See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Category Archives: Art

Loyalty is a Flaw

Life lessons come from strange places. I played a lot of a role playing games when I could as a kid, (and in Lewisian fashion, I no longer do childish things in secret as an adult) and one of them was 7th Sea. 7th sea was a lot of things to me, but most important is that it was a game about being a hero.

Heroes have been my moral lodestar since I was a child. I was introduced to C.S. Lewis in elementary school and it awoke a deep hunger. So I read. I read the Iron Man and Spider Man comic books, I read Star Wars novels, I read shōnen manga and I read Ender’s Game. I sensed, even then, that I was mostly reading the same thing over and over again, playing with the same themes, dressed up. It taught me a lot and made me a better person. I saw myself in nerdy Peter Parker, feared fear, anger and hate, and saw the monster every morning that Ender Wiggin saw in his mirror. A hero is defined by virtues and flaws, by character – allowing character to overcome the self in order to serve others.

A lot of reading led to a lot of role-playing games, and of those 7th Sea was the best. 7th Sea, now long out of print and development, is set in a fantastical version of 18th century Europe. It is a game of swashbuckling and sorcery, the kind that captured everything great about the Pirates of the Caribbean movies before the movies ever came to a theater near you. A cinematic game about heroes and villains. Mechanically, the game was inspired (though, I’ve come to realize, flawed) discarding realism in flavor of drama. Dice weren’t simulating reality – they were Drama Dice themselves, and they exploded on the table.

7th Sea allowed you to create a character that had an “arcana” – an especially powerful heroic virtue or heroic flaw. And in the middle of the flaw list, was loyalty. Mechanically, loyalty was obviously a disadvantage, a way for the game master to push players into dangerous situations by forcing a loyal character to refuse retreat from a wounded friend, even when the need was great. It still struck false in a game that otherwise captured heroes so well. After all, most of my favorite heroes were loyal, a virtue that all involved be they character, author, or reader, admired.

It took some life to really grasp why loyalty is a flaw. Some of it was realizing how much I forget about the people I thought I cared (positively, a little, negatively, a lot) about. The rest of it came from a few incidents where I did my best to publicly humiliate someone who had wronged people I cared about – more than I thought I had cared about them. I have come to see that in my worst moments I am the most damaged sort of pack animal – alone, but not a loner. I protect those I see as part of my pack, and it is an impulse spills out from a deep, deep well. I am loyal, and from time to time even heroically so. It is not such a good thing. There is a certain kind of desperation in the dark shadows of my soul, one that peaks erratically. The desperation corrupts the protective impulse like a cancer. The impulse to shield becomes the impulse to strike. A willingness to risk harm because a ruthless alacrity to risk doing harm. I become willing to hurt in order to prevent harm, to override what is willed in favor of what is best. Evil is fond of wearing the resolute mask of good.

There are a lot of excuses, but none of them carry. It is no help to say that violence is not my way, so little permanent hurt happens. It is of no help to say that they deserved it. It is of no help to say that the loyalty is appreciated by friends and that sometimes you really do need to transgress for the betterment of all. That good can come from evil impulse is a happy accident – or perhaps an intercession of Divine Grace – but it does not make that evil impulse good. Heroic loyalty is a form of selfishness. It is a an embrace of self-regard, a generosity delimited by the beholder’s preferences and wants. It is not about them in those moments of ruthless intercession, it is about me and what I will not allow to happen. Heroic loyalty puts the self in self-righteousness. To be heroically loyal is to reject obedience. Obedience to the rule of the community, obedience to a code of decency, obedience to the basic mutual respect of friends. The heroically loyal refuses to serve the greater good at the price of a friend, not because of the friend, but because of the fear of loss.

Heroic loyalty is a flaw because it comes from a fear of being alone with no pack to protect, and no reason to live on. A life lesson found in a child’s amusement.

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Unapologetic and the Mythteller’s Truth

I’m in the midst of slogging through Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why , Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense while the wife and in-law’s cavort at the Magic Kingdom, spared from my heat-aggravated boredom-induced grouch. “To slog” is a verb I usually reserve for pieces of writing I dislike but find important or necessary to consume – sort of the media consumption equivalent of shlep. For Unapologetic, it is a verb I use to indicate both profound suffering before difficulty and profound gratitude before salvation (as the text has been reminding me, these emotions come together for the Christian). My pace through the book has been incredibly slow because it is overwhelmingly good. Not a chapter has gone past without me needing to put the book down to let myself pause and digest.

Easily my favorite thing about Unapologetic is also my favorite thing about Christianity, because Spufford isn’t writing about Christianity, not really. Christianity, world religion has not yet made a significant appearance thus far in my read, and I do not expect it to. Neither has Christianity, Christmas-to-Easter-to-Pentecost narrative, although I’m sure that will come up. No, Spufford has been telling me the better Christian story, the age-old one about people, you, me, the not-quite-best of us  and the not-quite-worst of us. This, really, is the truth (both capitalized ‘T’ and uncapitalized ‘t’ versions of the word) that moves me as a Christian, the exact same sort of truth that the great myths tell.

Christianity is by the most useful definitions of the words (both subject and object of this sentence) a myth, but it is one I believe to be true, just as I believe that the truest expression of human nature is heroic, as the Ancient Greek poets, saturday morning cartoons and George Lucas all described in the only way they could, in story. Empirical data, never mind the empirical sciences that have sprung up as our tools for discovering and understanding that data, belies my belief in love and heroism and I know it as well as you do. Humans in the world. This is why the sciences, why “realism” is an essentially flawed tool for describing reality – because though we are ape-cousins-in-the-world we are also more than that. What is real about life is more than just the world, it is, at the very least, our aspirations and our awe. I want to talk about the whole of humanity, a real vital thing, more than random preferences stacked on top of biology and biography. For that, we need art to tell us the stories, tainted mirrors that can show us our true reflections.

I’ve had more than a few rationalists in my life look at me with irritation when I talk about myth and truth like that. As if I’ve gone daft, dumb or have just pulled some sort of dastardly deception – a bait-and-switch, complete with nefarious cackling and Fu Manchu mustache. I’ve never really known how to properly explain it, any more than even the most literate of deep water fish could explain the sensation of the ocean. My religiosity is not half my age, but my embrace of stories is older than my memory. (Really, it is atheists that seem to manage capturing the sensation best – Aaron Sorkin and J. Michael Straczynski are two of the best writers I’ve ever read when it comes to religious themes and characters.) All I can do is hope that the incredulity and incuriosity do not escape the silo labeled “religion” in their mind. Stories will take them like a thief in the night, burglarizing the non-place of their heart-of-hearts whatever they say and do in the world. Or so I pray.

Of course, stories have villains too – and worse they have tragedies. (As the Ancient Greeks and Lucas know well). I’m not sure joy could mean anything without despair in theory, but I’m sure it doesn’t in the world. It is imperfections, trade-offs and absurdities that stories transfigure into archetypes so that we may understand them. I dislike quoting from Unapologetic because Spufford has written something that can nearly only be read in full, against even the most ruthless of minimalist editors digressions survive. I think I must however, leave you with this:

If you tell somebody that, as a decent person, they cannot have done anything questionable, you may mean to be nice, but you are in reality denying them sympathy. You are refusing to go to them where they are, you are declining to join them in the emotion they are finding painful. Somebody who is accusing herself or himself of something may well be mistaken, factually or morally, in that particular instance; but not because they are incapable of wrongdoing. No one is incapable of wrongdoing, and we have to be allowed our capacity for HPtFtU if we are to have our full stature. Taking the things people do wrong seriously is part of taking them seriously. It’s part of letting their actions have weight. It’s part of letting their actions be actions rather than just indifferent shopping choices; of letting their lives tell a life-story, with consequences, and losses, and gains, rather than just be a flurry of events. It’s part of letting them be real enough to be worth loving, rather than just attractive or glamorous or pretty or charismatic or cool.

As with any man, it goes with Men.

The Futility of Fairness

My last post, a jumbled memoir covering my failures with foreign language and how that affected my relationship with my grandfather, left me in an unusual place as I committed the post Thursday night. Normally I go through the fairly cliched self loathing, and then either miss the deadline to clean up the piece, or simply commit and walk away. This is the first time in a long time I wrote something that was obviously inadequate, but I felt a responsibility to post as is.

Despite having a healthy ego as part and parcel of an otherwise unhealthy mind, I have a hard time calling myself “a writer”. Something about the words implies a level of both pretension and responsibility that I’m not yet prepared to face. There is no denying however, that I am engaged in the act of writing, and that does come with certain responsibilities. A typical memoirist differs from the typical autobiographer in that we are not important. We are not at the center of great events or public figures whose very nature is interesting. Instead, the memoirist uses writing skill to mine their own experiences, cutting a fine gem out the could-be-beautiful unhewn potential that all humanity shares. That, or you’re doing it wrong.

Sometimes, this time, that means exposing a lot of raw emotion. Writers are great charlatans, you see. No one talks with the clarity and artistry that you find in a good piece of writing. Not without preparation time and not when faced with something that truly matters. The experience of the moment is to be exposed, scattered and hurt. Humans, while being humans do not have the wit of a Aaron Sorkin character. Words tumble out, some brilliant, some terrible, some so very raw. They um and they er, and the err.

I erred quite a bit. Not just the quality piece itself, plenty of uncorrected moral errors abound. Many believe that the responsibility of a writer is to use their influence to promote fairness, or at least not to harm it. But what hold does fairness have over the truth? The truth is that the death of my paternal grandfather mattered more to me than the death of my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother. It isn’t fair. By an objective measure my paternal grandmother did at least as much for me, loved at least as much, tried at least as much, and died much more tragically. It isn’t just a personal unfairness either. No, my adoration of my grandfather is colored by deep cultural imperatives, gouged into my thinking. Is isn’t right to admire the scholar more than the housewife just because my cultural programming tells me to. There is a grave injustice that I value my grandfather more for fulfilling the gendered role expectations than I value my grandmother for doing the same. It isn’t fair that I love my paternal grandfather more than the others of his generation, but it is true.

This is where I am supposed to have some sort of prescription going forward. All I have is emotion in response to the demands for as all to be more just and more fair. In the the face of futility, all I have is despair.