Posts tagged with: literature

Blog author: jballor
Friday, December 27, 2013
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Humiliations GaloreThis year marks the fortieth anniversary of the publication of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, and over at The University Bookman I have written up some thoughts on the modern classic, “As You Wish: True (Self-)Love and The Princess Bride.”

Those familiar with the story know that the tale develops around the conflict between Prince Humperdinck and Westley (aka The Dread Pirate Roberts) over Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in Florin. I frame my piece with the confrontation between another prince and another pirate, an encounter which Augustine famously relates in his City of God. As Augustine writes, Alexander the Great rebukes a captured pirate for his crimes, only to hear the pirate’s retort tu quoque.

In “The Use of Alexander the Great in Augustine’s City of God,” Brian Harding describes Alexander’s “restless ambition for further conquests and power,” which leads him “to search constantly for new lands to conquer; in the same way the pirate captain is always on the look-out for merchant ships which he can harass.” Similarly Humperdinck’s constant competitive drive and lust for power are exemplified in his hunting prowess and his designs to conquer Guilder. He is a prince who would be emperor.
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Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
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Catching Fire

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Tyranny Is the True Enemy,” I explore the latest film installment of the Hunger Games trilogy, “Catching Fire.” I pick up on the theme that animates Alissa Wilkinson’s review at Christianity Today, but diverge a bit from her reading. As she writes, a major aspect of this second part of the series has to do with fake appearances and real substance, and the need to “remember who the real enemy is.”

Wilkinson is upset with the marketing buzz surrounding the film, arguing that it “declaws” the substantive message of the books themselves. There’s an element of truth to this. It comes home especially when watching an interview like this, in which Jennifer Lawrence seems to embody the idea that for a celebrity in today’s culture, “you never get off this train,” as Haymitch puts it to Katniss and Peeta on their own promotional tour.

But in focusing on the distracting nature of commercial merchandising of the films, I argue that Wilkinson ends up distracted from who the real enemy is. There is much that is morally problematic about the way that the Capitol operates. Wilkinson rightly shows the shallow consumerism and sensuality of Capitol couture. But the fact that this isn’t the real enemy, so to speak, can be shown by a bit of thought experiment.

Suppose that the consumption habits of the Capitol were far less odious to our moral sensibilities. Suppose the citizens all lived chaste, upright, and responsible lives in their city. Their oppression of the districts would be no less troublesome for all their virtuous consumption. The decadence of the Capitol only puts the real tyranny over the districts into sharper relief. John Tamny argues that to read Catching Fire as “anything other than a polemic against communistic, brutal government is a certain act of willful blindness.”

I won’t go quite that far, and I don’t agree that the film/book has nothing at all to do with critiquing consumerism, but I do think that such alternative readings often forget who the enemy really is. As Tamny (mis)quotes from Catching Fire, Katniss herself identifies the enemy as the one “who starves and tortures and kills us in the arena. Who will soon kill everyone I love.”

In the opening sequence of “Catching Fire,” Katniss is illegally hunting in an attempt to provide much-needed protein for her family. At one point, Katniss and Gale come across a flock of wild turkeys. This image is especially striking at the release of this film during the Thanksgiving season.

Far from promising a “turkey in every pot,” President Snow has no regard for the welfare of anyone in the districts. The citizens of the Capitol are all that matter, to the point that people like Katniss have to resort to illegal hunting and the black market for basic necessities like medicine and food.

There is a connection between hedonism and what might be called a “soft” form of tyranny characteristic of the vicious circle between the citizens of the Capitol and the government. And while tyranny in all its forms is to be rejected, the real enemy in the Hunger Games is the hard tyranny of President Snow and his jackbooted thugs. Everything else is, in the end, a distraction.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
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hunger-games-catching-fire-extended-tv-spotTomorrow I’ll be offering up a more extensive commentary on the second movie of the Hunger Games trilogy, “Catching Fire.” Until then, you can read Dylan Pahman’s engagement on the theme of tyranny, as well as that of Alissa Wilkinson over at CT. I’ll be critiquing Wilkinson’s perspective in my own review tomorrow. I think her analysis starts off strong, but she ends up getting distracted by, well, the distractions. But I commend her piece to your review, and in the meantime I’ll also offer a couple of notes on the film.

The film version doesn’t depart much from the source material, which is always a good thing when you have a strong source material. There is some streamlining of the plot and things are condensed a bit, but this is no doubt necessary to fit everything of relevance in to a 2.5 hour film.

One of the nice things that they do in the films is to show things that happen “off stage,” so to speak, in the books, which are presented from Katniss’ perspective. In this way, we can find out some things that Katniss doesn’t know, and some more texture is added to the narrative. In “Catching Fire,” the theme of hope flares up again, as it did in the first Hunger Games.

In an exchange between President Snow and Plutarch Heavensbee, the Head Gamemaker argues for more explicit brutality contrasted with puff-piece entertainment to bring the rabble in the districts in line. Snow expresses doubt, noting that “fear” only works to oppress “when there is no hope.” As long as Katniss is alive, the people have hope. Heavensbee persuades Snow, and in doing so deceives him, hoping to further foment revolt with such tactics.

But as I’ve also observed with before, the hope offered in the Hunger Games really is just a temporal hope. The bread that people seek really is literal bread. There is little in the way of spiritual nourishment offered to anyone in the films, despite the sometimes heavy-handed religious imagery. “Bread first, then ethics” remains the motto of life in Panem.

Oh, and Heavensbee also drops a plug for my book when, in the midst of the Quarter Quell, he exhorts Katniss to “get her hands dirty” a bit.

Blog author: dpahman
Thursday, November 21, 2013
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Today at Ethika Politika, Elyse Buffenbarger weighs in on violence and voyeurism in The Hunger Games:

Flipping between reality television and footage of the war in Iraq, Susan Collins was inspired to pen The Hunger Games. The dystopian young adult trilogy has been a runaway success both of page and screen: book sales number in the tens of millions, and in 2012, the first film took in nearly $700 million worldwide. (The next film, Catching Fire, releases tomorrow.)

Initially, I resisted the books for fear they were too violent — but then, at the urging of friends, family, and coworkers (all of whom I believed to have respectable taste), I devoured them in a weekend, and my husband did the same. The Hunger Games are literary alchemy, a breathless amalgam of all the tropes I loved as a child: romance, survival, and the poster child for strong female protagonists, Katniss Everdeen. When the first film came out, my husband and I rushed to the multiplex.

Collins’ trilogy provides, at turns, masterful commentary on class disparity and violent voyeurism: Katniss and her companions excoriate the citizens of the Capitol for their decadence and rabid consumption of the Games. (Their disdain was contagious: for weeks after reading the books, I found myself asking, “Would someone from the Capitol do this?” before doing or saying anything.)

But while watching the films, my husband and I felt uneasy. This discomfort ran deeper than the typical distaste any reader feels when watching a beloved book adapted for the screen. Watching children slaughter each other was very different than reading about it.

Her concerns immediately reminded me of St. Augustine’s critique of cathartic entertainment in his Confessions: (more…)

EndersGameFormicOver at Think Christian, I take another look at Ender’s Game, focusing on the leitmotif of understanding and communication in Orson Scott Card’s work. This applies particularly to inter-species communication.

We might, in fact, riffing off the Norwegian parody pop song, say that the central question of Ender’s Game is, “What does the Formic say?” Ender is the only one with the genuine curiosity to find out, and doing so is how he moves beyond his bloody calling.

What we find out, in a sense, is that on the Formic understanding, each human being has the dignity and worth of a queen. We are all queens, or as the Bible puts it, made in the image and likeness of God. This reality becomes all the more salient when like the Formic queen, “dynamite with a laser beam,” we too are killer queens, to make another pop culture connection (HT: Dylan Pahman).

A key difference between the film and the book is that the film is pretty thin on answers to that question of inter-species communication. There is much more about what the Formics think and feel in the book. I’ll post some of the relevant sections, which include significant spoilers, below the break. If you have not seen the film, you should not read these sections!

But for those of you who have seen the film, just think about that question of understanding the Formics as you revel in “The Fox (What Does it Say?)”

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I and Jordan Ballor have already commented on Ender’s Game this week (here and here), but the story is literally packed with insightful themes, many of which touch upon issues relevant to Acton’s core principles. Another such issue is that of the problems with Neo-Malthusianism, the belief that overpopulation poses such a serious threat to civilization and the environment that population control measures become ethical imperatives.

Such a perspective tends to rely on one or both of the following fallacies: a zero-sum conception of economics ignorant of the last 200 years of sustained economic growth, which have allowed humankind to escape the Mathusian trap; or a belief that people are the problem when it comes to poverty.

In Ender’s Game, the story begins (more obviously in the book) with the fact that Ender Wiggen (Asa Butterfield) is a “Third,” a third-born child in a time when the international government of Earth had adopted a two-child policy. His parents had received special permission to have a Third because their first two children, Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and Valentine (Abigail Breslin), had shown so much promise. Unfortunately, Peter had proven too aggressive and Valentine too compassionate. The government hoped that Ender would be a happy middle. (more…)

Ender’s Game, the recent film based on the best-selling science fiction novel, offers compelling insight into the idea of human capital, among many other compelling insights (e.g. this one and this one).

In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II wrote, “besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself.” He goes on to emphasize the importance of human knowledge, intelligence, and virtue for human flourishing. In economic terms this idea is known as human capital. While affirming this truth, Ender’s Game challenges viewers to consider precisely what they might mean, demonstrating in the characters of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Ender Wiggen (Asa Butterfield) that the specifics of one’s definition makes all the difference. (more…)

Ender_WigginOne of the recurring themes in Ender’s Game is the dynamic surrounding Ender Wiggin’s apparent uniqueness: he was, it seems, quite literally born for the purpose of ending the conflict with the Formics. The source material as well as the film released last week raise moral questions surrounding what we might call “bloody callings” quite pointedly.

A popular quote from Frederick Beuchner sets a helpful framework for discussing the question of whether there can be legitimate callings to offices that require violence. “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” says Beuchner. Alissa Wilkinson has helpfully pointed out something that Beuchner’s quote omits: our skills. The world may need something that we enjoy attempting to provide, but we may be no good at providing it. Wilkinson consider the case of the aspiring writer, but her observations apply to any pursuit.

Ender’s skills, if we might call them that, are apparently uniquely suited for competitive achievement. As his name suggests, he ends things. Ender embodies total victory. So how does Ender fit within this threefold requirement for discerning vocation?
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The other night, I sat down with my kids to read one of my favorite Rudyard Kipling poems, “The Camel’s Hump,” a remarkable 19th-century takedown of 21st-century couch-potato culture.

With typical color and wit, Kipling takes aim at idleness, decrying “the hump we get from having too little to do” — “the hump that is black and blue.” Kipling proceeds to elevate labor, noting that hard work refreshes the soul and reinvigorates the spirit: “The cure for this ill is not to sit still / Or frowst with a book by the fire / But to take a large hoe and a shovel also / And dig till you gently perspire.”

The illustrations in my 1949 version of the poem offer additional flair to Kipling’s contrast, aptly showing what can happen, physically and spiritually, if we do or don’t get our hands dirty. But don’t let the boy’s youthfulness fool you: “We all get the hump / Cameelious hump / Kiddies and grown-ups, too!”

camel

Page-2-Camel

 [The above pages are taken from Volume 2 of the 1949 Childcraft collection, Storytelling and Other Poems.]

zombie-cartoon-will-work

“Mmm…neoliberalism.”

One of the more curious cultural movements in recent years has been the increasing interest in zombies, and in particular the dystopian visions of a world following the zombie apocalypse.

Part of the fascination has to do, I think, with the value of thought experiments in speculation about such futures, however improbable. There may be something to be learned from gazing into a sort of fun house mirror, the distorted image of humanity as seen in zombies.

But zombies have not only captured the popular imagination. They have also become the object of academic (or at least ‘intellectual’) discourse.

Peter Paik, for instance, has a working paper at SSRN on “The Walking Dead” as an exploration of attempts to escape the “state of nature,” characterized by pessimism regarding “a better future and the fear of moving beyond an economic system that permits unlimited acquisition.” Neoliberalism is for Paik the defining feature of the run-up to the zombie apocalypse, which might say more about the captivity of academic discourse to dominant modes of cultural interpretation than anything of value about real-world political economy: “The mindless, undead ghoul that consumes the flesh of human beings lends itself almost too easily as a metaphor about our current economic predicament.”

One of the takeaways from the surprisingly (at least to me) interesting World War Z has to do with a central insight into post-apocalyptic political economy, and is a word of caution pace Paik concerning the relative valuation of a “neoliberal” order. At one point, Gerry Lane’s wife Karin appeals to Gerry (Brad Pitt) to talk to his friend, Thierry, an official with the UN. Gerry response: “Thierry isn’t in charge of anything anymore.”
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