Monthly Archives: December 2010

So, the reason that I have not been posting recently has only a very little to do with the regular business and chaos of Christmas in a large family, and a great deal more to do with the fact that I have discovered the perfect holiday diet.  It seems that the key to getting through Christmas without gaining any extra pounds is to contract a nasty flu from your children so that you will spend the most gluttonous week in the calendar eating nothing but yoghurt and drinking nothing but hot lemon toddies, usually cut heavily with scotch.  I am not sure that this method will receive the approval of your local health board, and it does have the regrettable side effect of debilitating you to such a degree that you cannot possibly accomplish anything else useful, but I guarantee its results.

The story of the wisemen coming from the East to visit the young Christ occurs in only one of the Christian gospels and is considered by many to be a late inclusion to the story of Christ, but it is a curious account for other reasons as well.

Consider that the word ‘wisemen’ is a translation of the Greek word μάγοι, which is sometimes better translated as ‘magi’.  This word was derived from Old Persian and refers primarily to the priests of Zoroastrianism, who were widely known for their knowledge of astrology, but it can also be used more broadly in reference to wisemen, interpreters of dreams, sorcerers, and magicians, and it is used elsewhere in the Christian scriptures to describe Elymas the Sorcerer and Simon Magus.  In other words, despite many attempts to identify these magi as Jewish priests from Babylon or Persia or Yemen, this was almost certainly not the case, as is further evidenced by the fact that they needed to consult with the priests in Herod’s palace about the Jewish scriptures to learn where the Messiah was to be be born.  This is not to say necessarily that the magi were entirely unfamiliar with Jewish faith and scriptures, since substantial Jewish populations had been taken captive into Babylon and Persia in earlier times, and since there were Jewish communities in many of the major cities to the East, but it is to note that these men were almost certainly from quite another land and quite another race and quite another faith entirely.

How strange is it, then, that the gospel of Matthew would record the magi as coming to offer gifts to the child Messiah?  How strange is it that men who were regarded as sorcerers and magicians and astrologers, all of whom were forbidden by Jewish scriptures, were accorded such a prominent role in the story of Christ’s birth?  Whether or not we regard the account as corresponding to some historical event, is this not a strange story to be telling about the one whom you believe to be the Messiah?

I have no good answers here, but perhaps it should make us see the magi a little differently when next we see them standing in somebody’s creche.

In Part II, Lecture III of What Is Thinking?, Martin Heidegger notes a possible philological connection between the words ‘think’ and ‘thank’ rooted in the Old-English word ‘thanc’, which refers to a grateful thought or the expression of such a thought.  This connection drives him to ask, “Is thinking a giving of thanks? Or do thanks consist in thinking?”

His initial answer to these questions is that, “In giving thanks, the heart gives thought to what it has and what it is.”  In this sense, then, “Original thanking is the thanks owed for being,” and this “thanks alone gives rise to thinking.”  Here Heidegger is noting how the act of thanking, at least in its most original form of giving the thanks that owed to being, is essentially a giving of thought or a giving rise to thinking.  It is the proper response of the heart to what it has and what it is, the proper response of the heart to being.  In fact, he goes on to say that “Pure thanks is that we simply think – think what is really and solely given, what is there to be thought.”  Proper thinking thus arises out of pure thanks, where “the heart in thought recalls where it belongs,” and so proper thinking has the posture of thanks.  It is a giving of what the heart owes to being.

Heidegger describes this kind of thinking that arises out of thanks as devoted thinking, and he emphasizes that it is not “something that we ourselves produce” in order to repay the gift of being with a gift of our own.  “Such thanks,” he says, “is not a recompense, but it remains an offering, and only by this offering do we allow that which properly gives food for thought to remain what it is in its essential nature.”  The key here is that devoted thinking does not seek to establish an economy of giving through which it might repay its debt to being once and for all.  Rather, it offers itself precisely as an offering, offers itself as thanks.

It is interesting to me that Heidegger identifies this posture of proper thinking in relation to the question of being, and that he does so, not in terms of nausea, as many others had done and were doing, but in terms of thanks.  Though he had read Nietzsche more thoroughly than perhaps any one before or since, he does not follow Nietzsche with respect to the idea of nausea, as Sartre and the existentialists do.  He is certainly willing to open the question of being, but he refuses to be driven by nausea into simply closing it again, into merely reversing its traditional terms.  Instead, he insists on a posture of thankfulness that does not attempt to determine being in any direction, but only to think what being gives, to recall where it belongs, to allow it to remain what it is in its essential nature.  Rather than closing or determining the question of being, therefore, proper thinking occupies this question in a posture of thanks.

This posture, this attitude, this stance, this thankful thinking, it is a powerful idea for me personally.  I too try to occupy certain questions in their openness, the question of being not least among them, and I often find that I am doing so with a terror and an anxiety and a nausea, and though I have taken much from Jacques Derrida, his own posture of “a certain laughter and a certain dance” has always seemed too irreverent to me.  The posture of thanks that Heidegger describes here, however, is the posture that best reflects my own experience when I am thinking properly, when I am thinking what there is to be thought as properly as I can.  When I think in this way, I fall into this posture of thankfulness, a thankfulness that needs to give thought to what it has and what it is.

We went to the market this morning, in its current displaced location in City Hall, and I ran into Tom Abel, who is visiting Guelph this weekend, so he stopped by for coffee this afternoon, and then I read a little from Tolkien’s The Hobbit with my eldest son, and then I sat down to write a post on Heidegger’s What Is Thinking?, and then I will be skipping a Christmas party tonight, and so the day is proceeding at exactly the speed that I like best, and I am content.

Many of you were complaining earlier in the year that I was posting instalments of Lindy too seldom, and I will probably now get complaints that I am posting them too often, but I have always said that I can only write at the pace that my time and my inclination allow, and my poor readers must, unfortunately, take what they can get.  As always, those who are new to the story can find the beginning at Chapter One, and those who would like to have the story thus far in a single file can find it in both .pdf and .rtf formats on the Longer Works page.

Chapter Twelve:
In Which a Great Evil Is Done

Lindy waited for a long time before she took the last step from the bridge into Khurshid’s lands. First she waited to watch Khurshid disappear into the forest, and then she waited a bit longer to be sure that he was truly gone, and then she waited even a bit longer because it was hard to know when to start, and then Moe laid his big webbed hand on Lindy’s shoulder, and Cleanna took Lindy’s hand, and Lindy knew that they were both waiting for her, but she still could not make herself take that first step.

It was not that the forest itself looked so frightening. It looked like a perfectly normal forest, just like any other forest she had seen back home, without even the strange sense of rightness that lay over everything at The Crofts. It was just that Lindy had half-expected Khurshid’s country to be full of darkness and rottenness, with nasty things living in its shadows, like the things that Bilbo had found in Mirkwood, or like the things that Mole had found in the Wild Wood, but Khurshid’s country looked nothing like this. The meadow just before them was like any other spring meadow, full of dry grasses from the year before and green shoots growing up everywhere among them.  And the forest looked like any other spring forest, with evergreen trees standing fully clothed in their needles, while everything else was wearing thin new robes of pale green leaves or waiting for their growing buds to cover their bare branches. It all seemed too ordinary, too natural, too beautiful to be the home of something as evil as Khurshid, and it made Lindy feel uncertain.

She knew, though, that she could not stand there forever. She could either go back to The Crofts, which she felt sure would be a very cowardly thing to do, or she could go on and try to find the cottage that she had seen in her dream. She already knew what choice she would make, but it was one thing to make a decision and another thing altogether actually to do it. Still, waiting was not going to make anything any easier, and the sun was already well past its height, so at last she gathered up her courage, and she stepped onto the cobble stones and began walking toward the forest.

The meadow was broader on Khurshid’s side of the river, and the sun was very warm, foretelling the coming summer, but the forest was cool when they reached it, and there were even patches of snow in the shade and the hollows of the deepest thickets. The forest was mostly quiet, but there were often the sounds of songbirds just out of sight, and there were squirrels now and again, and they even saw a long slender grass snake warming itself on a rock where the path let the sun into the canopy.  Lindy was never quite able to forget where they were or what Khurshid had said to her, but the forest was so beautiful in the muddy sort of way that forests are beautiful in spring that she found herself enjoying the walk even still.

“I don’t understand,” she said to Moe and Cleanna after a time. “If Khurshid is so evil, why is his country so beautiful?”

“Not all evil things are ugly, Lindy,” replied Cleanna, “and not all good things are beautiful.” She gestured toward the forest, “Besides, there’s still much goodness here. Evil’s greatest frustration is that goodness continues to grow, even where it’s least expected. Evil is never able to destroy goodness wholly, and never forever. Goodness always clings on, though sometimes only in the smallest ways.”

“So, why,” asked Lindy, “is everyone so afraid to come here. It doesn’t seem so bad to me.”

“Oh, well,” said Cleanna, looking a little worried suddenly, “there’s certainly plenty in the forest to fear, I assure you, and much of it looks as evil as it is. Sometimes beautiful things only hide a deeper ugliness. That’s why Khurshid leaves the forest mostly untouched, I think, because it pleases him to see something so beautiful hiding things that are so evil.”

Lindy thought about this for a minute, and all three of them were quiet for a long time, just walking the road and feeling the cool of the forest and watching the little spots of sunlight trickling through the leaves. Then, just as she was about to say that she might like to stop and have lunch, Lindy suddenly saw something moving on the road ahead. It looked like the deer that sometimes appeared at her Grandfather’s cottage, only it was much smaller, and when she looked closely she could see others as well, hiding here and there among the trees. She looked over to Moe and Cleanna to tell them what she had seen, but they had already noticed the little deer themselves and were watching the creatures as curiously as Lindy was.

The little animals had seen Lindy and the others as well, and they investigated the newcomers to their forest with timid interest, as Cleanna began setting out their lunch. The deer came closer in fits and starts, from tree to tree, until at last they were close enough that Lindy could toss one of them a crust from her bread, and it was not long before all of the deer were crowding around them looking for food. The braver among them came right up to feed from Lindy’s hand, while the more timid stayed just beyond her reach, waiting for her to toss something in their direction.  Lindy’s crusts were gone quite soon, however, and she did not know how long the food would need to last, so she could not afford to feed them anything more.  Even so, the deer gave no sign that they would leave, circling Lindy and her companions as they finished their lunch and repacked their things and set off along the road once more.

For a short time the deer even followed after them, running through the trees on either side of the road. Some grew brave enough to run after Lindy’s heels, and she would sometimes slow suddenly to watch them skip nimbly around her.  After a time, however, the deer suddenly slowed and then stopped altogether, as if they had come to some invisible border, and then they disappeared back into the forest, leaving the three travellers alone once again.

The path seemed much more lonely without the little creatures, especially since the sun had started to go down behind the trees.  It would be a long time before its light found the horizon and things became truly dark, but Lindy began thinking that it might be time to stop and make what camp they could.  She was just about to say so, when she heard Moe behind her saying in his low and gentle voice, “There’s a good spot to camp over there, Miss Lindy.”  He pointed over to their left.  “See that little grove of trees in the meadow there?  That should give us some shelter and let us see if anyone is coming too.”

“I’ll fly up and have a look around a little,” offered Cleanna.  “Maybe I can catch sight of the tree where we’re supposed to turn.”  She flapped into her bird form and spiralled swiftly above the canopy, leaving Moe and Lindy to carry the three packs to the little grove of trees. It was bigger than it had looked from the path, maybe fifty trees altogether, mostly cedar and something that looked a little but not quite like birch and a few other evergreens too.  The litter from the cedars smelled good, and it was soft under Lindy’s feet.  Moe chose a smooth hollow to set up their camp, and he had a fire burning very quickly from the dead wood under the trees.  He went off then to find enough wood to last them the night while Lindy laid out the blankets and got the food out for their supper.  She could almost imagine that she was camping with her mother like they did every summer, only they had no tents or cook stove or anything like that, just a few blankets and some cold food.

Moe did not go very far, making sure that he always kept Lindy and the camp in sight, but he soon had quite a pile of wood piled up, all broken into lengths.  He was just stacking the last of it when Cleanna came flitting down and settled by the fire.

“I couldn’t see anyone around,” she said, pulling her shawl around her shoulders and leaning close to the fire.  “And I didn’t see any trees tall enough to be the one you saw in your dream, Lindy, but I did see some smoke from a fire or a chimney a long way off.  I thought about having a look, but it was getting dark, and I didn’t want to get lost.”

“Do you think it might be the cottage?” asked Lindy.

“It might be.  It’s on the right side of the road.”

Lindy was about to say something more, but just then they all heard footsteps in the leaf litter, and they turned to see Khurshid approaching their camp through the trees.  He looked as he had when he had met them at the bridge, tall and golden-haired and beautiful, and he moved with the same ease, and he was carrying in his arms one of the little deer that had eaten from their hands and had followed them as they walked that afternoon.

“Good evening, Lindy,” he said, when he had stepped past the last of the trees and into the circle of flickering light cast by their fire.  “You certainly have found a cozy camp for the night.  You’ll sleep very well, I’m sure.”

“What do you want?” demanded Cleanna, her voice shrill and nervous.

“I have warned you about speaking to me, bird-woman,” Khurshid said sternly, but losing none of his dignity.  He turned back to Lindy.  “I only came to let you know,” he continued, “that you need to be more careful now in choosing the people and the things that you love.”  He stroked the cheek of the deer he was holding with great gentleness.  “You see, I may not be able to harm you, but I am quite capable of harming the things you love, like this little fellow here,” he said, looking down at the small form in his arms.  “Isn’t it a lovely thing?  So small and innocent and beautiful.  You seemed quite taken with him this afternoon, and he made such a delightful sight tripping over your feet as you walked.  It’s unfortunate that your affection for him will mean his death, don’t you think?”

Khurshid’s eyes met Lindy’s just then, and they were full of a terrible joy, and then she saw his free hand seize the deer by the throat and break its neck with a savage twist.

“No!” cried Lindy, and at the same moment Moe lunged forward, already changing into his monstrous self and reaching for Khurshid with his huge webbed hands.

Khurshid batted him aside with an almost casual blow.  “That was unwise, my little monstrosity,” he said.  “Don’t you know that the protection of your young Keeper here is good only so long as you do me no harm?  I could kill you this very moment.”  He squatted down beside Moe and looked into his eyes.  “But I won’t,” he went on, looking back to Lindy, “as a sign of good faith to you, my dear Lindy.”

He stood again and walked to Lindy, reaching out to brush her cheek, just as he had brushed it only a few hours earlier at the bridge and just as he had brushed the deer’s cheek only a few moments ago.  “Remember that I reward as well as I punish, my dear.  But I can only reward once you give me the crown, and I will never cease punishing you until it is mine.”  He was still holding the little deer by its broken neck, and he threw it now onto Lindy’s blankets.  “This is what I will do to everything you love.  So ask yourself truly how much sacrifice that crown is really worth to you?”

He turned smoothly on his heel, and then he seemed to blend with the last few rays of sunlight, and then he was gone.

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I have had a number of people request that I provide a single file where they can either read or print the entire story to date, so I have posted such a file in both doc and pdf formats on a new Longer Works page that I have just added under the blog’s Pages heading.  I will update these files as I post new chapters, so they should always be as complete a version of the story as possible.  I have also included links to these files below.

Lindy: A Fantasy.rtf

Lindy: A Fantasy.pdf

I was watching the classic animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas the other afternoon, one of the occupational benefits of being a mostly-stay-at-home father, and I had the sudden realization that its story is parallel to the story of Beowulf in some significant ways.

First, both stories centre around a small community that is terrorized by a monster who lives in the surrounding wilderness: Whoville by the Grinch and Heorot by Grendel.  This in itself is perhaps not very remarkable, not considering the vast number of other stories that are also structured in this way, and not considering the many historical and mythological and poetical reasons that make this plot structure narratively compelling.

Where the Grinch and Grendel are really similar, however, is in their reasons for attacking their nearby communities.  Neither are motivated be greed or revenge or instinct or even hunger.  Both are motivated solely by anger at the sounds of happiness that they hear in the communities from which they are excluded.  Grendel is enraged by the revelry in Heorot, and the Grinch is similarly unable to tolerate the singing down in Whoville.

The two monsters are not just angered because there are others who are perhaps happier than they are, nor just because there is happiness from which they have been excluded.  They are angered because the others who are happier than they are have had the temerity to make their happiness loudly and vocally public.  This is the crime for which the two communities are punished, the crime of proclaiming their happiness, and in this sense at least, these two very different stories are quite similar.

I am not sure what conclusions we might draw from this parallel, but it is exactly the sort of textual connection that I cannot resist marking, so I will simply mark it and leave the rest of you to make of it what you can.

He wears his cap backwards with a deeply rounded brim, and his sunglasses, Oakleys maybe, or Ray-Bans, are set on the brim like a set of false eyes above an absent face.  His plastic sports sandals are too small for his feet, so they slap the cement floor of the viewing area with short, high clicks as he swings his legs from the hips in a slow strut.  There are plastic coloured bracelets on his left wrist, remnants of causes that are now several years gone, and every so often he pulls up the collar of his blue Polo golf shirt, as if reminding himself that his time is not yet past.

I know that this poem is hardly appropriate given the season, but I sometimes come across old things in my notebooks and have the urge to finish them, and so here it is, whether you like it or not: a poem about a warm, summer rain posted in the middle of December.

The Finest of Rains

The breeze is stumbling and unsteady,
drunken, pleasantly drunken,
and it carries the lightest and finest of rains,
pin-pricks of coolness in the warm evening,
not enough, even, to quiet the crickets.

Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line – There is something about Errol Morris’ directing that makes his films irresistible to me, something that enables him to elicit from the people he interviews a depth and a range of personality that other documentarians rarely if ever reach. His subjects, far more often than not, appear as full fledged characters, as people so full of idiosyncrasy and personality that the hardly seem believable. This film, his first, is no exception. There are characters, even relatively minor ones, who appear so vividly that I doubt I will ever be able to rid myself of them. His films seem less to explore a particular story or a particular person and more to use these things as the occasions to make a study of human nature in all its variety. This film is a marvelous example of his approach, and I recommend it very, very highly.

Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York – This is a difficult and elusive film in many ways, but I think that one of the keys to thinking through it is to take seriously the allusion that one of its characters makes to Franz Kafka’s The Trial, because I feel that both the film and the book orient themselves in a similar way in relation to reality and to the cultures in which they were created. They both employ a kind of mundane surrealism to explore the ways that our culture alienates us from ourselves, Kafka focusing on the influence of bureaucracy and legality and policing, and Kaufman focusing on the influence of our culture’s pervasive sense of isolation, neurosis, hypochondria, and self obsession. Even the endings are remarkably parallel, both heroes dying almost alone, accompanied only by virtual strangers, both still trying desperately, even until the end, to make sense of the lives that they have lived and the circumstances that have brought them to their deaths. The difference, I think, is that Kaufman’s hero dies naturally in the arms of a woman who cares about him, even if only very tangentially, a woman whose life he has even acted for a time, while Kafka’s hero is summarily executed by agents of an anonymous and uncaring judicial bureaucracy. There is a little hope in Kaufman, in other words, though it is a very little hope indeed.

David Shapiro’s Keep the River on Your Right – This film is as odd and as endearing and, well, as creepy as the man whose life it tells. Tobias Schneebaum is an intelligent and fascinating man, and his story is almost too strange to be true, but there is something about the way that he relates to the tribal peoples with whom he has lived over the years that seems to border on obsession or fetish, something that is not quite whole or balanced. The film is not less interesting for the reason, however, and it is well worth watching.

Hector Cruz Sandoval’s Kordavision – This film is about memory and retrospective and nostalgia. It is constantly recalling the earlier life of its protagonist, Korda, the famous photographer of the Cuban revolution, but even more, it is also constantly recalling the revolution itself, through the accounts of Korda and other photographers, through Sandoval’s contextual material, and through Castro himself. In doing so, it seeks to retell the revolution to an American audience in a way that might overturn longstanding misconceptions, and I think that it succeeds in this respect, at least to some extent, but its very success in telling Cuba’s past makes all the more obvious the uncertainty of Cuba’s present. Korda and his fellow photographers and even Castro himself are all so obviously playing the role of old men reminiscing about an earlier and a better time, so obviously living in a time that has long ago passed, and there is no sense that their roles are being taken on by those who are younger and more virile. The film’s effect, therefore, is truly nostalgic, a celebration of the past that can only ever figure the present in terms of loss.

Peter Mettler’s Petropolis – Because this film employs exclusively aerial shots and takes as its subject a massive ecological disaster, it is very reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness, though without Herzog himself narrating chunks from the book Revelations in his ominous German accent. The film itself is primarily an aesthetic object rather than a film essay and provides only minimal information about the Alberta tar sands (though there is much more information in the extras), and I would say that the film suffers from some indecision in this question of whether to be aesthetic or informational. In my opinion, it needed either to be more fully aesthetic in its aims, as Lessons of Darkness is, leaving aside entirely the contextual subtitles at the beginning and the narrative voiceover at the end, or it needed to be more fully informative, fleshing out the subtitles and the voiceover to make them into useful context for the film rather than insufficient afterthoughts. In the end, however, the strength of the film is its cinematography, which is nothing short of amazing, and which will in itself certainly be worth any money that you might spend on a rental.

Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon – I am still not sure that I have a real grasp on this film, though I have been talking about it with anyone who was willing for the better part of a week. The final crisis of the story is meant to be obscure, I think, and I can readily accept this, but I am not even certain of the reason for its obscurity, and I am also confused about the ambiguous but persistent links between the film’s primary story and the larger story of Germany entering into the First World War. That being said, the acting and the cinematography and the pacing are superb, and I would encourage you to see it, even if only for the chance that you might help me to understand it better.

Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate – This film is an adaption of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas, which I reviewed only very recently. Polansky takes my recommendations and removes one of its two storylines, and he follows this storyline fairly closely for the first part of the film, deviating only very significantly in its latter stages. It is precisely in these latter stages that the film breaks down, however. The dynamic between the hero and the young woman who embodies the devil never achieves the complexity that it does in the book, and it falls apart almost entirely at the end of the film. Much of the film is like this. It fails to capture the tone that makes the book so enjoyable and then hurries to an unsatisfying end. I did not find much to enjoy in it.