Trojan Tub Entertainment

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hugo--Redeeming the Time

Martin Scorsese’s new film, Hugo, is a remarkable, deeply satisfying work of art. With a screenplay by John Logan based upon Brian Selznick’s 2007 Caldecott award-winning children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo is a family film that transcends the genre, reminding us of how wondrous and entrancing filmmaking can be at its very best.

The eponymous Hugo is an orphan living alone in a train station (the Gare Montparnasse) in Paris. Hugo lives by his wits and light thievery, creating cover for himself by continuing to run the enormous station clocks that his wayward uncle has abandoned. Hugo’s father was a watchmaker and taught Hugo many skills. Together they worked on repairing an ingenious automaton (with the ability, when in good working order, to write) salvaged by Hugo’s father from a museum. Even after his father’s death, Hugo continues to try and repair the automaton, believing that when he has it up and running again it will bring him a message from his father. Hugo does succeed in repairing the automaton, and the message it brings him leads him on a grand adventure involving friendship, family, and the magic of the movies themselves.

Saying only this, however, might lead one to believe, as I believed before seeing it, that the tone of this story is one with that of the Harry Potter films, or any other fantasy children’s film. But this is not the case. Hugo is not high fantasy, though it has certain whimsical elements and plenty of excitement. Its tone is rather more meditative, at times even melancholy (should I say more French?), and generally takes a more dramatic slant on its central theme of time and how to redeem it.

Coming to grips with loss, with the pain of being unable to recapture or undo the past, is certainly one concern of Hugo. But at its core the film presents a quest for redemption, a search for the key to fixing the brokenness of human beings. The analogy at the heart of the film is between the broken automaton and the brokenness of the human beings associated with it. It may not seem on the surface a felicitous comparison, considering human beings as machine-like. But Hugo makes good use of the analogy insofar as to indicate, as Hugo himself remarks, that like machines the world, and every human being within it, has a purpose, and that nothing happens that doesn’t have some point.

On the way toward finding his purpose Hugo encounters friendship in a girl named Isabelle, and the unsentimental portrayal of their friendship is lovely, and happily never even entertains the temptation to introduce the sexual element into their tween affection. Hugo also encounters a mystery involving the early history of the movies, and some of the most charming parts of the film are the scenes in which Scorsese presents a cinematic valentine to the work of the early French filmmaker, George Méliès.

Hugo offers a fairy tale view of Paris in the Twenties, with superb costuming, set design and acting. Ben Kingsley gives a memorable turn as George Méliès, and the young and richly- talented Asa Butterfield and Cloë Grace Moretz deserve special kudos for their performances as Hugo and Isabelle. The impressionistic performances by Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer, Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths, all characters in the train station, are also charming. Helen McCrory deserves congratulation for her role as the wife of George Méliès.

Sacha Baron Cohen, finally, does very well in the role of the Station Inspector, but the only quibble I have with Hugo is the two coarse comments his character utters, not funny to begin with, but also completely out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the film. They clunk as alarmingly as the spanner with which Hugo just misses hitting his character.

Go see Hugo. Though not officially a Christmas movie, it offers family entertainment of the highest order that resonates beautifully with the themes of the coming Season.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Social Impact of Going Indie

Here is a compelling blog post by independent author David Gaughran, who apart from his fiction writes probably the best blog out there on independent publishing. Gaughran makes the case that the future of publishing belongs to those going indie:

The problem for large publishers…is that they are transitioning from a marketplace where they controlled distribution to one where they don’t. The digital playing field is wide open and, for the first time, the publishing conglomerates are facing real competition from a horde of hungry self-publishers, savvy small publishers, as well as, of course, Amazon.

You can read Gaughran’s post to check out the numbers that back up this claim. Among those statistics:

For the last few months, indies were responsible for between a third and a quarter of the top-selling e-books on Amazon.

That’s a significant loss in market share for traditional publishers, to put it mildly.

As I mentioned yesterday on the Facebook page of my company, Trojan Tub Entertainment, last I week I called into the Kojo Nnamdi Show, a local Washington D.C. radio talk show, which was featuring a panel discussion on the rise of e-books. I wanted to respond to one of the panelist’s observations that the rise of e-books (even apart from independent publishing) threatens traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores and the culture they foster and sustain. As I told the panel, I am in no way eager for the loss of traditional bookstores. As long as they’re selling coffee, they provide something rapidly disappearing from our culture: shared public space in which to relax, talk, read, learn. Yet at the same time, I don’t want to be romantic about contemporary bookstores. Most of them don’t really provide a rich “café culture,” however good the lattes may be. But the panelist did raise an issue worth thinking about:

What’s the social impact of the rise of the e-book, and of the scores of independent authors and publishers, like myself, who are capitalizing on the technology? As more and more of the reading experience goes, as it were, “underground” to the Internet, is it a net loss or net gain when it comes to creating communities? In my call to the Kojo Nnamdi Show I claimed that the independent authors and their readers are forming vibrant virtual communities. The website on which Gaughran piece appears,, is just one of many sites and blogs where such communities are being formed. But is this an exaggeration? Can we really call these communities? Or are they simply marketplaces?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Meanwhile, a final note from Gaughran’s piece:

As more business shifts online and to digital (and this Christmas will be huge in that regard), large publishers are going to suffer even more as, for the first time, a significant portion of their business is going to be subjected to the kind of competition they were shielded from through their control of the print distribution network.

If true, this is a powerful point about tectonic shifts in the field of book distribution. But even if it's true, what’s the social impact?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Moral Absolutes and Foyle's War

Last weekend, in a keynote delivered before the annual conference of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argued that one of the primary features of theism is a belief in moral absolutes, the view that certain sorts of action ought never to be done no matter what the circumstances.

What does this mean?

A moral absolute is, first of all, a moral precept. A moral precept commands human beings either to do or to refrain from doing something. Where do moral precepts come from? The first part of the answer is that they come from the demands of our human nature in pursuit of its fulfillment. If, in other words, we as human beings are going to be happy as human beings are meant to be, then there are certain actions that we must take, just as there are certain actions that we must avoid.

Analogy: if the flowers in the garden are going to flourish as flowers do, then there are necessary requirements that must be met. They need adequate soil, sunlight, water. So too, if we human beings are going to flourish as human beings do, then there are certain requirements that must be met.

The analogy limps insofar as we, as rational beings, have the ability to reflect upon the meaning of our flourishing, and freely decide what course of action best conduces to it. But even so, our human nature, like that of the flower, has requirements, and if our decisions fail to meet them, then moral harm is the result.

An absolute moral precept, however, is not just any old precept. I may discern that it is prudent for me, in the present circumstances of my health, to refrain from eating red meat. This discernment of prudence binds me in the circs (as Bertie Wooster would say), but it does not bind even me, much less others, absolutely. In six months’ time it may be perfectly prudent for me to go back to eating red meat again.

But an absolute moral precept binds me and all other human beings always and everywhere, without reference to circumstances. It is, for example, always and everywhere wrong to murder. It doesn’t matter if one was provoked, if the murdered person “deserved” it, whether the murderer acted in a fit of passion, whether something very good resulted from it, etc. The circumstances of the crime may mitigate judgment, but they never change the intrinsically evil nature of the act itself. In the Catholic tradition, an action prohibited by an absolute precept is referred to as a malum in se, an action that is evil in itself.

Moral precepts have a second, and more important, source than human nature’s demands. For nature itself is something that has been made by God and directed toward God as its end. Absolute moral precepts help make up what in the Catholic tradition is called the natural law. But the natural law just is God’s eternal law, as seen from the perspective of human beings.

One of the things that makes absolute moral precepts so hard to swallow is that sometimes very good things result from breaking them. This is a great temptation. But as St. Paul stresses, we may never do evil so that good may come. However attractive the result may be of a murder—and the resulting consequence of an action is one of its circumstances—the  murder itself can never be morally licit.

That means never.

In any circumstances.


As examples of failures to abide by the absolute moral precept forbidding the intentional taking of innocent life, MacIntyre mentioned the Dresden bombings by the Allies during World War II and the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians killed in Iraq since 2003. I cannot recall if he also mentioned the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, but he well might have. Granted, there is a distinction to be made in warfare between actions that, despite one’s honest military intentions, result in the deaths of innocent civilians, and actions that are expressly intended to take their lives. But it is this latter action that MacIntyre follows Catholic Church teaching in always and everywhere condemning. (For particular statements, see here. Also see the pamphlet, "Mr. Truman's Degree," by the late Roman Catholic philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe.)

After MacIntyre’s talk, there was some chatter among the conferees about a failure on his part to account for the role of prudence in moral decision-making—especially in wartime. If by “prudence” is meant a regard for the good consequences that resulted from bombings such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then MacIntyre did well to discount it. For this is not prudence but rationalization. Prudence gets started from the respect for absolute moral precepts. These set the boundaries within which prudent choice is possible. Thus, to reject moral absolutes is to reject prudence, and to morally (and spiritually) damage oneself in the process.

“But what (it will be said) “about the x number of innocent lives that were saved by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Sometimes one has to do something awful in order to preserve a greater good.”

Generally, I believe that when someone starts using the phrase “the greater good,” something has gone dangerously wrong in his moral reasoning. For what the phrase usually appeals to is a good consequence (saving x number of innocent lives) so compelling that we should do whatever it takes in order to secure it.

But human nature, not to mention our Creator, forbids such reasoning. There are certain actions which in themselves destroy human dignity, and should never be taken no matter how much good accrues from doing so.

It is extremely rare to see in the artifacts of our popular culture a serious consideration of moral absolutes in times of war. That is why I was so glad to view recently the episode entitled “Plan of Attack” in the magnificent British mystery series, Foyle’s War, starring Michael Kitchen. “Plan of Attack” takes up the question of the morality of Allied bombings in 1944, when Germany was all but defeated, and the Allies were trying to force Germany into terms of unconditional surrender by indiscriminate bombing of public areas. The episode treats the issue of moral absolutes impressively through the vehicle of a conference of ecumenical churchmen and an important Roman Catholic character. In contrast to the way a television series such as The West Wing handled the question of moral absolutes in time of war, in which Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett was depicted as being “forced” to do evil so that good might come, the Foyle’s War episode shows deep respect for moral absolutes even in situations where it is most tempting to do otherwise. It is well worth a look if only for this, but the episode also sensitively handles questions having to do with faith, humility and forgiveness. Anthony Horowritz, the creator of Foyle’s War and screenwriter of this episode, is highly to be congratulated.

* In thinking through this episode of Foyle’s War I have learned much from “Faith Foretold is Faith Respected,” an unpublished paper by Nicholas Plants, professor at Prince George’s Community College, which he presented at the same Faith, Film & Philosophy conference at which I presented my paper, “On Mysteries and the Higher Mysteries,” the notes of which I provided in my three previous posts.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

On Mysteries and the Higher Mystery, Part 3

The third and final part of my notes on my talk on the philosophical and theological dimensions of mystery stories. In Parts 2 and 3 I distinguish two very different approaches to mystery stories, the one typified by Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, the other by G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. Don’t worry that these are only notes. The holes in the argument you find here were all part of the delivered address.

Part III. The Detective-Hero as Metaphysical Moralist

1.   GKC’s Father Brown. His origin story from GKC’s Autobiography (300-302): Chesterton, Father O’Connor, and the Cambridge undergraduates. Father Brown himself is a paradox, a featureless man, sheltered, innocent, not apparently very brilliant, knowing more about evil than anyone.

2.   Represents a very different kind of detective story, and thus a very different understanding of paradox.

3.   Holmes vs. Brown: GKC, “The Ideal Detective Story”: The side of the character that cannot be connected with the crime has to be presented first; the crime has to be presented next as something in complete contrast with it; and the psychological reconciliation of the two must come after that, in the place where the common or garden detective explains that he was led to the truth by the stump of a cigar left on the lawn or the spot of red ink on the blotting-pad in the boudoir. But there is nothing in the nature of things to prevent the explanation, when it does come, being as convincing to a psychologist as the other is to a policeman.

4.   What does the character of Father Brown imply about the world, the human person, and mystery?
(a)        the world is more than matter in motion
(b)        the human person is above all a spiritual creature: with intellect and will, with ends distinct from his purposes
(c)         the paradox of mystery illuminates the mystery of the heart…

5.   “Father Brown’s Secret”: not just imaginative, but a moral sympathy, with the criminal’s predicament as a sinner; giving insight into the full reality of human motivation.

6.   the Chestertonian sleuth is not about “clues” as much as he is a reader of the human heart. “the only thrill, even of a common thriller, is concerned somehow with the conscience and the will,” “In Defence of Detective Stories.” Investigating crime and evil in light of the higher mystery: our Fall and Redemption.

7.   The heirs of Father Brown?
(a)        Noir in general (Thomas Hibbs, Arts of Darkness: “Noir never delivers final redemption for its characters, but it does present characters in a quest for a lost code of redemption,” p. 22).
(b)        Foyle’s War
(c)         The Adjustment Bureau?


1.   The Paradox of Evil: Nos. 394-96 of CCC: Satan is a murderer from the beginning.
2.   Mystery itself only resolvable by the highest of mysteries: the God who Died. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On Mysteries and the Higher Mystery, Part 2

II. The Detective/Hero as Thinking Machine

The beginning of “A Scandal in Bohemia”: “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer — excellent for drawing the veil from men's motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.”

1.   What does the character of Holmes imply about the world, the human person, and mystery?
(a)        the world is data, “facts”, sensible stimuli
(b)        the human person, if responsive to such stimuli, can collect these facts, be a combiner of units of sensation (out of Hobbes, Locke and Ockham)
(c)         a mystery is a paradox (Holmes is outwitted by the very woman he think he is outwitting—“A Scandal in Bohemia”) that can be unraveled by tracing the linkage of efficient causes; or, a mystery is a “puzzle” (two dimensional pieces designed to fit with one another)

2.   The Holmesian “Clue.” The clue is a bogus epiphany. In itself it has no ontological significance. It doesn’t open to contemplative penetration the intelligible depths of some object; rather it suggests to the quick deductive wit discursive attention to the superficies of a dozen other objects. The clue and the chain of reasoning function, like a jigsaw puzzle, in two dimensions. The sleuth’s reconstruction of a crime works at the level of efficient causes only; the epiphany implies an intuitive grasp of material, formal, and final causes as well (Hugh Kenner, Dublin’s Joyce, p. 176).

3.   We are now in a position to name Holmes’s heirs:
a.   CSI
b.   The Matrix
c.    Wallander
d.   action-thriller heroes such as Bond and Indiana Jones and Bruce Willis in RED
e.    Inception
f.     Source Code, etc. etc.

4.   In emphasizing the metaphor of the mechanic mind in these films and television shows, I don’t want to neglect the obvious fact that there is real human, indeed moral, interest in these stories. There are criminals to be apprehended, evil to be fought, truisms to be upheld (GKC: “These common and current publications have nothing essentially evil about them. They express the sanguine and heroic truisms on which civilization is built; for it is clear that unless civilization is built on truisms, it is not built at all” In Defence of Penny Dreadfuls pp. 24-25). And for this reason these stories will always be popular, and for my money, rightly so. What truisms? Greed is evil, crime doesn’t pay, love is stronger than death, etc. (And it is not to say that interesting themes aren’t played with—in the thriller genre, for example, “identity” is an integral theme, as we see in A History of Violence.) 

5.   And the detective/heroes of these stories often enough display residual heroic virtues, principally cunning and courage. The virtues of Ulysses. Yet we should recall that Ulysses was damned by Dante. Hubris. His failure to recognize limits to his cunning and courage. In Sherlock Holmes himself, we notice a similar hubris, a defect that mutates and spreads like a virus through the dramatic lineage of  heroes and heroines who succeed him. It’s not Holmes’s addiction to cocaine (“a cynical defiance of a pleasureless world” Kenner, Dublin’s Joyce, p. 173) that is so harmful, it is his devotion to his “method.”

6.   Holmes plays the “game” for the game’s own sake…the “game” is his real drug…he could just as easily have been a criminal: “Burglary has always been an alternative profession, had I cared to adopt it, and I have little doubt that I should have come to the front” (“The Adventure of the Retired Colourman”). What Holmes introduces is the idea of the detective/hero as aesthete. Being a thinking machine is not incompatible with being such. What do I mean by an aesthete? Artistic temperament: Holmes’s violin, House’s piano, Edward Cullen’s piano). But more importantly, Alasdair MacIntyre: one who fends “off the kind of boredom that is so characteristic of modern leisure by contriving behavior in others that will be responsive to their wishes, that will feed their sated appetites” Wishes and appetites that may or may not be benevolent. Others are always means, never ends (After Virtue, p. 24).

Detection is as a-moral as geometry (it is not for nothing that [Holmes] so often refers to a case as “a pretty little demonstration”). Whenever they become components in a problem, human beings become numbered points, devoid of rights and autonomy, like the gunner whose response characteristics the cyberneticist incorporates mathematically into the radar mechanism. To Watson’s horrified protest at his quasi-seduction of a housemaid with information to give, Holmes calmly replies, “You can’t help it, my dear Watson. You must play your cards as best you can when such a stake is on the table,” “The Return of Sherlock Holmes.” (Hugh Kenner, Dublin’s Joyce, pp. 174-75).

7.   Bringing in MacIntyre reminds us that we need to situate the rise of sensationalist literature amidst its 19th- and 20th-century cultural backdrop, where culture becomes more and more characterized by emotivism. There is no rational justification of the ends human beings pursue. The mechanic mind is cut loose from the truisms of culture.  So What is to stop the mechanical mind from relieving itself of boredom in other ways? What keeps such an understanding of the human mind, of the person as a whole, from declining into criminality?

8.   Holmes as Freak: We see Holmes’s misanthropy become even more exaggerated in the BBC’s Sherlock and in Fox Television’s House (a pun on the connection with Holmes, House creator David Shore makes clear). The image of sleuth as consuming is carried far, but not all the way.

9.   But in some recent films the metaphor is carried all the way. The thinking machine becomes the consuming beast, or what Flannery O’Connor called the “freak”:
(a)                    A History of Violence: Viggo Mortensen’s character uses his wife & children to achieve the end of a new life.
(b)                    No Country For Old Men (the reductio ad absurdum of the mechanistic mind): Anton Chigurh is adept at finding ingenious mechanistic solutions to complicated problems: his weapon, the explosion outside the drugstore. Killing things for fun, with no reason. All is chance.  
(c)                     Dexter: the serial killer who kills only the morally culpable
(d)                    Even in the more traditionally heroic Source Code: human lives are manipulated: Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes over another person’s existence—persons are not unique.

Next post, I’ll pick up on understanding mysteries according to the “Father Brown Approach.”

Thursday, November 3, 2011

On Mysteries and the Higher Mystery, Part 1

This Fall I gave a talk at the 5th Annual Faith, Film & Philosophy Lecture Series, sponsored by Gonzaga University’s Faith and Reason Institute, and Whitworth University’s Weyerhaeuser Center for Christian Faith and Learning. My talk was entitled, “On Mysteries and the Higher Mystery,” and had to do with our love for mystery stories, detective stories, and thrillers, and how this love relates to the higher, Divine Mystery.

I thought I’d pass along my notes from the talk, which I think can be followed more or less successfully. The talk was in four parts. The first part, the Introduction, took up thoughts I first presented in posts on this blog, namely, “The Good Sense of Sensationalism,” and “On Marshmallows and Melodrama.” I’ll let those who are interested re-visit those posts.

The second part of the talk attempted to define the nature and allure of “mystery,” by defining it as a paradox.

[Note: the entire talk is deeply indebted to two books by the literary critic Hugh Kenner: Paradox in Chesterton and Dublin’s Joyce.]

I. Mystery as Paradox

1.   How to make a sensational story both true and exciting? I want to suggest: the key to the mystery and the thriller, as well as to higher mysteries, is the notion of paradox. In the paradox we find both the “shock” we are looking for and the “illumination” of truth.

2.   “What good and bad paradoxes possess in common is the shock derived from contradiction: paradox is [apparent] contradiction, explicit or implied” (Kenner, Paradox in Chesterton, p. 15). That shock may occur in a fragment of Heraclitus or in the Gospels, but it is perhaps most often encountered, though usually incognito, in tales of mystery and suspense. In fact, G.K. Chesterton, the master of paradox, in Heretics defines paradox as mystery (Kenner, Paradox in Chesterton, p. 14).

3.   What is a paradox? In such tales the moment of illumination, of insight, takes the form of a paradox comprised of verbal and pictorial images:
(a)        Conan Doyle’s “Silver Blaze”: the horse itself turns out to be the murderer
(b)        Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark: the Ark of the Covenant itself defeats the Nazis
(c)         The Usual Suspects: the narrator of the story turns out to be a liar
(d)        The end of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”: Batman has to be a villain

The paradox is no mere verbal pirouette; paradox is based upon the reality of things, and arises naturally when “the simplest truths” are put in “the simplest language” (Kenner, Paradox in Chesterton, p. 15). The detective-story or thriller works by way of paradox.

4.   But there are two ways of understanding how paradox in such stories work. Not an either/or, more of a continuum. One, call it the Sherlock Holmes approach, is to see the paradox as a riddle or challenge resolvable by the “scientific” discovery of linkages of efficient causality. In this case, the paradox is merely mechanical. But another way to understand the paradox of the detective-story or thriller, call it the Father Brown approach, is to see it as resolvable by the discovery of all four causes, illuminated by the paradox of Original Sin (Fr. Brown: “I am the criminal”). The paradox is “metaphysical.” Explores the metaphysical wellsprings of human action—what St. Thomas calls the extrinsic causes of human action: God and the devil. (Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 90 prologus).

Next post, I’ll pick up on understanding mysteries according to the “Sherlock Holmes Approach”

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Swords & Trowels

When it comes to the renewal of a truly Catholic culture, we need both a sword and a trowel. The sword, as G.K. Chesterton puts the point, is logic. Which is to say, conceptual arguments, both philosophical and theological. Yet as Chesterton reminds us, logical arguments are essentially weapons of defense. They are useful to rebut, distinguish, clarify, even to point us in new directions. But that is not enough. Outside of renewing the practice of argumentation itself—no small thing, to be sure—logical arguments alone do not renew the practices and institutions of culture, most notably the family, education, the arts, and business enterprises of all sorts.

For the difficult “spade-work” of cultural rebuilding, a tool is needed with which to dig up the weeds and prepare the ground for new plants. What is needed is a trowel—which for Chesterton is a metaphor for the role the imagination plays within a person’s life, and in a culture.

“Seeing Things”

Comparing the imagination to a trowel is apt, for the role of the imagination is to help cultivate human nature. It is to help us realize our basic human powers to know the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.  

In many ways our culture is excessively logical and rationalistic. C.S. Lewis took aim at this aspect of our culture in the essays in his little book, The Abolition of Man. Our educational strategies, for example, too often sacrifice the formation of the imagination and the emotions to the idols of technocratic prowess.

But in other ways our culture exalts the imagination (as well as the emotions) in dangerous fashion. In Friday’s New York Times, Walter Isaacson, author of the new biography of Steve Jobs, compared Jobs to both Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. What Jobs possessed with these men, according to Isaacson, was genius, or at least super-ingenuity, as opposed to just being super-smart (a quality Isaacson attributes to Bill Gates). And what is genius? It is intuition. As distinct from the ability to ratiocinate, to logically analyze a thing into its parts, intuition refers to the ability to “see” reality whole and at once—an ability linked to the visualizing powers of the imagination.

Isaacson writes: “Both Einstein and Mr. Jobs were very visual thinkers. The road to relativity began when the teenage Einstein kept trying to picture what it would be like to ride alongside a light beam. Mr. Jobs spent time almost every afternoon walking around the studio of his brilliant design chief Jony Ive and fingering foam models of the products they were developing.”

But without taking anything away from Jobs’s prodigious intuitive abilities, they were restricted to product design and efficiency in the uses of digital technology. We are all—at least all of us Mac fanatics—in his debt for this. Yet surely the riches of intuitive imagination are not limited to the uses put to them by Steve Jobs. The power of imagination is above all meant to help us understand what it means to be a human being, which is far more than to be a consumer of technology. As Dale Ahlqhist succinctly puts it in a lovely article on Chesterton and the imagination: “The purpose of the imagination is to make us more like God.”

The Golden Age

This is the Catholic moment in the arts. By which I mean that now, more than ever, our culture demands the fruit of a truly Catholic imagination, to save it from the Scylla of hyper-rationalization and the Charybdis of an exaltation of the imagination rooted more in the passions than in reality.

There are many Catholics, as well as other Christians, doing exciting things in the arts. And yet so much more is needed, especially in the arenas of popular culture. Recently I decided to make my own contribution to this effort, to lend my small trowel to the cultural cause. I started a company, Trojan Tub Entertainment, devoted to my Patria series of humorous adventure stories for middle grade readers. With Trojan Tub I hope to share with children and families my passion for wholesome, but always funny, children’s literature.

Who are middle grade readers? Readers from the ages of approximately 8 to 13. Readers enjoying what has been termed the “golden age” of reading.

What makes for the golden age of reading? Surely it has something to do with the child's emerging ability to understand complex plots and complicated emotions. But it also has to do, I think, with the child's growing desire to see and understand the world, to strike out (at least imaginatively) on his or her own, to have an adventure.
And it's curious—middle grade adventures often involve a character discovering a kind of "golden" world. This is most obviously the case in so-called "high fantasy," such as we find in Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling. But golden worlds are also present in stories that are set squarely in this world. As long as the hero or heroine finds a place of haven, a place where he or she is called upon to grow in wisdom and courage, a place where he or she can truly love and be loved, then we can talk about that story as having a golden world.
Middle grade adventures tap into our deepest longings. In showing us a golden world, they paint for us a picture of what we would hope to achieve in our own lives. And the fact that our longing for a deeper happiness starts to become self-conscious just as we are ready for middle grade books, such stories tend to leave a burning impression upon the heart.
Imagining Patria
Like many writers of children's stories, my apprenticeship began in a family room chair with kids on my lap as I made up a bedtime story. I vividly remember the first time I told a Patria story, sitting with my two little girls (now teenagers). They were very different stories then. Years later, as I began to write them down, the nature of the golden world of Patria changed. What began as a fantasy world, in the sense of "high fantasy," became something "fantastical." Patria as I re-defined it no longer was discovered in another world. Patria became part of our world—that is, given a rather comical take on ancient history.
So where is Patria? Northern Indiana. I can’t be more specific than that. The precise location of Patria is a well-kept secret. You’ve heard of the government’s Area 51? Patria is Area 1.  
The first book in the Patria series is called Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits. About Stout Hearts Rachel Dove, of Kindle Book Review, wrote: 

It's fresh, highly amusing, and with Oliver Stoop being such an identifiable, lovable character (and a bookworm himself to boot!) I can see this book quickly becoming a modern classic that will stay with children long after the last page.”
Here’s a synopsis:
When Oliver Stoop, age 11, moves with his family to a remote piece of land in northern Indiana, he soon discovers that someone is already living there—an entire kingdom of someones, in fact. These are the good citizens of Patria, a secret land founded by refugees from the Trojan War who sailed across the Atlantic in a reconfigured Trojan Horse—3,000 years ago!  

For Oliver, Patria is a land of wonders—and for the first time in his life, friendship. There's young Prince Farnsworth Vesuvius, inventor of the Magna-Pneumatic Whizzing Biscuit Blaster, and his formidable sister, Princess Rose, whose inedible, stone-hard biscuits provide the blaster's ammunition. But there's also the rest of the eccentric and lovable Patrian Royal Family, the boy warriors in the Potawatomi Indian Camp, not to mention the Viking kids from the Geat Village, newcomers to the area who only arrived 1,000 years ago. 

Yet when the noble Knights of the Blue Sock threaten to drive off the Stoops by force of arms, Oliver has to decide where his loyalties lie, and whether he has the courage to undertake the quest that is both Patria's, and his family's, last, best hope of peace.

Going Electric

Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits is only available as an ebook. It’s available now at Amazon (for the absurdly low price of $2.99), and soon, if not already, at Apple’s iBooks Store, and at Barnes & Noble.

So no hardcover or paperback? Nope. Trojan Tub Entertainment is a digital project, all the way down to the 1s and 0s. This means that Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits and my other Patria stories will only be available as electronic documents to be read on e-readers such as Kindles and Nooks, iPads and smartphones, laptops and desktops. 

Did you know that, according to Amazon, Kindle books (e-books sold by Amazon for Kindle e-readers) started outselling hardcovers back in July 2010, and began outselling paperbacks in January 2011? Our culture is quickly changing from a print culture to an electronic culture, and this is more and more reflected in how we read. If pattern holds, more and more of us in the future will be reading books electronically—and that includes, I strongly believe, kids.

But if you don't have an e-reader, don't despair. You can download here a free Kindle app, so that you can read the book on your laptop or desktop or smartphone.

Or you can download here a free Nook app from Barnes & Noble and do the same thing.

Don't fret iPad people! While you're waiting for Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits to become available directly from Apple iBooks, note that both the Kindle and the Nook app can be used on the iPad!

Now, I pursue this project as a great lover and collector of conventional books. I have on my shelves the (literally) dusty tomes of Leonine editions of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae to prove it. Conventional books aren’t going anywhere. But they are simply being joined by electronic books as the experience of how we read broadens with changes in technology. This situation doesn’t place us in an either-or between print and electronic books. To me, it’s a delightful both-and.

When it comes to the question of cultural renewal, my idea with Trojan Tub is to go out and meet our culture where it is. And more and more,  our culture can be found with its nose in a Nook.

We live surrounded by what Pope Benedict calls a great “digital sea.” Trojan Tub Entertainment is all about “putting out into the deep” (to use the beloved phrase of Pope Benedict’s beloved predecessor), bringing what I hope is a golden experience of fun and adventure to you and your children.

The Kingdom of Patria

Trojan Tub Entertainment is not only about the Patria ebooks. There is also an immersive Kingdom of Patria website which launches today, November 1, 2011, at The Kingdom of Patria is a place for kids and families to play—to enjoy free Patria short stories, listen to audio, join one of two Patria “clubs”—either the Illustrious Order of Knights of the Blue Sock, or Madame Mimi’s Well-Ordered School for Ill-Mannered Girls—as well as read blog posts from Patria’s main characters: Oliver, Farnsworth, and Princess Rose.

I hope you and your family and friends will visit the site, as well as download your copy of Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits. And if you are so inclined, “Like” Trojan Tub’s Facebook page, and follow the company on Twitter: @kingdomofpatria.

Thanks so much for listening to this story of my little cultural trowel. Together, maybe we can use it to make something grow.