Towards a Werewolf Apologetics

werewolves

Quick note at the start. If you haven’t yet, please click the Facebook “Like” button to the left. I try to supplement this blog with miscellaneous links and such on Facebook a couple of times a week. Having folks look at them would be great. Now for this werewolf business.

I recently introduced my students to Michael Chabon’s short stories, specifically one entitled “Werewolves in Their Youth.” It’s a great story that revels in both the wonder and the danger of the human imagination. It’s right up my alley, in other words.

I have a strategy when it comes to teaching. It basically boils down to confusing my students whenever possible, then working to help them catch up. I call this “education.” I pace around the room and stand beside them, lean over and ask them a direct question face to face . . . I basically model my classroom presence after Vincent D’Onofrio’s character in Law in Order: Criminal Intent. Sure they look at me like I’m a little crazy, but at least they pay attention most of the time. What can I say? As much as I’d like to be Lionel Trilling, I’m ever only Groucho Marx. Sometimes I even dress like him to teach.

Anderson Groucho

I know, I know. But sometimes a cigar is just a rolled-up piece of brown construction paper. More Freud further down.

Anyway, many of my students were disturbed when they looked at the syllabus on the first day of class and saw the title of the Chabon story. I teach at a small Christian college in a rural area and I think that I may have, as the kids say, “freaked them out” a little. Not wanting to have the villagers descend on my castle with pitchforks and torches, I assured them that there weren’t any actual werewolves in the story, just two misfit boys with wild imaginations.

But now I’m thinking, why not?

I happen to really love werewolf movies (a shock to my regulars, I’m sure), and I’m quite certain that a course devoted to werewolves would be entirely appropriate at any college, particularly a Christian college.

Alright, time for apologetics mode. Stay with me.

Treatise on the Christian Werewolf

Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf describes the human condition as such:

There was once a man, Harry, called the Steppenwolf. He went on two legs, wore clothes and was a human being, but nevertheless he was in reality a wolf of the Steppes. He had learned a good deal of all that people of a good intelligence can, and was a fairly clever fellow. What he had not learned, however was this: to find contentment in himself and his own life.

The werewolf, as imagined in Hesse’s novel, but particularly the classical Hollywood rendition, is a splendid image of what it is to be human. All of us, each in our own way, walk the line between civility and brutality. This (I assume) mythical creature embodies that struggle. Here is a human body striving to live in a society with other humans, and upon it, brutal, cruel nature has collapsed.

Now, with the advent of the Twilight franchise, I know that the ancient conflict between human and nature is not fashionable. Ms. Meyer has popularized what I call, “the Magical Werewolf.” This is an individual who has come to some sort of happy oneness with nature and draws upon its violent resources to gain righteous empowerment and glittery self-actualization. This is self-help gibberish and I’ll have nothing to do with it. By stripping the creature of its agony, the Magical Werewolf has also stripped it of its dignity. I prefer the An American Werewolf in London vision:

A true Christian

This scene leaves no doubt that David is cursed. Well, I don’t want to break this to you, but we are all cursed. At the beginning of the film, David is just an innocent college-kid hiking across Europe on summer vacation. By the end, he is a vicious killer. The scene above captures the tortuous moments which comprise the border between the two. And I submit that these moments are where we all are most of the time. This film (my personal favorite movie) shows us the torment of living in a society as fallen, sinful creatures. The werewolf is a uniquely sympathetic monster because he or she is each of us.

There is, I think, ample evidence in the Bible for my argument. As cursed punishment, Adam and Eve are placed into direct and eternal conflict with nature, banished from their previously easy communion with the animals (take that Team Jacob). This forced distinction between human beings and nature is consistent. Over and over, association with nature equates with cursedness. Chosen Jacob was a man of the house, rejected Esau, a man of the wilderness. In the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar is cursed in a manner that startlingly resembles the above clip:

The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar: and he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.

“The Dew of Heaven” is one of my favorite poetic images in the bible. It has the sound of pleasure, as if the divine has graced the recipient with soothing, life-giving refreshment. The reality for the once and future King, however, is horror. This divine drenching washes the humanity from his body. This is precisely the tragedy of the Wolfman. Nature has not empowered him to be a better human, it has overtaken his body and stripped away his humanity entirely. This is the very definition of horror. All I am trying to say here is that there is textual precedent in the Bible for the metaphor I’m trying to extend to Christianity.

However, I don’t mean to set the werewolf’s borders at Christendom. This tragic figure speaks to me mainly as a human being. In previous posts, I’ve tried to own my less than flattering moments because I think they are a big part of whatever meaning rests in human experience. To ignore my cruel self is to ignore the conflict between Civilization and its Discontents. My responsible wishes to contribute to society perpetually wrestle against my desires to destroy it. Culture versus Anarchy. Perhaps this conflict is what inspired Matthew Arnold’s animalistic sideburns. I am Tyler Durden.

The werewolf helps us visualize the precarious position we humans occupy on this planet as we strive to wedge civilization into the natural realm. Its tragedy, its horror, its loss of the human pronouns “he” and “she,” help us imagine and experience the wondrous horror that life is.

Wolverine

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Legoland and the Moral Obligation to be Intelligent

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Lionel Trilling

Lionel Trilling (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eventually, this is going to come out, so let me just get it out of the way now. I have an intense man-crush on Lionel Trilling. Isn’t he dashing?I know that most men my age have these sorts of feelings for people like Vince Vaughn, but what can I say? I read The Liberal Imagination and felt the same kind of swoon that other folks had watching Old School.

At any rate, one of Trilling’s favorite phrases was “the moral obligation to be intelligent.” It was coined not by him, but rather by John Erskine in a famous essay. Here is a Wordle of it, compliments of Wikipedia:

At any rate, somehow the phase became associated with Trilling and even provided the title of a recent collection of his essays. I’ve always been drawn to this ostentatious collection of words myself, and I try to instill the concept into my students: being smart is not a gift or a stroke of luck, it is an ethical decision we all make. And education is not a pre-fabricated product you buy, but a messy, unpredictable process of submitting yourself to the best that has been thought and said, and letting it force you to grow out of yourself and into someone better.

So just what exactly does this have to do with Legoland you ask?

Fair enough. I just had the opportunity to take my kids to Legoland for the first time and I was overwhelmed with the desire to blog about it. My girls have only recently “discovered” the joys of Legos and this has been a great joy to me. If one word can define my life’s philosophy, it would have to be “engagement.” This dominates everything from my vacations to my teaching practices, and nothing says “engagement” like a chaotic pile of randomly shaped and colored plastic blocks. Legos just beg their users to touch, feel, and experiment. Central planning is frustrated, romantic exploration is rewarded. This is the joy of Lego-building in its purest form. Culture out of Anarchy.

I am obviously not the first person to find deep meaning in playing with toys. Recently, the great Michael Chabon broached this same topic in his book of essays, Manhood for Amateurs. Chabon’s position about this particular toy’s explosive creative potential is much the same as mine, and like him, I am vehemently against the new trend of pre-organized Lego “kits” that encourage children to follow corporation-approved ideas of, ahem, “creativity.” I highly urge you to read the following interview as Chabon is far more articulate than I am.

The point of this post, however, is not to worry about the dark side of industrialist hegemony. There will be no ranting against the newly-ubiquitous term “job creator” here. (This time at least. I do hate that term so).

I love Legoland.

Having been to more than a few amusement parks in my life, I’ve appreciated some more than others. Cedar Point, in Sandusky, Ohio, is a monument to thrill seeking, and it dares its patrons to conquer both their fear and their propensity for nausea. Its intense emphasis on the rhetoric of challenge makes it engaging and great. It requires something of its adventurers. Disney, on the other hand, is…well…crowded. And not just with people. Its rhetorical goal is to overwhelm the senses and completely immerse its subjects in the fully-enclosed fantasy that finances its multi-national economic interests. I’ve enjoyed Disney, or at least found it interesting, but gaining enough perspective to critically engage with the park’s experience is difficult when one is so fully subsumed into the fantasy. It’s hard to observe the ocean when you are desperately trying to stay afloat in it. There is a terrific mediation on this in E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel that I recommend reading during a visit to that great American cultural institution. It makes for a healthy, subversive moment.

Conversely, Legoland’s genius is, like Cedar Point’s, its daring. No, it doesn’t dare you to conquer your fear of speed and height. On the contrary, it dares you to pause. Do not run, do not even walk. Stop. Look. There are details in these Lego-structures that will capture your imagination and pull you out of yourself. The most impressive section of the park in this regard is Miniland, a collection of famous American urban landscapes. My photos will not do the park justice, but look at this image:

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It’s the White House. Yes, but its more than that. Pausing to note – no stand in awe of – the craftsmanship that went into this model can be, for the engaged patron, a sublime experience. First, look at the accuracy of the architecture. The columns, the windows, the slant of the roof, the steps, the neo-classical peaks. The detail is amazing, but, even more so, the thought of people having taken the time to meticulously reproduce the detail is inspiring. Look at the flags at either end of the entrance. Not only are the flags made of Legos, the stripes and stars are all tiny Legos that come together to spangle the banners. Furthermore, a quick walk past this too-familiar American image might deprive the viewer of noticing that the Obama family is reproduced, in Christmas garb, on the front steps. And that Santa and his reindeer are being held up by the Secret Service on the roof! Clever, no?

I could post dozens of pictures that won’t do the experience justice, but I won’t. I will simply argue that this particular amusement park, like the classic toy that gave rise to it, makes the audacious move to require something of those who explore it. It doesn’t blast the senses with loud music and bright lights; it quietly and confidently sits back and dares the visitor to immerse oneself in the experience. It won’t do it for you. This is also, I think, the goal of education and of living the good life. The park, like the chaotic, random pile of toys my girls received for Christmas, offers the us an opportunity to fulfill our moral obligations: be inspired, dream, think. Be intelligent.

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