Quote of the Year

"Joss Whedon needs his own network."

- David Utsler, responding to the cancellation of Dollhouse.

Vagrant Thought

If Al Gore had won the presidential election in 2000, would George W. Bush have made a pro-oil-drilling movie called A Convenient Truth?

Favorite Films Made in My Lifetime: 4-2

We’re getting close to the end of my in-no-way fixed list of favorite films that were made in my lifetime. You can read the previous entries here, here, here, here, and here.

Whit Stillman’s Barcelona comes in fourth place, although his other two films, both on my list, could easily take its spot. Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman play Ted and Fred, two Americans residing in Barcelona around the end of the Cold War. Ted works in sales; Fred is in the Navy. As he does in his other films, Stillman swims as a playful yet observant explorer within the deep and mysterious culture wherein he sets his story. And, as is his style, he relies heavily on his gift for smart, reference-heavy dialogue to reveal the wonders of that culture. He throws Ted and Fred in over their heads in a foreign world in which anti-American sentiment is high and sexual revolution is just starting to change the tide. Here’s a short scene:

Being John Malkovich is the philosopher’s dream movie. Director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman give us what I’d call the finest cinematic work of speculative fiction ever—well, at least that I’ve seen. Jonze and Kaufman would have made a great film had they kept the action around the original wonder – John Cusack finding a portal into the body and being of actor John Malkovich – but the two don’t stay in orbit. I won’t say where they go, but I will reveal that they fashion a brilliant mythology that has more philosophical significance in one of its minutes than the Matrix films have in their entirety. Philosophy profs could use this film as the basis for curriculums on ethics, metaphysics, existentialism, personalism, utilitarianism, aesthetics, perception, technology, and identity, to name just a few; but the film is, at its core and throughout its scenes, a work of art in which character and dramatic conflict reign.

John Cusack also stars in my second (and sometimes first) favorite movie, the serious comedy High Fidelity. After his girlfriend leaves him, Rob Gordon (Cusack) reminisces about his top-five most memorable break-ups and then decides to call up each one in a quest to discover why he seems doomed to be alone. High Fidelity might be called a comedy of the modern male psyche, or, at least, the psyche of love-sick, commitment-allergic modern male, assuming there’s a difference.

John Crosby on von Hildebrand’s The Nature of Love

Personalist philosopher John F. Crosby, one of my teachers during my often reminisced university days, has written an introductory study to his newly published translation of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s The Nature of Love. In the first part of his study, Crosby goes over the basic themes of von Hildebrand’s ethical philosophy, and in the second part, he brings von Hildebrand’s philosophy into dialogue with the contemporary phenomenological work of Jean-Luc Marion.

Though von Hildebrand was one of the initial figures I studied when my academic wanderings took me to the well-lit but shadow-heavy halls of philosophy, I never considered myself a von Hildebrandian or a follower of this thought. Even back then, when I could entertain the idea of flirting with Thomism, I found him too much of a realist for my liking. Nevertheless, I welcome his contributions to philosophical knowledge, and, if I may dare to opine, being out of my element, I believe his legacy is best served by bringing him into dialogue with the larger phenomenological field. I’m thankful that Crosby has done this here. Others have as well. David Utsler, for example, has related the phenomenology of von Hildebrand to the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. Perhaps we’ll someday soon see von Hildebrand receiving a fair showing at SPEP. (VN)

Merry Christmas

“Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

- Teilhard de Chardin

Driving is a Life Issue

If I were a less attentive cyclist, I would probably be dead, or screaming in pain, my fatless frame spread-eagled across some poor, inattentive driver’s hood. Not that some cars wouldn’t benefit aesthetically from my attractive body displayed across the front. The simple hood ornament is so very yesterday. Life-sized figurative car art: that’s the future.

Yeah, I almost got run over today. I almost get run over a lot of days, as the suburban drivers in the Dallas area raise negligent driving to an art-form. They all seem to follow the same illegal and unsafe rules, such as placing the back tires on the thick white line before an intersection. Very few people seem to walk anywhere; cities in Texas don’t generally seem made for pedestrian travel, and so drivers making right-hand turns can, perhaps, be forgiven for looking only to the left before turning. Thing is, I am often on the right, ready to cross, having the right of way, staring at the back of the soon-to-be-turning driver’s head who has no thought to the possibility of my existence. I could deal with people not knowing I exist when I was in high school. On the road? Not so much. So I wait, sometimes pretending to move forward while keeping myself out of harm’s way, just in case the driver happens to turn his head to gain a newfound appreciation for looking toward the exact spot he plans to drive over. I’ll always be a teacher, even if I’m not in the classroom.

These near-near-death experiences have got me thinking more about a friend of mine’s argument that how we drive is an important life issue. I see his point first hand. There really is a pro-life way of driving and an anti-life way of driving. With all due disrespect, I must say that Dallas area drivers don’t strike me as the most pro-life of drivers. To say many of them are reckless is an understatement. I’ve driven in a number of these United States, and the drivers here are the worst I’ve seen. Ohio drivers who go three mph under the speed limit in the fast lane of the freeway are the most annoying. I don’t have a solution to my daily cycling dangers, but I mention all this in hopes that someone who nearly has, nearly will, or really will paint his car Kyle might think twice before blindly turning right. (VN)

Favorite Films of My Lifetime 7-5

I have no partiality to disco music and know next to nothing of the genre or the culture, and yet I love Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco. Why? For many of the same reasons that I love his other films: unique, memorable, talky characters, delightful acting, and Stillman’s clear love of language, discourse, and dialogue. Consider the characters’ discussion about the Disney movie, Lady and the Tramp, embedded below. Notice that that the conversation isn’t just about the typological characters in the cartoon. The glances the speakers and listeners give to one another, the subtle and not-so-subtle emotions they display, and the sides they take in the debate reveal that the conversation is really about some of them. It works on its own while also working to develop the characters and advance the plot. Stillman performs the very literary technique he has characters discussing. As much as I enjoy Quentin Tarantino’s witty reference-heavy dialogue, I say Stillman tops him.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind comes from the mind of Charlie Kaufman and takes place mostly in the mind of Jim Carrey. The comedy actor, here displaying reserve and quiet desperation, plays Joel Barish. After learning that his girlfriend Clementine, played perfectly by Kate Winslet, has had the memory of their relationship erased from her mind, decides to undergo the brain-damaging procedure himself. The story follows Joel, inside his own consciousness and unconsciousness, and now regretting his decision while the technicians (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood) pinpoint and erase memory after memory, fleeing with his memory of Clementine, desperately searching for a remembered place the two can hide so that she is not forever lost to him. Time, identity, memory, and loss are so poignantly portrayed, I’m not sure I could watch it right now, so soon after the loss of my daughter Vivian. I was actually reminded of this film in the brief time of her life, knowing we had fewer and fewer moments remaining before she was lost and memories began to fade.

I can’t stand didactic movies, especially the type in which everything from the plot to the characters serves merely as a means to propagating a message or moral. David O. Russell’s Three Kings in unabashedly political, but Russell, while not hiding his views, doesn’t let his story become slave to them. His concern is with his characters, the difficult moral decisions they have to make, and what consequences those decisions have for the plot. At the end of the Persian Gulf War, U.S. soldiers looking for some action go in search of gold they believe might exist after secretly confiscating a map taken out of Iraqi prisoner’s rear end. Their search brings them into the lives and deaths of Iraqi civilians who are prisoners to Saddam Hussein’s troops. Three Kings refrains from making a sure statement about the justice of the war, instead focusing thematically on the materialism and consumerism that pervades across cultures.

Two Kinds of Care

The Christian martyr reveals a way of caring that’s incompatible with the kind of care urged by those preachers of political salvation I’ve talked about lately. At the heart of Christian martyrdom is a response of love not only to the revealed Christ, but also to the one who murders. The martyr says to her murderer, “I die for Christ who died for you.” She witnesses to the love of God in the sacred hope that her sacrifice will speak to her murderer’s heart and mind. She therefore cares more for her murderer’s spiritual salvation than for her own physical life. She cares more for the eternal fate of the guilty than for the temporal fate of her own innocent self. The preachers of political salvation, on the other hand, place their faith in the instruments of violence and their hope in human saviors. They love life, but it is the life of those they deem innocent that speaks to their hearts. For the salvation of the guilty, they have no care. (VN)

A Morally Relativistic Gospel

Mark Shea directs my attention to a defense of torture by Rep. Aaron Schock, who doesn’t muddy the waters with euphemisms, but says plainly, “I don't believe that we should limit waterboarding – or, quite frankly, any other alternative torture technique – if it means saving Americans' lives." Shea draws out some flesh and blood ramifications of this sort of thinking. Of course, if physical salvation really is the greatest good, as it is all too often positioned, then anything of lesser value, which amounts to everything, can and should be sacrificed in its name. The saviors of Americans’ lives raise all manner of sins to virtuous and heroic deeds. Relativism reigns, as our saviors and their defenders, such Rep. Schock, posit a realm – acts intended to save Americans’ lives – as free from the applications of morality. If anything is justified as long as it saves American’s lives, then there is no moral truth that applies in all places, time, and circumstances. This is the ethic that accompanies the gospel of political and material salvation. (EC)

A Telling Example

Never having taken President Obama for anything resembling a peacenik such as myself, I wasn’t much surprised by his carefully crafted defense of perpetual war in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. You don’t become the commander and chief by subverting the country’s military basic structures and policies since the end of World War II. We’ve seen so many military operations since then that I cannot reasonably imagine most of them meet the terribly difficult conditions for just war. President Obama considers our past sixty years of sacrificed blood and shown strength of arms as having justly “helped underwrite global security.” “The instruments of war,” he says, “do have a role to play in preserving the peace.” As he uses as his example for this alleged truth six decades marked by hundreds of military operations, we mustn’t interpret him as defending war as a last resort or in accordance with traditional just war theory. Yes, he references the concept of just war and speaks of all wars as tragedies, but he nevertheless plays apologist for permanent war. Saying war is sometimes necessary doesn’t rule out a constant state of warfare, which he defends with his example. “Evil does exist in the world,” he says, and war is his response to evil. Obama attributes to the U.S. instruments of war a permanent salvific responsibility; in doing so, he preaches an idolatrous political and material gospel of salvation. (VN)

My Son Must Be a Ranger

He's not even in kindergarten, and my son Jonathan is correcting my pronunciation of amphisbaena, the mythical two-headed serpent that frequented medieval bestiaries. And here I thought that the realms of fantasy, mythology, and language were my areas of expertise.

Philosophers and Preachers

The philosopher is not a preacher. He may listen to preaching, as I do; but insofar as he is a professional and responsible thinker, he remains a beginner, and his discourse always remains a preparatory discourse.

- Paul Ricoeur
Would I be accurate in observing that many of our political pundits, commentators, and officials act more as preachers delivering Good News than as philosophers exploring questions? I suspect so. Much of what I see presented as political thinking, including from myself, bears greater resemblance to religious kerygma than philosophical inquiry.

I expect this, of course. That matters politicians and other political thinkers face are often urgent, temporally and ethically. Economic recessions, healthcare injustices, system breakdowns, military aggressions and the like may demand immediate responses. We simply don't have the time for philosophers to sit back in their comfy sofas, sip some whisky, ponder the roots of these complex problems in their contemporary instances, write and published peer-reviewed works, and influence the thinking of those tasked with taking action in the public sphere.

Still, while I cannot and should not expect cautious philosophical methodology in response to all our political problems, I remain nonetheless bothered by the complete lack of self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-suspicion of some those claiming to have the right solutions to our problems. These would-be political saviors, combining the airs of complete certainty and total truth, promise to lead us as close to paradise as humanly possible, if only we'll follow their policies and programs. They approach politics as a quasi-religion in which they are the prophets, knights, and preachers leading the way through the wilderness and warring against the falsifiers, heretics, and other villains.

I don't ask of our political thinkers that they comb the depths of political theory, but I do ask that they approach even our most pressing problems with a healthy doubt, humility, and self-criticism and with the recognition that there are more things in heaven and earth than our dreamt of in our philosophies. (VN)

Vagrant Thought

My son has mastered the imperative mood. The interrogative mood? Not so much.


Though usually an advocate for thinking outside the box, I by no means dismiss the value of thinking inside the box, especially if the box contains a couple cases of Stella Artois or some glimmering bottles of Bushmills. The Persians, Herodotus tells us, reconsidered matters while sober after being drunk and also while drunk after being sober, within two different boxes we might say. Prudent people, those Persians.

Whether in a given situation it is better to think inside or outside the box is best answered, I dare say, on pragmatic grounds. Perhaps I only say this having just moved from one home to another. Some boxes work well for containing and carrying certain items and poorly for holding and moving others. Books, for example, are best shipped in smaller boxes. Filling a large Tupperware bin with hardback tomes guarantees not only torn muscles, but also severed friendships, or at least strong reluctance among friends to assist in any future moves. The mental boxes we use may likewise work well or poorly depending on the size, shape, and weight of the ideas we're thinking and the people to whom we convey our thoughts. It may also be worthwhile to think inside a particular box if more ideas can be contained within it or if the ideas already packed can be expanded or developed to fill the empty space.

Of course, few things are less wasteful than using a great, grand box to hold small, feather-weight items or ideas. It's not just the postmodernists who are incredulous towards space-wasting meta-boxes.