Category Archives: Blog

Recovering Ideals (2)

Immature idealism, while not without value, has some problems. Perhaps greatest of these is that it is self-aggrandizing. The immature often turn their ideals back toward a pride in themselves. As an example, helping others can be done with the aim of seeing oneself as one who helps others rather than out of a genuine concern for others. Many who claim to love the masses do not love the individuals of whom the masses are composed.

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Consider the following quote from The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis:

“She’s the sort of woman who lives for others – you can tell the others by their hunted expression.”

It’s not until we get to know individuals and connect names with faces that we can experience a more genuine compassion. Superman: Peace on Earth, the first story from The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes (DC Comics) by Alex Ross and Paul Dini,  begins in this way when Superman rescues a starving girl and delivers her to a shelter where she can receive food.

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This leads him, as Clark Kent, to do some personal research into the problem of world hunger and its causes. Based on his recent experience, he is particularly moved by photographs of starving individuals, particularly children, and, as Superman, he becomes motivated to seek world-wide cooperation in gathering food and solving the problem.

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Initially, his efforts are gratifying.

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One panel that impressed me shows him descending past Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor), the huge Art Deco statue of Jesus Christ in Rio de Janeiro, with a large container of food held above his head.

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A second problem with immature idealism is impatience. This often stems from pride and the related desire for the singular, heroic act which, in turn, feeds that pride. Within the one day that Superman set aside for his task, he realizes that it will not be enough. The problem he is attempting to solve is simply too great.

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Even he can’t be everywhere at once, day after day. He discovers the host of complications which frustrate efforts at charity in the real world: fear and suspicion among intended recipients, bottlenecks imposed by corrupt governments (some of which use starvation as a tool for controlling their populaces), and the unwillingness of those who are capable of lending assistance. It had been his hope that the world would follow his example, but much of the food goes to waste.

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A powerful being can control humanity about as effectively as a human can control ants. They just don’t follow orders very well. Should one leave the ants to work out their own issues or choose to crush them? This hints at the difficulty absolute power might face in persuading people to receive help and to stop harming and exploiting each other. This reminds me of when I was in track practice at my high school and saw a friend of mine being jumped. This had happened to me one year earlier, and I had ended up with my jawbone being kicked into three pieces (prior to having it wired shut by an oral surgeon). A teammate and I rushed to break it up, and we were joined by a star player from our state-ranked basketball team. The three of us had a devil of a time getting the attackers to stay off of their intended victim. We simply didn’t have enough hands, and they kept going around us. To use our fists would have been to become what we were fighting. A passing motorist even tried to help us, and we eventually succeeded. My teammate and I were not small, but I remember feeling inadequate despite our superior size and strength (one of the young thugs only came up to my shoulder). I wonder what God must think whenever we act out. I’m glad he doesn’t just crush us.

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Solving human problems requires the coordinated and persistent effort of other human beings: human beings with ideals, the courage and commitment to act in accordance with them, and patience for the long haul. Even at that, we can only help and influence those we can, and some still might not respond. Using this as a major component of a superhero story is a challenging approach because it puts responsibility right back on us, including those of us who believe in, and pray to, God.

Recapturing Ideals (1)

I’d like to expound on the DC Comics Universe of my childhood. I realize that we all have different perspectives and that reality as any one of us sees it is not necessarily reality as it is.  At the age of ten, my friends and I were idealistic. Police and soldiers were good people who protected us and only used violence when justified. Authority figures were also good and acted in our best interests. We read DC Comics, especially Superman but also Batman and Wonder Woman. Back then, heroes were heroes, and we believed in “truth, justice, and the American way.”

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We were children of the Silver Age of Comics. For capes, my friends and I wore towels either tucked into our tee shirts or carefully safety-pinned around our necks, and we argued about who got to be the real Superman. Well, yeah, sometimes we squabbled or even fought, but we were good kids. My best friend and I volunteered to be traffic safety crossing guards (the diagonal belt and badge were cool), and our group in general befriended and stuck up for the little guys and the outcasts. One of our friends was so overweight he looked round, but we never made fun of him. We defended him when others picked on him. We had empathy and conscience, and our pre-adolescent society was one of inclusion and safety.

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Then came junior high school, high school, and increasing social pressure with its trademark betrayals and altered values. We became overshadowed by an awareness of racism, riots, the protests against the war in Viet Nam, abuses of power by our government, and the Kent State shootings. Resistance to the status quo became the new coin of the social realm. Some of my friends’ parents started getting divorces. With this greater awareness and disillusionment, we lost a good many of our childhood ideals.

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Even now, society tends toward the sarcastic and the cynical. We’ve been let down so many times that our first reaction is often skepticism when we are confronted by something good. I have noticed a trend in which people discard ideals on the basis of other people failing to live up to them. Very recently, I have had to remind myself that the ideal society of my youth never really existed, but that isn’t the whole story. I knew people, including my own parents, who truly lived by their ideals, and there were enough of them that they made the world better. The value in an ideal is that when people reach for it, society is better off. When a good ideal is discarded, too many people stop trying.

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Getting back to my DC aspirations of the Silver Age, I recently purchased and read a graphic novel that brought all of it back. The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes by Paul Dini and Alex Ross does a masterful job of combining the historical ideals of perhaps the most iconic superheroes in comic book history with a modern awareness that the world we live in is indeed a very flawed place. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel are featured in narratives which apply their virtues to real world problems with understandably mixed results. What I like about these stories is that they use fictional characters to focus our attention on the potential hero within each of us and that they do this without being heavy-handed.

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This is one of my favorite graphic novels, right up there with Kingdom Come and Marvels (my opinion, of course). And guess who the illustrator for both of those was? The panels are visually satisfying, the writing for the most part substantial, and the stories entertaining. In upcoming posts, I will examine some of the individual stories in this impressive collection.

Oh, and fifty-three years later, my buddies and I are still close.

The Pressure Of Being Wonder Woman

One of my daughters once played the part of Wonder Woman in a humorous skit put on by our church youth group. This same daughter got on well with the popular girls in her middle school, and she relayed to me a revealing conversation she had with a couple of them. The word they used was “horrible” when they described the pressure of keeping up the right appearance – pressure to have their hair just right, their clothes just right, their conversation just right, their facial expressions, their skin… I think you get the idea.

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Artist: Adam Hughes

You might wonder why I would choose this as a way to begin a post about the depiction of Wonder Woman by Adam Hughes. I think this will become evident later. Let me first say that I in no way mean to denigrate the work of this very talented illustrator. Here, for example, is his rendition of the first Wonder Woman cover ever done:

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This is obviously clever and well executed, as are the following:

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Here is a self portrait of the man himself.

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In regard to my first paragraph, some of his images somehow strike me as glossier and perhaps more sexually overt than the work of Alex Ross. I won’t go so far as to call them objectionable because I respect the skill and imagination of the artist, and I like his work. But they do remind me more of the cultural stereotypes to which women are often pressured to conform in modern society.

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By the way, and for those of you who were not aware, adherence to modern standards of appearance places a considerable amount of pressure on men to measure up as well. Stereotypes of attractiveness for men and women often distort the expectations of both sexes. This can have the effect of erecting barriers to healthier relationships, and I describe our current situation as isolation within association. We as individuals can choose to adopt more natural social standards that leave us and others feeling less threatened.

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Without walking into the minefield of what is or is not appropriate when it comes to clothing, let me say that I do not criticize women who choose to conform to modern standards of appearance as long as this is what they genuinely like to do. Nothing else should be read into them at first glance. Rather, people should make the effort to get to know one another and to be more accepting. Reputations, good or bad, should be earned rather than conferred on the basis of surface impressions.

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As a type of footnote to what I have said this week, consider the Venus de Milo:

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For millenia, this was a standard for feminine beauty in western culture. I think a good many women resemble this sculpture in one way or another while feeling negatively self-conscious about how they look. I think we need to expand our definitions of beauty.

Looking Like Wonder Woman

So you’ve no doubt heard the criticism that Gal Gadot doesn’t look like Wonder Woman. Okay, let’s get something out in the open before going any further. As a general rule, the DC cinematic universe has made some questionable choices as to the visual appearance of its characters. Many of them strike me as a cross between oversized plastic toys and clothing models despite the enlistment of some good actors to play them.  Marvel Studios, on the other hand, knows their product as well as their demographic, and they usually get their visuals right. Let me add that these are my impressions as a viewer and that I don’t mean to be critical in a negative way. I just think DC can do better than they’ve done so far.

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Having said this, I don’t think Gal Gadot is a bad choice to play Wonder Woman. She has been criticized as being a former model with too delicate an appearance, but she was in the Israeli military. During her term of service, she completed a rigorous course of physical training, evidently in impressive fashion. On that count, let’s not be too quick to judge on the basis of appearance. Let’s see how the movie turns out.

So, in response to the statement that Gal Gadot doesn’t look like Wonder Woman, I must ask an obvious question. What does Wonder Woman look like? I’m trying to limit my pictures to faces as much as I can. Here’s her original conception (enlarged from the first cover, even) by H. G. Peter:

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Her likeness was allegedly based on that of Olive Byrne, the mistress of Wonder Woman creator William Molton Marston…

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… but she could just as easily be said to resemble Jane Russell (top) or Rosalind Russell (bottom), who were actresses from that era.

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If you look at enough panels of the original issues, I think you will notice that Wonder Woman’s physique was far less muscular than in modern portrayals.

Here’s a panel by George Perez…

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… one by Adam Hughes…

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… and one , if your mind is not sufficiently stretched by now, by Darwyn Cooke:

Does Linda Carter look like Wonder Woman, or (perhaps more appropriately) do we think of Wonder Woman as looking like Linda Carter?

Wonder Woman Complete Series DVD UK Box Set Lynda Carter (Pictures by dvdbash.wordpress.com)

Was Alex Ross thus influenced? Well, yes. He admitted as much, but even he has portrayed this character with slight variations.

Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)

So does Gal Gadot look like Wonder Woman? Well, I’m beginning to think that  Wonder Woman doesn’t look like Wonder Woman. Provided this more recent actress is given a decent script, I’m willing to leave a little room for creative adaptation.

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Magic And Miracles (4)

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The Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse

Following last week’s thread, what is the difference between praying for a miracle and casting a spell? I can only give you my impression/opinion. Let’s start with magic. One of the characteristics of magic that strikes me as different from Christianity has to do with manipulation. It seems to me that the sorcerer, sorceress, warlock, or witch sees himself or herself as mastering a skill or craft which makes possible the manipulation of people, nature, circumstances, and even supernatural entities.

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Sorceress by Frank Frazetta

To the extent that Christians try to cajole God for favors, I think they are behaving more like magicians than disciples. God is not a trained animal act, and he does not perform at our bidding. Does this mean that he should not be asked to intervene? Not necessarily. It depends on three things as I see it: what we are asking for, our motivation for doing so, and our attitudes about ourselves in relation to God.

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William Blake: Jesus giving sight to Bartimaeus

Without requiring all of my readers to believe as I do, I think it is helpful to look at how the scriptures describe (often by implication) the nature and purpose of miracles. In my own reading and contemplation I have settled (again) on three characteristics. First, miracles provide genuine help to those who need it. Second, they reveal some aspect of the character and nature of God. Third, as a result of this, they require something of us in the way of humility, commitment, and submission to a higher authority. Assuming (again, as the scriptures imply) that this authority is benevolent and has our truly best interests at heart, God should not be expected to conform to our limited and often misguided agendas. You may not believe he exists, but if you do, this has to be considered.

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Grace by Rhoda Nyberg (painting from 1918 photograph of Charles Wilden taken by her father, Eric Enstrom)

Some of you may remember that in a previous post (THE GODDESS MENTALITY – PART 3 from this same Myth and Reality category) I stated that I do not respect powerful people simply for being powerful. Seeking supernatural empowerment in and of itself can be very destructive. What if we get what we want? Will we use it for good or ill? Are we even in a position to be able to tell the difference?

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The Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes by Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1674)

It makes sense to me that God’s gifts, however commonplace or unusual, would be granted on his terms. Finally, by asking for the wrong things or for the right things for the wrong reasons, do people simply delude themselves and thereby compromise their abilities to function in the real world? On my ABOUT page, I say something to the effect that fantasy can give us a beneficial perspective  from which to examine reality. When fantasy becomes too much of our reality, the balance shifts toward distortion and dysfunction.

Okay, enough of the heavy stuff. I promise to  lighten things up and have more fun next week. Teaser: So what does Wonder Woman look like?

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Magic And Miracles (3)

I remember when a former colleague first came to our campus to interview for a position in Sociology. I had noticed in her curriculum vita (that’s academic for “resume”) that her dissertation topic was on magic and witchcraft, so I asked her about it. Her response: “I’m not a witch if you’re worried about that.” I wasn’t, and she went on to explain that she was studying it as a sociological phenomenon. All the while, I was thinking of that scene from Monty Python (those of you who have seen it know which one).

The Sorceress (2002) from the He-Man/Masters of the Universe series

In later discussions, as I remember, she explained to me that most Wiccans were women and that many of them had been physically or sexually abused. Wicca appealed to them as a means of empowerment in the face of some very unpleasant circumstances in which they felt otherwise powerless. Note that she did not say this applied to all Wiccans but that it was a prominent trend among those practicing this religion.

The Sorceress Greek by John William Waterhouse

We have a prestigious lecture on our campus which is given every two years. She was awarded this lecture by vote of our faculty and chose this area of interest as her topic. I remember that during the talk she blurred the boundaries between magic and other religious faiths, and that got me to thinking. Are those who pray for divine intervention, sometimes in the form of miracles, doing essentially the same thing as those who recite incantations or pronounce spells?

Medea by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandysk (1866-1868)

To answer this question, I narrowed it down to a comparison between belief in magic and the one religion with which I am most familiar: Christianity. So what is the difference between spells and prayer for miracles?

Sorceress by Rafaella Picca

I can see now that this is going to require more explanation than I originally thought, so I will continue this discussion next week.

Magic And Miracles (2)

I can’t say whether the above picture is genuine or whether it’s been altered, nor did I find any credits for the image. Probably fake if someone held a gun to my head and made me guess. It does, however, provide an example of a modern trend: the alleged return to pagan worship by various groups of individuals.

Return of the Hellenes devotees (photo not credited)

Let me offer a few examples. In Greece, The Return of the Hellenes “worships” the twelve main gods of the Greek pantheon and was founded by Tryphon Olympios, a philosophy professor. In Iceland, the Asatru Fellowship similarly uses members of the Norse pantheon. Both groups have revived certain rituals and traditions from these ancient religions, but they see their “gods” more as metaphors and ideals than as deities. Wicca not only features an odd collection of beliefs and practices borrowed from various sources but also shows what I would call considerable internal variety and inconsistency depending on where it is practiced.

Asatru Fellowship procession (photo by Eran Livni)

Some may see it as a matter of degree, but generally missing from the above examples are the true worship of supernatural deity and the adherence to historical canon and doctrine which are characteristic of major religions. These modern phenomena are more like a customized re-invention of older systems of thought, and they tend to cherry-pick various beliefs and practices. There is a modern tendency to go cafeteria-shopping for a religion that satisfies one’s desires and expectations, but this practice begs the question of how anyone can worship something they made up themselves. The same can be said for the redefinition of older faiths, the “now it means this” phenomenon.

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Apotheosis of Homer by Jean-Auguste-Dominique- Ingres (1827)

I wonder how many people who refer to themselves as pagans have actually studied the pagan philosophers, learned the tenets of pagan religions, or even familiarized themselves with such works as the Edda, the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer, the Aenid by Virgil, or The Metamorphoses by Ovid. I’ve known a few people who have done these very things, but there are posers in any religion.

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Ulysses and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper, c. 1909
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Painting by Jan Styka in which Athena inspires Odysseus to take vengeance

Then, of course, there is the issue of intellectual sincerity. What do the adherents of these modernized, ancient beliefs actually believe? Are they  genuine, or  are they participating in pseudo-intellectual forms of cosplay? These are fair questions to ask anyone who professes a belief in the supernatural, myself included.

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The Muse (1895) by Gabriel de Cool

Perhaps this is what one of my former students meant when she said something like, “I wanted to deal with people who knew what they were talking about,” when explaining to me why she had decided against the Wiccan religion after looking into it. Let me add that I have had a number of students who were Wiccan and that we got along well. I found them to be creative, intelligent, and likeable people. Some were even very studious in learning more about their beliefs, and one of those later converted to Christianity. Please don’t think that I’m trying to be insulting or derogatory when I point out differences between modern religions and those which are more traditional.

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The Lament for Icarus by Herbert James Draper

Next week, I’ll continue with a more direct discussion of what the title of this series actually means.

Magic And Miracles (1)

Moses Delivering the Ten Commandments by William Hawkins
The Temptation of Christ by Ary Schefer, 1854

As an educator and as a casual observer of popular culture, I believe that our society is overly dependent on passive entertainment. We view more than we read. We assume more than analyze. Don’t get me wrong. If you’ve read very many of my posts in the past, you know that I love some of the entertainment that’s out there. My concern is the degree to which we are dependent on it.

In the biology courses which I teach, I emphasize the scientific method of thinking, its limits, and how this relates to our perception of reality. We currently have a problem with scientific literacy in America, but arguments which merely appear more scientific are given more widespread credibility.  I call this faux intellectualism the “culture of the scientific.” It’s more a statement of style than of content.

Additionally, our emotions influence our perception of reality. We believe in things we want to be true. Conversely, we disbelieve things we don’t want to be true. From this perspective, truth is often perceived as inconvenient, but consider the alternative. Ignorance can hurt or even kill us, and denying the existence of something doesn’t prevent it from affecting us if it’s real.

Finally, there is what sociologists term the “social construction of reality.” We tend to believe what those whom we identify with believe or what the majority of people believe, and that can sometimes get us into trouble. Metaphorically, the blind can lead the blind. Truth is not established by majority vote, and history is replete with cases involving individuals who went against the status quo and were later vindicated.

I have described a cultural mash in which our shared perception of reality is affected by at least four factors: our desire for and orientation toward entertainment, a “culture of the scientific” among the scientifically illiterate, emotional preference, and the social construction of reality. Within this context, society has grown increasingly incredulous about the existence of spiritual beings and the occurrence of miracles. This has been accompanied by a general drift away from the tenets of Judaism and Christianity. Historically, the two most prominent lines of thought in the development of western civilization have been the Greco Roman and Judeo Christian traditions.

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Gods of Olympus (1534-1535) by Giulio Romano
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The Ascension by Benjamin West, 1801
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School of Athens by Raphael
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The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

Ironically, western culture has shown an increased sympathy for Islam (with notable exceptions) and an increased interest in magic, paganism, and witchcraft even as it discards Judaism and Christianity as being irrelevant, superstitious, or worse. Please note what I am not saying. These are trends among diverse individuals who happen to exist in significant numbers. They are not the product of widespread, monolithic group think.

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Okay. This is my teaser. I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this, but I’ll pick it up again next week.

Castle In The Sky

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From: Castle in the Sky (1986, Studio Ghibli), directed by Hayao Miyazaki

On a weekend visit to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, I was in their renowned Asian art gallery when I noticed it: an ancient Chinese painting of paradise. I stared at it for quite a while. It showed a floating landscape with hills and mountains. A spacious cave or hollow space at the center of this landscape contained what appeared to be a palace or city. There were symbolic elements in the picture, as well, but I won’t belabor all of the details. This painting influenced my own concept of paradise for a story I was writing at the time and which I am in the midst of slowly revising. When I went back to the museum on a subsequent visit, the painting was no longer on display. I have been unable to find it since.

Examples of floating cities or islands can be found in religion, art, literature, and animation. The book of Revelation mentions the new Jerusalem descending from heaven.  I doubt that this is what the artist of the following painting had in mind, but I couldn’t help but notice the similarity of concept. Since it shows a restored Temple of Herod along with the current mosques (not to mention the ruins and human figures in the foreground), this painting raises questions and draws the eye. Click on the image to see it in more detail.

Floating Jerusalem by Howard Fox
Floating Jerusalem by Howard Fox

The floating island of Laputa appears in Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.

From: Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift (illustrated by J. J. Grandville)
From: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (illustrated by J. J. Grandville)

 Everything I’ve said so far is background. Castle in the Sky from Studio Ghibli incorporates this idea and even borrows the name, Laputa, for its floating city. Without going into too many details, the story is centered around Sheeta, a descendant of a royal line with supernatural insight, and Pazu, the boy who befriends and helps her when he finds her floating down from the sky, as they try to foil the plans of the sinister Muska, another descendant of the royal line.

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Sheeta and Pazu
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Sheeta and Muska

The point of contention on which the characters are focused is a stone of mysterious power which is released by an incantation that only Sheeta and Muska know.

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Sheeta wearing the Laputa stone

The city of Laputa, the apparent source of the stone,  is a supernaturally wonderful place corrupted in the past by the use of its power to develop destructive technology. Added construction has converted it into a fortress of cataclysmic capability. Their is an interesting scene in which all of the wrong-minded embellishments are stripped away to reveal the righteous and beautiful core of Laputa.

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Laputa purified

The animation is, as usual for a feature directed by Hayao Miyazaki, wonderful, and the story is an imaginative blending of mythology, science fiction, and social commentary on war and environmentalism. Also typical for Miyazaki is the refreshing portrayal of self-sacrificing friendship between children of opposite sexes.

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If you haven’t seen this one yet, I definitely recommend it.

Anime And Life

I moved to the small town in which I am currently living and working right out of graduate school over 25 years ago. Imagine going from a Big 10 university town to hearing a rooster crow somewhere outside your property in the morning. I could sometimes hear the clip-clop of a horse’s hooves on the street out front. How you regard that says a lot about attitude and expectations, and that brings me to the point of this post.

From: My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Studio Ghibli), directed by Hayao Miyazaki
From: My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Studio Ghibli), directed by Hayao Miyazaki

During Christmas at our home a few years ago, I was speaking with my son-in-law, Michael Greenholt. He is an animator who has worked for Disney/Toon Studios and is recently employed by Warner Brothers. I told him that I did not care for the general quality of anime, and he informed me that I needed to watch features directed by Hayao Miyazaki. As proof, he showed me My Neighbor Totoro.

From: My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Studio Ghibli), directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
From: My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Studio Ghibli), directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

My attitude toward where I was living was, to say the least, under-appreciative. During this charming animation, I was struck by its sense of peace, pastoral simplicity, community, and appreciation of the simple features of relationships and rural life. I remember thinking, “I want that,” and then realizing, “Wait – I already have that.” It was all around me, and I had been disregarding it.

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The story is a wonderful application of mythology to the mundane aspects of human life. Some benevolent spirits of various sizes help two sisters whose mother is ill and whose father is a university professor. There were images of the father grading papers in the quiet of their rural home, and I identified with what I was seeing. That might be the sequence which really got the wheels turning in my mind.

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I have said before that good fantasy can give us a perspective from which to consider reality. The subject of this week’s offering is but one good example of how this has worked for me. Happily, I can say that I am much better acclimated to my surroundings as I write this some years later. Just this last Christmas, we were at Mike and my daughter’s house out in Los Angeles, and the family watched this movie again. In another conversation during that visit, my daughter zeroed in on a statement I made about the influence of expectations on our enjoyment. If we are expecting something else, we are less likely to enjoy what is in front of us, regardless of its quality. If we can expand our thinking, we can enjoy a wider variety of things in this life.

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Additionally, I can say that slowing down and taking more time to enjoy less has the effect of expanding our sense of time. I believe that we live more fully and more deeply when we can achieve this relaxed state of mind. If I were to make a suggestion, it would be to turn down the cultural noise, slow down, and get about the business of real living.

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