Of Storytelling in the Time of Zombies

As I posted last week, I read aloud a portion of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane to one of my classes on the last day of class. Most of my students enjoyed it, but I did receive one comment (although anonymously given) that those fifteen minutes I spent reading aloud were an utter waste of time that could have been spent working on the final writing project for my class or studying for another class. Of course, that student is welcome to his opinion, and I don’t expect all my students to like everything we do in class, as I would be the greatest teacher in all of history if all my students liked all we did in class all the time.

However, his comment did sadden me, but before I go into that, I feel a brief explanation of why I read some Gaiman to my class, is necessary. First, I can. So I did. Second, it’s Neil Gaiman– who (and I think this has been well-established) is a god among men. Third, the way my particular university is set up, it is possible for a student to pass through all four years and get their degree– all without ever reading a word of “literature.” And that, I think, is a real travesty. While there may not be an enormous amount of time in a first-year composition class to devote to reading “literary” things, I wanted to at least share this with them. Gaiman may not be canonical “literature,” but he is far more literary and important (in the truly humble opinion of yours truly) than any number of traditionally read authors.

Lady Godiva by John Collier. See how much we would miss without stories and legends!

Lady Godiva by John Collier. See how much we would miss without stories and legends!

So, this student’s comment made me sad for several reasons, not least of which is that it seems symptomatic of a larger disregard for the humanities at a university-level. When faced with a to-do list, I’m afraid most of us would focus on writing our assignments, studying for an exam, completing a project– and if there was a book (not a textbook, but a book book) we wanted to read, it would be shoved aside until we “had time” for it, until we’d finished everything we “had” to do.

All of which leads me to a question that I contemplate from time to time (get ready for this shift) whenever watching episodes of The Walking Dead: In a zombie apocalypse, would storytellers have a job? Not to mention, would any of the other liberal arts? 

I’m only thinking here of actual job skills, not what someone’s hobbies or skills outside their job may be. If you’re a doctor or a soldier or a farmer, you have very clear marketable skills that would make you an asset to a surviving group. However, what if you teach English or French or art (any of the humanities, really)? Or, what if you are a storyteller or an artist or a musician?

Daryl Dixon, ladies and gentlemen

Daryl Dixon, ladies and gentlemen

I am a firm believer in the power and importance of stories, as stories are how we make sense of our world. Stories are how we relate to each other, how we relate to our world, and how we struggle to piece together meaning out of the senseless, the tragic, the bizarre, or even the mundane. But let’s make this as hypothetical as possible. Because sure, preserving culture and history is important, but let’s not skip ahead to when your survival band has reestablished some form of order and society and has made a semi-permanent camp. What about on the road, on the run?

People still read stories today, obviously, and derive immense enjoyment from them. But when push came to shove, would storytellers be given a priority, or would they vanish to be replaced by more “practical” skills and professions? And for that matter, what about any of the other arts (sculpture, painting, music, dance, drama, foreign languages, etc)? This is all (theoretically) hypothetical, and I don’t have an answer other than to say very vaguely and probably too simplistically that yes, stories should have a place and so should the other arts. While this may be an all-t00-easy answer, I wanted to raise the question, nonetheless.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
― Philip Pullman

Les Saltimbanques par Gustave Doré

Les Saltimbanques par Gustave Doré

Of Dragonlings and Favorite Stories

Today’s is going to be a very short post. I unfortunately have found myself backed into a corner by a whole host of little dragonlings, and while I am confident in my slaying abilities, this week is going to be full of guts and glory rather than blog posts. So, stay tuned next week for tales of my dazzling triumph.

So as to not leave you empty-handed, however, I’m going to recommend a book for everyone (and of which I happen to be reading a portion aloud to my students today); that book is The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman has always been one of my favorite authors, and I have pored over every word he has written. With this book, he has outdone himself.

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I don’t want to summarize or hint at any of the plot, as to do so would take away from the full effect of the book. Instead, I will simply say that it is a very quick read– and one that you will want to read in one sitting– but that you will start reading again as soon as you savor the last word. Its lyricism, subtlety, and painful beauty make it the best thing this voracious reader has encountered in quite some time. So, happy reading until next time.

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Dragon of the Day

So, as a would-be dragon slayer who often finds it difficult to spot camouflaged dragons in today’s world of grey, I want to tackle what I’m going to call my dragon of the day. Today, that dragon is the often disembodied creature of cruelty.

Cruelty is a strong word, I realize, but I want to think about it today in light of something that happened this week. While I have been asked not to go into details, the details are not necessarily essential to this case. The fact is, I saw an incredible act of cruelty this week that ruined not just someone’s career, but someone’s entire life trajectory– and this act was done with no more consideration of the consequences than if the perpetrator was just throwing away a newspaper.

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

What upset me most about this action was that the cruelty could so easily have been prevented, stopped, halted, at any point in the last few months; unfortunately, it could only have been stopped by the perpetrator herself, and there was nothing I could do to help. Instead, this person chose purposefully and deliberately to change this person’s life in irrevocable ways, and it broke my heart as much as it enraged me.

Now, of course, the question: what to do? Well, imagine my surprise when I attended a Maundy Thursday service during this Holy Week, and the homily was on cruelty. The priest began by discussing the fact that Christ is often regarded as “nice” and “passive”– and that this is hardly the case. After all, as one of my favorite lines from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe states regarding Aslan (which I may be paraphrasing slightly): “He’s not a tame (or safe) lion. But he is good.”

Aslan, from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Aslan, from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

There is a massive difference between being good, and being tame. I was so disappointed, then, when after all the build-up discussion of seeing cruelty in the world and all the build-up discussion of Christ’s own passion and conviction that led him often to make decisions, and take actions, that were not popular, not to mention not “nice”– that after all that, the priest ended by essentially saying that we should be nice, and that we should remember to show mercy.

Now I am the first to admit that I need mercy and that I hope I extend the same mercy to others that I would like to be extended to me. However. While Holy Week is all about mercy, it is also about justice, and I don’t think our response to cruelty can always be just to have mercy, or just to be nice. There is a time and a place to turn the other cheek, but there’s also a time and place to stand up for what is right, to fight cruelty and evil in whatever forms they take.

For what happened this week, I can’t physically fight back against the cruelty, no matter how much I might like to. Instead, I’m going to take up a pen and write a letter to disseminate to as many people as I think might be able to effect change in this situation. And maybe it won’t do any good, maybe it won’t alter anything– but I have to try.

“Seems to me the place you fight cruelty is where you find it, and the place you give help is where you see it needed.”

-Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife

Of Rants and Southern Snuffleupaguses

Today’s post is going to be a rant. Although I’m leaving academia at the end of the semester, I am still finishing this semester, which means I’m still attending my classes, doing my reading, and all that good stuff. So my class last week, which I’ve written about before, is the class on the theorist Slavoj Zizek, whom I personally cannot stand because I think he takes everything that is good and beautiful in the world and then just shits all over it.

The Wisdom of Calvin and Hobbes

The Wisdom of Calvin and Hobbes

Last night, we talked about Zizek’s ideas on belief and fundamentalism, among other things. I am on the opposite end of the economic/religious/political spectrum than almost everyone else in the English department (stereotypes of aggressively liberal English professors are often accurate), and while I certainly don’t consider myself extreme in any of my viewpoints– I’m surprisingly moderate in many ways– I often seem heavily conservative when contrasted with others in the department. Now before I get started, let me just state that some of my best friends are polar opposite me in their beliefs, but what sets them apart is the fact that we actually respect each other- which means we respect each others’ opinions, and we can therefore actually have thoughtful and meaningful conversations concerning them.

Credit to Archer

Credit to Archer

So with all that background out of the way, cue the rant, which will be with comments from the class in bold (yes, this is actual dialogue that was spoken aloud) and then my own reactions here to what they said, in the regular type:

-So then, what can we conclude about people who actually believe?
-That they’re stupid?
-Yes, I think so.

First: not to even define what you mean by belief is remarkably problematic. Given the content of the rest of class, I know they meant religious belief; however, clarify your terms, people, because I also happen to believe in gravity and the power of a winning smile, and I no more think that makes me stupid than do my religious beliefs.

Second: Yes, let’s please actually discount almost all of Western philosophical thought because somehow, our postmodern brains make us vastly more enlightened and intelligent than people in the hundreds and thousands of years that have gone before us who have believed in something. And forget about the millions and billions of people who still believe in a higher power, whatever form that may take, and are alive today– they are just clearly not as intelligent and superior as university academics, and their poor selves just need to be educated out of their stupidity and it must be our jobs as superior intellectual beings to take on this Herculean task of enlightening the ignorant.

Credit to The Big Bang Theory

Credit to The Big Bang Theory

Third: Let’s assume we’re just talking about religious belief, then. Does belief nullify all doubts? Does belief mean we just know? Does belief mean blind acceptance without question or thought? I hardly think so. Belief means faith, which readily leaves room for doubts and questions which we may or may not find the answers to when we want them. Doubts make faith, make belief, stronger- not weaker, and certainly not stupid.

Fourth, and briefly: No one is stupid. There are people who are ignorant of certain information, and there are willfully ignorant people who refuse to consider that another perspective might have any value, but I would think long and hard before I went around just calling people (and their beliefs) stupid.

-So it was only recently pointed out to me that when I think of the other end of the political spectrum, I just automatically assume the image of a conservative redneck, and only recently did I realize what a stereotype I’m making by assuming that.

I’m glad this was pointed out and realized, but the fact that it had to be- especially to someone who prides himself on being an intellectual and a critical thinker- is astounding in a way I don’t know how to verbalize. It is symptomatic of the fact that for the most part, everyone in that class has become entirely too comfortable in their academic bubbles, where they assume their peers must obviously think the same ways they do, which means they can stereotype those who hold opposite opinions as stupid, uneducated, half-toothless, redneck hicks.

Well. They could not be more wrong. Now, am I partially to blame for this comfort on their part? Absolutely, and I regret that I haven’t made myself more vocal in that particular class just because I struggle with being incoherent and flustered when I am as frustrated as I have been on Thursday nights. I accept that responsibility. Is it still incredibly insular on their part to assume that a young, intelligent, educated, classy Southern woman such as myself is a Snuffleupagus? You bet your sweet bottom.

Mr. Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street

Mr. Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street

[during a discussion of how everyone has a different perspective, a different perception, when looking at the same thing, and how this often leads to miscommunication because we cannot ever understand anything aside from our own individual viewpoints]: So when we read Hitler, everyone reads their perception of Hitler.

Finally, we reach this point. There is no ‘perception’ of Hitler and what he did. If I asked everyone in that room if what he did was evil and wrong, I bet no one would say they disagreed with that statement. And regardless of whether this comment was intended in jest or in all seriousness, to even suggest that there are different ways of reading what Hitler did, should make us all tremble to our cores.

In the postmodern world, experience has become the dictator for what is true, and this should be terrifying. If I declare the only truth I know to be the truth I experience myself, how limiting that is to my world– not to mention how it completely nullifies the idea of any Truth. And before too long, “my experience is true” will become “my experience is truer than yours, therefore I am right” will become “I am right therefore what I say is true.”

Again, I want to point out that I only intend this as a rant against those so entrenched in their own opinions that they willfully and eagerly refuse to consider anything from another perspective, and who can’t understand how there could possibly be other humans worthy of respect who might have ideas different from their own. When did it become okay to insult and belittle not just the opinions of others, but the actual persons themselves?

More Words of Wisdom

More Words of Wisdom

Of Heroism in a World of Grey

This weekend, I saw the new Captain America movie. While I won’t gush on about my feelings concerning the specifics of the movie– aside from simply saying that it exceeded my expectations and was so good that everyone needs to go see it immediately– it gave me a lot (and far too much to put in one post) to think about. I’m sure I’ll talk about it all eventually, but today, I just want to think about heroism– and good and evil– in 2014. (I know I said “just,” as if it’s such an easy topic that a few hundred words with some pictures interspersed can do it justice; bear with me.)

Captain America

So for this post, let me make clear that I’m talking about heroism in my own life, and in the lives of others like me. I am not touching on those who actually physically fight for my right to say whatever I want on this blog; our soldiers are unquestionably heroes who cannot be thanked or praised enough– and whose situation I think the newest Captain America film does an excellent and heart-wrenching job of portraying. What I’d like to consider is all the rest of us: those who don’t in our daily lives encounter physical monsters and dragons in need of slaying.

What do you do when there is no black and white? When monsters wear masks, when dragons move in masquerade among us, when everything seems so unbearably grey? And even when there are black and white issues, as there will always be, what do you do when, the world being what it is, you can’t fight evil physically, and even your words seem (in the words of George Eliot) “in their feebleness nothing better than despair made audible”?

Movie Still from Sleeping Beauty

Movie Still from Sleeping Beauty

Well. I have never claimed to have all the answers (or even some of them). But what I will do, as I so often do when I am struggling to find an answer or some meaning in seeming meaninglessness, is turn to literature. One of my favorite series of books growing up was The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. First of all, everyone should go read them right now. Second of all, this is just one of many quotes from the fifth (and last) novel in the series, spoken by the hero Taran:

“Long ago I yearned to be a hero without knowing, in truth, what a hero was. Now, perhaps, I understand it a little better. A grower of turnips or a shaper of clay, a Commot farmer or a king– every man is a hero if he strives more for others than for himself alone. Once you told me that the seeking counts more than the finding. So, too, must the striving count more than the gain.”

These words ring as true today as they did when I was a child. There are so many more ways than just one to be a hero– thankfully! There are so many kinds of heroes and so many ways to be heroic, and I think they always involve some form of selflessness. It is so hard to be heroic in small ways– not to say that it’s not hard to be heroic in big ways too. They’re both difficult, just in different ways. I think what is most difficult about being heroic in “small” ways is that it involves fighting against intangible evil. And unfortunately, I am so often (and sadly so easily) discouraged by intangible evil. How do we strive against that which we cannot see? How do we know we are effecting change if we can’t even see what we are fighting?

The Knight at the Crossroads by Viktor Vasnetsov

The Knight at the Crossroads by Viktor Vasnetsov

I don’t have an answer. Not more of one than simply to say that I do believe that daily acts of kindness are just as important to stem the tide of darkness as are physical battles. How to remember this in the midst of getting bogged down in the living of day-to-day life, I continue (and will continue) to struggle with. So to end today, I’d like to quote again, this time from Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” as a reminder that maybe the striving is what counts the most– maybe the refusal to yield to darkness, to keep chasing after light and compassion and empathy and goodness, matters most:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Of Second-Guessing and Grace

As I believe I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I always have such mixed feelings by the end of each week that it can be as confusing as it is frustrating. My class on Victorian literature this week left me so elated yet so frustrated that to others in the class, the idea of being passionate about such a subject seemed as foreign a concept as that there might be life on other planets in the universe. I get it, Victorian literature isn’t for everybody– but does that mean there’s nothing you can learn from a literary era or genre not your specialty? Just because something isn’t your personal preference doesn’t mean it can’t teach you something– and it certainly doesn’t mean that it is somehow beneath you.

But I digress. The point is, my enthusiasm and excitement for the Victorian literature I study every Tuesday night make my forehead wrinkle and my mind do somersaults afterwards, because what if I am making the wrong choice? What if this is what I’m supposed to do, and I am about to waste my talents and passions by leaving school and embarking on a different career that may or may not ever take off? I have felt often lately a sort of panic regarding if I am making the right decision.

Well, my answer to myself is a three-parter. One, let me not forget that all things Victorian would be only one small facet of any future job I might hold in academia, and it is all the rest of it that makes me run screaming. Two, aside from learning other languages, writing fiction is the only thing that I have always been passionate about, that can always get me out of bed on the mornings nothing else will, that excites me when I contemplate doing it for the rest of my life. And three, I keep thinking of these two quotes from the writings of Isak Dinesen (who wrote stories of such simplicity and elegance and beauty that everyone should read them). The first quote is from the short story “The Diver”:

“For God does not create a longing or a hope without having a fulfilling reality ready for them.”

In other words, and in far less beautiful words, I have my desires for a reason. And maybe my longings, my deepest yearnings, won’t find fulfillment in this particular life; I certainly hope they do, but even if they don’t, that doesn’t mean they will never find fulfillment, that they will never be satisfied. And it also does not mean that I should not pursue my longings and desires with everything I have.

Photo by Alexandre Deschaumes

Photo “In Longing Spirit” by Alexandre Deschaumes

The second Dinesen quote is from “Babette’s Feast” (which, incidentally, was made into a beautiful movie in 1987):

“We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace . . . demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude.”

So sure, let me try to follow up that quote with words of my own. I have made my decision, and I am very at peace with that decision. That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to freak out about it from time to time, but I have to remember– as we all have to remember after making choices, good or bad, right or wrong– there is grace to cover our choices, and it is infinite.

Movie Still of Babette's Feast

Movie Still of Babette’s Feast

“I won’t tell you that the world matters nothing, or the world’s voice, or the voice of society. They matter a good deal. They matter far too much. But there are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely—or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands. You have that moment now. Choose!”

-Oscar Wilde