Friday, March 20, 2009

Battlestar Galactica & The House Next Door, Homelessness & Tragedy, and Wendell Berry on Modern White Society

In celebration of Battlestar Galactica's 2-hour series finale tonight, I wrote up a piece analyzing Juliet Lapidos' column over at Slate, entitled "Chauvinist Pigs in Space: Why Battlestar Galactica Is Not So Frakking Feminist After All." My response is called "Battlestar Galactica, Frakking Feminist: So Say We All!" and is posted over at The House Next Door, a wonderful and oft-updated blog for intelligent, serious, in-depth analysis of television and film. I recently got hooked on Todd VanDerWerff's thorough, essential weekly recaps of Lost and Battlestar, and after the penultimate Battlestar episode he opened up the floor for pitches from readers in light of the series' pending conclusion. I sent him my suggestion and he graciously had me write it up! So be sure to go check that out.

(Also: I started reading The House Next Door a month or two ago per reference by Drew McWeeny in his blog Motion/Captured, only to subscribe to it wholesale soon thereafter, stepping beyond and reading all the contributors' posts. It was then I discovered that, by a happy accident and to my great surprise, some of THND's contributors were writers from one of my favorite cinematic websites, Slant Magazine. Ed Gonzalez is Editor-in-Chief at Slant and has one of the most singular and insightful perspectives I have encountered in film criticism, and others -- Keith Uhlich, Fernando F. Croce, Jeremiah Kipp -- are current and former Slant writers I have similarly enjoyed on numerous occasions. Count me deeply humbled to post cinematic analysis of any kind (even if it is TV!) in the same online ballpark as them.)

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Upon returning from my the week-long road trip last Saturday, my laptop was working just fine. The next day, it was dead. Took it to the tech guy at Emory, and nothing. Not only was it dead -- the hard drive was zapped. Everything, gone, forever.

The experience reminds me of the summer of 2002, when my car was broken into and all my CDs (100+) were stolen, and about a month later my hard drive was accidentally deleted, with all the music from those CDs along with it. Now as then, it has been a relatively untroubled experience. Technology is technology: we can live without it; it's not a need. I have a backup from a couple months ago, and whatever was lost I can live without.

But, to some extent, of course, I've been feeling a bit sorry for myself. That, however, was until Tuesday night.

Tuesday is my night serving at the homeless shelter with a fellow Candler student. At dinner we ate with a man we'll call Joe, and he shared his story with us.

Just a week before, everything was fine. Then a freak electrical circuit accident in the walls, which started a fire while he wasn't home -- but his wife and daughter were. The house burnt down along with his daughter, who died from smoke inhalation before the flames got to her. He was able to rescue his wife, but not before she was so injured she fell into a coma soon thereafter and died four days later. He wasn't exactly of a "right" mind in the midst of all this, and his employer apparently decided to fire him. And so he found himself at our shelter, homeless (literally and figuratively), having buried his wife and daughter days before. On top of all of this, his wife's family created drama at the funeral over financial matters such that he had to walk out, and the insurance company was refusing to cover costs because people are intentionally burning their houses down so frequently nowadays.

This is where Joe was when we shared a meal with him on Tuesday. As he told his story -- obviously, and understandably, still in a kind of knowing denial -- I was physically overwhelmed to the point that I had to stand up and walk around just so I wouldn't start weeping right there for him. I couldn't believe it. Somehow this man was finding a way through this hell -- self-expressed by faith and hope, walking with God, "just surviving" -- and my thoughts are on a puny IBM Thinkpad hard drive when my wife is safe at home.

Joe does not exist to remind me to be thankful, and his tragedy was not "purposed" "for a reason." The world is a tragic and fallen place where horrific evil, unalterable injustice, and unexplainable accidents continue to happen. To twist them into lessons for sappy bourgeois comfort tales is a wrong so deeply inhumane it is harrowing how much we do it.

But all I can do is tell his story, and live with it. I'll see Joe next week, and while I have and will have nothing of meaning to say, I will come to him welcomed by him into his story, having walked in its knowledge all week. We forget these things happen. And, only because it is the truth, we ought to remember, at all moments, in all events, to be thankful for what we have been given. It is all I can do to honor him. And we must also remember that the church exists -- surely, if for a reason, this is it -- in order to welcome, suffer and mourn with, console, and provide for Joe. If the church is not "there" for Joe, in every sense of the word, we are a joke, a noisy gong and a clanging symbol only. May God continue to provide for Joe through his church. But more importantly, may God continue to suffer with Joe in this unspeakable time of silence and pain, and may Joe know that God is with him.

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In Wendell Berry's The Hidden Wound, after telling of his life growing up in rural Kentucky and the childhood relationships he formed with two adult African-Americans who worked on his grandfather's farm, in order "[t]o give a background to this relationship," Berry "sketch[es] out ... the dominant traits of the mainstream white society [he] knew as a child." I was profoundly struck by these words on the bus ride home today. His "sketch," as always, is prophetic and pertinent no less today, and I conclude by quoting it in full (pp. 65-67):
1. There had begun to be an urban impetus and orientation reaching all the way to the farms, the older farmers thinking of the city as the place for their sons, the sons following suit. The rural towns I knew as a child were in a sense gathering points in a countrywide migration toward the cities. Farming was looked down upon as a hard and generally unremunerative life -- facts which the white mentality was more prone to flee than to accommodate within an awareness that there were also amenities. The general aim was to go where the money was to be made; the resources of nativeness and of established community were abandoned without a thought.

2. The main social movement being a migration in the direction of money, society was conceived as a pyramid on which the only desirable or honorable or happy position is the top. People not at the top envied those above them, despised those below them, and apologized for themselves.

3. Happiness was conceived as success. The pragmatization of feeling was a fairly explicit social goal. If it won't get you ahead, if you can't sell it, forget it, cover it up, speak as if it did not exist. Such humanizing emotions as pleasure in small profitless things, joy, wonder, ecstasy were removed as by an operation on the brain. The only people I ever saw dancing publicly in the town where I grew up were black.

4. Reality was defined by the desire for success. If you were reasonable, followed the rules, obeyed your superiors, asked only practical questions, all would be well. Mysteries either did not exist or would soon be "solved by science." What he could not account for, a man tended either to destroy or ignore. Thus he remained secure.

5. As the puritan denied himself joy on earth in order to have joy in heaven, so the seeker after success denied himself all intermediate pleasures. He would forego impractical feelings, small satisfactions, leisure; he would work day and night, not for any satisfaction it gave him, not even as a duty, but to get to the top. When he got to the top he would rest and enjoy life -- as if he would know how. Life was simply a fact, not considered. There was no art of living.

6. People had begun to live lives of a purely theoretical reality, daydreams based on the economics of success. It was as if they had risen off the earth into the purely hypothetical air of their ambition and greed. They were rushing around in the clouds, "getting somewhere," while their native ground, the only meaningful destination, if not the only possible one, lay far below them, abandoned and forgotten, colonized by machines.

7. The church saving the souls of pagans of other continents in the gleeful imperialism of self-righteousness, functioned locally as a fashion show, moral painkiller, women's club, soporific. I recall the general panic in a certain central Kentucky Baptist church when two black Africans, converts of the foreign missions program, turned up on the home ground and applied for membership.

8. Knowledge was conceived as a way to get money. This seems to have involved an unconscious wish to streamline the mind, strip it of all knowledge which would not predictably function.

9. There were the local aristocracies of old families which once at least had money. In my experience these have consisted mostly of little bands of widows and derelict wives playing bridge, gossiping, drinking and hiding the bottle, complaining, grieving ostentatiously over each other but really over themselves.

10. We knew and took for granted: marriage without love; sex without joy; drink without conviviality; birth, celebration, and death without adequate ceremony; faith without doubt or trial; belief without deeds; manners without generosity; "good English" without exact speech, without honesty, without literacy.

[Middle photo courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.]

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