Beha’s Arts & Entertainments, (re)visited.

In my previous post on Christopher Beha, I was excited to hear that he had a new novel out (Arts & Entertainments) but hadn’t yet read it. Having corrected the omission, I can confirm the novel’s affinity with some of Waugh’s earlier work. A Handful of Dust comes particularly to mind, concerned as both novels are with the pressures that tear down a dream of idyllic family happiness, including marital infidelity (though the infidelity in A&E is mainly fictional for the sake of the camera). Neither novel is entirely satire, since as the New York Times reviewer aptly pointed out, it’s all but impossible to satirize a culture that comes so completely pre-self-satirized as either the Bright Young Things or the Real Housewives. For A Handful of Dust, critic Gene Kellogg* suggests the term “apologue” rather than “satire” — in his use of the term, this is a story in which “the emotions aroused in the reader come not from sympathy for the characters but from assent to the statement made by the action.” This seems a fitting description for A&E as well; we’re meant to view its characters with a certain amount of detachment, not so much to feel deeply for their various absurd plights as to reflect on what the bare possibility of such plights means for our society. Yet sympathy for the characters is far from impossible here, either. Both Beha and Waugh succeed in humanizing a subculture that is often viewed as totally frivolous. The novels’ humor balances their darkness, and their awareness of that darkness keeps any frivolity from spiraling out of control.

More can and must be said, but I’ll leave the big themes to the big guns. The Millions review shouldn’t be missed, nor Beha’s own interview about the novel at Harper’s. Do note Beha’s remarks at the end about religion and realism, which resonate with the recent discussion amongst Elie, Wolfe, and Gioia about faith in fiction.

Attentive readers of the novel will also pick up on Beha’s sly, subtle yet thrilling shout-out to J.F. Powers in Moody’s late monologue, as Moody describes his transition from ex-seminarian to reality TV producer. We’ve already visited that “retreat house in Minnesota run by the Order of St. Clement” where Moody discovered his gift for getting people to reveal their inner lives on film. (The Clementines don’t exist; they were created by Powers for his novel Morte D’Urban, which itself wrestles with questions of appearance vs. reality, the ways in which personal integrity is compromised by striving for image, and to what degree the real self can truly survive its constant friction with the masks we present to others. Major, major intertextuality win here.)

 

* in his The Vital Tradition, which looks at the rise of the Catholic novel in France, England, and America over a period of roughly 200 years.

The Return of the Native

Dudleya pulverulenta, "Liveforever"

Dudleya pulverulenta, “Liveforever”

Sticky Monkey Flower, Fairy Lanterns, Chinese Houses. I’ve seen a few of these California wildflowers in the cool green hills above the Steven’s Creek reservoir. But there are other plants once native to San Jose that I haven’t seen yet: Pearly Everlasting, our native strawberry Fragaria californica, or the Liveforever, a ghostly succulent that likes to hang out on cliff faces.

California is green in the winter and gold in the summer. That always felt like the natural rhythm to me, felt like home. But I’ve learned that it’s a recent, drastic change: the hills used to boast living plants year-round. Only when Spanish cattle brought the seeds of European grasses did the bronze oaks acquire their pretty blond backdrop.

Metaphor of Grass in California

by Charles Martin

The seeds of certain grasses that once grew
Over the graves of those who fell at Troy
Were brought to California in the hooves
Of Spanish cattle. Trodden into the soil,

They liked it well enough to germinate,
Awakening into another scene
Of conquest: blade fell upon flashing blade
Until the native grasses fled the field,

And the native flowers bowed to their dominion.
Small clumps of them fought on as they retreated
Toward isolated ledges of serpentine,
Repellent to their conquerors. . . .
In defeat,
They were like men who see their city taken,
And think of grass–how soon it will conceal
All of the scattered bodies of the slain;
As such men fall, these fell, but silently.

The only thing sadder than the defeat of the native grasses is the defeat of the native peoples, which this poem mourns without ever mentioning it directly, as if so much death is unsayable.  I fear that I may be trivializing it by bringing it up in a post that is basically about gardening, but when we garden with native plants, we are attempting to restore something that has been lost.  I can’t go back in time and undo tragedy, but I do have control over the barren backyard of the house I’m renting.  California is kind to foreign species, as long as you can water them–the long-fallow soil of my backyard has sent up geysers of green in the form of basil and tomatoes–but we all know that water here is running short.  Native plants don’t need to be watered in summer because they’ve survived here for ages without it.  In fact, a lot of these plants will die if you fertilize them and overwater them.  They are ascetics who are ruined by luxury.  For me, the lazy gardener, what could be better?

Low-water gardens, or xeriscapes, are becoming more popular now as Californians realize that, while lawns are nice for muggy Virginia or verdant England, we can’t really afford to dump huge amounts of water on a plant we can’t even eat.  That reservoir I mentioned earlier is turning into a mud puddle.  I see a lot of lavender in yards these days, and New Zealand flax and other plants from Mediterranean climates around the world, but not so many Californian species.  Ceanothus, yes, our western answer to lilac, a gamine in faded blue jeans to its perfumed Southern belle.  And manzanita, which forms blunt, dusty hedges down road medians everywhere.  What about pink-flowering currant, though?  Or California fuschia?  So many choices–and yet, a comforting restriction of choice.  I guess my interest in gardening with these plants follows my love of meter and rhyme in poetry: freedom within rules.  I don’t know where to start when faced with every plant in the nursery, or every word in the dictionary.

And yet, I am not a purist.  As much as I wish I could see the wild California of old, I am also nostalgic for Silicon Valley’s orchard days.  Neat, cultivated rows of apricot and plum and almond, blossoming from hill to hill–a man-made landscape, no question.  And how could I wish our famous vineyards out of existence?

So I’ve planted a Meyer lemon and an apricot in my sunny front yard, and I am scheming to make the backyard a colorful oasis of native plants..  An Island Tree Mallow is already multiplying its fuzzy leaves, and hopefully it will grow as high as the fence.  Island Mountain Mahogany and native currants will fill in the rest of the fence, and the shade of our one large tree will become mysterious with California bush anemone, ferns, and coral bells.  I want the ink-blue flowers and bracing scent of Cleveland sage, the “wiry heathpacks” of California buckwheat, and the rusty, desert sunset pink of yarrow.  I want to see bugs, birds and butterflies feasting on berries and nectar.  I want a garden that couldn’t grow anywhere else. dudleya_beargrass

If Christians Were Like Edwin Edwards

EdwinEdwardsI’ve been driving around town seeing signs that say “Edwards – Congress” and smiling. In spite of myself, I cannot help admiring Edwin Edwards. Not morally or ethically, mind you. The former four-term governor of Louisiana was released from federal prison in 2011 after serving a ten-year sentence for racketeering, conspiracy, and extortion. (What else did we expect from a man who once ran on the slogan, “Vote for the Crook, It’s Important”?) He was eighty-three when he got out, and any sane person would have retired on his more-than-modest means to live out his days in peace, but no. Instead, Fast Eddie immediately married a thirty-two year old, fathered a child, and got his own reality TV show. Now he’s running for congress in my district.

I find myself wondering what the world might be like if we Christians lived the Gospel with the same kind of tireless, unapologetic gumption.

Humans of Tanglewood

We have come here to hear Beethoven. Listening to music has become a private affair in recent years, but there is little that is private here. Blankets and lawn chairs crowd the space beneath the trees, and toddlers run freely through the grass. Teenagers trip awkwardly over reclining older couples, and their embarrassed parents abruptly fold up their seats and disappear. Grandfathers dance slowly and mysteriously across the lawn and settle quietly next to their children’s children, still moving in time with the music. Picnic lunches are in progress. The Ninth Symphony calls us all to universal brotherhood.

Beethoven can make you feel that you’re outside no matter where you are, or make you want to be. It’s not really nature that he’s thinking of, perhaps; it’s some kind of ideal, but then so is this particular corner of the Berkshires. We’re all looking for Elysium, some kind of rose-strewn landscape with a canopy of stars, capitalizing our nouns and wondering if this is what it feels like to be drunk with fire.

It’s Not Medieval

What happened this summer?

That’s a question I’ve been asking myself over the past couple of months as crisis after crisis has broken out around the world, so many coming and in such quick succession that it’s almost impossible to remember everything one is supposed to be keeping up with. We’ve seen the continued atrocities of the Assad regime. The annexation of Crimea. The expansion of ISIS from Syria into Iraq. The Ebola crisis. Boko Haram and the kidnapped girls in Nigeria. The persecuted Christians in Mosul. The Yazidis.  Famine and war in South Sudan. Miriam Ibrahim. Russia’s continued aggression towards Ukraine and Putin’s nuclear rhetoric. Venezuela’s downward spiral. James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Libya. Egypt. The Gaza strip.

All this, and we haven’t even mentioned Afghanistan.

boromir

Through it all, I’ve noticed that the word “medieval” keeps coming up time and again when journalists report on these atrocities. Most often the word is used to describe ISIS, but not exclusively. “Medieval Cruelty in Modern Times” reads a popular article at The Daily Beast. “Liberal interventionists silent on ISIS’s medieval brutality,” reports Hot Air. “Ukraine unrest: No end in sight to ‘medieval’ protests,” says the BBC (this in reference to the protesters’ use of makeshift shields and catapults). Whatever the context, it’s always pretty clear what the word means: brutal, backward, cruel.

This isn’t the place to jump into a history lesson, so I’ll merely point out that catapults date back to at least a thousand years before the Medieval period. Also, as any medievalist will tell you, the terms Dark Age and Medieval period are not synonymous with each other. When we refer to something as “medieval,” we are rarely referring to the real Middle Ages, but rather to a vague popular sense of what we regard as the opposite of modern, slick, and enlightened.

“Medieval” is a very convenient term. What it really means is not us. This little word allows us to explain away the horrors modern man sees when he looks in the mirror. Beheadings, torture, murder, the deliberate targeting of innocents—in the popular imagination, these things are medieval, not modern.

What a perfect encapsulation of modern arrogance. What will it take for us to realize that this is our world? That the hooded thugs that murdered Foley and Sotloff speak with a modern British accent? That Putin’s empire-building is supported by the modern oil trade and funded largely by contemporary Europe? Let’s not blame the medievals for what we’re seeing in the news. These atrocities are the kind of thing we do. It’s not by chance you’re watching them on YouTube.

You’d have thought the 20th century would have been enough for us to know better.

What was the Holocaust and its industrial model of extermination? Modern.

The Gulag and Stalin’s purges? Modern.

Mao and the millions of deaths caused by his “Great Leap Forward”? Even the name sounds modern.

Or how about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and their extermination of around 20% of the Cambodian population? Modern modern modern.

But, of course, those are the bad guys. And they have foreign names. And they’re nazis or commies or something. And that’s not what modern means! Modern means freedom, damn it! And democracy. And the pursuit of happiness.

Better then to forget that we, the good guys, have been the only ones in history who have used atomic weapons—twice. Say what you want about the necessity of deliberately targeting a civilian population in order to avoid the hypothetically larger casualties of a prolonged war. Personally, I find that reasoning disturbingly utilitarian, but I can see its appeal. That makes no difference here. Even if it acquits Truman and America, it is all the more damning to the modern world—it makes modernity the kind of world where the good guys find it necessary to turn civilian populations into radioactive ash.

Sure, Medieval civilization was very far from perfect. But given our own baggage, do we really want to go there? Instead, next time you hear the word “medieval,” I challenge you to think of universities, toll roads, clocks, punctuation (that’s right!), or the printing press—all Medieval inventions. When you visit Europe and are dazzled by the beauty of so many of its cities, think “medieval,” for even when the buildings you are looking at may not have been built in that time (though then again, they may have), it was the medieval period that formed Europe as such. Or how about this: next time you ponder the benefits of democracy, think medieval. Influenced by the Enlightenment writers’ narrative of history, our minds immediately jump back to Athens or republican Rome, but the truth is that we have no historical connection to those systems. Present-day democracies arose out of the Middle Ages, as burghers began gaining the right to autonomous administration from feudal lords who wanted to profit from the tax revenue the trade of such towns could provide. To a significant extent, we have those horrible, backward medievals to thank for the right to vote.

And maybe next time news of an atrocity flashes across your screen—as no doubt sadly it will—we may just consider describing it as modern.

Мультики!*

*pronounced “mooltiki,” meaning “cartoons.”

SOMEBODY rejoice with me

Somebody PLEASE rejoice with me

My roommates recently discovered my ignorance of classic Soviet cartoon shorts (their faces contorting into various expressions of “Whaaaaaa………how can this be?!?!?”) and took to remedying my dire situation with a vengeance. And so began an impromptu film festival of all the glorious childhood gems from ye olde USSR (or, as the locals call it, the CCCP) including my newest acquaintances: Cheburashka, the Hedgehog and…Winnie the Pooh?

That’s right: had Stalin survived yet another decade he would’ve been treated to the many adventures of Pooh-Bear, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl and Rabbit (no Tigger, unfortunately), which, quite possibly, could have melted even that heart of Slavic stone. Alas. But at least we can enjoy them ourselves – though approaching them with an open mind is a must, for this ain’t no Disney:

Винни-Пух (Vinni-Pukh, or, “Winnie-the-Pooh [and the Honey Tree]”
(You’ll have to click the “Subtitles/CC” button to get the excellent English translation)

 

Винни-Пух Идёт в Гости (Vinni-Pukh Idyot v Gosti, or, Winnie-the-Pooh Goes Visiting)
(Subtitles are Automatic)

 

Винни-Пух и День Забор (Vinni-Pukh i Den Zabor, or, “Winnie-the-Pooh’s Busy Day PART ONE”
(Subtitles are Automatic)

 

Винни-Пух и День Забор (Vinni-Pukh i Den Zabor, or, “Winnie-the-Pooh’s Busy Day PART TWO”)
(Subtitles are Automatic)

 

One of the most iconic characters in Russian animation is a little critter named Cheburashka, who stars in his own small series of short films from the 60’s-80’s along with his friend Gena the Crocodile:

Чебурашка и Гена Крокодил (Cheburashka and Gena Crocodile)
(Subtitles need to be activated)

 

Another classic is “Hedgehog in the Fog,” which won a couple of those “Best Animated Short of All Time” prizes worldwide, as well as being a personal favourite of filmmakers such as Michel Gondry and Hayao Miyazaki:

Ёжик в тумане (Yozhik v Tumane, or “Hedgehog in the Fog”)
(Subtitles are Automatic)

And there you are – instant film festival!

Though for the more ambitious, the longer “Аленький Цветочек” (The Scarlet Flower) is absolutely stunning. And so I take my leave with some of the most elegant animation I have ever seen:

Аленький цветочек (Alenkiy Tsvetochek, or “The Scarlet Flower”)
(Subtitles must be activated)

Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.

Degrees of Cool Part I (or, “red in tooth and claw”)

Some of my favourite critics from recent years are Roger Ebert and Harold Bloom – not because I’ve always agreed with where they ended up (or how they got there) so much as for their wizardry. Taking any movie or book they could spin out marvellous reflections about the bigger issues of life – regardless of whether it was a footnote to Samuel Johnson’s two-hundred-year-old biography or Spider-Man 2. It’s a big part of why I’ve come to love writing reviews.

It happens pretty often that, as I start writing an essay, my mind drifts to a book I’ve read or a new song that embodies some of the questions/struggles I’m trying to put to paper – then, boom, it’s shanghai’d the entire piece and I have to market it as a review. Writing stuff here has been no exception – but the first few (deep, down) things I’ve posted here, interestingly enough, also ended up followed a pattern that (at first) wasn’t intentional at all.

The first piece was about a wonderful poem called “The Antenna,” which is a beautiful reflection written by an Anglican minister about the human capacity to hear God’s voice – also engaged with is the subsequent interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company (normally known for eschewing genuinely controversial topics in the name of extreme political correctness). Next came Noah, a dark, brooding film about the eponymous patriarch directed by a man more known for art films/psycho-sexual thrillers about ballet dancers than biblical epics. And, finally, Vampire Weekend’s unfortunately-named “Modern Vampires of the City,” which starts with an average trendy-postmodern-vs.-The-Almighty vibe before breaking down into incredibly tender, heartbreaking moments not just of sympathy with God, but of sorrow over His solitude and abandonment by those who claim to love Him.

What’s one thing they all have in common? They explore some of the dicier territory when it comes to faith, doubt and the search for truth.

What else? Each one of them’s been ridiculously successful in their fields. “The Antenna” won the Montreal International Poetry Prize – the biggest cashpot for a single poem in the world. “Noah” made mega-cash at the box office without alienating either mainstream audiences or the faith community. “Modern Vampires of the City” was hailed as the best album of 2013 by a handful of critics and made the top-ten list of other dozens. All of a sudden, it seems, honest discussions of faith aren’t happening in some dark, oppressive Boston alley anymore. They’re even a tad, dare I say it, edgy.

But wait, hold on a sec. When did religion start getting……..cool again? How did that happen?

buddy_christ

Yo.

Humour me for a moment with a tangent. In a recent issue of The Paris Review, the director Werner Herzog (who, in addition to being one of the most important directors of the past forty years, played a bit role in a bizarrely poignant movie portraying a bushplane pilot to a number of nuns who decide to engage in some miraculous, parachuteless skydiving) published some of his notes while directing Fitzcarraldo (I’ve never heard of it either), a movie from the 80’s shot entirely in the jungle. They’re about nature, mostly. It’s a terrifying read:

 

“The voices in the jungle are silent; nothing is stirring, and a languid, immobile anger hovers over everything.”

“A still day, sultry. inactivity piled on inactivity, clouds staring down from the sky, pregnant with rain; fever reigns; insects taking on massive proportions. The jungle is obscene. everything about it is sinful, for which reason the sin does not stand out as sin.”

“Our little monkey was wailing in his cage, and when I approached, he looked and wailed right through me to some distant spot outside where his little heart hoped to find an echo. I let him out, but he went back into his cage, and now he is continuing to wail there.”

“…in this setting, left unfinished and abandoned by God in wrath, the birds do not sing; they shriek in pain, and confused trees tangle with one another like battling titans, from horizon to horizon, in a steaming creation still being formed.”

“Fog-panting and exhausted they stand in this unreal world, in unreal misery—and I, like a stanza in a poem written in an unknown foreign tongue, am shaken to the core.”

 

Contrast this with any of the Romantic poets from the late 1700’s and you’ll get quite a different impression of the natural world: “Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher” or “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.”* Pretty much night and day. Okay, and so what? Why does it matter?

Because people didn’t always feel that way about Mama Nature. Nowadays you don’t need to look very far to see the influence of the Romantics: sensitive freshman walk around with copies of Walden, weekend holidays in the woods are marketed as retreats from the spiritual desert of the city, and a little over half of the people you’ll meet in any decent hostel can probably quote most of Into the Wild.**

If you take a look at books and documents from more than a two hundred years ago, though, you’ll find a second narrative in play: nature as enemy. Read any of the accounts of various settlers and colonialists and there’ll be a plethora of references to nature being the opponent, a source of death/disease/danger, a constant threat to children and new human life – as the force, basically, which must be fought if you want to survive. Think Victorian African adventure stories. Think the Wild West. Think Antarctican expeditions.

And so why was there such a big change in the way we could appreciate nature? Because it was tamed.

bvt40

bvt4m

The Romantic poets in the English tradition wrote their stuff in response to mass industrialization – read: for one of the first times in history, the majority of the people were leaving their farms and moving to the urban centers. Factories, rather than forests, dominated the skyline. Advances were made in constructing/outfitting rural outposts for the sake of industry. Basically, a lot of people started not having to scrape their living from the land and so nature receded as Public Enemy Number One – interestingly enough, a lot of the literature of the following years started to suggest the city as the one to be struggled against. The Romantic poets were a big example of this movement, but you don’t need to stop there – just think of the urban dangers in Dickens’ London, for example.

From that point on, nature largely appeared in pop-consciousness as a place of refuge from the corrupting elements of the city, a place of spiritual solace rather than toil and extreme loss. Why? Partially, I think, because people ultimately had cozy warm homes to get back to – they could experience the positive elements of the natural world without facing the same consequences their ancestors had to deal with. They could put it in a figurative little box and visit it when they needed a bit of refreshment, a kinda break from it all.

Basically, people could appreciate nature when it stopped being such a threat to their daily existence, their status quo. Herzog’s notes shook me because they’re a reminder that the jungle is no Hallmark card, regardless of what Disney’s The Jungle Book or Tarzan would have us believe. “Red in tooth and claw,” Tennyson called it.

Where things start getting sticker is when the same process of cultural rehabilitation starts happening with people. Another example: think of the popular image of the First Nations and Aboriginal peoples in North America – in the past they were cast as villains in the stories of White European settlers, as the enemies of progress and the terror of poor, defenseless settlers just trying to get by without getting scalped. Movies like Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves and even Avatar could only be made years after the “threat” had been eradicated.

When a culture is at war with another culture, our ability to assess each other with objectivity, compassion or nuance kinda goes out the window:

'Destroy_this_mad_brute'_WWI_propaganda_poster_(US_version)

japan

Cold-War-Ads-How-Communism-Works

So where is this all going? Well, I’m wondering if maybe religion is currently able to be tentatively approached by the pop-culture machine because now, as compared to before, it isn’t perceived as such a challenge to the status quo anymore.

But as the real life of cooking, cleaning and prepping for classes is calling me, tune in to the upcoming Part II for more shots in the dark of why this is, why it’s significant and what it might for the creation of spiritual art in today’s world.

*

*these are both quotes from Wordsworth, but you don’t need to read very far to find some similar sentiments from Coleridge, Blake, Byron or the Shelleys.

**which is a fantasticly well-made film, even if it takes liberties with the true story of its protagonist. But one can only handle the cult of Christopher McCandless for so long before one’s patience runs its course.

 

Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.

“How Can They Meet Us Face To Face Till We Have Faces?”

A few months ago, I was boring my friend to tears, telling him how I’d read my children Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader on a six-hour car ride. Saving me from my own encomium, he interrupted with a bold claim: “Narnia is great, but Till We Have Faces is C.S. Lewis’s best work, hands down!” Surely, he couldn’t be serious. Admitting I’d never read it, I promised soon to disprove him. Well, whether providence or the gods, or dumb luck were to blame, on the very next day my habitual stroll past the “discarded/free books” table at my University’s library brought me face-to-face with a ratty old codex, the cover worn beyond legibility and entirely torn from the book’s corpus. This book, literally, refused to be judged by its cover. You’ll have already guessed its title—I soon discovered its identity as C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. Not one to tempt the Lord, I vowed then and there to read it post haste.

Two pages in, I knew I wasn’t in Narnia anymore. Based on a myth found in the Latin novel Metamorphoses, this retelling gives the story of an irascible King’s three daughters: the eldest is a Frump-asaurus Rex; the middle a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model; and the third a beauty so innocent and profound she is taken for a goddess by the townsfolk.C.S. Lewis takes the title of his reworked mythical novel from a question asked by the heroine (or villain?) near the book’s climax. The oldest daughter (Orual), cursed with an irredeemably ugly countenance, having suffered the loss of her sister (Psyche) at the hands of the gods, wishes more than anything to render publicly her charge against the gods. She claims the gods are guilty of stealing the greatest of human loves (namely her own love for Psyche). Still worse, the gods expect belief and obedience while refusing adequate positive evidence for that belief. Orual finally gets her chance in a vision wherein she journeys to a mountain containing the presence of the dead and those who would hear and answer her case against the gods. She blames the gods for not more directly (and sooner) revealing themselves and Psyche’s enchanted castle. Had they done so, Orual would not have lost Psyche to lifelong exilic wanderings. At the moment of her chance before the judgment seat, however, before the dead and the gods, she asks: “how can we meet them face to face till we have faces?” I think it is the central question Lewis’s masterful retelling. In the hopes of sparking some late summer reading and some interesting debate, allow me hazard an answer to Orual’s query.

The question is baffling in part because its terms are opaque. Who are they? What does “faces” mean? On the face of it (I couldn’t resist the pun), “they” are the gods, and “faces” cannot mean simply the anatomical face. It must mean the capacity or means to intentionally project one’s identity. Such a reading makes sense of the various uses of “face” in the text. Being a blog post, this composition excludes my making a complete case. Begging your charity, therefore, I will highlight a couple poignant moments in the effort to inspire your own reading of Lewis’s masterpiece. First, Orual (the eldest, ugly daughter) decides, upon becoming Queen, to wear always her veil. This decision to efface herself amounts to the construction of a new identity. She becomes “the faceless one.” She is the one who sees all faces, all emotions and thoughts born out on them, yet refuses to reveal her own. Her effort to remain faceless behind the veil, however, is betrayed one night when she must attempt to walk through town unrecognized. Her disguise of choice, however, is none other than her own countenance. In leaving the veil behind, she discovers that the blank, expressionless, one-way mirror of her veil had become her true face. Hers was the power to withhold the mystery of her identity; hers was the power to see and not be seen, to behold yet be unbeheld, to know while remaining unknown.

The beauty and irony of this discovery is its corollary—that Orual has been grasping at being everything she so hated about the gods; namely, their unwillingness to reveal freely their “faces.” Their local goddess (Ungit), whom she viscerally hates, is none other than a faceless monolith in a dark temple. Ultimately, she can take on any face her worshippers desire, any angle of her multifaceted surface becomes its own face for the one coming to sprinkle blood on her stoney skin. Furthermore, Orual cannot decide whether her sister Psyche is delusional when claiming she has been wed to “the god of the mountain,” who built her an invisible castle and visits her nightly but commands her never to gaze upon his countenance. Unable to believe this fantasy, Orual compels her sister to steal a glance at her lover by lamplight. As a consequence of this “enlightenment,” Psyche is cast into the darkness of a life of wandering exile. Demanding to see the god’s face, she is cast from the sight of all the living. At the moment of Psyche’s exile, this “god of the mountain” blasts Orual with the full glory of his own “face,” the beauty and brilliance of which burns a blackened imprint on her soul.

With these reflections I’ve barely scratched the surface of Lewis’s grand myth retold. I hope you bring yourself face-to-face with this novel over the next month. Let’s plumb the depths of Lewis’s imagination together!

Why We Should Watch and Vote for The Cosmopolitans

cosmopolitans

American Men are easily pushed around by women. They love sad stories.

The Very Pretty American Girl believes that she is the girlfriend of a French writer, only to be kicked out as soon as he leaves to travel and sublets his apartment to someone else. But at least the upstairs closet he moves her into to wait for his return has a sink. This is Aubrey. Or is it Audrey? No, it is Aubrey. “Isn’t that a boy’s name?” she is asked. “Sometimes.” She is from the South, where people “have roots.”

Jimmy The Hopeless Romantic spends a lot of time watching and listening. He considers any and all suggestions.

The Gold Coat Girl is a pretty blond. She considers our protagonists to be losers, from “Albuquerque” or somewhere like that. These are not the sort of men one travels to Paris to meet. So, does she date only Parisian men? Never.

The Cliché Ex-Pat has dated and been dumped by a French girl well over 15 times but he is easily identified the moment he sets foot in a café. One need only ask to speak to the American.

Fritz is “kind of scary” but turns out actually to be flighty and quite pleasant.

The Heartbreaker is at every party surrounded by beautiful girls. The Heartbreaker looks back and whispers to his companion as our protagonists murmur amongst themselves about his glamour, “See those guys? They are everywhere. Always with very pretty girls.” Aubrey doesn’t know it, but he considers her superb.

The Italiano has a bad reputation and invites drug dealers to Fritz’s party. He is not well regarded in Paris.

The Angel is taken to be a beautiful blonde Frenchwoman who, when asked in French where she is from, replies “Vancouver.” The naïve reply, “Ah, Vancouver, France?”

Who are the people underneath all the clever labels? What does it mean to be an urbane citizen of the world? These are the questions that director Whit Stillman would have us ponder in his new television show, The Cosmopolitans. The pilot is now streaming exclusively at Amazon for our consideration. If we like it well enough and make our preference known, the show will be picked up for more episodes.

The Cosmopolitans at first glance appears to be merely a show about upper class glitterati going to fancy parties and making witty conversation. Indeed, there is a veneer of whimsicality to the show, as with all of Stillman’s work to date. However, this is the whimsicality of The Great Gatsby, a frantic attempt to find the meaning of life, friendship, and happiness. It is amusing, but it is no lark.

Questions of identity pervade the story from start to finish. “I have visions of many things…” hums the opening song from the mostly-Motown soundtrack. The song appears later and reminds Hans The Cliché Ex-Pat of his lost love. To the same tune, Aubrey wanders the streets alone until randomly finding herself at a café as Hans and Jimmy encounter the Gold Coat Girl, Vicky:

“You haven’t gone back to…”

“no no no we live here, we’re Parisians!”

“You’re…Parisians?”

Living in Paris is difficult because when everyone leaves in the summer, a loneliness sets in that is akin to teenage angst, a loneliness that leaves a person with no distractions to avoid confronting the meaning and purpose of their lives. Hans explains that it is “The feeling of being hallowed out, a void inside that will never be filled.” How do you get out of a lonely patch? “They say all you need is one friend.” Are any of these people true friends? Or is it merely a fling? On a late Saturday night, a coy smile spreads across Aubrey’s face on the cab ride home from a party. Perhaps this is the beginning of something grand…

But only if we watch and vote!

Watch and take the survey here

 

Random lines of dialogue I found amusing:

“When you have a serious breakup it helps to put the Atlantic Ocean between you.” “What about the Pacific?” “I don’t know. I haven’t tried it.”

“Have you ever thought about getting a rabbit?” “No, but I will.”

“In Hal’s defense, the first 15 breakups or so were because he wasn’t as close as she wanted him to be.”

“I’ve been here 6 months.” “Oh, so you’re not Parisian. That takes time.”

“He breaks hearts? That’s terrible.” “It really just means Playboy.” “That’s not good either.”

”I couldn’t just plunge into some decadent affair.” “It doesn’t have to be decadent. You could go hiking.”

Bonus Whit Stillman from his movie Last Days of Disco!!!

Prizes, Prizes Everywhere!

Last year, Dappled Things debuted the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction. It was a tremendous success, drawing about 400 entries from which a winner and nine honorable mentions were selected by a panel of independent judges. (If you have not yet read the winning story, Where Moth and Rust by Kristin Luehr, you should.)

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Jacques Maritain

Building on last year’s success, we are holding the fiction prize again and introducing a nonfiction equivalent, the Jacques Maritain Prize for Nonfiction. Maritain was an influential 20th century Thomist philosopher and Catholic convert whose work covered a wide range of topics, including metaphysics and epistemology, ethics and politics, and—significantly for us—literature and art. His book Art and Scholasticism has been a major influence in Dappled Things‘ own approach to aesthetics. This year the prize will be judged by James Matthew Wilson, who is author of The Violent and the Fallen, Some Permanent Things, and The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry, among other books, as well as a literature professor at Villanova University. Here’s what you need to know if you are interested in making a submission to either prize:

What are the prize amounts?

For the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction, the prizes are as follows:

1st place: $500

2nd place: $250

8 honorable mentions: publication in the journal and a one-year subscription.

 

For the Jacques Maritain Prize for Nonfiction, the prizes are:

1st place: $500

2nd place: $300

3rd place: $200

What is the deadline for the fiction prize?

You can submit your story until November 28, 2014.

What is the deadline for the nonfiction prize?

Since all nonfiction submissions will be eligible for the prize (the winner will be selected from among all the essays published in Dappled Things during a given year), then submissions for the prize are accepted year-round. To participate in the current prize, your piece should appear at the latest in the Mary, Queen of Angels 2015 edition, which means you would have to make a submission by June 2015. The issues could all be filled before then, however, so don’t delay. We publish about two to three essays per issue, and all published essays will be finalists for the prize. The earlier you submit, the likelier the chances your essay will appear among a given year’s finalists.

What kind of submissions are you looking for?

For the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction, please review the submission guidelines by clicking here. If you have a story to submit that doesn’t fit those guidelines, please consider making a submission under the general fiction category.

With regards to the Jacques Maritain Prize for Nonfiction, we are not limiting submissions to a particular theme (this being in keeping with Maritain’s own broad interests), other than what would fit within the context of a Catholic cultural and literary journal. In other words, please follow our nonfiction submission guidelines and look at the nonfiction pieces that appear in our previous issues. Book reviews and interviews are not eligible for the prize, but all other forms of nonfiction are.

When will winners be announced?

Winners of the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction will be announced in February 2015. Winners of the Jacques Maritain Prize for Nonfiction will be announced in December 2015 (with the finalists being announced as each issue is published, starting with the Christmas 2014 edition).

Is there a reading fee?

No. However, given the costs imposed on us by the huge number of entries last year, we are instituting a nominal $2 processing fee for the fiction prize to help us run it as efficiently as possible. Think of it as the equivalent of paying for postage if submissions were being accepted through the mail . There will be no processing fee for the nonfiction prize this year.

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Make your submissions soon! Further information will be posted on the Contests page as well as Submittable. We look forward to reading your entries during the coming year.