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.