Sunday, September 26, 2004

Sunday Night Journal — September 26, 2004

I Miss the Future

David Mills of Touchstone, writing on that magazine’s blog one day last week, solicited readers’ opinions as to the best science-fiction movie ever made. It required no reflection at all for me to come up with my answer: 2001: A Space Odyssey. There aren’t many sci-fi films that I consider to be worthy of comparison with 2001. Mr. Mills asked his question in the context of discussing a survey in which a number of scientists named Blade Runner as the top science fiction film. I haven’t seen Blade Runner, having been frightened away by its reputation for graphic violence, so I’ll admit the possibility that it may be better than 2001, but I imagine I would still prefer the latter. That’s because it is more than a good movie: it represents a kind of science fiction, and a kind of future, that is now for me an object of nostalgia.

As a boy in the early 1960s I fell deeply under the spell of science fiction for a couple of years. The pictures of exotic worlds and futures painted in the stories I read were almost mystically attractive to me, mainly, I think, because of their strangeness and remoteness. I directed to them what I later recognized as a displaced religious longing. The phase did not last very long, partly because most of the writing was inferior to that in the classics I was also then discovering, and partly because the vision of a future technological wonderland soon came to seem thin and shallow.

But now and then I have spells of nostalgia for those days of wonder, and sometimes in the midst of these I do slightly embarrassing things, such as seeking out and purchasing on eBay some of the very issues of Analog which enchanted me at sixteen. I find, somewhat to my disappointment but not much to my surprise, that most of the writing is even worse than I feared. Stories purveying ideas which seemed at the time very deep now seem naïve at best. Many of them seem, aside from their fanciful settings and gadgetry, almost laughably conventional: genre pieces in the basic pattern of Westerns and war stories, but done up with futuristic trappings which all too often are amusingly bound to the time in which they were written. One story, for instance, in which the special effects work of a movie crew provides a trick that saves the day, refers continually to the manipulation of tape—on a starship. The effect is of an anachronistic future, in which the electronic systems of the imagined distant future sometimes still have vacuum tubes and mechanical relays that were obsolete by 1970 or so.

And yet there is still an appeal in the endless vistas of technological marvels and galactic civilizations, and 2001 captures it better than any movie I know. It was the first movie in which technology could actually provide a convincing visual representation of what science-fictions writers and readers had previously only imagined. (“Star Trek,” for instance, never interested me much, because it was so visually unconvincing, and the stories were simplistic even by the standards of printed sci-fi.)

Thematically, 2001 is, as you know if you’ve seen it, an exercise in evolutionary wishful thinking. It supposes an ascent of human progress by evolution as directed and encouraged by an ancient, wise, and benevolent alien civilization. Stanley Kubrick had the good sense to keep these aliens offstage, so that they remain suitably beyond the ordinary. It’s remarkable how often this basic notion of salvation by godlike aliens recurs in science fiction and apparently among some scientists: the late Carl Sagan seems to have felt its pull quite strongly. It is an idea supported by considerably less empirical evidence (to wit, none) than the Resurrection, yet some intelligent people seem more willing to believe in it than in any traditional religion.

I find it fascinating that this vision of the future suffered a rapid decline even as it attained its greatest expression. I didn’t follow science fiction very closely after the mid-60s, but it’s my impression that by the 1980s dystopia was the prevalent theme. I did read a few of the so-called “cyberpunk” novels of the ‘80s, such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and they were certainly grim enough. A number of very popular movies, such as the Terminator and Alien series, which are at least superficially classifiable as science fiction, are set in a nightmarish future. I don’t consider these as being quite in the running for the sci-fi prize, as they are basically horror or action films with sci-fi paraphernalia. The Star Wars series is more in the old-time mode, and I’ve always enjoyed the original trilogy enormously, but it’s pretty lightweight stuff, a comic-book style adventure the excellence of which is in proportion to its lack of seriousness.

Here’s a question for the Christian: which is better: the hope and optimism of 2001, founded on illusions and delusions, or the darkness and violence of Blade Runner? Perhaps Blade Runner is more true to the earthly condition. I suppose I really ought to see it. But for sheer entertainment, and for its capturing of a sense of cosmic mystery, purpose, and grandeur, I much prefer 2001 and its older future.


Sunday, June 20, 2004

Sunday Night Journal — June 20, 2004

Another Root Canal, Please, Doctor

When Ronald Reagan died a couple of weeks ago many of his prominent political opponents made an impressive effort to speak well of him. As one who disliked Bill Clinton as much as some disliked Reagan, I wondered how I would do in the event of Clinton’s death—could I speak both honestly and without derision? I even considered writing an anticipatory obituary here, such as I’m told large news organizations prepare for major public figures, just as an exercise, and made a few mental notes before dropping the idea. I found that I really didn’t want to think about him that much. I wanted to let bygones be bygones, to forgive and forget—especially to forget.

But no sooner is Reagan buried than here comes Bill, pushing his 975-page autobiography, and suddenly he’s all over the news again, with the same old retinue of PR hacks and the same old complaint that his impeachment was the result of a right-wing conspiracy, that he was guilty of nothing more than a lapse of sexual morality, and so on. All the rhetoric eventually comes round to the idea that the fundamental problem is that “right-wingers” are wicked—so paranoid, evil, and full of hate that they literally cannot live without persecuting some virtuous soul, preferably one who is an obstacle to their plans for slaughtering or enslaving most of the human race. (Not for the first time, or the last, do I note the irony in the hatred with which Clinton and his defenders regarded those whom they deemed to be haters.)

During Mr. Clinton’s administration much was made of the “Clinton haters,” those who seemed consumed by their dislike of the man. Although I always made an effort not to hate him (hate being against my religion), I could, roughly, be put in that category; certainly I had enough antipathy to him to qualify as a “hater” in the eyes of his defenders. But in all the verbiage I don’t think I ever heard my own views described with any accuracy.

So here, for the record, and briefly, because it is such a dreary topic, are the reasons why I dislike the man and thought him a bad president. I can pinpoint the moment it began. It was February of 1992, and I was in the hospital recuperating from back surgery, and I happened across the novelty of C-Span (we did not have cable TV then, or for many years afterward). Bill Clinton was participating, on stage with several African-American men, in some event having to do with civil rights. I had theretofore hardly known of his existence, and I listened to the end of his speech with an entirely open mind. I was impressed. I remember thinking that this seemed a hopeful thing: here was a Southerner (that was obvious) taking an active role in healing the nation’s racial wounds. Maybe, I thought, this was a man whom I could support.

But after he had finished speaking I kept watching him and I saw something in his face that bothered me. It was familiar, yet for a minute or two I couldn’t place it. Then it hit me: crooked preacher. He was a type all Southerners know, or should know: one skilled in the use of piety for manipulation.

From then on I was suspicious of him, and suspicion grew into a conviction that he was a deeply dishonest man. And here in a nutshell is why so many conservatives disliked him so much: we were (and are) convinced that he was (and is) a dishonest man—not just occasionally mendacious, like many a politician, but a seriously unscrupulous man—and yet he was winning. I don’t deny that the latter was the source of much of the intensity of our detestation—one naturally finds it more difficult to accept one who cheats and wins than one who cheats and loses.

As for the impeachment: to paraphrase the famous catch-phrase of the ’92 campaign, “It’s the felonies, stupid.” It was not adultery that led to impeachment, it was perjury. I feared at the time, and don’t know that I was wrong, that to let a sitting president get by with lying under oath might in time prove a terrible blow to the rule of law.

Clinton was only the latest in a long line of lying Southern demagogues. As a political personality he has much in common with the early George Wallace. And one of the few pleasures in watching the political scene between 1992 and 2000 was to see sophisticated liberals, who believe themselves above all to be smarter than everyone else, falling for the same bag of tricks which had worked with the hicks of Alabama in the 1960s. Clinton acted out on the political stage something very like the events of Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant and dreadful short story “Good Country People.”

Let it be said—it will always be said, and truly—that Clinton is a brilliant and gifted man, and I believe that in one of the self-described compartments of his soul he is a man who wants to do good and to be good. Perhaps he could have been a great man, but he was not. If he were to ask my advice, I would suggest that he get off the stage and retire to a quiet life of penance, contemplation and good works. Failing that, could he at least get off the stage?

What neither Clinton nor his admirers seem to understand is that most of the man’s opponents—I believe I am safe in generalizing my own sentiments to some degree—so far from desiring to pound his reputation into the dust, really would rather not think about him at all. The Clinton presidency was for us a miserable experience. Who wants to relive a root canal? Anger and frustration are unpleasant emotions. Mr. Clinton cannot be president again, and, to repeat myself, I would prefer to forgive and forget.

But it looks as though we will not be allowed to forget. If the conventional wisdom is true, Mr. and Mrs. Clinton intend that she will reach the White House. And Mr. Clinton is clearly determined to rehabilitate his memory. It looks like we are going to have to listen to the angry buzzing of the Clinton spin machine for years to come.


Sunday, February 22, 2004

Sunday Night Journal — February 22, 2004

A Useful Frivolity

Mardi Gras in New Orleans is said to be scandalous, but I’ve never been, so I don’t know for sure. Almost everyone I’ve known who has witnessed it has simply said “It’s crazy.” As a student of human nature I have sometimes asked for more details, but have been met with a shaking of the head and a rolling of the eyes. They all agree, whether they applaud or lament the fact, that Mardi Gras in Mobile is a far more tame affair. And I agree with those who applaud; Mobile’s Mardi Gras is something that whole families can and do enjoy.

In spite of its relative mildness, though, Mobile’s Mardi Gras does have its detractors and opponents. To begin with, there are those who believe the drinking of alcohol to be a serious sin. For them, Mardi Gras itself must then be a fairly bad thing, for to attempt to have Mardi Gras without alcohol would be like expecting a gelding to reproduce. As far as I know the attempt has not been made, and no one would expect it to succeed if it were. There was, this year, a movement to set aside certain areas of the parade routes as alcohol-free. I’m not sure how those have worked out, as I didn’t visit them, but I think the more common practice of serious teetotalers is to have nothing to do with the festival. I’m told that a local Baptist college does not even officially acknowledge its existence.

The other attack on Mardi Gras comes from social reformers of a more secular and (doctrinally speaking) liberal stripe. These are offended in (it seems to me as an outsider) two ways: first, because Mobile is a city with continual financial problems, they are offended by the sheer wastefulness and frivolity of the thing; and second, they are offended by the exhibition of social inequality which Mardi Gras presents. I remember being struck by the latter at my first parade. You have a few people riding majestically down the street on large expensive conveyances tossing cheap baubles to the masses, who conform to stereotype by begging and scrambling frantically for the trivial favors.

But this is not quite as bad as it appears. It is true that the whole Mardi Gras phenomenon is sustained by the city’s upper class, but it is certainly not their exclusive province. In fact, in the American way, the classes flow back and forth across the line separating the spectators from the participants fairly freely. My parents-in-law used to go to Mardi Gras balls regularly and they were people who had grown up poor and advanced to middle-class comfort, but certainly not to wealth. I know several participants in this year’s parades, and they are ordinary suburbanites like me.

As for the squandering of wealth when—the typical complaint—“that money could be going to improve our schools”—well, as a moral judgment this is reasonable, but as an expectation of what would happen if Mardi Gras were abolished it is pretty clearly a fallacy. Few of those who now spend their money for Mardi Gras would, if the festival were no more, say to themselves, “I think I’ll take the money I would have spent on Mardi Gras this year and sign it over to the local government.” Nor could they be forced to do so, except by the clumsy and inconvenient means of a tax increase, which would be difficult to achieve and not readily be accepted by any of the people, rich or poor.

I wonder if these reformers are offended not so much by the possibility that the money might be put to nobler use as by the knowledge that it is in fact going for something which is by utilitarian measures quite stupid. I have just spent three evenings watching parades from the corner of Government and Franklin streets and as far as I am able to testify a good time was had by all, but nothing whatsoever was accomplished. Mardi Gras is pure festival, except in the eyes of some Christians who maintain its connection with the liturgical year, and in order to enjoy it one really needs to relax in some fundamental way.

Perhaps the need for this relaxation and resultant tolerance performs a sort of natural selection: those who are not capable of it do not attend, or soon leave. At any rate my experience over the years has been that the people who make up the hundred thousand or so attendees at a typical parade are almost entirely amiable, except for the occasional brief struggle over a Moon Pie™ or a string of beads and the very rare burst of real violence, although many of them are drunk and among people who are not their natural cohort. The crowd at Government and Franklin was, on all three nights, a very mixed bunch—a diverse bunch, it is accurate to say, although the word “diverse” has now a sort of taint about it due to its prevalent use as a political euphemism. Black people outnumbered whites by two to one or more, and one of the nice things about Mardi Gras is that there doesn't seem to be much open racial tension; I suppose there is a certain discomfort at times, but I have not witnessed or heard of real conflict.

Ball-goers in formal wear wander among people still wearing the uniforms of their jobs as janitors and cooks. Teenagers of all colors and conditions fend their way somewhat restlessly but as a rule with reasonable courtesy among those of us who tend to stand around in one place. Families with small children set up little encampments of folding chairs and coolers. College kids and young single adults bring coolers only. Elderly people from the retirement apartments at Cathedral Place seem to enjoy the parades as much as anyone else, and sometimes get surprisingly deep into the trinket-grabbing scrimmage. The drinkers are cheerful and generally not so boisterous as to be unpleasant.

Here is the Archbishop of Mobile, whose hundred-and-fifty-year-old house is on the northwest corner of the intersection. He is an old Mobilian and runs into a lot of people he knows. Here is a young (or so I still think of him, although I notice his hair is going) priest with a complement of sturdy nephews; they have just emerged from a fairly strenuous struggle over a package which, he tells us, was constructed for and thrown to them specifically by a friend—the priest is from another old Mobile family—and they were not about to let an interloper get away with it. Here is the somewhat more reserved chancellor of the archdiocese (of Anglo, vs. the other priest’s Lebanese, heritage) who nevertheless does his share of grabbing for beads and candy. Here is a couple who look a little familiar to me and who introduce themselves as the real estate agents who sold a house for us in 1992; my wife and I are pleased to hear that they remember our children as being remarkably well-behaved and personable. Last year I ran into someone with whom I worked in another city almost fifteen years ago and hadn’t seen since. There are very small children in their parents’ arms or on their shoulders; there are bigger children everywhere, whose tactic is not to try to catch things as they fall but to snatch them up from the pavement where most of them land. They are always underfoot when a float is passing. I come up with a split lip when one of them dashes under my arm as I reach down for a string of beads, then, having snagged it, jumps up and smacks me in the face with the top of his head.

The floats are, I hear, much smaller than those in New Orleans, but they’re plenty of spectacle for us, brightly colored and brightly lit and full of (mostly) drunken men in costumes and masks that make them look mysterious. One is rarely out of earshot of a brass band, or at least the drum line of a brass band, and my wife and I marvel at the complexity of the rhythms maintained by some of them—Vigor High gets especially high marks from us—and at the fact that they will keep it going almost continually while walking three or four miles. Most people are at least nodding their heads or bouncing up and down most of the time, and some are dancing. With the bands are the girls with flags and batons, and some of these introduce an unwelcome note of vulgarity, dancing in ways that make them look cheap, and we wonder why the adults involved let them get away with it. (Later we hear from our daughter, who marches much more decorously with the band of the local Catholic high school, that grown women are yelling at them to “shake it, Catholic girls.”)

Viewed coldly, the whole thing would seem shabby. It’s well that most of the parades take place at night, for the broad daylight would make the shabbiness harder to ignore. It is easier to participate in the illusion of the floats’ magical splendor if floodlights draw attention to the spectacular portions and leave the works—tires, axles, exhausts—in dimness. The streets are soon strewn with garbage, and in fact I know people who won’t come downtown for a parade because “it’s so dirty.” One of the things that make them say so is, no doubt, the smell: there is a smell in the air which is, clinically speaking, a bad smell, compounded of garbage, grease, onions, sausage, spilled beer, and humanity, with subtle overtones of urine and manure (some of the drunks duck between or behind buildings rather than seek out the portable toilets, and some of the police ride horses) but which I somehow enjoy because of its association. A general air of gaiety and benevolence prevails. I make it my enjoyment to hand over most of what I catch to children who are too small, timid, or slow to get as much as some of the others. When someone is aggressively greedy the general response of others seems to be less an inclination to punish than to ostracize, even perhaps a little to pity, the one who has manifested such a deplorable character.

Brief acquaintances flower and are broken as the crowd shifts. When the last float has passed for the last time (certain places, and Government Street is one of them, are visited twice as the parade makes its way back to its point of origin at the Civic Center), followed closely by the police and street-sweepers, strangers exchange goodnights and wishes for a happy Mardi Gras. The traffic jam that follows is a pretty relaxed affair, certainly far more so than the ones I encounter on a working day.

Surely festivals are one of the human needs that soon present themselves when our basic physical requirements are satisfied. It would certainly be no service to the poor who comprise a large portion of the Mardi Gras crowd to do away with this one. Has anyone committed this night an act of immorality for which he might not otherwise have had the occasion? Quite likely, I suppose. Have money and time been expended to no material or even lasting purpose? Without a doubt. But frivolity has its uses. For my part I am a happier, and I think at least briefly a better, man for having been a harmless and careless fool for a few hours. And soon enough it will be Wednesday, and time for silence and ashes.


Sunday, February 08, 2004

The Entertainment Industry and the Ratchet Effect

Sunday Night Journal — February 8, 2004

The biggest and most ludicrous news story of the past week has been the brief exposure of a pop singer’s breast during a half-time concert at the Super Bowl. I myself did not witness the great event, although I watched most of the game. As probably happened in many American households, the husband went off at half-time to do something else while the wife—and in our case, a daughter—watched the entertainment. My daughter, who is in her high school band, has something of a professional interest in half-time shows, although I think she knew there would be little in the way of marching bands, batons, and flags.

I don’t think the flash made a great impression on them. After half-time, they commented to me only that the show was crude and stupid, that it was just as well I’d missed it, and that they wished the NFL would do something along the lines of the shows that are traditional in non-professional football games. It was only the next day that I realized the level of shock and outrage that had been generated. My first reaction was to wonder why anyone should be so very upset by this one moment when—as I assumed and has been amply confirmed since—the entire show had been one big exercise in vulgarity. This sort of thing is what big-time pop music stars do for a living, and why would anyone expect anything different from them?

For many of those in the audience, though, the nudity seems to have been a last straw, a definitive crossing of a boundary. Where does one draw, or find, a line of acceptability between the relatively mild sexuality of the dancing seen in (for instance) many old Hollywood musicals that are now considered fairly tame, and the much more salacious moves and gestures now tolerated? There is a real and significant difference, of course, and I have no patience with those who argue—from either the libertine or the puritanical extremes—that that there is none. But it is difficult, in the face of an entertainment industry consciously committed to what it likes to call, with manifest self-congratulation, “pushing the envelope,” to specify in a precise and legalistic way exactly where the line is. (I say “legalistic” because that is the only way such things can be approached now, appeals to simple respect and common sense being no longer of much use.) So the vast majority of Americans who deplore and despise the commerce in lewd entertainment have found themselves for the most part able only to fume impotently. Anyone who dares raise a voice against it can expect to be vilified by the entertainment industry and much of the news media—which latter are, after all, only an arm of the same industry. Consider the case of Tipper Gore, who made a very moderate attempt to pressure the industry to clean itself up and was rewarded with intense vituperation. (Unfortunately, Mrs. Gore seems to have learned her lesson, or at least learned not to offend potential contributors to the Democratic party, and has long since dropped and effectively repudiated her campaign.)

But a specific instance of nudity, even one as brief as this one, is a clear and definable action to which one may voice a clear and definable objection. And the intensity and volume of the reaction is probably in part an effect of the long-suppressed frustration of many people. “We can’t even sit down with our children to watch a football game,” goes the typical comment, “without them shoving this stuff at us. We’ve had enough, and we’re not going to take it anymore.” Some commentators of a traditionalist tendency, such as Peggy Noonan, have expressed the hope that this is the beginning of a reversal of the long trend toward increasing salaciousness in entertainment, and that the number of people making it clear, by voting with their attention and therefore their money, that they want a change will be great enough to make the industry react.

Perhaps it’s my natural pessimism, but I don’t think this is very likely. A temporary retreat may occur, but I don’t think such a great change can happen that easily. The most prestigious and powerful people in the country are against it; in the latter category I refer above all to the courts. More importantly, the people at large are, if not actually in agreement with, then disinclined or unable to make a stand against, the shallow libertarianism which is expressed in letters and phone calls to my local newspaper, as no doubt also to yours, by the argument “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch it.” (Or listen to it, or read it, or purchase it, as applicable.)

This argument is sound enough as an approach to minor differences. I like to watch football and baseball games on television, so I do. I don’t like to watch basketball games, so I don’t, and yet I feel no impulse to suppress basketball. Is this not a model for reconciling all differences? Of course it isn’t, unless you insist on reducing every possible component of our culture to a matter of subjective taste. Never mind, for the moment, the philosophical argument about relativism: as a practical matter, this tactic (which is all it really is) denies the possibility of culture—not of any culture in particular, but of any culture at all, because culture is by definition an expression of shared beliefs and attitudes.

But everyone knows at heart, even if he denies it with his mind and voice, that man is as much a culture-making as a biological creature, and the question is not whether there will be a culture but what it will be. If any practice or expression at all, no matter how repellent to most or many people, is to be accorded the same respect as any other, and if the only recourse of those who object is to attempt to hide, what is happening is either the disintegration of culture or the displacement of one culture by another, necessarily requiring either the expulsion or the assimilation of adherents of the older culture. And that, as has been noted by many observers of the culture war of the last generation or two, is what is really happening here. It is not just any offensive practice or expression which is to be tolerated, it is those that offend what can loosely be termed moral traditionalists, especially Christians.

I think the hopes of Peggy Noonan and others will be disappointed because I believe that the sexualization of popular culture is an essential a part of a cultural movement which is now so powerful, so well-established, and so deeply rooted in interpretations (however flawed) of the American ideal of liberty, that it is unlikely to be turned back unless by some crisis which makes its destructive frivolity untenable and unacceptable.

When my wife and I discussed this she remarked that “This stuff never gets rolled back. It might stop going forward for a while, but it never goes back.” Exactly. Like a ratchet that allows a wheel to turn in one direction but not the other, forces both inside and outside the entertainment industry will allow, for a while, a temporary halt in its progress toward some imagined end point of perfect “liberation” (and who can imagine what that might be?), but do not permit reversal.

Who will disengage, or perhaps destroy, this mechanism? Many of the powerful wish its operation to continue, and the people are uncertain and divided. Considering that we cannot, as a society, take action toward making hard-core pornography significantly less available on the Internet, even though the vast majority of us can agree that it is at least unhealthy, I see no reason to expect that the entertainment industry will not continue to ratchet up the sleaze which it has incorrectly associated with artistic merit but, it seems, quite accurately associated with commercial success. And the latter point is, of course, the most important: in the end the power is in the hands of the people. Whatever other factors may be involved, it is certain that as long as most people are unwilling to withold the patronage that insures profitability, the industry will continue to allow and encourage the sleaze-mongers among them.

You may have noticed that I have not mentioned ethe names of the performers who took part in the Super Bowl exhibition, nor the name of the television network which sponsored it, nor the other television network which produced it. Given that publicity of any kind is the lifeblood of the entertainment industry, the withholding of these names is a tiny gesture of opposition which I have enjoyed making, however futile it may be.

Labels: ,

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Red and Dead

Sunday Night Journal — January 25, 2004

When President Bush announced recently that he wants to revitalize our space exploration program with projects for establishing a permanent base on the moon and sending men to Mars, my immediate reaction was excitement. I find it, in fact, a bit surprising that anyone would react otherwise, but then I remind myself that I grew up more or less simultaneously with the space program. Those of us who were born in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s were just old enough to understand the basic principles of space travel as they were presented to us by the team of Walt Disney and Werner von Braun, and at just the right age to expect that the development of space travel would recapitulate that of atmospheric flight in nice synchrony with our own lives.

My grandfather, born in the late 1870s, had seen, by the time I was born in 1948, flight develop from a disputed possibility to a fact so pervasive and influential as to have wrought fundamental changes throughout society. Of course I would witness a similar progress in space flight during my life. Why not? The physical principles were well understood and by the time I was twelve years old the basic engineering had been proven. All that remained was technological refinement: bigger, more powerful, and cheaper rockets. Then would come the expansion of infrastructure, so that the word “spaceport” would enter the dictionary just as “airport” had done, and by the time I was fifty or sixty years old people might well be vacationing on the moon.

This expectation was of course all the stronger in someone who read a lot of science fiction, as I did for several years in my teens. In these stories the inevitability of space flight was assumed: not only flight to our immediate neighborhood in the solar system, which was (and is) perfectly plausible within the limits of our current knowledge and at least somewhat so within the limits of our technology, but also interstellar travel, which requires, for useful fictional purposes, the postulation of a theoretical breakthrough that would eliminate the light-speed barrier, not to mention an as-yet-unimaginable technology to exploit this knowledge. It is very easy for a storyteller to set down terms like “hyperspace” and “warp drive” and hold them sufficient to explain convenient travel over distances of hundreds or thousands of light-years. It is so easy that we can easily overlook the lack of evidence that such a thing will ever be possible, and assume not only the inevitable progress of rocket flight toward routine near-space flight, but the equally inevitable supplanting of rockets by something capable of transcending the laws of physics as we presently know them.

The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (which, by the way, I consider the best science-fiction movie ever made, or at any rate the best one I’ve ever seen) perfectly captures the expected earlier stages of this progression. The earth-to-moon shuttle is like an airliner. The space station is somewhere between a military installation and a hotel. The first outpost on the moon is under construction. Plans are under way to visit the other planets. (The quasi-miraculous transition to interstellar flight is delegated to god-like aliens who are never seen and don’t have to explain themselves.)

Of course it hasn’t exactly worked out that way. We landed on the moon a year or so after 2001, but space travel has been fundamentally stagnant since then. It’s as if in 1957, thirty years after Lindbergh’s flight, air travel had still been something engaged in only by pilots, and at considerable risk. Some argue that this is due to a failure of will, but I suspect the difficulties are more fundamental: the amount of energy necessary to lift a useful object into space is prodigious and still beyond our ability to generate safely and inexpensively. Satellite launches are somewhat routine, but every trip of a human being into space remains an extremely risky business and so costly that the only economic justification for it is the possibility that it may lead to something else.

What keeps us wanting to do it? What (besides reflexes left over from my youth) accounts for my instant sense of excitement at the idea of a Mars mission? The single biggest factor is the question of whether there is life out there. To judge by the news stories about the mobile probes in place on Mars right now, the interest in this question is obsessive on the part of both the public and at least some of the scientists pursuing it. I suppose the scientists may emphasize it because they know that that is where public interest lies, and thus the continuing support of their research. But it is perfectly understandable. We can hardly conceive of a planet without life, and if we manage to do so we are likely to lose interest in it at once. The human mind that can muster a great deal of interest in pure inorganic matter for its own sake is rare. In the end most of us have only two questions about Mars: is there life there? And if there is not, is there mineral wealth? If the answer to both those questions is “no,” then only those who care about pure research into the nature of the solar system will have further inquiries, and they will find it hard to convince the rest of us that such inquiries warrant the enormous expenditures required to complete them.

I look at the pictures of Mars sent back by the rovers and find them thrilling. But the thrill derives mainly from the fact that I know they are of Mars, and that never before in human history have we been able to look upon this landscape. Its desolation is appalling. As I ponder it I find that I cannot help assuming that over those hills, or beyond that horizon, there is something green. There must be at least a bit of water and a little scrub or cactus. There must be. If not nearby, then perhaps a hundred miles away, or a thousand. If I try to imagine that no matter how far or in what direction I traveled on this world I would encounter nothing but more dust, rock, and, at the poles, sterile ice, I falter. And to the extent that I can conceive of this dead world the idea induces anxiety. To imagine myself standing on its surface is a little like imagining myself under water, unable to survive without artificial support, but with an edge of panic arising from the fact that the nearest breathable air, liquid water, and vegetation are millions of miles away.

Perhaps next week we will learn something different, but as far as we now know the red planet consists of millions of square miles of absolutely pure desert. Put that way, it seems nightmarish. And it makes the fantasies of hundreds of science fiction writers only the same sort of fancy that the mind of man has always raised up for its own entertainment, only composed of materials available in a technological culture.

What, then, of President Bush’s proposal? In spite of all I have just written, I would, given a chance, vote for it. It is a challenge and an adventure we shouldn’t refuse. And something utterly unforeseeable may come of it. There are those, like the Mars Society, who believe we could introduce life to Mars and create conditions under which it could sustain itself permanently. But this dream (a stirring one, I admit) strikes me as very unlikely, a serious underestimation of the complexity of nature and overestimation of ourselves. I think it most likely that after a century or two of exploring as best we can as much of interplanetary space as we can reach, we will face the fact that God has provided us with one world only, and that we are quarantined upon it.

Labels: ,

Sunday, January 18, 2004

A Healthy Illness

Sunday Night Journal — January 18, 2004

As if to remind me of a fundamental contrariness in the nature of things, certain signs of illness began to make themselves known to me around 4pm on the Friday before this three-day weekend. Apart from a few chronic structural problems, such as a bad back, I’m quite healthy—rarely ill and even more rarely ill enough to miss work. I’m also fairly sedentary and don’t generally ask much beyond the minimum from my body, or pay very much attention to it. So I’m always a little surprised when it suddenly resists or refuses the more or less automatic functioning that comprises most of its duties.

What I’ve experienced over the past couple of days is nothing much: it’s what my mother has always called “a bug,” making its presence known by mild nausea, weakness, and headache. If survival depended on my walking ten miles I could do it, but I really would rather not move any more than necessary, and so have spent most of the weekend in the recliner in the living room. And I can’t say that it has been a totally unpleasant experience. I’ve had a little reading, a little music, a little television, and a lot of looking out the window.

It rained all day Saturday. I live on the Alabama Gulf coast where even in January there is still a lot of green in the woods across the way, including the dark gleam of a magnolia. Throughout the day I watched the curtain of rain grow now more dense, now more thin, constantly varying the mixture of silver, grey, and green presented to me until the picture faded to black.

Because it is such a rare experience, this sort of temporary incapacity always serves me as a useful reminder that the body is not only subject to temporary failure but will indeed fail entirely one day. At the age of fifty-five this fact is increasingly of interest to me. Once I had no particular uneasiness about death, but that was only a failure of imagination. Some Christians have, or say they have (I don’t know whether to believe them or not) perfect certainty that when death comes they will close their eyes and wake up in heaven. I have some faith and a great deal of hope, but I'm also a man of reason and I don’t consider it utterly impossible that Christian beliefs are false, or that if they are true there is any guarantee that I will find myself among the sheep and not the goats. The one thing of which I’m absolutely assured is that, barring the Second Coming or some other direct intervention by God, I am, as the old song says, going to walk that lonesome valley, and I’m going to walk it by myself.

As I watched the rain fall I thought about the two live oaks we’ve recently planted, one in the front yard and one in the back. A few weeks ago my wife and I drove spikes of fertilizer in the ground around them and have been waiting for just such a good soaking rain as this. I thought with satisfaction of the spikes getting wet, and wetter, slowly dissolving, the nutrients seeping into the soil and being picked up by the roots of our young trees. A full-grown live oak is one of the most heartening sights in the world to me. They grow slowly, and I won’t live to see these trees in their full glory. But with some care and some luck (including a settlement of a now-distant but inevitable territorial dispute between one of the trees and the power lines) they will be magnificent one day, and someone will get the joy of them. That is a fine thought.

Labels: ,

Sunday, January 11, 2004

The Twilight Zone and the Fall of Liberalism

Sunday Night Journal — January 11, 2004

I’ve been watching the eight or ten episodes of The Twilight Zone which I taped from the SciFi channel’s marathon in the days leading up to New Year’s Day. Based on these, it seems to me that this show was surely one of the high-water marks of television, and even when one makes the obvious stipulation that such a mark is still not terribly high, it is high enough that many of these spooky and melancholy half-hours remain, some forty years later, enjoyable for their own sake and not just as nostalgia.

What makes them so good?—those that are good, anyway, which is by no means all of them. The technical aspects of film-making have, obviously, come a long way since Rod Serling’s time and whenever the shows require what we now call “special effects”—the rendering of anything that doesn’t exist in the real world—the results make particularly strong demands on one’s suspension of disbelief, and even on the ability to suppress one’s sense of humor. Within their technical limits, though, the shows are visually intriguing and atmospheric (and for my part I like black-and-white photography anyway, whether still or motion). And I’m willing to make an effort to overlook the defects because the stories engage and sustain my interest.

It is not only in their technical means that The Twilight Zone episodes seem clearly of another time. I’m struck also by their highly literary style. Serling’s spoken commentaries are often elaborate and highly figured, as is, where warranted by the plot, the dialogue. They use words in a way—with a weight and complexity—that popular entertainment no longer cares to attempt. This must surely be connected to a general decline in literacy and in the aptitude for the use of language since the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Serling could assume, or at least reasonably hope, that most people would be willing and able to comprehend sentences that no one would use today on television.

There is another quality about these productions which they have in common with many movies and some television shows and music of the period between the early 20th century and the revolution of the mid-‘60s. The best word I can come up with to describe this quality is “adult.” I’m not particularly happy with the term but can’t think of anything better except for synonyms “grown-up” or “mature.” The worship, and faith in the saving powers of, adolescence had not yet taken hold, and many of the characters in The Twilight Zone seem more serious and solid than those in most current popular entertainment. A young man or woman in a Twilight Zone episode seems far more mature and of far more consequence than, say, the characters on Friends. I don't suppose the stars of the ‘50s and early ‘60s were for the most part especially virtuous or noble (but where in the contemporary entertainment world will you find the like of Jimmy Stewart?). Nevertheless they had, at least in their public personae, a dignity that no longer seems attainable. An ironic pose overlaying an essential shallowness and triviality seems to characterize both our entertainers and the characters they play, and if the persons (both real and fictional) seem to want to transcend this they are nevertheless dragged down by the pervasive crudity of the typical movie or television show. The much and justly maligned Cleavers of Leave it to Beaver are improbable but somehow more like what real adults ought to be than the mother and father in Malcolm in the Middle who frequently act like rather unappealing fourteen-year-olds.

Consider what I suppose, on the basis of my fairly limited knowledge, must be the closest thing to The Twilight Zone which has come along since then: The X-Files. I happen to like that show a great deal, mainly for its atmosphere, but Mulder and Scully inhabit, most of the time, the world of prolonged adolescent self-absorption and easy alienation which Hollywood now seems to consider normal at every stage of life. And it seems significant that they are defined by their opposition to the government which employs them. In the tradition of the 1960s, the essential premise of the show is opposition to authority; those in authority are evil or at best weak and untrustworthy, and it is only outsiders who care about the truth.

When the characters in a contemporary movie or television show are not being flip and ironic, of course, they are likely to be self-righteous and self-important and to preach in the most blatant sort of way. The matter of their preaching is for the most part what we loosely call liberalism, often specifically political and nearly always tedious, and I begin to fume, and if possible to escape, the moment it begins.

But The Twilight Zone preaches, too. Of the episodes I taped at random over several days, at least three are fairly thin plots oriented toward making some sort of point about tolerance, the danger of mob psychology, the importance of reason, and generosity toward even the most fallen among us. This was, in the context of the time, liberal preaching. Yet I am not offended or even annoyed; to the contrary, I generally sympathize. This is, I think, because liberalism has suffered, since these episodes were new, a sort of fall.

In Serling’s time liberalism was, or at least wished and tried to be, the advocate of certain virtues, as noted: tolerance, generosity, reason. It is now but a party which proclaims itself the possessor of these virtues, preens itself upon that self-conception, and despises those outside the party. The fatal misstep, perhaps, is found in Shelley’s famous assertion that he would tolerate everything except intolerance. This quickly and I suppose inevitably becomes intolerance of intolerant persons (as opposed to intolerance of the fault itself), then intolerance of persons merely suspected of intolerance, and has now reached a point of intolerance of persons who exhibit any resemblance to persons suspected of intolerance. This (need it be said?) is bigotry.

Liberalism once appealed to our best instincts. Now it is simply another tribe, as rancorous and suspicious of outsiders as any of its enemies, quick to surrender to the ecstacy of mob hatred when that suspicion is inflamed. In this it may be no worse than other tribes, but it merits the special distaste provoked by those who aggressively accuse others of vices which they themselves flagrantly practice. One of the Twilight Zone episodes I taped is about a small-town neighborhood driven to strife by fear that any one of them might be an alien in human disguise. It’s fairly heavy-handed sermonizing, and yet it works because of the way the accusation of secret treachery flits from one person to another while panic spreads like some kind of fast-acting disease: the character who is now counseling restraint and reason may be, in a moment, defending himself and then in short order leading the attack on someone else. The propensity to give way to unreasoning suspicion and violence is a human failing, and Serling’s liberalism would have us all guard our hearts against it. Today's liberalism would offer a list of persons suspected of suspecting. I will be thinking of this episode—it is called “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”— and its storm of irrational accusations the next time the liberals of the Senate question a conservative judicial nominee.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, January 04, 2004

The Return of the King

Sunday Night Journal — January 4, 2004

I finally went to see The Return of the King. I have to begin any discussion of the Peter Jackson’s filmed version of The Lord of the Rings with the observation that it surely is the best possible screen treatment of the book. I do not mean that in a philosophical Panglossian but rather in a very straightforward sense: it is the best for which we could reasonably have hoped. When I first heard that Hollywood was planning a big-budget (to say the least) version of the book, my first thought was that I would not see it. I fully expected that the movie industry could not touch such a work without soiling it.

As I heard more about the project, I began to hope that I might be mistaken. I was pleased to admit, after The Fellowship of the Ring, that I was indeed mistaken, and that the films were going to be at least respectful of Tolkien’s vision. Peter Jackson deserves quite a lot of praise for this. I am happy to be able to say that my numerous criticisms of the films do not include the one I most expected to level—that of a fundamental misunderstanding and distortion—and are instead concerned with specific decisions and strategies.

After Fellowship, I spent, like most devotees of the book, a fair amount of time (too much, my wife would say) analyzing the rights and wrongs of the film: which cast members were and were not well-suited to their roles, which aspects of Middle Earth were and were not portrayed fittingly, which liberties taken with the story were and were not justified. After The Two Towers we had pretty much exhausted that topic—I certainly had— and I find that without going over all that ground again I really do not have a great deal to say about The Return of the King.

It is at least as good as any of the others. It eliminates a few of the most annoying things in the first two, most notably the propensity for making Gimli far too broadly comic and, worse, a vehicle for anachronisms not only intrusive but stupid (e.g. “Nobody tosses a dwarf!”). It suffers as much as they from the requirement that much be left out, for which the filmmakers are not to blame, and from an overall tendency to make everything as loud and spectacular as possible, for which they must surely be at least partially to blame. I would like to think that some of this was against Jackson’s better judgment, and done to help insure the box-office success required to justify the film’s enormous cost and allow him to continue in the business. Whatever the reason, the entire series contains a lot of lily-gilding, if that is not too delicate a term to use for such heavy-handed work. The films seem driven by a compulsion to overstate and overdo, to crowd every possible moment with action, to pile more and yet more noisy dangers, yet more unconvincing physical stunts, onto the story: the combat between Saruman and Gandalf in Fellowship, which ought to have been something subtle; the endless fight with the cave-troll; the unnecessary and unbelievable leaps among the falling stairs in Moria; Frodo’s standard Hollywood fall-and-hang-by-the-fingers at the Crack of Doom. All of this imparts a cartoonish quality to much of the film and has exactly the opposite of its intended effect on me: rather than compelling my attention it breaks the spell, and provokes the rolling of eyes.

But let that go. As Terry Teachout said recently in National Review, Hollywood does not make movies for people who read books. The films are not the book, and never could be, even with the best of intentions and the greatest of skill. But with all their flaws they still attain a vision of pure and noble heroism, and they leave one with images of “beauties that burn like ice and pierce like swords,” if I am correctly recalling C. S. Lewis’ praise. Thanks be to God. And it is time I read the book again.

By the way, my friend Daniel Nichols suggests that the films might rightly have been billed as “The Lord of the Rings, starring New Zealand.”

Labels: , , ,