Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Numbers in Lord of the Rings

So, this is just a random thought I wanted to get out while it was fresh in my head today as it came about from listening to Return of the King in the car. I have this project piece that hopefully I get around to sometime in the not too distant future, but it won't be any time right soon. It will be a long piece, maybe the only real definitive thing I ever write about Tolkien's work. It will be about the "biblical mode" in his work, but it will be specifically stated as an interpretation, which is one way of approaching meaning in a text but not the only way and not a way that pins down THE meaning in a text, but that will be a lot of explaining of what is meant by "mode" and in what the "biblical mode" consists and the idea that the particular outflow of that means that a Christian meaning cannot obliterate the flavor from the other backgrounds on which Tolkien drew, cannot eclipse them, without cutting back on it's very own content (no time to elaborate, but in brief, grace does not obliterate nature; if the Christian source eclipses the others, then you're into bad allegory of the Bible rather than artistic subcreation) ... but that will all be a long story (hopefully I write it sometime before I grow old and die, as it will kind of encapsulate everything I have studied and cared to study across my life ... it won't define Tolkien's work, but it may well define the life of my mind over 25 years, from Tolkien, to biblical studies and theology).

But for here I just want to record a detail. I have mentioned in other posts and will use it for the once-and-future "Tolkien and the Biblical Mode" that Tolkien uses the number 40 as a cipher-like key to allude to a material source. Moria is 40 miles from east gate to west door, as stated by Gandalf. I believe Tolkien is borrowing from the book of Numbers, chapter 20. The people were in the wilderness for 40 years (that's actually the Hebrew name for the books, "In the Wilderness"; the Greek name in the Septuagint, Arithmoi, from which we get the English "arithmetic," refers to the two censuses taken, the first generation at the beginning of the book before they get banished to the wilderness for 40 years and not allowed in to the land and the second generation at the end of the 40 years; but the Hebrew name be-midbar means "in the wilderness" and refers to the 40 years themselves). There are a number of markers. First, there is an inclusio (sometimes called an envelope) consisting of an opening scene in which Gandalf is told to speak to the stone (door) but instead (among other things) strikes it with his staff in anger and a second scene in which he again strikes the rock (bridge) with his staff and forfeit his entry into Lorean, the golden land. When Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it  as instructed in Numbers 20, he became symbolically connected with the first generation by suffering the same fate materially in that he was banned from entry into the land, just as the first generation was banned for failing to trust the two who said to trust the LORD for victory in Numbers 13 (hence the 40 years while the first generation reached retirement age and the second generation got old enough to be the main adults entering, led by Joshua). Another image hook is a first born son complaining "why did you bring is up here, to die in this desolate place?" Israel is called the first born son of the LORD and complains asking Moses why he brought them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, and Boromir, a firstborn son, asks, if Gandalf didn't know the password, why did he bring them up to this desolate place.

Now, the thing with material like that and a forecast of an essay to be called "The Biblical Mode" is to clarify that I don't think he is doing allegories of Bible stories. Material from the Bible is only one among a number of sources from which he borrows. For him personally, obviously, the Bible is very important (interesting factoid: he did a translation of the book of Job for the Old Jerusalem Bible), and ultimately it's central to the faith that was for him the only reason really to do anything, in the end, but as far as the story of the LotR itself goes, the Bible is still only one among a number of sources from which he borrows to create his own unique story. In this case, he is building the character of a leader who is not perfect but is beloved and does manage to get something done even though he has to pay a price for his shortcomings. And the story of Moses is one model he uses to do that, although there are changes. For one, while Moses's striking the rock does identify him with the first generation, it doesn't provide them entry into the land, whereas Gandalf's sacrifice on the bridge does enable his friends to enter Lorien.

(As an example of not overdoing it on the connections, while I said above that Boromir is a firstborn like Israel, I don't think it goes much further than fleshing out that image of Numbers 20 here; I don't think he's an allegory of Israel.)

So, that was all build up to say that today I heard a second use of 40 in a key place and I think for a similar reason. When Frodo and Sam make it out of the tower past the watchers and begin their trek to Mount Doom, the text describes the mount as being 40 miles away. I have always thought that among other things, the via dolorosa was a model for the trek through Mordor, including the falls ... that line actually took my breath away on one reading; Tolkien ends a chapter masterfully for that when they finally get off the road and Sam finally gets them far enough away from it to be somewhat safe in a small crater and Frodo collapses in exhaustion, and the final line of the chapter is, "and there he lay, like a dead thing." I have to watch stepping on toes, but there is a definite birth canal imagery in emerging from the tunnel in Mordor, and especially if one recalls Tolkien's comments about Galadriel and the Blessed Mother, there is definite female and mother imagery going on, for which I take the main referent to be the image of being born into this mortal coil of Mordor, into the via dolorosa (to quote Randall Jarrell's "Death of a Ball Turret Gunner": "From my mother's sleep I fell into the State / And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze / six miles from earth. loosed from its dream of life / I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters / When I died they washed out the turret with a hose").  And if the Catholic Tradition sees the 40 days of Lent as mirroring Christs 40 day's in the desert, which itself is a callback to the 40 years in the wilderness for Israel, and as also the via dolorosa, the dolorous trek to the hill of the skull to die, it makes sense to use that number again as a motif for the trek through Mordor, the march with no expectation of return, across Gorgoroth to Golgotha, to the end of all things.

I also just wanted to note  another pairing that struck me (and part of this is the hope that writing about this will make it stick in my head better for when I go to the book club I love going to down at the Abbey in Lawrenceville section of PGH, in which we are now in Two Towers ... I always feel like I've been to the Green Dragon or the Prancing Pony after one of the meetings; I want to remember this pairing for when we get to this part). The trip through Mordor has a feel very similar to the trip through the forest to Crickhollow at the beginning of Fellowship, that line put well by (I think) Pippin (but maybe Merry): "short cuts make long delays." Tolkien is a master of that style of "interesting" detours you have to take in walking through the woods. In both cases there is a pronounced need to stay off the road, and there is even a mention made when entering Mordor of escaping a black rider in those earlier woods, because that is the song that Sam sings to get through the watchers and specifically because it reminded him of that escape from the rider in the woods.

And just to track another pairing, since I am on that subject (while I don't think Tolkien does chiastic ring composition, I am becoming more convinced that he uses inclusio structure on the level of the macro organization of the whole story ... maybe not planned from the beginning, especially if you read Shippey's wonderful telling of the birth of the LotR in Author of the Century, but still doing it fully aware by the end, and on this round, with some other recent learning under my belt even since returning from NYC and CLE, I am noticing it more on this reading ... I really am greatly inspired by this reading group, which is called "The Pittsburgh Inklings" ... and the Abbey is not a library reading room with meeting chairs or something along those lines; it's a bar/eatery that used to be a mortuary, and so it has all kinds of different seating, from the coffee shop and front bar back up around the loop to the back bar area, all dark wood interior, so it feels like being in a place like the Eagle and Child, and the big patio in warm weather, and not down at the ass-end of some super-mall parking area or manufactured "village" shopping area, but in a real city section, by all those tight streets and quaint ancient row houses of lower Lawrenceville with people walking by on the sidewalk outside ... I always try to exercise some in the day before going down, as their burger is delicious but I'm sure a lot of calories, and with the ever-changing import/craft selection on the taps, there's that too) ... anyway, the pairing is that I think the image of Gollum as almost an affectionate old Hobbit reaching out to touch sleeping Frodo gently near the end of Two Towers is meant to pair off against the flash of Bilbo as a greedy little monster in Fellowship.

Addendum: This was running through my head in bed after writing this: Randall Jarrell's "Death of a Ball Turret Gunner" actually has some strong imagery resonances, such as that of being born and waking, Frodo's waking from dreams in the tower (like the big guy in the original Blade Runner says: "Wake up, time to die") and the nightmare fighters, the nazgul, circling over-head and perching on the gate.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

More Thoughts on Lost

Some thought from watching through Lost again on my ellliptical machine in January and February of 2020.

Middle of season 5 of Lost: for some reason the survivors spending three years in the Dharma initiative in the 1970s feels like going into the core of the world of the island, even though the further back origins of the oldest things on the island are revealed in season 6 (the further back origins on the island are what Owen Barfield would call "original participation," whereas the specific story of Lost is the myth of modernity, the interaction between the original participation of the Others and the science of the Dharma initiative, what Barfiled would call alpha thinking). I think there is this layering thing in Lost: The regular world seen in all the flashes, then the island that somehow mystically exists somewhere in that as it's mythos, as the land of smoke monsters and polar bears and mysterious remains in caves and desperate escapes and armed standoffs and temples, but yet inside that, there is this history of a "modern Western" world 70s-style, and now into THAT you get injected the present-day survivors who landed on the island in the crash, including Faraday crossing the line between the 50s others and the bomb and the 70s Dharma folk about to be taken over by Ben crossing from Dharma to Other, kind of the jungle's Barfieldian "original participation" taking back over again.

There's the obvious sci-fi draw of the time play (I love Faraday's line that either the island is moving through time or the people are, and the second is just as likely, that interplay of people and place and which is stable and which is dislodged and can you tell objectively when the people from the same time stick together in where they land, although I think that makes it that the people move, since the other people like Richard don't move with them), but my interest is beyond that. Season 5 in the 1970s is like all the layers coalescing in preparation for shooting out (after Jack "drops the bomb" literally, that key device of real-world horror coming into the 1950s) into season 6's core-triple-myth-connection: the side flashes that are "real life" (despite being the "purgatory" in the world in which the island is the real world, they represent "real [mundane] life" in the context of the island being the mythical dimension of real life; the episode that made the mythic reading coalesce for me the first time I watched the series was "Dr Linus" in season 6, with the same core decision going on for Ben in both worlds), then the present island as mythic battle ground, and then the mythic history of the island itself with the origin stories of Jacob and the Man in Black and Richard Alpert revealed and the most ancient mythical place of the island (the temple) in play (if you want to look at it another way, taking the material aspect of the sci-fi element, time play, and taking it to the thematic level: the history related in season 6 is no longer the flashbacks of the flight survivors, but rather the history of the mythic place; the present on the island is the battle ground, and the flash "sideways" are really the future aspect, the waiting room of the eschatological, not in the Marxist sense, but in the Jewish and Christian sense, the preparing to move on ... see below on Faulkner's As I Lay Dying).

And of course, the finale where it began; with Jack laying in the high grass in the jungle; to quote a source maybe disparate but with common theme, but also hopefully with a more optimistic tone; Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, a title borrowed from the lines of Agamemnon to Odysseus (but, and again hopefully the tone is more hopeful, but Aggie's statement to Odie does have to do with a recurring visual in lost, and the one that is right there at the end because it was there at the beginning, the open eyes). And maybe Southern Gothic was a little on their minds, as they did have Jacob reading Flannery Oconnor's Everything that Rises Must Converge as he sits on the park bench in the final episode of season 5 as Locke has his 8-story fall behind him... I will have to keep an eye out for any Faulkner, in the rest of seasons 5 and 6. I know from the general hearsay etc that they didn't have a clear plot path going in, but I think in the end, they skillfully rode the wave and pulled it together into a cohesive plotline, albeit perhaps a bit like chaos theory, but I think they would like that idea (it is one that I use to discuss structure in Terry Pratchett's writing, who would hate the thought because of his attachment to the rambling feel, but I think he would allow a discussino of structure if phrased as chaos theory; I think his brain just worked certain ways such that he came out with a structure while having fun rambling, and I think the same thing is probably true of those who crafted Lost), Also playing on that last shot as "As I Lay Dying," there are definitely similarities: Faulkner's novel is stream of consciousness told by 15 different narrators and involves the quest to bury somebody in a certain place, like Christian Shepherd's and then John Locke's coffins being on the planes ostensibly on the way to burial in a homeplace, LA for Christian and the island for Locke ... and the island is the place Locke's body returns and the place where Jack passes after returning..

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Response to Amazon's "Middle Earth"

This is what I recently put up on Facebook 

I'm coining a new term: "Hump Capitalism." Capitalism, especially the American version, has never met a meaningful thing in human experience it hasn't wanted to hump like a horny dog til it's lifeless..
A rule 34 kind of thing: if anybody anybody ever found any meaning in it, capitalists will find a way to hump it to death.

I recently bought a book that I very much look forward to reading as some point, probably piecemeal, a collection of essays on world-building in Tolkien by the likes of Tom Shippey and John Garth. I expect it to be quite good. And I think what Tolkien made as a world is incredible, but I also think he succeeded at creating a world better than anybody else ever has because he didn't waste time wanking over the idea of "building a world." He started off dreaming up explanations for words of Anglo-Saxon origin, and I've become more and more convinced over the past few years since reading Garth's book that Arda never actually made the turn for him of becoming a separate world in the way everybody "builds worlds" now, especially the likes of George R. R. Martin. And I think that most people like Martin who dwell on it so much (and those who try to capitalize on it, like him and Amazon) I think probably understand actually very little of what is at the core of any really good world-building. Jane Austen did it better than any of them by simply reproducing the core of the social world of her England as a world into which she could plug her characters, in which the towns were at the same time those real-world towns in England of that period but also unmoored enough from real history to work for her fictional characters ... I think Stephen King probably gets it at least somewhat with his idea of parallel earths with some things altered (one of the things I thought made Wonder Woman such a piece of brilliance was that it maintained a villain from OUR world while maintaining its own fictional-world protagonist, and it made it work ... no other super hero film has done that that I can think of; the villain always comes from the same realm as the hero ... in fact, interestingly, WW maintained the very our-world villain against which Tolkien himself actually fought: WWI German war-mongering [Ares says he only ever has to give a few whispers and they do what they already wanted to do, which is kill each other, and it's the self-sacrifice of the plain vanilla mortal Steve Trevor destroying the plane of bombs that is crucial, averting the immediate physical danger and being her motivation for winning the mythical battle]). But I think the people involved in "world-building" for pay these days, like Martin and Amazon's "LotR" project, probably actually for the most part miss the point.

 At the end of the day, the world exists for the story, not the other way round. When Tolkien shifted from calling himself a philologist to calling himself a poet, I am relatively convinced that (in spite of his turn away from classics and to Anglo-Saxon studies) that he meant it in more the original sense of the word in Greek: a maker. And I don't think he was first of all concerned with making "worlds" in the way that people like Martin and others like to think about it. I think he thought of it as the Greeks did, and more importantly centered around a key thing for him: narrative. Homer didn't make Olympus, let alone Troy and Athens. He inherited the idea of the mountain and he knew the cities as part of his real geographical world (even more closely than Tolkien's cities and isles corresponded for him directly to places like Warwickshire and Oxford). Homer's originality was in his compiling together of the source material into the narratives of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Tolkien's essay on fairy stories is focused on what he calls "narrative art" ... the making of narratives.

I think Tolkien knew better than anybody that one of the things that made the anonymous Gawain and the Green Knight author great was the criticism the tale made of the "world" that "chivalry" had become (I think his translation of the tale is still pretty authoritative in that field, and his essay that comes in the same small paperback is really good too). And I think he would probably be as much in favor as anybody of Jeremiah 4:23 coming true of the "world" that projects like Amazon's try to make out of his work: It's the only passage in the Hebrew Bible outside of Gen 1:2 where the pairing "formless and void" (tohu wevohu) appears, when Jeremiah prophetically looks out on a land of Judah that is being returned to the "formless and void" of primeval chaos as the earth quakes under the iron wheels of the Chaldeans. The material Tolkien himself wrote will stand the test of time, and I think that works based directly on the actual stories, like Jackson's trilogy, will be able to fare well .. but as for the "Middle Earth" that a behemoth like Amazon will create, let it burn.

Tolkien's depth of world making was great, and I think it's a mark of the greatness of the literature he wrote that it necessarily builds this world, but the narrative builds the world, not the other way around. I think the maps an amazing interpretive movement on Tolkien's part and that part of his genius was that he could do a map as an interpretive move that nobody who's come after can wrap their heads around, not really being able to wrap their heads around any idea of what interpretation is in the first place, although I'm pretty sure that Tolkien would not have called the maps interpretive (and more than he would have called the more detailed timelines in the appendices an interpretive move on the actual story as written, but I think that is the best description for what those are), but I highly doubt he would have said that the maps are simply of the same kind of scientific utility that the timeline mappings were that he did in writing to ensure accuracy between the character-event stands when the characters are separate ... the maps are kind of like his artwork, some if which (according to the placards in the exhibit at the Morgan Library last year) was simply to help him conceptualize for writing the story. Personally, I think particularly for the mountains, the maps of the "present" Middle Earth were an attempt to make a scene on which to do the same kind of archeology that he did on Anglo-Saxon words: see the present contours (of mountains, like the contours of present words) and start hypothesizing backward to the possible original shape of the world the Valar formed. It's still always about a story: the story of how the land came to be this way and how the words came to be the way they are.

But the maps are still not the original core of the world. That original core is the simple narrative line that "the elves came to teach men songs and holiness."

(On the personal level, of course, as he said, the "kernel of the legendarium" is the tale of Beren and Luthien: of course, really the tale of the mortal John and the immortal dancing Edith).

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Morality in Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones

I recently had a conversation with somebody who watches Game of Thrones who was sort of classing everything not Lord of the Rings in a big group together as the other modern stuff we all read that doesn't achieve the same class as LotR but it's all got some good qualities etc, and the term "moral quality" was used specifically of Tolkien's work versus all others. I agree on there being  a high moral quality in Tolkien's work, but I don't agree with putting GotT and HP in a group as coequals in that regard.

I've read only the first three chapters of GoT before I gave up, and I've watched none of the show, but I gave up at that point in the book for specific reasons, and one of them was precisely moral. The first and more general reason was boredom with the prevalence of dark brooding: the dark brooding warrior comes home from the grim wars and sits by his dark well and broods, gazing at his fell sword upon his knees and pondering his family's dark gods ... *yawn*

The second issue, the moral one at which I put the book down, is the nipple-tweaking scene. I hit that and my first thought was, "ok buddy, you enjoyed writing that way too much for this to be healthy." The more general way to put that thought is to say that it seemed to me to be merely morbid fascination. It's a scene of manipulation of a young woman's (really a girl's) sexuality for political purposes, and that shit does go on, and maybe there is a place for examining it in some literary contexts, but this did not seem to me to be that; it did not feel to me like it had any moral tone ... it seemed simply morbid fascination at the phenomenon and the titillation of examining some sex shock material, being aloofly "adult" about some nitty gritty sexual stuff.

I actually came up with a jingle for it. Halsey has a song, "The New Americana": "We are the new Americana, raised on Biggy and Nirvana; high on legal marijuana, we are the new Americana." My version is "The New Sophisticati" (riffing on the whole illuminati trope): "We are the new sophisticati; we're very smart, but a little naughty; reading Game of Thrones and eating biscotti, we are the new sophisticati." I actually picked the book up to read it because I figured I should read it if I was going to compare it to Harry Potter because that was what was already being done in a conversation thread on Facebook I got dragged into by a a friend on a post he had on Harry Potter, in which the friend's brother was dissing HP and saying he had tried to get my friend into some real "adult high fantasy" like GoT. The "adult high fantasy" thing is what I mean by "sophisticati." I don't think Tolkien would have considered himself part of what is now considered under that self-identification, especially the "adult" part (Treebeard was, in part, a rebuttal to a beef he had had since childhood with the fact that the march of the woods on Dunsinane Hill in Macbeth wound up to be just a trick of the light and psychological night terror). The real meaning of the "adult" in the term "adult high fantasy" is much more akin to the more popular use of the word "adult" in contemporary culture, which is basically what the whole nipple-tweaking scene comes down to. There is a facade of "concern" for "understanding" such phenomena, a supposed quest for understanding or maybe "wisdom" that really is only the type of pipe-dream of "scientifically objective knowledge" Owen Barfield critiqued, a facade that easily gives way to the real morbid curiosity and quasi-pornographic fascination that  is really there.

Now, having basically stated that I think Game of Thrones is not in the same class as either Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter as far as moral quality (having felt some need to address that issue because it was that conversation and statement of putting HP and GoT in a class together under LotR in that regard that started me in the first place on the path of comparing LotR and HP on moral quality), I will move on to the question that really interests me, which is the differences between LotR and HP in regard to morals (and just in case you missed it, my verdict on GoT was that it has no morals).

The moral tone of LotR is largely exemplarist. The actions of the protagonist characters are exemplars when interpreted through certain lenses and language. Often the language comes from mouthpiece characters (but not always). When Gandalf advocates Bilbo's pity when talking to Frodo, we know that that is Tolkien talking, taking what is called a "stage-affirmative" tone toward having pity. Sometimes the moral quality is signaled by Tolkien's love of verse/song, and so Sam's not despairing in the tower and instead singing is an example to be followed, underscored by the fact that that it what finds Frodo. When Sam carries Frodo in Mordor, that is an exemplar of love. When Saruman tries to seduce with his voice, that is an exemplar of the type of manipulation not to do. When Faramir speaks softly to Eowyn of not rejecting Aragorn's pity because not all pity is arrogant, that is an exemplar of understanding to try to have. When Frodo argues for the life even of Sharky and Wormy, that again is pity to be emulated. And, to say that it is basically exemplarist, versus the existential question that I will describe as JKR's genre, is not to say that it is shallow. The issues and themes with which it deals are very deep ... and often interact with a certain type of psychological characterization (Frodo's suffering on returning to the Shire is heart-rending, and there are few lines that have knocked the wind out of me for a second like the last line [that final punch position] in one of the chapters in the trek through Mordor, when the last thing in the chapter is when Sam finally gets them to a safe distance not to be seen from the road and Frodo simply falls face first into the shallow pit, "and there he lay, like a dead thing" ... although one of them would be when Harry finally understands, and puts his lips to the snitch, and whispers, "I am about to die").

Harry Potter's approach to morality is a different genre altogether. I would almost call it more moral, but that would not be exactly right. It is that its genre is more directly focused on a question of morality. The morality of LotR suffuses the work in action and tone. Harry Potter, however, is preoccupied, and I think consciously, with a question that wasn't, as far as I can tell, on Tolkien's plate consciously, and that is the question of the relation between psychology and morals. As I said, Tolkien does have some psychology, and another example would be the father issues that Eowyn and Faramir have, and it does interact with virtue, particularly hope and forgiveness. But it's not the same kind of question as in Harry Potter. I maintain that Harry Potter does have a real moral focus. It's just that HP's question is an existential one of source, interpretation, and course of action: psychological or moral, or what mix.

JKR is very focused on psychology (see side note 5 at the end for extra instances beyond what I bring in here ... and there I go on a more vigorous defense of the HP series as legit because of taking on issues that should be taken on). I went to Lumos in 2006 in Vegas, and there I heard a paper by two clinical psychologists, Kim Decina and Josella Vanderhooft, that traced a number of characters out to clinical psychological disorders  by cataloging traits of those disorders as described in the then DSM IV: Lockhart as narcissist; Snape as disthymic disorder (persistent depressive disorder); Harry's reaction to the dementors as clinical depression episode ... and Voldemort as anti-social personality disorder (ASPD; the personality disorders, versus mood disorders, are purely behavioral, with no organic component, and start at a more formative age, such as what we see Dumbledore observe of eleven-year-old Voldy in the pensieve). KC and JV did some background too concerning JKR's background, and without recounting the details, JKR has done her time on the couch or in the chair ... psychological struggle is on her radar as a human issue. And I think it goes beyond using the DSM IV, which was an interesting conversation with KC and JV in a comments thread once, because I proposed Lupin as a psychological character and they said they tried him but could not trace him to a DSM IV disorder, and my reply was that he's not a specific disorder, but rather the self-perception of a diagnosed person: "too old, too poor... too broken" (end of book 6) and applying beast language to oneself, "my kind don't usually breed" (in the kitchen of #12 Grimauld Place early in book 7).

Quite simply put, I think morality is every bit as much a part of HP as it is in LotR, but it is being operated on in a different way, as a question rather than as an exemplar, although, as I will say in a moment, I do think that JKR gives an answer and that it is a bit of an exemplar, but in the end it is definitely a key element of difference between Tolkien and Rowling that it seems important to Rowling to keep it front and center that there is a question involved. And that question is: when you have somebody who is so toxic and harrmful and whose actions can be understood as either psychological malady (ASPD) or spiritual (moral) malady, which do you see it as, and more importantly (or rather, this is the reason the interpretation is important), which approach do you take in rebutting it or trying to change it? JKR's moral exemplar is to go with the moral approach, but I think it is also important to here to keep it on the page that the psychological is a factor and that it can be damn confusing trying to figure out which is the source (for more on this trend in HP, meaning making a choice to go with something as best that you can do in a difficult situation, see side note 4 below). In the final showdown in Hogwarts, JKR has Harry tell Voldy to "try for a little remorse" before he makes a huge mistake in attacking Harry again with the elder wand.  That is moral language. I think her point is that you go with that as a best guess or bet, but always admit that the interplay of the psychological and the moral is complicated, damn frustrating, and often damn painful for all involved. And that message, while still presenting a moral exemplar, is still simply a different project from JRRT's ... but still concerned with morality. As I said, she's almost more concerned with morality, but I have to clarify that, by that word here, I mean that it's more a burning question of interpretation and choice between two paths of action for her. Both LotR and HP are ultimately concerned very much with morality.

I can't deny that Tolkien's work, in addition to being of such greater breadth of world-creation and depth of world-texture, has a much higher and epic tone that does JKR's HP series. She has bits of Austen (particularly the third-person limited-omniscient narratival perspective) that simply are not Tolkien's genre at all (but I must try not to offend any Austenists by saying that Rowling has yet attained the classic status of Austen: where Tolkien has his breadth and depth of his created world, Austen has her breadth and depth of that period of historical English culture about which she writes; and as much as I love Rowling's wizarding world for what it is, the project of building a world with the same intricacy as either Tolkien's or Austen's is not the strength of Rowling's work, although she does borrow the manners and mores genre some ... Rowling's strength would really more be called "magic as metaphor" ... which is a different project even for magic than what Tolkien really does with magic in his world). And in spite of the fact that Middle Earth did become technically an alternate universe, I don't think it ever fully became the alternate universe of other modern "fantasy" works. In some ways it always remained "the mythology" he set out to create for England, closer to the world of fairy you find within our own in something like George Macdonald's Phantastes than it is like any other "alternate universe" in the "fantasy" genre (among those, my favorite is always Discworld, but I do like the first Name of the Wind too, epscially it's Dickensian city of Tarbean, and I remember Wizard of Earth Sea being good; interestingly, both of those have a strong focus on name magic, which JKR uses in places too, but you have to know the theory to catch it in her; see my post on the deluminator as a positive name-taboo device in HP book 7).

All that to say that Tolkien's imagination is a wonder, and he did something that I think is unmatched in many ways. But I don't think simply having substantial moral content is one of them. It may be arguable that Tolkien's is a higher form of art, for combining moral clarity with grand myth, than is Rowling or any of the more recent fantasy writers, but I also do think there is a very real place in the discussion of morals in literature for a more postmodern psychological voice like JKR's ... the postmodern is where we find ourselves at present, and I think there is a place in discussion of morals in art for works written in the postmodern language (but I stick to my guns that Cormoran Strike, or at least the first book, falls flat with regard to any real characterization, it's almost a caricature of psychology at some points, like she was trying too hard to write an "adult" work, when she had already done an amazingly deep psychological project in her "kids" book, and like she unfortunately listened to people who told her she needed to write adult works to be taken seriously).

And I would vigorously defend, to the teeth, against putting HP in the same boat as Game of Thrones as far as morals go. As should be evident in the first part of this post, neither my reading of the opening chapters of the first book of Game of Thrones nor anything I have since heard of either the books or the series gives me any indication that there is any moral content at all in GoT, or really any content other than the titillation of "adult understanding." I don't even have the incentive to read it that I had with Da Vinci Code, which was 400 pages of the most tedious mechanical writing I have ever endured (I agree with the NYT reviewer who called it "Dan Brown's best-selling guide on how not to write an English sentence" and Stephen Fry's characterization of it as "loose stool water and arse gravy of the worst kind"), but I finished it because I thought I should process it if I was going to critique it ... and indeed, as I suspected, it's argument was a little bit more involved than I initially realized, although not enough to amount to truth, just enough for the rhetorical ploy of "see, the religious side overreacts and shouldn't be listened to because they haven't even read enough to get the real position/event/etc. in the book ... the negative response is uninformed reactionism." But at least it was saying something. GoT really isn't saying anything that I have ever been able to tell.


[Side-note 1: Other contemporary works that I did manage to finish but only because it was the friend who actually suggested them and I did not want to offend the friend by not finishing [with GoT, it was a friend's snooty brother, so I felt no compulsion to finish] are Niel Gaman's American Gods and the first book of Lev Grossman's The Magicians, both of which, while I did finish, I found to be extremely derivative and tedious to read, and having the same kinds of morbid fascination with sexual material as GoT.]

[Side-note 2: On JKR and psychology in relation to the more-than-psychological, and not just morals, I think there is a question in book 6  especially of what goes into the question of divorce and annulment. She's not Catholic and I doubt she subscribes to the particular sacramental understanding of marriage that underlies Catholic teaching on annulment, but I do think that romantic love and marriage are a kind of magic for her that is among the class of such mystical or mysterious things she tries to symbolize in the magic in her world, the other key instance of which is the power of imagination. And the question is what psychological factors impact that magic of romantic love, particularly Merope Gaunt's unrequited love leading to her not using magic anymore and dying from that ... where is the line between the magic of romantic love and the manipulation magic of a love potion? Was her attachment to Tom love or desperation? And the issue of marriage plays in another two ways, one in the fiction and one in the history: there is another woman who engages in desperate action that has connotation of marriage imagery, Narcissa's hand-wrapping unbreakable vow (this is not some seedy tryst of Narcissa cheating or whatever pundits would accuse me of for suggesting this; it is a matter of literary themes and images circling together, the desperate actions of women and the effects on their child, one of them, Merope, losing hope to care for her child because the father did not return her love and that issue then reinforced by Narcissa, in a desperate attempt to protect her son, engaging in something that resonates on the level of image with the Scottish hand-wrapping wedding practice), and in the real-world history in relation to psychological issues, one of the two times JKR is on record as having suffered depression episode is with the divorce of her first marriage ... the relation of the psychological to love of all kind, Dumbledore's "deeper magic," is a key central question just under the surface of the whole series].

[Side-note 3: The film The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a good exposition of the question of the tension between psychological explanation and spiritual explanation, in which they shot all of the key flashback possession scenes recounted at the trial in two ways, once in a way fitting the demon-possession explanation by the defense and then another time in a way fitting the psychological explanation by the prosecution ... say, demonically forced contortion versus catatonic rigidity in schizophrenic episode, with each explanation getting a nuanced, distinctive visual effect, so the eyes flying open in the blackened eyes of possession versus showing a close up of full dilation happening in schizophrenic episode ... and the point of the film, which was was made by two evangelical Christians, is the extreme difficulty of discerning these phenomena.]

 [Side-note 4: The thing of choosing between two options when it's damn difficult to discern the situation is actually a core thematic element in book 7, the finale and wrap up of the whole thing, and so a focusing lens for theme. It is basically the statement made in Harry's head when talking to Aberforth near the end. He knows the damned difficulty of the question of Dumbledore's goodness in light of the history of which he has learned through Rita and Aberforth, but there is a specific, clear, purposeful statement that Harry has made a distinct decision to trust what Dumbledore left for him, fully aware of the problems, but doing the best he can with what he has.

And speaking of the deconstruction of Dumbledore, I should bring that in here, because (1) it was actually brought up in a recent book-club discussion in which the person bringing it up was doing so to place HP at a point clearly below LotR and (2) it is an instance of the same thematic playing out in the treatment of DD. The criticism was of the deconstruction, and I didn't have time or preparation there to rebut, but this would be the rebuttal. I myself have actually done interpretation of material on DD in book 7 that met with the response, "well, if you really want to totally deconstruct the character I guess." It's not a claim I have heard anybody else make, and so I have to assume I am the most deconstructionist bugger in the room. Only, I don't think it really deconstructs him in the end. I think it rather points up the dire difficulty of the situation. The instance (which I have heard nobody else talk about) is the brief snippet in Snape's string-memory Harry sees in the pensieve after Snape dies in book 7 in which Snape and DD are talking after the Yule Ball in book 4: Snape says Karkaroff intends to flee; DD asks if Snape will flee too; Snape replies that he is not such a coward; DD replies that no he is not; DD THEN adds "sometimes I think we sort too soon" and walks off; and Snape is described as looking as if he had been slapped. In Snape's world, to question whether he is truly a Slytherin is to attack his identity; part of what drives him is summed up by Phineus Nigellus's portrait when all the portraits cheer the victory at the end, "and let it be known that Slytherin house played it's part!" AND most importantly ... I think DD knows this and knows Snape will take it as an affront to his identity. AND I think it is intentionally done for this purpose by JKR: all the other memories in the string serve some other purpose, either Snape relating to Harry his real connection to Harry's world and his love of Lily, or revealing his own role in keeping Harry alive even while really, really, REALLY not liking how much he looks like James, or giving Harry DD's final instructions, or even just filling in details on moments in the plan we had gotten only a snippet of earlier, like getting the full argument between DD and Snape in book 6 that Hagrid hear only a snippet of or seeing DD's involvement in Sanpe pressing Quirrell in book 1; but this scene at the end of the Yule ball serves no purpose like that; all things materially relevant about the sending of Snape at the end of book 4 have been covered in other conversations since then in the books; the only purpose that scene serves is to cast DD in this light. I think DD intentionally antagonizes Snape. BUT I also think that it is telling that it is shown happening in a discussion of the dark-mark brand signalling an immanent return at the end of book 4, because I think the point is not to deconstruct DD as a way to deconstruct God and all that, but rather to point up the extreme difficulty of sending Snape in as a spy. We are talking about the most accomplished legilimens of the age, and DD knows this more than anybody because he is the only one who saw the young Voldy issuing the "TELL THE TRUTH!" command and saying he can always tell when people are lying to him. If you are going to send a spy in to try to trick somebody with that level of perception, they damn well better be the best liar on the planet. And the surest way to do that is to make it real ... method acting. No fat suit; you take time off from filming and go to Europe and eat like a pig like Deniro in Raging Bulll and come back with your health in worse shape to the extent that you can't take the same rigor of shooting schedule you could when you were in the stage of peak fitness for that section of the boxer's life. If you want to somebody like Snape to walk in and trick the greatest legilimens with the line "I am on your side because I hate Dumbledore," you give them some real antipathy toward yourself to make it believable by antagonizing them. That description on top of the tower is not just Harry's imagination; the hatred an loathing he sees etched in every line of Snape's face is really there: loathing for manipulating him, loathing for abandoning him by dying and leaving him to walk into the moth of hell alone. But I don't think DD is mean or antagonistic by nature or enjoys it ... but he is cumming. And it is like Snape himself says the first time he teaches DADA in book 6: the dark arts are a hydra, "ever-changing and eternal," and if you want to beat them, you have to be every bit as "creative" as the arts you seek to undo. It is a gray line, thinking about intentionally antagonizing somebody like this, but it is the line DD has to walk if he wants to defeat Voldy, or at least it is the best he is able to do with the situation and still be able to keep moving on it and not get frozen by the difficulty of how to do it and thus lose the opportunity and abandon how many to torture and death at the hands of Voldy and his followers. The point is not an evil DD; the point is the direness of fighting so cunning an evil as Voldy, and having to go with the best plan you can figure out (like Harry says when Hermione says she doesn't like the plan of being ambiguous on what they're promising Griphook, when he replies, "I don't much either ..." but it's the best plan they can get given the situation).

I think the "sometimes you go with the best you can" even plays out in JKR's material plotting of mechanics (on a side, side note, I once heard a nice funny way to put this: a certain prof in grad school always used the line in discussing how evil always starts with some good seed taken in the wrong way, often in not letting go of the good and letting it be fulfilled in something higher, "when the good becomes the  enemy of the best, it becomes evil," but in paper season, he would say not to get bogged down in perfectionism and despair, and he would say "in this case, don't let the best be the enemy of the good," and one time a friend in the class turned to me and whispered, "at this point, I'm more worried about the good being the enemy of the turned-in"). There has been a question ever since the end of book 7 of whether she dropped the ball on realism or plausibility of mechanics in having the Elder Wand be able to know Harry had beat Draco. And I think her mechanics actually work, although it takes some work to get it and so this type of reading is not for the lazy, but I was once telling a friend and he said it just seems like there should be some more core thematic answer to the riddle of Voldy, that even the mechanics should be more something along the lines of the magic of love. First let me detail the mechanical issue and that solution. The issue is how the wand knows Harry as having bested Draco such that he is now master of itself. Did it quickly view some news-reel of the Malfoy Manner events hosted on the magical version of the cloud? It seems a bit Deus ex machina. The solution is the wands involved: all the elder wand has to recognize it two things; the first is that the spell it is meeting in midair is being cast through the hawthorn wand it recognizes as the wand that disarmed its own former master, and therefore the master of the hawthorn wand is its own master, with the key factor being that it can recognize the other wand because they have had direct contact with each other before when Draco used the hawthorn wand to disarm Dumbledore of the Elder Wand on top of the tower at the end of book 6; and the second is that the hawthorn wand is acting under the direction the true master to whom is has given allegiance; the elder wands does not need to know that that allegiance has changed, just that this spell is cast in true allegiance, which it can sense through the strength and a sort of integrity. The main point in bringing this in here is for the purpose of the discussion of the "making do with what answers you can have in difficult situations," as I have been discussing, this material aspect of her work is actually pretty fitting of that theme. It would be ideal if Voldy was beat in the most fitting way, but the important thing is to get Vody beat and not killing and torturing people. One can argue that such pragmatic theme puts Rowling's work on a lower level than Tolkien's, but my main point is that I don't think you can put it in the same class as Game of Thrones, or even closer to GoT than to LotR. Rowling's point is still one of moral action, whereas I don't think, at least from what I have seen, that GoT is capable of that theme.]

[Side-note 5: I will put here some other instances of the heavy psychological theme in the Harry Potter series. Arainna Dumbledore is almost too obvious to need to be mentioned. There is also a psychological issue of class/economic disparity: when Ron interrupts Harry talking to Sirius in the fire in book 4, while they are mad at each other, Harry throws the "support Cedric Diggory" badge and hits Ron in the forehead with it and storms past him hoping Ron takes a swing, and it specifically says Harry hated every bit of Ron right down to the couple inches of bare ankle showing beneath his pajama legs. That's an odd detail to throw in, and I don't think it just means he hated Ron so much that he hated even little minor details about him ... that's not how good literature works. The too-short pajamas are a symbol of Ron being poor, because his parents can't afford to keep him in well-sized clothes with as fast as he is growing, and the strain of the self-consciousness of that poverty as combined with being overshadowed by brothers, a kind of poverty of prestige, is what drives his tension with Harry, whom everybody notices and who never worries for money, whereas Harry feels impoverished in regard to a certain natural membership Ron has in the wizarding world, having grown up in it and understanding it, whereas Harry is a bit of an alien sojourner in it sometimes, a theme that is actually fairly relevant in current affairs in America and the whole fight over born citizen with long family history versus immigrant.
And that is the place where I will defend Harry Potter as relevant literature to the teeth, the issue of psychological impact on kids. That is my last example here and the most central for my point here. Book 5 is obviously focused on psychology: even the surface level from the beginning has psychological dream interpretation, thank you Freud, and on more hidden levels of series structure, it chiastically pairs with book 3, which introduces the dementors, which JKR specifically has said she intended as the embodiment of despair and depression (and anybody who can't recognize the result of the dementor's kiss and even Harry's blacking out as catatonic state has never studied), with which Decina's and Vanderhooft's reading of Harry's response as depression episode fits well. But the one in book 5 on which I really want to focus is the eye of the snake: when Harry sees the attack on Arthur Weasely from within the snake itself and thinks he actually became the snake. This is internalization, pure and simple. This is when kids internalize the tensions between parents and see it as their own fault or have manipulators and abusers convince them that it's their own fault. This is when kids are allowed to internalize violence and see themselves as the aggressor who is wrong, and sometimes dirty. The epigraph from Aeshylus's Libation Bearers at the beginning of book 7 is not simply some line randomly chosen from some old Greek stuff simply because it has to with death; it's climax is: "answer the call, send help; bless the children, give them triumph now." Whatever other shortcomings there may be, and however much I may disagree with JKR on some attempts to force post-script interpretation through a tyrannical "authorial intent," the psychology in her work is done with clear concern for the suffering of kids and should not be put in the same class with some morbid-fascination description of the machiavellian older brother twisting his thirteen-year-old sister's nipples to make her appear more sexually interested in the political player with whom the brother wants to ally through a political marriage ... sorry, I saw no sympathy in that scene for the manipulation of a kid, just morbid fascination with the "sophistication" of being in the know that such things happen.]

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Us (film review; Jordan Peele, 2019)

This is where I am basically collecting the material I wrote on facebook after seeing Us by Jordan Peele, his second film, following his debut as writer/director/producer, 2017's Get Out.


Us: Really strong second feature-length film by Jordan Peele as writer/director/producer (warning: *SPOILERS*).
I thought he upped the content beyond Get Out, which was a strong film on its own. When Shyamalan did Unbreakable, it was a strong follow-up to Sixth Sense, but he mainly did the same level but in an new arena (super heroes) other than the first (thriller/horror), and so it was a good second film but he mainly avoided stagnation by going with a completely new arena (a perfectly fine move, in my opinion, showing he could adapt his style in more than one arena, so that is in no way meant as a criticism). Peele managed to stay in the same arena (a sci-fi underpinning for a race-critical horror/thriller story) but took it to a new level within that arena: not just race-critical but now broadened to include culture-critical (best random thing I have heard in a while: some girl walking out of theater a little back from me saying to her friend, "Well, there's Trump's wall," meaning the untethered hands-across-America at the end ... the culture critical is evident in her answer "who are we? we are Americans" and maybe, but very latently, in the title being "Us," with the "United" part of "United States" mirroring "tethered," but as I said, very latently ... and a nice little tidbit maybe of criticism of the culture of technical manipulation), and the resolution involving a revelation of something that happened in the central opening scenes in the past (at least I think, the topside woman would not be able to pull it off if she had not originally been a tethered, and the tethered her would not have been able to orchestrate the rising if she had not begun in the world above; notice that, while she talks creepy and hoarse, she is the only one of the tethered who has the power of speech, which I think is an early clue to the final revelation ... I maybe had some "I wonder ... that would be possible" inklings before the reveal, but only brief and fleeting and only because of thinking "ok, there is always a final hook"), incorporating an established interpretive model like Jung (the shadow), and that dancing scene near the end (a three-part choreography of the young girl doing ballet in the world above and the tethered girl doing it in the world below spliced with the two grown-woman versions dancing around the desks in the classroom fighting) was a definite advancement in style by using such a highly stylized choreographed sequence (I also think there was a nice chess motif at the one point with a little Alice spin: notice that the topside woman is dressed in white and the tethered woman in red, so they are the white and red queens, respectively, and then the topside son as white knight pulls his tethering move that saves the white queen while at the same time, unintentionally, sacrificing himself by being taken by the red queen, so white knight sacrifices capture by red queen in order to save white queen from red knight ... so, a nicely done choreography there too), all while keeping the race-critical element up (it is only the African American family that is able to handle the attack; the white people all fall to their dopplegangers immediately, just as Jamie Foxx's African American character in Law Abiding Citizen, while having been partly corrupted by the white mentality, is still the one who survives the story of destruction, or Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury reaching Easter Sunday only with the section focused on Dilsey, the African American matriarchal figure who heads the servants in the Compson home).
And in the end, I don't think the revelation of the original switch is the typical "oh no, we're actually still in the horror and the bad person actually won" thing that is common in some (cheap) horror, but rather some form of Jung's resolution in the shadow's integration into the mature person.
All in all, a really strong follow-up performance by Peele after the critical success of Get Out (and and advancement in his style and film/story-crafting, especially for doing it in the same arena as Get Out, although without race being as up front in the material plot, but that is mostly as a result of moving it up to a broader culture criticism). In short, I liked it a lot and was really impressed.

So further thoughts: On the race-critical and possibly gender-critical: only an African American girl has a doppleganger that have enough indepence of thought to initiate and accomplish the switch. She is also the only one with enough sole to power thought and speech and self determination in both the uplander and the tethered versions of herself. Somebody noticed even just from the trailer that she can't get the rhythm in the car (can't snap her fingers in correct rhythm when she tells her son to) and guessed early that she might be the one without "soul," and I would say that that works on the level of the a hidden clue to the basic material, but that it doesn't onto the material level of the story in the form of saying topside Addie has absolutely no soul: they share the soul, and when Red dies, topside Addie gets it all.

Culture/Class-Critical: Of all the people, and whatever one thinks of Rick Santorum in other regards, he said something interesting when he spoke at my college commencement. He said that it is those with the advantages in a society who bear the great responsibility and culpability. I don't know if this is what he subjectively meant, but it is objectively a meaning in the words he said: The rich set a standard of acceptable escapism, and they get to follow it "respectably" because they are the ones who can afford weekends at resorts and jet skis on the Hudson and all the allowed and "respectable" methods, whereas somebody in a housing project may have to do their escapism in a less legal and more physically precarious and damaging way; rich men can afford to club there women over the head with fancy clothes and jewelry, but the man in the hood, if he is to follow that lead, has to do it more literally or with more directly brutal psychological manipulation. I think that that is part of what is symbolized in the structure of the tethered down below mimicking the those above.

Alice: Another possible Alice reference is when Red is pressing Adelaide's face into the glass surface of the table to point where it is cracking, so she is, in other words, about to be violently forced through the looking glass. And of course, the house of mirrors fits that image set, where she literally goes through the looking glass, being dragged to the interior by what she thinks at first is her reflection (and the way he worked that scene of her looking at herself from behind reminds me of Tiffany Aching's "see me" spell, but I would guess that as more of a simple borrowing of a material concept without carrying over theme etc.if it is even that ... the way C.S. Lewis borrowed the idea of grass that won't bend from a sci-fi book but used it for something completely different in The Great Divorce ... although, here, there is the possible connection of the things that kids do without knowing they're dangerous, as Tiffany's use of "see me" opens her to invasion by the hiver in Hat Full of Sky, and maybe a critique of preoccupied parents in American life).

The Real tragedy: There is kind of a dark moment toward the end that sort of signals the coming revelation. When Adelaide kills Red, she pants and growls in an animal way you haven't seen her do yet, even when trying to flip herself up over onto the bed to protect her daughter from the white woman's tether. And I think you can see that it worries her. Whether it is a worry that she has allowed a consciously constructed facade to crack some or because she simply worries that she has become like Red in order to defeat Red with that being unfolded in the revelation that she is a subconsciously constructed faced and the revelation worries her (but then smile a natural and good smile because there is hope of her having normalized), one way or the other, whether she thinks of it as possible CONversion or possible REversion, she worries that she has become like Red. At the end of the day, while I say there is a happy ending to the film (and not the cheap horror thing of "oh no ... the evil one actually wone; the demon made it out of the containment circle, etc."), there is stiall a tragedy in the the original human girl Adelaide has to die. It has to be done; as topside Addie says, Red Addie will keep coming otherwise, and simply hiding out isn't an option. But it is materially a tragedy nonetheless that the human girl has to die. And the critical aspect is the idea that the real villains are those who made the situation in the first place in which that had to happen, the scientists who created the clones for manipulation. They are the white greasy men who set up the battle royal in Ellison's Invisible Man. The other part here is the son, Jason. I don't buy the speculation of some at this point; think it would simply require to much rigging to have him actually also be a tethered living above (and I really hope that Peele doesn't make a sequel unless he has a really good idea that works without the kind of rigging it would take to make Jason also a switched person), but I think his actions at the end are significant. I think he realizes what has gone on and is now in on the secret of somebody who was originally a doppleganger trying to do the best she can at being the whole now and being truly human etc after having had to kill the other because, beyond her control, the other had gone feral and turned malignant from the psychological duress, and also at dealing with possibly the guilt feeling of realizing that she was the one who initiated that duress (although, can you blame somebody for wanting out of that life below?). And Jason pulling the mask down over his face is symbolic of his willingness to keep the secret, but I think it is also a double-edged sword in that it hides his face from her too, but that is just how it has to be in this situation that is the fallout of what evil people like the original scientist power-players and government do.

And one more thing on the rabbits: Gollum?


Here is a comment I wrote in the "reaction" posting area at https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/us-easter-eggs-references-hidden-meanings-weve-found-jordan-peeles-latest-spoilers-190658023.html?fbclid=IwAR0wo9QNgSpnwRfUBiYFw4jrJRUDxqPyN3u7fcFHEfXiyCtvmxUO_j4jzYA : Has anybody else noticed Alice? Going through the looking glass and down to underland (to borrow Burton's name for it) in the hall of mirrors, then her face pushed into the glass table top to the point it cracks, so Red is almost paying back a violent through-the-looking-glass experience, and Addie wears white (maybe a nice race-critical-tradition hat tip to the dot of black in Liberty paint's "whitest white" paint in Ellison's Invisible Man), so she and Red are white queen and red queen so that, in the burning car scene, white knight (Jason) protects white queen (Addie; and actually he protects white king, Gabe, who is actually next to the car that would explode) from red knight (Pluto) with his walking-backward tether move but gets taken by red queen (Red).

Saturday, March 16, 2019

More Crimes of Grindlewald observations

So, we have the home video release of CoG.

I got it. I watched it again. I still have no further chiasm/ring analysis. I don't doubt it's there, but I think there are some things that make it take a more subtle role in the meaning than the ring element did in the first movie. Some of that is what I am going to go into, but I'm also working on a thought that John Granger and others may be right in saying that the removal of the ball scene impacted the final film in a big way, which I will try to flesh out below. It could be that the deletion of the ballroom scene throws an original ring all off; I simply can't tell without seeing a structure of the film with it in there where it would originally have been.

But first I am going to give one sideline idea of artistry that connects with literary alchemy, and then a couple observations that hopefully segue into the question of the impact of the removal of the ball scene, but we'll see how that goes.


Gold and Alchemy:

One would have to go back to John Granger's book The Hidden Key to Harry Potter that he put out after book 4 or 5 of the original seven-book Harry Potter series to get the real background on literary alchemy because I can really only put the salient points in here and really only in broad outline form. Everybody knows that the legendary magical practice of alchemy is turning lead into gold. But, as Granger discusses, for real alchemical thought, this is only symbolic. What alchemy really is is a personalist discipline: it's really about the transformation of the common person (symbolized by lead) into the "golden soul." As I said, you have to go to Granger's book to get a more detailed description of literary alchemy itself and how it plays in the original books, but it has to do with things like the four elements being: White on top for pure spirit = Albus Dumbledore; black on the bottom for pure matter being Voldy as a materialist (thinks nothing is worse than material death); red sulfur on the right for animal soul = Ron; quicksilver/mecury on the right for the rational soul = Hermione (named for Hermes, the Greek god who became Mercury in the Roman pantheon); the golden soul produced in the center in the crucible = Harry. A supporting bit of data for this reading of alchemy as being about personal transformation is that Karl Jung has a work called Psychology and Alchemy: people think of alchemy as mainly the forerunner of chemistry, but really it's more the forerunner of psychology; alchemy produces the golden soul, and psychology produces the healed soul (psyche literally means "soul" in Greek, the animating life force of a living being).

I have done writing myself, back in the Muggle Matters days, on the use of gold in HP fitting with ancient uses of gold as a religiously significant metal, such as the fact that, in the Old Testament, silver is the metal of commerce but gold has religious significance: all of the sacred furnishings in the desert tabernacle and the Jerusalem temple (the menorah, the table of showbread, etc) were to be plated in gold, and the streets of the New Jerusalem in Revelations are paved with gold, and so on. But I don't think Rowling is going that far back into the Judeo-Christian tradition; I think she stays more focused on the other classical and medieval uses of gold as a symbol in alchemy.

The main thing is, though, that gold has a significance beyond material value. But the elsson in alchemy is also that the material value functions as a symbol for the higher significance; it mirrors it and functions as a signpost for it. The personalist dimension of gold in alchemy is conveyed through legends of the practice of turning literal lead into literal gold. The artistry point that I want to make in CoG, which came to me on this viewing, is that JKR has a nice little embodiment of this fact, and one that ties in the fantastic beasts element as something more than simply the vehicle chosen to get this other story out there by hooking it to an element from the original series (the scuttle that I could pick up at the time the first film was announced being that JKR decided to write the story because she did not want somebody else writing her world but Warner owns rights and said they planned to make another movie on some of the rights no matter what and she could write if she wanted to, and it was Fantastic Beasts simply because that seemed like a concept they might be able to sell).

She incorporated the beasts well in the first film, and here again, the niffler functions centrally. In film 1, the niffler running amok in the bank symbolizes the funny chaos (and sometimes painful) that ensues when magic enters the muggle world.  Here it is the niffler tracking through the gold dust Newt spreads around in the street in the Paris version of Diagon Alley. I personally think it unlikely that JKR has a well-developed "physics of magic" explanation for that scene (why do footprints appear in gold dust? how does a niffler seeking the gold dust make the traces of the persons appear?). I think the point is simply to have the niffler's desire for the shiny physical gold be the pathway for finding the person Newt wants to find for more than material reasons (meaning that he is in love with Tina), and that that functions as a sort of symbol of the alchemical structure of the legends of making physical gold being the vehicle for concepts of personal transformation. I don't know how conscious it is on her part as an author, but I definitely think it is objectively there as an organic connection with alchemical theme from the original series. At least that is my personal pet theory. It's at least a hat-tip or salute to the literary alchemy element of the original series, and a wonderful little artistic touch.


"I Hate Paris" Part I:

That is Grindlewald's line near the end, "I hate Paris." It struck me as odd. It can be just throw away as in "things went bust here; here is Paris; ergo Paris sucks," except that they didn't really totally go bust: he got a killing by an auror he can use for his line "we are not the ones who are violent; go tell people this," and he got Credence. But he does seem to say it with a bit of vehemence, and it is a bit distinct that Flamel says that if they don't contain him with the wands-in-the-earth thing, specifically Paris will be lost. So this got me thinking along some cultural and philosophical lines.

The cultural line is that a structure occurred to me this time, particularly in the relationship between Newt and Theseus and their respective interests. I think that, especially for JKR as English, the brothers represent the English, and particularly in a tension between newer American influence and older European influence. Newt is drawn by an American woman and Theseus by a woman of old pureblood French lineage who lives in England. There is no doubt that, this time (the five-film Fantastic Beasts project), JKR is painting on a larger canvas. In the original HP series, the main meaning was carried by Voldy's corrupt mentality and choice and Harry's choice of love over that kind of mentality, and Voldy himself is not pureblood; he mainly uses it as his vehicle for his personal mission. Really, he defines "pure" as devotion to himself. Grindlewald defines in that way too, but we are also dealing here with real pureblood prejudice from an actual, older European pureblood. HP stayed on the sized canvas that fit an individual maniac and those he hurt and an individual hero's choice of love. The size of canvas here is beginning to encompass cultures. And I think that the Scamander brothers may, for JKR, represent England in a tension between influence from old deep roots in Europe and newer individualism in American culture (with an odd twist that it is the younger American culture that has the more drastic official laws concerning intermarriage). It's definitely on a lot of English brains with the whole Brexit controversy, but it is also in JKR's literary lineage to have a central character (in this case the pair, the brothers) be symbolic of English identity in a current phase: she's actually mentioned Dorothy Sayers as a model, and Sayers's Peter Wimsey character is well-known to have been for her a symbol of England after WWI, scarred (PW has PTS) but surviving and, having learned from the past, moving on with life (his sleuthing and marrying Harriet ... the rumor is that Sayers had trouble writing any more PW after WWII started because he was was symbol of having learned from the Great War and being resolved, though bruised and battered, not to let it happen again ... but then it did, and the rumor is that that is when Wimsey as a project of writing a character really died).

Interlude on Culture and America: William Faulkner's Absalom Absalom

I have to be careful in how I phrase this part when speaking in the milieu of the frenzy that goes in in the online world of either (1) tying out literary sources in such a way as to view the present work as an updated or thinly masked simple reproduction of an original work (much the same issue as trying to discuss Tolkien's use of biblical imagery and narratives without falling into the trap of seeing him as simply doing an allegory of the biblical story) or (2) trying to make predictions based in material from literary models or allusions (Which predictions happen from other sleuthing methods too... all of which I appreciate and think some of it is very clever, not to mention helpful in providing raw data for my type of exposition, but it's simply not the kind of exposition I am doing here).

And I have to be doubly careful because I have no backing evidence or material to suggest that JKR ever works in American literature. American history in the form of 1920s eugenics societies, yes ... but that's not the same thing as drawing on specific works of American literature in  he way she has drawn on English and European. But I am going to throw it out there anyway. And who knows, if the resonance is as strong as I think it is, maybe  it is an instance of Rowling herself mixing the newer American with the older European in her British series.

One will have to go look on Wikipedia to get a better description and plot details, but I'll include here what I can. I simply can't shake the feel of William Faulkner's Absalom Absalom. I even went and looked it up on Wikipedia last night after watching CoG, since it has been a while since I actually read AA, and found the similarity even more striking. There is the obvious connection of "sins of the father visited upon the son," meaning the children suffering the fallout of the parents' prejudices, but I had forgotten that Thomas Sutpen has exactly the same behavior as old man Lestrange: going through a series of women trying to have a male heir on whom to build a dynasty. The other thing that rings so much is the French and exotic thing. Sutpen's first wife is the exotic, sort of like the Senegalese wife/mother in CoG, and Sutpen marries her in the French West Indies. The race aspect doesn't carry over, since LeStrange chooses a Senegalese woman but Sutpen leaves his first wife and son when he finds they are of mixed race, but there is a certain exoticness in common in the history of the two men going through a number of women trying to get a male heir and at least one of the women being from non-WASP/Euro decent. And there is a lot of French resonance in Faulkner's AA: In addition to the French West Indies, the first son's last name is Bon and he lives in New Orleans, and Sutpen brings with him to Mississippi a French accountant/teacher (who at one point runs away, and Sutpen goes out by himself into the swamps into which the Frenchman ran and drags him back to his employ). I simply can't shake the feeling of a resonance of tone (like Faulkner's symbol of wistaria vine that creeps everywhere and invades and saturates everything, like the honeysuckle smell in his Sound and the Fury) that seems to go along with some remarkable similarities in some thematic elements. If JKR is making a point, as she seems to be, about the twisted mentality of the parents and ancestors ruining the lives of the children and the descendants, and if she is familiar with Faulkner's AA, it is not a stretch of the imagination to think she might borrow tone and some elements from it for that project.

"I Hate Paris" Part II

The other thing that come to my mind from that line is the philosophical. I thought it was a neat concept when I first heard/realized that the series would probably be based around a major city for each film, but now having heard GG say he hates one of them (as well as his specific mention and phrasing of movie 1 as loosely "what they did do me in New York"), I think I can hear something that can resonate, even if only latently, on a philosophical level. Ever since Plato and Aristotle, the polis, literally the "city," has been a symbol of human society and societal structure (Pratchett has a wonderful tidbit by Captain Carrot in the discworld series, noting that the name "police man" originally literally means "man of the city" ... and there was only ever one woman for Lord Vetinari, and that is the city of Ank Morpork herself). I don't think it is a stretch to say that GG wants a society based in his own plans for domination to challenge and overcome all other structures of human society. As I say, it's latent, but I do think that that vehemence in the line "I hate Paris" and the fact that Flamel sees a danger to the city, rather than simply GG running off once he got what he wanted, does concretely lend to it.

A metro-polis is a sort of unique instantiation of human contact on a societal level. I don't know if one can really get it unless one has both lived in a metropolis like London, or in my case New York (living there for eight years: seven in grad school and one working construction), and lived in other forms of social organization against which to contrast the urban experience like suburbia. The city has a heartbeat of its own in which you can't escape the texture of other human personalities. It's why I go back a couple times a year if I can to bike in the adventure of that amazing, vast urban landscape call the five boroughs (well, not Staten Island; you can't actually bike onto there legally outside of one time a year, which the 5 Boro bike tour, when one level of one side of the Verrazano Narrows bridge is closed off for the tour ... but I never count SI in the boroughs anyway, it was only because of mob money in the first place, from what I have heard).

The rural and micro-urban (small town) will always be endearing in exactly the way that Tolkien loved it. But I think that the phenomenon of suburbia is a very major challenge to the polis. A couple of examples connect here in an eerie way. Henry Adams, at the turn of the twentieth century, contrasted the precursor of the internal combustion engine, the dynamo, against the medieval church, meaning specifically small "c" church as the church building in any given town (not capital "C" for the one, universal, Catholic), as contrasting symbols of social arrangement and interaction (this is in the "The Dynamo and the Virgin" section of his The Education of Henry Adams, written after seeing the early dynamos at the World Fair in Paris in 1900). A medieval city or town gravitated to a center, the church. From there, things radiated in levels such as the mercantile district with lower-cost temporary housing (the apartment above a storefront kind of thing), out to the more affluent property still in the city, and then out to estates of land holders and their bases of tenant farmers who rent from them. The dynamo, said Adams, is the opposite: it is about things being thrown outward. And he said that this would be the new model along which societal infrastructure develops. Things will go outward into segregation. And is you look at the arrangement of suburbam housing developments in relation to suburban shopping areas, that type of comparmentalization is exactly what has happened in suburbia (I remember noticing it as a kid visiting relatives in Greenville S. Carolina, that that place is miles and mile of traffic lights and shopping malls and cul de sac neighborhoods with no downtown I ever heard of; a friend told me that they have since manufactured a trendy little downtown area in an old industrial zone revitalization).

Then, interestingly, the place where I have seen what I think is a very unfortunate conquest of the urban by the suburban is precisely in the major fruit of the dynamo, which is the automobile and it's internal combustion engine (Cake has a song called "Satan is My Motor" that is insightful on this score). The automobile is single-handedly responsible for the facilitation of precisely the compartmentalized societal model Adams predicted in the form of the suburb. The place that has saddened me recently is that Uber is having a very negative impact in NYC: traffic is getting worse and worse, particularly as a result of Uber's selectionist operations (you can choose the driver bease on personality-type matching ... interesting coincidence that the name Uber comes form the same language as Grindlewald's first name, Gellert, which is the German for "elite") that means that more cars are idling in the streets until not just any rider calls, but a rider matched to their personality/social/whatever type; and public transport like the subway is becoming worse (my friend's wife has specifics of the increase in time of her subwat commute from the Pelham neighborhood of the Bronx to the financial district to work at a non-profit for much less that she was making before getting a PhD and having a family) because of lower revenues, so track repairs etc take longer. Public transport is, in a way, a sort of symbol of accepting other humans: I have been packed in like sardines on the 4 train in rush hour five days a week before, and not really had any rubs, but you have to be accepting of other people's foibles, just as they have to be accepting of yours, and you both have to work on trying to curb things that might annoy others. Unfortunately, in the form of Uber (which has also lead to some cabby deaths by suicide: guys put up their house as collateral for a loan to get the medallion and then Uber comes along), the suburban model is invading the urban ... and unfortunately winning.

So, what is my point? That if you live in a suburban housing development or drive for or use Uber, you're an evil person worthy of employ by Grindlewald incorporated? No. We are all born where we are born and have access to the resources to which we have access, and we can't entirely, or even maybe mostly, control that. . I may think that England has a long history of empric evil, but I admire Churchill for standing up for his fellow humans in England and doing what needed to be done to protect them, and a single mother working to provide for her child/ren does not deserved to be bombed just because England as a country unjustly expanded it's empire and murdered people (I'm not in favor of visiting the sins of the parents on the children). And I definitely don't think of people who live in suburbia and are simply trying to raise their kids to be good people in the best way they can find to do so are evil. And I don't think that people eating all fast food and convenient store food (a particular struggle of my own) are evil gluttons ... but I also think that the fast food and convenient store food are hurting them. And I also think that the suburban model has some detrimental effects in making isolationism more likely.

For this post and CoG, I just think it interesting that there may be something in the villain, a component of his villainry (the "crimes of Grindlewald") that is at least latently an attack on the polis, which is actually to some degree under attack in the real world.

Grindlewald versus Leta

I'm hoping that that discussion of cultural and philosophical dimensions segues at least a little into the issue of the Lestranges, in the form of Grindlewald's narrative being in tension with another narrative. And this is the place where there is the issue of whether dropping the ballroom scene made a significant change, more of a change than any regular dropping of a scene (even of scenes that make a chiasm/ring tie out better on simply the mechanical level). I think we have had a big refresher in the past two years of how central a role is played by explanatory narratives (sort of larger versions of the "legends" John LeCarre's spies create) and choices between them, particularly in the narratives peddled in American politics. But here, the competing narratives would be Grindlewald's explanation of Credence as a Dumbledore and the theory that he was Corvus Lestrange Jr. We of course do still have those two stories as competing explanations in the final version of the film. But I think what we lose in losing the ballroom scene is seeing the grip that the Corvus narrative has for the pureblood world, which we see in all those whispered congratulations. I think we may have lost some tension that was meant to be there between the actual pureblood world's preferred narrative of Corvus returned to champion the pureblood cause and Grindlewald's lost Dumbledore narrative as he . Leta's turning on Grindlewald to let Newt and Theseus and co. escape would have then been a nice symbol of that tension complicating things for Grindlewald.

 I try not to get political in what I write on this blog, but the past two years in America have been hard to watch. And one of the most notable elements is the tension between the group and the hero they have chosen. There can be hardly any greater disparity than that between Trump's gold-plated life in Trump Tower and the rural poor lives of the base on whose votes he relies (I take Trump's gold to be like Solomon's, and for Solomon, I take the biblical text as using a cipher-symbol, which is having his throne plated in gold, having his political furniture be treated the same as the religious furniture in the temple, as symbolic of the reason the kingdom was split, symbolizing the political taking over the religious, as was the case with the political marriages to wives and concubines being the pathway for worship of foreign gods), or between the disparity between McConnell as possibly the richest senator being voted into office for three decades in what is possibly the poorest state in the union. I would have found it interesting in CoG to see a more clearly drawn tension between GG's aim and those of the purebloods whose sentiment he manipulates to achieve his own ends, to see it in a tension between competing narratives of how Credence may be the weapon. GG is more of an actual pureblood than Voldy (well, with a Muggle father, Voldy is not pureblood at all, and his use of the pureblood concern is purely a lie), but he also I think has some contempt for those he uses, other purebloods. His narrative for who Credence is and why that may be important is about himself as an elite even within the elites: Credence could be the weapon based in the narrative of him being the long lost brother of the only wizard GG ever felt to be his own equal, Albus Dumbledore.  The larger pureblood world's narrative is different: he is the long lost heir of a pureblood line (the male heir that old man Lestrange did so much to get and then lost at the hands of one of his discarded female children).

The removal of the ballroom scene may even be part of why it is so hard fore me to get traction on a chiastic reading of the film. If the scene played the kind of role for which I think it has potential, it could have been a major hook element in a chiasm (maybe even the crux, if was in the center, who knows). It has no real purpose in the mechanical plot, BUT it is very highly stylized, with all the whispers building up to the clearest statement of triumphalism in the man's close-quarters "congratulations," and the imagery of the dancer with the ascending and flowing thing. Whenever something is that stylized and ethereal and  also serves no mechanical plot service, my ears prick up and I look at it from theme AND from potential for chiasm. The fact that a scene doesn't play a role in advancing the "main" plot does not mean that it does not play a role in a ring structure. The recapture of the the erumpant and the occamy in movie 1 don't advance the Credence/Graves/Grindlewald plot at all, but they are big hook pairing for the chiasm/ring, and they relate to the thematic element of beasts representing magic (is it dangerous or wonderful, or both?) and the theme of treatment of creation and treatment of other humans going hand in hand.


Conclusion

Anyway, those are my things I have picked out in, I guess, now three viewings. I really enjoy the film. I think it is cool that JKR and Yates are giving each film so far a distinctive flare of the city in which it is set too. I like cities. Someday I want to bike Paris, and London, and Taipei, and Hong Kong, and Prague, and Berlin, and Vienna, and Chicago, and Quebec, and everywhere. There is no better way to get the lay of the land of a city than on bike. Automobile now lays a new structure of limited access highways over the actual historical layout of the city (except maybe in Pittsrburgh, where the mills more dictate that even the newer limited access structure follows the same contours that those hills and Mount Washington dictated for the pre-auto development), but you simply can't cover the kind of ground on foot that you can cover on a bike. If you want the layout, bike a city multiple times using different routes each time.

I'll also say, in closing, that I think the ability of the films to carry this type of meaning through onto the screen is greatly aided by some masterful performances by all. Law is an excellent DD (please, please, PLEASE ... if you do a "later in DD's life scene," age Law and DON'T bring freaking Gambon in, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES) and Depp has so much texture as GG, and your heart breaks for Leta and Yusuf and Credence and Nagini, and you love Tina and Newt ... and that scene with Queenie and Jacob in the street in London was so well-done in its tension.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Tolkien's Middle Earth and C. S. Lewis's Merlin Magic`

So, sometimes while I am being lazy and not getting on with the next set while doing weights at the Y (when your job is sitting on your ass at a computer, it's good to schedule in exercise), things pop into my head. This will be just the brief outline of details to have it down, not really much cataloging of text instances, page numbers, verbatim quotes etc.

The structure that came into my head is that the relation between the silmarils and the ring in Tolkien is analogous to the relationship between magic in  Merlin's day and magic in Ransom's day in Lewis's That Hideous Strength. When Ransom is shutting the druid down from using his old methods, Ransom says that the things are not licit now and, even in Merlin's day, while allowed, they were sill kind of shady. And then you have Mr Dimble talking to Mother Dimble about things coming to a finer and finer point all the time, such that things that weren't exactly what we call "good" or "evil" yet from our perspective, just neutral or other, are now decidedly on one side of that line or the other, are now either "good" or "evil" even from our perspective.

I think the silmarils are like that older form, and I think the thing that is shifting from not bad but still maybe unwise in the silmarils to definitively evil in the ring is incarnation or embodiment outside of that specifically set done by Iluvatar (which is possibly fitting with Tolkien's comments that if there is a "time" of our world that befits his Middle Earth, it is before the Incarnation), in a vein similar to Aule's creation of the dwarf bodies in his impatience for the children to appear. The silmarils trapped the light of the two trees in a world in which the trees no longer existed, it kept them embodied. It's done with the approval of the Valar, but as time goes on, it becomes more and more obvious, with the lust of Melkor and Beren's lost hand and Maedhros throwing himself and his silmaril into a fiery chasm, that it's not healthy, In descriptions of the ring, we have Gandalf or others saying that Sauron poured much of his own power into the ring, which I think can be interpreted as Sauron, in a sense, "incarnating" in a way that is out of bounds. Gandalf takes on physical form ... in which form he divests himself of much of his power as a maia, taking the role of counselor. Sauron, on the contrary, poured his maia power into the power of the ring ... he sort of incarnated it.