bonny_kate: (kaylee)
On why Angel is not as good a show as Buffy (containing spoilers as to the nature of Angel, but if you don't know what he is, I really don't know why you are reading this post anyway).

I think there is one primary reason why Angel is not really as good of a show. I don't think Joss Whedon has a very clear idea of the nature of the soul, or what a vampire is. Now, this is not nearly so important in Buffy because (nearly) all vampires are bad, and the show isn't centered around vampires in any case. But with Angel, the show is centered around not just a vampire, but a vampire with a soul, and it starts to cause major problems with the show.

Why is this so important? Well, take a simple question as an example. Is someone without a soul morally culpable for their actions? This is dreadfully important to Angel's character, because if he is not in any way responsible for his actions as a vampire without a soul, then he shouldn't be feeling any guilt nor trying to atone for anything. Of course, if the reverse is true, then he should be feeling the guilt that we so often see. But the show is unclear as to whether Angel is responsible for his actions. When he is evil, it is implied (and I think stated), that anything he does, it isn't really Angel that is doing it. In other words, Angel, without a soul, is not morally capable of acting with virtue. But on the other hand, much of the show is about Angel trying to atone for his actions. See the problem?

Based on the show (and Buffy), I would say the definition of a soul in Buffyverse (a word that the dictionary does not recognize, though it should) is that essential part of yourself that is capable of making moral choices, has the possibility of an afterlife, and is distinct from your body. But the problem of Angel's culpability makes me give up entirely, because it is so contradictory.

Since I can't manage a working non-contradictory definition of a soul, I shall attempt a definition of a vampire. Vampires are always evil, unlike demons who can sometimes be good (it would seem that demons only differ from humans in appearance and powers, not in morality). Vampires used to be human, but are now no longer human, and no longer have a soul. So far, this is simple, and hopefully obvious. The problem comes when we try to understand the relation between the evil vampiric Angel (hereafter called Evil Angel, to simplify matters for myself), the good vampiric Angel with a soul (hereafter called Angel) and the human Angel before he was turned into a vampire. Angel retains all his memories, powers, and limitations as a vampire that he gained while he was Evil Angel. But Angel has an ability to choose between good and evil that Evil Angel never shows.

If Angel is morally responsible for his actions as Evil Angel, I do not think it would be the full responsibility he would have if he had committed those actions while human. When he was human, he had a soul, and therefore the ability to make moral decisions (probably, see above). However, there is perhaps an argument that Angel is indirectly responsible for his actions as Evil Angel, for the potential for evil is directly related to Angel's own potential for evil. Some vampires are not very evil because as humans they were not very evil, and the vampire is dependent on the human for its inherent capabilities. But some vampires are very evil, because as humans they had great potential for evil (not, mind you, that they necessarily were evil, but the potential existed through their own soul). I am not sure, however, that the show makes this argument. It seems to me that the show tries to make Angel fully responsible.

It is at this point, gentle reader, that I give up. I cannot untangle this web, and I think it the fault of the show (though I would be glad to be shown otherwise). This, then, is why I think Angel is not nearly as satisfactory a show as Buffy.
bonny_kate: (bookness)
Containing MAJOR SPOILERS for Buffy the Vampire Slayer seasons six and seven, as well as philosophy, quotes, ghosts, and discussion of the Beautific Vision.




Dante and Spike: The Redemptive Journey of the Soul

I do not imagine that most people who watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer are thinking about its relation to Dante's Divine Comedy. Nor do I think that any of the writers were, in all probability, consciously or unconsciously, trying to incorporate or allude to Dante's work. So, with those disclaimers, I want to propose the following idea. Spike's redemption in the sixth and seventh seasons of Buffy mirrors Dante's redemption in the Divine Comedy in two important ways. First, the general path of redemption, from an awakening, through a purgation, to a final knowledge and vision of Love, is the same in the essentials. Second, that the motivating force for both is a desire for the Beloved.

The Path of Redemption

Dante begins Inferno very simply. He writes, "Midway this life we're bound upon, / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, / Where the right road was wholly lost and gone." This establishes two facts, that Dante is lost, and that he finally knows that he is lost. The fact that he is lost does not mean anything until he realizes it. And, while the entire Comedy may perhaps be described as an awakening, this is the moment that is defined by it. The redemption of Dante has begun.

Similarly, Spike had that sudden realization, described by Dante as being like waking up. He realizes what he almost did to Buffy, and realizes how completely lost in the dark he is. Of course, the audience has known this for quite some time, as Spike slips further and further into evil, but his redemption cannot begin until he realizes how lost he is.

Both Dante and Spike have to wake up and realize how lost they are, before they can begin to go anywhere. But, interestingly enough, both of them turn for help to what I would call "The Not Good Guys."

Dante turns for help, not to Beatrice, but to the ghost of Virgil. While Virgil may be the best pagan Dante will ever meet, there are two major problems with turning to Virgil for help. First, Virgil is a pagan, and is condemned to hell, even if it is the top level which doesn't seem quite so bad, relatively. Any ghost, not just that of Virgil, would be a problem, for similar reasons. Second, Dante should have turned to Beatrice. Dante is reduced to being guided by a pagan philosopher through hell, because he is so lost that Beatrice cannot go to him.

While Spike does not go looking for guidance from a ghost, he does go straight to a demon. In Buffy, demons are varying levels of evil. The only possible exception to this is a vampire with a soul, such as Angel, but that instance does not count, because at that point it is no longer a demon. Most demons are trying to destroy the world, or Buffy, or both. They are not to be trusted (I will not discuss here the possibility of good demons or half demons, as that is only shown on Angel, and I do not think it strictly applies). Instead of going off to get help from a demon, Spike should have gotten help from Buffy, and it is a measure of how lost he is, that he cannot.

As Dr. Reynolds said, "good Torrey students do not play with ghosts." In other words, Dante should know better than to seek help from a ghost, just as Spike should not be seeking advice from a demon. It is a measure of their respective conditions that they do.

Now there comes a point, for both Dante and Spike, when they are saved. It is no longer in question that they will be saved, but the process of redemption is not yet done.

Dante is saved at the foot of Mt. Purgatory. All the souls on Purgatory, in their various states, are all saved. The souls in Purgatory will not slip back down to hell (Virgil is a special case, and doesn't really count, because he isn't really there, not in the way that Dante is), and Dante is numbered among them. Dante has woken up, escaped hell, and now the real work begins. It is important to see that there is a point when Dante is saved.

There is a similar moment for Spike, which is much more dramatic; Spike receives his soul. At the point in time when he regains his soul, Spike is irrevocably changed. He walks and talks differently, even his facial expressions are somehow altered, even in the midst of insanity, because from that moment on in the story, Spike is saved.

It is not enough that Dante is saved from hell, or that Spike is saved from the nothingness that was his lack of soul. Some stories might end here. But even greater than this is the redemption and transformation that can now begin to occur.

Now we enter the seventh season of Buffy, and begin the climb of Mt. Purgatory.

Purgatory has many meanings, on many different levels, for Dante. But I am only concerned right now with the process of purgation. It can hardly be emphasized enough that Purgatory is not a place of punishment for crimes, but rather a place of cleansing of the soul. It is the habituation of the soul to good; learning virtue rather than vice. Although those in purgatory may be in pain, they no longer suffer. They have a joy, and an expectation of the Beautific Vision, that those in hell cannot even glimpse. It is in Purgatory that Dante is really able to begin the dialectic, and to begin to grow in understanding.

I will freely admit that it is at this point that the parallels between Dante and Spike are hardest to see. Spike regains his soul, but is driven insane, and does not have the clear serenity of the stars that Dante sees. Yet in Spike's insanity, there is clarity. He does not yet fully understand (neither does Dante), but he sees clearly. He is one of the only two to see both Willow and Buffy. He realizes the enormity of all the past evil that he has done. He embraces the cross (which surely has interesting symbolic significance). Spike finally begins to try to be good; to live well. It is perhaps a more violent cleansing, yet it is still a cleansing. Spike struggles with all the villains of the seasons, and must reject them, including what appears to be Buffy.

As a short side note, it is interesting that both Dante and Spike must reject that which has the appearance of beauty. Spike must reject that evil which takes the shape of Buffy (which he surely does while captive in the caves). Dante must reject the Siren. Both appear beautiful, but are deceptive, and would lead to destruction.

The cleansing of the soul, the ridding it of past evil and training it towards good, describe the purgation of both Spike and Dante, leading to the reconciliation with the Beloved.

It is at the top of Mt. Purgatory that Dante is finally reunited with Beatrice. Now he begins that final stage of the journey, towards the Beautiful Vision.

There is not nearly as defined a moment for Spike. I would submit that the night he spends with Buffy, simply holding here, is the moment of reconciliation (although I would not hold strongly to it). Spike calls it the happiest moment of his life. The serenity and reconciliation that Spike finds, the happiness in merely watching the beloved, is reminiscent of Dante's reunion with Beatrice having drunk of the two rivers of the garden at the top of Purgatory. It is not necessary, however, to point to one moment, in any case, but to simply say that reconciliation has occurred. Through the rest of Season 7, Spike grows in love.

There is little I can say of the growth of love in Paradise, and what I have to say may all be summed up in that greatest of all happy endings, the Beautific Vision.

The Beautific Vision for Dante is true sight of the Beloved, that is, sight with understanding that moves the soul. Dante writes that "my will and my desire were moved by love / the love that moves the sun and the other stars." Dante's entire being is consumed by love, and there are really no words strong enough to describe this. The entire journey has been about this, and now Dante is finally able to feel love, to breathe it, to think it, to have it completely move him. It is a soaring, breathtaking moment.

Spike is also consumed by love. It is love of Buffy, although she does not love him the way he first desired, that motivates him. It is through her love for him (she believed in him) and his love for her, that he has become a champion. When Spike puts on the amulet, he is consumed by the fire of love, both literally and figuratively. His love has been purified, he has been redeemed, and at this moment, his will and his desire are moved by love of Buffy. It is an impossibly happy moment when Spike is consumed by the fire, because at that moment, he finds true happiness. He gets it, he sees it, even when Buffy doesn't.

Some things are so beautiful that they hurt. When Dante describes the Beautific Vision, it is so beautiful it aches. When Spike gives everything to die happy, consumed by the fire and his love of Buffy, it is so beautiful it aches. And I think it is the same thing, in a way, because it is a glimpse of a vision that takes us beyond words. Perhaps the final happiness is simply to love, fully and completely, the Beloved.

The story itself is extraordinarily powerful, whether it is in the form of poetry or film. This brings me to two related points. First, it shows very clearly and concisely one reason to read a medieval Catholic who wrote epic poetry. If Dante can illuminate something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, just think what it could do for C.S. Lewis (surely a book in its own right). The story Dante told was the story of redemption, which we are still telling. If the redemption of Spike is powerful, if it is important, then the redemption of Dante through the Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise is even more important, because it shows more clearly.

Second, the image of the fire consuming Spike made me realize something I'd never articulated before. As I have said, it is the terrible beauty that is much like Dante's Beautific Vision. The great stories are not limited to one form. This is obvious. I know this, but now I think that I get it. The form of a story may change, without changing its essence. I will try to explain what I mean. I am not talking about making movie adaptations of a book (an entirely separate question that I am ill equipped to discuss). If someone were to make a movie, and they wanted it to be Narnia-ish, I would expect it to have a certain echo, or taste, of the things of Narnia, without necessarily having any fauns, or dryads, or children from our world entering another world. But it wouldn't be overt, more like about half way through the film I would suddenly sit up and say, "oh, I get it, it's really the story of Narnia." And if it were really good, it would evoke the feel of Narnia while still being itself.

Now I shall move on to my second topic, that I hope to address more quickly, that of

The Desire for the Beloved

The motivating force for both Dante and Spike is a desire for the Beloved. Dante is ever moved by love of Beatrice, and Spike is moved by love of Buffy.

Dante would not have been saved but for his love of Beatrice, and her love of him. It is Beatrice's love of Dante that sends her to the depths of hell to summon Virgil to guide him, it is her love that sends the Lady Lucia, and it is she herself that guides him through heaven. It is Dante's love that ever drives him, when spoken by Virgil it gives him strength in hell, and it is her name that drives him through the final fire at the top of Mt. Purgatory. It is in her eyes that he is drawn ever upwards into heaven, and she ever grows more beautiful.

In a similar way, it is Spike's love of Buffy that drives him, and it is Buffy's love of Spike that saves him. When Buffy begins to love Spike, she stops using him, and is no longer content with what he is. It is her words that she believes in him that give him strength, and she believes in him as her champion. It is Spike's love of Buffy that drives him from the beginning, misguided though he is, he wants to become that which he was to give her what he believes she deserves. But he believes that she deserves to be loved with a soul. It is his love of her that brings him back to his sanity, that allows him to repulse evil. And, at the very end, it is his love of her that leads him to die for her, even with the knowledge that she does not love him in the way that he loves her.

But while it is the love of and desire for the beloved that drives both Dante and Spike, there is an important distinction that must be made about the final vision. For Dante, it is not enough to have seen the true beauty of Beatrice. Beatrice is truly beautiful, and worthy of his purified love, but she is an image of the Divine. The Beautific Vision is the culmination of love, but it is not love of Beatrice, which though a great love is not the greatest. It is love of Truth, and Beauty, and Goodness, that is to say, God.

Spike's ultimate love is the love of Buffy. It is a great love, but not so great as Dante's love, for Dante's love of Beatrice led him to a greater love. I find a deep disappointment in Spike's love, for it is a love greater than Buffy, and so should have led him to love that which is greater, without losing the love of that which is lesser. At the end of Paradise, it is not a final vision of Beatrice, and she would not have had it that she was the greatest vision. The entire journey of Dante has been to teach him to love that which is greatest, by first loving deeply and truly that which he already thinks that he loves, Beatrice. Beatrice is ever an incarnation, or an image, of love. I do not think Buffy ever becomes that for Spike.

I do not know that I have any particular conclusions to draw from this, and I doubt my wisdom, but I shall try in any case.

I keep coming back to a simple idea, which comes up again and again in Buffy, and is a central theme in The Divine Comedy. The redemptive, transformative power of love. Dante never fully understands it with his mind, and yet he fully comprehends it. At the final vision, his will and his desire are moved by love. It really is all in Dante. To begin to understand Dante is to begin to understand what he was saying about love, and the story of redemption he was telling. And to begin to understand this image of redemption is to begin to understand and truly see so many other images of redemption. It is a story that continues to be powerful, even if we do not understand why.

May our souls be redeemed, transformed, and moved by love, the love that moves the sun and other stars.
bonny_kate: (castle)
I've been thinking a lot lately about superheros. It has to do with the class I'm not taking; Heroes and Saviours, which includes such texts as The Republic, She, Lord of the Rings, Batman Begins, Unbreakable, and Superman Returns.

Why are there superheros? Or, more precisely, why are there stories about superheros? To understand why superheros, we must first understand what they are. Superheros are defined by two characteristics. They are good, and they are powerful. Superman wouldn't be much good if he was ordinary, and he can't be evil (that would make him a villain). Simple enough. Yet, we identify strongly with superheros, even though we are not that good, nor that powerful (think of the iconic picture of the child in cape). It is because we are, through the means of the story, giving that part of ourself which is most good, the most power. Superheros have the power to do good that we want. They are our best selves. We know that if we could fly we would rescue the kitten from the tree, stop the train from derailing, and save the world. That is the primary appeal of superheros; to have the power to do extraordinary good. Superheros are not always good, but they are essentially, that is in essence, good.

But this doesn't fully explain superheros. There is still, for instance, the question of secret identities. It doesn't make sense from a pure logic perspective that a bit of a mask can hide someone's identity. But the point is not the size of the mask. It is that we want the possibility, or even the idea, that the person in the cubicle next to us, or more truly, that we ourselves could be superheros in spite of our mundaneness. Everyone overlooks Clark Kent, because they do not realize his true nature. It is a consolation that even Superman can be overlooked when he isn't saving the world. It opens up possibilities. We know intellectually that we can never be Superman, or even be bitten by a radioactive spider, but we fell on some deeper level that perhaps we can be. This brings us to the next point.

Superheros are connected to Plato's Republic (nearly everything is). At first I thought that the superhero was part of the cave analogy. (The story of the cave, in case you don't know, goes like this: Picture that there are some people in a cave, facing the wall. They are chained, and can only see shadows. They have only ever seen shadows. What would it be like if one of them were to see reality? They wouldn't get it. They would think shadows were realer than the objects. They would eventually realize the truth, and see the beauty of objects, and finally, the sun. They would go back down to the cave to rescue the others.) I thought superheros were the ones who came back down into the cave to rescue us. But, this can't be right. If it were so, our primary response would be a desire to be rescued by them, rather than a desire to identify with them. We want to be the superhero. But this is a step in the right direction, for it eliminates an obvious answer, allowing us to move on to a better answer.

We can understand the deep connection between superheros and Plato's Republic by asking a simple question. What do superheros stand for? The answer is not, as I first thought, a form of rescue. It is Justice. This is true not just for a modern definition of justice (making sure the bad guys are punished), but the more rigorous definition presented in the Republic. Justice is at the heart of the Republic, in the discussion that forms it. It is shown through a picture of the ideal city, where the philosophers rule wisely. The great threat to this ideal city is the tyrant. He rules the citizens by brute force, doing whatever pleases him, and causing destruction and chaos. Sound familiar? Yep, it's the villain, who the superhero is sworn to defeat in the name of Justice. But while the superheros defeat the villains, they are not the philosopher-kings of the Republic. When have they ruled us?

To understand fully our fascination of superheros it is necessary to go deeper into the Republic. Plato reminds us that the entire point of creating an ideal city is to understand what justice is in the soul of the individual. It turns out to be a sort of rightly ordered soul. Similarly, the superhero is a means of rightly ordering the city. But what does the something that is superheros correspond to in the Republic? Not reason, for superheros do not rule, but not quite imagination, nor anything else. To go further we must turn to Dante.

In Purgatory, Dante has a dream. He dreams of a hideous Siren, who grows beautiful as he looks upon her. The Siren is recognized by a lady who turns to Virgil (Dante's guide) to unmask the Siren. In her notes on the text, Dorothy Sayers writes that the lady "symbolizes something immediate, instinctive almost automatic: one might call her an intuition, or perhaps the reflex action of a virtuous habit, whose instant warning puts the soul on the alert and prompts it to think rationally about what it is doing." Aha! This sounds familiar. In much the same way, the superhero is often the only one to comprehend the villain (and their plan). They understand the evil of the villain, and recoil. But they also have the power of Virgil; the power of action. They have the superpower which enables them to defeat the villain, but the reaction against evil that always sets them against the villain. Superheros, then, resound with us because they are an image of the instinctive action of the soul empowered by reason.

We want to fight evil, save the world, and fly. We want to be superheros.
bonny_kate: (serenity)
(see also: on why villains monologue)

In the Buffy episode Out of Sight, Out of Mind (season 1), Marcia goes on and on about how she is going to kill Cordelia, and why she is doing it. This monologue is precisely what allows Buffy to free herself, and, of course, defeat Marcia. Why, then, does Marcia go to all that trouble? First, she has a flair for the dramatic. It is not enough that Cordelia should die, or Marcia would simply shoot her and be done with it. Rather, she wants a twisted, poetic justice. She wants Cordelia to suffer in a way that will remind everyone why this happened (thus the large, painted messages "look", "listen", and "learn"). She wants Cordelia to suffer in a way specific to the horrible way she treated Marcia. Cordelia will be well known, if Marcia succeeds, and her face will be remembered, but it will be remembered for the horrible sight of her face brutally cut, with the May Queen crown still on her head.

But this does not explain why Cordelia needs to be conscious for all of this. In these sorts of circumstances, I usually ask myself why the villain does not simply do whatever it is they want to while the hero (or victim) is unconscious. In this particular instance, though, I never asked that question, because it was perfectly clear why Cordelia had to be conscious. It would be a shallow victory if Cordelia did not understand, or feel, what was happening, and why it was happening. Marcia has a deep, personal hatred of Cordelia. She wants Cordelia to suffer, and despair. It isn't enough that Cordelia dies, or that she is hurt. Marcia wants her to know exactly why she is being hurt.

To put it another way, if Inigo simply kills the Count, there is no satisfaction. There is, perhaps, a sort of justice, but there is none of that bittersweet taste of revenge. Inigo must deliver that simple line if the Count is to understand why he is dying, and if Inigo is to feel that his father has been avenged.

Therefore, villains monologue from a desire to watch the hero suffer. It is not smart in one sense; Marcia should just kill Cordelia and not bother with all the drama. But this is precisely what Marcia cannot do. She doesn't just want Cordelia dead; Cordelia must suffer. Her hatred is so great that it overcomes her practical sense of caution. As Buffy says, she is insane.

The trick, I think, is knowing what sort of villains monologue; those personally invested in the suffering of the hero, although this may be for various reasons. The villain may hate the hero and desire some sort of particular revenge (such as the case of Marcia or Inigo). The villain may be proud of their own ingenuity in devising pain (heroes tend to be prone to this sort). The villain may want to prove their superiority (which also applies to Marcia).

The tendency to gloat is very human. Also, not coincidentally, that very human failing is often that which saves the hero. If it is well written, such as the end to LOTR or the Buffy show, it is very good, and does not seem cliched. The idea of "hubris", of the pride of a man being his own destruction, is very old, and yet still powerful. It causes villains to monologue, and gives heroes the opportunity to escape. And it can be done very well.
bonny_kate: (Default)
What kind of person would kill Mary Jane? A villain, you say. Very well, let me complicate the question.

What kind of person would kill Mary Jane in order to save the world? This question is a bit harder, a bit more complicated. Spiderman loves Mary Jane (let us assume, for the sake of this thought experiment, that we all like Spiderman and think he is cool). Maybe he couldn't kill her, even to save the world. But a hero might. A hero might have to kill the one person poor Spiderman loves in order to save the world.

It wouldn't always be evil to kill poor Mary Jane. It depends on the particular circumstance. If you want to do it in order to have revenge on Spiderman, you are obviously a bad person. We, as the audience, will boo at you. We will enjoy when Spiderman justly defeats you. On the other hand, if Mary Jane has suddenly turned into a very destructive evil thing that intends to destroy the world (in other words, she is a villain), then she ought to be stopped. It is very sad, especially for Spidey, but she ought to be killed (and Spiderman can deal with the angst later).

Simple enough so far, right? Let's complicate things. Suppose that you can see the future (with a machine, or in dreams, or by drinking a magic potion; it really doesn't matter). You look into the future, and see what sort of person Spidey will become. You see him go up against Ultimate Evil (a cyborg, a supervillain, or mad scientist perhaps), and he loses, dooming the entire world. This is even more terrible because he almost won. At the critical moment, at the precise instant when he could have defeated it, he faltered because of Mary Jane. He chose Mary Jane over the world.

Now we still haven't finished this thought experiment. You now look down a different future; a possible future rather than the actual future. You ask yourself, would it be enough for Mary Jane to die tragically? But strangely, Spidey still falters. At that most critical instant, he remembers Mary Jane. The Ultimate Evil in some way reminds him of her, and how much he loved her, and how sad she would be at what he has become. It doesn't matter whether this is true or not. It distracts him just enough. Our world falls.

Desperate, you search out another possible future. The fate of the world rests on your hands. It was not enough for Mary Jane to die tragically. Spiderman needs a stronger motivation. What if Mary Jane betrayed him? You look into this future. Spiderman is angry, he is bitter, there should be nothing to hold him back. It isn't quite enough. You push him even further; Mary Jane has betrayed him, and he kills her in order to save the world. It works. There is no longer any indecision on his part. He has already faced his greatest personal evil, the Mary Jane who tried to take over the world. He knows the precise cost of indecision. He will not falter. You are exuberant because you have finally saved the world.

You talk to Mary Jane. You show her the future (on a computer screen, in a crystal sphere, or in nightmares). You convince her that the only possible way for her Spidey to save the world is for him to believe that she betrayed him, and to kill her in the midst of that betrayal. She accepts this, because she believes it is necessary to make Spidey into the sort of hero that can save the world. She does it, and Spidey saves the world. What sort of person are you?

You aren't a hero anymore, even if you really, truly, saved the world. If this is the only way to save the world, then you shouldn't save it. The end (saving the world) is not justified by the means (causing Mary Jane to betray Spidey). It never is by someone who cannot see everything, or know everything. It is never justified to use Mary Jane, or Spiderman, in this way. You cannot do great evil that great good may come of it, because that very act of doing great evil will always be harmful. You ruined Mary Jane. You quite probably ruined Spidey. But even if you didn't, the damage you did to your own sense of right and wrong, to your own soul, would be irreparable. Now what? If the world is in danger again, what will you resort to this time in order to save it?

Finally, in this thought experiment, you have misunderstood something. You wanted to make Spidey great; you wanted to make him invincible. You saw his love for Mary Jane as his greatest weakness. But true love is never a weakness. It would have been better for Spiderman to hesitate because of his love for Mary Jane, because then he might have been saved. Her love would have kept him as a hero. The Ultimate Evil would not have hesitated for love of Mary Jane. That is the problem. It should have hesitated. Perhaps the answer lies, not in stopping Spiderman from hesitating, but in giving the villain a reason to hesitate. But even if you couldn't, even if it was inevitable that the world would be destroyed, it is better that it is destroyed because of a last act of love, then to be saved in such a way.
bonny_kate: (narnia)
One thing that appeals to me in books is a sense of place. This is more subtle than other elements such as voice or characterization, and harder to define. However, I shall attempt to give a basic definition of what a sense of place is in a book.

For some reason, this came up in one of our Dante discussions. Dante manages to give a very good sense of place within his Divine Comedy. How does he do this? Let us take Purgatory as an example, although either of the other two books would work equally well. He gives a very clear organization of Purgatory. It is quite possible to draw maps. Further, the geography of Purgatory is loaded with significance. It really matters which cornice is on top of which other cornice. If he had stacked them just any which way, it would not have been nearly as compelling, or interesting. But he also doesn't spend pages and pages explaining the arrangement of Purgatory; that would be dull. He gives enough of an outline for the reader to understand the basic significance, and leaves the reader to discover the further meaning if they are so inclined.

Another author who is particularly good at giving a sense of place is C.S. Lewis, specifically with the Narnia Chronicles. While the geography is not nearly so significant as in Purgatory, it is still important. Cair Paravel is by the sea, on the East, because it is royal, and associated with the Emperor over the Sea, and Aslan, who is depicted as coming from the East.

So, in order for there to be a sense of place, the geography must matter, and must not merely be a place for things to happen.


Purgatory is also very dependent on time. It is almost unusually dependent on time, in that one can only move upwards during the day, and every day has a specific significance. Because it is so important, it is easier to see the connection. It takes Dante (the character) measurable amounts of time to climb the cornices. It feels like it took him a while to climb Purgatory, rather than just being pushed along to see the particular attractions. It feels kind of like an amusement park. If I want to describe, for instance, Knott's Berry Farm, I shall probably tell you about the rides ("Ghostrider is the best, but Excelerator was cool too"). But this actually gives you a very poor understanding of what the park is actually like. If I want to give you a true understanding of what the park is like, I will give you a rough idea of how it is arranged ("the best rides aren't together, but are kind of spread around, but that let's you go on different sorts of rides, and there are also loosely themed areas, although not nearly as clearly defined as Disneyland"), what the good parts were ("it was a warm day, so we went on the water ride, but I didn't get drenched, even though I wanted to"), the bad bits ("there was a really boring and weird show that we went to, and I don't know why we went to it, except to dry off after that water ride"), and even what the lines were like ("mostly not too bad, and there were some interesting people in line, but there were also those annoying couples who insisted on making out while standing in line, and I was glad when we were no longer in line with them"). This sort of thing gives a much better sense of what Knott's is like.

Tolkien does this particularly well in the Lord of the Rings. The characters seem to go on walking forever. You don't lose the journey for all the exciting bits. It may (or may not) make the journey seem less exciting, but it does make it seem like it actually happened somewhere, instead of just jumping between places (and really missing out on the places in between places). It is really easy to underestimate the signficance of all the walking bits. But I think that we wouldn't appreciate Rivendell, and the Last Homely House, if there wasn't that entire journey from Hobbiton. We wouldn't have a sense of what it means to be the last Homely House, if we felt that there were other houses quite close by on one side, and Lothlorien merely a jaunt away on the other side.

In other words, the journey must take time, and must include all the bits that are like waiting in line for a ride. Sometimes you can just hop right onto the ride, without a wait at all, but most of the time you are in line for much longer than the actual ride. (Of course, a good author makes it just as interesting to wait in line, although in a different sort of way.)


There is more, of course, to what creates a sense of place. But these two ideas, that it must really matter where the story takes place, and that it must take time to get places, are essential. It doesn't fully explain why Narnia is what she is, though, so I shall have to try again in another post, I think, and continue to think about it.

Jane Eyre

Jun. 6th, 2006 06:16 pm
bonny_kate: (books)
I just finished Jane Eyre last night. A most remarkable story. It starts out quite interesting, but slow. It becomes slowly more interesting, until, without realizing it, you are deeply entrenched in the book, and stay up much too late to finish it. It is, I think, much more successful because of the slow buildup. It allows for a greater build, and eventually a much deeper interest than the sort of book that tries to snag you immediately and hold you with that same energy level. Of course, the downside is that it starts slowly; it spends a good deal of time detailing the first years of Jane. Some modern readers may find this annoying, or not read further.

However, I have come to recognize that it is another way of writing a great book; where each chapter builds in intensity. While the first part may seem unnecessary, it performs the useful function of giving all the necessary background, and establishing Jane's character, without having to go into detail at the important bits. It is important information. It is also, I think, a nod to the reader who will continue to read the book. It is as though the author tells you to stick around, because it will be better and more exciting, and then it is.

It was quite a satisfying read.

One of my profesors once said that you are either a Jane Eyre or a Jane Austen sort of person. If so, I am most assuredly a Jane Austen sort of person. While both do me much good, I think Jane Austen much less likely of doing me harm. It is a very good thing that I did not read Jane Eyre when I was younger, for it is exactly the sort of book that I shouldn't have read, what with its gloomy and romantic setting. I would have missed the point that gloomy and romantic is all well and good, but you must still be good, honorable, and sometimes horribly practical. It would have been, I think, too subtle for me. Jane Austen, with her cheerful heroines (particularly Jane and Lizzie), and her cheerful landscape, did me much good by showing me that romance can be cheerful. Pride and Prejudice is a sunny novel, with only an occasional shower, but Jane Eyre is a novel full of thunderstorms and fog, with the sun occasionally breaking through.

There is one question, though, that I still have unanswered in Jane Eyre. (cut, just in case of spoilers) )

To end, I shall say that I am quite glad that I read the book, and even more glad that I bought it, so that I may read it again later.
bonny_kate: (spring again)
There are, to my way of thinking, quite a few problems with the movie The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I shall, however, gloss over the use of modern slang, the departures from the plot, the problems with the characterization of Aslan, and in short, all but one of the problems with the movie. That would only be a rant. However, I should like to address one issue that this adaptation of Narnia showed me, which I do not think is unique to the movie. Modern culture does not understand the nobel warrior.

Look with me, for a moment, at the four children. Lucy is much the same as in the book, her beautiful valiant self. Edmund is portrayed surprisingly well, both his betrayal and redemption are shown. Susan is, perhaps, more of a mother figure than she is supposed to be, but it is still a decent interpretation. The movie fails, though, when it comes to Peter (I must say here, in order that you fully understand my feelings, that I have always wanted to be Peter. Lucy is absolutely magnificent, and I look to her as my guiding light (Lucia means light, and is one of the guiding saints in Dante), but she is better than I. Edmund is like a brother to me, and I especially love him after his redemption. Susan is beautiful, and good, although I have never liked her as much as the others. But I have longed to be magnificent Peter). In the books, Peter is the noble and true knight, fighting for justice. Occasionally he may lead the others in the wrong direction, as in Prince Caspian, but he never backs down from the battle.

What the movies have done is to take Peter and water him down. They make him caught in a terrible dilemma of whether or not to fight at all. I don't see this in the book at all, which I re-read the other day specifically looking for instances where he was unsure whether he should fight. It doesn't happen. The closest thing that I found is that Peter feels rather sick after killing the wolf. Why then, this need to add this conflict to Peter's character?

If this was the only instance taking a noble warrior and giving them internal conflict over whether they should fight, I should not think too much of it. But, it seems to be a mindset. In the Lord of the Rings movies, Faramir is given the same sort of conflict. These people do not understand how these noble warriors can simply accept the necessity of fighting evil, with little or no conflict.

Peter is magnificent, though, without the need for conflict to show that he is human. Is it not a good human tendency to fight for the truth, against evil? It would seem a failing on our part if we must debate with ourselves and convince ourselves of the necessity to fight against the White Witch. The White Witch wants to kill the four children, destroy Narnia, and is quite obviously evil. Read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and you will see that it is not only Lucy, but Peter and Susan who understand that they must fight the White Witch. It is a great moral question, of what to do when your friend, Mr. Tumnus, is in trouble because he helped you. But for the children, it is not an issue. What appears, then, to be an attempt on the part of the movie to make Peter more approachable, more understandable, has made him less praiseworthy. Gone is the knight who fights for good, not irrationally, but instinctually, because he is virtuous in this way. Instead we are presented with someone who must overcome his own instincts in order to persuade himself to be good. It is not an improvement of his character, and if this is the only way that we can understand Peter, we are in pretty sorry shape. This, then, is the error, of making Peter less good, and therefore, less human.
bonny_kate: (Default)
I have often wondered in the middle of a not so great movie, why the villain just stands there, talking, instead of just killing the hero. I thought about it some more tonight while watching one of the older Batman movies. Really, it's all in Dante. At this point I should like to point you to my professor, who wrote a great entry on this topic, but it has disappeared, so I'm afraid that you are stuck with my ramblings.

I should like to try a thought experiment, and I will write it out in the form of a dialog (I will be playing both parts).

cut to save your friends pages, as the line breaks make it seem long )

the stars

Mar. 3rd, 2006 11:36 pm
bonny_kate: (spring again)
It's all in Lewis. No, really, every idea that I've encountered in Dante, I suddenly found that I already had met in Lewis.

Dante's Inferno ends suprisingly. It ends, not with a violent or upsetting image, but with the stars. It is a beautiful image, of hope and peace. It readies me for purgatory, and is, perhaps, the most moving image in the Inferno. Dante comes from hell into the cool night sky. But there is more to Dante's stars than a cursory glance tells. Dante doesn't think of stars in at all the same way that we do.

Stars are, to the modern, mindless balls of fiery gas. The heavens are empty. We look up into the night sky and feel terribly lonely, a small sphere of green in a great wasteland.

To the medieval mind, stars are the greatest corporeal being. They are not mindless, but beautiful beings. Looking up into the heavens, the stars are in a great dance. They move because they want to move, or in the greater words of the poet Dante, it is "love that moves the sun and other stars." They orbit in circles and spin in galaxies because they are taking part of the great cosmic dance that God has given them. Looking up at the heavens, the medievals are saddened because the earth is on the outskirts. We are the pagans who have forgotten how to dance, not the modern threshold of civilization.

But this idea is not new for me. I already found it in Lewis. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, they meet a fallen star (the island of the Dufflepuds), a star, and the star's daughter (whom Caspian later marries). The star is beautiful, terribly old, but most important, he is alive. (Interestingly, Eustace says that in our world stars are merely balls of fiery gas, but the star corrects him and says that even in our world, stars are merely made of fiery gas, that is not their essence. I should not be surprised to find that Lewis thought there was more to our stars than meets the eye, although he never says this.) Further, events in Narnia are foreshadowed by the stars, in both Prince Caspian, and the Last Battle. In the Last Battle, the centaur tells us that while man may lie, the heavens never do. Once again, there is the idea that the stars are rational, moving by their own will, assembling according to their heavenly vision.

This brings me to the question, why don't I think that stars are rational? It is counter cultural. Our cultural mindset is different, we think that the stars are dead, Dante thought that they are alive. But that is a prejudice, not a true reason. We know what stars are, but to know what a think is made of is not necesarily to what it is. I am made of mostly water, but I am not water. We know that gravity keeps the stars going along their paths. But this is not really an answer, either. We know how gravity works, we understand the laws and the ratios, but this does not answer what gravity is. It may well be that it is simply the will of the star, which we can describe through certain mathematical equations, the same way we can describe a population, or a dance, with formulas. Stars move. But, a table also moves, as it moves with the earth. A table is not alive. It does not really move of itself, though, it only moves with the earth, as a sort of passenger. It passively moves, a star seems to actively move. Stars also have life cycles, being born, growing old, and dying. This is not necesary for life, after all, Dante did not think the stars were mortal, but also thought that they were alive, so does not seem to count either way in the argument. Stars do not reproduce, although stars are born, which seems to be a qualification of life.

In the end, I find that I am not terribly certain that Dante and Lewis were wrong. There seems to be something to this idea that the stars are living beings. Not quite enough, though, to make me certain, although enough to make me doubt when I look up at the constellations. Perhaps, just perhaps, the story is true, how glorious that would be.
bonny_kate: (spring again)
Why isn't Susan in Narnia, at the end? This question continues to be a source of discussion among people who like Narnia. Most see it as a weakness of the story. I don't. I think it is purposeful, and successful.

Before looking directly at the problem that Susan's absence provides, I want to first talk a little about Dante. This isn't actually a rabbit trail, as Lewis really liked the medievals, especially Dante. He liked the medieval worldview; their idea of how the world functioned (see The Discarded Image). To take just one example, look at what stars are in Narnia. They are people, different, perhaps incomprehensible in many ways, but they are souls with fiery, corporeal bodies. Dante has the same idea of stars. So, looking at Dante can help us understand Lewis, as well as the other way round.

All the souls in Dante's hell are there because they want to be there (see my earlier post "gollum and hell"). Hell is horrible, but the most horrible thing about it in many ways is that it is a chosen evil. No truly good person can be in hell. They may have appeared good, but in the end they did not choose that ultimate good. Like the animals in the Last Battle, they had that one moment of clearly seeing, they saw Aslan, and they said, "not this." This is a very strange picture of hell. The animals stream away in both directions, some towards the light, but some to be lost in the darkness. Aslan does not judge them. He merely lets them choose whether they want him, or not. As in Dante's hell, the judgment is not what we easily picture. It is merely giving them what they want.

So, if Susan is not in Narnia, the real Narnia, it is not because of some judgment against her, but because she chose otherwise. This is also supported within the book. We are told that Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia, that she no longer wants it, that she prefers other things instead (it does not really matter what other things she chose as much as that choice). She does not come back to Narnia because she does not want to. One objection is that Eustace and Edmund are horrid, and yet they are let into Narnia, although (especially in the case of Eustace) it isn't what they want. There is a difference, though, in type. Neither Eustace or Edmund have, at that point, actually experienced Narnia. They are not rejecting it with the full knowledge of what it is. Susan rejects Narnia having gone there, and having reigned as queen. She experienced it, she lived there, she met Aslan, and yet she still calls it a game. This seems a much more serious offense.

In Lewis, and Susan's defense, I should like to point out that we don't know what happens to Susan in the end. She might find her way back to Narnia. Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen. She may never find her way to Narnia. But if she doesn't, it will not be for choosing lipstick and flirting with boys. She will not be in Narnia because she didn't really want it. This is still sad, but a different kind of sadness. It is sad, not because lipstick is so bad, but because she would choose anything over Narnia.

That is my response to the problem of Susan. It seems to me to be supported textually and thematically. Is it a satisfying response, or am I missing something in my understanding of the text?
bonny_kate: (Default)
I think my journal will, for the next semester or so, become a collection of my thoughts on Dante. Not exclusively, of course, but this is what I'm thinking about, so I will spend a decent chunk of time and energy thinking about Dante, but hopefully in a way that will makes sense even if you have never read any Dante.

To start, I just want to say that I'm talking about what Dante says. So, unless I say otherwise, my own opinions on hell (as a place) will not come into my thoughts about hell (as Dante's literary construct, the Inferno). Or if they do, I will try to be clear what bits are what Dante thinks, and what bits are what I think.


We are still in the first half or so of Dante's Inferno. Last week, we raised a really interesting question, would the people in hell leave, if they could? This is not as straightforward as you might think. Everyone in the Inferno is being tormented. They are not happy. In fact, they are all pretty miserable. They are all being tormented, from the lustful at the very top, to the treacherous at the very bottom of hell. It would be silly to say that they enjoy the torment, because they quite obviously do not. Yet, there is nothing (physically) stopping them from leaving Hell. So, why don't they? Why don't they leave hell to go be happy in purgatory, or paradise, or maybe just haunt the earth?

The best way to find an answer to this question is to look for a minute at Dante's guide and mentor, the great pagan poet, Virgil. Let us be clear on the fact that Virgil is the best person in hell. He only lacks Christian baptism. He is in the great pagan paradise with the other great poets and philosophers. Virgil could leave, if he wanted to. He could just walk out the front gates of hell. Or, supposing that wouldn't work, he could go all the way down to the center of hell and come out the other side, the way he does with Dante. But he doesn't. He stays there, in Limbo, and doesn't even seem to want purgatory. Why would he stay there if he could just leave? The real answer is that Virgil doesn't want to leave.

There is something attractive about hell. Nobody leaves. Francesca and Paulo are forever whirled around in the circle of the lustful, when they could seemingly just let go of each other and walk out the front door. But that's just it. They won't walk out the front door. They would rather have each other, in misery, then leave. Now that the sin is revealed for what it truly is, they still want it more than they hate the punishment. Take for another example the wood of suicides. They are forever trapped within trees, no longer able to have their own bodies. The harpies tear on their branches, which drip out blood. But this is both the torment, and the release from the torment. They have what they really wanted, escape from their human bodies. But now they have it for what it really is, instead of what they thought it was.

Everyone in hell is there because they really want it. It's like Gollum with his precious. He knows that his precious is destroying him, and that it will go on destroying him if he actually gets it, but he still keeps seeking after the ring. He wants something that is no longer good, that will hurt him, and goes on wanting it, even though everyone would be quite willing to let him be happy. He has that choice, or at least, he had the choice at some point in the past.

There is no longer have a choice to be in hell, but that is because this is what they have always wanted. Stripped of any illusory good that might have come of the sin that they did, they are now experiencing the sin (because the punishment for sin is to experience the sin without any illusions, or accidental goodness). The gluttonous have gluttony, but without the good of food; they wallow in mud. The violent have the blood that they wanted, they swim in it.

You can feel pity for those in Dante's Hell, and it is right to feel pity for them. But it is with the realization that they would no longer leave, if they could. If you offered them paradise, they would turn from it to their precious, because they decided before they died that they wanted it more. They do not want the torment, but they do not want to leave. Even Virgil.

Dante

Feb. 1st, 2006 11:58 pm
bonny_kate: (Default)
Well, I had my Dante class today. It sounds like it's going to be an absolutely great class, and a whole lot of work. Part of me is still cowering in the corner because apparently one of the guys taking the class knows it well enough to refer back to the original Italian (I don't think he's really proficient, but he obviously knows a lot more than I do). Other than that, though, I'm feeling decently confident.

I have this feeling that as I'm reading Dante, I'll be traveling with him. I don't mean following the story, but actually in some way experiencing it with Dante; underoing the same process of thinking and feeling and being. This is true a little bit when I just read Dante. I have to keep reminding myself during Hell that Purgatory is ahead, and then Paradise. But I think that I will experience it even more taking this class. I'm starting out where Dante is, confused and lost, not sure why I'm here or if I can make it. A bit of hope, though, with the sight of Jerusalem and Virgil, although I've still a long way to go. But I will try to journal it, so that you, gentle reader, may come with me if you so choose.

So, today we talked about the first canto of Hell. Pondered some good questions, such as, why is Dante lost in a dark wood? where is the right road? how does he wake up? We also spent a lot of time talking about Dante's classification of the distinction between virtue/vice as "obvious" (good, virtuous, saintly people don't cheat at cards or commit adultery, these are the types of things that are inherently vice), and "the golden mean" (things that aren't inherently vice, such as eating a candy bar, which can be bad sometimes, and fine other times). That took a while.

We also spent a fair amount of time talking about Virgil. It seems harsh for Dante to put Virgil in Hell, as one of the damned souls. I want to like Virgil, and I want to think that Virgil is good, but Dante is saying that really, he isn't. Virgil is just a ghost, and when Dante first sees him he is mute, no longer a poet or a man.

Out of this discussion, particularly the bit on ghosts, there were a few quotes worth writing down, so I shall share them with you. To fully understand them, it is necesary to note that Dante thought that ghosts were always bad (you have visions of the saints, which is different, because they are still alive and seeing the Good, but ghosts are entirely different because they are the souls from hell, so are always bad). Just pointing that out, so the quotes make sense.

"You should never take candy from a ghost." - Dr Reynolds

"Torrey students shouldn't play with ghosts." - also Dr Reynolds, explaining that we are theologically sound to a non-Torrey grad student

More on Dante when I have the time. Good stuff.

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Kate Saunders Britton

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