Sunday, September 21, 2008

Humanism and Vanity, Oh my Droogies

I wanted to get down some thoughts about A Clockwork Orange, which I've just finished listening to on cd and Burn After Reading, now that I've seen it a couple of times. I've been interested in ACO since reading an old Mad Magazine parody many years ago. I first saw the movie the summer after my freshman year at college and have seen it a few times since. At its heart is an interesting story of dystopian, anti-heroic humanism that resonates loudly in some ways with C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength. Burgess' point in ACO is that man is not a creature to be wound up like clockwork and let go to live a determined life whether by the state or by God. Alex is a vicious criminal and hoodlum but he is that way because that is what he wants to be. If he wanted to be good, he could, and it is the very choice that makes him human and makes his actions good and evil. If society wants to "cure" him so that he not only cannot do evil but also must do good to when he desires evil then it achieves a certain short-term goal of reducing crime but does not truly thereby make itself better. In so doing it devalues the individual life it exists to protect and perhaps, to draw conclusions from the ways in which the third part of the book plays out, it may create an even worse evil. It has not eradicated Alex's desire for evil only frustrated it. It seems implied that through a bit of personal application he may in time develop a means of circumventing his conditioning. Interestingly, despite his appy polly loggy for the necessity of the final chapter to his argument (Burgess claims his American publisher originally rejected it because it was too hopeful and Pelagian) in Alex's conviction that his future son will follow in his criminal footsteps and reject his fatherly advice because that's what teenagers do, there seems to be an undermining of the whole theme of freedom. Still its a very interesting story, not least because of the invented Nadsat language that Alex and his droogs use. It was fun to listen to and I'm always open to good dystopian humanism.

One of the other things that I'm always open to is good absurdist humor a la the Coen Brothers. However, one thing Burn After Reading is not is humanist. It seems much more Ecclesiastesical. There's a definite feeling of vanity, vanity, all is vanity. It would seem that all is much ado about nothing as the different characters pursue various ends to often brutal conclusions while in the dark about what is really going on. BAR is definitely in the Fargo vein of absurd and brutally violent comedy. But it likes the stabilizing presence of a Marge Gunderson or even the tired despair of the Sheriff in No Country for Old Men. It just has that feeling of one damned thing after another with no one really knowing what is going on, even the people who are payed to know. Fargo and Lebowski are Coen movies that I'm somewhat repulsed by still enjoy either because of particular characters or techniques. No Country has a power in that it's played straight. After BAR I just want to throw up my hands in frustration and confusion like the chief spook. It doesn't make sense and those poor people are dead and it's such a nice day and there you go (that's Marge Gunderson of course, not the spook). Vanity of vanities, all is vanity under the sun.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Recent Rain and Men's Breakfast

It rained here last weekend. Apparently it rained enough that people elsewhere got worried about me even though I own a bumbershoot and am not water soluble. Still it rained from Friday to Sunday, records were set and small rivers flooded. I don't live in a place that's susceptible to flooding and never have other than the localized kind caused by bad pipes or other leaks. It was a good chance to test our library's new roof to see if it would hold up against serious rainage. Turns out all that time spent with noise and without air conditioning this summer has not fixed the main leak. It might have fixed some of them, but new leaks opened up so I'd say it's a wash.

I got to speak to a few brave souls at our church men's breakfast on Saturday morning. I talked about the importance of studying the history of the church as the story of what God has done and is continuing to do. In some ways the benefits are the same as studying any kind of history, viz. there's lots of good stories and you can learn from others' mistakes. There is an added layer as well. Throughout scripture there is an emphasis on telling what God has done. Jesus tells us that he will be with us always, even to the end of the age. By looking at our past we see the works of God in the lives of his people, sometimes despite the lives of his people, and are encouraged to worship him. A second focus was on the importance of telling our own stories to one another. The vast majority of the life of the church is not made up of Francis of Assisi or Polycarp or Jonathan Edwards but of unknown people who live day-to-day lives full of God's grace. We are those people and by telling of what God has done in our lives we glorify him and share his work with others. I also like to remember that though most of our stories are forgotten here, "The Lord knows the way of the righteous." He remembers our stories and so they are preserved forever.

Random quotes:
"Those who don't study the past will repeat its errors. Those who do study it will find new ways to err." I believe my St. Olaf History Dept. t-shirt attributed this quote to Charles Wolfe.

"In the end nothing is lost. For good or ill every event has repercussions forever" Will Durant on the fall of Babylon.

"It's like watching Shakespeare." An anonymous friend on watching British movies starring Jason Statham (her intent was to compare the experience of being unable to figure out the language at first and then somewhere in the middle realizing that you're understanding. I can see the point and I am a Statham fan but I bet it's pretty rare that Snatch or Mean Machine get compared to the Bard)

Worship haiku:
Miraculous grace
Drips from the wounds of Jesus,
Healing His broken.