Category: editorials

Notes on the Didactic Use of Fiction

“Didactic” literature has a poor reputation, in part because of its distinguished critics. J.R.R. Tolkien’s dislike of allegory is well-known, and his friend C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is often compared unfavourably to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings partly because one is allegorical and one is not. Edgar Allan Poe also criticised explicitly didactic literature, and Lewis Carroll mocked the tendency to look for a “moral” to stories via Wonderland‘s Duchess character.

Certainly, stories written with a particular moral in mind often turn out awkward or hammy, but can we entirely discount a didactic use of fiction? After all, Aristotle points out in the Poetics that children learn primarily through mimesis (roughly, “imitation”), and he refers to drama and epic poetry as “mimetic” arts, since they’re imitations of (what is plausibly) real life. Few, I think, would deny that the best way to learn something is often through experience; the more successful businessman will generally be the one who has been in business for several years, not the one who has merely read the abstract principles of economics, and one could regard fiction as a vicarious form of gaining experience.…

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Short Thoughts on Long Arguments

As I mentioned in my last Bibliophile’s Journal post, I recently read one of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Biblical commentaries. Since I have a lot of time to kill at work and not a lot of time to read at home, at least recently, most of my reading is from blogs and Twitter. These, however, never really satisfy me, and St. Thomas’s commentary made me realise just how unsatisfying they are.…

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Why I Watch Anime: An Internal Dialogue

In short, why do you watch anime?

A few reasons. One is that I enjoy the community. A few problems aside, I like exchanging thoughts with other fans on blogs, forums, and Twitter. Conventions and podcasts can be fun, too, and it also gives me something to share with my little sister.

Of course, there’s also my interest in Japanese culture generally; I’ve studied Japan’s language and history, and seek out Japanese films and literature. Primarily, though, the medium of traditional, 2D animation fascinates me, and Japan is the only nation that produces a lot of it.

What is the appeal of animation, then? If there’s a relative lack of material in that medium such that you have to go halfway around the world to find much of it, why not focus more on, say, its cousin film, which has a greater quantity and quality of work?

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On Surrounding Oneself with Books

I’ve occasionally mentioned, here and on Twitter, that I love books – not just reading, but the actual, physical objects, and try to surround myself with them. That “surrounding” is, in fact, literal since I don’t have much space in my room, and I long ago ran out of shelf space and have to stack new volumes on the floor. It’s something like stuffing the Library of Alexandria into a broom closet, or Yomiko’s room from R.O.D.

room

I haven’t even read many of these, and at the rate I collect more may well never have time to read them all. Is that a waste? Why do I feel compelled to buy so many books that I don’t even have time to read?…

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The Moral Dimension of Judging Art

Every once in a while, usually after something sensational and traumatic, discussions crop up on the moral dimension of art, by which I mean the question of to what degree art reflects or influences society and individuals, and whether we should therefore take this into account when evaluating a work, especially in popular culture.

On that first question, on whether art primarily influences society or is merely a reflection of it, one can begin with the observation that a work must be created by somebody in an act of will. This creation is not done ex nihilo, however, because the will is informed by the intellect. “No man is an island,” and that intellect relies on outside data, such as interactions with other people and what a man has read or watched, including the artwork he’s encountered. Thus, those who create art are themselves influenced by other works, and their own work influences others, creating a circular relationship between art, culture, and individuals. The impact of any particular work will almost always be small, except perhaps for children for whom each individual experience is weighted more heavily in their minds, and for the mentally unstable, but the general themes found across a large number of works in a society can tell us both what that community generally believes, and where it is likely to go. For the individual, though he certainly possesses free will, he must use the information he has in his intellect to inform his will, and the art he’s experienced will certainly factor into that calculus.…

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What’s Up with Anime Fans?

A recent conflux of posts on blogs I follow has me thinking about the place and perception of animation in the United States. On Friday, Yumeka over at Mainichi Anime Yume wrote about introverted and extroverted fans. An excerpt:

At first glance, it seems like anime should be a hobby one indulges in in an introverted way. After all, in our society it’s not typically considered “normal” for adults to be really into foreign animated shows. […] Like other so-called “nerdy” hobbies, in both Japan and elsewhere, anime tends to be associated with anti-social geeks/otaku who have few real-life relationships and stay at home all day on the computer – a prime example of introversion.

Coincidentally, Akira at Moe Fundamentalism, whose “12 Years of Anime” is part of what prompted me to write my own recent retrospectives, wrote a post “On Shame,” worth reading in its entirety, but here’s an excerpt:

I am very uncomfortable with the vast majority of otakudom. […] As someone who’s sold merchandise at booths for many years now (think yaoi paddles), I have seen some truly outrageous behavior at cons. I have often said this, but being an otaku at a con does not give one free license to stop observing basic standards of social decency. It is never acceptable to randomly hug strangers, nor is it acceptable to scream out loud when you see some doujinshi that you want. You’re buying pornography, for God’s sake— have some tact.

To round all this out, Proph over at Collapse: The Blog, which typically covers more serious cultural and political material, also wrote about the anime subculture. Though he admits his experiences with anime and its fans are relatively brief and anecdotal, he does share a few observations:

I confess to having watched very little anime in the past, most of which I was forced to watch by an anime-loving friend. I’ve been mixed about what I’ve seen.[…] I don’t get the appeal, perhaps because of my instinctive dislike for the idea of being a grown man sitting around watching cartoons all day. I think what turned me off most was just the casual and unquestioned weirdness of it all. It’s not even divergent enough to be surreal, because it takes itself too seriously.[…]

So I suppose it’s a good fit for people who are themselves casually weird, the kind who grow greasy, patchy beards and wear oversized coats with way too many pockets and chains and collars and all that crap.

If you read the whole thing, you’ll see he pulls no punches in his description of the fans he’s met. Neither does Akira, for that matter, and I can’t really disagree much with either of them. So, is there something inherently weird or childish about animation? If not, why does it attract the sort of people Akira and Proph describe?

To the first question, I can easily answer “No.” Though most American cartoons are for children, outside of a few comedies like South Park or The Simpsons, we needn’t even leave the West to see animation can facilitate serious films. France, after all, has produced Persepolis and The Illusionist. A look at Japan furnishes plenty of examples of shows that are neither for children nor comedies. Though even the best animation does not quite reach the levels of older media like literature or music, ambitious works like Akira or Neon Genesis Evangelion indicate that it’s likely just a matter of time before the field matures enough to produce a classic. Some would argue that some creators, usually Miyazaki Hayao or Kon Satoshi, already have, and maybe so – we’ll see how they stand the test of time.

The only reason I could see for considering animation unsuited for adults is that it is a level farther abstracted from reality than live-action productions. I may grant that animation may be less suited to grittier genres like war films or noir, but this abstraction is animation’s strength. It facilitates the audience’s suspension of disbelief, very helpful for science fiction or fantasy works like Mushi-shi, as well as comedy like Cromartie High School, and allows effects that would be too jarring in live-action, like the paper cutouts in the witch segments of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, for example.

So, it would seem that the only reason to look down on animation in general is that it’s an uncommon interest. This does, I think, have some merit. For a society to function, some degree of cohesion is needed, and culture, including popular culture, provides a set of common experiences that facilitate that. I do think that every American, for example, should know how to play baseball, have read a Mark Twain novel, and seen a couple Disney cartoons. I’ll add that, if Western nations produced as wide a variety of animation as Japan, I would probably focus on those and only watch the best of the best that Japan produced.

That said, though, individuals do each have their own interests, and though it’s polite not to “flaunt” them, one shouldn’t need to hide them, either. My boss and coworker, for example, know that I like anime, and out of politeness even ask about it occasionally. For the same reason, I’ll occasionally ask about my coworker’s hunting and fishing trips, even though I’m not very interested in these myself.

So, why feel embarassed about anime?…

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Dropping the Kindle

I bought the Kindle 2 early last Spring, but despite using it heavily through the following Summer I’ve essentially abandoned the device, not having used it for a few months now.

Partly the reasons are just practical things that will likely be (and in some cases have been) alleviated in future versions. No colour, no support for Japanese text, spotty availability for books I want, lousy formatting for others, and a few other nuisances. To the Kindle’s credit, there is still a lot of material available, I do like the iPhone app, and I especially like how it handles annotations and dicionary lookup.

However… however… I still have to drop it. The Kindle simply does not engage the reader as well as a traditional physical book. Though certainly better than a computer monitor or iPhone, following a story or argument remains more difficult than with print. I can only speculate why, but suspect that the reason lies largely with print’s more tactile experience. I remember a professor of mine, while discussing interactive fiction, commenting that one also interacts with print books by turning pages. At the time that seemed a bit silly, but looking back I think there’s more than a grain of truth to that. Though small, turning pages, physically taking a pencil or highlighter to make notes, even that used book smell, engage the reader more than just hitting a key or scrolling a mouse wheel.

In any case, I also happen to love used bookstores. Just randomly browsing bookshelves is a lot of fun for me, and I like seeing the annotations, doodles, and whatnot from previous owners. The Kindle does highlight frequently noted passages, but that’s just an aggregation with no personality, something like getting information about a show or novel series or whatever from a Wikipedia article versus a fansite. The aggregation may have more data, but lacks personality. In textbooks especially, those signs of life reminded the student of those who’ve struggled in the academy before. The days of print as a dominant media may, in the long run, be numbered, but I can see myself holding out for a long time.…

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Education without University

I graduated from university this past August, but I’m still uncertain what to make of the experience. As I’ve indicated elsewhere, I certainly did not receive an education, even if one limits my courses to my own major (Literature). Despite receiving a good grasp of English-language literature from about 1850 on, my school didn’t even offer many classes beyond that. No classes at all on Greek or Roman literature (in fact, there’s no classicist on the faculty), no classes on Medieval or Renaissance literature (except Dante and Shakespeare), and few on non-English language literature.

Fundamentally, I struggle to see any guiding philosophy behind the school I attended, and the same problem seems to extend to most American colleges. What is the university’s goal? What should its graduates look like? What are they expected to know by the time they graduate, and why? Though a core curriculum existed, the arrangement of courses seemed arbitrary, and despite attending a university that claimed to emphasise interdisciplinary studies, I saw no attempt to link one field with another.

Though American education suffers from many problems, I suspect that most schools could address them first by simply deciding on their first principles; essentially, deciding what a newly graduated student should look like. Should technical expertise take priority? Or should they favour a more traditional approach and emphasise a liberal education?

The latter may be impossible in the climate of most schools, with their emphasis on diversity. Though it should be obvious that DI-versity is opposite to UNI-versity, most schools I’ve looked at proudly advertise their diverse studentry and multicultural approach to education. Though non-western cultures certainly have much to teach, nonetheless the United States arose out of Western European culture, so an American university that claims to value a liberal education, which cultivates the student’s character by learning from what’s best from the past, must emphasise the West.

Most colleges, though, are essentially technical or vocational schools. Thus, fields that have little to no relation to cultural matters, like business, accounting, or engineering, receive just as much of the university’s attention as traditionally liberal subjects like philosophy or natural science. There’s nothing wrong with teaching these fields, of course, but they have no place in a university devoted to liberal education. Students studying, say, finance, feel that an arbitrary assortment of history or art courses have no bearing on their major. They’re right, of course, because to profit from the study of history or art requires some depth of study, not just a couple introductory-level courses, which on their own become little more than an exercise in futility.

So, where does that leave students? Those looking to learn technical skills do learn them, though I often hear that graduates learn much more from actual working experience. As for those, like me, who look for a liberal education, are left largely on our own. Again, my classes weren’t completely useless, but large gaps remain, and I think I’m beginning to understand what Ezra Pound meant when he referred to ‘young men threatened by university.’ The real draw for university, I think, is the presence of professors who can direct students to the best of Western civilisation, and the students must then take it on themselves to learn from that. So, I’ve started with Ezra Pound, recommended by one of my better professors, and working from his suggestions (mostly in his ABC of Reading). Beyond that, for now I’ll just have to stumble about the library, I suppose.…

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On Faith and Reason

Last week, I discussed with some friends (all fellow Catholics) some proofs of the existence of God. Of course, we all agreed on most points, including the concept that the proofs, though conclusive, are not coercive or self-evident. More interesting, though, was a disagreement I said little about at the time, but has lingered with me since then.

My friends were all in agreement that God’s existence is not something that can be definitively proven. This view is common enough, but I find it difficult to accept. After all, Christ referred to Himself as the “Truth.” It would seem, then, that any means for arriving at the truth of something should prove – or at least provide evidence for – God’s existence, whether that method be logic or science or any related discipline. If this is not, in fact, the case, then surely there is a major problem.

Many religious people may find my attitude cold, but mine is a largely rational faith – I am Catholic because I find it to be the most rational option, based on what I know. Certainly emotion and upbringing are involved, but ultimately my confidence in the Church rests on my confidence in its rationality.…

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