A Weekly Thought About…Something
April 12, 2012
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Thanks for the memories!
March 2, 2012
One of my roommates, the other “writer in the family” so to speak, is working on a fascinating story which means a great deal to him. The research he’s doing has prompted him to talk to read the Bible, the Koran, and other texts, and talk to me at length about religion. He himself is a dedicated Humanist and atheist whose disbelief is as strong as my Christianity.
These conversations are both beautiful and frustrating…frustrating for me because every time I offer one reason for my faith, he will spend five or ten minutes presenting a convincing argument against that reason. Indeed, he has become one of my best friends, but we’re reaching a point where I’m starting to feel an annoyance which may be mutual, partly because we’re never going to change each other’s minds…even though there is a lot we agree on while reaching very different conclusions…and partly because I feel my part in the conversation is weak compared to his sureness, although being “sure” is inappropriate language to use concerning faith. Yet I still think my position could be stated clearer.
So I want to put down, and Lent is a particularly wonderful time to do it, why I believe in God. This is not a comprehensive statement; my faith is an evolving journey which has taken great strides in the past decade, and what I believed five years ago is not quite the same as what I believe now. I have been molded by God, by teachers such as C. S. Lewis, Marcus J. Borg, and my ministers, and by my own thinking on the subject. The last part is the most important, because faith is nothing without free will, the choice which YOU ALONE must make to believe or not.
Let me first pose a question: everything from our own biology to the entire universe is increasingly being explained by science, and there is no scientific way to prove the existence of God. How can a rational person believe in God?
It’s an idiotic thing to say I believe in science. Science just IS. Evolution, the expanding universe, the cellular processes, that’s how the natural world works, and anyone who subscribes to Creationism is a bit deluded. (More on why in a minute.) But here’s my question, or more specifically and creditable, Lewis’s question. If there came a day when science could explain and know the entire universe and everything which happens in it, including the other planets out there which support intelligent life, would science explain WHY? Why is there intelligent life and a universe at all? And why do we think about life and existence in the way we do, from a moral point of view?
We already face this in smaller ways. I know that the neurons in my brain spark emotional reactions within me, and that these reactions shape my behavior and with it my morals and values, but I don’t know WHY they do so and why I’m disposed to feel so strongly about certain things in the first place. Why I think about morality and try to live a moral life. Yes, these ideas were handed down to me by parents and authority figures, but where did they come from? Why did we decide these were the right things to do?
Humanists, and I think of the wonderful and eloquent Richard Dawkins in particular, would say that asking for a reason why behind things is of no consequence. But then comes the question: are we as intelligent creatures predisposed to asking the question “why?” And the answer is yes. We have a profound curiosity into motivations behind actions.
This applies to both humanity and the universe.
In the case of humanity, we’ve mapped the genome and analyzed the functions of the brain to almost the last detail, we’ve traced our development of a species back to the beginning of life itself, and we understand sexual reproduction. We know the purely biological so well…and quite a bit about the psychological.
But we still can’t answer those questions about how the mind works so fully, why we act irrationally on the one hand and why we follow a certain morality on the other. Biology and observation don’t explain that.
And physics, chemistry, biology, they’re not enough to explain the universe. Remember the first sentence of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Not the book, but the book within a book? That space is so big that we can’t imagine the full extent of how big it is. With so much of a continually expanding universe undiscovered…we don’t know what’s out there, and what we do know is complex enough as it is. And the universe today is not the same as it will be tomorrow because of the expansion, and what follows in its wake.
The universe and humanity are not simple. Just as the individual is always capable of change and unpredictability, so the universe is drastically complex.
This is the starting point for my faith in God. To quote Lewis again, if the universe was simple and explicable, that would be one thing, but it keeps turning into “something you would not have guessed” in its extraordinary complexity. And human beings…whatever we guess about ourselves and our lives are never certain simply because we are capable of change and growth.
And I do not think I’m making an unfair comparison, because human beings, last time I checked, are part of this universe.
So if the universe is changing, if humanity is changing, is there anything which stays the same?
I think there is…
We learned long ago in our science courses in high school the law of energy: it can neither be created not destroyed. Whatever energy there is has been around since the dawn of the universe and will always be. As human beings, we run on energy, and thus we have the constant in us. That doesn’t mean our forms are unchanging…again, evolution, but what powers our forms is always the same.
The energy connects us to everything in the universe, every star and planet and organism.
Now among humans specifically: as our species evolved, we also grew in numbers from a few beings in Africa to the dominant population of today. Along the way, we also developed from hunter-gatherer clans into politically organized societies. This had to involve growing pains. And since our automatic instinct is to preserve our life, we had every incentive in the world to practice degrees of selfishness, or to try to assume positions of power over others to guarantee we would have resources to foster our existence.
But human beings don’t work precisely that way. The specifics change, Lewis wrote, but the basic morality throughout world history has been the same. We have this idea of right and wrong, that it is right to be fair, honest, and act for the behalf of others, to try to build a lifestyle of what we now would call social justice. And that it is wrong to do the opposite, to live only for ourselves and to enter into conflict over achieving the means to ends beneficial to ourselves.
This morality is understandable when we take a step back if we apply it to our families, in the interest of seeing our significant others and children and parents prosper as long as possible. But complete strangers…that’s another story. We would logically have every reason not to care about their survival. And yet we give, we volunteer, we work on behalf of the public good in business and politics. We create works of art and deep thought accessible to all mankind.
Now let me put these two ideas together.
I do not believe in Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden…that was a very important piece of poetry, but poetry all the same. What I do believe in is that from this original rush of energy and matter, a central being emerged, a being which could give all of it the organization to expand in an unpredictable but natural way, to not have it suddenly collapse on itself.
I do not know how the Supreme Being, who I call God and you may call Allah or Poseidon or anything you so choose, did this. But I believe it happened, partly because of how the universe so unexpectedly works, and also because as long as we go back in time humans with every incentive to be selfish and to put themselves first instead conform to this standard of morality and hold themselves under God.
To borrow a little more language from Lewis, if the universe was entirely senseless and without purpose, why would we all have this idea of a standard of right and wrong? If there is no purpose, standards don’t matter. But the standard exists, and it is a standard which is full of sense. Because the alternative, of selfishness on behalf of you and at best those closest to you, would have caused destruction, chaos, and it has throughout history…any philosophy or system which favors one group over the other, be it the Roman Empire or Nazism, has always ended blood, terror, and loss. The morality we live under, a morality with a guiding principle of loving and being considerate to others, gives the entire species, and I am positive species elsewhere, life.
That we chose, or the vast majority of us choose, to follow this morality, and we have chosen it ever since there were only a few humans scattered on the globe, suggests to me that this idea did not come from some odd conception of our own minds, and that it has a purpose.
Because when Jesus tells us that God is within us, that is not a metaphor! Since we all come from the same energy, we carry a little of the spirit of God in us…the phrase “children of God” is literal to me. And just as my parents have given me love and tried to ensure I grew up into a person who realized his full potential, so God loves us and wants us to realize our full potential. And out full potential is to become more Godly.
In this light, our morality and the entire universe make sense…at least they do to me. The Word of God always comes back to a manner of living which is designed to give every part of His spirit, every living thing, a chance to thrive and live strongly, and to be good to others, to never deny anyone that potential, is to act like God, to love and inspire others.
Again, God did not speak to Adam and Eve, but I do believe He speaks to both individuals and groups of people. Moses, Joshua, David, Samuel, Paul, the Buddha, Muhammad…and there are times He worked signs and wonders, the greatest sign, one so great that really there was no need for any more after it, being the coming of His son, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh…a manifestation of this supreme energy into our own form to better lead us by example.
I believe God speaks to people, and has guided us on the path of morality, because of the essence we share…and that once in a while, we will hear His voice when we are truly listening. And I believe in the immortality of…I call it the soul. But I believe that with this energy in the universe, we can never fully die. Heaven may be a projection of what we imagine it to be, or it may be our consciousness released from the physical body and joining other consciousnesses in the ether around us…I cannot conceive what the afterlife is, just as I cannot conceive such an awesome power as God’s in its fullest form. But I believe in eternal life.
There is one last point I wish to make…the primary guides we have to contemplating God and our purpose are the books: the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, the teachings of the Buddha. These books, if taken literally, are a bit of a mess. The Koran does include affirmations that non-Islams will go to Hell (and yes, I believe in Hell…I’m getting there), and the Book of Leviticus is full of rules which would drive us insane if we tried to follow them today. My very dear friend points out that a text which is part literal and part metaphor is too problematic to accept, and thus that faith in God is too problematic.
Here is my response. First, according to Marcus Borg, so many people see faith as an assent to a belief, a mental proposition. There are three other meanings: trust, fidelity, and a way of seeing the world. What these mean are to trust in the loving God who shaped the universe we live in and passed His word to us, living a life centered on God and this word, and finally, most joyously, seeing the universe as God’s creation and thus seeing it as gracious. Because we are all individuals, we do not experience all of these meanings in the same way, but we can experience them to a comparative degree.
This is not to deny that faith as believing in a mental and somewhat more intelligible proposition is not part of the picture. I wouldn’t proudly say the Nicene Creed on Sundays if so! But when God’s Word is formed into constructs of that sort, they are the work of human beings who are listening to God. And as close as we wish to be to the Almighty…we have the gift of free will.
Free will is absolutely crucial to faith. A world in which an omnipotent God was pulling all the strings would be a world as senseless as one without God. Because if we are to be getting closer and closer to God, we cannot do so unless we can feel the euphoria, the joy, the sorrow, and above all the love which God feels for us. Unless we can tap into our own emotions. If God was in control of everything, we would never get close to such emotions…we’d be following a rigid program, and emotion arises from the spontaneous and unimagined…a human being without free will wouldn’t have an imagination, because there would be no need for one. Why would we have the power to dream and envision endless possibilities if there was no way we could ever act on those thoughts?
So there is free will. But with free will and free thought come the byproducts that our intelligent minds can interpret information given to them, and that we recognize ourselves to be living in certain historical moments, each moment giving different needs and different challenges. The Bible and the other holy books are historical documents, written over time, by people trying to express God’s Word as they saw it applying to the physical world around them, and these documents themselves are open to interpretation by future generations. Hence we have war, oppression, and other destructive acts being performed in God’s name by people who feel that one certain thought expressed at once certain time has to be taken a certain way.
The one unadulterated Word of God comes from Jesus, who was God without mediation through another human, only mediation through the flesh. This is what I believe as a Christian, so others may definitely disagree. But I also believe that people are not damned to hell because they are not Christians, or that they profess themselves to be atheists. Because when Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life,” I believe He was speaking not as the figurehead of a religion which didn’t yet exist, but as God, who…has spoken to different people at different times in different ways, thus proliferating religions.
I do believe in a Hell. That people who separate themselves from the morality that God imparts on us through His word will be confined to a separation from Him. Even as children of God. Remember, Satan was an angel before the fall. Free will gives us the choice to believe in God or not, to separate ourselves from Him or not. We have the choice to cause our own destruction. Lewis wrote that this was worth the risk involved, that it was worth human suffering to give humans the chance to freely experience emotion and intellectual vision, and to put in their power how they acted on it…for I believe that every choice we make in the name of God and the truth of the selfless Word brings us closer to God.
We live in a beautiful world…and yet we are never quite satisfied. We long for something more. The Godly life is what allows us to have access to the more, the greatest more there is.
In reading this over, I know that I have left room for atheists and Humanists to make many objections. This is not a perfect conception by any means…but it is what I have come to believe. And I welcome any comments which will challenge my thinking, make me dig deeper, for a faith without test and reflection is a lesser one. A faith which never changes is a weaker one…for the simplistic image of God we are given as children is nothing compared to the more detailed, more difficult, but infinitely more gracious understanding of God we achieve in trying to grow closer in communion to Him.
My one prayer with this work is that it leads no one astray, and if I am wrong, I ask repentance. For this comes from the heart of someone whose search for God has been ongoing ever since a miraculous night when I was seventeen, and it will never come to an end.
I do not ask that my readers who have doubts and are struggling suddenly believe in God, or even that they agree with me, or even that they disagree respectfully…only that they see this as one more work from a fallible but earnest human.
February 18, 2012
What is this?
I ‘m always thinking about everything I absorb every day. Mostly from a cultural standpoint, but also from a more real-world point of view…all those years reading The Economist and Vanity Fair and now Real Clear Politics have defined my political and social conscience.
I write every single day when the “jobs that pay the bills,” to quote The Devil Wears Prada, don’t take up more than 10 hours of my waking life. But my creative life has become increasingly dominated by long-form fiction and non-fiction; indeed, I’ve unexpectedly made a name for myself in the graphic narrative field, which is beautifully challenging, exciting, and pushes me to the limit. What I truly feel about life gets expressed in my graphic narrative work, but even the longest text doesn’t have the space or the need to accommodate everything.
But…writing down what I think, in its detail and subtlety, helps me keep it all in line, sparks the creativity further.
Andrew Rostan’s Occasional Pieces was no longer fun to write; my work was growing increasingly TOO detailed and unwieldy, more academic essay-style, and I didn’t want that. I found a new form of reaching out to the world on twitter, which is much more conversational, but the 140-character limit…it limits things! And tweetalogues can get annoying.
Back in my L.A. days, I had a blog in which I wrote for fifteen minutes a day on something which struck me. That’s the length of time it takes for me to produce a couple hundred words you can digest during a lunch or coffee break, flip through before bedtime. And now, on every writing day, this new project will be part of my production.
So welcome to The Thoughts Between.
What will be on there?
My thoughts! Whatever makes the strongest impression on me during the day. I may write about literature, film, and music as I did in the past, or about politics, or just ramble on with some philosophical observations. I may share the secrets of writing the graphic novel…what little I know.
Is this blog, Andrew Rostan’s Occasional Pieces, going away?
No! I’m going to maintain this specifically for when I get the urge to write a long-form piece, and for some new pieces I have in mind that are truly occasions: collaborations with others and the like.
Who inspired the new blog?
Travis J. Cook
These people inspire me to keep writing, to try my hand in as many different forms as possible, to speak my mind and heart and stand up for my convictions, and to have fun in the process.
And we get that you want a new name and a new website to reflect this new, very different approach from your last three years in the blogosphere. But where did the title come from?
Two sources. First, The Thoughts Between are just those, thoughts which aren’t as long as an essay or chapter, but much longer than a tweet. They take up the best in-between space there is.
Second, from the song “Days Between” by one of my idols, Robert Hunter, a song which expresses so much about what I wish to accomplish in my life.
There were days
and there were days
and there were days between
Summer flies and August dies
the world grows dark and mean
Comes the shimmer of the moon
on black infested trees
the singing man is at his song
the holy on their knees
the reckless are out wrecking
the timid plead their pleas
No one knows much more of this
than anyone can see, anyone can see
There were days
and there were days
and there were days besides
when phantom ships with phantom sails
set to sea on phantom tides
Comes the lightning of the sun
on bright unfocused eyes
the blue of yet another day
a springtime wet with sighs
a hopeful candle lingers
in the land of lullabies
where headless horsemen vanish
with wild and lonely cries, lonely cries
There were days
and there were days
and there were days I know
when all we ever wanted
was to learn and love and grow
Once we grew into our shoes
we told them where to go
walked halfway around the world
on promise of the glow
stood upon a mountain top
walked barefoot in the snow
gave the best we had to give
how much we’ll never know, we’ll never know
There were days
and there were days
and there were days between
polished like a golden bowl
the finest ever seen
Hearts of Summer held in trust
still tender, young and green
left on shelves collecting dust
not knowing what they mean
valentines of flesh and blood
as soft as velveteen
hoping love would not forsake
the days that lie between, lie between
February 2, 2012
About every nine months, I preach a sermon at Brent House, the Episcopal center of the University of Chicago. The last time I had this privilege was this past Sunday…and here is the text. The Gospel is Mark 1:21-28, the lines from St. Paul are Chapter 8 from the First Letter to the Corinthians.
“What is this?” the crowds in Capernaum cried out. “A new teaching—with authority!”
What sort of person is meant to follow Christ’s path and teach with the authority of God?
Today’s readings are small signposts which shed light on various angles of this question, a question which attracted me because I myself have had reason to deal with it.
As many of you know, I write, and my first book, An Elegy for Amelia Johnson, was published about a year ago. During the multiple drafts and rewrites, I created a character, Rev. Matthew Madden, who is an Episcopal minister. Part of what I wanted to accomplish with this character from the beginning was to portray a teacher with authority.
Now, the most impressive religious figure I’ve ever known, despite my years a devoted Anglican, is a Catholic priest in Youngstown, Father Richard Madden. I’ve been attending his services for all the 27 years of my life, including the Christmas Eve masses which draw close to a thousand people. I’ve always believed that if more priests were like him, both Catholicism and religion would not be brushed off in this country. He lives the New Commandment. Even when I was little, I could tell there was something different about him compared to the people at St. Matthias’s near my grandparents’ house. He smiled, and looking like Max Von Sydow with a twinkle made that smile more attractive. He talked about God in ways which had nothing to do with knowledge of Catholic regulations. And he didn’t have any bad feeling in his heart, not even anger. He didn’t speak of sinners and people who acted in ungodly ways with railing condemnation or illustrative satisfaction of the “we’re not like that” variety. He spoke of them with sadness, with a desire that everyone from babies to the most elderly would be in touch with God’s grace. He didn’t restrict. He invited.
This is who I had in mind when writing the scene in Amelia with Matthew Madden. (The first name came from a dear friend in high school who began studying with the Jesuits immediately after graduation.) Matthew is really in the book for five pages out of one hundred and sixteen, when he has a conversation with one of the main characters, Henry Barrons, about their beloved friend Amelia. Amelia has just died and Henry has an “all-is-lost” moment, and Matthew’s words set the story’s third act into full motion. I wanted to write about a minister with the same generosity of spirit as Father Madden but from a more Anglican perspective. I did not want the character to be an advertisement for religion or overly preachy, but I wanted his faith to cut through every page. I wanted him to be a teacher with authority.
And I believe he is, because he both speaks and listens.
I believe that God speaks to us all, but sometimes in the hustle and everyday activity of life it becomes hard to listen. When I think about the great religious leaders I have known through my life, I think of them as being able to keep one ear on the sounds of the earth and one ear tuned to Heaven. This is not a privilege reserved only for those with the priestly vocation. All of us can do it. We are not all called to the orders and duties of ministry, for God has a unique plan for each of us. Where I separate churchmen and women from laity comes from the recognition that is placed on them as easily as the cloth. They are known to be studying the Bible, praying, receiving the Message from God and Christ, and with this knowledge on our part comes expectancy that they will teach and guide we in the congregations.
This is where it gets tricky. Anyone can and should have hearts and minds open to God. But in this day we see so many people who perform these actions of devotion and arrive at very different conclusions. Our old friends from Westboro are just one example. Not everyone who believes is the “teacher with authority” whom we seek and put human trust in, as we put all-encompassing trust in God.
Because St. Paul was right in his proclamation that knowledge puffs up and does not build up. Knowledge, knowing something for a certain fact, leads us in matters of faith to rigidity of the sort championed by the Pharisees, the scribes, the chief priests of the Temple. Their religion was a religion of strict observance of the law and a guaranteed certainty that those one side would find salvation, those on the other damnation. Over and over, in Mark’s Gospel and the other Gospels, Jesus reaches the most vehement we ever see Him when He contradicts the Pharisees and scribes and priests, pushes back against their system of domination and oppression in the name of God.
I think of the Pharisees, etc., as people who read the Holy Books and immersed themselves in the language without ever tasting the poetry of the Bible. They were the original strict constructionists, you might say. But the Bible is not a document of man like the Constitution. The Bible is the word of God, the word of the highest and most incomprehensible power. We may interpret it, and indeed there are enough rules and edicts in the Bible to create a rigorous code of law and conduct, but we will never fully understand its glorious mystery.
As such, those who claim to know so precisely the meaning of the Bible should be suspect. It takes the opposite of knowledge to truly read the Bible. It takes an admittance that we do not know, that whatever human wisdom we possess, whatever strategies and devices we bring to the table, all of them are more minuscule than the tiniest atom compared to the wisdom of God. When we drop our wisdom and preconceptions and let God’s words sweep over us and strike the chords within our souls, it is only then we read the true message within the Bible.
Once we let that happen, we recognize the difference between people with wide-open hearts who have read the Bible and try to teach from it, and those with closed, constricting hearts. The true authority, God spoke to Moses, comes from God alone, from people speaking God’s words, unadulterated by human definition.
Because humans…how can I put this without insulting all eight billions of us? We do great things on this planet. We were blessed with so many virtues of physical and mental strength, of perseverance, of creativity, and for the most part we’ve used them to try to make the world a better place. But with this gift of intelligence comes a too-precise cognition, a need to know for sure how everything works, what everything means, a need to compartmentalize and label and separate so we can try to make sense of the universe. And with all this defining and labeling, we cut ourselves off from each other, we define ourselves by our differences and not our similarities. Even when it has the best of intentions, this labeling separates us, and separation makes it harder to see how God loves us all. It too easily leads to discrimination and hatred.
Unfortunately, my early religious education was steeped in the rhetoric of knowledge and separation. Yes, we were taught “Love one another as I have loved you,” but so much emphasis was placed on following the sacraments, of the types of sin, of the definitive knowledge needed to live a fulfilling Catholic life from cradle to grave. Other religions were not discussed. Homosexuality and women’s rights were taboo. This was a God of heterosexual marriage, fidelity, and rules.
This was the God I was taught to believe in. The God I have now come to believe in is the God who sees no differences and welcomes all of us into His embrace, the God who would transform us all into people beyond knowledge if only we would let Him. This is the God I found reading Malcolm X, who my Christian friends in Boardman, Ohio compared to Charles Manson because Malcolm called God “Allah.” This is the God I found while watching a New Year’s Day sunrise over the Grand Canyon and picking up the smell of incense during the Nicene Creed at an Easter service. This is the God I prayed to with the words of Marcus J. Borg and C. S. Lewis in mind while kneeling on a mountaintop in Santa Barbara. God asks and demands nothing except I love my fellow man and to follow in the moments when He calls.
This is the God I wanted to write about.
Matthew meets Amelia in the book after she has traveled around the country, lived to the fullest, loved, lost more than some people realize. Among the things she has lost is touch with her spiritual side. Meeting Matthew sparks her to still use her zestful, carpe diem-dominated presence to live a life which gives to others. Matthew is a figure who neither sermonizes nor downplays God…but he draws people into faith and expressing that faith. In choosing his language and tone, I wrote him as respectful, never pushing, but conveying promise and hope. Like Jesus, he makes it clear that the yoke is easy, the burden light.
I knew this from the moment I first wrote these words. But in meditating on tonight’s texts, I had come closer than I imagined to Paul’s words on teaching with authority.
For faith is not a one-way street. Listening to God, as you recall from my own experiences, does not mean only seeking out higher authorities. Listening to God means being ready to hear His words from so many sources, sources which ring true.
I believe that ministers are as much changed by their congregations as their congregations are changed by them. The smallest difference in perspective opens up so many doors as to how to live in faith. And I showed that by having Amelia affect Matthew as he affects her. Her vivacity and courage make him a deeper, even more considerate, even more loving man.
Loving can be taken literally. The two of them, in her last months on earth, fall in love. And initiate a sexual relationship. By mutual want. Originally this was handled more covertly, until my wise publishers said to just come right out and tell readers this happened.
In his discussion on teaching with authority, Paul puts in that discussion about eating meat in the house of idols, that part with the really confusing syntax. What Paul is saying is that we know the meat has no significance to our faith. But if someone on less firm a foundation than us, someone not so secure in their love of God as we are, sees us doing this seemingly ungodly action, it may have the worst effects on their soul…for until we accept the grace of God, it is easy to look at others and model our actions on theirs. To love others in Christ requires some imitation of Christ. And our church leaders and spokespeople are the ones we most expect to live in this manner.
In our own “Sex and the Altar” discussions, we’ve discussed the sanctity of sex in a loving relationship…and how problematic religious people can still find sex outside marriage.
All of this made Matthew’s scene more powerful in retrospect. He has never told anyone of the full nature of his relationship with Amelia. But that physical union has helped change him, opened his heart more, mad him even more of a listener receptive to others and to God. He listens when Henry speaks…he’s clearly listened to Amelia. And his dialogue more than implies he will carry on her good works.
Matthew’s last words to Henry are of holding on to faith even in the hopeless times, of having courage. It takes courage to be a Christian in any case: humbling yourself is never easy, even before God, and listening to people you might not want to hear is just as hard. But in this gentle submission, we become exalted. We grow with the true wisdom of faith. And we become even if we’re not meant to officially teach with authority.
But in letting the words and sounds touch our spirits, we gain a bit of the authority, our own good authority that we live in God.
An authority which breaks down separations.
An authority which may produce real Matthew Maddens.
January 29, 2012
I came up with a new method for the blog which, after the great news I received this weekend (Give it a few months and you’ll hear more about it…how’s that for a reason to keep reading?) is now imperative: I write during lunch breaks and slow-as-molasses periods at my office. And this piece, which will attempt to connect various thoughts I’ve had since the year’s beginning, was begun on Tuesday the 24th, aka Oscar nominations day.
The 2011 Oscars actually nominated a lot of people I loved and all of my favorite movies from last year, The Tree of Life topping that list and also standing out.
Hollywood has become even more insular as it further consolidates its global domination. The first instance in which I use the expression of today’s title, “Everything Old is New Again,” comes from a willingness to resist innovation. The major studios have developed a formula for international success which discourages the daring or literate picture, and the social climate, unlike in the 1970s or the golden period of 2006-2008, is not conducive to confronting the sort of picture which paints human nature in all of its shades of gray. Yes, things are bad in America, but left-leaning Hollywood has a man in the White House who actually is getting things done (I almost regret my critical piece a few months ago on Obama, but I still believe it is my American duty to treat every political figure with skepticism and pressure…look at SOPA…until things are delivered.) and overseas box office explodes as never before. There’s no reason to risk even ten million dollars for an experimental or socially-conscious piece when it can be sent animating more giant robots. And because it is the aesthetically conservative Academy which votes, this year they’ve rewarded solid studio offerings which are well-made, but don’t challenge the audience or rock our emotional boats. Movies are still here, still solid and thriving when so much is crumbling, so the theme for this year appeared to be a self-congratulatory nod to the preserved classic tradition. Never mind that classics are born when people move beyond the tradition. (Took that thought from Clive James, I can’t stop copying him even if I wanted to stop.)
I caught two Best Picture nominees during New Year’s weekend, and they both reflected Hollywood’s celebration of its own continuity: Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, which is made exactly the way they used to make the old silents, and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, a picture that could have been made sixty years ago with “Directed by John Ford” on the opening titles with barely a difference. The latter succeeds. The former, which appears to be the favorite for Best Picture, almost fails.
And I hate that it almost fails, because the parts of The Artist are better than the whole. I will cheer if Jean Dujardin wins Best Actor: without saying a word or aggressively mugging, he finds the right expression, movement and tone for every frame which his George Valentin appears in. Even with his back to the camera or lying on a bed, Dujardin makes you feel what he feels. It was one of my three favorite performances this year, along with George Clooney and Jessica Chastain.
In addition, Berenice Bejo HAD to have hopped into our decade on a TARDIS, because her intoxicating Peppy Miller could only have existed in the Fitzgerald age. The supporting cast is fine, especially the always reliable James Cromwell in his most sympathetic performance since Babe, Ludovic Borge’s music is a charming pastiche, and Hazanavicius is a superb director: with his framing and structuring, he makes a film which playing by its rules must necessarily be comprised of more static shots than otherwise move with flair. And you have to love Uggie. That’s self-evident.
But I walked out of the cinema worrying these great efforts had all been used on a film which didn’t deserve them. Hazanavicius, so intent on replicating the old silents with a film about the silent, makes a movie which would have been a mere curiosity if not for the talent involved. His rigid imposition of the 1920s technique keeps the film firmly locked and centered with nothing unexpected, no deviations from what we would see in either half of an old double-bill. The Artist hits the expected three-act beats pleasantly and tidily resolves itself, offering nothing meaningful and no experiments with the silent conventions. Only one sequence, the first of two which have sound, suggests what could have been if Hazanavicius had let himself dream a little bigger…a series of startled actions and reactions by Dujardin (impeccable) confronting a suddenly noisy world. I wish there had been more scenes like it. Otherwise, the film is interesting, emotionally comatose apart from Dujardin and Bero, and hovers on the edges of pointlessness. There is NO WAY this should be the Best Picture of 2011. Entertainment can be art, and it also sometimes cannot be art. I hate sounding like Joel McCrae before he learned his lesson on the chain gang, but we should not be rewarding films which have one or two great features and nothing else redeeming.
On the other hand, Steven Spielberg, who grew up at the altars of Capra, Lean, and above all John Ford, has made a movie which more than any other picture reveals how he watches The Searchers before shooting each new project. War Horse is pure Ford from the idyllic first act in the UK countryside, the physically sanitized but emotionally uncompromising portrait of men in action, and the values of community, loyalty, and honor which pulse through all two hours of Lee Hall and Richard Curtis’s script.
Let me say something about this script. It is a diamond of construction. Hall and Curtis introduce a number of disparate plot elements and images and keep threading them through the story, linking them in ways which don’t feel contrived, and have a theme which they never forget to include but is never blatantly obvious until the end when it hits you front and center.
The theme is nothing new, but it’s so timely. I have moaned over and over again in this blog about how our country is increasingly splitting among so many lines. With Joey the horse as the unifying character, the varied figures in War Horse‘s landscape are defined by what unites them: in a variety of settings and scenarios, Spielberg, Hall, and Curtis touch on familial love, aspirations to ideals, and the tenacity we all wish we had to cling to our values even in the most desperate hour. There aren’t even any real villains, just some unpleasant characters who stick too rigidly to being defined by class, position, or nationality and end up usually being taught a lesson. (Notice how the plot which dominates the first act is resolved at act’s end…a lesser writer or director might have milked it for all the melodrama they could muster for the duration.) This is a movie which carried enough pathos to have me weeping for three minutes after the final shot, but it’s really a celebration of just being alive, being able to care. We need to be reminded of that now and then.
I almost called Joey a device. That would be lying, for he is a character himself, forced to adapt to multiple situations but never deviating from the ethic of trust and will taught him by Albert, his young owner, played by the impressive young Jeremy Irvine with energy and charm. The structure requires all the other actors to have little screen time, but Spielberg has chosen his cast well: a ragged but luminous Emily Watson, a careworn, stoic Peter Mullan, Tom Hiddleston suggesting more with the movement of his hand than his dialogue implies, Niels Arstrup taking full honors as the an exasperated French farmer with a thumping near-breaking heart and a will of iron, and yes, a mustachioed Benedict Cumberbatch, on screen for ten minutes and justifying the aura building up around him. Though joining him in being impressive is David Thewlis, who plays the stock role of the evil countryside landlord in a realistic and not all that evil manner, and my favorite actor in the piece, Toby Kebbell, who has no more screen time than Cumberbatch and in that short piece hits every mark perfectly with the skill of a natural.
Spielberg, accompanied by his right-hand man Janusz Kaminski, is still at the top of his game, and a sequence of Joey running through the battlefields of France is almost as thrilling as Indiana Jones getting chased by the boulder…one of the most well-done moments of his career. But there are only touches of Spielberg here and there: his empathetic scenes with children and exploration of their relationship to a father or elder, his refusal to surrender to gloom, his love of sweeping spectacle when needed. In storytelling, mise-en-scene, the play of light and shadow, he is pulling every page from John Ford’s notebook and lets the old master’s spirit mix with John Williams’s most melodic and memorable score in years to carry the film.
I’m not surprised he was overlooked for Best Director. Of everyone who made War Horse, Steven Spielberg has the presence which nearly approaches absence. But in marshaling these forces, he’s made a reminder of how great old-school cinema lives on.
While we can sincerely recreate the style of movies made under the studio system, it’s hard to perform the same feat with the novels of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the period when the genre rose and defined itself so brilliantly. To write a novel with a length up to 800 pages or so with an omniscient and very present narrative voice, dozens of characters, and an intricate plot which usually leads to a conveniently happy ending will risk courting an absurd reaction from readers and critics, unless done tongue-and-cheek so that the very postmodernity takes over the project. But while we don’t write literature in the same style, we treat the same themes. Love. War. Money. The search for meaning. And the sheer comedy of human existence.
In my own “everything old is new again” spirit, I ended my books-published-during-my-lifetime year with a 750-page collection of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Punch articles and found that at their best, I was laughing out loud uncontrollably. I’m still in their midst as I take notes for a scholarly project, but the text got me thinking as I picked the first novels I would read this year. How, I asked myself, did authors from the days when the novel rose handle comedy? What connecting threads link their sense of humor to ours today?
Thus inspired, I kicked off my January with The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) by Tobias Smollett, contemporary of Johnson and the Literary Club, and Dead Souls (1842) by Nikolai Gogol, friend of Pushkin, revered by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Both Smollett and Gogol are wonderful writers and complete originals, and their works, in their imperfections, teach lessons on how and how not to be funny which any humorist alive today should take to heart.
Humphry Clinker is especially ahead of its time, as it piles up the genres like Canter’s and Carnegie pile up the meat on their sandwiches. It’s an epistolary novel, as so many were in Samuel Richardson’s wake. It’s a family comedy. It’s a forerunner of the road movie. It’s got a bit of pre-postmodernity when Smollett inserts himself into the narrative. And most of all, it takes its greatest comic delight at skewering everything it can skewer…with targets still providing fodder for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to this day.
Smollett’s main mouthpiece is the wealthy, cantankerous, secretly huge-hearted, and above all sensible squire Matthew Bramble, who starts feeling the effects of middle-age body weakening and plans a trip to Bath and the other fashionable health-oriented resorts, tacking on visits to old friends in London and Scotland. At this point the United Kingdom was less than 75 years old, but it had already taken the first steps towards becoming the political and economic superpower of the next century. This increasing prosperity led to effects all too recognizable to Americans today: a concurrent rise in the individual’s spending power (including for the downright unnecessary), a government expanding to meet this growth which somehow remained out of touch with people, and a multitude of new opinions as cultures within and without converged on the tiny island.
If that seems too broad, let me point out some of the things which prompt Bramble and Smollett’s derision..
-the surreal atmosphere of Bath and the other resorts, where people pay through the nose and mouth to banquet on mush one night and rich food the next, drink spring water which appears to come from the same source as the toilets, and submit themselves to a variety of treatments which never quite seem to cure anyone of anything…it’s a world of conspicuous consumption for consumption’s sake
-a government dominated by an aristocracy whose members cannot remember anyone’s name and who can commit all sorts of potentially detrimental acts out of greed or ignorance
-a celebrity culture, complete with hangers-on and a press devoted to scurrilous attack and counter-attack
-and all sorts of people trying to copy the fashions of other countries or bringing back takes from other lands, none of which are authentic, all of which hide a level of idiocy
Part of the humor comes from Bramble ripping these people to shreds in his letters to his confidant Dr. Lewis, especially in the Bath sequence where every doctor and patient is summarily derided, or publicly insulting them with a dry-smiling sarcasm which no one picks up on. The other part comes from the letters of other characters expressing different points of view, the funniest coming from Bramble’s harridan, husband-hunting sister Tabitha and her young maid Winifred Jenkins, both of whom affect a grotesque and misconceived sophistication and fill their correspondence with misspellings and malapropisms.
Humphry Clinker, who enters the story one-third of the way through, is a poor laborer in his twenties who becomes Matthew Bramble’s valet, and his entrance into the story also launches the flaws which sink it. Clinker’s domineering traits are a religious enthusiasm which turns him into a Methodist preacher wherever he goes and a fawning devotion to Bramble. This is funny exactly twice: a long scene in London which sees Clinker wrongfully imprisoned for theft (during his trial, in a fit of faith-based confession, he declares himself innocent of this crime but guilty of so many others, prompting imprisonment without bail) and a short scene in Brighton which sees our eponymous hero think Bramble is drowning when Bramble has really cried out from the cold North Sea temperatures, prompting a “rescue” which allows the beachgoers to see a naked Bramble. Otherwise, Clinker is not funny. There may be some contextual comedy I haven’t fully picked up on in his Methodism-dominated dialogue…but Smollett has a sincere regard for religion and is not willing to turn Clinker himself into an object of total satiric targeting.
But the entrance of this genuinely pious man starts a gradual tonal shift which takes over the novel by its conclusion and crushes the verve and energy of the early parts. This long, slow burning out taught me a lesson for any future attempts at comedy on my part: if you’re writing something humorous and you have too much respect for what you’re writing about, the book will stop being funny. And if your book stops being funny after the level of wit has been well-established, your book is dead in the piss-filled waters of Bath.
Bramble unleashing intellectual bombs over the ridiculous and pretentious is incredibly entertaining. Bramble in Scotland admiring the virtues of thriftiness, diligence, and common sense displayed by the populace turns the book into an unending sermon which, unlike Clinker’s exhortations, has no trace of humor. The introduction of Lieutenant Lismahago, a veteran of wars in America and elsewhere who takes a deliberately contrary position to whatever anyone says, almost saves the book, but the deliberate scattershot quality of Lismahago’s attacks offer no way to refocus the hilarity.
The ending is given over to the resolving of an interminable subplot involving Bramble’s niece Lydia and her beloved, a (gasp!) actor, of all things, and turns on multiple coincidences and no less than three marriages, plus a long instructionally tale on careful financial management. I waded through close to fifty pages of this muck as a mark of respect to Smollett. I will return to the great parts and maybe one day find a way to tie to the horrid parts together. But for now, this is definitely a proceed with caution title.
Dead Souls is an unqualified recommendation, even though it possesses the same flaws as Clinker, for two reasons. First, Gogol had the foresight which I’m crediting him with right now to clearly split the great part of the book off from the lousy part. Second, the comedy is on the same intelligent level as Smollett but relies less on topicality and much more on human nature. If Smollett’s world was culturally recognizable as our own, Gogol’s world ups this ante by documenting the lives of the people we have to deal with on an everyday basis; in reading Dead Souls, I recognized traits of people blaring at me from the TV screen, but even more the traits of co-workers, fellow scholars, friends, and family, all charmingly and hilariously dissected and shown up. I should add that I include myself, because Dead Souls is a guaranteed way to remind you that you’re not as smart or as virtuous as you’d like to think you are.
Let me push this even further: I would strongly recommend reading the first volume of Dead Souls before you do things like start a new job, or invest yourself in a presidential election. Because it also reminds you of what kind of almost unbelievable things people are capable of and how they are permitted to succeed. It’s a cautionary tale of how our powers of perception and critical thinking can wane. Thankfully, we fully realize how much depth Gogol put into this novel after we’ve stopped laughing so hard at it.
I didn’t know too much about the plot going on, and I don’t want any unfamiliar readers to know much about either, because half the fun and importance of the story is being swept up in the action just as the characters are. Basically, it’s the story of one man with a plan so outside-the-box, so unconventional, so crazy, that IT JUST MIGHT WORK. Here’s the catch: as part of the absurdity of the novel, we never know just what that scheming government official Pavel Chichikov, a man with no apparent backstory who isn’t thin but isn’t fat, is actually going to DO if the plan succeeds. And in a world where the motivations and goals of others are often a mystery, this murkiness is easily intelligible to us.
Gogol finally clues us into Chichikov’s appropriately entertaining past in the climax of volume one, after he’s spent 200 pages executing the plan. By then, our attentions have been distracted by a new question: why does everybody keep going along with the plan? The opening chapter which lays the groundwork by showing Chichikov’s arrival and acceptance by the people in this new town is a great slice-of-life depiction of social life but doesn’t hit a smidgen of what’s to come. Chichikov proceeds to act like a master politician, getting what he wants by tapping into what everyone else wants or needs. He wins the most pretentious social-climber imaginable over with promises if friendship. He deal with a superstitious old widow by cutting through her idealism and taking to her bank account. He spends weeks with a young aristocrat who’s become an ultra intellectual to the point of uselessness and fixes the aristocrat up with the general’s daughter the younger man loves, all in the name of furthering his goals. The shrewdest man of all goes along because Chichikov keeps quiet: shrewd man loves the thrill of bargaining and playing a double game. The only person who sees through Chichikov is the alcoholic gambling addict with a mountain of debts, who is so in-the-moment that Chichikov’s careful procedures don’t work. And if course, who believes this guy?
Tellingly, everyone is happy as long as they’re being satisfied and they don’t have to do anything to increase their happiness. A parallel can be drawn with the recent Occupy events. It’s been easy for us to ignore certain measures going through Congress which might be detrimental to human rights as long as they don’t affect us. But when legislation which could change the Internet was brought up, it seems the whole world swung into protest. Here was an action moving against them. Similarly, Chichikov’s run of success is not jeopardized until he embarrasses himself in public on a purely social matter (to this day the death knell for any politico) and then has the right people spread doubts about HIM, not the plan itself.
There are two kinds of coincidences in fiction. The obvious contrivances such as those used by Smollett, and the everyday coincidences we’re familiar with, when the crucial word is innocuously dropped into conversation or the person we don’t want to see turns up. The end of Dead Souls Vol. 1 turns on these coincidences, which happen in such realistic conversation that we accept them so easily. Well, apart from the really long story which makes everyone believe that a guy with no limbs…oh, wait, not spoiling that one!
In summary, Dead Souls works so tremendously because Gogol creates a situation which brings out the excesses and faults of humanity, but not to the point of caricature. There’s no Dickensian mass plotting or moralizing. Gogol paints on a Homeric canvas where fully-fledged people come and go, just like life itself, and emerge as all sort of likable and familiar, if only they wouldn’t do THAT. Then we catch ourselves as to how many times we’ve done THAT, or given support and a leadership position to people so clever they control us by making us do THAT. It doesn’t matter if THAT is giving in to our vanity, our greed, our desire for power or vengeance or love. We can be manipulated by having our flaws used against us, and we can manipulate others by knowing their flaws and exploiting them. Dead Souls is the case study for such behavior.
Well, for Volume 1. By the time he decided to get to Volumes 2 and 3, this being the era of the three-volume novel after all, Gogol had gotten so caught up in spiritualism that he now claimed Volume 1’s unflinching brilliance was a mere prelude to the two final parts which would include ideal pictures of how society should be and conclude with Chichikov’s moral and religious redemption. The stunning characterization and realistic plotting were gone. At one stroke, the book stopped being organic, and Gogol lost the ability to finish it. He spent ten years working on Volume 2 and burned two entire drafts. Only sixty pages of fragments survived his death, and they culminate in even worse moralizing mush than Smollett was capable of. However, knowing this means you can just stop reading after Volume 1 and dream of what’s going to happen next. Well, no, read enough into Volume 2 for the last moment of brilliance when Chichikov visits a farm which proves to be a nightmare of bureaucratic organization and laugh out loud one last time. Then move away. Slowly.
One last note before I conclude this long, rambling piece. (My next ones will be much more focused, I promise.) The other reason I picked up Dead Souls is that I’m giving myself a crash course in Russian Literature using the Lectures on the subject by Vladimir Nabokov, a figure whom I see as the scholarly equivalent of my father.
The complete me, everything someone could call “Andrew Rostan,” loves my father dearly, and the scholarly me loves Nabokov as both the supreme artist and an extraordinary critic and man of letters who surpassed so many in cracking the meanings in books which can be found solely through the analysis of structure and style. And as the complete me is sometimes frustrated to the point of distraction by my father and our dissimilarities in temperament, so the scholarly me frequently goes insane in reading Nabokov’s criticism. Because in his opinion, art was art and nothing else, and a truly great novel could tell you nothing about real life.
I just went and banged my head against the wall for five minutes. Now, let me explain why I respect this opinion and why I disagree and find it dangerous in our society.
What Nabokov did, he did very well, and his evaluations of the classics are superb up to this one point. And he was sincere in his belief; his novels have little to do with he would call reality, the social world around their setting, and everything to do with his protagonists’ states of mind, resulting in highly individualized structures for each book.
The frustration comes from how Nabokov doesn’t take what appears for me to be a very logical step. He stresses over and over the quality of “individual genius” which produces literary masterpieces. I’d be the last to argue against there being such a quality, but does any genius who creates a structure and style all their own come up with it overnight, from nothing but their own head? Art is not formed in a vacuum no matter what Nabokov thinks. We absorb ideas from everything in the world around us: current events, pop and high culture, our family, friends, and acquaintances. We don’t have the capability of grasping any ideas from which to build new ideas unless we can articulate the original. We need outside sources, real life, to create.
Nabokov is right in saying that if we read Dead Souls or Gogol’s miniature masterpiece “The Overcoat” or Madame Bovary, we won’t really know about the time and the place of the story. But we will know about human nature, and that is the most timeless of realities. And think of the artists who did accurately reflect their time and place, their society and its philosophy, while creating inimitable styles and ambitious structures! Balzac, Dickens, Trollope, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Foster Wallace, I could go on.
Nabokov, in my opinion, commits the fallacy of grafting his own preferences onto his criticism. He didn’t enjoy writing books about reality as he saw it…and considering his life of exile, deaths in the family, witnessing mass horror, I don’t blame him. But even Lolita, concerned as it is with his magnificent gamesmanship and wordplay, would never have been considered a masterpiece if he hadn’t made Humbert such a compelling figure with real human emotions…the man who acts on our desire to taste forbidden fruit. Nabokov was grounded in reality whether he liked it or not
The danger of Nabokov’s point of view is that when we claim books are purely art and have no relationship to reality, it becomes easier to classify them as purely cultural artifacts, and harder to stress why people need to read them. In this era of declining humanities studies, to say that books have no value beyond the aesthetic kills generations of readers…people will not wish to study something without use, and the inspiring teachers and well-rounded figures of the future are lost.
In my mind, literary criticism and scholarship must mix the utilitarian and the aesthetic by thoroughly exploring what these books say about the world and how their meanings are inextricably linked to structure and style. They must neither regard the book as a mere work of creativity nor as a work infused with politics in every line. They must strike a middle ground. And in doing so, they must be rigorous in logic and passionate in sensation; a great scholar’s love shines through even the driest monograph.
I know from experience that the right book at the right time can change your life. Criticism needs to encourage the sensation of exploring, interpreting, and getting lost within the magic of the pages, so the right time could be any minute…and from that, the right book is out there waiting.
(Postscript: Nabokov’s inconsistency is equally annoying. He calls Fathers and Sons one of the greatest novels of the 19th century after spending ten pages writing the most mixed review possible of Ivan Turgenev’s corpus, then praises the novel for one paragraph before taking fifteen pages to pick it apart for flaws and weaknesses. I despised the book and agree with the latter approach.)
January 14, 2012
Friday the 13th is an auspicious day for the first occasion to speak my mind in 2012…I’m tempting all the probabilities here. Though believe me, I wish I had written this sooner, for today’s essay’s topic came into my mind while I was waiting for my flight to take off from San Francisco just before New Year’s. However, two immediate bits of writing had to be taken care of first due to deadlines. (Though isn’t it wonderful to have deadlines?)
One was a series of essays for a major scholarship I’m applying for. The less said about them, the better. Once those were complete, I got back into the rhythm of my new manuscript, the book Stephen Christy has been not-so-subtly asking me about for three years and change. I’m going at just the clip I wanted, but even better, my work is being pushed to a whole new dimension of truth…I’ve been reading Gogol lately, and his ability to capture the complexity and emotion behind even the most inconsequential-seeming moments in the big picture is helping spur me on. So are the recent accolades being heaped on my colleagues at Archaia; I need to play like Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Pele, Wayne Gretzky, and BOTH Mannings just to stay at the company standard. But when you really care about what you’re doing, this is a piece of cake…and I have so much I care about lined up for 2012.
Because 2011 ended on exactly the high note I’d been hoping for. USA Today named An Elegy for Amelia Johnson as one of their best graphic novels of the year (http://www.usatoday.com/life/comics/story/2011-12-16/best-graphic-novels-2011/52007490/1). I was deliriously happy for Dave and Kate, while for myself I was shocked that a novice like me was sharing space on this list with Kate Beaton, Randall Mueller, and Craig Thompson…and I knew that as proud as I am of my first novel (more than of any other thing I’ve accomplished in my life) I knew that over the year I had grown as a writer and could produce even better books than Amelia. Most of all, it cemented a feeling which had been growing since San Diego, that my new peers accepted me as one of the community, a creative equal, which was all I’d dreamed of.
In short, 2011 finished so wonderfully that I was immensely looking forward to 2012 and more writing, more signings, more conventions, even more writing, more back and forth with Archaia, more reunions with new friends, and..writing every single damn day. Then, in the week after Christmas, a chain of events happened which put a damper on things and which I want to address here…
II. MAIN IDEA
This is my most sincere wish for my life in comics in 2012. Not big sales or new books or a movie deal. Those are immaterial compared to what hasn’t left my mind for a few weeks.
It started with one of my adopted hometown’s newspapers, the Chicago RedEye, producing an article on their favorite eleven Geek Girls of the year (http://blogs.redeyechicago.com/geek-to-me/2011/12/27/top-11-geek-girls-of-2011/). As a lucky attendee of the Geek Girl Network party in New York, I can first say the title is a badge of honor, and I got a kick out of seeing people on the list whom I actually know. I chat with them at conventions, read their blogs, follow them on twitter. And I thought the piece did a great job capturing their personalities as much as a personality can be captured in a paragraph or two and revealing the full spectrum of nerdiness we celebrate at the conventions and such.
Not everyone was of the same opinion, and a critique sprouted up. Mainly, that these women were playing up their pulchritude in a manner unbecoming of the “true” geek girl type, and this was dishonest, unrepresentative, insulting, etc. Or to put it bluntly, nerdy females shouldn’t be sexy, and vice versa.
Coincidentally, a few days later Kevin Smith revealed the details of a reality show he had created for the venerable AMC, the first program of that nature in network history. The show, Comic Book Men, follows the lives of comics devotees at Smith’s store. The title alone prompted challenges to Smith–Why no Comic Book Women?–and his answer that he was saving the women as an arc for the second season after introducing everyone in the first season was not satisfying. But even less satisfying, no, appalling, were the virulent reactions some people made to the women who had pushed against Smith to begin with.
What really bothered me about these events was they weren’t isolated. 2011 was the first year I dove deeply into the world of comics/sci-fi/fantasy news and conversation, and this trope was a running thread throughout everything I witnessed. I saw it in the debate over the redesigns of female characters in the DC Universe. I saw it in the maelstrom talkbacks surrounding the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel at San Diego. I even saw it when suggestions and requests were voiced that publishers promote female comic characters and market to a female audience. Even the most lighthearted comments in this vein, along the “Wouldn’t it be nice if…?” line we use when discussing our fantasy scenarios over a beer, provoked cold responses.
As someone who falls more and more in love with the world of comics and graphic novels and conventions, I am sad that the so much chatter goes on trying to define a place or a role for Geek Girls to fit into, no, to be circumscribed into as if they were different.
I am even sadder that I have been guilty of participating in the circumscribing.
When I was being interviewed by various media outlets in the time of Amelia‘s release, a question which always came up was “Who is the audience for this book?” and my invariable answer was “teenage girls.” Moreover, I was very quick to say it.
Why? Because I had written a book with no elements of fantasy, sci-fi, or action, a book which had weight but wasn’t heavy in its themes, a book in which women dominated the story and the central male figure is, for all his bravado, there primarily to learn from the women. I thought a female audience would be the one audience to eat this book up, based on assuming what that audience wanted was something different from what the male audience wanted. Keep in mind that I entered comics thinking that they were a bastion for stories of superheroes and aliens and people with swords, all the standard sci-fi and fantasy tropes.
I disabused myself of this reductive attitude as soon as one, I found that MALE readers were more frequently admitting to tearing up over my story and two, I gave myself and my conception a much-needed bit of analysis and realized that part of why I myself loved interviews and conversations with the early female interviewers and critics was that they invariably reminded me of the women in my own life…women I never had in mind in thinking of the potential reception of Amelia.
My mother was the one who told me I should read Tolkien and took me to see Jackson’s film of The Lord of the Rings, the one with whom I shared all the Harry Potter books. She’s read The Hunger Games in their entirety and I still haven’t. And her new hero is Lisbeth Salander.
My best female friend has watched more sci-fi TV than I ever have, writes fantasy novels on the side, and has bookshelves which are a sight to see. Some of the most influential fiction I’ve read recently was read at her prodding.
And my ex-girlfriend…she had seen three entire Star Trek series. She kept a MirrorMask poster on the wall. And I visited her childhood home once and found about five or six entire bookcases overflowing with paper, almost all of it fantasy or sci-fi. A big part of the reason why I loved her.
Knowing that comics have such strong ties to sci-fi and fantasy, why would I assume that a female comics audience would be any different in their tastes after this personal experience? The flaw with that reasoning, something else I have marvelously learned, is that comics transcend genres. Comics and graphic narrative are vehicles to tell stories as serious and ambitious as any literary masterwork, and have great untapped potential for non-fiction and, I believe, the highest arts we see in museums.
If comics are really about everything, then the question becomes, why do we need to differentiate between men and women? An all-encompassing medium has in the end an all-encompassing audience, and the gender distinction should fly out the window.
However, go to any convention and the predominant genres of comics and other media are still fantasy, sci-fi, and action tinged with fantasy and sci-fi. So I want to stay with those genres as I push this argument further.
Some works possess intricate philosophies and elaborate moral systems behind their storytelling, and some are pure escapist fare. But no matter which part of that field the work lies on, it, and all its brothers and sisters, creates a new world. Even the most realistic science-fiction imagines a world at least slightly different from our own, and by extension, new—it isn’t OUR Earth and OUR universe.
New worlds are important.
A few months ago, I read Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2010 Nobel Prize lecture, and this passage reminded me not only why I write, but also why I read.
We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute – the foundation of the human condition – and should be better.
We write and we read because we can imagine something different and something better for how the world is ordered. It is our expression of a right to dream, a right to think. To consume fantasy and science-fiction, to love them, to dare to create them, is to live a life in which these rights flourish.
Criticizing and dismissing women who love fantasy and sci-fi is akin to wanting to take this right away from them. And my sad gender has for so long denied and removed rights from women who had to fight to get them back: suffrage, property, control over their own bodies. Why do we want to take away the power to imagine and to innovate?
(And aren’t we the intruders here if people still want to push the gender card? You could argue, and I would, that sci-fi was invented by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley at age 19 with Frankenstein. But that’s a debate for another day…right now it’s one more morsel of food for thought.)
To the point from the RedEye article: the sniping from both women and men over the nerdy v. sexy dialectic is irritating at best and horribly hurtful and offensive at worst. Some people develop physical attributes which others find pleasing. Some don’t. Why should a random genetic lottery determine what your interests are? Why can’t a woman with a body like Jennifer Lawrence’s be a science-loving nerd? (Answer: no reason. Case file: Hedy Lamarr.) And for that matter, I look nothing like Scott McCloud, who looks nothing like Chad Michael Murray, who looks nothing like Neil Gaiman, who looks nothing like Alan Moore, and nobody seems to question how all of us can love comics and genre.
Moreover, women spouting this vindictive against other women is unfathomable to me. Most of them claim to have feminist motivation. To quote my hero Clive James, “feminism is a demand for justice, not an ideology.” It becomes an ideology when everyone who believes in the concept is pigeonholed into a particular pattern of thinking from which deviation is not allowed. Saying that some women should not be allowed to look attractive, should concentrate on “more serious” affairs and demonstrate an “appropriate” attitude towards their passions, is nothing but unjust.
It’s the mind that matters, and as I’ve said before and will say again, intelligence and creativity are incredibly alluring qualities. Every woman I’ve ever cared for possesses them in spades, and they say more about any woman, about any PERSON, then a body.
Finally, after this year of observing these events one after the other, and of learning from and repenting my own erroneous attitudes, I have reached a point where I cannot tolerate intolerance even casually expressed anymore. Because this year has also allowed me to meet so many intelligent, witty, dedicated, and amazingly passionate women, be they critics, columnists, writers, artists, editors, some of the most mentally imposing scholars I’ve ever known, and above all my indescribable, beyond definition creative partner Kate. Personally, I feel so enriched by the acquaintances. Beyond me, they are altering the face of this ever-changing medium and altering it far, far for the better.
My wish for the graphic narrative world in 2012 is that this debate stops. STOPS. Not because we all ignore it, but because we agree it never should have started in the first place. That this world of OUR creation is a world which welcomes everyone, the only qualification being that you have a vision, a thought, a way to express yourself.
I know that this year, at my signing tables, I will be doing my best to not look at others and see men and women. I will do my best to write and imagine my audience not as men and women.
I will do my best to only recognize them as fellow dreamers.
III. NO, THAT WAS ALREADY THE CONCLUSION, I WAS MAKING SURE YOU WERE PAYING ATTENTION