Wednesday, May 31, 2006

I love the smell of a campus in the summer. It smells like...victory.

A campus in the summer has the luxurious feel of lively relaxation. There's still people around with things to do, but the pace is slow and quiet.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Summertime (yes, it's summer for me)

When cleaning and organizing my materials, I come across all sorts of papers I wrote in grad school. It's quite a discovery. I find things I hadn't thought about in some time, ideas I've forgotten about, concepts I came up with that I hadn't even remembered. I'm amazed at where I came up with some sentences--it's like a different person writing (my formal paper style is to write a draft early, then revise like hell day after day, so the sentences were constructed and revised over time. But they boggle me). It's become quite clear that the last two years of my life has been a complacent intellectual period (at least compared to the furor I experienced in two years of grad school). Not that I've been dormant--teaching is not an easy intellectual exercise, and I've given great attention to IDEAS as always--just not as intensely focused. I think that's changing.

Looking through my notes I come across papers I wrote for Dr. Buschen's history classes, and I still have the notebooks filled with extensive notes on his lectures (I took such intense notes, I think, because I suspected I would want them in the future). Dr. Buschen was an inspiration to me--in his classes on the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Reformation, he convinced me that a life lived for ideas is a worthwhile life.

I'm in the middle of Bainton's Luther biography Here I Stand, and I've found an unexpected parallel: Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. Both writers occasionally step in to remind their twentieth-century readers that their minds don't work the way peoples' minds did at different periods in the past, and tries to allow us to think the way those in the 16th and 19th centuries, respectively, might.

History is rich with ideas. I'm hoping this summer to read a biography of Frederick the Wise, who seems still an enigmantic figure in the story of the Reformation.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


1. I'm an ideas man. I like content, I like ideas. I'm a bastardized Platonist. If a work of art doesn't have some ideas in it, I don't care if it is perfectly and beautifully constructed. But that doesn't mean I dismiss form. For a good work of art, the form is a part of the idea. Faulkner's As I Lay Dying would not have the same meaning with a different form. All poetry is dependent on form for part of its meaning. Form matters. I just prioritize ideas, and appreciate form when it contributes to the idea.

2. I believe alienation as the human condition is a myth. Do not take that, however, to mean that I believe alienation is a myth. It is very real--however, in today's world that alienation is a reality of social and economic factors. I treat alienation like a Marxist, not a Modernist. And the alienation I feel in life has to do with economics--not a spiritual condition.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Summer Topics

Summer Project: Biography and Luther
I finally saw the film Luther, and aside from the fact that it is essentially a Lutheran propaganda film, and the musical score's attempt to drown out many of the film's more powerful scenes, it is a very good film. Until seeing it, I hadn't really considered what great material Luther's biography could make for a film. Luther's biography, done right, isn't just a story of one tortured monk, but a story of princes, popes, cardinals, emperors, peasants--a whole host of social and political figures of 16th century Europe.

And I've decided on a reading project when I get settled into the new house. I haven't read Roland Bainton's Luther biography Here I Stand since I was a freshman in college; I haven't read Erik Erikson's insightful biography Young Man Luther since I was a senior in college. I'll be re-reading these books soon. I also have a more recent biography around somewhere that I never finished, and I have a collection of Luther's major theological writings, too.

Summer reading for me is usually a survey course; I pick up books from a wide array of authors, subjects, periods, genres. For at least part of my summer, I will make my reading a seminar course on a narrow subject. I'll take a look at Luther's writings, but the main focus will be on how his biography gets constructed. His life is what it is, but how do we interpret it? How do we make meaning of it? I'm quite aware of the man's serious faults, yet I still consider him a personal hero. What does this mean?

For all his faults, he willingly risked his life for a matter of conscience; he stood up to all power, authority, and tradition in an attempt to stand for truth. Can you claim to believe and stand for ANYTHING as strongly as he did?

Seinfeld and Me
When I was in high school, being a fan of Seinfeld said something about me. I was the guy who loved Seinfeld. Now, who doesn't love Seinfeld? If I say I love Seinfeld, if I know all sorts of things about it, if I make all sorts of references to it...I'm like a bunch of other white men in their 20s or 30s.

Bill Simmons
I suppose this could go on my sports blog, but I don't want to be just another anti-Simmons sports blogger. So I'm writing about it here (where nobody will ever know... ha ha...that's a joke...isn't it?).

I can't read him anymore. Partly it's because I can't continue to read one man's subjective tastes in sports, pop culture, and ethics written about as if it is objective truth. But part of it is the sexism. I know he's writing for comedic effect, and every standup comedian needs a "Men do X, Women do Y" fallback. But I can't read another article or even comment from him about how men and women are so essentially different. That's not a part of my worldview anymore. But that's the tone you get from him: men are essentially one way, women are essentially another way, and women can't possibly understand the essence of men, especially when it comes to sports. I only skimmed this recent article because I really just don't have the stomach for this sort of thing any more.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Other Options

So I rant against the alienation and nostalgia of modernism; what can I hope replaces it?

Group Strength (Temporary Community)

So many of Stephen King's best novels feature small groups of people who come together to fight against some evil force. The key, in many of these works, is in a mystical communal connection between members of this group (even though, like all things, it is temporary). In The Dark Tower series, the ka-tet holds significance. In IT, it is clearly the power of the group together which is able to create meaning and strength in the face of a hostile, evil universe. And in others...The Stand, Desperation...a group of people come together in some way that allows them to fight against the evil forces of this world.

King creates some compelling individual figures within these groups (who undergo their own unique redemptions). And the fragile nature of life and the imminent reality of death means these groups are not permanent communities. But it's's a way to fight the hostile forces of the world that is something other than an isolated, alienated individual.

The Three Musketeers also explores community in this way. So does Rent.

Teaching the Alienated to Connect

In Fowles' The Magus, Nicholas Urfe is a young man who has imbibed existential philosophy and literature of alienation. He comes to see himself as an anti-hero, the epitome of the alienated young man. His self-perception prevents him from recognizing that he is in love; his existential (immature? narcissistic?) view of the world prevents him from accepting the fact that he has made a connection.

Conchis teaches him that he does have a chance to connect with other human beings. He teaches him not to be selfish, not to be narrow, to be a mature, socialized adult. And he does this even while teaching him of the primacy of the individual (the execution story).

Celebration of the Individual (rather than alienation)
In Paradise Lost, there is the theme of the faithful individual willing to stand up against social pressure for evil. Milton's influence on the British Romantics is profound. And the Romantics recognize the important role of the individual in the world, but there is little mourning. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats--what I see in their poetry is a celebration of the individual imagination, of the individual receiving solitary nourishment from nature.

Solitude does not have to come with "woe is me" alienation. Wordsworth certainly wrote of alienation from a corrupt human society...but he found meaning in the solitude of nature.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is about many things. It is about alienation and conformity in society. It is about community formation. But it is also, probably primarily, a celebration of the individual.

Existential Freedom (not existential dread)
Rather than a modernist existentialism (man alone in a hostile universe with no purpose), one can embrace postmodern existentialism (man alone to create himself, his meaning, his purpose onto a strange and mysterious world).

Spiritual Journey

Part of the feeling of meaninglessness comes from the 19th and 20th centuries' challenges to religious belief. Scientific understanding of cosmology and biology is certainly a challenge to faith in an ordered universe; warfare and genocide is certainly a challenge to faith in a benevolent deity watching over us. This does not mean, however, that these challenges should destroy us. There is still meaning in a spiritual quest, as seen in works such as Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamozov, or Hesse's Siddhartha. The meaning of Christ can be re-imagined in Jesus Christ Superstar or The Last Temptation of Christ. The modern world does not require a spiritual void. Certainly, it is challenging. But the sacrifices of a spiritual journey into the universe, into the self, into doubt, into God, is still worthwhile.

Explore the causes and solutions of your alienation.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Lukacs on Kafka (my continuing mood against modernism)

You can read about George Lukacs and his attitudes on modernism at wikipedia, but let me try summarize Lukacs' attitude on Kafka from my memory of studies at St. Thomas almost four years ago (learned from Dr. Scheiber and Dr. Jordan). I may get the summary inaccurate, but this summary will suit my purposes and is accurate for discussion even if misremembered.

Basically, Lukacs criticized Kafka and other modernists for taking the alienation experienced by many in the industrial world and turning it into "the human condition." Lukacs felt these writers wrote about the experience of alienation without examining the causes of alienation. Those causes lie with social and economic factors. By moving away from realism, modernists failed to examine the root social and economic causes of alienation in the modern world, instead focusing on the experience of alienation itself.

I think this is unfair in some ways (Kafka's "Metamorphosis" is, after all, about a disillusioned and unfulfilled salesman told by his boss that there is never a time to do no business), but accurate in others. If we focus on the feeling of alienation, and find new ways to express this feeling of alienation, we get nowhere. The Marxist in me would side with Lukacs and demand that we examine exactly WHY one might feel alienated. The Postmodernist in my feels that instead of focusing on the alienation, we find ways in the modern world to no longer feel alienated (is this even an element of "postmodernism"? I don't know. Maybe, maybe not). Because some people aren't alienated. Some people find fulfillment, human connections, community. These things exist--alienation is not THE human condition, though it is A human condition.

Which is why I don't enjoy contemporary modernism in film and literature. I think it is necessary to examine the real causes of alienation in the real world (I feel economically alienated much more often than I feel alienated in any spiritual or human way), and I think it is necessary to find the ways out of this alienation (they exist).

So that is what I wish for at this point in my life. Community may not have meant much to modernists (though American expatriates certainly shared a community--they just focused their writing on individual alienation more). But community can mean something today. E.M Forster perhaps gave us the pathway out of alienation.

"Only connect."

Monday's Links

"Keeping the Faith at Arm's Length" by Alan Wolfe

"How to Build a Viking. A Very, Very Big Viking."

Some descriptions of St. Magnus, a pacifist viking: here, here, and here. Evidently, in the Orkneyinga saga, Magnus was taken on a raid but refused to fight, instead staying on the boat and singing psalms.

The Guthrie's last show

On a related note, I am attempting to take my Christian Pacifism further. I am attempting to avoid conflict in my personal life. I wish to be forgiving, to set aside personal animosities, to avoid anger. I'm nowhere near achieving this goal. However, when it comes to debate of any sort, I intend to be as combative as ever.

(I keep adding more links, so this post could get edited several times this morning).

Friday, May 05, 2006

What we're all about.

In the past two weeks, my wife and I watched The Godfather and The Godfather, Part Two. For her, it was a first viewing; for me, it was a first time seeing them from beginning to end unedited after watching them on TV many times. Sadie said she wanted to go to school and talk to other teachers about it, but realized how stupid it would be to go to school one day in 2006 asking, "Have you guys heard about this movie, The Godfather?"

The movies are, of course, brilliant. Nobody disputes this. Each film is plot-heavy, yet features wonderful character portrayals and development. What each film has, too, is subtlety. Things happen without anybody saying anything about it. Characters are revealed by the expressions on their faces. And yet the films are subtle without the pretentious pointlessness of a film like Lost in Translation. Somehow, a 3 hour movie moves by quickly. These films suck you in with energy, power, and passion--not emptiness.

And emptiness--the modernist dilemma of isolated man, existing in a meaningless industrial world that has lost its past meaning and tradition. I hope I never see another film exploring this theme again. Not that I haven't loved many works of art exploring this theme--but the point is I've loved MANY works of art exploring this theme. It's unnecessary. It's tedious. If you want to be an alienated figure railing against the emptiness and isolation of modern society, nostalgic and desperate for the tradition of the past, well, you're not that alienated. Get in line--you'll find plenty of other artists just as alienated as you. Perhaps you could all get together and get over yourselves.

I'm interested in something new. Modernism used to speak to me, but I've grown out of it. I've taken a postmodern worldview that also reaches back to older understandings of humankind, identity, and community. I've got little time for whining nostalgia about loss, about alienation and isolation. It's been done and been done well.

Perhaps all ideas have been done, and as civilization advances, it will take greater and greater geniuses to possibly innovate and deviate.

But was the writer of Ecclesiastes correct when he wrote that there is nothing new under the sun? Is human nature, human experience, human knowledge, human emotion, fixed and always without change? I don't know. on the one hand, perhaps humans now feel and do things that are no different than in Old Testament times. One of the joys of old paintings is to see the faces of people, and to see no differences of appearance and expression from people you see today. Joy is joy, sorrow is sorrow, whether I see it in the mirror or see it on a Rembrandt. And yet, perhaps humans have evolved, and new experiences of life mean there is, in fact, something new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes is great, though, and anybody who wishes to create art about despair should read it first. Perhaps everything you'd like to say is already there.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Link of the Day, Part 2

English Prof Turns Exam Grading Into Drinking Game

Link of the Day

"How Gatsby Got Wild" by John Kenney

"Baxter, you know I don't speak Spanish."

But I'm going to learn. My wife and I share a fairly large DVD library, and I've begun watching with Spanish subtitles.

Novel is to TV as the Short Story is to Film

Edgar Allan Poe thought the short story was superior to the novel. His argument was that since the reader experiences the short story in one sitting, the story will have an uninterupted, and thus deeper, impact on the reader.

I disagree. The scope and depth of a novel can entirely pull a reader into a separate world. The novel offers a unique experience. Frankly, what the short story offers can also be offered by a film, a poem, a piece of music, a visual work of art (I also believe drama to be a unique artform, in the way it is re-interpreted and re-experienced). Taking breaks reading doesn't taint the novel's effect; rather, it is often through these breaks that the novel lingers in the reader. It can have a greater impact because you pull the novel into your own life.

Good films can suck you into a separate world, too. But the film is akin to the short story. It can suck you in for one sitting, and if it is very good, it will still linger with you for a long time.

But a good TV series is like a novel: it has greater scope, greater depth, and your experience with it stretches out across and into your life. You can't follow it all in one sitting; however, because you experience previous episodes, you know somewhat what to expect from this other world, so you can easily be drawn back into it within a few seconds or minutes of viewing.

A good TV series has every reason to be called "art" that a film does. It can pull you into a separate world. It can examine human existence. It can teach lessons. It can inspire. Put all the episodes of The X-Files in a row, and you've got as good a visual sci fi narrative as any film. Watch all the episodes of Nip/Tuck, and you may find yourself inspired to be a better person (whatever that means to you). Watch all the episodes of Six Feet Under (I'm 2 episodes away), and you'll experience a meditation on the meaning of death as good as you can hope to find elsewhere.

Even comedy draws you into its world. When I watch Curb Your Enthusiasm or Seinfeld, I feel I have entered something outside myself, while also entering deeper inside myself.

I don't want to denigrate the short story or film. But I think that a TV series is like a novel--encompassing artistic experiences.

Contrapuntal Writing on the Internet

There are different styles and structures of good writing for different purposes. A formal academic paper features a clear early thesis presentation, followed by organized development and support for that thesis. Journalistic writing features the inverted pyramid, in which the most important parts of the story come first.

I've written a lot of formal academic papers. As a teacher, I've repeatedly attempted to convey the basic principles of this style.

But in grad school, I had one professor who taught us to write contrapuntally. This writing involves not formal thesis development, but an intelligent exploration of issues with connections across various and occasionally quite different subjects. It is almost a formal stream-of-consciousness, with one idea leading to another idea which can lead to an entirely separate idea based on some connection. It's not a random throwing out of ideas; rather, it's a way to show connections between and across divergent topics. In truth, I'm so used to the formal academic essay that I have difficulty even describing contrapuntal writing. But I know how to do it, and I know it when I see it.

But contrapuntal writing goes hand in hand with contrapuntal thinking; more than a way to write, it is another way to think. The formation and organization of ideas is different.

And the internet is perfect for contrapuntal writing. Paid writers still have editors online (I assume), but because they are not limited by page space, all sorts of diversions and tangents become acceptable (see Bill Simmons). And bloggers are often contrapuntal writers and thinkers--a blog entry can be a formally organized essay around a single unified thesis, but just as often it is a contrapuntal exploration of ideas and connections (see FreeDarko).

Monday, May 01, 2006

New Feature at Costanza's Book Club

I've added a section for links to literary databases or frequently updated sites relating to art and critical theory. The links are very thin right now. If you've got any sites relating to literature, film, or theory that you think I'd enjoy that I should add to the links, please let me know.