The Librarians and the Poets, the Artists and the Archivists

I. The Librarians and the Archivists

Why is everything so ugly today, even though we all hold instant access to the truly beautiful?

I propose an alternative aesthetic spectacle. It’s pretty simple: instead of social media, let’s use history. Specifically, let’s use online archives to explore art history as an inspiration for contemporary design and broader entertainment: visual and even narrative artwork. If social media is what men and women now use to dress and decorate their bodies, their homes, their daydreams, their senses of humor – then we ought to weep for the aesthetic impoverishment of the current generation. I’ve been keeping a fairly steady weep quota, and I’d invite you to join me on that too.

It’s not that the men and women previous centuries were really that more imaginative than us; they were just imaginative in different ways from us. And certainly there is a long tradition of especially heroic dreamers whom we must not forget, and if we have forgotten, we must find them once again. Now that so much visual and literary historical treasure is instantly accessible online, it seems ridiculous to spend time looking at cheap consumer images when you can stroll through virtual galleries of the most beautiful images ever created throughout time.

The only thing is that most people like cheap things if they are made by their friends, who are living right now, and so they gladly participate in the cheap spectacle shared online by their friends. There is this excitement in being alive that only normal people and the poets feel; the nerds and the depressed, the archivists of entertainment, have a harder time with this because they are ashamed of their bodies, they are ashamed of all of their failures communicating with others, of judging others, of not being kind or having not received kindness, etc. So they retreat to libraries of leisure and archives of delight that are always giving beautiful things. (Well, depending on one’s standards.) The voices of the dead only ever judge as much as you let them, but real people… well, let’s just say that many introverted for various reasons can’t enjoy the present, nor do look towards the future.

If a nerd likes ugly things, then they will use their free time to pleasure themselves with garbage, instead of exploring the world or enjoying the soul sparks of other living beings next to them. The art historian is really doing this same process with better subject matter which, one hopes, will be more beneficial to society. But what society? The art historian or man of letters labors in vain to research and share great works of the past if the public will never appreciate it, I think. Mass culture is garbage, but elite art appreciation will be pretty much worthless if it never extends beyond a small, inbred circle of minds. My desire would be for the appreciation of the beautiful to spill out until it reaches all the way through society and orders it. But that appreciation does take a lot of time and mental work to cultivate, and so it’s understandable to see banal spectacle everywhere in demographics with less resources, virtue, intelligence, leisure time, and most of all a lack of connections to wise voices, especially when those demographics more than ever have been given the tools to vividly display their inane inner lives. (I confess to having at one time been addicted to cringe threads and glorying in the ever more spectacular examples of idiocy which the faithful archivists of the internet diligently cultivate for the pleasure of cynical folk.)

You’ll forgive me for being tone-deaf here. I myself can be found in a weird solitary coracle that floats between a typical middle class suburban evangelical aesthetic upbringing and an interest in better spectacles that I have not yet had the chance to fully integrate into my life. I am a juvenile archivist and so in a tender position; I am especially to be mocked and derided, lest others be tempted to find themselves in my position. But I can’t help it. This is what I was thinking about and I wanted to tell others, to see if anyone would respond in a kindred spirit.

Obviously the masses will always be fools, but with instant communication, is it really that hard to find a few thousand or even a few hundred thousand other people who enjoy Dutch early modern art? Is it really that hard to teach people to love things that are so evidently wonderful? Maybe it is not so evident. For some reason, it seems hard to find people who care enough about it to really ever mention it on social media. Perhaps it is not so evident anymore that such things are beautiful. But again, that is why we need teachers.

You see this communal sharing of historical art already happening, but mostly just in memes. And it’s very funny! I’m encouraged by the memes, because as we all know, the line between a jester and a prophet is very hard to determine. But seeing as these aesthetically prophetic memes have yet to bear fruit, all I see is that no one wants to spend the time to really make historical art a part of their life. That’s understandable: it’s hard to do alone. It would require communal effort, and it’s hard to gather a community together to focus on exploring one part of the Archives, because the Archives are very, very big. And most of your friends probably don’t care.

So this really has to be a (if I can write this without some bile spilling onto the keyboard) intentional communal effort. Wake up, sheeple! The resources are readily accessible but there is so much to dig into that it requires research, discussion, and sharing amidst friends with mildly differing goals to reach images and imaginative loci that are really pleasant and valuable to the individual. Enjoyment is all well and good, but anyone can enjoy themselves. It’s diving into the archives to serve others that is the really tricky part, not just to find memes to entertain and draw click-clacking attention but to find images and words that will inspire love of the good and order in the hearts of others.

I find myself having an easier time reading the thoughts of dead people than I do talking with living people. Living people are very valuable but also very demanding. So while I retreat to my island of literature (not being able to decide what book I would bring with me, I brought them all), I would still want to be reading for the sake of those who can’t or aren’t willing. I could crawl through 10,000 mountains of pages and a thousand rivers of ink so that others don’t have to. This means I need to be a teacher in some capacity. Not everybody needs to be a teacher of everything, but everyone needs to be a student of something.

What’s the point of me spending time with books all day if I’m the only one who is happy with that? Living to make yourself happy will result in no one being happy. But at the same time, you can’t force yourself into the lives of others. If this deflection away from normal discourse, if being barred from adventure with physical folk is a necessary part of one’s story, than we have to cut with the grain of this warped table brain, if you get what I’m saying. Whether you like it or not you are trapped alone on your book island, and so you might as well get as much reading done until someone responds to your distress signal and picks you up. They may quickly maroon you, socially speaking, but usually each time you get marooned it is on an island with wi-fi, or at least a public library.

With the contemporary technology and historical resources, the question and the quest becomes whether or not we have human resources, that is, enough teachers to help show people how to love better and to love better things. But no one wants to put time into what they share or take in, they only want to consume quickly and cheaply. So maybe this kind of thing is impossible on the internet, or at least most social media platforms as they stand today, where quickness and cheapness are in the founding company’s best interest to promote. (This gets to the weird problem of seeing as social media as a free service offered by a private company vs. a weird kind of public society, but that conversation gets dicey pretty fast.)

We need to advocate examples of ancient, medieval, variously historical works of art that ought to contemplated and accepted as influences on our contemporary mainstream spectacle – at the very least, on an aesthetic spectacle that stands alternative to the mainstream and will hopefully be synthesized into it at some point for the benefit of all. Is it too sloppy of a hope to think that the more that people are taught to love beautiful things, the better society will be? I don’t know where the hole in that proposal is, if there is one.

When alternating between painting and literature here, I suppose a lot of what I say applies to both, but it might be fair to distinguish between the two by saying that: visual art of history can guide us how to design our real life sights (our bodies, homes, and gardens), while the verbal art of history can guide us how to speak and think and so, ultimately, act.

There should be hierarchies of mentorship, but where are the teachers? Where are the apprentices? Who has time or humility these days for anything like that? We need to invite others into the usually solitary quest of art appreciation, archive diving, online museum gallery meandering, wikipedia wandering. It ought to be something undertaken by a fellowship, not a single pilgrim. But it’s hard to imagine a twitch stream of some guy just reading wikipedia articles at random… actually, that’s a fantastic idea. All we need is someone with a good sense of curiosity and humor, who can be curious and funny on our behalf.

II. The Artists and the Poets

While I know myself well enough at this point to focus on training as an aesthetic archivist, the dream has always been to be an artist and poet, of course. The archivist here is the one who searches, finds, researches, refinds, refines, systematizes, critiques – it’s really just a fancy way of being a computer bound, unproductive troll. Perhaps the only good way, if you are going to be computer bound, ever entangled in the fishy webbing of the internet. The perks are a nice set of headphones and no one bothering you. But there’s a reason that the musicians get all the girls: the girls want a guy who can prove in real time that he’s smart, disciplined, and dexterous. There is something much more human and glorious about being this kind of performer or creator: if the archivist or philosopher is systematizing and dividing up the world in order to understand it, the poet is weaving moments together and using his poetic power to make manifest in the presence of others some mystical reality that was there all along (in the room, in the heart) but unseen until now. Thing is, great poets have been doing this for thousands of years, and no one will remember this unless the archivists do their job.

I think the young artist is deeply dependent on the archivists, to be honest, because the young artist usually has very little experience in the world. (Artists with tragedy in their youth can be exceptions to this.) In the beginning, during their songs of innocence or whatever, they have to build off the work of past generations and display their art using the tools given to them by their chosen aesthetic ancestors. (Chosen, yes, but sometimes it’s uncertain who is choosing whom.) All juvenilia is mimicry wanting to be more, the beginning of a transition from the passive state of appreciation into something more fresh and glorious, the human soul in activity, in bared flesh.

Everyone is both a maker and an organizer in some respect, as these are just two sides of one task of being human, but some people are simply more weighted throughout their life for one or the other (or neither, but here we are considered with human living inside the spectacle). Throughout your life, whether through your genes, family culture, or whatever you got interested in as a teenager, you find yourself leaning towards tasks within the spectacle. Honestly, I look back on my life and find myself to be so dissolute and noncommittal that I don’t feel equipped to do any human task well, but since at this point I cannot deny a conviction to work within the spectacle, or at least contribute in some avocational capacity, it’s not even a question of what I would like to do: both. But, while I would love to make art and be an artist,until a miracle happens I’m going to go after the option that keeps me more clothed in the eyes of others. Why? Well… whether you’re making a poem or a child, you need to be naked. So it’s probably best to let the attractive, well-formed people go about reproducing and exposing their lovely hearts, being the most human on our behalf.

Meanwhile, the archivists are more like angels – invisible mediators of truth and goodness. I think it’s probably good for me to remain as invisible as possible for a good stretch yet, and I’d invite you to consider that possibility for yourself as well.

Talking to people is a kind of nakedness, so only the beautiful should speak. But they will only speak foolishness if they have no way of hearing the voices of the past. So the artists need help. Not help from archivists directly, but help through them, from the teachings of the most virtuous of the past, and this angelic transmission can only take place through the work of quiet, clothed humans.

The deformed are welcome to join me. It gets lonely out here on these library islands.

We Are the Waters

Psalm 44: Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

At one point in City of God Augustine describes the ark as a symbol for the church. The animals inside were not preserved out of necessity, in order to restore any species, as distant islands or angels could have done the job just a well. But the pairs of animals were preserved to represent how the nations would be preserved by the church from the destruction of the world, the church being the ark floating on top of the deluge.

It’s a compelling model, but I’m not convinced because we, the gentiles, are not just the animals. We are the waters. We are the floods slowly seeping into all regions of the world, according to the carefully timed sluice gates of the Lord. The church is swallowing the sea and Christ is plucking the false believers out of her mouth. Augustine’s picture is one of the church wandering within the dissolving world, but I’m more inclined to think of whole worlds being preserved within the church. It is an eschatological riddle and, when it comes down to it, my position is taken on the basis of intuition. People are more than themselves. They aren’t just a community of wanderers, they are parents with homes with basements that always flood and children who grow up exploring the woods of their homeland.

Do humans belong here or do they not? Are they a community of wanderers or a kingdom of lords with dominion over certain appointed places? Are we to be planted or are we always going to be mixed about in the raging heart of the world? Maybe both.

Jesus whispered into the wind storm, into our heart sea:

Be still, and know that I am God.

I will be exalted among the nations,

I will be exalted in the earth.

Brief Thoughts on the ‘Empire State Tribune’ Hit Piece

The article from the King’s College student newspaper strikes me as pure classist insult. NSA and its students are essentially being criticized on our institution’s resources, and so ultimately on our individual means and how we use them. How dare we not have the resources or even desire to place our college in the center of New York City? But our so-called insularity is actually the opposite of monastic, if one takes note of how many marriages (and subsequent children) are produced in the context of this institution. The point is that here in Moscow a different kind of wealth has been prioritized: the wealth of strong families.

I’d love to see that sort of thing happening in downtown New York, too, but the living costs are obviously too prohibitive. How many young couples do you see starting large families in downtown New York? That would only be possible at a highly selective class status. This doesn’t invalidate the whole project of King’s College; in the abstract, I think it’s admirable to try to move a classical college into the very heart of the modern world. But NSA students and other Muscovites shouldn’t be insulted for having a different level of means or a different vision of what ends their wealth and labor should be directed towards, and we certainly should not be equated with full-on LARPing “knighthood” and “ladyship” colleges.

You’ll notice that the author is happy to bring that up while ignoring the fact that King’s College puts its students into Hogwarts Houses literally named after Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

(pictured: the new york yacht club)

Our Constant Cameras

We are always stealing our own souls because we are always making meaningless images of ourselves. Every day the online tribe (several billion souls strong) practices casual visual cannibalism. Remember that cannibalism is a communal practice. We will stop bearing children because the machines can bear images for us.

“Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and set up for himself the pillar that is in the King’s Valley, for he said, “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance.” He called the pillar after his own name, and it is called Absalom’s monument to this day.” (2 Samuel 18:18)

“In the first place there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue (and this is a union which is formed, not of deliberate purpose, but because, in common with other animals and with plants, mankind have a natural desire to leave behind them an image of themselves), and of natural ruler and subject, that both may be preserved.” (Aristotle’s Politics, 1.2)

The Ghost of My Twelve Year Old Self

One muggy night this summer I stayed up late on my computer, sifting through old files I had made as a twelve year old. It was fun: I found old journal entries, story ideas, drawings. I caught a glimpse into a world I had left behind years ago. It was like cutting my own trunk open and seeing a whole tree ring of being, a year of my life that had long been overgrown by the many burnt bark years of puberty.

Among the stories were a small set of tales I had told about the Tails Doll. Now, the Tails Doll was this one-off asset from an obscure Sonic the Hedgehog game, a fairly unsettling puppet version of one of the main characters, Tails, who was your average young talking fox. But memes will be memes and people started telling scary stories about the Tails Doll appearing to gamers and cursing them or killing them or whatever. I don’t remember a single one of those stories, but I must have been excited enough by the idea to write out a few of my own.

So, what was there to say about the literary aspirations of my pubescent self? Each story in its own way reminded one of an archipelago; that is, each story had about a paragraph or two (the big islands) where the real ‘meat’ of the story happened, with some solitary lines (the little islands) scattered throughout to make the transitions very dramatic.

The transitions were very dramatic.

We’ll be kind to my younger self and say that I just hadn’t figured out how to get a story going. The plot of each story more or less involved a young boy, usually in his bedroom, who accidentally invoked the feared beast by humming its cursed theme song, or playing its cursed video game. In a few of the stories, the narration was in first person. In a few others, the main character had names like ‘Zach’ or ‘Mark’ or ‘Jared Anderson.’  Hm.

Interestingly enough, when I was the protagonist, the Tails Doll would never successfully kill me, but he did manage to kill all of the third-person protagonists. At the end of one episode, I was being hunted down in the suburbs by the creature but then rescued by a mysterious young man who banished it with stabs and then recruited me into his organization dedicated to fighting the menace. After that point, I began to record interviews of other young boys who were brought into the organization after having harrowing experiences with the dreaded Tails Doll.

The style was interesting. There were moments when I took a stab at humor and it didn’t work. There were also moments when I used words like ‘bilge’, ‘baffled’, and ‘patu paraoa’, which one wouldn’t necessarily expect from a young person. But most of all, it was just very boring. My young self had not understand the necessity of pacing, or detailed description, or interesting character interactions. It’s more like I had been listing what happened than truly telling a story. Again, we have to be kind to my younger self and realize that I had just started to make those awkward wing flaps that are the beginning of flight. Indeed, reading those stories was about as uncomfortable an experience as it would have been to watch myself, naked and fresh from the egg, wildly flailing my stubby arms at the keyboard and expecting to somehow get a good story out of it.

It all made me paranoid, though. Not that I might suddenly bring the wrath of an old creepypasta upon me, but rather paranoid that I hadn’t grown as a writer in the past seven or more years. Had I learned to pace well? To give detailed description? Did I have interesting character interactions?

Hm.

Now, it’s important you understand the layout of my room. My desk is in my closet, and at the top of the closet is a small portal into the attic, covered with some cheap semiwooden board that, though duct taped to the portal, does a terrible job of keeping the warmth in my bedroom in winter. This, I swear, is the unadulterated architectural truth. In the summer I can feel the roiling black heat of the attic trying to leak onto my head as I sit in various hunched and contorted positions over my softly whistling laptop. I will probably have tremendous back problems when I am older. I only wish I could get a job in the circus: give me a laptop and I would be able to sprawl in such ungainly and unnatural fashions that Aunt Fanny’d lose the stuffing in her parlor seat, that’s for sure.

All in all, with such a spooky set-up, I can’t believe I thought I was going to get away with reading all of those old cursed stories. Sure enough, after reading all of them, I heard a screeching sound above my head. The attic board was being removed. Then, in the muggy darkness above appeared the little fox face of the Tails Doll.

I waved to it awkwardly, not sure of what I should say. It descended as if it were a spider on a silken string. I rolled my chair away across the room and let the Tails Doll rest itself on my laptop keyboard. I hoped that it wouldn’t try to mess with my hard drive in anyway. I’ve got a lot of important stuff on there, after all. It would suck if all my journal entries got cursed and turned to virtual mush.

The Tails Doll sat limply for a while, so I decided to man up and break the ice.

‘Hey man, it’s been a long time.’

‘Too long, Mike, too long.’

‘You’re not here to collect my soul or anything, right? I mean, I don’t remember selling it or anything and it would kind of suck if I arbitrarily had to be damned forever because I wrote some crappy stories about you in middle school.’

‘Don’t worry about it, man. Water under the bridge.’ Tails Doll was being reticent, I could tell. It had meant to confront me about something, but was now freezing up. I didn’t blame it; I’m pretty bad at thinking on the spot myself.

‘Well, welcome back to my bedroom. As you can see I’ve got, uh, a Pikachu doll on top of my bookshelf, I don’t know if you’re into that or whatever, and there’s a Sonic the Hedgehog t-shirt right next to you in the closet there. You know Sonic, right? I’m pretty sure I just read in the journal that I wrote as a 12 year old about getting that very t-shirt at Wal-Mart.’

‘You wrote a whole entry in your journal about getting a Sonic the Hedgehog t-shirt at Wal-Mart?’

‘I… yeah. I had a boring childhood! Or youth, or whatever.’

‘Tell me about it!’ I misunderstood this a first. I thought Tails Doll was just expressing casual sympathy, but then realized that he was curious: he genuinely wanted me to tell him about my childhood.

‘Gee, I don’t know. I stayed inside a lot. I was homeschooled. I mostly met all my friends online until I got to high school.’

‘Go on.’ Tails Doll’s jewel was bouncing back and forth in the air like bait in the lake. I felt like I was the one being fished for.

‘I played a lot of video games and read a lot of books. I wasn’t very curious and didn’t want to learn or go to school or go outside. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a writer for a long time, and I kept a journal of my story ideas. I wrote about ideas all the time, but I never actually wrote stories. Honestly, I think the most I ever wrote when I was young… was about you. Yikes, that hurts to say. I mean, sorry, it’s nothing against you, it’s just…’

‘You wish you’d written more than bad creepypastas and one page fanfics that never went anywhere. I get it.’

‘Yeah, exactly. When I look through my old journals or my old stories… on the one hand, I’m really grateful. I’m glad I was earnest and had friends online that I talked with. Without all those ideas, silly and immature as they might be, I wouldn’t be who I am today and I wouldn’t have had some of the ideas that I really love, the ones that I’m really proud to bear and hope to share with others someday. Okay, so, I still love all those internet friends that I had and I wish them well. But I can’t help but think that there’s something wrong with me because I spent so much of my time growing up interacting with people in a really shallow way. Internet friendship is great but it’s so cold and disembodied. You can tell when you read my journals. On the one hand, my vocabulary and awareness of narrative concepts might have been higher than the average twelve year old. But the way that I connect those ideas and talk about them is so immature. I’m just not interested in good things or writing good things: I just want to consume interesting entertainment and then replicate it in the pages of my journal. And part of that is excusable because I was young and hadn’t fully developed: that’s the earnest, childlike side of things that I appreciate. But part of that isn’t excusable: part of that was just wrong and has always been wrong, and has always been dragging my soul down. I was a fat, vapid child who only wanted to please himself and didn’t want to work for it. I hated learning. I hated poetry. I hated both my English composition class and my Latin language class. And most of all, I hated talking with real humans. As many as I can name of the subjects and activities that would make one a better writer, these were the things that I reviled–except for reading, and thinking, and sitting on my ass.’

‘Do you feel like any of that has changed?’

‘Oh, for sure. I love having the chance to study English, Latin, and poetry. And I treasure getting to talk to people. But those moments seem to be so rare, and when they come upon me like a sudden wave I’m knocked off my feet. I don’t know what to do. I keep telling myself that each time I talk with someone I am talking with an immortal being, full of experiences and learning and words and powers that I will never grasp but can always admire… but then I don’t know what to do in a conversation besides strive to be the least awkward I can be. That always becomes the number one priority. I want to be as kind and as encouraging as I can, not to mention funny or imaginative or even wisely opening myself up to be inspired by others’ words. But talking happens so fast. I can’t control the pacing the same way that I can online, in a chat or messaging or texting. I can’t stop and think about it like I can with a book. Not without making the other person really uncomfortable.’

‘Do you feel like talking with people is a large influence on your writing?’

‘That’s what writing is! It’s just a different way of talking with people. That’s why I love reading books. It’s a way of having a conversation with a great man, preferably one who’s dead. And so I want to write stories, so that I can enter into that centuries long form of the conversation, and have people in their own century respond to me. But I feel like my imagination, my words, my tongue of fire is still in bondage because of the pride I had as a twelve year old. I will speak and I will write because that is just the burning of one end of the fire of the soul to the other. But I want my words to be a sacred fire on the altar, ready to deliver sacrifices to God, not some wildfire that sets the state alight and fills all the eyes of the fall season with smoke.’

‘I wish I could help, Mike. But I’m just a bad creepypasta.’

‘Me too, dude. Me too.’

 

A Thoroughly Modern Novel

That Hideous Strength is not without its virtues. There are good ideas: power hungry modernism is bad. Men and women are different. Places are important. Surrealism is dangerous. There are also good elements: a boss who practices astral projection. Lunar sex bots. Merlin in the modern day. A bloody banquet overrun by beasts.

However, I shouldn’t have had to read 400 pages of people talking about these things in order to experience them. It’s really that simple. For all he rails about the danger of grand ideas eclipsing nature, the nature of the book conveys the story dead on arrival and pickled in Lewis’s own conceptual juices. He himself fails to fully convey the rich abundance of the nature that he praises. There are shadows of brilliant moments, such as the banquet. But that should have been when all the characters and movements converged, though they don’t. There was not much movement to begin with, just talking. There wasn’t much character to begin with, either, just talk-pieces. The enemies are dealt with anti-climatically and impersonally, although that one scene with all the naked men covered in blood was surprising.

I think that people who enjoy That Hideous Strength are understandable but misguided. They are the sort of people who agree with C.S. Lewis and are dazzled by his ideas. I, too, appreciate his ideas. But Lewis in so many ways fails his own standard. He spouts so many good, thoughtful ideas about life and nature, but never makes those ideas come to life. He never tells a story.

It’s hard to appreciate some of the ideas because I am seventy years downstream of them, and have either indirectly gotten them from people influenced by Lewis or just stumbled upon them myself. However, there were some personally challenging insights. For example, at one point a main character is placed in a room full of alienating, surreal, and quite funny pictures. They depict such vagaries as a woman with a mouth full of hair, a mantis eating another mantis playing the fiddle, beetles crawling under the table at the Lord’s Supper, fun stuff like that.

These are normally things that I would be greatly amused by, things that I would be pleased to create or propagate. But in context, the paintings are being used by the evil scientists to brainwash the character, to alienate him from the idea that art can be meaningful. This was contrasted with the growing conviction that the main character had of a reality which was Normal and Good and Straight. Without analyzing 20th century art movements, which I still think are valuable to contemplate and simply don’t know enough about to judge, this moment in the book struck a chord with me. I find in myself a growing distaste for the bizarre, one that runs contrary with the custom of my teenage years. Am I slowly becoming normcore? Hm. Maybe I’m just realizing how boring I really am, after all.

Or, maybe I’m bored by the perverse and how long I’ve been occupied by it. By pursuing the interesting (that which delights the eyes) for so long, I’ve become a very boring, slippery person. Hard to talk to. I think there’s something unpleasant about the nonsensical in the way that it can be so easily manufactured and presented delightfully in a given story, and then put on t-shirts at Hot Topic. What does the quirky have to do with pursuing The Ultimate Good? I don’t want to spend my whole life collecting interesting tidbits and images to adorn my head. I’ve already spent my whole life doing that, and I’m tired.

And yet, I am still delighted by a film like a Mood Indigo. Absurdity is not bad. The deep silliness of something like Mood Indigo, though, is still meaningful. Though often nonsensical in the particulars, it is always very relatable to the very straightforward romance taking place, unhindered by the fantastical amusements taking place around it. Though perhaps that is a problem in of itself: if all these odd elements are being depicted onscreen, why do they have zero effect on the characters? Hm.

In the past I wrote a theological defense of the weird. Reading it over, I see that I anticipated a lot of what I’m feeling now and responded to it. But I don’t know if I responded to it well enough. Quirkiness is (much of the time) very shallow, and it’s a way for clever guys to get away with being lazy or effeminate. But, when it goes beyond just signals, it can be the means for something new and healthy and creative coming about. I don’t want to be just a quirky, effeminate man. But I do want to offer something new, healthy, and creative. I refuse to go down the aesthetic road of middle-aged, midwestern bankers that so many say is Normal and Good and Straight.

I suppose I don’t see any way for me NOT to be quirky and effeminate in my day to day life. Where are the trees for me to chop down? Where are the seas for me to sail? Where are the women for me to court? Ah, anyway, if I saw a real tree, sea, or woman, I’d run and hide. I have, and I did.

One thing that immediately rises to the mind is a defense of the mysterious and the arcane, something that is naturally disliked by the mainstream world, secular and evangelical. This would also be opposed to the shallowly surreal or absurd; the mysterious is deeply meaningful and personal and intimate, just not fully understood. The absurd (or attempted absurdity, let’s say), I find to my great disappointment, can often be understood quite well, and divvied up and sold too easily. What can’t be sold? That would be a rare and precious thing, and far from here, and if I did see such a thing I’d run and hide.

To be true to your sex, that is, to be a manly man or womanly woman, you really just have to be faithful in any given garden you’ve been placed in. You have to know your body and what ought to be done with it–to it! Faithfulness and open eyes, I think, will lead one past the quirky and past the boring and quite suddenly into the mysterious, arcane, and beautiful.

With That Hideous Strength, Lewis may not have been faithful to the nature of storytelling. But I think he was faithful to his calling as a man of letters. He thought great thoughts and shared them, and I am grateful to have read them.

Playthings are good. Weird conceptual chimeras can be very fun. I don’t think I need to force myself to stop enjoying the bizarre; it’s worth playing with and contemplating! It can lead to beautiful visions and new insights about natures. But I have played and played and played for so long. I want something Real. I want something Good. Do I need to work for that? I don’t need to work for my salvation, after all. Maybe I am being offered a work that I am unwilling to receive.

Perelandra Imperiled

Or not, because nothing much happens.

There are a few wonderful images in this book. First, the main character spends the entirety of the story naked, which is great. I wish more books went like that. Secondly, the ever-shifting floating islands of Perelandra have to be one of the most interesting world mechanics I’ve encountered in a long time. I love the planet itself, its islands and golden dome of a sky. The third image that sticks out is the moment when Ransom is forced to mercy kill an alien crab. Not only is that a disturbing moment, but it is effective foreshadowing for an even more disturbing and powerful scene. To what ends would you go to protect Eve from being tempted and plunging the entire world into sin?

However, with that paragraph, I’ve just about summed up everything worthwhile about the story. The rest is either a lot of needless bloviating or a lot of cosmic/spiritual speculation that would be interesting if it was anything more than speculation. The book could have easily been a hundred pages shorter, and I could have saved an hour or more. I’d love to make an abridged version some time.

Apparently an opera was written based off this book. I would love to see it. You can listen to some audio clips here: http://www.transpositions.co.uk/cslewis-science-fiction/

One thing that’s worth noting is the high density of double entendre. I’d love to see a Freudian analysis of the work. I won’t name any specific lines, but I’m sure you could find a few suggestive moments yourself if you just flip through a few chapters. I know that some of the innuendo had to be intentional, it being the planet Venus and all, but with a lot of it I’m just not sure…

(pillars of burning blood)
As funny as I find all of it, there’s a sort of perversity that I don’t want to be encouraging, that sort of salacious pleasure that some people get out of obsessive homoerotic readings of such texts. So I’m sorry if I’ve crossed a line by suggesting anything close to that and offended anyone’s conscience.

All in all, the book gives me hope. For one, it shows that someone can start off as a highly conceptual and pompous writer but then end up writing works as well plotted and exciting as the Chronicles of Narnia. Secondly, it shows that with just a few cool images and a lot of philosophy, you can convince someone to write an opera for you. I don’t claim to be as smart as C.S. Lewis, but being in my own writing similarly conceptual, pompous, and bad at having story elements actually interact with each other, I come away from his work with hope.

Greetings From Thulcandra

After I came to Moscow, Idaho, it quickly became apparent that I would have to spend some more time with C.S. Lewis. I have managed to push it off until now due to having read through the Chronicles half a dozen times, as well as the Screwtape Letters once. But over the past two years I’ve gotten so tired of references to the Space Trilogy and Til We Have Faces piling up all around without me being able to appreciate them. And so this May, all will change!

The Space Trilogy has sat on my father’s shelf for longer than I have been alive, and I remember many times as a child picking the books off the shelf and examining the covers. While interested, for some reason I never felt compelled to actually turn to the front page and start reading. As of this morning, though, I have completed the first installment for the first time.

It was pretty good. The criticism of modernity, while needful, got heavy-handed at the very end. It started out very funny, with the arch-physicist Weston being forced to speak like in pidgin while insisting he was the superior being. From my privileged position I can say that Lewis is beating a dead horse, but the horse was very much alive in his day, so I shouldn’t judge.  What I wasn’t expecting was a recurring and piercing critique of English imperialism, and I feel like that only sharpened the criticism of modernity.

The criticism of modernity is at its best when it is manifest, and it is best manifest in the book as the idea that the heavens are not just empty space. This is presented in t wonderful mythology of ancient cosmic warfare, specifically, the spectacular idea that our world’s guardian angel, Satan (the prince of the power of the air), has demonically enshrouded us from other worlds. But I felt Oyarsa was given too much dialogue and that took some of the angelic mystery away. Who would have thought that a world-guiding spirit would have the diction of C.S. Lewis?

This is a book of ideas, and the ideas are good. But, I do want the world building to go deeper. The fictional names are excellent, and this is a very noteworthy accomplishment for science fiction at that time. I love the word ‘Thulcandra.’ The prose is okay. I wish the descriptions of the landscape were clearer and more detailed. I feel like Lewis could have done a better job on the prose throughout, as is shown in the book itself with the occasional hilarious line or revelatory gems such as: ‘the pale earthlight behind him.’ I wish there was more of that, and I think Lewis was capable of such.

What is evidently absent from the book is vigorous plotting and conflict. By the end, while it is a book about many things, the only thing that actually happens is that a man walks around. This is sad, because it begins with a delightful premise: the main character, a philologist, is kidnapped and launched to another planet against his will. That’s great! But he then proceeds to spend most of the book away from the antagonists or really any danger at all. When the antagonists reappear at the end, they are feeble and impotent. This lack of conflict perhaps could be excusable if Lewis went even deeper into the world-building, but the three species on Malacandra remain for the most part caricatures. They are interesting beings and you do feel an emotional connection with Hyoi and Augray, but we just don’t see them do very much at all.

Worth the read.

Home and Enclave

There are two ways of establishing a household with others: a home and an enclave. The latter is gender exclusive. The ideal form of this would be a monastery, and the perversion of this would be bad monasteries, such as the many college dormitories you see in America today in both secular and Christian colleges. These housing situations are founded on a lie: that it is good (or at least neutral) for men with different purposes and virtues, men from wildly different walks of life, to be arbitrarily thrown together in small, condensed spaces with no means of order, authority, or recourse. An RA is hardly an abbot. Dorm life is organized much more by profanity, squalor, doritos, and late night video game seshes than it is organized by prayer, fasting, and psalm-sing. The ability for home-making is reduced to the small artifacts with which a given man decorates his living space, all the way from pin-ups to branches decorated with Christmas lights. They are unable to provide any hospitality because they have no dominion or freedom. The ideal model for unmarried men, then, is to come together in enclaves built around shared vocation and ideals, so that they can help develop each other’s skills and minds. They can create a space of welcome for travelers. The perverse form of this is a fraternity, where the shared ideal is, once again, base sensuality.

The other way of living with another person is by home. This is not gender exclusive because you are able to bound to someone of the opposite sex by blood or by covenant. The bodies of men and women are not designed to live and work together day to day according to ideal purposes, at least in the same way that women and women can and that men and men can. Rather, they are designed to be joined bodily, either in the marital sense or the filial sense. But we know that it is perverse and pathetic for adult men to live only with their mothers and perhaps even for men to live only with their adult sisters. It is not that there need be any immoral relations between them; incest happens but it happens because of sin, not because of living arrangement.

An arrangement in such a fashion is not perverse because of incestuous paranoia but because it denies the reality of what men, women, and homes are suppose to be. The nature of a home is to be a place where a man has left his father and mother and is joined bodily with a woman. Their body together forms the living space for new life. The parents’ body in the broad sense (that is, everywhere they have authority, within their house and on their land), nurtures the child after it has left the literal body. Then that child in turn comes of age and leaves to join an enclave or form a new home. Adult men who do not do this are often seen as infantile, for good reason: they have not left the ‘body’ of their mothers. Let us remember that mothers are not just home makers; they are a world and world makers: out of and around their body they bring abundant life. But this only comes about from the union of a husband and a wife: seed and field together make a farm. For a man to leave his father and mother is to leave an entire world, like leaving the earth itself, but it is necessary if he is going to make his own world. Groups of men or women caught in the In-Between Seasons of Being should form enclaves together with their kind; way-stations.

Some would say that an unmarried adult man and an unmarried adult woman can live together without immorality, without touching one another. Let us say they are great friends, have no sexual interest in each other, and need a roommate for a season. Now it is very possible that they could go through that season without any sexual interaction. Their life together would still be unhealthy, because they have denied what it means to live in a home and habit with another person. A group of men or a group of women may be organized in daily living by a shared code or ideal. A man and a woman may be organized in daily living by their shared bodies and shared covenant. But a man and a woman who live together who do not share blood, body, covenant, or code really cannot live healthfully at all. They are essentially both hermits, with the added challenge of living very close to an actual physical body by which to become tempted or at the very least confused. Their home will be a confused and impoverished one, because they have denied themselves the ability to be joined in any meaningful sense beyond friendship, and friendship is very different than a home.

Now, why can’t a man and a woman share a code? Why can’t we have co-ed monasteries? Besides the obvious practical impossibilities (that is to say, non-stop hanky-panky), from a purely theoretical level: could it happen? I would say not. A code of life has to be intentionally designed to the vocation of the people sharing that code. A man and a woman, on account of their separate bodily realities, have inherently different vocations. Even within a shared occupation, a man and a woman naturally express their vocation differently because of physical necessity.

Men and women are supposed to be joined bodily, either through shared blood or through the intimacy of marriage. I believe well enough that men and women can be good friends without any sexual immorality, because I have seen it. This is only natural: after all, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. But the ways of friendship are distinct from the ways of daily home life. Even setting aside the temptation for immorality, I cannot imagine that living in closeness unbound day and night could be in any way healthy for one’s friendship in any season. So there may or may not be sin in the end. But I do believe there will be a denial of nature and thus impoverishment.

Still, perhaps someone could offer a concrete example of a man and a woman living together in total virtue, perfect love, and a passionate engagement with the world, all without any of the bonds I believe are necessary for daily home life: vision, body, blood, covenant, code. If so, I would have to revise my understanding. But I can’t imagine that ever being offered.