What Made the Harry Potter Books So Successful?

Severus-Snape-The-Half-Blood-Prince-severus-snape-7012501-1920-1080It’s been 10 years this summer since I read the first six Harry Potter books for the first time. I’ve spent much of the last 10 years reading literary criticism, folklore, mythology and famous works of literature that were an acknowledged influence on J. K. Rowling’s opus in the hopes of answering the question, “What made these books so successful?” So naturally at this point I have a lot of opinions, and today I share them with you. Continue reading

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We Need to Talk About Charisma

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Not long ago I watched the film We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), a bleak tragedy starring Tilda Swindon as a mom who suspects that her adolescent son has some serious behavioral and mental issues. Her husband shrugs it off, thinking it’s just a phase he’ll grow out of. She watches with an increasingly helpless feeling as he becomes more and more dangerous, ultimately shooting up his high school, and killing most of his family, with a bow-and-arrow set.

That’s how I’ve been feeling for much of the summer as I read CharismaNews.com every morning and scanned the comments. I understand that the magazine was once the flagship publication of the Charismatic / Pentecostal movement, and that there are still many sincere, good-hearted people who work there. This is not a judgment on them.

That being said, we need to address what Charisma is turning into. Something has gone dangerously awry inside the once-venerated institution. It is not healthy. It is not good. And, more and more, it is not safe.

First, as I read, I saw that many of the articles were beginning to sport sensational headlines that prominently targeted a hated group or individual and offered them up as rage-bait for Christian viewers:

“President Obama, You Have Crossed a Dangerous, Unprecedented Line.”

“Some Honest Questions for Professing ‘Gay Christians.’”

“Vicki Beeching and the Reason So Many ‘Christians’ are Coming Out as Gay.”

“A Shameful Day in Christian Publishing” (accompanied by a picture of young Evangelical author Matt Vines).

Second, based on the comments section it became clear that the site was attracting a toxic demographic: people who were willing to believe any slander, embrace any accusation, as long as it was directed at someone they were predisposed to hate. I watched them arguing with non-believers and less extreme Christians (who were invariably labeled “trolls” and “atheists” and told they were going to hell because the Bible says so). They were immune to reason, immune to all appeals for compassion, immune to any scriptures that contradicted their preferred narrative of fear and demonization.

Terrifyingly, their endless diatribes against—you name it: gays, blacks, refugee children, pop stars, Christian entertainers, Democrats, evolutionists, filmmakers, conservative pastors—were routinely interspersed with the insistence that their venomous hate speech was “loving” and “holy.” Love tells the truth. Love judges. Love hates what is evil. Etc., etc.

The following comment is typical:
PlantationAs is this one:
 Scary Posts 1
And, with a few exceptions, it felt like the broader Christian community was unaware of the evils being promoted and perpetuated at Charisma. But two things happened last week to change that.

First, the magazine ran an article with a shamelessly slanderous headline questioning the faith (and, by implication, the salvation) of Christian musician Michael Gungor. Gungor re-tweeted the headline, along with a plea for help:


Gungor

Following a public backlash, Charisma changed the headline (but kept the URL). Weirdly, the article itself barely mentions the divinity of Jesus.

And then on Friday—I don’t know how else to put this—it ran an article by Gary Cass, founder of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission, calling for the sterilization, deportation, and killing of all Muslims.

If you haven’t actually read the article, that’s going to sound like the same sort of gratuitous hyperbole that Charisma traffics in. It is not hyperbole. Cass begins by laying out the arguments for enforced sterilization and deportation. But these measures will not work, because according to the Bible “Arab Muslims are God’s sworn enemies and are ordained by God to be against everyone.” Muslims, he goes on to say, can never be saved in large numbers. They are doomed in their billions to perdition.

And what’s worse, they’re creating a hell on earth for Christian believers right now. “ISIS is doing . . . what every true follower of Muhammad wants to do to you and yours—subjugate or murder you. They believe they have been given a mandate by Allah (Satan) to dominate the world.”

Which is why, in the end, only his last solution will be effective:

3. Violence. The only thing that is biblical and that 1,400 years of history has shown to work is overwhelming Christian just war and overwhelming self defense . . . This is not irrational, but the loving thing we must do for our children and neighbors. First trust in God, then obtain a gun(s), learn to shoot, teach your kids the Christian doctrines of just war and self defense, create small cells of family and friends that you can rely on if some thing catastrophic happens and civil society suddenly melts down . . .

“Militant Muslims cannot live in a society based on Christian ideals of equality and liberty. They will always seek to harm us. Now the only question is how many more dead bodies will have to pile up at home and abroad before we crush the vicious seed of Ishmael in Jesus’ Name?”

 Where to begin?

 I’ve been holding my own emotions in check for much of this post because I wanted to be careful. Anger in the pursuit of justice can so easily turn us into the monsters we fight against. But this is not the kind of article that calls for a cautious response. A mainstream Christian publication, a magazine that hundreds of thousands of Christians read and respect, published a call for the killing of over a billion people. It was not subtle. It’s not like you had to read between the lines to realize the full horror of what he was advocating—he came right out and said it. You’d have to be in massive denial (as so many were in the comments) to not see that he was saying what he frankly and explicitly said.

And that scares me. Not just because my father was Muslim. But because, as an Irish-Pakistani-American with a bronze complexion, I don’t have any faith in the ability of Cass or his followers to distinguish between different groups of brown people.

Because, given his ignorance of the fact that only about 20 percent of the world’s Muslims are Arab, I wouldn’t expect Cass to know the difference between a radical Islamist, a Sikh, a Hindu, and a Palestinian Christian.

Because it would not stop at Muslims. Because the commenters who lapped up that article, who overwhelmingly applauded Cass’s call to violent action against their Muslim neighbors, like the crowd that demanded the death of Jesus, have already made clear that they have no tolerance for anyone who rejects their white fundamentalist culture and their extreme interpretation of Scripture. And a call for the death of all Muslims, printed on the front page of a widely-read Christian website, is a shot fired across the bow warning that none of the rest of us—Arabs and blacks, the university-educated, liberals, gays and lesbians, artists and entertainers, women, Catholics—are safe.

But in a way, I’m grateful. Because even though the post was taken down following a massive public outcry on Sunday afternoon, the murderous spirit that was already operating at Charisma, even before last Friday, has been openly manifest.

I’ve written before on this blog about the pyramid of violence. The thing we have to realize is that the mindsets that make genocide and other acts of violence possible are already in place before the call to violence is given. It begins on the lowest levels with name-calling, false accusations, slander, rumors, and verbal aggression. If you’re in a community where people are constantly shaming you, refusing to acknowledge your preferred identity (“You may think you’re gay, but we know better”), subjecting you to de-humanizing jokes and vicious insults, and refusing to listen when you tell them to stop, you are already in danger. You are being subjected to violence, even if no punches have yet been thrown.

And, as I’ve said before, if they’re already not listening when you tell them to stop verbally abusing you, if the Bible is already powerless to stop them, they will not listen when you’re insisting that you have a right not to be physically assaulted and murdered.

And that’s why Charisma is out of control, and that’s why it needs to be held to account.

Because “Why I am Absolutely Islamaphobic” was not an isolated column, but only the latest and most glaring manifestation of a much larger problem. “Malice eats it like a cancer,” in the words of Faramir, “and the cancer is growing.”

Because if you go back and read the snippets from the comments that I posted earlier, and the hundreds of comments in response to Cass’s article, it’s clear that the site has become a beacon for bullies and extremists, for those who don’t listen, those who despise anything “different” or “weird” and would not be averse to using violence to be rid of it.

I realize that Internet comboxes are often cesspools of hatred and villainy. But until this weekend I’d never seen a commenter advocate the mass extermination of millions of people. The fact that this idea was first given voice by one of the site’s writers, in an article apparently read, reviewed, and printed with the editor’s stamp of approval, says everything you need to know about how dangerous Charisma has become.

Of all the tweets I read on Sunday, this is the one that probably best expresses what I’ve been feeling these last couple of days:Natalie

Reading the Gospels would be a good start.

 

“If You’re Feeling Sinister”: A Look Back

if-youre-feeling-sinister-belle-sebastianIn 1995, Stuart Murdoch’s life did not seem to be moving anywhere fast. The twenty-seven-year old Scotsman had been suffering for upwards of six years from the effects of myalgic encephalomyelitis, better known as chronic fatigue syndrome. Because his condition made even playing on the piano an exhausting endeavor, he was unable to find work.

Living in Glasgow on public assistance, Murdoch joined “beat box,” a government program for the unemployed. He would later compare it to a “refugee camp for unemployed musicians.” The unemployed took a music training course and played music together. Once a month they were given access to a recording studio.

It was here that Murdoch first connected with the people who would form Belle & Sebastian; and it was here in the summer of 1996 that they recorded what are now widely regarded as two of the best albums of the 1990s, Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister.

Though the beloved indie band has covered a range of genres in their nearly twenty-year career, from folk to shoegaze to chamber pop, and has stylistically referenced bands as disparate as The Left Banke and The Smiths, the elegiac wistfulness of If You’re Feeling Sinister has become their defining sound. Even after they gained renewed critical acclaim and an unprecedented level of public attention with The Life Pursuit (2006), a collection of irresistibly danceable power-pop anthems, critics and long-time fans rightly pointed to their earliest work as their magnum opus.

Writing and recording twenty songs in the space of a few weeks would be a career-worthy accomplishment for any band. But Belle & Sebastian went a step further, crafting songs that seem to have been whispered out of the ether, songs that don’t so much seem to have been written as captured.

Take, for example, the Satie-like simplicity of “Fox in the Snow.” With piano, guitar, violin, and vibraphone, the band conjures up a serenely autumnal world in which soft-hearted youth have fallen on hard times. For me the special gift of Belle & Sebastian, my all-time favorite band, has always been its ability to evoke the rhythms and changes of the seasons, using lyrics and music to engage the senses so fully that it really feels as though the listener is standing on a wintry street corner in Edinburgh.

Fox in the snow

Where do you go

To find something you can eat?

Cause the word out on the street is

You are starving

If the lyrics are precious, they’re also devastatingly effective, compressing whole years of hope and despair and angst into the space of a few verses. “Fox in the Snow” showcases what would become one of Belle & Sebastian’s hallmarks, their knack for writing realistic, sharply observed character sketches about people who are young and lost and very much in over their heads.

Just prior to the recording of If You’re Feeling Sinister, Stuart had moved into a bachelor flat above a church. There he worked in the parish hall and sang in the choir in between writing songs for the album.

“I always wanted to write about normal people doing normal things,” he recalls in a Pitchfork documentary about the making of the album. “Because I wasn’t normal, I was out of the game. It was very attractive to me what normal people were doing.” So he set out to write songs about the “normal” folks he ran into in the streets and on the buses of Glasgow, though his own sly perceptiveness was always winking through, creating vividly eccentric figures who are instantly recognizable and yet somehow bigger than life: a track star who was driven to fame by the lure of getting to wear terry underwear; Hilary, who’s into S & M and Bible studies; Judy, who walks the streets dreaming of horses.

Of the ten songs on this album, the penultimate song, “Boy Done Wrong Again,” is the weakest, a slow sleeper that saps much of the energy from an otherwise rollicking back half. Like Tigermilk before it, the album begins in minimalistic fashion, with only the quiet plucking of strings to accompany Murdoch’s voice. But as “Stars of Track and Field” progresses, the rest of the band gradually joins in, adding new instrumentation (organ, trumpets) layer upon layer, building slowly and progressively to a powerful conclusion that promises good things to come. “Seeing Other People” is a near-perfect evocation of early morning and the ambivalence of two people trying to let go of each other but not being able to. “Me and the Major” explores the unbridgeable gaps between classes and generations with lyrics that are both spirited and resentful: “We’re the younger generation / We grew up fast / All the others did drugs / They’re taking it out on us.”

In terms of pure atmosphere, the next two songs are probably the album’s high point. “Like Dylan in the Movies” recalls Murdoch’s experience of having to walk through Kelvingrove Park, a shady Glasgow park. The combination of guitar, strings, and xylophone powerfully evokes a sense of the year ending, of autumn, and twilight. “Dylan” is followed by the wintry and underrated “Fox in the Snow.” The placement of these two songs on the album, and their musical kinship, seem to suggest that one is a continuation of the other. It’s worth listening to the two back to back.

“Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” is a light rocker about a naïve young man. Musically it’s as good as anything on the album, but the lyrics are achingly, almost embarrassingly sentimental. “I always cry at endings,” Murdoch sings, and then, as if already regretting this exercise in vulnerability, adds in the next verse, “Oh, that wasn’t what I meant to say at all.”

However, the shortcomings of this song are more than offset by the eerie brilliance of the one following. If You’re Feeling Sinister’s title track is also the album’s standout, with a backing track of children playing and enigmatic lyrics that have been variously explained as a satire of organized religion and the final thoughts of two people preparing to kill themselves.

 

Finally, “Mayfly” is a jangly guitar ballad in the style of The Byrds, while “Judy and the Dream of Horses” closes the album in high spirits with an almost pure distillation of pop craftsmanship.

Not satisfied with the production quality of the original recording, Belle & Sebastian recorded a live performance in 2005 for All Tomorrow’s Parties. It’s worth hearing just to assess the differences between the two recordings—in 1995, the band was young and unproven, while in 2005 it was one of the most successful indie rock bands in the world. But the original is the reason for their breakout success, and it remains the better version of their best album.

Hobby Lobby Holly & the Mystery of the Mirroring Selfies

gun-holly-700x884Holly Fisher, Twitter provocateur and wife of an army veteran, created a stir this weekend when she posted a picture of herself holding a Bible in one hand and clutching an AR-15 in the other.

She had been attracting media attention all week, both positive and negative, for posing in front of a Hobby Lobby wearing a pro-life t-shirt and holding a Chik-Fil-A cup. The caption read, “ATTENTION LIBERALS: Do NOT look at this picture. Your head will most likely explode.”

 

            33461aae53dbe578cf5183d92cb45dc5

 

Friends suggested that all the picture was missing was a Bible and a gun, so on the Fourth of July she provided that image.

 

            image2

 

Fisher defended the picture in an interview with Inquisitr.com: “I have always been extremely conservative and passionate about my views. The last few years of the growing hate and intolerance among the ‘tolerant’ left has made me want to stand up and speak out. I saw this as a perfect opportunity to show where I stand . . . I want younger Americans to know it’s okay to not follow the current liberal path.”

Unfortunately for Holly’s brave stand, pundits soon noticed that the picture bore a striking resemblance to this picture:

 

            reem2

 

That’s Reem Riyashi, a Palestinian icon and mother of two who blew herself up at the age of 22 in 2004, and killed four Israelis, at a Gaza border crossing after faking a disability to bypass a security checkpoint. Even before her death Reem was famous for posing in pictures holding weapons, sometimes alone and sometimes with her three-year-old son.

Sometimes an entire line of argument can be summed up in a single photograph. For months I’ve been arguing that, psychologically, Christian extremists and Islamic fundamentalists *aren’t that different.* Whenever two groups hate each other, they tend to become like each other. Yet no matter how pointed the similarities became, a lot of people weren’t buying it. But now there’s Holly.          

Sociologist Bob Altemeyer spent decades studying the phenomenon known as “right-wing authoritarianism” (RWA). He wrote an entire book about it, which you can download for free on his website. Basically right-wing authoritarians (who constitute about 25 percent of the American population) are defined by three things:

 

(1)    Blind loyalty to established religious and political authorities

 

(2)    A willingness to act aggressively in order to defend those authorities

 

(3)    and a deep sense of conventionalism. They are the normal ones. Society is endangered by “weird” groups and minorities that threaten to disrupt the social order, and these unruly elements need to be put in their place, by force if necessary. They tend to agree with the statement that we need a charismatic leader to purge society of these unconventional elements.

 

You ever find yourself arguing with someone and realize that they’re not operating on the same logical plane as the rest of us? Do you sometimes wonder how some folks can claim to follow the teachings of the Bible better than others while ignoring much of what it says? You may be dealing with an authoritarian personality.

Authoritarians are highly dogmatic: they refuse to change their beliefs even when presented with overwhelming evidence that those beliefs are wrong. (They insisted that George W. Bush had never said we would “stay the course” in Iraq, though he had constantly said this). They are profoundly ethnocentric: they may demonize speakers of foreign languages for not using the English words for “God” and “Jesus.” They are selective in their reading of Scripture, frequently rationalizing ways to ignore the numerous passages about not insulting or attacking others. (In a study done at the University of Michigan, fundamentalist students rejecteda set of statements based on the Sermon on the Mount). They only care about facts to the extent that they support their already predetermined conclusions. Altemeyer found that if he said something was “the biggest problem our country faces!” they would always agree with him, no matter what he said the problem was.

Perhaps most importantly, authoritarians define themselves by who is and is not a loyal member of their team. Anyone perceived as being an outsider they view with suspicion and hostility. This may include the majority of their fellow Christians (who, in a neat evasion, are “not real Christians” for one reason or another). Yet if they perceive someone as being on their side, they will trust that person without question. This presents problems. “Authoritarian followers are highly suspicious of their many out-groups,” says Altemeyer; “but they are credulous to the point of self-delusion when it comes to their in-groups.”

So, although right-wing authoritarians can be found in all cultures, members of one tribe are not likely to trust the members of another tribe. Christian fundamentalists in America view Islamic fundamentalists in Palestine and Afghanistan with the same level of contempt that the Islamists feel towards them.

And they’re not likely ever to trust each other—even when they take identical selfies.

But as it happens, this idea that “Christian and Islamic fundamentalists are the same, lol” isn’t just a liberal fever dream. It’s borne out by the evidence.

As soon as Mikhail Gorbachev lifted the restraints on psychological research in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, a colleague of Altemeyer’s, Andre Kamenshikov, administrated a survey to students at Moscow State University. These students answered the RWA scale (a scale Altemeyer and his colleagues had developed to assess the level of authoritarianism in an individual) along with a series of questions about who was the “good guy” and who was the “bad guy” in the Cold War. Who started the arms race: the US or the USSR? Would the US launch a sneak attack on the Soviet Union if it knew it could get away with it? Would the Soviet Union do this to the US?

At the same time Kamenshikov was doing this study, Altemeyer asked the same questions in three different American universities.

What they found was that in both countries, the high RWAs believed their government’s version of the Cold War more than most other people in their country. The leaders of their nation were the good guys, and the leaders of the other nation were out to kill and destroy all that was good and holy. In other words, says Altemeyer, “the most cock-sure belligerents in the population on each side of the Cold War, the ones who hated and blamed each other the most, were in fact the same people, psychologically.”

He concludes: 

“If they had grown up on the other side of the Iron Curtain, they probably would have believed the leaders they presently despised, and despised the leaders they now trusted. They’d have been certain the side they presently thought was in the right was in the wrong, and instead embraced the beliefs they currently held in contempt.”

Soviets and Americans. Westboro and the Taliban. Holly and Reem.

Sometimes the only difference is where you grow up.

Two Stories About Bells

Vertigo 02One thing you learn in writing stories is that certain objects have a mysterious and almost magnetic power that defies words. Castles, swords, rings, goblets, buried treasure—the appearance of any one of these in a story is like a radiant stone that vibrates with its own intensity. Perhaps that’s why I became Catholic, because as a storyteller I was naturally drawn to a religion that invests material things with sacramental power: holy water; crosses; bells, books, and candles.

 

Bell towers have fascinated me ever since I saw the movie Vertigo when I was nine or ten years old. Recently voted the greatest film of all time in the once-a-decade Sight & Sound poll, Vertigo tells the story of a retired detective (James Stewart) hired to trail a young woman (Kim Novak) who may be possessed by the ghost of a long-dead ancestor. He pursues her to an old Spanish mission, the Mission San Juan Batista, where, at the very top of the bell tower, tragedy strikes. And then strikes again.

 

The understated use of Hispanic and southwestern folklore in this movie slowly worked its way into my brain, taking root in dark corners. During my first couple of months at Southwestern University, ten years ago this summer, I was enchanted by the beige limestone, the rounded-arch doorways, the old chapel at the heart of campus with a door leading up to the tower, a door that was only unlocked on the rarest of occasions. I remember being struck with a sense of the history of the place.

 

It was there that I had the idea to write a series of children’s books, books that would draw on the cultures and legends of the Celts (my ancestors) and the Southwest (my adopted home). This summer in going back and rereading some of the folklore and mythology of England I’ve been struck by how many stories center around the ringing of bells. In the days before telephones and wireless, sometimes the cathedral bell was the only means of communication between one town and another, or between the church and those in peril on the ocean’s dark waters.

 

One such story from County Surrey tells of a man, Neville Audley, who was captured fighting on the wrong side during the long-ago War of the Roses. Arrested and sentenced to die when the curfew bell tolled on the next night at Chertsey Abbey, he realized that the only hope of being spared was to obtain a pardon from the king.

 

Neville conferred with his girlfriend, Blanche Heriot, and their mutual friend Herrick. Herrick agreed to ride towards London to seek pardon. But on the next day, with only five minutes left before the bell tolled, Herrick was seen flying towards the town from half a mile away—still too far away to save Audley’s life.

 

The minutes passed. The townsfolk awaited the tolling of the bell. But the bell did not ring.

 

Just as Herrick arrived in town, the sexton, accompanied by soldiers, went up into the tower to investigate. There they found Blanche Heriot, dashed against the bell and frame but still clinging to the clapper with a tenacity born of desperation. Luckily she had hung there just long enough to save her beloved, who was spared from death by the king’s timely pardon. The two were married shortly afterwards.

 

Another story with a less happy ending is told of the tenor bell of Burgh le Marsh church. The people of Burgh le Marsh once made a living off the debris of doomed ships, lighting the beacon on Marsh Hill to lure poor sailors to their deaths. Once the sailors were all drowned and the weather had calmed, the townsfolk would scramble ashore to loot the broken vessels.

 

As the story goes, in 1629 the Mary Rose was sailing from Leith, Scotland along the Lincolnshire coast on its way to Flanders. A storm began to gather. The wind howled and the rains beat against the ship, while the people of Burgh watched from the shore with growing excitement.

 

But not everyone was pleased by the buffeting of the storm-tossed ship. The elderly sexton Guymer, when he learned what was being planned, begged them not to light the beacon. No one listened.

 

A crowd made its way towards Marsh Hill and the beacon was lit. Captain Frohock, seeing what he mistook for a lighthouse, called out to his men that they were safe. The crew turned the ship in the direction of the light.

 

Back on shore, desperate to avoid the collision that was imminent, Guymer ran towards the church. Ascending to the top of the bell tower, he grabbed the rope and rang the bell with all the strength he could muster. Captain Frohock, realizing how close he was to shore and certain death, ordered the Mary Rose back to sea, away from the treacherous sands.

 

Enraged by the tolling of the bell, the townspeople stormed into the church. Breaking down the belfry door, they found Guymer, still clinging to the rope, his dead body swaying to and fro. His heart had burst open from exhaustion.

 

When Captain Frohock returned to the village a year later and learned what had happened, he bought an acre of land known as “Bell String Acre.” He ordered that rent from the land be used to buy a silken rope for the bell. It’s said that he married the sexton’s daughter.

“One More Dawn, One More Day”: 3 Moments of Storytelling Brilliance

Frodo-Sam-image-frodo-and-sam-36084502-1920-800

A good story, whether in the form of a song, novel, TV series, or movie, should give the illusion that you’re experiencing something new and unprecedented. There’s a moment near the end of the story where the heroes find themselves in a unique situation facing extraordinary challenges, and the hair on the back of our necks stands on end because we know we’re witnessing the culmination of a series of choices, and if any of those choices had been different, this moment would never happened.

It’s thrilling. It gives us a rush because we know life is like that. There’s a grandeur that invests even the smallest moments because we have a dim appreciation of what it took to get here.

The following are three of my favorite storytelling moments across all media, moments where a protagonist revealed his or her true quality and the brilliance of the narrative mechanisms on display were like nothing I had seen before.
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“I made a promise, Mr. Frodo”: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

With all the computer-effects wizardry and operatic spectacle of the later films, it can be easy to forget the promise of Peter Jackson’s first foray into Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The genius of the first movie (and, to a lesser extent, The Two Towers) is that they somehow married the scale of an epic fantasy story with the intimacy of a small character drama. This was never more apparent than in the under-stated denouement of Fellowship, in which human warrior Boromir dies protecting two Hobbits after nearly betraying Ring-bearer Frodo Baggins. Frodo makes his escape by boat, thinking to finish the journey alone. But his gardener Sam Gamgee has other plans, and it’s in showing how the two of them end up together that the films have one of their best moments.

 

The Death of Krishna: The Mahabharata (1989)

The ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata, the longest poem ever written (two million words in 17 volumes), has a cast so large and a story so convoluted it rivals the Lord of the Rings, featuring demons, gods, weird monsters, vengeful reincarnations, and a magical weapon with the destructive capacity to annihilate an entire planet. But the narrative thread holding the story together (and keeping it from buckling under its own weight) is the conflict between the Kauravas and Pandavas, two halves of one family who are determined to exterminate each other.

Hovering in the background of this out-of-control family quarrel is the mysterious figure of Krishna, who for much of the story seems to be just another member of the family (albeit one who is revered by all parties), but who reveals himself, in the poem’s most famous set piece, to be more than they had ever guessed. Naturally the question arises, “If you are a god, why can’t you stop this massacre?”

Peter Brooks’ five-hour 1989 film The Mahabharata plays up the more enigmatic aspects of Krishna’s character, suggesting that perhaps there’s a more sinister agenda behind his ostensible attempts at peace-making. But the film’s best moment comes at the end when Krishna, wounded and dying, reveals that he’s just as confused and vulnerable as anyone else in the story. A young boy asks him, “Krishna, tell me quickly: why all your tricks and your bad directions?” Krishna responds with his last words: “I fought against terrible powers, and I did what I could.”

 

“One Day More”: Les Miserables (the Musical)

Victor Hugo’s sprawling, relentlessly poetic 1,400 page novel Les Miserables, which tells the story of an 1832 student uprising in Paris, boasts some of the most brilliant character arcs in literature. (The culmination of the longstanding feud between Javert, the police inspector, and Jean Valjean, the criminal-turned-mayor whom he has hunted for twenty years, deserves its own place on this list).

The musical Les Miserables takes all this plot and condenses it into a lyrical and at times devastating two-and-a-half-hour saga of war, vengeance, grace, redemption, and romance. The entire last half of the story functions as a series of climaxes. And while the tear-inducing lament of Marius on re-visiting the barricades where his friends met their grisly end is probably the emotional high point of the play, in terms of sheer narrative power, praise is owed to the entire sequence where Marius, Cosette, Eponine, and their love triangle is introduced, and especially the song “One Day More,” which takes the emotional journeys of ALL the characters, crystallizes them into a few simple verses and chorus, and reveals that in spite of their many conflicts, our heroes (and villains) have far more in common than they would ever admit.

 

Thirty Days of Poems: She’s Ubiquitous (Day 3)

05-02-2013i            She’s ubiquitous

            She wouldn’t call herself a genius

            but I know she is

            A novelist, an actress

            She’s on billboards and Broadway

            The writer, star, director

            of a one-woman play

 

            She’s pale as the sun

            as quiet as the moon

            and she doesn’t

            understand the world

 

           

            She’s ubiquitous

            she wonders what the moral of the story is

            she takes her coffee black

            she stays out past midnight

            sipping Chardonnay and reading

            N. T. Wright

 

            She’s ubiquitous

            but lately she’s been feeling nervous and listless

            She’s sick of putting up with boys

            and their pathetic grandeur

            and wishes she could meet a guy

            who understands her

 

           

            She’s pale as the sun

            as quiet as the moon

            and she doesn’t

            understand the world

 

            (and sometimes late at night

            we take that desert road

            out where the stars are street lights

            and when we hit the end of that trail

            where the dust shines like fog

            and the grass hums around us with a million voices

            I pull out my flamenco guitar

            and she dances).