The Calendar and the Cards

A Minor Experiment in Gender

While shopping for my mother’s Christmas present last December, I was in one of those seasonal pop-up stores that appear in malls in November and saw Katerina Plotnikova‘s 2017 Enchanted calendar, pictured here:

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Source: calendar.com


Reader, I wanted it.

I wanted it, but I felt foolish for wanting it. I wanted it, but I hoped no one would catch me wanting it. I wanted it, but I thought that if someone knew I wanted it they’d think I wanted it out of some sort of sexual deviancy: maybe I have a thing, they’d think, for pubescent girls with animals. I wanted it, but I knew that I wasn’t supposed to want it. This sort of thing was for women, and only certain kinds of women.

Let’s sit a moment with those thoughts I was having. For a man to want this calendar, for a man to exit his clearly defined gender roles so much as to purchase this calendar, would mark something more than the mere gender failure I mentioned in the last post. Only the most preposterous and heinous kind of mentality could explain it: possibly bestiality, probably pedophilia, certainly hebophilia. I don’t think I was wrong to feel that such an attitude exists outside myself, in Fort McMurray or in the Western world broadly. But it’s ridiculous! I wanted a calendar, nothing more, but certain arbitrary rules about taste meant that expressing this want would bring down on my head a set of questions which, although triggered by my violation of a gender norm, far exceeded those gender norms in scope and severity.*

I bought the calendar.

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Being a Man without a Driver’s License in Fort McMurray

A Warning to My Younger Self

After a very stressful day at work this summer I sat on the bench at the bus stop with my face in my hands, cradling a headache. Then a horn honked and I looked up to see the driver shout “Loser!” from his passing pick-up. I had assumed that he assumed I was homeless and hung over or something of the sort; at any rate, it had been such a long time since anyone had called me a loser that I’d forgotten how one was supposed to feel about it.

A few days later I told one of our summer students, who has chosen the pseudonym Avicenna Nightingale, about it as I happened to be on the same bus as her after work. She suggested he didn’t take me for drunk.

“It was probably because you were waiting for a bus,” she said. She was a local so she probably knew this sort of thing better than I did.

“What?”

“Yeah, like, ‘Where’s your truck, son?’ Was he driving a souped-up pick-up?”

“Yeah.”

“Was he wearing a black t-shirt a size too small to show off those guns?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Don’t you know only losers take the bus?”

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Am I Back?

I want to apologize for my unannounced absence. There were a few causes: maintenance issues in my apartment, overtime at work, a slight emotional miasma, and most importantly the slow death of my laptop made it difficult for me to write anything. I’m working on my tablet with external keyboard now, which I don’t find conducive to blogging. However, I will try to get back into the swing of it again.

A bit of personal news: I am now an uncle; the family name will live on; I will have to research how to corrupt the youth. Also, I have a second rabbit, named Eglamore (so I can call him Egg for short, though mostly I call him Mr. Bun or Mr. Fluff). He is a lionhead rabbit, though his mane doesn’t overwhelm his face as it does with some lionheads.

-CH

Trump’s Flat Speech: Populism and Richness of Language

Last Friday night—20 January 2017—I got into a discussion with a Facebook Friend of a Facebook Friend regarding Trump’s inauguration speech. In coming up with a way to articulate my contentions, I unwittingly recreated Bakhtin’s idea of heteroglossia; although this is unsurprisingly, since I engaged with Bakhtin more than once in both of my English Lit degrees and have likely internalized some portion of his thought, it was somewhat disappointing, as I was pleased with what I had come up with and would have liked to have taken credit for it. Nonetheless, if I share a version of that argument here, I can at least save you the trouble of reading Discourse and the Novel or, if you choose to tackle it, give you something to get started with. Moreover, I think Bakhtin may be the right thinker to bring to this conversation at this moment anyway, and I haven’t seen that happen yet.

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Source: Geoff Livingstone at flic.kr/p/RaZcLB

In response to a friend’s observation that there was little dissection of Donald Trump’s US Presidential Inauguration Address, one of his Friends (who has chosen not to go by his name here) claimed that if such a speech required experts to parse it, then it was not a very good speech. Although he did not invoke populism, I assumed he made this claim on populist grounds: he’s made this sort of claim before and much defense of Trump is made in populism’s name—although, as we’ll see, neither Trump nor Trump supporters are really populist. The idea, however, is this: the US Presidential Inauguration Address is a speech for all Americans and, as such, should be as totally accessible to all Americans as is possible; to the extent that experts—that is, journalists, politically correspondents, and so on—are able to uncover some meaning that Joe the Plumber is unable to uncover, the speech fails.

When I responded that it is in fact impossible for everyone to 100% of the meaning of a speech, he said that media must be dropping the ball: if analysis is necessary, then analysis must be necessary in the case of Trump’s speech too.

This is a very good point. I have to concede that my friend’s observation—there is comparatively less analysis of Trump’s speech compared to Obama’s and Bush’s speeches—remains unexplained. However, I felt like there was nonetheless a qualitative difference between Trump’s speech and previous US Presidential Inauguration Addresses, that this difference did at least address my friend’s observation, and that total universal semantic accessibility was not a valuable end-goal in such speeches or in almost any text object.

There are two problems conflated here which need to be addressed separately. One is descriptive: is there or is there not a qualitative difference between Trump’s speech and Obama’s and Bush’s speeches, and not merely their contexts, which explains the difference in journalists’ response to these speeches? One is normative: Is it better for a US Presidential Inauguration Address’s semantic content to be more readily accessible and exhaustible to more people? The normative question also has two parts. The first part is, again, descriptive: Is it possible for a speech to be totally accessible to all people at the same time? The second part is truly normative: If it were possible, is it something we should want? Although I tackled both parts on Facebook, here I will only go into the normative part in any detail. Continue reading

Revisiting: Other People’s Epics

Every Some third Saturdays of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs. This week I am revisiting the Thinking Grounds for “Other People’s Epics.” The first sentence is no longer quite true, but otherwise I think it holds of reasonably well. I spun out this theme quite a lot, possibly ad nauseum, at the Thinking Grounds. Immediate sequels included “Other People’s Mystery Novels” and “Other People’s [Insert Genre]s.”

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Briton Riviere’s Una and the Lion. Una is the romantic interest of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene: Book One. Source: Sofi at flic.rk/p/ftjgXA


Other People’s Epics

One of my recurrent pastimes is to imagine what another person’s epic might look like.

As far as genres go, the epic is one of my favourites to think about. No individual epic counts among my favourite books (though, you know, Paradise Lost is pretty great). The reason I like thinking about them is that, at least in the English tradition, they have become a kind of formal game, thanks to the humanists of early modern England. (Note to readers: “early modern” is the new PC term for “Renaissance;” in England the early modern period spans the 1500s and 1600s, but it got started earlier in Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, etc.). Let’s dive into a bit of history, shall we?

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What World Do You Live In?, Part 3

[You may want to read Part 1 and Part 2 first.]

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Source: Ruth at flic.kr/p/rQKEbo

W. Paul Jones seems to have two uses in mind for his Theological Worlds construct: self-diagnosis and pastoral planning. First, the Theological Worlds can help individuals understand themselves. Second, the Theological Worlds can help churches organize their congregation into sub-congregations according to Theological World so that the congregants are engaging with people who fundamentally understand them. If the Inventory is mostly useless to you because, as I discussed previously, the questions make no sense to you, the first use does not apply to you. If you aren’t part of a congregation or other group that might reasonably organize itself in the way Jones imagines, the second use also does not apply to you.

These aren’t the only uses, though. My first exposure to Jones was through Richard Beck, and one of his insights was that if people don’t understand that everyone has their own Theological World, standard attempts of proselytization will fall flat:

Now, it’s a big shocker for some Christians to find out that many of their brothers and sisters don’t live within this theological world. Sin isn’t their obsessio. Not that they deny the existence and problem of sin, just that sin isn’t the defining quandary of their spiritual lives.

I am an example of a Christian of this stripe. Sin and guilt isn’t my obsessio. If you tell me that I’m going to hell I’ll just blink at you blandly and yawn. I’m emotionally unmoved. To be clear, it’s not that I don’t want to go to heaven. I do. I just don’t spend my life trying to save my own skin.

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Open to the Light’s Leading: Birkel’s Quaker Tradition

I went into Michael L. Birkel’s Silence and Witness: The Quaker Tradition with very little knowledge about Quakerism beyond half-remembered depictions in the Underground Railroad historical fiction I read in school as a kid1 and the odd tidbit I came across in comments sections.2 I knew they were pacifists and had been abolitionists and I knew a Quaker founded Pennsylvania as an experiment in committed religious freedom. And yet, even though I had very few expectations about the tradition, I found myself not just charmed but surprised throughout my reading of the book.

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Source: TCDavis at flic.kr/p/6evVft

One of the things that I did not expect was how much Quakerism resembled certain non-Christian religions. Especially early on in the book, Birkel’s description of Friends’3 spiritual experiences often used the word “the Light,” referring either to God or to God’s activity in the soul; nerd that I am, this reminded me of Warcraft’s Church of the Holy Light and the various non-theistic religious traditions it suggests. And Birkel himself notes the resemblance the Quaker practice of silent sitting (some groups of Friends sit in silence, or near-silence, during their worship services) has to Buddhist meditation: in both cases the ones sitting try to get past their egos and thoughts to something truer. In the end notes, however, he is careful to note that Buddhists meditating in groups are still in an important way meditating alone (one sitter achieving enlightenment does not improve the meditation of the others) while Quakers understand that they sit in silence together (when one Friend is especially able to reach the Light Within, a sense of peace and holiness pervades the whole assembly). Now that I’ve read the book it makes sense that not all Friends have been Christians, but that was another surprise for me.

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Top 10 Books of 2016 (+1)

2016 has been a rough year for many of us; the election in the United States of an incompetent and misogynistic shag carpet beloved of white nationalists, and the intimidation and violence which followed it, loom large in any list of the year’s misfortunes, but I’m sure we can each add our own. Personally, thinking I might die in a fire was one of them. (The Beaverton‘s recent joke, then, hit close to home.) That said, for me 2016 has also been a very good year for books.

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Source: faungg at flic.kr/p/aMPX71

In reverse of order of how much I enjoyed them…

 

10. Robertson Davies: Man of Myth, by Judith Skelton Grant

I have lately come to quite appreciate Robertson Davies’s novels (though the only one I read this year, the very CanLit Murther and Walking Spirits, won’t make this list), so when I saw this biography in Fort McMurray’s only used bookstore, I bought it. Two particular aspects of this book were particularly interesting to me: first, I am always interested in seeing how an artist’s skills and preoccupations develop over time, and when that artist is himself interested in the development of personality and artistic skill particularly, the topic begins to reflect on itself; second, I was fascinated by the depiction of arts and culture—and the relative lack of them—in the rural Ontario of a particular time. Perhaps my own biography made me enjoy the book more than I otherwise would have done: I had just moved to Fort McMurray from Stratford/Toronto and I saw myself more than a little in Davies’s sense of exile from artistic community.

 

9. Two Serpents Rise, by Max Gladstone

To be frank, I far preferred Gladstone’s first novel in the Craft sequence, Three Parts Dead. Still, Two Serpents Rise is an enjoyable book if you like the general idea behind the Craft sequence: a legal thriller set in vaguely steampunk world in which magic and miracles are a) commonplace and b) structured much like modern high finance. In Two Serpents Rise, Caleb Altemoc, risk manager for the warlock cadre Red King Consolidated, tries to discover the source of a shadow demon infestation in Dresediel Lex’s water reservoirs; he also follows a cliff runner (think magic-enhanced parkour) named Mal who is ambiguously involved in the plot and tries to deal with his father, the last priest to the city’s old gods and a wanted terrorist. I found the characters less appealing and the religions less interesting than those in either Three Parts Dead or Full Fathom Five, but Caleb’s attempt to develop a working moral system that took honest stock of both the old religion and the new craft, was engaging.

 

8. Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted, by Richard Beck

(I already mentioned Reviving in a review of a different book.) I was expecting to like this book more, but unlike much of Beck’s work it lacked the grounding effect of peer-reviewed psychological research. It was a more colloquial book than, say, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality or The Slavery of Death; it was also more personal, framed as it was by his encounters with the more charismatic spirituality among the attendees of his prison bible ministry. Reviving Old Scratch mostly shares the moral impulses of progressive Christianity (that subset of Christianity which shares many priorities with social justice and leftist movements) and attempts to argue that progressive Christianity would be strengthened with a much greater focus on Satan and the demonic. As usual, Beck’s blogging-influenced style includes a tendency to repeat his points in various forms and an abundance of analogies and (mostly dated) pop culture references; he shows a real concern that the reader can grapple with a somewhat unfamiliar set of ideas, but if you are relatively quick on the uptake or are already aware of some of his argument, it can get frustrating. His stories about prison ministry are the best part.

 

7. Fort Chipewyan and the Shaping of Canadian History, 1788-1920s: ‘We like to be free in this country’ by Patricia A. McCormack

You might be able to tell from the book’s title that McCormack is an academic. As books of academic history go, I found it quite readable… but my gauge for readability is likely misaligned. As a history of Fort Chipewyan, the topic may seem too niche to be of general interest, yet I found it has informed my understanding of more than just Athabasca region history: the chapter on the fur trade mode of production helped add some nuance to my understanding of “modes of production” generally, while the chapter on the signing of Treaty 8 taught me a lot more about the Treaty process in Canada generally, mostly by contrast. Furthermore, it is an interesting case study in the creation and maintenance of national sovereignty: Canada’s attempt to claim and tame its frontiers differs from the American story we might be more familiar with, but I think you’ll find McCormack will challenge your assumptions about Canadian nationhood as well (if you have any). It is part one of two; the second, taking us from the 1920s to the present, is not yet released.

 

6. Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

Lila is the third of three companion novels covering a small domestic drama between two neighbouring families in Gilead, Iowa, USA. Gilead is introduced in Gilead by Reverend John Ames, writing a letter to his son; Home is an uneasy re-writing of the parable of the prodigal son set in the Boughton’s house, next to the Ames’s. Lila provides earth-tone shading between Gilead’s ecstatic greens and reds and Home’s sombre blues and despairing greys. It tells us the story of Ames’s quiet wife Lila, a perpetual stranger and faltering convert (she tries, for instance, to wash her baptism off), and her inability to trust not just the world around her but also her own constancy. In my opinion, the last three pages are among the most incandescent and theologically acute passages in the Gilead trilogy, and this is saying something. Although the books can in theory be read in any order, I would highly recommend publication order.

 

5. Islam in the World, by Malise Ruthven

I have already written a reaction to Islam in the World here. I have little more to say except that I deeply appreciate it.

 

4. The Year of Lear: 1606, by James Shapiro

Man of Myth, above, was one book I read situating the artist’s work in a historical context. The Year of Lear was the other. It is in a sense the sequel to Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. In 1599, though, Shakespeare was just coming into his own as a playwright and a poet; in 1606, Shakespeare was a mature writer remaining relevant in a milieu which was starting to consider him passé. Therefore 1606 does not examine the genre-breaking (and –defining) struggle which Shapiro depicts in the 1599. However, what 1606 offers is a political and cultural environment surprisingly like our own: persecutions of religious minorities, arguments about the definition of torture, fear of politically-motivated attacks on heads of state and symbols of power, cults of nostalgia, and the threat of pandemics define London in the year Lear was written. Some of Shapiro’s claims seem a stretch or less certain than he makes out, but overall he is an astute critic who reads Shakespeare well and makes connections between the Bard’s images and his surrounding culture without rendering Shakespeare a mere political allegorist.

 

3. Searching for Sunday, by Rachel Held Evans

Like Reviving Old Scratch, Searching for Sunday is partly a plea for progressive Christians to go back to church. It is, however, far more personal. Evans is a memoirist more than anything, and here she offers her initial enchantment with evangelical Christianity, her difficult departure from it, and her well-researched and very public attempt to find a church that worked for her. It is also more than a memoir: each chapter offers a historical background on one of the Christian sacraments, a poetic explication of it, and various quoted material in addition to some portion of her memoir. Because her journey took place in conjunction with her popular blog and involved meeting quite a lot of people, it is also a thoroughly social book; Evans’s acute awareness of the effects spirituality can have on other people in the world means her own religious journey involves many interactions with strangers, friends, and whatever you’d call the people you know on the Internet, and many of those are recorded in the book. This book spoke to me in a way few books do.

 

2. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A recent blathering article about Hamilton and the purported liberal elite called Between the World and Me something to the effect of “that book by Ta-Nehisi Coates which you bought but didn’t read.” If you have purchased this book but haven’t read it yet, I insist that you fix this situation immediately. Perhaps you are not interested in its piercing insight into American whiteness (insights that are applicable north of the 49th, too); perhaps you do not care to learn what it is like to grow up black in Chicago; perhaps you do not want to appreciate the varieties and the extraordinary creativity of that American blackness; perhaps you do not wish to unlearn the middle-class illusions about Malcolm X and the Black Panthers which I know I held; perhaps you prefer to remain untouched by the story of Prince Jones; even so, you should read this book for its remarkable structure and remarkable prose. This is a glorious example of the art of creative non-fiction; this should be on creative writing syllabi as well as all bookshelves. Read this book.

(That said, read this review of it, too. Also, Between the World and Me is a strong clear example of a World 2 person trying to understand other Worlds, World 1 especially, failing to understand, and knowing he fails to understand.)

 

1. Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I read this book for the first time and for the second time this year. It is the sequel to The Curse of Chalion, which my friend Muir Pangolin gave to me as a “theological fantasy.” I remain ever grateful; Bujold’s Five Gods books, in the fantasy of manners genre, explore what an honest, struggling religious life would be like if a polytheistic fantasy religion were indisputably true. Curse is very good; I enjoyed Paladin of Souls much more. Ista dy Chalion—Dowager Roya of Chalion, middle-aged widow, former saint, and recovering madwoman—is a more delightful protagonist than I expected, and most of the supporting characters—the plump dy Cabon, a priest of the Bastard; the quick Liss, a courier girl; the dy Gura brothers, votaries of the Daughter; the sly Lord Illvin, sick abed—complement her well. Blogger ozymandias commented that Bujold is an expert at making protagonists likable, and this book is no exception. Furthermore, it develops the fantastic themes that began in Curse: where the first book explored the divine in this world, Paladin explores the demonic in a way that both gratifies curiosity and leaves enough unexplained that it remains evocative. The third book, The Hallowed Hunt, explores the shamanic, and while I liked that book I did not love it to absolute pieces, as I did this book. Altogether, though, the Five Gods books depict a very engaging theological fantasy world.
(I will also note that all of these books contain a romantic plot tightly woven into the main plot, and Paladin in particular is thick with a particular kind of heterosexual female desire. I don’t know if that’s a selling point or a detraction for you, but either way I figured I should mention it.)

 

0: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

I am adding this book not because I first read it in 2016, but because I re-read it at the very beginning of the year. Therefore it is the zeroth in the list. It is the sort of book I might pick up and read a random chapter out of during an idle moment. It was recommended to me by Melissa and it was well-recommended. Goblin follows Maia, a young half-elf half-goblin man who unexpectedly inherits the imperial throne of the Elflands after the rest of the royal family is killed. The novel follows his attempts to learn court politics and aristocratic etiquette, despite the racial and religious prejudices against him and the intrigues into which he has been thrown, while remaining true to what he thinks makes a good person and good leader. Goblin also has strong themes of social isolation and recovering from physical and psychological abuse. If you want to read fantasy but you don’t because so much of it is either a) straight male wish-fulfillment or b) straight teenage girl wish-fulfillment, then I strongly suggest you read this book.

What World Do You Live In? Part 2

(Read Part 1 first.)

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Source: the LAMP at flic.kr/p/ejNXiW

Having read his book, I had expectations about which theological world(s) W. Paul Jones’s Theological Worlds Inventory would place me in. World 3—that of T. S. Eliot’s “hollow men,” of people who feel like they might be wearing a mask over a personal emptiness—had most appealed to me in the book. Immediately on reading about it I felt an overwhelming recognition that I felt when reading about neither World 1 or World 2. (This was itself a bit of a surprise: based on the book’s introduction, World 3 did not look promising.) I had expected World 2 (animated by a conflict between violent chaos and small bastions of peace) to follow it fairly closely, and then World 4 (concerned with personal sin and forgiveness) a bit after. I did not expect to have much in common with World 1 (haunted by the universe’s apparent meaninglessness) or World 5 (characterized by unremitting suffering and endurance).

So while I was not surprised that the Inventory placed me high in World 3, I was surprised that it placed me just as high in World 5. (World 2 followed close, and Worlds 1 and 4 were equally and very far behind.) Indeed, the results are a bit flat and I think there might be problems with the Inventory itself, but on reading the descriptions in the Inventory I’m inclined to agree that I’m just as much an inhabitant of World 5 as World 3. I’ll discuss this in detail toward the end of the post; first, I want to look at the Inventory itself and the reasons I think it has problems.

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What World Do You Live In? Part 1

One of the lenses through which I look at ideas and the people who hold them is W Paul Jones’s theological worlds concept. I wrote about Jones’s theological worlds before here, having learned about them in his book of the same name; they are personality types of a sort, though they pertain more to a person’s root cosmology than to whether or not a person enjoys going to parties.

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Source: Classic Art Wallpapers at flic.kr/p/nKDY9i

I want to talk a bit more about the theological worlds now that I’ve taken Jones’s “Theological World Inventory” and gotten somewhat surprising results. As such rather a lot of this discussion will be navel-gazing, but I think even so that will throw off some useful material nonetheless. In this first post I’ll re-introduce the concept; in the second I’ll discuss the Inventory and my results; in the third I want to think a bit about the typology’s usefulness (including to whom the typology is useful).

Theological Worlds

Each theological world represents the fundamental dynamic, or perhaps dialectic, underlying a person’s engagement with the world. Jones’s own words from the introduction to his inventory will work as an introduction to the idea:

A World results from the interaction between two poles. The first is one’s obsessio, that lived question, need, ache, or dilemma which has its teeth into us at the deepest level. Other concerns are variations on that basic theme, standing in line behind its importance. The second pole is one’s epiphania, that which through one or more events, moments, and/or persons brings sufficient illumination, satisfaction, or healing to provide a lived answer worth wagering one’s life upon. One’s epiphania is what touches promisingly one’s obsession as fact or as hope.1

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