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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On Saturday Morning I Went to See Thomas Jefferson

As portrayed by an historical interpreter, that is, in Colonial Williamsburg. Colonial Williamsburg, for those who don’t know it, is the premier “living history” district in the United States. It is a full-scale reconstruction of what was, for most of the 18th century, the capitol city of colonial Virginia. Some of the buildings, such as the Governor’s Palace (that’s the British governor) and the Virginia House of Burgesses (the colonial legislature) are reconstructed entirely from plans and drawings, though other buildings, such as the Magazine (where the ammunition was kept—and then snatched by Governor Dunmore when the colonists became too uppity), are restored versions of the original buildings.

Some have complained that Colonial Williamsburg is too clean-swept a version of 18th-century colonial American life (see Colonial Williamsburg’s Wikipedia page for an overview of these gripes). It is, no doubt, more picturesque than its original, and is most certainly designed with the tourist (and his credit card) in mind. But overall I found its commitment to historical accuracy extraordinary. I was most impressed by the way in which Colonial Williamsburg encourages reflection on the deepest political questions of American public life.

The interpreter who gave us the tour of the House of Burgesses, for example—where the scene is set in June of 1776—did a remarkable job at expressing what was at stake in Patrick Henry’s argument for an entitlement to (not mere tolerance of) free religious exercise—an argument still resonating in our own time in the debate over the proposed mosque at Ground Zero. Our interpreter was also excellent at revealing the anxieties felt by colonists at the prospect of going to war with Great Britain, the mother country.

The Thomas Jefferson interpreter, for his part, after a half-hour speech delineating the Jeffersonian understanding of political liberty, fielded questions (in character) from the audience. To the question on many people’s minds—why did you, Jefferson, keep your slaves while in principle you opposed the institution of slavery?—the interpreter offered a strikingly plausible argument, focusing on the gradual restriction of slavery in the colonies followed by the gradual elimination of the entire institution. It was the wrong argument, but it was as compelling an answer to the charge of hypocrisy in Jefferson as one will find, and also one which has some resonance in contemporary debates about how best to eliminate the practice of abortion.

So if Colonial Williamsburg has elements of a theme park—what of it? It is a place of family entertainment, but an entertainment that invites the spectator to think through the foundations of the American experiment—something we often forget to do when we’re absorbed by distractions such as Bristol Palin’s performance on Dancing With the Stars.

Colonial Williamsburg does not caricature our Founding Fathers, or portray them in hagiographic terms. Through the method of historical interpretation, it seeks to portray the emerging American experience in all its philosophical complexity. And for that alone Colonial Williamsburg is a triumph, and well worth the money I spent on imitation 18th-century wine goblets.      


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Hollowing Out of Godric's Hollow

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part 1, has been receiving very good, and well-deserved, reviews, and raked in 330 million dollars at the box office on its opening weekend. It’s an extremely entertaining film, and in almost every aspect comes close to matching the value of the book. As must be, the film has to do some things differently from the book, not least having to end at the mid-point, but the film’s artistic choices rarely leave one unsatisfied. There is a lot of story to cover, even to include just half of J.K. Rowling’s massive, 759-page seventh volume in her epic tale, and the film covers it well, albeit at a breakneck pace.

But David Yates, the director, and Steve Kloves, the screenwriter, did make a few artistic decisions that left me unsatisfied… (SPOILER WARNING: if you haven’t seen the film and do not want to hear specifics about it, now is the time to stop reading, hopefully to return after you’ve seen it.)

I didn’t think it right, first of all, that the film chose not to portray the Dursley’s departure, especially Dudley’s and Harry’s final farewell, where the two boys make a certain peace with one another. The Dursley’s play such an important role both in the books and in the films, they deserved better here at the end. Also, I liked the scene (not in the book) where Harry and Hermione, after Ron runs out on them, relieve the tedium and frustration of their search for the horcruxes by dancing playfully to a song on the radio—it’s just the sort of thing that two lonely and bored teenagers, even ones with feelings for other people, would do in such a situation. But I didn’t think the embrace of the Riddle-Harry and Riddle-Hermione in the scene where Ron destroys the horcrux-locket with the sword of Godric Gryffindor needed the Riddle-Harry and Riddle-Hermione to be—even in highly-stylized fashion—nude. This goes farther than the book (see Chapter 19, “The Silver Doe”), and takes the film beyond the level of appropriateness, in this parent’s opinion, for children, say, under fourteen. But then again, I think the book itself is not appropriate for children under fourteen.

But perhaps most noteworthy of all, the film hollows out the beautiful Christian imagery that J.K. Rowling builds into one of the most moving chapters of the book, Chapter 16, “Godric’s Hollow,” where Harry and Hermione (before Ron returns) travel to Harry’s birthplace of Godric’s Hollow to search for the sword of Godric Gryffindor. The film does have Harry and Hermione pass a Christian church, where we hear the congregation singing a Christmas carol, and Hermione does observe that it’s Christmas Eve. But then the film ignores the words on the gravestone of Kendra and Ariana Dumbledore: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” a direct translation of Matthew 6:21. And it also ignores the words on the gravestone of Harry’s parents: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” from 1 Corinthians 15:26. Most of all, however, the film leaves out Rowling’s image from pp. 324-325 of the book: “Behind the church, row upon row of snowy tombstones protruded from a blanket of pale blue that was flecked with dazzling red, gold, and green wherever the reflections from the stained glass hit the snow.” As my friend John O’Callaghan, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, has pointed out, this image clearly attempts to persuade us of the way in which the light of Christian revelation (in red, gold and green), flowing out from the church in the midst of her liturgy, illuminates and vivifies the human flesh that, to paraphrase St. Peter in his First Letter, withers like the grass beneath the snow and the gravestones. It would have been lovely if this beautiful, intensely cinematic, and profoundly Christian, image from Rowling’s book would have made it into the film.

These are my criticisms. Yet there is much in the film that I do very much like, not least David Yates’s decision to go in many scenes with a Cinéma vérité approach, which gives the film a tenser, grittier, more realistic texture that jibes very well with the darker themes of the story. An interesting "anatomy of a scene" by David Yates—of the scene where Harry, Ron and Hermione fight the Death Eaters in the café on the Tottenham Court Road (in the film, Shaftesbury Avenue)—is currently available on the New York Times website. In this analysis Yates discusses his decision to employ Cinéma vérité.       

I’d love to hear what you liked, or didn’t like, about the film. Meanwhile, have a wonderful Thankgiving and I’ll be back with you next week.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Living in Twilight

This past summer, while visiting Milwaukee, my wife and I had a chance to see a touring production of the musical Wicked. Wicked tells the back-story of the Wicked Witch of the West, a character from Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland. The musical, however, has a lot of fun deconstructing the character we know from these two earlier sources. In Wicked, the Wicked Witch of the West is, not evil, but misunderstood. Indeed, she even turns out to be the heroine that helps save Oz from the truly wicked designs of the not-so-benign Wizard.

Wicked’s Wicked Witch is just one example of a troubling phenomenon that has arisen in popular entertainment over the past several years: that of a traditionally “wicked” character playing the role of the hero or heroine.

One of the most popular instances of the phenomenon is Fox’s series, House, where we have a misanthrope who also happens to be a genius clinical diagnostician. But Greg House’s issues are nothing compared to the character of Dexter in the eponymous Showtime series. For in Dexter we have a serial killer—yes, a serial killer—serving as the hero of a police procedural (Dexter is good enough only to kill other killers).

Then there is the recent tsunami of middle grade and young adult novels, as well as movies and television shows, in which vampires serve as heroes and heroines—whether in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, Heather Brewer’s Chronicles of Vladimir Tod, or in the HBO series, True Blood.

Notice that the “heroes” and “heroines” on this list are not merely characters with flaws. No, they are witches, vampires, misanthropes, and serial killers, characters that have traditionally been associated with unmitigated evil, but which are now more associated with good than with evil. What these characters disturbingly represent is the thought there is no such thing as good and evil—there is only a space between, a world of neither dark nor light but of “twilight” (as Stephenie Meyer would have it). In such a twilit world, even a vampire who wants to suck the life out of you, even a witch who torments a kid from Kansas, can be the instrument of salvation.

What does it say about the state of our popular culture, when not even the vampire can be named as evil, and when good is always a compromise with—not an overcoming of—that which is most despicable in human behavior?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Reality Bites Back

A compelling post today from Danielle Bean, a regular writer for the National Catholic Register, on the corrosive cultural influence of reality TV. She cites a book by Jennifer L. Pozner, the executive director of Women in Media & News. The book is called, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV. Here’s a bit from the blurb on Pozner’s website:

On The Bachelor, twenty-five interchangeable hotties compete for the chance to marry a hunky lunkhead they don’t know from Adam. Weepy waifs line up to be objectified for a living (or simply for a moment) on America’s Next Top Model. Wealthy ladies who lunch backstab while obsessing over brand-name clothes, cars and jewels on The Real Housewives Of…everywhere. Branded “ugly ducklings,” appearance-obsessed sad sacks risk their health to be surgically altered on The Swan and Dr. 90210. Starved women get naked for Oreos and men gloat about “dumb-ass girl alliances” on Survivor. Women of color are ostracized as deceitful divas on The Apprentice, lazy or “difficult” on Wife Swap and Bridezillas, and “ghetto” train wrecks on VH1’s Flavor of Love and I Love New York. And through it all, slurs like “bitch,” “beaver,” and “whore” are tossed around as if they’re any other nouns.

And it’s all happening in the name of “reality.”

A few weeks ago the poet Dana Gioia, who served as director of the National Endowment for the Arts during the George W. Bush administration, gave a talk at Baylor University, where I teach. In his remarks he aptly said about reality TV that it gives us “the pleasure of smug superiority over our inferiors.”

What else does reality TV’s take on “reality” tell us about where we are as a culture? As Pozner asks on her website, what is reality TV saying about our understanding of men and women, race and class, love and sex, beauty and violence, advertising and consumption?

I especially liked one comment on Danielle Bean’s post on the Register website. This person quoted Father James Keller, the founder of The Christophers, who said: “There is some value, of course…in turning off vulgar, boring, or subversive radio and TV programs….But the cure does not lie there, for it is like objecting to bad food without providing anything better….New and better writers can be found. They will come from among you…the vast group of Americans who constitute the backbone of our nation and of our Christian civilization.”

It is easy enough to curse the awful food. But who are the writers out there who will provide us with better fare? Who will lead us, by engaging entertainment culture with consummate craftsmanship, from “reality” to reality? Are you one of them?

Let’s hear from you.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Younger Than Sin

Readers of this blog may be interested in a conference taking place next week at the University of Notre Dame: Younger Than Sin: Retrieving Simplicity Through the Virtues of Humility, Wonder & Joy. This is the annual Fall flagship conference of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, where I was honored to serve as one of David Solomon’s associate directors from 2003-2009. It all begins Thursday evening, November 18 and culminates with a banquet on Saturday evening, November 20.

Here is a description from the Center’s website of what the conference is all about:

In his 2009 Christmas homily, Pope Benedict XVI suggested that it is the "simple souls" who receive most readily the truth and have therefore the shortest journey to make: "[T]he shepherds, the simple souls, were the first to come to Jesus in the manger and to encounter the Redeemer of the world" because they "lived nearby," whereas the wise men, who represent "those with social standing and fame," "arrived later" and "needed guidance and direction." Those who are not "lowly souls who live very close" to the truth but are instead captivated "amid worldly affairs and occupations that totally absorb us," we "are a great distance from the manger" and must undertake an "arduous" journey. We propose to explore simplicity of soul and its attendant virtues of humility, wonder, and joy—the fullness of which Georges Bernanos identified in the state of the Blessed Virgin who, attending at the manger, is described as "younger than sin"—free, with a virtuous simplicity of soul, for her joyful assent to and embrace of the Truth and the Good that has set her free. We, not so "young" as she, must undertake the journey to simplicity by humility, which enables honesty concerning oneself and one’s dependence on others; wonder, which as Aristotle wrote, first leads one to seek the freedom of the truth; and joy, the delight of the soul that is able to apprehend the true and the good and draw them to itself.”

“Such reflections are timely and extend to all disciplines as they can illuminate a culture that, in many ways, has become fragmented in its old age. For the simplicity that manifests and develops itself by humility, wonder, and joy is far from simple-mindedness or naïveté; it is a mature and concentrated and clear-sighted pursuit of the highest truth and the highest goodness by one who is not conquered by the addictive and constantly-changing self-distraction allowed by the iPod, the Blackberry, and the pursuit of acquisitive self-satisfaction. It is a cultivated disposition able to enjoy the simple life, the simple pleasures, and the truth, goodness, and beauty that they disclose.”

The conference is interdisciplinary, so beyond talks and presentations on theology and philosophy, it will also feature many talks on works of literature and film.

I will be giving a talk that Saturday afternoon, entitled “Sucking the Life from Our Children: Hollywood and the Romance of the Living Dead.” In the last four-to-five years there has been a prodigious increase of middle grade and young adult books, as well as movies and television shows, featuring vampires—and even more recently, zombies. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series of young adult novels (and the movies made from them) is a major case in point. What is the cultural significance of this phenomenon? Vampires, and Gothic tales generally, have been a part of our literary culture since the early 19th century, when John William Polidori wrote “The Vampyre.” Is the recent spate of vampire stories simply a reprise of the same fixation, or does it have a different emphasis and inspiration? I’ll post some notes from my talk next week. But as I prepare it, I would love to hear your takes on any aspect of this phenomenon. 

Those who can’t attend the conference shouldn’t despair. Many of the talks will be available to read on the Center’s website, and the streaming video of the invited talks, including my own, will also be available on the Center’s website not long after the conference.

I’ll close with some questions about which the conference hopes to generate discussion. I look forward to discussing them with you:

“In what ways does our culture offer opportunities for this simplicity? Or does it not? What are the necessary conditions for persons trying to achieve this ideal, or for families trying to fashion a culture wherein this ideal is possible or for societies trying to determine and pursue the common good?” 

Monday, November 8, 2010

What Good Are the Arts and Humanities?

No good whatsoever.

Or so argues Stanley Fish in a recent op-ed in the New York Times. In his piece Fish takes up the arguments of Anthony Kronman in his new book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. Albeit in secularist terms, Kronman makes a plea for the arts and humanities that emphasizes their ennobling capabilities. In former and better times, writes Kronman, “a college was above all a place for the training of character, for the nurturing of those intellectual and moral habits that together form the basis for living the best life one can.”

But for Kronman, those days are long gone. What brought on their demise is a “careerism that distracts from life as a whole” and a “blind acceptance of science and technology" that disguises and denies our human condition.

So we must revivify the humanities if we are to “meet the need for meaning in an age of vast but pointless powers,” for only the humanities can help us recover the urgency of “the question of what living is for.”

But Fish asks: do the arts and humanities really ennoble? And is it even their business to “save” us? To both questions, Fish answers no.

Fish protests that the study of the arts and humanities, even when focused on the larger question of the “meaning of life,” necessarily improves us intellectually and morally. If they did so improve us, Fish contends,

the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so. Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge. The texts Kronman recommends are, as he says, concerned with the meaning of life; those who study them, however, come away not with a life made newly meaningful, but with a disciplinary knowledge newly enlarged.

True enough, if today’s academy is the chief witness to the intellectually and morally transformative power of the arts and humanities, then the arts and humanities are in big trouble. Fish believes that there is a good in the arts and humanities, but not a good in the sense of something “useful” or “ennobling.” For Fish, the arts and humanities are simply their own good. But their intrinsic goodness, as he sees it, is technical know-how. For students of literature, this amounts to analyzing literary effects. For students of philosophy, this amounts to the ability to assess arguments for the foundations of knowledge.

It is this reduction of the arts and humanities to technical know-how that is precisely the problem, not only with higher education, but with education at all levels in our culture. Inasmuch as the arts and humanities have been turned into one more kind of technical knowledge, so their place in education, and in our lives as a whole, has become more questionable.

This is a point that has been made quite forcibly by the Canadian political theorist George Grant. In his little essay, “Research in the Humanities,” Grant says: “Previous scholarship was a waiting upon the past so that we might find in it truths which might help us to think and live in the present. Research scholarship in humanities cannot thus wait upon the past, because it represents the past to itself from a position of its own command. From that position of command you can learn about the past; you cannot learn from the past….The strange event is this: the more the humanities have gained wealth and prestige by taking on the language and methods of the progressive sciences, the less significance they have in the society they inhabit.”

It is not that the arts and humanities lack an intrinsic inability to ennoble us. It is that the predominant system of education has come to prize “disciplinary knowledge newly enlarged” over wisdom—which is to say, a way of living in the light of truth.
The arts and humanities will fail to recover their pivotal role in our culture until we once again understand that the first (and last) question in education is the one voiced by Socrates in the Republic: “it is not just any question we are considering, but how one should live.”

Friday, November 5, 2010

Apple TV

It’s hard not to become enamored with Apple products.

Recently my family started using the new Apple TV—a little device for the wireless streaming of movies, television shows, some Internet content, even material on iTunes and iPhoto. We’ve been extremely happy with it so far. It’s priced right—$99—not counting the $20 needed for the HDMI cable by which it connects to your television. And it couldn’t be more user-friendly. Minutes after I had taken it out of the box (it looks like a square hockey puck), I had it hooked up and was streaming YouTube clips of Secretariat’s famous Triple Crown victory at Belmont in 1973 (we had just gone to see the new Disney movie, Secretariat, and I wanted to show the kids the real horse in action).

More particularly, here is what you get with Apple TV:

  • Instant movie and TV show rentals. Currently only ABC and Fox have contracts with Apple TV, but more networks are sure to join in future. Television shows begin at 99 cents. HD movies start at $3.99, with first-run movies in HD only $4.99 (compare that to the price of two tickets and a bucket of popcorn down at the multiplex).
  • But the best feature of Apple TV, from our point of view, is its ability to stream movies from our Netflix account. All of the movies in our “Instant Play” queue can now be watched on the big screen (including all of those great History Channel documentaries!) I would have bought it for this feature alone.
  • Then, again, there is the ability to stream from YouTube, as well as from MobileMe and Flickr, and other Apple programs such as iTunes, iPhoto and iMovie. Podcasts, videocasts, music and photos can all be enjoyed on the big screen.
  • Finally, all other Apple devices, whether laptops or the iPad, can be connected to and their content streamed through Apple TV.

Apple TV is a clever addition to our increasingly “on-demand” world of entertainment. And that’s what I like best about it. Amidst the dizzying (and too often nauseating) mishmash of entertainment options available today, Apple TV offers—especially to parents—not only control over what comes into the home, but now more variety as well.     

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Medium and the Message

“I am not a witch.”

“You don’t want to use that phrase, dude.”

These are perhaps the two most memorable sound-bytes from the run-up to yesterday’s mid-term elections. The first, of course, is from Christine O’Donnell’s October 4 television ad in which she hoped to put into perspective comments made in 1999 on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect, where she admitted to dabbling in witchcraft in high school.

The second is from Jon Stewart’s October 27 Daily Show interview with President Obama, where Stewart glibly reacted to the president’s praise of Larry Summers’ handling of the economic crisis with the phrase “he did a heck of a job,” as it echoed President Bush’s notorious praise of FEMA head Michael Brown in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

It is interesting that both of these statements were made on, or had their origin in, television shows that mix political analysis with comedy—that are, or were, hosted by professional comedians. It brings to mind the central thesis of Neil Postman’s widely-influential 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, a critique of America’s television culture.

Postman argues that television by its very nature turns news into entertainment. His point is not that television news has degenerated into entertainment by coming under the control of yahoos. No, his point is that television cannot help but make news entertainment because of the kind of medium it is. Postman reprises Marshall McLuhan’s adage from the 1960s: “the medium is the message.”

How does television do this? By using what Postman calls the logic of the “Now…this.”

“Now…this” is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly…that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, “Now…this.”  

The “Now…this” form of discourse comes about because of the very structure of television, which sells time in hour or half-hour segments, “separated in content, context, and emotional texture from what precedes and follows it”; which then carves up these hours and half-hours into smaller discrete segments; which uses images more than words; which allows its audience to move freely to and from the television set—or to other channels. The net effect, for Postman, is that we are presented

not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment.

And so perhaps it is inevitable that we have comedians such as Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert blurring the lines between political analysis and comedy—to the point that Colbert can go before Congress to talk about the problem of migrant workers in character as the right-wing blowhard he plays on The Colbert Report (this occurred on September 24).

Since Postman was writing in the mid-80s, our news media has become, as Rich Lowry said yesterday on National Review Online, “more contentious, diverse, and sprawling,” just as our republic has become more contentious, diverse, and sprawling. Postman did not account, of course, for the explosion of cable programming, talk radio, or indeed the Internet itself, and especially the phenomena of blogging and podcasting. What difference do these new media make to our politics? Do they have the potential to provide a less time-pressured, fragmented, entertainment-driven discourse? One can hear Postman saying: “Not at all. They are simply different versions of the same, though now more sprawling, problem.”

Is this true? Is the blog, the webpage, or the podcast by its very nature structured to be entertainment?

Think of this: does this post in itself introduce any pressure of time, either for me in writing it, or you in reading it? Is there not a context for these remarks, at least within the world of this blog? Is there not a potential here for conversation, perhaps not of the richest kind (not being face-to-face), but conversation nonetheless?

What do you think?

Monday, November 1, 2010

On The Good Sense of Sensationalism

“The only thrill, even of a common thriller, is concerned somehow with the conscience and the will.” –G. K. Chesterton

This past summer I enjoyed the detective writer P.D. James’s little book, Talking About Detective Fiction (Knopf, 2009), a distillation of the author’s insights into the genre she has practiced so well for nearly five decades. In the opening chapter she takes up a charge that has been made against detective stories since they first came onto the scene in the mid-19th century: the charge of sensationalism.

For example, in the 19th century, the critic Matthew Arnold vented his spleen against the “new” trend in sensationalist fiction, typified by Wilkie Collins’s detective story, The Moonstone (1868). Arnold describes such novels as “cheap…hideous and ignoble of aspect…tawdry novels which flare in the bookshelves of our railway stations, and which seem designed, as so much else that is produced for the use of our middle-class, for people with a low standard of life.”

Ouch. I read The Moonstone this past summer and very much enjoyed it. Maybe I have a “low standard of life” and don’t know it? 

Or maybe there is something more to sensationalism than Arnold gives credit for. P.D. James thinks so. For a powerful statement of her own view, she refers the reader to one of the greatest of 19th-century novelists, Anthony Trollope, and a passage from his Autobiography where he addresses the issue of sensationalism in literature. Trollope was considered by many to be an anti-sensational, or realistic, novelist; his friend Wilkie Collins on the other hand, a sensational one. But here’s how Trollope himself views the matter:   

The readers who prefer… [realistic novels] are supposed to take delight in the elucidation of character. Those who hold by the other [i.e., sensational novels] are charmed by the continuation and gradual development of a plot. All this is, I think, a mistake—which mistake arises from the inability of the imperfect artist to be at the same time realistic and sensational. A good novel should be both, and both in the highest degree. If a novel fail in either, there is a failure in art….Let an author so tell his tale as to touch his reader’s heart and draw his tears, and he has, so far, done his work well. Truth let there be,—truth of description, truth of character, human truth as to men and women. If there be such truth, I do not know that a novel can be too sensational.

In this Trollope, I think, is absolutely right. Sensationalism is essential to fiction, as long as it is linked to wonder, to the pursuit of the truth about the human quest for happiness.

James goes on to praise G.K. Chesterton, author of the Father Brown detective stories, for bringing two things in particular to detective fiction: “He was among the first writers to realize that it could be a vehicle for exploring and exposing the condition of society, and for saying something true about human nature.”

“Those words have been part of my credo as a writer,” James writes. “They may not be framed and on my desk but they are never far from my mind.” Neither, in enjoying detective or other sensationalist forms of fiction, should they be far from ours.

The danger of sensationalism, of course, is that it will abandon Trollope’s and Chesterton’s and James’s concern with truth, and settle for the titillation of what the philosopher Jacques Maritain, in his little book, Art and Scholasticism, calls our “sense needs and sentimental egos.”

It would be interesting to make a list of contemporary books, movies and television shows that avoid this danger, and how they succeed in doing so. What contributions would you make to that list?