Reality and Unreality: Rumblr

Among other odd things the internet has told me recently, I heard of an app for casual fistfights called Rumblr.  As I was sharing this supposed fact with a friend via chat – “Look, it’s for all those times when you need to punch a guy but cannot find one available for punching” – I checked it on Snopes, only to find that it’s not a real app.  Rather, some blokes wanted to start a creative consulting agency, and creating buzz around this fictitious app was part of their portfolio: look!  We can get the whole world talking about a Fight Club app, even though there’s no such thing; imagine what we could do for you and your real company and its real products.  Even though they’re very quotidian and boring.  We have the skills.  Our engagement with the market convinces them to pay very real attention.

As my friend George put it: “This all feels like a disgustingly post-modern subversion of the fight club idea – an imaginary fight club app (already a subversion) that is meant to advertise for a consulting agency (more subversion).  There are so many levels of insincerity piled on top of something that was originally supposed to be about stripping away the false modern facade of life and reducing men to their primal instincts…It’s kind of grand, really.”

I’m putting it in my mental file next to “an e-reader version of 1984 where the text changes as you read it.”

Review: Technopoly

As in my post of last week, I am in the position of reviewing a book long after I first read it.  However, after reading Neil Postman’s Technopoly last March, I reread it in May, took copious notes on it in June, and still have it to hand for further consideration, because this book gave me so very much to ruminate upon.

Having stumbled over the book’s prologue while idly Googling the story of King Thamus and the Egyptian god of invention Theuth, I wondered how I had never heard of this author before.  Postman wrote at least seventeen books about the nature of education, how various technologies and media can contribute to (or interfere with) it, and the effect this all has on humans, particularly children.  The bulk of his work and writing occurred between 1960 and 1990, and Technopoly was published in 1992.Technopoly

All of this is to say that, though Postman analyzes a technological landscape over twenty years old, so much of it still rings true that the man seems somehow prophetic.

His thesis: technology appears to be a friend, but does not give us time for reflection on potential losses before it changes the world.  As scientists and inventors strive to make life easier, healthier, and longer…technology begins to usurp the place of our critical thinking and our consciences.  It is so intertwined with modern life that most of us have difficulty finding a distant enough vantage point to see what consequences, secretly intended or unintentional, may follow.  As King Thamus tells Theuth (or Thoth), “the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it.”  The king referred to writing, distinguishing memory and wisdom themselves from the recollection and appearance of wisdom which writing would make possible.

Basically, technology can be used for good or ill – but once the tool is in the culture, it will change it: not just here or there, but throughout.  For example, a culture that can produce written records can – eventually will – shift away from having an oral tradition.  Hurrying toward what is ahead, the inventor does not necessarily examine all these implications, all the ways his invention will change the world – nor do those using it ask, typically.  Instead, everyone emphasizes their hope for all the good this invention will bring.  The culture thus conspires against itself: the onlookers cannot know how this novelty will change their existence, nor that they might well end up on “the losing side” of a technology.

Maintaining that technologies reflect and create the ways people perceive reality, Postman sets out his definitions (by description) of tool-using cultures, technocracy, and technopoly.  Tool-using cultures use tools – many or few, simple or sophisticated, beloved or held in contempt – to solve problems of physical life, or to serve the symbolic world (e.g., art, politics, myth, ritual, religion).  The tools are determined and directed by the culture, thus they generally do not attack the dignity or integrity of it.  Rather, the culture is unified in belief (possibly theocratic), which provides order and meaning for the people within it.

He does list some tools which can intrude on cultural beliefs – the stirrup, the clock, mills, matches, and rifles – so I think those can be tied to the rise of Technocracy.  Here, tools are central to the world of thought.  Technocracy disdains and subordinates, but does not destroy, social or symbolic traditions (partly because it’s too new to change venerable phenomena like elder wisdom, regional pride, or social structure; partly because it’s busy doing other things).  Postman notes that Western technocracies were rooted in the clock, the printing press, and the telescope: three tools which changed the fabric of how society organized time, disseminated many new ideas to all sorts of new readers, and how men viewed the cosmos and their place in it. Listing off various natural philosophers-become-scientists, Postman avers that the precision of man’s knowledge of the cosmos “collapsed [the] moral center of gravity,” causing “the psychic desolation of an unfathomable universe.”  Even so, the believing scientists remained faithful, concerning themselves with learning and truth, not power or progress…until Francis Bacon came along.  Thereafter, people came to believe that knowledge was power and continuing progress was possible, while their belief in God was shaken if not obliterated.

More inventions, more factories, more production, faster communication…generally, people learned how to make this all happen, but didn’t spend as much time asking why.  And so western society approached Technopoly: a totalitarian technocracy, wherein efficiency, objective data, and unambiguous calculation is valued more highly than human judgment, human dignity, or the complexity of the unmeasurable.  “Lacking a lucid set of ethics and having rejected tradition, Technopoly searches for a source of authority and finds it in the idea of statistical objectivity.”  Thus ideas are reduced to objects, abstractions are ranked, and realities which were never meant to be reduced to numbers – human intelligence, a student’s understanding of a subject, beauty, ability, how people regard political candidates, etc. – are flattened and simplified until they fit into such boxes.

Postman acknowledges that a certain amount of generalization or oversimplification is necessary for everyone, given that we are awash in information: the sorcerer’s apprentice, with only a broom against the flood.  But in the past, some institution (familial society, religion, etc.) provided the framework for belief and understanding, dictating what was of greater or lesser importance.  Technocracy unraveled that moral and intellectual coherence, and now such institutions, and such overarching structures of belief, are held in suspicion by the Technopoly-addled.  What do they have instead?  An incomprehensible universe, and an unending river of data sans context.  Data management becomes the driving concern – again, not asking why this information or that must be preserved, but only caring how.  “Information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose.”

So.  Having been alarmed by the way in which society regards the universe as incoherent, the vicious cycle of bureaucracy, and blatant reductionism, what can we do?

Postman’s response – he admits that it’s not really a solution – is that, at an individual level, we must cling fast to the narratives and symbols which quicken us and organize our thought.

At a societal level, schools are probably the best arena for improvement. The curriculum therein tends to have some coherence and connectedness, and presents ideas or attitudes that can permeate “a person with no commitment, no point of view, but plenty of marketable skills.” Or so we hope. Since it’s unlikely that religion, love of country, or emotional health would be used to provide structure for students’ knowledge, something else must do so.  Postman suggests “the ascent of man” – the idea that “humanity’s destiny is the discovery of knowledge.” The arts and humanities can be joined with science “to gain a unified understanding of nature and our place in it.” Instead of excising anything religious, a study of religious systems can (apparently) help tell “the story of humanity’s creativeness in trying to conquer loneliness, ignorance, and disorder.”

The sudden influx of quotations probably displays my feelings toward this approach: I can’t actually summarize it and keep a straight face. I agree that it’s valuable for our culture to have a nontechnical or noncommercial concept of education, but I don’t know that this approach to learning would be able to overwrite society’s years of emphasis on education as the means to achieve material or financial success; after so many years of people asking “How?” I don’t know how to convince everyone to ask “Why?” instead.

Postman also recommends teaching as much history as possible – not only the history of political events, or of each school subject, but of history itself. This, he hopes, can help illuminate why we know the things we know, whence our ideas and sensibilities issue, and how cultures change. He urges that different theories be propounded if not endorsed or established: “To teach the past simply as a chronicle of indisputable, fragmented, and concrete events is to replicate the bias of Technopoly, which largely denies our youth access to concepts/theories, providing only a stream of meaningless events.”  Which has always been my problem with understanding history: why bother remembering distinct events if I don’t understand the point of them?  Postman agrees with that: “The worst thing we can do is present [facts] devoid of coherence.” Rather, we should go beyond the event into larger concepts, theories and hypotheses, comparisons and evaluations.

For my own part, stuck in my unfashionable Christian beliefs and morality system, it’s clear that human-centered solutions cannot fill a spiritual pit.  Technology cannot cure its own disease.  Practical decisions cannot solve moral quandaries.  There can be no experts in child-rearing and lovemaking and friend-making, because individual people are not problems to be solved.  If the great danger is to become Adolf Eichmann – the Holocaust organizer who was indifferent to the fact that the timetables and logistics he oversaw were part of the deportation and killing of millions of people – then our defense is to care more about our actions and their consequences, especially the effects on our fellow man.

This is similar to Postman’s final conclusion: that to resist Technopoly, we must be loving resistance fighters.  We must understand that technology is a product of a particular economic and political context; that all technology carries with it “a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing;” and that all technology demands examination, judgment, and control.”

My corollary: Keeping an “a epistemological and psychic distance from any technology” requires an understanding of, and respect for, the dignity of the human soul.  Distrust of technology will not change our society, our culture, our world so much as love for our fellow man.

Review: Choke

This post might easily be titled “Reading Regret: Addendum,” because this book is so regrettable that I fully expect you to ask “Why, exactly, did you even read it?”

To be honest, I keep asking myself the same thing and coming up short.

Here’s why I started: I have watched Fight Club a few times with various groups of friends.  By the third viewing, I was less concerned with the plot and more interested in the philosophy behind the movie. Given that so many people watch it and discuss it, what are they most likely to take away from it? What sorts of ideas did the original book contain? Was it most concerned with making something meaningful of one’s life, or satisfied by fighting overweening consumerism with bloodsport, adrenaline, and mayhem? Was there anything true in the book, or was it all metaphysically suspect?

I decided to get it out of the library, found that it was already checked out, and elected to get another of Palahniuk’s novels instead of waiting for Fight Club.  Which was silly, because Choke sat on my shelf all summer, and autumn, and winter, and I finally cracked it last week.

So much for why I started. The very first words are “If you’re going to read this, don’t bother,” and I ignored them, which means any unwanted gunk in my brain is my own dang fault.

ChokeIt’s easy enough to read; swallow a couple chapters and you’ll probably be a little curious about what happens in the other 47, even if you choke occasionally on some nauseating detail or other.  Victor, the deadpan snarky narrator, goes back and forth between describing his messed-up childhood, his abhorrent job, off-putting sexual encounters (his own and other people’s, as he is part of a sex addicts anonymous program), the hours spent visiting his mother (afflicted with dementia, such that she forgets to eat) at St. Anthony’s nursing home, and the revolting way he goes about getting more money for said home’s fees: purposefully choking at restaurants so someone else can swoop in, be a hero, and thus feel responsible for him forever (which apparently extends to sending him money periodically.  I’m not sure what it says about me that I found that the least believable part of the book).

That summary makes it sound better than it is.  The non-linear narrative remains engaging enough to see one through, and just as one becomes thoroughly grossed out by one anecdote, Victor turns to describe something else.  Which is about all the positive spin I can put on it.  The most sympathetic character is a recovering masturbation addict who sublimates his compulsions into collecting rocks to assemble into some kind of erection edifice.  This book is Pandora’s box, except that instead of hope being shut inside at the end, you’re left with an ambiguous cessation of action.  It’s everything I disliked about Catcher in the Rye, but far more sordid and gruesome.  The congenital is not made congenial by making the pubic public; it’s just taking the dirt from its proper place in the garden and hurling it all over the coffee table, the kitchen, the bed.

Somehow, that approach feels significant; despite my disgust I wonder if it represents some aspect of reality, putting a finger to the pulse of what people believe in society today.  There’s the conversational prose stuffed with informative tidbits.  There’s a discussion about misogyny springing from misandry: how many times can everybody tell you that you’re the oppressive, prejudiced enemy before you give up and become the enemy[?] …I mean, in a world without God aren’t mothers the new god? The last sacred unassailable position. Isn’t motherhood the last perfect magical miracle?  There’s a despairing rejection of religion, a blasphemous treatment of the specifically Christian, and so much emphasis on the carnality of flesh, all the filth that issues from it, and all the disgusting ways it breaks down.

I read Choke trying to understand whatever people might believe this, people with abusive childhoods and compulsion-riddled adolescence. But mostly I came away wondering if I’ve actually met people as hopeless as this.  I came away full of pity for both Palahniuk and anyone bearing a passing resemblance to his creation, because this does not treat men like men: it treats them like animals, and then argues that this is preferable because knowledge brings pain.

There is no such thing as altruism here, no redemption, nothing noble or lovely or of good report.  There is nothing admirable, just lust and gluttony and reveling in the foulness of what is foul.

If you want to learn about the diseases killing you and everyone around you, read WebMD.  If you can’t think of the word you want but insist on trying the first that comes to mind, read a thesaurus.  If you want to ruminate about the possibility that nothing good can exist without the risk of something bad, read Brave New World.  If you want to contemplate “a life based on doing good stuff instead of just not doing bad stuff,” read “The Weight of Glory.”  If you want paradoxes, read Chesterton.  If you want to muse about a past that cannot be remade, read “The Road Not Taken” or The Great Gatsby or Brideshead Revisited or An Artist of the Floating World.

Basically: whatever it is you seek, find it anywhere but here.

Use Your Words: Facebook Without Likes

This is an intriguing post by Ms. Elan Morgan (in brief: she stopped using the “like” button on Facebook and found that it improved her news feed, while rendering her interactions…into actual interactions, with other people, with greater delight). She notes that cessation of liking things is difficult, so I will not necessarily follow her lead. Still, I’m curious to see how pronounced the difference might be between my feed now and my feed after a period of like-avoidance.

Facebook Like buttonThere are, presumably, more and less healthy ways to use Facebook. I took a look at my activity log for the past month: out of my 170 likes, only 2 were for content served up by a business or personality (Conor O’Neill’s Pub and the Inky Fool) rather than an individual I know; most likes were for status updates (72), photos (51), and links (38; this last category is most likely to involve third parties – think-tanks, news organizations, and the like).

Hitting the like button strikes me as a less-creepy way to engage with the acquaintances I don’t really talk to: K in New York making dumplings, V sharing beautiful desserts and Mumford lyrics, a friend-of-a-friend with a nice photo here, a fellow-that-was-always-cooler-than-me sharing an incisive thought there. But perhaps if I did comment, I’d find that it was not unwelcome; whenever I hear from college friends or more distant acquaintances, it tends to be more pleasant than strange.

Curiously, Ms. Morgan does not comment on whether abandoning the “Like” changed her output. Obviously, the experience of hitting “like” has more to do with what we receive or observe on Facebook than what we ourselves write, produce, or share. And yet…when Ms. Morgan used her words to comment on the posts of others, she produced content of her own. Not only did she render herself visible on the platform, but she added something: more focused approbation, old stories, perhaps exposition or criticism of whatever posts she saw.

But there’s also the content that she could supply by herself – her own statuses, pictures, links. Did she avoid sharing clickbait (or, similarly, “likebait”) in favor of something more substantial? Did the effort needed to refrain from hitting “like” extend to more carefully sifting what she herself posted?

I frequently debate with myself before posting things. Two impulses war within me: “Just write something (it doesn’t matter what)” versus “Only add if I can edify.” Where Facebook is concerned, I tend to avoid the weighty – mostly because I don’t want to spend all day getting into fights on the internet – in favor of the silly: informal polls, music of the moment, links I can’t share on my brother’s wall because of his settings, or various delightful happenstances.

The aforementioned brother suggested I ask Ms. Morgan herself if she recognized a shift in that direction. As it is, I think I’ll try a fortnight or two without likes. Perhaps it, too, will expand my love!

Follow-Up: A Single Story

A year ago, I wrote about my search for various things, including stories about single ladies living their lives without worrying about their singleness:

But Susan’s story (and Hannah Coulter, and The Princess Bride, and any given article on Boundless) suggests that there is no other narrative, that no lady can ever be happy without The One, that the only ending possible is marriage.  This ground has been trod by a lot of women in tiresome family-vs-career arguments, but the fact remains that I want a story: a different story than my usual fare, something involving a woman who is content with a different sort of happy ending.  I’m looking for a female character who is content to live her life on her own, if only to show me that it is possible.

This turned out to be a bit difficult, such that I am returning to it now with what little bit of insight I’ve gleaned over the past year.  Since readers and friends all suggested one or two books at most, and that with some amount of struggle, I was reassured that I hadn’t missed an entire section at the library or bookshop.  Initial suggestions included:

Miss Marple stories – Agatha Christie
I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
The Thirteenth Tale – Dianne Setterfield
The Story of a Soul – St. Therese of Lisieux (autobiography)
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc – Mark Twain

It’s a small field, one friend suggested, because for centuries, a lady’s singleness didn’t just mean loneliness, awkwardness amongst the society of couples, or agonizing over whether she was fulfilling her telos.  It meant being without provider or protector, in a time when it was much more difficult, if not impossible, for women to provide for or protect themselves.  Thus, she said, the only stories of that type to be expected would focus on nuns – living within the provision and protection of an abbey – or great queens, who held enough power to concern themselves with affairs and interests beyond their marital state and household management.

I later learned that, unbeknownst to me, The Atlantic had published an editorial on the same subject about a month before I addressed it.  Ms. McKinney’s concerns were somewhat different from mine; she seemed to call for a story with a female protagonist and no love subplots whatsoever, which is a rather formidable task.  She made a few suggestions, not all of them equally hopeful:

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
Housekeeping –
Marilynne Robinson
The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
The Help
– Kathryn Stockett
The Awakening –
Kate Chopin
The Devil Wears Prada –
Lauren Weisberger
Salvage the Bones –
Jesmyn Ward

More useful than McKinney’s musings were the comments.  Normally, the comments section of any given article online is a wasteland of hatred, name-calling, and poor grammar, but these responses contained thoughtful criticism and a plethora of recommended titles.  Here are a few comments that struck a chord:

Lasting love is perennially hard to find… for both men and women, so it makes for good story and character development in literature.

Girls too young to be interested in boys made good stories. 

I think there are probably more love-plotless books in the YA category than the adult category

It’s not spite [on the part of publishers]. They won’t choose it simply because it doesn’t appeal to them, so they think it won’t sell. It doesn’t appeal to them because they aren’t used to it. They aren’t used to it because there are NONE IN THE SYSTEM.

I also disagree with your premise that self-discovery is always a solitary process. Why can’t a woman’s process of self-discovery include a little romance? That doesn’t mean that the entire purpose of her life is now to be married and have kids.

…To some extent human biology, and psychology, cares about reproduction because otherwise the species dies. So it’s likely at least some characters will have a drive for heterosexual love or sex unless there is a reason none of them do. (It’s a children’s book or they’re all children, it’s set in a monastery or convent, they’re all gay, it’s some kind of futuristic unisex setting where people reproduce by cloning, etc) But this isn’t really a male/female issue. I think there’s likely few novels, for adults, with male protagonists where love or sex has absolutely no role.

The author overlooks the fact that in the past looking for a man was more than about looking for love; it was about looking for a secure future–the equivalent of a job. For this reason many female authors such as Jane Austen are quite unsentimental when it comes to husband hunting…

I grew up reading the lives of saints. That is as diverse a group of women as you could ever hope to meet. One thing they all seemed to have in common was a strength of character that allowed them to face the unknown, challenge norms – even lead men into battle if that is what God called them to do.

Yes, we need more female protagonists that represent the modern woman. No, I don’t expect to find them in the Victorian Era.

I went through the various recommendations to see if they were, indeed, what I was looking for.  Admittedly, I am working from secondhand sources, because I wanted to share the possibilities before reading through all of them; precedent suggests that I wouldn’t have posted this for another 5 years if I read them all first.  But based on Goodreads, the following books show some promise in depicting women whose stories are not romances:

The Crow Trap (and other tales of detective Vera Stanhope) – Ann Cleeves
A Field of Darkness
– Cornelia Read
Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
State of Wonder – Ann Patchett
Clan of the Cave Bears/Valley of Horses – Jean Auel
Deed of Paksenarrion Trilogy – Elizabeth Moon
Friday – R. Heinlein
Titan/Wizard/Demon – John Varley
Hyperion Cantos – Dan Simmons
Little Bee – Chris Cleave
The Optimist’s Daughter – Eudora Welty
Loitering with Intent – Muriel Spark
The Voyage Out – Virginia Woolf

Perhaps in another year I’ll be able to report back on how happy or fulfilled these characters are.

Please let me know if you have any additions, corrections, or thoughts on this list!

On the Purchase of Clothing

What do you find to be the most hateful-but-necessary task on your to-do list? Life is full of such errands and duties, but I’m convinced that shopping for clothes is the worst.  At least, it’s the most evil necessity that comes to mind. Shopping for food or household goods?  Not too bad, even if I’m a bit hungry and the shop’s a bit full.  Going to the credit union?  Pretty painless, honestly. Going through voicemails? Takes forever, but I can multitask.  Waiting at the DMV?  A rare occurrence, and you can always take a book.

Shopping for clothes?  I will be exhausted by the end.

It always feels too expensive, considering how cheaply made all the fabric is, and none of it ever looks good.  I increasingly need clothing that does the miraculous, and increasingly find tissue-thin polyester in weird colors and blindingly bizarre designs, assembled into shapeless garments: clothing incapable of achieving even the mundane goal of fitting, much less the miraculous of flattering.

Which means that I take a really careless approach.  If I took a careful approach – hunting for a particular color or style, hemming and hawing over each object as I pull it from the rack, pondering each outfit for several minutes in the mirror – I would never buy anything and, moreover, I would spend so much energy and so many emotions on the attempt.  I don’t have that time, or that energy, so I tell myself “Okay.  Grab stuff theoretically in your size that isn’t black or blue” – sane and generally flattering colors, meaning both fill my closet already – “and hie thee to the dressing room.”

At first I just thought it was a “screw it” approach.  But it’s also a “You won’t know until you try” approach.  Polka dots a size up?  Why not.  A dress that appears to have both splashes of Pepto-Bismol AND the vibrant green of Nyquil?  Sure.  Something virulently salmon?  Trying it.  A dress with the sort of line-based gradient meant to effect an optical illusion of some helpful variety?  Go for it.  Peach lace frock, stripy knit day dress, and a pair of linen pants? For all I know, they’ll work.  Desperation tugs me into a state of open-mindedness like nothing else.

https://twitter.com/SHORTGlRLS/status/486412754169761792

…of course, sometimes you do, in fact, know before trying.  I honestly did know the linen trousers and translucent silk shirts were not going to be winners.  There was a moment where they sort of approached success – grey and salmon were kind of fun and felt daring together! – except for all the spots that neither item fit.  And then there are the garments that are really REALLY long.  This comic? It is the truest thing I have ever seen.  Who exactly are the Amazon giantesses that clothing designers evidently focus on dressing? The fitting room attendant was concerned I’d trip.

All in all, I keep wondering if designers are insane.  Do they not believe in knee-length skirts this year?  Do they not have a full palette of colors to work with?  I hunted for “summer-y” shades, and found white, black, the aforementioned blindingly bizarre patterns, and a few silk shirts in taupe. Are we being punked? Did all the fashion people make a bet about who could get consumers to pay the most for the privilege of looking the stupidest? There are rompers on the racks, for Pete’s sake, and those stupid heavy shoes that look like hooves.

…and then I wandered past the men’s department on my way to the checkout.

There are button-ups in the solid, summery colors I was looking for. There are t-shirts which look to be opaque. The craziest designs in sight were straightforward plaid.

Catch y’all later. I’ll be in the men’s section.

Review: Only Lovers Left Alive

My housemate Cecilia and I went to see this film the other night.  We did so in flagrant disregard of the Benedict Cumberbatch rule, namely “Do not watch a movie, TV episode, or miniseries for no other reason other than one actor you like is in it.”  The one actor in question is, unsurprisingly, Tom Hiddleston; we’re fans of his, nor are we opposed to Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, or the rest.  Sadly, none of them could save Only Lovers Left Alive from a deadly (undeadly?) slow pace.

Only Lovers Left Alive

First, the good:  as a whole, the movie certainly catches a quality, a flavor.  It’s dark, coppery, and not very pleasant, but it’s certainly there in Eve’s brisk walk through Tangier (the most feminine I’ve ever seen Swinton), in the grungy melancholy of Adam’s house, in the streets of Detroit.  Cecilia found this depiction of Detroit rather refreshing: instead of focusing on the city as the capital of crime and corruption, the movie focuses on its musical contributions, the grittiness of its urban blight, and its hope for better things.  Eve notes the importance of the lakes all around, saying “This city will rise again.”  Why she doesn’t go for the original Latin, Jim Jarmusch only knows.  But then, Adam is the one in residence there.  Caught in the 1970s as he is, his affinity for the city indicates that both hope for better, but neither really changes.

The benefit of unending existence is the opportunity to read ALL the books.

The benefit of unending existence is the opportunity to read ALL the books.

That stagnant quality of endless days might account for the sluggish plot.  This is the most charitable explanation that comes to mind: that vampires, having spent centuries of darkness watching all that the “zombies” (ie, humanity) have to show – all the art, the music, the scientific advances – are doomed to ennui, to anomie, to acedia, and (should no sunlight, contaminated blood, or immortal beloved interfere) to suicide.  The story arc, such as it is, might just be one more postmodern conceit for human lives with no overarching narrative, no implicit meaning.  The lack of chemistry between Adam and Eve might have been intentional, depicting the natural consequence of being married for some 200 years.  Sparks, fire, fizzle, distance, regroup.  They try to patch it over with allusions to quantum entanglement, Adam describing them as particles which affect each other though they be a universe apart.  Perhaps Donne could make that metaphor work; this script can’t.

The less charitable and possibly more realistic explanation for the film’s torpidity is poor writing and an undeveloped plot.  At some points it was like watching Catcher in the Rye but with vampires in.  There are amusing moments – Adam burying his head under the pillow to avoid Eva, Eve’s iPhone calling Adam’s curious corded setup, the wrinkle of disgust that crosses Eve’s face on watching a body dissolve – but for the most part, neither Adam nor Eve compel me to care much about their undead existence or their butter-scraped-thin romance.  By far the most interesting character was Eva, Eve’s younger sister.  She is obnoxious, she is careless, she drinks them out of their fugue-inducing O-negative – and she somehow remains lively, as Adam and Eve do not.  We left the theater wondering how she spent her time in LA, how she’d offended Adam in 1925 in Paris, what bloodletting would attend her trip back west.

Possibly devotees of artistic films would appreciate details that I missed.  There are a number of overhead shots, a heavy-handed motif which attempts to connect the spinning of the stars, of records, and the eponymous lovers.  Adam takes a look at all manner of classic guitars, so perhaps Gibson fanboys would be into that.  Those with a dog in the fight over the author of Shakespeare’s plays might be amused when Christopher Marlowe turns up.  But for my own part?  Speraveram meliora.  I’d hoped for better.  They’re hardly lovers, and barely alive.

Reality: Experience and Ignorance

Today, readers, I hesitate.  I’m hesitant to write of something that someone else has written about better.  I hate to discuss very broad concepts, and I hate to admit that I have no clue what I’m doing.

And yet…I’m fighting that hesitation.  Writing is better than worry; the reader may not have encountered the proverbial Someone Else who is better than me at everything (Khan?  Is that you?); and if it was worth my cogitation, it might well be worth someone else’s.  An Experiment in Criticism taught me not to fear reading a book more than once, even many times over; it follows I ought not fear thinking a thought more than once – or, in fact, many times over.

So here’s what I’ve been wondering:  what is the world really like?

We all observe the world from our particular vantage points.  We experience our own lives, hear about the lives of our families, our friends, our colleagues, our churches, our whoevers, whatevers, wherevers.  Our social media feeds us a constant stream of information about Life as Someone Else, whether that person is really quite similar to us, or completely different: the other side of the world, the other side in beliefs, otherwhere in health, otherwise in wealth.  There are the books, the articles (in magazines, in print, on the web), the television shows, the cinema.

We do our best to cut a swath through the unknown, and the stories we feed ourselves, in whatever medium, give us some sense of what is out in the white of the chart: whether dragons lurk there, or poverty, or beauty, or war.  This is fortunate, for me if for no one else; anyone who knows me very well at all knows that I dwell in detail, being a very poor hand at sweeping generalizations.

But no matter how much we learn, there is still so much to know: 7 billion lives out there, right now, not to mention the billions of lives from centuries past.  So many streets in towns in counties in countries where we’ve never walked.  There are so many biases we have ourselves, or problems in perception and recall and understanding, and so many agendas, conflicts, and obstacles in receiving information from other people.

So here I am, left wondering: what is, in fact, true about the world today?  Not to get all Cartesian about it, but which authorities, if any, can I actually trust?  Which do I trust without realizing it?

Here’s a minor example of the last:  I have in my mind the image of a high school party: parents gone, two hundred people showing up, booze and drugs going around, pounding music, and plenty of interpersonal drama like only high schoolers could foment.  I have never witnessed anything like this outside a movie.  Do such parties actually happen?  Is this a true image (στερεός τύπος) sifted from reality, or a mere cliché wrought by the media?  Did such parties eventually start because people saw them in movies first?

Another example: some famous ladies protest use of the word “bossy.”  Some other folks argue that this protest is arbitrary bullying of other people’s use of language; others note that there are more injurious words to worry about, and much more insidious problems.  I’m still sitting here wondering “Is that a real thing?  Do people actually call other people that, and does it actually hurt?  Like, more than other words?  The last time I saw or heard that word, it referred to an 11-year-old Hermione Granger, and it really was accurate enough.”  Who actually ought to win my sympathy in this fight?  No one, perhaps – I probably ought to walk right on.

So here’s something else, from an article somewhat-provocatively titled “In Defense of Book Banning”: authors of books, comics, etc. write all manner of narratives, including the agenda-driven, the needlessly salacious, the confrontational, etc.  Are they writing about the way the world is, or how they’ve heard it is, or how they want it to be?  Mark Hemingway notes (emphasis mine),

It was probably inevitable that Archie would change with the times, but I don’t think anyone thought the comic needed to become a statement about The Way We Live Now, where “we” is defined as some narrow subset of the urban creative class. …Of course, the gay marriage issue of Archie flew off the shelves, so it’s hard to tell whether the publisher is just capitalizing on the novelty to make a quick buck or actively trying to redefine cultural norms. But looked at over a long enough time horizon, the former will accomplish the latter.

That article also uses the phrase “With the way that public schools are slaloming toward Gomorrah…” as though that were most certainly the case.  I figured it was – I went to private school and keep hearing the most dreadful things about public schools – but one of my housemates went through public school and reported her experience as distinctly not-Gomorrah-like.  Admittedly, her high school experience was some 12 years ago, to say nothing of her grade school experience, so who knows how much things have changed since?

This is, I think, the aspect of reality with which I grapple most wearily: culture and society, they are organisms.  Whether we wrestle with them or try to unite ourselves with them, they are growing and shrinking and transforming all the time.  Perhaps you thought you had a fine snapshot of the way things are; blink and you find that it is how things were or, just as likely (it seems), how things were not.

At present, all I can do is thank God that my life doesn’t actually depend on my having expert knowledge.  Experts!  As any of us would trust an expert in child development to know an individual child better than his parents, or as if a landscape expert can know a man’s farm better than the man whose livelihood depends on it.  No, we don’t entrust the living of our lives to the experts; we carry on in our narrow swath, we use what tools we can and gain what knowledge we might.

And so I look for Someone Else, whose perspective on the world can shed light on it.  Wendell Berry, perhaps:

One of our problems is that we humans cannot live without acting; we have to act. Moreover, we have to act on the basis of what we know, and what we know is incomplete. What we have come to know so far is demonstrably incomplete, since we keep on learning more, and there seems little reason to think that our knowledge will become significantly more complete. The mystery surrounding our life probably is not significantly reducible. And so the question of how to act in ignorance is paramount.