While he was driving me to Toronto a few months ago, Jon and I were talking about YA fiction. Somehow in the course of that conversation I mentioned that I understood the Hunger Games films as containing a libertarian subtext, and that I had read an article about how many YA dystopia books have such a subtext. After Jon pressed me for further explanation, I interpreted The Hunger Games as a libertarian film for him; I was certainly not the first to notice its ideological commitments, and you can see some examples linked in my combative annotated bibliography on libertarianism. But part of my explanation is rooted in how The Hunger Games and its sequels depict the wealthy people of the Capitol as both gender-non-conforming and decadent. The luxury and sophistication of the Capitol citizens are intrinsic markers of their moral corruption above and beyond those pleasures’ costs to the poorer Districts, I said, and I went on to allude to a history of anti-luxury and anti-sophisticated-pleasures sentiment in Protestant and American conservatism. Jon has since asked me to write this up further for use in a high school classroom, but it might also be useful to others too.
Karen Roe’s “The Making of Harry Potter 29-05-2012”
I have attempted to write this post a few times with little luck. A large part of the problem is that I do not remember how I came to understand this history of opposition to sophisticated pleasures and its relationship to American-style libertarianism. I do know of a few bits and pieces. There is a passage in H P Lovecraft’s The Mountains of Madness which used “decadence” in a way then unfamiliar to me which only afterwards made sense. There was an academic article I read about the characters of Falstaff and Prince John in 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV which referred to competing economic theories of luxury goods (especially “sack,” meaning a fortified wine) in Elizabethan England. There have been perhaps a half-dozen posts on the blogs of Roman Catholics like Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry which observe that Catholic countries have better food than Protestant countries because the former know how to enjoy life’s physical pleasures. I remember less well the dozens of broad generalizations of the effects Protestantism has had on the Low Countries, England, and North America I must have read between high school history classes, undergraduate courses at Queen’s, and graduate courses as UBC, or the lectures on the history of belief in the rise and fall of civilizations, or the articles about the effects all these have American culture today. Moreover there is the pattern of observations I have had in my own rural working-class childhood and in the time I spent in Fort McMurray.1 I cannot begin to summarize all of this. And if I cannot marshal all of these sources appropriately, I cannot make an argument, exactly; I do not expect anyone to just take my word for all of this, and yet I don’t even really know what my own sources are. What I can do is sketch out my position, and gesture toward some related material, and hope that I can supplement this with a better-researched piece later.
I have spent enough time in academia and then in a museum to be leery of making broad claims without substantiating them, but this is a blog post after all; if I cannot do this provisional kind of writing here, I cannot do it anywhere.
A Problem with Harry Potter
Due to the news that in the latest Harry Potter film the snake Nagini is revealed to be a human woman transformed, there has been a recent popular re-evaluation of the seven novels which originated the franchise. Many of the observations that I’ve seen on Twitter have focused on Rowling’s troubling use of racist stereotypes and her very Anglocentric errors. I have little to add as far as that goes because anything I’d have to say has been said already by others; the most relevant Twitter threads are Alexandra Erin’s and Shivam Batt’s. There is an assumption in some of these threads, however, that the world of Harry Potter could be or ought to be logically consistent in much the same way that our own is, which I consider to be mistaken. Take, for instance, questions of scale: of course it is logical nonsense that a school the size of Hogwarts is the only wizarding school in Britain given what the population of wizards in Britain seems to be in the books. And by the standards of something like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Five Gods series or G. R. R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire, which have admirably plausible, intricate, and well-developed worlds, that’s a problem. The assumption that fantasy worlds must be built on some sort of logical or plausible structure is very characteristic of how mainstream fantasy1 does often operate, but I think it is worth observing that there have always been other kinds of fantasy which do not share this assumption: Barrie’s Peter Pan books, Carrol’s Alice books, and Baum’s Oz books come most readily to mind. These books’ lack of logical consistency does not mean that they lack any internal consistency; rather, they may have consistency of a wholly different kind. I think the best way to begin exploring this other kind of consistency is by examining Michael Ward’s interpretation of C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, which I will spend the rest of this post doing. In a subsequent post I will speculate about possible consistencies in Harry Potter and other fantasy.
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA are in the public domain in Canada, and my understanding of Canadian copyright law is that the original illustrations therefore would be as well. Please feel free to correct me if I am wrong in this.
There is some writing from my previous degrees with which I am sufficiently happy that I might share it in a From the Personal Archives series any month I don’t run the Revisiting series. As with last month’s offering, this piece is from Michael Snediker’s 2008-2009 undergraduate course at Queen’s University called American Literature: The Fabulous and the Mundane. And as with that piece, the paper makes more sense alongside the text—Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Goophered Grapevine” in The Conjure Woman and Other Tales (1899)—but I think this one reads perfectly well even if you know nothing about the original. The last paragraph betrays a lot of my own theoretical preoccupations at the time.
Source: Ernest Adams at flic.kr/p/4tw5EY
Not only the most fascinating play of the period, but its greatest prose work (in England), has melancholy for its theme. Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is an exhaustive analysis of the causes, symptoms, treatment and cure of melancholy, with two enormous appendices on love melancholy and religious melancholy. Burton was an Oxford don, and his chief amusement is said to have been going down to the Isis river and listening to the bargemen swear. The story may be true, or it may have been invented by someone who noticed that the qualities of Burton’s prose, with its vast catalogues, piled-up epithets, Latin tags, allusiveness and exhaustive knowledge of theology and personal hygiene, are essentially the qualities of good swearing. Burton assumes rather than discusses the connexion of melancholy with creative power: being a scholar himself, like Hamlet, he associates it rather with the scholarly temperament, and includes a long digression on the miseries of scholars. On religious melancholy his position is simple: one can best avoid it by sticking to the reasonable middle way of the Church of England, avoiding the neurotic extremes of papist and puritan on either side. But in love there is no reasonable ground to take, for its very essence is illusion.
This comes from Northrop Frye’s “The Imaginative and the Imaginary” in his Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology. Frye is considered obsolete in the discipline, but as with almost any critic who has had any popularity or respect in the field at all, he has excellent observations. I rather like the ones above.
On the first Saturday of each month for at least the next little while I intend to share here one of the Weekly Wonders from that previous project. This time I am revisiting the Borgesian conundrum, which concerns either the way the writing makes the author or the way authors make their precursors.
This week’s idea is the Borgesian conundrum. Jorge Luís Borges (whom I’ve mentioned before now) was an Argentine short story writer, essayist, poet, translator, librarian, and reluctant lecturer who lived from 1899 to 1986. He contributed significantly to the short story as a form, and to fantasy and magic realism as genres. It is also thanks to his work that translations of South American writing became popular in the English literary market. His work is filled with mathematical references (including anything to do with infinity), metaphysical puzzles, and assorted paradoxes.
I think this image is Public Domain, but I might be wrong in this. Let me know if you know that I am and I will remove it.
On the first Saturday of each month for at least the next little while I intend to share here one of the Weekly Wonders from that previous project. This time I’m sharing the pizza effect, which concerns the creation of “authentic” cultural artifacts abroad.
This week’s idea is the pizza effect.
Image source: Jeffreyw at flic.kr/p/f57dsm. Jeffryw has a large number of high-quality creative commons photographs of pizza, in case that’s a resource you’ll need some day.
The pizza effect refers to a phenomenon in which an element of one culture is transformed or embraced in another culture and is then imported back into the culture of origin in this new way. You could also think of this as the way in which a culture or community’s self-understanding is influenced by outside sources. A term from religious studies and sociology, the pizza effect gets its name from the idea (possibly false) that pizza was mostly developed by immigrants from Italy in the United States and exported from there to Italy at a later date, where it was interpreted (and became) a specialty in Italian cuisine. Hindu monk and anthropology professor Agehananda Bharati coined the term in the 1970s to address issues of Indian culture: for instance, the popularity of yoga and several gurus which developed in the West led to their adoption in India, and the Bhagavad Gita which, while always important to Hinduism, became even more exalted when Western anthropologists and orientalists interpreted the Gita as Hinduism’s Bible.
Upon reading Dallas Hunt’s very compelling interpretation of the totemic transfer narrative in Mad Max: Fury Road, I remembered that I had not yet written about the myth-making and existentialism that run through that film—or, for that matter, more general thoughts on what it might mean that the post-apocalyptic has become a pervasive and powerful myth for our time. What does the wasteland, the world in ruin, do for us? What part of the imagination might the wrecks of civilizations and planets capture?
Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted blogs or tumblogs: The Thinking Grounds, Learning to Read the Internet, or Dreamtigers and Silent Skies. This one, from The Thinking Grounds, is about one of the things we can learn from Harold Bloom, despite his less-than-glowing welcome in English lit departments these days.
Bloom and Creativity
I do not have much of a thesis for this post; I just want to record an observation I had some time ago but keeping forgetting.
On the first Saturday of each month for at least the next little while I intend to share here one of the Weekly Wonders from that previous project. The first is duende, an artistic principle I find intriguing but hard to emulate.
This week’s idea is duende. It can be roughly translated as “soul”; the phrase tener duende means “having soul.” It is a heightened state of emotion, expression, and authenticity in art, especially flamenco. Duende is a spirit of artistic evocation like (but in many ways unlike) a muse. When art gives you chills, or makes you cry, or makes you grin, that art has duende. Duende is especially likely in art informed by vox populi, the human condition of joy and sorrow.
Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean is a first novel that does not read like a first novel, likely because the author was first a poet; the pacing and characterization are both very professionally done, and tie in well with the novel’s central themes. That connection is important, given that this is a novel about Aristotle as he tutors the young prince of Macedon who will become Alexander the Great, and that its themes include philosophy’s effects on life, and life’s influences on philosophy. You can see traces of the way Aristotle’s experiences sow the seeds for his philosophy, to the extent that late in the novel Alexander accuses Aristotle of creating a philosophy out of how great it is to be Aristotle. Like everything Alexander says, this criticism is unfair and it is also very close to the truth; its perversity is in how he can fumble or limit the truth just as he grasps it.*
Of course The Golden Mean is about Aristotle in Macedon, and Aristotle’s life to that point; it is also about depression, at times, or the soul’s vicissitudes generally; it is about the relationship between teachers and students, fathers and sons, and the ways they fail each other. Toward the end of the novel it seems as though Lyon wanted us to understand that the novel was about what counts as the good life: certainly this is Aristotle’s question, but in the last fifth of the novel particular versions of this question—“What is the mean between extremes?”; “Is it better to live a life of action or a life of contemplation?”—become more obvious and insistent. I do not know whether this is primarily my failure or primarily the novel’s, but it was not clear to me until the end that these were the novel’s major questions, and I would not have noticed if Lyon had not made it so obvious, almost too obvious, in the final pages. But of course the question about the good life is the one that most occupied the Greek philosophers, so it makes sense that it should occupy a book about Aristotle.