A French Play and Facebook

Who would have thought that an old  French play could have contemporary relevance? And yet, Edmund Rostand’s seminal play Cyrano de Bergerac bears directly on our use and abuse of social networking media like Facebook and Match.com, warning us of the ever-imminent peril of losing ourselves to the digital images we create and put forth. These social networks are not inherently bad, and I’m sure that there are those who use them forthrightly. For the rest of us who have ever posted a status update, a tweet, a favorite book, band, or film in the interest of making people see us in a certain light–we are in the same boat as Cyrano.

The drama of the play surrounds the cavalier Cyrano, who falls madly in love with the beautiful but elusive Roxanne. There’s just one problem: Cyrano is crippled by insecurity stemming from the appearance of his abnormally-large nose. Nevertheless, the pain of unrequited love obliges him to confess his feelings through the medium of his incredibly handsome (albeit somewhat brainless) brother-in-arms Christian. Having indirectly delivered his impassioned words to Roxanne, however, Cyrano is aghast to discover that his lady-love has fallen for the beautiful Christian. Circumstances unfold that result in Christian’s untimely death, and Roxanne grieves for her lost beloved. At the close of the play, Cyrano is mortally injured, and tells Roxanne the truth of matters before he dies as well.

Out of this despondency emerge two ideas that pounce upon the way we understand and practice social networking. First, we see that insecurity tempts us to put forth false images. Cyrano is an impressive character. He is intelligent, witty, romantic, and proficient in martial endeavors. His fixation on his one besetting imperfection, however, causes him to neglect his attractive characteristics for fear of rejection. As a result, he exercises his affections vicariously through Christian. Roxanne thinks she has found both an attractive and romantic beloved, but in reality this is a falsehood. Social networking media allow us to do the same. It is painful to dump out our mixed bag of virtues and imperfections. Our escape from this pain is to mitigate our perceived faults to put forth a modified image. What we want most of all is  acceptance. Like Cyrano, though, we fail to attain real friendship or affection, and we rob our friends or beloveds of a real person to love in turn.

The second idea we find is that these false images isolate us from authentic human interactions. Cyrano’s illusion isolates him from experiencing any actual reciprocation of affection. Instead, he has to rely on vicarious experiences through Christian. Similarly, the creation of illusory images of ourselves distances us from direct experiences of relationships with others. Real interactions are vulnerable and sometimes frightening; they oblige us to reckon with the pains and insecurities of others and to be honest about our own. We are forced to mature and become more charitable. Or we can choose the path of Cyrano, creating neat and static images, and like him rob ourselves and others of the opportunity to grow in our ability to love others well.

Cyrano’s fate provides a stern warning against the easy use of false self-images. His insecurity about his imperfections overrides the original aim of loving Roxanne and being loved by her in return. As such, because Cyrano avoids the uncertain and sometimes painful process of overcoming his fear of rejection, he robs himself and Roxanne of the opportunity to experience meaningful change.

In short, Cyrano de Bergerac gives us perspective about self-image, and provokes us to live free of fear.

Photo the courtesy of Robin Taylor, photographer.

Teenagers Don’t Exist

A melancholy expression, Ipod attached to skull, relentless sighing, the feeling of being deeply misunderstood: this is a day in the life of a teenager. And yet, according to Robert Epstein’s provocative book Teen 2.0, there is no reason for this. In his controversial review of anthropological, biological, and psychological studies, Epstein concludes that the phenomenon of adolescence (or as he calls it, “prolonged childhood”) is an artificial stage of life that does significant damage to young persons. Epstein attacks the basic foundations for the label ‘teenager,’ and proposes that the abolition of such age-determined groupings will lead to the disappearance of the troubled behavior typically associated with teens.

Epstein’s multi-disciplinary study of teenagers around the world reveals that a) the concept of adolescence is a recent occurrence, and b) that it is almost exclusively isolated to developed cultures with a highly-Westernized influence. According to Epstein, the period of life known as adolescence, characterized as a time of “troubled youth,” was sparked by post-Industrial Revolution social activists in the United States, whose original intent was to protect young people from being exploited by a burgeoning factory culture. Despite these noble intentions, these activists prolonged childhood artificially and eliminated the space within culture for capable young persons to exercise adult responsibilities.  The consequences of these conditions have manifested in a couple of all-too-familiar ways.

In locating the core of the teen problem, Epstein argues that the false category of adolescence has two primary symptoms:  infantilization, or the artificial extension of childhood beyond a reasonable biological/psychological cut-off, and  the disruption of the child-adult continuum, the segregation of youth from adult communities. Culture gives minimal responsibility to persons ranging from ages 13-25.. This compartmentalization of age groups in significant social communities like the work, school, and church environments, assigns capacity on the basis of age rather than on competency. In short, young people are the victims of age-discrimination..

According to Epstein, it should come as no surprise that teens demonstrate anti-social behavior such as involvement in self-destructive practices, gang culture, or at the very least an animosity toward adult figures. These are by-products of an anxiety created in people that possess the capacity to handle adult responsibilities, but are not allowed the education or societal role to carry them out. Teens are not allowed access to challenging jobs, but are relegated to fast-food service. They are forced to sit in infantile youth groups, hearing sermons about teenagers who were ruling nations and being called into culture-shaping ministry. Teens are told that they should learn to regulate their own lives and live virtuously, but have no real authority over their own decisions to succeed or fail in cultivating these skills.

Although Epstein acknowledges that the social forces that incited this debilitating condition were well-intentioned, he has no kind words for those organizations and institutions that continue this form of age-based discrimination. Among the foremost offenders are government, industry, and education. Government, in Epstein’s opinion, actually strips young people of rights comparable to adults only a few years their senior. Labor regulations, for example, often disallow even capable young people from earning a minimum wage like that of their adult co-workers. Further, the Western industrial complex has built a 200 billion dollar market in perpetuating teen culture and spreading it globally. Then there are educational organizations that stifle the brilliant and frustrate the struggling by forcing all into arbitrary age-brackets. Common to all of these, though, is the idea that age is directly responsible for capability, which Epstein attacks as an affront to ongoing research data, exemplars among the teen community, and common sense itself.

Epstein suggests that Western cultures will see fewer troubling characteristics in adolescents if they give meaningful responsibility back to young people and reintegrate them into adult communities. At the core of these suggestions is a radical switch from age-based rights to competency-based rights. A young person should be able to test out of school early if they can demonstrate their competency (it is still widely difficult to do so). They should be able to apply for career track jobs if they are able to compete for a position. Likewise, adults and youth need to interact more often, with adults demonstrating adult life and mentoring youth. Epstein repeats again and again that by reestablishing the child-adult continuum, the anxiety of age-based discrimination and the destructive behaviors of teens will dissipate.

Ultimately, Epstein urges us to stop the age-discrimination and actually recognize teens for who they are: young adults.

The Scope of Lost: In Dialogue with Joe Carter

(Warning: This post contains spoilers for the end of Lost)

To no one’s surprise, the final episode of this cultural behemoth has sparked a flurry of dialogue and theory-sharing. One such theory was recently put forth by Joe Carter at FirstThings.com. His opinion, however, expresses a dissatisfaction with plot holes, but this overlooks the primary objective of the show. Rather than creating a plot that moves characters along, Lost is about the characters that create a story. It is the fixation on these characters that gives the show its power and popularity. So, in order to frame the dialogue appropriately, it helps to remember a few key things:

1. Lost is NOT a Christian allegory.

A Christian viewer should not expect to find one-to-one correspondence between the characters and events of the show and the Christian narrative, much less with that viewer’s doctrinal iterations of the Christian narrative. The show makes allusions to components of the Christian narrative, but because it is merely referential and not allegorical, it is under no obligation to offer a modus operandi for the Christ-figure achieving any particular atonement model (e.g. Jack does not have to be Christ in order to possess traits that are similar to those of Christ). Lost is doing something different.

2. Lost is a post-modern narrative.

The show wields a compilation of mythic components or archetypes for the creation of a message that is not achieved through any of the individual myths from whence the elements are derived. In terms of the show, this technique is seen through the simultaneous operation of Egyptian, Buddhist, Roman Catholic, and scientific paradigms.  Lost is not trying to say that Jack’s character is the savior of the world, but that the development of his character obliges him to die for the cause to which he has pledged himself. It is this fixation on character development (the stated point of the show according to producers Cuse and Lindelhoff) that lends so much force to the show’s popularity. It moves away from abstract concepts and focuses on individual lives and the choices that direct them. In short, the dramatic effect of Lost is not reliant upon the plot as a framework, but about bringing characters to their fruition, which the show does marvelously.

3. Lost is ultimately about finding the unknown beloved.

The show’s final season reveals that the arduous paths the characters follow is directed toward their finding the thing they are looking for, and that is different for each character. While Christians see this journey as ultimately leading to God made possible by the work of Christ and directed by the Holy Spirit, the show’s scope does not encompass such a claim. Rather, Lost depicts the struggle of character development as centering on the obstacles to finding what is true and the choices we make to overcome those obstacles. To argue about the sufficiency of the extent to which the show provides conclusive statements about reality is moot, because the development of the characters does not necessarily require them.

At its core, the show gives its viewers a meticulous study of the choices people make and the wide-reaching effects of those decisions. The drama of the show, the reason why so many people are drawn to it, is found in characters with whom the viewer can relate and struggle alongside. If looked at in terms of the narrative framework alone, then the show makes little sense. It is the people involved that give the show life. To watch the show well, then, we should avoid dwelling on conceptual matters and remember that Lost ventures to portray the compelling struggle of characters traversing the human journey. ‘

A Beginner’s Guide to Shakespeare’s Comedies

A dark stage. Candles casting an ominous glow on faux-stone walls.  A dejected actor in outdated clothing with a skull in one hand. This is Shakespeare.

While that’s true, in part, it remains a sad reality that our exposure to Shakespeare fixates on his tragedies and an occasional history. This is ironic, given that falling in love captivates most high school and college students. Shakespeare’s tragedies demonstrate some of his most impressive and captivating creations. And yet, focusing only on the tragic distorts our picture of the sheer breadth of Shakespeare’s genius, as displayed in his capacity to convey a wide spectrum of experiences. T.S. Eliot once made the provocative comment that the world is divided between Dante and Shakespeare, and that there is no third. Eliot underscores Shakespeare’s skill in that while Dante expresses the very lowest lows and highest heights of human experience, it is Shakespeare that gives to us its breadth.

And so, in the interest of forming a more complete idea of Shakespeare’s contribution to Western culture, we turn to his commentaries on a more lighthearted side of living: the absurdities of falling in love as depicted in his comedies.

When you’re approaching Shakespeare’s comedies, it’s helpful to keep a few things in mind:

1.    Genre: Comedy is about falling in love. You can be almost certain that if you’re reading a comedy, you’re going to run into at least one wedding. Shakespeare seems to enjoy taking us along a path where the wonder of falling in love is imperiled, only to resurrect the beauty of reunion and the hope of consummation.

2.    Character: Some characters are there just to make you laugh, so laugh! Noted Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt argues that in the comedies, the main characters in the plot often speak in a loftier,  aristocratic tone, but that there are also characters whose sole purpose is to serve as comic relief.

3.    Mood: Don’t be surprised when there are darker elements. While the comedies are generally characterized by their lightheartedness, Shakespeare demonstrates his genius by intertwining darker elements. Shakespeare gives us a painfully realistic picture of the pitfalls lovers face and the ardor with which these obstacles are overcome.

4.    Setting: Sometimes you have to leave the city to fall in love. A striking feature of the comedies is that many involve a sort of escape from social norms, and that often involves leaving the normativity of “civilized” city life for more rural settings. Hearkening back to the Greco-Roman genre of pastoral, these changes in scenery carry with them a change of disposition: people tend to become softer, more relaxed, more charitable. In short, the atmosphere is conducive for falling in love.

5.    Appearance versus Reality: Things are not always as they seem, but that can be a good thing. The comedies give us a variety of situations of mistaken identity, costuming, secret admirers, etc.  Shakespeare constructs his comedies to give us both the positive and negative aspects of the disparity between what seems to be and what actually is. The miracle of the comedies is that while such confusion can so easily result in disaster (as in the gut-wrenching scene of Malvolio’s humiliation in Twelfth Night), there is still a chance for it to result in happiness (see: As You Like It).

The comedies capture the experience of having indescribable joy in an often non-ideal world. While it is true that as Shakespeare’s life and career progressed, his themes took on a darker tone—it was the time in which he wrote some of his greatest tragedies—it nevertheless serves us as readers to be reminded of his lighthearted moments. In everything from farce to courtly romance, Shakespearepours his talent into demonstrating that even though the world can be a dark, sad, cruel place, a playful lightheartedness and consummate love is possible.  There is still great cause for hope.

Recommended Reading:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

As You Like It

Much Ado About Nothing

Twelfth Night, or What you Will

A Million Miles…To Where?

If Donald Miller does something well, it is the provocative marketing of storytelling. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years displays Miller’s roundabout style of making insights by emphasizing the power of personal narratives.  Both punchy and meandering, the book demonstrates that which it demands of the reader: the cultivation of a life that tells a story. Using basic narrative theory as an organizational structure, Miller recounts his own journey from a near-fatalism/nihilism to a place of understanding life’s meaning; he establishes a foundation of meaning in the human capacity to make stories, to bring forth, in some small way, something where there was previously nothing.

There is nothing new in Miller’s opinions about story-telling, nor in his application of storytelling techniques to make sense of life. What makes A Million Miles so popular is Miller’s sexy use of language. His brilliance is in his ability to talk about an idea in a way that makes us say, “Huh, why had I never thought of it like that before?” When we really sit and think about it, Miller’s ideas are rudimentary. Anyone who has allowed an adventure, a romance, or a story to actively change their lives has practiced Miller’s program. A Million Miles is successful because it employs a personal story, essentially an extended anecdote, to prescribe what we are already practicing on some level. Far from undermining the merits of the book, the ability speak plainly is a difficult task, and Miller’s capacity for straight-talk is a credit to him as a writer. His straitght-forward prose provokes us, in an accessible manner, to focus on parts of our own life-story that sometimes get relegated to our peripheral vision.

Yet not all is well in Miller-Land. Despite the auspices of being a personal narrative, Miller’s observations take on wider implications as they indict the everyday Christian’s lifestyle by diagnosing boredom as a prime cause of unhappiness. Given the wild popularity of Miller’s book, I suppose there is some truth to his claims. The danger, however, is in the romance of extremism that seeps from the pages. Miller appeals to a benevolent escapism, a type of leaving behind your boring, typical life. Some things should be left behind, but in Miller’s narrative we find a character who bounces back and forth between extremes in attempts to find himself. The actual finding of himself (which comes very late into the book) is surprisingly peripheral; rather, it is in the process of finding himself that Miller locates meaning.  Miller even makes a point of saying that the beginning and the end of a story are not nearly as important as the middle, the phase of transformation. This is the root of his romance of extremism: Miller employs disproportional fluctuation to escape unfulfillment. In narrative, resolution is about synthesizing extremes, so it is unclear how a person in such a state of flux can avoid merely jumping back and forth between them.

Herein lays the danger of A Million Miles: It is an incomplete version of Catcher in the Rye with a Christian veneer on it, wielding narrative tools to get people to change their lives. Miller exhorts us to move from boredom to excitement, but the lack of a comprehensive idea of what either of these terms means opens the door for even more dissatisfaction, as people bounce back and forth between abstractions.  Let’s be very clear: the process of transformation described in Miller’s book is not a bad thing. Story depends on it. Our growth as human beings depends in part on the changes that occur in our lives. Miller’s book becomes dangerous where it favors flux over resolution. It borders on being change for its own sake, which is an open door to the destabilization of personal identity. In short, Miller’s prescription risks a side-effect that may be worse than the original condition: one may go from being unfulfilled to being personally unrecognizable.

Miller’s book functions in its ability to reveal a latent beauty in our lives. Even so, everyday Christians should take caution against readily adding Miller’s method to their own life stories. Although there is a sort of sexiness to those ideas which are edgy, forthcoming, or in the common parlance, authentic, there is a perilous instability to these ideas. This does not mean that Miller’s book should not be read, only that it must be read with a careful eye for subtle messages and the maturity to entertain these ideas without immediately applying them.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years exhorts us to a life of simple beauty, and a quiet peril.

A Dream That Tells The Truth: Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland offers a fanciful study in dreaming that provokes the question of whether Wonderland is merely a dream from which we may at any time awaken. What makes the film great, though, is the follow-up question as to whether it being a dream even matters. At its core, Alice in Wonderland provokes us to consider a dream that tells the truth.
“Curious-er and curious-er:” This is the heartbeat of life in Wonderland. At the outset of her foray into this strange world, Alice is obliged to contemplate her powers of observation, to question whether what she is seeing is real or just a figment of her imagination. Alice is quickly drawn into the curious nature of her environment, which to her is uncanny, like something forgotten and yet remembered, something foreign and yet revelatory. The Mad Hatter helps us resolve these paradoxes when he says to Alice, “Well, if I’m part of your dream, and I’m half mad, that means that you must be half-mad to have dreamt me up!” In this we come to understand that Wonderland is a dream that tells Alice something true about herself. The path to this self-knowledge, however, is perilous, and the film does not equivocate in expressing Alice’s risk of losing herself in the dream. Even so, Alice—and the viewerare exhorted to find their “muchness,” or a courage of imagination, and to be willing to dream nonetheless.

One of the more fascinating themes of the film, and the culmination of the dream motif, is in the “Oraculum,” a scroll that shows what will happen during each day of Wonderland, past, present, and future. The Oraculum is fascinating because of its allusion to a long-standing tradition of dream-theory. In the middle ages, a philosopher named Macrobius wrote a treatise about dreams, categorizing them according to their varying characteristics. One such category was termed “Oraculum”—from the same roots as our term ‘oracle’—and referred to a dream that tells accurate information of the future. As such, when the film refers to this idea, it is making the provocative claim to its modern audience that not all dreams are fictions. In the world of the film, prophecy is portrayed as a type of dreaming, but a dream that tells true things about the world.

A film that dwells so much on dreams would be incomplete if it didn’t include something about what it means to wake up. For Alice, the departure from Wonderland brings her back into ‘the real world.’ This is where the film is at its most profound. Alice takes what she has learned about herself and the world during her time in Wonderland and lets it meaningfully inform how she thinks and acts. It is in this that the film vindicates the fanciful and pays homage to the positive impact that wonder can have. Without spoiling the plot, the film ends with the sentiment that all the greatest people of history were dreamers, were half-mad, were willing to live with one foot in our world and one in Wonderland.

Alice in Wonderland is about how the imagination can tell us truth; it is a dream that shows us something real. It joins a respectable tradition of Christian thinkers who thought that our imaginations are a gift, something that can teach us and add to our joy. To put it simply, Alice in Wonderland helps us to practice wonderment, to see the seemingly impossible beauty in the world around us.

Reading As Conversation

Reading is a conversation. Reading a good book or a good poem is like talking with someone who has thought things through and has managed to come up with something that is really worth saying. Our reading practices should reflect that reality. Just because there is not a person sitting in front of us does not mean that we do not owe respect to a text. We should read charitably.

We often do poorly, though, at reading charitably. So often, it seems like people treat books like a careless mining corporation, looking upon a sylvan landscape and seeing only what might be exploited and treating the rest as expendable. What are some ways we do this? When we read a book and pull from it only what we agree with, what confirms our ideology, we are reading poorly. When we reduce a text to badly contextualized bullet points, a string of quotations that we can reductively affirm or discard, we are not reading, we are exploiting.

Reading a text with the intention of merely seeking what we want is a type of intellectual vivisection, carving apart something that has managed to survive the test of time (sometimes for centuries) and harvesting it. This needs to stop.

Instead, I propose that reading well is akin to listening well. And listening well means shutting up for a time and honestly considering what another is saying.

This does not mean that we should assent to every proposition made in a piece of literature. This does not mean that everything in a book or poem is good. It means that we should give the text ample opportunity to speak to us, to change our lives, if it is right that they do so. Yet even this step is skipping ahead. First, we must listen to the text. Because reading is not audible, we have to learn how to read with our eyes open. How can we do this well?

-Ask a lot of questions: Ask what the book or poem might be saying, and why the author chose to say those things in that way. Write your questions in the margins—books have margins for a reason!

-Write more observations than criticisms. Write what you think the book or poem might be saying, rather than what you are thinking about the text.

-Suspend disbelief for a time. Aristotle commented that it was the mark of a careful mind to be able to entertain an idea without immediately accepting or rejecting it. So, give the text the chance to persuade you. And watch out for presuppositions. If you have never read that particular book or poem before, you have no reason to think you know what it says. After all, it’s annoying to have a conversation with someone who thinks they’ve got you figured out before you’ve even said anything.

-Take the text as a whole. I can’t think of anyone who would want to be judged according to isolated soundbites, and it would be hypocritical to subject the words of another to that sort of treatment. Great books and poetry must be taken as a whole, their various components considered together, if a proper perception is to be formed.

Again, all of this should not suggest that we should buy into whatever we read. There are ideas roaming the pages of literature that can do us harm. But unless we read carefully—and charitably—we will wield our evaluative powers blindly. It borders on the absurd to say we agree or disagree before we have even heard what’s been said.

Let us not, in our haste to speak, fail to listen, and so say nothing well. ‘

The Death of the Talent Fairy: Why I’m Learning Calculus

It is an often-overlooked truth that a mathematician is a good friend to have. In my case, I happen to have a best friend who has dedicated years of his life to the study of mathematics. We make quite a pair, and there is a unique quality to our friendship in that our conversations often dwell on how the other might inform each field of study. Lately, though, our friendship has been focused toward the alleviation of a nagging conviction:

There is no reason why I should not learn Calculus.

Let me backtrack a bit. While writing my senior thesis, I came across John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. In the course of my reading, I came across the idea that education ought to accurately represent truth, and truth is known through a unity of all the sciences (science is used here to signify the study of some aspect of knowledge). In short, Newman argues that the quality of one’s view of truth is proportional to the quality of one’s exposure to the sciences and their relations. In other words, a person needs to study literature as well as mathematics. Otherwise, that person risks forming a disproportionate favoritism to the one over the other, and one field of knowledge usurps the rightful place of another, causing distortions to develop in one’s view of truth.

Quite struck by this idea, I quickly realized that my own education had tended toward favoritism of my major (English Literature) over all other areas. Following from this came the realization that I tended to favor knowledge from my own field to an immoderate extent, to the point of allowing it to impinge upon the territory of other sciences. I recognized my own attempts to use knowledge of literature to answer theological or psychological questions. Needless to say, this was a significant problem.

To return, then, to my glorious friendship with the mathematician, I have begun answering a pressing conviction that stems from my own disproportionate view of truth.

I am learning Calculus.

Given the present academic atmosphere—which tends to push students into specialization rather than generalization—expending efforts on areas that do not pertain to my field might appear to be a waste of energy. There is also the consideration of innate inclinations. I was told in high school that some people (like me) are naturally better at the humanities, whereas some are more inclined toward the hard sciences.

But if Newman is correct that truth is a unity accessed through all the sciences, then specialization must be pursued with great caution. Otherwise, one risks allowing one field of knowledge to annex the rightful place of another, and one’s perception of truth is distorted. This also provides a reason to be cautious about only pursuing areas in which we are naturally inclined. In education, if we allow mere proclivity to govern what is to be learned, we mount the slippery slope of determining curricula based on perceived difficulty. In an article for Scriptorium Daily, Dr. Paul Spears writes,

People in general are not born with amazing intellectual or physical giftedness. I continually have to remind myself of this. Most individuals have to work very hard to attain the level of excellence that we admire. Our culture reinforces this belief about natural abilities with language of giftedness—as if some “talent fairy” is throwing around skills in a way that is totally random and completely outside of our power to obtain on our own.

This comment reinforces the point that we cannot allow our education to be determined by perceived inclinations. Sure, I might be better now at English scholarship than mathematics. Looking back, though, there was a distinct time when I was having a hard time with math, and someone told me that I was just built for something different. Believing them, I relegated math to the back-burner (working only hard enough to secure my grade) and pursued the humanities with gusto. I can find no reason for why I should not have been just as excellent at math, should I have clawed at it with ardor and sought extra help. Just so, I am convinced that when intellectual pursuits are difficult, when it seems like we have hit an academic wall, we must keep kicking at it until it breaks down.

The myth of the talent fairy must be retold in our imaginations. Otherwise, we run the risk of inhibiting the physics major from learning philosophy, the computer programmer from picking up the violin, or the business major from writing poetry. The fact that a mathematician and a literature student can have a meaningful intellectual discussion is proof that this idea is possible. There is no reason why a literature student should not learn advanced mathematics.

And so I’m learning Calculus.

A Word from our Higher Powers: The MLA Seventh Edition

There is hardly a student in the United States whose work remains wholly untouched by the influence of the Modern Language Association. Whether a fledgling upstart or a seasoned scholar, anyone doing academic work in the humanities has been guided through the massive collaborative effort of the MLA. Opinions about the MLA are as diverse as the organization itself, ranging from perceptions of it as a benevolent body to polemics seizing upon it as an intellectual monopoly.

It is impossible deny that the MLA’s contributions to modern academe are both palpable and far-reaching. Specifically, it is the MLA’s Handbook for Writers of Research Papers that serves as its primary mode of delivery. Recently, the MLA unveiled the seventh-edition of this resource, and contained in its preface is an epochal shift in the organization’s official stance on print media, one that carries implications for its future academic preeminence.

In this preface, David G. Nicholls, Director of Book Publications for the MLA, writes that “the MLA no longer recognizes a default medium and instead calls for listing the medium of publication in every entry in the list of works cited” (Nicholls xvii). This marks a landmark shift in the MLA’s position. With this official shift–accompanied by a web-based iteration of the handbook–the MLA is making strides toward ensuring both its relevance and practicability in an academic environment that is increasingly techno-centric.

The most immediate result of the MLA’s decision is that the status of non-print media has been bolstered. This move implicitly acknowledges the growing corpus of wisdom available in online and graphic resources. It is good news for information outlets like blogs or other digital publications, which have hitherto been regarded suspiciously. Given this official sanction, we may expect to see a flourishing of online academics, and thus a new richness to web-based information.

Optimism aside, however, there may also be more sinister implications to the MLA’s shift. Non-print media has become inexpressibly influential on a majority of students for whom the Handbook is designated. This policy-change may represent the MLA’s attempt to exert its already sizeable collaborative structure upon another major medium, thus expanding the borders of its academic empire.

It remains to be seen as to whether the MLA’s move is a vindication of new media or intellectual imperialism. What is clear, though, is that this shift in official stance regarding non-print media makes for an exciting opportunity for academics in the digital world, who have been given the chance to seize upon a bolstered respectability of medium. To what extent this prospect will pan out, time will tell. Meanwhile,



Nicholls, David. G. Preface. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers: Seventh Edition. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2009. xvii. Print.

Aren’t Choices Great!?: Check, Please by Robin Dembroff

In Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky famously asserts the unpredictability of human beings against the determinist dogmas of his contemporary philosophical moment. Over a century later, his sentiments have been reincarnated in Check, Please, a novella by Robin Dembroff, a junior of the Torrey Honors Institute and Biola University (available for download on Lulu: http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/check-please/7538386). Her work presents a retelling of Dante’s Inferno, as expressed through the narrative style of Kurt Vonnegut. Dembroff’s philosophical, theological, and social commentary reflects, proportionally, the ambition of her Florentine forerunner. Dembroff’s emphasis, however, is highlighted in the recurring motif concerning the substance and consequences of free will as expressed through her contemporized iteration of hell and compounded by a penetrating narrative style.

The story centers on Nimai Tarrish (Tawr-ish, not Tare-ish), a student at the midpoint of her undergraduate life at UCLA. The reader first encounters Nimai at the outset of her venture into the dark, Oregonian woods. A sudden car accident quickly initiates Nimai’s ensuing entrance into the Dantean narrative. She meets Dante, who serves as her guide into hell, or the American Nightmare as it is known, an infernal parody of the American Dream. In the spirit of Dante’s Inferno, Nimai treks through the various sublevels of the Nightmare, eventually ending up in the pristine executive suite of Satana, wherein the accrued lessons of Nimai’s experiences are put to the final and cruelest examination.

One might attribute the affective power of Check, Please to its poignant narrative style. In the spirit of Kurt Vonnegut, the prose attempts to establish a narrative rhythm, leading the reader along at a disarmingly smooth pace before building into piercing crescendos of meaning. This style reflects the internal condition of the protagonist, who moves from a rhythm of complacent sarcasm into climactic moments of self-knowledge. Using a technique that places her style somewhere between a medieval morality play and the film Fight Club, Dembroff embeds pointed observations or reflections throughout the narration. “More is less,” says the narrator in the circle of wrath. Statements like this do not so much advance the narrative in terms of plot, but rather create dilation within the discourse, a moment of suspension of progress that provides the reader with both the time and tools for contemplating the section that he or she has just traversed. As such, though the novella is brief in terms of pages, its keen and precise declarations provide opportunity for expansive meditation.

Dembroff’s narrative prowess, however, ubiquitously serves the end of emphasizing the import of human choices and their consequences. Founded on a schema of distributive justice, the American Nightmare is organized so that people are assigned to the area that best serves the ends towards which their souls’ dispositions were aimed. In other words, people get exactly that for which they were searching. As Eliot puts it, “the end was beyond what you figured;” you get what you choose. Continually reinforcing this powerful theme are the words of Dante: “Aren’t choices great?” Nimai’s answer to this question changes as the story progresses, and this development helps to clarify the ways in which she is changed as a result of her infernal journey. While she starts with the opinion that “choices are the human contribution to damnation,” there is a shift, and by the end finds that the ability to choose, the acknowledgement that “I can still hope to turn,” is that which saves her.

While there are many topics addressed in Check, Please, it is not a book of answers, but rather a vindication of asking good questions. This, again, reflects the theme of choices. One must not stagnate, one must continue ever further up and further in. The souls in the Nightmare did not get there because of wrath or lust, per se. Rather, it was that very loss of hope to turn. “Ask and it is given/ Promise ever kept” reads the doorway to hell, and it leaves one to wonder whether in a world wherein people get what they ask for, if it is not asking for the wrong thing, but failing to keep trying to ask for the best thing that leads one to the Nightmare. “How could they have come to the right questions?” Nimai asks. “By asking,” replies Dante. It is from this sentiment that Check, Please exhorts the reader, despite the difficulty, to pursue the path of intrepid curiosity.

Aren’t choices great? Check, Please inspires within us a genuine assent.