Thoughts on ‘Mulan’

With the unnecessary and unwanted remake becoming the ‘who the heck thought this was a good idea?’ film of the season (previously occupied by such luminary pictures as Birds of Prey and The Rise of Skywalker), I decided to revisit the original Mulan, which I had not seen in many, many years.

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Mulan came near the tail end of the Disney Renaissance of the 90s, about the time the formula was beginning to wear thin and the films were going into decline. I may attempt a full recap of the Disney canon someday and then it will be time to tackle its place in the series, but for now let’s just consider it by itself as a film.

In Medieval China the Huns (led by the intimidating Shan Yu) have invaded over the Great Wall. In response the Emperor sends out his imperial troops to stop them and orders up conscription; one man from every family to supplement the regular army.

We then meet Mulan, the intelligent, tomboyish daughter of a crippled war veteran. When the call for conscription comes out, her father sets aside his crutch and steps forward, though its plain his fighting days are behind him. Mulan, who loves her father dearly, can see that if he goes to war, he will certainly die. She first tries to talk him out of it, which prompts him to anger, then resolves on the desperate course of disguising herself as a boy and taking his place.

Her ancestral spirits, concerned of the impact this might have on the family, dispatch the demoted ex-guardian Mushu to fetch her back (they try to send the ‘stone dragon,’ but Mushu breaks it. We’ll not try to work that one out). Mushu, however, hits on the idea that he can regain his own lost status if he can make Mulan a war hero and so decides to help her succeed in the army instead.

At the camp, Mulan receives a crash course in the male mode of life and begins training under the young captain Shang, son of the Imperial General. At first she struggles just to keep up with her fellow soldiers (themselves pretty unimpressive), but through perseverance, hard work, and cleverness she and her comrades grow into competent soldiers. Before long she and her ragtag unit find themselves marching into battle against a vastly superior foe.

Watching Mulan, I can see why it’s often considered a rather forgettable, middling entry in the Disney canon. It’s uneven in its tone and the Disney Renaissance formula elements (soulful hero who feels ‘different’ and yearns for something more, cute sidekicks, Broadway-style songs etc.) are sometimes jarringly out of place. Yet, at the same time, I was struck by how much better it is than most of the films being made today. It’s a really good story, for one thing, and the characters, especially Mulan herself, are written with a degree of skill and nuance. It’s, well, a good movie. Not a great movie by any stretch, but a pretty good one.

In particular, the film takes a fairly intelligent approach to Mulan’s situation. She doesn’t put on her armor and immediately become a badass, or find her only obstacle is prejudice or some such nonsense. She runs into many of the problems you would logically expect someone in her situation to encounter. When she first starts her masquerade, she gets tripped up by merely talking to the other soldiers, since she has absolutely no idea how men relate to each other (Mushu’s advice doesn’t help). This causes her to make several bad first impressions, though amusingly enough, it also helps her masquerade a bit, as her apparent incompetence makes it easier for the royal official to believe that her father “doesn’t talk about me much”.

Then when training begins, she’s the most hopeless of the largely hopeless unit, struggling even to master basic tests. But she sticks with it, works hard, and starts finding ways to work in her new environment. Her inventiveness (established in her very first scene) allows her to figure out a particular challenge Shang has set them, and she and her fellow soldiers all grow over the course of training. They not only master the difficult tasks set them, but develop comradery with each other. The soldiers, Mulan included, earn one another’s respect through shared hardship and developing competence.

One thing I particularly like is that she actually is given a chance to go home part way through training. Rather than leaping at the chance, however, she stays and gives the arrow challenge one more shot. This is both very admirable of her and fits perfectly with what’s been established without having to make it explicit. Going home would mean bringing shame on her family and her father for having sent a worthless reject to defend the Emperor. It isn’t just a matter of helping her dad dodge the draft; the family name and honor is at stake. She’s taken it upon herself, and so she has to keep trying to uphold it.

Which is another thing that this film does well; it has the sense to understand that Mulan’s story is not only about her. Her family and her country are also on the line. Her becoming a soldier, even if she’s the best soldier of her unit, doesn’t ultimately mean anything unless she can preserve them.

Of course, the film also makes obligatory gestures toward modern individualism, with Mulan wanting to be ‘who I am inside’ and all that. Though to its credit, when she wrestles with the question of whether that was her real motive, she’s clearly ashamed by the idea of its being so (more credit to the film in giving her such mixed motives in the first place).

In short, Mulan actually takes super-personal matters of honor, familial duty, and feudal obligation seriously and treats them as if they had legitimate claims rather than being mere obstacles to personal development.

On that note, despite its surface-level feminism the story is actually remarkably patriarchal (and I have to clarify, I think that’s a good thing). The whole plot is centered around protecting the Emperor (more on him in a minute), which is reflected in miniature with Mulan trying to save her father.

Her father is a thoroughly admirable character; a former war hero and a kindly man who loves his daughter deeply. After her disastrous meeting with the matchmaker, he doesn’t rebuke her for screwing up but comforts her by likening her to a flower that hasn’t bloomed yet. In his one moment of anger with her (telling her to “know your place”) he’s actually shown to be fundamentally correct. She’s trying to convince him not to go to war, saying there are plenty of young men to fight and he isn’t necessary. He answers, essentially, that it isn’t about him, and that honor – doing what is right – is worth dying for. Which, as noted, pretty much drives everything she does from then on.

Basically, she was right that he can’t go to war – since he’s a cripple and wouldn’t survive in a battle – but she was wrong about what to do about it, which prompts her to take a desperate and unexpected solution to save him.

(There is the fact that he may have just been sent home upon failing training, which arguably is a plot hole. However, I don’t think that actually detracts from the story: the fact that he is a war hero – Shang is impressed upon finding out who ‘Ping’ is related to – means that he probably would have been kept on out of respect if nothing else. And if he were sent home, that would have also brought shame on the family, assuming that he accepted the dismissal, which it’s reasonable to think he wouldn’t have, so it would have been a disaster nonetheless. And finally, we can reasonably assume that, in any case, Mulan wouldn’t have thought of that. So, even if she didn’t strictly have to go, she would have believed she did and once committed to the scheme she would have to see it through to the end).

Her filial devotion to her father is mirrored by China’s devotion to the Emperor. The new troops who are called up are specifically called to serve the Emperor. When they find the Imperial Army destroyed, Shang tells his troops that they’re “the only hope for the Emperor now.” Note the specificity: not China, but the Emperor. Since, of course, he embodies China.

This all gives us a wonderfully positive image of monarchy. The Emperor answers the filial devotion of his people with a paternal love and care for them (at one point he calls them “my children”). Upon learning of the invasion, orders his armies away from his palace to defend the outlying provinces. When Shang meets him after the battle, the Emperor’s first move is to condole with him on the death of his father. Then when Shan Yu has him captured and at sword point, he still calmly and resolutely refuses to bow to the Hun, willing to accept death rather than dishonor his people.

In all this the Emperor is convincingly portrayed as the father and embodiment of his nation, and as a man who takes this role very seriously. He wields absolute authority but tempered with the personal touch of a man relating to other men.

As for Mulan herself, I touched on it a bit, but she’s a likable heroine; her evident courage, devotion, and willingness to persevere make her admirable, while her initial clumsiness and warm-heartedness make her endearing. She’s a bit of a common trop – the smart, independent woman chafing in a traditional society that we’ve seen a hundred times – but fortunately the aforementioned piety she shows, as well as her efforts to fit in the military while still having a distinctly feminine personality peeking through the cracks is more than enough to keep her interesting. 

Her heroics are generally excellent. Again, the film is smart enough to know that she cannot hope to match her male allies or enemies in strength and so she doesn’t try. Instead she employs her grace, agility, and cleverness to get around their advantages, as when she uses their one remaining cannon to start an avalanche to take out the entire Hun army, or when she uses her fan (a distinctly feminine article) in her showdown with Shan Yu. But I love that, though she’s fighting in unorthodox way, she is still putting herself on the line for the sake of her comrades and the mission. Her trick with the cannon requires her to get right up to the charging hoard, resulting in her being wounded. In the climax there’s a moment where she has a chance to join her friends and the Emperor, but chooses to forego it to prevent Shan Yu from following them, leaving her and Shang trapped with an extremely angry Hun. The film does an excellent job of showing that in all her schemes and gambits, the mission and her friends always come first for her. This, much more than simply beating the bad guys, is what makes her a worthy heroine.

I also like how she keeps her feminine habits and outlook throughout the film. She’s nearly unmasked at one point because she’s used to regular baths and tries to sneak one in the local watering hole (“There are a couple of things I know they’re bound to notice!” Mushu laments as her new buddies rush to join her). In this scene there’s also a small detail where, when one of her friends tries to shake hands, she instinctively offers hers as though presenting it to be kissed.

It’s clever too that at no point does Mulan actually like being in the army. She makes friends and is able to pull her weight, but she’s clearly feeling awkward and out of place the whole time. Kudos to the animators for making her armor look bulky and ill-fitting throughout, visually cluing us to her discomfort. Even in her most heroic moments, the animators are sure to show that she is frightened, and she does feel out of her depth (I love the bit where she throws her shoe at Shan Yu to focus his attention on her and then fumbles to put it back on so she can run away from him). This carries on to the very end, where even in her final gambit she’s quietly frantic as she tries to get out of the way of the results (“getofftheroofgetofftheroofgetofftheroof…”).

Also, not all of her ‘quirks’ are positive. At the start of the film she’s shown to be kind of lazy: oversleeping, trying to cheat on her test, and getting her dog to do her chores for her. This habit realistically come back to bite her in the army and she has to learn to temper her natural inclinations with discipline and hard work.

Then there are her interactions with Shang, where, as intimidating and stern as he is to her, she still takes the time to reach out to him emotionally when she sees he is down, trying to build him up and support him (that and she can’t help staring when he takes his shirt off and reveals his chiseled physique).

I also have to give the film credit for the logic of how she’s eventually discovered (she’s wounded in battle) and what happens next; Shang actually does seem about ready to execute her, and his (stated) reasons for not doing so make perfect sense. His reaction on seeing her again when she comes to try to warn them are likewise pretty well done. He’s surprised, but he isn’t really angry with her; he just wants her to go away.

Shang himself is a decent character; a tough, capable, masculine hero with his own story arc. He’s established right away as, like Mulan, being very close to his father and wanting to live up to his expectations and uphold the family honor (his introduction also lets us see the good-humored man beneath the commander as he stammers over his thanks for the promotion before collecting himself). We get to see a fair amount of his struggles as well; saddled with green, uncouth soldiers – not to mention an obnoxious bureaucrat who is constantly criticizing him – and trying to whip them into shape in order to live up to the responsibility entrusted to him (though I will say one minor flaw is that he seems to throw away at least one sword too many over the course of the film).

I appreciate that, though Mulan is of course the star, Shang is allowed to be a dashing and heroic figure in his own right. Among other things he rallies his pitiful unit to continue their mission even after finding the main Imperial Army has been wiped out (including his father), ready to fight out the war to the bitter end. He’s also the one who actually saves the Emperor and though he loses to Shan Yu in a one-on-one fight, he does so in a way that shows him be an impressive combatant in his own right (that is, it’s clear he’s simply out-classed rather than unskilled). And when he and Mulan end up facing the Hun commander alone, his first move is to try to protect her and focus Yu’s attention on himself.

Their romance actually works a lot better than I remember it. Her glimpses into his interior life and the compassion she shows him form a believable basis for an attachment. His interactions with her (such as the way he calls for her to come back during the mountain fight) hint that has an idea there’s something different about this particular soldier, though he can’t quite put his finger on it, mirroring how she sees past his commander persona to the human being underneath.

Mulan fans 'fuming' after Disney drops character over #MeToo concerns | The  Independent | The Independent

Kudos again to the animators for his facial expressions after she’s unmasked; in both the scene where he considers executing her and when they meet again in the city they manage to show that a lot more is going on inside him than his dialogue would indicate (again, his surprised and not-unpleased look when he first sees her in the latter scene is particularly good).

Then there’s the villain. Shan Yu’s an interesting entry in the stable of Disney bad guys, in that honestly he could just as easily have stepped out of an anime or even a live-action film. There’s almost nothing ‘cartoony’ about him. He’s a big, hulking monster at the head of a massive army, seemingly looking to conquer China more for the satisfaction of beating the Emperor than for any desire for political power or wealth. He gets a striking introduction, burning the Chinese flag and declaring his delight at the prospect of facing the whole Middle Kingdom. Later he tells two captured scouts to “tell the Emperor to send his strongest armies. I’m ready for him!” He then has one of the scouts killed just because.

Basically, he’s a barbarian through and through, looking for nothing but to prove himself in battle by smashing the best the civilized world can throw at him. This makes him a good foil to Mulan, Shang, and the Emperor, who all are motivated by filial piety and devotion to duty. Mulan fears that she might be only fighting to prove something to herself; Shan Yu actually is fighting for just such a reason, only he never doubts that he’ll succeed. He relies largely on overwhelming strength, while Mulan uses cunning and finesse to get around it.

On that note, I have to say the scene of the Mongol hoard coming over the mountain is nothing short of breathtaking, particularly paired with the awesome music.

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The film really does allow itself to be a war movie, even if a Disneyfied one. The heroes kill people, characters die in battle, and at one point the Huns even massacre a village complete with explicitly killing children (off-screen of course, but it’s still pretty grim. By the way, note how Shan Yu’s sarcastic desire to return the little girl’s doll mirrors and inverts the way Mulan intervenes on behalf of another little girl in the opening musical number by returning her doll from some bullies).

So, overall, the film’s pretty good. My main criticism of it is definitely Mushu. Now, Eddie Murphy is a great comedic talent, and he does a fine job with the character. I laughed quite a bit at his antics. The trouble is that Mushu is simultaneously crucial to the story at several points (including being instrumental in killing the villain) and the rest of the time he’s almost entirely disconnected from it. No one except Mulan seems to see or hear him even when they really, really should, save again for one or two specific scenes. He never interacts with any of the other characters (except in disguise), and his dialogue and behavior are tonally distinct from the rest of the story.

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Contrast this with the genie from Aladdin, who was explicitly an otherworldly being in service to Aladdin, and hence could be seen or unseen as he liked and would be expected to stand out from the rest of the film (also the Genie was central to the plot). Mushu is more or less just along for the ride, except for when he suddenly intrudes on the story to get it out of a difficulty. You could tell exactly the same story without him and nothing would change except for a few specific incidents (e.g. the reason for their being called up to the front).

Also, Mushu never really completes his character arc. He admits to his selfish motives, but he never has to walk them back or offer to sacrifice them for the greater good. He does offer to go back home with Mulan to take his punishment, but at that point they have pretty much no other options (again, contrast the genie offering to let Aladdin use his final wish to become a prince again, even though his motives were much less questionable than Mushu’s ).

Now, I like the idea of a family guardian as the sidekick character, but they needed to integrate him into the story better. You could, for instance, make it explicit that only members of Mulan’s family can see or hear him unless he allows himself to be seen. As it is, his presence feels very forced, almost as though there’s a whole separate film going on with him and the cricket that only occasionally crosses over with the rest of the story through Mulan.

On the other hand, Mulan’s three soldier buddies fit in much better as comic relief, and I’m glad that they were allowed to actually be competent soldiers and put their training to good use when it came to the point. I also liked her grandmother (“Woo! Sign me up for the next war!”), but she has very little screen time.

Meanwhile, the songs are…okay. There aren’t very many of them for a Disney film (four I think), and with only one exception (I’ll Make a Man Out of You) I found them to be pretty forgettable. The big Oscar-bait song Reflection in particular was thoroughly blah, with the lyrics amounting to simply a flat reiteration of the film’s most tiresome and commonplace themes. Also, the movie just sort of stops being a musical about the start of the third act, apart from a very brief reprise. While there’s not a lot of places they could reasonably have fit a song in after that (you really can’t have characters singing on a battlefield, or at least, you’d have to really, really work at it), it once again creates a sense of disconnection, as if the movie is struggling to make its story fit into the Disney formula.

That, I think, is what it comes down to; that Mulan has a very good, classical story at its core, with big, interesting ideas of familial and national piety, honor, and duty. But the filmmakers feel they have to check off certain boxes; they have to include some stuff about personal identity (“Who I am inside”), they have to include some boilerplate feminism, and they have to have cute sidekicks and songs.

Some of these they manage integrate better than others, but they all feel as though the writers had to fit them in rather than being organic parts of the story.

These are flaws, and they detract from the film, but they don’t derail it. As I say, the good parts of the film are very good, and the bad really aren’t awful, just kind of annoying. Overall, I’d call Mulan a worthwhile movie; a very good core story with uneven execution that amounts to a generally charming experience.  

Patriotism

You know what makes me the most angry, looking back? The fact of being told so many times that I shouldn’t be.

I should be sad. I should be aware of the complexities of the situation. I should have sympathy for those in other countries. But I shouldn’t be angry. I shouldn’t feel it personally.

No one I knew died that day. In the years since, my political views, and my views of America as a country, and even the very concept of the modern nation satate have changed considerably (Or rather, have clarified).

None of that makes a difference. Because whatever I may think about it, America is part of me, as much as my own hands and feet, my own blood. It is something I have inherited, not something I have chosen for myself, and nothing can change that. I owe it piety simply on account of the fact that it is my country, just as I owe my parents piety simply because they are my parents.

That may mean criticizing it, lamenting over it, praying for its reformation, but it can never mean being indifferent to it. It cannot mean standing back and taking a ‘nuanced’ view when the country has been attacked. To do so would not be to show reason or balance or open-mindedness or any of that nonsense. It shows a cramped, ugly little soul trying to hold itself aloof from its duties. It is a mark of that atomistic individualism that accepts benefits and denies responsibilities, that imagines itself to be wholly self-created, self-ruling, and self-sufficient.

But this, it seems, is the kind of person we are expected to be. Patriotism has been despised, deconstructed, and ridiculed with ever increasing vehemence for generations. Now it has practically been marked as a secular sin. We are gleeful to tear down our own country, to dig up its sins and failures, to spit in the faces of its heroes.

No one lives in a vacuum. No one can be without a tradition, without a culture, without a country. Broad-minded cosmopolitanism, ‘multiculturalism’, that seeks to sympathize with all nations and none at the same time, only ever means impiety toward your own.

Piety to country, to heritage, is part of traditionalism (for want of a better term). Again, that doesn’t mean ignoring or papering over past or present crimes; it means recognizing that this is where you come from and this is who you are. A German is a German, a Frenchman is a Frenchman, an Englishman is an Englishman, and that doesn’t change because they can all look back and see horrible things done in the name of Germany, France, and England. It is your duty, in such cases, to seek to redeem its name, to at least ensure that such things shall not be done by you. That you, at least, shall honor its name by your life, whatever your brothers do or have done. But the duty of piety towards one’s country simply because it is one’s country is never lessened.

That means being angry when it is attacked.

And so it is that this day every year brings back those painful memories of being struck hard by an enemy. And of subsequently having half my fellows preening themselves by evading the term ‘enemy’ and turning the event around into yet another impious attack on their own nation.

BREATHES there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
‘This is my own, my native land!’
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d
From wandering on a foreign strand?
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.
-Sir Walter Scott

Talking Confession at Catholic Match

My latest Catholic Match post is up, talking about why you need to go to Confession:

This brings us to the second point: besides your eternal salvation (if anything can be ‘besides’ that), Confession, along with the other Sacraments, conveys a very useful lesson. Namely, that we do not get to set the terms of our relationship with Christ.

This is particularly useful for us moderns, as the whole tenor of our lives runs counter to it. We are surrounded by choices and the continual message that we and we alone can legitimately make them, often causing us to fall into the habit of thinking that the world can and ought to conform to our own wishes. We even extend this to God, saying things like “oh, I can find my own way to serve Christ.”

Jesus does not play games like that. He is the one in authority here.

You have sinned against Him, and He is offering a means of forgiveness. If you don’t like the means offered, too bad. That isn’t your call to make. The repentant soldier doesn’t get to tell the king what conditions he will accept for being readmitted into the army. As long as he is doing that, he is still in rebellion.

Read the rest here

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.

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.  

Friday Flotsam: Good and Bad or Social Types

One of the key dividing lines in the world, as I see it, is between those who think in terms of good and bad and those who think in terms of this or that kind of person. Of course, there’s a lot of overlap there, and the latter would say that they are thinking in terms of justice and right, but they think of these things in terms of abstract group dynamics rather than principles.

The example I like to use is when someone gets angry that a given person has a big country estate and all the comfort in the world, while hundreds of other people can barely make ends meet. The thing is though, it is highly unlikely that the former has his comfort because the latter are suffering. In any case, to be free from money worries and to live in a beautiful home is itself a good thing as far as it goes. Though, by its nature, it’s a good thing that not everyone can have. Is it really better that no one should have it? That this particular kind of good should never be experienced because it will not be experienced by everyone? Are there no benefits associated with such a state of affairs, either for individuals or society as a whole?

This is one reason I’m in favor of aristocracy; I think financial independence, family honor, and high titles are good things as far as they go, and I’d much rather have a world where such goods exist than one in which they don’t. Such a world would be (arguably is) infinitely the poorer for it.

That’s what I mean by thinking in terms of good and bad and not this or that kind of person. The issue is not if someone is rich or poor, the issue is the qualities he shows and the object state of his situation. If a man is ill, that is itself a bad thing that commands pity; the poor man is entitled to more concern only because and to the extent that he has fewer resources for dealing with it. I can easily imagine a scenario in which a poor man and a rich man are both in straights, but the rich man is the more deserving of the two: e.g. both find themselves in financial difficulties, the rich man because he was robbed, the poor man because he gambled.

To think in good or bad terms — the traditionalist mindset — means to judge by eternal, objective values; is this person kind or cruel, liberal or miserly, polite or rude, wise or foolish? It means to prefer good qualities over bad, regardless of what ‘class’ the person fits in. Of course, you don’t expect the same kind of manners from a Mr. Peggotty as from a Mr. Copperfield, but you expect courtesy and kindness from both. This is why things like people saying that Charlie Chan is a racist caricature because he is courteous and non-confrontational are simply meaningless to me; those are good qualities, whether they’re stereotypes or not.

The people I admire tend to have certain qualities; honor, dignity, intelligence, conviction, moral fiber, and so on. So, people like Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Frederick Douglass, Saigo Takamori, St. Louis, St. John Henry Newman, and so on. People I dislike or do not admire lack these qualities. It is a matter of indifference to me what social group they fall under.

However, you will note that this also gives what I think is the only rational basis for a non-prejudiced approach. If what you admire is a given quality, then you will seek it and acknowledge it whether it is found with an Englishman, an American, a Japanese, or an African. It may, for whatever reason, be more common here or there, but what does that matter? The quality itself is the important point.

This is, in fact, aristocracy in the truest sense; rule of excellence.

Altering Thoughts

As I’ve shared before, I suffer from moderate depression. Lately, in my effort to combat it, I’ve been reading a book called Feeling Good by David Burns, MD. Though I’m very skeptical of most modern psychology, this one is actually based on pretty solid insights, ones that harmonize with what I read from older authors (always a good sign) and which make philosophical sense. The author also makes a point of proudly noting that his therapy is actually scientifically tested, which apparently is not standard procedure for therapy methods (“cognitive therapy is one of the first forms of psychotherapy which has been shown to be effective through rigorous scientific research under the critical scrutiny of the academic community” – Feeling Good: chp 1. Translation: “most psychotherapy is pure snake oil”). In any case, I highly recommend the book, especially to anyone suffering depression, though I think the principles can be applied to many other disorders, as you will see.

The central principle of Cognitive Therapy is this: thoughts create emotions. We feel the way we do because of how we think, and we also act accordingly.

Now, thoughts are reflections of reality; there is the real thing, then there is our idea of it as perceived through the senses. A true thought is one that is accurate to the thing perceived as it really is (“Actual knowledge is identical with its object.” –De Anima, III, 5. “The idea of the thing known is in the knower,” –Summa Theologiae 1.Q14.A1). Basically it’s like we’re constantly making drawings or descriptions in our minds of what we perceive with greater or lesser accuracy.

Our emotions follow from these thoughts; because we perceive a thing a certain way, we react to it in a certain way. If your mind forms a picture of a beautiful woman, you react one way. If your mind includes the detail that she’s pointing a gun at you while brandishing an Antifa flag, you react another way. But which reaction you have, which of the passions is engaged, depends on the image you provide to them.  

Therefore, if your thoughts are a fair reflection of reality, your emotions will be reasonable and valid. If your thoughts are distorted, your emotions will be distorted and invalid. “The first principle of cognitive therapy is that all your moods are created by your ‘cognitions’ or thoughts…You feel the way you do right now because of the thoughts you are thinking at this moment. ” (Feeling Good: chp. 1. Emphasis in original).

The interesting thing about this is that it is exactly the same principle presented in the book Inside the Criminal Mind by Stanton Samenow Ph.D. regarding how to effectively reform people with criminal mindsets. Criminals commit crimes because of the way they think; because their minds are fundamentally fixed on what they want. They are reformed when their habits of thought are altered, which generally involves intensive, uncompromising therapy and refusing to allow excuses: “How a person behaves is determined largely by how he thinks. Criminals think differently…Our approach to change must be to help the criminal radically alter his self-concept and his view of the world. Some criminals can be ‘habilitated,’ that is, helped to acquire patterns of thinking that are totally foreign to them but are essential if they are to live responsibly” (Inside the Criminal Mind – Chp 1. Emphasis in the original).  

In the field of eating disorders, the lovely Beauty Beyond Bones also recounts a similar principle for how she was able to overcome anorexia, recounting the grossly distorted thoughts surrounding her disorder and how replacing those thoughts with the truth is what ultimately saved her. “She’s doing this to herself because of an inner voice that’s got a grip on her. An inner Lie that is louder than anything else… To beat the disease, you have to: A) name the Lie B) discredit the Lie and C) replace it with the truth.”

Even more encouraging, this is essentially the traditional view of the matter. What did the old Saints and Homilist’s say? “Meditate upon Christ.” Just as one example, much of St. Francis de Sales’s  Introduction to the Devout Life consists in telling people what to think about. “To attain such a conviction and contrition you must faithfully practice the following meditations. By the help of God’s grace they will be very helpful in rooting out of your heart both sin and the chief affections for it” (Introduction the Devout Life: The First Part, 8.).  

Our Lord Himself alluded to this: “The light of thy body is thy eye. If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome. But if thy eye be evil thy whole body shall be darksome. If then the light that is in thee, be darkness: the darkness itself how great shall it be!” (Matt. 6:22-23). The eye, that is perception, determines one’s condition. If our perception is distorted or evil, our evil shall be great indeed.  

In short, this principle of thought creating emotion, leading to action keeps cropping up in different contexts, yet always, it seems, with actual evidence and actual successes to back it up.

Now, you will note the corollary; if thoughts determine emotions and consequent actions, and distorted thoughts lead to distorted actions, then mental health means having thoughts that adequately reflect reality. Basically, true thoughts. Everyone would agree with this; I would call it an axiom that of course we are obliged to think honestly. It is arguably the fundamental duty of mankind.

But if thoughts, as everyone agrees, can be true or false, accurate or distorted, that means that emotions can likewise be true or false, valid or invalid.

That’s great news when you’re dealing with depression or other painful psychological disorders. It’s somewhat less great news when you realize that this pretty much invalidates most modern thought.

For instance, you take this opening statement from a ‘Psych Central’ article found with a two-second Duckduckgo search: “Emotional invalidation is when a person’s thoughts and feelings are rejected, ignored, or judged. Invalidation is emotionally upsetting for anyone, but particularly hurtful for someone who is emotionally sensitive. Invalidation disrupts relationships and creates emotional distance. When people invalidate themselves, they create alienation from the self and make building their identity very challenging.”

The idea of emotional invalidation is now pretty much out the window, or at least heavily altered. Because your emotions can be invalid, and if so, the kindest thing to do would be to convince you of that, if possible, and the worst thing would be to validate them. Whether and how you can do that in any given situation is, of course, another story. The point is that emotional reactions are not somehow independent of objective reality.  

“When you do this, I feel mad.” But the question is, is that a reasonable response? What is the actual situation, and how are you perceiving it? What would be a more accurate perception?  

Because you see, when you validate someone else’s false emotions and false thoughts, you strengthen them. It’s right there in the word: you reassure them that their false thoughts are not false. You reinforce their habit of thinking that way and experiencing those emotions. The more you ‘validate’ someone’s invalid emotions and false thinking, the deeper you drive them into that pit (the bigger question, of course, is ‘just how do you convince them their emotions are invalid?’ Which I confess I don’t have an answer for).  

In short, since emotions follow thought and thoughts can be distorted, the mere fact that you experience a given emotion says absolutely nothing about the validity of that emotion. That has to be established on quite different grounds.

If distorted thoughts lead to distorted emotion and consequently to things like depression, criminality, and eating disorders, then you can see how distorted ideas can affect society at large. A given religion or ideology frames how we will perceive the world; that is, it provides the baseline for our thoughts and consequently for our emotions and actions. In the old days, societies were very cautious about the ideas they allowed or encouraged to be at large in the public mind, precisely because they understood this dynamic. Whether they were right or wrong to have done that is another question, as is the whole point of the specific ideas they opposed. However, it does rather undermine the whole idea of pluralism. The proposal that every man has the right to create his own view of the world and that all ideas are to be received as equally valid as far as society is concerned rests upon the notion that our ideas, our thoughts, do not substantially affect our actions or make us good or bad people. But, in fact, they are the only things that do (the fact that no pluralist society – including our own – actually lives by this principle further undermines it; try publicly suggesting that there are fundamental differences between races if you want to see how pluralistic we really are when it comes to ideas we as a society actually care about).

You see, if thoughts determine emotion and behavior, then whether people think truly or falsely is very much in the public interest and “all points of view are valid” is both false and dangerous.

I suspect, though I can’t prove, that pluralism factors into this dynamic in another way. As Uncle Screwtape explained, people in the old days used to be pretty well aware of the thoughts that governed their actions and were prepared to alter their lives on the strength of a line of argument. But we moderns are not like that; with the modern media and other such things, we are bombarded from morning until night with dozens of contradictory ideas and points of view, while at the same time we are encouraged to think of them less as true or false than as interesting or shocking or offensive or liberal or conservative or inspiring. In any case, the pluralistic environment we live in gives us an instinctual check to thinking anything absolutely true or false and acting accordingly.

The result, as I see it, is that we have a massive amount of mental static cluttering up our brains, and the actual ideas and beliefs that govern our actions slip by unnoticed. This might be one reason why there seems to have been an exponential increase in psychological and emotional disorders as pluralism became more widespread (there are obviously other factors, such as the breakdown of community, but that’s another story).

But to go back a little ways, if thoughts lead to emotions and distorted thoughts to emotional distortion (e.g. depression), and if ideas and worldviews provide the baseline for thoughts, then evil, false, and just plan insane ideas spread throughout society will create emotional distortions on a massive scale. Depression writ-large, in fact.

So if you have, say, the idea “men have always oppressed women, looked down upon them, and tried to keep them subservient,” abroad in society, then many people, perhaps most, will perceive the world through that lens. Whole institutions, laws, practices will be created accordingly, reinforcing the idea (again, action reinforces thought: when you live an idea, the idea and its consequent emotions becomes more fixed in your mind).

The result is…well, what we see. Widespread misery, injustice, and a maniacal, ongoing effort to fix the problem by continually reasserting the lie, like trying kill the pain by popping methamphetamines. Just like in matters of depression, where you think things like “If I can only stay in bed and do nothing today, I will feel better,” or “if the world weren’t set against me, I would be happier.”

One of my favorite games is Psychonauts, where you play as a young psychic who travels into people’s minds and battles their inner demons. One particular level has you helping a manic-depressive actress and concludes in a boss fight against her bloated inner critic, who fights by shooting words of criticism at you. You defeat him by shining spotlights on him. That is, exposing him and leaving him vulnerable to attack.

That’s how we defeat distorted thoughts, by exposing them to the light of truth and then mercilessly pummeling them while they’re down. Whether inside our own heads or abroad in the world, whether they take the form of actual statements of fact or emotional reactions, the thing to do is to show them for what they are and take them apart.

Because emotional reactions, that sense of hopelessness and despair, that feeling that the world is so cruel and unfair, those are only symptoms; symptoms of how you think. They are consequences of lies. “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

Friday Flotsam: The Best Animals

I love dogs. I miss having one, and I hope (once I have a life again) to be able to get one of my own. That’s one of the many things I’m looking forward to.

Most people like dogs, and I think it’s fair to say that people in general like dogs (with a few exceptions). We like them because they’re loyal, trainable, and affectionate.

People like horses too. I haven’t spent enough time around horses to say that I like them, but I would like to like them (see above re: having a life again). There’s a great bond between a good man and his good horse; someone once said that “A good man on a good horse is the noblest creature to be seen.” We like horses, well, much the same reason we like dogs; they’re trainable, loyal, affectionate, strong, and useful.

It’s interesting: the animals that people in general love the best are not what we would ordinarily call the best animals. Chimps are the most intelligent animals, to the point they seem almost human. But almost no one has chimps in their houses or trains them up as pets. Chimps were never domesticated. Apes and monkeys in general are novelties. Same thing with the big cats. Elephants are domesticated, but only Asian elephants.

In any case, I think it’s fair to say that the animals that humans love the best and have done the most for are the dog and the horse, along with perhaps the cat. It isn’t exclusive, of course; you will find people who are particularly attached to just about any animal. But these two are the ‘elect’ among the beasts.

I rather think it’s something similar with God. The people He loves best are generally not those whom we would think are the best people. Love and loyalty and trainability (to put it in a somewhat flippant tone) seem to be what He values most, just as we do.

God, of course, is higher above us than we are above the beasts, but there is a parallel there, I think. Man is the summit of earthly nature, being both animal and spirit. The animals, therefore, are his responsibility and under his authority (“let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth” Gen. 1:26). As man is to God, so, in a sense, are the animals to man, being his servants, over whom he has the power of life and death, for whom we are to care and nurture, partly for their sake, but primarily for our own. The highest thing we can do for the animals is to make them, as it were, a member of the family.

And the somewhat eerie thing about it is that when we do this, the animals rise to be something almost human. Stories abound of dogs saving people’s lives, displaying uncanny intuition, mourning by their master’s graves, and so on. They seem to sort of take a bit of our nature into themselves by being exposed to us and loved by us.

There are a few consequences I want to draw out here. First, I had never thought of it before, but I wonder whether the switch from animal power to mechanical power was quite the morally neutral thing that it appears to be. It might be that man was meant to have animals rather than machines as his chief servants, and that in turning away from them, we’ve lost a part of ourselves. The switch after came at the same time as, and indeed was a direct cause of, the dissolution of community. I won’t go so far as to say I think it was certainly a bad thing (much less that there’s anything to be done about it now), I’m only noting it.

More important, I want to draw out that point of the best not being the best loved. Qualities like intelligence or strength or beauty, while they are valued and admired, are not, in the end, what people look for in animals. In the same way, they aren’t what God primarily values, though good in themselves. I rather think that God sees our squabbles over who has more money or status or authority as if a dog were to try to impersonate a chimp. It’s not only doomed to fail, but it’s a matter of trying to trade more desirable qualities for less. Because even if a dog could become a chimp, he would simply find himself sitting in the monkey house at the zoo with strangers staring in at him, rather than curled up comfortable at home with his family.

Or to put it another way, animals that do very well and grow high in the wild are usually not well suited to domestic life. A lion does very well on the Savannah, probably much better than a domesticated dog would, but it would be a very rare lion indeed that anyone would bring into his house. In the same way, someone may do very well in this world, but what does that matter? The important thing is whether we are welcomed into the King’s house.