Not All Roads Lead Home

 

In truth, all through the haunted forest there could be nothing more frightful than the figure of Goodman Brown.

Beside the Technicolor fantasy of a quartet of characters leaving their homes and going into a foreboding forest to gain what they think they are lacking from a wizard (see my previous post), there is another tale of a young man doing just the same. And though there is no wizard or fear of lions and tigers and bears in this tale, there is, “What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!”. Both stories, it seems to me, are about journeys into the dark side, the nocturnal forest in this tale, looking for an esoteric mystical experience that will supply what they are missing out on. But those who covenant to journey into the forest, and the deepest darkest part of it, end up disillusioned and faithless.

Often, especially in our youth, we begin to question the religious beliefs and worldviews of our families, of our mentors and of those around us. We see hypocrisy around us and despise it and yet become two-faced in our own sought out experiences wrought in the dark. We then begin to take on ambivalence about evil, giving ourselves the ‘grace’ to operate in both good and evil ways. Moral relativism is that form of grace.

We tell ourselves that there are people who are restrictive, conservative and Puritanical. We tell ourselves that we have become too worldly-wise to be like them: “I have Jesus so I am above all that out-of-date fundamentalism”. So, we journey in the dark forest and into the deepest darkest part of the forest and think ourselves to be impervious to its ills.

We give ourselves permission to investigate the dark side. We say to ourselves “I will do it just one time. Why be left out?  Why not join the “communion of our race””? Thus, we journey into the night and encounter evil. And like Goodman Brown, we come home disillusioned, our faith destroyed.

Young Goodman Brown sets out one night to gain existential insight into who (or what) is good and evil in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 short story by the same name. The story, set in 17th century Puritan New England, operates within the Puritan context of sin, grace and unconditional salvific election. I consider the tale an allegory, as it employs symbols starting with the names Goodman and Faith.

In the tale before us, Goodman Brown leaves his saintly wife Faith at the threshold of their home. She is wearing a pink ribbon on her cap. The pink ribbon, mentioned throughout, I read as a symbol of the admixture of purity (white) and sin (red). The color speaks to Goodman Brown’s spiritual understanding based on his Puritan beliefs and also to his rose-colored romance-based naiveté about the nature of evil.

“Poor little Faith!” thought he, for his heart smote him. “What a wretch am I to leave her on such an errand! She talks of dreams, too. Methought as she spoke there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done tonight. But no, no; ‘t would kill her to think it. Well, she’s a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven.”

With this excellent resolve for the future, Goodman Brown felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose. He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind. It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude.

As Goodman sets out, he does so under the cover of night and the cover of assumption: as a Puritan, Goodman Brown considers himself one of the elect. He carries with him a Puritan/Calvinist ‘good hands’ insurance card – the doctrine of predestination. He doesn’t leave home without it. And, as you read above, Goodman assumes that his association with the right people – his wife Faith in particular and the town’s good church folk in general – that he will follow them to the heavenly home. Goodman Brown goes out into the portentous night feeling safe and secure from all alarms. But his predetermined confidence quickly melts away as soon as he steps into the mysterious dark woods.

He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind. It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude.

Goodman’s first encounter in the woods is an old man who reminds him of his goodly grandfather. The old man appears to be waiting for Goodman. He says, “You are late, Goodman Brown.” Goodman replies “Faith kept me back awhile”.

Though the old man appears similar to Brown in many pedestrian ways the old man also appears to have “an indescribable air of one who knew the world”. And there’s something else Goodman notices and tries to explain away.

But the only thing about him that could be fixed upon as remarkable was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent. This, of course, must have been an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.

It is clear to the reader that the old man is the devil who is supported by the serpent staff, He does his best to entice Goodman Brown down the road to what is later called “the communion of your race” where he will learn of the “secret deeds” of his fellow townsfolk and see hypocrisy countenanced.

Goodman balks, claiming to be one of a breed of men who is above the riff-raff.

“Too far! too far!” exclaimed the goodman, unconsciously resuming his walk. “My father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him. We have been a race of honest men and good Christians since the days of the martyrs; and shall I be the first of the name of Brown that ever took this path and kept—”

Goodman’s journey away from faith is stop and go as wrestles with the temptation of going on. He encounters something he initially resists and uses the honor of his good name and of those before him as a reason to rethink things before giving on to going on. But, he doesn’t use his faith as a shield and so bends in to temptation. He continues his journey with the old man’s urging.

The old man tries to persuade Goodman to get up and continue. He does so by using Goodman’s own argument. The old man conjures up a kinship with men like Goodman. He lies about having personal knowledge and acquaintance of Goodman’s family. He then speaks of townsfolk – deacons and those in power – as personal references. He cajoles Goodman to continue their ‘association’ by journeying on.

Goodman Brown once considered himself impervious to all the devil’s wiles. After all he was one of the elect and associated with the right people. But each step he took in the wrong direction away from faith weakened his resolve. His compromises were reinforced by his inordinate curiosity. He continues his journey into the deepest darkest part of the forest and sees what the “communion of our race” so desires, “that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were sinners abashed”.

 

There are several interpretations and critiques of the story. Some will say that Hawthorne is pointing out the hypocrisy of a society that prides itself on its high moral and civic standing and makes outcasts of those who do not live up to its standards. Other interpreters go out on a dark forest limb with their construal:

Modern critics have interpreted “Young Goodman Brown” in many ways. The story as a critique of society stands out to some. To psychologically inclined readers, Brown journeys into the psyche. The village represents the superego, whereas the forest and darkness become equivalents of the Freudian id. The entire story becomes a portrait of one human mind that discovers the usually suppressed and disquieting reality of animal instinct

The story’s symbols lend its meaning to a wide audience and to many interpretations. As you read it you will have your own takeaway. I consider it an allegory or parable about assumptions, hypocrisy and the lure of evil to pull one away from one’s home base of faith toward the “reality of animal instincts”.

The story doesn’t tell us Brown’s motives other than “present evil purpose” Conjecture would lead us to think that young Goodman Brown had become questioning about evil and the devil even though he lived surrounded by strict warnings against both in Puritan village. One gets the sense that Brown goes out by himself to just stick his nose in on evil for the sake of understanding the world he lives in and perhaps the fear of evil inculcated in him by his upbringing.

 

I have provided some of my take on Young Goodman Brown and some excerpts from the story with the hope that you will read the short story (it should take about fifteen minutes). I invite you to consider what road you are taking when you want to stick your nose in on evil. Consider where it leads and what you will encounter. And, where it will lead you. This road does not lead home.

We are told in Scripture to “test the spirits” so that we may know what is good and true and from God. That is not what is going on in Young Goodman Brown. Rather, this a young man who leaves faith behind and takes a walk on the wild side and ends up at a satanic ritual. His road did not lead back home to faith. It led to nihilism and despair and the resolve to no longer exist.

In truth, all through the haunted forest there could be nothing more frightful than the figure of Goodman Brown. On he flew among the black pines, brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures, now giving vent to an inspiration of horrid blasphemy, and now shouting forth such laughter as set all the echoes of the forest laughing like demons around him. The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man. Thus sped the demoniac on his course, until…

 

 

 

Here is a link to the story: Young Goodman Brown

One is Not the Loneliest Number When Divided by Two

 

“When so many are lonely as seem to be lonely, it would be inexcusably selfish to be lonely alone.” Tennessee Williams

 

“…guys like us, that work on ranches are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong to no place”-George Milton, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men

 

“Social dislocation can easily breed a reactionary form of nostalgia.” ― Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone

 

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” ~David Bowie

 

~~~

If the recent movies Revenant and Martian are any indication, the topic of man alone requires your attention. Such red-in-tooth-and-claw-and-planet-solo-man left-behind-against-tremendous-odds loneliness reminds me of each New Year’s social landscape just ahead of me.

I have encountered bouts of loneliness during my many years. These bouts have occurred during extended business trips across the globe and even at home within relationships. During such times and now as I live alone, I find myself talking to myself, interrupting solitude with human voice accompaniment. (Sorry Henry the parrolet, your tiny voice doesn’t supply the needed effect.)  Henry the Parrolet

Loneliness, like the universal force of gravity, pulls down on our demeanor and our hopes. This has been so since first man Adam.  God spoke to the condition: “It is not good for man to be alone.” And modern man is no different. He wants to be “Liked” on Facebook. Our frowning loneliness beckons for someone to put a smile on our Facebook.

Accompanied by your imagination, written fiction I believe captures loneliness better than any in-your-face movie could ever do. So take a brief look with me at John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

The drifters of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men depict the loneliness of the dispossessed. Using a backdrop of the Depression era 1930s, jobless migrants, lonely people, as Steinbeck’s short novel reveals, find ways to deal with their loneliness. Most will try to find comfort in their situation. Lonely bindle bums carry their dreams with them from relationship to relationship.

of-mice-and-menLoneliness’ antidote, camaraderie, is also conveyed in the story Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck had a special appreciation for friendships. His empathy toward others and a life shared comes through in his writings as you will see if you should read this short novel.

Lonely people’s lives often intersect with others who are lonely, whether it is with a fellow laborer or a passing stranger. Several characters in the novella depict loneliness. Let’s look at two briefly: George Milton, a migrant farm worker, and Crooks, a stable hand.

The nagging loneliness George Milton deals with is due in large part, as he relates, to his constant travel in search of work. His relationships are subsequently transitory, except for one. Along the way George gains a travel companion, Lennie. But the caretaker relationship George has with his traveling partner also isolates George. Lennie is a mentally feeble adult who is unable to have an adult relationship with George. Lennie’s nature, as described elsewhere by Steinbeck (The Pastures of Heaven), is “one of those whom God has not quite finished.”

Loneliness makes strange bunk mates. In the beginning of chapter 3, Slim and George, both hired ranch hands, sit down in the bunk house. Slim, the ranch’s top skinner, notices the oddity of two men traveling together:

“Funny how you an’ him string along together.” It was Slim’s calm invitation to confidence.

“What’s funny about it?” George demanded defensively.

Oh, I dunno. Hardly none of the guys ever travel together. I hardly never seen two guys travel together. You know how the hands are, they just come in and get their bunk and work a month, and then quit and go out alone. Never seem to give a damn about nobody. It jus’ seems kinda funny a cuckoo like him and a smart guy like you traveling together.”

“He ain’t no cuckoo, said George…”

At this point George doesn’t go into Lennie’s recent troubled past which prompted both of them to run away from the “bad things” done in Weed. But while playing solitaire George does tell Slim his reason for his relationship with Lennie:

“I ain’t got no people. I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. That ain’t no good. They don’t have no fun. After a long time they get mean. They get wantin’ to fight all the time. . . ‘Course Lennie’s a God damn nuisance most of the time, but you get used to goin’ around with a guy an’ you can’t get rid of him”  

For George, Lennie is a make shift friend. Lennie, both a bane and blessing to George, is coming along for the ride. For now George’s dreams of a normal life are put on hold until he makes some cash. But his desire for friendship is not on hold.

~~~  OMAM

Let’s turn to Crooks. Crooks the African-American stable hand could be described as the loneliest man in this story. Though surrounded by fellow ranch hands he remains an outsider. Shunned by the rest of the ranch crew because of the color of his skin Crooks is told by them in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t belong with them. Because of this exile from the others Crooks is not able to establish a relationship with anyone.

Along comes trouble in a skirt. The bosses’ son Curly has a wife, who is also lonely. She, the jealous type, barges into Crooks’ private space looking for her husband. Crooks tells her she has no right to come into his private space. She then retorts her hostile insecurities toward Crooks. “Well keep your place then, Nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny.” Her words are meant to put him in his ‘place’, a place of social isolation.

220px-Mice_men_movieposter

Crooks, named for his crooked back, had been physically disjointed from the rest of the ranch hands. As an African-American Crooks is forced to bunk by himself. This isolation accounts for Crook’s consequent loneliness, bitterness and insecurities. As does Curly’s wife, Crooks directs his hostilities towards others and at someone in particular, someone who is even more isolated than him – Lennie.

Loneliness can bring out the worst in us. Crooks plays a mean joke on the dim witted Lennie by telling him that George is not coming back. But Crooks finally relents from his cruelness when he sees the pain he has caused Lennie.

The sense of the loneliness could become overwhelming for someone locked up in a prison or an asylum and exiled from one’s peers. In this story, Crooks returns to his books each night for companionship. One time he spoke of his deep loneliness to Lennie:

“S’pose you didn’t have nobody. S’pose you couldn’t go into the bunk house and play rummy ’cause you was black. How’d you like that? S’pose you had to sit out here an’ read books. Sure you could play horseshoes till it got dark, but then you got to read books. Books ain’t no good. A guy needs somebody-to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody. Don’t make no difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you. I tell ya, I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick.”

~~~of_mice_and_men

Each of the main characters in Of Mice and Men displays loneliness to some degree. Each carries with them a dream of some better life. Loneliness and dreams. They are everywhere present in Steinbeck’s Depression era story.

The storied relationships are shown to be transitory as with the “bindle bum” George or as non–existing as in the case of Crooks or as simply remembered.

Whit, a ranch hand, wonders if Slim remembers a friend who used to work together with them and whose letter was now posted in a recent magazine. “Do you remember Bill Tenner. He worked here three years ago?” This prompting by Whit shows that men in these situations don’t usually develop lasting relationships. As such they remain lonely, just remembering the past as a form of present comfort.

Steinbeck’s short novel conveys the sense of loneliness that can overtake any of us. In each of us there is that longing for companionship and a need to be known by someone and to know them. Overcoming loneliness and dreaming both require looking outside ourselves to what could be.

George and Crooks both expressed their negative feelings about loneliness. And, when they had a chance, they shared their tale of woe with someone or took comfort in some extraneity. As the story illustrates lonely people may seek solace in wine, women, playing cards, dreams, reading books and by petting live rabbits or dead mice or a satin dress. Our put-on-hold dreams are better shared, one could infer from the story.

The bindle bums and the vagabonds, the drifters, the isolated and the wishful – all of us – want to assuage our loneliness. One way or the other we will find a way to do this or, as Crooks reminds us, go nuts trying.

~~~

But little Mouse, you are not alone… the best laid plans of Mars and Men/Often go awry.

Ritual Meet Entropy: A Father’s Story

Andre Dubus

Ritual. During my train rides to and from work, I will read non-fiction on my way in to work and fiction on the way home. That has been my habit for the past seven years.

 For example:  Over the past couple of weeks I have been reading from N.T. Wright’s Kingdom New Testament and Leon Lederman’s & Christopher Hill’s Beyond the God Particle (Higgs boson, particle physics ‘stuff’) during the morning ride into work ~ it is a long haul. I am a ‘morning’ person so I can handle ‘deep thinking’ right out of the gate.

 During the same work days but on the flip side, and breaking with habit, I am reading an autobiography:  Taking the Stand, My Life in the Law, by Alan Dershowitz.  I’m doing this to catch up with all my recent book purchases.  More than this, though, Dershowitz’s life ~ “in the Law” was of special interest to me.  There are a lot of important legal issues being dealt with currently.

 Alan Dershowitz has impacted some of the court’s rulings over the course of his life’s passion ~ freedom of speech.  Much of his knowledge of the law was earned as a law clerk under some ‘heavy-weight’ judges and then later from working with the legal problems of various ‘famous’ or ‘infamous’ clients.

 But getting to the point of this post, ritual and law, the moral Truth of the New Testament and even the constants and space-time events of physics all play a part in a short story I want to recommend to you. The confluence of these interests coming from different directions goaded my desire to share it with you.

  The short story can be found in a compilation of short stories written by Andre Dubus.  The book’s simple and direct title:  Andre Dubus, Selected Stories.

I like the fact that Dubus writes with a definite masculine voice. His is not a macho voice but a male point of view you would get from a down-to-earth kind of guy. 

 On the other side of the aisle, another short story writer and a Nobel Prize winner in literature, Jill Munro, pens stories with a distinctly female voice.  I am reading her Dear Life collection of short stories on the weekends. But let’s get back to Dubus and the short story at hand.

When I read Andre Dubus’ A Father’s Story, I immediately empathized with the narrator, Luke Ripley. 

 Luke is divorced, single, and an empty nester with three sons and a daughter off somewhere else. Viscerally and literally Luke and I have a lot in common.

 His solitary life is lived in a ritual.  We soon learn of Luke’s morning habit of prayer while making his bed and then feeding his horses.  His evening ritual is that of sitting alone in the dark after dinner, smoking cigarettes and listening to operas.

  His morning habits also include seeing a priest ~ Father Paul Leboeuf, his best friend. Most mornings Luke rides one of his horses (he has a riding stable) over to church where Father Paul’s officiates.  There Luke hears the Mass and receives the Eucharist.  During the week the two men get together for a dinner meal.  With Father LeBeoeuf present and a can of beer in hand Luke verbally grieves his despair over losing his wife and his family.

 He talks about living through the difficult days after the divorce and what he believed ritual could have done for his marriage:

 “It is not hard to live through a day, if you can live through a moment.  What creates despair is the imagination, which pretends there is a future, and insists on predicting millions of moments, thousands of days, and so drains you that you cannot live the moment at hand.  That is what Father Paul told me in those first two years, on some bad nights when I believed I could not bear what I had to:  the most painful loss was my children, then the loss of Gloria, whom I still loved despite or maybe because of our long periods of sadness that rendered us helpless, so neither of us could break out of it to give a hand to the other.  Twelve years later I believe ritual would have healed us more quickly than the repetitious talks we had, perhaps even kept us healed. Marriages have lost that, and I wish I had known then what I what I know now, and we had performed certain acts together every day, no matter how we felt, and perhaps then we could have subordinated feeling to action, for surely that is the essence of love.  I know this from my distractions during Mass, and during everything else I do, so that my actions and my feelings are seldom one.  It does happen every day, but in proportion to everything else in the day, it is rare, like joy.

 At one point Luke tell us about the importance of ritual, having already told us that he is basically lazy person:

 “Do not think of me as a spiritual man whose every thought during those twenty-five minutes is at one with the words of the mass.  Each morning I try, each morning I fail, and I know that always I will be a creature who, looking at Father Paul and the altar, and uttering prayers, will be distracted by scrambled eggs, horses, the weather, and memories and daydreams that have nothing to do with the sacrament I am about to receive.  I can receive, though:  the Eucharist, and also, at Mass and at other times, moments and even minutes of contemplation. But I cannot achieve contemplation, as some can; and so, having to face and forgive my own failures, I have learned from them both the necessity and wonder of ritual.  For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love.”

 We also learn intimate details about Luke’s ethics when he ‘privately’ tells us what he thinks about giving to the church. And then later, even more specifically, we hear him talk to Father Paul about sex with Gloria, about his “actual physical and spiritual plan of practicing rhythm: nights of striking the mattress with a fist…”

 Later, Luke’s only daughter Jennifer is brought into the story.  It is at this point that Luke speaks about coming to terms with change: “It is Jennifer’s womanhood that renders me awkward.” 

 Jennifer has grown up.  He recounts how her ‘change’ affected the ‘ritual’ of memories he kept of her as his sheltered little girl at home. Jennifer has become an ‘unsheltered’ on-her-own twenty-one year old girl with a purse full of adult symbols including a driver’s license.

More change: the story then drives us off the road of ritual and into a deadly serious situation.  Luke, a father of a daughter, has to make a life-altering decision.  After his decision is made we find out if Luke returns to ritual, perhaps a ritual without the peace of mind that ritual had always supplied in the past?

 This is all I will share of A Father’s Story. It is best that you read it for yourself.  The story is here in PDF form so, you can read it on-line or you can print it out and read it…on the train.

***

After reading the story, come back here:

Along with empathizing with Luke on many levels and experiencing some of the same grief and despair that he experienced, I also reflected on the situation ethics that you meet head-on in the story.

 So, as an Anglican who practices ritual every week of my life and as a parent of three sons and a daughter and as a law-abiding citizen, after having read the story I had to ask myself serious questions, questions that you may ask yourself:

 -As a parent what would you do in this situation?

 -Ritual?  Can it lull and mollify us into a state of lethargy, into a ‘safe’ self-righteousness or even become a retreat that we run to from the ‘fear’ of doing what we know is right? Can ritual handle change, reality? Or, can ritual lead us to a higher contemplation of the Sovereign God, of love, of justice, to understand iuris praecepta sunt haec: honeste vivere, alterum non laedere, suum cuique tribuere “(translated: the precepts of law are these: to live honestly, to injure no one, [and] to give to each his own“.)

 -Jennifer:  was it cruel and unjust to everyone involved to let things ‘go on’ by not doing the ‘right thing’?

 -Would the scenario played out be as if were God testing Luke as he tested Abraham about using his son Isaac as a sacrifice?

 -In the end did Luke really just act out of laziness (laziness being the opposite of love) in order to maintain ritual ~ life as he knew it and wanted it to go on being ~ at all costs?

 “Ethics demands an infinite movement, it demands disclosure.  The aesthetic hero, then, can speak but will not.” Soren Kiergaard, Fear and trembling.  (The world of ethics demands disclosure and punishes hiddenness …)

 Please give me your feedback in comment section. Now where did I put that other book…?

Where Have All the Bookstores Gone…?

With the closing of the Borders book stores I am fearful that others will follow. I need my tactile book-in-hand fix.  Amazon doesn’t do it for me and neither do the one-dimensional Nooks or E-books. I need the book cover to flirt with me, the inside jacket to draw me in and the inky scent of words to intoxicate me. I always give a book a once-over during the courting process.

For many years now I have regularly shopped for books at my local Barnes & Noble. When I enter the store at 9:00 am every Saturday morning I love to see all the books before me waiting like a massive orchestra for its conductor. I greet each section and then the libretto starts.

On these days you would find me browsing, investigating, brooding and dilly-dallying to my heart’s content. I like the fact that there is nothing ‘E’ about my visit. It is up front and personal.  Mano y mano. I need to wrestle with the pages.

 My Barnes & Noble store stocks DVDs and Music CDs as well as a large assortment of books to choose from. If they shut this store I may need to go on life support due to a binding withdrawal.

http://www.wttw.com/chicagotonight/video/TVss9Rp4wAN0Gy7wtrOnEmDmT4JKKusY/

Nobel Prize in Literature 2010: Mario Vargas Llosa

“We would be worse than we are without the good books we read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist.  Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life.  When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute – the foundation of the human condition – and should be better.  We invent fictions in order to live somehow the many lives we would like to lead when we barely have one at our disposal.” [emphasis mine]

Quote from:

Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Lecture, given December 7th, 2010.

The Dragon Lady: Lisbeth Salander

I don’t normally read popular fiction. I’m usually affixed to books that contain older and more weathered fiction like Chekov, O’Connor, Hemingway, etc. or to science books such as “The Best American Science Writing of 2010”, “Once Upon Einstein” or” Calculus for Dummies”.

While reading “The Best American Science Writing of 2010” a fellow passenger on a daily commute suggested strongly that I read the Steig Larsson books: “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”. “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest”. I could tell that this gentleman was deeply engrossed in the books as were other passengers. The book covers showed up everywhere I looked. So, I decided to take a departure from my everyday route and read the books.

In short, I found the books story-telling engrossing.  Larsson is a good at weaving a multiplicity of detailed character threads to fashion an intriguing tale about a young woman, Lisbeth Salander, the story’s protagonist. The story basically tells how a diminutive tech savvy girl deals with overwhelming evil. Sadly, though, the story is not redemptive for any one, not for Lisbeth or the reader. 

The three books which make up  the Millennium Trilogy deal with evil using a cast of horrendous characters: unfeeling, misogynistic and murderous white men. This diabolical group includes Lisbeth’s monster of a father, her ‘Super-Race’ machine of a brother (literally unfeeling), an even more monstrous uncle and nephew, a state imposed guardian, an evil system hidden within the government and a horde of eastern European sex traders. Lisbeth, the super-hacker, is able to outsmart, outwit and out punch her opponents until she is free to live her life. That’s the best she can hope for in this story.

The Lisbeth character is a ‘modern’ woman in charge of her body. She has multiple piercings in a hardened outer shell. Her anti-social demeanor,possibly Asperger syndrome her former guardian speculates, keeps her aloof and people guessing as to what she is up to. She is a mysterious force to reckon with. A mystifying dragon lady with all odds stacked against her.

Yet, Lisbeth has feelings. There is a hard-drive of detached emotions operating under the cover of a hook-up sexuality. This dragon lady woman acts out with women because, we are lead to suppose, men have treated her so badly. We are led to feel sympathy for her ‘situation’ and to accept her choices whenever she beds down with women. Near the end of story, after she has dealt serious blows to the white men who have abused her she casually and discriminately hooks up with a married man who’s staying in the same hotel as she is. They have meaningless sex over several nights. Apparently, she has now taken charge of her sex life after the brutal rapes that incurred in her past. We learn of her excessive drinking and her own unchaste behavior to mollify her pain. She uses men like they have used her. This is not feminism. Rather it is unresolved anger, returning evil for evil. She is a woman disconnected from herself and her pain. Shes operates out of an existential ethic, creating her own values and meaning to life as she goes along.

How the books deal with evil shows the out working of the postmodern mind: intelligence wins the day; knowing how to ‘hack’ the system can be your salvation; evil is to be redirected any way it can; learn to outsmart evil and you’ll come out on top; don’t even bring God into the picture; we can save ourselves if we are smart enough, if we stay one step ahead of evil. (Think of the presumptive Wikileakers and Wikihackers.)

We also see a synthesis of good and evil in these books. The ends justify the means. The ‘good’ victim girl, Lisbeth, uses evil to deal with the evil doers. I won’t describe the details here.

Throughout the Millennium Trilogy there is a baseline desire to get to the bottom of the evil that has occurred and to expose it. Henrik Vanger, a retired industrialist begins the process. I do like the fact that along with a journalist and friend of Lisbeth, Mikael Bloomkist Henrik sought to ‘out’ the evil that’s been done to Lisbeth. That is a necessary step in dealing with evil. In our world during a recent televised newscast it is told that in the trial of Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapper and rapist, Elizabeth Smart takes the stand, faces her accuser and speaks out the evil that has been done to her. This confronting of evil is an absolute necessity for the victim, for the perpetrator and for those who have become aware of this horrible crime. It is absolutely necessary to bring to justice all of the evil doers. These acts, granted by God in the present, of bringing those to justice who have perpetrated evil are a precursor to the Final Judgement awaiting evil. Without giving away too much of the story, in the case of Lisbeth there is a trial where she faces those who have acted unjustly towards her. The truth about the crimes done to Lisbeth is revealed. Outing the information is not enough, though, for any type of redemptive closure. It is a good beginning, though.

The revelation of evil as perpetrated, in and of iteslf, is not enough to deal with the systemic evil that is inherent in man and man’s societies since Adam’s Fall. Neither is sheer will power, as Nietzsche would have us believe is necessary for survival. Evil has been dealt a death blow by the cross of Jesus Christ. Because of the cross, man can confront evil, name it for what it is, forgive the perpetrators and seek reconciliation and restoration. There is no mention of the cross in these books. One only sees man’s attempt to do battle with it in his own terms.

For the person who embraces the cross there is hope, whereas, the person who continues to battle evil with wile and strength may become stronger but, it will certainly bring them to the breaking point and to despair. In Lisbeth’s case, a large amount of money she had stolen from a ‘bad guys’ account became the restoration and succor for the evil that’s been done to her. In reality, though, money does not destroy the effects of evil. Money can become another master that controls us, perhaps to the point of doing evil. There is no solution to the problem of evil with a redistribution of wealth, despite what these books convey.

The art of story telling is excellent in Larsson’s books. But the story’s worldview is only worth the price of admission to view the postmodern mind trying to deal with evil using its form of “higher morality”.

Nietzsche: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” Lisbeth’s confrontation with evil throughout the books is met with her ever more wily approach to evil. Sadly, at the end of the story there is no message of hope or redemption. Evil is not overcome by good. There only remains the ‘inked’ vestige of a dragon – the Biblical symbol of the evil one.

(A note about the movies based on these books: The stories are based in Sweden. The movies are in Swedish. You can watch them with sub-titles. Also, the movies fast forward through the book. You would have to read the books to understand the myriad details supporting the story to make sense of it all. Finally, the story repeatedly deals with elements of evil:  brutal violence, rape, perverse sexuality and more.)

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“To triumph fully, evil needs two victories, not one. The first victory happens when an evil deed is perpetrated; the second victory, when evil is returned. After the first victory, evil would die if the second victory did not infuse it with new life.”

– Miroslav Volf
The End of Memory, Remembering Rightly In A Violent World

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Romans 12:21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

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“The only way to overcome evil is to let it run itself to a standstill because it does not find the resistance it is looking for. Resistance merely creates further evil and adds fuel to the flames. But when evil meets no opposition and encounters no obstacle but only patient endurance, its sting is drawn, and at last it meets an opponent which is more than its match.”

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

A Landscape With Dragons; Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture

Adjunct to a recent post about the education system reprogramming our children is Michael O’Brien’s book A Landscape With Dragons With the current culture shift toward paganism, O’Brien discusses how modern children’s literature and cinema re-symbolizes good and evil. The long-standing symbolism of dragons as personifications of evil are now shown to be docile creatures (one example,  Disney’s Pete’s Dragon) or as helpful creatures. This creates confusion for the child and, more dangerously, a synthesis of both good and evil is generated in the name  of ‘helping’ the story’s protagonist. In his book O’Brien says:

“A powerful falsehood is implanted in the young boy by heroes who are given knowledge of good and evil, given power over good and evil, who play with evil but are never corrupted by it.”

The book provides tools for parents to discern what is good and what is bad about children’s literature from a Christian perspective.  The last third of the book contains a list of good, nourishing literature for our children to read.

 

Landscape With Dragons was published before the Harry Potter series. O’Brien has since published a new book (May 2010) which takes on the occult world of Harry Potter: Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture .

In the Preface to Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture, O’Brien describes the spiritual nausea he experienced as began reading the Harry Potter books. He also describes his nightmares:

“…from the day I opened the first page and began to read, a cloud of darkness and dread descended, which was held at bay only by increased prayer. I also experienced nightmares of a kind I had never before experienced in my life. This is totally out of character for me since I am not prone to bad dreams, and usually years go by without me having one. I have had some frightening experiences in my life (far worse than reading a few questionable books) and never suffered a bad dream from it. But from the moment I began my little part in the resistance, I suffered from nightmares of unprecedented power.”

Langston Hughes – Being Old

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being Old

It’s because you are young–
You do not understand.
But we are old
As the jungle trees
That bloomed forever,
Old as the forgotten rivers
That flowed into the earth.

Surely we know what you do not know;
Joy of living,
Uselessness of things.

You are too young to understand yet.
Build another skyscraper
Touching the stars.

We sit with our backs against the tree
And watch skyscrapers tumble
And stars forget.
Solomon built a temple
And it must have fallen down.
It isn’t here now.

We know some things, being old,
You do not understand.

Langston Hughes