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Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

Also read about St. Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga

Today is also the memorial of St. Helena (Helen), mother of Emperor Constantine and according to tradition, discoverer of the True Cross.

True Christian zeal motivated St. Helena. Eusebius described her as follows: “Especially abundant were the gifts she bestowed on the naked and unprotected poor. To some she gave money, to others an ample supply of clothing; she liberated some from imprisonment, or from the bitter servitude of the mines; others she delivered from unjust oppression, and others again, she restored from exile. While, however, her character derived luster from such deeds … , she was far from neglecting personal piety toward God. She might be seen continually frequenting His Church, while at the same time she adorned the houses of prayer with splendid offerings, not overlooking the churches of the smallest cities. In short, this admirable woman was to be seen, in simple and modest attire, mingling with the crowd of worshipers, and testifying her devotion to God by a uniform course of pious conduct” (The Life of Constantine, XLIV, XLV).

For a decidedly novel and novelistic take on Helena, check out Evelyn Waugh’s novel Helena.  It was his favorite of all of his novels. Some people hate it, but I love it. When I was working as editor of the Loyola Classics series, the book was amazingly out of copyright in the US, so we were able to publish it with an introduction by George Weigel.  I see that the copyright issue has gone another way, it seems, so the book is now published as part of a series of Waugh novels by .  You helena waugh amy welborncan get copies of the Loyola edition here, and the current edition here. 

Some, as I said, hate it because, they say, it’s basically the type of characters you find in Vile Bodies and Handful of Dust  –  1920’s British upperclass twits – plopped down in the 4th century.  Well, that’s part of the reason I like it. It’s entertaining in that way.

But also – when you read deeper, you see that this novel is about the search for truth – the True Cross is a real thing, but it’s also a metaphor.  Helena’s life is a search for faith, and what she is seeking is something that is true and real. She is offered all sorts of different options that are interesting, intricate, sophisticated or satisfy her wants and desires, but none of them are real.  Except one. From Weigel’s introduction:

Waugh was not a proselytizer, and Helena is no more an exercise in conventional piety than Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, whose hero is an alcoholic priest. But Waugh was a committed Christian apologist, and his apologetic skills are amply displayed in Helena. Thus Helena was not only addressed to those Christians who were trying to figure out the meaning of their own discipleship; it was also intended as a full-bore confrontation with the false humanism that, for Waugh, was embodied by well-meaning but profoundly wrong-headed naturalistic-humanistic critics of the modern world like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

More specifically, Waugh wanted to suggest that an ancient pathogen was lurking inside the hollowness of modern humanisms: gnosticism, the ancient heresy that denies the importance or meaningfulness of the world. So, to adopt a neologism from contemporary critics, Helena is, “metafictionally,” an argument on behalf of Waugh’s contention that modern humanistic fallacies are variants on the old, gnostic temptations exemplified by helenathe Emperor Constantine and his world-historical hubris. And at the core of the gnostic temptation was, and is, the denial of the Christian doctrine of original sin – which is, in effect, a denial of some essential facts of life, including the facts of suffering and death. In Helena, the arrogantly ignorant Constantine puts it in precisely these terms to old Pope Sylvester, as the headstrong young conqueror heads off to his new capital on the Bosporus: “You can have your old Rome, Holy Father, with its Peter and Paul and its tunnels full of martyrs. We start with no unpleasant associations; in innocence, with Divine Wisdom and Peace.”

And what was the answer to the gnostic fallacy, which produced in Constantine’s time, as in ours, a kind of plastic, humanistic utopianism? For Helena, and for Waugh, it was what the aged Empress went to find: the “remorseless fact of the lump of wood to which Christ was nailed in agony,” as Waugh biographer Martin Stannard put it. This “remorseless lump of wood” reminds us of two very important things: it reminds us that we have been created, and it reminds us that we have been redeemed. Helena believed, and Waugh agreed, that without that lump of wood, without the historical reality it represented, Christianity was just another Mediterranean mystery religion, a variant on the Mithras cult or some other gnostic confection. With it – with this tangible expression of the incarnation and what theologians call the hypostatic union (the Son of God become man in Jesus of Nazareth) – a window was open to the supernatural, and the “real world” and its sufferings were put into proper perspective. For God had saved the world, not by fetching us out of our humanity (as the gnostics would have it), but by embracing our humanity in order to transform it through the mystery of the cross – the mystery of redemptive suffering, vindicated in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

….

Although set more than a millennium and a half ago, Helena is a bracing antidote to this contemporary gnosticism: this “bosh” and “rubbish,” as Waugh’s Helena would put it. From her childhood, Helena is determined to know whether things are real or unreal, true or false — including the claims of Christianity. For her, Christianity is not one idea in a world supermarket of religious ideas. Christianity is either the truth — the Son of God really became man, really died, and really was raised from the dead for the salvation of the world — or it’s more “bosh” and “rubbish.” The true cross of Helena’s search is not a magical talisman; it is the unavoidable physical fact that demonstrates the reality of what Christians propose, and about which others must decide.

One Waugh biographer suggests that the novelist’s later years were marked by an agonizing spiritual quest for compassion and contrition. As for many of us, the contrition likely came easier than the compassion. But it is difficult to read Helena without discerning in its author the capacity for a great compassion indeed – a compassion for the human struggle with the great questions that are raised in every life, in every age. Evelyn Waugh’s comic energy was once sprung from his pronounced power to hurt others, as a novel like Vile Bodies demonstrates. But in the mature Waugh, the Waugh who wrote Helena and thought it his finest achievement, the farce has been transformed into comedy, and the comedy has become, for all the chiaroscuro shadings, a divine comedy indeed.

St. Helena is in the Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints….first page here…her section is “Saints are people who are strong leaders.”

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— 1 —

First, take a look at this. It might have appeared on your social media feed as it did mine. It’s singer Alfina Fresta, who has spastic dystonic tetraparesis. She is supported here by Stefania Licciardello, president of the Neon Cultural Association, which offers performers with and without disabilities the opportunity to perform together. 

It’s lovely. It’s what the world should look like: no one invisible, mutuality and support simply a way of life.

— 2 —

Last week, I linked to Emily Stimpson Chapman’s moving post on the adoption process. Well, earlier this week, Emily and Chris’ son Toby was born. As Emily says in her post: We have been snuggling non-stop ever since and are completely in love. Continued prayers are greatly appreciated, though, both for his birth parents and for this little guy, who is going to have a rough few days as some bad stuff works its way out of his system.

— 3 —

I read a most unusual book this week. It’s called Raising the Dad. As you can tell from the listing, the reader reviews don’t average out very well, but I liked it. It was nothing like I expected. The premise is that a father long believed dead is revealed to be alive. Consequences ensue. Going into it, I’d assumed that the dad had been, I don’t know – off in Italy or in Tahiti for thirty years and reappears, but that’s not it at all. This particular plot point might stretch credulity, medically speaking, but I went with it, and found it quite thought-provoking.

Without spoiling much, I’ll just say that the novel challenges, in an unusual and unexpected way, the contemporary assumption that only lives that embody certain qualities are worth living, and that the only meaningful relationships we can have are with fully conscious individuals.

Worth a look.

— 4 —

Speaking of books – I finished writing one this week. Actually, just today (Thursday). I’m ecstatic and relieved. Can you feel it? See, it’s not due until January, but I was determined to get it done before my 8th grader started back to school.  This might be my last “free” year for  few years, since we are probably going to home/roadschool high school with this one. I didn’t want to spend the first part of the (school) year working on a project that is more of an assigned thing rather than one that’s more dependent on my creativity, when I’ll actually have time and space to Think.  Yes, the words I bring to this project are my own and are far from formulaic (I hope), but still – there’s a template, and my job was to fill it in.

Not that I turned it in. It could be published right now (with some editing…I guess…), but it will be better if I let it sit and come back to it with, as we say, fresh eyes. So I’ll do that – let it sit until December, open it back up, hopefully not weep from despair, do some edits and tightening, add any new good stories that have popped up, and ship it off in January.

And in the meantime, I sent a file of the manuscript 1) to myself – since my main file cabinet these days is my email and 2) to my daughter, just in case. 

— 5 –

Morbid? Maybe. I prefer to think of it as “prepared.”

With, I admit, a dose of superstition.

For you see – and may remember from previous posts – before I go on big trips, I always send my adult kids very detailed itineraries, along with my attorney’s information, health and travel insurance information, passport copies and so on. We now call it “The Itinerary of Death.” As in “Mom’s going to Japan – she should be sending the Itinerary of Death soon.”

The motivation is twofold. Yes, I want as little trouble as possible in case something happens. Mike didn’t have a will, and that was a mess. My dad had a will, but was unprepared in other ways when he died, and as the only child and executor, I was left to straighten it out. I want things to go easily for those I’m leaving behind – especially if it happens suddenly.

Secondly, yeah, I’m superstitious. As in: If I overprepare, nothing’s going to happen. 

Obviously, that’s not going to work forever. But I’ll keep trying.

— 6 —

Speaking of books – look!

I finally got my copies!

You can find it at the Loyola site here and Amazon here, and hopefully at your local Catholic bookseller soon, along with all the rest of the Loyola Kids books – a great matched set to gift your local Catholic school and parish – every classroom needs a set, don’t you think?

I’ll write more about the book next week. 

NOTE: If you really want a copy soon – I have them for sale at my online bookstore (price includes shipping)  Email me at amywelborn60 AT gmail if you have a question or want to work out a deal of some sort.

— 7 —

No family travel or movie-watching this week. One kid did a youth group paintball excursion, while the other went with a friend to a water park, so at least some people got out while Mom was feverishly, obsessively finishing a project that isn’t due for five IMG_20180726_222819.jpgmonths. (Oh, did I already mention that?) The older one worked several evenings, and the younger one did watch a couple of movies on his own, but again – I was in here, writing, checking off a box, writing some more, checking off  another box.

(I am a fairly disorganized, reactive, INFP, come-what-may person in general, but when it comes to this kind of project, I am very, very organized – I make a schedule, I write that schedule out, and stick to it. Simply put: I want to keep projects like this in their proper place in my life, freeing myself up to be all drifting and meditative for the rest of the day. Boxing this type of work in a strict schedule is the way to make that happen.)

I did watch, late one night, a bit of Lost in Translation. I’d seen it in theaters when it came out, and recall liking it – and had intended to rewatch it before we went to Japan – I’m glad I didn’t waste my time. I do like Bill Murray in almost anything, but wow, this film struck me as so simplistically racist and willing to exploit stereotypes. Yes, the scene in the beginning  where the commercial director goes on and on for a while, a speech which then the translator says to Murray comes down to “look to the right” – was funny because it echoes my experience in convenience stores, where the cashiers just talk and talk in a way that seems almost ritualistic, and really, all they’re saying is, “Thank you, and here’s your change.”

But I ended up only watching half of it. I was so deeply annoyed at the Scarlett Johansson character for being so helpless and unadventurous, I couldn’t stand watching her any more.  There’s also a way to capture that fish-out-of-water experience without resorting to stereotypes, and Coppola didn’t do it here.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Her feast is on a Sunday this year, but that doesn’t mean we still can’t learn more about St. Mary Magdalene. So, as I’ve done for the past couple of years, I’m going to offer a daily excerpt from my book Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies, now available as an e-book for .99.

Remember, that the book was written in the context of the Da Vinci Code fever, so I pay particular attention to the gnostic writings that Brown and others whose work he used depended on for their claims.

So. Chapter 1:

Before the legends, myths, and speculation, and even before the best-selling novels, there was something else: the Gospels.

The figure of Mary Magdalene has inspired a wealth of art, devotion, and charitable works throughout Christian history, but if we want to really understand her, we have to open the Gospels, because all we really know for sure is right there.

The evidence seems, at first glance, frustratingly slim: an introduction in Luke, and then Mary’s presence at the cross and at the empty tomb mentioned in all four amy-welborn-book2Gospels. Not much to go on, it seems.

But in the context, the situation isn’t as bad as it appears. After all, no one besides Jesus is described in any detail in the Gospels, and even the portrait of Jesus, as evocative as it is, omits details that we moderns are programmed to think are important. Perhaps, given the context, the Gospels tell us more about Mary Magdalene than we think.

Trustworthy?

Before we actually meet the Mary Magdalene of the Gospels, it might be a good idea to remind ourselves of exactly what the Gospels are and how to read them.

The word “Gospel” means, of course, “good news,” or evangel in Greek, which is why we call the writers of the Gospels evangelists. The four Gospels in the New Testament have been accepted as the most authoritative and accurate writings on Jesus’ life since the early second century. Even today, scholars who study early  Christianity, whether they are believers or not, know that when studying Jesus and the early Christian movement, the Gospels and other New Testament writings are the place to begin.

Sometimes in my speaking on this issue, I have fielded questions about the reliability of the Gospels. A questioner will say something like, “Well, they were written so long after the events, how can we trust them to tell the truth?”

In addition, even those of us who have received some sort of religious education might have been taught, implicitly, to be skeptical of the Gospels. We’re reminded, right off, that the Gospels are not history or biography, and that they tell us far more about the community that produced them than about Jesus himself.

In short, all of this gets distilled into the conviction that when it comes to early Christianity, all documents and texts are of equal value in telling us about Jesus. You can’t pick the best according to historical reliability, so you pick the one with the “story” that means the most to you. So, if the Gospel of Mark displeases you, you can go ahead and create your Jesus from what you read in the Gospelof Philip or the Pistis Sophia.

Sorry, but it just doesn’t work that way. As we will see in more detail when we get to the Gnostic writings, there is simply no comparison between the four canonical Gospels and other writ-ings. The canonical Gospels were not written that distant from the events described — forty or fifty years — and were written in an oral culture that took great care to preserve what it heard with care; the community’s history depended on it. When you actually read the Gospels, you see comments here and there from the evangel-ists themselves about what they were trying to do, and part of that involved, according to their own admission, being as accurate as possible (see Luke 1:1-4, for example).

No, the Gospels are not straight history or biography in the contemporary sense. They are testaments of faith. But they are testaments of faith rooted in what really happened. The evangelists, and by extension, the early Christians, were not about making up stories for which they would later, oddly, give their lives. They were not cleverly presenting their inner psychological transformations in the form of concrete stories. They were witnesses to the amazing action of God in history, through Jesus. amy-welborn-book3They are testimonies of faith, yes, but faith rooted in the realities of God’s movement in the world.

It’s also good to listen to modern Gospel critics carefully. More often than not, those who disdain the Gospels are quick to claim some other text as “gospel,” as the source of truth. Their choice of what to believe usually has far less to do with historical reliability than it does with other factors.

So, no, not all historical texts are equally reliable. When it comes to Jesus and the events of the mid-first century, the canonical Gospels are really the only place to begin.

Now, on to Mary Magdalene.

Magdala

Luke introduces us to Mary Magdalene in chapter 8 of his Gospel:

 

“Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preach-ing and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,and Joanna,the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.” (Luke 8:1-3)

So here she is: a woman from whom Jesus had driven seven demons, joined with other women, also healed by Jesus, who had left their lives behind to follow him.

Mary is mentioned first in this list, as she is in every list of female disciples, in every Gospel, similar to the way that in lists of the twelve apostles Peter’s name always comes first. The precise reason for Mary’s consistent preeminence is impossible to determine, but we can guess that it might have much to do with her important role related to the Resurrection, as well as to recognition of her faithfulness to Jesus.

These women “provided for them out of their means.” This might mean one of two things, or both: that the women assisted Jesus and his disciples by preparing meals and so on, or that they supported them financially. The second explanation is supported by the presence of Joanna, the wife of a member of Herod’s court, on the list. Perhaps some of these women were, indeed, wealthy enough to give Jesus’ ministry a financial base. (Some legends about Mary have played off of this, as we will see later, suggesting that she was quite wealthy and actually owned the town of Magdala.)

What stands out about Mary is that she’s identified, not by her relationship to a man, as most women would be at that time, but to a town. This indicates that Mary wasn’t married, and perhaps even that she had outlived her father and other male relatives: she was a single woman, able to give support to Jesus out of gratitude for what he had done for her.

Magdala was located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, about four miles north of the major city of Tiberias. Today, it is a village with a few hundred inhabitants, some abandoned archaeological digs, and only the most inconspicuous memorials to its most well-known inhabitant.

“Magdala” is derived from the Hebrew Migdal, which means “fortress” or “tower.” It was also called “Tarichea,” which means “salted fish,” a name which reveals the town’s primary industry during the first century, the salting and pickling of fish. Excavations led by Franciscans in the 1970s revealed a structure that some think was a synagogue (others a springhouse), as well as a couple of large villas and, from later centuries, what might be a Byzan-tine monastery. Magdala is described by Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, as having forty thousand inhabitants, six thou-sand of whom were killed in one of the battles during the Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70), but most modern historians believe those numbers are far too high.

Jewish tradition suggests that Magdala was ultimately destroyed as a punishment for prostitution, and another strain holds that in ancient times Job’s daughters died there. Pilgrim accounts from the ninth through the thirteenth centuries report the existence of a church in Magdala, supposedly built in the fourth century by St. Helena, who discovered the True Cross in Jerusalem.

By the seventeenth century, pilgrims reported nothing but ruins at Magdala.

Possessed

Mary — like Peter, Andrew, and the other apostles — walked away from life as she knew it, abandoned everything to follow Jesus. Why?

“. . . from whom seven demons had gone out.”

Exorcism is an aspect of Jesus’ ministry that many of us either forget about or ignore, but the Gospels make clear how important it is: Mark, in fact, describes an exorcism as Jesus’ first mighty deed, in the midst of his preaching (1:25). Some modern com-mentators might declare that what the ancients referred to as pos-session was nothing more than mental illness, but there is really no reason to assume that is true. The “demons,” or unclean or evil spirits, we see mentioned sixty-three times in the Gospels were understood as forces that indeed possessed people, inhabiting them, bringing on what we would describe as mental problems, emotional disturbances, and even physical illness. The symptoms, however, were, to the ancient mind, only that: symptoms. The deeper problem was the alienation from the rest of the human family and from God produced by this mysterious force of evil.

In the world in which Jesus lived, seven was a number that symbolized completion, from the seven days of creation (Genesis 1:1-2:3) to the seven seals on God’s book in Revelation (5:1) and the seven horns and eyes of the Lamb in the same vision (5:6). Mary’s possession by seven demons (also explicitly mentioned in Mark 16:9) indicates to us that her possession was serious and overwhelming — total, in fact. She was wholly in the grip of these evil spirits, and Jesus freed her — totally.

So of course, she left everything and followed him.

It’s worth noting now, even though we’ll discuss it more later, that nowhere in the New Testament is the condition of possession synonymous with sinfulness. The “sinners” in the Gospels — the tax collectors, those who cannot or will not observe the Law, the prostitutes — are clearly distinguished from those possessed. Some Christian thinkers have linked Mary Magdalene to various sinful, unnamed women in the Gospels because of her identification as formerly possessed. There may be reasons, indeed, to link Mary to these women, but possession is not one of them, because the conditions — possession and sinfulness — are not the same thing in the minds of the evangelists.

Disciple

The evangelists used the texts, memories, and oral traditions they had at hand to communicate the Good News about Jesus. Because they were human beings, their writing and editing bears the stamp of their unique concerns and interests. Just as you and a spouse might tell the same story, emphasizing different aspects of it to make different points — perhaps you want to tell the story of your missed flight as a warning about being organized and prepared, and he wants to tell it as a way to highlight the need to go with the flow — the evangelists shaped the fundamental story of Jesus in accord with what struck them as the most significant points of his life and ministry, what their audiences most needed to hear.

In the eighth chapter of his Gospel, Luke has finished introducing Jesus, and is ready to really help his audience understand what being a disciple means. He begins by describing who is following Jesus — the Twelve and the women — and then offers a general description of what Jesus’ ministry is about. Jesus then tells his first parable (the parable of the sower and the seeds, which is the first parable Jesus relates in all of the Gospels), then quickly calms a storm, performs another dramatic exorcism, raises a little girl back to life, and in the midst of it tells his followers, firmly, that his blood relations are not his family, but rather those who “hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).

So that’s the context of the introduction of Mary Magdalene and the other women — not just to set the stage, to complete the cast of characters, because Luke, like all of the other evangelists, didn’t have vellum to spare to do such a thing. Every word he wrote had a purpose, and it was very focused — here, to set before us, in quick, strong strokes, what this kingdom of God was all about. What do we learn from the presence of the women?

First, we learn that women are present, period. Women were not chattel slaves in first-century Judaism, by any means, but neither were they often, if ever, seen leaving their ordinary lives to follow a rabbi. In fact, scholar Ben Witherington describes this conduct as “scandalous” in the cultural context (Women in the Ministry of Jesus [Cambridge University Press, 1984]):

“We know women were allowed to hear the word of God in the synagogue but they were never disciples of a rabbi unless their husband or master was a rabbi willing to teach them.Though a woman might be taught certain negative precepts of the Law out of necessity,this did not mean they would be taught rabbinic explanations of Torah. For a Jewish woman to leave home and travel with a rabbi was not only unheard of, it was scandalous. Even more scandalous was the fact that women, both respectable and not, were among Jesus’ traveling companions.” (Witherington, p. 117)

And not just any women, either. As we noted earlier, Mary Magdalene was once possessed by seven demons. In this culture, those possessed were ostracized — one man Jesus exorcised is described as living in a cemetery (Luke 8:27). Mary Magdalene, formerly at the margins of society, has been transformed by Jesus and is now welcomed as a disciple. The barriers of class, too, are broken, Luke hints, with the presence of Joanna, the wife of a per-son of stature. In God’s kingdom, Luke makes clear, the world we know is being turned upside down.

Just as every phrase and scene in the Gospels is carefully chosen under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so are the parts of the Gospel related. We meet Mary Magdalene here, but we will not see her again for many chapters — until the Passion narrative begins. But when we do encounter her — again, with the other women — here’s what she will be doing: she will be standing near the cross, she will then be preparing Jesus’ body for burial, and later she will see and witness to the empty tomb, and encounter the risen Jesus.

Mary will be serving, still. She serves, watches, and waits, the only remaining link between Jesus’ Galilean ministry, his Passion, and the Resurrection. She is introduced as a grateful, faithful dis-ciple, and that she will remain, a witness to the life Jesus brings.

 

Already, there’s a sort of mystery: what were these demons? What exactly happened to Mary? The evangelists don’t tell us, perhaps because they and Mary herself knew that life with Jesus is not about looking back into the past, but rather rejoicing in God’s power to transform our lives in the present.

 

Questions for Reflection

 

  1. What do we know about Mary Magdalene’s life from the Gospels?
  1. What does her presence in Jesus’ ministry tell you about the kingdom of God that Jesus preached?
  2.   How has God acted in your life with power? How do you respond to that? How would you like to respond?

 

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By far the dumbest thing in my life this past year – in a life full of fairly dumb things – has been my aggravation about  stupid Trini Salgado and her stupid camiseta. 

(Waits for readers to do a search….and return, scratching heads.)

As you might remember, I have a 13-year old who homeschools off and on, and if we were going to pin him down to a grade, we’d say he’s in 7th grade. He’s very interested in Central and South American history and culture, so this year, we’ve gotten more intentional about Spanish.

I spent some time last summer searching for a curriculum. I knew he would probably be going back to brick and mortar school for 8th grade, and I knew that the school he’d be going to teaches high school Spanish 1 over the course of 7th and 8th grade – so if we got through half of a Spanish I curriculum, we’d be good.

But what to pick? I do not, for the life of me, know why I didn’t just wait for the Spanish avencemos4teacher to tell me what she would be doing for the year (I knew they were changing) and then track with that. But I didn’t. I went ahead and splurged for a curriculum that is school-oriented, but used by homeschoolers as well. It’s called Avencamos! (Let’s keep going!) and it’s published by Holt.

Tomorrow I’ll be posting  about the curriculum itself and thoughts prompted by it as well as some other recent curriculum adventures, but even without that, this post will make some sense.

One of the many, many many elements of this curriculum are videos. Each unit is centered on a particular Spanish-speaking area – it begins with Miami, then moves to Puerto Rico, Mexico (Puebla! – where we just were!), Spain (Madrid! Where we’ve been!) , Ecuador, etc.

Each video features a different teenaged boy and girl, going about their community, using the unit’s vocabulary and grammar lessons. They are what you expect – mostly wooden acting and a little weirdness that can be, at times, highly entertaining. Mi mochila! And ¿DONDE ESTA MI CUADERNO? have already become standard elements of household conversation.  Oh, as well as a harsh, “No. Gracias,” uttered through gritted teeth which the very rude girl in the Madrid saga says repeatedly to a shopkeeper who’s only trying to show her las ropas, for pete’s sake! That’s my favorite. Maribel = me.

avencemos2

Some verge on the surreal. Come to think of it, wouldn’t that be a good idea? To produce totally surreal, bizarre language instructional videos?

avencemos

Okay. So here’s the dumb, ingenious thread that runs through all of these videos that has obsessed me these past months – for some reason, all of these kids in these different countries around the globe are trying to see or get an autograph from a female soccer player named Trini Salgado. Some of them are connected – I think they’re trying to get Trini’s autograph for Alicia, who lives in Miami. I think. But they’re always thwarted in the quest – they get the wrong time that Trini’s appearing, they lose the jersey they want autographed, they get the autograph and Papa throws it in the laundry and it washes off.

The weirdest thing about it to me is that each little unit of videos ends in a absolutely unresolved way. In the Mexican set, the boy and girl go to his cousin’s house to retrieve the damn jersey and they’re scared off by a perro grande. They run off – and let’s go to Puerto Rico now!

What? Are you kidding me? You’re really going to leave me hanging like this?

You’d think – you’d think – that the whole situation would eventually get resolved. I thought they’d have some big global gathering feting Trini, everyone speaking Spanish in their various dialects and eating their varied foods.

But no.

Spoiler alert (I checked) – the last unit ends in just as unsatisfying a way as the others.

No one ever gets Trini’s autograph!

Those are some dark-hearted textbook writers there.

If you poke around, you find that kids have had some fun with this – there are a couple of Trini Salgado Twitter accounts, an Avencemos Memes account,  many mentions of are you kidding me, do they ever meet Trini – wait is Trini Salgado not a real person? and some class-made videos that play with eternally-frustrated yearning to get Trini’s autograph.

But here’s why I’m writing about this:

Once more, we run into the power of the story. Each set of videos runs about 6 minutes total, the acting is mostly terrible, and they’re mostly silly, but dang it if they didn’t leave me mad as heck that I wasn’t going to see what happened??

What is it? Isn’t it one of the most fascinating aspects of human life – that we can get so caught up in the the travails of imaginary characters, of situations that aren’t really happening in the real world? We can be wrecked by Lost, so content to settle into the world of Mad Men once a week, root for someone in the world of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad to follow the moral compass we know is buried deep inside there.

These aren’t real people. This is not really happening. I should not care. 

But I do.

It’s a promise of something good and true – and a warning. First the warning, which is about how easily it is for us to be caught up and manipulated simply by an engaging, compelling narrative. Authoritarians and abusers sense this and use it in varied ways: by constructing an epic narrative of identity, revolution, progress or restoration that flatters us, engages us and pulls us in or by simply weaving a tale that justifies and excuses and sounds good but is really just a lie. Marketers – whether they’re marketing products or themselves as personalities – know this and work hard to try to make us feel connected to their personal stories and daily adventures. Another self-serving lie.

Now the good part: The power of the story – even the insanely dumb story – tells us that our lives have a structure, meaning, purpose and direction. We’re pulled into the story because we know we are in the midst of a story ourselves. The challenge is to find and live in the true story – which, by the way – actually has an ending. And, I’m told, a pretty good one.

The only reason i took spanish 2 was to find out if they ever get the jersey signed by Trini Salgado 😂

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— 1 —

Recent….reads:

“The Canterville Ghost” by Wilde. This was our easing-into-school read this week. I’d never read it, nor seen any of the adaptations, but I knew the basics of the tale: An American diplomat and his family knowingly move into a haunted English estate. The ghost attempts to haunt them, but the pragmatic, good-humored Americans are immune, giving Wilde ample opportunity for some amusing satirical, but entirely good-natured commentary on cultural differences.

The deeper point, I suppose, regards the American disdain of tradition and deep history. They don’t believe in the ghost, but once they accept his existence, they treat him with undaunted practicality – suggesting medications for whatever ails him – and derision, teasing and even torment from the younger family members.

But then, Wilde, as he is wont to do, turns the tables on us all by way of sentimental spirituality, as the family’s daughter, appropriately named Virginia, provides the mediation the ghost requires to find peace.

It’s short, a good read, and a good way to explore the uses of satire and cultural commentary, as well as a bit of light spirituality.

 

 — 2 —

I also read Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime in the same volume. It’s a mild satire on 19th century gothic literature, in which a palm reader tells a young man he’s destined to murder someone. The young man, who is engaged to be married, decides that if this is Fate, he will try to take care of this before his wedding so as not to ruin his marriage. Since this is Oscar Wilde, the descriptions can be delectable:

…at the end of the picture-gallery stood the Princess Sophia of Carlsruhe, a heavy Tartar-looking lady, with tiny black eyes and wonderful emeralds, talking bad French at the top of her voice, and laughing immoderately at everything that was said to her. It was certainly a wonderful medley of people. Gorgeous peeresses chatted affably to violent Radicals, popular preachers brushed coat-tails with eminent sceptics, a perfect bevy of bishops kept following a stout prima-donna from room to room, on the staircase stood several Royal Academicians, disguised as artists, and it was said that at one time the supper-room was absolutely crammed with geniuses.

Lord Arthur’s deeply misdirected sense of obligation is appropriately appalling and the consequences darkly comic, but I enjoyed The Canterville Ghost more.

Next up (for him) “The Lottery” – and then a new novel starting next week. (On his own, he’s reading Dune.) 

— 3 —

I am probably not supposed to read this, but I am trying my hand at A.N. Wilson’s Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker. Everyone says he gets the science all wrong, and wow, look at all those one-star reviews,  but as I am a fan of works that subvert conventional wisdom as well as those that set ideas in historical context, so once I saw it on the library shelf, it was impossible for me to resist.

 

–4–

Recently watched:

Not much, really, over the past week (sports and video games keeping control of the new television), but tonight I got up two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents for us – via the Internet Archive. On the big television, which still amazes me. Anyway, I looked up what fans say are the best of the series, and we watched a couple: “The Man from the South,” with Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre, and “Lamb to the Slaughter,” with Barbara bel Geddes.

Spoiler alert – well, not really, since it happens at the beginning of the episode – if you have seen the second, you know that the plot involves a woman who kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, and the subsequent investigation into the crime. I thought it was good, but I also thought it would have been better if we hadn’t know her weapon until the end – it seemed to me the crime could have been artfully glossed over, and it would only gradually dawn on us what was up as sweet blonde Barbara serves up a late supper to the cops.

–5 —

Recent writes:

Look back for posts on Homeschooling Fall 2017 report and a jaunt my son and I took up to north Alabama to see Sandhill Cranes.

As well as ongoing projects.

 

— 6 —

Oh, I guess I should add this to the “recent watches” – might as well knock this off here.

We finally got around to taking a look at Stranger Things – both seasons. I had been highly resistant, first because if you tell me something is a “must watch” and inundate me with think pieces on it – yeah I’m going to #resist. I might come around, but don’t save space for me on the bandwagon right away.

I was also resistant because it’s a Netflix series, and even though it does feature pre-teens and teens, it’s a Netflix series and I knew that while it wasn’t Thirteen Reasons level, I did know that the language was a little rough. But I read reviews and gathered opinions from people whom I trust, and finally, from my throne, offered my assent to the viewing.

My take?

Meh.

Well done on a superficial level – for the most part. (The second seasons is much weaker than the first) A decent introduction to “peak TV” for teens. But:

 

— 7 —

While at times, from moment to moment, I could get swept up in the suspense as a whole, it just didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t find the 80’s setting engaging – I don’t have a lick of nostalgia for the 80’s, and the series really had nothing to say about it except: Big hair, shoulder pads and Reagan yard signs.

I didn’t find it thematically resonant. Articles proclaimed it a super-Catholic show in a deep sense – why? Because characters were sensing signs of the supernatural through the material? Stretching it. Other articles honed in on kids solving Big Mysteries on their own and tying it into themes of broken families – except that, well, Kids Solving Big Mysteries On Their Own is as old as E. Nesbit and probably older – all great kid-centered adventures have the kids on their own – what fun would it be with adults around? Secondly, the “broken family” theme didn’t really factor into the theme as strongly or meaningfully as I had expected coming into it – especially since it really only factors into one of the children’s situations.

Beyond that, I had two problems with Stranger Things, one relatively minor and the other more fundamental. First – the kids cussing. I’m not on board with that, especially at the level they took it here, and I even found some of it unrealistic. Sure, preteens and teens will curse in their own conversations, but would a typical small-town 13-year old curse as part of a doorway conversation with one of his friend’s parents? That was just off, as was the level of cursing, especially in the second season. The second season, which was far weaker than the first, and really, from a story perspective, had little reason to exist  – and yeah, those kids swore a lot more in the second season than the first.

But more importantly – I’ll try to articulate this, although this type of criticism is not my forte. I feel something, but I’m not sure why I feel it or what an alternative would look like. So with that introduction…

The plot of both seasons of Stranger Things was about a malevolence that lurks beneath ordinary life. It took different forms in each season (which is something that didn’t make sense to me – what happened to the Upside Down – until that last shot of the season?) – but that was the driving element of the plot – this Stuff that was largely unseen, was in some way a negative image of what we live with every day, but for some reason, sometimes, seeks our destruction and must be contained.

Except – whatever this is has no actual relation to life as it’s lived. You can say – well, that’s because it’s been contained – but what I think was missing was any thematic connection between this hidden evil and human life and choices. There was this Bigger Thing – this Stranger Thing– but it was just a creepy destructive force which had no motivation except for a hunger-driven destruction, and that found no reflection or reference in the hungers or creepy destructive forces that we encounter in every day life or in the world at large.

It’s not that Stranger Things needed blatant metaphors telegraphed in lame fashion, but I guess what I am attempting to say is that I never had any sense that this malevolence or the efforts to contain or control it was a metaphor for anything, and that rendered it ultimately not very interesting.

That said, some of the acting was remarkable, particularly from Millie Bobby Brown, who played Eleven, the girl who’d been kept to develop her psychic powers, and Gaten Matarazzo, who is a natural and a delight.

I found Winona Ryder tiresome – well, of course her frantic aspect was perfectly understandable as she sought her lost son and became convinced he was trapped in, er, the electrical system. But All! The! Anxious! Shouting!

And can I say this? Will it get me into trouble? Probably, just for being stupid. But here’s the thing: the creators of Stranger Things are twin brothers, and I really felt that during this show. The whole thing felt like the expression of very insular world that was about that world and not much else.

And the second season….there was no reason for it. Especially if your name is Bob. Poor Bob.

IMG_20180112_000833_922.jpg

 

 

 

It did make for a good running joke during Christmas, though….

 

 

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How about we just read some books?

I’ve knocked a couple over the past few days, two books of very different genres, but both absorbing in their own way.

And I’m telling you – settling into a book is far less anxiety-producing than settling into social media news opining for the evening. Or even for fifteen minutes. Even if it’s a book about death. Weird.

But try it. It doesn’t make you a bad citizen, I promise.

I have written about Dorothy Hughes before. She is known today to the extent she is known at all, for pulp/crime novels. I initially came across her work via the NYRB reprints line – they have published The Expendable Man, which I wrote about here – and still highly recommend. A while later, I read her most well-known book, In a Lonely Place, made into a movie with Humphrey Bogart, and which I wrote about here.

So, what do we have so far? In the first, a physician falsely accused of a crime. In the second, we’re in the narrative point of view (in the third person) of a probable serial killer. In the third Hughes I’ve read – Ride the Pink Horse, we’re in the head of a still different type of character: a small-time operator and borderline criminal who’s been a part of the circle of a corrupt Illinois senator and who’s trying to settle a score of sorts – or to simply get what he believe is owed him.

Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Back-Cover

What adds another level of interest and meaning to Ride the Pink Horse is the setting. Sailor – for that is his name – has followed the senator down to Santa Fe for the Fiesta that takes place over Labor Day weekend.  Fiesta provides a fascinating background to the story, a background that reflects a changing understanding of America, insight into the Southwest and, most importantly, a glimpse into a greater, even transcendent reality that pricks at Sailor’s conscience.

The Fiesta begins with the burning of a huge effigy of evil – Zozobra.

On the hill the outsiders played at Fiesta with their fancy Baile but Fiesta was here. In the brown faces and the white faces, the young and the old; capering together, forgetting defeat and despair, and the weariness of the long, heavy days which were to come before the feast time would come again. This was Fiesta. The last moments of the beautiful and the gay and the good; when evil, the destroyer, had been himself destroyed by flame. This was the richness of life for those who could destroy evil; who could for three days create a world without hatred and greed and prejudice, without malice and cruelty and rain to spoil the fun. It was not three days in which to remember that evil would after three days rise again; for the days of Fiesta there was no evil in this Fiesta world. And so they danced.

Sailor is an outsider to this world, and so it’s a convenient way for Hughes to explore the noir trope of alienation, particularly in that post-World War II era.

And standing there the unease came upon him again. The unease of an alien land, of darkness and silence, of strange tongues and a stranger people, of unfamiliar smells, even Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Dellthe cool-of-night smell unfamiliar. What sucked into his pores for that moment was panic although he could not have put a name to it. The panic of loneness; of himself the stranger although he was himself unchanged, the creeping loss of identity. It sucked into his pores and it oozed out again, clammy in the chill of night. He was shivering as he stood there and he moved sharply, towards the Plaza, towards identity.

For three days, Sailor lurks and waits. Because it’s Fiesta, there’s not a hotel room to be found, so he sleeps where he can. He encounters the Senator and his entourage, with increasing levels of threat and intensity as he demands what’s due him. He discovers another Chicagoan in town – a boyhood acquaintance now police detective, also keeping an eye on the Senator. He forms a friendship of sorts with the man who operates the  Tio Vivo – the children’s merry-go-round –  whom he nicknames (of course) “Pancho.” There is, by the way, a lot of what we’d call offensive ethnic-related language in this book, but it’s all from the brain of Sailor, who uses language like that because that’s the way his character thinks.

Anyway, Pancho is one of a few characters Sailor encounters who hints at a different way. Another is a teenage girl whom he could easily exploit, but doesn’t, and whom, for reasons mysterious to even himself, he tries to help. It’s her storyline that provides the hughes-ridepinktitle – a title which has nothing to do with the dame on the cover of the reissue. What these characters do is  show Sailor glimmers of life as it exists beyond greed and keeping score, either by the peace they’ve made with the limitations of their own lives:

‘Even with the gringo sonnama beetches,’ Pancho said cheerfully. ‘When I am young I do not understand how it is a man may love his enemies. But now I know better. I think they are poor peoples like I am. The gringo sonnama beetches don’t know no better. Poor peoples.’

….or the small acts of goodness they draw out of Sailor himself:

Sailor called to Pila. ‘Ride the pink one.’ He felt like a dope after saying it. What difference did it make to him what wooden horse an Indian kid rode? But the pink horse was the red bike in Field’s, the pink horse was the colored lights and the tink of music and the sweet, cold soda pop. The music cavorted. Pancho’s muscles bulged at the spindlass. Pila sat astride the pink horse, and Tio Vivo began its breath-taking whirl. Sailor leaned on the pickets. He didn’t know why giving her a ride had been important. Whether he’d wanted to play the big shot. Whether it was the kid and the bright new bike, the bum with his nose pressed against the window looking at the clean silver blonde beyond reach. Whether it was placating an old and nameless terror. Pila wasn’t stone now; she was a little girl, her stiff dark hair blowing behind her like the mane of the pink wooden horse.

Sailor was raised Catholic, by a pious mother and an alcoholic, abusing father. His mother spent her life praying – and how did it help her? In his view, it didn’t.

He hadn’t come here to pray; he’d come with a gun to keep his eye on a rat. He wasn’t going to be sucked in by holiness. He kept his mind and his backbone rigid when the golden censers swung the musk-scented smoke, when the organ and choir blazoned together the O Salutaris Hostia. He got on his knees only because everyone else did, because he didn’t want to be conspicuous…..Sailor slid over to the side pew. A pillar protected him from the eyes of those moving up the aisle. The old men and the little children. The rich and the poor. The alien and the native, the magnificent and the black shawls. The monks and the choir and the Sociedads, a slow-moving, silent procession to the open cathedral doors, out again into the night. Candles flickered like fireflies from all the vasty corners of the cathedral

Now and then, cultural commenters would worry about the appeal of antiheroes Tony Soprano (The Sopranos) and Walter White (Breaking Bad). What does it Say About Us? Well, what was most compelling to me -and I think to many – was not so much these characters’ dastardly deeds, but rather the possibility that they might turn around – both shows were full of such moments and opportunities, and decisions had to be made in those moments, decisions about whether to be really courageous or continue in your prideful, destructive, bastard ways.

Ride the Pink Horse has that same kind of vibe about it. Sailor didn’t have to be in the spot he’s in, and he still has a chance to move in another direction. Will he take it?

It’s a little repetitious – so not as strong as An Expendable Man, which is still my favorite Hughes so far. But it’s got a great setting, and in that pulp context, effectively examines the notion of conscience, creates a haunting spiritual landscape through which sinful strangers in a strange land choose one path – and not another –  and wow, the ending is just smashing. I gasped. I did.

Well, that took longer than I expected. I’ll wait until tomorrow to write about the other book I read this weekend – They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell, published eighty years ago about events set twenty years earlier than that, but astonishingly fresh and deeply insightful.

Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Movie-PosterBy the way, Ride the Pink Horse was also made into a film. It’s been released as a part of the Criterion Collection, so…I guess it’s good? But the plot is very different from the novel:

He plays a tough-talking former GI who comes to a small New Mexico town to shake down a gangster who killed his best friend; things quickly turn nasty. 

…but the discussion at the Criterion site intrigues me…so perhaps I’ll try to find it and give it a go.

 

 

 

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Once there were two brothers….

How many tales have begun that way?

Today’s first reading does not begin with that exact phrase, but it could, for it’s the story of Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac, and the theft of his brother Esau’s birthright.

Once there were two brothers….

A few weeks ago, the third season of the FX series Fargo concluded. Fargo is a different kind of television series. It is “inspired by” the Coen brothers movie of that name, but takes from the film, not the exact plot, but rather setting, tone and general theme: The Fargosetting of the upper Midwest, the tone of black humor, and the general themes of randomness and of human beings using their free will for evil, but also in very stupid ways that always end in someone’s death.

Accident, serendipity and just the craziness of being in the wrong place at the wrong time play a huge role in this universe – as they do in life, in my opinion, which is why I am so strongly drawn to the series, I think.

That said, although I enjoyed the first season of the series, I never got around to watching the second – I think it coincided with a busy time of life, and then I never could catch up – but I did watch this recently concluded third season, and, in contrast to some viewers, who saw it as a definite downturn, I liked it a lot – and in ways thought it was stronger than the first season.

I’ll hasten to say that the seasons of this program are not intricately connected – the first and second were, but the third (I think) is a completely different story with different characters doing similar, but different things.

There’s too much going on for review in a single blog post – and you can certainly get that in other places. I suppose what I’ll do then, is just focus on what pulled me into this third season of Fargo. I won’t say, “And why you should watch it,” because people’s tastes vary so widely, I never assume that others will agree with my reading, listening or viewing preferences. And come to think of it, you probably shouldn’t watch it. There. Does that cover my bases?

Fargo was wild and arresting, but as with all wild and arresting creations out there these days, you have to be careful and ask: Is there a point to this, or is it just random visual flailing to get my attention and make me think there’s Something Serious going on here? That happens a lot – in my opinion, it happened in Twin Peaks (the original – didn’t watch the recent reboot or whatever) – and is pretty much the norm These Days, since the norm for quite a bit of artistic energy in the modern era is just about the startling superficial image, and not really about anything – since there’s no substantive Anything for anything to be about.

So with Fargo, I held my judgment until the end. I suspected it was about something real, but I couldn’t be sure if I was being taken for a ride or not until the end. And then the end came, and while it was the most deeply satisfying ending I could have envisioned, like the ending of The Sopranos – it fit. Fargo seemed to me about something real, after all.

And what was it?

It was about all those things I spoke of at the beginning, those matters which fascinate me so much – how we are in the place where we’re in at any given moment, not so much because of our deliberate choices (no matter how much we like to think that’s the reason), but because of chance, accidents and the good and evil that’s happened in the past.

But Fargo was also about the nature of truth – and how much of what surrounds us, and what we construct our lives around is just fable, myth and self-serving lies – but – BUT – truth does exist. There is a true story, and there are, indeed, still small voices in our midst, doggedly witnessing to that truth, usually at a great price.

Fargo begins and ends with interrogations of accused men by government officials.

(My discussion will be as spoiler-free as possible. So if I’m vague…that’s why.)

The first scene of the series us to East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A man has been hauled in for questioning. He protests his innocence and indeed maintains, with increasing panic, that he is not the man accused and there is no rational reason to suppose him to be.

Fargo

The government official, cool and calm in his assertions, constructs a narrative, and the narrative is that the man in front of him is guilty. He is imposing a new identity on this man, and this narrative that he is a criminal is now the “truth.” It is now a true story.

The series ends in another small room, decades and half a world away from the first scene. Another government official sits behind a desk facing another accused man. Truth again is the issue, but this time, the dynamic is different. The official and the accused face each other, each maintaining the truth of their stories. Identity is again at the core, but now the roles are reversed. The accused has assumed identities in order to avoid detection of his criminal activities, and the official is maintaining, calmly and coolly, that she knows the truth of who he really is. She knows the true story.

There is only the faintest direct connection between the two scenes – one figure common to both narrative strands – who is, by the way, not physically present in either one. But this character’s existence serves to reinforce that other important Fargo theme of the role of random human connection in the course of life.

In between the two scenes are ten episodes in which characters are seduced by greed, deluded, killed, in which they face the truth and construct more lies, and most of the time face the consequences of their actions as the universe – bizarre and mysterious, but ultimately just, it seems – doles them out.

For the reason the events in that last scene came to the point that they did are this, in part:

Decades ago, someone traveled to Los Angeles with literary and filmmaking stars in their eyes, was exploited and mistreated, and bearing the physical consequences of this mistreatment, decided to leave it all behind, including his identity, and change his name to one he saw on a toilet bowl.

And

Decades ago, two brothers (ah…here we are) watched their father die. One brother knew the real value of the inheritance and tricked his brother into letting him have what was most valuable, traded for what the younger brother thought he wanted and needed at the moment, but was of little value beyond that immediate moment.

And here we are in this moment – dealing with the fallout and making our own present-day choices, carrying that weight.

Given that this is a crime drama, of course the choices are heightened and expressive of the most deadly sins – primarily greed and pride – always pride – here. And you watch fargoalong, filled with dread as characters you know have a glimmer of good in them insist on making decisions that range from the stupid to the short-sighted to just evil.

Along the way, Fargo gives us gorgeous cinematography, memorable images and intriguing metaphors – bridge plays a huge role, and along the way we dip into Peter and the Wolf, and find ourselves in a mystical bowling alley – a la Big Lebowski, but different – and excellent acting. Ewen McGregor plays both brothers, and while some critiqued his accent at times, I thought he was fabulous – the greatest challenge being when McGregor must play the brother Ray pretending to be his brother Emmitt.

Fargo_-_Emmit_and_Ray_Stussy

The central character here, though, is really the villain – one mystery man V.M. Varga, played by David Thewlis, whom some of you might know from Harry Potter – he played Professor Lupin.

In Fargo, Varga is the man in charge of some sort of mysterious global entity that steps in to loan Emmit Stussy – the Parking Lot King of Minnesota – some money. The trouble begins when, seeking to repay the loan, Stussy discovers that he’s been had – that the money was not so much a loan as a buy-in to the company, and bit by bit, Varga and his people are taking control.

How sin begins: We open ourselves up to a bit of shadow, and find ourselves in its grasp.

Varga, played by Thewlis is mesmerizing and -yes – disgusting. The character is bulimic. He gorges himself with all manner of food, methodically and greedily, and then vomits it out. As a consequence, his teeth are rotting away – the work of stomach acid. Food is not nourishment here. It is something else, something to fill need both deep-seated and pressingly immediate, then to be vomited out.

FARGO -- Pictured: David Thewlis as V.M. Vargas. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX

Varga’s bulimia is echoed in his other actions, as he takes in more and more money, more and more property, and vomits it all out in the form of, first of all elaborate self-justifying tales of false history presented as fact, and secondly, human lives.

This character is, to me, an embodiment of the deadly sins, as he perverts what is good, ingests it, takes it all into himself, but for no purpose except for the consumption, discards it, spews out self-justifying lies, and ultimately rots away.

The villain in the first season of Fargo was named Malvo and was played by Billy Bob Thornton, who is always a pleasure to watch in anything, even when he’s playing a villain. Some critics prefer his villain to Varga, but to me, there’s no contest. Thornton was good, but there was an element of the plot and character that I found so unrealistic – even in the heightened, unrealistic world of Fargo – that I lost interest in him. (If you watched it – I’m talking about the dentist part). Varga was weird and lived on a level of exaggeration, to be sure, but there was, at times, fear in his eyes. He wasn’t invincible.

Which, lest you think this is all about the darkness, is the point. As is the case with every Fargo iteration, the beating heart of the series is a police officer – usually female – who is doggedly and patiently pursuing the truth and believes in justice. Here, she’s played by Carrie Coons (of HBO’s The Leftovers) and the character is certainly more than just a symbol of conscience. It’s her stepfather whose murder sets off another chain of events in the series, and although she is not onscreen as much as other characters, it’s clear she is subject to the same dynamics of the universe as they are: she is in the place she is in, both professionally and personally, because of weird, random things that happened in the past. What to make of it all? What’s the truth? And how do you live with it right now?

 

We like to think that life, as we’re living it, is the result of conscious choices that we and others have made.  We read history this way, don’t’ we? We know how the story ends, so we read it as a narrative with decisions and steps leading up to that ending.

But it’s not that way. The way it is, instead, is a way of missteps and accidents, and while I can know some of it, most of it I won’t know.  We do live in the midst of a narrative, but it’s not because there’s no True Narrative to be known – it’s because we’re too small, as God tells Job, to even begin to grasp it. But someday, we will. We cling to hope that we will, we try to find the True Story as we go, and try not to fabricate too many false narratives on the way.

That mystery and strangeness is at the heart of life, and it’s at the heart of the Scriptures – a messy narrative full of human weakness, a story of God working and ultimately victorious, not just through the saints and their great works, but even through the poor sinners  and their weaknesses, crimes and lies.

 “Are you really my son Esau?” 
“Certainly,” Jacob replied….

****

Note: I have a theory about the connection between the bowling alley and Nikki’s fate – but I’ll wait to discuss it in the comment section at some point. 

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