Seeing Through Other Eyes

In his book An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis writes, “We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. . . . We demand windows. Literature as logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is ‘I have got out.’”

While I agree with Lewis wholeheartedly about literature’s ability to allow us to see with “other eyes,” I am afraid that we now live in a world that doesn’t want to see with other eyes. I have no evidence from sociological studies to back up that claim, but I think that anybody who takes an honest look at the world (at least in the West) will agree: we no longer want the windows or doors that Lewis describes; what we want is a mirror. We want to look out and see our own thoughts, beliefs, and identities reflected back at us.

Don’t believe me? Pay attention to political discourse. Listen to people talk about anything important to society. What you’ll see and hear is mostly a lot of people who are completely incapable of comprehending the thoughts and opinions of others. If anybody dares to disagree with us, we label them as bigoted, stupid, ignorant, reactionary, radical, backwards. (more…)

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What Critics Have Gotten Wrong About BvS

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Update September 2016

From now on, all of my superhero-related posts will be published at my A Clash of Heroes Blog.
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A lot of critical ink has been spilled about Zack Snyder’s newest film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Many people love it, but many others seem to hate it. I won’t rehash here what other critics have said. Instead of reviewing the film as a whole, I want to take a different approach. At the risk of sounding like a fan-boy or an apologist, I want to answer just one of the the most common objections that critics have had against BvS: its depiction of Superman.

Many people have criticized Snyder’s depiction of Superman as cold, unfeeling, or wooden. “That’s not my Superman,” a lot of people have said. While I sympathize with those who want an optimistic, idealistic Superman, I don’t think that this Superman is really very different from past versions; it’s the world that changed. Past Superman movies have, by and large, shown him in a world that loves and trusts him unquestioningly. But is that how the world would respond to someone with the power of Kal-El of Krypton? Like it or not, Snyder has asked, “How would people really react if Superman existed?”

After a prologue dealing with Bruce Wayne, the real action of the film begins with Superman saving Lois Lane from terrorists who have taken her hostage in an African village. When they realize that Superman is coming, the terrorists slaughter many of the villagers and flee, leaving only their leader with Lois held at gunpoint. Then the scene turns to a Senate committee hearing, where a surviving villager says that Superman answers to no one, “Even, I think, to God.” Even though he did not kill anyone, the committee holds Superman responsible for the deaths of the villagers because, they say, his presence there caused the violence. If that strikes you as ridiculous and unrealistic (as some critics have argued), then I suggest that you pay closer attention to real-world politicians (who aren’t exactly models of reason). (more…)

Tolkien and Martin: Myth-Making and History-Making

house_stark_shirt_by_kzaru-d61d6quFantasy has been enjoying a fourteen- or fifteen-year-long renaissance, starting I suppose with Peter Jackson’s Fellowship. Maybe renaissance is the wrong word. Maybe it’s too grand. But something has been happening, and I can’t help thinking that it is the best thing that has happened to literature and popular culture in a while. Fantasy (of all kinds) deserves a lot of credit for getting people interested in story and getting people thinking about meaning, about beauty, about truth, about evil, and about the good.

So it always makes me happy to see one of the great fantasy writers today, George R.R. Martin, express his admiration of Tolkien, one of the progenitors of modern fantasy (and still the greatest of its practitioners, in my opinion). And Martin has said on a number of occasions that he admires Tolkien and his work.

Yet Martin also faults Tolkien for having a too-simplistic view of good and evil, and Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is his answer, not necessarily to Tolkien himself, but to the fantasy trope that Tolkien started: the forces of light battling it out with the dark Enemy and his minions.

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ex nihilo nihil fit: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying

Flannery O’Connor famously compared Faulkner to a freight train that would run down any writer who attempts an inferior imitation of him. Certainly some of Faulkner’s novels can leave readers as well as writers feeling as if a freight train has barreled over them.

As I Lay Dying, one of Faulkner’s most highly regarded novels, pummels readers mercilessly—at least it pummels me every time I open it, but not because of the difficulty of Faulkner’s prose. In fact, the cadence and diction of As I Lay Dying—even with its heavy use of stream of consciousness—make the novel a smooth read for the most part, particularly if one contrasts it with Absalom, Absalom! What really hurts about As I Lay Dying is the relentlessness with which it assaults the ontological status of the human person and challenges what common sense tells us we know about our lives. From beginning to end, As I Lay Dying creates one epistemological crisis after another. By the last chapter, when the character who has the strongest claim to being the protagonist has been sent to an insane asylum, the reader has suffered. Here Faulkner offers no grace and no viable replacement for traditional sources of meaning that seem to crumble one after the other in his rural Mississippi.

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Why We Need Superheroes

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Update September 2016

From now on, all of my superhero-related posts will be published at my A Clash of Heroes Blog.

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My students all know that I love superheroes, and I often find ways to use superheroes and their stories as analogues for issues that I discuss in class. But last week a student said to me that a movie like The Avengers “doesn’t have anything to do with the real world. It’s just dumb entertainment.” I had to forgive this student for such an egregious claim. She’s new to college, and I have no control over whatever subpar education that she received before now and would lead her to think that The Avengers is just “dumb entertainment.” But she made me realize that while it is certainly true that superhero movies are wildly popular right now, some people don’t realize just how important the mythology of comic book heroes can be if we’re willing to take them seriously.

(The Desire for) Power Corrupts

One of the reasons that I think superheroes are important at this particular moment is how good their stories are at helping us think about questions of power. And perhaps more now than in any other time, we need to think about what it means to seek and to wield power. (more…)