Friday Flotsam: Free Thinking, a Review, and the End of the World

1. One of my co-workers has a sticker on his computer that says ‘Danger: Free Thinker’. I don’t want to jump to conclusions, and he seems like a decent guy, but in my experience legitimate ‘free thinkers’ (to the extent that such creatures exist) do not proudly identify themselves as such.

‘Free thinker’ or ‘think for yourself’ tends to be nothing but a form of branding; a way to lend unearned weight to opinions. It’s the intellectual equivalent of ‘organic’ or ‘made with natural ingredients!’: usually not true and of dubious utility when it is.

When someone describes himself as a free thinker, he usually means that he is free of long-outdated forms of popular opinion and instead follows one or another contemporary trends without realizing it’s a trend.

2. It is one of the odd traits of a culture such as ours, which prides itself upon its advanced nature and defiance of ‘established modes’ that its people usually fixate their critical faculties, not on genuinely established opinions or current dogmas, but on those that were or are supposed to have been held several generations before.

This, of course, is inevitable; a society needs an established creed to guide its actions and values, and you can’t have the populace legitimately in perpetual revolt against the current climate of opinion, otherwise it wouldn’t be the current climate. So a society that holds independence of thought and rejection of dogma as its defining characteristics and feeds its people on myths of bold reformers who courageously stood against tradition will have to have a kind of false bogey ‘establishment’ for the people to feel they are boldly defying.

Hence the phenomenon of ‘free thinkers’ who all think according to how those in power wish them to think. Hence too the even more ridiculous assertion that children do not learn to think for themselves from their parents, but from the paid indoctrinators of the State.

3. I’d say I’ve only encountered a few writers whom I would class as legitimately independent thinkers. That is, who actually appear to me to subject all or most of the ideas that come under their view to critical examination and draw conclusions from that. They tend to draw the ire of both ‘sides’ of the actual establishment and to critique those assumptions that are held to be unquestionable by all.

In any case, they do not usually boast of being ‘free thinkers’, they simply offer their observations and let them stand or fall on their own merits. Rather like how if you get freshly-slaughtered pork from a homesteader, he doesn’t feel the need to put ‘organic’ on the package.

(By the way, none of that was meant as a back-door attempt to assign myself the label. Though it is hard to declaim it without seemingly invalidating everything I say. “One cannot be too careful not to think about it,” as Prof. Lewis put it).

4. If I were to tell you that I spent some time watching an old man spreading goop around, you would come away with the idea that I had perhaps spent time with a senile relative, or even in a mental institution. You’d likely feel pity and sympathy for me.

If I were to tell you that I had spent time watching M. Bouguereau paint (ignoring the time factor for the sake of the example), however, you would react with awe and envy to find that I had been privileged to see a genius artistic hand at work.

Yet the two statements are both true versions of the exact same subject. Indeed, the first one is a more factually specific, describing the action rather than containing it in the more abstract concept of ‘painting’. Nevertheless, the second is the more accurate way of describing it, because it conveys the nature of the event more correctly and evokes more appropriate responses.

Similarly, I think that, whatever the factual sequence of events that made up the creation of the world and the descent of species, it will always be more accurate to describe it as “in the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth,” and “God formed man out of the clay and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”

5. The Terror has gotten an entirely-too-flattering review from Caroline Furlong. Read it and then check out her blog if you haven’t already.

6. Some people say, and have been saying that it’s the end times. Technically, it’s been the end times for 2000 years now: with the coming of Christ we’re in the final age of the world regardless. But as for whether we’re approaching the actual Last Judgment, well, my own thoughts are, why would that matter? What difference does it make? We’re all heading for judgment, final or personal, and it can come at any time for any of us. We’ve been told that repeatedly. Worrying and wondering about the end times seems to me a waste of time. The important thing is to be ready and have our lamps timed and full of oil when the time comes.

(For what it’s worth, personally I don’t think we are, but again, who cares?)

Talking the Eternal Trio at the Everyman

No, not that Eternal Trio. Not that one either. I mean the eternal trio of romance: the hero, the princess, and the dragon:

Chesterton explicated on this while discussing Charles Dickens’ novel Nicholas Nickelby, as the most basic form of romance: a princess is menaced by a dragon and a hero fights the dragon to save her. “There is the thing to be loved, the thing to be fought, and the one who does both loving and fighting,” as Chesterton puts it. In this case, Princess Peach is kidnapped by Bowser and Mario battles him and his armies to save her. It’s simple, straightforward, instantly engaging, and endlessly reusable.

Of course, with literally hundreds of games over its nearly four-decade existence, the series has played with the formula many, many times, including having Peach rescuing Mario or having Mario, Peach, and Bowser teaming up against a larger threat. But for our present purposes the important point is the eternal romantic trio of hero, princess, and dragon. The hero – whether it be Mario, Perseus, St. George, or Nicholas Nickelby – fights a dragon – whether it be Bowser, Cetus, the nameless dragon, or Ralph Nickelby – to save the princess – whether it be Peach, Andromeda, the nameless princess, or Madeline Bray.

To put it even more simply, the fundamental pattern of romance is that a hero confronts something horrible and endures danger and suffering in order to save something precious. Put it that way and it should remind us of something.

This basic pattern of melodrama is, at its core, an image of Salvation History: Christ comes to Earth and battles the Devil, enduring the Cross and grave, in order to save the souls of the faithful from sin and death. The imprisoned princess is an image of a soul in sin, the dragon an image of the Devil. The eternally repeated pattern is a whispered repetition of the Creed: “For us men and for our salvation, He came down from Heaven, was Incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was Crucified, Dead, and was Buried, and on the third day He rose again from the dead.”

Romance thus comes with a natural kind of sanctity all its own, however humble the guise (which again, ought to remind us of something). Consequently, it is more significant than we might think about how this enduring pattern has been attacked in recent years. The most frequent reaction we meet with from our modernist contemporaries when the above formula is brought up, is to chafe at the role of the princess.

This is sometimes couched in terms of respect: that the princess is a ‘weak’ and ‘demeaning’ role. Actually, looked at objectively, it’s the reverse of demeaning. The princess is the most important figure on the board, the motivating force to bother the hero and the dragon, the very thing for whom the hero undergoes such struggles. It may or may not be a well-written or interesting role, depending on the skills of the author, but it is not demeaning.

The issue, in fact, is not that the princess is a demeaning role but simply that it is not an active role. The modernists don’t like the image of the princess being rescued. They prefer a version where she takes up a sword, slays the dragon, and rescues herself. They want to see Andromeda unchaining herself from the rock and stabbing Cetus without any help from Perseus, or Peach laying the smackdown on Bowser the moment he shows his face. I remember once seeing a photoshop image of Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty wielding a sword and confronting the dragon Maleficent in place of Prince Phillip.In short, the modernist version of romance has the trio become a duo, and the hero more or less vanishes altogether to make way for the princess to take his place.

In short, the most basic form of a modernist romance is ‘a heroine faces oppression and vindicates herself by overcoming it’. The analogy naturally extends itself from there, for these tend to be the same people who believe in ‘Progress’, who see human enlightenment, science, and so on as the keys to solving the ills of the world and bringing about utopia. They are also the ones who regard God as an obstacle rather than as a goal and Christ as, at best, a vaguely supportive and positive figure wishing nothing but to avoid trouble for all concerned.

If the hero rescuing the princess from the dragon is an image of Salvation history, then the princess kicking butt and slaying the dragon herself is an image of modernism: humanity saving itself by its own efforts and its own ingenuity, needing Christ like a fish needs a bicycle.

Read the rest here

Friday Flotsam: In the News, Invisible Man, and Folk Song

1. I have barely looked at the news in weeks and have frankly been much happier for it. After all, I have no power to affect anything that is in the news, and it’s going to affect me I’ll find out about it sooner or later. Not to mention that most of it is either outright lies or distortions of one sort of another. So, really, I don’t see much point in keeping up with it.

2. That said, I’ve heard that there was an election in Old Virginia, and that the (comparative) good guys seem to have won big. Good news of any kind is welcome, so hooray for that.

3. Being a Monarchist in a liberal republic is like:

4. You know, I like to call myself a Monarchist, but that’s a bit of an oversimplification. I’m not against Republics, provided they’re set up with some degree of sense (e.g. non-democratic. Actually, the original design for the US was, unsurprisingly, considerably better considered than the current system, but that’s another story). I think ‘Integralist’ is probably the closest active term I’ve found: the idea that, since you have to structure society around some philosophy or another, it may as well be a true one.

Thing is that the quality of a given system of government is largely a question of the quality of the people who operate it. A Monarchy operated by liberals is no better than a republic, and worse than a republic run by Christians (as the Vatican offers daily proof). The problem, as always, is one of conversion.

5. I’d forgotten how good a movie the original Invisible Man with Claude Rains and directed by James “Frankenstein” Whale really is. I got to see it on the big screen in a double-feature with The Wolf-Man (also features Claude Rains, though in a very different role) and I was continually impressed by the writing: how logically everything progresses and how reasonably everyone reacts, except for the people who are supposed to be acting irrationally. The only major gaps I noticed were an unconvincing hand-wave of why they can’t use dogs to catch him (“they’ve lost the scent”) and the fact that no one seems willing to take advantage of the times when he’s actually grabbing someone to catch him by touch, which was a continual problem for the character in the book and even led to his final defeat. But the whole sequence of the story, the reactions of the police and the populace, and the progression of the Invisible Man himself follow a clear and well-considered progression all the way to the conclusion.

There’s also the still-impressive special effects, which are deployed with a surprising prodigality. For instance, there’s a bit where the Invisible Man goes skipping down the road in a pair of stolen trousers singing ‘Nuts in May’. It adds nothing to the plot, it’s just a joke (and a sign of his continually-deteriorating sanity), but they took the time and money to make it happen in 1932. And whether through lighting or effects, they even took care that Rains’s eyes aren’t visible even on careful examination during close-ups of him in his bandaged-up disguise.

6. By the way, this is a surprisingly brutal film: the Invisible Man has easily the highest on-screen body count of any of the classic Universal Monsters, coming in at over a hundred confirmed kills (he wrecks a train at one point just because he can). Yet even so, and despite only killing one or two people, the character in the book is far more vile than his film counterpart.

7. And let’s end with a Cossack folk song (think I might have posted this video before, but it’s worth revisiting):

Flotsam: Self-Examination, Plot Holes, Halloween-ness, and a Joke

1. I notice that I have a bad habit (and perhaps you do as well) that when I start to pray and try to meditate upon God that I tend to fall into criticism of modernity: thinking of how far the contemporary world is from the majesty of the Divine plan and how many ways we depart from this holy road.

Of course, what I should be thinking about is how far I am from all that. If we’re to do comparisons under such a circumstance, it ought to be regarding the one thing we can actually control and bring a little close to the standard in question. Endlessly thinking about how horrible other people are – however true that may be – is spiritual junk food; it’s momentarily satisfying, but empty at best, harmful at worst. At the end of the day, it’s only ourselves and our own that we’ll be held finally responsible for.

2. Re-reading The Lord of the Rings. Something that occurred to me this go-round is that Peter Jackson introduced a significant plot hole in Fellowship. Namely, that there’s now no reason for Gandalf not to accompany Frodo from the Shire to Rivendell.

In the book, the plan is for Frodo to slip quietly out of the Shire after settling his affairs so as not to attract notice, and Gandalf fully means to accompany him for safety. About midsummer, though, Gandalf is away in Bree when he meets Radagast, who warns him that the Nine are abroad and that Saruman has something he urgently needs to speak to him about. Since he knows it will take the Nazgul many weeks to reach the Shire, Gandalf considers running back to the Shire to warn Frodo to change his plans and leave sooner, but decides he doesn’t have the time since Radagast was already late in finding him, so he tries to send a letter instead. Saruman reveals his true colors (so to speak) and imprisons Gandalf, ad the innkeeper forgets the letter, and the result is that Frodo leaves the Shire much too late, with no help from Gandalf, and with the Nazgul are almost literally at his doorstep.

In the film, Gandalf has Frodo leave almost the moment he confirms what the Ring is, saying that he’ll run off to Isengard to consult with Saruman and then meet him at the Prancing Pony in Bree.

Now, first off this is an example of Jackson’s rather absurd telescoping of Middle Earth, which is severely shrunken from its book form (if you look at a map, Isengard is several hundred miles from the Shire, away at the bottom of the Misty Mountains: that would be like telling someone in Ann Arbor to make for Detroit and that you’ll be waiting for them there after you run to Nashville and back).

Not to mention that Rivendell, obviously the safest place for many miles, is on the way to Isengard. Given how important the matter is, and how much he cares about Frodo, there’s no adequate reason for Gandalf not to first accompany him to safety and then go see Saruman.

3. None of this is to say that the film is bad, of course (though honestly the compression of Middle Earth – and consequently of the timeline – is one of my biggest criticisms, even though I understand why they did it). Just something I thought was interesting to note.

4. Alas, it is again Halloween and I’ve not had the time or attention to sample any good horror films or get into the spirit of the season. I do like Halloween, but it’s a holiday that really takes time and attention to properly soak in: the atmosphere of autumn leaves rustling in a chill wind, cloud-wrapped moons, graveyards, and creaky old houses where, if anything walks there, it walks alone. It’s hard to really feel ‘Halloweeny’ in a populated suburb. You need a small, semi-rural town with woods about it and at least a few hundred years of history to do it properly. Or at least be somewhere you can forget about modern cars and strip malls and the like.

5. Though you could conceivably make a good strip-mall-based horror film out of ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’, assuming you find a way to correct the plot hole of “why would anyone go back for another shift once they realize what the score is?” I don’t think they will, but it could be done (me, I would have it be that the guard realizes something bad happened / is going to happen and is trying to solve the mystery before he gets his head bitten off by the jump-scares. Simple and obvious, so they probably won’t do it).

6. And to finish off, I heard a version of this story many, many years ago and it stuck in my mind, though most of the details are long lost so I had to fill them in myself.

There was a married couple who planned to vacation in Florida one summer. Then, at the last minute, the husband found he had some work to take care of and had to miss the trip. But he insisted that she should go on anyway, since they’d already bought the tickets and she’d been really looking forward to it.

So, she went on the trip. But her flight had hardly left when the husband learned that the work wasn’t going to be nearly as bad as he thought and he decided to text her that he’d be able to follow her almost immediately. Only, he then remember that she’d just gotten a new phone and he couldn’t remember the number. But they had some friends living down there, who were to meet his wife and take her to the hotel, so he called them and asked them to let her know that he’d be coming soon.

The woman landed and was met by the friends, who told her the good news. She was, of course, delighted and as soon as she got to the hotel she went and texted her husband on her new phone.

Trouble was, she couldn’t quite remember his number either, since she’d just been using the stored contact all this time. But she was a hopeful kind of woman and, after thinking about it a bit decided she could remember it after all and confidently sent her text.

Unfortunately, it was the wrong number. Even more unfortunately, it was actually the number of a preacher whose wife had just passed away. They were holding the wake at his house, and everyone was being very decorous and sad, when suddenly he looked at his phone and screamed.

This is what he read:

“Beloved,

Just arrived. Delighted to hear you’ll be joining me soon.”

Then, just as the assembled guests were wondering what to make of this message from the other world and whether they dared respond, her next text came in.

“It sure is hot down here.”

Comment: Devolving Languages

Commenter Nicholas Arkison made an excellent observation on my last post (UPDATE: For clarification, the ‘elephants’ comment is in regards to Riders of Skaith’s citing the fact that African Elephants no longer have giant ‘tusker’ specimens as an example of forced evolution):

Some of us would say language mostly devolves. (Just think how much disgraceful feminist jargon we could have avoided if we hadn’t let the word “wight” fall out of fashion.) Then again, some of us would also say that about African elephants. Basically, whenever the word “evolve” is used with reference to contemporary phenomena, I’d say there’s at least an 80% chance that the speaker’s trying to put an unjustifiably good spin on humanity’s latest bit of thoughtless vandalism.

Friday Flotsam: Software Problems and Jabberwock

1. Missed last week, obviously. Oh, well.

2. For work-related reasons I ended up reviewing many of Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (yes, I’m serious. No, it’s not as interesting as you’d think). In the process I noticed for the first time (or perhaps I had noticed before and suppressed the memory) that the Jabberwock has a waistcoat. And socks.

Also please get it straight that it’s Jabberwock: ‘Jabberwocky’ is the name of the poem

Felt that needed to be pointed out.

3. One cannot become great out of fear, or in order to rub someone’s nose in it. Greatness cannot spring from petty motives.

4. Begun the first steps in actual work, and I’ve discovered something. In the book Clean Code, Robert Martin (Uncle Bob) describes the ‘vicious cycle’ of software development. A company sets upon a certain stoftware platform. Software advances rapidly, so before long it becomes necessary to upgrade it. But the upgrade has to be able to integrate with the earlier system, since that is where the existing information is being kept. Moreover, upgrading takes a lot of time, since we’re dealing with an extremely complicated and delicate machine, and the system has to be completely functional throughout the process otherwise the company loses business.

So by the time the system is updated, the update is already out of date, the already-complicated system has become immensely more complicated, and probably numerous bugs have been introduced that have to be hunted down and corrected.

5. What all this amounts to is that software creates a lot of bloat: you need people on hand to continually maintain and upgrade the system just to keep things functional. It would be as if a law-firm had to keep a staff of scribes on hand to continually re-write all the law-books and hunt up typos. This doesn’t create value (since the system that results is immediately obsolete and in any case has no application outside the company), it only prevents the loss of value that naturally occurs.

This is a flaw in the digital revolution that I don’t think is noticed enough: it creates a natural instability couple with dependency, resulting in an enormous amount of busywork.

6. By the way, if any of you happen to run a company, I have some advice: open-floor plans are one of those things that sound good on paper and make for great sound bites (“we believe in collaboration and teamwork blah, blah, blah”), but are just infuriating to actually experience. People walking by every minute of every day, hovering around your chair because they have to talk to your neighbor, loud conversations going on two feet away that you have no share or interest in. Endless distractions, disruptions, and anxiety, all for the sake of not having to poke your head around a corner to talk to someone, or send an instant message (which we do most of the time anyway).

Not to mention that, frankly, I’m deeply skeptical that my or any one else’s input is so perfectly and unfailingly valuable that all else should be sacrificed to allow it unimpeded scope for expression. Especially when that input is frazzled and distracted by all of the above.

7. Recently had to change my password on a particular service following an apparent security breach. Thoughts upon creating the new one: “Guess that, you bastards.”

UPDATE: If ‘Jabber-Walk’ isn’t the name of a dance, it should be.

Tolerance and Totalitarianism at the Everyman

Another post up at The Everyman, here explaining why the diversity, inclusion, tolerance ideology is naturally and inevitably totalitarian.

We moderns have a bad habit of not defining our terms. We like ideas that sound good and tend not to dig in deeper to try to pin down what they are actually saying. So we say things like “everyone should be included.” Except, we very clearly do not mean “everyone”, since we certainly don’t intend to include the criminal, the insane, the drug-addict, or so on. Nor, most of the time, do we mean to include ‘obviously bad people’ like bigots, sexists, fascists, anti-vaxers, and so on.

Some of you, reading the latter list, might think “you’re right, people shouldn’t be excluded just because of their opinions”. But that isn’t my point. The point is that there will always be limits to tolerance, including tolerance of individual opinion, all the way until it crosses the line into simple anarchy (wherein any idea of PTID is eliminated, since anyone can be as ‘intolerant’ as they like in an anarchy so long as they have the muscle to back it up). That is the nature of society: it must have things that simply cannot be accepted or tolerated.

The problem here, as in many other cases, is that the necessary limitations are not built into or defined by the principle, but merely assumed. We say “all are welcome,” but in practical terms what we mean to say is “all are welcome who adhere to our standards.” Only, because it is against PTID to enforce our own standards as if they were true, we don’t mention or define that part and pretend not to notice it.

To put it another way, the common canard, “I don’t care what you believe as long as you’re a good person” is dependent upon what constitutes a ‘good person’ in the speaker’s mind. Which in turn is dependent upon his view of the world—that is, his beliefs. So, what he is really saying is “I don’t care what you believe so long as your behavior more or less matches what I believe.”

Now, most of us, I think would admit all this. We know that there must be standards and that when we say “all are welcome” we don’t literally mean ‘all’. We mean ‘all within reason.’ That is, we assume that we can ground our PTID in a kind of lowest common denominator of agreed truths, things that no reasonable person would dispute. ‘Mere Reality’, to co-opt a term.

Experience has shown that this doesn’t work, and a very little consideration should have told us that it wouldn’t. When you take tolerance as one of your chief virtues and fill people’s heads with tales of heroic acceptance, they will naturally seek opportunities to practice it (because what people want most of all is to think well of themselves). And since, as noted, any commonly agreed ‘ground’ of truth will exclude someone, they will always find a new cause to champion and new oppressors to condemn in order to demonstrate their virtue.

Thus the logic of tolerance itself causes the lowest common denominator to shift ever lower. Just as young Medieval knights, lacking wars at home, would go off to seek battles in foreign lands to prove their virtue, so young people brought up on paeans to PTID will seek new abominations to tolerate so as to prove their own enlightenment.

And since we’ve now reached the point where even acknowledging basic human biology can be regarded as shockingly intolerant, it should be clear that there is no bottom of ‘basic’ reality that everyone can safely assume.

But all this is by way of an introduction. There’s a much worse problem on top of it.

Find out what that worse problem is by reading the rest here.

Flotsam: Various and Sundry Life Things and the Mario Movie

1. I’m beginning to settle in at last as the final few necessary tasks and purchases are being wrapped up. Having a new apartment is like having a giant toy; there are all sorts of things you can do with it and you can’t wait to get the chance to play with it.

2. Internet is up at last, though I have it on a kill switch (via the simple expedient of plugging the router into a power strip) so I can turn it off it becomes too much of a distraction.

On that note, I’m working out a schedule for myself to hopefully improve my (frankly appallingly slow) output. So far setting up has kept on interrupting, but even so I’ve found an uptick in production. Amazing what sitting down and just doing the damn work can accomplish.

3. Part of my schedule is anticipated to include Saturday movie nights (don’t like watching movies during the week, since they eat up so much time), and last night it was Megamind. I’ve probably mentioned it before, but that’s another film I’ve been meaning to do an essay on, since it ranks high on my list of underappreciated gems. It’s an example of the best kind of satire: the kind that provides the genuine thrills and particular joys of the genre it’s spoofing, even as it uses the material for comedy (The Princess Bride and Galaxy Quest are other examples of this sort of thing). In this case it pokes fun at comic book superhero tropes while also providing some excellent comic-book-style action / adventure heroics.

It’s also almost infinitely quotable: “Warming up? The Sun is ‘warming up‘?!”

4. The voice cast was announced for the upcoming ‘Super Mario Brothers’ animated movie (entrusted to Blue Sky of all people), and no one seems particularly happy about it. I like Chris Pratt, but him as Mario? I don’t know about that. And last time I checked, Charles Martinet was alive and well. Granted you might not want the high-pitched Mario voice for a whole film, but I happen to know that Mr. Martinet can do many voices (e.g. he was one of the dragons in Skyrim): all he has to do is tone it down a bit.

I really don’t understand why studios do this (it also bugged me when Roger Craig Smith was replaced by Ben Schwartz for Sonic. Schwartz was fine in the role, but it’s annoying nonetheless). Or rather, I understand, but it makes no sense from a fans’ perspective. Studios figure that mainstream audiences will want to see familiar names in the credits, not the relatively obscure voice actors of the games. Filmmakers, and especially studio people, are notoriously out of touch and so don’t realize that the days of star-driven films are largely in the past. No one is going to go see Super Mario Brothers to hear Chris Pratt and Jack Black: they’re going to go see it to see the Mario Brothers (assuming it looks tolerable from the trailers). Keeping Charles Martinet in the title roles would have been a surefire way to garner immediate fan support, which I think is frankly a lot more valuable these days than star power, especially for an animated film.

I still hope the film is good, and I’m not judging it yet, but this isn’t a good sign. Please, please at least be better than the live action film. That should not be a challenge.

(Though for my part, all will be forgiven if they give John Leguizamo and Samantha Mathis cameos. Or if they bring Lance Hendrikson back as the king / chancellor of the Mushroom Kingdom. Come on, people: he never turns down a paycheck!).

5. By the way, I suspect the above is the reason why My Little Pony: The Movie jettisoned most of that show’s fantastic supporting cast in favor of a bunch of new characters with celebrity voice actors. They probably would have re-cast the Mane Six if they thought they could get away with it (“Starring Scarlett Johanson as Twilight Sparkle”).

6. Also, regarding the Mario movie: Dwayne Johnson should have been Donkey Kong. How does one fail to see that?

Alice at the Everyman

Finally got my internet back today, and just in time to find that one of my essays has gone up at The Everyman! It’s one where I get to talk about classic Disney and apply it to the decline of civilization, so…pretty much pure me. Enjoy!

In short, the book presents Alice’s dreams as places of fun and nonsense; the pure, innocent enjoyment of a carefree childhood. The film presents her adventures more as a cautionary tale, wherein Alice wishes for a world of nonsense and gets it, only to realize how uncomfortable and frightening it really is and long to return home. Delightful as the film is to watch, the central theme is that Wonderland is not a nice place to be in. It’s fun to imagine: not fun to experience.

The shift in tone and theme between the two versions is very interesting given the very different state of the real world at the time of each – that is, the world outside the scope of book, film, and dream.

Lewis Carroll wrote his book from the heart of the Victorian age, a time where, despite the rapid changes taking place, the old-world order was still standing strong and British culture and society seemed as solid and secure as Gibraltar itself. It was a time where a girl like Alice from a respectable, well-off family could count on the familiar trappings of home, of sisters and cats, of lazy summer afternoons and quiet winter days to remain always safely as they were. And where Carroll, AKA Charles Dodgson, mathematician, deacon, and schoolteacher, could know exactly what ‘normal’ was when he wished to satirize it.

On the other hand, Walt Disney made his film in a world scarred by two global conflagrations that had largely laid waste to the orderly world that Carroll knew. Disney worked under the shadow of Communism and the atomic bomb, of the questioning, doubting, and deconstruction of everything that had once been valued and assumed in Carroll’s world, and amidst the early rumblings of still more such disruptions to come. That is to say, Lewis Carroll lived in a world where order and stability were the norms. Walt Disney lived in a world where that same order was rapidly disappearing and chaos and nonsense were being seriously advocated to take their place. Small wonder that, consciously or unconsciously, he took a more jaundiced view of Wonderland.

Read the rest here

Flotsam: New Apartment, No Internet, and Rabbits

1. Last week I realized a nearly five-year goal and finally moved back out into my own apartment. I’ve been too busy setting up to settle in yet, but already I feel the enormous relief and joy of having my own space once again.

2. The chief downside, at present, is that I don’t have any internet. My provider sent a router and set up instructions, but after wrestling with it a bit I got a connection…and found it directing me to a different provider. Two different tech support conversations later (one on the phone, one over a live chat at a nearby coffee shop) yielded the information that the wiring in the junction box was overriding the signal with the previous occupant’s provider. So now they’ll be sending someone out in the middle of the week to perform the necessary offices. Until then, I’m down to using coffee shops and other people’s homes (with the owners’ permission, of course; I’m almost sure that’s what they’re trying to say behind their gags).

3. I’m actually rather glad to have taken a break from internet. I’d been far too attached to it lately and an enforced fast is a bit of a relief, particularly with so much else to be done.

4. During and before the move, I read through an old favorite: Watership Down, the epic adventure novel about the founding of a rabbit warren. I was struck even more this time by the military imagery and tone often employed: at times you could almost lift passages out, tell someone they’re from a WWII novel, and no one would be the wiser. At one point, Holly, the upright veteran, ends up escorting Clover, a freed pet rabbit, out onto the grass to feed, appearing for all the world like a well-bred British officer taking charge of a nervous refugee (she ends up as his mate).

5. Which, incidentally, points to another clever touch. Mr. Adams knows and reminds the reader that rabbit breeding is not like human romance: survival and propagation is the main point, and males will fight over available females. When Clover becomes ‘ready for mudder’ (as Kehaar the seagull puts it), we’re told that the bucks in the warren are all fighting over her, but at that point the narrative has moved elsewhere and so we don’t actually see it (Hazel, our protagonist, upon learning of it, simply comments “I suppose it’ll work itself out” and moves on).

This is a good way to present something that you know the reader won’t like to see. No one wants to watch these characters that we’ve been traveling with and cheering on for half the book getting into a petty squabble over who gets to breed with their one available female. That’s something humans, or at least civilized, western humans of the sort likely to be reading the book, would find repulsive, even granting that the characters are explicitly not human. It’s a point where our sympathy for these animals, as animals, simply will not go beyond. So Adams tactfully keeps it off stage, letting us know that it is happening, but not rubbing our faces in it. We are thus allowed to pass it over as another element of the ‘rabbitness’ of the story without being forced to emotionally engage with it.

See, some things have to happen in a story that would be tonally at odds with the emotions we want the audience to experience, or which would be so alien to their experience as to rip them right out of sympathy, even they are necessary for the setting. One solution, therefore, is to simply allude to it, but not to show it in any kind of detail or dwell upon it. The audience thus gets the information they need, but aren’t forced to navigate delicate and disturbing emotional territory unrelated to the main thrust of the story.

The fact that rabbits fight over mates is part of the setting and premise, but has no real relevance to the real point of the narrative, which is the courage, devotion, and selfless loyalty of the heroes. Therefore, the fact is passed over with a nod, while scenes and incidents relative to the real narrative are depicted with great emphasis and feeling.

You don’t have to show everything or give everything equal weight. Keeping irrelevant or off-tone notes out of sight and out of mind is as important a skill as any other.