Thursday, January 24, 2013

"The Nightmare am I, the child of horror, and it is mine to ride upon thee."

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781

The following is from G. K. Chesterton's early story 'The Taming of the Nightmare' (1892) and sums up in imagery the essence of my Christian philosophy of horror:

'Jack began to feel that things were even getting a little, as it were, unusual, if one may say so, but he clenched his hands and crept into the hole, which only just held him, and crawled along a dark low passage, at the end of which, upon a heap of skulls and bones, sat the Nightmare with gleaming eyes and teeth, and he knew that she was at bay.  But Jack, who always felt compassion at inopportune moments, was willing to make an amicable arrangement.  “Why do you object to my riding on you?” he asked.  “I wish you no harm, but rather that we may both help each other.  All things should help each other.  It is the will of the Central Board.”

“Mortal,” replied the Nightmare, with a hideous laugh.  “Dost though not know that I am no common mare.  The Nightmare am I, the child of horror, and it is mine to ride upon thee.  Many myriads of thy race have I ridden and made them my slaves, oppressing them with visions.”  And with that her eyes flamed terribly and her nose seemed to grow longer and longer as she came towards him.  The next moment they were struggling for the mastery, rolling over one another, so that now one was uppermost and now the other.

And when Jack was undermost, with the black fiend sitting grinning on his chest, strange trances fell upon him and he fancied that he was falling from heights and fleeing down interminable roads, with a strange hopelessness in everything.  And when, with a mighty effort, he cast them off, and threw his enemy under him, he found himself upon a silent moor under the starlight.  So, through a long night, they kept changing places, till at last, after one fierce, foaming struggle— side by side, Jack rose uppermost, and tossed back his dishevelled hair, and the Nightmare sank helpless beneath him.  She appeared to have fainted, and, after what the poor lady had gone through, it was perhaps not to be wondered at.

And Jack took the big, ugly head in his lap and kissed it and guarded it in silence, till at last the Nightmare opened her eyes, now as mild as the Mooncalf’s, whinnied sorrowfully and rubbed her head against him.  At last the Nightmare rose and stood silent and ready and Jack sprang upon her back and they rode away.’

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Is Darkness No Fun? Or - Sympathy for the Boogeyman (A Review of Rise of the Guardians)

I’m not an unqualified fan of this kind of animation, and my story-writer’s mind couldn’t help but imagine some characterisation and plot developments that could have enriched this movie even more.  None of that changes the simple fact that I found Rise of the Guardians to be a poignantly myth-soaked tale that pits good monsters and magical creatures against the dark powers of nightmares and fear.  My seven-year-old son and I enjoyed it very much. 
As a theologically minded fellow, I admit I can't help but feel that each of the beautifully human and cosmic truths (which the respective mythical beings exemplify) finds its fulfilment in Christ:  the wide-eyed sense of wonder at the heart of Santa, the reckless sense of fun at the heart of Jack Frost, the creative and beautifying sense of hope that springs in the heart of the Easter Bunny, etc.  From a biblical perspective, Christ’s Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection are the theological cornerstones that can handle the weight of those worldwide, ages-long yearnings of the human community. 
Some of my fellow Christians will be tempted to feel simply annoyed that ‘Christ’ was left out of Christmas in this film and his resurrection was left out of Easter.  But I felt it quite artistically appropriate that he remain a haunting ragged figure darting from tree to tree in the background (to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor).  To me, this film allows all the ‘pagan’ longings invested in our holidays and pop-myths (Tooth Fairy, Sandman, etc.) to have their full say.  When they’ve done so, we may find that they cry out for the Christ who remains, as yet, unnamed.  These myths and legends paint a hole.  His graciously haunting presence threatens/promises to fill it.
It is, of course, extremely difficult to paint things like hope and ‘fun’ in tones that don’t cloy, but I think this film overall managed it quite well.  There’s plenty of ‘cute’ in the film, with ‘adorable’ little children and amusingly goofy elves and so on.  But I found it tasteful and of a fairly mischievous and cheeky variety that allowed me to laugh and, you know, kind of go ‘aww’.  (Cast the first stone, you who are without sappy sentiment.)  Most of the characters who represented these things were rough and tough and ‘cool’, armed with sharp wit and weaponry, endowed with awe-full powers, attended by legendary monsters (Santa’s massive but artistically gifted yeti being the most notable instance), and so on.  No wand-waving, pastel-clad, frumpy fairy-godmothers here.

I have some criticisms as well.  Near the end of the film we are given some rousing rhetoric to the effect that Children are all we ever are or will be.  It reminded me just a touch of Carl Sagan’s famous ‘the Cosmos is all there ever was, is, or will be’ line but replace Cosmos with Children.  As pleasurably gigantesque as this sounds, the sentiment comes dangerously close to a form of (probably unwitting) idolatry to me – at least, if the notion is not qualified.  (Timothy Keller helpfully defines ‘idolatry’ as making good things into ultimate things.) 
Certainly this rhetoric about the all-importance of children hints in the direction of something very crucial indeed, about ‘becoming like a child’ to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus taught.  But it can also sound like it’s heading in the direction of an idea in which I’ve heard philosophical materialists find the only hope they can find.  If this short life is all there is, for each of us and all of us collectively – i.e. when we die, we die; we are dirt and no more – then our only ‘hope’ is not for our own actual immortality or resurrection.  We can only console ourselves with a present knowledge or desire that our children who bodily survive us will have a good life when we are truly gone forever.  At least we hope they will, all things being equal.  It’s not something we’ll enjoy ourselves, of course, or even be aware of.  But it’s supposed to comfort us now. 
If that is your belief, then that is your belief and I don’t blame you one bit for finding as much succour in the face of mortality as you can find in your worldview.  Such a ‘hope’, however, to me, goes against the whole transcendent note that this film strikes as it taps into our myths and the immortal longings they represent.  Again, I can’t help thinking theology can aid us here.  If we take this insight about the huge importance of children and centre it into the Child Christ of the Nativity, and his eternal Sonship to the Father in the holy Trinity, then we may see the true fulfilment of this notion about the eternal significance of children—just as we see with the other elements of human experience and desire that are exalted in the film.  We are all children and our hope is not in ourselves or our offspring.  We may hope because we are not cosmic orphans as some philosophers have alleged.  We have a Father who promises us a future of true meaning and life.  That is a theological reading, at least.
As an aspiring writer in the area of ‘philosophy of horror’ and ‘theology of monsters’ and ‘theology of darkness’ and the like, I must note one more criticism.  As I’ve mentioned, I thoroughly enjoyed this film’s engagement with horror and fear—as far as it goes.  It doesn’t go far enough.  I love that the powers for good that oppose the character Pitch Black and his powers of darkness are essentially robust, awesome personages that exemplify ‘holy monstrosity’.  They are as ‘cool’ in their way as the nightmares.
But what about the redemption of Pitch Black himself (aka the Boogeyman)?  What about the redemption of darkness, even of fear?  Are we to be denied even a holy fear, a beautiful darkness, a scary goodness?  Whether the filmmakers intended it or not, we can’t help but pity the dark character Pitch Black when he is being vanquished in the end.  Somewhere in our hearts we desire his salvation too, we desire him to have his good and rightful place in the scheme of things—not as some dualistic, equal-opposite force to all that is good.  We are not looking for some false ‘balance’ between an ultimate Good and an ultimate Evil (for in the final analysis there can only be one Ultimate, and we long that it be the Good).  Rather, we want to see even his nightmarish darkness put to some good use in the universe, under the wise and holy rule of the Creator.  Could even Pitch Black somehow become a Guardian, just as the raucous Jack Frost is inducted into their high and happy ranks? 

At one point in the film, a girl is dreaming happily of a unicorn and Pitch Black comes along and transmogrifies the mythical steed into a literal Night Mare:  a monstrous, growling equine of blackness and terror.  This is seen as an evil turn of events.  And it is.  At least, insofar as these Night Mares are the creatures of a kind of fear that is very, very bad for us.  They represent a kind of cosmic intimidation that terrorises us into believing that Murder and Madness are the big, final truths of existence and we can only hope to keep them at bay, in the shadows, one day (and night) at a time, until we are finally released by Death from this living nightmare.  That is certainly a kind of fear we need the Guardians to fight and to banish from our dreams and our hearts.
But maybe, in a different sense, we need our nightmares as much as we need our good dreams.  Maybe there is a kind of nightmare and fear that are good for us, that represent a darkly-hued wildness in our own hearts and in the universe and even in the Creator.  Perhaps we need to embrace this kind of nightmare and ‘mix’ it into our creative materials for living well.  Without a good chill and fright now and again, are we truly well-rounded persons? 
It is easy to imagine that even in an earthly paradise, untainted by all the corruption of sin and evil, one may experience goose bumps at the sight of a tarantula—even if one knows there is no vicious bite or sting full of poison in such a creepy form.  And one’s resultant praise to the Maker will take on new tones and contours in light of such ‘horrors’.  New shades of respect, trust, and admiration.  Even a fresh sense of laughter and joy can come from the flesh-crawling experiences of creation, a renewed sense of the Creator’s sense of humour as well as his sense of the grotesque.  After all, Psalm 104:26 says God put the sea monsters in the ocean to ‘play’ and ‘frolic’ there.  Jack Frost’s personal discovery in this film is that his unique ‘centre’ is a sense of fun.  Perhaps even fun can have dark and monstrous dimensions mixed in to its overall quality.  God likes to ‘play with monsters’, why shouldn’t those who bear his image?
G. K. Chesterton wrote a wonderful fable called ‘The Taming of the Nightmare’, in which the protagonist of the story learns to ride the horror-horse into great and virtuous adventures that the man and beast share together.  Perhaps our adventures are incomplete unless they at times involve such dark deeds on dark steeds—for good, not evil.

(Illustration by Chesterton:  of his story 'The Taming of the Nightmare')