Childhood memories are difficult to pin down, but one that still remains vivid was my early love of dinosaurs. Of course a childhood fascination with dinosaurs is not unusual, but the distinct image of “the dinosaur”- depicted universally in dinosaur-themed paraphernalia through the 80s- is difficult to explain to those born after 1991. Long before Jurassic Park introduced realism to cinematic dinosaurs and well before revised scientific images added feathers and contours to make them distinctly animals, depictions of the ancient beasts vivified their Greek name. They were terrible lizards. Ravenous, dimwitted, cold-blooded, and above all primitive, “the dinosaur” existed as a nothing less than a primordial monster. Between the lethargic herbivores and unceasingly ravenous carnivores, there was nothing about the creatures that wasn’t rampant, unconstrained , and dominating. Less some animal that lived a long time ago, more a demon from a chaotic age that might not even exist in our epoch of reason without contaminating it with its own primordial nature.
One image in particular persists in my mind as an icon of what “the dinosaur” once was in the popular imagination. It is a painting of a late-Jurassic battle between an allosaurus and a brontosaurus. Depicted in a children’s book of dinosaurs, the image was nonetheless more gruesome than anything I had encountered as a young child. Even now, looking at the image as an adult, it is brutal. As the allosaur talons cut into sauropod’s flesh, streams of blood trickle down to the swamp and the gentle giant sways in agonizing throws. There even seems to be a sadistic joy in the countenance of the carnivore.
The caption originally included beneath the picture only added to the scene’s poignancy. Stuck in quicksand, the sauropod had been overtaken by an allosaur, a predator it could have otherwise fended off with ease. Though unable to escape its doom, in death the brontosaurus had collapsed and crushed its assailant. Thus, the futility of the scenario was further underlined. The agonizingly cruel death of the brontosaurus was mirrored seconds later by the ironically cruel death of the allosaurus. There was nothing that justified the fate, it existed as a product of the futile prehistoric world.
I have found myself reflecting more and more on such futility, not the least when contemplating our country’s current political situation. Sure enough, there might be much in the way of a comparison between the image of two fighting prehistoric beasts and the prospect of a Hillary vs Trump race this Fall. Perhaps, a more apt analogy yet might be the opportunistic and carnivorous Trump sinking his teeth into the immobilized and bloated body of a Republican establishment (probably only to be later crushed under that establishment’s decaying husk). But still, a more disturbing comparison is on my mind.
At this point in 2016, a significant amount of commentary has comprised of “experts” castigating this election’s descent into coarseness and violence as “unprecedented”. More historically-minded pundits have been quick to point out that this might be better characterized as a throwback to a type of politics historically common in 19th century, but long since out fashion. While rare in our modern advanced age, the narrative goes, 2016 is a temporary lapse into a violent populist mode, likely never to be repeated again. But even as I am assured that our politics will momentarily return to their mundane pattern of stale choices and consistent growth, I am troubled once more by a vision of “the dinosaur”.
There was one way that the antediluvian depictions of “the dinosaur” were accurate. There was a certain insight in the visions of unfeeling titans battling in the shadows of dimly-lit volcanoes. For all their manifest inaccuracies, the old pictures captured a truth neatly hidden away in our modern understanding of living creatures, ancient or otherwise. The truth is nothing less than the fact that animals, in their natural element, embody all the cruelty and callousness of the universe that spawned them.
It is easy to forget that when most of our interactions with animals are filtered through the lens of domestication, science, or art. The subtle censorship of the textbook encourages us to think of animals as dissected specimens, just as our experiences with domesticated companions encourages the view that they are anthropomorphic furry humans. But these fictions are paper thin, made obvious in any encounter with a wild animal. The cruelty of animals is one of the truest things about them because their violence is a product of the Darwinian forces that shape every moment of their natural lives.
Nature has a demonic element in its core, and it is a nature that humans share, no matter how our culture tells us otherwise. In modern times perhaps Nietzsche did the most to remind us of this base reality. But it was a fact well known to the ancient Greeks. Even the medieval craftsmen were aware of this chaotic nature in man and beast, and carried it forth in their depictions of animals and wildmen. Could the 20th century popularizers of dinosaurs have unwittingly rediscovered this oft-forgotten truth?
This brings me back to our present political reality. Although I am not one prone to alarm, there is indeed a reason to be unsettled by auspices hinted at in the rise of Trump, Putin, and ISIS. Regardless of what we might be tempted to think, these actors are not historical anomalies, the persistence of our civilization is. And while it might be true that our present crop of strongmen are passing,
so too is the long illusion of continuous progress and ever-increasing economic growth that sustained the previous order. We are in a dying era and everyone, left, right, and center feels the foundations shifting beneath their feet.
It is fashionable to talk of the advancement of human civilization and the spirit of the age. But wise philosophers have long known that Olympian edifices are built upon the bones of the chaotic giants. In fact, the truly wise have known that the giants are not dead, but merely sleeping. When we hear the rumbling of their disquieted slumber, we might be reminded that on any given day the demons of the ancient world may rise in rage against our modern illusions. Because, whatever part of our own lives are folly, their hunger for dominance is real.
I struggle with expressing this sentiment, mostly because I am aware how unoriginal it is. As such, I hope to close my speculation with words from the poet W.B. Yeats, who said it best of all.
I recently recorded three of my favorite essays by G.K. Chesterton.
First “A Piece of Chalk”, a reflection on the little ironies in creation.
Second, “On Man:Heir of All Ages”, Gilbert’s perspective on the inheritance of history and religion.
Lastly, “The Medical Mistake” where Chesterton famously answers the question”What’s wrong with the world?”
I run a small book discussion group through my local parish. This year, in coordination with the Pope’s own advice, we are tackling Dante’s Divine Comedy. In Fall we finished Inferno. This Lent we read Purigorio, then Paradiso after Easter.
For a while I have considered blogging about this project. Certainly re-reading the Comedia has changed my perspective on theology and the history of Catholic thought.
However, probably the single greatest insight I have gotten from re-reading Dante is just how much community means when experiencing a work of fiction. I first read and discussed the Inferno as part of a general-ed literature class in college. The impression it made on me would be hard to understate. With both Professor and students eager to dismiss the work as a grand Florentine revenge fantasy, the poem was quickly used to bolster my already unflattering view of the Medieval mind.
Needless to say, revisiting Dante’s hell with a group of orthodox Catholics is very different. The theology built into every layer of the burning perdition is too sophisticated for any modern Catholic to dismiss. The sins that bring the souls to their eternal torment are a little too close for any modern Christian’s comfort. The experience is rich, chilling, but not easily explained in words
There are certain works of art that might only be authentically experienced from inside a certain community. I remember thinking this again when seeing the new Star Wars movie on opening night. Not being a fan myself, I could understand something key about the film just by being in the audience. It wasn’t just a matter of absorbing the excitement, I could -in fact- understand a very different message being communicated. To the audience there, The Force Awakens was a fresh story of redemption even if the individual plot points were, well totally predictable. It was a story about their community, and ,more importantly about what it meant to truly like Star Wars. You had to be among them to really understand that.
Generalizing, it might be worth trying to read a book popular with an antagonistic community this way. I can’t be the first Christian who has wondered what it must be like to read The God Delusion with a group of atheists. I read the book a while back and found it to be preachy, tiresome and self-righteous, but I know people who have read it lovingly over twenty times. Perhaps the true appeal of Dawkin’s labored tirade could be better understood through seeing it read and discussed inside an atheist book group. Might it be less an explanation of scientific fact than a story of community’s exodus, liberation, and rebirth? This would indeed be a greater story.
Last month, I came across a link for Doxacon, a convention for Orthodox and Catholic speculative fiction enthusiasts that is held yearly on both the west and east coasts. The event looks pretty neat, especially if you have a thing for priests in cassocks paired with Jedi Knights and lightsabers.
I certainly regret having missed the first two. Luckily enough the full audio of the event is now online. The podcasts are well worth a listen, especially for people interested in speculative fiction and classic Christian philosophy. Some gems that shouldn’t be missed:
- Chesterton, Lewis & Card – Approach to Worldbuilding – Leah Libresco gives another outstanding lecture
on interacting with a world that is more uncertain and mysterious than we might initially have anticipated. It reminds me a little bit of my own lecture on the cult of confidence, that is if my own lecture had been more interesting and included references to Narnia.
- You Got Your Christianity in My Science Fiction! – John C. Wright discusses incorporating religious themes into fiction. The author makes some interesting points about the assumptions that go into making narratives that work with readers and still carry a larger message.
- The Golden Path: Frank Herbert’s Dune as Religious Fantasy – This talk was an intricate look into the spirituality of the Dune series as well as the religious motivation of its author: Frank Herbert. Dune was my favorite sci-fi book back in high school and it’s nice to hear a new take on the series.
Those interested in the Seattle event might also want to check out the lecture discussing the relationship between communities and role-playing games given at the west coast event. I am not sure that I agree with the analogy between a role-playing game and the sixth-day of creation, but it’s an entertaining comparison.
I certainly will be at the 2016 Doxacon to blog if my schedule allows. Until then, it does look like there is more than enough content to chew on.
A reconceptualization of the classic distributist logo:
Perhaps more realistic than the original
A few months ago I debated atheist Jersey Flight over the idea of “moral realism” (e.g. the idea that moral statements refer to objective states in the universe). My case was that any conversation on ethics must necessarily presuppose moral realism in order to make any progress. The discussion is now posted on youtube.
You might notice that the video graphics are periodically replaced by captions that present counterpoints to my own arguments. These captions are a post-hoc reposte by Jersey (who edited the video), I may reply to some of his objections in the comments.
Please let me know what you think of the exchange either here or in the youtube channel comments.