Sunday, October 3, 2010


Ritual is rarely well defended. The pragmatist launches the all purpose critique of "What good does it do?" and the defenders of ritual are stunned and in disarray. Yet I do not think that it is because the ritualist has no reasons, it is because he has been asked the wrong question. When the pragmatist asks, "What good does it do?" he is asking if it will toast muffins, or mow grass, or drive away that tiresome infestation of ants. And accordingly, when asked what ritual is for, the temptation is to answer in these terms and talk about the educational power in the symbol. But of course, if that was all that the ritual did, one ought to go to a lecture, which would be much clearer and more precise.
There is a reason that people all over the world create rituals and it is the same reason why the create manners and codes of conduct. It is because they are human. Mourners bring flowers to graves, not because they think that the dead require flowers, but because it seems the right thing to do. Hostess devise strange and elaborate rules governing the disposition of cutlery not because they think that there is Trinitarian message in eating with three different forks, but because it seems right. We protect and cherish old photographs, not because they are mystically connected with their subject, but because it feels right to protect even the image of a loved one.
In this sense animals are the great pragmatists. One can almost always see the material advantage in what animals do. Humanity is the one source of divine unreason in nature. Ritual is the affirmation of significance beyond material necessity. It decrees that things have a meaning beyond the use that can be made of them. Ultimately it is mingled with the mystery of the Incarnation, that matter and the eternal word are mingled. Thus it wrong to ask what good it is to burn incense, or light candles, or sing cants. It is partly to teach an allegorical mystery, partly for the sake of beauty, but mostly because it is right, it is human.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The King in Yellow

I first heard this book mentioned in a novel called The High House, where it was one of the volumes in the anarchist library. In the margins there was a note that it drove the reader mad.
So I googled it and discovered that it was in fact a real book.
As it turns out, The King in Yellow is a rather curious collection of short stories by Robert Chambers. The first four stories, The Repairer of Reputations, The Mask, In the Court of the Dragon, and The Yellow Sign are linked together by a play called The King in Yellow, which drives mad anyone how reads the second Act. Then there is a collection of curious semi-poetic called The Prophets Paradise. Finally, there are several romantic short stories.
Generally, Chambers is remembered first and foremost for the first four stories. H.P. Lovecraft would later be inspired by them and adapt several of their elements for his Cthulu myth.
These stories, especially In the Court of the Dragon, suggest a sort of melancholic madness that is characteristic of Poe. As Christianity portrays the universe as something fundamentally good and ordered, Chambers gives a vision of a universe that is fundamentally mad. Christian horror shows a sudden black on a white field. Dracula is an example of this. The vampire represents a perversion of the love between Jonathan and Mina, and in the end their love is stronger. Throughout Dracula there points were the holy powers work to thwart the monster.
In The King in Yellow however, all spiritual powers are hostile. There is a sense of them being something utterly alien to humanity. It is hard to tell wether they work in something beyond reason or below it.
In man there are two fears, the fear of things in the dark and the fear of darkness itself. Monsters are less frightening in that one can wrap the mind around them. They are at best, merely emissaries of the terror of something older and stronger than the earth. This terror is the driving force of The King in Yellow.

Friday, July 24, 2009

In which Things get a Little Harry...

So, the long awaited movie of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has arrived. I have now seen it twice and have mixed feelings about it. 

On the plus side:

The execution was beautiful in almost every respect. Kudos to whoever dealt with the special effects. 
The acting was also uniformly good, with special commendations to Hermione and Snape
The predominant use of white matches well with John Grangers theory of literary alchemy in Harry Potter.

On the minus side:

The story just didn't flow well. Everything felt rushed, even though they cut several much lamented story lines. I will now vilify myself to the entire Harry Potter fan base and suggest that they should have cut even more ruthlessly. I think that basically only the Horcrux and the Malfoy story lines ought to have been preserved. One of the main problems with how they cut the film was that they lost a lot of the clues for finding the six Horcruxes. It is hard to know how they will continue the story without them. 
Everything was much less subtle than in the books. You always know that Malfoy is a death-eater, he is trying to repair a vanishing cabinet that opens a doorway into Hogwarts, and even that Snape is really good.

Overall, the film was fun to watch with some really excellent acting and cinematography. I am hoping that the extra time that they gain by splitting the last film will give them the freedom to allow the film to breathe. 

Monday, June 8, 2009

Live Long, then Prosper

     The Christian emphasis on death has been viewed as morbid by various atheists. Indeed, one went so far as to write an atheist hymn cheerfully declaring that he was in no hurry to die, and that he wished to live past his hundredth year. Of course most people love life dearly but I cannot help but think that the Christian view is somewhat more practical. Whether the atheist wants to live well past a hundred is somewhat irrelevant. He isn't going to. 
For those of us who love life there are two alternatives, enjoy the ephemeral flash of life we are given and then accept unending death, or look to another life. However, if there is a second life, it may be impacted by what we do in this life. Most religions have picked up on this fact. The ancient Egyptians focused so much on death precisely because they so loved life.
The materialist tries to avoid death and pain at all costs, since this is our one chance at life and pleasure, yet for those who believe in an after life these are secondary concerns. The soul must be protected from corruption, or else it may fall into decay in the long stretch of ages. 
No man will save his life by being cautious with it, yet he may gain unending life if he makes a good crossing of death.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Coraline: A Modern Fairy Tale

Coraline is a short and eerie book by Neil Gaiman which has now been successfully adapted into a movie. The story is somewhat reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel. Coraline Jones has recently moved into a very old house divided between several tenants. Her parents are too occupied to give her much attention and she is bored. Exploring the house, she discovers a walled up door, which leaders into a much more interesting world inhabited by her other parents and replicas of the houses other tenants. However, the other mother makes a startling request, and Coraline begins to discover the other worlds dark secret.

Past this point there be spoilers. 
General knowledge of the book is assumed.
You have been warned. 

I was particularly struck by the themes of names, love, and virtual reality.

First, the theme of love. There are two main examples of love in the book. The love of the other mother, the love of Coraline, and the indifference of the house's tenants. The love of the other mother is a sort of devouring. When it has had its way, it leaves its object an empty and soulless husk. It draws its strength from the souls that it has consumed. However, it does not remember the object of its affection once it has consumed it, any more than you would remember the sandwich you had for lunch. It is significant that the other mother quotes King Lear, a play about a parent who demands a sort of servile love in return for benefits rendered.
The other tenants are exemplify simple indifference. When they speak with Coraline, they do not really listen to her, but are instead caught up in their own thoughts. This is why they cannot remember her name. Because the tenants have not really tried to know her, Coraline sometimes wonders who it is that they think they are talking to. The truth is, often they are simply talking to themselves.
Finally, we come to love as exemplified by Coraline towards the end of the story. While returning to the otherworld to rescue her parents from the other mother, Coraline states that she is rescuing them simply because they are her parents, not because of anything in particular that they have done for her. This exemplifies the love for the individual in and of itself, without reference to anything that may be gained from it. The other mother seeks to draw other selves into her self, the tenants of the flat are unable to look out of themselves, Coraline has to learn to love what is other, without conforming it to herself. In the end, she gains a greater appreciation for real things, things that are not just what she wanted. 
One of the main things that makes the world interesting is that it is other than we are. It is full of things that have never entered into our thoughts. Through this love which accepts reality, she is able to challenge the demonic other mother with the help of her friends and family, who are able to lend Coraline their strength without becoming any less themselves. 
So why is there the repeated emphasis on names? In the beginning of the book, none of the tenants of the old house say Coraline's name correctly, instead calling her Caroline no matter how many times she corrects them. In the other world, everyone gets Coraline's name right.  Later, she meets a cat who claims that the humans use names because people do not know who they are. While in the other world, Coraline also attends a theater where various fragments of Shakespeare are performed. Three lines are listed, two of which are 'What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.' and 'I know not how to tell thee who I am.' Also important was this dialogue,

"Now Coraline," said Miss Spink," what's your name?"
"Coraline," said Coraline."
"And we don't know each other, do we?"

I think what is being said here is that even though they know her name, they do not know who Coraline herself is. Hence the lines 'what is in a name.' The thing itself is not dependent upon the name. According to the cat's statement, names may be used to stop thinking about who you are. Likewise, I suspect that some people believe that something has been scientifically explicated so long as it has been scientifically named. Yet a mystery by any other name is still a mystery.
On the other hand, names are important in loving others. A name distinguishes between two people. The cat is solitary, and so does not require a name for the sake of others, and he already knows who he is, so he does not require a name for himself. A name is a contrast between two things of the same nature. The lover says that the beloved's name is like music because it is by the name that he distinguishes her from all the legions of woman kind, though he know more understands her than he does the movements of the Heavens. The name he uses is a pet name, a term of endearment. Thus, in the story, when one's soul is stolen through false love, one forgets one's own name. Conversely, when one truly loves, one learns and remembers the beloved's name. True love highlights individuality and names, false love undermines them. At the end of the book, Coraline comes to learn Mr. Bobo's name, and he in turn remembers hers. The book further records that Mr. Bobo repeats her name with wonder and respect. I think that he comes to actually see her and love her, in part by paying her enough attention to see her as an individual and know her name. Perhaps this is why it is comforting to name strange things. Names are terms of endearment. By loving a thing, it becomes lovable. We poor mortals are forever loving that which we do not understand and giving pet names to the cosmic mysteries.
Finally, there is the theme of virtual reality. The great temptation of fiction is that it allows us to create worlds in our own image. Yet man is not meant to live alone. It is suffocating to live enveloped in one's own thoughts. It is demonic to envelope others in them. Charles Williams reminds us of this in his Descent into Hell, in which one character, named Wentworth, is damned through his choice to love his own imaginings over facts. In contrast, Coraline is offered the chance to live in a world designed according to her desires, but turns it down. She understands that just getting what one wants isn't enough. One needs real people, other people. She cannot love the inhabitants of the other world because they are not persons but rather cleverly contrived imitations. It may be that a certain kind of struggle, and even pain, is necessary to human love. Perhaps that is why the symbol of love, the rose, has thorns.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On the Messianic Hero

The Messianic Hero is a far rarer archetype than either the Human Hero or the Anti-Hero. He is the one who comes down from Heaven to save us all. Common examples would be Superman (sometimes) and Jesus. The mark of the Messianic Hero is a total lack of internal conflict. They are all gold, and there is not a trace of corruption about them. Lacking any form of corruption, they are impervious to all assaults upon them. True they may suffer physical injury occasionally, but nothing can shake their souls. One is reminded somewhat of how Marcus Aurelius said that no man can be injured but by himself.
The Messianic Hero is less common in literature for a few reasons. In the first place, he is much harder to write. It is easy to write a character who is worse than oneself. It is very hard to write one that is better. Because of this, most authors fail in creating a Messianic hero and instead produce a shining machine spouting truisms. Sin is so deeply ingrained into human nature that it is hard to create a sinless character without making him inhuman. Secondly, current fashions in literature make much of dynamic characters. Messianic Heroes can only really change by falling. They may grow, but they cannot really exhibit positive change. Hence the Messianic hero is by nature static. Thirdly, people are less likely to believe in the Messianic Hero without being able to see how he came about. For this reason, he is usually featured as a Human Hero who achieves the status of a Messianic Hero at the end of the story.
It is a common feature of the Messianic Hero that he dies to save his people and is then raised from the dead (see Matrix). He is also commonly the child of a god (Aeneas). He also generally has a deep impact upon the ideas and spirit of the people. He roots out underlying despair, hypocrisy, and cruelty. The end of the heroic journey is often to become a Messianic Hero, just as it is the end of the alchemical one to turn lead into gold.

Monday, May 25, 2009

On the Anti-Hero

     The anti-hero is one of the most ambiguous of the archetypes. There are at least three prominent definitions.
(1). It can refer to a hero who lacks divine power. Hence Achilles would be a hero, and Samwise Gamgee would be an anti-hero. 
(2). It can refer to hero who has character flaws. By this definition, Samwise is the hero and Achilles the anti-hero.
(3). Finally, it can refer to the evil character who you want to root for, like Captain Jack Sparrow.
     Each of these archetypes is clearly a distinct concept and each should be dealt with separately. 1 and 2 will therefore be regrouped under the heading of "Human Heroes." They are admittedly in different subsets, but they have a common feature. They are both of this earth, struggling to stand upright against greater forces which are trying to tear them down. For Achilles it is the fate that binds all mortals, for Sam it is the power of Sauron
The Messianic Hero is unbreakable, the anti-hero is broken, and the human hero totters between the two.
So for this discussion, the anti-hero will be confined to the inhabitants of group 3. 
    Within the category of evil characters we shouldn't like but do, there are two further sub-categories. There is the humorous anti-hero, and the diabolical one. Jack Sparrow and Falstaff are the first, Henry V is the second. 
     Is is hard to be really angry at the humorous anti-hero. He just doesn't seem that evil. Furthermore, because he is funny, those opposing him often seem overly puritanical and grim. They cannot take the joke. 
Yet this sort of hero often does great harm to the people around him, he just does it with such jollity that even those he has hurt have trouble being angry. Sir John leaves his friends in pretty tight financial straights because of his carousing, yet they are faithful to him to the end. It is hard to know what to do with a character both wicked and sympathetic. Shakespeare kills off Falstaff, but he is never such a sympathetic character as when he dies. Queen Elizabeth actually requested another play with Falstaff as the central character. In my humble opinion, Shakespeare did never did quite finish off the rouge. Falstaff got away from him. Redemption might be a promising solution, but since the anti-hero's crimes are funny, it is hard to bring about any real repentance. I do not think that most audiences really want it any way. It is certainly hard to pull off believably. Most authors just let the comic anti-hero go his way and leave him to the mercy of Heaven or Hell.
The only way that this kind of character ever becomes a hero is that circumstances conspire to place them at the center of things and heroism is in line with their selfish motives. More often he serves as a supporting character, in which case he is called the rogue.
The second type of anti-hero, the diabolical one, works in a very different vein. He is simply awesome enough that his cruelty and deceit elicit a sort of admiration. He plays on a certain nerve. The admiration of power, delight in subtly, and the love of cruelty all play into his attraction. Nietzsche's superman is a fair example of the diabolical hero. The Comedian from Watchmen may be another example. He is only able to be the hero if the author employs a very skewed worldview in which his wickedness can be applauded. 
The diabolical anti-hero differs from the comic one in that the comic anti-hero acts heroically in spite of his wickedness, and the diabolical anti-hero is admired precisely because he is wicked. A similar character is used by many authors as the simple villain. The only difference is in whether the quest at the center of the story involves toppling wicked giants or becoming a wicked giant. A surprising number of people admire the giants.
The diabolical anti-hero is a dangerous archetype to invoke. If he is successful, he will be appealing. A conscientious author has to be careful to disenchant his audience with the anti-hero before the book ends. He is too much of a loose cannon to leave careening about. Personally, I do not think he should be used much at all. Even if the author successfully subdues the anti-hero in the story, he may be used by other less scrupulous writers for worse ends. His best use is as the simple villain rather than as the anti-hero, but more on that topic later.