Skywhale belongs in one of Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novels. Instead, this $300,000 monstrosity is hovering over Canberra, ready to commemorate the city’s foundation.
They call it “art,” and so do I. What a masterpiece of ironic mischief! Tim Blair puts it well:
The perfect symbol of our capital city – a bloated, gaseous, multi-breasted monster feeding those who dwell in its poisonous shadow while leeching off the rest of us.
I’m very appreciative of Skywhale, and not just because it makes me laugh. He — she? — it? — has given me cause to watch an outstanding episode of Doctor Who — a TV show which in my opinion is decidedly hit-and-miss (though to be fair I only watch the show about three times a year). If you’ve already seen ‘The Beast Below,’ you’ll know why a Facebook friend has connected the episode to Skywhale.
‘The Beast Below’ is great TV, and its artistic credentials aren’t limited to Skywhale. The episode explores terrible moral dilemmas in a spirit reminiscent of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Fifty minutes of fast-moving comedy drama doesn’t permit an exploration of great profundity, but it’s thoughtful and thought-provoking nonetheless, especially if you read some of the great Russian author first.
In the most famous chapter of Dostoevsky’s most famous book, two of the Karamazov brothers debate the problem of evil. Ivan is 24 years old, an intelligent rationalist who rails against God. Alyosha is 20 years old, a novice monk, and the book’s hero.
Here Ivan sets down the terms of the debate:
I meant to speak of the suffering of mankind generally, but we had better confine ourselves to the sufferings of the children. That reduces the scope of my argument to a tenth of what it would be. Still we’d better keep to the children, though it does weaken my case.
In the first place, children can be loved even at close quarters, even when they are dirty, even when they are ugly. (I fancy, though, children are never ugly.)
The second reason why I won’t speak of grown-up people is that, besides being disgusting and unworthy of love, they have a compensation — they’ve eaten the apple and know good and evil, and they have become ‘like gods.’ They go on eating it still. But the children haven’t eaten anything, and are so far innocent.
I thought of these words from Ivan as I watched Doctor Who. I think you will too.
A short while later, Ivan says something even more resonant. He has made his case against a just God who permits the innocent to suffer. Now he challenges his brother. If Alyosha was God, would he allow the innocent to suffer for the greater good? If it guaranteed perfect happiness for everyone else, would he permit the suffering of just one innocent child?
“Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer,” said Ivan earnestly. “Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears. Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”
“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.
I’d like to think I wouldn’t consent either. But how would I decide in the moment? What if I could save a great multitude — myself included, and everyone I love — by forsaking only one life? This is the confronting question raised in Doctor Who.
Who knew silly television could be so serious? It’s even better when the Doctor declares that after an act of ‘mercy killing,’ he’d better find himself another name because he doesn’t deserve to be called “the Doctor” anymore. Take that, harbingers of euthanasia!
So find the time to sit back, relax, and enjoy 50 minutes of ‘mindful entertainment.’
(If the video doesn’t appear, try the direct link.)
Every now and then, a good review comes along which not only compels me to buy the book under review (getting around to reading it is a separate proposition), but which also stands out as a good essay in and of itself.
Sam Rocha’s review of Quiet, by Susan Cain, is an example of this. Quiet presents Cain’s case that contemporary culture undervalues silence, and misunderstands introverts. It’s an interesting idea, but without Rocha’s review, I don’t think I’d commit to reading a whole book on the subject.
But Rocha’s review opens up two related subjects – one explicitly, and the other implicitly.
As a lecturer in philosophy and pedagogy, Rocha has long wondered what, exactly, classroom participation entails. He always includes a note on classroom participation in his course readers. It reads in part:
I have no uniform expectation for participation. Honestly, I don’t really know what this thing called “participation” is exactly. What I do know is this: classroom participation is a mixed bag: better and worse, direct and indirect, this and that and the other thing and that thing over there. The most obvious way to participate is to come to class, and come prepared . . . Beyond attendance and preparation, I would actually prefer that you participate well in indirect ways rather than feel the need to participate poorly in more direct ways. In other words: speaking is not necessarily required for participation. There is space to be an introvert or a contemplative here. Shy and bashful people are welcome here.
Reading Cain’s book has caused Rocha to expand his thinking on this subject. I imagine Quiet could contribute in a similar way to the consideration of liturgy.
The Second Vatican Council famously called for more “active participation” of the lay faithful in the liturgy. It will be interesting to read Cain’s book and see how the cultural assumptions she critiqutes may have informed the post-conciliar liturgical reform, and how her thesis might lend itself to the present ‘reform of the reform.’
I would like also to consider how Cain’s ideas interact with Simone Weil’s thoughts on attention. Weil conceived of attention as a gateway to God. Attention, or attentiveness, is the necessary means not only to philosophical truth, but also to goodness and beauty. She writes particularly of attention to flesh and blood individuals – attention to abstract ideas, she suggests, belongs to the realm of ideology, and ironically blinds us to the truth of each person.
Attention as Weil conceived it features prominently in the Gospel. The Good Samaritan is attentive. (Lk 10:33) So too the watchful servant (Lk 12:36), and the wise virgins with their well-stocked oil lamps. (Mt 25:4) And of course, the mother of Jesus, who treasured our Lord’s sayings, and pondered them in her heart. (Lk 2:19)
Attention, Weil concludes, is the basis of prayer. It is also the basis of love of neighbour. It is not so much an act of the will, but a desire, though it demands effort – “the greatest of efforts perhaps” – and presupposes grace. In short, attention is a form of supernatural love.
I’m interested to see how this idea of attention fits into Cain’s assessment of introversion. Until then, I think I’ll suspend judgement on Rocha’s startling suggestion: “God is an introvert.”
Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August is history at its best. It is both enjoyable and enlightening; it is ”history as drama,” and like good fiction abounds in wise lessons.
Tuchman frames the events leading up to the First World War within the context of the principle decision makers. As she tells it, nations and individuals are not passively swept along by forces of history; the catalysts of history are individuals, replete with their flaws and foibles. She excels at character portraits, which contextualise the attitudes and judgements of history’s protagonists.
Having said that, Tuchman makes a compelling case that the world as we know it even today — 99 years after the guns of August 1914 were fired — is fundamentally shaped by the decisions and events which unfolded in that unhappy month. We may not be enslaved by the impersonal forces of history, but we are certainly shaped by the personal decisions of our forebears.
The Guns of August so impressed President John F. Kennedy when he read it, that he bought copies for his Cabinet and military advisors, and ordered them to read it too. Kennedy’s Secretary of the Army had a copy supplied to every American military base in the world.
The book was published nine months before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Robert Kennedy — the President’s brother and then-Attorney General — suggests that in that episode, Tuchman’s history itself made history:
Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August had made a great impression on the President. . . He talked about the miscalculations of the Germans, the Russians, the Austrians, the French, and the British. They somehow seemed to tumble into war, he said, through stupidity, individual idiosyncrasies, misunderstandings, and personal complexes of inferiority and grandeur . . .
“I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time, The Missiles of October,” he said to me that Saturday night, October 27. “If anybody is around to write after this, they’re going to understand we made every effort to find peace and every effort to give our adversary room to move. I’m not going to push the Russians an inch beyond what’s necessary.”
Just before Christmas, I picked up an app version of The Guns of August for less than $12, which enabled 19 hours of long-distance driving to fly by. If you drive long distances, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
An extract from the opening chapter is provided below. It demonstrates Tuchman’s skill at story-telling. Her account of King Edward VII’s funeral — the last gasp of La Belle Époque, the swan song of guilded aristocracy — is as famous as the book it introduces.
CHAPTER ONE: A FUNERAL
So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens—four dowager and three regnant—and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.
In the center of the front row rode the new king, George V, flanked on his left by the Duke of Connaught, the late king’s only surviving brother, and on his right by a personage to whom, acknowledged The Times, “belongs the first place among all the foreign mourners,” who “even when relations are most strained has never lost his popularity amongst us”—William II, the German Emperor. Mounted on a gray horse, wearing the scarlet uniform of a British Field Marshal, carrying the baton of that rank, the Kaiser had composed his features behind the famous upturned mustache in an expression “grave even to severity.” Of the several emotions churning his susceptible breast, some hints exist in his letters. “I am proud to call this place my home and to be a member of this royal family,” he wrote home after spending the night in Windsor Castle in the former apartments of his mother. Sentiment and nostalgia induced by these melancholy occasions with his English relatives jostled with pride in his supremacy among the assembled potentates and with a fierce relish in the disappearance of his uncle from the European scene. He had come to bury Edward his bane; Edward the arch plotter, as William conceived it, of Germany’s encirclement; Edward his mother’s brother whom he could neither bully nor impress, whose fat figure cast a shadow between Germany and the sun. “He is Satan. You cannot imagine what a Satan he is!”
This verdict, announced by the Kaiser before a dinner of three hundred guests in Berlin in 1907, was occasioned by one of Edward’s continental tours undertaken with clearly diabolical designs at encirclement. He had spent a provocative week in Paris, visited for no good reason the King of Spain (who had just married his niece), and finished with a visit to the King of Italy with obvious intent to seduce him from his Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria. The Kaiser, possessor of the least inhibited tongue in Europe, had worked himself into a frenzy ending in another of those comments that had periodically over the past twenty years of his reign shattered the nerves of diplomats.
Happily the Encircler was now dead and replaced by George who, the Kaiser told Theodore Roosevelt a few days before the funeral, was “a very nice boy” (of forty-five, six years younger than the Kaiser). “He is a thorough Englishman and hates all foreigners but I do not mind that as long as he does not hate Germans more than other foreigners.” Alongside George, William now rode confidently, saluting as he passed the regimental colors of the 1st Royal Dragoons of which he was honorary colonel. Once he had distributed photographs of himself wearing their uniform with the Delphic inscription written above his signature, “I bide my time.” Today his time had come; he was supreme in Europe.
Behind him rode the widowed Queen Alexandra’s two brothers, King Frederick of Denmark and King George of the Hellenes; her nephew, King Haakon of Norway; and three kings who were to lose their thrones: Alfonso of Spain, Manuel of Portugal and, wearing a silk turban, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria who annoyed his fellow sovereigns by calling himself Czar and kept in a chest a Byzantine Emperor’s full regalia, acquired from a theatrical costumer, against the day when he should reassemble the Byzantine dominions beneath his scepter.
Dazzled by these “splendidly mounted princes,” as The Times called them, few observers had eyes for the ninth king, the only one among them who was to achieve greatness as a man. Despite his great height and perfect horsemanship, Albert, King of the Belgians, who disliked the pomp of royal ceremony, contrived in that company to look both embarrassed and absentminded. He was then thirty-five and had been on the throne barely a year. In later years when his face became known to the world as a symbol of heroism and tragedy, it still always wore that abstracted look, as if his mind were on something else.
“Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”
So said Bilbo to Gandalf in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, when he was relating the ennui which accompanies a life lived too long.
The same might be said of Peter Jackson’s first instalment of The Hobbit, which at 2 hours 45 minutes, is a film that goes too long.
I will reserve judgement on the wisdom of dividing a short children’s novel into a three part movie epic, but I can say with certainty that the editors should have been more stringent with this instalment. The first part of the movie, set in Bilbo’s hobbit hole, is interminable. A scene involving trolls would benefit from heavier editing. But perhaps most tellingly, in the middle of a stunning action sequence involving a goblin horde, I found time to step back from the story and marvel at the cinematography. That shouldn’t happen in an action sequence. It was too long.
My complaints, however, are limited to the pacing of the narrative. In other respects, Jackson improves upon Tolkien’s plot. To any movie goer familiar with the original novel, it quickly becomes evident that Jackson never intended to simply adapt The Hobbit to the screen. Instead he uses the novel as a vehicle to create a prequel equal in scope to The Lord of the Rings.
Purists will complain about non-canonical characters and altered details. To which I can only respond: don’t watch this movie with Tolkien’s novel in mind. Watch it with Jackson’s trilogy in mind.
Having said that, the greatest part of Jackson’s movie is faithful to Tolkien’s book. Gollum steals every scene he is in, but even he cannot detract from the critical moment which is a hinge not only to The Hobbit, but also to The Lord of the Rings. The film’s depiction of Bilbo’s “pity, mixed with horror” conveys everything Tolkien describes:
He was desperate. He must get away, out of this horrible darkness, while he had any strength left. He must fight. He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering. All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second. He trembled. And then quite suddenly in another flash, as if lifted by a new strength and resolve, he leaped.
Many decades later, Frodo suggested it was a pity that Bilbo didn’t kill Gollum when he had the chance. Gandalf demurs:
Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began the ownership of the Ring so. With pity . . .
. . Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends . . . the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.
It has been suggested that the reframing of The Hobbit into an epic prequel has obscured Tolkien’s moral tale about hobbits and humility and the “small everyday deeds of ordinary folk.” I don’t think so. In fact, it could be argued that Jackson makes this theme much more explicit than does Tolkien – not inappropriately, given a different medium and a different audience.
To conclude, I think it can be said that although Jackson’s film is not very faithful to the pace and tone of Tolkien’s book, Jackson is faithful to Tolkien’s vision. If only it wasn’t half an hour too long, I would call this an outstanding movie. As it is, The Hobbit is overwrought but very good.
Sydney’s Catholic Weekly has published an article which headlines the day Mother Teresa kept the Pope waiting.
It’s a good way to attract readers I suppose. I followed the link because I wanted to know more. But the real gold in this article is buried deeper in the piece. The anecdotes about Mother Teresa and Padre Pio are followed by a dire analysis of current affairs:
“Every Christian is under the power of Satan, and Satan’s normal activity is temptation,” Mgr Esseff said . . . “Satan has a power to obsess people. Billions and billions are being spent on pornography today.
“Satan’s main activity is to separate souls from Jesus. Jesus, the captain of the army of light and truth, is also the king of light and love.
“They’re on a head-on course in every soul, and also in the world today.”
Dire, but compelling.
And then there’s the autobiography Fr Esseff co-wrote with his brother, who pursued a different vocation:
“We went to Catholic school from first to 12th grade and when we gradated I went to the seminary and he went to college to become an engineer.
“He went on his way and got married and has children and grandchildren. I’m now a priest of 59 years. Being a priest for me is falling in love with God, and wanting to have the whole world as a family.
“So my spouse, if I am Christ to the world, is the Church. And my children are everyone I meet wherever I go to bring about the Kingdom of God into souls.
“My brother and I are following different paths, but actually following those teachings that we had from our Catholic faith.”
Sounds like a great book not only on the priesthood, but also on the lay apostolate. I’m adding it to my wishlist (and tagging this post “Kris Kringle” for the benefit of brothers and sisters who might be reading this!).
When I was eight years old, our family holiday in Torquay was interrupted by news that our house in Ballarat had been ransacked and burgled.
I was, I am told, bereft. I was convinced that my prized collection of Enid Blyton “chapter books” was the burglers’ main target, and nothing could convince me they were safe until I arrived home and counted them for myself.
I have no memory of this, but Mum and Dad are adamant it is true. The story does have an embarrasingly plausible ring to it.
Enid Blyton was one of two favourite authors in my childhood. The other was Roald Dahl. And now the worlds of Blyton and Dahl have collided, via Quentin Blake, whose illustrations are a signature of Dahl’s books.
To celebrate the seventieth anniversary of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, five contemporary children’s authors were commissioned to illustrate new book covers. Quentin Blake is one of them.
The first edition of the first Famous Five book looked like this:
The seventieth anniversary edition of the book looks like this:
I don’t remember reading the book, though I’m sure I did. I wonder now how Enid Blyton stacks up to an adult reader. Moreover, Wikipedia’s synopsis of Five on a Treasure Island leaves me wanting to know more. Who’s down there in the dungeons??
This book has officially been added to my reading list. The Quentin Blake edition, of course. It’s early yet, I know, but if I tag this post “Kris Kringle,” perhaps I’ll find the book under the Christmas tree!