Home Page

Posts Tagged ‘Transcendent/Immanent’

Turning Routines into Rituals

In Devotional, Worldview on May 21, 2016 at 8:16 pm

RitualsBoth routines and rituals involve a regular repetition of some action.

But they are very different.

Routines will flatten our lives, but rituals can thicken them.

Routines are like ordinary time and rituals are linked with “higher times.”

With a routine there is a clear, linear connection between the act and the purpose of the act. The routine of brushing your teeth is performed so that you have clean, healthy teeth. You routinely make a breakfast of oatmeal with flax and blueberries to prevent cancer or heart disease, I can’t remember which, maybe both. You grab a coffee on the way to work so that you can hit the ground running when you arrive. There is no more meaning in a routine than the desired outcome.

A ritual, on the other hand, does not have this clear relationship between the act and purpose. The purpose of a handshake, or fist bump or whatever it is the kids are doing these days, has nothing to do with the touching of hands. At a graduation, we don’t throw the hats in the air because we want them to be up there. In Holy Communion, we don’t eat the bread and drink the wine because we are hungry and thirsty.

The meaning and purpose of a ritual transcends the action itself.

In some Christian circles it is a given that we must avoid “mindless rituals.”  Notice that the basis of this censure is that it is non-rational. This preferment of the mind over all other aspects of the human being still dominates the Western church.  The thing about rituals is that they are fundamentally not about the mind–they are not supposed to be.  Does shaking hands when we greet someone make any rational sense?  Rituals train us in ways much deeper than the mind, deeper than the emotions even. They train and transform the deepest part of ourselves, precisely because we do them over and over again. And it’s not with our minds that we repeat rituals, but with our bodies.

James K. A. Smith says, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, that rituals aren’t just things we do, they are things that do something to us.  He says we’ve got it all wrong when we think that humans are primarily rational beings.  Yes, Descartes was wrong with his conclusion, “I think therefore I am.”  Rather, Smith says we are desiring beings–“I love therefore I am.”  Rituals get at the core of who we are, through out bodies.  If you say a rote prayer before the every evening meal, with folded hands and closed eyes, you are physically acknowledging a presence that deserves your reverence, a providential being to whom you ought to be grateful.  This simple ritual shapes identity, and it “thickens” experience in the world as it connects a person and his food to a transcendent provider–this “mindless” ritual is an incarnational event.  If this simple prayer is such a significant event, think about Communion.

We engage in functional, but empty routines all day long.  I wonder if we can’t elevate some of these to the level of ritual.  I’ve ritualized the routine of hitting snooze on my alarm clock.  Every morning when I wake up, well almost every morning, I say, “Good morning, Lord.”  This ritual reminds me that the day does not begin when I wake up; during the seven hours that I’ve been sleeping, God has been busy.  I am joining God’s day, “already in progress.”   It is a quotidian reminder and that the all-powerful king of the universe loves me because he’s there every morning to hear me say, “Good, morning Lord.”

I think I just leave the brushing of my teeth as a routine, but there are some interesting possibilities for ritualizing my morning coffee.


A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Shot”

In Books, Movies and Television on October 17, 2014 at 5:21 am

Owen MeanyIn A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving presents an incarnational spirituality in the novel. Owen is the character that embodies this view of reality. That Irving is not able to embrace the incarnational view is manifest in the conversion of the story’s narrator, John Wheelwright.

Wheelwright ends up believing in God in the end, but where Owen’s faith is “certain, personal, and immediate,” Johnny’s is “tenuous, ritualized and mediated in many ways” (Haynes 91). In his chapter on conversion, Charles Taylor says that “people who undergo conversion . . . may take on a new view about religion from others . . . who have radiated some sense of more direct contact” (729). This is clearly the route of John Wheelwright’s conversion since it was the miracle of Owen’s life and death that caused Johnny to think differently about God. As narrator, John Wheelwright declares his belief in the first sentence of the novel: “[Owen Meany] is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany” (1); but he is certainly not the Bible thumping warrior that Reverend Wiggins is. Although he is a “pretty regular churchgoer” (1), he “skips a Sunday now and then;” he “makes no claims to be especially pious” (2), nor does he read the Bible much, preferring the orderliness of The Book of Common Prayer.

Irving emphasizes this passive expression of faith by metaphorically equating his narrator to Joseph. Owen chose for Johnny the role of Joseph in the Christmas pageant. In commenting on this event Wheelwright says, “I was just a Joseph; I felt that Owen Meany had already chosen me for the only part I could play” (207). This is a refrain of the narrator through the novel who describes Joseph, and himself by association, as “that hapless follower, that stand in, that guy along for the ride (160). This reflects the passivity that is clearly evident in his expression of faith throughout the novel. Still he seems to resent the role: “I—Joseph—had nothing to do, nothing to say, nothing to learn” (167), and again, “I, Joseph—forever standing in the wings” (214). He appears to have had very little success in getting himself out of the role for he says, “I was twenty-one and I was still a Joseph; I was a Joseph then, and I am just a Joseph now” (439). When he finally discovers the identity of his biological father, he expresses his disappointment in the discovery by saying, “My father is a Joseph, just like me” (571). Wheelwright admits that he has a faith just like his father used to have, before he was tricked into having “absolute and unshakable faith” (571).

So why is John Wheelwright “just a Joseph”?

Because his faith is never like that of Owen’s. The differences between the faith as lived by Owen and that of John Wheelwright are not attributable to the difference between the direct and indirect varieties of religious experience that Charles Taylor talks about. In Johnny’s case, there is something inadequate about his leap of faith.

Johnny certainly experiences a conversion, according to the criteria set out by Taylor, because he experiences “a transformation of the frame in which [he] thought, felt and lived before” (Taylor 731). However, if we look at the nature of Johnny’s conversion the reason for his passive and vacillating faith becomes clear. When Johnny is converted, it is to a belief merely in the existence of the transcendent. If conversion is “breaking out of a narrower frame into a broader field” (Taylor 768), then he has a conversion experience, but the field into which he breaks is not broad. He recognizes the transcendent, but does not go so far as to see the it incarnationally. Quoting T. S. Eliot Taylor says, “Human kind cannot bear too much reality,” (769) so it is necessary for us to shut out the transcendent to some degree. The extent to which an individual does this varies. Johnny’s equilibrium does not shift very much. He “shuts out” much of the new view of the transcendent; his new equilibrium is not very far from where it was when he did not believe in the transcendent. He is a believer, but this remains a fact, and never develops into a life.

Given that this is the state of his narrator at the end of the novel, I wonder if John Irving himself cannot make the leap that he forced on his narrator. Although Irving seems to locate transcendence in immanence in the character of Owen Meany, he is not able to overcome his own secular framework; instead he holds to an oppositional model of transcendence–transcendence is opposite of immanence, rather than inhabiting it. So, the conversion of his narrator is, at best, only one of imposed rational acceptance. Wheelwright never achieves a flourishing faith because he remains trapped in a secular immanence—his acceptance of the existence of God, even Jesus Christ faith is not able to provide the meaning that an incarnational faith would offer, because they are as far away as is Owen Meany.

Other resources:

Haynes, Stephen. “Footsteps of Ann Hutchinson and Frederick Buechner: A Religious Reading of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Religion and Literature. 27.3 (1995): 73-98.

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Finger”

In Books, Movies and Television on October 13, 2014 at 11:52 pm

Owen MeanyThis post will not be about the finger.  You probably already figured out that through the removal of his finger, John Wheelwright joins Chief Watahantowet, the armadillo, the dressmaker’s dummy, the Mary Magdalene statue in armlessness.

By this point in the novel we have a pretty good understanding of the person who is telling us this story. Our impressions are gleaned, in particular, from the diary-like interjections into each chapter. To understand what Irving is trying to tell us about his narrator, we can look at the contrast between the life of the adult John Wheelwright and that of Rev. Katherine Keeling, headmistress of the Bishop Strachan School.

Wheelwright comments of the thinness of Katherine Keeling. Her thinness is symbolic of her unselfishness as she gives her life away to her charges–family, friends and the students of the school. She’s very nurturing, even of Wheelwright in that she takes him on family vacations to the cabin.

It can be said that Katherine experiences “fullness” in her life where Wheelwright does not.

Charles Taylor describes “fullness” as a sense that “life is richer, deeper, more worth while, more admirable, more than it should be” (Taylor 5). Fullness, whether we recognize the existence of the supernatural or not, is “a reflection of the transcendent” (769). But fullness also has its “negative slope; where we experience above all a distance and absence, an exile, a seemingly irremediable incapacity to ever reach this place” (6).

It is clear through the narration of this story that John Wheelwright experiences fulfillment in his relationship with Owen Meany, indeed, it is likely that the reader experiences something of the same thing while reading the novel—but he has not experienced it since Owen’s death.

There has never been another encounter with a richer and deeper life for Wheelwright because he still holds the transcendent to be oppositional rather than incarnational. With this chasm between immanent and transcendent realities, Wheelwright’s perspective is laden with a host of other oppositions—the United States “must either be perfect or damned;” Owen must be either divine or human” and his own life must be “either wonderful or terrible” ( Taylor 153). In the absence of an incarnational perspective, he does not encounter fullness in the transcendent, instead he often experiences a “self-exile into bitterness, childishness, self-pity and nostalgia” (153)—the negative orientation of fullness.

Most of the characters continue to oppose Owen’s faith, particularly in his belief that “the dream” is a vision of the future. Owen tells the story of his dream with “the certainty and authority . . . of a documentary, which is the tone of voice of those undoubting parts of the Bible” (473). According to Johnny, to treat the dream seriously is infantile; as he puts it to Owen, “this is so childish. . . . You can’t believe that everything that pops into your head means something! You can’t have a dream and believe that you ‘know’ what you’re supposed to do” (472). Johnny repeats, “It’s just a dream” and declares it “a stereotype” (475). Johnny argues from a psychoanalytical perspective that in the dream the nuns, the palm trees and the children “are tied to unresolved psychological conflicts in Owen that merely take the most available raw material for their indirect expression” (Eisenstein 8).

Owen insists that his faith is not childish, or irrational. He tries to explain reasonable faith to Johnny using the statue of Mary Magdalene that was near the basketball court where they practiced “the shot” until it was dark. Owen would ask, “YOU CAN’T SEE HER, BUT YOU KNOW SHE’S STILL THERE, RIGHT?” He repeatedly, and annoyingly, returned to this question, “YOU’RE SURE . . . YOU HAVE NO DOUBT . . . YOU ABSOLUTELY KNOW SHE’S THERE?” until Johnny screams, “Yes!” Then Owen says, “NOW YOU KNOW HOW I FEEL ABOUT GOD” (451).

When you have finished the chapter entitled, “The Shot,” read my commentary on this final chapter.

Other resources:

Eisenstein, Paul. “On the Ethics of Sanctified Sacrifice: John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Literature Interpretation Theory 17 (2006): 1-21.

A Prayer for Owen Meany – “The Ghost of Christmas Future”

In Books, Movies and Television on September 25, 2014 at 4:49 pm

Owen MeanyIn chapters 4 and 5 of A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen fills two roles in the dramatic productions of Gravesend 1953 Christmas season.   He assumes the role of the Little Lord Jesus in the Christmas Pageant in the Episcopalian church and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in the Gravesend Players annual presentation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In the former, with a little irony, Owen embodies the fusion of the transcendence within immanence as Christ did in the Incarnation. In the latter, Owen confronts the question: Is the future completely determined?

Owen Meany casts himself as the Christ child in the church’s Christmas pageant. As we’ve said before, Irving makes very strong connections between Jesus and Owen, so it makes perfect sense for the incarnational Owen to play the lead role in the annual celebration of the Incarnation.

Perhaps not quite as predictable, Owen also choses a role for Johnny, the role of Joseph. In commenting on this event Wheelwright says, “I was just a Joseph; I felt that Owen Meany had already chosen me for the only part I could play” (207). This is a refrain of the narrator through the novel who strongly identifies with Jesus’ earthly fahter, whom he describes as “that hapless follower, that stand in, that guy along for the ride (160). This reflects the passivity that is clearly evident in his expression of faith throughout the novel. Further, he seems to resent the role: “I—Joseph—had nothing to do, nothing to say, nothing to learn” (167). By metaphorically equating his narrator to Joseph, Irving emphasizes this passivity with which John Wheelwright engages questions of faith .

Chapter 5 centers on Owen’s part in A Christmas Carol where Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the three ghosts. Owen Meany ends up playing the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The key to the visitation of this final ghost is in Scrooge’s question: “Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point, answer me one question: Are these the shadows of the things that will be or are they shadows of the things that may be only” (197). We know the question because Mr. Fish, who plays Ebenezer Scrooge, gets to ask it during Owen’s remarkable audition, but this key question is not asked in the final performance because Owen faints. He faints because he sees on the tombstone his own name and, we can assume, the date of his own death. The question, it seems, is never asked because the answer, at least according to this particular Ghost, is clear.   Since the “FATED” foul ball, Owen has accepted his future is determined, and “on the subject of predestination, Owen Meany would accuse Calvin of bad faith” (102).

Owen explicitly states his views when Johnny declared it a coincidence that they were beneath the trestle bridge just as The Flying Yankee crossed it; Owen chastised him. The narrator explains that “Owen didn’t believe in coincidences. Owen Meany believed that “‘coincidence’ was a stupid, shallow refuge sought by stupid, shallow people who were unable to accept the fact that their lives were shaped by a terrifying and awesome design—more powerful and unstoppable that The Flying Yankee” (Irving 186).

That Owen Meany saw the date of his death, he has no doubt. He also has no doubt that this cup would not pass from him.

Modern people, Christian or otherwise, don’t take naturally to the notion of predestination. We put a lot of stock into our personal power to choose our destiny. This is easily done if one believes that God and the rest of the transcendent is so far away that, if he exists at all, the best he can do is provide the odd parking space in front of the Christian bookstore during the Christmas rush. Owen doesn’t see the world in this way, so it is not much of a stretch to see God managing everything, big and small, in our lives.

Read the next chapter, “The Voice,” in A Prayer for Owen Meany and then read my commentary here.

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Little Lord Jesus”

In Books, Movies and Television on September 20, 2014 at 6:30 pm

Owen MeanyIn A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen and Johnny function as foils in Irving’s exploration of faith and doubt. Owen represents an incarnational position where transcendence is seen to be within the material world, and the young Johnny sees the transcendent as far off and irrelevant (likely nonexistent) to the world in which we live.  The young Johnny resists Owen’s belief that objects have inherent meaning, because he first rejects the presence, or at least relevance, of the transcendent in the material world.

This difference between the Owen and Johnny is brought out in several episodes in the chapter, “The Little Lord Jesus.” One occurs during the Christmas holiday when all the boys’ rooms at Gravesend Academy are vacant. As drama teacher at the Academy, Dan Needham lived in the residence and had keys to all the rooms. During Christmas holidays Johnny and Owen borrowed Dan’s passkey and explored each room. Owen

looked in every drawer, examined every article of clothing, sat in every desk chair, lay down on ever bed—this was always his last act in each of the rooms: he would lie down on the bed and close his eyes; he would hold his breath. Only when he’d resumed breathing did he announce his opinion of the room’s occupant. (Irving 155)

Using all the objects in the room, he would interpret the relative happiness of each resident with school or their home-life. For Owen, meanings are not exclusively in the mind, and so he falls under the spell of significant objects. Johnny, however, insists that the contents of the rooms are “just things” (156); what they found in the rooms was “random disorder and depressing sameness” (157).

In Owen Meany, Irving has created a character who is open to the supernatural, but Irving has gone further. In an attempt to emphasize the importance of the transcendent in and through Owen Meany, he has given Owen the burden to symbolically embody the incarnational view of reality–to embody the transcendent while at the same time remain profoundly immanent.

The transcendent qualities of Owen Meany are apparent in the first pages of the novel. The Sunday school children “thought it a miracle” (2) how little he weighs and so, made a game of lifting him into the air. When the Sunday school teacher returns from her cigarette and finds Owen up in the air she would always command, “Owen Meany . . . . You get down from up there!” (5). The narrator derisively comments on the stupidity of Mrs. Walker to miss the obvious cause of Owen’s levitation. Yet in the final paragraphs, he acknowledges that they did not realize there were “forces that contributed to [their] illusion of Owen’s weightlessness,” suggesting that there was a transcendent tug on Owen that they “didn’t have the faith to feel” (617). Furthermore, Owen Meany had a peculiar voice; it was a “strangled, emphatic falsetto” (5) or a “shout through his nose” (3). In any case, it was a voice that was “not entirely of this world” (5). It was also observed that “light was both absorbed and reflected by his skin, as with a pearl, so that he appeared translucent at times” (3). The overall effect of these elements on others was significant. Hester later says of her first encounter with Owen, “I didn’t think he was human” (69) because he looked like a descending angel . . . a tiny but fiery god” (69).

Irving has not made Owen wholly transcendent, but grounds him is such a way to blur the boundaries between the immanent and the transcendent. Owen is extremely small and light, yet he lives, and later works, in a granite quarry. His name—Meany—suggests his humble origins and his littleness, yet he sees himself as an instrument in the hand of God and acts the part. The cumulative effect of grounding the transcendent Owen Meany is that Irving is attempting to locate transcendence in immanence. By doing so shows that Irving understands the importance of the incarnation to Christian faith and in the novel, Owen continues to represent an integrative faith in contrast to other characters.

Although it is one of the funniest episodes in the book, Owen Meany as the Little Lord Jesus in the Christmas Pageant is also one of the most significant. Irving has explicitly linked the Incarnation of Jesus with Owen Meany.   In the preceding pageants, Owen played the transcendent announcing angel, but for the pageant in 1953 he has come to earth as the baby Jesus. For the Christian, the key to the unified view of reality is the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, the Word became flesh, God became human without ceasing to be God; he became temporal without ceasing to be eternal and immanent without ceasing to be transcendent. By linking Owen to the Incarnation, John Irving shows that he understands the importance of the Incarnation in Christian belief.

Read the next chapter, “The Ghost of Christmas Future,”  in A Prayer for Owen Meany and read my commentary here.

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Foul Ball”

In Books, Movies and Television on September 4, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Owen MeanyA Prayer for Owen Meany is narrated by the adult John Wheelwright. As he tells the story of how Owen Meany is responsible for his belief in the Christian God, he regularly breaks into the narrative commenting on his life in the present, often on his current spiritual struggles . The faith that he owes to Owen Meany is a very particular kind of faith; he describes it as a “church-rummage faith–the kind that needs patching up every weekend” (2).

Wheelwright has a fairly low view of his faith, justifiably, I think. When he describes his faith in these first few paragraphs of the novel, his focus is on denominational differences, particularly in how each disposes of their dead.   Death is perhaps it is the best place to start the story of ones conversion. Many are under the misconception that Christianity is all about being good, but it’s not. The problem that all humans face is not, ultimately, that we are ill-behaved, but that we are going to die.   Christianity is very much an answer to this most fundamental concern. The good news is that Christ saves us from death; the Christian life is a grateful response to this truth. On the one hand, it is appropriate that the narrator starts with death, but his focus is not on his salvation from death by faith, but on denominational differences and what passages will be read at his funeral. Not much joy in that. Watch for this pattern in adult John Wheelwright’s comments–when speaking of spiritual matters; he usually misses the essence of faith by focusing on peripheral concerns.

In a novel about Christian faith and doubt, the characters will occupy positions on a continuum between two poles. Owen Meany has a lot of faith and sits at one end of the continuum; the young Johnny Wheelwright is toward the other–He says, “the greatest difference between us: he believed more than I did” (22).

It is important to explore this difference a little. Unlike Owen, Johnny is very much a product of his age; the framework from which he sees the world is modern, which means secular. One of the main characteristics of this view of the world is that there is a radical separation between the material (or immanent) world and the transcendent or spiritual one.   Owen Meany has a pre-modern understanding of transcendence and immanence; he sees a much closer relationship between the two. In essence, where the secular minds of the other characters (as well as Irving and many of his readers) necessarily sees boundaries, Owen Meany’s does not.   In the novel, it is Owen Meany who is the lone adherent to this more integrative, incarnational view of reality where the transcendent and immanent are intertwined.

But Irving has gone further that just giving Owen pre-modern belief; he’s not only open to the supernatural, he embodies the unity of the natural and the supernatural. The transcendent qualities of Owen Meany are apparent in the first pages of the novel. The Sunday school children “thought it a miracle” (2) how little he weighs and so, made a game of lifting him into the air. When the Sunday school teacher returns from her cigarette and finds Owen up in the air she would always command, “Owen Meany . . . . You get down from up there!” (5). The narrator derisively comments on the stupidity of Mrs. Walker to miss the obvious cause of Owen’s levitation. Yet in the final paragraphs, he acknowledges that they did not realize there were “forces that contributed to [their] illusion of Owen’s weightlessness,” suggesting that there was a transcendent tug on Owen that they “didn’t have the faith to feel” (617). Furthermore, Owen Meany had a peculiar voice; it was a “strangled, emphatic falsetto” (5) or a “shout through his nose” (3). In any case, it was a voice that was “not entirely of this world” (5). It was also observed that “light was both absorbed and reflected by his skin, as with a pearl, so that he appeared translucent at times” (3). The overall effect of these elements on others was significant. Hester later says of her first encounter with Owen, “I didn’t think he was human” (69) because he looked like a descending angel . . . a tiny but fiery god” (69).

Irving has not given Owen transcendent qualities, but grounds him is such a way to blur the boundaries between the his materiality and spirituality. Owen is extremely small and light, yet he lives, and later works, in a granite quarry. His name—Meany—suggests his humble origins and his littleness, yet he sees himself as an instrument in the hand of God and acts the part. The cumulative effect of grounding the transcendent Owen Meany is that Irving is attempting to locate transcendence in immanence. By doing so, Irving shows that he understands the importance of the incarnation to Christian faith and in the novel, Owen continues to represent an integrative faith in contrast to other characters.

Where the secular mind sees things in clearly bounded categories, one of the most significant qualities of Owen Meany is his resistance to categories.   The paradoxical nature of Owen Meany is correlative to that of Jesus Christ. The secular mind resists the idea that Jesus was as both fully God and fully Man, transcendence incarnated in immanence. Both Jesus and Owen, in his far more humble way, embody these paradoxes. Irving repeatedly establishes parallels between Owen Meany and Jesus Christ. Owen’s voice is shown in all caps– suggestive of the red letter editions of the Bible. Wheelwright explains his grandmother’s reaction to Owen’s voice.   She said, “‘You’ve seen the mice caught in the mousetraps?’ she asked me. ‘I mean caught–their little necks broken–I mean dead,’ Grandmother said. ‘Well, that boy’s voice, ‘my grandmother told me, ‘that boy’s voice could bring those mice back to life'” (17). This description draws a metaphoric comparison to the voice of Jesus who actually could bring someone back to life.

Two last things that I should mention. In chapter 1 we see the first mention of armlessness (8). Back in Gravesend history, the local chief, Watahantowet, instead of using a signature to sign a deed, signed it with his totem–an armless man. This begins the motif of armlessness that runs through the novel. The meaning of armlessness is clarified, but never defined. Later in this chapter Watahantowet is referred to as “spiritually armless.”

Lastly, this chapter also shows that Johnny Wheelwright’s desire to know who his father is. Owen prophesied that God would identify Johnny’s father for him. “YOUR DAD CAN HIDE FROM YOU, BUT HE CAN’T HIDE FROM GOD” (10). The search for the father is symbolic of every human beings search for the one whose image we bear.   The narrator links the search for his earthly father to finding his heavenly one when he says, regarding Owen’s prophesy, “that was the day that Owen Meany began his lengthy contribution to my belief in God.”

There’s so much more we could talk about, but it’s far better to read Irving’s narrative than my exposition, so enjoy chapter 2 and then return to trentdejong.com and read the post on “The Armadillo.”

The Idea of the Holocaust…

In Worldview on June 27, 2013 at 4:40 am

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I was in high school, I was fascinated with World War II.  I took a class on World War II and I guess my fascination continued into college because I majored in history and I took another course on World War II.  I watched all 26 episodes of the World at War series (1973–74) on PBS several times.  The thing I remember most clearly was the face at the end of the closing credits.  The face was gaunt and mostly shadow.  Deep dark shadows filled the hollows of the eyes and cheeks—especially the eyes.  It was a haunting face, especially with the music and the flames which accompanied it.  I never turned off the TV until I saw it.  I think it was the face of a person from a concentration camp.

The other thing I remember about that show was the episode called “Genocide.”  This episode ends with the implementation of the “Final Solution.”  It was the first time I saw the bulldozers.  They were pushing heaps of emaciated bodies…  The episode ended with the music and the flames and the face.

I’m not sure exactly what the attraction to World War II was all about.  Part of the draw could have been something like a fourth grader being interested in dinosaurs.  But I think a lot of it stemmed from puzzlement.  I watched the shows and read the books to try to find something to help me make sense of it all.  Episode 20, “Genocide,” only increased my confusion and fascination.

I now think that this confusion was rooted in the gap that existed in my own mind between the idea of the Holocaust and the physical reality of the Holocaust.  The Anne Frank Museum didn’t bridge the gap.  Maybe that’s the museum’s fault; it works so hard to create a universal significance that the particularity of young girl is lost.  Perhaps it’s my problem because I universalize everything.

Then I went to Dachau. Dachau bridged the gap.  It was the prototype on which all the other camps where based.  Intending to spend a couple of hours; my wife and I stayed for six.

It was at Dachau that I realized that concentrations camps weren’t built our of ideas like racism, anti-Semitism, National Socialism, evil, hate or the scapegoat mechanism.  Instead, I found that Dachau was built out of concrete, barbed wire, and wood.  I know that doesn’t sound like much of a revelation, but it is!  Before that visit, the Holocaust was abstract concept; that day it became concrete.  The men who ran the place were made of flesh and blood and their boots wore out the tile in the interior hallways. The prisoners were defined by an iron gate that I strolled through.  I stood where they stood for roll call.  The ovens were not just an atrocity; they were also brick and mortar.

When the idea of the Holocaust is linked with the physicality of Dachau, it becomes real in a profound way. 


Warm Bodies: the Book

In Books, Movies and Television on June 11, 2013 at 10:08 am

Warm BodiesYou know you’re an English teacher, if, when a movie is released, you buy the book.

 The cover of my version of Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion is the movie’s poster, but the it is better than a silly romance which cover seems to suggests.

The book’s first-person narrator is R — it’s all he remembers of his own name because he’s a zombie.  The undead always have identity issues.

R describes his life as a zombie: “We do what we do, time passes, and no one asks questions… We grunt and groan, we shrug and nod, and sometimes a few words slip out.  It’s not that different from before” (4).

  “It’s not that different from before.”

This is one of the main themes of the novel,  suggesting that, in many ways, people are like zombies long before they are  zombies.

 R finds himself the protector of Julia–she’s alive and pretty amazing.  She’s unlike any of the Living or the Dead.  Where R’s cognitive abilities are severely compromised, what with being dead and all, Julia is clever in a philosophical sense.  She  explains that the source of the “plague” was not anything like a virus or nuclear contamination, but was from “a deeper place.”  She actually uses the word “sin.”

 Besides by our own sin, she thinks the zombie “curse” was a result of “crush[ing] ourselves down over the centuries” (221).   In the last few centuries we have crushed ourselves, indeed all of reality, down into the very small container of the material.  We have rejected all transcendence: anything beyond the physical.  We have come to believe the world is ruled by immutable and impersonal laws, that humanity is just a bunch of genes trying to get ahead and that time is a mindless and purposeless march toward personal and cosmic oblivion.  This view of the world could be called “Philosophical Materialism.”  It holds that matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, consciousness, and will, can be explained in terms of matter.  The world described by philosophical materialism,  is closed to the transcendent.

 This idea has crushed us.  We’ve largely lost our sense of mystery and little evokes wonder.   More an more of us believe that everything from mountains to sunsets, from music to love, is a product of physical or chemical processes.  We no longer value things for their own sake, but for how economically useful they are–trees have become lumber and pigs have become pork.  It is just a matter of time when people will be valued only for their utility.  Or has this happened already?

 The book asks, if this is our conception of reality, what then is the difference between being a zombie or one of the Living?  Julie doesn’t see a lot of difference any more.  While looking at a daisy Julie says, “We don’t even have flowers anymore.  Just crops”  (70).

 Julie believes that human beings are no better than zombies if they lose their sense of wonder — when they cease to see the world and its inhabitants as beautiful  in and of themselves.  Her father, only concerned with practical survival is no longer any better than the Dead he hates.  She says of him, “Dad’s dead. He just hasn’t started rotting yet” (202).  Julie believes life is more than physical and that simple survival isn’t enough.  She says, “I mean obviously, staying alive is pretty . . .  important . . . but there’s got to be something beyond that, right?” (71).

Julie a foil to her father’s limited participation in life, but her vitality also provides a more important contrast to the Dead, represented by R.

Julia is less than impressed with R’s stagnant music collection.  He communicates that he isn’t really looking for anything different–that’s the way the Dead are.  She doesn’t accept this as a valid excuse claiming, “Music is life! It’s physical emotion–you can touch it! It’s neon ecto-energy sucked out of spirits and switched into sound waves for your ears to swallow.  Are you telling me, what, that it’s boring? You don’t have time for it?” (54).

Julie’s love of music, like that for flowers, is rooted in their transcendence–they possess qualities beyond their physical properties.  She is unique in that, unlike her father or the zombie R, she believes that there is more to reality than the physical.

This, it turns out, is salvation for R.

Romantic love is a part of it of this salvation, but it’s much bigger than love.  It includes flowers and music and everything else that in which human beings experience something that is good or true or beautiful, something supernatural, spiritual or transcendent.

 Love is the main marker of R’s encounter with a transcendent reality.  Before he meets Julie, R describes the zombie perspective of others, whether Living or Dead; we are all meat–“Nameless, faceless, disposable” (74).  After he falls for Julie, she becomes much more to him than meat, more than a mere physical body.  Consider this passage from near the ends of the story:

 “I look into Julie’s face.  Not just at it, but into it.  Every pore, every freckle, every gossamer hair.  And then the layers beneath them.  The flesh and bones, the blood and brain, all the way down to the unknowable energy that swirls at her core, the life force, the soul, the fiery will that makes her more than meat, coursing through every cell and binding them together in millions to form her.  Her body contains the  history of the universe, remembered in pain, in joy and sadness, hate and hope and bad habits, every thought of God, past-present-future, remembered, felt, and hoped for all at once” (222).

 In Julie’s face he sees the transcendent and it is inseparable from the physical.  This has always been true of everything, he just forgot–this is the essence of the zombie.  Somewhere in the last few centuries, we have separated the soul from the body and then ditched the soul because we couldn’t weigh it.  We lost the enchantment.  The novel’s thesis is that if you live long enough in a disenchanted world, you will eventually become little more than a zombie.  It offers a solution too; this story suggests that the first step toward the cure of the zombie curse is the re-enchantment of the world.

The movie made one significant change to the story.  Read my review of the movie.

Want more zombie articles? Start with this one: A New Kind of Monster

Zombies Represent the Crisis of the Modern Idenity

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2013 at 5:25 am

Zombie - id crisisThe zombie functions as a monstrous other, transgressing boundaries and unsettling the modern identity, as monsters have always done.  But, it goes beyond the scope of traditional monsters in that it also holds a mirror up to the secular self, and suggests, without the transcendent, we may nothing more than animated corpses, or worse.  The zombie film further deprives us of the security of civilization, exposing human beings as Hobbesian brutes.  The collective effect of these functions brings us to a crisis of identity and meaning.

In the pre-modern past, the self was a part of a cosmos seen as a “totality of existence because it [contained] the sense of ordered whole” (A Secular Age 60), and in this order held meaning for all things.  In modern society, with the loss of the transcendent, any external referent by which we might understand the self has been removed and the modern self’s construction became an entirely interior process—reality is solely in the mind–“in the sense that things only have the meaning they do in that they awaken a certain response in us” (A Secular Age 31).   To be a buffered subject, Taylor says, is to have “closed up the porous boundary between inside (thought) and outside (nature, the physical)” (A Secular Age 300).  With this move from cosmic meaning to meaning residing only in the mind, the modern identity, then, can be understood largely by what it is not—by the things of which it has been emptied.  It no longer has a place in a cosmic hierarchy of meaning, nor does it interact with spiritual forces or charged objects in an enchanted world.

The zombie, too, is defined by what is absent.  Much has been lost in the anthropocentric turn away from the transcendent, and the zombie brings us face to face with who we are in the context of this loss.  The zombie is the embodiment of this emptiness, for one of the key characteristics of the zombie is that it is “a body which has been hollowed out, emptied of selfhood” (Warner 357).  It is essentially a “description of human existential diminishment” (367) that has been diminished one step further than has the ordinary resident of modernity.  The zombie evokes despair and dread because it presents buffered selves with the potential of being absent from oneself.  This is part of the horror of the zombie, especially in the early twentieth-century; it terrorizes the rationalist understanding of selfhood by exposing the fragility of subjectivity.

The zombie, too, is defined by what is absent.

The destruction of subjectivity is still a significant part of the horror of the zombie, but the events of the mid-twentieth century changed the conception of the self and therefore the monster that threatened it.  After the horrors of the Holocaust and the use of the atomic bomb, faith in reason and the authority of science was abandoned, as had been faith in God in previous generations.  This left humanity without any external authority.  Sartre’s understanding of the self as existential agent is representative of the post WWII identity.  Because “it is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity,”  the new authority was the self.  He believed that unlike the objective world, the existence of the self precedes its essence; “subjectivity must be the starting point.”  Thus, we are completely free to choose our own purpose, our own meaning.  Additionally, ideals or beliefs are not reality; action is the only reality, for the only way to determine the value of ideals or beliefs is to perform and act which confirms or defines it” (“Existentialism is a Humanism”).

Putting these ideas together, we can claim that, in the post-nuclear world we understand the self as existential agent.  Boon suggests that human action “in the absence of any external locus of truth—that is, in the absence of a reliable ‘other’ in whom/which faith can be placed—must face the threat of engulfment by the world.”  For the existential agent, the greatest fear, then, is that “it will be absorbed by the other and thus be irretrievably lost” (Boon [in Better off Dead] 55-56).  Taylor’s modern identity was buffered against anything transcendent, but now the self faces engulfment by the hostile immanent universe.  Many of the deaths presented in zombie films are of a single screaming protagonist being pulled by countless cadaverous hands into the mass of the undead horde.  This visually symbolizes the engulfment of the existential agent by the indifferent universe.  Romero’s zombies are the embodiment of the challenge to the modern identity.  When one becomes a zombie, one of many within the horde, the subjective self is annihilated and the existential agent is engulfed by a malicious world.

For a simple summary of this series of zombie posts visit: http://www.squidoo.com/the-meaning-of-zombies2

Previous zombie posts:

Traditional Values: Consumed by the Zombie Horde

In Uncategorized on April 4, 2013 at 11:11 pm

Zombie Values goneNot only is it difficult to attribute the term “evil” to this most modern of monsters, it is also difficult to attribute the term “good” to the “heroes” of the zombie movie.  In fact, the primary victim of the zombie horde, is not the humans that battle the undead for survival; the primary victim is “Good” itself.  In Night of the Living Dead, each character seems to offer some gesture toward a source of fullness or a transcendent value, but these are ultimately shown to be meaningless, for in each case the virtue does nothing to improve the condition or survivability of the protagonist.  As each character falls into the clutching hands of the undead, so too does the value he or she embodies.

All transcendent values and ambitions are consumed by the zombie horde.

The first victim: religion (and its opposite).  The film begins with siblings Johnny and Barbra making the annual trek to visit their father’s grave. Barbara’s religious devotion and respect for the dead is apparent as she kneels and prays at the graveside.  Her reverence is contrasted by the cynicism and selfishness of Johnny, who complains and mocks his sister’s observance of religious ritual.  A man lurches toward the pair and attacks Barbara.  Johnny defends her but is seemingly killed in the struggle when his head strikes a gravestone.  That Johnny is the first victim “could be taken as a dispensation of justice: Johnny pays for being a self-centered, materialistic, cynical non-believer.”  But Barbara’s initial survival does little more that insure she “will face a much more horrible and ironic fate at the hands of the undead” (Waller 282).  In the meantime, Barbara flees, pursued by the strange man, to a nearby farmhouse where she will eventually be killed.  Christian faith and devotion, then, are clearly shown to be no greater help than mocking disbelief.

As each character falls into the clutching hands of the undead, so too does the value he or she embodies.

Christianity and religion are not the only traditional values that fall victim to the undead; the values of collective action, romantic love and the nuclear family are also useless. These traditional values are represented by characters who emerge from the cellar of the farmhouse later in the film.  Tom and Judy, a young couple, represent “sticking together” and romantic love respectively.  Tom’s advocacy for collective action in combating the creatures begins immediately.  When the two other men are heatedly debating their plans for survival, Tom says, “We’d be a lot better off if all three of us were working together” (Night).  His views are shown to be naïve and idealistic, for in the one attempt to work together he is killed and the only hope for escape, the truck, goes up in literal flames.  Romantic love suffers the same fate.  Judy, Tom’s girlfriend, cannot be without her love and runs to be with him as he attempts to fuel the pickup truck.  One of the torches used to hold off the zombies accidently gets into contact with some of the fuel Tom spills.  Tom attempts to move the truck to safety, but it is clear that it is too late.  He jumps free from the vehicle, but Judy’s jacket gets caught.  He jumps back into the truck to rescue her just as it explodes and both are killed.  Rather than being a powerful force of salvation, romantic love leads instead to the death of the young lovers who embody it.  These deaths “serve no purpose,” once again showing that “the real horror of Night of the Living Dead is that there is nothing we can do that will make any difference at all” (Dillard [in American Horrors] 28).

Whatever the living do in the film . . . the result is the same: death.

The Coopers represent the nuclear family.  The Coopers, Harry and Helen and their daughter, Karen, had been hiding in the cellar of the farmhouse with Tom and Judy.  The little girl Karen has been bitten by one of the undead and is feverish and weak.  Barbara, whom the audience associates with a traditional heroine or damsel, saves Helen from the clutches of the undead only to be dragged out the window by her re-animated brother, Johnny.  The family violence continues as Helen stumbles into the cellar only to see her daughter, who has become a zombie, eating her slain husband.  She is defenseless as the little girl attacks and kills her with a cement trowel.

Romero shows that “whatever the living do in the film, whether they are brave or cowardly, rational or hysterical, in love or embittered, the result is the same: death” (Cooke 168).  As a matter of fact, Dillard asserts that “those virtues that have been the mainstay of our civilized history seem to lead to defeat in this film even more surely than the traditional vices” (23).

The monsters aren’t really evil, and values and virtues are really of no good; the next post is about the hero of the zombie narrative.

Next zombie post: Heroism–Not What It Used To Be

Previous zombie posts: