We Need Another Atticus

It was kind of a big deal, and people really weren’t happy. News had broken about the revision of Atticus Finch.

Now before I go any further I need to say that I haven’t read Go Set a Watchman. At some point I do intend to, but I’m reading several other books at the minute and I’d prefer not to add yet another novel.

But I want to talk about something that I don’t think requires reading the novel. As many of you may know, shortly before Go Set a Watchman released, it came out that Atticus Finch–the champion of racial justice in To Kill a Mockingbird–was rewritten as a racist. The reaction was immediate and angry. Phrases like, “my hero was destroyed,” or, “my role model has been taken away” were common. Reviews described the book as “the toppling of idols.” Critics speculated about Harper Lee’s intentions.

In short, people weren’t happy.

The whole thing struck me as quite intriguing. To Kill a Mockingbird has been an extraordinarily successful book, and the characters are near and dear to many people. As evidenced by the reaction, many looked up to Atticus Finch and his staunch, unflinching defense of the humanity of Jim, the accused African-American. His ultimately unsuccessful fight for justice was inspirational and heroic.

Others, commenting on the controversy, have taken a different approach. They’ve argued that people need to move on and realize that it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. “He’s just a character,” the argument goes. “He isn’t actually a champion of racial justice. We need to focus our attention on real issues, not on fictional characters. Let’s be angry about real injustice and support real heroes, not fictional accounts of injustice or fictional heroes.”

I think that argument betrays a bit of a misunderstanding about the importance of literature. The argument assumes that literature isn’t true, that stories are just myths, cleverly devised lies. At best, they’re escapist fantasies. But as I’ve argued before, stories are true. While the literal details of To Kill a Mockingbird might not be, the larger story is. There is a champion for the oppressed and the needy. There is someone who will fight for justice in the face of a society intent on looking the other way. He may not be named Atticus Finch, but we all long for this person.

Maybe that’s what caused all the outrage. People wanted a champion of justice, and they got one in Atticus. When that champion was taken away, their longing came right back to the Atticus Finchsurface, betraying the fact that Atticus never fulfilled their longing, he merely papered over it.

But to say that the reaction to Atticus’ rewriting is insignificant or silly is, I think, mistaken. What it shows is a fundamental desire people have. We want Jim to be given justice and set free and when he isn’t we’re heartbroken. Our longing for justice wasn’t fulfilled. We want Atticus to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves, and now that he isn’t, people are heartbroken.

It displays a simple fact. That deep down, at the core of our being, we know the world isn’t how it should be. Some part of us longs for something better, for something beyond the evil and injustice around us. We want another Atticus.

“A Sense of Sorrow Filled Him”

I’m rereading Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings The Yearling, and I came across this passage about halfway through the book. For some reason, I found it quite powerful and thought I’d share it.

To set the scene, young Jody’s father, Penny, was just bitten by a rattlesnake and Jody doesn’t know if he’s going to make it. He falls asleep while the doctor watches Penny.

“Jody moved through a tortuous dream. With his father beside him, he fought a nest of rattlesnakes. They crawled across his feet, trailing their rattles, clacking lightly. The nest resolved itself into one snake, gigantic, moving toward him on a level with his face. It struck and he tried to scream but could not. He looked for his father. He lay under the rattler, with his eyes open to a dark sky. His body was swollen to the size of a bear. He was dead. Jody began to move backward away from the rattler, one agonized step at a time. His feet were glued to the ground. The snake suddenly vanished and he stood alone in a vast windy place, holding the fawn in his arms. Penny was gone. A sense of sorrow filled him so that he thought his heart would break.”

Penny recovers later in the chapter, but in one scene Rawlings has wonderfully reinforced Jody’s love for his father. At this point, we can’t stop reading. There’s a lot I can learn from this passage, and I thought you might find it as moving as I did.

Do Moralists Make Bad Novelists?

A few days ago, in the New York Times, Alice Gregory wrote a short piece on the question, “do moralists make bad novelists?” I commend the article to you, not because I necessarily agree with it, but because it’s a well-expressed and thoughtful answer to the question.

In short, she argued that there are two kinds of moralists: didactic moralists and ambivalent moralists. Didactic moralists are those who write pamphlets disguised as novels, while ambivalent moralists are those who deal with moral questions without forcing them into a novel. I find the distinction helpful, but I want to suggest an additional nuance.

Andrew Peterson, speaking a few years ago at a conference, talked about a particular way to read the Bible. Before searching for a lesson in a Biblical story, he argued, we should let the story be a story. Let the reality of what we just heard sink in. That God split a sea in two, that a blind man saw again, that a dead man came back to life. These are miraculous realities. They contain a lesson, but they are realities nonetheless.

I’m not certain, but I think Gregory expresses this same sentiment about fiction when she says:

“For [the ambivalent moralist], ethics are measured and expressed in nonliteral units: the sorts of people to whom she chooses to extend her theory of mind, the small details upon which her characters disagree, the extent to which they are willing to forsake integrity for social graces. She does not inject her fiction with moral content, but moral content is there nonetheless.”

If by this she means that moral lessons ought not be crammed into novels where they don’t fit, I agree. However, a bit later, Gregory throws a wrench in this understanding.

“We live in an era of constant online castigation and unequaled opportunity to judge and be judged. We are unceasingly exposed to our friends’ and enemies’ real-time (and seldom flattering) calibrations in self-presentation, and novels should offer a relief from that.”

This seems to imply that novels are supposed to be an escape from constant moral judgement. But how can a novel deal with moral content without making some sort of moral judgement? Gregory seems to suggest that it is through “moralism with the intent to question,” in contrast to “moralism with the intent to teach.”

If we take Flannery O’Connor’s advice, however, that distinction might run into some trouble. O’Connor says that, “for the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye.” If I understand her correctly, she means that the writer must first observe before he writes. He must write about real people, and real worlds. That’s not to say that a writer can’t write fantasy, but that fantasy must be believable. In some sense, it has to be real. Stories must begin by expressing something concrete, not abstract, like an idea.

This leads to Gregory’s point about “moral content.” If we’re writing about concrete things, like actions, we’re going to write about morality because many concrete things carry a moral value. Stealing a cookie from the cookie jar is an action, but it is not a mere action. It is a wrong action. Portraying it as a wrong action is a moral judgement, even though it’s a commonly accepted moral judgement.

This makes me wonder if writing about reality without making moral judgements is, in fact, not writing about reality. Gregory’s distinction may be helpful, but I’m not sure her assertion that novels are an escape from judgement is workable. If we are to have “moral content,” it seems we must make moral judgements. It would simply be dishonest to portray, say, an attempt to slander a friend as amoral simply because we don’t want to make a judgement.

Again, I’m not sure that Gregory is arguing against this–there are some comments in her article, however, that make me wonder if she is.

Perhaps this question–do moralists make bad novelists?–is best answered by O’Connor. O’Connor is all for a distinction between a novel and a sermon, but while she agrees that a story is not a mere statement, statements will inform our stories. Or, as she puts it:

“Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.

Off-Topic: The Contradiction of Man as Merely an Animal

“Those who most despise men and regard them as the equivalent of animals still want to be admired and believed by them, and contradict themselves by their own feelings, their nature, which is stronger than anything, convincing them more strongly of man’s greatness than reason convinces them of their vileness.”–Blaise Pascal

Don’t Forget to Tell a Story

I walked out of Tomorrowland thoroughly disappointed. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect coming in, but I hoped it would, at the very least, be enjoyable. I had enjoyed all of Brad Bird’s movies so far, and Damon Lindelof, the writer, has written several good movies.

Yet Tomorrowland was neither interesting nor enjoyable. And it wasn’t because of some super technical story error. It was because the movie, in my opinion, forgot something basic–movies need to be about something.

Tomorrowland had plenty of good ideas but what it didn’t have was a plot. It was honestly surprising because it isn’t like the director and writers don’t know how to tell a story. They’ve both done some great movies. Bird did Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatoullie, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. All of those were good. Lindelof wrote Star Trek Into Darkness and World War Z, both very enjoyable films.

Tomorrowland forgot to tell a storyWhy, then, did Tomorrowland not have one of the basic story telling elements? I don’t pretend to have the answer to that, but I was reminded of this: I can’t ever forget the basics. Even if a story has a cool structure and great ideas doesn’t mean it’s good.

I have to remember that I’m not telling stories to impress people with the originality of my ideas or the cleverness of my structure. I’m telling a story, and if it isn’t a good story no one will care. When I’m developing story ideas I often get caught up in constructing an interesting format, with refining complex systems in the world of my story, or with developing a miniscule aspect of one character.

In the midst of all that it’s very easy to forget to tell a story. Get the basics down. Then worry about the more complicated aspects. That’s a reminder I needed to have.

Why Interstellar Missed Its Own Big Picture

A few days ago I posted a quote from Blaise Pascal wherein he said this:

“True religion must therefore teach us to worship only him and love only him. But as we find it impossible to worship something we do not know, or to love something other than ourselves, the religion which teaches us these duties must also teach us about our inability. It must also instruct us about the remedies. It tells us that all was lost through a man, that the link between God and ourselves was broken, and that through a man the link was repaired.”

This idea, that true religion tells us about how the link between ourselves and God was broken by a man, and how a man restored that link is certainly fascinating. But what I want to do is use it as a framework for discussing the themes of the film Interstellar.

Pascal tells us that all was lost through a man, and all was restored through a man. Interstellar tell us something radically different, simply by removing the article “a.”

If you recall, the film opens on a drought-ridden planet a generation away from extinction. Agricultural blight is ravaging crops and the vague hints tell us that it’s all due humanity’s abuse of the environment. As a result, mankind makes a desperate attempt to save itself, and the plot of the movie begins.

Interstellar hinges on the audience accepting one thing. I highly encourage you to accept it, because the journey is so very worth it.Throughout Interstellar the theme that develops goes something like this: all was lost through mankind, and through mankind all will be restored. In fact, the theme couldn’t be more clear. The ending of the story, in which (spoiler alert) Cooper sends his daughter quantum information that helps her solve gravity, while at the same time creating the phenomena that led himself to this very spot, quite clearly places mankind in the role of savior.

Even the dialog at the end communicates this. At the beginning of the movie, all Cooper knows is that someone (nebulously referred to as “they” throughout most of the movie) created a wormhole to give humanity a chance at survival. “They” are some kind of higher power, it appears–people who can create wormholes. But at the end, Cooper declares “‘they’ are us. We brought ourselves here.” Mankind is the higher power.

I find this theme rather odd, actually, in light of several events that occur during the movie. For example, around two thirds of the way through, Cooper, the main character, and his crew land on an ice planet found by the leader of the previous mission through the wormhole, Dr. Mann. Everything seems promising until Mann takes Cooper for a walk and ends up trying to kill him.

The scene has been criticized quite a bit, the argument usually going something like this: “they’re halfway across the galaxy, on a mission to save humanity, and they get into a fistfight? Really?” During the film I actually loved the entire scene. Not only was it intense, but I also felt like it said something profound about the human condition. Mann was “the best of humanity,” to quote one of the main characters, and he was sent to save the species. But even he succumbed to selfishness. Two characters getting into a fistfight halfway across the galaxy on a mission to save humanity felt like Nolan’s way of summarizing human nature.

But then (Spoiler Alert) Mann is killed and the mission continues. At this point, however, we’ve sufficiently lost our hope in this team’s ability to save humanity. Yet somehow they still do. Mankind brings itself to the brink of extinction, tries to save itself, attacks itself in its attempt to save itself, and somehow still saves itself.

Interstellar was a good movie (see my review here), but I feel like it missed its own big picture. The overall sketch of mankind Interstellar gives us seems to say that it won’t be long before we’ll mess everything up again. But Interstellar has nowhere else to turn for rescue. According to Interstellar, we are the biggest threat to our survival, and at the same time our only hope for salvation.

This is why Pascal’s formulation, which is really just the Bible’s formulation, is so crucial. Through one man all was lost, and through another man, the Son of Man, all was regained. Without that understanding, we’re left in vicious circles, saving ourselves and endangering ourselves in the same moment.

All Was Lost Through A Man

“True religion must therefore teach us to worship only him and love only him. But as we find it impossible to worship something we do not know, or to love something other than ourselves, the religion which teaches us these duties must also teach us about our inability. It must also instruct us about the remedies. It tells us that all was lost through a man, that the link between God and ourselves was broken, and that through a man the link was repaired.”–Blaise Pascal