Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Return of Strange Platypus(es)

I was sitting in my office the other day in a rather downcast mood. With all the reading I had been doing lately, I’d amassed quite a list of duties that all seemed to jostle and push about for first place in my attentions. It ran something like this:

Read the Bible more
Pray more
Make sure to stay as active as possible in Church
Keep up on current world politics to be a good citizen
Follow current American political scene and develop positions on key issues
Continue research into global slavery and consumer products
Make more time for spiritual disciplines such as silence and fasting
Give Kreeft’s Catholic arguments in “Ecumenical Jihad” a fair hearing
Increase exercise and modify diet to deal with stomach trouble
Keep up on “hard” reading to stay sharp

Of course the list could have gone on longer, and my main feeling after I’d set it down was embarrassment at how short it was. Surely, I had no right to feel in the least perplexed or overwhelmed. After all, these things were just part of life in the modern world. “To whom much I given, much more will be demanded.” Somehow, this seemed only to increase my sense of guilt, and I was on the point of adding more to my list when the sudden smell of tobacco filled the room. I checked the window; it was closed. I was on the point of checking the others in the house when a stentorian voice boomed behind me: “I say, we’re right behind you, old boy.” I turned around and wondered if the new meds the doctor had put me on had strong side effects. Leaning against the far wall was a rather disheveled looking man of about middle age with black hair and a bald head. In my blue chair was another, rather leaner than the first, with hair that was sandy-blond.

Me: What the crap?

Lewis: There’s no need for vulgarity.

Tolkien: You know, Jack, I don’t think he believes in us. Rather unfair, don’t you think, considering we’re practically his patron saints.

Lewis: let’s keep this ecumenical, Ronald.

Tolkien: Have it your way, Jack.

Me: Ok. Ok. Am I dead?

Lewis: Most certainly not; though not alive as we are. Still, that can’t be helped.

Tolkien: At least not yet, at any rate.

Me: So, if I’m not dead, what are you two doing here?

Lewis: Excellent question. Let me turn it around. What are you doing here?

Me: Um, typing.

Lewis: No, no, that won’t do at all.

Me: Am I imagining this?

Lewis: Perhaps.

Me: So none of this is real.

Lewis: Why do you think that something occurring in the imagination isn’t real?

Me: That sounds like J.K. Rowling.

Tolkien: I can’t abide those books.

Lewis: They’re tolerably good.

Tolkien: That won’t do Jack. You know as well as I that they don’t follow the proper cannons of sub-creation.

Lewis: To be fair, I don’t think you always followed them yourself.

Tolkien: Really?

Lewis: That bit about the talking eagles?

Tolkien: Who says giant eagles can’t talk?

Me: Wow. As cool as this is, can we get back to the question of why you two are here?

Lewis: Quite, quite. It seems you have a problem of organization.

Me: Tell me about it.

Lewis: I can’t, it’s your problem.

Me: That was funny. Seriously, though, how am I supposed to get all these things done?

Lewis: Take your list, get out a calendar and a day planner and begin organizing. Is that really your question?

Me: Well, no. I know I’ve been working on all this stuff already, but it’s leaving me utterly exhausted.

Lewis: It sounds as though you’ve forgotten what our Lord said to Martha.

Me: Yeah, but it’s pretty hard to be Mary and get everything done.

Lewis: That’s because you’ve got it all the wrong way. You might say that you are putting the cart before the horse. There is no evidence is scripture that Mary’s contemplation of our Lord kept her from the active life. On the contrary, it seems to have given her the proper object for her efforts and from that object, Christ, flowed the energy to follow Him.

Me: Energy?

Lewis: Yes. Our Lord calls himself the vine and calls us his branches. You know enough gardening to know what happens when a branch is cut off.

Me: It withers.

Lewis: Correct. And why?

Me: Because it’s cut off from the water and nutrients brought up by the roots. So I need to read my Bible and pray more?

Lewis: No! That’s precisely the wrong way to look at it. You need to connect yourself to Christ. The sacred scriptures and prayer are a means to that end, not the end in itself. As is church attendance and even the receiving of the Blessed Sacrament. We don’t receive it to find favor with God, we receive it because there Christ vere latitat. They are means of getting the Christ life into us; brining us to Christ.

Me: So once I connect with Christ, then I’ll have energy to do the rest?

Lewis: We aren’t promised help with our own to-do lists, but grace to do what God commands: to take up our cross and follow him! Remember, that the Lord has prepared good works for us to do; we are not to go looking for our own. He is our captain, and we are to obey him. An officer obeys his superior, he doesn’t go to him with a checklist of things he’s done and then expect his superior to sign off on them. Remember your Milton!

Me: “He also serves who but stands and waits.”

Lewis: Good. Provided that when the orders come, he jumps to them.

Me: That’s great, but how do I do that.

Tolkien: You’re forgetting that he’s a Yank, Jack. Inaction doesn’t sit well with them. By the by, do I get a turn with him at some point, or are you still playing Socrates?

Lewis: How beastly of me! Jump right in, old man.

Tolkien: Finish your say first.

Lewis: Right then. Let’s take your prayer life. Have you remembered Christ there?

Me: Um, I ask for things in Jesus name?

Lewis: Be careful with that name. No, what I mean is, are you allowing Christ to supply you with the energy and guidance for that act?

Me: What do you mean?

Lewis: When you pray, you pray by means of Christ’s mediation. He is the one who makes your prayers acceptable to the Father. I think that’s what you American Evangelicals really mean when you tack “in Jesus’ name” on to all the ends of your prayers. Second, Christ is there in the room with you, helping you to know how to pray by means of the Holy Spirit. Are you being open to his guidance? Are you allowing him to teach you to pray?

Me: Isn’t that in one of your books.

Lewis: Why yes, forgive me for quoting myself, it’s a beastly habit.

Tolkien: I’d like to interject here if I may?

Lewis: Go right ahead.

Tolkien: Thank you. While we’re on the topic of what you two called “connecting with Christ,” I have to ask you about the Eucharist.

Me: Well, I’m not a Catholic.

Tolkien: No one’s perfect.

Me: Well what would you say if I was a Catholic?

Tolkien: If you were, I would say to you that it is the most efficient means of grace given us. Don’t ever neglect it. In fact, the more you struggle, the more often you ought to receive it; every day if possible. Remember what our Lord said, that his body is real food and his blood real drink. If you eat poorly, then you will get fat in the stomach. If you eat proper food, then you will be healthy. The more we rely only on the food that God has given us, the more strength we will find to do the tasks set before us.

Me: I’m sure there’s someway I can Evangelicalize that…

Tolkien: Please don’t.

Me: Sorry. What you said reminds me a lot of the lembas in “Lord of the Rings.”

Tolkien: Heavens, not another allegorist! I have enough to do with Jack here.

Lewis: I don’t know, Tollers, your “Leaf by Niggle” was quite a pretty allegory.

Tolkien: So perhaps I don’t object to allegory wholly, I just believe it ought to be kept in its place. Before you interrupt me, Lewis, let me answer this fellow’s question. In answer to your question, yes, that is one applicable meaning of the lembas. That said, my question to you is, are you making use of all the means of grace available?

Lewis: Remember that Ronald had a family as well as an academic career. He knows far more about dealing with busyness than I.

Me: But I thought you had an adopted family?

Lewis: For a time, but you must remember that I could always stay in my rooms at the college if I needed to get work done. Which brings me to another point: what would your perfect day look like?

Me: Get up at about ten; shower and eat breakfast. Then work through till lunch. After lunch, devotions, then work again until eight or nine, and rest and relaxation with my wife or a few friends until around twelve. Bed at one or two?

Lewis: You sleep in far too late, but other than that, it has only one problem.

Me: It’s selfish, I know.

Lewis: Better watch out, Tollers, he’s read our works!

Tolkien: I know. I can see quite a few on the shelf over there. Dear me, these illustrations are ghastly.

Me: Don’t look at the DVD rack.

Tolkien: Aach! Those infernal movies. They might as well have let Disney get at it!

Lewis: They actually did a fair job with mine.

Tolkien: That wasn’t too hard.

Me: Could we get back to the point?

Tolkien: Sorry. Get on with it Jack, make your point.

Lewis: Yes, yes. So you know that it would be selfish. Have you ever considered, then, what God might be trying to do with all these interruptions, all these duties?
Me: Make me less selfish?

Lewis: In a word, yes, though you might amend selfish in this case to “self-focused.” Only by drawing us out of our shells, can Christ begin to fashion us into his likeness. Sometimes he woos us out by his beauty, other times he forces us out with a few kicks. Pain, after all, is God’s megaphone for speaking to a deaf world.

Tolkien: It’s a sort of purgatory if you like. We must all be taught through discipline to be less ourselves so that we can become more the selves that God intends us to be.

Me: But what abut my list?

Tolkien: Come on, Jack, I think you’ve beat his head around enough for one day.

Lewis: Think back about what we’ve said here, and I think it will answer your question.

At this point, Tolkien blew out a rather spectacular smoke ring and both men disappeared.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Platypus Biteth Not His Tale: The Platypus Reads Part XL

I've finally finished E.R. Eddison's epic fantasy "The Worm Ouroboros." I know of nothing comparable to it except "Dune" and "The Lord of the Rings." If you are a lover of epic and fantastic literature, you should read this book.

*Potential Mild Spoilers Ahead*

That said, let me move into a discussion of the work. The strength of "The Worm Ouroboros" lies primarily in its ability to enchant. The wealth of settings from bright halls to sorcerous chambers, ruined towers and woody bowers, edges of glaciers and fields of slaughter provide a rich set of backdrops that fire the imagination. Eddison also adopts a deliberately archaic style; a modified King James English. This, combined with the episodic and heroic style of the work, make the reader feel as if he is encountering something from Malory or Spenser. Heroic feats, shows of courtesy, and fierce combats abound. All this takes place in a stunningly constructed, though not perfectly, subcreated world. Lewis and Tolkien both gave "The Worm Ouroboros" their hard-earned praise on this count.

Having discussed the main strength of "The Worm Ouroboros," I will now turn to the weaknesses. The defects of the book are few, but make the work as a whole a grand and shimmering failure.

The first defect is that while all the characters are archetypal, the heroes, the lords of Demonland, never transcend their archetypes to become real. Lord Juss, Spitfire, and Goldry Bluzsco are so similar, in fact, as to be almost interchangeable. The Lord Brandoch Daha stands out among the heroic ensemble, but also never rises above the level of paste-board archetype. This might not be such a defect, except that the villains of the work, the Lords of Witchland, manifestly do become real and tangible characters. I must openly confess to liking them, horrible villains all, a great deal more than I like the heroes. The most touching moment of the work is when the Lords of Demonland wish to have their enemies returned from the dead so that they can have the joy of contending with them again. As the gods answer their prayers, they behold their enemies through a magic glass about their daily lives at castle Carce in scenes so lovingly drawn that I too wished to have them back again.

The first defect perhaps has its root in the second, that the worldview of the book is abominably Nietzschean. Tolkien was quick to spot this out and it seems to have formed the source of a quarrel between Eddison and Tolkien the one time that the authors met. The Lords of Demonland are supermen, incapable of defeat or resentment, but also incapable of any real human sentiment or striving. At no point during the work did I get any sense that, great as their tasks and trials might be, the outcome would be anything but an all-conquering victory for the demons. This might not have been a problem had the Demons displayed some real virtue or personality. Instead, they come off as nothing so much like a coterie of, two-dimensional, profligate, English aristocrats about town and seeking "a good time." By contrast, the Witches, as deplorable as their characters are, have real human emotions and struggles; in particular, and here I agree with Tolkien, the Lord Gro. Gro is easily the most compelling character in the work as his soaring intellect and feeble body make him utterly unfit for the heroic world in which he is forced to live. His suicidal death in battle rises to the level of Shakespearean tragedy. In the end, Eddison's "The Worm Ouroboros" demonstrates something that Nietzsche never quite caught on to: Supermen are boring, humans are interesting.

In the end, even these two mighty defects cannot completely overcome Eddison's achievement. As C.S. Lewis points out in his "Allegory of Love," their is no shame in soaring so high and failing. A monumental ruin is still grander than a well-built flat. However, with Tolkein, we may much enjoy visiting the ruin, but still prefer to live in the flat.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dr. Platypus (Not a Tetris Knock-Off)

After going back over my test results, it looks like I may have a stomach infection. So now I'm on antibiotics. If my symptoms don't clear up, we go into aggressive treatment and probably surgery (though my doctor says it's very rare to treat a hernia like the one I have with surgery).

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Platypus Posts WIP

I've decided to begin posting material from my new WIP on a blog I've created for that purpose. If you're interested in reading it and giving some feedback, let me know and I'll email you an invite.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Platypus Milestone

Just reached 25,000 words, or half the size of a nanowrmo novel. Slow and steady wins the race.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Platypus Writes

What do Charles Williams, George MacDonald, H.P. Lovecraft, Hellboy, and Edgar Allan Poe have in common?

Lots of things, but most importantly for this post would be that they are all influences on my latest WIP.

No vampires, thules, or undead Aryan fishmen this time. I promise!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Platypus Progressing: The Platypus Reads Part XXXIX

Summer reading rarely goes as planned, and that's the fun of it. Sure, there may be some things you have to read for work or school, but if you have any vacation time, or even if you're just on a day or weekend trip, there's always a place where a good book can be sneaked in. What book? Who cares, so long as it's good!

So, down the winding trails of this summer's reading.

In order to balance out the chunk of Heinlein I started out summer with, I picked up some GKC and CSL. Heretics and The Four Loves are both re-reads, but The Ball and the Cross and The Allegory of Love were both new. B+C was delightful, as Chesterton always is, and A of L was a real mental workout. I'm not a medievalist, but I've read a fair cross-section of the books Lewis is dealing with, and it was good to be able to start forging them into a coherent and linear picture of the development of the courtly love tradition.

After freshening my mind up, I plunged back into the world of 50s sci-fi with Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. That was a scattered and depressing book. Somehow I don't feel consoled by the idea that humanity will be destroyed in order to produce a hive-mind that seems very much less than human. Maybe that's Clark's point. Who knows. If I wanted pan-theistic metaphysics, I would have read Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus; both of whom I heartily enjoy. Anyhow, if his writing was spotty and his philosophy was third-rate, it was still fun to engage a coherent world picture in writing and that seems largely to have been the point; it's speculative fiction.

Keeping with the sci-fi theme, I moved on to Joss Weadon's Serenity: Volume 2. Not much to write home about, but it does feel just like the series. At a price of ten bucks from Amazon, it was worth it. Keep flying!

In the "unfinished" pile right now goes Reynolds' When Athens Met Jerusalem. It's a pretty good intro to Greek thought. I'll say more when my wife and I finish the work.

Meantime, enjoy the summer!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Test Results (and another platypus)

Nothing out of the ordinary showed up on the barium test today. I have a moderate sliding hiatal hernia with very piddly reflux. The specialists are going to go over the images again just to make sure and then they'll pass them on to my doctor. I have a consultation to reassess the matter two weeks from now. Our thanks to all those who have been praying.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Barium Test (and a Platypus)

Barium and x-ray test is scheduled for 9:30 this Thursday. I'll have my follow-up visit on the 23rd. Meanwhile, I'm still playing with my diet and taking, at my doctor's instruction, a double dose of meds (neither seem to be working).

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Blood Tests (and a Platypus)

Well my blood work has come back negative. There's no evidence of a stomach infection or a hormonal imbalance. Next up is the barium and x-ray test. Depending on what that shows, the doctor will decide on my next round of tests. Meantime, I'm in daily discomfort and the change in meds doesn't seem to be working.