Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Undying in My Mind

I have a lot to say and no time to say it in, but I just want to lay the thought that's particularly wanting to come out:

This year's Yuletide fics on Dalemark aren't all that great (one of them has extremely powerful form but less interesting content, and the one with potentially interesting content isn't all that well-written), but they were good enough to induce me to spend the weekend re-reading Dalemark. Now, Navis is BY FAR my favorite character in Dalemark. Navis is one of my favorite characters EVER. He is (sublimely) competent, sarcastic, romantic, and good, and this is not a combination that you usually get. But one thing that reading these Dalemark fics and then re-reading the books themselves has revealed to me is that, much as I love Navis, I feel like we have enough of his story that I'm not necessarily so eager for fic about it. I mean, I'll read it if it's there, and I'll be happy, in the way that I get happy when I'm reading about one of my favorite characters. But I don't feel like there's that much missing from my understanding of Navis that fic can pleasantly fill in. The books give us practically his entire life story.

But what I really want is Duck fic! Lots and lots of Duck fic! Duck is quite an intriguing character (a very bright star in the sky where Navis is sun) and, unlike Navis, has vast quantities of stuff to be filled in. I want fanfic about what exactly went on between Duck and Eleth and why she decided to claim that the One was Noreth's father and how Kankredin got to them all. I want fanfic about what happens after Crown of Dalemark when Duck has all of his power back - how exactly do Undying spend their time when they're bound as gods - Duck must be; he admits to being the Wanderer - but no one believes in them anymore and they've spent centuries without most of their power - Duck seems to have an even harder time dealing with his situation than Tanamil (maybe that's why he called himself Tanamoril), and I'd like to know how that goes in the modern world. And fanfic about the original Enblith the Fair and how Duck (and Tanaqui? And Robin, maybe, although that's only implied, and the answer seems kind of obvious.) first learned he was Undying and maybe even about the Adon and Manaliabrid, although that seems a bit presumptuous - well, I'd like to know about Manaliabrid in general. We don't get enough of her. But anyway, more Duck! I particularly like the way he doesn't show any emotion except for politeness, except that Mitt irritates him (obviously, Duck knew about the prophecies about Mitt and saw him as the competition; the point of the very first scene in the book, which doesn't necessarily even need to be there otherwise, is that Duck really dislikes Mitt; by the way, in terms of Navis being better than Duck, note the difference between the way he treats Noreth/Maewen as competition and the way Duck treats Mitt) and he's kind of quietly happy when he thinks that his daughter cares about him, and then he gets about as immature as possible when he finds out that she's actually dead (he certainly seems to realize right away that she must be dead, given how incredibly upset he is). There's something very interesting about immortality there, I think. Several of the Undying - Old Ammett and Tanaqui in particular - seem to be able to appear with multiple ages - why is Duck always young? I mean, maybe he is just because that's how he wants to present himself at the times we see him in the book, but then why doesn't he have to shave when that makes Navis suspicious?


Okay, hopefully that lays that a bit.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Amusing Thought of the Morning

Wait, which song is that part in, again? You know, the part that goes, "I'm searching for the context, not finding it."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Do All Your Shopping. . . at Wal-Mart!

I think that I will forever regret that I was not one of the children in the choir singing "The Most Unwanted Music." Seriously, to have been partly responsible for this would have been such an honor.

Monday, December 15, 2008

In Case You Didn't Know

Why you should read Angel Sanctuary

Reader (Etc.) Response Theory

One of the formative experiences of my youth was getting into an argument with other people at my high school summer camp over George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss. Everyone else argued that Maggie Tulliver was a very sympathetic character; I protested that I found Eliot as a writer to be very manipulative (a point on which I haven't changed my mind; I had the same reaction to Adam Bede 8.5 years later) and that her attempts to gin up sympathy for Maggie made me inclined to rebel. My memory, though it may be somewhat distorted, is that even the professors running the class were kind of aghast that I was unable to just "enjoy the novel" without analyzing it; sure, later on, after finishing the book, it was a good and respectable thing to consider what the author had apparently been trying to do, but when you were just reading the book for the first time, in order to get as much pleasure out of it as possible, you should ignore that kind of thing and just react, without having these bizarre meta-reactions.

Well, later on I came across this attitude as the anti-English department attitude - people should just enjoy books, all of that analysis just gets in the way. I'm unable to buy it, just because I can't imagine turning off that analytical part of my brain. I'm not trying to claim that, on my first reading of a book, I ever do an in-depth, sophisticated reading of it that remains my stable critical attitude towards the book. But, let's face it. My reaction to narrative is inherently an active one; I can't even imagine what it would mean to passively absorb a story. Reader response theory appeals to me to the degree that it assumes that the reader is always playing a role in creating the story, because that's very true to my experience. I'll finish a book and just KNOW things about the characters that the author never bothered to say. And, furthermore, I'll also always come out of a story with a double sense. Ignoring the authorial intent issue for now, let's just say that I come out of a story with two reactions - on the one hand, how did I feel about the characters, plot resolution, setting, etc., and, on the other hand, what would a sympathetic reading of the story have to say about the characters, plot resolution, setting, etc. Sometimes, to be sure, those two reactions are more or less synonymous - but even then I'm consciously aware of the synonymy!

As with Maggie Tolliver, these perceptions quite frequently focus on characters. Sometimes I'll find myself disliking a character that I feel the story itself wants me to like. And sometimes I'll find myself adoring a character where that adoration doesn't feel sanctioned by the story. The latter situation happens to me a lot with Dave Duncan books. Most recently, I read his novel Demon Sword (published under the pseudonym Ken Hood). The hero of the novel is a young guy named Toby, and there's a significant secondary character named Rory. Throughout the novel, Toby has a very vexed relationship with Rory. Rory often treats him badly, and Toby dislikes Rory on first site (later, it's suggested that he subconsciously realized that Rory was a romantic rival for the female lead when they first met). On the other hand, Toby also recognizes many good qualities in Rory and occasionally has moments of showing great respect for him. One assumes we're supposed to root for Toby, based on the fact that he's the hero of the book, makes mistakes but often triumphs, shows a consistent and at least somewhat laudable morality, and, in the climatic moment of what seems to be a fairly light book, triumphs. Thus, Rory is presented ambiguously throughout. Finally, in his last few appearances, it's revealed that, despite his many positive characteristics, he really is a fundamentally lousy guy; he's willing to leave Toby to his death in order to get money and the girl. The structure of the story makes me assume that the reader is being led to repudiate Rory, just as Toby's loyal supporter Haimish ultimately does. And yet I found myself unable to do so. I'm strongly inclined to forgive Rory for his admittedly horrible behavior towards Toby, because I just found him more likable throughout the entire book than I found Toby. So, even though the structure of the narrative made the hero quite obvious, as a reader, I had to ignore that and pick my own, somewhat more flawed, hero.

Actually, despite my divergence from the planned narrative, my reaction to Demon Sword was very positive; I enjoyed the book and didn't really feel bothered that I differed from the narrative's perspective! My reaction to Final Fantasy VII in this regard is more problematic, however. At least Rory is legitimately ambiguous throughout the book. But with FFVII, up until the end of the game, I was convinced that the narrative was setting up redemption for Sephiroth. He did some pretty bad things, to be sure. But the game seemed to stress that he had been lied to all his life, had been manipulated, had never really had any chance to understand goodness. At one point, the protagonist, Cloud, comes to the conclusion that all his life he had taken physical strength as the only means to gain respect and that he's now realized the problems with that attitude; since he specifically considered Sephiroth to be a model of physical strength, I really believed that this scene was set up for the end of the game, when they would reveal Sephiroth's strength to be just as much of a pose, hiding the abused, unloved boy within. I played the game with my brother, and when he told me that we were up to the final dungeon, I didn't even believe that was possible, since the whole part of the game that came after Sephiroth's redemption was yet to come.

Well, Sephiroth, rather famously, was never redeemed. And that struck me as very different from Rory's situation. In Rory's situation, although I liked him a lot more than the narrative seemed to, his ambiguity throughout the book seemed to justify both the narrative's negative end to his story and my own more positive stance. But, in FFVII, I never felt that the narrative was ambiguous. I was expecting the narrative to agree with me. And it was a real shock and disappointment to find that the narrative really didn't.

On the other hand, those stories where the narrative and my own perceptions seem to be in sync can be really powerful. This is probably at the heart of my deep, abiding love for Please Save My Earth - there, the story has some very ambiguous characters whom I love. The suspense of the narrative for me comes from the way it often seems to skirt the edge of throwing off them off the cliff - in reading it, I can't help but feel nervous - what if the narrative ultimately presents Shion or Rin as ultimately evil? But, in fact, the narrative always comes right back and reasserts that my positive understanding of the characters is right! It's a very empowering story for me to read; I love the delicate dance between the possibility that my interpretations ultimately won't be justified and the constant clues the story provides that they will be.

I'm thinking about this in the throes of anticipation for Lost - which I really am very excited about ;-). I feel like my perception of Sawyer might be like my perception of Shion or Rin - an ambiguous character, whom the story often seems to risk presenting as fundamentally problematic, but one in whom my deep faith will probably be justified in the end. And Ben Linus is another case entirely - an ambiguous character whom I find enjoyable to watch as a mostly bad guy, with a few good sides; I'm not on Ben's side, but I enjoy watching him and continuing to not be on his side. I hope the narrative doesn't end up justifying all his actions, but I find him fun to watch nonetheless. But Kate is more of a problem for me; she's an ambiguous character who the story seems to think is more justified than I do. The key difference between Sawyer and Kate is that Sawyer doesn't think he is a good person for having committed horrible acts; he does some pretty bad things, but he doesn't like himself for them and doesn't really expect anyone else to like him, either, because he doesn't think he deserves it. The narrative in that sense helps to exonerate him; it suggests he has at least the possibility of some day making up for his errors. And I'm in line with the narrative. But Kate is presented as a heroine, someone whom, while we're supposed to doubt her, we're also supposed to root for. However, she never shows the same kind of self-doubt or remorse as Sawyer; she expects other people to like and respect her despite the horrible things that she's done. The narrative seems to think that it's exonerated her, at least to the same extent that it's exonerated Sawyer, but I can't go along with it. That's the main reason why her character really gets on my nerves.


Interesting conjunction of artists I like -

Ray Davies - "The Tourist"

Diana Wynne Jones - Dark Lord of Derkholm

I wonder - is the moral ambiguity of tourism more of a British theme than an American one? If so, why? I suppose it's likely that more British people have experienced tourism outside their own country than Americans; this website gives a source, apparently now defunct, claiming that 34% of American adults have passports, whereas British tourists don't need passports to see a large number of other countries, including some which are certainly poorer than Britain.

Two Quotations I Like

1. "In the traditional Confucian interpretation of poetry, such imagery of the distant beauty personified as the moon can be read as the exile's longing for the imperial court. Naturally, other more erotic and metaphysical interpretations are also possible."

---Footnote on "Red Cliff Rhapsodies, 1 and 2," by Su Shih, in The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, ed. Victor Mair

2. "The laughter of Voltaire, the hatred of Swift were assertions of vitality and the instinct to live in us, which continually struggles not only against evil but against the daily environment."

---V. S. Pritchett, "1984," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of 1984, ed. Samuel Hynes

Monday, December 8, 2008

Interesting Women Or Men

I don't actually read Questionable Content per se, but it's one of those comics that I don't enjoy enough to read the full archives but do enjoy enough to look through occasionally. I spent the night a couple of nights ago reading it and enjoying the odd psychologies of many of the major characters, and it got me to thinking. You couldn't really call QC a harem comic in the way that I understand people call Megatokyo a harem comic (nb, I have never read Megatokyo myself, so this is just hearsay). Sure, I guess a large part of the comic at first was about the fairly average, socially awkward guy who had two girls who were interested in him, but there are far more characters than that, most of whom aren't interested in him, and the situation with Marten's love triangle has been at least temporarily resolved for quite a while. At the same time, I feel like QC has something in common with a harem comic, in that the male lead is a socially awkward guy who has girl trouble, and this is his main personality characteristic, and, as for the rest of the characters, the interesting female characters seem to strongly outnumber the interesting male characters. The most memorable characters in QC seem very definitely to be Faye and Hannelore, and, after that, the more memorable characters generally seem to be the women rather than the men. It's difficult to count this or quantify it, but I know that in reading the comic I always find myself looking out for the strips that involve the women and mainly only being interested in the men in terms of the way that they're relating to the women.

The interesting thing is that QC is a strip written by a heterosexual guy. This seems to fit with the idea of harem shows in anime, which are generally shows with one average guy picking from a large number of attractive women and are definitely aimed at (heterosexual) men (I enjoyed Tenchi Muyo, along these lines, since two of the characters in it reminded me of the same one of my favorite imagined characters that the actress who plays Charlotte in Lost could play). Azumanga Daioh, a manga/anime with a grand total of one male character (who's somewhat peripheral) was originally written as shounen. Meanwhile, there are reverse harem shows for (heterosexual) girls, featuring, of course, one average girl and the heaps of men she encounters who fall for her, things like Fushigi Yuugi. There are also more borderline cases - Fruits Basket has plenty of female characters, but my experience in watching it was that the writers of the anime directed most of their attention towards the men and the one female lead, although I don't know if this is also true of the manga or not. And of
course there are cases like Gundam Wing, where a show that was originally aimed at boys has a huge fanbase of women and girls attracted by the cast of attractive men with very few women involved to distract them.

I don't claim, of course, that these tendencies are universal, but I think it's interesting that they do exist in some mediums. Certainly my understanding is that Western comic books, mostly aimed at a male audience, tend to mostly focus on their male leads and mostly mistreat their women. And, although there are certainly reality TV shows aimed more at one gender than another, I feel as though scripted American TV shows probably don't have the luxury of narrowing their audience in that way. On the other hand, does Lost actually have more interesting male characters than females? That tends to be my sense of the show, but, if so, it hardly seems to be because the show is largely aimed at women (and the main showrunners are male).

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Brief Comments on Jarvis Cocker

It is not the case that I have never been attracted to a man with a beard. That having been said, this is NOT a good fashion choice, Jarvis!

Apparently, Jarvis also recently did a lecture on song lyrics: notes here. It doesn't dovetail neatly with my own musings on this topic (the things we agree on are more or less commonplace), but the examples of bad song lyrics are funny. And I really liked this quotation from some guy called Alan Watts: "The task and delight of poetry is to say what cannot be said, to eff the ineffable, and to unscrew the inscrutable."

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Hey, This Post Needs a Title!

If you go to here and use the password "qilak," you can see three special features for Lost - some stuff from the Season 4 DVD, mainly focusing on Kate (including an interview with her actress and someone else talking about the actress), an interview with the actress who plays Charlotte, and a scene from the first episode of the next season, featuring Kate. I definitely like getting these updates through the e-mail, and they serve their intended purpose of getting me even more excited than I already was for the upcoming season. But I do feel slightly bemused by that particular set of special features.

I mean, okay, I like the actress who plays Charlotte, mainly because she has the perfect looks and, in the first episode in which she appeared, the ability to portray the perfect personality, for one of my favorite imagined characters. I've never before really seen someone who looks so close to the way I've imagined one of my made-up characters in my head, and the fact that she played a character who at least originally displayed a similar personality to my character makes it more exciting. Still, I think we can all agree that Charlotte is very, very, very far from the most interesting character on the show. . . .

And then why do both of the other two features have to focus on Kate? I mean, okay, I admit to being biased here, because Kate is my least favorite character. But I don't think I'd mind if they had one feature about her. But Lost is obviously an ensemble show. It seems really strange to devote two of the three features to the same character and then one more to a really minor character.

Oh, well. I suppose that at least this way I can hope that next time all three of the features are devoted to Sawyer or Desmond. . .

The Old Scottish Gentry

So apparently the Marmalade were Scottish, too? Huh. Who knew?

Monday, December 1, 2008

This Post Is Not Stalinist!

Franz Ferdinand's next album, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, will be coming out in the US on January 27, 2009. At their Myspace page linked above, you can hear the two songs that have thus far been released from the album, "Lucid Dreams" (on the record player) and "Ulysses" (although apparently "Lucid Dreams" will be quite different on the album).

Lyrically, there are some interesting connections between these two songs. "Ulysses" makes reference, surprisingly enough, to Ulysses, but "Lucid Dreams" makes reference to Ithaca. This is enough to make a naturally synthetic mind such as mine see a vivid connection.

"Lucid Dreams" seems to be a song about a world traveler; the song name-checks not only Ithaca but also Istanbul, Alexandria, and Germany, as the narrator explains that he "skate[s] on the world tonight." But the excitement of world travel doesn't hide the anomie underneath, as the singer complains about his "aimless love" and feels "hollow" because he "may never know if there is some great truth or not." The excitement of being able to go all over the world, of being rootless and untethered, is intimately tied to the sorrow of having no specific aim (how can one have a landing place if one doesn't have a starting place?) and not having any one grand truth to tie oneself. The answer to the traveler's issue seems to be to invite a loved one to travel along with him; after asserting that "there is no nation of you, there is no nation of me," the singer claims that, "in lucid dreams," the two of them can find "our nation."

"Ulysses" has to be a song about a world traveler, simply by virtue of being called "Ulysses" ;-). Although the song's lyrics aren't quite as evocative as those of "Lucid Dreams," they do seem to focus on somewhat similar themes - once again, we have a traveling narrator ("walk twenty-five miles") undergoing a variety of experiences ("I've found a new way"). Although the references to travel are less blatant than in "Lucid Dreams," that title does make it hard to avoid noticing them. There also seem to be various references to jaded anomie - the singer wonders "what you gotta disdain," complains, "I'm bored, I'm bored, c'mon, let's get high," and discusses "that heart that grew cold." And then the second section of the song kicks in, and the ultimate message is not only that "you're not Ulysses" but also that "you're never going home." And so, once again, we have an untethered traveler who can't ever return home and is thus doomed to suffer boredom and purposelessness.

I don't know, of course, whether any of the other songs on the upcoming album will pick up these themes. But, since I think they're kind of cool themes, I definitely hope that this turns out to be an album based on a modernized version of The Odyssey, focusing on the twin pulls of the excitement of being a citizen of the world versus the importance of roots and a sense of home. These are, after all, themes that Franz Ferdinand might be particularly well-suited to explore. I mean, yes, any popular band is going to be able to explore these themes, because world traveling and the inability to really put down roots in a community kind of go with the job description. But look at Alex Kapranos's biography - here's a guy born in England to his English mother and Greek father (who changed his surname - why? To sound more English?), spending most of his childhood summers in Greece, and then moving to Scotland as a kid. He describes himself as possessing "English looks, but Greek temperment." And he's written a song, which, as far as I can tell, is about the the anglicization of successful Scottish people. So. . . he certainly seems to be just the right person to create songs, based on a classic work of Greek literature, focusing on the tension between cosmopolitanism and a strong sense of nation. Furthermore, it's not just Alex - guitarist Nick McCarthy, though born in England, grew up in Germany. So the band as a whole probably has a good understanding of this tension.

Anyway, I'm all set to be disappointed. But if it does end up happening the way I've laid it out, you read it first here!

I Go on an Anti-God Rant

Stanley Fish on Paradise Lost:

"To say that a 'mortal taste' brought death into the world is to say something tautologous; but the tautology is profound when it reminds us of both the costs and the glories of being mortal. If no mortality, then no human struggles, no narrative, no story, no aspiration (in eternity there’s nowhere to go), no “Paradise Lost.”"

The phrase "the glories of being mortal" seems to edge awkwardly close to theodicy. In being mortal, we give up "eternity," but we accept in return the glories of. . . well, it isn't immediately obvious that "human struggles" are a source of glory, I should hope, so let's go with "narrative," "story," "aspiration," and "'Paradise Lost.'" Except I'm going to leave out "aspiration," too, because it seems like a different issue. So, anyway, this seems to me to be a distillation of a fairly common theodicy - we have "free will," whatever that means to the theodicer (I guess that's not a word, but it should be), because the possibility of evil somehow allows for more satisfactory narratives. If there was no evil, no struggle, no aspiration, there would be no stories, and this is the moral justification for our incredibly imperfect world.

Now, instinctively, it seems to me that this assertion is actively offensive - who could possibly assume that we can take "narrative," "story," and "'Paradise Lost'" as an acceptable replacement for all of the holes in the world? And yet how can I reconcile my instincts with my strong sense that I am alive purely and solely because of art and to a large degree because of narrative art? When I'm asked what I would do if I were certain of never again being able to enjoy art (imagine God coming down and telling me that that was it, I had my fun and now it's over), I reply simply enough - I'd die. There wouldn't be any point anymore. Nothing else I know of has made life worthwhile in the way that art does.

But, although on the surface this may seem like an interesting question, I'm not sure to what degree there's really a contradiction involved. Obviously, as someone who didn't create the world or my outer circumstances, I've decided that the world that I found myself in is worth living in despite its massive imperfections (actually, "decide" isn't really the right term there, as I haven't made an active choice - it's more a basic, inarguable premise of my consciousness. But I suppose in not committing suicide I at least passively make a decision to live every waking moment of every day.). But that doesn't mean that it's morally right of someone else, some theoretical God, to put me in a position to have to make the awkward choice between continued flawed existence or throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A Kantian and a utilitarian might disagree on the accurate moral choice to make when the evil supervillain threatens to kill everyone in the world if you refuse to kill five innocent people. But I think they can both agree that the evil supervillain is both evil and a supervillain. Both of them would prefer to live in the happy shiny world without supervillains, where we can academically discuss these choices without actually having to, you know, make them.

And so, oddly enough, despite my the primacy of my love for narrative, my sense that it's what's keeping me alive, I feel as though this is merely a makeshift bandage on a giant seeping wound. It works, and it keeps me alive, but it's much better not to be wounded in the first place. Honestly, anyone who creates a world that incorporates consciousness shouldn't make it so that any one, separable, distinguishable pinpoint, not even something so lovely and beautiful as art, is necessary for consciousness's acceptance of life. Conscious beings should, in the ideal world, accept life as a good in itself. If mortality makes this impossible (as Fish suggests when he admits that being mortal has "costs" - you're already making a moral mistake when you're imposing costs on people, because then you're setting them up in a position where they have to choose between either living with the costs or else missing out on the glories) then there shouldn't be mortality - I'd rather be consistently happy with no literature than happy for a brief time with literature. And what if consciousness cannot be happy with literature, and literature cannot exist without mortality? Well, in that case, we're accepting the premise that consciousness in and of itself implies lack, that consciousness itself is the wound, that consciousness and satisfaction are mutually incompatible. In that case, you know what, it's not worth it to create consciousness.