Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins (www.iambicadmonit.com) is an Instructor at Penn State Lehigh Valley. Her full-length poetry collection, Caduceus, is available on amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. She is the Book Review Editor of Sehnsucht: The C. S. Lewis Journal and a blogger about the arts and faith at iambic admonit. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina and her husband live in Kutztown, PA, in a home they built themselves.

On Fairy-stories

I have never seen the stars.

Instead of stars, I have seen spirits:

of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued.
(J.R.R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia”)

I have seen magicians: retired stars living on magical islands.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s terms, I have always had a recovered view of the world.

Tolkien, in his talk “On Fairy-stories,” wrote that one purpose of fantasy literature was to enable readers to regain “a clear view” of the world as it ought to be. He called this “Recovery.” It is closely akin to “Escape,” another purpose of fantasy. Tolkien believed that when modern life is ugly or evil, escaping into a more beautiful, virtuous world is a good idea. When we read works of fantasy literature, we can escape into worlds where our primal desires are fulfilled: our longing to talk to animals, to live in harmony with nature, to serve a just king, and to escape from Death.

He gives an example of Recovery: once we have read about a Pegasus, we look at ordinary horses differently. Tolkien’s Ents are another powerful example; a profound emotional response to the Ents can help us look at trees differently and appreciate them more. Perhaps we will be less likely to hew wantonly with axes and commercial logging equipment if we have seen trees as wise, ancient beings with eyes full of the depths of time. The fantastical Ents, in other words, enable a recovery of a clear view of the true nature of trees, undoing the de-mythologizing effects of industry.

Yet I never had the de-mythologized, un-recovered view because my father read the Narnia chronicles to me before I could read on my own, before I had time to develop an industrial view of trees as lumber. Perhaps even before I saw trees, my parents were reading out loud to each other when I was a bun in the oven. While my childhood included plenty of books that did not echo with the horns of Elfland—Little Women, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Sherlock Holmes—my spirit was stirred by The Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows, A Wrinkle in Time, stories by Lloyd Alexander, and George MacDonald’s Princess books. Later, there was Harry Potter, and now Game of Thrones.

I did not encounter The Lord of the Rings during those early childhood days. I was in high school before I even read The Hobbit. Yet when I finally did read Tolkien’s works, I felt like a native to his world. I entered Middle-earth not as a stranger, but as a distant relation. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films were part of this fantastic vision, too: in spite of their many failures as adaptations, they capture the sublime sense of a metaphysical longing—a yearning for paradise across the sea—with which Tolkien’s legendarium is infused. The skies over Weta Workshop in New Zealand are “a jewelled tent / myth-woven and elf-patterned.” Fantasy literature and film did not offer a recovery of a clear view that I had lost; it was that clear view, from my earliest days.

I have always found “Consolation”—the third element of good fantasy according to  Tolkien—in these stories. One such solace is the Happy Ending, which Tolkien discusses especially in relation to “Eucatastrophe”: “The good catastrophe, the sudden joyous turn” that is the quintessence “of a good fairy-story.” Stories can give me a catch of the breath, or lift my heart, or make me cry, but so can landscapes and people’s lives.

Then I saw Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films, and the smog rolled in.

[I’ve written about the Hobbit trilogy before. Here are my reviews of the first film in Curator and in Comment, of the second film, and of the third film in Christianity Today and on The Oddest Inkling.]

I am quite critical of Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. Of course, those films are technically spectacular: every detail is precise. The costumes, props, sets, and CGI are flawless. The cinematography is stunning. The acting is superb. Many of the parts are magnificent; yet something is wrong with the whole.

What is wrong with the whole? Isn’t the movie’s Middle-earth a secondary world of “arresting strangeness” with an “inner consistency of reality” (as Tolkien wrote in “On Fairy-stories”)? Isn’t the story a myth that conveys truth? Perhaps the Hobbit films fail to enact the three essential elements of good fantasy: Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.

I can’t say whether the Hobbit movies could give someone a Recovered view of the world, because I already had that Recovered view before I saw them. However, if anything, those movies damaged and tarnished my perspective, forcing me to go back to the texts to regain a clear vision. The sordid nature of many extraneous moments—dwarves in the toilet, humorous beheadings, Dain’s dirty mouth, Alfrid’s filthy face, and so on—are smudges across the vibrant spectacle of virtue and beauty offered by other characters and scenes in the films.

Now, I’ve written elsewhere that I think the moral ambiguity of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is one of its strengths. And I certainly don’t take the narrow view that simply expanding “one little book” into “three huge films” is in itself problematic: Jackson, obviously, has made a post-LOTR Hobbit. He has drawn in other texts, such as the Appendixes (including “The Quest of Erebor”), drafts, letters, and hints. He is re-enacting The History of the Hobbit. In other words, he didn’t film the 1937 published Hobbit: he filmed how he imagined Tolkien would have rewritten The Hobbit to fit the larger world of The Silmarillion and the whole Legendarium. I get that. It’s an admirable endeavor.

Yet does it succeed?

Many viewers loved Jackson’s Hobbit. I can only say that they do not provide me with Recovery or Consolation. Perhaps these movies do provide me with some measure of Escape, as I forget my daily life and its toils while I am watching certain scenes. Yet other sections are so ignoble that the toils of my daily life come crashing back, and become more burdensome due to suffering such mediocre filmmaking, or at least, in hearing the words of such disreputable screenwriting.

Tolkien wrote in “On Fairy-stories” that, “Drama is naturally hostile to Fantasy.” He thought that simply acting out a great work of speculative fiction would ruin it. As an example, he said that he loved reading Macbeth on the page, and found the witches convincing, but that no stage production would ever make the witches anything but “intolerable.” This is easily applied to works on the screen as well as on the stage. Yet he himself sold the film rights to The Lord of the Rings in 1969. So is it fair to say that any movie adaptation of Tolkien’s work would be a failure, or only these movies?

Perhaps another generation will be able to watch yet another adaptation of these great books, and judge for themselves. Let us fervently hope, however, that the Tolkien estate holds out against the filming of any of the Silmarillion material for a long time yet. Our cultural sensibilities are far from ready to adapt the spiritual profundity of that text. I am afraid that if Eärendil the Mariner’s transformation were depicted on screen, he would become merely a star, “some matter in a ball / compelled to courses mathematical,” rather than a living spirit. I am afraid the living spirit would be stripped from that story, as it has largely been from the Hobbit films.

The Company That Keeps Us

Neither the creation nor the reception of a work of art takes place in a social vacuum. We read, write, listen to, and watch creative products in the company of other people. Even if we are literally alone when making or consuming cultural works, we always have with us all the people we know – family, friends, teachers, students, and members of artistic or intellectual subcultures. So our interpretations of movies and books are never purely objective evaluations of the quality of the art; we include in our likes and dislikes what our communities like and dislike. And just as certain songs or books become permanently associated with a trip, an event, or a relationship, so our responses of them are deeply colored by our company. It’s a good idea to choose fellow audience members, then, as carefully as we choose what to read and watch.

This was especially true for my experience of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. You may remember my preview and review last year of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I hated it. I still do. I sincerely believe that it is a very poor movie, even though it is an interesting adaptation of Tolkien’s drafts, backstory, and revisions of The Hobbit. I expected to like this second Peter Jackson Hobbit film about as little as the first; perhaps I had hoped to like it a bit more, as I had reason to think that Jackson would have more leeway to make up more of the material in this second installment, which should (theoretically) lead to a better movie. And by better I mean a more internally consistent movie.

Indeed, I liked this second film more the the first. Quite a bit more, actually. My assessment of the first film was that only 45 minutes of its 3 long hours were any good – and my assessment of this one? Only about an hour of it was bad. That is quite an improvement. It is a visually stunning film, with gorgeous camerawork and gorgeous characters. Oh, and a great-looking dragon, too (with Benedict Cumberbatch’s incomparable voice). Most of the acting is world-class: Martin Freeman as Bilbo, Ian McKellan as Gandalf, and Richard Armitage as Thorin are especially noteworthy. There are many interesting interpretive choices, including some that arguably improve upon Tolkien’s somewhat inconsistent story.

So does that mean I am right — that I have the correct evaluation of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, that it is a better movie than the first?

That is not a very interesting question. The more interesting question is why I came to that conclusion, what the social factors were that led me to like it. And the answer is? I was with 74 other people who were bound and determined to have a wonderful time, to enjoy their movie-going experience to the fullest, and to tear the movie apart to discover its every strength and weakness, but mostly to applaud Jackson’s creative work of reinterpretation.

I was at Mythmoot II: half Hobbit-party, half Tolkien conference. This is the creative invention of one of the more innovative people in higher education today. Corey Olsen, “The Tolkien Professor.” Dr. Olsen founded an online institute, Mythgard, that offers courses in Tolkien studies and related fields, and Signum University, that is expanding its online offerings and extending the reach and scope of online education. Prof. Olsen is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about Tolkien’s Legendarium, and (among other topics) is committed to dispelling misconceptions about book-to-film adaptation in general and Peter Jackson’s films specifically.

The Tolkien Professor has the ability to explain any artistic choice Jackson might make, providing insight into little-known aspects of Tolkien’s works that may inform the film’s changes from the published Hobbit. For example (spoiler alert!): the notorious elf-dwarf romance between Tauriel and Kili. As Olsen sees it, this plot addition serves to accentuate a sub-theme in the book: the very important question of elf-dwarf relations, political tensions, and historical antagonism. One important “lesson” of the book is the need for peace and harmony among peoples far different from one another, and the need for cooperation among all forces of good against the creeping power of evil. How better to illustrate this than a forbidden love between two members of warring peoples?

This is but one example, and the dry summary above does little to capture the lively atmosphere created by 75 rabid Tolkien nerds gathered to shared their knowledge and love of this complex writer. There were people in costume as elves, Gandalf. There was a pub quiz, with questions only answerable by those who had nearly memorized The Silmarillion (“For 17 points, list all of Túrin Turambar’s names, in both Elvish and English”)! There was someone who could quote nearly all of the songs and poems, others who could speak Elvish, and others still who make art or music inspired by The Lord of the Rings and other books. These were intelligent, energetic, beautiful people. They were gorgeous.

Why should you, dear reader, care about my weekend with people you don’t know? Simply as a specific illustration of the principle that your company creates your movie-watching experience. The weather, what you’re wearing, and what you had for dinner can create your responses, too. This is a lesson to myself not to put too much stock in my initial reactions to a work of art, but to experience it at various times, under varying conditions, and to weigh its merits carefully.

To see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in the best of company is, then, helpful in this way, because my company will shape what I think of it. It is a different movie with those people than it is with these people. So choose your fellow audience-members wisely; they will make the movie for you. They made it for me.

The Art of the Book

In a set of black-walled, dimly-lighted rooms in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Ireland, the history of the book unfurls. Chinese narratives, Japanese seasonal poems, Korans heavy with jewels, papyrus scraps of Biblical texts; calligraphy as lovely as flowers, hieroglyphics, Arabic scripts, Greek print, Latin typesetting; paper, linen, leather, silk…. The colors there rival Dead Sea blue and Grand Canyon red, unrolling on ancient scrolls, edged with a wealth of gilding and golden ink. Pass by the peacocks in their splendor; glance past the Dome of the Rock in its pride: Here is the treasure of the earth.

This impressive collection of print materials, gathered by an American millionaire and bequeathed to the Irish people, contains some of the oldest and most beautiful specimens of the art of the book. Yet I found that what caught my mind the most about this display was the postmodernity of it all. There were two aspects of the Chester Beatty exhibition that revealed to me the ancient nature of what we “Western” humans tend to consider our newest attitudes to texts.

First, the physical material of the book was honored as an art-object. There was no mention in any of the informational videos or the tour-guide talk that Chester Beatty actually read these books: He collected them to look at and to hold, as others collect jewels. He loved them because they were old or because they were beautiful. This relegates the text—that is, the content of the text—to a secondary position, subordinated to images (many of these book are gorgeously illustrated), or even a tertiary position, subordinated to images and to construction materials.

Many of the pieces were distinguished by their use of gold. One particular series of Chinese scrolls used golden clouds as transitions from one scene to the next, much the way PowerPoint uses a fade-effect to transition from one slide to another. Imagine that the next time you are in a sales meeting the presenter scatters gold coins in the air each time he wants to move from one pie chart to another; that is the gloriously prodigal effect of these scrolls. Others were noteworthy for jewel-encrusted covers, or complicated filigree carvings, or stamped leather bindings. Each was a physical treasure that would have cost a lot of money even if they were not old, or even if they did not contain literary art and wisdom beyond price.

Second, the flexible nature of the text itself put the postmodern novel to shame. The term “postmodern novel” has come to refer to a book that does funny things with the text. Perhaps the narrative is non-linear, or characters’ identities are fluid, or the reader takes a role in determining outcome, or it deconstructs metanarratives. Yet this designation goes beyond the ideological content of the work; what’s postmodern about these products is their “non-traditional” approach to its physicality. The words might be printed sideways, vertically, horizontally or backwards. The sentences might form shapes, or spiral around into or out of the center of the page. The book might include elements that depart from two dimensions, such as pop-outs, fold-outs or cut-outs.

The point here is that the most “non-traditional” of these devices are more traditional than the supposedly traditional book! The two-dimensional page, cover with horizontal lines of text, printed on pages made of paper, bound between flat covers, is just the tiniest blip in the history of the book. Indeed, what we think of as the standard book occupies merely a 400-year period (at most!) in the thousands of years of stone carvings, jade engravings, painted wood, rolling scrolls, folding scrolls, papyrus sheets, cyclical texts, microscopic texts, mirror texts, words on walls, words on clothing, words on signet rings and words on a grain of rice.

One particular item in the Chester Beatty collection illustrates the ancient nature of postmodern textuality with startling precision. It is a Koran. It is written on a very small scroll—perhaps four inches wide. When you stand looking at this scroll from above, you see an intricately decorated border surrounding a grayish page on which a few large white words appear. But if you take up a magnifying glass, you can see that the gray hue of the entire surface is created by the entire text of the Koran, composed in minuscule handwriting. The white spaces on the page, which are words themselves, are the blank portions in which nothing is written. The microscopic words (written in a period before the microscope, the magnifying glass, spectacles or eye surgery) slant in every possible direction, curving, looping and hatching the page with mind-boggling complexity. The entire Koran, then, is compressed onto a tiny scroll, creating a text-within-the-text effect that is itself a work of art.

The postmodern novel, then, does not really do anything new. It revives old approaches to suspecting, playing with and adoring the text. Readers who are afraid of losing “real books,” as they often call paper codices as opposed to e-readers, should take heart—or give up. Grandmothers have probably been bewailing the loss of the “right way” to read since the invention of writing. I can imagine a Roman poem bewailing the disjointed nature of the bound book when compared to the narrative ease of the scroll, or an aged Egyptian lamenting the ephemeral nature of papyrus, moaning, “When I was young, we put hieroglyphics on a cartouche where they belonged!” The Kindle, then, is nothing new: It is simply today’s momentary mutation in the long evolution of The Book. It is a technological art-object in its own right—smooth, beautifully proportioned—and its ability to contain thousands volumes is a baffling beauty, much like the squeezing of a whole Koran onto a thin strip of paper.

In fact, the monochrome, flat aesthetic of the common e-reader may actually have an effect that is the opposite of the postmodern suspicion of text and narrative. So many ancestors on The Book’s family tree flaunted their physicality. By stripping away the gold, jewels, illuminations, bindings, unfurlings, swirlings, textures, colors and smells of those forebears, perhaps the e-reader returns to a focus on the words themselves: what they look like, how they are ordered and—most of all—what they mean. The most precious pieces in that collection are a few bland, discolored scraps of papyrus, bearing the oldest known manuscripts of the New Testament. So just as what gets called New is really the Old returning again, maybe the Old comes back in the New in the best ways. Unlike Chester Beatty, when we collect tens of thousands of books on our modern devices, maybe we can actually read them.

King Arthur was an Elf!

The recent publication of The Fall of Arthur, an unfinished poem by J.R.R. Tolkien, should rock the literary world. It should knock the socks off its readers half way through.

But I doubt that it will.

Why should it? And why won’t it?

Your hair should stand on end when you read The Fall of Arthur because it adds a startling extra layer to Tolkien’s legendarium. If he had finished it, it could have connected many aspects of his elvish mythology with English history, Arthurian literature and the fantasy worlds of his friends C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. In fact, if the Inklings had put all their Arthurian ideas together, they could have produced the kind of totalizing English mythology that Tolkien attempted, but abandoned.

Here is the key: Lancelot is Eärendel.

If you aren’t a Tolkien geek, don’t worry if that doesn’t mean anything. I’ll explain.

When Tolkien was quite young, he read an Old English poem with these lines:

Hail Éarendel, brightest of angels,

above the middle-earth sent unto men,

and true radiance of the sun,

bright above the stars…

The name Éarendel lodged in his memory, and he resolved to make up the back-story that would explain how Éarendel could be both an angel and a star. This decision catalyzed his great work of inventing elvish languages, legends and history, which eventually led to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and the unfinished histories of Middle Earth.

In Tolkien’s story, Eärendel is a half-elf, half-human hero who sails into the West, seeking a lost paradise. You can read his story here. He becomes a legendary ancestor, like Aeneas, Remus and Romulus or Siegfried.

The Fall of Arthur is also about a legendary hero. In this poetic fragment, King Arthur leaves his kingdom under Mordred’s care (really bad idea) and sets off to Europe to beat up the Saxons in their homeland. He has already beaten them off of his island. Now he wants to make sure they never come back, and he also wants to defend Rome against the pagans who keep trying to sack her. But while he marches across Germanic lands, Mordred takes over the kingdom and threatens Guinevere with forced marriage. She flees into the wild. As she lingers (like Arwen) in the gray ruins of her father’s abandoned realm, Arthur heads home to fight Mordred, and the narrator recalls Lancelot and Guinevere’s treasonous love. The poem ends with Arthur’s first victory over Mordred, at sea, and uncertainty as Arthur plans to face his nemesis on their final battlefield.

That is all he wrote. But J.R.R. Tolkien did leave notes about how the story would have continued, and Christopher Tolkien includes them in his editorial matter. In the final confrontation, Mordred would fatally wound Arthur, Arthur would kill Mordred and Arthur would be carried away to the West for healing. Lancelot, arriving too late, would set sail into the West, searching for his king, never to return.

Sail away West—just like Eärendel the Mariner. And just like Eärendel the Mariner, Lancelot would seek paradise: Avalon, Tol Eressëa or the Land of Faery.

Do you see how that rocks the world? If Tolkien had finished this poem, he could have woven it together with The Silmarillion in such a way that his elvish history directly matched up with the legends of Arthur, forming the mythological and linguistic foundation on which “real” English history and language were based.

And then he could have gotten together with Lewis and Williams and worked his Arthurian legend into theirs. In Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, the Pendragon is taken up to Venus to “Where Arthur is…. In the Third Heaven, in Perelandra. In Aphallin.” In Williams’ Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars, three knights achieve the Holy Grail and sail with it West, off the map, to a sacred land called Sarras. In all three writers’ worlds, evil is in the East; this is not surprising in an England threatened by Nazi Germany. God’s country is in the opposite direction, across the sea, connected with ancient legends about Hesperus, the evening star, Venus, the light in the West.

The theological, literary, historical and linguistic implications of this are too numerous to tackle here. Perhaps I should get a bunch of scholars together and compile a book on The Inklings and Arthur. Until I do, I hope the blogosphere goes wild with the significance of The Fall of Arthur.

But even if the fan-sites take up this idea and run with it, I doubt that The Fall of Arthur will make much noise elsewhere.

Why not?

First, because it’s a poem.

Poetry is more difficult than prose. The Fall of Arthur is not a beach novel. It is lively, readable poetry, but it has a strong rhythm (the meter of Beowulf), lofty diction and unusual word-order. Tolkien frequently employs inverted syntax—non-standard arrangement of parts of speech—in order to suit the meter. Here is an example, the opening lines:

Arthur eastward                                 in arms purposed

his war to wage                                  on the wild marches,

over seas sailing                                to Saxon lands,

from the Roman realm                     ruin defending.


Here is a prosy re-arrangement:

Arthur purposed to wage his war eastward, on the wild marches, sailing in arms over seas to Saxon lands, defending the Roman realm from ruin.

You see that I have added, changed and deleted nothing. I have only put the words into a different order, and the meaning becomes much clearer. So reading the poetry can be tiring, even though this is excellent poetry, and that difficulty will prevent this book from having as many readers as it would have if it were a novel.

The second reason this book won’t make too many waves is that the shocking information about Lancelot and Eärendel is buried in the middle of the book, mired in Christopher Tolkien’s slow-and-subtle prose commentary. He gives an intelligent, complicated survey of previous writers on King Arthur to show what his father took from his sources and what he changed or made up. This is followed by an excellent essay on poetic meter, surrounded by textual notes and other semi-scholarly additions.

If Christopher Tolkien had wanted this book to astonish the world, he could have marketed it with tabloid-style headlines, such as:




or, for nerds:


or how about:


But he didn’t do that. He presented the poem in its beautiful, tragic, melancholy, unfinished state, printed with admirable clarity and aesthetic appeal. Then he padded the volume with quasi-academic apparatus, but did not include an index or a bibliography, as a truly scholarly work would.

And so this book runs the risk of being overlooked.

As I wrote in my pre-review, Tolkien scholar John Garth wrote in an article in The Guardian that “Any addition to the Arthurian tradition by a major author is welcome; this one is also exciting because of what it adds to our picture of a great modern imagination.” I had no idea just how much it would add to that picture—not only of one great modern imagination, but to the collective modern imagination. Do read it. And do spread the word.

Arthur, Adapted

This article should be illegal.

In That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis, a sociologist agrees to write newspaper articles on a riot that has not yet happened, but which his bosses have engineered to occur next day. Mark’s job is interpretation of the future: placing his criminal bosses in the best light so they will benefit from the very chaos they have manufactured.

What I propose to do here is not quite so nefarious. I propose to review a book that has not yet been released and which I have not yet read. The book is The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien, scheduled for release from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on May 23rd, 2013. You can pre-order it on Amazon.

But before I launch into my highly questionable pre-review (preview?), let me justify this course of action by means of a little bit of literary history and a little bit of literary analysis—fancy shenanigans of the English-teacher type. (By the way, I am not the only thought criminal in this regard; read this excellent pre-review, for instance).

The story of King Arthur is among the most adapted stories of all time. A quick list at the democratizing modern research archive, Wikipedia, reveals 92 films based on Arthurian legend and 392 books about King Arthur. These lists are incomplete and do not include works that reference the Arthurian story obliquely or draw on its imagery and symbolism.

These Arthurian works change the story wildly over the ages. Characters are added or deleted. (Lancelot didn’t appear until some 700 years into the tradition.) Villains evolve into heroes and vice versa. (Morgan le Fay is notorious for changing sides.) Events are invented or erased; the Quest for the Holy Grail, for instance, was a twelfth-century addition. Happy endings become tragedies or the other way round. (In some, Arthur dies at the end; in others, he is taken to Avalon for healing and eternal life.) The time period shifts: You’ll find stories set anywhere from the 400s to last Tuesday. The geographical locations move all over the British Isles and even into fairyland. In short, the whole story is tailored to suit the times.

Each new storyteller uses Arthur & Co. as a vehicle for political, religious, economic or other messages. They might use it to condemn non-Christians or promote syncretism. They might alter it to bolster patriotism or argue against nationalism. They might shape it in support of the monarchy or to undermine the government. They might fashion it as a hymn of praise for virginity or a shout of radical feminism.

But that can’t be right, can it? I mean, think how angry we get when we go to see a movie that is an awful adaptation of a beloved book. How could all these authors and movie-makers take the “real” King Arthur story and mutilate it so it is unrecognizable when compared to the original?

The answer to that question is astonishing and liberating:

There is no original.

This is why the King Arthur legends are perennially popular: There is no urtext. Oral traditions predate written works. Indeed, the legend has two divergent parents: the Welsh tales, in which dark magical forces such as Merlin are operative; and the French Romance tradition, which added knights, chivalry, Lancelot and the Grail.

Since there is no “right” story that we can point to as “the book” on which the movie, painting or other book is based, none of the adaptations can be “wrong.”

Furthermore, the whole idea of adaptation needs constant renewal. Of course, we know that we should not judge adaptations by their supposed fidelity to the source text—and there is no source text in this case anyway—but there is more. Each adaptation, no matter what it alters, should be evaluated on its own aesthetic terms. There has been a lot of intelligent talk about this in the past years, especially as some great literary works have been making their way onto the screen in new ways for new times.

And there’s at least one more reason that Arthurian adaptations proliferate without restraint. The story—whichever stories you choose as prior—is enormous, many-limbed and lithe with variety. It is packed with enough characters, events, images and emblems to fit anybody’s preference. There is always someone in it who is you.

For all these reasons, then, King Arthur and his entourage map onto each generation—and for all these reasons, we can predict a lot about the forthcoming Tolkien book before we read it. So this is not so much a pre-review as a prophecy. Of course, there is also plenty of chatter in the news, on Tolkien sites, on fan sites, in the blogosphere and elsewhere online where the savvy Googler can pick up tips.

Here, then, are some semi-oracular statements:

The Fall of Arthur will be a thoroughly twentieth-century work, tinged with Tolkien’s particular kind of re-imagined Medievalism and Northerness. This is obvious, both because of the flexibility of the story itself and because of Tolkien’s literary taste and style. But more specifically: I predict that there will be echoes of the First World War in the battle scenes and the general kappa element (tone, feeling or atmosphere) relating to military action. War is an ugly beast in Tolkien’s works. This is not lessened by the glory he gives to warriors. I think, then, that there will be a feeling of hopelessness in the Battle of Camlann, counteracted by the individual heroism of ordinary people. The little knight whose name has been forgotten will do deeds to rival those of Gawain, Lancelot and Arthur himself.

If The Fall of Arthur contains a description of what T.S. Eliot called “The Wasteland,” the land around the Castle of the Hallows that was made desolate by the Dolorous Stroke, I predict that it will be seen through Tolkien’s radical environmental vision. Malcolm Guite has explained how the Inklings were not backwards-looking dinosaurs, but forward-thinking prophets in their own time. One of Tolkien’s most enduring themes is his love of the environment, his stewardship of the land and his bleak vision of what happens when we loot and scar the earth with industry. In The Lord of the Rings, this is seen most clearly in Saruman’s depredations of the forest of Fangorn. In The Fall of Arthur, there is a chance for it to be shown in the lands around Carbonek, or at least as a context for war.

In contrast to Tolkien’s modern vision of earth care, there will be quite backwards, “Victorian” depictions of stylized women, if women appear at all. While Tolkien’s women can be powerful and active, he nearly always idealizes them out of reality onto a plane of semi-divinity. It could be argued that such a depiction is “timeless,” rather than “old-fashioned,” and that it is informed by his theological system of thought, but it certainly doesn’t go down well with the modern feminist.

Another old-fashioned idea of Tolkien’s will also be operative in this work. This is his concept of absolutism in language. Unlike Derrida and Foucault, about a generation younger than he, Tolkien believed that words had essential relationships to the things they named. Even more: Words expressed something essential about the things they named. That is why the very words themselves can be evil or good in his Legendarium. While I doubt that he will talk about this in The Fall of Arthur, this concept will have guided his choice of each word.

This leads me quite naturally into a discussion of the poetry of The Fall of Arthur. Is it any good? Well, Ruth Lacon and Alex Lewis believe that “The Fall of Arthur has an excellent chance of being a good poem.” The very brief selections provided suggest that it will be a good poem, with a lively meter, vivid imagery and beautiful sounds. But I doubt that it will be a great poem.

Like his fellow Inklings, who aspired to be great poets, Tolkien’s intellectual understanding and aesthetic appreciation of poetry surpassed his ability to write it. Lewis, Tolkien, Williams and Barfield were decent, reliable craftsmen of verse. Williams was the greatest poet of the quartet. But none of them soared to the heights of some of their contemporaries (Eliot and Auden come to mind) or their models (Milton, Dante, the Beowulf poet). This was partly due to their habit of leaving unfinished works, partly due to their mad multitasking skills and partly due to some undefined quality in their verse that leaves it just a shade below the truly great.

Yet great poetry is not all that matters in a great poem, surprisingly. C. S. Lewis wrote about what else matters. He was describing George MacDonald, but he could have said much the same about Tolkien. He wrote:

“In poetry the words are the body and the “theme” or “content” is the soul. But in myth the imagined events are the body and something inexpressible is the soul…. MacDonald is the greatest genius of this kind whom I know. But I do not know how to classify such genius. To call it literary genius seems unsatisfactory since it can coexist with great inferiority in the art of words—nay, since its connection with words at all turns out to be merely external and, in a sense, accidental…. It was in this mythopoeic art that MacDonald excelled.”

Lewis wrote this in 1946; perhaps a decade later he would have said that Tolkien was the greatest mythopoeic genius he knew. For Tolkien’s genius goes beyond the mere choosing of each word (though he was obsessed with that, and made up his own words and whole languages when English and the dozen or so other languages he knew would not suffice). It moves into world-building.

Why, then, did Tolkien abandon this story? Wasn’t it the ideal vehicle for his holistic, theological vision of a universe of order, meaning, suffering and redemption? Perhaps not. Humphrey Carpenter wrote in his biography: “Arthurian stories were also unsatisfactory to him as myth in that they explicitly contained the Christian religion.” Tolkien wanted to refigure the mythic power of the Christian religion. It wasn’t enough to tell the Gospel; he had to rewrite it in an entirely new universe of his own creation.

A Tolkien scholar named John Garth has written (in this article in The Guardian) that “Any addition to the Arthurian tradition by a major author is welcome; this one is also exciting because of what it adds to our picture of a great modern imagination.” This has always been true. Each addition to the Arthurian tradition adds to our picture of that author’s imagination and to our understanding of the time period in which he or she lives. King Arthur always provides a story for our times, no matter what time it is told and retold. Tolkien’s work, then, will be no exception.

Don’t Shoot, Part Two

[This is part two of a two-part essay. View the first part here.]

It would never happen.

Of course, the movie industry would never stop depicting gun violence in “positive” ways. Perhaps there is no call for such a step, even on moral grounds. As Aaron Farrington pointed out, guns are inevitable and sometimes necessary in real life. Therefore, they will show up in art. How could directors make war movies and crime movies without guns? They could not. But does that mean guns and their aftermath have to be shown as positive or inconsequential—a hot accessory like an Aston Martin DB5, or a casual gesture like the Lindy Hop? Perhaps not.

The economics of show business entered the conversation pretty quickly. Bob Massey wrote about the difficulty of getting something made in commercial entertainment; a story has to interest producers:

There’s a lot of competition and often the flashiest pitch wins. More subtle stories are hard to get made. In short, the more life-and-death the stakes for a character, the more compelling the story becomes for the audience… “kiss kiss, bang bang” [are] the only essential elements needed for a Hollywood film.

If a story includes loaded guns pointed at beloved characters, that story sells. Scott Teems concurred that serious gun violence is quintessentially not entertaining, and this is after all the entertainment industry we are talking about. Bullets piercing flesh are not fun. People won’t get laughs from a movie that shows the real results of gun murders, so they will soon stop buying tickets. Therefore…

The box office would suffer.

The film industry would never try it. But this is a thought experiment, in which we can pretend anything we like. So let’s pretend that they do. Let’s pretend only a few acts of gun violence will be shown on screen in the entirety of 2013, and they will be realistic: tragic, horrific, unbearable. If we “limit onscreen gun victims to one or two per film… then almost by definition the violence is never cool, funny, casual, painless, or valid” (Bob Massey). If we did this, how would it affect ticket sales?

Scott Teems wrote that the financial results would be disastrous at first, because the action film as a genre could not survive. Bob Massey agreed: there would be fewer escapist films, which means fewer patrons coming to the theater to escape, which in turn means less money. He went on, though, to note “that Bollywood relies on singing and dancing and pretty girls for its escapism and basically mints money.” The loss of money at the box office, then, would quickly be recouped. Scott Teems told us:

fear not, for this gaping entertainment hole would soon be filled by an extreme of some other kind. Most likely sex. Because one of the primary allures of Hollywood films is the vicarious experience of the unknown, the adventurous, the forbidden…. If there were no hyper-masculine gun fantasies to satiate male bloodlust… Hollywood would be quick to offer fantasies of another kind.

In other words, my thought experiment would not make the world a better place: it would just replace one problem with another.

Yet perhaps…

The movies would be better.

All my interviewees agreed about this. Movies without massacres would be better movies. Aaron Farrington said that mass gun violence in movies is bad art, because such scenes are impersonal and even boring. Bob Massey wrote: “One death is a tragedy, a hundred deaths is a statistic.” Statistical, shock-value deaths are quick-and-dirty ways to shoehorn thrills into stories. Mature, artistic storytellers can write more subtle stories without resorting to guns. Chris White thought the same:

If creators abstained for one full year from the flippant use of gun violence, they might be able to reclaim the dramatic power of “Chekhov’s gun”—the appearance of a gun in the first act of a play means that it will be fired in the third. The return of honest foreshadowing, dramatic tension, narrative excitement… just imagine how empowering this could be for creators!

Writers, directors, and actors would be forced to develop more subtle stories. They would investigate other forms of “death”:

spiritual death. Emotional death. Physical death by some slow process. But those are much harder to show onscreen. I’ll argue that those are also much more important to show onscreen. But it takes a high degree of skill as a writer…. These are the films that graduate from craft to become art. They are rarely blockbusters. Sometimes they make a profit, if the filmmakers are savvy and accomplished enough….. But making such films is hard and brave and time-consuming. Virtues not beloved by this industry. (Bob Massey)

Scott Teems said, “There are occasional films that break through the studio drivel and find (relative) box office success while telling stories that force audiences to wrestle with the dark truths of gun violence.” But it is hard to find these films; they rarely make it to the big screen. Yet they are great art. For sheer quality control, then, wouldn’t it be great if there were fewer terrible movies packed with meaningless violence?

If there were more artful, thoughtful films like that, it is just possible…

We might all be safer.

One of my interviewees told me that he saw Natural Born Killers in a packed Manhattan movie theater when it first came out. He said it was an awesome movie, but he was terrified. It made him want to shoot guns and blow stuff up—and there could easily be someone else sitting in that same theater, watching that same movie, who would really would be inspired to rush out and wreck havoc.

Chris White had a similar response: “I imagine it might make all of us little less jittery as we walk back to our cars following the nine o’clock screening of the latest whiz-bang action flick. A little less jumpy.” This, of course, loops back around to where we started: would this thought experiment, put into practice, really do anything to make us less jumpy? Wouldn’t a reduction in gun violence just be replaced with other violence in inverse proportion?

In other words, banning images of gun-happy shooters probably wouldn’t make any lasting difference, because…

A deeper social analysis is necessary.

Nathan Scoggins moved towards this deeper analysis when he pointed out:

“the human beast is capable of incredible violence without guns—be that tool of violence a bomb, airplane, knife, stick, bow and arrow, spear, gasoline and a match, fire, stick, etc. As a result, even if the studios and filmmakers voluntarily put a moratorium on gun violence (which would never happen), the core question for storytellers would be to continue to tell stories with dramatic conflict and narrative stakes. There are no greater stakes for a story than life and death, and there is no stronger, more visceral conflict than man vs. man. So, in my honest opinion, the question of whether guns specifically are the problem is an irrelevant one…. Perhaps the far more cogent question for filmmakers and storytellers is the context in which that violence is depicted.”

In what contexts, then, are depictions of violence either morally or artistically warranted?

For some people, watching death on screen provides “a vicarious thrill” that is actually healthy rather than dangerous: “an outlet for the increasing rage/confusion/angst that we feel…. Violence—particularly in the hands of a good man enacting either retribution or vengeance—can be a cathartic release for an audience conditioned to expect violence as a necessary and just retribution for villainous acts” (Nathan Scoggins). That would be good, then, if people watched violence as a way of preventing themselves from acting out their anger against others.

Sadly, this is not the only possibility. Nathan Scoggins went on to say that watching violence “can also frustrate audience members who return to a world of injustice and do not have the tools to cope with that world. As a result, what can be cathartic for one person can incite another.” What makes the difference? When does shooting on screen replace shooting in real life, and when does the one incite the other?

While the experts are still working on answering this question, trying to determine whether untreated mental illness makes the difference, Bob Massey suggested another, more disturbing possibilty: “Perhaps the flaw is in our national culture, which is premised on the Lone Hero myth. And also perhaps our national culture causes individuals to feel powerless, so each of us fantasizes about wielding power.” Does this suggest that Americans are more susceptible to imitating movie violence than members of other cultures? If that were the case, America would need to take a long deep into its collective spiritual condition. Banning guns on screen for a year would not provoke such healthy introspection: “it would not address the reasons people have such an appetite. People who feel powerless to change their circumstances resort to escapism—be it cartoonishly violent movies, or metal music, or video games, or wanton sugar consumption, or superficial churchgoing, or sexual thrillseeking, or thrillseeking of various flavors” (Bob Massey).

As opposed to banning gun violence altogther, “Films that depicted one or two victims (as opposed to the blur of bodies and blood that allows us to detach emotionally) would hit us harder, emotionally”— they would “force a confrontation with reality, if only for a moment.” Bob Massey summed up the importance of this thought experiment in his closing words to me:

“…other people exist, and have immense value, and are worth sacrificing for, because I myself have a value that is a deep mystery not limited to the here and now…. It is ONLY that kind of film that can affect human behavior, turning a person away from her violent, animalistic nature toward a way of being that is less self-centric, more sacrificial, more empathetic and willing to count the high cost of actual love for another.”

So it will not happen. Movie-makers will not limit themselves to only individual, serious, tragic acts of gun violence in 2013. You will be able to see all kinds of massacres on screen over the next ten months. But in the mix somewhere, in the arthouse theatres and indie film festivals, there are certain to be thoughtful films that engage with the seriousness of murder and the beautiful pain of the human condition.

Don’t Shoot, Part One

[This is part one of a two-part essay. View the second part here.]

A character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, observing the ludicrous antics of his fellows, declares: “If this were played upon a stage now, I could / condemn it as an improbable fiction.” Truth is stranger than fiction, reality is funnier or weirder or more awful than fantasy. Real death and destruction are more horrific and heartbreaking than any gory film; no screen depiction of murder, massacre, or war has ever come close to the monstrosity of the event itself. If the violence of this past year were played on a movie screen, it would be far too graphic for public viewing. As Quentin Tarantino said recently (in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross) about Django Unchained: “What happened during slavery times is a thousand times worse than [what] I show.” No scene in Batman: The Dark Knight Rises shows violence as devastating as the shooting at its Aurora premiere; no movie of the Sandy Hook abomination would capture a thousandth part of its pain.

In the public response to a year of at least fourteen mass shootings in America, amidst the debates about gun control and care for the mentally ill, there have been questions about the media’s responsibility for inspiring killers. James Holmes said he was The Joker, and the staging of his crime—“a deranged man in a gas mask opening fire on innocent victims—eerily mirrors a scene” in the very movie his victims were watching (The Daily Beast). There is speculation that Adam Lanza may have been incited by violent video games and movies. Such concerns abound.

While there is some scholarly consensus that well-adjusted individuals will not be inspired to imitate movie violence, Emanuel Tanay told the Psychiatric Times that “some mentally ill individuals are vulnerable to dramatized violence.” Craig Alan Anderson writes: “media violence is only one of many risk factors for later aggressive and violent behavior”—but it is one of the factors. One study by the American Academy of Pediatrics indicates that “media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed.” Aaron B. O’Donnell of The Chronicle of Higher Education wonders if films like Red Dawn “break down the barriers between violent fantasies and violent action,” and Stephen Marche of The New York Times claims that “real violence and violent art have always been connected.” In other words, cultural observers are divided over whether or not fictional depictions of violence incite real violence.

In this context, I decided to conduct a thought experiment, to ask a hypothetical question: What would happen if everyone in the film industry voluntarily covenanted not to show positive gun violence for a year? If there were no movies, at all, for a whole year, in which gun violence was shown to be funny, cool, sexy, manly, stylish, casual, or inconsequential—what would happen? If shooting people was not shown to be a viable escape from personal problems—would such incidents decrease? If the only gun violence depicted was evil and catastrophic—would this serve as a deterrent to potential shooters? And what would happen to box office sales, movie attendance, the artistic freedom of movie-makers, and the artistry of films, in such an imaginary case?

I put these questions to several people in the film industry. I received thoughtful, thought-provoking responses from Aaron Farrington, photographer and filmmaker; Bob Massey, writer and composer; Nathan Scoggins, writer, director, producer, and actor; Scott Teems, director, writer, and editor; and Chris White, producer, writer, and actor. Their responses included skepticism that such an abstinence could ever happen but an intelligent curiosity about what the artistic and social results might be if it did. There was something like agreement that the movies might be better, and we might all be safer.


Come back to Curator on Friday morning to read their responses. 






image from miami.com

Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit”: Embellishment is an Understatement

Every now and then in the history of the arts, someone creates something so radical that it changes the direction of its genre. An artist, often anonymous, stumbles across, say, counterpoint, or a capella poetry, or the talkie either by hard work or providence. For some time now, it has been apparent that filmmaking needs such a revolution: specifically, some new way of making film adaptations of books. There has been too much polarization between book purists and movie fans, too little understanding of adaptation as art-making in its own right. One unfortunate result of book-to-movie confusion has been bad movies: gimmicky strings of visual, musical, and narrative clichés. Perhaps the time has come for a cinematographic revolution in which directors throw off the tyranny of the text, re-invent narrative chronology, and dare to imagine wild new ways of making movies—gritty, unusual, groundbreaking movies—freely, from textual hints and cues. There have, of course, been movies that take a looser approach to book adaptation, and plenty that play with narrative expectations. There should be more, and more daring, experiments in the art of literary cinema.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not such a movie. Sadly, it is mostly just another series of gimmicks: tricks of music, light, and timing cut-and-pasted from The Lord of the Rings films. There are five sublime sections, adding up to about forty minutes; the rest is childish slapstick and cheap genre tropes. Yet it does take a few tentative steps in the direction of the freer, more imaginative approach to adaptation.

In order to understand the idea driving Peter Jackson’s huge new Hobbit, a little Tolkien manuscript history is necessary (the best sources on this are John Rateliff’s The History of The Hobbit, Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, and “The Tolkien Professor” podcasts). The Hobbit was first published on September 21, 1937. It began as just another fun bedtime story for Tolkien’s children, not as part of the mythology that had been growing in his mind since 1913. However, that mythology already existed in drafts, notes, chronologies, and—most importantly—languages. Tolkien realized that this hobbit story must take place in the same historical trajectory as his great unfinished work, The Silmarillion. But he barely revealed that connection, just dropping in dwarves, elves, the Necromancer, and a general feeling of background depth and breadth.

So, The Hobbit was published. And then Tolkien’s obsessive perfectionism took over. He was writing The Lord of the Rings through the 1940s and 50s, and whenever he had a chance, he revised The Hobbit to make it fit with the geography, topography, chronology, and characterization of the larger story. He wrote a new “Riddles in the Dark” chapter in 1951, turning Gollum from a sweet creature into Slinker and Stinker. He wrote a backstory called “The Quest of Erebor” in 1954, recasting the whole Hobbit story, especially the opening chapters, from Gandalf’s point of view. He made Gandalf far more intentional and operative in planning the entire quest as one small side-story in the eventual War of the Ring. Along the way there were lots of other texts, with more plot lines, more characters, more depth, and more interconnectivity.

And then—get this—in 1960 he started rewriting the whole Hobbit almost from scratch. He got almost three chapters finished. This post-LOTR version is a lot more serious. Gandalf is more in control; Thorin is more prone to the dragon sickness that will consume him. Bilbo is embarrassingly silly.

And this is where Peter Jackson comes in.

See, Peter Jackson’s Hobbit is also a post-LOTR Hobbit. And this is, first of all, why it is three movies long. It draws from all those others texts—the “Quest of Erebor,” The Book of Lost Tales, The Unfinished Tales, basically everything except The Silmarillion, to which he does not have the rights. It includes the Battle of Azanulbizar, the biographies of Thror and Thrain, meetings of the White Council, and the rise of the Necromancer.

This approach also means that Jackson takes themes and characters from that unfinished 1960 draft: nastier trolls, additional information about Azog, more emphasis on Gandalf’s choosing Bilbo, and a growing threat of evil. The scholar John Rateliff speculates what else Tolkien might have changed had he proceeded, and Peter Jackson is picking up on these hints. For instance, Rateliff asks:

“Did Bilbo’s lifelong friendship with Aragorn (then a ten-year-old living in Rivendell with his mother and being raised by Elrond) begin during his visit there…? Did Legolas Greenleaf fight in the Battle of Five Armies? …would we have learned a little more about the elusive Radagast? Would the Spiders of Mirkwood have been made more horrific, à la Shelob…? And more importantly, would the Ring have been presented in more sinister terms throughout, with hints of its corruptive influence even on one such as Bilbo?”

Without giving any specific spoilers about the movie, yes, indeed, a few of these elements are present. But here is the third and most interesting implication of Jackson’s filmmaking chronology: what this means is that Jackson did not make a movie of The Hobbit, but of how he imagined Tolkien would have rewritten The Hobbit after 1960. Or, perhaps more accurately, how Jackson would have rewritten The Hobbit. Or, well, how he did rewrite it. How he is rewriting it.

So that is one of the ways in which Jackson holds in his hands the ability to make film history. He has made film history, inevitably, due to the cultural position of his films, regardless of their artistic integrity. The technologically savvy will continue to evaluate his bold use of 48 frames per second. But from a literary point of view, he may be adding a chapter to textbooks on cinema history simply by re-imagining a composite text, then adapting that to the screen.

Gandalf even provides meta-commentary about this early in the movie, when he tells Bilbo, “Every good story deserves to be embellished.” Embellished is an understatement. Not quite invented out of whole cloth, but certainly re-invented from the scraps and drafts and fragments Tolkien left behind.

That is not to say Tolkien would like this movie. He would hate it. It is an unpleasant mix of the beautiful and the stupid. It will sell well; it already has. But it is not high art, nor is it a particularly great film. It sure is fun, though, and provides a few flights into the sublime and a lot of kicks for the Tolkien geek. The other two movies in this trilogy may raise the level from middle-school silliness to something nearly approaching the artistic.

Now that 3D, IMAX, and maybe 48fps are mainstream, what big movie innovation is next? Maybe a few more decades from now, when “feelies” or choose-your-own-adventure films, or video games on the big screen become the norm, maybe then The Hobbit will get another chance at becoming an artistically consistent film. And when that happens, it will not only be post-Tolkien, it will be post-Jackson. And so the revolutions will continue.

Packing for “An Unexpected Journey”

A once-in-a-lifetime experience is about to be repeated. Peter Jackson, having made movie history with his epic film trilogy The Lord of the Rings, is about to release the first installment of another epic film trilogy: The Hobbit.

Conversations among Tolkien fans and scholars are growing increasingly shrill. They were gratified by Jackson’s lavish treatment of their favorite books in LOTR and betrayed by his “infidelity” to elements of plot and character. Now, those passionate, opinionated readers are buckling up for another emotional ride to heights of cinematic magic and depths of literary inaccuracy. Tweeting, posting, blogging, and weeping, they wail: Will Jackson distort characters the way he dumbed-down Faramir and the Ents? Will he leave out 20% of the original text as he cut out the Scouring of the Shire? Will he blow little battles into major wars, as he did with Helm’s Deep? In short, will he ruin Tolkien’s masterpiece? And, above all, why O why—and how—is he turning a 287-page story into a three-movie epic?

Inevitably, Jackson’s Hobbit will not be Tolkien’s Hobbit. Many rabid Tolkien fans and serious Tolkien scholars will be disappointed. How, then, can these people prepare themselves to handle the disappointment on December 14th? Is it even possible to pack the right baggage for this trip to the theatre, leave pocket-handkerchiefs of prejudice behind, and actually enjoy the movie?

Here are some suggestions for what to bring and what to leave behind.

1. Pack A Theory of Adaptation

Cultural analysts frequently pick up on the idea that “Form Changes Content” and theorize it in interesting ways. Themes, events, or characters change when they are translated into another medium or genre. The exact same speech is a different piece of literature on the page, on a stage, in an animated cartoon, and in a live-action feature film. These changes are even more obvious when the source material is non-verbal. How does a character’s internal monologue, presented on the page by a narrator, translate to the screen? Voiceover effects are almost always cheesy. Flashbacks or visual presentations of the character’s thoughts are usually clumsy. Music, lighting effects, and facial expressions—much more subtle methods of communication than narrative—must do the job. The result will be wildly different from the book. Whether the result is better or worse is another matter.

Context also changes content. Bilbo’s adventuresome journey, in the company of thirteen (male) dwarves and a (male) wizard, to kill a dragon and recover a treasure, has different implications to a 21st-century audience than it had to its original readers in the mid-20th (about gender roles, oppressive governments, technological warfare, economic disenfranchisement, environmental stewardship, and the supernatural, for example).

In other words, The Hobbit will be different on the screen. Therefore:

2. Leave The Hobbit at home

Remember that a movie is not a book. A book made into a movie is not just a new setting of the same material; it is a completely new work of art. To be fair to Jackson’s work, viewers and reviewers should consider it on its own terms, evaluating it according to the standards that movies must meet, such as cinematography, screenplay, musical score, acting, pacing, lighting, cutting, CGI, and so forth.

There are bound to be enormous changes to Tolkien’s original tale. Indeed, certain liberties have already been taken, as the first and second trailers show (complimented by some insider information). Several of the dwarves’ names are mispronounced (such as Gloin, which should sound like glow-in). More troublingly, Jackson & Co. have added wildly original material, such as the Tombs of the Nazgul; a possible dwarf-elf romance; and an expanded role for Radagast the Brown, including birds under his hat and a sled pulled by Rabbits of Unusual Size (yes, “huh?” is a valid response). There are even ominous hints that the Necromancer (aka Sauron) might show up at the Battle of Five Armies.

Some changes will leave Tolkien purists fuming. Some will be visually beautiful, consistent with the new story, and dramatically compelling. So leave the paperback copy of The Hobbit at home, relax, and enjoy the show. Get absorbed by the story, even if it is not the “real” story or the “right” story. Let it be its own story.

3. Pack the appendixes to LOTR, along with “The Quest of Erebor” and “The Istari” in Unfinished Tales.

The clips, quotes, sightings, interviews, and other bits of movie-related gossip have made it clear that Jackson is drawing not only from the text of The Hobbit, but also from other material Tolkien worked on throughout his life. As Dr. Corey Olsen, The Tolkien Professor, has explained, the original Hobbit was not integrated into the Lord of the Rings story when it was first published in 1937. The ring Bilbo found wasn’t even The Ring of Power yet; it was just some magic ring of invisibility. But throughout his life, Tolkien rewrote and rewrote all of his stories to make them fit together. He even wrote a new chapter five, “Riddles in the Dark,” to fit his later story (this is the version of the riddle game in all our editions now). That later version made Gollum much more scary and hinted at the Ring’s corrupting powers.

Jackson has a similar situation; he is making his Hobbit after his LOTR, so it will inevitably fit into the kind of world he created in his earlier films.

Therefore, expect to see additional battles between dwarves and goblins (ancestors of Thorin & Co. and the Great Goblin): these are narrated in the appendixes to LOTR.

Expect much more about how clever and intentional Gandalf was in choosing Bilbo; this is found in “The Quest of Erebor” (and there’s lots more about Gandalf’s pre-incarnate back-story in “The Istari”) in Unfinished Tales. Even the trailer includes bits of Gandalf’s justification of his odd choice for a burglar, including “Hobbits can pass unseen by most, which gives us a distinct advantage.”

Expect an entire second “White Council” plot. Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond, Saruman, and others (possibly including Radagast) will meet to discuss their job: to expel the Necromancer from Mirkwood. These meetings and the subsequent battle will probably make up about half of the action of the second movie, alternating with the killing of Smaug. Now, in Tolkien’s Hobbit, this entire drama takes up about half a sentence of retrospective anecdote by Gandalf. But the hints are there, throughout Tolkien’s other works, and you can be Jackson won’t let those slip by.

That, by the way, is how Jackson can get three long movies out of a little children’s book.

4. Leave The Silmarillion at home

Those hints, however, stop there. Jackson does not have the rights to anything found in The Silmarillion. So do not expect an actual discussion of how all of Bilbo’s astonishing good luck was really planned by Eru / Iluvatar (God). Don’t expect much more Elvish history—unless it is also contained in the Unfinished Tales, or hinted at in some of the summary references scattered throughout The Hobbit.

5. Pack The Tolkien Professor’s “Riddles in the Dark” podcast

This is an intelligent, hilarious, comprehensive podcast in which The Tolkien Professor and his co-hosts gather all the hints, gossip, and other juicy bits of movie-related news and speculate about how the movie-makers will translate the book. Dr. Olsen’s knowledge of Tolkien’s works is encyclopedic. Plus there’s a really fun predictions game. Catching up on all the podcast episodes and joining the competition on their facebook page are great ways to be thoroughly prepared on debut night.

6. Leave your spouse at home

If the idea of Sauron showing up at Erebor makes you sick, or if you are wont to writhe and squeal with disgust at goofy hedgehogs where once there were elvish songs, you may want to go by yourself. It might be easier to keep quiet that way.

7. Pack a lunch

It’s going to be long. Nearly three hours long.

Stories That Tell Themselves

I have written in the past—for instance, here, herehere —about theology embodied in a work of art. Embodied Theology occurs when a religiously devout writer, composer, or artist incarnates faith in the very form and fabric of his or her work. Literature, for instance, can be about some doctrine or belief; it can also enact it. The simplest examples are “redemptive” storylines (think Les Mis), or Christ-like protagonists (think Harry Potter). Yet it can be far more subtle than this. Perhaps a Christian interprets the entire concept of narrative—rising action, climax, falling action—as a version of the great Creation-Fall-Redemption story, then writes a fantasy to bring that narrative to life. It could be argued that Tolkien did this in Lord of the Rings. Or, in contrast, perhaps a “tragic sense of life” cuts short that satisfying trajectory, ending a tale in the horror and meaningless of sinful temporality. Flannery O’Connor does this in many of her stories.

Embodied Theology is an implicit, rather than an explicit, expression of belief. It is subtle and integral. It moves deeper than symbolism, allegory, or allusion. It shapes the work along every step from the choice of genre to use of technical elements, not merely in plot or theme. Dante’s cosmic faith came to life in the numerology of  terza rima and in the inhabited spheres of his astronomy. Milton’s guided the character development of his humanized Messiah and his epic structure. C. S. Lewis’s shaped the seven-fold metaphor of his Narnia books.

This concept of embodiment is not limited to a profound expression of theology. Any deeply-held convictions can serve as the mold for art: political, social, ethical, or philosophical. Until recently, however, I did not pause to think about how literary theories could function in this way. I had, of course, thought quite a bit about how the study of literary theory could stifle creativity and spoil the poetic voice. What English major doesn’t worry that analyzing poems will kill them, or that reading Derrida will implant a permanent deconstructionist as internal narrator?

But the academic study of literature will not kill a really robust talent. In fact, truly elastic genius can turn abstraction into story. There are, I discovered, ways of creating Embodied Literary Theory.

I recently read four novels that each brought to life a particular literary theory. They were simultaneously works of literature and works about literature. They transformed my perspective, giving me an optimism about the simultaneous co-habitation of the Ivory Tower and the Attic Studio. These four novels were not of equal value, however, and did not achieve that dual purpose equally well, reminding me yet again that the talent must be robust and flexible to absorb higher learning and still produce compelling fiction.

The first two books are both by Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex (2002) and The Marriage Plot (2011).  Middlesex engages with ideas about the social formation of gender identity, debates about nature vs. nurture, concepts of self-determination, and what is known in the academy as “queer theory.” It puts these ideas, quite literally, into the fictional body of the main character; the protagonist, Cal, is hermaphroditic. Eugenides also plays with a century’s worth of theorizing about narrative, using this to shape the circularity of the persona’s tale. Yet not for one page does Cal seem to be a walking personification: he is a three-dimensional character whose life and storytelling—amoral and disturbing as they are—emerge organically and persuasively from his evolving identity.

 The Marriage Plot  wears its theory on its face. The story is about literary theory: the main female character is an English major, studying the historical development and eventual death of “the marriage plot” in British novels. And the book also does literary theory: at the very end, the pessimism about the death of marriage proves true. The whole novel, in retrospect, appears to have been designed to make one ending, about the endings of novels, possible. Here, the theory is less implicit and more explicit, which makes it (arguably) less persuasive as theory and less successful as literature.

My next example takes a different approach altogether. Rather than driving towards a pre-determined ending, The Handmaid’s Tale by  Margaret Atwood ends in indeterminacy. That move itself is a sweet bit of  poststructuralism. But what happens after the ending is even more interesting. At the risk of “spoiling” one surprise, I will reveal that the epilogue to this terrifying dystopic tale is a mock-scholarly talk at a fictional conference. A scholar gets up to discuss his “discovery” of the “manuscript” of the entire preceding book, turning a chilling novel into a commentary on questions of narrative reliability, interpretive reading, and the very nature of truth. It is a brilliant move.

Finally, let me indulge my admiration for the most admirable work of Embodied Literary Theory I have ever encountered. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the most skillful example of this type of writing to date. It is Possession by A. S. Byatt. From beginning to end, through each twist of this nerd’s mystery adventure, Byatt packs in the academic content. I could detect traces of her high school English classes on literary terms, undergrad literature courses on devices and analysis, and rigorous grad school examinations of the novel’s modernist permutations and anxieties of influence. On fire with a passion for beautiful words, conflicted by pedantry, driven by an isolating ambition, eaten up by sexual confusion, compelled towards narrative closure: this describes the characters and the book itself. It is masterful. It is beautiful on many levels, and it shows just how perfectly a writer/professor can unify her two vocations. It is a novel about how stories are told, and it is a novel in which the story is told in just those ways it examines. It is all the more complex because the characters themselves realize that they are in a story with a certain shape, and they accept the narrative inevitability of their final acts—in this tale—with a scholar’s delight in accuracy.

So for those who worry that studying the material you love will strip it of its pleasure, take heart! If it is indeed the field for you—and if you are for it—its pleasures are endless. From the panic of youthful encounters to the intellectual joys of mastery, the material you love will reward you. You can consume it or create it—or both, at once.

On Publication

Just as lawyers are asked legal advice over dinner and doctors are asked to diagnose conditions over cocktails, so writers are regularly asked to give free consultations on How To Get Published. Much more rarely are writers asked How To Write Well. The second is a lifetime’s vocation; the first should be the natural result of that lifetime’s vocation, but is more often seen as a quick route to affirmation, wealth, confidence, and a host of other impossibilities it rarely produces.

Because I have frequently been asked How To Get Published, I have developed some points of advice through teaching classes, browsing books on publication, conversing with other published writers, taking and leading workshops, and engaging in good old trial-and-error.

 1. Read

First of all, read the great classic masterpieces in your chosen genre. If you are a poet, read through the “canon” of great poetry in English starting with Beowulf and working your way through. You can really start almost anywhere except with the 20th century; if you start there, it will take longer to develop a sense of the rhythms of English. Learn from their eyes, ears, and ideas. Learn what works (and what doesn’t), train your ear, gain a knowledge of quality and tradition. If you are a novelist, read the great classic novels of the 19th centuries (not the popular novels of today; they’ll spoil your syntax and sense of narrative subtlety). If you write biography, memoir, or history, read the stock works in these genres from the past few centuries. Don’t read only what’s being written now, because that is often based on fads that will not last.

 2. Study

Next (and at the same time as #1), study the techniques and methods of your chosen genre. Learn all the literary terms that apply. Learn all the forms. Learn about the skills, patterns, and tools used. Take literature classes, read textbooks, browse anthologies, study literary theory, and look through literary dictionaries. You need to develop your “palette.” You need to have all the colors of paint before you can paint a masterpiece; you need to know all the rules of the game before you can be a winning athlete. So, too, you need to know all the nuts and bolts of writing. Increase your vocabulary; learn the history of words; become familiar with the denotations and connotations of words; master the forms of figurative language. This is true whether you’re writing newspaper articles or epics.

3. Practice

Start by imitating the masters. Set yourself exercises in which you take a little bit of their writing (the rhyme scheme, meter, first sentence of each paragraph, plot structure, a character, etc.) and then try to write something like theirs. Set yourself tasks that force you to try out various forms, techniques, and methods. Practice hard, every day, for at least a few years.

4. Repeat steps 1-3 for several years

Seriously. If you are writing just to get published—well, that’s a kind of mental prostitution. Of course, there are many careers in which frequent publication is required—academia, journalism, etc.—but one must be a student before becoming a master. So be in a hurry to write, but not in a hurry to publish.

5. Establish Writing Partnerships

A good writing partner is as hard to find as a good spouse! If you find one, “grapple them to thee with hoops of steel.” Meet and exchange work, critique each other’s work, act like English teachers marking up papers with red ink. Share ideas. It’s great if you can get published writers for critics, too, as long as their work is masterful and not merely popular.

6. Revise

Once you’ve written works of which you’re proud, put them away for a while. Then take them out and rewrite them. Then send them to your writing partners and rewrite them. Take them to workshops and conferences and let a group of strangers rip them apart. Then rewrite them again.

7. Attend Workshops

Find out what other people are writing in your genre. Attend their workshops, talk to them, listen to their writing, listen to lectures on the craft of writing. However, a caveat here: Beware The Workshop Poem. Workshops tend to have a kind of cookie-cutter effect on participants, causing them to churn out sound-alike poems (or stories, or plays, and so forth). Don’t attend the same workshop more than once. Find leaders who vary wildly. And never use workshops as a replacement for studying the classics.

8.       Attend Conferences

Now we’re starting to move towards the actual answer to the publication question, assuming that you have learned how to write really well. Find out what the newest books are in and about your kind of writing, meet or at least listen to the masters, get inspired, compare your work to others, and start to learn who the publishers are in your field. These are good places to meet agents, as well, which will be of great practical help—so I have heard, although I have never used an agent myself.

9.       Submit to Magazines/Journals

Once you know that your writing is skillful, relevant, and polished, you can start sending it out into the world little by little. Start with submitting short pieces (poems, articles, chapters, short stories) to periodicals. Here you’ll need a good resource like Writer’s Market or Poet’s Market. These books list the periodicals that accept submissions of work, and say what genres each likes, whether they’ll take work from beginners, whether you need to write a query letter first, and so on. People at workshops and conferences can direct you to other resources for your genre. You’ll usually need to spend a few years getting little pieces published and getting your name known before submitting a full-length work for publication. Here you will also need to learn how to write cover letters, format your work for each submission, and generally follow the ettiquette of the World of the Literary Journal.

 10.     Submit to Contests

Contests are a great way to get your work published without having to hire an agent. Just read all the contest guidelines, including deadlines and number of pieces/pages to submit, and voila! Most contests will charge an entrance fee to cover their costs, so try to choose contests that you think you have a chance of winning. Look at the work of past winners, if possible.

 11.     Try a Small Press

Very small, family-run publishing companies are more likely to take work from beginning writers than the big-name presses. This is a good place to send your first full-length MS. However, they often operate through contests, so look there first.

12. Get an Agent

While books of poetry, short story collections, and first novels of a more high-brow sort can often see the light via contests and small presses, you really do need an agent if you want to land a valuable contract or launch a best-seller. I have a poet friend who has an agent to organize everything for him. Twice a year the agent writes and says, “OK, send me X number of new poems” and then the agent does all the work of formatting MSS, choosing the periodicals, writing the cover letters, sending out the work, and keeping track of acceptances and rejections. That leaves you more time for simply writing—if you can afford it. For novels, nonfiction, and most other prose, you just really need an agent. Most publishers simply won’t look at work that doesn’t come from an agent. You can often meet a potential agent at a writer’s conference, or through a writing partner who has been published.

13. Finally, send out a “real” book to a “real” press!

So, years will go by before you send a full-length book to a reputable publishing company. That’s the way it should be. After you’ve spent years writing just for the sake of writing and after you’ve honed and developed your craft, maybe you can send out your masterpiece.

One more piece of advice: don’t self-publish. If you can’t get your book out there any other way, well, stop and consider why it’s getting rejected all the time. Maybe you just haven’t found the right niche; maybe it isn’t as good as you think it is. Stop and compare it to Shakespeare, Hopkins, Dickens. For real. But never, never pay money to get your book published. You may have to pay entrance fees to contests or a percentage of royalties to an agent, but you should never pay for the actual publication of your book. Again, that is a kind of artistic prostitution. If your book really is good and no one appreciates it, write another. The first one will keep.

Tiny Poetic Vessels

“That was epic!”

This is what contemporary teenagers often exclaim after experiencing something impressive, whether the epic in question is a blockbuster film, a huge fantasy novel, a multi-state road trip, or a resounding crash by an accident-prone friend.

From the Greek epic to the haiku, the tragic drama to the sonnet, poetry has spanned the history of literary scope as well as of social and linguistic change: in other words, poems can be big or small. Each size has its attendant values and uses, of course. An Oedipal agony will not fit into a haiku, but neither does Oedipus Rex focus a sharp beam of attention on one exquisite blade of grass.

At the moment, American poetry tends towards the smaller end of the scale. A full-length collection usually runs between 80 and 100 pages, somewhere in the range of 40 to 60 poems. The poems themselves are not expected to run onto a second or third page. We like to be able to take in the shape of a poem at a single glance.

There are, of course, exceptions. Dana Gioia’s brand-new collection Pity the Beautiful includes an extended narrative poem. It’s called “Haunted,” and it runs for an impressive 8 pages. There are a few genres that still require poetic virtuousity over considerable length: opera libretti come to mind.

But in general, Americans are not writing epic poetry. We’re not writing long verse dramas. We’re not writing extended narrative ballads. Our poetry is tiny, isolated, incidental, and frequently insignificant.


Tania Runyan’s A Thousand Vessels manages a large scope within the confines of contemporary minutiae. It is a collection of 46 painful, exquisite, prosy monologues. The book as a whole sweeps across thousands of years of Biblical history, from “Genesis” to “The Empty Tomb.” Her organizational method is also ambitious: in a mildly feminist strain that yet reaffirms many stereotypes, the “Thousand Vessels” are women. This volume gives voices to women from the Biblical narrative: Eve, Sarah, Dinah, Ruth, Esther, Mary, the woman at the well, Martha, Jairus’ daughter, and Mary Magdalene. There are four or five poems for each of these women’s stories, all imagining ways into their lives. Yet the concept is far more nuanced and original than this description suggests. The poems in each section are not predictably and consistently in first or third person, nor even tied to a historical locus. Rather, 11 are in the third person, 32 in first person, and 3 in a second-person direct address. More interestingly still, 27 are set in biblical times (the “right” time period for the characters in question), but a few in each section (19 total) are set in the author’s own time and place.

In other words, we are also numbered in the Thousand Vessels. When Sarah waits at home to see whether Abraham comes home with Isaac—or with Isaac’s body, or ashes—for instance, Runyan herself worries about “Keeping My Daughter” in perhaps the most perfect poem in the collection. She is at her best with the intimate details of mothering—or fathering; when Jairus mourns the death (and struggles through the strange restoration) of his daughter, Runyan pairs his grief and confusion with a poignant three-section poem on “Children of Near-Death.” These children, nearly drowned, electrocuted, or smashed in a bike accident, could be our own kids, ourselves, or ancient children. What’s the difference, anyway?

That seems to be the overwhelming effect of Runyan’s book: to take away the differences between ourselves and Ruth, Boaz, Jairus, Mary Magdalene. This is brilliantly done: prostituted children are identified with the ravished Dinah (“Drift”); two teens in bikinis compete in King Xerxes’ beauty-and-sex contest for virgins (“Beach Walk”); Runyan herself gives birth to the first baby in the world (“The Birth of Cain”).

The sad side of these stories haunts Runyan’s verse. Her twist on the title is metonym for this approach. “A Thousand Vessels” first appears to be a reference to the thousand ships launched by the beauty of Helen of Troy; however, in the “Sunday” section of her poem “Mary at Calvary,” Runyan re-interprets the phrase thus:

God creates women for no reason

but grief. He can’t cry himself

and needs a thousand vessels for his tears.

Helen of Troy herself, then, is a vessel, and joins the historical procession of all the fragile vials for holding tear drops, cups for wrath, vases for grief, down to today when Runyan and I add our crystal agony to the shelf.

This is not a very pretty picture of God: pouring women full of suffering, setting them aside, letting them break. A reader can imagine this deity dropping the spun-glass woman and watching her shatter into agonizing fragments.

Nor does the story have a particularly happy ending: outside the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene “for a moment / held the souls of the nations like a basket of figs.” Which way will the figs go? Will they become nourishment, or fall to the ground in her astonishment, to be trampled underfoot?

The end of A Thousand Vessels leaves the reader with another question, too: What, then, is the scope of these poems? Do they manage to hold a thousand women and many thousand years in their slender lines? The technique argues against a huge compass: Runyan tends towards the easy word choice, the random line break, and the facile simile. The pieces are simple, generally avoiding the kind of double vision that can lend depth to truly great verse. Yet there are also surprising turns in these poems, unexpected endings, and memorable individual lines. Her greatest strength is bringing ancient women to life through a consistently impassive narrative voice, giving stories and characters a different color than they ever had before.

Here is one final example, showing Runyan at her imaginative best. After the expulsion from Eden, Eve watches Adam grow more and more distant:

For a moment I see

his eyes, then they float over my shoulder,

as if another woman stood behind me,

beckoning him toward paradise.

The reader might be that other woman, with a chance at a second Eden; it is more likely that the reader is Eve, watching her husband fade away, entering into the age-old grief of all women at all times, in all places. That may not be “epic,” but it strains the limits of these tiny poetic vessels.

An Entrepreneurial Idea

The arts, I have long believed, are all interconnected, and, in turn, the great web of interdisciplinary arts is inextricably entangled with history, religion, technology, and science.

Another way to put that is to say: Everything relates to everything else.

Another way for me to put it is to tell you a story; and perhaps to inspire you to take an entrepreneurial leap into a previously unexplored business proposition that unites the beauty industry to art, music, coffee, and culture.

Back in February, I was getting a manicure at the local cosmetology academy. I like to keep conversation going with the stylist, and usually start by asking her or (less frequently) him about post-graduation plans. As they all do, this young lady dreams of opening up her own salon.

Now, this particular student manicurist has a bit of a difference in her dream, which is what got my own ever-busy idea-machine cranking. She sports a few tasteful tattoos, a couple more than your grandmother’s piercings. Nothing ostentatious; and that’s kind of her edge: she wants to open a salon that caters to the bodily ornamented as well as the upwardly-mobile corporate femmes anonymized by the requisite platinum blonde hairdo and frenchified fingernails. She doesn’t want to alienate the lady CEOs; just to invite in the artsy, black-laced, torn jeans, purple-headed crowd as well. She has a personal mission to ease acceptance of visible tattoos into the mainstream workplace. And if her own professional-plus-a-touch-of-henna look is any indication, I think she could succeed.

And then I had an Archimedean moment. As happens about, oh, every couple of days, I got a compelling vision of a completed project, standing complex and vibrant in its future existence.

I saw her salon. And it was stylish, let me tell you.

This new salon has two rooms: the kind of long, narrow rooms that occur behind the storefronts of every shop in Manhattan, where we crowd ’em in along the street, then reach way back into the unnamed alleys behind. The two rooms open into one another, sharing the generous sunlight of their double window-fronts. One is the typical hair-cuttery setup: mirrors, chairs, sinks, etc. But the décor side is unique. The mirrors have heavy gold scroll-work for frames. The chairs are fancy faux-Georgian. The walls are dark maroon, with gilt crown molding. The ceiling boasts intricate plaster scroll-work and an impressive Victorian central medallion.

The other room is where this all gets wild. It’s a combination of waiting room, café, art gallery, and music venue. There’s a tiny raised area at the back, set in triangulation to the room, with all the amps and cords and pedals and jacks and sound board just waiting for a band to appear and plug in. And the walls are heavy with art.

Every month, this salon-gallery-hall hosts a “First Friday.” The staff has gathered over the previous few weeks to choose from among the many local artists and musicians who have submitted their work for consideration. The hair stylists and manicurists and the one tattoo artist have joined with the owner and the full-time cultural consultant on staff to discuss, debate over, and vote for their favorite painter or photographer, the best musical acts. Then they brought in the part-timers who help take down last month’s show and hang the new one. The curator of the local art museum volunteers a couple of hours to give her professional opinion. The top band is called. And then the place opens in full swing!

For three or four hours on a Friday evening, then, the cultural elites join the beatniks and punks at what has become the most unlikely hot spot in town: the barbershop. The band plays. It’s a different style of music every First Friday, carefully chosen to complement the visual aesthetic of the new-hung walls. Grungier rock for some black-and-white war photographs. Classical guitar with portraits of deceased politicians. A string quartet with abstract renderings of dancers in flight. An a capella Gospel choir with metal-and-glasswork installations. A dark flock of moaning youth on exotic instruments with haunting close-ups of drug-ravaged celebrities. Travel photography, still lifes, action shots, 2-D sculpture, piano recitals, operatic solos, Broadway renditions, barbershop quartets. Each is tinged with the darker colors of its genre, easing towards the melancholy, the macabre.

The music goes on during the week, too, of course. That’s the whole idea: you look at the art while you wait for your haircut, listen to the music between clacks of the shears, stay and have tea for another song or two, and maybe bring home an original oil painting along with a new look.

And there’s one aesthetic that binds it all together. When I call it “emo” or “goth,” don’t get scared away. Don’t think drugs, knives, and suicide: think Gothic architecture. Think Gothic literature—well, maybe not, since there are plenty of drugs, knives, and suicide there! Stick with the Gothic arches, columns, stained glass, and flying buttresses. To make more sense out of this, come on down another tangent with me.

My local art museum in Allentown, Pennsylvania has a fascinating exhibit at the moment. It’s tiny: just one room. It’s called Gothic to Goth: Embracing the Dark Side. The largest items in the room are Victorian mourning gowns: black, lacy, elaborate dresses worn by young widows. There are paintings, fans, jewelry, gloves. Some are from the middle of the 19th century. Some are brand-new. And I defy you to tell the difference!

It was a pair of gloves that struck me. There, in a glass case, was a pair of gloves I would have sworn were bought last week at Claire’s or Hot Topic. But, nope, there on the tag: they were tatted in the 1840s. As the exhibit’s website explains, in the 1780s, “As literature with macabre gothic overtones gained popularity, emotional expressions of sentimentality, melancholy, and even horror and terror became commonplace” and then “the late nineteenth century became widely known for its prominence of elaborate and ostentatious mourning fashion. Almost a hundred years later, the silhouettes and styles of Victorian mourning wear made a vigorous reappearance with the emergence of the Goth subculture in the late 1970s.” This subculture, it goes on to explain, has now become mainstream—has become, I would argue, beautified again. Beautiful again. Beauty again.

And that’s what binds together the music, art, and fashion in my imaginary salon: the Victorian Gothic. Whether you are a hard-working corporate woman who wears Victoria’s Secret under your business suit, or a tattooed guitar player masquerading as a barista, the Gothic has a kind of beauty to enrich your own. One of the designers from whom the museum borrowed items advertises “Darkly Elegant Designs for Femme Fatales and Decadent Gentlemen.” Another announces “Fine Jewelry Finally Has A Dark Side.” Lace and laces; eyes with long lashes; gloves or garters; button-down blouses; blue notes and sad songs; gilted and guilty; chokers and chocolate; beads and body art; coffee and tea. Come and visit.

Now, let me close off by saying that it turns out I did not invent this idea. Like Chesterton, who independently imagined an entire system of doctrine, then discovered that the Catholic Church had been teaching it for centuries—OK, so not exactly like Chesterton at all, really—I googled “hair salon and art gallery” and found out there are plenty of them. There’s EDO Salon in San Francisco, which “merges fashion, design and art. One part boutique hair salon, one part speakeasy gallery.” There’s Mogi’z in Nashua, New Hampshire, where “hair meets art,” where “hair styling and art found a home together.” There’s EXO Salon in Allen Park, Michigan that “features art work from various local artists as well as pieces of some of the most prominent figures within the art community.” There’s Right Angle in Oakland, California, where “the salon walls become a fabulous stage for displaying the art works of local artists seeking space to show their work.” And

San Francisco's EDO Salon

there’s Zion Hair Salon & Art Gallery in Madison, New Jersey, “combining a hair salon and art gallery.” This one even has a “first Saturday” opening night, “where collectors, friends and family …can come and enjoy an evening out and meet the artist.”

So it’s a new idea, an old idea, a fresh and hot idea. Wouldn’t you love to tie together yet another set of arts—hair, art, music, and coffee? Wouldn’t you love to get a haircut while you’re sitting at a concert? Wouldn’t you like to drink tea and look at paintings while you wait for your wife to get her hair done? Or wouldn’t you like to take this entrepreneurial idea and run with it in your hometown? I hope my young manicurist does it here soon. And I hope you try it out in yours, too. Let me know if you do!


On the Validity of the Vogel Collection

A recent visit to the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) led me to ask several questions– some specific, some general– about little local art museums. I kind of grew up at my little local art-history-science-et cetera museum: the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts—at least, my memories of childhood visits there are extraordinarily vivid and beautiful. Yet the Berkshire Museum was a gallimaufry at best: a mish-mash of dinosaur bone fragments, stuffed owls, plastic figurines depicting the fauna of various climate zones, a few marble sculptures, a handful of paintings, and one mummy. Oh, and the basement level was an aquarium, stocked with marvelous fishes, amphibians, and reptiles. As a little child, I was not the art snob I have, sadly, become, and just adored the place. It was an Aladdin’s cave of wonders. What child doesn’t thrill at the sight of a lion fish, a headless Venus, or the blackened toe of a dead Egyptian sticking from its cerements?

These memories of the Berkshire Museum came back to me as I reflected on my visit to NOMA. Unlike its northern cousin, NOMA does not combine natural history, archeology, and fishes with its art. It contains the cast-offs that the big museums didn’t want: one Picasso, two Rodins, one Boucher, one Andy Warhol sketch, one Calder mobile…. There are a few impressive pieces, such as a series of stunning photographs by Robert Polidori of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, and a glorious Dale Chihuly chandelier. There are whole rooms of anthropological artifacts, and porcelain figurines, and reproductions of period dwelling spaces.

NOMA’s star exhibit is its portion of the Vogel collection. Mr. & Mrs. Herbert & Dorothy Vogel are a working-class couple who decided, upon their marriage in 1962, to collect contemporary art. Little by little, they purchased affordable pieces—mostly drawings—until their collection started to generate attention. Artists helped them out by creating works specifically for the Vogels or by offering them reasonably-priced works. Eventually, their collection grew to the point that they decided to make these works available to the public, divided them up, and donated 50 works each to 50 museums.

Here’s the rub: I do believe the Vogel Collection is a fraud.

Now, now, I know: I am well aware of all the debates about what makes art, “who gets to decide?”, “my-five-year-old-could-paint-that”, and so forth. I know about the Brillo pads. I know about the urinal. I know about 4’33”. I know. I know. I’m hesitant to make my own judgments on such a hot topic, and on such a respected exhibit—but I rebel against calling the NOMA’s pieces “art.” Here are three examples.

a few geometrical lines drawn on paper with colored pencils:

a triangle of steel in the corner of the baseboards:

a series of pieces of notebook paper with a few drops of watercolor paint:

Whatever else it may be, must be, or is, art requires talent, training, and technique. These pieces evidence none of those.

So here is the big question I have about small museums: Are they worth it? They can never compete with the Metropolitan, the Louvre, the Hermitage. And there really aren’t enough Degas to go around—OK, maybe there are almost enough Degas, but not enough Michelangelos or da Vincis, for sure—so wouldn’t it be better for the art to have it all gathered in a few places and there displayed to maximum advantage? Why scrape and scrounge to try to get together enough mediocre works to have a collection in every city?

Well, the answers to those questions are obvious. Not everyone can afford to travel to New York, Paris, or Moscow to see the great collections, and everyone should get a chance to view some art. Traveling shows frequently bring all the works of one master to audiences in their hometowns, or offer a few noteworthy masterpieces to a wider viewing public. And some art is better than no art—isn’t it?

So then, here is my NOMA-specific question: Who got duped? The Vogels? The curatorial staff of NOMA (and 49 other museums)? Critics? Reviewers? Me?

And who was the con? The “artists”? The Vogels? NOMA?

Which leads me back around to where I began. I’m not sure that little museums are any more susceptible to artistic deception than big ones (there have been plenty of scandals about cutting-edge exhibits or works at the big-name places), but perhaps they are a bit more desperate to build their collections, offer more exhibits, and generate more press.

Yet the Vogel collection does have other kinds of value, however, beside that of presenting profound and complex masterpieces. Many of the works are preliminary sketches or studies for other works. Many reflect the personal relationships between the Vogels and their artists—which are as important as financial support. Perhaps what this exhibit communicates is the need for community: the need for artists to get to know their public and each other, and to thrive in a space where there is emotional support.

There is another way to do that, however, besides fooling patrons into buying a smiley-face drawn on a sketchpad: make art for a practical purpose. After viewing the Vogel collection, a bit sick at heart (and stomach), I moseyed upstairs to look at the “Pre-Colombian” section, which displayed works from a wide variety of ancient cultures. There were carved stone screens from Cambodia, Zen sayings in calligraphy, African war masks, South American fertility totems, jade vases from China. I wanted to know if my negative response to the Vogel collection was just a matter of eduction: If I had somebody to teach me about the value of those pieces, would I see them as art? Well, I have very little education in the aesthetics of these ancient cultures, so I thought it would be a fair test to look at these works and see if I could appreciate them. So I stood in front of them, gave each one a fair chunk of time, and opened up my mind.

They were beautiful. The stone temple-screen from the 13th-century Khmer Kingdom, for example, as rough and colorless as concrete, yet revealed true artisanship in its complex curves and elaborate detail. Without having any art education in this time period, culture, or people, I yet saw its beauty. It taught me its own aesthetic.

So that is why I am not convinced by the Vogel collection. I imagine that if someone sat me down and taught me a course on the historical value of those pieces, I could come to appreciate them intellectually. But they are not beautiful, and they could not teach me their own aesthetic, which every work of true art should be able to do to the willing mind and eye.

In the end, then, the little museum’s need to pack its empty rooms with anthropological artifacts—pieces made for worship, ritual, work, love, home, or war—meant that it offered me quite an education in the widest possible range of works. And maybe that’s even more valuable than if I had spent the afternoon gazing at the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Well, I don’t know about that. But for those who can’t make it to Italy, an afternoon at your little local museum might make you angry, and amaze you, and teach you as much as it did me.


The Bard of Our Time?

Well, the reviews are already out there. I didn’t read them before writing this, but perhaps you did. If so, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, The LA Times, Rotten Tomatoes, and whoever else you read about films have already told you that Roland Emmerich‘s Anonymous is little more than a showcase for pretty boys to strut about in gorgeous, historically inauthentic costumes, speaking anachronistic lines and participating in fictional events. There is a good deal of beautiful skin bared, along with some not-so-lovely skin (please, keep your tights on). It is good for a few laughs: the buffoon Will Shakespeare (played by Rafe Spall) has his well-timed (if neither original nor accurate) Oscar acceptance moment, and Mark Rylance as Henry Condell spices up the chorus of Henry V with a little horsey impression. Indeed, I laughed through most of the movie, but for mostly the wrong reasons: I was incredulous, amused, and bemused by its clichés, its psychological implausibility, and its lavish big-budget spectacular emptiness. I laughed, too, as a critic and scholar, at the clumsy cuts and flashbacks (is that golden boy the Earl of Essex now, or the Earl of Oxford then? Is that one Queen Elizabeth’s lover, or son, or . . . ew), at the few nods to research (the alternative titles of Twelfth Night, or, As You Like It — really, that’s about as deep as it gets, so don’t worry if you haven’t quite finished that PhD in Early Modern Studies), and especially at the [not-so-] surprise Oedipal ending.

You see, this movie didn’t make up its mind. It could have been an educational immersion in 16th-century England that plunged its audience into the sights, sounds, and society of Elizabeth’s and James’s reigns. Or it could have been a watertight case for the Earl of Oxford’s authorship, ravishing the minds of its viewers with compelling evidence that he was the man who wrote “Shakespeare.” Or it could have been just a good movie.

But in it, Christopher Marlowe (Trystan Gravelle) dies at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and in the wrong way. The Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) commissions a performance of Richard III (it was Richard II). A Midsummer Night’s Dream is performed before Queen Elizabeth I (played by mother-and-daughter Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson) and court in the 1550s with de Vere as proclaimed author, then performed again in the 1590s as “anonymous”: the Queen remembers it perfectly, while everyone else forgets it entirely. Doublethink? Or blooper? Henry V is de Vere’s first play presented under Shakespeare’s name at the Globe, to huge crowds and wild acclaim. Its manuscript is found, at the end of the movie, among the secret plays Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto) is supposed to publish after the Earl’s death. Subtlety, or stupidity? The Earl of Oxford (played by Rhys Ifans and Jamie Campbell Bower) delivers a speech about the material power of literature-as-propaganda that would not have been possible unless he had read Marx. A piece of Mozart is played at his wedding. Ben Johnson, Queen Elizabeth, and Shakespeare himself share a nineteenth-century, Romantic psychology about authorship, artistry, and individuality. The thing is a mess.

And while that Will Shakespeare, in the pastiche world of the film, could not conceivably have written those plays, and that Earl of Oxford probably could, there is no attempt to present a scholarly case for de Vere’s historical authorship. Dozens of books abound, scholarly, popular, objective, and partisan alike, that lay out a persuasive case either against Will of Stratford as author, or for de Vere Earl of Oxford as author. I’m a staunch Stratfordian, and I could probably lay out a better case for Oxford’s authorship than that film did.

I think I will. Here goes.

So, there’s this kid named Will Shakespeare, who is from a working-class family, may have gone to the local school, didn’t go to college, labored as a low-class actor (disreputable trade, that) in London, invested in real estate, dealt in grain and brewing, retired early, and was obviously more interested in money than literature. His wife and daughters were illiterate. He didn’t leave anybody any books or papers in his will. His name is spelt two different ways on the three pages of his will, and it’s known that illiterate people sometimes had their lawyers or other representatives sign their names for them. How could such a person, with no connections at court, little knowledge of classical training, no travels abroad, and a decidedly avaricious turn of mind be the author of the immortal and sublime canon?

On the other hand, there is Edward de Vere. As a nobleman, he would have received the best education of his day. He was raised by the Cecil family: both Cecils, father and son (Robert is played by Edward Hogg, William by David Thewlis) served in turn on Elizabeth’s privy council, essentially running the empire as unofficial equivalents to today’s Prime Minister. De Vere spent a good deal of time at court, traveled to Italy, saw the Commedia dell’arte, spoke several languages, stabbed a man through a tapestry, had three daughters (think Lear’s), lost his beloved first wife Anne (think the love-comedies or the bereaved Macbeth’s sorrowful speech), was known as a successful playwright (of comedies), blah, blah, blah. Oh, he died 12 years too early, but somebody else slowly produced and published his plays posthumously.

The movie touches on some of these themes, mostly visually without comment or discussion, and makes its persuasive case more on painting Shakespeare in a poor light than on investigating documents and conditions. But is that really the point? I don’t think so.

James Shapiro’s recent, brilliant book Contested Will takes a different approach to the authorship question, and one I would like to appropriate here. Although the sections of his book are entitled “Shakespeare,” “Bacon,” “Oxford,” and “Shakespeare,” respectively, he is less interested in presenting and critiquing the case for each man’s authorship than in psychoanalyzing the people who believe so-and-so or so-and-so wrote the plays.

Instead of asking, “Did the Earl of Oxford write the plays?” Shapiro asks why Freud, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and others believed that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays — and why did they believe this then, and there? What were the material, social, and psychological conditions that led them to accept an arguably ridiculous theory?

That is what I want to ask. Why this movie, why this message, here and now?

For the message is a strange one in this world. The message of Anonymous is essentially that a normal guy, an average middle-class fellow, could not achieve greatness. Why this message, now, when the “little guy” (or girl) is occupying the public square, storming the financial district, toppling dictators, and instituting democracy? If the little fellow, or the young person with an ordinary education, can overthrow a government, why can’t he write a few dozen popular plays?

Shapiro, in the end, lays out a very persuasive case for William of Stratford’s authorship, primarily based on the playwright’s intimate knowledge with the acting company (the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men), the theatres (the Theatre, the Rose, the Globe . . . ), and the material conditions of acting in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, especially the new conditions that arose when Shakespeare’s acting company moved to the indoor Blackfriar’s Theatre after Edward de Vere’s death. I am convinced by his scholarly, readable case. I am not convinced by the conspiracy-theory attitude of Anonymous, in which everybody from the Queen herself through her privy council down to Ben Johnson, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, and Thomas Nashe know the royal secrets. The film makes it appear that anybody at all who was paying attention could have figured out that Will didn’t write the plays, Edward did, yet that the thinking and unwashed masses alike have been mysteriously duped ever since. It doesn’t hang together. I suppose it appeals to the kind of mind that wants to believe NASA never put a man on the moon,  JFK was killed by the U.S. Government, 9-11 was an inside job, and the like.

Sure, there were personal and practical considerations in making this movie, such as Roland Emmerich’s private interest in the story and the need to wait until Shakespeare in Love fervor died down so patrons would flock to the box office for another movie “like that.” Well, it isn’t like that. And since Anonymous was pulled from national release and only available in limited theatres, I couldn’t even bring my eager literature students, fresh off of Hamlet, to see it. Instead, I slogged through the slush-puppy misery of an October snowstorm to see it in lower Manhattan.

But my big question still remains: if Romanticism is dead, the Disney gospel indoctrinates children everywhere with the message that “You can do anything you believe you can do,” and democracy is sweeping the globe, why this message that it takes an aristocrat to write truly great plays? There is something more than conspiracy theory at work here, I believe. There is a more subtle kind of elitism that can be revealed by a Structuralist analysis.

You see, the surface message of the movie appears to fit in nicely with a world packed with people’s revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and — in a more limited sense — Wall Street. It seems to speak to the masses’ discontent with “the present administration.” This superficial plotline is based on the obstensible reason for Edward de Vere’s anonymity: the movie reads the plays as covert anti-establishment pieces of propaganda. This accounts for the substitution of Richard III for Richard II; besides being a better-known play, it also presents a clear villain, a hunchback who could represent Robert Cecil and inflame the crowd to support Essex’s (failed) rebellion.

Well, then, you may ask, doesn’t that make perfect sense, here and now? Cecil could stand in for Hosni Mubarak, Moammar Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, or the current American antagonist — who is variously and vaguely defined as a Wall Street CEO, a corrupt bank manager, Congress, the President, or the Apple corporation (as the Occupiers vigorously tweet out their discontents).

But that’s not the real story. The real story is that Edward de Vere has no desire to overthrow the establishment. He only desires to step into a space in the establishment, preferably as king, but as merely the king’s adviser if that’s all he can get. He doesn’t want to change the system. He wants the system to remain exactly as it is, and to fit himself and his friends and relatives into the spaces in the structure. Were I writing in Colonial America in, say 1770, I would shout, “Tory!”

So maybe that is why this movie never made it to the top ten (and the weekend it came out, Puss in Boots was #1). It’s pretty, sure. It’s fun, definitely. But maybe the average movie-goers are smarter than Ronald Emmerich gave them credit for, and maybe they didn’t want to swallow elitism along with anachronism in a soup of weak conspiracy-theory. That is a lot to swallow.


Three Sorrows

Seen from one perspective, the Twentieth Century was not a pretty period: a long chain of wars, recessions, genocides, sex scandals, drugs…. The Twenty-first is not at present looking much better: 9-11, wars, recessions, genocides, sex scandals, drugs; not even much good rock-n-roll. The achievements of the past 111 years pale against the lurid colors of human suffering. Meanwhile, has painting recovered from Pollock, the piano from Cage? What happened to the novel after George Orwell?

Yet perhaps this is looking at not only history, but also beauty upside down. Redemption is not predicated upon righteousness; beauty does not require peace for its propagation. Art leaps savage and swift upon the back of surrender, defeat, surveillance, or digitization: human beings gather symphony orchestras in ghettos, produce Hamlet in prison, “propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache: it is our nature” (C. S. Lewis, “On Learning in War-Time”). Maybe it is panache! – it is still our nature, and sometimes our supernature.

I have recently been pondering three works of art (one novel, one story, one film) that stand golden and glorious in the midst of lurid red horrors. To be more precise, the first describes the lurid red horrors, the second is shot through with golden glory in the midst of the horrors, and the last transforms the horror into glory. Together, they present a microcosmic journey from total despair to redemptive sorrow. Taken together, they show humanity at its worst, in its greatest capacity for suffering, and at its best, and have the capacity to transform individuals who encounter them thus. In each pit of despair, the word and the image speak out beyond and through the pain.

The first is 1984, the justly famous novel by George Orwell (published in 1949), but one of the most hopeless works in the canon. The second is “Name,” a short story by Tony Woodlief, first published in issue 58 of Image journal (2008) and recently reprinted in Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE (2009). The third is Of Gods and Men, a Cannes-winning French film by Xavier Beauvois (2010).

Spoiler alert: each of these three works—exquisitely crafted, musically written, painfully detailed—is an inescapable march towards despair or death. Note, though: despair or death. Perhaps the result of this comparison is a realization that death and despair are not identical, nor inevitably linked.

1984 ends with Winston Smith—the anti-hero, the Everyman, the sympathetic/pathetic [pro?]tagonist—destroyed. He is no longer human in anything but physical form, and even that is broken, twisted, thickened, stiffened, and uglified by torture. 1984 is, essentially, a book of torture. Not a book about torture: a book of torture. Orwell’s narrator claimed that “Nothing in the world was so bad as physical pain. In the face of pain there are no heroes, no heroes, [Winston] thought over and over as he writhed on the floor” (197). Pain deprives this book of a hero. 1984 is also a book of psychological murder and psychological suicide. The mind is obliterated. Only the physical organism, no better than a beast, remains.

Of course, Orwell’s book was a warning, a hyperbolic analogue to the trend of his times, and Winston’s despair is that of humanity writhing under the vitiating cruelty of totalitarianism. Throughout Orwell’s century, many people groups suffered, or even died, under just such regimes. As just one devastating example: in 1975, Pol Pot took over Cambodia and began massacring millions on the killing fields and starving others slowly in forced agrarian communities. Had George Orwell lived to see this, he could have said, “I told you so.”

Yet not all of the Khmer Rouge’s victims were Winston Smiths. Tony Woodlief’s short story, “Name,” while fictional, paints the portrait of a narrator, tortured and murdered by the Khmer Rouge, whom even death could not rob of humanity and of a supernatural glory. Indeed, it is his very suffering that transmutes him into a bearer of something divine.

Woodlief’s narrator speaks in the first person and the present tense, lying on a cold floor under the feet of his torturer, remembering his childhood, his school, the motherly nuns, and his murdered sweetheart. He describes the torments of his fellow prisoners: “Sometimes we die” (390). Some died still guarding a precious secret, such as the name of a loved one they would not betray. This narrator dies a martyr’s death, still guarding his own “secret self”: the name he received at baptism, his identity in Christ: Gabriel.

While Woodlief is, in this story, no political allegorist like Orwell, his work does stand bravely among others in a cultural chasm. It seems our country is rent by partisanship, ideology, and other abstract binaries. In particular, artists whose work resonates with faith find themselves cut off on either side: misunderstood by the faith community, disregarded by the artistic culture. Image journal, issue by issue, stitches up this tear in our social fabric. Woodlief’s story is profoundly Christian without being precious and professionally literate without being elitist. It is, in short, an excellent piece of writing that shies away from neither pain nor faith. The story ends:

God has appointed my death for a beautiful day. I thank him for the silent blue    sky, looking down at what we have become. They kill everything here, but they cannot kill the sky. It will be our witness, and it will mourn us.

With this deep, deep, transforming sorrow, Woodlief’s superb story closes.

This scenario is, in a way, how the film Of Gods and Men begins. It begins in peace, with a blue sky, but also with sudden scenes of killing. Yet as the movie progresses, death is transformed from a horror into a thing of beauty. Not only do these heroic monks retain their humanity until the very end, they also attain something superhuman, something redeemed and redemptive. Facing probable execution by terrorists, they tend their fields, care for the sick, sing Latin chants, drink good wine, listen to Tchaikovsky, and laugh.

Of Gods and Men is such an amazing film that it does even more than bridge the gap between the arts and faith. In the world of this film, that gap never existed. It is a piece straight out of the High Middle Ages, that glorious period of holism when human beings did not have to chop their lives up into bits and toss the pieces into various boxes labeled “religion,” “work,” “politics,” “science.” The heavens whirled in concentric perfection, singing the praises of their creator in an orderly harmony studied by astronomer, musician, and theologian alike. The monks in Of Gods and Men are like that; but they live in the postmodern/posthuman era, and their peaceful coherence is torn apart by the divisions of our brutal, uncivilized time.

The miraculous ending is twofold. First, beauty is not destroyed. They carry beauty in their folded hands up to the muzzle of a gun and beyond. Second, the holism of that pre-modern worldview extends beyond the screen. For although based on a true story, this is a crafted work of art. And in its story, characters, cinematography, acting, directing, all the technical elements of filmmaking, Of Gods and Men maintains unity. Faith and filmmaking are not separate. Beauty does not wait until Democrats and Republicans, Muslim extremists and Christian fanatics, mystics and poets, priests and novelists, pastors and filmmakers, start talking to each other. Beauty does not wait for peace. Beauty makes peace in the midst of war, or makes war itself a painful bearer of beauty in spite of itself.


There and Back Again

We humans make sense of our lives by shaping them into narratives. Childhood is the exposition; romances, tragedies, and accomplishments soar up the slope of conflict to peak at the crisis of marriage, death, divorce, a degree, promotion, or publication. We organize little experiences like short stories: beginning, middle, end. Maybe this is why fiction is addictive: each new beach novel or young adult fantasy offers another compelling visualization of that neat arc. Maybe my life will make sense if it matches the triangulation of a fairy tale, novel, or epic.

More than a fantastical map

I recently spent 3,200 miles on the road: 20 days traveling, 40 hours in a car. While there was no descent into the underworld, nor any large-scale battles, there was a cast of thousands, and I was a tiny voyager in unknown terrain. I re-imagine this pilgrimage as an approximation of an epic journey, especially since it was framed by encounters with life, death, love, and literature. Even a hobbit might accomplish such a jaunt and return home changed. Absurdly enough, J.R.R. Tolkien was so wound up in these events that his narrative colored my own, urging me to subcreate (or sub-subcreate?) my little story in light of his. And I’m not the only one to do that.

It began with a whirlwind trip to New Hampshire (7 hours from my Pennsylvania home) to visit my ailing grandmother. It continued with 18 hours to Chicago, carrying along the sweet sorrow of a final goodbye.

Then the literature begin pouring into the tale, as I spent three days studying the works of Charles Williams at the Wade Center. Surrounded by books by and about Barfield, Chesterton, Lewis, MacDonald, Sayers, Tolkien, and Williams, with maps of Narnia and Middle Earth hanging in the next room beside Lewis’s own wardrobe, it was impossible to avoid delusions of mythical grandeur.

After that, a few more hours on the road brought me to a place of villainous ugliness: Western Michigan University. But there, the collective contents of thousands of scholarly minds (22 pages of names) were spread in a glittering academic jewel-hoard known as the 46th International Congress on Medieval Studies. Panels and papers abounded on Anglo-Saxons, Aquinas, archaeology, Augustine, ballads, Bede, Beowulf, Bibles, Boethius, Byzantium, Castillians, castles, Chaucer, Cistercians, chroniclers, crusaders, Franciscans, Franks, freaks, gender & jouissance, Malory, manuscripts, marriage, martyrs, miracles, monasticism, mosaics, movies, plagues, poems, priests, prose, revisions, romances, sagas, songs, spirituality, stories, syllabi, symbols, teaching, texts, translations, Tuscany, video games, visions, voyages — and J.R.R. Tolkien. At any given moment throughout the four-day conference, there was a panel sponsored by the “Tolkien at Kalamazoo” society.

"The Legendarium"

This is where the narrative-framing became, perhaps, a little bizarre. Tolkien scholars call Tolkien’s work “The Legendarium” (the exact provenance of this term is under dispute) and — this is the astonishing bit — scholars talk as if the texts of the Legendarium comprise the surviving documentary evidence of an actual, historical culture. Honestly. They write and speak with all seriousness about the stories as if they are chronicles of historical events; about the maps as if they plot a real topography; about the languages as if they have real grammatical rules, morphologies and etymologies — which, to be fair, they do.

You can see why I laughed at first. I mean, come on guys (and gals): it’s fiction! Of course, none of these scholars believe that they are studying the documents of an actual society. But I still thought: Get over it. Grow up. There’s real history to study, real languages that need translating, and you’re arguing about the etymology of Tinfang Warble?

Then I underwent an about-face. Instead of gently mocking these ardent scholars, I began admiring Tolkien for the profundity of his achievement. How magnificent that one man’s imagination could produce a made-up culture consistent, coherent, and comprehensive enough to stand up to such scrutiny! How beautiful that he could shape not only the products of his own imagination, but also the collective fantasies and fears of a generation, into a lasting narrative that continues to form and fulfill the literary longings of generations to come! “ . . . What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! . . . in apprehension how like a god! . . . ”

See, it’s a more official way of making our lives fit into stories. These scholars are part of a larger subculture of people who study literary fiction as if it has some kind of ontological reality. All literary scholars are doing that, simply by dedicating their lives to books. They structure their lives around books. They subject the language of fiction to close scrutiny, honing its meaning into clarity and relevance, or causing it to fall open and create a space for more discussion, more argument, and more meanings. They read poems in historical context as if the events surrounding the author’s life wrote the poem, then turn and read history as if it was written by the literature of its time. Historians go further and write history books as if they are narratives: this caused that, which caused that, which led to this crisis, which finally wrapped up in this resolution.

This obviously causes problems: Whose history? Who gets left out? Who decides what is crisis and which is resolution? Each historical narrative privileges somebody’s (or some ethnicity’s, or some nationality’s) story over someone else’s; one person’s tragedy is someone else’s victory. And this is true to some extent in individual lives: My acceptance letter may be someone else’s rejection slip. At the very least, I can’t know what the high point of my life was until I’m dead — and will we re-write our earthly tales in the afterlife?

Yet it’s necessary and healthy to plot episodes in our personal stories so they make some kind of bearable sense. After 12 days and 2,484 miles, I returned home, but the circle was not complete. Two days later, I got the dreaded call that my grandmother had died. Her 89-year-long story had ended, at least this side of the grave. What story she tells and is told now is beyond my ken. I drove a much more somber 7 hours up and 7 hours back, those hours framing the pain and muted pleasure of family reunited at her funeral. Her story was happy enough and long enough for most mortals, but nobody likes endings. We love sequels, and books in series. We weep as the closing credits roll, or turn the page to look for an epilogue. My grandmother’s epilogue — or whole new story — is written in a language I cannot read, for now. It may follow a narrative arc I have never imagined.

Like Samwise Gamgee, I return to home and garden, to continue to retell my adventures, tragedies, and victories according to shapes given me by fiction. The human story goes on, and my grandmother’s in mine, and mine in others’, and all of ours in the great narrative of history that will at last reveal its ultimate plot-arch only at the end of time. Meanwhile, we tell stories and sing songs to make sense of our lives, shaping little journeys into “there and back again.”

A Story for Our Times

When I could think at all, dredging the dregs of my brain from a deluge of tears, gasps, nausea, and hallelujahs, my eyes spinning in sensory overload, my ears pounding to Wagnerian chords, my heart throbbing with pain or celebration—when I could think at all, I say, while plunged in the floodtide of Harry Potter’s final horror and glory, all I could mentally mutter was, “How am I ever going to review this? It’s perfect!” And it very nearly is—except for a serious shift from Christian significance to pagan religion. But certainly feels perfect while it’s playing.

Last year, I wrote in a review of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that there are several ways of critiquing a movie adaptation of a book. First, the film can be assessed simply as a movie without reference to the book. Second, it can be judged on its success in translating the plot, characters, dialogue, and description from the page to the screen. Third, it can be evaluated as an expression of the original author’s worldview. Finally, it can be such an overwhelmingly powerful experience, sweeping up emotions and senses in its tidal wave of sights and sounds, that it well-nigh defies critique of any kind.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II is just such a deafening, dazzling maelstrom and thunderstorm of power and scope. It is magnificent. It inspires terror, love, grief, and sheer seat-gripping adrenaline rushes galore. With a powerful musical score by Alexandre Desplat and brilliant cinematography by Eduardo Serra, this film (especially as I saw it, in headache-inducing IMAX 3D) washes over its viewers in wave after wave of emotion and sensation. This eighth film is more than a fitting ending for the epic series: the first seven movies each building, little by little, in scope and impact towards this thundering close.

Harry Potter is the epic of our times. Its affirmation of the intelligence of children, the necessity of parental care, the priceless value of loyalty, the depths of sacrificial friendship, the rewards of courage, and the redeeming power of love are all timely, timeless, and essential. While the individual movies in the series varied in their precise adaptations of the books and in their cinematic qualities, they translated J. K. Rowling’s underlying concepts reasonably well. And while the previous installments, especially the first two, could be critiqued for some poor filming and acting, the visual effects and dramatic pacing of number eight put it nearly beyond critique a work of cinematographic art.

There are, of course, changes from the books that may annoy textual sticklers. Some changes are for the better. [Spoiler alert!] Snape’s horrific death (sickening on screen) includes some imaginative changes: he gives Harry his tears, rather than the usual silvery-white thought-threads, to watch in the Pensieve, embodying regret, remorse, and love in his final act. He is also given a revelatory final line, the quintessence of his sorrow and fidelity, that humanizes him more than the book did.

In another surprising twist, Harry destroys and discards the Elder Wand without repairing his own holly-and-phoenix-feather wand, as if following Prospero in a recantation of all magic:

…But this rough magic
I here abjure…
…I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
… Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own…
(lines from The Tempest by Shakespeare)

Indeed, no one is seen doing any more magic-with-wands for the rest of the film, and the adult Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and even Draco resemble well-dressed middle-class Muggles. Like the ending of one of its great predecessors, The Lord of the Rings, this series ends not with the establishment of some grand new order, but with the restoration of ordinary, affectionate domesticity.

And yet, also like Tolkien’s work, the film brought out an aspect of the ending more like Frodo’s than like Samwise Gamgee’s. Sam was able to get married, have children, plant gardens, and thrive in his happy little Shire. Frodo, however, could not live a normal life after the deep scarring of his sacrifices and failures. He finally had to take ship from the Grey Havens to the lands in the West. Similarly, there is no clean sense of triumph at Voldemort’s destruction; rather, Harry and the others wander for a time in a desolate, empty victory. Color does not return to the screen until nineteen years later. Joy is slow in coming back to hearts so wounded.

Not all of the modifications that took place between page and screen, however, added depth and value to this awe-inspiring tale. Indeed, several changes were what can only be called theological in nature, with consequences far beyond offending a few purists. They shift the significance of the film from a healthy morality of sacrifice, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption to an anemic, bloodless theory of groundless self-confidence.

All of these errors occurred in the very end of the film: in the “King’s Cross” scene and the final confrontation. The public nature of the victory was stripped away: Harry conquered Voldemort in private, just the two of them face-to-face without the crowds. This is a crying shame, for all of those who fought for Harry and for righteousness thus lost the chance to hear the declaration of Snape’s innocence, the justification of the fighting, and the reason Fred, Remus, Tonks, and so many others died. This is also a misreading of artistic trajectories: it places Harry and Voldemort firmly back in nineteenth-century roles of solitary hero and individualistic villain, rather than in the more communal, public, collaborative, crowded arts scene of the twenty-first century. It’s a pity, because Rowling wrote a story for our times. Her Harry grew up at the exact rate of his readers, aging one year in each book at the same pace as their publication. His friendships, loves, and losses were those of his fans, projected onto a grand scale. By making the final battle private, the movie made the mistake of turning Harry into just another superhuman hero from a past era, disconnected from his Millenial devotees.

Even worse: all of Dumbledore’s lines about Harry’s blood were removed, as was Harry’s explanation that his own vicarious sacrifice protected his friends from Voldemort’s curses. Harry did not give Voldemort any chance to repent, nor were the Malfoys restored, changing a justly deserved punishment into shallow revenge and removing grace, forgiveness, and restoration from the story. Pushing the revenge theme further, the movie did not show Voldemort’s last killing curse rebounding, nor was it clear what spell Harry was using (it was merely Expelliarmus, the disarming spell, in the book)—so it was not clear whether or not Harry killed Voldemort. It is of the utmost importance, in the text, that he did not. This is what sets Harry apart. This is what defeats his disguises: the fact that he will not kill. He will fight, he will disarm, he will show as much bravery as any warrior, but he will not kill. He will not even kill Voldemort. He will not even defend himself if that means someone else’s death, but will submit to death rather than stoop to killing someone else. And yet, in the film, all appearances suggest that Harry killed Lord Voldemort at last. The movie’s message, then, is clear, and clearly changed: Fight to kill, if you fight for the right.

Most troubling of all was an added line in the King’s Cross scene: indeed, merely an added word. In lines superimposed in the screenplay, Dumbledore tells Harry that “help will be given to those who deserve it.” Deserve it. That simple word “deserve” is worlds away from the morality and—what to call it?—philosophy of Rowling’s books.

To understand the tremendous significance of this single word, I would like to call Søren Kierkegaard to the stand. Well, since Kierkegaard is dead, and his writings are notoriously difficult to understand, I will call in a scholar to boil down the essential concept. Stephen M. Dunning, in The Crisis and the Quest: A Kierkegaardian Reading of Charles Williams (Paternoster Press, 2000), explains that Kierkegaard grouped all religions into two categories: Religion A and Religion B. Religion A is “the religion of divine immanence” (Dunning xiii) or the belief that God resides inside every human being. Religion A has a positive view of human nature and asserts that every person is essentially good, can act with divine righteousness, and can earn heaven. Kierkegaard sums this up by calling it, simply, “paganism.” I call it “the Disney gospel.” It enjoins its adherents to believe in themselves, to follow their instincts, and to claim the happiness they deserve. Religion B, on the other hand, takes a negative view of human nature, postulating the need for a divine action from outside the human individual before the person can be made good or useful at all. It claims that God is totally separate from and other than human beings, that people are naturally in a sinful state, and that only an act of grace from outside can transform people in creatures capable of goodness. This he calls just “Christianity.” I call it common sense.

With that one added line of Dumbledore’s, then, telling Harry he “deserves” help, the makers of the film shifted this epic from a Religion B morality tale about grace, forgiveness, and divine intervention to a Religion A story, an Ayn Rand tale of a self-made hero hewn from the infallible assertion that he is “special.”

Here, again, the movie makers turned their back on history and current events. Because the main problem with Religion A is that it just hasn’t worked. Two World Wars, a Cold War, countless other international conflicts, a War on Terror, two economic depressions, atrocities on every hand, American education is sliding along the dumbing-down scale into the murk of elementary feel-good mediocrity, rampant materialism and selfishness and stupidity… Religion A obviously is not a reliable description of reality. People aren’t little gods walking around doing good. They’re making hash of the planet and of themselves. So, sorry, Harry, you don’t “deserve” help—but help will be given you all the same. That’s the Deus ex machina with which every decent epic ends.

And that reminds me of another important factor in evaluating film adaptations of books. A valid question, to a textual fanatic like myself, would be: “But is it fair to compare every change to the books? After all, if there were no Harry Potter books, you wouldn’t be able to criticize the movie for changing the text. You would have to take it for its own face value.”

That is partly true. If there were no urtext, no literary primary source to which to compare the films, perhaps these flaws would go unnoticed, or would no longer be flaws. But on the other hand, there is no such thing as a work of art created in a vacuum. There are always all the other works that have preceded it and with which it is in dialogue. In this case, these include The Aeneid, The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and, well: “…the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Lev. 17:11); “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13); and “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (I Pet 3:18). Those are the true subtexts to Rowling’s books, and it’s an eternal shame that the movie tried to erase them. In the end, however, it could not. For Harry did lay down his life for his friends. And that truth is there for viewers to discover—even if they don’t “deserve” it.

Where Are We Now?

The image to the left it Caspar David Friedrich’s painting “The Wanderer Above the Mists”: that quintessentially Romantic image. In it, the solitary, heroic individual stands with his back to civilization, facing the Nature’s sublime and formless power. The color palate is earthy, mysterious, suggestive, and primitive. Vast distances stretch to the vanishing point directly behind the central human figure. This is the icon of the nineteenth-century Artist: the lonely Genius standing by himself before the infinite canvas of Nature’s might, untouched by squalid crowds, and bending Chaos to the shape of his Will.

Now, in your mind’s eye, change the picture. The man turns around, smiles, and beckons you forward with one hand, while his other gestures towards the scene, offering it for your interpretation. In place of jagged mountains, the skyscrapers of a cosmopolitan city rise through smog. Instead of swirling mists, the distances are crowded with working-class people, all cheerfully clamoring together as they pick up rocks, flowers, and rubbish for communal examination. Every ethnicity is represented in the throng, both genders, and all sorts of lifestyles.

This is the twenty-first-century arts scene: friendly, open, and diverse. The image of the Starving Artist in the garret has been supplanted by the Savvy Artist-Administrator in the office, on the stage, and on the iPhone.

A year ago, I began asking “Where are we now?” I was teaching at a homeschool program where each academic year corresponded to one historical time period. I had already taught literature and music from Medieval through Modern: the upcoming year would be “Postmodern” (1960-present). I realized that, while I had some idea of the prevailing ideas, themes, and techniques of the past (in Europe and North America), I could not characterize my own era with confidence.

So I set out to take the pulse of the moment. To do this, I began interview people in the arts.

For a year, I have posted these interviews on my blog. I have talked to poets, novelists, musicians, composers, actors, theatre directors, graphic designers, photographers, college arts students, arts educators, movie reviewers, a film art director, a sculptor, an editor, a publisher, an arts journalist, an arts theologian, and a former NEA chairman. I met them in New York City, Philly, the Berkshires, and my own Lehigh Valley; I talked to them on the phone; I interviewed them via email. I asked them the same questions over and over:

“What topics tend to recur in your work?”

“What specific techniques do you use?”

“What theories inform your work?”

“Do you think these are typical of those working in your genre?”

“Do you belong to any particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’?”

“Who are your favorite writers, composers, filmmakers?”

“How is the ‘sacred’ faring in contemporary North American arts?”

“How are the arts reacting to postmodernism, posthumanism, and globalization?”

“How do you think we got to the phase where we are now?”

“Where are we going?”

—and anything else that came up in conversation. We talked about the internet, Sherlock Holmes, mystical minimalism, Shakespeare’s view of time, recycling, the Parable of the Lost Chicken, adults with disabilities, Miley Cyrus, nude paintings, Pop Surrealism, quantum physics, Photoshop, Romeo & Juliet’s robot, dirty dancing, virginity, an inaudible instrument, missionary work, Greek and Buddhist chant, 3-D movies, El Sistema, vampires, and opera libretti. Mostly we talked about each individual artist’s work, which was exactly what I wanted. I wanted to build up a picture of the current arts scene in North America by a series of snapshots.

Now I have a composite portrait, made up of glimpses into fifty-some-odd artistic lives, and what does that palimpsest reveal?

It reveals the death of Romanticism. Of course, we already knew that Romanticism is dead everywhere except, well, except for film scores, individualism, environmentalism, landscape painting, figurative sculpture, our idolatry of sexual romance… But we may have overlooked the fact that the Artist of the nineteenth century no longer works in the twenty-first.

The Solitary Genius has been replaced by the high-energy young artsy person who understands money, management, public relations, and education as well as she understands her craft. She believes art is an industry, not a monastery. This person, latte in one hand, SmartPhone in the other, opens up to the audience, inviting viewers to share in the creative process from idea through execution to interpretation. This suit-clad hard-working urbanite has one goal: engage the audience. It’s about collaboration, entertainment, openness, and diversity. It’s about real people, not inspired supermen. It’s about making connections across the arts.

A theatre company performs free Shakespeare plays in public. A pop singer stands around for hours, meeting her fans. An actor performs his life story, then holds a Q-&-A for audience members to drink beer and ask him about his religious journey. A symphony orchestra director and her visual artist husband recreate a Medieval altarpiece in conjunction with a musical performance. A violinist performs Pachelbel while a dancer dances and a painter paints—in church, during the worship service. A symphony orchestra invites college kids to sit amongst the musicians during a rehearsal. A theatre director invents a new genre of textual performance. A poet and a fiber artist collaborate on a chapbook, then the poet and a dancer perform a commentary on the Iraq war. An actress jumps into a freezing pond so a photographer can create composite images for a new style of graphic novel. A Broadway show tweets out to half a million followers. A painter sets up his easel in a Philadelphia park and talks to passers-by as he paints the Crucifixion.

Why? Why should artists care about reaching out to their audiences? Why should they take the time away from honing their peculiar craft?

Well, for one thing, because everybody’s broke, and nobody’s coming to the old-fashioned shows anymore. Every artist and arts organization continues to deal with the aging of its original, subscribing audience. Every artist and arts organization has to deal with technology. Audiences are asking: “Why should I pay all that money and go out in the cold when I can sit at home and watch it on YouTube?”

And for another, artists have to figure out what to do in a strange new environment of vapid freedom. As has happened over and over in the history of the arts, the old revolution became the new tyranny, then the new tyranny was overthrown, and the current rebels and their children stand in the colorless streets asking, “What do we do now?”

The revolution in poetry was the invention of free verse, around about the nineteen ’teens and ’20s. This led to a second wave of confessional verse. By the ’80s, the only way to be radical was to write formal poetry, and a poetry war began. All of the poets I interviewed pick and choose from the gamut of free and formal techniques without inhibition. Some of them have learned that the only way forward is back.

The big revolution in music was the invention of the 12-tone row, or dodecaphonic music, around about the 1940s. By the ’60s, this was the new establishment. Any composer who wanted to be taken seriously had to write 12-tone, or at least atonal, music. Minimalism was a re-reaction, but has become another familiar member of the ruling regime. Many of the composers I interviewed are trying to find a newly tonal voice of either simplicity or expansion.

The revolutions in the visual arts in the 20th century included cubism, photorealism, minimalism, pop surrealism, and street art. Some of these movements became so experimental that they threw the very nature of art into question. Some artists have reacted by retrograde motion. One painter I interviewed has returned to the meticulous, demanding, and dangerous techniques of Baroque glazing to create masterpieces on a scale and with an emotional impact like those of Velasquez, Goya, Caravaggio, and Vermeer. A sculptor I interviewed uses the 5000-year-old method of bronze casting, completing every stage of the work himself from the initial sculpture through making the molds, pouring the metal in his own foundry, and putting the patinas on the final sculpture.

So the old rebellion has become the new tradition, and the new rebellion is turning back to even older traditions. At this moment of transition, there is an openness to new ideas, new voices, new methods, and newcomers. The positive side of such openness is the rich variety it makes possible. The negative side is the proliferation of, quite simply, bad art. Also, art about badness. Lewd content is old hat. Moral certainty is rated as propaganda or, worse, hate speech. Nobody wants to admit to communicating a message through art.

And, unsurprisingly, hardly anybody wants to talk about theories, put themselves in categories, or offer a label for our times. One composer might consider herself a “Maximalist.” One poet might fit the term “Expansive Poetry.” One theatre director has developed “Panoramic Theatre.” One graphic designer advocates stewardship of the “Creative Economy.” There is a movement towards more Storytelling in literature, film, and radio. Form and Narrative are alive and well. While I am not prepared to label my era yet, either, all of these words suggest something large, welcoming, vital, and comprehensive.

Yet, oddly enough, while there are individual arts and artists worth getting excited over, American poetry is pretty boring right now, publishers are wondering if the Book is going extinct, the visual arts are a gallimaufry, and music is just struggling to pay the bills. Artists are searching for a sense of order in the universe. Contemporary art is trying to make meaning from disparate pieces rather than from a holistic cosmology or a rationalist epistemology. There is nothing to hold on to as towers fall, economies crash, and truth is always just out of reach.

Artists long to offer something for the sustenance of the inner life. They look to the past to find what the present is missing. They value mystery and intimation over virtuosity. The source of their inspiration is in their embodiment. Some of them are recovering their lost role as public voices: heralds of ceremony, satirists of government, and meaning-makers after tragedy. Beneath the varied techniques, artists offer what human beings have always needed: horror and hope, fear and faith, grief and glory. Dana Gioia told me, “I want my poems to have clear surfaces and troubling depths.” The art of the moment that has troubling surfaces and no depth will not last, no matter how accessible, engaging, entertaining, or inclusive. Works that are profound and well-crafted will last, as they have always done.

Art in the White House

Do you read music? Of course you do; everyone does. Every time you listen to a piece of music, you are reading it. More accurately: you are reading into it, because there is no absolute music. If such music existed, it would be composed of sounds out of context, freed from associations with words, history, politics, or meanings. But music is always heard in context: listeners bring to it previous encounters, sensory memories, knowledge of its history or composer’s biography, and the weather, architecture, or society of the moment. No matter how abstract the composition—how divorced from text or images—there is never a moment when music is not interpreted. There are no purely musical pitches; all are flavored and scented with their passage through time and atmosphere. Nothing precedes interpretation.

If this is true, how much more so when the music is played in a political context (witness the recent Lang Lang debacle). Bach’s Mass in B minor, BWV 232, can serve as a little historical case study. This great composition (“great” is a reading; it was not always so valued) has an interesting history of tangled religion, economics, and politics. Bach wrote the “Kyrie” and “Gloria” in 1733 as a job application. He wanted to become court composer to Elector Friedrich August II—and sent religious piece (Sadie 799, Stolba 310). The letter accompanying these pieces is exquisite flattery:

To Your Royal Highness I submit in deepest devotion the present slight labor of that knowledge which I have achieved in musique, with the most wholly submissive prayer that Your Highness will look upon it with Most Gracious Eyes, according to Your Highness’s World-Famous Clemency and not according to the poor composition; and thus deign to take me under Your Most Mighty Protection. (Bach 128)

Apparently the Elector read this document favorably, because Bach got the job in 1736 and wrote some of his most dramatic work for this royal boss (Sadie 799). But Friedrich took him literally about the “poor composition.” This piece, along with almost everything else Bach wrote, was but little esteemed during his lifetime: “until about 1800 there was, in fact, almost nothing of the whole of Bach’s output in print” (Blume 30).

Why was Bach’s music, later to be ranked among the greatest in the “Western” world, relatively overlooked in his  own time? According to one interpretation, because of politics: “the powerful rise of national consciousness in the period of the Napoleonic Wars … taught [German people] to see in Bach the prototype of the German spirit in music” (Blume 37). In 1802, one Johann Nikolas Forkel wrote The Life, Art and Works of J. S. Bach. For patriotic admirers of genuine musical art. As if the title is not patriotic enough, he wrote: “Be proud of him, German fatherland… His works are an invaluable national patrimony with which no other nation has anything to be compared” (qtd. in Blume 38). Nationalism revived interest in the music of Bach; religion preserved it.

One religious denomination was almost single-handedly responsible for promoting Bach’s work in the “New World”: the Moravians. They took this quintessentially German work and translated it into an essential item in the American canon. In 1900, the Bethlehem Bach Choir of Pennsylvania gave the American premiere of the Mass in B Minor; eighteen years later, during their annual Bach festival, they also performed the Star Spangled Banner: “Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and other national figures” attended the concert (Bach.org). In 1925, “the Choir [was] chosen, as the most representative of America’s musical organizations, to perform The Mass in B Minor in an Easter Concert …in the new Washington, D.C. Auditorium. The Choir [was] invited aboard the Presidential yacht and to the White House to be greeted by President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge. The Choir [was] photographed in front of the White House” (Bach.org). And thus, by a series of beautiful mis- and re-interpretations, the German Bach ends up in the White House as a representation of American art.

There are many ways American presidents and first ladies, like the Roosevelts and Coolidges, have patronized the arts. Some of these are unofficial, but public: attending performances, visiting galleries, screening films before release, reading and talking about recent books, hosting arts-celebrities at social events. Some of these are official: purchasing and commissioning works, presenting awards, funding and conferring grants, underwriting public radio and television (at least for now). The White House itself, “the nation’s oldest important showcase for the performing arts” (Kirk xiv), is a museum and concert hall.

How do we read this? When a piece of music is commissioned by a Republican President, is it a Republican piece? When a sculpture is purchased by a Democratic Congress, does it become a Democratic sculpture? When a painting is hung in the White House, is it propaganda? If it stays in the White House when the administration changes, does it switch parties? Does art comment on policies, laws, and wars, or does art inhabit a politics-free zone? The answer to all of these questions is Yes. Art in a political context is open to political interpretation: but politics (and politicians) are also open to artistic interpretations. Instead of reading the White House’s arts (visual and auditory) as political documents, why not read the sum total of an administration’s artistic acts as yet another work of art?

It is easy to read the chronological collection of paintings in the White House politically: mostly landscapes and portraits, they are poster-children–or just posters?–for America’s beauty, size, diversity, and proverbial individualism (Kloss 14). For a long time, the quality of the paintings was of no concern; what mattered was that they presented idealized images of heroic presidents and vast panoramas. During the Kennedy administration, the collection came under professional supervision (Kloss 44, 46), but to this day “the collection remains unified by …art—as historical document, as decoration, and as vehicle for celebrating American values and achievements”; it is “documentation rather than art” (Kloss 23, 32).

But let’s turn that reading on its head. Instead of lamenting or criticizing the White House collection because it contains mediocrities, copies, and pastiches, why not imagine that the whole history of hanging art on its walls is a story—a well-planned narrative peopled by characters participating in an exciting aesthetic plot? They shape a nation; they act and write its legends; they picture it vividly; they appropriate the national composers of former enemies.

The current chapter of art-in-politics-as-art is no less interesting than previous ones. The present administration in Washington is well aware of the power of the arts. During his campaign, Obama’s image was broadcast on the iconic “HOPE” poster by notorious street artist Shepard Fairey. Capitalizing on the social energy of image, word, and music, the Obama White House has sponsored a remarkable variety of events, pre-packaged in speeches by the President and the First Lady. Interpreting their interpretation is an exciting exercise.

In their first year-and-a-half in the White House, Mr. and Mrs. Obama hosted a “White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word,” a dance event, a Jazz studio, an evening of Broadway music, an evening of country music, a “Fiesta Latina,” a “White House Evening of Classical Music,” and “A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement.” Each event began with the President or the First Lady saying something like: “Today’s event exemplifies what I think the White House, the People’s House, should be about.  This is a place to honor America’s past, celebrate its present and create its future.” Then would follow comments about how the art form in question was uniquely American—country music because it tells “stories that are quintessentially American,” jazz as “America’s indigenous art form,” Broadway as the favorite tunes of New York City, and Bach?

At the White House Evening of Classical Music on November 4th, 2009, concert pianist Awadagin Pratt performed “his own offbeat arrangement” of Bach’s organ Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582 (Washington Post). How is Bach American? Perhaps because Pratt is African-American? Because Americans appreciate high culture, and Bach is sophisticated? Because Americans are omnivorous, and Bach is just another yummy dish? Or just because Pratt ended the piece by tagging on a little “Hail to the Chief”? (How dare he mess with the sacred works of saint Johann?!) One way to read this is that our administration doesn’t even know good music when they [don’t] hear it. The Washington Post thinks “The day’s message was, ‘Look, classical music can be fun,’ even though this message is also a tacit admission of the widespread assumption that it isn’t” (Midgette). Really? Are any of those the message?

A little music history provides another reading: a “Passacaglia” is “a continuous variation form” (Randel 611). Pratt was following in the tradition; he was improvising variations on Bach’s material. Bach himself was not above a little—or a lot—of brown-nosing. His Musical Offering “based on a theme given to Bach in 1747 for improvisation by that accomplished musical amateur, Fredrick the Great of Prussia” (Lipman 220). The King wrote the (boring) theme, and Bach wrote variations on it to toady to the king. Now the pianist Pratt gets invited to play at the White House and throws in his own little bit of butter-up-the-President. And the President throws in jazz, country, and Broadway to butter up the people. Or to be one of the people. Or to bring the people in. Or to condescend to the people. It’s impossible to say which, because it’s interpretation all the way down. But when this administration leaves office, its collective artistic statements will remain: a creative act of its own for future interpretation.

Bach, J. S. “Bach Asks Frederick Augustus II for a Court Title.” Dresden, July 27, 1733. In David, Hans T. and Arthur Mendel, eds. The Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents. Revised edition. NY: W. W. Norton, 1966. Print.
Blume, Freidrich. Two Centuries of Bach: An Account of Changing Tastes. Trans. Stanley Godman. London: Oxford UP, 1950. Originally published in 1947 by Bärenreiter-Verlag, Kassel, as Johann Sebastian Bach im Wandel der Geschichte.
Hitchcock, H. Wiley. Music in the United States: A Historical Introduction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1989. Print.
Howard, John Tasker. Our American Music: A Comprehensive History from 1620 to the Present. 4th edition. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell Co, 1965. Print.
Kirk, Elise K. Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit. U of IL Press, 1986. Print.
Kloss, William, Doreen Bolger, et al. Art in the White House: A Nation’s Pride. Washington, D. C.: White House Historical Association in cooperation with The National Geographic Society, 1992. Print.
Lipman, Samuel. Arguing for Music, Arguing for Culture: Essays. 1st ed. Boston: D.R. Godine in association with American Council for the Arts, 1990. Print.
Midgette, Anne. “Classical music has its day, albeit a muddled one, at the White House.” The Washington Post Thursday, November 5, 2009. Web. 10 Feb. 2011.
Palisca, Claude V. Baroque Music. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Print.
Randel, Don, ed. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Harvard UP, 1986. Print.
Sadie, Stanley, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. One. London: Macmillan, 1980. Print.
Stolba, K. Marie. The Development of Western Music: A History. 3rd edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998. Print.
Walters, Raymond. The Bethlehem Bach Choir: An Historical and Interpretative Sketch. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1918. Google Books. Web. 10 Feb 2011.
The White House: Office of the Press Secretary. Several press releases about White House events and transcripts of speeches from those events. www.whitehouse.gov. Web. 11 Feb 2011.

The Failure of the Dawn Treader

There are many different ways to analyze a film based on a book. It can be assessed simply as a movie without reference to the book; or on its success in translating all the details of plot, character, dialogue, and description from the page to the screen; or as an expression of the original author’s worldview. Unfortunately, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader fails on all of these grounds.

Lucy and Aslan.

On a purely technical level, Dawn Treader does dazzle. It is a very expensive and beautiful film, packed with lovely visuals. There are many breathtaking sunrises, sunsets, and seascapes. There is a sparkling ocean atmosphere, lit with clear outdoor colors, in many scenes. David Arnold’s musical score is lush and lovely. The ship herself is gorgeous; the people on board are gorgeous. Most of the characters are well cast. Will Poulter is an especially skillful young actor who plays Eustace, before and after his transformation, as a funny, subtle, three-dimensional personality. Ben Barnes as Caspian, however, continues to disappoint; he is too old, too casual, and too dark-haired to represent the youthful Apollonian king of Narnia.

One advantage to making these movies over again now on an enormous budget is the increasing quality of the special effects, especially the CGI. Animals, monsters, and magical effects just get better and better. Eustace-the-dragon is stupendous. It’s no wonder he ends up staying a dragon far longer than he did in the book; who, having designed such a gorgeous, golden, flying, agile, fire-breathing beauty could bear to have him change back to a boy moments later?

Beyond the technical lights-and-magic, however, this movie fails to add anything to the genre. It is derivative and just plain silly. Although it was easy to guess that there would be a new plot line developed to hold the story together—C. S. Lewis’s story is quite episodic—the new storyline is pretty poor. Lewis provided two reasons for this quest: Caspian’s reason for journeying is to recover or avenge the seven Narnian lords his usurping uncle Miraz sent out on wild goose chases. Reepicheep’s motivation is to reach the end of the world and, beyond it, Aslan’s country. The filmmakers, predictably, devise additional motives for the journey: cheap, facile, end-of-the-world scenarios lifted out of half-a-dozen other adventure movies of this decade. Our beautiful Hollywood heroes, in addition to locating lost lords and sailing to the end of the world, have to dispel a creepy green mist that comes up out of the ocean to swallow human sacrifices. In order to do this, they have to follow the Blue Star, find the seven swords that glow a magical blue, and lay the swords on Aslan’s table. Picture to yourself the conference table around which the production team is brainstorming new story ideas:

“OK, guys, we have to come up with a more compelling reason for this journey. Traveling towards Heaven and ultimate bliss just isn’t enough. Any bright ideas?”

“How about dispelling a green mist that makes hissing sounds and transmogrifies into a giant eviscerated cockroach?”

“Sounds good. Let’s do it.”

Joking aside, however, the alterations of Lewis’s original plot are more than just annoying to literary purists. They are certainly that; but they are much more. While artists who make adaptations from one medium to another are perfectly justified in making changes, even enormous changes, to suit their artistic mode, the resulting creation must be a work of art in its own right and must adhere to its medium’s standards of excellence. This film is derivative and unoriginal. Furthermore, when the original work of art was created to communicate a particular worldview, philosophy, or theology, adaptors face an even larger challenge. In the interests of not offending fans, they should not tamper with the subcreator’s theology; in the interests of Truth, they must not. But they did.

C. S. Lewis was an Anglican Christian who spent much of his adult life writing nonfiction books and giving radio talks defending the Christian faith. He also wrote many works of fiction in which he embodied his beliefs in characters, events, and images. The Narnia chronicles are no exception. Indeed, in three of them (The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; and The Last Battle) he retells biblical stories in thin disguises (the creation of the world, Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and the end of the world, respectively). Although the Chronicles are not didactic, they are carefully designed to communicate biblical truths—not to the mind directly, but to the imagination. Since Lewis believed that these truths were absolute, essential, exclusive, and even worth dying for, he would have abhorred any plot alterations that obscured their transmission. Thus, his loyal readers are right to take umbrage at any such impious modifications.

Several such shifts of emphasis twist the message in this movie. If any contemporary readers find Christian proselytizing offensive, they should be even more offended by the pushy preaching of what might be called the Disney gospel (although this film was made by Walden Media). Instead of communicating grace, for instance, the movie repeats mantras about believing in oneself, becoming a hero, and earning the right to enter Aslan’s country. Even Lucy, the quintessential emblem of a believer with the pure faith of a child, laughs mockingly at the mention of Aslan’s country and asks with scorn, “Do you really believe there’s such a place?” Eustace’s transformation into a dragon serves, not as the first step of his long, slow process of sanctification, but as the quick fix that turns him into a fighting hero. This is unrealistic at best and terribly misleading at worst if it leads children into thinking that all they need to do is make a slight mental re-adjustment and then they will be powerful, beautiful, influential people who save the world from disaster. In reality, they would do better to learn the harder lesson of gradual character improvement due to long prayer and study in the school of life, then live out their commitments as quiet saints in their spheres of family, vocation, and ministry.

Furthermore, several changes to the person and work of Aslan are misleading. C. S. Lewis made clear that if ever films were made of his Narnia books, they would have to be very careful how they depicted Aslan, because Aslan represents Jesus. He wrote in a letter to a woman who wanted to make Narnia into a radio and television series: “I am sure you understand that Aslan is a divine figure, and anything remotely approaching the comic (above all anything in the Disney line) would be to me simple blasphemy” (Letters vol. 3, p. 491, 19 June 1954; emphasis mine). In this film, Aslan appears only in dreams and at the end of the world, but never intervenes in the real world of Narnia. This renders religion—and God—far more elusive and intangible than Lewis believed it, or He, is.

In addition, several alterations in the last scene of the film were quite disturbing. First, Lewis describes a sacramental scene in which a white Lamb offers the children a meal of fish roasted over a fire. This is intentionally reminiscent of the Gospel of John, chapter 21, in which the apostles are fishing and see the resurrected Jesus on the shore. “When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it…. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast’” (John 21:9a, 12a). In this passage, Jesus charges His disciples to carry on His work now that He is about to ascend into Heaven. Similarly, Aslan tells Edmund and Lucy that this is their last time in Narnia. The implication is that they must live out their faith back in England. However, the movie leaves out the Lamb and the meal of fish, suggesting that they have engineered their own holiness through military means.

Second, in the book Reepicheep the Mouse, an embodiment of spiritual longing, leaves in his little coracle before the children step out on the beach at the end of the world. He throws away his worldly belongings (his sword) and disappears over the rim of the world—into Aslan’s country, or heaven. In the film, however, he meets Aslan on the beach, talks to Him, and then leaves—paddling away from his beloved and longed-for Aslan! This is completely contrary to the intended message. Reepicheep did not yearn for Aslan’s country for the personal bliss he would find there; he longed to meet Aslan Himself. He would never sail away from Him, for heaven is in His presence, in any country.

In closing the film (and this review), however, one very important moment was kept intact. Aslan’s parting words to Edmund and Lucy, in both the book and the film, are in answer to Lucy’s anguished question: Will she meet Him in England, too? He replies that she will, and that “there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” This is a crucial passage. Lewis expanded its concept in a letter to eleven-year-old Hila Newman, who wrote and asked him what Aslan’s other name was:

As to Aslan’s other name, well I want you to guess. Has there never been anyone in this world who (1.) Arrived at the same time as Father Christmas. (2.) Said he was the son of the Great Emperor. (3.) Gave himself up for someone else’s fault to be jeered at and killed by wicked people. (4.) Came to life again. (5.) Is sometimes spoken of as a Lamb (see the end of the Dawn Treader). Don’t you really know His name in this world. Think it over and let me know your answer! (Letters vol. 3, p. 334, 3 June 1953).

It is clear, then, that the presentation of Aslan’s person and work are central to any production of the Narnia chronicles on stage or screen. And at least this adaptation preserved the essential lines about His name. Perhaps many viewers of the films will be curious, as Hila was, to know more about the person whom Aslan represents. If so, that would be a better Christmastime gift than any mere movie and might make this blockbuster worth more than box office returns.

In Praise of the Book

This is the age of the Shuffle, the Snippet, the Selection, the Single Movement, and the Mashup. I’m not talking about dance styles — which might be exciting! — but about how we nibble at art in tidbits and soundbites. On our iPods, on the radio, and in our in-boxes, works of art are presented in shortened, abridged forms suitable for a bite-sized attention span. Today, iTunes Shuffle has served me single songs and movements from Bach, Byrd, U2, Enya, The Lord of the Rings, Chopin, Mozart, Verdi, “anonymous,” and others in random succession. On NPR last week, I heard a medley of favorite violin concerto tunes mashed together. An e-mail subscription to Davey’s excellent poem-a-day service has sent me, this week alone, short poems by C. S. Lewis, John Donne, Robert Frost, D. H. Lawrence, and Dannie Abse. A gallimaufry indeed!

This selectivity into snippets, while it does allow sampling of many works and introduction to new artists, does not offer the spiritual and intellectual nourishment that comes with slow digestion of a work in its original entirety. Therefore, today I want to recommend The Whole Poetry Book. While the conventionally published Paper Poetry Book is a dying art, it is not dead yet. Primarily through book competitions rather than the traditional routes, poets still compile well-crafted volumes in which the arrangement is as much a work of art as each individual poem.

Reading a poetry book cover-to-cover is a vastly different experience from reading individual poems. It can be exhausting, as watching an entire opera can be exhausting. Yet like watching an entire opera or listening to an entire album of, say, mystical minimalism straight through, reading an entire volume of poetry provides nourishment to the heart, mind, and spirit. You get to know the poet intimately. You understand each individual poem better when you use the title, epigraph, and organization as commentaries. And you accompany the poet on a long, cathartic journey.

I have gotten to know several poets through their books of verse. While, of course, “the narrator is not the poet,” the composition of poetry is an act of personal exposure and the publication of poetry is an act of public intimacy. Through Line Dance, I learned what Barbara Crooker loves: impressionist paintings, the French language, homely birds and flowers, music, dance, cooking, and every person in her family. Clutched close, then let free. In Abacus and What the Living Do, Mary Karr and Marie Howe (respectively) howl out their family agony in primal pain. My heart howls along. A wolf under the moon. A child hiding from abusive parents. A grown-up hiding from love. In Tantalus in Love, Alan Shapiro records the inside and outside of a dying marriage with exquisite skill and filigreed detail: his wife’s beautiful body, poised in yoga each morning, just out of touch; his children, watching their parents dancing and laughing together for the last time. Autobiographical or not, volumes of poetry feather open the writer’s human heart and lay it, pinned and spread, on butterfly pages. Your tears will splash on the dusty wings.

I have come to understand individual poems better through their placement in the meta-poem of The Whole Poetry Book, especially by using the title, epigraph, or eponymous poem as commentary. The chapbook Something Must Happen by Ned Balbo opens with two quotations: one by W.H. Auden that begins “For poetry makes nothing happen,” and one by Kay Ryan, “But sometimes / something happens.” Each piece within the chapbook, then, argues that “something must happen” as a result of the making of verse. “Snow in Baghdad,” the opener, subtly claims that naming can define, disguise, or create realities. The penultimate poem, “Holy Wars for Us,” abruptly offers the opposite view: real violence can blow apart anything made by words.

Books often hinge on the title poem; The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert and Rising Venus by Kelly Cherry are two examples. On page 12, Jack Gilbert says, “Love is one of many great fires.” This bursts into manifold meanings throughout the book; marriage, grief, memory, loneliness, beauty, desire, the light on leaves and buildings in cities all over the world are some of the “great fires” that consume poet and reader. And Kelly Cherry takes the reader through three quarters of her book before the third section, a series of ekphrastic poems, reveals the core “where love, / a woman, by Jove, // survives, strong and free, / engendering her own destiny.” This works its way forwards and backwards through all the engagements with art, work, and men of Rising Venus.

Sometimes the title carries what C. S. Lewis called “The Kappa Element” — the unspoken, ubiquitous atmosphere or overall “feeling” of a book, which we usually remember in adjectives. Averno by Louise Glück begins with an explanation; Averno, or Avernus, was a little town near a small crater lake that the ancient Romans thought was the entrance to the underworld. Hades casts his gloomy fog — the gray, thoughtful, regretful atmosphere of a pre-Christian underworld — over every poem. A series of perspectives on Persephone, scattered throughout the book, reinforces this aged sadness, and takes the reader on a quieter journey than Dante’s, through a bleaker, monochrome vision of death and of life in the light of death.

This experience of an emotional or intellectual journey is probably the most valuable, and the most difficult, reward of reading entire volumes of verse. The binding threads are more likely to be ideas or perspectives than characters or conflicts. They are only one small degree removed from the science, logic, or philosophy book. Natural Theology by Kelly Cherry, for instance, took me long and deep. It ushered me into silence, music, empty space, crowded space, æons of time past and future, and a kind of mental concentration that was pleasantly refreshing. Two lines into Natural Theology, I was witnessing the instant of birth; one line later, gestation or conception; twenty-four lines in, I swam into the primordial soup; by the end of the poem, I was all the way back at the very start of life, the universe, and the possibility of love. Compelled by a restless inner seeking, the book went on to probe in all directions until it reached ultimate beginnings and endings.

Three other poets are also taking me on pensive journeys: Seamus Heaney in The Spirit Level, Heather Thomas in Blue Ruby (I’m still reading these two), and W. S. Merwin in The Shadow of Sirius. The content of each is profound (these three poets being people of expansive mind), but the road is actually an exploration of technique. If I were to read one poem by Heaney, the story would strike me first, or his insight into memory, or his accuracy at rendering a psychological moment, or his wide comprehension of history in particulars. But when I read page after page, what impresses me most is his method. He begins with keen observation and carefully-crafted description, then, using an ordinary object as a fulcrum, twists and leaps off into universals. Poem after poem after poem, book after book after book.

Heather Thomas pushes language. She stretches it to bear her spirit. Sometimes she pulls it into long lines, sometimes pours it through a narrow form, sometimes draws it out beyond punctuation. She makes the end of the line perform at the extremity of its ability; now making it take on a concluding role, now making it serve as a connection. Nothing is arbitrary. Nothing is for granted. In the clarity of her mind, language simultaneously serves her purpose and is the master whom she serves.

W. S. Merwin’s latest book is even more mentally exhausting, for one simple and surprising reason: it uses no punctuation whatsoever. Line after line, page after page, without one period, semicolon, or even comma! I was frustrated after about a dozen poems. How are they to be read? The ambiguity was driving me mad. But then I chanced to read one almost aloud, under my breath (on a train), and it sprang into life. It became a glorious piece of music, a lyric, a love song, riding on rhythms as pleasing as those of the train. I think the poem was “Far Along in the Story,” and it begins:

The boy walked on with a flock of cranes

following him calling as they came

from the horizon behind him

sometimes he thought he could recognize

a voice in all that calling but he

could not hear what they were calling

Try reading it silently first, without even the mental articulation of “reading aloud to yourself.” The frustration — and the joy — comes from phrases that can belong to either those before or those after them. For instance, line three could be punctuated thus, “a flock of cranes following him, calling as they came from the horizon behind him” or thus, “a flock of cranes following him, calling as they came. From the horizon behind him, sometimes he thought he could recognize a voice.” And so on. But then read the poem out loud, and it all springs into meaning(s) and into music. And then try reading the entire book this way!

Reading poetry like this — slowly, out loud, experimenting with inflection — is an act of dedication, even an act of devotion or meditation, because you must read each poem three, four, five, or more times so that you can try each line in relation to every other, tasting the ambiguities, reveling in the metrical pleasures. Reading poetry this way, through the length and breadth of an entire book, is exhausting. But it is far more rewarding than exhausting, and well worth the mental effort. So next time you read poetry, dedicate the time to reading an entire book.

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The New Where and How of Art

“Art can be weird.”
—Ron English in Hi-Fructose

Imagine a little trip back to college, freshman year, Philosophy 101: that earth-shattering, mind-blowing class. Ten weeks into the semester, readings in Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics have already trashed old assumptions and made The Matrix look more plausible than it ever did before. Now the professor writes on the board:


The class sighs in relief. Finally, something soothing. Images of naked goddesses float before the collective imagination while ghostly strains of Mozart echo in the mind’s ear.

But what’s this? Four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence — that calls itself music? Music can’t be silent! And what’s that? A urinal in an art museum? A urinal isn’t art! And after tape-loops of train whistles, the creepy tones of Sprechstimme, Hugo Ball carried on stage in a tinfoil mitre, and a couple Dadaist poems, Plato’s cave sounds as home-sweet-home as Kansas. Aesthetics is not so simple after all. Apparently, it can be as difficult to define “Art” as to define “Reality.” And beauty might be in the eye of the beholder or beauty might be an irrelevant approach after all.

There are two overlapping movements currently underway — worldwide art phenomena of great energy and influence — that redefine Art yet again and smash barriers implicit in the oppositions “high” vs. “low,” the gallery vs. the street, art vs. protest, and the classic vs. the cutting-edge. They do their best to defy taxonomy, so even calling them “two movements” is questionable, as is the attempt to label them. But for this conversation’s sake, these contemporary visual phenomenon can be discussed under two modes: “Street Art” and “Pop Surrealism.” While they began in different venues, they do have some similar effects and are, perhaps, growing closer all the time.

Street Art in Manhattan's East Village.

Street Art, also called urban art or post-graffiti, is not so much about What is Art as Where is Art? It was originally art executed outdoors in a public space, usually in a metropolis. In the last seven years, it has caught fire across the globe, flaming through city streets, rail lines, subway tunnels, and high-rise buildings. It has burned its way through Amsterdam, Bristol, Cork, Lille, Lisbon, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Melbourne, Milan, Montreal, New York, Paris, Rome, São Paulo, Sydney, and Tokyo, becoming fantastically prolific, popular, profitable, and even — in some cases — respectable.  To the uninitiated eye, most Street Art just looks like graffiti. It is often spray-painted, stenciled, or stuck on posters. Some contain a ubiquitous, ambiguous “tag”: the artist’s logo or visual pseudonym, such as an arrow for Above, a stick-figure with a big head for André, the face of a giant for Obey. However, the artists explain that the major difference between their work and graffiti is its public nature: “Unlike graffiti, where the work is intended to make sense to a peer group, street art is open to everyone to understand.” [1]

Understanding is very important to Street Art, because it exists to communicate a specific message. This is often political — protesting the Iraq war or the installation of surveillance cameras, for instance — or ideological — many works of Street Art combat commercialism. CutUp Collective made a practice of slicing up billboard images and rearranging the squares into new scenes that question the advertising industry. Many satirize politicians or celebrities: In one attributed to Dolk, the Pope wears a dress, striking Marilyn Monroe’s famous subway air-vent pose. One brave artist, Banksy, painted protest images all along the West Bank wall as soldiers fired at him.

And that’s another facet of Street Art that once defined it but is beginning to shift; originally, it was illegal. Spray-painting on the surfaces of public buildings is, after all, vandalism. One artist calls it “a beautiful crime.” [2] Many artists got arrested. For some, the thrill of working at night in a forbidden space under extremely dangerous conditions involving heights, electrical wires, scaffolding, moving vehicles, or live bullets was as essential as the act of making art. Over time, some artists realized that prison would put a quick stop to their careers, and began finding legal ways to display their work. Some now paint only with permission of building owners. Others make it removable, on posters, stickers, or other paper installations. And others have moved on to canvas and have begun hanging paintings in galleries. As a matter of fact, alternative galleries have sprung up just to showcase art from the streets — thereby taking it out of the open public space altogether.

Pop Surrealism, also called lowbrow, underground art, art brut, or urban contemporary, is not so much about What is Art, either; it’s more about How is Art? It is another outsider, with origins in cartooning and comic book illustration, but has its galleries, too. Like Street Art, a piece of Pop Surrealism might be a sculpture, an installation, even a toy or other artifact; but it is usually painting. Or, more accurately, within this larger movement there are fine art painters in the Pop Surrealist style.

"Bride: Obstinate" by P. Tepper.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing a young painter, P. Tepper, who loosely identifies himself with this movement. He described the methodology used by some of its most influential artists: Todd Schorr, Mark Ryden, Joe Sorren, and Greg Simkins. To this list might be added Robert Williams and many more.

Tepper explained that a Pop Surrealist painter will first choose one of the great European masters such as Monet, Rembrandt, or da Vinci. Next, he will pick his subject matter from pop culture, often something strange, bizarre, juvenile, kitschy, or carnivalesque. Then he will paint this contemporary subject using the techniques of his chosen master. This in itself is an odd juxtaposition: A baby doll or a toy painted with Baroque glazing, Impressionistic impasto, or a pointillist approach. But that’s not all. He will also skew, mar, maim, and distort the image into a creepy, nightmarish caricature. The technique is masterful and the content is bizarre. There are a lot of monsters, creeping creatures, disconnected body parts, corpses, ooze and slime, zombies, foxy ladies bordering on soft porn, worms coming out of eyeballs, children butchering or being butchered. It’s an ugly world beautifully painted.

Because of the excellent technique, many of these works hang in the world’s major art magazines and galleries, including MOMA, the Tate Modern, and even the Louvre. But then again, so does Street Art. There are other ways these two movements are moving closer. Both are interested in “smashing the façade of artistic standards.” [3] Both are fast-growing, multi-international trends with large followings and significant commercial success. But while Street Art is coming indoors, into galleries and private collections, Pop Surrealism sometimes goes outdoors. Ron English, with whose quote this article began, took a group of artists to Texas and asked cattle ranchers, “Hey, can we paint your cows?” They didn’t mean paint pictures of cows. They meant, paint pictures on cows. So they did. They painted some with zebra stripes, some with rainbow stripes, and some with maps of the world on their flanks.

I knew art could be weird. But I hadn’t known it could be quite this weird. Looking at Street Art or Pop Surrealism, I think: “Why, oh why, didn’t I take the blue pill?”

[1] Eleanor Mathieson and Xavier A. Tápies, Street Artists: The Complete Guide, p. 7.

[2] André, quoted in Street Artists p. 8.

[3] Hi-Fructose: New Contemporary Art, vol. 16.

Mystical Minimalism

the tintinnabulation that so musically wells

From the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells—

From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.


One perfect summer, when the sun stood clear over golden-gray towers, domes, and spires, I sat each evening at my desk in Lincoln College, Oxford. After a run round Christ Church meadows, then dinner “in hall,” I tackled my studies of Shakespeare or C. S. Lewis with their historical presence nearly tangible, just behind my right elbow. Almost as soon as I began, regular as the works of the clock on Carfax Tower, the bells began to chime. For an hour, the changes rang out in cacophonous clangor: rhythmic, clashing, sweet, infuriating, exhilarating, and apparently random. It drove my colleagues wild; they, like Poe, hated the metallic voices, absence of melody, and persistent stasis of crashing tongues. How they clang and clash and roar! I lived by it, loved it, hated the empty-gut vacuum of silence when they ended, thrilled each time they started again. That was the sound of time, the past, academia, tradition, religion: everything I venerate. Reason and reverence blended, shouting their clapper-songs, making a joyful noise. Faith and learning, past and present, a racket of the mind, a din of the soul.

Three years later, having learned much about the mathematical art of change ringing from that inimitable source, The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, those bells have added associations. Upon first hearing about the numerical patterns this ringing follows, I thought of the interweavings of English Country Dance:

Double forward and back
Cast off and lead up
Face down
Double down and back
Take hands four
Repeat last with 2nd & 4th. etc.

Compare these Elizabethan complications with, for instance, Kent Treble Bob, the course of bell-ringing that features so prominently in Sayers’s book. Here it is written out by one Simon Kershaw in descriptive prose, from the perspective of one bell: “After dodging with bell 5, bell 6 next dodges in 3-4 down with the treble, and this means that next two times you find yourself in 3-4 down you have to make places (4ths then 3rds) rather than dodging, and after this second time you immediately dodge with the treble in 1-2 and go ‘into the slow’.”

Now what on earth does this patterned gibberish have to do with music? Well, listen to this piece by Philip Glass. Is not the persistent, static, repetition-with-gradual-change similar to the swinging and the ringing, the rhyming and the chiming of the bells? Is not the aural and psychological effect the same? Perhaps the bells of English change ringing and the ritualistic singularity of Minimalism inhabit the same space. They both evoke distance; they are both the sound of limitlessness.

In the 1960s, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich (the first generation of Minimalists) reacted against the established academic practices of Serialism, or Twelve-Tone music, which was highly organized and entirely atonal—that is, it did not depart from and return to a foundational pitch, nor did it appeal to the psychological and sensory desire for closure and resolution based on a harmonic center. Serialism was cerebral, a highly intellectual exercise accomplished by composers for composers. But people couldn’t listen to it.

Influenced by Gregorian chant, Indian ragas, and Bach, Philip Glass and others developed a static tonal music that repeated the fewest possible elements with small permutations. Pianist Paul Barnes, who is something of a Glass specialist, says Minimalism “forces us to look at a smaller amount of material from different perspectives . . . It’s about consciously embracing simplicity and then basically exploring that simplicity from different angles.” It is introspective, meditative, and transcendental.

There is a particular kind of minimalism that emphasizes transcendence and induces tranquility even more than that of its founding fathers. It is also closer to the original purpose of English church bells. It is devotional and meditative in the extreme. It has been called holy, spiritual, sacred, or Mystical Minimalism. Sometimes those labels are applied pejoratively, and many composers resist any label of the sort. Some of the composers I lump into this discussion do not consider themselves Minimalists at all. However, putting aside the question of taxonomy, I am discussing a sound world that is simple and repetitive, full of enormous spaces and vast distances, ravishingly ethereal. This music is “all in tune,” and its molten golden notes in a liquid ditty float on the air. Some composers whose music seems to me to fit this description are Robert Ashley, Henryk Górecki, Sofia Gubaidulina, Alan Hovhaness, Giya Kancheli, Ivan Moody, Hans Otte, Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, and Pēteris Vasks. Their pieces are spiritual, sustained, lofty, and profound. With just a few notes, a few instruments or voices, and rhythms drawn out into lines as long as the horizon, the music shimmers with ecstasy.

Arvo Pärt may perhaps be taken as representative of my comparison between the religious function of the bells and this meditative music. In fact, Pärt coined a term for his particular technique: tintinnabuli. Tintinnabuli! The tintinnabulation that so musically swells? On his official website, Pärt says “I work with very few elements —with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials —with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation.” If you would like to get a very clear example of this pure, simple, mystical sound, listen to his composition Für Alina. It is thin and delicate, accomplishing a massive task of spiritual exaltation with the most limited means. This piece takes, as it were, two bells out of the ring and sounds each one slowly, clearly, letting the tones vibrate through the air of this world and into the next.

Another composer whose work has the same effect on me is Ivan Moody. I attended the world premiere of his new piano quintet, “Nocturne of Light,” at New York’s Symphony Space in April. I was greatly moved by this composition. It used postmodern extended techniques (the members of the quartet sliding their fingers up and down the strings; the pianist leaning inside to pluck the piano like a harp) in a sonority of medieval sensibility. All of this, based on two Byzantine Easter chants. Listening to “Nocturne of Light” was a profound experience. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a piece of music that so fully lifted me into a mystical sense of divine presence. It was a shadowy dark vision. It spoke of sublime, devastating, ravishing power. It spoke of a shimmering kind of transcendence. It spoke of an aching, sustained, agonizing persistence: something moving at a pace slower than the human frame can endure.

When I listen to either the bells of Oxford churches or a piece by Pärt, Moody, or John Tavener, I am aware of endless distances and timeless ages all immediately, infinitely present. This experience is similar to that of writing a poem: as T. S. Eliot said, the work of creation involves an “historical sense . . . not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” This music, these bells that so musically swell, speak of endless ages past: some of these bells were cast in the 1600s and the music has roots in chants from as far back as the fourth century. And they speak of eternity and infinity, inexorably present. I can hear all the saints singing together, singing into silence. It moves me. It stills me. What a world of solemn thought their monody—or polyphony—or even cacophony—compels! Still your dither for a few moments and listen.

Posthumanism: A Christian Response


Editor’s note: We recently ran a review of Cary Wolfe’s What is Posthumanism? Because a driving principle behind The Curator is the exploration of “things humans create,” we felt that it would be important to continue this conversation. How might those who care about human-ness grapple with the implications of a posthuman framework?

While concern for human identity is certainly not restricted to those who profess belief in the Christian scriptures, those beliefs certainly have much to say about these ideas, and the implications should interest both Christians and those who are interested in humanist and posthumanist ideas. Toward that end, Sørina Higgins addresses below how the framework of Christianity might address the ideas of posthumanism.

In the first part of my review of Posthumanism, I began by comparing this theory to a nightmare. Although I went on to qualify that simile, saying that Cary Wolfe’s work is serious academic philosophy, I left the nightmare images intact. Indeed, a Christian’s first reaction might very well be horrified fear. Several premises of this book are terrifying: it seeks to problematize humanity’s unique existence; it calls into question universal ethics; it interrogates our assumptions about rationality; and it destabilized distinctions that are essential to religion, such as nature/culture, presence/absence, and human/nonhuman.

There are indeed many aspects of this approximately fifteen-year-old theory that are fundamentally opposed to traditional Christianity. First and most obviously: the very name, posthumanism, announces that human beings are no longer central or essential. This echoes the terrifying proposition put forward by Copernicus and Galileo that our planet was not the center of the universe. Had not God, asked the Roman Church, created the universe as a physical expression of His plan for salvation? The scientific answer was no.

Next were the strident voices of the Enlightenment that replaced faith with vigorous empiricisms and rationalisms that frightened the supernatural into a mental corner. Then spoke Charles Darwin, telling us that we were just animals, and derived from other species, no less. And now along comes Wolfe, telling us that humans are not central to the rational, observational, or subject-oriented realms, either. As he puts it: “The human is, at its core and in its very constitution, radically ahuman and constitutively prosthetic” (xxvi). In other words: we are not what we thought we were, and we are inessential to the universe. We are not the apple of God’s eye; we are an artificial limb.

The posthuman worldview goes a step beyond demoting human beings in the hierarchy of value. It promotes other species, proposing that animals are more rational than we knew. We are forced to ask: If rationality is not our Imago Dei, what is? Will you say next that we don’t have souls?

Well, unfortunately, yes. Not only does Wolfe say we need to move beyond anthropocentrism (thinking that humans are the center of the universe) and speciesism (prejudice based on our species – differences from “nonhuman animals”); his entire theory is anti-ontological, and also assumes we all gave up metaphysics a long time ago. It is thoroughly materialistic, the heir to a long line of thought that traces itself back through cybernetics and systems theory to Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida, then to Darwin, and thence to the most anti-religious minds of the Enlightenment.

Although it resists reduction and terse definition, one major premise of Wolfe’s book is that the nature of thought must change (xvi): human beings are, in his construction, thinking themselves out of existence. One possible Christian reaction to posthumanism, then, might be vigorous and total rejection. We are certainly not about to think ourselves out of existence, nor out of our Lord’s care and regard. Nor are we about to share our place in the plan of salvation with spotted newts and thorny hedgehogs.

There is, of course, another attitude that Christians could take towards posthumanism. It was modeled by Francis Schaeffer and summed up in his maxim “All truth is God’s truth.” At the very least, any propositions that are true, even if rooted in a flawed theory, are redeemable by God’s people. The Church eventually found out it was wrong about Copernicus and Galileo. It is still pondering whether it was wrong about Darwin. Even Cary Wolfe is created in the image of God in spite of himself, so even he can come up with some tidbits of truth we can rescue from the wreckage. Another examination reveals many valuable corollaries to posthumanism’s fundamental thesis.

First of all, Christians agree that we ought to be kind to animals. Proverbs 12:10 reads: “A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal.” Indeed, it is only in Christian theology that there ever was a time when animals were treated ethically; in all other thought such a time only will be. It is the most conservative, fundamentalist, Bible-banging Young-Earth Creationism that teaches all animals and humans were vegetarians and non-predatory once – before the Fall and (according to some Creation researchers) up until Noah’s world-wide flood.

It is Christian theology that claims an Edenic state will be restored, predicated upon the lion lying down with the lamb. Evolution, then, is not necessary for a theory on which to rest the ethical treatment of animals. Historic Christianity had that all along.

A more profound and relevant injunction of Wolfe’s book teaches the ethical treatment and full valuing of all people, regardless of their full participation in rationalism or other aspects of “normative” human functionality: the unborn, the disabled, the mentally ill, and the elderly. Wolfe champions the absolute support of the lives of these people from a platform not unlike Christianity’s own pro-life campaigns. In this matter, then, he is a valuable ally to the Church.

And his thoughts resonate with the Church’s in another way: he opposes fantasies of disembodiment associated with transhumanism, an altogether different ideology than posthumanism (xv). Transhumanism suggests that by means of research, technology, and science, we can overcome our embodied predicament and conquer sickness, injury, and (almost) death: in other words, evolve into a being as little tied to its body as possible, into the next species after homo sapiens. Wolfe rejects this outright. He affirms our embodied nature. In fact, he came to the conclusion that our relationship with animals is based on our shared embodiment. Christianity, too, affirms embodiment in its most central principle: the Incarnation.

Wolfe points out another feature of nineteenth- to twenty-first-century life as a warning with which we can readily concur. He recognizes our co-existence with technology (xv) and encourages human beings to examine their relationship with technologies. Now, he goes a step further and describes our evolutionary history as concurrent with and co-dependant with the development of technologies – but it behooves Christians to examine their relationship with technologies. Are we idolizing our gadgets? Using them to minimize our spiritual lives? Or redeeming their use in the scheme of sanctification and missiology?

There is one final aspect of posthumanism in which Christians can see truth, and which we can reconfigure for our own spiritual purposes, and that is the essential decentralizing of the human: Wolfe’s anti-anthropocentrism. We are terrified of being on the periphery of creation. We were afraid of the heliocentric universe. But how much of this reaction is really fear, and how much is pride? Do we hate the idea of humankind’s brief existence in the material timeline because it weakens our theology, or only because it weakens our self-image? We could do with a little more humility as a species.

To go one step further: Do we fear the end of our species because we feel it means the end of God, since our extinction means we won’t be there to apprehend Him? How arrogant. How petty. However short or long the timeline of the human is compared to that of other species or to the existence of the material universe, Christian theology ought to be first in affirming its brevity compared to the uncreated, unbeginning, unending life of our God. We shouldn’t need Cary Wolfe to tell us that. As long as he is saying it, we should listen.

Now, that would be a lovely place to end this review: with an affirmation of the bits of posthumanism we can slide neatly into a quaint Christian system. However, that would be facile at best and dishonest at worst.

The full truth is that there is no Christian response to posthumanism. There can be no Christian interaction with posthumanism, because there has not been a thorough response to poststructuralism.

Near the beginning of Posthumanism, Wolfe mentions that when poststructuralism (perhaps more commonly known as deconstruction) hit the academic scene in the ’70s, scholars were terrified. But “we all got over it” (4). Deconstruction became common parlance in English departments, academic spheres in general, and in popular attitudes towards language, literature, authority, and truth. However, the Christian church in America stayed afraid. Those who were not afraid did not understand the far-reaching implications of texts’ self-referential and constitutive natures.

There have been individual Christian academics who have become deconstructionists. There are those who have written thoughtful scholarly responses. More recently, there are those who are attempting a more popular involvement and re-creation. Most noteworthy of these are the five volumes of the “Church and Postmodern Culture” series published by Baker Academic. But there has not been a radical, systemic Christian analysis, appropriation, integration, and re-creation of deconstruction.

The majority of Christian churches have had one of two fruitless responses. On the “liberal” side, churches have not talked about deconstruction, but have allowed it to steal the Bible from them. This response leaves the church eviscerated: anti-supernatural, anti-inspirational, anti-incarnational. In short, it leaves them without anything that made them Christian in the first place, stripping them of either internal meaning or a means of engagement with external realities and theories.

On the “fundamentalist” side, churches have hidden away from contemporary trends. Congregations and pastors of this ilk hardly interacted with T. S. Eliot, never mind Jacques Derrida. They closed their walls, doors, and minds, huddled together in a “medieval” mindset in the worst sense of the word, as closed to evolution (in thought as well as in the descent of man) as if they had refused the Copernican revolution itself. This response, while it can nurture profound studies of doctrine and personal morality, is also unengaged with contemporary thought. Each subsequent generation that is raised in such isolation grows further from its context. What is the Gospel, if not to be shared? Who was Christ, if not in flesh? What good is the Church, if not in conversation?

All of this is to say that if Cary Wolfe is correct in his belief that posthumanism is the worldview that will soon come to dominate “Western” thought, then he is certainly correct that it will have far-reaching consequences for public policy, bioethics, education, and the arts.

And if Christians cannot stomach it, then they might as well hand public policy over to the secular realm. If they want to participate in bioethics, education, and the arts over the next century, they have a lot of catching up to do. They could start by reading Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, then try a little Derrida, then finally turn to What is Posthumanism? We shouldn’t be afraid of Derrida or of the big, bad Wolfe.

After all, they’re only—human?

What is Posthumanism?

Perhaps you have had a nightmare in which you fell through the bottom of your known universe into a vortex of mutated children, talking animals, mental illness, freakish art, and clamoring gibberish. There, you were subjected to the gaze of creatures of indeterminate nature and questionable intelligence. Your position as the subject of your own dream was called into question while voices outside your sight commented upon your tenuous identity. When you woke, you were relieved to find that it was only a dream-version of the book you were reading when you fell asleep. Maybe that book was Alice in Wonderland; maybe it was What is Posthumanism?

Now, it is not quite fair to compare Cary Wolfe’s sober, thoughtful scholarship with either a nightmare or a work of (children’s?) fantasy. It is a profound, thoroughly researched study with far-reaching consequences for public policy, bioethics, education, and the arts. However, it does present a rather odd dramatis personae, including a glow-in-the-dark rabbit, a woman who feels most at ease in a cattle chute, an artist of Jewish descent who implants an ID-chip in his own leg, researchers who count the words in a dog’s vocabulary, and horses who exhibit more intelligence than the average human toddler. The settings, too, are often wildly different from those you might expect in an academic work: a manufactured cloud hovering over a lake in Switzerland, a tree park in Canada where landscape and architecture blend and redefine one another, recording studios, photographic laboratories, slaughterhouses, and (most of all) the putative  minds of animals and the deconstructed minds of the very humans whose ontological existence it seeks to problematize.

But that is another exaggeration. Wolfe’s goal is not to undermine the existence or value of human beings. Rather, it is to call into question the universal ethics, assumed rationality, and species-specific self-determination of humanism. That is a mouthful.

Indeed, Wolfe’s book is a mouthful, and a headful. It is in fact a book by a specialist, for specialists. While Wolfe is an English professor (at Rice University) and identifies himself with “literary and cultural studies” (p. 100), this is first of all a work of philosophy. Its ideal audience is very small, consisting of English and Philosophy professors who came of age in the 70s, earned their Ph.D.s during the hey-day of Derridean Deconstruction, and have spent the intervening decades keeping up with trends in systems theory, cultural studies, science, bioethics, and information technology. It is rigorous and demanding, especially in its first five chapters, which lay the conceptual groundwork for the specific analyses of the second section.

In these first five chapters, Wolfe describes his perspective and purpose by interaction with many other great minds and influential texts, primarily those of Jacques Derrida. Here, the fundamental meaning and purpose of “Posthumanism” becomes clear. Wolfe wants his readers to rethink their relationship to animals (what he calls “nonhuman animals”). His goal is “a new and more inclusive form of ethical pluralism” (137). That sound innocuous enough, but he is not talking about racial, religious, or other human pluralisms. He is postulating a pluralism that transcends species. In other words, he is promoting the ethical treatment of animals based on a fundamental re-evaluation of what it means to be human, to be able to speak, and even to think. He does this by discussing studies that reveal the language capacities of animals (a dog apparently has about a 200-word vocabulary and can learn new words as quickly as a human three-year-old; pp. 32-33), by recounting the story of a woman whose Asperger’s syndrome enables her to empathize with cows and sense the world the way they do (chapter five), and by pointing out the ways in which we value disabled people who do not possess the standard traits that (supposedly) make us human.

But Wolfe goes further than a simple suggestion that we should be nice to animals (and the unspoken plug for universal veganism). He is proposing a radical disruption of liberal humanism and a rigorous interrogation of what he sees as an arrogant complacency about our species. He respects “any variety of philosophy that challenges anthropocentrism and speciesism” (62)—anthropocentrism, of course, means viewing the world as if homo sapiens is the center (or, more accurately, viewing the world from the position of occupying that center) and specisism is the term he uses to replace racism. We used to feel and enact prejudice against people of different ethnic backgrounds, he suggests, but we now know that is morally wrong. The time has come, then, to realize that we are feeling and enacting prejudice against people of different species.

Although Wolfe suggests many epistemological and empirical reasons for rethinking the personhood of animals, he comes to the conclusion that our relationship with them is based on our shared embodiment. Humans and animals have a “shared finitude” (139); we can both feel pain, suffer, and die. On the basis of our mutual mortality, then, we should have an “emphasis on compassion” (77). He is not out to denigrate his own species – far from it. Indeed, he goes out of his way to spend time discussing infants (who have not yet developed rationality and language), people with disabilities (especially those that prevent them from participating in fully rational thought and/or communication), and the elderly (who may lose some of those rational capacities, especially if racked by such ailments as Alzheimers). Indeed, he claims: “It is not by denying the special status of human being[s] but by intensifying it that we can come to think of nonhuman animals…as…fellow creatures” (77).

This joint focus on the special status of all human beings along with the other living creatures roaming (or swimming, flying, crawling, slithering) the globe has far-reaching consequences for public policy, especially bioethics. Wolfe says that, currently, bioethics is riddled with prejudices: “Of these prejudices, none is more symptomatic of the current state of bioethics than prejudice based on species difference, and an incapacity to address the ethical issues raised by dramatic changes over the past thirty years in our knowledge about the lives, communication, emotions, and consciousnesses of a number of nonhuman species” (56). One of the goals of his book, then, is to reiterate that knowledge and promote awareness of those issues that he sees as ethical.

If you read Wolfe’s book, or even parts of it, you will suddenly see posthumanism everywhere. You can trace its influence in the enormously fast-growing pet industry. From the blog “Pawsible Marketing”: “As in recent and past years, there is no doubt that pets continue to become more and more a part of the family, even to the extent of becoming, in some cases, ‘humanized’.”

You will see it in bring-your-pet-to-work or bring-your-pet-to-school days. You might think it is responsible for the recent introduction of a piece of legislation called H.R. 3501, The Humanity and Pets Partnered Through the Years, know as the “HAPPY Act,” which proposes a tax deduction for pet owners. You will find it in children’s books about talking animals. You will see it on Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel, and a PBS series entitled “Inside the Animal Mind.” You will find it in films, such as the brand-new documentary The Cove, which records the brutal slaughter of dolphins for food. And you will see it in works of art.

Following this reasoning, section two of Wolfe’s book (chapters six through eleven) veers off from the strictly philosophical approach into the more traditional terrain of cultural studies: he examines specific works of art in light of the philosophical basis that is now firmly in place. Interestingly, he does not choose all works of art that depict animals, nor those that displace humans. He begins with works that depict animals (Sue Coe’s paintings of slaughterhouses) and that use animals (Eduardo Kac’s creation of genetically engineered animals that glow in the dark), but then moves on to discuss film, architecture, poetry, and music. In each of these examinations, he works to destabilize traditional binaries such as nature/culture, landscape/architecture, viewer/viewed, presence/absence, organic/inorganic, natural/artificial, and, really, human/nonhuman. This second section, then, is a subtle application of the theory of posthumanism itself to the arts, [our] environment, and [our] identity.

What is perhaps most important about What is Posthumanism remains latent in the text. This is its current and (especially) future prevalence. By tracing the history of posthumanism back through systems theory into deconstruction, Wolfe implies a future trajectory, too. I would venture to suggest that he believes posthumanism is the worldview that will soon come to dominate “Western” thought. And this is important for academics specifically and thinkers in general to realize.

Whether you agree with Cary Wolfe or not, it would be wise to understand posthumanism. It appears that your only choice will be either to align yourself with this perspective or to fight against it. If you agree, you should know with what. If you fight, you should know against what.

What, then, is the central thesis of posthumanism? Wolfe’s entire project might be summed up in his bold claim that, thanks to his own work and that of the theorists and artists he discusses, “the human occupies a new place in the universe, a universe now populated by what I am prepared to call nonhuman subjects” (47)—such subjects as talking rabbits, six-inch people, and mythical monsters?

Well, maybe not the mythical monsters.