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Thursday
Feb062014

John Buchan the Seer

A certain type of flimsy romantic has been too ready with abuse of a mechanical age, just as a certain type of imaginative writer with a smattering of science has been too gross in his adulation. The machine, when mastered and directed by the human spirit, may lead to a noble enlargement of life. Enterprises which make roads across pathless mountains, collect the waters over a hundred thousand miles to set the desert blossoming, build harbours on harbourless coasts, tame the elements to man's uses—these are the equivalent to-day of the great explorations and adventures of the past. So, too, the patient work of research laboratories, where to the student a new and startling truth may leap at any moment from the void. Those who achieve such things are as much imaginative creators as any poet, as much conquerors as any king. If a man so dominates a machine that it becomes part of him he may thereby pass out of a narrow world to an ampler ether. The true airman is one of the freest of God's creatures, for he has used a machine to carry him beyond the pale of the Machine. He is a creator and not a mechanic, a master and not a slave.

But suppose that science has gained all its major victories, and that there remain only little polishings and adjustments. It has wrested from nature a full provision for human life, so that there is no longer need for long spells of monotonous toil and a bitter struggle for bread. Victory having been won, the impulse to construct has gone. The world has become a huge, dapper, smooth-running mechanism. Would that be the perfecting of civilisation? Would it not rather mean de-civilisation, a loss of the supreme values of life?

In my nightmare I could picture such a world. I assumed—no doubt an impossible assumption—that mankind was as amply provided for as the inmates of a well-managed orphanage. New inventions and a perfecting of transport had caused the whole earth to huddle together. There was no corner of the globe left unexplored and unexploited, no geographical mysteries to fire the imagination. Broad highways crowded with automobiles threaded the remotest lands, and overhead great air-liners carried week-end tourists to the wilds of Africa and Asia. Everywhere there were guest-houses and luxury hotels and wayside camps and filling-stations. What once were the savage tribes of Equatoria and Polynesia were now in reserves as an attraction to trippers, who bought from them curios and holiday mementoes. The globe, too, was full of pleasure-cities where people could escape the rigour of their own climate and enjoy perpetual holiday.

In such a world everyone would have leisure. But everyone would be restless, for there would be no spiritual discipline in life. Some kind of mechanical philosophy of politics would have triumphed, and everybody would have his neat little part in the state machine. Everybody would be comfortable, but since there could be no great demand for intellectual exertion everybody would be also slightly idiotic. Their shallow minds would be easily bored, and therefore unstable. Their life would be largely a quest for amusement. The raffish existence led to-day by certain groups would have become the normal existence of large sections of society.

Some kind of intellectual life no doubt would remain, though the old political disputes would have cancelled each other out, and the world would not have the stimulus of a contest of political ideals, which is, after all, a spiritual thing. Scientists and philosophers would still spin theories about the universe. Art would be in the hands of coteries, and literature dominated by petites chapelles. There would be religion, too, of a kind, in glossy upholstered churches with elaborate music. It would be a feverish, bustling world, self-satisfied and yet malcontent, and under the mask of a riotous life there would be death at the heart. The soil of human nature, which in the Dark Ages lay fallow, would now be worked out. Men would go everywhere and live nowhere; know everything and understand nothing. In the perpetual hurry of life there would be no chance of quiet for the soul. In the tumult of a jazz existence what hope would there be for the still small voices of the prophets and philosophers and poets? A world which claimed to be a triumph of the human personality would in truth have killed that personality In such a bagman's paradise, where life would be rationalised and padded with every material comfort, there would be little satisfaction for the immortal part of man. It would be a new Vanity Fair with Mr. Talkative as the chief figure on the town council. The essence of civilisation lies in man's defiance of an impersonal universe. It makes no difference that a mechanised universe may be his own creation if he allows his handiwork to enslave him. Not for the first time in history have the idols that humanity has shaped for its own ends become its master.

 

An Excerpt from John Buchan's Memory Hold the Door written in 1940.

Saturday
Feb012014

The Painted Life

Saturday
Feb012014

A Better Way to Text

My good friend Brandon M. Schneeberger (secretary to and executor for the esteemed essayist Sam Snow) were eating a sandwich lunch in Kansas State’s windowless lounge for employees in the English department when the subject of cell-phone texting arose. Brandon is an avowed skeptic of all things digital and, though my distrust of the digital world does not reach to Brandon’s alarming levels, I do recognize its shortcomings, especially when it comes to texting. I said so to Brandon, and the conversation that followed was something along these lines:

Brandon: “When we write in texts, we just don’t write very well—bad prose, I mean.”

Me: “Yes, but there must be a way to ‘redeem’ texting . . . find a way to improve our writing as we do it—maybe rhyming all our texts?”

Brandon: “How about this: we only text each other in rhyming couplets. That will force us be creative and branch out from the standard, ‘sounds good’ rot we normally write.”

Me: “It’s a deal. From now on, only rhyming couplets.”

Brandon: “Good.”

So began a long string of rhyming couplet texts between the two of us—some painfully bad, some middling, some approaching wit and humor. In the course of time we lassoed our friends and fellow English graduate students Elizabeth Hoyt and Bryn Homuth into the rhyming ‘rodeo’. The exercise has been a smashing success. True, texts now take much longer to compose, but once they are written they have value beyond their simple utility. It could almost be argued our humble digital missives are literary and, by necessity of definition, literature. Therefore, I have decided to share a few of the best of our rhyming couplet conversations from the past month. Enjoy.


Brandon M. Schneeberger: “When shall we The Aeneid read? / Before or after our mouths we feed?”
R. Eric Tippin: “Why don’t you come to my humble abode? / Yes, even though the lawn is hardly mowed.”
BMS: “That’s a good place to read this tale; / Would you care for an Ad Astra ale?”
RET: “How could I pass that generous offer up? / You bring the ale, and I’ll provide the cup.”

 

Bryn Homuth: “Do we still plan to meet [at the Rec Center] at the hour of five? / Will Heather join us as well, the one called your wive?”
RET: “Could the time move now to four forty-four? / Either way, we’ll be a bit sore.”
BH: “Four forty-four is reasonable indeed; / I’ll leave quite soon, by mechanical steed.”
(Time Passes)
RET: “We’ll be a bit late. We’re leaving now. / Please don’t be mad or have a cow.”
BH: “The only cow I’ll have is a nice ribeye steak, / To build muscles so strong as to make the earth quake.”

 

BMS: “I ask only because I’m quite a dunce: / How do you save a web picture on your comp just once?”
RET: “Hold control and click on the picture with your mouse; / Click ‘Save Image’ and give that file a house.”

 

RET: “I printed the Classical Rhetoric syllabus for you; / It just seemed like the decent thing to do.”
BMS: “Oh thanks for that; it will be nice. / To read ahead keeps one from vice.”

 

RET: “Are you making the trek to work today? / Or will you sleep and while the day away? / Or Are you sick? In which case, please stay home. / Disease can be quite nasty when its hosts are prone to roam.”
BMS: “I did not think you were even in town. / I was out late but will be down.”
RET: “Sleep if you need. / Sin on sleeplessness prefers to feed.”

 

BH (to RET): “How many beverages should I bring for drink? / 4 cans that ‘ting’ or 6 bottles that ‘clink’?

 

BH: “Last night’s fun was a wondrous delight. / I thank you and Heather for one such a night.”
RET: “It was our pleasure being hosts. / Next time, though, we’ll have more toasts.”
BH: “Many toasts I would drink to one such a pair— / The union of Tippins Eric and Hea-there.”
RET: “Your rhymes are unmatched by any of your piers. / Your use of ‘Hea-there’ was met with loud cheers.”

 

RET: “The office is quiet like a graveyard at night, / But unlike that graveyard, it’s a joyful delight. / While most are hung over and many still slumber, / My liver is happy—my brain unencumbered.”
Elizabeth Hoyt: “And I hope you will manage to get a lot done, / So that once in Newton you might have some fun.”
RET: “I’m having fun now, though I see what you mean. / Have fun in St. Mary’s; stay out of Lafene [a local hospital].”
EH: “I shall indeed try (though I might not succeed). / I’ll follow my heart and see where it leads.”

 

RET (to BH): “1-(913)-***-**** is Brandon’s number. / It’s more valuable than a barge-full of lumber.”

 

BH: “Will you go tomorrow to church? / Before which service will your car first lurch?”
RET: “We’re churching in another part of the state. / Our Manhattan spiritual journey will have to wait.”
BH: “Alas, I forgot you’re in Newton right now. / Forgive my blunder; out I will bow.”

 

BMS: “I will be a few minutes late. / My quick speed I did mis-anticipate.”
RET: “I’m angry like an adder in a fight. / I’ll try to forgive you with all my might.”
BMS: “Just tell [the others] it wasn’t my fault. / Make up a story of battery or assault.”

 

(In a series of texts with Brandon and Bryn about the time of Lunch, Brandon suggested 11AM and I suggested 11:30)
RET: “Since I don’t wish to be mean, / Let’s strike a compromise—11:15.”
BH: “But indeed you were “mean” as you averaged the two; / With our appetites sated, ECS won’t become a zoo.”

 

BH: “Our composing these couplets—an admirable feat; / The worst to befall us—if one pressed ‘delete’.”
RET: “We’ll save these missives for our children to see. / They’ll be oh so proud of Brandon, you, and me.”


Sam Snow, for whom BMS works as secretary, has some cogent thoughts on the virtues of our texting experiment in his own post on the subject:

"Since the rhyming couplet does take longer to reply, it serves two purposes. It keeps one from responding too quickly and saying whatever random thing comes into their head, thus creating a sense of anticipation on the other end. The one waiting for a couplet to come back waits with such eagerness but yet does patiently because he knows it will be worth it; it will not be mere information coming from his friend. The solution creates a world of communication in which the pithy, information-driven texts of the modern world are replaced with eloquent and interesting rhyming couplets."

So the texts continue on every day. / My thought is, “They’re literature,” but what do you say?

R. Eric Tippin
In My Office at Kansas State University
February 1, 2014

Image: http://mysterious-kaddu.blogspot.com/2013/07/when-we-received-telegram.html

Saturday
Feb012014

Killjoy Children's Literature

        As Killjoy critics we have a special interest in one of the newest fields of literary criticism, namely, children’s literature. However, there has been a disturbing trend in lit for children that cannot continue. If any grave, solemn, stern, earnest, weighty, meaningful study of children’s Literature is to carry on we must staunch and stifle this movement. Perhaps I might be better served calling it a “demographic,” for it is a group—a group of individuals—individuals who are tracking mud all through the halls of academia and wiping their snotty little noses on our pristine tweed suits. Who is this fiendish flock threatening children’s lit? This ghastly gathering, this loathsome lot you ask? Well, they are only the single-most dire threat to the seriousness of children’s literature and, by default, the future of children’s literature since the writing of George MacDonald. Their very presence is perilous to any supercilious scholar wishing unravel the mysteries of books for children, for when in the company of even one individual in this pusillanimous pack one suddenly fills with unexplainable warm joy and cosmic hope: the two emotional arch-enemies of the Killjoy critic.

       Yes, the one group that should never be welcome in the study of Children’s literature is . . . real children. They cannot understand the deeply subversive and dark meanings in their own books. Expose a serious children’s literature scholar to a single real child, and within the hour that scholar will begin asking such absurd questions of herself or himself as, “Is my work deconstructing—through an eco-Marxist lens—the definition of the word “definition” as defined by children’s dictionaries printed on March 4th in 1974 really that important?” Expose that same scholar to two real children and the questions will grow ludicrous, like, “Does it matter if the Little Engine that Could only could because it embraced its true gender identity halfway up the hill?”

      Just imagine if children were asked what they thought of Children’s literature. They might tell you Green Eggs and Ham is a funny book, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs makes them happy. Funny? Happy? How about twisted, existentially problematic, dark to the core, patriarchal, dangerously positivist, and full of phallic images demonstrating unjust male dominance and the author’s latent chauvinism? If children had their way with children’s literature they would enjoy reading the books; they would think princesses and princes were different because they were “made that way;” they would think good and evil were real and not just social constructs. In short, academia would fall like Rome to . . . whoever sacked Rome; I don’t read history. Imagine a world full of people who believed Beauty and the Beast demonstrates selfless love to a father and an unlovely creature instead of what it obviously teaches—strong female agency and praiseworthy self-love and self-interest in the face of a father and a beast-of-a-man who are out to stifle Belle’s self-expression and the power of her matriarchal will.

      Although there have been encouraging signs in Universities all over the country of late, our institutions of higher learning will always be in danger of infant infiltration, because—alas, it cannot be avoided—there will always be children.

      It is time to send out a strong call to action, so we Killjoy Critics here and now pick up that proverbial megaphone and send out that call: “Keep children out of children’s literature.” They have no place in it. They will only be responsible enough to read children’s books when they have grown up and learned the seriousness of life generally and their books specifically.

Signed,
A Killjoy Critic
In An Undisclosed Location 

Image:
"A Corsican Child"
Oil on Canvas - 1901
James Abbot McNeill Whistler 

Tuesday
Jan282014

The Satisfaction of Goodness

       Last Saturday morning I shuffled to the kitchen at 5:15 AM, ate a oat-bran breakfast, drank my coffee in eight to ten large swigs, dressed for the day, carried out my daily hygiene regimen, and drove to my accustomed spot in my accustomed parking lot about an eighth mile from my office. I walked quickly through the cold and the dark, past the University’s roaring nuclear reactor bellowing steam and down a service and drainage road lit only by weak industrial floodlights. My office and all the offices down my hall were empty and quiet that weekend morning. Many of my coworkers had planned a binge the night before at the local bar district, and, no doubt, were spending their final day of the week recovering from their excesses. As I sat at my desk (writing my list for the day in a quiet so complete I could hear my pen scratch against the paper on which I was writing) I felt the satisfaction of goodness, brought on by a series of wise decisions, made by the power of God’s Spirit, which led me into that peaceful place with a relatively clear conscience. It was a genuine pleasure in that moment to have a clear mind, a fit body, and a full stomach, and all the more because I knew the alternative. My coworkers had their pleasures in gluttonously large helpings the night before, and in the peace of the morning I was receiving mine—the little joys of routine, discipline, and predictability all adding up to a deep, warm happiness.

      That ritual peace, that deeper joy I was feeling on Saturday morning was in its essence a celebration of God’s holiness. Of course, my morning was an imperfect shadow of God’s substantive perfection, but even the shadow gave me a happiness more satiating, more hunger-allaying than any manufactured “high” in the world. In addition, that pleasure is—unlike many other pleasures—also a memory I can cherish without a blush. I’ve indulged in a few forbidden pleasures in my day, but none that I look back upon with fondness or anything but distaste. It is the difference between the pleasure of a home-cooked meal and a pile of candy-bars; they both bring their eaters delight, but only one will be a delight a day later.

      Except in a cosmic-eternal sense, virtue is hardly ever its own reward, but goodness can bring great satisfaction, and last Saturday brought that truth home to me. My quiet morning was a shadow of the life on the Earth as it will be when God remakes all things and when the veil over virtue’s joys is pulled away forever. 

 

R. Eric Tippin
In an Office that is No Longer Quiet
January 28, 2014 

Image:
"An October Morning" 
Oil on Canvas - 1921
Ernest Herbert Whydale