Friday, March 19, 2010

Semi-practical applications of what I'm studying!

One of the most crucial facets of the evolution of current literary criticism is the search for Meaning. During the study of it, the image comes to mind of a child asking, "Mommy, where does Meaning come from?" Not too very long ago, Meaning was thought to be tied in to the author's "intent." What the author meant to say with the text was what the text said.
Then came Barthes and said, similar to the declaration of Nietzsche, "The author is dead." According to Barthes and his contemporaries, a text, once written, is a separate entity from its author and the Meaning of the text must lie there, within the text itself, divorced from the author. While the author is alive, of course, they may write commentaries in an attempt to clarify the matter, but the text itself remains apart, as do each of the commentaries. This gave rise to the idea of the indeterminacy of Meaning, that a text can have many different Meanings embedded therein.
Following along those lines, in more recent years, the source of Meaning has been again transferred, this time to the reader. Reader Response Criticism (and other related schools of thought) state that it is the responsibility of the individual reader to, not simply find Meaning within a text but, rather, to place Meaning into the text in the process of reading it. The Meaning they find, of course, will depend upon their prejudices - not prejudices in the currently common negative sense, but with the idea of that which we are preconditioned to receive through our life experiences and the kind of person we are as a result of them.

With that out of the way, we get to the practical part of this blog entry. On a light-hearted note, Reader Response Criticism applies just as well to films and television as it does to printed media and Burton's production of Alice in Wonderland is a perfect example. Each of us comes into a theatre with certain prejudices - again, in the sense of a predisposition rather than one of bigotry, though such may be part of our prejudices - which color our viewing of the film. A person with a strong bias against fantasy films, Tim Burton, Disney or Johnny Depp is likely to find themselves disappointed. Some reviewers look to what they believe the author's intent to be, one saying "Lewis Carroll himself was not a writer but a mathematician [. . .] who liked the illogical, if that's how you wanted to approach the story then add in some of the illogical." One reviewer referred to it as "something like a post-modern tale of self-discovery." It could be interpreted as a feminist discourse as Alice becomes an independent woman freed from the shackles of her society. Emilee responded to it as a tale of courage as Alice finds the strength to be what she needs to be.

Personally, I discovered in Burton's rendition a striking lesson on the relationship between free will and divine foreordination. Alice arrives in Wonderland to find that her role has been foretold by a mystic scroll (I like that line - quite poetic, I think), an idea which she finds quite distasteful. She at first attempts to deny that role, stating, "This is my dream," and expresses a determination to reshape her destiny according to her own will. As the film progresses, however, through the guidance of the Mad Hatter and Absalom, the blue caterpillar, her determination to bend the world to her whims lessens. The White Queen's advice to her is, to my mind, the cornerstone of the message - she tells Alice that, if she is to serve in her role as the predestined hero of Underland, it must be her own choice to do so. A final push from Absalom commenting on metamorphosis and change brings her around to choose her predestined course.
We have been foreordained - predestined, if you wish - to that which God would have us do, but we always have a choice. We may choose to say, as Alice, "This is my life, and I'll do with it as I please." God's knowledge, however, is far greater than our own - His ways are higher than our ways, and His thoughts than our thoughts, as Isaiah reveals. We must not seek to bend divine will to suit our own desires. We will find ourselves far happier if we learn to say, as Christ, "Not my will, but thine be done." Conforming our will to the will of the Father - making His path not only our foreordained one but also our chosen one - is the key to happiness, both in this life and in the world to come.

On that note, the Bible was a text (or, rather, a set of texts which were later compiled) which was/were written with a very specific intent, to lead people in a righteous path which would bring them back to our Father. The writings and actions of prophets and apostles contained therein demonstrated that the people, left to their own devices, found all sorts of Meanings in the text which strayed from the greater Author's intent. The leaders of God's flocks worked to give course correction through further correspondence and discourse and throughout their assorted journeys, all guided by the great Author.
But, just as Barthes said, the mortal authors of these texts are dead. Their works have been left open to interpretation and the proliferation of Christian churches and creeds which we see today are evidence of how many different Meanings can be found within that sacred text. People are ideologically tossed about by differing viewpoints and interpretations, all based on different individual understandings of the Bible. Reader Response Criticism put into practice produces a world of confusion about the Author's intent which, in the case of holy writ, is quite important, as stressed by its mortal authors.
Thus we may see the critical need, in today's world, for continued input from the Author of our souls to clarify the true Meaning of the sacred text. Thus the need for continuing revelation, of prophets and apostles "to guide us in these latter days." They provide, through their intimate revelatory connection with the Author, not simply *an* interpretation of scripture but *the* interpretation, the only one of divine origin.
Relating to my earlier point, God as our Author must be allowed to give continual input if we are to find true Meaning in our own lives. Through the guidance of the Holy Ghost, God can be not only our Author but our Authority, directing us in all things to our good. We must not simply rely on our own interpretation of the text of our lives but turn to Him and allow our story to unfold.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Reflections on the Looking Glass

Yesterday, Emilee and I went to see the Disney/Tim Burton production of Alice in Wonderland. When dealing with the surreal, dreamlike world presented by Lewis Carroll, one expects to find qualities both of dreams and of nightmares. For every Frumious Bandersnatch, there's a Vorpal Sword awaiting the hand of a hero. This film, as such, is neither the itty-bitty-friendly land of enchanted princesses we often associate with Disney nor the haunting and often haunted universe many associate with Tim Burton. The tone of the film is somewhat more akin to the Dungeons and Dragons modules based on the books - nothing is quite as it seems nor, perhaps, quite as you remember (or as Alice fails to remember) and it's hard to know whose side everyone is on - all presented with the flair, panache and spectacle (including great CGI effects) of Disney and Walden Media's first Chronicles of Narnia film.

While the CGI creatures are eye-popping (those of you who have seen the film will know exactly what I mean) and the backdrops breathtaking, the crew outdid themselves with Alice's wardrobe. With the various growing and shrinking that Alice does during the film, her dress is rarely quite up to the task, but she somehow (whether by magical means or through some help from the Hatter) finds herself in a new gown, each more glorious than the last a la Dr. Seuss's 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, all while exposing little flesh below the shoulders.

And, to any of my friends in Provo waiting for the dollar theatre, I suggest that you don't. This is a film which cries out for a theatre capable of making full use of a good theatre's sound system and 3D capabilities. The clearest example is Alice's high-speed tumble down the rabbit hole, where you hear objects approaching from the back of the theatre just before they whoosh past your/Alice's head.

In summary, hats (mad or otherwise) off to Disney, Burton and the rest.

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