On the High School Literary Canon

Bengts - Generational ReadingOverview

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Harold Bloom’s widely praised–and equally condemned–meditation on literary aesthetics, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. In honor of this book, I’ve decided to risk equal parts praise and condemnation by making my own canon, in this case, the “High School Literary Canon”–those books that I passionately believe every student should have read by the time they graduate from high school.

As an English teacher myself, I know that the term “read” is a very loose term; thus, let me specify: these are the texts that every high school graduate should remember, understand, and be able to discuss in at least a semi-intellectual capacity.

Similar to Bloom, I have chosen these texts according to aesthetic and thought value; unlike Bloom, I am considering them from the point of view of an expert on adolescents: which texts would do them the greatest good? I have not ordered them by grade level or by importance, but rather by time period:

A. The Ancient Era
B. The Middle Ages and Renaissance
C. The 18th Century
D. The 19th Century
E. The 20th Century

In doing so, I want to emphasize that these texts could be read, as I understand “reading,” at any point in mid-to-late adolescence, as long as they are read before graduation.

Why These Texts?

As I mention above, these are texts that I passionately believe do the adolescents in our classrooms the greatest good: they give students an idea of who we are and have been throughout history; what we have believed and what we continue to believe; and what values we will carry with us into the future.

But more importantly even than the cultural understanding of ourselves, these texts also require students to think deeply and empathize fully with the ideas and voices that resonate from the pages (or screens, as it were). As most educators will agree, critical thinking and empathy are the two most valuable skills that our students need to survive–not to mention thrive–in the 21st century; these texts invoke both.

I hypothesize below about which contemporary texts and authors might some day be added to this canon, though only time will tell how much long-term value they will hold.

I know that Bloom would not agree with some of my selections; he has, for instance, criticized To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies for being “period pieces,” and thus not applicable to the “ages.” Perhaps not, but I contend that they are immediately applicable to the teenagers currently in our classrooms; there may come a time when Lee’s and Golding’s books cease to have value for adolescents–but for now, the value is palpable.

On the other side of the coin, I know that several of my colleagues would not agree with some of my selections; they would argue that I lean too heavily on those damned “dead white men,” and I do not include enough of a variety of women and minorities. My only response to this is what I always tell my students when confronted with this dilemma: simply put, until relatively recently, only white men had access to the education and distribution necessary to put forth their ideas in a manner to last through the ages; as such, it is only recently that female voices like Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison, and minority writers like Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston have entered our consciousness. As we go forward, we will see the margin shrink as more females and minorities compose meaningful, relevant, and ultimately universal texts.

The High School Literary Canon

The Ancient Era

  • Anonymous, Gilgamesh (at least selections)
  • Homer, The Odyssey (full or abridged, but in a widely respected translation, e.g., Fagles or Lombardo)
  • Plato, selected works (at least “The Allegory of the Cave” and an understanding of Socrates)
  • Sophocles, Oedipus Rex; Antigone
  • Various, The Bible (at least selections)

The Middle Ages and Renaissance

  • Anonymous, Beowulf (translated by Seamus Heaney, full or abridged)
  • Chaucer, Canterbury Tales (at least selections)
  • Dante, The Inferno (full, abridged, or at least exposure to Dante and his works)
  • Shakespeare,
    • Midsummer Night’s Dream
    • Romeo and Juliet
    • Julius Caesar
    • Othello
    • Macbeth
    • Hamlet
    • Sonnets (at least selections)
    • also possibly King Lear, Richard III, and The Tempest

The 18th Century

  • Blake, selected poems
  • Jefferson, et al, The Declaration of Independence
  • Swift, “A Modest Proposal”
  • Voltaire, Candide

The 19th Century

  • Alcott, Little Women
  • Andersen, selected fairy tales
  • (Charlotte) Bronte, Jane Eyre
  • (Emily) Bronte, Wuthering Heights
  • Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
  • Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”; “Frost at Midnight”
  • Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities; also possibly Great Expectations
  • Dickinson, selected poems
  • Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
  • Emerson, “Nature” (at least selections)
  • Grimm Brothers, selected fairy tales
  • Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter; also possibly a selection of his tales
  • James, The Turn of the Screw
  • Keats, selected poems
  • Melville, Moby Dick (at least selections)
  • Poe, “The Raven”; “The Tell-Tale Heart”; “The Cask of Amontillado”
  • (Mary) Shelley, Frankenstein
  • (Percy) Shelley, selected poems (at least “Ode to the West Wind”)
  • Tennyson, selected poems
  • Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”; Walden (at least selections)
  • Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest; The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • Whitman, Leaves of Grass (selected poems; at least selections from “Song of Myself,” plus “O Captain, My Captain” and at least selections from “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”)
  • Wordsworth, selected poems

The 20th Century

  • Achebe, Things Fall Apart
  • Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”; also possibly Go Tell It on the Mountain
  • Camus, The Stranger
  • Capote, In Cold Blood
  • Conrad, Heart of Darkness
  • Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”; at least selections from “The Waste Land”
  • Ellison, Invisible Man
  • Faulkner, As I Lay Dying; “Barn Burning”; “A Rose for Emily”
  • Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby; “Babylon Revisited”
  • Frost, selected poems
  • Golding, Lord of the Flies
  • Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises; selected short stories (at least “Big Two-Hearted River,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and “Soldier’s Home”)
  • Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Joyce, Dubliners (at least selections; also at least a passing understanding of Ulysses and Joyce’s use of stream-of-consciousness)
  • Kafka, “The Metamorphosis”
  • Kesey, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Marquez, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”; also possibly One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera
  • Morrison, Song of Solomon; also possibly The Bluest Eye and Beloved
  • O’Brien, The Things They Carried (at least selections)
  • Orwell, Animal Farm; 1984; “Shooting an Elephant”
  • Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
  • Sartre, No Exit
  • Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men; Grapes of Wrath
  • Wiesel, Night
  • Woolf, To the Lighthouse; at least a selection of her essays; also possibly Mrs. Dalloway

Looking Forward

This canon will undoubtedly become more crowded as we move into the future, and some of these texts may be dropped if they become less immediately applicable to the students in our classrooms. The contemporary authors who I feel have at least shown potential to be future canonical writers include:

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Sherman Alexie
  • M.T. Anderson
  • Michael Chabon
  • Dave Eggers
  • Jonathan Safran Foer
  • John Green (he just needs to stop writing like he thinks teenagers think!)
  • Zadie Smith
  • Markus Zusak

Moreover, based on my previous analysis of graphic novels, I could even see graphic novelists like Alan Moore (Watchmen; V for Vendetta) and Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) being added to the canon, for like the other canonical writers, their works poignantly address universal themes that any reader from any time or place could engage with. But only time will tell.

In Closing

I can see some of my colleagues looking at this canon and thinking it absurd that all of these texts could be covered in the relatively short time they spend in our classrooms–and they would be correct. As teachers, we must direct students toward quality outside reading, and we must keep plugging the long-term benefits of such reading. We must teach and reinforce the concept of “difficult pleasures,” and we must banish from our minds the concept of “at least they’re reading–even if what they’re reading is rubbish.” Our students need to be able to think critically and empathize with others, and the majority of the “YA” literature manufactured today does not meet either of these needs, though they may purport to. Our students require–they deserve–literary greatness. Why should we settle for less?

Flawed Sight

Near the beginning of Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), a man with no eyes tells the protagonist, “My daddy always said in the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.” This plays into the film’s internal logic, which questions the notion of justice–which is, of course, supposedly “blind.” The “precogs” (or “precognitives”), Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell, represent the “one-eyed man”–or a part of him–in this case, since their composite glimpses into the future can potentially see violent crimes before they occur, which in turn allow them to “see” justice. Mistakes can occur, however, just as they can when someone views the world with singular vision. But the precogs, despite their prophetic abilities, are not themselves the “kings,” for they are kept in catatonic states by law enforcers who utilize them as the means to a “lawful” end. These enforcers, then, are the kings. But, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, as the Latin saying goes–“Who will watch the watchers?”


The film gives us a bureaucratic answer to this question with Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), a federal agent sent to investigate the precognitive process. Working on behalf of the Attorney General, Witwer looks for holes in the PreCrime Division, and finds them:

If there’s a flaw, it’s human. It always is.

We are our own flaw; even a system as theoretically perfect as Minority Report‘s PreCrime is doomed to present flaws because it was created, and is implemented, by humans. Everything we create must therefore logically be problematic from conception, for the imperfect hands of the creator will always pass imperfection on to their works.

This film explores a plethora of complex philosophical issues, but the issue of justice is at the forefront: even among the blind, those with eyes for justice are ultimately fallible because they are ultimately human. In this way, the film posits, justice must always be blind, even in a fantastical situation where we can foresee the ostensible future, for we ourselves must be the ones to dispense justice–and certainly, we are our own flaw.

On Peter Jackson’s Tolkien Films


On the surface, it would appear that any Tollkien fan should be upset with Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings1 and The Hobbit2: the films frequently stray from the source material, and they even introduce completely original characters and scenarios. But are these sins worth condemning him for committing? On the contrary: Tolkien fans ought to unite in glorifying these films, for Jackson consistently captures the most important things in Tolkien’s legendarium: the aesthetics and, more importantly, the spirit of Middle-earth. These, if nothing else, ought to appease any Tolkien fan.


If you remember only one thing about these films, it will undoubtedly be the way they look. Much has been said about how perfectly New Zealand captures the various locales in Tolkien’s books, and I will not rehash that here; but what I will say is that the landscapes and other imagery do a great deal to bring Tolkien’s books to life. Every area looks exactly how I’d always imagined it. Most of the characters look like I had pictured them, too, with the one exception of Aragorn, who I’d always imagined a bit statelier and less straggly than Viggo Mortensen. Any reader of Tolkien’s works can watch any scene from any of the films at random and know, without any prompting, that they are looking at Middle-earth. This is a testament to Jackson and his crew, who have taken great pains to ensure that the films capture the imagery of the text.


One of my favorite aspects of the films’ aesthetics is the agedness of Middle-earth. The ruined buildings, statues, towers–even the enstoned trolls that Aragorn and the Hobbits stumble upon in The Fellowship of the Ring; these give credence to Tolkien’s universe and confirm Middle-earth’s long, storied history.


Certainly, this gives the films a very Gothic appeal, which is absolutely consistent with both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Even as recently as Desolation, we see this Gothic mode in living color (or lack thereof) at the entrance to the elf-road of Mirkwood, in the stony caverns of Rhudaur’s High Fells, in the darkness of Dol Guldur, and, of course, in the long dormant caverns of Erebor.


But consider the whole continuum of films: none would be worth watching without the effective Gothicism of Weathertop, Moria, Amon Hen, Osgiliath, and so on.

While we’re on the topic of aesthetics, I should mention the magnificent realization of Smaug in Desolation.


I recall reading years ago, when Guillermo del Toro was still helming the Hobbit films, that he was especially focused on the aesthetics of the dragon. He did not want to see any simian-esque snout, which easily allows the dragon to speak at the cost of looking foolish. Smaug in Desolation is positively not foolish: his styling, mixed with Benedict Cumberbatch’s brilliantly snarling voicework, is among the best visualizations of dragons in the history of fantasy art. He speaks, though his mouth still looks frighteningly reptilian, and he twirls, stampedes, and flies in a wondrously lifelike manner. I cannot imagine that del Toro is disappointed with this dragon.

The Spirit of Middle-earth

It would be impossible to translate all of Tolkien’s legendarium into film and remain slavishly true to plot of the source material: there are huge swaths of time wherein very little occurs, while there are other points in the history that are packed full of events. On the level of plotting and pacing a film, this presents a logistical nightmare. What would you have? Sequence after sequence beginning with “Such and such time later…”? That would be frustrating to follow, not to mention impossible to film or watch since it would need to be unbearably long. And so, Jackson has to occasionally condense or place things out of their original order. Take, for instance, the confrontation between Gandalf and Saruman, and the former’s imprisonment atop Orthanc: in the book, we hear about this from Gandalf only after the fact at the Council of Elrond. To film that as written would be boring, for it is less thrilling to hear a story than to see one–especially when the speaker is as grim as Gandalf at the Council. And so, to keep the pace of Fellowship speeding, Jackson gives us the scene roughly in sequence with the doings of the Hobbits and Aragorn.

This scene does more than keep the pace careening, though. Let us consider this moment, where we see Gandalf, atop Orthanc, communicate with a butterfly before we are thrown violently into the pits of Isengard:

Strictly speaking, a purist ought to be up in arms at this. Not only does Gandalf not describe anything like this at the Council of Elrond, but in fact, he only says that the orcs “were housed in Isengard”3not being spawned from the earth. He also mentions that Gwaihir the Eagle came “unlooked for4,” which would mean Jackson invented the bit with the butterfly. But how amazing a sequence is this! That searing soprano as the butterfly flutters into view! That fantastic flight down the sides of Orthanc into the pits below! The relentless imagery of the factory work that Saruman has conjured! And, of course, Howard Shore’s thundering score,, pounding mechanically away in 5/4 time! This is the point where I don’t care that it’s not true to Tolkien’s plotting. And yet, it’s perfectly true to Tolkien’s spirit, for it demonstrates Gandalf’s affinity with the natural world as well as Saruman’s evil industrialization. If Jackson has altered the specifics, he has remained true to the encompassing ideas.

But what of changes that are further apart from Tolkien’s original vision and less immediately enthralling–say, changes in characterization, like that of Arwen, or the invention of an entirely new character, like that of Tauriel? How can we possibly reconcile these apparent sins of Jackson? Here is a real dilemma, for the solution is difficult: while Tolkien was not writing for any audience in particular–certainly not a wide demographic–Jackson, under the watchful eye of New Line and Warner Brothers, must appeal to a varied audience. Bearing this in mind, were the elaboration of Arwen and the creation of Tauriel truly sinful? I think not. For one thing, Arwen’s story is almost entirely adapted from Tolkien’s own writings, specifically Appendix A at the end of The Lord of the Rings5. The supplanting of her over Glorfindel is merely requisite in filmmaking, what Roger Ebert called the Law of Economy of Characters6. Moreover, giving her consistent screen-time gives us, the ever-fickle audience, a physical reminder of the urgency of Aragorn’s quest. Thus, like the condensation and occasional reordering of plot, Jackson enlarged Arwen’s presence in The Lord of the Rings out of necessity. A film with a cast of secondary characters as numerous as those in Tolkien’s works would never have been greenlit, after all.

But what of Tauriel? She does not supplant any character, and in fact Jackson has pushed further into potentially sinful territory by writing her into a lightly romantic relationship with, of all people, Kili. First of all, a female elf warrior is not unheard of in Tolkien: isn’t it Galadriel, after all, who herself casts down the walls of Dol Guldur7? And isn’t Tauriel in keeping with Eowyn, the female warrior who slays the Witch-King? Surely, we cannot condemn Jackson (or Evangeline Lilly, for that matter) for creating a female elf warrior.

As for the surprising affection between Tauriel and Kili: this did upset at me at first, for it is against all the logic of Middle-earth for an elf and a dwarf to show any kind of romantic affection for one another. But then I saw this:

Consider this, coupled with Kili’s feverish words to Tauriel at the end of the film, as she is healing his Morgul-wound:

You cannot be her. She walks in starlight in another world, far away from me.

Not only is the language highly reminiscent of Tolkien’s romantic language, but that scene in the prison is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in the Hobbit films thus far, especially with Howard Shore’s breathtaking “Feast of Starlight” shimmering in the background. I’d even go as far as to say it’s one of the most beautiful scenes anywhere in Jackson’s oeuvre. It would almost certainly come across as trite–painful, even–were Tolkien to have written it in The Hobbit, but in the film, it delights.

I’ll leave the last word on Tauriel to Evangeline Lilly herself, who–as a Tolkien fan–understands exactly what she’s doing with this newly invented character:

* * *

Here is a true humdinger of a question: what would Tolkien think of Jackson’s films? Based on what I know of Tolkien from his letters and his sparse interviews, I do not think he would have even bothered to see them. That said, I cannot help but feel that if he had, he would not be disappointed. Jackson’s films, after all, are the work of Jackson himself, not Tolkien. As an adapter, Jackson’s job is not to transfer every word, detail, and idea from book to screen; rather, he must bring the imagery to life and, if nothing else, adhere to the spirit of the source material. I do not think he violates either of these conditions. If you are a Tolkien fan who watches these films and gripes about Jackson’s liberties with the books, I think you are missing the point–and a wonderfully fulfilling film experience.

1The Fellowship of the Ring (2001); The Two Towers (2002); and The Return of the King (2003)
2An Unexpected Journey (2012); The Desolation of Smaug (2013); and There and Back Again (forthcoming in December 2014)
3Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. Print. Page 278.
4Ibid. Page 279.
5Ibid. Pages 1094-1101.
6Ebert, Roger. “Ebert’s Glossary of Movie Terms.”
7The Lord of the Rings. Page 1131.

On An Unexpected Journey (2012)


Just as Tolkien’s narratives are stories that grew in the telling, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is a film that I appreciate with each new viewing. When I first watched it, I was put off by Thorin’s heavy-handed backstory. Consider, for instance, if the film began as the novel: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…” followed by Bilbo’s delightfully silly conversation with Gandalf. The tone would immediately be light and fanciful, as opposed to the dour mood we get from Jackson’s introduction, rife as it is with images of Dale’s destruction–right down to its burning toys. I understand that this prologue gives us some useful exposition and props up Thorin in a sympathetic light, but it does so at the detriment of the story’s whimsy, which so captivated me as a child and drew me into Tolkien’s fantastic mythos. Even so, there is still some of Tolkien’s magic alive and well in this film.

But it is Thorin’s fleshed-out backstory that presents my dilemma with the film’s narrative: I have grown fond of it, especially with my recent viewing of the sequel, The Desolation of Smaug; but then again, it is a mood-killer. Whereas the original story successfully focuses only on Bilbo’s whimsical personal growth, Jackson and his fellow writers have decided to add this additional emphasis on Thorin (as well as Gandalf’s originally off-screen doings) to the narrative load. What we get, ultimately, is uneven: it seems Jackson wants his film to be simultaneously reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland and a biblical epic. The clashing tones do not mix. If they were separate films, they would be flawless, but alas! Jackson tried to achieve the unachievable, and failed.


And yet, each time my seven-year-old son watches An Unexpected Journey, he is entranced; and in his imaginative playing, he’s been busy drawing maps and claiming treasure (with the help of his three-year-old sister, of course). So, there must be something of that whimsy and magic from the source material still alive in the film: something there is captivating my little adventurer.

That something, I will venture, is the delightful combination of Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen. Freeman’s portrayal is masterful: not only does he expertly demonstrate Bilbo’s personality growth, but he manifests certain mannerisms, particularly quirky, tick-like gestures, that embody Bilbo’s “peculiarity,” and bring him to life as he never has been before. This representation grows directly from Tolkien’s writing: Bilbo is always portrayed as being a bit “odd,” before and after going “there and back again”; perhaps this, along with his diminutive nature, is why kids so enjoy the character. But Freeman, I think, reaches beyond the original text for his inspiration: I see and hear much of Tolkien in his acting, and perhaps this is to be expected, since there is much of Tolkien in Bilbo. Regardless, Freeman’s delightful presence adds some whimsy to the film. Take his hilariously gross encounter with the three dim-witted trolls (who, by the way, have always seemed more Dickensian to me than Tolkienesque), where we get to see Bilbo finally embolden himself. (Some Tolkien fans were put off by Bilbo’s bluff that the dwarves were “infested with parasites”; to the contrary, I find this addition to be completely fitting with the original book’s light-hearted tone.) Or take Bilbo’s playfully nasty encounter with Gollum, which Jackson thankfully allowed to remain relatively untouched, adding only the occasional glance ahead to The Lord of the Rings when the Ring finally appears, and a funny moment when Gollum reveals with childlike pride that he has only nine teeth left. It is no surprise, I suppose, that these are the moments wherein I find a look of utter enchantment on my son’s face as we watch the film.


McKellen, on the other hand, is much more wily and–let’s just say it–more fun than his Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. But this, like Freeman’s acting, is true to Tolkien’s book, for though Gandalf still appears to be the same wandering wizard from the later trilogy, he is in fact much more mischievous and rascally in The Hobbit. But this Gandalf also possesses some of that magical whimsy that pervades Tolkien’s original book, and McKellen effortlessly relays this. Consider his conversation with Bilbo that starts the story proper: notice the small niceties we are given, like Gandalf’s consternation when Bilbo is surprised that the wizard is still “in business,” and the mysterious, perhaps admiring, way that Gandalf gazes as the hobbit from time to time. And consider also the zaniness as he leads the dwarves out from Goblin-Town, and that lovely encircling shot of him atop the blazing pine tree as the eagles swoop about rescuing he and his friends from Azog and his cronies. We even get to see some of Gandalf the Rascal in the otherwise sober meeting of the White Council, where Gandalf gloats playfully about duping sourpuss Saruman during his telepathic conversation with Galadriel. These moments perfectly capture that whimsy that drew me quickly into Tolkien’s world as a child.


But then there is Thorin’s story. As I said earlier, I have grown fond of it. Seeing Azog as a direct antagonist to Thorin and Company is, to me, much more satisfying than seeing him as an obscure historical figure. Even so, burdened as we are with Thorin’s angst towards both Azog and Smaug, the film remains painfully uneven. This disjointedness is finally remedied when Thorin’s story merges with Bilbo’s story in the climactic “Out of the Frying-Pan Into the Fire” episode, where Thorin tries and fails to overcome Azog and Bilbo puts his newfound pluck to the test and rushes to Thorin’s rescue–but this is unfortunately only about 20 minutes before the end of the film, so the disjointedness prevails.

Clashing tones aside, An Unexpected Journey is a film that will be remembered alongside Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, because like those films, it captures some of the spirit Tolkien breathed into his original text. Thanks to Jackson and his crew, the magic of Tolkien’s story endures now in written and filmic form–both of which I happily share with my little adventurer.

Spirituality through Art:Song of Myself, Section 6

walt whitman
The sixth section of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is the one out of the total fifty-two that most resonates with me and provides new insights with repeated readings:

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Whitman, the undisputed poetic voice of the American spirit, gives us a doctrine on what The Lion King (1994) would eventually glibly term “the Circle of Life.” He starts with the subject of his book, leaves–at once blades, but also pages–of grass: a child comes to him1 with handfuls of the green stuff and asks what it is; Whitman finds he cannot give an answer to the seemingly simple question. What is grass, beyond that it’s the benign stuff that grows in the yard? From thence he seems to free-associate meanings for the grass’s symbolic nature until he finally lands on a meaning that is irresistibly final:

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

This leads Whitman to realize that we are the grass: we die, we’re buried, we decompose and turn into soil, and then from our graves spring back to earth in the form of that “hopeful green stuff.”

Let us close by meditating on the sublime final five lines of the section:

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

There is no death, he tells us, but something closer to a transference of energy: we die, and our spirit–that implacable and yet energetic thing–transfers into leaves of grass. Thus, life does not end, but continues on in what we might term Whitmanian reincarnation. Death is not a closing chapter, but the start of the next section.

Are we aware of this new beginning? I suppose we must wait until our own transference to discover that truth.

1Let us cast aside the rule that tells us not to assume the voice of the speaker in a poem is the voice of the poet; with Whitman, the voice of the speaker is Whitman.

On Prometheus (2012)

Prometheus Conception of Life

Contrary to popular opinion, a good science-fiction film does not need to answer the questions it raises. Does 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) really provide us with any definitive answers at its closure? Or are we just left to stare in wonderful awe as the star-child stares fixedly at us? Is it telling us that humanity relies on extraterrestrials to evolve? Or are we instead to focus on the sublimity of the evolution and leave the answers in the twilight? I think the latter.

Ridley Scott’s oft-maligned Prometheus (2012) also raises many questions without providing any answers. You can get technical about many details–How does Holloway not see David poison his drink? How does David know Holloway and Shaw would have sex right after he poisoned Holloway? Why does Vickers run into the shadow of the falling ship? (See Red Letter Media’s terrific line of questioning for more.)–but to get caught up in the specifics is, I think, to miss the point of the film.

The strongest moments in the film, for me, look like this:
Prometheus Cave Mapping

The science-fiction genre, regardless of artistic medium, seems to me at its best when it depicts people testing and pushing the frontiers of human thought and experience. Explorers are a perfect vehicle for this concept. The best parts of Prometheus involve the characters pushing forwards into and discovering the unknown. Consider this image of David learning how to operate the alien navigational system, which I love so much that I set it as the header on my teaching blog for all of last semester:

David Operates the Navigation System

In this image, David, himself a symbol of humanity’s great achievements, is observing the galactic frontier, where humanity will be going next. He is filled with an unmistakably childlike awe as he spins and swivels amid the planets and stars. The sequence reminds me of Dave’s last words in the 2001 novel: “Oh my God–it’s full of stars!1” We can think of David here, a machine, as a sort of advanced Curiosity Rover taking a look at the future for us before we do ourselves.

The biggest question that the film asks is one that has been pondered since the dawn of thought: “Why is there life?” Shaw and Holloway hope to find answers to this question from the Engineers, and when it seems they have an answer, Shaw asks, “Who created them?” We can split this question apart further: Why would we create artificial life? Why would we create artificial intelligence like David? If all life is a long chain of beings being created by other beings, where did it begin? And what meaning is there in life if it has all been artificial? Could a film, or any narrative, for that matter, answer these questions? And even if it could, should it? I think some things are better left up to interpretation. If the mystery is gone–how boring existence would be!

The film ends with what provides for a logical segue into a sequel, but it needn’t; the Prometheus story could end there, and the film would still fascinate. Though we’re all burning to know what Shaw and David will find on the Engineer’s home world, their ascent into the cosmos, blasting further away from earth, if nothing else reinforces the prevailing image of humanity pushing into and discovering the unknown.

Prometheus End Takeoff

Not surprisingly, Scott–who began his career as a set designer–has realized Prometheus more as a visual masterwork than a written one; we derive much greater satisfaction and pleasure from drinking in the film’s images and sequences than attempting to follow the plot or dialogue closely. This is a trait it shares with 2001: only a fool attempts to follow the plot and dialogue in that film. The powerful visual representations in Prometheus evoke fascination, wonder, and ultimately, a touch of sublimity. Like with 2001, its thematic predecessor, it asks us to watch, to ponder, and to look ahead. Though several critics and viewers have been upset by the film’s unresolved questions, I’d rather it be that way: how wonderful that a film can evoke the most human of qualities–our ability to think. Let us leave the specifics in the twilight and focus instead on what could be.

1Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), p. 254

On the Sublime in Film

2001 Dave

Occasionally, a good director will evoke the sublime. Werner Herzog, whose films almost always at least approach the sublime, quotes Longinus, the Roman literary critic who coined the term, while discussing the concept in his speech, “On the Absolute, the Sublime, and the Ecstatic Truth“:

Our soul is raised out of nature through the truly sublime, sways with high spirits, and is filled with proud joy, as if itself had created what it hears1

The key to this quote is the phrase, “as if itself had created what it hears”: once we feel the sublime, once we feel as though our souls have been “raised out of nature,” we take pride in the object evoking the sublime, as though we have created it. Obviously, we have not created the object, but we have rather identified with the creator as soon as the sublime has been discovered. In film, the creator naturally corresponds to the director, especially in the context of auteur theory, so when we encounter the sublime in a film, we are identifying with the director, in a sense usurping his or her vision and feeling as though it is ours.

This is not and example of the sublime in film, though the director might be attempting to heighten our spirits:

No, this2 is empty spectacle–simply mindless arson and destruction. The entire Transformers franchise is terrible, of course, because none of the films adhere to any vision, other than to sell lots of toys and make lots of money. Michael Bay has an eye for special effects, true, but that does not mean his vision is so affecting that we feel it is ours. We watch his films–all of them–and discover a recurring formula that looks something like this:

(quick, unnecessary exposition) + (special effect) + (brief dialogue aspiring wittiness) + (special effect) + (special effect) + (tears) + (special effect) + (redundant finale)

Bay’s vision is never worth usurping because it is repetitive and boring. Spectacle by itself is meaningless, but spectacle rooted in emotion seems to me the very nature of the sublime. This is why none of Bay’s films have ever–or will ever, it appears–achieve the sublime: he is too invested in outrageous explosions and predictable car chases to devote any time to humans or their emotions.

Conversely, here are two sequences that I feel do encapsulate the sublime [watch the clips in the following order]:


The science-fiction genre has a natural relationship to the sublime given its association with awe, or what Longinus calls “high spirits.” Kubrick3 forces us in rapid time to bear witness to the uncanny evolution of a lesser being (in this case, a human) into a greater being (the star-child), whereas Spielberg4, armed with a plethora of Spielberg Faces, gives us an early interaction between two highly evolved species, resulting with each just staring in awe of the other. Notice that each director evokes the sublime, though each in highly distinct styles, by providing spectacle and emotion in equal proportion. The human face, for instance, gets a significant amount of screen time, unlike the Transformers clip, where we see Shia Labeouf’s face only so we can watch him scream video game inanities like, “Shoot him!” and “Move faster!” Kubrick shows us Dave’s terror as he confronts his aging self and his longing as he reaches out for the monolith, while Spielberg gives us Roy’s exhilarated fascination as he boards the alien mothership and even a look of pleasant awe from the alien ambassador as he communicates with Lacombe. These are sublime moments that enrapture and inspire us.

But it is false to say that the sublime in film is restricted to the science-fiction genre: any film can evoke the experience as long as it provides equal parts spectacle–or at least, “high spirits”–and emotion, with the former firmly rooted in the latter. Consider the following clip from Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007):

Atonement - Dunkirk

Wright, by way of Peter Robertson‘s flawless steadicam work, provides us with his hallucinatory vision of the chaos and debilitation across the wasteland of Dunkirk Beach. This roughly five-minute long take includes not just a plethora of extras doing a wide variety of things across the beach, but also animal effects, gun shots, pyrotechnics, and vehicles, all choreographed and captured in this brilliantly singular vision. As with the 2001 and Close Encounters sequences, Wright affects us with spectacle rooted in emotion: the chaos and debilitation on the beach clearly reflects the same feelings in the characters in the shot, particularly Robbie, Tommy, and Frank, the last of whom utters near the beginning of the shot, “That’s not right.” This sequence fills us with awe, and when the shot finally cuts to the next scene, we feel an overflowing of emotion at what we have just witnessed, an emotion that can only be described as pride: hence, the sublime.

Ultimately, the sublime can only occur in the individual imagination: it is not a passive experience. Thus, a good director will evoke the sublime not by confining us to a submissive, unthinking role, but rather by making us complicit in a given sequence or film as a whole. (I have yet to see a film that, as a whole, evokes the sublime, but it is hypothetically possible; perhaps 2001 comes closest.) In order for us to experience the sublime in film, we must be active participants in the happenings onscreen. “The soul actualizes truth through the experience of sublimity,” Herzog tells us; “that is, it completes an independent act of creation”5. Our “independent act of creation” is a reaction, of course, but only a reaction to a film that overwhelms us with a spectacle rooted firmly in human emotion.

1,5Werner Herzog, On the Absolute, the Sublime, and the Ecstatic Truth [His quote corresponds to Longinus, On the Sublime, VII.2]
2Michael Bay, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, 2011
3Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968
4Steven Spielberg, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977