Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Review of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo

I have my reservations about jumping into nineteenth century literature. I only have so much endurance for coal-filth and candles, gout and apoplexy, and meandering prose, and most of these books can just go on forever. But I was specifically looking for something down on love (completing the theme), and M. Hugo has been waiting patiently on the shelf for years now. Notre-Dame de Paris is a historical novel, which decently swaps out some of the usual period props, but it's still told in the style of the times, which the authorial voice periodically cheeps in to remind us faithful readers. And not unlike I feared: Hugo almost immediately drifts away from the opening scene to tour-guide our way through the Palace of Justice and a couple hundred years of its history, which is less effective getting me into 1482 than letting the characters open their mouths. Three chapters in, and Hugo drops another anchor, describing--no, delineating--the layout of medieval Paris over the course of 30 or 40 pages. It's not that he's boring when he talks about architecture, but these opening devices don't exactly kickstart his classic plot, they dismissed the characters just as they were getting interesting. And over these last few weeks I haven't had the luxury of time to just sink in and bask in a big heap of prose. And to be fair, even if I mildly object to info-dumping it, one of the writer's purposes was to evoke the character of the city in its time.

Hugo finds momentum well enough when he's not feeling up the masonry. Our opening scene is a mystery performed by the aspiring philosopher Pierre Gringnoire, mercilessly and hilariously cut down by attending students, and ignored by the crowd. Paunchy bishops and dignified statesman filter in and out to create a bigger scene, but much like the stage drama, they're an unloved spectacle, and it takes low humor to get the rabble really aroused. Hugo, to my pleasure and surprise, is really good at humor, and I love how he eyed up the intelligent and powerless (that is, the students) as the eagle-eyed observers of the human condition, and gave them all of the good lines. (As they deserve: I have an affection for the disenfranchised wiseasses of the world.) Unappreciated (and unpaid), Gringnoire wanders dissolute through the Paris streets, delivered into the court of the vagabonds and their sham Justice, and played out for laughs and the uncomfortable bite of satire. Official death loomed over the heads of the poor in Gringnoire's time, and hadn't exactly disappeared by the time Hugo was writing. The characters support the development of the story's tragedies or (as Mark Twain would say it) its sarcsasms, but my favorites were the latter. Our poet is an ineffectual blatherer, charming as a parody of a (real historical) writer, the king of the vagabonds is a debauched and lethal mockery of the Law, and young student Jehan Frollo (brother of Claude) steals every scene he's in, whether throwing about grandiloquent insults, or guilelessly conniving his way to his next bottle.

Even at his most discursive, Victor Hugo clearly takes great joy in the language, on which note, in a case like this, I usually start bitching about translations. The fact that my edition is rendered to The Hunchback of Notre-Dame instead of Hugo's more appropriate original title is a bad sign, as is the failure to credit the translator. How much better did the French flow along? How much more playful, how much more moving was the original? One `particular annoyance: French makes use of a formal second person, but the resulting English thees and thous read terribly. That forced archaism always come off as a cheesy anachronism for anything less than 350 years old.

The obvious liberty with the title is unappreciated because our well-known bell-ringer is only one of a cast of fully conceived players, and not even the best one. Hugo trots him out as not only physically hideous (and deaf), but also a mental defective, amoral, unable to perceive very well the antics of the crowd, nor the whims of Justice. Much later, when he gets speaking lines, he expresses himself differently than he was originally described. He's capable of metaphor, uttering sentences that require the self-awareness he was denied in his introduction. There's clearly an incomplete inner transformation that's intended here, which is similar to the way most of the major characters are developed: whether quintessentially noble, wise, beautiful or brave, Hugo drips with pleasure as he skewers their outward characters with reality, but the author's conflation of physical, mental, and moral deformity are confusing. They violate my admittedly modern understanding of their relationship beyond what I'm willing to give to artistic license.

As a love story, I couldn't be more pleased to read Victor Hugo's side by side with Graham Greene's. Hugo lets his play out with nearly as much cynicism: the hunchback's great love is a beauty; the repressed scholar's great love is a free-spirited ingenue; the sweetheart's is a handsome cad, who, at the moment of seduction, can't even remember her name. The love stories aren't weighted equally--those that contain a particle of actual compassion are allowed the heft of tragedy--but every one of them is ultimately a comedy of objectification that can only end badly, and does every time.

Marriage is painted as a farce too, but as a legal distinction, that's perhaps as much about Hugo's disgust with civic power, which is a much deeper condemnationthan his mockery of romance. Justice is doomed to end badly for its subjects, and the exclusive purpose of its proceedings is to deliver state violence, regardless of cause or merit. The comical vagabond court, we find, is the most pure authority, and the least corrupt. While it feels at times that Hugo is picking on the medievals, and if he taunts the king that his day is coming (that experience was brutal too), mostly he presents the Law as a timeless sort of evil. He's got a good trick where he reveals the mechanics of mysterious events off-handedly, and lets the process play out deaf and thoughtless of the minor truth. Hugo's Justice grinds on with tremendous inertia, abetted by the ecclesiastical powers and the expectations of the people. It exists to drink blood, and no one but a half-mad bell-ringer even thinks to stand against it, wrongly and badly. Notre-Dameis an artful blend of place and character, of comedy and tragedy. You'll laugh until you cry.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Nine Billion Shades of Malthus

I've read (or read mocked) too much lately about the demographic pressures facing successful people. It seems like a cultural meme these days, with any number of authors sweating about the breeding patterns of the unlettered brown hordes, the perceived crises that threaten everything from economic growth we're all banking on to the integrity of the culture. I don't really understand this stance: isn't reduced fertility a good thing? In an earlier article, I wondered aloud whether there's a managable population ceiling for this fine globe, or whether some horrible Malthusian catastrophe will correct the numbers for us. For the record, I think agricultural independence is a wonderful way to live, and the idea that consumption patterns can approach zero sum, that is, that my habits can directly take food out of someone else's mouth, is deeply unsettling. (All the indirect consequences are bad enough.) Do we really want to get to the point where there's only so much to go around?

Read the rest on quiblit

[an addendum: when Arthur C. Clarke wrote Nine Billion Names of God, was playing with any established theological notions or just making stuff up? As I read about demographic predictions, expected to peak at nine billion or so if we're (less un)lucky, it was hard not to remember that old story. Nine billion names? I'm thinking doomsday cult as a way to get rich, and quick. I'd feel kind of guilty making money off of a pseudo-religion based on a 1950s science fiction story, but, well, I wouldn't be the first one.]

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Nine Billion Shades of Malthus

I've read (or read mocked) too much lately about the demographic pressures facing successful people. It seems like a cultural meme these days, with any number of authors sweating about the breeding patterns of the unlettered brown hordes, the perceived crises that threaten everything from economic growth we're all banking on to the integrity of the culture. I don't really understand this stance: isn't reduced fertility a good thing? In an earlier article, I wondered aloud whether there's a managable population ceiling for this fine globe, or whether some horrible Malthusian catastrophe will correct the numbers for us. For the record, I think agricultural independence is a wonderful way to live, and the idea that consumption patterns can approach zero sum, that is, that my habits can directly take food out of someone else's mouth, is deeply unsettling. (All the indirect consequences are bad enough.) Do we really want to get to the point where there's only so much to go around?

In the eighteenth century, Thomas Malthus famously compared the rates of agricultural production to the rates of population growth, and frightened a generation into believing that the people of the world were rapidly hurtling to an overpopulated doom. Obviously, it didn't happen right away, and the refutation to Malthusian population dynamics was the observation that a higher population density also drives innovation, which, as you might imagine, was generated amid the most rapid technological transformation since agriculture, which Malthus, in 1798, was on the old hardscrabble, self-sufficient side of. The truth is that Malthus was wrong about all of his rate laws, but he was also still basically right about everything. The same is also true about the Cornucopians (as those armchair innovators came to be known), who also perceived important demographic trends, but either model still produces ridiculous results when considered in exclusion and extrapolated to infinity.

I'm not given to optimism about this sort of thing. The people who latch onto Cornucopian ideas of population growth remind me too much of the (misnamed) global warming skeptics whose goal seems to be to convince themselves that easy times will continue unabated. Eventually--and I wish I had a better understanding of how eventually--it's going to be limited by the fact that it takes energy to grow people, and once we burn all the stuff in the ground that we can reach, it only falls from the sky so fast. (And despite what professional optimists may believe, tapping into the zero point energy looks a lot farther out than oil will take us.) A human population ceiling may or may not reflect the global energy balance, and as I see it, whether it does is the pressing question facing the species over the next couple hundred years.

Demographic trends are estimated by analyzing fertility rates (how quickly people are born) and mortality rates (how quickly they die). Mixed in with that are better versions of Malthus's ideas about land use, about migration patterns, and other ideas about how better organization and technological growth improve agriculture, and how education and increased per capita income relate to fertility, and some reasonable models about how these things all affect one another. Of course, the end result is still an extrapolation, and there are disagreements about the respective rates of this thing or that thing, but a global picture is emerging, with a reasonabl(y large)e degree of uncertainty. Wolfgang Lutz of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis has developed a model that incorporates modern studies of food security, land development and degradation as they pertain to fertility and mortality rates. It's well known that fertility decreases with overall affluence, (or, that is, with food security), but land scarcity and poverty also tend to shrink fertility, despite the story you often hear. (I guess it depends on where you start: in Ethiopia, where he makes a case study, reduced fertility rates are due to both economic growth and remaining poverty conditions. They still haven't dipped below the replacement rate.) These authors also note that migration rates tend to remain relatively slow thanks to resistance to social change, but in their global model, they are obviously important, and will be the primary cause of population growth in the first world (as it is in fact now). Lutz predicts a median estimate of peak global population of about 9.3 billion, in 2070, after which it will decline. The U.N. adopts a number that's a little ower (9.1 billion" in 2050), and Lutz presents estimates ranging from a peak of 14 billion in 2100 at one extreme, to 6.5 billion peaking right now.

The land use model that he employs is broken into geographic bins, and the evolution of the population as a function of the above parameters is borne out per region. Lutz uses "expert surveys" as well as historical data to come up with some of the values of the parameters in his rate laws. That's okay as far as it goes, and he appears to go into acceptable detail in his book (I read a couple of highly redacted chapters on Google Books) even if it makes a letter to Nature look a little cheesy in its absence. I'll note that at the very least, historical rates haven't always varied gently, as the Cornucopians may have observed during the industrial revolution, or as the first world may have observed with the introduction of reliable contraception. Interestingly, he includes the effects of climate change, and it's probably easier to predict how deforestation and development will impact the drier and poorer communities of the world, since it's already impacting those places pretty hard, and they're presumably far enough behind the growth curve that they'll predictably follow hydrological improvements that are already well understood.

I wish he presented resource depletion in greater depth. Presumably it falls under his model of land degradation, but over the next hundred years, we should have a good idea of how finite fossil fuel resources actually are. Peak oil worriers espouse a similar timeline for energy resources as Lutz does for population, and I don't know the extent they're correlated on purpose. The limited supply of global real estate is a lot more obvious. The arable land per capita is approaching the exact area of my tiny lawn, and while I might have a better chance of growing spuds than grass, it'd still be pretty hard to feed the family for 12 months off a piddling quarter acre. Yes, there is land reserved for planting worldwide, and it's engineered to hyper-efficiency, and in the highly-developed countries approaching their population peaks, there remains even a tiny sliver of wilderness and recreational land, all of which is good, sort of, even if it breaks my naturalist heart.

But the prices today are startling, and a correction, if there's one to be made, will take seasons. The Commies at the U.N. are calling for more investment in agriculture worldwide, as well as more international aid. It's probably a redundant plea: the rising prices should encourage investment. As for food aid, the value probably depends on how it's implemented--I'm not sure it's a great idea to shift the food supply even more to subsidized first-world growers, but I'm also pretty certain it's a bad idea to wantonly develop the Amazon or the edges of the Sahara into crappy farmland--but sooner or later investment will mean using the land that we can. Will we go gently over the peak? Will we fight or bargain over the limiting resources? Will prosperity win out over starvation? Lutz's model suggests we may barely get away with it. Here's hoping for the best.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Random Roundup III

1. Link this.

Michael Agger on Slate boldly throws down the glove: "you're probably going to read this," he dares. His goal is to develop an exercise that describes what readers direct their attention to while reading online. I'd advise against following the link. Agger advocates writing from the Bill Gates school, in which content-free bulleted lists are highlighted, every other thought is bolded, and lots of white space separates the readers from the content (such as it is). I kept on for a page--hoping for humor--but he lost me on the first hyperlink. You lost, Mike.

Style is a tell. One of my first rules on visiting new blogs is the thought-to-quote ratio. Some cut and pasted material is forgivable, if there's a comment to be made. Composing ones thoughts primarily of other people's is a travesty, however, and any number of people live to break the news of what other people are thinking. Really, I'll just get a reader. Another really unforgivable sin of online journalism is explaining things through links. Agger claims they look authoritative, but that's only if you use them right. My rule: if the article doesn't make a point that I can decipher without clicking the blue text, then it's almost certainly not worth reading. Used properly, hyperlinks are a way to provide the reader the choice to verify content, and they similarly can provide sidebar information that doesn't necessarily fit in the text of the article or post. The benefit of using link text is that it's unobtrusive, and that it's optional. Nothing makes me less likely to follow through with an article than requiring me read linked material. It advertises that the very point the writer is trying to make is borrowed.

I actually don't think his is a bad idea for an article, but he comes down for quantity of product (by which I mean his audience) over quality, which as a discerning member of the same, I find insulting. Like any writing, you have to consider what you're trying to communicate and to whom. The tricks Agger advocates are designed to tell me that an atom of content must be rendered as smooth and flavorless as possible so that the lowly reader may have a passing chance of digesting the learned wisdom. It's about as cleverly written as a chain letter, or a marriage book by John Gray:

  • imply knowledge
  • belabor the point
  • use small words.
  • bite me

    2. Karma visits the Busch family

    The great American icon Budweiser is going to be bought out by Belgian company InBev. As you might imagine, real Americans are angry about the threat to the beloved corporate icon, which is"'an American original,' in league with baseball and apple pie" (purpose of link: to cite the story and verify the quote). What's more American than nepotism?

    I think that we can safely call A-B an American company, and at this point, the American pilsner a style that's a child of United States. Unsurprisingly, pilsner began in this country with an influx of German and Czech immigrants in the nineteenth century. Prohibition choked off the American pilsner, as it did many other styles, but the Busches kept alive by selling brewing ingredients and near beers during the dark, dry days. The pilsner style appealed to Americans after the second world war, both for its lightness, and it was well-suited to accommodate commodity grains, and mass production--refrigeration made lagers a lot easier to brew. The American light beer suited the twentieth century fondness for the industrially revolutionized food industry. The makers of Bud have committed a lot of sins against real beer, but at the end of day, it's just another style, and I don't revile it for being what it is, even if its popularity is a little mystifying.

    But Budweiser's name has a European root, the rights to which has been contested for decades. "Budweiser" means that it comes from the Bohemian town of Budweis, (now) in the Czech Republic. Breweries in the area would really prefer to call their local beer "Budweiser" for obvious reasons, possibly including a wish to associate their name with something that doesn't suck. Pilsn--which got its name tagged to the style--is also a town in Bohemia, and the idea of a Budweiser pilsner is as oxymoronic as an American pilsner or as Budweiser from America.

    And now we're looking at a European-named American beer being bought out once again by the Europeans. There's a joke in there.

    (I'll add that Belgian beer, with its funny and sometimes delicious yeasts, is nothing like any of these things.)

    3. It's the silly season.

    Composing this post probably cost an hour of being here on Saturday. I'm telling myself I'll be less distracted. Certainly this is what I'd rather be doing.

  • Monday, June 09, 2008

    A Proposal for The Party

    The heat (if not the light) from the six-month collision of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has revealed deep division in the Democratic party. It's sort of funny watching the Kossies get het up about it, but more regrettably, it's affected people I like and respect. The Party, they argue, can not survive with split loyalties. Elderly white women may not recover from their Clinton support, and will stay home on election day. Jobless Midwesterners can't get past the mean things she said about Obama, and they will vote, inexplicably, for John McCain in protest. Racists, real and imagined, make battle against the living and the phantom sexists. Gaffes (a word that deserves to be buried) are researched with the compulsive zeal of sports statistics, and no one talks much about foreign policy or energy policy (allegedly buried in there somewhere), at least not enough to make an easy comparison, and probably because there's not much to argue about. Schism among the Democrats? I'm registered, but I have to tell you, this is the lamest party I've ever been expected to attend.

    As one lucky Democrat prepares to battle an old man who only becomes visible if his voice gets high enough, I hope he's grateful that The Party has managed to milk six months of free air time from the internal contention that was no doubt trying for him and his other alpha contender. I don't discount (and I completely support) the idea of fighting to the last hope, but I doubt that The Party's very upset about the oceans of lucre that the fight has drawn in, nor about all of the brand new cash contributors floating behind Obama's "winner" pheromones like a gang of cartoon hobos entranced by a pie. Each one of those donors has an address, and reeks of a youth that the pledge committees will find irresistible. They can expect to receive mailed donation cards from now until the time they're sucked dry.

    Switching metaphors, playing hard until the end of the game ("sixty minutes of football") isn't just good for the team's morale, it's good for the whole system. You keep your advertisers happy, and you don't want to piss off the people that pay for their tickets. And all those scary skeletons drawn out in the primaries? Surely the Republicans, of all people, would have managed to figure out that Hillary is married to Bill Clinton and that Barry Obama is black.

    Party unity is an idea that is more important to the system than the people in it, or the people served by it. Unity is like Mom and Dad keeping an air of strained civility so as not to alarm the children, and avoid the notice of their friends at church. It puts a happy face in public, even if he hasn't gotten it up in years, and even though she spends four hours of quality time with gin and sitcoms every night, both of them bored to death of the life, and neither yet reached the point where they realize that no one else could possibly put up with either of them, and the kids are just as fucked up, and everyone's whispering anyway. Party unity is angling for the broadest common connection, and ending up with the nothing but the institutional shell: some made-for-everyone canned satisfaction, huddling in the soulless 'burbs, where they hunker in their garages and entertainment rooms terrified of, and secretly titillated by, their unseen neighbors. Party unity is important: single people don't buy McMansions.

    I have a constitutional antipathy for an organization that would command any act for the good of The Party. It calls to mind the political unity imposed by a purely ideological government, and it speaks uncomfortably of the corruption and reach of twentieth-century Communism. Two parties may be better than one, but keeping a steady platform that appeals to the most people doesn't allow a great range of political alternative, comrade. Proposing that The Party stop the fundamental abuses of American government, or that it advocate a fundamentally different service model is hella divisive, exactly the opposite of unity, which is why everyone laughs at Denny Kucinich and Mike Gravel. The Democrats might win this if they heal the razor-thin rift between Hillary's and Barrack's visions of the American dream, but really, what do they win? Or rather, what do the voters win?

    So on that note, I move (finally) to a modest proposal. (Since American Idol didn't answer my letters, maybe the chairmen of The Party will.) Instead of voting for a candidate, I want an opportunity to vote against one of them. I know just how popular negativity can be, and here in America, it can give the goobers something really fulfilling to get behind, to cast down their superficial one-issue horrors or their caricatured evil. Do you hate black people, women, or idiots more than you want universal health care? Cast your ballot against one of them. It'll feel good.

    The idea would work pretty easily, provided the necessary committees understand how to add negative numbers. Rules would be needed to control the pool of candidates--more stringent than today's rules perhaps, but maybe not much--lest someone completely unknown pull in a victory, and once the ballot is set, citizens will have the opportunity to cast a vote against the candidate of their choice. When tallied, the person that ends up least in the hole proceeds to not lose the race.

    This strategy has some serious advantages: it's anti-incumbent (who do you hate more than the person that's been stiffing you for the past four years); it's already adapted to American campaign styles; and it allows the goofy, marginal candidates a greater share of the attention (alarming questions about how the Republic works will be shot down with vigor!). Sure, it's got a downside that it might sneak through even less inspiring suits peddling mild lies about how great everyone is, but this caveat is greatly outweighed by relieving the voters of the embarrassing burden of actually voting for yet another one of these turds. We can admit that we're only letting through the least bad. Imagine the voter satisfaction when elected officials start their terms with negative approval, before signing their name on anything.

    Detractors may further argue that a candidate may come along every now and then that really is truly inspiring, but even that could be worked into my system, in fact, it would improve it. An option for "for" votes could coexist with the usual vote "against." In fact it could even be weighted more highly. Idealists that are actually worthy of a lever pulled in their favor can even have an aye vote count extra, and even better, this would preserve an essential comedy of today's system, allowing an odd candidate to take the inspirational high road, or pretend to.

    As for me, I'd be a lot more enthusiastic to kick the bums out of office than support their contenders, even at a discount, and I don't think I'm alone in that mindset. Even if the negative vote were half the value of the positive, turnout would still double, and, just like our founding fathers emphatically didn't want, more Americans than ever will have a reason to participate in this wonderful democratic process.

    Monday, June 02, 2008

    The Deep Magic

    The best thing about Catholicism is the apologists. It takes a special mind to wrestle all of the difficult concepts of faith into the observed realities of the world, the modern version requiring a certain combination of complication and muleheaded resolve. It's not something that those Protestant kids have had the time to cook up, having never gone through those tough historical times when religion was the only science, free to flit off and have wild sects every time they disagree on some minor point of catechism. Protestant Christians just don't have the rigor for apology. If their authorities start throwing dogma around, the parishioners can always find their own personal versions of Jesus who, if necessary, can be counted on to tell them more or less what they want to hear.

    Of course, I had none of these connections when I first fell into the world of rationalizing the Sprit. Reading C. S. Lewis as a theologically naïve ten-year-old, I didn't get the ham-handed Jesus parallels, but I hardly missed the feeling of the momentous clockwork that the author placed just behind the curtain of his fantasy universe, every action dripping with portent and echoing the divine design. There is beauty in Narnia, and not just the fanciful visions of nobility and naturalism. In that world everything fit: the truths that children could sense made up the deep magic of the place, to use the author's words. But it wasn't really the beauty or the meaning that did it for me. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe had all that, and much as I loved the opening volume, it didn't grab me at a fundamental level the way the sequels did. Narnia worked out well enough for Aslan's four chosen people, but it wasn't until Prince Caspian that Lewis opened his Elsewhere up to anyone lucky enough to stumble down the right rabbit hole. The second publication offered more than a whirlwind tour, it gave us a few days in the life, it put actual people into an actual ecosystem, threw in some hardship and earned some emotion. It made a fantasy world that was magical and real. I tore through the rest of the Narnia books after that, and wouldn't let myself read anything else for the rest of the summer, holding the faith against less pure fantasies and looking out for any funny-looking portals that might pop up in the back yard, because I'd have taken the plunge through one of them in a heartbeat…

    Middles can prove the storyteller, especially when they're writing in these richly imagined settings. Once the rules are dispensed with and the obvious parallels are announced, before the denouement (a word that means the opposite of what it means) dutifully shapes the text into a conclusion, the author has an opportunity to pull off some real exploration of his space. I don't begrudge Lewis for crafting a Christian universe, nor for weaving it into some generic mythological setting. I have a soft spot for that sort of thing, and as far as writing goes, it's always what you do with it anyway. Prince Caspian was the first of a middle stretch of four Narnia books that gave us fuller characters, grittier locales, and drama on a variety of human scales. If a blighted land and a crucified lion presented interesting philosophical puzzles, getting in the heads of a few of the menschen and finally getting a chance to peek into the corners the scenery was the stuff that actually made me buy in. (What do you want, I was ten.)

    I've really enjoyed the movie versions so far. Although they've suffered from the breezy development that is the usual failing of epic story adaptations, and even though Caspian had an egregious Leo ex Machina for an ending (that didn't even have symbolism to redeem it), I have found them both to be a satisfying ride. There was good acting in parts--Tilda Swinton is great, and Peter Dinklage communicated more with his eyes, under two pounds of latex, than the sum total of all the speaking lines in the second film--and when the script or the talent didn't manage to generate performance, the look of the thing was always spot on. I could lose myself in Ben Barnes' princely hair, and the rest of the Telmarines sported fabulous Spanish scruff. The surly, ambivalent dwarves and the dashing mice were wonderful, and even if she's growing out of it, Lucy still looks a little bit like my daughter. Do they give out awards for casting and character design, or what?

    But Narnia aspired to be more than a ride. If the Conquistadors had a certain fashion sense, it doesn't change the fact that they were, in the course of things, rat bastards. Lewis's Telmarines flaunt some piratical charm, but they've committed their share of unnamable horrors in fantasyland. The film showed off some biblical frights, but the parts of this family picture that were actually scary were hidden in the endless swordplay. All the gore, needless to say, spattered and stank just off camera, but there was still plenty of clanging metal and desperate exhaustion, and it got awfully intense under the Dolbies. Does this sort of epic violence seem out of touch with a peaceful, redemptive sense of divinity? When your bad, arrogant decisions cost lives, does it matter that you feel bad? When has the institution of hereditary monarchy ever been worth an apology, and what, for that matter, is all this bullshit about superior races and the divine right of kings?

    As a child, I didn't always welcome these ethical intrusions into my escapism, but I have to credit Lewis for struggling with the challenge. (A couple others from that point in my life need revisiting too.) I mean, I appreciated some of it even at ten: I liked Lewis taking on ideas of personhood, where it is the prerogative of the being to speak and assume the mantle of moral consequence, and I was blown away at the idea of pulling a world together (as Aslan did in The Magician's Nephew) out of the essential ether that must have existed before concepts became concrete things. It still fascinates me, but it's definitely an anthropocentric viewpoint (as if there's an alternative), or maybe better call it a philological one. Tying creation to speech is one of the cleverer bits of wordplay the Semites passed on to the world, and the transition from prehistory to civilization, to a world of writing, resonates strongly with the idea of a transition from inchoate mysticism into a physical reality, and it can sure be fun to fantasize what's just over that lost horizon. All of the human beings in Narnia, if I recall right, are non-native, and there is a message that the land was created as an alternative to the Passion Play we've come to know and love. As if a land populated by sentient creatures couldn't be real until humans came along.

    Yes, Narnia is biblically informed, and the book of Revelation played strongly in the ultimate volume, The Last Battle. As C. S. Lewis let reality sneak into his pure land, the narrative insisted that it couldn't withstand the indecency and failure of actual people, and eventually it reached a critical mass. What to do but create another fantasy land--this pissed me off even at ten. Calling in a real Narnia as a refuge from an ever-more-visceral Narnia is just insulting. How many times are you going to make me escape, Clive? Not only were my chances of visiting Fairyland vanishingly slim in the first place, now I have to die and get to heaven too? Way to move the goalposts. It's been too long to remember if Lewis rejected the violence, the means to his noble ends that, when examined, were really pretty horrible, or if it was, as usual, a divine instruction to "just trust me." As an adult I take some satisfaction at imagining his Catholic self writhing around these issues, how he must have tortured himself to bring about a world that put evil only in the hands of devils. But in the end, Lewis punted a conclusion straight into the realm of heaven. Once humanity and Christian theology were made to mix it up too much on the same board, victory could only by cheating. Again.