Friday, April 29, 2011

Poetry First, and Then the Flood

The poetry market continues to dwindle as Americans increasingly live without thinking, yet aspiring poets still write.  And many pay their own money to publish.  Do poets think they stand as bastions of classic taste?  Do they want to join a massive tradition recalling a golden age?  If they do, why don’t they work harder to craft something worth reading?

I wondered this after Joe Cordrey’s Reflections of My Mind crossed my desk.  The poet subtitles it (Volume One), indicating he will produce more, yet I stand perplexed at what I see before me.  It’s a masterpiece of sweeping generalization, pop sentimentality, and low ambition.  Yet he must think it speaks to someone.  Why else would he pay to have it published?

Ignore the all-caps, centered formatting.  Ignore the absent copyright or title page.  Ignore Cordrey’s disinterest in convention.  Feast yourself instead on this passage from “Aviator”:



COLOR ME KUBRICK
COLOR ME HUGHES
SOME CHAOTIC DIRECTOR, WHO NEVER PAID HIS DUES
COLOR ME MALKOVICH
AND, TEACH ME HOW TO FLY
AN AVIATOR, I WILL BE
HONEY, DON’T ASK ME WHY


Apart from the garbage sentiment, Cordrey clearly does not challenge himself.  He doesn’t push the capabilities of language.  He lets our familiarity with movie allusions do his work.  That last line even falls back on relics of blues wails— lyrics that appear partly to aid memory.  Any beginning writing teacher would say that, until he pushes himself as a writer, Cordrey can’t push his readers.  Like the pop songs he mimics, his poems may drift over readers’ minds and amuse them, but once they’re gone, we forget them.

The soft rock stylings certainly don’t kill Cordrey’s poetry.  Aaron St. Julien’s Sanctuary of the Soul: Sacred Heart Offering uses hip-hop rhythms to produces interesting prose poems.  Some of his work really has the power to reach in and shake you up, like this from “Invaluable”:

The title African Lotus was sent from Spirit because it describes the essence waiting to blossom the Gift of Divinity called for you last season those in your circle will not understand but still will try to reason some may even accuse you of treason, why!  Why!

Yet even that passage offers flashes of St. Julien’s limitations.  That distinctive four-beat rhythm and internal rhyme continue unabated throughout his collection.  Clearly his fingers found a comfy place, and never drifted.  And because he doesn’t challenge himself, he never challenges us.

In fairness, not all self-published poets suffer thus.  Thomas Noel Smith, in Dust and Other Poems, sometimes embraces difficulty.  Though his melancholy themes have a distinctly Victorian nostalgia, he uses this traditionalism profitably in poems like “Gone Beyond Our Reach”:

Grandfather smoking his Camels
On concrete steps outside his house.
Grandmother wouldn't allow
Smoking inside
Even for her man.
That special man that God made
In His own image, and called him
"Grandfather."

Yet just when I feel maybe Smith offers hope, he lacks the courage of his convictions and retreats into a creaky old wheeze like “There is a Star”:

There is a star that brightly shines
It charts a course for me.
Where I'm bound I cannot tell
But it is my destiny

Smith’s transparent, and not very moving, allusion to Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” sucks the wind from my sails.  When I read a poem and feel I’ve seen this before, I don’t feel comforted and homey.  I just feel I’ve wasted my finite time.

This retreat into conservatism alarms me.  Poets like Eliot and Pound created something new.  Joining the poetic tradition means claiming literature’s greatest risk-takers as your ancestors.  Yet these poets, so eager for recognition that they jump the accepted publication track and pay to print their work, seem dreadfully risk-averse.

Effective poets threaten themselves.  They grasp situations that make themselves uncomfortable.  These poets reject that opportunity, and craft drab, uninspiring poetry.  But not all hope is lost.  Anarda Nashai was only a teen when she wrote School Girl: Poetry, but she embraces challenge and struggle.  Consider “Steet Meat”:

Alley ways; traffic lights
Sidewalk trash; rat bites
Terrible traits; dirty feet
The corner store smells of street meat

Nashai appropriates the quatrain, which Smith and Cordrey squander, but makes it something grittier.  Its Double Dutch rhythm ironically contradicts its grim images, showcasing what it means to be young amid urban decay.  Nashai opens herself to this rot, and by opening herself, she touches us.

Why did Nashai publish her own work, instead of going through journals and accepted publishing houses?  Only she could say.  But amid all these thorns, it would be easy to forget one rose.  Until aspiring poets put themselves at risk, and challenge themselves to challenge us, they’ll clutter the shelves with work that hasn’t finished incubating yet.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Critic of the Week—Tex Sample

I once walked into a hometown blue-collar bar, took a table, and fired up my Kindle to catch up on my reading.  After a few moments, silence fell over the bar.  Other than Waylon Jennings on the jukebox, all sounds had diminished to a whisper, as the flannel-clad drinkers stared at me like I’d taken off my jeans in public.  I never returned to that bar.

I should have read Tex Sample.  In Living With Will Rogers, Uncle Remus, & Minnie Pearl, Sample identifies the gap between the “literate culture,” people like me who perceive the world through words and documents, and the “oral culture,” which prizes folk wisdom, oral heritage, and tradition.  He finds remarkable fonts of untapped wisdom in the oral culture.  But he also sees significant cultural conflict.

A product of rural oral upbringing himself, Sample encountered the conflict in college, where professors passed information through documents and artifacts.  This allowed greater nuance, but discussion often bogged down in extraneous implications.  Oral culture people, he says, pass tiny nuggets of wisdom that lack finesse but permit quick decision.  This ability to think and work at the same time gives oral people a distinct edge.

Yet literary people often hold power in oral people’s lives.  We often sign their paychecks, pull their strings, and demand unquestioning loyalty.  Though they don’t have elaborate critical names for this behavior, oral people recognize colonial exploitation when they see it, and they resist.  They exercise remarkable power in their ability to drag their heels, spread gossip, and just refuse.

Sample, a career theologian, writes primarily for pulpit preachers, who often have graduate degrees but lead congregations of diverse background.  But only occasionally do his words limit themselves to a church context.  His wisdom of lives lived on society’s margins can enlighten teachers, lawyers, businessmen, and anyone who must cross that culture gap.

Monday, April 25, 2011

When In the Course of Human Events...

                             


Few Americans today remember Reuben Kemper, a failed businessman and outlaw who forged our national identity.  William C. Davis, author of The Rogue Republic, would like to remedy that.  But in a way, Davis does more than that: he reminds us of why America used to be a place ordinary people could hope to make more of themselves.  When did we lose that?

Thomas Jefferson thought the Louisiana Purchase included West Florida, comprising parts of today’s Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.  So did the primarily English-speaking Americans who settled and farmed the land.  St. Augustine’s Spanish governor disagreed.  Several Presidents failed to resolve the problem.  So Reuben Kemper, like any red-blooded American boy, organized a revolution.  More remarkably, he won.  Eventually.

Naysayers might claim that the Republic of West Florida set standards of American expansionism, proxy wars, and imperialism.  But it also proclaimed that, in America, ordinary people can build a nation.  People could make names and meaning without kowtowing to authorities.  More important, a small nation with a sparse population makes room for heroes and rewards outsized personalities.

Yet we apparently outgrew men like Kemper.  Women and men of his ilk existed for a long time.  Men like Teddy Roosevelt stood for such resilience long after the country changed.  In his biography of TR’s post-presidential years, Colonel Roosevelt, Edmund Morris details how one of America’s greatest personalities kept fighting after his country thought it no longer needed him.

Roosevelt stood for chest-thumping autonomy and fortitude.  When he left the Oval Office, under national pressure to bid for a third term, he left for a year-long African safari, because he still felt he had character to prove.  But the country he left behind fell into the hands of small leaders like Taft and Knox.  The frontier closed, and the country laid new foundations that would pay of in the ignominy of World War I.

When Roosevelt got back to Oyster Bay, he found his old home couldn’t hold him anymore, and as the 1912 election proved, America preferred academics like Woodrow Wilson to Roosevelt’s highly public bravado.  So he turned outward, mapping new Amazon tributaries, in lands where small populations and incomplete maps gave titanic souls room to prove.  Sadly, this proved his ultimate undoing.

Maybe we’ve grown too big.  Maybe we’ve outgrown any place for strong, determined individuals.  Maybe a small country produces heroes, while a big nation produces meaningless midgets.  Therefore, maybe the time has come to turn America’s focus to the local and small again.  Bill Kaufmann looks at several small but growing movements in that direction in his keen, acerbic Bye Bye, Miss American Empire.

High school history claims that the Civil War closed the book on American secessionism.  Kaufmann disagrees.  Several factions today still push to split the nation; others still believe in the federal system, but want to move power to the local level.  Some seem naive, like the utopian Hawaiian independence movement.  Others seem likely—even desirable—like the State of Jefferson, which wants to hang a new West Coast star on the flag.

Remarkably, these movements emphasizing home and community produce meaning in people’s lives.  While America’s massive federal system creates vacuous TSA patdown jobs, regional movements build bridges and strengthen bonds.  Perhaps, in shifting focus from the macro- to the micro-scale, we can reclaim the meaning we enjoyed in our nation’s early days.

Were we better off in Reuben Kemper’s day, when people made their own names and knew they mattered?  Consider, Kemper was hailed as a hero, but kept fighting after his republic no longer existed.  We have more ease today, we can get more done, but our lives have descended into aimless routine.  People like TR who still try to make meaning find themselves stymied, beating fists against a sky that’s now appallingly low.

A small nation produces big citizens.  A huge nation produces midgets.  We set our sights low today because we have nothing else left.  TR knew this, and tried to fight it.  He built himself up, at great cost, and while his efforts ultimately killed him, the life he lived, while short, held meaning most of us lack.

Maybe we should throw away the map, in more ways than one.  Small nations, or a big nation that trusts communities and local people, could produce depth and meaning like we seldom see anymore.  Two hundred years ago, we lacked ease and luxury, but we had heart.  Our nation has changed; now it’s time to change it back.

Friday, April 22, 2011

An Educator's Lament

Why did Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, badly outnumbered and out of ammunition at Little Round Top, order his men to fix bayonets and charge?  How did Archimedes’ bath inspire his displacement principle?  Why do intelligent, educated people lose their composure—and their careers—over whether to teach Huckleberry Finn in public schools?

These questions circled my brain as I read Paul Lockhart’s A Mathematician's Lament, in which the author, a former professor who now teaches high school math, mourns the state of mathematics education.  But while a mathematician can easily deplore how math is mistaught, he accurately describes how all of education fails.  Segmented curricula, obedience to inscrutable structure, and an emphasis on memorization make lively fields of inquiry seem static and moribund.

Lockhart’s spirited exhortation celebrates mathematics as a field of inquiry, not some place where we handle bones in hopes of naming the corpse.  As he dismantles the discovery process, showing how simple points on a page imply complex computative proofs, I realize what my math teachers should have offered, but usually withheld: the right to ask my own questions.

This play of ideas, where I have the encouragement to try something new, offers such thrills that, since finishing the book, I’ve trolled bookstores and the Internet seeking experiments to try.  When proving squares has me arranging pennies on a table to discover patterns, it transforms math from the inert “skillz drillz” that misguided me twenty years ago into an experience that leaves me rolling on the floor, laughing uncontrollably at the thrill of discovery.

But why should this thrill belong to math alone?  For instance, history says the Union won at Gettysburg, but this victory was not inevitable.  Why did my high school textbooks neuter the Civil War and the Revolution while completely eliminating King Philip’s War and the Apache Wars?  Why did my teachers reduce history to names, dates, and maps in a vacuum?

Historian James Loewen, in Lies My Teacher Told Me, blames the same forces Lockhart does: teachers who don’t challenge themselves or keep abreast of developments, and textbook writers who pander to those teachers and committees.  The result speaks for itself.  Students consider history a fait accompli, avoid asking questions, and see learning as a process of plugging memorized facts into multiple-choice questions.

I wish I could pretend my field doesn’t suffer similarly.  But Gerald Graff, author of Clueless in Academe, demonstrates how meaningful literature, which we celebrate because it asks the most important questions, instead gets taught as a sequence to memorize.  This rote procedure renders reading joyless, and more important, blinds students to the momentous opportunities literature provides them.

Years ago, a friend showed me her son’s Hamlet homework.  I was appalled that the entire assignment focused on stage events: who said what, what came before and after, and so on.  Hamlet doesn’t matter because moments occur in sequence!  It matters because it speaks to our shared fundamental human experience.  But this assignment stripped the play of its inherent beauty and joy.

When the same complaint echoes across multiple curricula, I wonder: has something failed, not with individual disciplines, but with the entire process?  Fields like math, history, and literature once formed the “liberal studies,” a core educational experience that frees the human soul.  Why then do students emerge feeling shackled, weighed down, and enslaved?

John Taylor Gatto, former teacher and award-winning author of Dumbing Us Down, suggests that forces of wealth and authority conspire to turn schools into assembly lines.  Instead of well-rounded and intellectually ambitious students, the factory school turns out young workers so dispirited and passive that they remain dependent on bosses and other authority figures all their lives.  I’m not so sure.

I’ve taught long enough to recognize one important fact: teaching is hard.  I don’t mean for students.  Being a teacher, responding to students’ needs, and anticipating their struggles tomorrow, next week, next year, and in their careers—teaching is difficult.  And it should remain difficult, because it’s difficult for students, and if they see us trivializing their struggles, they justly regard their difficulties as not that important, unworthy of their effort.

Educated students should emerge into their adult roles, not in possession of memorized facts, but prepared to ask the most important questions, and then pursue the answers.  Life is not an open-book quiz.  Teachers, please: keep it difficult.  Keep it taxing.  And stay transparent enough that students can see your struggles.  Anything less robs kids of their most important ability, the ability to think.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Critic of the Week—Evan Schwartz

L. Frank Baum’s classic, The Wizard of Oz, marked a shift in American literature.  Never before had a writer looked to the United States instead of Europe, or the present instead of the past, to create mythology for children.  Baum’s distinctly New World narrative gave children permission to dream in American terms, which changed the game for an entire nation.

In Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story, Evan I. Schwartz unpacks Baum’s tempestuous life to discover how a failed businessman made such a profound leap.  Beginning in upstate New York prosperity, Baum struggled to assume adult roles, failing out of military school, bouncing from one half-successful business venture to another, and even running a theatre that enjoyed great success before losing everything.  Somehow he never connected his life to the writing he never stopped.

In Schwartz’s telling, Baum saw the world in narrative terms.  When his father wanted him following manful pursuits, young Baum printed a household newspaper.  When he thought he’d made a success of his traveling theatre, he clearly most relished writing his company’s scripts.  When he failed at running a South Dakota general store, he flourished publishing the city paper.

By carefully examining Baum’s choices, Schwartz reveals how Oz represents a mythic retelling of the American frontier.  The 1893 Columbian Exposition, called the “White City,” may have been the original city of Oz, while Sitting Bull’s struggles to keep his people together represent the Munchkins’ resistance to the Wicked Witch—a witch that may represent Baum’s own guilt.

Instead of pulling abstruse meaning from a respected classic, Schwartz shows the book and its audience respect enough to treat it seriously.  He shows how literature participates in life, in constant conversation with its time and society.  And he reminds us that Oz is no mere sweet story, but a real part of America’s distinctive identity.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Three Heroes—Three Memoirs

                             

Deval Patrick went from hardscrabble South Chicago to governor of Massachusetts, only the second black man elected governor of a US state.  A Reason to Believe: Lessons from an Improbable Life recounts his hard road from the bottom of life’s ladder to accomplishment’s heights.  A mix of good luck and genuine American tenacity made him the man he became, a genuine American success story.

Like another recent political prodigy, Governor Patrick grew up in a broken home, enduring prejudice.  Unlike too many peers, who acquiesced to their poor state, Patrick found meaning in schoolwork, and a teacher who became a mentor.  Good grades, hard work, and determination got him into Boston’s prestigious Milton Academy and the fast track for American success.

This memoir smacks of a political autobiography; betcha the Governor plans to run for Senate in 2012.  But considering what snoozers most political autobiographies are, Patrick infuses his with energy and humor.  He doesn't blush to admit he disliked his father growing up, and that he struggled to keep one foot in his heritage while studying in prestigious East Coast schools.  He doesn't make himself a saint.

Patrick draws several lessons from his life: make meaning of life by shifting your perspective.  You have ideals for a reason, so stick by them.  Perhaps most important, we’re judged not by what we believe, but by how we live.  Most unusually for political memoir, these lessons feel both authentic and well-earned.  This sets Patrick well above his ordinarily drab genre.

Like Patrick, Rose “Maria McCarthy” Anding overcame plenty to find the purpose in her life.  But as she reveals in High Heels, Honey Lips, and White Powder, she made her own bad choices.  She dragged herself in the mud.  And when her loved ones told her to pull her life together or get out, she found the strength to realize she couldn’t trust herself, and reach outward.

When Anding fled her faithless marriage, she wound up in Washington, DC, surrounded by the temptations of power and money.  She soon descended into cocaine, casual marriage, and surface prestige that concealed a rotting soul beneath.  Her culmination came when she found herself courted by DC mayor Marion Berry— and then found herself subpoenaed to his trial.

After years of struggle, the guidance of good counselors, and strong family love, Anding found her way back to life.  Now a Christian minister, Anding can tell her flock something few other ministers can say: don’t worry.  I’ve done far worse than you can even conceive, and God and my family still love me.  So what do you have to lose?

Anding’s memoir is oddly structured, in that she starts with her recovery, then flashes back to her collapse.  Veteran memoir readers may be taken aback by this quirk, which may draw you out of the moment.  But if you can get past Anding’s strange choice there, her touching, forthright memoir provides an unusually frank look at how far one person can fall and still get up again.

Like Anding, life took Shayne Moore in unexpected directions when she thought she had everything controlled.  Global Soccer Mom, which is also her blog title, reveals how a chance encounter with a childhood pop idol opened her eyes to the massive tragedy of global AIDS.  Now she knows that one stay-at-home mom has more power than she ever believed.

From her moment of epiphany, Moore plunged into AIDS activism, following the disease trail from Kenyan free clinics to Honduras shanties to the G8 conference in Scotland.  She meets celebrities like George Clooney and Julia Roberts, but seems to care more about the struggling children she helps.  Along the way, her fellow Christians dragged her down with pat moralism, while her fellow activists patronized her for her faith and the fact that she’s “just” a housewife.

But from that, and from hard work and prayer, Moore learned that the world will always stand in her way.  Now she doesn’t seek justification in the safe confines of Illinois suburbia.  The light that shines when a hungry child gets fed has become her meaning.  And she encourages her readers to join her effort to change the world.

Governor Patrick mines his life for lessons in belief, while Reverend Anding uses hers to model forgiveness and hope.  Shayne Moore hopes her life will call you to action for the world’s struggling and dispossessed.  All three give me something to hope for, and something to strive after.  I have three new heroes.

Friday, April 15, 2011

My Top Ten Acts of Movie Violence (Part Two)

Building on last week’s commentary, cinematic violence presents an idea how to face violence in real life.  But as another blogger recently pointed out, violence also provides insight into the human soul.  How persons answer physical threats reveals, in a concrete way, their concealed identities.

6) Darth Vader strikes down Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars)

In his book Empire Building, Garry Jenkins reveals that Lucas’ original script called for Ben Kenobi to make a narrow escape with his protégés after holding his former apprentice, Darth Vader, at bay.  Actor Alec Guinness, who played Kenobi, balked on the grounds that the young heroes would have to drag a wounded man around for the rest of the movie.

It seems surprising that Guinness, a Benedictine Oblate, only saw the issue in practical terms.  Star Wars drew on many mythologies, including early Christianity.  Consider: Kenobi has fought Vader to a virtual draw, but when he sees the heroes sprinting past the guards for their ship, he raises his sword and awaits the killing blow.  “Greater love hath no man than this...”

7) Rosalie shoots “Killer” Gannon to protect her father (The Rain People)

Young Marya Zimmet never acted onscreen after Francis Ford Coppola’s strange Frenchified American art film.  Coppola calls this one of his favorites of his own movies, yet few have ever seen it.  Newly released on DVD-R, it’s clearly dated but endures remarkably well.

Rosalie (Zimmet) antagonizes her abusive, ethically spongy cop dad Gordon (Robert Duvall) with whom she shares a trailer, and only increases when he brings home disaffected housewife Natalie (Shirley Knight). Natalie needs the intimacy, but for Gordon, sex—like everything else in life—is about misplaced aggression.

Brain-damaged ex-quarterback “Killer” Gannon (James Caan) sees the sex turn rough (is it rape?  The film equivocates) and tries to rescue Natalie.  The men trade blows, but as they approach a stalemate, Rosalie shoots Gannon with her father’s service pistol.  As Natalie drags Gannon, possibly dead, through the mud, tearfully confessing her love, the movie suddenly ends.

8) A monkey discovers he can smash things with a bone (2001: A Space Odyssey)

Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, both agnostics, nevertheless could not accept that life lacked a motivating factor.  Things couldn’t just happen, they reasoned; they demanded a cause.  So they looked beyond the stars.  When we made the leap from Australopithecine to human, they make aliens the proximate cause.

This classic scene reflects the belief, common in 1968, that humanity gained its identity through war and weapons.  Sociologists now believe human culture arose out of agriculture.  But as a prelude to the highly conflicted story that follows, this image sets the scene that humanity was born in a moment of aggression.

9) Dutch challenges the Predator (Predator)

After Schwarzenegger's mechanically laconic role in the tech-noir Terminator, Dutch seems a diametrically opposed role: talkative, sweaty, principled.  And this whole movie has a humid organic atmosphere, which amplifies this film’s reversal theme.  While the Predator initially has the soldiers at its mercy, its technology gradually degrades, and it finds itself on equally organic footing with its human adversary.

When Dutch swipes mud off his shoulders and disbelievingly whispers “He can’t see me,” we feel with him the realization.  This monster is utterly reliant on its machines; the more of its machines fail, the less of a fighting chance it has.  Sure, it’s strong.  Sure, it’s crafty.  But when Dutch’s scream and his exploding arrows announce his challenge, we know we will finally see a heroic contest of equals.

10) Theo can’t save Julian (Children of Men)

Theo Faron (Clive Owen) hasn’t yet accepted his ex-wife Julian Taylor’s (Julianne Moore) job offer, nor does he realize what profound odds he faces.  He only knows she’s implied he might be rewarded with renewed romance.  The old flames are demonstrating their old trick, blowing a ping-pong ball between their mouths, when an angry mob attacks; one well placed shot pierces Julian’s jugular vain.  On the run as fugitives, they can’t even bury her.

Joseph Campbell would call this “Crossing the First Threshold,” the point where the hero steps outside normal limits and faces the profound unknown.  But this is a religious allegory and, like Isaiah or the Buddha, Theo can only become a carrier for the truth when the vestiges of his old life have passed away.  Bit by bit, Theo loses his job, his home, his love, and his last remaining friend.  Only then is he free to face the task before him.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Critic of the Week—Farah Mendlesohn

Fantasy fiction’s immense malleability means it manifests greater variety than other genres.  Since each fantasy venture involves not just creating characters or situations, but indeed whole settings with unique narrative demands, it cannot develop the consistency of mysteries or Westerns.  Fantasy invites a more incisive look, which British critic Farah Mendlesohn provides.

Rhetorics of Fantasy applies Mendlesohn’s historian training to understanding fantasy.  Since Mendlesohn studied American religious history as a postgraduate, perhaps it’s not surprising that she sees models for the fantasy form in scripture and religious allegory.  And there’s something to that, since George MacDonald, who largely invented modern fantasy, was a clergyman.  But Mendlesohn goes further.

Most important, Mendlesohn creates categories to understand what fantasy does rather than trying to define what it is.  Where Tzvetan Todorov bogs down in contradictory, confusing definitions, Mendlesohn’s primarily descriptive taxonomy doesn’t force the fantastic into preconceived templates.  Mendlesohn defines fantasy by its actions—like Chomsky’s generative language.

Despite the “rhetoric” in her title, Mendlesohn doesn’t minutely analyze word choices or parse the neuropsychology that has hijacked recent rhetoric.  Instead, she closely considers writers’ storytelling choices with an eye toward how they reconcile realistic character with frank portrayals of the supernatural.  This approach yields four broad categories that describe most modern fantasy.

Unlike Susannah Clements, whom I praised last week, Mendlesohn uses critical terminology that may send less experienced scholars rushing for Google.  She also draws from less than chipper forebears like Wayne C. Booth and Northrop Frye.  Be warned: Mendlesohn’s dense writing can appear imposing at first.

But she also doesn’t indulge tedious passages of unpleasant theory.  If readers can persevere through her admittedly tough discourse, Mendlesohn presents interesting perspectives on how writers create, and readers receive, nonrealistic fiction.  Her active mind and eager sharing set her well above the banal gasbags who sadly dominate criticism.

Monday, April 11, 2011

What is the Life of Faith?

     

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
—John 20:29

David Ponder’s chief recommendation to lead a summit to save humanity from another Flood appears to be his immense wealth.  This quality seems to separate the sheep from the goats in Andy Andrews’ The Final Summit.  Maybe that’s why, at the end, the conference yields an obvious but uninspiring conclusion.  I wish that ended my problems.

I could list the lopsided selection of luminaries deciding humanity’s kismet: predominantly white, overwhelmingly Euro-American, chosen to ratify a Protestant ethic.  I consider the high regard for soldiers at least problematic.  Offering token minorities like Anne Frank, Booker T. Washington, and Gandhi doesn’t conceal that well-heeled whites hold humanity’s fate in their hands.

I could list the contrivance of the story, in which the Archangel Gabriel gathers everybody who Andrews thinks matters in a no-place to make a decision Scripture says will never happen.  But the spirituality—and indeed the story—don’t matter.  This is a self-help book, and anything that happens is a contrivance.

At least The Final Summit features a conclusion I can support.  That’s more than I can say for Don Furr’s Quest for the Nail Prints.  From the Indiana Jones-y title, to the nail hole drilled cover to cover, to the studiously unthreatening, pietistic narrative, this is one of the vaguest, least challenging religious novels I’ve ever seen.

Three Americans visiting the Holy Land, each with their own doubts, find themselves transported back to the first Palm Sunday.  Once there, each pursues their own agendas, facing the unexpected hardships of First Century Canaan.  And each has their own life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ.

I don’t recall who first pointed out that empires don’t nail provincial preachers to planks and stake them up to die for being pleasant and soft-spoken.  I forget who said that temple leaders don’t conspire against reformers for merely encouraging people to pray more.  But I certainly remembered their words while reading this bloodless, uninspiring froth.

No, I much prefer teachers like Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.  In Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers, these modern monks describe how prayer opens our hearts to the Kingdom.  And when our hearts open, and our souls listen for the Spirit, we hear God telling us how to get up and move.

Our authors analyze three New Testament prayers to see, not just howJesus and Paul prayed, but what they prayed for.  Wilson-Hartgrove and Claiborne find hope, love, and a spirit-filled life.  But they also find justice, advocacy, and Kingdom economics.  These prayers, they say, call us to get up and act.

Prayer, they say, is no passive petition we offer God like a letter to Santa.  From lives lived on the margins, these preachers know that prayer is a way of life.  Prayer is how we build communities of faith, how we face a deeply conflicted world, and how we stay true to faith’s message.  True believers have a mission in this world, and part of that mission is to pray.

But “faith without deeds is useless” (James 2:20).  After a life-changing encounter with new views of God, Pastor Curtiss Paul DeYoung studied how different people of different cultures live out faith.  The result is Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice.  Half scholarly study, half call to action, DeYoung’s words give us something to hope for and something to strive after.

Though DeYoung himself is Christian, he studies people of many nationalities and religions.  His most detailed examinations focus on three faithful witnesses: the Christian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Muslim Malcolm X, and the Buddhist Aung San Suu Kyi.  He also considers diverse “mystic activists” like Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama, Winona LaDuke, and Thich Nhat Hanh.  Each feels called to stand strong for their deepest beliefs.

DeYoung finds many threads linking these activists across faiths.  Some, like Bonhoeffer or Dorothy Day, were born to privilege, but found their hearts drawn to people living on society’s margins.  Others, like Malcolm X or Rigoberta Menchu, were born on the margins and found faith enough to confront the powers of this world.  But they all have hearts for peace and justice inspired by souls for their beliefs.

Between the prayers of Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove, and DeYoung’s action, I believe that faith can shape a life to change the world.  That sure beats the vagaries and bromides propounded by feel-good writers like Andrews and Furr.

Friday, April 8, 2011

My Top Ten Acts of Movie Violence (Part One)

As a Christian peace activist, it seems strange to list my favorite acts of cinematic violence.  Yet to achieve humanity’s greatest impulses, we must understand how we founder.  Cinema’s heightened reality lets us examine humanity from new and surprising angles.

1) Kyle Reese shoots the T-800 through a plate glass window (The Terminator)

Deep within Reagan’s America, when we feared our own technology would destroy humanity, a strange, dark film appeared, featuring a stone-faced villain whom the heroes could not defeat, a hero who could only hope to keep running, and a heroine who couldn’t understand her predicament.  Pretty accurate summation of Eighties America, really.

When Reese (Michael Biehn) opens up with a sawed-off shotgun, the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) initially isn’t even phased.  Several direct thoracic blows leaves it momentarily stunned enough to collapse through a giant window.  Reese takes that moment to speak his iconic line to Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton): “Come with me if you want to live.”

Which proves appropriate when, after momentary disorientation, the machine rises, apparently unhurt, and charges its targets.  It will subsequently survive shooting, car crashes, open flame, falling from its motorcycle to get hit by a truck, and a diesel explosion before being crushed by a fellow machine.  Who says science fiction doesn’t symbolize its culture?

2) Virgil Tibbs slaps Eric Endicott back (In the Heat of the Night)


Interviewed years later, Sidney Poitier revealed that the original script required his Detective Tibbs to back down when backhanded by white plantation owner Endicott (Larry Gates), but Poitier himself objected.  Why would a seasoned homicide detective accept such treatment?  So the two actors improvised their exchange of slaps right there on set.

This proved wise.  While black field hands pick Endicott’s cotton, the owner plays with orchids in his greenhouse.  In Mississippi at that time, a black man in the master’s house would have been a serious invasion.  But the whole story represents new justice invading the old South.  Tibbs’ hot-headed slap announces that, in this new era, such treatment will face consequences.

3) Private Pyle shoots Sgt. Hartman (Full Metal Jacket)

Vincent D’Onofrio as Pvt. Leonard Lawrence, almost unrecognizable under seventy added pounds, poses an important question: is he intellectually disabled, or has DI Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) broken him?  More important, does it matter?  If Lawrence, nicknamed “Gomer Pyle” by Hartman, can’t handle Parris Island, how can he possibly handle Vietnam?

Recruits knew that, if their boots hit Vietnamese soil, they’d see themselves used as human targets.  Before satellite targeting, infrared, and GPS, officers habitually lined men up and had them march forward until someone shot them, and they knew where to direct their fire.  Perhaps Pyle knew that, and wanted to end everything on his terms, not the Corps’s.

Unfortunately, Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers is long out of print, so we don’t know his intent.  But in Stanley Kubrick’s nihilistic rendering, intent seems secondary.  Soldiers are defined by their actions.  Gunny Hartman wants to turn Pyle into a hardened killer, and in the final analysis, he succeeds beyond his wildest dreams.

4) Ripley descends into the hive to rescue Newt (Aliens)

Ellen Ripley isn’t an admirable hero because a woman plays the men’s game.  She’s admirable because she’s a woman, with everything that entails.  When the marines flee the monsters, which pounce as relentlessly as whack-a-mole puppets, Ripley keeps her family intact.  The men disintegrate in terror; only Ripley has the fortitude to count noses.

So when Ripley straps a flashlight to her rifle and descends into a facehugger hive to retrieve her surrogate daughter, Newt, she doesn’t represent some “last stand” spaghetti western hero.  She’s a woman, protecting her family.  Unfortunately, so is the alien queen.  One must lose everything.  After all, the queen only wants a family, too.

5) Raymond Shaw turns his rifle on himself (The Manchurian Candidate)

This surprising act of violence after what had been a dry political satire seems initially jarring.  Though Shaw’s suicide isn’t the first violent death, its close focus immediacy announces that jokes have ended.  This topic, the movie announces, is too serious, too vital to our fundamental freedoms.

Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) believes he beat the conditioning that previously handicapped Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey).  But Shaw knows better: not that he can’t overcome the conditioning, but that he faces an enemy overwhelming in number and ruthless in ambition.  When Shaw says “You couldn’t have stopped them, so I had to,” we ask: who?  And are they still out there?

In order to fit this list into space parameters, I had to break it in two.  Those interested in the second half may read it here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Critic of the Week—Susannah Clements

Mocking Stephanie Meyer’s sparkly, asexual vampires has become a recreational sport in certain circles. But that’s shooting the wounded. Why would book buyers emasculate the former embodiment of evil and human decay? Susannah Clements suggests that as society devalues objective ethical standards, we domesticate our expressions of dark inclinations.

The Vampire Defanged traces vampires from the 19th Century to the present. Clements considers several vampire narratives, focusing primarily on just five. Beginning with Dracula, Clements illustrates the rigid Christianity beneath Bram Stoker’s seminal revenant. Crucifixes and holy water play such key roles that they resemble clichés, but Clements says these religious artifacts are thematically crucial.

But Clements isn’t satisfied with Stoker’s rigidity. She seems warmer to Anne Rice’s constant struggle to reconcile a conflicted world. Where Stoker’s pat theology spits in science’s eye, Rice would rather weigh evidence and balance her answers against her larger world. Though Rice’s vampires reach ambiguous, contradictory conclusions, Clements apparently prefers them to Rice’s self-righteous Christ novels.

From here, in Clements’ reading, vampires devolve. She disdains the Buffyverse’s moral equivalency, mocks Sookie Stackhouse’s compartmentalized humanism, and sees in Stephanie Meyer no mere stylistic lapse, but indeed a failure of ethical foundation. These stories, she says, embody the absence of sin and grace, not just in vampire literature, but throughout Anglo-American culture.

Despite her overt Christianity, only in her conclusion does Clements promulgate theology. She cares more that vampires reflect hidden aspects of society, and what they reveal doesn’t reflect well on us. Her lucid criticism eschews terminology and indirection. In both clarity and insight, Susannah Clements embodies what good critics should strive after.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Making Art That Lasts, Step By Step

                             

After one year of college art, I can safely say I didn’t learn much.  I attribute that to professors saying things like: “Paint a still life.  Now paint a portrait.  Now paint a landscape.”  They never modeled these tasks, they just said to do them.  I often wished someone would sit down and show me how to use the color wheel, arrange models, and make shapes on canvas look three-dimensional.

That’s why I like writers like Dan Bartges.  In Color is Everything, Bartges explicates color theory for painters.  Instead of throwing ourselves at the canvas and wondering why our oils or acrylics look ham-handed, Bartges shows that conscious color schemes make the look of the unified work.  His step-by-step approach explicates color theory in a way I wish I’d received in class.

Bartges doesn’t assume any prior training.  He starts by helping you select art supplies, and walks you through lucid exercises using the color wheel to pick the most appropriate color structure.  He carefully exposes the color choices great artists made, including Picasso, Degas, and deKooning.  And he shows how he makes important color choices in his own work.

But Bartges also doesn’t keep things simple for the kiddies.  He also expands into master lessons on repairing off-kilter paintings and how to adjust light, saturation, and hue to make your art better than reality.  He even presents a reading list for further development.  I wish I’d had such an introduction to the basics when I had grades on the line.

Having savvied color balance, James Gurney, creator of Dinotopia, wants to help me find my subject matter.  In Imaginative Realism, Gurney details how to go beyond fruit baskets and self-portraits and describes how to create images of fantasy, history, and imagination.  But more than that, he describes how to take what you see and turn it into something even greater.

Gurney goes into so much I wish I’d learned in class.  How to build maquettes, set tableaus, and arrange lighting.  How to work with models.  How to turn plein-air sketches into finished studio works.  How to combine diverse components to create a complete, integrated look.  Even how to generate complex multilayered dreamscapes that can exist only in the mind’s eye.

But while he comes from a science fiction and fantasy background, Gurney knows you have more complex needs.  You need to paint historical events that have passed away, or exotic animals you’ve never seen in their natural habitat, or even people performing unusual behaviors.  He covers all of that.  If you can imagine it, Gurney can show you how to make it.

Unlike Bartges, Gurney does assume prior skill with art.  Inexperienced artists should work their way up to this book, which demands structural complexity and a good eye for the steps.  But if you already understand color and shape and perspective, and are ready to move up to something more challenging and creative, Gurney has what you need.

But if you’re unsatisfied with traditional paints, and want to try something more lucrative, consider Steve Caplin’s 100% Photoshop.  Caplin demonstrates how to use Photoshop’s drawing tools to create detailed, dimensional images without a master photo.  These digital tools create work you can display, transmit, and sell worldwide without getting paint all over your clothes.

After a brief introduction to Photoshop’s tools, Caplin displays eight very different images, and walks you progressively through each.  Instead of needing to be creative in a vacuum, Caplin instead gives us models to imitate.  We can savvy the steps first, and graduate to creating something new later.  I particularly like that aspect, which I missed in my art classes.

Caplin’s instructions include essentials for both Mac and Windows, letting most users utilize hotkeys and shortcuts, so we can create finished art without tears.  Whether it’s starscapes, trees, or rubber bands, Caplin’s straightforward instructions show how to create them all on your computer.  And his lavishly illustrated steps let you know whether you’ve created what you see.

Too often, classroom teachers know their field so well that they forget how to explain the steps to us beginners.  As much as I loved the process, I remember regularly throwing my hands up in frustration, wishing my professors could just say how to do something.  Without models to mimic, my products too often looked flat, dull, and uninspired.

These three teachers exemplify what art students need: gradual, step-by-step demonstrations which expose the mindset that makes art possible.  You can’t make something beautiful until you make something correctly.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Incivility and its Discontents—In Defense of Rebecca Black

Sigmund FreudImage by wordscraft via FlickrSigmund Freud’s monograph Civilization and Its Discontents claims that humanity remains doomed to unhappiness because, to function, society creates rules constraining our desires.  Civilization must act to prevent incest, murder, and violent theft of power.  All rules, religions, and social philosophies exist to prevent humans indulging our animal natures; but, because we frustrate ourselves, we can never know complete fulfillment.

Rebecca Black posted her music video “Friday” to YouTube on February 10th, 2011, and for the first month, it went virtually unnoticed.  Black recorded the song on a lark, and both the song and its video were a labor of love for Black, her family, and several friends.  Like most homebrew YouTube videos, nobody watched it but the people who appeared in it.

Then in the week following March 11th, the song went from 3000 views to 18 million after Daniel Tosh mocked it on his blog.  Since then it has continued to grow.  When I viewed it, its viewer count approached 67 million, and since I write well before deadline, when you see it, the numbers will probably reach much higher.

Admittedly, I dislike the song.  The inane lyrics (“Kickin’ in the front seat, sittin’ in the back seat / Gotta make my mind up, which seat can I take?”) and throbbing pop-rap leave me cold.  The video looks like somebody bought a tricked out camcorder and took it for a spin.  But I’m not in her target audience.  Like Britney Spears, Rebecca Black records for kids her own age who like sugary pop songs.  Adult standards don’t apply.

But some people refuse to steer clear of what doesn’t belong to them.  Satirists have recorded covers, some with seeming respect, others with open derision.  Like teen idols worldwide, Black—who is thirteen years old—draws more than her share of disdain from adults who treat kids as essentially colonies for adult values.

Some people aren’t content to stop there.

YouTube’s comment feature is its greatest virtue and its greatest risk.  Student filmmakers, actors, musicians, and other artists present their work to get meaningful feedback.  Some people have answered Black with constructive comments; some viewers call the song danceable, and Black herself both promising and beautiful.

But whenever people share ideas and viewpoints without censorship, especially when they share anonymously, they risk flaming.  Following Black’s commenters would be more than a full-time job, since at peak hours, more than thirty comments roll in per minute.  And they have been overwhelmingly negative, even spiteful.  Consider, for instance:

I want to punch her in the face.  Her parents bought her whole music career and it's pathetic.

At least that one comments on the music, even if injuriously.  More important, it exemplifies the tone of many comments.  Threats run rampant:

she needs 2 get hit by a Bus!!!!!!

if rebecca ever gets raped im sure we will all know it was the usher wanna be

The “usher wanna be” is co-writer Patrice Wilson, who delivers a brief rap near the end.  Many comments threaten sexual violence against Black—who, again, is only thirteen years old.  I will not repeat the most telling comments, which are too vile for a general-interest blog.  At least, despite their revolting attitude, these comments were coherent.  Some become so addled with rage that they devolve into free association:

What the big ass shit piss slut bad fuck

Some commenters, unsatisfied with attacking Black, turn their vitriol on other viewers:

The people who are thumbing down are the smart ones
The people who are thumbing up are faggots.

Britney Spears attracted similar contempt with her first single, “Baby One More Time.”  I confess to dropping disparaging comments.  But in 1998, the Web remained very asymmetrical.  The read-write Web 2.0 hadn’t dawned yet.  This left the “information economy” lopsided, but prevented certain unacceptable behaviors.

Perhaps comedic derision from Daniel Tosh and Conan O’Brien provides a shield.  If TV stars can openly mock a child, people may think, my comments won’t hurt much.  But these comments display mob mentality.  When anonymous Internet handles permit people to issue death threats and walk away, something has gone deeply, seriously wrong.

Social networks like LinkedIn and FaceBook demand users identify themselves by name, and not coincidentally, lynch mob behavior is extremely rare.  When users feel free to attack children under the aegis of anonymity, society’s rules collapse.  YouTube users’ vile threats to attack, violate, and kill Black don’t just threaten her.

I fear we’re seeing a glimpse of what happens when civilization fails.
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