30 June, 2010

Robin Hood?

I saw this movie a month or so ago when just coming off final exams for the Spring semester. It was one of the worst movies I've seen (other than the heinous romance novel turned film-played-for-obvious-teenage-girl-squealing-moments called Twilight). The reasons for my hearty dislike of it are manifold. There's the shoddiness of the storyline, predictability of script, lack of chemistry between Cate Blanchett and Russell Crowe, and the worst of all, gross historical inaccuracy. I wouldn't even mention any of this, however, since it's my general rule to not talk about movies here. Yet I was just catching up over at The Daily Kraken, and found this gem that says much of what I wanted to say--or rather, shout to the general population of Irving, TX as we drove back to campus-- about the disastrous historical errors that made the movie so much more heinous than it already was.

"Scott’s eye for history is what sees this movie maintain that Magna Carta was drafted by some non-entity stonemason who was summarily executed for his troubles; that Richard the Lionhearted died years earlier than he actually died, while doing something he never did, for reasons that were ridiculous, as a result of events that conspicuously never happened; that the same Richard spoke English like a native, rather than scarcely at all; that speaking French was unusual or uncommon in England at the time, and a sign of dirty doings afoot; that Philip II himself could speak English well, let alone fluently; that Philip II was a sinister brooding figure rather than an immensely popular reformer; that Philip II secretly invaded England rather than only taking English holdings in what is now France; and so on and so on."

Well said.

Of course if you really wanted to write a full critique (not the intention of this quote) you could complain for a bit about the complete lack of understanding of the Middle Ages anywhere in American society except in a few dusty old back corners of the history departments of a few Ivy League schools who have shamefacedly preserved a few relics of the days when liberal arts actually meant something...

But I do that enough in real life.

27 June, 2010

Terry Eagleton and Wuthering Heights

I'm currently reading Terry Eagleton's book "The English Novel," which is really quite a good read, despite the fact that he's a Marxist critic, and I entered it a bit suspicious of his likely ideological bias. That exists, it certainly does, and I find rather skews his vision of what a novel is (is it really only a social instrument"? I disagree, at any rate), but whenever he delves down into criticism of/commentary on specific novels, he's quite perceptive. The key to this seems to be a certain intellectual honesty, by which Eagleton may heartily disagree with, say, Jane Austen's overall worldview, and certainly finds much problematic in the claim that any sort of absolute truth can be located by human society (it can't, that's why we have the Church, my friends, and that's what will always be missed as long as people insist upon considering the Church a purely social institution...), but he's willing to take the authors' ideas as they are. Thus you have here a genuinely remarkable admission that, yes, Jane Austen is a moral figure on the model of Aristotle and Homer, looking at a person's proper role in society as the context in which they live a moral life.

I'll take one example which has been rather on my mind of late. Wuthering Heights. He gives a remarkably "conservative" interpretation of this novel. Refreshingly, given how often that book has been distorted by readings that see it as little more than a sordid romance novel (think Stephanie Meyer and Twilight). Fairly obviously, even though I read it years and years ago, it is in part a serious critique of the Byronic hero, showing how uncontrolled "naturalness" in Heathcliff results in a grotesquely unnatural character who is willing to act atrociously to every person around him, using them more blatantly than the entire utilitarian society which he tries to escape. In short, Heathcliff is not a romantic hero. He's an antihero, and his romance with Catherine is a wild, egotistical fall into passion that is simply a hiatus in his general project of manipulating the society he loathes in order to gain revenge on basically everyone who's ever offended him. I do think Emily Bronte is more of a moralist here than Eagleton seems to give her credit for being, but he does a very excellent job of bringing out the contradictions inherent in Heathcliff's and Catherine's alternate acceptance of, then rejection of society--in both cases they are really using it as an objective standard to measure themselves against. Heathcliff, from what I can remember, pretty much defines himself in terms of his antagonism towards society, but in doing so, he's implicitly accepting the demands it makes on him as real...you can only "throw off" real constraints.

Now Eagleton more or less concludes claiming that the problem is that society exists in anything like a form that makes objective demands on its members. Or that's more or less the claim holding up most of the book. You can understand immediately why a Marxist would have a problem with that. Or really why any modern liberal would: human freedom has become the paramount value in their perspective. Any external force that influences behavior is an illegitimate invasion of human freedom--a capital crime.

I disagree with him here. The thing he misses--or rather, doesn't really miss, but is unwilling to admit--is that there may be some objective standard outside the purely human sphere of action, that human society, for all it's internal insecurity and propensity for error, may ideally be based on. And thus I see Bronte's suspicion of radical breaks with this society in terms of the ideal Jane Austen puts forward and can't bring myself to disagree with her all that much. What Eagleton has a problem with is that this ideal is rarely--one may even say never--really met. My question is...because an ideal is constantly unachieved, does that make it illegitimate in itself?

I've far too little time now to present a defense of that my actual position, or even to try to explain it more clearly, but the question should make things clear enough. Far too much to say, and work summons.

11 June, 2010

"An Ecclesial Existence"

I was delighted to find that Hans Urs Von Balthasar had written on Bernanos when I was searching Amazon for books related to my thesis topic.It was one of those innocuous-looking Ignatius Press "Communio"-line books. Usually you order them and they're tiny things, practically pamphlets (I admit, most of my experience in this line is Pieper, so my word is hardly authoritative). Given my associations with this publishing line, and the fact that I hardly expected a renowned theologian to be devoting a tome to my author-of-choice (who is so greatly undervalued in a world that often associates angst and angst alone with great literature), I was surprised to receive a 600+ pager in the mail a few days after ordering it.

Needless to say, I have not finished this book yet. Within the first hundred pages, however, it is (as one might hope) pretty clear the sort of approach Balthasar is taking. He's far too interested in--one might even say, enchanted by--Bernanos the man to veer off into abstractions about him as some archetype of the Christian writer. Yet somehow he does manage to consider him primarily as an archetype of the Christian writer while avoiding all sense that he's merely abstracting from the man. Sounds a bit paradoxical, but there it is. Balthasar takes Bernanos' life and his ideas, and uses them to present a picture of what the ideal of the Christian author is both in Bernanos' eyes and in Balthasar's own, and then in showing this slips in a hint or two that Bernanos' life, not merely his ideas, supports this ideal.

That's not to say that the book is a hagiography. Part of the respect Balthasar pays this writer is that of recognizing his faults, of pointing them out rather keenly--he never takes him as something superhuman, preferring to show openly Bernanos' failures, but always presenting them as they may be most charitably understood. And in this charitable understanding, one realizes that even these failures often contribute to Bernanos' overall mission. The sensitivity and vehemence of his personality, though his struggles against these never actually overcame them, manage to inform and give vitality to his desire to communicate the drama of God's relationship with man to a world he saw as almost bereft of the proper disposition towards its Creator. A world that is far from God, but never without hope, because the power of grace--Bernanos' most firm conviction, in Balthasar's mind--can do with it precisely what it can do with Bernanos' own failures: redeem them by making them a part of the work which it is only half consciously yearning to join.

The writer's job is not, then, some hallowed vocation above all other vocations, but rather a hallowed vocation like all other lay vocations: the writer's goal is to bring the world to the consciousness of its desires. And if he succeeds in so doing--as Aristotle, Aquinas, Bernanos and Balthasar would all agree--he will simply be bringing it to an awareness of its final end; as a Catholic would say, to an awareness that all its desires can be satisfied only in responding to God and His plan of grace for the world.

02 June, 2010

Bernanos on Jeanne d'Arc

St. Joan of Arc is probably one of my all-time favorite people, as may have come out at various points in the past on this blog. So when I discovered that the French author on whom I'll almost certainly be writing my thesis was not only married to one of the only living descendants of that saint's brother, but also was likewise fascinated by her character and by her sudden and still (to my mind) almost inexplicably mysterious appearance in history (I can't stop to explain now: just think for a minute, if you consider Catholic saints anything real--God getting involved in politics? But that can't be the explanation...why was she there, and what precisely was she doing?), well, given this, I was happy indeed. In fact, one of the first quotes of his I've come across in my preliminary scouring of the internet for all thing related to Georges Bernanos is from an essay of his about her. (An essay, which, I'm sorry to say, is almost impossible to find: the best I could scout out was a version which I could order from France for 20 euros and a ludicrous shipping charge.) Here's said quote:

"Just when the old man raises a finger to set a thousand typist in action, just when the peace of the world is about to emerge from all this machinery, in comes a young girl, mocking and tender, who belongs to no one, and whose soft voice answers the political theologians with old sayings and proverbs, after the manner of shepherds. The democratic abbes of the illustrious University of Paris, with their dream of some sort of universal republic; the distinguished pacifist prelates, dazzled by the dollar rate and impressed by the solidity of the good Burgundian coins; the Carmelite Eustache, making up to the Communist flayers of the Butchers' Corporation; the graduates of the Rue Clos-Bruneau; the clerics of the Rouen Chapter and those of the Chapter of M. Julie Benda - all these old men, many of them under thirty, look enviously at this little France who is so fresh, so mischievous, who is awfully afraid of being burnt, but still more afraid of telling a lie."