The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: December, 2012

Editor’s Note: Holy Envy

With Alexius recuperating from his long and nether-worldly Christmas bacchanal, I’ve decided it’s time to jump in and make with alienating our audience with religion talk. Pleasures abound in this winter season, most of them quite small and fleeting. Suffering, whose presence is amplified by the electric pandemonium of the media, has taken its customary place amongst the bright lights and shriveled pine needles. Snow slows the whole world down, causing delays, cancellations, and injuries both humourous and lamentable.

Which is to say that this winter has me thinking hard about the complications of the world we inhabit. Wishing to inject a modicum of positivity into this forlorn darkness, I have compiled a list of “holy envies,” aspects of religious traditions other than Christianity that I respect so much that they become edifying. I generally avoid writing about the religious underpinnings of my thought: they’re often either better left unspoken or in extreme cases could be a barrier between my writing and the audience I hope to reach. It’s not out of duplicity or disingenuousness that I refrain, but the fact that this blog is not primarily about religion that I maintain some opacity about such matters.

That introduction out of the way, here is a non-exhaustive list of aspects of other religious traditions that I envy. I’ll list them Abrahamic religions first and then moving outward from there.

Judaism: The High Importance of Hermeneutics

Star_of_David

Christianity certainly has a long tradition of interpretive Scriptural study. Living in North America and attending a Christian college, however, I am consistently disappointed that we do not more consciously embrace the practice of intensive reading and analysis of Scripture, nor is there much recognition of the dynamic interaction between the community of faith and the books we call sacred. There is a passage in the Talmud, the record of Jewish oral tradition and collection of rabbinic commentaries on many subjects, that explores this dynamism:

And like in hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces:26  i.e., just as [the rock] is split into many splinters,27  so also may one Biblical verse convey many teachings.

(Talmud Sanhedrin 34a)

Thus there is a preservation of the value of interpretation, of multiple meanings. Though the Scriptures are of course held in the highest regard, many interpretations can be found in them. Applying one’s intellect and attempting to find deep readings and resolving contradictions through analysis and comparison are thought of as spiritually commendable. No doubt this comes close to sanctifying argument and debate itself. Texts cannot be left on the shelf and consulted for therapy–the nature of the Scriptures is that they appear fiercely contradictory, requiring careful discernment. Protestants like to talk about the sole sufficiency of the Bible itself, but that requires us to believe that we are somehow inspired when we read it since Scripture is not just found in the words but in the interpretations that gather around it. It is a play between active participants in a living tradition, rooted in history but committed to the text not as a safeguard of status quo but as its own entity that needs to be understood and lived out in the real world.

Islam: The Legal Tradition and Five Pillars

Islam was the most difficult religion for me to envy. Many aspects of traditional Islam are those that I have been discarding in my own Christian belief/practice. Predestination and the belief in the Quran as the verbatim Word of God (divine inspiration is difficult enough) presented the main obstacles. Stymied at first, I pursued more Islamic writing and concepts before settling on what I have called the “obligation” inherent in Muslim faith. The very name of Islam is “submission to God” and this theme of submission and responsibility runs strong throughout everything I have read in relation to the world’s second most popular religion.

Looking even at the most basic duties of a Muslim, namely the Five Pillars, I was impressed at their ability to encapsulate an experience of total dependence and submission to God and to the community of faith. Almsgiving is not just expected it is specifically demanded by the principle of zakāt, obligation to the historical roots of the faith is mandated by the pilgrimage (hajj) requirement, the practice of fasting is likewise upheld as a basic need and not just a helpful addition or personal choice. In this way, despite the differences that do exist among the large number of Muslim denominations and legal traditions, there is a strongly-enforced unity of practice in the faith. Christianity is set specifically against this kind of legalism–a word I will use despite recognizing that for Muslims no one can hope to achieve any good but for the grace of Allah–but I find both the simple and vastly complex legal traditions of Islam inspiring me to greater discipline in faith and longing for more outward signs of nonconformity with the larger Western world.

Sikhism: Waheguru

Christianity is a religious tradition that encompasses a vast written, oral, and cultural tradition that contradicts itself constantly and gives rise to all sorts of apparent and actual absurdities. Working through these has been an illuminating process and a welcome intellectual challenge, but there remain basic precepts of Christianity that I believe are rightly questioned both by many inside and outside the Church. One of these is the idea of Trinity, the complication and thorniness of which I will not discuss here. Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism all adhere to a far more alluring and harmonious conception of God: pure monotheism. I choose to discuss this issue in the Sikh context because it is in this tradition that I have found the most edification and value so far.

In Sikhism God is given the name Wonderful Teacher or Waheguru, and the beginning of the Sikh holy scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, addresses this genderless, unitary being thus:

One Universal Creator, the Name is Truth, Creative Being (personified), Without fear, Without hatred, timeless Image, beyond birth and Self-existent by the Guru’s Grace

This conception of God accords far more closely with my own than the orthodox Christian idea of a tripartite, superpersonal being who is the universal creator of all things, the Son or Logos incarnate in a single person with a dual nature, and an ephemeral Spirit who works in the universe to mediate God’s grace to people. This is not to say that my own unitary view of God is unprecedented in Christian history; it is simply by far the minority view and I find few fellow-travelers in the Church. Another aspect of Sikhism that I envy and that I perceive as connected to the broader cosmology of this religion is the form that devotion to this God takes. Devotion to God is worked out in a largely internal fashion (I see some parallels with the Religious Society of Friends) without needless formal rituals. Yet there are, of course, strong delineations between Sikhs and non-Sikhs. Through committed practice a believer becomes more and more in harmony with the Divine Order until achieving salvation. I find myself more and more finding very little discord between much of Sikhism and my own beliefs, though I work out those beliefs in Christian language and within the Church as a community. I could dwell on this for some time, but I must exercise some discipline. Onward.

Hinduism: Multiplicity

Unfortunately, to speak of Hinduism is to do a disservice to a sweeping variety of movements, schools of thought, and local traditions. This is to an extent true of all religions. Hinduism is an especially broad and diverse camp, however, and it is in this very expansiveness that I find its chief reason for envy. Part of a continuity of faith more ancient than any presently existing religion, Hinduism affords its practitioners many ways to achieve salvation from the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. Within just one document, the Bhagavad Gita, the only one of the myriad Hindu scriptures I have read in its entirety, there are three paths or skills to achieve unity with Brahman or ultimate life and reality. Karma yoga, or the practice of action without attachment, Bhakti yoga, or salvation through unceasing remembrance and devotion to God, and Jnana yoga, or the path of wisdom and direct experience. Baffling to the narrow and specific prescriptions of Christianity and many other religions, Hinduism reminds me that within one religious tradition there can coexist countless permutations that each have their own merit. I wish I could say more, but to do so would be to scratch depths I could not hope to wade into without going dreadfully wrong.

That ignorance unfortunately applies equally to Taoism, Confucianism, and Shinto. I have read large sections of some of the core texts in these religious/philosophical traditions, but cannot comment on them with any depth of insight. This leads to the final envy:

Buddhism: Don’t Get Me Started

Over the past several months I have been sketching maps where before there was only trackless wilderness. My maps have guided me into a position where I have become immersed in both Buddhist literature and practicing Buddhist meditation. Buddhism first chief appeal to me was its rejection of an underlying self that persisted through the unending processes of change both our physical and mental aspects undergo. From that beachhead Buddhist ideas have infiltrated my thinking. For now, my Buddhist thoughts are fevered with enthusiasm, clumsily interpreted and, I’m sure, inexpertly implemented. As I read more and more into both the ancient Pali canon of scriptures and the later teachings of various schools of thought, I find myself struggling with them in a way unlike my more distant engagements with the other faiths on this list.

With all that overheated rhetoric past, I still remain a Christian in name and truth. What do I envy of a faithful Buddhist? I envy the lack of attachment to specific ideas of divinity, the recognition that suffering is the chief problem of humanity and is caused by ignorance and attachment to that which we cannot hold onto, the virtue of compassion for all beings, the internal peace that comes, miraculously, through detached introspection and observation during meditation, the conflicted (often beautiful, often troubling) history of how the faith spread and worked itself out in the various places in which it landed. Buddhism in the West is often an individual practice, beloved for its serenity and aesthetic starkness and its promises of release from the frantic striving of modern life. I think I am beginning to love it almost as much for its flaws, for the powerful realness and humanity of it, and its frank acknowledgement of that.

Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit

The ghosts have gathered outside Alexius’ window. They’re throwing little stones against it. Charles the hungry ghost knocks on the door three times.

Alexius: What do you want?

Charles: It’s Christmas day in hell, you delicious neighbour of ours!

Alexius: And you plan on making me your Christmas turkey?

Charles: No, we wanted to come in and watch pirated movies with you.

Alexius: I’m a tiger of principle. I prefer legal merchandise.

Charles: This is hell, monsigneur. Only pirated merch here. Also, we’re ever so hungry and we wonder how you’re surviving down here without food.

Alexius: I suppose the lack of a noticeable pulse has slowed my metabolic needs. You should be glad, since I’m a fierce predator from the surface who will devour you at first sight if you cross me.

Charles: Can we come in?

Alexius: How many of you are there and what movies have you brought?

Charles: We just have The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. 

Alexius: What resolution did you get it at?

Charles: 1080.

Alexius: OK. Come on in. Ah-ah! You have to promise that you won’t even try to eat me! You’re trying to earn redemption from the endless torments of desire, right? Start by not eating me.

Charles: I’ve been practicing for ten million years. I’m sure one day of not eating a tiger won’t kill me. Hahahaha!

Nearly three hours pass.

After the hungry ghosts all left, drunk and famished, I patted each of them on the back and wished them an animal, secular Merry Christmas. Charles, who I perceived was most likely the longest-suffering of them all, stood in the threshold with his hungry eyes looking, for a moment, slightly less ravenous than usual. A gleam came into those dead wide orbs. He lifted up his bloated sagging belly and let it fall with a loud slop.

Charles: That reminds me of an old rhyme I used to know.

Alexius: Thank you for coming over. No one even started trying to eat me until we had nearly finished the champagne. And that was just Jean-Claude sucking on my paw.

Charles: Maybe we can get to know each other a little better in the future.

Alexius: I’ll consider it. Good luck on your redemption.

Charles: If it ever happens, I would want it to happen in the winter. That way, I’ll be much warmer when I surface.

***

Image

Contrary to some reports you might have read on the Internet, Peter Jackson did not adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 children’s novel The Hobbit into a feature film. I don’t blame you for being confused. This tiger’s own agile brain was outmaneouvred by the deceptive marketing and media reports. As a matter of fact, the real truth did not sink in until long, long after the The Hobbit title card appeared, and that was after a long prologue filling the audience in on the history of the Dwarves of Erebor.

I read The Hobbit as a young tiger, one of the first “advanced” books I read in English. I have read it since then, once in heaven and once in hell. Each reading took approximately half the time it will take to watch all three of these films once they’re released. From here on, I’ll refer to the film by its title, The Unexpected Journey, to reflect the vast discrepancy that exists in terms of tone, content, and texture between the text of the book and the blockbuster film that wears its name.

To stretch a book that could be read in an afternoon into his characteristically lengthy epics, Jackson has inserted additional characters and subplots that were simultaneously occurring in Middle Earth’s history. Instead of focusing squarely on the character of Bilbo Baggins and his journey “there and back again,” Peter Jackson gets us about halfway “there” and contextualizes the events of the book as a small piece of Gandalf’s grander schemes for the salvation of Middle Earth. The reasons for doing so are obvious: Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a small-scale treasure hunt story. It has its own drama and a grand battle at the end, but it tends to be more quietly whimsical than the more Wagnerian Lord of the Rings. Jackson is clearly aiming more at creating Lord of the Rings prequels than an adaptation of the book itself. It’s what I have been dreading, fearing he would do since I heard that he displaced Guillermo del Toro from the director’s chair.

With that established, we must turn to the question of how well this approach works. The answer is slightly complicated. On a micro level, scene-to-scene, Jackson is able to achieve snatches of grandeur. I’ll admit to feeling emotionally involved in the overblown action climax and enchanted by much of the production design (I suspect that much of the beautifully grotesque design work on the Gundabad goblins is of del Toro’s making). That said, the whole thing teeters on the brink of disaster, being overlong, numbingly violent, and poorly integrated.

Let’s drill down from the general to the more specific. First, tone. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings had a wide tonal and emotional range. Battle scenes juxtaposed clever gags and slapstick humour with sacramental death scenes. Depending on the situation, the films were flexible and big enough to accommodate broad comic relief and grandiose tragedy. That’s part of the operatic quality, that indefinable charm that keeps me enjoying much of that trilogy of films despite their stretches of grinding monotony and occasional missteps into violent revelry. Jackson aims for a similar breadth here, and the material is often stretched threadbare to support it.

Take the first scene of the film proper (once we’ve cleared the framing narrative and the extended prologue that I’ll touch on later). Bilbo greets Gandalf at the front of his house, bemused and polite to a fault. The tone is light and whimsical. Why, a wizard has just shown up on a three-foot hairy-footed person’s front lawn! It works. When the Dwarves arrive, at first one by one, then in a massive dogpile, the lightness works. Thorin arrives and adds a bit of dramatic weight and gravity to the proceedings. Later scenes–the trolls by the fire–keep the spirit of the book most intact. When it comes to the actions scenes, however, the film slips considerably, repeating a problem to be found in the Lord of the Rings films as well. Truth be told, The Atlantic  does a better job than I could explaining this dissonance, so I’ll encourage you to read further into that article and then come back.

“While your butt is in the chair and the 3-D glasses are on your noggin, you’re going to be treated to triumphant swelling strings and bloody spectacle after bloody spectacle. Tokien’s novel saw virtue in little things, but An Unexpected Journey is too obsessed with its own bigness for mercy.”

The tone is further scrambled by the insertion of a couple of linked subplots, each one on a polar end of the dramatic spectrum. First you have Radagast the Brown. A wizard from the woodland dwelling of Rhosgobel, he is a friend of all creatures and highly sensitive to changes in the forest, which proves useful to a council of Middle Earth’s guardians. That being said, he has as much dignity to his name as Pitch from that Mexican Santa Claus film where Santa fights the devil. Howard Shore’s noble attempt to elevate the material with his Ring Cycle-aping score are undercut by Radagast’s preferred mode of transportation. Stay with me here because it gets weird: he is towed around on a ramshackle sleigh by a troupe of badass rabbits who can outrun the swiftest Warg. A character so charming in theory proves to be irritating as a screen presence, and each of his thankfully few scenes prove to be some of the weakest in the film.

Speaking of wizards, there are other scenes featuring an assembly of Middle Earth’s most powerful beings. Saruman, Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond, a sort of Tolkienesque United Nations Security Council, deliberate on solemn matters of great importance (the temptation to capitalize all the nouns in that last sentence was powerful). Introducing a thread that will pay no dividends until at least the next film, they consider the reports of the rise of a sorcerer known as the Necromancer in Dol Guldur, a black fortress in the southern reaches of the Greenwood (Mirkwood). While all of the actors involved reprise their characters with poise and aptitude, these scenes play out almost in their own universe, talky and disconnected from the bombastic actions set pieces and plodding walking scenes. The effect of these insertions is to polarize the tone in each direction, all in an attempt to turn up the grandiosity to concerning levels.

Another focal shift Jackson makes is to emphasize the Dwarves’ leader Thorin’s story more than the original material. This is no mere treasure hunt. This is about the reclamation of a lost king’s ancestral birthright, the land from which he was cast out. Wait, a minute…Yes, Thorin has been transformed into a less sympathetic amalgam of Sean Bean’s Boromir and Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings films. Carried by a strong performance by Richard Armitage, his character is perfectly acceptable.

Yet all of this shifting manages to displace Martin Freeman’s Bilbo for vast tracts of the two hour forty minute running time. Because the story ends in the middle of the journey, before Bilbo has had a chance to use the Ring and be of real help, he seems ineffectual, bumbling, and useless. And for this section of the story, that makes sense. Unfortunately, the arc of his character, while handled well for the most part, draws undue attention to its incompleteness. Freeman is perfectly cast and directed, and in the scenes where he takes centre stage he succeeds.

Do you know what film this reminds me of? The Fellowship of the Ring. Starts with a long prologue, goes to the Shire for some narration from our Hobbit hosts. The group is sent out East after a scene where Gandalf makes the room all dark, revealing his powers are no mere trifles. After resting in Rivendell where there is a council of Middle Earth’s greatest individuals, the group sets out east to the Misty Mountains. Forced by the elemental fury of the mountains to go underground, the group is beset by goblins. Gandalf bails them out (in The Unexpected Journey he doesn’t die) and the film finishes with the group having battled a posse of Orcs and overcome a significant impasse, including an important reconciliation.

Now, I won’t say that many of these parallels are there in the source material as well. However, some of those aspects were not present in the original text. This is more than an empty comparison between the source material and the “adaptation.” What I’m trying to show here is that Peter Jackson is trying to put the lightning back in the bottle. From the cinematography to the locations to the grandeur-filled production design to the cast to the score, this is almost a remake of Fellowship. For every sweeping emotional statement that lands, for every camera flyover that recaptures the dignified yet adventurous vibe of the first three Jackson Tolkien films, there is a moment of uncanny familiarity or outright monotony. I feel as though I just came back from a well-executed reinterpretation of a film I saw ten years ago. Comfortable family resemblance is one thing: this verges on falling into the uncanny valley. While the forms are there and the whole production is polished to a fault, the spark of life can seem smothered sometimes.

The Hobbit is a totally different book from The Lord of the Rings. With the exception of the encounter between Gollum and Bilbo (best scene in the film by a degree of magnitude–it really comes to life for a few precious minutes) in the cave, it is, for better and worse, a children’s book. Jackson’s tendencies do not work in that direction, and I understand the impulse to draw the connections between the two books more clearly. That said, the result is a film that fails to affect me the same way, and the same way is precisely what this is aiming for.

Discerning Cuteness Part 2: The Turn

Previously on “Memoirs of a Culture Stalker”


Alexius confessed his derision for cuteness, the result of intensive study of too much postmodern art. Unable to appreciate the most precious cat video without the claws of guilt raking at his heart, he vented his well-mannered contempt for all thing round-eyed and sparkly on this very weblog, aided by his trusty editor. Is there hope for our persnickety panthera tigris? Will he ever escape the clutches of the land of hungry ghosts? Will he find a piece of art that gives the lie to his hatred of cuteness? Find out on this episode of “Memoirs of a Culture Stalker: Discerning Cuteness Part 2: The Turn!”

blue-tiger-source

Title Song: “The Lady and the Tiger” by They Might Be Giants accompanied by epic shots of tigers stalking off-screen objects.

Production values got a serious notch-upping for this special Saturday edition. Most of what I said in the first post in this series will survive the acid test I’m giving in this post. Or so I believe. I don’t think I’ll ever get over my aversion to the infantilization of humans when being represented in art. That said, I have discovered an artifact in this nether region, this hell of hunger. This artifact is quite possibly the cutest show I have ever endured beyond its first episode. Its cuteness is neither stealthy nor perverse. It comes not armed with the daggers of self-referential subversion or under the auspices of high art. Behold.

anime-mp3A morsel of zoological slice-of-life courtesy of manga artist Aloha Higa and animation studio Pierrot Studios, しろくまカフェ、hereafter referred to as Polar Bear Café, contains only brief glimpses of tigers as far as I can tell. Despite this lack of representation by nature’s noblest animal, the show managed to tickle several of my fancies. I’ll never claim that this show rearranged my conception of human-animal relations or upset my preconceived notions about Japanese animation. That said, it has prodded a deep vein of appreciation just enough to irritate me. Why is something so pleasurable so irritating, I ask myself? The reason is that it’s so cute. 

And I like that it’s cute. Why? Why why why?

After recollecting myself, I have come to the following conclusion: I need to amend previous statements re: cuteness to include more nuance, especially when dealing with Japanese animated television programs featuring startling naturalistic animals interacting with humans and having quaint little adventures centred around a café run by a polar bear who loves puns and what am I even now saying? Have I lost all sense? Is there no balm in Gilead? Why do the wicked and the purveyors of cuteness prosper while the austere suffer, O Lord?

Let’s break this all down.

Polar Bear Café, as previously mentioned, is a quiet, modest show mainly revolving around the interactions between the three animals you see above. The tall white one is named Polar Bear, the short beaked one is named Penguin, and the rather rotund fellow on Polar Bear’s right hand side is Panda. There are a few main reasons why I have a high level of affection for this show, starting with–

1. The Vibe

Once-a-time, there were good comic strips. Comic strips that were printed on pulp paper harvested from trees, created as an enticement for people to buy newspapers and to keep reading them after being bored with reading editorials about sidewalk repair petitions and axe murderer epidemics (depending on the neighbourhood) but before indulging in the sweetly morbid pleasures of the obituaries. Oftentimes, the obituaries were funnier than the comics. Sometimes, once in a few decades, however, a comic strip could be consistently funny.

Now, newspaper comic strips tend to work best with simple concepts that can generate a variety of broadly relatable situations and humour. We thank God for the exceptions, of course, but even some of the best strips work with positively skeletal conceptual overhead. Calvin and Hobbes is about a six-year-old and his [imaginary?] tiger friend. Peanuts is about neighbourhood kids with big heads and diagnosable neuroses. When Foxtrot was good, though I am beginning to suspect it never actually was, it was about a family consisting of broad stereotypes who happened to be funny and occasionally well-written. Polar Bear Café has the same whimsical, domesticated vibe that you find in Calvin and Hobbes, though without quite the same spark of imagination or observational acuity. Nothing overly extraordinary happens except as it relates to the bizarre juxtaposition of these quite naturalistic animals and their mild-mannered and (mostly) civilized ways.

For instance, though Panda loves, like a real giant panda, to chomp down on mounds of fresh bamboo and romps around naked as the day he was born, he also orders iced coffees without any apparent digestive consequences. He accidentally scratches people with his real, sharp claws, but can use a smartphone and rather vainly likes to collect kitschy panda knickknacks like his ubiquitous satchel. This is a world where animals in the zoo are more like paid entertainers than prisoners or reproductive organs of last reserve for their species. Panda gets a part-time job working for the zoo, and considers it labour despite the fact that he sleeps through many of his shifts. A shoebill can be the editor and chief of a culinary magazine, a human woman named Sasako can be an employee in a nine-foot-tall bear’s organic, all-natural café.

The tone of the show is gentle without being inert. There is no “social commentary” or anything that could be considered an explicitly political point of view, but it has a sharp wit and strong characters out of whom some great humour emerges. Polar Bear’s compulsive embellishment of stories, incomparable pun-based repartee, and boundless generosity can only be endearing. Even the straight-man of this story, Penguin, is plagued by Little Red-Haired Girl syndrome, dreaming of romancing a female penguin who works in a local bakery but lacking the courage (so far) to do so. The show keeps its stories short, is utterly without aspirations to greatness, and never gets close to insulting the intelligence. The vibe is quaint and small, but it’s charming at the same time.

2. Naturalistic Cuteness

Ah, but what of the crux of the matter? What about the show’s brush with cuteness? Admittedly, if it were only a brush I would not have been so irritated. Instead, I find myself inundated by cuteness. In addition to the vibe of the show being winning rather than cloying, the design of the show contributes to my enjoyment of even its cuteness. Each animal has been inserted into the show with its physical attributes pretty well intact. Bears have claws and teeth. Llamas are llamas. Penguins have flippers (leading to some frustration in using the latest smartphone). None of the animals are turned into amorphous fluff-balls, and none is treated as cute unless, well, look at him:

spring201207370

 

That is a panda demonstrating to his mother how penguins can use smartphones with their beaks. Even I, the most curmudgeonly tiger to walk the realms of the blessed and the damned, cannot deny that this is cute. This is (I hiss) precious. While panda fans might object and say that the show is draining the dignity from China’s favourite layabout, allow me to present the following assessment: pandas have no dignity. They are sex-averse, clumsy excuses for bears who munch on grass and often roll over their own offspring, who are comically tiny and helpless. Sorry, but while I understand why they are cute they are only cute insofar as they are ridiculous. And this is the key: the cuteness is, despite the surface implausibility of the above image and the premise of the show, natural. The cuteness is not turning what should be at least marginally impressive beasts or people into cooing, dunderheaded eye-candy for squealing boys, girls, and sad adults the world over.

Cuteness, too, has a place in this world. It can be empathetic or insightful, reflective of truth and not merely empty distortion. It’s not just a weak spot that humans’ pet cats abuse to turns themselves into pampered royalty. It is that, but it can be more. When contextualized correctly and accompanied by a measured, intelligent approach to situational humour or (maybe) even drama, cuteness can invite us to nobler emotions than squee. Sometimes, we need that affirmation of cuteness in our critical vocabulary, because that is the only honest response. What is more horrifying is: that’s a good thing. Now let me sleep on that.

Not all eyes that glitter are creepy

Not all cuteness is unsettling

Recite this like a mantra, fellow ghosts. It’s going to be a long winter ahead.

Discerning Cuteness Part 1: The Premise

A virtue that all felines and primates alike should cultivate is intellectual flexibility. When confronted by an apparent deficiency in your ideas, you should absorb the blow and analyze the damage rather than ignore the pain. The hit will have landed either way, and these challenges are wonderful ways to reexamine assumptions to see if they are adequately providing the answers you are asking of them.

It’s been well-known in my immediate social circle that I have a particular attitude toward cuteness. That view was informed by an intensive study of artist Takashi Murakami (村上隆)and other artists in his Kaikai Kiki collective as well as a number of other postmodern Japanese and American artists including Henmaru Machino, Jeff Koons, and Yoshitomo Nara. Examples of their work are included below:

DOB

Takashi Murakami’s “mascot” DOB.

Nara Cat

Yoshitomo Nara’s “Kitty”

Miss Sunset

Chiho Aoshima’s “Yuyake-chan” or “Miss Sunset”

Koons' balloon dog

Jeff Koons’ balloon dog

(This is where I note that I could not find anything by Henmaru Machino that was appropriate to show here. Google at your peril and in private or in the company of trusted friends.)

One article became especially central to my understanding of cuteness and the accompanying discomfort I feel with it, especially as applied to human beings and artistic representations thereof. That article was called “Cuteness and the Avant-Garde” and it supplied this definition of some of cuteness’ attributes:

“Smallness, compactness, softness, simplicity [and] pliancy.”¹

The article then extrapolates from that that these physical attributes evoke certain affects: “helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency.”

A cute object or person, therefore, will possess these qualities. When one wants to make a cute object, one has to make it more iconic, softening harsh edges, simplifying its outlines, and enlarging round parts of it–eyes, mouth, breasts, etc. Mere stylization, of course, is not sufficient for cuteness. Cuteness is distinguished from beauty or glamour in that it diminishes rather than glorifies that which possesses it. Cute things are also highly tactile in a way that austerely beautiful, majestic or glamorous objects are not. We may look at a photograph of a beautiful mountain, but it does not induce in us a desire to hug or squeeze the mountain. Look, however, at a picture of something soft, round, and infantile, and we wish to do all these things to it. Cute things are touchable, or are meant to be. Children’s toys, representations of “cute” animals (more on this later) in animation and art, and even people can be made into diminished objects of tactile desire through being represented as smaller, rounder, and, most importantly, more passive and pathetic. Something with claws cannot be cute because it has the capacity to harm. Something intelligent and knowledgeable is also fairly disqualified from being cute, or at least have something other than cuteness as a defining aspect. When cuteness is applied to representations of people and animals, we imagine them to be bashful, naïve, clingy, and highly emotive, maybe with a speech impediment or undeveloped vocabulary. In other words, we imagine this:

ImageWhat does one do with a baby? Why, one cuddles, nurtures, protects, and speaks idiotically. Babies are helpless, round-headed, toothless (that’s key), needy creatures. Now, if you were to call a baby cute–or perhaps a puppy or kitten–I think you would be within your rights. There is nothing inherently strange about calling a baby cute. Babies are the archetypal embodiments of cuteness. It is when we start representing other things as cute that we run into trouble, for it requires making simplifications that cut against the obvious symbolic and aesthetic values of the things we are representing. Murakami and the others I have mentioned often highlight this by emphasizing the creepiness that emerges when cuteness is mingled with sexuality and violence.

Robot Girl Transformer

Takashi Murakami’s sculpture “Robotic Girl Transformer” showing the disturbing side of cuteness, highlighted by associations with sex, weapons of war, and bodily corruption.

Something that is cute is by its nature tactile, passive, and pathetic. It is, therefore, a perfect target for the projection of violent and sexual fantasies. Because they have little experience or will or knowledge of their own, they are easily seduced. Because of their lack of defenses and softness, they are easily thrashed or punished. For the latter, their highly stylized and rounded affect also contributes to their suitability for violent abuse. Their features are pliable and squishy, which means they can be harmed without any thought of being destroyed.

There, in a nutshell, is my view on why cuteness can be such a destructive and negative attribute, especially when applied to adult human beings and other objects that ought not be represented as lovable fluff-balls. Cuteness diminishes, defines objects as being passive, inarticulate, simple, and harmless, and carries an implicit connection to violence and sexual exploitation.

In the next post, I will be complicating and in some ways modifying this theory with the help of an anime I mentioned in the last post, Polar Bear Café. For now contemplate this bit of kitsch I found:

Image

Note:

1. Ngai, Sianne. “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde.” Critical Inquiry 31.4 (2005): 816. Jstor.

The Hungry Ghosts (餓鬼) Summarize the Year in Culture

Panda from Polar Bear Café

On an unrelated note: we Hungry Ghosts highly recommend Polar Bear Café. That show is plain delightful.

Tap tap. Is this where we come in?

Splendid. Good day, people. When the tiger that Charles devoured got spat up, he fled into this here house. Rather foolishly, he left the door unlocked and his book on the table. We found that he had taken to writing in this book, sending it off through the aether to the human realms. Well, we said to each other, this is an opportunity that no ghost would ever want to miss. Taking the book into our possession, we composed the following post summarizing the year in human culture. Alexius’ editor graciously allowed us to publish this under his name thanks to our assurances that should he do so we would not torment the poor tiger until he went insane. He has even been so gracious as to collaborate with us in the composition.

Editor: That is correct. I should note that I am doing this under duress. Further, the hungry ghosts will not be taking advantage of Alexius’ vulnerable position again.

Turns.

 Is that clear?

Of course.

***

Editor:

The Year in Culture: One Man’s Perspective

To begin, I will quickly summarize what has been going on at a more basic level vis-à-vis my own perspectives on culture. Little of what I write could be understood without first knowing from what kind of person these thoughts arise. Here are three arcs that I can discern from this vantage point.

1. A Faith Opened and Renewed

We’ll pretend for a moment that we can freeze time. Try it for yourself. Fun, isn’t it? If we were to put January 1 on ice and peer in at me through the blur, you would have seen a person for whom Christianity and faith were vaporous notions. Correction: vapours are too concrete. They were more like wan lanterns, too pale to cast any shadows or give shape to the world around them. In retrospect, I was in everything but speech an atheist. I never acted as if God really existed. At the very least, not the God that I professed in my local church. Though I was emboldened by my presence at Calvin College, surrounded by a culture that affirmed the sovereignty of God over Creation, I felt God largely as an absence. An absence that, I realized, had been there for a long time. I felt no trauma when reading that God had died, because there was little point mourning someone I had never met–and the people He had met didn’t seem to know He had died.

My Calvinist faith in God’s sovereignty and adherence to His Law were stultifying me. Unlike others, who could joyfully partake in their own tradition to its fullest, I longed for a completion and a perfection that Calvinism seemed to offer but could not deliver. Intellectually, the hyperdeterminst view of God’s providence would seem to offer a great deal of security. But seeing the world all around, learning of the intricacies of Europe’s history in class, writing on the problems of education, delving deep into the Western visual art tradition, learning a radically foreign language, I could see only disjunct and imperfection.

The ancient (a much more dignified way to address old teachings than to call them old) Christian idea of the Fall did not suffice to explain what I was seeing. In Christianity, the Fall must give way to an Arising, a Consummation and reconciliation of all creation to a God. The world would be purified by purgative fires and we would live in eternal bliss, the Fall a memory so distant we could only laugh at the old world. Perhaps we would erect a monument in the New City, inscribed with the old Law and all the patch jobs God had to resort to before Adam’s corruption was at last wiped away.

What I was seeing was not this Fall, not an interim period of brokenness leading back to perfection. From the foggy threads of language and narrative I wove an altogether different web. Before humans, there was death. Before humans, there was chaos and order, billions of years of life without speech or sight. Everything was broken permanently. Nothing was going to work out all right. Compared with eternity, human existence would be less than an instant. At the end of the day–even more vitally, at the end of this minute, meaning was fragmentary at best for us. Maybe the universe meant something to God, but I could not help but search, and wherever I did I found endless chasms.

In July, I visited the Arch Street Meeting House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Meeting houses are the religious structures of the Religious Society of Friends, a Christian denomination founded nearly four centuries ago in England whose members are often called Quakers. I knew something of Quakerism, enough to be intrigued by the building and be led to go inside to see it. The clerk at the front of the building informed us about Quaker principles–simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, stewardship–and something of the history of this group. Friends (the more formal name for Quakers) consider God–though many in the liberal stream of this faith are nontheists or use other language–to be first and foremost, if not only, an immediate lived reality that could be encountered as a guiding Light while waiting in silence. During this last semester, I’ve attended the Grand Rapids Friends Meeting and made friends with many of the members, not the least of which a radical Friend who dresses in plain clothes and introduced me to a lot of postmodern theology that has been a main source of nourishment for me this year.

Today, freeze me up again, and I have a faith that is not too different from what I had in January, at least not in its core. I still experience God primarily as an absence. That said, I now have a framework for thinking about why that is. I won’t bore you with a tour of the theological rivets that I’ve fastened this framework with, but suffice to say that my Christianity has been significantly complicated and enriched, made into something that I live. I feel, for the first time in memory, that I can speak of my religion without cringing or crossing my fingers. My language and practice line up far better now than they did. This has allowed me to speak more confidently about popular culture as well.

2. Musical Boundaries Push

My name is Charles, the Hungry Ghost (餓鬼). In my previous life, I hungered for perfection so strongly that I died of a heart attack at the age of 36. Stress and overwork combined with poor genetics struck me dead in the middle of a business meeting. Now I am a bloated beast with a long thin mouth and a vast stomach. That said, I’ve come to enjoy a wide variety of music over the past centuries, and in this year in particular. Eventually I will be reborn in some more pleasant realm, but for now my hunger for music is insatiable.

A few years ago, my list of favourite albums of the year would have been composed entirely of rock music. There were many varieties of rock music represented, but that would have been the extent of the diversity. This year, however, my list is as follows, in alphabetical order by artist:

Burial–Kindred

Christian Scott–Christian aTunde Adjuah

Dialogues Trio and Julian Siegel–Twinkle Twinkle

Eivind Opsvik–Overseas IV

Frank Ocean–Channel Orange

Godspeed You! Black Emperor–Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

Kendrick Lamar–good kidm.A.A.d city

Neneh Cherry and The Thing–The Cherry Thing

Sun Araw, M. Geddes Gengras, and The Congos–Icon Give Thank

The Touré-Raichel Collective–The Tel Aviv Session

Vijay Iyer–Accelerando

I’ve gotten to the point where not a single one of my top ten albums of the year could qualify as a rock album (GY!BE possible excepted). You have a hyped debut from an R&B innovator (Frank Ocean), politically radical jazz (Christian Scott), psychedelic dub experiments with piercing religious lyrics (Sun Araw and company), and dark, twisted dance music (Burial) and hip-hop (Lamar). Throughout this year, I explored more and more into the world of music from Africa, Iran, and the Caribbean. While I had previously only enjoyed hip-hop that drew on rock traditions and had lush production, I became ever more enamoured of the entire genre, delving even into the dreaded “gangsta” subgenre, with mixed results. I have a more rounded view of the state of music as a whole now–with the exception of country–and I hope this continues.

Most of the music I loved this year spoke to either an underlying anxiety or to awe, or both commingled. Kendrick Lamar drew me in with luridly detailed stories of desperate youth. The jazz I liked was either dancier than usual, as in the case of Vijay Iyer, or possessed a dangerous ferocity as with Neneh Cherry and The Thing. As for live experiences, I enjoyed concerts by Janka Nabay, Kishi Bashi, fun., and Tinariwen. Kishi Bashi and fun. were especially significant, being both the first show that made my jaw drop and the first major arena show I’ve ever attended, respectively.

What exactly makes me a hungry ghost? Why am I so different, you might ask? After all, I got to go to concerts and enjoy all of this wonderful music. What I am lacking is anything that can satisfy. There is no extinguishing my suffering, no possibility of release from hunger and pain. Maybe not different enough. How about this: I look ugly as sin:

Hungry Ghost

Artist’s rendering. My hair hasn’t been pink for centuries. I dyed it blue now.

 

3. A Tiger Awakens–Cultural Discerning

Hello. My name is Lawrence, another hungry ghost, and…oh, no.

Alexius: What are you doing?

Editor: Alexius, they tied you up and said they would torture you if we didn’t cooperate.

Alexius: Forget that. Cuts ropes. Swipes with fury.

They scatter and leave the house. Except Lawrence, who is still writing.

Alexius: Did you get my signal to leave?

No, I suppose not. I have to finish writing this.

Alexius: You think you can write a reflection on tigers and cultural discernment? I’d like to see you try. I’m the tiger around here, the one with the real chops for discernment. Let me handle this.

I’ll pop in with some commentary every now and then.

Alexius: Keep it brief, because there isn’t much to say, really. Ahem. Throughout this school semester (Lawrence: Yep, it works! Test, test.) I’ve been considering what it means to have to steward the cultural engagement of an entire floor. I’ve found that it (Lawrence: I’m not sure what to say at this point. Hmm.) means that I must first observe, then find areas of need, then educate. I’ve found the many meetings and events I’ve staged to all be rewarding in their own way, whether I learned something or taught someone else. (Lawrence: I’m so hungry! Look, I really don’t know anything about discerning, I just wanted to try writing. How’s it working so far?)

A large part of my discernment has been interacting with both other cultural discerners and the people on my floor using costumes and stories. This blog is a key point of contact between my work as a cultural discerner at the college and as a writer for the rest of my audience. At this point, right here, I can speak to both concerns. I’ll have more detailed reflections once my term as a CD ends. For now, I need to find a way to get out of this world of hungry ghosts.

(Lawrence: Good luck.)

 

Burning of Heaven

Alexius Avatar

A star

Radiant hole in the sky

Don’t look at the light

It has cast itself into the sea

In the end, the sky fell into the sea, the land, heavy laden with mountains of nails–the tigers galloping with bloodied paws as the earth quaked–folded into itself. Tiger heaven was being packaged and shipped to oblivion. We never had a sun, but the brightness was snuffed out. Molecules no longer energized, bands of light collapsed into each other, slowing to a crawl. Motion ceased. Innumerable bodies, most striped, were crushed. Before dissolving into a vat of amorphous atomic soup, the land burst into flames; the fires burned blue, heating the piles of nails until they melted, cascading down the gentle hills and into the mouths of infant fissures, boiling the immortality out of the tigers’ bodies.

As for my little townhouse, perched elegantly in the meadow? Slag and dust, not worth a cent. I admit it was transfixing, watching the furniture blister and explode. With keen eyes I peered into the black skies, which at the horizon brightened to a bent nail grey, illuminated by the self-immolating lantern I was now standing on.

What struck me at the end was this: either my vision was utterly warped by the heat or I could see everything bubble and expand, take on a matted plastic sheen before succumbing. Skeletons loomed overhead, all out of proportion to their former owners. Grisly and mammoth, I marveled at their beautiful finality. So this was my future, a future trapped within a skeleton, diffused as particles floating indifferently in some white-hot stream. The pain was incredible. When the nails stuck in my paws began to heat I yelped and roared. The blood around them boiled and cauterized. Everything flickered. All at once there appeared, with no prior cause apparent, a monstrous tear in my vision, as if my eyes were melting away from each other. Wheeling pricks of light splashed there, fountains of light erupted. Once the magma burned off all of my fur and I stood naked on the roof, the firm stuff of heaven holding bravely but futilely against destruction, I jumped in.

It took several minutes for my immortal body to be consumed, long enough for the nerves to record sensations of an intensity so brilliant I thought I could feel light. My eyes went first, then my ears, and finally my tongue and most of my flesh. Still the sensations pulsated. My life for the last few seconds was blanketed in noise, sinking further and further into nothingness.

The suitcase slammed shut. We sloshed, we all together, in a little bowl. The bowl hit the floor. What of all the pages I had written? As empty as the day they were born.

I’ve heard that leopards cannot change their spots. This is absurd. Take a leopard, throw it into reservoir of molten steel. Wait for five minutes. The spots will have changed. It would be beautiful to think this way: the spots have not changed; they hang there suspended, immaterial. Because the spots are not physical, they are ethereal. How beautiful it would be. Nevertheless, its beauty would be wreathed in error. A thought so fine cannot be true, not when the sky is black without end.

Somewhere

I fix my claw to the star

Tried to fill its rim

And fish it out of the sea

I thought I had something left to do. It was the end of the year, and I had end-of-year lists to make. Now the year’s errands would remain incomplete. Unless I could find a way to write again, maybe get a town house like my old one. Wait, where am I?

A microphone? Is this thing on? Tap tap.

***

Alexius passes through millions of worlds. His body is immortal, but the negative power of the blaze is so strong it creates a rebound effect, sending him spiraling down to the deeper regions of the cosmos. He passes by great pillars, his insensate self shot like a pinball, rolling down the circuits and bounding up and down on long spindly stone staircases. At last he settles in a meeting of hungry ghosts. It looks like a Midwestern town, this hell, but maybe a tinge more miserable. Buildings made of brick, crowned with normal roofing, sided with normal siding, their yards covered in the usual grass. Alexius has landed amidst a gather of hungry ghosts. Their appearance is human–in fact, it is utterly unremarkable other than their massive, dragging bellies and shaggy hair that trailed like ragged curtains behind their heads.

***

He awakens inside one of their bellies.

***

At last! I have been reconstituted. You didn’t think I could be immortal and truly die? No, no. Now I can get back to my work. One question remains: how to contact my editor. Once I retrieve from him the necessary documents, I will be able to resume as usual. It seems the usual mystical connection terminals are all shut off. Or else I am unable to access them.

Where the hell am I?

The weird world inside a hungry ghost’s belly is difficult to describe. That said, only one thing, and it is vital indeed, is known about their digestion. As eternal-sufferers, whenever they devour, as they must, they bleed into what they eat, restoring it. This is their atonement. Forever bleeding and degenerating, they restore what they devour, then painfully regurgitate it. After millions of years they might be able to attain a higher level of existence, but as it is they stay for aeons, waiting for the bodies of people and angels and gods to trickle down into the deep realms. It’s best not to complicate it any further, so we’ll resume with Alexius having been upchucked back into the outside.

I see all the hungry ghosts. They’ve given me a body back. Nothing to sneeze at, though it’s far from what I had enjoyed in tiger heaven. Nonetheless, I thank them graciously. Their slack-jawed non-response is all the “you’re welcome” I am to get. I barge into one of the nearby houses and barricade the door. Days and nights pass, though it’s impossible to tell them apart here. Like in heaven, there is no sun here. Unlike there, there is no light. No darkness or shadows either. Everything is neutral, making it very difficult to judge distances. You can see, so there must be some light, but nothing is illuminated.

In the next post, I’ll wrap up the year in culture. After that, some reflections on the history of anti-Christmas sentiment in Christianity. That is, if I can find a good working phone with a connection to Earth. Godspeed.

Short Post: Music for Winter (And A Blog Stoppage for Exams)

It is now the last day of November. For the time I spent on Earth, I had a tradition of making a winter mix CD. I chose the coldest, most placid and beautiful music I could find, organized the songs along a chosen theme, and give it to someone I knew.

I thought I would revive that tradition this year and speak a bit to how I think a mix CD should be made.

First Guideline: Choose a Theme Before You Start Curating

When I write stories, I rarely have a plot or even a general idea in mind before starting. Writing is almost equivalent to thinking in such instances. I can hardly judge an idea in my head until it’s been written down.

Contrarily, when creating a mix CD or playlist I need a framework into which the songs can fit. My winter playlist is a rather long one at over an hour, so I have three separate concepts that flow into one larger one. The general idea is that I want the playlist/CD to tell a story about the theme I’ve chosen. The one I’ve made this year, for instance, chronicles the passage of the entire season of winter. In previous lists, I’ve focused on Christmas music, dreams of summer, a cold walk, and the frigid unpleasantness of February. 

Second Guideline: Articulate the Purpose of the CD or Playlist

Whether in handmade liner notes or a brief private note, I would make sure that you have thoughtfully articulated the theme of the mix CD and reflected both on the song selection and your sequencing decisions. This does not need to be arduous or academic, but it helps me immensely when trying to take others’ work and recontextualize it into a playlist or mix CD.

Third Guideline: Come Up with a Title:

Assigning a title to anything I’ve created is a major pain, but I find that it’s worth it. If you want to give the mix as a gift, it enhances the packaging and presentation. It also helps in conversation. Instead of talking about “the mix CD I gave you last Christmas at the party, you know the one.” you can speak of Winter Nights or War Memorial Christmas or whatever nonsensical title you come up with. If it’s sensical, then more power to you.

Editor’s Note:

With Alexius’ excellent recommendations out of the way, I would like to conclude this note with sad tidings: I’ll be taking two weeks off of the blog to commemorate/mourn the coming of exams. I have a considerable amount of academic writing to be done in the next two weeks, and focusing on that will allow me to remain sane while still getting my work done. I will be developing ideas for the blog, but there will be no posts unless I think of something urgent. Thank you very much and have a wonderful fortnight.

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