Monthly Archives: August 2010

I know that a sentence from Calvino was not among the many writing projects that I listed in my last post, but I was reading “From the Opaque” in The Road to San Giovanni this morning while drinking my coffee and watching my kids race toy cars down the slide, and I could  not resist sharing this sentence.

“Instead of considering the source of the rays or the rays themselves or the surfaces that receive them, one might consider the dapple of shadows the places that the rays do not reach, how the shadow sharpens in proportion to the strength of the sun, how the morning shadow of a fig tree from being tenuous and uncertain becomes as the sun climbs a black drawing of the green tree leaf by leaf expanding at the plant’s foot, that concentration of the black to signify the polished green the fig tree encloses leaf by leaf on the side turned towards the sun, and the more the drawing on the ground concentrates its blackness the more it shrinks and shortens itself as if sucked in by the roots, swallowed up by the foot of the trunk and returned to the leaves, transformed into white sap in their veining and stalks, until at the moment when the sun is at its highest the shadow of the vertical trunk disappears and the shadow of the umbrella of leaves curls up beneath, on the fermented squashiness of the ripe figs that have fallen to the ground, waiting for the shadow of the trunk to sprout out again and push it towards the other side lengthening out there as if the gift of growth, which the fig tree as fruit bearing plant has renounced, passed to this ghost plant stretched out on the ground, until the moment when other ghost plants grow so far as to cover it, the hill the ridge the coast flooding into a single lake the shadows.”

I have been away for a while, first on Manitoulin with some friends and then at camp, and I have returned home with a whole list of things that I need to write about but will probably not find the time to write about very soon, especially considering the new semester that is lurking only a few days away.  I would like to write something about what it means to go away together, in togetherness, as family and as friends, something about how increased wealth produces increased isolation, something about John Gardner’s The Sunlight Dialogues, something on the idea of the call in Heidegger, something on the relationship between ideals of individuality and the experience of depression, and this is still a very partial list.

I was full of these and other things  as I drove into the driveway on Saturday, full of the need to do something about them, but coming home disrupted them with its welcome, disrupted them with the pleasantness of the home and neighbourhood.  There were tomatoes, hundred of tomatoes, ripening on the vines, the first ripe tomatoes I have ever managed to grow from seedThere were apples, a very few apples, our first ever crop of apples, ready to be pickedThere were sunflowers, the sunflowers that my eldest son had purchased with his own allowance and planted with his own hands and watered relentlessly, and they were blooming.  There were the friends who dropped by for pancakes on Saturday night, and the friends who came by for pasta on Sunday night.  There was, in short, a fullness of those things that make the home and the garden and the neighbourhood what they should be.

You will not blame me for choosing them over writing the poor things that I might have written.

I am always confronted by the verticality of the forest, by the way it ascends, layer on layer, from the underbrush to the canopy, and my walking through the forest, even when I am walking along its paths, seems like it moves along the wrong plane, fails to recognize the movement proper to its place.  I am always finding it necessary to stoop toward the flowers and the insects and the snakes, always finding it necessary to crane toward the birds and the butterflies and the leaves and the very sky.  I am pulled in both directions, stretched between earth and sky, and this tension is not lessened, only intensified the further I walk in it.  Though I know it is not so, though I can think of countless examples to the contrary, it seems impossible to me that horizontality is not a purely human thing, a purely unnatural thing, confined to those places where we have cleared the forest so that we might break the terrible tension that suspends us, longingly, in verticality.

So, I have this theory that the reboot of the Star Trek franchise reflects a shift in the American self-imagination following the events of 9/11, a shift that disrupted the cultural logic of the original Star Trek timeline and that required the a creation of an alternative timeline to take its place.  Stay with me.  This may take some doing.

Okay, I start with the observation that the Star Trek franchise before 9/11 was the product and the reflection of a particular sort of  American utopian narrative, a narrative that understands the advance of science and technology and democracy and capitalism as a manifest destiny that will culminate in a world without poverty or hunger and where the threat of violence and disaster can always be met through technological intervention.   It is in this sense that Star Trek is a true science fiction.  The solutions to its problems are always technological and scientific in nature.  They are almost always a matter of reconfiguring the phaser banks, or modifying the warp core, or introducing a new modulation to the sensor array, or rerouting the signal through the secondary power relays.  These are the kinds of solutions to most problems in Star Trek, and these solutions produce a universe that is a coherent and continuing narrative, where the right people are always sitting in the Captain’s chair and making the decisions necessary to ensure the continuation of the Federation’s technological utopia, and it is this utopia that stands as the imagined future of the American way.

With the events of 9/11, however, America’s popular self-conceptions become questioned, and it ceases to be so self-evident that science, technology, democracy, capitalism, and the American way will achieve the future that this utopian narrative had imagined for itself.  The narrative of triumphal Americanism becomes seriously disrupted, and it now becomes necessary both to explain how this disruption could possibly occur and to determine how it might be overcome.

The newest Star Trek film, directed by , J. J. Abrams, responds directly to the challenges that 9/11 poses to the imagined future of technology, science, democracy, and capitalism.  Its story begins with a 9/11-like catastrophic event, a disruption to the very fabric of time and space that changes the course of history laid out in the original Star Trek timeline, replacing it with an alternative universe in which James T. Kirk does not in fact become captain of the Enterprise, but is replaced by the much more logical and analytical Spock.  The Star Trek universe, therefore, like the American nation, has suffered a tremendous shock that has disrupted its story as it was meant to be told.  The enemy has not just managed to threaten and to attack and to hurt.  It has managed to alter the course of events as they were supposed to have unfolded, an alteration that becomes symbolized by Spock’s replacement of Kirk in the captain’s chair.

The film positions the choice between Spock and Kirk as a choice between logical adherence to protocol and instinctual willingness to follow emotion.  A good leader, it suggests, is the one who knows when to throw aside the book, bend the rules, ignore protocol, and just get the bad guys, even when all logic and all odds would suggest another course of action.  As the story unfolds, Spock is represented to be a poor leader because he represses his grief and anger and desire for revenge beneath a logic and an adherence to protocol, whereas Kirk is represented to be a good leader because he embraces his emotions and decides to attack his enemies directly, even when it seems very likely that this course of action will lead everyone to their deaths.

If this is read as a response to the crisis of 9/11, the film affirms a need for leadership that values emotion and immediate revenge over logic and consultation.  It argues, essentially, that the disruption to the narrative of American technological utopia can be corrected as long as the right sorts of people find their way back into the captain’s chair, people who are willing to destroy their enemies at any cost.  Although the film purports to be a “reboot” of the franchise, therefore, I would suggest that its narrative is actually profoundly conservative in nature, advocating for a recovery, by any mean necessary, of the technological utopia that Star Trek has always represented in the popular American imagination.

Though I have said any number of times that I would not go back and make substantial changes to previous chapters before the novel was finished, I have made myself a liar.  In order to continue the story as I wanted it, I felt that some changes were necessary, so parts of Chapter Seven and Chapter Eight have been significantly enough rewritten that readers may need to reread them, particularly the last  bit of Chapter Eight.   As always, those who are new to the story can find the beginning at Chapter One.

Chapter Nine:
In Which Lindy Makes A Decision

The place where Lindy found herself was very dark.  It smelled of damp and mould and rotting things, like the crawlspace under the house across the street where the bravest of the children would go when they played  hide and seek.  She could hear water splashing whenever she moved her feet, as if the whole room was filled with a thin puddle, but the only other sounds were the whispering of her  breath and the creaking of the house and the scurrying of small feet.  Even the house was quiet now, and Lindy was so frightened that she began to cry.

Now, I have said at least once before that Lindy was a brave girl, and I have said this because there was truly nothing much that frightened her.  She was not at all afraid of the dark, for instance, and not afraid of small spaces.  She was not even afraid of bugs or mice or rats or snakes or things like that, so long as there were not too many of them at once.  But now she had to endure all these things together, and she had to face them alone without any idea of where she was or if she would ever find her way home, so it is no wonder that she cried, and I hope that you will forgive her for it, because I know that you and I have sometimes cried over a great deal less.

In any case, she stood there for a very long time, crying, and the longer she was in the cold and the damp and the dark, the more frightened she became, and the harder she cried, and the more panicked she grew, and then she found that she was running along the wall, or at least stumbling along it as fast as she could manage on the slippery and uneven floor, and then she caught her toe on something and fell and scraped both her hands on what seemed to be a worn stone floor, and then she started to cry like she never had before.

When she had finally cried all the tears that she had to cry and had began to think about things a little more calmly, she found that she was half-lying against a damp and uneven wall and half-sitting on a wet and uneven floor.  She began brushing her hair back from where it had fallen onto her face, which she thought was the best way to start pulling herself together, but her hands soon discovered that Alisdair’s crown still sat on her head, though it seemed to weigh nothing now.  She took it carefully in her hands and set it in her lap.  It grew heavy again, the moment it left her head, and there was a comfort in its warm weight.  Her fear and panic vanished all at once, and she sat, cold and wet and hungry, waiting for whatever it was that would happen next.

As if The Crofts had been waiting for just this moment, it suddenly filled her mind again, and Lindy could feel its pain and fear and anger.  “I’m glad you’ve finally stopped your blubbering,” it said, and there was a harshness in its voice that Lindy had never heard before.  “It never becomes a Queen to blubber.”

The Crofts sounded so full of disdain that Lindy could hardly believe how comforting it had been to her only a few hours earlier, and she had to stop herself from crying again.  “Why are you so angry?” she cried.  “I didn’t do anything.”

The house laughed sadly, but it seemed suddenly more resigned than angry.  “Maybe not, but you will certainly have to do something now, and you will fail, and Khurshid will claim me, and I will become an evil thing, twisted and foul.”

“I don’t understand.  What do I have to do with Khurshid?”

“Do you know where you are?”  The Crofts demanded, ignoring her question.  “You’re in what was once one of my most beautiful rooms, the map room.  I took it into me from one of the Keepers, but it has fallen now, as the Keeper from whom I drew it has also fallen, and it is now beyond my power or anyone else’s to recover it.”  The house paused, and Lindy felt its sadness deepening.  “There are countless more like it.  Would you like to see them?”

Lindy started to say that she would rather not, but she was already sitting against a very different wall in a very different room, with jagged holes in its plaster and with cobwebs on its furniture and with dust lying thickly on its floors.  “This,” said the house, “was Keeper Aulden’s study.  Countless people came from among the worlds to sit here and listen to his wisdom, until Khurshid struck him down at the bridge, and everything that Aulden gave me began to fall into ruin.”

The room changed again, becoming darker and filled with a smell like rot.  Things opened their eyes in its corners, and small creeping creatures began working their way stealthily toward Lindy across the garbage strewn floor.  She gave a little scream and scrambled to her feet, but the house seemed unhurried.  “This was the old chemistry laboratory,” it said, “a place of great learning and discovery, the pride of Keeper Dennison until she chose to give her crown to Khurshid.   Now it’s full of unspeakable things.”  The little lizard-like creatures had come almost to Lindy’s feet now, but The Crofts whisked her on again.

They were now in a long paneled room, littered with debris and pitted on its walls and floors and ceilings, as if it had suffered a terrific explosion.  Lindy was so frightened from the creatures in the previous room and so confused by everything that The Crofts was saying and showing that she felt sick to her stomach, as if she had been on one of the big rides at the amusement park after eating too much candy.  She tried to clear her mind, but everything was too overwhelming.  Her whole body wanted to be sick, or to run away, or just to lie down and sleep.  “This was the sculpture gallery,” the house said, breaking into her mind with its sad, lost voice.  “Keeper Woods once…”

“Stop!” Lindy cried.  She felt as though she would begin to scream or vomit or even cry again if The Crofts said another word about the broken and rotting rooms.  “I didn’t do any of this,” she pleaded.  “It’s not my fault.  Why are you showing these things to me?”

“Because,” said The Crofts, quietly now, but full of a fierce anger, “you need to know that I was once much more than I am now.  I grew up from the homes of the twenty-four Keepers, drawing into myself what was best in them, and I became a house that was truly fit for kings.  But all the Keepers who were killed by Khurshid’s sword left their rooms to fall into decay, and all who were seduced by Khurshid’s promises allowed theirs to become something far worse than decayed, and sometimes the rooms have even fallen away from me altogether, so I am a fraction of what I was, a husk, full of rot and maggots.

“I still don’t understand what this has to do to me.”

“Then listen more and question less.  Alisdair was the last of the Keepers, the last of the Crowned, and his will was a strong will, so he and I and Penates, we strove to hold together much that was good in me, the libraries and the kitchens and the cottages and the great hall and much else that you have not yet seen, or these too would have fallen into decay.  I was broken, but because of Alisdair’s strength, I was no longer breaking further.  And now he is gone.”

The house paused, but Lindy said nothing.

“You are now the sole remaining Keeper.  Alisdair granted you his crown because there was no other choice, because his crown was the crown of your world and must be worn by someone of your race.  So now it falls to you to turn Khurshid back at the bridge on Midsummer, and you will most certainly fail, for you have neither the strength of arms nor the strength of will to resist him, and so I will fall to Khurshid.  And even if you somehow succeed, I will still diminish, become smaller and darker, more ruinous and more haunted.  You lack the will to hold me to myself, and you lack the memory of how I once was.  Perhaps Penates will be able to keep the kitchens as they were, but all else will fall into ruin, and all that will remain of me is what you have added from your own poor house.”

The house laughed mournfully.  “Would you like to see what would be left of me?”

Before she could answer Lindy found herself in her very own cubby, with her books, and her radio, and the old Christmas decorations, only she knew right away that it was not really her cubby.  The window looked out onto the trees of The Weald now, not onto Mister Hat’s yard, and she knew that her own cubby in her own house was still far away.  She did not cry again, but she wished that she could.

The house had left her alone again, and everything was very quiet, like in her real cubby at home.  She sat on the old couch cushions with the orange fringes, turned her back to the window, and pulled her sleeping bag up over her legs.  Then she took her crown off again, which had somehow found its way back to her head, and she laid it in her lap and tried to think what it was that she should do next.

As she was sitting there, propped in the comfort of her cubby, a strange sensation began creeping over her, as if she was no longer entirely awake but not yet entirely asleep, and it seemed to her that she began drifting through the attic window, out across the huge bulk of The Crofts, and over the fields of The Weald, until she came to the bridge that crossed the great river.  She hung there for a moment, and she could see a shining figure far below her walking along the stream, the same figure she had seen when Alisdair had been talking to her in the great hall, only now she could hear what he was singing, a strange song, a mixture of sadness and hate.  Then she was moving again, over the tops of the trees, following the path that led away from the bridge, and she flew for what seemed like miles and miles, until there arose a tremendously tall and peculiar tree beside the path, its leaves shimmering gold-green in the sun, taller and brighter than any other in the forest.  Lindy paused again in her flight, hovering above the tree, then and swooped down through the forest to her left, weaving her way through the trees, and then the trees came to a sudden end, and a small clearing opened in front of her, with a stone cottage in its very centre.  Lindy began to settle toward the front door of the cottage, and she was filled with an overwhelming need to know what was inside it, but her dreaming ended just then, and she was back sitting in her cubby once more, and she knew now what she had to do.

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The Gulls

The ragged clouds of gulls come over the trees,
frayed and straggling, black against a grey sky,
chasing the last fragments of the sun,
and each is tethered to the next by stray wings,
in two or threes, clutches, small sprays of shadow
that spring from the occluding forest,
that are swallowed by the indefinite brightness of the horizon,
like bits of ash returning to the fire that first flung them
into the high and cooling air of a still un-starred sky.

I was raised in a fairly traditional Christian family.  There was much that I appreciated about this upbringing, and I still have an  immense gratitude to my parents for raising what was, despite the faults that all families have, a loving and supportive family.  Still, my beliefs, religious and otherwise, have changed a great deal from those that were taught to me, and as I have been confronted with raising my own family, I have begun to realize the need to articulate my beliefs more clearly.  While my own thinking might tolerate a great deal of ambiguity about some of these things, a child’s thinking does not, and I am struggling to say clearly, concisely, and simply what it is that I believe.

What follows is a first attempt.  It is not adequate for more reasons than I can list here, but I hope that it might be a place where I can begin thinking through these kinds of ideas with others who are like-minded.  Though the following statements are very influenced by my Christian upbringing, they are only those that I feel that I can defend experientially, apart from any specific text or tradition.

1. I believe in a God who loves us, though I confess that I do not understand this love.

2. I believe in a God who comes to us because we are unable to come to God, though I confess that I do not understand how this  is accomplished.

3. I believe that the only proper response to God’s love is to love God in return, and that it is only possible to love God through loving one another.

4. I believe that all true religion, in whatever faith it arises, leads to an increase of love, and that any religion leading to anything else, in whatever faith it arises, is false, absolutely.

5. I believe that God appears through the Christian tradition, through its scriptures and sacraments, though I suspect that this appearance is neither exclusive nor absolute.

6. I believe that the only essential theology is this:  “God loves us, so we must love God through loving one another.”