•April 19, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Reading Gothic novels for my English class, I’ve entrusted myself to a few disreputable figures, two or three purveyors of romanticized terror whose obsessions have become my homework. These writers have duly rewarded my confidences by dragging me through their wonderful and horrifying passages, touring me through their nightmares and fantasies like curators of a fantastic museum. They take a lot of pride in their monstrosities.  Fresh from one of these literary misadventures – through one of Anne Radcliffe’s blighted monasteries – I could only nod at some of Michael Chabon’s descriptions of horror (both occur in his essay on McCarthy’s The Road):

Horror fictions proceeds, generally, by extending metaphors, by figuring human fears of morality, corruption, and the loss of self. The haunted house (or planet) the case of demonic possession, the nightmare journey to or through a charnel house, the transmutation of human flesh into something awful and foul, the exposed woflishness of men, the ineradicable ancestral curse of homicidal depravity… trade on these deep-seated fears, these fundamental sources of panic, and seek, to flay them, to lay them open, to drag them into the light.

And better still:

Horror grows impatient, rhetorically, with the Stoic fatalism of Ecclesiastes. That we are all going to die, that death mocks and cancels every one of our acts and attainments and every moment of our life histories, this knowledge is to storytelling what rust is to oxidation; the writer of horror holds with those who favor fire. The horror writer is not content to report on death as the universal system of human weather; he or she chases tornadoes. Horror is Stocism with a taste for spectacle.


to think for miles

•April 15, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Earlier this year I watched The Hours with my roommate, intended as part of a Sunday night sob-a-thon which culminated in our viewing of Angels in America. Despite the sorrowful events of the narrative, though, I found The Hours uplifting moreso that depressing. Something about its characters. They act with tremendous passion, make dramatic choices, seem to defy history and circumstance in their strenuous assertions of self. Even the suicides which bookend the movie are imbued with that psychic force. The work is deeply inspired by Virgina Woolf’s life and work, and I think it is fair to say that this portrayal of the human individual provides much of what is emotionally and psychologically compelling in her fiction. It’s what captivated me when I read Orlando, oh, two or three years ago. In her absurd romance, more about a kernel of a human being than any character, she follows a poetic mind that loves and creates over three centuries, changing genders, watching the forms of civilization mold and rot around Orlando’s timeless self.

Emerson’s early writing captivates me for similar reasons. His reveries for the self surpass even Woolf’s modernist awe. It is the object of Divinity, the center of his cosmos. It answers to nothing but its own intuition, imperial, expanding downward and heavenward. And its energy explodes off the world around it. I wonder how it would feel to live with such dynamism, to experience oneself only as an uninterrupted wave, fully integrated and unfettered for it?

It’s surely a romantic myth moreso than a possibility. I can’t even make sense of what, practically, living as an Emersonian self would mean. Bu, impractical as it may be, even the imagining of that sprawling self inspires a little awe.

it took five months

•April 14, 2009 • Leave a Comment

…but I think my state now has a second Senator. The one I voted for, though not enthusiastically. The campaign turned nasty, but the recount itself was pure Minnesotan: patient, bland, with all of us pretending we didn’t mind being imposed upon.

brooklyn ressurections

•April 13, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Craig Finn’s compromised Catholicism, moreso than the boozy, sexy, druggy stuff, is the core of the Hold Steady’s lyrical universe. I have no doubt that the boys in the band have partied hardily in their time, but singing about bar scenes and blackouts is rock and roll orthodoxy.  The seedy ciphers who stumble around their mean streets are named Gideon, Charlemagne, and Holly (that’s short for Hallelujah).

The Hold Steady are no one’s disciples if not Springsteen’s, and like him they can perceive the darkness on the edge of town.  Their characters have bad break-ups, though those are never as bad as their hook-ups. They overdose. And something darker? Does our lost party girl in “One for the Cutters” witness a townie’s murder – or commit one?  We don’t know what becomes of the protagonist in “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” but the narrator loses his faith as he watches her grow sick and bruised from drug use and domestic violence, missing church and selling her jewelry to pay for her habit.

Through all the grittiness, the Hold Steady always come back to Good Friday and Easter Sunday: betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection. Their Catholic imaginary always returns them to the theme of redemption. That’s why they can release an album with both of the songs described above under the title Stay Positive and mean it sincerely. Unlike most of their peers in the indie scene, the Hold Steady’s sensibility leaves no room for irony.

Rather, they write tragicomedies, set in a moral universe similar to Shakespeare’s romances. Tragedy, in its ancient and Shakesperean modes, is defined by it’s melancholy understanding of time. It flows only in one direction, and all actions, though freely chosen, are irreversible. We can only watch their consequences roll  darkly outward. The romance promises reconciliation. Shakespeare’s always end in weddings and reunions, with the reforging of what the tragic imagination must leave permanently broken. Whereas community and self there dissolve into violence, the romantic conceit is the reversal of the Fall. It is Messianic. The New Testament is the most auspicious romance ever penned. In it, reunion does not end with the human family split at Eden, but even  bridges the unbridgeable chasm between God and human kind. That kind of romance has little sway among indie ironists – even the ultra-sincere Arcade Fire cannot muster such redemptive optimism.

But so goes Finn’s Catholic rock and roll romance.  Even the worst decisions can be reversed. His characters frequently identify with Judas, and why not, for they betray themselves constantly. They throw themselves into rivers, wander drunk, collapse, take too many drugs. And yet nothing is ever lost for good. The drug addled protagonists of “Killer Parties” might depart from their bodies, but they always wake up in Ybor City.  Halleljuah the hoodrat, “She’s been stranded at these parties/ these parties they start lovely but they get druggy and they get ugly and they get bloody” – and she disappears. But  that’s not the end of her. “She crashed into the Easter Mass with her hair done up in broken glass/ she was limping left on broken heels/when she said Father can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”

That track, “How A Resurrection Really Feels,” shows up on Separation Sunday. And careful listeners will realize that the woman who struggles two albums later on “Discouraged” – that’s the same Hallelujah. Still disappearing, still roughed up, but Finn already knows that in the end, old Holly’s gonna “walk on back.

lost Ipod reflections

•April 11, 2009 • Leave a Comment

1) When I work out now, I am the mercy of the DJs. On Wednesday I was lifting weights and “I Would Die 4 U” from Purple Rain came on and it struck me that, proto-AIM speak aside, that’s a horrible lyric but Prince makes it sound compelling. Lyrically the song describes a romantic love that becomes messianic, “Im not a woman/Im not a man/I am something that youll never understand.” “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” from Sign ‘o’ the Times also depicts Prince as frustrated by the inadequacy of being merely male and trying to express love.

2)  I am buying a new nano, and deciding on a color. I like how the oranges and yellows look, but my taste in music is not orange or yellow. It sounds like a deep color more than a bright color, so I’m inclined to buy purple. My first ipod was blue.

3) I would also like to engrave a quote. Here I’m inclined to repeat because the quote on the previous Ipod comes from “Shine a Light” which is a personal icon. “Make every song you sing your favorite tune” was the line I used, and I can’t think of anything better.

Because I’m taking a class on Gothic novels and a class on Transcendentalism I’ve been in kind of a Romantic mood.  Fortchoming: what I like about the young Emerson, what I find incredibly Romantic about the music of the Hold Steady.

and its Pride month at Carleton

•April 8, 2009 • Leave a Comment

A few posts pack, when I was railing about the manifold idiocies of a certain ecclesiastical windbag, I noted that I do not like to post on current affairs when I can only contribute my outrage. I have absolutely no such reservations about discussing current affairs when I bring only my pride. It’s rare enough that I find anything to celebrate in the headlines.

On the front page of the New York Times: Vermont legislature overrides Governor Jim Douglas’ veto, making it the first state to legalize same-sex marriage via legislature.

On the front page of DC recognizes same-sex marriage rights via assembly. The outmoded colonial governance of DC by the federal legislature may yet stamp out this victory, but for now, the council has spoken unanimously that same-sex couples ought to have their marriages recognized in the district.

And further: Legislators across the northeast, perhaps inspired by the news from Vermont and Iowa, are moving forward with same-sex marriage rights. “New York, New Jersey, Maine and New Hampshire are among the states where such proposals have gained legislative support in recent months.”

I remember an acute moment of despair, from election night, when the campus was consumed with joy, but my friend, a lesbian, and myself read the news from California and wondered what chance there could be for our equality if even that state could fail to protect us. I think the sense of loss was amplified in its contrast with the ebullience of the night: it seemed like the whole nation was making a phenomenal leap, but in doing so had left us behind, that the new democratic vision still could not contain us.

But some days you can feel the world turning forward.

mechanicsm and expression

•April 5, 2009 • Leave a Comment

A year after he wrote it, Joseph Leray’s essay on Shadow of the Colossus still makes a concise entry into one of the most important neglected aspects of video game design, namely, how the phenomenlogical experience of learning and utilizing the game’s controls can reinforce or undermine the emotional and narrative aspects of the game.

Take the grabbing mechanic for example. In order for Wander to grab onto things — ledges, walls, colossi — the player must hold down the R1 button. The distinction is subtle: You don’t just push R1, you have to hold it. The physical associations between holding onto a ledge and holding down the R1 button allow the player to always have a connection with Wander. Similarly, to attack a colossus, the player must press the O button once to raise his sword, and O again to strike. Again, the player is never separated from Wander and controls all his physical actions, that is to say there is never a rift between what’s happening on-screen and what’s happening in your hand.

This choice is inherent in the rest of the game as well. You have to find the Colossi, ride across an entire continent, and then figure out how to kill them. You have to want them to die. The game forces you to make decisions about whether or not to attack the Colossi, a choice you have to make over and over, at each step of the way. Even when you’ve climbed the colossus, found his weak spot, you have to choose again — will you push O a second time and strike? Will you push O a last time and actually kill the Colossus?

These moments can be incredibly poignant, and I would go as far as to say that Shadow of the Colossus is the only game in which “no” is an acceptable answer to those types of questions — all because of the way the controls are mapped.

If video game violence is ever going to serve a function beyond gory escapism, these are precisely the frontiers that need to be explored.  Shadow of the Colossus is still a unique game, one of the fewer-than-a-dozen currently existing titles which I would consider an “art candidate.” It’s lesson, I think, is especially applicable to RPGs, which given their narrative sweep are often classed amongst the artiest of video games. Unfortunately, their strategic take on combat tends to mechanize it to the point where individual confrontations can feel utterly meaningless – the gratuitous random encounters, the maze of menus.

One RPG I’ve admired for it’s integration of mechanism and theme is Persona 3. In this game, the protagonist’s combat skills are tied to the maintenance of social bonds with friends and lovers, but the final battle in the game, with an occultist embodiment of Death, turns out to be fruitless and irresolvable – in a sense, refuting the standard gamer’s approach to the title, which is to instrumentalize the relationships in service of combat strategy. The gamer is, effectively, challenged to find meaning in relationships which cannot “solve” the protagonist’s dilemma or assist him in overcoming Death.  The following game, Persona 4, takes this a step further. By forcing the player to choose how to allocate time between social relationships and combat/leveling, the game challenges the player to establish a set of priorities and preferences in which it is possible and acceptable to deprioritize the violent confrontations which are typically assumed to be the heart of this sort of game. Then, by extending the option to replay the game with perfect knowledge of its plot and temporal rythym, the player must decide what to do differently, whether they struck the right balance the first time through, whether they are happy with the relationships they cultivated. It’s not eternal recurrence, but it is enough to prompt some tough decisions.