Friday, November 30, 2012

On Swords

"All good things come to a point. Swords, for instance." -G.K. Chesterton

     I read somewhere that at Handel's first performance of Messiah, the crowd was projected to be so large that women were asked not to wear hoop skirts and men were asked not to wear their swords so that standing room could be maximized. Oh that we sill lived in a time when you had to be explicitly asked not to wear a sword as a part of your default formal attire.  I find it a great pity that society has moved beyond the era of swords. We could have at least gone from swords to lightsabers, but alas, we had to go through the "gun" phase, and lightsabers don't exist yet. I've considered applying for a concealed weapons permit simply so I can carry a sword cane around. But then I'd have to have an excuse to carry a sword cane around, something far less easy to come by. Swords, though, don't have quite the stigma against them that guns do, primarily because swords are far more pretty. Swordplay way-back-when was an art, much like the weapons themselves. There isn't the same degree of sophistication and dignity about a Berretta when compared to a 16th century swept-hilt rapier. Perhaps the weapons do carry the same lethal function, but a Berretta certainly isn't going to be a part of your default formal clothing.

     That said, neither a gun nor a sword must be seen as deadly instruments. Chesterton, (whom I must point out carried a sword cane), wrote a marvelous little book about an allegorical practical joker titled Manalive. One of the book's main themes is the use of a pistol to "deal life" at those who value it least. By shooting holes in people's hats, the main character breaks the conventions, but keeps the commandments, not wishing to harm anyone, but only to frighten complacency out of them. What was once a killing machine has, in the hands of a concerned friend (and good shot), become a tool to shock a love of life into people who insist that "the pleasures of life, trivial and soon tasteless, are bribes to bring us into a torture chamber."
     Swords are much the same. They demand more awe than fear, their mere presence in a room adding some sense of craftsmanship, dignity, and history. Swords are one of those few instances where art and warfare intersect. When the warfare function is taken out of the equation, you're left with an awe-inspiring piece of artwork that you can swing around the room like what's-his-name from Princess Bride. All around, a whole lot more fun than swinging around Mona Lisa or American Gothic.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Dead as a Doornail

"But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a doornail." - Charles Dickens

     In which I refrain from commenting on the election and instead bring you a lighter post. Here's a list of goofy clichés I've dredged up from all corners of life: from film, books, billboards, packaging, comics, and conversation. Enjoy!

  • The ten square foot desert island with the palm tree in the middle. Why do we always see them at low tide?

  • Falling anvils and pianos. This is one cliché that never gets old.

  • Well... That and grannies armed with rolling pins.

  • Happy kids in textbooks. The gal in a turtleneck holding up a graphing calculator with a giant grin. Really? Let's see some groaning, some pain, some agony. Red pen at the least.

  • Protagonist in the movie nonchalantly spinning the postcard rack after walking into a store. Bash a window. That would shake things up a bit.

  • "I'm glad that 14 terabyte data transfer only took thirty seconds, or else I would have been caught infiltrating this secret compound.

  • "Quick! Push the fruit cart into the road so the lead car in the chase will crash into it, sending watermelons and pears skyward in an awesome slow motion collision!"

  • "Phew. Reinforcements are just three minutes away..."

  • Replies to "how are you today" questions. LOUSY! AND I WON'T BOTHER ASKING YOU BECAUSE I KNOW YOU'LL BE WONDERFUL! Life is a bit to predictable sometimes.

  • Rome wasn't built in a day. Yeah, well, they didn't have cranes or front-loaders back then.

  • When life gives you lemons, keep them. Because hey, free lemons.

  • When it rains, it pours. Or it just sprinkles...

  • If you can't judge a book by its cover, hire a new designer.

  • All's fair in love and war. Take that Geneva conventions!

  • Cereal box characters. I challenge you to find one single box of cereal in the cereal isle who's character doesn't have a the goofiest grin you thought was possible. 

  • 50% MORE*
          *Than our half sized product.

  • 100% NATURAL! I would pay money to see an orange juice carton with 100% ARTIFICIAL smeared across the front.

  • Action hero whips out an arrow from his back quiver and let's it fly into the nearest bad guy within a second and a half. Oh- wait. Hold on. The arrow's stuck in the quiver. My arm's not long enough to get the tip far enough out. Ah. Two hands. There we go. Hold on there, Mr. Orc. The notch isn't clicking onto the string. Darn. The tail feathers are backwards, let me flip this one around. Pull back--boy this bow is stiff--oh, the sights need to be adjusted for this distance...

  • The epic battle on the swinging bridge, tall building or freight train. A card table would be just fine, thank you.

  • Crumb. My car ran out of gas right in the middle of this intense car chase.

  • Soccer ball, saxophone, and a stack of books in the group shot of happy kids on the billboard. The ultimate childhood stereotype.

  • That mountain switchback road in all the car commercials that I'm convinced is a soundstage in Hollywood with built-in sunset lighting.

  • Riddles that end in "how did he die." No one ever seems to live through story riddles these days.

  • Barber shops with pitiful names. I have yet to find a barber shop that has a name that would make me want to get my hair trimmed there.

  • Typography. The flowing script font on devotionals, the blocky or pixelated font on all bad guy's computer screens, the serif font on all smart books, the sans-serif font on all books trying to be smart, and the bold, italicized, and non-Times-New-Roman font on the MLA guide.

  • Goats don't eat tin cans. Really. They don't. Or shoes for that matter. They just eat grass. Lots of it.

  • And last but not least, professors with bow ties.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Resolving Literature

"'Unlike literary critics, judges cannot merely savor the tensions or revel in the ambiguities inhering in the text--judges must resolve them...'" - Justice William Brennan

   I must admit that Calvin's reason for avoiding math is far more brilliant than any excuse I could think up. I, like Hobbes, had never considered the literary qualities of mathematics, but after stumbling across this wonderful comic, I began to consider the mathematical qualities of literature. These considerations were compounded when I read the intriguing quote above in an essay by Annabel Patterson. Justice Brennan here proposes that the appreciation of literature and the resolution of literature are two mutually exclusive approaches to interpretation.
     So sure. I can savor the power dynamics and balanced conflict of 2+2, perhaps admiring the symmetrical formal aspect of the sentence. But where will all that contemplation get me? Nowhere, really. The same is true of literature. I can examine the racial theories, questions of voice, and rhetorical strategies all I want, maybe even throwing in a psychoanalytic approach to the text's composition, but it doesn't get me anywhere at all. 
    All literature has function. There are some who pride themselves in writing gibberish, tidying it up with some nice rhetoric, and calling it literature. It's not. True literature is always an equation; a means to a meaning. Literature can be as simple as 2+2=x, or as complicated as b - 11 + (-0.2)(-60/2)² = -0.2(x² - 6x + (-60/2)²). We can "appreciate" this equation all we want, but x will continue to loom in the background--a stark reminder of a meaning and truth that the author of the equation has concealed using the tools of addition, division, distribution, rhetoric, and voice.
    And yes. I did just reduce literature to numbers, and yes. The analogy does break down. Interpretation never leads to a single correct answer. There is always uncertainty with complex literature. This does not, however, nullify the fact that there was a concrete "answer" to true literature when it was written; an unknown variable that interpreters should always be in pursuit of. All too often, though, interpreters leave the "solving" to the lawyers and content themselves with how aesthetically impressive or pleasing the literature is. They appreciate or admire the tools of logos, ethos, and pathos, perhaps observing an interesting tie to nationality or canon, but they don't use them to determine true meaning. X marks the spot, but they refuse to dig.