The Second Great Books Paper

(I wrote this a while back; I’m currently procrastinating on another paper and thought my fellow students might enjoy this.)

I either need to write, or go to sleep.

The hour’s late, tomorrow’s drawing near,

And yet I sit here, trapped in worries deep.

 

The hours fly, the seconds seem to creep.

Each thought now comes too slow, at price too dear.

I either need to write, or go to sleep.

 

Why can’t I work? I’ve deadlines I must keep!

The text is open and my prompt is clear,

And yet I sit here, trapped in worries deep.

 

My muse has left me. I’ve heard not a peep,

For she stays silent in the face of fear.

I either need to write, or go to sleep.

 

The lights are off, the screen is off. Not “Sleep,”

But “Shut Down” ’til the dawning sun will peer,

And yet I sit here, trapped in worries deep.

 

My messy shadows judge me from their heap.

(I promised this would be a better year.)

I either need to write, or go to sleep,

And yet I sit here, trapped in worries deep.

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On Cinema, Criticism, Common Sense, and the Good Message Fallacy

So. The Emoji Movie is upon us.

(If this is the first you’re hearing about this, then I’m sorry that I had to be the one to break the news to you.)

Perhaps thankfully for those of us who like to retain some faith in the general public, it started out with a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning (essentially) that not a single viewer thought this film was good. 

The Huffington Post was kind enough to aggregate the critics’ pithiest insults into one meta-review, from which I’ll select a few choice sentences:

And yet, as I’m writing this, The Emoji Movie sits at a (slightly) less abysmal 6%. So, what happened?

As this CNN article speculates, it might have something to do with Common Sense Media, which ranked The Emoji Movie as a 3 out of 5, and as you might have guessed from the title, I have a lot of issues with such a usually trustworthy parental resource giving this movie a 60%. (For context, that puts it in the same ratings category for this age group as Ramona and BeezusMegamind, and the 2015 remake of Cinderella.)

If you ask me, I think this extremely questionable decision comes largely from their criteria. I quote from their review: “There’s a bit of flirting, and two emoji characters kiss; there are also scenes that take place in a dive bar, where drinking is implied (and there’s a beer emoji character). Language is fairly mild but includes a purposely cut-off “oh, s–t,” as well as insults like “loser,” “shut up,” and so on… The story emphasizes the importance of being true to yourself, as well as the value of honesty and teamwork.”

In summary: According to Common Sense Media, the film is decently good, because it doesn’t contain anything that’s too particularly bad. To borrow an overused simile, it’s like saying my latest batch of brownies doesn’t have much chocolate or sugar, but they don’t have dog poop in them either, so they’ll do.

The concept behind this sort of criticism is what I’d like to call the Good Message Fallacy: the idea that because a work of art communicates something morally right, or at least avoids communicating something morally wrong, it must be promoted and supported. (I’m not even going to address that practically every kid’s movie these days is about being yourself, so the Good Message here is more the Easy Message.) The reason I call this a fallacy is because it fails to recognize that the ultimate purpose of art is not to communicate a message.

The purpose of art is to reflect beauty, full stop.

Now, because I’m a Christian (and a bit of a Platonist), I believe that all beauty is in some sense communicative, since it guides the soul to a greater understanding of God, the source of all beauty. This, however, is different from having an explicit message. Compare Tangled and Ratatouille: Both are beautifully animated Disney movies, and I would consider both to be art, but Ratatouille has an explicit theme of pursuing your passion even when it seems like the whole world is against you, while Tangled (as far as I can tell) seeks more to tell a story about dreams and true love without having something to communicate beyond itself.

To clarify, I believe both are fine; there is nothing wrong with an artist having a message they want their audience to get from their work, and there is similarly nothing wrong with an artist seeking to create something beautiful merely for its own sake, letting the art sort of speak for itself. The problem comes when we start conflating beauty and communication: a good message in an ugly thing does not make that thing artistic or something worth supporting, and a bad message in a beautiful thing, while tragic, does not negate the beauty.

So, why bring this up at all? Personally, I think that we in the Christian community are especially guilty of this when it comes to our art, and especially our movies. That’s not to say that other groups haven’t done it (the controversies over the all-female Ghostbusters and the American remake of Ghost in the Shell come to mind, as does the word “problematic”), but we lately have just resigned ourselves to mediocre positivity in order to support Christian creators and messages in the terrifying cesspool that is Hollywood.

Now, plenty of people have discussed the mediocrity of Christian cinema (my personal favorites if you’d like to look into this more are this video and this article from the Babylon Bee), so I won’t go down that particular logical route. (Suffice it to say that I think The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe provides a more accurate picture of Christianity than God’s Not Dead 2.) Instead, I’m going to argue that when we accept mediocre art, we make it profitable, and that hurts those who genuinely want to push the envelope. If all we buy are tickets to trite conversion stories, then what market is there for the fantasy film that features its own pantheon of gods but teaches that the greatest form of love is sacrificial? How can we touch on difficult and pertinent subjects if we’ll boycott a film when two men dance with each other?

Essentially, when we conflate art and its message, we force artists to prioritize theme over talent, when it should really be the other way around. As any student in an AP Literature class could tell you, it’s far easier to draw themes from a well-written story than it is to read a poorly-written one, even if the theme is obvious.

So next time you’re looking up whether or not you want to go see whatever Pureflix or Pixar has dreamed up for our viewing pleasure, please prioritize good art over a good message.

Forgiveness Replies

(Part 2 of 2. Part one is “Hate Speaks,” which I can’t link to at the moment.)

And knowing this, shall stubbornness hold sway?
Would you still drink the wine that’s vinegar?
Shall you, like water, take the easy way
And plummet ever further from the stars?
I fear that you are too weak to resist,
And Hatred’s fishhooked words have taken hold;
Yet I do speak. My words are Heaven-kissed,
Appraised at far more worth than purest gold.
I offer not revenge on all your foes,
I offer not an easy, broadened street;
Instead I offer tender-hearted woe,
And narrow ledges for unsteady feet.
O, side with me, though you’ll be hurt again:
To suffer love becomes the greatest men.

Hate Speaks

I am acid. I will burn you
As you choke me down in anger.
I am poison. I will spread out,
Slowly sapping all your straining.
I, the virus ever-changing,
Turn your thoughts all to my doings.
I grow strong in whitened knuckles,
Furrowed browlines, swallowed insults.
There I whisper, there I draw you
Into icy grasps at vengeance.
I will promise you all power
If you only will submit:
Close your eyes to tears of others,
Stop your ears from funeral mourning,
Fill your mouth with harsh invectives,
Clutch your fists still ever-tighter,
Coat your heart in iron armor,
See a soul as but a scrapyard.
Thus I turn you to my center
‘Til your eyes are kept from blinking,
‘Til your ears hear just your heartbeat,
‘Til your tongue sings just my praises,
‘Til your fingers make your palms bleed,
‘Til your love-starved heart lays dying,
‘Til your soul is non-existent.

A Sonnet for Commencement

Now comes the final challenge: strength, rejoice!
Don caps, and gowns, and cords as armory;
Hear now the crowd acclaim you with one voice,
Declaring here your lasting victory!
Step onward! Leave your footsteps’ legacy;
In love, give Alma Mater her “farewell.”
Stride forth on pathways we have yet to see,
Become the tales our lot is to tell!
Let cowardice not make this hour fell,
Nor cloyed nostalgia bitter futures sweet;
But let courageous joy ring like a bell,
As you- alumni!- walk on steady feet:
And know, though your path must go ever on,
As long as we remain, you are not gone.

On Risk and Reward

I have never been much of a gambler. When my family plays games that require taking chances, I am always the safe bet, the one who’d rather take a little with confidence than risk it all for more. I like my ducks in a row, my plans backed up, and my life surprise-free.

Maybe part of it’s my upbringing: I was raised by an alcoholic’s daughter and a chronic gambler’s grandson, who homeschooled me for half my life. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but the side effect was that I grew up in a very insular world, full of parents who decided they didn’t want their children to make the same mistakes they made in high school. I was told (and perhaps I took it too seriously) that I had to be careful with my heart, because once I gave it away, that was that, nothing to it. Staying “emotionally pure” was the goal; I distinctly remember being told that sharing prayer requests with a young man or asking him to keep you accountable was too intimate and could lead to one of you falling too far. Needless to say, I definitely didn’t go through any heartbreaks (unless you count watching someone walk away and wondering if you should have said anything).

Then again, it could just be my personality: I am a chronic worrier. My parents both drink in moderation and know their limits, but it never stopped me from concerns about drunk driving; my friends began to pursue relationships, and it never occurred to me that fretting about potential heartbreak wasn’t the right reaction; my classmates procrastinated, and I always got stressed on their behalf. I also just don’t like change, full stop. When I was five years old, my parents bought new canisters for coffee, flour, and sugar, replacing the old ones. The new ones were black, the old ones were white, and I cried for an hour. I’ve always liked constancy and routine and tradition, and avoiding risk is a remarkably good preservative, especially when all you can see in the alternative is absolute ruin.

At any rate, I have been extraordinarily risk-averse pretty much my entire life; heck, I’ve never even changed haircuts too drastically in case I didn’t like the results. But college has changed that; in stepping away from the culture I grew up in, I’ve had a chance to start thinking for myself (and it’s very scary and hard and I don’t always like it). It might, then, just be a logical extension of the transition away from childhood that I defied a lot of what I’d grown up believing, and took the biggest risk of my life pretty recently.

I don’t want to go into too many details, since this isn’t that sort of blog, but I will say it didn’t pay off. Here’s the important thing: it wasn’t that bad. I mean, it was awkward and weird, and things didn’t go the way I had hoped, but… I’m okay.

Lesson learned: rejection hurts less than wasted potential.

I guess you could say that it did pay off, just not in the way that I expected. After all, now that things have gone wrong, I know that I can take it. I’m not looking forward to some of the moving-on bits, but in the grand scheme of things, that’s not too much.

The strangest part is that I don’t feel all broken up about it. Instead, I feel more like a baby bird. This time I fell, but the next time I’ll go farther and higher, and one of these days, I’ll fly.

Meditations in a Small Anglican Parish

Who is this God I cannot see?
My trembling heart can answer naught
But longing, fearful, desperate, cries
For guidance: “truth shall set you free.”

I see Him in the glowing glass
As tiny babe who was foresought;
He sleeps, He wakes, He laughs, He cries-
Divine contained. How can this be?

I see Him on the crucifix
As Innocence in sinful blot;
The Savior, in his anguish, cries;
Through blood he makes the sinner free.

Who is this God I cannot see?
A Shepherd who, all pains forgot,
Will save the sheep who, bleating, cries,
And whisper, “Come and follow Me.”

Incurvatus in Se

(With apologies to this short story, which remains one of the most frightening things I’ve ever read.)

Falling foot took me from pathway.

Pathway changing, headed downward.

Downward, good, I like this choosing;

Choosing ever darker forests-

Forests which reach out and grab me-

Me and them now of the same part.

Part god, maybe? I cannot tell;

Tell me: have I reached my ending?

Ending nearing, now I’m all freed,

Freed from Godly observation,

Observation, foolish scruples,

Scruples- weren’t they a sin once?

Once I thought that sin had being.

Being now my definition,

Definition self-inflicted-

Inflicted: an odd word for rising,

Rising, yes, for I’m not falling.

A Major Declaration

(I know, I know. You will no doubt excuse the play on words. We college students have to laugh when we can.)

Being a young person, I have frequently been asked, “So, what do you plan to do?”

For the record, higher-level adults who actually ask this sort of question: I know this is something that’s easy to ask, small-talk wise; I’ve done it myself! But the thought of choosing, now, something that will define me for the rest of my life, is terrifying, so you’ll forgive my reluctance to answer. I mean, I’m only 19; how am I supposed to know what I should talk about at cocktail parties and family reunions?

Anyway, having been in search of an answer since I first realized this was a question I would someday have to answer, I watched my friends who knew what they were doing, and I saw something common: whatever they chose, whether acting or writing or physics, was what their heart beat for. They were sold out for it, they couldn’t imagine their life without it, they just sort of knew, and, more than that, they were willing to work to get it.

Well, quite unexpectedly, I found what my heart beats for (at least in part).

It’s philosophy.

You may now make whatever jokes you would like about being underemployed, underpayed, over-worked, over-educated, thinking too much, planning too little, et alia. No, really, go ahead; depending on how cynical and/or witty I feel like being, I might even join you. But, despite my ironic agreement, I can’t be mocked out of this. I just sort of know that this is what I should choose, in that deep, below-conscious-reason, knowing-beyond-knowing sort of way.

It’s strange, how quickly and yet how slowly these things happen. On the one hand, I’ve loved Plato since I first read him in the eighth grade (I was a very precocious child); on the other, I didn’t really realize that there was an academic field that let me look at the ideas behind history and literature until about six months ago. It feels like my whole life has led to this, but at the same time it feels completely unfamiliar. Fittingly, it seems to have come as a surprise mostly to me; none of my friends or family members have been shocked by my decision to continue studying the same writers I’ve been excited about for five years.

I am simultaneously so certain and so frightened: the act of not-choosing so many other goods, of closing that many doors to myself, is so many of my worst fears encapsulated, and yet I know that the end result will be enjoyable for me, and that this is worth it for its own sake.

At any rate, it’s out of my hands now. The card has been turned in; I shall pursue Lady Wisdom.

Wish me luck.

On Writing a Paper Far Too Close to the Deadline

Into tiny pieces breaking

Bigger concepts that I’m bringing

To the table, where the converse

Soon appears, brought by some other.

Brand new concept I’ll be stitching,

Lead to gold I will be turning.

 

Sparkling diamond in the turning,

False as glass and quickly breaking.

Cuts on arms will soon need stitching;

Thinker’s iodine they’re bringing,

As I search in pain for other

Topics- maybe try the converse?

 

Arguments don’t work for converse.

From that road I now am turning,

Looking for a path some other

Venturer had made in breaking.

Time the deadline soon is bringing,

Time to save nine: I am stitching.

 

Snippets of these quotes I’m stitching

Hide my lack of counter-converse-

Almost done? The dawn is bringing

New day. Edit! Quickly turning…

English grammar I’ve been breaking;

Time to rewrite- or else other

 

Work to do this morning. Other

Chores, like cleaning, laundry, stitching-

Shake off fear! My mind is breaking

As my roommate offers converse

Option: take a break? I’m turning…

Fine, but just for coffee-bringing.

 

Coffee energy is bringing

As I flit from one to other

Task. Efficient buzz in turning,

And subconsciously I’m stitching

Answers, theory, quip, and converse.

Soon enough the deadline’s breaking.

 

Though in bringing this, I’m breaking,

Turning from the box, I converse

With some other: “Easy stitching!”