Saturday, June 14, 2008

Film As Art

I recently watched again the movie “Stand by Me.” Stephen King commented that one pivotal scene that he had in the book had been changed in the movie. He said that he did not have a problem with that, because a film is an independent work of art. I totally agree. A film should not be judged on how well it may follow a book on which it is based but as a work of art completely separate from the book. Everything in a book does not translate well to a movie. If a movie contained everything in a book it would create a dull film. Filmmaking is a visual medium. It must be judged as a visual medium not on how well it follows some book!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Is Fiction Immoral?

There was discussion recently on the Times and Seasons blog regarding the topic Is Fiction Inherently Immoral? I became aware of the too late to comment there. Therefore I will comment here. A couple of years ago I commented on another blog in response to a question about how fiction could be true. In my response I quoted a statement by the First Presidency of the LDS Church. They wrote: “The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.” I believe great works of literature such as “The Brothers Karamazov” contains “moral truths” and falls within the plain meaning of the First Presidency’s statement.
Indeed the New Testament supports this. Consider the parables of Jesus. I’ve heard no one claim that the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” reports an actual occurrence. It does, however, teach great truths. In much the same manner, “The Brothers Karamazov” teaches great truths although it reports events that did not actually occur.
I think great fiction teaches timeless moral truths. It is not inherently immoral. As long as it is clear that it is fiction and not biography, it is not immoral.

I think the clearest statement explaining the nature of great fiction is by Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book: “In one sense, of course, even the greatest writer cannot communicate his own experiences. They are uniquely his through all eternity. A man can share his knowledge with others, but he cannot share the actual pulsations of his life. Since unique and concrete experience cannot be communicated, the artist does the next best thing. He creates in the reader what he cannot convey. He uses words to produce an experience for the reader to enjoy, an experience which the reader lives through in a manner similar and proportionate to the writer's own. His language so works upon the emotions and imagination of each reader that each in turn suffers an experience he has never had before, even though memories may be evoked in the process. These new experiences, different for each reader according to his own individual nature and memories, are nevertheless alike, because they are all created according to the model--the incommunicable experiences upon which the writer draws. We are like so many instruments for him to play upon, each with its special overtones and resonances, but the music that he plays so differently on each of us follows one and the same score. The score is written into the novel or poem. As we read it, it seems to communicate, but it really creates, an experience. That is the magic of good fiction, which creates imaginatively the similitude of an actual experience.”

I believe the quote is only in the first edition, not in the revised and updated edition. It should be called the gutted edition; all life has been taken out of it. The writing in the first edition is crisp and sparkling. In the other edition it is flat and dull.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Charity as defined in the King James Bible 1 Corinthians 13 is the essence of a Christian life. Verse 3 states: “though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, … and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” Charity then is much more than giving alms. The next verse enlightens us. Charity is patient and kind, does not have envy, and is not boastful or prideful. Clearly, charity does not seek revenge or payback. If someone cuts you off in traffic what is your natural impulse? Do you try to catch up and cut him off? Such action certainly does not fit this definition of charity. Certainly the desire for payback, revenge if you will, causes much of the disruption in society. It is the cause of killing on both the personal and state level, murder and war. Charity must be voluntary. It cannot arise by state fiat.

Boris Pasternak said in his great novel, Doctor Zhivago: “I used to be very revolutionary, but now I think that nothing can be gained by brute force. People must be drawn to good by goodness.” Charity must be voluntary. The government cannot force folks to be charitable. With control of the government purse comes power and Lord Acton said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” As history has repeatedly proven, Lord Acton was right. It is the exception when a person’s head is not turned by power or the lure of it. The quest for power gets in the way of charity. Charity must be selfless. Most folks seem to acquire a taste for power—a little tastes good, a lot tastes better. History is replete with examples. Few are the examples of the voluntary relinquishment of power. George Washington is an illustration. He is great because he knew how to use power, but he also knew when to give it up. He practiced charity!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Last month a friend sent me email of a book review from the Wall Street Journal. The book under review was “Against Happiness” by Eric G. Wilson, professor of English at Wake Forest University. The reviewer states the following: In America, happiness is what makes life good, and unhappiness is what makes it bad. … The "happy types," as he calls them, are apt to be bland, superficial, static, hollow, one-sided, bovine, acquisitive, deluded and foolish. … Mr. Wilson's basic thesis is that, without suffering, the human soul becomes stagnant and empty. We can only reach our full potential through pain -- not a pathological kind of pain but the kind that comes from a recognition of death, decay and the bad day (or decade). We must live between the poles of sadness and joy and not try to expunge misery from our lives.

The review reminded me of a theme of one of my favorite books, “Brave New World.” It records what happens when we ”try to expunge misery from our lives.” We end up with a “bland, superficial, static, hollow, one-sided, bovine, acquisitive, deluded and foolish” existence.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Monarchs

The miracle of life struck me early. I think I was about eleven. My brother and I immersed ourselves in science. To us, only science seemed real. It alone could be trusted. We however, yearned for a hands-on experience with science. We discovered bugs. They were all around us. We had moved to a new house that had just been wrung from the wilderness. Through poison (my father) and cleanliness (my mother), we gradually subdued the bugs.
Our semiweekly journeys to the public library were used to enlighten ourselves about bugs. We learned first that bugs were actually called insects and that bugs were only a small part of the total insect realm. We learned that insects came in different “orders” or groups with similar characteristics. We could soon distinguish order Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) from order Homoptera (true bugs).
We learned about butterflies. We discovered that butterflies laid their eggs on specific plants. Cabbage Butterflies laid their eggs on cabbage plants; Monarchs laid their eggs on milkweed. The eggs hatched as caterpillars. All summer, these caterpillars would eat the plants. We read that in the autumn the caterpillars would form chrysalises, and in that dormant state they would survive the winter. As spring arrived with leaf and flower, the sleeping chrysalis would burst with new life—the beautiful butterfly!
Our reading gave us a goal to seek during our wanderings over the fields and pastures that still dotted our new community. We spotted the prize in an overgrown orchard—a milkweed patch! We knew it was milkweed because it was overrun with Monarch caterpillars. We collected some of the caterpillars together with a few milkweed sprigs. We knew that more sprigs would need to be collected all summer. We watched as the caterpillars greedily consumed milkweed. Soon, our caterpillars were hanging from leaves and branches. Their skins were shriveling. They were dying before our eyes! Our scientific experiment had failed. Suddenly, the skin split and a shimmering, green chrysalis was revealed. It sparkled with flecks of gold. Others soon joined this first chrysalis. However, it was not fall. They were too soon! Could we wait until spring to see the butterflies? In a few days, we detected stirrings within one of the chrysalises. The skin of the chrysalis split open. A butterfly with crumpled wings deliberately crawled out. It clung to its burst container as its wings stiffened. Presently, we could detect movement in other chrysalises. Fresh butterflies appeared. Our container was awash in the brilliant orange of the monarch butterfly. We had never witnessed anything so dazzling. It was a miracle! From death came life; from dormancy—action. Some tried to fly in our cramped accommodations. They must be free. We had to release them. We carried our prison outdoors and released our captives. Sadness filled my heart as they floated away on the late-summer breeze. Why couldn’t I keep them? These creatures were mine! I created them; I nurtured them. But how could the miracle I had witnessed belong to anyone?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Doris Lessing

I’ve only read one short story by Doris Lessing, this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature. It was a powerful story that affected me deeply. That story is “To Room Nineteen,” a story about communication in a marriage. I should say the lack of communication, and the alienation and death it leads to. I recall that when I read “The Hours” a few years ago, the awful foreboding and suspense were at one point heightened because I had read “To Room Nineteen.” In “The Hours” a woman in a marriage much like the marriage in “To Room Nineteen” goes to a downtown hotel and checks in to room nineteen. As I recall, it was decorated much like the room in Lessing’s story. Although the woman in the “The Hours” ultimately does not commit suicide, the suspense is heightened because of my knowledge of Lessing’s story.

I think complete understanding of another human being in a relationship is impossible. We want it to happen, but it does not. We can only try imperfectly to understand the other. We must be ever vigilant, but realize that we never completely succeed. Conrad was right when he had Marlow say in “heart of Darkness,” “No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence -- that which makes its truth; its meaning -- its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible; we live, as we dream -- alone.”

If Lessing’s other writings rise to the level of “To Room Nineteen” I must read more of her work.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Conrad's Heart of Darkness and the Reality of Evil

I like "Heart of Darkness" first of all because it has both philosophical and psychological richness. It is also literary. The book discusses good and evil and unchecked power. It seems to me that the story is plausible on a psychological level, although I certainly am no psychologist.

First, something needs to be said regarding the problem of good and evil since I understand that liberals and conservatives view this concept differently. Dennis Prager, the radio talk show host, said, “No issue has a greater influence on determining your social and political views than whether you view human nature as basically good or not.” He further stated that his experience as radio talk show host had led him to conclude that “the major reason for political and other disagreements I had with callers was that they believed people are basically good, and [he] did not.” He believes that “we are born with tendencies toward both good and evil.”

He lists four reasons why this issue is so important. (1) If “people are born good” then evil has its source outside of the individual. Prager states that this often leads to the conclusion that the source of evil is poverty. (2) If people are born good, character development will not be stressed. “You will teach [children] how to struggle against the evils of society -- its sexism, its racism, its classism and its homophobia. But you will not teach them that the primary struggle they have to wage to make a better world is against their own nature.” (3) If “people are basically good, God and religion are morally unnecessary, even harmful. Why would basically good people need a God or religion to provide moral standards?” (4) If “people are basically good, you, of course, believe that you are good -- and therefore those who disagree with you must be bad, not merely wrong. You also believe that the more power that you and those you agree with have, the better the society will be. That is why such people are so committed to powerful government and to powerful judges. On the other hand, those of us who believe that people are not basically good do not want power concentrated in any one group, and are therefore profoundly suspicious of big government, big labor, big corporations, and even big religious institutions. As Lord Acton said long ago, ‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Lord Acton did not believe people are basically good.”

Prager concludes his article by stating that if the West does not soon reject “humanism and begin to recognize evil, judge it and confront it, it will find itself incapable of fighting savages who are not noble.” [Note: all quotations are from Dennis Prager are from an internet article at] Individuals must be taught to do good. I agree with Prager that babies are born innocent but not good.

The characterization of Kurtz in the novella traces a person’s unchecked descent into absolute evil and final recognition of the horror of that descent. I think “Heart of Darkness” demonstrates brilliantly an individual’s as well as civilization’s capacity for evil.