31 October 2012

Oh, Politics

This Regina Spektor song speaks rather bluntly to how I feel about the American Presidential Campaign just now:



‘Tis the season. The season of politicking, campaigning, debating and opinionating. Also of satirizing, mocking, and tossing one’s hands up in frustration.

I find it all very problematic because I am, by nature, a pessimist and a cynic. And I do not approve of being a cold-eyed cynic, though I often like it and somehow continue to be one in spite of my disapproval. I often find harbor in playing ‘devil’s advocate’ and this can be of concern at times because it is so very easy to mask real opinions and real concerns within the ready ability to speak with the mouth of the opposition.

Here is the trouble with creatures like me that are simultaneously so cynical and so black-and-white; it is not that we can’t change or refine our opinions. It’s that we cannot hover between them. Ambiguity is intolerable. Half-answers are despicable. Vagueness is a harbinger of death. No, really.

The temptation becomes to combine the pessimism with the ambiguity and create an uncompromising stance out of that. (This, I think, is what Black-and-Whites are prone to do, because uncompromising stances are the key). It looks something like this: put confidence in no one, expect no improvement, cast a doubting eye on all reports of progress, deem one option the evil and the other the lesser of two evils, all is entrenched, all is rutted, it’s all the same. Trust no one. Hope for nothing. Believe not a word.

Even though this is how I often feel—and even though these sentiments are frequently valid—I think it is evident that this is a bad road. Not that politicians are deserving of the trust and belief they’re often accorded, but a wholesale reversal of this doesn’t function either. Switching from rose-colored glasses to blackened ones doesn’t make you see better: it makes you see hardly at all. Yes, you will see the genuinely existing flaws, but you will also fail to see any viable truths, however few and far between they may be (see…still a cynic).

We all have to live with the fact that we are biased. We approach from given angles. We possess pre-existing perspectives. No matter how are we try to edge out of them, we just edge into a different angle. It’s still an angle.

So even though I feel like Regina Spektor is on point, and boy do I love shouting those lyrics, I don’t want to close my eyes and throw the whole game. You work for what you get…then you work with what you get, provided you keep your moorings the whole way through.

12 July 2012

The Pilgrim's Regress

C.S. Lewis is easily my favorite author, and it’s entirely possible I over-reference him. I often find myself prefacing such references to friends and family alike by saying “I know I used a Lewis quote last time, but it really, really applies.” It may not be the same for everyone—nor do I expect it to be—but something about how Lewis thinks and communicates resonates deeply and effectively with me.

As a result of this, I’m always happy to find that there’s more Lewis out there as yet unread by me. Some years ago I was running my eyes over the books in a bookstore and saw “The Pilgrim’s Regress” by C.S. Lewis. I was very intrigued. Now, I have never read Pilgrim’s Progress (to my shame. It’s on the list) but I know the story from various sources: children’s books, general Christian pop culture, and—believe it or not—an old radio program called “Adventure’s in Odyssey.” Eventually I bought “The Pilgrim’s Regress” and told myself that I was not allowed to read it until I had read the Bunyan book, that I might better understand them both.

My discipline failed, and this last year I broke down, skipped ahead and read “The Pilgrim’s Regress.” Twice. This is not one of Lewis’ more popular books…and understandably so. It is very obscure. But I love it and come now to advocate on its behalf, despite the fact that it is very particular and thick. Lewis himself wrote an afterword in a later edition marking the presence of “needless obscurity and an uncharitable temper.” He added to it summaries of the allegorical intent and explanations of certain terms which were clear to him, but became unknown to later generations, so that the meanings would be rather more accessible to the readers.

There is, in fact, a helpful manual for this book which does much to clarify it…but it is not “Pilgrim’s Progress.” It is “Surprised by Joy.” “The Pilgrim’s Regress” is essentially the story of Lewis’ conversion to Christianity…allegory-style. The obscurities are due to philosophical musing and encounters that Lewis personally experienced, and which are not necessarily universal, or currently widespread in education. The book also has much Greek, Latin, and French and draws upon a greater body of literature and philosophy than I may ever hope to consume in my entire life. There are a few unfortunate metaphors used by C.S. Lewis which smack of Euro- and Ethnocentrism (though, I think, not as badly as some might suspect), and several references to specific trends of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Thus, this book was something of an effort.

But it was worth the effort, and I feel compelled to explain why.


Told as a dream—dreamt by an unnamed narrator—the story follows John, starting from his youth in the land of Puritania (Which is traditional Christianity or perhaps, more accurately, nominal Christianity) and on to his travels throughout the land depicted in the map below:

A few major things define John’s youth: 1. the fear of the Landlord (God as described by parents and clergy alike) and of the great “Black Hole” (Hell as described by the very same), 2. The hypocritical behavior of the Puritanians, and…3. Something which he calls “The Island” or “Sweet Desire.” Sweet Desire comes when one day he looks out and sees an Island which fills him with such longing that, if nothing else in all the world, he longs to long for it. The search for this Island leads him away from the rote Christianity of his youth and towards many dead ends: lust, sensuality, and sentimentality.

It leads him further through many of the beliefs and philosophies of both the current age, and of all ages, as John tries to capture his Sweet Desire through Romanticism (Called “Mr. Halfways in this story…ostensibly because he only gets you halfway there?), as it is nearly killed by Freudianism which attempts to distill us down to very much less than the sum of our parts, then as John (and his Desire) are subsequently rescued by the armor-clad woman Reason, cultivated by the old man Wisdom—father of many philosophers—informed by the hermit History, and finally brought face-to-face with the fact of God, forced by Reason to follow the path towards him. (Of course he could have fought reason, but then he knew he would have fallen with her.)

John’s traveling companion for the majority of his journey is a man by the name of Vertue whose allegorical office lies explicitly in his name. Vertue stands in intended contrast to John. John is driven by desire. Vertue is driven by moral will. The two are often at odds and drawn in different directions, and John parts with Vertue on occasion. John is less concerned with the Landlord’s rules (God’s Law/Morality), and more concerned with finding his beautiful Island. Vertue doggedly, calmly follows the rules, knowing them to be written in the skin of the earth. The only time when Vertue falls—at which time Virtue must be carried by Desire—is when he witnesses the coming nihilism of the peoples of “Marxomanni—Mussolimini, Swastici…”

This book was published in 1933, but Lewis did not feel any express need to heavily veil with metaphor the danger he saw posed by the “revolutionary sub-men of the Left or the Right.” He portrays them as a return to barbarism, causing Vertue himself (itself) to take ill.

The allegorical style gives great room for analysis of philosophy, theology, and of Lewis’ very specific intellectual and spiritual path towards conversion. There is so much being said, that I will not try to get it all down here—rather I will simply examine a few of the driving points in the story which most struck me and encouraged me to read ahead the first time despite “Pilgrim’s Progress” and read the entire thing aloud to my husband the second time, and to now try and convince as many of my family members and friends as possible to read it, so that I can discuss it with them!


Sweet Desire:

For anyone who has felt that piercing, painful Sweet Desire, the drive John feels to seek it out will easily be understood. Unlike Vertue, who seeks to do right for right’s sake and disdain’s the idea of obeying on behalf of punishment or reward, John is swayed by this desire both below and above Vertue. When Vertue sees Savage Nihilism and falls ill, it is John who must carry him—though he was always the weaker and less willful of the two—for Desire has not died by hearing of depravity.

The trouble with Sweet Desire is that we so easily mistake lesser things for its satisfaction. Then we often become disappointed and confused that the “Desire” has failed us, or wasn’t all it seemed it should be in that moment.

But “It comes from the Landlord (God),” old man History tells John. “We know this by its results. It has brought you to where you now are: and nothing leads back to him which did not at first proceed from him.”

Reason Defeats Freudian Philosophy:

One of the darker sections of the story occurs when John and Vertue part ways, and John finds himself imprisoned by a Giant. Having had his hopes disappointed by Mr. Halfways and his daughter, Media, John realizes that Romanticism is not quite the solution to his question about the Island. John then runs into “Sigismund Enlightenment” (or New Enlightenment) who explains to him that all his desires are merely wish-fulfillment dreams. New Enlightenment claims that “the Island was the pretense that you put up to conceal your own lusts from yourself.”

John is imprisoned by this philosophy which causes him to see himself and his fellow man as nothing more than their innards and sinews and fluids, for the Giant who holds them hostage makes everything “transparent.” The Philosophy desires to ever “uncover” us to our basest, rawest form and, in so doing, makes each man a horrifying concoction of parts to one another and dark or meaningless to himself. John decides that, though he had doffed the belief in a Landlord and a Black Hole, this new philosophy—if true—makes all the world a Black Hole and all men and women residents in it, whether they know it or not.

Then comes Reason: “…a woman in the flower of her age: she was so tall that she seemed to [John] a Titaness, a sun-bright virgin clad in complete steel, with a sword naked in her hand.”

The Giant bids her pass out of his land with all haste. But she will none. She asks him three riddles that, because of his philosophy, he cannot answer. Then she plunges her sword into his heart and defeats him.

She proceeds then to explain to John that the New Enlightenment makes three grave errors of reason. First they say that higher things are the copies or covers of lower things (love a copy of lust, or sweet desire a veil for lust). But how can they tell which is the copy and which is the original? Is not the original normally the higher? An oil painting is better than a print, and lamplight much dimmer than sunlight.

Second, she explains the trouble of our foul-looking innards, which so bothered John and made him feel that all was base and vile forever: “He [The Giant”] showed you by a trick what our inwards would look like if they were visible…But in the real world our inwards are invisible…the warmth in your limbs at this moment, the sweetness of your breath as you draw it in…these are the reality: all the sponges and tubes that you saw in the dungeon are the lie”

(John is unconvinced): “But if I cut a man open I should see them in him.”

“A man cut open is, so far, not a man: and if you did not sew him up speedily you would be seeing not organs, but death. I am not denying that death is ugly. But the Giant made you believe that life is ugly.”

Though she reminds John of some truth mixed in the Giant’s trick—for here our innards represent both themselves and our basest thoughts and desires—“it will do you no harm to remember from time to time the ugly sights inside. You come of a race that cannot afford to be proud.”

Reason’s final killing blow against the Giant is simple. He believes in the doctrine of wish-fulfillment while failing to acknowledge that, for many, the idea that there is no God, no moral law, and no hell would be the wish, and Freudian enlightenment the fulfillment. New Enlightenment does not wish to apply to itself its own doctrine.

And so, by aid of Reason, John passes through “Darkest Zeitgeistheim” and the chains of the Spirit of the Age are broken off of him.

John and Vertue

Lewis makes a point that John and Vertue must ultimately travel together. John, it is implied, comes of Pagan blood…thus the Landlord reaches out to him with Sweet Desire, and images of an island (images that are often, sadly, turned into Pagan idols). Vertue is hinted to have come of the “Shepherd People” (the Jews). Since the Shepherd People were able to read, they were given rules, rather than images.

“But who wants rules instead of islands?” asks John.

“That is like asking who wants cooking instead of dinner,” explains History, who is an old Hermit retiring from the world. He says that the Shepherds were made to begin at the right end, rather than suffering through cycles of mistaking images for reality, and feeling desire followed by despair.

“But were the Shepherds not just as bad in their own way? Is it not true that they were illiberal, narrow, bigoted?”

“They were narrow. The thing they had charge of was narrow; it was the Road. They found it. They sign-posted it. They kept it clear and repaired it…”

History tells John that he must swear blood-brotherhood with Vertue for each the Pagan and the Shepherd is only half a man without the other, and only one—the Landlord’s Son—can reconcile them. So John and his Desire must be reconciled with Vertue and his Moral Will.

Nihilism as three steps North of Humanism

A short but valid point that is as relevant now as it was almost eighty years ago when this was written: John meets in his travels North, a certain fellow named Humanist. I agree with the assessment that Lewis puts forth that Humanism is an intellectually dishonest philosophy. It goes almost all the way along the road of eschewing religion, faith and origins of moral principles (other than “society” or “self”). It wants to get down to the bare essentials of humanity and live at that, but does not want to acknowledge that under such principles as have just been mentioned humans are simply animals, and have every freedom to act as such.

Though the Humanist of Lewis’ day was certainly colder and harder than his current heirs, Lewis says something very powerful and very true when he places Mr. Humanist only a few steps away from total Nihilism, even calling it more foolish than nihilism. Humanist attends the needs of posterity? “And who will posterity build for?” Asks Savage nihilism. “If all men who try to build are but polishing the brasses on a sinking ship, then your pale friends [Humanist and his two friends, Neo-Angular and Neo-Classical] are the supreme fools who polish with the rest though they know and admit that the ship is sinking. Their Humanism and whatnot is but the old dream with a new name. The rot in the world is too deep and the leak in the world is too wide. Better give in. Better cut the wood with the grain. If I am to live in a world of destruction let me be its agent and not its patient.”

And but for the fact of the Landlord, Savage would indeed be right.

Northern and Southern Diseases of the Soul

The aforementioned Savage resides in the extreme North of the allegorical land. It is a place of frigid, barren rock. To the extreme South live the witches and magicians, and it is a festering swamp. The “North” of this story and the “South” of it represent two equal and opposite falls from Grace. Lewis calls them the Northern and Southern diseases of the soul. I found this aspect of the story so poignant that this is actually the second time I have mentioned it in this blog. Briefly, both John and Vertue have to fight the Northern and Southern dragons after they have together taken the plunge (given themselves up for Christ). John must fight the Northern dragon because John has the Southern disease in him, as he was always driven by sensation and feeling, and was weak-willed. Fighting the Northern dragon will gain him toughness of mind and body which he desperately needs to keep to the road.

Vertue must fight the Southern dragon because he suffers from Northern pride and rigidness. If the “Southerners” sink wholly into the flesh, the “Northerners” try madly to scrape it all off to the bone. By fighting the Southern dragon Vertue gains fire—passion and raucous joy. These are the things regarding which his moral will was so wary, but now he may freely enjoy.

In summary, the extremes and follies of mankind are not new, they are old, and both are falls. They are not thought up, they are reacted to: “Widespread drunkenness is the father of Prohibition and Prohibition of widespread drunkenness,” Lewis claims in his afterword.

“With both the ‘North’ and the ‘South’ a man has, I take it, only one concern—to avoid them and hold the Main Road. We must not ‘hearken to the over-wise or to the over-foolish giant’. We were made to be neither cerebral men nor visceral men, but Men. Not beasts nor angels but Men—things at once rational and animal.”

If it sounds like Lewis wants to have his cake and eat it too, I think that’s exactly correct. The crucial point is that he also claims there is only one means by which such a thing is possible…and in order to do that thing, one must first give up the cake, the eating of it, and everything else: the self’s desires and the self’s will.

Last Note: Why is it the Pilgrim’s Regress? It refers chiefly to what happens after conversion…to living in the world and traversing back through it, only now seeing it with the veils lifted.

24 February 2012

The Sirens Come

I often have the experience of finding that the world is, in fact, flooded with things of which I only recently became aware. Of course they were there all along, but I simply didn’t notice them until some incident or another brought them to my attention. I think this is a fairly common experience; you don’t notice a certain make of car until you’ve been researching it, then suddenly you see it everywhere. You become apprised of a TV show or band, and suddenly avid fans and frequent references appear, as if by summons, to greet you. Or, as in the case that follows, you don’t know how pervasive a certain theme is in art and literature until you really truly begin to get it.

I have known of the siren story long before I became aware of it. Like many, I was made to read "The Odyssey" in high school. I did not particularly like it. I don’t think it was a very good translation. But that is beside the point. It is the best known origin of the siren story. Herein we have this idea that a beautiful enchanting song will lure passing sailors to their death, and the only means to avoid it is to either stop up your ears (as Odysseus’ sailors were instructed to do) or physically tie oneself up so that you could hear the enchanting song, but not be doomed by it (as Odysseus did himself). It is of interesting note that, in many languages, the word for mermaid is some variation on the word siren; they are dangerous, beautiful things that live in the abyss and mean to bring you into it.

But as I said, Homer and Odysseus did not enlighten me much on this score. It was only recently that I suddenly began to be lambasted by this siren metaphor from myriad angles and the strength of the thing hit me between the eyes. The use of the metaphor tends towards the following instruction:

“Do what you can to fix yourself to the right course now, so that when trials and deceits come, and you no longer want to stay the course, you still will”

Singer Laura Marling pitched the metaphor in terms of love and commitment:

“The sirens come…they always will.
But the dart between my heart and his
Is as good as a diamond chain”

People love to portray a version of the “stay-the-course” attitude in films; how many romantic comedies have a running-through-the-airport-to-try-and-stop-the-beloved-before-the-plane-takes-off scene? Many, many. The idea of overcoming a lot of obstacles on behalf of love is, of course, appealing. And right. But the romantic films often fall short of the real meat of the siren metaphor. The sirens are not challenges so much as they are distractions. Lures. They cannot be barreled through, or leapt over. They have to be denied. Ignored. And, according to legend, this is impossible to do if you allow yourself to hear them without something more than your own will to restrain you because:

“The devil has a pretty voice
If you listen, you’re the fool that I became”

Another use of the metaphor—more closely tied to the original—is that of returning to where you ought to be. You’re going home, in every possible good sense of the word. Like Odysseus, back to his wife and son after years of hardship:

“I’m sailing home to you
I won’t be long
By the light of the moon
I will press on
Until I find my love

…Sirens call my name, they say they’ll ease my pain
And break me on the stones
But true love is the burden
That will carry me back home
Carry me with the memories of a
Beauty I have known

…So tie me to the mast of this old ship
And point me home”

-Josh Garrels

That song is, in fact, called Ulysses (another name of Odysseus) and the album from which it is drawn is very aptly named “Love & War & the Sea In Between.” The thing I love about this usage is the emphasis on what drives him home: true love and “memories of a beauty I have known.” That line implies that he is being driven, not by how he feels now, but by what he knew for sure then. There is a beauty he had known, and no mimicry or shadow along the way should supplant it, even though the mimcries can perhaps be seen or felt…whereas the beauty he knew is still a long way off and vaguely remembered.

Our culture constantly tells us to ‘live in the moment’ and insofar as that connotes the ability to be content wherever you are and appreciate the present, I applaud the notion, as it is not an easy thing to do. But what it should not mean, and very often does, is ‘do what you feel when you feel it’; it implies a readiness to give up a belief or a love the moment it seems to be out of reach, out of vogue, or in some way difficult to reconcile. Love is a commitment. Faith is a commitment. Sometimes feelings precede, sometimes they recede, and sometimes they follow a long way in the wake of decision. As the band Mumford & Sons put it in another song, you must:

“…Hold on to what you believed, in the light
When the darkness has robbed you of all your sight”

These lyrics are sung in the context of someone who is terrified to make that initial commitment:

“I ran away, I could not take the burden of both me and you…
It was too fast, casting love on me as if it was a spell I could not break
When it was a promise I could not make.
But what if I was wrong?
Oh, hold on to what you believed, in the light
When the darkness has robbed you of all your sight”
The singer realizes that it was fear that kept him from making the promise. He admonishes the hearer not to give up what they knew when their eyes were clear...when they chose to make the promise. The point of a promise is that you’re not to escape from it. It is like ropes, lashing you to your word even when you no longer want anything to do with it. It is swearing to your own hurt now, for the joy of truth and purpose in the long run:

“So tie me to a post and block my ears
I can see widows and orphans through my tears
I know my call despite my faults and despite my growing fears
…So make your siren’s call
And sing all you want
I will not hear what you have to say
‘Cause I need freedom now
And I need to know how
To live my life as it’s meant to be”

This example is much more about purpose and duty, whereas the others were about love and return. I cannot say for certain what the lyricists intended, but I get the sense that the sirens in this song are not what you might think. Is the singer saying that sometimes the distractions from purpose might even be causes that are socially and morally laudable (speaking of the widows and orphans)? Or is he saying that the ‘widows and orphans’ are his call? I suppose it could be either.

There are many just causes in this world, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t often take them up for very wrong reasons. Sometimes the sirens are our desire to appear right, rather than to be right—to be viewed as just rather than to be just—to be commended rather than to be commendable "before the eyes of him to whom we must give account." (Hebrews 4:13) The point is that the singer “knows his call” and he will not be distracted from it by any manner of siren. And notice how he sings “'Cause I need freedom now”...and the way in which he manages to gain that freedom is to give it up, by being tied to the post. Very counter to the logic of the age, I’d say.

So, the sirens come. In all forms, both as obvious and less obvious temptations to destruction, and seemingly benign distractions from a once-known purpose. If God is the ship, and faith is the mast, best batten down, because the seas are rough.

Lastly (and this one not from a song):

“God’s relationship to Israel is most commonly described as a covenant. The word “covenant” conveys permanence, steadfastness, and mutuality rather than the personal depth of that relationship. Is the covenant a tether, a chain, or is it a living intercourse?

In the domain of imagination the most powerful reality is love between man and woman. Man is even in love with an image of that love, but it is the image of a love spiced with temptation rather than a love phrased in service and depth-understanding; a love that happens rather than a love that continues; the image of tension rather than of peace; the image of a moment rather than of permanence; the image of fire rather than of light. But God said “Let there be light.””
-Abraham Joshua Heschel

I would add but one thing to Heschel’s unintended summary of the difference between a siren and the Truth (obviously he said nothing of sirens): God is also described as a consuming fire. Fire and light. Passion and permanence. The point is that the covenant comes first and sets the course.

27 January 2012

Firefly and the Human Condition

When I fall for a TV show, movie, artist or novelist…I fall hard. I become a loud, pushy advocate. Ask any of my loved ones upon whom I have foisted all my favorites (Community! Gregory Alan Isakov! Brick!)…forced all but at gun-point. Minimal complaints so far, if I do say so myself.

Well once upon a time someone did this for me. They told me to watch some random movie called “Serenity” with them at the theater (Sci-fi? I was skeptical. Aliens aren’t my thing). This excellent movie was born of a short-lived TV show called Firefly, which concerns us here today. The show and the film both have a lot to say about the human condition, and so do I, so it naturally follows that we took to one another.

Truthfully I could use an awful lot of space detailing all the things I love about Firefly but I will try to be very conservative in both my summary and advocacy, because the themes are the thing here (Nevertheless you should watch firefly):

Notice the clothing implies psuedo-Western, but there transportation is space-ship, not stage-coach.

Firefly is a great genre masala—western, sci-fi (but no aliens!), action, drama, comedy, caper—and its basic premise is as follows: humanity spread out onto other planets which are made to be like Earth-that-was (as Earth is then called). A war arose between the Independent planets and “The Alliance” the former of which, as the name suggests, wanted to remain independent settlements, and the latter of which wished to unite all the planets in a progressive and regulated society. The Alliance won, and has become the central government of all inhabited planets—both their high-tech cities:

And their countrified back-waters:

Two of the protagonists of the story fought for the Independents during the war and have moved on from their loss to do smuggling and thieving work on the fringes of ‘the system’.

Zoe and Mal

The difference and tension between the outer planets (quite analogous to rural populations)—with the distant control/neglect they experience from the government—and the inner planets (rather like urbanites) and their appreciation for the government’s facilities and efficiency is pervasive throughout the show.

The excellence of the premise is that, although it shows “The Alliance” through the eyes of those that do not love it, it never claims that The Alliance is evil. It is real modern society in fiction: it provides roads, oversight, security (in the central areas at least), education and medicine. It is not precisely dystopian in nature in that it does not oppress groups, it does not ban art or literature. It has a high degree of physical authority, but it is not a police state. In fact, it is made rather clear that the Alliance truly does do many good things for the people. It is as though the UN were actually effective—moreover helpful—and set in space! It is based upon the most idealistic and humanitarian notions that mankind could bring to bear. The Alliance is, in most of the ways we tend to gauge political purpose and efficacy, a good government with good intentions.

But one of the themes of the show is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that human nature is not easy to keep in check; indeed our attempts to constrain or modify the worst elements of human nature may backfire. This is because the constraints are external, and the modifications superficial. And perhaps the most dangerous dystopia is one that believes utopia can be finagled…one that either refuses to acknowledge mankind’s fallen nature, or genuinely believes that by his own hands man can fix himself.

(I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, so I will be as vague as I can…but be warned, details of show and movie are to be found here):

The Alliance does what many peoples and cultures have tried to do throughout the ages: to “weed out aggression in the population.” They want to make human nature better. They do it very benignly…as best they can, with no intent whatsoever to cause harm. If the image that pops into your head is that of a cop restraining an assailant and carting him off to jail, that is one legitimate way of weeding out aggression. So are anger management classes. Prisons, court systems, reform…these are all in that category.

So, too, is chemical behavioral modification. Likewise eugenics. Also, abortion. And massacre…and genocide.

If it seems like I’ve made a leap too far, I’m sad to say that I haven’t. We—society—like to believe that we can make ourselves better through sheer force of will: adopting this practice, excising that one. One would not say “survival of the fittest” any more, for social Darwinism has become scandalous for good reason…but this nevertheless remains the underlying principle in how societies, governments, laws, medical care and schools are built up. Or cultivated, rather. It seems like such an innocent aim until you realize that the holocaust in WWII—cold, systematized genocide of European Jewry—was derived in large part by a belief that Germany was eliminating that which was dangerous or unhealthy to it. In the minds that conjured the “final solution”, the Germans were “weeding” and “cultivating”, full stop.

Scholar Zygmut Bauman wrote chillingly and convincingly on the subject, showing good evidence that the distance between our desire to reform (which can, remember, be done benignly OR oppressively) and our willingness to do harm is not as far as we like to think. (I reference him here, because it is his eerie garden metaphor that I have just used.)

How does this relate to Firefly/Serenity? In the end of the tale about the Alliance’s attempts to improve human nature, the Alliance—via its great scientists, and its bright young social engineers—ended up causing a certain large percentage of the population to become overly complacent, and another small percent to become overly aggressive, exposing extreme reactions in human nature to these human attempts to modify it.

I must be clear. The complacency was such that, in the end, all those who reacted in that manner died of it. The aggression was such that it became violent madness. Blind suicidal pacifism on one hand and blind homicidal rage on the other. The pendulum swings. In this case a catalyst made it happen, but society does it all the time. We are pendulum swingers. Extremists. Reactionaries. Of our own devices, our reforms are normally just returns from whence we came and back again.

In Pilgrim’s Regress, as C.S. Lewis explores the spiritual and intellectual experiences that either waylaid or led to his conversion to Christianity, he discusses “Northern” and “Southern” ways of behaving—equal and opposite evils. He means by these directional terms metaphors for opposing tendencies of human nature…a thing which will automatically go awry to one of them unless anchored in God.

“Nature, outraged by one extreme, avenges herself by flying to the other”

-C.S. Lewis

We—people, art, literature, pop culture—are always trying to say “something” about the human condition. But in the majority of films and books, even the most poignant illustrations of life and death are merely a sober recitation of either that snide phrase; “life sucks and then you die” or that indulgent one “do what you feel while you can.” The former of these would be Lewis’ “Northern” fall from Grace, and the latter would be dubbed the “Southern” one.

Clearly neither of these are sufficient, but if there were no God, I think there would be no other conclusions to reach. I have several parts the cold-blooded rationalist in me and God is the only thing that renews me and keeps me from turning into what—in any story worth its salt—would be an outright antagonist. My very own nature gives me myriad reasons to be skeptical about human nature broadly speaking, and plenty of the things I’ve seen could make me one of those “life sucks and then you die” types.

This is part of why I like it best when the arts portray human nature as it is: broken and in need of repair; awry and in need of calibration; fallen and in need of salvation. The latter description may seem explicitly religious, but one can portray fallenness without asserting salvation (as is done all the time in popular culture), but at least this—in my opinion—is half the battle and far better than the other alternatives of either white-washing our nature or yielding to its worst vagaries.

That is why the story told in Firefly and Serenity strikes me so. It readily acknowledges that human nature is pretty well awry, but that us trying to doctor ourselves without the real surgeon present, presiding, and acting, is going to get us killed or worse. And human nature tends to toss back and forth, not quite understanding where on earth the solution is.

(Above) Captain Malcom Reynolds: “They’ll swing back to the belief that they can makepeoplebetter, but I don’t hold to that.”

These wounds are much too deep to staunch through our own means. We often end up doing ourselves damage because our efforts are entirely unanchored. But we don’t give up and stop helping, caring, working, fighting, protecting, building…because when anchored in the Lord, it’s a whole different story. That’s the center passage, the plumb-line and it’s anything but some mere compromise or happy medium. It’s the Way, the Truth and the Life. In Lewis’ allegorical metaphor, everything “North” of it is frigid, barren rock, and everything “South” of it is fetid, seething swamp.

Thus it’s the only real, solid ground at all.

12 January 2012

Our Dystopia

There appears to be a fear and curiosity surrounding the idea of things we (mankind) make getting out of hand. There are numerous ways in which this curiosity manifests itself in film and literature and, it being a hearty and prevalent topic, I’ve begun to wonder why it resonates.

It starts with Pygmalion and progresses to Frankenstein; exploring the idea of falling into obsession with the work of our own hands until we lose touch with reality, or finding what we have made to be a danger to others or even to ourselves. Did we tamper with forces we cannot control? Is everything we make doomed to go awry? There is a simultaneous fascination and dread with something created by our very own selves becoming independent of us and our intent.

The trickiness of the situation isn’t revolutionary; many have commented on it. Technologies of advancement and convenience develop right alongside technologies of destruction and manipulation and we don’t always have control of how what we make will be used or developed. It’s good, it’s bad or it’s ugly, and everyone has something different to say about it:

I have an almost religious zeal…not for technology per se, but for the Internet which is for me, the nervous system of mother Earth, which I see as a living creature, linking up.
-Dan Millman (self-help guru)

If it keeps up, man will atrophy all his limbs but the push-button finger.
-Frank Lloyd Wright (Architect)

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty, and all forms of human life.
-John F. Kennedy (President)

Men have become the tools of their tools.
-Henry David Thoreau (Poet)

A small sampling, and it is Thoreau’s take which so often fascinates us in literature and film: what happens when the brain-child of man—be it a piece of technology, or a form of government—turns on its maker?

There are two main versions of this: The A.I. tale (Robots and machines on the rise!) and the Dystopian tale (We thought it was for the best! But the perfect government turned out to be even worse than what we had before!)

I could make a very long list of examples, but instead I will make short ones which highlight the central themes which seem to so strike us. The main ones for A.I. start with the Terminator, in which man-made machines battle humans for control of the world. That which we made to do our bidding now seeks to destroy us and take our place.

In i, robot, a similar thing happens, but with a twist; the robots are not out to destroy humans…they are trying to protect us by efficiently eradicating our flaws. We have wars and violence, and in order to fully protect us (as their protocols dictate) they must choose how to cultivate us “for our own good” which may include killing some of us and removing from us our freedom.

Finally the most obvious one, which surpasses all the prior stages: the machines we have made no longer battle mankind. They have long since won, and now control humans, mind and body. They make use of us as we once made use of them. The story has become a  modern classic: The Matrix.

The list goes on, well into children’s films: the too-clever robot in “The Incredibles” and the atrophied bodies (due to over-reliance on technology) of the humans in the brilliant robot-centered cartoon “WALL-E.”

Dystopian tales are a slightly different beast, but they ask the same questions: what happens when our best plans eat us alive?

In the Hunger Games books (a young adult series), the government demands children from each district as tribute to take part in a battle to the death for the simultaneous sake of entertainment and retention of control. It’s Battle Royale, Gladiators and Reality TV all rolled into one. As the story progresses, the theme arises that the cure (revolution!) for the ill (oppressive government) quickly becomes a disease in and of itself (i.e. the French Revolution).

(the hunger games heroine in the film version)

Dystopians are popular now, so the young adult literary list in particular could go for miles. In the film Equilibrium, art and affection are considered inciters of violence and instability, so they are suppressed.

In Fahrenheit 451, literature is deemed the chief danger to society, and books are to be burned.

In the book Divergent, society is formed—and deeply divided—around each individual’s belief regarding how to prevent war. Five factions separate five belief systems regarding what society most needs—courage, peacefulness, selflessness, knowledge and honesty—and from the divisions grow mutations of every virtue. Courage becomes violent recklessness. Peacefulness becomes withdrawal/inaction. Selflessness becomes suppressive stoicism. Knowledge becomes pride and power-hunger. Honesty becomes cruelty and moral ambivalence.

In V for Vendetta, a crisis ushered in an extreme government (blatantly reminding the viewer of Hitler’s rise in Germany due to financial crisis) and the government controls the arts, objectives and morals of the people. Moreover it is the extreme example of one classic definition of ‘the state’: monopoly on violence.

(the vigilante and his protege)

On and on the list goes: governments that control the arts, conventions, technology, marriage or religion. The point here—which seems peripheral to these stories but ought not to be—is that these governments were not formed by one all-mighty Lex Luther-style bad guy. Most of the governments in these stories were formed by either the will or at least the consent of the people. The people in these books and films demanded safety, security or stability in some fashion, and the government responded accordingly. But then, like all these other man-made aspirations towards man-made ideas of perfection, they went badly, badly awry. Why we all assume the ‘awry’ part to be inevitable is another discussion entirely. Why we are so interested in the concept of our own creations turning on us is the crux of the thing.


Because we are the made things that have run off and tried to make ourselves like unto our maker. We are the created servants hell-bent on usurping the creator’s place. We’re the ones set in a position to rule, who rule so ruthlessly, and so very far outside of the original intent.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that is us. Except, unlike robots or governments, we are actually lit up with the divine spark (should we choose to live in the light of that fire) and that means the comparison to bureaucracies and machinery stops pretty well short of the full effect. We do not love tyrannical governments or violent robots. We do not vie for their salvation. We want them dead and destroyed…by machine guns and grenades if at all possible. We want them toppled, dissembled and unable to recover.

God seeks our recovery from misguided usurpation and self-dictatorship. He wants to fling us the rope, pull us up and mend us. He gives us the very strength we use to either fight him or seek him. So this is the crucial difference between our approach regarding when the things we make go awry (pull the plug?) and when we go awry:

“God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.”
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

This is a fact which, quite honestly, I can scarcely begin to grasp, and from which springs restoration. Since I'm pretty troublesome and often awry of God's best and have trouble balancing judgement and mercy this is befuddling to me. But it's so. We are not glitchy products but rather, He tells us, a labor of love.