Monday, November 22, 2010

Ender the Discussion:The Platypus Reads Part LXXXIII

We have a well stocked fiction library at school.  In light of this, I've devoted this semester to going back and reading a few of the books on my "this comes highly recommended" list.  Near the top of that list is Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game."  I think it's joined "Foundation" and "Starship Troopers" as a modern political sci-fi masterpiece.  After reading it, I agree that it is an excellent piece of fiction but, as with "The Name of the Rose," I have to say that the message fell flat.

Now that I've incurred my readership's collective wrath, let me explain.  I enjoyed the book; I honestly did.  The writing was tight and gripping the way a great novel should be.  From page one, I never wanted to put it down.  The characters were interesting, the pacing flawless, and the world it created was, given its premises, believable.  What fell flat then?  As with Eco, the problem is one of meaning.  "Ender's Game," in the end, has nothing that interesting to say.

On my first read-through, I see two major themes emerging from "Ender's Game."  One, kids have amazing potential.  Two, conflict comes about from a failure to understand another's perspective; another's story.  The first theme is trite, but could yield unlooked for riches if properly developed.  Perhaps Card does this in the subsequent books of the series.  In the first volume, he does not.  The second theme is the more developed and strikes me as the major meaning of the work.  The Buggers try to annihilate the human race, and Peter is a sociopath, but in the end, they're not really bad, they just need someone to hear them out.  What we have is the rather typical late-modern therapeutic idea that conflict only emerges from a failure to hear and understand each other's legitimate needs.  It's a notion rooted in the idea that man is inherently good and that evil resides simply in ignorance or the pressures of outside, impersonal structures.  Now, while there may be some truth to this, it isn't very interesting as a treatment of the problem of evil.  Is there no room for choice?  Is there no room for actual disagreement?  Is anything actually worth disagreeing over?  The therapeutic view answers these questions with a "no."  My objection to that is not that it's false, though it certainly may be, but that it's uninteresting.  You can get a decent pop-psychological novel from it, but there isn't enough complexity in such a view to get a "Hamlet," a "Notes From Underground," or even "The Lord of the Rings."  Evil is a complex and weighty problem, the idea that it has at its root a mere failure to understand is banal.

So in the end, my complaint (if it can be called that) against "Ender's Game" is the same as that against "The Name of the Rose;" the point is not commensurate with the art of the story.  Great and grand themes are evoked, but when the time comes to balance them with weighty ideas, all we get is a deferral to some trite late-modern truism.  That, in itself, could be a point.  If so, it isn't a very interesting one.

Same place, same time my friend?  Very good.  Addio!     

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Name of the Platypus: The Platypus Reads Part LXXXII

I finished reading Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose a few weeks ago and have found myself in the odd place of having very little to say about this highly acclaimed book.  Now, it's not that I didn't like it.  It was a highly enjoyable read and, like Eifelheim by Michael Flynn, did a wonderful job of envisioning the medieval past.  I did, however, feel a sense of being "under-whelmed," especially as I worked my way through Eco's afterword.  The point of the book is that it has no point except for what the reader and author create together, and Eco gets a chance to laugh at your bourgeois expectations.  I may not quite agree with that, but usually I'm at least open to it.  This time, for whatever reason, the usual postmodern/mannerist schpiel fell completely flat.

I thought of reading some Foucault to revive my waining interest, but then I remembered something a professor of mine said recently.  The context was a discussion about why there weren't more postmodern profs at the university.  This particular professor, as a professor of philosophy, asserted that while he could not speak for other disciplines, postmodernism simply isn't interesting to the vast majority of philosophers in American academia anymore.  Doing a little bit of thinking, I can see why.  Postmodernism (or Mannerism, to use Eco's preferred term) is a one-trick horse.  It jumps up and very cleverly asserts that we have no unmediated access to reality.  That is earth-shattering.  What happens next, however, is quite underwhelming.  Since we have no unmediated access to reality, and any mediation we do have hopelessly distorts our perspective so that coming at even workable approximations of the truth is impossible, we still have to get down to the business of thinking.  But what shall we think about?  The point of thinking for thousands of years has been to find truth, but if there is no truth to find, just an endless series of oppressive social constructs, then all we can really do is have a long (either completely academic or sinisterly Nietzschean) open-ended chat over coffee that either ends in amiable disagreement and an assurance of meeting at the same time next week, or in World War III.  That may sound appealing to some people, but for most I think the novelty quickly wears off and gives way to nausea.

So I think that's what I have to say right now about The Name of the Rose.  It's great fun, and well worth the read, but the "pointless point" falls flat on me.  After reading Eco's afterword, I don't think my assessment would particularly bother him.  So, *shrug*, I'll see you next week.  Same time, same place. Addio!

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Theophanic Platypus: Or Why I Love the Films of Hayao Miyazaki

I love watching the films of Japanese director and animator Hayao Miyazaki.  At this point, I've seen almost everything of his I can get my hands on.  There's a simple why to this: great production value and great story-telling.  The closest thing I've seen to it in American film is Pixar, and Lasseter makes no bones about the intellectual and creative debt he owes to Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.  To put a finer point on it, however, I love Miyazaki's films for their theophanies.

Many, if not all, of Miyazaki's films has a moment in which the world as it appears to us, physical and mundane, is pierced by a deeper spiritual reality.  This moment, the revelation of the divine (or theophany), leaves the charaters of Miyazaki's dramas transformed.  Whether it's the Spirit of the Forest in "Princess Mononoke," the Sea Goddess in "Ponyo," or the cloud of slain pilots in "Porco Rosso," these moments of spiritual revelation form the linchpin of the story.  In this way, all of Miyazaki's films function as a journey into fairyland with the protagonists being drawn out of their noramal lives to have a radical encounter with the Other that offers the opportunity, sometimes taken and sometimes rejected, for growth and empowerment.

Again and again I find myself comparing the effect with that produced by the writings of George MacDonald.  Myazaki knows how to re-mythologize the world; to take our daily lives, hallow them, and give them back to us with a renewed sense of the sacredness of existence.  In rapidly secularizing America, that comes as a breath of fresh air.