SparkNotes and Your Soul

What’s wrong with SparkNotes? I’ve always joked with my English students that SparkNotes will make them shallow, but I’ve never articulated to them (or myself) exactly why. Continue reading SparkNotes and Your Soul


Eavesdropping on the Sacra Conversazione

During the Italian Renaissance, an art form emerged known as the sacra conversazione or “sacred conversation.” Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, later Titian and others painted the Madonna and Christ Child talking with saints and sometimes the artist’s own patrons. Recalling Dante’s beatific vision, figures otherwise separated by time and space meet in the planes of these paintings. Continue reading Eavesdropping on the Sacra Conversazione

Free Sex and the City?

In 388 AD, Saint Augustine wrote: “We all certainly desire to live happily; and there is no human being but assents to this statement almost before it is made.” True. But what does it mean to be happy? Season one, episode one of a little show called Sex and the City considers this question as it applies to human relationships.

The episode begins with the four main characters discussing why so many eligible women in New York City remain alone and unhappy. Three of the women seem undecided, but one of them—Samantha—offers this solution:

Look, you’re a successful saleswoman in this city. You have two choices: you can bang your head against the wall and try and find a relationship or you can say SCREW ’EM, and just go out and have sex like a man [. . .] I mean without feeling!

Samantha proudly recounts how she slept with a man and “afterwards, I didn’t feel a thing. It was like ‘Hey babe, gotta go, catch ya later’ and I completely forgot about him.” Samantha is a liberated woman. She tells Carrie, “sweetheart, this is the first time in the history of Manhattan that women have had as much money and power as men plus the equal luxury of treating men like sex objects.” Samantha has freed herself from stuffy social conventions, she does what she wants, and she’s happy.


Freedom is fundamental to human happiness. The founders knew this—they acknowledged “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—William Wilberforce knew this; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this; Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew this. And so the question “what does it mean to be happy?” points to the more primary question of “what does it mean to be free?”  Does freedom mean radical freedom—freedom to do whatever we want, free from all restraint? Will that make us happy?

Carrie, a relationship columnist and the show’s narrator, reflects on Samantha’s proposition:

Was it true? Were women in New York really giving up on love and throttling up on power? (To camera:) What a tempting thought.

Carrie wonders whether engaging in sex that is free from typical societal constraints might bring her happiness. After all, she’d be free to satisfy physical desire without all the messy complications that come with caring about the other person—no commitment, no vulnerability, no potential for heartbreak. She’d be empowered. So she decides to give radical freedom a go.

But in the scene immediately following her decision to act on this new-found freedom, Carrie arranges a liaison with an ex-boyfriend whom she describes as “scum” and “a self-centered withholding creep.” Addressing the audience in no uncertain terms, Carrie identifies her history with this man as a destructive cycle: she tells us he was a mistake she made when she was twenty-six, twenty-nine, and thirty-one, and that she would be a “masochist” to interact with him again. Yet when they meet, Carrie first lies to a friend who wants her to avoid the guy and then appears utterly unable to help herself from engaging with him. This is freedom? Far from empowering her, Carrie’s radical freedom instead draws her back into a destructive cycle.

The whole affair ends badly for Carrie, and the episode ends with another (much more attractive, eligible, and honorable) man telling Carrie (who’s still pretending that her radical freedom approach to sex will make her happy) “I get it, you’ve never been in love.” He drives off, leaving Carrie alone in the dark saying “suddenly I felt the wind knocked out of me. I wanted to crawl under the covers and go right to sleep.”

A solipsistic tendency lurks at the root of radical freedom. Defining freedom as the power to do whatever one wants to satisfy one’s own desires leads a person to subordinate other individuals to those desires. Carrie’s misguided conception of freedom causes her to treat her ex-boyfriend as a means of satisfying her desires and not as an end in himself. She describes him as an object of an experiment — something to be manipulated — and not as another fully human being. In doing this, Carrie also cuts herself off from any possibility of true communion. She’s running the experiment, she’s the puppet master, and so she’s alone. Radical freedom degrades the relationship between human beings: it encourages us to see our neighbors only in terms of their material use and not encounter them as fellow souls whose worth surpasses any ability to quantify. Radical freedom also degrades our own view of ourselves and our purpose in life. Not for this were we fearfully and wonderfully made.

True freedom and happiness flow out of the significant bonds between human beings. These bonds are the opposite of those that radical freedom establishes. The slave to radical freedom tends to see people only insofar as they might serve his selfish ends — an extremely narrow vision. But the person who tries to see his neighbor as an end in himself opens himself to the fullness of the other person’s being, and so opens himself to receive the other person as a gift. This creates the bonds that radical freedom would seek to destroy: mutual respect, concern for the well-being of others, a willingness to sacrifice self-interests, and a genuine desire for surrender and self-giving.

In future posts, I plan to look more at works whose characters reject radical freedom and instead honor the significant bonds they share with family and neighbors. This often causes the characters to suffer. Yet they also experience a degree of happiness which I think, sadly, the Sex and the City women never get to know.

Hipsters and Hamlet: Escaping the Ironic Mode

[Last of Wedding Crashers series] This post is about the ironic mode, one of the four modes of story-telling identified by Northrop Frye and one which you’ve probably never heard of.

Ok, so Frye didn’t exactly mean that kind of “ironic” when he named this mode. But actually, the stereotype of the modern day “hipster” isn’t a bad place to start.

In case you aren’t familiar with the term “hipster,” this meme sums it up pretty well. (It’s a screenshot of Kenneth Branagh playing Hamlet, with a hipster twist on Shakespeare’s original line.)

Consider the characteristics we associate with the hipster stereotype: “so over” everything mainstream; misunderstood; independent; reluctant to show real emotion but ready to be sarcastic; often scornful of traditional values, culture, etc.

In many ways, the characteristics of the hipster stereotype also fit what Frye calls the ironic mode. While the comic mode celebrates the integration of the individual into society, the ironic mode shows the individual as ultimately isolated from society, and usually it’s a society that’s decaying or devoid of meaning. Integration in the comic mode requires humility, love for neighbor, and personal sacrifice; in the ironic mode, these values are scorned or lost or simply absent. The central characters turn their gaze inwards, away from their fellow men, away from objective reality, and so tend towards madness. As G.K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, “Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot. Every man who will not have a softening of the heart must at last have a softening of the brain.”

The absence of true communion gives stories told in the ironic mode a sense of loss, but it differs from the loss felt in the tragic mode. Everything in the ironic mode is reduced to a sort of “meh”—a pitiful little monosyllable—so without the drama of good and evil and right and wrong, events in the ironic move don’t move our hearts in the way that tragedies do. Like winter, the season associated with the ironic mode, a sense of numbness pervades.

The most dominant feature of the ironic mode is ineffective action. In a world without value and virtue, life becomes pointless and individuals powerless. Characters spin their wheels in the muck and get nowhere. Infertility and impotence appear often in this mode because we tend to associate the inability to conceive with the inability to fully participate in the ongoing life of society—infertility suggests something broken or missing or not quite right in the natural order. Stories in the ironic mode also often involve suicide, as that is the ultimate instance of an individual cutting themselves off from society.

A perfect example of the ironic mode and its consequences occurs in the movie Wedding Crashers, when John Beckwith (Owen Wilson) is exposed for lying about his identity and cut off from the woman he loves (Claire/Rachel McAdams). The sad sequence of events that follows has all the hallmarks of the ironic mode: the loss of meaning, the breaking of significant social bonds, the trap of ineffective action, and the temptation to just call it quits:

John, Jeremy, and Claire are isolated. Jeremy calls John and knocks on his door, but John ignores these attempts. John appears increasingly unkempt. Surrounded by empty alcohol bottles, he slumps in front of the television and listens while his voicemail plays: “This is John. Uhhhhhh. Whatever.” We see John try to crash weddings like the old days, but he crashes and burns instead. His table cloth trick doesn’t work. He trips over the band’s drum set. He toasts one couple by asking “Anyone ever feel like they’re just disappearing? I feel so much like giving up.” He tells a group of little children that “love doesn’t exist. That’s what I’m trying to tell you guys. And I’m not picking on love because I don’t think friendship exists either.” Later, John tells us he’s been reading “don’t kill myself books.” He’s sunk pretty near rock bottom. And then he visits Chaz Reinhold.

Here’s John’s first encounter with Chaz, who epitomizes the ironic mode’s anti-hero:

Chaz Reinhold is crass, irreverent, sarcastic, self-absorbed, self-serving, without honor, without scruples of any kind. His life is one big cycle of ineffective action. He lives at his mother’s.  In a house-robe. Watching cartoons. Yelling for meatloaf. Picking up vulnerable women at funerals. Joking about the deaths he takes advantage of. He’s not going to marry any of these women. He’s not going to father children. He’s not going to contribute to society in any way. And he doesn’t seem to care. John shows initial hesitancy and even disgust when he first meets Chaz; Chaz’s flippancy and degeneracy are shocking. But then John stifles this reaction. He forces himself to laugh with Chaz. It’s uncomfortable to watch—like someone gulping down a nasty drug they don’t really want. But that’s what happens in the ironic mode. You try to deaden your natural sense of right and wrong and good and evil. You try not to empathize with anyone. You numb yourself. You try not to care—maybe because it’s too painful to care. As C.S. Lewis has pointed out, we tend to become what we pretend to be, for good or for ill. Chaz has lost his sense of decency and shame, he has become someone who doesn’t care, who doesn’t suffer, but who also does not know joy. His is a mean and empty existence.

Yet Chaz’s life tempts John as a way to escape the pain of losing Claire—and it tempts us all. If you look around, you will find that many works in our modern culture operate in the ironic mode. Think about Jersey Shore: the cast lives in a house they didn’t work for, they fool around at a job of sorts, drink themselves into oblivion almost every night, and engage in lots of meaningless, selfish hook-ups. Think of all the “House Wives” shows: the women don’t appear to do much, they start silly fights because dysfunction is good for ratings, they complain endlessly, and they waste a lot of their time and talents and money. Or think of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Now, Charlie’s antics can make me laugh as much as the next person, but can you think of a single show where the gang does something worthwhile? They’re always scheming to get something for nothing; in one episode Frank leaves a stripper dead in his apartment (and we’re supposed to laugh at this?); they’re always in their dim dive of a bar, and nothing meaningful ever happens. And the list goes on. And we’re expected to laugh and not take any of this too seriously. In fact, we’re not supposed to take anything too seriously.

This is why I think the theory of the four modes is so helpful; it helps us to recognize different approaches to life and recognize where they lead. One professor suggested that each mode is like one quarter of the truth of our existence, and a person needs a balanced awareness of all four to get at the full truth. If we’re surrounded by too many works in the ironic mode, our imaginations tend to become skewed and our lives unbalanced. When we go to solve problems or deal with suffering or perhaps even find ourselves attracted to someone, if we only have stories told in the ironic mode to draw on for inspiration or advice about how to act, then we’re in a pretty bad way.

How do we escape the ironic mode’s cycle of ineffective action? Wedding Crashers shows us a way out, and I think this is what makes the movie more worth watching than the typical throw-away rom-com.

The first major step is to recover and honor significant bonds. For John, it’s his friendship with Jeremy.  Jeremy goes out of his way to draw John out of his depression, and he keeps trying even though John initially rejects him. Jeremy risks a visit to John and asks him to be his best man. It appears to go badly, but Jeremy’s appeal to the bond of friendship doesn’t quite fall on deaf ears. His request weighs on John’s mind, it weighs on his heart, and it later prompts John to take action.

To escape the ironic mode, characters must also escape the numbness they’ve fallen in to. Often, it requires deep suffering to recover a sense of value and meaning. When this suffering to restore meaning involves a significant shedding of blood, it’s called sparagmos (an ancient Greek term that has to do with ritual sacrifices to placate the gods and the demands of justice). Christ’s crucifixion is an example of sparagmos, and there are many others throughout history and literature. Wedding Crashers doesn’t have an instance of sparagmos per se, but John’s experience at the funeral with Chaz comes close.

John goes with the intent to “crash” the funeral as he has crashed weddings in the past. But as he later recounts:

. . . and I see this widow and she’s a wreck. She’s just lost the person she loves most in this world. And I realize we’re all going to lose the people we love. But not me. Not right now.

The widow’s suffering awakens compassion in John. He goes from telling little kids that “love doesn’t exist” to admitting that love is at the core of our existence. John doesn’t escape the ironic mode by putting on rose-colored glasses and pretending that everything is peachy. He recognizes that we will lose the people we love and that the separation of death is real. Yet he recovers the conviction that life and love have meaning in spite of this. Crashing funerals with Chaz and “cleaning up” with empty hook-ups isn’t what he wants. He wants to be his best friend’s best man. And he wants to love Claire.

This brings John to the final break from the ironic mode. Through intense suffering, he realizes what he truly values in life. He honors the bond of friendship with Jeremy and makes it to the wedding just in time. And then, in front of the crowd, he speaks truthfully in his own voice. This is something he has not been able to do throughout the entire movie. He’s always hidden his true self behind one pretense or another. Now he humbles himself and puts his true self out there (for all the shocked wedding guests to see). Taking effective action requires speaking the truth—anything else is like building a house on sand. (As a side note, I think this is why the reunion with Claire can’t happen earlier at the engagement party, which John tries to sneak into as a server. He isn’t being his true self. He isn’t yet courageous or convicted enough to do that. And so his action remains ineffective.)

There is an element of sacrifice in John’s speech to Claire. He tells her “I’m not standing here asking you to marry me. I’m just asking you not to marry him.” The “him” referred to is Claire’s fiancé Zach (played by Bradley Cooper) and, at this point, we know Zach is the wrong person for Claire. We get to see that he’s impatient with her, disrespectful, and unfaithful. John’s plea is probably supposed to be funny, but it also shows that he values what is best for Claire above all, which means that he truly loves her.

As Wedding Crashers and other works will show you, the way to escape the ironic mode and the cycle of ineffective action and despair is to honor significant bonds and speak the truth. We live in a fallen world, and so this often requires great suffering. But if we look to the stories that surround us, past and present, we find a recurring conviction that something good lies beyond the suffering, something that makes it worth enduring. And if you don’t know many stories that suggest this, then you haven’t been feeding your imagination a balanced diet. Lay off the irony! Go watch Wedding Crashers. Read The Little Prince. Listen to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor (which is about thanksgiving and recovering from illness).

We might not know for sure what awaits us if we endure the suffering that is an inevitable part of this life. But we do know that living in the ironic mode and giving into despair tends to lead towards Chaz Reinhold’s ma’s house, and I don’t think any of us want to end up there, as tempting as that meatloaf may be.

Illustrating the Imagination

[Part 3 in the Wedding Crashers series] The four modes of human story-telling identified by Northrop Frye tend to follow the pattern of the four seasons. Though we feel it less directly in more urban areas, our existence depends upon harmonizing our life cycle to the cycle of crops and so the cycle of the seasons. I think this is why the seasons occupy so frequent and fundamental a place in all our creative works: each season plays an important and a unique role in our very existence.

Consider Frye’s pairings of season and story-mode below. Do you see similarities between each season and mode? (The one difficulty is that Frye’s names for the modes have slightly different meanings than we’re used to 2012; if we clarify these names, I think you can see the connections more easily.)

Romance for Frye means the quest (not Romance novels). The Romance or quest mode echoes summer: hard work and toil under the sun, yet with eyes fixed on the distant harvest; characters undertake a great journey for a greater reward; heroes seek the golden apples of the Hesperides, the treasure of Smaug, the Holy Grail.

Tragedy fits with the melancholy of fall. Summer fades, the year grows old. Death approaches, withers the trees, withers the characters, strips away temporary garments, and leaves all shivering in the wind.

Winter embodies the ironic mode. Frye isn’t talking about hipsters when he talks about irony—the ironic mode is a progression beyond tragedy, just as winter follows fall. Like fall/tragedy, the ironic mode carries a sense of loss, but it’s less poignant and more bitter like a winter wind. The land is barren; characters in the ironic mode are barren (literally, figuratively, or both). There is no growth.

And, ah, the comic mode. The comic mode is the springtime—the year is young, the world green and bright, the birds and the bees go about their business, and human characters follow suit. Clouds may pass over the sun, but in the comic mode, the point is that they’re just clouds and they’re passing. In the comic mode, The Merry Wives of Windsor pull their ridiculous pranks, bumpkins and fairies make mischief in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Earnest isn’t earnest in The Importance of Being Earnest, and John Beckwith and Jeremy Grey enjoy wedding season.

The montage that occurs near the beginning of Wedding Crashers epitomizes the comic mode: food and families abound, champagne flows, jokes are told, and we see John and Jeremy repeatedly at the center of a grand party:

One of my favorite professors at GMU pointed out that, on the silver screen, comedies primarily use mid-range shots because comedies take place at mid-range. Characters in the comic mode have depth, but not the deep exploration of psyche that you have with someone like Iago or Hamlet in the tragedies. Stories in the comic mode center more on the relationships between characters and how those relationships fit into and form the larger society.

Notice how those scenes above all show John and Jeremy as part of a crowd, part of society. Because comedies deal with the integration of the individual into society, it follows that the visuals reflect this. Not that the producers of Wedding Crashers sat down and said “you know, this segment of our film really illustrates what Northrop Frye called the comic mode, so we should probably rely on midrange shots that place our guys in a social context with lots of flowers and young folk to connote the spring of life”—I’d eat my hat if they said that. Rather, it’s natural for images like you see in the clip above to accompany stories told in the comic mode. Frye’s theory of modes is descriptive—it describes patterns he found in literature, not patterns he wanted to impose—and so it can help us to better see and perceive what already surrounds us.

After all the frolicking and rolicking in the comic mode, Wedding Crashers shifts briefly into the opposite mode: tragedy. In the tragic mode, the hero is driven from society and may suffer death at its hands.

Wedding Crashers doesn’t quite have true tragedy—you’ll have to go to Russian literature or To Kill a Mockingbird for that—but for the sake of illustration there is a moment that can serve.

I don’t have a clip, but imagine the scene with Claire Cleary (Rachel McAdams) and John (Owen Wilson) talking outside, right after Bradley Cooper’s character proposes to Claire. John hasn’t yet told Claire the truth of his identity, but she clearly has feelings for John, and we hope maybe something can work out. Then bam! Gunshot goes off, Claire’s family and crazed fiancé storm out, and the jig is up.  They’ve learned that John and Jeremy aren’t related to this powerful, upper class family, they don’t orbit in the same circles, they don’t know how to sail, they aren’t venture capitalists, and so they can have nothing to do with the Cleary daughters. In a way, the rigid social structure drives the would-be heroes away from the idyllic property and away from love. After John and Jeremy admit the truth about themselves, they’re sent trudging down a dusty road like exiles from Eden.

In the tragic mode, although the hero suffers, society usually recognizes and regrets the loss in the end. Othello finally realizes his dead wife’s innocence. Lear rediscovers the dead Cordelia’s goodness. The Montagues and Capulets repent of the fighting that destroyed their children. In spite of loss, meaning remains intact. But sometimes, the tragic mode can slip into the ironic mode. And in the ironic mode, meaning falls apart, and even the sensitivity to loss becomes numbed. After he’s driven from Claire, John Beckwith’s story spirals into the ironic mode.

I think it’s especially important for us in the 21st century to be able to recognize the ironic mode and where it leads, so in the next post, we’ll follow John Beckwith on his downward spiral. Yes, all the way down to Chazz Reinhold’s ma’s house.