David Foster Wallace’s 1996 Interview in Elle

Check out this interview at Sancrucensis. I’ve not read DFW (and am iffy on whether I really want to), but everything I’ve read about the man makes me think he was a prophet. A pagan prophet, but a prophet nonetheless.

Sancrucensis

There is a quotation from an interview with David Foster Wallace reproduced on hundreds of webpages across the internet. There are several variants of the quotation, but it runs something like this:

…fiction’s one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties—all these chase loneliness away by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion—these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.

None of the webpages that reproduce it, however, give a reference to the original. Searching the right phrases in Google Books turns up a snippet, which Google says is from p. 58 of Elle, Volume 11 (1996), Issues 5-8. It was surprisingly…

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The year of Paul VI

On matters more urgent and profound than those I’ve been pontificating on.

Semiduplex

Here is a prediction for 2018: it will be the year of Paul VI. In addition to canonization talk, there are two important anniversaries connected with Paul’s papacy. On July 25, the feast of St. James, we will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Paul’s landmark encyclical On the Regulation of Birth, known around the world by its incipit: Humanae vitae. Shortly before that, on June 30, we will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Paul’s Credo of the People of God, which Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre called, “an act which from the dogmatic point of view is more important than all the Council.” Both events—the promulgation of Humanae vitae and the Credo of the People of God—are of acute importance at this moment in the life of the Church, when the role of the Petrine ministry seems to be hotly contested. Both events saw Paul acting as a guardian…

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The Last Jedi and the 3 Readings

So I’ve come across, generally, three ways of reflecting on The Last Jedi. (If I may be so bold, it almost seems like the breakdown of readings of Vatican II).

Firstly, the Liberal – “The Last Jedi changed everything, overthrowing what came before, and ringing in a new age of Star Wars storytelling which isn’t weighed down with the worn out ideals of the past. It should be celebrated!”

These are the ones who think the ideals and values present in the film – the primacy of wise women over foolish or weak men, the questioning of traditional practices, the skepticism of masculine heroism, the presence of a diverse cast, the ‘breaking of the cycle’ – have made this film a kind of rally cry for more modern values. Read almost any bit of positive commentary and the story’s ideas will be the strongest argument for its status as “a good movie”.

It should be recognized that these are most likely to be “right-side of history” folks of various stripes. They want the old order, to varying degrees, to be done away with, and a new order, often of egalitarianism, relativism, and feminism (of a certain sort), to be put in its place.

Secondly, the Reactionary – “The Last Jedi changed everything, overthrowing what came before, and ringing in a dark age of Star Wars storytelling which is defined by a rejection of perennial values in favor of the modern agenda. It should be condemned!”

These are the ones who see in the film a break with the past. Tradition, in the person of Luke, seems to be given short shrift. The heroism of the past films is made to look foolish in a hamfisted manner. The old characters are killed off without handing much of anything off. Story and character choices appear to be agenda rather than plot driven.

It should be recognized that these tend to be “wrong-side of history” folks – from Conservatives, to Altright, to Reactionary Traditionalists. They want to either keep the current order in place or return to an order more grounded in tradition.

Thirdly, the Hermeneutic of Continuity – “The Last Jedi has some ambiguity in it’s treatment of traditional values and includes more modern sensibilities. We should welcome its challenge to refining and reaffirming the traditional values in light of the modern situation.”

I’ve only met one person espousing this, really, and not online. He made a cogent argument for the movie’s strengths even among its weaknesses (e.g. the whole Finn and Rose subplot). On the matter of, say Luke’s plot, one must lean in to Luke’s despair – he is seeing everything he’s worked for fall apart, he feels abandoned by the Force, he feels like this is just a cyclical pattern, he can’t overcome his attachment to the Jedi ways which only exacerbates the despair – and so his tale becomes one of trying to find a way out of despair. His first choice is just waiting for death, but by the end he is given a new way out in self-immolation as a sign of hope for others. Theoretically, you could do the same sort of lean-in for much of the rest of the film.

This is basically an attempt to rise above the ideological commentary of the film and to allow the traditions and values of the past to fill in the connections and plotholes and so become the guiding light on that which appears new. This is a typical practice in large paradoxical canons (see Marvel or DC) or religions founded upon textual continuity (see Catholicism).

It’s a reading I’m sympathetic toward – it’s animated by great optimism. If TLJ was a religious text, I’d basically read it as such. That’s by and large how I read Vatican II and certain recent comments by the Holy Father.

But TLJ is not a religious text. It’s formed by its cultural milieu and is similarly attempting to form that milieu. Ideology cannot be separated out so neatly, especially on a cultural artifact of this scale and where one’s ideological opponents won’t do so. Reading 3 is aligned with 2 insofar as it is not progressive but conservative and traditional, and so is an opponent of 1.

Upshot to all this reflecting – our discussions of The Last Jedi aren’t about The Last Jedi. They’re about who we are and who we are seeking to be – traditional (which the OT and Prequels fundamentally were) or liberal-progressive (which the sequels seem to be embracing).

So I exercise my right be a reactionary. Ultima Jedae delenda est.

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Comments On… Murder on the Orient Express

NB: Spoilers on the remake of a 43 year old mystery movie and adaptation of a 83 year old mystery novel.

I’ve never seen the original, so I can’t do any comparison. This, though? I really liked.

I left the movie wondering about my own sense of justice. I was immediately drawn to Poirot with his seemingly innate sense of right and wrong, balance and imbalance – a sense of the world which draws him to unerringly recognize when it is in error and must be corrected. I make no claims to such an innate sense myself, but it’s a vision of things which inspires and attracts and to which I hope I may in some part attain.

Which makes me so conflicted about the final act of the film, a conflict which, perhaps, mirrors Poirot’s own conflict. In the investigation, he not only come to recognize clues and put together evidence, he’s forced to delve into the pain of these travelers, these, well, murderers. His interviews quickly become like a priest confessing a reluctant penitent, and so he recognizes that these people are, from a certain point of view, commissioners of sin for the most noble of reasons. They are not all-right and all-wrong but the line between such cuts directly through their hearts.

Ratchett/Cassetti, the victim of the plot is deserving of death – if Poirot had uncovered him separate of the movie’s events, he surely would have brought him to justice. However, it appears, beyond a rather tortured conscience, he’s getting away with his heinous crime and the massive domino effect it’s brought about. At least until the mass plan of the 12 vigilantes. But is what they have done, killing him in the night, justice? Or murder?

This is the main conflict of the film’s final act. Poirot is confronted with the 12, each affected deeply by the horrific crime of Ratchett/Cassetti. He knows they are all killers. But similarly, he knows they are each broken, struggling for peace, desirous of finding their own justice.

There’s something of the Wild West about how the film puts the matter – the crime and Poirot’s seeking of the killer occur away from a center of authority, away from police and judges, in the wild, snow packed mountain of Yugoslavia (albeit in the comfort of a world-class Express). In a fashion, that final act foists upon Poirot the authority to mete out justice – he’s the sheriff in town.

Though that’s not entirely true. Poirot and the audience know that real authority is only a few hours away – once the snow is cleared and the train comes to its next stop Poirot must turn over his investigation and, he originally hopes, a culprit for the crime.

So does he turn them in? This is the source of Poirot’s conflict in the final act and it’s mine as well.

Poirot’s answer is to silence his own conscience, to sit with the imbalance of a world where these 12 killers go free – he pins the murder on some uncaught (and imagined) mafioso desirous of vengeance on Ratchett/Cassetti. Branagh plays the part of tortured detective wonderfully; his final attempt to suss out a real killer by offering himself as victim comes off as perhaps a real desire to become a sacrifice for their sins.

But my thoughts? Poirot was wrong to let the 12 go free. He was wrong to simply accept the injustice, even if it may have brought about another sort of justice. I can’t judge him, not being the one bearing-by-confession the pains of these 12 people, but his act can be judged.

Though what does that say of me?

The problem brings to mind Javert of Les Miserables. In chasing Val Jean, Javert brooks no mercy. He is uncompromising in carrying out the law. He would have turned in the 12 without a flutter of conscience.

However, there is a great distinction. Poirot is not simply carrying out the law, he is confronted with the question of justice itself. Javert’s suicide in the end of Les Miserable is because he cannot move beyond carrying out the law to carrying out its spirit in a purer fashion, in carrying out justice. I have great sympathies for that tortured man.

So did Poirot carry out justice by “ignoring the law”? Or did he fail justice? His final comments, a mental letter to the long dead Col. Armstrong, on following his heart and learning to live with the imbalance implies even he knows he failed justice.

The movie is not, I think, about Poirot’s act of mercy – there is no mercy here. The 12 remain horrifically broken, the act of vengeance not bringing peace.

Rather, the lesson of the film is the weight of justice. Not all men can live up to it. Not all men can bear it. Perhaps none can, not wholly. Even the best of us, and Poirot is among them, can break when confronted with the brokenness of man.

Something greater than man is needed, something which will both bear the weight of justice and effect true healing of hearts. Something divine. A comforting Advent thought to end on.

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Star Wars is Not a One-Trick-Pony

So, apparently I’m still fuming about Star Wars (whenever I set this to post, anyway).

This take at WaPo makes some assumptions about what Star Wars is and the themes George Lucas subscribes to which lead the write to make some questionable conclusions. Let’s look at two of these assumptions.

  1. There is a central theme to all Star Wars trilogies: ‘an obscure, powerless individual on an impoverished planet is suddenly thrust into the most important and pivotal political struggles of the galaxy.’

Have you watched anything except Episode IV and I? Do you only let those films define the whole of the story. Further, do you only allow two characters – Luke and Anakin – to define the story and that separate of their familial background (Luke’s not so obscure and powerless in light of the end of Empire). I mean, this sidelines Leia and Han, Kenobi and Padme. It ignores the struggles with identity and desires present especially in Empire and Attack of the Clones. It ignores the temptation to righteousness by might (the Third Temptation of Christ) that defines the third films.

Star Wars is so good because it doesn’t have a simple central theme (well, it does, but modernist secularists are willfully blind to the transcendent). It is rich and complex – at least richer and more complex than our modern illuminati believe a call back to pulp-era space opera should be capable of.

And in the original trilogy, Luke, Leia, and Han AREN’T dealing with politics in the modern sense. All three movies concern events that are extra-political, points in time where action is called for – the rescue of a princess and destruction of an enemy weapon in; gaining self-understanding or fleeing from the enemy; making a desperate assault on an enemy weapon.

If you want politics, you need to go to the prequels, which is where error number two comes in:

  1. In previous trilogies, the Jedi were viewed as the proper galactic elites; the best parts of “The Last Jedi” are devoted to tearing down that myth.

Let me summarize what this sounds like: “I haven’t watched the prequels”.

The prequel trilogy is, from beginning to end, a damning of all elites. Lucas recognizes the tragedy of civilizations in decline, of powers too confident to see the cracks in their own system. The politics of the prequels enacts the “tearing down” which The Last Jedi only gestures at and squawks about like an undergraduate history paper.

And the Jedi are the ones who take the damned-stick hardest. They don’t have a grumpy old man wagging a finger at them – they have their military compatriots turn on them, their most powerful shamefully defeated, and one of their own become the right hand of their hated enemy. Like Oedipus, they can only look on in horror as their own actions set all they’ve built to the torch.

Complain all you want about the terrible, horrible execution of the prequels (terrible dialogue, crappy acting, questionable side-plots), but under all of it there’s a rock solid foundation. It’s almost opposite for TLJ which does little more than badly ape and poke sticks at the themes of the past.

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Putting Up With the Modern World

Something to followup my recent comments on Christian Bakers in America.

Yard Sale of the Mind

There is no such thing as complete tolerance. It’s not that complete tolerance, however defined, is desirable but difficult, or impossible in practice but a worthy ideal to measure our efforts against. Rather, it is a thing like sola scriptura, contradicted and revealed as impossible by the simple act of stating it. (1)

For toleration exists when a consensus on certain foundational matters allows people and ultimately a culture to put up with behaviors that that same consensus considers wrong. If they did not consider the tolerated behaviors to be wrong, what we’d have isn’t tolerance, but acceptance – conformity to the consensus. Acceptance and tolerance are mutually exclusive.

What we had here in America was something like a consensus around what C.S. Lewis infelicitously called ‘mere Christianity’ – an imagined (and imaginary) agreement on certain fundamental principles rooted in the stories and teachings found in the Bible.

Once came…

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Hating What Came Before

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Hating What Came Before

NB: SPOILERS.

I’m not sure I can write a review for The Last Jedi that will amount to any more than a frothing-at-the-mouth, bitter-old-man, all-is-dead, maybe-I-am-AltRight rant. So this ain’t a review, it’s just a rant.

It’s mostly inspired by this commentary at SlashFilm (an argument heard in a lot of corners of the internet), that says guys like me should be punished for what we love.

Allow me to let my inner crazy person out for just a second to respond.

“O LORD, let them be put to shame and dishonor! Let them be turned back and confounded who devise evil against me! Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the LORD driving them on! Let their way be dark and slippery with the angel of the LORD pursuing them! Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see; and make their loins tremble continually. Let them be before the LORD continually; and may his memory be cut off from the earth!” (Psalm 35, 69, 109)

Okay, now we’ll put the crazy man back into the padded room to calm down and get down to some arguments.

I have huge issues with subversion. I’ve touched on this before in discussing deconstruction – I’m really okay with deconstruction when it’s goal is to understand the pieces so as to put it back together, to magnify what makes the original work, to actually build up what it apparently tears down.

When deconstruction doesn’t have this end, but rather seeks to tear down the original as a goal, for either nihilistic aims (saying the meaning of the original is just wrong or inherently has none) or Nietzschean aims (burning it down so as to put some new primordial value in its place), that’s what I call subversion.

The Last Jedi is subversion of the Nietzschean variety, and that’s what has writers like the SlashFilm commentary crowing, being disciples of such subversion themselves. The movie has placed itself right in the middle of the current culture war, perhaps even at the center of it, and declared itself for one side – the side which desires to burn down anything that remains of the old order and put a kind of palatable, ubermensch, “do what thou wilt” way of life in its place.

From turning Luke into a disillusioned old man over a misunderstanding, to removing any sense of purpose or meaning for Rey outside herself, to denigrating the heroic “die for what is good” in favor of some amorphous “save what you love”, to disavowing mentorship roles almost toutcourt, the replacement of transcendent guidance by fidestic self-trust… The list goes on. Over and over, whatever came before is deemed lacking and in need of replacement – not just characters, but themes, values, virtues. The things which made up the beating heart of Star Wars are attacked from almost every angle.

But something is put in its place. Rian Johnson and crew do not want to leave the audience with a sense of hopelessness. They do believe there is meaning. It just doesn’t come from some external source. The Force is just the connection between things, not some super-personal guiding principle (*coughgodcough*). Family isn’t something you need to live up to. There isn’t some great ideal worth dying for.

Instead, meaning is wholly internalized, something you give to the world and your life. Rey and Luke have to learn to not trust the Jedi way, but trust in themselves. You don’t die for something greater than yourself, you protect the things you’ve come to love (maybe die for them, but only if others let you, I guess?).

Star Wars has never been great at fleshing out its world directly (though Expanded Universe nerds, among whom I number myself, have done that successfully in books and other media), but more than any other this movie felt like the world didn’t matter. As though the world was only a blank canvas on which the will of men and women was made manifest. And right now the only one’s doing that are the rich and wicked. The casino scenes are the closest we get to a taste of the Star Wars world beyond the star ships. And those scenes are pretty unconcealed political comments.

I’m a theologian first and foremost. I try to see the world by that lens in all that I do, to see God and meaning and purpose at work in all things. And this movie just seems to try and take an axe to that. “There is no meaning but what you make!” it seems to scream. “Don’t appeal to the Jedi (tradition), or mentors (authority), or heroism (old values), or even redemption (Kylo isn’t to be saved, Luke?). Trust in yourself and what you love.”

No wonder things like character development are lacking in these movies. No person should “become” or “develop” into something – they already are everything they need to be (except for those rowdy boys like Poe – they need to learn to keep that “Fight and die for the Good and True” in check).

Now, some people will cite a number of scenes from The Last Jedi which seemingly bely this, most especially Luke’s final moments of awesome against Kylo Ren and General Holdo’s sacrifice. But look at how those scenes fit into the rest of the movie. Are they organic? Are they earned by the plot? Do they really fit with everything else? The movies few gems are like outliers, pointing to the old Star Wars values (values which have a deep resonance with the human condition). And in a way, the movie can allow them, in so far as they become manifestations of personal will. It is not in the name of the Force that Luke confronts Kylo. It is not in sacrifice for the Good that Holdo gives up her life. At best, it’s just “protect what you love” (that scene with Rose Tico is perhaps my biggest complaint of the film).

This is all encapsulated in the last image of the film. It’s not an image of victory (Episodes I, IV, VI), or somber preparation for a new struggle (II, III, V), or even the tantalizing opening onto mysteries (VII). No, those images require something to stand on – goals to achieve and obstacles in the way of them. Instead, TLJ ends with an image of a (force-sensitive?) child looking up at the sky. It’s a child we know nothing about. To the audience, he is a blank slate, with no tradition or external guide (save oppression to overcome?). We have burnt down the old, and only something new, something untested and untried, something without reference to “false” external guides, is our hope. It is a hope in man alone

To some of you, that may sound great. Sounded good to Eve, too.

A final point: Now, didn’t this all begin with The Force Awakens? I think that’s unfair. I’m a fan of The Force Awakens. I saw the movie five times in theaters and do not regret doing so. Yes, it was a retreading of what came before. It was a remix (and a very simple one) of a A New Hope, in characters and plots. But for all its faults, it loved and embraced what came before to the extent that it’s creators could (which was a lot as far as 21st century secularists go). It’s greatest weakness was in mistreating the original characters for the sake of the new.

TLJ rejects whatever was good in TFA, almost entirely. It relegates it all to pie-in-the-sky nostalgia. Even the mysteries TFA sets up – e.g. Snokes and Rey’s parentage, themselves continuations of the themes which came before – are just blown away like so much chaff.

At every step, at every blasted step, TLJ is trying to tear down what came before to the foundations and construct some idol to man’s will in its place.

You know what? Crazy man, you finish this up.

“Pour out thy anger on the nations that do not know thee, and on the kingdoms that do not call on thy name! For they have devoured Jacob, and laid waste his habitation…” (Ps. 79:6-7)

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