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Whiplash

April 5, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Whiplash is a film from 2014 both written and directed by Damien Chazelle. It follows the life of Andrew (played by Miles Teller), a young, brilliant and ambitious drummer, through the trials and errors of college life. Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons) is a strict, difficult music instructor who asks for as much as his students can give and more. Not only is Fletcher’s rehearsal routine physically demanding, but he often plays mental games with the students as well. Through these two characters, Whiplash deconstructs what it takes to achieve greatness and how ambition is portrayed socially.

This movie is unsettling because it is entirely without a hero. Both student and teacher vie for the heroic roles at times, but both are fantastically flawed, of course. The viewer may connect with Andrew, who wants to be a great musician, but his actions do not warrant our affection. He pushes himself to extremes both physically and mentally and sacrifices everything in order to achieve greatness. The pursuit of art for arts sake often appears noble or heroic, but this film demonstrates the ugly underbelly of ambition. Furthermore, I am not entirely sure that Andrew’s sacrifice was a necessary step in his education.

Early in the movie, Andrew is interested in a girl. After mustering the courage to ask her out, they go on a number of dates which seem successful. In the end, however, he tells her that his career is more important than she is, which upsets her and she stops seeing him. Later in the film, he calls her again only to find out that he has missed his chance. Andrew’s relationship with his own family is even more disturbing. When Andrew returns home for a family meal and tries to explain how well he is doing in school, they do not understand him, and he, likewise, does not understand them.

The dinner scene offers excellent analysis. During the meal, an aunt asks Andrew about school and when he tries to answer he is interrupted by the entrance of one of his cousins. His uncle loudly greets the newcomer by shouting, “Ahhh, Tom Brady!” which completely cuts off Andrew. Andrew tries again to voice his accomplishments, but the others at the table are clearly not familiar with the “best music school in the country” and have no common language with which to ask any questions. To me, this represents the way that art defies classification. Without understanding the history of the field, art can seem arbitrary and luck-driven. Sports, however, offer easy discussion. They are less intimidating and more casual, as demonstrated in this scene. The cousin notes, “Well, in the music competition, isn’t it subjective?” Andrew simply replies, “No,” because, of course, an art form (and therefore an artist) is not arbitrarily great. Rather, they have studied, practiced, performed and contemplated the history of their field. Andrew’s uncle then inquires about a job and Andrew must explain that currently his musical pursuit is unpaid which reinforces the family’s opinion of Andrew’s music.

The family then turns to celebrating his cousin’s football awards. At the end of this exchange, Andrew is clearly frustrated, so, he voices the irony of celebrating a football career which will not go beyond Division III college. While belittling everyone else at the table, Andrew proclaims that he would rather die as great musician at the age of thirty four rather than live a life like anyone else at the table. Throughout the movie, Andrew’s father walks the fine line of supporting him, but also trying to keep him from falling off the edge into madness. In this scene too, he begins by supporting Andrew, but when Andrew tells his cousin that he will “never hear from the NFL,” Andrew’s father replies, “Have you heard from Lincoln Center?” Of course, he has not, which pulls the wind from his sails, and, mid-dinner, Andrew gets up and leaves the table.


J.K. Simmons plays Fletcher and is the opposite of the nurturing father. Fletcher utilizes incredibly harsh techniques in order to inspire greatness from his musicians. The relationship that develops between Fletcher and Andrew is complicated. In this scene, Fletcher has just given Andrew a great compliment, only to belittle him, throw a chair at him, and humiliate him in front of the rest of the band. Andrew’s fall from grace is quick and extremely painful.

I struggle with this movie on so many levels, which is a great testament to the authenticity of emotions that the film presents. I wonder, why does Andrew really leave the dinner table, shame or disgust? Does a great artist always and necessarily feel superior to those around them, and therefore lonely? Does this superiority inform their work in a positive or negative way? What level of ambition strengthens achievement, and what amount spirals into misery or madness? On a side note, I wonder if the lack of women in the film reflects actual ratios of men to women in music schools. While I thoroughly enjoyed the minimalism of Whiplash and its adherence to only a handful of characters, but I would have also liked to see more women in the band or as additional characters.

Whiplash is compellingly carried by Fletcher and Andrew. It raises tough, uncomfortable questions that society has yet to answer.

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Artemisia at Sea

March 8, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“My men have behaved like women, my women like men!” - Xerxes

Strong women have always had a complicated relationship with history. They have been feared, reviled, loved, hated, killed, made into men, adored, and crowned (among other things). Artemisia is one such female. She married the king of Halicarnassus (now in present-day Turkey) and from the beginning Artemisia demonstrated strength and wit. After the king died, she became sole ruler. In Book VII and XIII of Herodotus’s History, he writes about Artemisia, leader of Halicarnassus and her involvement in the Greco-Persian Wars. She was an intelligent leader who spoke her mind, and these traits allowed her to become close with Xerxes, leader of the Persian efforts. In fact, Xerxes began to regard her as an advisor at a time when women rarely had a say in anything. This unique treatment of Artemisia bears pondering, as does the way that Herodotus writes of her. The first quotation below is from Book VII, 99. It reads:

“Of the other lower officers I shall make no mention, since no necessity is laid on me; but I must speak of a certain leader named Artemisia, whose participation in the attack upon Greece, notwithstanding that she was a woman, moves my special wonder. She had obtained the sovereign power after the death of her husband; and, though she had now a son grown up, yet her brave spirit and manly daring sent her forth to the war, when no need required her to adventure. Her name, as I said, was Artemisia, and she was the daughter of Lygdamis; by race she was on his side a Halicarnassian, though by her mother a Cretan. She ruled over the Halicarnassians, the men of Cos, of Nisyrus, and of Calydna; and the five triremes which she furnished to the Persians were, next to the Sidonian, the most famous ships in the fleet. She likewise gave to Xerxes sounder counsel than any of his other allies.”

Already, we have a complicated image of Artemisia. Herodotus can only describe her in relation to the men that she is among. He cannot comprehend how a female became so intelligent at battle and wise with words. She is educated to the point of men, and that becomes her bar of measure. She too, according to Herodotus, regards herself by this same measure.

A few chapters later, Herodotus notes a long speech by Artemisia. While he presents many speeches, hers stands out as a sole female voice regarding battle tactics. In fact, Artemisia makes a name for herself by acting, according to Xerxes, as a man should act. Her logic, reasonable discourse, and fearlessness promote the character traits often associated with strong men. When in Book VIII, 68, she is asked about whether or not to engage the Greeks, she replies:

“Spare thy ships, and do not risk a battle; for these people are as much superior to thy people in seamanship, as men to women. What so great need is there for thee to incur hazard at sea? Art thou not master of Athens, for which thou didst undertake thy expedition? Is not Greece subject to thee? Not a soul now resists thy advance.”

She then suggests that they stick to land which would give the upper hand to their army, and might diminish Greek resources. This advice contradicts the advice of nearly every other officer in the room. In other words, Artemisia was either completely unafraid of Xerxes, or she trusted that he would not harm her for speaking her mind. Either way, she ably and nobly offered a wise opinion. Herodotus notes that many leaders in the room thought she might be punished by Xerxes and this filled them with a kind of jealous joy. However, Xerxes praised her more than ever. After praising her ideas, however, he felt compelled to follow the advice of the majority. Xerxes himself is remarkable for publicly noting his pleasure at her wisdom.

It is strange that in making a case which asks the men to listen to a woman, Artemisia would claim the superiority of men to women. This seemingly contradicts her argument and undermines the advice of a woman. However, it also seems a skillful rhetorical tactic which demonstrates how well she understands the audience.

More than merely speaking her mind, however, she also captains her own ship. The final section of Artemisia’s story occurs during the seafight. As the fight became chaotic and crowded, Artemisia found herself pinned in by the enemy on one side and a friendly ship on the other side. She chose to sink the friendly ship. In Book XIII, 87 and 88, Herodotus writes:

“Pressed by an Athenian pursuer, she bore straight against one of the ships of her own party, a Clyndian, which had Damsithymus, the Calyndian king, himself on board. I cannot say whether she had any quarrel with the man while the fleet was at Hellespont, or no – neither can I decide whether she of set purpose attacked his vessel, or whether it merely chanced that the Calyndian ship came in her way – but certain it is that she bore down upon his vessel and sank it, and that thereby she had the good fortune to procure herself a double advantage. For the commander of the Athenian trireme, when he saw her bear down on one of the enemy’s fleet, thought immediately that her vessel was a Greek, or else had deserted from the Persians and was now fighting on the Greek side; he therefore gave up the chase and turned away to attack others.

“Thus in the first place she saved her life by the action, and was enabled to get clear off from the battle; while further, it fell out that in the very act of doing the king an injury she raised herself to a greater height than ever in his esteem. For as Xerxes beheld the fight, he remarked (it is said) the destruction of the vessel, whereupon the bystanders observed him - ‘Seest thou, master, how well Artemisia fights, and how she has just sunk a ship of the enemy?’...Everything, it is said, conspired to prosper the queen – it was especially fortunate for her that not one of the Calyndian ship survived to become her accuser. Xerxes, they say, in reply to the remarks made to him, observed - ‘My men have behaved like women, my women like men!’”

This is one depiction of an ancient woman, strong, proud, intelligent. She thrived as a female in a man’s world. There are so few accounts about women by women that we must read and reread these passages to understand the woman’s role throughout ages and cultures.

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Post-Memorial

June 1, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I know that Memorial Day 2018 already passed, but recently I have been rereading some of Standing Down, and felt the time was right for another moment of appreciation.

War inevitably involves great trauma and loss. As the following quotes demonstrate, wartime changes all races and peoples, ancient and modern. The world is not perfect, and will never be, but it is important to honor those who died for us with some sort of promise, hope or expectation of continual improvement, an effort for what is right, what is best, and what is just. I am not sure if anyone ever comes to terms with the effects of war, but I do believe that in writing and reading, these authors have left some important road maps for us to read. I believe that the passages quoted below cannot be read too often.

“He sat there on the porch reading a book on the war. It was a history and he was reading about all the engagements he had been in. It was the most interesting reading he had ever done...Now he was really learning about the war.” – Ernest Hemingway, “Soldier’s Home”

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“When Hector reached the oak tree by the Western Gate,/ Trojan wives and daughters ran up to him,/ Asking about their children, their brothers,/ Their kinsman, their husbands. He told them all,/ Each woman in turn, to pray to the gods./ Sorrow clung to their heads like mist.” – Homer, the Iliad, Book 6

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Talbot: “Thou antic Death, which laugh’st us here to scorn,/ Anon, from thy insulting tyranny,/ Coupled in bonds of perpetuity,/ Two Talbots, winged through the lither sky,/ In they despite shall scape mortality./ O thou, whose wounds become hard-favored Death,/ Speak to thy father ere thou yield thy breath!/ Brave Death by speaking, whether he will or no;/ Imagine him a Frenchman and thy foe./ Poor boy! He smiles, methinks, as who should say,/ Had Death been French, then Death had died today./ Come, come, and lay him in his father’s arms.”

[John is laid in his father’s arms.]

“My spirit can no longer bear these harms./ Soldiers, adieu! I have what I would have,/ Now my old arms are young John Talbot’s grave.” - Dies. – William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part I

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“But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” – Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address”

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“When a man died, there had to be blame. Jimmy Cross understood this. You could blame the war. You could blame the idiots who made the war. You could blame Kiowa for going to it. You could blame the rain. You could blame the river. You could blame the field, the mud, the climate. You could blame the enemy. You could blame the mortar rounds. You could blame people who were too lazy to read a newspaper, who were bored by the daily body counts, who switched channels at the mention of politics. You could blame whole nations. You could blame God. You could blame the munitions makers or Karl Marx or a trick of fate or an old man in Omaha who forgot to vote.

In the field, though, the causes were immediate. A moment of carelessness or bad judgement or plain stupidity carried consequences that lasted forever.” – Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

**All citations come from Standing Down; From Warrior to Civilian, published by the Great Books Foundation in 2013.

 

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Pleasures of Reading, Thinking and Conversing in Science Fiction Age

May 11, 2018

Thanks to Dr. John Reynolds, HMU alumnus, for today's post.

How malleable the notion of science fiction is! What strange places one ends up in when exploring such a seemingly simple question: "Is Star Wars science fiction?" The question grew out of reflections on and discussions about Alissa Simon's blog post “What is Science Fiction” from April 27, 2018. Originally, I planned on exploring important differences between science fiction and fantasy, and I thought that Star Wars would make an excellent cultural artifact for further conversation, especially with the approach of Star Wars Day (May the Fourth Be with You) and a stand-alone Han Solo movie arriving in theaters near the end of May.

I enjoy the passion found in diverse commentators on science fiction who disagree on the classification, value, and influence of Star Wars. They form a community as diverse as the vision for the Star Wars universe. Some find the films and franchise a threat to the genre of authentic science fiction and a disintegrating influence on culture. Others find it part of a benign or even beneficial paradigm shift in our cultural habits concerning narrative, entertainment, and culture. Some scholars and fans make strict distinctions between hard science fiction and soft science fiction. Some adamantly refuse to acknowledge Star Wars as science fiction, citing numerous scientific and technical deficiencies, while others find a home for it in the category of soft science fiction. Those who commend the soft science fiction of Star Wars tend to align it with the ongoing idea of myth. Such mythic identification links the characters, plots, and themes with ongoing archetypes that continue to fascinate human beings across time and cultures. In an older online posting found on The American Prospect, Cara Feinberg captures this sense of interest while exploring the question "Is Star Wars Art?" She explains how the 2002 Brooklyn Museum's presentation of Star Wars: The Magic of Myth "examines the mythological roots of the now legendary film saga that explores themes of heroism and redemption and the triumph of good over evil through the creation of characters that exemplify chivalry, nobility, valor, and evil...." Likewise, I recall Joseph Campbell making such claims while being interviewed by Bill Moyers about the power of myth and the hero's journey in the late eighties.

A few tangential opinions about science fiction provide additional insights about fans and science fiction that go beyond limited concerns involving just Star Wars. Along with the exploratory and predictive functions of science fiction, Jason Sanford asserts that it actually helps create the future, as he winsomely explains how those techies who brought us the Motorola flip-phone were clearly Star Trek fans. In a style reminiscent of Jeff Foxworthy's "You might be a redneck if..." comedy, one interesting post describes "11 Habits That All Sci-Fi Readers Have In Common," ranging from "[l]ooking for the real science behind the fake science fiction," to "[c]orrecting people on the differences between sci-fi and fantasy," and “[c]oming up with plans for when the aliens arrive". A formal study of reading habits suggests that the genre of science fiction texts may entice its readers to be less skillful interpreters of texts. I suspect that the potentially bad influence depends much more on a given reader's willingness to read any genre thoughtfully. Although my sample size is relatively small, I have known several high school English students who are as critically adept at analyzing Austen and Shakespeare as they are at evaluating android and space stories. Is such science fiction a foe to those of us who deeply value the Great Books and Great Conversation traditions? I think not. When I think of how much one of my current students enjoys discussing traditional literary texts alongside science fiction stories, I am inspired to assert, "It is a universe truthfully acknowledged that technological, sociological, psychological, and spiritual forces need careful balancing."

An even more extensive demonstration of discussing science fiction thoughtfully comes in Adam Roberts' The History of Science Fiction. Roberts carefully examines the contemporary popularity of science fiction and offers a strange point of origin for it in the Protestant Reformation: Adams asserts that his "core argument is not just that SF begins out of the Reformation; it is that the fierce cultural climate of that time shaped SF, wrote its DNA in ways that manifest substantively even into the 21st century." Roberts provides a striking contrast to the well-worn arguments about science fiction's origin in nineteenth or twentieth century. He notes that his own research that yielded his book's first edition led him to see science fiction

"as a distinctly Protestant kind of ‘fantastic’ writing that has budded off from the older (broadly) Catholic traditions of magical and fantastic romances and stories, responding to the new sciences, the advances in which were also tangled up in complex ways with Reformation culture."

As I reflect on his thesis, I cannot help but think of the root meaning of Catholic as "whole" or "universal." Roberts first provides a helpful summation of his view of a classic Catholic vision of human beings in relationship to the universe:

"To an orthodox Catholic imagination a plurality of inhabited worlds becomes an intolerable supposition; other stars and planets become a theological rather than a material reality, as they were for Dante - a sort of spiritual window-dressing to God’s essentially human-sized creation."

In contrast, he shows how he conceives of the Protestant Reformation vision:

"[The] cosmos expands before the probing inquiries of empirical science through the 17th and 18th centuries, and the imaginative-speculative exploration of that universe expands with it. This is the science fiction imagination, and it becomes increasingly a function of Western Protestant culture. From this SF develops as an imaginatively expansive, and materialist mode of literature, as opposed to the magical-fantastic, fundamentally religious mode that comes to be known as fantasy."

For me, this provides a powerful way for reading the texts of Francis Bacon and surfacing, not only his methodology, but also imaginative vision for scientific purpose. I'm finding motivation to re-read him along side of Dante to further explore these strange contrasts: a rather strong material-spiritual dialectic is at work in comparing these two authors. To clarify his personal position on these two streams of influence, Roberts also gently assures us that he does "not mean to suggest a priority of value or merit of one mode over the other," and that he equally enjoys reading fantasy and science fiction.

Clearly, there is much more to explore in Roberts' expositional history of science fiction, but it offers interesting connections for consideration about the nature and popularity of Star Wars and a host of other modern popular fantastical films. Roberts notes that "[t]he level on which Star Wars works most effectively is precisely as visual myth." By this, he suggests that the appeal of Star Wars and its legacy functions to give audiences a grand sense of imaginative connectedness to our ever-expanded sense of smallness in a really big universe - much in the way he envisions the Catholic imaginative tradition. In this line of thought, even more than the Reformation's break from visual and sacramental ways of imagining the world, our society's increasing secularization leaves many of us hungry for ways to re-enchant our connections to nature, the world, and the larger universe. Awareness of such hungers helps us appreciate Roberts' assertion that "SF is now the most popular form of art on the planet because it has colonised visual media." Star Wars was essentially the first film to break open and popularize this experience of visual myth. Even the current excitement about Avengers: Infinity War resembles the visual myth experience and can be traced back to the influence of Star Wars.

If I understand Roberts correctly, we benefit from becoming increasingly aware of how we get so enamored by the power of visual myth and large-scale spectacles because such self-awareness serves as an important part of understanding our collective and individual assumptions about our identities. Otherwise, we lose sight of many important not-so-visual concerns for pursuing human flourishing. Perhaps, this is Socrates with a lightsaber admonishing us to know ourselves? Consequently, many of the resources for sharpening our visions of the present and the future come from understanding the influences of the past more clearly and deeply, and we benefit from conversing about and reflecting on these influences. With a healthy dose of optimism, Roberts finds a glimmer of hope related to this concern as he opines that the two heroes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens "are, respectively, a competent and brave woman, and a man of Nigerian heritage," and that "[e]ven as it cycles through the comforting old tropes and features, this new Star Wars is proving what SF has always known, that this is a mode of art intensely hospitable to diversity." Indeed, from the urban centers to the outer rim of our society, many ideas related to Star Wars have some surprisingly powerful ways of sparking diverse and thoughtful conversations about past, present, and future visions of human flourishing.

“Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”  – Yoda

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