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Saturday, 22 April 2017

Revelation and the New Catholicism

In my capacity as a tutor, I meet quite a few attendees of religious schools, especially Catholic ones. I assumed, when I started, that these kids would have an advantage when dealing with certain material, given that so much of western literature draws heavily on biblical imagery and language and, especially amongst the modernists, Catholic conceptual frameworks.

This assumption was proven incorrect the very first time I mentioned Revelation. I should point out that I also went to a Catholic school - a Jesuit institution, in fact - and that our primary method of subverting Catholic dogma was to flip to The Song of Solomon in order to snicker at descriptions of breasts and thighs, and then head straight to the back pages and drink in the crazy apocalyptic code talking of John of Patmos. While the more spiritual aspects of Catholicism held no real appeal, our compulsory engagement with the bible kindled an interest, in some of us, in the arcana of literature and ancient history.

Fast forward to today, and I find myself confronted with students of Catholic institutions who have actually never heard of Revelation. Or The Song of Solomon. While I'm not necessarily heartbroken about this, it strikes me as a bit of a shame that kids being forced to undergo religious education are missing out on the two strongest opportunities for comedy contained in the corpus. These gaps, of course, led me to ask what, in actual fact, they do during their religious indoctrination... I mean, education. What they report is deeply worrying to me.

Students describe sessions where they are given verses from the bible, without context or discussion, and instructed to translate the 'moral message' of each verse. From an intellectual point of view, this is an exercise in absurdity. Let's take an example:

Matthew 16:19: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

From this enigmatic fragment, students are supposed to derive the doctrine of papal infallibility, god (haha) only knows how. Not a word is said about the fact that Matthew's gospel is a standout as a persuasive effort grounded in a framework of Old Testament prophecy. No explanation is given of the fact that the entire book should be viewed as an argumentative attempt to legitimise the messianic status of Jesus by manipulating his life to parallel Israel's history, or of the highly flexible attitude to fact and sequence prevalent amongst contemporary authors at the time. All things, I should point out, which were pointed out to me by my school's more scholarly lay brothers and priests. The verse is presented as monolithic, authoritative and unquestionable. And most importantly, incomprehensible. The implication is that all meaning must needs be received from competent authority, as the text is demonstrably opaque. Which is cheap trickery, of course - the text is child's play to understand, so long as one is presented with the relevant facts. Deliberately obscuring these is the kind of cheap trick I expect from televangelists and crazy fundamentalists.

Other sessions involve writing (read: 'paraphrasing') long and highly prescriptive essays on various points of Catholic ethics, and, most weirdly, turning one's chair to face the wall and having an imaginary (or not) conversation with God. Now, any members of evangelical churches reading this will probably look at these practices and nod sagely, these being core activities for many evangelical Christians, but to someone more familiar with high Catholicism, all of this looks strange and disturbing.

I can only speculate as to why this shift has occurred. It may be a part of the global membership crisis being faced by many churches worldwide, or possibly an effect of the shifting nature of the Catholic church's core membership. Either way, I think it's an innovation to be greatly deplored. Given that sending a child to a Catholic school is going to result in attempted Catholic indoctrination, there is a core reason for accepting this regardless of one's faith or lack thereof. Simply put, the Catholic church is old and learned, and the kind of engagement my generation was exposed to was largely scholarly in bent. This meant that even though I'd never in a million years decide to believe in God and Jesus and all that jazz, I was exposed, in a valid and constructive way, to something which forms a central pillar of our history and culture. Academic knowledge of the bible is key to understanding all sorts of aspects of western and world culture, and encourages, depending on the individual, either healthy skepticism or sophisticated and moderate faith. Reducing this kind of instruction to the level of Sunday School, fairy tales, and new age 'communing with spirits' garbage breeds ignorance, and destroys what is conceivably the only advantage of Catholic education for the non-Catholic, i.e., high quality education.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Real Whitewashing Is Not In Casting

To my mind, the whole issue of 'whitewashing' misses the point. I honestly don't give a flying toss what colour actor is cast in the role of Othello, Major Kusanagi, or whatever - a faint whiff of racism seems to me inherent in the idea that skin colour is the only reliable indicator of culture. What does bother me, however, is the whitewashing of meaning.

Let's take Mulan as an example. Mulan, in either of its original forms, is a fable about self sacrifice for communal or family goals, as well as the absolute requirement to preserve both male and female honour. In both versions of the original story, there is a strong ethic of service - the obligation to serve their lord is never questioned, and much more is at stake than just her aged father's welfare. Mulan risks her future and person to preserve not just her father's head, but the honour of her family and community, the idea being that failure to fulfil their obligation of service would be shameful. And then there's the question of marriage - there are two variants of the story, but both involve Mulan refusing marriage as the specific offers (one from an enemy, the other as part of a more or less financial transaction) would be dishonourable.

Now let's compare this with the Disney version. As far as I can make out, what passes for deep messaging in this inane mash-up is the idea that feminism means proving you can do whatever boys do, and then ending up in a princess gown anyway. The other values which come through most strongly are those of individual liberty, individualism just generally, and the absolute comitment to make snide comments about anything that isn't an exact analogue of western parliamentary democracy. In short, the story of Mulan has been deliberately warped in order to deliver unmistakably western values. Whitewashed, in fact, in the only way that really matters.

This leads to me to ask several questions. Firstly, is this a conscious process? Are these people deliberately appropriating an alien culture in order to peddle their own values in an annoyingly superficial way, or is it possible that they just haven't understood - couldn't understand - the tale's more alien elements? A quick reading of the promotional bumf answers that question - it's deliberate. Which then leads to the next question, which is: If the intention was to deliver a western message to a western audience, why then was it necessary to piss all over a Chinese cultural product?

Surely, if the message one wishes to deliver is so inconsistent with the material, the sensible thing to do is to just use other material, right? Wrong. The fundamental factor at play here is deep racism. It's my impression that adaptors like Disney actually believe they're making stories like Mulan and Alladin and so forth better by ignoring the cultures from which they originate, and warping them into carriers of western values; western values presumably being the only valid values around.

And now I hear that the ABC is producing a re-telling of 'Journey to the West', the seminal tale of Buddhist sacrifice and self-denial, for kids. 
"The 10-part half hour series follows a teenage girl and a trio of fallen gods on a perilous journey as they attempt to bring an end to a demonic reign of chaos and restore balance to their world."
Seriously? A teenage girl in the Tripitaka role? And this nonsense:
"The Legend of Monkey is big budget fantasy drama series that will surprise and delight family viewers globally and locally. We’re a business built on highly original content and this ticks all the boxes: it’s a tremendous tale, visually imaginative and made by talented people. Kids are going to love it."
I believe that I can translate this. It would read:
"We have ripped out the deep messaging of the key foundation story of an entire religion and culture in order to make a sort of mediaeval cross between 'Kung Fu' and 'Power Rangers'." 
Perhaps I'm overreacting, but I can't help but think that if all you're trying to achieve is the creation of an entertaining kids' fantasy series, it would be eminently possible to do this while simultaneously leaving the deep fables of my culture the hell alone.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Dickens and the Lesson of History

It's very difficult to say anything about the Victorian era without suddenly becoming intolerably smug. To our sophisticated, post modern minds, that entire period seems to be characterised by a prudish self righteousness and political naivety we tend to find laughable. There seems to be a general consensus that 'progress' has opened a yawning, unbridgeable gulf between the Victorians and ourselves, despite the irony of 'progress' being an archetypically Victorian idea.

Like most popular conceptions, this one doesn't really stand up to proper scrutiny. Closer examination of the period reveals its general aura of quaint stuffiness as little more than a veneer - a difference in mode of expression, rather than any fundamental intellectual or moral separation. I suspect this anomaly is directly attributable to Charles Dickens. Dickens is arguably the only well known voice of the period, which makes it natural for us to assume that Dickensian tropes are somehow representative of the entire age. They're not, of course. They're not even really representative of Dickens. 

There is no doubt whatsoever that Dickens was keenly aware of the political role and impact of his books. His private correspondence makes it very clear that he deliberately set out to use his platform to effect political change, targeting poor relief, private schools, and Chancery, in quick succession. Far from being an uncomplicated spinner of middlebrow pop culture, Dickens was the Change.org of his day, deliberately leveraging the mass distribution of pity and outrage in an effort to improve society. In context, then, Dickens is actually much more reliable as a record of sociopolitical controversy than as an accurate representation of the past.

An examination of the Victorians on these terms tends to turn up more similarities than differences. The 19th century was a time in which the world was shrinking with unprecedented rapidity as a result of revolutionary breakthroughs in transport and communications technology. The rapid pace of mechanisation and automation were shaking the foundations of global power, as coal seams and gas pipelines suddenly displaced forests and arable fields as prime strategic resources. These and other fundamental shifts caused a crisis of faith in prevailing systems of political power, with the rise of anarchism recognisable as a near exact parallel for the resurgence of libertarianism we see today. Looked at more closely, the preoccupations of the Victorian period seem eerily similar to our own. The potential for technology to redefine humanity and society, for automation to devastate employment and re-write the social contract, fear of the impacts of rapid increases in the pace of life, fear of a man-made environmental apocalypse - all these were the hot button issues of the Victorian age. Which makes it difficult to see how we can believe ourselves to be all that different.

This leads me to wonder how historians of the future will see us. To my mind, our increasing inability to express ourselves by any means other than polemic, the devolution of our public discourse into a binary contest between fierce moral and political revanchism and meaningless progressive rhetoric, our growing inability to engage rationally with events and ideas - all of this is basically a carbon copy of the bewildered, reactionary ferment of the Victorian age. As far as I can tell, there isn't any real reason to doubt that we're going to sound at least as foolish to our descendants, as our recent ancestors do to us. Unless, of course, we suddenly break with millennia of tradition and actually do something differently instead of merely re-branding and repeating the idiocies of the past. I'd like to say that's likely to happen but unfortunately, being a student of history, I can't.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Lamentable Death of Doctor Who


As I went to watch the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who, a large portion of what I was feeling was dread. I realised that this feeling had been with me for a while, and that it was there as a result of my subconsciously drawing a line in the sand - just a couple more disappointments, and that would be it: the sad end of one of my favourite interactions with television of any kind.

I'm pleased to say that the episode started very well indeed. The opening scenes were quiet, muted and awkward, in a good way, and I found myself daring to hope that this might signal some kind of refresh - a separation from the mindless formulaism of recent efforts, in order to re-engage with the core of what makes the show truly great. This hope was bolstered by Capaldi's excellent turn as a kind of grumpy version of a Dickensian deus ex machina, his excellent performance well served, no doubt, by some very deft and enjoyable scripting.

And then it all came crashing down. The first hint of disquiet came when I noticed just how late in the episode the setup of the central antagonist occurred. So late, in fact, that there was little reason to hope that the writers might have checked their growing disregard for the niceties of coherent story telling. And then doubt turned to certainty as it became apparent that the opening villain of their 'fresh start' season was a recycled composite of imagery and concepts from 'The Black Spot', 'The Waters of Mars', and 'The Lodger'. 

While it's possible that this depressingly unoriginal mash-up has been created in the service of some epic surprise in an overarching plot line, I find this difficult to believe, especially given the scant, borderline contemptuous attitude to plot which is emerging in even single episode story lines. A part of me really wants to believe the jury's still out on this one, but my critical sense tells me that what we are witnessing is the fatal commercialisation of The Doctor.

Now don't get me wrong - I'm not foolish enough to mistake Doctor Who for high art, so I'm certainly not a victim of unrealistic expectations here. I expect significant levels of kitsch and fan service in The Doctor's adventures. In fact, I revel in all that stuff. But I don't think that's what's happening here. What I think is happening is that the show's phenomenal success has created a set of conditions conducive to ripping the heart and soul out of the series, in the interest of serving up a consistent 'product'.

As a long time and loyal fan of the show, I think you can trust me not to say this lightly. The thing is, though, that it's no longer possible to ignore the shift in focus. What has always elevated the show into greatness has been its invincible moral core. Minor things like lore and continuity would be joyfully warped to breaking point in service of the premise that non violence, curiosity and wonder are more important than all of humanity's arsenals combined. This, more than anything, was the central thematic burden - the show's soul. Doctor Who, at heart, is a joyous paean to the adventure which can be made of a life informed by genuine intellectual curiosity. Or at least, that's what it was.

I would struggle, now, to identify any coherent sense of mission behind the creation of the last four episodes. On a purely superficial level, all the 'best' (read 'popular') aspects of the show have been turned up to eleven - thrills and spills, classic lines, iconic villains and sassy alien culture clash humour is practically bursting from the groaning seams of each overpacked, underplotted episode. The thing is, none of that stuff has anything to do with what makes Doctor Who worth watching. 

For a start, tolerating frankly ludicrous story construction is a very different matter when dealing with a purely commercial endeavour. Without that sense of higher purpose, the show ceases to be joyfully uninhibited - it sinks to being nothing more than a lazy, half-chewed mess. For reasons which beggar understanding, the creators seem to be ditching a conceptual core which has remained steadily appealing for more than half a century, in favour of elements which have never been more than clever window dressing. And now, it seems, they've even stopped bothering being imaginative about the shallow flim-flam on which they have inexplicably chosen to hang the entire enterprise.

I gather that there has been much soul searching and seeking of feedback with regard to the steadily plunging ratings with which they have been afflicted. I would suggest that this is largely due to their insistence on producing crowd-pleasers, whilst ignoring or failing to understand the essential substance upon which The Doctor depends. Put simply, the soul of The Doctor has been steadily crowded out by mindless bling. And without that soul, Doctor Who is nothing more than watchable fluff, and fluff which will never be quite as well executed as those shows which were specifically conceived to deliver cheap, mindless thrills.

One more episode, I think, and then it may very well be a sad vale to my Doctor Who fandom.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Achilles Fights a River


Being in the midst of a Christian holiday, I feel it's incumbent upon me to talk about some pagan folks. First, I need to disclose that this post isn't really about the fight between Achilles and the Scamander. The episode's a bit comical, to my mind, and has already been very well analysed by all and sundry. For those who are interested in the full text, it can be found here in all its gory, chaotic glory.

The reason I chose it is because of the impact it had as a chapter heading, when first I undertook to read the Iliad. I'd basically been pummeled into a kind of trance by an endless succession of battle descriptions when I turned the page and saw:
"Book XXI: Achilles Fights a River"
This woke me with a start, as it was a present reminder of what had attracted me to the character of Achilles in the first place. It wasn't his glamour, or the (admittedly very cool) epithets, such as "killer of men", but rather the essential core of mindless, ungovernable hubris which animates his whole being. And the chapter title seemed, to me, to encapsulate the whole of that hubristic, driven aspect of humanity's general existence in the face of mortality.

For those familiar with the tragedic tradition (and all writers should be), hubris is always characterised as a fatal flaw. It is usually lamented, often criticised, and invariably penalised with the heaviest of divine punishments. As such, the word - the very idea - now has negative qualities in modern usage. Most often employed when discussing war and politics, hubris is frequently trotted out as the explanation for a politician's or regime's downfall. Tony Abbott and Muammar Gaddafi spring to mind as recent examples.

This ignores the fact, however, that our culture is saturated with paeans to hubris, by which I mean that it's not really possible to engage with creative endeavour in any form without coming across a protagonist who is riddled with it. The standard mythic construction of the western narrative tradition is, in fact, that of variously hubristic characters 'triumphing against all odds'. From John Wayne to Conan the Barbarian, Mr Chips to Erin Brockovich, we are presented again and again with the message that, far from being required to worship at the shrine of moderation, hubris is not a fatal, but an essential heroic quality. We are told, again and again, that in order to be a worthwhile hero we must unquestioningly stand against the established order, fate, and even the gods. This kind of hubris is at the very least analogous to Achilles' reflexive decision to fight even the gods of the landscape in his fury.

Is it any wonder, then, that our world is as cartoonish as it currently is? That we, collectively, seem incapable of seeing anything in any frame of reference besides as an epic battle between the forces of good and evil? And that so ingrained is this tendency that we are often unable to see the inherently ludicrous side of casting battles over language, terminology, political office, and ideology in those terms? Pop culture has taken the idea of hubris and run with it - natural enough given its obvious emotional appeal. But what seems to have been lost in translation is the very important truth of its price. In a world of infinite grey shades and mind-boggling complexity, heroes and monsters have little place or utility, and we would do very well to remember that if we insist on seeing the world in these ersatz 'mythical' terms, we are condemning ourselves to a state of perpetual ignorance and bewilderment.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

For Whom the Bell Tolls


Donne's Meditation XVII contains possibly one of the best known and most frequently misquoted passages in all of English literature. The line is usually rendered:
"Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
It should be:
"...and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
It's not really an earthshaking error, and I'm generally pretty relaxed about it. The highly grammatical English of past ages is always subject to truncation and simplification, this process being one of the perils and joys of using a living language. What does infuriate me, however, is the truncation of meaning.

It's typical of our solipsistic post-modern slackness that, knowing only this tiny fragment (and incorrectly at that), we so often interpret this to be entirely concerned with our own individual mortality. I remember being taught this passage in school, and being told with the firm authority of schoolteachers everywhere that it meant that death comes to us all, and nothing more.

This is egregiously, painfully, incorrect. When we consider the whole of the document from which this quote is so often cherry-picked, we find that its primary concern is not mortality, but the interconnectedness of all humanity. This is the same meditation in which we find the line:
"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent; a part of the main."
Which was taught us as if it were an entirely separate thought, coming from a separate document. It is not. The meditation moves through a beautifully constructed line of argument, establishing humanity's interconnection through the church, and therefore god, and therefore in all our joys and afflictions. We are not to avoid sending for whom the bell tolls because it is we who are about to die. That's a possibility, of course, but it's not the point of the passage. The point is that the tolling of the bell should never feel like some remote occurrence - the affliction of the alien or other. When one part of humanity suffers and dies, so too does a part of ourselves. Far from being some sort of grim reflection on our own suffering, it is an exhortation to own the suffering of others - to cease the endless contemplation of our own navels and join the community of humanity by realising the depth and magnitude of our very real investment in it.

With or without god, the argument holds valid - whether we understand it or not, it is very much a corporate effort in which we are engaged. We in the west have been so successful at this effort that large groups of people are able to claim, with a straight face, that the artificial construct of individualism is, in fact, the natural state of our species, and should be legitimised through law and society. This is either profoundly stupid, or the product of a severe disconnection from reality and/or the past. Whether we directly see it or not, humans in society are like fish in a school. The least turning of one turns us all, and those who wish to scatter the school, believing in their own solitary power, are condemning each individual fish to the maw of the leviathan.