Thoughts on ‘Psychonauts’

With volume 2 of Fantastic Schools (featuring a story by your humble servant) coming out soon [UPDATE: It’s alive!], I thought it appropriate to revisit one of my own favorite entries in the fantastic schools subgenre: the video game cult-classic Psychonauts.

We open with a man in an army uniform giving a speech before the projected image of a brain:

“The human mind. 600 miles of synaptic fiber, five and a half ounces of cranial fluid, 1500 grams of complex neural matter. A three-pound pile of dreams. But I’ll tell you what it really is. It is the ultimate battlefield, and the ultimate weapon. The wars of this modern age – the Psychic Age – are fought somewhere between these damp, curvaceous undulations. From this day forward, you are all psychic soldiers. Paranormal paratroopers! Mental marines who are about to ship out on the adventure of their lives! This is our beachhead! And this is your landing craft. You shall engage the enemy in his own mentality—you shall chase his dreams, you shall fight his demons, you shall live his nightmares! And those of you who fight well, you will find yourselves on the path to becoming international secret agents. In other words: Psychonauts! The rest of you… will die!”

At which point the camera reveals that he is addressing a group of small, terrified children huddling around a campfire, one of whom bursts into tears and wails that they told him this was a summer camp. Another camp counselor kindly reassures them: “Children, you are not going to die.”

Welcome to the bizarre, hilarious, and gloriously imaginative world of Psychonauts.

This is one of those games where, though the gameplay is fun and often very satisfying, it is the premise, story, and characters that really set it apart. It’s a shining example of video games as a story telling device; there’s more than enough material here that you could easily have done it as an animated movie or TV show, but the interactivity and the chance to explore the strange world undoubtedly adds something to experience.

The premise, as indicated above, is that in this world psychics exist, but are generally shunned and feared (not without reason). At Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, those born with a gift they never asked for learn to focus and control their powers and, possibly, have the opportunity to be recruited into the top-secret organization of the Psychonauts; international secret agents dedicated to preserving peace and freedom throughout the world (picture a cross between the X-Men and MI6 from the Bond films).  

Mostly, though, the kids spend their time in petty, soap-opera-like antics.

The player takes the role of Razputin ‘Raz’ Aquato, an extremely gifted young psychic acrobat who ran away from the circus to join the camp and become a Psychonaut. Since he arrives late and without his parents’ permission, the counselors – the militaristic Coach Olleander, the super-stoic Sasha Nein, and the warm-hearted, free-spirited Milla Vodello – naturally tell him that he’ll have to be sent home. But having gotten a glimpse of his abilities, none of them can resist working with him a little while he waits for his father to come pick him up. In the process Raz discovers an evil plot to take over the world using the brains of his fellow campers and soon, under the guidance of the brilliant, but mentally-shattered Ford Cruller, ex-head of the Psychonauts, he finds himself the only one capable of stopping the villain and saving both the world and his new maybe-girlfriend Lilli.

The story is pure cartoonish fun, especially combined with the witty writing and the vividly sketched characters. And since most of the game involves jumping and out of minds, many of them receive a remarkable amount of development as we not only learn sketches of their backstory, but are able to see the actual structure of their minds and personalities. Reserved, stoical Sasha’s mind, for instance, is a uniform cube floating in space, from which different aspects of his personality can be summoned at will. In contrast, the kind, loving Milla has a mind that is a never-ending dance party where you float from room to room (though there is one area of her mind that she strenuously warns you not to go into). Militaristic Coach Oleander’s mind is a chaotic battlefield which he claims is “the memory of every battle I’ve ever fought,” but which perhaps hints at something darker (more on the mindscapes in a bit). The collectables you find inside their brains, particularly the ‘memory vaults’, further flesh them out (one vault in Milla’s mind hints that she and Sasha are partners in more ways than one…or at least that she would like them to be).

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This vividness of character extends beyond those whose minds you visit. The Whispering Rock campers are a stunningly varied and often quite disturbed bunch of adolescents (their official ages range for seven to twelve, but they generally act more like teenagers). Among others are Elka Doom, a boy-crazy girl who can predict the future and annoys everyone with her relationship drama aimed at Nils, the would-be Casanova who boasts “My parents let me watch R-rated movies” and hits on anything that he confirms to be female. There’s Maloof, who is the camp underdog and most frequent target of bullies until he befriends Russian strong-man Mikhail and instantly becomes a pint-sized mob-boss (“For the meek, justice. For the abusers of power, wedgies and Indian burns. Choose your sides wisely”), Chloe, who believes herself to be an alien, wears a space helmet at all times, and spends most of the game trying to contact her ‘people’, and Dogen, a…strange boy who is sweet, but clearly not all there even by the standards of the camp and has a slight problem with making people’s heads explode (“But now I wear this special hat so I won’t have any more accidents. Wanna try it on?”).

The campers and Ranger Cruller

The interesting thing is that you can follow the various antics of the campers all throughout the game, as almost every advance causes them to change what they’re doing and what they have to say. Early on you find Elton, a boy who wears a sailor hat, talking to the fish down by the dock. A little later Milka, a girl with penchant for invisibility, catches his eye by protecting some of the fish from abuse. After that, they can be found making out together non-stop. Raz then can read a letter from Milka on the notice board warning off the other girls from making a move on him. 

And despite the relatively little amount of time they all get, the characters often show a surprising degree of nuance. Like how Bobby, the obnoxious camp bully, reveals an awkward crush on Chloe and hints that he wants a father figure.

That’s all just the incidental characters filling out the camp. Much more focus is directed at Lili, the daughter of the current head of the Psychonauts. She affects a jaded, detached attitude towards everyone and everything owing to her having been coming to camp longer than anyone else, though she quickly develops an infatuation for Raz that she has a hard time hiding (and not just because he can hear her thoughts). And for all her sarcasm, the game establishes her straight away as a fundamentally decent person by having her comfort Dogen when he starts crying in the opening cut scene, as well as being the only one other than Raz to pick up on the ominous signs at the camp, and she periodically lets her mask slip to reveal the chipper, adventurous girl beneath her aloof exterior. She comes across quite well as a very talented, tomboyish girl (her back-and-forths with Raz are all great), but with a softer heart than she lets on.

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“No…you don’t smell like pond scum.”
“Nice. You should write greeting cards.”

Then there’s Raz’s chief mentor, Ford Cruller. Ford used to be the head of the Psychonauts and is still one of the most powerful psychics on Earth, but his mind was shattered in a psychic duel, leaving him with a split personality (he shows up around camp as a cook, ranger, janitor, and so on). He’s able to pull his brain together in his secret lair under the camp owing to a massive ‘Psitanium’ deposit (a rare element that boosts psychic powers…and can cause insanity). From there he monitors world events and sends Sasha and Milla – the only two agents still loyal to him – on their assignments. As well as “making sure you little spoon-benders don’t kill each other.”

Unlike some video game mentors, Ford maintains a continual presence throughout the game, both in terms of cut scenes and frequent trips to his lair and because Raz can psychically summon him for advice using a piece of bacon (Ford’s advice is entertaining enough that you’ll quickly learn to call him whenever something new happens just to see what he says).

Picture a more crotchety version of Dumbledore and you’ll be fairly close to the mark on Ford, though honestly I found Ford and Raz’s relationship to be the more charming. There’s more give-and-take to it than with Harry and Dumbledore, in the way Raz will make snide remarks or push back against Ford’s crotchetiness (among other things, at one point they get into a debate about whether ‘ca-caw’ is one word or two: “sure, if you’re gonna use a hyphen…”). There’s a definite sense of a surrogate grandfather figure in Ford’s rough, yet playful handling of Raz: he not only provides him training and guidance, but is able to interact with him on his own level (“only use pyrokinesis if it’s very, very important or it’s really, really entertaining”), while periodically dishing out elaborate threats of violence (“Very nice. Now set me down easy and go pick up something that won’t blow up your head if you make it mad”).

“Hey, she is not my girlfriend!”
“Oh, that makes all the difference. Just let her get eaten, then.”

Finally, we have Raz himself, the psychic acrobat who ran away from the circus to become a secret agent. Like Manny, the protagonist of Tim Schaefer’s earlier Grim Fandango, Raz is a clever, personable hero with a sharp tongue and a wicked sense of humor to go with his righteousness. He befriends strangers easily and stands up for camp outcasts, but he’s equally ready to take shots at anyone who gets on his bad side, or just to provoke someone for fun if he doesn’t like them. He’s willing to get into fights but seems to prefer using his wits to overcome obstacles, making him a decent amateur therapist / conman (it’s a fine line).  

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His determination and focus make him admirable, while his playful, boyish nature (“Shooting things is fun and useful!”) make him endearing. I like how, despite his mischievous and sarcastic personality, he’s in some ways the most idealistic person at the camp. He’s the one who believes the most in the Psychonauts and their mission, who can recite the camp advertisement word-for-word, and who is invested enough in the people around him to notice when things start going wrong. Refreshingly, his whole goal is that he wants to be a hero, and he’s willing to put in the work to make it happen. Another nice detail is that he’s initially uncomfortable with blasting enemies in the mental world, until Sasha reminds him that they’re just thoughts and not really alive at all. It helps too that he’s one of the saner characters at the camp, allowing him to be an audience surrogate, though we soon learn that he has his own issues as well (crippling aquaphobia due to a family curse being the least of them).

Now, one of the most interesting aspects of the game is Raz’s relationship with his stern father. We see a memory of his father forbidding him from going to camp and tearing up his brochure, and every time he comes up Raz insists that he hates psychics and hates him for being a psychic, even suggesting at one point that his father’s been trying to kill him. At the end of the game, however, we get a revelation that not only sheds light on his father’s character, but on Raz himself. He’s revealed to be, for all his cleverness and power, ultimately still a kid with a child’s understanding of the world. Need I say that I love this undermining of the patriphobic attitude (“father doesn’t understand you! You need to defy him and show him what’s right!”) found in so many contemporary stories?  

I also have to mention the endlessly quotable dialogue. Again, just about every step of the game brings a new response from almost every character, and the oft-bizarre goings on lead to a lot of simply hilarious lines:

“Relax, this won’t hurt a bit. Unless something really very bad happens.”

“You have the insanity of a manatee!”

“There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’, Goggalor.”
“No, but there is an ‘I’ in ‘squish’, so watch it.”

“Just throw my innocent bones into the cruel machine of war. I’m ready!”

“Oh no, they got Freddy. Poor Freddy. He was such a good secret agent. I mean, assassin.”

“If anyone talks to the squirrels, they shouldn’t listen because the squirrels are a bunch of stupid liars.”

“I run a nice, quiet insane asylum.”

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“Lili! A deranged madman is building an army of psychic death tanks to take over the world, and there’s no one who can stop him except for you and me!”
“Oh my God! Let’s make out…”

Now, as noted, most of the game consists of Raz jumping in and out of the minds of various different characters. At first these are primarily instructive journey’s; he jumps into the minds of his counselors so that they can teach him about his psychic abilities. As time goes on, however, he ends up in the stranger and more dangerous minds of other people (and at one point, a giant lungfish), where he has to go in to try to solve their psychological issues.

The mindscapes the game creates are one of its great triumphs. Each one is completely different, but each one makes sense given the character whose mind you’re entering. The mind-controlled lungfish’s brain, for instance, is a miniature world artificially built up, where Raz appears as a giant monster, reflecting the fact that he’s a human entering a fundamentally simpler animal brain (and giving us a hilarious parody of kaiju movies, complete with a pitch-perfect Ifukube-esque score). Manic-depressive actress Gloria’s mind is a theater whose spotlight switches the mood from bright and benevolent to dark and hostile (while her bloated inner critic presides over the whole, hurling non-stop abuse). And the mind of Boyd, the paranoid-schizophrenic security guard, is a set of suburban streets suspended in space, twisting back upon each other like the tangled threads of his conspiracy theories, while literally every bush, mailbox, and fire-hydrant is watching you.

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“Goggalor!”

For all its eeriness, Boyd’s world is also one of the funniest parts of the game, populated by sinister secret agents ‘masquerading’ in a variety of roles via the expedient of holding a single prop and talking in disjointed monotones about their profession (“I am a sewer worker. Although I often smell of excrement, I deserve your respect because I provide a useful service to the community.” “Plants need to have water poured on them because they have no hands to hold glasses of water.”).

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“What is the purpose of the goggles?”

I really have to give the game credit for how well the minds are structured in psychological terms. Not only do the structures of the minds make sense given the characters, but the way you deal with them and the issues you face likewise fits with how those problems would be dealt with. Sasha’s mind ends with his ultra-controlled brain exploding into a giant ‘censor’, reflecting the potential of an overly suppressed mind to lose its sense of proportion and just try to control everything. Gloria’s inner critic is defeated by Raz shining spotlights on him, subjecting his withering commentary to rational scrutiny and revealing his hostile intentions, while split-personality Fred Bonaparte is healed by conquering the part of his brain controlled by Napoleon, which requires Fred to actually grow a spine.

As indicated, the artistry and design of these levels is amazing. The game is often a visual and imaginative feast. At one point you enter the mind of an artist, and it’s a gorgeous living black-velvet painting with a swirling, multi-colored sky. Milla’s mind is a technicolor explosion, while almost everything in Coach Oleander’s brain is military themed, down to the bushes made of ammo belts. The camp itself is very nice to look at, particularly around sunset, with its blue skies and lush forests, while the abandoned insane asylum is as creepy and nightmarish as you would expect. 

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Welcome to Black Velvetopia

The gameplay takes the form of an action-platformer collect-a-thon, mixed with puzzles and combat. The player uses Raz’s acrobatics and psychic abilities to traverse obstacles in quest for a huge number of collectables to level up and gain more power. Gathering all of these, especially the elusive ‘figments of imagination’ can be frustrating (since the figments are often hard to see and can be hidden anywhere), but it’s not required to win the game; just if you want to go for the hundred percent. So far I’ve only done that once, and it required a walkthrough to find them all, but your mileage may vary.

Raz’s psychic powers – telekinesis, levitation, psy-blasts, and so on – are generally a lot of fun to play around with. Almost each power gets a different response from each character, meaning that each time you get a new ability it’s often worth just going around the camp and trying it out on everyone you meet. Clairvoyance (letting you see through other people’s eyes) and Confusion can be especially amusing (“yes…I love war…”).

I also give props to the worldbuilding. Raz can find a timeline of the camp, which is honestly rather unsettling (“75 Years Ago: Houston Thorney builds his Home for the Demented to deal with the insanity epidemic. 60 Years Ago: More residents in the Asylum than in the town. Houston Thorney commits suicide by throwing himself from the tower.”). Psychic powers, while cool, are explicitly shown to be dangerous as well, making it believable that people would fear psychics and showing why a place like Whispering Rock would be necessary. The game tries very hard to make all of its elements consistent with its world, so that there is a reason, say, for Raz having multiple lives, gaining health as the game goes on, and even for enemies dropping pickups (these explanations don’t carry on to the real world, but at least they were trying). Again, it’s goofy comic book style science fiction, but it is science fiction and the game really does explore and develop its world pretty well.  

As you can tell, I love this game. It’s one of my all-time favorites. But it does have some serious problems, mostly involving the final level. The Meat Circus (a blend of Raz’s own mind and the villain’s) is a nightmare, and not just in the way that was intended. Frustrating platforming challenges blended with an escort mission and a wonky camera lead to the player dying again and again and again. Trying to make your way up the platforms while the little kid you’re supposed to be escorting wails about being attacked and his life bar goes steadily downward is like being stuck in traffic with a crying three-year-old. Not fun at all. Neither is the platforming challenge that follows, where thanks to the perspective and the structure of the challenges you sometimes have to just trial and error it to figure out what you’re supposed to do.  

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One of the most infamous levels in all of gaming

The frustration factor has since been mitigated by a patch that effectively gave the player infinite lives for this one level, but it’s still extremely annoying. From what I understand, they ran out of test time, forcing them to ship the game with the final level insufficiently edited, and I can well believe it. It’s a striking blot at the very end of an otherwise great game (though the awesome final boss battle and continuing great humor helps make up for it).  

Beyond that, my main complaint is simply that I wanted more. I would have loved to have spent more time with these characters, in this world, learning more about their backstories and quirks, seeing them follow through on their arcs, and just discovering what else they get up to. Again, you could easily make this into an animated TV series or ongoing comic book. But I suppose it’s much better to leave the audience wanting more than overstay your welcome.

Fortunately the game’s cult status means that we are getting more at last! First there was a short VR follow-up called ‘Rhombus of Ruin,’ which I haven’t played, but have seen playthroughs of. I think I’ll give that one its own rundown. And now we’re finally getting Psychonauts 2, supposedly coming out next year. It’s too early to tell yet, of course, but previews promise the same stunning imagination, wicked humor, and great characterization, along with more worldbuilding.

In summary, Psychonauts is simply a great game. It’s a delightful story told with wit and boundless creativity, tackling a rich premise and mining it for all its worth. This is a world and characters that I’d love to explore further and always enjoy revisiting.  

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*thinking* “When are you gonna shut up and kiss me?”
“Um…I can hear that.”
“I know.

Lepanto

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White founts falling in the courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,
They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross,
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young,
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war,
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.
Love-light of Spain—hurrah!
Death-light of Africa!
Don John of Austria
Is riding to the sea.

Mahound is in his paradise above the evening star,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
He moves a mighty turban on the timeless houri’s knees,
His turban that is woven of the sunset and the seas.
He shakes the peacock gardens as he rises from his ease,
And he strides among the tree-tops and is taller than the trees,
And his voice through all the garden is a thunder sent to bring
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king.

They rush in red and purple from the red clouds of the morn,
From temples where the yellow gods shut up their eyes in scorn;
They rise in green robes roaring from the green hells of the sea
Where fallen skies and evil hues and eyeless creatures be;
On them the sea-valves cluster and the grey sea-forests curl,
Splashed with a splendid sickness, the sickness of the pearl;
They swell in sapphire smoke out of the blue cracks of the ground,—
They gather and they wonder and give worship to Mahound.
And he saith, “Break up the mountains where the hermit-folk can hide,
And sift the red and silver sands lest bone of saint abide,
And chase the Giaours flying night and day, not giving rest,
For that which was our trouble comes again out of the west.
We have set the seal of Solomon on all things under sun,
Of knowledge and of sorrow and endurance of things done,
But a noise is in the mountains, in the mountains, and I know
The voice that shook our palaces—four hundred years ago:
It is he that saith not ‘Kismet’; it is he that knows not Fate ;
It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey in the gate!
It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth,
Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth.”
For he heard drums groaning and he heard guns jar,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
Sudden and still—hurrah!
Bolt from Iberia!
Don John of Austria
Is gone by Alcalar.

St. Michael’s on his mountain in the sea-roads of the north
(Don John of Austria is girt and going forth.)
Where the grey seas glitter and the sharp tides shift
And the sea folk labour and the red sails lift.
He shakes his lance of iron and he claps his wings of stone;
The noise is gone through Normandy; the noise is gone alone;
The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room,
And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom,
And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee,
But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.
Don John calling through the blast and the eclipse
Crying with the trumpet, with the trumpet of his lips,
Trumpet that sayeth ha!
      Domino gloria!
Don John of Austria
Is shouting to the ships.

King Philip’s in his closet with the Fleece about his neck
(Don John of Austria is armed upon the deck.)
The walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin,
And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarfs creep in.
He holds a crystal phial that has colours like the moon,
He touches, and it tingles, and he trembles very soon,
And his face is as a fungus of a leprous white and grey
Like plants in the high houses that are shuttered from the day,
And death is in the phial, and the end of noble work,
But Don John of Austria has fired upon the Turk.
Don John’s hunting, and his hounds have bayed—
Booms away past Italy the rumour of his raid
Gun upon gun, ha! ha!
Gun upon gun, hurrah!
Don John of Austria
Has loosed the cannonade.

The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
They veil the plumèd lions on the galleys of St. Mark;
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
They are lost like slaves that sweat, and in the skies of morning hung
The stair-ways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.
They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on
Before the high Kings’ horses in the granite of Babylon.
And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,
And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign—
(But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!

Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade….
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)

CM Piece: Authority in Marriage

Well, this one’s probably going to make some people angry:

The standard practice when faced with this passage is to emphasize the duty it and the following verses place on husbands: to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and to lay down their lives for them.

This is all perfectly right and proper, however it is easy to skim over an important point.

And I am fully aware how little what I am about to say will be to the liking of most who read this, but it has to be said.

To say a husband stands to his wife as Christ stands to the Church is to say that he is very definitely in authority over her. Whatever obligations this may impose upon him, her duty to be obedient to him is in no way mitigated.

Now, as I began this post by suggesting our idea of authority may be erroneous, you may (I foolishly dare hope) suspect that this doesn’t quite mean what we would tend to think it means.

So what exactly does “authority” mean in a Christian marriage?

Authority means the right to be obeyed with regards to the subject of one’s authority. It is the power to create a moral obligation in a subject. If I own a book, then I have authority over that book, and so if you borrow it, I can demand it back and so create in you the obligation to give it back to me, not because I can force you to give it back, but because it is mine and if you refuse to give it back you will be committing a sin.

To say a husband has authority over his wife means that when he asks her to do something, it creates in her the moral obligation to do it, to the extent that he is invoking his husbandly authority. Obviously she can suggest something else, or make her own wishes known, and no man of sense would press his authority too often or arbitrarily, but at the end of the day, the husband is the one who holds the family policy.

Read the rest here

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.  

History and Compromise at ‘The Everyman’

My latest post at The Everyman is up, comparing our present world to Austria in the 1930s. It’s depressingly apt.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

A virulent ideological movement is spreading through a nation’s institutions. It presents itself as the wave of the future, elevating those who have been beaten down, and as a long-overdue correction of past injustices. It pretends to regard any attack on its mission as an attack on the people it claims to be advocating for and any check on its momentum as the cruelest of tyrannies. Those who oppose it are condemned as being motivated by hatred, base personal gain, or because they are beholden to entrenched interests. It is supported by student radicals who, encouraged by their professors, use protests and organized violence to silence dissent. It employs racially charged rhetoric, condemning one group in particular on account of their real or supposed past crimes. People suddenly find old friends and family members cutting ties, turning on them, or uttering shockingly brutal rhetoric. Riots and violent unrest become increasingly common as the supporters of the ideology seek to impose it upon their neighbors.

Meanwhile the Church (with a few exceptions), either mostly dithers or is complicit by focusing on the superficial points of common ground rather than the fundamentally anti-Christian nature of the ideology. Instead, the movement is chiefly opposed by an energetic, highly controversial political leader who couches his battle in terms of the nation’s historical ideals and identity.

Sound familiar?

As you probably guessed, I’m not referring to America in 2020. I’m referring to Austria in 1934. It has become gauche and tedious to make Nazi comparisons, and for good reason. The analogy has become so abused, misapplied, and overused that it now means practically nothing. And the worst of it is that we always seem to miss the real point of that sad episode of history, a point that really deserves to be brought into greater clarity.

One of the most fascinating accounts of the Nazi conquest of Germany and Austria is the memoir, My Struggle Against Hitler, by the great German philosopher Dietrich Von Hildebrand. In it he recounts his flight from Nazi Germany and his life of exile in Austria, where he used a journal called Der Christlich Standestaat (The Christian Corporate State), to wage an unending philosophical battle against the Nazis until Hitler’s Anschluss with Austria in 1938 forced him to flee once again.

What strikes me again and again in reading Von Hildebrand’s words is how willing so many people were to go along with the Nazis and how extensively and aggressively the Nazi ideology was pushed, compared to how hesitant and diffident most of the opposition was. Nazism really was the popular, dynamic, progressive ideology of the day. Those who opposed it were condemned as hating Germany and Germans, or at best considered quaintly backwards and Quixotic, since Nazism was obviously the way of the future.

The narrative then was “we have to find a way to work with Hitler” or “there are many points of similarity between Nazism and Christianity, such as value of the nation, of authority, and so on.” Or else “yes, but the Jews really are deplorable. They really do need to be taken down a peg.”

Again, this should all sound familiar (“many Communists have a truly Christian ethic” etc.), but again, to liken the American Left, or Red China, or any other evil ideological movement to the Nazis is not really the point here. For, as these examples themselves indicate, points of likeness can nearly always be found if you care to look for them. That in itself doesn’t mean much.

My point is that the rise of all these movements serves to illustrate the same lesson taught repeatedly in Scripture: that no man can serve two masters. Neither a person or a nation can hold to two contradictory ideologies. Nazism and Christianity, as are Christianity and Socialism, are essentially contradictory. This fact makes all compromise and all accommodation impossible. Worse, any such attempt to do so will mean actively damaging Christianity and Christian culture by obscuring its real character.

Read the rest here.

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

Catholic Match: What to do When You have a Difficult Personality

I get to quote The Lost World in this one:

This is not something that is going to go away, or that is a matter of simply building confidence in yourself (though more on that in a bit). Your personality will make your dating and married life harder for you than it would be for someone else. Such things are a part of life and it is better to face and acknowledge difficulties than to try to evade them. Be aware of your oddities, recognize how they affect your interactions with people, and as far as is possible or prudent, try to account for them.

This means acting according to what you know about yourself, not according to how ‘normal’ people act. That may mean abstaining from certain pleasures or avoiding certain situations. You don’t engage someone in conversation because you know how hard it will be not to call him an idiot. You don’t stay long at family gatherings because your temper shrinks as your boredom rises. It is no different from abstaining from alcohol because you struggle with temperance. What you cannot cure you must mitigate.

More specifically, when you come to form a relationship, find ways to compensate for your oddities so as to make them less irksome, or at least to give the other person sufficient reason to put up with it. If you must give the whole of your attention to your work most of the time, make sure that she gets it the rest of the time. If the ‘normal’ pattern of a relationship is not open to you, then you must work extra hard at the one you have. In short, you should go beyond what you think is necessary to convince her of how much you value her.

Read the rest here.