Wandering

This morning I was fiddling with short nonfiction piece and discovered a forgotten folder marked “Essays” in my documents. This is something I wrote shortly after returning home from college. It resonated with me, especially now that I’ve made a habit of wandering East Texas backroads, and I thought it might be worth sharing.

 

            Wandering is the ordinary condition of mankind in the postmodern West. We are individuals, persons with separate rights, separate wills, and separate destinies. Unconnected to tribes, to families, to congregations, to small towns or the rootedness of distinctive cities, and only loosely attached to the states that rule over us, we wander. We are adrift, just so many particles of sand swirling around in the wind.

            I wandered from my conservative pocket of the universe in 2010. Although the story of my wanderings might be said to have begun earlier, with moves from house to house, from school to school, and from church to church, with my circle of friends changing, or at least shuffling, each time, I was nevertheless still anchored by my family, my county, and a few radio stations that kept us company on the long rides in and out of town. So the real story begins in 2010.

            The journey itself was not accompanied by feelings of rootlessness. My brothers and my parents drove me and a large number of my things across the increasingly brown and treeless expanse of North and West Texas, up the Rockies through Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, and over the Bitterroot Range into Northern Idaho. Two thousand miles of road, punctuated by the carefully tended wildernesses of Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone, and the Grand Tetons. Two thousand miles from home, but I carried my family with me.

            They stayed with me a day or two, while I got settled, but it was not long before they were driving off, and I was left sitting in a rented trailer, in a strange town, tasked with forging friendships, crafting new habits and new routines, and generally making myself at home in the little hill-crowded hamlet of Moscow. I was already homesick, but a defiant optimism stood in the back of my soul, ready to meet the challenge. I had no idea how hard it would be.

            My raising left me poorly equipped to make friends with any degree of speed. That, coupled with the social awkwardness of youth and a temperament of combined overeager enthusiasm and reflective moodiness made the first terms interesting. Layered onto that was the culture shock of moving from the Baptist and evangelical-dominated Deep South to a large congregation in the Unchurched Belt that sought to imitate the New England Puritans in all things, or so it seemed to me. I did not integrate into the community as quickly as I had hoped, and I made things harder on myself by adopting a defiant attitude towards certain of the more abrasive personalities in that milieu.

            And that is how I found myself two thousand miles from home, without my family, without a culture I could identify with, in a church and school that, despite being vast and vibrant, left me uneasy. And that is when I discovered the one alien feature of that town which came as a welcome surprise. It was a walking town.

            The town I spent most of my life living near was very spread out, with roads crisscrossing through heavy woods, bounded by an enormous loop of roaring trucks and SUVs, and blessed with hardly any sidewalks. This new place was compact, built for pedestrians, and cars were practically required by law to stop for jaywalkers. So I began to wander.

            It was always late at night, and it started with walks to and from friends’ houses. (I did make a few, forming a temporary little circle of companions who kept the weekends lively for a year or so.) The street lamps shining down from their places among the shade trees were enchanting. Neat little square houses sat in tight little rows, like cottages out of fairy tales. They were not identical, like the soulless nightmares of a subdivision, but spunky little things, with unique looks, colorful walls, and patches of yard designed to express personality. All those streets so tightly laid together, row on row, up and down the hills of the little town, revealed fresh surprises every time I turned a new corner.

            Wandering is a solitary pastime, the work of an individual, unaccompanied by companions who might distract you with conversation, or disagree with your sudden urge to go down a new road or alley. I was not fitting in as well as I liked, but as long as I wandered, I didn’t have to. I was a soul unto myself, a lonely ship sailing on concrete currents through a sea of houses. I did not have a home here, but I had freedom. And I used it.

            I don’t think I understood what I was doing in those early days. I just wandered because it felt good. But occasionally someone would mention seeing me pass by their house late at night, or in the hours just before sunset. Startled at the idea that some other human being might not only recognize me in my time of freedom, but take particular notice and mention it to me, I would then alter my path so as to avoid that street or house in the future. I suppose my secretiveness must have only added to the dull sense of alienation from my peers. But the silence, the darkness, the feeling of independence, was soothing.

            There were ups and downs over my years in that town. I moved from that trailer to a rent house, and then to an apartment. After a long period of time, I began visiting other churches, and eventually switched. My circle of friends, never exactly stable, withered away to a bare few. They were reliable, though, and towards the end of my time would help me find a broader community in which I was comfortable. In all that shifting and changing, I never quite settled down. Yet somehow, Moscow stopped being a stranger.

            I walked those streets at night, and as I moved to different parts of town, I walked some of them in the day as well. Eventually I would end up shopping near the western city limits, going to church near the eastern city limits, and paying rent down south. I walked everywhere, and wherever I went, the town was familiar. I doubt if, by my fifth year, there was a single street I had not looked down half a dozen times, that I had not walked at least once on some cold and lonely winter night. The surprises dwindled away, to be replaced by a comfortable familiarity.

            People are not, by nature, strangers. We are not built to be foreigners in this world, or at least I am not. In the waxing and waning of the moon, the tilting cycle of stars, the slow turn of seasons, wandering ceased to mean walking about in a foreign land. It came to mean surveying my land, walking the boundaries of my property. On the rare occasions I walked with friends, or had to give directions to someone visiting from out of town, I began to take pride in my knowledge of the town’s nooks and crannies. I knew it better than I knew the roads back home.

            Some people talk as if wandering meant aimlessness, a sort of drift into a vast ocean with no hope of ever sighting land. That is not what it meant to me. In more ways than one, as I wandered the streets of Moscow, I was sighting land. I was scouting it out, putting down roots simply by being there. All my disorderly casting about had created a map in my head, a series of images, of places, of stories. Thoughts and emotions, phases of life, were caught up in the contours of a hill-shrouded town in Northern Idaho. I came a foreigner, but I left knowing the place intimately.

            And I did leave. In all the years that passed, my footsteps had brought me to a place I knew, but no closer to a place where I could rest. Far from the green woods and fields of home, far from the winding creeks and stifling humidity, and far from the culture of backwoods Southern Christianity, I could never really breathe. So I passed college by the skin of my teeth, and bore a diploma back across countless miles of crowded city and empty Western frontier to the place I had wandered from.

            But something strange had happened. Just as I had not noticed when my restless late-night rambles had turned into purposeful walks, so friendships had crept up quietly upon me. The town that caused me to wrestle with an unsettling sense of alienation had given me relationships I cherished, memories I could not willingly forsake. As I wandered back to the land of my childhood, a piece of my heart wandered away and settled in a strange place, far from home. And though I wander the world over, a little piece of me will still be wandering there.

 

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Representative Movies by Genre

A friend of mine posed this question: If you were creating a film appreciation class and wanted your students to get a good grasp of what kind of movies there are, and to see the most representative movies in those genres, what would you pick?

This is my attempt to answer that question. It’s pretty rough-and-ready, and I clearly don’t spend much time in certain genres. If you’ve got a better suggestion for some of these, or new categories to add, I’d love to hear them.

  1. Romantic Comedy – Ten Things I Hate About You
  2. Buddy Cop – Lethal Weapon
  3. Action – Die Hard (Although John Wick is pretty awesome.)
  4. Action Adventure – Raiders of the Lost Ark
  5. Space Fantasy – Star Wars (A New Hope)
  6. Hard Sci-Fi – Contact (Or 2001: A Space Odyssey. How does one define this genre in film, anyways?)
  7. War – Saving Private Ryan (Patton, Dunkirk, and Hacksaw Ridge are all also good, but either lean more biopic or are just too new.)
  8. Crime Thriller – Silence of the Lambs
  9. Courtroom Drama/Legal Thriller – A Few Good Men
  10. Epic Fantasy – Lord of the Rings (Whole trilogy.)
  11. Sword and Sorcery – Conan the Barbarian (The Ahnold edition.)
  12. Sword and Sandals – Gladiator
  13. Family Drama – Big Fish
  14. Western – Tombstone (I’d add Magnificent Seven, Rio Bravo, and McClintock, and Lonesome Dove, but Tombstone is pretty good if you have to pick one.)
  15. Period Piece – Lawrence of Arabia (Or Gangs of New York? Ever After? Master and Commander? Every Jane Austen adaptation ever? A period piece should really be about the period, not merely set in it, in which case something like Ever After fails, but I wanted to mention it somewhere. This one is hard for me.)
  16. Alien Invasion – Independence Day. (Because I’m a 90’s kid.)
  17. Slasher – Halloween (Psycho, if you think it fits the bill, would be better. Because Hitchcock.)
  18. Supernatural Horror – The Exorcist
  19. Creature Feature – Alien (Netflix uses this category, and I find it a useful place to put monster movies I can’t quite categorize otherwise.
  20. Sports Movie – Chariots of Fire (Or Remember the Titans. Rocky is a red herring, though.)
  21. Biopic – The Social Network (Lawrence of Arabia also fits this bill, and Forrest Gump if a fictional biopic counts.)
  22. Documentary – Exit Through the Gift Shop (Finding General Tso, Blackfish, and, I hear, Helvetica are all good.)
  23. Spy Film – From Russia with Love (The Bourne Identity, Mission: Impossible, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Munich, Hunt for Red October, Sum of All Fears, The Man from UNCLE, and Casino Royale are all very worth watching.)
  24. Disaster Movie – Titanic or Day After Tomorrow
  25. Action Comedy – Rush Hour (And everything else Jackie Chan did before he got older and more serious.)
  26. Parody – Blazing Saddles (of westerns) or Ghostbusters (of supernatural horror, especially the streak of Exorcist-like movies that were popular up until then.)

 

Well, there you have it. There are a lot more good movies worth watching in each category, but this is at least a rough intro to the genres.

Augustine’s Pears

One of the advantages of taking the same kind of classes in college as you did in high school, and of teaching those same subjects again when you graduate, is that you cover the same ground several times. I commenting to some friends the other day that I’m enjoying Pilgrim’s Progress far more during my second round of teaching it–which is probably the third or fourth time I’ve read it through—than I did when I first flipped through its pages. This morning it occurred to me that something similar is going on with St. Augustine’s Confessions.

The Confessions are Augustine’s spiritual autobiography, something like a fourth century Surprised by Joy to those of us who read a lot of C. S. Lewis growing up. An evangelical might call it his testimony, and it certainly resembles the sort of thing you would hear on the Unshackled radio program, where people go through their life story, recount their sins and struggles, and then explain how they turned to Jesus and he changed them. In some ways, Augustine invented the genre.

I’ve read the Confessions three times in its entirety—once in junior high or high school, once in college, and once while teaching it. All three times one particular section stood out as particularly baffling: the pears. Augustine informs us that as a young man he was involved in every kind of debauchery, every kind of vanity or ambition. But rather than dwelling on his sexual misdeeds, his desire to be the world’s best rhetorician, or his obsession with dark or lewd poetry and drama, he spends almost an entire book of his work—what we could call a chapter—exploring this one time he stole some pears when he was a kid.

Listening to a discussion of the Confessions on the Mere Fidelity podcast, it struck me that there are three solid reasons for Augustine’s strange obsession with this apparently minor peccadillo.

First, human beings have a tendency to let our eye be drawn to interesting or fascinating sins. It’s the sordid adulteries or the bloody murders that catch our eye, or the vaunting ambition of the characters on House of Cards. We don’t particularly care about a kid’s temper tantrum, or a mom taking it out on her husband, or the husband spending his time elsewhere instead of helping out around the house. Minor sins are not interesting.

But sin is not meant to be interesting. Sin is fundamentally a tragedy, a flaw in our character, a flaw in the universe, that separates us from God. It is a thing that corrupts us, and corrupts society. It makes us low and petty, giving up great goods for minor, empty, fleeting pleasures. In focusing on the pears, Augustine draws our eye away from the salacious details of more fantastic sins, and asks us to examine what sin is in itself.

Second, Augustine draw our eye to this sin to draw out the motive behind it. Violence, lechery, gluttony—none of these are much of a mystery. But why did Augustine steal the pears? He was not hungry. It wasn’t because these pears were better than pears he could have gotten elsewhere. In fact, they were worse. He did not have a grudge against the owner of the pears. He suggests the possibility that it might have been to enjoy the fellowship of the friends he stole the pears with. But even then he doesn’t seem to be certain.

At the end of the day, it seems that he stole the pears mostly out of a perverse delight in doing something he knew to be evil. This says something profound about the state Augustine was in, and about human nature generally. We do not sin merely because we want what we cannot have. Sometimes we sin for the pleasure of sinning. We are, deep in our souls, beings that desire to do evil. The depths of this corruption are startling, and call for a truly profound kind of grace to purify us.

The last reason Augustine might dwell on the pears is less theological or philosophical, and more literary. Just as Adam and Eve stole the fruit from the tree in the midst of the garden, and that archetypal sin through the world into disarray, so Augustine steals pears from a forbidden tree, and this sheds light on the disorders of his own heart.

I should point out that none of these insights is entirely new. Each of these topics was something both my secondary school teachers and my college professors dwelt on, and something I tried to pass on to my students. What was new to me was the realization that these things could only have been highlighted by something like the theft of the pears, and not by other, grander sins whose sordid details which might distract us from the point. Augustine’s focus on this particular sin had been baffling before, but now it seems incredibly reasonable.

There is a mentality that sees some value in reading great books, but not in reading them again. It’s true that a first reading can give you a familiarity with the general themes, allow you to understand references made by others educated in the classics, and perhaps give you some sort of bragging rights.

But the value of great books is not merely in giving us access to a cultural conversation, but in teaching and shaping us. By spending time with great minds, great souls, and great imaginations, our own minds, souls, and imaginations are made greater. But in order to see the true measure of what these men have done, it often takes several readings, accumulated life experience, and repeated study. A truly great book should be read again and again, over the course of a lifetime.

Millennial Monsters

When it became clear how momentous a change was going to follow in the wake of the internet, and after that, how much the widespread use of the smartphone was going to transform our lives, speculation immediately began as to how the generation raised with these things would differ from the generations that had seen them come into existence.

I recently had occasion to think about how horror stories in particular have changed in the new, online world. Over the last couple of years, I’ve spent enough time watching YouTube ARG’s, reading creepypasta, watching movies, and listening to the right podcasts to notice a few patterns emerging.

Before I point these out, let me give a few caveats: I’m way more of a general speculative fiction guy than a horror guy. I also remember broadcast TV and thinking dialup was cutting edge. I am therefore a bit of an outsider when it comes to both horror and the smartphone generation, so take this with a grain of salt. This is an essay in the old sense of the word—a casual attempt to think through a topic, rather the thoroughly researched and well-cited work of an expert.

That said, I’ve noticed three things that stand out about the ghosts and monsters conjured up by horror fans and writers since the rise of the internet. The first has to do with their character, and the next two with different aspects of their appearance.

First off, millennial monsters seem, by and large, to be loners. Slender Man, the hat man, the rake, most shadow people, many sightings of black-eyed kids—all of these are lonesome creatures, often dwelling in isolated locations. Before the internet, this was certainly a category of horror creature. However, zombie hordes, or large packs of werewolves, or massive cults, or covens of vampires and witches seemed to be a bigger part of the genre. On YouTube and in creepypasta, the creatures of our nightmares all seem to be individual, anti-social monsters.

Second, a major change seems to have occurred in the appearance of popular monsters. In the 80’s, it seemed like the majority of scary critters you might run into were big and hairy. They were often shaggy, wild-looking, and above all, physically imposing. Slender Man, the rake, and their relatives, on the other hand, are lean and hairless, and often pale. Their appearance is frightening not due to size or weight, not because they are bestial, but because they look wrong. They are unearthly, and unsettling. They are distorted.

Third, the way they appear unsettling is particularly interesting. I used the word “distorted” because I think it’s particularly apt. Slender Man is not too terribly unsettling, except that he’s been stretched like a piece of gum far beyond what is normal for any human being. The rake is bent until he can go onto all fours, and thin as well. Dear David, of recent Twitter fame, has a bent-in head. Werewolves are not distorted—they are often anatomically believable, as long as you don’t catch them mid-transformation. Zombies are rotten, but they’re not oddly shaped. If anything, vampires are often even more physically perfect than the rest of us.

Before I go on to speculate about these three trends, it would be good to make a qualification. Millennials can and do, of course, watch older horror movies and read Stephen King and dress up as zombies and vampires and werewolves. There is no unbreachable wall between pop culture before and after the internet. These are just tendencies, and that’s worth keeping in mind as I outline the truly speculative part of this below.

It has been observed of older generations that zombie movies do well during Republican presidencies, and vampires are more popular under Democrats. The thinking here is that the people are working out their fears of what they might become in the form of horror stories. Republicans are a mindlessly conformist mass of soulless corpses who want to eat your brains, and Democrats are parasitic sexual libertines out to exploit the working man. Or something like that.

Apply the same thinking to millennial monsters. In an age of smartphones and laptops we can all stay up to unreasonably late hours, living in a virtual world, without human contact. We isolate ourselves, from human contact and from sunlight. In the high-contrast world of bright screens in dark rooms, is it any wonder we see people in the shadows? Is it so strange that we fear pale, manlike creatures emerging from the darkness? The appearance of these creatures, and their isolation, matches things we fear about ourselves—what might we be becoming?

The world of social media adds another layer to this. In a time where so much of who we are is a performance, a cultivation of the right photos and the right statuses, the right comments and sharing the right posts, every bit of our identity is subject to technological manipulation. We distort our personality and our appearance to convey messages about where we belong and what we hold sacred, and do so far more consciously and constantly, and in a far more chaotically diverse context than ever before.

Slender Man is stretched and distorted because we are stretched and distorted. The rake is twisted as we are twisted, and the hat man is reducible to one distinct identifying marker just as we can easily become nothing more than a brand, hiding unknown intentions behind a meaningless profile pic or Twitter handle. Our monsters are no longer hairy and physically imposing because the most common threats to us today are not physical, but about identity and belonging. We no longer fear we or our neighbors will become beasts, but that they will become alien and unreadable and hostile.

There is undoubtedly a lot more to be said here. As I mentioned earlier, I’m no expert on horror, and there is no doubt that there is quite a lot of continuity between previous generations and this one. I did see the IT remake a week or two back, and seems at least as popular as the original. But I think these trends are noteworthy, and worth more exploration.

It also occurred to me, as I was considering these things a few days ago, that the things I’ve pointed out here—the appearance and isolated character of millennial monsters—is probably far more significant the technology through which our ghost stories are now communicated. Chat roulette monsters and found footage seem like little more than novelties, while the form of the monsters themselves carries actual weight.

At any rate, it will be fascinating to watch as the fears and folklore of the next generation develops.

Magic as Spiritual Technology, Part One: The Making of a Grimoire

Even when I take a break from the History of Witchery, I seem to stumble across it by accident. A week or so ago, I found a magical text referenced by a theologian. More recently, I asked someone in the field of Forteana—the study of bigfoot, UFOs, and similarly weird topics—to recommend researchers worth following. Among his recommendations was purported author of the fabled Necronomicon.

The History of the Necronomicon

For those who are in the know, the preceding sentence should sound a bit like nonsense. For those who aren’t, the Necronomicon is supposed to be a fictional work, a grimoire invented by horror author H. P. Lovecraft in the early twenties for use in his stories. There should be no author of the Necronomicon because the book does not exist.

But the tale only begins with Lovecraft. In an effort to add realism to his work, he advised friends to incorporate references to the Necronomicon in their own work, and he in turn referenced their fictional grimoires in his stories. For the unwary reader, it might seem like all these seemingly unrelated authors were referring to a book that genuinely existed, like The Lesser Key of Solomon or the Corpus Hermeticum. By the sixties, college kids were in on the prank, sneaking forged cards into the catalogues of university libraries so that naïve parties might stumble across the reference and assume it was real.

These pranks were only the beginning. Although occult beliefs had never really died out in the West—they barely retreated—the late sixties saw a massive upsurge in the popularity, coinciding with a similar explosion of neopagan religions that had begun with Wicca in Britain in the fifties and had now crossed the channel. Grimoires were no longer the province of pulp horror fanatics, but prizes sought after by people who might actually put them to use. The time was ripe for hoaxes.

One particularly clever forgery was known as the Simon Necronomicon. Published in 1975, the book claims that it was stolen by unorthodox priest and smuggled into the hands of certain students of the occult in New York. There it was edited and published under the leadership of someone using the name “Simon,” who preferred to keep his real identity secret. But all this would have been just one more unbelievable story, if it were not for the fact that much of the contents of the Simon Necronomicon is actually authentic.

To understand what this means, you have to know what Simon was actually claiming. He did not say that everything Lovecraft wrote about the Necronomicon was true, and did not incorporate Lovecraft’s excerpts from the book into the work itself. Even Lovecraft’s infamous author, “the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred,” is not part of Simon’s work. There are no bald invocations of Lovecraftian gods or demons. The only thing that clearly links it to Lovecraft’s work is the title of the supposed manuscript—the Necronomicon.

Simon’s Necronomicon is accompanied by a long editorial preface making it clear that he finds the link to Lovecraft as astounding and unlikely as anyone else—but it is there all the same. He then dives deep into history, proposing tentative links between entities mentioned by Lovecraft and Sumerian and Babylonian deities. Perhaps, he suggests, Lovecraft was a sort of sensitive, open to the influence of forces that actual exist, despite his lack of belief in them. Or perhaps he did indeed encounter rumors and scraps from this work and incorporated them into his fiction. Perhaps his stories were not as fictional as he thought.

The text of the Necronomicon itself is taken from a multitude of Sumerian and Babylonian sources, authentic lore merely rearranged and given a new context as a grimoire. Spells are taken from actual hymns and invocations of these ancient Mesopotamian gods, with very little material actually invented. Very little is unknown to scholars of that region and era, and even less is familiar to fans of Lovecraft’s fiction. Other than the name, it comes across as a quite plausibly historical work.

Whether the work is authentic or not—and I remain highly skeptical—it was certainly accepted as a usable grimoire. The published copies sold out, and it was copied illegally and began to spread underground. Practitioners of magic used the spells written therein, and some even came to believe the things suggested in the preface. The Necronomicon had gone from fictional tome to real-world sacred object. Simon had conjured it into existence.

Simon Says

Simon did not disappear after the success of his book. He published again, and, with the advent of the internet, began to lurk in occult forums online. Though there has been much speculation as to his identity—including the suggestion that he might be Sandy Pearlman, author of Don’t Fear the Reaper—no conclusive cases have been made, and Simon has yet to out himself.

It was in the accusations against one particular man, the Fortean researcher I referred to earlier, that I discovered the link to an old interview of Simon from 2002 that originally appeared in Behutet Magazine. While this was interesting enough on its own, something leapt out at me which was particularly relevant to a theme I have been exploring in my History of Witchery posts: Simon repeatedly uses the phrase “spiritual technology” to describe the contents of his Necronomicon.

I have written before about the links between science and magic, how there is a spirit at the heart of both that unites them. Throughout history, pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and Christian theologians like Augustine and Aquinas have asked us to look at the world outside ourselves, to find external standards for human behavior. Our desires, our appetites, ought to conform to objective realities about what is good for man. It is the way of the sorcerer and of the mad scientist to instead demand that the external world be made to conform to our appetites. Rather than demanding virtue, we demand that vice be without consequences. Rather than accepting the limits and position God has imposed upon us, we seek to fashion ourselves and our world after our own image. We seek power.

As C. S. Lewis pointed out in his own critique of science and magic, there is such a thing as true or noble science. Seeking to better understand the world is near the very heart of wisdom, and science of that kind should not be condemned. The science he was far more skeptical of, the kind that seemed so much like sorcery, was applied science—technology. There we learn to impose our will on the world without always considering why the world is the way it is, and what the consequences might be for ignoring it.

I could go on a long tirade, citing fictional morality plays like Frankenstein or Jurassic Park. I could point to real-world examples, such as the social effects of the wide availability of birth control or the ecological impact of industrial civilization. This is not the place for that, as the issue of technology and how we use it is a complicated one calling for a lot of nuance, and this is a post about how a horror writer’s world-building got out of hand.

But the link here is real and interesting. Simon does not view his magic as venerable traditions handed down from his ancestors, or liturgy appropriate to the worship of gods he holds sacred. It is technology. It is a tool. If you follow the procedures, you will get a result. That is very scientific way of looking at things, even if the science in question deals with the spiritual plane.

In the near future I hope to go over this interview in more detail, drawing out at length what Simon believes magic is and how it is to be used. For now, though, I will leave you with the suggestion that just as fiction can find itself bleeding over into reality, so the things we have labeled rational and superstitious are not so far apart as they seem. Rather than a holdover from the Dark Ages, interest in magic may be very modern indeed.

Right in Time: Nolan, Time, and Dramatic Tension

Stories have to be interesting. It can be any of a million things that draws us in and keeps us there, but there does have to be something. For action movies, it can be something as basic and primal as “will the hero survive?” People tend to be interested in not dying, and if someone is likable, we tend to be interested in their not dying too. But sometimes storytellers have something a little different in mind.

I went to see Dunkirk on opening weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. Christopher Nolan has always struck me as a guy who would be invested in the mythos of World War II, and I was very happy when I first saw the trailer. I came out of the theater even happier. As someone else said somewhere else, this is the movie Nolan was born to make.

Anyone familiar with the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the movie’s promotional material, is aware that the story is not going to be about defeating the Nazis in battle. The only victory we would see in this movie would be mere survival. That gave me a bit of pause, as I’ve always thought of Nolan as something more than a pessimist, and this sounded like it could be my great disappointment.

I was very pleased to be wrong. Within the first few minutes we are presented with three different perspectives, each of which is taking place across a different timeline, and will interweave to tell the story. One is that of a soldier on the ground, escaping Nazi gunfire, realizing that his safe haven is surrounded and pressed up against the ocean, and that there is little to no hope of escape. This starts several days before the evacuation. A second perspective is that of civilians taking their boat to Dunkirk on the day of the evacuation, rather than simply giving it up to the Navy as they had been told. Two of the three-man crew are too young to be soldiers. The third perspective is that of several pilots patrolling the skies in the hours just prior to the evacuation, including everyone’s favorite actor, the upper half of ­­­Tom Hardy’s face.

At first I took these three timelines as a mere novelty, just something Nolan likes to do. Partway through the movie, however, something happened that led me to rethink Nolan’s use of time, not just in Dunkirk, but in his entire body of work. Spoilers ahead.

At one point in the soldier-on-the-ground’s story, he joins up with the tattered remains of a Highland regiment. They are walking across the sand towards an abandoned boat that had been beached at high tide. They are far from the rest of the Allied soldiers, and once they are all inside, trying to determine if the thing will float, Germans begin using the hull for target practice. It is determined that the boat will float despite leaks, but they may have to get rid of some weight. One of the companions our POV soldier has picked up turns out to be a Frenchman who is trying to escape with the British soldiers, and the Highlanders debate getting rid of him so the boat will float.

Now in an ordinary telling, the source of dramatic tension, the thing that keeps us interested, is the question of survival. Will the boat float in the first place, and will the tide come in before the target-practicing Germans either kill off the people inside the boat on accident, or fill it so full of holes in the first place that it can no longer float? Nolan has already added a moral dimension to the Highlanders’ behavior, but we don’t even know if their decision here will make a difference in the larger question of survival.

But then we switch perspectives. Our pilot in the air is trying to protect a fleeing ship from German bombers. As he approaches, we a second boat nearby. It is the blue boat from the beach. It has tipped over and begun to sink, but there are men in the water fleeing from it to the ship our pilot is protecting. We know that they made it off the beach—the Germans did not kill everyone off or fill it so full of holes it would not float. They are halfway across the channel. They survived.

This shifts the source of dramatic tension. When we return to that timeline, we are no longer asking if they will survive, but what they will do to survive. Will they sacrifice the life of the frightened Frenchman to save their own, or will they leave Dunkirk as defenders of the weak? The source of dramatic tension is now the ethics of the situation. Through the use of his mixed-up timelines, Nolan has shifted our attention from the physical danger of the situation to the moral dangers and the character of these soldiers.

Someone else somewhere else said that Nolan is very interested in time. As I thought about this sequence from Dunkirk, and reflected on the other Nolan movies I’ve seen, I realized that this is only half true. Nolan is certainly interested in treating time in unusual ways in his stories, but I’m not sure that’s the focus of the stories themselves so much as it is a tool he is particularly adept at using. For Nolan, non-linear storytelling is a way of drawing attention to moral dilemmas rather than mere questions of survival.

After Dunkirk, two more examples come to mind. The first is Batman Begins. I recently got a pretty solid deal on twenty DVD’s, and this was on my list. It had been several years since I had watched it, and I never really appreciated it as much as the other two movies in the series, or the rest of Nolan’s work. This time I realized why.

The superhero genre is a staple of American pop culture, but for most of its history, especially in the 90’s, it has been targeted at children. These are people with silly names in unlikely costumes who fight improbable villains in defense of mythical cities. We don’t watch them for their realism, but for the very operatic strangeness that makes them so attractive to children. Given this, we expect the story to draw dramatic tension from the larger-than-life character of the villain and his insane schemes, or from the incredible powers of the superhero and the impossible odds he must overcome. If there is some deeper lesson to be learned, we expect it to be tied pretty closely to our hero’s gimmicks—Captain America tells us something about patriotism, Hulk about anger, the X-Men about being different, and Batman about nobless oblige or the social benefits of a healthy population of winged rodents.

Batman Begins is not interested in more gimmicky or straightforward lessons, and even less interested in being zany and larger-than-life. The man under the cowl is not George Clooney. And that’s why the first half of the movie does something very Christopher Nolan: it messes with the timelines.

Now, this is not Dunkirk. There very clearly a primary timeline, and the secondary timeline is easily labeled as a series of flashbacks, most of them more or less explicitly memories that Bruce is meditating on for pretty straightforward reasons. He has been living as a criminal, trying to understand their mindset, and he has been taken in by a shadowy organization that promises to teach him how to make criminals pay for what they do to society. Naturally, he thinks about the points in his life where he learned fear, where he saw what crime did, where he thirsted for vengeance, and where he learned that vengeance may not be enough.

But that’s interesting. In the past, I was always annoyed because it seemed to take forever for the story to go anywhere. But that’s because I expected a very different story than Nolan wanted to tell. He wasn’t worried about the existential threat against Batman or against Gotham. Survival was not the point. He was interested in justice. Why do people commit crimes? How do they get away with it? Who deserves justice? What does justice look like? Who is entitled to mete out justice? What methods should they use? The series of flashbacks combined with Bruce’s training by the League of Shadows does not draw attention to any particular villainous threat, but does ask us to look at these themes. By combining past events who outcome is already known with a present which does not noticeably advance for quite some time, Nolan shifts the dramatic tension to the ethical dilemmas Bruce faces, rather than threats to his city.

The third place I see Nolan using complex timelines to draw our attention away from mere survival and towards moral dilemmas is in Memento. This may seem a far more obvious example to those familiar with the movie. For those who are not, this is how the movie works: there are two timelines, one in black and white, and one in color. We switch back and forth between them. One is working backwards from end of the story being told, and one forward from its beginning. The two timelines will meet in the middle, and our climax will be the transition from one to the other.

The very structure of this plot looks like a test case for the interwoven timelines of Dunkirk or the extensive use of flashbacks in the first half of Batman Begins. We know early on who will live and who will die. We find out far more quickly than our protagonist exactly who can be trusted and who cannot. We know where the story is going. What we don’t know is why the protagonist has made the decisions he has. We don’t understand the moral landscape. By the time we reach the end of the movie, we understand the protagonist’s motivations and the motivations of the other characters, but our knowledge of whether he survives or not has not changed. Survival was never the point—the moral landscape was.

Now I am sure that Christopher Nolan is interested in time for other reasons. It is also without a doubt true that he is good at creating threats to the survival of his heroes, and having them confront these threats in interesting ways. He is certainly a good action director, and he is also a bit of nerd when it comes to thinking about time.

But I believe this is an established pattern that Christopher Nolan has. He uses nonlinear storytelling as a tool to draw our attention from more basic threats to survival and towards moral dilemmas. Realizing this not only opens up new dimensions in Nolan’s work, but leads to the consideration of non-linear storytelling more generally. How do other writers and directors use it? What are they drawing attention to? What potential sources of dramatic tension are they defusing?

For me, this is one more good reason to be interested not only in stories, but storytelling.

Richard Hooker and Hermes Trismegistus

Besides the History of Witchery, I’m also interested in theology. One theologian in particular, an Elizabethan-era guy by the name of Richard Hooker, has caught my attention lately. He wrote a book called Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity as an answer to Puritans who thought the Church of England’s style of church government—its ecclesiastical polity—was unbiblical and therefore evidence of high rebellion, and a good reason not to submit to church authority.

Hooker’s response starts by examining what laws are and where they come from in the first place—not just laws the government enforces, but laws of nature, universal moral laws, and the laws given in the Bible. His major point is that the Bible doesn’t have the answers to every question, and isn’t meant to. God gave us the ability to reason, and commanded us to grow in wisdom, and so we are therefore not only allowed, but expected to use our judgment on any number of issues where the Bible doesn’t give a clear answer. For his purposes that means church government, but principles he expounds can be applied to many other issues. I highly recommend the modernized version I have been reading. Language has, after all, changed since the time of Shakespeare.

But the reason I bring this up is that I was surprised to find that Richard Hooker was familiar with one of the big names in the history of witchery: Hermes Trismegistus.

Hermes, also known as Mercury, was the Greco-Roman god of many things, magic among them. He is sometimes identified with the Egyptian god Thoth and the Norse god Odin. Some later Jewish and Christian authors identified him with the Old Testament saint Enoch, who “walked with God and was not, for God took him.” In post-Biblical legends, he is supposed to have been a particularly holy man who was therefore given quite a bit of wisdom, which he then passed on to his sons. In more occult readings of this story, this means secret, magical wisdom which only initiates have access to.

The Corpus Hermeticum is the body of work attributed to this figure, referred to by readers of the work as “Hermes Trismegistus.” The philosophy contained in these books inspired a lot of more high-class, mystical and ceremonial magic in the later medieval period and beyond. One of the more recent magical societies, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, draws inspiration from him, as do other modern practitioners.

So imagine my surprise when I found this inspirer of magicians referenced in the very respectable book of a quite orthodox theologian. Of course, any confusion is quickly cleared up when one pays attention to how Richard Hooker references Hermes.

The first reference in Book I comes as Hooker is arguing that God does everything according to a plan, a sort of law He has established for Himself.[1] Having stated his case, and before he dives into Biblical proofs, he asserts that “Even wise and learned pagans” agree on this point. He cites Homer, Anaxagoras, Plato, and the Stoics. In the midst of this cavalcade of wise pagans, he cites Hermes Trismegistus:

“…and Hermes Trismegistus admits the same when he says that the demiurge made all the world, not by hands, but by reason.”

Below, the editors note the passage he is citing. They use the Mead translation, which is as follows:

“With Reason… not with hands, did the World-maker make the universal World.”[2]

In my version, which is much older, it goes:

“The Workman made this Universal World, not with his Hands, but his Word.”

If, as I suspect, the underlying Greek word for Reason/Word is “logos,” then not only do the differing translations make sense, but there may be some additional, probably intentional, Christological significance to the statement. The passage comes from verse one of what their translation calls “The Cup or Monad,” and what mine calls “His Crater or Monas,” which is the twelfth book of the Corpus Hermeticum.

The other reference in Book I of the Laws also cites Hermes as a wise pagan who recognizes a Biblical truth.[3] That, I think, is a sensible use of such mystic texts. When they get things right, there is no harm in acknowledging it, but they are not authorities on par with Scripture. This does imply that pagan thinkers, even magical ones, can obtain a certain degree of truth through natural reason alone, and that was exactly Hooker’s point. Reason is a gift from God, and though it won’t get you everywhere you need to go, it is often quite a reliable guide, even in theological issues.

Beyond this theological point, Hooker’s use of Hermes also extends our picture of the influence of magicians on the modern world. Note only were scientists often dabblers in mystical realms, at least one major theologian of the Church of England was familiar with one of the more influential magical works in history. I don’t read enough footnoted early modern theologians to promise I’ll follow this thread, but as I continue to make my way through Hooker’s Laws I’ll certainly make note of any future references to Hermes or his ilk here.


[1] Hooker, Richard. W. Bradford Littlejohn, Brian Marr, and Bradley Belschner, editors. Divine Law and Human Nature: Book I of Hooker’s Laws: A Modernization. Lincoln, Nebraska: The Davenant Trust, 2017. Pg. 6.

[2] They cite it as “The Cup or Monad 1. Cf. The Corpus Hermeticum, trans. G. Mead (United States of American: IAP, 2009), 29.”

[3] Hooker, pg. 24.