“There are only two conceptions of human ethics”

Our friend Anthony Sacramone, of the Strange Herring blog, meditates on Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon:

There lies deep within every soul an inkling, an intimation, that things are not as they should be—that something is fundamentally wrong, with society, culture, government, our very selves. We do not do what we want, and we do what we don’t want. In short, we act in self-destructive ways even as we protest that we are exercising our freedom in the name or survival and self-expression. We have “fallen” from a great height, a status, a stature, that we can still vaguely discern. Call this “golden age” a myth, if you like, but if we are merely material byproducts of an inexorable and natural process, with one trajectory, then we should be more comfortable in our skin than we are. Instead, an uneasiness about the state of things troubles everyone, as does the burden of putting down the Old Man and his anarchic predations so that a New Man can arise.

Extremely profound. Read it all here.

Emmitt Til Would Be 75 This Year

Otis Pickett talks about how the story of Emmitt Til’s death influenced him. “If you were to ask any Civil Rights activist in SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in the 1960s what one event motivated them to participate in the movement, many would have said seeing pictures of Till’s mangled body in Jet magazine in 1955, and reading his story when they were his age.”

Lazy Journalism Makes Growing Trends Out of Personal Story

Aaron Bady talks about the Duke University Freshman whose article in the student newspaper about rejecting a particular graphic novel on the recommended reading list was picked up by national newspapers and distorted.

Take, for example, the fact that the USA Today story links to and relies on a story published by The Inquisitr. Now, the USA Today is not the most reputable news outlet you’ll ever find, but it’s the newspaper you get stuck with in hotels and it’s been around for long enough that one generally assumes it’s not completely worthless. The Inquisitr—which is where USA Today’s first link goes to—is pretty worthless.

‘Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary,’ by J. R. R. Tolkien

First of all, it should be made clear – and I wonder how anyone could be in doubt on this, but it’s possible – that J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary is not a work of imagination meant for popular entertainment. It’s a translation of an already much-translated work, intended as a teaching aid, by a major scholar in the field. If you’re unfamiliar with Beowulf, you might want to try one of the modern verse translations, like Heaney’s, but I liked this version very much.

Personally, I prefer a prose translation. Tolkien probably knew Old English poetry better than any modern man, and here he attempts to provide some sense of the original metrical form, but he is not forced to alter the text in order to make the verse scan. Any translation is always a trade-off, especially in poetry, and for my own part I prefer some approximation of the original text.

Tolkien’s translation is a lively one. I can imagine him reading it to Lewis (and we’re told Lewis did advise him on bits of it) and then ignoring, as he always did, Lewis’ suggestions.

There are many notes. Some are by Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son, who is editor. Others are drawn directly from Tolkien’s own notes. Some of this material fascinated me, some seemed to me (approaching more from the historian’s than the language scholar’s perspective) pretty tall grass. It was interesting to read, for instance, that Tolkien thinks the Beowulf poem correct in crediting (in passing) the slaying of the dragon to Sigfried’s father Sigmund, rather than to Sigfried himself. The dragon-slaying fits in with Sigmund’s story, he thinks, and seems like an interpolation in the Sigfried-Brunhilde narrative.

Also in this book is a work called “The Sellic Spell,” which is Tolkien’s attempt to reconstruct how the Beowulf story might have been passed down as a folk tale, rather than as a heroic poem. He sees a separation between the “fairy tale” Beowulf and the “historical” (by which he does not mean to suggest he thinks Beowulf a real historical character) tale. Here Tolkien may be observed “reverse engineering” an imagined lost legend, something he later did in a larger, more powerful way with The Lord of the Rings.

Also appended to this book is “The Lay of Beowulf,” an attempt to reimagine story as a sort of ballad. That was pleasant to read, but the editor gives us two earlier drafts to read as well, at which point I’m afraid I lost interest in it.

I recommend Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary for people interested in the Old English poem itself. Less so for readers whose main interest is Middle Earth. I’m glad this work has come out in print, and I’m happy I read it.

Opposites in Common

Rod Dreher writes about his hesitation over a potential proposal to work with a man on his memoir.

He had read my 2013 memoir, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and saw potential for us to collaborate. Knowing Wendell [Pierce]’s formidable reputation as an actor, I was flattered that he had read my book—and humbled that he thought it good enough to consider hiring me to help him write his own. So why my skepticism?

Wendell and I come from the same state and are of the same generation, but we grew up in different worlds. He is a black liberal from the Crescent City; I am a white conservative from the rural hills of West Feliciana Parish. How could we possibly have enough in common to work together?

Dreher’s wife told him that he does work on the book, it’ll be good for him spiritually. Find out what happened with Dreher and Pierce in The American Conservative.

The Man Who Did Not Run for President

“The idea of writing a book about a presidential campaign that never happened had not occurred to Don Cogman,” write Fred Barnes in The Weekly Standard. “He had spent two years trying to get Mitch Daniels, then governor of Indiana, to run for president in 2012. His effort—and it was no small effort—had failed. Daniels had moved on, right out of politics. He’d become president of Purdue University.”

But someone in what would have been the Mitch for President campaign encouraged Cogman to write a book about it. It’s history, no matter what happened. Or didn’t.

2012 Republican Presidential Candidates

The Story We Tell Ourselves

Derek Rishmawy describes an idea he teaches young men and women who think they’ll ditch their biblical morality for a season in order to have fun.

I always tell my students they need to be aware of the myths and stories they tell themselves about reality, because the story you think you’re in determines the character you become. Neutral time is a particularly popular story. It goes something like this:

I’ve been a good kid in high school. I’ve done my homework, been to Bible study, and didn’t mess around too much or anything. Now, though, I really want to go out and enjoy myself a bit. The “college experience” is calling, and I can’t be expected to go and not let loose a little bit. I mean, I really love Jesus and my faith will always be a big part of my life, but you know, I’ll just go off for a bit, maybe a semester or two, have my fun, and then be back around. You’ll see.

Where else in real life does this exist? Would they tell the Lord to his face that they’ll mock him with their actions for a time and then come back? This is easily the beginning of a story Old Scratch often tells. It begins with the suggestion that morality doesn’t matter and can be left aside for a time and builds to the declaration that Jesus never cared about you because if he did, you wouldn’t be in this immoral mess.

How Doctor Who Saved A Writer

Doctor Who and the Giant Robot - Penguin styleScottish author A.L. Kennedy says writing a Doctor Who novel alongside another novel for grownups saved her faith in childlike imagination.

It’s sad that so much of the air has gone from literary endeavour, that academic theorising and categorising have come to decide which novels are acceptable and reviewed, that literary publishing has squashed itself into more and more predictable boxes more and more often. Storytelling, company, human solidarity – they never go away, but they do seem to be moving away from the mainstream. It will be the mainstream’s loss. Readers will always go where they can find the joy they knew in childhood, the joy they deserve.

‘The Devil in the White City,’ by Erik Larson

It is part of the lore of the Walker family that my immigrant great-grandfather, who was farming in Iowa at the time – although famously workaholic and tight-fisted – took time and money to attend the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. He must have been impressed, because he made it a practice to attend other world’s fairs whenever he could.

And he well might have been impressed, judging from the story told in Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, which chronicles, for a generation which has forgotten it, the story of the Columbian Exposition. Along with a much more sordid story.

Who today knows that the construction of the Columbian Exposition involved the first use of spray paint in history? That the Pledge of Allegiance was composed for it? That the vertical file was first introduced there? That the first Ferris wheel was built for it? That Columbus Day was created in its honor? That it contained the first carnival “Midway?” That it provided the public its first taste of Juicy Fruit gum, Cracker Jacks, and Shredded Wheat? That it showcased long-distance telephone service, Edison’s moving pictures, and newfangled zippers?

The hero of the story is Daniel H. Burnham, a Chicago architect who became the chief organizer of the fair. When Chicago won the right to host it, the world scoffed. Chicago had no reputation as a cultural center, and New Yorkers (especially) laughed at the idea that such a raw, filthy, slaughterhouse town could dream of mounting an exhibition that would be anything but embarrassing compared to the previous one, which was held in Paris and stunned the world with (among other marvels) the Eiffel Tower. Continue reading ‘The Devil in the White City,’ by Erik Larson

Two TV shows about one-armed men

The most famous one-armed man in television history is, of course, the murderer hunted by Dr. Richard Kimball on The Fugitive. But I don’t have him in mind in this post. I never actually watched The Fugitive much.

But I have fond memories of two television series from my childhood, each of whose main characters had one arm. Why one-armed characters resonate with me, I cannot say. The reasons are probably emotionally complex and embarrassing (I had one character lose a hand in my novel Wolf Time, and another lose a whole arm in Troll Valley). But I’m delighted that YouTube has made it possible to rediscover these series, at least in part. My viewing report follows.

The Vise

The character of detective Mark Saber had an interesting evolution. According to my internet research (not always coherent), he began as a British detective working (for some reason) on the police force of a large American city on an early US TV series called Mystery Theater. He was played by Tom Conway (not to be confused with comedian Tim Conway). Tom Conway was the brother of famous movie heavy George Sanders, and spent his career in his brother’s shadow. His character dressed nattily, and (judging by the one episode I found on YouTube) fought crime more with fisticuffs than with deduction or forensics.

The show ran from 1951-1954. Then in 1955 the character was resurrected back in the old home country in a new series called The Vise. Mark Saber was now a London private investigator, and was now played by Donald Gray, a native of South Africa who lost his left arm in France in World War II. I’ve only found a couple episodes of this series on YouTube. Here’s one:

Continue reading Two TV shows about one-armed men

Standing with the Oppressed

There is beauty in this land, but I don't always feel it.

The growing pains in the Evangelical church today are in America’s race problem and the issues of social justice. I heard a pastor this year say Jesus’ message was largely one of social justice, and if I hear that term with political ears, I reject it. If I hear “social justice” and think “social gospel” and all the bad theology that has been woven into that, then I can’t help but reject it, but if I understand “social justice” to mean loving one’s neighbor, then I can accept it, maybe not as my primary choice of words, but as an understandable choice.

Believers today need to come to grips with the particulars of loving our neighbors, rejecting the political hostility and individualism that may feel natural to us. How much has personal comfort (ignoring real sacrifice) become our standard for judging God’s will for our lives?

A few days ago, a pastor in my denomination and his daughter were arrested for demonstrating in the St. Louis metro area on the anniversary of the shooting of Mike Brown. I believe he was trying get a petition heard by a federal marshall. They were arrested for obstructing entrances that were already obstructed by official barricades. They talk about it with Jamar Tisby here. This is moving. I encourage you to listen to this.

‘The Murderer’s Daughter,’ by Jonathan Kellerman

Tragic; could you blame a boy for going bad? You sure could. Turning the tale over and over, Grace found herself growing steely. She knew all about rejection and loss, deep wounds of the soul that required psychic excavation and cauterization, the acid wash of self-examination. Life could be a horror. No excuse.

It occurred me after I finished reading Jonathan Kellerman’s The Murderer’s Daughter that the heroine could be described as a sort of American version of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, main character of his “The Girl” novels, but without the annoying Marxist themes. I’m OK with that. Grace Blades is a vivid character. I generally avoid novels with female protagonists because I can’t identify with them, but I was all in for Grace from the first paragraph.

Grace Blades (isn’t that a great name?) is a genius, off the charts, and a world-renowned clinical psychologist. She is especially famous for her successful work with trauma victims. Yet oddly, her own psychological world is rather barren.

Grace was born to a neglectful, abusive home, and orphaned at an early age. After that she entered the foster care system, until she found a loving home with a couple who cared for her and nurtured her intellectual gifts. Since their deaths, Grace has kept other people at a distance, confining her sex life to occasional anonymous encounters with strangers.

But one day she opens her office door to a new patient, and sees before her a man she had a tryst with just the night before. She tries to salvage the session, but the man flees at last, hinting at family guilt and something about atonement.

Soon Grace learns that this man was not in fact a stranger at all, but a fellow witness to the most traumatic event of her life. And now Grace is in danger from the person that man feared.

Grace does not take danger passively. Her rule is to go on the offensive. And so she does.

The Murderer’s Daughter is quite unlike Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels. Alex is well-adjusted, and has a productive relationship with the police. Grace Blades is more like Batman, a law unto herself, a genius with fighting skills who takes the law into her own hands.

Morally, I disapprove. As a reader, I loved this book. Cautions for language, sex, and violence.

‘The American Culture’

One of our oldest friends in the blogging world is S. T. Karnick’s The American Culture blog. I’ve been a participant there, though I’ve had to cut it back severely in the last couple years, due to my educational schedule. You may have noticed that the operation moved to the Liberty 21 Institute for a while. That association has ended.

If, like me, you’ve had a little trouble finding TAC again, it’s back at its old digs here.

This has been a public service announcement.

In which I scoop ‘World Net Daily’

Now and then – not every day – I come up with a Grand Unified Theory that explains one or more of life’s great puzzles. And being the generous soul that I am, I share my insight with you.

Because I’m all about the giving.

Here’s what I figured out this summer.

I have observed, from my own experience and from comments on Facebook from sea to shining sea, that pretty much everywhere that people live in the US, all the streets are being dug up this summer. I mean all the streets, as in, if you try to find an alternate route because your usual route is under construction, you’ll certainly find that route under construction too. And if you find a tertiary route, behold, there the bobcats and scarifiers will be also.

Obviously this is a massive conspiracy. But what is it in service of?

This is my insight:

Under pressure from animal rights activists, behavioral scientists have been severely restricted in their use of laboratory rats in mazes. Funding for animal experimentation is drying up.

So the behavioral scientists have turned to the government for an alternative experiment. Streets are being dug up all over each metropolitan area, not for maintenance purposes, but to construct increasingly complex mazes. The progress of our automobiles through these mazes is being systematically tracked by drones in the air.

I think this is the only sufficient explanation for the disruption in our daily commutes.

Remember, if the government denies this obvious truth, that in itself is proof that I’ve guessed right.

‘The Dregs of Aquarius,’ by Rick Dewhurst

I have a strange reader’s relationship with Rick Dewhurst. My limited, personal online contact with him, as well as my reading of his work, suggests to me that he’s a good guy, a good pastor, and a good writer. Yet I’ve had trouble with his novels. I reviewed his novel Bye Bye Bertie, a satire of evangelical culture presented as a mystery story, and had difficulty seeing the point (I suppose that may mean I’m just the kind of Christian he’s lampooning). His novel The Darkest Valley, which I also reviewed, was a story of a failed ministry. It was far more accessible to me, but kind of a polar opposite of the first book – so realistic and tragic that I had a hard time dealing with it.

His new novel, The Dregs of Aquarius, falls somewhere in between. I think it’s far more successful as a novel, and has the further advantage of being hilarious in parts.

Tom Pollard, the main character, is a hippie in a small British Columbia town, (apparently) sometime in the 1970s. He has a job as a bartender, but his life centers on his circle of stoner friends, some of them American draft dodgers, with whom he regularly gets drunk and high. What seems to him a pretty idyllic existence is marred only by two things – as a result of a head injury, he has recently begun to see spiritual beings, whom he thinks of as gods, hovering in the sky. And his girlfriend Ruby, whom he cares for more than he’s willing to admit, is showing signs of being drawn back to “straight” life, and has gone home to spend time with her parents.

She didn’t really want to control me. She only wanted a real person to relate to, and I didn’t want to be one. But then why would I want to define myself or be defined. I knew that if you began to coalesce around a solid identity, there was a good chance you might be held accountable.

Tom’s adventures climax in a marathon “encounter session” (you’ll remember what those were if you’re old enough) that’s as good an example of escalating slapstick as I’ve ever encountered in a book.

I had a little trouble with the ending of the story, but not because I thought it was badly done or inappropriate. On the contrary, it’s exactly the kind of payoff you look for in a Christian novel. It just struck me as oddly… conventional in a book this eccentric.

But maybe that was the point.

It’s also a little jarring that the main characters of this funny book, Tom and Ruby, are the same people as the pastor and his wife who suffer so in The Darkest Valley. It’s a strange juxtaposition, though I suppose there may be a larger purpose.

In any case, I can recommend The Dregs of Aquarius. Not perfect, but a rare example of a Christian comic novel that works. Also a pretty good evocation of a time which (thankfully) has passed forever. Let’s hope.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture