens when I start to see its cracks, or I decide it needs to happen and I look for the cracks. Sometimes I think of it as wrestling with angels, but the metaphors I use more often are destroying idols and titanomachy.

Titanomachy refers to the war, in Greek mythology, which the Olympian gods waged against the Titans. The Titans were like the gods-before-the-gods, brutal and terrible figures; their king, Cronus, was not only the god of time but also the father of Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. So in the Titanomachy, the Olympians fought and killed their parents. But Cronus, too, overthrew the god who came before him, his own father Uranus, a god personifying the sky. These sorts of battles recur in mythology across the world, where a pantheon declares war on a dangerous and more ancient force.

Besides being one of Freud’s more obvious sources, the titanomachy reminds me of Tillich’s idea of the Protestant Principle, which I’ve discussed before. We have a certain conception about God, but this idea must be false in some respects since humans are finite, flawed, and contingent creatures trying to reason about the infinite, perfect, and absolute. Thus any honest attempt to approach God must include a willingness to tear down those ideas about God to replace them with new ones. Most people are not called to do this, but in theory you might need to build a conception of God (an idol, I would call it), and then promptly smash it; build a new one, and promptly smash it; on and on until you die. I do not know if titanomachy is a crude metaphor for this process, but certainly we could use it as one: primordial gods replaced by ancient gods replaced by classical gods replaced by new gods. If you think of idols as standing in for ideas about anything rather than just ideas about God, you’ve got a sense of how I’m imagining things.

I have no thesis here: this post is intended to record the clumsy metaphors I’ve been using for learning. Sometimes I have enthusiasms; I incorporate a worldview; it threatens to overwhelm me; I wrestle against it; I break it; I incorporate its pieces into my pantheon. This is also a crude metaphor, though, since I do not feel any hostility or resentment in this process. I still have much fondness for the poor idols I damage. Of course not all engagement is like this; other times I resist from the outset and am only slowly won over, from within. Other times an idea just does not take at all.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Alien, Warrior, Outcast, Fugitive, and Victim

Or, Jones and the Theological Worlds

A Taxonomy of Religions Post

Behind each set of eyes is profound mystery, a tender, unique, fragile, and special creation which identifies the self as theological artist. And in such artistry, the self is always a social creature.
W. Paul Jones, Theological Worlds

I started the series comparing Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One and W. Paul Jones’s 1989 Theological Worlds; this was a typical bit of arrogance on my part, since I hadn’t read the latter. The review was enough for my purposes, of course, and I think it all turned out well enough. But I have now read Theological Worlds, and there’s more to say about it.

To begin, theological is perhaps inaccurate, or not reflective of how we tend to use the word. The Worlds Jones describes are not only Christian or religious ones; a lot of the examples he uses are non-religious (Camus and Sartre and Marx feature often). Each of these Worlds is characterized on one pole by an obsessio—literally, “to besiege,” here a central concern or anxiety for a person—and on the other pole by a corresponding epiphania—that idea or experience that promises to absorb the obsessio and make it tolerable. The obsessio is greater than any merely human response; the epiphania, then, is more-than-human. For Jones, the word and idea of God does not have a specific content so much as a functional meaning: for each of us, God is that which can promise epiphania. For some of us, the obsessio is more prominent; for others, the epiphania is. Thus while Jones’s Theological Worlds is written from a strictly Christian perspective, the worlds described are theological in a strictly functional sense: even a dyed-in-the-wool atheist has a “theology” if “God” refers merely to that which makes life livable. A Christian, for Jones, is a person who identifies Jesus of Nazareth (as either a historical figure or as a legend) as God in this sense.

According to the introduction, Jones used typical social studies methods to determine what these Worlds most commonly look like: he interviewed a number of people, determined common threads, looked to find these threads articulated in theological and cultural literature, formulated Five hypothesized worlds using the patterns that arose, and then ran those worlds past another independent set of subjects to test their validity. I can’t speak to the method further than that, but I will try to talk about the usefulness of this typology in a moment. But first, let’s look at the Five Worlds he discovered.

People living in World One are struck, and horrified, by the way in which contingency determines the universe. Everything seems so arbitrary; so much has happened by chance, and it could easily have happened another way. The fact that I am alive right now, that I did not die five seconds ago, is true only by luck. The fact that the churning, teeming mass of evolutionary history spat out creatures capable of self-awareness was neither necessary nor even likely, as far as we know. If we look up, we see a jumble of planets and stars strung out in great empty spaces, none of which have anything to do with us; if we look inward, we see atoms and quarks and fundamental forces, all of them bumping about with no regard for you or me. The world seems pointless. A person in World One lives as an Alien; the longing Alien’s obsessio is thus a sense of isolation experienced as abandonment by whoever or whatever made us. Any epiphania must involve a new way of seeing the world as containing hidden mystery: epiphania is a glimpse of homecoming or reunion with some great plan hidden behind the veil. Jones mentions Paul Tillich, Kafka, E.T., the painter El Greco, and Beethoven’s Opus 132; I would mention Northrop Frye and H. P. Lovecraft, noting that Lovecraft seems wholly without epiphania.

People living in World Two are much more concerned with history than the universe. In particular, history is marked by war and violence; that is, history is marked by evil. The evil is so pervasive and resistant to change that anyone in this World quickly realizes the problem isn’t people but the system itself. People do evil but only because of the systems that control them, and even those systems are themselves the products of death (or entropy or, in a fancier term, the Nihil). In many Worlds death can come as a boon; in World Two, death is nothing but bad, and against both death and history one can do nothing but fight. A person in World Two lives as a Warrior; the angry Warrior’s obsessio is chaos experienced as the evil and violence of history. Because of this focus on the present world, the epiphania cannot be a promise fulfilled in an afterlife. Instead, the epiphania must take place here, at the end of history and as a product and redemption of history, a sort of New Earth. Jones mentions Karl Barth, Karl Marx, Moby Dick, Van Gogh, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5; I would mention Richard Beck’s powers and principalities (and almost everything else Beck has written) and Scott Alexander’s Meditations on Moloch.

People living in World Three do not find their obsession in the world around them: for people in World Three, the problem lies within. Or, really, the problem is that there isn’t much of a within at all. They feel empty, or unfulfilled, or unlovable (or, I would add, worthless). They feel like they are wearing a mask and that if anyone saw what was beneath that mask, they would be horrified—perhaps because whatever lies under that mask is loathsome, or perhaps because there’s just nothing under there at all. This World is marked with regret at lost opportunities, and the kind of exposure these people fear is not death but nakedness. And yet, whatever drive a person in this world might feel to make something of themselves, they usually feel guilty whenever they do so: they aren’t worth their own attentions. Unlike people in other Worlds, inhabitants of World Three do not necessarily generalize their problem to others. A person in World Three is an Outcast, not because anyone cast them out but because they cast themselves out, at least emotionally speaking; the aching Outcast’s obsessio is self-estrangement experienced as impotence or emptiness. The only epiphania that can rescue a person in World Three is an enrichment that allows them to make something of themselves, either in Sartre’s sense of self-creation through every decision or in Kierkegaard’s sense that each person has a unique identity given to them by God which they must discover and become, or something in between these views. Jones also mentions Tolstoy, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I would add that Echo’s character arc in Dollhouse is pretty much pure epiphania of this sort.

People living in World Four also find that the problem with everything is inside: that problem is that they’re awful. They are selfish and arrogant and striving and cruel, but so is everyone else. In order to thrive, we must compete; we must kill to eat; whatever we do, we do damage. So each and everyone one of us is guilty and condemned. Even in our attempts to make reparations, though, we are guilty: we try to make amends because we are afraid of punishment. Reason becomes only a tool for rationalization; charity becomes a way of promoting ourselves. A person in World Four is thus a Fugitive; the guilty Fugitive’s obsessio is idolatry, specifically the idolatry of self-interest and arrogance. Any epiphania must then be a kind of forgiveness, in particular one unearned. Even accepting forgiveness, though, is difficult, since accepting forgiveness is a selfish act; in order to be free of guilt, the epiphania must in some sense give such a person both forgiveness and the ability to accept it unselfishly. Jones mentions Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, and American Gothic. The Buffy-spinoff Angel hovers between this World and World Two, I think.

People living in World Five are not worried about any of those things; the obsessios of the other worlds are perhaps out of reach for those in World Five. Here, people are just overwhelmed with suffering. This is the world of hard living, of slaves and miners and poverty. Hope, in such a world, is always false: hope is merely the prelude to disappointment. Suffering is perpetual, and it can always get worse. There’s a certain pride to this world, at times: one mustn’t pity the old or the scarred, because they survived. A person in World Five is a Victim; the overwhelmed Victim’s obsessio is engulfment, engulfment in life itself (which is to say, suffering). Epiphania cannot take the form of hope here; epiphania is only endurance and survival. Often this is a survival in a community, where people suffer with (com-passion) one another if they cannot suffer for them. Jones mentions Elie Wiesel, Tennessee Williams, and Rembrandt. I would mention strains of Buddhism.

So for a Christian in each of these worlds, it is Jesus, the Christ, that offers epiphania, but in very different ways. In World One, Jesus offers access to the Creator who made the world and made it good; Christ offers reunion with God. In World Two, Jesus promises to make a New Earth and cast down empires; Christ is God entering history. In World Three, Jesus tells us that we are beloved by God and invites us to grow and be fulfilled in him; Christ is license to love yourself so that you can love your neighbour. In World Four, Jesus condemns us and then forgives us; Christ is God taking on guilt and punishment so that we do not have to. In World Five, Jesus is crucified in his compassion for us; Christ is God suffering with us in solidarity.

One of the problems in Christianity is that most people consider their own world to be the legitimate one. When an evangelist turns to someone and says, “Jesus washes your sins away,” they are not going to interest anyone who does not live in World Four. When a progressive mainline church promises to help congregants grow and affirm themselves, anyone who does not live in World Three will probably roll their eyes at best and mutter about children starving in Africa at worst. (That said, many World Three people will do the same, since the problem is that they don't believe in self-affirmation or growth.) Or, when an atheist points to the randomness of the world and says there are no traces of God’s plan, no one living outside of World One will even see the point of the objection. (This might well be what happened when I wrote about how wonderful it is to be an alien.) Thus so much discourse is just people talking past one another; Jones looks to fix this.

However, every example Jones gives in this book suggests that no one lives in a single World; every person has their own World, which is some mix of the obessios and epiphanias of the five he describes. Jones himself is mostly in World Two, with World One’s fear of abandonment, raised in a small World Five town which deeply impacted him. These five worlds are more like clusters of data points, patterns arising from all these idiosyncrasies aggregated. No one, or almost no one, is a pure type.

There’s a lot more to say about these Worlds, I think, that I don’t have space to say: Jones does not at any point discuss the relation between these Worlds and what the world is actually like, though this might be outside the scope of his project; psychoanalysis lurks throughout the whole book, often without consideration; race and gender play sophisticated but strange and problematic roles in his discussion; his ecclesiology, which relies heavily on sub-congregations segregating people with different Worlds, seems pretty improbable and maybe undesirable, especially when no one is a pure type.

What I want to spend a moment asking, though, is how exhaustive these Worlds are. In 1989, perhaps, these were the dominant Worlds; were there smaller ones that he did not detect? Were there others in other countries, or cultures, that did not enter his sample? And are there other ones now? Might there be others in the future? What could they look like? Or are these five Worlds representative of some deep and fundamental orientations, exhausting all possibilities? I can maybe imagine a spectrum between the Human/Self and Universe/Outside: World Three is entirely concerned with the human’s own self, and the Outcast makes no claims about anyone else at all; World One locates the problem entirely outside the human, in the Universe’s lack of human meaning; between them, World Four focuses on universal human sin, World Five on a harsh world, and World Two on a system of humans shaped by death to be destructive. I don’t know. This seems to be a stretch, but since it’s an empirical question, it’s one we can test.



Friday, 6 February 2015

My Very Own Exploitation Flick?

Or, The Ex-Exploitation Flick

It occurred to me that it would be boring to talk about every genre in terms of my own worldview, so I’ll probably tackle them as lenses to other worldviews instead. However, I think it might be worth considering what my exploitation flick would look like, rather than talking about what someone else’s exploitation flick would like, because there are a few problems I have with the genre which would impact or limit its use. Thinking about this will let me dig a bit more into the genre than I otherwise would dig and it will give me a reason to talk about finding genres which wouldn’t work for someone’s worldview.

I wrote extensively about exploitation flicks before and I don’t want to engage in that too much. In fact, I’m going to do something pretty bad and ignore the historical and political specificity of the assorted subgenres for this post and focus instead on four more top-level characteristics:
  1. displaying an abundance of stereotypes or common place trope about the subject matter, such that collecting these references marks a specific identity;
  2. a penchant for taboo violations, such as a sacrilege, body horror, cannibalism, etc.;
  3. enthusiastic/gratuitous nudity and sex, with a pretty unapologetic heterosexual male perspective; and
  4. enthusiastic/gratuitous violence, with a pretty unapologetic pleasure in gore and explosions over, for instance, choreography of fighting;

Recall, too, that these subgenres are mostly used to celebrate the identity in question, either by indulging in it (the first trait) or making it attractive (the third and fourth traits).

Let’s get started.

The connection between collection and identity has come up in a class I’m taking about social media. A few weeks ago we discussed how people constitute their identities in social media contexts. An example I brought up, in connection with Jorge Luis Borges’s “Afterword” to Museums (of course), is how sharing seemingly non-autobiographical content can constitute a kind of identity. Think of Tumblr, and particularly what are called reblog tumblrs, where a person does not produce their own content but rather shares things they like, sometimes with commentary appended or in the tags but sometimes without any addition at all. Though they technically only collect and co-locate content they found, and therefore do not reveal any information about their offline life, they still create a kind of identity—reputation? presence? role in the media ecology?—by creating that collection. Lots of people, or lots of the people I know, do this sort of thing on their Facebook or in their real-life conversations. I’m well-known for spouting out facts about animals and, more recently, for my Weekly Wonders tumblr. And I have other interests or obsessions which different people know to varying degrees.

So if a person were making an exploitation flick in order to celebrate or valourize Christian-H-ness, there are a number of things they might use to mark the film as having that identity, probably as plot points or as passing references, but maybe as background, too. I could make a list, but I think that you either know me well enough that I don’t need to or you don’t know me well enough to care. Either way, I won’t bore you with the list. Feel free to compile one in the comments if that’s something you’re into.

Still, I don’t know what to do with this observation that a collection can constitute a sort of identity (except in a library science context, in which I think there’s at least one obvious direction to go with that). If I think of anything, I’ll come back to it.

Violating taboos is one I have a harder time with. For the most part, I don’t like violating taboos; when I violate a taboo it’s usually because I don’t think of it as a taboo, and when I think of something as a taboo I usually don’t violate it. It is difficult for me to think about a taboo I’d want to violate that I’d also want to depict as a taboo violation. I’m all for violating gender norms, but I basically don’t want there to be gender norms, so I’m not at all interested in their violation as violation. I’m also all for having a variety of body types in film—and I don’t just mean different levels of body fat, but also people with amputations and people born with unusual anatomy, etc. We’ll get back to this topic, but I guess I wouldn’t want to see the movie treat this as breaking a taboo, either, even if that’s technically what is; I want the camera to normalize people with unusual anatomy, and that seems at odds with taboo violation.

The only thing I can think of is breaking museum exhibits or destroying art. I don’t generally like either, but I can imagine instances in which I’d support or at least be sympathetic to either. For instance, in some cultures, specific objects are made specifically to be broken or to be allowed to degrade over time, but then museums preserve the objects, violating those cultures’ values. So breaking into a museum and destroying the object might be 1) appropriate within the object’s original culture, even if a taboo violation in the museum’s culture, and 2) a political act against colonialism. I can think of other such examples. This would be a taboo violation for me, since I tend to treat art and artifacts as being set aside, almost sacred, but it would also be a taboo violation which possibly agrees with my explicit values, too, given highly specific circumstances.

Nudity is also a difficult one. There seem to be three “functions” for nudity in exploitation flicks, which don’t all align with one another: the film’s apparent reasons for using nudity aren’t necessarily the same as what the film actually achieves with its nudity, nor does it match what I, personally, get out of it. So, respectively, 1) for the apparent audience, the presentation of nudity in exploitation flicks seems intended to shock and excite/arouse, in order to celebrate the relevant identity; 2) the usually female nudity in exploitation flicks rhetorically erases women’s agency, turning women into bodies, plot points, trophies, etc.; 3) regarding my personal engagement, nudity in exploitation flicks mostly improves my understanding of human anatomy, though of course the lack of diversity in the bodies shown limits this function. On the grounds of #2 I am uncomfortable with #1 and, besides, the way these movies depict nudity isn’t all that appealing to me; #1, meanwhile, limits #3, because it means that only certain kinds of bodies are shown. This means that if a person were to make a Christian-H-ploitation flick, conventional exploitation flick nudity wouldn’t work. It would misrepresent, rather than confirm and celebrate, my norms and identity.

There might be two solutions: 1) use nudity, but use it differently, or 2) find something to substitute for nudity. These aren’t mutually exclusive. For instance, you could have nudity in order to showcase human anatomy and show how human bodies work, but not do so in an erotic way; choose a wide variety of body types and highlight how those bodies move and function rather than focusing on their naughty bits. (For instance: have three people in gym showers, facing the wall, with the camera on them from behind; one of them is elderly, one of them is heavyset, and one of them—who will be a main character?—is missing an arm.) And then you could also show people in ways intended to make them physically attractive that don’t rely on nudity. There’s a wide range of outfits that I consider to be very attractive beyond “naked” or “swimsuit,” like floor-length sleeveless dresses and scarves over sweaters over dark skirts and checked shirts tucked into blue jeans. By splitting functions 1 and 3, you can achieve both without committing function 2.

(If you’ve noticed that we’re quite a distance from exploitation flicks now, don’t worry; I’m going to talk about that.)

The last element I mentioned is violence. I’m quite non-violent in real life, and I feel almost like pacifism is a moral obligation, though I’m not quite there. At the same time, I have no objections to violence in films. I find a lot of fight sequences boring (Transformers is by far the worst offender but certainly not the only one), but I’m always down for a well-done fight scene. So, on the one hand, violence would certainly reflect my media choices, but on the other hand it might be a violation of my values.

There might be three possible fixes: first, we could ensure that the violence always has consequences and isn’t undertaken frivolously; second, there could be a lot of simulated violence, but little actual violence (for instance, water fights, martial arts training, play fighting, LARPing, or video games); and third, there could be violence against inanimate objects. I stole that last idea from Yojimbo, in which the most elaborate and impressive “fight scene” involves the protagonist trashing a room to make it look like a fight happened there when it didn’t. (Someone could trash a museum?)


But, when I combine all of these transformations, what I don’t get is an exploitation flick. There might be a lot of stylistic things we could do to give it similar visuals (see Grindhouse for some ideas), but its heart is elsewhere. Exploitation flicks rely on an unembarrassed celebration of things which we usually feel uncomfortable celebrating: sex, violence, blasphemy, etc. For the most part, I have no interest in doing that. So while I might still get a lot out of the question, “What would my exploitation flick look like?”, in terms of both understanding myself and understanding exploitation flicks better, I have to conclude that the simplest answer would be, “Well, it wouldn’t be an exploitation flick anymore.”

What about you? Does it sound like exploitation flicks would work for you? Are there other genres that wouldn’t?

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

My Very Own Epic: Part 4

What in Me is Dark, Illumine 
                    What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support,
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.
John Milton, Paradise Lost


In the previous posts I thought about how I might use the epic conventions to depict my own worldview. But I think there’s another question to ask: what’s missing from that discussion? A cursory glance through my recent interests would notice that I haven’t yet mentioned these things:

  1. the idea that any truly radical change in social organization—a revolution, in other words—would create a new society and culture that we cannot predict from our current position, because people would have new arrangements of choices that we’ve never seen before; this is scary because it means we can’t tell in advance whether that society will be “better,” but it is also an opportunity for hope because it means there might be solutions to problems which we have not yet been able to imagine; but anyway if we can’t go on in the present condition, revolution is the only thing we have
  2. the idea that the property relationship (the idea that you can own things) is nothing more than a legal construct, and an unnecessary one at that; and, furthermore, that that legal construct has produced conditions which are actively bad and tend only to get worse (ie. income inequality, environmental degradation) and it is only through persistent violations of that construct, and the ideology built around it, that the system can be sustained
  3. things about bodies, and the ways bodies don’t adhere to our expectations of them; almost all of my thoughts on bodies come from Alice Domurat Dreger’s One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal, though a graduate seminar on Shakespeare and Marlowe gave me some ideas, too
  4. multiculturalism, by which I mean both cultures learning from one another and also creating a meta-culture in which multiple cultures can all function
  5. religion broadly, though most ways in which I am interested in religion are implicated in things I have already discussed
  6. social justice, which I guess makes me a social justice warrior or cleric or druid or whatever
  7. a postmodern suspicion of metanarratives
  8. a particular vision of freedom, and what freedom means, which I don't think I've ever discussed here
In an epic, which is supposed to give a complete vision of a worldview, I can’t dispense with these concerns, some of which are pretty important to me. Of course, I don’t have to address them with conventions exactly; they might be part of the plot or the individual episodes without transforming the conventions. But I have a few ideas nonetheless: the in media res turn might be a good way of suggesting revolution, since the structure would suggest, or lend itself to, a radical break from the past; even as it grows out of that which preceded it, in another sense it truly is a new beginning. And that might suggest the event of great importance: a revolution, involving the defeat of the previous system and the creation of the new one (and its possible challenges). For bodies, the drakaina and the talking trees seem obvious avenues; I would be concerned about making them do double (or triple) duty, but I might either find ways to make these ideas relate or have multiple drakainae. In a fantasy setting, I could also just populate the world with Arkans, handling both the thing about bodies and the thing about multiculturalism; the Arkans might allude to Spenser’s habit of using lots of doubles—lookalikes, in particular—in the Faerie Queene, but that’s not exactly a convention in other epics. Otherwise, I don’t see at the moment how I’d implicate these ideas in epics specifically.

A word on the suspicion of metanarratives, though: I hope my idea about digressions already addresses this. Epics, by their very nature, are metanarratives. Thus I should be suspicious of any epic, even my own. (Indeed, what this might be good for is to make my metanarrative explicit so I can be suspicious of it.) But I hope this epic seriously attempts to question its own arc, right? The idea is that the quest is changed by each encounter with the other, and the sense might be that the quest must always, forever by changed by future encounters. Hopefully that would be clear.

Let’s try and tie these together a bit. Regardless of setting, it might make sense to begin with a revolution, though not necessarily a socialist one: if the opening scene were a parliament or conference of some kind, that might call back to the Parliament in Hell which occurs near the beginning of Paradise Lost, though that might not be a favourable comparison. If the setting is historical, I’d have to choose a real revolution (if I chose the French Revolution, the first National Assembly might make a good opening), or perhaps the founding of a new society—a commune somewhere, maybe—or a post-disaster attempt to rebuild society, as with survivors of a shipwreck on a deserted island. A pirate vessel just after its mutiny might work. In a fantasy setting, I could tailor the events as I needed them. Either way, half of the story would involve the formation of society from that point on; the other half would be flashbacks to the events which led to the revolution. The protagonist or protagonists would likely embark on a quest in order to help secure the new society; after all, the new society would still have enemies. The quest may involve a journey of some kind, but it might also be more like a project: drafting a constitution, building a defensive wall or tower, designing a monument. As they try to complete the quest, they’ll encounter other members of the new society who, while on board with the whole revolution thing, have needs which the current direction of the new society is not meeting or is actively thwarting. The protagonists hear these characters’ stories, try to help their problems, and are changed as a result—or, anyway, they ought to be, but they may fail in this. Thus the nature of the quest must change, too, in order to account for these stranger’s needs. The protagonist and protagonists would eventually have to ask themselves why they were on this quest, and acknowledge that they could not get to the bottom of the problem “Why I am who I am?”; at the same time, they had to take responsibility for their commitment to this quest, whatever version it is, from here on out. Having begun it does not mean they must finish it, or finish it in its current form. So they keep re-interpreting what the quest is as they encounter strangers. I’m not sure how it would end. The katabasis and underworld might well happen in flashback—the moment of shipwreck, or the deplorable situation which made revolution necessary—but it might be more exciting if it happened during the “present,” in which case it could be a subterranean prison or a ruined city, or, again, actual depression.

I think I’ll stop there. I haven’t worked out how the natural world—its Otherness, but also our embodiment, and also environmental concerns—would play out, but that’s largely because it depends so much on the setting. If it takes place most shipwreck, it seems easy enough to figure out; in a fantasy setting, I could use fantastic elements as metaphors. It would take some thinking for other settings. But I’m not actually planning to write the epic, after all; this is an exercise.

So what did I learn? Well, I learned that I need to be careful not to treat intellectual people as the Greeks treated the aristocracy. I learned that my tendency to treat the natural world as kin to us might make me forget how Other it is. I learned a few writerly things, too, which are harder to communicate: that it will be hard or impossible to convey the Otherness of other people’s stories in my own voice, and that doing so might in lots of ways break my narrative—and maybe that’s something I need to try and do on purpose. I learned that I’m not sure what Butler means by vexations disrupting or interrupting narrative, and what that means for storytelling. And I learned that I haven’t talked about existentialism enough here—though that’s because I’m only really started to get into it now—and that I haven’t yet written out how I think I can reconcile nominalism and realism, or how I understand freedom in a political sense. Maybe, as this settles in my brain, I’ll realize other things, too.

Most of all, though, I hope I’ve demonstrated how you can use this yourselves. Please, let me know if you do this exercise and how it turns out. (Obviously, you can replace the epic with a genre you prefer.)

Monday, 2 February 2015

My Very Own Epic: Part 3

Thinking of those Branches Green
Which to express, he bends his gentle wit,
And thinking of those branches green to frame
A garland for her dainty forehead fit,
He plucked a bough; out of whose rift there came
Small drops of gory blood, that trickled down the same.
Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, modernized by me

Content warning: suicide, depression.

In the last post I noticed how scientific and historical discoveries imply that there is always something we don’t know about the world; I think beginning in media res is an opportunity to think about how there is always something we don’t know about ourselves

Epics are supposed to open in the middle of the story (in media res = in the middle of things) and reveal the early parts with flashback. Paradise Lost begins as Satan falls, and the angels describe the way in heaven and the creation of the world to Adam; The Faerie Queene begins as the Redcross Knight and Una are already on their quest. However, in media res reminds me of Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself, in which she describes the ways in which we do not know ourselves. One of these is that even in our own lives we start belatedly: the situation into which we are born already exists and is part of a long history, but also the moment when we start asking, “Who am I? How did I get to be this person?,” happens well after that process has begun. Our own origins are shrouded in forgetfulness, in the fact that we actually couldn’t form memories when it happened, and (as Laplanche would argue) we didn’t understand what was going on while those events shaped us.* In a sense, every story begins in media res because the character development begins well before the narrative does. For instance, even Harry Potter, which starts with Harry as a baby, leaves as backstory the terrible event which shapes that baby’s life, signified by the lightning-bolt-shaped scar on his forehead. However, I’m not quite sure how I would render this in a narrative, especially since I just argued that literally every text begins in media res. Something to think about, I guess, but a necessary theme would be that the conditions which gave rise to the present action remain, in certain ways, mysterious.

I should point out, too, that Butler says these vexations break our narrative. Digressions, as I discussed them, might represent a sort of break in the narrative, but I know I’m still not sure what Butler means by this—she doesn’t give many examples—and I’ll need to think more about that problem, too.

On the topic of character and idea, let’s think about epithets. Most traditional epics have epithets for its characters or concepts, referring to them by catchy poetic names. In Homer, women are often “white-armed,” the sea is “wine-coloured” or “wine-dark,” and Achilles is “lion-hearted” and “swift-footed.” Now, I have in the back of my mind Leah Libresco’s discussion of epithets, which warns against them as a possible limitation to personal growth or new decisions, I want to set that aside for the moment. I think an epithet might be useful to mark a distinction between social roles or identities; in both postmodernism and empirical social psychology, people’s personalities/thought and behaviour patterns change between contexts. This fact (and it is a fact) challenges certain na├»ve conceptions of identity or authenticity which I think still need challenging in some quarters. It isn’t a huge deal, but it is somewhat important to me and I think epithets might be a way of signalling this but also exploring context collapse, in which social contexts start to collide or overlap: what happens when an epithet is used in front of the wrong people? (Today, social media—and Facebook in particular—is where context collapse happens the most for most of us, but it has always happened.) And it might be a way of thinking about the sorts of expectation which get foisted on a person: what happens when a person outgrows their epithet or feels it never applied in the first place, and they start to chafe under it? And what if someone finds themselves with conflicting or competing epithets?

They might have a catalogue of epithets, and catalogues of objects are another epic convention. (That was a segue, right?) Ovid spends stanzas listing the names of Acteon’s dogs; Spenser spends them naming the kinds of trees in a forest. The first thing that leaps to mind for me is a library catalogue, and I would certainly be tempted to include a literal library catalogue whatever the setting. However, this provides an opportunity to think about something I like to think about: taxonomy. Specifically, the difference between classification and categorization is one of the most interesting things I’ve learned so far in library school. I could talk for a while about it, but I won’t. However, there are two different kinds of taxonomy: a classification is exclusive and exhaustive, meaning that every object under its purview must fit into a class and only one class, and it must do so unambiguously; a categorization has fuzzier boundaries, in which an object might not really fit anywhere or might fit in two categories about equally well. These two facts have other consequences—notably, in categorizations some objects might be more typical of the category than others, which isn’t true of classifications; in classifications, whatever is true of the class is always necessarily true of all its members, which isn’t true of categorizations. Catalogues might be a way of playing with this? Again, this might be a place to think about nominalism and realism, and what abstract groupings even are in the first place. This is pretty minor, though, both in terms of the epic itself and the things I’m interested in, so I’ll move on.

Ekphrasis, a description of a piece of art, also depends a lot on setting. I think this would be no problem for me: there are lots of artists in my family and even if I know very little art theory I care a lot about it. If it were a contemporary setting, I could use photography, about which I do know a few things. If not, I’m sure I could still manage. Architecture might be an interesting way in, too. I could also include a Borgesian technique, where characters describe and discuss non-existent novels (or poems or legends or whatnot). There are a lot of directions I could take this: the way in which art allows us to see through another person’s eyes or ears, however briefly, or appears to let us do this but probably doesn’t do it as well as we think; the reasons people create art, and how those reasons shape the art; art as a metaphor for all human society and the nature of creation, the order-giving artist working with chaos-tending matter. Take your pick.

Two of the weird features that I’ve saved for the end do fit well together for me, even if they wouldn’t for everyone; I refer to the talking trees and the snake-ladies. Epics conventionally included trees which spoke, often because they were people transformed into trees; they also included half-women half-snake beings, usually with the human woman part above the waist and the serpentine part below the waist. The trees might often be warnings; the snake-ladies (drakaina in Greek) were often minor villains, especially boundary guardians. This would be a place to indulge in my environmentalism and general love for plants and animals, but I also see in these figures a combination of the human world and the natural world. Much as the centaurs of Greek mythology were a mix of civilization and barbarity, as are humans, these figures might show how the human and the natural worlds aren’t so separable after all; humans are animals, as the snake-lady might suggest; the natural world isn’t so inert and unthinking as we make it out to be, as the talking trees suggest. But there’s a hazard to humanizing the natural world too much: I wouldn’t want to undercut how radically Other it is. Perhaps, then, it might be fair to have trees which ought to talk but don’t (the sky does not speak), and a drakaina that appears human at first but turns out to be entirely otherwise. It might be difficult to address these in a realistic setting, but Wade Davis did it (probably unintentionally) in One River, so it can be done. A woman with a snake, for instance, or a snake tattoo, might stand in for one idea; trees that ought to tell us things—in the sense of scientific evidence, or in the sense of clues in a mystery—might do for the other.

Another note on the trees: in Dante’s Inferno, these trees appear in the Wood of Self-Murderers. Everyone who commits suicide either becomes a tree or is entombed in one; these trees are then plagued by harpies. I have strong feelings about suicide: it is a tragedy when anyone does kill themselves, but at the same time we must be cautious to avoid making people with suicidal thoughts feel worse because they have them. Condemning suicide could make people who have suicide feel worse; therefore we might have to avoid condemning it. (I have no evidence of this, but I am sufficiently convinced that I’m concerned about this.) So talking about suicide is a tricky thing to do. I’m not sure I’m up to the task, but this issue with trees might be a way in: perhaps, in fantasy setting, some people have turned themselves into trees in order to avoid dealing with the world or themselves, and this is why it is conspicuous that the trees do not talk.

I saved the discussion of the protagonist’s aristocracy for last. In Greek, Roman, and to some extent early modern epics, the protagonist must be an aristocrat or royal. The justification is usually the same that Aristotle gave for making tragic heroes aristocratic: when an aristocrat falls, the society falls with him, but when a peasant falls, the society does not notice. In order for the epic to depict an event of any importance, aristocrats must be part of that event. But I think this is pretty clearly a rationalization of the true reason they wrote about aristocrats: the culture in which these epics appeared cared about aristocrats and no one else. So if we transplant the epic into another cultural milieu and ask, “Who is equivalent to the aristocracy here?,” there are two aspects to that question: 1) who do we think actually make a difference in this society? and 2) whom do we care about at the expense of others deserving our attention?  For Tolkien, the answer was “the common man,” and specifically a hybrid of the middle class men and the working class men who both fought next to him in the trenches of WWI, and so his heroes were male hobbits. Not female hobbits, of course. Male ones.

This is therefore an embarrassing question. For me, the answer is probably “intelligent people,” or maybe “educated people with intellectual empathy.” I admit that this is a problem, or could be one if I wasn’t careful and specific; I’d write about it, but Scott Alexander has just done it better than I ever would. So, in a bad way, intelligence would be my aristocracy: I am simply more interested in people who I feel can keep up with me (or who I have trouble keeping up with) than people who can't. I don’t think intelligent people are of more moral worth, but I do pay more attention to them. This is a fault I'm trying to overcome. And, in a neutral way, intelligence would be my aristocracy: intelligent people probably are the ones who will change the world for the better, in the broad sense of creating the ideas which allow all of us to improve the world. They are the ones with whom we riseor fall. So, if my goal was just to create an epic depicting my ideas, good and bad, intelligence would be my aristocracy; if my goal was to challenge my own ideas, I would have to think about what a less-intelligent protagonist could do in my epic.

That’s all of the conventions I plan on discussing for the time being. In the next post I’ll talk about what’s missing, and how this might fit together.

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*I’m not very convinced by Laplanche’s whole theory, but his enigmatic signifier probably has some limited value; more than that, the fact that other people’s desires shaped us before we could understand those desires seems undeniable.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

My Very Own Epic: Part 2

There Are Many Paths to the Edge of Night
Home is behind, the world ahead,
and there are many paths to tread
through shadows to the edge of night,
until the stars are all alight.
J. R. R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

Content warning: depression.

Let’s dive right in to planning my epic. I’ll break it up into a few posts to keep them shorter and more manageable; the divisions are arbitrary.

Digressions are the first I’ll consider because they’re structural. Epics are often characterized by digressions from the main story, either because a character takes up pages and pages to discuss their backstory or because the protagonists get lost or are tempted to stray from the course. Way back, when I made the quiz for this, Leah responded to the prompt about digressions, noting that she was sorely tempted to overlook opportunities to help others when they varied from what she thought was the bigger picture or narrative. I suggested in the comments of her post that epics probably wouldn’t suit her, then, but an anti-epic might, where the real crux of the story was in the digressions, not what at first appeared to be the main arc. It would be worth considering how to structure such a story, though; the climax would be pretty anti-climactic if it became clear it was no longer the point, right? Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that the quest the protagonist thought she was on might not be the quest she needed to be on, and so what at first seem like digressions turn out to be the main direction of the narrative, and attempts to turn back to the main narrative turn out to be digressions. But as compelling as such a story sounds, that idea is in response to what Leah said, not what I might want to say. Instead, I would use digressions to talk about other people’s stories. Structurally, they would be a way of breaking out of the protagonist’s way of looking at the world; other characters would divert him or ask him for help, and in these encounters he would have to acknowledge that they exist and are different from him. He would be changed by these encounters, so that as he moved back to his quest he’d be better equipped to deal with it. I’m a little bit worried about the implication that you should help others because you’re better for it yourself, but I’ll let that rest for now: that sort of issue is always a problem in fiction.

An early consideration would obviously have to be the event or events I’m depicting. An epic’s plot is supposed to be of great historical or mythical import, but I can’t think of any such stories that have a particular impact on me or my thinking. I don’t have enough attachment to Canada’s history or national myths for those to work. No particular philosopher is quite enough for me to get worked up about. I’m Protestant, but as much as I might like to write set something set in the Reformation one day I don’t feel animated by its conflicts; Catholicism is just one of many worldviews that don’t work, as far as I’m concerned, and I don’t especially esteem most of the period’s Protestant thinkers. I’m Christian, but I have trouble seeing any particular Biblical episode that would work for me; even if there was one, I’d be hesitant to approach it. My field, then? Library science, let’s say? There’s little there that works for me, either. These days, of course, epics can be fantasies or science fiction, in which case you can simply design an event in that world that founds a nation or something. Let’s set this aside for the moment.

What would the protagonist’s virtues be? An epic’s characters must embody the virtues of its culture, either throughout (the Greek epics) or by the end (Faerie Queene). Compassion is the first virtue I would like to see people value more highly, and I mean compassion as distinct from empathy alone. Although I care a lot about trying to understand how other people think and feel (intellectual empathy), compassion requires personal investment in the emotional well-being of people in addition. Further, I think you can only be truly compassionate if you recognize that you don’t completely understand other people; they’re different in certain world-shaping ways that we can only approach understanding, and even then that takes a lot of time and effort. Elsewhere I’ve called this a proper attitude to difference; if you extend it past attitude into metaphysics, it might be nominalism, but we don’t need to go that far for the epic. Another virtue would be a Quest orientation, meaning 1) preparation to dealing with existential questions complexly; 2) openness to change; and 3) a positive view of doubt. This is drawing from Richard Beck; also drawing from Richard Beck would be a face-first approach to death and the fear of death. Tied up with these, the protagonist must, or must learn to, acknowledge and love the Other without forgetting that it is Other. Lately I have also been thinking about the existentialist idea of authenticity, which I tend to think of more as responsibility. By this I don’t mean I’m a disciple of Sartre, but I do think we should own our opinions and decisions, admitting that we don’t have perfect reasons for thinking what we think and that, at some point, we made a choice in our ideas. I think these virtue lend themselves well to the epic, fortunately: Quest is appropriate for obvious reasons, as is facing death and the kind of courage it requires. Openness to the Other could easily be incorporated in a story with lots of travel and unusual people and places. Compassion already corresponds to how I saw digressions, and characters in epics must make difficult choices, too, for which they might or might not take responsibility.

On to katabasis: one of the more iron-clad conventions, almost all epics involve a descent to the underworld, which describes the journey to this underworld and often describes the underworld itself. This might be a digression or it might be fundamental to the whole story. The katabasis depends a lot on the setting, I think, so it cannot be pinned down before I pick a setting. But whatever the underworld turns out to be, it would be a metaphor for depression; indeed, in a certain setting, it could literally be depression. It could always be both: the protagonist, upon descending to the underworld, might simultaneously develop depression. This reminds me of an idea I had for katabasis before: the underworld to which the protagonist might descend could very well be the world we live in now. There’s precedent for this: our world is supposed to be Fallen. Paradise Lost missed an opportunity there; I agree that Satan’s defeat and plunge makes a catchy opening for the epic, but he could have depicted, in the Original Sin, an entire world in free-fall. Do not get me wrong: I love this world we’re in. But to many people it might well look like the underworld. At any rate: whatever the underworld is, it is a metaphor for depression, and the sorts of ailments in the world to which depression can make one sensitive.

A description of the dawn is easy after that: when a person has depression, mornings are supernaturally difficult to face. When at my worst, I was utterly miserable any time I was awake early enough to see the sun rise. When recovering, I was usually excited and thrilled to see the sun rise, those rare times it happened: to be able to be awake, and really awake, before dawn made me feel filled with possibility. So one or both of these feelings would be a filter for describing the dawn.

And divine intervention. Epics pretty much always contain divine intervention; a secular epic might do so metaphorically, but it stills seems almost indispensable. It ties into some of the other conventions: scope (contains the divine world) and import (if the gods intervene, it must matter). How would I handle this? Well. Look: I’m not the sort to see miracles in the world, except to say that the world itself, in its entirety, may constitute such. Otherwise, to point to a particular event and say, “God did this,” does not seem to me to be a helpful habit of thought. I’ve written about my feelings on this topic before. I live in a year of Holy Saturdays. It feels like there’s a God-shaped hole in the world, and I don’t mean that humans have a desire for God but don’t know it; I mean that the world lacks compassion, justice, fairness, truth, love, sense. In what way could make epic thus have divine intervention? In a fantasy world I suppose I could have fantasy gods—and that might be a great solution! I have some ideas for that!—but let’s say, for now, that what draws me so much to the idea of the Other is that that is the closest I can come to approaching God: some radically different thing which I cannot hope to understand, which stands gulfs and leagues away from me even if it stands next to me or, for that matter, in my own heart (since I think, to some extent, we are Other to ourselves, too). Divine intervention is thus, precisely, what we get when we open ourselves to the Other: that is, to the stranger, to the recognition that our friends aren’t precisely who we thought they were, and to the strange unfathomable world. This sense that divine intervention appears both as 1) a conspicuous absence of divine intervention and 2) opportunities to engage with the Other works well with what I planned for katabasis, virtues, and digressions.

Let’s move on to scope; what would fit in the epic depends on the setting, so it would be difficult to say at this stage. But I want to indicate something: while people normally say that epics are vast in scope, to me they seem to reach toward being complete in scope. This is impossible, obviously, but in some way the attempt is there: the Odyssey involves the whole Mediterranean world; The Faerie Queene was supposed to give a complete account of virtue, except that Spenser did not finish it; Paradise Lost famously justifies God to man, and that’s about as big as you can go; even Wordsworth’s Prelude, which may or may not be an epic, attempts a complete depiction of Wordsworth’s intellectual development (The Recluse, the poem for which the Prelude was to be the prelude, was going to be an epic properly speaking, but Wordsworth never started it). Perhaps, just perhaps, I might try to include a vast number of characters with different ways of looking at the world; the vast scope might be in the ways people can be different from one another.

References to discoveries and to history depend a lot on the setting, too. But, in broad strokes, I do think both discoveries and history are important. In particular, history can help us figure out where we are now to a significant extent; psychology is lately pretty important to me, as I think has become obvious, and there are a lot of questions I have that I don’t think are answered yet. What we know matters, and I’d like to show that. However, in a fantasy setting, I’d have to go with the more abstract relevance of discoveries: if there is something to discover, there’s something we don’t know. Our vision of the world is incomplete and is always and forever incomplete. (Compare this to Lord of the Rings, where scientific discoveries tend to be bad, associated with war, orcs, and Saruman, in keeping with Tolkien’s reactionary conservative environmentalism.)

This makes a good segue into the next point, but I’ll save that for the next post. End with a hint for the future, right?
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