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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Graham Greene on the Art of Storytelling

Stephen Holden’s review in last Thursday’s New York Times of Rowan Joffe’s new adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 thriller, Brighton Rock, emphasized the way in which the film distances itself from the book’s theological preoccupations. Brighton Rock is the story of a small-time teenage hood named Pinkie, whose “perfect murder” has a loose thread that slowly but ineluctably unravels the whole plan, jeopardizing Pinkie’s dreams of leading the best gang in Brighton. It also jeopardizes his soul, so Pinkie reckons. Pinkie’s Catholic upbringing, though long formally discarded, still provides the dominant voice inside his conscience, which torments him as he is forced to take ever riskier and more ruthless measures to protect himself from his pursuers.

“By discarding most of the theological debate,” writes Holden of Rowan Joffe’s adaptation, “the movie is no longer a passion play but a gritty and despairing noir. That’s good enough for me.”

But not good enough for Greene himself, who had much higher aspirations for his storytelling. Besides being a brilliant novelist, Greene was also one of the most perceptive film reviewers and critics of film of the 20th century. In his 1937 essay, “Subjects and Stories,” written at more or less the same time as Brighton Rock, Greene considers the tremendous cultural power of the cinema, a power he believed had been largely untapped by mainstream films. He affirms his ideal for the cinema, and of storytelling in general, in the opening lines of the essay, starting with some lines from Chekhov about novelists:

‘The best of them are realistic and paint life as it is, but because every line is permeated, as with a juice, by awareness of a purpose, you feel, besides life as it is, also life as it ought to be, and this captivates you.’ This description of an artist’s theme [continues Greene] has never, I think, been bettered…

To portray life as it is…but also life as it ought to be. This, for Greene, is the storyteller’s task. In Brighton Rock, Greene saw fit to set his teenage hood against a supernatural backdrop, and so to accord Pinkie the respect of allowing him to wrestle like a man with the angel’s voice inside his conscience. According to Stephen Holden, Rowan Joffe’s film does not accord Pinkie such respect—or at least not so well as Greene’s novel does. Writes Holden: “If you strip away the book’s Roman Catholicism, which the movie mostly does, its story fits right into the nihilistic mood of today.”

Having yet to see the movie, I cannot judge how far Rowan Joffe’s film ventures into nihilism. But I am leery that, in soft-pedaling Greene’s concerns in his novel with life as it ought to be, this new adaptation of Brighton Rock only underscores life as it is in a postmodern world which has been, for many, drained of all meaning.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

No More Rock-Hard Marshmallows

It’s good to be back at the helm of High Concepts, after my little, unannounced, two-week hiatus, in which I had a chance to re-charge my blogging batteries.

I apologize for any just frustration you may have felt in the last two weeks, when every time you checked the blog you found the same, rock-hard, “On Marshmallows and Melodrama” piece. Don’t worry. It’s not that I thought that piece demanded two weeks of deep meditation…

But a special apology is due to those participating in the Virtual Summer Circle of Thomistic Studies. You must feel pretty irked at the unexpected lull in the conversation, thinking perhaps that this wasn’t the Thomistic cruise you signed up for. “Where is my Maritain?” you have been rightly asking yourself. Well, don’t write the Circle off just yet. It’s only August 30, we have more than three weeks of summer still to go, and I plan on making the most of it. I have one or two things more to say about Maritain’s discussion of beauty in Chapter V, not to mention topics covering the rest of Art and Scholasticism, so go find your book where you tossed it into the hedges in sheer disgust, and get ready.

A great cultural event occurred today, which will no doubt curb the slide of Western Civilization for a day or two. At Prospero’s Books in Manassas, Virginia, I found a copy of the February 1915 number of The Century, a successor to Scribner’s Monthly Magazine, which began publication in 1881 and pooped out in 1930. The reason this number of The Century attracted me so is that it contains a short story by that peerless comic genius, P.G. Wodehouse, as well as—a fact I didn’t even realize until I raced furtively from the bookstore and flipped through the contents in a shadowy corner—an article by the Catholic writer, Hilaire Belloc. The Wodehouse story is called “Bill, the Bloodhound,” and how better to enjoy this pleasant latish summer eve than by reading it.

Cruel, I know, not to transcribe the entire thing for you here. But if I send you madly scrambling to your local bookstore from some Wodehouse, then my work will be complete.

Apart from the Virtual Summer Circle of Thomistic Studies, other Coming Attractions on High Concepts include…

A post tomorrow on Graham Greene. One of the books I read this summer is Graham Greene’s marvelous thriller, Brighton Rock. (I see, by the way, that a new film has been made of it, which I haven’t yet seen.) But tomorrow I want to say something about how Greene’s short essay, “On Subjects and Stories,” can help understand what Greene is up to in Brighton Rock and his other fiction.

And for those readers in and around Spokane, Washington who have no more satisfying social life, I will be speaking at Gonzaga University late next month as part of their annual Faith, Film and Philosophy extravaganza. The topic of this year’s meeting is the mystery genre in film. On Thursday evening, September 28, I will be giving a talk entitled “On Mysteries and the Higher Mystery,” in which I will offer some Chestertonian reflections on the reasons why we love tales of mystery and suspense, with special reference to how the genre has been transformed in recent film and television. The conference is sponsored by Gonzaga’s Faith and Reason Institute and Whitworth University’s Weyerhaeuser Center for Faith and Learning. Perhaps I will see you there.  

Monday, August 15, 2011

On Marshmallows and Melodrama

Recently my wife and I finished watching our 40th and final episode of the BBC television series, Lark Rise to Candleford, which ended its hugely popular original run on the BBC earlier this year, and is now going like rented hotcakes on Netflix. Lark Rise, loosely based upon Flora Thompson’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, is set in the 1890s and centers on a young woman, Laura Timmins (Olivia Hallinan) from the Oxfordshire hamlet of Lark Rise who moves to the nearby market town of Candleford to work for her cousin, Dorcas Lane (Julia Sawalha), the town’s postmistress. But the series is much more of an ensemble piece, featuring a large and engaging cast of characters from both Lark Rise and Candleford. The stories are warm, comical, romantic, and at times surprisingly poignant about what is lost and what is gained in modernity’s progress away from the small, local virtues of rural life. Lark Rise is just about as satisfying a melodrama as one could wish for.

Which raises the question: why would one wish for a melodrama in the first place? Aren’t melodramas the marshmallows of the world of story—almost painful in their sugary sweetness, and utterly void of all nutritional value?

Melodrama is a definition with no precisely fixed meaning, but the kind of definition found on Wikipedia is fair enough: a melodrama is a story which exaggerates plot and character in order to appeal to the emotions. The exaggeration can take many forms: contrived plots, emotionally explosive romantic triangles, broad comic characters, and thrilling dramatic twists. All of which are on display in Lark Rise—in each 50-minute episode.

But I am loathe to dismiss Lark Rise, and melodrama in general, as no more than a silly, guilt-inducing pleasure—a marshmallow that might better have been exchanged for a lean chicken breast and two veg. When it comes to melodrama, I am in agreement with T.S. Eliot, who, in an essay on two of the greatest melodramatic novelists, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, wrote:

You cannot define Drama and Melodrama so that they shall be reciprocally exclusive; great drama has something melodramatic in it, and the best melodrama partakes of the greatness of drama….It is possible that the artist can be too conscious of his “art.”…We cannot afford to forget that the first—and not one of the least difficult—requirements of either prose or verse is that it should be interesting (T.S. Eliot, “Wilkie Collins and Dickens,” in Selected Essays, New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1950, pp. 417-18).

And the same holds true of movies and television shows. What Eliot is saying is that what we enjoy in the best melodramas are qualities inherent to great drama itself. To want one’s nerves rattled, to want one’s comedy laugh-out-loud, to want one’s love stories full of pain and anguish but still, by series end, to culminate in a marriage—these are the natural wants of the human being seeking a story, not the low, vulgar tastes of the marshmallow-glutted crowd that doesn’t know any better.

What I like especially in Eliot’s point is the way it blurs the distinction between “high” and “low”—or “popular”—culture. The best drama—Dickens’ Bleak House, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, James Joyce’s Ulysses—is full of the exaggeration of plot and character that tugs melodramatically upon the emotions. There is perhaps no more melodramatic writer in the English language than Shakespeare (for sheer implausibility, there’s nothing like the heartstring-yanking Act V of The Winter’s Tale). But this is what we want from stories, and if we can’t find it in the works that so-called “high” culture has on offer (and increasingly, we can’t), then we will go looking for it elsewhere. In the same essay alluded to above, Eliot makes this point:

Those who have lived before such terms as “high-brow fiction,” “thrillers” and “detective fiction” were invented realize that melodrama is perennial and that the craving for it is perennial and must be satisfied. If we cannot get this satisfaction out of what the publishers present as “literature,” then we will read—with less and less pretence of concealment—what we call “thrillers.” But in the golden age of melodramatic fiction [Eliot is thinking of the literature of the mid 19th-century] there was no such distinction. The best novels were thrilling; the distinction of genre between such-and-such a profound “psychological” novel of today and such-and-such a masterly “detective” novel of today is greater than the distinction of genre between Wuthering Heights, or even The Mill on the Floss, and East Lynne, the last of which “achieved an enormous and instantaneous success, and was translated into every know language, including Parsee and Hindustani (Eliot, “Wilkie Collins and Dickens,” 409-10).

East Lynne, by the way, was a sensational novel published in 1861 by Ellen Wood, a novel replete with all manner of outrageously melodramatic devices….

So am I saying that there is no difference between East Lynne and Bleak House? Or between Bleak House and King Lear? Are there no such things as dramatic marshmallows? Of course there are. You find them every afternoon in the soap operas that ceaselessly bubble up on network television. The point is not that there is no such thing as sappy, corny, campy storytelling. The point is that what we are looking for, even in the clumsiest melodramas, are essentially the same qualities, far more artfully presented, in the greatest drama. I would not say that Lark Rise to Candleford achieves that height of which Eliot speaks, where melodrama becomes great drama. But that it is a very fine melodrama, one that here and there achieves greatness, I am sure.

And so I recommend it to you.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

e-books Rising

Picking up on my post from last week about the surging market for e-books: a comprehensive survey of all aspects of the publishing industry, covering the period from 2008-2010, was released yesterday, and among the many interesting conclusions found in it is the following, as reported by the New York Times:

E-books were another bright spot, thanks to the proliferation and declining cost of e-reading devices like the Nook by Barnes & Noble and Amazon’s Kindle, and the rush by publishers to digitize older books.

In 2008 e-books were 0.6 percent of the total trade market; in 2010, they were 6.4 percent. Publishers have seen especially robust e-book sales in genre fiction like romance, mystery and thrillers, as well as literary fiction. In 2010, 114 million e-books were sold, the report said.

The survey does not include statistics for 2011, which so far has been a boom year for e-books as prices for e-book readers have continued to come down.

The Times also reported that

Sales of trade books grew 5.8 percent to $13.9 billion, fueled partly by e-books…. Juvenile books, which include the current young-adult craze for paranormal and dystopian fiction, grew 6.6 percent over three years.

As I predicted last week, I think the soaring interest in e-books is in the near future going to converge with the soaring interest in juvenile books, as more and more young readers and their parents partake in the easy accessibility of e-books and e-book readers.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Harry Potter 7, Part 2: My Wife Speaks

Were any of you as disappointed as my wife was upon seeing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2? The movie, she felt, failed to portray many riches found in the book, especially how Harry’s final confrontation with Voldemort underscores Rowling’s chief theme of the power of sacrificial love. In Chapter 36 of the book, “The Flaw in the Plan,” we read:

“You won’t be killing anyone else tonight,” said Harry as they circled, and stared into each other’s eyes, green into red. “You won’t be able to kill any of them ever again. Don’t you get it? I was ready to die to stop you from hurting these people—”
“But you did not!”
“—I meant to, and that’s what did it. I’ve done what my mother did. They’re protected from you. Haven’t you noticed how none of the spells you put on them are binding? You can’t torture them. You can’t touch them. You don’t learn from your mistakes, Riddle, do you?” (p. 738)

None of this nuance is portrayed in the film. Instead, after Harry comes back to life, Voldemort is shown to be as strong as he ever was. The diminishment in his powers brought about by Harry’s sacrifice is passed over. True, Voldemort is accurately shown not to be the master of the Elder Wand. But it would have been a much more fitting ending, thematically, if the dialogue from the book quoted above would have been used. Too much time was taken up with Harry’s and Voldemort’s rather boring, and wholly invented, flying grappling match.

A blog I read pointed out that the film also fails to include Harry’s crucial plea for Voldemort to show remorse for the evil he has done:

         “But before you try to kill me, I’d advise you to think about what you’ve done….Think, and try for some remorse, Riddle….”
         “What is this?”
         Of all the things that Harry had said to him, beyond any revelation or taunt, nothing had shocked Voldemort like this. Harry saw his pupils contract to thin slits, saw the skin around his eyes whiten.
         “It’s your one last chance,” said Harry, “it’s all you’ve got left….I’ve seen what you’ll be otherwise….Be a man….try…Try for some remorse…” (p. 741).

Too bad these lines were left out: lines about how even the most corrupt person always has a chance to change his ways…about the meaning of genuine manhood.

“I’ve seen what you’ll be otherwise.” A reference to the  shriveled, damned soul of Voldemort whimpering in its torment which Harry sees at “King’s Cross.” The movie depicts Voldemort’s damned soul quite movingly. It would have done well to also employ Harry’s dialogue quoted above.

And don’t even get me started on what my wife had to say about how the film spoils the book’s portrayal of the true friendship that underwrites Ron and Hermione’s budding romance.

So, Potter fans, what did you think?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

An Eye for Beauty

The centerpiece of Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism is Chapter V, “Art and Beauty.” It is a profoundly insightful but also very demanding chapter, as it draws on quite a few technical conceptions from the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. It is, however, a chapter well worth wrestling with, as the notion of beauty is one which at best is widely misunderstood, and at worst thought to be totally irrelevant to the modern notion of art. 
So let’s begin this installment of our Virtual Summer Circle of Thomistic Studies with the opening lines of Chapter V, in which Maritain discusses St. Thomas’s definition of beauty:

St. Thomas, who as simple as he was wise, defined the beautiful as that which, being seen, pleases: id quod visum placet. These four words say all that is necessary: a vision, that is to say, an intuitive knowledge, and a delight. The beautiful is that which gives delight—not just any delight, but delight in knowing (p. 23*).

What is beauty? It is that which pleases upon being seen. It may be tempting to conclude from this that what Aquinas is saying is that things are beautiful just because someone finds them pleasing. This would make the beautiful entirely subjective—a mere matter of our feelings, of our reactions to things, rather than a quality of things themselves that inspires pleasure. I don’t think we should understand Aquinas as defending a subjective understanding of beauty. So how should we understand his definition?

The beautiful is something seen. Does this mean something seen by the eyes, or seen metaphorically by the mind? Both, really. The experience of the beautiful begins with the senses, as Maritian affirms later on p. 23. But on p. 25 he elaborates: “Every sensible beauty implies, it is true, a certain delight of the eye itself or of the ear or the imagination: but there is beauty only if the intelligence also takes delight in some way.” Maritain continues:

A beautiful color “washes the eye,” just as a strong scent dilates the nostril; but of these two “forms” or qualities color only is said to be beautiful, because, being received, unlike the perfume, in a sense power capable of disinterested knowledge, it can be, even through its purely sensible brilliance, an object of delight for the intellect.

We saw in the opening chapters of Art and Scholasticism Maritain developing a very intellectual understanding of art. Now we see him following St. Thomas again in developing a very intellectual understanding of beauty. Beauty involves vision, with the eyes and the ears, certainly, but more importantly with the mind. On p. 23 Maritain describes this vision as an intuitive knowledge. What does this mean?

An intuition, in brief, is a reality that is grasped by the mind without mediation of proof. This isn’t as mysterious as it first may sound. There are plenty of realities we grasp without mediation of proof. For example, if you see someone attack an innocent person in the street, the horror of the injustice is grasped by your mind without mediation of proof. Either you see the injustice happening right in front of you, or you don’t (and your moral character is corrupt). Imagine someone, witnessing such an attack, remarking, “Yes, I see what’s happening there; but can you prove to me that it’s unjust?” What would you say to such a person? If you tried to prove that attacks on innocent people are unjust because a well-ordered society depends upon the protection of innocent people, you would find yourself assuming in your “proof” the very thing you were trying to prove—namely, that attacks against the innocent are unjust (or conversely, protection of the innocent is just). This is what philosophers call begging the question. It’s a logical no-no.

The point being: some truths we simply get, without having to follow a series of intellectual steps, i.e., a proof.

But getting back to beauty. Beauty, affirms Maritain, is grasped intuitively by the mind (via either sight or hearing). The mind simply has a vision of the beautiful that requires no mediation of proof. So just as we simply see the injustice when an innocence person is attacked, so too we simply see the beauty when we look, say, at the architecture of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

And along with this vision comes delight—or what St. Thomas calls pleasure. This delight, however, Maritain clarifies, is a delight in knowing, “a delight which superabounds and overflows from this act [i.e., the intuitive vision of the beautiful] because of the object known” (p. 23).

So we’re walking together inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Imagine you’ve never seen it before. Your senses will be pleasantly “washed over” by what you see, and in the midst of that experience your mind also will begin to whirl, and whirl with its own ever-increasing delight. Your mind will begin to “see” things, intuit things, in the sensible feast set before it. These first intuitions will be vague, sketchy, in need of being worked out (perhaps by a docent, or the art historian’s discussion of the Basilica in your guidebook.) No doubt, either you or the docent or the guidebook will start talking about the immensity of the Basilica’s proportions, the majesty of it all, the order, the splendor…

The Basilica is beautiful because, upon being seen by your eyes and by your mind’s eye, it inspires an intellectual delight. And we have already begun to notice that it isn’t our delight that makes the Basilica beautiful. It is the Basilica’s proportions, splendor, and multi-faceted unity that are the cause of the delight we experience.

And so we come to the three prime characteristics of the beautiful (unity, proportion, radiance), which Maritain considers in Chapter V and that we’ll take up next time. So far, we’ve followed Maritain and St. Thomas in delineating an understanding of beauty that, while involving our subjective reactions to things, is nonetheless founded upon the internal, intelligible structure—what St. Thomas calls the form—of things themselves.  

* Page numbers refer to Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry, trans Joseph W. Evans (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974).

Thursday, August 4, 2011

From Print Culture to Electronic Culture

A momentous, global revolution in the experience of reading and writing is well underway, and shows no sign of retreat. In brief, we are moving out of print culture and into electronic culture.

Consider. How many of you are reading books now, more or less consistently, on a Kindle, Nook, or some other kind of e-reader device (including your laptop)?

How many of you are aware that sales of electronic books are currently crushing sales of conventional books?

Take a look at some recent statistics from the AAP (Association of American Publishers):

All major adult print segments—hardcover, paperback and mass market—showed a decline in sales in May [2011]…. While e-books showed a steep uptick of 146.9% for the month, bringing in $73.4 million in sales, adult hardcovers dropped 38.2%, adult paperbacks dropped 14.3%, and adult mass market fell 39.4%.

And so far for the calendar year 2011: e-books have brought in $389.7 million in sales, a 160.1% climb over the same period in 2010.

Amazon has said that Kindle books started outselling hardcovers back in July 2010, and began outselling paperbacks in January 2011.

It is thus fair to conclude:

The principal medium for conveying the written word is becoming more and more wholly electronic. (A principle that Borders, now bankrupt, was too slow to recognize and act upon.)

At the same time, writers of both fiction and non-fiction are seizing the moment by eschewing the conventional road to publication. Instead of asking agents and publishers and brick-and-mortar bookstores for help in bringing their wares to market, they are making use of the ease of distribution afforded by such venues as and going straight to the ravenous e-reading market themselves.

Thriller writer John Locke, for example, recently sold his one-millionth ebook on Amazon. And 26 year-old Amanda Hocking recently made news by selling over one million e-copies of her paranormal romance series—before opting for a more conventional arrangement by signing on for 2 million with St. Martin’s Press. Self-published author Barry Eisler, however, turned down a half-million dollar advance in order to remain self-published.

None of these writers are my personal cup of electronic tea, but they at least prove the eagerness of the ebook market, and the ability of writers to take their destiny into their own hands.

So that we can conclude:

The principal means of publishing and distributing the written word is becoming not only more and more electronic, but more and more in the hands of writers’ themselves.

Which brings us to J.K. Rowling and Pottermore. In June Rowling announced her new Pottermore website (to be launched in October), an immersive experience into the world of the Harry Potter books that will include new material from Rowling (e.g. backstories on the characters), interactivity via fan fiction and games, as well as being the only place in the galaxy where one can purchase e-versions of the Harry Potter books. It’s true. Rowling wisely retained the electronic publication rights for all her books, and so now is able to offer e-versions of them exclusively through her new website.

Of course, it takes someone with a global, pop icon platform like Rowling’s to be able to draw readers to one’s electronic works and make pots of galleons without the help even of Amazon and Barnes&Noble. And it’s not really accurate to call Rowling a self-publisher, since she made her reputation selling gazillions of books through Bloomsbury in the UK and Scholastic in the U.S. (Though for an interesting take on this, see David Gaughran's piece on Pottermore.)

But still, it’s hardly a stretch to surmise that Rowling’s Pottermore website will both entrench and make more exciting the experience of reading and writing through exclusively electronic media—especially in the as yet relatively dormant children’s market. 

Pottermore will also help underscore the third principle of the current revolution in reading and writing: that for both fiction & non-fiction writers, ownership and control are possible like never before.

But the question for you is:

How do you like this revolution? Do you think it’s inevitable? And even if it is, is the revolution good, bad or indifferent for the human experience of reading and writing—for the transmission of ideas and stories?