Monday, May 16, 2016
A spoiler-free review of the ideas presented in a film as well as my feelings and reactions to it
Every morning I start my work day by standing and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. This may not be a common practice for most jobs, but when you work at a school you go through this patriotic ritual nearly every non-summer week day. Now nobody has to say it. Students can stand silently or stay in their chairs during the pledge if they wish. I probably could too, and I'm sure there are many teachers that do not speak the words or feel compelled to participate. Which is fine because this is America and people should be able to choose whether they participate in something or not. But I stand everyday, place my hand over my heart, and belt out the words.
So why do I do it? It's not because I love the current government. It's not because I am proud of everything in my country's bloody history. It's not because of all the ways America is or has been exceptional in the world. It really has nothing to do with the realities of my home country past, present, or future.
I stand and speak out the words because I still believe in the ideas of America even if they have never been fully realized in actuality. I believe that every citizen should be his or her own sovereign and have power over one's own destiny. I believe the rights of the individual should trump laws imposed for the safety and/or stability of the government. I believe in a country that trusts its citizens to arm themselves for the defense of their own person and property. I believe that all men (and women) are created equal (but not born the same) and that the same human dignity resides in the most humble and noble among us. Even if this had been unfairly applied in practice, still I believe that all should have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of their own happiness, and that freedom's only limit begins when an act makes another person less free in his or her choices.
Thus, I love this Captain America, portrayed by Chris Evans, of the movie Marvelverse and the Astounding Directing Russo Brothers. This Steve Rogers defends the ideals of America rather than being a mere poster boy, puppet, and/or instrument of the government. In this film, he is very wary of outside entities asserting control over the Avengers. While Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark makes the argument that the heroes need to be put in check, Cap argues that "the safest hands are still our own." But this unfettered freedom, and the responsibility that goes with it, is scary to some people. As the writer Aldous Huxley once wrote: "Morality is always the product of terror; its chains and strait-waistcoats are fashioned by those who dare not trust others, because they do not dare to trust themselves, to walk in liberty." It seems logical to entrust our power to those that are greater: those trained to lead, the most qualified, the experts with specialized technical knowledge, individuals elected from among their peers to represent the masses. Don Cheadle's War Machine character expresses this toward the end of the movie when he says something to the effect of "I still think we did the right thing," even after the trust of the superheroes was betrayed by the authorities. Cap never trusted them from the jump because he knows something that the Founding Fathers of this country knew before: those that seek to gain power over others are the very ones most likely to misuse it. This is the reason why our government was set up with different branches and checks and balances: because power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. To safeguard against power hungry men and women that have agendas of their own apart from the country's interest, the power and influence one individual can have over the government must be minimized as much as possible.
Rather than trusting our leaders to do the right thing, it is much smarter to put our trust in the people. As Cap says (or writes) near the close of the movie: "My faith's in people, I guess. Individuals. And I'm happy to say that, for the most part, they haven't let me down. Which is why I can't let them down either. Locks can be replaced, but maybe they shouldn't." We will never attain utopia by adding more rules and regulations on people. We will never become totally safe by trading freedoms for protections. Life will never be completely perfect or safe, so the best system is to let people be free to make their own choices and trust that they will, for the most part, make the right ones. If we put our trust in an authority to drive us toward a better future, not only will they fail to control people to any appreciable extent for any appreciable amount of time, but these leaders will most usually act out of their own interest and not the common good.
Saturday, March 26, 2016
Disciples of Destruction, by my good friend and writing mentor Charles W. Sutherland, is, in my opinion, more fascinating and relevant to read today in 2016 than it possibly could have been when it first was published thirty years ago. Sutherland meticulously tracks the use force to attain religious goals by the three main Abrahamic religions from their founding texts and mythologies to contemporary time. In doing so, he shows how lofty ideals have rarely prevented religious institutions and states from seizing an economic or political advantage. My favorite chapter is the final one on Marxism. The author tracks this movement from theory to revolution to the Soviet state in its death throes. During this course, it becomes apparent that the leaders of communism used tactics usually associated in history with major religions in order to maintain their position: establishing dogma and orthodoxy to consolidate their own power, engaging in wars of conquest, encouraging xenophobia, and repressing free expression of ideas, all contrary to their professed philosophy. Furthermore, the required violent struggles to bring about the conclusion of Marx's dialectical materialism and the dawning of a utopian communist society reflects the justification of other religions for holy wars and the belief shared by all four of the groups that their community of righteous believers will emerge victorious in the end. This final chapter is not just a criticism of Marxism, but also shows that any ideology sufficiently popular can inspire fanaticism and the willful suspension of rationality of its followers.
Our course has not deviated much in the three decades since this book first appeared. Religious violence is alive and well. It is on the front page of newspapers and the lead on cable network shows. It is a state of affairs that could have been easily anticipated from a careful reading of this book. Its commentary is always insightful and at times prescient, especially concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Muslim terrorism, Christian fundamentalism, and the crumbling of the Soviet Union. The intervening time shows that we are still trapped in this same paradigm of at least the last two millennia.. To escape from it we will need to stop turning to corrupt institutions for the answers to life's hardest questions and learn to come to grips with our own existence: material, mental, and spiritual.
Sunday, February 14, 2016
The first in a coming series of essays on A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin
(Spoilers ahoy for all ASOIAF books and GOT episodes available as of February 14th, 2016, as well as speculation for future directions in which the story may go)
The title question may seem a little ridiculous to many fans of the ground-breaking novel and television series, but there is a theory gaining more and more traction online that the universe of Ice and Fire is one of science fiction and not fantasy. Preston Jacobs, my favorite A Song of Ice and Fire YouTube theorist (who despite being called crack-pot and tin-foil by others in the community quotes text in support of his arguments more than most out there), sums up this fan theory in his "The Minds of Wolves and Robins pt. 7" video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FejBRJPqBkM&list=PLCsx_OFEYH6vAkHO0gakDrZ8Kuteu-nUn&index=7): "There are no gods in the World of Ice and Fire. And there is no prophecy. And there is no magic." A bold statement, due to all the supernatural phenomenon going on in this world, but he does a decent job advancing this by ascribing all these occurrences to the scifi abilities of telepathy and telekinesis that are passed down genetically. It is noted that "teke" and communities of creatures with communal consciousnesses are common in Martin's other work. However, although he starts off by questioning if ASOIAF is fantasy at all, he later concedes that he understands "that telepathy isn't real and this is a fantasy novel."
Huh? I am not so quick to dismiss the possibility of the existence of mental powers
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qw_O9Qiwqew), but that aside, this admission to me shows that Mr. Jacobs' definition of magic makes his argument irrelevant. Magic to me is largely a matter of perspective. This "teke" ability, even if it is the sole force responsible for all these anomalous events (although some instances of magic like the disembodied voice Varys hears during his castration and the use of glass candles-- magic as ancient technology-- by Marwyn, seemingly a normal man with no special blood, are harder to explain), appears to be magic to us the readers, and to most of the population of Westeros as well, because there is little frame of reference in our experience for it and no understanding of how it works. Once the method and the forces behind it can be explained, or at least there is a belief that there can be a non-fantastic explanation, the same phenomenon ceases to be magic.
His definition of magic, shared by many today, includes all superstitious beliefs about extraordinary powers claimed throughout history that have since been debunked. This "magic" is dismissed offhand as impossible, but there are individuals out there today pushing the limits of what we think a human can (or should be able to) do. One example is Wim Hof, the Iceman (https://www.vice.com/en_se/video/iceman). He has provided scientific proof that he can manipulate his body temperature and consciously direct the release of hormones in his body to withstand extreme conditions and virulent injections. Similar claims have been long made by Daoist monks in China (Melisandre in the World of Ice and Fire also is not affected by cold even at the Wall), among others. Can we dismiss all these stories now as magic hooey now that one such ability has been demonstrated? Where do we draw the line between magic and science here?
Any type of magic, whether sympathetic, Natural, the Law of Attraction, illusion, practical magic, glamouring, dark magic, light magic, blood magic, sacrifice, summoning spirits, predicting the future, or necromancy, operates off its own system based on particular theories about the nature of the universe, even if they are rejected by the mainstream community. So, whether something is magic or scientific speculation, from Jacobs' view, depends not on if it has no explanation, but whether the explanation exceeds the limit of acceptable silliness that the hearer can tolerate. This is why I say magic is largely a matter of one's point of view, and the line between science fiction and fantasy is often a blurry one, as it is in this case.
Let's take a look at one of the most extreme examples that Mr. Jacobs explains away with this not-magic psi power: the killing of Renly Baratheon. He argues that the red witch Melisandre is mostly a charlatan with no real power, and that she used a combination of glamouring Davos and guiding the disembodied consciousness (a phenomenon Jacobs equates to a person's memories in this video) of Stannis to slay his brother with his teke power while the King was sleeping, all in order to produce the illusion that she birthed a shadow assassin that seemingly did the deed. These are the absurd lengths people go to in the attempt to eliminate anything of the supernatural so that they can fit their favorite books in with their own world-view. Melisandre does tell us that these shadow babies are sons of Stannis, so it is possible that through sexual intercourse (another supposed source of magical power in our world) Red Mel captured part of the essence or mental power of Stannis which she carried inside of her womb. However, following the logic of the universe, she would still need Davos to smuggle her inside the perimeter of the castle to release this power, as one would assume that the enchanted walls of Storm's End would presumably block this teke force if it is indeed the source of all magic in Planetos. Otherwise, why would she even expose herself to the risk of this dangerous farce of smuggling herself under the walls? So, the transported psi-child was birthed technically inside the stronghold in order to reach his target. Now, even if we can come up with a semi-rational explanation for this event, does it mean necessarily that it is not then magic, or supernatural from the point of view of the reader or other characters?
I have the same problem with the argument of Jacobs and others that there is no afterlife, and thus no souls or significance to consciousness beyond biological processes, in the World of Ice and Fire. This is advanced despite the fact that we see multiple examples of afterlives (lit. life after death) in the series: the Children of the Forest living on in the Weirwoods, wargs inhabiting the bodies of animals and other people after their physical body has perished (and maintaining a distinct consciousness when moving between bodies, which would seem to contradict the idea that consciousness is only a collection of one's memories rooted in the physical body), and the wight zombies raised by the Others. Missing among these examples are the resurrections of Lord Beric Dondarrion and his Brotherhood Without Banners. These are explained as the reanimation of the corpses through teke power, but this seems unsatisfying to me. This is also the explanation used for the raising of wights out of the dead by the White Walkers, but the difference is that Lord Beric, and later Lady Stoneheart, retain not only their memories and identities of their past lives (although these seem to deteriorate along with their bodies), but also their autonomy. They seem to be guided still by their own logic, and motivations, and goals rather than being the puppets of some outside force, as with the wights (with the notable exception of Cold Hands who looks like a wight, but seems to maintain control and a distinct identity). Also used in support of this theory of the absence of afterlife is Dondarrion's answer to Melisandre suggesting to him that he has seen the other side. "There is no other side. I have been to the darkness," he replies. This is used to argue that there is no survival of the self after death, but does his quote not imply a continuance of experience, a point of perspective to 'have been' somewhere that was still him? My point is that just because an afterlife can be explained through some system of science fiction theories does not mean that it ceases to be an afterlife, which again, literally means life after physical death.
But, you counter, did not GRRM confirm that none of these gods would be showing up in the storyline, and that he wasn't sure any of these gods or their religions are real or true. Doesn't that mean that all these beliefs are false? The problem with this is that we have many examples of their magic working. Thoros does not believe at first that he can bring Beric back, but he says the words and the Red God works through him. He does not seem to be the mastermind type, and similarly the other red priests we meet, Melisandre and Moqorro, seem to not be directing the powers they invoke, but only vessels to a greater power. So, if we accept there is no R'hllor in the story, then who or what is guiding these psi energies to influence the course of events? Can we say for sure that there are no gods in the story when there are forces at work beyond the understanding of both the reader and majority of the characters, such as the Children of the Forest and the Great Other, along with the religion of the Red God. Martin's epic is often held up in contrast to the more orthodox fantasy realm of Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, but God (with a capital 'G') is not an active presence in the Tolkein novels either, nor does any deus ex machina appear to save the day in that series. The end result of the tale is still decided by the human (or humanish) inhabitants of that world, and they are the ones that decide its ultimate fate. Elven magic powers could also be ascribed to the adaptations of a different, older race beyond what can be understood by normal men. Because we know Tolkein was a religious man, do we assume there is a greater spiritual reality present in his books even if it does not appear directly, while we conclude the opposite in Martin's based on the same evidence?
Furthermore, the fact that the magic of many different religions can be effective suggests that it all comes from the same source, like the teke Jacobs proposes. That does not mean that these religions are all false; it could mean that they are valid to some degree, drawing from the same power, but that no single one is completely right in its details. The priests of R'hllor, the Children of the Forest, the Faceless Men, Bloodraven, Marwyn: each understands some secret of tapping into this power, whether you think it is spiritual or scientific in nature. What's the difference between a speaking about a spiritual realm or another parallel dimension? Collective, or global, or universal consciousness, the idea that we are part of a unity above our own awareness, was a spiritual idea long before it was adopted by science fiction. Now that a semi-scientific reasoning can be imagined for this phenomenon, it does not mean that it ceases to be spiritual. I have long felt that this is where science and spirit will finally meet.
The practitioners of magic throughout history and to the modern day have sought to manipulate mysterious forces not widely understood to produce desired results. Whether they are successful or not does not matter as much as the fact that magic is based on a system, whether one agrees with that system or not. Mr. Jacobs notes in his video that the confidence in the ability a character has seems to mirror the degree of his or her power. This does not mean these powers are merely a deception, but that in the subjective experience of the wielder, it is necessary to believe something is real and possible in order to make it so. Under the reasoning that none of this is actually magic, but science fiction, the difference is not that magic has no explanation, but that its explanations have been rejected by the person observing or hearing about it. Again, once something can be rationalized, it is no longer magic.
The magic in ASOIAF and the desire by some readers to explain it in this way reminds me of the 3rd Law of science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable form magic." If Martin's ultimate role and source of magic ends up being outside of what can be entertained from the atheist view, these readers will probably go back to labeling these events as magic, the series fantasy, and mocking the author they presently idolize so. To me, the distinction means little. There are characters in this world (and even in our own) that have powers beyond the scope of what we consider possible. To us, as to the common people of Westeros, this is magic. As we learn the well it springs from and methods the characters use to employ it, the story moves farther away from fantasy and toward science fiction. Often, once ideas have been around in science fiction for a while, they become science fact. So fantasy and myth can represent the beginning of a process of asking questions that leads to discovering new knowledge. I can see a supporting theme of the series as a process of self-discovery moving away from superstition and toward the truth, but a truth beyond what science or religion alone can explain.
Regardless of what side you fall on here, there is one definition of magic that no one can deny suits Martin's characters and the world they inhabit: "extraordinary or mystical influence, charm, power, etc." The hold this story has over its readers and the way it sparks them to think about and debate where it is going is nothing short of sorcery. Once the series is complete and the conclusion aired, this magic will persist in those that find these works for generations to come. The ideas, and characters, and theories will continue to live in the hearts, minds, and yes, souls of those that carry them within.
I would like to close by saying thank you to Mr. Martin for these amazing books and for showing that magic and immortality are possible through the wonders of great literature. I wish you health, luck, and godspeed in your continued pursuit of weaving this tale we all love so. Tune out all the negative voices and tell the story you were meant to tell at whatever pace suits you. Have fun and do it for you. Don't change the story or compromise your process to satisfy people that are more concerned with money than the integrity of the world you created. I say this not because I think I am in any position to give you advice, but just because I love your works and, yes, you too, so much, and I want you to write the books exactly how you want to. I want to read the conclusion to the series exactly as you imagined and intended it, no matter how many years I have to wait for that. I want you to know that you have fans out there that will respect and support you unconditionally. Take care, George.
Light and Love,
Monday, March 23, 2015
"Sam Reads" will be a series of reflections on books I've recently read. For my own record and memory, I often jot down any impressions or interesting things from a book or my experience reading it. As I'm spending time writing these already and there was no good reason I could think of not to document them here to share with any that might care to read. This will not be a plot outline, contains no spoilers, and will not ruin the book in any way if one so chooses to read it in the future, which I would recommend to all.
This novel by the 1929 Nobel Prize winner came to me free of charge. I acquired it, along with many others, from my school library's end of year discard pile. It sat on my bookshelf for the better part of a year before it caught my eye one day last month while I was looking for something to read. I picked it from the piles initially because I enjoyed The Magic Mountain and had been wanting to read more Mann. I have always been intrigued by the legend of Faust as well, so I was excited to read a recent German master's adaptation of the folk story into a more modern era.
The subject of the book is a young virtuoso named Adrian Leverkühn. The narrator is a childhood friend who relates the story from the first person. He is writing during the Second World War about events that took place just before, during WWI, and in the following interwar period. At the time of the telling, our narrator, Serenus Zeitblom is an old man looking on as Germany ecstatically marches down the path to its destruction. He watches as his sons run off to join the army powerless to utter any protest. He knows these atrocities against humanity will have to be paid for at some point.
Doctor Faustus is a novel jammed pack with ideas. The narrator does not just tell us what he and the other characters were doing, but what they were talking about and thinking, as well. Mann frequently uses lectures or discussions between characters to introduce theories or thoughts that appear unrelated to the plot, but advance and support the themes and motifs of the story. There is a lot of analysis of music and musical theory that goes way over my head; though I did like the idea of music being a blend of the mathematical, analytical side of the brain and the creative, inspired, poetic side, and thus the most human of arts. A song does require some logical order or pattern, but is cold and empty without the individual pouring their soul into its creation.
Then there was the discussion by the conservative gentlemen's table of Sorel's theory of mankind naturally tending toward a totalitarian government, a popular belief during the defeatist years between the wars, and a chilling Hitler harbinger during the democracy "experiment," as they dub it, in Deutschland. I disagree with the position, but what these reactionary scholars predicted about the future of democracy is unfortunately prophetic. In the future democracies, parliaments or representative bodies will not be sufficient to keep the country running, and "in its stead the masses would have in the future to be provided with mythical fictions, devised like primitive battle-cries, to release and activate political energies," so Mann paraphrases Sorel. No matter what your political views are, you can probably see some truth in there somewhere.
There are literally dozens of such digressions, from whether art should strive to be popular with the common folk and whether popularity was an artistic merit or demerit, to what Christian doctrine applied politically as a socialist society would look like, but we need to talk a little bit about our anti-hero, Maestro Adrian. His deal with the devil is not a handshake and brimstone or Robert Johnson at the crossroads. His pact is sealed when he intentionally contracts syphilis from a prostitute, his haetera esmerelda, or poisonous butterfly. He was already a prodigy at this point, but his desire to be a great composer overpowers all else. He sacrifices his long term health in order to push the bounds of his creativity to the very brink of madness, though this is not just a physical phenomenon, as it becomes clear later that he intended to invoke the demonic with this act.
It is tempting to think that, because this is a more modern and less fantastic adaptation of the Faustian story, it is all a delusion created by his progressively maddening state. And yet, there are many aspects of the story that this theory would not explain. The one thing striking to me is that Leverkühn receives only artistic insight and the power to complete it out of the bargain. Wealth, love, even widespread fame and recognition during his time are all denied to him. At one point, he talks about how true genius and a genuine breakthrough out of the contemporary conventions requires a knowledge and embracing on not just the light, but the dark side too.
So, I'm getting close to end of book, and I realize that I've skipped a page. I tried to flip back, but when I look closer, the pages were bound together in a single sheet. Several pages near the end of the book were never cut apart and are stuck together in this way. That can only mean that no one has ever read this far into the book and noticed. Then I look at the title page. It was printed in 1975. I check the old catalog card in the back, and it had never been checked out! The book was was in brand new condition. It had been sitting on shelf neglected for 40 years waiting for me. I thought this was a little sad. Wasn't there one student that was into history and wanted to read a novel written during WWII from an anti-Nazi but German perspective? Or one music student that loved classical and wanted to know more about composition or musical theory? Not one that became interested in the Faust story, or read one of Mann's other books and wanted to continue? Doctor Faustus would have satisfied all of them. Granted this book was difficult even for me, an former English major in college and avid reader today, but no one had ever even tried. On the other hand, the book eventually found it's way to me instead of sitting on the shelf another 40 years, in pristine condition, and was finally read. Who knows, it might be lent away and read again, so the book may yet receive a better second life.
To me, the main character's deal with the devil parallels the seduction of the good German people by the man with the tiny mustache. The poisonous butterfly is a perfect metaphor for both. Adrian, and the German people, were looking only at the beautiful side of the deal and what may come of it while willfully ignoring the negative aspects lurking just below and making it all possible. Leverkühn's obsession with creating transcendent music mirrors the 3rd Reich's fanatical quest to fulfill Germany's right and destiny to be the next European and world superpower. But when your glory is derived from the oppression and slaughter of others, those crimes must eventually be paid for.
The perspective of the secretly dissenting German watching as the horrors of WWII unfurled before him was haunting to me. It's hard to argue with the fact that the United States is the world's evil empire now. I too look on as our country engages other countries in ways we do not support or condone, but there isn't much I can do on my own to stop it. Perhaps this karmic universal justice that came for Germany and Adrian Leverkühn will one day come for my country, leaving only wreck and ruin in its wake. Maybe the ship can't be righted and we will have to pay too one day for the seeds of violence and discord this country sowed around the world. I can certainly relate to the last line of the book when the narrator prays, "God be merciful to thy poor soul, my friend, my Fatherland." To sum up, I'd say this book came into my hands as fresh as the day it was published in more than one way.
Tuesday, March 11, 2014
SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD! If you have not seen the season finale of True Detective yet, go watch it now then come back.
Judging from what I have read online and heard from friends, it seems part of the True Detective audience was a little let down by the series finale. The eighth and final episode unveiled no grand twist or revelation. Neither of the two protagonists, Marty Hart or Rust Cohle, was the mysterious Yellow King, or even involved at any level with the killings. There was no hidden connection between either's past or family and the evil lurking deep in the Bayou. If the viewer had explored around a bit in the literary and mythic context of the universe these characters live in, then they would have known the happy ending we received was the only way this series should or even could have concluded.
NicPizzolatto's tale is so rich in symbols and clues, so steeped in philosophy and so thought provoking that it that it allowed if not encouraged the imaginations of its audience to wander off toward the bizarrest possibilities. The Detectives Gilbough and Papania interviewing Hart and Cohle seem almost like stand-ins for the audience in the story. They have a strange murder to solve, somehow find a connection to the '95 case and are so mystified by what they hear about it that they are convinced there must be more to the story. They are right in that, and they have to probe deeper than the information in the reports to get the whole truth, but in their suspicion of Rust's possible involvement, they are as guilty as the audience in searching for what might be an easier answer in the wrong places.
We must keep sight of the fact that the name of the show is named "True" Detective. When Marty claims to be working on a book to get case files for he and Rust's investigation, he claims he's dabbling in the "true crime" genre. This spirit of authenticity is also reflected in the show's title which was also the name of a long running true crime magazine which, while sometimes fictionalized and always sensationalized, based its content on true criminals and true crimes. What made this program a phenomenon that captivated its audience was the portrayal of Cohle and Hart as complicated studies in characters, not one dimensional stock heroes or villains. This TV show wasn't even really about the murders or the Yellow King or Carcosa. The magnifying glass is really applied to these two main characters, their own separate personal problems and the relationship between them. They are as close to real people as we encounter on our various screens and watchers were so enthralled because Harrelson and McConaughey made those characters so interesting and yet still relatable. They are just like us struggling with their own beliefs, dealing with their own issues and failing to live up their own ideals when they get thrust into an arena of unspeakable evil.
I think some people so desperately wanted some major twist or for one of the two protagonists to be the Yellow King because it would have established one as the good guy and the other as the bad guy. They are both seriously flawed individuals, but turns out, they are both at root good men with their own ideas of responsibility. When we first meet Marty, he appears to be living the American Dream. He has a good job, a house, a hot wife and two adorable kids. We quickly learn that he has some demons lurking below the surface. His job is emotionally draining, so he compensates with alcohol and sexy young sidepieces. He justifies his behavior as necessary decompression from his stressful profession and tells himself it's for the good of the family. He wears the mask of happy family man and keeps telling himself everything is fine even as his life is falling into shambles around him. He can't look at the reality of his situation or take responsibility for his actions because he refuses to see how he's hurting the people around him.
Rust wears a different kind of mask, but his nihilism and cold, intellectual rationality is a front as well. He had a life much like Marty's until tragedy struck and he took a rapid spiral downward. He was forced to live a lie in his extended stint undercover. He built up a wall of philosophy and science to convince himself that it's all meaningless, to reinforce the denial of his cares, his pains and his own miserable true self beneath that imposing facade. He wants to convince others that he really knows everything about himself and life and the universe because it reaffirms the lie he tells himself that he really does know better than everyone else and has it all figured out. This is why Cohle so delights in pointing out how other people cling to their delusions. This doesn't fill the hole inside of him though and he operates under his own set of delusions he will not acknowledge. His assurance of the meaningless of it all rings more and more hollow as the plot progresses because it becomes so obvious that he does care; he cares about his lost daughter, cares about these other missing children that no one else seems to and ultimately cares about his partner.
The lives and philosophies of the two detectives are so directly opposed and clash so violently at times that we want the television to tell us which to approve of and which to condemn. Earlier, many thought Rust's affinity for darkness and taste in literature made him the likely suspect behind the murders. Toward the end of the series, I know others that were pointing the finger toward Marty because of his more mysterious motivations. We know a lot more about the events that made Rust the person he eventually becomes, but we know a lot less about Marty's past prior to when we meet him in 1995. We don't know what kind of man he really is and he never offers any explanation for his actions.
There was no such antihero in True Detective. An antihero can be recognized by a lack heroic qualities like courage or altruism and/or being inferior in intelligence, purpose or motivation. Neither of our two detectives fit this definition. Hart and Cohle have personal demons, just as we all do. Those demons don't make either of them bad people any more or less than people in general are. The tragic flaw is an essential part of the hero. The hero can't start off perfect, but has to overcome some weakness in his character in order to defeat the monster. There is no black and white dynamic between Hart and Cohle. They are both true heroes, just ones that each come with a healthy heaping of hamartia.
Again, this is True Detective, not Fake Detective or Fantasy Detective we are talking about here. If one of the them was revealed to be the Yellow King, or there was some other dramatic and unexpected twist, would it still be as true to life? In reality, it's always the most likely conclusion is the most probable one. One telling scene is when Marty brings up the classic detective's curse in his interview, the answer being right in front of your nose the whole time, but your attention was elsewhere. Both Marty and Rust were too preoccupied with the masks they wear in life to notice the answer was in fact right underneath their noses. Errol Childress may not seem to be the most logical suspect at face appearance, but once all the evidence shown to us, he is the only person that has a connection to the parish and schools, the Tuttle family, and the tall man with scars/ green spaghetti monster/ Yellow King stories. Had Cohle questioned the man cutting the grass at all, he may have noticed the scars back then early in the investigation.
I would never say Nic Pizzolatto made a mistake, because I think the show is masterful, but consider how different it would have been if the second to last episode didn't conclude with a close up of Childress and his facial scars. Cut out that scene, then how would viewers have reacted to the opening scene of the eighth episode? People would have lost their mind. Once you show him there, everyone knows he must be involved, but are still expecting a further development out of the finale. Take out that shot at the end of the penultimate episode though and I bet there are zero theories on the internet leading up to the finale saying that the seeming simpleton on the lawn mower is the best candidate for the Yellow King.
What else can we know about the world these characters inhabit based on the abundance of symbolism, motif and allusion? The direct reference to Robert W. Chambers' collection of stories, "The King in Yellow" provides the Yellow King and Carcosa. The supernatural and existential horror vibe that is present throughout the story line is very reminiscent of the work of HP Lovecraft. So, if Pizzolatto is incorporating elements and themes from these kinds of books, and also explicitly citing one, then what can these books tell us about Marty and Rust?
In Lovecraft's stories, evil is not something inside the protagonist. Evil is a strange, primordial, even alien force in the universe. The Old Gods, Cthullu and crew, are beings of terrible power older than Earth herself. The evil people are the ones who become seduced by their arcane, but natural, power and commit horrible acts to appease or summon these Old Ones. Lovecraft's protagonists are usually good, God-fearing people that happen to get a little too close to one of these beings or their cults and are pushed to the brink of madness and terror by what they witness.
That's our Hart and Cohle. Neither one of them could have been the killer in this mythos. They were just regular men who try to be good but usually fail. They just brush against one of these unknowable and irrational forces. They aren't able to face the scope of what they encountered and are eager to accept a more rational, if still horrible, solution. A meth lab connected to a biker gang kidnapping women and children was awful enough. Both of them were too busy with their own shit going on to recognize the totality of what they got a glimpse of. It was right there in front of them, but they refused to face up to the realities of the situation.
"The King in Yellow" refers to a play mentioned in Chambers' stories that produces madness in the audience if seen or read in its entirety. The only characters or dialogue from "The King in Yellow" that is shared with the reader is:
"Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Cassilda: Indeed it's time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!"
The evil in the world of True Detective wears no masks. It needs no double life. It is unmistakable when you meet it. It dwells deep in the Louisiana swamps beyond the reach of law and civilization. It is where humanity has no control over the raw power of nature. It is there that these ancient gods abide. Lovecraft believed humanity could only comprehend a small shred of cosmic existence. These gods and monsters represent the powers in the universe that can't be affected or even understood by mere men. It is not so much that these old gods are actually evil or hostile toward us, but that they are so beyond us that we are as inconsequential to them and their goals as insects are to us. The show did a phenomenal job recreating this mood of sinister awesomeness in nature with the wild, untamed filming locations used throughout the show, but especially so in the final showdown at Childress's personal Carcosa.
I, for one, thought the ending was great and it generally went as I expected. Our heroes overcome their flaws, remove their masks, look at themselves honestly in the mirror and are able to work together and catch the person most directly responsible for these killings, even as the shadowy figures behind the scenes slip away. As Rust says, "We didn't get em all, Marty,' and Marty says, 'We ain't going to. This isn't that kind of world." The Tuttle's, the men in masks in the video, the institutional corruption in the state and the church complicit in these killings will not be held responsible.
These deep rooted conspiracies parallel the unspeakable and unknowable power of Lovecraft's Old Ones. They exist outside the control and jurisdiction of ordinary people. One doesn't deal with these forces by taking them on directly, but by realizing that there are some things that are impossible for an individual to control and concentrating on the areas one still can have some influence. They paid their debt to society and Dora Lang and Marie Fonteneax and all the other victims. They did their part in taking down Errol Childress, who was probably the primary killer in recent times even if they won't touch the larger systematic conspiracy that the lawn mower man was just one product of. Good men, like Rust and Marty, do what is in their power to make the world a better place and that's all that can be expected out of them or anyone.
The best part of it was the super happy ending that was unexpected even to me. Marty and Rust prove themselves true heroes by getting over their egos and getting their man. They both suffer serious injuries, but live to see a brighter tomorrow. Their personality differences were so diametrically contrasted that their relationship brought these issues to the surface. Rust openly mocks the ideas of love or meaning while Marty clings to these illusions. Rust hides behind his pretense of apathy while still longing for what Marty possesses and pisses on. Cohle had to go through having a daughter die and seeing his marriage fall apart afterwards. He is jealous of his partner, we can see that in the scene when Rust brings back his partner's lawnmower and seems to be actually enjoying himself while drinking ice tea and hanging out with Marty's wife and kids.
Their reunion and cooperation are only possible because both men finally face up to what they were inside. Even in the early years, there was still always a mutual respect between them, so once that tension and animosity from their personality conflicts were removed, they found themselves completely capable to team up and finish the job. From that point, the bromance blossoms despite what that liar Matthew McConaughey said in an interview during the run up to the launch of the show; "Yeah, you’re never going to see us get chummy. There are no pink bows wrapping this up." (http://grantland.com/hollywood-prospectus/qa-true-detectives-matthew-mcconaughey-and-woody-harrelson-the-laurel-and-hardy-of-existential-despair/)
Rust's transformation shows a glimmer of hope in this bleak nightmare that is usually absent in the story cycle of Chambers or in Lovecraft's Cthullu mythos. The man who was so resolutely cool and atheist throughout the show has a near death experience as a result from his battle with Childress. As he is about to let go, he feels, clearly, unmistakably and tangibly, the love of his departed daughter. In the closing scene he talks about "The only story. The oldest; light vs. dark." Rust saw that light at the end of the tunnel he so despisingly mocked earlier. He has experienced that there is something good in life and in the universe although it may seem dominantly dark and unforgiving. As he says to close the series, "Once there was only dark. If you ask me the light's winning." The smallest candle is able to banish darkness, but no weight of darkness can smother even a newly kindled light.
Thursday, October 17, 2013
Seahawks @ Cardinals +6.5
Seattle owns the record of the elite team that most predicted them to be this going into this year, but I think this team has a lot of questions to answer before they're considered a serious contender. The makeshift offensive line has been a problem after it was a great strength in 2012, allowing 2.8 sacks per game after they gave up just 1.6 last year. Russell Wilson has not responded well to the extra pressure either. The young star has lost as many fumbles already as his did all his rookie season (3), his passer efficiency ratings are down and his interception to touchdown ratio is up. Wilson has particularly struggled on the road where 70.6 is his highest quarterback rating he could muster over the three games. I like the Cardinals with their good defense, at home against the spread. However, as the Seahawks' record suggests, Wilson and his team have been their best late when the game is on the line. While Seattle likely comes out on top in a close game, they will have to start showing they can be the same dominant force they are at home when on the road if they wish to realize their Super Bowl ambitions.
Monday, October 14, 2013
Colts -1.5 @ Chargers
The Colts have "Lucked" their way into having the number one pick with a generational level talent quarterback available twice now in 15 years. Some franchises haven't even had one guy like that in their whole history! Luck seems to be the real deal, and his late game heroics this season have been nothing short of astounding, however, I think it is the new prized acquisition in Indy that will be a big factor tonight. Many have started to question the wisdom in trading a first round pick for a running back that has not looked special in the box score either with his old team or in his brief tenure with the Colts since. I still believe in Richardson though, and I think he looked at his best running down the clock late in the game against Seattle. His yards per carry didn't look impressive for the game, but he gained a lot of those yards in the 4th quarter when his bruising style of running is especially hard for defenses to deal with. He still has burst, good straight line speed and breaks a lot of tackles, so I expect the yards to come eventually. Look for it to start tonight against a San Diego run defense that is giving up 4.9 yards per carry, which ranks bottom five in the league.