Stand with Women

We like to think we’re the most advanced civilization in the world, but we allow the appointment of “justices” who still believe women are inferior to men.  Millions of women who’d been born into the modern world yesterday found themselves thrust back into medievalist thinking that now seems to reign in the Supreme Court.  Even Donald Trump, who is responsible, has expressed his doubts.  When will we acknowledge that women should have the same rights as men?  How long do we have to continue this inane struggle against religious amateurs who believe their reading of Scripture is the only correct one?  I was raised by a woman on her own.  Uneducated, with no practical job skills, she remained religious and very capably reared three sons.  She was far more capable than my father.

Democracy can be gamed, of course.  And the “angry white man” has become America’s new face to the world.  The petulant, selfish male who thinks everyone else is getting the benefits.  Even as Catholic-majority nations are declaring women’s rights, America is stepping backward in the Human Rights Index because certain senators refused to allow voting on legitimate candidates for the supreme court.  How they can go home and face their wives I do not know.  Of course, our laws do not apply to our lawmakers.  As revelations continually show, theirs is a world of “do as I say, not as I do.”  Is it so difficult to say it out loud?  Women are fully human and have an inherent claim to the same rights as men.  But then again, when have those blinded by religion ever seen clearly?

America, do you enjoy seeing your rights stripped away?  Do you enjoy justices who one day decide it’s our right to carry weapons in public and then next to say that women must remain home barefoot and pregnant?  Is this the mentality that now rules the gamed “supreme” court?  I’d like to exegete that word supreme and ask our “justices” just how deeply they’ve studied religion.  And that doesn’t mean just praying over your Bible.  The most difficult courses in the religion-philosophy curriculum are those dealing with ethics.  Days spent wrestling with the subtleties of how reason, law, and religion interact and teasing them apart to look at each with real understanding.  Or do we just vote along party lines like any beast in the herd?  It’s a shock to have been born in the sixties only to now find yourself living in the fifties with all their inherent hypocrisy.  I stand with women, not amateur theology masquerading as justice.


Following Instinct

An article from the Christian Science Monitor a few years back made me think how common knowledge runs ahead of science, but without the rigorous evidence.  The article is “Ravens might possess a Theory of Mind, say scientists.”  Of course they do.  The ravens, that is.  So do many other animals.  It’s pretty obvious when watching them interact on a daily basis.  We’ve over-flogged the idea of “instinct,” using it as a way of preserving the biblically-inspired idea that people are separate from animals.  We can be an arrogant species.  We say we get to determine when other species are intelligent or not.  When they do something smart we say, “That’s just instinct.”  Is it?  How do we know that?  And isn’t “instinct” one of the greatest fudge factors ever invented?

We do not know what consciousness is.  We claim it for ourselves and a few of our favorite animals only.  The ravens in the article show by their behavior that they know, or assume they know, what others are thinking.  I’m always struck how experiments set up to measure this assume a human frame of reference.  Paint a spot on an animal and place it in front of a mirror.  If it shows curiosity about the spot it has a self-awareness, a theory of mind.  Maybe other species aren’t as concerned about zits as we are.  Maybe they consider it vain to fawn over themselves.  Maybe they use sight in coordination with scent and hearing to identify themselves.  No matter what, at the end of the day we must say how our intelligence is superior.  (Then we go and elect Trump.)

Need I say more?

Scientists have to be skeptical—that is their job.  Looking for evidence and coming up with hypotheses and theories and whatnot.  That’s how the scientific method works.  The scientific method, however, isn’t the only way of knowing things.  We learn and animals learn.  We like to think our “theory of mind” makes us unique, but watching how animals interact with each other, even when they don’t know someone else is watching them, shows more sophistication than we normally allow.  Nobody has to be convinced that the corvids are intelligent birds.  Their lives are different from the nervous little finches and wrens, however.  Does that mean wrens and finches have less developed minds?  I think not.  Until we learn how to think like animals we have no business claiming that they have no theory of mind.  Maybe if we could define consciousness we might have a claim.  Right now, though, all we have are instincts to go on.


Paperback Nightmares

I’m not assertive.  My voice is not loud and even when I have strong opinions I like to let others have their say.  Those of us who’ve been beaten down too many times can be like that.  So it took a lot of courage to ask.  “Is it possible that Nightmares with the Bible might be issued in paperback?”  You see, I know that “academic” books almost always sell the copies they’re going to sell in the first year.  Some follow-up sales continue into years two and three, but beyond that it’s about done.  And I also know that when authors ask for a paperback it almost never sells as well (or even more poorly) than the hardcover.  I’m hoping the paperback of Nightmares will buck this trend because it published into the pandemic.  That was a game-changer.

When you’re worried about staying alive you might not feel like reading about demons.  Of course, what better time to do so is there?  Paperbacks are often produced, in academic settings, to appease authors.  I have long believed—and this flies counter to the orthodoxy of the publishing world—that if books were initially published in paperback and priced affordably they would sell better.  The fear is that the higher priced hardcovers wouldn’t be purchased by libraries.  Librarians would, oh tremble, purchase the reasonably priced paperbacks and rebind them for less expense than the stratospheric price put on a 208-page monograph.  Publishers are often afraid to try anything different.  Assured sales are a blessing that can be bankrolled.

I’m hoping, once the paperback comes out, to do some more promotional work on it.  This blog was started long before I had books to flog.  It’s free content for those who like the less sweet kinds of treats in the bowl.  I do appreciate the occasional free advertising I can do.  It’s my hope that there’s always something to learn offered with it.  Successful content providers can make a living doing it.  Others pay for the privilege.  I often ponder what will happen to this blog when I run up against the size limits of my WordPress account.  The next level up, commercial, is beyond my price range.  Perhaps, like a phoenix, it will be time to start all over again when that moment comes.  In the meantime I’ll reuse images as often as I can, because each new one takes a byte out of my account.  And when it’s all said and done, Nightmares will still be available in print. Hopefully in paperback next year.


Redacted

A friend recently introduced me to Redactle.  Yet another of those daily internet games that have become trendy in these pandemic years, Redactle gives you a page that looks like a Freedom of Information Act piece from the government.  Most of the words are blanked out and all you really know it that it is taken from one of the significant pages on Wikipedia.  You get some clues from the format, the way the prepositions and articles they give you are arranged, and occasionally, the punctuation.  You just start guessing words and it fills in the blanks as you get hits.  Like most things of this sort, there’s one puzzle per day, otherwise none of us would ever get anything done.  I’m a sucker for learning games, so we’ve been playing it as a family for a few days now.

A redacted file from the CIA, via Wikimedia Commons

The thing that has surprised me the most in our early on is that the trickiest ones to get right were on religions.  In our first week of play, two of the puzzles were religions: Lutheranism and Shaktism.  We’d been able to guess famous people in two dozen guesses, and countries in about the same.  Religions are trickier.  Despite having studied religion my entire life, my thought process doesn’t include guessing words like “theology” and “worship” for important articles on Wikipedia.  (In the case of Shaktism it took well over 100 guesses.  I taught world religion maybe fifteen years ago, but I haven’t kept up with my Hinduism.)  In the case of both of these religions what eventually gave them away was the place names: Germany and India.

India, of course, has been the birthplace of many religions.  The majority of Indians today are Hindu, but Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism were also children of India.  Even in this increasingly secular world, religions remain the driving forces behind lives.  So much so that some religionists consider Secularism a religion.  The fact is we all believe something.  It may not be supernatural, but then not all religions are.  They often brush up against philosophy at their most sophisticated end, and literalism is the least developed form of any belief system.  With some exceptions it doesn’t pay well to be a religionist.  Perhaps that’s because thinking hard about religion reveals uncomfortable truths.  Not only that, studying religion is no guarantee that when you have to fill in the blanks you’ll be able to guess one when it’s right in front of you.  That’s why I appreciate learning games.  


Solstice Thoughts

At the equator, the difference is nil.  The longest day and the shortest day don’t deviate from the standard day length.  The further you move from the equator, the more dramatic the effect is.  Here in the northern hemisphere this is our longest day, the solstice.  Historically, particularly in countries to the northern edge of the northern hemisphere, this is a holiday.  Midsummer marked the days of sun and growth.  Light is abundant—too abundant to sleep well in the furthest reaches.   Being visually oriented creatures, we enjoy the surfeit of light.  Light has long been a symbol of the divine for, I suppose, just that reason.  It makes us feel secure and safe.  We can see what’s going on around us.

In Antarctica, today is the shortest day of the year.  Indeed, around now there is seldom any light at all.  On the exact same day there are literally polar opposites on this planet.  The summer here is winter there.  It’s the first day of winter in the global south.  Their understanding of this day is completely different.  Of course, once you reach the shortest day, things can only improve.  The climb to summer lasts half a year, only to have the decline immediately begin again.  The difference is as subtle as it is inexorable.  For those of us who wake before the sun, it’s already obvious that sunrise is coming later than it did last week.  The earliest sunrise was the fourteenth.  Sunset will come later and later for the next few days, to compensate for the lost morning light, but overall there will be less and less until we are the winter half of the world.

There are many lessons to learn here.  In a world where the longest and shortest days are the same day—solstices depend on where you live—we don’t fight over it.  This despite the fact that light is our most precious commodity.  We simply accept that we celebrate light when we have it, and await its coming when we don’t.  Other resources we fight over.  Potable water.  Petroleum products.  Arable land.  Silently, radiantly, light shows us the way.  There’s an inevitability here.  Through long experience on the earth we simply accept it.  The other option is to fight over what we can’t control, which is futility defined.  There are lessons to learn from the longest day.  And if it’s your shortest day, you know that all will be forgiven at the next equinox.


Devils and Days

The kind of devil envisioned by Andrew Michael Hurley in Devil’s Day may not be the traditional one, but it’s scary nevertheless.  In his follow-up novel to The Loney, Hurley demonstrates that he knows the devil can still be frightening.  The Endlands, in northern England are hemmed in by the moors.  The landscape plays such a commanding role here that this can only be folk horror.  And it fits folk horror to a tee.  Tradition, an unchanging life in a land untouched by technology, and forbidding moors where survival is difficult, all amid an English sensibility brings this tale into the folk category neatly.  As should be clear already, Hurley is well aware that religion and horror belong together.  This novel makes their companionship clear.

John Pentecost (note the name) has decided that he and his young, expectant wife—both of whom hold professional jobs—are going to move back to the family sheep farm.  The death of John’s grandfather means that his own father is left to run the farm alone.  Knowing that he belongs there and that his unborn child will need to tend the farm when he dies, a visit to help with the gathering of the sheep, and the celebration of Devil’s Day, turns into a lifelong commitment.  At the same time, the devil has been body-hopping as sheep are killed and family members die and a family of bullies cause more harm than their due.  There’s an inevitability to all of this and at the end you’re not really sure who the devil really is.

The story builds slowly.  By the day of the gathering you really have trouble putting it down.  Putting the Devil into a story can be a dicey proposition.  It’s been done successfully a handful of times, but that doesn’t make it an easy sell.  Our worldview has moved beyond a literal netherworld and the theology that accompanies it.  That doesn’t mean we can’t spot legitimate evil in the world.  Or that evil isn’t often vested in the garments of righteousness.  Ways of thinking that jeopardize others for theological purposes that simply don’t match what we know to be just and fair.  Powerful exploiting the weak.  Wealthy taking advantage of the poor.  Bullies getting their way through brute force.  In this novel the devil is active in a number of characters for a short time.  And you never know where that devil might turn up next.


Celebrate Juneteenth

It’s everywhere you look.  Prison statistics.  Poverty statistics.  Gun violence statistics.  We gave lip service to ending slavery but never really made our black brothers and sisters free.  Red-lining.  Police shootings for traffic stops.  It should not be illegal to be of African descent.  Juneteenth is a celebration, but a muted one.  There is much, much work left to do.  When “black lives matter” signs are countered by “blue lives matter” we know there’s a deep-rooted problem.  It’s an especially unfortunate, and hypocritical problem for a melting pot like the United States.  We have room.  We have resources.  Until recently we had commitment to freedom.  Now, just as things should be improving we cave once again to unwarranted fears and paranoia.  What’s holding us back from celebrating Juneteenth?

The solution’s not simple, but it has a clear starting point.  Our elected officials must stop valuing power over people.  Racists—of either party—should know without a doubt that they can’t win nominations.  The good people of this country will not stand for it.  Running on a platform of vacuous celebrity only—how many celebrities are really deep, clear thinkers?—should be soundly shouted down.  The two-party system requires at least a third serious challenger.  America’s leadership must start looking like the people who actually do the work in this country, not those who suck up all the profits.  Catering to the wealthy inevitably causes problems on the other end of the social ladder—the end upon which that ladder must stand.  We no longer need slaves.  We never really needed slaves.  What we need is high principles.

Othering may be normal human behavior but that doesn’t make it right.  We are able to overcome our prejudices.  We are able to say “black lives matter” without following it up with “all lives matter.”  We are able to recognize the sins of our past and repent.  Christianity has produced great followers.  These followers require leaders who have the best for the people in mind, not the best for themselves.  Corporate climbers do not understand this.  Brains addled by money, they see America as a company to run and a way to skim profits off the top.  Politicians are constantly comparing the sizes of their “war chests” for the next election when they should be soul-searching instead.  Let’s celebrate Juneteenth.  Let’s say “we were wrong” and “our theology was wrong.”  Let’s promise ourselves that any racist should fear running for high office.  Let’s end systemic racism and celebrate the results.

Photo by Leslie Cross on Unsplash

Thanking Teachers

Those who know me personally are often surprised to hear that my high school gym teacher was one of the most influential people in my life.  It is true.  He, and a handful of others I can still remember by name, set me on the path of knowing that I should be a teacher.  It is a very important profession, habitually underpaid.  To hold the future in your hands is a responsibility like no other.  I complained, like all kids do, about having to go to school.  Once there, however, I was fascinated by the learning.  I still am.  I think of those women and men who really wanted to mold young minds.  Who knew they’d never be paid as well as their peers, but who had a message worth preserving.

I suppose I’m thinking about them because I recently watched Dead Poets Society again.  It’s a poignant thing to do since Robin Williams’ death, but the movie makes a powerful statement about teachers.  Knowledge, once planted, grows.  I don’t name people on this blog unless they say I can, and although I’ve connected with a few high school teachers through Facebook, I don’t bother them in retirement.  I can say, though, that one English teacher, my German teacher, a couple history teachers, a math teacher, and my gym teacher made significant impacts.  The math teacher, of course, helped me realize that my thinking process veers in quite a different direction from equations and proofs.  Ironically, now I tend to think that way and often think I could’ve done it, but I needed several years for the ideas to settle into place.

Thinking of them by name may not be a daily occurrence, but in my actions I live out what they taught.  I’m not sure what leads a young person to pursue a teaching career, but clearly some of them have gifts that make them influential in lives long after the classroom relationship ends.  The young mind is receptive in the way that a more experienced one tends not to be.  Even as we reach our teens the natural confidence of youth seems to take over for many.  We might still, however, listen to those with more experience.  Teachers, under-paid and often having to take summer jobs to makes ends meet, are almost as influential as peers.  The twenty years of my life from the age five on were under the sway of teachers.  Time set aside for learning.  It wasn’t nearly long enough.


Godic

I have tried, in my halting way, to articulate what religion has to do with horror.  Alison Milbank is more experienced than I and it shows in her book God and the Gothic: Religion, Romance, and Reality in the English Literary Tradition.  There can be little doubt that the gothic is the direct ancestor to what became horror in the twentieth century.  In this intriguing study, Milbank explores just how the gothic made extensive use of religion, a sensibility that has carried over into modern horror.  Having taken a good long look at this myself—the fascination was there before Holy Horror and reaches back to my childhood—it is nevertheless affirming to find another student of human fears and fascination regarding the darkness has come to similar conclusions.  I always walk away from books like this with a renewed reading list.

Milbank points out, in the context of the literary world of England, how horror and religion not only cover the same theological ground, but come into direct contact time and again.  She does so by suggesting that Protestantism constantly seeks the lost Catholicism.  In England this came to be embodied in the Church of England, the middle way between Catholic and Protestant.  She covers various aspects of this such as melancholy, the doubling of characters, supernatural creatures, and death.  And more.  This isn’t a quick or light read, but I found myself making many connections I had missed.  Much of this, admittedly, came in books I’ve not read.  One of the problems with interest in the classic gothic is that bookstores don’t cater to selling older books and some of them weren’t successful in their own day, let alone ours.

There is a vindication in finding you’re not alone in a field.  Many of us who work on religion and horror know one another.  We’re a somewhat small, hidden group.  Milbank approaches all of this from the point of view of theology.  Theology is a somewhat distinct practice from religious studies and even from biblical studies.  There is overlap, of course, but theology is generally distinctly Christian in a context like this.  And that fits the living context of the many authors explored in this study.  Many familiar, and a few unfamiliar names appear.  What they have in common, apart from making up the cadre of gothic writers, is that religion influenced their writing and they weren’t shy about noting it.  This book explores the shadows very well and I’ll be revisiting its insights again and again.


Bright Idea

No, I didn’t see a long tunnel with a light at the end, but I did have soot on my hands from the flash.  I’m no electrician and the ordering instructions weren’t clear about how to get the dryer installed, as well as delivered.  The driver, who spoke English haltingly, told me he would not set it up.  There was another problem with the order: the dryer cord was for a four-pronged outlet, but our house has a three.  I suppose that’s why the cord doesn’t get attached to the appliance.  Now, we lived in Scotland for three years.  Electronic devices there are sold with a cord that you have to wire into the plug yourself—different places have different outlet types.  With fear and trembling I’d wired a lamp or two.  I prefer not to play God when it comes to electricity.

I don’t know how many appliance-related deaths happen each year, but I’m sure it’s not a null set.  Here’s what happened.  A week after delivery I found time to go to the hardware store to exchange the four-prong for a three-prong.  I went home and wired it up.  The plug didn’t fit into the socket.  Muttering under my breath, I turned to the internet to find out what had gone wrong.  Well, it turns out that electric kitchen ranges are also not wired sometimes, and they take a different three-prong plug with wires handling different voltages or whatever.  Yet another weekend came and I finally got the right cord.  A little insecure from the two attempted efforts, I put the plug in the socket to see if it fit.  A bright spark and a loud pop occurred.  Two of the connectors had been touching and I’d closed the circuit.  If I’d been holding it differently, I wouldn’t have survived the experience.

As a child I once electrocuted myself, quite by accident, it is an experience I never wanted to have again.  I was so shook up after being so close to it again that I couldn’t face going back to the store to see if they had another one—the cord was now soot-blackened, and useless.  Living in a capitalist society my mind immediately turned to my electric bill, wondering how much that light and sound show would cost me.  The dryer is energy-efficient, all the more so for not having ever been used up to that point.  Now we’re hooked up and ready to go and I’m thinking how fragile life is.  And how, in middle and high school we had to have wood shop and metal shop but not a thing about that favorite tool of the gods—electricity.


Old Ghosts

As someone who reads about ghost stories, as well as ghost stories themselves, I’ve long been aware of M. R. James.  His Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is regarded as a classic in the ghost-story genre.  Sometime in the haze, I recollect it was years ago, I found a copy at a used bookstore on the sale rack.  Something I’d been reading about ghost stories lately made me decide to read it through.  Now James was an actual antiquary.  He was also an academic at Cambridge University.  His tales are erudite, generally focusing on some ancient secret that releases ghosts, or sometimes monsters, after the individual who discovers the antiquity.  The stories are varied and inventive, but not really scary to the modern reader.  They assume a different world.  One in which antiquaries were monied individuals—often university men—who have both servants and leisure time, rarities today.

I found myself constantly asking while reading, how could they get so much time off?  How did they access such amenities that they could even get to the places where the ghosts were?  James’ world is both textual and biblical.  It’s assumed the reader knows the western canon as it stood at the turn of the nineteenth century.  The Latin, thankfully, is translated.  James, it is said, was a reluctant ghost-story writer.  A university employed medievalist, he had academic publications to mind as well.  Nevertheless he managed to publish five ghost-story collections.  Clearly the idea seemed to have had at least some appeal to him.

The aspect I find most compelling here is that an academic could admit to such an avocation.  While it’s becoming more common these days among the tenured, I always felt like I was walking the eggshell-laden pathway to academic respectability.  I was, after all, at a small, haunted seminary that few outside the Anglican communion knew about.  It was risky to admit being drawn to anything speculative.  Come to think of it, although I read novels while I was there I don’t recall reading many, if any ghost stories.  It was scary enough to be about on campus at night, particularly if you were going to the shore of the small lake to try to photograph a comet alone.  There were woods punctuated by very little light.  On campus ghost stories were fine—the librarian even showed me a photograph of a ghost in the archives—but off-campus such things could never be discussed.  I was an antiquary without any ghost stories. James showed the way.


Souls, All

What is a soul?  Can you lose your job for believing in one?  Well, maybe not lose your job, but be placed on paid leave.  Yesterday’s New York Times ran a story about Google engineer Blake Lemoine being put on leave after claiming a soul for the company’s artificial intelligence language model.  Isn’t that what artificial intelligence is all about?  We’ve become so materialistic that we no longer believe in souls, and when we create life we don’t expect it to have one, right Dr. Frankenstein?  One of the sure signs that we are alive is our sensing of the many qualia of biological existence.  We understand that we’re born, we’re biological, and that we will die.  We also sense that there’s something beyond all this, our self, or mind, or psyche, call it what you will.

In our minds the soul has become entrenched with the Christianity that provides the backdrop to our somewhat embarrassing history of repression of those who are different.  How do we redeem one without having to be shackled to the other?  And once we do, can we declare why AI doesn’t have a soul while biological beings do?  Or will we insist that it is solely human?  In this odd world that’s evolved, we view animals as innocent because they can’t know what they’re doing.  Historically there have been animals put to trial.  That’s an aberration, however, from our usual ways of thinking.  We don’t know what a soul is.  We’re not even sure there is such a thing.  To suggest a machine might have one, however, is taboo.  Would we trust a soul made by humans?

Skepticism is good and healthy.  So is having an open mind.  We’ve been a polarized people for a long time.  If it’s not politics it’s elites versus uneducated, materialists versus those who think there might be something more, self-assured versus those who question everything.  The path of learning should keep us humble.  We should be open to the possibilities.  There’s no way to measure the immaterial since all our tools are material.  Even psychology, which utilizes categories to help us understand neurodiversity, often finds chemical solutions to the most cerebral of problems.  Perhaps overthinking is an issue—it can certainly get you into trouble.  Believing in souls can put you in a place of ridicule or suspicion.  Does AI have a soul?  Does a soul emerge from biological existence, whenever a sufficient number of neurons gathers in one place?  Is it the fabric of the universe from which we borrow a little?  We have some soul-searching to do.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons

Updating Irving

Movie quality is measured by many standards.  It’s pretty clear that budgets can make a difference—Hollywood movies generally outshine television movies.  Streaming services, like Netflix and Hulu, have been gaining ground here, but they still lack some of the qualia that come from long-term players in the industry.  Often this was measured, pre-pandemic, by box office success.  I’m not sure how it’s all quantified now, but I’m sure it still comes down to money.  To me, the deciding factor about the quality of a movie is often the writing.  Even with a modest budget excellent writing can make up a lot of ground.  Headless Horseman originally aired on the SciFi channel (now Syfy) in 2007, and I wrote a tiny bit about it in a former post.  I recently rewatched it with an eye toward how religion is integrated in it.

Headless Horseman is not a great movie.  Its writing doesn’t inspire and it leaves too many gaps in the narrative to carry the viewer along easily.  Still, religion plays an important role in the story.  This one resets Washington Irving’s tale in the south—from the license plates, Missouri.  The horseman is a serial killer who offered his victim’s heads to the hydra, the serpent that guards the entrance to Hell.  When the killer is stopped and his body sent through the gateway, he comes back every seven years to chop heads.  The town where all this takes place has the biblical name of Wormwood, and everyone in it is literally family.  So every seven years they have to trap seven outsiders to make their offering.  The person who originally stopped the killer was the local priest.

Even this brief synopsis reveals how deeply religion is engrained in this retelling.  Irving’s classic story is set in an overtly religious period (particularly Protestant, of the Reformed variety), and wears this lightly.  Everyone can be assumed to go to church and the Headless Horseman is a Hessian mercenary decapitated by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War.  Over time, with many retellings, the horror becomes more and more involved with religion.  To the point that the religion itself is the real engine of fear.  A town protecting a Hell-guarding hellion doesn’t exactly make them Satanists, but it does mean they’re not far from it.  The in-breeding is, however, a bit insensitive.  My recent rewatching wasn’t with an eye toward the Bible, as my last viewing was.  When retelling the story, however, it seems religion will surface where once it was only in the background.


Fragmented

The existentialists, remember, used to put scenes in their plays to remind you that you were indeed watching a play.  In keeping with their philosophy, there was no reason to fool yourself.  Meanwhile, movies seldom break the fourth wall, immersing you in a story that, if done right, will keep your eyes firmly on the screen.  With home based media, however, we’ve all become existentialists.  (Of course, some of us had made that move before the internet even began.)  When we watch movies we always have that “pause” button nearby in case an important call, text, or tweet comes through.  We can always rejoin it later.  Life has become so fractured, so busy, that an unbroken two hours is a rarity.  I see the time-stamps on my boss’s emails.

While the existentialist side of me wants to nod approvingly, another part of me says we’ve lost something.  What does it mean to immerse ourselves into a story?  I know that when I put a book down it feels like unraveling threads at the site of a fresh tear in the fabric of consciousness.  Even the short story often has to be finished in pieces.  Poe, who knew much, wrote that short stories should be read in a single sitting.  All of mine have bookmarks tucked into them.  For a fiction-writer-wannabe like me, you need to feed the furnace.  To write short stories, you have to read short stories.  Novels must be spread over several weeks.  Some can take months.  I would like long novels again if time weren’t so short.  Presses are even encouraging authors to write short books.  Readers want things in snippets.

Perhaps all this fragmentation is why I enjoy jigsaw puzzles so much.  Part of the thrill is remembering several places in the picture simultaneously.  Being able to pick up where you left off.  I limit my puzzle work to the period of the holidays when I can take more than one day off work in a row and the lawn doesn’t require attention and those trees that you just can’t seem to get rid of don’t require monitoring.  But puzzles are designed for interruption.  Movies and short stories are intended to engage you for a limited, unbroken period.  The real problem is that we’ve allowed our time to become so fragmented.  A creative life will always leave several things undone by its very nature.  Other forces, mostly economic, will demand more and more time.  The best response, it seems to me, is to be existentialist about it.


Free Reality

One thing movies can do especially well is to make you question reality.  Early on this was more or less literally true as people couldn’t believe what they were seeing on the screen.  Photography had perhaps captured souls, after all.  A series of movies in more modern days began to ask us to reconsider what we know, with profound results.  In 1998 The Truman Show suggested that we might be living on a stage and God is really a misguided director. The next year The Matrix went further to float the idea we might be living in a simulation—an idea that some highly educated people have taken seriously since then.  They asked us to consider what we meant by reality.  Those questions have haunted us as the cybersphere grew.

I recently saw Free Guy, a movie that slipped me back into that uncomfortable space.  I’m no gamer, so I’m sure I missed many of the references to memes and characters that are familiar to many.  Still, it was fun and profound at the same time.  It’s not giving too much away to say that Guy is a non-playing character in a shared game.  In other words, he’s just code.  Not conscious, not making any decisions.  Until he starts to.  He turns out to be a form of artificial intelligence.  Teaming up with a human player, he learns to appreciate virtual life and works to make Free City a better place to live.  When the credits rolled I found myself asking what I knew about reality.

Not a gamer, I’m pretty sure we’re not caught in that particular matrix.  I’m pretty sure my wife wouldn’t’ve put up with over thirty years of pretending to be married to me just for ratings.  Still, many times riding that bus into Manhattan I had the distinct feeling that none of it was really real.  I would tell myself that on the way to the office.  Not that I think movies are the whole truth, but they definitely seem to be part of it.  Guy learns to rack up points to level up.  He becomes a hero.  In this reality we can look but not see.  Becoming a hero is unlikely unless someone is actively watching you.  Many heroes on a small, human-sized scale exist.  They don’t get to wear sunglasses, but they can watch movies about those that do.  And if they’re not careful, they might find themselves getting in a philosophical quandary by doing so.