RIP John Saxon

At the same time that the last leading lady of old Hollywood passed away, another veteran actor joined the great majority.

Most people probably don’t recognize the name John Saxon, but I guarantee you know some of his films. Saxon was one of those reliable character actors who throve in the world of B-pictures, with nearly 200 film and TV credits to his name in a career spanning from the 1950s (when he played supporting roles to likes of James Stewart, Audrey Hepburn, and Debbie Reynolds) to the 2010s. He’s best known for his roles as Nancy Thompson’s skeptical police chief father in the first and third Nightmare on Elm Street films (he then played himself in the meta-horror New Nightmare) and as the gambling addict Roper in the Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon (John Saxon was a skilled martial artist in his own right).

He also had roles in the horror classic Black Christmas and the action-horror cult-classic From Dusk Till Dawn, plus appearances on just about every notable TV show of the 70s and 80s. Fans of MST3k, meanwhile, will remember Saxon from the classic episode Mitchell, where he played the slimy villain of the B-plot opposite Joe Don Baker’s titular detective (though the cut of the film used on the show inexplicably left out the resolution of his plot line, causing Joel to wonder “Wasn’t John Saxon in this movie?”).

Mr. Saxon never rose high in the film industry, but he was a reliable, professional, hard-working actor who was always a welcome presence in his many, many films. I always have a fondness for that kind of working character actor: the ones who will never headline a blockbuster, but who simply show up, do their job well, and leave the audience glad for their company.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and the soul of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

John Saxon in Enter the Dragon (1973)
“Like you said, there’s a point I won’t go beyond.”

The Last Star has Gone Out

Olivia de Havilland, star of Gone with the Wind, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and dozens of other classic films, has passed away at the age of 104. She was Errol Flynn’s chief leading lady — they starred in eight films together, including his star-making role Captain Blood — one of the principle leads of Gone with the Wind and one of the great beauties of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

She was also the last one. The Golden Age of Hollywood is now officially consigned to the history books. John Wayne, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Maureen O’Hara, Katherine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, John Ford, Frank Capra, Cecil B. DeMille, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland; they’re all gone. Whatever might be said of that vast cast of filmmakers, writers, actors and actresses, whatever might be said of the studio system that they worked for, they produced some mighty fine stories; stories that remain meaningful, entertaining, and uplifting even when all those who made have passed away. That, I think, counts for something.

In any case, that era is now over. The last star of Hollywood has gone out.

Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May her soul and the soul of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God rest in peace.

Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade
Of that which once was great, is passed away
.

Sunday Thoughts: The Treasure in the Field

Deconstructing fairy tales is like deconstructing a ming vase; it’s easy to do, but it says more about you than about the subject itself. When some wag sniffs at the ‘love at first sight’ trope, or writes smarmy novels about Cinderella realizing how shallow her love for Prince Charming really is, it only shows the narrowness of her own mind.

Remember, narratives are always inadequate to the reality. You are always going to miss something. The question, then, is what elements of the real thing are you going to portray and why, with the goal being to convey the true, complete nature of the thing as much as possible.

Love at first sight, leading to an unyielding desire to possess the object of ones affection, is not how things usually play out day-to-day in real life. It is, however, the true pattern of an ardent love; you recognize the other for the thing you desire and you put all on the line to win her and keep her. In the context of the real world, that recognition likely takes place over the course of a good deal of time and, since we’re flawed beings, may be imperfect. In any case, there will always be elements about her that could lead you to think that you may have made a mistake at some point. But the pattern holds good; success comes in finding what you want and committing wholly to it.

As you will notice, this pattern is itself a copy of the greater pattern that Christ speaks of in today’s Gospel readings: the man who found a treasure in a field, then went and sold all he owned to possess it, or the merchant of pearls seeking one of great price who, when he found it, sold everything he owned that he might have it.

The point both here and in the fairy tales is that the hero discovers something that is worth making the baseline of his life; the thing to which all else can give way because its value exceeds them all. It is the thing that gives context and meaning to all else, and thus takes precedence over all else. It is your purpose, your destiny. Lose that, it won’t matter what else you have. Achieve it, and you achieve all.

It used to be that this pattern was repeated on earth in a minor key. And it still is in less noticeable measures; the desire to serve a noble cause and a great leader is baked into the heart of man. In legend, a young knight would consider it the highest honor to be in service to King Arthur or Charlemagne, and would endure anything for that opportunity. More recently, hundreds of men signed up to serve with Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and many were disappointed to be turned away. The chivalrous spirit has, as an essential part of it, unyielding loyalty to one’s master and cause: to the Faith the knight defends and the King who serves that faith. In practice, it wasn’t so much important that the king be a good king; it was the unyielding loyalty, the submission of the self that matters. David, one of the prototypes of the Christian Knight, continued to serve King Saul even while Saul was seeking to murder him.

The virtue of devotion must be practiced in an imperfect context – to King, to country, to wife – because that is the one we know and see and thus can’t fool ourselves over. If we say “I’ll be loyal to Christ because he is perfect, but not to my country because it’s imperfect,” then we probably won’t be loyal to Christ either if He ever asks us to do something difficult or something we don’t understand. Indeed, how often do we hear people today saying things like “I love Jesus, but I don’t think he cares about my sexual habits, or about usury, or about whether I go to Church.” Because we don’t have the habit of devotion, of serving the imperfect, we have instead the habit of ‘serving’ only as we see fit. Which, of course is not serving at all. A soldier who only follows orders that he himself judges to be correct and sensible is claiming the rank of a general; a knight who only obeys his king when he would have done the same thing is claiming the rights of a king. If we have no experience of actually serving, how will we know to serve God? “He who is loyal in small things will be loyal in great ones.”

Hence, the narrative pattern of giving all for the desired object; the princess, the treasure in the field, the pearl of great price. Hence the pattern of the noble knight who wants nothing more than to serve the good king. These are, in fact, the correct way to look at life, despite slurring over the details.

Christ, our Lord, our maker, our redeemer, is the foundational value; the base from which all other value proceeds. To be of the Kingdom of God — to be ‘in service’ to Christ — is the supreme glory of the human person and ought to be our greatest desire.

On Narrative

As noted, I’m reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan at the moment. One of the things he talks about early on is the narrative fallacy, which involves our need to create narratives and see patterns to explain the world around us. This seems a good chance to talk about the meaning and purpose of narrative.

There are two fallacies to fall into here; the first is the skeptical fallacy, which overrates randomness and attempts to eschew all narrative as illusionary impositions upon a fundamentally chaotic and meaningless world. This one is rather popular these days, at least in a superficial form.  

The other is the Narrative or what Taleb calls the ‘Platonistic’ fallacy, which involves being overly certain of a particular narrative, to the point where we ignore contradictory instances and assume that the narrative is the reality it describes. In this way we make false predictions and are caught off guard by what he terms ‘Black Swan’ events; major events that that narrative considered impossible or vanishingly unlikely, but which the actual course of events brought about.

Note that these fallacies, while directly contradictory, are often practiced by the same person, depending on how well his argument is holding up.

To settle the first fallacy first, one fundamental truth we must get straight if we are to think sense about reality is this: there is no such thing as randomness.

‘Random’ refers to a lack of knowledge, not to an actual cause. When we say a given event was random, it means that we either do not know the cause that led to it or that it was of a kind that we could not control or predict. Viewed ‘internally’, however, the event is as logical and predictable as any other. When you role a set of fair dice, the outcome is ‘random’ because the cause of their landing thus or thus is the force and angle with which they are thrown. A person with perfect muscle control could, theoretically, cause the dice to land anyway he wanted by providing just the correct force at just the correct moment.

Or, in another instance, say you are walking down a path in the woods and a dead branch drops off of a tree and hits you on the head. This is ‘random’ from your point of view. But if someone were watching that particular tree and knew its whole history – that is, if he had a correct narrative of the tree – he would understand that the branch had died at such a time and of such a cause and has been weakened in such a way that it necessarily would break under those circumstances.

What this amounts to is that the world around us is fundamentally ordered and logical; events do not happen in a vacuum nor come from nothing. The appearance of chaos is a consequence of our lack of knowledge. It is random to us on account of our limitations, but not on its own account. We have no experience of a truly ‘random’ event, an event severed from logical causation. Randomness does not and cannot produce a single event (which means that ‘luck-based powers’ are pretty much sheer nonsense, but that’s another story).

Sorry, Longshot

Therefore, everything that happens is, in fact, consistent, which means that meaning is derived from the world and not simply imposed upon it, however mistaken a particular interpretation may be. Though one derived meaning – one ascribed cause of the event – is false, yet there must be some cause and therefore some meaning.  

(Note: I have heard that events at the subatomic level appear to be uncaused and random. But this seems to me far too uncertain a proposition to taken into serious account. We cannot observe these events directly much less observe any sub-subatomic events or forces that may be influencing them. As a rule, things on the extreme edge of what we know ought not to be part of a philosophical discussion, since they must be speculative and unconfirmed. Moreover, to prove randomness seems to me impossible, as it would require us to disprove any logical causes. That is, to prove a negative).

The second fallacy is the rather more interesting one. As Taleb points out, we have a strong need to discern patterns and create narratives to explain the events around us. In part this is a survival mechanism; we immediately recognize certain images and sensations as danger signals (e.g. a snake) and react instinctively. That is, we have automatic thought patterns that run unconsciously, producing immediate emotional reactions. Something similar happens in habits, morals, and similar matters, as we noted earlier. Information is costly to acquire, costly to store, and costly to manipulate. Simply put, careful, logical thinking takes too much time and too much energy to practical most of the time, so our brains create little bundles of thought: pre-built conceptions and conclusions (rather like the objects in programming, or like the prepared spells in DnD) to make the process easier and to direct us in day-to-day activities.

So, it is one thing to study a snake and discern its nature; it is quite another to recognize ‘snake=danger=do not tread.’ But the two are not unrelated as we must first have some idea of a snake and that it may be dangerous before we can form that pattern at all (whether this idea is learned or comes ‘ready-made’ as instinct). Moreover, that pattern can be adjusted or overwritten by further understanding of snakes. All this goes back to what I was saying about habits and thought processes; it all comes down to how we think, including the immediate, unconscious thoughts that drive our emotions.  

Footage of the mind at work

Now, here we have to explain something about how we perceive the world. When we perceive a given object, there are two factors involved; the object itself and our idea of it, and the latter will always be less than the former. Our idea of, say, a tree is not the tree itself, but more in the nature of a diagram or summary of the tree that we create in our minds and can never comprise the entirety of the tree.

Beyond this, there is also a third factor: the words we use to describe it, which will likewise be inadequate to the idea, because the words are a representation of a representation. The skill of a Shakespeare or a Dante is inadequate to conveying, not just the thing itself, but even their own idea of a thing.  

Toward the end of his life, the great St. Thomas Aquinas had a vision of God and never wrote another word of his masterful ‘Summa’, saying that all his brilliant philosophizing was ‘as straw’ compared with the reality he had witnessed. Reality is always more than we can perceive, which is always more than we can describe.

This is actually fairly simple when you think about it; the tree that you perceive is an external nature unto itself regardless of whether you perceive it. You perceive it by its interactions with your senses, which form a composite idea of it in your mind, but since that idea is only derived from sensory impressions of the object, it is always less than the object, because our senses do not take in the totality of what they perceive.  

However, at the same time (and this is vital), a very inadequate diagram may still be an accurate diagram, as far as it goes, and may be more accurate than another. A crude picture of a tree may nevertheless be more like the tree than another, similarly crude drawing. Likewise, whether a summary of a book is adequate is a separate question to whether it is accurate. So, Nicholas Nickelby could be accurately summarized as “a naïve young man tries to make his way in the world while opposed by his wicked uncle.” It could not be summarized as “The vengeful form of a drowned child preys upon visitors at an old summer camp.”  

Pictured: Not Nicholas Nickelby

Nor, incidentally, would it be accurate to summarize Nickelby as “a young man takes up with a provincial theater company.” Because while that does happen in the book, it is not the main thrust or point of the story, but only one incident among many. The first summary would give you a better idea of what the book is about than the latter. This even though the latter is more specific to something that happens.

An accurate summary, therefore, encompasses the object as a whole, not a specific element of it, and though it is necessarily less than the object itself, it may be a more or less true image of it.

A ‘narrative’ is our image or summary of a series of events, up to and including the history of the world. It is the pattern that we describe within those events. A scientific theory, for instance, is a narrative to describe observed natural phenomena. We look at fossils and create the narrative of evolution to explain them. We look at the motions of the planets and create the narrative of the solar system.

But, as was pointed out by Aristotle and Aquinas and dramatically demonstrated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these narratives are always contingent upon the unknown. If an observation is made that contradicts the narrative, then either the narrative is inadequate or even false or the observation itself is mistaken.

As noted above, people instinctively form narratives, and they ought to because everything does have a true narrative to it. Randomness is not a cause, which means that every event is causally linked, which is to say part of a narrative. The example of the tree branch that falls on your head was part of the narrative of that tree’s existence, which had a beginning, middle, and will have an end. If you knew that tree intimately, the branch breaking under just those circumstances would not be at all surprising to you.

Likewise, the whole world does proceed on a narrative, though it is one of immense complexity far beyond our capacity to understand in its totality (I can only wonder at people who believe they have discerned the pattern of human society to the extent that they can control or re-engineer it).

Put simply; there is an objective narrative or pattern to reality. Our conception of it will never be adequate or even anything like it, but it may be more or less accurate.

The necessary inadequacy of our perceptions and consequently of the narrative pattern we discern is the source of what Taleb calls the Black Swan event; the unexpected but impactful event that is understandable in retrospect, but not in prospect. Because what we perceive is not the totality of what is there, and the narrative we create from that perception is even further removed from what is actually present. So there are always currents of events happening of which even the most astute observer is unaware.

There are couple things to derive from this. To me, the more I read of The Black Swan the more it seems to me to be Dame Fortuna re-ascendant. This lady loomed large in the Medieval imagination, thanks in part to Boethius, and with her wheel or ball was held to be the mistress of this world; whether triumph or adversity, sickness or health, prosperity or penury came upon one was considered due less to one’s efforts and more to the whims of Fortune. But the point was that her gifts were ephemeral and worthless to begin with; don’t go chasing after the strumpet, but seek wisdom and virtue and other goods that were outside her power.

I would like to go into it more someday, but it seems to me that Christians found this image so appealing in part because there is an element of uncertainty and the incomplete knowledge of the world baked into the Christian claim. The very nature of Revelation grounds the most important points of reference beyond our own knowledge and asserts right at the foundation that we do not and cannot know everything about the world (this, by the way, is why “it’s not in revelation” is not a valid argument against the existence of ghosts, fairies, or aliens).

Setting those weightier matters aside for the time being; remember that patterns of thought determine emotional responses and actions. Narratives are the framework within which we create those patterns. Therefore the narrative by which someone understands the world plays a large role in how he will feel and act. Most of us have a dozen contradictory narratives exercising petty dictatorships over different aspects of our lives.

And the thing about narrative, as Taleb points out, is that it is very rarely subject to intellectual attack, even if by its own lights it should be (note how strongly scientists will cling to their pet theories in the teeth of contradictory evidence). It could be, but only if the subject himself tries to change it. Narratives and thought patterns, those ‘prepared spells’ of the mind are not subject to external control. An addict or a criminal has to want to change and has to be willing to put in the effort to change his own thinking.

But, though intellectual attacks don’t usually work, something else does. Just as only a diamond can cut a diamond, so the best weapon against a narrative is another narrative. When I look at most of the big ideas of the past few centuries (e.g. Liberalism, Marxism), I find the intellectual basis is often very weak indeed. Marxism, for instance, rests on the blatantly contradictory idea that a ‘worker’ somehow remains a worker whatever his actual role in society becomes (among other bits of self-evident nonsense). But they have extremely appealing narratives; the oppressed masses rising up and casting off their chains to take control of their own destiny or free and equal men creating a utopia of liberty, equality, and fraternity. This is why things like Marxism persist despite its horrific track record; the narrative is both powerful and deeply ingrained in the public psyche (It doesn’t help that its current main adversary – ‘classical’ liberalism or libertarianism – employs much the same narrative of oppressed masses rising against their evil overlords, though that is too large a subject to get into here).  

This is what gives these and other ideas their power and influence, not any intellectual or observational support. That, in fact, often comes later and is celebrated precisely because it supports the narrative. “Great ideas” are usually not the source but the consequence of particular narratives (e.g. the theory of evolution did not create the narrative of progress; the belief in progress elevated evolution to its current quasi-religion status. The narrative came first and embraced the science to support itself).

So, to contradict false narrative, we must provide true(er) narrative. Intellectual arguments are primarily important, as far as changing minds go, in lending support to that narrative once it already exists.  

Again, this is why storytelling is so vitally important; the pattern of a story helps to create a narrative in the mind of the audience. This is all the more effective because, the world being as complicated as it is, you can always find real-world examples to back up any narrative you want to create. So, when you have a myopic, warmongering general trying to weaponize the peaceful scientist’s research, you can always say “well, there are people like that,” sidestepping the question of whether this is an accurate narrative about how the military works as a whole and what values and perceptions are being inculcated in the process. Likewise for your standard intolerant Christian browbeating the innocently brave homosexual, or the white cop abusing the innocent Black man. If you have any familiarity with modern fiction you can probably come up with a dozen examples for each of these. As noted before, this is exactly why the Soviet government spent millions of dollars a year funding agents in Hollywood; control fiction and you control the narrative.

This is why I call something like The Last Jedi an evil film; a large part of it is dedicated to tearing down and destroying the heroic narrative of the original trilogy as embodied by Luke Skywalker, re-shaping the pattern to make him a cowardly old man who ruined everything because he had to be in charge. The narrative being “heroes of the past are worthless; you special person today are the only thing that matters and you can outshine them without even trying,” along with a bunch of others of similar vintage. I probably could do an essay about how well that film embodies the current Progressive mindset, probably better than the filmmakers intended (e.g. it shows how shallow, stupid, and myopic it really is).

But if someone embraces that narrative, if it is inculcated into their heart, then that person is made worse for the fact.

On the other hand, the original Star Wars crafts a narrative of “faith in a higher power and personal loyalties are ultimately stronger than any technological terror or tyrannical government,” among other, similar ideas. Someone who embraced that narrative would be made better for the fact.

Which is the point; it is incumbent on storytellers to try to leave their audience better people than when they found them. That is, to write so that if someone were to take their narrative to heart, it would make them a better person. Needless to say, this is a grave responsibility (and includes the necessity of knowing what constitutes ‘better’ in the first place).

Very clearly, the world around us stands in grave need of better and truer narratives. It’s long-past time to start providing them again.

Fantastic Schools vol. 1

The first volume of Fantastic Schools is now live!

Have you ever wanted to go to magic school? To cast spells and brew potions and fly on broomsticks and—perhaps—battle threats both common and supernatural? Come with us into worlds of magic, where students become magicians and teachers do everything in their power to ensure the kids survive long enough to graduate. Welcome to … Fantastic Schools.

My own story, Halloween Dance won’t be appearing until Vol. 2, but there’s plenty of magically educational goodness to be had in the mean time, so pick up Vol. 1 and enjoy!

Chapter Five of ‘Perseus Corbett and the Forbidden Valley’

See Chapter One here, Chapter Two here, Chapter Three here, and Chapter Four here

Chapter Five
The End of the Known

“You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget.”
-Marlowe, Heart of Darkness

“It took some convincing,” said Bill. “Quite an unpleasant scene, really. But we won him over in the end. He said, ‘all right, Bill, we shall see how you acquit yourself on this trip. If you give satisfaction and show yourself a man, then you’ll have my consent. If you don’t, then I don’t suppose she’ll care to have you anyway.’”

“A glowing endorsement,” said Martin.

“Well, it’s better than I expected,” Bill replied. “Can’t think why I went and blurted it out like I did. Of course I’ve always had a reckless streak in me; act first, ask questions later, what? Did I tell you how, when I was a boy, I went and jumped off the pier at Brighton? Twelve feet straight down, and April, so the water was damned cold. We were gone to seashore for Easter holiday, see.”

“A curious thing to do. Had you a reason for it?”

“This other boy dared me to do it,” Bill answered. “Just shows, doesn’t it, what an impulsive chap I am. That’s why I have to keep it all bottled up, you see?”

“It is certainly an illustrative incident,” said Martin with a hint a dryness in his tone that Bill, unfamiliar with the Austrian’s moods, missed entirely.

“But I am most impressed,” Martin went on, “that you should show such concern to secure your prospective father-in-law’s approval. Most do not in this day.”

“Frances tells me I’m old fashioned,” Bill agreed with a faint laugh. “But you see, she’s very close to her father; they’ve been a bit of a team ever since her mother died, and I certainly wouldn’t want to create a rift between them, what?”

“Admirable.”

They spoke while sitting in wicker chairs upon the deck of a riverboat making its way up the Amazon. A comfortable passage across the Atlantic had been followed by an almost equally comfortable journey up the Amazon to Manaus, where they had remained a few days while purchasing the rest of their supplies before taking another steamer up the Purus. It was the ‘dry season,’ so to speak, though the air was heavy with moisture and the rains still came almost every day. Great, heavy downpours, with raindrops the size of hailstones lashed down upon the mighty river and its green banks, but they didn’t last long and they certainly didn’t cool anything off. Even simply sitting in the shade upon the deck of their riverboat was enough to make Bill sweat as much as he ever had in his life.

“I say,” he said, fanning himself with his book. “You’ve been all around the world, haven’t you?”

“I have travelled extensively with Mr. Corbett, yes.”

“Is it always this hot?”

Martin looked at him with a faint expression of pity.

“When one is only ten degrees south of the Equator, yes,” he answered. “Though, of course, the humidity contributes.”

“Is it going to be like this the whole way?”

“Unlikely,” said Martin. “In the thick jungle, it will be far worse. There will be no breeze, you see.” 

Elizabeth, meanwhile, stood at the rail and watched the ranches and villages of the Amazon basin pass by. She was soaked with sweat, felt feverish from the heat, and the heavy, damp air seemed to resist being breathed. She was smarting all over from insect bites. All in all, she was extremely uncomfortable, and could not remember ever being happier. She was in the Amazon; that great, untamable ocean of life spread across a third of a continent, where man was not and never could be master. She stood only upon the surface now, but soon she would plunge into those dark depths and then the adventure—oh, what a word that was!—would truly begin.

Overhead, the clouds gathered once again and growled with thunder, making the air feel even heavier.

“I thought this was supposed to be the dry season,” she said to Perseus as he joined her at the rail. “If this is dry, I wonder what the wet one is like.”

“Oh, there’s no such thing as ‘dry’ in the Amazon.,” he said. “The rains don’t alter much; you get a few more downpours per day in the summer than you do in the winter, that’s all. The ‘wet’ season is so because that’s when it rains in the Andes, and all that water washes down here and makes the rivers higher and faster. ‘Flooded’ would be the more proper way to speak of it.”

“I keep forgetting it’s technically winter here,” she said. “The word sounds rather funny doesn’t it?”

They had spent a good deal of time together over the past few days. Sometimes he would tell her tales of his adventures, or they would discuss what they might expect in the coming days when they left all civilization behind, but lately they had mostly spent their time simply standing side by side and watching the banks of the river pass by.

At first, on the Amazon, there had been far more settlements and signs of human activity than Elizabeth had expected; towns, villages, cities even, and innumerable boats passing by. As they drew deeper into the basin, the signs of humanity became fewer and small, though they still floated past pretty often. There were small villages full of people of every hue and color, who paid little attention to the familiar sight of a passing riverboat. Here and there they passed great farms and ranches cut from the living jungle, with big, fine houses, some so grand that they made Elizabeth think of her own family estate. These sometimes sparked architectural discussions as they admired or critiqued the taste of the buildings: “What a hideous monstrosity!” “That one is charming; look at the latticework.” “Now there’s a house; classic Spanish style. Wonder how old it is?” “Good Lord! They brought all that paint this far into the jungle to give it that color scheme?” 

But these became fewer and fewer as they journeyed, and the jungle closed in as a solid wall of green about them. Birds of every color imaginable filled the trees, calling to one another with the sharp cries of the jungle. Monkeys gambled about in the branches, watching the passing boat with disinterested eyes, as though they thought the travelers beneath their notice. The banks of the river were high, with vast expanses of mud crisscrossed with fallen trees, and in many places they saw fat caiman basking in the sun, reminding Elizabeth forcibly of sunbathing tourists, the thought of which made her laugh. At one point they saw a big, long-nosed tapir drinking in the shallows, though it took off into the jungle as they drew close. More often they saw small red deer coming down to the water to drink and watching the passersby with big, innocent eyes.

Professor Illingworth spent most of his time in his cabin, going over books and making notes in his journal. On the occasions he joined them on the deck, he would give dry lectures on the wildlife they saw (“Caiman crocodilus, commonly known as the spectacled caiman or white caiman. There are currently four recognized subspecies…”) Or else he would expound a little on a few pet theories of his own (“The evolutionary history of this region very clearly demonstrates the principle of…”). And, when he had nothing better to do, he would entertain himself by yelling at Bill.  

In this way they proceeded up the Purus for several days until they reached their destination. Here, at the very end of the civilized world, the Brazilian government had long ago established a telegraph station, guarded by a small contingent of soldiers. A trading post naturally grew up around it, along with a church, and farms and so, eventually, the small village of Pordesol was born. Here goods were brought in from down river and sold among the villagers and soldiers, or shipped to the ranchers and rubber men up river. The turn off for the Rio Tardas, from which they would find the outlet of the mysterious Noite, was about three or four miles below the village, and as far as anyone knew, the only men who lived along the Tardas were the Catauxi tribesmen, who were generally friendly enough, but not keen for making contacts.

Perseus had known about Pordesol and its telegraph from an earlier trip he had taken into the interior, though he had never been there. This was how he had come to concoct his story of Colonel Torres. Early on in their plans, however, he was surprised to discover that Elizabeth knew of it as well. An old friend of her father’s, Colonel Newgate, had retired from service and left England shortly after the war and had, through a series of events that she didn’t quite understand, had ended up running the trading post in this little village on the extreme edge of the unknown.

Elizabeth having sent word of their coming ahead up the river, he was ready to greet them when the steamer pulled up to dock and embraced his friend’s daughter with warm affection. Newgate was a muscular man of medium height, with a square, expressive kind of face with a slightly elfish quality about the eyes that suggested an Irish ancestor. His greying hair was beginning to recede a little, and his clothes were simple, but clean. Elizabeth introduced him to her companions, and he greeted them with a well-bred politeness tempered by the ease of a man used to living far from society.

The trading post and general store that he ran fronted upon the docks, and his long, comfortable home extended out the back, running parallel to the riverbank. He gave a few quick orders to the comaradas who were handling the receipt of goods from the steamer, then led the expedition onto a shaded veranda overlooking the Purus. Drinks were provided, and they sat in perfect comfort while the breeze blew in off of the waters.

“I can’t tell you how surprised I was to get your telegram,” he said, leaning back in his chair and looking at Elizabeth with a warm smile. “I really thought my days of receiving old friends were over.”

“I had thought of simply surprising you,” said Elizabeth. “But then I wanted to be sure you were still here.”

“Where else should I be?” he answered. “I fully intend to die out here. It’s a good life; the people are pleasant company, there’s enough work to keep me occupied, and the scenery can’t be beat.”

“What made you decide to come out here in the first place?” asked Illingworth. “Seems a strange place for a British officer to retire to.”

“Not at all,” said Newgate. “After the war, I’d had quite enough of civilization. I looked about for the most isolated place I could go. I considered Tibet for a while, but eventually settled on the Amazon. Here, at least, no one tries to blow each other up, and I’m two weeks behind the times, so by the time I get news of trouble, it’s already been cleared up.”

“Sounds most appealing,” said Perseus. “You don’t find the weather a trial?”

“Yes I do, but it is quite worth it. Now tell me; what are you all doing here? Your telegram didn’t quite say. Some scientific survey, was it?”

“Yes,” she said. “Survey up the Noite. Perseus here says that he met an old colonel from the Empire days who I suppose must have been in this very spot, right?”

“I believe so, yes,” said Perseus. He spoke lightly, but inside he was tense. They had reached the point where the truth would soon have to come out, and he only dreaded its being discovered too soon. It suddenly occurred to him that people who lived at this station likely knew that there had never been a man named ‘Colonel Torres’ here.

Newgate added to his unease by shooting a quick glance at him, but he allowed Elizabeth to continue.

“Supposedly there are some very interesting species to be found along the Noite. We’re going to document them.”

“I see,” he said. “But, forgive me, what are you doing here, Elizabeth?”

“I’m funding the expedition,” she said. “Thought I ought to know what my money was being used for.”

“Really?” he said. “Is that all?”

She smiled a little embarrassedly.

“I confess, no. I’ve always wanted to go on a trip like this, and I didn’t know when I would have another opportunity.”

“I see,” he said, frowning a little. Perseus guessed that, like him, Newgate saw that Elizabeth had no idea what she was in for. But he said no more and instead began inquiring after their mutual friends in England.

After they had sat and chatted for a time, Newgate showed them over his house and store, which was remarkably comfortable and well-furnished for being so remote. He gave them a regular tour; showed them his wares, showed them his comfortable, book-lined rooms, his shining rifles upon the wall, and his photographs of old friends from England, whom Elizabeth wasted no time in examining.

“There’s father, of course,” she said. “That was during the war, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, just outside of Toutencourt. Right before the Somme, I think it was.

“That’s what’s his name, Lieutenant…

“Lieutenant Herbert. Surprised you remember him. He got blown up a few days later.

“I remember father telling me about him…and that’s Colonel Blunt, right? He used to come for shooting parties before the war. You met him, Perseus.”

“Oh, yes; he complimented my flower border. Whatever happened to him?”

“Survived the Somme; died at Passchendaele,” said Newgate.

“Hard luck, that,” said Perseus.

“What about this one?” asked Eliazbeth, pointing to another photo that showed Newgate and a much younger man.

“Don’t suppose you ever heard of him; Sergeant Allenby. Good chap from Birmingham. Invalidated out with shell shock and cut his wrists in hospital.”

“Have all these people died, then?” asked Bill.

“Most of them,” said Newgate sadly. “They’re useful reminders in case I ever get the urge to go back to what is called civilization. I think your father and I, Elizabeth, were the only ones here who survived the war, and then of course that damned motorcar…except this group shot, of course; some of those boys made it, I think. Oh, and you of course.”

Perseus, who had been examining the group shot, turned eagerly to this last photo. He recognized the setting at once: the back porch at Sangral House. There were Newgate and Lord Darrow sitting in wicker chairs, and there, standing beside her father, was Elizabeth, just as he remembered her; all arms and legs and tangled hair, wearing a look of unrestrained happiness with her arm around her father, as though she wanted to show him off.

“I remember when that was taken,” she said. “Just before you all left for the war.”

Then it was only a few months after he had left. He looked at the girl in the photo and smiled to himself. That was how he remembered her; that radiantly expressive, hold-nothing-back kind of smile.

He had yet to see that look on her present face. His eyes shifted from her to the man beside her in the photograph and he thought he might understand why. 

They were treated to a delightful supper on the veranda, while the usual afternoon downpour rattled outside. As they ate, Illingworth turned the conversation back to the purpose of their journey.

“Have you heard any rumor of these supposed strange beasts on the Noite, Colonel?”

Newgate leaned back in his chair and looked out on the misty river and the jungle beyond.

“One hears many strange stories out here,” he said. “The Noite holds a certain reputation among the natives. The Catauxi will not travel upon it, and the other tribes regard it as unlucky.”

“What for?” asked Elizabeth.

“It is said that the river marks the path to an evil place; a forbidden place. Some say it is only a part of the jungle, others say it is a great pit or cave in the earth. The legend goes that it is both the abode of monsters and the treasure house of the gods.”

Perseus flinched a little. They were getting very close to the mark. He wondered suddenly whether word of Professor Applegate’s expedition had reached Newgate’s ears, for surely they must have passed this way.

“Do they say what manner of ‘monsters’?” asked Illingworth.

Newgate smiled.

“Cuangi is said to dwell there.”

The rain seemed momentarily to grow more intense and the sky grumbled with thunder.

“What is ‘Cuangi’?” Elizabeth asked.

“A native superstition,” he said. “Most of the tribes of the southern Amazon have one version of him or other. Some say he’s a spirit, others a great beast, and others something in between. The only common thread is that he’s monstrous and all-powerful.”

The rain rattled upon the roof, and a fork of lightning lit up the sky. The expedition members had fallen silent.

“And he’s said to dwell along the Noite?” asked Perseus.

“Yes, or in that forbidden place I mentioned. One version of the legend has him the guardian of the gods’ treasures. Sort of a demonic watchdog. There’s a story that goes along with it.”

“Oh, tell us,” said Elizabeth.

“Ah, well, I only know the one version,” he said. “But it goes something like this. There once was a great warrior of a certain tribe. He was chief and the mightiest hunter the world had ever seen. He was betrothed to the most beautiful maiden in the tribe and, as is said of many a promising young buck, had everything in his favor.

“One night, while performing the sacred rites, for he was also well-versed in the world of spirits, he received a vision. A great spirit spoke to him from the smoke of the ritual fire. The spirit said ‘thou art great, but shall yet be greater. Take thy betrothed and walk into the forest for seven days and seven nights. Then thou shalt come to a great wall. There thou shalt possess the treasures of the gods.’

“So the chief took his betrothed and walked through the jungle. They didn’t need to fear anything, as he was the greatest hunter in the world, and the jaguars and snakes all knew to fear him. He came to the great wall of stone, and in the wall was a gate, and at that gate stood mighty Cuangi. They bowed and made obeisance before him, and the chief said, ‘Oh, mighty Cuangi, it has been given to me to possess the treasures of the gods.’

“But Cuangi answered and said, ‘None may pass my way without an offering.’ So the chief asked what he would have, and Cuangi said, ‘If thou wouldst possess the treasure of the gods, then thy betrothed is the price. Give her to me, or go back the way ye came.’

“And so the chief took hold of his betrothed and gave her to Cuangi, who ate her in one bite…”

“Wait, he did what?” Elizabeth exclaimed. 

“Not very nice, was it?” said Newgate, laughing. “Our friend is not a hero by English standards. But that is not the end of the story. After he had offered his betrothed to Cuangi, he was permitted to pass and to enter the great treasure house. There he outfitted himself the raiment of the gods, took their treasure for his own, and set off to claim his place among them.

“Only, when he tried to pass through the gate again, Cuangi again prevented him, saying that if he would pass, he must offer a second gift, equal to the first. But of course, he only had one betrothed and had already offered her. He protested and said that he had been promised possession of the gods’ treasures. ‘Yes,’ said Cuangi, ‘Thou wert promised to possess them. But thou dost possess them. Thou wert never promised to be permitted to bear them away.’

“And so, the great chief simply had to sit there in the god’s treasure house, bedecked in marks of power that he could never use to command and holding weapons he could never hunt with, until he grew old and rotted where he sat.”

“Overall,” said Perseus after a brief silence. “That is not an edifying story.”

“I’m glad the chief got his comeuppance at least,” said Elizabeth. “Serves him right!”

“Hear hear!” said Bill.

“Let us not be too harsh in judgment,” said Martin. “He merely did what most of us do.”

“What do you mean?” asked Bill. “You’re not saying most men would feed their fiancée to a monster to get his hands on a lot of treasure.”

“After a fashion, yes,” he answered. “Most of us are all-too quick to sacrifice the real good at hand for the mere promise of a better one.”

“I don’t know,” said Newgate. “I’m more inclined to think men too ready to cling to goods that they know, even it means they and others must suffer for it. We are altogether far too conservative a species.”

“I quite agree with you, Colonel,” said Illingworth. “Surely obscurantism is the greater danger. A certain continuation of the evils of the past must be outweighed by the possibility of a better future.”

“But the evils of the past are known and we can, in a sense, manage them,” Perseus argued. “The potential evils of future novelties must be unknown and, for that reason, must be worse.”

“I think there’s something to be said for both sides,” said Elizabeth. “We can’t stop all progress, even at the cost of losing something we love, but then, we can’t simply throw everything onto the chopping block, or else what would be the point? The trouble is knowing where to draw the line.”

“I certainly hope we all agree that it is somewhere on this side of ‘feeding beautiful young ladies to monsters’,” said Perseus.

“Only beautiful ones?” asked Elizabeth. “What about the plain young ladies?”

He shrugged.

“As you say; we can’t stop all progress.”

She laughed, and so did Bill. Newgate, however, did not laugh. He was watching Perseus with a thoughtful expression.

After dinner he showed them their rooms. The trading post also functioned as an inn for the rare few visitors who came that way, and he had two small, but comfortable spare bedrooms made up. He insisted on giving up his own room for Elizabeth’s use and promised that he would be quite comfortable in his study, as he often slept there when he was obliged to work late.

Before they retired, however, he beckoned Elizabeth to join him on the now-empty veranda. She went willingly, not feeling the least bit sleepy. It was just after sunset, and the forest across the river was like a sharp black shadow against the pink sky, both doubled in the river. The rain had cleared and left the air cooler, and the insects sang from the shadows. Elizabeth once again felt a shiver of delight at the thought of where she was.

Then Newgate began without any preamble.

“Elizabeth, how much do you know of this man, Corbett?”

She looked at him in surprise.

“I’ve told you; he stayed with us for two years before the war.”

“Yes, I know that. Have you had any contact with him since?”

She flinched involuntarily at the reminder.

“No,” she said. “Not until a few weeks ago when we got this all together.”

“I was afraid of that,” he sighed. “Now listen; I am going say something that I know you are not going to like, but I owe it to you, and to the memory of your father. I know men like that; that sort of devil-may-care, vagabond type who travels the world doing this and that and never settling to any honest trade. You see them all the time around here, and there were more than a few the in the army. They’re devilishly charming and handy in a tight spot, but you cannot trust them. They always are after one thing and one thing only; money.”

Elizabeth looked at him in shock.

“Thank you for your concern,” she said slowly. “But you’re quite wrong about him. Perseus isn’t like that at all. He has knocked about the world a good deal, but he isn’t in it for money. Why, just to give you an idea what he’s like, he’s the boy I gave that Charles the First medal to, you remember? He still has it. You can’t tell me a mercenary personality wouldn’t have sold that thing long ago.”

“You’re sure he still has it, are you?” he said.

“I…yes, I’m quite sure. But besides that, he isn’t even charging us! Says he’ll take his salary upon delivery.”

“He is taking you into the jungle and not even asking to be paid?”

“Yes. So that shows, doesn’t it, that he’s acting in good faith. It isn’t the money he cares about; it’s the adventure.”

His face did not relax.

“Why would he need to make such a gesture of good faith?”

“Because we did, after all, only have his word for it. Like I told you, he happened to meet an old colonel from the empire days; Colonel Torres, I think it was, and learned about the Noite from him. So, to prove that he was telling the truth, he volunteered to defer payment until his story was verified.”

Newgate looked at her with something approaching pity.

“Elizabeth,” he said. “This station wasn’t started until after the empire.”

“Oh,” she said, taken a little off guard. “Then it must have been another site. What does it matter?”

“Didn’t you hear what I told you about the Noite, and the legends around it? The treasure house of the gods?”

She felt suddenly uncomfortable as she realized what he was getting at.

“You think that is what is after? But that’s just a legend, isn’t it?”

“All legends have a basis in truth,” he said. “In any case, I can much more readily believe him willing to go after a legendary treasure than I can believe a man like that would have such a disinterested love of science that he would propose and undertake a trip like this simply to discover a few new species of butterfly.”

“No, no,” said Elizabeth. She was beginning to feel faintly desperate as she realized the plausibility of his words and, what was worse, that she had no answer to them. “He…he said that he was only interested in an adventure; the chance to see one of the few unexplored places left on Earth.”

“Of course he would say that,” Newgate sighed. “Just the thing to get you hooked. Elizabeth, he is using you! Can’t you see that? He knows what kind of person you are, so he shows up with just the right story to peak your interest.”

“No, you don’t know him!” she said furiously. “He wouldn’t do that sort of thing. He…he can’t have changed that much.”

“How long has it been since you’ve seen him? Ten years? Fifteen?”

“Fourteen.”

“Fourteen years is a lifetime, especially for the kind of life you say he’s been leading,” he said. “Please, Elizabeth, you know I’m not trying to make you unhappy; I’m only trying to keep you safe. I know something of men like that, and I do not think you ought to go off into the jungle with him.”

Elizabeth was too sensible not to see the reasonableness of his request. It was all horribly plausible, and against it she only had her own knowledge of and affection for a man whom she had not seen in many years. But though her head told her that Newgate was perfectly right, her heart recoiled from the idea that she couldn’t trust Perseus.

“No,” she said. “I don’t care what you say, I know him. And Perseus would never lie to me. I’d swear to that.”  

“All right, all right,” sighed Newgate. “I won’t badger you. But please, Elizabeth, think hard about what you’re doing. This will be your last chance to turn back.”

“I most certainly will not turn back!” she said. She drew a deep breath, summoning all her self-control. “I know, Colonel, that you mean well, and thank you for you concern, but I…I know what I am doing.”

He shook his head.

“I hope so,” he said. “I really do.”

Elizabeth turned away from him. She felt something like hatred for Colonel Newgate; hatred of the fact that he had planted such seeds of doubt in her mind, which she could neither accept nor get rid of. She wanted badly to speak to Perseus, and she was just resolving to go seek him out when he stepped into the hall from the study.

“Elizabeth?” he said. “Can I speak with you a moment? In private?”

“Certainly,” she said, endeavoring to appear as herself. “I was just coming to see you myself.”

“I thought you might be,” he said.

They went into the store, which was closed up and deserted. Elizabeth waited for him to begin.

“I…I have something of a confession to make,” he said. “Which I probably ought to have made earlier, but I beg you to hear me out before you judge me.”

“What do you mean?” she asked. The suspicions so recently and unwilling sown in her mind sharpened. 

“It isn’t easy to have a private conversation in a country where the windows are always open,” he said with a grimace. “I heard what Colonel Newgate and you were saying.”

“Oh!” she said, coloring. “I’m sorry; I hope you didn’t take offense or…”

“No, no, nothing like that,” he said hastily. “Newgate’s an astute man, and he clearly cares for you. My confession is that he is…he is not entirely wrong.”

There was a heavy silence.

“What are you talking about?”

He reached into his shirt and drew out a leather bundle. He unwrapped it and handed her the torn notebook.

True Narrative of Certain Events in the Brazilian Jungle, by Robert Cooper,” she read aloud. “What is this?”

“An account of the Applegate expedition from 1910,” he answered. “Professor Applegate was a naturalist, much like Illingworth, and led a party to this region to study the Noite. They followed a native legend to a place they call the Forbidden Valley. The narrative breaks off before they describe what happened there, but Applegate and several others died, and the survivors considered what they found there to be so startling, so out of the ordinary that they kept it a secret from everyone, except for what is recorded in this book.”

She stared at him.

“Then…that is where you mean to go?”

He nodded.

“Where did you get this?”

“Off of a drunk old man I bumped into in Istanbul. Where he got it, I have no idea. He was being assaulted by a gang of toughs and Martin and I stepped in to try and help. The poor fellow was already done for – stabbed – but he lived long enough to give this to me in gratitude for the effort. I don’t suppose many people ever tried to help him. No longer after, on the way to England, a gentleman tried first to buy it off me, then to have it at gun point. I got the better of him, but from what he let slip I realized that there was some sort of gang after the book. I don’t know how they knew about it, or how they knew I had it, but they were clearly willing to do anything to get their hands on it. So I thought it best to keep its existence a secret and to not let our real destination be known, just in case they were on the lookout. I don’t mind being shot myself, but I hate having my friends shot at.”

She did not smile.

“Then, that story you told us, of the Brazilian colonel…”

“Was just a story,” he admitted. “I needed a plausible alternative that would take us in the same direction. But I tried to make it as true as possible; we are going to an undiscovered ecosystem off of the Noite. I only left out a few details about its nature and location. Probably would have been easier to convince Illingworth if I’d told him everything.”   

“In short,” she said slowly. “You lied to me.”

The words landed like blows.

“I am sorry,” he said. “When I decided on that story, I had no idea you were the one I would telling it to. And only did it to try to keep you safe.”

“You might have told me afterwards,” she said. “You could have trusted me to keep quiet about it, couldn’t you?”

“Oh!” he said. “I…yes, I could have. I…I am afraid I didn’t think of that.”

She looked from him to the book in her hands, then back to him. Her face was very red and her eyes were hard and angry.

“Tell me honestly,” she said. “Do you still have that medal?”

He opened his mouth to say ‘yes,’ but the word seemed to stick in his throat.

“It’s safe,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“I…we spent the last money we had coming to London. I needed some to start putting this together, and I needed it quickly, owing to those people being after me…”

“You sold it.”

She said it in a quiet, almost a childlike voice. The realization of what he had done seemed to take everything from her.

“Pawned,” he said. “And I’m making him hold it for a year. It’s only temporary, and it’s as safe as can be. I swear to you, I will get it back…”

“What are you really after?” she snapped, cutting him off.

He blinked. “What are you talking about?”

“You didn’t drag us all out here for a mere lark,” she said. “You expect to find something in that valley, don’t you? That’s why you’re so set on it, isn’t it?”

There was a commanding tone in her voice. It was the voice of one who was used to giving orders and having them obeyed. The cheerful, exuberant girl had faded, and the feudal lady of the manor had risen to the surface.

“Yes,” he admitted. He pointed to the wall. “But whatever he says, I am not using you, and I never would!”

“No, you’re just using my money, aren’t you?” she spat. “Like you used my medal.”

“It isn’t like that!”

“Isn’t it?”

He looked at her.

“Do you really think it is?”

A kind of painful cramp was growing in her heart as she met his gaze.

“A few minutes ago, I swore that you would never lie to me,” she said. “Yet here we are. So I don’t know what to think.”  

They looked at each other for several minutes, both breathing rather hard.

“If you don’t think you can trust me,” he said. “Then it probably would be best if you were to return home. We are going to be going into very dangerous territory, and I would much prefer if you were not exposed to it.”

“First you lie to me, now you try to humiliate me,” she said. “Send me home to be jeered at for spending all this money and then running off when it gets difficult?”

Her vehemence took him off guard.

“I would rather have you embarrassed and safe than otherwise,” he said.

“I thank you for your concern,” she said. “Now are there any other lies you’d care to confess?”

He flinched.

“No,” he said. “But Elizabeth, you really ought to take Newgate’s advice and go home.”

“I appreciate that advice, Mr. Corbett,” she said. “And I thank you for at least telling me this now. I only wish that you had done so while there was still time for me to fire you!”

So saying, she turned and marched back into the house, slamming the door behind her. She fairly ran to her own room, threw herself down on the bed, and began to cry.

Friday Flotsam: Black Swan

I’m reading The Black Swan by Nicholas Nassim Taleb at present. I haven’t gotten very far, but it’s quite interesting. A Black Swan event is one that is an outlier with a heavy impact which was predictable in retrospect, but not in prospect (that is, you can see where it came from with hindsight, but no one foresaw it). The point being how little we really know about the world, how complex reality is, and how little we can really understand or predict. This fits in well with somethings I’ve been learning from other sources, such as how the real question of evolution is not random mutations of the bodily structure, but mutations of the protein strands that make up DNA: something that is astronomically more complex and less likely to result in useful mutations.

The conclusion I’m drawing from all of this (which is still in its early phases and will need more work) is that the impression given by modern science that we understand how the world works, even in part, is largely illusionary. We know what some mechanisms look like up close and have some idea of how they function, but that’s it; we have absolutely no capacity to understand reality as a whole, or even a small portion of reality. The idea that we understand the world enough to predict what will happen and adjust our behavior accordingly, or that we understand enough even about the human mind and human society to craft new and better societies to replace the ones we are born into is ludicrous; like a man imagining he can reverse-engineer an iMac Computer because he’s been through a two-month programming bootcamp (hey, that’s me!).

So, the principles of The Black Swan seem to me thus far to point (as so much does) to two key principles: one is Revelation. We could never understand the world enough to gain an adequate picture of God, or even of the world itself enough to know what is behind it or how we are to act in it. Hence, revelation is a necessary component of a complete human life.

The second is objective morality and with it the Medieval idea of the Wheel of Fortune. Since we cannot adequately foresee what our actions will lead to or predict, much less control the flow of world events, the only thing we can do is to adhere to objective values, which we can perceive and discern through both revelation and reason. That is, it is senseless to compromise on virtue or principles to get the outcome you think you want, because you have no capacity to actually ensure that outcome, or to control any subsequent consequences (murder mysteries are really all about this; the killer commits a crime to get what he wants, but finds events inevitably spiraling out of his control owing to the limitations of his ability to predict the world around him).

So, since world events are largely outside our capacity to either predict or influence, the image of Fortune’s Wheel is actually closer to the truth than the “go change the world” principle of today. Some countries or people get elevated for a time, only to be ground back down, and it is largely independent of anyone’s dessert. The only thing to do is to fix your attention on Eternity and behave as soberly and virtuously as you can in your own sphere of life.

On the Purpose of Fiction

Actions are largely driven by emotional responses, which in turn are created by thoughts.

Now, a man may, of course, act a given way through cool reflection: because he sees it is the thing to do. But he will not do so reliably. The head rules the hands through the heart. A man becomes moral or immoral when he reliably acts a certain way, which he does because he has an instinctive visceral reaction to the event. That is to say, a habit of thought; he runs through the pattern “I see X. X means Y. The proper response to Y is Z” without even having to be aware of it. “I could look at that man’s cards. That is cheating. A gentleman does not cheat. If I were to do that, I would not be a gentleman.” The man for whom this has become a clear conviction would be only vaguely aware of this thought process, but would feel the emotional revulsion to the idea of cheating at cards.

The thing is, it is the ‘a gentleman does not cheat’ that gives the thought its power. A philosophical dissertation on why cheating is wrong may be useful, but it creates little in the way of emotional power. For most people, the argument for why cheating is wrong simply will not fit into a pattern of thought; it’s too complex and requires too many other ideas. Besides which, ideas and actions do not quite overlap. It is one thing to define cheating, it is another to know it when you see it. The will and the intellect are separate faculties.

Therefore, the best way to translate a moral idea into the will is often to frame it in a concrete image.

This is why children tend to follow what their parents do rather than what they say. Words are just words; they are a step removed from the will. But actions are an expression of the will, and so are easier and more natural to imitate.

Most of our moral instruction, therefore, is based on imitation, whether of people we meet in real life or people we have presented before us as examples (much of the rest depends on platitudes or proverbs; easily repeatable thought patterns). We see the example and, based on how it is presented and how it seems to fit into our understanding, we have a certain emotional response; the figure is presented to us as admirable and attractive and so we form the thought “such-and-such an action is like what so-and-so does, therefore it is positive.”

This principle, of course, reaches its highest form in Our Lord Himself, who presents the ultimate image of what we ought to imitate. The next step from there are the Saints, who present concrete examples of what that imitation looks like (indeed, in a sense all moral behavior is imitation of Christ one way or another). Then we have historic, legendary, and cultural heroes, while the most basic example is imitation of the people around us.

At the same time, and built into all of this, is the idea of narrative; the pattern we detect in events and the meaning we discern from that pattern. The actions of exemplary figures, such as Christ or national heroes, is exemplary primarily due to the narrative surrounding them. We regard Winston Churchill as a hero because we understand the narrative as being the forces of liberty and civilization triumphing over barbarism. If we read it as a stubborn Capitalistic-Reactionary standing against and thwarting the destiny of the German people, we would have a very different view of the man, though we may still admire his courage and wit. In any case, the narrative creates the impression of what is admirable and what is not.

As indicated by the example, a narrative may be nearer or farther from the truth, which must be determined on quite different grounds (obviously the mere fact of being a narrative says nothing of its truth or falsehood). But the narrative provides a framework within which we find the concrete illustrations of moral principles. That whole topic will probably require an essay in itself.

Which brings us to fiction, which is the deliberate creation of a concrete moral image within a narrative. Almost like a diagram or drawing of values.   

Something that is often overlooked in discussions of people is the simple fact that human beings exist in time. Their nature is expressed over the course of a sequence of events, and in the context of other events that have taken place. A man logically implies a family, a community, a nation, a culture, and a history (thus the Incarnation of God as man logically includes a nation and culture for Him to be incarnate into, which is one reason the Old Testament cannot be simply ignored). The image of a man properly speaking is an image in time and in the context of events. Thus the proper image of a moral idea must likewise be the image of a series of events.  

Hence the human art of storytelling to provide that image, context, and the accompanying emotional response.

The latter is important, because we don’t only have to see the idea acted out, we have experience a proper emotional reaction to it. A positive emotion to a good image and a negative to bad one.

Again, a gentleman does not cheat. We are presented with an attractive figure of a gentleman, who does things that we naturally like. Say, he is shown to be courageous or kind to children. Then we see that when offered the opportunity to cheat, he turns away in disgust because that is not what a gentleman does. It is part of the moral idea we are presented with that cheating is no part of it. The image would be made more effective if his refusal to cheat led to hardship or sacrifice of some kind.

There was a Lois and Clark episode that actually did this very scenario; where Clark was playing cards with Perry, Lois, and Jimmy and losing badly. He’s sorely tempted to use his x-ray vision to cheat, but he refrains because that’s not what Superman does.

The idea is that the course of events, the narrative, will create the emotional response “this kind of behavior is good; it is what I would like to be” and “this kind of behavior is bad; I don’t want to be like that.” Then in the real world, you mentally associate similar situations with the events you saw or read or heard in the story, prompting a similar emotional response. “This is like when Clark had the opportunity to cheat, but he chose to be honest instead. I want to be like Clark, so I don’t want to cheat.”

The actual thought passes in an instant, but it gives you the visceral response that prompts you to want to act this way or not to act that way.

Now, just as complex ideas are composed of simpler ones and complex arguments are links of axioms, so the language of stories is composed of basic visceral responses. Kindness and Courage, for instance. Beauty is another one; we naturally want to sympathize with someone beautiful. So is humor; an amusing character can remain likable beyond any reason (e.g. Loki in the MCU, or Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon). So, all things being equal, we make the figures whom we want people to like beautiful, kind, courageous, and amusing. We make the ones we want people not to like ugly, cruel, cowardly, and dour. Likely not all in one, since they need to be effective enough to create a story, but we send clear signals that you do not want to be like this person.

Hence, Christians in modern fiction are almost always humorless scolds at best, because we naturally do not like that kind of person or want to be like them. Therefore, we experience a visceral reaction against that figure.

(I rather think the general inertia of modern Christians is due, at least in part, to this effect, reacting against the figures portrayed both in fiction and supposed non-fiction: sheer repetition of negative images of Christians creates it as a pattern of thought in our mind. When faced with standing up for ourselves and the truth, we automatically think in terms of “that kind of Christian” and instinctively react against it. Basically, we’ve had a form of depression imposed upon us).

This pattern is clearest in the old fairy tales. Cinderella is an impoverished noblewoman forced to act as a servant to her wicked stepsisters and stepmother. But because she remains humble and kind, she is rewarded with a supernatural grace which marks her out and which eventually elevates her far above them. We viscerally sympathize with Cinderella because 1. She is beautiful, 2. She is kind, and 3. She is being treated unjustly. Even simply laying those out: “Cinderella is a beautiful and kind girl who was treated unjustly” is enough to evoke a simple moral response and to make us think “I am on her side.” Taken as a whole, the story creates the moral response “it is good to be patient and humble in the face of adversity and injustice” (incidentally, this is why I think the live action Cinderella is one of the few Disney remakes that actually works; because it’s simply a straight-forward telling of the story).

Lily James in Cinderella (2015)

Obviously, not many stories are quite as simple as that. There are usually quite a few and complex responses being conveyed by a given story or set of characters, even in a relatively straightforward story. If you take something like a Honeymooners episode, for instance, you have the specific plot of the episode; say, the Christmas one where Ralph ends up selling his new bowling ball to get Alice the present she wants, conveying the idea of generosity. But you also have the whole dynamic of Ralph and Alice’s abrasive, but loving relationship, Ralph and Ed’s friendship, and the give-and-take of their working-class existence. The show makes us sympathize with the Kramdens, even as we laugh at their antics, and makes us want to imitate them to an extent (e.g. being good-hearted like Ralph or patient-but-sharp like Alice).

The Honeymooners (1955)

Things grow more sophisticated and more complicated with meatier stories. Emma could be summed up as a story about overcoming vanity and the assumption that one knows what is best for others (which is itself a pretty sophisticated idea to impart), but there’s a great deal more going on at the same time, such as snobbery, presumption, patience with the irritating and ridiculous, affairs of the heart, matters of honesty, and so on. The ideas conveyed are subtler and more sophisticated, but once again they are conveyed, even if the reader doesn’t recognize them. We come away hoping to avoid being as vain and snobbish as Emma is in her worst moments and hoping to be as compassionate, sensible, and loyal as she is in her best.

Romola Garai in Emma (2009)
2009 BBC version is the best adaptation, btw

So, I would argue, the primary purpose of fiction is to inculcate moral responses through vicarious emotions.

When I say primary purpose, I don’t, of course, mean that this is what necessarily what anyone who sets out to write a story has in mind. They may not have thought of the matter at all. Nor do I mean that any given story might not be primarily intended by its creator to do something else.

My point is that this is what stories in fact do whether they do anything else. They create an emotional response through the actions of the characters, with the response being either positive or negative, forming patterns of thought that incline us this way or that. It may be a very small effect, it may be a great one, but unless the story has utterly failed as a story – not just as a bad story, like Captain Marvel but to the point where you can’t really take it as a ‘story’ at all, like Octaman – it will not be nothing.

(Not to digress too far, but this is a point to be clarified; there is a difference between a bad story and a work that doesn’t really even function as a story, just as there is a difference between bad acting and non-acting. It is the difference between a book where the characters are carboard, the plot makes no attempt at consistency, and the dialogue is all cliché and a book where the grammar and spelling are so bad that it doesn’t actually convey any coherent narrative to your mind at all. Such books or films can be very entertaining, but not as stories).

This is why stories are so important; they inculcate values, and our values determine how we behave. They are not the only things that do this, as noted above, but they are very powerful tools in that regard. Just as a thousand word description of Audrey Hepburn would not have the same impact as a single photograph, so a five-page dissertation on the nature of courage will not have the same impact as a well-written ‘Conan’ story.

Audrey Hepburn in Green Mansions (1959)

And I would argue that popular, ‘light’ fiction, the pulps and ‘penny dreadfuls’ and children’s tales are perhaps the most important of all in this regard. Because there the emotional response has to be on point. The author can’t rely on reputation, or clever ideas, or stylistic elegance to make people want to read his work; he has to hit close to the basic, fundamental language of value. As Chesterton put it in his seminal work on the subject, “The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared.”

Thus popular fiction, it seems to me, tends to be naturally reactionary in its values, regardless of the author’s intentions. It is here that kings and princesses thrive, great individual leaders take center stage, men are heavily masculine and women very feminine, and things like honor and courage and loyalty make up the major themes. Even when it preaches revolutionary doctrine, a work of popular fiction most often needs to have traditional values at its core in order to make people pay attention. Harry Potter, for instance, has some trendy talk of tolerance and racism and so forth, but these lie on the surface of a story about dueling ancient families, the legacy of fathers, friendship, honor, loyalty, and love, with damsels to be rescued and monsters to be slain. Even something as crude as the Friday the 13th series ultimately rests on the idea of punishment for transgressions and the past rising up to strike those who do not respect it. The author may intentionally create a progressive or radical scenario or character, but only intentionally, and the traditionalist values remains the default perspective, because that is how such stories work. Sure, Joss Whedon can have a whole episode of Firefly painting prostitution as triumphantly feminist, but he’s still going to have Kaylee being kidnapped and menaced by the villain of the week every other episode and showing off Mal’s patriarchal authority because that is what makes for an interesting story of this type.

Photo Courtesy 20th Century Fox
What? No, this essay isn’t just an excuse to post pictures of beautiful women.

In short, popular fiction, I would argue, is one of the strongest bulwarks of traditional values. Simply put, they can’t afford to be otherwise. Not unless those values have been thoroughly extricated from the audience.

For herein also lies the danger; popular fiction, like Minas Tirith, is a mighty fortress, but it is not invincible. And if it is taken, then the situation really is desperate. Why do you think the Soviets spent millions of dollars a year funding Communist agents in Hollywood? They understood that even a little evil slipped into popular fiction would, if done consistently, be more effective in transforming the west than reams and reams of direct propaganda. Because the fiction creates the values, and the values determine which side someone will and will not listen to in the first place. We come to naturally associate one person with the evil racists or heartless fat cats we see all the time in films and books, and the other person with the poor innocent whom they insult and oppress, and the argument is over before it begins. We don’t even look long enough to notice that the former does real good for real people while the latter is narcissistic to the point of insanity. We see the pattern and react automatically according to the value judgments inculcated, in part, by the fiction we consume.

This is why popular fiction must be taken very seriously, and all efforts to remove or alter classic works must be strenuously resisted. This is also why it is so important that new and vibrant authors of good will to produce good work and we the audience should be seeking out and supporting such works. If our culture is sick because it’s been drinking polluted water, then the thing to do is to provide clean water. Or at least good beer.  

Kaiju Appreciations; Kamacuras

One of my hobbies is making music videos out of songs and film clips (though between one thing or another it’s been a long time since I’ve actually completed one). In particular, I’ve been working my way through a series of tribute or ‘appreciation’ videos for the various Toho Kaiju ever since my college days. Today, I finally got the next one up.

Today’s video is for Kamacuras, the giant praying mantis, who debuted in Son of Godzilla. There are actually three of them to start with, and they all end up being killed off over the course of the film; two by Godzilla, one by the giant spider Kumonga. Kamacuras didn’t return until the massive 50th anniversary film Godzilla: Final Wars, where he was one of the large stable of mostly B and C level kaiju filling out the film. He destroyed Paris under direction of the aliens from Planet X, then got taken out by Godzilla as part of what was essentially a montage of brief battles.

There’s not a whole lot of meat to Kamacuras; he’s a giant praying mantis, with all that implies, looking for food, and serving as a kind of starter opponent for Godzilla’s son, Minya. The three mantises menace the newly-hatched kaiju, and then the remaining one serves as the antagonist of Minya’s first solo fight (which Minya more or less loses, requiring Godzilla to drive the mantis off).

Though, that said, I don’t think there is any such thing as a Toho kaiju without personality. Kamacuras has a number of delightful little character touches, like the way he very clearly does not take Minya seriously when he comes to challenge him: he just kind of looks at the little kaiju then goes right back to menacing the film’s heroine. There’s a sense of glee when he’s pursuing his prey or attacking people, as though he’s eager to cause pain. He also seems to have an inflated image of his own power levels, rushing into battle against the likes of Godzilla and Kumonga (a trait that carries on to Final Wars). Think of him as the skinny, switchblade-wielding thug of the kaiju world; dangerous in his own way, but not nearly as dangerous as he thinks himself and way out of his depth with the more high-ranking characters.

Hence why I chose the song Get Ready to Die; a light, but gleefully aggressive little number, the exact kind of thing a character like this would sing.

Sunday Thoughts: Failed Systems

There is an episode of the original Star Trek called “Ultimate Computer”. The premise is that the genius Dr. Daystrom has built a revolutionary supercomputer that, he claims, can run a starship more efficiently than any human captain and obviates the need for a human crew at all. They install in the Enterprise for a test run, and at first it seems to work; it makes better decisions faster than Kirk and effortlessly triumphs in an initial simulation.

But then problems start showing up. It fires on a passing drone ship. It begins shutting down ship functions to power itself. It accidentally vaporizes a crew member and creates a shield to prevent itself being turned off. By the end, it’s firing on other starships, killing hundreds.

All the while, Dr. Daystrom (played with great pathos by William ‘Blacula’ Marshall) keeps insisting that things are fine; that these are understandable mistakes that can be corrected, that the computer will work, has to work, because its purpose — eliminating the need to send people to war — is that important. And also because he’s staked his entire career, reputation, and self-image on this one project.

That episode functions as something of an allegory for Modernity. Take an existing, functional-but-imperfect system (the Enterprise), note its very real flaws, and propose to replace it with a new, man-made system designed specifically to correct those problems. The system is brilliantly designed, and at first it seems to work perfectly, outperforming the traditional form in key areas. But then, as time goes on, more and more issues begin to arise that simply did not exist under the old form. The new system begins to behave erratically and unpredictably, it cannibalizes more and more of the old structure, and takes increasingly stringent measures to keep itself going. In the end it becomes far, far more destructive than the imperfect system it was meant to replace while simultaneously doing all it can to perpetuate its own existence. And all the while those who created it refuse to acknowledge its patent failure by continuing to point to the original purpose as being that important, despite the fact that their system is acting directly contrary to what they intended.

This pattern, it seems to me, plays out again and again. Feminism has made women more miserable and embittered than ever and left tens of millions of dead children in its wake, but it’s still being imposed because “it means respecting women”. The sexual revolution has gutted human relationships and, again, left millions dead from AIDs and other highly-preventable diseases, but we’re still celebrating it and pushing it because “it’s the only sensible way to think of sex”. Marxism devastates every single nation it ever gets imposed upon and again leads to tens of millions of dead bodies (are you noticing a pattern here?), but we’re still insisting that it somehow means justice for the poor and pretending that it was ever remotely rational.

Then there’s Vatican II.

Vatican II was supposed to be a new springtime in the Church, to make the faith more relevant and attractive to the people. It has, by any objective measure, done more damage than anything since at least the Protestant Revolt. The Church has never been more irrelevant, anemic, and unsure of herself. It’s really rather impressive; perhaps the most resilient, effective, and vibrant organization in human history, and the council fathers actually managed to hamstring it with only a few key monumentally bad decisions. There was a time, and not long ago, that that would have been considered impossible, but they found a way.

Of course, that’s not the only reason for the current state of affairs (Modernism was infecting the Church long before), but I don’t think anyone looking at the state of the post-Vatican II Church can honestly deny that it has been an utter disaster unless they are specifically trying to avoid that conclusion.

Of course, since this has only resulted in tens of millions of dead souls rather than dead bodies, it’s disastrous failure is not quite as noticeable, though since many of the same people who are most apt to defend and celebrate Vatican II are also the ones liable to heap praises on Red China, feminism, and all the rest of it, I have to conclude it would not have helped.

(Apparently, pretending not to notice mountains of corpses is a feature of Progress.)

I really wish the Bishops would get this through their heads and admit the obvious, but until then the only thing for lay Catholics to do is to simply ignore it as much as possible. Seek to live as if it never happened, at least in your own lives. If you want to learn about the faith, turn to pre-council documents and books. If you want to live it, seek out the devotions and practices from before the council.

The short version is that, until those in charge of our institutions wake up and realize they have to rip the damn computer out, we as individuals should at least stop doing what it says.