Sunday, February 26, 2012

Arthur and Frodo: The Platypus Reads Part CXL

I've been interested for some time by apparent connections between "The Lord of the Rings" and Arthurian Legend.  This is a link to an article exploring that relationship in a properly nuanced way.  See what you think.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Platypus Archetypes or "What I learned in Grad School"

Bear with me as I try to work something out here.

I was having a conversation with a fellow teacher during a prep period and when some of the students came in and dropped their gear before heading off to etiquette (the students have etiquette on Friday as a .5 unit class).  That turned the conversation toward why we teach etiquette and what sort of thing manners are (they're not morality, but are they a vehicle for expressing morality, primarily charity towards neighbor).  This is an ongoing discussion we've been having for over a year now: is part of education producing Ladies and Gentlemen; if so, what is a Lady or a Gentleman, and do they come in one variety or many?

Each time we return to these questions, the subject of archetypes come up.  Are there certain cultural archetypes that can be found in literature and other media and pointed to as "ideals"?  You'll notice I use the word "ideals."  Given the diversity of humanity, my colleague and I find that one solitary ideal  for the Lady or Gentleman seems problematic.  Even in religious terms, we see the Apostle Paul point to Christ as the ultimate ideal, but then confess that within what he calls "the body of Christ," that is the community of Christians, there is a diversity of embodiments of that ideal according to different spiritual gifts.  We also notice that Paul sets himself up as an intermediate ideal when he urges believers to "follow me as I follow Christ."  We also don't want to confuse being a Lady or a Gentleman with being "saved" or "Christian."  Manners may express morals, but they are not morals.  A requirement of being a True Lady or Gentleman may be that they be moral, but there are many moral people who have not mastered the complex web of manners that makes one a Lady or Gentleman (Still with me?  Alright, forward through the minefield).  If what I said is true, then we should be able to find sets of "ideal" Ladies and Gentleman that will match the diversity of human personalities and interests.

Now where do we go looking for archetypes?  A Christian might immediately point to the saints and heroes of the churches.  A classicist might point ancient literature: Achilles, Odysseus, Aristotle, Xenophon (hmmm.  Notice that the Greeks are all men?).  Both of those are valid, and we might go looking in quite a few more places.  Being rather intellectually malformed, I have to confess that my mind keeps turning back to Roll-Playing Games.

Roll-Playing Games are essentially a set of rules to guide a certain form of improve theater.  These rules usually involve a way to determine how skilled a given character is at performing certain tasks, ways for determining injury/death, setting details for a fantasy world that serves as a backdrop for the characters and their story, and various character classes (or archetypes) to assist in creating a character.  Now how does that relate to being a Gentleman or a Lady?  The character classes in RPGs seem to fall along the lines of strongly rooted archetypes: the warrior, the poet, the diplomat, the scholar.  I've also observed that most players naturally gravitate toward a character class that matches their own personality.  I, for instance, naturally tend toward Eclipse Caste Exalted and D&D Bards.  The fact that these character classes work so well in helping players create characters validates the idea in my mind that archetypes are in someway real and meaningful categories.  If so, then when seeking to form Ladies and Gentlemen, we must ask not simply "what makes a Lady or a Gentleman," but "what does the Lady Scholar look like," or "What does the Gentleman Diplomat look like."  The follow-up would be: "beyond basic good manners, how does a Lady or Gentleman Poet/Warrior/Diplomat/Scholar/etc. conduct themselves?"

Well, if that makes no sense, the fault is mine.  This is an idea I've been hammering through for a while now, and I'm still not sure how it all fits together.  Let me know if you have any ideas!

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Platypus and Theological Localism

My wife and I were listening the other day to Dr. Fred Sanders give a paper of California Theological Localism.  It was one of the more technical pieces we've heard from him, and it was fun to stretch our brains a little.  If I understand it right, the main idea of Theological Localism is that place matters and will shape the theology of its inhabitants in certain ways.  This could be seen as determinative, or merely as fodder for apologetic engagement, both of which Sanders rejects as insufficient or problematic.  What exactly is wanted seems to be a theological engagement with place, specifically California, in a way that Sanders and company feel has been neglected.  If that's not clear, the fault is mine as a listener or a writer.

Of course, the idea of a theology of place caught my attention and my immediate response was "someone should do this for New England."  New England, after all, is its own peculiar place with, by American standards, a long, varied, and rich history.  In its English antecedents, it goes back even further.  Some factors that came to mind for potential theological reflection:

1. What does it mean for New England to be a place where the bones of the Puritan Fathers lie thicker than glacial rocks in the soil?  What does it mean for every little village, township, city to be founded, quite literally, on the bones of a unique religious community?

2. How did the Puritan's eschatological vision shape New England?  Is there any sense in which "a city upon a hill" is still rooted in the cultural subconscious?  The Puritan emphasis on education has certainly remained, even if new England is now famed in the states for it irreligiosity.  What role does mass Catholic immigration in the 1800s play?  How inextricable is Puritanism from the story of New England?

3. Building off of two, how does the cyclical pattern of apostasy and revival shape New England as a theological community.  The Puritans founded it, but by 1775, McCullough points out that British troops were shocked by the number of brothels they found in Boston.  On the other hand, Massachusetts played host to the first Great Awakening.  The society that produced the American Unitarians also felt the power of the Second Great Awakening.  The eschatological fervor of New Englanders also lay behind Radical Abolition and the American Civil War.

4. De Tocqueville argues that New England is the type and cradle of American democracy.  How does this "long shadow" shape New England as a place.  Has the rise of California and Texas as "alternate Americas" made de Tocqueville's observations irrelevant or obsolete?

These are just beginning musings, but it's a subject I'm interested in.  Maybe as Sanders' project grows, I'll be able to piggy-back off of it and refine my thoughts.    

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Platypus in Lankhmar: The Platypus Reads Part CXXXIX

Note: This post contains a review of Fritz Leiber's "Swords in the Mist."  Those who wish to remain spoiler free should not read on.

"Swords in the Mist" is the third volume of the adventures of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, the dynamic duo created by American sci-fi and fantasy author Fritz Leiber.  While the volume does contain several short stories, the main portion of the book is a novela that details the exploits of Fafhrd and Mouser in the Seleucid Empire.  In a sci-fi twist, Leiber brings the two heroes from the world of Newhon (No When) to earth's past and pits them against a Persian adept who has fallen under the power of the evil Zoroastrian demon Ahriman (aka. Druj or :"The Lie").  I love Ancient Greece and I love Achaemenid Persia so, needless to say, my interest was piqued.

Leiber pays about as much attention to historical detail as one would expect from an American 20th century fantasy writer.  There's just enough detail to make the world seem plausible on a basic level with a few fact/name drops to please the learned.  Other than that, not much separates Lebier's portrayl of the Seleucid Empire from the setting of any of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser story.  Mainly, it seems like Lankhmar was boring Fritz Leiber and he wanted to try a little historical fiction but with characters and a plot he knew would sell.  It's a similar impulse to the one that created Robert E. Howard's Conan, so I can't complain.  That said, let's move on to what primarily interested me about "Swords in the Mist."

In keeping with my comments on volumes I and II of the Lankhmar series, what interested me about "Swords in the Mist" is the relationship between to the two men and their ladies fair.  To recap, in "Swords and Deviltry" we saw Fafhrd and Mouser potentially forming a foursome with Lady Ivrian and the fair Vlana.  This balanced powerhouse is cut short by the murder of the two women.  While we mourn their passing, it seems as if the main point is to kill off the girls so that the boys can keep having adventures.  Adventures aren't as adventurous (or as possible) with a wife and three kids.  There's nothing uncommon about this. James Bond and Indiana Jones always have a love-interest, but tying them down to a stable relationship would make them unfit for further exploits.  (Interestingly enough, Universal Studios has attempted to buck this trend with their "Mummy" series.  Make of that what you will.)  The second volume, "Swords Against Death," allows our heroes to return to hetero-normative adventures by mystically freeing them of their attachments to their dead darlings, Vlana and Ivrian.  Volume III now finds our heroes committed and adept fornicators, moving incontinently from woman to woman (or more accurately whore to whore) with apathetic dissoluteness.  It's a trope we've come to expect from twentieth-century heroes, but Leiber now complicates things.  In an attempt to lure them to his secret lair, the sorcerous adept Anra Devadoris curses Fafhrd and Mouser so that any woman they kiss turns into an animal.  Horrified by a life without sex, except for the amulet-toting cross-eyed courtesan Chloe, the heroes are lured into Devadoris' trap and very nearly killed.  Indeed, Fafhrd's spiritual guide, Ninguable, gives them both up for dead.  Our heroes here have reached  bottom.  They no loner live for anything beyond their own lowest-common-denominator pleasures.  This lifestyle can't ultimately satisfy, and Fafhrd and Mouser are forced to return to their own world of Lankhmar having failed to find fulfilment on Earth.  It is also interesting to note that then next volume, "Swords Against Wizardry," begins with our heroes alone again.

So where is all this going?  Somewhere traditional I believe.  In the end, I have a feeling that the archo-adventurers, Fafhrd and Grey Mouser will only find peace when they are willing to really love, settle down, and assume responsibility.  Such a role requires a great deal of continence, however, and it will interesting to see where in Newhon, or any possible world, the dynamic duo will find it. 

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Gaming as Life Via Proxy: Platypus Nostalgia

It should come as no surprise that I'm a supporter, with reservations, of video/computer games as both a form of entertainment and a medium for storytelling.  I have tried to defend, via personal anecdotes, gamers from being tared with the same brush as time-wasters, lazy, immature, and disconnected from real life.  That said, my experience as a teacher has presented me with counter-anecdotes.  While I have encountered many students who game as part of a balanced existence, there are examples that stand out in my mind of time-wasting, laziness, immaturity, and disconnect from real life.  Humor me as I talk about that end of the equation.

I have met many students who genuinely struggle with limiting themselves when it comes to gaming.  I've met some adults who fit that profile too.  Children and adults both struggle with issues of continence.  We like what we like, and we all have trouble saying no to more of something we like.  That's a problem, but it's one that we recognize as a necessary part of being a child, a part that must be trained out of them, and a failing in adults, which is shameful where it appears and requires repentance and rehabituation.  To spell it out, we expect children to lack self control and work with them to develop it.  If a child has trouble with compulsive eating, should we really blame the food or should we set more stringent rules about eating and help the child to develop disciplined habits in that area?  Maybe the answer to that is no longer obvious in this day and age of "food wars," but it used to be a given that the food wasn't the problem.  Yet when the same equation is applied to video/computer games somehow many of us want to blame the games.  What makes these games so especially bad that the analogy doesn't hold?  Going after the games distracts from the real problem: children aren't born with the capacity to self-moderate, they need to be taught how to live balanced lives.  Let's face it, some children and adults are immoderate in their consumption of video/computer games.  That bad habit shouldn't be excused or glossed over in the name of defending the games as a medium, but neither should the medium itself have to answer for what is a common human problem with anything that we find desirable.  Anti-gamers, don't hold a double-standard; gamers, admit that some of us do have issues with our use of video games and that those issues should not be glossed over or defended.

I have met children and adults who seem to prefer the world of video/computer games to the rest of the world.  I have met people whose friends are primarily their gaming buddies online.  Rather than argue whether this is good or bad, I'd like to explore one possibility as to why this is the case, particularly in young people.  There are other reasons that could be explored, particularly in the case of adults, but I think the reason I'd like to discuss is overlooked.  That reason is the growth of suburbia and zero-lot housing.  One thing I have found is that the students I meet who are most addicted to gaming are those who have least access to the outdoors.  Anyone who has seen the vast concrete wasteland that is the L.A. sprawl should pause and think about this.  When the world outside the home is mostly concrete, small and carefully manicured lawns, and businesses there's isn't much incentive to go outside.  Over-worked adults in SUVs, local business owners, and homeowners associations aren't exactly friendly to cul-de-sac and parking lot activities such as football, basketball, and skateboarding.  Local parks are often small and overcrowded with either thugs or families with young children who can't tell the difference between packs of teenagers and the aforementioned thugs.  I find at rock-bottom that there isn't much difference between today's pre-teens and teens and myself when I was their age.  I liked exploring, I liked discovering, I liked creating, and inventing, and pulling all kinds of crazy and (mostly) harmless capers that could be bragged about afterword.  The difference is that I lived on an acre lot with nothing but public land for miles until you hit the next town.  There was a reason to go outside; there was space for other interests.  I was lucky.  It's hard to blame a kid in the sprawl for preferring the colorful world of adventure presented by a game when it's so seemingly superior to the late-modern travesty outside.  Maybe we could tell them to go read a book, but that's not really addressing the problem.  Many (certainly not all) of the gaming addicts I've met have reading as their only other hobby.

So what's the gist of this?  In defending video and computer games I don't want to ignore that there are real problems.  I've already brought up sex and violence, and now I've mentioned addiction and escapism.  Once again, these are legitimate issues, and friends and foes of games alike shouldn't obscure them with easy denials or flippant condemnations.  Video and computer games as a social phenomenon aren't going away any time soon and that means that we need to honestly consider them: the good as well as the bad.