Saturday, December 29, 2007

Objective Correlative in Dostoevsky

On the one hand, Dostoevsky smashes the very idea of objective correlative, as the internal existences of his characters drive his works. Whatever suffering, joy, ideas, desires, or motivations the characters have are largely internalized spiritual or psychological conflicts.

On the other hand, in most Dostoevsky novels, somebody's going to end up with a blade handle sticking out of his or her chest. And you don't really get more objective correlative than murder.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Torrential Downpour: back after finals week

End of the semester grading is pretty demanding. But I'm back, baby!

The Sopranos
I think The Sopranos offers a test to viewers. How long does it take you to recognize Tony Soprano as a nearly irredeemably evil human being? The show gets you to sympathize with him, to side with him, to find him appealing. At the beginning it's easy: you see a bad man, but you see a struggling complex man, with a difficult environment, with a horrifying mother, a man with issues that is going to therapy to try and make some sort of change. But as time goes on, we see that there really is no desire for moral change, and that this man is selfish, violent, evil. Whether you realize that early in the series or at the end does not say something directly about your morality; however, it may say something about the way you watch television.

Violent--compared to whom?
In an interview between Peter Bogdanovich and David Chase on season one of The Sopranos, Bogdanovich asserts that American society is more violent than other societies. While I won't deny that violence is deep in the soul of American history, I can't quite view American society as more violent than other societies. I look through history of societies on every continent, and I see wars, genocides, executions, and brutality. It's worth exploring whether and how American violence and history of violence differs from other societies, but to claim that American society is more violent than other societies without explanation? I can't accept that, as an historical or contemporary assertion.

Why I stopped reading Les Miserables
If I'm going to read a 1,400 page novel, I should get something out of it. But after a few hundred pages of Les Miserables, I really hadn't gotten anything that I didn't already have from listening to the musical. At least, I wasn't getting enough more to make it worth the while to continue reading the novel. So I've moved on, and I've read several things since I put down Les Miserables.

College teaching
Life as an adjunct is very seasonal. I get long stretches when I do little to no work for my job, but there are also stretches when it dominates much of my time and intellectual energy. As it happens, one of those busy stretches comes in the middle of December, and it really is only today after finishing all my grading that I'm recognizing Christmas.

Winter break
I continue to study the master: I'm reading Dostoevsky's The Idiot.

TV > Film
Film is limited by time. Television allows you to get drawn into stories and into characters. A television series stretches over hours, and episodically gives you a chance to delve into character psychology and engage in complex plots. Film just doesn't quite have that depth.

Horror films
Sometimes it takes until the end of a horror movie to know whether it is good of bad; while you are watching it, you may not be able to evaluate it. Horror endings are often unconventional, and so you really must wait for the climax before you know whether what you watched was derivative uncreative pulp or something vital. The Reaping is a bad movie. It's a very bad movie. But I really didn't feel comfortable making that assertion until immediately after it was over--during the movie, it could have gone in many different and unexpected directions, and so it might have turned out good. But when the film is in the past and not the present, it is quite clearly not good.

Some horror movies, of course, reveal their awfulness as you go along.

Lit class goals
By the end of a semester teaching a gen ed lit class, I want my students to be able to compare themes across different works of literature. It may not be one of the official objectives of the course; however, if students can make insightful and useful comparisons between and across different works we've read, I think they are achieving the official objectives. By the end of the course, I want students to independently make thematic connections between different works.

In my lit classes, I also barely even mention the author. Biography of the author is often irrelevant and at best tangential to the goals of the course. I suppose my literature pedagogy is a mix of Reader-response theory (in which, of course, the reader's experience with the text receives attention) and New Criticism (which focuses on close examination of the text itself rather than attention to the author of the text).

We also focus on ideas. Form gets attention--it must. But usually we discuss form as a means of conveying and exploring an idea. By focusing on ideas, students can take the literature into their own lives. As I tell my students when giving my interpretation of "The Archaic Torso of Apollo," the literature we read demands that we examine our lives. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest requires each reader to examine his or her relationship to the Combine (victim? collaborator? resister? or simply free of it?). It's the ideas from the works that we can use to examine our lives and our world--and that, I suppose, is the goal of any lit class.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Literature and You

My favorite line of poetry is from Rainer Maria Rilke in "The Archaic Torso of Apollo:"

for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rilke tells us what art does to you, the individual. It sees you. You cannot hide from it. Great literature exposes you to yourself, showing you everything about yourself. "here there is no place that does not see you." There is no hiding, no acting, no lying: you are exposed. The literature shows you to yourself.

When you read great literature, there is no place that does not see you. It tells you what you are, what you are not, and what you should strive to be.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Grading papers I disagree with

Paper Four in my freshman composition class is a Policy Proposal: students choose an issue relevant to society, and write a proposal to address this issue. This means I get to grade a lot of papers I deeply disagree with.

But I'm ultra-conscious of maintaining objectivity when assessing papers. Because I don't want my own views to color my assessment of the content, I focus on how the student makes the argument. Sometimes the argument contains (in my view) faulty logic, questionable sources, narrow views of the issues, distortion of facts, disturbing ethics, and shoddy ideas. I shake my head at these ideas, then give the paper a grade based on the thesis statement, thesis support, organization, and/or sentence quality.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Both/And: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

A major theme of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is "Individualism." The free individual resists conformity, authority, and rule. The individual has his or her dignity, rebels against limits to his or her freedom, exerts his or her own will, and is at his or her best when free. It's a free, willful individual that brings down the controls.

A major theme of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is "Community." The Combine/Big Nurse maintain authority by turning the patients against each other, removing any loyalty or trust. Alone, each patient is vulnerable. But when McMurphy brings the patient together, turns them against the Big Nurse together, teaches them to work together, to laugh together, to play together, to resist together, to trust each other, the controls begin to come apart. It is when the patients combine into a unified community that the controls are resisted.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Can Pevear and Volokhonsky bring me Tolstoy?

Dostoevsky is my master and spiritual mentor. Certainly translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are greatly to be thanked; I don't know Russian, and their translations brought me a vital Dostoevsky. While their translations have great verve and are wonderful to read, they aren't entirely responsible for Dostoevsky's role in my life. Pevear and Volokhonsky brought me The Brothers Karamozov, Crime and Punishment, and Demons (and they'll soon be bringing me The Idiot), but Jessie Coulson brought me Notes from the Underground. It is Dostoevsky himself that made himself my master--I must only thank the translators for bringing him to me. And Pevear and Volokhonsky have been particularly joyful.

And now I make the confession that is difficult for a pacifist vegetarian English professor: I've never read Tolstoy's War and Peace. But that's not entirely true: I read the first 200 or 300 pages...and stopped. Whether it was my own life getting in the way, Tolstoy himself who could not move me, or whether translator Rosemary Edmonds could not bring the novel to life for me, I cannot know. I should like Tolstoy--everything suggests it. But Tolstoy did not offer me the intensity, the madness, the ideas of Dostoevsky.

And now Pevear and Volokhonsky have translated War and Peace. And now, perhaps they can be the translators to bring me Tolstoy.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Visual Imagery in Dexter

Some television shows turn the opening credits into a work of art itself.

Take Dexter, a show about a serial killer and his regular life. The opening provides us with images that appear violent, terrifying, threatening. These images, however, are merely Dexter getting ready for his day. Shaving. Cutting an orange. Making coffee. Tying shoes. The imagery is violent and frightening, but the actions are decidedly ordinary. The opening credits of Dexter highlight, perhaps, the closeness between mundane civilization and raw brutality.

The opening credits of Dexter reveal a playfulness of imagery that is a part of the show. In one scene, Dexter the serial killer is cleaning out somebody's house with another serial killer (Dexter doesn't know he's a serial killer, but the other serial killer knows Dexter is). We see images of the two pulling out rope, ripping off duct tape, tying up garbage bags--all images that connote to their violent realities.

Michael C. Hall deserves a lot of credit for the visual beauty of Dexter. Though Hall was fine in Six Feet Under, I didn't notice anything special in him. In Dexter, he's occasionally terrific, particularly in the facial expressions. His look at Rita when she tells him she can tell he's a good person. His look of childish anxiety after he commits a not-so-wise violent act. His look at the camera at the end of one episode as he shuts the door.

My favorite moment comes at the end of an episode when Dexter meets Neil Perry, who appears to be the Ice Truck Killer (which has shaken Dexter in disappointment), who knows Dexter. Dexter looks at him in quiet sadness, and says "Hi." Perry looks at Dexter and says "Who the fuck are you?" In this simply line (as the audience knows well) Dexter's entire world changes--and he looks at the camera with a look indescribable mischievous glee as the episode ends.

These visual moments make Dexter a joy to watch.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Nonviolence and our lives

Jesus was nonviolent, and he taught his disciples to be nonviolent. When Jesus was being arrested, Peter tried to use force to defend Jesus. Jesus told him not to, saying "He who lives by the sword dies by the sword," suggesting that those who act violently are likely to come to a violent demise.

Of course, we know who else came to a violent demise: the nonviolent Jesus and most of his nonviolent disciples.

Turning the other cheek, loving and blessing our enemies, these are not maxims to live a cheerful and successful life. A life of nonviolence often comes with suffering.

Certainly those who live a life of violence may suffer a violent end. But so too can children, victims of wars they don't create or understand. So too can Christian martyrs, who willfully choose their death and do not fight back. So too can the victims of genocide, killed not because they lived by the sword but merely for who they were (and are).

Those who live by the sword may die by the sword--though they may not. Those who live a life of peace and love may also die by the sword.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Nature and Nurture

In "Dolly's Fashion and Louis' Passion," Stephen Jay Gould argues that science is influenced by the whims of fashion, with particular emphasis on the nature/nurture dichotomy. Gould says that at various times, either genetic or environmental explanations for human identity and behavior are in fashion; during certain periods we emphasize genetics, during others we emphasize environment, and the pendulum swings back and forth.

Gould also argues that at the time he's writing (1997), biological explanations are in favor. I always consider this when reading articles about current science. Are we still in a period emphasizing genetics over environment? Generally, I think so: a lot of science articles I read in Time magazine focus on neurology, seeming to imply that all secrets to human identity and behavior are in the biochemistry of the brain. I expected the same when I saw this week's Time cover, featuring a graphic of a human brain, images of Gandhi and Hitler with lines leading to points within the brain image, and the headline "What Makes Us Good/Evil."

But Jeffrey Klugar's cover story "What Makes Us Moral" offers more complexity than that. Certainly there is discussion of parts of the brain. But there is also a section on how the community socially conditions morality onto individuals, and some of the explanations for aspects of human morality seem to stem from deep-rooted environmental influences.

Are we moving away from a period of genetic emphasis, where pharmaceuticals are used to solve our problems and we're all prisoners of our biology? Is the pendulum swinging toward environmental emphasis (where we can perhaps still be recognized as prisoners, but as Rene Gallimard says in M. Butterfly, prisoners of our place and time)?

Hey, one article in Time magazine isn't going to answer that question.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Blind to our own evil

In The Sopranos, Bobby Baccala talks about why his grandfather could not get into America through Ellis Island, and instead snuck in through Montreal. His grandfather had a police record in the old country. He was involved in anti-government activities.

After telling this story, Bobby and Carmela Soprano each agree (though somewhat flippantly) that they should build a wall to protect the border now. Presumably to keep out immigrants and terrorists.

Bobby Baccala is a captain in a crime syndicate. His father was a hit man. His anti-government agitator grandfather snuck into America. But now they should build a wall? Now immigration is a threat? Immigration was good in the past when an anti-government agitator could sneak in and father a murder who would father another criminal, but new immigrants must be kept out?

This is the sort of theme that we see repeatedly in The Sopranos: characters blind to their own evil. There are many, many examples of characters who not only justify their own evil deeds, but occasionally appear entirely blind to the very evil of their deeds.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Post-modern play: La Reine Margot

In history, we learn that a chronicle is an account of what happened, while history is the interpretation of what happened. But a lot of history is also piecing together what happened based not on a single reliable chronicle, but based on all sorts of evidence and accounts. We have to remember, then, that history is somewhat removed from what actually happened; it is not simply what happened, but an interpretation of the meaning of accounts of what happened.

An historical novel is fiction based in history. It is not merely a period novel, but a fictionalized account of real history. It is a dramatized alteration of history.

And of course a film adaptation of a novel is a dramatized alteration a book.

Which brings us to a film I enjoy greatly, La Reine Margot. This is a period film about French history, centering on the royal family (and future king Henri de Navarre) around the time of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

But La Reine Margot the film is not based on historical accounts of this period, but is an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' historical novel La Reine Margot, which is the Romantic writer Dumas' romantic re-interpretation and fictionalization of history. And that history that Dumas (most certainly rather liberally) interprets into his novel based on his era's interpretation (or application of meaning) to the time period explored is based on centuries of historical interpretation (and myth making) based on varied accounts of actual events.

And yet, in adapting Dumas' novel, it seems probable that the filmmakers of La Reine Margot also looked to history to create and alter the film, not merely relying on Dumas' fiction. And for the costumes and sets, they very likely turned to contemporary art, getting some of the characters to look as the 16th century painters made them look. Of course, the painters of the 16th century were not creating photographic likenesses either--artistic renderings of these royal figures were themselves interpretations imbued with meaning (the artists' meanings, and the desired meanings of the patrons).

So this brings us to a movie based on a book (but also likely based on history and art) based on historical interpretation of various accounts of actual reality.

The movie is an interpretation of an interpretation (also based on interpretations and interpretations) of various interpretations of various accounts of reality.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Saying the F word in class

In M. Buttefly, David Henry Hwang shows how stereotypes/fantasies about race, gender, and sex conflate with stereotypes/fantasies about nationality, culture, and imperialism. Today in lit class, I wished to highlight how flawed sexual attitudes/beliefs leads to flawed politics/foreign policy in the play. The key passage is Song's speech on "international rape mentality:"

"The West thinks of itself as masculine--big guns, big industry, big money--so the East is feminine-- [...] Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated--because a woman can't think for herself. [...] You expect Oriental countries to submit to your guns, and you expect Oriental women to be submissive to your men."

To illustrate the point, I noted how in our everday language, we often use terms for sex, violent sex, or rape to express something bad happening to us. I gave three examples: "I'm screwed," "You're really fucking me over," and "I'm not going to just bend over and take it." It made sense, contextually, to use the F word itself, as we were explicitly discussing language. To illustrate how common expressions we use include disturbing allusions, it did not seem useful to avoid the word itself.

Later in comp class, we were discussing advertising. We talked about advertising pushing limits, and a student brought up an ad that used words/letters to sound like swear words (to shock, get attention, etc.). I referred to one commercial that used a word and said it sounds like "fucking." In this case, the context made the usage less necessary, yet realizing I had said it earlier made me feel there was no reason to skirt the subject when teaching adults. There was a reason to say it, but it was entirely possible to discuss the matter without actually saying the word.

It's not that I see a reason as a teacher (or as a person) to use the word often, and I'm not up in front of class just flinging profanity about--when discussing it explicitly, in context, it seems acceptable. I've said other swear words in normal lecture/discussion in class ("hell" and "shit" come out very rarely), but the F word seems something different (which is what inspires me to write about it here.

Anyway, it appears I've become the stereotype I always aspired to be: the liberal long-haired anti-war vegetarian professor that says "fuck" in class.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Twin Cities Theater

The Star Tribune reports on Travel + Leisure and CNN Headline News rating the Twin Cities #2 nationwide in theater (behind New York, of course). Gosh, in October Ian McKellen was at the Guthrie starring in King Lear (MPR), and it was also announced that Tony Kushner would debut a new play at the Guthrie in 2009 (Star Tribune).

Friday, October 26, 2007

What does this say?

The college I teach at is currently facing a health insurance crisis affecting faculty and staff (the details of which I needn't address here). We've received numerous communications from several sources (including the chancellor), and we've had to try make sense of the situation by gathering what we can from all sorts of partial messages. It's difficult to get anybody to give us clear answers (somewhat understandably), and we're scrambling rather quickly to figure out what we are supposed to do (collectively and individually).

But what does it say when the student newspaper article on the situation provides the clearest and simplest explanation of the problem that I've read?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Simple request for some of my students

I know you don't think anything of it. I know for you, a pen is just a cheap utilitarian tool, and that a Paper Mate Write Bros. is not anything to be obsessive about. Hey, I've got seemingly dozens of them scattered about my house (literally dozens in unopened bags, but all sorts of individual pens in different locations in the house where I can easily access them), so an unknowing observer might think they mean nothing to me. And when you come to the front table and have forgotten to put your name on your assignment, and you see a pen (my pen) sitting there, I'm sure it's just instinct that makes you grab for it.

But I have one simple request.



Monday, October 22, 2007


"Some fashions (tongue piercings, perhaps?) flower once and then disappear, hopefully forever. Others swing in and out of style, as if fastened to the end of a pendulum. Two foibles of human life strongly promote this oscillatory mode. First, our need to create order in a complex world begets our worst mental habit: dichotomy, or our tendency to reduce an intricate set of subtle shadings to a choice between two diametrically opposed alternatives (each with moral weight and therefore ripe for bombast and pontification, if not outright warfare): religion versus science, liberal versus conservative, plain versus fancy, Roll Over Beethoven versus the Moonlight Sonata. Second, many deep questions about our livelihoods, and the fates of nations, truly have no answers -- so we cycle the presumed alternatives of our dichotomies, one after the other, always hoping that, this time, we will find the nonexistent key."

--Stephen Jay Gould, "Dolly's Fashion and Louis' Passion"

This FreeDarko post explores some ideas on "the collective" and "the individual." Reading it, I was forced to discover yet another dichotomy I fundamentally reject, another dichotomy I replace with "Both/And."

My values have been moving (slowing, and with purpose) toward the communal, and yet my attitude toward the community is largely viewed in individual terms. I still demand that as an individual I can freely choose my community; participation in a community of choice is in many ways an individual act, still firmly based on existential freedom. And I still demand to be allowed to be an individual within the community: a community should be a collective of individuals, and any community which requires individuals to subsume themselves into it is not a community I want to belong to in this world (the next? who knows).

So for me, a community should be freely chosen (as an individual), and should allow individual identities, values, and needs to participate openly within it. It is no less the collective, and power and meaning can come from the collective. And yet it is no less the individual, an existence created by and allowing for individual choice and being.

I reject the dichotomy, what Stephen Jay Gould calls "our tendency to reduce an intricate set of subtle shadings to a choice between two diametrically opposed alternatives." In this post-modern existence, I again choose Both/And, the reality of both individual and community.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Frame Stories

I just rewatched Moulin Rouge, and to be clear, here is the frame for the story.

On screen, we see a red curtain open up and images start to flicker on a screen; this is frame one, an audience watching a film.

In the image, we see Toulouse singing about Christian; this is frame one, Toulouse singing about the story.

We then flash to Christian, writing on his typewriter; this is frame three, Christian writing his story.

We're at least three steps removed from the actual story: we're watching a movie about a movie about a guy telling the story about a guy telling a story. There's a sketch in The Kids in the Hall about two guys sitting in a bar talking about a movie one of the guys watched the night before, and then we see the movie, and in the movie, two characters are talking about a movie one saw where two guys were sitting in a bar discussing a movie. There's an episode of The Simpsons in which characters share stories and read notes that bring us into stories within stories within stories to an absurd degree. That's what this seems like, but it's for real. And then, of course, Christian's story is about writing a play that reflected his own life story. I'm getting tired.

Other famous frame stories? There's Heart of Darkness, where a guy tells the story about hearing Marlowe tell a story. There's The Turn of the Screw, which if I remember correctly, a guy tells a story about another guy telling a story he heard (there may have been somebody writing the story down). There's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a very famous frame story. There's Frankenstein, where Frankenstein tells his story to a particular ship captain. Of course Don Quixote may have started this all: the narrator describes reading and translating from a particular chronicler or Quixote's adventures. The frame story is a very old function and convention of Western literature.

The benefits of a frame story? Sometimes the frame itself can add thematic meaning. Sometimes it places the audience into the story. Sometimes it renders the narrative unreliable.

Think about frame stories.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Magus

The Magus, by John Fowles, is one of my favorite books. Here's why.

In The French Lietenant's Woman, Fowles writes a conventional plot with a contrived narrative form. In The Magus, Fowles writes in a conventional narrative form with a contrived plot. I explored the metafiction of each novel more fully in my Master's Essay at St. Thomas, "Playing God: the Reader and Author in John Fowles' The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman," where I used reader-response criticism to illuminate the metafiction. Fowles never just straight writes--he's always playing with narrative, always aware that he's writing fiction, always inviting his reader in on the game.

Existential Freedom and Responsibility
Conchis' dilemma at the execution is the greatest illustration of existential freedom in all of literature: Conchis makes a deliberate decision to assert his freedom at the expense of utilitarian practicality.

It is not only that decision that illustrates existential freedom and responsibility, but the entire lesson Nicholas is forced to learn. Nicholas, Conchis, Fowles, and the reader explore the themes of post-modern existentialist humanity and dilemma.

Inspired Writing
There are many breathtaking passages in the novel. Each autobiographical story that Conchis shares is captivating. The final chapter is brilliant. Fowles is a masterful writer, capable of beauty and inspiration.

This book takes the reader on a journey, a journey that is always a game. But the reader may come away from the game altered, seeing the world forever differently.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Moulin Rouge!

I would like to write occasional posts about my favorite films and books exploring why they are my favorites. We can start with my favorite movie, Moulin Rouge. Why is this my favorite film?

Realism is thrown out.
When I'm watching a movie, I know I'm watching a movie; I don't need anybody to try give me a sense of realism. Moulin Rouge knows it is a movie and lets it be a movie. That's why we can enjoy anachronistic songs. We know it's fake, so let's not pretend it's fake: let's enjoy people from a century ago singing songs from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Amazingly fun things can keep happening, and it's OK because we're just along to have fun, not to believe it.

The visual achievement is astounding.
The colors, the sets, the costumes, the movement, the choreography, is all a delight. The constantly shifting camera shows incredible technical ability (watch how quickly the camera shot and angle keeps shifting--rarely is the camera ever left to linger in one shot). It's a constant, living, energetic flourish. The first 25 minutes of the film is just magical.

It's metafictional.
There's a writer writing a play, and the play is based on his real life. But the events in the play end up impacting his real life--which of course effects the play. And at the end, the real life story and the play story come together in a way that cannot even be distinguished: Christian is the citar player and Satin is courtesan, and the relationships and the plots and the characters all come together as one.

Archetypal characters and worthwhile themes.
Beauty, freedom, truth, and love. The idealism of youth.

It's a musical, stupid.
How could this not be fun? I love musicals; little makes me happier than seeing people sing what they're supposed to be saying. Seeing familiar songs set into a plot with characters singing their emotions to each other is a gorgeously creative move.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Jacket

George: We'll say we're frightened and we have to go home.
Jerry: Yeah, that's good. He'll clunk our heads together like Moe.

Alton Benes: Pendant? Those bastards.

Comment: There's a lot to like about this episode. In Jerry's opening monologue, he says he hates picking out outfits for himself every day (me too--and now I pick out outfits for a kid). George gets "Master of the House" from Les Miserables stuck in his head, and who among us hasn't seen that scenario played out? The awkwardness when George and Jerry are trying to talk to Alton Benes is wonderful and real.

Stupid Summer Project: The Baby Shower

Jerry: What you're suggesting is illegal.
Kramer: It's not illegal.
Jerry: It's against the law.
Kramer: Well, yeah.

Kramer: Cable Boy! Cable Boy! What have you done to my little Cable Boy?

Comment: I'm so sad when George, planning on standing up to a woman who wronged him, weakly caves to her and gets pushed around again. I know, it's part of his character, his destiny: it has to happen as such. But I personally feel wronged when George is wronged; I want greatly for him to win.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

"Tell me what you don't like about yourself."

When I watched the first two seasons of Nip/Tuck, I wrote (back on xanga--oh how far we've come) that the show made me want to change my life, that it made me want to be something better than what I am. In the trademark line, in the shifting desires of Sean and Christian, in the desires of patients for transformation, there is the the constant urge toward change, improvement, regeneration, evolution.

But there was another aspect of the show that stands out: the constant need to top itself. It just keeps going and going and going, until you think there is no possible way to carry the extremes further. And now I watch the show grinning, even laughing, at the excesses of plot and subject (my experience of the show is through DVD, so I'm on season four). After surprise transsexuals, a serial killer plot line, murders, affairs, every sort of sexual debauchery imaginable, what next? And yet it continues: incredibly, unbelievable, the show tops itself with the over-the-top, the absurd, the excessive, the perverse, the strange. I didn't think it could do it, but it does.

But the desire to change my life? Since I watched it, I've bought a house, had a child, become a vegetarian (and even tried an extended bout of veganism), and started new and better blogs. I won't pretend the show inspired any of these life changes--but I won't pretend the desire for transformation and rebirth isn't at the heart of the show's appeal for me.

The two most significant plays in American history

"Death of a Salesman," Arthur Miller
"You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away--a man is not a piece of fruit!" Willy Loman cries as he's getting fired. And in this line we see the dehumanization of capitalism. In "Death of a Salesman," Miller explores the marketplace value of humanity, where all that matters is what a man can produce and acquire, where the economic value of the man is seen as the whole value of the man...and what is lost in such a value system.

In various places, I get to see how economists and capitalists think. And I wish for them all to read "Death of a Salesman." I wish for us to see that human dignity matters more than marketplace capitalism, and that humans have value beyond their economic value. In a country where more and more economics define the value of a human, "Death of a Salesman" is the most necessary--and the most tragic--of American plays.

"M. Butterfly," David Henry Hwang
Everything is explored here. Race. Gender. Sex. Nationality. Stereotypes. Assumptions. Image. Perception. Power. No matter how many times I teach it, I still look forward to teaching it again. At one time I was asked what book every college student should read, and I said To Kill a Mockingbird. Today I say "M. Butterfly." There are ideas in this play that simply must be considered.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Free Will

"this the old habit, the old blood which he had not been permitted to choose for himself, which had been bequeathed him willy nilly and which had run for so long (and who knew where, battening on what of outrage and savagery and lust) before it came to him. I could keep on, he thought."

--William Faulkner, "Barn Burning"

"But testosterone is also one of my favorite examples of how responsive biology is, how attuned it is to the way we live our lives. Testosterone, it turns out, rises in response to competition and threat. In the days of our ancestors, this might have been hand-to-hand combat or high-risk hunting endeavors."

--Deborah Blum, "The Gender Blur"

"n one study, for example, men with lower amounts of testosterone were willing to hold baby dolls for a longer period of time than those with a higher count. In another, the very act of holding dolls lowered testosterone."

--Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, Lev Grossman, "Fatherhood 2.0"

We are fated to many things beyond our control. We cannot control the family we are born into, the body we are born into, the environment we are born into, the socio-economic status we are born into. And yet, like Sarty, we can make choices. We can choose. There is much in my world I cannot control, but I can still make choices about my own behavior in this world I did not create. I am not, as Dostoevsky calls it in "Notes from the Underground," a sprig in a barrel organ.

Our biochemistry dictates so much of our behavior. But let us not forget something else: our behavior can change our biochemistry. We are not victims nor slaves of our biochemistry: we can choose our behavior. Our biochemistry changes from different environments and different activities--sometimes from those activities we choose to participate in (or, if you prefer, how we choose to act). Again, I am not a sprig in a barrel organ--even my biochemistry, which I am so beholden to, is partly beholden to me and my conscious choices of action.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


The twin concepts of redemption and forgiveness are more and more driving my ethics. They are the values of much of the literature I'm drawn to (all of Fyodor Dostoevsky, what I know of Hugo, the best of Stephen King). It is belief in redemption which leads me to oppose capital punishment: the murderer on death row is not beyond the scope of redemption and forgiveness, and should be given a chance to find them. It is the belief which leads me to forgive athletes their off-the-field crimes when others would label them forever tainted. It is in part this belief which is leading me to search for a new church (and at the one I attended today, the pastor used a passage about faith to talk about the need to forgive everybody, including enemies, and he was specific and concrete in the lesson--this is what I'm looking for in a church).

This is becoming the guiding idea of my life, and it is both personal and social: it is amnesty, mutual forgiveness, that can heal some of the hard rifts of our society. Let there be healing. Let there be peace among us.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Sex and Death

When I was an undergrad, there was a professor about whom many undergrads said, "All he talks about is sex and death." When I took this professor, I found this wasn't the case: he talked about the literature. A lot of great literature is about sex and death. And a lot of the greatest of human themes involve sex and death.

Now as a teacher, I find it possible that some of my students think I obsess on sex and death (though perhaps not in that order). But I think I'm just dealing with the literature and presenting important themes.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Children of Men

We see in films what we are drawn to seeing. In Children of Men (aside from the technical brilliance of the cinematography), I see the ways people treat other people as less than human. Sometimes it is for a cause, and humans are deemed expendable to that cause's ends. At a larger scale, it is because one group of people is considered outsiders, different, Other--and there appears no reason to treat the Other as human.

It is not all there is to see in this very good film. But it is something that is there.

The Problem of Period Pieces

I enjoy films set in different time periods. However, sometimes the filmmakers are impressed with their own ability to create period sets and period costumes. Thus, they will let scenes stretch on, or let the camera linger, so the costumes and sets get a little more time on the screen, and the audience can be just as impressed with the filmmakers as the filmmakers are with themselves.

Case in point: Elizabeth.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


One of my beliefs (influenced largely by John Fowles) is that people are in a constant state of change. Our bodies and our minds are altered throughout our lives, so that it only makes sense to think of life as shifts and continuums and breaks and conversions and evolutions. We develop. We grow. We learn. And our ideas change.

It strikes me, however, that not many people believe this. A lot of people are under the impression that people don't change terribly much. And a lot of people don't give room to people to change, either subtly or drastically. That somebody thinks something different at, say, 30 than one did at 20, should be taken for granted. But we don't quite do that.

We often hold people to what they were at a time when they weren't what they are.

In some cases, that's necessary. In others, it makes little sense to me. We're in a constant state of flux. We're always changing. And while I'm not saying that a person shouldn't be accountable for what he/she did at a different time in his/her life, it should be easily understood that a person is different at different phases.

A change in ideas, a new understanding of the self and the world, is only natural.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Free Will: two suggestions

We can not prove free will, but perhaps we can find suggestions for it.

Animals don't do it. Humans do it. Sometimes, for whatever reason, human beings end their own biological existences. Some do so not out of mental disorder, but for reasons of principle, rationally, with purpose. With will.

I'm talking about the Christian value of non-resistance, the ethic which teaches to put aside urges like pride, hate, revenge, violence, and teaches us to forgive those that wrong us, respond to violence with something other than retaliation, to love even our enemies. There is something in such an ethic that tends to go against both reason and biology. And yet it is.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Romantics and the Darker Part of Imagination

The Romantic poets glorified the Imagination, but they recognized its darker half. In "Strange Fits of Passion I Have Known," William Wordsworth shows the imagination's negative turn with the final line stanza:

What fond and wayward thoughts will slide
Into a Lover's head!
"O mercy!" to myself I cried,
"If Lucy should be dead!"

In Goethe's "ErlKoenig," imagination actually turns deadly (at least in my interpretation), when in the last line "The child he held in his arms was dead."

Today a more scientific mind might speak of the horrifying depths of the imagination as obsession, as a psychological issue. But I think the Romantics understood it too. And as a parent, I know this darker half of imagination. When I can visualize horrifying events, and actually sense the emotional reaction to such horrifying events (not actually experience it, but touch it, know it, sense it), I recognize the horror that our great gift of imagination can turn into.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Teaching Flexibility

For Monday, I assigned eight poems by Sharon Olds. The plan was to allow students to write independently on one poem, then come together as a group to discuss the poems. I figured we'd get in-depth on two or three of the poems, with a few student comments and a lot of my explanations. I thought we could manage this in the 50 minute class period.

We've now had two such 50 minute class periods. We've covered seven of the poems. And I keep pushing material back on the schedule.

I'm thrilled with this. The class is so talkative, and so many students are willing and able to share real insights and ideas, that we're taking more time than planned on each particular poem. And that's fantastic. That we're discussing each poem in such detail, and that so many students themselves are providing the interpretations, means we're covering the literature as it should be. If I have to keep pushing back material to the point some stuff gets cut, so be it. I'd rather cover fewer works with greater thoroughness than move quickly over a lot of works. Students will provide more to the class, and get more out of the class.

It's been an encouraging start to the semester.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What does peace mean?

This isn't a comment on a book, but on a book cover--it's meant not to critique a book (which I haven't read), but to examine a screwed up way of talking about "peace."

Robert Spencer has written a book called Religion of Peace? Why Christianity is and Islam Isn't.

Of course you know that I do believe Christianity is a religion of peace, that peacefulness is imbued in Jesus's message. But looking at history, it is easy to believe that Christianity has in practice not been a religion of peace (see this, this, this, and of course this, and I shouldn't have to verify for you that a lot of Christians in America support America's wars). But let's step aside from this historical examination.

The book cover for Spencer's book includes a brief blurb from Ann Coulter on the front, and a longer blurb from Coulter on the back. The front blurb calls the book "a clarion call to America to wake up and fight back." The back blurb says "This goes a long way toward explaining why liberals never wanted to fight this war in the first place."

So let's be clear here: a book proclaiming Christianity a religion of peace, and condemning Islam as being not a religion of peace, features blurbs on the cover by a pro-war Christian criticizing people who oppose a particular war.

So what on earth does "peace" really mean?

Friday, September 07, 2007

Literature is Political: a basic proof

In American colleges, we have separate courses for "American literature" and "British literature." If literature were apolitical, we would not distinguish literature by national origins. But we do, proving that politics is a part of even rather traditional literary studies.

Furthermore, this means that writers in English that are not from America or Great Britain are often excluded from the canon. Regardless of merit, they are excluded for reasons of national identity (i.e., political reasons).

Literature is political. When you look at how we study it, it is quite obvious.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Torrential Downpour: Life in Ideas

Changing churches
Living a life devoted to ideas does not typically mean going along passively, or letting self-interest above all else dictate your life. It means altering your life for these ideas. Vegetarianism is such an idea: to devote yourself to the belief that humans shouldn't eat animals, you must make sacrifices in your life. The idea becomes more important to you than pleasure.

It also means that you may not stay in a church simply because it is what you are born (or married) into. You must consider your conscience, and be willing to change your life over an idea.

And so my wife and I are looking for a new church: we can no longer attend the church she has grown up in, and formed a community with, because it has such different values than our own. The differences are not superficial but quite deep and fundamental. In part it is a parenting decision: not only do we not want our children taught things we don't believe, but we don't want our children to see us attending a church that teaches things we don't believe.

But in part, I may be at the beginnings of a religious rebirth, and I have ideas of what I believe Christianity truly is (thanks to Dostoevsky, Yoder, and Hugo, among others). My wife shares with me many of these beliefs. And the church we currently attend is not that. For me, changing churches is not a terribly difficult choice to make: it is meaningful, but I'm not actually a member at the church we attend anyway (though I was married there and my son was baptized there: I do have an emotional connection). For my wife, she will be separating (though not entirely we hope) from a tradition and community that she has had her entire life.

Practical matters still determine what new church we choose: a near location and early service times are important. But we're able to make a conscious, deliberate choice about the church we wish to be a part of, about living a Christian life as we believe it is meant to be. This requires change. This requires sacrifice. But it is a choice one makes when ideas guide ones' life.

Falling with Valjean
You probably know the story of Jean Valjean's crime and redemption. If you listen to the Les Mierables musical soundtrack, the music takes you past the particularly distressing crime to his moment of forgiveness and redemption. It is inevitable; it makes the fall tolerable.

But to read the book, even if you know the redemption that is coming, you are still required to fall with Valjean. You see the darkness of that moment, before the eventual escape from despair and sin. Right now I have finished the chapter in which Valjean steals the silver, but I have not read further. I'm currently stuck in despair with him, experiencing that moment.

addendum: it's worth noting that the moment of forgiveness comes in the very next chapter; my stopping point in the book heightened the sense of loss.

Let me recommend the HBO series Rome. Now that I have seen the entire series (just two seasons), I recognize what an artistic feat it is. I'd compare it to Deadwood in complexity; it is more complicated than The Sopranos. In the closing scenes of the series, it is tremendously difficult to understand what we should feel about what we see.

Next week at this time, I'll have finished my first day of classes. I say this every August, but there is no way to mentally prepare for the separation of daily lifestyles between a break and a semester. Right now, I have no way to prepare or understand what teaching will be like, and as every summer, I have the fear that my brain has atrophied over the summer and I've forgotten how to teach. Of course in a week, it will be commonplace and easily dealt with. But it's a drastic switch in the calendar for which I've yet to find adequate preparation for. I go from staying at home all day playing with a baby, reading books, surfing the internet, watching TV, going for walks, and having little schedule or responsibility, to teaching college students about writing and literature.

Other blogs
If there's anybody that reads this blog but not Pacifist Viking (I doubt it), you might wish to read this post about intended audience, which could have just as easily fit at this blog. I've also been keeping up with the utterly useless tripe at We Have Mixed Feelings About Sven Sundgaard. And I'd also like to recommend my wife's new blog, Cruelty-Free Mommy, where she explores different issues that come up for new parents (I contribute occasionally).

Friday, August 24, 2007


Let's be honest. Last summer I listed to the soundtrack of Wicked, and it was inevitable that I would eventually read the book.

When I started listening to Les Miserables, did I not realize that nothing could prevent me from diving headfirst into Hugo's 1,463 page tome?

After just a few pages, the book (translated by Fahnestock and MacAfee) so far is excellent. I've had to mark three lines for future reference. Two are perhaps didactic and even cliched, yet somehow deeply meaningful to me.

"Err, falter, sin, but be upright" (13).

"Death belongs to God alone. By what right do men touch that unknown thing?" (16).

The other line just makes me smile in wry amusement:

"Clearly, he had his own strange way of judging things. I suspect he acquired it from the Gospels" (14).

I'm not even sure I understand it yet, but my summer reading is...changing my religious perspective. Giving it back to me, more accurately. Or giving it to me anew, even better. And I think it is continuing. The books I'm reading this summer are fundamentally changing me. It is always good for that to be possible.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Busboy

George: "That's a tough minute. It's like waiting in the shower for the conditioner to work."

(I kid you not, whenever I use conditioner I think of this line).

Kramer: "Well I'm not an idiot."

Comment: Jerry has a great opening standup bit about how he's eaten rolls off of hotel trays in the halls, how he's not joking its true, how nobody is going to poison a roll for a comedian to eat at 2 a.m. George obsesses about getting the busboy fired like the George we know, but it is sort of weird how selfless and concerned he is. He sometimes gets caught up into society.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Pacifism and Watching

If you feel the value and desire of peace deeply and daily, you start to watch things differently.

Tonight I watched an episode of Rome which featured a large battle scene (rare for the show). I'm not sure what I was supposed to be thinking while the battle was going on; my reaction may indeed be what the makers wished. My continuing thought was, "What is this for?" Could the soldiers slaughtering each other really care whether Brutus and Cassius won, or whether Antony and Octavius won? How could it matter? Death, suffering, and waste, for nothing.

It goes beyond the major battles. So much of our entertainment features people seeking violent solutions to problems. Often the characters are sympathetic; often their principles are admirable. But we are supposed to accept that they are brave for violently fighting for their principles. It doesn't make for good entertainment to see people seeking their ends in non-violent ways. So I see characters fighting, and killing, and talking about honor and bravery, and it all seems foolish and wrong. I see honor in avoiding violence. I see dignity in choosing self-sacrifice over violent defense. I see bravery in standing against an enemy without attempting to fight him.

And yet as much as any show I've seen, Rome handles the deaths of major characters well. You sense the tragedy and the pathos of people recognizing the moments of their deaths. It is moving.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Ideas and Life

One of the themes of this blog is that ideas matter, and not as abstract values but as driving forces of human lives. We carry this further in suggesting books matter, not as conventionally defined art or entertainment, but as sources of power that can change human life. Not all ideas are not worthy to change our lives, and very few books are capable. But the ideas exist, and the books exist.

And for me, John Howard Yoder's The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism is such a book. After reading it, I don't feel I can look at the world in the same way I looked at the world before reading the book, and not only in an existential weltenshauung way of looking at the world, but in a personal mode of action with which I interact with the world. This book may have changed my life.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Yoder on Constantinianism

Of particular interest in Yoder's The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism, is Yoder's criticism of Constantinianism, of the church acting as "chaplain to society." Yoder suggests that since Constantine, the church has operated to sanctify and support the existing social order and power structure, whatever it may be in particular. Yoder suggest that the church needs to abstain from tying itself to the given social order, and that it is this close alliance with the given social order which leads the church too often to support wars (and wars that exist primarily to support the existing power structure of the particular society's self-interest).

Again, I feel like Yoder could be talking about 21st century America.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Yoder's pacifism

I'm currently reading John Howard Yoder's The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism. The most important part of the book is the general Christian ethic: he makes a convincing argument that pacifism or nonresistence is a key tenet of Christianity, and that Christian involvement in violence is an unbiblical, unJesuslike compromise with the state/world. He uses sound biblical and logical arguments not only to justify pacifism (he bases pacifism not on pragmatic utilitarianism but on the actions and words of Christ and on Christian eschatology), but to refute Christian justifications of violence.

Of secondary interest is this: if Yoder wrote these essays today (and I mean literally, today), they would work as direct critiques of various justifications made for America's war in Iraq. It's uncanny how directly his analysis can be applied to justifications for America's current war. One wonders whether 100 years from now, Yoder's critique would sound like a direct refutation of the justifications of whatever war is being perpetrated then. I only hope not.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Pony Remark

Jerry: We don't understand death, and the proof of this is that we give dead people a pillow.

George: Do you know how easy it is for dead people to travel? It's not like getting on a bus. One second: it's all mental.

Comment: In other episodes I believe Jerry writes left-handed; in this episode, he wears his baseball glove on his left-hand and tosses the ball with his right hand. Sometimes people write with one hand but throw a ball with another hand (Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick), or maybe there was just difficulty among the props people finding a left-handed glove.

Anyway, this is a slightly dark episode about putting ones' foot in ones' mouth.

There's also a common trend in the show that reveals characters' self-involvement: the cross current conversation. In this case, Jerry and his mother are talking about whether he killed Manya while his father talks about the expense of a flight home.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Dostoevsky's Magic

In Fyodor Dostoevsky's Demons, Pyotr Stepanovich says to Kirillov:

" was not you who ate the idea, but the idea that ate you" (558).

This one statement explains the power of Dostoevsky's novels: he writes about people who have become consumed with an idea. It is not enough to call his books novels of ideas; they are books about people with ideas. As Bakhtin says, "In Dostoevsky's work each opinion really does become a living thing and is inseparable from an embodied human voice" (17), but "Dostoevsky portrayed not the life of an idea in an isolated consciousness, and not the interrelationship of ideas, but the interaction of consciousnesses in the sphere of ideas (but not of ideas only)" (32).

Wikipedia, in its infinite wisdom, thus says that "his characters are driven by ideas rather than by ordinary biological or social imperatives. In comparison with Tolstoy, whose characters are realistic, the characters of Dostoevsky are usually more symbolic of the ideas they represent."

Here I have to disagree. Yes, the characters are driven by ideas; however, this only makes them symbolic of the ideas they represent if you believe people cannot actually be driven by ideas. If you are not driven by ideas (if you have never changed your life for an idea), then indeed, you may see these characters as symbolic.

But people can be consumed by an idea, and people can live their lives more by an idea than by "biological or social imperatives." And this is where, to me, Dostoevsky could be called a realist. He portrays individuals consumed by ideas, and after all, individuals consumed by ideas do exist.

But Dostoevsky's power comes partly in the way he merges realism and ideas. He doesn't offer us the dull realism that so many dull realists think they must offer if they are to be realists. And he doesn't offer us abstract philosophy. He offers us ideas existing among people in the world; he offers us people with ideas.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Tr. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Demons. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage, 1994.

"Fyodor Dostoevsky." Wikipedia. The Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. 9 Aug. 2007. 9 Aug. 2007. <>

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Distrust of the Subconcious: it is not our own

I do not trust my subconscious mind; society has placed too much junk there. Society has placed many negative assumptions about race, gender, class, sexual preference, appearance, age, weight, disability, language, job, religion, etc.

I do not believe it makes you a bigot to be aware of many bigoted stereotypes. I do not believe it makes you a bigot if sometimes these bigoted stereotypes pop into your head. These thoughts are, after all, not your own, unless you choose to own them. Society has been planting them in your head for your entire life, and you really can't help it if you are aware of the negativity placed there. You must only rely on your conscious mind to recognize, understand, and resist all the assumptions society has planted in you.

We have all these assumptions about all sorts of things. We consume this culture whether we want to or not, and this culture contains negative stereotypes about race, gender, class, sexual preference, appearance, age, weight, disability, language, job, religion, etc. We must always try to weed this junk from our conscious thought, and be aware of this junk in your subconscious. But it's always going to still be there.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Worldview: Hazard

I cut my teeth on Hemingway, I dig Sartre, and I rounded myself out with Fowles. Whether they taught me, or whether they appealed to me based on what I already felt, I can't know.

But I believe Hazard guides most of our lives. Random, unguided, indifferent chance.


A bridge collapses on a given day at a given moment. Why that bridge, why that moment, why with those people on it (rather than the people who just crossed it or the people who were just about to go onto it or the people who took a different route). There is no reason or explanation for this. Why some were on the bridge and others weren't. You can speculate on God's plan. You can lay blame on human failure to recognize the bridge's problems. But at the end, why it collapses that day, at that moment, with those people on it, can only be chance.

Your life could be entirely different, had one moment gone differently. A moment out of your control. A moment guided not by providence or the machinations of men. A moment guided by nothing. Actually, there are thousands of these moments. Thousands of moments that may or may not change or life, and whether they do or do not depends entirely on chance.

Random hazard.

Meaningless, random hazard.

Even as I write this, I don't consider it an atheistic worldview. No, I believe in God (or at least I want to believe). I consider myself a Christian (after a fashion, I suppose). But when I consider the age and size of the universe, I don't believe God is doing much to interfere. Mostly, our lives are left to chance and whatever bit of will we can contribute to it.

You can try control your own life. You can try to take precautions. You can do what you can to be safe, you can make plans. You can try to force your will onto your existence. You can pray for providence, for divine protection and guidence.

But you still might end up on a collapsing bridge.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

"He wants me to tell him something pretty"




The season ends.

Hearst wins. He owns everything, He escapes punishment for his crimes, he controls elections, and he will soon be disseminating his own news. America is run by the tycoons.

Bullock loses. The last moment, as Hearst looks arrogantly, contemptuously down at Bullock before saying "Drive on" is going to continue to sting.

And the series is canceled; we'll have no further closure.

"He wants me to tell him something pretty," Al says, as he cleans the blood of the innocent woman he killed off the floor.

Indeed: wouldn't we all like to be told something pretty.

But we can't be. At the end all is lost. All the arrogant villains win. Anybody with honor loses. We're left with sickness. Not a lack of closure--no, there's closure. But the closure is not any closure we want. It's not even the closure of a hero dying nobly; it's the closure of the villain winning, and knowing it, and everybody else left standing knowing it.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Torrential Downpour: More Business

My recurring dreams

I have frequent dreams that I'm involved in the theater. Usually in my dreams I'm a stage actor, but sometimes I'm involved in other ways (last night I was sort of the director in a dinner theater version of King Lear; the producer/star actor disagreed with my idea that the throne should be moved from center stage to the side).

These dreams about plays have various themes. Often I would find myself cast as an actor in a play in which I didn't know the words, the blocking, or, frankly, the play. But there have been many other themes.

The thing is, I actually have only acted in two plays, the last in 1999. I don't know why I continue to have these dreams about working in theater.

Surely there's something there about playing roles, acting, putting on a show, and the tension this causes for me. But what else.

Bringing the C to the OCD

I can see why people with OCD come with the compulsions. When you're busy checking the stove and the lock by numbers divisible by three and frequently washing your hands, you have less time to spend with the pure O obsessions.

Dostoevsky is my master

In the future I may take some time to talk about why Dostoevsky is my master in all things. The ideas, the themes, the talking, the characters, the dialogical nature of it all, it all furrows into the depths of my soul and stays planted there, ready to burst into plant when the time comes.


Read this NY Times article on a farm animal sanctuary.

Read "Thomas Bloor's top 10 Tales of Metamorphosis" at The Guardian.

Here's a book critic (Ron Charles) that doesn't like Harry Potter (I've never read Harry Potter and probably never will).

It's difficult to get rid of books that you actually don't need (Inside Higher Ed).

The Valve talks about The Simpsons.

The Onion always has cutting insight into our society: read these two articles.

"Study: Iraqis May Experience Sadness When Friends, Relatives Die"

This gets at so much of the way people in America talk about the suffering of this war. Always in war there is a dehumanization effect: one side doesn't treat the other side as fully human, as fully capable of human thought and feeling. It has happened in past wars (see General Westmoreland's statement that "The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient"). It happens now. Let us remember what binds us: we are all human, and we all suffer. It's sad (but expected) that The Onion is the best source capable of pointing this out in a piercing way.

I'm not currently very good at talking eloquently about pacifism. Once I finish up Dostoevsky's Demons, I'll be reading some essays by John Howard Yoder (lent to me by a friend and pastor) about Christian pacifism. I want to find better words to express the deep thought and emotion I feel.

And a little lighter:

"New Sitcom Pulls Back the Envelope"

I always wonder of the stars of the conventional sitcoms feel like they're doing something important, or if they realize they're doing trash.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Compromised Art

Here is note 9 to Part Two, Chapter One of Richard Pevear's and Larrisa Volokhonsky's translation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Demons:

"Charmeur was a well-known Petersburg tailor. According to his wife's memoirs, Dostoevsky had his own suits made by Charmeur, whom he also advertised in Crime and Punishment."

Do you consider Dostoevsky's masterpiece novels compromised becasue he slipped in advertisements for a preferred tailor? Because I don't.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Ex-Girlfriend

Jerry: You should just do it like a Band-Aid: one motion, right off!

Jerry? Have you re-read those books yet, by the way? You know the great thing, when you read Moby Dick the second time, Ahab and the whale become good friends.

Comment: George is really coming into his own: his anxiety over a breakup, his swallowing of a fly, his disdain for chiropractors, his cheapness, it's all emerging and developing (and his books are Do I Have to Give Up Me to be Loved by You?, Staying Well: the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, and I'm OK, You're OK).

Here is my fantasy: I want to see James Gandolfini play George Costanza and Jason Alexander play Tony Soprano.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Stock Tip

George: Guys with cats...I don't know.

Kramer: That's for me.
Jerry: Yeah, and you're just what she's looking for, too.

Comment: Let me try to list off all the things I LOVE about this episode:

--Jerry's bit about the confusion of getting a check after the meal, because you're not hungry anymore.

--Jerry and George discuss Superman's sense of humor.

--Elaine gets Jerry not to order tuna because of the dolphins (Jerry tries to argue he's a good person because he lets people in when he drives), then George orders tuna.

--Kramer's roll-out tie dispenser.

--A new way to televise opera and a robot butcher

--Kramer tries to get Jerry to let some anarchists he met at a rock concert stay at his place when he's out of town.

--Jerry saying "We could play 'Steal the old man's bundle!'" (You have no idea how much mileage I've gotten out of that line in the last decade)

--AND THE BEST: George makes $8,000 in the stock market, so he's smoking a cigar, trying to get Jerry and Elaine to order dessert. When the waitress comes with the check, he doesn't look at it: he gives her a bunch of cash and says "That oughta cover it." As she's walking away, he calls her back, looks at the bill, and takes a dollar back. It is that sort of little cheap moment that makes George Costanza such an inspiration for us all.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

I attend a pro-war church and it makes me want to jab daggers into my belly

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Love your enemies.

At the church I attend, there is a donation drive to send care packages to soldiers in Iraq. This in itself is a noble gesture. But in the display in the narthex, there is a used mortar shell, a toy tank, and other symbols of killing. It's my belief that such symbols of killing act to promote war, and should not be a part of a Christian church.

In today's sermon on the good Samaritan, the pastor, believe it or not, used the text to support the fraud known as Just War Theory. Now, if you're inclined to justify warfare, you could use the good Samaritan story by arguing that our country has an obligation to try and help people suffering in other countries (I'd still argue that's screwed up, and war is a detrimental and possibly non-Christian way to try help, but the argument has a certain internal logic). This pastor didn't even do that: he said if radical terrorists are trying to attack our nation we're justified in defending ourselves, and if somebody breaks into our home, we have a right to defend ourselves (logical enough statements in themselves). I'm still not quite sure how he got to that--it was a jarring separation from a sermon that was mostly about the duty to help our neighbors, whoever they may be, even if they are traditionally our enemies.

That may be logical--but it doesn't sound Christian to me. The Christ I've read says that if somebody slaps your cheek, you turn the other cheek to be slapped. He says an eye for an eye is done. He says if somebody takes one item of clothing from you, give him another one. He says that those that live by the sword die by the sword. He says peacemakers are blessed. He says we are not to hate our enemies, but to love them. He doesn't say we have a right to wage war against our enemies. He doesn't say we are justified in using violence against our enemies. He says we should love them, pray for them, bless them.

I don't want to be a person that usurps Jesus' words for my own political agenda. I hope I am sincere in interpreting these lines (though "blessed are the peacemakers" is pretty direct, isn't it?). I want to be sincere in following Christ's message, and not co-opt Christ's message for myself. But then, I believe those using Christ to justify war are doing just that.

But for various reasons, I attend, often wear a peace shirt, and occasionally seethe.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Love your enemies.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Stake Out and The Robbery

The Stake Out

Jerry: I don't see architecture coming from you.
George: I suppose you could be an architect.

George: I'm ah...I'm an architect.
Vanessa: Really? Well, what do you design?
George: Ah...railroads.
Vanessa: I thought engineers do that?
George: They can.

Comment: The lies we'll see again and again first show up here: George is an achitect, Art Vandalay, they know an importer-exporter. It's amazing how many times these characters rely on elaborate lies throughout the series.

The Robbery

Jerry: Regarding sexual activity. It's strictly prohibited, but if you absolutely must, do us all a big favor and do it in the tub.

Kramer: I'm human.
Jerry: In your way.

Comment: I've always found this episode boring.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Downpour: the business

Deadwood, season three, episodes 1 and 2
In hindsight, it is rather simple how the show guided me from despising Al Swearengen as a villain to siding with him as a protagonist. It wasn't the attempts to humanize him with a soft side, with his confessions to prostitutes, with his appealing language, with the respect others had for him. Similar techniques failed to swing me toward sympathy for Tony Soprano (well, it did briefly, but not for terribly long). It was much more simple: bring in characters more loathsome than Swearengen (Tolliver and Hearst), ally Swearengen occasionally with our hero (Bullock), and simply have Swearengen perform fewer nasty deeds, distancing himself from his past crimes.

And now, if they ever do make a movie, I'd enjoy it if it were three hours of Bullock and Swearengen just beating the piss out of E.B., Tolliver, and Hearst.

Egalitarian Elitism 1: Plurality and Freedom of Expression
I've long held views on free expression of ideas similar to those of John Stuart Mill: let anybody say anything he or she wants, with the only limit on speech that intends actual harm. If you don't like the ideas somebody else is expressing, you have two choices: argue against it, or ignore it.

But this should not lead to the belief that all ideas are equal. Indeed, many ideas are lousy and should either be argued against or ignored. And this is where my egalitarian elitism takes a turn toward the elitism: yes, I think you should have every right to express your ideas, and society is better served allowing everybody to express their ideas. But I still retain my right to snobbery in dismissing your ideas if I think they are worthless, irrational, or just stupid. I will rarely simply dismiss--I'm almost always willing to discuss the ideas. But I don't hold all ideas equal.

And of course we come to the internet, which has as its greatest advantage the lack of a filter, and has as its greatest disadvantage the lack of a filter. Anybody can say anything he or she wants on the internet, for better or worse. Sometimes that is better, and often it is worse. We can't shy away from the freedom that offers--but we needn't become wishy-washy and accept ideas we find utterly stupid to be of equal value with ideas we find excellent.. We should consider all ideas for what is possible to understand from them, but we needn't accept them.

Still, I find if you are going to argue ideas rather than ignore them, civility and as much respect as is possible in the situation is preferable to merely insulting each other. Argument should be kept to the content of the argument, and not turned to personal attacks. There need not be a filter, and we need not accept each others' ideas, but we should at least be peaceable and as respectful as possible in arguing against another's ideas.

Lack of civility and the move toward personal attacks (explicit or subtle) are the bigger threat to open discourse on the internet.

Egalitarian Elitism 2: Snobbish in our own way
I've maintained on this blog that disrespected mediums and genres (television, horror, science fiction, comedy) have much to offer us, and are often as worthy of being called "art" as anything else. I've written about it all over, but particularly in September I began developing the idea of "Low Brow Aesthetic, High Brow Ideas" to focus on the quality of the content and ideas in works that are dismissed for their mediums, genres, or aesthetics.

And yet, I admit to a total snobbishness within this theory. I am snobbish in my own way: I'll defend the content of sitcoms I love, while expressing total loathing dismissal of sitcoms I find devoid of value whatsoever. The egalitarian anti-elitism that allows me to respect frequently disrespected mediums and genres has not prevented a strong elitism in my assessment of works within these mediums and genres. Once again, I don't consider all TV equal: I consider some horrid beyond acceptance.

Manners = Intelligence? Please. We left the aristocracy in Europe, thank you very much.
In Ken Tucker's condemnation of reality TV, I mostly agree: a lot of the people on reality TV shows are daft and dull.

And yet, I dismiss Ken Tucker as an asshole and an idiot for this line: "these studs and babes hold their eating utensils like monkeys..." Tucker dismisses most reality TV participants as unworthy of his attention...because they hold their silverware wrong. As if these customs have anything to do with wit, entertainment, or anything of cultural value.

Mr. Tucker, I've got a M.A. in English slapped up on the wall. I teach college English. Right now I'm flipping between reading Dostoevsky's Demons and some poetry by Ted Hughes. Do you want to dismiss me because I don't hold a fork right? Would you appreciate it if I dismissed you as a mere TV critic?

I always balked at economics
When I took Economics in high school, I could never accept the basic premises. The abstract concepts I spent so much much of my time considering (love, faith) never fit into the scheme of economic theory. I didn't know at the time I was expressing the same skepticism over economics' ability to explain everything that Dostoevsky might have been getting at in many of his works (particularly in Notes from the Underground, but not just there). Dostoevsky dismissed rational, scientific explanations and predictions of human behavior, believing that the complexities of the human psyche and the hunger for spiritual meaning could not be so easily quantified. I've always agreed, and even though, for example, I enjoy the deeper statistical metrics for sports analysis, I've always maintained a skepticism that they could tell me as much of the story as their more vehement advocates claimed.

David Leonhardt writes

"of the economics profession’s imperialist movement. For the last decade or so, economists have been increasingly poking their fingers into other disciplines, including epidemiology, psychology, sociology, oenology and even football strategy. These economists usually justify their expansionism on two grounds: They say they’re better with numbers than most other researchers and have a richer understanding of how people respond to incentives."

Leonhardt also expresses some skepticism over this movement. While I may be scoffed at by economists, I'm willing to stand with Dostoevsky, my master, against the tide of economics in everything.

It's Les Mis
It was $7.98 at Half Price Books for the complete original Broadway cast recording: Les Miserables is the musical I'm now living to.

Every once in a while I think I've moved past being an obsessive-compulsive mess. But then every year or so, the pure O obsessions come back strong. C'est la vie. The obsessive periods do change the way I read and think--and it's possible I get my best and most serious writing and thinking done during these otherwise internally miserable phases. Let us make the best of it all, I suppose.

RK has a very entertaining new blog, The Daily Rube, where he explores Auteur theory in practice.

Motoko Rich says Harry Potter really might not be increasing reading for pleasure among young people.

I don't think I've linked to this already: Anthony Daniels' "Diagnosing Lear" looks at Shakespeare's masterpiece.

Via Arts & Letters Daily (which you should check, well, daily), Terry Eagleton says that "For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life."

Bookslut interviews Miranda July.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Judd Apatow and the narration of life.

Judd Apatow is guiding us through the stages of middle-class American life. In Freaks and Geeks, he gave us the fringes of high school, and in Undeclared, we saw college life for the typical non-participant. The 40 Year Old Virgin showed us about the introduction to sex and relationships (and a lot else), and now Knocked Up shows us the beginnings of parenthood. And since to a large extent you're watching the same actors work through these different stages of life, you really feel like you are just following life through its archetypal stages.

There's a certain realism to much of Apatow's comic work: even when the plot takes a conventional story arch, we go through that arch in a very authentic, uncontrived way. There's regular (and regular looking) people making their way the regular parts of life--but with an intensely funny edge.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Seinfeld Chronicles (Pilot) and Male Un-bonding

The Seinfeld Chronicles

George: Jerry, I have to tell you something. This is the dullest moment I've ever experienced.

Kramer: You got any meat?

Comment: The seeds are here: the analysis of the minutiae of life, including language and word choice, gestures and body language, clothing and laundry, cleaning and toiletry. But do you notice something weird? THE CHARACTERS ARE NICE! They seem to have feelings, they seem to support one another. It's a bit much.

Male Un-bonding

Kramer: They got a cure for cancer. See, it's all big business.

Kramer: It's all supervised!

Comment: Kramer develops his plans for a pizza place where you make your own pie (Kramer was golden in the early episodes, before Michael Richards turned him into a caricature. Then he was still funny, but not in the real, eccentric way. More in the contrived way. Jerry continues to actually care about peoples' feelings. George tries to change pennies into dollars and has to roll them himself (true story: because of this episode I thought you really did have to roll change yourself to get it turned into bills. When I wanted to change over a hundred dollars worth of change, I took the time to roll my own pennies. Of course, when I got to the bank they made me open them and pour them into a machine). The seeds are starting to sprout.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Summer of George

Kramer: So I said to him Arthur, Artie, bubele: why does the salesman have to die? Change the title. The Life of a Salesman: that's what people want to see.

Jerry (in George's imagination): What's the deal with airplane peanuts?

Comment: George's angsty anger in later seasons reminds me of Tony Soprano. Once again, season 8 is the least enjoyable season of Seinfeld. It's not like the show faded entirely after Larry David left--season 9 was very strong, in part due to the return of David Putty.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Millenium and The Muffin Tops

The Millenium

Kramer: Those aren't for New Year's. Those are my everyday balloons.

Kramer: Do you think people will still be using napkins in the year 2000, or is this mouth vacuum thing for real.

George: What is a barometer exactly?
Kramer: It's pronounced "thermometer."

Comment: overall this episode isn't one of my favorites, but Kramer has some gem lines.

The Muffin Tops

George: If you take everything I've accomplished in my entire life and condense it down to one day, it looks decent.

Jerry's girlfriend: When you make a pizza bagel, you really shouldn't use cinnamon-raisin.
Jerry: You also shouldn't use a donut.

Comment: The corny: George getting traded for chicken, Jerry acting like a werewolf, no dumps taking the muffin stumps. The good: Kramer's Peterman Reality Bus Tour, the city eating George alive.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The English Patient, the Nap, the Yada Yada

The English Patient

George: You never know.
Jerry: Sometimes you do.

Jerry: They're real Cubans? They're human beings from Cuba?

Comment: A mediocre episode, but I appreciate Elaine's predicament of being the one person that doesn't like a movie that everybody else raves about.

The Nap

Elaine: Hey Kramer, listen. You've seen The Omen, right? What exactly was that kid?
Kramer: Oh, Damien? Nothing, just a mischievous, rambunctious kid.

Elaine: It'll be years before they find another place to hide cheese on a pizza.

Comment: While season eight of Seinfeld is better than 90% of anything that's ever been on television, this is the least good of the Seinfeld seasons.

The Yada Yada

Jerry: Because I believe Whatley converted to Judaism just for the jokes!

Jerry: But you yada yada-ed the best part.
Elaine: No, I mentioned the bisque.

Comment: I love this episode; it is very funny. From George showing up to visit Jerry at the dentist's office and the Catholic confessional, to the "anti-dentite" stuff, there are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Pacifism and Vegetarianism (II)

see also "Pacifism and Vegetarianism"

I have been considering a more developed argument for pacifists to become vegetarians. Here is the simple argument:

A pacifist, in general, believes that humans should not be inflicted to the suffering of violence. And while I respect the view that holds a moral difference between humans and animals, I must ask: is this moral difference so great that human life should not be inflicted to the suffering of violence, but animal life may be inflicted by the suffering of violence, and for our mere pleasure?

I can expand on or argue this point, but it is that simple. Human life may be morally different than animal life, but does that mean it is wrong to ever inflict violence on humans but it is morally acceptable to inflict violence on animals for our pleasure?

Kathy Freston, in "Shameless Name Dropping," also espouses the view that vegetarianism is part of a general individual moral program of world peace--one which she shows is shared by some major intellectuals of world history. I recommend you read it.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Pothole

Jerry: Jenna's like me, she's very...
George: Finicky? Prissy? Fastidious?
Jerry: I'll take fastidious.

Kramer: Look at that. A talking Nixon.

Comment: this episode works as it gets explicit about Jerry's hangups about cleanliness.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Co-opting Suffering

The emotional energy of Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" comes from her allusions to Nazis and the Holocaust to illustrate her own experience, feelings, and suffering. It is a raw, powerful poem--one of the best I've ever read.

Still, I can see something distasteful in using the industrial slaughter of 6,000,000 Jews to illustrate one's poor attitude toward one's father.

Alfred Hayes' "The Slaughter-House" begins with a description of animals suffering in a slaughterhouse. In the second half of the poem, however, the animal hanging upside down on its way to be butchered becomes a symbol for the poet's "private woe."

Again, I see something distasteful here: is Hayes' suffering, whether in a relationship or general existential suffering, comparable to a living creature hung upside down on its way to be slaughtered?

But then, poets look about their own worlds to illustrate their own feelings and ideas through poetry. Plath wrote "Daddy" shortly after Eichmann's trial. Hayes may have been at a slaughterhouse and felt it described his own sufferings. Poets find the image necessary to convey the idea--and it doesn't matter who finds it objectionable. That's poetry.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Van Buren Boys and The Susie

The Van Buren Boys
(We're including four quotes, since Cruelty-Free Mommy and I each had two favorites)

George: So she's the loser of the group. Every group has someone that they all make fun of. Like us with Elaine.

Jerry: I had a dream last night that a hamburger was eating me!

Kramer: I slipped and fell in mud, ruining the very pants I was about to return.
Elaine: I don't understand. You were wearing the pants you were returning?
Kramer: Well I guess I was.
Elaine: What were you gonna wear on the way back?
Kramer: Elaine, are you listening? I didn't even get there!

Jerry: You know, this is like the Twilight Zone where that guy wakes up and he's the same, and everyone else is different.
Kramer: Which one?
Jerry: They were all like that.

Comment: I like the idea of Peterman buying Kramer's stories, and Kramer buying Newman's stories.

The Susie

Elaine: I didn't know Cheryl Miller's little brother played basketball.

J. Peterman: Nevertheless, Elaine, the house of Peterman is in disorder.

Comment: I love this episode--there are many funny moments and looks on characters' faces. The highlights are George's "Believe it or not" answering machine message, and Jerry making bragging comments to the woman at Susie's funeral.