The Revenant: A Savage Grace

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As a child I felt the call of the wild.  Jack London’s book sat on my bedroom bookshelf and every so often I would take and read.  Or rather, I would drink it in, as I did all of my favorite books, living moment by moment Buck’s eerie transformation from favored pet in sunny Santa Clara to wolf fiend of the Arctic.  Why did I love the tale?  Its cruelty held no charms for me, but its stark beauty captivated me.

One day my friends and I found a small, hurt animal – mouse, bird, I no longer remember what.  When one girl wanted to rescue it I spoke frostily of the law of club and fang until she protested, “Well . . . jeepers!”  That gentle “jeepers” sank its fangs into my soul.  Why would a Christian girl love The Call of the Wild? I decided I had overdosed on wolfish creatures (“They were savages, all of them . . . ”) and read London no more.

This past Christmastide I heard an NPR review of Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant and knew that I had to see it.  I had a professional motive, besides.  As a history professor specializing in the early nineteenth century, I did not want to be mauled by a student who had seen this film when I had not.  So, one fine Friday before the spring semester hit, I took myself to see The Revenant. Continue reading

Herodotus and Marmite

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The Greek historian Herodotus is very similar to the British condiment Marmite. You either love him or you hate him. As part of the former group, I believe that at least some of the animosity toward Herodotus comes from several misunderstandings about his history.

Herodotus is the anti-Wikipedia historian. He does not give us a collection of facts as much as series of stories. History for Herodotus can be found in what people say about themselves, others, and what we can deduce by comparing the stories, tales, legends, and reports from people around the Western world.

Perhaps more importantly, there is oftentimes a general misunderstanding of what he is trying to do in The Histories.

Among Herodotus’s earliest detractors, the 1st century BC Greco-Roman writer Plutarch rebuked him, saying:

The style … of Herodotus, as being simple, free, and easily suiting itself to its subject, has deceived many; but more, a persuasion of his dispositions being equally sincere. For it is not only (as Plato says) an extreme injustice to make a show of being just when one is not so; but it is also the highest malignity to pretend  to simplicity and mildness and be in the mean time really most malicious.

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Summer Reading II: C.S. Lewis

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My second blog on summer reading comes from a much overlooked book, C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism. Like so much of his writings, in An Experiment, Lewis is as prescient as he is original, arguing for a more well-rounded and robust reading culture. Only recently have others, like Alan Jacobs and David Ulin, begun to echo Lewis’s basic message about literature.

One of Lewis’s most important points is that at both a high-brow and low-brow level, there is “a confusion between life and art” in the practice of reading fiction.

At the lower level, this confusion is exemplified in the lust for sensational news stories. However, for Lewis, the more corrosive form happens “on a higher level” where:

it appears as the belief that all good books are good primarily because they give us knowledge, teach us ‘truths’ about ‘life’. Dramatists and novelists are praised as if they were doing, essentially, what used to be expected of theologians and philosophers, and the qualities which belong to their works as inventions and as designs are neglected. They are reverenced as teachers and insufficiently appreciated as artists.

The danger here is in losing any sense of literature as art, as something that was made. Lewis explains: Continue reading

My Favorite Russians

A version of this essay was published in the Gray Matters section of the Houston Chronicle on 27 December 2015.

It is impossible to explain Russia. But I have to try. http://www.houstonchronicle.com/local/gray-matters/article/It-is-impossible-to-explain-Russia-But-I-have-to-5979794.php?t=96073205e6&cmpid=twitter-premium via @HoustonChron

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This week I teach Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a wild ride of a novel that gets you into the head of a murderer.  It is heavy stuff, hard to read, and not because of the sentences.  You feel like you are on a roller coaster, in the mind of someone who might be a sociopath, or a political malcontent, or just a guy who is so crushed by poverty that he doesn’t really know what he is doing.

Except when he does.

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Even before William James was talking about “stream of consciousness,” before his brother Henry was becoming the father of the “psychological novel,” Fyodor Dostoevsky was writing the prose that happens after you have experienced things like flirting with political dissent, enduring the spectre of epileptic seizures, facing a firing squad.

I kid you not.

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