Friday, November 27, 2009

A Cult of My Own: The Platypus Reads Part LI

Over the past few eeks, we've been re-reading Charles' Williams' "Descent Into Hell" in preparation for a high table meeting. I believe this is my third time through the book and a few new things are beginning to pop out at me. What I noticed most, however, was the absence of overt references to Christ. Though his presence and oblique references to Jesus fill the work, He is mentioned by name only once, and only in the context of saying that Pauline needn't bring him into it.

Now don't worry; I'm not trying to take on the big guy. Tolkien's references to Christ in "The Lord of the Rings" are even more indirect, and yet the presence of Jesus can be felt on every page. Instead, the presence of this immanent yet hidden Christ in "Descent Into Hell" makes me ask: "what is Charles Williams doing?"

I've heard the overall impact of William's novels described as making one feel what Christianity would look like if it were an obscure cult. Reflecting on that reminded me that there was quite a large amount of time when Christianity was just an obscure cult popular among the urban lower classes of the Roman empire. Then, Christians were careful about how they publicly mentioned or portrayed Jesus for fear of persecution. In urban England in the 1930s, Christianity was a well-known religion and its adherents faces a far less physical form of persecution.

All this set me to wondering if the hidden Christ of "Descent Into Hell" is an intentional attempt by Williams to get around his readers' negative biases and talk the realities of Christian doctrine and living. Given how Lewis and Tolkien's writings show a similar impulse, this seems to satisfy the question on at least a basic level. Knowing Williams, there's probably a deeper meaning behind his choice as well; though I'm not sure what it is.

What does Stanhope mean when he tells Pauline that she needn't bring Christ into it? Perhaps that Christ is already there if Pauline will see Him.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Tree of My Own: The Platypus Reads Part L

This post marks a full fifty literary musings here at "The Platypus of Truth." Since this all started with a wave of nostalgia, it seems apropriate to turn to a book that I read in tenth grade and just finished teaching to my tenth graders: "A Separate Peace."

I attended a New England prep-School, though nothing near as fancy as Philips-Exeter. When I first read this book, it resonated with me on a deep level. I read it once, and never had a chance to pick it up again. It was with a mix of eagerness and trepidation that I put it on this year's reading list for my students. I was worried that the magic would be gone. It wasn't.

I don't particularly agree with Knowles' conclusions about the nature of life, but there are just too many gems in "A Separate Peace" for it to lose its power. Furthermore, it had a marked affect on my students; even though the world of a New England prep-school is as far off from them as Mars. Being from that part of the country myself, I did everything I could to make it work for them, and it did.

If even for a moment, that makes me feel just a little less lonely.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Platypus Goes to Church

If you're ever out in Redlands, you need to visit First Congregational on the corner of Olive and Cajon. It has a real Tiffany stain glass window as well as a "grail chapel" complete with quotes from Tennyson.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

My High Withered: The Platypus Reads Part XLIX

Sadly, my heavy teaching load this year is not conducive to much else in my life. This has meant that many of my literary musings have not been expressed in as detailed a form as I would have liked. With that apology, let me attempt to fulfill my promise to weigh in on "Wuthering Heights."

To begin with, I think that "Wuthering Heights" suffers from the "Milton Problem;" that it does such a good job of picturing evil that readers are tempted to think that it is an apologetic for vice. I don't mind being in the company of John Milton (who, btw. there is plenty of reason to acquit of the charge of Arianism) but, sadly, I don't think I'd want to be in company of Byron and Blake as far as literary opinions go. Put simply, when someone with strong religious principles writes a book, I have a hard time believing that there is really some sort of satanic "back-masking." They may have made some errors, as do we all, or they may have miscalculated the effect the work would have on their audience, but I have a hard time believing that devout and intelligent writers (shy of hypocrisy) could be "of the devil's party without knowing it." In that light, I have a hard time believing that "Wuthering Heights" is meant to glorify the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine.

Re-reading the book, the above interpretation also seems to jar with the actual work. I just can't find any evidence in the text that the author means for their affair to be anything other than wicked and disastrous both to the couple and everyone around them. Even the suggestion that Heathcliff and Catherine's ghosts haunt the moors doesn't strike me so much as a reconciliation as an echo of Dante's inferno where the lustful are eternally blown upon the winds. It seems more like a curse than a vindication.

So what is the book about? I don't have a definitive answer, but I think I can discern two themes.

The first is that "Wuthering Heights" plays with the idea of the "insider." Ellen Dean is always trying to work her way to the "inside" of events. Catherine's ghost is trying to get inside the house. Heathcliff and Catherine view the lavish but flawed lifestyle of the Lintons through a window. Lockwood is brought into the the events of the story by his visit to the Heights and by chats with Ellen Dean. In each case, the one trying to get "inside" is punished for the intrusion. Ellen Dean suffers all manner of hardships for her prying. Catherine's ghost has its fingers crushed by Lockwood and is forcibly kept out. When Heathcliff and Catherine have a peep at the Lintons, Heathcliff is thrown out and Catherine is mauled by a dog. Lockwood is attacked by dogs, treated with the height of bad manners, and finally catches a months-long illness as his reward for prying. All this seems to amount to a warning against the desire to be an "insider," or, as Lewis would say, to belong to an "inner ring."

The second theme seems to focus on our response to pain. The harsh treatment that Heathcliff receives fuels his bitter and resentful spirit. Catherine responds to pain by attempting to control everything about her suroundings. When this control is denied her, she goes insane. Linton responds to pain by becoming trecherous and sadistic, while Cathy settles for withdrawing into imperious disdane. Hareton lives in a state of denial. Ellen seems to keep a good cheer, and so comes through. Lockwood simply runs away. Edgar Linton seems to be improved by pain. Marrying Catherine seems to beat the spoiled softness out of him and by the time he meets his end, he seems to be something like a real, if deeply grieved, man. In addition, Lockwood's intervention allows Cathy and Hareton to turn away from focusing on their individual grievances and draw together to thwart Heathcliff's plans and find true happiness. The moral seems to be that the way we respond to pain shapes our characters. We can either use our pain as an excuse for moral corruption, or we can allow it to purify us of our faults and so begin to develop real virtue.

Given that C. Bronte, an intelligent and deeply moral writer, endorsed "Wuthering Heights" as strongly as she did, I find it hard to see the work as a justification of "doing anything for love." Moreover, a careful read of the book seems to militate against this view. Instead, what we find is a condemnation of the desire to be an "insider," and an admonition to allow our pains to sanctify us and not to use them as a justification for vice. That's about as anti-Byronic as it gets.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Platypus Closes the Generation Gap

As technology advances at a dizzying pace, popular culture follows suit. The fast pace of change in the modern world leads to a widening of what we call the "generation gap;" that difficulty members of separate generations have in communicating with each other because of differing sets of culturally conditioned formative experiences.

This year marked my ten-year highschool reunion. That's enough to put me in a completely different world from the generation I now teach. Speaking bluntly, I can remember a time before the internet: they can't. That being the case, I am always glad when I can find common ground with my students.

Square-Enix's habit of re-releasing all their great games from the 90's has been a huge windfall in working with my 10th graders. Right now, they're in the midst of discovering "Chrono Trigger" and the Final Fantasy series. This means that when they're geeking out, or trying to share something they're enthusiastic about, I can relate. It's a small thing, but that ability and willingness to relate earns untold capital in the classroom.

Why talk about video games in an educational context? Aren't they just a waste of time? There are actually several good answers to these questions, but I will only address one in this post. In order for students to learn, they have to establish a bond of trust with their teacher. I run into this barrier time and again; students simply do not trust adults in authority positions. The best way to overcome that barrier of distrust is to show that you're willing to hear students' concerns and interests (I usually do this during lunch or passing period so that class can be devoted to the material at hand). If the teacher doesn't show at least a willingness to listen to what the student cares about, no matter how trivial it may seem, then the student sees no need to reciprocate. The goal, of course, is not to leave them in their small hobbies and interests, but once their trust is earned to show them the excitement and interest of the larger world. Study the classics, and you will see just this pattern of pedagogy. Socrates must go down to meet his students before he can attempt to draw them up. In the gospel of John, Christ must first descend through the incarnation before he can be lifted up and "draw all men to (Him)."