Saturday, October 23, 2010

Why We Need Link: Platypus Nostalgia

I've written before on the role "The Legend of Zelda" series played in my childhood.  It was link with his little 8-bit shield that first awoke the call to adventure within me.  Role playing through his world of simple good and evil began to build a certain mindset: when there's a wrong to be righted, we must stand up and right it no matter the personal cost.  In the midst of all the puzzle solving and button mashing, I was learning what it meant to be a hero.  Maybe that sounds like an impoverished childhood, but it never stopped me from reading or going outside and playing too.  In fact, the one fed the other.  The stories in our video games gave us something to play outside, and our childish attempts at adventure in the forests of New England brought us a new appreciation for the sub-created worlds of "The Legend of Zelda," "Secret of Mana," "Final Fantasy," and "Dragon Warrior."

All this came back to my mind when I was talking to one of my students.  He's a fan of video games and anime, but also of "Beowulf," and the classics.  We were talking about video games and anime when he mentioned that the stories in anime spoke to him because they were so often about growing up and, since that's what he's still doing, they were a good way for him to reflect on that process.  Thinking back on my own experience, he's right.  The best video games, and many of the best anime series, are meditations on what it means to transition from a boy to a man.  No wonder teenagers and college students like them so much.  They have the same appeal that Haggard or Heanty's penny dreadfuls would have had a century ago.

Another of my student is writing his senior thesis in defense of video games.  It's an odd choice in that video games have more wide spread acceptance than ever before (thank you World of Warcraft).  Why defend something that has finally become mainstream and is no longer a guilty pleasure?  Ironically, as video games have gone mainstream, they are more in need of defending as adult tastes import into them increasing levels of violence, escapism, and sexuality.  It seems as though all the wildest worries of the naysayers are coming true.  In spite of this decadence, the video game is not going away any time soon, far from it, but it may be in danger of losing its moorings; of forgetting its purpose.  In light of this shift, we need people who are willing to devote time and energy to meditating on the value, and role of video games in modern life.  If there really is something good and worthy in these amusements, then now, more than ever, they will need defending; both from their supporters as well as their detractors.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Thus Spoke the Platypus Part XV

Is Utnapishtim an ape?  Does he dance before you in the manner of an ape?  Laugh then.  Laugh at the dancing of Utnapishtim; he will not resent you.  Laugh until your sides crack and your head breaks; for through the gap may come Wisdom!

Thus Spoke Utnapishtim

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Academic Platypus: The Humanities Safety Valve

I teach a course called "Humanities" at a classical school.  Humanities is a rather amorphous course that's something like a combination of History, Ethics, and Literature (you might think of it as "History and Moral Philosophy"  Oops!)  It can be a little difficult to teach since you're always caught on the horns of a dilemma: do I focus on the Literature end or do I focus on the History end; there isn't enough time for both.

That said, I have found one thing that Humanities excels at: serving as a safety valve for other courses.  Have an argument break out in Anatomy and Physiology about cannibalism in survival situations?  Shift it to Humanities.  Have a rash of questions about Satan in Bible class?  Shift it to Humanities.  Kids want to talk about the decline of pop-music as copyright laws gets ever tighter? You guessed it: bring it up in Humanities.  What I'm saying is the very amorphous nature of the Humanities course becomes a huge asset when seen in context with the other classes.  Knowledge produces questions, but not all questions fit in with a given class' agenda.  Rather than allow students "pregnant with the Logos" to stifle in frustration, Humanities acts as a safety valve where questions that don't fit in anywhere else can be brought up and dealt with.  It's a sort of catch-all class where the various disciplines can be brought together and addressed as a unified whole; a place where students can unwind and work out their intellectual problems apart from the tyranny of compartmentalized knowledge.

Humanities is a safety valve, but it can be even more than that.  It can be a place where students are allowed to experience knowledge as a whole; a place where things come together and make sense.  Under such circumstances, Humanities would cease being the ugly duckling of the upper school and become a beautiful swan.  As our culture continues to fragment, students crave unity and stability.  They want a chance to see "the big picture."  My class is where they do that.    

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Tolkien's Legacy: The Platypus Reads Part LXXXI

My wife and I have been reading "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" edited by Christopher Tolkien.  If we had picked up the book when it came out, we would have payed a pretty penny.  As it is, we got it for less than three dollars at Amazon.  So far, my wife and I are enjoying the book, especially academic material.  However, the reason it's selling for such a low price has also become abundantly obvious: the book is esoteric, technical, and has no direct connection with Middle Earth.  So esoteric is the work, that you really need to have read "The Volsunga Saga," know a fair bit about the history of the Northern European Dark Age and both Eddas to enjoy it.  I have all those prerequisites, hence my enjoyment.  This leads to the question, however, of why Christopher brought out and published this work.  Surely he must have known that it would be a commercial failure; that it was bringing out his father's "scripta minora" in the strongest sense?

And yet.  And yet, even Tolkien's 30-something flailings are better than what most scholars or authors can bring out on their best day.  Maybe Christopher Tolkien has hit upon something that is needed in our modern, crassly democratic culture: we need to have things that are high and good thrust in our faces because they are high and good; not because we want them.  In a way, this is Tolkien's legacy.  In his preface to "The Lord of the Rings," Tolkien admits that he published the work without much hope for its popular success since it was "primarily linguistic in nature."  Even Rayner Unwin admits that he and his father published the work expecting to lose money on it.  They did it because they recognized "The Lord of the Rings" as a work of enduring genius.  Tolkien's work has always been produced and published on principle.  All this is not to say that Tolkien and Co. are elitist, like pent-housed culture snobs producing deliberately esoteric work so they can sneer at the unwashed masses.  Rather, they are people who believe that some things are worthy in and of themselves, regardless of what markets and masses think of them.

Tolkien pointed to that which is worthy, regardless of what others thought, and the world is a richer place for it.  In bringing out "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun," Christopher is following his father's footsteps.  In the end, it's not about what the fans demand or making a quick buck, it's about remaining faithful to the Tolkien legacy.