What's the appeal of bad writing?

Good discussion yesterday of Dan Brown’s deadly prose. But this raises another question. Even though this writing is demonstrably, laughably, absurdly BAD, it will sell gazillions of copies. Probably more than the very good writing of our own Lars Walker, with his new novel West Oversea:. Why is that? How can so many people like what is bad and be indifferent to what is good? This is true also of popular music, television shows, and movies. Not that high quality work isn’t sometimes very popular, but it doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite for success. Can anyone explain?

Recognizing bad writing

Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci Code who thinks Christianity is a vast conspiracy and who confounds fiction with history, has just published another book, The Lost Symbol. This one, from what I gather, is about the Masons, Washington, D.C., and, of course, the sinister Catholic church. Critics are lampooning the thing, but that won’t keep millions of readers from buying it and believing it. This article in a British newspaper catalogues a number of Mr. Brown’s literary faults, going so far as to propose his 20 worst sentences. Before you click the link, let’s test our own literary acumen. What is bad about this particular passage?

A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.” On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly. Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils. [em>The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4]

Devil's Dictionary, revisited

Ambrose Bierce was a late 19th, early 20th century American satirist who penned The Devil’s Dictionary (1906), a word book of supreme cynicism but with some very funny definitions. A sample:

SELF-ESTEEM, n. An erroneous appraisement.

SELF-EVIDENT, adj. Evident to one’s self and to nobody else.

SELFISH, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.

SENATE, n. A body of elderly gentlemen charged with high duties and misdemeanors.

Now Matthew Rose “The Wall Street Journal” has made some new entries in light of our current economic woes in The Devil’s Dictionary–Financial Edition. Samples:

BAILOUT, n. First known use: Noah. Novel regressive taxation scheme whereby vast sums of capital are transferred from those citizens who didn’t participate in the illusory Bacchanalia of the housing bubble to those who did and weren’t clever enough to get out in time.

CREDIT-DEFAULT SWAP, n. loose translation from the original Latin “ubi mel ibi apes,” or “where there’s honey there are bees.” 1. A complex financial instrument vital to the functioning of a modern economy in the way it spreads risk among consenting parties. (Greenspan, A., pre-Sept. 2008.) 2. A complex financial instrument that nearly destroyed modern capitalism (Greenspan, A., post-Sept. 2008).

CREDIT LINE, n. A set amount of borrowed money available only to those who don’t need it.

DEFICIT, n. For the party in power, at worst a minor irritant and at best a precondition for economic growth. For the minority, the gravest threat to the stability of the Republic.

FEEDBACK LOOP, n. Process by which the significance of an event is amplified by constant repetition. Orig: CNBC. See ADVERSE FEEDBACK LOOP.

LIGHT TOUCH, n., obsolete. Theory of regulation in which financial companies recycle profits to lawmakers as campaign contributions, prompting them to relax the rules until the banks inevitably mess it up, at which point the dominant theory switches to “heavy hand,” prompting years of economic contraction and the cycle to repeat.

PPIP, or PUBLIC-PRIVATE INVESTMENT PARTNERSHIP, v.t. Orig: Gladys Knight. To use a form of hypnotism in which merely saying you intend to fix a problem has the effect of making everyone forget about the problem. Usage: “We really peepipped Congress on those AIG bonuses.” See ASSETS, TOXIC.

QUANTITATIVE EASING, n. A regulatory approach based on the point in Western movies when the sheriff, having fired all available bullets, in an act of final desperation throws his gun at the bad guys. See also INFLATION, HYPER.

SECURED CREDITORS, n. In modern American capitalism, the parties last in line for repayment after a company’s failure. The others in line include the government, unions, sundry suppliers, friends of the union, friends of the government, unsecured creditors and people vaguely familiar with the matter.

TARP, n. acronym. 1. A synthetic device designed to cover up an unsightly mess, or to protect perishable goods (firewood, banks) from the ravages of the elements, typically costing somewhere between $12.99 and $700 billion. 2. Prime example of how governments use otherwise anodyne acronyms, abbreviations and sports metaphors to disguise matters of controversy. See also TALF, TLGP, TURF, FHFA, BACKSTOP, WRAP, OFHEO and SPECTRE.

TOO BIG TO FAIL, idiom. Banks, insurance companies, car companies, presidential approval ratings, Fed chairmen seeking second terms, other people who think they should be Fed chairman, the reputations of people who’d be responsible for letting things fail. Antonym: TOO BORING TO SAVE.

TOXIC ASSETS, n. 1. A collection of bad loans and other botched financial bets that caused big losses for banks, prompted a credit crunch and sank the economy (Sept. 2008 to May 2009). 2. Long-term investments that will pay handsomely when the housing market recovers (June 2009 onward).

HT: a href=”http://pagantolutheran.blogspot.com/2009/09/with-apologies-to-ambrose-bearce.html”>Bruce Gee

Wittenberg, the Play

Last Spring I blogged about a new play called Wittenberg, which is about three individuals whom history and literature place at the University of Wittenberg: two professors, a Dr. Luther and a Dr. Faustus, and a student, a Danish international student named Hamlet. See A play I have to see and A Reformation Comedy. In the course of our discussions, playwright David Davalos, who wrote the play, weighed in, making me want to see it even more.

Well, I did. The Rep Theater put it on in Columbia, MD, between Baltimore and D.C., so we went with some friends. The play is brilliantly written, extraordinarily learned, and stone cold hilarious. It truly is a comedy of ideas, depicting the conflict between Luther’s Christianity (outraged at the abuses of the medieval church) and Faustus’ philosophical rebelliousness (skeptical of everything except doubt). They are contending for the soul of young Hamlet, who, famously, has trouble making up his mind. Luther and Faustus–who are presented as friends, not as enemies– contending for the souls of each other.

Luther comes out OK. He is a foil for some Christian-mocking, but his conversion to a God of grace and his insights about faith in Christ come out loud and clear. So does his earthy personality and his rhapsodies about the value of beer. And his ideas stand up well against the merry nihilism of Faustus, who, however, comes across even better, at least in this production. Cosmic rebel that he is, Faustus ends up as something of a catalyst for the Reformation, which, yes, does have its rebellious moments. As for Hamlet, Davalos interprets him surprisingly the way I do (which is to say, correctly!) not as a melancholic basket case but as an idealist who comes to trust in God’s providence and His calling.

The play shows us what happens to Luther, showing him at the end making his “Here I stand” confession at Worms. It shows us what happens to Hamlet, showing him making his resigned, confident “the readiness is all” speech. But the play shows us little of what happens to Faustus. He is the philosopher of Goethe’s version, but it doesn’t show his guilt in causing the death of Gretchen (a manifestation of the “Eternal Feminine” that takes several guises in the play, but not this one). He is the professor of Marlowe’s version, but it does little with that unforgettable final scene in Dr. Faustus. OK, there is an allusion to the line about wanting the horses of the night to ride slowly, but nothing about how he sees the sunrise on his last day alive (“Christ’s blood streams in the firmament. . .One drop would save me. . .Half a drop”) and how he bitterly laments his bargain with the devil, which even now he could turn from, but his faith ultimately lurches to Satan instead of to Christ. I could see that the play might not want to give Luther such a clear win, but it could at least show Faustus dreading the moment of his death.

There were lots of academic jokes that I appreciated. Hamlet is a senior who still hasn’t decided what to major in. Dr. Faustus says that he might get excommunicated, tortured, and burned at the stake, but he will not get fired–he has tenure. Some of the jokes over-reached, such as Luther’s reading from the “Song of Solomon” as Faustus and the Eternal Feminine do a lewd shadow show. (What was the purpose of that? Is it funny that the Bible talks about sex? How does this scene line up with the issues of the play?)

The play does a lot with Copernicus’s reconstruction of the Solar system and the existential disorientation it created. Luther favors the old cosmology–which he did–though I wonder if Mr. Davalos knows about that other Wittenberg professor, Rheticus, the devout Lutheran who was the one who actually published and promoted Copernicus’s theories. (He probably interpreted them as this Hamlet finally does, as more of a Christocentric view of the universe, as opposed to the anthropocentric view of classical and medieval humanism.)

Anyway, I don’t mean to complain. Wittenberg was the most satisfying and enjoyable professional theater that I’ve seen in a long time. If it comes to where you live, see it. I hope it makes it to Broadway, gets a Tony, gets made into a movie, gets an Oscar, and on and on. It is far richer, more intelligent, funnier, and spiritually more significant than most of its competitors in today’s theater.

Wittenberg, the Play

Educating children to be normal

My colleague Mark Mitchell has published a scintillating article in Touchstone that touches on one of our recent discussion on homeschooling, offers a model of childraising, and raises something that we hardly ever hear about anymore: the moral imagination. Samples:

Are we raising kids who won’t fit in? I have asked this of myself regularly over the past few years. My wife and I are educating our three boys at home. We don’t watch television (only an occasional video). We emphasize books. We read to the kids and make them memorize poetry. We pray together on our knees. In many ways, our kids are culturally ignorant. They don’t know about Disney World. The other day, my five-year-old asked, “Who is Mickey Mouse?”

So I guess the answer to the question has to be yes. But the “yes” is a qualified one, for when one considers the concept of “odd,” one should ask, “compared to what?” This moves us in a helpful direction, for if “normal” is merely what everyone else does, then what is normal changes with the times. What is odd in one time might not be odd in another. On the other hand, if “normal” refers to a proper way of being human, and if human nature is unchanging, then what is odd, in the sense of being opposed to the majority, may in fact be normal. . . .

There are two facets to educating a child well. The first is to recognize that education is not merely the accumulation of facts, but that it has an unavoidably moral aspect. A suitable education must do more, therefore, than simply teach facts, even moral facts. Education must seek to cultivate the moral imagination of the child, for reducing moral education to a list of rules is bound to fail.

For one thing, just as it is impossible to make laws to cover every conceivable situation, so, too, it is impossible to create a moral code that does the same. The complexity of human life precludes the sort of detailed arrangement that would reduce moral and legal reasoning to the mechanical application of myriads of rules. Judgment is a necessary part of moral decision-making, and judgment must be cultivated through practice. And an important part of this practice comes through encounters with historical and literary characters.

Another reason why moral education cannot be reduced to a set of rules is that lists of rules fail to move the imagination. They do not elicit the aid of that spirited part of the soul of which Plato writes. Consider which of the following would educate a young person more effectively: (1) a rule stating, “Be brave,” or (2) the story of Leonidas at Thermopolyae or Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech.

Stirring a child to aspire to noble thoughts and deeds is a central role of education. The example of Our Lord is instructive: He educated his disciples by telling them stories.

The second facet of a sound education is developing in the child a logocentric view of reality. Holy Scripture is accessible only to those who are literate. God has revealed himself through the words of Scripture, wherein we read that “In the beginning was the Word.” Christ is the Logos. God did not give us a Sacred Picture Book. He gave us words by which we, via our imaginations, can gain access to eternal truths. . . .

While the ultimate aim of education is to cultivate the souls of children toward godly virtue, a secondary but related end is the preservation of civilization. The foundations of our civilization, so long in their development, bought at such a high price, are being attacked in many quarters and are simply ignored or taken for granted in others. If we ignore the past, if we fail to grasp the invaluable and delicate gift we have received, if we fail to pass this love on to our children, then civilization itself is in jeopardy.

And our particular civilization, for which the spoken and written word has been such a central part, cannot be perpetuated by those who are not both literate and loving. That is, stewards of our civilization must possess well-cultivated language faculties capable of grasping complex and abstract ideas and concepts. But the ability is not sufficient, for these stewards must also have a deep love for that which they have inherited. Their well-formed moral imaginations will not be duped by cheap goodness or half-truths or paltry beauties. They will love that which is best and seek to improve that which is wanting.

If a proper education is to accomplish or at least to seek to accomplish these tasks, then a normal child is one whose moral imagination is well formed, whose soul is oriented toward a love of logos and the Logos, and who knows and loves the best of his own civilization. Such a child will, perhaps unwittingly, become a steward of the good, the true, and the beautiful. In a world where normal is considered odd, such children are desperately needed.

Read it all. Dr. Mitchell also offers a critique of television and a priceless anecdote about his child confronting Homer Simpson.

What makes this writing bad?

Dan Brown, author of the Christian-bashing, made-up-history-presented-as-truth, mega-selling novel The Da Vinci Code has a new book out, The Lost Symbol. This time the conspiracy has to do with Masons and Washington, D.C., as well as the Catholic church. Critics are lampooning the thing, but that surely won’t prevent millions of people from reading it and believing what they read. This British article cites some of the criticism and proposes the author’s 20 worst sentences. Read them, but first let’s test your literary discernment. What are some things that are wrong with this passage from The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4?

A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.” On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly. Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils.