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.  

Sunday Thoughts: Failed Systems

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

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

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

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

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

Then there’s Vatican II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Keystone Truths: The Transcendent Manifests in the Concrete

One of the keystones for understanding the world, as I see it, is this: men desire the transcendent, but only experience the concrete.

I say we desire the transcendent. Freedom, love, justice, happiness, and so on. There are indeed people who seem to desire nothing but pleasure or material things, but in the first place these are the people who are, frankly, the least human, in the second, their general misery and the disgust with which they are held by the rest of the world shows that even they don’t really want these things in themselves. If all we wanted were safety, security, pleasure, and so on, then we would be happy and content once we got them. But we find (thanks to the experience of the past few generations) that the people who have these things in abundance are precisely the ones who are most likely to blow their own brains out.  

Yet we only experience the concrete. When we say we want ‘love,’ for instance, what do we mean? Well, we want a particular kind of relationship with another person, but what does that relationship look like on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis? It’s hugs and kisses and making breakfast and affectionate nicknames and jokes and touches and backrubs and so on and so forth. No one would say these things are love, but they are the way we experience it. A husband who cut them all out (and all other expressions) would have a hard time credibly convincing his wife, or anyone else, that he still loved her. Even if he did, he probably wouldn’t very long, nor she him.

The transcendent must be embodied in the concrete for us to experience it at all. We see this even in the fundamental experience of language, in which ideas are embodied in combinations of sounds or symbols. And on the other hand, when we try to examine pure thought or pure belief or pure emotion, absent anything concrete, we find only a mass of uncertainty, assumption, and question-begging. Our interior life, the farthest removed from the concrete of our experience, is also our most uncertain. That is where our self-deception, our confirmation biases, the fleeting influences of the moment are strongest.

In short, we do not encounter ‘pure spiritual experiences’ in this life. As St. James put it, “shew me thy faith without works; and I will shew thee, by works, my faith.” (James 2: 18).  

This, as I say, is a keystone concept: man desires the transcendent and only experiences the concrete, therefore the transcendent must be incarnated in the concrete for us to experience it. That is, in fact, the particularly human experience. Once get this straight, and many other things follow.

Obviously, the supreme example of this is God manifesting Himself to men in the person of Jesus, and Christ offering Grace to mankind through the Sacraments. But other things follow as well.

One I want to point out especially is this; authority is a transcendent concept. As I’ve pointed out, authority is the power to create moral obligation in those subject to us (and I’m still working this out, so bear with me here). Now, this is incarnated in the power to enforce one’s authority (“For he is God’s minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.” Romans 13:4). Authority is not dependent upon that power, but that power is how authority is normally manifested. This is due to the nature of our being; no one, not even God Himself, can compel a person to do good, we can only punish them for doing evil (which is a curious thing when you think about it; it is absolutely impossible for us to force someone to do good. We can inflict punishment on someone regardless of his will, but we cannot never ‘inflict’ goodness). Therefore, authority, which is directed to a certain good of the subject, manifests itself most clearly in chastisement.

It is, of course, right and indeed best if the commands of legitimate authority are obeyed regardless and chastisement never has to be inflicted. We ought to obey out of love and respect rather than fear. But if we will not obey, then the best thing the authority can do, what he is, in fact, obligated to do, is to establish his authority through chastisement. The father’s duty to his children requires that he punish them when they do wrong. The ruler’s duty to his subjects requires the same.

Nor is this contrary to mercy. Remember, mercy is a function of authority. Therefore, before anyone can show mercy, he must first establish his authority through chastisement (or at least the subject must be brought to understand that such chastisement is both possible and just). “Thou art great, O Lord, for ever, and thy kingdom is unto all ages: For thou scourgest, and thou savest: thou leadest down to hell, and bringest up again: and there is none that can escape thy hand”  (Tobit 13:1-2).

Violence, you see, is not contrary to mercy. In fact, it is often an essential part of what we could call the ‘merciful system.’ In order to show mercy, authority must be established, which often means chastisements must be inflicted and the rebellious subject made to acknowledge, however grudgingly, the authority of the one over him. Even if it gets no farther than “you acknowledge that I could grind you under my heel like a bug right now, correct?” that still creates sufficient authority to show mercy. It is only then that mercy becomes even possible.

Because as long as the other side refuses to acknowledge your authority, and as long as he thinks he doesn’t have to, then refusal to enforce it is not mercy but abdication: the refusal to act according to one’s responsibilities.

The historian Victor Davis Hansen put it very well (though I can’t now find where he said it) that “mercy means beating your enemy to the ground, putting your foot on his neck, and then saying ‘I am not going to destroy you this time.’” The code of chivalry was that vanquished enemies were to be spared: after the knights had done their best to kill one another, and one was finally beaten down to the point where he knows he will either ask for quarter or die, the victor was morally obligated to spare his enemy if he asked for it. Even if, as is the case most of the time, violent chastisement is not necessary, the very idea of mercy requires that it is a moral possibility.

You see what I mean by the idea of the transcendent manifesting in the concrete is a keystone idea? At once we see how things like war, the death penalty, soldiery, and so on are compatible with Christianity, even to the point of being necessary elements, at least in potential. “Blessed are the merciful,” requires that it be possible to show mercy, which means it must be permissible to establish authority.

This also pretty much defangs every clever deconstruction that we moderns employ to try to escape from inconvenient realities. To say something like “marriage is just a piece of paper,” for instance, is simply flat out wrong; it isn’t, but the ‘piece of paper’ (or at least the vows it records) is what the fact of getting married and bound to one another for life looks like in this world. You are not being clever when you point that out; I may as well say that your witty essay arguing the point is nothing but a lot of black marks on paper. Deconstructions, fixing your gaze on the material manifestation of something, is nothing but an irrelevant smokescreen.

Sunday Thoughts – Corpus Christi

I think one of the great problems of the contemporary world is that we undervalue the material aspect of things. I’m sure that sounds shocking, given how materialistic we are, but actually our materialism is only what is to be expected from the undervaluing of matter. Because as with lust to sex, the evil of materialism isn’t that it gives matter too high a place, it’s that it gives it the wrong place. It takes it out of context and so values the wrong aspects. It’s as though we are appraising a book without being able to read, and so we judge it on the typeface and the quality of the pages.

Our materialism is founded in a denial that matter has any intrinsic meaning; the reductionist view that, “the material does not convey Grace, or beauty, or importance; it only helps to elevate our minds to them because we have imputed meaning to these things.” The throne is just a chair and the king is just a man who happens who is imputed to have authority because he is supposedly the best qualified. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A flag is just a piece of cloth. The sacraments are only symbolic expressions of faith.

And matter, consequently, has its importance defined as “does it keep us safe and comfortable?” It is no longer a vehicle of spiritual elevation and communion with God, but only of pure pragmatism. Call it a soft Manichaeism.

The problem is that we only experience the world materially, just as we only read through letters. If you deny that the letters have any meaning and try to sever the letters of the poem from the words, then you soon only have a jumble of symbols on a page. And if all you have is a jumble of symbols, then you can do with them whatever you like. The actual purpose of the letters – the words – has been obscured, and so the letters at once seem to be the only relevant factor and to impose no obligations on us. We don’t have to form actual words or coherent successions of sound, just an arrangement that pleases us. The disconnection of the meaning from the letters leaves the letters both the only concrete thing and without any actual value of their own.

JLJHIK HTH T MIM JLJLHIK

Christianity, in contrast, teaches that matter is not only good, but meaningful. Physical actions create and correspond to spiritual realities, from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil to painting doorposts with the blood of a lamb. Most importantly, God Himself became Man. A real flesh-and-blood man, born of a woman, with all that implies. His physical actions with that body created a new spiritual state of affairs for the mankind which He is now a part of.

Not only that, but this same body of His is the means by which He works His salvation upon us (and this is where things get really interesting). He tells us ” Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you.” (John 6:54). Now, what happens when we eat something? It is broken down and the relevant nutrients become part of our bodies. So, when we eat the flesh of God, God becomes a part of us. That is, we become part of Christ’s body when we eat His flesh. As such, we participate in His resurrection and glorification, as we are now physically related to Him. It’s sort of like how we are physically related to our family members (at least in the sense of there being a real material link), but conveyed in a different manner.

The feast of Corpus Christi reminds us of this relation. More fundamentally, it ought to remind us that material things are not to be treated as if they were just material. Because there is a Body of Christ, let no one hold the body as such in contempt.

Friday Flotsam – Holy Irresponsibility

— I am determined not to comment on the news. I despise mobs, mass movements, and those who enable them, and my great desire is to be able to move to a nice little corner of the country where there aren’t enough people to form moving blobs of collective stupidity and then shut out as much of the insanity as I can.

— This has been a pretty unproductive week for me. I find myself ‘drifting’ quite often. This is where I’m trying to focus on one thing (such as a story or essay), but I somehow get reminded of something quite different and my mind chases after it like a dog after a squirrel. Usually I don’t notice what’s happening until a little later, by which point I have usually lost my train of thought on the original subject. I actually think it’s related to my anxiety issues; my mind’s kind of trained itself to think that if I don’t follow up on some point, I’ll miss something important. Of course, what actually happens is that I don’t get things done, which only makes me more anxious. Feeding the beast again.

The trick, as I see it, is to cultivate a degree of irresponsibility; allowing oneself to say “yeah, I might miss something important, but I can live with that” or “some people might not like this bit of the story; it might not be perfect, or it might offend someone, but oh well; such is life.”

This is, of course, a matter of letting go and trusting God. Trusting God doesn’t mean that we tell ourselves things will work it; it means trusting that He will bring us through it and accept us despite our mistakes and failures, and, consequently, that our failures aren’t really as important as we make them out to be. And if they’re not that important, then of course we shouldn’t worry overmuch about risking them. It’s rather like having a cheat code or a save state in a video game.

Faith allows us this holy irresponsibility. Perfectionism and with it a degree of Phariseeism is, it seems to me, built into a materialistic worldview. For those who must have material success, social acceptance, and generally the good things of this world there is an urgent need to do things right; to be the right kind of person doing the right kind of job and saying the right kind of things. This, it seems to me, is why so many people today are downright terrified of social opprobrium.

For (to depart from my determination for a moment) that is what I see in virtue signaling; in all those corporate behemoths and public figures crying their support of angry mobs, in the politicians who cower and grovel before the barbarians celebrating within their gates, trying vainly to pretend they don’t see what is happening (headline from the BBC: “27 police injured during largely peaceful protests.” In a sane world, that would be a joke). I see fear. Not fear of the mobs, fear of being thought the wrong kind of person. All I see in this and other such things is people on their knees begging and crying and willing to accept any kind of self-abasement not to be cast out, not to be hated, not to be considered “one of those people”.

Well, if you don’t trust in God, anxious perfectionism seems the only option. It’s hard enough to avoid with faith; we shouldn’t be surprised to see it without it. Holy irresponsibility; to be willing and able to shrug at the possibility that you might be doing wrong or that you might be imperfect, is one of the great gifts of Christianity.

Thoughts on ‘King Kong’

Chatting a little while ago with a friend (whose site you should definitely check out and whose work you should buy), we touched on the subject of the original King Kong and its relation to later versions of the story. It got me thinking about the film, and different aspects about it, and so I thought I’d give a rundown of my thoughts on it.

This is one of those films that everyone knows about, and knows the basic story to, even if they haven’t seen it, and Kong is arguably one of the great original creations of cinema. It occurs to me as I write this that it’s actually rather rare to have a genuinely classic story come out of the movies themselves; usually the truly great, pervasive works have their origins in some earlier work outside the movie screen. Even It’s a Wonderful Life started out as a short story, and Casablanca began life as an unproduced play. I’m certainly not going to say that Kong is the only such story, but it’s certainly one of the foremost examples (Star Wars would be another).

The story starts with Carl Denham, a motion picture director (heavily based on writer-producer-director Merian C. Cooper himself) who “makes motion pictures in jungles and places.” He has a unique idea for a new film and is under intense pressure to get started, as he is in a somewhat dicey legal position regarding the explosives he’s bringing. Trouble is, his agent can’t (or won’t) find him a leading lady, so he goes out to find one himself (“even if I have to marry one!”) and happens to run across Ann Darrow, a hungry, out of work actress as she considers stealing an apple. Struck by her looks and feeling for her plight, he offers her the job.

On the long voyage out (Denham doesn’t say where they’re going until well toward the end), Jack Driscall, the tough first mate finds himself reluctantly falling in love with Ann, who meanwhile easily befriends the rest of the crew. When they arrive on the island (“way west of Sumatra”), they find the natives in the midst of a ceremony to sacrifice a girl to ‘Kong.’ The visitors’ presence spoils the ceremony, but the chief spies Ann and decides she must be the new sacrifice (“Blondes are scarce around here”). The native sneak aboard the ship that night, kidnap her, and offer her to Kong, who carries her off into the jungle. Denham, Driscall, and a good part of the crew pursue him, encountering various dinosaurs and other dangers. Kong defends Ann from the other monsters and appears to be, in his own way, falling in love with her.

Driscall and Denham are soon the only survivors of the rescue operation and are separated. Driscall rescues Ann from Kong’s lair, while Denham regroups with the others. Kong pursues them to the village, breaks through the wall protecting it, and goes on a rampage until Denham stops him with a gas bomb. They take him back to New York and put him on display, but he’s enraged by the photographers’ flashbulbs and breaks free, pursuing Ann across the city and finally carrying her to the top of the Empire State Building, where he is killed in combat with airplanes.

I have no idea how many times I’ve seen this film, but rewatching it for this review I was struck anew by how good it really is. Sure, there are a lot of things you could pick apart, such as Kong’s deliberately inconsistent size, the question of just how they got him back to New York, and Denham’s laughably understaffed film (which consists of himself as director and cameraman and a single leading lady). The old-fashioned acting is another aspect that some might have trouble with (this was made only a few years into the sound era and the acting style hadn’t quite adjusted yet. Fay Wray in particular never stops moving whenever she’s on camera), though if you’re going to watch old films at all you have to take them in their own style.

But the interesting thing about those plot holes is that they all exist for a definite purpose; they aren’t things that the filmmakers forgot about or didn’t care enough to bother with, they are clearly conscious choices meant to streamline the story. Denham having a more realistically sized crew would have added a lot of extraneous characters (as it did in the Peter Jackson remake). Showing how they got Kong to New York would have stopped the story just as it was reaching its climax, assuming it could have been accounted for at all. And Kong’s size, of course, is just a matter of making him as impactful as possible in each scene. The filmmakers slur over these bits in order to have the story they want, but these don’t detract from the story the way that say a major internal inconsistency would be.

Call it special pleading if you like, but I think there is a difference. Partly because what the film does leave in all pretty much works and works well. Denham’s reason for needing a girl, and why he can’t just stay in New York until he finds one, Ann’s motivations for accepting a dangerous and unclear job from Denham (it’s the Depression and she needs work, not to mention he’s already shown her kindness by sticking up for her before he even saw her face), her interactions with Driscall and the crew, even things like Denham’s reason for bringing her along on their first landing on the island (he wants to be sure to have her on hand in case he can get some filming done). There’s a reason for everything the characters do, and a reason that makes sense and fits with the characters they’ve established. Crazy as the film gets, the plot works and the characters behave like human beings.

That’s really something that needs to be drawn attention to. This is a simple, straightforward adventure fantasy, yet the characters are all quite well drawn. With one exception they’re not super well developed, but they’re clearly people, with all that implies. Driscall’s character’s established right away with his sharp questioning of Denham’s theater agent, and his first interaction with Ann involves him accidentally hitting her on the chin (they laugh about it a moment later, establishing an emotional connection in spite of his gruffness). He’s a tough sailor who doesn’t like having a woman onboard, claiming they’re “a nuisance”. By the middle of the first act, it’s clear that Ann’s a nuisance to him because he’s falling for her (his way of talking to Ann without looking at her says as much as pages of dialogue might have).

Ann herself is a sweet, unaffected girl who seems to enjoy teasing Driscall and gets along well with the whole crew, chatting easily with anyone from the captain to the Chinese cook. I like how she starts off somewhat shy and uneasy (shown by her being bundled up in a jacket while they’re leaving port), but is visibly more relaxed once the journey reaches its end, signaling to the audience how much time has passed, as well as letting us see how the trip is doing her good. Their romance is very lightly sketched, but charming; like a kitten with a big guard dog (another great little detail is how he’s visibly uncomfortable in his tuxedo in the final act).  

Captain Englehorn’s a rather interesting departure from what one might expect, being a dapper elderly gentleman (Ann calls him a “sweet old lamb,” much to Jack’s amusement), but also a thoroughly in-control and experienced captain who knows how to approach native peoples and speaks their languages. That’s the kind of character you really don’t see much these days, but was quite common back then: what might be called the blue-collar gentleman, a sailor or soldier who looks and acts more like he’d be at home in an office or school, but who nevertheless knows his job and can command his men with ease.

 I also really like Charlie the cook, who is amusingly dour (“someday me go back China; never see no more potatoes”), but good-natured and plays a vital role in discovering that Ann’s been kidnapped (how simple is that: he finds native beads on the deck, a very little bit of thought tells him what this must mean and so he takes immediate action by arousing the ship, just like a sailor ought to do in this situation). I’m sure some people would call him a racist caricature because he speaks the way a recent Chinese immigrant working on a merchant ship in the 1930s might be expected to speak, but he’s a very likable character, able to banter with the rest of the crew and being eager to join in the rescue operation (he’s also one of the few characters who returned for the sequel, Son of Kong, which is a whole other story, but at least shows that the writers liked him as much as I do).

Denham’s the standout among the human cast. He’s an enthusiastic high-concept filmmaker who makes movies in remote corners of the world at great personal risk, who takes big chances for big gains, and who has a tendency to shoot off without considering how his actions will affect others (as shown in his first conversation with Ann where he starts talking about how she’s in for “money and adventure and fame…and a long sea voyage that starts tomorrow!” before he’s even told her his name or what kind of job he’s offering her). But the thing is, he’s reckless, slightly myopic, and a little crazy, but he’s not a bad man at all. He places people in dangerous situations without telling them all he knows, but he puts himself on the line to keep them safe and he’s honest as far as he goes; he’ll hold back information, but he won’t lie. After Ann’s kidnapped, he drops all talk of the movie until she’s safe and only then hits on the idea of catching Kong alive. He’s also well-portrayed enough that we can see money isn’t really his object; it’s the achievement that interests him, which is why we don’t doubt him when he promises to share the profits with the whole crew. There’s a good moment toward the end when they’re talking to the reporters. Denham starts by directing their attention to Driscall, who gives credit to Denham, who gives all the credit to Ann. Note the basic, easy decency involved; each character tries to draw attention what the others have done rather than trying to elevate themselves. Again, it fits with what we know of them and reminds us that, for all Denham is making a terrible mistake, he’s still a decent man. Note that he also tries to warn off the photographers when he realizes that Kong’s becoming enraged by their flashbulbs (and I like that he realizes why Kong’s so angry: “he thinks you’re attacking the girl!”).

Most people come away from the film rooting for Kong and hating Denham, but it’s not so simple as that. Denham’s not the villain by any stretch, he’s a basically good man with big ideas who let his ambition outstrip his common sense and created a tragic situation.

I also want to say a word about the natives. They’re what such characters usually were in those days of cinema; which is to say, they’re Black people in grass skirts and coconut bras, who are primitive and superstitious, able to be scared off by gunfire. At first glance, many would probably prefer the terrifying, Uruk-Hai-like natives of the Peter Jackson version, or the unsmiling utopian natives of Kong: Skull Island.

Me, I don’t like the natives in either of those films because I think they’re too simplistic and one-note. The ones in this film might be unlike any real native peoples, but they are people. They can be reasoned with, they have clear motivations, and they react to the things going on around them in an understandable way. There are little human details, like how when the chief marches down the steps to confront the visitors, a small child doesn’t get that he’s supposed to move until his parents yank him out of the chief’s way, or the behavior of the girl who was to be the original sacrifice; she isn’t struggling like Ann does, but she certainly doesn’t look happy and she kind of flinches whenever someone touches her. Contrast this with the Jackson film, where they natives are just movie monsters, or Skull Island, where they’re just colonial penance figures (oddly, the only other ‘Kong’ film I’ve seen that achieves something like this is King Kong vs. Godzilla, where the natives have a similar blend of primitive simplicity and frank humanity: “The chief says you can stay, but he will not be responsible if the monster comes down from the mountains and eats you up”).

Of course, the big story here is Kong himself, and my goodness; what an achievement he is! In reality an eighteen-inch, articular model covered in latex and rabbit fur, the genius of Willis O’Brien brings him to startling life, one frame at a time. This is less due to the seamlessness of the stop-motion (it isn’t seamless) than to the personality and expression captured in the character. Kong not only moves but acts. He conveys genuine emotions in his face and actions, showing everything from savage rage to innocent curiosity and playfulness to sadness and confusion (his final moments on the Empire State Building are heartbreaking). This emotive power and personality is a large reason why he remains essentially sympathetic, despite some of the frankly shocking things he does.

Which brings us to the effects in this film, which are truly amazing, not only in their skill, but their scope. Once the characters arrive on the island, the effects are deployed almost non-stop with a prodigality that rivals modern CG extravaganzas. There are scenes that are jaw dropping in their complexity, such as Kong’s lair, which features matte-paintings, two stop-motion characters, separate inserts for two live-action actors, super-imposed smoke, and more, all moving at the same time, and all presented so seamlessly that most viewers won’t even recognize the scene for the masterpiece it is. Or just look at the scene when they’re landing on the island, in a wide beach shot with the wall in the distance and animated birds flying by; quick, almost incidental, until you realize it required two or three different kinds of special effects to pull it off.

Also keep in mind that it took about fifteen hours of work to get a single minute of screen time from Kong, and they essentially had only one take per scene. That this film is so free with its effects, and that they are so intricate, and yet so effective, is nothing short of amazing, especially when you remember that this was made only a few years into the sound era. Every special effects driven film made since has been following in its footsteps, and in a way none of them have topped it since.

But technical skill only takes you so far. It’s the artistry, even more than the talent that makes this film. Simply put, it’s gorgeous and absolutely dripping with atmosphere and imagination. Consider the main setting; an isolated, uncharted island shrouded in fog. An island where the people live on a narrow strip of beach protected by a giant wall so ancient that the natives have “slipped back; forgotten the higher civilization that built it.” On the other side of the island is a mist-shrouded, primeval jungle full of dinosaurs, under the shadow of a mountain shaped like a skull. Once the expedition arrives at the island, practically every frame looks as though it could have been the cover of an adventure novel or a fantasy magazine. The film is truly a visual feast.

Most importantly, it’s quite simply a strikingly good story; one of those rare ones that feels like it could have come from mythology, except that its subject and ideas are so thoroughly steeped in the modern era. The whole thing is centered on the clash of nature and civilization, and it could only have come from a time when man had achieved sufficient and seemingly growing dominance over the natural world. Take the most spectacular creation of nature (a giant gorilla), shown to be able to master any other beast from a T-Rex on down and pit it against modern civilization, the world of movies, airplanes, and New York City.  At the same time, there’s the idea that beauty is the thing that masters both man and beast; all the strength and power of either side is directed for the sake of a woman.

These are universal ideas, appealing to the very nature of man and woman, and of man and nature, and they’re realized with skill and a surprising degree of nuance. Unlike the remake, the film doesn’t really take sides in the conflict; we sympathize with Kong and feel for his plight and even like him as a character, but he’s also a horrifying monster who brutally kills any number of innocent people. Right there is the ambiguity of nature captured with the subtlety and accuracy of those who actually knows her. Cooper, along his co-writer/director Earnest B. Schoedstack had travelled all around the world and had lived in worked in wild places, filming live tigers and elephants in the jungle. Nature was not merely a political cause to them, to be advocated for from the comfort of a news studio as it is for most modern filmmakers; they knew her intimately and had no illusions about her.

Thus they portray the conflict between nature and civilization with a fairness so rarely to be found today that some might not even recognize it. New York is established to be a dangerous and unpleasant place in its own right, as illustrated by Denham’s comments about there probably plenty of girls in more danger then they’d ever see in the jungle, the view of the women lining up for a boarding house, and Ann herself being nearly reduced to theft. The crowds flowing in to seen Kong are likewise portrayed with an amusingly cynical touch (“Gorillas? Ain’t we got enough of them in New York?”), and of course it’s the reporters, acting against Denham’s warnings, that cause Kong to go berserk and break free.

But then, Skull Island is a pure nightmare; no fit place for human habitation. Even the savage natives who have “slipped back” from their own civilization can only survive by huddling behind a massive wall, one that they couldn’t have built and can only maintain. That is to say, even the natives are dependent upon such scraps of civilization as they have to keep nature at bay. There is no sentimental idea of ‘living in harmony with nature’ here. Kong may be capable of benevolence, and he’s a magnificent and even likable creature, but he is still a monster who could never possibly co-exist with people. Appealing as his pseudo-romance with Ann is, he’s incapable of considering her wishes or needs or comfort, and while his love for her makes him sympathetic, it can’t make him human. Once Kong has encountered civilization, his very nature means that sooner or later he will have to be destroyed.

That is precisely the tragedy. Kong’s fate isn’t the result of one or two bad actors, which might have been avoided had they been removed; it’s how things must play out due to his nature and that of civilized man (even if Denham had left him on the island after knocking him out, it would have been only a matter of time before someone else came along). If we’re to ask what would have been best, it would have been best if Kong had never been discovered. But then, we can only know that after he’s already been found. We see and admire the majesty and wonder of Kong, but only for a moment as our very meeting with him heralds his doom. Civilization, in its very admiration of nature, cannot help but destroy the thing it admires (note also the arrogance of Denham’s assumption that they can ‘teach him fear’ and so control Kong).

In the end, though, tragic as it is, there’s not really an alternative, because of the key figure of Ann. She’s both the most thoroughly civilized of the main cast (being a New York actress in a crew of sailors and explorers) and Kong’s first and chief link with civilization. The conflict with Kong is precipitated by the fact that he wants her, and obviously no one’s about to let him keep her if they can stop it.

So, what draws Kong into the conflict is his desire for beauty, and for that particular kind of beauty that only civilization produces. And of course, as a woman, Ann also conveys ideas of domesticity, home, stability, future generations, and so on: the things civilization is meant to guard and provide for.

While modern audiences may find it irritating, it was thematically necessary for Ann to be an extremely feminine, gentle type, in contrast with the strong masculinity of Driscall, the sailors, Denham, and of course, Kong himself. The former direct their strength and skill to her safety and comfort, while the later protects, but also grasps at her. She is ultimately the thing everyone wants and what they’re fighting over, and if we could sum up the point of the film in one sentence, it would be that men are strong and build civilizations all for the sake of keeping women safe from the wild dangers of the natural world.  

But of course, that same beauty is also the great weakness of pure masculine strength, precisely because it commands and directs it. However strong a man or a monster may be, his desire determines how he will use that strength. Thus is the great and startling balance of the world; lover and beloved, man and woman. The lover, the active principle, is in a sense dominant as he initializes the action, but the beloved, the receptive principle, is what draws that strength and so could equally be said to be dominant because she commands his power to the extent that he loves and desires her. The very act of desiring something means that the things desired rules over you to the extent that you desire it. This motive power of loving and being loved was how the Medievals understood God to move the universe, Himself unmoved. Hence, “it was beauty killed the beast.”  

There is a narrative going around that films of the past were simplistic affairs, black-and-white in more ways than one, and that modern stories have a more sophisticated, nuanced view of the world. I find myself that it’s often (not always of course) the opposite: modern stories tend to have a sheen of cynicism or complexity that makes them appear nuanced, but on closer inspection turn out to be rather crudely simplistic bluntly pushing a few ill-considered ideas and claiming sophistication on the grounds of they’re not being what you’d expect to find in an earlier film. There’s no ambiguity at all in, say, Avatar: natives are good, humans are bad, live in harmony with nature. Meanwhile John Ford was showing the ugliness and ambiguity of conflicts with American Indians back in the 1950s (see Fort Apache or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or The Searchers, all of which, incidentally, were produced by Merian C. Cooper).

The 2005 remake of Kong is another good example (I don’t hate that film, by the way, but it is a massively inferior work), where the whole point basically amounted to feeling bad for Kong and disgusted with civilization. There’s a surface level verisimilitude in the dialogue and characters, but there’s none of the mythic grandeur or sophisticated storytelling or richness of the original. The characters themselves make far less sense (I don’t believe that Denham ever had the clout to film in wild, dangerous places or to have men follow him) and there is no ambiguity to it. The film practically hits us over the head with what we’re supposed to think about the whole thing.

As I’ve tried to show above, the original Kong, for all its gleeful silliness, is a very mature piece of work. It presents its story fairly without giving any easy or comforting answers to how we ought to feel about what happens, touching upon rich, deep themes in the process; ideas that, one way or another, have been with mankind from the beginning. And it’s just plain a really good story told in a very entertaining manner, not to mention being a technical masterpiece.  

There is a reason why the film sticks with you afterwards, and why it’s become such a classic.

I’m going to introduce a new feature with this review, what I call ‘canon status.’ A film or book or game receives this when I think it is not only a great work in itself, but also deservedly part of our culture’s storytelling lexicon. Canon status means that the work ought to be seen and understood and passed on to the next generation as a worthy contribution to the stream of human culture.

King Kong is undoubtedly a Canon film.  

Catholic Match – What Do I Have to Offer

My latest piece at Catholic Match went up today:

One of the ideas that comes up in job hunting is “distinct value add.” Basically, what do you bring to this company that no one else does?

The problem for many of us, of course, is that in most cases a truthful answer would be something along the lines of, “probably not much; anyone applying for this job has much the same skills I do, and unless you have a pulp fiction or Catholic theology division that I don’t know about, my unique skills probably aren’t going to be very relevant.”

Cynical sarcasm aside, I think this is a bit of a stumbling block for most of us in online dating as well, probably even more so; the question of “what, exactly, do I have to offer this person?”

Dating, obviously, is a different matter from job applications. But the trouble is, many of us end up approaching it with a similar mindset. We pull up someone’s profile, and she’s beautiful and has a lovely description of all the cool things she’s into, and pictures of herself doing amazing things, and then we look at the mirror and wonder why someone like that would be interested in someone like us.

We know our flaws, we know our failures, we know how, well, uninteresting we are. So, what do we have to offer? What is our “distinct value add” to this person’s life? And all too often, if we don’t have a good answer, we let the opportunity pass by.

There are a few things to be said about this.

Find out those few things are by reading the whole thing.