The World’s Most Eccentric Billionaire

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Project #1

Build a custom car (MINOCAR) with horns on the front and ropey tail on the back and endlessly circle the various lettered roads of upstate New York, tailgating, running passenger vehicles into ditches, and snarling traffic wherever possible.

Project #2

Produce West Side Story remake taking place in Canada, complete with fight scene/musical numbers largely involving gang members apologizing politely to one another for accidentally crossing turf lines and/or stabbing one another.

Project #3

Post exorbitant bounties on various Hollywood personalities/politicians/news media icons.

Project #4

Build worse mousetrap, then hype it up to make everyone think it is better.

Project #5

Pose as masked vigilante: steal iPhones and replace with Androids.

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Tragedy and Comedy

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As I’ve posted earlier, I’m re-reading the Silmarillion, and this week’s readings have brought me to the passages that are among the highest – and lowest – in this whole book of profound joy and sorrow: the stories of Beren and Luthien, the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, and Turin Turambar.  And this gets me to thinking, as it often does, about the nature of comedy and tragedy and how they function in our artistic world today.

Common wisdom reveals that tragedy makes for almost universally higher art than comedy.  Shakespeare’s comedies, while often powerful and admirable, are almost always revered less than his four great tragedies.  Likewise, Aristotle held that tragedy far outshone comedy (which may well be a product of that culture alone: Aristophanes does seem to rely fairly heavily on the Greek equivalent of fart jokes).  And all of these observations would seem to be confirmed, if on a fairly shallow level, by our own artistic landscape’s insistence on equating “dark” or “edgy” material with maturity and worldly-wisdom.  (I’ll not dwell on that subject – my thoughts on nihilism are well-documented)  But I think, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, that this is largely a blind: tragedy is simply easier to pull off well than comedy is.

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How and Why We Read

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In an effort to combat the usual bout of melancholy I experience around November, I’ve started re-reading The Silmarillion, which is, if challenging, a book of such incredible beauty, sadness, and insight that I find myself returning to it on a near-yearly basis.  And while I may spend a post in the coming weeks writing about its many virtues, I think what is most on my mind now is more general and theoretical, dealing with why we return to books frequently, more than just reading them once for pleasure, as my thinking on this point is very much influenced by C.S. Lewis’ Experiment in Criticism, which proposes to think of criticizing books in terms of the reasons we read, and re-read, them.

See, Lewis’s thesis in the book is: while it is difficult to assess the value of a book from some theoretical objective standpoint, we may consistently judge a work of literature according to the way in which readers approach it.  A commercial mystery novel, for example, is rendered valueless as soon as the mystery is solved.  The reader will not return to the book, but instead search for a new mystery to solve.  But we read and re-read books like The Silmarillion, or Shakespeare, or the Bible for different reasons, and with different results.  I re-read The Silmarillion because I wish to see its beauty; I wish to study the way Tolkien unfolds his themes throughout the book; I wish to savor its language; I wish to spend time in his world, which even in its tragedy, often seems more just and good than my own.  I re-read the Bible to drive home its wisdom; to explore the teachings of God and Christ about Himself and ourselves; I wish to reaffirm its moral teachings and see the way it interacts with my life at this time.  Some books, like Fahrenheit 451 I re-read because they remind of my youth and because I simply like the story.  Some, like Invisible Cities, I read to inspire me and start my brain wandering.  Others, like The Man Who Was Thursday, I find a consistent source of consolation.  And others still, like Crime and Punishment or King Lear, are puzzles of human behavior I strive to understand and resolve.

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Art and Wonder

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So this week I couldn’t find the time to post, but last night I saw Interstellar and I want to talk about it.

Interstellar is a movie that is, at its heart, about survival, and the extreme lengths we are willing to go to do it.  This is its thematic heart and backbone, but its soul is about exploration and wonder.  And maybe it’s hard for the movie to reconcile these two subjects, along with its emphasis on a sort of transcendent love, but when I have spoken about what makes a work of art valuable in the past, one of the primary criteria I keep returning to is that it fulfills something for us that is rare or unique to the work.  And though we might well criticize Interstellar for its metaphysical and thematic failings, I feel positively compelled to recommend it on the basis of instilling a sense of wonder, which is something I experience less and less in art recently.

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Random Things I’ve Enjoyed Lately: Halloween Edition

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Happy Halloween and welcome to a special edition of things I’ve enjoyed lately.

1. Hand of Fate (Video Game): This is an early access game on Steam that does theming so well, it’s easy to ignore the few bugs and unfinished details hanging around the game as it enters its last stages of completion.  The game is very personal: it pits the player against the dealer, an arbiter of fate itself, whose calm, authoritative narration begins as an encouraging guide and gets gradually more competitive as you overcome his challenges.  But the fate you endure is represented by decks of cards: one deck for your equipment, another for the encounters you come to, another for the monsters you encounter, another for blessings, another for curses, another for penalties, and so on.  The game proceeds like a rogue-like, offering randomized “floors” of encounters that you deal with one by one, gathering resources and equipment for your final confrontation against the bosses of ascending strength (represented by the face cards of four “suits” – dust, skulls, plague, and scales).

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Deus Ex Machina vs. Eucatastrophe

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Seeing as I’ve spent a good deal of time discussing happy endings, contemporary grimness, and the fundamental structural differences between so-called “realistic” storytelling now in vogue and more archetypal (and enduring) story structures, it seems that this discussion, which proposes to get at the fundamental difference between the two kinds of stories, was inevitable.  Deus Ex Machina is one of the bugbears of narrative style in this day and age, but Tolkien’s theory of eucatastrophe, which seems comparable, is the basis behind the wildly famous (and compelling) Lord of the Rings as well as The Hobbit (which leaves me with the thin shred of topicality for this discussion).  Are these concepts truly the same, and are they indicative of poor writing?

But first, let’s talk context.  Not so much because I suspect I need to define these terms, but so we can discuss them in the light I presently see them in.

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The End of Friendship

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People used to have a lot to say about friendship.  Aristotle wrote a long passage in the Nichomachean Ethics which described various forms of friendship and lauded true friendship as the highest relationship a person could have.  Cicero, likewise, had a great deal to say about friendship in his essay on the subject, though he was a good bit more cautionary, concerned as he was with the Roman political machine.  Perhaps one of the most recent writers to present one of these serious essays in the same vein – at least that I am aware of – is Montaigne, who was very much aware that the classical sense of friendship (the friendship of Cicero and Aristotle) was on the way out.  He admitted that it was rare and truly valuable to find a lifelong, true friend in his day and age – and he was writing in the 16th century.  Do we, then, have a chance at all?

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Realism vs. Artistry

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Once upon a time, back before the novel was an art form, art was unrealistic and nobody expected it to ever be anything else.  This is not to say that all art was downright fantastic: rather, there was an acknowledged artifice in the style and production of art that emphasized form over mimesis.  For instance, nearly all of the literary arts, be they poems, plays, epics, or otherwise, tended to be written in poetry, not prose.  And even when a work of prose was written (say, Malory), emphasis was not on internal consistency (Malory famously recalls the death of several knights multiple times) but on the arc and craft of storytelling.  Let us pause, then, for a moment, and consider the change between this outlook and the one we bear now, which often aspires to realism far over the artistry of a work.

At the time of my writing, my reading list has become very strange.  In my usual habits of reading one short story collection and one novel simultaneously, I have moved from reading P.K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and William Gibson’s collection Burning Chrome to reading Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and David Foster Wallace’s wonderfully-titled Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.  Now anyone familiar with David Foster Wallace’s work will know that he is always very conscious of his dealings with this realism/artistry tension: Infinite Jest is arguably a book that places this compositional decision center stage: every line bounces with enthusiasm and the plot is often absurd and fanciful, but the two characters he spends most of his time following represent these two poles of artistic delivery fairly strongly.  In the story collection I’m reading now, the stories are broken up with interludes – the titular “brief interviews” – written in conversational prose so closely attuned to our normal speech as to be almost impossible to read and understand at times.

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