Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Author! Author!: Shaping the Shapers

In Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, there is an element to life called Narrativium, a force that seeks to shape certain destinies along a pre-formed path. The third son must succeed in his endeavors; the despised but virtuous girl must marry happily ever after. That is the way the stories must go, and there are some people who use their knowledge of this for their own advantage. It is specifically stated that that is not the way things work here in the Roundworld, but I'm not so sure about that.

Narrativium -- especially in the lives of artists -- keeps trying to force the shapes of our lives into stories, and influences our interpretations of the lives of others. Occam's razor -- or an underlying cynicism about life -- always makes us take the main chance as far as famous writers go. Lewis Carroll must have been a pedophile and not simply a lonely man who made friends with little girls; Robert E. Howard must have been a momma's boy, and weak. In the case of Lewis Carroll, the evidence has been minutely sifted for one hundred and fifty years, and remains ambiguous at best. In the case of Howard, perhaps he always had a suicidal tendency that he refrained from acting on out of consideration for his mother. It need not necessarily been brought on by an Oedipal despair, though that is the narrative that many, even at the time, settled on. His philosophy -- the uncompromising, Nietzschean battle with life -- may have had as much to do with his suicide, but many would rather not consider this, as it is uncomfortably close to their own view of life. "It's a good philosophy, if you don't weaken, but he was weak, so the flaw was in him, not the philosophy."

Narrativium forces Bill Cosby into the role of America's Dad, and we are shocked when we discover how far he is from that role. Narrativium forces artists into a dance between their public image and their private selves, for the image becomes part of the narrative of the books, as if the artist's character is now an ingredient of the book's story itself. Even popular writers like J. K. Rowling or Neil Gaiman have occasionally offered unpopular statements that they have had to retract or explain away with cunning re-interpretations of their own words.

How far is an artist's self part of the work they present? How much is what he offers gold, and how much dross? All artists try to give us the gold of their character or wisdom and leave out the dross from their work; can it be judged by the junk in their lives, and entirely rejected because of what we see as personal flaws that are not even represented in the work? And how do we -- can we-- judge when a work is worth saving for the gold, and not rejected for the alloy of dross that has snuck in?

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Author! Author!: Robert E. Howard

The Whole Wide World (1996) is based on the memoir of Novalyne Price, about her relationship with Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian.

When Novalyne (Renée Zellweger), a school teacher who has hopes of becoming an author herself, meets Bob Howard (Vincent D'Onofrio), an established pulp fiction writer, in small-town 1930's Texas, it seems like it could be a match made to order. The intelligent and curious Novalyne offers a form of intellectual stimulation that the thorny, somewhat reclusive Bob is lacking, as well as being a mildly free-spirited alternative to the local dating pool. He tries to mentor her on the method of trimming one's writing sails to navigate through the waters of publishing, at the same time revealing to her his rather Nietzschean philosophy and his muddled, mystical view of life. Novalyne finds herself growing closer and closer to Bob the more he opens up to her.

There is a bump in the road, however. Bob's mother is sick and dying, and many nights when Novalyne would rather go to the movies or to a dance, Bob feels he must stay at home to nurse her. When Novalyne insists he must make a greater commitment to their relationship, Bob refuses to be "tied down," and they part ways. Novalyne begins dating Bob's friend Truett, a more conventional partner and less eccentric than the moody Bob. Bob, seeing the two together, realizes that Novalyne might be worth modifying some of his behavior for, but efforts at a reconciliation fail.

It all comes to an end the night Bob's mother enters the coma that will lead to her inevitable death. Lacking any further deep ties to tether him to the world, full of the black despair and lonely pride to which his philosophy has inevitably led him, Bob commits suicide, leaving his emotionally distant father and Novalyne to puzzle over the life of the strange cuckoo that had been smuggled into their existence.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Author! Author!: Lewis Carroll

There have been quite a number of biopics of authors of fantasy over the years, some more realistic, some more romantic, and some frankly down-right fantastical. Over a few weeks I intend to review a few of them.
Dreamchild (1985), purports to tell the story of the widowed Alice Hargreaves, the erstwhile little girl on whom was based Alice in Wonderland; she is traveling to the United States on an invitation to celebrate the one hundredth birthday of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) at Columbia University. She is accompanied by the (fictional) orphan girl Lucy, who is wooed by a down-on-his-luck journalist in an effort to gain access to and exploit the elderly Alice. As Mrs. Hargreaves travels down the rabbit-hole of 1930's America, she has dreams about encountering the characters from the stories, and has childhood recollections about her friendship with the eccentric Oxford don. Although having conflicting memories of affection and ridicule, eventually she comes to a clearer understanding and reconciliation with her past and the loving friendship of the lonely Lewis Carroll.
Coral Brown plays Alice Hargreaves, Amelia Shankley the young Alice, and Ian Holm is Lewis Carroll. Jim Henson's Creature Shop provides the Mad Hatter, March Hare, and other characters from the book. Peter Gallagher and Nicola Cowper play the journalist and the orphan companion in the tacked-on "romantic" subplot. The main interest of the movie is, however, neither that nor the hallucinatory episodes of fantasy creatures, but the memories of Alice as a little girl, and her complicated (and controversial) relationship with the man who immortalized and idealized an aspect of her character in a classic work of children's literature.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Debatable Points

A version of the poisoning the well fallacy that is extremely common today is the tactic of dismissing the arguments of an opponent on the grounds that they are allegedly motivated by “hatred.” You think Amoris Laetitia is problematic? You must be motivated by hatred of Pope Francis! You disapprove of homosexual behavior? You must be motivated by hatred of homosexuals! You favor border enforcement? You must be motivated by hatred of immigrants! And so on. Part of the problem here, of course, is that hatred is not necessarily the motive in any of these cases. But the reason that poisoning the well is fallacious is that, even if hatred were a person’s motivation, that would be completely irrelevant to whether his claims are true and his arguments cogent. Logically speaking, motives don’t matter. --Edward Feser

Sunday, July 8, 2018

It Burns Me Now

Then I was sent to a private school at Sunbury, kept by Arthur Drury. This, I think, must have been done in accordance with the advice of Henry Drury, who was my tutor at Harrow School, and my father's friend, and who may probably have expressed an opinion that my juvenile career was not proceeding in a satisfactory manner at Harrow. To Sunbury I went, and during the two years I was there, though I never had any pocket-money, and seldom had much in the way of clothes, I lived more nearly on terms of equality with other boys than at any other period during my very prolonged school-days. Even here, I was always in disgrace. I remember well how, on one occasion, four boys were selected as having been the perpetrators of some nameless horror. What it was, to this day I cannot even guess; but I was one of the four, innocent as a babe, but adjudged to have been the guiltiest of the guilty. We each had to write out a sermon, and my sermon was the longest of the four. During the whole of one term-time we were helped last at every meal. We were not allowed to visit the playground till the sermon was finished. Mine was only done a day or two before the holidays. Mrs. Drury, when she saw us, shook her head with pitying horror. There were ever so many other punishments accumulated on our heads. It broke my heart, knowing myself to be innocent, and suffering also under the almost equally painful feeling that the other three—no doubt wicked boys—were the curled darlings of the school, who would never have selected me to share their wickedness with them. I contrived to learn, from words that fell from Mr. Drury, that he condemned me because I, having come from a public school, might be supposed to be the leader of wickedness! On the first day of the next term he whispered to me half a word that perhaps he had been wrong. With all a stupid boy's slowness, I said nothing; and he had not the courage to carry reparation further. All that was fifty years ago, and it burns me now as though it were yesterday. What lily-livered curs those boys must have been not to have told the truth!—at any rate as far as I was concerned. I remember their names well, and almost wish to write them here. --from AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY by ANTHONY TROLLOPE

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Friday, July 6, 2018