It's Funny Because That's How People Act: Human Nature in Guardians of the Galaxy

We love Star Wars aliens, but can we relate to them?
*Minor Spoiler Alert*

Towards the end of the cute and well-crafted Guardians of the Galaxy, Quill shouts at Yondu, the alien who took him in as a boy:
Oh, will you shut up about [not letting the others eat me]? 20 years you've been throwing that in my face. Like it's some great thing: "not eating me". Normal people don't even think about eating someone else, much less that person having to be grateful for it.
It's hilarious because it changes the entire dynamic of the encounter. Yondu and his bandits are no longer some crazy alien race that "doesn't think like us humans." They are those crazy uncles at Thanksgiving who threaten little kids with fake eyeballs and scars and stuff.

Fantasy and science-fiction rely on that human connection. It's a dance between things being alien enough to indicate "no, this is not another drama about angsty people" and being relatable enough to keep us caring--because otherwise, the fantasy or sci-fi feature turns into a sociological National Geographic special.

In many ways, this is the same problem that anthropologists, sociologists, and businesspeople face every day. Every culture is unique in its history, lore, traditions, and business practices. At the same time, every culture understands and produces the six basic emotions of disgust, happiness, fear, hate, anger, surprise, and sadness. We are all different. Yet we are all the same. Hence, art travels; moreover, it travels remarkably well (if Law & Order: U.S., U.K., Russia, France, etc. etc. etc. are any indications).

This is likely one reason I've always appreciated the humanoid aliens of Star Trek more than the crazy-creatures-in-a-cantina approach of Star Wars. On the other hand, as Plinkett points out, the audience is able to handle Star Wars because we see everything through the human eyes of Luke Skywalker.

So it helps that the "guide" of Guardians is not only human but a very normal human with a taste for 80's soundtracks. How relatable is that?! It also helps that the "aliens" who join him are completely comprehensible in their facial features and personalities.

This is yet another reason that "types" work so well. Artsy literary folks often demand utter uniqueness from every fictional character (it is debatable whether this is achievable--but never mind): i.e, a "fully fleshed out character" whose biography has been carefully crafted to explain all personality flaws and psychological motivations. The end-product is usually not all that different from a really horrible job interview where the interviewee actually bothers to answer the question, "What are your strengths and weaknesses?" with any degree of accuracy. 

And yet throughout history, literature from Odysseus to Dickens has survived quite well by utilizing "types," such as (circling from left to right), the affable yet firm leader type; the loyal type, the "dumb jock" type; the woman with a troubled past type (this is different from the "fully fleshed out character" above--the troubled past is simply a troubled past, not an excuse for long-winded exposition); and the sarcastic guy with a heart of gold type.

The pleasure and power of types is that they shortcut the need for a sociological treatise. We can get on with the story! They also provide fodder not only for recognition but for further development.

The latter potential is what artsy folks often miss. Picasso learned to paint like a classical master before producing Cubism. T.S. Eliot could discourse on any poetical form, including free verse. Freedom doesn't come when a writer or painter or poet starts from scratch. Freedom comes from mastering and building on types and forms. Guardians of the Galaxy characters are types; they are also completely recognizable and distinct as individuals. But the typing, I'll bet, came first.

Characters with a potential for depth with whom an audience can relate: any writer is lucky to get that!

Observing Cats: Saying Hello

Charlotte Aubrey Woodbury
Bob now has a new sister: Charlotte Aubrey Woodbury or Charlie. She has been a member of our household for about a month.

I did not intend to get a new kitten so soon and wasn't even sure that I could since after summer, the next kitten "season" of the year is mid-fall (about now). However, as mentioned in a previous post, Bob was going stir-crazy without warm-blooded companionship during the hours I am at work, so I decided to give myself a break and see if kittens were available at the Animal Refuge League.

They were: three Mackerel tabbies, of which Charlie is one, one calico, and three orange kittens, who appeared a little too aggressive for my taste.

Using Cesar's advice, I took note of Charlie's temperament and energy before making my final selection. Sure, cuteness is a factor! But temperament rules the house. Of the three Mackerel tabbies, Charlie stood out as being neither too somnolent and passive (I wanted a kitten who would help Bob be brave) nor too wild (one kitten was climbing the cage walls). Charlie was curious, brave, and clever (she would hide under a dish, then pounce on another kitten) with no signs of aggression.

So I brought her home and sequestered her in my bedroom as all manuals and experts suggest: separate the new cat from any other animals for at least 24 hours.

I rarely follow this rule as rigidly as experts advise since I think the smell of a new animal is far more traumatizing than not discovering the origin of the smell. Bob was far more disturbed by the smell of the Animal Refuge League cardboard carrier that the ARL sends cats home in than by Charlie herself.

However, he was sufficiently freaked out by Charlie to greatly increase my estimate of how long their introduction would take.

Aurora's introduction to Max took less than a day. She was nearly 2 years when I got him, a kitten of approximately 7 weeks. It never occurred to me to separate them. (I didn't know any better. In addition, I  have strong feelings about the craziness of owners who cater to their pets' frail psyches, insisting on keeping said pets in separate parts of the house, etc. This is one tribe, darn it all, not two or three!) Max climbed into Aurora's space and was getting groomed by her within a hour.

She took longer to warm up to Bob although she was immediately curious. They were intermingling in the same space within five hours although I kept them separated at night and when I wasn't home for about three days.

Bob: What have you done?!
Bob, on the other hand, was the opposite of curious. For two days, I wondered if I had made a huge miscalculation. He behaved like a creature constantly on the verge of being tortured What is that thing? Why does it move? Where is it going now? What have you done!?

However, within those same two days, I concluded that Bob's lack of ease needed to be nipped in the bud. The experts agree--kittens of the right temperament can easily be encouraged to socialize. Older cats have a harder time, especially if opportunities for socialization are removed. And lack of sociability isn't a good trait to encourage in any pet. (This is an irony that Cesar runs into quite often with dogs: fearful owners will remove their dog from socializing with other dogs, which only increases the dog's sense of isolation, which in turn increases its aggression. The very thing the owners fear is the very thing the dog needs. Human kindergarteners aren't too terribly different. Sure, little Suzy might bite little Joey, but removing her from the group isn't going to help anybody.)

Cats may not be sociable in the same way as dogs, especially with humans, but they do have associations. Feral cats are remarkably socially adept within their own communities (just not with humans). 

On the other hand, although I was determined to "normalize" Bob, I came to realize that I couldn't push him. My attempts to make him be "nice" (Don't hiss!) backfired since I was cutting off a normal reaction. The most I could do was go and get him when he'd been under the bed too long. This is where the family hangs out, okay mister? 

Tough love.

Four days into this emotional battlefield, Bob jumped off a settee from which he had been eying Charlie and walked up to her. I held my breath and forced myself not to interfere. Bob reached out and, claws sheathed, batted at Charlie's face. She reacted blankly, then ran off and pounced on a toy.

Although Bob is 4 (or 33), his behavior towards Charlie was not all that different from a large 6-year-old walking up to a toddler, patting her on the head, then getting confused because she didn't pat him back. This is a game, stupid! Don't you get it? 

I had been worried that Bob's lack of maternal instinct would give him nothing to offer Charlie. What I discovered--and my vet confirmed--is that male cats take upon themselves the "coach" role: they monitor wrestling matches and correct extreme behavior. They discipline biting tendencies (little kittens love to bite) and, alongside female cats, illustrate how to hunt. One major factor in Bob's change of attitude occurred when I began to play chase-the-ribbon with Charlie in his presence. He watched her closely. Then he chased the ribbon. Much to my surprise (and pleasure), Charlie began to imitate him (in general, she gets too excited to utilize his "stalking" techniques, but she does try). Up until that point, I'm not sure Bob realized that Charlie WAS a cat.

Since that first week, socialization has proceeded with few set-backs. Charlie and Bob play at least twice a day now. And sometimes they even sleep on the same bed together! (I haven't yet seen them cuddle--at least not around me.)

Solving the food crisis took longer.

As mentioned above, I am not an advocate of separating members of a household. I also agree with Cesar that meal time is a great way to increase socialization (in fact, I think this is mammal behavior, not simply pet behavior; all mammals, including humans, treat eating together as the ultimate bonding ritual).

However, I was concerned that Bob's finickiness about eating near Charlie would aggravate his nervous bladder. Bob's nervous bladder required a costly intervention when he was 1 years old. Luckily, none of his issues in this area have recurred. Still, me and my bank account suffered some qualms when Bob refused to sup near Charlie the first two days.

Bob's subsequent attitude regarding meal times can best be summed up in the line from Frasier: "Dogs are weird."

Or, in this case, "Cats are weird."

I calculated that the best solution would be to have Bob eat on a higher surface, one that Charlie currently shows no interest in negotiating.

He wouldn't.

So I caved and tried the eat-in-another-room scenario.

He wouldn't do that either.

Ultimately, not being able to SEE Charlie while he ate caused Bob far more frustration than seeing her while trying to eat.

They now eat in the kitchen at the same time, so the problem is more or less solved. Yet Bob's behavior continues to mystify me, especially since he won't fight for his food. He won't even hiss at Charlie over it.

Aurora and Bob waiting to be served. The hat and horn
were added to the image. No cat is THAT tolerant!
But then, Aurora wouldn't either. If Max or Bob wanted her food, fine, let them have it. I put her reaction down to maternal temperament. But Bob, who has no maternal instincts, is exactly the same. This may be because Bob is a less dominant personality than Charlie. Or it could be some "survival of the progeny" instinct that gives kittens precedence at the trough. If Bob becomes less forgiving when Charlie hits puberty, I will make  note of it.

My hope, of course, is to train Charlie to eat from her plate and no one else's. I monitor meal times (due to Bob's medical issues, I instituted specific meal times rather than leaving out food all the time; I far prefer the specific meal times!). Over a five-minute period, I will remove Charlie from Bob's plate six or seven times. She changes bowls even when hers is still full--his is SO much more interesting! When she finishes eating from her bowl, I let her play with the kitchen light string until Bob is done.

Kittens are trainable! But as experts point out, they react to the type of training that other cats would give them. There are kittens who can be trained to do dog and humans things like retrieve balls, etc. But in general, "This is NOT your food" and "NO BITE" are the most likely rules to prove successful.

Elementary and Producer Silliness

Apparently the producers of Elementary have claimed that they do not intend to get Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson together romantically. I don't fault them for this. What I find ridiculous and utterly disingenuous is the claim, We never intended a romance; why do people always leap to that conclusion; why can't men and women be friends??!!

Such offended surprise is disingenuous for the following three reasons:

1. Post-Arthur Conan Doyle (who is likely turning over in his grave, as much because nobody remembers anything else he wrote as for the assumptions that modern viewers make about his characters), Holmes and Watson have gained an edge of sexual tension--whether we are dealing with a man and woman or two men--hence Rowan Atkinson's outrage in Thin, Blue Line:

In more recent movies and shows, the homoerotic element is both more obvious and more unself-conscious. BBC Sherlock takes a modern approach; affection between the male characters is not perceived as automatically loaded (i.e., in need of repression). Nevertheless, for many years now Holmes and Watson have represented that all-encompassing male comradely which attracts women to yaoi manga.

2. If producers will go around casting Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu as co-stars, they should accept that disclaiming an interest in producing sexual tension = instant rolling of eyes. Really? Have you seen them? Really??

3. Much like the Buffy writers who created a workable romance between Buffy and Spike and then started getting defensive about viewers wanting more, the writers and directors of Elementary have, for lack of a better word, already Freudianized the characters' relationship.

Sherlock has a tendency to barge into Joan's room in the mornings, while she is still asleep or just waking up. In a Season 1 episode, in one of my favorite scenes, Holmes comes in and sits down in a chair facing the bed. He sits with his legs spread. Watson turns over to face him, curling her hands under her cheek.

Everything about the scene screams physical and emotional intimacy. It isn't overemphasized. In fact, it is played to a fine degree of mellowness. But it isn't remotely platonic. Miller's posture demonstrates alpha-male sexual confidence while Lucy Liu is luminous.

It is possible, I suppose, for television producers to be completely clueless about the importance of visuals. Still, it's gotta make you wonder how these people get their jobs.

The producers claim that they want to avoid the "Moonlighting trap" (as one article puts it). However,  I think Moonlighting is no longer a proper analogy for the romance-that-kills-the-show (do producers watch nothing later than the 1980's?). Several recent shows have done a more than respectable job bringing the leads together without destroying the show's content or trajectory.

Writers are better than they used to be! (It takes skill to continue to make an ongoing, non-dysfunctional relationship interesting, but it is possible.)

My suggestion regarding Elementary: The X-Files solution. In  The X-Files, it is largely immaterial whether Mulder and Scully have slept together (they do eventually) or would label themselves boyfriend & girlfriend, yet their relationship from the beginning is more than platonic (see "Memento Mori" for a great example of this). My hope is that Elementary producers/directors/writers don't get so flustered by the idea of romance, they cut themselves off to its possibilities, such as the non-official romantic relationship, which has been so enormously successfully in shows (like early Bones) where the leads behave as if they are a couple, even though they are not.

"You're my work wife!" Castle tells Beckett in an early season. He has a point.

The Perfect Reader: Does He or She Exist?

Patrick Tull: He even
looks like Cadfael!
I adore audio books. I am also extremely fussy about my readers. My criteria have little to do with the reader's acting ability--I consider David Suchet the quintessential Poirot, but I don't much care for him as a reader.  Patrick Tull is a marvelous reader of Ellis Peters' Cadfael books (he sounds the way I think Cadfael would sound), but I rarely listen to him: he reads too slow.

Stephen Thorne does a pleasing job with Ellis Peters' Cadfael books and short stories. Hugh Fraser (who plays Hastings opposite Suchet's Poirot) does a more than respectable job with Christie's texts.

Speaking of mysteries, Ian Carmichael may not look like Peter Wimsey but nobody sounds more like him! He reads well and fast and doesn't try to "act" too many different characters (it impresses me when a reader can do this, but it usually slows them down, and few of them are as good as Jim Dale).

Joss Ackland as the diplomat
in hunt for Red October: that
gravelly voice!
James Saxon reads most of Ngaio Marsh books. I don't much like his voice (it isn't soothing or melodious--I listen to audiobooks when I'm going to sleep), but I think he is a good reader and captures Marsh's characters quite well. While I don't have any particular opinion about readers "acting out" different voices, I do like them to convey meaning and tone in their delivery. Saxon does this.

As does Joss Ackland! I am currently listening to him read The Screwtape Letters. I own the John Cleese-read version of the same text, and it is quite good. However, I must admit, Ackland's is better! (Joss Ackland played C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands, the BBC version--which is far superior to the Hollywood version.)

Stephanie Cole: Hilarious comedienne.
Good reader!
Before I discuss good women readers, I have to consider Criminal Minds: each episode begins and ends with a quote. For reasons that I won't try to delve into, many of the actresses on the show in the earlier seasons would rush their quotes; the men never did (perhaps women are more uncomfortable than men about "taking up space"?). The readings improved in later seasons; the actresses who play Penelope and Emily Prentiss are quite good at delivering quotes.

So there are strong female narrators! Rosemary Leach and Stephanie Cole come to mind. Nadia May, a reader from the days before audiobooks were made for more people than the visually-impaired (and kudos to those readers!)--does a respectable job. Joan Hickson is a great reader of Christie's short stories (I prefer Leach and Cole for the novels).

Judi Dench is a strong reader. In one episode of As Time Goes By, Jean (Judi Dench) is reading in bed with Lionel; he has gotten a pile of books out of the library, including Winnie-the Pooh by A.A. Milne. After she teases him for his choice, she reads a passage. Cadence and tone are exactly right! Afterwards, Jean chuckles and admits that Winne-the-Pooh is worth rereading, whether one is an adult or a child.

Baldrick about to deliver his poem: Boom, boom, boom!
Audio books in general are problematic, having a shorter shelf-life than paperbacks. Publishing companies are constantly selling new audio versions of books (with the latest celebrity reader!). This is unfortunate. The best reading of Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones I have every heard was read by Blackadder actor Tony Robinson (who plays Baldrick). It is no longer available even though Amazon. Tony Robinson has read a number of Terry Pratchett's novels.

The all-time best reader in my estimation is Simon Prebble. He has good cadence; he captures tone and meaning very well. On top of all that, his voice is unbelievably sexy: think James Earl Jones, only English and not quite so deep. Prebble has read Ellis Peters' "contemporary" series (based in the 1950s and 1960s) as well as Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark and some Sherlock Holmes' stories.

Observing Cats I: Saying Goodbye

What are they thinking?
As John Bradshaw remarks in his book Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, researching cats is a relatively new discipline. Dogs have been with us humans forever, living in our homes, guarding our property, organizing our sheep. But cats, even when domesticated, have lived parallel lives to humans (until recently). Scientific research and observation is being done even as I type--as are more popular forms of observation--but it is still relatively slim compared to the research and observation applied to dogs.

In the interests of science, therefore, I will being posting observations about my cats on occasion--especially since I already know far too much about their pee and poop habits! Although I am as capable of anthropomorphizing animals as anyone, I maintain that cats-be-cats, not humans in cat disguise. What I observe will not necessarily be a reflection of my state of mind.

Death and Cats

As Daniel Gilbert argues in Stumbling on Happiness, animals do not imagine the future (he then goes on to point on that although humans can and do, they aren't as good at it as they think they are). Animal behavior that appears to take the future into account actually comes from instinct and a kind of episodic memory bank (loud noises have occurred in this room: be careful!). But animals don't plan to become astronauts or imagine taking vacations. They don't even imagine what to do when YOU go on vacation.

Consequently, it is difficult to say (when humans are removed from the equation) whether animals really mourn each other (rather than just reflect their humans' emotions). When Aurora died, I was prepared for a few days of confusion on Bob's part, followed by complete indifference. I was sort of right. I was also sort of wrong.

To begin with, there is the issue of temperament. Max was a cat-who-thought-he-was-a-dog. When he got ill, his personality underwent a massive shift. Aurora--an older female cat with an aloof and self-sufficient temperament--ignored his decline. After he died, she adjusted almost immediately to his absence. She didn't go searching for him. Her routine didn't alter. And she took over the couch (the seat next to me in the living room).

Commemorative ornament.
On the other hand, when Aurora got ill, Bob--a 4-year-old of skittish habits who nonetheless likes to be around others--continued to associate with her. He would walk up to her and lick her forehead. He would look for her in the apartment. He would eat food alongside her. Although Aurora become very restless, her personality didn't alter substantially. Bob did not ignore her at any point.

When she died, Bob would go into the closet (where she liked to sleep), find her smell, leave the closet and go looking for her. After I vacuumed out the closet, Bob responded by staying under the bed (I didn't remove Aurora's smell/fur from there until a week later). He stopped going into the living room. The living room has always made him nervous (open windows: truck noises!); still, he had spent time in the living room when Aurora was alive.

Although I continued to get weepy (and still do), Bob adjusted to Aurora's death within three days (I am opposed to humans insisting that their animals mourn with them, so he got no pressure from me one way or the other). He no longer searched for her. He returned to the living room (helped by me shutting the windows, eliminating the scary truck sounds). And he took over the chair (the seat next to me in the living room).

Three days later than his adjustment, I thought I would lose my mind. Unlike Aurora, who adjusted to the absence of another cat without pause, Bob clearly dislikes being left alone. He began to demand more affection and playtime when I was home and before I left in the mornings. Some cats you can feed, and they saunter away without a backwards glance. Some cats you feed, and they curl up in your lap. Some cats you feed, and they demand to be entertained. Bob has always fallen into the last category--running off to the hall or living room and standing over a toy as soon as he lapped up a little breakfast. After Aurora's death, his demands became more vocal and insistent.

Aurora and Bob
I don't believe that Bob was necessarily demanding another pet in the house. I point this out because I think it is customary for pet owners to claim that their animals want thus-and-so when it is really the human's needs and desires that are being satisfied. (My animal wants me to buy a new bed! A new entertainment system! A new car!)

What I do know is that I don't have the time or energy to keep Bob fully entertained. "I have to go to work," I will tell him. "I'm the person who pays for all your food." Which means absolutely nothing to an animal with a fetish for warm bodies.

 To be continued . . . 

One Agatha--Two Archies

Vanessa Redgrave as Agatha Christie
This summer, I watched Agatha: A Life in Pictures (starring Olivia Williams of The Sixth Sense fame) and rewatched Agatha (Vanessa Redgrave; Dustin Hoffman) with my mom.

I can't say I recommend Agatha: A Life in Pictures, which should really be subtitled Agatha: A Movie About A Few Weeks in Agatha Christie's Life Of Which She Herself Never Spoke and Which Were Relatively Unimportant When Compared to the Rest of Her Life.

Agatha also focuses on the same few weeks, but it doesn't pretend to be about anything else!

Background: not long after her mother's death in 1926, Agatha's husband, Archibald informed her that he wanted a divorce. That December, Christie disappeared. She was found ten days later at a spa in Harrogate. At the time, the official explanation was "amnesia," which--regarding the medical nature of long-term amnesia--is highly unlikely.

My theory is that Christie suffered an emotional breakdown brought on by an uninterrupted series of devastating events. In her emotionally fraught, not entirely rational (but still cognizant) state, she developed a romantic plan to force her husband to "find" her (and thus save their marriage). Christie was a mature and intelligent woman; rationally, she would have known that Archie wasn't the type to go looking for anyone. Overwhelmed as she was by depression, a feeling of "I must get away" and panic at the looming dissolution of her marriage, she came up with her plan. Unfortunately, she completely underestimated her own fame plus the reaction of the press to her disappearance: it didn't remain a "family affair." 

In terms of viewing pleasure, I recommend Agatha, a respectable and well-acted film with a great Christie twist. Although some fans were offended by the ending, the movie is impressively faithful to the known events of those ten days; it also captures the emotional reality of Christie's breakdown. Redgrave's portrayal of Christie's pained unhappiness is made all the more real by its understatement. She doesn't wail and weep; rather, she exercises a kind of catatonic discipline: I will survive the next hour, minute, second; I will continue to put one foot in front of the other.

Both movies tackle the character of Christie's husband, Archie although each stresses different aspects of the man's personality. The combination provides insight into the Christie marriage in 1926.

Agatha's Christie is played by Mr. Handsome, Timothy Dalton. He plays Archie as stern, aloof, angry, domineering, and, most importantly, obsessively aware of his own status. The movie argues (correctly, I believe) that Archie could have found Agatha if he had tried. (She left clues--for people who think like detectives, at least.) Instead, his sense of personal affront (how dare she do this? how dare she make me a laughing stock?) led to a situation where the furor grew far beyond what it needed to, resulting in far more embarrassment to Archie than would have occured if he'd cared enough to hunt her down in the first place.

Agatha: Life In Pictures's Archie is played by Raymond Coulthard. His Archie is charming, out of his depth with the ensuing chaos, and petulant.  The movie contains a pitch-perfect scene where Archie storms out of Christie home, crying, "Not everyone can be happy! Someone has to suffer!" And it won't be him. It never occurs to him to comfort his wife after her mother's death or, even, to just let her be and wait for her to find her balance. His need to be comfortable eclipses all else.

Agatha Christie never talked about the ten days of her "disappearance" and rarely discussed her divorce. True to her upbringing and time period, she doesn't attack Archie in her autobiography.

She did, however, write a number of mystery books in which the heroine learns that true marital love and affection comes from falling in love with a best friend rather than an object of infatuation. My favorite example comes in Sad Cypress. The main male character--who cheats on his fiance--is a dead ringer for Archie (I have no idea how much Christie was aware of this): he is charming, pleasant, good-natured, fastidious, and standoffish. He hates inconvenience. He winces at strong emotion. He finds demonstrations of affection distasteful and ends up pursuing an ephemeral--and ultimately unattainable--woman. His fiance--the heroine and main suspect of the novel's murder--is never entirely at ease in his presence, despite intense infatuation. She idolizes him (he wants to marry me?!) which doesn't make her happy. Or comfortable.

In the end, she gains the affectionate adoration of a much better man--as Agatha Christie did with Max Mallowan. Agatha and Max were married for 46 years.

Ah, look at the cute liddle cars . . .

To find Booth and Brennan's car, follow the arrow.
I don't consider myself to be much of a car person, but there are a few television and movie cars that amuse me to no end.

I thought of this recently after watching the Bones 3.5 episode "The Yanks in the U.S." The scene where an exasperated Booth drives a liddle tiny car the wrong way through a London intersection got me laughing. It's way up there with Chevy Chase (of whom I am otherwise not a fan) in European Vacation driving round and round and round the round-a-bout: "Look kids, there's Big Ben! Look kids, there's Big Ben!"

Columbo's car and Dog.
And then there's Columbo's car. In "Death Lends a Hand," Columbo (and his car) are stopped for a spot inspection. The scene has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. It is totally hilarious, especially since it is completely understated. Every time I watch the episode, I think, "Okay, I know what's coming next. The windshield wipers don't work. That just isn't that funny." And then Columbo sets the (partially broken) windshield wipers going, and I fall out of my chair laughing.

I'm also a big fan of the Bourne cars--mostly because I learned to drive in a standard, and I like watching Bourne prove his superior skills through downshifting. I always felt more in control in my standard cars although my automatic Toyota Yaris has a similar cozy feel.

However, the first action movie car chase scene that I remember liking (keeping in mind that I didn't see the semi explode in Terminator until 10+ years later) was the tank scene in Goldeneye. I realize Pierce Brosnan is not held up as a great Bond by Bond fans, but I thought the tank rolling over cars (completely altering the definition of "chase") to be totally hilarious--which it still is, even when JAG does it.

Is There a Message? Does it Matter? No

If you are looking for a Yes, click here and here.

Story #1

I'm eight years old, driving back from seeing The Black Stallion with members of my family. I can no longer remember my opinion of the movie (I'm a girl; I was 8; it was about a horse: I'm sure I adored it).

My family members are dissecting the movie piece by piece, line by line, scene by scene, which I find all very puzzling. 

Story #2

I'm in England as part of a Theatre in London college program. We all go to see Uncle Vanya, starring Ian McKellan in the eponymous role (that summer, he was starring simultaneously in Richard III, which I also saw--no, he never confused his lines!). London playhouses are rather informal: playgoers can buy standing room when the seats run out. During the interval, I switch with my roommate, giving up my seat to stand at the rail overlooking the thrust stage.

Over an hour later, I straighten up from hanging over the rail and realize I've forgotten where I am. I have no idea even now whether the play was good or bad. Ian McKellan was in it, so I'm sure it was beautifully acted, but as for the direction, scenery, dialog . . .

No idea. For over 90 minutes, I was completely caught up in Chehov's play.

Story #3

Same program, same summer, the group goes down to Brighton to see Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench in Coriolanus. Afterwards on the bus, the other students complain about how bored they were and how they feel asleep.

I have to admit, I still don't have the slightest idea what that play is about. But bored? Crystallized in my brain is an image of Kenneth Branagh walking out on stage in his bare feet, then he and Judi Dench roaring beautiful language at each other in beautiful voices. Much later, I'll remember that he wasn't much taller than Judi Dench, but at the time, all that struck me was the powerful delivery.

Literary Criticism

The sad truth about criticism, especially for those of us English graduates trained in the stuff, is that it gets easier as we get older. I have seen The Black Stallion since I was 8; it is beautifully, stunningly photographed. It is also entirely too long and monotonously paced in parts.

For good and for bad, criticism has its place, especially if you believe, as I do, that some things are better than others. Comparisons are rather inevitable.

And (if I'm honest) criticism can be fun to write.

Still, despite the importance, inevitability, and power of criticism, I ultimately side with C.S. Lewis on this issue: the best way to enjoy a piece of art is to get swept up in it. This is why excessive praise as well as excessive criticism can be detrimental to viewing a movie or reading a book. We are already prepared for disappointment or for flaws (I find the former more problematic than the latter: regarding excessive criticism, I can always like something anyway; regarding excessive praise, the human brain has the detrimental capacity to imagine perfection--far beyond the actual possibility of its performance).

In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis argues that the best way to learn about a piece of art is to talk to the people who love it and find out why. He looks specifically at how people imbibe a piece of art--whether as users (what does this do to me or for me?) or as receivers (what is the author doing?).

For my thesis, I added a third or compromise position. To me, allowing the artist's work to sweep over me (receiver) also involves a creative component (user). I join the work, so much so that I reside in the artist's world while I am reading or watching it (one reason I only read short scary books by Stephen King, never long ones).

The Message

With this approach in mind (creative enjoyment), hunting for a message in fiction--or, contrawise, evaluating such works by their good, clean, appropriate, profound, insightful, important (take your pick) messages--creates a problem.

Academic and business compositions (should) tell you what their message is upfront. However, although fiction writers often start (or at least end) with a vision, the communication of that vision, message, or theme is usually (1) not primary since story or imagery or style comes first; (2) not fully acknowledged, even by the writer. 

It might be more accurate to say that a fiction writer communicates a worldview, rather than a message of theme, but even that is too precise. Stephen King states that after he finished the first draft of Carrie, he noticed the recurrence of blood as an image. During the next edit, he emphasized its symbolic value but not so much so that it got in the way of the story. Speaking of myself, I wrote a full novel-size first draft of my current novella Aubrey before I realized the story was about rape and abuse.

Courtesy: Mike Cherniske
Insisting on a message (first) and then using the message as the determiner of value (second) ignores that fiction writers--just like painters and sculptors and musicians--have chosen a medium that deliberately bypasses the (valuable in other contexts) convention of "I tell you what I want to prove; I prove it; I told you what I proved."

When my students write narratives, they have to have a thesis because the narrative is evidence, not a story for its own sake. But I still discuss with them the power of using story: "Why tell a story rather than deliver facts and figures?"

"Stories connect better," they tell me. "Stories can show us more. Stories can speak to us in different ways."

Figuring out what they connect with and how they speak is the best type of criticism.

Aurora: The Cat Who Went With Me Everywhere

This week, I decided it was time for my oldest cat Aurora to go to kitty heaven (which actually, yes, I do believe in).

Aurora was 19-1/2 years old, the oldest cat I have ever known personally. The decision to euthanize was easier than with my cat, Max. Max was 14, which is within the normal range but seemed relatively young to me (I grew up with a cat that lived to be 3+ years more). I wasn't prepared to make THAT decision. Consequently, I put off making it far too long.

I refused to let Aurora decline and suffer as badly. When she stopped eating, I immediately begun to watch for other signs. This past Saturday, I made the decision to wait until after the weekend. It was the right decision since I got to take her to our regular vet: The Cat Doctor. It also meant that both she and I were ready. The decision was still difficult (it is never easy!), but comparatively easier than with Max.

Living without her has been far more difficult. Aurora was my "first" cat. (I don't count Sidney, my cat in high school. To put it bluntly, Aurora was the first cat for whom I paid the vet bills!)

I got Aurora from a private owner when I was living in Washington State (1995). She was actually too young, being barely 6 weeks. (Many shelters won't let kittens go until after 8-10 weeks). She literally fit into the palm of my hand. When I was at work, she would creep into the gaps of my box spring mattress. The first time I came home and couldn't find her, I desperately called her name. I heard "mew mew mew" and turned around to find her scampering to me from under the bed.

At night, she would sleep in my hair--yep, I had long hair in those days!

I felt so guilty about her being so young and having no playmate that I would drive 20 minutes each way at lunch to see her: that meant I could only spend 20 minutes petting her, but I didn't mind! At the time I lived in a studio apartment; to entertain Aurora (she was quite active in those days), I would throw balls of paper from one end of the "shoebox" to the other. After we ran through one pile (about 20 of so paper balls), I'd switch positions.

We drove across country in a 1989 Dodge Colt that looked
very much like this 1983 model. From Hatch Heaven.
I moved from Washington to Maine (with a month's break), starting August 1996. Aurora took the trip alongside me! After several test drives during which she snuck under the brakes and clutch (it was a stick-shift), I finally broke down and got a large wire kennel cage that took up half the back seat (every book on traveling with pets says to do this anyway). I added an upside down cardboard box that she could either sit on or sleep inside--plus lots of blankets, a tiny litter box, and bowls.

I discovered pretty quickly that, like her owner, Aurora gets car-sick in the backseat. Every single day started out the same: I started driving--Aurora threw up--I cleaned out the cage--Aurora was fine the rest of the way.

The car was also not air-conditioned--which on the highways made no difference. In the cities and in states with lots of construction (yes, Utah, I mean you!), the car would get unbearably hot and Aurora would start hyperventilating. I would pour water on her head from a water bottle which sounds awful but actually helped.

During that trip, she stayed at a house with a ferret (which freaked her out), a house with another cat (which she didn't mind so much except she and the other cat got into a pissing and pooping match--who can fill up the other cat's litter box the most?!), multiple hotels (which she liked), a cozy bedroom in West Virginia (which she liked) and a basement in Ohio (which she didn't). She spent a few days in upstate New York before we both drove on to Maine, where she stayed on Peaks Island; there she met her brother Max.

Aurora and Bob
From Peaks Island, Aurora moved to an apartment on Woodfords Corner, then an apartment in the West End, and finally, to our current apartment; this means that over her lifetime, Aurora adjusted to a total of five apartments (in Washington, I lived in a much larger and much nicer apartment than the studio apartment for six months before moving to Maine). She was happiest in the last: more roomy than some of the others, fewer intruding smells (although by the time we moved into this apartment, Aurora had reached the utterly-unfazed-by-anything stage of life). 

She also tolerated two brothers, Max and Bob. Max she mothered and played with. Bob she accepted and agreed to play with (she did perk up after Bob arrived). She is survived by Bob--and me.
Feed Me!
Courtesy: Jen Jones

In terms of idiosyncrasies, for most of her life, Aurora would eat anything, including curry! She had a VERY loud yowl. She was shyer with people than my male cats have been. She was a better hunter than my male cats with sharper eyes (spotting birds on telephone wires) and (up until recently) better hearing. After Max died and gave up the position of animal-who-gets-to-sit-on-Kate's-lap-while-she-watches-TV, Aurora took over that position, only relinquishing it in the last two weeks. (When Bob took it over, I realized that both animals were sending me a message.)

Of all my cats, Aurora has been the most classic: short-haired tabby with all the proper markings, beautiful brown-tipped fur with a golden layer underneath, and huge, huge eyes. 

Altogether, Aurora Woodbury had a remarkable life--for a human, let alone a cat--and bore it with remarkable sangfroid, even for a human!

Regarding Sci-Fi Villains and Stargate SG-1: Season 9, Episodes 1-8 (So Far)

My goal is to (eventually) watch all of Stargate SG-1 and all of X-Files. With SG-1, I have two more seasons to go (why give up now?!). With X-Files, I have three more to go.

Here's the truth about fantasy & sci-fi, and clothes:
the older they look, the cooler they are.
I finally began Season 9 of Stargate SG-1.

Initial notes:

So far I've been (mostly) disappointed. Not by the introduction of Ben Browder, whom I quite like as Richard Dean Anderson's replacement (although, of course, I would prefer to have Richard Dean Anderson!) but by the new enemy.

How would I describe the Ori . . . ?


Regarding Sci-Fi Villains:
Goa'uld: Fun! (Great dressers. See above.)
Wraith: Fun! (Even better dressers.)
Replicators (when machines): Boring
Replicators (when human): Slightly more interesting
Borg: Fun!
Khan: Great fun!
Cylons: Kind of fun (I only watched 1 season.)
Cylon Two (played by Callum Keith Rennie): Amazing fun!
Cigarette Smoking Man: Even more amazing fun! 
Ori: Yawnsville
I realized, after scanning my list, that I like to watch bad guys that I can care about. I don't mean "care about" as in "sympathize with"--I don't actually want to applaud amoral evildoing. But I do want to care when and if the bad guys show up on the screen.

I care when Ba'al shows up and sarcasms his way around the set (what!? it should be a verb!!). I care when the Borg Queen makes an appearance. I care about Steve (Wraith from Stargate: Atlantis). I care about what Cylon Two has to say.  

I don't care about the Ori even a little tiny bit (not even when Julian Sands talks in that plushy voice of his).

It isn't that the Ori-as-enemies don't raise interesting ideas. I have to give Stargate SG-1 credit where credit is due: the writers tackle their semi-omnipotent/omniscient bad guys with more panache and insight than most shows. Not only is the problem of free-will raised (naturally) but also the rather more insightful question, "Is power by itself a good enough reason to bestow one's allegiance?" The writers also intelligently tackle the comprehensible motives people might have to bestow that allegiance (anyway).

It's the Ori themselves that don't raise a flicker of interest. They don't make me chuckle or sit-up-and-take-notice or wonder what they will do next. They don't even engender particularly interesting responses from the SG-1 team except from Daniel who gets to give a lot of well-written speeches.

Granted, the SG-1 writers have captured the humorless inflexibility of passionate fanaticism (whether it be found in religion or, say, environmentalism). But why would I want to watch a whole season of that?

Okay, so, William B. Davis shows up. Eh, I'm not sure Davis by himself is enough to salvage the concept, but then I only just finished episode 8.

Reviews of Episodes 1-8 can be found in the post below.

Stargate: Season 9, Episodes 1-8

Avalon, Part 1 and Avalon, Part 2: Good introduction of a new character! I didn't realize until I read Wikipedia that Ben Browder was that guy from Farscape (of which I only watched a few episodes). Not only is he well-cast, he is well-introduced.

Speaking of Farscape, I truly love how unabashedly the Stargate producers love their sci-fi. Even Master Whedon can't help but poke fun at his creations. Stargate SG-1 producers and directors do this too but a frank fan-boy attitude of "oh, wow, we are so lucky to get him!" runs through every season. It's refreshing.

Ben Browder's Mitchell is the extroverted, excitable version of Jack (Sheppard is the extroverted, low-key version of Jack). There's a very cute scene in this first two-parter (which is actually a three-parter: see "Origin") where Mitchell yells at Teal'c about ricochet--"Bullets bounce!"--and makes a Jack motion with his hands. Teal'c stares at him, then smiles fondly. It is very, very cute.

I love Teal'c's little smile

And the Arthur stuff is compelling--although I would have liked more of it. (I think the writers were nervous about trending on "sacred" fantasy ground.)

Origin: Interesting. And I LOVE the crisp banter between Daniel and Vala. Unfortunately, this was also the point where I sighed and went, "Oh, no. THESE are the new villains?" (despite Julian Sands).

The Ties That Bind: Cute, funny Daniel-Vala episode. Vala is a great match for Daniel! His girlfriends since his wife have been a little too serious. Vala has a serious side but she definitely knows how to keep things light.

The Powers That Be: At this point, I told myelf, "Well, you might as well finish this first set" (I got discs 1&2 out of the library). The Ori are not my preferred villain type. An Ori (actually, a Prior) shows up and makes threats. Daniel gives a good speech. The Prior makes more threats. Daniel and others resist. The Prior reemphasizes threats.

And repeat.

Beachhead: I would almost say the same about this episode EXCEPT Maury Chaykin shows up and steals the entire episode. I had no idea Maury Chaykin did Stargate (he died in 2010). He is magnificent as a fully-humanized if despicable Goa'uld. At one point, he discovers that Ba'al didn't give him credit in the past for an invention. His look of bewildered hurt is beautifully done. Why can't all bad guys be like this?!

Ex Deus Machina: Even though Ba'al shows up, I didn't watch this episode as closely as I should have. It contains a great deal of Jaffa politicking.

Having complained about Jaffa politicking, I must now give Stargate writers major kudos: in the Stargate universe, there is no such thing as a vacuum. Dispose of one enemy: another rises to take its place. Get rid of a common enemy: look out, factionalism! The double-cool thing, though, is that the Stargate writers have a fundamentally stoic attitude about it all: Another enemy rises? So you fight that one too. Factionalism takes the place of heroic solidarity? So you keep trying to find common ground.

Babylon: I quite like this episode. It has a vibe to it reminiscent of earlier Stargate episodes. Besides, Tony Todd is always a treat!

Richard: The Ethics of Affection on Wattpad

I am currently posting the revised version of Richard: The Ethics of Affection on Wattpad. The fantastic cover was designed by Eugene.

Thanks to Eugene for also helping with the new blurb (below)! Unlike Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation, Richard is nearly all romance (and answers the question raised in Aubrey, "How does Aubrey's brother get rid of that horrible fiancée!?"). Like in Aubrey, magic plays a role!
Recently appointed to a hoped-for government post, Richard St. Clair struggles to suppress less-than-appropriate feelings for his new assistant, especially since he's seen through her disguise.

He's a formally engaged man, after all. And he's got everything under control--until an unknown adversary slips him a love potion that unleashes his true affections.

With the help of his once-enchanted sister, his policeman brother-in-law, and the woman he really loves, Richard scours Kingston for his foe and a way to ethically express his heart's desires.
Richard: The Ethics of Affection continues the story of the St. Clair family begun in Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation. I will be posting 2 chapters a week starting the week of August 25, 2014.

Is There a Message? Does it Matter? Part 1.5: Writing Literary Analysis


Been there!

In Is There a Message? Does It Matter? Part 1, I addressed academic and business writing, arguing, Yes! There must be a message! Writing a research paper or a business proposal is not about presenting the world with the fruits of one's creative genius; it's about defending and defining an idea. 

In a later post, I will discuss how a message, even about creative genius, is not required in a work of fiction. In the meantime, I am going to address the problematic task of analyzing that work of fiction.

When performing literary analysis, students are expected to find a work's message. Unfortunately, unlike with research papers and business proposals, the message is not clearly delineated in a thesis statement. It is buried amongst dialog, setting, images, characters, and symbols. It is also not called a "thesis" but rather the "theme." Usually, rather than being a proposal of what should be true, a theme is a proposal about how the world or how people function.

For students who either (1) grow up discussing literary works in their families, or (2) have a yen for dismantling literary works in the first place, delving for the theme is as easy as an algebraic equation is to a mathematician. I make the comparison because being able to spot the theme of a movie or book is less about intelligence and more about skill and interest. (And once one learns how to do it, it becomes even less about intelligence since with the right training and jargon, one can force any written work into any desired interpretation.)

Despite my cynicism, the reason that literary analysis continues to be taught at the college level is that when it is done correctly, it helps develop critical thinking. Think of literary analysis as a form of reverse engineering: here's the text--okay, how and why was it put together like this?

Approaching literary texts in this way is not all that different from an archaeologist starting with the ruin of a palace and then positing how it was built and where the king & queen slept. Like the archaeologist, the literary analyst can use outside texts from the time period to understood the work in question. This is far easier if the literary analyst is exploring, say, George Bernard Shaw who left copious notes about his intentions, than Shakespeare--who didn't.

In the absence of outside support, the literary analyst turns to the text: the symbols, the dialog, the characters. Here is where thinking of a text as a whole object, like a painting, rather than a linear experience is helpful. What images recur throughout the text? (What images/colors recur throughout the painting?) What symbols pop up again and again? (In The Arnolfini Portrait, what's up with the dog and the mirror and the green gown?) Who is in the text? How do they behave? Where are they? Why are they presented in this way by the author? (Why does the woman look pregnant even though she probably wasn't? Why do the man and woman look so serious? Or is it complacency?) How do they talk to each other? (What would this couple say to each if we could hear them?)

At the back of all these questions is the author's intent. Although the author's intent may never be fully discerned (Shakespeare), the search for the author's intent creates opportunities for critical thinking. It requires, if nothing else, rigor of thought.

Problems in literature courses arise when instructors throw out author's intent, focusing instead on "What it means to you!" (or, occasionally, "What is means to me!") I attended an interesting seminar a few years ago put together by two well-meaning teachers who argued, quite passionately, that teaching literature is all about dumping authorial intent and getting kids to see how the works apply to them!

I didn't disagree with everything the teachers were saying. From an academic point of view (I'll get to sheer enjoyment in a later post), I like to start a discussion of a poem or play or novel or short story by asking students, "So, did you like it? Or not? What did you get out of it? What did you think of those characters?" Engaging with the text, as any fan can tell you, is the first step to discussing it intelligently.

The problem with dumping authorial intent--from an academic point of view--is that it is intellectually on par with the archaeologist deciding that it doesn't matter whether the ruin is a temple, a palace, or a gymnasium--personally, HE would use it to create an ice rink. The latter position has its merits; it just doesn't have much merit for someone trying to be an archaeologist.

Likewise, telling a bunch of students that their application of the literary work to their lives is the only part of the equation that matters is tantamount to teaching them that "authorship" and the past have no real purpose or meaning in their lives and hardly need to be respected. The whole world, especially the world of the past, exists simply as fodder for their use (the irony being that I'm a capitalist and this "exploitation" of [usually] dead writers annoys me while promoters of this approach, like the aforementioned teachers, often define themselves as Marxists who are opposed to the so-called "capitalistic" exploitation of resources). Without getting into much detail, yes, it also bug me when people do this with the scriptures.

The essence of academics, which I support no matter how fuddy-duddy it makes me, is that claims must be backed on proof. It isn't enough to say, "But I FEEL like the story is about this" if the evidence (the symbols, the setting, the dialog) doesn't back up my feeling. If the text is merely a leaping off point to some other idea, the narrative/writing/imagery (fun!) becomes meaningless, the author's creative impulses and craftsmanship a point of indifference. At this point, the student doesn't need to read Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet or London's "To Build a Fire" or anything by Emily Dickinson. If all that is needed is something made of words that can be interpreted as holding an application to one's personal life, a car manual will do.

Sitting in that seminar, I wondered what the teachers would tell budding authors amongst their students: "That's nice, but remember, it only matters if someone else creates something of her own--and her work doesn't matter unless . . . " (To be fair, I think the teachers would be ever so proud if one of their students wrote a short story or novel: their philosophy was all about empowering THEIR students, not empowering anybody else.)

I can respect a Scriptural scholar who argues that ultimately the text is only a signpost to something else. When academics do it, however, it reveals a lack of intellectual rigor.

In Part 2, I will likely turn around and argue the exact opposite of everything above. But then Part 2 will involve a very different context.

The Travelogue as Plot Structure

Romance novels have basically three plot structures:
1. The character-based plot structure.
2. The comedy-of-errors plot structure.
3. The travelogue plot structure.
The character-based plot structure is all about the characters--naturally! Of Georgette Heyer's books, Devil's Cub and Venetia come the closest. Other characters are incidental to the growing relationship between the hero and heroine. This is my favorite type of plot structure. Richardson's Pamela--despite its polemics--falls into this category. Amongst the sensual writers, Kleypas uses a character-based approach.

The comedy-of-errors plot structure usually entails what I also call world-based romance. The story is less about the growing relationship and more about the complex relationships and confusions between multiple characters. A lot of romance manga will start out as character-based and evolve into comedy-of-errors, simply out of necessity (as do many television shows). Comedy-of-errors plots can be extremely amusing when well done. At their best, they look easy, like making meringues (light, frothy, hilarious). Writers be warned: they aren't easy!

Of Georgette Heyer's books, The Grand Sophy is a good example of a comedy-of-errors (that doesn't skimp on character). The Quiet Gentleman is another good example (and actually doubles as a mystery!) as is Arabella. Amongst the sensual writers, Eloisa James and Loretta Chase are masters at this type of plot structure.

Comedy-of-errors plot structures are hard to pull off (another reason I think romance writers are some of the most skilled writers on the planet!). Unfortunately, far too many writers (including romance writers but also a massive number of literary writers), overwhelmed by the comedy-of-errors' demands, will fall back on the travelogue.

The travelogue plot structure works as follows: the hero and heroine are going somewhere for some reason, and all kinds of crazy events occur to them in the meantime. Hey, it's a novel!

Don't get me wrong: the travelogue can be well-done, even amusing. Think: The Muppet Movie. Heyers' The Foundling is a good example. One of my favorites from the sensual writers is Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase, which is made even better by taking place in Egypt! (Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody-in-Egypt books fall into this category, a series that highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of this type of plot structure.)

Far too often, the travelogue is used as an easy solution, a way to avoid character growth and tightly plotted resolutions. The loose travelogue is not that different from the kind of mystery novel where every chapter is simply another interview with a suspect; the chapters don't build on each other.

A classic plot involves a problem/conflict--rising action--denouement/climax/epiphany--resolution. But if the storyline doesn't rise--if it is just one set of circumstances after another--the story becomes, well, rather like a home movie.  (The literary version of this is the Journey-Across-Some-Continent tale; supposedly, the main character learns about him or herself during the trek but most of the time, the main character is simply suffering for the sake of angst in general.)

The travelogue can work! But only if the "next incident" proves or shows the reader something about the characters or about the plot problem.  "And then this happened--" does not a novel make.

Hence my love for genre literature in general: a problem that must be dealt with, solved in some way--often happily--is a requirement! The blessings of paperback readers on all genre writers!!

The Incomparable Travelogue:

Snarky Commenters: Why Blogging Struggles with Unpleasant Discourse

I recently deleted a comment to an older post, my review of the cut-for-television version of Stigmata, a movie that came out back in 1999. In the middle of my review, I refer to the end of the movie where the writers take a suddenly serious turn by bringing up Gnostic texts. Since the movie in no way merits a serious discussion of, well, anything historical, I thought this was a mistake.

In my reference to the Gnostic texts, I make the point that as a conservative (libertarian), I accept the generally accepted scholarly understanding of Gnostic texts (e.g., they are much later than even the gospels; they are surprisingly chauvinistic and disdainful of the physical experience). I also point out that as a Mormon, I have no particular investment in the argument one way or the other.

The commenter proceeded to defend Gnosticism while angrily attacking me and organized religion. The commenter finished up by disparaging Mormonism.

I dislike this kind of “attack mode” commentary; it is pointless and rude. My interpersonal communications textbook explains that people will “flame” others on-line in a way that they will never ever do face-to-face. Being on-line gives them a kind of unaccountability, a "freedom" to be unpleasant and cruel in a way that face-to-face discourse would never allow.

Based on watching my students struggle with summaries, especially plot summaries, I think there is another issue at work here. Addressing the main point of a post or short story or novel is difficult. The main point of my review of Stigmata is neither an attack on Gnosticism (although my post makes clear that I have my doubts about the historical usefulness of Gnostic texts) nor, for that matter, a defense of Mormonism, which is mentioned only in passing. The entire point of the post is that a substanceless though beautiful movie does not automatically become more substantive because a historical note of doubtful plausibility is tacked on to the end. (Thank you, Eugene, for addressing that point.)

I confess, it is very easy to get distracted by a side issue when reading a blog, especially if the author of that blog is disagreeing with a closely held belief. Been there/done that! And if the commenter had simply defended Gnosticism, I would have let the comment stand despite the surly tone; however, the "I can't believe you don't understand how dumb you are not to think exactly like me; besides, ya ya ya, everything you believe is stupid" additions, however typical of web commentary, were so completely unasked for and nasty, I had no choice but to delete the entire comment. I am ultimately responsible for my blog, and I will not be party to allowing more bizarre discourtesy into the world!

But I couldn’t help but wonder: Is there a way that the commenter could have voiced an albeit problematic position with civility?


Here in sum are the commenter’s thoughts translated into civil discourse (all “attack” language and rabid tone removed):
I don’t think you should be so quick to dismiss the Gnostic gospels. A Gnostic text discovered in the 20th century shows that some of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, such as resurrection, were largely invented by later writers, especially since the Catholic Church suppressed Gnostic texts. Of course, I’m not a huge supporter of organized religion, so we’re obviously coming from diametrically opposed positions!
My civil response to such a civil comment would be as follows:
My understanding is that recent scholarship shows the Pauline letters to be the most recent of all documents coming out of Jesus Christ’s ministry. And the Pauline letters do support a doctrine of resurrection. I confess, also, that I find many Gnostic teachings to be a little too opposed to the physical world/body for my taste. I prefer earthy doctrines to abstract ones. However, as you point out, we appear to be diametrically opposed: I don’t think an argument based on “my scholarship” versus “your scholarship” will get very far!
That is a far more civil exchange than the exchange that this commenter was trying to set in motion (actually, I doubt the commenter was interested in any kind of exchange; many commenters of this ilk troll the net, making nasty comments and moving on). I really don’t understand the attack-mode, especially since it doesn’t work, simply making people cling more strongly to their opinions.

Of course, considering the purpose of this blog, I would have far preferred a review of Stigmata!