Exploring where life and story meet!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Of an unhappy ending and great literature

Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books, but I am gaining a new appreciation (and adoration?) for Jane Austen and her various works, from her hysterical and fabulous 'Love and Friendship' written in her late teen years with the timeless advice to 'run mad as often as you wish, but do not faint!' to the much maligned (by modern critics) practical, sweet but timid Fanny (note to self, never name a heroine Fanny!) and the patient, long-suffering, but faithful Anne and the ruthless Lady Susan (I really want to see the new movie, titled 'Love and Friendship' but based on the 'Lady Susan' book).  I need to delve back into 'Emma' and 'Sense and Sensibility' yet, not to mention 'Northanger Abby,' but I've recently perused 'Mansfield Park' and 'Persuasion' again with a much better appreciation of both book and author.

There is no argument that Miss Austen is a literary genius, but there is something far more beautiful hidden in her words than her sheer brilliance, which makes each work a timeless and beloved treasure, proved by the fact that she is still a household name 200 years after her death and her works are some of the most adapted to and beloved of cinematic productions.  I once watched the movie 'Becoming Jane,' which is supposed to be based on Miss Austen's life and disappointing romance, which made for a rather unhappy ending, as all Austen movies must end with a happily ever after, but this one obviously didn't, but if Miss Austen had had her happily ever after, would we have had ours through all her beautiful and thoughtful writings?  She manages to delve deep into the very heart of love and sorrow and suffering and unfulfilled longings and hopes deferred or dashed.  Her heroines are flawed, they suffer, but ever they do the right thing, clinging to virtue though it seems like to be the end of all joy, only to realize it was but a stormy twilight before a glorious dawn.

But Jane's tale did not end with a kiss and a roll of the credits, rather she died at a fairly young age and never knew the romantic bliss her heroines enjoyed, but had they been real daughters many hearts?  I do not think so, though books have the advantage of being and remaining the creatures the writer births, whereas people have a tendency to make their own decisions and assert their own wills, to grow and change throughout life, whereas Miss Austen's words are still the same as those she set to paper two centuries ago.  She has not only captured what it is to be human, with all our innate foibles and follies, virtues and evils, but what it is to be a virtuous woman in a jaded, cynical, materialistic world, to remain staunch and firm in the face of loneliness, rejection, betrayal, misunderstanding, and scorn, to stick by your guns when all the world thinks you foolish or mad, refreshing indeed in the age of social media!

I do not wish for anyone to suffer, but it is an innate part of our existence and a vital part of our growth and character development, the question is how do we face it?  Do we grow angry and bitter, blaming fate or others for our circumstances (whether they are due to our actions or not), or do we accept them as graciously as we can, letting them mold and shape our characters, improving what we can, enduring what we can't.  Had Miss Austen not been trifled with by her own Wickham, would her writings resound with so many to this very day, probably not, had she grown angry and bitter and cynical, they likewise might have perished rather than leaving a lovely legacy to console and inspire countless thousands of young woman into the distant future.  While in her lifetime her writing did not accrue their deserved fame or devotion, what came after would astonish her completely, I think.  Though she died barren and a spinster, of little renown or fame or wealth and of little account as the world has it, I think her legacy far greater than that of a host of forgotten kings or rich men now moldering in crumbling tombs.  No matter how the world defines success at this moment, it gives one pause to wonder what our own legacy will be, will we be faithful and constant, brave and patient in our own trials and suffering, and what will come of it after we are gone?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

An Excellent Article

If you are reading merely for the sake of your bucket list, or because you think you ought to, or to impress your nerdy friends, here's a great article on reading for the story's sake:

https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2016/08/where-her-whimsy-took-me

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

As go the stories

I don't usually do too much on the pop culture front, save an occasional movie review, but as it is the modern form of storytelling, I can't completely ignore it on a blog devoted to just that.  I ran across this article with a theory as to why Star Wars seems to be beating out Star Trek in not only fiscal rewards but in fan devotion as well, and it is an interesting point, but I think it goes a little deeper even than people getting tired of being lectured at by what should be a rollicking story.  Story isn't just a diversion, it is the very essence of what it is to be human, a way of communicating and understanding, hoping and remembering, wishing and regretting, wondering and fearing; it transcends culture, race, time, nation, gender, age, religion, politics, and everything else that separates us.  Like music and laughter, while we may not have the same taste, it is something that unites us and speaks to everyone of the human persuasion.  Thus a good story is innately human: it laughs and cries, there is doubt and hope, fear and regret, darkness and light, good and evil, life and death, love and sorrow, it explores some deep crevice of the human soul: of what it means to be human and alive, to live and breath, ultimately what it means to be.

I was something of a scholar of both franchises in my youth, before both sagas rewrote the tale.  It was something of a blow to learn that everything that happened before the launch of the new Star Trek movies was actually an alternate reality and with the relaunch of Star Wars, apparently all those books I read never happened either.  But they are both interesting 'worlds,' with a vast array of characters and plot lines to explore and both succeeded often enough in telling a good tale that people were hooked and thirsted after more, but both also had their sore thumbs and awkward teenager stage that we'd all like to forget as well.  Personally, I prefer Star Wars to Star Trek, especially after the reboots of both, but I was hardcore for both 'back in the day,' but now simply revisit the sagas from time to time as I might drop by on some former friend of my youth when I am in town but think little of otherwise.

What Star Wars does well and Star Trek only occasionally succeeds at is the pursuit of the mysterious, it has a mythos and a reality beyond what we can see, feel, or smell, there is a Something there that gives meaning and purpose to the story and characters, rather than being a mere fable suggesting how we ought to live but giving us no inclination as to why.  Whether the viewer is religious or not, whether they think there is such a thing as the 'supernatural,' they are still human and have an innate sense of 'something more,' a thirst for meaning and purpose and that their life too is a story of significance with a rational arc, any story that fails to recognize that innate quality is inevitably doomed to die for it will not resonate with its consumers.

The Star Wars prequels failed because they got so focused on the sociopolitical/bureaucratic maneuverings of the Republic and Jedi and Sith that they failed utterly to realistically portray the struggles and fall from grace of the pivotal character, which formed only a poorly acted subplot to all the battles and action and political schemes.  In a good story, no one cares much for nations or organizations or factions, we care for the characters and what comes of them.  That is one reason modern movies aren't drawing the attention or interest that they used to: there are no good stories or characters any more, there is just more and more action or a more 'cutting edge' social or political statement.  There is much 'entertainment' and very little enlightenment.  It may be the same reason I prefer old books to anything of modern advent.  There's no core, no heart, no meaning or purpose; there's no point.

Star Trek always did best when it wrestled with some aspect of what it is to be human, when there was some purpose or quest for which the characters must risk themselves for the benefit of others, rather than growing preachy and politically correct and stodgy and curmudgeony and stiff and inflexible, telling us how to live rather than why.  Star Trek V is probably one of the worst movies ever made, yet I love it, not just because it has great corny dialogue, but because it has heart, it isn't afraid to wrestle with the big questions, and the main character has so much charisma and enthusiasm you can't help but be drawn in despite the ridiculous plot and awful effects.  When they forget about the Prime Directive and trying to make a political or social statement, they do well, otherwise it is just another episode of 'Mr. Roger's Neighborhood' set in outer space.

It is the contrast we see between the incarnations of Tolkien's signature works brought to cinematic life: The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit both had their movie trilogy, produced by the same team.  The former was beloved and esteemed while the latter was a joke.  And it was not for lack of talent, as was the downfall of the Star Wars prequels' Anakin Skywalker, for they had some excellent actors who were never allowed to act.  While the original story (in my opinion) was weaker in The Hobbit, there was still plenty to work with.  But they focused so much on action and adventure and frenetic activity that it made absolutely no sense and we had no time to come to care a fig about any of the characters or their quest.

Even in literature, a great saga can fall flat on its face when it takes itself too seriously and forgets what a true story is actually about.  There are several extensive and popular book series that I never finished, though I was engrossed at the beginning, because they became too weighted down with their own importance or got lost in a morass of meaningless detail or had no coherence when it came to their own particular worldview, and I am one of those readers that would stay up until nearly dawn (with a full class schedule the next day) to find out what happens next if it was a good book.

Every great saga will have its successes and its blunders, but perhaps the scariest thing of all is that we, as individuals and a society, seem to be losing our ability to appreciate a good story, that we take the pablum out of Hollywood or on TV and think it is all there is or can ever be.  We forget the tales of old, that were tales indeed, and rather sit down with bleary eyes in front of the fifteenth reincarnation of a particular series and think nothing of it, for we do not think at all, we are merely receptacles for information, and whatever is poured into our hearts and heads is quickly replaced by the sixteenth and seventeenth incarnation of something else.  We no longer taste and digest and linger over a good tale, rather we are just a pipe, a conduit for mediocre entertainment, glancing at it momentarily as it rushes by, already intent on the next 'great' thing to come flowing past with all the speed of modern data.  We fear the stories are losing their humanity, but I fear the tales have lost their humanity because we are losing our own.  Ware lest the salt lose its savor!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The world's greatest paradox

There is a scene in C.S. Lewis's 'Voyage of the Dawn Treader' where a nasty little boy becomes a dragon (the scene in the movie is also well done) and must eventually shed his 'dragonish skin' to become not only a boy again but his true self, but no matter how hard he tries, how many nasty skins he sheds, he just can't do it on his own, he needs the Lion's help.  It is an excellent metaphor (Lewis's intention?) for 'dying to self,' or 'taking up your cross' as it were.  We take what we think is our life, and nail it to the cross daily, only to find that it wasn't our true self, but rather an imagined, twisted, writhing thing of slime and ash, and finally we slay the vile creature only to find another, nearly the same, just beneath it.  We hate that false self yet we love it, much like Tolkien's Gollum, twisted and miserable from years of keeping the One ring.

We must fight that false self, we must endure the shame, the misery, the sorrow, until it lies dead at our feet, but we can't do it ourselves, we need to let Him slay the beast, and then and only then, can we discover that He loves us through it all, even at our worst, for the ugliness of Calvary is found in every quivering soul, but so too can its glory be ours, but only by enduring the cross, only then will the words, 'to gain your life you must lose it,' make sense, only then our we truly free.  'His yoke is easy, His burden light,' but it is a yoke and a burden still, but one far lighter and less grim than any the world has put upon us, but we must set ours down to pick His up.

Monday, July 25, 2016

A story too large or a reader too small

C.S. Lewis is perhaps my favorite author (or maybe it is Jane Austen, any who…though I have many favorite stories written by various other personalities, he is the one author (besides the esteemed Miss Austen) that I enjoy everything he has written, fiction or not).  I love that he is obviously a genius, but writes in such a way that almost anyone can read it and understand and yet find it interesting, but I think I met my match in 'That Hideous Strength,' the third of his 'Space Trilogy.'  I've read it before, and until now I never really appreciated it all that much, not because the book isn't worth a read, but rather that the reader's mind was too small, I was not ready for such a challenge.  It seems I needed a far more classical and philosophical education before I could tackle this so-called fairytale.  A thorough knowledge of Arthurian Legend, Latin, the fairytales of George MacDonald, Medieval Literature, Greek Mythology, the history of Numinor (Tolkien anyone?), Middle English, Philosophy, poetry…singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages (oops!, there's Jane Austen again)…and a thousand other disciplines are of immense help (thankfully organic chemistry and calculus are not required, I'm a bit rusty) but not required.

The last book I tackled that gave me such trouble was Chesterton's 'The Man Who Was Thursday,' and not even the experts agree on the meaning of that one, so I don't feel too bad.  I love Chesterton's humor and wit, but sometimes I just can't seem to understand what he is saying, but my how he says it, whatever IT is!

Did I like it?  I'm not sure if I can answer that question.  I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer that question!  Does my opinion even matter?  I think it is a bit above my ability to like or dislike.  It reminds me of dark chocolate as a child: I loved milk chocolate but thought the dark was nasty, but as I have grown up and my tastes have matured and deepened, I love nothing more than dark chocolate, it is an acquired taste and though I've never acquired a taste for fermented beverages, fine cigars, or coffee, I would assume it is very similar; I am still a child as compared to this book.  It is a complex book, mixing a variety of genres, philosophies, and styles, tackling any number of topics, sometimes deep, sometimes trifling.  Narnia is milk chocolate, Screwtape is semi-sweet, this is a very rich dark.  If you are looking for a book to make you think or to go 'aha!' or to savor or to ponder over, to expand your literary horizons as it were, this is certainly such a book.  How's that for a straight answer!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Practical Parenting and Peter Pan

I once heard that being sick is your body's way of forcing you to take a break (obviously from someone who has never heard of germ theory, just kidding!, stress makes you far more susceptible to illness by weakening your immune system), but it sure is a lousy vacation.  We've had the plague at our house for the last couple weeks, besides the necessities of life, I really didn't feel like accomplishing anything, leaving me time to actually read.  It has been a very long time since I visited either Middle Earth or Narnia, and it was a very enjoyable trip.  What amazes me is that every time I reread a favorite book, I come away with something new every time, exactly like spending time with an old and dear friend.  For some reason, I'm really fascinated by the idea of family, childhood, and character development of late (probably because I'm dealing with just those issues myself).  My attention was specifically drawn to Eustace Scrubb, probably the least loved character in all of fiction, introduced in C.S. Lewis's 'Voyage of the Dawn Treader,' and actually the most recent movie version of that book does an excellent job with that specific character, though I'd avoid the cinematic version of 'Prince Caspian' if you have any regard for the book.

In Lewis's words:

'There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it…they [his parents] were very up-to-date and advanced people.  They were vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotalers…he [Eustace] liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators…but as I said before, Eustace had only read the wrong kind of books.  They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.'

As the story unfolds, poor Eustace finds himself in the middle of a fairytale and an adventure, neither of which he wants, but desperately needs.  He began the tale as an abominable sort of creature and by the end of the book, he is actually a person, and one you don't mind taking on an adventure or two.

Now Eustace is one extreme and Peter Pan is another.  I read 'Peter Pan' once and it rather disturbed me.  The idea is a nice one, at least in a story, and has captivated generations, but I'm not sure how many people would actually like to live in Neverland, the Neverland of the book, not the one romanticized in countless movies and spin-off stories.  Eustace has a life deprived of parental love and affection, lacking any magic or mystery or fun.  Peter Pan is a little boy without parents at all, left to an eternal childhood of freedom, but he's alone in a dangerous world with no chance of growing or changing or becoming anything better or even different.  There must be something in-between having no childhood and an unending, meaningless immaturity.  To quote Lewis once more, 'even in this world of course, it is the stupidest children who are most childish and the stupidest grown-ups who are most grown-up.'  I think that pretty much sums up both Peter Pan and Eustace's parents respectively.  But what then is the answer?

There are very few cases where I recommend a movie over a book, but in this case, 'Hook,' is a beautiful exception.  The tale follows a grown-up Peter Pan, now an uptight lawyer with a family he doesn't have time for, played to perfection by Robin Williams, whose journey and transformation is not unlike that of Eustace.  It manages to capture all the magic of childhood without losing sight of the fact that the magic doesn't have to die as you age, rather it only gets deeper and more mysterious and wonderful as you do, unless you lose it or kill it by trying to keep it or yourself from changing or you never believed in it in the first place.

Now you may consider all this bosh, for we also hear that 'it takes a village to raise a child,' and what is so important about parents and family and fun and mystery and magic and wonder after all?  It is all highly impractical!  That is just the sort of thing Eustace's parents might say and the sort of people that make suggestions to certain government agencies that perhaps parents should not be allowed to read bedtime stories to their children because there are children who don't have parents to read them bedtime stories, which puts those unfortunate children at a disadvantage, therefore no child should have a bedtime story and thus all are equally wretched!  I then ask, where then is 'the village' that is supposed to be raising these children, why is 'the village' not reading bedtime stories to 'their' children?  'The village' doesn't care, but parents do (or should) and that's why parents raise children and not a government agency.

Or you might say, what is so wrong with loving childhood and wanting to pursue its ideals your entire life?  It depends what you mean by the ideals of childhood, if you mean an undying sense of wonder, an open and loving spirit, an eagerness to see what the day might hold, a happiness in small things, by all means pursue these ideals, but if you mean a selfish focus on what you want and enjoy and like completely indifferent to the needs and wants of everyone else around you, then certainly not, has that idea not already consumed an entire generation that has now entered its third decade of life and stills lives with their parents?  Let our hearts grow wiser rather than just older!  Only then can we inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Parents of earth and Heaven

I have a very hard time understanding God as the loving, caring Father that scripture describes.  Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that He is not just that, He's proved it over and over again in my own peculiar life, rather, the incomprehension is on my side.  I haven't the foggiest how a human parent is supposed to treat their child, even though I am a parent myself, I have never been someone's little girl.  What my son takes for granted every single day, I never had and I have a very hard time understanding the concept in relation to myself, even though God has been a loving, caring Father countless times over in my own starved life, I still can't understand that when He says His blessings are for all His children, that somehow includes me, and they have been, but I still don't get it!  I bless my son without thinking, it is just so natural and right and good, but the very idea that anyone, most especially God, would bless me, is just incomprehensible sometimes.

That's what I struggle with: that I can be blessed, not because I deserve it, but because He delights to do so.  I suppose it goes back to my struggles with my own worth (nothing) and identity (an annoyance and burden) as a child whose parents had their own issues and interests and didn't really want to be bothered with me, which made me think I wasn't worth bothering about, except maybe as the recipient of their own frustration and anger.  I came to understand that any parental attention was a thing to be avoided at all costs.  While certain of my siblings got gifts and praise and attention, I was singled out for abuse and criticism and even things like socks were given only reluctantly.  If that's what my earthly parents are like, what am I to think of this so-called Heavenly Father?

But then I run across articles like this, and I cry and know that He loves all His children, even me!  It takes a bit of hubris to think that God can save everyone but me, that of all people, my sins alone are unforgivable, that He'd somehow leave me out of the divine inheritance when every other child of His is included, as if this perfect, Heavenly Father could be anything like my fallible and broken earthly parents.  I need an eternal perspective, in this, as in all things.  I need my Dad to put a band-aid on it, but He can do so much better than that, He can heal it (and me) fully!  Now there's a gift indeed.