Saturday, May 31, 2014

Tolkien's Beowulf: The Platypus Reads Part CCLX

This August marks the 100 year anniversary of the Great War.  Soon, there will be none left who remember the world as it was before that cataclysm.  It is passing out of living memory.  In a smaller way, the work of J.R.R. Tolkien is passing.  His son and collaborator is in his eighties and when Christopher dies, we will lose our direct connection with the world of Middle Earth.  Christopher Tolkien seems to sense this and so the pace of publishing his father's unpublished works has increased over the past decade.  This can feel like a mixed blessing: even Tolkien's junvenalia is better than many scholars and fatansists best work, but do we need another fragment or pile of lecture notes?

Answers to that question will differ, but I think each posthumous publication should speak for itself.  In this case, Tolkien's translation of Beowulf and the attending commentary is a treasure in and of itself.  That is to say, one needn't be a Tolkien enthusiast to appreciate its merits.  The translation itself seeks to hold as faithfully to the wording of the original as possible while forgoing the poem's meter.  This makes it a companion, not a competitor, with the magnificent poetic translation by Seamus Heaney.  While Tolkien's choice to sacrifice meter to literalism makes for more intricate sentence structures, the translation still thrills with all the power and immediacy of Heany's verse.  That's quite a feat when we remember that Tolkien composed this translation when he was 34 and never completed the revision process.  The commentary that accompanies the poem is arranged by Christopher Tolkien and meant to paint a portrait of Tolkien's overall thought on the poem.  I teach Beowulf at the High School level and spent just a little time studying the poem at Oxford, and I found the commentary immensely helpful as did my wife who reads Old English.  So our answer to the question "do we really need another pile of lecture notes" in the case of Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary would be a resounding "yes."


Saturday, May 24, 2014

Summer Reading 2014:The Platypus Reads CCLIX

Well, the semester grades are in and that means it's time to begin thinking about summer reading.  The semester closed out with me working my way through the complete Calvin and Hobbes and I also managed to sneak in The Goblins of Labyrinth by Brian Froud.  So, to start off the official 2014 Summer Reading list, I'll begin with more Calvin and Hobbes and The World of the Dark Crystal by Brian Froud.  I'd also be terribly remiss if I didn't include the recently released Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Obligations out of the way, I'm also looking forward to a brilliant little micro-history of the town I grew up in written by the daughter of the founder: Saltbox House by Jane de Forest Shelton.  All things New England are welcome right now, so I imagine that there will also be a few volumes on the Puritans.  On the far side of my historical interests, I'm also contemplating a return to Chinese History with some Jonathan D. Spence.  Of course, I don't want to leave the Greeks out either, so there's Paul Cartlidge's Thermopyle and After Thermopyle too.  Not enough fiction you say?  Don't worry, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft are always lurking in the wings along with a couple short story anthologies.

So there's the plan as it stands.  As you know, summer reading never goes exactly the way you think it will: that's the beauty of it.  So how about you?  What's on your list?    

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Existentialism and Noise: Strange Platypus(es)

Where shall the word be found,  where will the word
Resound?  Not here, there is not enough silence

-T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

We are afraid of interior space.  Our lives are filled with movement and noise.  We hate them, we love them, and we cannot live without them.  Why?  Movement and noise fill.  Inner silence is empty.  Emptiness hurts.  The empty stomach pains us.  An empty life grieves and depresses us.  In a world of constant stimulus, quiet unnerves and threatens because it alerts us to our lack -and we're not used to that.  Late Modernity offers so many solutions, such possibility for satiety, that we have little experience of "going without" and when we do experience genuine lack we expect there to be an immediate "fix."  When there is none, we panic, we fell guilty, we become angry.  Yet the things that are truly worth having can't come to us until we are willing to live with the lack.  That might give us pause except that in a broken world the truly good things don't always come.  And so we hide in noise and movement.  They become our retreat and our armor.  We know that we won't experience the heights, but at least we can avoid the valleys by filling them in.  It seems like a safe bet since modern philosophy and modern science tell us that there is no Ultimate Answer for human fulfillment out there -meaning is something that humans and human communities create.  The Ancients believed this and put their money on the community.  We Moderns have seen the horrors that communities can commit and so have placed our bet on the individual.  It's a real conundrum: human communities always seem to crush the individual in the end but individuals lack the strength to sustain meaning on their own apart from the community.  We've tried cliques and sub-cultures, but voluntary community can be just as oppressive -sometime more- than cities and states.  Which brings us back to noise and movement.  As long as the noise and movement keep coming we don't have to think about the conundrum.  The great abyss can be safely ignored.

But at what cost?  Seeing and listening take time, stillness, and attention.  A culture that is always immersed and surrounded in noise is a culture that is largely blind and deaf.  This doesn't matter if there isn't really anything to see or hear -but what if there is?  I want to hear the River singing, full of memory.  I want to see the Old Railway Bridge, and the Tree, and the sides of the Valley slopping up to meet the sky, and beyond them...

*Photo shows the Connecticut River, Essex CT, and was taken by the author of this post.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Final Fantasy VII (A Further Thought: Platypus Nostalgia

A further thought occurred to me over the past week and I thought I'd add it as an addendum to my previous post.  I noticed that the plot felt "tighter" in the more constrained first third of the game.  The slums under Midgar are constrained in space, atmosphere, tone, action, and cast.  It is a wonderful feeling when you finally get out of Midgar and find a whole world to explore.  That said, after a half-hour or so of play it becomes clear that this new world is far more diffuse.  The cast begins to widen out beyond what the story is able to fully develop.  The action for many hours consists of chasing Sephiroth to a series of new locations that are only visited once or twice and these new locations lack the deep and consistent atmosphere of Midgar.  All these changes alter the tone of the story in ways that can be jarring.  The "tightness" wasn't there any more.

Thinking about this reminds me of G.K. Chesterton's aphorism: "art is limitation."  In other words, meaning requires form and form means setting limits.  The picture shall go this far and no further.  The sculpture shall be of these materials and not those.  This is a challenge for any epic fantasy game.  "Epic-ness" requires all the vastness of a real world.  To make that world cohere as an artistic whole requires unity and detail.  The two goals pull against each other.  Perhaps game design has grown enough with the advent of the MMORPG to resolve this tension.  If so, then it's a real creative break-through.  It also means that even Final Fantasy VII's artistic failures were productive in the long run. 

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Final Fantasy VII (A Day Late and a Dollar Short): Platypus Nostalgia

So here's to the one I never got to play.  Some of us missed the bus when SquareSoft made the jump to Play Station.  The most I saw of Final Fantasy VII when I was growing up was thirty or so minutes of the opening.  Since then, I've heard nothing but rave reviews, but with no Play Station, no game.  The fact that a PC version was released at the same time seems to have escaped me.  Anyhow...  Steam was running a sale on the PC version this past Christmas and I decided it was time to finally sit down and find out what all the flap was about.  So here are my thoughts; a decade late and more than a dollar saved.

The first thing I noticed (especially after having just replayed Final Fantasy VI) was the huge leap forward in graphics from previous titles.  We not only get a more visually dynamic battle arena, we also get a more subtle medium for story-telling culminating in several extended and well-done cinematics.  The polygons are clumsy by today's standards and there are places were the flat, static, 16 bit animation of previous games is aesthetically superior, but the new technology was definitely worth pioneering.

The second point that stood out to me was the decisive choice to pursue a sci-fi aesthetic over a high fantasy aesthetic.  This choice has dominated all subsequent games under the main title (as opposed to the Tactics series).  I don't know exactly what I think of that.  The Final Fantasy games share a distinctive visual style, so perhaps this is an example of things becoming more what they are over time.  The style certainly promises to create a singularly striking set of visuals in Final Fantasy XV (if the trailers can be believed).

The third point would be changes in the actual game play.  The relatively small amount of equipment each character can use simplifies things a good deal.  The large breath of skill, magic, and stat related materia also makes the characters largely blank slates as far as their battle-field performance.  I don't know what I think about those two changes.  Customizing materia is fun, but I felt that the equipment changes closed off creativity in an area where I liked it and the materia broadened out my choices in a place where I liked limitations.  Still, here's the world's smallest violin playing for me...  It was something new, and that was fun in itself.  Moving on, I noticed a huge proliferation in mini-games and side-quests.  These should have enriched the game play, but my little lappy isn't rigged for button-mashing so that they proved a real and persistent frustration in the PC version.

Finally, there's the story itself.  While I enjoyed the sweeping epic, I did find it occasionally hard to follow the characters' motivations.  It seems that their guiding star is always "whatever Shinra's doing. let's do the opposite".  Sometimes, as when Shinra's trying to save the planet and defeat Sephiroth, I was genuinely stumped as to why we didn't all join forces.  That could be an issue of information lost when the dialog was translated into English or perhaps I missed a side-quest or two that would have helped.  There's also a sense, like in Disney's Atlantis that the designers were caught between wanting to tell a more adult story but having to rely on a younger audience.  The game wavers fairly consistently between the adult and Juvenal.  Maybe that's appropriate if your main audience are teenagers, but I work with teenagers and they're usually quicker to savage "kiddy-stuff" than I am.  Those things aside, I did enjoy the story.  The sheer amount of things to discover was enormous and I was constantly kept guessing.  Cloud's plotline was engaging and I enjoyed the awkward rivalry between Tifa and Aeris.  Barret is also just a fun bloke, and I enjoyed learning his story.  Everyone else in the ensemble didn't feel like they had much to offer, but they didn't particularly detract either.  Actually, I had some fun watching the Turks and the Shinra leadership work out their own journeys and I would have liked to have seen more of Sephiroth as the most compelling villain of the series so far.

Well, c'est ca.  A bit rambling, perhaps, but I wanted to get my thoughts out while they were still fresh (that is within a couple hours of finishing the game).  I still have to finish my replay of Ocarina of Time where I'm in the middle of Ganon's palace and shy one bottle.  Maybe I can get back to that once summer starts.  Until then, it's been fun.  If you'd like to share your own thoughts on Final Fantasy VII or the series in general I would really like to hear them -please feel free to leave a comment.