3 Minute Theologian

Words about God and Life for the Attention Deficit Generation

Bullets and Dancing

This is lovely.

Clive James, the poet, critic, novelist, was diagnosed with terminal cancer (leukaemia) in 2010. In 2015 he published what was advertised as his final book, a collection of poems called Sentenced to Life. It was very well received.

Unaccountably, he is still alive, and it has just been announced that he will publish another book of poems in May. In an interview with The Guardian today he said, about the slow progress of his cancer:

“I felt like I’d dodged a bullet, and when you’re dodging a bullet the best thing you can do is turn it into a dance.”

Isn’t that great?

Best ever reason for not writing

Who would’ve thought that John of the Cross could’ve turned neglect in communication into a spiritual lesson?

To the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of Beas, from Granada, November 22, 1587

…My failure to write to you was not due to any unwillingness, for indeed I desire your great good, but to my belief that enough has already been said and written for doing that which is important; and that what is wanting, if anything is wanting, is not writing or speaking—rather these usually superabound—but silence and work. Furthermore, speaking distracts one, while silence and work recollects and strengthens the spirit. Once a person knows what has been told him for his benefit, he no longer needs to hear or speak, but to put it into practice, silently and carefully and in humility and charity and contempt of self. He must not then go in search of new things that serve only to satisfy the appetite outwardly—although they are not able to satisfy it—and leave the spirit weak and empty without interior virtue.

My silence was so that you might learn wisdom (<= my new Twitter strapline!)

Letter 7, Saint John of the Cross, Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, ed. Kieran Kavanaugh, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1973), pp. 688-689

The immense parlez-vous of American government

In the early summer of 1941, John Maynard Keynes was sent by Churchill to negotiate with the American government the developing terms of the Lend-Lease agreement between Britain and the USA. The war was not going well for Britain at the time, and money was short. It wasn’t helped by American insistence on Britain selling UK-owned assets held in America, to American businesses, at knock-down prices. The American government, especially under the suspicious leadership of Henry Morgenthau, secretary to the Treasury, wanted Britain to continue fighting the war, but not be in any position to use American aid or money to rebuild economic capacity for after the war.

 

Morgenthau and Keynes at the later Bretton Woods Conference, 1994 (Morgenthau uncharacteristically using a bit of paper)

With this unstated aim, the Washington system of government proved to be an absolute asset. Keynes, bewildered by his need to negotiate simultaneously with three different officials, four different departments, and 23 separate political players, spent much, much longer in Washington that he expected (he said in a letter to a friend after his return to England “I always regard a visit [to the USA] as in the nature of a serious illness to be followed by convalescence.”1. Keynes wanted to brief his employers, so on 2 June 1941 he wrote a long letter to Kingsley Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the middle of advising Wood about the status and content of negotiations, he warned that the American way of doing things would hamper his efforts:

The other main criticism which must strike one’s attention here relates to the organs of government. To the outsider it looks almost incredibly inefficient. One wonders how decisions are ever reached at all. There is no clear hierarchy of authority. The different departments of the Government criticise one another in public and produce rival programmes. There is perpetual internecine warfare between prominent personalities. Individuals rise and fall in general esteem with bewildering rapidity. New groupings of administrative power and influence spring up every day. Members of the so-called Cabinet make public speeches containing urgent proposals which are not agreed as part of the Government policy. In the higher ranges of government no work ever seems to be done on paper; no decisions are recorded on paper; no-one seems to read a document and no-one ever answers a communication in writing. Nothing is ever settled in principle. There is just endless debate and sitting around. But this, I suppose, is their characteristic method. Suddenly some drastic, clear-cut decision is reached, by what process one cannot understand, and all the talk seems to have gone for nothing, being the fifth wheel to the coach, the ultimate decision appearing to be largely independent of the immense parlez-vous, responsible and irresponsible, which has preceded it.

…I have already stayed here longer than I intended. But things move very slowly owing to the dissipation of authority, the reluctance to settle anything in principle and the fact that all important matters are conducted orally. But I am still hoping that another fortnight will see me through—for better or worse.2

Any further comment necessary?

  1. Keynes Papers (Personal Papers/80/9): letter to P. A. S. Hadley, 10 September 1941 []
  2. John Maynard Keynes, ‘Letter to Sir Kingsley Wood, 2 June 1941’, in The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, ed by. D. E. Moggridge, vol. 23: Activities 1940-1943, External War Finance, 30 vols. (London; New York: Macmillan; Cambridge University Press, 1979), 103–113. Emphasis added. []

Alternative Facts and the “Reality-Based” Community

The Unreality-Based Community

The Unreality-Based Community

Trump is inaugurated and the sparsity of the crowds, in comparison with recent inaugurations, is noted. The next day, Trump’s Press Secretary delivers a 5 minute angry vituperation to the assembled press corps in the White House Briefing Room, in which he asserts both that no one can know the true numbers that were present and also that “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period.” The day after, Trump aide Kellyanne Conway tells NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday that Spicer had merely been offering “alternative facts.” The Guardian reports that this phrase “was received with widespread astonishment.”1 Why astonishment? It’s not as if this is anything new?

In 2004 Ron Suskind of The New York Times was told by an aide for the Bush White House:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

The disdain that the Bush staffer felt for the “all of you” is shown in the way he referred to the “reality-based community,” as if that were indicative of some moral failing.2

Again, why the surprise?

Siegfried Kracauer noted in 1947, that Totalitarianism meant what the description said: it was a totalizing approach to life. Nothing, nothing, was exempt from its desire and ability to rewrite what was not part of the narrative. Rather German Totalitarianism:

…endeavoured to supplant a reality based upon the acknowledgement of individual values. Since the Nazis aimed at totality, they could not be content with simply superseding this reality—the only reality deserving the name—by institutions of their own. If they had done so, the image of reality would not have been destroyed but merely banished; it might have continued to work in the sub-conscious mind, imperilling the principle of absolute leadership.3

As Chico Marx asks, in that classic movie of political suspicion, Duck Soup, “Well, who you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?”4

The answer that Kracauer and Conway both give us is that in this unreality-based brave new world, there is no real choice.

 


 

  1. Jon Swaine, ‘Donald Trump’s team defends ‘alternative facts’ after widespread protests,’ The Guardian, Monday 23 January 2017. []
  2. Ron Suskind, “Without a Doubt,” The New York Times (New York, October 17, 2004), sec. Magazine. []
  3. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947), p. 298. []
  4. Chico, and not Groucho as Jonathan Freedland mistakenly remembered in his comment piece in The Guardian this morning, before it was amended with a subclause correction. Perhaps it is an alternative fact that Groucho said it first? Jonathan Freedland, ‘Sean Spicer is a Groucho Marxist, asking us not to believe our own eyes‘ The Guardian, 23 January 2017 []

How to think (even when arguing)

Source: Wikipedia

Sometimes we need to sit down and think clearly what it is we think we are doing when we think. Then, as if to make the job harder, we need to think about how we express what it is we have thought. Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole attempted to do just that with The Art of Thinking, the first edition of which was published in 1662. Arnauld and Nicole were part of what has come to be known as the ‘Port Royal’ school, which included Pascal and Racine, and was named after the two religious foundations of that name in and around Paris, and which represented a resistance to the assumptions about education and knowledge prevalent in France in seventeenth-century (Arnauld, in particular, didn’t like the Jesuits, and the near-monopoly they had on education and French intellectual life).

A section in The Art of Thinking (which is sometimes also known as ‘Port-Royal Logic’, or plain old ‘Logic’) deals with the place of argument, disputations and contention. Significantly, Arnauld and Nicole place it within a wider argument about the dangers of “self-love” to clear and truthful thinking. Sometimes, we can be so caught up in proving that we are right that we neglect to see how much we have been seduced by ourselves, proving to ourselves that we are loved, even if it is only loved by ourselves.

I don’t know why I think this wise and pacific teaching about disputations should be so appealing today, of all days:

7. Malicious or envious contradictions may be to some extent distinguished from less objectionable disposition but one which produces similar faults of reasoning. This disposition is the spirit of contention, a disposition no less injurious to the mind than is self-love.

Disputes in general are not to be condemned. On the contrary, debates rightly used contribute more than anything else to our finding the truth and to our convincing others of this truth. An isolated mind examining a subject is often cold and languid; that it may be inspired and that its idea may be awakened, the mind needs a certain warmth. Often by the varied oppositions encountered we discover the obscurities of a position as well as the difficulties in convincing others of that position: and so debate gives an opportunity for both correction and clarification.

Helpful as debates are when rightly used and when not invaded by passion, yet they are dangerous when improperly used by persons who pride themselves on maintaining their own opinions at any cost and on contradicting all other opinions. Nothing can take us further from the truth nor plunge us more readily into error than a contentious disposition. Imperceptibly we become accustomed to find reasons for everything and yet to place ourselves above others’ reasons by never yielding to their force. Little by little we are led to hold nothing as certain and to confound truth with error by regarding both as equally probable. That a question is to be settled by discussion or that two philosophers agree is a rare thing indeed. Replies and rejoinders are always found, since the aim is to avoid not error but silence: To remain always in falsehood is believed less disgraceful than to admit a mistake.

Unless discipline has taught us perfect self-possession, we easily lose sight of the truth in disputes; no other activity so excites our passions. What vices have debates not awakened. says a celebrated author,  since they are nearly always governed by anger. We pass first into a hatred of the reason and then of the person. We learn to dispute only to contradict: Because each is busy contradicting and being contradicted, the fruit of the de­bate is the annihilation of truth. One goes to the east, another to the west; the principle is lost, the argument founders in cavil­ing. After an hour’s storm neither disputant knows what is being disputed. Some hold themselves above the dispute; others are incapable of entering into the dispute; and still others speak only beside the point in dispute. One seizes on a word or an analogy; another neither listens to nor at all understands what his opponent says, being so engaged with his own thoughts that he can follow only his own arguments. Others, conscious of their weakness, fear everything, reject everything, and either obscure the discussion from the start or else become obstinate and silent in the midst of the dispute, affecting a proud contempt or a stupidly modest disdain for contention. Some, provided only that they strike, do not care how they expose themselves; others choose their words and weigh their reasons. Still others rely on voice and lungs alone. Some end up opposing themselves, and others weary and bewilder everyone by their prefaces and useless digressions. Finally, some counter with abuse and trump up a quarrel to end a discussion in which they are suffering defeat. Such are the common vices of debates described ingeniously enough by this celebrated author, who, though he never knew the true grandeur of man, has nicely canvassed man’s defects. From this enumeration of the pitfalls of debate we see that de­bates could prove harmful to the mind. So, if debate is to be helpful, we must avoid these pitfalls ourselves as well as being careful not to follow others into the depths. We must see others wander without wandering ourselves, never losing sight of the end we ought to seek—the clarification of the truth under dis­cussion.

From Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, The Art of Thinking; Port-Royal Logic, ed. by James Dickoff and Patricia James, Library of Liberal Arts, 144 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964), pp.274-275

How we privilege the heroic loner

A Heroic Loner

I’m writing a book on silence, and the way in which those who are silent are both celebrated and reviled in our culture. One of the most important studies about the social effects of silence is Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s The Spiral of Silence1. In this book she examines the way in which majoritarian viewpoints work to eliminate the public expression of dissent, until it is even impossible to have private articulations of contrary view-points. She begins her book with a parable, based upon her viewing of a ballet, in Chicago, in the spring of 1980:

Somewhere, possibly in Italy, there is a small town with honest citizens and a count and a countess of local lineage. Outside of the town, in a castle on a hill, lives a strange man who has the oddest ideas. He never ceases to give people cause for amazement; perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that they are partly amazed and partly annoyed by him, while at all times keeping their distance.

One Sunday this man appears in town leading a unicorn by a chain. People can only shake their heads about him. A little later, however, the count and countess are also seen in town leading a unicorn by a chain. This is the signal for everyone in town to get a unicorn.

Another Sunday, the strange man in the castle suddenly appears with a gorgon. People ask him what has become of the unicorn. The man tells them he was tired of the unicorn and decided to pepper and grill him. Everyone is shocked. But when the count and the countess also appear with a gorgon, shocked surprise turns to envy, and all at once gorgons are the rage.

On the third Sunday, the man in the castle turns up with a manticore and tells the people the gorgon was slaughtered. At first the townsfolk are scandalized. But then everything follows the usual course: the count and the countess secretly dispose of their gorgon, the townsfolk follow suit, and all at once the manticore is in vogue.

Time passes; the strange man in the castle is not seen anymore. People are sure the manticore has been slaughtered too. The towns­people form a committee to put an end to these crimes and march on the castle. They enter the castle, but are brought up short by what they see. They find the strange man dying in the company of his three animals—the unicorn, the gorgon, and the manticore. The unicorn represents the dreams of his youth, the gorgon his middle age, and the manticore his old age.

The townspeople discarded his ideas as quickly as they had taken them up; they were just passing whims….We all take the poet’s side. …The poet represents our image of man as strong, indepen­dent, imaginative. And we are all familiar with the count and the countess—superficial trend-setters who have no ideas of their own but want to be leaders wherever they go. Those we despise most, however, are the people who go along with the crowd, first making fun of a person because he is different from them but then absorbing any new fashion and finally giving themselves the air of moral authority.

This is one point of view, and it is the way strange people from the castle, loners, artists, and scholars have always felt.2

Noelle-Neumann doesn’t feel that it necessarily the only point of view…

As long as we privilege the heroic loner, the outsider, the rebel, and at the same time, refuse to recognize our need to conform, and to make others conform, we will only see the point of view of strange people from the castle. Don’t the count, the countess, and the townspeople deserve to have their story listened to as well?

  1. Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion, Our Social Skin, 2nd ed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993) []
  2. Noelle-Neumann, Spiral of Silence, viii–ix. []

Adrian Gill’s Three-Act Farce

A. A. Gill died today, three weeks after announcing that he was living with, and dying from, multiple cancers. His colleagues, friends, and some enemies, are paying tribute to his personal kindness and his writing ability. I pray for him, and all his family.

As we prepare for Advent 3, and the world is full of ItFeelsABitLikeXmas hashtags, I thought I would reproduce this article he wrote for The Spectator in 1997, which I have treasured (and often preached on!) ever since then:

‘A Three-Act Farce’ by A. A. Gill (The Spectator, 8 November 1997, p 36)

The truth is that Christmas dinner is potentially the worst meal of the year, unless you are American, in which case Thanksgiving is worse. Convention, sentimentality and the Germans have contrived to invent a hybrid meal that flouts good taste, digestion and the resources of even a well-appointed kitchen. For a start, the modern turkey is a hideous bird. It doesn’t matter if it’s bronze, black, white, free-range or had a public school education, no amount of tricks and stuffings and handy one-to-ten tips is going to make it taste anything other than turkey. Then there are the 27 side dishes and bits and pieces that have to be produced with it: potatoes and sprouts and carrots and parsnips and chestnuts and sausages and bacon and bread sauce and cranberry sauce and gravy. And that is before you even get inside the bloody thing; then there’s more sausagemeat and sage and onion … No one, not even Keith Floyd, would invent that as a main dinner course from scratch. There are far too many strident flavours that contradict one another and the textures are all the same.

… The truth is that anyone who knows anything about cooking wouldn’t touch Christmas dinner with a ten-foot Christmas tree. That leaves the rest of you who gird your loins and get out of a warm bed at four in the morning to stick your hand up a cold, dead, bird’s bum and try to fit 27 pans onto four gas-rings. This is the worst bit about Christmas dinner: it’s cooked by people who don’t do anything more demanding in their kitchens than open a packet and throw the odd plate from Boxing Day to Hallowe’en, but come December suddenly decide to climb an epicurean Everest. And you don’t get a practice run — it’s not as if all these ingredients are familiar; they only come out once a year.

And yet and yet — even as I write this it rings hollow. Every year I say it’s going to be beef or pork or goose or venison or anything else followed by apple pie or trifle, but I know that when it actually comes to it I’ll lose my nerve and, just like the foolish folk who don’t know any better, I’ll be flogging round the shops on the 22nd looking for a bronze bird and a proper stilton and be up until three a.m. picking through currants, because if you eat anything else it’s just another day and Christmas isn’t just another day, it’s Christmas. …

There is one good thing about Christmas dinner and appalling mess and work and the people you have got to share it with; it proves that God has a sense of humour. I mean, who else’s deity would contrive to celebrate the holiest day of the way that way? Hindus get lentils, Muslims get fresh air; the Jews have boiled eggs in salt water. We Christians get a three-act farce where you have to wear a paper hat.

Actually there is one thing you should eat at Christmas; it’s the original fast food. It only takes a second but is harder to prepare for than anything: a sliver of unleavened bread and a sip of wine. Oddly in all the Christmas articles I’ve had to write, this is the first time I’ve thought to recommend it.

May he rest in peace, and rise to the glory of the Lord’s Table.

The Long and the Short of It

I came across this lovely little essay today, by Odell Shepard, professor of English at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, and later, Lieutenant Governor of the State. It is taken from a book of essays, The Joys of Forgetting: A Book of Bagatalles (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1928), pp211-217.


THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT

SOME people prefer the short sentence.

They think it sounds more honest than a long one.

Their ideal is a sentence blunt, direct, explosive.

A book appeared recently which contains nothing but short sentences. It was written by a famous American.

Reading this book is like jolting in a spring-less wagon over a corduroy road.

Some people like this kind of reading. It seems to wake them up.

Others do not like it at all. They would rather sleep than read that famous American. They think the short sentence too elementary. They say that it exaggerates, and also eliminates, too much.

They complain that it has no rhythm.

They prefer long sentences.

Whether it be that the prevailing practi­cality of the times in which we are now living has a tendency to make us somewhat impatient of and insensitive to those more delicate and more difficult graces of style which are attain­able only when writers approach their work in the mood of cultivated leisure and when readers also, in their turn, are not only able but willing to take time for enjoyment, to linger with delight upon the deft turning of this phrase and that as a connoisseur of wines pauses to savour each and every sip of an ancient Sauterne, and to listen for that total harmony of style which is to be heard only when a clause is finally closed and its rever­berations die away like the hum of some rich instrument, or whether it be that the pre­vailing and all but lethal influence of daily journalism has tended to abbreviate our periods and cut short our cadences so that he who commutes may read and the travelling sales­man, though a fool, may not err therein, or whether, finally, the reading public of our time—immensely greater in size than any other reading public that authors have ever before been called upon to address, and therefore, as we may surmise, somewhat less intelligent as a whole than the public of less democratic days—is no longer capable of understanding those elaborate patterns of words in which many divisions and sub-divisions mutually depend upon a single primary state­ment and all are closely knit together in one grammatical nexus, certain it is in any case that we may look far and wide, long and patiently, with the eyes of Argus or with the presbyopic vision of a professional proof­reader, in what passes for the literature of the last ten lustrums without encountering any single congregation of words brought together between capital letter and period that can stand for a moment in comparison with those intricate, enormous, sesquipedalian sentences that pour so voluminously down the pages of the younger Ruskin, gathering might and majesty and magniloquence as they flow, winding almost interminably on and down­ward with neither haste nor rest round many a comma, semi-colon, dash, and asterisk as though such a superfluous mark as a full stop had not yet been invented among the devices of punctuation, as though Time had been annulled and we were sitting down to read in some quiet ingle of Eternity, and as though the author had intended when he wrote them down that they should be read forth in the voice of Boanerges, son of thunder, or intoned by the lungs of Titans; for although those ample sentences of the leisurely old days give the reader some reason to expect, or at least to hope, now and then, that they are at last coming to an end, yet they never do quite come to an end, or almost never, but rather they delight in disappointing such premature expectations and in going on again with renewed vigour, just as Antxus of old was wont to double his strength whenever he touched with foot or hand or shoulder the reviving soil of his mother Earth, so that, having just grazed a full stop by the fraction of a hair as a skater does a hole in the ice, they move serenely on and out again past colons and semi-colons and dashes and asterisks and commas into a solemn grandeur of entirely unpunctuated print wherein the devoted reader loses for a season all notion of locality and all thought of time and merely floats in a blessed trance on and on from line to line with nothing whatever to guide him except the confident assurance that he is in the keeping of an excellent pilot who knows the channel and all its soundings by heart and who will bring him safely into port when he decides that the time has finally arrived for doing so but not a moment before that time arrives, he being a most leisurely and easy-going pilot who enjoys the river scenery far more than he, does the harbour that waits at the end of all, who loves to hear the knocking of little waves against the prow of his craft and the rustle of ,the wake behind, who takes a keen pleasure in the dip and sway of the deck beneath his tread and in all the subtle rhythms of a ship that answers to the swing of broken water, so that those who embark with him upon a sentence might almost be advised to bid farewell to their friends and to wind up all their affairs, seeing that for a long time they must entrust themselves unreservedly to his guidance if they are to have a prosperous voyage, never offering to snatch the tiller from his experienced hand or betraying the slightest desire to land at any of the numberless piers and wharves he passes calmly by, contenting themselves with admiration of the consum­mate skill he shows in his steering, content with the knowledge that however bewildered they may grow on the lower reaches and wide­spreading estuaries of a sentence that widens slowly towards the close in masterly rallentando, he, their pilot, is never bewildered at all because he has clearly foreseen the end of his sentence in its beginning, has looked quite through from capital letter to period, from Alpha to Omega, and is keeping his alert and expert eye steadily fixed not only upon the channel ahead but also upon the chart of that channel which he has prepared afresh for this particular voyage—a fact which any patient reader may readily deduce from the certainty with which he steers his way among the multitude of shoals and bars that obstruct the current as well as from the observation that however interminable the sentence may seem to him, the reader, and however numerous or even wearying may seem its detours and ramifications and serpentine meanders, yet the meaning of that sentence is at every moment pellucidly clear so that a grammarian could parse it and a child could paraphrase its thought in a few words, although the gram­marian might possibly wish to break it up into a hundred or so of its component parts and the child might innocently wonder whether perhaps the printer whose ill-fortune it had been to set it up in print had not found at the last moment that his stock of periods was temporarily exhausted, the truth of the matter being, however, that the printer to whom that evil lot has fallen has still an ade­quate supply of periods in his font and that one of them will certainly be forthcoming when the younger Ruskin feels that the proper time for it has been reached, but until that time arrives—if we may now return to our metaphor—he, the pilot, must ask us to keep our metaphorical seats, to exercise a little patience, to remember how much more blessed it is to travel hopefully than to have arrived, to observe the excellent landscape through which we are passing all the time, and not to expect of an author that he do the work of a painter and a musician and an architect and a solo dancer all at once, as he, the younger Ruskin, is cheerfully prepared to do under the proper conditions, unless we are willing to give him a certain elbow-room, reposing in him meanwhile an unquestioning faith that the same man who has dared to lead us out upon this Odyssey of words will know how to get us home again and will bring us in due season, after wide and various wanderings, after show­ing us the wonders of the sky and earth and sea, after delighting our ears with volumed harmonies and blessing our eyes with deep expanses, will bring us, I say, at last—oh, at long last !—somewhat surprised and perhaps a little breathless, not hastily or abruptly, to be sure, but by gradual and easy approaches, like those of a yachtsman who prides himself as much upon his skill in landing as he does upon his sailorship on the open sea, to the end, the goal, the conclusion of his sentence, that is to say, to the full stop—in short, to the period.

Some people prefer short sentences.

Others prefer long ones.

On the whole, I prefer them neither very short nor very long.


Incidentally, the essay collection as one of the books August Courtauld had with him in his ice cap station, and he listed it as one of the books worth reading in his New Year Resolutions for 1931. Deliciously, given the title of the volume, he misremembered it as “The Art of Forgetting.”

“Other opinions are available…

…they’re wrong.”

Mary Beard skewers the Relativizing of Knowledge:

I am with Mr Banks in believing that academics dont have a monopoly of historical interpretation. But in order to have an interpretation worth listening to, you do actually have to know something. And , although it is hard to pin down which interpretation is right, there are some interpretations that are wrong.

5 Reasons Why ‘Arrival’ Doesn’t

Amy Adams, experiencing something profound

Amy Adams, experiencing something profound

I was really looking forward to it, especially after the Good Doctor™1 enthused so greatly about it. But, during and after seeing it last night, I realised that Arrival is a very poor piece of work indeed, and this is for five reasons, most of which involve spoilers2

  1. It is INERT. There is no dramatic progression. The movie just hangs there, like one of the aliens’ pebble space craft (seemingly carved out of larva). The major conflict, in the first half of the movie at least, is what is Forest Whitaker going to be able to say to his (clinical) supervision team? We are told that Louise and Ian (Adams and Renner) are brilliant people, but as alway in popular films, we never see them being brilliant, other than that beloved trope of Hollywood, the dawning realisation close-up. It is inert because it wants to trumpet that most impossible of sci-fi clichés, the wickedness of a linear understanding of time – and because all time, space, events are present, here and now, there is no engagement with an audience which is, unforgivably, sitting in a theatre and watching the movie spooling out chronologically, linearly.
  2. It is PSYCHOLOGICALLY UNBELIEVABLE. How does a human being deal with the psychological trauma of being able to see the whole of their life laid out before them, expect to be able to make choices, to get out of bed in the morning, to decide on whether to have coffee or pancakes for breakfast? If it has all happened, then nothing matters, and if nothing matters then what is the point of living? The only psychologically convincing response to such an experience is madness or annihilation.
  3. Louise Banks is notSTRONG FEMALE CHARACTER. She is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown right from the moment she arrives in Montana – we can tell this because of her furrowed brow and her stumbling walking. This is a woman in crisis. And she is both the only woman and the only person in crisis. Jeremy Renner is reduced to being concerned, good natured, and aw-shucks in the background. It is Louise who has the intuitive (feminine?) break-through as to the nature of the aliens’ language and thought-processes, and she does that by being semi-hysterical for 3/4 of the movie. And if language rewires brains, why is she the only one given eldritch insight into the future? Dr Ian seems to be as adept in interpreting the logograms as she is, so why doesn’t he have an insight? Oh, that’s right he does: that Louise (as a woman to fall in love with) is more interesting and significant than alien encounters – first contact becomes the background and means to hooking up, the world’s most expensive Match.com encounter.
  4. Unforgivably, it is another example of KILLING OFF A CHILD TO VINDICATE AN ADULT. Louise’s daughter dies in the first five minutes of the film, and then grows, and is cute, and says portentous things, and dies, over and over again through the movies. It is an egregious example of the Plot Moppet trope, the child that only exists to propel the plot (such as it is in this film) and to “grow” the adult protagonists (see also Nic Cage’s execrable film Family Man.). And calling the girl “Hannah” to flag up and justify the time-scheme? Really, why didn’t they just call her “Visual Aid No. 1”?

Finally,

  1.  (See what I did there?) It tells us that the UNIVERSE IS ALL ABOUT HOW WE FEEL ABOUT OURSELVES. It doesn’t tell us anything new compared with the (not so) great sci-fi films of the past: Solaris (both versions) or  Contact or The Day The Earth Stood Still. Aliens come from out of a clear blue sky, and humanity, forced to work together, overcome all divisions, until, in this instance, the Chairman (?) of the People’s Liberation Army gets to whisper sweet nothings in Amy Adams’s ear. If Contact was the rearrangement of the cosmos to deal with Jodie Foster’s daddy issues, and Interstellar was The Railway Children in space, then Arrival is daughter issues over a static, furrowed and frankly unengaging hour and a half of cruelly chronological time.

Sigh. When will we get another sci-fi film that really does deal with what might be, rather than ways we can feel better about ourselves and our choices?


 

  1. of the BBC’s Flagship Film Programme []
  2. “He’s a girl, she’s a bloke, it’s a sledge, he’s a ghost” – come on, the spoilers in this film are flagged in the first voice-over narration! []
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