Sunday, June 29, 2008

R.I.P. George Carlin

I know you've already read a billion pieces on George Carlin's passing, but I want to throw my own two cents in.

I first saw Carlin on The Tonight Show when I was twelve or thirteen years old. He was doing his wacky newsman bit, a bit that he probably hadn't done in a decade or more at that point, and I still remember one of his items: "Scientists discovered a new number today--the number bluuuuuurgh, between six and seven." It still makes me laugh.

It wasn't until I was older that I discovered Carlin's eviscerating side, the part of him that hated humanity but loved it at the same time and only wanted us all to wake up to what he saw as the truth. "My job," he tells the audience in one of his 1970s comedy specials, "is to tell you about things you already knew about but didn't realize were funny." I suspect that in the '90s and '00s, he'd have added "and the things you thought were okay but aren't."

I saw him a few years ago at the Orpheum Theatre in Omaha, for example (that's when I realized he wasn't long for this world--he'd had to move the show back several months because of major heart surgery), and he did a ten-minute bit on obesity. Jay Leno talks about how Americans are overweight oh my God isn't that funny every night, but Leno's a hack; he always goes for the easy laugh and has no conviction. Carlin had nothing but conviction, and for the ten minutes he talked about obesity, we were all rolling in the aisles but secretly terrified for the future.

They've been running his specials for the past month or so on HBO, and I've been TiVoing them all. He was brilliant all the way back to the beginning, of course, but his '70s material is too self-consciously quirky for me, too "isn't that cute?" He uses his hippy-dippy-weatherman voice too much, and while he's got loads of interesting things to say about language (I maintain that Derrida did nothing that Carlin didn't do better), his act from that era grates on me.

But then he stopped using cocaine. And he got angry. Very, very angry. In 1984, he came out on stage and talked about farting; in 1999, he comes out and his first words are, "Let me tell you what bugs me about pro-lifers." It's as if he woke up from his opium dream and saw the world how it really was and then got pissed about it. I suspect that if Carlin hadn't already been a comic at the time of his great awakening, he'd have been a prophet or a philosopher or a pundit instead.

At any rate, of the hundreds of reminiscences about Carlin that are out there, this is my favorite. Rest in peace, George. I believe in heaven on my good days, and I hope you made it--even though you didn't want to.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


I know I promised another Barth post last week, but it'll have to wait, especially given the cold response my other Barth posts have received--I can only assume it's not something you guys are interested in.

Anyway, I got a new computer, and while I can't get it to connect to the internet at home, I can use it here at the school, and so you can expect the Tuesday Mixes to resume this week.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Karl Barth and I Make Nice

If Barth had not been placed in a certain era and culture, would his views on general revelation have been more magnanimous? The ferocity with which he attacks it was spurred by a particularly sinister historical and theological event:
The Evangelical Church in Germany was unambigously and consistently confronted by a definite and new form of natural theology, namely, by the demand to recognise in the political events of 1933, and especially in the form of the God-sent Adolf Hitler, a source of specific new revelation of God, which demanding obedience and trust, took its place beside the revelation attested in Holy Scripture (Church Dogmatics II.1)
Then again, that demand has been a near-constant in the history of Christendom, from the divine right of king to George W. Bush's implications of God's mandate on his presidency.

So does general revelation, as Barth suggests, necessarily demand preference over specific, that is, Christological revelation? It makes sense to me. Christianity does not come naturally--that's what Christ means when He says the road is narrow. The beauty and the beast of Christ's calling is that it goes completely against our nature. We don't want to surrender our (illusory) control over our lives; we don't want to turn the other cheek or carry the cross or love our enemies or do any of the things we're commanded to do. In fact, Barth argues that we can't do these things, that God must do them for us.

General revelation, however, is our attempt to maintain our control over the universe. If reason (and I'm particularly concerned with reason here) is an expression of and avenue to God equal to His Word, Christ, then we don't need Him, or at least we need Him less. Most evangelicals, I suspect, would be loathe to put any sort of general revelation above the Bible, but so-called "natural theology," in its attractiveness, adaptability, and popularity, almost has to take precedence over biblical theology. Our instinct is to seek the easy way, and general revelation can pave eight-lane freeways.

We see this most evidently in the evangelical co-opting of rationalism. My Bible-college alma mater sponsors a so-called "Philosophy Club" message board, though I suspect more theology than philosophy is discussed. A frequent topic of conversation is logic's role in theology and the universe. For reasons I don't understand at all, the majority of the amateur philosophers on the board maintain that the Lord must operate within the bounds of reason--after all, our universe is subject to logic, and God made our universe. Sounds like a non-sequitur to me; I'm a Barthian and therefore believe that God is Wholly Other, that we can know nothing about Him that He does not reveal to us.

And so maybe I overshot my criticism and conflict with Barth. I certainly agree that logic--the most basic form of natural theology--can't really tell us anything about God and, furthermore, that this type of logical theorizing demands privilege over specifically Christian revelation. And yet I'm uncomfortable discounting non-Christian thought entirely. I wonder if God has not revealed Himself beyond the strictures of Hebrew theocracy and the life of Christ. Such a thought is far more liberal than Barth, who's more conservative than his evangelical critics assume.

But more on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

My Fist-Fight with Karl Barth

I generally follow Karl Barth on theological matters, but as I reread Helmet Gollwitzer's selections from Church Dogmatics, I find myself arguing with him on the subject of general revelation (which he calls "natural theology"). I'm not sure I'm exactly breaking from him yet--but I'm struggling.

Not only does Barth disbelieve in general revelation (as distinguished from the specific revelation of God we get through the life of Christ as attested to in the Bible), he views it as just another "Tower of Babel," a work by which man futilely attempts to commune with God:
Natural theology is the doctrine of a union of man with God existing outside God's revelation in Jesus Christ. It works out the knowledge of God that is possible and real on the basis of this independent union with God . . . But this means that in actual fact God becomes unknowable to him and he makes himself equal to God. (Church Dogmatics II.1)
All this fits in, of course, with Calvin's doctrine of total depravity--really extended in Barth's case to absolute depravity. If man is absolutely fallen, he cannot in the final analysis trust in his logic, his emotion, or his will. The only thing worth trusting is God's revelation, that is, the Word of God, that is, Jesus Christ.

But I've grown a little dissatisfied with Barth on this issue. Maybe that's a product of my reading Plato and admiring certain parts of him, or maybe its my attraction to the broader vision of mythology offered by Chesterton, Lewis, and Milton, but I am no longer content with Barth's pessimism toward anthropology, and I think this dissatisfaction stems from the sticky wicket of total depravity.

The doctrine is sometimes confused with absolute depravity (which again, I think Barth holds to)--in other words, all men are depraved, but each man is not completely depraved. But there's a different, as this passage from the Canons of Dordt, that famous argument against Arminianism, suggests:
The result of the fall is total depravity or corruption. By this is meant that every part of man is rendered corrupt . . . There was no part of his nature that was not affected by sin. (III, IV, Article 4)
The Canons make it clear, mind you, that this definition does not mean that man is entirely helpless; he still has "glimmers of truth." So the magnanimous view of world religions offered by Chesterton and Lewis is pretty much compatible with traditional Calvinism. But Barth extends Calvin's principle. In The Word of God and the Word of Man, he says that these glimmers of truth make man try to reach God; that is, they give him an inborn religious impulse like the one St. Augustine describes in the first paragraph of the Confessions. However, Barth cautions that this religious impulse is inextricably twinned by humanity's complete inability to follow it properly, to learn truths about God's nature. (This pair of doctrines, incidentally, was the "unsupportable" argument of the massive and excised John Updike chapter of my thesis.) Thus, mankind is impotent to save itself, and all its attempts to do so are bound to fail; only God's Word, Christ, revealed through the Bible, has the power to save or to reveal. Barth out-Calvins Calvin, or at least takes him to his logical conclusion.

Using my first post on Milton's "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" as a representative of the more charitable view that other religions prefigure Christianity, let's see if Barth is really saying something so different. He says that man has a religious impulse So far, so good. All societies have their theologies, even if those theologies are secular, like the National Socialism of 1930s Germany or the god-free ethics of most of modern-day Europe. In Milton's poem, the Greek pantheon exists to prefigure Christ's birth, but they mysteriously fall silent and die away once the Word actually becomes Flesh. That sounds like an expression of Barth's second principle, that religious impulses lead only to failure. The religious structure created by the Greeks falls to pieces in the face of God's true revelation, just as Barth says all Towers of Babel are doomed to do.

And yet I do not think Barth is really saying the same thing as Milton (and Lewis, and Chesterton)--I think the idea that the Greek pantheon got even part of the essence of God right would stick in his craw. After all, for Barth, manmade religious structures are not putts that are a few inches off; they swing straight into the water hazard. The magnanimous system depends on general revelation; Barth denies any revelation other than Christ. I wonder if Frederick Buechner, that student of both Barth and Lewis, finds some way to bridge that gap. I need to comb through his catalogue.

It's Karl Barth week here at Ladder on Wheels. Later this week, I'll post about exactly why Barth so distrusts general revelation and why he may well be right; then I'll defend him against the common Evangelical critique that he hates the Bible.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

On 'On the Morning of Christ's Nativity,' Pt. 2

Paradise Lost, like most epic poems, has a certain symphonic sweep and grandeur to it; but Milton’s greater, or at least more surprising, achievement, is the way he infuses his early poem “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” with the same sweep. Like much of the poet’s early work, “Nativity” owes a good deal to sound--both the overall symphonic structure and individual aural descriptions of the action of the poem.

“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” opens peacefully and serenely, underscored, perhaps, by soft strings and flute. The first stanza develops slowly in customary iambic pentameter--a meter so commonplace that it is almost beyond our noticing it--and features a good deal of soft sounds, s’s and m’s: “This is the month, and this the happy morn” (1). All is right in the first section of the poem, and Milton allows his vision of the redeemed world to expand until it envelops everything. The poet sounds relaxed here, even as he adds in references to the Greek pantheon and to Christ’s eventual death for mankind’s benefit.

All of this changes when Milton reaches the long “Hymn” portion of the ode; he restricts his iambic pentameter to two lines per seven-line stanza and fills much of the rest with iambic trimeter, a skipping, tripping rhythm that moves us along much faster than the poem’s introduction did. Milton still uses the softer orchestral instruments for the first part of the hymn; his message, after all, is one of eternal peace, and so he still uses soft sounds and quiet words like “speeches fair” (37), “fears to cease” (45), and the particularly smooth “the winds with wonder whist” (64). The sound of his words is, for the most part, calm early in the “Hymn,” but his rhythm is speedy--this combination produces an overall feel of excitement, as though his subject so moved the poet that he could not sit still.

But as the hymn speeds cheerily along, Milton slowly switches to a minor key, so subtly that we do not notice it the first time through. He supposedly discounts evil by bringing up harsh (both sonically and denotatively) words and phrases like “battle” (53), “hostile blood” (57), and “the trumpet spake not to the armed throng” (58) only to dismiss them; but these words are a minor-key bell he cannot un-ring, and he thus purposely subverts his own cheerful message.

And indeed, as we progress through the hymn, its music turns darker and darker--the tympani gets louder and the woodwinds peter out. Although Milton speaks of the north star rather than the devil in line 74, his use of the name “Lucifer” is unsettling, an unintentional prefiguring of the villain of Paradise Lost. We see this again and again: Milton will say something like “The shady gloom / Had given day her room” (77-78)--in theory these lines are bright but in practice they feel dark.

Milton himself uses symphonic imagery for the hymn, and as the imagery increases, so does the “volume” of the hymn. The angels play “music sweet” for the shepherds” (93); the angels sing loud and “unexpressive notes” to the Christ child (116); and Milton invokes the chimes and, tellingly, “heaven’s deep organ” (128, 130). The intensity rises and rises, and finally, in its description of hell, the hymn explodes. “With such a horrid clang,” Milton writes, as the drums boom, “As on Mount Sinai rang / While the red fire, and smould’ring clouds out brake” (157-159). For several sections, the hymn is huge, loud, clanging, filled with phrases like “hideous hum” (174), “hollow shriek” (178), and “lowings loud” (215). The pastoral dream with which Milton started has turned into a loud, horrible nightmare, as the poet realizes that heaven’s perfection has still, 1,600 years after the events he describes, arrived on earth.

And then it winds down, the volume and intensity decreasing as Milton switches back to calmer words and sounds. But the ending of the poem is not the bucolic paradise that was the beginning. Instead, we’re left with an uneasy calm. The Christ child sleeps—again, violins and flutes—but around him are “shadows pale” (232), demons quieted but not silenced for good.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

On 'On the Morning of Christ's Nativity,' Pt. 1

G.K. Chesteron says somewhere in Orthodoxy that Christianity fulfills all religions and not just the Judaism out of which it came into its own. I wouldn't have expected to find echoes of that idea in John Milton, so stereotyped as a dour, unbending, humorless Puritan. (Much of that stereotype, I suspect, stems from our cultural misreading of Puritans, who, whatever their conservatism, always had room for a pint of ale, among other things.) But anyway, I'm finding Milton far more charitable and broad-minded than I remembered and expected.

People's Exhibit A: the early poem "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity." Milton's early work can be perfunctory and conventional, but there's been at least a line or two of great power in everything I've read from the period. "Nativity" is no exception; there's his description of Christ as "that light insufferable" (l. 8), his prophecy of universalism (ll. 139-140), and the stanza-length description of Armageddon (ll. 157-164, just for starters. But I, good Presbyterian that I am, am ashamed when I talk about aesthetic pleasures (which, due to a class assignment, I will discuss in part two of this analysis) and prefer to focus on philosophical issues in the text.

My interpretation, then, hinges on my earlier paraphrase of Chesterton; to wit, I think Milton uses the occasion of Christ's birth to praise other religions, even if he ultimately dismisses them as inadequate. For Milton, as for Chesterton, other religions have value in that they prefigure the Incarnation and Atonement. In "Nativity," other religions appear in the guise of classical Paganism, an important metaphor in nearly all of Milton's early work. He associates Christ with Pan, for example, this equivalency between the two Great Shepherds being earlier proposed by Edmund Spenser in The Shepheardes Calendar. Indeed, it's Pan, not Christ, for whom the shepherds wait in the fields. I'm not well-versed enough in mythology to say whether or not people waited for Pan to return, but that seems to be the effect Milton's aiming at: As the shepherds wait for Pan, their patron god, they receive Christ, Pan's true form, instead.

Elsewhere, Milton even suggests that Christ's birth somehow even fulfills naturalism and materialism:
Nature that heard such sound
Beneath the hollow round
Of Cynthia's seat, the airy region thrilling,
Now was almost won
To think her part was done,
And that her reign had here its last fulfilling. (ll. 101-106)
These lines remind me of the Eastern Orthodox view on the Incarnation. The Orthodox take Ephesians 1:23 (". . . the fulness of Him who fills all in all" [NAS]) seriously and literally; for them--and perhaps for Milton, too--Christ's becoming flesh makes all flesh, all of Nature, real in a way it wasn't before.

Milton could stop here, but he doesn't, and it's his refusal to accept simple answers that makes "Nativity" worth reading and rereading. For it's not enough to say that other religions prefigure Christianity; Milton must then make it clear that Christ's birth immediately makes them obsolete. The shepherds may wait around for Pan, but Pan ultimately has nothing to say. As in Paradise Lost, Milton invokes the muse, but here she's dumbfounded:
Say heavenly muse, shall not thy sacred vein
Afford a present to the infant God?
Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,
To welcome him to this his new abode (ll. 15-18).
Of course she doesn't. She and the rest of the pantheon have been waiting subconsciously for this moment, but it's so beyond their understanding that they must remain mute. The heaven Christ descends from is "by the sun untrod" (l. 19)--Apollo, who's been everywhere else, can't get clearance into the Trinity's boardroom (ll. 10-11). Indeed, Apollo stands, motionless, in awe,
And hid his head for shame,
As his inferior flame,
The new enlightened world no more should need;
He saw a greater sun appear
Than his bright throne, or burning axle-tree could bear (ll. 80-84).
Apollo's "oracles are dumb" (l. 173) and he "Can no more divine" (l. 177); even Nature, recently filled, steps aside: "She knew such harmony alone / Could hold all heaven and earth in happier union" (ll. 107-108). These lines do not signify the destruction of the old order but rather its voluntary stepping aside; after all, even the seraphim and Cherubim are capable only of "unexpressive notes to heaven's newborn heir" (l. 116).

So again: More magnaminous but just as complex as I expected from Milton. Part two, my mandatory two-pager on "Sound in 'On the Nativity,' " will follow tomorrow.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Roger's Version and Homosociality

A warning: This post, by its very nature and subject, is quite a bit more explicit than the ones I normally put up here. So if you're easily offended or disgusted by graphic descriptions of sex, I'd suggest you sit this one out.

You can tell I've been with my little gender theorist too long, since I'm starting to view everything through a Judith Butler-colored lens. Queer and gender theory is pretty pervasive in the Academy these days--though perhaps not to the extent it was a decade ago--but in my fairly extensive research in John Updike scholarship, I've not found a critic who applies the theories to his books. So this post is my poor attempt to do so; at some point, I'll maybe expand this into a full paper, but honestly, I don't know the theory well enough to apply it in any professional capacity.

Updike's books (at least the ones I've read) all contain pretty similar elements. They all deal with the intersection of faith, death, and sex, and they all depict that sex in graphic, almost disgusting ways. (When I introduced Updike to my Comp II class last semester, I told them that "Updike's sex scenes tend to be more gross than erotic...just like real sex" and enjoyed the horrified looks.) They all feature some form of adultery, and for the most part have one of two endings: (a) The adultery is discovered but never really dealt with, but it's not really a big deal (Rabbit Run and Roger's Version); or (b) Husbands end up with different wives (Couples and Marry Me). There are exceptions to this general rule of course--for example, In the Beauty of the Lillies is light on sex compared to Updike's other novels, and it's ending is violent rather than sexual--but this is the general trajectory of his work.

As such, his attitude toward adultery is really, really important in terms of understanding his work as a whole. Critics go a bunch of different directions with this--for example, Frederick Crewes infamously argues that Updike's entire post-1968 output is an attempt to justify his own adultery, whereas others argue that adultery is no big deal because he's a Lutheran, and Lutherans care less about individual actions than overall orientation. I'm not terribly interested (at least not in this post) in determining Updike's own sexual ethics; I'm more concerned with his characters' motivations for adultery.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote the defining work on male literary homosociality, 1985's Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. (Interestingly, Sedgwick's book came out the same year as Updike's Roger's Version, and the covers of the books are the same sickly shade of pale green. A coincidence, I'm sure, but an interesting one.) Her first chapter, "Gender Asymmetry and Erotic Triangles," is the important one for Updike studies.
First, a definition for those not familiar with queer theory:
"Homosocial" is a word occasionally used in history and the social sciences, where it describes social bonds between persons of the same sex; it is a neologism, obviously formed by analogy with "homosexuality," and just as obviously meant to be distinguished from "homosexual." In fact, it is applied to such activities as "male bonding," which may, as in our society, be characterized by intense homophobia.
So "homosocial" does not refer to homosexuality exactly, but instead a range of activities involving pairs or groups of men. Sedgwick's point, however, is that the line between homosexuality and homosociality is so thin as to not be a line at all; both experiences exist on a continuum, and it is possible for men to be engaging in homosexuality under the auspices of homosociality. (This system is not such a problem for women, who cross from one to the other without much problem.)

In her first chapter, Sedgwick claims that love triangles (in literature and, I suspect, in real life) demonstrate this continuum well, since "the bond between rivals in an erotic triangle [is] even stronger, more heavily determinant of actions and choices, than anything in the bond between either of the lovers and the beloved." We see this sort of phenomenon all through Updike's catalogue. There is the rivalry between Rabbit Angstrom and Ronnie Harrison, for example. The women passed between the two men come and go--Ruth in Rabbit Run, Thelma in Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, and, after Rabbit's death, Janice in "Rabbit Remembered." These relationships are controlled in large part by the rivalry between the two men. Rabbit makes Ruth go down on him after hearing she did so to Ronnie years before; Ronnie's rivalry with Rabbit must have played some part in his decision to marry Janice; and Rabbit shows little interest in anal sex until he learns that Ronnie and Thelma engage in it. Updike's use of anal sex is telling, since sodomy is chiefly associated, at least by straight men, with male homosexuality.

Sodomy shows up in Roger's Version, as well. The novel deals with Roger Lambert, a staunch Barthian professor of heresy at a New England college. Roger doesn't have much faith, despite his claims that he does, but he's still personally offended when a young science student, Dale Kohler, tells him that he wishes to prove God's existence with a computer. The novel is heavily theological, but that's beside the point as far as this post is concerned. What's important is that Roger imagines Dale to be having an affair with his wife, Esther, and that much of the last half of the novel is composed of his fantasies about the affair.

We are never certain whether the affair actually happens or not--Roger is told at the end of the novel that Dale is sleeping with an older woman, but we don't have any real evidence that that older woman is Esther. But Roger is convinced and constructs graphic fantasies about their lovemaking. These hypothesized acts are far more explicit and detailed (far more Updikean, in other words) than Roger's own sex scenes, which primarily take place off-camera. Roger goes into great detail about Dale and Esther's lovemaking, and, tellingly, imagines at one point that the two engage in anal sex. He seems to enjoy the thought:

In truth Dale's desire, with Esther's connivance, to possess her completely, her slender perishable body, has led them lately in their lovemaking to that smallest, tightest orifice as well. Dale remembers the grip of the cold greased sphincter and the sight of the nape of her dear neck tense at the other end of her spine and blushes.

But it is Dale, not Roger, who blushes; nor does he blush when describing the oral sex Esther performs on his rival:
Esther loves being sluttish with this boy; he is so purely grateful and astounded and would never think to use it against her . . . This tall bony youth of shining skin and thrilling phallus has been somehow delivered to her. She gorges herself on his flesh until her jaws ache. In the respite, gasping and wiping her lips, she croons, "So big. Too big for my mouth."
Creepy. Roger imagines the two acts most associated with male homosexuality and applies them to his rival's hypothetical affair with his wife, taking great pleasure in describing them and imagining Dale's penis to be enormous. Surely there's some wish-fulfillment there. His fantasies of the affair even begin with a description of what he imagines Dale's penis to look like:
I pictured a white shaft: tense, pure, with dim blue broad veins and darker thinner purple ones and a pink-mauve head like the head of a mushroom set by the Creator upon a swollen stem nearly as thick as itself, just the merest little lip or rounded eaves, the corona glandis, overhanging the bluish stretched semi-epiderm where pagan foreskin once was, and a drop of translucent nectar in the little wide-awake slit of an eye at its velvety suffused tip.
All of this begs a question: Who is Roger jealous of in this fantasy? It appears to be Esther, more so than Dale, since he thinks about his ostensible rival (maybe something closer to beloved) almost all the time, imagining not only his affair with Esther but his day-to-day life as well. The feelings seem to be mutual; Dale says at one point that he thinks of Roger as he is lying in bed at night.

This homosoci-/sexuality between rivals is not unique in Updike's work--it has showed up in everything I've read by him--but Roger's Version's fantasy setup allows Updike to foreground the desire between Roger and Dale. But what do we do with it? Despite his own frailness--he was not particularly athletic as a child and has suffered for seven decades with psoriasis--he is one of the most masculine writers still alive; a character in In the Beauty of the Lillies even receives his salvation by becoming a big, tough man and killing some people. But the homosocial desire present in these books subverts our very notions of masculinity (perhaps even Updike's notions, as I'm not sure how much of this results from conscious artistic decisions)--it has a similar effect to the dirty jokes nerds tell about football players tackling each other.

Perhaps with a little more probing (pun intended), this could be ammunition in the battle against Updike's sexism--anyone, after all, who subverts notions of heterosexual masculinity this much can't be an out-and-out sexist, can he?

Updike Interview

I know it's been forever, but here's a link to a great interview with John Updike--I'm putting it here in preparation for a forthcoming post on Roger's Version.

Note that he, like me, praises those 1930s Disney shorts. Wonderful stuff.

PS: I'm engaged.