We've all been there, Uncle Screwtape

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My favorite line in The Screwtape Letters comes in Letter 22, as the writer, the demon bureaucrat Screwtape, launches into what Southern moms call a conniption fit over the failures of his correspondent, his nephew Wormwood. A bracketed editor’s note informs us that at this point “the MS breaks off and is resumed in a different hand.” Screwtape, now dictating, begins:

 
In the heat of composition I find that I have inadvertently allowed myself to assume the form of a large centipede.
 

To which I say: Who hasn’t pitched such a fit that they’ve turned into a bug?

I laugh every single time I read this line, not only because it’s hilarious but because I recognize a little of myself in it. A lot of myself, if I’m being honest. Especially since Screwtape continues (now dictating):

Now that the transformation is complete I recognise it as a periodical phenomenon. Some rumour of it has reached the humans and a distorted account of it appears in the poet Milton, with the ridiculous addition that such changes of shape are a ‘punishment’ imposed on us by the Enemy. A more modern writer—someone with a name like Pshaw—has, however, grasped the truth. Transformation proceeds from within and is a glorious manifestation of that Life Force which Our Father would worship if he worshipped anything but himself.

There’s a lot to unpack here, including some pretty dense allusions to Milton and George Bernard Shaw, but what I want to point out for the purposes of this post is the assertion that “transformation proceeds from within.”

A simple sermon illustration that I heard a number of times growing up should be a sufficient gloss: the teabag. Hot water brings out the flavor that’s already there. You can’t ascribe any tea-like qualities, any teaness, to the boiling water itself; all the tea flavor in the end product comes out of the teabag. And if, after boiling and pouring and steeping, something is wrong with the tea, the source of the problem should be obvious. The question always posed by this illustration is, of course, what qualities does the proverbial hot water bring out of you?

This is not a question I would be proud to answer.

Screwtape, of course, perversely tries to claim his transformation as a victory or a show of strength. He embraces this punishment and tries to own it, “a glorious manifestation” of his true nature, which is selfish and all-consuming. And so this otherwise comical moment of high dudgeon ends up illustrating or at least foreshadowing something Lewis argues elsewhere: “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”

The Screwtape Letters remains one of Lewis’s best not only because of its insight and the way it provokes often uncomfortable self-reflection—as here—but because it’s so funny. There are several good audio versions of Screwtape, but the best is that of Monty Python alumnus John Cleese, who does comic rage like no one else. You can listen to him read Letter 22 here.

The Highwaymen on City of Man Podcast

Kevin Costner as Texas Ranger Frank Hamer in  The Highwaymen

Kevin Costner as Texas Ranger Frank Hamer in The Highwaymen

 
Used to be, you had to have talent to get published. Now you just have to shoot people.
— Maney Gault in The Highwaymen
 

Last week I sat down to talk with my friend Coyle of the City of Man Podcast. Our topic of discussion was the new Netflix film The Highwaymen, directed by John Lee Hancock and starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson. The film, set in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana in the spring of 1934, tells the story of Frank Hamer (Costner) and Maney Gault (Harrelson), retired Texas Rangers tasked with tracking down and killing legendary spree criminals Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.

The Highwaymen dramatizes a great true story in (broadly) accurate ways and poses some interesting questions about crime, law and order, the role of force in upholding the law, progressive modern assumptions about crime and civilization, the idolization of celebrities—even criminals—and whether our sins are our own fault or forced upon us by our circumstances. Coyle and I had a great time discussing the film, the history, the themes and questions raised by the story, and more.

The only thing I wish we could’ve dug into deeper was more specifics on accuracy and authenticity. But who knows—I may resurrect Historical Movie Monday for a Highwaymen post somewhere down the road. The Highwaymen is a solid movie and I hope y’all will both watch it and enjoy our discussion of it.

You can find the City of Man Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and other fine podcasting platforms. You can find a link to this episode’s shownotes here. I’ve also embedded the episode in a Stitcher player in this post. Please listen in, and I hope y’all enjoy!

Against the news

FAKE NEWS AND FEARMONGERING IN  CITIZEN KANE  (1941)

FAKE NEWS AND FEARMONGERING IN CITIZEN KANE (1941)

After the busiest, most hectic, and stressful semester of my career, I’m coming up for air. I have quite a backlog of stuff I’d like to share—movie and book reviews, especially—but one of the most thought-provoking things to cross my path in the last months is this excellent post by my old acquaintance Will Gray: “What I learned from giving up news for Lent this year.”

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Will decided to give up the news—all news media, even casually observed TV news in public places. The saturation of our day-to-day lives with news is such that it proved nearly impossible but, to his credit, he stuck with it. In the process, he learned a couple other important things: any truly important information will make its way to you eventually, and via more organic, meaningful routes—like, you know, family and friends—and avoiding the constant fever pitch of news consumption is “delightfully refreshing.”

It’s a good post—do check it out.

I’ve never given up the news cold turkey the way Will did this year but I’ve certainly been tempted to. And on the occasions when I have purposefully avoided the news for a day or two, or even a few hours, I have felt that refreshment. A French word for it—fresh on my mind since I’ve just lectured on Nixon and Kissinger—is détente: literally de-tensifying or unstretching. Without the news I find I can relax—I can be lax again.

But it was not ever thus. Détente might have come to my mind on this topic just this morning, but as I first read Will’s post last week I thought of something even more directly relevant: I recalled some observations in Neil Postman’s seminal critique of modern media, Amusing Ourselves to Death. I’ve just completed design on a new Humanities course on technology and culture—one of the things making this semester so busy—and Postman’s book will be one of the texts for the course.

Amusing Ourselves to Death examines the way different kinds of media make possible—as well as make impossible—certain kinds of discourse, ways of conversing about the world. His primary concern is with the deleterious effect of TV on American discourse (the book was published in 1985), but in the first part Postman examines “typographic” or print culture.

Postman argues that a typographic culture of discourse pertained in the United States through roughly the mid- or late-19th century, and what distinguishes a population raised on print is a long, patient attention span, the ability to focus intently, a store of shared cultural background that can be drawn upon for mutual understanding, and an immense capacity for following and digesting complicated information. His most potent example is the audience for the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858—ordinary citizens of all ages and sexes from seven respectably sized towns in Illinois who not only sat still for, but apparently followed, participated in, and enjoyed minutely detailed political and philosophical debates for upwards of seven hours at a stretch.

For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut.

All that began to change, according to Postman, with the invention of telegraphy. Because the telegraph could transmit previously hard to get information almost instantaneously over vast distances, “for the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut.” Furthermore, the information conveyed by telegraph was unformed, unsorted, “essentially incoherent.” Its speed encouraged brevity, and therefore urgency. It “introduced a kind of public conversation whose . . . language was the language of headlines—sensational, fragmented, impersonal. News took the form of slogans, to be noted with excitement, to be forgotten with dispatch.” In the end, one of the most important unintended consequences of telegraphy was “to dignify irrelevance and,” more importantly for my purposes here, “amplify impotence.”

In his post, Will writes: “Many other reports, articles, exposés, and scoops are bound to have rankled you during the past 40 days. Gotten under your skin. Raised your blood pressure. Gotten your dander up.” Something we’re bound to be familiar with. Here is where Postman’s observation about the impotence created by telegraphic news reporting—and only enhanced since—comes in. One of the reasons people get so worked up about the news is that most of what they read about or see on TV they are powerless to do anything about. All one can do is fret or enjoy the show. We are, at best, a whole world of helpless observers; at worst, a world of prurient rubberneckers.

Why is this? According to Postman, “in both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action.

Prior to the age of telegraphy, the information-action ratio was sufficiently close so that most people had a sense of being able to control some of the contingencies in their lives. What people knew about had action-value. In the information world created by telegraphy, this sense of potency was lost, precisely because the whole world became the context for news. Everything became everyone’s business. For the first time, we were sent information which answered no question we had asked, and which, in any case, did not permit the right of reply.

The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing.

We’ve come a long way since telegraphy, of course, and from Postman’s era, in which “Sesame Street” and CNN—two of his notable but now seemingly quaint concerns—were relatively new threats to public discourse. The 24-hour news cycle ushered in by CNN is now the norm, and the hour is hardly a sufficient unit of time with which to measure how quickly the news comes in and changes. In the course I designed, I invite my students to conjecture what they think Postman would have made of Snapchat or, especially, Twitter.

But all of this just deepens that feeling of powerlessness. Here’s Postman again, quoted at length so you can see how his examination of this problem accidentally foreshadows even more troubling issues:

You may get a sense of this [sense of impotence] by asking yourself another series of questions: What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous mistreatment of the Baha'is in Iran? I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about them. You may, of course, cast a ballot for someone who claims to have some plans, as well as the power to act. But this you can do only once every two or four years by giving one hour of your time, hardly a satisfying means of expressing the broad range of opinions you hold. Voting, we might even say, is the next to last refuge of the politically impotent. The last refuge is, of course, giving your opinion to a pollster, who will get a version of it through a desiccated question, and then will submerge it in a Niagara of similar opinions, and convent them into—what else?—another piece of news. Thus, we have here a great loop of impotence: The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.

Notably, even the momentous national issues debated by Lincoln and Douglas in front of those raucous crowds across Illinois were debated from the perspective of Illinoisans. Their interest was locally inflected. It mattered to them. And so whatever worry, fretfulness, or even anger the news caused them was finite and open to their doing something about it. They had a good time at the debates, but that wasn’t because they couldn’t do anything about the issues. (I wrote more on this theme, inspired by a great line from Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, here last summer.)

Compare the news we consume nowadays. We probably all have opinions on the Mueller Report or the so-called Green New Deal, opinions we were invited to adopt and defend tenaciously by our news medium of choice. And beyond the irrelevance of our news and the powerlessness it creates in us, there’s the anxiety—which clickbaity headlines are designed to produce. Postman’s description of the kind of conversation favored by telegraphy reflects our culture of catastrophizing, apocalyptic internet headlines better than anything I’ve read from our time.

The news—simply receiving the news in the form and via the media we do now—does more harm than good. I think it’s worth opting out. I mean to, as much as I am able. It will be a discipline, but nothing worthwhile is ever arrived at purposelessly.

For myself, I plan to scale back. Like Will, I’m going to root out and delete that Apple News app just for starters. I may not quit wholly, but I’ll set aside specific blocks of time to be news-free. But as I hinted, there must be a purpose behind giving up the news. For Will, it was a Lenten discipline, “an act of solidarity with Jesus.” That’s a good starting point. Giving up the news will certainly be better for my soul than not, especially given my choleric temper. But giving up the news will also be a means to spend more time, my mind free of distant and ultimately irrelevant current events, with my wife and kids, with friends and family where we can talk about each other and not what’s going on five-hundred miles away in Washington DC or, even worse, 2300 miles away in Hollywood. I can be fully present. And I can work, bit by bit, on improving my wife, my kids, my friends and family, and myself.

Whether that makes headlines or not, I won’t care, and I certainly won’t know—until you tell me.

Piedmont Tech reading and book signing recap

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Yesterday was my reading and book signing in the library here at Piedmont Tech. I read a chapter from Griswoldville—a longer portion from the chapter I quoted a few weeks ago commemorating my grandfather—and took some really good questions about history, writing, and storytelling. We had a good turnout—over a dozen people—and several people picked up books. I sold at least one of everything!

But more important was how heartening the event turned out to be. This has been the busiest, most stressful semester of my career—I haven’t even had time for leisure reading the last several days!—and the kind folks at the library helped buoy my spirits. I’m looking forward to future events there. I also received a lot of kind comments afterward from colleagues who weren’t able to make it for the reading, and my dad even flew over from Georgia to attend. All in all, my second author event ever proved a wonderful experience.

Please enjoy the photo gallery from yesterday. All photos except the first provided by Kevin Croom, an old family friend and colleague of my dad’s back in Georgia. Please take a moment to visit Kevin’s photography page here. And as always, please check out my books either here or on Amazon.

Thanks to all who came out! I appreciate y’all’s readership.

Reading and book signing in Greenwood, SC

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I’m excited to announce an upcoming event. Wednesday, April 3 I’ll be doing a reading and book signing in Greenwood, South Carolina. The main library of Piedmont Tech’s Lex Walters Campus is hosting me. I plan to read a chapter from Griswoldville, my most recent novel, but will have copies of all of my books available. The basic facts:

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Who: Me

What: Reading and book signing

When: 12:45-1:30 Wednesday, April 3

Where: The library at the Piedmont Tech main campus in Greenwood, South Carolina

Sign up on Facebook here. You can check out each of my books here on my website or on my author page at Amazon. Click here for an excerpt from Griswoldville (I’ll read a different passage when the big day arrives).

I’m grateful to PTC for this opportunity and really looking forward to it. Please join us!

Thomas Sowell on tragedy and blame

From economist Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society:

 
Without some sense of the tragedy of the human condition, it is all too easy to consider anything that goes wrong as being somebody’s fault.
— Thomas Sowell
 

This week I happened to teach the Bolshevik Revolution, the Red Scare, and Weimar Germany, so this line resonated powerfully with me when I ran across it again. Whether it be the kulaks, the anarchists, the Jews, or someone else, it is easy to search for and find someone to blame when complex things go wrong. The truth is hard: bad things happen. Sometimes the causes do not admit of definitive explanation. Who is responsible may never become clear, and may even be a meaningless question if the situation is complex and its origins murky enough. To cave into the desire to scapegoat—and to indulge in the conspiratorial thinking that usually goes along with justifying the blame you have assigned—is to escape into fantasy and, not coincidentally, attempt to play god.

Sowell again:

The risks of making decisions with incomplete knowledge (there being no other kind) are part of the tragedy of the human condition. However, that has not stopped intellectuals [the subject of Sowell’s book] from criticizing the inherent risks that turn out badly in everything from pharmaceutical drugs to military operations—nor does it stop them from helping create a general atmosphere of unfulfillable expectations in which “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” become a thousand bases for lawsuits.

Compare this line from Isaiah Berlin, which I discovered via Alan Jacobs’s blog: “The sense of infallibility provided by fantasies is more exciting, but generates madness in societies as well as individuals.”

We’ve all seen control freaks lose it when something apparently minor and random upsets their applecart. (Or, if you haven’t seen it, perhaps we’ve been that control freak. I have.) It’s not hard to imagine the effects of that kind of tantrum on a society-sized scale.

Think of technocratic modernity’s general assumption that with enough knowledge and power you can control virtually anything, if not everything. Now consider the ferocity with which the Nazis persecuted the Jews or the Communists royalists, kulaks, or other “traitors.” The threat to their expected order proved so great that persecution was not enough—they sought to destroy them. And it’s worth noting that while both systems—both of which presumed an impossible degree of control over naturally chaotic things, race and the economy—had carefully calculated plans for destroying their enemies, some of the worst outbursts of violence came in the wake of disappointments. Look at the Holodomor, or the final months of the Third Reich.

To conclude with Sowell again, “a general atmosphere of unfulfillable expectations” would be a pretty good title for a history of the present age.

Remembering my granddad, 21 years on

My maternal grandfather, JL McKay, died 21 years ago this evening. Few people have taught me or helped me as much, and it astonishes me that I have lived more than twice as long without as with him.

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He was a plumber and electrician, good at what he did, and worked with his kids. (He called his business J&L Plumbing & Electric—I can still see it stenciled on the sides of his work ladders—but the initials weren’t just for himself: the J was JL McKay, the L was my aunt Leah, who worked with him for years.) He was a Rabun County native, the second of eight kids born to Percy and Ruby McKay; served in the US Air Force military police in Korea (I remember him telling me about the flash of artillery barrages on the other side of the mountains at night); played basketball for Lakemont High School (long defunct) and was an ardent Braves fan (from at least their Milwaukee days, maybe even since Boston); drove only Fords; subscribed to National Geographic for decades; enjoyed “Jeopardy!,” “Wheel of Fortune,” and “M.A.S.H”; smoked Winstons, which he gave up after surgery in the early 90s (“If I’d known it was going to be my last one,” he said of the cigarette he had before surgery, “I’d have enjoyed it more”); loved fishing and organizing the huge family camping trips to Tugalo, where he’d oversee the camp kitchen and help catch scores of catfish; and was at our small, independent Baptist church for every service.

But the most important thing in his life was clearly his family. After he got back from Korea he married my grandmother, Jewell Dills, raised three kids, and lived to see seven grandchildren. He was always around—I took it for granted that everyone could see their grandparents (both sets) as often as I did. Stories of long, arduous car trips to see grandparents once or twice a year made no sense to me.

In a more important sense, he was not just always around but always there—always there for you, not just his family but for anyone he knew. He was one of the most charitable people I knew, and for all the years since he died I’ve heard stories from people of the favors, kind turns, and simple acts of generosity he performed.

My granddad and I watching TV sometime in the late 1980s

My granddad and I watching TV sometime in the late 1980s

I wrote a year ago, on this same anniversary, about pietas—a mature respect and gratitude to our forefathers. Since then I finished revising and published Griswoldville. That novel is a war story, certainly, but it’s a love letter to a place—Georgia—and especially to a kind of person, the kind of man my granddad was: skilled, hardworking, polite but self-respecting, tough but tender, opinionated but gracious, a steward of the things God gave him, and above all family-oriented. Georgie Wax’s relationship with his grandfather, Fate (a diminutive of Lafayette, my granddad’s middle name) is very much the relationship of me with my grandfathers. I dedicated the book to both of them, my own small act of grateful pietas.

In memory of JL McKay, gone these 21 years, I include a brief episode from Griswoldville. While this novel should only be regarded as fiction, this incident in particular I drew from something my grandfather and I actually did once.

He had an oaken gun cabinet that seemed, when I was a kid, five stories tall, with three or four shotguns, a .22 magnum varmint gun, and a lever-action .30-30 that stretched away up into the darkness at the top of the cabinet. I remember squinting through the glass door many times to try to discern the ends of the barrels up there. One day he took one of his shotguns down and we trooped up the hill behind the house into the junkyard were he kept mountains of spare piping, wire, and fixtures. He wanted to show me the basics of how to hunt squirrels. We spotted and shot one but the shotgun tore up the meat too much to be edible. Then he showed me what Fate teaches 11-year old Georgie in this passage.

* * * * *

We brought in three bales of cotton on our farm and two and a quarter on my uncle Quin’s, all of which we sold through the cotton factor that visited the MacBean place every fall. We picked and bagged the terrible bolls until our hands hung so bloody raw and abraded we could not reach into our pockets without agony. A blind gypsy could have read our fortunes sniffing the blood caked in our lifelines. A team of Negroes arrived and loaded the bales onto wagons and carted them off to the railhead in Athens, from whence they would ride to Savannah. I found out later that the price was a great disappointment, as the Confederate government in Richmond had ended exports of cotton in an vain effort to bring some European power into the war, and we were not to plant it again until years afterward. In between there would be much worry over cash, even for farmers. We brought in good crops of oats and corn and fairly stuffed our hogs—who were already nigh spherical with acorn mast—with the latter. Slaughter approached, and we needed the pork. With harvest ended and hog-killing time not quite upon us, and the frosts arriving and our breath coming like broken glass when we ran or worked outside, my grand­father oiled his rifle and shotgun and took me hunting.

     I had watched him hunt before, and even taken potshots at squirrels and raccoons, but now he let me carry the guns and taught me in earnest how to bring down small game.

     “Your father left you in charge,” he said, “and a man ought to be ready to provide, any time. I’m just here to help.”

     He taught me to clean and skin the game on my own and—when my fifth or sixth squirrel dropped out of the trees too torn up to be good for food—a trick of his that I never forgot.

     We had just left the porch one morning and by accident flushed some squirrels from my mother’s garden patch, where they had been foraging among the stalks and remains of what we had missed in the picking. They scampered to the fields, up the side of the house, behind the muleshed, and into the shade tree.

     My grandfather produced his powder and measured a charge for the rifle. “Let’s get started with these rats here.”

     I grounded the shotgun and brought out my powder and pellets.

     “Not this time, Georgie. I want to show you some­thing.”

     He loaded without looking at the rifle. He regarded the two or three plump squirrels watching us upside down from the shade tree. The tree was a great white oak, older even than the state, five feet wide at the base and better than seventy feet tall. In the high summer we watched the yard like a sundial with the tree as its gnomon.

     My grandfather brought the rifle to half-cock and fastened a percussion cap to the nipple. He nodded toward the tree.

     “See that fat one there, bout halfway up?” One of the squirrels sat, contented with his distance and sanctuary, dead center in the thickest part of the trunk, about twenty feet up.

     “Yes, sir.”

     “Watch, now. My granddaddy taught me this.”

     He thumbed the hammer to full cock and raised and sighted. The squirrel moved its head minutely, taking in this new intelligence. I heard my grandfather softly breathe out and he fired. The ball struck the trunk of the oak just above the fat squirrel’s head with a sound like a hammer on a loose plank—a miss. And the squirrel flopped backward to the ground anyway.

     My grandfather and I stood wreathed in the sulphurous reek of the rifle. The surviving squirrels skittered up and down the tree; a distant dog com­menced to barking. I looked at the lifeless squirrel in the yard and up at my grandfather, who grounded the rifle and grinned wide, pressing his tongue against the back of his teeth and chuckling.

     At last, he said, “Whew!”

     “How—”

     My mother burst out of the house, black hair loose, apron in hand.

     “God sakes, Daddy!”

     “Fixing to rid your okra patch of squirrels, Mary,” he said.

     I pointed, awed. “He killed it without even shooting it!”

     “If you possess such power why don’t you forebear to shoot at all?”

     My grandfather retrieved the squirrel and handed it to me.

     “Georgie’s got to learn. He needs a teacher.”

     My mother shook her head and strode back into the house. From inside, I heard her declaim to one of my younger brothers about being startled half to death. I laughed and looked at the squirrel. My grandfather grounded the rifle and set to measuring out his powder again.

     I turned the squirrel over in my hands. It was still warm and completely unmarked. I looked at its yellow maloccluded teeth and felt an uncanny prickle of fear—I had seen boys with fingers bitten clean through by squirrels and did not want this creature awaking in a fright in my still-tender cotton-raw hands.

     “You know what concussion is, Georgie?”

     I looked at my grandfather. He stowed the ramrod and waited. “No, sir.”

     He balled a fist and struck the open palm of his other hand. “That’s concussion. Shock—the force of smiting something. It’s the concussion, of a kind, that knocks a man down when you strike him. The concussion of your fist on his skull. Now, you knock a man hard enough, the concussion on his skull knocks his brains into his skull. You can do a most powerful lot of harm to a man, you strike him hard enough. You understand?”

     “Yes, sir. That’s why you don’t want us fighting? That’s why you say men don’t fight?”

     He chuckled. “Naw, men don’t fight each other cause that’s the worse way to go about settling things. But we can talk on that later. Now, what I said about concussing a man’s brains? This bullet—” and he produced one, a .32 caliber lead ball, “—when it strikes a thing, concusses everything around it. You feel a cannonball strike close by, you feel the earth shake. You feel a bullet pass close by your face, you feel it clap the air by your cheek. You hit a tree trunk like that close enough to a squirrel’s skull—not too close, not too far—the concussion knocks its brains and kills it dead just like that. Don’t tear up the meat, don’t hurt the squirrel.”

     I marveled over the squirrel. He took it and handed me the rifle. It seemed suddenly like a more powerful instrument than a mere squirrel gun. My grandfather had ennobled it.

     “Your turn, Georgie.” 

* * * * *

You can read more from Griswoldville here. I hope y’all enjoyed this passage, and will let the memory of my granddad—or men like him—lift and guide you today. We need more people like him.

Tolkien trailer reaction

General Erich Ludendorff calls in a favor from Smaug, Spring 1918

General Erich Ludendorff calls in a favor from Smaug, Spring 1918

A new trailer for Tolkien dropped yesterday. The forthcoming film was directed by FInnish director Dome Karukoski and stars Nicholas Hoult as a young JRR Tolkien and Lily Collins as Edith Bratt, his beloved future wife.

There was an earlier teaser that proved exactly that—a tease. That trailer featured almost nothing of consequence but did offer a taste. I watched it and worried that the movie would be pretty cheap looking. This new trailer has allayed that suspicion, featuring an impressive First World War battle scene on the Somme, some impressive Hobbit- and Lord of the Rings-inspired fantasy visuals—like a dragon in no-man’s-land—and what appears to be location shooting in Oxford.

I don’t have a post per se, but here are a few mostly unstructured thoughts based on the new trailer:

  • It looks like the movie will focus on Tolkien’s school days, his courtship of Edith, and his experiences in the trenches during World War I. I’m guessing the film will end with his demobilization and settlement back into Oxford life in the early 1920s.

  • Maybe we’ll get an Inklings sequel? One can only hope.

  • I’m not sold on Hoult as Tolkien. Hoult has a delicacy about him that I don’t get from seeing photos of or reading about Tolkien. It’s hard to imagine him belly-laughing with CS Lewis and Hugo Dyson over a pint and a pipe. But he is a fine actor—and I wasn’t originally sold on Gary Oldman as Churchill either—so I’m keeping an open mind.

  • The Middle Earth visuals imported into the landscapes of the war intrigue me. I’m curious to see how, exactly, they’ll incorporate them.

  • This film could be a good way to bring home the tragedy of the war to people. The group Tolkien is shown joining—”A fellowship,” he says, and one’s heart leaps—was called the TCBS and is seen by many as a schoolboy prototype of the Inklings. Tolkien and Christopher Wiseman were the only members of the group to survive the war.

A few hopes and worries:

  • These were certainly formative, crucially important years for Tolkien, and had direct influence on his work (“The Dead Marshes,” he once wrote, “owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme”), but I hope they don’t overplay it and suggest the kind of simplistic this-inspired-this, this-inspired-this biographical interpretation of his work that some biopics fall into.

  • While he doesn’t appear in the trailer, Colm Meaney is listed on IMDb as playing Father Francis Morgan, the guardian of Tolkien and his brother following their mother’s death. Morgan famously forbade Tolkien any contact with Edith until he was 21 because of a perceived bad influence on his schoolwork and because she wasn’t Catholic, a prohibition Tolkien obeyed. I hope Fr. Francis, whom Tolkien remembered with respect and affection, isn’t situated as a bad guy in the screenplay.

  • That raises two issues in my mind. First, I hope the filmmakers don’t Hollywoodize this romance too much. One of the things I love about the story of Tolkien and Edith is that they were two devout, honorable people who obeyed and waited for each other. Turning them into Romeo and Juliet rebels against the system would be a betrayal. It would also be boring. Who hasn’t seen that movie before?

  • Second, I also—most importantly—hope the filmmakers don’t strip the Christianity out of Tolkien’s story. He was devoutly Catholic in a time when anti-Catholicism was rife through English society, and the religious differences between himself and Edith played a crucial role in their romance.

Like I said, just a few initial thoughts upon watching this new trailer a few times. What do y’all think?

If you’re interested in some of this and don’t think you can wait for the movie, a couple good books covering this ground are Humphrey Carpenter’s authorized biography; Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth, by John Garth; and A Hobbit, a Wadrobe, and a Great War, by Joseph Loconte, for which you can read my review here.

Tolkien comes out May 10 in the US. I’ll be there. Watch the new trailer here or embedded in this post above.

Diocletian on the City of Man Podcast

The City of Man Podcast’s Ancient Aside series returns with its ninth episode. In this episode, regular host Coyle Neal and I cover Diocletian, the first great emperor after the imperial anarchy of the third century; his administrative reforms, including the creation of the Tetrarchy; his changes to the nature of the imperial office itself; his savage, empire-wide persecution of Christians; and our own crippling allergies.

Visit City of Man on Facebook or the Christian Humanist Radio Network’s flagship website, and listen in via iTunes, Stitcher, and other fine podcasting apps. I’ve also embedded the episode in this post for your convenience. Enjoy, and thanks as always for listening!

What's wrong, Chesterton?

February, a whole month of recurrent sickness—for me and my kids—heavy work projects, and terrible weather, has also accidentally turned into GK Chesterton month on my blog. I’ve posted on his attitude toward argument and controversy and the lack of any real controversy in his world—and ours—and I also looked at his enviable ability to laugh at himself. I’ll end the month with a tiny bit of Chesterton detective work.

G.K. Chesterton c. 1909

G.K. Chesterton c. 1909

Yesterday, a colleague pointed me toward this post on the most frequently misquoted Christian writers. Chesterton was on there for a number of quotes, misquotes, and apocryphal sayings, perhaps the most famous of which was this:

In answer to a newspaper’s question, “What is Wrong With the World?”  G. K. Chesterton wrote in with a simple answer: “Dear Sirs, I am.”

I’ve seen a couple different versions of this story with slight variations—sometimes Chesterton’s answer comes in response to a survey of journalists or something similar, sometimes it’s slightly wordier—but the gist is always the same, and it’s easy to see why it sticks around. It’s been quoted by present day evangelical writers as prominent as Tim Keller. It’s cheeky and succinct, worthy of a man who enjoyed his bon mots as much as his beer. But also not quite true.

If you want to confirm a quotation’s authenticity—and you should—it’s relatively easy, and this was easy to disprove, as there are plenty of places logging it as doubtful or inauthentic. Wikiquote includes it in its “misattributed” section on Chesterton’s page. The American Chesterton Society had a rather noncommittal post on the quotation a few years ago, as did a Chesterton enthusiast’s blog.

But as it happens, the latter blog post included a couple of important tidbits. First, it clarified the actual, correct wording of Chesterton’s reply:

In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question, “What is Wrong?” is, or should be, “I am wrong.” Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby.

This, helpfully, provides a lot more context and explanation about what exactly Chesterton meant. It’s also a handy passage to plug into Google. But alas, nothing.

Second, the blogger’s post indicated that Chesterton’s letter came in response to another letter not from the Times, but from the Daily News—a newspaper founded by Charles Dickens, one of Chesterton’s literary heroes—and from a specific issue: August 16, 1905. I don’t know where the blogger dug this info up, but it was enough to go on. It turned out to be correct.

Having turned up nothing via Google, and beginning to suspect that this was either elaborately fabricated or a previously totally unavailable Chesterton essay, I searched for the Daily News itself. The paper merged with another in the 1910s and no longer exists, but a free trial of the British Newspaper Archive allowed me to look at digital scans of its entire archives and the specific issue of the paper noted in the blogger’s post.

And behold:

The  Daily News , August 16, 1905

The Daily News, August 16, 1905

Chesterton’s complete letter to the editor in response to “A Heretic,” and the germ of the oft-repeated misquotation, right there.

As I mentioned, I was flummoxed that this bit of Chesterton lore was unavailable anywhere online, especially since the misquoted version has proved so persistent and vexing. So I’ve transcribed the entire text of the letter and included it below so that the whole thing is available somewhere. I hope having the full text available will prove a good resource for anyone, like me, hunting for the source of that famous story. I’ve included a handful of hyperlinks to things that might clarify some of Chesterton’s allusions or asides.

Like all of Chesterton’s work, it’s amusing and thought-provoking. And despite coming early in his career—three years before his novel The Man Who Was Thursday, five before the book What’s Wrong with the World—and from a lost world—nine years before the First World War!—in many ways as alien to us now as the antebellum South, medieval Britain, or republican Rome, much of his concern is eerily prescient, particularly in an age of religious flabbiness, unease with the status quo, political strife, the squandering of inherited blessings, and increasingly insistent reliance on the State.

This was by no means a difficult bit of detective work—I’m no Father Brown—but I enjoyed the hunt, and I enjoyed reading a new bit of recovered GKC. I hope y’all enjoy and benefit from it as well.

* * * * *

From the Daily News, August 16, 1905

Sir,—I must warmly protest against people mistaking the uneasiness of “A Heretic” for a sort of pessimism. If he were a pessimist he would be sitting in an armchair with a cigar. It is only we optimists who can be angry.

Political or economic reform will not make us good and happy, but until this odd period nobody ever expected that they would.

One thing, of course, must be said to clear the ground. Political or economic reform will not make us good and happy, but until this odd period nobody ever expected that they would. Now, I know there is a feeling that Government can do anything. But if Government could do anything, nothing would exist except Government. Men have found the need of other forces. Religion, for instance, existed in order to do what law cannot do—to track crime to its primary sin, and the man to his back bedroom. The Church endeavoured to institute a machinery of pardon; the State has only a machinery of punishment. The State can only free society from the criminal; the Church sought to free the criminal from the crime. Abolish religion if you like. Throw everything on secular government if you like. But do not be surprised if a machinery that was never meant to do anything but secure external decency and order fails to secure internal honesty and peace. If you have some philosophic objection to brooms and brushes, throw them away. But do not be surprised if the use of the County Council water-cart is an awkward way of dusting the drawing-room.

In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question “What is Wrong?” is, or should be, “I am wrong.” Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby. But this original sin belongs to all ages, and is the business of religion. Is there something, as “Heretic” suggests, which belongs to this age specially, and is the business of reform? It is a dark matter, but I will make a suggestion.

Every religion, every philosophy as fierce and popular as a religion, can be regarded either as a thing that binds or a thing that loosens. A convert to Islam (say) can regard himself as one who must no longer drink wine; or he can regard himself as one who need no longer sacrifice to expensive idols. A man passing from the early Hebrew atmosphere to the Christian would find himself suddenly free to marry a foreign wife, but also suddenly and startlingly restricted in the number of foreign wives. It is self-evident, that is, that there is no deliverance which does not bring new duties. It is, I suppose, also pretty evident that a religion which boasted only of its liberties would go to pieces. Christianity, for instance, would hardly have eclipsed Judaism if Christians had only sat in the middle of the road ostentatiously eating pork.

Yet this is exactly what we are all doing now. The last great challenge and inspiration of our Europe was the great democratic movement, the Revolution. Everything popular and modern, from the American President to the gymnasium in Battersea Park, comes out of that. And this Democratic creed, like all others, had its two sides, the emancipation and the new bonds. Men were freed from the dogma of the divine right of Kings, but tied to the new dogma of the divine right of the community. The citizen was not bound to give titles to others, but was bound to refuse titles for himself. The new creed had its saints, like Washington and Hoche; it had its martyrs, it had even its asceticism.

Now to me, the devastating weakness of our time, the sin of the 19th century, was primarily this: That we chose to interpret the Revolution as a mere emancipation. Instead of taking the Revolution as meaning that democracy is the true doctrine, we have taken it as meaning that any doctrine is the true doctrine. Instead of the right-mindedness of the Republican stoics, we have the “broad-mindedness” of Liberal Imperialists. We have taken Liberty, because it is fun; we have left Equality and Fraternity, because they are duties and a nuisance. We have Liberty to be unequal. We have Liberty to be unfraternal. At the last we have Liberty to admire slavery. For this was the just and natural end of our mere “free-thinking”—the Tory Revival. Liberalism was supposed to mean liberty to believe in anything; it soon meant liberty to believe in Toryism. Democracy in losing the austerity of youth and its dogmas has lost all; it tends to be a mere debauch of mental self-indulgence, since by a corrupt and loathsome change, Liberalism has become liberality.—Yours, etc.,

G. K. Chesterton