James Cameron’s Avatar?

December 24, 2009

No, I haven’t seen it. I haven’t decided if I will or not.

But I have read a LOT of reviews of it – they’re everywhere, it seems. And pretty much everything I’ve read takes the approach of, “the plot’s mediocre, the characters are mediocre, whatever, but OMG TEH SPECIAL EFFEKTZ!” So it would be beautiful to see, I suppose. So?

Then today I ran across this op-ed piece in the NYT. It’s about pantheism in pop culture. Interesting stuff. There definitely is a current of pantheism running through movies like Star Wars, The Lion King, etc.

What I wonder, though, is exactly how misplaced that pantheism is. There’s a great line from Chesterton about pantheism:

For the obstinate reminder continued to occur: only the supernatural has taken a sane view of Nature. The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister.

My question is, if Nature is our sister, does that really mean the pantheistic impulse is entirely flawed? I am wary of pantheism, but I am also wary of what I would call gnosticism – the rejection of the physical world entirely, saying that Nature is not only not our mother, she is not our sister either, she is rather our slave. If some Christians tend towards the former, some also tend towards the latter. But to be good Christians, we can do neither.

That’s why I don’t have a problem with movies like The Lion King – it is only about nature, not mankind, so it is not really pantheistic; it just provides an incomplete view of the world. Whereas with the Force in Star Wars, and other such belief systems, we find real pantheism. It is the latter that is dangerous, I think, not the former.

Anyway, has anyone seen Avatar? Does anyone think it’s worth seeing for reasons other than teh special effektz?


Faerie as Other

November 30, 2009

I’ve been thinking recently, for assorted reasons, about what I don’t like about Dostoevsky as an author. In doing so, I think, I have come up with a good explanation of what the word “faerie” means. So here goes my attempt to explain it.

One of my problems with Dostoevsky is how he completely ignores the physical world. Yes, he has characters interact with the world, the two main ways being that people have different amounts of money and people get diseases. But their interactions with the world are always anthropocentric; the world has no value in and of itself, as something inhuman. A Dostoesvky book consists almost entirely of people sitting around having conversations with one another. They don’t go out and interact with the world.

Contrast this with a few of my favorite authors – Herman Melville, G.M. Hopkins, J.R.R. Tolkien. They are very different in style and content, but one commonality is that all of them treat the physical world in and of itself as something interesting. So what is interesting about the physical world, and why ought authors to care about it?

I’m going to shift radically for a moment here and talk about people. There is one way to look at the world that separates the “I” from all others; the “I” is the subject, the perceiver, while everyone else is from this view just an object in the world. This way of looking at things doens’t allow us to recognize other people at all; it just allows us to recognize external things.

Another way of seeing people is socially; “obviously” we are all people, we can talk to each other, interact with each other morally, etc. All good so far, right?

But then there’s the physical world, nature – the thing that is part of the “object” of the subject-object way of looking at the world, but is not part of the “society” in the societal way of looking at the world. It is other – neither way we look at the world allows us to consider it similar to the “I”. But it still exists, and is important – God created the heavens and the earth before he created mankind.

It is this otherness, combined with it being created by God, and thus for a purpose, that is captured in the idea of faerie. We men cannot fully understand nature, individually or collectively, but it exists, and was made by God for a reason, though we cannot grasp the reason or even the nature of its existence.

So in this view of faerie, the idea of Elves, of a race separate from us and natural but also somehow rational, is fey because it echoes this separateness; the other race is like us, but somehow not us, and usually more natural-seeming than we are; Tolkien’s Elves do not have the same gap as is between man and nature. Magic itself is fey because it is physical – it is not a direct emanation from God – but it is incomprehensible; it emphasizes the otherness of nature, even as the wielder controls nature.

Promethean Fire, Promethean Clay

July 17, 2009

So Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is subtitled, “The Modern Prometheus”.

Every essay I’ve ever read about Frankenstein that talks about that subtitle says it is a reference to the myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mankind. The implication of the subtitle becomes, Prometheus transgressed against the gods by stealing fire (=science), and Frankenstein did the same thing. The question becomes, did Prometheus really deserve to be punished, or was he a tragic hero punished unjustly by Zeus?

But there’s another aspect to the mytical Prometheus that I haven’t ever seen connected to Frankenstein, but that seems almost more apt for a Frankenstein subtitle: Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus created mankind out of clay, on the orders of the other gods. If we consider the subtitle in light of this myth, the comparison is not between a transgressive Prometheus and a transgressive Frankenstein; the comparison is between a Prometheus who created life under the orders of the gods, and a Frankenstein who created life illicitly.

I don’t know why this second interpretation is never used. It has slightly different implications, and seems more appropriate, since it draws a parallel between Prometheus’s actions and Frankenstein’s actions, rather than just a parallel between their attitudes towards authority. It also makes the subtitle a judgment of Frankenstein’s character, rather than a judgement of Prometheus’s character, which seems more reasonable, since the book is about Frankenstein not Prometheus.

War of the Gods

February 28, 2008

In ancient times, or so I’ve read, when each different tribe had a different god, the conquest of one tribe by another was thought to prove that one god was somehow stronger than the other. This can be seen at times in the Old Testament; the Israelites conquering the Canaanite tribes was seen as proving that YHWH existed while Baal, et al, did not.

A lot of people, I think, see examples like this as somewhat absurd. How does defeating the religious followers of another god prove that your god exists and theirs does not? The basic concept, however, seems to me to be more deeply rooted in our psyche than most people realize. The idea than an ideology is somehow proven false because it loses followers is commonplace.

Take the Nazis. The idea that Jews were sub-human died, for the most part, with the fall of the 3rd Reich. I’m not saying that the destruction of the Jewish race was not an abominable evil, far from it – but I am saying that it is only considered evil now because the Nazis lost the war. In a sense, then, their military defeat proved they were wrong to commit genocide.

That’s a somewhat weak example; here’s a better one. Take Zoroastrianism. That religion has a lot going for it. I’ve even seen several people argue that Zoroastrianism was more logical than Christianity. But today the religion has only a few hundred thousand adherents, it will be extinct in a few centuries, and no one takes it seriously any more. This seems for the most part to be just a consequence of having few followers. The fact that no one believes in Zoroastrianism is taken as evidence that it must be false.

I’ve even seen atheists use the fact that religions come and go as evidence that no religion can be true. The problem with this, of course, is that it then means that if a religion stays around for a while (say, Catholicism), it must be true. I doubt they want to imply that. My question is – do Catholics want to imply that?

Perhaps there is some value to discarding belief systems on that basis, perhaps not. I don’t know. But I do think it would be somewhat amusing – depressing and irrational, yes, but it would have a dark humor to it – if the one true faith, which everyone had to believe in order to be saved, was that of Baal.

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.

The Crawling Chaos

November 5, 2007

I recently read H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. For those who don’t know, H.P. Lovecraft was a horror writer from the early twentieth century most famous for his Cthulhu Mythos.

Now, the Dream-Quest is not from the Cthulhu Mythos. It is from the Dream Cycle. Though there are occasional cross-references between the two, they are usually considered separate entities, and I endorse that view. Of course, Lovecraft was not nearly as, shall we say, rigorous in his mythopoeia as J.R.R. Tolkien was. He described what he was doing as creating “pseudo-mythology”. The world(s) Lovecraft describes isn’t coherent, and it’s not supposed to be; it’s just supposed to evoke a certain emotion, namely, terror. In fact, he probably wanted it to not only make no sense, but nonsense; after all, one of the main themes of the Cthulhu Mythos is that mankind cannot understand the universe and that, if anyone comes close, he becomes a gibbering idiot because of the sheer horror contained therein. Note that I don’t really like this approach to mythopoeia, but I do recognize Lovecraft’s genius for it.

On to the story itself. I’m a big fan of the Dream-Quest; it’s probably my favorite Lovecraftean tale. It’s not exactly typical Lovecraft, though. It is fairly long, a novella really, unlike most of his pieces, which are short stories. It focuses not on one particular horror, but on a long sequence of rather surreal and disconnected adventures. Most importantly, though, unlike most Lovecraft pieces, it has a happy ending. At least somewhat happy.

Now one reason I like the Dream-Quest is that it seems to me like Lovecraft’s best statement of the idea of an illogical, absurd universe with no inherent meaning, in which there may be deities but they are neither good, nor bad, but amoral. The tale is filled with mentions of the Other Gods, who are described as “mindless”, and whose herald Nyarlathotep is called the “horror of infinite shapes and dread soul and messenger of the Other Gods”. The lord of this world is the Daemon-Sultan Azathoth who rules from the outer abyss that would drive any man who perceived it into insanity.

I think this idea is well summed up in my favorite quote from the Dream-Quest, from when Randolph Carter, the hero of the tale, thinks he has completed his quest: “Carter had come to unknown Kadath in the cold waste, but he had not found the gods.” Carter had come through innumerable dangers in the hope of finding the gods and pleading before them to be allowed to enter the golden city, only to find that they do not even live where he thought they did. That is the bleakest picture of a world with a deity that I can imagine. It is a rebuke to those who assume that it logically follows that if there is a God, he must be good. He could be the Daemon-Sultan set on mocking us, toying with us, and eventually leading us all into oblivion.

So the Dream-Quest seems to be pretty clearly espousing a cosmology that makes no sense, or that if it does make sense is to vast and terrible as to be incomprehensible to humanity. It is a rather depressing idea. At the same time, the happy ending seems to refute this world-view. I actually don’t know why Lovecraft would have the story end how it does – it seems to refute his theology (if it can be called that). Perhaps because, while Randolph Carter isn’t turned into a gibbering idiot by the nameless horror of the Outer Gods, the story still ends with the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep brooding and devising tortures for the inhabitants of the dream-world. It shows that, while you can perhaps escape from the creeping darkness for the time being, eventually it will find you and catch you and rend the veil that protects you from the dark beyond. There is no salvation.

Of course I don’t believe that the universe is like that, that God is really Azathoth, or that his messenger is Nyarlathotep. Nor should you. But I read H.P. Lovecraft because it seems like a good idea to examine other possible cosmologies in order to learn more about what I actually believe. In other words – yes, I think reading H.P. Lovecraft has made me a better Catholic. I’ve heard that it can be damaging to faith to read him, but I think no more than it can be damaging to read Homer or Virgil. The only danger is if you read uncritically – if you fail to consider the possibility (probability) that the author was wrong.

God vs. the gods; Literary Relativism

October 16, 2007

Last Thursday I went to a debate between two professors, one of theology and one of English, about “God vs. the Homeric gods”. It was enjoyable, and I agreed with a lot of what they said, but…

There seems to me to be a fundamental problem with how both of the speakers approached Homer. What both failed to address, I think, was whether or not the Homeric portrayal is coherent. Some mention was made of how Homer’s portrayal is confusing. It was assumed, however, that Homer had some deeper vision behind the confusion, and thus our inability to make sense of religion in the Iliad is in some sense our fault. Homer was a poetic genius; if he indeed said what he meant, as we assume, he would have had arguments for what he said.

Now, Christians view polytheism as fundamentally flawed and illogical. We cannot but say, then, that Homer must have been in error in his poetic theology. This position seems forbidden; one cannot say that the Iliad is flawed, only that it is confusing. Because it is one of the founding works of Western civilization, it is assumed that its composer – who, I agree, was a genius – must have intended everything he composed. When we look at what he has said in light of Christianity, however, we find that it is not only confusing, it is contradictory.

For example, there is somehow both free will and fate in Homer’s world. In the Christian view, free will and fate can coexist because God is timeless, and so he can know our destiny already and yet allow us free will because it just doesn’t make sense to speak of “already” when talking about God. For the Homeric gods, however, this is not the case. This is a contradiction.

We could make excuses for Homer, saying it is just an additional complexity in the work, but this is disingenuous. It is better to simply explain why the contradiction arose. Homer recognized that men had free will, and that if there were gods – as he saw that there must be – they must be great, much greater than men, and also that there was this thing “fate”, though he did not completely understand it. He then wrote his epic poems with this understanding, and this is why his poems ring true in so many ways – they are true in many ways. Homer did not see, however, how much greater than men God must be, or that there must be only one of him, or that he must be outside of time, and so he did not put that into his poem. Because of this, his poem is not just confusing, but contradictory and at times wrong when it talks about those subjects.

It really frustrates me how nobody is willing to say this. It strikes me as a kind of literary relativism; every author is always correct in the argument they make in their work, and our job as an audience is just to absorb their message…

Except for the first and last paragraphs, this was written as an extra-credit assignment for THEO 1310:06 “Understanding the Bible”. Most likely I won’t get docked points for posting it here as well; if I do, well, it’s extra-credit anyways.

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