A Fantasy Novel by Yours Truly

Here, I’m going to try my hand at marketing–again.  As you see from the title, my dear readers, I’ve self-published a fantasy novel–a medieval, military, fantasy, adventure novel to be more precise.  The roots of this novel lie in an old manuscript I created at seventeen years of age and completed at nineteen.  The tome, dubbed Ketil’s Saga, stretched for over three hundred Word Document pages, was written in a pompous and abstruse style, and contains one of the most meandering plots never to have been inflicted on the public.  I dream of one day polishing it enough to be presentable trilogy; but, writing a new story set within the same world seems an easier proposition.

All Man’s Clotted Clay might be a familiar title, since this book was submitted to Athanatos Christian Ministries’ 2015 Novel Contest and made the semi-finals.  As such, it has received extensive editing by one of the contest judges and by yours truly–so much so that I developed a disgust for revising it and an irresistible urge to bring it before the reading public.  All Man’s Clotted Clay is set three hundred years before the events of the unpublished Ketil’s Saga.  It concerns the struggle of a heroic pikeman to win the love of his life and defeat the enemies of his country.  (What can I say?  I love romances of this sort–the medieval kind–and am even reading one such tale now: St. George for England by G. A. Henty.)

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Medieval Book Review: Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

Most of you have not heard of this historical novel of Mark Twain’s; yet, he regarded it as his best work.  In his own words, “I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.”  Mark Twain is known as something of a humorist, and many humorists see the dark side of life and turn to humor as a way to cope with it.  For example, many people know that Twain often wrote to underscore the injustice of Southern society towards blacks–both before and after the Civil War.  Twain loved fairness and justice above all, and these things shone yet more gloriously when painted against a background of villainy.

PRSJOA

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Three Recommendations for Spiritual Reading

A Christian ought to daily nourish his spirit with theology or the good example of the saints.  The Bible accomplishes both admirably; yet, it can sometimes strike one as too abstract or its familiarity blocks us from receiving new insights.  This is where spiritual books are an enormous help.

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St. John Bosco, pray for us!

Below, I have included three recommendations and write a little about what makes them unique.  Hopefully, one or more of these will make your reading list in the near future.

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1) Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson

This is probably the most prosaic version of the world’s end I have ever encountered.  Written prior to WWI, Benson actually predicted that war and posits that the world will end in the early 21st century.  Readers of the Apocalypse know that there shall be widespread irreligion at the end of the world: the religious shall be few and far between, and God’s punishments will cause the impenitent to curse God rather than amend their lives.  What is the primary cause for the world ending around the beginning of the 21st century?  The rise of communism and the culture of death.

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On Graphic Content in Fiction

Yesterday, in reponse to my latest reblog, a few of my friends brought up that Perfect Blue has some scenes that are plain hard to watch.  Another said that I should warn people about the nudity, sexual violence, bloody violence, and vulgarity contained therein.  That last request I hesitated to meet, but here is my content warning for Perfect Blue: it has bloody and brutal murders, a lingerie/swimsuit photoshoot which turns pornographic, a rather disturbing simulated rape scene, and an infamous masturbation scene.  (N. B. The last is non-explicit enough that one might not realize what’s going on–if memory serves me right–in that five second scene.)  There you have the worst content in the movie.  The question now occurs to me of why was I so loath to write about these details and even angry that they were brought up in regard to Perfect Blue?

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Examining Light Novels: On Relationship

Here is the first post for my new column on Beneath the Tangles.  The next eight posts will be covering the rest of the Spice and Wolf light novels.  This first article initiates the reader into what the main theme of the series is alongside my commentary on it.  I can’t recommend Spice and Wolf enough.  The only downside is the sour view Isuna Hasekura takes on monotheism; but I can forgive a Shintoist that, and it should make for some interesting articles later on.

I hope you like this article, which is linked to below.

Examining Light Novels: On Relationship

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On the Athanatos Christian Arts and Apologetics Festival

Over one week has passed since I’ve written a proper blog.  (See “Examining Old School Anime: The Saints Point to Christ“)  I still need to comment on the new season among other things, but this post will be on my trip to Greenwood, Wisconsin in order to attend the Athanatos Christian Arts and Apologetics Festival.  Placing third in their short story contest of 2009, being a semi-finalist of the 2015 Novel Contest, and counting as a great friend of one of the contest judges ensured my invitation to the event.  Part of the idea behind the festival was that attendees would camp on site, but my friend (the blogger of Dusty Thanes) and I declined this opportunity in exchange for a comfy hotel room.  At a high of 81°F, the weather was appreciably cooler than here in Alabama, for which I was grateful.

Martha and Mary

Besides enjoying a reunion with my friend and his delightful family, the contest brought me in contact with several fiction writers and thinkers.  The most interesting of the bunch were Joseph Courtemanche, Robert Cely, Paul J. Bennett, David Zach, Bernard Bull, and Jamie Greening.  (I’m afraid that I skipped the apologetics part of this festival and focused more on the fiction writing aspect of it.)  Courtemanche, a former member of Navy Intelligence and a former police officer, stood out as the largest personality and person there; but, a deep humility made him very approachable.  Meeting the author of Assault on St. Agnes, whom my friend coached for countless hours on how to improve his novel, was a great honor.  (The preliminary judges act as editors after the initial cut before submitting their final recommendations to the deciding judge and founder of Athanatos Christian Ministries, Anthony Horvath.)  Assault on St. Agnes concerns a main character who is essentially a fictional version of the author: a “polyglot Rambo” called Bobby Kurtz.  Kurtz prevents Jihadists from committing a massacre in a church and soon finds himself enlisted again in the ranks of the U.S. military in order to prevent a bloodier attack from taking place.  Courtemanche’s experience makes for a very accurate and exciting novel, and I find myself enjoying every minute of it.

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Thoughts on Spice and Wolf Volume Eight

This volume of the light novels vindicates my hope that the series would improve after the preceding two volumes.  The eighth volumes covers the first part of “The Town of Strife” story arc.  Our heroes become plunged into a vortex of intrigue involving the church, pagan relics, a horn of immortality, rival guilds, and Eve, the femme fatale who almost cost Lawrence his life in addition to his money.  This novel manifests all the reasons people love Spice and Wolf, and I am looking forward to the next book and this story’s thrilling conclusion.

SW volume 8

Of note, the banter between Lawrence and Holo has lessened compared to the previous novels, and most of their conversations tend to be serious.  This novel is the most plot-centered of the series thus far.  Much of the dialogue is between Lawrence, Eve, and particular guild heads as he tries to work out a safe and profitable position for himself.  I greatly enjoyed this focus on the plot, especially after the last two novels.  But, don’t worry: Holo and Col still get plenty of print too.

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Thoughts on Volume Seven of Spice and Wolf

The seventh volume of the Spice and Wolf novels offers a break from the main story.  This annoyed me because of how little happened in volume six: the worst volume thus far.  Volume seven features the usual bad religion, especially in the novella which forms the first part of the book.  (You can tell already what most of my comments shall be about.)  This novella and one of the short stories were as bland as the prior volume.  Only “The Red of the Apple, The Blue of the Sky” showed Isuna Hasekura at his best.  The second short story was interesting in how it took Holo’s perspective, revealing how terribly insecure and anxious Holo is behind her quick-witted and capable facade.

SW Side Colors

The novella takes place before Holo settles down as the goddess of the harvest and concerns two children, Aryes and Klass, who are forced to flee their lord’s estate and find a new life for themselves in a far off town.  On the way, they run into Holo, who makes herself extremely useful and extremely annoying by turns.  (Holo appears unable to help teasing any man or boy in her company.)  The story ends with a thrilling chase, which would have been better without the twist.

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The House of the Wolfings: A Review

William Morris’s The House of the Wolfings will stand as my medieval book of the month.  Though published at the end of the 19th century and set prior to the Middle Ages, it reads very much like a Viking saga–even if the prose is more ornate than the saga writers tended to use.  William Morris numbers as one of those forgotten pre-Tolkien fantasy authors.  I first became interested in him when I heard of how Tolkien borrowed the name Mirkwood from the book under review.  The House of the Wolfings has not disappointed me in the least.

Wolfings

The story appears to be set around the first century AD and concerns the Roman invasion of Germania, but the clans of the Mirkwood are fictional.  The hero of this epic, Thiodolf, leads the Men of the Mirkwood against the invading Romans, and some fantastic elements include the prophecies of the goddess Wood Sun and the Hall Sun, who is the daughter of Thiodolf and the Wood Sun, and an enchanted dwarven hauberk.  The prophecies of these two women and the Romans history of conquest leave the reader guessing up until near the end what the final outcome of the war will be.

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“Looking down with Malicious Intent”: How a Remark in Spice and Wolf Volume Six has Irked me

Those of you looking for an enjoyable light novel need look no further than Spice and Wolf by Isuna Hasekura.  The translation put out by Yen Press reads quite easily and still manages to have a lot of character.  In particular, one of anime’s most beloved characters, Holo, can be read in all her sly wisdom, cunning repartee, archaic usage, culinary enthusiasm, and love of liquor.  Besides Holo, the other characters, especially the protagonist, feel compelling.  I cannot but love how the medieval setting reminds one of the Baltic Crusades and how Hasekura attempts to create a merchant hero who adheres to the code of contract law.  (Very interesting and unusual.)  Also, the novels cover more adventures than the anime ever will.

Lawrence and Holo

However much fun these novels are, they never fail to needle me a little.  The tales are written from an atheist’s perspective, which varies from disdain to curiosity in regards to monotheism as practiced by the Church.  This Church is reminiscent of the medieval Catholic Church, but their theologies don’t square perfectly.  One of my favorite pot shots has to be Holo’s “The universe is too big for it to have been created by a single god.”  How limiting the word kami must be on the Japanese theological imagination!

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Shiki: The Beowulf Connection

I intend this to be the first of three articles on Shiki, a profoundly interesting vampire anime released in 2010.  In this article, I’m going to argue that its author retold the medieval epic Beowulf, or at least, that it derives much of its subject matter from this epic.  Before some of you decide this idea to be unlikely, don’t forget than the Japanese love drawing from Norse mythology and sagas.  Why not also peruse the contemporaneous literature of medieval England?  Of perhaps they can arrive at the epic through knowledge of another famous post-modern treatment, John Gardner’s Grendel.  But one feature of Shiki makes me feel like they must have read the epic of the middle ages: the prevalence of the most shocking crime to medieval ears–kinslaughter.

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The esteemed Professor Justin A. Jackson of Hillsdale college, an avid student of medieval English literature, once lamented that people read Beowulf for the beginning and the end–the slaying of Grendel and the slaying of the dragon.  People think of this as a monster slaying story, but this understanding does not go far enough.  The prodigious fiends of the beginning and end point to the monsters in human form of the middle: kinslayers.  Grendel’s line itself is shown to be descended from the first kinslayer, Cain.  Also, Beowulf declaims this baleful rebuke–or rather, smack down–of the quibbling Ulferth:

…I have never heard

such struggle, sword terror, told about you.

Never in the din and play of battle

did Breca or you show such courage

with shining blades–not to boast about it–

though you were a manslayer, killed your brothers,

closest kinsmen, for which you will suffer

damnation in hell, clever though you are. (581-589)

The vampires in Shiki actually go after their closest family members as their first targets.  One person even sucks dry her entire family, though none of them rise up.

Shiki-Sunako-Kirishiki

Another link to Beowulf is the curious mixture of paganism and Christianity.  In Beowulf, we are led to initially believe the characters are pagan; yet, once Beowulf arrives, they speak like Christians and care not a wit for pagan gods.  Examine the Church in Shiki.  We know that it cannot be Christian.  There are neither masses nor services, neither Catholic priests nor Protestant ministers.  And yet, one window a depicts the martyrdom of a Japanese saint!  But a post-modern twist comes in the form of people blaming God for the trouble which comes to their village rather than praising God for freeing them from evil.  Indeed, the characters only speak about God–even if Shinto and Buddhist artifacts can ward off vampires.

Sunako and Seishun

“Alright then,” you say.  “Who is Hrothgar, Beowulf, Ulferth, the scop, Grendel, and Grendel’s mother?  There must be some connection to the characters if this is indeed a retelling.”

Ookawa

Beowulf = Tomio Ookawa

At first, I thought that there was no Beowulf.  This would go along with the theme of divine abandonment in the show.  After all, Beowulf’s entrance into Denmark is shown as coming about through divine providence.  But, here is an example of them borrowing from Gardner’s Grendel.  Mr. Ookawa fits the idea of Gardner’s Beowulf through his inexorable sense of justice, crazed single-mindedness, and strength.  He is certainly of heroic stature!

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Hrothgar = Dr. Ozaki

One of the neatest twists in the story is Dr. Ozaki.  We originally think him to be a kind of Van Helsing, á la Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  But, events make it clear that Dr. Ozaki is not a courageous vigilante against the vampires, but more of a leader.  He is helpless at stopping the vampire outbreak, but he can lead others to successfully squash it–the good old Jason-esque  hero.  As the chief man in the village, he fits the bill for Hrothgar.

Ulferth = Masao Murasako

Ulferth is a blabbering loudmouth just like Masao.  Helpless to do anything but complain.  No picture for him!

Seishin's the one on the left.  Behind him is the stain glass window with the martyrdom.

Seishin’s the one on the left. Behind him is the stain glass window with the martyrdom.

the Scop = Seishin

As a novelist, Seishin approximates a scop, but instead of reciting songs of glory and valor, he writes stories of misery.  This fits the post-modern twist I mentioned.

Mrs. Kirishiki

Grendel’s mother = Mrs. Kirishiki

Like the hag of Beowulf, she’s a very powerful vampire.  I know Grendel’s mother is pictured as ugly, but witches in continental Europe were also imagined to be beautiful blond women like Mrs. Kirishiki.  And this is not the first time Grendel’s mother has been portrayed as a seductress.  It was also done in the 2007 Beowulf movie with Angelina Jolie playing this role.

Megumi on right.  I felt very sorry for this character.

Megumi on right. I felt very sorry for this character.

Grendel = Megumi

Surprised?  The Sunako Kirishiki would be the obvious choice for Grendel, especially with her attachment to Mrs. Kirishiki.  But, I believe that Megumi fits the bill more perfectly.  She feels completely ostracized by the village because they mock her predilection for fancy clothing, and she thinks little of Kaori’s attempts to befriend her.  Hence she, like Grendel, is already an outsider when the story begins.  She dreams of one day leaving for the big city because she hates everyone in the village and everything about that place.  Grendel means evil in Old English.  The essence of evil is envy or ill-will.  What could be more invidious than her cheer, uttered while turning pirouettes: “I love making people I hate suffer!”  Amusingly, she does not engage in kinslaughter, but she had already killed the relationship between her and her parents through envy.

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But, she also has connections to Gardner’s Grendel in that both the anime and this work attempt to make Grendel a sympathetic character.  (At least, I think the former did.  The story is told from Grendel’s point of view.  But I wanted Grendel to die from page one.)  The anime succeeded much better than Grendel in creating a sympathetic monster, and we wish to see Megumi escape at the end–quite unjustly of us, I should think!  *BIG BIG BIG Spoiler Alert!*  The manner in which Megumi dies, with her first losing her left arm and then being finished off while helpless is reminiscent of Grendel’s demise in the epic poem.

Tatsumi and Natsuno

Actually, the story even has a Wiglaf and a dragon in the persons of Natsuno and Tatsumi respectively.  Just like Beowulf telling his thanes and Wiglaf that their help is not needed to defeat the dragon, the Dr. Ozaki does not enlist Natsuno’s aid until the end of the story.  Yet, he defeats the strongest of the vampires, Tatsumi, who–for his ability to walk under the sun–is considered more than a regular vampire.  Natsuno slays Tatsumi when no one had expected it of him.

There you have it!  My case for Shiki being a post-modern retelling of Beowulf!  What do you think?  Has anyone else perceived the connections between ShikiBeowulf, and Grendel?  And be sure to watch the video of the opening lines of Beowulf recited in Old English.  It’s pure awesomeness!

The Problem of Evil and Spiritual Envy

I just finished a short modern saga by Felix Dahn called The Saga of Halfred the Sigskald.  It concerns the tragic adventures of a fictional Norse skald, who accepts a challenge to win the hand of a princess by completing a set of challenges.  The action of the saga is very reminiscent of the Nibelungelied, a medieval tragic romance which I highly recommend all my dear readers to read.  Through overcoming all these challenges, Halfred weds the princess, who discovers that he undertook winning her hand for the fame of the conquest rather than out of love.  (When a woman sets up a series of contests to win her hand, might this not be expected?)  In great wroth, she curses Halfred at a feast, and her attempt to strike him leads to setting herself on fire and the slaughter of many of the guests in the ensuing confusion.  This begins a series of tragic events for Halfred which lead to him denying the existence of the gods.  On the whole, the story conveyed that tragic flavor which I love to see in traditional sagas.

Egil's Saga is an especially great read.

Egil’s Saga is an especially great read.

However, I feel that none of my dear readers will be interested in this saga, especially because so many more medieval sagas deserve to be read.  If you are, you may download it for free on Kindle, iBooks, or Project Gutenberg.   I found the work interesting for two reasons: how it dealt with the problem of evil and depiction of spiritual envy.  Feeling no need to avoid spoilers with such a work, here is the sequence of events which leads to Halfred denying the gods:

1.  Halfred is cursed by his wife and forced to slaughter his own kinsman.

2.  His pregnant wife is killed in the scuffle and their firstborn lost.

3.  Halfred finds happiness again with a new wife, but her beauty produces jealousy among his blood-brothers and the crew, leading to a slaughter.

4.  His new wife commits suicide.

5.  Halfred, going on a crusade against paganism, is unwittingly slain by his son, who, as it turns out, survived though his mother did not.

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If such events are possible–Halfred claims, then the gods cannot exist.  However, I would like to submit that perhaps Halfred’s madness at the end of the story makes him being killed by his son and thus finding peace more happy than if he had continued his crusade.  I particularly love how his son, then a shepherd, when asked whether he believed in the gods, responded that he believed in the one, triune God, and mortally wounded Halfred with his slingshot in a fashion reminiscent of King David.

At any rate, I have always found the mere existence of evil insufficient to deny the existence of God.  Look at these syllogisms:

1) If God were omnipotent, omniscent, and infinitely good, he would eliminate evil according to His omnipotence, i.e. completely.

2) There is evil.

Therefore, God does not exist.

But why should not the following syllogism be true?

1) There is good.

2) Without a good Creator, there could be no goodness.

Therefore, God exists.

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As a matter of fact, St. Augustine claims that the mere presence of evil actually shows God’s omnipotence; for, if God were not so omnipotent as to bring good out of evil, then He would never have allowed evil to exist in the first place.  So, I think that the problem of pain or evil is insufficient when arguing against God’s existence.  Rather, people who deny God’s existence on such grounds take to judging Providence because they think that He permitted evil where He should not have.  Perhaps, believers struggle with this question more than unbelievers, but the rewards for perseverance in faith, which in itself is an unfathomably immense grace, are to feel God’s love and goodness again and again.

Now to that most deplorable vice of spiritual envy.  I call it spiritual envy because people who struggle to lead a spiritual life, like the Italian monks in the abbey where Halfred’s son lives, are particularly subject to it.  One feels excessive grief or judgment against people who excessively indulge in the pleasures of life.  One might even rejoice more in hearing the downfall than conversion of sinners!  And yet, one calls oneself an upstanding Christian!  After Halfred’s son leaves the abbey, apostates, and perishes on the field of battle, the abbot actually rejoices in hearing of a vision of how this person has fallen into hell!  (In fairness to Dahn, he does give a positive portrayal of the Algo-Saxon monks and the prior Anglo-Saxon abbot, Aelfrik.  But this might just be due to the prejudices of the author, who seemed instrumental in the movement of German Nationalism prior to WWI.)  How contrary to the example of St. Benedict, who, upon hearing one of his disciples rejoicing in the death of St. Benedict’s clerical opponent, who had even attempted to murder the saint, rebuked his disciple and told him rather to pray for that person.

saint-benedict

The root of spiritual envy lies in a strange form of jealousy: this spiritual person, at the same time as he strives for higher goods and claims their superiority, envies the sinner’s enjoyment of material goods!  Rather than spiritual, this person ought rather to be called carnal!  Any yet, envy is an insidious cancer which most easily infects those who deem themselves immune.  The life of grace involves bitter trials.  Human beings, a combination of flesh and spirit, suffer from concupiscence, which renders physical joys more apparent than spiritual ones, for perception of which the grace of the Lord is necessary.

And yet, how deplorable is envy of all sorts?  How can Christians bring poor sinners into the fold if they see us, who are indeed sinners ourselves, contemning them and also jealous of the very things they enjoy?  Furthermore, how displeasing it is to our Divine Master, the Overflowing Fountain of Love Itself, to see envy in His followers?  But, by prayer for others and charity envy can be uprooted, and we learn the necessity of grace by overcoming these trials.

Created with The GIMPSo, the work provoked some very interesting thoughts, but I still can’t recommend it above other works.  I still imagine that it will be pleasing to some of my dear readers.

C. S. Forester Has a New Fan

I just finished my first acquaintance with C. S. Forester in his short novel The Gun.  The story centers around and 18 pound siege gun in the Napolenic Wars in Spain, which several thousand Spanish guerrillas use to win a few victories against Napoleon’s army of occupation.  Overall, this novel tends toward precise realism and contains many exciting battles.  It’s only downside consists in it being devoid of interesting characters.  The figures peopling the novel tend more toward being types than unique persons.  As one person wrote, the cannon itself is the main hero of the story, and I, unlike Sir Walter Scott, have some difficulty in getting into inanimate objects.  (Though, as I write this, I remember thinking to myself as I read the manga Tactics Ogre today: “Wow!  These broadswords look awesome!  I’ve never seen a mangaka draw a Western sword so well!  I can’t wait to read more if only I can admire the weapons!”)

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Anyway, C. S. Forester’s extreme realism is impressive.  His descriptions of the armies arrayed in battle and precise knowledge of the various kinds of soldiers involved is absolutely impressive.  (E. g. voltiguers: “light infantry trained to be elite skirmishers.”  Never saw that term before!)  The uniforms themselves are given more physical description than the characters.  All the aspects of battle from troop movements, to wounds, to the kinds of shot used in the cannon are detailed by the hand of an avid military enthusiast.

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If any moral to be derived from this story, it lies in power corrupting and pride leading to falls.  In particular, el Bilbanito, the first guerrilla to possess the gun, gains a big head over having not any old piece of artillery, but a siege gun!  He later instigates a duel which he loses, having expected fully to win it.  What could be more prideful than to start a duel expecting to win it?  Especially when the opponent also has some courage and skill and God controls the outcome of such battles?

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Other falls from power follow in this story as power leads to insufferable acts of tyranny.  Forester describes a tyrant with great finesse.  It is interesting to see how Forester describes the various kinds of command and how they bring victory or defeat.  Most of the battles end with neither mercy nor quarter given.  Amusingly, there is even a Franciscan priest who dispatches French soldiers after performing last rights!  (Though, Forester does not appear to be completely anti-clergy.  Another cleric, a village priest, gains a rather warm description, despite his vanity of trying to seem smarter than he is.  I identified pretty well with that character!)   I believe that the 18 year old General Jorge and a certain Dutch officer give the best examples of heroism in this work.

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Overall, this is perhaps the best introduction to C. S. Forester, especially considering its short length.  The only shortcoming, the lack of characterization, is probably not as bad in his other novels.  After all, they concentrate on British officers, with whom the author must identify better–especially since he was able to make the British naval officers, in the mere 8 pages they appeared, more interesting than any of the other characters in the work.  Now, the next step for me seems to be the Horatio Hornblower novels.

santsimatrinidad

 

Conan the Barbarian, Light Reading, and the Wholesomeness of Myth

You know, dear readers, meditating on my past few articles has caused me to realize just how ponderously they were written.  How long back was my last attempt at humor?  (I promise to read and comment on five posts of whoever is able to find that out.)  In order to attain the proper mood, I have stuck a pipe in my mouth and positioned myself under an automatic light which periodically requires me to walk eight paces forward in order to reactivate.  The hope being that the uniqueness of my position causes humor to infect my pen.

By 1redgirl1 of deviant art

By 1redgirl1 of deviant art

(Now to take a short break to retrieve a forgotten and essential pipe cleaner.  Alright, having been delivered of the sensation of sucking the bottom of an empty glass with a straw, let the subject matter commence!)

tolkien-pipe

Anyway, reading Conan the Cimmerian brought home to me how ponderous my present reading list is.  Take a gander at these works: Cicero’s De Inventione, a book on the War of 1812, the British officer Frederick Mackenzie’s diary of the Revolutionary War, Anton Chekhov’s major plays (you know how those went from this article), E. D. Hirsch’s work on why America’s schools are failing, and An Honest President by H. Paul Jeffers.  Only the last, a biography on Grover Cleveland, may be considered light in any degree.

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Oh, this is a political cartoon of Grover Cleveland. Not a picture of Conan the Barbarian.

A certain repressed part of my mind seemed to click as I read through the adventures of Conan the Barbarian.  Who would not be stirred by reading tales of him rescuing a maiden from Neanderthals, chasing a women clothed in sheer gossamer upon snowy vasts, being captured by a voluptuous pirate queen, and being madly embraced by her after a mating dance?  Pardon me.  This list of adventures might give the impression that any stirring in me was of a localized and prosaic kind.  Let me rather point out him adventuring for treasure, slaying eldritch monsters, prowess in battle, journeying through fantastic lands, and narrowly escaping treachery.

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I had once opined that language seemed more geared to narrative than academic purposes.  I might even say that the full richness of language expresses itself more fully in myth than in even the best tales of 19th century realists.  Myth affects the psyche on the level of beauty more than goodness and truth; though, a good myth will obviously also contain the latter ideas.  In the Conan stories, one is particularly struck by the detailed depictions of the countryside, the uniqueness of the scenarios, the atavistic mindsets of the characters, and the curious utility or opulence of the apparel.  Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, employs a particularly rich vocabulary to convey all of this.  Forcing even a highly literary man like me to look up at least one word per page.  (That’s not bragging if it’s true, right?)

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So, burdening one’s mind with only works of academic rigor or factual events cannot but have a negative effect.  The mind needs to indulge in the beautiful and fantastic.  As Dostoyevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world.”   It also saves the mind from stultification.  (That’s a real word, right?  Yes!  My dictionary confirms it and that my usage is perfect.)

Well, my pipe is done, and it’s time to step back into my nice, air conditioned house.  Good night to you all!

Anton Chekhov and Suicide

A while back, I took out a Signet Classic edition of the major plays of Anton Chekhov.  Having read the first two in the collection, Ivanov and The Sea Gull, these plays surprised me *EPIC SPOILER WARNING FOR THOSE WHO CARE* by both ending with a suicide.  In each play we have someone suffering from melancholy, who decides to end his own life with the pull of a trigger.  The first, Ivanov, loses his love for his wife, love for living, finds himself gravely in debt, can’t stand being home, suffers the loss of his wife to consumption, and is about to be married to a young lady who has taken pity on him–who at the same time is unsure whether or not she loves him or can make him happy.

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In the second, Trepelev, the twenty-five year old son of a famous actress, writes unconventional plays with an Eastern feel, i.e. they rely upon imagery rather than intellectual motifs–as we might find in a Noh play.  (They also have a shockingly Manichean flavor, as his first play calls the devil the father of matter.)  Anyway, his sole happiness is in his love for Nina, an actress, which brightens his impoverished and useless existence: his mother, despite having 70,000 rubles in the bank, cries at the thought of lending him anything with the result that Trepelev hardly leaves the house and gads about in a threadbare coat.  Trepelev furthermore feels down on himself because society frowns upon his literary style.  This coupled with Nina leaving him for a more famous writer led to his first suicide attempt.  Then, Nina returns two years later to Trepelev after having an affair and a child with the other writer before he tires of her.  Unfortunately, Trepelev’s assertion that he still loves her and has been waiting for her falls on deaf ears.  This destroys Trepelev’s last hope and leads to a successful reattempt on his life.  (The moral of the story is not to place one’s hopes on an actress, a profession which at one time was esteemed only slightly higher than a prostitute’s.)  By the way, the former play is described as a drama and the latter as a comedy!

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But, these two characters had striking similarities in personality to myself.  Presently, I find myself quite broke, sometimes cannot stand staying in the house, and my existence tilts toward the useless side.  Also, despite my earnest striving, the world and the people in it have felt distant and unlovable–as if there were an unscalable wall between us–and an insufferable egotism afflicted me, as if my mind were some kind of prison impeding my soul’s freedom.  Thanks be to God that these latter two symptoms are mostly gone!

There's something rather curious about this picture of St. Jerome wearing glasses.

There’s something rather curious about this picture of St. Jerome wearing glasses.

Yet, why did I not pull a trigger?  Or even ever seriously consider it?  One could take a rather banal explanation that I believe suicide to be a mortal sin unless preceded by extreme mental stress or extreme fear of physical suffering.  It would not feel comfortable arriving before the judgment seat of Our Lord and Master saying, “Well, I calculated that my stress was such as to make this action a rather serious venial sin than something worthy of hell  So, please just give me some time in purgatory.”  But, I do suppose that my relationship to God is what would prevent any serious consideration of suicide.  After all, I have shown God far too much ingratitude and would like to do at least something in return for His great blessings.  Of course, I can never adequately pay God back for all His blessings, but I would at least like to do so super-abundantly–which sounds absurd and can only be possible through the grace of God.

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Three other thoughts would also come in the way: 1) I deserve what’s coming to me either because of my sins or personal faults and mistakes; 2) God both lowers us into the dust and raises us up; and 3) God foresaw all this suffering from the beginning.  Therefore, all I need to do is progress as best as I can in full or as full as possible knowledge of my sins and weaknesses, hoping in God’s mercy.  The only outcome for one who perseveres is to be brought out of one’s misery either by one’s appointed death or that joy in living will be found again.  In either case, “Blessed are those who weep, for they shall know joy.”

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Yet, I think that neither of the protagonists of the plays were able to continue living because they had removed God from the picture.  The Sea Gull says this very plainly in the case of an old man named Sorin who is looking toward the grave, whom a friend claims is not religious; therefore making fear of death merely animal fear.  In the case of the suicides, they also seem to remove other people from the picture and have an unhealthy concentration on themselves.  People were meant to be happy in community–not isolation!  Even the hermits of early Christianity knew this as they read Scripture, prayed to God and the saints, offered sacrifices and prayers for poor sinners, and rejoiced to serve the rare visitor or traveler.

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As a matter of fact, The Sea Gull‘s happiest character happens to be a poor school master named Medvedenko burdened with serving his younger siblings and aged mother.  After he married Masha, Trepelev’s sister, he in addition must care for their newborn child.  Though, it does seem that Masha now wishes not to have married Medvedenko or to be a mother.  The folly of people!  When one is surrounded by people who have made themselves unhappy through selfishness, why not imitate Medvedenko, whose only riches are the people in his life?

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Egotism kills, especially if exacerbated by preoccupation with one’s faults.  This was the case especially with the eponymous hero of Ivanov.  Indeed, he has many faults: he’s in debt, doesn’t love his wife, is irritable, can’t stay a night at home, has lost all his dreams, and is obsessed with his failures.  But, why torture oneself with all these things?  He’s a man, not an angel!  When grieving over one’s faults leads to self-torture rather than a change of life, it is time to stop grieving for a little!  Over how much does man have control?  Before her death, Ivanov should have tried to hang out with his wife, curbed his spending little by little, and tried a few new lucrative projects!  But, when one has done everything one can, there’s nothing else to do but look with hope at a crucifix.

Well, this has been a rather reflective and meandering article, but may it have been of benefit or amusement to my dear readers!

Attack on Titan and Claymore according to Max Scheler pt.2

Here’s the conclusion to the post of two days ago:

The mistake Attack on Titan made was to introduce tragedy before we had ample time to get to know the three main heroes, creating few places for identification due to the hopelessness and harshness of the world in which they lived, and shortly into the series introduced plenty of characters to ensure that we could never truly get to know the protagonists or any of the other characters either. Concerning the former, the very first episode gives us a few places to try to identify with the three main characters: they help one of their number against some bullies and two have a nice family. However, the very situation of being in a walled town surrounded by man-eating giants with technology similar to the Renaissance period of Europe demands that more than this is given to the audience for identification to take place.

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A couple of other things which don’t help is that one protagonist, Eren, wishes to join an elite combat unit designed to kill giants beyond the walls and that his adopted sister wishes simply to follow him wherever he goes. Not many children in modern society are driven to join an elite combat unit designed for what is essentially a Reconquista at the age of fifteen! Also, in modern society, most women don’t set the goal for themselves of meekly following in their brother’s footsteps. Then, any hope of us identifying with them as a family unit is destroyed by a giant killing the protagonists’ mother and the break up of the family following the giants breaking into the walled city.

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An additional charge against this world is that the people are too cruel and cowardice too rampant. The cowardice among military personnel reaches heights never seen in history or present times—at least, among the European nations from where we base our understanding of the medieval world or America, the country with which yours truly identifies most closely. Even if their opponents are giants, military men cringing in fear and running away from the combat for which they were trained sharply differs from the conduct of soldiers from all eras. Furthermore, the majority of the people are shown to be greedy, selfish, and generally sheep to be slaughtered. This kind of attitude dehumanizes people, who are made in the image and likeness of God, because we see a universal lack of virtue by which human beings show their excellence.

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Of course people have faults, but they are less than they should be in this regard. The total lack of virtue makes them less than human, taking away another level of identification. At least in Claymore, we have soldiers in the Holy City who are universally more ready to die than back down before the monsters laying waste to their city. Going back to Attack on Titan, we are greeted to an episode showing how the heroine’s family was killed by slave traders when she was very young so that they might capture the heroine for the child slave trade. Eren, also very young at this point, was forced to rescue her by killing two of the three slavers. The heroine killed the third to save Eren’s life. Most people, due to the extreme horror with which child sex slavery inspires, cannot really identify with a world where people make a living according to this trade. Even though it really exists on this earth, nothing quite so demonstrates the dictum that evil is a deficiency of being rather than a positive existence. Also, children generally do not kill at this age, and this marks yet another difficulty in bringing people to identify with the characters.

Mikasa, my favorite character from this series.

Mikasa, my favorite character from this series.

Claymore‘s technology is less than that of Attack on Titan, also involves monster slaying, tends toward the dramatic, and proffers characters who are essentially superheroes; yet, they succeed in making the audience identify better both with the heroes and villains than Attack on Titan. Claymore almost appears to be a study in identification. The first episode features Raki, a young orphan, meeting Claire, one of the aforementioned superheroes known as Claymores due to the long blades they wield, in a backwater town. Everyone is scared of Claymores, but Raki appears drawn to Claire and accompanies her through his town asking questions. This is all meanwhile the villagers hide in their homes scared of both the monster concealed in the village and the Claymore sent to save them from it! This reminds one of the first principle of love which Scheler describes: “In the spiritual love of the person, a new principle comes to light. For apart from his acceptance of the mere existence of the other person as given…’Persons’ cannot be intuitively understood (by reproduction of their spiritual acts), unless they spontaneously disclose themselves.”1 Claire has a bit of difficulty opening up, since she’s used to being shunned by everyone except other Claymores. Raki seems to have more in common with Claire than the other villagers: his very courage is such that the sight of his family having been just massacred by the monster does not deter him from trying to strike the monster, and he continues struggling against it until Claire comes to save him. Once Claire leaves, the villagers toss Raki out of town, fearing that he might by way of infection become a monster himself!

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Despite this ostracism and the grim nature of the second episode, where Claire must kill a friend who has succumbed to the monster side of hers (It turns out that Claymores gain their powers by grafting the monsters’ flesh into their bodies, giving them a dark side which eventually overcomes them.), the high level of tragedy does not deflect the viewers’ feelings permanently down the road of benevolence. The reason for this is the conversation that goes on between Raki and Claire, whereby they learn new things about each other and come to realize how similar they are. In spite of Claire’s cold exterior, we also see the beginnings of a romantic relationship between the two—more fully realized in the comic than in the anime. By this constant self-revelation, we are drawn to move from the level of identification through all the levels of sympathy until love for the characters is ultimately reached. Therefore, we do not look upon their grimmest hardships with an attitude of mere good will but our emotions become truly entangled in theirs, and the greater the struggle, the more the audience desires to see the victory.

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So, I hope by the juxtaposition of why Claymore succeeded while Attack on Titan failed shows the necessity of love for good drama, especially over an extended period of time. For such love to be reached, the writer must follow the ideas Max Scheler described in order to bring the audience through the lower levels of sympathy to love. If cogent identification cannot be established between the audience and the characters, then the audience can never fall in love with the heroes. Without this love binding the two, the audience would probably rather be in the mood to ask the writer to no longer place his characters in the midst of horrendous suffering than eagerly hope for their triumph.

1p. 101.

Attack on Titan and Claymore according to Max Scheler Pt. 1

I have a professor who doesn’t mind when I mix anime and philosophy.  I wrote this prior post on Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal for his class.  This particular post relies on a Schelerian reading of Attack on Titan and Claymore.  Max Scheler’s ideas about the importance of how levels of sympathy build upon one another will be discussed below in two posts.  Enjoy!

The Five Levels of Sympathy and Drama

Max Scheler adamantly insists that levels of sympathy build upon one another and that the higher cannot exist without the lower. Similarly, the best drama relies on the viewers truly loving the main characters and being engaged in all their experiences. Therefore, many dramas contain a modern setting, which allows for easy identification: the characters live in the same environment and have the same experiences we do. On the other hand, when an author wishes to place a drama in a different time, he must pay particular attention to the realm of identification so that the audience can be more easily brought up to the higher realms of sympathy and desire to feel and experience what the characters do. To show this, I propose to juxtapose two animated series: Claymore and Attack on Titan. The first succeeds in creating an atmosphere for the audience to identify with the characters, while the later fails.

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First off, we ought to note that both Claymore and Attack on Titan are fantasies. Most of the time, fantasies are stories of adventure meant to transport our minds from our humdrum existence and provide a bit of fun. Very rarely will one come across a fantasy which describes a serious plot and even more rarely will one come across a tragic plot. Attack on Titan decided to do the later and also in the monster slaying genre— very rare choice for drama. Indeed, the only other serious monster-slaying show which comes to mind is Claymore, but I would not place it at the level of a tragedy—no matter how grim the story becomes.

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Max Scheler writes in his chapter describing the dependency of the levels of sympathy upon one another: “It seems to me that identification underlies vicarious feeling in the (timeless) order of functional dependence…”1 Therefore, one must identify with characters before one can begin to imagine what the characters must feel like, i.e. the vicarious state of sympathy. But, fantasy itself places many hindrances on the audience identifying with the characters, especially the nearer the setting approximates the medieval world: the technology is well beneath what we are used to, the political system differs, death more frequent, the scope of medieval people’s worlds is much smaller, their lives much harsher, religion more ubiquitous, etc. Many times, anachronism is employed to try to make the characters more modern. For example, the characters in The Lord of the Rings smoke pipes, and a knight offers his pupil a cigarette in the short story The Fifty-First Dragon. But, primarily, identification between moderns and medievals must occur on universal human experiences: family, romance, friendship, parties, and the whole host of events which humans experience in every age. The protagonist ought to have a love interest, good friends, some family troubles, and personal foibles. If the author cannot establish good identification between the audience and the characters, he had better realize that he ought eschew drama in order to write a story which relies on the audience reaching the vicarious level of sympathy, such as a fun, entertaining monster slaying show. The audience can then escape into fun daydreams about slaying dragons and ogres without being troubled by a serious storyline.

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And so, when we are introduced to characters at the beginning of a story, we seek out the ones with whom we naturally identify. From here, we generally grow in liking or disliking them according to what they further divulge about themselves through word and deed. Max Scheler writes this about the subject: “If a man is to achieve his full realization of his ideal capacities, his various emotional powers must all be cultivated…There can be no full development of the higher, though necessarily rarer, emotional powers in man, where the lower but more common ones have not been fully cultivated.”2 In the same way that one cannot achieve the higher states in oneself without utilizing the lower, one cannot love another person without having moved from identification, vicarious feeling, fellow-feeling, and benevolence toward them.

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Interestingly, suffering may become a barrier to truly loving someone if the other emotional states have not been cultivated prior to suffering. For example, one felt sorry for the people of Japan when they were hit by the earthquake and tsunami, which motivated many people to donate money to them as an act of benevolence. But, how many people would wish to become further involved in helping these people? For that to occur, there must be an active love already established between oneself and the Japanese people. The saying about one laughing with the world and weeping alone applies here. Many wish to share in one’s good qualities and good company, but few wish to share in the sufferings one undergoes. The only people who wish to share in these pains are those who have known one for a long time and do all they can to deliver one out of one’s sufferings. This lies in the fact that the previous and more personal levels of sympathy have all been established prior to this point.

1Scheler, Max. The Nature of Sympathy. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2009: 98.

2pp. 103-104

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The next part will delve into how these two shows succeeded or failed in bringing the viewer to the highest level of sympathy: love.  Part II will be posted on Tuesday.

Feeding Frenzy at the Book Sale

Hello, dear readers!  I’m sorry that I haven’t been posting as regularly as I used to on this website.  So, I promise a few more serious articles in the future.  At the moment, there’s a book sale going on at the Eastern Branch Public Library in Shrewsbury, New Jersey.  They shall be running this book sale until the end of this week.  After reading what I deemed a sufficient amount of Plato and a book on the Hellenistic Age, I went down to browse the books here.  On the way in, a sign saying “one dollar per bag” intrigued me.  When I asked the cashier to explain precisely what this meant, she replied that all the books I could fill in a rather large bag would cost one dollar.  In a most abrupt manner, I snatched a bag and began perusing the books.  It began with a volume of Wordsworth’s poetry and ended like this:

IMG_0562Well, three of those books I got for other people.  My sister dreams of going to Switzerland and has an interest in designs of all sorts.  Therefore, that book on how to design gardens and the one on Switzerland were for her.  Then, the picture book on Bl. Pope John Paul II was given to my grandmother.  The rest intrigued me in one way or another, and one day I intend to read them.

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The books on Tokyo, Japan, and Ireland I got for myself, thinking that one could at least walk about the streets of Akihabara, admire the cherry trees of Kyoto, and be seated in a classic Dublin pub vicariously–even if yours truly finds it doubtful that such a trip can be made any time soon.  Though, a good friend of mine also dreams of going to Japan, and it might be possible to pool together enough money in a few years.

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Some of these other books demonstrate my eclectic tastes.  I’ve always wanted to read Theodore Dreiser, if only to see why his books have been added to the list of perennials.  So, you can see Sister Carrie in the second picture.  I also love histories of war.  People show their true colors when placed in such stressful circumstances.  As Joshua Chamberlain said: “War makes good men great and bad men worse.”  So, I have a history of an American Civil War battle, WWII in the Pacific Theater, the Roman Civil War toward the end of the Republican period, and Theodore Roosevelt’s account of his actions in the Spanish-American War.  Also, I couldn’t resist adding Walter Lord’s account of the sinking of the Titanic to my collection, A Night to Remember.  I’ve also read his history of Midway.

The rest of the items on the table reflect my tastes in literature.  I’ve always loved Dryden’s wit and want to read more of him.  I picked up the Dorothy Sayers work because I want to give her another chance.  I found her writing style a bit pretentious and overly judgmental in the first work of hers I read.  If I don’t like it, I’m sure I can find someone else who will.

So, has anyone else gone on a book shopping spree lately?

De Admiratione vel De Stupore?

Since I wished to write an article on the necessary virtue of wonder, I thought to be Classical in the choice of my title by using Latin.  To my chagrin, the two Latin words Casull’s Latin Dictionary offered for wonder either go too far (stupor) or fall short (admiratio).  What else am I to do?  I suppose that I could have searched for an Ancient Greek word, since Greek has such philosophical and literal accuracy; but, Greek has never been my strong suit and Latin is much preferred.  So, I am left with two words which might be legitimately translated as admiration or stupefaction rather than wonder.

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The quotation on which my cogitation centered derives from Socrates: “A feeling of wonder is what marks the philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.”  To relate it back to my Latin title, it may indeed begin as admiratio but become stupor when one realizes the vast extent of knowledge which one shall never obtain–not even if one had five lifetimes!  A philosopher is one who loves knowledge, knows that he has very little, and continually searches for it.  In this way one is continually amazed by the new material coming into his mind.

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A certain professor of philosophy named Dr. Graham McAleer exemplified this quality for me this semester.  On one occasion, I corrected him when he said that St. Bonaventure must have written The Journey of the Mind to God long after St. Francis’ death since St. Bonaventure was the seventh General of the Order.  I responded that the distance separating them was not long at all because St. Francis gave St. Bonaventure his name when that person was born  (I think that the original story is slightly different–but, that’s what I said, and it was St. Francis who gave St. Bonaventure that name), predicting a happy life for St. Bonaventure, whose name means “Good Journey.”  To this Dr. McAleer’s eyes widened in amazement.  His astonishment was such that it frightened me!  Here was someone who taught Bonaventure and philosophy for such a long time and he could still experience amazement concerning a short work whose pages he has made opaque with marginalia!  I cannot think of a more perfect example of a man with the quality of wonder.

In this picture, Charlemagne is commending the poor children who studied hard, while rebuking the sons of nobles who made poor progress in their studies through negligence.

In this picture, Charlemagne is commending the poor children who studied hard, while rebuking the sons of nobles who made poor progress in their studies through negligence.

The attitude of wonder leads to openness and humility, which has its opposite in pride, close-mindedness, and being domineering.  Many people pride themselves as thinking that they can control their own lives, that they know all they need to, and can put people into boxes to be manipulated or judged at will.  The last is particularly prevalent.  We know someone for a few months and believe that we know all their idiosyncrasies.  We expect them to act and react in certain way.  Rather, we should refrain from putting people in boxes–even when it seems tempting–so that we might continue to marvel at them.  This produces more charity and better relationships between people.  I wonder whether the cause of so many unhappy marriages is that spouses have placed one another in a box and lack interest in them, because they feel that they already know everything about their spouses.  And boredom equals disinterestedness, which ferments annoyance, which flames anger, which pours out divorce.

The father and mother of St. Therese of Lisieux, who happen to both be beatified!  By that, you can surely discern a happy marriage!

The father and mother of St. Therese of Lisieux, who happen to both be beatified! By that, you can surely discern a happy marriage!

But, perhaps the most common ways in which people box one another are in the realms of politics and religion.  How is it that knowing one or both of these things permits us to neatly package up another person and be done with them?  I suppose the most obvious answer is that these ways of thought have consequences in real life and people of these ideologies act in unison.  If Liberals are in power, gun laws are emplaced or guns taken away, abortion florishes, welfare programs increase, business taxes increase, government spending increases, less money is spent on the military, etc.  With Conservatives, the exact opposite occurs.  However, people are much more complex than the ideologies they belong to–and even the ideologies more complex than we imagine!  I doubt very few people are exact caricatures of the ideologies they serve.  This holds even more true in the realm of religion: the practices of religion and each person’s relationship with God vary so much because of the more personal nature of religion.  As St. Faustina said, people are worlds.  Don’t place people in boxes!

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I had a vision of this while reading Col. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington’s memoirs of his career in the Pacific theater during World War II, Baa Baa Black Sheep.  First, the man in general is difficult for me to understand.  Then, the people he meets are of the same class.  In particular, this passage when over my head, but will likely be understood by some of my dear readers:

                       Thought of seeing the ground crew, and the few of the staff who had waved farewell as we had taken off, came through my mind.  On most of them I had interpreted this wave to mean: “I hope you get back alive.”  I assumed that a few were thinking: “I hope you never get back.”  But to hell with them.  To hell with them all.

I would have understood this had he been referring to the second class of people, but I cannot understand his vexation with all of them.  This condemnation went well above my head.  No doubt, my acquaintance with Pappy Boyington will prove most fruitful.  May you all have someone rather translucent in your lives!  (I avoid saying opaque because–even though one can certainly marvel at a person one has no understanding of–one cannot really have a relationship with someone unless they understand at least a little about them.)

President Truman Presenting the Medal of Honor

We even go so far as to put our own selves in boxes: either we strive for something we’re not or we make ourselves less than we are.  This is all due to our controlling, know-it-all natures.  We ought to rather imitate Padre Pio, who said: “I am a mystery to myself.”  This does not contradict the dictum to know ourselves; but perhaps that our own efforts to understand ourselves ought to lead us to greater wonder concerning ourselves.  With this kind of openness, i.e. not trying to control our own lives but being open to where our gifts and talents lead us, God can take control of our lives and draw us to situations and places we would never have thought possible for us.

St. John of God led a particularly fascinating and varied life.  A great example of humility.

St. John of God led a particularly fascinating and varied life. A great example of humility.

So, do not judge, do not condemn, and forgive all offenses.  And remember St. Gregory of Nyssa’s famous advice: “Concepts create idols, only wonder understands.”