Monday, 30 December 2013

13 of 2013

I've been clutched by the desire to write a year-in-review post and, being who I am, I'm listing media. (I'm departing from just books because I've started watching more tv shows and movies.)

TV Shows

1. Supernatural

I could have listed Game of Thrones or Andromeda, if I were simply choosing based on whether I had watched and enjoyed them; I think I've seen the first season of Game of Thrones three times now, and it remains one of the most compelling fantasy TV shows--or even fantasy movies--that I've seen so far, and while my enjoyment of Andromeda was more mixed, I thoroughly enjoyed both the overall idea of the show--a diplomatic version of the Pax Romana--and the characters Andromeda/Rommie and Trance Gemini (as characters and as thought experiments). But I've got to choose Supernatural. I might even mention Once Upon a Time, which was compelling at least in its repeated undercutting of the "happily ever after" idea and its surprising second season twist on Sleeping Beauty.

I have an appetite that only The X-Files has come close to really satisfying. I started to watch Supernatural in a half-hearted attempt to appease that appetite, and found that it was something worth watching all on its own. Those first few seasons were atmospheric in the particularly wonderful way of being their own atmosphere: the mix of classic rock, staticy radios, dive bars, abandoned buildings, and strangely filmic ghosts worked well together to make a feel which was distinct. That atmosphere faded out as the series went on, and Supernatural did become an inferior show, but I'd still say that other show it became was also worth watching, at least some of the time, because of its secondary characters. I, like everyone else, I think, got frustrated with the show's habit of killing off it's most interesting characters, sometimes even permanently, but I suppose the good thing about the Senecan death rate is that it prompted them to make more wonderful characters. The best summary I heard was this: "For a show that hated women, it had some of the best female characters."

Books (fiction)

2. The Golem and the Jinni

I've written about this already (link). But it really was wonderful--for me.

3. The Homeward Bounders, by Diana Wynne Jones

I've written about this one, too (link). It took me a while to work into it, and it struck me as bizarre that Diana Wynne Jones has two books with Middle Eastern (and fairly Orientalist) young girls who are the avatars/manifestations of divine beings and, therefore, have magical powers. (cf The Lives of Christopher Chant.) I liked both characters, though, and Homeward Bounders wound up being pretty excellent.

4. Paper Towns, by John Green

Paper Towns is one of those books for which I made bad decisions regarding bedtimes and schoolwork. I wouldn't say it's so fantastic as some people say it is, but its fairly transparent themes are ones that I think are important: our repeated failure to imagine other people as complexly as they deserve, the sorts of selfish motives which bungle our empathy, the foolishness of the idea that love can fix certain problems, the way some people's brokenness is close enough to hurt us but still too far from us to fix, the importance (or, anyway, omnipresence) of artistic creation. If you pick it up and start feeling uneasy about how much it looks like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl story, be assured that it doesn't end up that way. John Green has joked that the alternate title is The Patriarchal Lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must Be Stabbed in the Heart and Killed.

5. The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy

When I'm at my least charitable, I want to use this book as a litmus test to see if someone is worth my time or not: if someone finds the book annoying, they have failed it. The novel is an extended observation of an insufferable man's death, in which the man becomes more insufferable as he is in pain. But, for me, anyway, my irritation about this man came out the other side as compassion for him, and that seems to be the whole exercise of the book; that, and a commentary of the social norms of dying. Even the mere observation that something so un-social as dying has its norms is an observation that makes the book worth reading, in my opinion.

This quotation stuck with me: The awful, terrible act of dying was, he could see, reduced to those around him to the level of a casual, unpleasant, and almost indecorous incident (as if someone entered a drawing-room diffusing an unpleasant odour) and this was done by that very decorum which he had served all his life long. He saw that no one felt for him, because no one even wished to grasp his position.

6. The Collected Fictions of Jorge Louis Borges

I presume I have written enough about this (link).

Books (non-fiction)

7. Why Marx Was Right, by Terry Eagleton

I've written about this one already, too (link). I'll note, though, that the reason on this list was not that I enjoyed the book terribly much, nor that I couldn't put it down, nor that I found its main thesis compelling (the first two are untrue, and the third is true in a very limited and qualified sense). The reason it's on this list is because I've found its secondary (or even tertiary) ideas fruitful. The post I've written enumerates the most interesting and summarizable of those ideas.

8. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, by Andrew Solomon

This encyclopedic treatment of depression is well worth reading for anyone who has depression; I don't think it especially pulled me out of depression, but it helped me understand depression, whatever that is worth. I suppose that other people who seek to understand depression would also find it helpful. This tome is simultaneously thorough and engaging, which may make up for its length.

One distressing thing about it: parts of the book led me to believe that there was something worth my time that I could wrest from my depression, something like a combination of compassion, empathy, and perspective, a sort of moral capability that was hard to develop otherwise. And then it told me that many people with depression fail to get this benefit, that they become morally cramped people, that the moral capability is something you still have to work for. That was disheartening; part of realizing that I'm not as good and moral as I'd like to be is wanting to be a better person, a generally good impulse, and it's distressing when that impulse is frustrated.

9. The Dynamic of Faith, by Paul Tillich

Since I just finished this book last week, it may be too soon to put it on the list. (That's why I haven't put Home on it, even though I found it tremendously good. Eve Tushnet's review of it is worth reading [link].) Further, I wasn't entirely convinced by Tillich's argument; too much of it derives from how he's chosen to define words, without any argument about why we should understand those words this way. But I think I can tentatively justify it's inclusion for a few reasons: in Tillich's "Protestant Principle," I found an articulation of why, precisely, I am compelled by Protestantism for which I myself hadn't been able to find the words; I found answers to particular questions about what faith is which might be useful in those arguments that sometimes happen about whether or not atheists have faith, what systems count as religions, etc.; and I was actually engaged enough by a book of theology that I overcame my cynicism about it. Maybe it'll be a gateway book; maybe from here I'll go on to somebody like Barth.


10. The Beasts of the Southern Wild

This is an absolutely wonderful movie. You'll encounter reviews of it saying that it romanticizes poverty; don't listen to them. The answer to that charge is either, "No, it really doesn't," or "Yes, and it ought to, and it must"; I'm not yet sure which it is. The film is about a little girl named Mudpuppy who lives in The Bathtub, the swamplands on the water side of a giant levee. For the first third of the film I was mainly in horror about what I perceived as the poor parenting Mudpuppy was receiving; by the second half of the film I found myself desperately in love with the screwed-up and misguided adults around her. (The transition time was maybe the most startling.) These are a people who can't trust the system trying to help them because that system has betrayed them so many times before, and as much as I understand the officials representing that system, I can't fault the people of the Bathtub for refusing that help, either.

But the movie is also about the mythology of childhood--not that childhood has become sort of a myth in North America, though that is also true, but the way certain children make myths out of their lives, are reliant on the strange and screwed-up and ignorant people around them for the resources they need to express their moral feelings. And in that sense, the on-going metaphors of the film--the flood, which is real, and the monstrous Aurochs, which Mudpuppy believes/imagines are stampeding towards them from the Antarctic--are very compelling.

A friend of mine said of the movie, "I learned so much about strength from an eight-year old."

11. The Fingersmith

I don't know what to say about this (or whether it ought to go here or go under TV Shows, since it's one of those two-part BBC mini-series). But I still feel like The Fingersmith edges out Catching Fire, which I almost put here, so I suppose I must account for it.

I can't really even say what it is I liked about it: I almost never go in for the whole "the character you thought was innocent was actually jaded/compromised in an unexpected way, and the character you thought was compromised was innocent in an unexpected way" schtick, maybe because the idea of innocence seems so weird to me, but here it worked surprisingly well. Perhaps it was the theme of reconciliation that caught my interest, and the compelling way that people hurt those they love for selfish and cowardly purposes. Who will you hurt in order to escape a life that is killing you morally? What harm will you do to save your soul--and, of course, can you save your soul by doing harm? I don't think The Fingersmith even begins to answer those questions, but at least it asks them.

It does becomes dangerously close to have the standard sorts of problems that depictions of same-sex relationships tend to have--the "love that can never be" theme, etc.--but I think that it does manage to dodge a few of them and it manages to hobble on despite the rest.

Short Fiction-ish

12. "A Collection of things I like in order", by Sunny Chan

I often think that including things written by people I know is cheating, but I'll do it anyway. I have almost nothing to say at all about this piece, except that it's fantastic and a must-read and all of that good stuff. If you've ever thought that there's nothing poetic about academia, then let this put that error to rest. (link)


13. Postmodern Jukebox

What's this, you say? Christian is putting music on a list like this? I almost thought he had no ears, he's so indifferent to music. Not so!, I say. I just don't talk about it much because I haven't the vocabulary.

There's something super-catchy about Postmodern Jukebox's songs. They do covers of pop-songs in the musical styles of the past (or the gauche present): a jazz "Thrift Shop," a "Just (Tap) Dance," a swing (?) "Gentleman." And, since the lead singer is female, their bluegrass cover of the terribly misogynistic "Blurred Lines" comes off in her voice as inspired by a common misreading Adrienne Rich.

I may not listen to Postmodern Jukebox as much as I listen to some other groups, but I'm nonetheless excited about what they do.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Writing the Stories I Want to Read

One of the pieces of writing advice I ignore the most is roughly this: "Don't worry about how people will receive your work. That kills creativity." I am terrible for worrying about reception. The worst. And it's not just particular readers; I want to please all readers (who I know). This poses a serious problem, because I know people who could probably never agree on a single book they both thought was tolerable, let alone likable. I'm stuck trying write something that both does and does not have strong romantic elements, has no emotional issues superfluous to the main plot but also has well-developed characters with interesting lives outside of the plot (and, furthermore, there is no discernable linear plot anyway), and is both experimental and widely accessible. I very much need to stop worrying about reception if I want to write anything.

To help me follow the advice I should be following, I fall back on another piece of advice: "Write the story you want to read." A lot of people have said versions of this piece of advice; I'm most familiar with Stephen King, Diana Wynne Jones, and C. S. Lewis saying something of the sort, but according to Google it's Toni Morrison who said it most explicitly. At any rate, this seems like great writing advice. It also isn't going to work for me, I don't think, and with much the same results.

The trouble is that I like a lot of different kinds of stories. Often after I've read them I'll think, "Oh, I would like to write something like this." What I'm tempted to do is try to write something that is a bit like all of them bound up together. I sometimes say things like, "I might write something that's a cross between Madeleine L'Engle and C. S. Lewis," and that's not too unthinkable. But other times I'll say, "I plan to write something that's a cross between Diana Wynne Jones, Linda Medley, Don DeLillo, and Tom Stoppard," and that is unthinkable. I can't write something that is both immediate and detached; I can't write something that has an adventurous linear plot and has an unconventional narrative structure; I can't write something that has postmodernist deconstructed characters and has highly engaging and very recognizable characters. But I like--no, adore--both sides of those dichotomies. I do really enjoy reading books with unconventional structures and books with conventional structures. I like the first because it has an unconventional structure, and the second because it doesn't. But I cannot actually have both, even if I'd like to.

The obvious solution is for me to just pick one side of each pair and write a story like that, promising myself that the next thing I write will have the other. Another solution is to oscillate, within the same story, between each side of the pair. This last solution might not work for the characters, but it would possibly work for the other two elements, if well done. However, the first solution requires more deferral of pleasure than I'm good at, and the second solution may require more skill than I currently have.

This problem has more urgency now than it usually does, and on the same topic, I have an announcement to make. Starting some time in January (I'm not entirely sure when), an on-line serial publishing platform is having its beta-launch, and I'm slated to be one of its initial writers. So I am getting started on a novel that I will be publishing in instalments on-line. I'll provide links to the relevant websites as they become available/relevant, but in the meantime it might be fair to warn you that I might let this blog die a slow death after all. Between my regular life stuff, writing a novel, and working on promotional and auxilary material for my novel, I may no longer have time to post here. I recognize that I haven't been posting very much for a long time now anyway, but if I were you I wouldn't be surprised if I posted here even less...maybe not at all. We will have to see how much time I have, whether this novel pans out, and whether I have anything I want to say that I feel is most appropriately said here. There are some drafts of posts on my hard drive which I might be able to touch up some time. Be assured that the blog will stay up and that I will still be reading other people's blogs as before. Whatever happens, thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

An Apology to Certainty

In the time since I've written these posts advocating for less emphasis on certainty and more acceptance of uncertainty (link and link), I've moved on my position a little. I have not moved a lot, and I wouldn't feel any more comfortable formulating some kind of Statement of Personal Philosophy on this topic right now, but I feel like it's worth noting that I have encountered particular oppositions to my way of thinking and they are having an effect. A slow effect, but still an effect.

I thought I would round up a few of the things which have made me re-think my position on the subject in lieu of trying to articulate anything coherent. My purpose is so that, if anyone really wants to change my mind, they'll be able to see what kinds of things have traction on my thinking.

1. The conversation I had with Iota in the comments of this blog post. (link)
Iota has convinced me that, however useful I find postmodernism for my own thinking, it's probably not useful to expect other people to find it useful. Moreover, Iota pointed something out that it took me far too long to acknowledge: I need to reconsider my suspicion or anxiety that reducing certainty is the best method of reducing the general unpleasantness of society. Specifically, I am committing an error that I find appalling when others commit it; in the same comments section as my conversation with Iota, a number of people made claims about necessary (or at least overwhelmingly likely) progressions from one kind of belief-state to another. So, for instance, someone argued that Protestantism leads by necessity to postmodernism, and then on to relativism. But this is obviously untrue; you cannot posit necessary psychological progressions like this, particularly not when there is a lot of counter-evidence. You need to take other people's experiences seriously, and positing such progressions fails to take other people's experiences seriously.
Anyway, Iota did not make a parallel between my idea that certainty-->lack of hospitality-->jerk-ness and the grouchy Chestertonian Catholic's idea that Protestantism-->postmodernism-->relativism-->moral degeneracy, but by pointing out that my progression is faulty, Iota put me in a position where I could notice that parallel myself.

2. Real people
Following up Iota's comments, I noticed that I have friends who are certain (about some things, anyway), and manage not to be jerks. In fact, their very certainty makes them even more accepting of uncertainty in others, or so it seems. (It is also possible that they are just nice people, irrespective of how they hold beliefs. But it doesn't seem that way.)

3. Richard Beck's "Doubt and Universalism: Being Hopeful and Dogmatic"  (link)
This post is a short one, so I suggest you read it if you want a sense of what I'm talking about. The gist is that Beck is not so much a dogmatic universalist, absolutely believing that all people will go to Heaven eventually; rather, Beck calls himself a polemical universalist, because he'll argue for universalism without being sure of it. He says that if the Christian God exists, then universalism is the only position which is coherent. But Beck isn't entirely sure God exists. His certainty is in the validity of the if-then statement. It's an argument I find convincing, but I was more struck by Beck's ability to claim he's a polemical [insert position], and I think this way of constructing a belief is helpful, however religious or irreligious that position is.

This might not seem like something designed to inch me toward certainty, but it is. Being fairly confident in an if-then statement is at least a kind of confidence, and I ought to admit that. At the same time, it allows for action despite uncertainty; I may not know whether proposition A is true or false, but I sure do know that if proposition A is true, then result B will happen, while if proposition A is false, then result C will happen. That gives me something to work with, to plan for. So it makes me feel more comfortable with certainty, while giving me a way of articulating what it is I want out of uncertainty. If Beck's post hadn't done the second thing, I maybe wouldn't have accepted the first so readily.

4. Kathleen Mulhern's "Trinitarian Spirituality, 18: Believing in the Right Direction"
If you aren't Christian, this entry won't do much for you. But it has done something for me.

What K. Mulhern's posts in the middle of her series on the Trinity has indicated is that Trinitarian Christianity is invested in a God that is self-revealing. Specifically, if Christ is God incarnated on Earth, then there is something self-revealing about God. Oh, certainly there's a lot about God that remains mysterious, but it does seem that God would like us to know at least some of God's qualities. If God wants us to know at least some minimum of religious knowledge, then I presume it must be possible. This disrupts my tendencies to via negativa and analogous non-religious ways of thinking about knowledge.

5. Black holes
If the last post was rather religious, this one is rather nerdy. In the Philosophy of Mathematics course I took during my undergraduate degree, we were introduced to quite a few theories, including what's called realism or Platonism (numbers are real things that exist either in the Realm of Forms or as extensions of mathematical principles), nominalism (mathematics is an abstraction or approximation of reality relationships; this has an Aristotelian history), or fictionalism (mathematics is a fiction/metaphor we have found useful). My response was pretty much that fictionalism > nominalism > realism. I knew from the outset, though, that the big hurdle which fictionalism had to handle was the fact that math had predictive powers (most attempts to explain this with fictionalism turn fictionalism into nominalism). Most people describe the predictive powers by saying that bridges don't fall (because engineers use math and math works), but I always thought of Stephen Hawking's work on black holes.

The story generally goes that Stephen Hawking took some physical laws, crunched the numbers rather a lot, and then predicted that black holes must exist. Until this time, no one had the slightest idea about black holes, but when astronomers checked, they found evidence which suggested that they exist. It turns out this story might not be accurate, but the general lesson remains the same: physical laws are consistent and therefore predictable, and this predictability scales pretty well. We'd live in a pretty weird world if all this predictability was just a fluke.

So, black holes remind me that a lot of stuff is knowable, and I try to remember them when I start getting too skeptical.

6. Richard Beck's "Gracious Doubt" (link)
You know those times when you encounter something--maybe something a friend says, or a passage in a book, or what-have-you--which shows you, clearly and without compromise, a way you've gone wrong? That's what this post was to me. It is, yet again, a short post, so feel free to go read it.

I suppose what I managed to mess up was this: in feeling demeaned by those who were certain, I (sometimes) became antagonistic against certainty itself. In trying to make space for uncertainty, for doubt, I wasn't at all interested in making space for certainty. I recognize this now as uncharitable. I suppose this post did not really move me on this issue, so much as remind me that I needed to adjust my emotional response. And, possibly, offer an apology if I ever demeaned anyone myself. In which case, I'm sorry.

Which isn't to say I'm OK with people getting on their high horse against doubt, which is still a big issue.
Blog Widget by LinkWithin