The Best Movie I’ve Seen in Years: “Gravity”

Gravity, written, directed and produced by Alfonso Cuarón, and starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, is the best movie I have seen in years.

Frankly, I didn’t think movies could be any good at all anymore until I saw this movie. Everything is either Hollywood garbage, or it’s art-house garbage.

Almost everything is perfect in Gravity. The rhythm, the timing, the special effects, the acting, the music (especially), the ending. All of it. The writing is fantastic if you ask me; the actual lines that the characters get are less than perfect. There are certain moments where you sense that the writing could have been just a hair tighter or more trenchant. But the whole point of writing is to tell a great story, not to show off how witty the script writer is. I’d rather have a fantastic story full of clunkers than 90 minutes of witty repartée that goes nowhere. Gravity is a great story, and there are some quite witty and sweet lines along the way. Good writing overall.

If you have only seen the trailers and advertisements for this movie, you might not understand what it’s about other than it’s about some astronauts in space that have a disaster. And that is indeed what Gravity is about. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts on a mission to improve the Hubble Space Telescope, and when a Russian missile launch inadvertantly causes some satellites to rip apart and scatter at low Earth orbit, the entire mission goes haywire.

So, yes, that’s what it is “about”. The satellite debris hurtles into the space ship of the protagonists at high velocity and everything goes crazy. Bullock (“Mission Specialist Ryan Stone”) and Clooney (“Mission Commander Matthew Kowalski”) go through a series of increasingly tense moments as they attempt to regain control of the disaster. Early on Bullock gets blasted off the main structure of the telescope and spaceship and is hurtling all alone, head over heels between the earth, the sun and the stars.

So that’s the basic plot: things get messed up, and the astronauts have to find their way back to Earth somehow, even though all their equipment and landing modules are damaged.

The action scenes are incredible. Truly unnerving and almost uncomfortably tense to watch. As soon as I saw this movie, I thought, how come no one has made a movie like this before? The idea is so simple, and so exciting. The angular momentum of the space station, the astronauts, and the satellite debris makes for more action than you could ever want. It takes your breath away. No violence, no sex, no “battle scenes.” You see one rather clean (though disturbing) shot of a fellow astronaut who got pierced in the head with a piece of satellite debris, and you see one floating, blue-faced body of another astronaut who died when the debris ripped apart the space ship and let all the air out. Beyond that, the “violence” is all implied, or happens only to space station components. Still, it’s incredibly exciting.

People used to tell stories like this one all the time. Stories of survival. Usually they took place on earth, and the “hostile environment” was a foreign land, a tropical jungle, or the wide expanse of oceans. The idea of Gravity is very old, and very simple. People go into a place hostile to life, encounter disaster despite their best preparations, and are forced to improvise to make it back to “civilization.”

Space movies, more than any other genre, highlight the true drama of this genre. I’m thinking of movies like Contact and Apollo 13 right now. The central thematic tension is the difference between the warm embrace of Mother Earth and the cold indifference of alien space. People in this type of movie want to explore the universe, but they also want to be warm and safe at home. A natural tendency (at least for some types of humanity).

What’s great about Gravity is that it is unabashed about it’s themes, and indeed very nearly explicitly states them. Kowalski (Clooney) loves being in space, and he’s portrayed as a veteran astronaut, almost a rock star among astronauts. Stone (Bullock) is portrayed as the smartest cookie in her field, tough enough to take astronaut training and go into space just to ensure her genius telescope modifications go into effect. Beyond that, the story is about human beings trying to be human beings.

[By the way, I don't feel the decision to make Stone (Bullock) a woman was a "grrl power" thing. The movie is much more emotionally powerful with Stone as a woman than it would have been with Stone as a man. The writers do a little bit of deft hinting in the dialogue to explain why Bullock is up there at all, then they get on with the story. There's no you-go-girl stuff. They spend a grand total of 15 seconds of dialogue explaining why she's there, and then the satellite debris enters... on with the story! As it should be.]

So I still haven’t gotten to why this movie is so good.

At the end of the move [SPOILER ALERT], Sandra Bullock decides to overcome all odds despite her own fatalism. She’s about to give up on life, to give up on Earth essentially, and the “angel” of Clooney/Kowalski appears to her to convince her to keep going. It’s ambiguous as to whether it’s her dream, her conscience, her hallucination, or an angel of some kind. But it amounts to the same thing. Just when things get their most awful, Sandra gets a message from somewhere that she needs to keep going, no matter how sad and lonely she is.

What follows is an extended scene that in lesser hands could have been supremely cheesey. But Cuarón in Gravity gets it just right. High emotion, eternal themes, glorious human emotion. I cried.

Bullock makes it back to Earth [SPOILER ALERT!] at the end. As her capsule breaks up and the heat shields turn white hot and her computer equipment sparks and melts, the music builds and builds. Her capsule lands in some shallow water, after much drama. Then as the water rushes in through the hatch of the capsule she has to fight and struggle to get out of the capsule, tear her space suit off, and swim like the frogs around her up to the surface.

When she gets to the surface, she catches her breath and turns on her back in the shallow weedy water, and there are flies buzzing about her as the remnants of the space station streak across the sky like bright meteors.

That inclusion of flies is key. As soon as Bullock returns to Earth, where she’s been trying to get all along, we get flies. A reminder that Earth can be ugly and imperfect. And still, the next thing she does is struggle her way to the shore, stand up with difficulty with her zero-gravity-induced muscle weakness, laughs and clutches some sand in her hand, and as the music swells to a crescendo, stands up and takes a few steps.

Earlier in the movie, when she is almost out of oxygen in her space suit and finally after much drama makes it into the airlock, she sheds her spacesuit, sucks in some air, and curls up into a fetal position, rotating in zero gravity beautifully.

It’s a key moment, because the scene of her struggling out of her watery capsule onto land is clearly a metaphor for birth. When she clutches the wet sand and laughs to herself at the end, it’s one of the best affirmations of life I’ve ever seen in cinema.

Because 98% of the movie takes place in space, and because the depictions of space are so honest, beautiful, and terrifying, when the main character gets back to Earth it’s genuinely wonderful. The basic message is: life itself here on Earth is a miracle.

I think it was Chesterton who first articulated to me the idea that it’s not the astonishing anomalies of life that are truly interesting, but that it’s the wondrous normality of life that is truly astonishing. If we could all be tourists on Earth every day of our lives, clutching the sand and laughing for simple joy, we’d all be happy.

If you haven’t seen the movie, or if you want to relive some of the best moments, here are, in order, the early scene when things first go wrong at the space station (lots of action drama)…

And the penultimate scene where Bullock finally finds a way (both with her machines and in her heart) to get back to Earth. A couple notes on this brief scene. You see a little fat golden Buddha on the dashboard of her space module. That’s because she’s now on a Chinese module, after being on a Russian craft earlier, and after starting off on an American craft. When she is on the Russian craft, you see a little golden orthodox Christian picture of a saint (or Christ himself, perhaps, it goes by quick, I’m not sure). So the shot showing the Buddha statue I don’t believe is meant to be “multi-cultural” in an anti-Western sense, but rather just pointing at the universal striving towards faith and God. I actually think it’s a rather remarkable and kind of “old school” way to hint about God in an “interfaith” way, and it’s in no way inappropriate in the context of this movie in which, after all, the protagonists spend most of their time floating above the Earth rather detached.

Bullock’s lines in this scene might seem a little forced or silly if you haven’t seen the whole movie, but again, I find them rather charming. Regardless of whether this particular scene moves you or not, I hope you can at least see how it’s lovely and exciting and life-affirming (and maybe even God-affirming).

Finally, I’ll add that the movie sets up Bullock’s character as being rather scientific and pragmatic, but that in the midst of the drama you learn that she’s lost her little girl to an accident. At one point (just before the scene below) she almost gives up all hope and turns off her oxygen, before getting the angelic visitation from Clooney/Kowalski that I mentioned above. In the context of the movie then, this scene is not just exciting visually but also dramatic on a personal level. “Either way, it’s gonna be one helluva ride” might seem a rather lame line, but I think it works in the context of this remarkable movie. Also, her line about “it reminds me of a story…” is a callback to something that Clooney’s character often said, and at this point Clooney, has sacrificed his own life to keep Bullock alive, even though it left her all alone with no idea what to do…

After her “cheesey” lines, note, she looks up at the sky and says, “I’m ready.” She’s talking to God there. I can’t think of a more lovely and life-affirming moment in recent films. Just beautiful.

The very best part is the very end, but I can’t find a youtube clip to embed here, so if you’re interested, you’ll just have to watch the whole darn movie. Cheers!

Not Materialism, but Material Matters!

In my last post, I said:

A lot of modern life is designed to make us into mopey, self-loathing cogs. Eaters and spenders. When you break out of that mold and feel how natural and positive it is to have your testosterone flowing, it’s a bit of a revelation.

What do I mean by natural and positive? Men are, by nature, more aggressive than women. Whether it’s polite to acknowledge it in civilized company or not, men get a rise out of aggressive acts, especially when such aggression is in defense of the man’s self, family, or tribe.

As a non-materialist (what else are we supposed to call ourselves these days? Theists? Supernaturalists? I hate to give myself a negative designation — “non-materialist” — but since I’m not a Christian and I’m not a Jew or Muslim or Buddhist or initiate in the Mithraic mysteries, and since modern people take materialism as their “obvious” baseline, I am left with no other term), as a non-materialist, I bristle intensely if anyone suggests to me that all of my spiritual experiences are merely the products of this or that measurable hormone.

I believe that the brain is a God-conducting organ. That is to say, when scientists find a “God module” in the human brain, it proves not that God-consciousness in humans is a function of some randomly-evolved brain region, but rather that the scientists are reading (through their astonishing modern instruments) the physical echoes of something that precedes brains, humans, and cells.

If humans are half-animal, half-angel, as the Christians and the Hindus (after a fashion) would have it (and I believe they are correct, and believe that no other explanation really answers all of the relevant questions), then it’s quite obvious that our animal bodies (including, duh, the brain) would reflect our spiritual capacities. When scientists “discover” this or that region of the brain that correspond to this or that religious experience (and it’s been done with Christian prayer, with the meditation efforts of Tibetan monks, etc, etc), my reaction is not to therefore discount the nuns and monks. I don’t think (as they clearly intend us to, from their rhetoric), “Wow, there’s a physically measurable link between believing and brain activity!”

Rather (and it’s kind of embarrassing to point this out), anyone with an open mind would recognize that we’ve merely kicked the can further down the road. Finding cellular connections between the physical body and spiritual experience proves nothing whatsoever, on the metaphysical level. Those who deny that metaphysics even exist are still lost in their minutia, and those who have had incontrovertibly real experiences with the “supernatural” (which is actually the natural) still can’t “prove” their experiences, by the laws of modern science, without appealing to the very laws which by definition preclude the supernatural.

So when I talk about testosterone, as for example in the above-linked post, I don’t mean to endorse a purely materialistic view of the world. But, as must be obvious, neither do I deny the link between the body and the spirit. And, as I have already written, and as I intend to show in further posts, I believe that those who understand the (true) metaphysical nature of life have underestimated the degree to which the body influences the soul and, especially, the spirit.

I’m asserting nothing new.

Sunshine and Testosterone

The other day I was driving back from the gym, after going very hard in the weight room. By “very hard,” I mean lifting until muscle failure, which means there’s involuntary grunting going on, shaking legs, etc. After each set, you know you are making a difference when you temporarily cannot move the muscles in question, then suddenly feel a surge of energy all over.

Driving back, having chugged some whey and whole milk and caught my breath, I turned on the radio. The “classic rock” station was playing Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” I turned it up, bopped around a bit, turned it up more, found myself bopping with even more energy, and finally cranked it full blast. I felt a surge of positive energy.

That’s not a particularly aggressive song (especially compared to what I was listening to when I was actually lifting). And Freddie Mercury is not exactly the most, ahem, traditional man. But it’s certainly peppy, assertive, and has a driving, unapologetic beat, if you will. I used to listen to “classic rock” all the time when I was in high school, working out very hard five days a week on the crew team. Part of that was being a white, teenage male in the 1990′s in the United States (going through a Led Zeppelin stage, for instance, was a bit of a rite of passage where I grew up, whether or not you were an athlete). But as I listened to Queen on the way home, I realized just how closely linked the weight lifting and my current enjoyment of that song were. 

If I had been on my way home from McDonald’s, or a movie about how horrible white people are, or some other such poisonous activity, I would not have enjoyed that song in that moment. I probably would have changed the station, or I might have let it play at a low volume, letting it be a buzz of mindless background noise. But lawdy, in my current amped-up state I was really cranking that stuff and enjoying it with a big smile.

Now, enjoying Queen songs is pretty value-neutral, if you ask me. Lifting weights isn’t good because it makes you crank the classic rock music. It’s good because it’s very good for your health and your psyche. It increases muscle mass, which is very closely linked to overall longterm health; it increases testosterone which is the natural miracle drug of male bodies, and it makes you a more physically capable person in everyday life. (Dennis Mangan is my favorite non-meathead proponent of weightlifting. Some of the meathheads are pretty great too, but I’ll let you find them on your own.) But I submit there is a real link between extremely rigorous, rippingly painful exercise (plodding jogs don’t count) and the sort of sunshiny aggressiveness I was feeling in my car that day.

And I’ll go a step further and say that a healthy man in his prime should feel sunshiny aggressiveness. Not all the time, of course, but it should be common and almost a baseline. A lot of modern life is designed to make us into mopey, self-loathing cogs. Eaters and spenders. When you break out of that mold and feel how natural and positive it is to have your testosterone flowing, it’s a bit of a revelation.

Body, Soul, and Spirit

A human is a tripartite being — body, soul, and spirit. There are many different schema that take account of this basic reality, and so there are many different terms that have been used to denote these three levels of being. Furthermore, the dividing lines between each one and the next are not fixed and impermeable. There are fuzzy zones between body and soul and spirit. 

What the “body” entails is pretty obvious to most people. The difference between soul and spirit is harder for many people to understand. “Soul” is made up of the mind, the will, the moral agent. It also encompasses everything integral to a person that is not bodily-defined. This includes one’s role in society, insofar as it is an expression of and an influence upon that person. It also includes sex, and race. Here we can see how interdependent body and soul are. A man’s sex is reflected in his body, but it is also reflected in his soul. Likewise for a woman.

[Of course, hard Leftists pretend that there is no such thing as "gender" outside of our beliefs about gender. That is, "gender is a construct." I believe, on the contrary, that maleness and femaleness precede humanity itself. That there is a man and a woman in our species is merely a reflection of the deep nature of the universe. The Chinese have known this for thousands of years — the principles of yin and yang. But then, of course, all people have known this, for all time. Foolish moderns are the first ones not to know it. They call their ignorance holiness and wisdom.]

The spirit is the least determined part of a human being — the least material and therefore the least obvious. Although in fact every spirit is unique, and in many senses more specific than bodies and souls, because the spirit is the part of the human being that is closest to the eternal and the divine there is a sense in which the spirit is the most universal part of each person, the least differentiated. It all depends on what perspective you take; if you consider how matter is just highly organized atoms and molecules and how easy it is to disintegrate those organized patterns into meaningless goo, one can call our bodies the least specific part of our selves. What part of our being we consider most essentially individual is a question of emphasis — clearly all three levels are indispensable. Without one level or the other, the being is no longer recognizable as a human.

I’m interested in how very important all three levels are. So many people today live in willful ignorance of the spirit. They even deny the soul, though the denial is mostly rhetorical — they replace it with terms from neuroscience or whatever; no one can operate for 10 minutes in everyday life without a provisional theory of the soul. Modern people are so deeply messed-up in their appraisals of society partly because their own rhetoric about the non-existence of the soul forces them into provisional, slapdash explanations for human behavior.

But among people who understand and cultivate the soul and the spirit, I find there is often a corresponding neglect of the body. I am not speaking strictly about matters of bodily health (though of course health is hugely important). I am speaking also of how greatly matters of the body can affect matters of the soul and the spirit.

That the spirit has no physical location in the body (it doesn’t go away if you chop off someone’s leg, for example) does not mean that there is no link between the two. 

Many of the manifestations of the body-soul-spirit connection are so obvious and everyday that it seems silly to point them out. A weakened body can very obviously contribute to a depressed soul, either through illness or through poor diet or lack of exercise. 

But other ones, such as the connection between sexuality on the bodily level and spirituality, are less obvious and more controversial in modern times. Or the effect of behavior upon hormones, and the corresponding effect of hormonal harmony/imbalance on the will and indeed upon the beauty of the spirit. 

I will have more to say about the specifics of how we neglect and nourish our bodies, souls, and spirits in later posts. 

Happy Holidays!

And no, I don’t mean that in the secular, crypto-anti-Christmas sense. But in the sense that we’re just between Thanksgiving and Christmas now, with New Year’s soon to follow. It is indeed the holiday season. 

I’ve got a few posts brewing, and want to alert anyone who still gets has this blog in his bookmarks or feed that I will be putting something up right soon. Do check back if you are interested. This isn’t officially a revival of the blog full-time. But since it’s still here, and I feel like writing, people who are interested might as well be invited to read.

Blessings to all. 

Prolonged Adolescence

Via Steve Sailer, I came across Emmanuel Todd’s maps of family structure in Europe. HBD Chick blogged about all of this and was the one that brought it to Sailer’s attention. I’ll let you follow those links if you are interested in the subject. The basic takeaway is twofold: 1) Western Europe (as opposed to Eastern Europe) has different traditional family structures; and 2) the Anglo-Saxon world (Denmark/Norway, the Netherlands, and England) has a particular traditional family structure that actually has the latest marriages and loosest inheritance laws. As an American, and a descendant of the Anglo-Saxons, this interests me. (I’m largely Celtic and Nordic by blood, but there’s bound to be some Anglo-Saxon mixed in, and as an Amercian I live in a country founded on the ideas of the Anglo-Saxons.)

All this discussion (and it’s fascinating, I encourage readers to investigate those links) made me think about the how the notion of adolescense has changed. There are all sorts of cultural factors, of course. People live and dress like children well into their thirties and even fourties these days because we’ve done away with the notion of respectably adulthood. Being young and cool is valued, whereas being old and wise is not (except for in a maudlin way). But young people have always been “cooler” than old people (even though the notion is a modern one); and old people have always been wiser, on average. But wisdom used to be desirable, something a young person could yearn for. Nowadays it’s just a consolation prize for the old losers in the all-important game of staying young and cool.

It’s a bit reductionist for my taste, but I was thinking about the concept that major hormonal changes in the body could serve as markers as transitions from one phase of human life to the next. Hormones are massively important in human behavior, and to go through a major hormonal change means to become a different person (socially speaking), whether you want it or not. The most famous such change, one which all adults can recognize, is the change that happens at the onset of puberty. I went through puberty from about 14 to about 17. I was a radically different person when I was 18 than I had been at age 13. All my interests, my foci, my ways of approaching the outside world and even my own family — all this had changed dramatically in the space of 5 years. This is perfectly normal and almost all people experienced something analogous in their teen years.

Now, I certainly changed between ages 23 and 28, but the change was nowhere near as dramatic. And indeed, though I changed between age 3 and age 8, the rather rapid changes a small child goes through in cognition and socialization are still of one piece, if you will. That is, I was changing all throughout my youth, as all humans do, but the change I went through in my teens was simply different.

(I should also mention that there is a strong hormonal change between the moment an infant is breast-fed and when that child is weaned. Few of us remember this transition, so it’s hard to talk about. But from a biological perspective, this shift is real and significant.)

Traditionally, for a woman, the next big hormonal change after puberty is the gestation and birth of her first child. For a woman, pregnancy and early motherhood are times of radical hormonal change. Just as in her puberty period, she finds her whole world turned upside-down, and she becomes in some senses a new person. Just as with puberty, her core essence might remain the same, but also just as in puberty life has been radically altered — on a chemical level.

Further pregnancies and other life events can obviously change how our hormones interact with our bodies, but the next radical change for a woman, hormonally, is the onset of menopause. Menopause represents a strong and radical change in the hormones of a woman, and she simply can’t continue on as a “young woman” anymore once the chemicals in her own body have changed. It’s not a bad thing, and indeed it can result in noble old women, but it’s a joke to pretend this is not an epochal change in the life of woman.

So then, simplifying far too much, I break woman’s hormonal life down into: 1) breast-fed infant, 2) pre-pubescent child, 3) pubescent and post-pubescent adolescent, 4) fertile mother, 5) post-menopausal old woman.

Or: Baby, Child, Teenager, Mother, Old Lady.

So let’s look at that “Teenager” phase of a woman’s hormonal life. Menarche happens much earlier in Western societies than it used to. Most of this, presumably, is due to stronger nutrition. I maintain that some of it is cultural/psychological: that is, girls get puberty cues much earlier in life than they used to. I haven’t seen a study proving this, but it makes sense to me. But certainly young American girls have a much richer diet than medieval or ancient girls, and so it’s not shocking that they go through menarche at a younger age.

At the other end of the “Teenager” period we have the moment of a woman’s first pregnancy. Pregnancy starts changing the hormonal balance in a woman’s body from day one. Many women these days, of course, end up aborting their children. But they also used to miscarry much more frequently than they do today. So — while I actually could write a whole new post about the hormonal (not to mention spiritual) trauma that abortion causes a woman — let’s just assume for the sake of argument that “pregnancy” refers to pregnancies carried to term: babies.

Western white women have babies later and later in life now, if they have them at all. It’s pretty typical for a college-educated, upper-middle class woman in America to have her first child at 33 or 34.

So, if girls used to go through menarche at 16, and have babies at 20, the period of being an “adolescent” or “teenager” was abour 4 years, give or take two years. Now, a girl goes through menarche at 11 and pregnancy at 33. “Teenage” hormones are active in her for 22 years. Five and a half times longer.

That’s five times as much teenage-ness. Think of all the stupid ways of teenagers, and think of how societies have always accomodated the craziness of teenagers, and then multiply the teenage factor by FIVE. Women are only half of society, of course. But then… ahem… women are HALF OF SOCIETY!

I can’t prove any of these numbers with links just now, but I invite readers to disprove them. Even if I am off by a few years here or there (which I must be, considering that I’m not using any hard data), the point stands. Women are teenagers for decades these days, whereas being a teenager is meant to be a brief and intense period in the life of a woman. We have a world of teenagers in the West today. No wonder we act like such adolescents.

Of course boys and men have their own method of prolonging teenage-ship these days. But one can only write so much in one blog post. For today, dear and lovely ladies, the spotlight is on you.

Split Infinitives

Gosh, reading back through my old posts, I realize that I am constantly splitting infinitives in my writing. Constantly!

I don’t think it’s always wrong to split infinitives. But it’s almost always infelicitous. At least nine times out of ten a sentence reads better if the writer takes the time to keep infinitives intact and to arrange the modifiers around the verb accordingly. In fact, the work it takes to “un-split” the infinitive often reveals that the modifiers aren’t doing anything to increase the clarity of meaning of the sentence.

Therefore I hereby declare to no longer randomly and infelicitously split infinitives.

Uh oh.

Jonathan Bowden — and the Agamemnon

[NOTE: This entry was originally posted on Feb. 7, 2012. Unfortunately, Jonathan Bowden died on March 29 of this year, of a heart attack. He was 49. On the recommendation of a reader, I have changed the title of this post, which originally included the word "DEATH", in order to avoid any confusion. This entry is merely a musing on Bowden's work and the influence of one of my own teachers, and nothing else.]

I’ve been aware of the English political thinker Jonathan Bowden for a couple of years now. He’s hailed as an excellent orator, and I agree with that characterization. But, though he has a masterful command of his native language and spits out forceful and felicitous phrases with ease and regularity, he doesn’t have a particularly majestic vocal timbre. Indeed he speaks almost too rapidly and often trips over his own words. The real force of Bowden’s oratory comes from his solid thinking, his command of history (both ancient and modern), and his philosophical depth.

I don’t agree with every single thing that Jonathan Bowden has ever said, naturally, but I find him refreshing and bracing like a dip in one of the cold, freshwater lakes of the Cascade Mountains near where I live. Such a swim can be a little uncomfortable, and it makes the skin tingle, but it’s always invigorating and you never regret having gone for a swim. If it’s comfort we want, well I have electrical heating in my home and a cushiony couch I could sit in all day if I really wanted to.

Recently, Bowden has begun a regular weekly appearance on Richard Spencer’s podcast at Alternative Right (the podcast was rechristened “Vanguard” around the same time). I respect the work Spencer does, and he and Bowden have proven so far to be a natural team. Spencer is more than pure interviewer; that is, he offers his own opinions on subjects and feels free to interject. Still, the format is more or less to have Spencer set the table with some introductory remarks, and then let Bowden just go. It works very well. Spencer is younger, speaks somewhat more slowly, has a standard American accent, and gives off a vibe of somewhat bemused detachment (not ironic or spiteful, just rather relaxed). Bowden provides the spark, with his saliva-speckled British tenor, his firecracker demeanor, and his rapid-fire surveys of intellectual and political history.

If you enjoy podcasts and radio programs while you do the laundry or the dishes, as I do, or as you drive to work, I recommend checking out the archives at Alternative Right here. Particularly good was the recent program they did on the topic of democracy.

Tonight I listened to an archived speech by Bowden given in November called “European Culture: A Bullet through Steel.” This is Bowden at his best, and dealing with a topic that interests me more. He considers Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon” and Shakespeare’s “King Lear” as stand-ins for the greatness of European cultural achievements. And then he considers the ideologies behind modern adaptations of these classical works as indicative of the sickness of modern Western culture. I love Greek tragedy and I love Shakespeare, so it was exhilarating to hear Bowden’s synopses of these great works. And his critique of what theater has become (and his argument that it’s a representative sample of what Western culture in general has become) is incisive.

[Unfortunately, that recording is part of the Sunic Journal radio program, which is sloppily produced. The introductions and programming breaks are arbitrary and jarring. Also, the end of Bowden's speech is abruptly cut off (and there's no explanation or warning on the Sunic site). Tomislav Sunic himself (who makes no appearance in the program I've linked above) is an interesting person and he produces interesting programs (like, again, the Bowden one). But he's also unfortunately obsessed with Jewish power (through banks, Hollywood, etc), a topic which I'm not particularly interested in. I don't consider it a laughable topic, nor irrelevant, but in my experience people who obsess over it are usually incapable of understanding the complexity which is and always has been a defining feature of human societies. That is, while Jewish bankers (or Freemasons, or Trotskyites, or Muslim fanatics, or whoever) have had a role in the formation of our modern world, I find laughably simplistic any formulation which pretends that they are somehow the prime source of any and all dysfunction that we can observe. Sunic sometimes seem to speak as if this were not only true, but that we're all dupes for not agreeing with him. Thanks but no thanks. Incidentally, I've seen Lawrence Auster decry and dismiss the Alternative Right website because of consistently anti-Semitic statements by commenters. I don't really read the comments there, but I do check the articles once a week or so, and read the ones that interest me. I've never noticed any serious anti-Semitism in the main articles, and some of them (especially by the remarkable and quite young Mark Hackard) are excellent.]

* * *

A reminiscence while I’m at it. When I was a senior in public high school, I had a class called “Humanities Block,” which was an honors-level class that took up the first two hours of every morning. It was team-taught by Mr. Wall and Mrs. Newman. Mr. Wall was a Vietnam veteran who held an early morning running session before class, twice a week for any boys who wanted to attend (I never went, I was too lazy). He taught philosophy. Mrs. Newman was a small, energetic, artistic and somewhat shrill old woman who always had it in for me (I think she thought I was a cavalier jock-type, which actually now that I think of it, was probably pretty accurate). She taught us literature and art history.

Our readings were necessarily quite rapid and rather shallow. Their goal was to get 50 high school students all the way through Western culture from Homer to Dostoyevsky in one school year. Even though we often had to rush through various books and artists, and even though I didn’t always *ahem* do all the reading, it was from Newman and Wall that I got my first real introductions to Gilgamesh, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Genesis and Job, Roman architecture, Augustine, the Hagia Sophia, the Taj Mahal, the Mahabharata (not EVERYTHING we studied was Western), Beowulf, Chaucer, Aquinas, Descartes, Gothic cathedrals, Dante, Macchiavelli, Raphael, Shakespeare, Milton … I’m already exhausted by trying to keep this all roughly chronological. But it included the heights of French studio-era painting, sprawling Russian novels, English lyric poetry. Oh man, all the good stuff!

I bring this all up because Bowden’s discussion of “Agamemnon” reminded me fondly of something from that class. Mrs. Newman had a few catchphrases she liked to shout in her shrill voice early in the morning, presumably to wake up a bunch of laggardly teenagers at 7:30 am on a Tuesday morning in the depths of the dark, northern Seattle winters. One of her favorites was a reference to “Agamemnon.” She loved Greek tragedy more than anything, and in fact the license plate on her old Volvo jalopy read “CLY”, in reference to the husband-killing Clytaemnestra from that play. (She was a bit of a feminist, but not so much so that she ruined great literature with juvenile interpretations, as my later college professors would teach me to do. She just seemed to get a thrill from the sheer willful bloodiness of characters like Clytaemnestra and Lady MacBeth, which I begrudge her not).

To Mrs. Newman, the moment at the end of “Agamemnon” when the bloody corpses of Agamemnon and Cassandra are wheeled out in a bathtub and we find Clytaemnestra standing over them with a gory axe was the defining example of tragic catharsis. “DEATH … in the bath tub!” she yelled at us teenagers in the sleepy early hours of the day. And any time that we encountered tragic reversal in a work of literature (and such moments are almost the defining characteristic of the great Western tradition of tragic literature), such as at the end of Hamlet or (ha ha) in Jacque-Louis David’s “Death of Marat”, she loved to scream out “DEATH … in the bath tub!” I didn’t appreciate it fully at the time, but this charming/annoying idiosyncrasy of hers was probably secretly instrumental in giving me the ability to see the ever-morphing, ever-renewed, and yet eternal through-lines that make Western culture into the integrated whole that it has been since, well, death in the bath tub.

Finally, lest I make Mrs. Newman out to sound like some kind of revenge-minded harridan, let me say that another one of her favorite lines to talk about was something quite different. It got repeated fewer times, but only because the “Agamemnon” was one the first things we read and this other line came from The Brothers Karamazov, which we naturally read towards the end of the year. The line was “the sticky little leaves.” And instead of shouting it at us with a joyful/insane shriek, she said it with her eyes narrowed and her voice calm. As if to say, “Ah. Yes… the sticky green leaves. Isn’t that marvelous?”

For those of you who haven’t read The Brothers Karamazov in a while, here’s the scene she was referring to.

[Ivan is speaking to Alyosha]

” … Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky, I love some people, whom one loves you know sometimes without knowing why. I love some great deeds done by men, though I’ve long ceased perhaps to have faith in them, yet from old habit one’s heart prizes them. Here they have brought the soup for you, eat it, it will do you good. It’s first-rate soup, they know how to make it here. I want to travel in Europe, Alyosha, I shall set off from here. And yet I know that I am only going to a graveyard, but it’s a most precious graveyard, that’s what it is! Precious are the dead that lie there, every stone over them speaks of such burning life in the past, of such passionate faith in their work, their truth, their struggle and their science, that I know I shall fall on the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them; though I’m convinced in my heart that it’s long been nothing but a graveyard. And I shall not weep from despair, but simply because I shall be happy in my tears, I shall steep my soul in emotion. I love the sticky leaves in spring, the blue sky — that’s all it is. It’s not a matter of intellect or logic, it’s loving with one’s inside, with one’s stomach. One loves the first strength of one’s youth. Do you understand anything of my tirade, Alyosha?” Ivan laughed suddenly.

“I understand too well, Ivan. One longs to love with one’s inside, with one’s stomach. You said that so well and I am awfully glad that you have such a longing for life,” cried Alyosha. “I think everyone should love life above everything in the world.”

“Love life more than the meaning of it?”

“Certainly, love it, regardless of logic as you say, it must be regardless of logic, and it’s only then one will understand the meaning of it. I have thought so a long time. Half your work is done, Ivan, you love life, now you’ve only to try to do the second half and you are saved.”

“You are trying to save me, but perhaps I am not lost! And what does your second half mean?”

“Why, one has to raise up your dead, who perhaps have not died after all. Come, let me have tea. I am so glad of our talk, Ivan.”

The Ironic Crucifix

Irenic vs Ironic.

Hipsters devour everything. If there’s no meaning to life, then there is nothing that can’t be devoured in the name of cool posturing.

I grew up a Christian, in the Episcopal Church. I’ve had my troubles with Christianity in general, and with my church in particular, but I’ve never been able to view the question as unimportant. Even in raging against Christianity as a young man, I took it very seriously.

Sure, I’m just as capable of dismissive, ugly, and snarky remarks as the next thirty-something. It’s my generation’s primary mode of communication, after all. But I always sensed there were some things that, while they might induce mirth, joy, and laughter, were far too sublime for derision.

As I communicated once to a friend via email, there have always been other things which I simply can’t feel ironic about.  Shakespeare dominated my consciousness for a long time, and he still does to a lesser extent. As had and does Mahler (click that link, let it play while you read the rest of this post). Nietzsche (that grand ironist). Tolkien (that grand anti-ironist). Lewis, Melville, Burne-Jones, Lawrence, Dogen, Augustine, Sebald, Kerouac. From some perspectives, these men have very little in common. Indeed, some of them are at war with one another. Lawrence and Augustine don’t see eye to eye (though I suspect neither would object to breaking bread with the other). Kerouac thinks he represents Dogen, but Dogen would laugh at Kerouac’s total lack of discipline. Lewis and Nietzsche are poles apart (though they both respect Wagner). But I can’t be ironic about any of these men.

I wear a silver cross around my neck sometimes. It’s not for show, it’s for myself. Once, I dressed quickly to run out to the store in the evening. I was wearing a v-neck shirt at home, and just threw on some boots and my peacoat before heading out the door. I didn’t realize I was wearing my silver cross, and that it was quite visible against my skin under my open coat, with my low-V shirt. In fact, in retrospect, I realize it was almost ostentatious.

I ran into a friend outside the local bar between my house and the grocery store. He was having a cigarette on the sidewalk with a pal. We exchanged chummy hellos, and then he asked, pointing to my breast, “What’s with that? Are you trying to look tough?”

“Oh this?” I said. I intuitively sensed his hostility, and not wishing a confrontation, I smiled and said, “Oh this is some ancient Middle-Eastern religious cult thing. You don’t want to know about it.”

“Oh I know it,” said he, declining the chance to let the confrontation pass.

“Yeah, it’s an old one, but a good one.”

“It’s old,” said he, “but I don’t know about good.”

He then suggested I read some thing called “The True History of the Devil” or some such. I haven’t bothered to look it up. I’m sure it explains why religion, and specifically Christianity, is all some dark conspiracy to keep people under the thumb of vile and hypocritical popes.

But why did he ask if I was “trying to look tough”? It’s because a lot of gang-members in the US these days like to show off crosses as some kind of fashion statement. And not just gang-members. Up until this point, it’s been strictly limited to black people, Mexicans, and other such people who are already culturally immune to being accused as oppressors. (White, straight men wearing crosses = uncomfortably sincere. Female mixed-race rappers wearing crosses = delightfully transgressive.) It’s a kind of edgy-cool thing to do. I’m not sure I get it totally, but my intuition is that the people who wear it are combining some kind of (not altogether contemptible) memory of early-life belief with a brash defiance of those who wish to judge them. As in, “You wanna judge me? Judge this!”

Well that’s not my cultural milieu, so I might be wrong. In any case, my (newly hostile) friend recognized the cross as something that someone probably wears to “look tough.” I let a few awkward moments pass to signify that I found his need to lecture me on “the true history of the devil” rather outré, but I did not push the issue. Really, I was just running to the store.

But upon further reflection, I realized some prescience on this issue. If people were already recognizing a cross around the neck as a symbol of something other than Christianity, it was only a matter of time before white hipsters would pick up on the trend.

Well, sure enough, today I went into the coffee shop on my block (about 40 yards from where I saw my friend smoking), and the young girl behind the counter was wearing a HUGE wooden cross around her neck. It was about four inches top to bottom, and half an inch thick, and bright purple. She was wearing all kinds of other bangles and pendants around it.

It was a joke. It wasn’t a sincere expression of faith. Perhaps she feels, as I do, an affinity with family and tradition, but she’s wearing it ostentatiously. As in, “Isn’t it funny, the idea of someone as worldly and chic as me believing in something so stupid? Ha ha! Everyone behold the ironic detachment! I’m so unique!”

I just google image-searched “hipster girl wearing cross” and got basically nothing. I predict that within three months I will get plenty of hits. These things happen quickly. Fads always do.

If only there were something that outlasted fashionable, ironically-detached trends. Gee, I can’t think what that could possibly be. Help me here, people…