Thoughts after a shitty, shitty week

I’ve never been asked why I’m a liberal and a progressive. I’ve had many political and ideological arguments with conservatives, but no one has ever asked me why I hew to a left-of-center viewpoint.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, not least because we seem to be bearing witness to the collapse of thoughtful conservatism in both the U.S. and Canada (or Ontario, at any rate). I can deal with thoughtful conservatism and sympathize with its most basic precepts, even when I disagree. Conservatism, the way I understand it, is preoccupied with the individual: personal responsibility and individual freedom are its most basic principles. Anything infringing on the latter is thus a transgression, and if you yourself transgress, fail, or otherwise don’t measure up, you have nobody to blame but yourself (perhaps the most perfect distillation of this principle is Ron Swanson’s characterization of capitalism as “God’s way of determining who is smart and who is poor”).

Yes, this is a radical oversimplification. But to radically oversimplify my liberalism, I’m to the left of center because I see culture and society as a series of overlapping and interlocking systems, and thus hold that any societal problems—especially the big ones—are systemic, and solutions need to address systemic issues. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was emblematic of this: I burst several blood vessels yelling at liberal pundits on the TV every time they took the bait and argued about whether or not Brown was a thug or an upstanding young man. The moment anyone attempted to ameliorate whatever petty larcenies he committed, they fell into the trap of arguing about whether the police were justified in shooting him as opposed to arguing the real point, which was about systemic police brutality against Black people. From the perspective of Personal Responsibility, if Michael Brown was a criminal, then hey … what do you expect? And by the same token, however, if he wasn’t a criminal, then his death was just the behaviour of a bad actor, and how dare you paint all cops with the same brush.

This same sort of logic has been at work in the arguments over the Trump Administration’s policy of family separation. Leaving aside for a moment the obvious racism and xenophobia animating the Jeff Sessions / Stephen Miller “zero tolerance” policy, the rhetoric suggesting that people crossing the border are criminals, thieves, murders, and rapists—and that such miscreants are cynically using children to pose as asylum seekers—is of a piece with the logic that says Michael Brown got what was coming to him.

Trump’s enablers have been deflecting with the talking point that “the immigration system is broken!” The thing is, I haven’t seen anyone really disputing that. By all means, let’s fix the system. But let’s also recognize the historical context, in which the United States’ frequent military and political meddling in Central and South America has created the circumstances in which people are fleeing the violence of failed states. A border wall and “zero tolerance” policy focuses the fault on individuals fleeing a shitty situation, and takes no responsibility for creating the shitty situation.

I realize that using the words “ethics” and “Trump Administration” in the same sentence is risible, but the U.S. is, frankly, ethically obligated to deal with the influx of would-be immigrants and refugees, not only because the United States is an immigrant nation, but also because it has been responsible for so many of the circumstances worldwide that make people desperate to emigrate. There’s a great line in a season one episode of The West Wing, in which Lord John Marbury (Roger Rees), tells the president that he’s obliged to insert the U.S. between bellicose India and Pakistan because “That’s the price you pay … for being rich, free, and alive, all at the same time.” Being rich, free, and alive at the expense of others should entail somewhat more nuance in border policing.

***

I started writing this post in part because I was reading this GQ profile of Donald Trump Jr. I wouldn’t have thought that I could ever feel sympathy for someone who embodies the worst aspects of frat/bro culture and his father’s sociopathy, but apparently I’m having all the feels today. Money quote:

The source’s impression of Don was that he, like seemingly everyone else in Trump’s orbit, was uselessly trying to impress a man who can only be impressed by himself. “He’s hustling and trying to do what he can to contribute but without knowing where the lines are,” the source said of Don, adding ruefully, “He’s a sad and tragic figure.”

As I was reading this profile, I couldn’t help but think of my own father, and his relationship with his father. My paternal grandfather, from what I know from my parents, was kind of an asshole to my dad when he was young. He loved my dad and was proud of him, but never said so. Once, when my father was in high school, he won a debating contest. My grandfather never acknowledged his accomplishment. My dad only learned of his own father’s pride one day when mowing the lawn, and their next door neighbour called him over and said, “I heard you won a debating contest! Your father is so proud of you.”

My earliest memories are of my father telling me he loved me and that he was proud of me—no matter what I’d done. He has told me many times that his own father’s reticence made him determined to tell his children he loved them every day.

See, here’s where I feel for Don Jr. He is in every way an asshole and a douchebag, but I see where that assholery and douchebaggery is fruit of the asshole tree. From everything I’ve read, Fred Trump, Donald’s father, was also emotionally abusive (and, from what evidence we have, a card-carrying member of the KKK). None of this excuses their egregious behaviour, but one can begin to see how an absence of love deforms the mind. In the process of writing this post, I called my father to make sure he was OK with me citing the story of his conversation with his neighbour. He said yes, absolutely, and also told me that, after I was born and my grandfather would come over for Sunday dinners, he confronted him on the doorstep: “I love you, Dad,” he said. And when my grandfather equivocated, my father said, “No. From now on when you come here, I greet you with ‘I love you, Dad,’ and you say ‘I love you too,’ and we hug. We do that, or you go back home.”

I don’t have children. That’s at least partially by design. I have a niece and nephew, whom I love beyond reason, and I have a brother and sister in law and parents whom I do not see with anything resembling proper frequency, but then, I’m an adult whose career took him to the easternmost fringe of Canada. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to have been separated from them, even for a short time, at an early age. Even in my teenage years, when parents are anathema, it would have scarred me.

One of the most decent human beings I have ever known is my high school math teacher, Vincent Delisi. He recently posted the following to Facebook:

I taught math for a very long time and one of the hardest concepts to get across was the notion that infinity isn’t just a really big number. I was reminded today of the example I used when our second child was born. You love your first one so much that sometimes you wonder if you have enough love for another. Then you hold the second (and the third) and realize the measure of infinity. An infinite love for each. Today as I held my 19 day old (third) granddaughter I was reminded of this.

In what is, to my mind, W.H. Auden’s greatest poem, “September 1, 1939,” he offers one of the most profound pieces of wisdom I’ve ever read: “We must love one another or die.” The poem—as is obvious from its title—was written on the occasion of the start of WWII. Of all the dark moments of the 20th century, there are few that are darker. Auden would later amend the line to read “We must love one another and die,” and later still eliminate the line entirely, saying that it was overly sentimental.

It makes me happy that editors today disagree with Auden, and that it’s hard to find a version of the poem with either of his edits. I might be an atheist, but I was raised Catholic, and one of the teachings that stuck with me is that love, while it might not be all you need, is nevertheless the most powerful weapon we have to combat fear and hate.

“September 1, 1939,” is, in my opinion, his greatest poem, but my favourite is “Lullaby,” and I leave you with its first verse:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

 

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Anthony Bourdain, 1956-2018

anthony-bourdain-twitter_625x300_1528458776361

One of the many tributes to Anthony Bourdain I’ve read in the last twenty-four hours said that he was a connoisseur of “authentic” food.

That’s the wrong word. “Authenticity” as it relates to culture is fraught at best, actively misleading at worst: the search for the authentic too often becomes a fetishistic quest that ignores the glorious, protean, evolutionary nature of culture—and, as Anthony Bourdain spent the last twenty years exploring, there is no better exemplar of this principle than food.

Bourdain didn’t care about authenticity, he cared about honesty. Or perhaps more accurately, he loathed bullshit, whether it took the form of political pieties, pretentious or corporatized food, or, not infrequently, his own fulminations. Aside from his enormous intelligence, talent, and insight, his death comprises the loss of that rarest of commodities in the present moment: an open mind. Though he was never shy about his political leanings, he was always willing to break bread and find common ground with just about anybody, and was always brutally honest about his own blind spots. He started his public career celebrating the brutal and caustic masculinity of the professional kitchen; he ended it apologizing for his part in valorizing such meathead attitudes and embracing #MeToo. He made great hay in the early days ridiculing celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay, but would later acknowledge their culinary talents, befriend them, and speak in a more nuanced way about the complexities of food and celebrity. And through it all, he never claimed for himself the mantle of brilliant chef, though many people tended unthinkingly to make that assumption: he was, he was always very clear to assert, a journeyman cook who lucked out.

The stars might have aligned for him when he got an article published in The New Yorker, but from that point on he made his bones on his talent as a writer, critic, and observer. My first encounter with Bourdain’s work was when I read Kitchen Confidential twelve years ago. By then, I knew his name, but only vaguely. Reading that book was a revelation, not just for his exposé of the life of a professional cook, but for his narrative voice: though he matured beyond the punk aesthetic of that career-making book, he never lost his caustic, no-bullshit approach. I envied his verbal dexterity and ability to be at once pithy and eloquent. Television might have become his medium of choice, but he was first and foremost a writer of enormous talent.

His death by his own hand reminds us that no outward appearance of success or happiness necessarily reflects what is inside.

His life reminds us that there is always more to learn, and the best way to learn is from other people. Food was how Anthony Bourdain entered the world; it’s eminently appropriate that his television career took him increasingly farther away from food as his focus while it also remained the anchor of his explorations. Parts Unknown was far more about culture and history and the specifics of a given locality than about the vagaries of cuisine, but it remained the basis of his interactions with people: his interviews almost always took place over food and drink, and whether he was talking to gun-loving Trump voters in West Virginia, survivors of America’s illegal war in Cambodia, or (recently) Newfoundlanders in a Big R restaurant in St. John’s, food wasn’t just a symbol of common humanity but the literal, material thing that connects us.

1 Comment

Filed under food, television

Thoughts on expanded universes, part two: Solo and the whole Star Wars thing

I’ve been working on part two of my thoughts on expanded universes series, and it keeps getting away from me—which is perhaps only appropriate. “It grew in the telling,” Tolkien said of The Lord of the Rings, a sentiment echoed by George R.R. Martin. Which is not to compare my modest blogging project here to their work, but to observe that even writing about world-building is, well, an ever-expanding project, never mind actually engaging in the process.

I have a lot written, and the problem is that the subject wants to run off madly in all directions. And given that this problem was exacerbated when, a few days ago, I went to see Solo: A Star Wars Story, I figured that perhaps a few words about Star Wars in general, and Solo in particular might help things out.

So just to be clear: SPOILERS AHEAD.

Screen Shot 2018-05-13 at 2.19.10 PM

 

First, a Review

Meh.

solo - chewie

What gravity the Star Wars films possess—which is to say, the establishment of high stakes (the fate of the galaxy, e.g.) and a certain amount of dramatic tension—is pretty much absent here for reasons more pithily summed up by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker: “We already know what will happen—Han will meet Chewbacca, make the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs, win the Millenium [sic] Falcon in a card game, and end up a rakish bachelor—and this puts any genuine suspense out of reach.” I’d say that this is the inherent problem with some prequels, i.e. knowing where the story ends up, if it also wasn’t an inherent aspect of most genre fiction. The more important question is how we get there. Solo lacks the aforementioned narrative stakes we find in, say, Rogue One, and this film telegraphs its end point(s) even more obviously. There’s little in the way of character-based tension, and nothing in the way of difficult or problematic choices that lead us to where we know Han ends up. It would have made for a more nuanced evolution if Han were even a little bit morally compromised. But no: he begins with altruistic intent (keen to escape his bondage with the girl he loves), and ends with an altruistic act (giving up a fortune for a revolutionary cause), and at every point in the story he makes the choices he does in the name of the former. His betrayal at the end by both Beckett and Qi’Ra is such an obvious plot twist that it doesn’t deserve the name. (Emilia Clarke’s Qi’Ra is, indeed, the most interesting character in the film. Beckett not so much, for reasons I’ll get into below).

qi'ra

The point is that this Han Solo is so very … Disney. When we meet Han in A New Hope, he is a familiar generic character: the Byronic gunslinger modeled on every such character in a western not played by Gary Cooper. Such characters are fascinating because we know, without knowing the particulars, that they have tortured, morally compromised pasts (which is why Lucas’ much-vilified change to the Greedo scene is as much a sin against genre as against Han’s character)—but that they will ultimately use their talent for lawless violence in the service of capital-G Good, and thus find redemption.

But the Han Solo at the end of Solo needs no redemption, for he has not transgressed, except against a totalitarian regime and organized crime bosses. I suppose it remains to be seen whether we’ll get a bunch of other films in which we see Han develop his more cynical mien, but as an “origin” story, we don’t hit the closing credits with much more than a knowledge that Han Solo has always had a snarky and roguish sense of humour, but no sense that these aspects run deep. As I said, this is the Disney Han, with more in common—unlike Harrison Ford’s version—with such handsome rogues as Aladdin than with any of his western genre precursors.

In fact, the contrast I found myself making was between Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly—first, because Nathan Fillion as Mal did cynical self-interest even better than Ford did (though to be fair, he had twice as many hours as a principal character to develop it, and a much better team of writers). But also because the brief glimpses we get of Mal’s origin story do an exceptional job of explicating just why he’s now such a cynical bastard with occasional gleams of altruism. We really don’t need that with Han Solo, because he comes to us in A New Hope as a fully formed trope, but if you’re going to rip of Firefly, you might as well take a lesson from its narrative nuances.

Second, the whole train heist sequence, to say nothing of Beckett’s original crew, felt totally lifted from Joss Whedon’s space western. The second episode of Firefly, which was aired first (because, as we know, Fox execs have the critical acumen God gave walnuts), featured a train robbery by spaceship that goes badly. In and of itself, this isn’t cause to suspect plagiarism; what is, is the parallel between crews: the gunslinging cynical wisecracker in a long coat, the no-nonsense Black woman as first officer, and the glib, cheerful pilot (respectively, Mal, Zoe, and Wash in Firefly, Beckett, Val, and Rio in Solo); and once Chewbacca is on board, we have a very tall dude to act as muscle, Solo’s analogue to Firefly’s Jayne Cobb.

mal et al

solo - crew

Philosophers talk about epistemic closure, but this feels a lot like generic closure: Firefly owes its existence to Star Wars generally, and the character of Malcolm Reynolds to Han Solo specifically. Which isn’t to say that what Whedon did with the series wasn’t new and interesting, but that it wore its homage (ironic and otherwise) on its sleeve. That we’ve come full circle here—in which an entry in the new Star Wars canon apes tropes from a television series that was aping tropes from the original films—is perhaps unsurprising in a mass entertainment context in which recycling and rebooting is a much safer financial bet that creating new material.

Unfortunately, the whole “expanded universe” trend of the moment does seem to be at least as motivated by an aversion to novelty as any genuine interest in the exercise of world-building. And on that note …

 

Donald Glover is Lando Calrissian in SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY.

Yup, Lando was one of the best parts of the film, which is why he doesn’t come in for any kvetching in my comments.

Solo and the (Revamped) Star Wars Expanded Universe

In Solo’s penultimate scene, we discover who the Big Bad behind the Crimson Dawn and all the other cartels is. And the threatening hooded figure in the hologram is … Darth Maul! Whom we last saw falling down an airshaft in The Phantom Menace, bisected by Obi-Wan Kenobi’s light saber (well, technically by Qui-Gon Jin’s, but … well, nevermind).

Because I tend to follow links down the nerd-hole, my response to this was less “WTF?” than “Really … you’re going there?”

See, in Rogue One, we met a character played by Forest Whitaker named Saw Gerrera—a former member of the Rebellion who had been ousted because he was considered an extremist. Because I read a bunch of online reviews of the film and clicked on the aforementioned links, I learned that Saw was a character from the animated series Star Wars: Rebels, and that his appearance in Rogue One evoked something resembling geekgasms among the most dedicated Star Wars fandom.

Why this is interesting to me beyond simple trivia is a question that brings us back to something I alluded to in my Infinity War post—namely, that we (so far as I’ve been able to figure it) get the phrase “expanded universe” from Star Wars, specifically from all of the stories (novels, comics, video games) embroidering the narrative of the original trilogy and the prequels. When Disney purchased Lucasfilm and commissioned J.J. Abrams to launch the new Star Wars franchise with The Force Awakens, a decision was made to basically invalidate the entirety of the “expanded universe.” Which, all things being equal, was somehow unsurprising, considering that doing otherwise meant Disney and Abrams would have been obliged to adapt a rather involved series of novels (starting with Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire) that detailed the lives of Luke, Han, Leia, et al after The Return of the Jedi.

Instead, they chose to ignore them, and in the process render them “non-canon.” Though I’ve never been a follower of the expanded universe, it was quite obvious that this decision—to coin an expression—caused a great disturbance in the Force.

I’m less concerned by this disturbance (not least because I was not personally disturbed) than by the debates that emerged about what, then, was considered “canon” in the Star Wars expanded universe. And again, I’m less interested in the details of this debate than the significance of the word canon.

In my next post I’ll get into the ways in which terms such as “mythology” and “universe” have come to be used in relation to the popular culture phenomena, but here “canon” seems as good a place as any to start. For myself, as a professor of English, the most significant definition of canon is what we might otherwise designate as “the great works”—that it to say, works of literature that define a given tradition. The English Canon traditionally starts in the Middle Ages with Chaucer (though might also include earlier works like Beowulf), and includes Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Dryden, Pope, the Romantics, up through such modernists as Joyce, Eliot, and Woolf. The problem with the idea of literary canons is that, like the list I just gave, is that they are by definition exclusionary and tend to privilege certain voices—every single author on that list is white, and only a single one is a woman.

I don’t want to get into an argument on this particular topic (I’d say that’s a whole other series of blog posts, but really it’s a library in and of itself), but rather bring up this definition of “canon” as one that is (or has been for about three decades or more) constantly under negotiation (when not, as is more common of late, being challenged outright). In its religious definition, “canon” denotes something transcendent or immutable, as in the Catholic church’s canon law. It also, and this is its relation to the literary understanding, designates those works of scripture which are accepted and considered the proper word of God (as opposed to the Apocrypha).

So on one hand we have the absolutism of religious doctrine, and on the other the more nebulous and negotiable conception of what works define a tradition. The analogues here to the Star Wars expanded universe should perhaps be obvious, though obviously irksome to theologians and literary snobs. (I’m sure there’s a down side to it all, though).

What I’m interested in here and the next few posts are the ways we engage with such fictional worlds, and the way they’re created and delineated. Last post, I talked about paratext as something that circumscribed and defined texts proper. The whole question of what we call “canon” is a large-scale example, whether in terms of what counts as biblical scripture or what narrative elements define the Star Wars universe, versus what we count as “apocryphal.” (When Disney and Abrams eliminated the extant expanded universe at a stroke, they made the glib suggestion that fans could consider those stories as “legends” in the context of the new canon—something that undoubtedly infuriated many, but raised the interesting prospect of seeing an expanded universe within an expanded universe).

darth-maul-rebels

But to return to the question of what is “canon”: the appearance of Darth Maul at the end of Solo, replete with robotic legs to replace those removed by Obi-Wan, would seem to confirm what many fans speculated after Rogue One—namely, that the animated series Clone Wars and Rebels were included in the new canon. Apparently, Rebels resurrected Darth Maul (who managed to stay alive through the sheer force of his hate and, presumably, the sheer force of the Force), and made him the head of a criminal underworld conglomerate. Eventually, he had showdowns with both Obi-Wan Kenobi and Emperor Palpatine himself; which leads one to surmise that we’ll be seeing more of him in the Star Wars spinoffs to come. And given that there’s been the suggestion of more “Star Wars stories” dedicated to Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi, it would seem that these “stories” will not quite be the one-offs that were originally hinted at, but something more resembling Marvel’s universe-building: it becomes easy to see how Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, Qi’Ra, as well as Boba Fett and Obi-Wan and Darth Maul may all find themselves crossing paths in a series of underworld vs. tyranny vs. rebellion films. Which, after all my kvetching about Solo, might redeem that film if in hindsight it proves just to be some elaborate throat-clearing to get the necessities of parsecs and rakish bachelorhood out of the way.

SOLO_EW_han_chewbacca_falcon.0

OK, I had some more thoughts on canonicity, but I will save them for what is now part three of my thoughts on expanded universes series. Until then, work hard and be good, my friends.

Leave a comment

Filed under film, Magic Wor(l)ds, nerd stuff

Thoughts on expanded universes, part one: Avengers: Infinity War and the problem of paratext

Our universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding,
In all of the directions it can whiz;
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute and that’s the fastest speed there is.
—Monty Python, “The Galaxy Song”

Someone recently added me to the Facebook group “Genre Writers of Atlantic Canada,” and given that I don’t have much to say about the writing of genre fiction but a lot to say about genre fiction (and film, and television), I shared my previous post about my Fall grad course; since then I’ve had about a dozen people sign up to follow this blog. To those of you now following, welcome! Hopefully the next few months will see me being somewhat more prolific here than I have been in the past year or so.

Also, you should be warned: I tend to post fairly lengthy meditations on whatever I happen to be thinking about, and this entry is no exception. I started thinking about the nature of what we call “expanded universes” in popular culture, and this rumination has itself quickly expanded into what will have to be a series of posts (probably four of them, but possibly more).

This blog is basically a space for me to think out loud and work through ideas and arguments. That it’s a public forum forces me to try and be more coherent than I am when I argue with myself in the car or scribble notes in my journal. But that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to brevity, alas …

Screen Shot 2018-05-13 at 2.19.10 PM

The various expanded universes of fandom, from DC and Marvel to Star Wars and Doctor Who, might not quite be whizzing in all directions at the speed of light, but one could be forgiven for assuming so. It seems impossible these days to create an alternative universe that doesn’t get expanded: aside from the obvious examples above, there are now a handful of Game of Thrones spinoffs in the works; the adventures of Newt Scamander keep the Harry Potter Muggleverse alive; and there’s even plans at Amazon to create a Lord of the Rings prequel series. And all of this is just the most recent stuff.

From what I’ve been able to glean, the term “expanded universe” first came to be applied to Star Wars, to the constellations of TV specials, comic books, video games, and novels that accompanied and followed the original trilogy. However much the prequel films were generally loathed, they gave the expanded universe a lot of traction to expand even further, until finally the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm and subsequent production of The Force Awakens deemed, at a stroke, that all of the prior expanded universe creations were emphatically not canon.

The paroxysms of rage this arbitrary decision sent through the fan universe are, at best, incidental to my discussion here, which is more concerned with the broader concept of the “expanded universe” and the significant role it has come to play in popular culture. What was once the provenance of devoted fans has become a financial juggernaut for production studios and publishers, and (often to the annoyance of the devoted nerd community) has spread its appeal to general audiences.

Though I count myself a member of the aforementioned nerd community, my interest here is more academic: in anticipation of my graduate seminar this fall, I find myself thinking rather a lot about world-building and the relationship between such “expanded universes” as Marvel’s and the long tradition of alternative realities and worlds from medieval romance to Middle-Earth to contemporary fantasy. One way or another, this post and the ones following were precipitated by thoughts I had after watching Avengers: Infinity War. So, without further ado …

avengers-infinity-war3

Avengers: Infinite Cast

For a variety of reasons, it took me a week until I was able to see Avengers: Infinity War. By the time my girlfriend and I plunked our arses down in the theater seats, I had become very nearly frantic. Any longer not seeing the film, it seemed, and I would inevitably have the big reveals inadvertently spoiled. As it was, I knew there were going to be HUGE SURPRISES, as all of social media (seriously, it felt like all of it was mobilized to taunt me about Infinity War) alluded portentously to MAJOR PLOT POINTS and a certain HUGE THING THAT HAPPENS.

It is perhaps now that I should warn readers that there will in fact be SPOILERS in this post, both for Infinity War and a bunch of other stuff (well, for Game of Thrones, anyway).

Before I get to all of that, however, I should not bury the lede (as I tend to do on this blog), and point out that my interest in this particular film is incidental. I don’t have anything to say about Infinity War that hasn’t already been said, so here’s my tl;dr review: loved the story, was deeply impressed by how the directors and writers didn’t let the ever-expanding cast turn the narrative into an exercise in pulling taffy, laughed my aforementioned arse off (honestly, Thor calling Rocket and Groot “rabbit” and “tree” should not have cracked me up as much as it did, but here we are). Favourite moments: Cap appearing as a shadowy figure at the train station, Peter Dinklage as a huge dwarf, Rocket’s man-crush on Thor, Bruce Banner’s ongoing argument with a Hulk who, having had his ass handed to him by Thanos, has obviously turned timid. There are more, but that will do for the moment.

As much as I loved the film, the ending left me vaguely dissatisfied. Considering that the worst comes to pass and Thanos accomplishes his goal of wiping out half the sentient universe with a snap of his fingers, that cosmic genocide lacks the kind of gravity it should have had—mainly because we know that most of the characters will not remain dead for long. Tom Holland’s Spiderman had one of the more poignant departures (both because of Tony Stark’s protectiveness, and because his final seconds were reminiscent of the Tenth Doctor’s “I don’t want to go!”), but given the success of Spiderman: Homecoming ($880M worldwide), it’s highly unlikely that Disney/Marvel is going to let him stay dead. That goes doubly for T’Challa: though it was heartbreaking to see Danai Gurira as Okoye’s expression of abject loss as her king disintegrates, it is even less likely that Disney will let Black Panther and its $1.3B box office go at a single movie.

Black-Panther-and-Wakanda-army-in-Avengers-Infinity-War

Wakanda Forever!

All of this was in my head upon leaving the theater; when I got home and finally read the reviews I’d been avoiding all week, I found my thinking crystallized by John Scalzi:

What I know is that there’s no friggin’ way Spider-Man and Black Panther, to name just two, go out like punks.

This isn’t a question of story, this is a question of economics. Black Panther grossed $688 million in the US and $1.3 billion worldwide; even if a Black Panther 2 made half that (and it seems unlikely it would make just half that), it would still be one of the top five grossing films of its year. If you think Disney, of all companies, is going to leave that sort of money on the table, you are officially super high. Likewise, if you think Marvel is going to let Spider-Man, still their biggest and most well-known superhero, despite years of fumbling at the hands of Sony, lie fallow after they’ve just now reintegrated him into the official Marvel universe (and his most recent film did $880 million business worldwide), then, again, you are supremely buzzed, my friend.

I recommend reading the entire post—Scalzi pretty much hits the nail on the head and puts into words the inchoate thoughts rattling about my head after the movie.

So I’m not going to go on in this vein—suffice to say that the movie is great on its own terms, but the biggest spoilers aren’t what you might accidentally stumble across online so much as just knowing that huge Hollywood studios will always behave with a predictability that talented writers won’t … and that in a showdown between the former and the latter, the former always wins.

There is built into this “expanded universe,” however, something of an irony, given that, on reflection, Marvel’s long game has been hellishly impressive. The Marvel Universe has genuinely earned the modifier “expanded,” as each film has been carefully planned and slotted into a grand narrative, occasionally in ways that sabotaged the individual films (Age of Ultron being the prime example). Each new film that merged extant storylines and characters, such as Avengers and Civil War, was potentially satisfying but perilous for the reasons all crossover stories are: we’re eager to see our favourite characters meet and interact, but anything less than at least competent storytelling is going to at best annoy and at worst alienate devoted fans. That Infinity War with its near-infinite cast of characters not only does not disappoint, but emphatically delivers, is particularly impressive.

But as I said above, there is an irony to this meticulous world-building within the context of multimillion-dollar franchises, which is that success breeds success, and that means that successful stories and characters (i.e. profitable stories and characters) will be milked for all they are worth, or until their key actors’ contracts expire. None of which would be an issue if audiences existed inside a bubble of ignorance, cheerfully oblivious to box office takes and trade news about actors’ contracts and planned future productions. But of course we do not exist in such a bubble, especially not in this era of fan participation by way of social media on one hand,* and studios’ massive investment in long-term, big-budget franchises on the other.

thanos

Can someone please tell me: is it in keeping with comic book/superhero conventions that Thanos, with all of the mystical power of the infinity stones, still feels the need to resort to punching things all the time?

All of which goes to the broader point that we can’t feel too much dismay for the death of T’Challa—and by extension, everyone else extinguished by Thanos—when we know that there are hundreds of millions of reasons for the studio to resurrect him.

Which, oddly, is where I get interested, at least in terms of the theoretical implications for world-building. Normally we would be inclined to deal with such a storyline on its own terms, which is to say, according to the internal narrative and thematic logic it establishes. But the longer-running and larger-scale—i.e., the more “expanded”—a given “universe” becomes, the more it is subject to such external logic as economic considerations, actors’ contracts, internecine squabbles, and so forth. In the case of the Marvel EU, the external logic has come to inflect the internal. By contrast, even though most of us were all 90% certain Jon Snow wouldn’t stay dead after being stabbed at the end of Game of Thrones’ fifth season, we weren’t 100% certain … and that 10% of doubt proceeded from the show’s internal logic, i.e. five seasons worth the show pitilessly killing characters we assumed to be central, from the execution of Ned Stark to the Red Wedding. There were a lot of reasons to assume that Jon Snow would be resurrected in season six, but none of them involved Kit Harrington carrying a billion-dollar Jon Snow franchise on his brooding, fur-clad shoulders. The question of just how deep his grave was dug had rather to be considered against George R.R. Martin’s gleefully murderous storytelling.

jonsnow

Further, however, it is instructive to recall the misdirection in which Kit Harrington and HBO engaged during the months between seasons five and six, in an effort to convince fans that Harrington and therefore Jon Snow would not be coming back. Such extracurricular considerations, like our certainty that Disney/Marvel will be making Black Panther 2, play a role comparable to what in other circumstances we might call “paratext”—which is to say, ancillary texts that define and circumscribe the text proper: title pages, epigraphs, indices, forewords, footnotes, and so forth … or in the case of a film and television, the opening and closing credits. Other paratexts include such considerations as the author or editor or translator, or in film the director(s) and producer(s), or anyone else whose name connotes certain qualities (think, for example, of True Romance, which was directed by Tony Scott, but which was written by Quentin Tarantino, and is almost invariably associated with the latter rather than the former).

Paratexts serve to define a text, and provide tools for understanding and interpretation.

On an individual basis, we probably think nothing of them unless they are unusually invasive or self-reflexive; but every time you purchase a book because it has an intriguing cover (which, despite the cliché injunction not to, happens all the time), or, conversely, buy it specifically because of the author, paratext affected or inflected your reading and understanding of the text proper.

But in an expanded universe like that of Marvel’s films, we experience something like a cumulative effect, simply by dint of the small army of writers and directors involved; When we consider that many of the names attached—Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon, Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler et al**—come with certain specific stylistic and thematic connotations, that cannot help but affect our expectations going into the various films. And while the Marvel films have attempted—mostly successfully—to attain a consistent aesthetic and tone, they nevertheless comprise an aggregate of directorial styles and varying quality of story that makes an entry like Thor: The Dark World seem dramatically out of place with Black Panther (or for that matter with Thor: Ragnarok). And while Infinity War certainly counts as one of the best installments, the contrast between the Guardians of the Galaxy aesthetic (faithfully rendered by the Russo brothers) was something of a jarring juxtaposition with the earthbound sequences.

pratt-downey

To be fair, I’m stretching the strict definition of paratext somewhat, but then the “expanded universe” as concept and practice invites a certain amount of boundary-stretching on any number of fronts—which is one of the aspects that fascinates me.

That being said, I realize I’ve now written somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2500 words and I haven’t actually attempted to define what we mean by “expanded universe.” Oops. Well, that will be installment the second: what determines an expanded universe? What differentiates it from a merely expansive universe? How does the Marvel or Star Wars EUs compare to those of Tolkien or George R.R. Martin?

Stay tuned.

_________________________________

FOOTNOTES

*Social media is of course just one aspect of a broader participatory current that has always been present in fan culture, with fan fiction and slash fiction having long been key methods of creative and imaginative interaction. The internet has of course multiplied and disseminated fan creations, as have the various wiki pages that compile and catalogue arcane details of given universes. This participatory dimension is something I’ll look at more closely in my second installment.

**This list of prominent dudes serves to highlight Marvel’s need to introduce some estrogen into the mix. On that note, it should also be pointed out—as frequently and loudly as possible—that the best three films arguably to emerge from both the MCU and DCU in the past year, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Wonder Woman were directed by an indigenous man, an African-American man, and a woman (Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler, and Patty Jenkins), respectively.

2 Comments

Filed under Magic Wor(l)ds, nerd stuff

A literally fantastic autumn

I have a bad habit of letting this blog lie fallow for months at a time, and then posting something somewhat apologetically and promising to get back into regular posting. Well, I guess it’s that time again! At least this time I posted something substantive without comment first, but now I feel I should offer some explanation for what will hopefully be a more productive summer of blogging.

I’m extremely excited about my fall term: for one thing, I will once again be teaching English 3811: The Lord of the Rings. When I taught this course for the first and so far only time four years ago, I posted an awful lot under the header “Return to Middle-Earth.”

ring_edited-2

I mean to do a lot more of that, both over the summer and during the term.

I will also be teaching a graduate course that I’ve been working up to over the past two years or so:

ENGL 7352 poster

As my ever-so-clever title suggests, the course will be looking at the intersection between “magic worlds,” as in the world-building and creation of alternative realities in fantasy, and “magic words,” as in the role played by language in the figuration of magic and conjuring, as well as the way in which these imaginary worlds are linguistic and semantic creations.

As you might imagine, that’s a lot of ground to cover in just thirteen weeks, so the reading list is by necessity somewhat eclectic and wide-ranging:

Anonymous, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Neil Gaiman, Sandman: Season of Mists
Lev Grossman, The Magicians
N.K. Jemisin, The One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
John Milton, Paradise Lost
Thomas More, Utopia
Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad
Vernor Vinge, True Names

(Students will also be enjoined to have The Fellowship of the Ring and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe under their belts before classes start).

A big chunk of my summer is going to be devoted to prepping this class, both because of the rather large scale of material it entails, but also because doing so feeds into my current research preoccupations. I’ll be posting as I go, using this blog as I so often do: as a means of thinking out loud.

Look for a multi-part series on the whole “expanded universe” phenomenon to lead us off, coming soon.

Leave a comment

Filed under Magic Wor(l)ds, Return to Middle-Earth, teaching, what I'm working on

Thoughts on the (non) cancellation of Brooklyn Nine-Nine (which spiral into a broader discussion of prestige TV vs. sitcoms)

I really need to get these posts written faster. I started writing this yesterday apropos of Fox’s cancellation of Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Thursday; I left a bit to be written today, and I wake up to see that NBC has revived the show for an abbreviated sixth season. So, rumours of the show’s death were greatly exaggerated, but I’ll keep my original intro out of laziness and the fact that I like it …

brooklyn99913

 

Thursday, Fox announced it was cancelling Brooklyn Nine-Nine after five seasons. After their indecorous shitcanning of Firefly so many years ago, I didn’t think there was any way for Fox to hurt me again … but then I let Andy Samberg’s cop sitcom worm its way into my heart, having been lulled in the intervening years to forget the first rule of avoiding heartbreak: don’t get attached to Fox properties, especially if they’re unusually intelligent and well made. That just never ends well.

As anyone who knows me can attest, I’m a television junky. Once upon a time this might have been considered a failing in an English professor, but since the rise of HBO and its various imitators, the tube now offers an embarrassment of riches. What has been perhaps most interesting in the past few years, however, is not so much the continued production of dramatic HBO and HBO-type juggernauts, with Game of Thrones and Westworld (among others) picking up the torch from the likes of Deadwood and Breaking Bad, but that some of the smartest and most progressive television has appeared in the form of network sitcoms. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is (or was) exemplary of this tendency, with a racially diverse cast than never reeked of tokenism, and nuanced, complex characters who transcended what were at first glance one-dimensional comedic tropes: Jake’s macho goofball obsessed with 70s cop shows, Rosa’s acerbic ass-kicking woman, Amy’s goody-two-shoes, Terry’s musclebound sergeant, and so forth. Each of these actors at once managed to have their cake and eat it too, playing the stereotypes for laughs while simultaneously getting laughs for playing against type and revealing depths of character that served as trenchant critiques of a host of things from toxic masculinity to racial profiling.

brooklyn-nine-nine-canceled

To be sure, sitcoms have always tended to be the more subversive and insidiously political shows, from Mary Tyler Moore and All in the Family to The Simpsons; but in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, when television broke out of its formulaic box and aspired to the level of art with such series as The Sopranos and Mad Men, it tended to replicate a certain masculinist narrative logic and more often than not placed damaged, complicated, difficult, and frequently violent men—white men, pretty much exclusively—at the center of the story: Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock in Deadwood, Don Draper in Mad Men, Walter White in Breaking Bad, Jax Teller in Sons of Anarchy, Raylen Givens in Justified, and so on. Which isn’t to say that these shows don’t have anything to say or do with questions of gender, race, and identity, but that such considerations almost always serve to reflect back on the shows’ masculine center of gravity undercuts the substance of their critique.

By contrast, such sitcoms as Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Fresh off the Boat, Black-ish, Bob’s Burgers, and such non-network examples as Master of None, High Maintenance, Broad City, Archer, and Big Mouth—to say nothing of Parks and Recreation, quite possibly the greatest sitcom ever to air—have been doing yeoman’s work in introducing diversity in their casts, as well as articulating (generally) a politics of hope and understanding. It’s one of the reasons why Andy Samberg’s character Jake Peralta served to turn off a significant number of viewers at the outset, but rewarded those who stuck with the show: his heroes are the hard-bitten, cynical cops of 70s films, and most centrally, John McClane of Die Hard (I would be interested to know precisely how many episodes there are in which Die Hard or McClane aren’t name-checked). That is to say: his ostensible dream is to be the kind of take-no-prisoners, I-make-my-own-rules, go-ahead-make-my-day rogue cop that valorizes masculine violence and disdain for law and procedure. But as much as he might fantasize about being that kind of cop, Jake’s journey over the series’ five seasons has been a process of discovering the value of community and teamwork over gut instinct and radical individualism. That he would eventually get together with the Hermione-esque Amy Santiago was more or less inevitable according to the laws of sitcoms, but it was narratively hard-won—not least because it was in part Amy’s influence in eroding Jake’s John McClane delusions that he transcended his character’s initial defining tropes.

 

Screen Shot 2018-05-11 at 2.51.46 PM

About two weeks ago, a Facebook friend tagged me in the comments for a Slate article by Kathryn VanArendonk titled “Overly Long Episodes are the Manspreading of TV,” wondering what my thoughts on the argument were.

The article essentially argues that episodes of an hour or longer have become unnecessarily commonplace in prestige television, citing, for example, the 69-minute season two premiere of Westworld. For an HBO season premiere, VanArendonk allows, such a length episode is not unusual, but the second episode was even longer (71 minutes), “and I’d be astonished if it’s the last episode this season to run over an hour. The season-one finale episode, after all, was a full 90 minutes.” She continues,

It’s hard not to watch much of Westworld, especially those over-an-hour installments, and not feel at least a little frustrated with a show that has so little compunction about its own obtrusive length. In the (rare) instances where an episode fully uses and needs over 60 minutes, I’m perfectly happy to cede the time. But again and again, overly long TV episodes feel like self-important prestige signaling, more about muscle (and budget) flexing than they are about the best way to serve a story. They take up narrative space with all the blithe obliviousness of a story that assumes it’s the most important, most worthy thing you’re doing with your time. Long TV episodes imply they deserve that extra space—after all, they’re significant, quality TV. And bigger equals better.

“The time has come,” she asserts, “to call out this swaggering, unselfconscious expanse.” And per her title, she charges that “Interminable TV episodes are the manspreading of television storytelling.”

Before offering my two cents, I read further on in the comments thread, and was unsurprised to find the article’s premise largely mocked and ridiculed. “That has to be one of the most tortured analogies I’ve ever seen,” said one commenter; another, “This is to be filed under: ‘I have nothing of value to say, so choose an “unpopular” topic to complain about instead’.” “Ok, funny analogy, unbearably long text and nope for your theory.” And finally, “I agree that more may not necessarily be better, but what does gendering the pattern do aside from foment gender antagonism?”

The sentiment of this last comment recurred quite frequently, often expressed in, shall we say, much less polite terms. Why make your complaint about lengthy episodes a gendered one? said many people. To more than a few complainants, this was the main issue with the article. For my part, I also found the manspreading analogy somewhat tortured, but I knew precisely what the article’s title meant: that prestige TV is masculinist in its DNA, and that the key tropes of its early, groundbreaking shows have persisted even as television itself, more broadly, becomes more inventive and diverse across an unprecedented number of platforms and media.

The most insightful observation of the article to my mind was the attribution of episode bloat to “prestige signaling,” a means of communicating the weight and heft of a show’s thematic gravity:

The prestige signaling of HBO’s “we’re not TV” then drifted over to FX, where runtime bloat touched series like Nip/Tuck and The Shield, and then became especially noticeable on FX’s Sons of Anarchy. Midway through its run, Sons began to abjure its supposed hour timeslot and made a habit of moseying into a full 90-minute scheduling block. In talking about the unique scheduling for the series, a Variety piece pointed directly to the influence—and the prestige and “quality” implications—of longer runtimes on premium cable. Letting an episode of Sons relax into a 55-minute total length, bulked out to 90 minutes with commercials, “gives [FX] a chance to keep up with the creative scope of HBO and Showtime, which aren’t forced to cut into their series with commercial breaks.” Longer episodes mean more “creative scope.” Longer episodes are how you know something’s important.

This article would have been less glib had it directly addressed the tacit association of “importance” with the kind of violent and/or self-obsessed masculinity on display with all of the shows mentioned. In the early days of HBO, shows like Oz and The Sopranos were a revelation because they seemed to break all the established laws of episodic television in terms not just of their violence, profanity, and nudity, but also in terms of how they told their stories—and abjuring the rigid 42-minute run time of network dramas allowed for more flexibility for the writers and directors to take as much time to tell a story as the story demanded or needed. Sometimes that ran long, sometimes not so much. And often it was precisely the case that an episode might run over an hour because it needed that time to convey its substance and complexity.

I think a more useful way to consider the episode bloat against which VanArendonk rails is to think in terms of prestige television having come to comprise its own genre. The charge of “prestige signaling” points in this direction, as it suggests that these later-generation shows from HBO, AMC (we could spend an entire post just talking about The Walking Dead in this capacity), and FX, and now also Netflix and Amazon, are self-conscious about conveying their seriousness. Genre, as I tell my students repeatedly, is largely about expectations, of going in knowing the formulae. The more iterative a genre gets, the more formulaic, and in the end the satisfaction of expectations does not always serve the content in logical or coherent ways, which is, I would argue, one of the key reasons the victims in slasher films tend to behave stupidly—less because the characters are meant to be stupid than that is what satisfies the genre’s expectations. It’s a bit ironic that we can now start to discern generic conventions in prestige television, given that the early breakthroughs often tended to entail the utter disruption of genre: the mob movie with The Sopranos, the police procedural with The Wire, the western with Deadwood, the historical epic with Rome (stayed tuned for a future post in which I explain why The Walking Dead’s deficiencies proceed from the fact that it has not managed to subvert or divest itself of its own generic expectations).

Recently, a good friend of mine expressed horror and bafflement that I have not yet watched Westworld. Considering my long preoccupation with prestige television, both from an academic and a personal perspective, it seemed unthinkable to him that I would not yet have obsessively binge-watched it. And I will! Eventually. But as I told him, I think I hit critical mass with the self-conscious high seriousness of prestige television a while ago. I’m delighted that Brooklyn Nine-Nine has won a reprieve, not because such sitcoms offer an escape from the heavy fare of the Westworlds of the TV landscape, but because increasingly such shows exhibit the intelligence and complexity of critique of hour-long-and-longer dramas, while doing so with greater diversity and humanity.

Leave a comment

Filed under television

Returning to blogging, and a recent symposium

Yes, yes, this blog has lain fallow for quite some time … as usual, it’s not for lack of desire to write or a lack of anything to write about, just … well, a lack of motivation, I suppose. That and just the press of other obligations, professional and otherwise.

But it is strange, I suppose, that I never think of shuttering this blog or otherwise abandoning it—I’m quite proud of a lot of the stuff I’ve written here, and always have the best intentions of getting back to posting on a regular, or at least a semi-regular basis.

So here’s an attempt to get back to it, and hopefully get myself back into the habit of working out my thoughts out loud, as it were—which, really, is the greatest value this forum has for me. I have no illusions that I’ll ever have a huge readership—the stuff I post about and the format I tend to write in (i.e. long) pretty much guarantees that my audience remains somewhat limited—but that doesn’t bother me. I have come to think of this space as an intermediate stage between scribbling in my journal and writing more formally. My ruminations here have more to do with the former, but in putting in out publicly, at least I have to keep myself honest (to a point).

visual symposium

Anyway, the occasion for getting back into it is a symposium in which I took part, organized by a colleague of mine, featuring brief (5-7 minute) presentations on various aspects of visual culture.

Now, keeping an academic-ish presentation to five to seven minutes is hard. I can reliably burn through five to seven minutes at the start of a lecture just clearing my throat. And as anyone who has read my posts on this blog knows, brevity isn’t exactly my strong suit (to quote President Josiah Bartlett, “In my house, anyone who uses one word when he could have used ten just isn’t trying hard”).

But it was a useful exercise; my topic is one I’ve aired on this blog before, namely, maps, fiction, and fantasy. I’ve been kicking around a variety of thoughts and ideas about this for a long time now, but never really had the impetus to find my traction. I don’t know, necessarily, that I’ve got that now, but this talk certainly forced me to distill the key ideas down to the point where I can see a few avenues opening up for future exploration.

The symposium itself went extremely well—five presenters, each of us compressing our thoughts into the crucible of five to seven minutes. It’s always a shame that academics can get so insular in our own research, writing, and teaching—especially in winter, and especially as the semester gets busier—because one thing I love about this job is listening to my brilliant colleagues share their work.

As it turns out, my medievalist colleague John Geck was also presenting on maps, looking at medieval conceptions of space and place, especially in terms of “itinerary” maps that stress the experience of travel as opposed to the abstraction of a god’s-eye empirical perspective. We sat down a few times before the symposium to share ideas, and to see whether our respective topics would have any overlap.

As things happened, they did. Here’s the text of my presentation along with the slides I showed.

1 - fantasy and cartography - title card

What I want to do here is make a bridge from John’s discussion of medieval itinerary maps to the maps we find in fantasy, a genre which for the purposes of my talk could be usefully characterized as the bastard love child of medieval romance and historical fiction.

2 - earthsea

My representative fantasy map, chosen to honour one of the greats. R.I.P. Ursula K. Le Guin.

Given the brevity of this presentation, I need to make one point quickly and hope to stick the landing: that maps and cartography are by definition fictional. Mapping resembles the writing of fiction in at least two principal respects: one, it is mimetic; two, it invariably distorts or deforms what it imitates according to its preoccupations—or, to put it another way, according to the story it wants to tell.

4 - world maps

The fact that we speak of maps as projections is a useful point to keep in mind, considering that term’s use in psychology to refer to forms of ideation.

3 - projections

7 - mercator-peters copy

Wish I’d had time to show the “Cartographers for Social Justice” clip from The West Wing.

All of which is to say nothing of the more overtly fictional elements of mapping, such as the consensual hallucinations of place-names and borders, all of which come freighted with their own histories, stories, conflicts, and connotations. I mean … we live on a peninsula named “Avalon” by Sir George Calvert in the hopes that, like its namesake, it would be paradisaical.

5 - Arthur - Avalon

To take the analogy between mapping and fiction a step further, we could liken the itinerary maps John discussed to the genre of romance, and “empirical” maps to realism … and as I suggested, it is at the intersection of these two that we find fantasy, or at least the kind of fantasy modeled on J.R.R. Tolkien’s example (which is to say, most of it).

8 - GoT - credits

And as those who read fantasy know, maps frequently play a key paratextual role, and are distinct from “real” maps for obvious reasons. They do not render or imitate territory. Maps in fantasy are deterministic, which is to say they define the territory rather than vice versa. They provide readers with a gods-eye view not available to the characters—and in this respect comprise a conflation of fantasy’s premodern and/or quasi-medieval sensibilities and those of modernity’s empirical presumptions.

9 - middle-earth

As a case in point (to use my favourite example): in The Fellowship of the Ring, some time after departing Rivendell, the Fellowship hoves into view of a western spur of the Misty Mountains. When Pippin protests that they must have turned eastward in the night, Gandalf says, “There are many maps in Elrond’s house, but I suppose you never thought to look at them?” (283). To which Gimli the dwarf declares that he needs no map, and proceeds to name the peaks on the horizon. “There is the land where our fathers worked of old, and we have wrought the image of those stone mountains into many works of metal and of stone, and into many songs and tales.”

10 - misty-mountains

Shortly after, Sam confides to Frodo that “I’m beginning to think it’s time we got a sight of that Fiery Mountain, and saw the end of the Road, so to speak. I thought perhaps that this here [mountain] … might be it, till Gimli spoke his piece” (285). Tolkien then observes that “Maps conveyed nothing to Sam’s mind, and all distances in these strange lands seemed so vast that he was quite out of his reckoning.”

A few points here: maps are presented in this instance as all but useless to those who have no wider knowledge of Middle-Earth, and unnecessary for those who do. The provincial hobbits are quite at sea, while Gimli’s rather intuitive knowledge of the landscape evokes the experiential understanding of space and place discussed by John in his talk: Gimli can recognize and name the mountains because of his familiarity with “many songs and tales.”

By contrast, the paratextual map of Middle-Earth provides readers with a privileged perspective, one that lets us know, even without Tolkien’s somewhat patronizing observation, precisely how naïve Sam Gamgee’s hopeful sense of place is.

12 - middle-earth 2

This privileged perspective creates an interesting thematic contradiction at a point in the narrative most deeply embedded in the conventions of medieval quest romance. We as readers can pin Sam and the Fellowship to a specific place—as if we could pull up Google Maps and inform Sir Gawain that he’s just half a kilometer east of Bertilak’s Castle, or let Hansel and Gretel know that if they carry on past the gingerbread house for another hour or so they’ll be literally out of the woods.

This, for the record, is the nub of my particular interest in fantasy: the contradiction of Tolkien’s (and by extension, fantasy’s) nostalgic rendition of medieval romance, and the imaginary but exhaustive empiricism of his invented mythology, for which the map of Middle-Earth functions emblematically, subverting the mystery and caprice of romance with cartographic, historical, and linguistic determinism. Tolkien’s “mythology” is ultimately evocative of Jorge Luis Borges’ Tlon, a fictional world so scrupulously detailed and imagined that it takes on corporeal reality.

13 - tolkien-lewis

This contradiction is doubly interesting insofar as both Tolkien and his good friend C.S. Lewis both created their fantasy worlds in part as a corrective to what they saw as the spiritual aridity of secular, scientific modernity with its emphasis on the empirical at the expense of mystery. Echoing Keats’ injunction against unweaving the rainbow, Tolkien writes in his poem “Mythopoeia” that “I will not walk with your progressive apes, / erect and sapient. Before them gapes / the dark abyss to which their progress tends / … I will not tread your dusty path and flat, / denoting this and that by this and that.” It is thus perhaps something of an irony that Tolkien privately loathed Lewis’ Narnia chronicles, considering them slapdash and careless in their world-building and too reliant upon allegory, and lacking the kind of exhaustive intellectual rigor he would ultimately bring to the creation of Middle-Earth.

I have no conclusion other than to say that this is my starting point from which to explore how this contradiction in the “cartographic imagination,” more broadly considered, is deployed by contemporary fantasists to articulate a secular and humanist worldview.

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under blog business, what I'm working on