He is Risen, Alleluia!

April 5, 2010

After a long Lenten season, Easter has arrived.

Last night I went to Easter Vigil mass at my local parish, St. Luke’s Catholic Church. It was a quadrilingual mass – English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin. The music was terrible, and the acoustics weren’t that great. It was also over-crowded, so we had to sit in the area behind the altar and thus couldn’t see most of what was going on. All of this is par for the course when going to Christmas or Easter masses at St. Luke’s.

And yes, the un-aesthetically-pleasing aspects of the mass bothered me, as they always do. (I would prefer to go to the Cistercian abbey across the street from UD, but no, my parents like going to the local parish…) But as this was all going on last night I started thinking about it, and realized something kind of interesting. That the mass was so poorly performed brought to the fore an aspect often overlooked – that it is a performance. And realizing this made me start to consider just what kind of a performance it is.

Now, the obvious comparison is of the performance of drama, and indeed, they say that plays originally grew out of the liturgy. But liturgy is radically different from drama, because in a play, the actors are engaged in a fiction, and the play fails if they fail to suspend our disbelief. The mass does not attempt to suspend our disbelief in a fiction; rather, it attempts to make real our belief in a theological truth. Thus, that the mass is a performance, in the context of liturgy, means something entirely different than if it were a drama. It is not a performance put on by the priests and altar servers and choir for the benefit of the congregation, trying to convince them of their belief; it is a performance put on by the priests and altar servers and choir on behalf of the congregation, enacting what they already believe.

I admit, all too often I have found myself disappointed that I have not been emotionally moved by the experience of going to mass, forgetting that this is not the point. The point is to affirm our belief and to participate in the holiest of sacraments. So long as we hear the readings, recite the Creed, celebrate the Eucharist, neither of these is made more difficult by the mass being poorly said or sung.

This is not to say that good music, good sermons, good architecture, etc, are not important; they are. But their goal is not to transport the congregation into mystical raptures, and they have not failed if they do not do so.

Review: Battlestar Galactica

July 24, 2009

So, I finished watching Battlestar Galactica earlier this week, and I’ve spent the last few days thinking about what I have to say about it. I don’t think I have anything particularly deep to offer up. I like the show; it has its flaws, but then, so does every television show. The show attempts something more interesting than most, and succeeds, for the most part, which makes it better than most in my books.

The basic premise of the show – the last remnants of the human race are trying to escape the mechanical Cylons who revolted against them and find the mythical planet Earth, home of the 13th colony – and the general flavor of the setting – a space opera with strong mystic undertones and a theme of paganism vs. quasi-Christianity – are great. The basic story arc works as well (find Kobol, find New Caprica, settle there, be forced out, find the Temple of Five, find old Earth, find it is a nuclear wasteland, find new Earth, become our ancestors).

The show does have several weaknesses, though. One of the worst is its tendency to become too much of a soap opera. I never minded that part until the fourth season, I think; the bed-side hospital scene (with Caprica Six miscarrying while Saul tries to convince her he loves her – the only way I can justify this is by saying it’s proving that Cylons are people too, even in the petty soap-opera-y ways) was just a bit much, though. As was a lot of other stuff in season 4 (like Cally’s son turning out to have been Hot Dog’s, not Tyrol’s, which I’m pretty sure they did just to get around the fact that otherwise, the child would be half Cylon, making Hera not nearly as special – that seems like a cop-out to me).

There’s also the fact that, about halfway through season 3 (after they find the Algae Planet, essentially), they give up trying to explain how they stay alive. I think the show would have benefited from being more about the day-to-day survival of the fleet, though it would be hard to work that in with all the other stuff they were doing. And the ending, while overall a good close to the series, is somewhat unbelievable (you mean to tell me everyone willingly gives up their technology, just like that? I don’t think so, not that easily. They would be on Earth for a few months, realize “hey, I like being able to easily hunt and move around and have shelter – let’s re-invent guns and cars and houses!”, and there goes the continuity with the real world).

But one think the show does really well is evoke a kind of mysticism, that everything happens for a reason. I think so, anyway. My dad doesn’t buy it – he thinks all the coincidences are just the writers’ way of getting out of corners they’ve backed themselves into – but I think it does a good job of seeming magical/mystical/destined/whatever without, for the most part, feeling contrived.

Anyway, overall, good show, you ought to watch it; just be aware that it definitely has its flaws and it’ll go smoother.

Magic as Mystery

July 20, 2009

You probably know about Clarke’s Third Law, which states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I would like to propose a related theorem, but one with a very different meaning:

Any sufficiently rule-bound magical system is indistinguishable from technology.

I’m going to explain what I mean by this, but be warned, it’s a long and convoluted post, one that makes many broad statements but does a poorer job of backing them up (though I believe every one of them).


Consider any secondary world that has elements that would be described as “magical,” “mystical,” “faerie.” What we mean by these words, I posit, is incompatible with a system of pure cause-and-effect, codified rules, where A=>B is all you need to know about A and B. So any system of magic that is described as a system of cause-and-effect rules will not be truly magical, mystical, wonderful, faerie; it will come across, to the reader, as merely a technology specific to this universe. And while there are interesting things we can do with that, it’s not what magic is.

There are two things I’m trying to do here. The first, is to define a word – magic – that i believe has been misdefined. (From here on out, all mis-uses of magic will be in quotes – “magic” – and all valid uses will not.) To achieve that, I’m going to elaborate on two examples of fantasy universes, and explaining in what senses they are and are not magical. After that, I’m going to explain why true magic is probably best off being left mysterious.

First, for the two examples. Consider the universe of Harry Potter (much of what follows might not make sense if you haven’t read the books, but, you probably have, so I press onward). The so-called “magical” elements of that universe can, I believe, be divided into three categories: the whimsical, the scientific, and the truly magical.

The whimsical aspects are all of the oddities that Rowling throws in to make the universe seem more outlandish: the Every Flavored Beans, the pictures that move, the Monster Book of Monsters, etc. This stuff seems worthless to me, except for comedic value; it adds little to the magic of the setting, and completely destroys its believability. She includes it to make HP a children’s book; I think that was a mistake.

The scientific aspects are the rules for how “magic” works in the HP universe: some people are “magical,” some aren’t, and it is passed on genetically; if one is “magical,” one can say words and cause certain things to happen, each set of words with a specific result tied to it, including effects such as levitation, transformation, making areas larger on the inside than outside, mind-control, torture, death, etc; there are many more natural species than were previously realized, such as dragons, hippogryphs, leprechauns, mermaids, and some of these have powers that are not physically explicable but which follow a set of “magical” rules nonetheless.

These aspects are interesting and not out-of-place in a magical literary universe, but they’re not what’s essential to magic, and I often think they’re overused. It’s possible to have too much of this stuff. And if some of this is going to be used, the author has to be careful to actually follow the rules to their logical conclusions (one of my major complaints with HP is that the Weasleys shouldn’t be poor).

The truly magical aspects are the ones that don’t seem exactly rule-bound, but not illogical either; they follow a set of not-exactly-rules and are integral to the moral fabric of the universe. The best examples of this in the HP universe are: the wands, how each wizard is “meant” for a certain wand; the Sorting Hat, Goblet of Fire, and other such mystical selection processes; the Higher Magic (or whatever Rowling called it) that protected Harry through his mother’s love; whatever the hell it is that happened when Harry and Voldemort’s wands clashed in the graveyard in book 4; how created a Horcrux “tears your soul in two”, whatever that means.

These truly magical elements, I believe, all stand out when reading the books; they seem somehow more magical than the “magic” itself, more magical than “say Expelliarmus => their wand flies out of their hand.” That’s not magic, that’s technology.

That’s it for Harry Potter for now. We move on to considering the Star Wars universe. There are three different “magical” elements of the SW universe I want to talk about, though they don’t really correlate with the above three. These are, the actual technology, the Force used as a tool, and the Force as a moral, uh, force.

The actual technology is, according the Clarke’s third law, “magic”; they have laser guns, FTL travel, protective energy shields, etc. These are functionally little different from Avada Kedavra, apparating, and protective charms. Clarke says this is because the technology is so fanciful as to be essentially “magic”; perhaps so, I say, but another way of looking at it is that the “magic” in HP is just an attempt to cloak technology in fantastical trappings. The flavor of a universe with laser guns is different from that of a universe with Avada Kedavra, but that’s the same thing as saying a universe with swords has a different flavor than a universe with light sabers. There’s nothing metaphysically different about them. Technology is “magic”; “magic” is technology; rules of cause-and-effect are rules of cause-and-effect, however you disguise them.

The Force used as a tool, then, is functionally the same as HP universe “magic,” or SW universe technology; it’s just another way of getting stuff done. Does the fact that it’s restricted to some people mean it’s magical? Does the fact that only some people in HP universe have “magic” mean it’s magical? I don’t see why. This isn’t to say you couldn’t write interesting things about a universe where some people had telekenesis and some didn’t, but there’s nothing particularly magical about the setting.

But then we consider the Force as a moral, uh, force. The Light Side and the Dark Side, the Force as somehow in all living beings (ignoring that mitichlorian nonsense), the business about one coming who will balance the Force which is currently unbalanced, etc. There does seem to me something magical about that.

I’m going to try to cast in terms of Aristotelian metaphysics. Things have four kinds of causes: the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, the final cause. (If you don’t know what these are already, read the Metaphysics, it would take way too long to explain them here.) The rule-bound “magic” systems I was talking about are cast entirely in terms of the material and efficient causes; the actual magic, as I’ve described it, seems related to the formal and, even more so, to the final cause.

So now, for why magic ought to be a mystery. This question, I believe, comes down to ‘why can’t actual magic be integrated into a “magical”/technological system that humans manipulate?’ Phrased like that, it answers itself. If humans control it or understand it, becomes a tool, a system of cause-and-effect; it is no longer magical. The wands destined for their owners, the Hat and the Goblet, the Love magic, the Force as moral arbiter, are all things we can’t really wrap our heads around.

And they would (except for the wands destined for their owners) work just as well if the technological/”magical” trappings of their universes – the spells, the light-sabers, etc – were removed entirely. I find that rather interesting.

True magicians, I think, are in the end never characters we can relate to or understand, not just by how they are presented to us, but by their very nature. Gandalf is the classic example of a fantasy literature wizard; what most people forget is that he’s not even human, or elvish; he’s one of the Istari, essentially an angel. It is that distance that makes us accept his ability to seemingly understand magic when we ourselves cannot.

There’s a reason that witches, warlocks, sprites, and pixies are never the main characters of fairy-tales. The magical, mystical, wonderful, Faerie is that which is beyond, that which we cannot understand, that which is mysterious; by trying to make it immediate, we destroy it.

Book Review: Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman

January 14, 2008

I recently read the book St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. It is a sequel, of sorts, to A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. Canticle came out in the 60’s; this book was published in 1997, posthumously – Miller committed suicide in 1996 – and finished by a ghost-writer.  Canticle is one of my favorite books, but I was hesitant to read the sequel. I was fairly certain it wouldn’t be as good as the original – and I was right. Still, it was interesting.

The basic premise of Canticle was that, sometime in the 20th century, there was a nuclear war. Civilization self-destructed. What was not destroyed by the nukes was destroyed by the survivors of the war, who decided that the intelligentsia was to blame for the war and thus all books must be destroyed. A certain Isaac Leibowitz, however, founded an order of Catholic monks to preserve the Memorabilia, as it was called, and eventually civilization restarted itself (and fell again, and will eventually restart and fall once more – Miller’s view of history is cyclic). The work is divided into three parts, one taking place in the 26th century (Fiat Homo), one in the 32nd (Fiat Lux), and one in the 38th (Fiat Voluntas Tua). I would say more, but this isn’t a review of Canticle, but of its sequel.

Wild Horse Woman is a much different kind of book. It is set around a hundred years after the events of Fiat Lux. Instead of presenting a grand view of History through a series of vignettes, it focuses on one man (Brother Blacktooth St. George) and how he influences the conflict between Church and State. The ‘State’ here is the Empire of Texarkana, and the ‘Church’ is, of course, the Catholic Church, transplanted to New Rome (i.e. St. Louis, Missouri) after Rome was destroyed and now in exile in Valana (somewhere in Wyoming, I think).

The political situation is interesting, but more interesting, I think, is the relationship of the title – Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. The Wild Horse Woman is the Nomad goddess, and the book is really in many ways about the relationship between the pagan and the Christian. Specifically, Miller seems to be drawing an identity – not just a similarity – between the Wild Horse Woman and the Virgin Mary.

He also speculates about the divinity of the Virgin, and invents a “Northwest Heresy” that claims “her womb is the primordial void into which the eternal Word was spoken”. Clearly this is, well, a heresy – but in the book, it is endorsed by Blacktooth St. George, who becomes a sort of mystic. The book, then, is also about mysticism versus religion. Miller was a convert to Catholicism, but fell  away from the Church after Vatican II and embraced a sort of Buddhist spirituality probably similar to that of the character Wooshin. In the book, a pope (who turns out to be an anti-pope) is elected by the name of Amen Specklebird who endorses a Zen-like paradoxical spirituality founded in mysticism. I personally can’t understand the mindset of a mystic. With relation to mysticism, this book mainly convinced me that it very easily leads to heresy and ought to be avoided. Perhaps that was Miller’s view as well – perhaps he regretted being led away from Catholicism.

Overall, I think, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman is not as good as A Canticle for Leibowitz primarily because much of the power of Canticle came from its power as a piece of speculative fiction. It gave us 1700 years of speculative history and in doing so made a persuasive case for a cyclical philosophy of history. The sequel deals only with one small time period in that history, and in doing so becomes less a piece of speculative fiction than a religious and political drama that just happens to be taking place in a post-nuclear-war world.

Still, it wasn’t a bad book. It was worth reading, I think. It didn’t ruin Canticle for me. So I would recommend it – with the caveat that it’s theology is very confused and you’ll need to put in some effort to figure out what exactly is going on.

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