Tag Archives: literature

Christopher Nolan, Virtue, Interstellar, Fascism, and Batman

From a Reddit thread about Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy:

“Heroes have a special vision of what society could be, and it’s worth bending or breaking the rules, lying, secrecy, surveilling, or using violence — all to mold society, or keep society in line.

In all of Nolan’s superhero movies and Interstellar, it’s very uncertain if the people are even worth defending. The hero is the only source of virtue — he is needed to lead the people away from their own corruption and short-sightedness, or, failing that, to craft some sort of order that the people will accept.

The revolutionary, who justifies his actions because of oppression and income inequality, is a terrorist who all along was planning to destroy society. The wealthy liberal, who wanted to give technology to the people, turns out to be secretly allied with the terrorist. The rich, who were exposed as fools in a few key scenes, are dealt with, and everybody else is happy to wallow in mere anarchy as long as they can take rich people’s stuff.

[In Nolan-produced Man of Steel,] Superman’s purpose on Earth isn’t to protect people; it’s to inspire them to be better. … Superman is just better than the rest of us, and this is all he asks, the unchecked freedom to use his ability to surveil everyone in the world and to use violence when and where he chooses, because it will help us become better – whether we agree to it or not.

But in Nolan’s movies the hero is necessary because corruption is too pervasive, too insidious, too powerful, and the people are too weak. Paranoia about corruption and trust in strongmen — literal strong men, in superhero movies — is one of the hallmarks of fascism.”

Full discussion https://www.reddit.com/r/TrueFilm/comments/2t2u3j/russia_bans_films_posing_a_threat_to_national/cnvcn66?context=3

How Christian Monks Saved Beowulf

A PhD student in early medieval Old English sounds off:

“[E]ven a lazy reading of Beowulf will show it’s a thoroughly Christian text; it’s also a text firmly in touch with its “pagan” past, since much of Old English poetic convention relied on a tradition that was far older than Christianization… This wasn’t just metrical or linguistic convention; the poetic tropes of Old English poetry generally derive from the hero/warrior/hall-culture ethos, one which there is every reason to suspect was dead as a doornail, certainly by the time the manuscript copy of Beowulf that we have was written; probably also by the time Beowulf was composed…

This convention was so embedded in the culture it distorted how Christianity was portrayed: Christ.. or the Israelites in Exodus, are not portrayed as possessing Christian humility or passively enduring what befalls them; they are invariably recast in warrior-language, as heroes, as going forth with courage and determination to do the things that they have to do. In fact, it can be downright dissonant … Jesus getting nailed to the cross–possibly a supremely submissive act, depending on your perspective–but in terms which unquestionably render him the active agent in that scene. It’s a fascinating look at how the two different perspectives combine in a form of cultural expression amenable to both–but not, you would think, at the same time.

Beowulf is interesting because it’s only about that pagan Germanic past, and the person who wrote it was obviously aware that the characters in this poem have a problem–they are not Christian, and therefore, they are not saved; that problem, and how the poet resolves it (or tries to deal with it, at least) can and has inspired more than one book on the subject; moreover, there is good indication (some of it archeological) that Beowulf is based on a much, much older story. Upon finding this ancient story, the monks (and they were almost certainly monks, because monks were the vast majority of scribes in early medieval England) did not, as you might have them do, throw away this “pagan” nonsense; they recopied it carefully, and it is thanks to their hard work that we can enjoy that poem today.

And all other secular Anglo-Saxon literature–monk scribes are responsible for nearly all the attested Old English we have today; they are almost certainly responsible for all the extant copies of Old English literature that were not made in the modern era. This includes very non-Christian works: riddles (some very rude), Wulf and Eadwacer (a short, chilling poem, and possibly the best in the whole corpus), The Wife’s Lament, etc., etc. And it was Christians in Iceland, like Snorri Sturluson, who copied down Old Norse mythology so that later generations could have it–almost all of what we have of Old Norse people writing on the Old Norse religion comes from Sturluson–and explicitly so that Christian poets, who weren’t raised up with the old myths, could continue to compose the complex, difficult skaldic verses that required knowing who Loki and Odin and Thor were, or who Andvari was, or the name of the serpent gnawing at the root of the World Tree. It was probably a Christian who gave us the even older Poetic Edda–because it was Christians who preserved the culture, who wrote things down.

Though the Runic alphabet was known to them, it was used, it seems, mostly for inscriptions on artifacts or charms; it was not part of a literary tradition. That was oral; it was only Christianity, with its emphasis on literature (and one book in particular) that imported a true literary tradition to the Germanic North; without Christianity, no Germanic literature would survive to the present day–and maybe precious little ancient literature (since most of what we have today was continuously recopied in monastic scriptoria throughout the Middle Ages–yes, even “pagan” texts which had nothing to do with God or Jesus).

… The real tragedy is the Dissolution of the Monasteries; if you want to be pissed at anyone, blame old Harry, because it was in the dissolution that ancient monastic libraries were sold off or outright destroyed (vellum, used to make manuscripts, was labor-intensive and valuable, so there was incentive to recycle these old books; but there are also accounts of manuscripts taken from libraries simply being burned, used as leather scraps, or as toilet paper). Thus, out of hundreds of years of ancient Old English poetic traditions, we have only four books–just four–which preserve any kind of substantial material (but we’re doing better than Old High German, which only has two poems in the ancient heroic style, one of which are scraps of a longer poem which exists in Old English translation). What literary prose we have is mostly translation. To be sure, manuscripts were often recycled, and very old ones that could not be salvaged torn up to use as binding material; after a certain point, doubtlessly, nobody could read these strange old books that used weird letters anymore. I do not think that without something like the Dissolution, the full treasure trove of Old English would have survived–but the reasons it didn’t have nothing to do with the Conversion, and more to do with time; and except for the Ashburnham House fire, the biggest single catastrophic loss of Old English literature was in the sixteenth century, not the sixth or seventh.”

Full thread in context http://www.reddit.com/r/books/comments/20swv0/tolkiens_translation_and_commentary_of_beowulf_to/cg768dg?context=2

Image from the Wikipedia entry for Beowulf

Why The Great Old Ones Make You Lose Your Sanity

One of the biggest influences in modern horror is H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos and stories. Cthulu and the Great Old Ones are elder gods who – unlike deities from ancient religions – don’t give a shit about humanity and simply to gaze upon them makes mortals lose their minds:

The Abominations, as you aptly described them, are to us as we are to that benighted creature. They exist in dimensions beyond our own, whose nature we can hardly guess. When they appear to us, we see only fragments of their bodies – long stretches of writhing flesh, glistening with juices that should not exist outside of a body, which whip through the air and vanish back where they came from in a way that our minds simply refuse to accept. Witnesses have tried to describe these as great tentacles, words failing them in the presence of such incomprehensibility. Those who heard the stories seized on this, and explained them as resembling cephalopods. This is a comforting lie, as there is nothing in the most stygian depths of the darkest sea that is not our beloved brother compared to the horrors of the Abominations.

This is a creature who is incomprehensibly alien, and our only glimpse is a sickening flash of writhing, elongated flesh that slips into our world and back out. Worse than the appearance of the creature, though, is it’s disappearance – your mind knows, on some level, that this creature – this hateful, hungry god of a creature – is not moving it’s body between “here” and “away”, but between being a glimpse of a writhing horror, and a horror that watches unseen.

Imagine our two-dimensional creature again, and imagine yourself to be a cruel child. If you chose to torment the creature, it would be powerless to resist. It cannot perceive you unless you chose to intersect it’s plane – you can watch it’s every move, and it cannot hope to escape your gaze. It would be the simplest thing in the world to push a pin through it, like a butterfly on a card. Take a glass of water and push it into the creature’s plane and it will find itself trapped, drowning, in an inescapable sea. The creature is entirely at your mercy, and always will be.

Same as you. Same as me.

Full thread http://www.reddit.com/r/AskScienceFiction/comments/1zwhxf/what_makes_eldritch_abominations_like_the_old/cfxmqcz

Cthulu illlustration from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cthulhu_by_Alexander_Liptak.png

Gandalf and the One True Ring

“Tolkien–like most Christians–believed that the most important things about the world are not subject to quantification. ‘Magic’ and ‘power’ in his mythos are qualitative, not quantitative phenomena. … the Rings of Power act more as multipliers of their wielders’ inherent virtue/vice and force of personality than by conveying discrete, quantifiable powers. Each person who comes in contact with any ring would be effected by it slightly differently, depending on who they are, though any given ring would have tendencies in one direction. The One Ring tended towards domination and possessiveness, while the Elven Rings towards healing and restoration. Etc. But the reason we don’t see the One Ring do all that much is that Sauron is the only person who ever wielded it who actually had the underlying strength of spirit to use it to its full potential. The books actually talk about this in as many words. Gollum became a sneaking, spiteful creature–because that was in his nature to begin with. But his nature did not really have much in the way of ‘strength of spirit’ in Tolkien’s terms, so he was never going to be a great lord. Just a really sneaking, spiteful creature instead of an ordinary one.”

From a Metafilter thread “Gandalf as Ring-Lord would have been far worse than Sauron.”

How to Write About Africa

“In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. … Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African’s cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it—because you care. … Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love—take advantage of this. If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. If you are a woman, treat Africa as a man who wears a bush jacket and disappears off into the sunset. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.”

Granta Magazine