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

The Scandalous Dichotomy: Analyzing O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

There are more than a few humorous anecdotes of reader’s reactions to Flannery O’Connor’s stories. O’Connor recounts one instance in which a woman wrote to her, protesting her stories and claiming they left a bad taste in her mouth. O’Connor wrote back that the woman wasn’t supposed to eat them. On another occasion, as Jonathan Rogers describes,

“After publishing ‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost,’ she received a letter from a woman in Boston. ‘She said she was a Catholic and so she couldn’t understand how anybody could even HAVE such thoughts.'”

But sometimes the reactions, especially from reviewers, were not so funny. Time Magazine wrote, in a review of her collection of short stories titled “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” that her stories were “wittingly sarcastic” but contained “arty fumbling” in the thematic content. The Kenyon Review, writing about the same collection, called her stories, “profane, blasphemous, and outrageous.”

O'Connor's First Short Story CollectionIf one thing can be said about O’Connor’s stories it’s that they can’t be shrugged off without another thought. She wrote stories that shocked, scarred, and disturbed.

But why? One of her most popular stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is the story we’ve now come to in this comprehensive analysis. The story is exceptionally offensive, but I think it gives us one of the clearest pictures of exactly why her stories engendered such violent reactions.

I should say this as I dive into the analysis: plenty has been written about “Good Man,” and so I don’t purport to present the sum total of all that could possibly be seen or discussed concerning it. In this post, though, I want to look at “Good Man” from a rather odd perspective. Namely, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” in my opinion, pushes a scandalous dichotomy–the dichotomy of the person of Christ and the demand He makes on the world.

The basic story of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is of a grandmother and her family, six in total, on a vacation in Florida. On the drive down their car is overturned on a side road and, there, unable to escape, they are all murdered by a serial killer who calls himself the Misfit.

Since she wrote the story, I think it might be a good idea to let O’Connor have the first word as to the theme. Before she read the story to Hollins College in Virginia, in 1963, she said:

“This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.”

In O’Connor’s view, then, the thematic movement of “Good Man” is a move from deception to reality, a move from the grandmother’s rejection of who Christ is to a realization of the truth.

Since the grandmother is the thematic center of the story I want to focus on her and her evolution.

How does O’Connor paint the grandmother at the beginning? At the start of the story, the grandmother is entirely self-deceived. She has a self-image of herself as a lady, an upstanding and moral member of her community. And not only is she a good person but she’s always right. The story opens with a simple, absolute statement of her opinion: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee…”

She’s also violently self-righteous, obsessed with other people conforming to her standards of good behavior. Fundamentally, she’s unwilling to see herself as a sinner in need of grace, though she would almost certainly proclaim that truth about others.

Here we see the first problem. The Grandmother has an improper view of herself because she doesn’t understand the Gospel. Jesus is a comfort to her–a mere nicety. She views Him as a good man, but she doesn’t see Him as the Son of God, because if He were the Son of God He’d keep the law of God perfectly, which would reveal the Grandmother’s unrighteousness. If He were the Son of God, He would make demands on her life. O’Connor points out the fundamental problem with being unwilling to view oneself as a sinner.

“Redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.” (emphasis mine)

The Grandmother is a total embodiment of this belief that there is no cause for redemption. She doesn’t see a cause for redemption in her own life, though she almost certainly sees it in others. Jesus is for them. When the Misfit finally confronts her she urges him to pray because then Jesus will help him, but heaven forbid Jesus help her.

I think one of the primary ways O’Connor symbolizes the Grandmother’s delusion is in the way she dresses. O’Connor describes the Grandmother’s outfit in great detail near the beginning of the story. The outfit is perfect, prim, and proper. As O’Connor writes in a darkly comic moment of foreshadowing, “anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.” The clothes are connected with her self-image of being “a lady.”

After the first half of the story, though, O’Connor begins the slow process of stripping away the Grandmother’s pretensions. The car crashes as a result of the Grandmother’s lapse of memory, and the car crashes where it does because of the Grandmother’s insistence on her own way. But after the car crash the real beginning of the Grandmother’s confrontation with reality is mirrored by her clothes. O’Connor writes,

“The Grandmother limped out of the car, her hat still pinned to her head but the broken front brim standing up at a jaunty angle and the violet spray hanging off the side.”

The Grandmother’s clothes, indicating that she’s a lady, are tattered and torn.

But then The Misfit shows up, and the story really gets going. Who is this character the Misfit? He’s an odd person–violent, profane, and brutal. Yet he’s the one who brings the truth to the grandmother–he’s right where the grandmother is completely off. Meaning, the Misfit understands reality better than she does. The Misfit is more honest about the demands Jesus makes on people’s lives. As he says,

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead…and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can–by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”

Here is the scandalous dichotomy. Here is the thing O’Connor pushes home again and again in her stories. Jesus is not a sideshow. Either He’s everything, in which case the only honest thing to do is to follow Him to the end, or He’s nothing, in which case, as the Apostle Paul points out, Christians like us are of all men the most to be pitied.

Ralph C. Wood writes this about the Misfit’s declaration:

“Jesus’ power over physical death, [the Misfit] knows, is the mark of his power over spiritual death. Christ’s raising of the dead constitutes a command for the Misfit also to be transformed: to surrender his proud sufficiency for the love of God and neighbor…the Misfit knows that he must either gladly embrace or bitterly reject Jesus’ invitation. There is no safe middle way, no accommodating alternative to the drastic extremes of belief and unbelief, no bland neutrality between Jesus Christ and absolute nothingness.”

The Misfit understands what the grandmother does not, which makes the grandmother’s desperate attempts to help him all the more ironic. She still thinks that she has everything figured out. “You could be honest too if you’d only try,” the Grandmother tells the Misfit. “Think how wonderful it would be to…not have to have to think about somebody chasing you all the time.” This comment actually comes before the Misfit’s bold declaration of the dichotomy of the character of Christ. By the time the Misfit tells the Grandmother the truth she’s on her knees, terrified, crying, “Jesus! You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray!”

But when the Misfit tells her the truth, she can’t stand it, responding only with, “Maybe He didn’t raise the dead.”

An Illustration of A Good Man is Hard to FindThink about where the Grandmother is at this point. Her son and grandson have been shot, her daughter-in-law and two granddaughters, one an infant, have met the same fate. A serial killer is kneeling in front of her, pointing a gun at her, and she knows the end is near. But right here at the end, in the sovereignty of God, her killer tells her the truth.

Her only escape is to deny it completely, but even that can’t keep reality away for long. In a shocking moment of truth she realizes who she is. The psychopath in front of her could be one of her own children. It is at this moment that the Grandmother realizes there is a need–a cause–for redemption. She needs redemption, and she knows it because she recognizes, I think, for one split-second, who Jesus is.

The dichotomy has hit her full-force and it runs her over. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that she dies with her knees crumpled under her “like a child’s.” At the end she went back to the beginning and started all over again.

The story gives us a simple if-then statement: if Jesus is the Son of God then we need to be redeemed by him. If he isn’t, then, as the Misfit says, there’s “no pleasure but meanness.”

Flannery O’Connor is almost more like the Misfit than the Grandmother. Her stories proclaim the truth shamelessly and bluntly. O’Connor, like the Misfit, stands straight, telling the truth that either Jesus is everything, or He’s nothing. He either commands every aspect of our lives, or we ought to do whatever gives us pleasure for the horribly short time we have on this earth.

There is no compromise. There is only a dichotomy.

Tolkien and Reading Security

Randon Billings Noble, writing recently for the LA Review of Books, discussed the idea of Reading Security. This, if I understand it correctly, is basically another way of phrasing the issue of escapism in literature. In other words, what happens when books, when reading, becomes an escape from the real world?

Noble says this as she sets up the problem:

“But then I read Anna North’s New York Times essay “When Novels Were Bad for You,” and wondered if, in some ways, they still are. North uses Emma Bovary and Catherine Norland, (of Northanger Abbey) as examples of readers who are swept too far away by their reading, finding their actual lives either lacking or mistakenly fraught when compared to the romances and Gothic horrors in which they lose themselves. I’m older than they are, and living in a very different time and place, but even though I can indeed distinguish between fact and fiction, I feel the same sense of thrall when I read, and I relish it. But is this “bad” in the way 18th- and 19th century critics thought?”

This is a very interesting paragraph. A standard question is raised: what happens when we realize that the lives we live barely resemble the novels we read? What happens when books become an escape, and we begin to dislike the real world? We should confine ourselves to dealing with the real world, with sophisticated problems and mature ideas, and not try to escape from it, goes the anti-escapist reasoning. Why would escapism be a desirable thing?

J.R.R. TolkienThat’s not necessarily a new question: Lewis and Tolkien dealt with it a lot. In fact, a large part of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” is devoted to this very idea. And in answer to the question, “is escape bad?” Tolkien gave the same answer Noble does. The difference is in the reason for the answer. Here’s what Tolkien said:

“Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”

Tolkien here was writing from a worldview that said that there was a world beyond our own, a world beyond the prison. This world was a world that fulfilled the longing we all have, a world where jailers and prison walls were no more. This world was a home, not a jail. Tolkien says there’s nothing wrong with escapism in this sense because we are trying to escape to where we really belong.

In other words, books provide us a glimpse of this real home, and so there’s nothing wrong with escaping to it.

Noble gives the same answer as Tolkien: no, escaping to another world in a book is not necessarily wrong. But Noble has a very different reason.

“…here’s the thing – I do indeed want to divorce myself (if only temporarily) from my everyday life. I want to be in a more sophisticated world than my three-year-olds’. I want complex characters and elaborate language and mature themes…”

I want to ask the question, is a three-year-olds’ world really so unsophisticated? Or if it is, why is that a bad thing? Why would we want to escape from that? As G.K. Chesterton points out, young children are fascinated with the mundane in life–they wonder at everything around them. They don’t walk outside at night and treat the moon and the stars nonchalantly. The moon and the stars are not just there, the moon and the stars are wonderful, intricate, stunning things. It is only when we get older, according to Chesterton, that we lose the wonder inherent in these things.

If one were to combine Tolkien and Chesterton, one might say this about escapism: those who have lost an ability to wonder at the mundane, to see the reflections of another world in our own, ought to escape. There is nothing wrong with wanting to go home, but home may look less like the “sophisticated” world Noble speaks of and more like a three-year-olds’ world.

Complex characters and elaborate language aren’t necessarily bad, but they may not actually be any better than the simple beauty of a child building a sand castle on the beach. The echoes of the home Tolkien speaks of are all around us but they become a bit harder to see, according to Chesterton, when everything is about unceasing analysis and complexity.

When we take things like the world we live in, and try to act “grown up” by dealing with so-called substantial issues and real problems, I think Chesterton would tell us to stop. Before we deal with “important” issues, let’s just step back for a minute and acknowledge the fact that we are tiny creatures, sitting on a large rock, with explosions at the center, hurtling through space at 66,000 miles per hour, around a giant ball of fire.

And we want to be sophisticated. Can we just stop for a moment and wonder at the fact that we even exist?

The real world may not be so different from a three-year-olds’ world.

A world where the sun rising every morning is a wondrous thing. A world where the joy of something simple, like a trampoline, leads to constant repetition of that thing.

The “grown up” world of constant analysis, the “grown up” world where sheer joy and wonder at simple things is shunned, may not be the real world. To use Chesterton’s example, the real world may look more like the world of a child, having just discovered a slide, who says over and over, “do it again!”

Stretching Our Characters

Last night, as I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was reminded yet again of one simple rule of storytelling: never let your characters get comfortable.

The episode took all of the show’s main characters and put them in situations where we would never imagine them, situations that seem antithetical to who they are. As a result, even though the plot was exceptionally weak, the episode was enjoyable.

This is a lesson I need to take to heart. Sometimes, as I write short stories or novels, or as I read short stories or novels, the authors will allow their characters to sit in their comfort zones. Perhaps a character’s comfort zone is fighting evil, like a James Bond. In that case, giving them more evil to fight doesn’t seem to do anything except let them stay where they’re comfortable. But if James Bond had to, say, let someone else fight evil instead–now he’s being pushed. Now he’s being stretched.

It’s when characters are stretched that I find myself most engaged in a story. Seeing them do what they’re best at is only interesting for so long.

The point being this: I need to remember to always stretch my characters in every way I can think of. I’ve seen a lot of stories suffer from underdeveloped characters due to comfortable scenarios, and I need to be careful to not make that mistake. If they’re comfortable, something’s wrong and the audience will probably lose interest very quickly. I need to heed that idea, and implement it in my own writing.