Thursday, December 30, 2010

Video Games and Art


I should preface this by saying that I do not consider myself a gamer. There are maybe four video games that I've really gotten into.

Roger Ebert has famously and repeatedly written that "video games can never be art." To my knowledge, he wrote most extensively about that subject here. I've been thinking about his article for a while now. He makes some good points, but for some reason I couldn't bring myself to agree with him.

For Christmas I gave my brother some popcorn in a New Orleans Saints tin as well as The Hunger Games.  He sent me a text the other day, "Guess which of your presents I finished." I texted back that he must be done with the popcorn. For one, he has a voracious appetite for popcorn. He was also really busy working on a major project, so he didn't really have time for the book. Also, I suspected that when he finished the book he'd have a lot more to say about it than just "I'm finished." Turns out, he had just finished the popcorn.

But then I thought about his phrasing a little bit more. One does not "finish" a good book like that. It sticks with you, it gets in your head. After I read Dune, I couldn't look at a glass of water the same way for months. Every year when April shakes up what remains of winter, it brings me back to the first time I read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. I'm not "finished" with those books.

But before I thought of either of those examples, I thought of an example from a video game—Final Fantasy VII. Every time I sit at a campfire, I always think of the scene in that game where the group is seated around a fire in Cosmo Canyon, and I think Barret says something about how the flames pull out deeply rooted memories. Then I started thinking about how the music and images of that game have stuck with me years after I first played it.

Central to Ebert's argument is that video games cannot be art because you beat them. You don't beat a novel or a painting or an opera. Well, I think it's safe to say that I did not really beat FFVII. It's one of the few games I've played through, and I must have played it start-to-finish half a dozen times. I play it for several reasons. First of all, it's fun. But it also looks beautiful, there are some fascinating characters, and the plot is sprawling and involved. And aside from the usual themes of life, death, and love, the game also explores the significance of colonialism and environmentalism, and identity and memory. It gets real.

But Ebert has bigger issues with video games. He writes, "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and [sic]poets."  I have several problems with this. First, comparing art forms is a little silly. "Show me a piano sonata with character development as profound as even a low-rate novel!"

There are bigger problems, though. In the linked article above, he counters the argument that video games should be spared scrutiny because the medium is in its infancy. Ebert cites the beauty of cave paintings and the sophistication of early cinema. But the real test of art is time. We just can't know now if a video game made today will be timeless. I know that must be a hard pill for a film critic to swallow.

And now I'm actually going to get to the heart of the matter. Art is not like gold. No matter what we think of gold, whatever name we call it, whatever form it's bent in to, it will always be gold. It's as unchangeable as any other element. But the definition and properties of art are entirely dependent on what we assign it.

I'll turn to Prospero's last soliloquy from The Tempest. At this point in the play, Prospero is reconciled with his brother, the king, Ariel, and Miranda. Yet out Prospero comes to tell us that whether he returns to his home in Naples and is absolved is entirely up to us. He says, asking for applause:

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails.

I don't think Prospero is just talking about his fate, or the fate of the play itself. This was the last of Shakespeare's plays, and I think Prospero is speaking about the entire body of Shakespeare's work and fiction in general. Prospero is trying to clue us in that the fate of any work does not lie in itself, but in how others perceive it. The author's intentions and best wishes are inconsequential if the audience wholly rejects what they have seen. The opposite is also true. I doubt that Shakespeare intended for his works to have the kind of force and presence that they have today. There was just no parallel in his age, aside from religious texts, to what his influence would become. And on top of it all, plays weren't considered art in his day.

There may come a time when we see video games in an entirely new light. I don't think Pong will ever be looked at like the Epic of Gilgamesh, but maybe Final Fantasy VII will be considered to be on par with "Le Voyage dans la lune." And some educated and refined people may never develop a taste for even the best video games. But that's okay. Lots of people don't like opera.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Separation of Church and State

I don't usually like to get political, but this is an ever-increasing notion in America that I disagree with. Despite what most people believe, the phrase "Separation of Church and State" is not constitutional. It's not in there. In fact, the part of the constitution which deals exclusively with religion is the first amendment. M.J. Sobran had this to say about it:



"The Framers of the Constitution . . . forbade the Congress to make any law "respecting" the establishment of religion, thus leaving the states free to do so (as several of them did); and they explicitly forbade the Congress to abridge "the free exercise" of religion, thus giving actual religious observance a rhetorical emphasis that fully accords with the special concern we know they had for religion. It takes a special ingenuity to wring out of this a governmental indifference to religion, let alone an aggressive secularism. Yet there are those who insist that the First Amendment actually proscribes governmental partiality not only to any single religion, but to religion as such; so that tax exemption for churches is now thought to be unconstitutional. It is startling to consider that a clause clearly protecting religion can be construed as requiring that it be denied a status routinely granted to educational and charitable enterprises, which have no overt constitutional protection. Far from equalizing unbelief, secularism has succeeded in virtually establishing it.


*****

"A religious conviction is now a second-class conviction, expected to step deferentially to the back of the secular bus, and not to get uppity about it.

*****

"What the secularists are increasingly demanding, in their disingenuous way, is that religious people, when they act politically, act only on secularist grounds. They are trying to equate acting on religion with establishing religion. And—I repeat—the consequence of such logic is really to establish secularism. It is in fact, to force the religious to internalize the major premise of secularism: that religion has no proper bearing on public affairs." (Human Life Review, Summer 1978, pp. 51–52, 60–61)


Neal A. Maxwell writes:


"It is always such an easy step from dogmatism to unfair play--especially so when the dogmatists believe themselves to be dealing with primitive people who do not know what is best for them. It is the secular bureaucrat's burden, you see.


*****

"Our founding fathers did not wish to have a state church established nor to have a particular religion favored by government. They wanted religion to be free to make its own way. But neither did they intend to have irreligion made into a favored state church. Notice the terrible irony if this trend were to continue. When the secular church goes after its heretics, where are the sanctuaries? To what landfalls and Plymouth Rocks can future pilgrims go?


"If we let come into being a secular church shorn of traditional and divine values, where shall we go for inspiration in the crises of tomorrow? Can we appeal to the rightness of a specific regulation to sustain us in our hours of need?" ("Meeting the Challenges of Today," speech given at BYU on 10 October 1978.)


Now, I'm still not one for public prayer in elementary school because I feel like children are too young and impressionable, and at that stage, religion should be taught at home and in the church. But prayers in Congress, in the White House, in Universities I feel are not at all inappropriate. Those prayers do not establish a state religion. Neither do Christmas decorations in public buildings. I would actually love to see decorations and exhibits for Ramadan, Hanukkah, and Diwali in public buildings.


The Daily Show said something coy about how Christmas is the only national holiday that is also a religious holiday; so Christians can go home and celebrate Jesus' birth, and everyone else can ponder "the true meaning of separation of church and state." Well, as already noted, that separation is not a constitutionally or legally mandated separation. Second, I don't think having Christmas as a national holiday establishes Christianity as a state religion. It's a practical issue more than anything. The vast majority of Americans would want Christmas off whether they were Christians or atheists. It's just as much a cultural as a religious thing in America. Rather than denying millions of government employees time off for Christmas, it makes much more sense to just make it a national holiday.


The paranoia and superstition that seeks to remove religion from the public discourse frankly amazes me. I echo Sobran's disbelief that a document so clearly written to protect religion is now being used to drag religion into public contempt.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

My Contribution to NaNoWriMo

"Once upon a time there was a lovely little sausage called Michael, and it lived happily ever after."

It's semi-autobiographical.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Inception

A lot has been written about this movie on the interwebs, and theories about the mechanics of the plot abound. I have no new theories about who was dreaming when, how limbo works, how effective Cobb's totem is, and all that other stuff. The first two or three times I saw the movie, that's what I focused on until I accepted that whether Nolan intended it or not, the whole thing was a meta-dream experience for me. I can't make total sense of my dreams, and I couldn't make total sense of the movie. Instead, I'd like to look at the movie as it examines my favorite subject—death.

For anyone writing in English, death and dreams are inseparably linked. That's just part of our literary heritage. There is something of death in dreaming and something of dreams in living. "Come heavy sleep, the image of true death," writes John Dowland's anonymous lyricist.  "Our life as a dream, our time as a stream glides swiftly away, and the fugitive moment refuses to stay,"  says Charles Wesley. Conrad writes, "We live, as we dream—alone." Donne writes, "One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally." And of course, "What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause," says the Dane.

Think about it, when the characters died in a dream, they either woke up or plunged into an infinity of thought and further delusion.

What if Mal was right, not about if Cobb was still dreaming, but that existence as we know it, in any form, is not what it seems—that we are somehow shut out from the larger context of reality? Cobb accused his projection of Mal of being a "shade." (As an aside, there's a possible Dante reference there. He's in the deepest sphere of the dream, discussing his treachery, and he sees a shade. Hmmm.) But don't we feel like we are shades of ourselves, that we are never fully what we are? I think we all sympathize with Iago when he says, "I am not what I am."
It's only when our lives intersect with others we love that we really get a sense of how much more there is to things. It's like what Cobb said to the projection, "I can't imagine you with all of your perfection, all of your imperfection." Somehow, that realization clues us in that we have not emerged as our full selves. Don't all of us feel like we're part of something greater, that the weary life of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow isn't the summation of what we are? When we look at the timelines of those we love, there's an acknowledgement that the time and events are real, but only a shadow of the truth.

And how do we know anything? How do you know, really know, that right now, as you're reading this, you're not really asleep? The totems are worthless in the film. (Cobb's wasn't even his to begin with, and I'm convinced that whether it spins or falls is meaningless. At no point does he spin it and it stay up.) Likewise, any tricks about pinching ourselves or reasoning our way through the physics of a dream are wholly unreliable. I can't tell you how many times I've had a flying dream and was convinced it was reality. No amount of pinching could persuade me otherwise. I've often even been confused as to whether events I remember where dreamt or truly experienced.

In our highest and lowest moments, I think we all feel that life "is a walking shadow." And it's then that those impressions "tease us out of thought, as doth eternity."


Friday, November 19, 2010

"When Lenity and Cruelty Play for a Kingdom": The Hunger Games Trilogy

At first, I thought this was a series on teen anorexia. Turns out, it's not. I've found it difficult to tell people the premise of the book without making it sound like something no one would want to read. Here are some points about the premise:
  • It's set in the future, but it's not overly-futuristic. It's not trying to wow us with how cool technology is.
  • It is a dystopian novel, but it is the least preachy dystopian novel I have ever read. I really think it has zero political agenda.
  • A large portion of the books details a fight-to-the-death gladiatorial competition between children.
  • Naturally, then, these are violent books, but not overly so.
  • This is a romance, and a darn good one at that.
These books are a breeze to read. I typically read slowly and like to take long breaks and think about things as I read. I'm not kidding when I say I think it took me a month or two to read Life of Pi. I read Mockingjay in about three sittings over the course of 24 hours. After about the midway point in each book, the writing becomes all action. Not a paragraph goes by without some monumental moment erupting in the reader's mind. The momentum doesn't allow you to stop and think.
     Something else I typically do when I'm reading is guess ahead about plot points. That was so fun to do with this series because my expectations were continually dashed, but not in a bad way. Anyone picking up this book would assume that the main character would be a participant in the Hunger Games, but it doesn't happen the way we would expect. From the very beginning, Collins plays with our assumptions and makes every turn a thrill.
     She spent most of her career writing screenplays for children's TV shows, and you can tell. The books obsess over the TV coverage of the Games and later events. But there is also a cinematic quality to her writing. I think making a movie of these books would be superfluous. I've already seen it, and it's great. Why do a remake?
     I started this review off with a quote from Henry V, "When lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner." I felt that that became the main theme of the books, much more than centralized vs. decentralized government, justice, punishment, etc. The books are about morals and forgiveness. I like that.
     On the back of Mockingjay, there's a quote from Stephenie Meyer. Unfortunately for Ms. Meyer, this led me to compare the two authors. Whenever I criticize Meyer (which is too often), I always bring up William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech. He says what the problem is with the modern author:
     "He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands."
     That's got Stephenie Meyer's name written all over it. But now consider what he says about great writing:
     "The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
     "He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice."
     That, dear friend, is The Hunger Games
     
So that's my general critique. If you haven't read the books, here's where you should pull out. Beyond this point, spoilers abound.
     
     Roger Ebert had this to say about Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice:
     "I felt an almost unreasonable happiness [at the end of the film]. Why was that? I am impervious to romance in most films, seeing it as a manifestation of box office requirements. Here it is different, because Darcy and Elizabeth are good and decent people who would rather do the right thing than convenience themselves. Anyone who will sacrifice their own happiness for higher considerations deserves to be happy. When they realize that about each other their hearts leap, and, reader, so did mine."
     The same goes for Katniss and Peeta. I struggled with the love triangle setup for the longest because I thought that Peeta was great, but Katniss was so undeserving. So I thought it was an absolute masterstroke when Peeta is essentially reset by the "hijacking," and Katniss has to earn his love all over again—she can't just rely on his altruism and an old crush. But in the end, they are both so good and wise and worthy. And how could she not choose Peeta, who was, without a doubt and at all points, the "gentler gamester?"
     


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sonnet 18

I never post my compositions on this blog, and I don't know why. They're probably a lot more entertaining than pretentious diatribes. Here goes a composition (one of the few that I've actually recorded):

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Theory of Music: The Historical Art

Every art has its own relationship with history. Literature is stuffed with allusions to previous works. Visual art, in a sense, preserves history by catching a solitary moment and freezing it indefinitely.

All music turns to the past. Once a melody has been written down, it becomes one of the most authentic ways to transport us back in time. The tint in a painting may fade over time, language changes over the centuries, but once we have a written record of music, it stays more or less the same. The harmonies in Thomas Morley's madrigals are the same as when he penned them almost five-hundred years ago.

Even impromptu must be conscious of its own past, since music is an inherently sequential experience. So even music that is created in the moment is still of necessity tethered to a history. Otherwise, the music would be nonsense.

As the craftsmanship behind making instruments advances, there will naturally be a few changes in timbre. Violin strings, for instance, are almost universally made of metal today in place of the older gut strings. But to the untrained ear, there is little significant difference in the sound. Of course every orchestra will play Beethoven's symphonies with a slight variation, but consider how much more similar every performance of Beethoven will be than the various stagings of any given play.

Musicians have to play the role of the historian. Unless they're performing their own composition, they must try to understand how the composer intended the piece to be played. Unlike a novelist or painter, a musician creates a unique moment by pure interpretation rather than inspiration.

In this sense, musicians must be connected to the masters of their art in ways that sculptors, poets, etc. cannot be. The entirety of their art is to be immersed in the work of the masters. One writer may read the work of another, but they are not a participant in its creation the way a musician is when he or she first begins to play. There is an intimacy that accompanies the practicing, memorizing, and performing of a work of the masters.

I think theater comes closest to music in this regard. In fact, I've recently noticed some shocking similarities between performing Bach and Shakespeare:

1—Both of them write exceptionally technically complex works. To be able to enjoy or perform the works of either, the audience as well as the performer need some training. It would be difficult to understand just the sequence of events in King Lear, let alone all the competing themes, if you had no previous experience with Shakespeare. This is not so for Moliere. And consider how chaotic Bach's violin concertos would sound to the uninitiated. In fact, the first time I heard that particular concerto it put me into a panic. I had to turn the stereo off because my ears were so overloaded. But once you have become used to each artist's style they are quite possibly the most rewarding artists in their field.

2—Both of them write exceptionally emotionally complex works. Take the prelude to Bach's second cello suite. This is not a technically difficult piece to perform, especially when compared to his other works for cello. But in the wrong hands, this piece can be a disaster. We have virtually no dynamic or tempo markings for this prelude, so all expressions and articulations are left up to the soloist. That may sound like not a big deal until you start trying to interpret it yourself. The piece is not at all straightforward. It wanders and meanders around, held loosely together with the simplest of all themes: a minor triad. The prelude has to be judiciously examined measure by measure to see what the soloist wishes to bring out and emphasize. Consider the pause after the climax of the piece around 3:35 in this recording. How should the cellist play the next few notes after the pause? Yo-Yo Ma chose to more or less continue on with business as usual. But there are a hundred different ways you could play that measure, and each would show as much about Bach as it would the performer. Yo-Yo Ma's interpretation works for him and is frankly beyond reproach. But I choose to hold that first note a little longer and quieter to ease the listener back into the flow of the music.

The liberty of interpreting Bach is increased exponentially when one plays his organ music, since the registration is left completely up to the soloist.

Shakespeare's works have the same ambiguity and emotional flexibility as Bach's. He provided next-to-no stage directions, so an overwhelming degree of interpretation is left up to the performer. Is Iago laughing as he divulges his plots to the audience, or is he sneering? Is he amused or disgusted? It depends on the Iago. And just as a violinist could change the whole meaning of a phrase from the Bach partitas with the slightest variation in articulation, an actor can imply an entirely different world of meaning with a subtle shift in inflection. Think for a moment about the scene where Gertrude says to Laertes, "Your sister's drowned, Laertes." Laertes' next line is, "Drowned! O, where?" There are an almost infinite number of ways that Laertes could say those three words. Or, take a more well known example from the same play, "To be or not to be. That is the question." How on earth is an actor supposed to decide how to say those most famous lines? So much hangs on them!

3—Both Shakespeare and Bach cross over into each other's field. Shakespeare is the most musical author I have ever read. The man obsesses over sound and rhythm. And no one in the history of our language has done so much with word play.

Bach, on the other hand, is the most poetic composer I've studied. His use of numerology and musical symbolism is unparalleled. He crammed an astonishing amount of meaning into a measure.

To sum up, music, even new music, is always historical. Because of this historical dimension, musicians are linked to composers in an extraordinary way. They are the voices of these men and women who can no longer speak for themselves. The discipline that comes closest to music in its links to the past is theater.

——

Here are some different openings to Hamlet's soliloquy.










My personal favorite:




And, quite easily, the worst of the lot:


Monday, October 4, 2010

A Theory of Music: "Aujourd'hui ce qui ne vaut pas la peine d'être dit, on le chante"

This little quip is commonly incorrectly attributed to Voltaire, and often equally mistranslated as "Anything that is too stupid to be spoken is sung." But it's certainly worthy of Voltaire, and it's a quotation that has adorned my Facebook wall for years. I feel that is so much more true today than when I first put it up, and therefore, so much more relevant than when Volaire didn't pen it. I want to use this observation as an entry point to tackle an issue that has bothered me for some time: Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga). Then I hope to use her as a springboard to talk about a broader issue with music.


For the longest, I didn't want to dignify her with criticism. I thought that public interest would drift away and the nuisance would be silenced. Not so. She has not only grown in popularity, but in acclaim. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I'd like to say why I strongly dislike Ms. Germanotta.

1—She is a poor lyricist.

Where to begin? It's not just that her lyrics lack anything like poetic convention. It is true that they follow no meter, no rhyme scheme, no devices that mark even the most free-verse of poems. She makes no use of aliteration outside the irritating convention of repeating Ps (p-p-p-p-poker face, pa-pa-paparazzi). Now, I love it when Regina Spektor does this because I can feel a genuine love and fascination for pure sound in her voice and in her music. With Ms. Germanotta's music, however, it is a dead pulsation—a smashing of the unimaginative head against the proverbial wall. And when she does deal in words instead of just repeated plosives, it is all the more lacking. Aside from not being poetic, her lyrics are not sensical. I will supply you with direct quotations, and don't worry, there's no context to take these out of:


You know that I love you boy.
Hot like Mexico, rejoice.
At this point I gotta choose,
nothing to lose. 

[The website I pulled this from actually spelled it loose.]

I want your ugly
I want your disease
I want your everything
As long as it's free


Now, I don't think you necessarily have to make sense to write good lyrics or poetry. I honestly don't. Look at this bit from
The Wasteland


What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images….

I'm convinced that doesn't mean a blessed thing. It's total nonsense. But does it sound cool or what? Ms. Germanotta's work is utterly devoid of any of that verbal flare. And I don't hold everyone I meet up the standard of T.S. Eliot, but if you make words and music your profession.... But let's just hold her up to a songwriter's standard. Let's look at Paul Simon, specifically "Graceland."

There is a girl in New York City,
Who calls herself the human trampoline,
And sometimes when I'm falling, flying,
Or tumbling in turmoil I say
Whoa! So this is what she means.
She means we're bouncing into Graceland,
And I see losing love
Is like a window in your heart,
Everybody sees you're blown apart,
Everybody feels the wind blow.


Here are some lines that give insight into something beyond "disco sticks" or "vertical sticks" or "bluffin' muffins" or genitalia in general. It's a clever and quirky phrasing of that exposed feeling we all get after we've lost love. Speaking of love, real love, "true" love—a perusal of Ms. Germanotta's lyrics makes me wonder if she has ever loved. Is there blood that flows through her heart, or is her core only concerned with the circulation of hormones? No one can accuse her music of leaving out the more vulgar points of lust. It's crammed with penetrating pulsations and punctuated with oh-so-subtle innuendo. But what about those delicate sensibilities which give love its true character and individual meaning? What does her music tell us that a Victoria's Secret add could not?

2—She is a cripplingly unimaginative composer.

Her songs follow a formula: Goofy exposition, almost anti-melodic verses over a digital pulse, peppy screaming chorus, rinse and repeat. Every. last. one. of. them. As a performer, she actually has a strong voice, and apparently she can pound on a piano. But when it comes to actual musical creation she is slavishly devoted to that one style.

It's not that I dislike popular music. Look at The Beatles. There was imagination and ingenuity. True, it took them a while to
really get loose, but even their early hits are marked by a level of musicality and invention that leave Ms. Germanotta exposed and blushing. And I invoke Regina Spektor's name once again as an incantation protecting my mind and soul from Ms. Germanotta's music. Although Regina's music's style isn't as broad as The Beatles', the framework of each song is unique enough to reward repeated listenings. Also, Germanotta's harmonies could not begin to approach Regina's. The latter's are so refreshing and diverse. The former's are virtually nonexistent.

One last biographical note before I move on to broader topics. When I listen to some of her songs before she became "Lady Gaga," it hurts. Despite all her current personality-gymnastics, she was so much more an individual before her MTV days. I really don't say this to be mean, but it seems like her creative faculty has actually suffered since she decided to whore herself out as a "fame monster." I think there's a lesson in this that's slipping past the youth.







Siren Songs

In my last essay on music, I talked about how abstract music is, how it is the most elusive of the arts.  I promised that I would write about some of the consequences attached to that abstractness. So I begin here by writing about the danger of music.

Because music is so abstract, it has the ability to directly affect our emotions without having to be filtered by our intellect. I think very few children understand the words when they sing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," but they are still, without a doubt, emotionally affected by the music. And the same goes for instrumental music, as well. Oscar Wilde wrote, "
After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own." When you watch something like Hamlet, you understand why you feel sad. You've just witnessed the downfall of so many profound individuals. But not so with instrumental music. Why are Saite's gymnopedies so heart-wrenching? Why do Bach's Sarabandes feel like prayers?

Music is so powerful in this ability to directly access our emotions and spirits. That's why music is the indispensable messenger in film. We need the score to really drive home the emotions. The acting and the visuals are, of course, necessary, but without the music the film remains incomplete.

But as Uncle Ben says, "With great power comes great responsibility." Music also has the ability to manipulate our morals and ideology. It is the listeners' obligation, therefore, to remove themselves from the song and decide if they want that song's message to slip past their reasoning and affect their emotions directly. Take this song from "Uncle Kracker":


I'm not worried 'bout the ring you wear
Cause as long as no one knows
Then nobody can care
You're feelin' guilty
And I'm well aware
But you don't look ashamed
And baby I'm not scared...

We'll be alright if you don't ask me to stay

I'm confident that if this text were printed without the music, decent people everywhere would be appalled at the disdain for fidelity the song shows. But because the song is so catchy, nobody bothered to worry about the lyrics.

Tyrants like Mao Zedong, Stallin, and Hitler also used music to rally the masses and manipulate the mind of the people. Hitler relied on the great composers of the German tradition to spread his propaganda. Although he did not come up with the words, he certainly encouraged the singing of "Das Deutschlandlied," which was set to the music of Haydn. Hitler also aggressively advocated the music of Wagner with the deliberate intention of spreading anti-Semitism.

And if anyone doubts further the powerful influence music has on our minds, just consider the amount of music in advertisements.

So let's take this full-circle back to Stefani Germanotta. Are the messages of her songs something we want to influence our psychology? Forgive me if I oversimplify her work, but it seems that her overarching themes glorify a lack of restraint in sexuality. If this isn't explicitly stated in her jumbled lyrics, it's certainly hinted at in her music videos.

To tell us why unrestrained sexuality is a bad idea, I invite historians Will and Ariel Durant:

"No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history. A youth boiling with hormones will wonder why he should not give full freedom to his sexual desires; and if he is unchecked by custom, morals, or laws, he may ruin his life before he matures sufficiently to understand that sex is a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints if it is not to consume in chaos both the individual and the group."

Thanks, guys. I was talking to my brother about this recently, and he said that "Lady Gaga's" music teaches girls that sex is a tool to get things from boys, and that it teaches boys that sex is something for them to take. He then said poignantly, "I don't think that her music will turn us all into prostitutes and rapists, but it could give us all the hearts of prostitutes and rapists."

I think that as a society, we should shun the "Gaga" incarnation of Stefani Germanotta. We should be much more careful about the music we listen to, since it has the power to exalt or eviscerate our minds.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Theory of Music: The Most Abstract of Arts

The great music theorists have written extensively on the mechanics of music--cadences, counterpoint, chord progressions, etc.  But I feel that there has been some negligence in regard to a more general theory of music.  So I'd like to start a series of essays that focus on the nature of music and provide a more philosophical approach than what has been traditionally granted this most ethereal and elusive of arts.  In this first essay, I will examine music's abstractness.

I submit that music is the most abstract of arts.  This does not make music superior or inferior to other arts; it simply marks one of its distinct qualities.  Pure abstractness is music's ultimately unique trait.  If we try to learn something of its nature by comparison to other arts, it stands to reason that the foundation of the examination should be in music's abstractness.

The other arts are largely representational.  Drama is the art of making an actor a passable ambassador of fiction.  His or her job is to make us believe, to some degree, that we are witnessing tangible reality.  If actors have not convinced us that what we are watching is a plausible reality, then they have, by definition, failed.  (By reality, I mean a performance that "holds water" within the realms of the drama's own universe.  A good performance of Peter Pan will convince us of Peter Pan's reality, even though he does not adhere to actual physics.)

And then the literary aspect of the play or film steps in.  Whether fiction or non-fiction, literature uses characters, settings and events that connect the audience to the portrayed reality.  And often the subject of drama or literature is actual events (Julius Caesar, Henry V).  Literature uses its own reality which must in some way be comparable to actual reality in order to convey a truth or message about actual life.

With the exception of Islamic art which intentionally depicts nothing but shapes and patterns, visual art is also highly representational.  Even "abstract art" signifies a signified in the actual world.  One could look at a purely abstract painting and perceive it to be a highly stylized image of a rose garden.  And still, the most abstract works still do not abandon shape and color.  A child may point to a deep yellow stroke and say, "That's the color of my school bus."  Visual art constantly reminds us and enriches our understanding of actuality.

These three arts (drama, literature and visual art) are all equalled in nature.  I doubt many artists would rush up to a vast sunset spilling across the sea, set their canvas in the sand and exclaim, "See!  Isn't mine better?"  And as the cliché goes, "truth is stranger than fiction."  The lives of real women and men are often just as inspiring as any epic and as complex as any Dickens novel.

But what is there in nature to rival music?  The first thought to come to mind is birdsong.  I invite those bird-lovers to listen to Bach's "Chaconne" in D minor and then walk outside to see if they can hear anything so magnificent.  The only equivalent to music I can think of is to hear the voice of a loved one, but while I cannot argue against the emotion that voice may bring, no one can argue that a lover's voice shares the technical and mathematical beauty of even the simplest folk song.  Not to offend any acousticians--the competing frequencies of a voice do have a kind of beauty.  But that sunset by the sea shares a beauty of composition and color theory that all great artists aspire to, whereas the acoustic structure of a voice is not even comparable to the linear development of a melody or the dramatic shifts in chords as they progress.  Music has no natural teacher--no one to emulate.

When I was discussing this idea with friends, someone argued that dance was as abstract as music.  I have two objections to that argument.  1) There are movements in nature which are just as thrilling as dance.  A group of running giraffes was one of the most elegant spectacles I have ever beheld.  2)  Dance is an attempt to make music more accessible and less abstract by giving it visual, tangible, human form.

Linguistic Testament to Music's Abstractness:
In English, as well as all the other languages with which I am acquainted, there is no one word to say that the sound of a piece of music is beautiful which isn't used metaphorically.  I will explain what I mean.  The word beautiful derives, obviously, from beauty, which is a primarily visual attribute.  Its application to music, then, is metaphorical.  The music sounds the way mountains look--beautiful, majestic, etc.  All the other senses have a positive and negative adjective to describe them: beautiful & ugly, fragant & foul, delicious & unsavory, comfortable/pleasurable & painful.  What can we say about music at a literal level besides "sounds good" or "sounds bad?"  We can talk of music being luscious, pleasant, striking or witty, but all of these adjectives are metaphorical, and they encode much more than just a positive or negative aspect.  It is as if music is so abstract that we cannot come up with a single word that describes it as being either positive or negative besides the generic good and bad.

Representational Music:
Once, I substituted for an elementary school music teacher for several weeks.  One lesson/experiment I did was to play movements from Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals and have the children draw whatever animal they thought the music was depicting.  For every song, one or two students out of 25 would get it right, but more often than not, students (and home-room teachers) were dead wrong.  People guessed bluejays for "Elephants," and baboons for "Fossils."  Now, imagine if I had shown them pictures of those animals and asked them to draw what they thought it was.  Obviously, they would all be right without exception, unless by some odd chance a student had never seen a picture of an elephant before.

I feel confident that most educated people could spot Napoleon Bonaparte in a lineup, even though they have never seen him.  The portraits we have left of him give us a pretty good idea of what he looked like, even though they are not an exact likeness.  Were there any photographs of him, most people would be able to instantly identify him, because they had seen his other pictures.  But take Beethoven's Eroica Symphony.  It was written in reference to Napoleon, but without being told so in a program note, no one would be able to tell, even if they had personally known the emperor.  Similarly, if another piece were written about Napoleon, the subject matter wouldn't be transparent.  Even if the piece referenced Beethoven's third symphony, without being told the intent of the allusion, listeners wouldn't know if the reference were to Napoleon or Beethoven, or just heroism in general.

Conclusion:

What separates music from the other arts is its overwhelming abstractness.  To the uninitiated, music seems like sheer chaos that somehow speaks directly to the core of the human soul.  In later essays, I will begin to examine what that abstractness means in terms of the emotional, spiritual and intellectual effects of music.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Great Conversation


















I sat in my armchair
on a steamy day in early July.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got me drowsy,
and as I drifted into reverie
I caught the queerest glimpse of my bookcase.
Mr. Lewis (of the Clive Staples variety)
walked right out of his book
as if it had been a wardrobe.
He looked to his right, but it was empty.
(Conan Doyle had been nestled there)
So he knocked on Dickens' door to his left.
Out came Charles with some sausage
while Jack ran to fetch some tea.
Their dialog quickly turned to the French.
"Never could learn from the Germans."
"Quite right."
"Far too much garlic in their sausages."
Next door Dante and Homer enjoyed each other's company.
Homer launched into a monologue
he was rather proud of
about Achilles' shield.
But really his diatribe was about
passive
agression.
With beautifully declined nouns
Homer thought of what violent extremes
he would be forced to embrace
if he had to suffer through another sonnet
"for Beatrice."
Thank the Gods Petrarch moved down a shelf.
And who made this Italian the Eternal Judge
free to toss poor Odysseus
deep in the Inferno?
Meanwhile, Dante couldn't give a damn
about Achilles' shield.
He regretted not placing Homer
much farther down below limbo.
Clearly
he missed his pal Virgil.
At this point, Austen was kicking herself
for not being more diligent
in her Greek and Italian.
She could only guess at the sublime utterances
crammed with clandestine truth
issuing forth from those venerable lips.
Instead, she was swarmed
by those contributors to the 1,001 Nights,
exotic and wild.
And I employ not one ounce
of their skill for story crafting
when I tell you that
several of those sultry savages
pinched her prolific behind.
This thoroughly amused Douglas Adams
who sat next to Shakespeare,
both enjoying an excellent repartee
during the brief respites
the Arabs granted Jane.
Yann Martel was all too happy to be there,
but he had an odd way of showing it.
His nose was buried in a yellow legal pad,
trying to catch the natural wit
spewing from those two great wise-cracks.
Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach,
just one book over,
had her hands full trying to console Conrad
on the human condition.
"What could be more exquisite
than the rueful forgiveness from the wronged
to the offender.
In such a scene, how can we deny human greatness?"
"Can anyone know human greatness
if we can never know each other?"
Just to the right,
Tolkien was busy ignoring Conrad
and loudly complaining
that Lewis had suddenly turned uppity
after his talking animal show went leather-bound.
Clyde Pharr would occasionally try to talk some Greek Grammar,
but Tolkien just dismissed his attempts
with jabs about the superiority of Norse mythology.
And then Eliot sprang up from the shelf below.
He was born in an anthology,
so he had the nasty habit
of either
quoting people at themselves
or
intentionally speaking Sanskrit to Dickens,
Greek to Frank Herbert,
or English to Dante.
In fact, every time he saw Dante,
his pernicious habits mixed.
"Unreal City!"
he would say
with an American/London drawl.
There were several other discussions of note:
Victor Frankl spent quite a bit of time with Goethe.
Neal A. Maxwell and David McCullough
had a great time being insightful and polite.
Lloyd Alexander thoroughly enjoyed
his chat with Edith Hamilton.
I couldn't even follow
Tad R. Callister
and Phillip Pullman's
icily intense exchange.
Joseph Campbell and J.K. Rowling
found plenty to discuss.
Johann Fux and Tim Gautreaux tried.

And then as quickly as they came,
they all lept back in their respective books.

"What a loss!"
at first I thought.

Then I realized that
in a sense,
I had just seen my life.
I take all those writers with me everywhere
and am always trying to make sense
of their great conversation.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Provo Dining Guide

Like many BYU Freshmen, I began my college career in the dorms called "Heleman Halls."  I didn't have a car, so I exhausted the on-campus dining options rather quickly and naturally and gravely underestimated the culinary wonder that one can find in this little college town.  Here are seven of my favorite restaurants that I've discovered over the years:

















Bombay House
Location: University and 400N (west side of intersection)
Price:  $15-$30

A friend of mine invited me to go out to celebrate with a string quartet after their concert (neither of us were in said quartet), and they chose this place.  I have been grateful ever since.  Fantastic Indian food, fantastic specialty drinks.  The atmosphere is enchanting, what with all the turbaned waiters, draped fabric and candle-light.  I recommend getting the appetizer sample platter, the Saag Shorba, garlic Naan, and then anything lamb or chicken.  They have three levels of spiciness for the entrées.  Their rice is phenomenal.  (Side note, "India Palace" is a less impressive clone of the Bombay House.  One of their cooks left and uses the exact same menu.  Atmosphere isn't as nice, prices are the same, but it's often less crowded.  So if you can't get into the Bombay House, there's a substitute.)
















Brick Oven Pizza
Location: Southwest corner of BYU campus
Price:  Comparable to other pizza establishments--depends on the number of fellow diners

I actually knew about this place before I even started going to BYU.  It used to be called "Heaps 'A Pizza," and my mom spent a few years of her childhood living in the basement of a house that was where their parking lot is now.  It has been a beloved haunt of BYU students for generations.  They make their own root beer which is a mellow brew with a piney twist.  It's quite good by itself and even better with their pizza.  I recommend their "Supreme Heaps 'A Pizza," which is the standard deluxe.  Their mushrooms are incredible.

























communal
Location: University and 100N (Northeast corner)
Price: Depends, but you could easily spend $40 per person

When it comes to fine dining in Utah county, "communal" is the champion--hands down.  The atmosphere is so pleasing and unpretentious with all the design and carpentry done by the owners themselves.  The waiters and cooks are unbelievably pleasant and well mannered, and the food is out of this world.  Their menu is constantly changing (daily, it seems) to fit what's in season as well as what new innovation they've cooked up that week.  communal's specialty is preparing a seemingly hum-drum dish like pot roast better than it has ever been done before.  I am convinced that mortal hands simply cannot cook a traditional chicken breast better than how they do it at communal.  It is cooked just long enough so that it's bursting with juices and flavored to perfection.  The same is true for their steak.  You think you've had good steak until you've tried theirs.  (This place can get pricey, but the steak is actually one of the cheapest items, because it's honestly not the greatest cut of meat, but I promise you won't notice.)  Oh, and I've failed to mention the significance of the name.  It's designed so that you order the appetizers, salads, entrées and sides separately, and then everybody shares.  I recommend going with about eight people and ordering everything on the menu.  Also, go there for lunch some time.  It's cheaper, and the menu is quite unique--they make their own ketchup, which is better than any ketchup you've ever tried.






















Four Seasons Hot Pot & Dumplings
Location: Northeast side of University and 200N
Price ~$18

If you've never had "Hot Pot" before, then this place is a must--especially in Provo's obnoxiously persistant Winter.  Hot Pot (Huo Guo) is an eating experience that comes to us from Northern China.  In this, as in many Hot Pot establishments, there's a buffet with a plethora of raw veggies, mushrooms, meats, noodles, seafood (shrimp, fish, mussels and crab) and assorted varieties of tofu.  You take a plate to the buffet, load it down with what you want, and then dump it in the flaming-hot pot at your table.  You pull it out and enjoy when it's cooked!  There's also a freezer full of ice cream treats that come with the meal. I recommend getting a pot that is half-spicy, half-miso (like the picture above); that way, you can sample multiple flavor combinations.  Warning: the spicy may be too spicy for some of the locals.  But at the same time, it's a different kind of spicy than what they're used to.  Give it a shot.  Also, you can only get dumplings if you order them at least a day in advance.  I recommend the pork and chive dumplings either boiled or fried.  They are the best in Provo, without anything close to a rival.  Even and especially if you think you don't like Chinese food, you need to pay a visit to "Four Seasons Hot Pot & Dumplings."



















El Gallo Giro
Location: East side of University, between 300 & 400N
Price: Cheap

This is my favorite Mexican establishment.  For starters, they have a cinnamon horchata that will blow your mind--don't even bother with the fountain drinks.  Next up, you cannot go there without ordering guacamole.  They prepare it fresh and table-side in a stone basin.  Their tacos are world class, and their smothered steak burrito is simply to die for.

















J Dawgs
Location: Southeast corner of BYU campus
Price: ~$5

J Dawgs is a local favorite.  It's a hot dog stand (and recently they've opened a restaurant adjacent to the original stand) with really high quality dogs and an infamous special sauce.  They have polish dogs or standard hot dogs.  They add all the traditional "fixin's" free of charge, and they also have drinks and chips for a little extra.  I've heard from fairly reputable sources that this was started by a guy who went to Toronto on his mission and fell in love with the quality hot dog stands in that city.  Having also lived in Toronto, and having sampled the stand-food of several of the world's great cities, I have to say his establishment measures up.



















Pizzeria 712 (pronounced "seven-twelve")
Location: State St. in Orem, in the back of those huge, unfinished condos.
Price: ~$15

Don't let the name deceive you.  It's not just a pizza joint.  They have pizza, but it's really innovative and gourmet and wonderful.  This place is owned by the same people who run "communal," and it actually predates the latter.  Like communal, the menu is constantly in flux, but with a few standards remaining constant.  For appetizers, I strongly recommend the short rib.  (I failed to mention this in my review of communal, but they've started slaughtering their own pork, which made a good thing even greater.  They do phenomenal stuff with bacon.)  Their cobblers are also always top-notch, and all their chocolate desserts are made with chocolate from the local Amano masters.  And this place is an insanely good deal.  They could easily charge two to three times what they do, and I would happily pay it.  Also, the menu is totally different for lunch: they have a triumphant assortment of panini sandwiches.  

It may be impossible to leave this place disappointed. Everything is so masterfully done--the pizzas are fired in a real brick oven, the desserts are bursting with freshness, and the atmosphere is down-right charming.  These people know how to do food, and have mastered the art of the restauranteer.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Conviction
















I PERSONALLY BELIEVE
that U.S.
Americans
are unable to do so
because
some people
out there
in our nation
don't have maps

AND I BELIEVE
that our education
like
such as in
South Africa
the Iraq
everywhere
like
such as
and

I BELIEVE
that they should
our education over here
in the U.S.
should help
the U.S.
or should help
South Africa
and should help
the Iraq
and the Asian countries
so we will be able to build up
our future
for our children

Friday, April 30, 2010

Stream of Consciousness Summer Cinema 2010

It's that time of year again!  For those who are unfamiliar with my annual film festival, I begin with a film that I've been particularly impressed with.  Then I take an actor, composer, director, etc. from that film and pick another movie he or she is in.  Not all the movies on this list I consider to be good.  In fact, there are some that I've picked expressly because they are so bad.  This goes on for the entire summer.  Here is the tentative list:


The Fountain
Hugh Jackman

X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Liev Schreiber

Everything is Illuminated
Elijah Wood

North
Alan Arkin

Jakob the Liar (also has Liev Schreiber)
Robin Williams

Fern Gully
Tim Curry

The Hunt for Red October
Courtney B. Vance

The Piano Lesson
Charles S. Dutton

HOUSE: M.D. (Season 2, episode 21 “Euphoria”)
Hugh Laurie

Sense and Sensibility
Emma Thompson

Stranger than Fiction
Maggie Gyllenhaal

The Dark Knight
Morgan Freeman

Million Dollar Baby
Clint Eastwood

Space Cowboys
Tommy Lee Jones

 The Fugitive
Joe Panoliano

 Daredevil
Colin Farrel

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Jude Law

Sherlock Holmes
Rachel McAdams

Red Eye
Brian Cox

X-2
James Marsden

Enchanted
Amy Adams

Drop Dead Gorgeous
Kirsten Dunst

Jumanji
Jonathon Hyde

King Lear
Ian McKellen

Stardust

Friday, April 16, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel



Beatrice and Virgil is a brief little book full of surprises.

Like most of Yann Martel's readers, I came to Life of Pi first.  Like everyone else, I fell in love with the story, the character and Martel's writing style.  My enthusiasm was so obvious that I was soon gifted a collection of his short stories, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios.  I was reading through "Manners of Dying" in that collection while I was on a plane last Spring.  A business-looking-man came up to me and asked if it was as good as Life of Pi.  I admired and enjoyed those short stories, but I was hesitant to give a simple "yes" to his question, because the short stories were so different in style, message and form than the novel.

To say that Beatrice and Virgil would not have been published if it hadn't been riding on Life of Pi is unfair.  Beatrice and Virgil would not have been written if it hadn't been riding on Life of Pi.  That was the first big surprise, especially given my experience with Martel's short stories--Beatrice and Virgil is in some significant ways at least a continuation of, if not a sequel to Life of Pi.  The former's protagonist is clearly a Yann Martel-like character.  He has been living off the success of his second novel--a violent work with a cast of animals.  Readers of Life of Pi will remember that the book began with Martel telling us how unsuccessful his first novel was, and how that lack of profit gave impetus to the Pi.  He then became a narrator for some chapters in the "Toronto and Pondicherry" section.  Although the protagonist of Beatrice and Virgil is named Henry, we know that he writes under a nom de plume.  Also, his third novel which would combine narrative and essay about the Holocaust has been rejected by his publishers--just like Martel.

And so, like Life of Pi, we begin to wonder what in the story is true and what isn't.  For example, Henry personally responds to all his fanmail.  If he didn't, he would think himself ungrateful.  Now, does Yann Martel respond to all of his fanmail?  Maybe he doesn't, and feels ungrateful about it.  I don't know.  My point is that because Martel obviously mixes real-life events with the sweet, sound lies of fiction, we can't trust Henry.  Or at least, I couldn't--especially when it came to Henry's judgement calls.  For example, he unexpectedly condemns and betrays the taxidermist/playwright because he realizes that he was a Nazi collaborator.  Henry irrationally concludes that because the taxidermist had sent him a short story about someone who tortured animals and then found redemption, the taxidermist felt no remorse for his previous life as a nazi torturer--and this despite him naming the donkey and monkey Beatrice and Virgil because they were his "guides through hell."  And there is no solid evidence that he was on that side of the Holocaust.  He could have just as well been a victim.  This honestly seems more likely, since the entirety of his play deals with how victims can talk about their experience.

If you have not been able to tell by my review, this book covers a lot of ground.  It's a short novel--fewer than 200 pages, and without chapters, it reads more like a short story, yet it somehow manages to delve deeply (at least in an emotional sense) into a variety of topics.  I find it ironic that a reoccurring question in the novel is "What is your book about?" since there is no simple answer for Beatrice and Virgil.  It discusses the process of writing, fiction vs. non-fiction, trust, the Holocaust, epistemology (especially concerning people), fame, communication and the societal role of arts.  (Among other topics.)

So we have a new chapter in this alternate-reality mythos Martel has made for himself.  It is certainly an inventive novel, brimming with insight and wit.  I don't think we have another living novelist as gifted and ambitious as old Yann, and so I eagerly await his next work, even though this last book asked far more questions than it answered.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pan and Pi: Epic Metaphors for Spirituality in the Twentieth Century








So, I wanted to get this published, but it's too long for student journals and too undergraduate for professional journals.  So I'll just hurl my findings out at the internet hoping that somebody scholarly interested in Life of Pi will read this and see the connections with it and The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios.

Pan and Pi: Epic Metaphors for Spirituality in the Twentieth Century
Throughout the history of humanity, in no epoch was there such a staggering amount of war, mass murder and doubt as was present in the twentieth century.  With this bloody period as a back-drop, two works, Life of Pi and Pan’s Labyrinth[1], emerged at the dawn of the twenty-first century to argue that life—in spite of atrocities like the ones just experienced in the 1900s—has meaning, and that there is a deeper significance to the events which transpire around us.
Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi and Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth are both stories about two self-contained stories—one profane and one sacred.  In this paper, I will contend that both works are metaphors for the spiritual crises of the twentieth century.  I will further show how Life of Pi uses parallels in its structure to demonstrate the choice of faith, and then how Pan’s Labyrinth uses its structure to show the significance of the application of that choice.
1.  Metaphors for the twentieth century
Both works extend the range of their significance by tying themselves into other events from the twentieth century.  Life of Pi in its entirety is an extended metaphor for the twentieth century.  While not as intricate in its extension, Pan’s Labyrinth achieves the same effect by inserting iconic images from that time period. 
This extension of meaning through metaphor lends the two works an even more epic feel than they already have.  Like The Iliad and The Odyssey, Pan’s Labyrinth deals with a war, while Life of Pi deals with a fantastical journey.  And as those classic epics are timeless, by extending the two modern works’ frame of reference, they too acquire a timeless quality.  Because of this quality, the two modern works have the power to inform their future audience’s spiritual paradigm in a similar fashion to how Homer’s works have informed Western civilization for millennia.
1.1 Pi and the “Helsinki Roccamatios”
In order to understand how Life of Pi is a metaphor for the twentieth century, readers must first go back fifteen years prior to its 2001 publication.  In 1986 Martel wrote a short story titled “The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios.”  In it, the protagonist’s friend is dying of AIDS, so they decide to do something “important” by writing a novel with eighty-six chapters, each chapter being a metaphor for an event in the corresponding year of the twentieth century up to the point of the then-present (16).  That format for a novel seemed to me like too brilliant an idea for such a gifted author like Martel to leave exclusively in the realm of his short story. 
As it would happen, in 2001 (after the end of the 1900s), Martel’s Life of Pi went to print—a book with a hundred chapters, each chapter corresponding to an event from that year of the twentieth century.  The text itself calls attention to the number of chapters.  Towards the end of the novel, Pi says, “ Where we can, we must give things a meaningful shape.  For example—I wonder—could you tell my jumbled story in exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less (279)?”  The secondary literature surrounding Life of Pi has universally neglected this connection between Martel’s novel and his earlier short story, but the link is critical to understanding the novel in terms of structure and message.
1.2  Year to chapter correspondences
For this paper, an exhaustive list of parallels between events in the years of the twentieth century and corresponding chapters in Life of Pi would be as impossible as it would be unnecessary.  Although “The Roccamatios” serves as a good tool for deciphering the connections between years and chapters in Life of Pi, the short story itself is not exhaustive and leaves out the last forty-four years.  Furthermore, even though there are some clear carry-overs from “Roccamatios” to Pi which I will discuss in the next section, there is no way of knowing if Martel used all the same events for “The Roccamatios” as he did for Life of Pi.  And although an exhaustive list of connections would be interesting, the most critical point to take from the structure is that the work is, in fact, an extended metaphor for an extended time period.  In my analysis, I have extracted five of the more defendable metaphors to make the case for the book as a whole.
In “The Helsinki Roccamatios,” the characters pick the Wright brothers’ first flight for the event from 1903 to base the metaphor for their third chapter (21).  In chapter three of Life of Pi, Pi first learns to swim in the ocean (9).  Pi glides through the expanse of the ocean much like the Wright brothers flew through the air, and it was as revolutionary (and ultimately vital) for Pi to learn how to swim as it was for the world to begin to conquer flight. 
The “Helsinki Roccamatios” protagonists choose Mein Kampf as their event from 1925.  Their note reads: 1925—Adolf Hitler publishes The Settlement of Accounts, the first volume of his political manifesto, Mein Kampf (My Struggle)….  The book is pompous in style, repetitious, meandering, illogical, and filled with grammatical mistakes.  The ranting of a half-educated nut (39).
And here is an excerpt from Life of Pi’s twenty-fifth chapter, detailing Pi’s views on religious bigots:  “Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words.  The degree of their indignation is astonishing.  Their resolve is frightening” (68).  Here, there is a clear connection between the characters in “The Helsinki Roccamatios’” disdain for Hitler’s loose anger and the anger of over-zealous apologists in Pi’s commentary.  The two descriptions are almost interchangeable.  Simply changing the pronoun reference could make the section from Life of Pi an adequate description of Hitler’s later speeches.  “His face goes read, his chest heaves mightily, he sputters angry words.  The degree of his indignation is astonishing.  His resolve is frightening.”
In 1929, the American stock market crashed, triggering the Great Depression.  In reference to that event, Chapter 29 of Life of Pi discusses the political and economic turmoil in India which led the Patel family, as well as people in general, to emigrate.
People move because of the wear and tear of anxiety.  Because of the gnawing feeling that no matter how hard they work their efforts will yield nothing, that what they build up in one year will be torn down in one day by others.  Because of the impression that the future is blocked up, that they might do all right, but not their children.  Because of the feeling that nothing will change, that happiness and prosperity are possible only somewhere else.
Although there was not a massive emigration from the United States following the stock market crash, historians and survivors of the Great Depression have expressed that that was the sentiment of the times—a “gnawing feeling” that “happiness and prosperity [were] possible only somewhere else.”
In 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, sinking a significant portion of the US fleet.  To parallel the sinking of all those ships and the start of war, chapter 41 of Life of Pi details the sinking of the Tsimtsum and Pi’s first confrontation with the hyena, which would later prove to be a source of violence among the other animals in the life boat.  Here is an excerpt:
I watched the ship as it disappeared with much burbling and belching.  Lights flickered and went out.  I looked about for my family, for survivors, for another lifeboat, for anything that might bring me hope.  There was nothing.  Only rain, marauding waves of black ocean and the flotsam of tragedy….
A head appeared beyond the end of the tarpaulin….  It was the bear-like, balding-looking head of a spotted hyena.  (105, 107)
In this metaphor, not only does the Tsimtsum symbolize the sinking of the U.S. fleet, but Pi’s first encounter with the hyena and the ensuing conflict mirrors that initial clash with the Japanese which began the U.S. involvement in World War II.
Finally, 1969 saw the peak of the Cold War’s space race with the Americans finally landing on the moon.  As a metaphor for the rockets going into space, this chapter details Pi’s efforts to signal ships. “On many nights I was convinced I saw a light in the distance.  Each time I set off a flare” (193).  Likewise, every time the Americans or Russians saw the hope of space travel or landing on the moon (a light in the distance), they set off their own rockets (flares).
Perhaps a reason for establishing such a laborious and extended metaphor is to argue that the primary conflict of Life of Pi, the decision to believe in spirituality, was the real conflict of the twentieth century—not merely survival.  It also shifts the emphasis from nations onto individuals.  In a century brimming with global conflict, Martel stresses the spiritual journey of the self rather than world wars.
1.3  Paleman's extension
If the key to understanding Life of Pi’s twentieth century metaphor lies in an earlier short story, the key to Pan’s Labyrinth lies in a monster.
Two of the most terrifying characters in Pan’s Labyrinth are Child-Eating Paleman and Captain Vidal.  But the two characters share more than terror.  Guillermo del Toro shot them in such a way as to provide them with striking parallels.  For example, while Ofelia is fulfilling her first task, Vidal is hosting a dinner at a long table covered with extravagant dishes.  He sits at the end of the table, in front of a fireplace with his hands resting on the table’s surface.  When the camera first introduces Paleman, he is also sitting at the end of a long banquet table in front of a fireplace, with his hands resting on the table.
Later in the film, as Vidal is slowed by the sleeping drug, he waves his gun, staggering after Ofelia.  His staggering in pursuit mirrors Paleman’s chase scene where he fumbles around and tries to grab the girl before she escapes his lair.  By connecting the two characters, del Toro not only helps them share each other’s terrifying effect, but he also ties Vidal into Paleman’s larger themes of violence and abuse of power, which del Toro established by placing the monster in an abandoned cathedral full of images of gluttony, holocaust and murder.
Next to Paleman’s lavish feast is a pile of abandoned shoes, apparently from his previous victims.  This image brings to mind the hoards of shoes and spectacles that would later be harvested in Auschwitz, and even later be put on display in museums like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., and in the Auschwitz Museum in Poland.  Like the events in Life of Pi, the images in Pan’s Labyrinth metaphorically reference events outside itself in the twentieth century to emphasize that its themes and messages are not bound to an isolated incident or geographic region.
In his paper, film scholar Jacob Hodgen noted the general oversight in many critics’ reviews of Pan’s Labyrinth by calling attention to the film’s reception as simply an adult fairytale or commentary on just WWII Spain.  He acknowledges that the film does, among other things, argue against fascist ideology.  But then he quotes an interview with del Toro to establish that the themes and messages behind Pan’s Labyrinth are not strictly political.  The quote is as follows:
 It's the difference between a parable and a pamphlet. A parable discusses things that are relevant in the past, the future, and the present—regardless of the outcome in the present. A pamphlet, on the other hand, is completely concerned with affecting an outcome in the present, the most immediate present. I would like to think that movies like [Pan’s Labyrinth] or The Devil's Backbone or Cronos are definitely more parables than anything else. They try to discuss things like immortality and death and truth and choice.  (cited in Hodgen 16-17)
Both Hodgen and del Toro emphasize the necessity of a more expanded analysis of the film by allowing it to speak for more than just its immediate context.  This is in part because Ofelia’s journey is not exclusively hers—it is the human struggle to make moral, ethical and spiritual strides in the midst of horror, violence and ambiguity.
2. Parallels in Life of Pi
Although both Pi and Pan use parallel stories, they use the parallels for different effects.  Since Life of Pi primarily concerns itself with the crisis of faith, its two stories are in conflict.  They are mutually exclusive, and preferring one over the other leads to radically different interpretations that do not find a happy reconciliation.  For that reason, unlike Pi’s eclectic religious convictions, readers cannot subscribe to both versions.
2.1 Mutually exclusive interpretations
As is the case with Life of Pi’s hundred chapters, the text itself calls attention to the parallels between the stories.  The Japanese officials point out the correspondence between the zebra with a broken leg and the Taiwanese sailor with a broken leg.  They are both the first to die.  The officials then mention the parallel between the orangutan and the hyena and the mother and the French cook.  The hyena/cook eats the orangutan/mother. 
And then comes the elusive Richard Parker and the first divergence of the two texts with respect to the significance of their interpretations.  The Japanese official Mr. Okamoto says that the tiger represents Pi.  But if Pi is present in both stories, Richard Parker cannot represent Pi in his entirety.  According to their initial reading, he would most likely represent the Id, while Pi (as his own Ego and Superego) remains detached from the lifeboat on his raft of life jackets.  This interpretation lends a chilling effect to Pi’s line, “It’s the plain truth: without Richard Parker, I wouldn’t be alive today to tell you my story (158).”
But that is assuming the second story is true.  Canadian scholar Michel Biron’s paper “Réalismes d’aujourd’hui” provides an alternate stance:
L’histoire de Pi[2] est cependant autre chose qu’une banale illustration des lois naturelles. La vérité empirique est carrément inversée : c’est grâce à Richard Parker que Pi trouve l’énergie pour survivre. « C’est la vérité pure et simple : sans Richard Parker, je ne serais pas vivant pour vous raconter mon histoire. » (177) Vérité transcendante et non plus seulement empirique : l’individu devient humble devant le grand désert du cosmos. Il a besoin d’un tigre, qui est ici un puissant symbole d’une divinité à la fois terrible et fascinante.  (164)
Here, Biron explains that Life of Pi’s true complexity and message lies not in being a banal, fictitious experiment with the laws of nature, but in the reversal of apparent reality.  In this reading, Pi would not have survived without Richard Parker not because he would have lacked the animal instincts of “kill or be killed,” but because he would have lacked the motivation and inspiration to cling to life.  Along with inspiring fear in Pi, the tiger was also a constant source of beauty and grandeur, thus his genuine heart-break when the Richard Parker unceremoniously leaves him upon their arrival in Mexico (279).
Once again, Martel shifts the emphasis from a conflict with others to a journey of the self.  According to Biron’s reading, Pi’s danger lies not in competing with rival animals or people, but in succumbing to the hopelessness which accompanies the expanse of “the emptiness of the cosmos.”  With Life of Pi seen as the metaphor that it is, the argument emerges that the real threat to man in the twentieth century was not international conflict.  It was the threat that none of these tragedies carried any greater meaning—that they failed to fit into a grander context.  Were it not for Richard Parker and all the divinity he symbolized, Pi would have succumbed to the death of isolation[3] in the midst of a vast void. 
This is but one illustration of the divergence in interpretation the two stories provide—that Pi survived because of his depraved animal instinct, or that he survived because of his reliance on the divine and a grander spiritual context.
2.2 Mutually dependant interpretations
But for all the conflict, competition and difference that the two stories present, neither makes sense independently.  In her paper on Life of Pi, Florence Stratton observed:
The meaning of “Richard Parker” is further complicated by an essay Martel has posted on the internet which makes evident that, while “clerical error” may be the official intratextual explanation for the name Richard Parker, there is another history of the name’s origin.  A cabin boy of the same name is murdered and eaten by his lifeboat companions in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Martel informs us.  There are also two historical Richard Parkers who were victims of shipwreck and cannibalism in the nineteenth century.  (11)
The name “Richard Parker,” then, can only be understood in reference to the story without animals; otherwise, such a heavy reference to cannibalism has no ground to stand on within the story with animals.  Not only are there no other humans involved (besides the brief encounter with the adrift Frenchman, where he did eat small strips of his dead flesh which he was using for bait), but there is not a single pair of alike species once the story reaches the life boat until it arrives at the algae island.  And even then, the meerkats show no signs of cannibalism.  The cannibalistic theme has its roots almost exclusively in the second story.
As Stratton also points out, there is a scrambling of the cook and Pi’s identities.  For example, in the first story, the hyena eats the flies, while Richard Parker eats the rat, except for a small piece which Pi eats.  In the second story, the cook eats both the flies and the rat (Stratton 13).  Perhaps the best identity jumble, though, is when Pi uses strips of the Frenchman’s corpse as bait (Martel, Pi 249), which is exactly what the French cook did to the Taiwanese sailor (301).  If the French cook’s actions are seen as a retro-projection of Pi’s use of  the adrift sailor’s flesh, the cook’s irrational barbarity suddenly makes sense.  His actions become a parable of Pi’s desperation much later in his journey.
2.3 Equal validity
The effect of the competition and interplay between the two accounts of Pi’s survival create a kind of cognitive dissonance.  What makes the ending of Life of Pi so jarring is that there is no definitive reason to believe one story over the other.  The first story is absurd, and yet it has proof.  Who could take his account of the floating carnivorous algae/meerkat island seriously?  But when he reaches Mexico, there are meerkat skeletons in his lifeboat—an animal which was not on the Tsimtsum (296).  And although it seems unlikely that Pi would be able to tame a Bengal tiger, the first story gives a detailed account of how he did it, whereas the second story is silent as to how he survived.  Pi merely says, “Solitude began.  I turned to God.  I survived” (306).
Likewise, the second story has its own merit.  It illuminates and darkens parts of the first story which would otherwise be incomprehensible.  And although the cook’s behavior is outrageous and almost unbelievable, his actions could easily just be the diabolical product of his personality and scenario.  Based on the information Pi provides, either story is valid.
And this equality extends to the “happy ending” argument many critics of the first story dislike.  The first story—looking purely at the facts—is still very much a tragedy.  As Pi poignantly reminds the Japanese officials, “In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer” (311).  Few would sign up for or survive Pi’s first ideal.  Therefore, the first story is not a childish escape from the tragic.  It is not Disney-fying his suffering or his loss.  In terms of raw facts, both are equally tragic.
3. Choosing the “better story”
In several points throughout the novel, Pi mentions  the idea of “the better story” (61, 311-312).  As would be expected, the driving force behind much of the commentary surrounding Life of Pi is deciding which story that is.  With no factual reason to choose one over the other, what other motivation is there to decide which story is better?
Concerning this road block on the way to certainty, Terryl Givens, a scholar of religion wrote:
The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true, and to have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing them to be true. I am convinced that there must be grounds for doubt as well as belief in order to render the choice more truly a choice—and, therefore, the more deliberate and laden with personal vulnerability and investment.  (Givens)
Givens then goes on to recount the story of the ass of Buridan—a beast with access to two equally desirable piles of hay.  Without a reason to choose one over the other, the animal starves to death.  Givens continues:
But in the case of us mortals, there is something to tip the scale. There is something to predispose us to a life of faith or a life of unbelief. There is a heart that in these conditions of equilibrium and balance…is truly free to choose belief or cynicism, faith or faithlessness.
He argues that when it comes to the decision to believe in God, there is no conclusive reason to choose the side of faith or doubt.  Belief in either direction, then, is very much a choice.
And so it is with Life of Pi.  If readers choose the story “with animals” over the story “without,” it is because that story resonates more with their “principles and values and ideals.”  Like the Japanese investigators, they will choose the story with animals because although it is still a story full of suffering and terror, it is, at least, a story pregnant with hope and triumph. 
I personally think this is the mystery behind that controversial line in the author’s note, that Pi’s is a story “that will make you believe in God” (x).  Life of Pi is not concerned with apologetics.  It is not at all worried about compelling its readers to believe in God.  But by bringing the reader into the narrative in a rather uncommon way, the story becomes a meta-story, and that experience itself becomes the metaphor that will “make you believe in God.”  It does not prove anything.  The message of the metaphor lies in that readers cannot prove either story, just as they cannot prove the existence or non-existence of God.  Instead, they must consciously choose one story over the other.  They must consciously choose faith or cynicism. 
          And what better message for the twentieth century?  During those hundred years, sociologists and historians have noted the steep decline of the fortunes of religion.  With the expansion of astronomy and our greater understanding of how infinitely small this earth is, at no other point has humanity been so exposed, as Biron said, to the “great emptiness of the cosmos” (164).  Subsequently, we have been in danger of “throwing out the universe with the bathwater” (Martel, Pi 294).  Life of Pi leaves readers at the crossroads of faith and doubt, showing them that there is equal factual reason to pursue either of the two convictions, but that one is still, nevertheless, “better.”
4.  Parallels in Pan’s Labyrinth
          Life of Pi largely leaves spirituality at the choice of faith, and Pan’s Labyrinth then takes the spiritual journey beyond the initial decision to believe.  Therefore, the parallel stories cannot serve the same function of creating a controlled crisis of faith as they did in Life of Pi.  The reality of the fantastical story in Pan’s Labyrinth is never called into question, and it has tangible reference points within the story of the war:  Ofelia brings back the magical book Pan gave her, which she hides in the house.  Vidal finds the mandrake root which Pan also provided.
          Since the parallels cannot represent alternate versions of the same story, I contend that they actually communicate different epiphanies and dilemmas encountered in spirituality, but there is always a juxtaposition of innocence and guilt, peace and violence,  the spiritual and profane.
4.1  Mirrors
          One of the first parallels in the film is Ofelia and Vidal’s use of mirrors.  After her first encounter with Pan, Ofelia looks through the mirror at the back of her shoulder and sees the mark that Pan told her would be there if she were the true princess.  She smiles when she sees it.  The mirror, then helps her see a future Self.  She is able to understand, to a small degree, who she will become if she continues in her present course and passes all of the faun’s tests.
          In contrast, during that eloquent scene where Vidal is shaving, he considers his reflection in the mirror, and then slices his reflection’s throat with his straight-razor.  He is also seeing a future Self.  His own actions foreshadow his death.  If he continues on his path of violence and bloodshed (and he does), he will meet a violent end.
          Ofelia is a strong counterpoint to Vidal.  While she happily contemplates her destiny, he is filled with self-loathing.  As someone who will ultimately pass her moral trials, she is able to be at peace with who she is then and who she will become.  Vidal, on the other hand, detests his current and future Selves, and this because of his depravity.
4.2  Keys
          Such parallels between Ofelia and Vidal, however, are rare.  Ofelia’s most common foil throughout the film is Mercedes.  The next two examples are parallels between those two characters.  Ofelia retrieves a key from the belly of the frog she defeated and uses it in her next trial.  Similarly, Mercedes has a secret key to Vidal’s store-house, which she uses in a moral trial—assisting the rebels, who are running dangerously low on supplies. 
          In both cases, the two characters choose to follow their conscience rather than the established authority figures.  In Ofelia’s case, both the illustration in her book and the fairies themselves told her to put the key into the middle box, but for a reason that is not clear in the film, she feels they are wrong, and she instead opens the box on the left, which turns out to be the correct choice.  Mercedes chooses to steal from the authorities to aid her family and defenders of her social convictions. 
Because both characters act according to the mandates of their conscience rather than external pressures, these two episodes with the keys emphasize the importance of conscience in an applied morality—profane (as in the case of Mercedes) and spiritual (as with Ofelia).  This theme of conscience is further explored and heightened in the two characters’ handling of their respective knives.
4.3  Knives
          The last parallel I will explore is Ofelia and Mercedes’ use of the knives.  Ofelia retrieves her knife from the cabinet she opened with the key.  Mercedes takes a knife from her apron while she is tied up in the storehouse (the place that her key opened).  The difference, though, is what they do with their knives.  Ofelia refuses to let Pan use the knife to slice into her infant brother to open the portal to the netherworld.  Mercedes, on the other hand, uses her knife to brutally (albeit, justifiably) attack Vidal. 
Here, the parallel underscores the difference between a moral ideal, and actual applied morality, the latter being a much messier affair than the former.  Although Ofelia’s decision to spare her brother was (especially by the end of the film) clearly the right choice, it still took courage, as any viewer can see in the terror in her face as she is pinned between Vidal and Pan.  Mercedes’ scenario, however is not so clean cut.  Her decision is to either let herself be tortured or seriously wound, if not kill, her adversary.
          As thousands of years of history and literature have shown us, such a moral dilemma is an integral part of the human experience—especially the spiritual experience.  What is significant, though, is that Mercedes does not kill Vidal, making her and Ofelia one of three even semi-major characters who do not kill someone during the course of the film (the other being Ofelia’s mother).  Also, the nature of their two tests are quite different.  Ofelia had to choose between letting herself die or killing an innocent baby.  Mercedes, on the other hand, was dealing with a man whose blood could not approach innocence.
5.  Meaning in the midst of tragedy
          I would now like to focus more on Ofelia’s final moral dilemma with the knife, for therein is the message of the film.  Ofelia’s final test is to see if she would spill her own blood rather than the blood of an innocent.  It is to see if she would be willing to pay ultimately to spare an innocent Other.  When she decides not to give the baby to Pan, Vidal shoots her in the stomach.  This scene harkens back to the image of her mother’s navel oozing blood down her dress before she delivered Ofelia’s brother.  In other words, it is a symbol of birth.  It is an iconic version of Jesus’ proverb, “He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it (King James Version, Matt. 10.39).”  In putting her morality first, she gives birth to her true self—she achieves the projected identity she saw in the mirror.
          This concept of achieving the true self through living up to a spiritual standard rather than a profane expectation finds articulation in the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard.  He writes: “But in being himself he [the Christian] is not dependent upon the multitude, before God he is himself.  For from ‘the others,’ naturally, one properly only learns to know what the others are—it is in this way the world would beguile a man from being himself” (43).  The application of this philosophy is especially powerful in Ofelia’s case.  She was, after all, trying to prove exactly that—that she was not “what the others are.”  She had to prove that she was the true daughter of the king of the netherworld. 
In turn, only by consistently refusing to let others mandate her morality and belief system does she become her true self.  The conflict of her beliefs with others begins with her mother’s insistence that Ofelia’s fairy tale books are beneath her.  The conflict continues as Ofelia rethinks which cabinet to open with her key.  The tension ultimately finds its climax when she disobeys Pan.
          But the film does not ignore the tragedy of her death, nor does it pardon the evil of a grown man murdering a defenseless girl.  At this point, the score becomes a veritable dirge, and we see the whole leftist army mourning over Ofelia’s body.  Mercedes is closest to Ofelia, singing her the lullaby introduced earlier in the film.  The film does not turn its focus away from such an honestly terrible event, but it does show that that event is part of a larger, even more significant context.  With her father’s post facto explanation of Ofelia’s last trial, it would seem that the greater tragedy would have been to not resist Vidal, and thereby lose her true self and ultimate destination.
          This message of greater significance because of and in spite of death finds a voice in Victor Frankl, who was a Holocaust survivor and the founder of Logotherapy.  Logotherapy argues that humanity’s primary drive is to find meaning in life (rather than pleasure, which was Freud’s theory).  He writes:
We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one's predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves (135).
Here, Frankl contends that there is always a way to give meaning to an event, no matter how tragic.  Death itself—even and especially tragic and horrible deaths, like those from cancer or in a concentration camp—can be replete with beauty and significance and achievement.  The key to that achievement is in the decisions and dignity of the victims as they approach death.
It is significant that Frankl and del Toro’s message is the same: despite tragedy, meaning and even triumph can still be found.  The sameness in message shows that del Toro’s themes resonate with Frankl’s experience, which was part of one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century.  It highlights the efficacy of del Toro’s parable and shows that it does, indeed, have real-life application.  And since genocide and war and tragedy do not seem to be leaving the global stage any time soon, del Toro and Frankl’s philosophy should continue to play powerful role in the saga of the human experience.
6.  Conclusion
          In conclusion, both Life of Pi and Pan’s Labyrinth are epic in scope and subject.  Like The Iliad and The Odyssey, Pan’s Labyrinth details a war while the Life of Pi recounts a prolonged journey.  And like those two classical texts, these two modern works have the power to inform not only the values of their contemporaries, but also other people for years to come. 
          Life of Pi exhibits the crisis of and decision for faith.  It projects the dilemma of the work onto the reader, and creates a meta-reading experience where the crisis is just as real for the reader as it is for the Japanese investigators.  Pan’s Labyrinth then goes beyond the choice to believe, and shows the significance of applying that belief.
          By establishing themselves as metaphors for man’s struggle in the midst of tragedy, or the twentieth century, Life of Pi and Pan’s Labyrinth speak powerfully about the role of spirituality in an otherwise bleak existence.  Lacking this perspective, tragedies like the bombing of Hiroshima and natural disasters are simply unfortunate and pathetic, and the story of the deceased ends with their death.  But like the voice-over for the trailer of Pan’s Labyrinth says, the message of Life of Pi and Pan’s Labyrinth is that “In darkness, there can be light.  In misery, there can be beauty.  In death, there can be life.”









Appendix: Synopses
1. Life of Pi
The first portion of Life of Pi deals with Pi’s conversion to Christianity and Islam while maintaining his beliefs in Hinduism.  It also establishes his experience with animals at his father’s zoo.  The narrative then turns to his ill-fated journey on the Japanese vessel, Tsimtsum, with his family and father’s zoo animals to Canada.  The ship sinks, and his family dies.  He is alone on a solitary lifeboat with an orangutan, a wounded zebra, a hyena and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.  The hyena first eats the zebra, then the orangutan.  Ultimately Richard Parker eats the hyena, and the bulk of the novel then shows how Pi survived on the boat with Richard Parker until they reach Mexico.  In the Mexican hospital, two Japanese officials from the boating come to interrogate Pi.  They don’t believe his story, so he tells them an alternate version “without animals (299).”
In this telling, his mother (the orangutan) is with him in the boat, along with a French cook (the hyena) and a Taiwanese sailor with a broken leg (the zebra).  In their analysis, the Japanese officials point out the parallel characters.  The cook first kills and eats the sailor, then Pi’s mother, and ultimately Pi (Richard Parker) kills and eats the cook.  Pi points out that the officials (and by extension, the readers) have no way to prove either story, and asks them which they prefer.  The officials say they prefer the first story and include it in their official report.
2. Pan’s Labyrinth
After a brief explanation of how the protagonist, Ofelia, is the reincarnated princess of the underworld, Pan’s Labyrinth begins with Ofelia en route with her mother to her monstrous stepfather’s (Captain Vidal) fascist outpost.  On the way, she repairs a statue of a faun, out of which flies an insect which parallels the fairies in her book.  When she arrives at the outpost, she finds an ancient Labyrinth.  That night, the insect (which indeed is a fairy) leads her into the heart of the Labyrinth, where she meets the faun, Pan.  He tells her of her identity, and informs her that there are three tasks she must complete before she can return to the netherworld.  The film intersperses the three tasks with tensions between the communist rebels and the fascist outpost. 
As the communists are about to completely wipe out the fascists, Ofelia learns that her final task is to bring her baby brother to Pan at the center of the Labyrinth.  She does so, but then Pan tells her that he needs to spill some of the baby’s blood to open the portal.  At that same moment, Vidal, with his gun drawn, finds her.  She wants to give the baby to neither of the two, and fights with Vidal, who promptly shoots her in the stomach and takes the baby. 
Mercedes, who is both Ofelia’s nurse and the head servant, has been conspiring with the communists.  When Vidal exits the labyrinth, she is waiting with the leftist troops.  She takes the baby from the captain, whom an officer then shoots to death.  They rush into the Labyrinth and find Ofelia on the verge of death.  Then her spirit is taken to the netherworld, where her father, the king, explains that the final test was to see if she would spill her own blood rather than that of an innocent.  Her kingdom welcomes her back.





Works Cited
Biron, Michel.  “Réalismes d’aujourd’hui.”  Voix et Images : Littérature Québécoise29.2  (2004) : 163-68.
Frankl, Victor.  Man’s Search for Meaning.  New York: Washington Square Books 1984.
Givens, Terryl.  “Lightning out of Heaven: Joseph Smith and the Forging of Community.”  speeches.byu.edu.  Speeches, 29 Nov. 2005.  18 Nov. 2009.
Hodgen, Jacob.  “Embracing the Horror: Tracing the Ideology of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s LabyrinthVelox.  1.1 (2007): 15-30.
Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye.  Christian Discourses.  Walter Lowrie, trans. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1952.
Martel, Yann.  The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios.  Harvest ed.  Harcourt: 2005.
———.  Life of Pi.  Illustrated ed.  Miami: Harcourt 2007.
“Pan’s Labyrinth—Trailer.”  trailers.apple.com.  Apple.com, nd.  18 Nov. 2009
Stratton, Florence.  “Hollow at the Core: Deconstructing Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.” Studies in Canadian Literature/Etudes en Littérature Canadienne.  29.2  (2004) : 5-21.



[1] See the Appendix for a detailed synopsis of both works.
[2] Life of Pi is, however, something other than a banal illustration of natural laws.  Empirical truth is seemingly inversed:  it is through Richard Parker’s grace that Pi finds the energy to survive.  “It’s the plain truth: without Richard Parker, I wouldn’t be alive today to tell you my story (158) [His page number is for the French translation].”  It is transcendent truth and not just empirical: the individual becomes humble before the great emptiness of the cosmos.  He needs a tiger, which is itself a powerful symbol of divinity both terrible and fascinating.  (Translated by the author)
[3] It is significant that ultimately Pi is alone with Richard Parker.  As I will later discuss in my analysis of Pan’s Labyrinth, it is an illustration of the idea that only with God does the true self emerge.  The other animals or people have been removed.  What remains is the self, deity and vastness.