Another Week Ends

1. Definitely not the easiest week to write this column. The Interwebs, as one might […]

David Zahl / 11.9.12

1. Definitely not the easiest week to write this column. The Interwebs, as one might have predicted, have been consumed by I-Told-You-So’s and The-End-Is-Nigh’s, neither of which are a whole lot of fun–at least not from the standpoint of grace. Who knows, maybe you found yourself staying away from screens altogether this week, biding your time until the sanctimony and self-pity dissipated a little…. Maybe you took the opportunity to read the new DFW collection, catch up on Bob’s Burgers, change an ungodly number of diapers, and possibly delve a bit deeper into the unreleased work of The Rolling Stones. But maybe a few pieces of post-election coverage still managed to slip past the defenses, namely, The Atlantic’s “You’re Not Moving to Canada: The Psychology of Post-Election Melodrama” and “Bringing Back Meekness as a Virtue.” And maybe in your funk you came across Scott Sauls’ “To My Elated and Despairing Post-Election Friends” and found it to be profoundly encouraging, Christianly speaking, not to mention as humble and wise as it gets.

2. There’s a cliche out there in Christian circles that is often used when talking about existential emptiness that’s always struck me as a bit icky. I’m referring to the phrase, “We were made for relationship(s)”. Icky not because it’s untrue but because of how it encourages us to anthropomorphize the divine in a way that seems to inevitably lead to tit-for-tat ways of “relating”. Then along comes David Brooks and writes an op-ed about the Grant Study of Men–the absurdly longitudinal psychological study of the happiness and well-being of 250 or so Harvard undergraduate men (which began in 1938)–in which he stumbles onto the same truth:

Body type was useless as a predictor of how the men would fare in life. So was birth order or political affiliation. Even social class had a limited effect. But having a warm childhood was powerful. As George Vaillant, the study director, sums it up in “Triumphs of Experience,” his most recent summary of the research, “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.”

3. Tumblr Find of the Week has got to be the incredible Googlepoetics. Be sure to click on the “Info” tab for some sympathetically droll thoughts on human nature, ht MS.  “An Open Letter to the Phrase ‘Having Said That'” on McSweeneys is pretty clever, too.

4. Next, The Chronicle of Higher Education produced a bracing and fairly relevant article about “Psychopathy’s Double Edge” which examines what’s driving the decreasing levels of empathy in American society (aka more slasher villains!) and what might be part of the solution–reading, ht WB:

[A recent study] peered deep inside the brains of volunteers as they read stories. What they found provided an intriguing insight into the way our brain constructs our sense of self… Whenever we read a story, our level of engagement is such that we “mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative,” according to one of the researchers, Nicole Speer. Our brains then interweave these newly encountered situations with knowledge and experience gleaned from our own lives to create an organic mosaic of dynamic mental syntheses.

Reading a book carves brand-new neural pathways into the ancient cortical bedrock of our brains. It transforms the way we see the world—makes us, as Nicholas Carr puts it in his recent essay, “The Dreams of Readers,” “more alert to the inner lives of others.” We become vampires without being bitten—in other words, more empathic. Books make us see in a way that casual immersion in the Internet, and the quicksilver virtual world it offers, doesn’t.

5. Speaking of empathy, as alluded to above, David Foster Wallace’s posthumous essay collection Both Flesh and Not arrived last week, and the reviews have begun to trickle in. In his review for The Daily Beast David Masciotra included a priceless bit of DFW wisdom:

In Both Flesh and Not [DFW] writes a 50-page essay on David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress. In it, Wallace is candid about his chief motivation to write: “It’s what an abstractor like Laing calls ‘ontological insecurity’—why we sign our stuff, impose it on friends, mail it out in brown manila trying to get printed. ‘I EXIST’ is the signal that throbs under most voluntary writing—and all good writing.”…

Too often liberalism expresses itself in the narrow language of rights, liberty, and individual freedom. When liberal democracy aligns with a rabidly consumerist culture, Wallace was there to ask the simple question: “Just because you can always make more money or advance yourself regardless of the social consequences, should you?”

6. While we’re talking books, if you only read one review of Colm Toibin’s new (potentially controversial?) The Testament of Mary, make it Paul Bailey’s for Literary Review. The book is exactly what you think it is, btw–the life of Christ as told by his mother. Bailey reflects:

Will this book upset, or even enrage, the thousands of Christians of all denominations who believe that the Virgin Mary is sacrosanct? It certainly failed to offend me, since the portrait this always scrupulous novelist presents is of a loving person who cannot bear the notion that the son she raised and nurtured should be so barbarically sacrificed for the world that was, the world that is, and the world that’s yet to come. She writes, you might say, with the authority of loss. She stands for every grieving parent in history, mystified by the cruel fate meted out to her only child.

7. Perhaps you, too, were alarmed by how strongly your Pavlovian response kicked in when you heard about the possibility of a non-Lucas Episode VII a couple weeks ago. Maybe it went into hyperdrive when you heard that “Harrison Ford Did Not Immediately Strangle Anyone When Told About Next Stars Movies.” Well, over on Grantland, Brian Phillips posted a must-read little essay about the non-reboot-reboot, entitled “Return of the Jedi” in which he argues that “the necessary condition of Star Wars is that it can’t know it’s Star Wars”:

T o my mind, the challenge for Disney in putting together Episode VII is that this particular kind of wonder is almost totally antithetical to the logic of the modern franchise reboot. Reboots generally assume, and maybe not wrongly, that what fans want in revisiting an entertainment property is a chance to talk about it, to remind ourselves of its place in the culture, rather than a chance to escape into the world it conjures up…

If you’ll forgive the expression, Star Wars and Casablanca are postmodern without being self-aware. They’re coherent, self-contained worlds that, because they’re made out of stories that have been fulfilling wishes forever, happen to conform in a particularly accessible way to both the weirdness and the innocence of our desires. They’re fully operational miniatures of the kind of world to which we want to escape when we’re at our most simple and open and thoughtless.

8. Also in film, Skyfall sure has been getting some incredible reviews, and without giving too much away, word has it that a certain R-word is front and center, plot and theme-wise (no, not “reelection”–but it does rhyme with it). I’ll be interested to hear what people make of that aspect. For those of you who, like me, haven’t seen it yet, The A/V Club posted another one of its wonderful primers on the franchise.

Val Kilmer fans rejoice! Pitchfork reported on What We Know about Terrence Malick’s new music-centered film set in Austin and, as with everything Malick- (and Kilmer)-related, it sounds utterly fascinating. In fact, I’ve hear that when the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drums, there’s a life about to start when tomorrow comes:


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