Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Sunday Drive

There is breathtaking news. Driving around, I saw that McRib is back. This is simply great stuff.

Here: read a quote while you absorb the gravity of the situation.
"Nothing worth putting into my journal occurred this day. It passed away imperceptibly, like the whole life of many a human existence." -- James Boswell, London Journal.
That's Boswell, saying that nothing happened, but, man alive, when something did happen, by his reckoning, it was pretty outrageous. London Journal reads like a frat boy with unlimited funds on a year long Spring Break. Can you imagine what Boswell's "worth" is? The man obviously lived in the days before blogs, as they seem to exist precisely for housing the nothing worth putting down.

Boswell took his title and money and went to London and climbed upon everything in a skirt and blamed women for all his medical ailments. However, he also worked with Samuel Johnson on a Tour of the Hebrides. There was a lot of that then, and now: writing travel books. It's all about what the inn is like, who the local lord is, the weather, the character of the people (back when people had characters different from one another), etc. I think perhaps we still read travel books because we hope that there are places with character, that there are nationalities and ethnicities that are 1) different from us, 2) educational for us, 3) home for our moods.

As GloboCultCorp spreads itself evenly and consistently across the whirling face of the deep and dry, we get that ennui of cosmopolitanism. The Hellenes suffered it first. They invented the "citizen of the world," and they invented the problem that comes from knowing that, wherever you go, it's pretty much like being at home. You go from Athens to Alexandria, and you speak Greek, meet Greeks, worship Greek gods, read Greek scrolls, etc. It's a standard side effect of empire. The empire of corporations produces a different problem. Commodity ennui.

So, we read travel books, because on the fringes of Mindanao or Budapest there are people who are different from us. They rinse themselves in salt water. They are sullen. They have three drinks to toast all guests. They paddle around in boats with no keel. They speak slowly. They walk upon their hands. They have their heads in their stomachs. They dance every time the moon is full. They wear elaborate headdresses and share their porridge, which you must never spit out....
McRib, meanwhile, has been voyaging. He had adventures untold, I am sure, on his voyage. He met many unusual people and influenced generations. He is back now, though, and we all welcome him.

I'm joking, of course. A friend of mine tells me that the proper reading for the phrase is not "McRib has returned," but "McRib equals back." Now, of course, the ribs of a hog do go to the back, but it is also possible that McRib is back bacon (or "lardon," apparently).

So, imagine someone reading a travel book somewhere. "There are cultures in America where they have a McRib, and they do not know what it is, except back."

In fact, I have to say that there are some peoples left, some cultures. There is the bored ethnicity, the angry culture, and, my own, the phlegmatic. In fact, I can easily imagine a new product that will match the culture as fittingly as the McRib: the Ford Phlegmatic transmission. It will shift from first to second, but it's not like that's any better.

You see, the nature of commodities in the new world and the New World's new world, is to match up with the culture. You know you are in a cultural group by the goods for sale, not by the characteristics or attitudes of the peoples.

While some things, like bananas, know no season or region, as they are available to the potassium starved subject of the Northern Lights and the salt-poor sweat baron of the American South alike, other products are "special." They, it seems, testify to our uniqueness. We have a unique taste for the McRib, and so the product "demo's" in front of our pot bellies. The lobster roll at McDonalds tells us that we're in Maine. The special DLites fat-free juice bar tells us we're in the ultraswede of midtown Atlanta. Therefore, I think that the Phlegmatic should be introduced.

Think of it: It goes from zero to fast enough. It doesn't get great gas mileage, but who cares? It has four doors, but one of them comes already stuck shut. The windows don't much matter. You see, I have to admit, that what we have around here is not so much culture as humor. Our humor is decidedly black bile and yellow.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Gold Encompass

I've been silent for a while, as a semester has intervened, and I'm sure that all of you are waiting to see if I have anything to say about Mr. Pullman's The Golden Compass. After all, fundamentalists of all sorts are upset at the film, and e-mail is flying. Worse still, unlike other campaigns of shock and "awwww," the fundamentalists are correct: Philip Pullman did, indeed, write his books to be atheist fables. Before condemning them, I decided to do the unthinkable and actually read the first novel, the one that has been filmed, and then come to a conclusion.

I may not be a New Critic anymore, but I was trained by New Critics and still do their stuff first. Therefore, my instinct is to say, "I don't care what the author wanted to do, or what the author said he did; the book is the book, and that's that." Therefore, I wanted to read the book to see if the book, and then potentially the film that resulted, would achieve this goal Pullman claimed. This is aside from the other active issue of whether going to such a movie encourages other commissions which funds and rewards the endeavor, etc. That's a different argument for different people to have, and it's one that I may approach tangentially, below.

"Ye see your state wi’ theirs compared,
And shudder at the niffer;
But cast a moment’s fair regard,
What maks the mighty differ; 20
Discount what scant occasion gave,
That purity ye pride in;
And (what’s aft mair than a’ the lave),
Your better art o’ hidin." Robert Burns, "Address to the Unco Guid"

What struck me first about the book The Golden Compass was, "Wow. I could never do that." This is a common reaction when I read a book, but moreso when I read a book from a genre that I do not find natural. Science fiction and fantasy are alien to my internal fictionalizing. My personal fantasies are hackneyed and predictable. I rarely think of grafting in massive blobs from the Thule Society's acolytes into a language of "what if the Reformation never happened," and therefore when I met the novel's imagining of such a world, it struck me as very detailed.

It was interesting. If the Reformation had not occurred, would Calvin have become a Pope? Would the universities in England have retained their ecclesiastical orientation? Would "science" have never developed as a thing independent of church concerns? "Well, that's fun," I thought. "Oh," I thought, "I can certainly have enjoyable arguments about whether this bit would have occurred, or this, and I'm sure that this is wrong."

By page 200, I was face to face with the Problem of Science Fiction, though. Soon after that, I met with the Problem of Fantasy Fiction. These two things meant that the fun of pp. 1-50 was having to pull more and more against two fat monsters sitting on the other side of the teeter-totter.

In brief, then (and in bullets):
  • The problem of science fiction is that such authors tend to be excellent at plot. They have endless action, and the action points are quite diverse. They have the detective novelist's knack for making tenuous details swing large acts. They also have fantastic pace. Their inner ears are highly attuned. As sensitive as the protagonist of "The Black Cat," they can hear a reader yawn from a hundred pages and a thousand days away. This doesn't sound like a problem, but it is. Plot is unrealistic. Plot, by its nature, involves an editorial vision, and therefore highly or tightly plotted works inevitably bounce a message against the reader's unconscious and whisper: "I have a point, here. I have a message. I have a goal. I am deferring or speeding a conclusion." Plots are always teleological. Plots are, of course, good. However, the heavier and more obvious the plot, the more that whisper becomes a speech, then an harangue.
  • Science fiction authors stink at character. They really do. Almost invariably, they produce wooden characters. If they have any complex characters, they limit the cast to one or two actual minds, and the rest of the characters are less character than impulse. Villains are impulses, and heroes are impulses, and love interests are desires, and few have regrets, considerations, motivations, or observations, and they never change.
  • Fantasy authors do very well with inventing or adapting history and beliefs in the supernatural. The prince of this must remain Tolkien, with Lewis as his viceroy, but even before Tolkien the job of the fantasist was to take a known codification of the uncanny (night hags, cautionary tales, infant mortality hidden by folk tale, marital infidelity, etc.) and either combine many together or expand them into an active plot. However, these remain pastiche. Although they may create a new system of the uncanny or may merely exploit it, and although they can achieve a new landscape of potential plots and actions, where quotidian motivations and desires can be amplified or made morally unambiguous, they remain pastiche. Therefore, they can only have value to the degree that they succeed in making plain something hidden in the originals that they have borrowed.
  • The heroes and heroines of fantasy works, and especially those aimed at young audiences, are uncommonly stupid. No, really. They're unbelievably stupid. Unlike folk tales and tales of tricksters, fantasy figures have to possess unbreakable blindness. The reader sees ahead of them, and yet the fantasy figure never thinks, never considers, and definitely never learns.
Oof! That's nearly as bad as the wordy intellectualism below, and I'm trying very hard not to be all self-indulgently brainiac and stuff. Here. Look at this picture.

So, there's Pullman, reminding me of both the limitations of the fantasy author and the limitations of the science fiction author. I was impressed primarily because he is a science fiction author and a fantasy author, and both of those are outside my mindset. However, the borrowed elements were obnoxious, the pastiche had no hortatory or heuristic value, the plotting was severe and yet seemed to lead only to the next installment, and the character stupidity was simply overwhelming.

The novel goes on and on and on about The North. The North, you may recall, is "Ultima Thule" and "Hyperborea." If that's not creepy enough, then the heroic anthropomorphism in the book is a bear, from a race of bears known as panserbjorn. Ill yet? Hearing the gentle, soul numbing strains of Richard Wagner? Obviously, some faction of the Wagner hallucinations is involved, and there are "Gyptians" about as well. They're nice folks, of course, so I'm not implying that any of the racialism is grafted in. No. Instead, the source is much more immediate, much more amnesiac. Our other great set of supernatural figures are the witches, and they are every bit the witches that Madame Sosostris would know. Contemporary "pagans" unwittingly (generally) take in vast draughts of Thule Society, Wagnerian, and Theosophist flotsam and stitch it all together into a self-laudatory opiate. Mr. Pullman seems to have been keen on their fantasies for his fantasy novel.

The fantasy novelist's love of characters with the intelligence of an overripe rutabaga shows up in Lyra, the antiseptic and antisexual heroine of the book. (When I say that she is anti-sexual, I mean that she is asexual, of course. More of that anon.) She has no awareness of her own sex, no experience of gender, no interactions with the world that would indicate that she is more than an abstraction, and no expressions of thought beyond, "Oh, dear" and "My darling." She meets a big Polar Bear who can take down a castle with his paws, and she wants to hug it. She interacts with the bear for a few pages, spends perhaps two days in its company, and then, from being very tentative and constantly afraid, immediately begins referring to it as "Dear" and "Darling" and "my love." I suspect that even a tween reader will notice this sudden change. (Oh, and that cuddly wuddly bear returns the affection zero-fold. Never mind: the heroine is too stupid to notice and too poorly conceived to react.)

Ever since Jack the Giant Killer, fantasy characters have done things for no better reason than a wild hair. Lyra is no different.

Finally, Pullman the atheist propagandist does show up in the novel. I was reading with a weather eye out for this, and, had I not, I might not have noticed it quite so much. Generally, the book is about as anti-Christian as Vanity Fair. The man thinks himself a thinker, I guess. I think myself one, too, but I do not presume to write novels. At any rate, when he has adult characters talking metaphysics, all halts. Everything bogs down as two people lecture one another about Pullman's concept of quantum mechanics, choice, multiple event universes, contingency, and will. It is not only wretched, but it is no more aesthetic than Frankenstein's neck.

Another break for another dance:

My verdict? Well, it's an interesting book with an intolerable heroine, clumsy efforts at philosophy, and a background in the shabby inheritors of theosophism that should make anyone with any moral or intellectual sense wretch. It's not, however, "anti-Christian." I understand from some fairly unimpeachable sources that the really explicit atheist propaganda occurs in books 2 and 3 of the set. Therefore, on the subject of whether fundamentalists should be avoiding the film or book because of potential spiritual damage to the consumer, I would say that they are wrong. There isn't even significant intellectual damage. There is a weakening of defenses against nonsense, and it might make more of that dreadful "neo-pagan" stuff seem less obviously idiotic, but that's no reason to boycott.

If we're worried that putting money in Pullman's pocket will result in more efforts to destroy the Faith, then I have nothing to say. He already got paid, and he won't get more or less if you go or do not go to the movie. When it comes to that, though, I should say that the films that posit a moral universe with rampant evil and an absence of God do more harm than even one trying to stick its tongue out at Christianity, but that leads me to what I really wanted to talk about today, which is actual atheism vs. what Mr. Pullman is.

I know this post is long. I do apologize. I understand if you go have a Coke right now, so long as you promise to come back.

Mr. Pullman is, he says, an "atheist." Well, that's bunk. He's not an atheist at all. He's an anti-theist. There is a big difference. An atheist does not believe that there is a god of any sort. Therefore, he or she has no thoughts on those who believe in a god. In general, I myself am an aatheist, which is someone who lives in a world without a belief in those without a belief in the divine. This is different from an AAtheist, which is a person who lives in a world of twelve step programs.

Argument by analogy is dangerous, but I'm going to try to be fair with this one. Let's suppose the subject is not God, but rather something neutral or indifferent: Baffin Island, Canada. I say there is no Baffin Island. I've never met anyone from Baffin Island. I think the claims made for it can be answered more logically another way. I think that those who drew it on the maps were operating out of ignorance. Therefore, I think there is no Baffin Island. I am in a minority in my society in being an aBaffinist, surely.

So? As an aBaffinist, I just go about my business. Oh, it comes up in conversation sometimes -- particularly in dormitory common rooms -- and I quickly find out that neither I nor my Baffinists can prove the case to one another. I can't convince them, and they can't convince me. I quickly, therefore, come to a modus vivendi.

What would make me change from an aBaffinist to an anti-Baffinist, though, would be if 1) Those who believed in Baffin Island insisted that I agree, 2) They constrained my free action. Following the analogy, an a-theist would become an anti-theist if he believed that the World were forcing him to agree. I see no evidence that this is the case. Additionally, an atheist might say that he or she is unable to be employed or unable to run for office without having faith. I do not accept that my prayer forces the atheist to pray, nor that the rash of politicians claiming faith can be attributed to the faith's philosophical and theological claims. I don't think that "In God We Trust" amounts to forcing the atheist to believe, as the atheist believes there is nothing there to believe in.

So, Mr. Pullman's novels are filled with The Church. They are at great pains to speak of Original Sin. They are avid about Angels. They require killing angels. They have great amounts of church control.

This is atheism?

It's anti-clericalism, and there's a fine tradition of that from Christians. It's anti-authoritarianism, and there is a fine tradition of that, too. It's anti-theism, as well. This, of course, only confirms the object being argued against, and Mr. Pullman is either too dull or too passionate to care that he must affirm the divine to have his character "kill" the divine. He must affirm the power of faith and the meaningfulness of it to have his characters fight against the organizations impelled by that power. There is nothing atheistic involved in these works. There is something Satanic in the most literal sense, because there is an acknowledgment of God and a desire to do Him in. It's a world with flying witches, talking bears, nature spirits, and all sorts of things, but it is also one that explicitly rejects a unifying supernatural. Oh, lots of little ones are ok. One big one, though, would mean authority.

Like I said, the vision is not "humanist" (and I cannot tell you just how aggravating it is that atheist societies are calling themselves "humanists" -- do they actually want to make my job, and the jobs of other Christian Humanists, impossible by tarring us with their brush?), because the entirety is hinged on the soul, ghosts, eminence, prophecy, and all sorts of tatters of contemporary magical theory, and what is glorious in the books is most emphatically not the human. If it were, then the human desire to connect with the divine would be praised at least as much (more, in my view, given the results of that love in art) as the human desire to manipulate the environment with tools. Instead, though, we have the framework of theology used to protest that someone once told Mr. Pullman that he had a bedtime.

It's very difficult to respect such things.