Friday, 31 December 2010

7 Quick Takes (70)

1. Last weekend I watched some movies with the fam: Casino Royale, Blood Diamond, The Bucket List, and parts of PS I Love You. I don't think I have anything to say about any of them right now.
(I am sure other stuff happened. We likely went for a walk outside; I went to church; I read The Girl Who Played With Fire; I probably read Castle Waiting Vol. 2 if I hadn't done that earlier.)

2. On Monday we went to Edmonton. That afternoon and night we went to Whyte Street and to the West Edmonton Mall. At the West Ed my brother bought and had fitted a suit, I bought The Liturgical Year by Joan Chittester and The Problem of Pain by C S Lewis, and my mother got painting supplies. My father, brother, and I then went to the gun range. I don't think I have ever fired a real gun before. It was fun but I know that the other two enjoyed it far more than I did. We tried three different revolvers. I wasn't terribly good.

3. On Tuesday we went to the Art Gallery of Alberta and the Royal Alberta Museum. As always the RAM was interesting; in particular I enjoyed the temporary exhibit of nature photography. The AGA was also interesting, though I understand far less about it. I liked some of the Symbolists; I liked some of the Canadian landscape painters; I did not care for Matisse; I quite liked Burtynsky, but then I already knew that. His Bengladesh shipbreaking series is wonderful. That evening we returned to the Mall, where we discovered that the new Harry Potter was sold out. So Nick and I went to the nerd store and then I got a cinnamon bun and went to Chapter's and then, finally, we went to see The Tourist. It was enjoyable enough but I have problems with it. I can't tell you the problems without spoiling the film, though, so I'll desist.

4. On Wednesday we returned to Fort McMurray. I wrote a letter on the way. When we returned we took some ridiculous pictures as a family.

5. Thursday morning my brother caught a plane back to school.

6. For much of yesterday and today I worked on my Asian Canadian paper. I am almost done.

7. It's New Year's Eve or some such thing. You know, I like the idea of seasonal cycles. I've never understood New Year's, though. It seems like a silly thing to celebrate, the turn of an arbitrary demarkation. Such are we funny creatures, that one bit of time should seem different from another bit of time just because we have collectively decided to put a marker between them.

Please go see the host of this fine carnival, one Jen Fulwiler at Conversion Diary.

Friday, 24 December 2010

7 Quick Takes (69)

1. It's Christmas Eve, so Merry Christmas!
Jen won't be hosting 7 Quick Takes this week, but for reason you'll soon know today is still OK for me to do this. I haven't been on for a week, either, so perhaps it's about time I let you know what's been happening.

2. I finally finished and turned in my paper. I'm not very pleased with it, but I suppose it's passable. That took far more work and stress than anticipated. I still have a paper left to do over the break, which is less than pleasing.

3. On Monday I went to visit a friend in Richmond. We ate at a Malaysian place in the Aberdeen Centre. I also managed to get myself headed in the wrong direction on the way home; I only noticed my error when I saw a mountain in the wrong place.

4. On Tuesday I caught a flight from YVR. There's a Bill Reid sculpture there which is nationally famous by way of being printed on the back of the $20 bill. I got some photos of that. That evening I arrived in Fort McMurray, as did my brother.

5. On Wednesday we celebrated Christmas. My Dad works Christmas Day so we just pick a day when we're all together to celebrate Christmas. After all, the 25 of December probably isn't the actual anniverary of Christ's birth, so we generally figure one arbitrarily chosen day is as good as another arbitrarily chosen day as far as present-distribution goes. I'll still be headed to church tonight, but we've done the gift-giving already.

6. Also on Wednesday my brother and I had to go to the dentist's. At the dentist's I was told I needed to get a filling, for which I went in again on Thursday. The check-up, x-ray, and cleaning took more time than the filling did. It was a quick and easy process. The only downside is that there's now this strange stuff in my back molar to which I will need to adjust. Believe it or not, this is the first filling I've ever had. I don't like being unfamiliar with the inside of my own mouth.

7. My mother gave my brother Avatar for Christmas, so we watched in yesterday. I'd never seen it before. I was fairly impressed, but I hear it has nothing on being seen in 3D. I might post about it; I might not. We shall see.
I also received Castle Waiting from the brother and read it yesterday. More discussion on it later. (I received many other books, too, but I haven't finished them yet.)

8. On Tuesday I visited former employers. Sometime this weekend we intend to go walking and/or tobaganning. We also plan to visit Edmonton. However, you shall hear next Friday whether this plans come to fruition.

That is all. Merry Christmas!

Friday, 17 December 2010

No 7 Quick Takes This Week

I am busy with papers and grading and things. Also, I am performing penance for my general inability to not go crazy from grading and then spending too long in the archives of QC. So tomorrow I am going to try a new tactic (study in the English Graduate Reading Room) and if my productivity is as good as I'd like it to be, I won't be on Blogger at all tomorrow.

Regular posting will return at some point or another... but half of you are also students/teachers and in the same boat as I am, so you shouldn't be reading this anyway.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Photosynthesis Like Colour

I'm in the midst of writing (and grading) finals, so I haven't a lot of free time to spend posting. One of those finals, the one that is currently stressing me, is about Thomson's The Seasons and Erasmus Darwin's Loves of the Plants. This means that I am writing about nature and botanical literature. In the spirit of that, I thought I would type out a passage from Wade Davis' One River, in which talking botany becomes something like aesthetic mysticism. I will warn you that there's a swear (gasp) in it, as well as something that reads, when out of context, like pantheistic psychedalia near the end, but otherwise it's quite fascinating:

As the afternoon wore on, the conversation turned to botany and in particular a new book that made a great fuss about house plants responding to music and human voices. For Tim the very idea was ridiculous.
"Why would a plant give a shit about Mozart?" I remember him saying. "And even if it did, why should that impress us? I mean, they can eat light. Isn't that enough?"
He went on to speak of photosynthesis the way an artist might describe color. He said that at dusk the process is reversed and that plants actually emit small amounts of light. He referred to sap as the green blood of plants, explaining that chlorophyll is structurally almost the same as the pigment of our blood, only the iron in hemoglobin is replaced by magnesium in plants. He spoke of the way plants grow, a seed of grass producing sixty miles of root hairs in a day, six thousand miles over the course of a season; a field of hay exhaling five hundred tons of water into the air each day; a flower pushing its blossom through three inches of pavement; a single catkin of a birch tree producing five million grains of pollen; a tree living for four thousand years. Unlike every other botanist I had known, he was not obsessed with classification. For him Latin names were like koans or lines of verse. He remembered them effortlessly, taking particular delight in their origins. "When you say the names of the plants," he said at one point, "you say the names of the gods."

Photograph © 2010 Christian H

Friday, 10 December 2010

The Fantasy Genre: Magic, Maps, and Mystery

"In mysteries what we know, and our realization of what we do not know, proceed together; the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder."
-Huston Smith, The World's Religions.

I have a number of thoughts about the fantasy genre which I intend to explore here. (I should instead be using this time to read and think about The Loves of the Plants and The Seasons.) In this post, I will be thinking about fantasy and mystery.

Dr. Richard Beck at Experimental Theology has written a post about Harry Potter, Twilight, and modern horror and fantasy movies. Beck locates a new trend in fantasy which emphasizes the biological over the metaphysical or magical. As always you should read the whole post because any summary will by necessity fail, but the gist is that the titular examples do not so much use metaphysical versions of wizardry or vampires as their forerunners would have, but instead are interested in biology. Vampirism is less a curse than a disease; magic seems genetic and the problems of Harry's world seem racial and racist in nature, following the pseudo-scientific rhetoric we are used to in Nazism and anti-abolitionist literature. Of course, these two books are not the only ones doing this; Beck uses them as emblems of a growing trend.

I agree with Beck that this biologism is a trend, as I'd been charting (and at that time participating in) it since high school. However, I think that Harry Potty has a slight redemption to it, which is this: magic is never explained in the text. We as readers are made aware that there is a foundation to it. Hermione insists that learning the theory will help Harry improve his skill as a wizard, but we never know what that theory is. This missing piece of the picture explains how wizardry can be a skill learned and improved through practice. Otherwise it would seem awfully silly that someone could be no good at flicking their wrist and repeating pseudo-Latin. So long as you were born with magical ability, you should be able to figure out Wingardium Leviosa in minutes.

This missing foundation is not enough to rescue it from the biologism than Beck sees in it, but that's neither here nor there. It's still a perfectly good series. What interests me is how frustrated some people I know get about not knowing how magic operates. "I already suspended disbelief once," they say. "I don't want to have to do it again and again." This should not be surprising: Wikipedia offers extensive explanation of how magic in fantasy can operate. It seems natural that people who like fantasy should want to know how the magic works. People are curious, and people are increasingly interested in understanding how things work. Why should magic in fiction be any different?

To me the answer to that is simple: it would cease to be magic. If we understood magic, it would be physics; the manipulation of it would be a sufficiently advanced technology. Magic is not reducable to a sufficiently advanced technology, or at least it isn't in fiction if we happen to know how it works. That which is magical (numinous is a worth-while word to think about in this case) is to some extent or another inexplicable. I should note that this doesn't need to tax our suspension of disbelief. Most of us don't understand how airplanes stay in the air or how we get oxygen though our lungs or how the postal system works, but we go with it anyeway. There is no reason that we can't put questions of understanding aside when deciding whether or not to suspend our disbelief in fiction. (Besides, it's good for us.)

Does this mean we are wrong to want to understand? No, I do not think so. Curiousity is a good thing by most accounts. What isn't such a good thing is getting angry and putting the book down when our curiousity is not always satisfied. For one thing, it's a very childish attitude. If you are curious about a friend's private life and get indignant when they won't tell you about it, you are failing at friendship because you are failing to respect their privacy. For another thing, you would miss a lot of good fiction. And for a final thing, you will miss the pleasure of mystery.

When I read a fantasy novel that I love, I want to know more. I have scoured the Internet for details about marshwiggles, for instance. There isn't much information to be had. I loved to read the appendices to The Lord of the Rings: there is a section on the presumed origin of trolls and the troll language, and there is a section on how it came to be that Gandalf took the dwarves to Bilbo Baggins' door. There is a brief mention about why the dwarves were mainly absent from the book, and that explanation was that they were busy fighting against Sauron's goblins and dragons in the north. That's right. There's an entire military campaign, in which the villians have dragons, going on off-stage during The Lord of the Rings. This roused my curiosity. I wanted to know more.

And yet I realized that this is happened before. Once I know all that I want to know, I am not satisfied. I am disappointed. The fantasy world cannot ever live up to what I would imagine it to be. Fantasy books often have maps, so if you have one handy go and look at the map. Do you know what is going on everywhere on that map? Are there any blank spaces? I don't mean gaps in the image; I mean place names which never appear in the novel, mountains which are never described, islands which remain dark and haunted. Are there these blank spaces? I want to go to those spaces, to fill them in, but as soon as you do go there the interest in them is gone. It is only when the blank spaces remain blank that they remain interesting.

([EDIT: Reading this paranthetical again I realize that I am making too broad a gesture and too bold an assertion for my current ignorance. I won't change it but I will add that I realize there is a complex discourse about the African continent. The trick is that I don't see how I can conscientiously avoid mentioning that this sort of "mysterious geography" has had direct reprecussions on real history, and those have not been universally good. There are problems when you apply literary stuff directly to the real world.] This is directly related to colonialism: it is only because the Dark Continent is Dark that it is of interest. If you feel like you have penetrated it, that you know it, then it becomes uninteresting. And it is only when you realize that Africa is not a homogenous nation of homogenous peoples but rather a section of the world which, like every section of the world, will constantly elude complete understanding that it again becomes interesting--and worthy of respect. Of course it had always been both, but so long as we thought we knew it, we could not know that.)

I don't require that all fantasy maintains the balance between giving enough details to evoke a greater picture and never giving enough to satisfy our curiosity. I am, however, disconcerted by those who do expect complete explanations of magic in all fantasy series, since this would destroy one of the best things the fantasy genre has to offer: a mysterious cosmogeny (versus a rigourously explained cosmogeny in hard sci-fi). This is the pleasant tension, that we do want to know more about these favourite worlds but that to satisfy that desire would in the end fail to please us. It is only when we are required to wonder that it is wonderful; it is only when we can desire more than we can have that that desire is endless.

(I also think that learning to live with not understanding while maintaining the desire to understand is a habit necessary to good character, but that argument perhaps belongs elsewhere.)

7 Quick Takes (68)

1. On Saturday I took part in a symposium for my Asian Canadian Studies class. It was a joint symposium with students from our class and from a University of Simon Fraser class similar to ours. We had it at the Harbour Centre in four panels. It was surprisingly professional and there were apparently people from the actual feild present. That could have been intimidating. It was a bit odd, giving a paper on a topic in a field of which I am not a part. It was also odd because my paper was in many ways a religious studies-literary analysis cross over, which makes things difficult because I cannot gauge how the other participants will understand the terminology I am using. This came out especially when one student came to me afterwards suggesting I use the word "spirituality" instead of "religion" in some of the instances in my paper. This seemed to be a silly distinction to me; I fully recognize that some people prefer one term over the other, but in the sort of RELS circles at Queen's of which I was minorly a part, that seems like a bizarre and arbitrary distinction. Anyway, it was great if a little intimidating, I had fun, and I learned a lot. Afterwards we went out for drinks and a great time was had by all.
(This may be excessive detail about the symposium, I realize; I feel like I should explain what it looked like for whatever non-academic readers I may have. It was also the first time I took part in a symposium, so it may be appropriate to explain it here.)

2. At church there was a Christmas bazaar, at which I bought some jams from a fellow named John. These jams were as follows: blackberry pineapple; rhubarb; tayberry. So far I have sampled the first, and it is wonderful.

3. On Tuesday I went to the English Graduate Department Masquerade Party. It was enjoyable. Beforehand (Monday) a friend and I went to Dressew to buy masks and I went to get a white shirt. It turned out that my white shirt may have been a little too big, which is a shame. Most of us had a lot of fun, though. (I feel like this entry should be bigger, but unless you know the people who went I don't suppose there'd be any reason for it to be that long.)

4. Oh, also on Tuesday I had an interview about diversity issues in TAing. That was productive, insofar as it got me thinking more about lesson planning for students of assorted diversities. I must try to apply some of these ideas to future classes.

5. On Wednesday I had a hours-long run-around in the assorted Chapters downtown. It's a long story, which I won't tell here, but I must say that the Chapters staff I encountered were very friendly and helpful, and that I don't think I shall ever be distressed about spending time in bookstores. This is also significant because all of this going downtown has made me far more comfortable with both the downtown space itself and the transit system.

6. On Thursday I invigilated two three-hour exams back-to-back. That was exhaustingly tedious, but fairly good for getting work done. Afterwards some of the other TAs and I went for sushi and talked about literature and literary studies. Go figure.

7. Today I had class, which is unusual because classes ought to be over by now. Completely unrelated to this, I also really like this:

Please go see more of this genre at Jennifer Fulwiler's blog!

Friday, 3 December 2010

7 Quick Takes (67)

1. Light rain and overcast. (You can tell it's been a slow week when...)

2. Advent service was held in the basement so that we could have an Advent garden instead of a sermon. It was pretty, I suppose, though I wasn't sure what to make of its theological importance.

3. It was the last week of classes. I planned my last discussion for the term. That being said, I do have a make-up class next week and a symposium tomorrow.

4. While I'm talking about the symposium, I should say that the paper I'm delivering is almost twice the maximum length. Great. I have so much introduction that that will be all that I can deliver...

5. I saw some raccoons yesterday. I don't know why I find that altogether too interesting; I have seen some in the city before now. I got some blurry photos this time. I suppose that's why I bother mentioning it.

6. I went to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I. I might blog about it at some point, but then again I might not. I want to see Red Riding Hood, though. This I have decided.

7. I'm exhausted and I have a lot of work left to do. I'm going to have to call it quits early and get on that work.

Remember to go to Jennifer Fulwiler's blog; she's the host of this carnival.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

I Intend to Post Soon

Hey, all.

I intend to write awesome posts soon. I really do. Things are busy over here, however, and blog posts are not a priority. It will have to wait. In a few weeks I might be able to manage a few interesting posts. I have a bunch of possible topics lined up.

I'll see you when I see you (or "you'll read me when you read me," but that doesn't have quite the same ring to it).

Christian H
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