The World We Live In

It is, I find, fatally easy to forget what kind of world we live in, especially today. We’ve got all our gadgets, our (relatively) ordered society, and all the rest of it, so that it becomes only natural to fall into a kind of trance assuming that everything just kind of works and that’s all there is to it. We think of things like Religion as mere classifications of people: this group believes this, that group believes that. And we only rarely go any further. In any case, the main point is how those beliefs practically affect themselves and the world around them: not the truth or falsehood of those claims.

It’s hard to describe, because I myself can only catch glimpses of another perspective. Habits of thought are extremely difficult to fight, and we all default to much the same assumptions: modernism (we assume ourselves at a higher level than the past), materialism (again, we assume the practical, material effects of any given idea or practice are the main point), and liberalism (we are suspicious of any kind of human authority). This applies whether you call yourself Conservative or Liberal, and it is a rare person indeed who is legitimately emancipated from it (again, speaking as someone who can only step out of it with conscious effort).

But the truth is this: we live in a world where God took flesh and lived among us as a Man: a Man in history, living a certain amount of years before us, in a place we know, at a fairly well-documented time of history. Consider, as you go about your day, that this world of ours, now filled with cars and computers and concrete, is the very same one in which Christ lived and walked and taught. We live in a world where Miracles have indeed taken place (and, I see no reason to doubt, continue to do so).

Jesus is not a ‘lifestyle choice.’ He is not simply one choice among many, nor is His Church merely one among many. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; He is the Lord, and there is no other.

We live, in short, in the time of fulfillment. Our age is the one in which God has revealed Himself to Man, and our only options are either to accept Him or reject Him. We do not live in the time of questions or doubts or plurality of religion, when man is searching for God. We live in a time when God has come to man and established His Church upon Earth.

It’s hard to convey the full impact of this. Basically, the supernatural is at work openly in our world; it is baked into its very structure. It is no more of a question – actually considerably less of one – than that gravity is at work. We live in a world of miracles, fulfilled prophecies (and prophecies still to be fulfilled), and authorities, amid unseen supernatural beings. If you believe in Christ, I don’t see how you can disbelieve in this or consider the ‘supernatural elements’ of Religion somehow less important than the material ones.

In any case, it is healthy to try to recall, when we pray, that we are speaking to a real Person who hears us, and at any time to consider the fact that this is the world in which God lived among us as a Man.

It is a sobering thought.

Gunga Din at ‘The Everyman’

A new ‘Everyman’ post went up yesterday, talking about Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din and what it reveals about both his perspective and ours:

Now, you cannot think sense about morality unless you get this idea of principles clear, and you cannot get it clear until you can identify what is and is not an equivalent case.

The respective views of Mr. Kipling and a modern college student on the subject of the Indian peoples, for instance, is not an equivalent case, for they were raised in completely different intellectual climates. Kipling’s point of view was never seriously presented to the college student as something he ought to believe; if it was presented at all, it was as a historical relic that has been supplanted. The reason the modern college student doesn’t think as Kipling did is not because he is that much more enlightened than Kipling, but because it was never a serious option for him to do so. He may as well be proud of the fact that he never owned a slave or mistreated a horse. Likewise, Kipling never seriously encountered a perspective that we would recognize as Progressive, and certainly wasn’t raised to one (though he was likely to be much the more independent thinker of the two, but we’ll discount that for now).

I am not here saying that Kipling’s Imperialism and the modern’s Progressivism are morally equivalent; that’s as may be. I am saying that they are socially equivalent. What we would call racist sentiments was as common in Kipling’s day as progressive sentiment is in ours. In both cases they are more or less the accepted, cultured view among the educated classes. And both have their ‘Other:’ the people who, in the common view, are ‘lesser than us.’ For the Imperialist it was the native population; for the Progressive, it is (among others) the Imperialist.

And herein lies the equivalent case; not how each regards Indian people, but how each regards their particular ‘Other.’ Stripped of their respective idioms, this is what is being said on each side:

The modern says, “This man is of this type and therefore he is of no account.”

Kipling says, “This man is of this type, but nevertheless is of more account than I.”

Read the rest here.

Sunday Thoughts

In addition to being one of the great philosophical minds of human history, St. Thomas Aquinas was also a mystic who experienced visions and ecstasies while in prayer. Near the end of his life, while still working on his magnum opus, the Summa Theologica, he was granted a vision of Christ. When he came out of it, he vowed never to write another word, as he said that compared with the reality he had seen, “all my writing is as straw.”

This is something we would do well to keep in mind; there is an unbridgeable gap between what a thing is and what can be said about it. Whether we’re talking philosophical or scientific or written descriptions, they always and necessarily can only convey an approximation of the thing. The most obvious instance of this is that no description of a beautiful object could ever convey its beauty to someone who did not already have an idea of beauty. But in the same way, even the most complete, perfect scientific description of a thing; a picture that takes in every natural law and accounts for every factual observation (assuming such a thing is possible) could contain the complete nature of even a single stone.

Words can suggest something of what what a thing is, but only to an extent, and like the dinosaur DNA in Jurassic Park, it has to be completed by what we ourselves bring to it. In the end, real things cannot be formularized; they can only be encountered.

“All the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly.”

Thoughts on ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’

The story behind the Sonic the Hedgehog movie is, in its way, more interesting than the story of the film itself. About a year ago the first trailer dropped, revealing the film’s design for the title character. It should be noted that Sonic is one of the top-draw characters of video-game history. His games are not what they were, but he was one of the big names of the medium’s early heyday, a rival to Mario himself. Everyone of that generation, even though who haven’t played the games, knows Sonic: if Mario is gaming’s Superman, Sonic is its Spider-Man.

So, the trailer dropped, and this was the design they had:

He looks like someone stuffed an emaciated child into a furry onesie and then CGed a piece of bad fan art over his face. It’s as if they weren’t working off of the games so much as off of a cheap live show version of the character.

The backlash was, unsurprisingly, intense. Even the original designer of Sonic said he thought it looked awful.  It was to the point that only a few days later the director, Jeff Fowler, took to Twitter to announce that they were going to re-do the entire design from the ground up, pushing the film back from its original November release date to do all the effects over again.

This was the result:

Ben Schwartz in Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

Not only is he now about a thousand times cuter and more charming, but it’s also much, much closer to the Sonic that people know and love. You look at the original and you see a strange variation on Sonic. You look at this guy, and you just see Sonic.

But with that taken care of, what about the film itself?

Having just seen it, I can say that I liked it quite a bit. It’s very light, has some extremely glaring gaps in logic, and Sonic’s powers are about as consistent as the average politician’s moral convictions, but it was a very sweet, wholesome kind of film just bursting with goodwill.

One thing that stood out was that the filmmakers very clearly cared about this character. The film is littered with nods and references to the games, from the sound effects to some of Sonic’s mannerisms. The prologue even has him being attack by red echidnas, promising an appearance by Knuckles in a future film (my favorite, being a Nintendo fan, is when Sonic comments on how much he hates mushrooms). More to the point, the filmmakers actually seem to have taken the time to think out what Sonic’s personality is. His essential kindness is established right off the bat, where he saves a turtle crossing the road then, thinking how sad it must be to always have to go slow, takes it on a wild ride to show how exhilarating speed can be. That right there is perfect Sonic; he’s an adrenaline junkie who just loves to go fast, and who, for all his cockiness, genuinely cares about others.

One moment that stood out to me was an early  scene where the extent of his loneliness comes in on him and he expresses his frustration by running as fast as he can. That, it seems to me, is how Sonic would burn off anger; pushing himself to go faster and faster. The bit  leading up to it is very nicely done, playing off of the early gags of Sonic using his speed to pretend he has friends, but suddenly finding that actual human contact – the one thing he really wants – something he can’t give himself, no matter how fast he can run. I also like that the film maintains Sonic’s habit of talking to himself through much of its run time, keeping us aware of his isolation.

Sonic’s presented here as kind of a hyperactive kid; not quite the ‘hedgehog with attitude’ that we know from other sources, but clearly poised to grow into it, and I think it’s certainly an acceptable variation on the character, from what I know of him.

As for the villain, Jim Carey is still not my first choice for Robotnik (I would have gone with Nick Offerman), but again, the film hits his character pretty well and makes him a suitable counterpart to Sonic. Where Sonic is free-spirited and longs to connect with people, Robotnik despises people and prefers his machines, which do as they are told and are never unpredictable or illogical. This fits nicely with the franchise’s motif of live, active animals pitted against cold, crushing technology. Carey is clearly having a blast in the role, hearkening back to his heyday in the 90s (coincidentally, also the time of Sonic’s peak popularity, as I recall), and to be honest, his eccentric, over-the-top arrogance does fit with Robotnik, as I understand him(his boasting and arrogance gives the film plenty of chances to flesh out his character without coming to screeching halt). He’s not nearly fat enough (though the ‘Eggman’ moniker is used in the film, and in a way that makes sense), but he grows into the role, so that like Sonic, by the end of the film he is recognizably the Eggman from the games. And to be honest, seeing these two face off on the big screen after so many years actually did feel like a big deal. The climactic showdown captured the particular tone of their rivalry very well.

The film is structured as an origin story of sorts, showing Sonic growing from basically a runaway living in isolation to the hero we know from the games and other adaptations. He learns his spin-dash, discovers chili dogs, gets his red shoes, and, significantly, learns that he can use his powers for more than just running away. Again, this all feels very appropriate for Sonic. Is it the best possible story they could have told with him? Probably not, but it’s a story that works with his character. The climactic line (heard in the trailers, so it’s not a spoiler) “This is my power, and I am using it to protect my friends,” is a pretty good summation of who Sonic is.

Sonic teams up with James Marsden as a small-town cop who feels unfulfilled with his safe, comfortable small-town life and has tentative ambitions of being a San Francisco cop. He also talks to donuts (“…and eats them if they get out of line”), which I thought was a fun twist on an old cliche. He’s happily married to a very supportive and affectionate wife, and it’s refreshingly charming to see such a patently successful marriage in a family film and not to have any trite ‘relationship crisis’ moments (the only obstacle is her sister, who inexplicably hates him, but whom no one pays attention to. She’s a comedic element that your mileage will probably vary on, but she doesn’t have a lot of screen time). Moreover, their easy-going, familiar relationship, along with the equally easy-going small-town life we see in Green Hills, gives context both to Sonic’s loneliness and Robotnik’s misanthropy. It was vital for this film to have happy connections among its supporting cast to emphasize the plight of its hero. And really, it just warms my heart to have a major Hollywood film championing small town, rural life and happy, mutually supportive marriages over cities, technology, and shrieking misandric single women.

I was impressed by the action scenes, which make full use of Sonic’s speed for some high-adrenaline chases and rapid-fire battles. The climactic chase in particular, with Sonic racing from location to location, dodging Robotnik’s attacks, is exactly the kind of thing you want to see in a movie like this (and for once leaping to famous landmarks actually makes sense, given how the rings work).

I do have to dock points for how inconsistent Sonic’s powers are; his speed basically lets him do anything the script needs at the moment, but not anything it doesn’t need. At one point during a bar fight he runs around the room causing chaos while everyone else is standing completely still. Earlier on, he got shot with a tranq dart because he was caught off guard. Another time he runs from Montana to the Pacific Ocean and back in about ten seconds. When he needs to get to the top of a tall building, why can’t he just run up the side? The climax manages to pull a convenience to allow Robotnik to keep up with him, but it’s still a bit much. Likewise it’s unclear why Sonic gets his heroic second wind in the finale; was it really just the power of friendship (it is magic, after all)? Logic is not this film’s strong suit, so take that for what it’s worth.

Likewise there are a number of plot threads that just kind of fall off at the end. It’s not hard to make surmises about them, but a few throwaway lines or scenes might have helped; like while Robotnik is fighting Sonic, why not have a quick bit of the government trying to reign him in and being ignored to explain why they were so willing to drop the whole thing at the end? Little things like that would have made the film stronger.

As it is, though, I think ‘light, wholesome fun’ sums it up. All I asked of this film was that it be enjoyable and not be morally offensive. That’s a low bar, but so few movies manage to clear it these days. This one soared over it with flying colors (the worst content, as I recall, are a fart joke and a single cut-off swear word). Not great, but worth the time.

The film, and the story behind it, also gives the lie to the idea that fans are impossible to please. When the redesign came out, fans absolutely fell in love with it and the film went from a sure-fire flop to an expected hit. For the most part, I think, fans want to love things associate with the characters and stories they love. Give them just a little understanding, a little good-will, show that you care about the thing they care about, and they will appreciate it. After seeing the writers of Star Wars and the DCEU seemingly going out of their way to belittle and ‘improve on’ the very thing they are supposed to be honoring, basic care and respect come to seem precious.

Between this and Detective Pikachu, I can only hope we are the dawn of a new era for video-game movies, which have had a notoriously bad track record for a long time. But these two films show that they can work, at least when the filmmakers actually care about them. Onward and upwards for Sega and Nintendo!

SonicNoIdea.png

P.S. Definitely stay for the credits. This is one film I really hope gets a sequel.

Unformed Thought: The Shadows of Virtue

Something that needs to be gotten clear if we’re going to think rationally about morality is that people are fundamentally consistent. That is to say, with the possible exception of mental illness, a person’s intentional actions are all expressions of the same character, and work upon that same singular character. It’s like heating a stone or running electricity through a wire; you can’t isolate one part of the stone to be hot while the rest of it remains cool. The entire thing is affected. Or, to put it another way, no one willingly does anything truly out of character. When a man goes wrong, he goes wrong in a way proper to himself, just as when he goes right he goes right in a peculiar way. Under different circumstances and influences, Henry VIII may have become a good man, but he never would have had the same kind of goodness as, say, St. Phillip Neri.

Now, there is a consequence to this that, it seems to me, isn’t understood enough. It is that you cannot simply remove a vice, either from men or from society, without almost certainly doing greater damage than the vice itself. All vices are the shadows of virtues; if you drill too hard against the vice, you will lose the virtue as well. In fact, you are far more likely to destroy the virtue and keep the vice; virtue is harder to get in the first place. Remember Our Lord’s story of the tares and the wheat.

Mass Meditations – Sacrifice and Coronation

Before going to Mass today, I brought up the Enthronement Ceremony for Japanese Emperor Naruhito, intending to watch it later, though I perused a few photos and brief footage from it.

In this frame of mind, I went to Mass and a number of thoughts went through my mind. I don’t know how much foundation or antiquity these ideas have; they are my own, though naturally informed by the writings of other men. Take them for what they are worth.

First is that the Mass is the participation in the Sacrifice of Christ. In all sacrificial rituals that I am aware of, and most notably the Jewish rituals, an essential part of the sacrifice is the eating of the victim. Thus, in consuming Christ’s Body and Blood, we are partaking in His Sacrifice, which is re-presented for us in the Mass (that is, Christ was sacrificed once and for all – God sacrificed to God – but by miracle that same event is mystically presented to us in the consecration of the bread and wine).

At the same time, it is also a coronation. Christ comes to rule over us, to take His rightful place as the Lord of our bodies and souls. His minister and representative bears Him in and presents Him to us for our veneration (traditionally, we bow to the Priest as the minister and bearer of Christ as he enters and leaves the sanctuary). Which, of course, is part and parcel with the Sacrifice. A sacrifice is an act of obeisance, a sign of submission to the authority of the Deity. Even more so in this case, the sacrifice offered and the Deity offered to are one, so that in partaking of the sacrifice, we also welcome our Lord in to rule over us.

Of course, just as a sacrifice is an act of submission to divine authority, so too is a coronation. The monarch is placed under the rule of the People even as he takes his place as ruler over them. He is ‘sacrificed’ in the act of taking authority, made into a type and figure of the people themselves. Which, of course, Christ also did in His Passion, becoming the new ‘type’ of humanity; Man sacrificed on behalf of Man to God, and God to God.

Here we’re touching on what I find to be a key theme in theological and philosophical matters; that as you approach the Divine, distinctions break down. Rather than reducing things into ever more precise and ever smaller taxonomic categories, apparently distinct things blend together into a common and irreducible whole. Sacrifice and Coronation are revealed to be, in fact, a single thing that we experience under different forms; namely, the submission of man to the Divine and the elevation of the individual to the archetype. The more you really look at God and Man, the more that apparently distinct things – male and female, individual and society, authority and obedience – blur and reveal themselves to be parts of a singular whole. This is what we should expect from Christian teaching, which holds the God is absolutely simple (in the sense that He has no ‘parts’; He is what He is), and that His act of creation is a singular, coherent act; not like how we build something where we say “I want it to do this, which requires this, but then I’d need that to compensate for the other…” For God, His action is absolute and simple; a singular, coherent whole of which we experience a little bit at a time. Thus, when we speak of His Wisdom, His Wrath, and His Mercy, we’re not describing distinct moods or acts of His, but rather how His singular nature strikes up against us in this particular moment.

We’re getting into very deep water there, which I’m not really qualified to navigate. To return to the Mass coronation and sacrifice, the core of it is, of course, the Consecration and distribution of the Eucharist, which is the actual participation in the sacrifice and ascension of the King. The ritual in the lead up to it is, like all such things, a matter of context. In a coronation, the pageantry and speeches, the ritual of it, is meant to place the king in context of his nation and people. A coronation must be done according to ritual, the repeated, traditional pattern born out of history, because a people are their history and their traditions (again, definitions turning to simplicity; a ‘nation’ cannot exist without history, religion, language, customs, and so on). The oaths, the speeches, the ministers are all a matter of context; recalling to the King and to the people what he is and what they are.

In the Mass, we begin with prayers confessing sins and begging pardon, then to proclamations of God’s absolute and singular sovereignty, then to the readings from Scripture, all meant to prepare the mind and heart to receive the Lord, recalling Who and What comes to rule over us, Who and What is sacrificed and Why. The Homily is meant to clarify the readings and other teachings. It is the human touch, the one thing which the priest himself contributes (for you can’t have a purely structured system; you need a man’s judgment and presence to ensure it works ‘on the ground’ as it were). This is followed by the Creed proclaiming the content of our faith, then petitions, then the consecration itself. Finally, just before the presentation and distribution of Our Lord Himself, the recital of the prayer that He Himself gave us. Then, after the distribution is the final blessing and (in the old form) the recital of the preamble of St. John’s Gospel, the most complete and concise summation of the Christian faith in Scripture. It is all a singular event directing to that union with Christ which is at once the participation in His Sacrifice, the reception of Him as King, and the being taken into His being.

You see, it is a singular event, but one that we can’t describe fully, so we have to ‘tack back and forth’ as it were, describing it now this way, now that. Pretty much all the things of God are like that; you can’t fully describe them in a single definition, you have to now emphasize one side of it, now the other, and always aware that you’re not getting the whole in. That is one of the signs that you’re really dealing with something of God. Real, natural things don’t fit into easy formulas; does the lover or the beloved command greater rule? But the more the lover loves, the greater the beloveds hold over him, and the more the beloved desires to be loved, the greater the lover’s hold over her. Is the individual or society supreme? But society can only exist through individuals, and is only as good as its constituent parts, yet the individual cannot survive or even come into being without a community and typically reaches his full realization only in the context of communal service. The greatest men are those who give of themselves in service.

The riddles of God are wiser than the formulas of men.